Thursday, March 5, 2015

On Iran, Arabs deeply mistrust Obama

What was striking in Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech before the U.S. House of Representatives Tuesday was how the Israeli prime minister exploited the Obama administration’s ambiguities on the broader implications of a nuclear deal with Iran.

While Netanyahu’s proposals for how to strengthen the nuclear accord are not likely to be implemented, two issues he raised cannot be readily ignored by President Barack Obama: How a deal might enhance Iran’s regional influence; and whether regional wariness with a deal could spur nuclear proliferation.

Iran’s regional role is an issue that the U.S. has strenuously, and foolishly, sought to separate from the nuclear discussions. This has alarmed the Gulf states – and now Israel – who fear that a lifting of sanctions on Iran and a rapprochement with the U.S. would facilitate Iranian expansionism. The Arab states understand that the implications of a nuclear accord are mainly political. Having signed a long-awaited arrangement with Tehran, the U.S. is unlikely to turn around and enter into new conflicts to prevent it from widening its reach in the Arab world.

Indeed, there are signs that the Obama administration would do precisely the contrary. Obama, in a letter last October to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, effectively recognized Iran’s role in Syria by reassuring him that coalition airstrikes against ISIS would not target Bashar Assad’s forces. Moreover, by affirming the parallel interests of the U.S. and Iran in combating ISIS, Obama defined a basis for regional cooperation with Tehran.

It is understandable that Netanyahu’s warning fell on deaf ears at the White House. The relationship between Obama and the Israeli prime minister has been poor, and Netanyahu’s refusal to advance in negotiations with the Palestinians suggests to the Americans that relations with his government are a one-way street. For Netanyahu to then personally lobby in Washington against a major Obama initiative was the last straw. No wonder House Democrats were so withering in their criticism of him.

But whatever Netanyahu’s duplicity, the questions he raised are the same ones that many Arab states have, and to which Obama has offered no answers. Iranian influence in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, the Palestinian territories and now Yemen, is very real, and Tehran has spent years building it up, patiently and deliberately.

Obama has explained his Iran policy poorly, and there is a growing sense that this has been intentional. Why? Because Obama’s true ambition is to reduce America’s role in the Middle East, and, to quote analyst Tony Badran, leave in its place “a new security structure, of which Iran is a principal pillar.” Because such a scheme is bound to anger U.S. allies in the region, Obama has concealed his true intentions.

From the start the administration made it a primary goal to reorient American attentions away from the Middle East, toward Asia. When the so-called “Arab Spring” began, Obama ignored its potential benefits and sought to pursue American disengagement. At every stage the administration worked to reduce the American footprint, and where that was not possible, as in Libya and Iraq, to define limited goals and share the burden with others.

In absolute terms this approach is defensible. But as Badran suggests the outcome may well be an enhanced role for Iran, and this is something Arab states, not to mention Israel, will have great trouble accepting. If Obama imagines that the best way to advance his project is to keep mum about the outcome, he will see many more reactions like Netanyahu’s before long.

The Israeli prime minister is correct about one thing: If the Arabs feel threatened by an Iran that, ultimately, has the means of going nuclear, they will respond in kind by trying to develop their own nuclear capability. This would generate considerable instability and defeat the purpose of a nuclear agreement now.

In many passages Netanyahu’s speech was over the top. His credibility has been damaged by revelations that Israeli intelligence did not share his assessment of Iran’s nuclear program. There are few leaders as shameless, as annoying, as fraudulent. But that should not detract from the validity of some of his points. While many in the region might accept Obama’s choice to avert war with Iran by agreeing a nuclear deal, they see nothing reassuring in America’s vision of the aftermath.

The reality is that Obama is deeply distrusted in the Arab world. He is not a man who communicates much with Arab leaders or societies. His aversion to the region’s problems is palpable. Nor is Obama a president who immerses himself in the Middle East’s details. The extent of this was best illustrated by the fact that he never considered appointing an envoy to coordinate with regional allies over America’s position in the nuclear talks.

