- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Syria’s surprisingly swift acceptance to withdraw its troops and intelligence units from neighboring Lebanon after nearly 30 years came so suddenly and smoothly that some analysts suspect it might have been just a little too easy.

So what does this mean? It means Syria still has an ace or two up its sleeve. Could Syria be planning a comeback? Or will it use the momentum to settle internal issues?

Remember President Bashar Assad’s speech to his National Assembly March 7, when he said: “Syria’s withdrawal from Lebanon does not mean the absence of Syria’s role.” Syria’s president added, “Syria’s strength and its role in Lebanon are not dependent on the presence of its forces in Lebanon.”

Addressing the issue of Syrian intelligence units leaving Lebanon, Raymond Tanter, a former member of the National Security Council, said: “I am not sure they crossed into Syria.”

No doubt high-tech satellites controlled from the National Security Agency outside Washington will track the moves of departing Syrian intel officers. No doubt imaging analysts will scrutinize every detail of images produced by those satellites. So, too, will “humint” — or human intelligence agents — riding in nondescript battered Mercedes taxis, and keeping a few dozen yards behind the Syrians, just to make sure their final destination is indeed inside Syria.

Of course, suspicions of Syria having second thoughts or ulterior motives could be brushed off as the basis of conspiracy theories. Heaven knows the Middle East has more than its fair share of those who see intrigue behind every door, and every car bomb. But every now and then such a theory is justified.

It was also no accident a car bomb went off Friday night in a Christian neighborhood of Beirut, injuring 11 people. Conspiracy theorists will see this as a “message” that further demonstrations by the opposition in Lebanon could turn nasty. One need only remember the 15-year civil war to see how nasty things can get. After the massive anti-Syrian protest last Monday by an estimated 1 million people, Lebanese President Emile Lahoud has urged all demonstrations end, cautioning against trouble. A conspiracy theorist would see a connection.

Being familiar with the area, its actors and its mindset, its history as well as its penchant for violence, a conspiracy theorist might conclude it is atypical of the Syrians to allow themselves to be pushed around without fighting back. Particularly when they risk not only loss of face, an issue of prime importance in the Arab world, but an important segment of the Syrian economy.

Syria’s ambitions to remain in Lebanon are as much economically as politically driven. For the last 30 years, Lebanon has represented a cash cow for the limping statist Syrian economy. The average income in Syria is about $150 a month, say members of the Syrian opposition, or $1,100 according to the United Nations. In either case, Syria ranks — the CIA says — 150th in GDP per capita behind Lebanon (131), Jordan (135) and the tiny island of Cyprus (116).

“This is the Middle East, and we are talking about money,” said a European diplomat familiar with the region. “The revenue generated from Lebanon is as important to the Syrian economy as oil is to Saudi Arabia,” said the official, speaking anonymously. “We are talking about smuggling allowed by government,” said the European diplomat of Damascus-sanctioned illegal trade across the Lebanese-Syrian border.

Syria, conspiracy theorists aver, went so far as assassinating Lebanon’s former prime minister Rafik Hariri because he was becoming a nuisance to Damascus. If Syrian intelligence officials did not commit the act, they at least sanctioned it. The assassination of Hariri was far too important a job, and its consequences too far-reaching, for Damascus not to have at least given a tacit nod. A United Nations report into Hariri’s killing due for release Monday is anxiously awaited.

So, asks the conspiracy theorist, what will Damascus, or rather, what will Syrian President Bashar Assad do next?

“Bashar will play for time and try and do as little as possible,” said Mr. Tanter. “Bashar is confronted with a puzzle. If he accepts [U.N. Security Council Resolution] 1559, he loses legitimacy vis-a-vis his people.” The resolution calls for complete withdrawal of foreign forces from Lebanon. “If he accepts, he loses ground to his opposition at home.”

“So Bashar will choose the middle road and end up not pleasing anyone,” hoping to buy time and gamble on the support of his only friend in Lebanon with any political weight — Hezbollah.

But the Lebanese Shi’ite militant organization, riding the crest of democratization, as says Mr. Tanter, may decide siding with Damascus is against its interests.

Still, some analysts see this as an opportunity for Bashar to consolidate his base at home. Bashar is not in jeopardy, says Joshua Landis, of the University of Oklahoma, and the blogsite Syriacomment.com.

“In fact,” says Mr. Landis, who is spending a year in Damascus, “he seems to have consolidated his power as a result of the Lebanon affair: putting his family in positions of greater power, sidelining old guard figures.”

“Reformers are hoping Bashar will use this moment to push through more dramatic reforms,” says Mr. Landis. Could this be the golden moment Bashar was waiting for to push the old guard out? Mr. Tanter, for one, does not believe Mr. Assad ever wanted reform.

Others, like Mr. Landis, feel there are those who “are hoping that the president will respond to the setbacks in Lebanon by taking charge of internal matters more firmly and reinvigorating reform. “It is unclear whether he will do that,” adds Mr. Landis.

Claude Salhani is international editor for United Press International.

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