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Wednesday, February 16, 2005


calling our bluff

lee smith at slate sums up the situation pretty succinctly, if the syrians are in fact (as he supposes they are) the party behind the assassination of rafiq harari.

For his part, however, Assad is gambling that for all its tough talk, the White House has neither the troops, the time, the energy, nor the domestic political credibility to back up its threats. The Syrians are probably not wrong. After all, what kind of meaningful action can the United States take? A missile strike against Damascus will add much to Syrian prestige in the region and little to that of Washington, unless the White House is willing to commit troops—and right now those troops are tied down in Iraq. In short, Assad has called Bush's bluff.

To understand the repercussions, remember that the White House has maintained that success in Iraq would have ripple effects throughout the region. As it turned out, this is true. The presence of U.S. forces in Iraq indicated that the United States meant business, a posture that encouraged the Lebanese opposition to challenge Syria. But the ripple effect also works the other way. If opposition figures are assassinated in Beirut, this is a message that, for all its power, the United States can't always be there to protect you. Even worse is that if the Bush administration does nothing about Hariri's murder, the message will be that Washington cannot and will not protect you at all. It will be very hard to get people in the region to work with the United States if everyone believes that there is no difference between sticking your neck out and handing an executioner his weapon.
it must be said that it may not matter who did this thing; if it is widely believed that the syrians are responsible, that variation of the game is what will be played. in that case, smith's analysis means that the bush administration is in a situation where it is nearly impossible to step up but it cannot -- if bush's words and threats are to mean anything to anyone in the mideast -- back down even as the neoconservatives prepare for war against iran.

it seems to me that, despite the logistical difficulties, there is a significant danger of armed american intervention in syria being moved to the front burner if assad cannot be convinced to withdraw from lebanon (as many syrians even seem to think is likely). the next few weeks will be very important.

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