Saturday, July 31, 2010

Lebanon to remain out of Iran's reach

Two years ago, a Syrian well connected with his country’s regime was chatting with two Lebanese journalists at a conference in Venice. At the time Syria, which had withdrawn its army from Lebanon after the February 2005 assassination of the former Lebanese prime minister, Rafiq Hariri, was seeking to reassert its power in Beirut against the governing coalition known as March 14.

As my journalist friends recounted it, the Syrian’s message was a simple one: “You Lebanese have one of two choices,” he told them. “You can either choose Syria or Iran.”

In many respects that phrase encapsulates mainstream Arab thinking on Lebanon today. King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia visited Beirut yesterday in the presence of the Syrian president, Bashar al Assad. In so doing he effectively blessed the return of Syrian domination over Lebanon, albeit minus a military presence, implicitly declaring that the country, whatever else it is, would not be Iranian.

It has been more than a year that the Saudis and Syrians have reconciled, following three years of recrimination between Damascus and Riyadh. However, it was not the killing of Mr Hariri, a Saudi protégé, that led to the rift, given that Syria probably ordered the crime (long the assessment of the Saudis). Rather, it was Mr Assad’s decision to strengthen his bonds with Iran after the election in 2005 of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. This was followed by a personal dispute sparked during the Lebanon war of 2006, when the Syrian president called Arab leaders who condemned Hizbollah “half men”.

During the years 2006-2008 there was an ongoing Saudi-Syrian struggle over Lebanon. The Syrians, keen to reverse the humiliation of 2005, increasingly relied on Hizbollah to undermine the March 14-led government of Fouad Siniora backed by Saudi Arabia. This had the knock-on effect of increasing Iran’s sway in Lebanon, and indeed on several occasions in 2007, when Sunni-Shiite animosities were at their paroxysm in the streets of Beirut, Saudi Arabia’s Prince Bandar bin Sultan met with Ali Larijani to calm the situation.

The Syrians had mixed feelings. While Mr Assad was happy to see his enemies destabilised by Hizbollah, his main aim throughout was to ensure that Lebanon would return to the Syrian fold, not become an Iranian asset. As for the Saudis, their involvement in the particulars of Lebanese affairs was fraught with difficulties. Their allies could not compete with an armed Hizbollah on the ground, and the Siniora government proved incapable of consolidating its authority.

In May 2008, Hizbollah invaded western Beirut and moved into the Druse-controlled mountains to force the government to back down on two decisions Hizbollah saw as being directed against its interests. The Qataris intervened, finalising a solution in Doha. This was a significant setback for the Saudis, traditionally the mediators in Arab crises, one favouring their Qatari rivals. Following the Gaza war some months later, when the so-called Arab moderates found themselves isolated for opposing Hamas, King Abdullah decided to alter course.

The Saudi monarch had more important priorities than Lebanon, not least that Iran was gaining ground in the region, particularly in Iraq and on the Palestinian front. In February 2009, at an economic summit in Kuwait, King Abdullah declared that he would reconcile with Syria. Lebanon was the prize. The implicit quid pro quo was that Mr Assad would once again be given a decisive voice in Lebanese affairs, but that he must not allow Iran, through Hizbollah, to use the country against Arab interests, particularly those of Saudi Arabia.

This brought about a political transformation on the Lebanese scene. Saad Hariri, Rafiq’s son, followed in Riyadh’s footsteps. Having won the parliamentary elections of summer 2009 against a Hizbollah-led alliance, he became prime minister in autumn.

Though Mr Hariri had accused the Syrians of being behind the assassination of his father, he knew that his appointment meant he would have to shake Mr Assad’s hand and let bygones be bygones. In December of last year he visited Damascus, and has, since, used his newborn ties with Mr Assad to counterbalance Hizbollah, therefore Iran, domestically.

In an interview with the Saudi daily Al-Hayat one week ago, Mr Hariri, just back from another visit to Damascus, didn’t mince words. “We’re heading in the direction of a genuine, correct and fraternal relationship with Syria, from which there is no going back,” he declared.

In recent weeks the tension in Lebanon has risen, amid reports that Hizbollah might be implicated in Rafiq Hariri’s assassination. The secretary general of the party, Hassan Nasrallah, has denounced the international-Lebanese tribunal set up to indict the perpetrators as an “Israeli project”. For Sheikh Nasrallah, Mr Hariri must end Lebanese co-operation with the institution. Hizbollah officials have warned darkly of a return to May 2008 if the party were to be accused.

Yet Mr Hariri does not seem particularly alarmed by the threats. A return to May 2008 seems improbable in the present context. Syria, which intends to play Mr Hariri against Hizbollah in order to regain a measure of Syrian control over the party, will not allow it. Nor will Damascus permit Hizbollah to bring down the Hariri government, since that would harm its relationship with Saudi Arabia.

The reverse side of the coin, however, is that Mr Assad does not want Hizbollah overly weakened. This would damage Syria’s relationship with Iran, denying it the latitude to situate itself profitably between the Arabs and Tehran. The presence of a potent Hizbollah also allows Syria to sell itself regionally and internationally as the sole actor in Lebanon capable of containing the party. Finally, Mr Assad is also determined to eventually use Hizbollah against Mr Hariri, in his broader bid to restore Syria’s hegemony over its smaller neighbour.

Earlier this week, when it was still unclear whether Mr Assad would visit Beirut with King Abdullah, some in March 14 suggested that the Syrian leader would bow out, to avoid irritating Iran. They missed the point. Mr Assad welcomed the symbolism of the joint visit to signal to the Iranians that while the Damascus-Tehran relationship persists, Lebanon is Syria’s once again, with an Arab consensus backing this up, so that Iran and Hizbollah must accept the new reality.

But the test of Syrian-Iranian ties will be whether Iran can live with what one Hariri parliamentarian, Bassem al-Shabb, calls the “dual key” approach to Hizbollah’s weapons. Would Syria permit Hizbollah to retaliate militarily against Israel following an attack against Iran by Israel or the United States? Syria would be tempted to do so if the settlement is negotiated in Damascus and it can increase its power in Lebanon as a consequence. However, that may not be how the Saudis perceive of their new understanding with Syria.

For now Mr Assad can delight in the fact that the ambiguities in Lebanon, whether they involve the Lebanese government, Saudi Arabia, Iran, or Hizbollah, are all playing out in his favour.

Friday, July 30, 2010

The Hariri tribunal is so inept, it almost seems deliberate

Recently, one of the men arrested in the investigation of the 2005 assassination of Lebanon’s former prime minister, Rafiq Hariri, pursued a revealing legal manoeuvre. He demanded that the special tribunal set up by the United Nations a year ago to try those suspected of the murder show him the evidence used to arrest him.

The man is Jamil alSayyed, the former head of Lebanon’s General Security directorate and one of four generals arrested on the advice of United Nations investigators a few months after the Hariri murder. Mr al Sayyed spent four years behind bars, until he was released last year along with his colleagues by the tribunal prosecutor, Daniel Bellemare, because there was not enough evidence to indict them. Mr al Sayyed’s request shows how onetime suspects are now willing to take the tribunal on, largely because it has lost all momentum.

