Friday, April 11, 2014

Avec moi le deluge - Russia wanted Bashar al-Assad, now they can’t get rid of him

When President Bashar al-Assad recently told a former Russian prime minister, Sergei Stepashin, that much of the fighting in Syria would end this year, was he serious?

The ITAR-Tass news agency quoted Stepashin as saying, “To my question about how military issues were going, this is what Assad said: ‘This year the active phase of military action in Syria will be ended. After that we will have to shift to what we have been doing all the time – fighting terrorists.’”

Presumably, what the Syrian president meant was that by the end of 2014 his army would have so progressed, recapturing lost territory, that it would essentially be left fighting a counter-terrorism campaign against the remaining Syrian rebels.

Assad has displaying much bravado of late. He also told Stepashin to “[t]ell Vladimir Vladimirovich [Putin] that I am not [deposed Ukrainian President Viktor] Yanukovych, I’m not going anywhere.” This remark seemed as much directed against the Russians as at them. It was Assad’s way of telling Moscow that he would not accept a political solution leading to a transitional government and his removal as president.

In light of public statements by the Russian deputy foreign minister, Mikhail Bogdanov, one can understand the import of Assad’s remarks. Bogdanov, in an interview with the Saudi-owned Al-Hayat during the Arab League summit two weeks ago, warned that “a military solution [in Syria] is dangerous, harmful and difficult because of the sharp divisions within society.”

Bogdanov also minimized the impact of an Assad re-election this year. “The Syrian presidential election will not change anything,” he said, noting it would take place on a small portion of Syrian territory and would not be recognised by the opposition. Bogdanov added that any accord with the opposition could open the door to a new election.

By implying that he would pursue a military solution, one he suggested was working, Assad essentially rejected Bogdanov’s interpretation. More significantly, he didn’t even broach the idea of a political settlement, and surely disagreed with the assessment that the presidential election would change nothing.

Assad is pursuing a particular narrative of the Syrian conflict that looks increasingly at odds with Russian preferences. The Russians have done everything in their power to sustain Assad’s regime, but the aim was almost certainly to impose a political outcome that preserved their interests. However, it is becoming apparent that they may be more Assad’s hostage than he is theirs. Despite Putin’s vaunted tactical prowess, the reality is that a tin-pot Syrian dictator who has lost control of most of his country has somehow outmaneuvered his Russian patrons.

Weakness can be a virtue in international politics. Assad’s vulnerabilities are such that his regime can still collapse, which would represent a major reversal for Russia (and Iran). But this has allowed Assad to increase his options – first by surrendering nothing on a transitional government at the Geneva talks last January, then by imposing a fait accompli in preparing for his re-election, which Bogdanov had criticized before Geneva. At every stage, Moscow has had to bend to Assad’s agenda.  

The United Nations’ special envoy on Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, has refused to schedule a new round of talks in Geneva. In large part that is because there continues to be disagreement between the United States and the UN on the one side, and Russia on the other, over the aims of such a conference. The Geneva I conference, held in June 2012, and which included Russia, had called for a “transitional government body with full executive powers.” But today the Russians are unwilling to push Assad in that direction. More significantly, they appear unable to.

If Assad can relish the fact that he has defended his position against Putin, it’s an entirely different story whether he can do so against his Syrian foes. His optimistic remarks about an imminent end to the war in Syria are somewhat reminiscent of the joke in which a man announces that he will soon marry the top model Claudia Schiffer: “I agree, as do my parents. Now all I need to do is persuade Claudia,” he says.

Assad’s belief that he will soon win in Syria seems ludicrous. And even if he can consolidate his control over Syria’s urban areas and the communication lines between Damascus, Aleppo and the coast, any effort to regain the south and the east of the country can hardly be reduced to “anti-terrorism” actions.

While Assad has an interest in displaying confidence, too much of it can come back to bite you. President George W. Bush learned that lesson after prematurely declaring, in May 2003, that military operations in Iraq had come to an end.

