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.

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.  

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Border wars will determine Assad’s fate

In recent months there has been much talk of a Hezbollah offensive in the Qalamoun district of Syria. The expectation was that it would take place some time in spring. However, there have been so signs of when, or if, this will actually happen.

Last February Iran organized a pair of offensives in Syria – one in the north around Aleppo, the other in the south. This signaled a strategy of neutralizing Syria’s border areas and cutting off rebel supply lines from Turkey and Jordan. A Qalamoun operation was viewed as applying the same logic.

The problem is that Iran’s plans went haywire. In the north the hostilities west of Aleppo turned to the Iranians’ disadvantage, with heavy losses among those fighting on behalf of the Assad regime, particularly Afghan Shiites. Within a matter of weeks Bashar Assad’s enemies had counterattacked and captured Idlib, a significant reversal for the Syrian regime and Tehran.

In the south a similar pattern soon developed. An Iranian-led offensive also stalled. This was followed in subsequent weeks by the regime’s loss of Busra al-Sham, and after that the last regime-controlled border crossing with Jordan at Nassib.

In light of this, one wonders if Hezbollah’s calculations have not changed. While the failures in Syria’s north and south make urgent a successful campaign against the rebels, they also make it necessary for Hezbollah to avoid any setbacks. For Iran an indecisive campaign in Qalamoun, after the other recent losses, would be disastrous. It would create an impression that Iran and Hezbollah can be beaten, at a time when the Syrian regime is vulnerable and cannot readily mobilize military manpower.

This would be a valuable victory for Turkey and Jordan. By helping undermine Iran, Assad and their allies along the border, both have protected their stakes in Syria. They are unwilling to allow an expansion of Iranian influence up to their borders with Syria – an attitude shared by Israel, which has imposed a red line against Hezbollah and Iran operating on the Golan Heights.

However, Lebanon is a different matter. In recent months Hezbollah has carefully laid the groundwork for an attack in Qalamoun by pushing the Lebanese Army into a border interdiction effort. The Army, under the heading of “fighting terrorism,” has obliged, with the help of Western countries that have sent arms and participated in surveillance operations. That jihadi groups inside Qalamoun still hold Lebanese soldiers and policemen hostage has facilitated Hezbollah’s task of portraying the battles there as an effort to combat extremist groups.

Yet there appear to be limits to what the Army is prepared to do. The Syrians and Hezbollah have pushed for tighter coordination but the military command is not eager to be drawn into the Syrian conflict, and does want to be perceived as taking part in the Qalamoun campaign. It will try to limit its role to defensive duties: seizing the high ground, blocking access across the border and maintaining security among Syrian refugees, many of whom are related to the Qalamoun combatants.

Hezbollah and Iran, not to mention the Syrian armed forces, have their work cut out for them in Qalamoun. The area is large and very difficult to control. There is also much corruption among the Syrian forces. The possibility that rebel groups and their jihadi allies will be able to send reinforcements through Syrian lines cannot be ruled out.

Hezbollah is reportedly optimistic about its chances of defeating the rebels. Qalamoun is vital as it straddles communication lines between Damascus and the Syrian coast, and if the Assad regime is to reinforce itself that passage must be secured. But we’ve often heard party officials sound upbeat about the direction of the Syrian conflict, only to be blindsided by reality.

Worse, Hezbollah must know better than most the profound degradation of the Syrian Army and security forces, with which relations are particularly tense. There can be no illusions within the party about the ease of military action in Qalamoun.

Control of Syria’s borders is essential to preserving Bashar Assad’s regime. Until now that struggle is being lost by the regime and Iran. Only the Lebanese border provides some hope for them. And even then the rebels in Qalamoun are relatively isolated and surrounded, unlike those in the south and north, who have the space to expand their territorial control.

What happens in Qalamoun, or fails to happen, will give us an insight into what lies ahead in Syria. But one thing is evident: Assad’s future will be determined by developments along Syria’s frontiers. The regime has been unable to reverse the tide of losses along its boundaries. Iran is discovering that its regional foes can bleed it with a thousand pin pricks. It wants to be sure that a Qalamoun offensive will not add to the flow.


In my column of last week I mistakenly wrote that Al-Jadeed had revealed the personal details of witnesses in the trial before the Special Tribunal for Lebanon. Only Al-Akhbar did so. While one may question Al-Jadeed’s motives in highlighting the leaks surrounding the trial, my statement was incorrect.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Will Saudi aid force a rethink from Hizbollah?

