Category Archives: Syria

Hariri puts forward a cabinet proposal

by Sune Haugbolle.

So, after months of wrangling, Hariri yesterday finally proposed a cabinet line-up to President Michel Suleiman, and to the whole of Lebanon’s fractured political landscape. As expected, the proposal follows the earlier idea of a unity government with a 15-10-5 division of ministries, 15 to March 14, 10 to March 8 and 5 to Suleiman’s lot.

The main problem with the proposal is that it was essentially put forward without a prior agreement – since an agreement couldn’t be found. Hariri failed to meet Aoun’s demand that he get the Interior Ministry, and that his son-in-law, Gibran Bassil, keep the Telecommunications Ministry. Hizbollah, for their part, have refrained from putting pressure on Aoun, and without that happening the old rhino is unlikely to budge. This is to say nothing of Hizbollah’s own problems with the proposal, which falls short of meeting their own demands of guarantees.

So, nothing has chnaged really. Perhaps the only thing that should make us wonder is the timing of the announcement. Of course Hariri couldn’t stall forever; something had to happen, even if he likely knew that March 8 would reject his cabinet proposal out of hand. On the other side, it is possible that there were regional strategic reasonings behind Hariri’s actions. The proposal comes while Syria, March 8’s strongest external ally, is caught up in a spat with Iraq over last month’s Baghdad bombings, for which Iraq holds Syria partially responsible.  (For Danish speakers, here is a link to me talking about the Syria-Iraq controversy on Danish TV DR2 last Tuesday).  

Bashar al-Asad has refused to even acknowledge the nature of the problem, and despite Turkish and American attempts to set up a joint committee to investigate the border, Iraq is taking action on its own. Since last week, Iraqi security forces have been gathering on the Syrian border in an attempt to curb infiltration of Ba’athist militants, and Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki is pushing for a UN tribunal to investigate foreign complicity in the bombings.

If Hariri has indeed reacted to these events, which occupy local media quite a bit more than international ones, he may have calculated that Syria’s focus on its dispute with Iraq, in addition to increasing domestic and international pressures on Iran, will weaken Hizbollah to the point where it is compelled to accept his cabinet. If this is indeed the case, Hariri has made a mistake: Hizbollah’s strength or weakness is not so much relative to regional events, as we have seen before, but primarily an effect of their own perception (which is ever strong and determined). Therefore the most likely outcome of the cabinet proposal is yet more threading water for Lebanon.

Lebanon’s government deadlock explained

 by Sune Haugbolle.

My last piece on Jumblatt’s defection from March 14 somewhat optimistically predicted a short delay in the government formation process. Since then things have gone really sour again. Here is an analysis of the obstacles and their implications.

Since the June parliamentary elections, the March 14 coalition has failed to use its victory to dictate the terms of a new government. The negotiations have faltered on March 8’s demand for a blocking third of cabinet posts. More deep-seated disagreements over Hizbollah’s weapons and Lebanon’s regional alliances add to the complications.

In July, the two camps appeared to have agreed on a compromise solution granting 15 posts to March 14 (short of a majority) and ten to March 8 (short of veto power), with President Michel Suleiman choosing five and thus having a decisive say. However, in recent weeks disagreement over the exact allocation of ministries has taken the process back to the start, and raised the tone of personal bickering and media slander to its shrillest level since 2008.

Christian opposition leader Michel Aoun has been at the centre of the latest crisis in government formation. On August 16, Aoun demanded that his Reform and Change bloc be allotted the Interior Ministry and that his son-in-law, caretaker minister Gebran Bassil, keep the Telecommunications Ministry for another term.

This uncompromising stance has prompted March 14 to criticise Hizbollah’s inability or unwillingness to mediate. Saad al-Hariri has made it clear that he is unlikely to accept Aoun’s conditions, which means that for now negotiations are deadlocked. Unless there is truth to al-Akhbar’s story from yesterday about a Saudi-Syrian push to kickstart talks, the most likely scenario now seems to be that the deliberations over a new cabinet will be postponed until after the end of Ramadan in late September.

