Thursday, September 24, 2009

Will a new cabinet cost Lebanon its sovereignty?

What occurred in Jeddah on Wednesday? Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, traveled to the Saudi city for a university inauguration, also attended by outgoing Prime Minister Fouad Siniora. The prime minister-elect, Saad Hariri, happened to be in the kingdom. Reports suggested that Turkey had played a significant role in the visit. Who met whom? What was discussed? Are we near a breakthrough on the cabinet’s formation?

We shall soon see. It was clear from the outset that the obstacles to the formation of the government had very little to do with the appointment of Gebran Bassil as a minister. The problem was the continuation of Saudi-Syrian divergences over Lebanon. This was the contention of the speaker of parliament, Nabih Berri, and of Walid Jumblatt, newfound friends. They were right, even if one might disagree with either or both of them on the practical consequences of their conclusion.

The question the Lebanese are asking is what political price the Saudis will pay to purchase Syrian flexibility on the government. When Saad Hariri began putting one together weeks ago, the United States and Egypt blocked a Syrian effort to bring the prime minister-designate to Damascus before a ministerial lineup was finalized. Hariri himself, reluctant to be pushed into the arms of his father’s killers, visited Cairo to gain Egyptian reinforcement. Press reports at the time said that Syria sought to sponsor inter-Lebanese reconciliation, as Qatar did last year. Its failure to achieve this aim led to the cancellation of a visit to Damascus by King Abdullah.

Since then several things have changed in the region. The Saudi priority remains the containment of Iran, one reason why the kingdom hoped that a rapprochement with Syria would help break the Assad regime away from Tehran. But the situation today is even more complicated. In October, the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, along with Germany, will begin discussions in Geneva with Iran on its nuclear program. At the same time, the priority of the United States in Iraq is disengagement, leading the Obama administration to advocate an Iraqi-Syrian dialogue, even though US officials admit that Syria continues to allow jihadists through its territory on their way to Iraq.

As Saudi Arabia watches the Americans cutting back their involvement in Iraq while simultaneously striving to reconcile Damascus with Baghdad to facilitate their departure, the kingdom’s leadership may have concluded three things: that once the US is gone from Iraq, Saudi Arabia will be on its own in facing a Shia-dominated, oil-rich state to its north, as well as a resurgent Iran that already holds considerable leverage in the Gulf.

Second, that it makes little sense for the kingdom to allow its dispute with Syria to fester, since the Assad regime can be of use in destabilizing Iraq, thereby preventing the consolidation of a Shia-led order there, particularly one over which Iran has great influence.

And third, that if the Saudis and the Syrians are to improve their relationship, it might be necessary to give Syria much more of what it seeks, namely a decisive political say in Lebanon. Left unsaid in that equation is that Iran may disapprove, since Lebanon is much more an Iranian card today, thanks to Tehran’s control over Hezbollah, than it is a Syrian one. But the flip side of that implicit Iranian rebuff is that Saudi Arabia, in order to contain Iran and Hezbollah, may feel that the best way to do so is through some form of Syrian return to Lebanon.

If that is indeed what the Saudis are thinking, which remains to be proven, we may face difficult times ahead. On the other hand the kingdom is sensitive to the worries in Washington and Cairo. Up to now nothing indicates that the Obama administration has agreed to surrender Lebanon to Syria in order to thwart Iran. Nor that Egypt intends to give Assad a break in Lebanon, when Syria has persistently blocked a breakthrough in Egyptian-sponsored inter-Palestinian talks in Cairo.

However, how long will that last? If Barack Obama moves toward benign neglect in the broader Middle East, because he just cannot get anything done in the region, then Lebanon will fall even lower on the American priorities list. That’s what Syria is banking on. As for Egypt, its ability to derail a Syrian-Saudi rapprochement is limited, while Washington’s abandonment of the peace process if it continues to go nowhere will further undermine Cairo’s importance. Syria is banking on that as well.

Lebanon may have a government sooner rather than later. The real issue, however, is whether the government will be truly Lebanese, or merely a compromise between different regional states now managing their sundry alliances and animosities. The near-certainty is that it will be the second, driving another nail into the coffin of our emancipation.

Hizbullah: still strong, getting weaker

As the permanent members of the UN Security Council, along with Germany, prepare for a dialogue with Iran in October over its nuclear program, Hizbullah is closely watching what happens. The party will almost certainly be at the vanguard of Iranian retaliation for an attack against its nuclear facilities, but it must also be ambivalent, because the political and social environment in Lebanon today does not favor Hizbullah’s entering into a new border conflict.

At three levels – the tactical military level in southern Lebanon, that of the Shiite community at large, and Hizbullah’s relationship with the rest of Lebanese society – genuine difficulties are looming for the party, even if it is stronger than ever militarily and its popularity among Shiites is intact.

One needn’t be a military expert to grasp that the next war against Israel will be very different for Hizbullah than the last one. By most accounts the party’s arsenal has been upgraded. It may well have anti-aircraft missiles today, some are suggesting the SAM-24 (Igla-S), and the secretary general, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, has warned that if Beirut’s southern suburbs are bombed, Hizbullah will respond by firing missiles at Tel Aviv. Israel, in turn, is training units to enter Lebanon, displaying a greater willingness to engage in a ground war than in 2006. The Israelis are also likely to devastate Lebanese infrastructure, particularly the electricity network, so that what they did three years ago may seem tame in comparison.