The Lebanese army has received a long-awaited shipment of weapons from France, paid for through a $3 billion (Dh11bn) gift from Saudi Arabia. This highlighted the changing role of the military in a country where the dominant political force is Hizbollah with its own militia that is separate from the state.

The Saudi aid, while benefiting the army, was in effect a reward to France for its tough position on nuclear talks with Iran. But it was also an effort to build up a counterweight to Hizbollah at a time that the pro-Iranian party is caught in a grinding war in Syria on behalf of Iran and president Bashar Al Assad’s regime.

Oddly, the army has benefited from Hizbollah’s campaign. It is now deployed in areas where this was virtually inconceivable a few years ago. Widely perceived as the only institution that can maintain national stability, the army has gained by including all religious communities, which are united in working for a common purpose.

The army’s credibility took a beating during the years of the Syrian military presence, and afterwards, when Hizbollah’s refusal to surrender its weapons reflected badly on the state.

After the Lebanese conflict ended in 1990, the Syrians rebuilt the army, but also ensured it would be pro-Syrian. Having taken control of the personnel files of the military, the Syrians promoted friendly officers and marginalised opponents. They also trained officers in Syria. Meanwhile, Hizbollah was maintained as an autonomous armed force to combat Israel, creating a duality between the army and “resistance” that has plagued Lebanon.

Since then Hizbollah has opposed calls to integrate into the army, portraying itself as a more effective defender of Lebanon against Israel. In a speech in 2012, its secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah, barely concealed his contempt for the idea of integrating with the army. He argued that the army, as an organised institution, was unable to hide its weapons in case of war, whereas Hizbollah could.

“Therefore, those who ask for the handover of Hizbollah’s weapons to the army want the Resistance and the army to be destroyed,” Mr Nasrallah said.

Similarly, when the army surrounded the Nahr Al Bared Palestinian refugee camp in 2007, following the killing of 27 soldiers by jihadists, Mr Nasrallah warned it against entering the camp. This was widely criticised and, thankfully, ignored by the military command.

For a long time, the army was viewed as being under the thumb of Hizbollah, which had gained political power in the years after the Syrian withdrawal. The party and its allies retain influence over the military intelligence services and the office responsible for the promotion and posting of officers.

That situation has not greatly changed, but what has is the context. As Hizbollah has embroiled itself in the Syrian quagmire, it can no longer depict itself as a defender of the nation. Given the sectarian polarisation in Lebanon, Hizbollah has alienated Lebanon’s Sunnis. Moreover, as the war in Syria draws in Hizbollah fighters, the party knows it needs the army to maintain domestic peace and address security threats at home.

That is why Hizbollah has had to make concessions to the army. When car bomb attacks targeted Beirut’s Hizbollah-controlled southern suburbs in 2013, the party set up roadblocks at every entrance. This provoked displeasure from businesses, which Hizbollah absorbed by handing the posts over to the army.

For years, Hizbollah’s foes demanded that the army be deployed along the frontier with Syria, which the party refused. Yet as tensions escalated in Syria’s Qalamoun district, along Lebanon’s eastern border, and Hizbollah moved forces there, the army’s presence became necessary to interdict resupply efforts in Lebanon by Syrian rebels and help protect villages.

Today, the army has reinforced its positions along the border, while the United Kingdom has helped it to build a string of defensive towers. At the same time, according to journalist Nicholas Blanford, the army has allowed US special forces to operate drones above the area to feed it information about jihadist groups. As the northern Beqaa Valley is a Hizbollah stronghold, the party cannot welcome these intrusions.

Not much will change in the short term between Hizbollah and the army. A confrontation is improbable. But with Lebanon so divided over the war in Syria, most Lebanese believe the army alone is capable of containing domestic unrest. This comes as Hizbollah’s fealty to Iran is bitterly contested, which means the party can no longer defend its weapons as a national need.

Will Hizbollah willingly dissolve itself as a militia? Definitely not, but with the presence of an increasingly credible Lebanese army backed by a popular consensus, the party will find it more and more difficult to justify an independent militia that refuses to recognise the ultimate authority of the state.

Friday, April 17, 2015

All in the family - Michel Aoun between the presidency and the great beyond

Michel Aoun has threatened to leave the cabinet if the terms of Lebanon’s military and security chiefs are extended. The general is apparently angry that there is a political consensus to extend the mandates in order to maintain stability at a time when the country faces multiple challenges.

