Thursday, December 31, 2009

Hassan Nasrallah made four mistakes

In his Ashoura speech this past weekend, Hizbullah’s secretary general, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, irritated many Christians. He recommended that they take stock of their situation, especially, as he described it, the mistaken wager that some Christians once placed on Israel; but also, Nasrallah implied, their more recent dependence on the West in general and the United States in particular.

Nasrallah urged Christians “not to accept that some of them push [the community] toward suicide built on artificial fear and the [fear] of a bogeyman raised constantly and daily.” He went on to advise that Christians engage in “a calm dialogue between themselves … over their present and future choices to benefit from the experiences of the past.”

At one level, Nasrallah’s statements were interpreted as a warning to those Christian parties, above all the Lebanese Forces and the Kataeb, who have opposed the government’s legitimization of Hizbullah’s weapons. It is in this vein that Samir Geagea, the head of the Lebanese Forces, responded that Nasrallah’s comments suggested that there was no need for a national dialogue over the weapons, even though such a process was approved during the Doha conference of May 2008.

However, there was something far more disturbing in what Nasrallah said, much more illustrative of Hizbullah’s impossible relationship with the Lebanese system. Echoes of this we heard several weeks ago, when the secretary general read his party’s new program. It is that Hizbullah today is challenging a key foundation of post-Independence Lebanon as a place between East and West, belonging to neither but also – and this was always understood – open to, and ambiguously even a part of, both.

There has long been in Hizbullah’s actions and public discourse a desire to turn Lebanon against the West, or at least to widen the rift between the two. Nasrallah’s mention of Israel was but a pretext, since Christians long ago, and quite sensibly, gave up on an Israeli alliance. The assault on Lebanon’s Western sympathies began during the 1980s when Hizbullah and its precursors abducted Americans and Europeans in Beirut, several of whom were murdered or allowed to die; and it continued during the postwar period, when the party used resistance against Israel as a byword to justify the broader rejection of American and European influence in Lebanese affairs. At the time this found favor with Syria, which saw the attitude as reinforcing Syrian exclusivity in shaping Lebanon’s future.

After 2005, and the Syrian withdrawal, Hizbullah went a step further. Because the party was obliged more than ever before to anchor itself in Lebanese realities, without a Syrian Army protecting its back and allowing it to focus on the conflict with Israel, it became imperative for Hizbullah to mobilize anti-Western sentiment nationally. The endeavor was mostly unsuccessful, until the party was rewarded when it pushed Michel Aoun and his Christian followers into a confrontation with the United States and, to a lesser extent, with the Europeans, by forcing the general to make a priority of defending his affiliation with Hizbullah.

Not enough has been written about the anti-globalization strain in Hizbullah’s rhetoric. Distilled down to its simplest form, it expresses the party’s hostility toward what it considers Western global domination, which finds a receptive ear in developing countries, particularly those in Africa and Latin America, where Hizbullah has expanded its networks among emigrant Shiite communities. However, this contrasts starkly with views in the “other” Lebanon, that which has long embraced the idea that Lebanon benefits greatly from globalization, and that has sent emigrants abroad, particularly to the West, to integrate into society.

The Lebanese ideal, if such a word can be used, is that Lebanon can only survive by remaining on good terms with the outside, particularly the West and the Arab world, both regions deeply ambivalent today toward Hizbullah and its sponsor, Iran. Hizbullah lives a paradox when embracing the notion that the Islamic community, or umma, must transcend national boundaries (its fealty to Iran notwithstanding), yet rejects this when the political, economic, and cultural values crossing borders are those Hizbullah regards as disadvantageous or menacing.

Hizbullah is fighting a losing battle, even among its own. The inherent cosmopolitanism of the Shiites will likely undermine efforts to create an enduring rift between the community and the West, even though Hizbullah has managed to alienate some sympathetic Shiites living abroad from their own governments, particularly in the United States. This applies even more to the rest of Lebanese society. It’s not a militia, through intimidation and without offering any realistic alternatives, that will persuade the Lebanese to abandon their innate openness, which helped sustain them through countless crises for well over a century.

Nasrallah made four mistakes in his Ashoura speech. He, once again, overstepped his boundaries in the context of the Lebanese system of sectarian compromise by taking an entire religious community to task when no one asked for his counsel. He addressed, therefore implicitly criticized, Christians in general, forgetting that his beef was allegedly only with a minority that once sided with Israel. He sounded threatening. And he blithely ignored the fact that when he told the Christians to be Lebanese above all, he had no credibility to do so inasmuch as he and his organization come across as being Iranian above all.

The Ashoura speech once again served to remind us that Nasrallah has no intention of “Lebanonizing” Hizbullah; rather he is seeking to mold Lebanon in Hizbullah’s image. It won’t work, and the secretary general, for the umpteenth time, has overestimated his capacities. Someone should have reminded him that Ashoura is, above all, a commemoration of self-sacrifice, in other words a day to embrace humility.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

When in doubt, follow the money

Almost three weeks ago Michel Aoun visited Damascus, in what still remains a largely unexplained visit. However, in light of Hassan Nasrallah’s several recent speeches, it’s easier to get a sense of how the winds are shifting in Beirut, and Aoun’s efforts to adapt.

Among politicians the news is that the general’s meeting with Bashar al-Assad was organized by Michel Samaha, one of Syria’s more energetic Lebanese paladins. Aoun, who has relied substantially in recent years on his relationship with Hezbollah and Iran to enhance his political sway—and many also believe to gain needed funding for his patronage networks—went along, sensing, accurately, that there is change in the air.

The Syrian resurgence in Beirut, facilitated by the Saudi-Syrian rapprochement, has rebalanced the Syrian-Iranian relationship in Lebanon. Damascus and Tehran remain allies, but in relative terms Syria has regained much of what it lost to Iran after 2005, when it was forced to rely heavily on the pro-Iranian Hezbollah to defend its Lebanese stakes. That played out to Tehran’s benefit, and is precisely what the Saudis hoped to reverse by affording Syria new latitude to impose its will.

For someone like Aoun, who moved between Syria and Hezbollah between 2006 and 2009, now is decision time. The general knows that Hezbollah’s margin of maneuver will be affected by the Syrian return. That means his own importance in the context of Hezbollah’s national strategy will henceforth be different. The Aounists can no longer serve as Hezbollah’s Christian battering ram against the March 14 majority, given that this majority is rapidly reconciling with Syria. Saad al-Hariri’s invitation to Damascus and his get-together with Assad, for all its foulness in terms of implementing the rule of law and accountability in the murder of Rafik al-Hariri, really did outmaneuver Hezbollah and Aoun.