Mr al Sayyed’s innocence is a matter of conjecture. He was a main cog in the Syrian-dominated security network in Lebanon during the time Damascus ruled directly over the country. It was this network that investigators believe was behind Mr Hariri’s killing. The detention of Mr al Sayyed and his associates was repeatedly reconfirmed by the body set up to investigate the killing, the United Nations International Independent Investigation Commission (UNIIIC), whose last head was Mr Bellemare, before he became tribunal prosecutor. Yet it is also true that the investigators did not turn their suspicions about Mr al Sayyed into indictable offences. Therein lies the tribunal’s difficulties.

Five years after the Hariri assassination, we are nowhere closer to seeing the guilty accused. Back in 2005, the decision of the UN Security Council to set up an investigation of the Hariri killing was an innovation. It was the first time that the international organisation had looked into a political assassination, the rationale being that this would help deter such crimes in the future. UNIIIC was set up, and its first commissioner was Detlev Mehlis, a German judge who had investigated high-profile terrorist crimes in former West Berlin, including the 1986 LaBelle discotheque bombing.

Mr Mehlis had no doubt that the Hariri assassination was ordered by Syria, even if Lebanese individuals or groups also participated in the operation. His team began a police investigation, and interviewed Syrian officials and intelligence officers inside Syria and abroad. On the eve of his departure in December 2005, Mr Mehlis even recommended to his successor, the Belgian judge Serge Brammertz, that he arrest the former head of Syria’s military intelligence apparatus in Lebanon.

Mr Brammertz never did so. In fact he arrested no one during his two-year tenure. While this may have been because one of Mr Mehlis’ witnesses appeared unreliable, there were far deeper problems in the Belgian’s investigation. He cut back on police officers and added analysts. Analyses can address details of a crime, but only a police investigation, which entails taking suspects into custody and using their testimonies to unravel the decision-making hierarchy, can identify the guilty. In fact, Mr Brammertz did not investigate much at all before handing over to Mr Bellemare.

Was this intentional on Mr Brammertz’s part? I contacted him in April of last year for a book I was writing to give him an opportunity to respond to my criticisms of his work. I also wanted him to reply to allegations levelled at him by Mr Mehlis in an interview I conducted with the German for The Wall Street Journal. Mr Brammertz declined. However, it was difficult not to notice that his appointment after serving on the Special Tribunal for Lebanon – namely, as prosecutor for the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia – was a promotion by the UN, even though his performance in Beirut hardly merited such an accolade.

Perhaps that was precisely what the UN liked in Mr Brammertz. As Mr Mehlis later recalled, when he met Kofi Annan before starting his mission, the UN secretary-general told him that “he did not want another trouble spot”. Mr Mehlis did not oblige. He raised the heat on Syria and although he received Security Council backing, which strengthened his mandate, the UN bureaucracy must have winced at the tensions resulting from these confrontations.

Mr Bellemare has been a different kettle of fish. A Canadian judge, he had no experience of terrorist crimes when he came in. His tenure as commissioner, then as prosecutor, has produced little apparent progress. He seems to have information pointing to on-the-ground involvement by Hizbollah in Mr Hariri’s elimination, but two key questions remain: Does Mr Bellemare have enough to indict? And if he does, who will the prosecutor point the finger at, low-level operatives or higher-level decision-makers, including Syrian officials?

For now, we can only speculate. However, there seems less and less doubt that the two-year tenure of Mr Brammertz damaged the prosecution’s case, perhaps fatally. Mr Bellemare also discredited the tribunal by awaiting its formation before releasing the four generals, when, aware that there would be no indictments, he could have requested that the Lebanese authorities do so earlier.

Worst of all, key figures have left the tribunal one after the other, including Mr Bellemare’s chief investigator and two registrars. This implied, at the very least, that these individuals did not expect indictments in the foreseeable future; but in several specific cases the exits also hinted at Mr Bellemare’s managerial shortcomings.

Indictments may come later this year, but it seems doubtful, given what we know, that those who ordered the assassination will be charged. The zeal with which the tribunal’s president, Antonio Cassese, has pressed for this deadline indicates he is putting pressure on Mr Bellemare. Mr Cassese knows that the tribunal’s funding is closely tied to signs of genuine progress. He is right to be worried.

Is it goodbye, America?

The Arab world might want to watch what happens now that WikiLeaks, an organization devoted to posting leaked sensitive documents online, has released secret American military field reports from the war in Afghanistan. What has resonated most is information that Pakistan, the United States’ purported ally in the war, has been coordinating with the Taliban frequently against the Americans.

Why should this matter to the Arabs? Because the single most destabilizing development in the Middle East during the past year and a half has been the American drawdown in Iraq – one that is even more psychological than political and military. And to witness a replication of this in Afghanistan due to declining support for the war, which the information provided by WikiLeaks can only exacerbate, would have a significant impact on the broader region.

That’s not to suggest that Washington should maintain its forces indefinitely in Iraq, and the withdrawal that must be completed by the end of this month will still leave behind up to 50,000 military personnel. But the United States under President Barack Obama has revised its ambitions in the region, downwards. The administration has many objectives, but also no clear strategy binding these together. Its minimalism in Iraq has created a vacuum, one the Arab states and Iran are competing to fill. The end result will define the Gulf region, and beyond, for years to come, yet the unavoidable conclusion is that the Americans are not proactively shaping this process.

Which leads us to Afghanistan. There, too, an ill-thought-out American retreat will have grave regional consequences. The Obama administration is losing confidence in its Afghan venture, which is hardly surprising, and the moral of the story as provided by WikiLeaks shows why: The Americans simply cannot win the conflict if Pakistan is working against them, in its own bid to bring much of Afghanistan once again under Islamabad’s thumb.

This week, David Ignatius of the Washington Post examined the WikiLeaks affair, writing that it “has been damaging partly because it came at a time when the Washington mood about Afghanistan was darkening … White House officials talk these days about seeking an ‘acceptable endstate’ in Afghanistan, rather than victory.”

And what does this endstate entail? “[A] patchwork process that brings greater security through a stronger Afghan national army and police, plus the tribally based ‘local police.’ The crucial driver will be a political process of reconciliation, brokered partly by Pakistan.”

For those who followed the twists and turns of American thinking on Iraq in the aftermath of the 2003 invasion, this will sound familiar. At the time, the Bush administration also found itself adrift in the face of a stubborn insurgency, and imagined that the solution lay in building up the Iraqi army and police force. Like Obama’s team today, it considered that American salvation in Iraq might require ceding more room to the country’s neighbors to pacify the situation, an approach notably expressed in the Iraq Study Group report.

To his credit, President George W. Bush was never convinced by this rationale, perhaps because he realized that the neighbors were the ones most responsible for Iraq’s travails. It was always unlikely that they would reach an agreement that could be to the benefit of the Iraqis. This truth now applies just as well to the Afghans. Pakistan, like overbearing geographical neighbors anywhere, holds the keys to some problems in Afghanistan; but because of the enmity it elicits among neighborhood rivals, not to say among powerful Afghan ethnic groups, Islamabad cannot possibly impose order on its own.

Washington seems blithely unaware of what is going on. For many officials in the American capital, talk of a United States in retreat is absurd. The Obama administration is involved in Palestinian-Israeli negotiations, you will hear them say; it remains a player in Iraq, and is working harder than ever to contain Iran. That may be true, but is also misleading. Talks between the Palestinians and Israelis are going nowhere, and the administration will avoid redoubling its efforts if failure becomes inevitable. In Iraq, the Americans have been largely invisible during the government-formation process.