The contradictions inherent in Aoun’s position are many. For starters, Aoun himself has contributed to the political deadlock that has delayed the appointment of new security officials. By refusing to allow his bloc to attend presidential election sessions in parliament, the general has helped freeze the system, doing precisely what Hezbollah wants him to do: create the conditions to bring in a president of whom the party approves.

But there is something else taking place below the surface that tells us something about the atmosphere around Aoun. When the general indicates that he wants new military and security appointments, a major issue on his mind is who will replace Jean Qahwaji as commander of the armed forces. Aoun’s candidate is his son-in-law Chamel Roukoz, who leads the army’s commando regiment, the Maghaweer.

For a man who derided the nepotistic ways of the political leadership in Lebanon, Aoun is turning into the platonic form of nepotism. He has tirelessly promoted another son-in-law, Gebran Bassil, handing him the most lucrative ministries. One suspects there are those in the family who now want to spread the benefits more evenly. This is all the truer as Roukoz is seen as a competent officer. But there is more to it than that.

One discerns an emerging struggle over who might succeed Aoun as head of the Free Patriotic Movement. While Bassil has his allies in the movement, a number of senior Aounist figures cannot stomach him, and would have no intention of accepting his takeover of the movement. Their principal option, then, is to put their weight behind someone like Roukoz, whose position and reputation make him a natural counterweight to Bassil.

Indeed, there have been recent reports that Aounist parliamentarians known for their hostility to Bassil have traveled to Washington to push for Roukoz’s appointment.

What is Aoun’s position on all this? The general is in something of a quandary. On the one hand, he still insists on becoming president, meaning he is in no mood to prepare for his succession. On the other, the man is 80 and reportedly not in the best of health. In other words, he has to consider what happens to his political movement the day after he’s gone.

In that sense, Aoun’s promotion of Roukoz, aside perhaps from addressing a family issue, may be his way of showing that he has no preferences when it comes to his succession. Or better still, Aoun—no fool when it comes to self-interest—could be well aware of the resentment against Bassil and sees a need to provide his followers with an alternative who is more consensual.

Whatever the rationale, it appears that the issue of military and security appointments also touches on the internal dynamics of the Aounist movement, and is therefore important to Aoun. Yet his latitude in taking out his frustrations by withdrawing from the government is limited as it hits up against Hezbollah’s red lines. The party, caught in a complicated, grinding campaign in Syria, does not want to simultaneously face a domestic political crisis.

Aoun, sensing Hezbollah’s vulnerabilities, may choose to act nonetheless. But one thing is apparent: if Aoun becomes president, the likelihood that he will be able to bring Roukoz in as armed forces commander will be diminished. In other words, having granted Aoun his wish to become head of state, the political class, including Hezbollah, will forcefully resist giving him influence over the Lebanese military as well.      

This raises another interesting question. If we reverse that equation, so that Roukoz’s appointment lessens Aoun’s chances of becoming president, how serious is Aoun about his son-in-law? And if he is serious, then what does it tell us about Aoun’s frame of mind? Would he be willing to give up his presidential ambitions for something in exchange? Some Aounists are already talking about a Roukoz-for-Aoun deal.

Yet it’s difficult to imagine Aoun being so selfless. Rather, if one had to guess, Aoun is putting all his demands on the table now in the hope of not ending up empty-handed. The general has often found himself abandoned by the political wayside, with nothing, when his maneuvering promised better outcomes.

At the heart of Aoun’s considerations is the relationship with Hezbollah. The party says it backs him for the presidency, but you wonder if that is just empty talk to keep the general quiet. Aoun must sense this, hence his threat to leave the government. But Aoun also knows he has to resolve a parallel issue; namely, what happens to his movement after he’s dead.

That is what is most difficult for Aoun to accept. If he has to plan for his succession now, it doesn’t make sense for him to focus on the presidency. The latter is geared toward the future, the former toward the past. Aoun is caught in the middle—on the one side his family and legacy; on the other his selfishness.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

A tribunal on the road to Damascus?

The remarks Tuesday by Hezbollah parliamentarian Hasan Fadlallah, deriding the Special Tribunal for Lebanon “as a scandalous breach of Lebanese sovereignty,” were better suited for a stand-up comedy routine. Hezbollah is a party that Iran created as an instrument to advance its agenda in the region and therefore, almost by definition, undermine state sovereignty.

