There are reports in the Western media that the inquiry of special UN investigator Deltev Mehlis into the assassination of Lebanon's former prime minister, Rafik Hariri, is nearing a conclusion. Four actors, who are either interested in it or will be affected by it, are driven by varying and somewhat conflicting agendas.
The US is hoping to use the Mehlis report to oust Syrian President Bashar Assad. Lebanon wants to use it to rehabilitate its national sovereignty. The Arab states are worried about the potential instability in Syria, which is next door to Iraq, and about the erosion of another Arab state that can pose even a semblance of challenge to Israel. Israel, on the contrary, is anticipating the removal of a thorn from its side. Then, it will only have to concentrate on confronting Iran.
The least-contemplated aspect of a potential regime change in Syria might be the potential rise of influence and potency of pan-jihadi forces in Syria, if the Assad regime is ousted with the same lack of regard to having a stable government taking its place as happened at the time of the US invasion of Iraq.
It is not Syria's alleged involvement in Hariri's assassination that is bothering the Bush administration. Rather, it is Syria's role related to the rising tide of insurgency in Iraq that is immeasurably frustrating the US. America's stakes in Iraq are appearing too grim, and Syria, more than Iran, is getting the blame because the insurgency is predominantly Sunni.
Even though Assad's regime in Syria represents the rule of the Alawite sect (which is Shi'ite), Syria is a predominantly Sunni state. As such, the Sunni insurgents of Iraq are reported to be finding considerable sympathy in Syria. Since not much that happens inside its borders escapes the attention of the Syrian regime, the United States has a point in concluding that the Assad regime has kept a relaxed attitude toward the cross-border activities of the Iraqi insurgents.
What is still not clear is how the US would go about removing Assad. First of all, clear enough evidence has to come out of Mehlis' report. And Mehlis is his own man. He is not likely to be influenced or pressured by the US. What if the report provides not even a semblance of "indictment" of Assad's regime? What if only the low-level officials were involved? Finally, how credible are the Syrian "witnesses" or "whistle-blowers" who are currently talking to Mehlis and his team of investigators?
Regardless whether Mehlis' report blames the Assad regime, there is little doubt that Lebanon is a winner. Syria is already out of that country. It will be a matter of time before its sovereignty is reestablished there. And the reasons for that development have a lot to do with the current regional environment rather than just the ouster of Syrian forces.
The presence of American forces in Iraq has been making Syria quite uncomfortable. Gone are the days when it could stay put in Lebanon and drag its feet indefinitely about getting out. Gone are the days when the absence of Arab consensus about getting Syria out of Lebanon served as their tacit endorsement of its presence in Lebanon. Also gone are the days when Lebanon did not matter much in the larger Arab political picture.
The US has been quite effective in making its opposition felt about Syria's presence in Lebanon. Realizing how effective that opposition has been, Washington does not want to stop there. There is ample reason to keep Syria on a short leash: Syria may not be responsible for the assassination of Hariri but if it can be proved that Assad's regime was involved, then some way would have to be found for Assad's removal.
Under the worse-case scenario from the vantage point of Washington - that no persuasive evidence can be found about the involvement of anyone close to Assad in the Hariri assassination - still ample pressure is likely to be placed on the Syrian dictator to step down. The Bush administration knows that under such a scenario the objective of regime change in Syria would be difficult to achieve, but it may still carried out sooner or later. However, by emphasizing the sovereignty of Lebanon, the US has enhanced the significance of that country at the expense of diminishing (or at least attempting to diminish) that of Syria's. That is done on purpose, even though Syria is important both as an Arab state and as frontline state in the continued Arab-Israeli conflict.
The Arab states are watching with utmost concern what the Bush administration is attempting to achieve. The toppling of Saddam Hussein has removed one important Arab state as a potential challenger of Israel. Now it is Syria's turn. Syria's military power is no match to that of Israel's. But there was always the chance that Syria would remain a respectable confrontational state vis-a-vis Israel as long as the Arab-Israeli conflict remained unresolved. That might be wishful thinking on the part of Arab states; however, they have no realistic opportunity of resolving that obdurate conflict, especially in the post-September 11 era.
For Israel, its immediate neighborhood is appearing less threatening. Saddam Hussein is awaiting trial. Iraq has become a bloody mess, with not a lick of hope that it would ever emerge as a military challenge to the Jewish state. As the Bush administration focuses its attention on a possible regime change in Syria, Israel gets an enormous sense of invincibility, not just on the basis of its own considerable military power, but also on the perceived weakened state of military prowess of its neighbors. This is a reality that may be changed for at least the next two decades.
But the Middle East as a region may not remain rosy if Assad is toppled. There is nothing pan-Jihadist forces of the Middle East wish at the current time more than seeing a widened area of chaos and turbulence. The more the powerful forces of America, or even Israel, get involved in establishing the Western (or as the Islamists would call the Judeo-Christian) version of order, the less their chances of success.
A safe option from the perspectives of order and stability would be that there is no regime change in Syria. If that were to happen under unavoidable circumstances, the UN and the international community should remain in charge in securing and stabilizing Syria. Iraq has proved how bloody the battle can become in attempting to occupy it. Syria is not likely to be any less bloody or chaotic.
Reprinted with the permission of Asia Times Online (www.atimes.com).