Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Syria Comment

Thoughts on Syrian politics, history and religion.
by Joshua Landis
“Lebanon is divided. All the same, Nasrallah’s followers sought to appropriate the same symbols as the opposition, which is very healthy. The placards held up by the demonstrators bore the same cross and crescent seen at previous demonstrations. The great symbol of the event was the Lebanese flag; red and white were everywhere. Nasrallah spoke about Lebanon for the Lebanese, united against all foreign influence.

Of course, the thrust of his speech was diametrically opposed to that of the opposition. He painted the opposition as unpatriotic and as agents of the West and Israel who do not have the best interests of the region at heart. They do not stand on the side of Arabism and the struggle against Lebanon’s enemy, Israel.

The relationship with Syria was handled with great skill and care. When he finished his speech with the words, “Long live Syria.” Everyone here went wild with joy. After weeks of feeling like crap and as if the whole world – even the Arabs – hated them, Syrians saw and heard the gratitude they believe they deserve for ending the civil war and protecting Lebanon. They know they are not alone. The Arabist rhetoric of the Baath Party and Bashar al-Asad still resonates in the hearts of millions. Nasrallah was careful not to suggest that Lebanon needed Syrian forces on its soil or that it could not stand alone. Quite the contrary, “Lebanon has proven that it is the strongest Arab country,” Nasrallah said.

The Lebanese resistance is the only resistance that has won against Israel and driven it from Arab soil. The clear implication is that Lebanon does not need Syria. It can defend Lebanese soil on its own as it had proven in the struggle against Israel. “The Arabs will not concede to Israel and the West through diplomacy what it has not conceded on the battle-field,” he said. “Israel will not win through diplomatic pressure what it could not win on the battle field,” he promised. Lebanon will be the last Arab country to sign a peace agreement with Israel. Hizbullah fought for Arabism, the honor of the Arab world, and against Israeli and Zionist domination. Syria helped in the struggle and has been a corner stone of assistance and succor, he explained; Lebanon will not turn its back on Syria today or in the future. No amount of international pressure or diplomatic maneuvering will defeat the noble stand of the resistance, which liberated Lebanon form Israeli occupation. History, blood, and inclination tie the Syrian and Lebanese people together.. “They are one people.” This last slogan is redolent with meaning. It is the slogan used by Syria and rejected by the Lebanese opposition.

Q&A: A Blogger's Report From Damascus

Joshua M. Landis, a Fulbright scholar who is spending a year in Damascus, Syria, says international and foreign pressure will eventually force President Bashar al-Assad to pull all Syrian troops out of Lebanon. But he said Assad is trying to make a deal that would allow Syria to station devices in Lebanon to warn of an impending attack from Israel.

Landis, an assistant professor of Middle Eastern studies at the University of Oklahoma, writes a weblog called about Syrian politics. He was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for, on March 7, 2005.

Syria is very concerned about trying to get some kind of early-warning [system installed] in the Bekaa Valley [that would signal an attack from Israel]. I think that world pressure and the pressure from the Lebanese opposition will eventually force them to withdraw completely from Lebanon. On the other hand, it is very important strategically for them to make this attempt [to install the early-warning system].

Look at it in terms of the Golan Heights [occupied by Israel since the 1967 war]. Syria and Israel negotiated over the Golan Heights for many years during the 1990s. One of Israel's demands was to maintain early-warning sites on the Golan [after it returns the land to Syria]. Syria, of course, didn't like that. If the United States refuses [to permit Syria to build] early-warning stations in Bekaa, Syria could then say, "Why should Israel get early-warning stations in the Golan?"

Syria has been talking about radar stations and some troop emplacements around them; in the speech president' s two nights ago, he talked about 1982 [when Israeli troops invaded Lebanon] and how the Israelis came right up to Bekaa and threatened Damascus. [Background on Syria's role in Lebanon]

Could there be some kind of international radar system, such as the one worked out when Israel withdrew from the Sinai Peninsula in 1982? Would that satisfy the Syrians?

It's possible. Bashar al-Assad is very interested in maintaining a good relationship with Lebanon. How he's going to do that is not quite clear. He is insisting on the defense of Syria through the Bekaa. There is no real Lebanese government right now; there is an interim government, which is the government that just resigned. That government is very pro-Syrian. It's going to be hard for the Lebanese government to ask Syria not to play a role in resisting Israel. [The Shiite militants] Hezbollah yesterday asserted its support for Syria and for maintaining a good relationship with Damascus. Even though Hezbollah agrees that Syria should withdraw from Lebanon, it wants to make sure that Syria maintains its support for resisting Israel and, in particular, Hezbollah does not want to disarm.

There is no indication that Israel has any intention of going back into Lebanon, is there?

No, of course there isn't. But the Syrians fear this. And what the Syrians fear above all is that Lebanon is going to sign a peace agreement with Israel. Shaul Mofaz, the Israeli defense minister, said yesterday he hopes that events in Lebanon would lead to a peace agreement with Israel.
con·cept: Syria Comment