Friday, December 30, 2011

Sunnis, Shia, and Saad

It will soon be a year since Hezbollah and its allies brought down the government of Saad Hariri, through fair means and foul. But no one walked the former prime minister to Lebanon’s door and told him to get lost. That decision he appears to have implemented freely.

Last April, Hariri left Beirut, allegedly for security reasons. Yet even those in his circle no longer employ that lame excuse when justifying why Hariri has been gone for so long. Explanations abound and some may be true: Hariri’s patronage power is not what it was because of cash flow problems; the former prime minister’s Saudi patrons do not want him in Lebanon while the situation in Syria festers, to avoid his being dragged into the conflict, and they with him; or, more prosaically, Hariri prefers to be outside Lebanon while Najib Mikati is prime minister, to return in strength if the government falls.    

Whatever the answer, or combination of answers, there is a far more serious problem that Hariri, and Hariri alone, must address: A good chance exists, if the vacuum in the Sunni community persists, that extremist elements will emerge to seize the communal initiative. Already, in Saida a hitherto unknown cleric, Ahmad Assir, is bringing in the crowds with worrisome anti-Shia rhetoric, and will almost certainly have to be reckoned with in future elections.

That may not bother the Saudis, but it really should bother Hariri. Any form of religious fanaticism challenges the vision that he and his father purported to champion--that of a free-wheeling Lebanon, open in all directions, pluralistic, tolerant, and stable. The principal beef leveled by the Future Movement against Hezbollah, and a legitimate one, is that the party has in one way or another undermined all those qualities depending on the circumstances.

What are Saad Hariri’s options? He surely recognizes that his absence is harmful to his political prospects. If the Saudis are behind his decision to stay away, then he has to choose between being a Lebanese politician and a Saudi ally. If Hariri opts for the first choice he may lose in the short term; but he has enough political capital in his community to then impose his choices on the Saudi sponsors.

In the end, Hariri was elected by Lebanese in 2005 and 2009. There are those who paid a price for their allegiance during the unsettled period in between. The former prime minister owes something to his political base, and that obligation cannot be repaid from afar.

Then there is the patronage pretext. The Future Movement’s finances have been under stress in the last year and more. Projects that were to be financed by Hariri money have been on hold, and the former prime minister’s political debts are said to be substantial. Saad Hariri will not soon be dining in soup kitchens, but personal wealth and political money are not the same thing, even if they do overlap.

Then there is the question of what Hariri’s cash flow problems tell us about Saudi attitudes toward him. There was much idle speculation in the past that the Saudis had turned against the former prime minister, only for them to award him a lucrative contract soon thereafter. The relationship is doubtless a complex one, rendered more complex by the changes in the kingdom resulting from succession questions. If so, Hariri may be right not to rock the boat, but that calculation is made on Saudi, not Lebanese, time.

His supporters in Lebanon would again reply that the last they heard, and voted, Hariri was Lebanese. Patronage goes a long way in our political system, but given the polarization in the country, Hariri can offer something else that is compelling, by way of ideas. That he has limited financial reserves to toss around may not be so damaging if he recasts his role, depicting himself as the head of an apprehensive Sunni community which he intends to guide through hard times.

For Hariri and his acolytes to contemplate such a project, they must break away from their focus on the shortcomings of Prime Minister Najib Mikati’s government, and clarify what they stand for, not against. Their being reactive has allowed Mikati to retain the upper hand, the dysfunctional nature of his cabinet notwithstanding. March 14 has offered no credible riposte to the fact that Mikati has delivered precisely where the previous majority said he could not deliver.

But one thing Mikati does not have is the political weight to reassert control over the menacing fringes of his community. Only Hariri can do that, and the effort requires him to be in Lebanon, working his networks carefully to compensate for the fact that many of the Islamists are funded by Gulf countries. The uprising in Syria has become sectarian, with ominous repercussions for the Lebanese communities, among them greater tension between Sunnis and Shia.

And that’s not all. If Hariri’s uneasy Christian partners see the Sunni community drifting toward the zealots, they will begin re-examining their political alliances. This may conceivably shatter the coalition Hariri spent years trying to build and hold together.

Hariri and his entourage insist the former prime minister is not down and out. Politically he has no reason to be, not least if the regime of Bashar Assad disintegrates in the coming months. But Hariri can’t afford to be Godot--someone many Lebanese will wait for, without assurances that he will reappear. Serious politics is about the here and now, not an indefinite future. Hariri must come home, whatever the cost, to help contain the sectarian antagonisms rising all around.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

An ideology has taken on life of its own in these uprisings

'A spectre is haunting Europe," wrote Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in The Communist Manifesto, "the spectre of communism." The revolutions of 1848, which led the two men to publish their historic pamphlet, may have been defeated by the forces of the status quo, but Marx and Engels' choice of words was quite appropriate: vast movements of emancipation are often propelled by something thoroughly intangible, an overpowering spirit of change.

Looking back on the Arab revolts this year, that detail is worth remembering. Journalists and academics have sought to explain what happened through quantifiable yardsticks - a youth bulge, disparities between elites and the poor, rising unemployment and so on. But these factors would have counted for little without a meta-narrative unifying and channelling popular frustrations across the region, infusing them with a determination to overthrow their oppressors.

When Tunisians ousted the kleptocratic regime of President Zine El Abedine Ben Ali last January, this was initially regarded as a happy coincidence. Even the outbreak of protests in Egypt soon thereafter did not immediately appear to represent the onset of a wave sweeping the region. Or perhaps it did, and the less imaginative, or the less romantic (and I count myself among them), failed to grasp that the narrative of emancipation had already taken hold.

Yet the fall of President Hosni Mubarak focused even the dullest minds on that reality. The historian Robert Conquest used a luminous term as the title of one of his books, "the dragons of expectation", borrowed from a collection of old Norse poems. For Mr Conquest, otherworldly expectations, bolstering a sense of unqualified ideological truth, were frequently behind the great crimes of the 20th century. However, we can employ that expression less pessimistically in the context of the Arab uprisings, to convey what has happened in many Arab societies, overwhelming, dragon-like, everything before it.

When protesters in Tunisia and Egypt prevailed against their security apparatuses, Arabs elsewhere began inserting themselves into that grand narrative, as success in two countries seemed preordained to bring success in others. That moment was essential, with Libyans, Syrians, Yemenis and others carried forward by transnational momentum of which they saw themselves a part. Here is when one discovers the courage to go into the streets, and when regimes react with the brutality that brings even more people out into the streets.

The role of media has been significant, principally in transmitting the meta-narrative. Social media in Tunisia, Egypt and Syria have played an important mobilising role, while highlighting that there are domains that regimes do not control. Arab satellite channels, above all Al Jazeera, have transported the dragons of expectation from one society in rebellion to the next, heightening outrage through their use of dramatic footage, reinforcing the interpretation of events as one of victims winning out against consuming injustice.

The influence of the stations was demonstrated when Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya, reflecting the political uncertainties of the regimes financing them, took weeks before siding with the protesters in Syria. This prompted the Syrians to demand more attention, and before long Al Jazeera, partly a prisoner of the narrative it had helped propagate and could not abandon for fear of losing its credibility, took sides. The station was far less militant over Bahrain, to its detriment, but the violence in Syria was of a scope that permitted no ambiguity.

Powerful narratives often displace others. Recall how at the end of January, Syrian President Bashar Al Assad sat with the Wall Street Journal and offered a sanguine assessment of his rule. Arabs were up in arms elsewhere, but not in Syria, Mr Al Assad pointed out, because Syrians had an ideology and a cause, so that on foreign policy they were closely aligned with their regime. "When there is divergence between your policy and the people's beliefs and interests, you will have this vacuum that creates disturbance," the president said.

Here was one irony wrapped in another. Mr Al Assad recognised the sway of ideas, but did not imagine that ideas would soon threaten his rule. And there was a greater irony. The president did not foresee that the narrative he held up as a basis for why he and the Syrian people were in purported harmony - their common embrace of a narrative of resistance to America and Israel above all - would count for little in the face of demands by Syrians for internal transformation.

