Friday, August 27, 2010

Lebanon’s Russian doll

If Prime Minister Saad Hariri is someone who often seems to be enclosed in a political box – between his allegiance to Saudi Arabia, his newfound closeness to Syria, and the hostility of Hezbollah – Walid Jumblatt is the Russian doll of Lebanese politics, a captive of myriad concentric layers of alliances, dalliances, duties and threats.

The Druze leader provokes much scorn these days from those appalled with the vigor of his about-faces. The man who heaped reptilian metaphors on Bashar al-Assad only a few years ago has become the Syrian president’s most stalwart champion in Beirut. The leader who took charge of the revolt against Syria has been abased to socializing with Syria’s most ignoble order-takers. Like the student in class caught cheating, and who informs on his comrades in order to make things good with the teacher, Jumblatt seems most acerbic, most destructive, when referring to his previous political partners.

This is what you hear, and some of the accusations are difficult to refute. Jumblatt’s twin preoccupations, the defense of his Druze community and the perpetuation of Jumblatt authority over the community, require a considerable amount of humility, and humiliation. But in a system where the rule is every man for himself, or every man for himself and his regional patron, it’s difficult to demand of Jumblatt that he sacrifice all for the greater good of Lebanon, when almost no one else is willing to do so.

And yet the anger with Jumblatt persists, and it persists largely because of his style. Hariri has visited Damascus on several occasions, making his peace with those whom he and his entourage had once accused of being behind the assassination of Rafik al-Hariri. But the prime minister somehow escapes opprobrium, largely because he never went too far, never overstated his case, as did Jumblatt – indeed as Jumblatt needed to do, since the only way the Druze leader could remain relevant was to remain in the political vanguard and drag the system in the directions he chose.

Jumblatt’s latest priority is to push for the scuttling of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon. That is no easy task. The Druze leader’s testimony is still with the prosecutor, Daniel Bellemare, and for Jumblatt to take it back (as may very well be the demand from his handlers in Damascus) would involve explaining why he lied in a signed deposition, which may eventually entail legal sanction.

Politically, the tribunal places Jumblatt in a tight spot. The Syrians want the institution to go away no less than Hezbollah does, but the two appear to differ over timing. To resurrect Syrian hegemony over Lebanon, Damascus needs to impose its will on Hezbollah and take for itself the leading administrative and security posts controlled by the party. Syria’s main tool is an indictment or a lesser tribunal decision that points the finger at Hezbollah. Such an accusation would hand Syria considerable leverage to bargain with the party, and once it gets what it wants by way of Hezbollah concessions, to then push Hariri into ending cooperation with the tribunal.

That is why Syria and Hezbollah, and behind the party Iran, are engaged in an increasingly visible struggle for power in Lebanon (witness the Bourj Abi Haidar incident), and it is why Jumblatt is so alarmed. He’s caught in the middle, and though the Druze leader has made clear that he’s on the side of Damascus (and Saudi Arabia, which pays the bills), he also happens to be most vulnerable when facing Hezbollah, which surrounds his mountains and showed in May 2008 that it could penetrate them militarily when necessary.

Recently, Jumblatt propped himself up by organizing a Druze conference in Lebanon, bringing together his Lebanese coreligionists with those from Israel, Syria and Jordan. The delegation from Israel was given permission to travel via Syria, and Assad allowed Syria’s Druze to attend, even though traditionally the Baath regime has hindered Jumblatti flirtations with its Druze community. Yet Jumblatt somehow managed to earn those two favors. It could be that Assad was partly seeking to bolster Jumblatt’s position with respect to Hezbollah, but you really have to wonder what will be, or already has been, demanded of the Druze leader by way of reimbursement.

Not surprisingly, the Druze conference made Hezbollah and its supporters apoplectic. Ibrahim Amin of the pro-Hezbollah daily Al-Akhbar, usually a reliable sounding board for party opinion, was highly critical, particularly of the presence of Israeli Druze. The newspaper has continued to target Jumblatt, and in an article this week it wondered about his true loyalties, asking in a headline: “Is Jumblatt with [the Syria-Saudi axis] or with the Syrian-Iranian alliance?” The article was more an effort to intimidate Jumblatt into selecting the latter, than an attempt to answer the question.

Much of what Jumblatt is doing can be explained by family. If the Druze leader is eating dust on a daily basis, that’s because he needs to set up his eldest son to inherit the Druze leadership, and he cannot do so if the Jumblatts are on bad terms with Syria, Hezbollah, Saudi Arabia or whoever else calls the shots in Lebanon. It’s reasonable that many Lebanese don’t sympathize with this ambition, but that’s irrelevant; it is at the heart of Jumblatt’s calculations.

So will Walid Jumblatt ever break out of his multiple boxes? It’s unlikely for now. The arch-survivor is still surviving, but the price is getting steeper and the interest on Jumblatt’s debts dearer.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Was Burj Abi Haidar a battle by proxy?

You had to agree with the pro-Hizbullah daily Al-Akhbar when it observed in its Wednesday edition that one could only “naively” assume that the Burj Abi Haidar fighting the previous evening was the result of a personal dispute between supporters of Hizbullah and the Society of Islamic Philanthropic Projects, known as the Ahbash.

We can only speculate about precisely what did happen. However, most media outlets agreed that tension had been brewing in the neighborhood for some time. The Ahbash are close to Syria, not to say the Syrian intelligence services, which has long employed the group as a counterweight to Sunni militant groups the Syrian regime considers threatening, above all the Muslim Brotherhood. In the postwar period, the Syrians used the Ahbash against the Hariri family – indeed Ahbash members were suspected of involvement in the assassination of the former prime minister, Rafik Hariri – and to undercut the authority of the mufti and the Sunni religious establishment.

To interpret what happened as a Sunni-Shiite clash may be understandable, but there was really much more to it than that. Here was, perhaps, the first armed confrontation between Iran and Syria in Lebanon, through proxies, to determine who will dominate the country in the future. More specifically, the Syrians, in endeavoring to revive their hegemony, have entered into a struggle for power with the only force that can stand up to them locally, Hizbullah, on which Damascus seeks to impose its priorities. Not surprisingly, Hizbullah has refused to surrender the political gains it accumulated during the past five years – gains, above all, in the service of Iran.

