Thursday, November 29, 2007

Destroying Lebanon for a great sinecure

In late 1994, I interviewed Michel Aoun at his borrowed residence at La Haute-Maison just outside Paris. At the end of our conversation I asked the general why he had not organized his supporters in Lebanon, since the Aounist movement at the time was a disoriented amalgam of people whose principle activity was to be harassed by the authorities. Aoun's answer was remarkable: "Why, so that they all end up with the Syrians?"

Aoun eventually did organize his followers, and he did so rather well. However, his response in those early days of exile provided a window into the man's deeper impulses: Though his supporters were being slapped around for championing him, Aoun's main concern was maintaining authority. That was reasonable, but less so was the fact that the general justified this attitude by casting doubt on the loyalty of the Aounists. Given that they are recklessly following him down the road to communal perdition today, perhaps we can suggest that Aoun apologize to all those people whose devotion he doubted while in France.

Yesterday, the Future Movement suddenly declared its intention to support a constitutional amendment to bring in the army commander Michel Suleiman as president. This came after the French reportedly inquired about the general, and the Russians allegedly expressed sympathy for him. Even the Lebanese Forces leader, Samir Geagea, waffled on Monday when asked about a constitutional amendment to bring the general to power, noting that "all options are being studied."

Aoun will swallow poison before saying yes to Suleiman. It's difficult to believe that Geagea really relishes the idea of bringing to power his warden for nine years. And Walid Jumblatt has already told Suleiman he would not vote in favor of a constitutional amendment, even if he has also indicated he would be willing to accept anybody to avoid a vacuum. But will this be enough to stop the army commander? Hizbullah may be as lost as anyone in gauging what comes next. Having declared its support for Aoun, it knows that shifting its support to Suleiman may mean a divorce with Aoun. Is that one of the main objectives in the Hariri camp's backing for the army commander? Perhaps, but even so, it's difficult to imagine that Hizbullah will oppose Suleiman if Syria backs him.

The Maronite community has split down the middle in the race between its politicians for an office that is fast turning into the sinecure of the Lebanese republic. Whichever way you cut it, the Maronites, and Lebanon's Christians in general, need to overhaul their thinking when it comes to their national political role. Each presidential election, it seems, is further destroying what remains of Christian influence. That's why its time to seriously open a debate within the community on whether Christians actually benefit from the presidency anymore.

Such a debate will be delayed by two things. First, the priority today is, and must be, the consolidation of a Lebanon independent from Syria. Will a President Suleiman, if he is the anointed one, bring this about? Or on the contrary, is he Syria's choice as many people seem to believe? It's a paradox that the Christians, who were always at the forefront of opposition to Syria, are now, through their infighting, the main reason why the Assad regime is finding it so easy to manipulate Lebanese politics for a comeback (even if the 2005 electoral deal between Walid Jumblatt, Hizbullah, Saad Hariri, and Nabih Berri gave the current opposition the oxygen it needed to collect itself and prepare a counterattack). The fact that Suleiman's agenda is so ambiguous, particularly on Syria, is a result of the Christians having lost their bearings on Lebanon's independence.

Second, no discussion over the Christians' future can occur while Hizbullah holds weapons. That's because no national debate on political reform can take place under those conditions. Which community will agree to make concessions when only one community has guns and rockets?

More troubling, however, is the fact that Hizbullah and the Aounists have repeatedly cast doubt on the Taif Accord - when they've paid attention to it at all. For disgruntled Christians to join Hizbullah in an anti-Taif alignment would be a tragedy. Taif is the only legitimate framework for political reform in Lebanon today, and the only protection Christians have if Sunnis and Shiites ever consider a review of communal prerogatives. On the other hand, if Sunnis and Shiites confront each other over such prerogatives, they might find it necessary, in an effort to avert open conflict between themselves, to arrive at an arrangement at the expense of the weaker parties: the Christians and almost certainly the Druze as well.

Since Suleiman is the man of the hour, it might be useful to ask what he thinks of Taif. If he becomes president, the likelihood is that he will draw to him many of the supporters that Michel Aoun had depended upon. Will he reconcile them with Taif? A Suleiman presidency would surely represent Aoun's political elimination. But Aoun's fate is immaterial; the real question is whether Suleiman will help solidify a free Lebanon, one in which the Christian community would be less weighed down by Aoun's sectarian paranoia. Or will Michel Suleiman try to do what Emile Lahoud failed to do and stabilize Lebanon under a new form of Pax Syriana?

