Assad's About-turn?

Is it the intensifying pressure in Lebanon favoring a Syrian withdrawal? Is it the growing demand in Syria for uncensored criticism of the regime? Or does Assad simply not want to be left behind in the changing Middle East?

On Saturday evening, the Maronite cardinal in Lebanon, Nasrallah Sfeir, received a surprising telephone call. On the line was "a Lebanese government official who is close to Syria." The "anonymous" caller reported to Sfeir that Syria, for the first time, plans to withdraw several intelligence command posts from Lebanon and that President Bashar Assad wanted to inform the cardinal before the matter became public knowledge. One can learn from this conversation that internal politics in Lebanon are no less important for Assad than the diplomatic initiatives that are perhaps starting to develop in his neighborhood.

It is no coincidence that the recent withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon - the fourth such pullback in the past four years - occurred on the same day that the vice president of Iran, Hamid Riza Bradran Shoraka, arrived for a three-day official visit in Damascus "for talks on the situation." This also followed closely on the heels of the visit by PLO chairman Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) in Damascus and Beirut, and United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan's appointment of Terje Roed-Larsen as special envoy to oversee the implementation of Security Council Resolution 1559. Among other provisions, this resolution of September 2 calls for the withdrawal of Syrian troops ("all remaining foreign forces") from Lebanon and for disarming the Hezbollah ("all Lebanese and non-Lebanese militias").

This is a particularly sensitive time from Syria's perspective, because in addition to pressure from the United States on these matters, there is also great internal pressure from within Lebanon. The "traditional" opposition headed by Christians under Sfeir's leadership and the supporters of the isolationist general, Michel Aoun, are no longer alone. Joining these opposition forces recently was the Druze member of parliament and Progressive Socialist Party leader, Walid Jumblatt, who seems to have embarked upon a broad information campaign against the continued Syrian presence in Lebanon.

Jumblatt could not have been clearer on this point when he said last week in an interview with the American-Iraqi television channel Al-Hura: "Lebanon's relations with Syria suffer from an illness that should be cured ... and I say to Syrian intellectuals and workers that the time has come to reexamine the relations with Syria." This was not the editor of Lebanon's Al-Nahar, Jubran Tueni, speaking, who already called for Syria to leave Lebanon three years ago following the IDF withdrawal, or the oppositionist Aoun, who sits in Paris. Jumblatt is an important Druze leader, who could cause significant political damage for Syria. And it is particularly interesting that he chose Al-Hura, an Iraqi station established and funded by the U.S., to speak out against Syria.

Of Israeli interest, too

Jumblatt's allusion to the "Syrian intellectuals and workers" is also not coincidental. About one million Syrian laborers work in Lebanon and a "reexamination" of relations between the two countries is liable to also hurt them and, consequently, also hurt the Syrian economy. This week, for example, it was reported that Lebanese owners of olive groves are complaining about the smuggling of olives from Syria to Lebanon, and especially about the inexpensive Syrian workforce that competes with Lebanese workers and does not allow them to profit from the olive harvest. This is a false claim, of course, because in any case it is difficult to find Lebanese who are eager to engage in hard manual labor. Nonetheless, the publication of this item is indicative of the atmosphere.

Jumblatt's remarks should not only be of interest to Syria. His statements should also be of great interest to decision makers in Israel. For example, he was asked whether Lebanon would provide refuge for the leadership of Hamas and Islamic Jihad if they were forced to leave Syria due to American pressure. Jumblatt responded: "The natural place for the fight for Palestinian rights is Palestine." In other words, forget about it - Lebanon will not serve as a place of refuge for the Palestinian leadership. And, in fact, he believes there is no place in Syria for them either.

Jumblatt also supports disarming the Palestinians in the refugee camps in Lebanon. In addition, he made clear the extent of his support for Hezbollah's military activities: "Until they liberate Shaba Farms" - and not beyond this. At the same time, he took the opportunity to invite Syria to finally clarify its position on whether Shaba Farms is Lebanese or Syria territory.

Jumblatt is now also supported by the former prime minister of Lebanon, Rafiq al-Hariri, a Sunni Muslim, who resigned about two months ago over Syria's intervention in the selection of Lebanon's president by dictating the extension of the term of his rival, Emile Lahoud. Thus, if during the summer of 2000, following the Israel Defense Forces' withdrawal from Lebanon, it was only the Al-Nahar newspaper - considered the mouthpiece of Lebanon's Christians - that attacked the continued presence of Syria in Lebanon, now the Lebanese newspaper Al-Mustaqbal and the television station bearing the same name, which are owned by Al-Hariri, are also expressing similar viewpoints.