If Assad is after a military solution in Syria then the tragedy of the country will drag on for years. It is difficult to see what the Russian advantage is in permitting this, let alone the Iranian advantage, with Assad so costly a project to sustain. But the Syrian leader cares little. His aim is to survive, whether over the corpses of his citizens or the misgivings of his allies.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

The presidential chess game has begun

Samir Geagea has declared his candidacy for the Lebanese presidential election, launching a thousand speculations. The Lebanese Forces leader has pushed his allies into a corner, forcing them to support him. He feels that, even though he may not win, the prospect of a Geagea victory remains far more credible than one by Michel Aoun. But how true is that?

Geagea’s calculation is roughly as follows. He reckons that, with March 14 and independent support, he would have well over 50 votes in his favor. With the backing of Walid Jumblatt’s bloc, the Lebanese Forces leader would be able to garner the 65 votes needed to win an election in a second round of voting. There are two problems with this assessment: Geagea’s estimation of the votes he already has seems quite optimistic and Walid Jumblatt’s backing is in now way guaranteed, on the contrary.

One principle on which Geagea seems to be basing his calculations is that Aoun cannot win a majority because his allies actually do not want him to win. That may be true, but Aoun appears to have taken it into consideration. Two weeks ago in an interview with Al-Mayadeen, the general announced that he would not stand against Geagea, since, as he put it, “I am in competition with nobody.”

That statement seemed both ridiculous and arrogant: ridiculous, since what is an election but a competition? And arrogant, because Aoun appeared to signal he would only stand if he alone was the candidate – presumably of national consent.

In reality, the general was more cunning than that. He knows that if he and Geagea run against each other, they will only cancel each other out, with neither securing a majority. This would facilitate the emergence of a compromise candidate. Aoun seeks to avoid such a scenario, and Geagea, who also knows the score, is hoping to build momentum for his candidacy before Aoun has had time to react effectively.

What are Aoun’s options? If he is not a candidate and sees momentum shifting toward Geagea, the general, with his allies, may boycott the election session and prevent a quorum. We would then have a situation that Aoun could exploit to present himself as the only person capable of breaking the ensuing deadlock.

However, a policy of blackmail would almost certainly alienate March 14, and the Future Movement in particular. In addition, it would be perceived as an effort by Hezbollah (since Hezbollah would be as much compelled to back Aoun as Future to endorse Geagea) to impose its man on Lebanon.

In the end, much depends on what Walid Jumblatt decides. Geagea may feel that the Druze leader is more inclined to lean toward him than toward Aoun, but that may be a miscalculation. Jumblatt prefers that neither man become president, but today he has a more pressing problem that he needs to resolve, namely to ensure that the parliamentary elections next November are held on the basis of the 1960 law – or any law that perpetuates his domination over the Aley and Shouf districts.

If Jumblatt loses his supremacy in these districts, he is politically finished. And he knows that Aoun is much more amenable to the 1960 law than Geagea, because it has twice given him large Christian majorities in Parliament. Geagea, in contrast, has no intention of allowing the 1960 law to stand, because it has marginalized the Lebanese Forces electorally. That is why last year he was so adamant in pushing for the so-called Orthodox proposal, which would have given the Lebanese Forces a much larger share of Christian seats in parliament.

Jumblatt’s strategy will be principally determined by the prospects for a return to the 1960 election law. Aoun doubtless knows this and will try to use it to get Jumblatt’s votes. But the Druze leader will not give in easily. His preference is for a more consensual figure, and a Maronite who will not challenge him in the mountains. That’s why Jumblatt may prefer to allow an election delay, perhaps through a March 8-Aoun boycott, to give time for a consensual figure to emerge, or, conversely, to drive up his price for backing a candidate meeting his conditions.

The irony is that Geagea’s candidacy may benefit Aoun. By turning the election into a choice between the Lebanese Forces leader and Aoun, Geagea may force those on the fence to take sides. And there are no assurances Geagea will win, as Jumblatt’s case illustrates. Geagea believes that several independents will vote for him; but it is also true that those who prefer a compromise could vote against him if offered no choice.

