Thursday, August 28, 2008
By Michael Young
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
By Michael Young
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
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
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
By Michael Young
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.