Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Our Mideastern future: a pair of shoes and a gun

What do the recent shoe-throwing incident with Iraqi journalist Muntazer al-Zaidi, the uncertain truce in Gaza, and Lebanon's national dialogue all have in common? Very little, except that the three offer up a vision of the Middle East as a place largely devoid of constructive ideas, where the rule of the gun looms large on the horizon.

There is little new to say about the Zaidi incident. Yes, we really do know that the shoe expresses contempt in the Arab world, and if we had doubts about that, then Zaidi clarified matters by calling President George W. Bush a "dog." We know that the Iraqi blamed Bush for all the woes that his country had suffered in recent years, and we also know that he would have never thrown his shoes at Saddam Hussein, who was responsible for Iraqi woes until April 2003. And we know that the Zaidi affair became a giant funnel of interpretation, which many outraged Arabs fell into to make the journalist's shoe-toss a personal statement of their own.

Not many Arabs saw irony in the fact that Zaidi's action is now a game circulating on the Internet. Hit Bush on the head and you can score points. But that detail summed up the sheer mediocrity of this Arab moment, with its earnest demonstrations in support of the journalist, when few Arabs ever bothered to demonstrate on behalf of the countless Iraqi journalists executed by their country's armed gangs. As Tunku Varadarajan wrote so appropriately in Forbes: "The Arabs, who once upon a time boasted Averroes and Avicenna, are now reduced to eulogizing a boorish act of agitprop as a heroic achievement."

Somehow, missed in all this was Iraq itself. For too long the Iraqi conflict has only been about America. When Iraqis were being slaughtered by suicide bombers arriving from Syria, all the Arab world could do was applaud the murderers as "resistance" against American imperialism. Yet when many members of that resistance turned against the murderers in Al-Qaeda, appalled by their sadism, the Arab world became silent because the narrative had changed and the Americans and their former foes suddenly seemed to be in accord. The obsession with America, the pervasive desire to see Bush fail in Iraq, has been the running theme of Arab and much Western commentary on the Iraqi conflict. Only a minority observed that American failures would also be Iraqi failures, and that while the Americans could always pick up and leave, the Iraqis would have to endure the consequences of that failure for a long time afterward.

Zaidi's act came at the worst moment for Iraq. Here was Bush on a farewell trip to acknowledge that Iraq had gradually broken free from the United States, after the administration's ambition in 2003-2004 to run the country as a protectorate. Far from being the leader Washington considered removing from office a few years ago, here, too, was Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, now in greater control of his country. Bush made his trip to Baghdad to burnish his own legacy by saying that Iraq could stand on its own two feet. That was the stated aspiration of many Arabs not so long ago. And yet Bush's final visit ended up not being about Iraq's emergence from the nightmare of dictatorship and war; it ended up being about a man whose feat became a computerized entertainment.

No less demoralizing are the events in Gaza. The callousness of the Israeli blockade has been the focus of much justified attention in the Arab world. In the absence of any clear policies on achieving peace with the Palestinians, Israel tends to resort to brutality. However, it is also worth questioning what Hamas has made of Gaza, a territory that could have once served as an encouraging example of what Palestinians could achieve when Israeli occupation ended. Instead, what we have is a failed political order, and one cannot blame this solely on Israeli pressures. Hamas has chosen the armed struggle, which required overcoming Fatah in Gaza before transforming the area into a garrisoned statelet.

Will the truce in Gaza be renewed, or won't it? Hamas last week said the truce was over because Israel had not abided by its conditions. However, that seemed to be hypocritical bluster, an effort to cover for the fact that the Islamist movement has been unable to give Palestinians a normal life despite the cease-fire. In fact, Hamas' pursuit of the armed struggle requires extending the truce so the movement can build up its weapons arsenal and prepare for a long war. That's why it was no surprise to hear Hamas' leader in Gaza, Mahmoud Zahhar, tell Egypt's Al-Ahram that the movement might agree to renew the truce under the previous conditions.

Even if Israel lifts its siege, the only things Palestinians in Gaza can look forward to is the prospect of more carnage ahead. Hamas is not a state-building enterprise, it is a military movement that plays politics to retain the military option. The dystopia it offers is many decades more of the gun, and like Zaidi's shoes, the gun has left no room for discussion of an alternative, more desirable Palestinian future.

Much the same can be said of Lebanon's Hizbullah, as it engages in a bogus national dialogue on its weapons, which the party has already indicated it will not give up. At what stage will the Lebanese throw up their arms and admit to the absurdity of finding common ground between the logic of a sovereign Lebanese state and the logic of a sovereign armed group in the midst of that state? Hizbullah, like Hamas, offers only a project of open-ended war, apparently now tied in to developments in Palestine, if we are to believe the party's deputy secretary general, Naim Qassem, who declared a few days ago: "We are responsible, like all Arabs and Muslims, to completely liberate Palestine, from the river to the sea."

Who is looking flexible these days, amid such maximalism? Oddly enough the dictator in Syria, with Bashar Assad having declared on Monday that he would move to direct talks with Israel at some stage. Assad may be pulling the wool over American eyes as Barack Obama prepares to take office, but the truth is a grim one for the Lebanese. On the one side we have Hizbullah promising open-ended conflict, while on the other the Syrians are hoping that a new beginning with Washington will allow them to re-impose their hegemony over Lebanon, that rare society in the region with spaces of liberalism between its imperfectly applied despotism.

If you live by the gun you will probably die by the gun. That's the promise of the Middle East today, where weapons have become the ornaments of men, and where the foulest dictatorships end up looking like a good bet.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Let's not be crushed by the Syria train

"Don't panic," the former US ambassador to Lebanon, Jeffrey Feltman, told his Lebanese friends at a conference organized jointly last week by the Lebanon Renaissance Foundation and the Aspen Institute. And the Lebanese panicked, because the March 14 majority doesn't know how to make itself relevant as the transition in Washington accelerates, amid signs the Obama administration intends to engage Syria.

There is disconcerting haziness whenever American officials, past, present, or future, explain why it is time to talk to Syria. The principal argument is that the Syrians can be broken off from Iran and Hizbullah, that now is the time to pry Bashar Assad away from his dangerous liaisons. That reasoning, when not utterly na•ve, happens to be counter-intuitive. Assad knows that it is his dangerous liaisons that make engaging Syria desirable; the Syrians' strong card is their ability to dance with Iran and Hizbullah and Hamas and manipulate the Lebanese and Palestinian scenes while continuing to oversee mayhem in Iraq. For Assad to give all that up as a prerequisite for dealing with Washington is a non-starter. It would mean surrendering his leverage before getting down to the serious business of negotiations. Why should he do that?
Assad can read the dynamics as well as anybody. The reality is that it is the Americans who want a new relationship with Syria, so the onus is on them to make the concessions. Nor are the Syrians blind to the lessons of recent history. Hafez Assad spent decades playing the spoiler in the Middle East, many Americans were killed thanks to his efforts, but that only induced successive US administrations to pursue him with greater vigor. Syria has violated United Nations resolutions on Lebanon that the Bush administration considered vital, most damagingly Resolution 1701, but the fact is that Bashar Assad has paid no price for this and may soon be rewarded with heightened attention from the Obama administration.

Assad is under no great pressure from the US to give up anything significant. So why does the mood in Washington become so animated whenever the subject of dealing with Syria is brought up? Why does so potentially bad an arrangement seem high on the agenda of those in the Obama transition team dealing with Middle Eastern affairs?

The only convincing explanation is that the Americans are pining for the 1990s, when states rather than non-state actors happened to be more dominant in the region. As US policymakers look around these days, they see a disconcerting vista. In Lebanon, Hizbullah seems more powerful than the state; in the Palestinian areas, Hamas has a decisive advantage over the Palestinian Authority; in Egypt and Iraq, groups outside the reach of the state, or alienated from or inadequately integrated into the state, are challenging governments or ruling regimes. On the margins of the region, in Pakistan and Afghanistan, Islamist movements, sometimes sponsored by state organs but also able to resist state authority, seem to be proliferating. A natural reaction of American diplomats and policymakers used to dealing with formal state structures is deep unease.

This the Syrians have skillfully understood. At a recent conference in Venice, I sat next to a Syrian doctor who several months ago was sent with colleagues to Washington to explain why Syria was worth opening up to. If one could distill his argument into a single phrase, it was this: "Syria is a state; it's best for everyone to bolster states in the Middle East against non-state actors." For many policymakers, the Syrian dictatorship remains attractive because it wards away the prospect of non-state Sunni Islamists taking over in Damascus. That Syria has been at the epicenter of efforts to arm and assist non-state actors such as Hizbullah, Hamas, and Al-Qaeda seems largely irrelevant to Western policymakers and opinion-shapers. In the absence of a desirable alternative to the Assad regime, the Syrians are making headway in marketing themselves abroad.

Which leads us back to the Lebanese panic - or at least the panic of those who understand that there are those in Washington who would welcome going back to the time when Syria could control Hizbullah. If the US preoccupation is with the growing power of non-state actors, then what better way to contain Hizbullah than by allowing a new form of Syrian hegemony in Lebanon? Reinforcing that argument is the fact that Israel has no real problem with it. According to reports, Israel and Syria advanced quite far over Lebanon in their talks in Turkey. If Benjamin Netanyahu becomes Israel's prime minister after his country's elections next February, one of the ways he might avoid making concessions on the Golan Heights is to cut Assad more slack in Lebanon.

Some US officials argue that Washington's engagement of Syria will help assure that Lebanon is not on the block in future Syrian-Israeli discussions. Perhaps, but if the Obama administration's priority is to inhibit Hizbullah, then we must be realistic: The sovereign Lebanon that emerged from the 2005 Independence Intifada is expendable, because that Lebanon has been unable to prevail over Hizbullah. Even within the US bureaucracy, those defending an independent Lebanon will have to persuade colleagues that a Lebanese state backed by Syria is less attractive to Washington and Israel than a weaker government that has been unable to extend its authority over all its national territory.