Now, a new form of polarization is emerging, that of the Arab states versus Iran, or so we are told. It’s irrelevant whether Syria will actually go along with so constraining a scenario—the chances are that Assad will continue to play both sides against each other, to Syria’s greater benefit—but in Beirut, where new fads take like wildfire, self-interest will dictate a growing alignment with Syria that might partially isolate Hezbollah. And it is precisely to avoid this that Nasrallah, in a series of recent speeches, underlined that his party was firmly anchored in Lebanon. Hezbollah needs this semblance of anchoring to preserve some autonomy with regard to Syria. The party doesn’t relish becoming a Syrian bargaining card again in the event of renewed talks between Assad and the Israelis.

That seemed to be a primary reason why Aoun readily accepted the invitation to Damascus, which he followed a week later with a visit of condolences after the death of Majd al-Assad. If Syria is the future, then the general, whose defining ambition is to belong to the political class he once so relentlessly denounced, will go along with this, no worse or better than most other Lebanese politicians. But there is another question that remains unanswered, namely where does the money now come from?

There is no use being bashful whenever money is mentioned. It is the lubricant of Lebanese politics, indeed of all politics, and political influence does not long last for a leader who fails to dispense patronage. As Aoun surveys the shifting horizon, he knows that he may soon have to find new funding sources to remain politically relevant. And in this he is no different than most of his counterparts, whether they are in the majority or the opposition, concepts that have anyway lost all their meaning.

But everyone knows that Syria doesn’t pay, while the Lebanese political class is well attuned to discovering who does. Which raises an interesting question: Does Aoun’s path toward better relations with Saudi Arabia pass through Damascus? Or rather, did the Syrians, sensing that Aoun would soon have to make his peace with Riyadh, invite the general to Damascus to remind him that they were the big boss in Beirut?

Whatever the answer is, here’s a New Year’s prediction. Within the coming few months, perhaps even sooner, we shall see Michel Aoun visiting the Gulf; and don’t be surprised to hear his followers suddenly less eager to denounce the “Wahhabization” of Lebanese life.

A divorce between Syria on the one side and Iran and Hezbollah on the other is unlikely. Hassan Nasrallah cannot afford to enter into a confrontation with the Assad regime. But his allies are recalculating. When you’re unsure about political decision-making, follow the money.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Why the Lebanese feel so switched off

Below the Future Television offices in Kantari, there is a digital counter to record the number of days that have passed since the assassination of Rafik Hariri. The idea is to mark how long it takes for the truth to come out in the case, and presumably for justice to be rendered. However, the last time I looked, two weeks ago, the counter had been switched off.

It was a deeply reluctant Saad Hariri who made his way to Damascus this past weekend. As he made clear during and after his one-night stay in the presidential palace that Rafik Hariri had built for the Syrian regime, he was doing it all because political reality demanded such “reconciliation.” As prime minister, he had no choice but to open a new page with what he pointedly remarked was Lebanon’s only Arab neighbor, in the context of inter-Arab concord sponsored by Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah.

Hariri has not forgotten his father, but like the counter that has been turned off he had to bend to the aftereffects of the Saudi-Syrian rapprochement. It was never Riyadh’s priority to obtain justice after the former prime minister was killed. At the memorable meeting between then-Crown Prince Abdullah and Bashar Assad in the Saudi capital in early March 2005, there were two facets to the conversation. The Saudis told Assad it was time to remove his soldiers from Lebanon; but they also made it clear that the kingdom would repay Assad by helping to reintegrate Syria into the Arab fold and let bygones be bygones.

Abdullah’s subsequent comments to senior Lebanese March 14 politicians confirmed his hardnosed reading of Arab realities. The regimes of the region generally don’t like to make things personal, and only when Assad did make things personal, by allying himself with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s Iran and calling the Saudi leadership “half-men” during the Lebanon war of 2006, did the Riyadh-Damascus relationship collapse.

Yet the period was not a good one for the Saudis. Their allies in Lebanon were set upon by Syria and Hizbullah and pushed onto the defensive. The effective Saudi and Egyptian boycott of the Arab League summit in Damascus in March 2008 backfired (both countries sent only low-level representatives), as most Arab heads of states attended, quite a few from the Gulf. And Hizbullah’s subsequent onslaught against western Beirut and Aley in May 2008 brought on a conference hosted by the Saudis’ bitter rival, Qatar, from which Riyadh was largely excluded and where the March 14 coalition had to accept a disadvantageous settlement.

Rather than Syria being isolated, it was Saudi Arabia and Egypt who were, a matter further reinforced during the war in Gaza almost one year ago. Both regimes were ambiguous enough about the conflict and the possibility of Hamas emerging stronger from it, that they found themselves working against the grain of angry Arab public opinion. This may have been defensible from the perspective of their self-interest, but it placed King Abdullah in such an uncomfortable position that he decided it was time to extend a hand to Bashar Assad, against what the Saudi monarch saw as the real problem in the region: Iran. After all, it was the Assad regime and the Iranians who had encouraged Hamas to scuttle the Gaza truce, which prompted the Saudis to try dividing the two.

The Saudi gamble has yet to show results. While Syria and Iran may be going in different directions, we’re nowhere near a rift. Too much is at stake for both sides to allow such a thing. Syria still needs Hizbullah to complete its counterattack in Lebanon, which the Saudis have closed their eyes to in the hope that what Syria regains in Beirut, it will surrender with regard to Tehran. The Syrians see no reason to break with the Iranian regime over the Palestinian track either. Iran helps finance Hamas, while Syria has used the movement to great effect as leverage in its own bargaining with Israel and the United States; but also in gaining more control over Palestinian decision-making against other Arab states.

In Iraq, Syria and Iran have contradictory aims, as the Syrians and Saudis appear to be colluding, each for reasons of their own, against the emergence of a stable order in Baghdad. The Obama administration, because of its impatience to withdraw its soldiers from the country, is leaving behind a vacuum that Iraq’s neighbors are trying to fill. But even there Syria and Iran have time and again overlooked their differences, while Saudi dependency on Syrian cooperation has only increased.

Those utterly ignored in the game of nations that led Saad Hariri to Damascus were the Lebanese. Almost five years after Rafik Hariri’s murder, only six months after voters gave March 14 a new majority in Parliament, Lebanon has fallen back into Syria’s hands. People cannot understand why, and do not want to. Being pawned off by one Arab state to another is not what those who participated in the Independence Intifada troubled themselves for, particularly those civilians humiliated in May 2008 by a militia that had turned its guns against its own countrymen. For many people the images from Damascus were, justifiably, nauseating, a veneer of bogus unity plastered over a series of unpunished murders, their perpetrators grinning with satisfaction.

