Friday, May 8, 2015

Qalamoun is a test of Hezbollah’s hopes

There were contradictory statements this week as to whether Hezbollah would proceed with an offensive in Qalamoun.

An unidentified “security source” told this newspaper, “Hezbollah, after an in-depth military assessment, concluded that there was no need for a costly wide-scale offensive.” Often, a security source means someone from the military, meaning the statement was probably coordinated with the party.

Yet the next day, Hezbollah’s media office released a statement by the deputy secretary-general, Sheikh Naim Qassem, in which he made the contrary claim.

“The Qalamoun battle is coming, and it has already stuck its neck out, proving once again that the takfiris are unable to expand as they wish,” Qassem was quoted as saying. “This battle is the battle of protecting Lebanese villages and prevents takfiris from expanding and achieving their goals.”

In the evening, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah added to the uncertainty. In a speech he said, “We have not issued a statement, and we will not issue a statement. When we launch a [Qalamoun] operation, it will be obvious to everyone.”

Hezbollah is careful with its messaging, and an anonymous source sounds less credible than party leaders speaking on the record. But both Nasrallah and Qassem’s comments betrayed uneasiness. They know the delay in initiating a Qalamoun offensive has led to doubts about Hezbollah’s capacities.

An attack in Qalamoun had meaning in a very different military context in Syria. In March Iran organized major operations in Syria’s north and south, the main objective being to cut off rebel supply lines to Syria and Jordan. Both offensives failed ignominiously, and were followed by major rebel gains, so that resupply lines into Syria have now been secured.

The reversals completely altered the stakes for Hezbollah, and for the Syrian army whose role would be essential in a battle for Qalamoun. The party cannot take military action in the area without a guarantee of victory, since a further defeat in light of those in northern and southern Syria would be disastrous. Yet such a victory is far from assured, for several reasons.

First, Qalamoun does not lend itself to unequivocal outcomes. It’s a vast, thankless region extremely difficult to control, which is why it was so appreciated by cross-border smugglers.

Second, Hezbollah’s ally in such a venture is a demoralized and depleted Syrian army, whose combat effectiveness has steadily deteriorated in recent years. Hezbollah has no confidence in the Syrians, and even less that they would prevent rebel reinforcements from other areas. Corruption is rampant in the Syrian ranks and as the tide turns in Syria this is bound to increase as units begin preparing for a future without Bashar Assad. Such hopelessness could facilitate rebel efforts to buy their way through Syrian lines to Qalamoun, possibly creating a situation where Hezbollah will send its men into a meat grinder.

We have quite possibly reached a new stage in Syria. The countries backing the opponents of Assad have unified their efforts, and it seems to be working. Their most likely strategy is to pursue and consolidate their battlefield gains and push Iran into accepting a compromise at the expense of Assad. This would presumably allow a managed transition away from his rule, in that way averting the chaos of Libya.

The United Nations envoy Staffan de Mistura has seen a small opening. On Monday he began talks with a wide range of political actors from Syria and the region in an effort to relaunch negotiations and end the Syrian conflict. At this stage de Mistura’s objective will not be to achieve a breakthrough, but to prepare a forum that can facilitate negotiations in the future when or if the parties see a need for them.

As negotiations with Iran continue over a final nuclear accord, several officials have already suggested that those talks, if successful, could lead to Iran playing a role in finding a solution to the war in Syria. That supposition may be too optimistic by half. Iran is a house of many mansions, and it’s not at all evident that those inside the country who may lose from a nuclear accord, principally the Revolutionary Guard and their allies, would willingly go along with a process whose ultimate outcome is the removal of Bashar Assad.

Yet if Assad’s foes in Syria make more significant gains, then his allies in Tehran may not have much of a choice. That is why their natural instinct would be to claw back territory to improve Assad’s bargaining hand in the future. In that context a battle for Qalamoun takes on especial importance. But so too does the strategic necessity of getting Qalamoun right. That is why if an offensive doesn’t take place in the coming weeks, it is not because justification for it is lacking; it will be because Hezbollah and Syria’s army are unable to triumph decisively.

