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Assad’s Getting Ready to Rumble

But not with whom you think.

As you know, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad tantalized his people before his recent public address with a mysterious promise to tell them something they wanted to hear — and then failed to rescind so much as a semicolon of the emergency law that has been in place since 1963. Instead, he took the opportunity to apportion blame for the unrest on the usual suspects: Israel and the US.

That didn’t have its usual mollifying effect, so he had one of his advisors drop an insinuation that it was in fact the Palestinians who have been rousing the Syrian rabble to oppose the regime.  (The walls are closing in on the Palestinians in other hot spots as well: Qaddafi is blaming them in part for his troubles, and demonstrating Jordanians have been heard shouting at them to “go back to the West Bank.”)

Now, the Syrian regime has treated its 700,000 Palestinians very roughly — it has shelled refugee camps in the past, and is perfectly capable of summarily imprisoning or forcibly deporting them in large numbers. Hamas, the leadership of which is based in Damascus, is making confident noises about the health of its relationship with Syria, but the PA is rattled.

Hafez Barghouti, editor of the PA-funded newspaper Al-Hayat Al-Jadeeda, characterized Syria’s accusation of Palestinian incitement as an indication of Syria’s “political bankruptcy,” and noted in a telling swipe that “Syria…played a role in Hamas’s takeover of the Gaza Strip.” He even went so far as to level a thinly veiled threat: “The Palestinians have nothing to do with the Arab revolutions, although they have 1,000 reasons to intervene to settle scores with the Arab regimes.” Haaretz quotes Palestinian political analyst Adel Abdel Rahman, who says similarly that the Palestinians have become the “rack on which Arab leaders hang their cowardice and collusion against each other. They think the Palestinians are weak and that they could use them whenever they want to cover up their defectiveness.”

But are the Palestinians Assad’s real enemy, or is this just another smokescreen?

Hariri and Assad

They’re small potatoes. The mutual animosity being expressed is deeply felt and can easily get ugly, but is no more the main story here than the Israel-did-it canard. Assad has an ideological enemy close at hand (aside from the rank-and-file Syrians who are daring to express a taste for freedom).  That enemy is Sa’ad Hariri, deposed Lebanese PM, son of PM Rafik Hariri who was assassinated by Syrian ally Hezbollah, and leader of the Lebanese opposition. And Assad has Hariri in his sights.

MEMRI reports that Syrian state television has accused the Al-Mustaqbal movement — which is headed by Sa’ad Hariri — of attempting to transport arms to Syrian dissidents. Syria claims to have intelligence linking Al-Mustaqbal to the unrest in Latakia and Daraa — where, according to NOW Lebanon, protesters have dared to chant against Iran and Hezbollah — and threatens to take a dim view of such meddling in internal affairs. A spokesman for Al-Mustaqbal has denied the accusation, but a denial might not be enough.

MEMRI cites an article by Ghassan Sa’ud, a columnist for the pro-Syrian and pro-Hezbollah Lebanese daily Al-Akhbar, in which he  directly accuses Sa’ad Hariri and Al-Mustaqbal of trying to spark a civil war between Sunnis and Alawites in Syria and thereby “topple the Syrian regime.” The rather hysterical-sounding piece ends with a direct threat: “The regime…has declared it is entering a phase of ‘fighting the conspiracy and thwarting fitna [civil strife],’ and that the Al-Mustaqbal faction, and especially the Lebanese Forces [party]… are part of this preparation for fitna. One may assume that Al-Mustaqbal and the [Lebanese] Forces will not emerge unscathed from the Syrian regime’s struggle against fitna.”

As always, the big question is where Iran will choose to come down in all this. Ahmadinejad can play it one of several ways: he could offer to assist his ally openly via Hezbollah — not necessarily a practical option, since Hezbollah will shortly have its hands full when the UN tribunal on the Hariri assassination goes public — or he could sit back, let Assad fall, and then set up a proxy to fill the vacuum in Syria. The Iranian-Syrian alliance managed to engineer the collapse of Lebanon into Hezbollah’s lap — Hezbollah is Iran’s arm in Lebanon, and the Hezbollah yes-man who is now the Lebanese PM is a direct Syrian appointee — but it is up to Ahmadinejad to assess whether or not Assad has outlived his usefulness.

Assad is no doubt aware of this calculation, and his boldness in calling out Hariri suggests he already has Iran’s assistance lined up, should he need it. The Palestinians might get caught in the crossfire, but the real fight here is between Assad and Hariri for the souls of both Syria and Lebanon. Hariri might fold early, but he’s shown some steel. This could get interesting.