Sunday, September 24, 2006

Delusion in Damascus

Bashar Assad believes that Syria won the Lebanese war.
The Washington Post
Sunday, September 24, 2006; B06

IN THE aftermath of the summer war in Lebanon, the Middle East is haunted by the hubris of two self-declared winners. Israel and Hezbollah, which did the actual fighting, are both licking their wounds. But Iran is in a triumphalist mood, as the rhetoric of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at the United Nations last week confirmed. And so, it seems, is Hezbollah's other foreign sponsor, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Countries around the region are responding to what they see as the new strategic menace from Tehran; witness Egypt's announcement that it would soon propose its own nuclear program. But Syria is more likely to trigger a new round of armed conflict in the near future.

The threat stems from Mr. Assad's overt resistance to the U.N. Security Council resolution that ended the war. Among other provisions, the resolution mandated the expansion of a U.N. peacekeeping force along the Lebanese-Israeli border and prohibited any state from helping Hezbollah to rearm. Mr. Assad has denounced the deployment of European troops as part of the U.N. force; last week he described it as a Western plot to divide the Arab world. More significantly, he has threatened that any deployment of the force along the Lebanese-Syrian border would be treated by Damascus as hostile.

Mr. Assad's bluster has successfully deterred the Lebanese and Western governments from taking serious steps to stop the traffic of arms and explosives from Syria to Lebanon. The scores of roads and tracks crossing the border have been the principal routes for missiles and other arms supplies to Hezbollah. They also carry the bombs that Syria's agents have used in a continuing assassination campaign against Lebanese politicians who favor the country's independence from Damascus.

Mr. Assad knows that if he attempts to supply Hezbollah with new weapons he will invite an attack by Israel, which has vowed to prevent any resupply. The Syrian president even referred to that possibility in an interview published last week. But he appears undeterred. In a speech last month he declared that Hezbollah's "victory" in the war had ushered in "a new Middle East," one in which the "enemy" Israel would inevitably be defeated by force of arms. When U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan arrived two weeks later to ask for Syria's cooperation in implementing the resolution, Mr. Assad treated him to "a diatribe . . . depicting the Western powers as bankrupt and powerless," according to a report by Warren Hoge of the New York Times.

Remarkably, Mr. Annan emerged from that meeting to tell the world that Mr. Assad had assured him that Syria would take steps to secure the border. The many statesmen who have tried to do business with the Syrian president in the past -- such as former secretary of state Colin L. Powell or Egypt's Hosni Mubarak -- have discovered that such assurances are not only worthless but deliberately mendacious. Yet Mr. Annan and the European governments deploying troops to Lebanon are essentially counting on those words -- rather than firm measures of their own -- to prevent a new crisis in which their own soldiers would be at risk. That's a lot to expect from a callow and corrupt dictator who believes he is on top of a "new" Middle East.


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