As for Iran, it’s true that Washington has tightened sanctions on the regime, in conjunction with its European allies. However, the primary motive, and quite understandably, has been to avoid being drawn into a military conflict with Tehran. In other words, the administration is doing its best to more fully avoid the region’s tribulations, once again interpreting its political mandate in a modest way.

Some, of course, may welcome this. However, that’s not the point. The broader Middle East has been accustomed to the reality of American power for six decades, creating some sort of political balance, albeit at times a debilitating one. When Washington doesn’t fulfill its role a free-for-all ensues. We should brace ourselves for more modesty from Washington, and the headaches that will accompany it.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Remember Lebanon’s dead, even if names are unspoken

Lebanon is rarely a place of neat finalities. Reality can often be relative, with the memories of the Lebanese an accumulation of irreconcilable versions of this event or that.

Take the current dispute in the country over the assassination in 2005 of the former prime minister, Rafiq Hariri. It was and remains fairly obvious who was behind the crime. Yet today, as political interests have taken over and animosities kicked in, the Hariri killing has been sucked into a maelstrom of self-serving, deceptive interpretation. Low-level Hizbollah members may be accused of facilitating the crime (though this will not explain who ordered it), but the Lebanese will likely never reach any consensus about what happened.

Nor would that be unusual. When the Lebanese civil war ended two decades ago, the government of the time issued a general amnesty for all war-time crimes. This officially-sanctioned amnesia, despite some condemnation, was acceptable to a majority of Lebanese. They understood that their fractured sectarian system, at the top of which sat leaders who had for the most part played crucial roles during the war, could not readily absorb the consequences of imparted guilt.

These thoughts come to mind because I have just finished reading an important novel whose theme is memory and its elusiveness. In 2006, the Lebanese author Jabbour Douaihy published Rain of June, which was later short-listed for the Arabic version of the Booker Prize. The book has received recognition outside the Arab world, particularly in France and Italy, and now cries out for an English translation.

Mr Douaihy’s story is built around a historical event with much resonance in Lebanon, namely the armed altercation in June 1957 at a mass in the northern village of Meziara. The main protagonists were members of rival leading families from the nearby town of Zghorta – on the one side the Franjiehs and the Mouawads, on the other the Douaihys. When both sides had finished firing at each other, 24 people were lying dead, many inside the church.

The rivalry was exacerbated by the concurrent Lebanese parliamentary elections, with the Douaihys siding with the president then, Camille Chamoun. He had fashioned an election law designed to bring in a favourable parliament that would amend the constitution and allow him to renew his mandate a year later. This law, in turn, threatened to bring about the parliamentary defeat of the leader of the Franjieh family.

What makes the novel so fascinating is that Mr Douaihy had to wrestle with his story at several levels of reality, frequently those that Lebanese wrestle with when considering the country’s past, and their own. For starters, as a Douaihy who was a young boy in 1957, the author is both a protagonist and interpreter, a son of the family that paid the heaviest blood tax in the Meziara massacre. However, among those who encouraged him to write the book were two close friends from the Franjieh and Mouawad families – indeed the very sons of the individuals at the heart of the standoff in 1957.

At a second level of reality, Mr Douaihy had to deal with the uneasiness of the inhabitants of Zghorta, who at first wondered why he had chosen this topic. Like most Lebanese, they preferred a veil over their past, particularly one so bloody and divisive, since Meziara soon led to all-out conflict in Zghorta during Lebanon’s 1958 civil war, with neighbourhoods “cleansed” of rival families. However, once the book was published the townspeople accepted it, even recognising the characters, sometimes themselves. They saw that Mr Douaihy was not out to settle scores, but, rather, wanted to address historical memory.

A third level of reality derived from the irony of the story itself. One of the characters tries to uncover the details about the Meziara incident, in which his own father was killed. But all he collects are different narratives, bringing him no closer to the truth. So, what we have is Mr Douaihy implicitly encouraging the elucidation of historical memory as a means of coming to grips with the past, even as his characters are adrift in a sea of ambiguity, quite incapable of doing so.

And finally, Mr Douaihy plays with a fourth level of reality, no less ambiguous: he never mentions Meziara, Zghorta, the Douaihys, Franjiehs or Mouawads. All the characters, family names and places in his novel have been changed; yet what he describes is based on events that actually occurred. Readers, like the characters, navigate between fact and fiction, which is perplexing and exhilarating because memory can absorb enthralling falsehoods when worn down by time.

Mr Douaihy was also encouraged by a third person to write his novel, Samir Kassir, the historian and journalist, to whom the work is dedicated. Which allows us to return to the prosaic reality of Lebanese politics. In June 2005, Mr Kassir was assassinated outside his home – the first in a wave of killings that followed the Hariri assassination, all evidently perpetrated by members of the same political coalition. That Mr Kassir’s assassins have yet to be arrested is a testament to Lebanon’s gift for imprecision, even as Mr Kassir, in his own books and by encouraging those like Mr Douaihy’s, displayed an incurable appetite for historical comprehension, for decoding events and signs.

This exercise is vital in a Lebanon built on lies or half-truths. Mr Douaihy is too modest to see himself in the exalted light of truth-seeker. But he is part of a group of Lebanese – scholars, writers, activists and others – not satisfied with leaving the past be. Their endeavours limit the room the Lebanese have to escape the painful struggle with themselves.

Playing three-ball billiards in Beirut

Lebanon is caught up in a game of political billiards these days, each side playing a second ball against the third. And who is benefiting most from this situation? Syria’s President Bashar Assad.

For Prime Minister Saad Hariri, the alignment with Syria has brought dividends. Hizbullah has never felt so isolated, and Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah’s speech just over a week ago was, above all, a reminder of the favors the party rendered to Damascus. Hariri has been under no undue pressure to terminate Lebanon’s relationship with the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, despite Nasrallah’s charge that it is “an Israeli project,” and that is because he knows that Syria will not allow Hizbullah to change the rules of the game in Beirut.

But if Hariri is using the Syrian ball against Hizbullah, what advantage do the Syrians have in using Hariri against Hizbullah? Simply, to bring the party squarely under Syria’s sway, after five years when it was Syria that depended mainly on Hizbullah – because it held the ground – to defend its Lebanese stakes. During that time, Iran’s influence in Lebanon expanded, denying Syria the paramount role it had played in the country for decades. Assad now wants to reverse that equation, and is doing so by exploiting his new Sunni alliance, with Hariri for sure, but chiefly with Saudi Arabia, whose King Abdullah will alight in Beirut this week to bless the new order.

Hizbullah, in turn, hoped to use its denunciation of the special tribunal to weaken Hariri. The Syrians are of two minds on the matter. Their Lebanese spokesmen are calling on the prime minister to turn against the tribunal, while Assad appears not to have made such a request. The Syrians are keeping several irons in the fire. They know that an accusation against Hizbullah may eventually hit them, a fact of which they were reminded by Walid Jumblatt, himself a corsair plying the uneasy seas between Syria, Hariri and Hizbullah. But they are also aware that the tribunal’s prosecutor, Daniel Bellemare, will not soon indict Syrians (if anyone), so they can use the prospect of legal accusations to make Hizbullah more dependent on Damascus.

Hizbullah can be reassured by the fact that Syria wants the party to bend to Syrian priorities, but it has no desire to see Hizbullah decisively damaged. Nor for that matter is Assad likely to oppose a war in southern Lebanon if Hizbullah is required by Iran to retaliate against an Israeli or American attack against the Islamic Republic. In fact, Syria could well view a conflict as an opening to enhance its control over Lebanon, perhaps even return to the country militarily.

