The murder of Pierre Gemayel has the United States pointing fingers at Syria, even Iran, for jeopardizing the country’s independence.

Syria’s withdrawal from Lebanon and the elections which took place last year was seen as a positive step in the middle east. It was also hailed as a regional success of US Foreign Policy. The assassination of one of the winners of that election, Industry Minister Pierre Gemayel, has put the country on the brink of a political crisis. Hezbollah, the influential political organization in Lebanon, has been criticizing the government for weeks and the government has now been truly weakened. The question is whether the government can survive this crisis or whether Hezbollah will step in: it is no secret that the organization has aspirations to govern the country due to what it deems as the government’s inability to do so. Hezbollah has a lot of support and influence, which was strengthened this summer after its successful standoff with Israel.

The reason that Syria being accused is because Hezbollah and Syria have been linked, especially financially. However, it is not clear who murdered Gemayel and if Hezbollah or Syria had anything to do with it. In fact, it simply is not in Syria’s interest to contract an assasination, because it does not need this finger-pointing, especially with the recent publication of the results of the probe into the murder of Rafik Hariri.

Iran has been an ally of Syria since the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s and the two countries have found ways to cooperate, despite their differing religious views.

While Hezbollah, Syria or Iran may have been involved in the murder, there is no evidence to say that they were. After all, Lebanon’s domestic scene has been less-than-stable and a rival faction in the Lebanese government could have been involved, without outside influence.

It is not in the interests of Iran or Syria to have an unstable Lebanon. Syria has spent years bringing stability back to the country — its presence there was initially a welcome one both by Lebanon and the US — and after withdrawing its troops last year, it has no interest in going back to avert a civil war. Furthermore, Iran and Syria now have an opportunity to play key regional roles in Iraq. Tony Blair of Britain has talked of bringing in the two states to bring stability back to Iraq, a plan which may be supported by the Iraq Study Group, commissioned by President Bush. Iran has, in fact, already taken the lead in playing a role in Iraq by proposing a three-way summit between Iraq, Syria and Iran.

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There is more confirmation today in the British plan to gradually hand over security obligations to Iraqi forces. Foreign Secretary Beckett has said that recent progress in Basra has made it likely for British troops to hand the province over to their Iraqi counterparts.

This is consistent with the discourse coming out from Britain in recent weeks which has suggested British withdrawal within 12-14 months. As opposition to the war has grown domestically, the British have said that Iraq must take more responsibility in ensuring its own security.

The White House has been toying with the same idea and, with a British withdrawal, will be left no choice but to follow suit.

This is precisely the reason that British Prime Minister Tony Blair has favored the idea of Iranian and Syrian cooperation in the region, particularly in ensuring stability in Iraq.

Iraqi foreign policy is simply becoming unsustainable in terms of keeping domestic support levels up both in the US and the UK. But the UK has taken the lead in altering its policy, while the US leadership has been non-committal.

Iran Takes the Lead

November 22, 2006

The Associated Press learned Monday that Iranian President Ahmadinejad had invited his counterparts in Syria and Iraq for a summit to discuss ending violence in Iraq. On Tuesday, Syria and Iraq completely restored diplomatic relations after years of severed ties. With this restoration of ties, the Syrian govenment has accepted that US troops will stay in Iraq as long as the country requires them.

It is clear that some sort of meeting will be taking place this weekend between the Iraqi and Iranian leadership, and instead of applauding the effort the White House is being cautious and saying that Iran and Syria must back up their discourse with real actions.

It is also clear that if the hypothetical three-way summit takes place, it will be a major political victory for Iran. The idea of Iran and Syria working to restore stability to Iraq has been around for several weeks, with British Prime Minister Blair favoring it. However, no one has said yes to the plan, citing the need for change in Iran and Syria. With the meeting taking place, Iran would take the lead in establishing the framework of its (and Syria’s) participation in the new Iraq. This is crucial, because the framework would be pre-set without US or British influence and it would be difficult for the US or Britain to assert themselves.

Tuesday’s diplomatic agreement between Syria and Iraq was the first step in making the three-way summit a reality. The next significant step will be taken on Sunday when Ahmadinejad meets with Iraqi President Jalal Talabani in Tehran to discuss the eventuality of the summit and its details.

US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice has spoken out against the potentiality of directly talking to Iran and Syria. The plan, favored by Tony Blair, has been circulated in the last week or so; anticipation has been high as the world awaits the Iraq Study Group‘s verdict on a US exit strategy from Iraq.

Rice’s statements come among speculation that there is a divide developing between Britain and the US, two close allies in Iraq. The speculation has been so far-reaching that the White House even denied that their is a rift developing, by blaming reporters’ use of language in covering Blair’s meeting with the ISG.

