Friday, September 12, 2014

Back to front - How Jabhat al-Nusra might fare in the anti-Islamic State campaign

An interesting subtext of President Barack Obama’s campaign to “ultimately destroy” the Islamic State (ISIS) is what it will mean for the rival Jabhat al-Nusra, Al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria.

While ISIS has alarmed most countries, the Nusra Front has played its cards carefully. It has not imitated the barbaric behavior of its jihadist counterpart; it has focused on Syria, even if it ultimately seeks to create a Muslim caliphate there; and it has maintained collaborative relations with Syrian rebel groups, unlike ISIS, which has sought mainly to overpower them.

The Nusra Front must look at Obama’s declaration of war against ISIS with mixed feelings. America is the enemy, but its bombing of ISIS may permit Al-Qaeda to regain the initiative among transnational jihadist groups thanks to the elimination of a group that rejected the leadership of Ayman al-Zawahiri.

By contrast, the Nusra Front has been cultivating, for lack of a better word, an “accommodating” public image. For instance, it has been more flexible in dealing with the Lebanese soldiers and policemen it recently abducted in Arsal. Four Sunni soldiers and one policeman were released by the group on August 30.

The Nusra Front also allowed the family of a Christian captive, George Khoury, to meet with him earlier this week. And more generally, the group has been responsive to mediation efforts, unlike ISIS, which beheaded two soldiers, one of them a Sunni. This provoked sectarian tensions in the Beqaa Valley, showing how the group seeks to gain from sectarian polarization.

The brutality of ISIS is reminiscent of that of the late Abu Musaab al-Zarqawi, who headed Al-Qaeda in Iraq. Zarqawi’s savagery brought a rebuke from Al-Qaeda’s leadership, which charged that such actions were only alienating Muslims. According to David Ignatius, near the end, Osama bin Laden “was haunted by the mistakes al-Qaeda had made,” above all its wanton killings. His state of mind was revealed in documents taken from the Al-Qaeda leader’s hideout in Abbottabad.   

Where ISIS has used the Syrian war to pursue an agenda of aggrandizement – which involved, for a time, collaborating directly or indirectly with the regime of President Bashar al-Assad – the Nusra Front has focused on a Syria-first agenda. Its priority is the end of Assad’s rule, which is why the group has retained some support among rebel militias.

Particularly interesting has been the Nusra Front’s efforts to shape the way it is perceived. Recently, it captured 45 Fijian United Nations peacekeepers in the Golan Heights. One of its principal demands for their release was that it be removed from a UN terrorism blacklist. On Thursday the peacekeepers were released, although its condition had not been met. 

This striving for reinvention raised interesting questions. Was this a tactical move by the Nusra Front, at a time when it seeks to present itself as a contrast to ISIS in Syria, and in that way rally support among Sunni Muslims? Or does it reflect a more profound change in direction by Al-Qaeda, perhaps reflecting the doubts bin Laden himself had about his organization?

How might Obama’s campaign against ISIS affect the Nusra Front? American officials noted that Obama might expand American airstrikes into Syria under the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force, which targeted Al-Qaeda. They said that “the Islamic State’s ‘long-standing relationship’ with al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden is sufficient to be covered by the statute.”

Does that mean that the Nusra Front may also soon find itself in the Americans’ crosshairs? It’s conceivable, although hitting the group could greatly benefit the Syrian regime, which is fighting the Nusra Front in the south of Syria, around Damascus, and in Qalamoun, along the Lebanese border.

More likely, the Obama administration does not want its campaign against ISIS to strengthen Assad, which may be to the advantage of the Nusra Front. The American plan to train moderate Syrian rebels, even if it takes time, would be intended to allow them to impose their will on the ground, and perhaps marginalize those such as the Nusra Front once this happens.

Obama cleverly linked the $500 million in aid to the Syrian rebels he had announced several weeks ago to the anti-ISIS crusade, tying Congress’s hands. Congressional approval of the money was never guaranteed, but now that this aid is a key component of the president’s broader plan to defeat ISIS in Syria, it is difficult for Congress to turn Obama down. On Thursday House Republican leaders said they would support Obama, even if there are doubts about his strategy. 

