by FRANKLIN LAMB
(Damascus) - For the past year, a plan C or D, depending on how one numbers the failed US-Israel projects in Syria was badly needed for those presuming to topple the Assad government.
And this week, according to Congressional staffers, both Tel Aviv and the White House are pinching themselves in disbelief over their good luck with installing republican leaning conservative Dixie businessman, the congenial, Ghassan Hitto, as Syria’s new interim Prime Minister.
Securing the key position for Mr. Hitto, a decision made last year, was not so easy and had to be approached gingerly. But finally, after weeks of sometimes intense debate within Syrian opposition circles, Washington, Ankara, Doha and Tel Aviv among others, managed to appoint their preferred guy. “The White House thought Hitto was the best of a bad lot”, one Congressional committee source, whose work load includes Syria, explained to this observer. “Bottom line, he’s an American, nearly thirty years here makes Ghassan one of us. And who cares if he came here as young man to dodge military service in Syria. Many of us dodged our draft during Vietnam and what’s important is that we can count of him!”
And just as some Americans were beginning to believe that our government may be afflicted with a congenital incapacity to learn from our past mistakes, installing Hitto, “should keep hope alive and we should not give up”, according to our Ambassador in Beirut, Maury Connelly. “Look what we achieved in Libya” she lectured a visiting delegation recently. After the meeting, one participant deadpanned, “Good lord! If that woman had not been Jeff Feltman’s office favorite for whatever reason, she might still be serving coffee to State Department visitors at 2201 C St NW, Washington, DC!” Having quoted that snide comment, Maury, dear readers, is reputed to be a lovely lady. Just ask her frequent visitor, Samir Geagea of the Lebanese Forces, who is reputed to be her special confident these days and her very favorite Lebanese politician.
One recalls how Washington installed nearly one dozen Libya ex-pats during the uprising just as the NATO no-fly zone was being launched. Most of them knew foreign countries better than their birth country and some needed to get their hands on a US supplied “non-lethal weapon” i.e. a GPS and a National Geographic map to find the places in west Libya which they were meant to govern. Not to drop names, but in late June 2011, Saif el-Islam, now locked up in Zintan west of Tripoli, told this observer, referring to the influx into Benghazi and Misrata of “Team USA-UK” as Saif referred to those NATO chose to form an alternative government so they could be recognized quick as the “sole legitimate government “of Libya, “Franklin, you know Libya better than these foreigners do!”
Mr. Hitto’s “election” solves several immediate Syria problems for the White House. Or so they are hoping. At minimum, Hitto will be an American ‘potted plant’ who can be recognized and around whom NATO can corral an implant some of the desperate factions vying for power. Ghassan appears willing to take orders and is now involved in a crash-course to learn what he needs to know about Syria and how to implement the game plan. One congressional aide who helped vet Mr. Hitto clams he has “spunk and can be tough. And we think he will play ball.”
One proposal that Hitto has reportedly agreed to is the Dennis Ross/AIPAC idea for a “political isolation law.” If adapted by the Hitto provisional government, this decree would ban nearly the whole ruling class in Syria from having any role in government. Its intension is to eliminate anyone who worked with either the Hafez or Bashar Assad regimen from 1970 until today. “We need a clean break in Syria”, Ross reportledly told fellow conferees at the recent AIPAC convention.
Washington has also encouraged Hitto to reject dialogue with the Government of Syria because neocons in Congress are insisting that “negotiations” with the Assad government will drag on interminably and allow the current regime to eradicate pockets of resistance and bring in more help from Russia and Iran. Citing negotiations with Iran, Arizona Senator John McCain recently told Fox News that “if you try to negotiate with these people (Iran’s government) you will lose. And we did. We need action!” Some in Congress are telling the White House that the same is true with the Syrian government and it appears Mr. Hitto agrees that dialogue is a bad thing.
The staffer also pointed out that “there has been a misreading of John Kerry’s recent position which in fact does not reflects a notable change in the American position nor does it represent a step-back from the statements that President Obama made earlier concerning the need for Al-Assad to step down. Obama and Hitto are on the same page.”