What would this mean for Hizbullah’s ability to fire rockets at Israel? The party is setting up its main defensive line north of the Litani, near Jezzine. However, some observers point to the fact that Hizbullah relies considerably on short-range rockets for its deterrence capability, rockets it can fire from primitive launching pads south of the Litani. They argue that the party’s military infrastructure in the area has, of necessity, been thinned out since 2006 after the deployment of the Lebanese Army and UNIFIL, so that even once-closed military zones such as Wadi Hujayr are now open to traffic. That’s why, these observers believe, Hizbullah will not have the same capability of firing rockets that it did three years ago, let alone to defend against Israeli incursions to prevent the launches.

As for the longer-range missiles, there remains some question of how extensively Hizbullah can rely on them. Given Nasrallah’s threats, these would effectively become strategic weapons, targeting Israeli cities and infrastructure, so their use would introduce frightening military realities that Hizbullah would have to withstand and defend domestically. For example, we can assume that if Tel Aviv is bombed, so too will be central Beirut, and it’s not at all clear that Hizbullah could sustain such an escalation politically and militarily for very long. On top of that, who would be launching these missiles, Lebanese or Iranians? If it’s the latter, Lebanon would be the front line in a regional battle, which neither the Shiite community nor other Lebanese would welcome.

Which takes us to the second obstacle Hizbullah must face: that put up by its own community. The party still dominates the Shiites, but as a visit to southern Lebanon will show, Hizbullah must address a more subtle challenge to its priorities, that provided by normalcy. Nasrallah dodged a bullet in summer 2006 by containing Shiite discontent following a month when hundreds of thousands of his coreligionists were turned into internal refugees. The secretary general showed psychological flair by declaring that shipwreck a “divine victory,” a notion the Shiites embraced because it lent meaning to their suffering. But Nasrallah can only play that game once.

We are almost a decade into the Shiite return to the South after Israel’s military withdrawal, a decade in which its inhabitants have been leading a more or less normal life, or aspiring to do so. Yet the destruction from 2006 is everywhere visible – the market of Bint Jbeil, for example, is still being rebuilt. Hizbullah has placed posters of its martyrs in every village, but even that perennial reminder of the debt owed by the community to the party cannot forever displace a Shiite yearning for a life without fear.

There is an assumption that the way Hizbullah “packages” a war with Israel will determine how Shiites react to it. In other words if Israel is perceived as the clear culprit, the community will remain loyal to Hizbullah, whatever the consequences. Perhaps, but it will not be easy for the party to disguise retaliation in defense of Iran with another pretext. Nor will Hizbullah readily dispel a disquieting feeling among Shiites that the party, for all the advantages it brings to the community, every few years demands a prohibitive blood tax in exchange.

Then there is Hizbullah’s relation with Lebanon in general. The party has perfected a persona of indifference to Lebanese preferences disputing the imperatives of resistance, but it also knows that its countrymen will virulently oppose any new conflict, particularly one on behalf of the regime in Tehran, which could undermine Hizbullah’s status. That was one message from the March 14 victory in the June elections, in many respects a vote against Michel Aoun for his alliance with Hizbullah. But the party is also paying for May 2008, when it overran western Beirut and tried doing so in the mountains. That enterprise may have won Hizbullah a temporary victory against unarmed civilians, but what it really did was sweep away any national consensus in support of its armed struggle.

A postwar Lebanon would be nothing like the one that emerged in August 2006, which nonetheless defied Hizbullah for over 18 months. This new Lebanon, battered, impoverished, bitter, could well demand a final showdown with the project of a party that cannot possibly coexist with the project of a sovereign state. This begs the question: Might Israel precipitate a pre-emptive strike to take advantage of the Lebanese contradictions? It’s possible, and we’re not doing the slightest thing to prevent this.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Mr. Bellemare, kindly explain a puzzling point

In recent days Daniel Bellemare, the prosecutor of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, has behaved out of character by speaking extensively to Lebanese and Arab media. This was made inevitable by the fact that opponents of the tribunal have been trying lately to put the institution on the defensive, while Bellemare himself needed to show new vitality after spending several weeks in Canada undergoing medical tests.

There was some optimism this week when the prosecutor reported he had made progress in the case. Bellemare told Future Television that, while he was not ready to indict, “what I have to satisfy myself is that the evidence that we have now is evidence that is admissible in court according to international standards that are contained now in the rules of procedure.”

It’s good to hear this, but it’s also a sign of the sluggish pace of the UN investigation that we should treat this as big news four years after Rafik Hariri’s assassination. The real question is when Bellemare will have enough evidence to accuse someone. On that front no one at the tribunal has been forthcoming, apparently because they don’t know.

In an interview with Al-Hayat published on Tuesday, Bellemare defended his work, saying it was not politicized. He insisted that he would resign if he ever felt that political pressure had been brought to bear on the tribunal. Bellemare denounced those who said that he was dying of cancer (the former Minister Wiam Wahhab made such a claim), insisting that he was in excellent health. And he remarked about the four generals, that they had never been put on trial to now be declared innocent, but that if there was evidence against them, “we will knock on their doors.”