Fadlallah was expressing his support for Al-Jadeed editor Karma Khayat, who Thursday starts facing a trial for obstruction of justice and contempt of court. In a 2012 report, Al-Jadeed unlawfully disclosed the personal details of the witnesses in the trial of the Hezbollah members accused of having participated in the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. This information, of course, should have remained confidential.

In moments such as these, I think of the Al-Akhbar journalist Omar Nashabe, long a critic of the special tribunal. His views only echoed an attitude prevalent at Al-Akhbar, which Nashabe himself helped shape. Nashabe was especially disapproving of the United Nations’ independent investigative commission’s work early on, believing its first commissioner, Detlev Mehlis, had failed to take measures to establish a credible witness protection program.

Today, Nashabe is counsel in the Special Tribunal’s defense office. Yet the court for which he works is about to put on trial a journalist and media outlet for endangering witnesses – pretty much what Nashabe accused Mehlis of doing a decade ago. If one agreed with Nashabe’s views then, it is only natural to apply the same logic today and approve of Al-Jadeed’s being censured, not to mention Al-Akhbar, which also illegally published a list of witnesses.

For the media foot soldiers enrolled in the battle against the tribunal, the latest developments arouse unease. The shoddy work of Mehlis’ successors, Serge Brammertz and Daniel Bellemare, was apparently not enough to neutralize the court, with the current prosecutor, Normal Farrell, going in investigative directions recalling those pursued by Mehlis. For the German former prosecutor, there was never much doubt that the Syrian regime was behind Hariri’s murder, and the witness statements Mehlis took down in 2005 supported this view. Yet public attention was drawn to the “false witnesses” dispatched to mar the U.N. investigation. However, Mehlis always insisted he had based his findings on much more than the testimony of these witnesses.

It’s strange how nobody ever asked what had happened to the testimony gathered by Mehlis, as Brammertz wasted time for two years without bothering to seriously expand his investigation to Syria. Mehlis interviewed Syria intelligence officers and sought to take down Bashar Assad’s witness statement, which the Syrians refused. The Security Council issued Resolution 1636, backing Mehlis in his efforts to conduct his investigation as he saw fit. Yet when Brammertz met with Assad in 2006, he failed to record a formal statement, though he had a mandate to do so.

Brammertz’s integrity was also seriously questioned by a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation documentary in 2010, which accused him of having mismanaged telecommunications analyses, leaving that burden to Lebanese investigators Wissam Eid and Samir Shehadeh. Both made headway and, as a consequence, became the targets of assassination – in the case of Eid a successful one. My own information about Brammertz’s conduct on this front is even more damning of the commissioner’s performance.

Bellemare’s failings were partly explained by the fact that he followed in Brammertz’s footsteps, therefore starting with a substantially empty investigation file. But the Canadian judge did not remedy the situation. Ultimately, he built his indictment around the telecoms analyses that Brammertz had neglected until his last weeks in office. This created a remarkable disconnect.

Bellemare’s indictment, focused as it was on technicalities, offered no motive for Hariri’s assassination. This was an egregious error, one that Farrell, a serious prosecutor, is apparently seeking to address. To most observers Hariri was killed because he intended to challenge Syria and its allies in the parliamentary elections of 2005, and likely would have won a majority with his partners. That is why Farrell has taken the trial in Syria’s direction, bringing to the witness stand individuals who could help consolidate a case for Syrian involvement in the Hariri assassination. Walid Jumblatt’s appearance next month before the tribunal, after that of Hariri acolytes in recent weeks, bolsters such an interpretation.

Hezbollah is unhappy, but should it be? If the trial redirects toward Syrian involvement, the party could argue that it is innocent. While those indicted are party members, Hezbollah could cast doubt on their actions having been the consequence of a party decision. Even if it is unconvincing, this could reduce the heat domestically.

The Syrian regime, in turn, may be taking precautions of its own. Many believe the beating of Rustom Ghazaleh several weeks ago by the men of another intelligence chief may have been linked to the tribunal. Ghazaleh was apparently seriously injured, with unidentified sources telling Al-Hayat that he was “clinically dead.”

Jameh Jameh, Ghazaleh’s deputy for Beirut when he was military intelligence chief in Lebanon, was killed in Deir al-Zor in 2013, reportedly by a sniper. Assef Shawkat, Assad’s late brother-in-law and the overall Syrian military intelligence chief when Hariri was assassinated, was killed in a bomb blast at a meeting of senior Syrian security figures in July 2012.