America’s decision to enter Syria, albeit in a limited way and perhaps not immediately, will alter calculations on the ground. Once the United States is in, “moderation” will become the new catchphrase. This, in turn, could mean a transformation and new alliances among groups fighting Assad rule, who will seek to take advantage of the campaign against ISIS.

There have been reports that some Salafist groups such as Ahrar al-Sham, whose senior leadership was decapitated this week, could have been planning a reorientation. As Charles Lister of the Brookings Doha Center has written, “speaking both in public and in private, senior political officials began as early as April 2014 to present a more moderate and cooperative stance, especially in terms of the group’s religio-political objectives.”

This is hardly to suggest that the Nusra Front is contemplating taking a similar path. The problems between the group and the Americans are very real. But as the Obama administration fights ISIS, it will see that some jihadist groups are more equal than others in the eyes of some of its Arab allies. The Nusra Front is apparently playing on this ambiguity. That could pay off, and the Obama administration will have to address it before long.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Might ISIS bring a resolution in Syria?

At the time this was written, it was expected that President Barack Obama, in explaining to Americans his military strategy against ISIS, would announce that he intended to extend airstrikes into Syria.

That may be true, but it leads us to other questions. What is the future of Bashar Assad’s regime? Would such attacks help his forces, or on the contrary might foreign warplanes over Syrian territory somehow precipitate his departure? Most important, how will the implicit alliance in Iraq between the United States and Iran fare in Syria, where, clearly, the two countries have different interests despite their shared hostility toward ISIS?

Assad’s ability to survive a three-and-a-half-year uprising has been largely due to the assistance of Iran and Russia, which have supplied his forces with weapons, manpower and intelligence, as well as helping devise a military strategy on the ground. Yet none of this has been enough to turn the tide in Syria. The war has become a black hole for Iran and its Lebanese Hezbollah ally, while Russia is preoccupied elsewhere, with the Ukraine crisis pitting it against NATO and the West.

As Assad watches developments around him, he cannot be reassured. His reliance on minorities, including his Alawite coreligionists, to stay in power will fail. Alawites, Christians and Shiites cannot indefinitely guarantee Assad’s political survival, with the communities already taking very heavy losses.

As for the regime’s outside backers, the future looks uncertain. Iran has already paid billions of dollars to prop up Assad rule, money it desperately needs elsewhere, and recently it lost a vital land connection with Syria when ISIS took over western Iraq. That explains the Iranians’ willingness to tolerate American military action in Iraq, and, one would assume, in Syria’s ISIS-controlled eastern and northeastern provinces as well.

Closer to Damascus the picture has been equally unsettling to them. The regime recently lost Qunaitra to rebels allied with the Nusra Front. These groups have allegedly opened a passage to the Ghouta west of Damascus. If confirmed, this could tighten the noose on the capital, affecting the Beirut- Damascus highway.

And in Qalamoun, northwest of Damascus along the Lebanese-Syrian border, Hezbollah and the Syrian regime are caught in a quagmire of sorts, unable to dislodge thousands of gunmen. The gunmen aren’t gaining, but neither is the regime, while the grinding conflict there is bleeding both sides. That is one reason why the Lebanese Army’s efforts to control the border in the Arsal area has provoked a violent reaction from armed Syrian groups, who see it as part of a plan to cut off their supply lines.

Neither Iran nor Russia has a magical solution for Assad. American airstrikes may buy the regime some breathing space by hitting ISIS in eastern Syria. However, they are unlikely to affect rebels in the west of the country, or target the Nusra Front. Moreover, there are few indications of who will control the ground in areas where the Americans hit ISIS. The Syrian regime may benefit in some places, but rebel groups will do so elsewhere, which may be to the regime’s disadvantage.

The Russians opposed American military action last year, after Assad’s use of chemical weapons against civilians. This time, however, there is nothing they can really do. While the Obama administration is not out to undermine Assad, its military actions may ultimately lead to such an outcome as Washington exploits the situation to impose a political solution leading to Assad’s removal.

