International Papers

Syria Sweats

Easter brought Lebanon a new government and put Iraq somewhat closer to a new administration, but Yasser Arafat further delayed approval of a Palestinian Cabinet.

The resignation last week of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri merely paved the way for his return at the head of a new team. A former parliamentary speaker expressed the situation best, sniffing, “It’s a caretaker government taking over from a caretaker government,” since ministers will only stay in office until the presidential election scheduled for next summer. The new faces in the Cabinet provided a clue as to what was behind the shakeup: Most were men with primary loyalty to Syria.

The Syrians, nervous about the U.S. presence in Iraq, responded by giving their followers more authority in Lebanon, where Syria fears its influence might soon be threatened. Most Lebanese are preoccupied with their country’s deepening recession and were unimpressed by a Cabinet of apparatchiks: “Widespread lethargy is [the] principal reaction,” remarked Beirut’s English-language Daily Star Friday. Christian opposition groups were also angry, and the daily Al-Nahar reported that the influential Maronite patriarch, who is a critic of Syria, asked Hariri why he had even bothered to consult on the government since the new ministers had been “imposed” anyway. The French-language L’Orient-Le Jour noted that Hariri and the Lebanese president sought to appease the patriarch, telling him, “We are not responsible.” Indeed, neither man was happy with the reshuffle since each lost key allies. Many Lebanese also realized that if U.S.-Syrian tensions increase, particularly over Hezbollah, Lebanon will be in the front lines of a confrontation.

In Iraq, where the head of the U.S. civil administration, Jay Garner, arrived Monday to take over his duties, modest moves have begun toward forming a transitional government. On Sunday, the London-based Al-Hayat quoted Iraqi opposition figure Adnan Pachachi, who once served as Iraq’s foreign minister, saying that a general conference would be held in Baghdad within weeks “and on that basis a transitional government will be established that represents all Iraqis.” This coincided with an ambiguous statement issued by the Najaf-based Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, one of Iraq’s most senior Shiite clerics, in which he expressed “rejection of any foreign authority ruling over Iraq.” Sistani also called for the formation of committees in large and medium-sized administrative districts to collect weapons, and noted that he “did not seek authority in Iraq … and would not participate in forming an authority that Iraqis approved.” The statement spoke not only to the Najaf clergy’s preference for advising over ruling directly (unlike its brethren in Iran), but also played on latent anti-Americanism by rejecting any foreign authority, while simultaneously proposing an ad hoc committee structure that might stabilize the situation on the ground and actually serve U.S. interests.

Meanwhile, former Iraqi officials are giving themselves up. Yesterday Saddam Hussein’s sole surviving son-in-law (he had the two others killed) returned to Iraq from Syria and surrendered to the Iraqi National Congress. While it was not clear if the Syrians had forced him to return, Damascus and Washington are clearly seeking to reduce their mutual antagonism, especially in the run-up to U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell’s visit to Syria. The Palestinian daily Al-Quds suggested the Syrian “flexibility” may have resulted from detailed U.S. information establishing the arrival in Syria of senior Iraqis. The paper cited U.S. sources as saying Washington had a list of nine ex-officials it wanted Syria to hand back, including the former vice president of the Revolutionary Command Council Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, Saddam’s powerful personal secretary Abed Hammoud, and several inner-circle security officials. The Syrians reportedly rejected this request, but the return of the son-in-law suggests they may be willing to cooperate behind the scenes.

Meanwhile, little has happened on the Palestinian front, since Arafat and his designated prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas, continue to clash over the structure of a new government ahead of a Tuesday night deadline. Arafat still opposes the appointment of Muhammad Dahlan, who headed Gaza’s Preventive Security force, fearing this will lead to his own political marginalization. According to the Israeli daily Ha’aretz, Palestinian officials are looking for a compromise, though it seems unlikely an agreement will be reached. In that case, Abbas might refuse to lead a government. Al-Hayat reported Monday that Arafat had already started offering the premiership to others—with limited success. For Ha’aretz, Arafat is losing little ground domestically, “So far [he] seems victorious on the issue of the Dahlan appointment, with most Fatah and PLO institutes supporting the Palestinian leader’s objections to the nomination.”