That's the real message from the Arab world this year. Societies may sympathise with foreign policies opposed to the West, the United States and Israel, but they no longer will allow regimes to use foreign antagonisms to validate stifling, sadistic, security-dominated political systems at home. Nor will they tolerate giving foreign matters precedence over their own welfare and that of their children.

That is why, at some stage, the meta-narrative of emancipation cedes way to more worldly concerns. That is the trickiest part. Once you've got rid of the tyrant, what social contract does a society put in his place? In Egypt and Libya, societies are struggling with the answer, while in Tunisia the consensual resort to institutions has helped clarify one. In Syria, the repression is ongoing with the emancipatory narrative continuing to undermine Mr Al Assad's authority.

Whatever the outcomes in the Arab world, the impulse of liberty, once unleashed, justifies itself. Thank those Arab leaders who are confronting angry populations for having allowed that impulse to take on a life-force of its own, so that barricade by barricade it is devouring them.

The Arabs’ touch turns Syria to lead

Is it remotely reassuring that the Arab League is dealing with the crisis in Syria? For a partial answer, note that the Arab observer mission in the country is headed by a Sudanese general who participated in his government’s brutal campaign in Darfur. He described his first day on the highways as “very good,” only hours after Syria’s security forces perpetrated their latest outrage in Homs.
Recall that until two months ago, the Arab states allowed the massacre to continue. There was a lack of unity over Syria, but also a hope in several capitals that the criminal enterprise that is President Bashar Assad’s regime would prevail, denying a fresh victory to those striving to change their leaders in other parts of the Arab world.

Score the latest round to Damascus. In November the tide was in the other direction. Arab sanctions had been agreed, including a cutoff of transactions with Syria’s central bank and a suspension of Syrian membership in the Arab League. Assad initially delayed accepting a five-point Arab plan, which includes withdrawing the army and security forces from Syrian cities, releasing prisoners, and deploying observers to determine if the plan is being implemented. He backed down when the Arab states threatened to go to the United Nations Security Council, buying Damascus valuable time to undercut the Arab plan.

We know what will happen next. The Syrians will turn every issue into an object of exasperating negotiation, assuming the observers do their job right, which is improbable. Nor are there enough observers to make a difference. Even if the mission rises to 200-300 monitors, that remains far too low. There have been disturbances in dozens of large urban areas throughout Syria, not to mention in suburban and rural districts. That means major agglomerations will host only a handful of observers at best. The regime will run rings around them, a reality facilitated by the cynical Arab decision to allow the monitors to be transported by the very security services they are supposed to be monitoring.

Then there is the prisoner release dimension of the Arab plan. In Lebanon we well remember how difficult it was to determine the number of Lebanese in Syrian prisons, because Damascus invariably lied about the figures. The Assad regime will greatly downplay the numbers of Syrians it has incarcerated, and the observers will almost certainly not get a mandate, or display the will, to independently verify this. The regime will release prisoners here and there, in full view of the observers, and arrest new waves of victims elsewhere.

If the Assad regime is lucky, it will be able to stretch the process out long enough for Arab states to push for a start of negotiations with the opposition, another facet of the Arab plan. Why would this be to the regime’s benefit? Because if it can pursue its repression in the interim period unchallenged, agreeing to negotiations would allow it to kick off a long, fruitless phase of talks permitting it to claim it is sincere about the Arab project, even as this opens up cracks in the opposition.

But which opposition? That, too, will provoke extensive maneuvering, as the Assads will look to pick their interlocutors, and as different segments of the opposition disagree over whether to negotiate or not. The Syrian National Council will doubtless refuse to sit with the regime, which may carry political costs, as this could be portrayed by Bashar Assad as an effort to undermine the Arab plan. Here, the president and his acolytes may widen the breach in Arab ranks.

The problem is that Arab incompetence, even if it strengthens the hand of the Syrian leadership in relative terms, will make much more likely further militarization of the intifada. There is no going back in Syria, certainly not to the squalid kleptocracy that a smug Bashar Assad thought was unshakeable last January, when he boasted of his regime’s popularity to The Wall Street Journal. Either the Arab plan eases Assad out of power, or we are heading toward a struggle even more vicious than what we are witnessing today. National interest dictates that regional states, above all Turkey and Iraq, will seek to shape what is taking place on the ground and ensure that they don’t lose out when the carnage ends. If that happens, the Security Council will become the only available venue to address Syria, since we will then have a textbook threat to international peace and security.

Much will depend on how the Arab states interpret their mandate. The Arab League’s secretary general, Nabil Elarabi, has noted that the organization will issue an early assessment of whether the Syrian regime is cooperating with its plan. If that denies Syria the means to deceive its Arab brethren, fine. But rebuilding an Arab consensus against Assad rule will be difficult, and going the next step up to the Security Council is something many Arab regimes want to avert.

Qatar has taken the lead on Syria, but may find itself isolated. The Egyptian military council, which is trying to consolidate its authority, opposes the trend of transformation in the Arab world. No less so Saudi Arabia, which has had little sympathy for the upheavals all around, and would relish a Qatari reversal. Iraq has sided with Assad, while other countries, among them Turkey, may fear too sudden a Syrian collapse to firmly sponsor internationalization of the crisis.

Syrians are right to regard Arab intervention as bad news. And Assad was right to presume that a break in the Arab momentum against his regime could become a turning point in his political survival. He gains from the militarization of the intifada. In an armed conflict, Assad believes, the winner imposes his own legitimacy. Many Arab leaders, whose own legitimacy rests on intimidation, may alas agree.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Bye-bye Bellemare

Little was said in Beirut after Daniel Bellemare, the prosecutor of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, declared that he would not renew his contract when it expires next February. Regardless of what you will hear from Lebanese supporters of the institution, the development represented a fresh setback in a long-awaited trial process.

Bellemare cited health reasons for his decision, and his apparently extended stay in Canada is not the first time the prosecutor has had to interrupt work because of an, as yet unidentified, ailment. However, this is not an imaginary illness, just as the late Antonio Cassese’s cancer was not imaginary, despite speculation from some in Beirut. 

Unlike Cassese when he stepped down as tribunal president, Bellemare did not time his statement with the tribunal’s appointment of a replacement. The prosecution is functioning, but the possibility that there will be an interval between the termination of Bellemare’s mission and the arrival of someone else, like the fact than a new prosecutor will need time to become familiar with the file and may alter the legal strategy, suggests we may not see a trial soon.

There are other uncertainties as well. The tribunal’s indictment of four Hezbollah members will not be an easy one for the prosecution to make stick. An accusation based on so-called “co-location” analysis of telephone communications is largely circumstantial. Even if the evidence is compelling, the defense will find wide spaces to challenge the prosecution’s case on technical grounds, assuming of course that no stronger proof is presented to buttress the indictment.

We might also ask how the difficulty of the case will affect the search for a successor to Bellemare. An ambitious young judge may prefer to stay away from a trial that has a better than even chance of turning into a legal setback. That would favor a retired judge, as some observers of the tribunal have predicted. The risk in that case is that we will have someone brought out of mothballs with little professional incentive to aggressively deepen the investigation. At the same time, he or she may have a fine curriculum vitae, but not the experience of terrorist crimes necessary to expand the inquiry and win a trial.

And expanding the investigation is necessary at this stage. What we have is a crime without an articulated motive. We know that four Hezbollah members allegedly participated in the assassination of Rafik Hariri, but until now the special tribunal hasn’t told us why. That may be remedied, but for it to be remedied we need more indictments in what was a broad conspiracy. But to get more indictments, we need a forceful investigation building on motive.

Don’t’ hold your breath when it comes to a forceful investigation. However, might there be other indictments? Perhaps. Some believe there will be other suspects named, though at the operational level. Bellemare’s departure does not bode well if we’re expecting substantial progress in the coming months, or even beyond that. Had Bellemare intended to issue a second round of indictments, he would likely have announced them when informing the public of his exit--after agreeing with the special tribunal on a replacement. That Bellemare put out his departure statement without touching on indictments, and without a replacement being named, may be a hint that if there are further indictments, they will await a new prosecutor. 