Applying the same logic as in Iraq, a political solution in Syria would help consolidate the gains made against ISIS. In the same way that Washington ousted Nouri al-Maliki as a first step to bringing the Sunnis into a more inclusive political arrangement in Iraq, Assad’s removal from power in Syria could emerge as the most efficient way to damage ISIS, which benefits from sectarian animosity and sense of Sunni victimization.

Iran would not be happy with this, nor Hezbollah, but both are hardly in an ideal position to prevent it, given their setbacks in Syria. Nor will it be easily for them to control the dynamics once an air campaign starts. If the opposition times an offensive against the regime with such action, it could greatly complicate their efforts to reinforce Assad’s position.

It is very difficult to see how Assad can last in the long run. Though regime figures, such as Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem, have indicated that an anti- ISIS offensive would be a way for the Assad regime to regain international credibility and recognition, one shouldn’t bet on it. Rather, once the U.S. enters the Syrian conflict, it will want to bolster its military actions with a sustainable political project. And since Assad is an obstacle to any such project, the Obama administration may begin looking for an alternative without Assad.

Given the deadlock in Syria, and the fact that the regime’s chances of prevailing are diminishing by the day, Assad’s allies, displeased as they are, might reconsider their options if their interests are preserved. Syria has been a heavy burden on Iran, Hezbollah and Russia, one that can last indefinitely unless political solutions are tabled. Other Arab states, above all the Saudis appear increasingly willing to explore a package deal. That’s why it’s not beyond reason that an anti- ISIS campaign may help accelerate a resolution of the Syrian conflict.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

As sectarian tensions rise, Hizbollah must recalculate

It has become more apparent in recent months, as sectarian tensions in Lebanon have risen, that Hizbollah is losing control of the situation domestically.

The party’s vaunted strengths have always been exaggerated. Hizbollah has shown an ability to manipulate sectarian divisions to its advantage, but with the emergence of Sunni jihadist groups along the Lebanese border, such as ISIL and the Jabhat Al Nusra, the fear that these may encourage Sunnis in Lebanon to oppose Hizbollah has increased.

The party is currently caught up in a grinding battle in Syria’s Qalamoun region, which runs alongside the Lebanese border in the Beqaa Valley. Unconfirmed reports suggest Hizbollah may have up to 5,000 combatants in the battle. It’s impossible to verify such a figure, but Qalamoun is vital to the party because it controls access to Lebanon, in particular to Shiite villages.

Hizbollah’s involvement in Qalamoun began last year, when it played a central role in retaking the town of Qusair on behalf of the Syrian regime. But thousands of rebel combatants were allowed to leave the town, and redeployed elsewhere in the area to fight another day. Long an inaccessible border area facilitating smuggling, Qalamoun is both large and difficult to control. Hizbollah is caught in a quagmire there.

A complicating factor is that Arsal, a large Sunni town along the border in the northern Beqaa, had become a weapons transfer point and rest place for Syrian rebels and jihadists. Hizbollah has sought to push the Lebanese army into closing off access to the town, which reports on Wednesday suggested had been completed, to weaken its foes in Qalamoun. This has only thrust the army deeper into the Sunni-Shia conflict, a dangerous step for a national institution with a sectarian mix.

In recent weeks, two soldiers captured by ISIL in Arsal’s hinterland have been decapitated. They were part of a larger group of soldiers and policemen caught during fighting around the town weeks ago. ISIL and Jabhat Al Nusra want to exchange them for Islamists imprisoned in Lebanon’s main Roumieh prison.

In response, the relatives and coreligionists of the soldiers took matters into their own hands, closing roads and demanding that the government do something. More ominously, after a soldier was killed last weekend, Shiites began kidnapping Sunnis in the Beqaa, provoking retaliatory abductions that threatened to spiral out of control.

As Sunni-Shia relations worsen, Hizbollah must reconsider its options. Within its own community it has portrayed itself as a barrier against jihadists, and some Christian villages in the Beqaa, fearing an onslaught by ISIL, have allegedly asked the party for weapons. Hizbollah has been able to defend its entry into Syria’s war as an effort to fight takfiris.