Obama may get his deal with Iran, but he has prepared the terrain so carelessly that the consequences may be quite damaging. Iran is a rising power in a region where Arab states are disintegrating. Agreeing with Iran, if that happens, will be the easy part. Much tougher will be leaving in place a stable regional order. And given Obama’s performance until now, no one is wagering much that the U.S. will succeed in that.

Offensive thoughts - Lebanon’s army and the campaign in Qalamoun

Amid alarming reports in Lebanon that jihadist groups in Qalamoun plan to attack the Lebanese Army and border villages in the coming weeks lies a different reality. It is the Syrian Army and Hezbollah that are planning an offensive in the border area, and the Lebanese Army is being incorporated into that effort.

Almost daily one Lebanese media outlet or another paints an apocalyptic picture of what lies ahead, once the snow melts in the mountain areas along the border. Most of the time the reports cite unnamed “security sources” warning of a jihadist onslaught, though there is desperately little evidence provided for their claims. It all smacks of an organized campaign to frighten the Lebanese and make them more amenable to the gradual integration of the army into the military strategy of Iran, Hezbollah and the Syrian regime.

Doubtless there is some resistance in the army to such dynamics. However, the armed groups in Qalamoun have done themselves no favors by retaining Lebanese military personnel they abducted last summer, and by attacking army positions. In effect, they have acted precisely the way Hezbollah wants them to, in that their behavior has pushed the army to take a more aggressive role in hitting militant armed groups in Qalamoun.

According to one prominent Lebanese politician who follows events along the Lebanese-Syrian border carefully, an offensive may take place as soon as April, and the army has occupied advanced positions in preparation for this. If the ongoing campaign in southern Syria is any indication of what will happen, Hezbollah and possibly Iranian forces would spearhead the effort, with the Syrian regime providing air cover.

The role of the Lebanese Army would be to interdict the cross-border transfer of supplies and weapons to the armed groups in Qalamoun, and to protect Hezbollah’s flank. Both Syrian and Hezbollah officials have repeatedly called for coordination between the Lebanese and Syrian armies, but the nature of such coordination will have to be carefully addressed.

For instance, it remains to be seen whether the army will participate in a joint operations room with Hezbollah and the Syrian regime. If it ever decides to do so, there will be risks for the army’s unity, as a substantial number of troops are Sunnis. However, there are also less obvious ways to act in unison if the army successfully opposes formal coordination.

In light of the recent regime offensives in the north of Syria, near Aleppo, and in the south of the country, in Quneitra and Daraa, the Iranian plan appears to be to clear border areas where Turkey and Jordan can assist groups fighting the Syrian regime. The scheme faltered in the north after Shiite forces mustered by Iran, especially Afghans, took heavy losses. There have been unconfirmed reports that Turkish intelligence and aid provided to the rebels was vital in this regard.

In the south, the Iranians and Hezbollah have been more successful and are trying to do two things: tighten regime control over areas providing access to Damascus; and capture high ground in the region around Daraa that would allow them to interrupt supplies from Jordan to the armed groups there.

In light of this, Qalamoun appears to be the next target. If the Iranians and Hezbollah can control access to and from the southern border areas in Syria, they can hinder the possibility of jihadist groups gaining in Lebanon’s Shebaa area, where there is a Sunni population. The same logic holds in northern Bekaa, where Sunnis also reside. Taking over Qalamoun would further secure lines of communication between Damascus and Homs, as well as neutralize the Lebanese border once and for all.

What is remarkable about this scheme is that the Iranians have managed to slot their agenda neatly into the new “war on terror.” For instance, the American ambassador in Beirut had this to say when the United States delivered military equipment to the Lebanese Army in early February: “We are fighting the same enemy, so our support for you has been swift and continuous. I am confident that, with the right equipment, Lebanon’s soldiers can defend Lebanon successfully.”