Understandably, skepticism reigns. I wager that the special tribunal will never indict, or at least not convincingly indict, senior decision-makers in the Hariri assassination. The reason for this is that the United Nations investigation went through two irreconcilable  approaches. The strategy of the first commissioner, Detlev Mehlis, was to begin at the top and identify senior officials who were involved in the crime, before moving downward to the operational level.

Serge Brammertz, Mehlis’ Belgian successor, overhauled that strategy, exploring from the bottom up. He also focused on analyzing the crime scene, but much less on arresting suspects. Shortly before leaving, he admitted to his Lebanese counterparts that his investigation had not substantially progressed. To dispel doubts about this, remember that Bellemare needed a full two and a half years more to produce a final indictment. And even then he designated only four men from the middle and lower rungs of the conspiracy, on the basis of telephone data initially evaluated by two Lebanese police officers, Samir Shehadeh and Wissam Eid, not by UN investigators.

Bellemare’s return to Canada may slow the trial, but it will not, otherwise, cause more damage to an investigation that was flawed from the moment Brammertz took over. That doesn’t exonerate Bellemare from accepting, and defending, a botched enterprise. But such dissembling has been par for the cours

Thursday, December 22, 2011

An enemy of totalitarianism the Mideast misunderstood

In February 2009, Christopher Hitchens gave a talk at the American University of Beirut titled Who are the real revolutionaries in the Middle East? As he later wrote in his last book, Arguably, a collection of essays: "I did my best to blow on the few sparks that then seemed dimly perceptible." He praised individuals best embodying democratic change in the region, from the Egyptian academic Saad Eddin Ibrahim, to the Kurdish foes of Saddam Hussein, to the Lebanese who had overthrown Syrian hegemony in 2005.

Yet the AUB talk was a bad-tempered affair. Many in Hitchens' audience had come to castigate a man who supported the war in Iraq and whom they blamed for siding with American neoconservatives. Others accused him of ignoring Palestine. Hitchens reminded them that he had written a book with the late Edward Said on the Palestinians, and pointedly asked: "Could there have been any greater degradation for Iraq than being under the control of a psychopathic family?"

For Hitchens, who passed away last week, the episode left a bitter aftertaste. The hostility of those in attendance represented "another round in a long historic dispute … between the anti-imperialist left and the anti-totalitarian left. And in the case of any conflict, I have increasingly resolved it on the anti-totalitarian side."

Hitchens was right to frame the issue in those terms, but he was also too kind by half. He did not mention that most of those counting themselves among the anti-imperialist ranks have repeatedly evaded discussion of how one might have better dealt with the barbaric leadership of Saddam Hussein, who was directly or indirectly responsible for the death of hundreds of thousands of people.

It makes no sense to disapprove of the American invasion of Iraq on moral foundations, while offering nothing in return for how the international community might have countered the Baath regime's daily outrages against morality. That disconnect was at the heart of Hitchens' thinking on Iraq, as it is in the broader discussion of humanitarian intervention in foreign policy. Anti-imperialism has often been used by autocrats in the developing world to rebuff western disapproval of their abuses, on the grounds that such condemnation constitutes a form of neo-imperialism.

Such hypocrisy was too much for Hitchens, even as he never abandoned his roots in the political left, or for that matter his anti-imperialist impulses. Quite simply, he did not regard the American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as imperial ventures, and appears to have been vindicated by the American withdrawal from Iraq last week. Hitchens believed that it was foolish to see all states as somehow morally equivalent. There were states that responded to the will of their citizens, no matter how imperfectly; and there were those that imprisoned their citizens for expressing the slightest dissent. He preferred a world shaped by the impositions of the first group.

Those affirming that Hitchens had shifted to the right showed little grasp of the subject at hand. Liberal interventionism has tended to be an exigency of the left, not the right. Conservatives have traditionally respected state sovereignty, which holds that regimes can do what they want at home, as long as they preserve stability beyond their borders.

When American neoconservatives came onto the political map in the 1970s they were better known for advocating Washington's tolerance of friendly dictators. That was the point of a much-discussed article at the time by a Georgetown academic named Jeane Kirkpatrick. She so pleased a future president, Ronald Reagan, that he made her his ambassador to the United Nations.

Ms Kirkpatrick's article understandably divided the neocons, some of whom saw the duplicity in opposing communism for its denial of freedom while also backing a multitude of despots because they happened to be anti-communist. This was a difficulty Hitchens didn't remotely face, as he was consistent in his opposition to dictatorship. That neocons embraced democratic interventionism after the 9/11 attacks showed not that Hitchens had drifted to the right, but that neoconservatives had drifted left.

Nor did Hitchens display any conservative reflexes in his controversial attitude towards religion. His atheism was well-known, and he viewed it as an extension of his anti-totalitarianism. Articulating what he called an "anti-theist" stance, Hitchens maintained that the image of God as represented in many religions was, essentially, that of an absolute ruler. This led him to transcend non-belief to assert that one could not possibly accept such a God.

Hitchens dedicated Arguably to three Arabs - a Tunisian, an Egyptian and a Libyan - people he believed had played instrumental roles in unleashing the succession of revolts this year. By then he knew that he was dying and wanted to leave readers with a sense of his priorities.

The Middle East preoccupied Hitchens more than anything else during the last decade of his life, because of 9/11. It must have been satisfying to be proven right on the intensity of the anti-totalitarian strains in the region, against all those, his AUB detractors at the forefront, who in their fixation on American perfidy utterly missed the rumblings of domestic discontent around them.

Much has been made of Hitchens' admiration for the author George Orwell. But I've always been taken by his regard for the historian and poet Robert Conquest, the great documenter of Joseph Stalin's purges. In his poem In Place, Conquest describes the memory of the First World War dead as "the shadow nothing tames". Mourn Christopher Hitchens, in death a shadow untamed.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Military man

A few weeks ago, as Army Day and Independence Day approached, someone, no doubt at the instigation of a pushy army officer, decided to hang up a gigantic portrait of the army commander, Jean Kahwaji, above Sassine Square in central Ashrafieh. Regardless of Kahwaji’s merits or demerits, this struck many people as remarkable excess on behalf of an individual who is, after all, a mere employee of the state.

Imagine for a moment the absurdity if the director general of the Social Security Fund were to do the same thing; or the governor of the Central Bank. To be fair to Kahwaji, he’s not the first to allow his mug shot to decorate a thoroughfare. The faces of former President Emile Lahoud and current President Michel Suleiman filled our skylines when they led the battalions, and were usually far more invasive than that of the present commander.

Somehow the Egyptians, or at least those who returned to Tahrir Square a few weeks ago, got it right. You cannot have genuine transformation in the Arab world in the overbearing shadow of soldiers. The sacrifices of the military – real or, more often, imagined, given how Arab armies usually plunder the state –do not entitle the institution to a blank check of popular sympathy and obedience.

Jean Kahwaji is no Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi; nor is he even ruling over Lebanon. Indeed, if there is one criticism we can level at our armed forces it’s that they do not hold the monopoly over the use of violence in the country. Rather, the army commander, like his predecessors (and no doubt his successors), simply dreams of becoming president. After all, our last two heads of state have hailed from the military, and Lebanon went through two years of trauma between 1988-1990 because a third army commander sought to exploit the conflicts he ignited to ease himself into the presidency.

Lebanon is a paradox in some ways. Here is the one country that mostly elected civilian leaders during its post-Independence years, unlike a majority of other Arab countries. Until 1998, when Lahoud was appointed by Syria, only one other army commander, Fouad Chehab, had been head of state, and his election was the consequence of a compromise to end the 1958 conflict, reached largely outside Lebanon’s borders. Chehab was an estimable man, refusing to accept an unconstitutional extension of his mandate, but that did not prevent his comrades in arms from abusing their power.

And yet it appears these days that the country can do no better than a beret when it goes in search of new presidents. How demoralizing it is for the Lebanese, who pride themselves on their civil institutions, to have to look no further than an officer as their national representative. How demeaning to know that when a new army chief takes over, a military cabal begins maneuvering to get him elected, hoping that it will ride to Baabda on his coattails.