Answering a question about the controversial testimonies of Muhammad Zuhair al-Siddiq and another Syrian witness, Hussam Hussam, and their impact on his inquiry, Bellemare said (in an English retranslation of his comments): “Let me say that before the decision was taken to liberate the four officers, our investigators met with Siddiq in the United Arab Emirates, and naturally any effort to mislead the work of the tribunal disturbs me, and wastes time and effort. In some cases this leads to consequences, and the reality is that these misleading statements forced us to review our approach to the investigation.”

Bellemare’s observations about Siddiq added more confusion to an already-perplexing aspect of the investigation. Earlier this summer, the prosecutor’s spokeswoman, Radhia Achouri, announced that Bellemare no longer considered Siddiq of interest to his investigation. When I asked Achouri about this in July, and whether Siddiq would be penalized in some way for giving false testimony, she said that he would not be, before pointing out that the tribunal had no jurisdiction to punish him.

This sounded very odd indeed. Witnesses in the Hariri case gave sworn testimony and were obliged to sign their statements. To lie under oath is a crime. Moreover, Siddiq was considered a suspect by the first UN commissioner, Detlev Mehlis. At the least, the prosecution should have established why he lied, whether this was intentional and if so, who put him up to it, and then explained clearly why he was no longer a suspect and why he had not paid a price for deceiving investigators.

In his response to Al-Hayat, Bellemare avoided these questions altogether. Instead, he treated Siddiq’s deceitfulness merely as an inconvenience that wasted time and effort. Of course it wasted time and effort, but what it also did was cast grave doubts on the credibility of the UN investigation. However, instead of explaining what went wrong, if something did indeed go wrong, Bellemare only exacerbated matters by failing to satisfactorily elucidate what really happened with Siddiq.

Nor did the prosecutor’s comments on the generals convince. In the view of many people, the four were arrested primarily on the basis of Siddiq’s testimony. Their release, therefore, seemed to indicate that what he told UN investigators was untrue. But that’s not the prosecution’s line. There appears still to be a belief within the prosecution that the generals, or some of them, may yet be indicted – certainly Bellemare’s statement to Al-Hayat implied this. The fact that the four were kept in prison for three years after Mehlis’ departure revealed that both his successor, Serge Brammertz, like Bellemare afterward, had reason to suspect that they were somehow involved in the crime itself or its aftermath.

Bellemare tried to hint in an interview with Al-Akhbar last February that he had his differences with the Lebanese judicial authorities over the continued detention of the generals, and that he had expressed these in private to Said Mirza. “The Lebanese judiciary is sovereign and I cannot, as commissioner, intervene with the Lebanese judiciary,” Bellemare told the newspaper, before noting: “However that does not mean that I don't express my opinion to the Lebanese public prosecutor.”

However, this was a significant misstatement of judicial procedure. The fact is that if at any stage of his investigation Bellemare (like Brammertz before him) had concluded that the provisional arrest of the generals was no longer warranted, he could have, and should have, stated this in writing under the letterhead of the UN commission. It made no legal sense for the commissioner to simply whisper his misgivings to Mirza. That neither Brammertz nor Bellemare ever did put his views in writing suggests that both approved of the generals’ detention. Indeed, Bellemare only released them when the tribunal offered him no choice but to indict now or free the four for their possible recall another day.

We can only wish Bellemare well as he continues on his journey toward an indictment, hoping that he will make landfall soon. However, the fate of Siddiq has not been properly explained, reflecting negatively on the prosecution’s integrity. Remaining tight-lipped can cut both ways.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Lebanon must avoid the crimes of Gaza

Even before a United Nations fact-finding mission led by the South African judge Richard Goldstone released its report on the Gaza war earlier this week, accusing Israel and Hamas of having perpetrated war crimes and crimes against humanity, you knew what direction the ensuing discussion would take: Israeli officials, like supporters of Israel all over, would condemn the report as biased, while Hamas and its enthusiasts would sidestep blame, insisting the movement acted in self-defense.

The members of the mission also called on Israel’s government and the Palestinian Authority (which, in reality, has no jurisdiction over Gaza) to conduct independent investigations within six months, otherwise the UN should take the matter to the International Criminal Court.

The debate over war crimes can be tiresome, shot through with self-righteousness and deceit. When Hamas, to defend itself, insists that its rockets during the Gaza war were primed to hit Israeli military positions, but because of their shoddiness veered off course to hit civilian targets, this is nonsense. From the start, the movement’s rocket arsenal served no purpose but to be a terror weapon against civilians. Attacking nonmilitary targets has long been a cornerstone of Hamas’ deterrence capability, as when it dispatched suicide bombers to Israeli cities.

By the same token, officials in Israel will intentionally miss the forest for the trees when defending their state’s military actions. Most Israeli war crimes, it seems, have some overriding justification. But anyone who has been on the receiving end of Israeli attacks knows that the targeting of civilians and of nonmilitary objectives is also a vital component of Israel’s deterrence strategy. Nothing, for example, could possibly validate Israel’s malicious firing of many thousands of rounds of cluster munitions into southern Lebanon in the final days of the 2006 war, except to make large swathes of the border area inaccessible to civilians.