How so? Assad would point out that only Syria can stabilize Lebanon in the aftermath of a war that devastates lives and infrastructure, discredits the government (as wars tend to do), tears down the United Nations security edifice in the south, and confirms Hizbullah as a major regional headache. If the party manages to resist Israel for several weeks – and Syria has every intention of ensuring it does – this would alarm the Arab states, Israel and the United States, whose approval is needed to sanction some sort of Syrian comeback.

As the columnist Hazem Saghieh wrote last week in Al-Hayat, Syrian leaders have been good at reversing their alliances in Lebanon for Syria’s greater benefit. In 1976, the Syrian Army entered Lebanon at the request of the Maronite leadership to fight the Palestine Liberation Organization and the Lebanese National Movement. President Hafez Assad sought to avoid Lebanon’s becoming a PLO base, which might have forced Syria into a confrontation with Israel. So he used the Maronite invitation to invade Lebanon and bring the PLO to heel, before turning against the Maronites and reconciling with the Palestinians when Egypt began talks with Israel.

You have to assume that the Syrians, in the way they bludgeoned the PLO, will seek to do the same to the Sunni community in the not too distant future. A feature of Syria’s presence in Lebanon was the suffocation of independent Sunni political activity that could threaten Damascus’ hold over Lebanon – all the more important given its potential repercussions on the Sunni-Alawite rapport in Syria. Saad Hariri has sought to challenge that rule, most recently by pursuing the institutionalization of the Future Movement, which may emerge as a Sunni “big tent.” Yet this is not a move that Syria will accept lightly.

For Syria to play a regional balancing role, it needs to continue maneuvering between the Arab world and Iran – in other words it cannot afford to see Iran marginalized. That should be a further source of comfort to Hizbullah, but also a thought American policy-makers must bear in mind when assuming that it is possible to play Damascus off against Tehran. But then again as a prominent official remarked in Beirut recently, Washington is in a “coma” regionally, by so downgrading its presence, a major factor in pushing the Arab states, Turkey and Iran to compete over the ensuing vacuum.

Syria’s objective in Lebanon is to re-impose the hegemony it once had – without its army if it has to, and with if it can manage that. Among its immediate priorities is to place its people in key security and administrative posts, which may lead to friction with Hizbullah, which has power over the main security agencies. Administrative nominations appear to be stalled, and reports suggest that Syria is responsible for this, only increasing its leverage in the future.

Lebanon may be a game of billiards, but it is Bashar Assad who is holding the cue. And one can use a cue for many things, not least striking the Lebanese at the knees, an old Syrian specialty.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Are we fools to expect indictments soon?

The furor continues over the recurring attacks directed against the Special Tribunal for Lebanon by Hezbollah’s secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah. The prevailing view in Beirut is that the prosecutor, Daniel Bellemare, will issue indictments this fall, and that these may point the finger at low-level Hezbollah members.

Politics aside, how likely is it that indictments will come before the end of 2010? Leading foreign diplomats in Beirut believe they will. Lebanese politicians believe so, too. The media is electric with information and disinformation on the potential consequences. However, no one has stopped to ask whether Bellemare actually has enough to issue airtight legal accusations.

Then comes news that this coming fall investigators will be replicating the explosion that killed Rafik Hariri at a military base in Bordeaux, an item confirmed by the Special Tribunal itself. If investigators are still engaged in analyzing, or re-analyzing, the bomb blast, this is either chaff to cover for the absence of any significant progress or it might imply that there is uncertainty surrounding the original findings, which means the investigation needs time to reassess. This makes it more difficult to assume that indictments will land this year.

We also have to bear in mind something else: Nothing stipulates that Bellemare must necessarily issue indictments at all. He may well do so, but that is not a foregone conclusion. Ultimately, the prosecution’s case will be determined by the specific evidence Bellemare has, and while he must have a clear idea of how Hariri was murdered, there are wide gaps that are the result of the failure of his predecessor, Serge Brammertz, to carry out a police investigation between 2006 and 2008, particularly in Syria, which controlled security in Lebanon at the time the former prime minister was assassinated.

Here’s what we know, or think we know. Investigators allegedly have telephone analyses indicating that one of the members of the circle of individuals observing Hariri’s movements on the day of his assassination (and even earlier) communicated with a Hezbollah official. We also know that several months ago investigators came to Beirut to interview a number of individuals, most of them Hezbollah members. Some showed up, but apparently those who might be named suspects did not, and their whereabouts remain unknown.

We also know that when the tribunal began operating last summer, Bellemare did not have enough to indict the four generals, even though he and Brammertz had repeatedly reconfirmed their detention when asked by the Lebanese judiciary. This suggested, at the least, that Brammertz and Bellemare had suspicions about the generals’ guilt, but did little to consolidate the legal charges against the four.

Since that point the investigation does not appear to have made major strides, while Bellemare has asked Western governments to lend him additional investigators. The prosecutor could have telephone data, perhaps phone taps, but also little testimony from those involved in the crime or who might shed light on it. It’s not certain whether this constitutes enough to prepare indictments. An effective indictment must establish a hierarchy of decision-making, illustrate who told whom to do what, then determine who did what when.

We know Bellemare is incapable of elucidating all of that today because tribunal representatives have declared in foreign capitals that the prosecutor intends to publish his indictments in two stages. In other words, he seems to be planning for a first wave of indictments to act as a wedge allowing him to issue a second wave that is more comprehensive. This is a risky strategy. It confirms that Bellemare doesn’t have enough information to issue a hard legal blow in one go; and the presumption that a first flourish of indictments will facilitate a second is by no means guaranteed, particularly if the Lebanese state, fearful of the repercussions of the opening indictments, slows or suspends its cooperation with Bellemare as a consequence.

But once again, this begs the question: If Bellemare has been unable to put together indictments until now, what does he need to add to his file to be able to do so in the coming months? The telephone information has been available for a long time, so it’s unlikely that investigators have made a breakthrough on that front. Bellemare collected little testimony from those persons he recently sought to question, and even if he does have enough to indict some participants, plainly he saw the interviews as necessary to bolster his case.

So, to put it bluntly, Bellemare appears to have an incomplete case, which he hopes to energize through his strategy of a two-phase indictment process. He also possibly has questions about the bomb explosion that killed Hariri and those with him. That makes you wonder whether investigators are again checking whether the bomb blast was an above-ground explosion carried out by a suicide bomber, or a below-ground explosion, which would presumably implicate the team observing Hariri in all phases of the assassination.

In May, the president of the Special Tribunal, Antonio Cassese, told the Daily Star newspaper that he expected indictments to be filed by the end of this year. A day later he retracted his statement, surely at Bellemare’s request. Cassese’s efforts to raise the heat on the prosecutor show that he is worried about the future of the tribunal, particularly its financing, if indictments don’t arrive this year.

If Cassese is worried, and if Bellemare told the tribunal president to withdraw his comment, you have to wonder on what grounds everyone in Lebanon seems so confident that indictments are imminent. The latest rumpus could be much ado about nothing.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Syria’s old habit of dominion over Lebanon dies hard

This past weekend, Lebanon’s prime minister, Saad Hariri, travelled to Damascus, where Lebanese and Syrian officials signed 17 bilateral agreements. For many observers this was fresh evidence of improved relations between Beirut and Damascus.

