Monday, May 05, 2003

Powell and Syria
A spot analysis of Colin Powell's visit to Syria and Lebanon seems in order. Officially, Powell came with a list of items for the Syrians that included putting an end to their support for Palestinian groups the Bush administration considers terrorist organizations, ending Hezbollah attacks against Israel in the disputed Shebaa Farms area of southern Lebanon, giving up members of the former Iraqi regime, and ending the development of weapons of mass destruction. Powell went further, saying the Syrians would be judged on their actions, not words. That was the official line.

Unofficially, things were different. Powell came to Syria to essentially tell Bashar Assad, "Look, I'm the best you have now. Scratch my back and I'll scratch yours. Otherwise, those cranks at the Pentagon will have a shot at you." What did Powell mean by having his back scratched? I suspect some relatively cosmetic action on the Palestinian groups that might include closing their Damascus offices, but not expelling their leaders. On Hizbullah, it might mean ensuring the party will cease its attacks against Israel, or make them rare indeed, while also beefing up Lebanese army troops in the border area.

On both counts, however, the essence of power relations would not change: Syria would still harbor Palestinian groups, and would still retain Hizbullah as a pressure point for the future. Things would only seem to change so that Powell could tell his administration colleagues he succeeded, allowing him to move forward on the Palestinian-Israeli "road map". A perception of success is important because Powell will need Bush's full support to force Israel to end its settlement activities and get the "road map" up and running.

Noticeably, Powell did not describe the Syrian presence in Lebanon as an "occupation" as he did last March. This was both an incentive to the Syrians and an effort at consistency, since the U.S. cannot ask Syria to both control Hizbullah and pull out of Lebanon. He did mention possible resort to economic sanctions against Syria for noncompliance with his conditions, through the Syria Accountability Act. However, Powell is not keen to see the Act activated (probably through votes in the Senate and House), as it would undermine his policy of engaging Arab states in a Palestinian-Israeli settlement.

More perniciously, Powell also knows that once the Act is activated, it will revive debate on the Syrian presence in Lebanon, since the legislation also aims to force a Syrian pullout from the country. Powell doesn't want to get bogged down in this since he considers it a diplomatic dead end. Powell, by engaging Syria, has momentarily knocked a Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon off the Bush administration's agenda. But he also made clear that if Syria didn't play ball, he would not oppose the Act's resurrection in Congress.

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