The claim is nonsensical, but what Hizbollah has not been able to explain is how it would act if fighting breaks out in Lebanon between the party and armed Sunni Islamists, and then spreads. The risks are high, especially as other Sunnis, from young men among the Syrian refugee population to armed Salafist groups in the Palestinian refugee camps, could enter the fray.

The outbreak of a sectarian conflict in Lebanon, besides leading the country to ruin, would also force Hizbollah to repatriate its combatants now in Syria. This, in turn, would weaken the regime of Bashar Al Assad, which the party has vowed to help sustain – both as an Iranian priority and its own.

Yet Hizbollah has done little to lessen tensions with the Sunnis. Partly, that’s because it does not have tight control over the Shia, especially in the Beqaa Valley, where tribal relations tend to erode Hizbollah’s influence, but it’s also because conciliation is not a part of Hizbollah’s DNA. The party has often preferred resorting to violence when compromise was more beneficial.

Today there is discernible fear among Lebanon’s Shia that they may be vulnerable to Sunni extremists. That’s not surprising, as the community has witnessed the high toll of casualties Hizbollah has suffered in the past year in Syria, with no end in sight. This has encouraged Hizbollah to pursue a game of divide and rule at home, to safeguard itself and its community, without making any concessions on the issues it regards as vital.

The party appears not to be considering ending its combat role in Syria, a principal source of Sunni-Shia hostility. Nor has it toned down its rhetoric against its March 14 rivals in Lebanon, led by the mainly Sunni Future Movement. And to maintain its domination over the Shia, the party has mobilised the community, exploiting its existential anxieties but also creating an environment unsuitable for appeasement.

Even Hizbollah’s reputation as an effective enemy of Israel took a hit during the recent war in Gaza. Everyone could see that the party was too overstretched in Syria to open a Lebanese front, as Hamas officials had requested. Instead, today Hizbollah appears as little more than a sectarian Shia party.

Nor does Hizbollah have any path out of this predicament. In an effort not to lose its main Christian ally, Michel Aoun, the party has backed Mr Aoun’s refusal to send his bloc to parliament and elect a president, unless he is guaranteed of winning himself. The ensuing vacuum, along with social unrest in recent weeks, has added to worries that the state is near implosion.

Hizbollah’s brinkmanship has been reckless. The party has succeeded in pursuing its agenda in Syria, but at what price? It surely wants to avoid a Lebanese sectarian conflict, but everything about its behaviour makes one more likely.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Be prepared - The White House is still not ready on Syria

President Barack Obama’s comments last week on how the United States intended to address the presence in Syria of the Islamic State provoked well-deserved incredulity. “We don’t have a strategy yet,” Obama said, pushing back against calls for robust American intervention in Syria.

While astounding, Obama’s comment was hardly surprising. His administration has been defined by its foreign policy negligence, so it’s hardly shocking to hear that it had failed to think through and prepare contingency plans for a problem that had been brewing for months, and that early on, it was clear, posed a threat to the United States and its allies in Europe and the Middle East – a threat the Americans had acknowledged.

Bolstering the president’s bad choices have been America’s premier foreign policy commentators. Prominent among these is Fareed Zakaria, who hosts a CNN show and writes a weekly syndicated column. When Iraq led in Washington, Zakaria supported American intervention, saying of the Middle East, “The place is so dysfunctional, any stirring of the pot is good. America’s involvement in the region is for the good.”

But under Obama, the mood in the United States has swung wildly the other way, toward isolationism. Zakaria has adapted. Rare are the dimensions of Obama’s disengagement from the Middle East that Zakaria has not defended. Far from stirring the pot for the good, American activism in Syria, he wrote after Obama decided to earmark $500 million to train and supply Syrian rebels, will “more likely to throw fuel onto a raging fire.”

Zakaria is hardly alone, but his voice has resonance in the White House, and he has lent intellectual weight to Obama’s calamitous foreign policy. Now the president himself is engaging in gymnastics, as he decides what to do after the beheading of a second American by the Islamic State.