As ever, domestic political wrangling in Lebanon reflects regional power struggles. Courtesy of US rapprochement, Syria has moved decisively out of the cold, and returned to its favoured position as the necessary diplomatic bridge between Iran and the West. Damascus’ relations with Saudi Arabia have yet to improve, as a scheduled meeting between King Abdallah and President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus in late July was cancelled. Syria’s relations with Egypt, another key ally of Hariri, have been deep-frozen because of Egyptian allegations that Hizbollah members have been spying and plotting bomb attacks in Egypt. The first trial took place in Cairo yesterday, and the fallout is surely more bad blood between Egypt and Hizbollah.   

On the other front, Assad has moved to shore up relations with embattled Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad during a state visit on August 19. Here, Assad emphasised the necessity of resolute defence against Western influence in the region.

Syria’s strengthened position indirectly provoked the latest breakdown in government negotiations, when Druze leader Walid Jumblatt declared on August 2 that he would leave March 14. As I argued in my earlier piece, his aim was to hedge against Syria’s rising influence, and his defection has been widely seen as a victory for Damascus.

This is because Jumblatt, who is known for his ever-changing allegiances, has, since 2005, formed one-third of a strong coalition of Christian, Sunni and Druze opposition to Syrian influence in Lebanon, which has dominated Lebanese politics. Although it does not sound the death knell for March 14, Jumblatt’s defection still marks a tide change in Lebanese politics and opens up opportunities for new alliances in the coming months:

First, although Jumblatt has hardly embraced the Syrians, they are in a much stronger position in Lebanon. Hariri, now left with distinctly anti-Syrian Christian allies Amin Gemayel and Samir Geagea, may feel compelled to move towards a more conciliatory position, lest he alienate his Sunni constituency.

Second, while taking no concrete action, Jumblatt has spoken with members of both March 8 and March 14, and is locating himself in a central position between the two without joining either. He has signalled that he will be associating himself with Suleiman, adding to the possibility of a strong conciliatory bloc emerging — which would mediate between the two existing groups — and may also include Parliamentary Speaker Nabih Berri.

If such a strong third bloc does materialise, Aoun may also be tempted to reconsider his alliance with Hizbollah, which has not landed him the presidency or gained him much actual influence.

The biggest decisions to be taken are surely Saad Hariri’s. As prime minister-designate, and with Suleiman preferring a neutral role, the onus is squarely on Hariri to form a government, but he is left with some hard choices following Jumblatt’s defection. He has several options:

He could of course accommodate Aoun’s demands, which would make him look defeated by Aoun and Hizbollah, but would leave March 8 with no legitimate reasons to oppose a quick government formation.

Alternatively, he could carry through a planned visit to Damascus, which has been postponed. Effectively this would mean giving up his resistance to Syrian influence on the government formation process, particularly as the Syrians have signalled that they want Hariri to visit Damascus before the cabinet is finalised.

Finally, he could continue to oppose Syrian pressure. By not going to Damascus so far, Hariri has been signalling that he intends to resist the Syrian endeavour to re-impose some sort of hegemony over Lebanon. US discouragement of such a visit and Hariri’s reluctance to do business with a regime he believes to be responsible for his father’s assassination are also playing a part. As Michael Young suggested recently, they may have also contributed to the cancellation of the scheduled meeting in Damascus between Abdallah and Assad.

In conclusion, although March 14 would like to see a new government formed, Hariri appears ready to hold out for regional events which would tip the balance in his favour. This could either be US President Barack Obama’s expected Middle East peace initiative next month. While Obama’s peace plan might deflect attention from Lebanon, it could also prompt Syria to work with Saudi Arabia over Palestinian reconciliation and accept a new Lebanese government in return for inclusion in the peace process.  