Maybe then Michel Aoun would think twice before accusing his followers of wanting to "end up with the Syrians." He tried to play the Syrian game, and may have just lost. For the second time in two decades he drove the Christians into the ground. Now someone else may have the opportunity to save the community, or repeat the same mistake that Aoun did.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Score this round for March 14

Lebanon is looking into the abyss; it is in the throes of a political crisis that everyone has announced might bring on catastrophe. March 14 is on its final feet, wracked by division. If you think all this is true then here’s a less apocalyptic account of what has just happened on the presidency.

March 14 has won this round. Senior leaders of the majority coalition had peddled the idea that a presidential vacuum was what Syria desired the most. As one politician put it to me last week, Syria fooled several gullible French envoys to ensure that no president would be elected, thus leaving a hole at the top that Damascus hoped to exploit to make the security situation more volatile. Indeed, when the official Syrian daily Tishrin last week threatened chaos in Lebanon because of the election, you knew the Assad regime was itching to raise the heat through the instability card.

However, that’s only half the story. The fact that a presidential election did not happen may have been precisely what the majority, or certain leaders in the majority, intended - and justifiably so. They understood that Syria’s priority was not a vacuum, but getting elected a president who would advance its interests. There never was an incentive for March 14 to hand the keys of Baabda over to a weak president, then surrender veto power to the opposition in a new government while Nabih Berri remained speaker of Parliament. The apparent divisions in the anti-Syrian coalition, between a Walid Jumblatt backing Michel Edde, a Saad Hariri backing Robert Ghanem, and a Samir Geagea enthused with neither, were likely not as sharp as they looked. Jumblatt didn’t want Edde. He used him to create a bogus crisis with Hariri (who was perhaps complicit) to help block the reckless French initiative and turn the tables on Syria.

Here is what March 14 has gained. Fouad Siniora remains prime minister of a government without a president to hinder its activities and that the opposition cannot readily remove by force. Why? Because if it were to try doing so, this might lead to a destructive Sunni-Shiite clash that both Hizbullah and the Hariri camp want to avoid. Sunnis and Shiites cannot afford to come to blows over a Christian presidency.

Second, if the opposition were to resort to violence against the Siniora government, not only would this provoke an angry response in the mostly Sunni Arab world, the March 14 majority would be galvanized enough, and would receive the international backing it requires, to elect a president by an absolute majority. As one European diplomat put it: Whichever side fires first in the standoff is bound to be the loser.

March 14 can also rejoice that Emile Lahoud has finally gone, leaving behind a wet firecracker as his last act. Too many people mistakenly interpreted his farewell announcement Friday as a declaration of a state of emergency. It was nothing of the sort. Lahoud’s statement was without effect, and was quickly nullified by the army’s reaction, suggesting that the former president was already calculating that he or his family might pay a price for a reckless decision to leave bedlam behind him. Hizbullah urged him to form a second government, but in the end Lahoud got cold feet, no longer protected by his presidential immunity.

A third gain of March 14 is that, absent a presidential election, a conflict-ridden negotiation over the formation of a new government has been momentarily delayed. None of the majority’s leaders were keen to give up the one branch of government they still control in favor of a protracted dispute over a new government, which would have provoked far more hostility than exists today - at least until they could get a president they consider reliable. There seems to be no middle ground today between Hizbullah and Michel Aoun on the one hand, and the March 14 coalition on the other. A new government would be a pretext for greater discord. That may explain why even the opposition parties, particularly Hizbullah, allowed the Friday deadline to pass without incident: It could be that everybody had an interest in calming the situation before the next phase.

So Lahoud is gone, Siniora is still in, and the opposition has few serious options to alter the stalemate without risking war. Is that so a bad result for the majority coalition? Not if the time gained can be put to good use, because the victory is only tactical. From the March 14 perspective, that time might allow the Hariri tribunal to be set up so that, if the latter gains momentum, it would provide the majority with a context required to gain leverage for the election of a new president closer to its ambitions.