In Estonia on Wednesday, Obama declared: “Their horrific acts only unite us as a country and stiffen our resolve to take the fight against these terrorists. And those who make the mistake of harming Americans will learn that we will not forget and that our reach is long and that justice will be served.”

Obama’s call to arms was welcome, because it is perhaps beginning to dawn on Americans that they don’t have the luxury of engaging in splendid isolation from the rest of the world. The president’s great shortcoming is that while he rejected the interventionism of his predecessor, George W. Bush, he formulated no strategy to ensure that the American absence would not create a destabilizing global vacuum.

In fact Obama did not formulate much of a foreign policy strategy at all. American officials privately described the president’s approach as “don’t do stupid shit.” That is, until it the former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton derisively observed: “Great nations need organizing principles, and ‘Don’t do stupid [shit]’ is not an organizing principle.”

Obama will most definitely need an organizing principle to deal with the Islamic State in both Iraq and Syria, because hitting the group in Iraq and not doing so in Syria could make matters worse. If the Islamic State is able to flee into the safety of Syria from Iraq, it will spread elsewhere, destabilizing other countries in the region such as Lebanon and Jordan.

That is precisely why Obama has to approach the problem in a comprehensive way. As much as he would like to believe so, there are no shortcuts with the Islamic State. Though the United States has lost much credibility in the Middle East in the past six years, only Obama has the power to take the lead in coordinating a regional response to this transnational menace.

Witness what has happened in Iraq. In 2011, Obama was unable to conclude a status of forces agreement with Baghdad, allegedly because Iran blocked it. A contentious point was that Iraq refused to grant American military personnel immunity from prosecution. Yet when the Islamic State took over Mosul recently, the Iraqi government quickly approved an immunity arrangement, while Iran did nothing to prevent the deployment of American forces to counter the Islamic State.

In other words American power can impose new realities, even if that does not mean America should seek to do so anywhere and everywhere. However, given the void in the Middle East, the states of the region are willing to accept, or at least tolerate, a measure of American leadership, particularly in the face of apparently implacable threats, such as the Islamic State.

That is why the views of, let’s say, Jeffrey Sachs seem almost absurdly na├»ve. Sachs recently wrote: “It is time for the United States and other powers to let the Middle East govern itself in line with national sovereignty and the United Nations Charter.” Whatever regional states think of America, today not one is holding up the UN Charter to keep it away. The Middle East cannot govern itself and is incapable of devising a collective effort to defeat the Islamic State. It wants America to do more.

But will Obama listen? It remains unclear what his ultimately strategy is in Iraq, where American forces are already committed. So what of Syria? But this is one conflict the president cannot sweet talk his way out of. With two Americans already dead, the Islamic State poses a clear and present danger for the United States. Since national self-centeredness governs this administration’s behavior, these killings impose a convincing American military response, and less time-wasting.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Obama’s foreign policy failures will haunt this region for years

In the aftermath of the September 11 attacks in 2001, American officials scrambled to interpret what had happened and plan an appropriate response.

Their reaction can be broken down into two phases. In the first, the United States invaded Afghanistan and expelled the Taliban regime that had hosted Osama bin Laden.

However, beyond that there was a second reading, one that came to justify the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Key officials in the administration of George W Bush believed that the removal of Saddam Hussein’s regime and its replacement with a democratic government would produce regional shock waves that would favourably transform Iraq’s Arab neighbours – above all Saudi Arabia, from where 15 of the 19 hijackers came.

Implicit in this reasoning was that undemocratic regimes in the Arab world had allowed youths to engage only in religion and religious mobilisation, while prohibiting democratic activism, where some became increasingly radicalised. These youths were then recruited to engage in terrorist activities against the West.

Mr Bush was much maligned for his worldview, but in 2011, when Arab populations rose up against autocratic leaders, his verdict was generally proven correct. The real problem in the Middle East was shown to be the inability of Arab states to embody the aspirations of their citizens. Social contracts in these states tended to be imposed from the top, while citizens had little input in the political realities imposed on them.