Many give Saad Hariri credit for going through a genuinely taxing undertaking. But many more of those who sided with the majority remain unsympathetic. They sense that despite their endurance during the hard times, their political leaders have been too willing to abandon principle, to abandon the victims, and to disregard an uneasy population that they once manipulated with alacrity. We’re in for a period of prolonged political discontent among the Lebanese, not to say outright disgust, because the country is afflicted with politicians and parties on both sides of the political divide who offer no vision for sovereign Lebanese statehood.

The Syrian perspective toward Lebanon has changed not one iota since 2005. If Assad could drive his tanks into Beirut once again, he would not hesitate to do so. But for now he doesn’t need to. Lebanon is the prize in a sordid regional transaction that its own leaders have legitimized. We can’t be sure what the consequences will be, but don’t expect the Lebanese to care much about their state in the future, its independence, or the rule of law. Those heady words were emptied of their meaning last Saturday.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Syria’s friend or its prosecutor?

Saad Hariri’s trip to Damascus this past weekend sent up a cloud of ambiguous feelings, very few of them particularly reassuring. Syria has substantially recouped its losses in Lebanon in the past four years, and if Hariri’s handshake with Bashar al-Assad did not underline that fact, then nothing will. However, one aspect of Syria’s political return has been little discussed, namely what “reconciliation” with the Assad regime means for the Special Tribunal for Lebanon investigating Rafik Hariri’s murder.

The most commonly heard answer is that the tribunal is going ahead with its work and will remain impartial and resistant to political pressures. But how true is that? We tend to forget that the tribunal is a mixed international-Lebanese body, and even if we assume that the international judges will preserve their independence, can we say the same thing of the Lebanese judges now that their president, prime minister, speaker of parliament, and most other politicians, are staunchly defending improved Lebanese-Syrian ties? Judges don’t function in a vacuum. They have to think of their safety as well as of their career as much as anybody else.

According to the statutes of the Lebanon tribunal there are three judges in the trial chamber, one of whom is Lebanese. Of the five judges in the appeals chamber, two are Lebanese. There is also a Lebanese alternate judge who is entitled to sit in on each stage of the trial process, and who can replace the trial judge if that becomes necessary.

While the decisions of the three judges in the trial chamber are taken by a majority vote, because the process will involve a crime that occurred in Lebanon, the relative authority of the Lebanese judge will undoubtedly be enhanced. On top of that, the Lebanese judge in question, Ralph Riachi, is the deputy president of the chamber; in other words it will be important for the international judges to ensure there is a consensus with Riachi so that decisions don’t appear to be imposed by them, and specifically by the international community through them as its representatives.

This is not to cast doubt on the credibility of Riachi, or that of the Lebanese deputy prosecutor, Joyce Tabet. Both are highly regarded, and Riachi played a key role in negotiating the tribunal’s statutes, along with Judge Shukri Sader. However, judges are not supermen, and Riachi and Tabet know well what it was like during the years of the Syrian presence to maneuver through a judiciary infected with corruption and political favoritism. Integrity notwithstanding, it will not be easy for the Lebanese to ignore that, back home, their careers and the security of their families and friends may effectively be in the hands of Syria and Hezbollah, who have been systematically hostile to the Lebanon tribunal.

Once Daniel Bellemare, the man who will prosecute Hariri’s killers, issues an indictment, the Lebanese state will be caught in an impossible judicial and political dilemma. Beirut will find itself officially on the side of a prosecution that may well point the finger at Damascus, the only serious culprit in the killing of the former prime minister, even as the state and its institutions substantially fall back into Syria’s tightening grip.

And if Bellemare finds that Hezbollah played a role in the crime, that dilemma would only be compounded tenfold, so that it would almost certainly affect the ultimate outcome of the trial process. We can expect Riachi and Tabet to feel considerable heat from Beirut to shape the outcome of the indictment, and given its repercussions for Lebanon’s stability they may be more inclined to go along than their colleagues.

Might they resist? They might, and it would be to their credit. But it would also take a great deal of nerve, assuming Bellemare puts together a strong case. International tribunals (and even more so a mixed tribunal) are just as sensitive to political realities as national tribunals, often more so.

Then we have national interests. There is a mistaken belief that the Lebanon tribunal will operate with Chapter VII authority. In reality, as Shukri Sader explained in a paper read at the Yale Law School in October 2008, the tribunal was only set up under that authority, but may require United Nations Security Council resolutions to force states to comply with its requests if necessary. The Security Council is far more divided today than it was in 2005, when the investigation mechanism was set up. It is very difficult to imagine that there would be easy agreement between the five permanent members, particularly with a reluctant Lebanon now sitting on the council, to force Syrian compliance with the prosecution’s demands.

Politics as well as personal concerns will greatly determine what happens when Bellemare finally issues an accusation. To assume that the Lebanon tribunal will avoid the ensuing minefield is naïve in the extreme.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Turbulence still mars Saudi-Syrian relations

Few failed to notice what the Saudi Arabian foreign minister, Saud al-Faysal, told the New York Times on Tuesday, and the possible implications for Syrian-Saudi amity in Lebanon. Among other things, the prince remarked that Lebanon could never be sovereign for as long as Hezbollah “owns more arms than the military force of the country.” As for Iran, he continued, the Islamic Republic should not be permitted to build nuclear weapons, before stating that he was “suspicious” about its assertions that the nuclear program was peaceful.

Nothing in those words indicated an imminent conflict between Riyadh and Damascus. Indeed, Saud al-Faysal is not the kingdom’s point man in relations between the Saudis and Syrians, a role that has apparently devolved to King Abdullah’s son, Abdul Aziz. However, implicit in his remarks was a very clear, if indirect, expression of what the Saudi priorities are in Lebanon and the broader Middle East, namely the containment of Iran and its most powerful surrogate, Hezbollah.

The haziness over Saad Hariri’s visit to Damascus is an additional sign that not all is right between Syria and Saudi Arabia, even if both sides have an interest in remaining conciliatory: the Saudis in order to pursue King Abdullah’s project of “Arab unity” in the face of a rising Iran; Syria, because the rapprochement with Riyadh has given it wide berth to reassert its will in Beirut. Although Hariri has said that he would visit Syria soon, according to reports a formal Syrian invitation has yet to be extended. That may mean the Syrians want to impose more conditions on his visit, after allowing Jamil al-Sayyed, the former head of the General Security directorate, to embarrass the Lebanese prime minister by asking that some of his close collaborators appear before a Syrian court.