The heart of the problem is the Special Tribunal for Lebanon. A decision is expected from the institution in the coming months – whether indictments or the identification of suspects. Hizbullah feels it will be targeted by such a step and has raised the heat on the government of Prime Minister Saad Hariri to immediately end Lebanon’s cooperation with the tribunal. Hariri has refused, and can afford to buy time. That’s because Hariri knows that Syria intends to use any tribunal decision as leverage over Hizbullah, to push the party to surrender to Damascus key posts it controls in the public administration and the security and military apparatus.

In light of this, Syria, like Hariri, is waiting for the tribunal to come out with something first, before opening negotiations with Hizbullah; while Hizbullah’s secretary general, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, keen to avoid any such bargaining, is out to create an intolerable situation on the ground so that Hariri is left with no choice but to scuttle the tribunal before its findings push the party into a corner.

Initially, Hizbullah felt that it had a range of options to intimidate Hariri. Party spokesmen ominously mentioned a return to May 2008, when Hizbullah and Amal overran western Beirut militarily and forced the government of Fouad Siniora to annul two decisions that the party regarded as threatening. Hizbullah officials also raised the possibility of bringing down the current government. However, at a summit in Beirut several weeks ago, President Michel Sleiman, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, and President Bashar Assad of Syria signed on to a statement that effectively ruled out both measures.

Consequently, it could be that Hizbullah’s fight against the Ahbash, even if the incident that prompted it was not premeditated, was a message to Damascus that Hizbullah would not readily bend. And this on a night when Nasrallah made a speech virtually calling for the “Iranization” of Lebanon. Hizbullah had no interest in assaulting Hariri’s Future Movement, as this would have transgressed all red lines, leading to a major breakout of Sunni-Shiite hostility. But by going after the Ahbash, Hizbullah was able to send a subtle warning to Hariri, but also a more pointed one to Damascus.

Conversely, some observers have suggested that what happened was a Syrian warning to Hizbullah. Yet there are problems with this theory, not least that time is on Syria’s side when it comes to the tribunal, and Damascus gained little by provoking the party. Either way, both Hizbullah and the Ahbash were armed and ready for one another.

What will be interesting to watch in the coming weeks is what happens on the margins of the Syrian-Iranian struggle over Lebanon. The Parliament speaker, Nabih Berri, whose allegiances are with Syria, must yet be very careful of how he manages his relationship with Hizbullah. It was indicative of Berri’s dilemma that during the Burj Abi Haidar incident Amal issued a statement saying it was not involved, even as some of its men fought on Hizbullah’s side.

Walid Jumblatt is another politician who must play the Syria-Hizbullah rivalry very carefully. He has been especially vocal recently in calling for the tribunal to be abandoned. That’s because it only exacerbates the tensions between Damascus and Hizbullah, and Jumblatt and his community happen to be caught in the middle. The Druze leader has been the target of repeated condemnation in Al-Akhbar lately, principally because Hizbullah views him as particularly vulnerable (which Jumblatt is), and wants to keep him in line.

Was the Burj Abi Haidar skirmish the first in a series of similar occurrences? It’s difficult to say, but for now nothing indicates that the Syrians and Hizbullah are near to reaching middle ground by tempering their ambitions. What divides Syria and Iran is power, which is something neither is presently inclined to share in Beirut. Even if Hizbullah and Syria avoid episodes like the one on Tuesday, there will be other outbursts of violence or political altercations as the tribunal nears the time when it takes some sort of action.

Particularly revealing is the extent to which Hizbullah feels confident that it can out-maneuver Syria in Lebanon. Damascus was never very good at anchoring itself among the Lebanese without its army and intelligence services around to enforce its dictates. Ironically, Hizbullah has become the principle bulwark resisting a Syrian comeback, because the party wants to preserve Lebanon for Iran. What abysmal choices we Lebanese are left with.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Keeping us quiet, for heaven’s sake

The Maronite Church should have allowed Al-Manar and NBN to continue showing an Iranian television series on the life of Jesus Christ, based on the so-called Gospel of Barnabas. The program was discontinued last week due to Christian discontent.

Bishop Bechara al-Rai of Jbeil described the television series as a “distortion” of Christianity, and he was right with respect to Catholic orthodoxy. The Gospel of Barnabas, which the Church doesn’t recognize, denies the resurrection of Christ and the crucifixion, and has been picked up by Muslims, or some Muslims, to conform with Islamic doctrine. Muslims consider Jesus to be a prophet, but not divine, and they believe that someone else died on the cross.

However, the details of the Gospel of Barnabas were not the real issue. Something much simpler was: the right to free expression.

Recall that such freedom was curtailed in early summer 2006, when the Bas Mat Watan satire show on LBC show poked fun at Hezbollah’s secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah. Almost immediately, Nasrallah’s supporters took to the streets of the southern suburbs and closed the airport road, while others marched on non-Shia areas, fighting with Christian youths (among them Sami Gemayel) in Achrafieh. The incident was a coordinated effort by Hezbollah to intimidate its political rivals, but was defended by party sympathizers as a spontaneous reaction to a perceived insult against a religious figure.

This episode came only a few months after mainly Sunni protesters set fire to the building housing the Danish Embassy, following the decision of a Danish newspaper to publish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad. Then, too, the event almost degenerated into a sectarian confrontation. The embassy was also in Achrafieh, which not a few of the rioters evidently mistook for Copenhagen, as they vandalized shops and buildings, and insulted inhabitants.

The reasoned response to the two incidents among many people was that things had gone a bit far. And of course they had. But there was disagreement over whether the initial anger was justified or not. For some people, the Shia and Sunni protesters were right to be irate, even if they were wrong in resorting to violent action. For others, probably fewer in number, it was the anger itself that was unjustified. They argued that if freedom of speech was reined in every time someone risked becoming annoyed, particularly on religious matters, Lebanon would never truly develop as a place of free expression.

I admit to belonging to the second group. Free speech and expression should mean, at least most of the time, not having to say you’re sorry.

However, even in liberal societies there have always been exceptions to that rule. France, for example, makes Holocaust denial a punishable offense. In many Western countries, free speech stops at the threshold of public disorder. And in a more absurd instance, this time in the United Kingdom, a woman was legally accused of engaging in anti-social behavior months ago because she frequently became vocal when having sex, disturbing the neighbors.