Does that mean an independent Lebanon is finished? Not necessarily. There are fundamental difficulties in a Syrian return to Lebanon, whichever form it might take: The Syrians need Hizbullah as leverage in their own talks with Israel. That means that far from weakening the party, they may only ensure that Hizbullah resumes its cross-border attacks. At the same time, Syria is incapable of fully imposing its writ on the party in the same way it could before 2005. Iran is now a major player on the scene, and there are many ways for the Iranians and Hizbullah to show that Syrian power in Lebanon is not what it used to be. This would make even less likely a Syrian-Iranian rift, however, since Syria could neither defeat Hizbullah militarily in that event, nor would it see any benefit in breaking with a party that has been its de facto enforcer in Beirut.
In other words, the Obama administration may soon come to realize that Syria doesn't have the means to give the US what it seeks in Lebanon. The Lebanese March 14 majority must see to it that while Obama is experimenting, an independent Lebanon survives. The majority has another strong suit, namely that it represents a far more desirable, pluralistic, even liberal Lebanese future than the despotism of Syria or the religious militancy of Hizbullah. However, March 14 has displayed crying incompetence in adapting to change in Washington, or shaping American attitudes in this transition period - for example by pushing for a delay in US engagement of Syria before the parliamentary elections next spring.

If the majority loses, alas we all lose. There is still a policy vacuum to be filled in Washington. There is still time for March 14 to fill that vacuum with practical proposals to ensure the US does not throw out the Lebanese independence baby with the bathwater when it chats up Assad. The Syria train is moving out in Washington, and the majority must ensure it will be on board.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Giving peace in Palestine no chance

Rarely a day goes by without someone offering new advice to the incoming Obama administration on how to deal with the Middle East. This advice is usually based on a simple principle: If George W. Bush pursued a specific policy, Barack Obama must do the opposite.
Much of the counseling has focused on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The lines of argument are familiar. The conflict lies at the heart of the Arab world's traumas, therefore resolving it is the key to unlocking many of the region's other problems. Peace is achievable because the outlines of an agreement were almost agreed to during the 1990s, after the Oslo Accords were signed. And Bush didn't do enough for Palestinian-Israeli peace, while Obama can succeed by compensating for that failing.

The difficulty with the three premises is that each is questionable. The problem of Palestine doubtless requires an urgent settlement, but all the signs are that we may be beyond that stage - past midnight on the kind of peace with which we would have been familiar in 2000, when talks collapsed and new leaders took over in the United States and Israel.

Is the Palestinian-Israeli conflict the Gordian knot that needs to be cut in order for other regional crises to be resolved? The bitter fate of the Palestinians is a significant factor in how Arab populations view themselves and their relationship with the West. However, when one looks more closely, the centrality of the Palestinians' humiliation is also, perhaps even mainly, the result of the Arabs' humiliation at the hands of their own leaders and their alienation from politics in general. In supporting the Palestinians, Arabs also denounce the illegitimacy of those governing them. That is why Palestine, as much as it is about Israeli behavior, is also about the abject failure of the Arab state.

Arab citizens are the victims of despots who neither respect them nor afford them the bare essentials of a political life. Citizens are permitted only indifference, only to express themselves in favor of the tyrannical fathers ruling over them. What is the role of Palestine in such a context? Arab regimes have used the conflict with Israel to maintain suffocating security establishments and to deflect popular anger away from their own shortcomings. However, that could mean that if Arab societies become more open, Palestine will recede as a prime shaper of Arab attitudes.

Taking this a step further, if the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is resolved but Arab despotisms are left in place, it is doubtful that we would see deep changes in the nature of Arab societies. Peace with Israel will not mean that fewer young men join militant Islamist groups (probably the contrary would happen), nor that Arab citizens will be able to voice their opinions more liberally. No one doubts the importance of Palestine, but as the Lebanese showed at the end of their 15-year civil conflict, just as the Kuwaitis showed after the 1991 Gulf war and the Iraqis did at the end of the 2003 war, Arab societies will turn against the Palestinians, often in very unreasonable ways, when they feel that they themselves have paid an onerous domestic price for having backed the Palestinians.

The second assumption about a Palestinian-Israeli settlement, namely that the outlines of a final agreement are known and were defined during negotiations in the 1990s, is equally problematic. All the evidence today suggests that Palestinian-Israeli dynamics are changing so rapidly that the Oslo framework may have become a distant anachronism.

The reason is that on both sides of the Palestinian-Israeli divide those unwilling to make the required concessions for peace are in a position to veto a final settlement. On the Israeli side we are likely heading after the February 2009 parliamentary elections toward a center-right government, one either led by the Likud's Benjamin Netanyahu or in which he will have a decisive say. Given that the present center-left Kadima-led government has been incapable, when not unwilling, to take steps bolstering the credibility of President Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority, it seems illusory to expect better next spring.

Similarly, Hamas has no interest in a peace settlement, believing the armed struggle can deliver the Palestinians much more. The Islamist movement may soon have as its main Israeli adversary Netanyahu, who, like Hamas, welcomes an open-ended truce that ultimately resolves nothing. Meanwhile, the Palestinians' condition will only consolidate the divisions between the West Bank and Gaza. However, not before very long this stalemate might only further undermine the credibility and negotiating strategy of Fatah and the Palestine Liberation Organization, creating openings for Hamas in future elections. This coming January, Hamas and Fatah are likely to clash over whether Abbas should remain in office as president, and this week's fighting in the Mieh Mieh camp in southern Lebanon was a worrying omen that Palestinian refugees may soon be caught up in their political animosities.

So, did George W. Bush err in not doing enough to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict? His administration blundered in isolating the late Yasser Arafat, pushing for Palestinian elections, and doing nothing to persuade Israel to suspend settlement-building - all steps that strengthened Hamas and discredited Fatah. But Bush's lethargy in the past year, despite the Annapolis conference, was only a symptom of the dynamics at play: Washington is basically unable to impose peace on the Israelis and Palestinians, and nothing suggests this will soon change.

Few in the US want to admit that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict may be irresolvable for now. That's understandable, since doing nothing to address the conflict may be worse than doing something, even if that something is futile. The danger is that Palestine has become a diplomatic quandary where it is better for the Americans to oversee negotiations that merely delay the inevitable descent into violence between Palestinians and Israelis. Such negotiations present no prospect of peace, but keep alive an empty process that is better than no process at all. If so, Barack Obama may soon find himself as ineffective as George W. Bush was.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Michel Aoun's minority package tour

You have to hand it to Michel Aoun, he never goes half-way. Here was everyone else staying in Syria for a few hours, two days at the most, and here is Aoun opting for the full four-night, five-day holiday package tour, including visits to religious sites, open buffets, Damascus by night, and an audience with the dictator, all for the low price of his mortal soul.

There will be much dispute over Aoun's choices as he "reconciles" with his old Syrian enemy - his partisans applauding the general, his adversaries finding fault. But a more obvious question is what does Aoun gain from this trip that he didn't have before embarking on the road to Damascus? And what does he lose? - assuming that many Lebanese, perhaps most, still believe that Syria was behind the killing of the former prime minister, Rafik Hariri, as well as of dozens of others beginning in 2005.

To the first question, the easy explanation, an electoral one, is unconvincing on its own. If Aoun's gambit is that he has to become friendly with Syria to be assured that his candidates will be given more room on electoral lists in predominantly Shiite constituencies, as well as Jezzine, then he has already forfeited enough politically to achieve that. Rather, the general's deeper ambition (if "depth" can in any way reasonably be applied here) is to become the primary mediator between the Christians and Syria's regime. Aoun's immediate aim is to displace President Michel Sleiman from that role, but more generally to breathe life into a contentious notion associated with his principal Maronite political ally, Suleiman Franjieh, but also with Aoun's own son-in-law, Gebran Bassil: namely that Christians, in order to protect their community, have a long-term advantage in entering into a strategic regional alliance of minorities with the Shiites and Syria's ruling Alawites.

If there are any doubts about this, the symbolism of Aoun's visit is there to dispel them. The point of the general's planed excursions to Christian shrines in Damascus is to show that Christians thrive under Bashar Assad.

To the second question - what does Aoun have to lose by so flamboyantly settling his differences with a regime accused of systematic murder in the past three years? - the answer is: quite a lot. Through this gesture, the general has taken his followers farther than ever in their divorce from the Lebanese sectarian consensus. Aoun has repeatedly sold his alliance with Hizbullah as a successful effort to preserve that consensus following the 2005 Independence Intifada. That would only be true had Aoun remained a bridge between Sunnis and Shiites. Instead he took sides, and is now thumbing his nose at the Sunni community once more by effectively absolving the Syrian regime of guilt in the Hariri murder; or worse, making it plain that he cares little about that guilt.

But it's the Christians who will ultimately have the most forceful say on Aoun's Damascus trip. And whichever way you cut it, most Christians do not share the general's views on an alliance of minorities, nor are they particularly eager to embrace the Assad regime, preferring a colder relationship of mutual respect. Aoun is under the impression that he can continue to manipulate Christian misgivings about the Sunnis to his advantage. However, those misgivings only have meaning in the context of domestic Lebanese affairs. Once the Christians see the general wanting to take the community into a regional confrontation with the Sunni Arab world, once they realize that Aoun's method for doing so is a partnership with a deeply mistrusted Syrian leadership and with Iran, their reaction will likely be one of suspicion, if only from a perspective of self-interest.

Self-interest counts for a lot, but there is also the matter of principle. It sends a very different message when Lebanese officials, mandated by the government, meet with their Syrian counterparts, and when a parliamentarian like Michel Aoun does so. That's not to say that Aoun had no right to visit Damascus, only that by doing so outside the confines of formal state-to-state relations - the desirable framework for ties between Lebanon and Syria - he injects a form of unilateralism into his act that demonstrates he will ignore Syrian behavior in Lebanon, regardless of how it violates Lebanese sovereignty and United Nations resolutions. That's why Aoun's defending his visit as representing a new page in Syrian-Lebanese relations is so manifestly vain. Aoun claims to be representing all of Lebanon when he only truly represents himself.