But it is Syria’s relationship with Iran that lies at the heart of Saudi-Syrian uneasiness. While the terms for the improvement in ties between Damascus and Riyadh were never made clear publicly, it seems obvious that Saudi Arabia expects President Bashar Assad to distance himself in tangible ways from Tehran, and to help in Hezbollah’s containment. Until now nothing has been visible on either front, amid signs that the Assad regime intends to play Saudi Arabia off against Iran to its own benefit.

Take, for example, the disinformation floated by the minister Adnan al-Sayyed Hussein last week. Before President Michel Sleiman’s visit to Washington, Sayyed Hussein – who allegedly belongs to the president’s quota in the cabinet, but in reality has become a spokesman for Syria and Hezbollah – said that the president would ask the Americans to consider implementation of Resolution 1559 an internal Lebanese matter, effectively “withdrawing” it from the international community. This ultimately proved to be bogus, a cynical ploy to undermine Sleiman’s meeting with President Barack Obama, but also a reminder that the president could not maneuver against Syria’s and Hezbollah’s interests.

The episode must have been enlightening to the Saudis. They saw that Sayyed Hussein was a ventriloquist’s dummy, and they knew that behind him was Syria, along with Hezbollah, endeavoring to impose on Sleiman the neutralization of a resolution calling for the disarmament of all militias in Lebanon, especially Hezbollah. That hardly represented implementation of the “tangibles” Riyadh had been expecting from Assad on constraining the party. It also embarrassed the Saudis with the Americans (not to say the Egyptians), who have remained consistently skeptical that better ties between Saudi Arabia and Syria would change Syrian behavior in Lebanon and lead Assad to break with Tehran.

The problem is that the Saudis are now prisoners of the opening to Damascus. Their ability to shape events in Lebanon is less than Syria’s, so that any effort to reinterpret the concordat might shift the balance of power in Lebanon decisively against Riyadh and its local allies. That means that we are in for more uncertainty ahead along the margins of Lebanese political life, where Syria can increase its power, even as King Abdullah and Bashar al-Assad continue putting up a facade of civility.

In this context, we can reflect on what actually happened in Damascus recently, when a device destroyed the back of a bus carrying Iranian pilgrims. The Syrians claimed it was a bursting tire, a laughable explanation when one examined photographs of the incident and heard eyewitness accounts. If the Syrians were hiding something, it meant they felt a need to hide something. What? What really happened? One can only speculate, but in the context of the hardening positions on the Syrian and Saudi sides, and given the symbolism of the Iranian target, it’s legitimate to ask whether the two were somehow linked, without drawing any conclusions.

Syrian-Saudi relations are an admixture of parallel interests (in Iraq), mistrustful cooperation (on Arab-Israeli peace and in Lebanon), and carefully submerged hostility (over Iran). That doesn’t make for a new strategic relationship between Assad and King Abdullah, but it does complicate thoughts of a divorce tremendously. Unfortunately, Lebanon will remain a front line in that surly marriage of convenience.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Hariri case's narrow Lebanon angle

Earlier this month, Daniel Bellemare, the prosecutor of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, met with the families of victims who lost their lives in the bomb attacks between 2005 and 2009. After saying that he was aware of concerns about the length of his investigation, Bellemare explained, “I can assure you that we are making progress and that I am very optimistic. I sincerely wish I could tell you more about the reasons for my optimism but unfortunately I cannot because I do not want to give away any information, or even a hint, that could tip off those we are after.”

If Bellemare is optimistic, that’s good news, and his statement, though it told us relatively little, was perhaps the strongest sign yet that he believes his efforts will not end in a dead end. The prosecutor is responsible only for what he says, and he has said virtually nothing until now; however a more disturbing assessment is emerging from various sources, including foreign diplomatic sources, that the focus of Bellemare and his team may be on domestic Lebanese involvement in the assassination of the former prime minister, Rafik Hariri, and that only through this route might he follow the chain of decision-making in the crime outside the country.

What does this mean? Some will hear echoes of the Der Spiegel article: Hizbullah is blamed for Hariri’s killing, the investigation is contained inside Lebanon’s borders, Syria is effectively exonerated, and the international community averts a confrontation with the Assad regime. In fact, if the assessment is correct, things may be much more complicated.

To this day the role that Hizbullah played in Hariri’s killing is a matter of conjecture. Some senior March 14 leaders have long harbored suspicions that the party lulled the former prime minister into a sense of false security by engaging in a dialogue with him over parliamentary elections prior to February 14, 2005, in order to facilitate his elimination. There is also a pervasive sense among many observers that the truck bomb used in the assassination was prepared in Beirut’s southern suburbs. Subsequent killings have also been blamed on Hizbullah, particularly that of Gebran Tueni, on the assumption that he was spotted at the airport upon his return from Paris and the information passed on to the party.

This may all be true, but the fact is that from the available evidence that Bellemare and his predecessors, Serge Brammertz and Detlev Mehlis, published, we cannot affirm it is true. Basing ourselves solely on the reports of the United Nations investigation of the Hariri murder and subsequent crimes, we get a distinct sense that the attention of investigators was primarily directed at Syria, and that any Lebanese party or individual who might have participated in the Hariri assassination in particular, did so at the request of Damascus. In other words, a crime of that magnitude could not conceivably have taken place without Syrian authorization, given the tight control Syria exerted over Lebanon.

If it is true, therefore, that Bellemare will be unraveling the case through what we can call its domestic window, then what does that tell us about the UN investigation in general? Mehlis and Brammertz were well aware of the Syrian connection, as was, obviously, Bellemare when he took over his post. But there are also converging indications that Brammertz did not aggressively pursue his inquiry in Syria in the same way that Mehlis did, and the evidence for this is that no Syrian official, particularly no intelligence official, was ever arrested, even though Mehlis was on the verge of doing so when he left Beirut in December 2005.

If that reading is correct, then it might explain why UN investigators came to rely more on the alternative, domestic Lebanese, angle to the assassination. And here we have evidence that on the Lebanese side there was progress by the Internal Security Forces, albeit in collaboration with the UN. The evidence is, quite simply, the failed assassination attempt against the ISF officer Samir Shehadeh, and the successful killing of his deputy Wissam Eid. Both men were working on telephone intercepts, and a newspaper story prior to the Der Spiegel article, written by Georges Malbrunot of Le Figaro, reported that there had been a breakthrough there pointing toward Hizbullah’s involvement.