And if that’s the case then the limits of Iran and Hezbollah’s effectiveness in Syria will be visible, and therefore their ability to keep Assad in place will be reduced. But to admit this will be difficult for some in Iran, which is why Hezbollah will have a role in determining what decision Iran ultimately takes with regard to the Syrian conflict. The party cannot afford to so involve itself in Syria that it loses control in Lebanon, or, as Qassem insinuated, leaves Lebanon’s Shiites without suitable protection.

We are nearing decision time in Iran. A nuclear deal might loosen up funds to bolster Assad in Syria, but all that would do is delay his end, so decayed are the Syrian regime and army. Hezbollah must consider the risks of going down with Assad’s ship. What it does or does not do in Qalamoun will be an illustration of the frame of mind in the party’s leadership.

Trial and errors - The UN must assess the investigation of Rafik Hariri’s killing

As I listened to the prosecution’s questioning of Walid Jumblatt this week before the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, several thoughts came to mind. All were related to the quality of the United Nations investigation of Rafik al-Hariri’s assassination, and why it requires a critical assessment by the world body.

The first thought was, with all the information available showing the profound tensions between Hariri and the Syrian regime, why did the United Nations investigative team under its second commissioner, Serge Brammertz, fail to actively pursue an inquiry into possible Syrian involvement in his killing?

The recordings that Hariri made of his interactions with Syrian officials, not to mention the testimony of witnesses pointing to growing Syrian animosity toward the former prime minister, certainly imposed such an inquiry. This despite the fact that Brammertz’s predecessor, Detlev Mehlis, had focused on a Syrian motive for the crime, and had even interviewed several Syrian intelligence chiefs in Vienna.

In light of those interviews, Mehlis, as he later informed me, had requested that Brammertz arrest Rustom Ghazaleh, the former head of Syria’s intelligence network in Lebanon. The Belgian commissioner had ignored this.

During his term, Mehlis had also entered into a standoff with the Syrian regime by requesting to take down the witness statement of President Bashar al-Assad. The Syrians refused, and Mehlis had gained support from the UN Security Council, through Resolution 1636, requiring that Syria cooperate with his investigation. When I first met Mehlis a few weeks after that decision he stated, “The conditions we have are almost perfect. It makes our work easier. We are very happy.”

He was particularly happy in that he had tightened the legal framework for the investigation, creating a path for Brammertz to dig further into the potential implication of Syria. Instead, the Belgian commissioner came in and did nothing. As one investigator who served under the first two commissioners told me: “Not much investigating was done” under Brammertz.

In fact, Brammertz avoided conducting one of the most obvious and necessary of tasks, namely taking down Assad’s witness statement after the Security Council had backed up the UN investigation. The commissioner traveled to Damascus and met with Assad, but he never took down a formal statement. With the focus of the trial now shifting to Syria, that there are no statements by Assad to eventually place against what is being said against him in court is inexcusable.

Brammertz was also criticized because of his behavior with respect to the telecommunications analysis surrounding the Hariri assassination. This was brought to light by a hard-hitting Canadian Broadcasting Corporation documentary in 2010.

The CBC affirmed that the UN investigative commission had delayed telecoms analysis of its own and had misplaced a report by a Lebanese investigator, Wissam Eid, identifying the cellular calls of those participating in the assassination. Eid’s conclusions were later confirmed by investigators brought in by the commission and these formed the basis of the initial indictment of five Hezbollah members.

The merits of the CBC report notwithstanding, the scandal was really elsewhere. Why was Eid conducting the most sensitive facet of the investigation in the first place? That was the duty of the UN investigative commission itself. Indeed, it should have been an absolute priority for Brammertz and his team.

At the time, Brammertz had tightly sealed his investigation, limiting the information handed to the Lebanese side, so as to prevent leaks. Therefore, one can only conclude that either he was negligent in his duties, or far more damagingly, that he pushed the telecommunications analysis onto the Lebanese, before he himself initiated telecoms analysis over a year later—in October 2007, according to the CBC documentary—when the UN commission asked a British company, FTS, to do so.