No sooner than Grassan Hitto was set in place than two insatiable US Senate war-mongers, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) used the occasion of conflicting and unconfirmed reports of chemical weapons being used in Syria by increasing pressure on President Obama to belatedly approve U.S. military involvement in Syria. “The White House response should include the provision of arms to vetted Syrian opposition groups, targeted strikes against Assad’s aircraft and Scud missile batteries on the ground, and the establishment of safe zones inside Syria to protect civilians and opposition groups,” the senators continued in their statement. ”If today’s reports are substantiated, the tragic irony will be that these are the exact same actions that could have prevented the use of weapons of mass destruction in Syria.” Graham went even further and seemed to endorse a plan to put U.S. on the group in Syria during an interview recently with Foreign Policy. Said he: “We need a real partner in Syria.”
In Ghassan Hitto, Senators Graham and McClain just may have one.
Washington and Tel Aviv see in their choice of Mr. Hitto, as a likely solution to numerous barriers to their goals in Syria. They believe that Mr. Hitto can help end the infighting among the opposition to the current regime that has caused a stalemate. While Hitto is no Mohammad Morsi he does lean toward the Muslim Brotherhood and they supported him while knowing he was Washington’s choice. Hitto, some in Washington believe, can help neutralize the MB. The White House has reportedly told the EU that “the CIA recommended Hitto in order to preempt the crazies in this circus and Hitto can, as much as other of our prospects, help with the formation of a US backed international bloc to get rid of Salafist groups in Syria.”
The in-depth US training of Ghassan has begun. An ‘advisory team’ is already appointed to indoctrinate him with the ‘message’ and he is being given an intensive cram course of what to do and what pitfalls to avoid. He will be expected to learn from missteps in Libya, Egypt and Iraq. Mr. Hitto has already been clued that if he wants to achieve more than to be Syria’s First “Interim” Prime Minister he will need to be a quick learner, able to adapt fast to the “manual”, and above all, become a reliable team player. “We aren’t looking for another Hugo Chavez around here”, Ghassan was told recently in Istanbul, shortly before announcing his candidacy.
Hitto’s CIA handlers gave him the script and he read it well. In his first public address he deadpanned that he recognized the very difficult task that lies ahead for his administration. He has pledged to provide the services that many Syrians are lacking. He has also promised free and fair elections in a post-Assad regime Syria.
John Kerry says he is ready to work with Hitto. But since Kerry told members of Congress two years ago that he connected with and respects Bahar al-Assad and that “we can deal with him like we deal with the Canadians” he once told ultra Zionist Congressman Barney Frank. In private Kerry told staff members on the Senate Foreign Reasons Committee, “I like this guy Bashar and we can trust him much more than the Israelis. He’s good.” Having changed his tune, some are wondering how firm his support is for Mr. Hitto.
Mr. Hitto is reportedly eager for both and ready to get started. Earlier this week while giving a speech in Istanbul, he insisted that his priority was to utilize “all conceivable means” to topple President Bashar al-Assad and provide desperately-needed aid to the beleaguered people of Syria.” Washington understands that providing “desperately-needed aid” will soon include weapons.
Still, the White House and Tel Aviv knows that it will be a daunting task building legitimacy for Hitto’s fledgling administration, because he is lacking the support of many high-profile members of his own coalition. He was voted in by 35 of the 49 coalition members, who cast ballots, but another 15 members were not present, some bought off with cash it is rumored, and with several walking out in protest over Hitto’s suspected links to the Muslim Brotherhood and its backers in Qatar. “I have backed the idea of an alternative government for a long time,” said veteran opposition figure Haitham al-Maleh. “But I put my ballot in without a name because there were no candidates from inside Syria. I want a prime minister from inside Syria.” “The proposed government is controlled by the Muslim Brotherhood and the Qatar government,” one coalition member, Mr al-Labwani said. “We will be against this government and will not give it legality. Democracy is from the land and from the people not from a council that is composed by the governments of America and Qatar.” According to a staffer in Kerry’s former Senate Foreign Relations Committee “Many Syrians, regard our appointment of Hitto with suspicion. Since the announcement, I have heard both Syrian nationalist figures and those from some minority communities criticize this move.”
It appears Washington, Doha and Tel Aviv has got their man in place. What the Syrian people will think of their selection will likely be known soon.
Franklin Lamb is doing research in Lebanon and Syria and can be reached c/o email@example.com