Bellemare met with Eid the day before he was killed in a car-bomb attack, and while some sources believe that the killing was linked to important new information Eid had on the intercepts, Bellemare disagreed with this evaluation. We may never know, but if the UN prosecutor is pursuing a Lebanese path toward the truth, then, significantly, it may have been the Lebanese investigators, not those from the UN, who did the heavier lifting to make this possible.

Accusing Hizbullah alone, or individuals in the party, because that is where the available evidence lies, could bend out of shape our true understanding of the Hariri assassination. It would also raise doubts about Brammertz, who failed to take the wide road that Mehlis and the UN Security Council opened for him in 2005 to facilitate his probes in Syria. That does not mean that Bellemare would not find an alternative path to Syrian participation, perhaps through indictments he would bring against Lebanese intelligence officials (and his release of the four generals was not, legally, a declaration of their innocence). But an accusation against Hizbullah, even if justified, would only be partial if it did not include indictments against senior Syrian officials. They alone could have signed off on Hariri’s murder, a view painfully evident to any Lebanese who knows how Syria ran Lebanon, but also resulting from the relationship of hierarchy existing between Syria’s intelligence services and the Lebanese that the UN time and again described in its reports.

Bellemare’s work is ongoing, so we should be careful before reaching any hard conclusions on the basis of incomplete leaks. But we are entitled to wonder whether the Lebanon tribunal will identify those who gave the final order that Hariri be gotten rid of, or whether will we have to satisfy ourselves merely with identification of those who followed orders.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Appointment in Damascus

You have to hand it Michel Aoun; he knows how to provoke. Only days after Jamil as-Sayyed, the former head of the General Security directorate, asked Syria’s judiciary to bring in for questioning several Lebanese politicians, judicial officials and journalists whom he accused of slandering him, Aoun headed up to Damascus for a photo op with Bashar al-Assad. Better still, he was delivered on Assad’s private airplane.

The photograph itself was interesting: Assad shaking Aoun’s hand, gripping his elbow with overstated conviviality, on the esplanade outside the presidential palace built for the Syrians by Rafik al-Hariri in the 1980s; and Aoun, staring straight ahead with inexpressive mien, caught, mid-shutter, between stupefaction and a tentative smile.

The rest of the Aoun visit was filler. Assad had gotten what he wanted. Proof positive that he can divide the Lebanese by playing their politicians off against each other; proof, too, that a major Christian representative will readily ignore the Sayyed incident, a ploy designed to ensure that Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri, when he ascends to Damascus, will do so with the added humiliation of knowing that Syria’s judiciary is taking Sayyed’s side on the matter of his father’s assassination. And proof, lastly, that the frequent visit with Bashar al-Assad is again a necessary passage for Lebanese leaders, when there were those who thought (how naively) that that sort of thing was over after the Independence Intifada of 2005.

It would be unfair to blame Aoun alone for this. Saad al-Hariri, too, realizes that his Damascus visit is inevitable, now that Saudi Arabia and Syria have reconciled. He, apparently, informed Sleiman Franjieh Wednesday that he would arrive with several of those individuals whom Sayyed named in his legal case, his way of obliging the Syrian regime to clarify their status beforehand. But Hariri will still have to shake the hand of the Syrian president, whose regime is the only serious culprit in Rafik al-Hariri’s murder, and he may well do so in the palace his father built.

Then there is Walid Jumblatt. Talk that Jumblatt would be the first to visit Syria was idle. No doubt the Druze leader would have liked to be first, but he also knew this was never likely. “Too much has passed between me and Syria,” he often says. On many an occasion Syrian spokespersons, official and unofficial, have indicated that the Assad regime would, henceforth, deal with Taymour Jumblatt, who returned to Lebanon last summer. For Walid, the eventual handover to his son requires, above all, reconciliation with Damascus, because Taymour could not long last against Syria, and because Syria contains a significant number of Druze whose support the Jumblatts must count upon.

Two Christian politicians, Amin Gemayel and Michel al-Murr, also revealed some time ago that they would make their way to Damascus, padding this eventuality with a bodyguard of explanations and provisos that they may or may not respect. Both men have good reasons to plan a Damascus junket, not least the fact that they have sons who are physically vulnerable and politically ambitious. Here we have the two sides of Syrian leverage in Lebanon: intimidation and the ability to promote or demote.

There was a time when Syria’s intelligence officers stationed in Lebanon used the appointment as an instrument of power. If you were a politician, or just someone meriting Syrian attentions, you might be urged by an intermediary to make an informal call on Ghazi Kanaan or his successor, Ruston Ghazali, in Aanjar. There you could be kept waiting, quite as informally, for several hours, until all self-esteem evaporated. The more experienced would wait at Hannouch’s on the Damascus road, asking to be summoned once Kanaan or Ghazali was ready to receive them.

Then there was the appointment in Damascus. The late Hafez al-Assad ran Lebanon like a baronial province, where selected subordinates, civilian and military, would each run their Lebanese politicians as they saw fit, while parallel lines of authority ran down from Damascus to Beirut, Assad the ultimate arbiter, using everyone against everyone. To visit Damascus was fairly easy, but to be granted an audience with the president was altogether different – an occasion for him to send a strong message, advance a politician or issue a threat or reprimand.

No doubt we shall soon have to decipher more regularly the subtleties of the unwritten code of Syrian appointments. Observers will watch to see whether politicians drive or fly up to Damascus; whether they attend a lunch or earn no more than coffee and a glass of water; whether they meet with Bashar in person or are passed off to a high-level or mid-level nonentity, or, worse, are asked to deal through the Syrian ambassador to Lebanon, the invisible man whose presence is detectable only by the displacement of air occurring when he slides by.

The road to Damascus from Beirut is open; but the real story is that the road from Damascus to Beirut is also open, and is being widened. It was the road taken by tanks and car-bombs. Now it will be backed up with far more dangerous contraptions: craven Lebanese politicians.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Can the Maronites reinvent themselves?

In the shambles that is the Maronite leadership, Patriarch Nasrallah Sfeir has over the years been a beacon on the matter of Lebanon’s sovereignty. His inflexibility has served the country well, and this was demonstrated again in the blunt remarks he made this week on Hizbullah’s weapons. However, Sfeir made two other statements that showed that his inflexibility can be a double-edged sword, and that Maronites may suffer in consequence.

On Tuesday, both in Bkirki and later on after visiting with President Michel Suleiman in Baabda, Sfeir repeated that he did not see any possible coexistence between the state and Hizbullah, or more precisely between a sovereign national army and Hizbullah’s militia. Only a national army, he insisted, was entitled to defend the country. “Is it possible that there be a regular army and another army outside the legality [of the state] which one day points its weapons at the enemy, and the other points them toward the interior?” Sfeir asked.