The Gaza mission is but one in a long line of fact-finding missions investigating conflicts between Israel and the Arabs. Israel itself has examined its misdeeds on occasion, most significantly in the devastating Kahan commission report on the Sabra and Shatila massacre of September 1982. Much has been made of how the report stated that Israel’s then-defense minister, Ariel Sharon, bore “indirect responsibility” for the massacre. In fact that misunderstood statement only delimited who executed the victims and who stood back and allowed it to happen.

In a devastating passage, the writers made their meaning clear: “When we are dealing with the issue of indirect responsibility, it should also not be forgotten that the Jews in various lands of exile … suffered greatly by pogroms perpetrated by various hooligans … The Jewish public’s stand has always been that the responsibility for such deeds falls not only on those who rioted and committed the atrocities, but also on those who were responsible for safety and public order, who could have prevented the disturbances and did not fulfill their obligations in this respect.”

Ultimately, Sharon resigned after the report’s release, only to be elected two decades later as Israeli prime minister. However, what the UN report on Gaza, like the Kahan report, shows, is that even a simple document can rip away the veneer of false rectitude in wartime. We shouldn’t overstate things. While a more developed international architecture is in place than ever before to impose humanitarian laws and standards, future wars may be as brutal as they are today. What behavior does this impose on states?

Lebanese officials should be asking that question more urgently than others. A war with Israel may or may not happen in the coming years, but if there is one place in the Middle East where such a probability remains high, it’s Lebanon. The 2006 war brought about efforts by some groups to formally blame Israel for war crimes, just as the Israelis pointed out that Hizbullah’s targeting of civilians also constituted a violation of the laws of war. Both sides had a case, even though the burden in terms of victims tilted very much more the Lebanese way, with some 1,200 people, mostly noncombatants, killed and hundreds of thousands displaced. If the Lebanese ever discuss the UN report on Gaza, their first aim should be to determine how it can be used to limit the fallout in Lebanon in the event of a new conflict. With present and former Israeli officials promising that the country will pay an onerous price, there is a need to lay the groundwork internationally to make this more difficult. And such an effort must not only include governments, but public opinion. Beirut must also examine its options with respect to the International Criminal Court.

However, for the Lebanese case to have any real meaning, there must be a commitment from Lebanon’s side to avoid breaching the laws of war. The chances of Hizbullah respecting these are as slim as the Israelis doing so. But that doesn’t prevent the next Lebanese government from taking a clear position on the matter in its ministerial statement, to the effect that Lebanon’s right to defend itself will not preclude its respect for the Geneva Conventions and the protection of civilians. Hizbullah will resist this, since its ability to bombard Israeli population centers defines its brand of asymmetrical warfare. However, the party could find it difficult to oppose such a step if it were framed as a way of protecting the hundreds of thousands of Shiites who would suffer most from an Israeli onslaught.

The UN Gaza report may well be filed away like most other documents on wartime abuse. But it can be used imaginatively, particularly by Lebanon. To avoid becoming a victim also means to avoid victimizing others, and even if that rule is almost certain to break down in a new confrontation with Israel, doing nothing about this today is indefensible.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The Syrian paradox: playing the spoiler to stay relevant

It wasn’t a coincidence that the firing of two rockets from southern Lebanon into Israel last Friday was meant to coincide with the anniversary of the September 11 attacks. Nor was it a coincidence that the unknown group claiming responsibility was named the Ziad al Jarrah division of the Abdullah Azzam Brigades, which is allegedly linked to al Qa’eda.

The point was to create a red herring. In all likelihood, and given the constraints on the ground in Lebanon’s border area, the party really behind the attack was Syria, employing pro-Syrian Palestinians. There are several reasons to presume so. Damascus has often used similar incidents in the south to get its messages across, despite the pro forma veneer of deniability it has put up. Only Syria has the latitude to set up rockets in an area tightly controlled by Hizbollah. And it has been a recurring feature of Syrian conduct to shift blame for its own breaches of security on to Sunni Islamists, both to tarnish its Sunni Lebanese foes, principally Saad Hariri, and to suggest that only Syria can contain “Sunni extremism”.

There were regional and domestic implications to what happened. While many Lebanese focused on the latter – pointing out that the attack was linked to the political crisis in Beirut, particularly Mr Hariri’s inability to form a government – Syria’s calculations outside the country may have been more important. The president Bashar Assad is displeased with the fact that the Syrian track appears to be far less of an Obama administration priority than the Palestinian track, even as Washington wants Damascus to engage in direct negotiations with Israel when the Syrians would prefer to work through the Turkish government.

By ordering rockets to be fired into Israel, the Syrians reminded the Americans that their isolation by Washington could push them to provoke a conflict between Lebanon and Israel. Implicit was a warning that it is not Iran and Hizbollah alone who can raise tension in the border area. In some respects this is similar to the policy that Syria is pursuing in Iraq, where they have also tried to accumulate political capital by manipulating the security situation. But ultimately where does such an approach lead?