Why should that matter? Because it would have been useful, just this once, for the Lebanese to be united around their victims. Aoun's political career since his return to Lebanon has centered on a perpetual struggle against the legacy of Rafik Hariri, whom the general never forgave for having, in death, served as a mobilizing force against the Syrian presence. By transforming his stay in Syria into a grand tour, part political summit, part pilgrimage, by offering so large a dispensation to Bashar Assad and demanding nothing in exchange (except for what Assad will toss him by way of making the trip more palatable in Lebanon), Aoun has betrayed the memory of even those who sided with him in his darker moments: the soldiers who died for him on October 13, 1990, after Aoun had fled to the French Embassy and refused to issue them with an order to surrender; Gebran Tueni, who had his differences with the general, but always defended Aoun's partisans when they were arrested and mistreated by the Lebanese security services; Samir Kassir, who had engaged Aounist students at St. Joseph University and encouraged them in their fight against Syrian hegemony; Antoine Ghanem and Pierre Gemayel, who had, like Aoun, endured years of marginalization at Syrian hands.

Egoism is sometimes a quality of great men. Aoun would agree after placing himself at the same altitude as Charles de Gaulle reconciling France with Konrad Adenauer's West Germany. But his is an egoism without a trace of greatness, without vision or a center of gravity. Aoun took the package tour of Syria, the one the budget tourists choose. He won't come away from the experience with his reputation enhanced.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Is the UN leading the Lebanese on?

According to press reports, United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon will set March as the deadline for work to begin at the Hariri tribunal. The latest extension will be referred to as "technical" by the Security Council, an insincere notion concealing the fact that in the past three years, from one extension to the next, the UN investigation has moved forward with remarkable, even suspicious, lethargy.

It's long past the time to begin wondering what really happened in the two years when Serge Brammertz was UN commissioner. What investigation file did he leave in the hands of his successor, Daniel Bellemare, who, if that is at all possible, has been even more silent than the mute Belgian? It's a matter of record that Brammertz wasted valuable time by reopening the Hariri crime scene and repeating the work of the first commissioner, Detlev Mehlis, and others, only to reconfirm their findings. It's also virtually a matter of record that Brammertz shied away from using the authority granted by the Security Council to its fullest in his interrogations in Syria - most prominently in his interview of the Syrian president, Bashar Assad. That's why this latest extension, technical or not, leads us to believe that Bellemare was left with so incomplete a dossier, that by March he will have needed more than a year to fill in the blanks.

On top of that comes disturbing information that the investigation has stalled. The information may be correct or it may not be, but for such doubts to dissipate, both Bellemare and the UN will have to tell us more than they have until now. If the Canadian commissioner soon offers up an update report as devoid of content as the last one, indeed as insulting as the last one, then it's the UN's credibility that will be at stake. Bellemare has already indicated he will not name names. Fine; but if the Security Council is taking the trouble to use the term "technical extension," that means that come January we will be entering into a new phase of the investigation. A new phase requires a more substantial UN update.

What should the next report contain? First of all a reassurance that Bellemare actually has something in his briefcase to make a persuasive case in court. The commissioner has been more open in private with officials than he has been in public, and that poses problems. The implementation of justice, if that is where we are headed, is not a private matter to be discussed between UN and Lebanese officials and foreign ambassadors; the Hariri murder was a national affair, and not since Detlev Mehlis has a commissioner actually considered that relevant.
Bellemare must also take a clearer position on several issues left hanging thanks to his and to Brammertz's wishy-washiness. Now that we will soon be entering a pre-trial phase, Bellemare must bolster the Lebanese judiciary when it comes to the detention of the four generals, not just throw the burden onto Lebanese shoulders. More is also needed indicating that Bellemare knows who ordered the Hariri assassination and those taking place afterward. Both Mehlis and the first official tasked by the UN to throw light on to the crime, Peter Fitzgerald, were much more affirmative on this issue, so why has Bellemare opted for the bewildering opaqueness of Brammertz? He needs to explain how the public interest is served by such an attitude, particularly when a public trial looms.

If Bellemare's files are not airtight by March, what happens? What kind of charge can he put together, bearing in mind that the Syrians have a highly competent legal team waiting in the wings to do battle? Some pessimistic legal minds point out that any court can be established, but that it need not necessarily implement its mandate - notably the special tribunal for Sierra Leone, which today lies dormant. That seems less likely with the Hariri tribunal, given the potential backlash in Lebanon, but a vital question is who Bellemare decides to accuse given what he has in hand. If he has hard evidence against some suspects, but not others, might that force him to reduce the scope of the accusation the court will then submit? Or might the court decide that there is simply not enough material to go on, before sending Bellemare back to work to strengthen his case?

Then there are the politics. There is no center of gravity anymore at the Security Council to inject new life into efforts to unmask Hariri's killers. In 2005 and 2006, the French president, Jacques Chirac, and the American president, George W. Bush, provided that center of gravity. China, Russia, and the United Kingdom were in no position to oppose muscular resolutions bolstering the UN investigation. Today, we have Nicolas Sarkozy in Paris, and soon Barack Obama in Washington, neither deeply committed to the Hariri tribunal. Indeed, Sarkozy has invested too much into his relationship with Syria to allow the tribunal to disrupt that. The same holds for Russia, which was never enthusiastic about the tribunal in the first place, while the UK is now publicly vaunting its intelligence cooperation with Damascus. As for China, it is indifferent.

International bodies are only as effective as the actors backing them up. Under the best of scenarios, the five permanent members of the Security Council will simply leave the Hariri tribunal alone, to advance or hang depending on its evidence. But even that can lead to its atrophying. During the Brammertz years, the wide latitude afforded the commissioner, much like his lack of accountability for the slow pace of work, arguably deadened the investigation process. As the tribunal picks up speed, limited interest from the permanent five, not to say the active hostility of some of them, may actually render the body ineffective.

To avoid that outcome, Bellemare will have to prepare a compelling case. It makes no sense yet to doubt the commissioner's intentions. But we must be realistic: Bellemare, like his predecessors, isn't operating in a vacuum. If he has evidence that some powerful states do not want released; if there are fears that such evidence might generate instability or worse in Lebanon, then we might have to start preparing ourselves for an unsatisfying, even a failed, trial ahead. Then again this reading may be too dark. However, at this late hour we're entitled to insist that Ban Ki-moon and Daniel Bellemare at last prove it wrong.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

George W. Bush: good, bad, and ugly

A large part of the hope accompanying the election of Barack Obama as president of the United States has been relief at the departure of George W. Bush. While by no means an outstanding figure, Bush is today so abhorred that an evenhanded reading of his legacy seems impossible. Yet the reality is that, when it comes to foreign policy, his administration has been just about as good, and as bad, as its predecessors.

There are dark spots to be sure. The Guantanamo prison along with the more discriminatory aspects of the USA Patriot Act, the Bush administration's creepy legal effort to justify torture in its "war on terror," the Abu Ghraib outrage, the extraordinary rendition program sending individuals back to their countries of origin to be mistreated, are all blights on a country claiming to support human rights and the rule of law. The Obama administration's intention to close down Guantanamo comes not a moment too soon. To a large extent, Bush's claims about spreading democracy to the Middle East were undermined by such behavior, even if the American legal system and media, it must be recognized, were in the forefront in limiting or highlighting the administration's abuses.

When it comes to its traditional global partners - Europe, China, and Russia - the US has in the past five years, after the Iraq invasion, returned to the humdrum consensual equilibrium of the past, if it ever fully abandoned this. There have been normal ups and downs, as when Russia recently invaded parts of Georgia, but mostly the Bush administration has acted like any other administration. If "unilateralist neocons" have been pulling the strings, they did little during the second Bush term to prove this. Bush, just like Bill Clinton before him and Barack Obama after him, sits atop an administration that makes policy through a blend of self-interest, ideology, opportunism, and an affinity for the status quo.

What about the Middle East, where Bush supposedly revolutionized Washington's dealings with the region? The Iraq war has become the benchmark by which everyone judges the US president. Certainly, the political preparations for the war, like the planning for the postwar situation, were a disaster, the result of manipulation, negligence, incompetence, and hubris. But in repeating this, critics of the US never acknowledge an essential truth: Bush removed from power a mass murderer of historical proportions, who would have only perpetuated his vicious, kleptomaniacal rule to the detriment of his people had he not been ousted. Nothing but military force could rid us of Saddam Hussein.

By the same token, few of the critics acknowledge that Bush, and here the president can take personal credit, pushed through a change of strategy in Iraq that proved successful in lowering the levels of violence, the so-called "surge." Since Vietnam and the days of Lyndon Johnson, there had been a perception that losing American wars will remain losing wars. Bush, along with his field commander General David Petraeus, showed that this was not the case. Blame Bush for overseeing a postwar plan for Iraq that was a shambles, but also accept that he believed in a more positive outcome there when most of those around him hadn't a clue what to do.
Ironically, Iraq would prove to be the exception confirming the rule that the Bush administration, like most other administrations, perhaps more than many, largely worked through a multilateral consensus in the region. Even in Iraq, this impulse was evident soon after the end of the invasion, when the US sought international cover for its military presence through a United Nations resolution.

The attack on UN headquarters, far from pleasing Washington unilateralists, was a powerful blow to the Americans because it denied them effective UN assistance on the ground, where the international body had set up humanitarian aid networks.
Long before the Iraq conflict even began multilateralism was also on display in Afghanistan, where the US deployed troops with its NATO partners under UN authority. The same consensus has shaped the way the US has dealt with the Iranian nuclear program. As early as December of last year, when a US intelligence estimate expressed "high confidence" that Tehran had suspended its nuclear weapons program in 2003, the Bush administration virtually took its military option off the table, and later prevented Israel from attacking Iran. Instead, it has worked through the International Atomic Energy Agency and the so-called "5+1" group of nations, which have otherwise proven splendidly futile in convincing Iran to suspend its uranium enrichment program.

