Talabani talking with Syria

January 14, 2007

Iraqi President Talabani is continuing to show a pro-active stance in Iraqi foreign policy. Following the official return of diplomatic ties with Syria in November, the President is now meeting with his Syrian counterpart in Damascus.

Syria is a vital player in the region and, over the years, has had important relations with Iran: the ties between the two nations developed when Syria sided with Iran in the Iran-Iraq war. It’s also worth mentioning that the Iraq Study Group’s report released in early December favored dialogue with Iran and Syria, Iraq’s immediate neighbors. President Talabani seems to be following this policy, even if the US is reluctant to do the same. In fact, the Iraqi President has become a somewhat unnamed figure in Iraqi leadership.

In his address to Americans Wednesday, President Bush did not mention Talabani, only mentioning Prime Minister Maliki. This is consistent with US foreign policy of late, which has been centred on dealing exclusively with Maliki.

Part of the reason that the US is dealing with Maliki is that as Prime Minister he is the one dealing with domestic issues and the US’ main concern is the domestic insurgency in Iraq. However, if one is to accept US reports of Iranian and Syrian involvement in the insurgency, then Iraq’s foreign policy is key. In that sense, President Talabani is doing his job well: he met with the Iranian leadership in November and is now meeting with Assad in Syria.

In fact, Talabani is showing an independent approach to foreign policy, and the US has been very keen on having Iraqis take the lead in securing their own safety.

If its intentions are peaceful, then the US must consider talking to Iran and Syria as well. The two countries have shown that they are ready to talk and this is not a direct result of the announced troops surge. Reportedly, the meeting between Talabani and Assad has been a year in the making.

Siniora in Russia

Moscow, Russia — Lebanon’s Prime Minister Fouad Siniora is in Moscow to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin and other top officials. The visit comes ahead of Basher Assad’s visit to the Russian capital, and is likely intended to garner Russian influence over Syria.

While Syria was not directly mentioned, President Putin said that Russia would help Lebanon ease the political tension.

Role for Syria?

It is no secret that Russia is in good relations with Syria, both politically and economically, so Putin’s support will be useful to the Siniora government. However, more is needed to solve the political standoff.

The idea that Damascus can stabilize the situation lies on the fact that Hezbollah has been linked to Syria. However, the current protests in Beirut are not a Hezbollah-only project. In fact, several political factions have mobilized to demand a unitary government. According to Ziad Najjar, of the Council of Lebanese Canadian Organizations, Hezbollah represents about a third of protesters.

The Lebanese crisis is not about outside actors, but is about the domestic situation. Domestically, Lebanon’s government has limited support; according to a poll conducted by Al-Akhbar, 7 out of 10 Lebanese favor the formation of a unitary government in Lebanon, something Prime Minister Siniora has been refusing.

Syria can certainly help with the situation, but the solution to the crisis is inside Lebanon.

The Iraq Study Group will deliver its report to US President Bush this morning. It is expected that the report will advocate a change of policy in Iraq, which can include troops reduction as well as looking to Iraq’s neighbors for assistance.

In the wake of the forthcoming report, President Bush has suggested that his policy in Iraq will be one of perseverance. Different reports have surfaced suggesting that the US President is unlikely to accept big changes in Iraq. However, it remains to be seen what the recommendations actually are and what the President’s reaction will be.

At the same time, Bush’s new man, Secretary of Defense nominee Robert Gates has made statements about the US not winning the war in Iraq. In a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, Gates suggested training more Iraqi forces. This seems to be part of the US’ new strategy in Iraq; President Bush has said in a meeting with Iraqi PM Maliki that he is unsatisfied with Iraq tackling sectarian violence. This means that the US is expecting Iraqis to take on more responsibilities in providing security within the country. It is also a policy that is very much aligned with the US’ ally in Iraq, Britain.

For several weeks, Britain has advocated gradual troops withdrawals from Iraq, even suggesting that its troops may be out of Basra province by next spring with Iraqi security forces assuming responsibilities for safety in the area. Also, Britain has looked to significant troops reductions within the next year. If this policy is advanced, the US will be put into a stranglehold position because it simply cannot sustain its current Iraq policy without British participation.