Alternatively, Hariri could be waiting for the Special Tribunal for Lebanon to issue an indictment naming Hizbollah as a participant in the assassination of Hariri’s father, as predicted by the German magazine, Der Spiegel, earlier this year. This would leave Syria weakened and more eager to reach an agreement.

Whatever he does, Hariri holds the keys to further progress. If he chooses to accommodate Aoun’s demand for a key ministry, he may be able to form a new government and hence avoid the more serious choice between openly accepting or rejecting Syrian hegemony. If not, deadlock could well continue at least until the end of Ramadan.

It’s that flippin’ Jumblatt again!

by Sune Haugbolle.

Summer’s almost gone, and CUMINet is coming back to life. And so, it seems, is Lebanese politics. Walid Jumblatt – the eternal flip-flopping turncoat of Lebanese politics – yesterday announced that he is parting ways with the March 14 coalition. Jumblatt, who has been hinting his departure for a while, chose an awkward moment to announce it, just days before a new cabinet was expected to be sworn in.

Jumblatt’s latest volte-face raises an interesting questions: how many times can a Lebanese leader change sides before losing credibility? Well, Jumblatt may just have made a 180 too many – he has certainly made a few through the years.  The problem is that his influence is not what it once was on the Lebanese scene. So while his latest move is obviously bad news for March 14, it may not sound the death knell for the tattered coalition. They still have the International Tribunal to fight for and too keep them united – not a small thing, and not an objective Jumblatt’s departure is likely to change.

What are his reasons for leaving? The first and most important is security. Jumblatt has seen the return of Syria as a powerful hegemon in Lebanon since the end of the Bush era, and even before. Courtesy of the Obama administration’s rapprochement with Syria, Damascus has moved decisively out of the cold. In that sense Jumblatt is not foreshadowing anything this time (an ability observers often praise him for), but merely reacting to well-established facts.

It is doubtful that we will see Jumblatt kiss and make up in Damascus any time soon, given the amount of garbage (‘Nazis’) he managed to throw at Bashar al-Asad and his regime over the last four years. But he will be hoping that at least he will not be seen as an arch-enemy of Damascus any longer.  

Furthermore, being surrounded by Shiite neighbours, his Shuf Mountains fiefdom needs neighbourly relations with an ever stronger Hizbollah to improve rapidly. And he knows that relinquishing the tough stance on Hizbollah’s weapons propagated by some of his, now former, allies in March 14, is the ticket that will allow him to enter into friendlier relations with the Shiite party.   

It is not yet clear where exactly Jumblatt will place himself in the, now re-shuffled, jigsaw of Lebanese politics. But the most likely move would be to join President Suleiman and possibly Nabih Berri in a third block the role of which will be to mediate when March 14 (or what is left of it) and March 8 are at loggerheads in a new coalition government.

Due to Jumblatt’s announcement cabinet seats, which were ostensibly all but lined up on Monday, will now have to be reshuffled, and a new government may not be formed before the end of this week or early next week.

The Hariri tribunal could spell end of quiet for Lebanon

by Sune Haugbolle.

The Special Tribunal for Lebanon – the international court established to try the suspected killers of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri – opened on March 1 in The Hague.

We shouldn’t expect too much dirt to materialise for a while. But in the long run, what will the tribunal mean to regional politics? And how will it influence Lebanese politics leading up to the June elections. Here is my analysis.

The UN Security Council unilaterally set up the tribunal in 2007 after the speaker of the Lebanese parliament refused to call a session to ratify the statutes to create it.

It is housed in the Netherlands, which already is home to the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal and International Criminal Court, primarily for security reasons.

As the first Middle Eastern court of its kind, the tribunal will use Lebanese law applied by a mixture of Lebanese and international judges. Its heaviest punishment is life imprisonment.