On the Palestinian-Israeli track, the Bush administration has been roundly condemned "for not doing enough." But what does that mean? There is much about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict that the Americans can do little about. Bush foolishly endorsed Israeli negotiating positions that helped undermine the Palestine Liberation Organization. The isolation of Yasser Arafat backfired, allowing Hamas to gain ground in Palestinian institutions after it won the legislative elections of January 2006. But those self-defeating choices were not a complete break with the past. Bill Clinton laid the groundwork for Arafat's isolation by blaming him alone for the collapse of the 2000 Camp David summit, just as the Clinton administration allowed Israel to build new settlements and create facts on the ground in the midst of the Oslo process.

Since last year, the Bush administration has shown lethargic interest in Palestinian-Israeli talks, but lethargy is about the only sentiment those talks deserve to produce. The dynamics of the negotiations have turned against any resolution. Hamas is not interested in a final two-state deal, while Israel's political system is constitutionally incapable of creating the kind of government coalitions that could order Israeli withdrawals from occupied Arab lands. The US can only do so much in this context (and has tried to do so multilaterally, through the hollow Quartet), so here is a prediction: Barack Obama will hit up against the same obstacles as Bush did on Palestine, and will soon become the target of Bush's critics.

Finally, in Lebanon Bush also worked through the United Nations and with France to produce Resolution 1559, the basis for Syria's long-awaited withdrawal in April 2005. Later, Washington helped establish the international investigation and trial framework following Rafik Hariri's assassination, a rare and laudable instance when international law was applied to a political crime. The US was taken to task for supporting Israel during the summer war of 2006, but to be cynical about that, it did so in the context of a regional and international consensus. Bush acted little differently than Clinton did in April 1996, during the Grapes of Wrath operation, when Israel killed over 100 civilians at Qana alone.

With time, Bush's performance in the Middle East will be judged with a cooler eye. People will see merit where they refuse to see it now, and will be harsher in concluding that what made Bush more acceptable internationally - his surprising willingness to water down US behavior in a pool of international unanimity after Iraq turned sour, like his unwillingness to vigorously challenge Arab dictatorships - were steps that actually made the US less effective. That reassessment will come once people hear echoes of Bush's limitations in Barack Obama, who has been, unreasonably, transformed into the avatar of our every desire.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

The God that Failed

Adding to Dave's post on Colin Powell's endorsement of Barack Obama, sometimes I wonder if some people have any sort of memory, particularly the journalists now playing up this story as if the messiah had spoken.

That's not to say there is no story here; Powell is a stalwart of the Republican establishment and one of the few, far too few, African-Americans who until now has had a genuinely good chance of becoming president of the United States. My problem is that he is a man on whom the establishment has bestowed the title of foreign policy sage, when in fact he proved to be one of the most mediocre secretaries of state in recent memory, in a field including such nullities as Madeleine Albright, Warren Christopher, and the opportunistic but hollow Condoleezza Rice.

Why on earth do we listen to Colin Powell? When he was Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff he opposed George H.W. Bush's decision to remove Iraqi forces from Kuwait militarily, even though the decision was ultimately a sound one. At the end of his term as chairman he advocated a disastrous U.S. operation in Somalia, contradicting his own near unworkable conditions for overseas intervention, the so-called "Powell Doctrine." As secretary of state under George W. Bush, the first item on his agenda was a botched effort to impose "smart sanctions" on Iraq. Powell visited Damascus to persuade President Bashar Assad to end illicit cross-border trade between Iraq and Syria, which was providing vital economic oxygen to Saddam Hussein's regime. Assad promised Powell he would, then ignored that promise, embarrassing the secretary early in his stewardship.

There came Iraq. Powell persuaded Bush that he would be able to get international support for an invasion if the administration took the United Nations route to gain Security Council approval for U.S. action. When he couldn't do so, Powell made his now-infamous presentation to the Security Council arguing that the Iraqi regime was developing weapons of mass destruction. The briefing was later shown to be based on false evidence, and Powell has since described the episode as a "blot" on his record. However, Powell was as blameworthy on Iraq as the many other American officials who are routinely lambasted today for the conduct of the war. However, he somehow managed to teflonize himself by repenting. No one blames Colin Powell for the fiasco, though he never contemplated resigning and stayed on in office until 2004, by which time it was clear that he had misled everyone.

(For those of us who thought the war was worth it, Powell is doubly blameworthy: for making it seem since he left office that we should censure others for the debacle in Iraq, but not be too harsh on Colin Powell; and for never having drawn the right lessons from the first Gulf war, namely that Saddam Hussein merited being removed for no other reasons than his past as a mass murderer and for being a relentless purveyor of Middle Eastern and international instability.)

That is the same Colin Powell now imparting wisdom and advice to voters. He may just get it right this time, for once, with all the evidence suggesting that Obama will win. But notice how the endorsement comes when this outcome seems a dead certainty, when the risks of the endorsement are slight and the potential gains great. Give Powell a 10 for gulling the public once again, and give yourself a zero if you're falling for it.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Lebanon's smell of victory, next time

So, Israel's strategy the next time it enters into a war with Hizbullah is to destroy much more of Lebanon than it destroyed in 2006. The plan is deeply cynical, its justification thoroughly dishonest, but Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, Hizbullah's secretary general, will not be able to reply that he didn't expect what happened, before apologizing to us afterward.

In an interview with the Israeli daily Yediot Ahronot last week, the head of Israel's Northern Command, Major General Gadi Eisenkot, had this to say: "What happened in the [southern suburbs] of Beirut in 2006 will happen in every village from which Israel is fired on." What Eisenkot meant was that if Hizbullah fired off its rockets from villages, instead of trying to prevent the launches Israel would simply flatten these villages. This strategy of "disproportionate" force could well be accompanied by a widening of the scope of Israeli retaliation against Lebanon, targeting the country's infrastructure. A former head of Israel's National Security Council, Giora Eiland, has argued in favor of this, and wrote recently: "A legitimate government runs Lebanon, supported by the West, but it is in fact entirely subordinate to the will of the Shiite organization."

It poses problems to argue that Eiland doesn't know what he's talking about, that Hizbullah, while powerful, must contend with a majority in Lebanon that deeply mistrusts it, therefore that the Lebanese government is not "entirely subordinated" to Hizbullah's will. Why? This might imply that Israel is free to ravage Hizbullah and the Shiite community at will, but should not extend this to other Lebanese. That is, of course, not what a rebuttal of Eiland necessarily implies. However, beyond the humanitarian argument, indiscriminate Israeli retaliation against both Hizbullah and its enemies could unite the Lebanese momentarily against Israel, or more worryingly, and more likely, could spark a new civil war. This, Israel would not particularly mind, as it would occupy Hizbullah in a bestial internal conflict that could ultimately grind the party down, as the previous Lebanese Civil War did the Palestine Liberation Organization.

Eiland made his case in the context of a domestic Israeli debate, so his ideas might or might not be implemented by the government in case of any new confrontation. Much would depend on what the United States says and does. But Eisenkot's massive retaliation plan - and he underlined it was a plan, not a proposal - is belated recognition that Israel's only effective weapon against Hizbullah is to poison the well of Shiite support for the party. By imposing a balance of terror in their favor, the Israelis calculate they will be able to deter Hizbullah, but also justify before the international community harsh reprisals if the party fires first.

Still, Eisenkot's statements left several things vague. What happens if Hizbullah fires longer-range missiles at Tel Aviv and beyond? In whose favor would the balance of terror be then? What would the Israelis destroy in response? An effective policy of deterrence implies leaving oneself a range of escalating options, so that for example if Israel were to react with massive destruction of Lebanon early on in a war, it might risk leaving itself with few viable options to hit even harder at later stages if Hizbullah itself decided to escalate. And since the party's longer-range missiles are in every way Iranian missiles, and would probably be fired far from the front lines in the South, meaning near the Syrian border, would that mean that Israel transforms the conflict into a regional one?

And what about Syria in Israel's plan? In their fervor to hold the Lebanese government responsible for whatever Hizbullah does, many Israelis never mention that the party in the past two years has been able to rearm thanks to weapons transiting through Syria. They never mention, in justifying their negotiations with Syria, that Hizbullah became a powerful military force during the years when Syria controlled Lebanon. They never mention that President Bashar Assad has time and again made it clear that he has no intention of breaking with Iran over Hizbullah (or anything else), and that such a step would be inexplicable anyway as it would deny Syria the military leverage the party provides it over Israel.

As Israel's armed forces destroy Lebanon's towns and villages, as well as quite possibly its electricity, road, and water infrastructure, what will they do against a regime in Damascus far more responsible for allowing Hizbullah to be what it is than the Lebanese state, which Eiland implicitly points out is too weak to contain the party? If the answer is "nothing," and Syria is to be left alone, then we get the message: For the umpteenth time Lebanese blood will serve as currency in Syrian-Israeli bargaining.

News reports on Wednesday suggested that Hizbullah is still very much eager to avenge the assassination of Imad Mughniyeh, and that Nasrallah had said as much at a party meeting, before this was leaked to the daily Al-Akhbar. The news item came only days after the Hizbullah commander in the South, Sheikh Nabil Qaouq, called Israel "a cardboard state that will be destroyed by the resistance fighters." Earlier, Qaouq had promised to liberate the Shebaa Farms by force, because diplomacy had failed. That this coincided with signs that diplomacy appeared to be on the verge of liberating occupied Ghajar was hardly fortuitous.

Even hundreds of tons of Israeli cardboard landing on Lebanese heads could cause quite a bit of damage, so Qaouq's bravado smelled like hubris. Neither Israel nor Hizbullah must relish a new round of fighting just yet, which is perhaps why the rhetoric on each side has escalated. But allow a doubt. In the destruction game Israel is capable of much more than the brash Hizbullah, and this time far more capable of confirming that whatever victory the party might subsequently declare, it would look vain indeed while we all stand in the midst of a smoldering wasteland.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

No dialogue in Lebanon’s mean streets

The national dialogue is on track again, albeit with its next session delayed until November 5, no doubt so that everyone can first absorb the results of the United States presidential election. But on the ground, far from the eyes of the politicians but not their reach, the situation is more troubling. As President Michel Sleiman prepares for the next round of talks, his priority must be to address what is happening in the streets, otherwise this could jeopardize the dialogue itself.