Perhaps it was, but little has changed in the way Syria views Lebanon from the days when the Syrian army was in the country. For President Bashar Assad, Lebanon is there primarily to serve Damascus’s regional interests, regardless of whether this undermines its sovereignty.

A key item that remains to be finalised is border demarcation. For decades this has been a problem between Lebanon and Syria. However, it took on additional importance after the Israeli withdrawal in 2000, when Lebanon, then still under Syrian control, claimed a sliver of land known as the Shebaa Farms that was still occupied by Israel. This allowed Hizbollah to pursue “resistance” against Israel for occupying Lebanese territory, which served Syria well by keeping alive its military leverage until Syrian-Israeli negotiations on the Golan Heights might resume.

The United Nations, however, declared that its maps showed the Shebaa Farms were Syrian. Therefore, it was up to Lebanon and Syria to demarcate their border so the territory could be officially declared Lebanese. When the Syrian army withdrew from Lebanon in 2005 following the assassination of the former prime minister Rafiq Hariri, Beirut’s new government repeated the UN request. Its aim was to establish that the Shebaa Farms was Lebanese, then ask the UN to push for an Israeli pullout from the area. The government would have used that to request that Hizbollah disarm, on the grounds that all occupied Lebanese land had been liberated.

Syria, predictably, demurred. Mr Assad’s regime had no desire to help to solve the Shebaa situation while the Golan remained occupied. Nor did it want to create a pretext for Hizbollah to surrender its weapons.

That’s why Mr Hariri’s recent announcement that Damascus would pursue border demarcation was a red herring. The Syrians will delay all progress in defining the Shebaa boundaries, and have little incentive to clarify borders elsewhere because, as the stronger party, they have imposed a status quo that is generally in their favour.

A defence agreement also has yet to be completed between Lebanon and Syria. That’s not surprising. Mr Assad’s regime continues to send weapons to Hizbollah, defying UN resolutions, and any credible defence agreement would have to address that in a serious way. We shouldn’t hold our breath. Damascus only gains by using Lebanon as an open field for conflict, even as it profitably sells itself regionally and internationally as the only party able to contain Hizbollah and mediate between the divided Lebanese. In other words, Syria is replicating its much-used tactic of setting fires it offers to extinguish.

Syria will also will try to gain politically from possible indictments that may be issued by the Special Tribunal for Lebanon set up to punish those responsible for Rafiq Hariri’s murder. Syrian mouthpieces in Beirut have urged Saad Hariri to torpedo the tribunal by declaring it politicised. Syria was almost certainly behind the crime, but a botched UN investigation between 2006 and 2008 did not pursue the Syrian angle.

The bulk of evidence appears to point to Hizbollah members as facilitators in the crime. Preparing for the worst, a few days ago the party’s secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah, denounced the tribunal as an “Israeli project”, an indication that he wants Mr Hariri to end Lebanese collaboration with the institution.

This creates interesting openings for Syria. Mr Assad is not keen to see Hizbollah overly weakened, hence Syria’s efforts to push Mr Hariri to neutralise the tribunal.

However, if the party faces a legal accusation, the Syrian president would pragmatically adapt to this new reality by using any ensuing domestic tension in Lebanon to play the Lebanese off against one another, in that way strengthening Syria’s hold over Lebanon and paradoxically even over its ally Hizbollah, which still remains above all an Iranian venture.

The notion that Syria has reconciled itself with a sovereign Lebanon is an illusion. Mr Assad doesn’t have his army in the country anymore, but a Syrian military return could not be ruled out in the aftermath of a devastating war between Hizbollah and Israel.

Such a war, it if occurs and lasts longer than the 2006 conflict, would have repercussions to Syria’s advantage. The damage wrought would discredit the Lebanese state; a conflict would wreck the UN security architecture in south Lebanon; Hizbollah, if it is not defeated outright, and it cannot be, would fight on and come to be viewed in the Arab world, Israel and the West as a major nuisance needing to be brought to heel. Mr Assad could be tempted to use all of this to engineer a Syrian military comeback, arguing that Syria alone can stabilise Lebanon.

Mr Assad lost Lebanon in 2005, and it never went down well with the Syrian leader that he squandered a valuable inheritance his late father had spent years fighting to earn. The Syrians are systematic. In the past year they have co-opted or isolated their Lebanese foes. They have also tried to regain ground on Iran and Hizbollah, partners to be sure but also obstacles to the total control Syria once enjoyed over Lebanon. Mr Hariri, encouraged by his Saudi Arabian sponsors, has gone along with this, mainly to counterbalance Tehran’s influence.

The Lebanese prime minister knows that this complex game may have dire consequences. He is under no illusion about Mr Assad’s intentions, but has swallowed the bitter pill of reconciliation with Damascus to defend himself against his most immediate worry, Hizbollah.

Has Hassan Nasrallah been too hasty?

If there were doubts about whether Hizbullah participated in the assassination of the former prime minister, Rafik Hariri, for many people the party’s secretary general, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, seemed to dispel them last week by describing the Special Tribunal for Lebanon as an “Israeli project” because it might indict Hizbullah members.

Nasrallah is caught in two sets of binds. The first has to do with how Saad Hariri and his government will react if party members are accused. The secretary general’s linking the tribunal to Israel shows that he expects Hariri to end all cooperation between the Lebanese state and the institution, a position echoed by Wi’am Wahhab, relaying Syrian preferences. Yet Hariri is unlikely to yield, because he can see that Nasrallah has limited options if he refuses to do so.

Hizbullah spokespersons have warned in recent weeks that Hariri should be careful: Any effort to use indictments against Hizbullah may result in a repeat of May 2008, when the group overran western Beirut and tried to take over parts of the Aley district. What worries Hizbullah is that, if indictments come, Hariri will declare that he does not believe the party’s leadership was involved in his father’s assassination, implying that those accused were rogue elements. This would undermine Hizbullah’s credibility, show that Nasrallah doesn’t control his own organization (let him then try to sell Hizbullah as the vanguard of an effective national resistance), and make the party beholden to Hariri, but also, more generally, to Syria.

In that context, a new attack against western Beirut seems absurd. Nor can Hizbullah attack the mountains, because Walid Jumblatt is now more or less on the party’s side. Destabilizing the government would also be difficult, unless Syria sees an interest in doing so to gain greater leverage over Hariri. But for Hizbullah to bring down the government is much trickier. The Hariri government is, above all, the fruit of a Syrian-Saudi compromise. Hizbullah doesn’t have the latitude to damage relations between Riyadh and Damascus.

So there is not much Nasrallah can do, except rely on Syria to ensure that the party isn’t greatly weakened by the ensuing backlash that would follow eventual indictments. The Syrians are as unenthusiastic about the tribunal as Nasrallah is, but being pragmatic they would use any legal accusation to enhance their power on the Lebanese scene, even at the expense of their Iranian and Hizbullah partners. Ultimately, President Bashar Assad seeks to return Lebanon entirely to the Syrian fold, and indictments would open doors allowing him to play on Lebanese divisions to Syria’s advantage.

Nasrallah is caught in another bind as well. His foremost task, as defined by his relationship with Iran, is to prepare Lebanon for the possibility of a conflict with Israel in the event of an attack against Iranian nuclear facilities. He has largely succeeded on that front. Hizbullah has rearmed, has managed to neutralize serious opposition to its weapons from within the government, and largely controls the activities of the Lebanese Army in southern Lebanon, not to say the major decisions taken by the army’s intelligence service.

