Caught in the Crossfire
If the United States wants to save Lebanon, it should get off the sidelines and help topple Bashar al-Assad's bloody dictatorship.
Lebanon is returning to an all-too-familiar-game. On Oct. 19, a large explosion shook Beirut, killing senior Lebanese security official Gen. Wissam al-Hassan and unleashing a round of sectarian street battles across the city.
Among those who speak out against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his ally, the Lebanese Shia militant group Hezbollah, an instinctive reaction kicked in. I went down my list of family and friends, trying to reach my loved ones, until Hassan’s death was announced.
The assassination of Lebanon’s director of security intelligence has sparked an angry reaction in Beirut, one the current government has proven powerless to control. His funeral on Oct. 21 devolved into clashes between security forces and anti-Assad protesters who tried to push their way into the prime minister’s office. The violence continued into this week, with deadly skirmishes between protesters and the military in both the capital and the northern city of Tripoli. It is hard to see how the country can return to the status quo that existed before Hassan’s killing.
In truth, Hassan had been a dead man walking for some time. In August, he uncovered a Syrian plot to export the Assad regime’s troubles through a bombing campaign against its fragile neighbor. The case implicated Syria’s national security advisor, a top aide to President Assad, and a former Lebanese minister with close ties to Damascus. The evidence was overwhelming: Hassan not only seized the explosives that would have been used in the plot, but presented video and audio footage of the perpetrators discussing the operation.
Hassan had gone where no other Lebanese security official dared — and as a result, he was living on borrowed time. Like Gebran Tueini, the late publisher of Lebanon’s anti-Syrian An-Nahar newspaper, he was tailed upon arriving at Beirut Airport and car-bombed within hours of his return home.
This is not only a Lebanese tragedy, but one precipitated by the world’s lack of action to Syria’s 19-month revolt. In Washington, critics of President Barack Obama’s approach have long warned that continued U.S. inaction will surely lead to contagion — broadening the conflict to Turkey, Iraq, Jordan and, of course, Lebanon. In fact, while Hassan’s killing represents a watershed moment when the Syrian conflict jumped the border into Lebanon, it is far from the first time that Syria has provoked chaos among its neighbors. Most notably, Syria has repeatedly shelled Turkish border villages, given Kurdish insurgents a free hand to carry out cross border attacks from its territory, and even downed a Turkish fighter jet. These provocations have largely gone unanswered, and are undermining U.S. influence, and that of its allies, in the Middle East.
To put it bluntly, the Middle East cannot wait for Washington to emerge from its electoral hiatus. And while Republican nominee Mitt Romney has sharply criticized Obama’s Syria policy, he has yet to offer much beyond campaign rhetoric. It is incumbent on the United States to show greater leadership in a part of the world that remains vital to its interests, and in which its Arab, Turkish, and European allies are all urging it to do more.
But with Iraq, Afghanistan, and now Libya in mind, there’s a palpable sense of Middle East fatigue in Washington, among Republicans and Democrats alike. So what can realistically be done, short of an all out U.S. intervention in Syria?
To begin with, the Obama administration needs to lift its veto on the Gulf states providing anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons to the Syrian rebels. Such arms are a necessity if anti-Assad forces are to take on the regime’s Russian-made tanks and fighter aircraft, which are devastating civilian areas throughout the country. While there are justified concerns of such equipment falling into extremists hands, such risks can be mitigated through the careful vetting of rebel leaders — a process that has been ongoing by the United States for months.
Working with NATO allies such as Turkey, as well as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Jordan, the United States can also help create safe havens within Syria without the need to put any boots on the ground. By moving Turkish and Jordanian anti-aircraft batteries to the Syrian border, it would be possible to create de facto no-fly zones 50 miles into Syrian airspace. Such a step would protect major Syrian population centers, including the cities of Aleppo and Deraa. It would also stem the outflow of hundreds of thousands of refugees into Syria’s neighbors.
Turkey and Jordan will not act without U.S. security guarantees and Saudi money. The United States and Saudi Arabia have so far resisted taking such steps, however.
A more robust U.S. approach to Syria should not preclude a meaningful diplomatic effort, one that aims at securing Assad’s departure and preserving Syrian state institutions. Russia, Assad’s traditional backer, is a key player in achieving such an outcome. But after being at loggerheads on the Syrian issue for months, during which Moscow vetoed three U.N. Security Council resolutions on the subject, a U.S.-Russian understanding looks as distant as ever.
A telling open microphone moment between Obama and then Russian President Medvedev in March suggests a mutual accommodation might become more likely after the U.S. elections. The U.S. president was overheard saying he would have "more flexibility" after the election to compromise on some of Russia’s foreign policy concerns. A solution for Syria could conceivably be part of such an accommodation.
Until then, more can and must be done to limit Assad’s killing machine, and to set the stage for a positive political outcome in Syria. Meanwhile, Lebanon and the region will remain on a knife’s edge, leaving us guessing whom the next car bomb victim will be.
Firas Maksad is an adjunct professor at George Washington University’s Elliott School for International Affairs. He is also a Washington-based political consultant on the Middle East. Twitter: @FirasMaksad