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The Mehlis Countdown

Bilal El-Amine
Date Published: 
September 23, 2005

It astounds how much political drama a country as tiny as Lebanon is capable of producing, with consequences not only for the region but the world (and we haven't a drop of oil!). There were, for instance, three separate Lebanese delegations in New York to attend events related to the UN summit, in the midst of which Condoleezza Rice was not too busy to meet Saad Harriri, who leads the largest parliamentary bloc here. The recently passed UN Resolution 1959 (not to be confused with last year's Res. 1559 calling for Syria's withdrawal and disarming the resistance) legally puts every member nation and its intelligence services at the service of a UN commission-led by the German judge Detlev Mehlis-whose mission it is to find out who killed Lebanon's prime minister Rafiq Harriri. The whole country is on edge awaiting the judge's final report, now due to come out at end of October. Everyday new rumors circulate about the supposedly secret proceedings of the commission, the vast majority of which have turned out to be untrue. There are many indications, however, that Mehlis has come up with a general idea of what happened but has yet to connect all the dots and back them up with hard evidence. His investigative team has scoured the seashore near the site of the explosion, called in over 300 witnesses, lifted banking secrecy protection (exceptionally rare in Lebanon) from several accounts, and incredibly, to the astonishment of all, hauled in four generals who together ran Lebanon's security services under the Syrians, all but accusing them of committing the crime. The big question is how far up the political ladder will the blame go. If a group of mid-level intelligence officers-Syrian as well as Lebanese-are implicated, then perhaps the ensuing crisis can be contained. Even if the pro-Syrian president of Lebanon Emile Lahoud (suspected by many to be involved) were ensnared, Lebanon and Syria would still be able to weather the storm. But what if it goes all the way up to Bashar Asad, it's not like he can just resign like Lahoud. An authoritarian-and now apparently hereditary-regime like the one in Damascus does not step down willingly, nor surrender to a world court if that's what it comes to. What will the US (oops, I mean the UN) do then? It may sound from the venom directed at Syria that the Bush administration wants nothing short of toppling the Baath. But this seems unlikely if not impossible given the situation in Iraq. The military option, the quickest and surest way to regime change, is not on the table, as confirmed recently by Rice herself. There's also the alternatives problem: at the moment, if Bashar falls, Syria faces either prolonged sectarian strife, Iraqi style, or the anti-US Muslim Brotherhood taking over. (Of course there is always the possibility of more sanctions or an all out embargo like in Iraq-that is if Washington can get it through the UN Security Council again.) Instead the US plan, for now at least, appears to be continued pressure on Damascus on all fronts with the intent of isolating it regionally and globally. Getting the European Union, for example, to take a hard line can be very damaging to Syria's economic prospects. And if the Syrian regime is convincingly linked to Harriri's assassination, then the US can easily solicit the help of Egypt and Saudi Arabia, in addition of course to Lebanon, to squeeze Syria regionally. The end goal may be more akin to taming the regime than all out regime change as was done in Iraq. After all, Washington knows very well that Damascus has shown a willingness to cooperate as it did after the 9/11 attacks by handing over doles of intelligence to the CIA, even having a go at Lebanon's Sunni Islamists groups to show that they mean it. Three Fronts The US wants Syria to deliver on three critical fronts-the Lebanese, Iraqi and Palestinian-which would give Bush's flagging Middle East crusade a much-needed boost. In Lebanon, Syria quickly obliged and withdrew its troops as was called for in Res. 1559, but Washington still insists that Syria help disarm the Hizbullah resistance (something that Syria can probably do very little about now that its military has left). The Bush administration erroneously believes that by weakening the Baath in Syria and encouraging the pro-American opposition in Lebanon, it can at least hobble Hizbullah, if not neutralize it altogether. Hizbullah's unprecedented trouncing of Israeli forces and their allies in southern Lebanon has earned it a top rank in Washington's list of targets in the region (definitely in the top three along with Syria and Iran). On the Iraqi front, Syria is accused of allowing Arab and Muslim fighters to infiltrate across its border-not to mention the more recent claim that they are being trained in Syrian "terrorist training camps"-effectively making Damascus responsible for the bloody mess created by US occupation. It may very well be true that some of this is happening, with Syrian consent even, but according to a recent study by the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, foreign fighters are barely 10% of the Iraqi armed resistance, some 3,000 men altogether. And Syria has gone to great lengths to guard its long border with Iraq, building a huge embankment across it, even inviting the international media to come and see for themselves. Syrian officials have repeatedly pointed out that despite all the steps taken on their side of the border, they have yet to see anything comparable on the other side (in fact, according to the Syrians, no US or Iraqi troops ever bother to patrol their side.) The same goes for the Palestinian-Israeli front-Damascus has generally been very cooperative by closing the offices of several radical Palestinian organizations there. Asad has gone further by encouraging these factions and others like the influential Hamas and Islamic Jihad to hold their fire as Israel withdraws from Gaza. And don't forget that for about three decades now, Syria has kept its border with Israel remarkably quite, a truce only broken when Israeli jets come across from the other direction to bomb "Palestinian targets" in Syrian territory. On the most important issue (which I seriously doubt Bashar can possibly concede on and survive), it is unclear what the US administration expects from Syria in matter of the occupied Golan Heights. Here too Damascus has repeatedly offered to negotiate a settlement even acceding to Israeli demands that it be allowed access to a strip along the Syrian side of Lake Tiberias, but to no avail. It seems that regardless of how much Syria tries to cooperate, the result is the same: more pressure for greater concessions. Each time Syria relents, it only whets the neocon's appetite for more. So, some in the Damascus now ask, why continue to comply at all. Given his country's fragile economy, weak military and near-complete isolation in the wake of the Harriri assassination, Bashar Asad may not have a choice but to continue some form of organized retreat by slowly accommodating US demands. But don't be so quick to write off the Baath regime, it has beaten the odds before (for example after the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 and more recently after its equally humiliating withdrawal). It has always been quite adept at using its strategic location-nestled as it is among Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq, Israel and Jordan-its Arab nationalist credentials (or what little remains of them), and a strategic alliance with Iran to its advantage. The Left does not have to make a choice of either supporting the US project or the Bashar regime. One Syrian writer in a recent editorial suggests a way out by calling on his government to use this critical moment to mobilize its people behind it by implementing long-awaited internal reforms that would give ordinary Syrians a greater stake in their country. Only then will they be motivated to truly defend it from an American assault. The Baath do seem to be taking partial steps in that direction but, unfortunately, only in the economic field-what many Syrian commentators describe as the "Chinese model," meaning free market economic reforms carried out by the firm hand of a centralized and authoritarian political regime. It's hard to predict whether this will be enough-the Baath should not be surprised, however, if most Syrians desert them at their moment of greatest need. ABOUT THE AUTHOR Bilal El-Amine is a writer based in Lebanon. He can be reached at zaloom33(at) Previous reports on the Lebanese elections and other articles by Bilal can be found at,, and