Some commentators correctly wondered about the use of the word “enemy.” While Jabhat al-Nusra may indeed be an American enemy, there are a significant number of rebels in Qalamoun who are simply young men from the area displaced by Hezbollah’s offensive in spring 2013. They may have joined jihadist groups not out of ideological conviction, but rather because those groups were the best organized and financed.

Such subtleties are lost today in the new crusade against terror. A neat dichotomy has been imposed, and, increasingly, Iranian and American interests appear to be parallel, at least in the American reading of the situation.

For instance, Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff, has said of the current Iranian-organized offensive against Tikrit: “If they perform in a credible way [against ISIS] then it will, in the main, have been a positive thing…” Dempsey added that this would only hold if sectarian tensions were not exacerbated. Yet how can a Shiite-led offensive against a major Sunni city, in which a central role is being played by Qassem Soleimani, the head of the Quds Force of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, do anything but anger Sunnis?

But the Obama administration has ignored this. That’s why when the Qalamoun offensive begins, you can assume that the Americans will be on board, by action or by omission. A new order is emerging in the region and the United States has been a factor in helping bring it about. What occurs in Qalamoun is a small part of it, but never too small for Iran as it weaves its regional hegemony over a disintegrating Arab world. 

Friday, February 27, 2015

Final act - The curtain closes on journalist Eric Rouleau

The death of journalist Eric Rouleau this week, at the age of 89, was another symbolic closing of the curtain on a particular era when Arab nationalism dominated the region.

That this could be embodied by an Egyptian Jew, born Elie Raffoul, was not the least of the anomalies of Rouleau’s life. In 1985 Francois Mitterrand would name him French ambassador to Tunisia, before he would go on to head the embassy in Turkey. Not often do former journalists, particularly those considered engagĂ©, transition successfully to the world of diplomacy, where autonomy of expression is dreaded.

In reading Rouleau’s 2012 memoir, Dans Les Coulisses du Proche-Orient: Memoires d’un Journaliste Diplomate (1952-2012), one is struck by the author’s preoccupation with a world that was, by the time of publication, largely anachronistic. His discussions of Gamal Abdel Nasser and the Palestinian cause seemed drawn from a bygone era, at a time when the region had been shaken by uprisings in Egypt, Syria and Libya.

Not surprisingly, perhaps, in each of these countries the regimes in place portrayed themselves as Arab nationalist. By then they had morphed into sinister police states without ideals or ideas, their Arabism solely a vehicle to stifle aspirations for the future.

It’s difficult in reading Rouleau’s recollections not to see a direct link between the world he recalled with nostalgia and these revolts. Nasser, a man whom Rouleau admired, was the main instigator of an authoritarian regime with a DNA that other Arab leaderships would replicate in subsequent decades. While Nasser would seek to promote the idea of “Egypt for the Egyptians” and egalitarian policies, the price to pay was a suffocation of democratic political life and cultural richness.

It is interesting that Rouleau focuses on the latter point, despite his support for Nasser’s anti-imperialist message. As he wrote bitingly in his memoirs: “Although legitimate, the policy of ‘Egyptianization’ had its flip side: the exodus of several hundred thousand people from ‘minority’ backgrounds disfigured the Egypt I had known in my younger years—tolerant, rich in its creative diversity and in the communities that contributed largely to its economic and cultural life. Greeks, Italians, English, French or Jews of all nationalities, for the most part from modest backgrounds, were victims of the discriminatory measures that followed nationalization of most of the large and medium enterprises, and, more generally, the climate of insecurity generated by exacerbated nationalism.”

For those who knew Egypt before the revolution, such a verdict is familiar. Yet it is a tribute to Rouleau’s honesty that he can be so candid, despite being one of those who helped make Nasser known to the West, particularly through a famous interview he conducted with the Egyptian leader for Le Monde in 1963.