Aoun has alienated many people in the past nine years, especially in the Sunni community. But Geagea, despite his best efforts, has not been able to shake his past in the Lebanese Forces. Even among Sunnis, he should not overestimate his popularity. Geagea, like Aoun, is something of a headache to his Muslim allies: a candidate expected to disturb the atmosphere of conciliation that seems to be prevailing these days.

Aoun and Geagea have high expectations, maybe too high. Neither can be ruled out when it comes to the presidency, but in the coming weeks most of the non-Christian political forces will look for ways to circumvent them. If that fails, the onus will be on the centrists, Walid Jumblatt above all, to lean one way or the other. That’s when the real bargaining will begin.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Lebanon must move quickly to benefit from gas reserves

Lebanon’s politicians, always on the prowl for new sources of revenue, are greedily eying the country’s offshore gas reserves. However, unless the Lebanese government organises the gas sector soon, Lebanon could miss out on a valuable source of revenue at a time of serious domestic crises.

Last year, the government of prime minister Najib Mikati was supposed to pass two decrees allowing for the start of a licensing round, in which foreign oil companies would bid to explore Lebanese waters. The decrees were never passed, however, because of political divisions. Until they are, there will be little progress in offshore gas projects.

Now, foreign companies have asked the Lebanese to delay the auction, saying they need more time to prepare bids. This will probably happen given the delay in passing the decrees. Foreign companies are also reportedly unhappy that Lebanon has not put all of its blocks up for bidding. According to press reports, several companies have shifted their investment to countries that have opened up their entire shoreline for exploration.

This sense that things are not moving has been exacerbated by a broader question: how does Lebanon export its gas once it is extracted? In a recent opinion piece, a Lebanese MP, Basem Shabb, warned that unless Lebanon found a cost-effective way of exporting its gas, it could fail to cash in on its offshore wealth. “A window of opportunity for Lebanon to fully exploit its hydrocarbon wealth is fast disappearing without a clear and profitable export option,” he wrote.

The reason is that domestic demand is insufficient to make extraction cost-effective. This would change if the Lebanese agreed to participate in a project to build a liquefied natural gas plant in Cyprus, to prepare gas for export. But for such a plant to be profitable, Mr Shabb argued, it would need to rely on Israeli, Lebanese and Cypriot gas supplies, and the Lebanese have ruled out participation if ­Israel is involved.

Complicating matters is the fact that Israel and Lebanon continue to disagree over a gasfield along their disputed maritime border. The United States is seeking to find a solution to the disagreement, and last week the US deputy assistant secretary for energy diplomacy, Amos Hochstein, was in Beirut to talk to officials on the matter.

Mr Hochstein urged the Lebanese not to drill in the disputed waters. He also sounded a cautionary note, saying in an interview: “The longer you wait on resolving this dispute, the less likely it is that international oil companies will wholeheartedly invest in that area.”

Given these obstacles, is Lebanon about to see the window of opportunity close on its gas reserves? The prospects for gain, political and personal, tend to reduce this risk. But if gas is there mainly to serve the interests of the politicians, it leaves little hope that Lebanon will gain in the way it could.

The formation of the Salam government was delayed because the previous energy minister, Gebran Bassil, refused to surrender his portfolio in an agreed rotation of ministries. A compromise was reached when the ministry was given to an ally of the Aounists, of whom Mr Bassil is a leading figure.

Though he is now foreign minister, Mr Bassil will, doubtless, have a say over gas policy until a new government is formed after the presidential election scheduled for May. And if his father-in-law, Michael Aoun, is elected president, Mr Bassil’s sway over the oil sector may be extended, to the displeasure of other politicians.

But for as long as the energy ministry provokes political envy, this could hinder a consensus over gas policy. For instance, the differences between Mr Bassil and the speaker of parliament, Nabih Berri, are palpable, and this could exacerbate a relationship already damaged by Mr Aoun’s challenge to Mr Berri in the elections of 2009.

