The Missing Link
There is no doubt of the urgency in negotiating a ceasefire between Israel and Lebanon. But, as the international debate moves into higher gear, the question is not whether a ceasefire should come as soon as possible but how to ensure that it will be sustained to prevent a reoccurrence of the present destruction. While certain prerequisites are necessary to insure the sustainability of the ceasefire, Syria’s direct involvement and cooperation is a sin qua non to achieving lasting calm.
Ideally, it would be best if both sides immediately stopped fighting, and then began a serious search for the ways and means to reconcile their differences, thereby removing the motivations for resuming hostilities. Unfortunately, this “solution” is not practical because Israel is dealing with a terrorist organization that, by definition, ignores any norms of international conduct. Moreover, Hezbollah as a non-state actor is committed to preserve their control of power and operates at the behest of Iran, which is dedicated to the destruction of Israel. And until Iran’s influence in Lebanon is substantially diminished, recourse to this solution will remain impossible. Other factors also stand in the way. A ceasefire that permits real negations to follow will not work as long as Hezbollah is allowed to continue operating in Lebanon as a state within a state and the Lebanese government does not exercise its authority throughout Lebanon. And finally, it will certainly not be a viable option if all the players with a vested interest in the conflict, mainly Syria, do not fully support a resolution to the conflict. Consideration of these sticking points reveals not only how difficult and complicated the problems are but specifically why Syria is the linchpin to any lasting ceasefire. But first let’s look at two other critical requirements:
First, I believe it is absolutely essential, as do many Sunni Arab states, the United States and Israel that Hezbollah is substantially weakened, eventually disarmed, and has no armed militia in a democratic Lebanon. If the international community wavers on these cardinal requirements, it will only be a matter of time before violence resumes and then, with far grater destructive force. In any case, the United Nations Security Council has already spoken when it passed resolution 1559, which it must now enforce.
Second, the establishment of a robust international force, fully trained and equipped to deter any future violations of this resolution, is another requirement that must not be watered down and must be agreed on prior to the establishment of a ceasefire. The peacekeeping force, which should be accountable solely to the UNSC, should have a clear mandate to enforce the ceasefire and be large enough (25,000 to 30,000) to enforce it. The peacekeepers need to work hand-in-hand with Lebanese internal security forces to ensure that there will be no return, in any form, of an armed Hezbollah to southern Lebanon. Without an international commitment of significant military resources, an international force will become a target and, as such, a liability rather than an asset.
Although the Bush administration is correct to pursue vigorously those two requirements, it has so far ignored a third necessary requirement: Syria must be part of the solution. Damascus has been, and remains, key to Lebanon’s political stability and to any future peace between Israel and Lebanon and Israel and the Palestinians. As long as Syria is left out of the process, one can count on its inexhaustible ability to destabilize the region directly or by proxy, if not through Hezbollah, then through other militant groups mostly Palestinian, to which it offers sanctuary. Notwithstanding Syria’s military ties and close relations with Iran, theirs is a marriage of convenience necessitated by Damascus’ need to compensate for its growing isolation. In reality, Syria’s desire to regain the Golan and normalize relations with Washington serves its greater national interests. In this context, Syria views Hezbollah as nothing more than a tool to advance its agenda in Lebanon and Israel. Damascus will shed no tears over the demise of Hezbollah once its national objective, mainly, the recovery of the Golan, has been achieved. Moreover, Syria is the bridgehead between Iran and Hezbollah and one of the important reasons behind Iran’s growing influence in the region. To diminish Iran’s influence, the Bush administration must sever that connection by luring Syria into rejoining the Sunni Arab fold. Such a strategy will also counterbalance the Shiite block consisting of Iran, Iraq, and Hezbollah as well as stem the rising tide of the Shiites, a cause of great concern to many Arab Sunni states, particularly Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Jordan. Iran should especially be held directly responsible for the disaster that has befallen the Lebanese people, and it must pay the price for its reckless misdeeds through the guise of Hezbollah.
To break the Syria-Hezbollah-Iran axis and secure Syria’s cooperation, the Bush administration has to address Damascus’ interests and concerns in four different areas; that is, Syria needs to be assured that 1) the administration will no longer seek a regime change in Damascus, 2) Israel will be prepared at some point in the not-too-distant future to discuss the return of the Golan in exchange for peace, 3) the United States will acknowledge Syria’s special interest in Lebanon, and finally, 4) Syria is removed from the Department of State’s list of countries sponsoring terrorism, thereby insuring normalization of relations between Washington and Damascus.
Some, of course, will rightfully argue that all this is tantamount to appeasement, and it’s true that no country should be rewarded for repeated mischievous behavior. This may very well be the case with Syria. But is it at all realistic to believe that the Israeli-Lebanese conflict, with or without Hezbollah, can be permanently and peacefully settled without Syria’s full cooperation? Having dealt with Syria for many years, I believe the answer is a categorical, “no”. The Bush administration must talk directly to Syria: it does not need intermediaries like Saudi Arabia or Egypt to demand what only Washington can spell out with clarity. In return for the United State’s addressing its national requirements, Damascus must take clear and unambiguous steps in four different areas: it must 1) end its support of all militantterrorist organizations, especially Hamas, that are now sheltered in Damascus, 2) fully cooperate to prevent any infiltrations of insurgents and materials from across its border to Iraq, 3) sincerely support Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts, and finally, 4) respect Lebanon’s political independence and territorial integrity. It must be made abundantly clear to Syria that if chooses to remain a cause of troubles and turmoil it will suffer a punishing blow from the international community with crippling effect.
Considering the dismal prospects for peace and democracy in Iraq, this may well be President Bush’s final opportunity to do something that will really change for the better the political landscape in the Middle East. It will require vision and courage to change its strategy toward Damascus, but if this administration fails to do so, the next one will face the inevitable fallout.