Doubtless what was behind Rouleau’s longing for Egypt’s bygone cosmopolitanism was that it allowed him to break free from the manacles of imposed identity. Though a Jew, he could write with sympathy of Arab nationalism and the Palestinian cause, while until the end his Arabic was that of a native.

No one is insensible to the passage of time, and even those critical of Arab nationalism can read Rouleau with a certain sense of nostalgia for an era that contrasts so strikingly with the disintegration of the Arab world today. In the 1950s and 1960s the region seemed a place of limitless possibilities, amid the hopes and spasms of “revolution.” That optimism was partly a sham, culminating in the ignominious Arab defeat by Israel in June 1967 and the destabilization of the region thanks to the Palestine Liberation Organization. But in his book, Rouleau, as a prime chronicler of that period, succeeds in teasing self-delusion out of us, and it’s not unpleasant.

The late Malcolm Kerr, in his classic book The Arab Cold War: Gamal Abd al-Nasir and His Rivals, 1958-1970, wrote that “[S]ince June 1967 Arab politics have ceased to be fun. In the good old days most Arabs refused to take themselves very seriously, and this made it easier to take a relaxed view of the few who possessed intimations of some immortal mission.”

Kerr himself would fall victim to such people in January 1984, when he was assassinated at the American University of Beirut. However, his comments are apt in the time of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the personification of messianic humorlessness. It’s ironic that what Kerr lamented after 1967, we can yet look back on with consideration today amid the mass murderers all around us. We have hit rock bottom in a region defined exclusively by violence, mediocrity, and disenchantment.

In his long life Rouleau was able to witness the permutations of the region into ever-lower life forms. He had come from a more promising, more civilized, time, which is why we can forgive him the mirages frequently appearing in his accounts. They are the mirages we are creating ourselves in this time of desolation.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Against all odds, Lebanon keeps strife at bay

Lebanon has been without a president since last May, and the negative implications are beginning to dawn on Christian leaders. Yet filling this vacuum is just one of a series of challenges the country will be facing in the coming months.

When Michel Sleiman’s term ended last year, the refusal of leading Christian politicians to rally around a consensual successor effectively prevented an election. The reason is that parliament elects Lebanese presidents, who must come from the Maronite Christian community.

The parliamentary bloc led by Michel Aoun refused to attend election sessions because he wants to obstruct the process until he is chosen himself. Hizbollah’s bloc, in solidarity with Mr Aoun, has done the same, preventing a quorum.

While Mr Aoun’s stubbornness is the apparent reason why a president hasn’t been elected, to most observers the real reason is that Hizbollah wants to delay a vote, and has exploited the Aounists’ tactic to do so. The party’s aim is to await a more propitious time when it can bring in a president who is guaranteed to defend its independent weapons arsenal.

That could come if the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany reach a nuclear accord with Iran. To Hizbollah such an agreement would give Tehran greater political latitude in the region, allowing the pro- Iranian party to bring in the president it wants.

Meanwhile, Maronite figures are realising that even without a president the cabinet is continuing to function. That is why many oppose the efforts of Tammam Salam, the prime minister, to agree to a new cabinet voting process to replace the unanimity now required for decisions. Such a mechanism, they argue, will make the cabinet more efficient, reducing the urgency to elect a president.

The cabinet dispute comes at a bad moment for Lebanon, amid fears that jihadi groups in Syria’s Qalamoun region are planning to destabilise the Lebanese border area. In recent weeks, the Lebanese army has received an influx of weapons from abroad. These are designed to permit Lebanon to defend its borders.

In order to reduce sectarian tensions, the Future Movement led by Saad Hariri, and Hizbollah, have been engaged in a dialogue for several weeks. This has taken place despite the ongoing trial of Hizbollah members suspected of assassinating his father Rafik Hariri in 2005. That the Future Movement has gone ahead with the dialogue nonetheless suggests that Saudi Arabia has pushed for it.