Rai echoed the public order argument when he observed that the television series “undermines the foundations of every religion and creates strife.” Then he almost immediately tempered this by saying “we don’t burn tires [but] we won’t keep silent.”

That was an interesting way of putting it. In other words, he, or the Christians in whose name he was speaking, would not resort to aggressive behavior, but they would register their displeasure. Isn’t that precisely the essence of civilized protest? But the thing is that Rai, implicitly or explicitly, really just wanted the series to be taken off the air, which is rather different. What he should have done instead is request air time – let’s say after the broadcast – to explain his church’s views of Jesus and the Gospel of Barnabas. That means he should have engaged in an open exchange with the public.

What purpose would this have served? For a start, there is not a very great difference between burning tires and urging television stations to censor a program one doesn’t like. Both aim to silence a specific viewpoint. Somehow societies are much healthier when ideas can be discussed without the sword of restriction hovering overhead.

It makes no sense for Christians to condemn the Bas Mat Watan demonstrations and the burning of the Danish Embassy, then to turn around and claim that a television show, no matter what its content, must be terminated because it has offended their sensibilities. The key point is that public order, as Rai himself admitted, was not under threat. Allowing the show to continue would have led to no serious repercussions. But by the same token, those behind Al-Manar and NBN, like everyone else, should be prepared to suck it up when one of their paragons, religious or secular, is attacked or mocked.

Will this tradeoff occur? Obviously not. Lebanon is still a country where religion retains an archaic, asphyxiating hold on society; where the clergy is a citadel of intellectual and spiritual pettiness, even bone-headedness. However, the clergy also reflects the society it thrives in, and until the Lebanese draw red lines around their men of religion, we will have to prepare for the possibility of violence in the streets and censorship on the air, all in the name of God or his servants.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Resignation is Hariri's strongest card

There is a sense in Beirut that the prime minister, Saad Hariri, is in a bind because of the recent attacks against the Special Tribunal for Lebanon by Hizbullah’s secretary general, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah. But how true is that? A closer look would show that Hariri has substantially more leeway than people assume.

One reason for this is Syria. While President Bashar Assad would like to see the STL eventually disappear, he sees no reason to push for that right away. That’s because any decision the tribunal might take against Hizbullah – an indictment or merely the naming of suspects – would provide Damascus with valuable leverage over the party, helping to restore Syrian hegemony over Lebanon.

What does this mean in practical terms? It means that Syria must place its people at the head of Lebanon’s main security and intelligence agencies – above all military intelligence and the General Security directorate – but also in senior positions in the army and at key facilities such as the airport. For now, Hizbullah has much sway over these institutions. Damascus has a sympathetic ear in the Information Department of the Internal Security Forces, and it seems that State Security, traditionally viewed as close to the Parliament speaker, Nabih Berri, a close Syrian ally, is taking new applications, suggesting it may be revived as a tool in this balancing game.

The Syrians’ problem is that Hizbullah is more effective on the ground in Lebanon than Syria is. Hariri has a similar problem. Which is why both Assad and Hariri may have a shared interest in waiting for the STL to take a decision in order to employ that in their bargaining with Hizbullah, albeit to achieve separate aims. And it is why Nasrallah, like Iran, is so keen for the Lebanese government to cut ties with the tribunal now, to avoid being forced into making concessions.

Hariri’s calculation is different than Syria’s, yet very similar. He, too, likely seeks to use the leverage of a tribunal pronouncement to appoint his followers to essential posts, and in that way reinforce Lebanese state authority against both Hizbullah and Syria. He, too, would regard as a priority the promotion of individuals less beholden to Hizbullah to head the intelligence and security services, airport security and the army. Ideally, he would also look to obtain guarantees from Hizbullah on its weapons in southern Lebanon.

How would the prime minister react to a tribunal decision pointing the finger at Hizbullah? The most logical scenario is that he would immediately announce that the party’s leadership is innocent of having assassinated his father. He might then wait and see what happens, particularly how the army reacts, since presumably the tribunal, whether it issues an indictment or merely identifies suspects, would ask the Lebanese to make arrests. It’s at that stage that Hariri, but also Syria, would want to negotiate with Nasrallah.

A vital factor here, however, is whether Syria would allow Hizbullah to bring down the government. At the Beirut summit a few weeks ago, the Syrians signed on to a statement that implicitly rejected this alternative. But if they felt that Hariri’s demands on Hizbullah were somehow undermining their own, all options would be open. At that stage the prime minister and Syria would need to consult and determine whether common ground is possible over what each would ask for from Hizbullah. It would become a matter of compromising.

To raise the heat on Hariri, and protect itself, the army would almost certainly respond to any tribunal order by saying that it is unable to arrest Hizbullah members. But that poses certain risks. The army doesn’t want to come across as utterly ineffective, and there continue to be officers dismayed that their institution is becoming an adjunct of Hizbullah. Moreover, a refusal to arrest suspects would not substantially damage Hariri’s political standing, since Hizbullah would still need him to decide on Lebanon’s cooperation with the special tribunal. And here Hariri has a significant card to play.

That card, quite simply, is his resignation. If the army refuses to arrest anyone, Hariri can threaten to resign, to strengthen his hand in his talks with Hizbullah; or if the party manages to bring down his government, he can make his resignation very painful. Either way, the prime minister’s departure could leave behind a mess that both Hizbullah and Syria would not relish having to clean up.

Here’s why. If Hariri were to announce, with his statement declaring Hizbullah’s leadership innocent of Rafik Hariri’s murder, that he also has great faith in the work of the special tribunal, he would poison the waters for any successor prime minister. There has been speculation lately that Hariri might consider stepping down and handing over to someone like Mohammad Safadi, so as to allow him, or someone else, to suspend Lebanon’s collaboration with the tribunal. But the scheme would go nowhere if Hariri praises the work of the prosecutor, Daniel Bellemare. In that event, no Sunni prime minister would dare undercut the tribunal, not with Hariri endorsing the institution.

Imagine then what would happen. Hizbullah would be unable to find an effective Sunni partner to scuttle the tribunal; it would remain in the dock before the international community and most Lebanese; and it would have few means to do much about it if Syria and Hariri agree beforehand that the domestic situation needs to remain calm. Indeed, Nasrallah himself would hesitate to destabilize Lebanon, since his unwritten contract with Iran requires him to be prepared to retaliate against Israel in case of an attack against its nuclear facilities. And how could he do that with Lebanon simmering?