In that sense, President Bush may accept the idea of eventual troops withdrawals, even if he’s not ready to commit to set deadlines.

But President Bush is unlikely to welcome the prospect of working with Iraq’s neighbors, Iran and Syria. The US and other UN Security Council members once again did not agree on the types of sanctions Iran should receive for its nuclear activity. Syria has been in the spotlight, because of the assassination of Pierre Gemayel, with some accusing Syria of involvement in the murder.

A Regional Role for Syria

December 4, 2006

Only a few weeks ago, the West had been criticizing Syria over its alleged meddling in Lebanon’s internal affairs. The accusations were raised over the murder of Industry Minister Pierre Gemayel. With Lebanon’s current political crisis — which has Hezbollah challenging Prime Minister Siniora’s government — the West is now turning to Syria to help alleviate tensions, fearing an all-out civil war in the country.

It is German Foreign Minister Steinmeler who has taken the lead. In a meeting with Syria’s President Assad today, Steinmeler applauded Syria’s recent move to restore diplomatic relations with Iraq, an event which went largely unnoticed nearly two weeks ago. The Foreign Minister urged that Syria act in similar fashion in regards to Lebanon.

The reason for Steinmeler’s appeal is the political standoff between Hezbollah and Prime Minister Siniora, whose government has lost popularity over its handling of the 34-day war with Israel. Hezbollah supporters have assembled in the thousands in Lebanon’s capital to demand that Siniora give Hezbollah more access to the government. While Hezbollah has political seats in Lebanon’s parliament, it is also listed as a terrorist organization by the US government. This makes it difficult for Western states to engage in direct negotiations with the organization. Syria has been linked to Hezbollah and is believed to have influence on the organization.

With its restoration of diplomatic relations with Iraq after a twenty-five year standoff following Syria’s support of Iran in the Iran-Iraq war, Syria looks to gain more influence in the region. It has already been reported that a three-way summit between Iran, Syria and Iraq may happen and the Iraq Study Group may also suggest the US work with Syria. If Syria participates in stabilizing the current situation in Lebanon, it may become a regional player.

Syria has already played a stabilizing role in Lebanon — that’s how Syrian troops ended up in Lebanon, where they were initially welcome both by Lebanon and the US. This time, Syria will have to go the diplomatic route, as any troops activity will spur speculation of malicious intent, as Syrian troops retreated from Lebanon last year.

Momentum for Hezbollah

December 2, 2006

Hezbollah has spoken. Actually, its supporters have. And they refuse to be silenced until the government resigns.

For over two days now, the opposition to the current government in Lebanon has assembled in the hundreds of thousands in Lebanon’s capital Beirut. The protesters want the resignation of Prime Minister Siniora’s government. The PM has said he won’t back down to what he calls a coup attempt.

The current action goes to show how much support Hezbollah has gained after this summer’s 34-day war with Israel, a war in which the Lebanese government took a neutral position. It is this neutrality which has cost the government popularity and has made it so easy for Hezbollah to mobilize popular support. Whether the demonstration is successful in unseating the government or not, the damage has already been done: the Western-backed government has failed in regaining the trust of its population. After all, Siniora and his ministers had over three months — since the August 14 ceasefire with Israel — to regain support it lost over the war. It also had a PR advantage with the murder of Pierre Gemayel; without evidence, Hezbollah and Syria have been accused of the murder. The government even had the postponement of the Hezbollah demonstration (because of the Gemayel assassination which took place a day before Hezbollah originally planned its action). And still, Siniora’s government is in a position of disadvantage today. Eight hundred thousand protesters out of a population of under four million is not minor, considering that those are the protesters that were able to make it to Beirut.

Siniora must now make the right decision for his country as well as his government. Whether the West likes it or not, Hezbollah has influence in Lebanon and the ongoing Hezbollah-led demonstration has far-outweighed the pro-government rally held following Gemayel’s assassination.

Earlier today, I conducted a phone interview with Ghassan Makarem, who is with the Samidoun organization in Beirut. The interview aired on today’s edition of Off the Hour on CKUT.

Listen to the interview by pressing the play button below:

[odeo=http://odeo.com/audio/3150993/view]

For more information on Samidoun, the organization that Makarem is involved with, visit www.samidoun.org.

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.