One could not go too far with Mr Bush’s democratisation project. America’s autocratic Arab allies were never pushed too hard to change. And when Barack Obama became president, it became immediately clear in his much-praised, though empty, speech in Cairo that Arab democratisation would not be a priority for the new administration.

And so, when the Arab Spring gained momentum in early 2011, Mr Obama had no template to address it. The president blundered through, pursuing very different policies in Egypt, Libya and Syria, everywhere displaying a short attention span as he continued to focus on his domestic programme.

It would have helped for him to take a closer look at what his predecessor had concluded. Yet nothing would have been more unpleasant for Mr Obama than to take a page out of Mr Bush’s book – even if it meant doing so in reverse.

Indeed, the former president had believed that authoritarianism helped breed terrorism so that the antidote was democracy. But developments in the Arab world after 2011 showed that democracy, without a clear notion of what democratic practises entailed by way of compromises and coalition building, could lead to chaos benefiting extremists.

This was well understood by the Arab dictators themselves. In Libya and Syria, Muammar Qaddafi and Bashar Al Assad provoked civil war, grasping that the ensuing violence would allow Islamist extremists to rise to the top, in that way portraying the dictators as a last line against jihadists.

In other words, Mr Bush may have been too naive by half, while Mr Obama has been too passive by half. Where the former believed that there was a direct link between democracy and curbing Islamist terrorism, Mr Obama did not realise that the void he had allowed in Syria would lead to the outcome he had initially sought to avoid: the empowerment of militant Islamists.

Mr Obama approached Syria with astounding superficiality. He hesitated to arm the opposition, fearing that weapons might reach extremist groups. But he didn’t grasp that by doing nothing, his administration was only creating spaces for the extremists to accumulate power.

That is what former secretary of state Hillary Clinton meant when she told The Atlantic: “The failure to help build up a credible fighting force of the people who were the originators of the protests against Assad – there were Islamists, there were secularists, there was everything in the middle – the failure to do that left a big vacuum, which the jihadists have now filled.”

Though Mr Obama was defended by a cohort of realist publicists after those remarks, Mrs Clinton’s words obviously stung him. His actions in Iraq were a sign that something had changed, not least because Mr Obama had made success in fighting terrorism a plank in his 2012 re-election campaign. With two years left in office, the president is beginning to think of his legacy.

One thing the proliferating conflicts in the Arab world will do, however, is end any serious debate over democracy. Mr Bush may have reached the right diagnosis about the dysfunctional nature of Arab states, but there was never any agreement over a cure. The violence and anarchy that has engulfed the region in the past three and a half years has cured many people of their idealistic democratic illusions.

This attitude represents a great misfortune, and will haunt the Arab world for a long time to come. If there is an ambient feeling that Arabs are somehow incapable of adapting to democracy, then what does the future hold for them? More decades of repression, which will only bolster extremism and frustration, ensuring that Arab states remain stuck in a cycle of unrest?

Ultimately this is something Arabs themselves must think about, without blaming outsiders. Few have bothered to do so, leaving the region in a grey zone – neither democratic nor stable, in perpetual search of a tomorrow that remains obscure.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Home work - For Maronites, salvation begins in Lebanon

The patriarchs and bishops of the Eastern churches met on Wednesday in the presence of several foreign ambassadors to sound the alarm on the Christian presence in the Middle East.

In reference to the offensive by the Islamic State, the clerics condemned “the silence in the face of what is happening, in the absence of a unified regional plan on the part of [those with] influence in the world –notably Islamic, spiritual and political authorities – as well as the lukewarm international attitude toward these events.”

Their anxiety is understandable. Christians face an existential threat. Even in the best of scenarios it’s difficult to imagine that the communities in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon will go back to where they were demographically even a decade ago.

But one community stands out in the desolate field of dwindling Arab Christian minorities: the Maronites. Of all the region’s Christians, they alone have a senior post reserved for them, namely the presidency of Lebanon. Better still, they have a patriarch whose vanity and pomposity have frequently pushed him to speak in the name of all Eastern Christians.