Hariri’s strong suit is his resignation. Where he goes, the Sunnis will go too, at least when it comes to Rafik Hariri’s killing. That’s why the prime minister appears to be gambling that no one, not Hizbullah nor the Syrians, really wants him to leave. They don’t want to re-create the situation of 2006-2007, when the opposition was unable to find a Sunni willing to form a parallel government to Fouad Siniora’s. Just as critical, Syria does not want to alienate the Sunnis when it needs them to help bring Hizbullah into line with Syrian priorities.

In the coming months we’ll see what Bellemare has, or doesn’t have. But it is Nasrallah, not Hariri, who is the more worried about the political implications of a tribunal announcement. To assume the contrary is to underestimate the impact if Hariri steps down.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Bravado does not help Beirut explain its subtleties

The House members took the decision following a recent incident in south Lebanon in which Lebanese soldiers fired at Israeli soldiers. Three Lebanese, two of them military personnel, were killed in the ensuing fire-fight, as was an Israeli officer. The United Nations force in southern Lebanon determined that the Lebanese had fired across the international border, which brought US condemnation.

While the Lebanese put up a united front, there was suspicion in Beirut that Hizbollah had provoked the incident through the great influence it wields over the Lebanese army, especially the predominantly Shiite units in the south. However, it was unlikely that what occurred was a premeditated decision by the army command. Indeed, I learned that at the height of the fighting, contact between the defence ministry and the south was temporarily interrupted.

The most significant sceptic in the House is Howard Berman, who chairs the powerful foreign affairs committee. In a statement after having put a hold on $100 million in aid, Mr Berman said: “Until we know more about this incident and the nature of Hizbollah influence on the LAF (Lebanese armed forces) and can assure that the LAF is a responsible actor – I cannot in good conscience allow the United States to continue sending weapons to Lebanon.”

A hold cannot block assistance that has already been allocated, and the state department spokesman declared that the US would not re-evaluate plans to supply the Lebanese army. However, an administration must take the views of the House seriously, since not doing so might affect future allocations, which Mr Berman’s committee would have to approve. And for some time now in Washington, assistance to the army has not been an easy sell.

The response from some in Beirut was to hint that if the US did not supply Lebanon with weapons, these might be sought elsewhere, the implication being from Syria and Iran. The defence minister, Elias Murr, even opened an account last week at the Central Bank to take donations for the army. But all these steps were empty. The army is equipped mainly with American hardware and is therefore reliant on American ammunition and spare parts. The notion that it might suddenly switch to new arms suppliers is almost laughable.

The Lebanese debate over the military is being shaped by short-sighted politics. Politicians have been engaging in one-upmanship about Lebanon’s right to protect itself against Israel, but there remains deep unease in Beirut about the implications of the congressional action. For foes of Hizbollah, Lebanon’s growing isolation from the US would only favour the Shiite armed group, which seeks to break the country off from its western connections. That argument is also being used by defenders of aid to Lebanon in Washington, who accept that the army has failed to rein in Hizbollah, but who regard cutting assistance as even worse an option.

The Lebanese government, specifically the prime minister, Saad Hariri, is partly responsible for this state of affairs. Although Mr Hariri is an adversary of Hizbollah, he signed off on a cabinet statement vague enough that it legitimised the party’s resort to arms, while affirming a bond between the Lebanese people, resistance, and army in liberating occupied land. Mr Hariri and his allies approved the statement to be seen as diluting Hizbollah into the legitimate armed forces. Yet this had the contrary effect of making it appear that the army and people were adjuncts of Hizbollah. That is why Israel says that in a future war it will consider all of Lebanon a target.

Among the reasons that Mr Hariri has paid lip service to the resistance are the actions of his patrons in Saudi Arabia and the absence of a clear American policy toward Lebanon. Once the Saudis reconciled with Syria last year, after a long dispute, Mr Hariri was obliged to do the same. Among his priorities as head of government has been the preservation of civil peace, requiring making concessions to Hizbollah, but also to Syria, a loud supporter of the resistance.

At the same time, the prime minister has sought to position himself in the mainstream of Arab support (alongside Turkey) for the Palestinian cause. He has done so both for domestic reasons, to undercut Hizbollah’s claim of being the vanguard of Arab resistance against Israel, and for regional reasons, as part of an effort by Sunni-majority states to seize the “resistance” card from Iran’s hands.

These subtleties have been lost in Washington, at a time when the Obama administration has relegated Lebanon to a low rung in its Middle Eastern priorities. That is one reason why Mr Hariri currently feels so vulnerable. It is also dangerous for Lebanon in light of the omnipresent possibility of war with Israel. That such a war would be destructive is beyond doubt; but for Lebanon to also be portrayed as a failed Hizbollah-dominated state could be catastrophic. Only the US can restrain Israel, and American backing would be vital in any post-war reconstruction effort. Today, Lebanon is assured of neither.

Rep Berman’s position has bipartisan support in the foreign affairs committee. The ranking Republican, Rep Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, is, similarly, cool about aid to Lebanon. A noted supporter of Israel, she is known in Washington as someone lukewarm to Mr Hariri. Come next November, she may take over Rep Berman’s seat. Lebanon will need more than bravado to restore its image in Washington.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Downward, Christian soldiers

Go back a couple of weeks to the three-way summit between President Michel Sleiman, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. A great deal has been written about that noisy conclave, but almost nothing about one of its subtexts: the marginalization of Maronite representatives, creating a sense that the community was incidental at a vital moment for Lebanon’s future.

What emerged from the summit was a stern, demographically understandable reminder that the country’s destiny is being shaped by the dynamics of Sunni-Shia interaction. Even Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, armed with a talent for barging in on performances to which he was not invited, remained incognito. However, he then sought to compensate by organizing a Druze congress with representatives from Israel, Syria, and Lebanon, to create the impression that he had some 700,000 coreligionists under his wing.

But not the Maronites. Michel Sleiman’s short-sightedness was a disappointment. The president defied protocol by barring two former presidents from the Baabda lunch — allegedly because the Syrians did not want Amin Gemayel there, and King Abdullah was happy to avoid Emile Lahoud. Worse, Sleiman did not invite the Maronite patriarch, Nasrallah Sfeir, because that, too, would have apparently discomfited Assad. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Saad Hariri ensured that the Sunni mufti would meet King Abdullah at his home, on the sensible grounds that there was no reason to offend his community’s highest religious representative, and a political advocate.

