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Monday, November 20, 2006

Is Israel fooling itself on Syria?

In this morning's Jerusalem Post, Herb Keinon writes that according to "one Israeli official," the price for Syrian cooperation in Iraq is not the surrender of the Golan to Syria (and Israel's northern communities to the tender loving mercies of Bashar al-Assad), but the cancellation of the Hariri probe.
"Of course it comes at a price, and I'm not sure the Americans are willing to pay the price," one Israeli official said. He said that the price was not the Golan, but rather to get the international tribunal investigating the assassination of former Lebanese prime Minister Rafiq Hariri called off, and to allow Syrian influence and involvement - although maybe not troops - in Lebanon.

"The Syrians are terrified by the prospect of the tribunal," the official said, "and they want it called off. That is their top priority, and as a by-product they want to keep a hold on Lebanon."

The Golan was "in no way" the top agenda item for Assad, he said, who was concerned that the tribunal could actually threaten his regime.

"Assad's regime is a small Alawite clique, with some Sunni allies," the official explained. "If some of the cornerstones of this very small and tight clique are taken out to be tried, judged and convicted, then the whole building may collapse and this is what Assad is worried about."

The official said Assad knew who would be implicated and tried, and that - if not Assad himself - it was people "very, very close to him, the top officials of the regime."

According to this school of thought, the Syrians would not put the Golan on the table with the US at this time, other than perhaps extracting a promise that if all went well in their discussion with Washington, there would be assurances that talks with Israel could begin next year.

"But this is not their No. 1 priority," the official said. "Their survival is their No. 1 priority."
Frankly, I find this very hard to believe. Although Assad's brother-in-law is likely to be implicated by the Hariri probe, if it ever I don't see that as affecting Assad's ability to retain power. He continues to rule Syria with an iron fist. If anything, getting the Golan would be the perfect distraction from the Hariri probe.

And again, it is far from certain that the Hariri probe will ever take place. Rick Moran at the Right Wing Nut House wrote yesterday regarding Lebanon's current crisis, which was manufactured by Hezbullah:

The Tribunal in a very large sense is the root cause of this crisis. The United Nations Commission looking into the assassination has pointed the finger at high level Syrians (including President Assad’s brother in law Assef Shawkat, head of Syrian intelligence) as well as several prominent Lebanese. The revelations of Syrian involvement in the assassination of the beloved Hariri would have reprecussions both internationally and domestically for President Bashir Assad as well as harm those in Lebanon seen supporting him – namely Hez’ballah and Amal.

It appears that the UN is ready to authorize the Tribunal now that Siniora’s Shia-less government approved its formation on Monday. But President Lahoud has called the cabinet’s action “unconstitutional” given the resignations. And Speaker of the Parliament Nabih Berri who heads up the Amal party also has called the cabinet’s approval of the Tribunal illegitimate despite his statement last Monday that he believed that as long as 2/3 of sitting Ministers approved, the action by the cabinet was indeed constitutional:

“Any (cabinet) session held now is unconstitutional because it would be in breach of Lebanon’s national pact,” which guarantees a representation for the country’s different religious communities in the government, Berri said

The fact that Berri just returned from 4 days of talks with Iranian leaders probably had something to do with his abrupt about face.

It sounds like the probe may never take place - especially if Hezbullah manages to undo the March 14th revolution in Lebanon, as appears increasingly likely. And if it does take place, getting the Golan would be the perfect way for Assad to deflect domestic criticism.

In sum, the blase attitude of "one Israeli official" quoted by Herb Keinon this morning seems quite out of place. We're nowhere near out of the woods yet on this one. But it's in perfect pitch with the Olmert-Peretz-Livni government line of "Don't worry, be happy."

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