Rarely did a Syrian president’s speech stir such anticipation across borders and time zones as the address by President Bashar Assad to his national assembly Saturday.
Under growing international pressure — particularly from the United States and France — Mr. Assad was expected to outline a schedule for Syria’s pullout from Lebanon. That did not exactly happen.
For more than an hour, Mr. Assad held the world’s attention as his broadcast was aired live, thanks to satellite television. The Syrian president had an unprecedented opportunity to defuse the crisis, outline a redeployment schedule and win public sympathy along the way. Regrettably, he missed the opportunity on all three counts.
But wait. This is only a partial view of events, as seen from outside Syria. As so often in the Middle East, Arab leaders tend to offer their thoughts in two distinct versions: one for local consumption and the other to appease international relations.
If Mr. Assad failed to mollify the international community Saturday, he on the other hand scored high points domestically. The Syrian president is trying to buy time, and find a way out of his current predicament without losing face in what is developing into the most serious crisis since he assumed power upon the death of his father Hafez, in June 2000.
“The speech was very good from the Syrian point of view,” said Joshua Landis, a history professor at the University of Oklahoma and a specialist on Syrian affairs. Mr. Landis, who runs Syriacomment.com, one of the most informed blog sites on Syria, spoke to United Press International from Damascus where he is spending a year as a Fulbright scholar:
“Assad was able to blame the failure [of Syria] on the Lebanese.” said Mr. Landis. Reversing blame won the Syrian president marks on the home front. Had he simply caved in to international demands without at least appearing to resist, it would have made his people think him weak, something neither Mr. Assad nor the Ba’ath Party can afford.
But if Mr. Assad’s speech was well received in Damascus, it got the reverse reaction in Washington. It did not take long for the U.S. State Department to react to Mr. Assad’s announcement the 14,000 Syrian troops in Lebanon would withdraw gradually to Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, not across the international frontier, as requested by Washington, Paris and Brussels, and as stipulated in U.N. Security Council Resolution 1559.
“It is not enough,” protested Foggy Bottom, where U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had earlier reiterated demands for Syria to withdraw “fully” from Lebanon.
Cries for Syrian withdrawal were heard on Capitol Hill. “Barra Syria Barra,” (“Out, Syria, out”) was shouted in Arabic by Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Florida Republican, chairwomen of the House of Representatives Subcommittee on the Middle East and Central Asia, and a sponsor of the Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act of 2003.
“Withdrawal does not mean to the Bekaa Valley or to the Lebanese-Syrian border. It means the removal of all Syrian presence from all Lebanese territory,” said Mrs. Ros-Lehtinen. She called Mr. Assad’s speech “classic double-speak,” and “a transparent attempt to delay the inevitable.”
But it combines Mr. Assad speaking for a domestic audience with his possibly not fully grasping the Bush administration’s seriousness about getting Syria out of Lebanon.
Since the Feb. 14 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, President Bush has called not only for removal of Syrian troops from Lebanon, but also for dismantling the Syrian intelligence network.
An indication Mr. Assad is speaking to both domestic and international audiences could be seen moments after his speech, leaving it to Bouthaina Shaaban, Syrian minister of expatriates, to tell CNN Syrian troops “will be on the Syrian side of the border.” Why could Mr. Assad not clarify this all-important point himself?
(1) Because of the double-speak, internal-external consumption strategy.
(2) Mr. Assad is playing for time.
(3) And he possibly does not grasp how determined both the Americans and the Europeans are to see Syria quit Lebanon.
“I don’t think the Syrians quite understand how serious the United States is,” said Mr. Landis. Mr. Assad is trying, explains Mr. Landis, to “create some wiggle room for himself.” He needs to regroup and reassess the situation, taking into account Hezbollah, future negotiations on the Golan Heights, and Syria’s special relationship with Lebanon. As Mr. Assad said during his speech, “Syria’s pullout from Lebanon does not mean the end of Syrian participation in Lebanon.”
On Fox News Sunday, White House counselor Dan Bartlett warned, “The international community is not going to stand by and let Assad continue to have these kinds of half measures.”
The Lebanese, meanwhile, are maintaining their protests and remain adamant Syria should withdraw. Many Beirut residents are cynical about Mr. Assad’s claims, and that Syria keeps taking credit for “helping” Lebanon during the civil war. As one Beirut resident said, “For God’s sake, they arrived one year into the civil war, and it lasted for 15 years … that was helping?”
Claude Salhani is international editor for United Press International.