The patriarch was only stating the obvious, which political Lebanon, in its inimitable capacity to sustain mirages, has been carefully ignoring as the government prepares a Cabinet statement legitimizing the existence of Hizbullah’s arms. So loud are the voices supporting counterfeit concord, that Sfeir is shouting in a desert. Faced with the impossibility of disarming Hizbullah, the politicians are justifying the party’s retaining its weapons, as if rationalizing an absurdity could make it more reasonable. The patriarch abruptly tore the veneer away.

One could argue that Sfeir enjoys the luxury of criticism because he doesn’t take the hard decisions. Yet there was much more to the patriarch during the latter two decades of the Syrian interregnum than talk. Under considerable threat during that time, isolated amid a craven political class at Syria’s beck and call, Sfeir was the Maronites’ only real leader, a debt that his critics, above all Michel Aoun, never acknowledged, so absorbed were they in their own authority. The patriarch understood that omission could be as powerful as action, and rejected Syrian invitations to Damascus, even as the Syrian-dominated security services found ways to intimidate the church by blackmailing its more corrupt and sensual clergymen.

But right after shattering the jar of complacency on Hizbullah, Sfeir was asked about the abolition of political confessionalism. And here the patriarch fell back into a disposition that showed why, for all his qualities, he is no innovator. He, quite correctly, stated, “What is the advantage of abolishing political confessionalism in [national] texts before doing so in [people’s] minds, if everyone says ‘I’m a Maronite, or a Druze?’” And when asked about Walid Jumblatt’s proposal for a communal rotation of the three presidencies, Sfeir responded that he did not understand it.

Jumblatt’s proposal was intentionally ambiguous. Did the Druze leader mean that all communities would benefit from being rotated into the three top posts in the state, or that the rotation would occur between the Maronites, Sunnis, and Shiites, who already hold those posts? The Taif Accord outlines the abolition of confessionalism, but it does so in parallel with the establishment of a Senate which would retain a sectarian breakdown, and which Jumblatt would like to see led by a Druze.

Sfeir is not a politician, so his evasiveness was defensible. However, his uneasy response showed he was still thinking, in a most conventional way, that the Maronites’ final protection remains the presidency. It’s true, confessionalism cannot be abolished in law before the outlook of the Lebanese is transformed. However, that line of reasoning is self-reinforcing. Unless you abolish confessionalism institutionally somewhere, unless you change laws somewhere, nothing will ever alter the confessional mindset. But what is needed is a gradual, self-sustaining process of change, where you modify texts to help modify minds, in a way that those who feel most threatened by such change find simultaneous compensations, institutional or otherwise, elsewhere.

Take the Senate. Regardless of whether it is headed by a Druze or not, such a body would be a valuable corresponding institution to a deconfessionalized Parliament, and according to Article 22 of the Constitution should address “major national issues.” The aim of a Senate would be to reassure those expected to lose most from deconfessionalization, namely the Christians, who continue to benefit from a 50-50 ratio in the legislature even though they make up less than that in the population. Sooner or later Christians will face challenges to the ratio. Better for them to negotiate a new formula from a position of strength than to obstinately defend a system that, if Sunnis and Shiites ever reach agreement, may be forcibly overturned in their disfavor.

What of Jumblatt’s rotation plan? Sfeir’s mistake, and that of many Christians, is to read too much into a Maronite presidency, whose powers have been depleted. In fact, the presidency has brought only woe to the community. Competition for the post has divided Maronites in a way the prime ministership and speakership of Parliament have not Sunnis and Shiites. The powers of the president are by and large less proactive than those of his Muslim partners. Therefore, why remain so unyielding toward a plan that would give Maronites a taste of political positions often more effective than the presidency, thereby offering them a chance to transcend their sense of communal decline; a plan, also, that might rejuvenate the political order by creating more frequent openings for fresh leaders?

The symbolism of being head of state is important to Maronites, but it is also an illusion. The presidency has power, but on a day-to-day basis, in the formulation of long-term policy, its latitude is more limited. Instead of resisting this, the patriarch, like all Christians, should consider new ways his community can reinvent itself in a Lebanon that is changing rapidly, where Christian irrelevance is, alas, becoming ever more flagrant.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Syria Exports Trouble

Paris, July 14, 2008. On the podium of dignitaries at the bottom of the Champs Élysées one man savors the irony of the moment. He has been invited by President Nicolas Sarkozy to this celebration of Bastille Day, when France commemorates the opening shot in its revolution to end absolutism. Yet for the invitee, Syria's president Bashar al-Assad, this is a consecration, the first major sign that his regime's isolation is about to end, and that his brand of absolutist rule is getting stronger.

After the assassination of the former Lebanese prime minister, Rafiq al-Hariri, in February 2005, Syria, the only credible suspect in the crime, found itself accused and was forced to withdraw its army from Lebanon. Its subsequent rapprochement with Iran widened the rift between Damascus and two major Arab states, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. But within three years, Sarkozy, who hoped his efforts would earn France a greater role in the Levant, became the first major Western state to reverse that trend. Assad had surrendered nothing to warrant the embrace.

This has become a Syrian habit. Assad has been getting away with murder, literally. His regime allows foreign jihadists through Syrian territory to carry out attacks in Iraq. Syria has bolstered Hamas's intransigence over a settlement with Israel, and has encouraged the Palestinian Islamist movement to scuttle inter-Palestinian reconciliation. In Lebanon, Syrian meddling has been unrelenting since the pullout of its soldiers, while Assad has armed or allowed the rearming of the Iranian-backed militant group Hezbollah, violating U.N. Resolution 1701 that ended the Lebanon war of 2006.

The former U.S. secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, once declared that the Bush administration did not seek regime change in Damascus, only "behavior change." It achieved neither, and during his campaign, Barack Obama approved of a dialogue with Syria (and others) "without precondition," a gesture unlikely to alter Assad's behavior.

Today Syria continues to export instability in defense of its regime and interests, and the reality is that no one is doing anything about it--not the United States, the United Nations, the Arab states or the European Union. To Assad's dubious credit, he has positioned his otherwise weak country in a perfect dead spot regionally and internationally, unmolested by any political will to forcibly curtail Syrian misdeeds.