Take this incident last week on Mar Elias Street. A friend had gone there with someone to have an after-movie dessert. As the pair was ordering, a young man came up and demanded that they show him their identification cards. My friend refused, and the young man called out to several comrades. Within minutes my friend was surrounded, his friend was being hit, and the two were being shouted at. Only when the stranger realized that my friend knew people from the Sharafeddine family, which he said he belonged to, did he calm down and try to make amends for his belligerent behavior. He said he belonged to the Amal movement and that "conditions" made it necessary for him and his men to be vigilant.

One could dismiss this as an isolated event, were it not for the fact that there is an increasing number of stories circulating in western Beirut describing similar such behavior. In Ras al-Nabeh, there are problems almost every day of that nature. In the strip of mixed Sunni-Shiite quarters between Mar Elias and the Bishara al-Khoury boulevard, groups of young men, clearly those who fought in the street battles last May, spend their evenings on the sidewalks checking out whoever walks by. A surprising number of journalists or writers who sympathize with the March 14 coalition, most of them Muslims, have moved to eastern Beirut because they feel unsafe in the other half of the capital. And some March 14 activists cannot even live in their own homes because people regularly drive by, inquire about their whereabouts, and insult them.

Since May, the streets of western Beirut have been effectively controlled by those parties that won the round of fighting at the time. That doesn’t mean that a night out on the town is fraught with danger. By and large everything appears normal on the surface, particularly in the quarters around Ras Beirut. But when a journalist from a pro-Hariri newspaper tells you that two unidentified men boldly sat in on a recent interview with him conducted at a cafe in the early evening on Hamra Street, his point is more subtle: Those who want to engage in intimidation can do so with no fear that the security forces or the army will intervene.

The leaders of the political parties controlling western Beirut may or may not be actively encouraging their partisans to apply coercive behavior, but it is plain that they are doing nothing to prevent it. The reason appears to be that in the run-up to parliamentary elections, the March 8 parties, particularly Hizbullah, Amal, the Syrian Social Nationalist Party and the Marada, want to be sure they can shape electoral outcomes in their favor. This may come by exerting pressure on voters, or by creating tension to prevent voting. The reality is that even outside western Beirut, in districts that will decide the balance in Parliament, including Sidon, Koura, the Western Bekaa, Zahleh and Baabda, the opposition has great leeway to manipulate developments on the ground to get the results it seeks.

The politicians may spend months discussing a "defense strategy," but conditions in Lebanon will be determined to a large extent by those strains little seen or heard. For example, the reason that Walid Jumblatt’s Progressive Socialist Party and Hizbullah met under the auspices of Talal Arslan earlier this week was to normalize a worrisome relationship between the two Shiite villages in the Aley district, Qomatiyeh and Kayfoun, and the Druze communities around them, particularly in Baysour where Saleh al-Aridi was assassinated last week. The Druze will not forget that last May Hizbullah temporarily took over Hill 888 overlooking Aley because its combatants were infiltrated through Kayfoun.

The brief breakout of fighting this week in Taalbaya, on the road between Shtaura and Zahleh, showed how another tinderbox has been left to fester. The army is present in Taalbaya, but the disposition of the communities makes enforcing security difficult. Shiites and Sunnis live among each other in much of the town, with Shiites controlling the high ground and able to reinforce themselves militarily from the village of Hazzerta, located above Zahleh. There is no easy way to prevent youths from insulting each other in Taalbaya’s streets, when those streets happen to be right outside their homes. That is why small incidents can transform themselves into major confrontations at the drop of a hat.

The only way to neutralize these and other similar flashpoints is to go to the source of the problem, at least where this is feasible. Resolving the problem in Taalbaya will not force thugs off the streets of western Beirut. However, if the March 8 parties, who are the ones flaunting their militias, agree to a national plan to bring calm to the country, then places like Taalbaya and Kayfoun will fall in line. But all the signs are that the parties’ aim is precisely the opposite. After all, it is useful to deploy men with guns close by when discussing such issues as the "defense strategy," Palestinian weapons outside the camps, relations with Syria, Lebanese financing for the Hariri tribunal, parliamentary elections, and a host of other contentious issues sure to divide politicians in the months ahead.

That’s why if Sleiman wants to sponsor a truly successful national dialogue, he will have to, first, prove that the state controls the streets, all the streets. But if the state cannot do so, if it cannot even impose its writ in areas of Beirut, then what credibility will it have when presenting its army as a legitimate alternative to Hizbullah’s independent army? Of course that’s precisely the question Hizbullah wants us to ask.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Sunni dynamics shift in the North

Sunni dynamics shift in the North
By Michael Young
Daily Star staff
Thursday, September 11, 2008

The headline in the pro-opposition Al-Akhbar newspaper on Tuesday described the reconciliation in Tripoli as an event that "broke" the authority of the Hariri camp. The statement was typically partisan. It was also, as they say, correct but not true. Inter-Sunni dynamics in the North are changing, perhaps to Saad Hariri's momentary disadvantage, but it would be a mistake to write off his supremacy in the district just yet.

In recent weeks, the implications of the tension in Tripoli have alarmed a number of Arab states, particularly Saudi Arabia and Egypt. The Saudi ambassador, Abdel-Aziz Khoja, visited the city in late August, and a few days later the Egyptian foreign minister, Ahmad Abu al-Gheit, arrived with a particularly anxious message that the situation there needed to be brought under control. What Riyadh and Cairo apparently feared was that Syria would exploit developments in the northern part of the country in order to return to Lebanon militarily - and more specifically to provoke dissension in the Sunni community.

That sense of urgency is why Saad Hariri took the lead in heading to the North last weekend and making sure he came away with some sort of arrangement to calm the mood on the ground. Hariri not only sought to rally his power base in the North, he also implemented a policy that both the Saudis and Egyptians viewed as an absolute priority.

But what about Syria? One line of reasoning is that the agreement in Tripoli was to Syria's disadvantage. That's true in part, assuming the agreement holds. However, the Assad regime may yet find some advantages in it. The apparent Saudi and Egyptian intention of setting up a political big tent to unify the Sunnis in the North means that some of Syria's Sunni allies might soon be offered a path back into Parliament. Damascus may have been denied a motive to re-enter northern Lebanon, an action always full of risks in the first place, but that doesn't mean the solution today won't bring them unexpected benefits.

Take Omar Karami, the former prime minister. Karami, who had all but disappeared from the radar screen earlier this year, was among those who benefited most from the Tripoli fighting. He deployed his gunmen to Bab al-Tebbaneh to confirm his Sunni bona fides, which he needed to do after the May onslaught in Beirut by his ally Hizbullah. Karami was not alone among the Tripoli politicians in using the fighting to burnish his sectarian credentials, and his actions may have paid off. His meeting with Saad Hariri earlier this week looked like a political comeback of sorts. Because it occurred against a backdrop of Saudi and Egyptian prodding, it may also have bought the former prime minister a measure of regained Arab legitimacy, following his recent trip to Egypt.

Karami has remained on good terms with the Saudis, but it was hardly a surprise on Wednesday to hear that he had visited Damascus. The Syrians probably wanted to ensure that Karami, big Sunni tent or not, remains loyal to them and does not lean too far toward the Saudis. That may also explain the laudatory portrait of Karami in Wednesday's Al-Akhbar, written by the newspaper's editor, Ibrahim Amin, who often relays messages from Hizbullah. In reminding the former prime minister of how ardently he has defended the resistance, in praising him for his Arab nationalist stances, the paper also seemed to be sending him a veiled warning that he had better not stray too far off the reservation.

Karami will have to walk a fine line in the months ahead between his commitments to Syria and to a Tripoli electorate hostile to Syria. Whether he succeeds will determine the role he plays in elections next year. But as things look now, a big tent strategy backed by the Saudis makes more likely a unified list in Tripoli, which means Hariri will have to surrender some of his parliamentarians. The Future Movement leader cannot be too happy with that. It might also oblige him to ally himself with Najib Mikati and others friendly to Syria, over whom he has little control.

The Tripoli reconciliation was also disadvantageous to Hariri for two other reasons. First, it took place under the auspices of the mufti of the North, Malek al-Shaar, so that Hariri looked like just another party to the conflict rather than the dominant politician in the North that he is. Indeed, this was the point Rifaat Eid, the son of Ali Eid, the head of the Alawite Arab Democratic Party, drove home in a conversation with me, namely that any reconciliation could only take place under the mufti's authority.

A second development Hariri must have groaned at was that Prime Minister Fouad Siniora came out of the pacification process also looking like one of its sponsors, rather than as an emanation of Hariri's Future Movement. It has long been the case, but it is now clearer than ever, that Siniora is not Hariri's man, and that if he is placing himself under any authority it is that of the Saudis. This was plain on Monday, when the prime minister said he would be examining with Tripoli representatives development projects for the city, to be financed by Arab states, particularly Saudi Arabia. Siniora is positioning himself as a broker of aid to Tripoli, which brings with it patronage power and could help him anchor his own independent political position in the Sunni community.

But is it curtains for Saad Hariri? Hardly. There are still many months before the elections, and plenty of time for the reconciliation process to break down. That's not to imply that Hariri is banking on conflict and polarization. However, if tension resumes in the North, for example because of renewed Syrian interference, the big tent strategy may collapse and the people of Tripoli and Akkar will doubtless rally to Hariri's side.

There is also the question of money. Which parties dispense assistance in the North will be essential. Siniora may be trying to reserve a place for himself and the government in the aid process, but Hariri still has a decisive advantage on the ground over most other political forces, and there are no signs the Saudis have cut him off. That's why, if he plays his cards right, Hariri can use the current tranquility to regain his momentum. For starters he needs to overhaul the Future Movement's networks in the North and personally involve himself in whatever goes on.