But before picking up the sword on behalf of his Arab brethren, Patriarch Beshara al-Rai should clean nearer to his front door. There is perhaps little he can do to prevent the jihadist threat in the region, but the Maronites are facing a host of lesser challenges, some of which Rai can help resolve in such a way as to create a climate benefiting the whole community. 

To get a sense of Rai’s priorities, however, recently many Lebanese learned that the patriarch had asked a leading engineering firm to prepare a preliminary project for the construction of hotels and cable cars in the Qadisha Valley. The valley, which has historical importance for Maronites, is listed by UNESCO as a world heritage site.

There is uncertainty whether the project will go forward. No one is happy with the plan and the church probably wants to avoid an unseemly confrontation over a place regarded internationally as worthy of preservation. But Rai is mulish. Whenever he has made mistakes he has bull-headedly pressed on in his errors.

Yet it is a mistake for Rai to vulgarize the collective Maronite memory. If there is one thing Maronites must preserve today, it’s a focal point for communal identity, and the valley has served such a function. To see it transformed into an ecclesiastical version of Club Med would be an insult.

Even those who do not read scripture know the story of Jesus attacking the money changers in the temple, accusing them of turning a house of prayer into a robbers’ den. The Qadisha Valley may not quite be a house of prayer, but in the Maronite psyche it is very nearly so. It is not worth devastating it just so that Rai can take his cut from tourist package tours.

A principal thing the patriarch has failed to do is reform his corrupt church. When Rai came to office in 2011, there was hope he would replace the upper echelons of the clergy. Instead, the same decomposing crew is around, though several bishops have long passed retirement age. If these are the men who hold the church’s future in their hands, don’t be surprised that the Maronites are facing a crisis of confidence – or that the younger clergy are as feckless and materialistic as their predecessors.

Nor is this solely a religious matter. The Maronite Church is powerful thanks to its network of parishes, schools, social institutions and media. These are instruments allowing it to spread its ideas and agendas. If there is rot at the top, you can be sure that it will soon spread to the bottom.

No one can mention Rai without commenting on his passion for politics. The thing is, he is bad at it, which has eroded his standing nationally. From Rai’s early defense of Bashar Assad’s regime to his recent efforts, all vain, to play midwife to a new Lebanese president, the omni-patriarch has sinned by excess. He has an opinion about everything, travels everywhere, delivers speeches anywhere. Rarely does he mention religion, and when he does it serves as dull filler while his mind races to elections.  

Would resolving these problems save the Maronites? Probably not. And to give Rai credit, he has rightly grasped that the presidential vacuum is bad for the community as a whole. But the health of the Maronites rests on two foundations: the ability of the community to revitalize and reform itself, and the ability of Maronite elites to adapt to a changing regional environment.

The church is vital to the first aim, given its control over many of the institutions that profoundly shape Maronite society, above all its youths. And while the second involves all Christians, the church’s function is essential in a region where religion is central to social and political life. The Maronites’ strategy toward both Sunnis and Shiites, for example, cannot possibly be formulated without church backing.

This doesn’t diminish the importance of the call by the Eastern churches. But salvation begins at home. A corrupt and venal church will end up reflecting on the community it represents. Christians who refuse to leave Lebanon do so because they feel they have something for which to fight. But if the church – as the spiritual and symbolic embodiment of the community – is a robbers’ den, don’t expect Christians to fight for very long.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

What Christians mean to Walid Jumblatt

Walid Jumblatt has faced a wave of criticism in recent days over his comments on the presidential election. For the Druze leader, Lebanon needs a president quickly, and he recently observed that the presidency did not belong solely to the Christians.

On Monday, in a speech in Bsharri, the parliamentarian Strida Geagea expressed her “surprise” at Jumblatt’s comments, asking “would [he] accept that the head of the Lebanese Forces, Samir Geagea, discuss the number of Druze parliamentary seats with the speaker of Parliament?”