In Iraq, the Syrians have exploited several parallel dynamics--Sunni displeasure with the Shiite-led government, divisions in the Iraqi political elite, and American haste to withdraw--to ensure they have a say in a future Iraq and access to cheap Iraqi oil. Assad's regime, in addition to offering Al-Qaeda militants safe access into Iraq, also hosts Iraqi Baathists under its control. According to an Iraqi security official cited by the Washington Post, Syria allowed Baathists and Al-Qaeda to co-ordinate actions at a meeting held in Zabadani, Syria, last July 30.

Syria has also benefited from Obama's impatience to leave Iraq. Following devastating attacks against Iraqi government targets in Baghdad last August, the administration was markedly tepid when Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki publicly blamed Syrian-backed Iraqi Baathists.

American military officials leaked that Al-Qaeda in Iraq was behind the explosions, not Baathists, leaving unmentioned the probability that the militants had entered through Syria. The State Department spokesman also played down the crisis, saying that "diplomatic dialogue was the best means to address the concerns of both parties." The Syrians surely read in that lukewarm reaction Washington's inclination to look the other way on Syrian transgressions, in order to facilitate its drawdown in Iraq.

On the Palestinian front, Assad is striving to achieve what his father, the late Hafez al-Assad, tried for decades to do with mixed results: Hijack the Palestinian card to use in Syria's own negotiations with Israel. Under Yasser Arafat, the Palestinians retained what was known as "the independence of the Palestinian decision." When Arafat died, however, gone was his ability to impose unity on Palestinian ranks, which allowed the Assad regime to gain the leverage it sought through Hamas' leader, Khaled Meshaal, who is based in Damascus. Syrian sway over Palestinian affairs only increased when Hamas won Palestinian legislative elections in January 2006, and subsequently expelled its Fatah rivals from Gaza.

Syria has not only used Hamas against Israel, it has also pushed the movement to thwart Egypt's ability to act as principle Arab mediator between Israelis and Palestinians. Egyptian officials accused Syria of pressing Hamas to undermine Egyptian-led negotiations last year to extend the truce in Gaza. Syria has taken a similar position on inter-Palestinian talks, whose successful outcome would revive Cairo's influence over Palestinian affairs, to Syria's detriment.

This has exacerbated Egyptian-Syrian hostility, even as Saudi Arabia earlier this year patched things up with Damascus in an effort to break Syria away from Iran. The Saudi-Syrian understanding, however, has not affected Assad's close ties with Tehran. Instead, it has handed Syria more latitude to re-impose its will in Beirut. The Saudis believe that one way to contain Hezbollah's power, and therefore Iran's, is to endorse a Syrian resurgence in Lebanon.

The Saudi turnaround vindicated Assad in his view that by destabilizing Lebanon in 2005 and the following years--during which time politicians, journalists, and security officials were assassinated--he managed to get his way. Yet nothing suggests that better Syrian-Saudi relations will end Syria's support for Hezbollah, which neither the Arab world nor the international community has made a condition for normalization with Damascus. On the contrary, since 2006 European states with contingents in the U.N. force in South Lebanon, which is charged with implementing Resolution 1701, have wooed Assad, fearful that his proxies might harm their soldiers.

After Hariri's murder, the U.N. Security Council set up an investigation and later a tribunal to identify the guilty. Almost half a decade later, the process has yet to show results. Assad is confident. Everyone is knocking at his door while Hariri lies forgotten. The Syrian president knows that in a world afflicted with amnesia he can do as he pleases.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Barack and Hassan concur, the US is waning

It’s not often that Barack Obama and Hassan Nasrallah agree, but both made important speeches this week, and both appeared to concur that American power was on the decline.

Of course Obama didn’t quite put it that way. Instead, he merely implied the growing sense of American difficulty, the fact that the United States was “passing through a time of great trial,” which he made more palatable by sandwiching it between words of encouragement and resolve. His speech to West Point cadets on Tuesday was an effort to explain to his countrymen why it was important to send an additional 30,000 or so troops to Afghanistan. But what remained, despite the soaring rhetoric toward the end of the president’s speech, was the terrible burden all this placed on an America much gloomier than it was decades ago.

Obama chose to highlight domestic American rifts, when he remarked that “years of debate over Iraq and terrorism have left our unity on national security issues in tatters, and created a highly polarized and partisan backdrop for this effort.” He drew attention to America’s economic travails by noting that “[i]n the wake of an economic crisis, too many of our neighbors and friends are out of work and struggle to pay the bills. Too many Americans are worried about the future facing our children. Meanwhile, competition within the global economy has grown more fierce. So we can’t simply afford to ignore the price of these wars.”

As for the American enterprise in Afghanistan, the centerpiece of Obama’s speech was that he would actually start withdrawing American soldiers by July 2011. No, the United States would not bankroll an Afghan nation-building project, because (and here the president sounded more like a shopkeeper than a purveyor of global domination) such a scheme “sets goals that are beyond what can be achieved at a reasonable cost.”

Obama has always prided himself on being a realistic assessor of American limitations. However, listening to Hassan Nasrallah gloat at the weakness of the United States, you had to wonder if the US president misses the point. Power and success are in many respects fruits of perception. Just look at Nasrallah himself, who persuaded many a fool that the hecatomb of 2006 was a divine victory for Lebanon. Modesty in the exercise of foreign policy is a bad idea, particularly for the leader of the world’s most powerful country, whose destabilization, whether we like it or not, only destabilizes the global political and economic order.

No doubt, Obama was walking a fine line in his West Point speech. He had to persuade a skeptical American public, but also a Democratic-led Congress that will have to explain to an uneasy electorate why it must help finance a massive increase in funding for Afghanistan (officially some $30 billion) at a time of economic crisis. However, the president might also want to consider how America is viewed overseas. He’s proud that everyone wishes him well, that everyone applauds George W. Bush’s exit, but as the initial European reaction to Obama’s speech showed, Europe remains stone cold about assisting the United States with more troops of its own. It no longer costs much to tell Washington “No”.

Expect America’s foes in the Middle East to take more advantage of this situation. The Iranian regime, rather visibly, does not believe the Obama administration will attack Iran to prevent it from acquiring a nuclear capability. And Obama’s haste to get out of Iraq, or Afghanistan as soon as he can, like his bellyaches about the economic difficulties facing the republic, exhibit far too little American nerve to frighten Tehran.

In Lebanon, Iraq, and on the Palestinian front, to name only these, the US has also had little to show for itself. The “peace process”, which Obama had described as the centerpiece of his regional considerations, remains hopelessly stalled; the Obama administration is so keen to pull out of Iraq that it has looked the other way while Iran has continued to increase its influence in Baghdad, and while Syria has allowed more Al-Qaeda militants through its borders to murder Iraqi civilians.