If this interpretation is correct, Brammertz is guilty of having purposely postponed looking at one of the most vital aspects of the Hariri assassination. But the careerist in him must have sensed the mood at the UN well, for when he left office in 2008 he was rewarded with a plum posting as prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.

Brammertz’s refusal to go to the heart of the investigation had implications for the initial indictment prepared by Brammertz’s successor, Daniel Bellemare. Brammertz was instrumental in appointing Bellemare, and one can understand why. The Canadian judge never called into question his predecessor’s work, though the fact that he took three years to put together an indictment shows how little Brammertz had left him in his files.

And what an indictment. Bellemare’s work was as shoddy as Brammertz’s was dishonest. The Canadian offered no motive for why Hariri had been eliminated, presenting the defense with a golden opportunity to discredit his case. Not surprisingly, when his successor Norman Farrell took over as prosecutor, he was scornful of Bellemare’s efforts. Searching for a motive, he went back to the original hypothesis of Syrian involvement, and has concentrated on that with witnesses in recent months.

That is what has disturbed the Syrian regime. As Farrell has zeroed in on a Syrian reason for killing Hariri, even revealing a recording of a conversation between Hariri and Ghazaleh, the leadership in Damascus must have expected that Ghazaleh would be called in as a witness, even arrested. By blocking his appearance in court, the Syrians would have appeared guilty. By accepting it, there was a risk Ghazaleh would talk. That is why the best solution may have been to have Ghazaleh liquidated.

But when will someone talk about Brammertz’s actions, and denounce Bellemare’s indictment for the incompetent document that it is? The credibility of a UN legal process was undermined by a Belgian judge who remains on the UN payroll and a Canadian judge who was always in over his head. But no one wants to rock the boat. The UN ignores this at its own peril.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Special tribunal tests Jumblatt’s opposing views

This week the Lebanese Druze politician Walid Jumblatt has been in the witness stand at the Special Tribunal for Lebanon. Mr Jumblatt, a political gymnast, aimed to achieve a number of things under questioning but his performance on his first two days also showed he preferred to sidestep others.

Early on, the Druze leader viewed the United Nations investigation of Hariri’s assassination in a Beirut bombing in February 2005 as a means of political leverage to reduce Syrian influence in Lebanon. However, in 2009, when Syria and Saudi Arabia effected a political rapprochement, president Bashar Al Assad’s regime set a condition. It wanted the Saudis to push their ally Saad Hariri, who had become Lebanese prime minister, into publicly denouncing the UN investigation.

The then-prosecutor, Daniel Bellemare, was still preparing an indictment for the special tribunal in early 2011, when the Obama administration blocked these Syrian-Saudi efforts to discredit the court. In retaliation, Hizbollah and its allies pulled out of Saad Hariri’s government in January 2011, bringing it down.

Mr Jumblatt, who had reconciled with Syria months earlier, had initially urged Mr Hariri to accept the Syrian-Saudi deal. But 2011 was the year the uprising began in Syria and the Druze leader changed tack. He sided with the Syrian opposition and the tribunal became an instrument that could be used against Mr Al Assad.

One thing that did not change was Mr Jumblatt’s relationship with Hizbollah. When he improved ties with Syria in 2010, he also did so with Hizbollah. Despite his differences with the party over the Syrian conflict, the Druze leader has preserved that relationship. This is, in large part, to ensure domestic peace in Lebanon, particularly in areas he controls, which have a significant Shia population.

But the special tribunal has tested Mr Jumblatt’s conflicting attitudes. On the one hand, five Hizbollah members have been indicted by the court, which cannot please the Druze leader. On the other, Mr Jumblatt would like the tribunal to accuse the Syrian regime of Hariri’s murder.

Indeed, many of the Syrian security officials involved in, or who had information about, the Hariri assassination have died or been killed. Rustom Ghazaleh, who headed Syria’s intelligence network in Lebanon, was said to have died last week. Mr Jumblatt is not alone in linking all these deaths to the murder of Hariri. The argument is that the Syrian regime, already much weakened, could not afford to allow Syrian officers to be called by the court and possibly confirm its involvement.