While there are fears of radicalisation among poorer Lebanese Sunnis, the security situation has been kept under tight control by the army, the internal security forces and, though it’s mentioned less, by Hizbollah. However, that does not mean there is no anxiety. The presence of some 1.5 million Syrian refugees as well as Salafist groups in the Palestinian refugee camps remains a cause of concern for the Lebanese authorities.

One paradox of the Lebanese situation has been that the country that once stood as the embodiment of sectarian violence has proven remarkably adept at averting it this time around. Lebanon’s different sects have been acutely aware of the dangers of a Sunni-Shia conflict, and have taken steps to alleviate tension.

While countries such as Syria and Iraq have collapsed due to sectarian violence, Lebanon, despite the civil war of 1975-1990, did not break apart. State institutions, though they were marginalised, continued to operate even in the darkest years of hostilities.

That is probably because the Lebanese political elite from the time of independence took into consideration the country’s sectarian differences. It put in place a political system that included power-sharing and compromise. While the system has been deeply dysfunctional at times, it recognised and adapted to Lebanon’s communal complexities.

This is in stark contrast to Arab nationalist regimes in countries, notably Syria and Iraq, that always buried sectarian divisions under a surface of sham secular nationalist unity, usually imposed from above. That is why when both faced sectarian and ethnic conflict, there were few mechanisms in place to resolve differences, facilitating the shattering of the two states.

In the months ahead Lebanon will probably be tested militarily in the border area, even as its cabinet struggles to find a modus vivendi between the different political factions. Hizbollah and Future will pursue their dialogue, even as the first gets drawn further into the maelstrom in Syria. Economically, the country will continue to suffer, as it has for four years.

But even as the Lebanese will sense the proximity of the abyss, their system is more apt than most in the region to absorb its shocks. Too much self-confidence is bad, as anxiety pushes the Lebanese to be conciliatory. But it is a refreshing anomaly that the country expected to be the least resistant to the sectarian anarchy sweeping the region has managed to stay afloat until now.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Eyeless on Tehran - Iran’s aim is Arab fragmentation, but America won’t see it

There has been much partisan discussion in Washington over the Obama administration’s efforts to reach a nuclear deal with Iran. However, a different concern emerged this week in newspaper articles and commentaries, namely how the actions of pro-Iranian Shiite militias in Iraq were undermining the campaign to defeat ISIS.

In a column for the Washington Post, David Ignatius echoed this view, noting that Iraqi Sunnis were wary of cooperating with the government of Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi, because it had allowed Shiite militias to operate in mainly Sunni Anbar Province.

Implicit in these readings was a sense that because the United States and Iran have a shared interest in fighting ISIS, it makes no sense for pro-Iranian militias to behave in ways that damage the aim of rallying anti-ISIS Sunnis against the terrorist group.

Reflecting this atmosphere, in December US Secretary of State John Kerry described Iranian attacks against ISIS this way: “[T]he net effect is positive.” Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, also observed: “As long as the Iraqi government remains committed to inclusivity of all the various groups inside [Iraq], then I think Iranian influence will be positive.”

Dempsey’s caveat about inclusivity notwithstanding, both statements displayed a limited grasp of what Iran’s strategy in the Middle East is all about, or how it only makes more likely the emergence and survival of groups such as ISIS.

The reality is that during the last decade Iran has been actively pushing for fragmentation of the Arab world. Early on the Iranians encouraged their Iraqi Shiite allies to advance a divisive sectarian agenda, alienating Sunnis and making impossible the rebuilding of a unified Iraq under a national central government.

In Syria, the Iranians have helped preserve Bashar al-Assad’s control over parts of Syrian territory — namely Damascus, the coastal areas and communication lines in between — while allowing large swathes of mainly Sunni territory to fall outside regime control. This effective partition of Syria may have resulted from a realistic reading of Assad’s limitations, but early on the regime and the Iranians also sought to make it permanent. They engaged in sectarian “cleansing,” pushing large numbers of Sunnis out of their areas.