It was lost on Sleiman that he would have only gained in legitimacy through Sfeir’s presence. To have the patriarch in attendance would have been Sleiman’s way of saying that he alone could deliver a Maronite blessing for the summit’s results. The president should have made Sfeir’s presence a condition for hosting his Arab counterparts. Instead, he averted a fight and looked like a guest at his own party — isolated, uncomfortable, largely immaterial to the proceedings.

The decline of Lebanon’s Maronites, and of the Christians in general, is an old story, and a dismal one. It is dismal because the community’s nastiest setbacks have been self-inflicted. It’s not a bad thing to be realistic. For Christians to refuse to surrender any power today on the grounds that, historically, they have been entitled to this post or that, this privilege or that, is utterly foolish. Lebanon is changing, and if the community doesn’t adapt voluntarily, in a way allowing it to negotiate its own fate, it may one day face imposed change.

However, the worst thing is for a realistic perception of Christian decline to transform itself into hopelessness, which can only accelerate the decline. We are very near to that stage. Christians have tended to reduce everything to numbers: Two-thirds of the country is Muslim, therefore all is lost, you will hear many of them say. This is not only a narrow view of reality, it is a recipe for self-immolation.

For starters, the simplistic Christian-Muslim dichotomy is no longer reflected on the ground. For better or worse, and very simplistically and unsatisfactorily, Lebanon is better defined these days by a triangular relationship — between Sunnis, Shia and Christians. There is much that is disheartening in subdividing Lebanese society in that way, but it’s also true that this condition has yielded a much more complex set of political choices, particularly for Christians. Michel Aoun has sided with Hezbollah, Samir Geagea with the Future Movement, and Michel Sleiman has tried to steer in the middle.

There is also the fact that Christians continue to play a significant, sometimes a vanguard, role in Lebanon’s society, culture and economy, with an overwhelming percentage of remittances coming from Christians abroad. And yet there is also, and paradoxically, a disturbing lack of political vigor, economic innovation or intellectual dynamism in the community. The political leadership is mostly corrupt, myopic or unresponsive, satisfied with managing the status quo; the clergy, with its vast networks of influence, including schools and parishes, is awash in greed and tawdriness; Christian intellectuals devote relatively little time to imagining new foundations for their country or community and generally publish little that is stimulating, while those who do find themselves largely unread or unheard.

Christian talent is all around, yet seems invisible. The challenge for the community will be to discover the right mechanisms allowing Christians to reinvent their role in Lebanon. But don’t hold your breath; expect little from the president, the church and the political leadership. As for the society, overall far better than its leaders, it appears locked in a paralysis of despair that can bring no good.

The Baabda summit is the latest reminder of how steep the Christian climb will be. Driven by petty disagreements, open to foreign manipulation, disoriented by the transformations all around them, the Christians can offer better. But needed first is a psychological overhaul of the community, one more elusive than ever.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Hassan Nasrallah’s guide to memory loss

Marvel at the contempt Hizbullah’s secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah, must feel for us all, that he would expect us to believe his presentation last Monday telling us that Israel was behind the assassination of Rafik Hariri, the former prime minister. But that contempt may also in some ways be justified, because far too many Lebanese actually believed him, even as they observe the rapid erosion of their slender sovereignty with lethargy.

Do we Lebanese deserve independence? You have to wonder. Israel has killed many people in Lebanon, and will doubtless kill many more, but we would only be abasing ourselves by abruptly reinterpreting the Hariri assassination in the light that Nasrallah chose to shine on the crime. We would have to believe that Syria did not threaten Hariri in 2004, was untroubled by Resolution 1559, for which it held Hariri partly responsible, did not control Lebanese security in 2005, and did not appoint or approve all senior officials in the security and intelligence agencies. We would have to disregard that these agencies tried to cover up the scene of the assassination, that Hizbullah sought to stifle the emancipation movement by organizing an intimidating demonstration on March 8, 2005, to defend Syria’s presence in Lebanon, and that virtually all of those assassinated after Hariri (not to mention Marwan Hamadeh, who barely escaped assassination before) were critical of Syria.

And, of course, we would have to forget that Hizbullah and its Amal allies twice left the government because it was preparing measures to establish the tribunal – the second time kicking off an 18-month Downtown sit-in to bring down Fouad Siniora’s government.

Nasrallah now offers an explanation for this: the tribunal was politicized. Yet that was not the excuse Hizbullah and Amal used in 2006 when they withdrew their ministers. At the time, their beef was that Siniora and March 14 had undermined governmental procedure by not consulting properly with them. But we can conveniently forget that, too, as well as Syrian President Bashar Assad’s warning issued to the UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, at a meeting in Damascus on April 24, 2007. According to a detailed account leaked to the French daily Le Monde, Assad told Ban that approval of the tribunal under Chapter VII authority “might easily cause a conflict that would degenerate into civil war, provoking divisions between Sunnis and Shiites from the Mediterranean to the Caspian Sea.”

Perhaps Nasrallah had not yet shared his information about Israel with the Syrian president, who, with amazing prescience, found himself echoing revelations about a Shiite connection in the Hariri assassination more than two years before Der Spiegel made a similar reference – one that Nasrallah now sees as proof of an Israeli plot.

It would take an awful lot of forgetting to buy into Nasrallah’s theory, but that is precisely what the secretary general is demanding. He wants Lebanon, above all its prime minister, to forget the overwhelming evidence from the past and bury the Hariri tribunal for good. Let’s just blame Israel, Nasrallah is telling us, so that we can all live in amnesic harmony.

The politics of this message are complicated enough. Prime Minister Saad Hariri is not about to surrender so useful a card as a possible accusation against Hizbullah. From the moment he visited Damascus last December and shook Assad’s hand, Hariri confirmed he was willing to negotiate over the tribunal. That is precisely what Nasrallah seeks to avoid, and his Power Point display was designed to push Hariri into a corner, shift the terms of the debate on the tribunal, and force an end to Lebanese cooperation with the institution.