The court’s first act is likely to be a request for the Lebanese government to hand over four generals held in custody since 2005, as it has been given 60 days to transfer all arrested suspects from Beirut to The Hague. On February 25, three other suspects were freed by the Lebanese judicial authorities in Beirut. The three are considered ‘small fish’ who may have assisted in carrying out the crime but, unlike the generals, played no alleged role in planning it. Although they may later be summoned by the court, letting these potentially incriminating persons go is widely seen as a gesture by the Lebanese government towards Syria.

Hizbollah has called for the four generals to be released on grounds that the investigation is unfinished. This claim was rejected by the Lebanese investigating judge Sakr Sakr as well as Prime Minister Fouad Siniora.

The spat over the suspects last week signals the re-emergence of mounting tension brought on by the Hariri tribunal as Lebanon looks ahead to parliamentary elections scheduled for June 7. So far, the country has remained remarkably quiet. Since the Doha Accords in May, President Michel Suleiman has been largely successful in subduing the feud between the March 8 and March 14 coalitions, which threatened stability in the country several times between 2005 and 2008. This quiet period could now be over.

Days before the launch of the tribunal, Saad al-Hariri signalled that his Future Movement will not share power in a unity government if Hizbollah and its allies win the election. Although other March 14 leaders may still favour a power-sharing agreement, Hariri’s remarks suggested that elections are unlikely to produce a repeat of the broad unity governments that have dominated in Lebanon since the 2005 elections.

March 14 leaders such as Walid Jumblatt and Samir Geagea have openly stated their expectation that the tribunal will lead to incrimination of Syrian top officials. The return of fiercely anti-Syrian rhetoric to Lebanese politics comes after a period when many leaders appeared to be accepting a Syrian-Lebanese rapprochement. It will have a polarising effect on Lebanese politics.

As the court begins its work, political comments will provide fuel for disagreement and add to the expected rise in sectarian tensions surrounding the elections.

In a worst-case scenario, victory for a Hizbollah-led coalition in the June elections could put the Lebanese government’s full support for the tribunal in jeopardy. The court has a budget for this year of 40.3 million euros (50.7 million dollars) of which Lebanon pays 49%. If Hizbollah was indeed to abandon Lebanese support for the tribunal, it would spark a serious political crisis. However, it is probably more likely that Hizbollah would stick with the tribunal. 

The first UN investigator to investigate the assassination, Detlev Mehlis, has recently, in an interview with al-Hayat, restated his belief that the plot’s complexity suggests that Syrian and Lebanese intelligence services played a role. In contrast, his two successors as chief investigator, Serge Brammertz and Daniel Bellemare, have revealed little about the progress of the investigation. However, since a date was set for the court’s opening by Bellemare, who now assumes the role of general prosecutor, it has been clear that the investigation has gathered enough material to begin the process, which will eventually lead to hearings and trials.

Despite the politically explosive content of the case, the actual workings of the court look set to be slow and arduous, for the following reasons:

– The court’s work is likely to take at least four years to finish, and progress may be slow. Robin Vincent, the tribunal’s registrar, has made it clear that formal charges or trials should not be expected before 2011.

– No judges have yet been named and the court still has no rulebook for prosecutors and judges. The appointment of Lebanese judges has been extremely controversial and remains unfinished.

– Syria is unlikely to cooperate and freely hand over suspects, which could slow down the proceedings considerably. Vincent has said that the tribunal could hold trials in absentia, but it is questionable how effective such trials would be.

Despite its likely slow progress, the Hariri court will inevitably throw negative light on Syria. That is particularly troubling for Damascus as it seeks to make real the many promises of a speedy thaw with the new US administration.

Western powers expect Syria to work actively against the court and have in response formed an ‘administrative committee’ consisting of the United States, United Kingdom, Italy, Germany, France and Japan, to ward off diplomatic pressure on the tribunal. The Syrian leadership, for its part, will continue to reject all charges while maintaining a semblance of cooperation with the UN.