On the Palestinian front, too, the regime has played on the divisions in Palestinian ranks, exploiting the differences between Fatah and Hamas. Tehran’s ability to exploit the contradictions in the Arab world, a policy pursued in Lebanon and Yemen as well, has been a recurring feature of Iran’s behavior in the Middle East for some time.

What is the rationale? Quite simply that an Arab world deeply divided, shattered into sectarian entities, and weakened represents fertile ground for Iran to impose its hegemony regionally. In such a context one can understand better Iran’s efforts lately to open new fronts against Israel. In the broad Iranian vision, the only serious regional rival it has is a nuclear-armed Israel.

Turkey also represents a potential problem, but the efforts of Recep Tayyip Erdogan to transform his country into a Middle Eastern powerhouse have failed. Moreover, by permitting a measure of Turkish cooperation with ISIS, Erdogan has undermined Turkey’s international credibility, even as his focus on pushing Assad out has become less of a priority as regional dynamics have rapidly evolved.

The Iranians are more than willing to allow the United States and the Arab states to bombard ISIS, as the group represents an irritant in that it straddles vital Iranian supply lines between Iraq and Syria. But ISIS hardly represents a strategic threat to Iran; on the contrary, by drawing Western attention to the terrorist problem, it distracts Western governments from Iran’s larger project in the Middle East.

It is ironic that in countries such as Iraq, Yemen and Lebanon, American interaction with governments or political forces is now filtered by Iran or its local allies. Even the pro-American Kurds in Iraq are careful not to cross Iran when making their decisions. The success of the Iraqi Kurds has been their ability to play Washington off against Tehran, without taking steps that might antagonize any side — for instance, by advancing toward independence.

But even if Iran is wary of Kurdish independence because this might give ideas to its own Kurds, it is hardly motivated by safeguarding the unity of Arab states. For example, in Iraq’s oil-rich Basra Province there is a growing movement for autonomy, as resentment of Baghdad’s neglect of the region grows. The south is majority Shiite, but this has not prevented a yearning to widen the margin of self-government with respect to the Shiite-dominated government in the capital.

Iran, which has considerable sway in the Basra region, has apparently not sought to curtain such sentiments, which only advance its divide-and-rule approach to the region.

But Iran is also ensuring that as wide spaces escape from government control due to the fragmentation of Arab states, they become more vulnerable to non-state actors such as ISIS. In other words, the American strategy of building consensus to reinforce governance institutions and prevent the emergence of vacuums in the region is precisely what Iran is systematically undermining.

Iran has benefited from the mistakes of the Bush administration — namely its mismanagement of the postwar situation in Iraq — but above all from the Obama administration’s disengagement from the Middle East. Whereas the first created an opportunity for Tehran to enter Iraq and start pulling sectarian strings to its advantage, the second opened a highway for Iran to pursue its long-term ambitions.

The Obama administration should remember this as it argues that the United States and Iran have a common benefit in collaborating against ISIS. The fact is that ISIS is a direct consequence of Iranian policies in Iraq and Syria — policies Iran is still implementing. The Americans are deaf, but they don’t have to be dumb and blind.

The region crumbles and Lebanon trembles

As prospects for the emergence of new sectarian and ethnic entities rise in the Middle East to replace illegitimate, authoritarian states, it is necessary to ask what will happen to Lebanon, the only Arab state that has sought to build its political system around a formula for sectarian compromise.

Lebanon’s most pressing danger is the presence of some 1.5 million Syrian refugees in the country, most of them Sunnis from areas the Assad regime considers vital for its political survival. Many have fled Homs and Qalamoun, which sit on vital communication lines between Damascus and the coast. These are both places the regime intends to retain, even as it has given up on far-flung districts that it has no real hope of controlling, such as Syria’s north, northeast and east.

Bringing back hundreds of thousands of Sunnis to Homs and its environs, the vulnerable neck of Bashar Assad’s “useful Syria,” is not something the regime in Damascus intends to do, amid rumors that the Iranians have resettled friendlier Shiite populations there from outside Syria and even the region. So, what happens to most of the refugees now in Lebanon?