However, beyond the politics, what does the maneuvering over the tribunal tell us about ourselves as Lebanese? In a system and society committed to the rule of law and justice, Nasrallah’s spectacle would have been impossible, as would have been Hariri’s visit to Damascus and the conflicting statements of Walid Jumblatt about the tribunal (which still holds his affidavit). A system and society committed to the rule of law and justice would not have allowed the second UN commissioner, Serge Brammertz, to waste two years doing next to nothing and conceal this in a battery of evasive reports. Such a system would not have allowed his successor, Daniel Bellemare, to inform us even less about his progress, even though we Lebanese pay a substantial share of the prosecutor’s salary.

In other words, we Lebanese never deserved the tribunal, and I suspect even less the sovereignty and rule of law it was supposed to bolster. Lost in our conspiracy theories and factionalism, we are willing to believe everything ridiculous and reject anything backed up by hard facts. There are those, and they are not few nor are they all Hizbullah followers, who honestly believe Nasrallah made a compelling case this week. When gullibility descends into stupidity, it’s time to admit that Lebanon merits no better than to be run by an armed militia or an autocratic foreign power.

Here is Assad again during his encounter with Ban, offering up this assessment of Lebanese society: “In Lebanon, divisions and confessionalism have been deeply anchored for more than 300 years. Lebanese society is very fragile. [The country’s] most peaceful years were when Syrian forces were present. From 1976 to 2005 Lebanon was stable, whereas now there is great instability.”

If the Lebanese can stomach such disparagement – in fact if they can embrace the man who made that statement – then Assad may have been right to hark back approvingly to the years of Syrian military rule. We’re on the eve of a Syrian comeback, and the Lebanese seem blithely unaware of what this means, so busy are they following the pied pipers who have taken the measure of our society’s foolishness.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Proposed binational state is a symptom of desperation

The transformation of historian Tony Judt from being an advocate of Israel as a young man into one of the most distinctive intellectual critics of the country was an interesting interlude in the otherwise dreary disputation surrounding the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

Judt’s death last week, from complications due to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a motor neuron disorder, was little surprise, and was foreshadowed by the decision of the New York Review of Books to publish an essay by him in each of its recent editions, as if admitting that his time was short. By then, Judt’s affliction had, regrettably, transformed him into a mind without a body.

It was a brilliant mind, but when it came to the destiny of Israel and the Palestinians, Judt quickly found himself a prisoner of familiar byways – a paragon to those siding with the Palestinian cause and an object of censure for supporters of Israel. The primary reason was an essay he had written in 2003, again for the New York Review of Books, titled Israel: The Alternative.

In the article, Judt echoed the views of his friend Edward Said in supporting a binational state in which Israelis and Palestinians could live together. “It is not such a very odd thought,” he wrote. “Most of the readers of this essay live in pluralist states which have long since become multiethnic and multicultural.” In a later introduction that he wrote to a posthumous collection of Said’s articles, Judt described Said’s adoption of binationalism as the consequence of “hardheaded pragmatism”, the result of his belief that Israel would never quit the West Bank, or do so in such a way that would leave behind a governable state. As a result, there was “no alternative to reciprocal territorial self determination for Jews and Arabs alike”.

Judt had defended his own embrace of binationalism in a slightly different light, one familiar today for being voiced even by Israel’s defenders – for example, the American vice president, Joe Biden, when he visited Israel last March. As Mr Biden put it: “It’s no secret the demographic realities make it increasingly difficult for Israel to remain both a Jewish homeland and a democratic country in the absence of the Palestinian state.” This dilemma – whether Israel can remain democratic while abusing and denying viable statehood to an expanding Palestinian population that will become a majority in the coming generations – was at the heart of Judt’s critique of a state whose army he had served in during the time of the June 1967 war.

Yet Judt had no illusions about a two-state project, and in this he parted ways with those like Mr Biden. One passage in Israel: The Alternative explained why, and I suspect provoked the greatest animosity among his detractors: “[Israel] has imported a characteristically late-19th century separatist project into a world that has moved on, a world of individual rights, open frontiers, and international law... Israel, in short, is an anachronism.”

By placing Israel in the train of 19th century nationalisms, Judt deflated the messianic impulses that took hold of the country after its heady victory of 1967. Here was a state like any other, he implied. In Dark Victory: Israel’s Six-Day War, Judt recalled the insular debates on such topics as applied socialism that kibbutz members engaged in during the early 1960s, a transposition into the Middle East of a largely European discussion. “Not surprisingly, Arabs figured very little in this world,” he wrote.

Judt and Said often came across more as intellectual heirs of 19th century bourgeois liberalism than enemies of 19th and 20th century colonialism. And perhaps that’s where to find the flaw in their binational proposal. Despite Judt’s efforts to defend Said’s binationalism as pragmatic, for both men a Jewish-Arab state seemed primarily grounded in an ideal of positivist liberal cosmopolitanism, the same that allowed Judt to describe Israel as an anachronism.

Here Judt’s argument hit a snag. His assessment of Israel was that the country moved to the right after 1967, toward a combination of greater political intolerance and a sense of territorial entitlement. On the Palestinian side, too, there was a hardening of positions, with Hamas gaining power by rejecting the Oslo process and its core principle of a two-state solution based on mutual recognition. To assume that such conditions are propitious for the establishment of a binational state is counterintuitive, even absurd.

That is why Judt had the symptoms right, but not the cure. His views were born of desperation and a compulsive search for a way out. But Judt was no fool; in favouring a near unattainable binationalism, it could be that he was admitting a solution didn’t exist. Israel, the stronger party, has offered no realistic end game to deal with the Palestinians, because it does not have one.

Judt became a lighting rod of condemnation from Israel’s defenders. But in attacking the cure of binationalism, they also avoided addressing his accurate reading of the symptoms. How short-sighted. Israel is further than ever from an answer to the impasse, and Tony Judt’s merit was to hammer this home by bringing a tolerant, liberal historical sensibility to his interpretation of a debilitating stalemate that may soon yield another long war.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Afghanistan’s end game needs more than Pakistan

This past weekend, The New York Times published an article that, once again, showed the extent of American confusion in Afghanistan.

The substance was that US forces are moving away from a counter-insurgency strategy, focused on protecting and rebuilding the capacities of the Afghan state, toward a narrower counterterrorism approach focused on targeted killings.

The shift mirrors the policy discussion that took place before the US President Barack Obama announced his Afghanistan plan last year, with the vice president Joe Biden arguing that Washington’s sole stake in the country was combating al Qa’eda. Mr Biden lost that round. However, international forces have since stalled in Marja and Kandahar, where the counterinsurgency scheme was uncovered. Now Mr Biden’s idea doesn’t sound so bad to a president who set next summer as the deadline to begin an American military withdrawal, and who is keen to cut his losses before the 2014 presidential election.