Hariri made a mistake in not going to Tripoli immediately after the May events to underline that even though he had lost in Beirut, he could readily compensate in the North. He erred in allowing a situation to develop in which the Saudis and Egyptians saw a need to look beyond him and sometimes circumvent him. But there remains sympathy for the Hariri family in the North, and substantial enmity toward Syria. Saad Hariri's political destiny may well be determined by what happens in Tripoli, a city not his but that he may soon have to make his.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Beware, the Friends of Bashar are here

Beware, the Friends of Bashar are here
By Michael Young
Daily Star staff
Thursday, September 04, 2008

Not very long ago, you will remember, there was the Friends of Lebanon group of states, whose declared aim was to defend Lebanese sovereignty, territorial integrity, political independence, democratic institutions, and what have you. Meeting today in Damascus is a new fraternity, the Friends of Bashar. It includes the emir of Qatar, the prime minister of Turkey, and the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, and their aim is to ensure that the Assad regime remains in power and breaks out of the international and regional isolation imposed on it after the assassination of the former Lebanese prime minister, Rafik Hariri.

Sarkozy has proven to be the most destructive of opportunists here. After having negotiated a mediocre agreement in Georgia that allowed Russia to pursue its military actions there under the guise of defensive measures, yesterday in Damascus the French president waded into the Shebaa Farms imbroglio, with the same ostentation and shallowness. Sarkozy's true purpose was plain on Tuesday when he declared that peace in the Middle East "went through France and Syria," and that his aim was to see Syria "regaining its place in the concert of nations."

Months ago, after Michel Sleiman's election, the French set some conditions for their opening to Syria, particularly the establishment of diplomatic relations between Damascus and Beirut. We're still waiting. This was largely a pretense. Sarkozy never had any intention of turning those conditions into obstacles blocking French overtures to Bashar Assad, because he is so keen to fill some role in Arab-Israeli peacemaking. Lebanon is an irritant on that front. The Syrians want their peace talks with Israel to be a highway to Washington; Sarkozy is willing to broker that rapprochement if France is given a seat at the negotiating table too; however Syria will only play seriously on the peace front if it can reimpose its hegemony over Lebanon; therefore France will look the other way as Assad rebuilds in Beirut what he was made to abandon in 2005.

For the moment the United States refuses to go along with this, and has informed the French it would continue isolating Syria. But that may be nearing its end because the Bush administration is nearing its end. A new administration, whether Republican or Democrat, will probably alter US policy toward Syria, and those in Lebanon concerned with their country's sovereignty should take heed. President Michel Sleiman has traveled to France, then to Damascus, and this week flew to Qatar to yet again thank Emir Hamad for sponsoring the Doha agreement. However, a visit to Washington at this stage is necessary, because Sleiman needs to urgently offset the influence of the Friends of Bashar.

Sleiman apparently intends to fly to Washington in the near future. However, the president has no desire to transform this into leverage against Syria, nor would that be sensible at this stage. George W. Bush is leaving next January, so whatever he commits to might only last that long. However, and by the same token, Sleiman would make a mistake if he failed to use the trip to prepare for when Bush is gone. If the point is just to get a White House photo-op, then Sleiman might as well ask that his picture be taken with a cardboard effigy of Bush, because the US president is not only a lame duck, he's now virtually a dead one.

Where Sleiman would gain is by building up networks of relations in the US Congress, in the presidential campaigns, and in the think-tank community, which has been active, reprehensibly so, in encouraging American policymakers to open up to Syria. In fact, Bashar Assad has had a battery of promoters and objective allies in such places as the United States Institute of Peace, the Brookings Institution, the Carnegie Endowment, and the International Crisis Group, to name only them, all of which have urged engagement of Damascus, all of which have willfully ignored or papered over Syria's role in the Hariri assassination.

However, is Sleiman willing to go through with such an effort? Who in his entourage might be able to follow up on his contacts with the Americans? These are all questions the president will need to answer before embarking on his American tour, unless his plan is to avoid making the journey count for very much. And if that is indeed the case, then we would have to assume that little has changed in the Syrian-Lebanese relationship since 2005, with Lebanon's foreign policy still regarded by decision-makers in Beirut as a dispensation of the Assad regime.

Sleiman, if he hopes to plot a course even mildly independent from Syria, must make his American trip work. But the Syrians have a head start. The Friends of Bashar have repeatedly shown how little concerned they are by Syrian behavior in Lebanon - or more accurately, how little concerned they are by Syria's pursuing its destabilization of the country while imposing red lines on elected officials, on ministers, and on military and security appointees. Sleiman needs to guarantee that he has enough pull in the US so that come next year, if a new administration talks to the Assad regime, Lebanon will not once again be Syria's meal.

Why is it so difficult to be optimistic? Perhaps because Sleiman has a lot going for him politically, but still seems too timid by half. Because he seems so keen to market Syria to the world, as he did last week when he urged the international community to "open up" to Damascus, without anyone having requested such altruism. And because the Friends of Bashar are doing their damnedest to save the skin of a man who has never shown any sign of recognizing Lebanese independence, while the Lebanese don't seem to have a clue as to who will save their skins.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Might Lebanon face what Georgia did?

Might Lebanon face what Georgia did?
By Michael Young
Commentary by
Thursday, August 28, 2008

It was remarkable that so few Lebanese politicians responded to the statements that Bashar Assad made last week to a Russian business magazine, in which the Syrian president said that what Russia faced in Georgia was similar to what Syria faced in Lebanon. Assad's argument was contained in one particular phrase, where he plainly also had Syria in mind: "On this issue we fully support Russia. The war, which was unleashed by Georgia, is the culmination of attempts to encircle and isolate Russia."

Only Walid Jumblatt, the Druze leader, apparently had a long enough memory to link Assad's comments to the Syrian leader's previous support, voiced on a trip to Ankara in October 2007, of Turkey's right to conduct cross-border attacks inside Iraq against Kurdish militants of the PKK. This also happened to be a preoccupation of American officials at the time. Some of them linked it to a campaign in the Syrian-allied Lebanese media then accusing the previous Siniora government of wanting to set up American bases in Lebanon to mount forward operations against Syria and counter the Russian military presence there.

So Assad is back full circle again on Russia - as a country with a vested interest in helping Syria, since both face a similar American challenge. Then again, Assad is also instructing those around him (as one can see from the commentary by David Ignatius below) to put out word that Syria would agree to direct talks with Israel if these were co-sponsored by the United States and France. The proposal is not new; Syrian officials have floated the idea before, but Assad, who follows his late father's playbook in its general lines, sees an opportunity to play Moscow and Washington off against each other, just as Hafiz Assad did during the Cold War.

The world has changed, however, and Russia's recognition of Abkhazian and South Ossetian independence may have backfired against Assad. The western European states, inasmuch as they can ever express outrage, are outraged. So too is the United States, which is sending its vice president, Dick Cheney, to Tbilisi and its warships to the Georgian port of Poti, only a few dozen meters away from Russian soldiers deployed there. Assad may be trying to have his way with both sides, but given the present mood condemning Russian actions, his statements of encouragement for Russia may have been premature, showing only that bullies side with bullies.

If Russian behavior in Georgia continues to rancorously divide the international community, Assad could soon find it more difficult to maneuver between the Americans and the Russians, and to use his indirect talks with Israel as a means of reopening a channel to the United States. He could also find it relatively more difficult to play border games with Lebanon as the Russians have been doing in Georgia, because many more people would be watching a man who has several times so transparently relayed his thoughts on the rights of states to protect themselves by violating the sovereignty of their neighbors.

That vigilance is even more likely in light of a United Nations report just released on the passage of weapons across the Lebanese-Syrian border. The report was commissioned some 18 months ago by the UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, to determine whether Resolution 1701 was being respected. Its conclusion is that the Syrian-Lebanese border is wide open to arms smuggling, and that neither Syria nor Lebanon has done anything to stop this. It is through that border that the Fatah al-Islam leadership entered Lebanon before the Nahr al-Bared fighting; and it is along or near that border that Syrian-backed Palestinian groups have military bases and training camps, allowing them fairly easy access into Lebanon.

Saudi and Egyptian interest lately in calming the situation in Tripoli suggests that both countries are worried about Syrian efforts to exploit the tensions in northern Lebanon - tensions Damascus has been quietly accused of heightening. Indeed, the North is the one place where Syria would be expected to play dangerous cross-border games if it could establish that it faced a Salafist or an Islamist threat from Lebanon. And if it were to do so, many people in the United States and Europe would almost certainly fall into the trap of siding with the Assad regime. The result could be policy confusion in places like Washington, Paris, and at the UN in New York, with Syria exploiting this to strengthen its allies in Lebanon, much as the Russians did the Abkhazians and South Ossetians.

Is this scenario very likely today? Perhaps not, given that the Sunnis have remained united and that such a scheme would only undermine President Michel Sleiman, with whom the Syrians appear willing to work for the moment. The international backlash against Russia would not make Assad's task any easier. However, the Syrians could just be buying an option, creating a situation that might or might not be exploited in the future depending on the political situation. For example, if the Hariri tribunal, which it is said will start its work early next year, poses a problem for the Assad regime, a border crisis implying that the regime is threatened by militant Islamists could turn into a useful intrusion.

Sleiman is not keen to spoil the congenial mood created during his recent visit to Damascus. But when Syria's head of state essentially says that Lebanon is a danger to his country, and uses this as a parallel to justify the Russian invasion of Georgia, it's up to Lebanon's president to say something, anything. But you have to wonder if there are many people in Beirut who quite understood Assad's veiled threat.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

The battle of the two Michels has begun

The battle of the two Michels has begun
By Michael Young
Commentary by
Thursday, August 21, 2008

Weeks ago, Michel Aoun's political adversaries were already predicting that the general's first act once the government was formed would be to demand that the prerogatives of the deputy prime minister be clarified. The post is traditionally "reserved" for the Greek Orthodox community and is currently held by Aoun's comrade Issam Abu Jamra. They sensed that Aoun would use the dispute to yet again try to rally support among Christians by claiming to be defending their interests against Sunni dominance - since the deputy prime minister's job description must necessarily be elucidated at the expense of the Sunni prime minister.