Kahwaji is as entitled as another Maronite Christian to become president. The problem comes when an army commander uses his position to campaign for the job. Nothing politicizes the army more, raising the probability that security decisions are taken with the presidency firmly in mind. Gone, it seems, are the bluff, blunt military men, straight as arrows. Lebanon’s army commanders have become as agile as ballet dancers, able to walk through raindrops without getting wet.

This must end for the good of the country, and the army. Article 49 of the constitution obliges grade-one civil servants and those in equivalent positions aspiring to stand for the presidency to retire from their post two years before an election. In practice, that condition was ignored before the elections of Lahoud and Suleiman. Parliament would do best to amend the article and extend that period to six years, to ensure that officials do not prepare their candidacy while still serving under the president they hope to replace. The article may yet be ignored, but the amendment process will inject seriousness into it, making the rule more difficult to disregard.

A second proposal, and it may not mean much beyond the symbolism, is to cease referring to military figures who have taken on civilian responsibilities as “general”. This should apply as much in media citations as when these individuals are addressed publicly.

Is there any reason why we should still call Sleiman, Lahoud, or Change and Reform bloc leader Michel Aoun, for that matter, by their rank, when they have moved beyond the military establishment and are in positions where they represent, or have represented, the country as a whole? To refer to an individual as “general” is to underline his association with an institution that is, constitutionally, under civilian authority. There is no reason not to recognize that hierarchy by identifying such figures through their non-military titles. Furthermore, to continue giving officials a military rank has intimidating overtones, since the army, among many other things, is an instrument of intimidation.

Finally, it would be very useful if the government prohibited, once and for all, the habit of allowing state representatives to hang up their portraits publicly. You might have trouble forbidding images of the president, parliament speaker, and prime minister (though there is no reason not to do so), but it should be easier to impose such a ban on other functionaries, including the army commander.

It’s not personal. Jean Kahwaji is no worse than anyone else, and may be better than many. But as much as Lebanon tries to behave like a banana republic, there is no reason for our governing institutions to encourage such behavior. As Lebanese, we are entitled to ask that civil servants be more modest. After all, they allegedly work for us.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Lebanon's intifada offers lessons for the Arab Spring

There has been a tendency to regard the emancipatory impulses in the Arab world this year as unique. It's as if there was 2011, and before that, lethargy. That's not quite accurate. A look back at Lebanon in 2005 provides a useful prism through which to examine what is happening in societies now intoxicated by the fragrances of liberation.

In 2005, following the assassination of former prime minister, Rafiq Hariri, most Lebanese, except the Shia supporters of Hizbollah, demonstrated for a month at Martyrs Square. They accused Syria, with some justification, of being behind Mr Hariri's killing, and demanded a Syrian military withdrawal from Lebanon and an overhaul of the Syrian-dominated Lebanese political order. A combination of domestic and outside pressure forced Syrian President Bashar Al Assad to pull his army out, terminating 29 years of Syrian hegemony.

This was no mean feat, regardless of the uncertain outcome of what the Lebanese called the Independence Intifada. The Syrians sought to reimpose their writ in Beirut, and with their Hizbollah allies almost succeeded in doing so. Yet despite this, large pockets of resistance to Syria and its partners remained and Mr Al Assad never regained what he had lost in 2005.

Four salient realities of Lebanon's Independence Intifada have been replicated in Arab upheavals today: the use of a public space for protest; a demand that those in charge of the instruments of repression be replaced; acceptance of the necessity of foreign intervention to counterbalance the dictator's clear advantages; and a tendency to question the accomplishments and legitimacy of the revolts in light of their potentially unsatisfactory aftermaths.

In all the Arab uprisings, there was a rapid realisation of something the Lebanese grasped in 2005 (and others before them), namely that a successful protest movement must control a public space from which it can operate. Whether Martyrs Square in Beirut, Tahrir Square in Cairo, or Pearl Roundabout in Manama, protestors instinctively seek out a space where rallies can be held, towards which people can converge, which is accessible to media, and that retains, or can be infused with, symbolic relevance. Most importantly, such spaces must stay off limits to the authorities, effectively becoming "liberated" spaces.

Protecting the autonomy of such areas usually leads to the establishment of tent cities, maintained by youths, even as the authorities seek to deny access to those spaces. Sometimes this official response is successful, as in Bahrain; sometimes it is a fiasco, as in Tahrir Square. In Martyrs Square, the Lebanese Army and Internal Security Forces tried to do the same, but failed when they were unwilling to resort to violence. Moreover, Mr Hariri's tomb is at the square, so it was difficult for the security forces to seal off the area.

At times, these spaces of protest can be entire cities, or large parts of them, as in Libya and Syria. Benghazi became the headquarters of an opposition council that, ultimately, was recognised as Libya's government. In Homs, the Assad regime has repeatedly sought to crush rebellious quarters, but has been unable to do so. This shortcoming has only further emphasised that it has lost ground, which can be calamitous for an absolute leadership ruling through fear.

A second message from Lebanon in 2005 was that the street can impose change on the agents of repression. The Lebanese protests led to the resignation of senior security officers. This was perhaps the first time in the Arab world that citizens, as opposed to a monarch or president, successfully ousted intelligence and security officials.

In Egypt, the inability of protesters to dent the state's security edifice created a problem that lingers to this day. The army sacrificed President Hosni Mubarak to save itself, and largely succeeded. The same is true in Yemen, where family members of President Ali Abdullah Saleh still control major security organs. In Libya the opposite occurred. The destruction of Muammar Qaddafi's army and security apparatus left a vacuum that the new Libyan government is having trouble filling.

A third message from Lebanon was that international intervention is often necessary to equalise the relationship between protesters and their rulers. In 2005 the Lebanese appealed to the international community, and even perpetuated a David and Goliath narrative to appeal to western media. This earned them animosity among many Arabs, who did not like it that protestors loudly welcomed the backing of President George W Bush. Yet outside support was crucial in keeping the security forces in line when managing the protests.

In many ways the debate has been resolved. From Libya to Syria to Egypt, oppositions have welcomed, indeed called for, foreign assistance against their oppressors. A key factor is that the insurrections began from within, which endowed outside intercession with legitimacy. This has only underlined a point the Lebanese embraced in 2005: in the uneven struggle with a superior foe, all means are justifiable to secure one's emancipation.

And finally, the instability in Lebanon that followed the intifada of 2005 substantially marred the magic of that moment. Political divisiveness, the summer war of 2006, and the nearness of civil conflict in 2008, all made observers reconsider the validity of what had happened.

However, such a benchmark seems excessive. No matter what the outcomes in Lebanon, Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, Libya, Bahrain and Yemen, they cannot invalidate the endeavours of those desiring change. Overthrowing a suffocating political order is admirable in itself, whatever the costs. Credit the Lebanese for understanding this paradoxical point before their Arab brethren did.

What if the Syrians had still been here?

The tendency among many Lebanese today is to deride the Independence Intifada of 2005. This is a result of the high expectations unleashed, then dashed by Lebanon’s factionalism and sectarianism. Yet we should ask, in light of the revolt in Syria, where would Lebanon have been had the protests six years ago not pushed the Syrian army and intelligence services out of the country?

The question is not academic. Lebanon 2005 has been denied its due as a precursor of Arab uprisings this year, even though the popular demands at the time were very similar to what we are witnessing today. A reason for this is that the aftermath of the Lebanese intifada against Syria was, to put it kindly, uncertain. Rather than emerge into a new morning of emancipation, the Lebanese grew apart, within a year were caught up in a war with Israel, and within three found themselves on the cusp of civil war.

And yet judging emancipatory moments by their outcomes can sometimes play surprising tricks, because the unintended consequences are invariably good and bad. It’s best to evaluate such moments on their own merits, and few acts are more laudatory than seeking the replacement of an authoritarian leader and the criminal enterprises with which such individuals surround themselves.

However, that does not mean that we cannot engage in some alternate history, and conclude that the Lebanese were fortunate to see the back of the Syrians six years ago. The reason is that, otherwise, Lebanon, far more so than it is today, would have become a main instrument in the Assad regime’s suppression of its own people.