That question, or rather the absence of an obvious answer to the question, is at the heart of the structural difficulties plaguing the Syrian-American relationship. Syria has yet to resolve a paradox in its political behaviour. For it to engage the United States effectively, the Assad regime believes it must accumulate leverage regionally. But its only means of doing so is by destabilising its surroundings, adding to the obstacles preventing better ties with Washington. This is a recurring problem that Syria has faced with most of its interlocutors: it seeks political chips to remain politically relevant, but will rarely cash in these chips because it fears that doing so would only make it more irrelevant.

Take the situation in Iraq. The Obama administration has been eager in recent months to bring Syria into broader US efforts to pacify Iraq, as a preparatory step toward a military withdrawal from the country. Indeed, the Americans recently angered the Iraqi prime minister Nouri al Maliki by discussing border security with Syria when the Iraqis felt that this should be their own prerogative. Following the simultaneous bombings in Baghdad in late August, the US initially took an equivocal position towards the violence, arguing that Iraq and Syria should resolve their differences through dialogue, while sources in Washington leaked that it was not Iraqi Baathists run out of Syria, but al Qa’eda, that had carried out the bombings. Mr Maliki’s idea of setting up a United Nations tribunal to investigate the incident aroused no American sympathy.

And yet the United States seemed to be intentionally missing the point. The Assad regime continues to allow foreign jihadists to enter Iraq through its border. If such jihadists planned and executed the Baghdad bombings, there was a pretty good chance they travelled through Syria. However, as eager as some US officials are to make the relationship with Syria work in Iraq, the reality is that the Syrians have every intention of maintaining a spoiler role there, whether to strengthen themselves with respect to Washington in the future or with respect to Iraq and the Arab world.

That is not likely to change at a time when the United States, along with the other permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany, is preparing to begin a dialogue with Iran. Nothing worries Syria more than the prospect of a breakthrough in the Middle East between Washington and Tehran. And while the probability may not be high, the Syrians don’t like processes of which they are not a part. That will only make them more reluctant to be conciliatory – in Iraq, but also in Lebanon and on the Palestinian front. A more imaginative policy might be for Syria to initiate a serious process of its own, perhaps through negotiations with Israel, one that pushes it towards centre stage in diplomatic importance, but that’s not part of the Assad regime’s DNA, which naturally gravitates towards obstruction.

What Mr Assad does not realise is that the Obama administration is as close as he will get to a willing American partner. The US has decided to send an ambassador back to Damascus, to lift some sanctions on Syria, to engage it over Iraq and to avoid clashes over Syria’s support for Hamas and its actions in Lebanon, where Mr Assad’s intransigence is a major factor in blocking the formation of a new government. Despite all this, the Syrians are no closer to getting something tangible out of the relationship.

American tolerance has its limits: Syria has often succeeded in forcing other governments to take it to the river, before then refusing to drink. To finally get somewhere, Mr Assad may one day have to risk a sip.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Gebran Bassil’s beard

In recent days Lebanese eyes have had a carnival of activities to look at. There has been Saad Hariri’s decision to announce a government lineup; the opposition’s ascent to Beiteddine to discuss the matter with the president; Hariri’s threats to step down if his project is completely overhauled; and much else. However, the topic prompting the most chatter in the republic’s homes is Gebran Bassil’s beard.

Well not quite a beard, rather the first spirited shoots of one. At a gathering of Aounist parliamentarians and ministers on Wednesday, Farid al-Khazen could be seen smiling at Gebran and gesturing at his chin, apparently commenting on the beard. The exchange was full of interesting possibilities, since Khazen is one of two Maronites whom Hariri has named as a minister, and if the Aounists manage to alter the prime minister-elect’s lineup in order to get Bassil into the next cabinet, it is probably Khazen who would lose his portfolio.

Why? Because the other Maronite named from the Aounist bloc is Alain Aoun, and it would not be easy for Michel Aoun to bump his nephew in favor of his son in law –particularly as both cordially dislike each other and control sizable constituencies within the Free Patriotic Movement. If that’s the case, it might be Khazen who stops shaving, even though he doubtless merits a ministry more than most of the other Aounists.

Humorists with less imagination have observed that Bassil may be growing a beard in order to feel more at ease in the presence of his Hezbollah comrades. After all, when he sits with Mohammad Raad, Hussein al-Hajj Hassan, and Wafiq Safa, whose closely-cut stubble underscores hard faces, the faces of real men, Bassil comes across looking like Bambi, soft and pubescent among the television projectors.

It’s difficult to take that argument seriously. As any man will tell you, a beard is a statement. There are many kinds of beards, however, which determine what the statement is. There are the lifelong beards, those that age and die on a man’s cheeks. They are the ones that become part of an individual’s persona, accumulating the dust of time and the stains of bygone eras. A man with a “lifer” is the professional among beard wearers.

A second category of beard is those wearers will keep on most of the time, but not all. Because of this variability, the beard will rarely be grown to full length, its owner preferring to keep it trimmed down to a fuzzy stump, in a no-man’s land between being bearded and clean-shavedness.

Then there are the beards of novices among beard wearers. Such men will grow a full-length beard and become bored with it before chopping it off after a sudden onset of doubt. They may then re-grow it, shape it in innovative ways, fiddle, fuss, and then swear never to grow one again.