On Tuesday, this discussion took on more rarefied airs when the minister Tammam Salam and the parliamentarian Ghassan Mukheiber of the Aoun bloc exchanged statements on the role of Mukheiber's uncle, Albert, when he was deputy prime minister in the 1972 government headed by Tammam Salam's father, Saeb. Mukheiber argued that his uncle had stood in for Salam when the prime minister was abroad, while Salam insisted this was not true. Mukheiber went on to state that now was a good time to define the duties of the deputy prime minister, which must have pleased Aoun while also allowing Mukheiber to score some points within his own Greek Orthodox community.

In the midst of a hot summer, this somehow qualifies as news. Aoun has long been a master of institutional guerilla warfare, in which he scores points by consistently applying sectarian pin pricks. However, something may be changing. The small-mindedness of the deputy prime minister debate may actually play to Aoun's disfavor because it comes as the president, Michel Sleiman, is seen by many to be filling his political space with more momentous achievements - not least his visit to Damascus last week. In the competition over Christian representation, Aoun's weapons are now looking less effective than Sleiman's.

A lot of this is based on perceptions, of course. Sleiman came back triumphant from Syria, but the results of his summit with President Bashar Assad were, to be kind, very limited. On the fate of prisoners in Syria the Lebanese got a committee with no deadlines set for its work. On border demarcation Lebanon got another committee, again with no deadlines set, with many people apparently unaware that the demarcation question has been drifting from one committee to the next for decades. On the Shebaa Farms the Lebanese adopted the Syrian position that there could be no delineation of borders before Israel's occupation ended, thereby leaving the geographical identity of the territory in limbo. And before traveling to Damascus, Sleiman, through a spokesman, declared that the Syrian-Lebanese Higher Council, the starkest memento of the years of Syrian hegemony, would not be dismantled.

What did Lebanon get in exchange? The promise of an embassy and diplomatic recognition. That's not negligible, but we might want to look at this from Syria's perspective. A Syrian embassy in Beirut would not be like the Kuwaiti or even the Egyptian embassy. It would be an axis point for Syria's allies in the country, a very useful means of allowing the Assad regime to exert its political influence in Beirut on a day-to-day basis in a way it cannot do so today. Many remember the considerable sway that the United Arab Republic's ambassador in Beirut, Abdel-Hamid Ghaleb, had at the start of President Fouad Shihab's mandate. Diplomatic recognition on its own does not guarantee respect for Lebanese sovereignty.

Despite all this, Sleiman benefited domestically from his summit with Assad, and came back to take in hand the volatile situation in Tripoli. The public could not but approve, whatever the results, and Aoun is beginning to realize that he is losing ground among his coreligionists. Nor can the general gain much anymore by persistently baiting Fouad Siniora, when the prime minister seems to be working so well with president. This was evident in the preparation for Siniora's trips to Egypt and Iraq, both partly designed to help overcome the electricity crisis. Aoun's frustration was understandable. Siniora, with Sleiman's tacit approval, circumvented the energy minister, Alain Tabourian, whose Tashnag Party is allied with the Aounist bloc. The president and prime minister, each for reasons of his own, are happy to collude against Aoun. Better still, they are playing on the recent tension between the general and Tashnag over the fact that Aoun gave them the Energy Ministry in his quota of ministerial portfolios, when they had asked for the social affairs portfolio that Aoun instead reserved for Mario Aoun, a member of the Free Patriotic Movement.

It may be a reach to suggest that Sleiman is making a bid for the Armenians at this early stage, by showing them that they have more to gain by allying themselves with him than with Aoun. But ultimately that may be precisely what the president does as Michel Murr begins preparing a candidate list in the Metn, one facet of a broader strategy by Sleiman to nibble away at Aoun's base before parliamentary elections next year. It is known that the president wants a bloc of his own in Parliament, and he may be able to count on assistance from Aoun's rivals in this regard. That explains why Aoun has so fervently defended Hizbullah lately. He needs Shiite help to win compensatory seats in the Baabda constituency, in Jezzine, and in Zahleh. Some are suggesting Aoun also has an eye on the Maronite seat in Baalbek-Hermel.

The elections are still a long way off, but Aoun is already entering the period he dreaded after he was forced in Doha to accept Sleiman's election. For better or worse the president is now the person most Maronites and Christians in general are looking toward to defend their communal wellbeing. This is forcing Aoun to behave recklessly, as when he tied Hizbullah's disarmament to the return of Palestinian refugees to their homes, a position that made many in his electorate gag. Aoun also erred in appointing his son-in-law to head the cash cow Ministry of Telecommunications, contradicting his earlier claims to be a different type of politician who opposed nepotism in politics.

Aoun is a cat of many political lives, so it may be unwise to write him off just yet. But even cats need branches to sit on, and the general is finding that these are not as numerous as they once were. He is picking secondary fights and is now beginning to sound like a lost voice in the desert.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Once again, the trap is set in Tripoli

Once again, the trap is set in Tripoli
By Michael Young
Daily Star staff
Thursday, August 14, 2008

If you're wondering what happened yesterday in Tripoli, where a bomb exploded alongside a bus, killing several Lebanese soldiers and civilians, here's an interpretation based on a visit to the city earlier this week. The bomb attack will probably be claimed by Shaker Absi and Fatah al-Islam, or by some unknown Salafist group. You, the reader, must have already established a link between the Ain Alaq bus bombings, which security officials blamed on Fatah al-Islam, and the Tripoli bombing, and that's no coincidence. The killing of soldiers was no coincidence either. Like the attack against a military intelligence office in Abdeh several weeks ago, the aim of those placing the bombs was to convince you and I that Sunni extremist groups are alive and well in the North, that they have an axe to grind with the army because of Nahr al-Bared, and that an insurrection has begun, one directed even against the Hariri camp, as when parliamentarian Mustapha Alloush was roughed up last week by Salafists trying to secure the release of imprisoned relatives.

The reality, I believe, is different. Recently, colleagues who closely follow events in Tripoli have started hearing of Syrian warnings to the Lebanese that there would be no peace in the city until the Salafists were routed. Who would conduct such an operation but the army, explaining why soldiers have been the victims of recent attacks. Syria's implication in the bombings is highly probable, its objective being to push the army and the Salafists into a confrontation. This would create a serious rift within the Sunni community, weaken the disoriented pro-Hariri forces in Tripoli, and allow Damascus' allies to regain the initiative in the city.

The reality is that Salafists in Tripoli are not strong. In the recent fighting between the Sunni quarters of Bab al-Tebbaneh and Qobbeh and the Alawite quarter of Jabal Mohsen, the Salafists, who belong to a variety of small groups, proved to be much less numerous than anyone had imagined. As a neighborhood leader in Bab al-Tebbaneh described it, the confrontations exposed the Salafists' weaknesses, not their strengths. The brunt of the fighting was borne by the men of Bab al-Tebbaneh, though followers of a leading opposition politician used the hostilities to burnish his legitimacy as a "defender of the Sunnis." The Alawite official Rifaat Eid admitted that the fighting erupted after a rocket propelled grenade was fired at his men by partisans of this opposition politician.

If you see a contradiction between an opposition politician fighting against the pro-Syrian Alawites while also helping implement Syria's agenda of destabilizing Tripoli, you shouldn't. That's par for the course in the North these days, in a situation growing more cynical by the day. The Alawites of Jabal Mohsen, like the Sunnis of Bab al-Tebbaneh and Qobbeh, are pawns in a game larger than they are, and will say so openly. Neither side wants fresh violence, which has damaged the livelihoods of most people in the dirt poor quarters and those around them.

If the Lebanese Army were to attack the Salafists, this would only pour oil onto the fire in Tripoli and make the situation there far worse than it already is. Surveying the Islamists and Salafists in the city, the picture that emerges is a complicated one. There are several smaller Salafist groups, some of which have been penetrated by the security forces and are therefore more manageable. Others may prove more problematic, but are apparently too small to do much damage on their own. There are Islamist groups with ties to the Hariri camp, and there are those close to Syria, such as the followers of Bilal Shaaban, Hashem Minqara, and Fathi Yakan. This mishmash is further complicated by the obscure networks existing between many of these groups, whatever their public loyalties, and by their relations with mainstream Tripoli politicians. In other words if the army were to enter the fray against the Salafists, this could open up a Pandora's box of recrimination, militancy, and political manipulation, leading to the situation we saw at the start of the Nahr al-Bared fighting last year, when it was plainly the Syrian intention to create rifts within the Sunni community, before the army managed to take things in hand.

It was no coincidence, either, that the bombing occurred on the day of Michel Sleiman's visit to Damascus. There were several messages to the president: that Lebanese security will continue to remain vulnerable if he opposes Syrian priorities (and that includes, among other things, Syrian choices for the post of army commander and military intelligence chief); that Sleiman's priorities, in turn, such as addressing diplomatic relations between Beirut and Damascus and the fate of Lebanese prisoners in Syria, are secondary to the Syrians; that intimidation remains Syria's modus operandi when it comes to its relationship with Lebanon; and that Sleiman would make a mistake to rely too much on the parliamentary majority, which is buttressed by a Sunni community that can be readily split.

Judging from the political vacuum that today exists among Tripoli's Sunnis, the Syrians may just be right. The Future Movement's representatives in the North are not liked at the street level. Saad Hariri is respected, but given that he has yet to create a political center of gravity in Tripoli, the approval could begin to fray - indeed is already showing unsettling signs of fraying. Hariri will have to be careful in the elections next year. Depending on which alliances take shape he may be unable to take his entire list into Parliament, and this could be a blow to his prestige. Even some politicians close to the Hariri camp are wondering whether they would not be better off standing as independents.

Hariri and his people didn't want to get involved in the recent Bab Tebbaneh-Jabal Mohsen fighting because they didn't want to be seen as backing armed militias. Fair enough, but nature abhors a vacuum. Unless the Future Movement gets an organizational hold on what is happening in Tripoli, unless it imposes a sense of focus on its fractured and bewildered Sunni base, that vacuum will be filled by its enemies. The bus bombing yesterday ultimately targeted not the army but the Sunnis. Syria wants them irredeemably divided. Hariri must ensure that such a plan fails.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Flying high again with Hizbullah

Flying high again with Hizbullah
By Michael Young
Daily Star staff
Thursday, August 07, 2008

There is growing concern in Israel and the United States that Hizbullah intends to alter the status quo in Lebanon by deploying anti-aircraft missiles to end Israeli overflights. That may well happen, but the question is what such a development tells us about Hizbullah's latitude to fiddle with United Nations Security Council Resolution 1701.

