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Syrian Troops Begin to Withdraw from Lebanon

March 7, 2005 at 12:00 AM EST
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GWEN IFILL: For more on continuing developments in Syria and Lebanon, we are joined by Flynt Leverett, senior fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution in Washington. He followed Middle East issues at the CIA, State Department and National Security Council from 1992 to 2003, and he is the author of the forthcoming book “Inheriting Syria: Bashar’s Trial by Fire.”

And Asad AbuKhalil, professor of political science at California State University at Stanislaus; born in Lebanon, he is now an American citizen. Flynt Leverett, you heard what the White House had to say today about this withdrawal, this phased withdrawal. They say they’re having none of it. Is what we are seeing happening in Lebanon today with the Syrian forces the real deal?

FLYNT LEVERETT: I think that what Bashar al-Assad is doing is basically he is in a testing and bargaining mode. He is offering up a relatively minimalist agenda for meeting the conditions of the Taif accord that ended Lebanon’s civil war in 1989.

He’s going to gauge regional and international reaction to what he’s doing right now. If he makes a judgment that he needs to offer more, he could do that.

But if on the other hand he thinks he is gotten enough international players away from the United States that he doesn’t have to fear action in the Security Council or another severe international reaction, he may think that this is enough and he can get away with it.

GWEN IFILL: Professor AbuKhalil, the accord that Flynt Leverett was just talking about only called for the troops to be withdrawn as far as the Bekaa Valley not out of Lebanon entirely, is that enough?

ASAD ABUKHALIL: No, in fact, the accords, they say they should have been withdrawn back in 1992. And then the two governments should have met and then decided on the complete withdrawal of the forces from Lebanon.

But I don’t think that Syria has any choice at this point not only because of mounting regional as well as international pressure especially by the United States and by the French.

But I think they can also capitalize on Lebanese internal divisions. And this is one big story that is missing from so much of the US coverage here. Lebanese are deeply divided people.

There are demonstrators in downtown Beirut, but there are many Lebanese especially the Shiites, I’m not talking about Hezbollah only, the Shiites constitute something like 40-50 percent of the population. And they’ve been sitting on the sidelines.

And there are some even elements within the Maronite community like in northern Lebanon who for their own domestic reasons may not wish Syria to leave Lebanon. And if the Syrians were to withdraw from Lebanon completely, the dynamics of Lebanese politics are such that they may become quite explosive.

And that’s something that we see the signs of. And when people make comparisons to Ukraine I say that Lebanon today looks more like 1975 on the eve of the Lebanese civil war.

GWEN IFILL: So you think that there is a secret or not-so-well-covered pro-Syrian sentiment that is yet — is not necessarily in favor of this withdrawal?

ASAD ABUKHALIL: You see it’s not sentiments. I mean Lebanese are divided over all issues. You’ll find them united that you don’t find much Lebanese who are admirers of the Syrian political system.

I mean you won’t even find admirers of the Syrian political system inside Syria itself, but for their own selfish domestic reasons many Lebanese have in the past and are willing in the future to drag outside powers– be it Syria or the United States or Israel or France– on their own side.

This is why it’s very ironic. Some of same voices in the coalition today of the opposition including the assassinated prime minister of Lebanon, Hariri himself, were part of the apparatus of power that was set up by Syria for their own interest in Lebanon.

Those same forces today while they are calling for sovereignty of Lebanon are willing for the sovereignty to be violated by somebody else besides Syria.

Similarly on the other side it is not that they are happy about Syrian political domination in Lebanon, but they are very distrustful of their other fellow Lebanese factions and for that reason they are willing to capitalize on the perpetuation of Syrian influence in the country.

GWEN IFILL: Let’s talk about that Syrian influence and where it stands right now Mr. Leverett. Is Bashar al-Assad weakened by this agreement today to withdraw and if so is the United States helped by his new position, whatever position he is in?

FLYNT LEVERETT: I think the ultimate impact of what we saw today is going to depend on a couple of things.

First of all, if Bashar is able to affect a withdrawal in a relatively slow, in a phased way, and he is able to maintain other levers of Syrian influence in Lebanon such as the intelligence presence, economic ties, all kinds of ties that Syria has to Lebanon; if he’s able to maintain those and maintain Syria’s ability to influence events in Lebanon in the face of this international pressure, I think he will emerge actually as the much stronger figure.