While the Hariri court may weaken President Bashar al-Assad’s image as a moderate whose central position is vital to US Middle East policy, he will seek to balance the pressure by stressing Syria’s ties to Hamas, seen as crucial for Palestinian reconciliation and a renewal of Palestinian-Israeli peace talks; to Hizbollah, which will emerge in a new and more official role in charge of Lebanon’s government if it wins the June elections; and to Iran, whose nuclear file tops the Obama administration’s list of pressing issues in the Middle East. Syria, as always, will play the “centrally placed” card. And get away with it, most likely.

The more troubling question is how polarising the tribunal will be in Lebanon here and now. Certainly, the results of the Hariri tribunal will not materialise for several years, and only when they do can we start to debate its regional influence. But there is a strong chance that its effects in the short term will be to polarise Lebanese politics and hinder the formation of a unity government after the June elections.

UPDATE, 4/3

For those of you in Copenhagen, I will be speaking about truth and reconciliaiton in the Middle East today, here.

Aoun’s visit to Damascus and (failed) Christian reconciliation

by Sune Haugbolle.

Hello folks, here is an analysis of Aoun’s visit to Syria and the situation in the Christian community that I wrote yesterday. The language is not really so bloggy as the piece was written for another format, but I think the analysis can be useful. There’s a bit of “Lebanon 101” information in there which the Lebanon connoisseurs among you can just ignore.

Yesterday, Samir Geagea, leader of the Lebanese Forces, strongly criticised the recent visit of Michel Aoun, leader of the Free Patriotic Movement, to Damascus.

Aoun proclaimed his visit a “historic reconciliation”, while President Michel Suleiman said that ties with Syria are “back to normal”. The reactions of the three most prominent Christian leaders point to the deep divisions in the Christian community, which will be pivotal in the parliamentary elections expected in May or June 2009.

Christian divisions

Most of Lebanon’s communities are heavily associated with one side or the other of the March 14/March 8 divide. The Shia community overwhelmingly backs the March 8 coalition; the Sunni and Druze communities heavily favour the March 14 alliance. The Christians, however, are split between both sides.

The current divisions among Christians date to the 1975-90 civil war, which witnessed numerous internecine battles and massacres; in some cases family rivalries are even older. During the post-war period of Syrian control, the main Christian fault line ran between charismatic but absent anti-Syrian leaders such as Samir Geagea, Amin Gemayel and Michel Aoun, and a broader political class that cooperated with the Syrians. Since the February 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri and the subsequent withdrawal of Syrian troops, powerful Christian families and political parties have been split along somewhat different lines:

Geagea’s Lebanese Forces and Gemayel’s Phalange aligned with the Western-backed March 14 alliance, which also includes Sunni leader Sa’ad al-Hariri’s Future Movement and Druze leader Walid Jumblatt’s Progressive Socialist Party.

Free Patriotic Movement head Aoun and northern Maronite scion Suleiman Franjieh aligned with the Syrian-backed March 8 coalition, which also includes the Shia parties Hizbollah and Amal.

Reconciliation efforts

Hizbollah’s demonstration of force in May 2008 alerted the government to the limits of Western backing, leading to the signing of the Doha Agreement, a national unity government, and the arrival of centrist Maronite Christian President Michel Suleiman. In the aftermath, encouraged by Suleiman, representatives of the two Christian camps have engaged in several attempts at reconciliation, which all parties claim to support but about which none can agree:

During a September 21 rally to commemorate members of the Lebanese Forces killed during the civil war, Geagea offered a general apology for wartime “mistakes”, but also demanded that his rivals abandon their partnership with Hizbollah.

Aoun and Franjieh responded by arguing for a reconciliation process focusing on the legacy of the civil war, rather than complicating the matter with current issues; such a focus is of particular relevance given Geagea’s alleged role in the 1978 slaying of Franjieh’s father, mother and sister.

The exchange illustrated that the divide between Lebanon’s Christian groups is entangled with current political conflicts as well as violence in the past, making a successful reconciliation process unlikely in the foreseeable future. By going to Damascus, Aoun signalled to Geagea and the March 14 coalition that his alliance with Hizbollah and Syria is not open to negotiation. As a result, Christian competition is likely to intensify in the run-up to elections next year.