Mr Jumblatt has been brought in by the prosecution to throw some light on the Syrian decision-making process and on relations between Hariri and the Syrian leadership. That is a subject the Druze leader has readily expanded upon.

But Mr Jumblatt will not target Lebanese parties that might have participated in the plot against Hariri. Just as he has steered clear of Hizbollah, he does not want to mention the Lebanese Army, whose intelligence services may have had prior knowledge of the assassination. In 2005, army intelligence was very close to Syria and Hizbollah, and it remains close to the party today.

At a time when the army maintains domestic peace in Lebanon, Mr Jumblatt will avoid tarnishing its reputation, particularly among Sunnis. Indeed, in his testimony on the first day the Druze leader was generally evasive about how the army had contributed to the intimidation of the former prime minister.

Many might look askance at Mr Jumblatt’s political aims in a legal process that should be above politics. But that would mean ignoring the fact that the Hariri assassination was a political crime, with implications for all aspects of Lebanese political life.

It will be up to the court to distinguish between the political agendas of the witnesses and their testimony. But the politics and the trial are irrevocably intertwined.

This has become even more relevant as the prosecution has taken the trial in the direction of Syrian involvement. Clearly, prosecutor Norman Farrell did not feel the original indictment, prepared by Mr Bellemare, was adequate, because it failed to determine a motive for the crime.

Mr Jumblatt’s testimony will be central to establishing a political context for Hariri’s killing. As every Lebanese knows, the former prime minister was preparing to head a coalition against pro-Syrian lists in the elections of summer 2005. This coalition would probably have won a majority, making the Lebanese parliament a focal point of opposition to Syria and to its man in Beirut, president Emile Lahoud. This would have threatened Syria’s presence in Lebanon.

That Mr Bellemare missed this in his indictment was a scandal, especially as there was ample information in witness statements taken down in 2005, which pointed in Syria’s direction. Mr Jumblatt’s role is to add meat to the prosecution’s bone. By shedding light on Syria, Mr Jumblatt hopes to reduce the focus on Hizbollah.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

The beginning of the end in Syria

President Bashar Assad’s regime is beginning to crumble despite assistance from Iran and its allies. However, such a prospect did not prevent the recent liquidation of Rustom Ghazaleh, once the head of Syria’s military intelligence network in Lebanon.

The Syrian regime’s loss of Idlib and Busra al-Sham in recent weeks, followed by the defeat in the strategic town of Jisr al-Shughur last week, has exposed the gangrene at the heart of Assad rule. Something has been broken in the Alawite backbone of the state, with younger men in the community preferring to escape Syria rather than sacrifice themselves for a leader who cannot conceivably endure in the long term.

What are the Iranians thinking? They have made Assad’s political survival a strategic priority, but the incompetence and brutality of his regime – to which Iran has amply contributed – have ensured the task is unachievable. Even with Iranian and Russian help Assad is losing ground rapidly. Partly that’s because the life is gone from his armed forces, which have been successful only in their campaign to slaughter tens of thousands of civilians.

What the Iranian regime has failed to grasp is that violence and terrorization are rarely sufficient to keep a leader in office indefinitely. For the past four years Assad has deployed no other methods. He never offered those who fought on his behalf a vision of a desirable future that would make them pursue the fight. To stick with Assad offered no compensations, no light at the end of the tunnel. Only more depravity and abuse.

There are those who argue that the war in Syria will continue for some time yet. Assad is well-entrenched in Damascus and Iran will invest what it takes to ensure that he doesn’t fall. Perhaps. But then what? How will the Iranian security establishment reverse the tide? Assad is not salvageable. The cohesiveness of the regime is disintegrating amid myriad rifts. Even Hezbollah, whose men are dying to ensure that Assad stays, has nothing but contempt for the Syrian army. The corpse’s stench is growing and no amount of Iranian stubbornness will reverse this.