The lifelong beard grower is generally a man of habit and persistence; someone well organized who tends to be consistent. The owner of the no-man’s land beard is more innovative, willing to embrace variety, but still steady in his choices. The novice beard grower, in turn, tends to be flighty, impulsive, ambitious but quick to doubt his own ways.

So what kind of beard is Gebran Bassil going for? What political statement is he making? A great deal will depend on whether he is given a ministerial portfolio – which Saad Hariri has made a red line if he is to pursue his endeavors to reach a deal over the current government. If Bassil stays home, his beard is likely to be of the third kind –short-lived, an object of hatred at the bad luck it brought on. If Hariri is forced to hand him a portfolio, though, Bassil may hold on to his bush longer than we expect, as he sinks into vapors of self-satisfaction.

But there is one beard we haven’t mentioned, included in none of the previous categories: the empty, patchy beard, where you can count the hairs against broad backdrops of skin. No amount of willpower can ever make such beards thicker, better, their faults being a matter of inheritance. For the Aounists who dislike Bassil that may be the beard that is most appropriate – denoting a hollowness that inherited political power (even from a popular father in law) can little change.

But let’s give Gebran Bassil the benefit of the doubt. His beard is only a few days old, and we shouldn’t judge it until it has reached its full flowering. The republic itself may depend on the final result.

As always: It's the Syrians, stupid!

So it’s as clear as a bomb explosion on St. Valentine’s Day: Lebanon’s government crisis is and always was about Syria and its yearning to regain the power over Lebanon that it lost in 2005. Prime Minister-elect Saad Hariri’s decision to present a cabinet lineup to President Michel Sleiman, by provoking an angry reaction from Syria’s allies, tore away the ambiguities surrounding the government formation process. The Syrians don’t want a government unless they can be seen as having blessed it themselves – which means Hariri must make a notable act of submission to Damascus. The Americans are telling Syria that its failure to facilitate a government will harm US-Syrian relations. And the Saudis have remained publicly quiet, but only because while they disagree with Syria over Lebanon, they appear to have an implicit understanding with President Bashar Assad in Iraq, where both countries, each for reasons of its own, seek to prevent stabilization of the country.

The latter detail may explain why Hariri himself did not press the cabinet issue very hard until this week. Perhaps he was hoping for a Saudi-Syrian breakthrough that would spare him headaches; or maybe he simply sought to avoid a Saudi-Syrian row, knowing Riyadh didn’t want one. Whatever the reason, to understand what is happening today we should watch closely what develops on the Saudi-Syrian front, and then see whether all the others involved in Lebanon accept it.

It was no coincidence that Walid Jumblatt sent Ghazi Aridi to Saudi Arabia on Monday to discuss Lebanon with Saudi officials. Nor was it surprising that the Parliament speaker, Nabih Berri, met with the kingdom’s ambassador in Beirut on Tuesday. Jumblatt has insisted, echoing Berri, that a solution to the deadlock requires concord between Syria and Saudi Arabia. The Druze leader was forced to backtrack on his “withdrawal” from March 14 last month, but hopes to reposition himself as a middleman, along with Berri, to facilitate a government. This means the two must channel and reconcile the Saudi and Syrian mood.

The situation in Iraq has complicated matters in Beirut. The Maliki government’s decision to confront Syria over its support for Al-Qaeda and for former Baath members violently undermining Iraqi normalization has made Syria more obstinate in Lebanon. Nor has this been alleviated by the fact that the United States, which initially (and mildly) advised a diplomatic resolution of the crisis between Baghdad and Damascus, is now gravitating toward greater criticism of the Syrian regime. The irony is that Iraq’s animosity toward Syria means the Saudis may be less eager to clash with Assad in Lebanon. The flip side of this is that it may facilitate a Syrian-Saudi arrangement over a new Lebanese government.

That’s what Jumblatt and Berri are wagering on. Jumblatt was much criticized for his turnaround against March 14. His reading of the situation at the time was that the Saudis, keen to firm up their reconciliation with Syria to better contain Iran, were willing to hand Assad much leeway in Lebanon; not what Syria held before 2005, but more than it had after its withdrawal. Jumblatt assumed that part of the arrangement would be Hariri’s ascent to Damascus, so the Druze leader calculated that to remain politically relevant, he had to make it there first, or at least show a deep change of heart toward Syria first.

Then something happened. Apparently the United States, with Egypt, blocked Hariri’s visit to Damascus before he became prime minister. The Saudis stepped back. A scheduled meeting between Assad and King Abdullah was cancelled, and when Jumblatt made his Beau Rivage speech the Saudis sent their information minister, Abdel-Aziz Khoja, to Beirut to bring the Druze leader back into line – mainly to avoid undercutting Hariri. However, judging from Jumblatt’s subsequent behavior, the Saudis never opposed his rapprochement with Syria, which Jumblatt has justified in the framework of improved Syrian-Saudi ties.