It’s difficult to fault Mr Biden for his scepticism about Afghanistan. The Obama administration, visibly, does not have the desire, stamina, or funds to engage in a state-building enterprise there. An American pullout makes sense.

More worrisome is the nature of this pullout. As things stand, the US seems to be moving toward greater reliance on Pakistan to impose a satisfactory, or satisfactory enough, political solution so that American troops can be brought home. Targeted assassinations serve as the stick in this process.

Last week, the Washington Post columnist David Ignatius wrote about the recent WikiLeaks affair, which revealed that Pakistani intelligence was actively undermining American objectives in Afghanistan so as to re-impose Islamabad’s writ there. With Pakistan so central to the success of Mr Obama’s plans, this demoralising reality has evidently forced American officials to reconsider their aims.

Mr Ignatius wrote: “White House officials talk these days about seeking an ‘acceptable end state’ in Afghanistan, rather than victory.” And what will produce this end state? “[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 several reasons, the American turnaround is problematic. It shows a lack of commitment to, and patience for, a counterinsurgency strategy defended with great fanfare by the president only months ago. Making the reversal even more disconcerting is that the man now at the helm in Afghanistan, General David Petraeus, was regarded as the guru of counterinsurgency in Iraq. It could well be that counterinsurgency has run its course, or never had a chance of succeeding, but in that case the administration merits blame for adopting a strategy it was never sure about in the first place.

If the US transfers more of its attention to counterterrorism, then it will be juggling contrary goals. The state-building ambition in counterinsurgency cannot be reconciled with the more limited, cheaper endeavour to disrupt al Qa’eda. Pakistan will collaborate against al Qa’eda, but it will also continue to hinder the emergence of a sovereign Afghan state, which counterinsurgency is designed to deliver.

A second problem with the American drift toward a Pakistan-sponsored solution is that there are parties, some very powerful, that might oppose this. Mr Ignatius wrote of a solution brokered “partly” by Pakistan. But given the ethnic makeup of the Taliban, Pakistan’s role would be dominant. India, Russia, and China, each with significant interests in Afghanistan, will not sign off on these arrangements without asking serious questions about the outcome. Pakistan can deal with the Pashtun and the Taliban core, but what of the Tajiks and Uzbeks who mistrust Islamabad and would fight a government in Kabul they regard as a tool of Pakistani hegemony?

In other words, if Washington is looking for an opening to leave Afghanistan, it will take much more than Pakistani mediation to bring this about. The US will have to oversee a regional deal, with the defence of Afghan interests as a priority.

But how likely is this solution to work? Pakistan’s paramount intention is to bar India from Afghanistan. Mounting evidence, including the controversial WikiLeaks documents, a report from the London School of Economics and an expose by the Sunday Times (both released this year), as well as statements by the UK prime minister David Cameron and the US defence secretary Robert Gates, all suggest Pakistan is playing a double game in Afghanistan. Islamabad has not taken this major political risk to bog itself down in bargaining with Afghanistan’s neighbours that might yield less than it can get today.

This raises a more general concern about the US approach. If Afghanistan collapses, it will throw the region into turmoil. Not only would that defeat the political purpose underlying the American presence there since 2001; it would also mean the administration leaves behind a potentially devastating vacuum. Mr Obama will want to avoid this.

However, as he moves away from state-building and concentrates on counterterrorism – which means further reliance on Pakistan’s intelligence concerning al Qa’eda and Taliban targets while also helping to mediate a political solution – he will hand Islamabad wide latitude to shape the end game in its favour. No wonder the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, has been friendlier with Pakistan. He can read Mr Obama’s dilemma better than most.

Now is the worst time for the president to succumb to strategic fuzziness. A hybrid plan can only aggravate the US position in Afghanistan, bewildering everyone and eliminating all prospects for a consensual resolution there. It may be politically safer for Mr Obama to leave the country sooner rather than later, but this war, he insisted, was the “right” one. That means he has a duty to see it through in a way that doesn’t leave the Afghans dangling on a hook.

The Fayez Karam saga

Of course it’s entirely possible that Fayez Karam, the Aounist official arrested earlier this week, was an Israeli spy, as security officials have insisted. In which case we must commend the officials and echo Pogo, by crying out, “We have found the enemy, and he is us!”

Karam is said to have admitted to the charge. However, in these cases it’s always best to be cautious, at least until the accused himself is heard. But there happens to be another version of this puzzling arrest now circulating in Beirut, and it has to do with Syria’s efforts to reassert its dominion over Lebanon, including over Hezbollah.

It didn’t take very much to realize that the Lebanese-Saudi-Syrian summit last week aroused little enthusiasm from Hezbollah’s secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah. In part, to borrow from Walid Jumblatt, that was because Iran was not present; or, more bluntly, because Iran was and is the prime target of the Saudi endeavor to bring Syria back to Lebanon. For King Abdullah, better to hand Lebanon to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad than to allow Hezbollah, and through it Tehran, to rule over the country as it has for four years.

Enter Michel Aoun. The general aligned himself with Hezbollah only months after returning home in 2005. While he did turn a new page with Syria, in domestic politics Aoun remained, above all, a staunch partner of Hezbollah, initially hoping that the party would deliver the presidency to him. Yet as Syria seeks to impose itself on Hezbollah – to remind Nasrallah that Damascus is again the main player in Lebanon, not Iran – Assad may be seeking to draw Hezbollah’s allies away from the party, to better isolate it. Karam’s arrest, this version continues, is just a way of compelling Aoun to choose Syria over Iran.

In recent days Hezbollah has done little to show that it takes seriously the joint statement released by King Abdullah, Assad and Lebanese President Michel Sleiman. First, Nasrallah met with the parliament speaker, Nabih Berri, a noted Syrian ally, to remind him that he had better not take his distance from Hezbollah. Then, where the joint statement was all about calming the game in Lebanon, the Aadaiseh incident and Nasrallah’s speech displayed little consideration for that injunction. And if anyone had doubts, Nasrallah dispelled them by remarking that Lebanon awaited the visit of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the same spirit as it did those of the Arab leaders. In other words, Hezbollah’s reference point remained Tehran.