As for Lebanon, in the last two years the Americans have seemed off balance. This is in part because their allies have switched sides, with the Saudis effectively approving a Syrian political return to the country and the March 14 majority consequently in disarray. But Washington has also done little to bolster Resolution 1701, which has been eroded thanks to systematic violations by all sides. And the US Embassy in Beirut has sometimes seemed more preoccupied with development projects than with Lebanon’s role in the regional rivalry between the US and Iran.

Obama’s caution is defensible in some regards. War alone cannot be the benchmark of American power. Nothing would do more to harm the US than for it to sink itself into myriad conflicts it cannot win outright. In some ways, however, Obama failed to pick up on that lesson in the political realm, making ambitious promises concerning several complex Middle Eastern issues, without setting clear priorities, so that today, with little progress evident in any of them, the president stands discredited.

The mounting perception of American weakness will, arguably, be the most destabilizing factor in the Middle East in the coming years. It will alarm Washington’s allies and empower its foes, and Barack Obama’s stiff-upper-lip displays of candor, his persistent enunciation of American inadequacies, will only make things worse. Power may be a source of great evil, but not nearly as much as a power vacuum.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Hizbullah serves us a reheated meal

Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah’s speech last Monday, outlining Hizbullah’s latest “political document,” was a compendium of positions and interpretations the party had developed over the years. In that sense it offered few surprises. More revealing was that Nasrallah felt he had to make the speech now, recognizing that much has changed in Lebanon since 2005, when Syrian soldiers withdrew from the country and the favorable political environment Hizbullah had benefited from collapsed.

Nothing in the political document suggests that Hizbullah has altered its outlook when it comes to its relationship with the Lebanese state. The party continues to defend its military autonomy, and demands that we all come around to doing the same; it strives to push Lebanon in directions hostile to the United States and even Western Europe; at the center of its preoccupations are the Palestinian cause and the rescue of Jerusalem, casting serious doubt on Hizbullah’s willingness to limit its ambitions to liberating the Lebanese half of Ghajar and the Shebaa farms; and Hizbullah remains especially loyal to Iran, so that “the creation of contradictions with it represents a harming of the self and of Arab issues.”

And yet something has changed when Nasrallah feels the need to issue a second document on Hizbullah’s worldview to the Lebanese public (the first being the party’s Open Letter of 1985, announcing its political program). The party’s “Lebanonization” will never amount to much for as long as Hizbullah rejects the premises of sovereign Lebanese statehood. However, there can be no doubt that after 2005 Hizbullah was forced to contend much more with Lebanon, for whose domestic political ways and byways Nasrallah had expressed such contempt before that time, when Syrian cover gave him the luxury of focusing on his conflict with Israel.

Hizbullah’s record when it comes to Lebanon has been much more mediocre than Nasrallah cared to admit. It was amusing to hear the secretary general mentioning the need to respect Lebanon’s consociational system, just after his denunciation of sectarianism, perhaps because Hizbullah has systematically violated the rules of consociationalism and remains among the most sectarian of organizations. But that inconsistency helped better to explain why Hizbullah’s “rediscovery” of Lebanon after 2005 proved such a failure.

Over the past year, there has been much hand-wringing, particularly in the March 14 camp, that the May 2008 military onslaught of Hizbullah represented some sort of a victory. The view is simplistic. The offensive did substantiate that the party would resort to arms when its interests were at risk, but the long-term costs of that undertaking were prohibitive, and continue to rise. Hizbullah gained a blocking third in the Cabinet, and it did get the election law it wanted. However, neither brought the party very much. The impact of the blocking third was significant symbolically, but otherwise its repercussions were contained, while the election law did not produce an opposition victory last June as Hizbullah had hoped.

On the negative side, Hizbullah’s takeover of western Beirut highlighted its limitations. It showed the party could not afford to act against Christian areas, and that its capacity to hold hostage predominantly Sunni neighborhoods was limited in time. For its efforts, Hizbullah earned undying Sunni animosity, confirming it could only really get its way by resorting to its guns, undermining Nasrallah’s earlier claim that he would not turn his weapons on the Lebanese. Worse, Sunni anger and rising Christian doubts, expressed in the parliamentary elections, established that there no longer was a national consensus behind the “resistance.” Nasrallah’s credibility remains only as good as his threats.

Nasrallah’s need to submit his program to the Lebanese may have been surreptitious recognition of the setbacks brought about by the May confrontation. By communicating with his countrymen, the secretary general perhaps sought to publicly acknowledge that, somewhere, he had to be more transparent about his aims, more willing to address Lebanese society on equal terms, transcending the violence of the past.

But if that was indeed Nasrallah’s objective, his message all but neutralized it. Rather than being an instrument of interchange, Hizbullah’s document is a hypocritical effort to conceal that the party has every intention of imposing its priorities on Lebanon, regardless of what anyone else wants. The national dialogue over Hizbullah’s weapons will remain a sham. Nasrallah’s vision of a “state of resistance,” with Hizbullah as its vanguard, will continue to generate great tension, since a sovereign state and a sovereign militia cannot coexist. By reciting from his old song book, Nasrallah betrayed that for all his purported willingness to communicate, his preferred communication method is the monologue.

The secretary general will not persuade very many people to get over Hizbullah’s actions in 2005 and afterward. Most Lebanese will not soon overcome their suspicions of Hizbullah’s role in the assassination of Rafik Hariri and several others, regardless of whether the party is guilty. Few will forget Nasrallah’s speech on March 8, 2005, in defense of Syria, then and now the only serious culprit in the former prime minister’s killing. Few will soon forget the 2006 war, with its devastating consequences amid vacant exclamations of a divine victory; and even fewer can fail to grasp that the next war will be far worse, because Nasrallah’s vision, as outlined in his party’s latest document, only guarantees this.

In that light, the Nasrallah speech, like the document he read, has only heightened the contradictions in Lebanese society. Hizbullah realizes that the partial Syrian return to Lebanon, facilitated by Saudi Arabia, may restrict the party’s ability to maneuver in the way that it had been able to do until recently. Nasrallah’s effort to anchor himself better in the Lebanese political reality may be, in part, an effort to widen its political latitude with regard to Damascus, even as Hizbullah remains Syria’s main tool of intimidation in Lebanon. However, that only confirms the inconsistencies at the heart of Nasrallah’s reasoning.

We were waiting for something new on Monday; instead Nasrallah merely reheated yesterday’s meal. This demonstrated that Hizbullah is in more of a bind than it will disclose, devoid of fresh ideas. They’re here and we’re here, and for Lebanon’s misfortune only one of us can come out on top.