More likely, the majority is banking on the outcome of the Annapolis conference tomorrow. There has been much talk in Beirut that the United States is rewarding Syria by inviting it to the conference. This is too shortsighted a reading. A Syria compelled to make peace is a Syria that must redefine its relationship with Hizbullah. Annapolis may become a trap for Damascus: If there is progress on its track with Israel, Syria might be locked into a process from which one can derive concessions on Lebanon. If, conversely, Syria does nothing to help Annapolis succeed, it will find itself more targeted than ever in the region. Some reports suggest that Jordan’s King Abdullah recently warned President Bashar Assad that the peace conference was his last chance to break out of his isolation.

One thing is certain: The dynamics of the Lebanese presidential election have changed. The status quo is now to the disadvantage of the opposition. Very soon opposition groups will be the ones demanding a presidential election to be rid of Siniora. Once they do so they will be in a position of vulnerability, since March 14 still controls the parliamentary majority and will be inviting the opposition blocs to come down to Parliament for an open vote. At the least, March 14 has greater latitude today to agree to a compromise candidate it feels more comfortable with.

But there is a problem in the argument: The Syrians will not allow such a scenario to be played out if their pre-Annapolis flexibility leads them nowhere. Iranian intentions are also unclear, and quite worrisome. How long can Siniora remain in office before Hizbullah and the Aounists begin raising the heat? Violence, whether assassinations or demonstrations, can intervene to alter the calculations on all sides.

There is also the fact that an indefinite period without a president will rile up the Christians. Whether it is Michel Aoun or Michel Suleiman who takes advantage of this anger is irrelevant: Hariri and Jumblatt have to be careful not to discredit the Christians in their own coalition by leaving the presidency vacant for too long.

Whatever the outcome, March 14 had the last laugh last week, when French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner and the other French emissaries offered Syria normalization in exchange for facilitating the Lebanese presidential election. It all came to naught and French diplomacy got burned, so that President Nicolas Sarkozy will now think twice before trusting Assad. The fact is that Syria, until now, has not been able to impose its man as president. Hizbullah’s followers may have to spend another chilly winter in their tents under the gaze of the detested Siniora. Score this round for March 14, then brace for a reaction.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Place the Hariri trial on a fast track

Place the Hariri trial on a fast track
Thursday, November 22, 2007

Those of us who welcomed the naming of Bernard Kouchner as foreign minister of France are wearing a hair shirt in penance. We deserve no better for having believed in a man with a scaffolding of recklessness to prop up a towering ego. Before his latest return to Lebanon - we've lost track of how many - he said this: "I realized that arriving at the last minute would be insufficient and that Lebanon merits more, even if this comes at the expense of my personal rest and my family life."

Super Kouchner to the rescue, and defying France's 35-hour working week on top of it! If only the minister were here to rescue Lebanon from a mess that he and his boss, President Nicolas Sarkozy, have been so instrumental in helping create (bizarrely, with Washington's bland acquiescence). On Monday, Kouchner held back from blaming the Syrians for blocking the French initiative on the presidency, but his government has made two critical mistakes in recent weeks in its dealings with Damascus, which Lebanon will pay dearly for.

The first was to formally bring Syria back into the Lebanese presidential election process, when United Nations Security Council Resolution 1559 (which France co-sponsored) was designed to do the exact opposite. France pleaded with Syria to be flexible on the presidency, offering normalized relations in exchange. Syrian President Bashar Assad saw a golden opportunity to jack up his price on the panicking French, and we are where we are today, with Syria not only looking to capitalize on French eagerness, but also working to use that eagerness as leverage to bring in one of their favorites as Lebanese president.

The second mistake remains to be confirmed, but if confirmed it would be very dangerous. According to sources in Paris, when Sarkozy's envoys, Claude Gueant and Jean-David Levitte, met with Syrian officials, including Assad, in Damascus two weeks ago, they reportedly agreed that the Hariri tribunal was one of the issues that could be discussed if Syria fulfilled what was required of it in Lebanon. One version of the story is that the French made no specific commitments on the tribunal, merely affirming that if Syria satisfied certain conditions in Lebanon, including allowing a presidential election and other concessions that were less clear, then the matter of the tribunal would not be off the table. A second version was that the sides were more specific when it came to the tribunal.