Recall what happened in 2003, when the Americans invaded Iraq. Though less threatened than now, the Syrians engineered a Cabinet reshuffle that brought in the most ghoulish of their underlings to surround Rafik Hariri, who remained prime minister. Their calculation was that the potentially dangerous American military presence to the east required that Syria reinforce itself in Lebanon and not allow the country’s volatile dynamics to undermine Syrian interests. Much the same logic went into President Bashar Assad’s decision to extend Emile Lahoud’s mandate in 2004.

Assad tried to replicate that logic when he ordered the Lebanese to form a government last June. However, there was a vital difference. Syrian weapons were no longer in Lebanon to enforce Cabinet unity and decisions. Hezbollah’s strength notwithstanding, the party is incapable of imposing unanimity on its refractory countrymen, and indeed has turned into a lighting rod for its political foes.

Had Syria’s army and intelligence services still been in Lebanon, several things would likely have happened. Syrian victims of the violence at home would have been unable to flee across the border into Lebanese territory. Syrian opposition figures would have been hunted down in Beirut in a more efficient way than they presently are. Lebanon’s political and economic systems would have been on a tighter Syrian rope, precipitating a potentially devastating standoff with the international community, possibly harming the banking sector. And Syrian troops and agents would have had to expand their repression to those Lebanese sympathizing with the Syrian protesters, particularly in northern Lebanon, where the Sunni community staunchly backs its brethren in places such as Homs and Hama.

Lebanon would have become a Syrian battering ram in its dealings with the Arabs and the West. Domestic animosities would have been exacerbated, with one group of Lebanese employed by Syria to intimidate the other. As is their way, the Assads would have ensured that if they were destroyed, Lebanon would be as well.

While the government of Najib Mikati and President Michel Sleiman have closely toed the Syrian line in recent months, they have done so with a wary eye on the Lebanese opposition. The prime minister has been, at best, a hesitant Syrian partner, as he knows well that his political base in Tripoli loathes the Assad leadership. Even Hezbollah has been careful not to overstep the boundaries, because the party appears to be preparing alternative options if the Syrian regime falls. Once Assad goes, Hezbollah has no interest in being dragged into sectarian strife with a reinvigorated Lebanese Sunni community.

Such contradictions, oddly enough, have shielded Lebanon from the Syrian crisis. With a foot in each camp, the Lebanese have until now sailed through the Syrian maelstrom relatively unscathed. There are limits to what Syria can do to destabilize Lebanon by firing warning shots at the international community and Israel. Assad can order his collaborators to plant an occasional bomb along the Tyre road against U.N. patrols, or fire rockets across the border. But at some stage these actions merely discredit his friends in Beirut, or push Hezbollah into an unwanted confrontation with Israel.

There are negatives, of course. By most accounts, weapons are being smuggled from Lebanon into Syria. The vacuum in the north is favoring militant groups, particularly in the Sunni community. These are serious developments. Ideally, the state must take advantage of this situation to better assert itself, without favoritism, in areas where its influence is limited. But that won’t happen soon.

Lebanon dodged a bullet by removing the Syrians when they did. This should not be the yardstick for approval or disapproval of what happened six years ago, but it is useful for re-evaluating what occurred. Perhaps Bashar Assad himself might engage in that exercise. How much more potent would the crushing of his own citizens have been had he not lost Lebanon in 2005.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Pragmatic diplomacy enables Qatar to punch above weight

It is a new development that some Arab states now have to figure Qatar in their calculations, as just two decades ago, the bantam-sized emirate was on the margin of the Middle East's political attentions. Yet in the last 10 years, Qatar has skilfully bolstered its power by blending economic might, nuisance value, political counterpoint, diplomatic hardnosedness, ideological solidarity and an adeptness at filling regional political vacuums.

Qatar's economic prowess is the result, principally, of its natural gas reserves, estimated to be the world's third largest. The primary medium for the state's nuisance value has been the satellite television station Al Jazeera, long a thorn in the side of Arab rulers, especially during the recent months of upheaval in the Arab world. Qatar's talent for political counterpoint has been displayed in its parallel yet contradictory associations, so that the emirate could, for instance, host a major American military base while maintaining friendly relations with Washington's bitterest foes, such as Iran and Hizbollah.

Ideologically, in recent years Qatar, which like Saudi Arabia is Wahhabi, has assisted Islamic movements in the Arab world. After the 2006 Lebanon war, the emirate financed reconstruction in Hizbollah-controlled areas, which was vital to neutralising resentment against the party. Lately, it has funded Islamists in Libya and probably Syria. The emirate has also hosted an Egyptian sheikh, Yusif Al Qaradawi, one of the region's most influential clerics.

Last week, speaking in Doha, Sheikh Yusif urged Egyptian voters to avoid voting for "a secularist, an agnostic, or those who don't accept Allah as their God, Islam as their religion and Mohammed as their Prophet" in Egypt's forthcoming parliamentary elections. That is, assuming these are held on time in light of the recent unrest.

The most significant factor allowing Qatar to punch above its weight has been its ability to adapt to changing circumstances more rapidly than most others. Amid mounting protests earlier this year in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and even Syria after initial uncertainty, the emirate backed protesters, giving Al Jazeera wide latitude to channel Arab sympathies by defining a heroic narrative for anti-regime actions.

Yet Qatar avoids recklessness in its immediate neighbourhood. Despite Al Jazeera's partiality toward Arab uprisings, the emirate did not break ranks with its Gulf partners over Bahrain. In fact, the royal family has tightened its hold over the station, after the departure of Waddah Khanfar, its Palestinian director general. Years of hostility with Saudi Arabia have also been papered over, even if Qatar is taking advantage of the vacuum left by the kingdom as it goes through a political transition that has sometimes diminished its sway.

It is in the relationship with Syria that Qatar has made the most radical about-face. Doha had given the regime in Damascus quite a bit of support in recent years. Qatar's critics would argue that the emirate accorded Syria and its allies such as Hizbollah political cover to reimpose their writ in Beirut after the assassination in February 2005 of Rafiq Hariri. Damascus was blamed for the crime, and reluctantly withdrew its army from Lebanon as a consequence.

But then why has Qatar emerged as one of Syria's fiercest critics in the Arab League and possibly the motive force behind a tougher stance? It probably had to do with the fact that Qatar brokered an agreement in Doha in May 2008 between the conflicting Lebanese factions. A principle of the accord was that Lebanese parties - the implicit focus was on Hizbollah - would not resort to violence to achieve their political aims. However, last January Hizbollah, prompted by Syria, ousted Prime Minister Saad Hariri from office. The move was constitutional, but the party made it clear that if Mr Hariri were brought back, it would resort to violence.

Mr Hariri's removal was a blow to the Doha agreement, but also to Saudi Arabia, Mr Hariri's sponsor. The Qatari prime minister and foreign minister, Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim, travelled to Beirut to negotiate a compromise, along with two colleagues. When he was told by Hizbollah that the party still would not accept Mr Hariri's return, he left Beirut thwarted and humiliated, no doubt well aware that Syria had endorsed the repudiation. This effectively undermined Qatar's efforts to play a balancing role in Lebanon.

The rift with Syria was not immediate, but a momentous sign that tempers had changed in Doha came last March. In a sermon there, Sheikh Yusif declared that the "train of Arab revolution" had reached Syria. Officials in Damascus were stunned. The remarks not only implied Qatari acquiescence of what the sheikh had said. Given Sheikh Yusif's Islamist credentials, it hit the Assads in their most vulnerable spot, granting Islamist legitimacy to an uprising that, whatever its broad democratic motives, has effectively pitted the Sunni majority in Syria against a minority Alawite-led regime.

Qatar is likely to continue to play a vanguard role in an Arab world in flux. The emirate's pragmatism, some would say its cynicism, as well as the absence of internal challenges to the emir, make it much easier for the emirate to play all sides simultaneously. In an Arab world riven by paradox, Qatar's paradoxes have allowed it to ride many unruly waves - waves frequently of the emirate's own making.

