Thursday, November 5, 2009

Are Syria, Hizballah, and Iran Threatening to Assassinate Americans Starting with the U.S. Ambassador to Lebanon?

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By Barry Rubin

The Lebanese have a saying: Syrian officials cannot open their mouths without making threats of violence. That regime uses repression and torture at home while systematically sponsoring terrorism abroad: against Lebanese moderates; American soldiers and Iraqi civilians; Israel through Hamas and Hizballah and many other groups; and against U.S. citizens or soldiers in Lebanon. There really is a profoundly thuggish element in this dictatorship.

Syria has also used the threat of violence very effectively against UNIFIL in southern Lebanon, with Syrian officials periodically hinting that something bad will happen to the peacekeeping forces if they give Hizballah a hard time or probe too carefully into Syrian arms’ smuggling into Lebanon.

Now this technique is being turned against the Obama era United States, during a forum in Alaska, of all places. Here’s Ahmad Salkini, political advisor to Syria’s ambassador in Washington:

"A previous administration did not want to cooperate, even if it cost American lives. This administration is realizing you have to cooperate in order to save American lives, in order to advance U.S. interests and that's what we're looking forward into the future."

Actually, the Syrian regime isn’t that happy with the Obama administration. Does that mean Syria will step up its use of terrorism in Iraq or against Americans in Lebanon—or other places?—to “persuade” the Obama administration to cooperate?

Maybe so. Because at the same time, several politicians allied to Hizballah (but not Hizballah itself, which is even more chilling since an alibi is being set up) plus two newspapers that serve as Syrian mouthpieces, al-Safir and al-Akhbar, issued some very nasty and direct threats against the U.S. ambassador in Beirut. The Al-Safir article of November 2, whose importance is signaled by the fact that it is authored by the newspaper’s owner is ominously entitled, "Silence That Chatterbox Ambassador!"

The charges include claiming that Ambassador Michele Sison has been interfering in Lebanon’s politics, inciting civil war, acting as commander of the moderate March 14 coalition, and persuading them to keep Hizballah out of government. Note that five months after the Lebanese elections, the Hizballah and March 14 blocs are still deadlocked and there is no government. Hizballah has demanded a coalition that gives it veto power over all major government decisions.

It is typical of contemporary Arab politics that neither the radical radicals (Syria and the Islamists)  nor the semi-radical relative moderates (pretty much every other regime and the Palestinian Authority) can never just disagree with someone. Anybody more moderate than they are--who wants real peace with Israel or is friendly to the United States--must be portrayed as American or Zionist puppets. Dissent is treason. The maximum penalty is death; the minimum, loss of job, status, or influence.

Such constant, dangerous deligitimization both discourages real moderation (it can get you killed as has happened in a number of cases) and feeds the constant rivalry to prove oneself more militant than rivals. That game plays a major role in the endless whirl of stagnation that is Middle East politics and international relations.

Will there be an attempt on Sison’s life or attacks on other Americans or U.S. institutions in Lebanon? If so, will Washington act against those truly responsible? How does the Obama administration feel about the surrogates of a country which it is trying to engage diplomatically broadly hinting about making hits and putting out murder contracts on U.S. officials?

Well, this isn't an altogether new thing. Reportedly, when Jeffrey Feltman was U.S. ambassador to Lebanon the Syrians did put out a contract on him. Feltman knew it and now, as assistant secretaryof state for Near East affairs, he is very skeptical about any Syrian willingness to moderate.

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