On Tuesday, an Israeli Air Force officer told the daily Haaretz that if Hizbullah ever used anti-aircraft missiles, this could force Israel to "alter its overflights of Lebanon significantly." Last week, Hizbullah released a statement denouncing the overflights and demanding that "all concerned parties" collaborate in putting a speedy end to them. In case the meaning wasn't well grasped, this was followed by an article in the daily Al-Akhbar in which the paper's editor, Ibrahim Amin, who is often employed as a conduit for messages from Hizbullah, reaffirmed the statement's seriousness. On Tuesday Al-Akhbar published another article on the matter, suggesting that UNIFIL had a contingency plan to save Israeli pilots in the event they were shot down over Lebanon. UNIFIL denied the story, which seemed another effort to discredit the international force and show that Hizbullah alone has the means and will to defend Lebanese sovereignty.

It is entirely possible that Hizbullah, in order to keep the idea of "resistance" alive and justify retaining its weaponry, is preparing for a new type of confrontation with Israel. The party has chafed under Resolution 1701, which has closed the southern border off to attacks against Israeli soldiers. Military organizations need war and Hizbullah is no exception. Preventing Israeli overflights would offer the additional advantage of being seen by party supporters, and even perhaps by some in the international community, as bolstering the UN resolution.

Hizbullah has never truly accepted Resolution 1701, but it also knows that the Shiite community is dead set against a new war against Israel in which it would pay a heavy human price. That makes the party's efforts to undermine the resolution complicated, and is why it would like to push that burden onto the Israelis, by maneuvering them into over-reacting to anti-aircraft fire. If Hizbullah can impose a situation of deterrence on Israel, this would substantially strengthen its hand domestically in negotiating a national "defense strategy" in a dialogue President Michel Sleiman is scheduled to sponsor in the coming weeks or months.

Let's not forget what happened in 2006. The abduction of Israeli soldiers that led to the summer war was far less an effort to free Samir Kontar than Hizbullah's way of imposing its writ in the national dialogue sessions then taking place. The party's secretary general, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, calculated that a successful operation against Israel along the border would give Hizbullah the leeway to protect its weapons and negotiate a defense strategy to its advantage. In fact, Nasrallah grossly miscalculated, provoking a war whose end-result was over 1,200 dead and Resolution 1701. However, we should again view Hizbullah's use of anti-aircraft weapons in the same light, as having mainly a domestic purpose.

There are also potential complications. That Hizbullah has anti-aircraft weapons, ones it plainly did not have in 2006, would only disclose publicly that the party has also violated Resolution 1701. There is the risk that Hizbullah, if it were to justify its actions under the rubric of the UN resolution, might bring on a process that actually tightens the latter's implementation, which the party wants to avoid. It would also be difficult for Hizbullah, if a crisis with Israel quickly ensues, to turn the missiles into a running sore to be used as a bargaining chip over an extended period of time, thereby re-creating a situation similar to the April Understanding of 1996, which recognized new military "rules of the game" between Israel and Hizbullah. A devastating clash, followed by effective diplomacy, might only repeat what happened in 2006, with few gains for either side. Hizbullah could, of course, tell its electorate that Israel started it all, but if an escalation provokes death and destruction, with Shiites bearing the brunt, this would only narrow Hizbullah's actions in the future.

There is also another danger for Hizbullah. If attention is focused on Israeli air violations, won't this in many ways make the Shebaa Farms dispute more marginal? In defending the spirit of Resolution 1701 (or appearing to) by opposing Israeli violations of the UN decision, Nasrallah could find himself reinforcing the view that the calm in the Shebaa Farms area is how things really should be done under the resolution - an example of the partial success of Resolution 1701, where the Israeli overflights exemplify its shortcomings. That would irritate the Syrians to no end, as they continue to push for a reopening of the Shebaa Farms front before moving on to serious negotiations with Israel over the Golan Heights.

There may be an opportunity here for the Lebanese government, through the Lebanese Army, to use the overflights to take the lead in dealing with Israel. Hizbullah is wagering that nothing that anyone does will stop Israeli air violations. That's why the party might encourage the government to get involved, only for it to fail and show once more that Hizbullah's way is the only way. But if Sleiman is bold, he might ask the government to accept that the issue of overflights be dealt with in the context of the Armistice Commission, with UNIFIL sitting at the table too. The president might then ask that the UN and the international community stop the overflights, but also that they develop a system, with Lebanon, to apply Resolution 1701 along the border with Syria. In other words Suleiman can use Hizbullah's valid displeasure with Israeli overflights to propose ways to implement the resolution in its entirety.

Hizbullah will reject this outright, as will the Syrians, but the move would be a wedge to ensure that the Lebanese state becomes the sole legitimate interlocutor with Israel. (And to add to the state's credibility, the United States and the UN must impose Israel's withdrawal from the Lebanese half of Ghajar.) This would also take away from Hizbullah the authority it seeks as the lone valid "defender" of Resolution 1701. And it would place the onus on the UN and the international community to end Israeli air violations - or take responsibility for any new escalation in Lebanon.

But is Sleiman willing to push the envelope when it comes to Hizbullah and Syria, especially when he is preparing to discuss a wide range of issues in Damascus next week? Don't hold your breath.

Friday, August 1, 2008

The majority's Achilles heel in Tripoli

The majority's Achilles heel in Tripoli
By Michael Young
Commentary by
Friday, August 01, 2008

What has caused the violence in Tripoli? The explanations are many, few of them entirely convincing. But they all fail to tell us anything about the dangerous consequences the fighting, if it resumes, as it is likely to, might have on the fortunes of the Future Movement, the cornerstone of the parliamentary majority.

Regardless of who was responsible for the recent skirmishing between the Sunni neighborhood of Bab al-Tebbaneh and the Alawite quarter of Jabal Mohsen, as most people observe what is going on, as they see the gunmen of Bab al-Tebbaneh firing guns in the midst of an urban area, they cannot help but wonder whether Saad Hariri approves of this. If he approves, he would be lending legitimacy to a militia phenomenon that he and his movement have always insisted they stand against; and if he disapproves, it would suggest that Hariri's control over his own community is tentative at best, especially in a region where Sunni strength could help him compensate for the humiliation his followers suffered in Beirut last May. Either way, Hariri and the Future Movement don't look the better for it.

That question appeared to be on the mind of the Druze leader Walid Jumblatt last Saturday, when he declared, "The wound suffered by Beirut cannot be treated through revenge elsewhere, because we would only be pouring oil onto the fire and, as a consequence, implementing the designs of states that are negotiating or that have their differences - states that in the end will arrive at settlements between themselves."

Jumblatt has been unusually nervous about the events in northern Lebanon of late. That's not surprising. If the situation were to go to pieces there, if Sunni-Shiite tension were again to break out into open conflict, the Druze leader would be a primary target of Hizbullah, which still seeks to control the high ground in Aley and the Chouf, as it tried to do last May. The party doesn't like the fact that Jumblatt sits above their several supply lines to and from the South, and at their back when facing Israel. But Jumblatt is said to also fear something else: If the Sunni Islamists become powerful in Tripoli and the Akkar, Syria would be handed an ideal justification to cross the border militarily to protect itself and its Alawite brethren from religious extremists in Lebanon.

Jumblatt's comments were sourly received by Saad Hariri's entourage, which interpreted them as criticism of the Future Movement. The Druze leader has changed his tone of late when it comes to his allies in the March 14 coalition, suggesting he is already maneuvering in anticipation of elections next year. However, when it comes to the fundamentals of Lebanese politics today, Jumblatt cannot and will not soon break with Saad Hariri. That's why Jumblatt's anxiety toward what is going on in Tripoli and the progress and arming of Islamist groups, particularly the Salafists, speaks to a broader problem that Hariri will soon have to address. Otherwise, it might create a much larger headache for him that could undermine his relationship with his political allies.

Following the debacle in Beirut last May, the Hariri camp failed to use its popular support in the North as leverage to regain the political initiative. Saad Hariri would have done well to immediately head to Tripoli and show Hizbullah that he still retained communal muscle - all the more so as his representatives in the city performed poorly during the crisis. It was important for Hariri to do several things: revive Sunni morale nationally, correct the problems in his own movement, and, most importantly, affirm that it was moderate Sunnis like him, not Islamists, who would shape upcoming developments in North Lebanon. Instead, it is the Islamists who are now taking advantage of the vacuum left there.

Islamist advances could hand Syria precisely what it failed to accomplish last year when it sponsored the Fatah al-Islam phenomenon at Nahr al-Bared. The more moderate Sunnis, with Hariri at their head, could be discredited, the Sunni community could be split, tensions could arise between the Future Movement and its Christian allies in March 14, there could be discord between Sunni and Christian inhabitants of the North, and Jumblatt's fears could be confirmed with Syria choosing to intervene - this time with outside approval since no one wants to see Salafists triumphing in Lebanon. The scenario may be an unlikely one, but for the moment nothing suggests the Hariri camp is offering an alternative.

There is still tremendous goodwill for Hariri in the North. His access to substantial sums of money, also the existence of a Sunni political class worried about the rise of extremism, means Hariri has the latitude to ensure it is not the Islamists who set the agenda. What this requires, however, is a more credible network of people on the ground and a bottom-up reorganization of the Future Movement and of its strategy in Tripoli, Dinniyeh, and the Akkar. The fighting between Bab al-Tebbaneh and Jabal Mohsen is but a symptom of a larger problem: that of a Sunni community that has still not found its equilibrium after the assassination of Rafik Hariri. For better or worse the North should now be Hariri's momentary priority, not Beirut; it is his main source of men, vitality and political sway. He should spend more time there, learn its rhythms, and take in hand a political situation that, if it were to spin out of control, could spell the end for everything Saad Hariri has tried to build up.