Amid Lebanese chaos, a chance for reform

There are several accounts of Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah’s life, most made available by the Hezbollah leader himself over the years to various publications. Taken together, they serve as a terse official biography. In one of these, we learn that even as a boy, Nasrallah was religious and devoted to Imam Musa Sadr. When other boys went to the beach, Nasrallah rode to the old downtown area of Beirut, from his home in Karantina, to buy religious books.

How instructive it is to picture the young Hasan joining the teeming crowds around Martyrs Square, a movable surrender to the senses and to raucous pluralism, under the blistering Mediterranean sun grilling his carefree comrades not so very far away, to pick up his Koranic texts. But it would be a mistake merely to view this as a tale of youthful earnestness, or humorlessness. Rather, it tells us much, if the story is true – and more so if it isn’t – about Nasrallah’s detachment from the essential features making Lebanon what it is.

With this as a backdrop, we can ask whether Lebanon today is at the threshold of an opportunity to redefine its social contract and engage in political reform. Do events in Syria, and the probability that President Bashar Assad’s regime will fall, create an opening for more balanced negotiations between Lebanese religious communities, particularly Sunnis and Shiites, on reapportioning political power?

Much, of course, will depend on how Assad goes. If Syria dissolves into civil war, then the impact on Lebanon could be dire. Polarization would increase, with the distinct possibility of violence. However, the nightmare scenario is also relatively doubtful today, given the consensus in the Arab world and Turkey to contain the Syrian situation, precisely to avoid harming neighboring countries.

Let’s imagine, for a moment, an ideal outcome. Assad departs in such a way that Syrians can navigate a fairly smooth transition. Whatever this transition, in Lebanon the dynamics are likely to be the following: Hezbollah, which remains militarily powerful, will have nonetheless lost a major ally, and more importantly the strategic depth the party enjoyed in the event of a war against Israel. Faced with the reality that it can no longer combat Israel against the will of a majority of its countrymen, Hezbollah’s fears will increase along with those of the Shiite community. Perhaps this will make Shiites more amenable to accepting Hezbollah’s disarmament in exchange for greater Shiite political representation in a restructured political system.

As Hezbollah’s expectations drop, the end of the Assad regime will push Sunni expectations up to stratospheric heights. A successor leadership in Syria is bound to be sympathetic to Lebanon’s Sunnis and hostile to Hezbollah. The sectarian repercussions of this newfound confidence will certainly mean, among other things, that Lebanese Sunnis will no longer accept intimidation by Hezbollah. A rational Hezbollah, grasping these new circumstances, will have no choice but to adapt accordingly by searching for a compromise, otherwise it may have to prepare its followers for civil war.

That’s one theory, at least. Yet so much in this outline is also an ingredient for conflict, that it may seem illusory to describe what is happening as a window of opportunity. Hezbollah and Shiite anxiety, coupled with the community’s military superiority, is hardly liable to prompt Hezbollah to roll over and sue for peace. Sunni self-assurance might easily transform itself into ruinous hubris, allowing extremists to take the lead in “the battle against the Shiites.” Impulses on both sides will have to be carefully tempered, even if a Shiite sense of loss and a Sunni sense of gain, if properly exploited, is exactly what is required to get a dialogue on reform started.

But is Nasrallah someone inherently open to such a jump? The Hezbollah leader has often affirmed his antagonism toward the Lebanese sectarian system, even as he has presided over the most sectarian of parties. In truth, Nasrallah has manipulated Shiite resentment of a political and social order that was not good to Shiites in the past, in order to reinforce Hezbollah’s influence and discredit any talk of political reform. The party knows that such reform, if reached consensually, would lead to its demise as a military force.

Yet Nasrallah is not alone. Unless a moderate leadership can reassert its authority over the Sunni community, and soon, there remains a possibility that Sunnis may succumb to those least willing to come to terms with the Shiites. In this context the absence of Saad Hariri and the uncertainty surrounding the Future Movement has left the field open for less pragmatic figures, even as Hariri himself seems in no mood these days to concede much to Hezbollah. This situation in the Sunni community may mean that the initiative slips to those who, like Nasrallah, would have bought only religious books had they waded into the miscellany of Martyrs Square; or it may bolster secular populists; or both.

Left unmentioned here are the Christians, particularly the Maronites, who would have to relinquish the most in an overhaul of the political system – above all the 50-50 ratio of Christians to Muslims in parliament. Ultimately, Christians too will have to avert the pitfall of excessive fear by embracing reform under the rubric of Taif, or else they may one day see political change imposed on them by their Muslim partners. However, given the despondency today among Christians and their more influential political and religious leaders, such prescience does not seem to be in the cards.

The imbalance in Lebanon’s political system, the presence of an armed, semi-autonomous party and community prevailing over all others, has discouraged discussion of reform. The reality is that Sunnis won’t bargain over their future with a Hezbollah holding the guns. That won’t hold if Bashar Assad is ousted. What Lebanon would then need is leaders who can control the wild ambitions or apprehensions ensuing from so enviable a moment.

Friday, November 18, 2011

The Rai rumor tells us little

For years a lubricious rumor had circulated about Maronite Patriarch Bechara al-Rai. A Lebanese author in Paris, Antoine Basbous, has, so to speak, just torn the covers away by putting it all in print. Regardless of whether the rumor is true, the method of publicizing it remains questionable, as is Basbous’ interpretation of its significance.

In a new book, Le Tsunami Arabe, published by Fayard, Basbous argues that Rai’s recent public endorsement of the Syrian regime is a likely result of the patriarch’s being blackmailed by Damascus. Basbous was the Lebanese Forces representative in France, where he now heads the Observatoire des Pays Arabes. He describes an incident when Rai was still bishop of Jbeil: allegedly, the onetime Syrian intelligence chief in Lebanon, Ghazi Kanaan, had Rai filmed communing rather too tenderly with a member of his flock, and subsequently used this against the clergyman to shape his political attitudes. 

Is the story true? If it is, Rai would hardly be the first priest to have a fondness for the fairer sex, even less so in a Maronite Church where, at a certain level of the hierarchy, married men are allowed to become clergymen. Moreover, Rai’s inherent narcissism may predispose him to such acts, whereby every conquest confirms the validity of his self-love. 

However, idle speculation aside, the reality is that Basbous offers no solid evidence to substantiate his claim. Publishing a rumor does not make it any less of a rumor. It is surprising that a respectable publishing house like Fayard failed to demand more from the author by way of proof. The charge, if true, is a serious one. Given the influence of the Maronite patriarch on Lebanese politics, it merits investigation. Yet by tossing the information out as he does, Basbous actually diminishes its importance, so that the story will titillate without otherwise informing us whether Rai is indeed in Syria’s pocket.

There is a second problem with Basbous’ rationale. Why assume that Rai’s defense of President Bashar al-Assad, or for that matter Hezbollah’s weapons, has to be a consequence of blackmail? It is unfortunate, but when the patriarch implies that Maronites are better off allying themselves with other Middle Eastern minorities—Alawites or Shia—against the Sunnis and the prospect of a revived Sunni Islamism, he is not at great odds with the Maronite mainstream.

There are certainly Maronites who disapprove of the mad notion of an “alliance of minorities.” However, there are also many who remain so fearful of their minority status amid a Sunni majority in the Arab world, and who see Islamism everywhere, that they are willing to pursue the most ruinous of policies. We can, legitimately, condemn Rai for his pitiable short-sightedness, and for siding with the criminal dictatorial enterprise in Damascus against the most basic principles of his own faith. But this may not make him such a renegade as Basbous imagines.

Even Rai’s apparent disregard of the traditional outlook of Bkirki doesn’t tell us much. Yes, the new patriarch is very different from his predecessor, but there are not a few Maronite bishops who have tended to share Rai’s perspective against those of Patriarch Nasrallah Sfeir. Bkirki is a house of many mansions (and given the wealth amassed by the senior clergy, you can just as well take the sentence literally), so that it is not always easy to determine which political approach best expresses the consensus in the Maronite Church.

And for that matter, what is the consensus in the Vatican? The tortuous ways of the Catholic Church are sometimes difficult to follow, but by most accounts Rai’s election was actively supported by Rome. In remarks several weeks ago, the papal nuncio seemed to back up the patriarch, despite his controversial pronouncements. Even if that was to be expected, we can assume there is a current in the Church that would agree with the way Rai seeks to safeguard the Middle East’s Christians.