Ghazaleh’s fate is a reminder of affairs in Damascus. While many believed his death was a result of disagreements within the Syrian security establishment over Iran’s exaggerated role in Syria, the truth may be more prosaic. As the Special Tribunal for Lebanon refocuses on Syria’s role in the assassination of Lebanon’s former prime minister, Rafik Hariri, it may be that the regime feared that Ghazaleh might be called in as a witness. He was interviewed by United Nations investigators back in 2005, and as one of those present described Ghazaleh then, “He looked guilty as hell.”

Imagine if Ghazaleh had been summoned again. By refusing to comply the Syrian government would have been viewed as hiding something. Had he gone, there was a risk he would be detained, and given Ghazaleh’s anxieties that he could become the fall guy for Hariri’s murder, he might have spilled the beans. Better to get rid of that problem now to avoid headaches in the future.

The prosecutor of the special tribunal can alter his indictment at any stage, and one thing the harried Assad regime does not need today is to find itself accused by an international court of assassinating Hariri. Ironically, this may have more bearing on the regime than the carnage for which it has been responsible at home, because the trial, made possible thanks to a U.N. decision, can alter the behavior of states. Russia would be especially embarrassed by having to defend Assad and his acolytes against an institution that it was instrumental in creating.

Ghazaleh’s death helped propagate the image of a regime that is devouring its own. Most people assume Assad has become a puppet in the hands of Iran. In light of this what hope is there for the inheritors of Hafez Assad? Every rule the late Syrian leader imposed to preserve Alawite domination has been broken by his inept sons, assisted by the vast criminal enterprise of an inhumane intelligence apparatus.

Only fear of what might come after Assad has made countries reluctant to help accelerate the Syrian president’s exit. To quote the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, John Brennan, who was speaking last month to the Council on Foreign Relations, “The last thing we want to do is to allow [Islamic extremists] to march into Damascus.” That attitude has long prevailed in Washington, but only now are the Americans realizing that their hesitancy to see Assad pushed out in 2011 only created conditions that made a worse outcome probable.

That is worrisome, particularly for Syria’s minorities. As far back as 2011 Syria’s Christians were warned that wagering on Assad would only bring disaster. Even Lebanon’s Christians, represented by that great moral paragon, Maronite Patriarch Beshara al-Rai, endorsed Assad on his foreign visits. We now have someone else to thank, then, at a moment when the Christian presence in the Middle East is under existential threat.

Assad may hold out for a time. But he has nothing on which to rebuild his authority. His community is in disarray; his army and intelligence services are as well. Iran, Hezbollah and Russia are filling the void, but with increasingly limited effectiveness and no hope of amelioration. Bashar Assad’s regime is on life support. Someone needs to pull the plug, preferably Assad’s friends, while a negotiated transition in Syria is still vaguely possible.

On our own - Regional states could soon ignore America in Syria.

Recently former Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri was in Washington to meet with officials. While there he held a get-together with Arab journalists, in which he said there was a new Arab attitude to act against Iranian influence in the Middle East.

In Syria, Hariri reportedly said, the establishment of “safe zones,” or the provision of “air cover” to advancing rebels in the north and south of the country was “inevitable.” According to journalist Joyce Karam, who was in on the meeting: “For Hariri, however, such action in Syria could come regardless of Washington’s position or whether it strikes a nuclear deal with Iran or doesn’t by the end of June. The main Arab objective as Hariri spells it out, is ‘restoring Arab will after years of Iran trying to break it.’”

It was interesting that Hariri, even as he was meeting with the Americans, felt a need to implicitly criticize the United States. While this reflected a more assertive Arab attitude, it also revealed genuine anger with President Barack Obama’s unwillingness to seriously counter Iranian inroads into the Middle East.

However, the current situation is paradoxical. The United States, in order to disengage from the region, wants the Arab states to become more proactive and stop turning toward Washington at every crisis. At the same time, the Arab attitude risks endangering an Obama administration priority, namely the conclusion of a final nuclear deal with Iran that can lead to normalized relations.

