By Robin Wright
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 1, 2008
The United States and Saudi Arabia have launched a joint campaign to pressure Syria to end its political interference in Lebanon, including the U.S. deployment of the USS Cole and two other warships off the Lebanese coast, according to U.S. and Arab officials.
The new military, economic and diplomatic steps include the toughest actions taken by the Bush administration against the regime of President Bashar Assad, such as a recent presidential executive order allowing sanctions against Syrian officials meddling in Lebanon and a member of Assad's family. Saudi Arabia is withdrawing its ambassador from Damascus and pressed for an Arab League meeting, to be held next week, to discuss the political vacuum in Lebanon brought on by its inability to elect a new president since November, U.S. officials said.
The Lebanese parliament has not elected a new president because of an enduring standoff that pits the Syrian-backed Shiite movement Hezbollah and its Christian allies against a coalition gathered around the government, which is backed by the United States, Saudi Arabia and France.
President Bush and King Abdullah first discussed a joint effort on Syria during the president's trip to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, in January. Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal then discussed details at a White House meeting on Feb. 15 attended by Bush, Vice President Cheney, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley, according to U.S. and Arab officials.
The proposal led to serious debate within the administration, which held back its plan from key European and Arab allies, the officials said.
"It's likely the Syrians will see this in the context of measures we are taking in order to discourage their unhelpful behavior in Lebanon," said a senior administration official, speaking anonymously because of the sensitive diplomacy.
Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Thursday that the USS Cole, a guided missile destroyer, and two other ships will remain in the eastern Mediterranean "for a while." He added: "It does signal that we're engaged, we're going to be in the vicinity and that's a very, very important part of the world."
But Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora said yesterday that his government had not requested a U.S. naval presence off its coast, and summoned Ambassador Michele J. Sison to ask for clarification of U.S. intentions.
The presence of the three warships has also sparked anger from militant groups and suspicions in the Lebanese media about long-term U.S. plans, even though the State Department said the ships are about 60 miles offshore -- well beyond the 12-mile limit of Lebanese territorial waters.
"The American move threatens the stability of Lebanon and the region and is an attempt to spark tension," Hassan Fadlallah, a Hezbollah member of parliament, told Reuters. "The administration has used the policy of sending warships to support its allies in Lebanon before, and that experiment failed."
The deployment of U.S. warships off the Lebanese coast dates to 1983, when Navy ships opened fire on Muslim militias. Retaliation included the suicide bombing of the Marine compound in Beirut and the death of 241 U.S. military personnel, which eventually led to the Marines' withdrawal.
"U.S. gunboat diplomacy in Lebanon did not, does not and will never work. If there is one way how not to help your allies, this is it," said Bilal Y. Saab of the Brookings Institution's Saban Center.
Some Middle East experts and both European and Arab allies doubt that the U.S.-Saudi effort will have serious impact on Damascus. "The Syrian regime is playing for time, and reasons that a new administration will be forced to jettison the current policy of isolation," said Emile el-Hokayem of the Henry L. Stimson Center, a defense think tank.