However, the new situation led to deadlock, exacerbated by inter-Lebanese discord. Aoun, sensing Syria’s displeasure, decided to take advantage of this by pushing for Gebran Bassil as a minister and demanding a “sovereign ministry.” Hizbullah, which had promised Hariri that it would mediate with Aoun once cabinet shares were apportioned, instead did nothing at all, respecting Syria’s desire to obstruct an accord. Nonetheless, the party probably prefers that a government be finalized soon, both to gain legal cover for its weapons and to create a situation more propitious for addressing financially the Salah Ezzedine fiasco, which depends on a functioning state being present. The question today, therefore, is what will the Saudis give Syria so it can sign off on a new government, and will the Americans, Iranians and Egyptians accept?

The Iranian role is more subtle. Iran and Hizbullah, not Syria, hold real power on the ground. Where Syrian interests have been protected in Lebanon, they have been protected by Hizbullah, so that Iran has gradually sidelined Syria as the main opposition sponsor. In the June elections the extent of Syrian weakness was obvious, though the Assad regime tried to use the Hizbullah-led opposition’s setbacks to regain the influence it lost to Iran after 2005. This it did by packaging its prospective Lebanese return as a case of curtailing Iranian influence. Little has come of this scheme because Syria is weak and Iran won’t surrender to Assad its Lebanese card.

All sides have an advantage in reaching a settlement at some stage over a new government. The Syrians don’t want an outright divorce with the Saudis and still hope to advance their dialogue with Washington; the Iranians need a new government in place to legitimize Hizbullah’s weapons at a crucial time in the nuclear standoff; and Saudi Arabia and Washington want to avert a conflict in Lebanon that might hinder their other regional priorities – most importantly inhibiting Iran and advancing regional peace talks. That means a government may come sooner than we think, but you would be right in keeping your wager low.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Syria’s legacy in Lebanon proves trivial

It may have been a coincidence, but I was offering condolences on Sunday when the former head of the General Security directorate, Jamil al-Sayyed, read his irate statement to the media. This made me think (as has the NOW Lebanon poll this week): Was Sayyed’s tirade a sign of his political resurrection or the opening lines of a political obituary?

We’ve come a long way since Sayyed declared, before the parliamentary elections, that he would accept a cabinet portfolio if asked. Even though the government has yet to be formed, we can be fairly certain that the general will not be in it. From the moment Sayyed left prison in April along with his three colleagues, it was plain that he had exited into a very different political climate than the one prevailing during his last months in office four years ago. Instead of Syria, it was Hezbollah that dominated his onetime political ecosystem, that handled Sayyed upon his release, and that took the lead in televising his appearance last weekend.

From being an initiator of messages, Sayyed appears to have become a transmitter of messages – none more surprising than the comments he addressed at Michel Sleiman. Sayyed told the president that he looked nothing like the man who had once been army commander, and that it was better for him to leave office than to succumb to the attractions of the Baabda Palace. “It is shameful Mr. President for them to render you a hostage and to place you between what is right and what is wrong,” Sayyed said. The word “right” was a warning – Syrian but also backed by Hezbollah – that the opposition was displeased with how the president is building a partnership with Prime Minister-elect Saad Hariri.

However, all this told us was that Syria and its allies are fighting a hard battle against the natural reflexes of the Lebanese system. When they were in Lebanon, the Syrians divided and ruled at will. They oversaw an order in which they could consistently play the president, the prime minister and the speaker of parliament off against each other. With their army gone, the Syrians are having trouble replicating that. All they can do is threaten, kill and mobilize peons to disseminate their political line – people like Wiam Wahhab, Nasser Qandil, whoever Syria has named to head the Syrian Social Nationalist Party, and others. For Sayyed, a man with considerable authority once, to now find himself circulating among that congregation of misfits shows how greatly things have changed.

This leads to a broader question: Why is it that Syria, despite a 29-year military presence in Lebanon, was never able to leave behind enduring structures of hegemony? Not that we’re complaining; but the reality is that the Assad regime is almost solely reliant on its ability to use violence and extortion to get its way in the country. It has no power of persuasion beyond that, its allies are anemic, its popularity universally low, even among its Shia partners, and its deep contempt for the Lebanese remains an obstacle to fruitful exchange. It has named an ambassador in Beirut who, when he’s actually in the city, visits with has-beens, affirming how indisposed Syria is to recognizing Lebanon as a diplomatic equal.

Iran, in contrast, saw a brief opening in 1982 to create something more durable, and gradually built up Hezbollah into what it is today, anchoring it in the Shia community (or at least that part of the community not under Syrian orders), and to an extent the state. The Iranians are, alas, builders of institutions, while the Syrians have never seen an institution they have not tried to undermine, ruin and loot. Perhaps it’s the Iranians’ imperial past that makes them what they are, whereas Syria’s regime rests upon foundations created by rural upstarts. Or maybe not. But in the annals of political control, rarely has a state been given as much leeway internationally to rule over a country as Syria was given to rule over Lebanon, only to leave behind such an inconsequential legacy.

Political structures built solely on fear and corruption don’t survive once the intimidation ends. You can say many things about Jamil al-Sayyed, but in his day he could be a subtle enforcer of Syrian diktats. However, his performance on Sunday, in its utter lack of subtlety, showed what his sponsors and allies have reduced him to, and what they themselves have been reduced to. Once the cameras were turned off, it was difficult to interpret the message. Sayyed was angry, so presumably the Syrians were. But then what? By attacking everybody in unison, Sayyed also seemed to attack no one in particular. Those targeted by him became stronger in their solidarity and patiently waited until the storm in a teacup blew over.