If this reading of the Karam arrest is correct – that it is a Syrian gambit to draw Michel Aoun away from Hezbollah and more squarely into the Syrian orbit – then what can we expect in the near future? It is widely suspected that Hezbollah has long helped enhance Aoun’s power of patronage. Assuming the information is true, the general would have to begin by scrambling to find alternative funders.

Then we have to ask how Aoun’s fealty would express itself in more practical ways. In order to bolster their comeback, the Syrians need to ensure that they can bring their own people into key administrative posts, particularly in the security and intelligence agencies, above all the General Security directorate and military intelligence. Some weeks ago Damascus, ostensibly at Aoun’s behest, because the general was dissatisfied with his share of posts, blocked a sequence of new appointments. How ironic if Assad now allows these to go through, but presses Aoun to approve pro-Syrian candidates.

And by the way, don’t expect the general to soon threaten to withdraw his ministers from the government if Hezbollah demands this in order to pressure Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri into breaking Lebanese ties with the Special Tribunal for Lebanon. Syria doesn’t want the tribunal any more than Hezbollah does, but Assad evidently prefers to achieve this more quietly, whether through the Saudis or through his own interactions with the prime minister, who, you have to suspect, views his decision as leverage to be used against Hezbollah.

In the coming days we may get a better sense of what is going on with Fayez Karam, and whether the political interpretations of his detention are correct. However, Lebanon is, plainly, moving through a period of major tectonic shifts where nothing is what it seems. Only one thing is certain: A sovereign Lebanon is as distant as ever.

Horse-trading before violence in Beirut

In a speech Tuesday, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah promised to prove next week that Israel assassinated the former Lebanese prime minister, Rafik Hariri. A pity he didn’t do so a few years ago, as this would have spared Lebanon, and his own party, many a headache.

We shouldn’t lose track of the fact, however, that Nasrallah’s speech, coming on the same day that Lebanese and Israeli units clashed on the southern border, was part of a broader horse-trading process that preceded the Lebanese-Saudi-Syrian summit last week in Beirut, but that was also heightened by it. This horse-trading involves several issues: the future of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon; Hizbullah’s arms; and Syria’s longing to revive its hegemony over Lebanon

There was much speculation that when Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah and Syria’s President Bashar Assad visited Beirut, they came with some sort of package deal in hand that would stabilize Lebanon. Even the theatrics of the summit seemed to suggest that stern messages were being disseminated: the king going off with Prime Minister Saad Hariri; Assad sitting down with Hizbullah parliamentarians. This was a misreading. Hizbullah showed few signs of wholeheartedly endorsing the reassuring bromides issued from the summit, let alone a specific deal, and Nasrallah made the point in his speech that Lebanon awaited the visit of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the same spirit as it did those of the Arab leaders. In other words the party was really bound only by what Iran said.

It’s no secret what Hizbullah wants in the near future. The party insists that the Hariri government end its cooperation with the special tribunal, which it has described as an “Israeli project.” For Nasrallah the tribunal threatens to neutralize his party as an Iranian military extension. This is unacceptable to Hizbullah’s leader, whose contract with Iran requires that he be prepared to act on Tehran’s orders at all times.

What of Saad Hariri and the tribunal? From the moment the prime minister visited Damascus last December, it was plain that he would be willing to bargain over the institution. But Hariri wants something very substantial in return for doing so, which likely means a mechanism allowing the state to exert control over Hizbullah’s weapons – most desirably through the party’s integration into the army.

As for Syria, it is playing both sides to its own advantage: on the one hand Assad seeks to impose Syria’s writ in Lebanon, partly over Iran’s, which means bringing Hizbullah in line with Syrian priorities. His way of doing so has been to collaborate with Hariri while acquiring an Arab blessing to reassert Syrian domination in Beirut. On the other, Damascus is unhappy with the special tribunal and also wants Hariri to break with it, even if Assad has exploited the prospect of an accusation against Hizbullah to expand his influence.

That the tribunal has become so central an object of negotiation, and therefore discredit, is a testament to the utter incompetence of the prosecutor, Daniel Bellemare, in communicating his aims effectively. Bellemare has lost control over perceptions of the tribunal’s work. It is no surprise that he seems not even to have replaced his previous spokeswoman, Radhia Achouri, herself an object of criticism before she stepped down last May; and if he has, then it tells us even more that no one knows who that person is.

There are reports that Bellemare recently sent a letter to states involved with the tribunal, indicating that he was working on several leads, that his work had progressed, and, allegedly, that the evidence would speak for itself. However, it seems he did not mention indictments, leading an increasing number of observers to speculate that he might come out with something short of that: the naming of suspects and maybe a request that the Lebanese authorities arrest them. Why Bellemare was unable to issue that letter publicly, or some redacted version of it, is incomprehensible. The prosecutor, like his predecessor, Serge Brammertz, has taken secrecy to a level where it is actively undermining the integrity of his investigation.

That is no small thing in the context of the political tensions in Beirut. Nasrallah may eventually overreach in trying to cast doubt on the tribunal, but for now he is scoring points because Bellemare has been completely absent from the game. And this is allowing the Hizbullah leader to use the tribunal as political leverage domestically.

Bellemare will, understandably, stay clear of Lebanese politics; but nothing prevents him from making a statement clarifying generally what the Lebanese can expect and explaining that his work is backed up by a United Nations consensus, therefore cannot possibly be an Israeli plot. For the prosecutor to restate his bona fides would not mean ensnaring himself in Lebanese micro-affairs. But to remain ostrich-like about what is happening in Lebanon is also to miss the point that the case he is investigating was always eminently political.

With Hizbullah, Hariri and Syria all reacting to the tribunal in a way that might advance their specific political or military agendas, whatever Bellemare says and does will have a major impact on their political interactions. But all this really means is that we may be in an early phase of negotiations, with the serious haggling only coming once everyone determines what the prosecutor has in hand. This tends to play down the possibility of violence in the near future.

However, the absence of violence is only tangentially the result of the overinflated summit of last week. Syrian assurances are rarely worth much, and it’s entirely plausible that Damascus might join Hizbullah in pushing Hariri to cut Lebanon’s ties with the tribunal. However, we’re not there yet. Everyone is waiting to see what the otherwise undetectable Bellemare has to say, and if he has much to say at all.