Reactions

By associating himself with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Aoun hopes to ride the wave of Syria’s rapprochement with the West and current position of strength in the region. The Syrian media and March 8 media in Lebanon hailed his visit as a historic turning point in Lebanese-Syrian relations. These commentators argue that:

stronger diplomatic ties between the two neighbours are justified by their deep economic, social and cultural linkages;

Syria is an important ally against potential Israeli aggression;

the visit is a natural continuation of the normalisation process initiated by Suleiman’s state visit to Damascus in July; and

the visit is helpful for Muslim-Christian relations in the region.

Media associated with the March 14 alliance paint Aoun’s visit as a betrayal of the national interest. They argue that:

the Syrian regime should not be invited to reclaim the role of overseer of Lebanese politics that it commanded before 2005;

the visit is an unwarranted boost for Assad in his quest for international rapprochement;

Aoun has hijacked Suleiman’s agenda for his own political gains, and by doing so risks muddling the process; and

Aoun’s self-portrayal as the representative of all Christians in the Middle East is ludicrous given the intense disdain for him among March 14 supporters.

Strengths and risks

Aoun appears to be in a good position to repeat his electoral success of 2005. The very public Syrian endorsement of Aoun could:

tighten the bond with his Shia partners in the March 8 coalition, Amal and Hizbollah, whose support could be decisive in the large number of mixed Shia-Christian districts; and

convince Christians of his ability to lead and make important strategic decisions.

At the same time, the visit carries risks. There are indications that Aoun might well be misjudging the strength of Christian antipathy toward Damascus:

Some of Aoun’s allies in 2005, including the influential Greek Orthodox leader Michel Murr, appear cooler towards him in the wake of his alignment with Hizbollah and reconciliation with Syria.

While Aoun will undoubtedly win a far greater proportion of the Shia vote than in 2005, when Hizbollah tacitly backed the March 14 coalition, some polls show significantly diminished support for Aoun in his heavily Christian home district of Kesrouan.

Aoun’s Gaullist approach to leadership has begun to produce dissent within his party.

In conclusion, Aoun’s embrace of Syria has further polarised Lebanon’s Christians. While a smart strategic move at a time of rebounding Syrian influence in the region, Aoun’s visit will likely cost him support in his own community in advance of critical parliamentary elections. The key question will be whether his outreach to the Shia pays off at the polls.

Releasing its prisoners of conscience would benefit Syria

by Sune Haugbolle.

Further to my previous post, my friend Hanin Ghaddar from Now Lebanon reports that SKeyes, the foundation for the defense of cultural and media freedom in the Arab Mashreq, which is part of the Samir Kassir foundation, hosted a press conference on Monday in Beirut where they called for the release of Michel Kilo, Mahmoud Issa and other prisoners of conscience. Kilo and Issa have been imprisoned by the Syrian authorities for co-signing the Damascus Declaration, a document from 2006 that calls for a better Lebanese-Syrian relationship, border demarcation and diplomatic relations. And a document that pissed the authorities off so royally that those who signed it were accused of treason.

Of course, since 2006, Syria has indeed moved towards normalisation with its smaller neighbour. The joint decision to exchange embassies, made at Michel Suleiman’s visit to Damascus earlier this year, has opened a new page in Lebanese-Syrian relations – even if one chooses to take a cynical view of Syria’s reasons for such a move, as many Lebanese (including Hanin and many March 14’ers) do. They believe that the normalisation simply adds to Bashar’s position of strength, as described in my previous post, and that it is the first step towards a return to the 1990s when Syrian control over Lebanon – the combination of control, manipulation, safe-keeping and plundering that was the post-war period – was blessed and encouraged by Europe and the US, who saw no other way to keep Lebanon quiet.