Mr Berri’s approval will also be necessary for any compromise proposal offered by the Americans to resolve the dispute with Israel. As for the decrees allowing the licensing round to go ahead, it is imperative that Mr Aoun and Mr Berri be on the same wavelength, otherwise Lebanon as a whole may suffer.

Even if self-interest ultimately makes a consensus over the gas sector possible, agreement over the export of gas presents myriad complications. Lebanese and Israeli gas are part of the same Eastern Mediterranean fields, so all sides win from cooperation. Yet it is doubtful in the current political climate, with Hizbollah’s presence in the government, that Lebanon would join a consortium with Israel.

Lebanon faces serious financial and sectoral challenges, making exploitation of its gas reserves necessary. The public debt is around $64 billion (Dh236bn), and the debt to GDP ratio is estimated at 163 per cent, according to some economists. In addition, Lebanon’s electricity sector is in a shambles, with most regions of the country continuing to face hours of rationing per day.

The pressures on the country do not give the government the luxury to delay agreement over the gas sector. The two decrees must be passed as soon as possible – and the new energy minister said on Tuesday that they would be by the end of April, with the gas-licensing auction to be held within four months – and Lebanon must define a long-term strategy for exporting its gas. This can only be done through a political accord, which, unfortunately, will mean that all major parties will want a share of the profits.

Gas has another meaning for Lebanon. For as long as the country is seen as a potential gas producer, there will be an incentive to maintain its stability. But once that window is closed, or alternative windows are opened elsewhere, maintaining Lebanese stability will become less vital. This is a fact the politicians must absorb now before tomorrow.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Last one standing - The obstacle course of presidential candidacies

Barely two months before the presidential election in Lebanon, the country’s political alignments are still waiting for that mysterious voice that will descend from the heavens to tell them for whom to vote. Being in a pre-election phase, and assuming the election is actually held on schedule, everyone awaits the verdict of their regional sponsors.

Of the most-discussed candidates only Samir Geagea is officially a candidate until now. But everyone’s list of possibilities includes, in addition to Geagea, the parliamentarians Michel Aoun and Sleiman Franjieh, the head of the Kataeb, Amin Gemayel, as well as Jean Kahwaji, the army commander, and Riad Salameh, the Central Bank governor.

The conventional wisdom is that the front-line candidates are there to be shot down. Behind them are less prominent figures more likely to survive the initial carnage. Among those in the second tier is Jean Obeid, a former parliamentarian and minister, Robert Ghanem, another parliamentarian, to a lesser extent Boutros Harb, currently the telecom minister, as well as Maronites whose names get tossed out seemingly because they don’t bother anybody – for instance industrialist Naamat Frem and former minister Damianos Kattar.

To be on the candidate list does not mean very much. Any Maronite with some recognition can make it; the trick is ending up on the short list before the ascent to Baabda. So what are the criteria allowing access to the short list? Here are a few, though the inventory is hardly exhaustive.

First, the successful candidate must not face a veto from any of the major non-Christian political alignments. A successful president will need to be approved by both Hezbollah and the Future Movement, or at least not arouse their mistrust.

That would seem to rule out Geagea, Franjieh, Gemayel, and Harb, and quite possibly Aoun. Geagea and Franjieh in particular are not only beyond the pale for Hezbollah and Future, respectively, there is some question as to whether they are seen as viable candidates by their own allies.

Future, for example, still considers Geagea a close partner, but it is unwilling to navigate through the political turbulence that would ensue if it pushed for his candidacy. Nor does it feel that he would be best for the country at a time of deep polarization. Gemayel and Harb, though moderates, as March 14 figures are, similarly, not viewed as consensual.

Franjieh would pose similar problems for Hezbollah. The party embraces him, but to impose Franjieh on the Christians in general, and on Sunnis in particular, would be difficult when the party wants to calm sectarian tensions while it is locked in an open-ended campaign in Syria.