Rai has been less verbose lately, so perhaps he received advice from the Vatican to be more careful. But that does not mean that the leadership of the Church is upset with him. After all, Pope Benedict XVI has made the protection of Arab Christians a priority, and earlier this year was sternly taken to task by Al-Azhar when he criticized the Egyptian government for not doing enough to protect Coptic Christians following a New Year’s bomb attack against a church.

Rai fits well into this ecclesiastical ambiance. His recent visit to Iraq, to bolster the Christian communities there, must have been welcomed at the Vatican. Benedict is no fool. He no doubt realizes that Arab Christians will not survive if they remain isolated from their predominantly Sunni surroundings. And yet there is a profoundly conservative side to the man that may explain why he has not pushed harder for a rapprochement between Christians and Sunnis, and why the Vatican has reacted with such shameful reticence to the Arab uprisings. 

Neither Bkirki nor Rome has progressive impulses. The Catholic Church is headed by a man who has made the containment of change a hallmark of his tenure at the Vatican, both as pope and as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith under Pope John Paul II. The sad truth is that Syria may not have needed to blackmail Bechara al-Rai to elicit his favorable words on Assad's rule. The patriarch’s fear of revolutionary transformation aligns with that of the institution he serves.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Assad's regime crumbles one frayed relationship at a time

With the Arab League voting to suspend Syria's membership the late Syrian president, Hafez Al Assad, must be spinning in his grave. In recent years his son Bashar has managed to squander almost everything he inherited when Hafez died in 2000, steadily undermining the multiple pillars bolstering the Assad regime.

In fairness, the late president didn't leave behind a political system particularly adept at responding with flexibility to challenges. What Hafez Al Assad built was a monumental engine of stalemate, designed to stifle all aspirations for change and to safeguard Assad domination. Bashar has struggled with this unwieldy apparatus to contain the uprising against his authority. Given his overpowering dependency on violence, perhaps not surprisingly he has failed to do so.

The Assad order, in place since 1970, has granted the president myriad instruments of repression, but also of patronage. Though the regime is led by an Alawite elite, the late Al Assad played down this reality to avoid being delegitimised by Syria's - and the Arab world's - Sunni majority. He did so by exploiting an inherent sense of Arabism among Syrians and accentuating his regime's Arab nationalist credentials. The Baath Party was made to play a vanguard role in political life while serving as a prime lever of Assad power.

Even when the party began losing credibility, the regime presented enduring nationalist bona fides, above all implacable opposition to Israel and frequent opposition to American policy in the Middle East. At the same time, until 2005, Syria controlled Lebanon, which gave the Assads substantial regional leverage. When Hizbollah fought Israel the outcomes were negotiated in Damascus. The Syrian regime gained politically without risking confronting the Israelis directly.

At home, Hafez Al Assad co-opted the Sunni community. He created favourable conditions for the Sunni business class, which proved essential to defending his regime, particularly in Damascus, when it was challenged by the Muslim Brotherhood in the 1980s. In turn, the Baath party was used as a conduit of patronage and services to poorer Syrian areas, including Sunni rural areas hitherto backbones of the regime. The party's marginalisation at the hands of the ruling family could be one reason why a pro-regime district such as Deraa revolted.

Over and above this, the elder Assad carefully fashioned a regional Arab consensus on Syria, further anchoring his leadership despite its minority status. He maintained close ties with Saudi Arabia, until Camp David stood with Egypt at the forefront of the conflict with Israel, and won Arab approval for Syrian dominion in Lebanon. Al Assad also imposed himself as a primary interlocutor of the United States, the Europeans, and until the end of the Cold War, the Soviet Union.

The president positioned Syria at the nexus point of regional interests. He was never quite able to dominate the Palestinians but Al Assad retained a spoiler role in Palestinian-Israeli peace talks.

Bashar Al Assad replicated the general lines of his father's strategy. He stuck to Arab nationalist tropes, propped up the enemies of Israel and the United States, and in more recent years sought to destabilise Syria's neighbours - Iraq and Lebanon, but also the Palestinian territories through Hamas - to reinforce Syria's bargaining position when outsiders came looking for solutions. And even though the Assad family expanded their stake in the Syrian economy, often through intimidation, the Sunni business class did not challenge them.

The first true sign that Bashar Al Assad was less gifted than his father came in 2005 in Lebanon. Following the assassination of former prime minister, Rafik Hariri, which was blamed on Syria and its local allies, Mr Al Assad withdrew his army from the country. But he also angered Lebanon's Sunnis by eliminating their champion. This is coming back to haunt the president as most Lebanese Sunnis are backing their rebellious coreligionists across the Syrian border.

To compensate, the younger Al Assad strengthened ties with Iran, exacerbating his relationship with Saudi Arabia. The Saudis later reversed themselves and sought a reconciliation with Damascus. However, they have also remained very ambiguous during the Syrian revolt, in part because there are those in the kingdom who must realise that Mr Al Assad's fall would be a blow to Tehran.

More damaging still, the president has alienated countries once friendliest to his rule. Where Hafez Al Assad avoided a clash with Turkey, his son has presided over the collapse of the relationship with Ankara. Similarly, Qatar previously provided the Assad regime with valuable political assistance; today the emirate's leadership is taking the lead in advocating Arab league measures against Syria.

Mr Al Assad has shattered the Arab and regional consensus behind his regime, instead managing to produce one opposed to the regime. Even King Abdullah of Jordan has advised the president to step down.

The vicious sectarian behaviour of Syria's army and security forces has only reaffirmed the Alawite core of Assad rule. And the Sunni business class, which thrives on stability, knows that Mr Al Assad's continuation in office will mean more instability.

All that Mr Al Assad has left is the solidarity of his fearful Alawite acolytes. They will pursue the massacre to avoid what they believe will be their own if they are defeated. Iran and Hizbollah are on hand to help, but they cannot reverse Arab discontent or pacify the streets of Syria. The sordid Assad interregnum is coming to an end, bullet by bullet. We must hope that Syria avoids all-out civil war.

Speechless in Bashar Assad’s Syria

To capture the essence of the Syrian regime’s behavior today, a very useful place to start is W. H. Auden’s poem “August 1968,” whose theme is the Soviet suppression of the Prague Spring.

“The Ogre does what ogres can,/Deeds quite impossible for Man,/But one prize is beyond his reach,/The Ogre cannot master Speech:/About a subjugated plain, Among its desperate and slain,/The Ogre stalks with hands on hips,/While drivel gushes from his lips.”

It was, indeed, an inarticulate Syrian ogre that greeted the decision of the Arab League, traditionally a generous assemblage of ogres, to suspend Syria’s membership in the organization. And the drivel has come in the form of indignant statements by Syrian ambassadors and officials; but also in the mob attacks against diplomatic missions, a reminder of how frequently the Assad regime, that of father and son, has targeted foreign envoys to make its displeasure known.

Were it not for the fact that President Bashar Assad, with his family and close comrades, is steadily transporting Syria toward civil war because he refuses to leave office, we could derive grim satisfaction from the incoherence in Damascus. For once the explicit thuggishness, the feigned outrage to mask the shameless deceitfulness, the apocalyptic warnings, are failing to have an impact. Assad has misled several times too often, and, finally, his credibility has evaporated.

And yet we tend to forget that the Syrians had their way for decades by deploying precisely those methods. Their fury comes from the realization that their act, the single act that Syria’s regime has learned, is boring the audience. To gain Arab attention, Assad must take steps to further intensify the violence against his own population. He hopes to provoke an all-out sectarian conflagration that polarizes opinion, thereby creating a frightening enemy, in that way, perhaps, recouping for his regime much of its lost support. And yet a sectarian conflict is precisely what the Arab states wish to avert, and Assad must sense, with the example of Moammar Gadhafi still fresh in his mind, that a civil war really can go either way for an autocrat clinging to power.

