Analysis / Damascus Is Not Giving Up

"No one brought me a message of peace from Israel," Syrian President Bashar Assad said twice during an interview with Dubai television on Wednesday. Because no one brought a message to Assad, he had no message to send back. All he was willing to say was that the Madrid Peace Conference of 1991 laid the foundations for negotiations between Israel and Syria, and as long as the diplomatic process has not been exhausted, there is no room for talk about war.

In the meantime, pressure is mounting on Damascus, and this time it is originating in Lebanon. Before the recent war, Assad was certain Lebanon would not embark on an independent diplomatic process. But the war has faced Syria with some changes.

United Nations Security Council Resolution 1701 proved Lebanon can initiate an independent diplomatic effort. The resolution, even if it is considered flimsy, is an international achievement for Lebanon and clearly contributes to the country's stabilization. Lebanon did not only demand a cease-fire; it also decided that UNIFIL (the UN Interim Force in Lebanon) would not operate under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, as Israel had demanded. The Lebanese government also managed to persuade the UN that UNIFIL should patrol Lebanon's border with Syria.

But Damascus is not giving in. Assad is threatening to impose sanctions on Lebanon, arguing that the deployment of UNIFIL along the Lebanese-Syrian border undermines Lebanese sovereignty. He also claims that such a move is liable to generate hostility between Syria and Lebanon. Assad's problem is not the presence of an international force on Lebanese soil. His problem is the excessive independence that Lebanon is trying to exercise and the decision-making processes of its government, which has chosen to ignore Syria's views.

If the Syrian president decides, as he did a year ago, to shut down the border crossings for goods and people traveling between Lebanon and Syria, the results could be seriously harmful to Lebanon. Such a Syrian move would deal a serious blow to Lebanese exports. However, unlike in the past, this time, Lebanon has a remedy: It seems that in response, it would not hesitate to prevent the entry of hundreds of thousands of Syrian laborers into its territory, thereby returning the favor to Damascus and striking at Syria's economy.

This "dialogue of sanctions" between Syria and Lebanon is still in the verbal stage. Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora still wishes to mend the rupture with Syria, which exploded following the assassination of former prime minister Rafik Hariri and the international investigation of Syria's role in the killing. But Siniora is not interested in continuing Lebanon's status as a Syrian protectorate: He would like his country to be an equal partner.

Thus those who wish to bolster Lebanon's independence, such as Israel and the United States, cannot continue to maintain sanctions against it. Under the current conditions, in which oil tankers are not at liberty to enter Lebanese ports because of Israel's naval blockade, and the movement of essential goods faces enormous difficulties, Lebanon might mistakenly conclude that there are those who would like it to remain under Syria's wing.