Syria must choose pragmatism over isolation

For years, Syrian-Lebanese relations functioned in a distinct dimension: no matter how Syria fared with other countries, Lebanon was an exclusive domain where third party interference was never really efficient. But after the Syrian regime’s clumsy handling of affairs in Lebanon in the last year, relations have entered another dimension which actually defines Syria’s standing on the international scale, where Syria’s cooperation–or lack thereof–on all things Lebanese will now delineate its position with the big powers.

This realization should have rendered the Syrian regime more pliant, if only for its own survival, but some habits are apparently hard to break. The clock is ticking, and still the notion of time escapes it as it continues to look for an emergency exit out of an inescapable bottleneck. Perhaps it plans to finally acquiesce with some minor UN demand mere days before Detlev Mehlis’ December 15 deadline, only to scream about unfair treatment when it will inevitably be accused of not cooperating? After all, this is exactly how it behaved before and after UNSC Resolution 1636, which turned out to be a much stronger (and unanimous) indictment of Syria’s attitude than it initially feared. Indeed, by campaigning for a text that didn’t include the threat of sanctions (an unnecessary endeavor since any resolution under Chapter VII comes with a default "or else" implication), Syria merely ensured a unanimous vote without even lessening the increasing potential of future action.

Ominously, observers experienced an uneasy sense of deja vu at the UN, Algeria’s position being a stark reminder of Syria’s own vote in 2002 for Resolution 1441 on Iraq. There is a major difference between the two situations, of course: at the time, most people were still not convinced that Iraq had hidden WMDs, whereas today many more are persuaded that Syria is hiding something about Hariri’s assassination.

The regime continues to react amateurishly and incompetently to the Mehlis report and its derivatives, as if it is taken aback by their content. Discrediting Mehlis has become Syria’s raison d’etre, and this is the biggest flaw in its behavior; by now, it really hardly matters whether hard proof of a Syrian contribution to Rafiq Hariri’s murder is found, since Syrian non-cooperation is in itself easily punishable.

That this discrediting is done in parallel to a vague promise of cooperation (up to a certain point) might indicate that Syria has finally awoken to the dangers it faces, but it has been an awkward cooperation. The Syrian commission set up to conduct its own investigation has thus far only manifested itself by conveniently slapping a travel ban on the six Syrian officials Mehlis wants for questioning in Lebanon, a location deemed "sensitive" and categorically rejected by Syria.

The regime seems determined to protect itself regardless of the consequences this could have on the country; in fact, it is clearly betting on a showdown with the Security Council, and is preparing several risky campaigns to face it. One, targeting Syrians, attempts to nationalize the issue by convincing the population that the country (and not the regime) is under attack for its noble Arabist stance. Judging by the panicked buying of dollars and consequent weakening of the Syrian pound, and by the relatively sparse turnout at various organized demonstrations, most Syrians remain skeptical that the regime can handle the heat and that this is purely about nationalism.

In fact, Syrians are wondering whether the regime shouldn’t at the very least offer some compensation in return for the sacrifices it demands of them. As it warns people of possible sanctions and cautions them about criticizing the regime, it inexplicably refuses to budge on urgent political and economic reforms which could make a big difference in the national mood, especially when most Syrians believe that American plans indeed go beyond finding the truth over Hariri. Still, the Syrian people are far less keen than the regime on a confrontation.

Even more ill advised is the concerted effort to provoke Lebanon into rebellion. Strangely, the regime has opted to insult the ruling parties and lecture the Lebanese on Arabism; in the last installment of attempted Syrian interference, the regime tried to exploit genuine Lebanese fears of a harsh winter and sky-high fuel prices by encouraging the overthrow of the government. Needless to say, this is not the best way to win friends or influence people–whether in Lebanon or elsewhere–and will probably backfire on the regime.

It is nevertheless interesting to note that Lebanese enthusiasm for the humiliation of the Syrian regime seems to have abated somewhat, now that the extent of the stakes becomes clearer, and that more people realize Lebanon wouldn’t survive unscathed from chaos in Syria. Like the Syrian people, the Lebanese may get stuck in the unenviable position of preferring a bad status quo to a worse scenario of foreign intervention. Relying on this popular fear, however, will not save the Syrian regime from long-term resentment on both sides of the border.

Such Syrian campaigns, especially in the total absence of foreign support, are not an adequate response to Resolution 1636 and do not even delay the inevitable. Perhaps the regime’s biggest loss has been the pragmatism which for so long defined the very essence of its policy, including in Lebanon; without this pragmatism, and as long as it refuses to deal rationally with Resolution 1636, there seems little hope that the regime can escape isolation–and not only from the Security Council.