What About Michel Aoun? The general hasn’t declared his intentions yet, but is doing his best to sound like a national candidate. In remarks made on Wednesday to Al-Mayadeen, Aoun ruled out Kahwaji (and by extension Salameh), arguing that he needed a constitutional amendment to stand for office. In other words: Don’t expect my vote for an amendment.

Aoun said he would back Franjieh’s candidacy, which means nothing since Franjieh has said he would not run without Aoun’s consent, meaning he will not run against Aoun. And finally Aoun said he would not run against Geagea, since “I am in competition with nobody.” It’s unclear what Aoun will do now that Geagea is a candidate, but he has warned that if Future backs Geagea’s candidacy, this would have “negative repercussions.”

To win, Aoun would still need to persuade Future or Walid Jumblatt to vote for him. For now Jumblatt has shown no such inclination, and Hariri would need Saudi approval. He would also have to persuade the Sunni community of the benefits of electing Aoun, by no means an easy task given Aoun’s repeated provocations against Sunnis over the years.

And finally, Hariri would have to persuade his own parliamentary bloc to vote for Aoun. While he can do this, it may provoke a revolt in the ranks. The Future bloc’s leader, Fouad Siniora, cannot stomach a man who has often attacked him, and who covered for Hezbollah’s takeover of western Beirut when Siniora was prime minister. 

A second rule the candidates will face is that, aside from Saudi Arabia and Iran – the sponsors of the two major local actors – Syria must also approve any candidate. The assumption is that Syria, given its civil war, is out of the Lebanese game. Nothing could be more untrue. Hezbollah will not back anyone with whom the Syrians are unhappy.

Ironically, this may rule out Aoun. In recent days, a leading Baath parliamentarian has been openly denigrating Aoun before his colleagues, in what could be an effort to undermine the general’s candidacy. Hezbollah probably agrees. In the eyes of the party, Aoun ultimately remains a loose cannon.

Which brings us to a third rule that no one mentions, but that has been fundamental in elections since 1992: The successful candidate must be a relatively weak Christian.

This is a subcategory of the first condition, but is also rather different. The reality is that the non-Christian leaders are united in rejecting candidates with an independent base of support in a community they do not control. That doesn’t mean that Sunnis are happy with strong Shiite leaders, or vice versa. But they usually cannot veto such figures, whereas the presidential election allows them to do precisely that with Christians.

So who is the favorite today? Names are circulating, but bear in mind the conditions outlined here. The obstacle course is not an easy one for our presidential commandos. Nor for the rest of us who have to watch the spectacle for many more weeks.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Patrick Seale: an appreciation

The word from London is that the British journalist Patrick Seale is gravely ill. For those who know him or simply have read or heard him, the news is most regrettable.

When it comes to the Middle East, Seale has been a clarifying presence for some five decades.

Seale has been a contested figure for at least part of that time. His critics charged that his closeness to the regime of Hafez Assad often drifted into advocacy. Perhaps, but Seale was no fool. He knew that the heart of the Syrian regime was made of lead, and he put the access he received to good use. Seale’s biography of the late president, despite its frequent praise and omissions, remains a classic.

There was something highly laudatory in Seale’s interpretation of Assad as a grand regional chess player (the book’s subtitled, “The Struggle for the Middle East,” makes that obvious). But to a certain extent, this was true. Assad skillfully maneuvered between the United States and Russia and managed to remain an axial figure in regional affairs, even though by the end of his life his influence was in disproportion to the dilapidated country that he governed.

Like Bashar Assad, Hafez was a killer, but unlike his son, he rarely killed to cover for his proliferating mistakes. Though he was ruthless, he understood that leadership built almost exclusively on repression and intimidation could be shaky. That’s why he surrounded his regime with a bodyguard of Arab nationalist symbols and attitudes while generally avoiding measures that would highlight its minority underpinnings. Assad never ignored the details, was careful before taking major decisions and did not overestimate his power. Seale’s biography brings out the complexity of the man and his leadership.