That’s not to say that the Arab states can block a nuclear deal if the leaderships in Iran and the United States want one. But it is very much within their capacity to create situations in which the Obama administration will be forced to choose one side over the other, and there the American president’s principal concern will be to avoid alienating his regional allies. This could greatly limit his options.

Syria is a good example. If Saudi Arabia leads the Arab states in a campaign to oust President Bashar al-Assad--which would benefit from Turkish support, amid reports the two states are coordinating their actions--Washington would have to make a choice. Nothing suggests the Americans want Iran to dominate in Syria, quite the contrary, but Assad’s fall would represent a strategic defeat for Tehran. Any Iranian reaction may target Arab states. If Obama comes to their defense, this could jeopardize his opening to Iran.

Obama is learning the travails of suddenly downgrading one’s presence in a region where the United States was deeply involved until a few years ago. He never prepared the ground with his regional allies to ensure a smooth transition away from this.

The Saudi-Turkish partnership, despite the two countries’ profound differences over the Muslim Brotherhood, represents a significant new phase in the Syrian conflict. While it’s difficult to determine how responsible each is for the string of rebel victories in recent weeks, their shared interest in Syria appear to have ensured at least that the rebels are well resupplied.

Neither Riyadh nor Ankara wants openly to be seen as backing the Jaysh al-Fateh, or Army of Conquest, coalition that led the rebels’ takeover of Idlib and Jisr al-Shughur in April. The reason is that the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra plays a dominant role in the coalition. Indeed, the information that has emerged speaks only of Saudi-Turkish coordination to back non-jihadist groups.

Yet despite this, it is probable that the Turks are behaving with intentional ambiguity toward Jabhat al-Nusra. The group’s foreign recruits have been allowed to pass through Turkey (as have ISIS recruits), and there have been numerous reports of militants traveling to Turkey for rest and medical treatment. More difficult to gauge is whether Turkey has given such groups intelligence and weapons to help them in their battles against the Syrian regime.

A key issue that the Saudis and Turks will seek to determine is who ultimately takes Damascus. Both countries know that Washington does not want jihadists to capture the Syrian capital--nor indeed do the Saudis and the Turks themselves. That is why there has been a heating up of the southern front this week, as rebels strive to overrun key regime positions on the approaches to Damascus.

The southern rebels are considered more moderate than those around Idlib. And they too have made advances in recent weeks, capturing Bosra al-Sham and the last regime-controlled border crossing with Jordan in April. What we are witnessing is a race between different anti-Assad groups to decisively defeat the regime, and in that way determine what a postwar Syria looks like.

A story Tuesday in Alaraby Aljadeed cast a light on possible Arab military aid. A Free Syrian Army source was quoted as saying, “Rebel factions in the [south of Syria] are preparing for large-scale military operations and have received promises of Arab air cover, or at least the provision of anti-aircraft missiles.”

You have to wonder how the Obama administration will react to all this. Will it urge caution, as it has done in Yemen? Or, on the contrary, would it regard an Iranian setback in Syria as a golden opportunity to deal with a more vulnerable, more malleable, Islamic Republic? That’s not at all clear, particularly when the American focus remains on defeating groups such as ISIS and Al-Qaeda affiliates in Yemen, Iraq and Syria.

Obama’s strategy toward the Middle East has, at the very least, generated great unpredictability, which Washington may regret before long. Sometimes you have to be careful what you wish for.  

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

US may regret turning its back on the region

There has been much debate over the USA’s pivot away from the Middle East and toward East Asia. Defenders of president Barack Obama have backed this realignment as necessary. Critics have said Washington’s new priority is unwarranted when the Arab world is in such turmoil.

Neither view is complete. Mr Obama’s focus on Asia is certainly defensible in a global environment defined by the rise of China and the eastward shift of economic power. As for disorder in the Middle East, that is exactly why the Obama administration has moved away. Managing events here has sapped American energies and finances, for little gain.

However, justifiable criticism can be directed at Mr Obama’s methods. When he took office, the US president outlined a change of direction away from a region that, for decades, had become heavily dependent upon Washington. He didn’t realise, or care to realise, that this would create a vacuum and instability that have, in fact, hampered his prioritisation of Asia.