Indictments would throw Hizbullah’s strategy into disarray. For a start, the party cannot maintain Lebanon’s readiness for war if it chooses to go on the offensive domestically in order to pressure Hariri and the government into denouncing the special tribunal. Nasrallah would either have to opt for domestic instability, which would only divide the country, or avoid that path, so as to preserve some sort of united front against Israel. The secretary general could not do both.

That is why Nasrallah is now focused on rallying the Shiite community behind Hizbullah, by saying the tribunal is an Israeli weapon. No one else will buy that argument. But even the Shiites are not keen to see their villages turned into parking lots, especially on Iran’s behalf. Nasrallah would have his work cut out for him in holding the ground psychologically and politically for a war with Israel if indictments are issued. Shiites would still be wary of war, understandably, while Sunnis would be looking for revenge against the party they believe murdered their late leader.

When all is said and done, are indictments coming? Reports this week that investigators will carry out a test explosion next fall in Bordeaux replicating the one that killed Rafik Hariri suggest we should be careful about predicting indictments this year. When the president of the special tribunal, Antonio Cassese, told this newspaper last May that he expected indictments to be issued between October and the end of the year, he retracted the statement a day later, plainly at the request of prosecutor Daniel Bellemare. Cassese must realize that unless indictments are issued before 2011, securing financing for the tribunal next year will become complicated. That may explain why he is pushing the prosecutor on a short deadline.

But what does Bellemare have in hand that is new? If he had enough to indict, he would have done so already rather than engage in technological experiments – whether three-dimensional photography of the crime scene in Beirut or the Bordeaux explosion. When investigators were last in Lebanon, they failed to interview most of the Hizbullah members they asked to see. If you are unable to interview individuals, it becomes hard to indict. Telephone analyses or phone-taps can bring to light revealing patterns or conversations, but it’s not certain that, absent corroborating information based on testimony, they are enough to prepare airtight accusations.

A new assessment of the Hariri explosion is a telltale sign that things are not going well. If there are lingering doubts, for example, about whether the blast was above ground or below ground, then we are perhaps further from indictments than many imagine. But ultimately we should not miss the forest for the trees. A crime was committed, regardless of how, and Bellemare has not managed to arrest anybody who might shed light on what actually happened.

Maybe Nasrallah is being too hasty in incriminating his own party.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Coincidence rarely explains events in southern Lebanon

The recent tension in southern Lebanon between villagers and the United Nations force, Unifil, was no coincidence. Hizbollah, which tightly controls the south, saw an opportunity to send several messages, while issuing a warning to the international peacekeepers that their freedom to manoeuvre was limited.

The ostensible cause of the confrontations was ambiguity in interpreting UN Security Council Resolution 1701, which ended the summer 2006 war between Hizbollah and Israel. The resolution grants Unifil the right to take “all necessary action” to implement UN conditions in the south and to “assist” the Lebanese army. However, Shiite villagers, pushed by Hizbollah, have reinterpreted this mandate, saying the force can only carry out inspections in the presence of the Lebanese army. When Unifil did not do so, the inhabitants of two villages blocked patrols and assaulted troops.

Initially, the Lebanese army and government failed to back up the UN. The angry response of states contributing soldiers to Unifil led to a meeting of the Security Council last week. Lebanon backtracked, vowing to continue co-operating with the UN. However, the incidents in the south confirmed once again that Hizbollah has substantial control over the Lebanese army, particularly the army’s intelligence services.

Complicating matters, Hizbollah’s commander in southern Lebanon, Sheikh Nabil Qawouq, said on Sunday that the army had discovered that Israel had asked Unifil to search particular houses in the south. There was no evidence whatsoever for the charge, but it did widen the rift between Unifil and villagers, while making it seem that the Lebanese army opposed the international force.

Behind the façade of hostility to the UN, Hizbollah has more intricate calculations. The party’s freedom to act both politically and militarily is essential to its role as an extension of Iran on the Israeli border. Hizbollah’s weapons serve many purposes. They are a deterrent against an Israeli or American attack on Iranian nuclear facilities, but also an instrument of retaliation if one occurs. They also allow the party to dominate Lebanon’s Shiites, who view the weapons as a means of self-defence and an assertion of communal supremacy.

Most important, the weapons allow Hizbollah to impose “resistance” as a national priority on its reluctant partners in the state, which in turn justifies the party retaining its weapons.

At a broader level, the quarrel with Unifil may also be seen as an Iranian reply to the recent passage of Security Council sanctions against Tehran. The point was a simple one: UN forces are vulnerable in Lebanon. However, if the south allows Hizbollah to open many advantageous doors on behalf of its regional allies, Iran as well as Syria, the party has two domestic preoccupations that the standoff with Unifil highlighted.

The first is that Hizbollah, to protect itself, needs to prepare the ground psychologically for a possible war with Israel. Despite the support the party enjoys among Shiites, the community does not relish seeing its villages and livelihood destroyed yet again. Despite the official rhetoric favouring “resistance”, this is a result of Hizbollah and Syrian intimidation, not enthusiasm by other religious groups for Hizbollah’s aims. Simply put, Lebanon is not ready for a war with Israel, one that will be far worse than the conflict of 2006.

There is also Hizbollah’s uncertainty about indictments coming out, perhaps later this year, from the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, set up to prosecute those behind the assassination in 2005 of the former Lebanese prime minister, Rafiq Hariri. While the UN-mandated investigation of Mr Hariri’s murder has been riddled with flaws, notably the reluctance of the second investigator, Serge Brammertz, to pursue Syria’s role in the crime, there are signs that low-level Hizbollah operatives are likely to be accused of participation. No date has been set for indictments, and they may not be announced this year, but Hizbollah is taking pre-emptive precautions.

Both the party and Syria have made it plain to the prime minister, Saad Hariri, what they expect him to do. They want the Lebanese government to declare the trial process “politicised”, and therefore illegitimate. Hizbollah has warned that if its members are indicted, the consequences may be dire for domestic peace. In other words, unless Mr Hariri protects Hizbollah from the tribunal, the party may hit out against him and the party’s domestic foes.

In this light, the harassment of Unifil might be interpreted, among other things, as a warning shot directed at Mr Hariri and Lebanese state institutions, all greatly discredited by the incidents.

Understandably, however, Hizbollah sees real problems with pursuing a strategy of internal destabilisation. If the party’s priority is to ensure that Lebanon rallies around Hizbollah in any new war against Israel, then provoking domestic dissension is hardly an ideal way of going about this.

Moreover, Hizbollah’s browbeating may just strengthen Mr Hariri’s resolve, since he is deeply averse to whitewashing those involved in his father’s killing. The paradox is that Hizbollah, in its efforts to maintain its military capacity, which requires that the tribunal be neutralised, may undermine the already volatile, sceptical consensus around the resistance.

These are not minor issues for the party. Hizbollah has worked hard to weaken the Lebanese state and armed forces to its own advantage. But, ultimately, a war with Israel, particularly one on Iran’s behalf, will be a national war generating national dissatisfaction. The party will find it much tougher in that context to enforce unanimity, especially if it stands accused of having killed Rafiq Hariri.