A tour de force moment in the book is Seale’s chapter on the key episode in November 1983 when Rifaat Assad sought to take power from his brother after he was temporarily incapacitated. However, Rifaat was quickly opposed by a phalanx of generals, and Seale ably illustrates the way the balancing mechanisms that Assad had put in place to avert a coup were used to contain Rifaat.

The incompetence of Bashar Assad today has frequently resulted in efforts by the Syrian regime to go back and adopt the ways of the father. Though over 30 years old, Seale’s biography of Assad is still relevant in deconstructing the principles of the Syrian security order, and more broadly to see why a power remained in good health, in the sense of crime of course, until the debacle that began in 2011.

Before his biography of Assad, Seale had written another classic, “The Struggle for Syria.” In it, he described the Syria of the late 1940s and 1950s, buffeted as it was between conflicting ambitions in Baghdad and Cairo. To a great extent, Syria’s relative weakness in those years colored the author’s views of Hafez Assad, who gave his especially vulnerable country prominence after decades when it had been a playing field for regional and international rivalries.

Watching the Syrian conflict today, we can see how Bashar’s singular achievement has been to carry Syria back to those years and again transform his country into a terrain for proxy wars. Seale was always careful when writing about the Syrian regime, but he could not have been impressed with what followed Hafez Assad’s death in 2000; even less so the futile savagery of Bashar, which has undermined all that the father built with patience and cynicism.

Seale’s entrĂ©e into Hafez Assad’s hermetic circle was admired by many people, some of whom would later try to imitate him. But Seale always remained a gentleman, never trying to justify and protect his access by prostituting himself to his Syrian contacts by engaging in wanton attacks against those critical of the Syrian regime.

However, Seale’s qualities could not detract from remarkable missteps, for example the article he published in The Guardian after the assassination of the former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. “If Syria killed Rafik Hariri, Lebanon’s former prime minister and mastermind of its revival after the civil war, it must be judged an act of political suicide,” Seale wrote. He concluded: “So attributing responsibility for the murder to Syria is implausible. The murder is more likely to be the work of one of its many enemies.”

Seale had reached a similar conclusion in his biography of Abu Nidal. He argued that Abu Nidal had done so much damage to the Palestinian cause that it was possible he was an Israeli agent. Indeed, Israel exploited Abu Nidal’s crimes – for example using his attempted assassination of the Israeli ambassador in London, Shlomo Argov, to launch its invasion of Lebanon in 1982. But Seale provided no evidence to sustain his theory. The biography was interesting in other regards, but his reputation suffered as a consequence.

The assumption that unwanted outcomes must point toward the responsibility of the enemies of those initially accused of a crime is a recurring theme in conspiracy theories. But if that were necessarily true, how would Seale explain Bashar Assad’s actions in 2011? Was his repression in Deraa not politically suicidal? Yet who would blame anyone but Bashar for that monstrous blunder. As Seale knows, for having covered a region replete with such behavior, despots are predisposed to act stupidly because they are never sanctioned.

After a career covering the Middle East, Seale deserves to be remembered for more than his slip-ups. His books on Syria are an indispensable part of any education on the region. As these words are being written, Seale is alive. One can only hope that he gets better. But whatever happens, such a moment cannot pass without comment.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Russia kept Assad in power, but now it’s stuck with him

There has been speculation lately as to whether Russian president Vladimir Putin’s actions in Crimea were improvised, or whether they were the result of a longer-term strategic plan. A similar question can be asked of Russian behaviour in Syria. When Mr Putin decided to bolster the regime of President Bashar Al Assad in 2011, did he have an endgame in mind?

Egypt’s foreign minister, Nabil Fahmy, apparently feels that the answer is no. A Lebanese politician who recently spoke to him says that Mr Fahmy’s impression from speaking to Russian officials was that Moscow is at an impasse in Syria. Mr Putin has blocked all efforts to undermine Mr Al Assad, but that does not mean he has been able to impose a solution of his own.

Take the remarks last week by the Russian deputy foreign minister, Mikhail Bogdanov, to the Saudi daily Al Hayat. Mr Bogdanov spoke about Mr Al Assad’s plan to seek re-election next July. For the Syrian leader, such an election would be a significant step in his efforts to survive politically and insist that he remains the legitimate president of Syria, one who will continue to lead the fight against so-called “terrorist groups”.