This type of Lebanese opposition to the Syrian presence goes beyond the "usual" demonstrations that have occasionally taken place until now. From Syria's perspective, a development such as this could turn into a movement that could potentially rally other elements within Lebanon. Therefore, Assad is stepping up his efforts to improve his relations with opposition figures and breach the gap that is liable to threaten the continuation of Syrian control in Lebanon. This also explains the multitude of rumors emanating this week from Damascus about Syria's intention to complete the withdrawal of its troops from Lebanon in May, in accordance with Resolution 1559.

Jumblatt's remarks also correspond closely to the views of Cardinal Sfeir and are consistent with Al-Hariri's opposition to the Hezbollah. Nonetheless, the "Jumblatt-Hariri-Sfeir" cocktail will require a long and hard shake before crystallizing into a significant and solid opposition capable of breaking out of Syrian political control. For example, Jumblatt last summer suddenly underwent a radical change of mind, from backing Al-Hariri to supporting the Syrian position, after being summoned for "an intimate meeting" with the head of Syrian intelligence in Lebanon, Rustom Ghazali. But Jumblatt's words now take on additional meaning - with American pressure echoing in the background, it requires a good deal of political courage to tell Syria to get out of Lebanon and stop interfering in the country's affairs. It seems that remarks like this are no longer considered "treason" these days.

New developments

There are also new developments on the Syrian side that are not only the result of bumps on the Beirut-Damascus road or on the Damascus-Washington route. A month ago, for the first time in memory - that is, for the first time in the history of the Assad family's rule - a Syrian publicist published a piercingly critical article against Syrian intelligence in the official newspaper Tishrin. Hakam al-Baba, who served time as a political prisoner, described in his article a series of humiliations he suffered at the hands of Syrian intelligence officials. He was arrested for throwing to the ground a copy of the Al-Ba'ath newspaper, the official mouthpiece of the ruling party, during a television interview. The editor of Al-Ba'ath at the time, Mahdi Dakhlallah, who was present at the "incident," demanded that Al-Baba pick up the newspaper and warned him that if he failed to do so, "he would hear from him." Al-Baba refused to pick up the newspaper from the floor and was arrested a few days later.

Today, Dakhlallah is the Syrian information minister and he is the one who gave permission to Tishrin to publish the article in which he himself stars as the bad guy. If this were not enough, Dakhlallah this week even allowed the publication of the third edition of a satirical newspaper, which includes a caustic piece against government ministers including an imaginary telephone conversation between one of the new ministers in the Syrian government and his wife. The Syrian law prohibiting personal writing against government ministers was not mentioned in this case.

There is also good news for the citizens of Syria. The tax on new cars will be reduced from 145 percent to 65 percent. For cars with engines of 1,600 cc. and above, the tax will drop from 255 to 150 percent. However, the line for receiving a new car will only start getting shorter in another two years, when a new car assembly plant - a joint Iranian-Syrian enterprise - is slated to be completed in Damascus.

While trying to create harmony in Syrian-Lebanese relations, Assad is also seeking to remain on the dance floor in the Middle East. He hosted this week the prime minister of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who made a reciprocal visit in Damascus. The two have a lot to talk about. Erdogan told his Syrian interlocutor about the pressure he is under from Europe to amend human rights laws in his country, and Assad spoke to Erdogan about his commitment to lower taxes as part of an economic cooperation agreement he signed with Europe.

Erdogan's impressions of Assad will certainly be heard in Jerusalem when the Turkish foreign minister, Abdullah Gul, makes his first trip here, planned for the end this month or early January.

Turkey was apparently asked again by Assad to mediate between Syria and Israel. At the end of this month, or in early 2005, when Assad makes his first state visit to Moscow, he will hear a little more about the agreements between Russia and Washington regarding diplomatic moves in the region. At the same, preparations are also under way for a historic visit by Assad to Jordan, following a long period of deep chill in the relations between the leaders of the two states, who were once telephone pals.

It seems that Bashar Assad, who has already traveled abroad more than his father did during most of his tenure, is likely to begin enjoying diplomatic activity and not only local politics. And this is likely to be good news.