Geagea’s comparison was very odd. In constitutional terms, the president is “the symbol of the nation’s unity,” so Jumblatt, like anyone else in the country, is entitled to talk about the presidency without this in any way undermining the foundations of the National Pact, as Geagea implied. If a vacuum in the presidency negatively affects Lebanon’s stability, then it is not Maronites alone who are entitled to address and remedy the situation.

But reactions such as Geagea’s also show a lack of understanding of what sustains Jumblatt’s power. The Druze leader, while he exerts control over Christians in the areas he represents, is also dependent on their being effective political actors nationally. Once Christians are marginalized – so that major national decisions are taken principally by Sunni and Shiite representatives – Jumblatt and the Druze will be too.

That’s why, at their last meeting, Jumblatt warned Hezbollah’s secretary-general, Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah, that Christians and Druze were leaving Lebanon, implying that a presidential void would only heighten insecurity and accelerate the process. And it is why Nasrallah, who has shown little sympathy for the rules and compromises of the sectarian system, and no appreciation that a Christian cushion between Sunnis and Shiites benefits both communities at a time of rising mutual tension, evaded an answer.

The Maronite relationship with Jumblatt is a complex one. Many have not forgotten that the Druze leader, when he sought to improve his relationship with the Shiite community and the Syrian regime in 2009, apparently leaked a video taken on a portable telephone in which he referred to the Maronites as a “bad type” or “bad seed.” The description was harsh, even if Jumblatt’s reversal was understandable at the time, coming at a moment when Saad Hariri, at the Saudis’ instigation, was about to begin a reconciliation process with President Bashar Assad.

The paradox of Jumblatt leadership is that it has tended to work against the Maronites while depending upon them. Kamal Jumblatt was instrumental in bringing Camille Chamoun to power in 1952, though he was soon caught up in a bitter rivalry with the president. And when Fouad Chehab succeeded him in 1958, Jumblatt became a staunch ally, serving several times as a minister. The Jumblatts’ ability to gain from inter-Christian divisions has been a recurring feature of their strategy; but their preference for nonpartisan presidents has also been very clear.

That is why Jumblatt made such a big deal of his political alliance with President Michel Sleiman. To Sleiman’s credit he immediately understood this, and saw that the presidency gained by allying itself with Jumblatt in the political center. This explains why one of Sleiman’s last high-profile visits was to Mukhtara. It served as an endorsement of Jumblatt’s role as a balancer in the system and someone who could counter the extremes. Significantly, Sleiman saw a similar role for the presidency.

Jumblatt and the Druze would potentially pay for Sunni-Shiite conflict on two levels: They would be caught up in a battle taking place all around their mountains, and even several areas within. This would devastate the already vulnerable mountain economy, spurring a Druze exodus. And such an exodus would effectively terminate the Jumblatt leadership.

That explains why Jumblatt, whose militia was responsible for the expulsion of Christians from the mountains in 1983, took the lead in bringing them back once the war had ended. Economically speaking, the Christian return helped revive the mountain, while the Jumblatt leadership only lost by being perceived as having only narrow Druze appeal. Jumblatt has always sought to portray himself as the leader of a broad coalition of Druze, Sunnis and Maronites, and his insistence on keeping Henri Helou in the presidential race is a sign of this.

That is why Strida Geagea’s comments showed impetuous disdain for Jumblatt’s approach to confessional politics, even as her remarks revealed that the Geageas have not forgiven the Druze leader for failing to back Samir Geagea’s candidacy.

Jumblatt’s perennial quest to keep alive his traditional family domination in the mountains has earned him many enemies, not least among Christians who may form a majority there. Walid Jumblatt may not be a modern democrat but he has done two things in the areas he controls that are worth remembering. He has chosen for his lists non-Druze who have local legitimacy and a measure of representativity; and he has preserved confessional coexistence. It has been in his political interest to do so, but that does not make his efforts any less credible.

Rarely a day goes by without Christians lamenting their future in the Middle East. If so, those who claim to worry about the Christians must realize that in a country where they still hold a major political post, the community as a whole loses if the presidency remains empty and comes to be regarded as unnecessary. When Jumblatt echoes this, he is not ignoring the National Pact. He is reminding Christians of its importance.