Mr Bogdanov said that the presidential election would not turn the page on the need for a political settlement to end the Syrian crisis. “The Syrian presidential election will not change anything,” he said, noting it would take place on a small part of Syrian territory and would not be recognised by the opposition. Moreover, he added, any agreement between the government and opposition might well open the door to a new election.

Mr Bogdanov continued: “A military solution is dangerous, harmful and difficult because of the sharp divisions within society.” Repeating what Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said last year, the deputy foreign minister said Syria faced a terrorist threat that had to be combated by the regime in conjunction with moderate groups in the opposition.

Mr Bogdanov was the official last year who said of a Syrian statement that Mr Al Assad would seek re-election in 2014 that it “makes the atmosphere heavier and does not make the situation calmer”. This had brought a heated response from his Syrian counterpart, Faisal Mekdad, who insisted: “Nobody has the right to interfere and say he must run or he should not run.”

Mr Bogdanov is an old Middle East hand who served as a diplomat in Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen, was ambassador to Egypt and Israel, and headed the Middle East and North Africa Department at the Russian Foreign Ministry. His remarks were not improvised, and he is senior enough to be taken very seriously by the Syrian regime whenever he says something.

But there was also an element of powerlessness in his remarks. There is no change in Russian policy toward Syria. The Russians have probably concluded that Mr Al Assad will go ahead with a re-election, which they simply cannot prevent. However, they also realise that Syria is a giant headache for everyone, and that the Syrian president’s decision can only prolong the agony.

Moscow has been singularly incapable of putting forth a political plan to accompany its systematic obstruction of efforts at the United Nations to take decisions over Syria. It has armed Mr Al Assad, allowing his soldiers to engage in mass atrocities. When he used chemical weapons against his own population, breaking a commitment the Russians appear to have made to the Americans, they headed off an American military attack by making him surrender his chemical arsenal.

Three years since the beginning of the war, Russian behaviour has only perpetuated the military stalemate that Mr Bogdanov is lamenting today. Vladimir Putin has beaten his enemies to a draw in Syria, but he is no closer than the United States is to devising a consensual solution to the Syrian conflict, and Russia may pay for this politically down the road.

Mr Al Assad can take solace in the fact that the situation in Crimea makes an entente between Washington and Moscow over Syria much more difficult. Yet the Russians must also worry that their isolation reduces their effectiveness. It could mean that Mr Al Assad, seeing Russia’s vulnerability, will take whatever action he wants regardless of Russian preferences.

The violence in Syria, which the Russians have abetted, has made the Syrian president ever more incapable of making political concessions. The Alawite community, like Mr Al Assad’s inner circle, will not allow him to accept a deal that might expose them to retaliation. In that context, any voluntary transition away from Mr Al Assad is highly unlikely.

The Russians are stuck with the man they did everything to keep in power. For as long as Mr Al Assad remains in office there can be no political solution in Syria. So let the Russians resolve that dilemma, even as Mr Bogdanov repeats that the war in Syria can only end through a political arrangement.

There has been justified criticism directed against the Obama administration for its hesitant Syria policy. Russian policy, in contrast, has been unambiguous. But today the limits of the Russian approach are all too evident. If Russia has a strategy, it’s not immediately obvious how it will succeed.

Listening to Mr Bogdanov, the Syrians must sense his limitations. Yes, the Russian official will have helped discredit Mr Al A­ssad’s re-election. But he will also have played down its negative impact, in a way covering for the Syrian leader. Russia often seems as much Mr Al Assad’s hostage as he is theirs.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Field Marshal Pharaoh - Abdel Fattah al-Sisi makes his presidential move

There are two ways to look at the decision of the Egyptian army commander, Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, to resign his post in order to stand for Egypt’s presidential elections, whose date has not yet been set.