Developments don’t offer much of an answer, let alone provoke optimism. Barring a major victory by the regime to retake all of Syria, which seems highly unlikely, the country will continue to fragment. Illustrating this, Syria’s Kurds last Friday declared their intention of pursuing the “geographic and political unity” of Kurdish areas in the context of a “federal state.” Under the circumstances, however, that is less than what they hope to achieve – indeed what is achievable – namely a virtually independent Kurdish entity in a very loose state structure.

Is the permanent settlement of Syrian refugees in Lebanon a possibility, as some Lebanese have warned? Certainly it is, and what is more worrisome is that there are those Lebanese willing to go along with such a project, seeing that it will boost Sunni demographics at the expense of Shiites. International humanitarian organizations have insisted that Lebanon is obliged to care for the refugees, but have given scant attention to the long-term, political implications of their presence.

That is not to justify the disgraceful calls to expel the refugees, itself an utterly unrealistic option in light of the vast numbers involved. However, Lebanon must start raising international awareness of the lasting repercussions of the Syrian refugee presence, particularly in light of the problems accompanying the Palestinian refugee presence in Lebanon after 1948.

It took nearly two decades for the Palestinian refugees to be mobilized politically, and the consequences were devastating for the Lebanese. The possibility of this happening again with Syrians is infinitely more worrisome. If the refugees come to form the core of a new insurgency operating from outside Syria, Lebanon would very quickly be caught up in the maelstrom.

However, one factor alone plays in Lebanon’s favor. Iran has helped provoke Syria’s fragmentation – no less than Iraq’s – believing that its influence is much easier to exercise in an Arab world broken up into countless ministates. But those who could be expected to lose most from the massive rise in the Sunni population in Lebanon are Shiites, and it is doubtful that the Iranians or Hezbollah would welcome this.

So what are the options for Assad, Tehran and Hezbollah? To eventually allow a return of Sunnis to Syria, but then to ensure that they will not resettle in the strategic Homs and Qalamoun areas from where they originate? Perhaps, but how easy is that? After engaging in ethnic cleansing in those areas in recent years, the regime would have to do so again, this time pushing the population into parts of Syria where Sunnis are a majority and over which today only ISIS has some control. This would not only be complicated, it would be no solution at all.

Populations are not sacks of potatoes. As the regime’s intent becomes clearer, the refugees will understandably resist it and many will refuse to leave Lebanon. Ultimately, the thinking may be that if a Sunni ministate emerges in Iraq, a broader Sunni state between Iraq and Syria may attract rural Syrian Sunnis. However, such a view smacks of wishful thinking and hubris, and may well perpetuate sectarian conflict in Syria indefinitely. Worse, from Lebanon’s perspective it may heighten domestic sectarian hostility, damaging communal relations.

The simple fact is that there is no good solution to the Iranian and Syrian regimes’ efforts to engage in durable sectarian cleansing in Syria. All scenarios are either unrealistic, flawed or damaging to those most closely allied with Tehran.

Beyond that, the millions of Syrians in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey are a potential reservoir of difficulties not only for the region but also for the international community. A consequence of Sunni alienation in Iraq was ISIS; the Syrian refugees present risks far more perilous, as millions of people without a future, a territory, an anchor are circulating among fragile countries already at their limits in coping with the present situation.

That the international community – starting with Europe, the United States, the Arab countries, and Russia – has been less than useless with regard to the Syrian refugees is self-evident. Nor have they taken any measures against those exacerbating the refugees’ terrible predicament, namely the Syrian regime and Iran. But the problem will not go away; it will only get worse for everyone. It’s past time for the world to wake up.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

The solution in Syria is bigger than Assad

When the United Nations envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, declared last week that president Bashar Al Assad was “part of the solution” in Syria, he knew he would raise a firestorm.

