Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Syria beats back its rivals

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TEL AVIV -- Syrian President Bashar Assad proved Monday once again that with the support of Russia and Iran, he is still able to politically defeat the United States, Turkey and the Persian Gulf countries.

Based on a new "constitution" that was unilaterally approved last February, the Syrian people were asked Monday to elect 250 new members of parliament, from among 7,195 candidates in 15 electoral districts. The Syrian opposition boycotted the elections. So did the Western powers. But it really didn't matter.

For Assad and his Russian and Iranian allies, the purpose of the elections was to demonstrate that the country is moving towards normalcy, even when the elections were held under the threat of a gun. The opposition argued that the presence of 60 United Nations observers, who came to Syria at the request of former UN secretary general Koffi Annan, was not sufficient to assure "real free elections."

On the eve of Monday's elections, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan told thousands of Syrian refugees in Turkey that "your power is increasing by the day and your victory is near."

This sounded like an empty promise. The day Erdogan made his statement, Dennis MacDonough, the U.S. deputy national security adviser, told an academic gathering in Washington that a military solution in Syria is not now under consideration and that the U.S. is working with Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Jordan to find other solutions for Syria.

But what are these other solutions? A quick look on the ground reveals that little is under control, whether in political or security terms. Despite the regime's announced acceptance of Koffi Annan's ceasefire plan, violence continues, with the depressingly familiar daily toll of casualties.

American officials are well aware of this situation. They acknowledge that Syria is not Libya and Homs is not Benghazi. The air defence of Syria is thicker than that of Libya. The Syrian army, in general, is stronger. Thus, there is in Damascus a strong feeling that the introduction of outside weapons would deepen the internal conflict.

This is not a serious argument. The regime and its vigilantes are fully armed. The helicopter gunships thrown into battle are a reminder of the disparity in firepower between the regime and its opponents.

There are suspicions that the Obama administration does not want to see the Assad regime fall. Some even believe that Obama's Syrian policy is hostage to his electoral ambitions in November. The president has no real interest in fully taking on the Iranian regime, so Syria continues to twist in the wind.

Meanwhile, the U.S. and Iran are engaged in a process of pressuring Lebanon to maintain its neutrality.

However, the pressures are "under the ceiling" of the interest of both Iran and the U.S.

Washington is seeking a guarantee that Iran will not exercise full control over Lebanon. The Iranians need to affirm that they continue to hold the Lebanon card. As it carries out its policy of withdrawal from Iraq, Washington has managed to limit its losses in Lebanon. It set down the conditions, with other western countries, of funding the Special Tribunal of Lebanon, extending its mandate and not handing over power to the allies of Iran and Syria in a number of state institutions. Also, the U.S. exercised pressure to see Lebanon adhere to semi-neutral position vis-a-vis Iran.

How long can this policy continue? American officials believe it can continue as long as Lebanon maintains its equilibrium between Washington and Tehran. This is not easy, but it can be achieved.

 

Samuel Segev is the Free Press Middle Eastern correspondent.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 8, 2012 A10

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About Samuel Segev

Samuel Segev is the Winnipeg Free Press correspondent in the Middle East. He is based in Tel Aviv.

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