What happened in southern Lebanon recently was a sign that Hizbollah is preparing for choppy seas ahead.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Fadlallah and a forgotten liberal

The death of Sayyed Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah brought on a veritable riptide of praise for the departed cleric from all quarters. Whatever one thinks of Fadlallah – and he was not someone easily encapsulated in a sound bite – the reaction was a trifle odd, only underscoring the difficulties faced by Arab liberals.

Why was the effusiveness odd? Because what made Fadlallah interesting, namely his innovative views on Islamic doctrine (for example his sanctioning of therapeutic cloning), were likely unknown to most of those extolling his qualities; while the views he was known for – his approval of suicide bombings and his antagonism toward Israel and the United States – were not particularly original, at least in revealing a man at stimulating odds with his environment.

You have to admire, for example, the acrobatics of elision that Britain’s ambassador in Beirut, Frances Guy, engaged in when writing this passage on her blog: “When you visited [Fadlallah] you could be sure of a real debate, a respectful argument and you knew you would leave his presence feeling a better person… Lebanon is a lesser place the day after but his absence will be felt well beyond Lebanon’s shores… The world needs more men like him willing to reach out across faiths, acknowledging the reality of the modern world and daring to confront old constraints. May he rest in peace.” (As the blog post provoked mounting criticism in numerous Western media outlets, the British Embassy in Beirut took it off the website.)

My friend and colleague Rami Khouri was equally generous in an article penned for the Daily Star. He argued that Fadlallah’s greatest achievement “was to provide a living example of the combination of the best qualities that any Arab or Muslim could aspire to in this era of great mediocrity, corruption, materialism, mindless violence and abuse of power throughout much of the Arab world. Fadlallah was – as Americans are fond of saying of sports figures who are talented, smart, humble, generous and personable – ‘the complete package.’”

In the United States, CNN’s Middle East editor, Octavia Nasr, paid a steep price for putting out a complimentary tweet on Fadlallah after news of his death. She had announced: “Sad to hear of the passing of Sayyed Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah… One of Hezbollah’s giants I respect a lot.” Earlier this week she was fired by the company despite having issued a statement clarifying her views, which included a compulsory denunciation of his endorsement of suicide attacks.

These reactions were less suggestive than those from Iran and from within the Lebanese Shia community pointing to Fadlallah’s contentious relationships with Tehran and with Hezbollah. But in their own way they did tell us something quite disturbing, and we can accentuate that something by noting the low-key response, especially among Westerners and Westernized Arab liberals, to the death on Monday of the Egyptian scholar of Islam Nasr Hamed Abu Zeid.

In 1995, Abu Zeid made headlines when the Cairo Court of Appeals ruled in favor of a plaintiff who sought to forcibly divorce him from his wife, on the grounds that he was an apostate. What had angered Abu Zeid’s detractors was that he advocated an interpretive approach to the Quran, treating it as a text worthy of discussion, against a more rigid approach that deals with the holy book as the inviolable word of God. The Egyptian Islamic Jihad called for Abu Zeid to be killed, and because of the increasingly intimidating atmosphere prevailing in Egypt he left the country, eventually resettling in Holland.

What the tributes to Fadlallah show us, against the backdrop of the relative silence surrounding Abu Zeid’s death throughout the Middle East, is that things are out of kilter when it comes to liberalism in the region. An essentially conservative cleric has been played up as the vanguard of progressiveness and dialogue, while a scholar who sought to introduce a freethinking outlook toward religion, who had to go into exile to escape possible assassination, departed from this world with little comment – certainly not from the British ambassador to Egypt, Dominic Asquith, who also hosts a personal embassy blog.

Who is guilty of this state of affairs? Spread the blame around. When those who shape Arab opinion – foreign representatives and Arab journalists and academics – can’t get their priorities straight, don’t expect others to get theirs straight either. Fadlallah was a fascinating individual, worthy of study and, at times, esteem. But in reading the passages used to describe him, you get a powerful sense that the accolades were really directed at an imagined Fadlallah, the product of the authors’ yearning to conjure up a tolerant Islam in clerical garb.

That’s where the problem lies. Why should diplomats and publicists strive so hard to seek the higher liberal virtues, above all dialogue and broadmindedness, in what is among the most insular recesses of Muslim societies, the clergy, while habitually ignoring those Arabs who display such virtues in their everyday life – in their scholarship, lifestyle or profession? Are the clerics and the Muslim traditionalists perceived as more authentic? Does giving rare courageous liberals their due mean taking something away from the Arab world in general, which so many Westerners and Westernized Arabs want to believe in, usually against the West, the source of imperialisms past?

These questions merit an answer, if only so that the Nasr Hamed Abu Zeids of this world are left with more choices than banishment.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Outside the box, or out of their minds?

A perennial shortcoming in America’s interactions with the Middle East is that they tend to emerge from insular discussions. Policy is the result of calculations that usually rotate around Washington. Consequently, regional realities are frequently ignored, poorly understood, or bent out of shape to fit a favored agenda.

This was the case in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Disagreements between different government bureaucracies, civilian and military, played themselves out through media leaks. Intellectuals, too, hotly debated the merits of war. However, the Iraqis were marginal in the commotion, which is why so many Americans were taken aback by what happened once Baghdad fell.

The latest twist on this failing comes from the exchange now taking place in some American policy circles and the military over whether to engage Middle Eastern militant Islamist groups, particularly Hizbullah and Hamas. Last week, Mark Perry, author of a book advocating talking to Islamists, published a blog post on the Foreign Policy website saying that a recent “red team” report by senior officers in US Central Command had proposed a new approach to Hizbullah and Hamas. The officers cast doubt on the current American isolation of the groups, Perry wrote, and they recommended “integrating the two into their respective political mainstreams.”

The officers also revived the idea of incorporating Hizbullah and Hamas into their government-backed security forces, arguing: “The US role of assistance to an integrated Lebanese defense force that includes Hizballah; and the continued training of Palestinian security forces in a Palestinian entity that includes Hamas in its government, would be more effective than providing assistance to entities – the government of Lebanon and Fatah – that represent only a part of the Lebanese and Palestinian populace respectively.”

Perry noted that while the officers acknowledged that Hizbullah and Hamas “embrace staunch anti-Israel rejectionist policies,” they added that the two groups are “pragmatic and opportunistic.”

Here was a controversial example of “thinking outside the box” on Hizbullah and Hamas, Perry opined. It was precisely the opposite. A bevy of Americans essentially made assumptions with no grounding whatsoever in the reasoning of either of the two Islamist groups. Worse, the officers lazily lumped Hizbullah and Hamas together, even though both have different aims and operate in significantly different political contexts. This was thinking made in Washington, directed at Washington, based on terms largely defined by Washington. It was the pure product of a closed Washington box.

Let’s start with the last point raised by the officers, namely the fact that Hizbullah and Hamas are pragmatic and opportunistic. Of course they are, but it’s worth recalling Lenin in these instances. One can be pragmatic and opportunistic in the pursuit of firm goals (and opposition to Israel and the United States are essential to the Islamists’ goals). In the case of Hizbullah and Hamas, their overriding goal can be defined as the accumulation of greater power at the expense of what Perry calls their political mainstreams.