Opposition groups have accused the envoy of going back on the Geneva framework for Syria, which calls for the establishment of a transitional government to replace Mr Al Assad. In other words, they outline a solution without him.

It could be that Mr de Mistura was simply reflecting the changing mood internationally, as Mr Al Assad’s removal is no longer a priority while the fight against ISIL escalates.

Or he could have been using an anodyne phrase to push Mr Al Assad to approve the plan for a ceasefire in Aleppo, without any broader implications for the Syrian president’s destiny. Diplomacy often advances ambiguously and there is much to suggest that Mr de Mistura, an experienced international diplomat, was deploying calculated ambiguity here.

But an interesting development last week also put the efforts of the Swedish-Italian UN envoy into some sort of perspective. Representatives of Syria’s main Kurdish organisations, meeting on Friday in Qamishli, called for the “geographic and political unity” of Kurdish areas in northern and north-eastern Syria in the context of a “federal [Syrian] state”.

The representatives also sought to agree to a process of coordination between two Syrian Kurdish parties, the Democratic Union Party and the Kurdish National Council, the first seen as close to Abdullah Ocalan’s Kurdish Workers Party, the second to Massoud Barzani, president of the Iraqi Kurdistan region.

This movement towards a Kurdish consensus was made possible by the fact that Mr Barzani’s peshmerga came to the assistance of the People’s Protection Units, or YPG, in Kobani last year, despite previous conflicts between Mr Ocalan and Mr Barzani. Ironically, this did not displease Turkey, which has good relations with Mr Barzani and saw the intervention as a way of controlling the YPG.

Yet as Mr Al Assad slowly but surely consolidates himself politically, the question remains over what kind of Syria he will rule if he does manage to remain in power.

Since the logic of the anti-ISIL campaign dictates that Mr Al Assad may ultimately remain in office, does it not also suggest that Kurdish autonomy in Syria will end up being accepted by many countries? In both cases the primary aim internationally is to allow governing structures to be put in place that can defeat ISIL and prevent the revival of similar groups.

The reason is that the success of ISIL has been made possible by dysfunctional, divided polities. Therefore, all measures that increase political cohesiveness in Arab states or entities will be embraced if they can ward off the revival of jihadists who benefit from the vacuums proliferating around the region.

As the map of the Middle East is being redrawn, particularly in Syria and Iraq, what happens to Mr Al Assad will no longer be that important. The territories he controls, stretching from Damascus to the Syrian coast, plus the areas in between, are more or less reconciled with his rule. Within these confines a weakened Mr Al Assad will be tolerated by the international community.

The Kurds in Syria and Iraq appear to have interpreted these dynamics rather well. While they have not called for an independent Kurdish state, which is unacceptable to both Iran and Turkey, one can expect their version of federalism to be much closer to some sort of loose confederal arrangement.

In other words, the Kurds, rather than fret over Mr de Mistura’s comments, may have properly read the endgame in Syria as one of effective separation. This has tempered their views of Mr Al Assad and the merits or demerits of his remaining in place.

As commentators such as Al Hayat’s Hazem Al Amin have astutely remarked, similar developments are at play in Iraq, where Kurds, Sunnis and Shia are creating the outlines of new sectarian or ethnic entities. Helping push this process is Iran, which realises it would have much more influence in a region that is fragmented than in one where strong Arab states prevail.

It was Iran that apparently first formulated Mr Al Assad’s strategy of holding on to what has been referred to as “useful Syria”, permitting the north and north-east of the country to fall outside the regime’s control. The recent regime offensive in the area of Qunaitra is primarily an effort by Iran to ensure that it retains an open confrontation boundary with Israel.

That is why one should perhaps not overinterpret Mr de Mistura’s phrase. The Geneva framework is all but dead, and the envoy knows this. That is why he has avoided a full discussion of Mr Al Assad’s future as the value of such a discussion at this stage has only propaganda value. One can sympathise with Mr Al Assad’s foes, but the situation is bigger than them, or him.