Dependency Politics

Alastair Crooke

Bitter Lemons, January 3, 2008

"I can't see what more the international community can do to help," the exasperated official in Brussels complained as she contemplated the likelihood of a further postponement of Lebanon's presidential election. Many envoys indeed are involved with "helping" Lebanon but it seems that for presidents George W. Bush and Nicholas Sarkozi and others in the West it is not further "help" that is required but pressure on President Bashar Assad.

"My patience ran out on President Assad a long time ago, and the reason why is because he houses Hamas, he facilitates Hizballah, suiciders go from his country into Iraq, and he destabilizes Lebanon," said Bush on December 20.

So, the problem is that Syria needs to change what US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice described as its "confrontational policies" in the region. Were Syria to do this, the US might then be "open" to talking with President Assad and to Syrian officials, Rice suggested.

A friend understands well Bush's frustration: working with Palestinian solidarity movements, she heard the same exasperation expressed by Europeans who wanted to "help" but were frustrated when Palestinians often wanted to speak for themselves in assertive polemics and seemed impervious to the help that westerners could offer in arranging their affairs. Compliance with this "help" was what European associates sought: questioning the direction that "help" took was similarly viewed as "confrontational"--a tension that imperilled the very financial and solidarity support on which those Palestinians depended.

Often this well-meaning western assistance proved to be deeply de-politicizing and conformed to a western template of helping "good" causes--solidarity T-shirts and fund-raising that entrenches dependency and victimhood--to the frustration of those Palestinians who wanted contentiously to demand rights and not accrete pity as victims.

The same pattern occurs at the macro-level: the $7.4 billion of assistance to the Palestinian "government" pledged by donors at Paris in December is another type of European dependency "help". Ahmad Khalidi, an Oxford scholar by no means hostile to the West, described it as "help" that "does nothing to address basic [Palestinian] needs" and is "largely a punitive construct devised ... to constrain Palestinian aspirations."

In other words, it is intended to de-politicize the forceful Palestinian assertion of rights--including the right to resist--in favor of a de-politicized route to statehood dependent on western financial "help" with building "stable institutions that are properly run, particularly from the security point of view".

In Tony Blair's view, described in an interview with Haaretz, the Palestinians needed "to demonstrate their (institutional) capability by arresting those who need to be arrested, throwing them in jail and not releasing them.... Blair agreed that it was not clear just how Hamas would be removed from the scene: It is, after all, an armed organization that will not relinquish power voluntarily.... There are ways to deal with the issue of Hamas, says Blair, but this is not the right time to talk about it."

Dividing the Palestinian polity in this way is not viewed by most Palestinians as other than weakening them in front of the Israelis; nor do they perceive defects in Palestinian institutions as the principal cause of their continued occupation. But financial intervention on this scale and the dependency that it imposes are intended to deter Palestinians from speaking-out for themselves.

In the same fashion, were President Assad to be more compliant and less confrontational by severing his relations with Iran, Hizballah and Hamas and by stepping-up to his "responsibilities" in Iraq, then he too, it is suggested, might benefit from a similar dependency: the EU would probably promise Syria a few new investments and maybe the prospect of talks with Israel in return.

The underlying assumption is that Syria is "pragmatic" and largely secular and therefore "not ideological". It is therefore assumed to be open to being bribed into the camp of "moderate" Arab states opposed to Iran.

Syria may indeed be both pragmatic and largely secular but its identity has become interlinked with the cause of resistance to American hegemony. Its alliance with Iran dates back to the Iran-Iraq war. Syria's experience with its Arab vicinity has been problematic and has not held the prospect of the solid relationship that Syria has enjoyed with Iran. In addition, the Hizballah and Hamas legitimacy in the street probably lends more street credibility to Syria than Syria can return by facilitating these movements. Finally, Assad probably also believes that Israel is more interested in a process for the return of the Golan--as a possible escape route from Annapolis--than in the reality of returning the Golan to Syria.

It is improbable therefore that Syria will choose to forego an identity that many Syrians perceive to march more closely with the tide of change that awaits the region than Washington can offer--as well as affording Assad some inoculation against the radicalism arising in some quarters of his Sunni constituency.

The western optic on Syria also supposes that when Lebanese political parties oppose a particular solution in Lebanon they do not mean what they say, and instead they are seeking only to destabilize Lebanon by blocking the election of a new president. General Michel Aoun may say that his objective is to restore Lebanon's traditional power-sharing arrangement in Lebanon; Hizballah may say that they support Aoun's candidacy for the presidency and its secretary general may say that Hizballah seeks only to participate fairly in government, but they do not mean it. When Lebanese politicians state these things, western policy-makers, and some anti-Syrian elements in Lebanon, suggest it is no more than camouflage.

These opposition expressions of a desire to find a way back to consensus for a viable power-sharing structure in Lebanon's complex multi-confessional circumstances are either completely ignored, or else debunked as mere instruments in a power struggle--not genuine expressions of meaning. The American strategy has been to aggressively sideline anything having to do with pointing up the differences in Lebanese political needs from the western centralized nation-state model, debunking and de-politicizing all of this as mere fancy words, dressing-up the respective groups' roles as no more than proxies in a brutal struggle for power in which Syria seeks to resume its dominance over Lebanon.

Many European political leaders have bought into this--debunking Lebanese opposition statements and positions, merely because these people are thought of as "the enemy"--and, being the converse of western dependents, the West has no scope to its vision, other than to brand them as Syrian dependents rather than persons expressing real positions.

As long as the West continues to project its dependency models on others and to treat questions about the future shape of the Lebanese model of governance as meaningless rather than as genuine expressions of sentiments, the longer the US de-politicizing construct of "Syrian dependency" will consume all debate and the underlying issues will be ignored or treated dismissively as mere subterfuge. And the longer a durable solution will prove frustratingly elusive.