But let’s be more specific. Hizbullah, at least its leadership and security cadre, is an extension of Iran. The party is there primarily to defend and advance Iranian regional interests, even if Tehran has anchored Hizbullah, or allowed it to anchor itself, in the Lebanese Shiite condition. That means that Hizbullah will never defy Iranian directives when it comes to matters as fundamental as the United States or Israel. As for Hamas, its ultimate ambition is to seize control of the Palestinian national movement, supplant Fatah, and redefine the conflict with Israel in terms the movement prefers. Both groups believe in what they’re doing and regard “resistance” as an ideal, one lying at the heart of a worldview defined largely by their religion. Where they have been pragmatic – for example by participating in national elections – they have been so for tactical gain, in order to enhance their authority and rework the political environment in their favor.

When these groups see Americans, not least American soldiers, contorting themselves to justify flexibility toward militant Islamists, they assume, rightly, that their political strategy is working. And if a strategy is working, why do anything to overhaul it?

Then there are the specifics the officers raised. They appeared to be unaware that Hizbullah has spent years resisting integration into the Lebanese “mainstream” and army, yet they toss this out as a given. Hizbullah has no desire to integrate and never did. Rather, it seeks to neutralize the ability of the Lebanese state and the society to challenge the party’s military autonomy. Hizbullah has largely been successful: it has great sway over the commanding heights of government and the army, especially its intelligence services. Similarly, Hamas will only integrate into the Palestinian security forces once it is sure that it won’t be obliged to surrender its freedom of military action.

The officers’ statement that American aid would be more effective if it went to integrated national forces in Lebanon and Palestine is true. However, so self-evident a remark hardly qualifies as original. Nor does it have any basis in reality. Hizbullah and Hamas will continue to preserve their autonomy because they can. All else is idle chatter.

Which leads us to another alcove in this secluded Washington conversation. If the US considers opening a new page with Hizbullah and Hamas, what happens to the domestic adversaries of these groups who are closer to Washington politically? What dynamics might such openings release? Plainly, initiating negotiations with Hamas would undermine the Palestinian Authority. But what of Hizbullah? Lebanon is a complex place. Barring for a moment that Hizbullah has made it amply clear that it has nothing to discuss with the Americans, what might the Americans try to put on the table with the party? Greater Shiite representation? Disarmament? On all of these, the US would run into successive walls of Lebanese contradictions.

That’s the difficulty in the “talk to Islamists” scheme. It is entirely America-centric, built on an assumption that the obstacles come from Washington and have nothing to do with the ideology and convictions of the Islamist groups themselves. It also rests on a Yankee notion that everyone secretly yearns to talk and that dialogue can resolve most issues. That’s not innovative thinking; it’s a case of transposing America to the minds of others, which is either naive or astonishingly smug.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Hizbullah's troublesome Turkish embrace

Hizbullah has been terribly excitable in recent weeks. It has threatened, condemned, demanded, and warned, all suggesting the party is not quite relaxed about the prevailing political situation.

First it was the party’s ambiguities about the ships to be sent from Beirut to Gaza; then its tough position on the offshore oil dispute with Israel. Then it was Hizbullah MP Kamel al-Rifai promising that the party would soon “confront American defamation campaigns” and prepare a list of individuals, parties and clubs collaborating with the US. And this week villagers in the south, in actions very likely orchestrated by Hizbullah, blocked roads and attacked UNIFIL vehicles. This came after an Alfa employee was arrested allegedly for being a Mossad spy, allowing Hizbullah to caution that Israel controls the Lebanese telecoms sector.

Hizbullah’s message is clear: the enemy is everywhere. For a party that needs enemies to survive, this is understandable. However, there is something deeper at play, a malaise with the fact that the situation in Lebanon and the Middle East is not to the party’s liking.

Hizbullah appears to have been put out by the Turkish reaction to the Gaza flotilla incident a few weeks ago. While many in the West saw only Ankara’s hostility against Israel, the perspective from the region was different, and played itself out against a backdrop of Arab fears of Iran’s rising power; or less subtly, Sunni Arab fears of Shiite Iran.

The Palestinian issue is at the heart of the so-called “resistance agenda,” which Hizbullah claims to embody best. Since 2005, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has used the Palestinians as a battering ram to enhance Iran’s legitimacy among the Arabs, while delegitimizing the Arab’s own passive regimes. But now Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has stepped in and the Arabs, their sectarian impulses kicking in, have elected Turkey as their foremost champion.

Turkey’s push on the Palestinian front may lead in several directions that Hizbullah finds worrisome. For starters, Erdogan has arrogated the right to speak in the name of Hamas, recently declaring that the movement is not a terrorist organization. Given Turkish influence over Syria, which hosts Hamas’ leader Khaled Meshaal, this throws a new variable into Hizbullah’s relation with the Palestinian Islamist movement.

Nor could Hizbullah’s secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah, have failed to notice the sudden outpouring of enthusiasm in Beirut for Turkey after the Gaza incident, especially from the likes of Prime Minister Saad Hariri and Walid Jumblatt. Their endorsements were implicitly and even explicitly directed against Iran’s way of doing things in the Middle East. Saying yes to Turkey has become shorthand in Lebanon and the region for saying no to Iran and its allies.

More generally, what does it mean for Hizbullah if Turkey displaces Iran and the party itself as the main spokesmen for the Palestinian cause – all the time remaining friendly with Tehran and even defending it internationally? What it means, in tangible terms, is that the Turks have a greater say in matters of war and peace in the region when it comes to Israel. It also means they will examine more closely how actions by Iran, Syria, and Hizbullah might affect Turkey’s interests. That complicates matters for Hizbullah, because suddenly the party’s freedom to use Lebanon on Iran’s behalf as an instrument of deterrence against Israel is lessened.

Even internally the situation has shifted. Hizbullah has growled in recent weeks that any domestic attempt to use possible indictments by the Hariri tribunal against the party might provoke a new onslaught against the Sunnis, similar to that of May 2008. But how realistic is that today? Not very. Hariri has played the Turkish card to the hilt, and the sudden consolidation of Sunni local and regional solidarity in favor of Palestine and against Iran, in many ways default positions for the community, greatly constrains Hizbullah.

And so, Hizbullah watches with trepidation as new actors are hijacking its symbols. If Turkey emerges as a new power, what will it mean for Syria’s dependency on Iran? The thought of an emerging alignment of Sunni-dominated states in which an unabashedly Muslim Turkey, led by moderate Islamists, seizes the choice role, is not something reassuring for Tehran, which still considers the weak states of the Gulf as an open field for Iranian hegemony.

This is what explains Hizbullah’s sudden burst of paranoid energy. By artificially playing up dangers left and right, the party is trying to reposition itself, both within the Shiite community and in Lebanese society, as the vanguard force defending against Israel and the United States. Hizbullah thrives on conflict, but Erdogan threatens to take the conflict card out of the party’s hands and play it at a table where Hizbullah cannot compete, and where Iran might lose out.

Above all, Hizbullah is concerned about its latitude to retaliate against an Israeli or American attack against Iran. Turkey may be critical of Israel, but it hasn’t severed diplomatic ties. It could come to play a crucial role as mediator to head off a Lebanese-Israeli confrontation, while also using its sway over Damascus to hold Syria in check.

Turkey has a contingent in UNIFIL, whose term was extended only last week. That southern villagers should be raising the heat on the international force now does not appear to be a coincidence in light of the decision. The party cannot afford to attack the Turks head on, but by discrediting the UN mission, Hizbullah may be out to undermine any eventual Turkish role, especially in conjunction with the UN, as the go-between with Israel over Lebanon.

Fear those closest to you, the saying goes. Hizbullah has never seemed so destabilized as when facing the troublesome Turkish embrace.