When such speculation surfaces and when the White House takes the time to prepare a fact sheet explaining that there is no divide, chances are that there is some truth to the speculation. The question is how much truth.

What we do know is that Blair did address the idea of working with Iran and Syria yesterday. And, in consequence, Condoleeza Rice has said that Iran and Syria are not ready for direct talks. According to the US Secretary of State, Iran has not indicated a willingness to talk. Ms Rice disregarded Ahmadinejad’s readiness to talk to a “corrected” US. Syria, on the other hand, has once again been accused of causing trouble in Lebanon and insulting US allies.

The current differences are not significant yet, but may become so once the ISG delivers its report to President Bush. In the meantime, the US and Britain have time to come to an understanding. After all, Britain is the US’ closest ally in Iraq. And the US does not want to be left alone in the embattled region, once UK troops start to withdraw.

Iran and Syria Sought

November 14, 2006

British Prime Minister Tony Blair faced the Iraq Study Group. At the core of Blair’s argument was the need for Syria and Iran to chose between being part of the solution or being in isolation.

This is indication that the scenario of bringing in Iran and Syria to help with Iraq is a likely development.

Iran’s Shi’a influence is needed to bring stability to the Sunni-Shi’a divide which has progressed in the last sever months.

Syria, in the past, has had an on-again-off-again relationship with Iraq, depending on the political climate of the day; the countries were also linked by the Ba’th party’s origins in Syria. However, the Iraqi Ba’th leadership was different from Syria, because over time a civilian-military divide emerged within the party.

Recently, Syria was forced out of Lebanon after Hariri’s murder. While Syria receives criticism today for its influence over Lebanon, it is largely Syria’s involvement, which brought stability to the factionalized country. Perhaps Syria will be asked to assert a similar influence in Iraq, because while partitioning has been mentioned, it is not favored and could lead to chaos in the region. Turkey and Iran are also concerned about an independent Kurdish state as that could threaten its territorial integrity.

Iran has been a traditional opponent of Iraq and has even aligned with Syria against it. Today, Iran’s foreign policy is focused on destroying the credibility of Israel as well as maintaining its nuclear program to use as leverage in dealing with the US. Getting Iran involved in Iraq could divert its attentions from Israel and bring Iran back into alignment with the West. After all, Iran’s president has been courting the United States for several months without a reply; with a US and UK exit from Iraq set for the next year, this could be the perfect opportunity.

Blair Talking to Bush: Iraq

November 12, 2006

In what is shaping up to be a key week in UK and US foreign policy in the Middle East, British Prime Minister Tony Blair is set to present evidence on Iraq this Tuesday to the Iraq Study Group. The British leader is testifying because the bi-partisan group is to deliver a report to President Bush and Congress within the next few weeks; the report’s publication date was set to some time after the Midterm Elections. The US president, who created the ISG, will be addressing the group Monday.

In fact, Tony Blair and George Bush have been spending time on the phone, discussing prospects for Iraq. With President Bush calling his new Defense Secretary an “agent of change,” it’s clear that the British leader and his counterpart have been discussing a change of policy in Iraq.

One of the British scenarios is to involve Syria and Iran in bringing about stability to Iraq. Iran, of course, is the influential voice of the Shi’a. Present-day Iran is a Revolutionary state whose government is led by a supreme (Shi’a) cleric; the majority Iran’s 68 million inhabitants are also Shi’a. Syria, on the other hand, is in majority Sunni (despite being led by Assad, who is an Alawite) and has historic ties to Baghdad because the Ba’th party was born in Damascus. Also, Syria and Iran have in the past opposed Iraq under Saddam Hussein.

In spite of these new scenarios and the obvious eventuality of an exit from Iraq, the US top General in Iraq expressed confidence in US commitment to the Iraqi mission.

The Guardian published a poll suggesting that the majority of British voters want their troops out of Iraq. This poll is published just a day after Deputy PM Saleh pleaded with the international community (and Tony Blair specifically) to not bail on Iraq.

In terms of electoral politics, the kind of numbers that the Guardian has printed (61% of voters want the troops out within the year, regardless of mission completion) would make withdrawal inevitable. If Labour is to be re-elected, they must respond to electoral demands. However, things are not as clear-cut. Blair is serving his last term as PM and in that sense may bail on his party, which forced him to announce his resignation recently. In his last year as PM, Blair will want to leave a mark and staying in Iraq could be his way of doing it (though this does not appear to be the case).

The two main questions are how loyal is Blair to his party and how loyal is he to the mission that he started with George W. Bush in 2003?