If, on the other hand, he is judged by people around him to have made a misstep or to have squandered Syria’s ability to influence events on the ground in Lebanon, I think he will be seen as a much weaker figure and there could be consequences to that for him at home.

GWEN IFILL: And let me follow up with something he said to Time Magazine in an interview. He said, “Please send this message. I am not Saddam Hussein. I want to cooperate.” What kind of message is that that he’s sending? What does he actually fear?

FLYNT LEVERETT: This is a very high-profile version of a message that he has been sending through various channels, visiting congressmen, other visiting Americans, foreign intermediaries, a message he’s been trying to send to the administration for some time.

That he wants to have what he would consider an authoritative strategic dialogue with the United States and that is something which up until this point the Bush administration has not been willing to do with him. I think you’re seeing a very high-profile version of that message in the interview you referred to.

GWEN IFILL: Professor AbuKhalil, one of the things we have heard is that if Syria withdraws, what happens next in Lebanon? What about the role of political groups such as Hezbollah, which are considered by the West to be terrorist groups, but which have a very strong presence right now in Lebanon?

ASAD ABUKHALIL: That’s right. And they also have their own bloc within the Lebanese parliament. But even outside of Hezbollah there are some Lebanese factions that for their own sectarian interests are aligned at this point temporarily with Syria.

And they may in fact solely defy that alliance if they fear rightly or wrongly that the United States or France are pushing their own groups and factions at their own expense.

And I think there is no doubt that the president of Syria is in a far weaker position today and the announced deal today is not going to satisfy his critics, not in Lebanon and not outside.

But I think perhaps he is not the one who is running the country anymore and his pleas to the United States, like in Time Magazine, may wind up hurting him if the ruling elite in Syria itself, the ruling military elite may decide that he has gone too far in appeasing the West without any rewards.

GWEN IFILL: Let me ask you a question there. Let me just pick up on something you just said. If he’s not running Syria anymore, who is?

ASAD ABUKHALIL: I think it’s very likely that perhaps there are some people within the military and the secret intelligence who are wielding tremendous influence especially if they find that within few years he’s been able to squander what are perceived in the Syrian government to be tremendous advantages and assets that his father has accumulated over the years.

But I think he may capitalize on two things in his favor. The first one is the propensity of the United States to commit blunders in Lebanon, which is something the United States has done in the past, especially in the 1980s.

And second thing that may go to his favor is the ability of the Lebanese, nay, the desire of the Lebanese, to engage in fights and conflicts with one another. And that is something that could happen.

And if the Syrians withdraw completely from Lebanon and the United States may find itself in a much more difficult position, especially if Hezbollah becomes unrestrained especially on the South Lebanon border, and in that occasion, the Americans could not find an address to go to Syria to account for whatever goes on in Lebanon.

For these reasons it seems to me there is too much of an eager jubilation here in the United States, perhaps in an attempt to validate Bush’s doctrine without knowing the unintended consequences. We’ve seen unintended consequences in Iraq.

The ones in Lebanon, given its history, could be far more lethal. We also have to learn from the lessons of Lebanese history whereby outside powers could continue to wield tremendous influence without having any troops there. The Egyptian government probably ran Lebanon in the 1950s without having a single soldier in Lebanese territory.

GWEN IFILL: Well, let me ask Mr. Leverett about that. Are there unintended consequences down the road that the US or France or any other outsiders should be aware of here?

FLYNT LEVERETT: Yes, I would agree with Professor AbuKhalil. If actors in Lebanon, Hezbollah first among them, but certainly not the only one, see that things are moving in an direction that is inimical to their interest, if the United States is seen to be trying to install a government in Beirut that’s going to be from the perspective of the Arab street overly accommodating to Israel, there will be a backlash.

There will be a reaction of the sort that Professor AbuKhalil was describing. I think there is also an illusion on the part of some of the people in the administration and some of their champions outside the administration that if they push hard enough in Lebanon that you could bring down the entire Assad regime in Damascus.

But I think we’ve seen, if you bring down a regime without a very clear plan of what is going to happen in its aftermath, there are all kinds of unintended consequences that can flow from that.

And I think that the United States needs to think through very carefully what is the real dynamic on the ground in Lebanon, how it’s best to manage that and what does that mean about the position we need to take towards Syria.

GWEN IFILL: Flynt Leverett and Asad AbuKhalil, thank you both very much for joining us.