So is that a sign of greater power or greater weakness? Time will tell of course. Sayyed has a great deal of information, and may decide to impart some of it. Then again he knows that the Hariri tribunal still has him in its sights, so the general may prefer caution. But nothing Sayyed does will reverse the fact that Syria is having trouble convincing everyone that it has a natural right to govern Lebanon again. Sayyed’s bitterness may have only been a fa├žade for Syrian frustration.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Manipulation mars the Hariri tribunal

We’ve reached the point where we can assume that virtually everything currently being said about the Special Tribunal for Lebanon dealing with Rafik Hariri’s assassination is manipulation. That includes the statements last week by the former head of the General Security directorate, Jamil al-Sayyed, the former parliamentarian Nasser Kandil, the former minister Wi’am Wahhab, and various pro-Syrian Lebanese mouthpieces, not to mention Syria’s own foreign minister, Walid al-Moallem.

In his press conference on Sunday, Sayyed stated that Hariri had been killed three times: on the day of his assassination; when the four generals, including himself, were arrested; and when they were released. But it’s Syria and its followers who this year have tried three times to kill the Hariri tribunal: after the generals were released, when the opposition falsely described this as a declaration of innocence; when someone leaked selective information to Der Spiegel, which published a flawed account of the Hariri assassination suggesting it was mainly a Hizbullah operation; and this past week, when Syrian and pro-Syrian figures and media made a concerted effort to discredit the tribunal, declaring its work “politicized.”

The Syrians continue to concentrate their forces against the conclusions reached by Detlev Mehlis, the first commissioner of the United Nations team conducting the Hariri investigation. It’s not difficult to see why: Mehlis was the only one of the three commissioners who began cornering the culprits. Since then, neither of his successors, Serge Brammertz or Daniel Bellemare, has distanced himself from Mehlis’ broad findings. Had they done so, this would have been difficult to conceal even in their exceedingly terse reports. That is why a Syrian priority is to smear the German judge, even as Syria’s peons have now started biting at Bellemare, whom Wahhab affirmed is dying of cancer.

The misinformation surrounding the tribunal forced its spokeswoman, Radhia Achouri, to issue a statement last week saying that speculation about when the body would accuse suspects was unfounded. “There is no set deadline for an indictment,” she said, adding “but this does not at all mean that the prosecutor does not see a need to inform the Lebanese public on whether there is one or not.” It’s a pleasure to know that Bellemare will inform us of something, since we don’t even know what ailment he has been suffering from for the past two months, though some leaked information and an educated guess suggest it is not cancer.

For all the talk of indictments coming soon, Achouri made it indirectly clear that Bellemare just doesn’t have enough yet to accuse anyone. This may be obvious, however repeated enough times it sounds remarkable when we realize that the Hariri investigation began four years ago. A tribunal source admitted to me this past summer that the investigation was “a tough, tough one.” Did this mean there might in fact be no indictment at all? “Theoretically yes,” the person answered, “yet we are optimistic enough to think that this is not a likely scenario.”

However, the prosecutor continues to leave important questions unanswered. For example, Achouri has said that Bellemare no longer considers the so-called “crown witness,” Mohammad Zuheir al-Siddiq, of interest to his case. That’s a peculiar assertion. Recall that it was on the basis of Siddiq’s deposition, among other factors, that the four generals were arrested. Mehlis also felt he had enough to arrest Siddiq as a suspect. Therefore, does his now being off the hook mean the generals are innocent? Prosecution sources say no, that the generals may still be indicted, but that their release was necessary under by the tribunal’s rules. Had Bellemare kept them in preventive detention, he would have had 90 days to indict or declare them innocent. He did not have enough to indict, so he released them to avoid declaring them innocent.

But back to Siddiq. The prosecution today says that it no longer considers him a suspect or a witness. However, if he gave false testimony, there must have been a reason for this. He could have been planted to mislead or discredit investigators, which begs the question as to who put him in such a position. There are also legal implications for lying under oath. Yet the tribunal has simply decided that Siddiq isn’t of value to its work anymore, case closed. How is that remotely explainable or credible?

It is ambiguities like these that have allowed opponents of the tribunal to damage its credibility. Achouri has insisted several times that the tribunal is not “politicized.” Doubtless she’s right, but she’s also missing the point: What’s important is that it’s the others, those who want the tribunal to fail, who are playing politics – perpetually placing the institution on the defensive, seeking to tarnish its conclusions even before they come out. There is no sense being an ostrich on such matters. Punch the tribunal enough times and it will soon feel the pain – all the more so when it has no rejoinder in the way of solid evidence to indentify the guilty.

The continued, coordinated denunciations of the tribunal by Syria and its Lebanese partisans are further evidence of who was behind the killing of Rafik Hariri. There never was anyone else, and United Nations investigators reached that conclusion long ago, which worries Damascus. But what worries those who want to see justice done is something else: Is the Hariri tribunal actually moving closer to punishing the criminals?