While it may be impossible to determine if these deaths were related to the Hariri affair, in practical terms they may have severed ties between the Syrian regime and the assassination, because military intelligence was at the heart of Syria’s Lebanon policy. With the Assad regime worried that the prosecution could expand its indictments and call Syrian officials to testify, wiping the slate clean may be advisable. In the months ahead we will see what Farrell does. But for now Khayat’s trial shows that the special tribunal is gaining in confidence and perhaps moving forward.


In my column of last week I mistakenly wrote that Al-Jadeed had revealed the personal details of witnesses in the trial before the Special Tribunal for Lebanon. Only Al-Akhbar did so. While one may question Al-Jadeed’s motives in highlighting the leaks surrounding the trial, my statement was incorrect.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

The war goes on for families of the disappeared

Monday marked the 40th anniversary of the start of the Lebanese civil war. One of the more tragic legacies of that conflict is the fate of the thousands of people who disappeared, their families still caught in a limbo of uncertainty.

This has personal relevance for me because a friend of mine, along with his sister and uncle, was kidnapped in 1985. For years, my friend’s mother continued to believe they were alive, even if this became increasingly more difficult to accept with time. Her waiting ended in May 2009, when, after leaving a gathering of the families of the disappeared, she was hit by a car and killed.

The number of disappeared is a matter of disagreement. While the official figure is 17,000, the Committee of the Families of the Kidnapped and Disappeared in Lebanon has information on about 2,500 people. Someone who advised the committee once told me he estimated the number at 5,000-7,000 people.

The greatest difficulty faced by the families is that discovering what happened to the disappeared was simply not regarded as a priority in postwar Lebanon; reconciliation was, especially within the political class. This included warlords whose men were involved in a majority of abductions.

This approach was upheld by Syria, which dominated Lebanon and relied on the politicians to manage the postwar order. Reflecting this attitude, in August 1991, Lebanon’s government passed a general amnesty law covering most wartime crimes.

A second difficulty was that there remained inherent ambiguity in what had happened to the disappeared. Many vanished in chaotic conditions, at the hands of militiamen only loosely controlled by their leaders. Others disappeared during the Israeli takeover of Beirut in September 1982, when Israel and its Lebanese allies arrested perhaps as many as 1,000 people.

A third difficulty was that the mood at the end of the long Lebanese war was to turn a page and look towards the future. The principal promoter of Lebanon’s revival was the prime minister at the time, Rafiq Hariri, whose focus was on rebuilding Lebanon, not dwelling on the past. The absence of clear-cut solutions to the problem of the disappeared only made Mr Hariri more reluctant to address it squarely.

To the families of the disappeared, this meant delays in finding solutions to the legal problems created by the disappearances. Because the disappeared were not officially dead, families were frequently unable to dispose of their belongings. This could have serious implications for families in dire need of money.

Most repulsive of all was the way the families of the disappeared were exploited by charlatans to extract money. The mother of my friend was contacted time and again with news that her children were alive and given bogus information in exchange for a fee.

In his 1998 film Kidnapped, the Lebanese documentary film director Bahije Hojeij interviewed the father of Andre Cheaib, a senior official at Lebanon’s central bank who had been abducted. The father, who was by then an old man and exhausted by years of trying to elucidate the fate of his son, explained he had sold virtually everything he owned for information.

The scene highlighted the double tragedy of families. Mr Cheaib knew that he was being swindled, but simply could not resist paying those promising him news on the off-chance that it might be true. It was a terrible predicament, one that also illustrated the depths of human depravity.

On this anniversary of Lebanon’s war, it is the families of the disappeared alone who have been denied the means to look back and reflect. To them, the war remains an open wound. Even if very few still believe their loved ones are alive, the burden of not knowing what happened remains insurmountable.

In this regard, the state has done far too little to help the families. This is partly because it is very delicate for the government to declare everyone dead. There are families that to this day refuse to admit such a thing without evidence. But it is also partly because a declaration of death might deny the disappeared their civil rights if by some remarkable providence they are still alive and return.

What the state can do, however, is to officially honour the memory of the disappeared. A memorial may not bring them back, but at least it would indicate that the authorities feel it necessary to acknowledge them. If the government could swiftly pass a general amnesty in 1991, it can also show due consideration to the victims of those it whitewashed.

A museum of wartime memory is to be opened in a landmark building on the old “green line” separating eastern and western Beirut during the war. The initiative is commendable, though how the past will be dealt with remains to be seen. But one thing is worth considering. The families of the disappeared must provide input. If there is one group that can speak best to the ravages of memory it is them.