The first version may be the more accurate one. By upping the ante on the French initiative, the Syrians have implied that any discussion of the tribunal, and doubtless much else, remained too vague to earn France a Lebanon deal. Nor would Sarkozy risk making commitments on an international tribunal over which he has little real power. However, even if this minimal interpretation of what the French allegedly said is true, it would be alarming, showing Assad that all Syria needs to do is pursue its destabilization of Lebanon to make the international community fold. If the thought of accepting a bargain on the tribunal is taken seriously, even though Syria has conceded nothing on Lebanese sovereignty and independence, then expect a return of Syrian hegemony over Lebanon.

What of the Hariri investigation and tribunal, which will be soon be headed by one Daniel Bellemare? The appointment is welcome but not reassuring. Bellemare has never managed a major international terrorist investigation and you have to wonder whether the UN could not find better than a former Canadian assistant deputy attorney general to handle so highly complex a political crime. That said, Bellemare deserves the benefit of the doubt and might surprise, given that Serge Brammertz passed through the Hariri investigation like a submarine, leaving little behind but an array of dry "technical" reports that, until now, have failed to name names. Why Brammertz agreed this month to become prosecutor of the tribunal for the former Yugoslavia when he should have prosecuted the case he has spent two years investigating may remain a mystery. However, it does make you wonder what the Belgian is all about.

For some time Brammertz has had his critics, while many journalists - present company included - have defended his discretion. It's time to give belated credit to the critics to ensure that Bellemare, whom Brammertz recommended, won't hesitate to name names soon. Rafik Hariri's elimination involved a wide array of means, both local and international, as Brammertz has argued many times. The investigator has implicitly pointed the finger at Syria on dozens of occasions in his reports, not least in his description of the motives for the assassination. Yet he has never mentioned specific states or individuals. But people somewhere did commit the crime and they need to be arrested. This elusiveness cannot continue without grave damage being done to the UN's credibility.

The international lawyer and presidential candidate Chibli Mallat probably put it best in a column written for this newspaper: "After two years of reports, the Lebanese and Syrian publics, and the world, are entitled to know more. Either the investigator has no evidence of the involvement of the Syrian leadership and its Lebanese allies - in which case [former UN investigator Detlev] Mehlis and the initial UN investigator of the case, Peter Fitzgerald, were wrong, and Brammertz should say so publicly ... or Brammertz thinks the conclusions of his predecessors were correct, and he must say so publicly."

However, even more withering is the assessment of a former official involved in the Hariri investigation. Describing the results of the two Brammertz years as "meager," the official noted that "apparently out of lack of professionalism" the current Hariri investigation team has actually fallen much behind what the previous Mehlis commission found. The official is equally critical of the UN (as well as the Lebanese judicial system and media) for "tolerating" Brammertz for so long and fears that there is a lack of international will to see the Hariri case through, as well as a more general absence of international interest in Lebanon.

So severe a verdict hardly implies that Syria is out of the woods. But it is a needed warning shot. The Brammertz reports, while bureaucratically safe, have all pointed at a single overriding culprit. The Belgian may not have wanted to take risks, but Bellemare will find that unavoidable if he prosecutes the case. Mehlis and Fitzgerald made it clear whom they thought were behind Hariri's murder, and nothing in Brammertz's reports has contradicted their findings. If anything, the information from the UN commission in the past two years has confirmed previous assumptions.

That's why the UN must ensure that Bellemare has what it takes to carry the Hariri trial to a satisfactory conclusion. The tribunal's legal framework is such that it can begin operating while the investigation continues, in the event the latter is still not over. There is no need to wait for the investigation to end before handing down formal accusations. No one will stop the tribunal, but it can be delayed and has been; its effectiveness can be watered down and has been; its judges and staff can be swayed or threatened. Hopefully, when it's all over, the international community will not have spent hundreds of millions of dollars just to get something like the Lockerbie deal that exonerated Libya's Moammar Gadhafi.

However, it's difficult to relax when a central player in the final chapter of that international whitewash was Nicolas Sarkozy. Even though Syria has been trashing France's Lebanon plan, Sarkozy called Assad on Tuesday and is still sending his men to Damascus to chat up the Syrian president. Assad is fast learning just how boneless his Western counterparts can be when negotiating with Arab dictators.