Often the trickiest phases in diplomacy are navigating major transitions. Mr Obama is discovering that now, as he continues the nuclear negotiations with Iran. Radical foreign policy swings affect vested interests, impose new behaviour on bureaucracies, alter the time that presidents devote to particular regions and mean that budgets have to be redirected.

That is why transitions have to be conducted carefully, not only to ensure that they are successful, but to avoid leaving allies in the lurch. In that sense Mr Obama’s pivot to Asia is a textbook case of how not to effect a strategic transition.

For 70 years, the Middle East had been at the centre of American preoccupations. Four presidential doctrines were directly or indirectly aimed at enhancing regional security. Post-war ties with Saudi Arabia, America’s first strategic relationship with an Arab state, were built on a foundation of American protection in exchange for the kingdom maintaining stability in oil markets. To suddenly indicate that the region has lost importance was bound to wreak havoc.

Mr Obama’s main problem is that he has done two things simultaneously that have generated panic. He has disengaged from the region and at the same time sought normalisation of relations with Iran through a nuclear accord. This will bolster Iran’s means to pursue its regional ambitions at a time when Washington’s allies feel they’re on their own.

Mr Obama’s error was that he showed no patience for the diplomacy that should have surrounded his east Asia pivot. He had no appreciation of how a dependent Middle East might respond to a shift in policy that the US never bothered to coordinate with its allies. And if this dependency on the US was unhealthy, the Americans were greatly to blame.

Rather than effect a smooth transition, in which Mr Obama made his intentions clear, then worked with regional allies to create structures to fill the void, the president did nothing. He has visited the region relatively few times and devotes scant attention to its problems. He has carried the foreign policy bureaucracy with him.

The paradox is that when directing its attentions away from a region, an administration often has to spend more time on it in an interim period. Europe was a focal point of American efforts during the Cold War. Yet when the rivalry with the Soviet Union ended, the US remained concerned with Europe, leading to its involvement in the Balkans. A policy of cold turkey, as adopted by Mr Obama, is irresponsible.

Mr Obama may be seeking to create a new balance of power in the Middle East to lessen the burden on the US. However, to regional partners this smacks of abandonment. America’s Gulf allies, not to mention Israel, have regarded American normalisation with Iran as a betrayal.

An opening to Iran might have many benefits. But Mr Obama has never quite explained what he intends. In response to this ambiguity, America’s Arab allies have adopted policies to combat Iran’s influence in Syria, Yemen and Iraq. This has led to a number of crises that paradoxically make it more difficult for Washington to redirect itself away from the region.

Indeed, the Syrian uprising, which became a regional proxy war that Mr Obama neglected, created an environment that permitted the rise of ISIL and drew America back into the region militarily. Similarly, the war in Yemen, while it may illustrate a new initiative on the part of many Arab states, has led to a situation that has allowed Al Qaeda to expand its area of control.

In speaking to backers of the Obama approach, one is often surprised to hear a narrow defence of the president’s attitude. Their argument that America no longer has the financial means and is no longer reliant upon the region’s oil seems justification enough for Washington’s detachment.

But it’s not enough. Inaction has consequences. Mr Obama, by avoiding a managed transition, failed to prepare for the ensuing void, heightening regional volatility and America’s policy confusion. This will haunt the US for years to come.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Not coming home - How Lebanon is affected by sectarian cleansing in Syria

You have to hand it to the Aounists. They have a gift for speaking out most forcefully against developments for which they or their allies are responsible.

This week, Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil said the following at an Education Ministryconference: “There is a genuine scheme to keep the Syrians in Lebanon, and this must be confronted so they should not be turned into permanent refugees.”

Bassil is correct. Syrians must not be resettled in Lebanon. But who is behind this “scheme”? The same people who turned the Syrians into refugees in the first place, and who do not want a mainly Sunni population to return to areas in Syria from which they were chased out. It doesn’t take a prodigy to grasp that this can only be the Assad regime, with Hezbollah collaborating.