The pessimists will see Sisi’s elevation to the presidency as a major nail in the coffin of the Arab Spring. It is a setback to the democratic ambitions of the Egyptian people, which, ironically, the Egyptians themselves have been most responsible for undermining. The reason is that Sisi is expected to win the election with a substantial majority of votes.

The optimists will argue that there can be no returning to a pre-2011 situation, now that the Egyptian people have repeatedly demonstrated their power in the streets. This version holds that the country will steadily move forward toward a more democratic future. Just as the 1848 revolution in France initially brought in the authoritarian rule of Napoleon III, it was also followed by his defeat at the Battle of Sedan and the establishment of a more democratic Third Republic.

In a sense both are wrong, but the pessimists are likely much closer to the truth. Yes, Egyptians have tasted what it means to be heard, and Sisi may not be able to silence his people in the same way President Hosni Mubarak did for much of his presidency. Above all, Sisi will have to perform well in order to avoid having to engage in repression at every sign of dissatisfaction. He will come in with a strong mandate, but with this will also come great expectations he has to fulfill.

But at the same time, the army has returned to power. Gamal Abdel Nasser, too, entered office with considerable popular support, which he retained until the end of his life. But the fact is that the authoritarian, military-dominated order that Mubarak embodied was first put in place by Nasser and his successor Anwar Sadat. Sisi would merely be the latest iteration of a type of ruler with which Egypt is familiar.

Since the 2011 uprisings were about changing the way Arab countries were ruled, Sisi’s success would be a great disappointment. The optimists fail to take into consideration that Arab regimes are sophisticated machines of absolute control and political survival. They occasionally break down, but they are particularly adept at avoiding breaking down twice.

They also tend to give rise to remarkably callous and sinister men. In Libya and Syria, the Qaddafi and Assad regimes very quickly reached a conclusion once challenged: it’s either us or civil war. The wager was lost in Qaddafi’s case, thanks largely to French, British, and American air power. But the situation is different in Syria, where Bashar al-Assad may yet prevail, no matter how long the conflict lasts or the number of casualties.

In Egypt, too, the army sought time and again to negate the gains from the overthrow of Mubarak. This it first did in the context of the supreme military council soon after the president’s removal; then again when President Mohammed Morsi was in office, which his incompetence only facilitated. At no point was the military pleased with what happened in 2011. Not only did the uprising threaten its economic interests, it also threatened the military’s role in Egyptian political life.

Today, a Sisi presidency will be accepted by all, whatever it means for Egyptian democracy. Most of the Arab states will endorse his regime, even if some of them, such as Qatar, may continue to back the Muslim Brotherhood. The United States, which has shown singular ineptitude in managing its relationship with Egypt, will also come around. It wants to see a stable Egypt next to Israel, and will welcome any effort by the new Egyptian regime to repress jihadists in the Sinai.

But more broadly, what would the impact of a return to authoritarianism mean in Egypt? For one thing it would again bring to the forefront that old assertion that democracy in the Middle East is usually present in inverse proportion to stability: the more democracy, the greater the instability, therefore if one wants stability, there should be less democracy.

Given the instability in the region since 2011, the return to a stable, undemocratic Egypt will have a bearing on such places as Syria and Libya. Only Tunisia will have broken the pattern through its passage of a democratic constitution, and even then much will be determined by how the document is implemented.

But what is good for Egypt, Sisi’s supporters may find out, must also be good for Syria. Ultimately, Bashar al-Assad may welcome Sisi’s arrival in Cairo, because it will augur his own revival. Next July Assad will stand for re-election, if everything remains as it is today, and the implicit, if not explicit, message he will be sending is little different than Sisi’s: I embody stability and the end of three years of ruinous chaos. That Assad was largely responsible for such chaos will be left unmentioned.

Whichever way one cuts it, the developments in Egypt mark an essential moment in the post-2011 period, where the gains made three years ago have been reversed, and by popular acclamation. Even the most hardened optimists must shake their heads at this, and wonder if their hopeful narrative can hold. Hope is not something that survives for long in the region.