Compared to Syria’s moment of engagement today, back in 2006, the situation inside Syria was much more tense, and the imprisonment of dissenting intellectuals a clear sign of a nervous and weak regime. The point is that Bashar al-Asad has not translated his increasingly powerful position both inside Syria and in regional and internationalal affairs into easing his grip on prisoners of conscience. This is both wrong and stupid. From a security point of view the attempt to silence the likes of Kilo is utterly unnecessary. Unlike Syria’s Islamists – who of course receive much harsher treatment – the harakat mujtama’ al-madani (civil society movement) simply do not have enough of a social base to be a threat to the regime.

In fact, the repeated bogus trials in Damascus which attract Western diplomats and human rights groups arguably give Syria a lot of bad publicity that they could really be without at this point of Western engagement. So, both from a human and a policy point of view, releasing its prisoners of conscience would benefit Syria.

Miliband and Europe’s endorsement of Bashar’s self-image

by Sune Haugbolle.

What to think about the recent spout of European state visits to Damascus, and the Western attempt to engage Syria? First, let’s be realistic about the engagement: the many debates about what it would mean are moot, because it has in fact already happened, and there is little reason to believe that it won’t continue on the all important American front once Obama takes office early next year. David Miliband’s visit this week completes an extended “summer of love” for Bashar al-Asad, who can now look back at the time in 2005 and 2006 when his regime seemed under real pressure, from the Hariri tribunal and the general international sidelining of Syria, and smile. He has been vindicated in his policy of steadfastness, and he knows it. Ordinary Syrians may still be struggling with dire economic problems outside the Damascus circle of prospering cronies, and the UN tribunal may still throw up surprises that could incriminate the regime when it comes into action in the coming years. But unlike in 2005, these are now hurdles Bashar will feel he can handle from a position of strength.

That strength partly derives from the changing regional and international conjectures: a weakened US in the Middle East and the defeat of Bushism generally, Hizbollah’s steadfast resistance to Israel’s attempt to wipe it out in 2006, Lebanon’s inability to present a united front, and new leaders in France and now the US who appear to have “rediscovered” Syria’s potential as a central arbiter in the Middle Eastern jigsaw. Bashar is exactly where he wants to be, because Western diplomats increasingly see him as he wants to be seen: as a man in control of a country that would be chaotic without him, and with fingers in every regional pie of any importance, from Iran to Iraq, Palestine and Lebanon. To near-quote The Streets, he is good to know, and he knows it.

What we also know is that there is a dark side to Asad’s Syria. Western diplomats have not found this the right moment to confront Bashar with his country’s human rights record, which is arguably no less appalling than Saudi Arabia’s or Egypt’s, but still unacceptable. The “regrettable” aspects of Syria’s policies for Europe and the US have always been Damascus’ self-styled role as “capital of Arab resistance,” ie. its links with Tehran, Hizbollah, and Palestinian and Iraqi groups. It is only right that Miliband and others should cease to view Syria’s foreign policy as a stumbling block for negotiations. After all, Bashar al-Asad has shown that he can be moved, and that there is room for negotiation on almost all of the abovementioned fronts. Syrian-Israeli peace may even be within reach, to the benefit of all people in the region.

But it is not right that Miliband and other visitors to the Qasiyoun palace leave the complete lack of democratic reforms in Syria out of their policy of engagement. In fact, it is a slap in the face for the people who have struggled for years for political and human rights reform, and who continue to be imprisoned for asking for the most basic rights. Allowing Syria back in the fold without asking tough questions about these well-documented facts is nothing short of an endorsement of Bashar on all fronts. And although he may not be as bad as some have portrayed him, Bashar al-Asad’s legacy of stalled reforms is not one we should endorse, however badly we wish for normalisation in the Middle East. One can only hope that the US engagement, when it starts to take shape early next year, will do what the Europeans seem incapable of doing, and raise all the issue that are not part of Bashar’s self-image but that are very much part of daily life in Syria.