Were they Bassil’s targets? More likely he was simply highlighting a demographic reality that threatens to engulf Lebanon’s Christians, but did not want to embarrass Hezbollah and Assad. So he adopted typical Lebanese obliqueness, hinting that what was taking place was a conspiracy.

However, the minister was making a valid point, one that has been shamelessly overlooked internationally (despite efforts by activists to highlight the reality of sectarian cleansing). In its policy of guaranteeing territorial continuity between Damascus and Alawite areas on the coast, the Syrian regime and Iran have sought to alter demographic realities, particularly in the district of Homs, the pivot linking the capital and coastal Syria.

According to figures provided by the United Nations’ High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the majority of Syrian refugees in Lebanon come from adjoining regions in Syria, among them Homs and Qalamoun. Both have strategic importance for Bashar al-Assad’s political survival. If the connection with the Alawite-dominated coast were cut, and with it the means to resupply his army in Damascus with weapons and manpower, the Syrian president would be obliged to abandon the capital and his regime would effectively collapse.

In 2013, Walid Jumblatt had already warned of an effort to alter demographic realities in Homs, warning that real estate records in the city were being destroyed. “The destruction of real-estate records in the city and their replacement with others of different sects is an attempt to alter the political and sectarian identity of the regions stretching from Damascus to the Syrian coast,” Jumblatt had written in an editorial in the weekly Al-Anbaa.

Sources at the UN later confirmed this information to me. Jumblatt cited such sectarian cleansing to condemn the reaction, or non-reaction, of the international community.

When one recalls what happened in Kosovo, this denunciation of double standards is justified. At the height of the conflict in 1998-1999, there were reports that the Serbs had begun to engage in identity cleansing, confiscating passports, land titles and other documents, in order to make it much more difficult for fleeing Kosovars to ever come back.

The reaction in the West was outrage. As this came not long after the ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, preventing such behavior was regarded as a test. Ultimately, Western powers prevailed and moral support for the war was determined by a refusal to see another example of Serbian-provoked ethnic cleansing.

The Syrians haven’t been so lucky. Few in the international community have highlighted sectarian cleansing in Syria, let alone identified it as a clearly-planned, systematic objective of the Syrian regime, backed by Iran and abetted by Assad’s other ally, Russia. It is as if the experiences of the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, and Iraq, to name only them—all characterized by violent efforts to alter demographics—have been forgotten.

Bassil would be making a tragic mistake by taking up the issue of Syrian refugees merely to curry favor among his Christian political base. The fate of the refugees is an existential matter for Lebanon and must be addressed away from populist politics.

The foreign minister is in a position to help shape a consensus around the refugee question. He can speak to Hezbollah, whose Shiite community would lose greatly from the permanent settlement of well over a million Sunni refugees. Hezbollah, in turn, has access to Iran and the Assad regime. This, ultimately, might help ensure the return of the refugees to Syria one day.

At the same time, because Syria is in the midst of conflict, such efforts will fail today. For military reasons neither Assad nor Iran will accept returning a Sunni population that might act as a friendly environment for anti-Assad rebels. Indeed, when 1,500 refugees sought to return to Syria last year after the fighting in Arsal, they were refused entry by the Syrian authorities.

What this means in the future is fairly stark. For the refugees to return home, either Assad must win the war in Syria outright or he must lose. If he wins—which is highly unlikely—expect repatriation to take a long time, as the Syrian regime will want to consolidate itself before taking back a large Sunni population.

If Assad loses, the refugees are more liable to return. However, with Syria’s infrastructure devastated, the pace may, similarly, be slow, even if years of living in abysmal conditions in Lebanon will encourage many to go home nonetheless. Moreover, the need to rebuild Syria will mean job opportunities, assuming there is capital to finance such a monumental project.

Lebanese officials have a duty to raise the refugee issue worldwide, particularly the long-term consequences of permanent resettlement. Yet it serves no purpose talking about ill-defined plots and schemes. Stoking paranoia is not sound policy. Bassil and the Lebanese government must coolly examine ways to reduce pressures on the country.