Where Assad is right is in realizing that the Arab League plan that he was offered represents a roundabout way of getting rid of him. The liberation of tens of thousands of prisoners and the withdrawal from Syrian cities of the army and security forces would make irrelevant any dialogue with the opposition, another facet of the Arab plan. Once the streets are in the hands of the protesters, there will be no dialogue whatsoever; only an irrepressible drive to tear down Assad rule.

Here are the stark options that Syria’s leadership have left for itself: Either crush the intifada or be crushed. From day one the Assads responded to the rolling unrest with gunfire and sham concessions. No one was duped, just as no one was duped the first, second and third time Syrian officials, including Assad himself, pronounced the uprising over. It is remarkable how the vernacular of the Syrian regime is shaped by claims diametrically opposed to reality: that peaceful protesters are “armed groups”; that the engine of reform has started, even as the death toll climbs; that sanctions will never work, when Syria is that rare example of a place where sanctions may work.

How familiar this sounds for those Lebanese who remember Assad’s actions six and seven years ago. Here was the Syrian leader in summer 2004, insulting our intelligence by serenely telling an Arab newspaper that it was the Lebanese who would decide whether to extend Emile Lahoud’s mandate. That was before Assad issued his threat in person to Rafik Hariri, instructing him to vote in favor of the extension, or else.

And there was Assad in March 2005, two weeks after Hariri’s assassination, explaining to the gaggle of sycophants Syria calls a parliament, that he would redeploy his soldiers in Lebanon toward the Syrian border. No mention was made of whether they would cross to the other side, because the president hoped to avoid such an outcome. He expected Hezbollah’s intimidatory rally of March 8, three days after his address, to silence his Lebanese foes. And when a Syrian pullout did come, because March 8 brought on the massive anti-Syrian demonstration of March 14, it came sullenly and surreptitiously, in the night, a bad-tempered signal that Assad would do everything to return.

The mendacity, the arrogance, the condescension, the surreal levels of criminality, have all been in full view these past months, as the Assads have slaughtered their people without flinching. The Arab states gave the Syrian regime ample time to stifle the dissension, until they saw that Bashar Assad was going to lose anyway. Panic has set in as the intifada veers toward a Sunni-Alawite war, which would have dire repercussions for Syria’s neighbors, and the Arab world in general.

One should have faith. A people that has mostly avoided resorting to arms though eight months of carnage, is one wise to the ways of its tormentors. Syrians have the Assads to thank for that. Having endured for four decades the whims of two sordid families, they know what to expect. See through the bully, and you’re on your way to deflating him. Assad dreams of containing the Syrian intifada and imposing a bogus reform project that consolidates his authority; but to many Syrians he is simply irrelevant. Recognition of that fact was implied in the advice of King Abdullah of Jordan that Bashar Assad step down.

It is difficult to predict what will happen next in Syria. But the Assad order has been stripped down to its carcass, left only with the brutality of Alawite solidarity, fortified by mounting Arab isolation. The ogre is stammering, meaning the end cannot be too far off.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Christian minorities forced by fear into the dictators' fold

The recent violence in Egypt between Copts and the Egyptian army, with its sectarian overtones, poured ice on the high expectations surrounding the Arab intifadas. Arab Christians in particular are worried about the future, and their anxieties are colouring their interpretation of the repression all over.

For Christians in the Levant and Iraq, communal security in recent decades has involved a static reading of political affairs. As a minority, they have feared that change might threaten the stability that was buying them respite. That is why Christians tended to be on good terms with the autocrats, whether under the Assad regime in Syria, which is led by minority Alawites, or the previous regime of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, led by minority Sunnis. This was true even if it led to charges from their more assertive brethren elsewhere that this exemplified the submissiveness of dhimmis - minorities protected under Islam.

Among those once levelling the charge were Lebanon's Christians. In relative terms they are the most potent of the Arab Christian communities, representing an estimated third of the population. The largest Lebanese Christian sect, the Maronites, dominated the state and security organs before Lebanon's civil war in 1975, hardily preserving a status quo to their advantage. The setbacks and infighting of the war years, alongside the community's demographic decline, have greatly reduced Maronite standing.

The situation is different in Egypt. The Copts had long been in dispute with the regimes of Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak, accusing them of overseeing systems discriminating against the Coptic community. For them, the "new" Egypt offers new anxieties, by possibly allowing for the consolidation of Islamist forces less accepting of Copts than before. Copts feel caught between two evils: a seemingly immovable state in which political and administrative realities are gamed against them; and a post-Mubarak society in flux, where Islamist and Salafist groups openly antagonistic to Christians appear to be gaining ground.

Lebanon is perhaps the best illustration of dilemmas faced by Arab Christians. Virtually all types of Christian communities are represented in the country, and they find themselves at a crossroads in terms of their destiny and demographic survival. Nowhere has this been more obvious than in the conflicting ways that the Christians, Maronites in particular, have reacted to the uprising against the regime of President Bashar Al Assad in Syria.

On the one side, there have been those Maronites who dread the consequences of Mr Al Assad's downfall. Their argument is based on an assumption that minorities have a vested interest in allying with each other against the Sunni majority in the Middle East. They believe that if the Alawite leadership collapses, it will be replaced by a Sunni Islamist regime. The most vocal Lebanese proponents of this line are the politicians Michel Aoun and Suleiman Franjieh, who have recently found an unexpected partner in Maronite Patriarch Bishara Al Rai. President Michel Suleiman has not opposed their assessment, even if he has not explicitly supported it either.

On the other side are those Maronites who insist that the end of Assad rule would be a boon to Christians. They point out that no one has undermined the community over time as has the Syrian regime, and that an "alliance of minorities" is a path toward self-destruction. There is no certainty that Sunni Islamists will dominate Syria, they maintain, and anyway it makes no sense for Christians to side with the repressive leadership in Damascus against those seeking freedom; even less so given that Mr Al Assad will likely be toppled at some stage.

Those who defend this approach have rallied, principally, around the Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea and Christian politicians close to the Sunni-dominated Future Movement of Saad Hariri, the former prime minister. Patriarch Al Rai's predecessor, the 91-year-old Cardinal Nasrallah Boutros Sfeir, who retired this year, has emerged as a spiritual godfather to this coalition of forces. While backing Patriarch Al Rai in public, Cardinal Sfeir has dropped remarks here and there revealing a very different philosophy.

The second view is the more sensible one, though many Christians may disagree. Ultimately, it is mad for Arab Christians to sanction tyrants slaughtering their people. Such a policy is a perennial game of Russian roulette, with Christians wagering on the triumph of the murderers. Not only is this politically reckless, it is morally reprehensible, especially when involving those like Patriarch Al Rai, who purport to speak in the name of a religion of charity and love.

As far as their existential options go, Arab Christians have few alternatives but to advocate pluralistic, democratic orders protecting social and political liberties. Only such environments can ensure that Christians are accepted for their differences and the dissonances they bring, rather than merely tolerated until alignments shift.

The problem is that if Lebanon's community is having trouble accepting this conclusion, even though the country is freer and more permissive than those in its neighbourhood, then what can be expected of those dwindling Christian communities elsewhere in the Middle East? Worse, if the Christians themselves are disorientated, will this not encourage extremists who are overtly hostile to the Christian presence, even if they are few in number?

There is great confusion in the Arab world today as revolts defy decaying authoritarian systems. The Christians are understandably worried that they may become dispensable in the pulverising political transactions ahead. Their salvation is to embrace change that brings with it freedom. The road is bound to be difficult, as many will define freedom as the denial of freedom to others.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Bashar’s blood brothers

Among the more dismal displays in recent weeks has been that of governments openly expressing their support for the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria—or simply refusing to blame it for the savage, months-long repression of domestic dissent.

More remarkable still, most of the governments adopting such an approach lean politically to the left and claim to be sympathetic to popular aspirations. Several have suffered from domestic repression in their modern history. These states include Brazil, India and South Africa, who abstained recently in a vote on a UN Security Council resolution condemning Syria; but also Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, Nicaragua and Cuba, who sent representatives in a delegation to Damascus last weekend to give confidence to Syria’s leadership.

The old concept of “Third Worldism” was for a long time shorthand for anti-Americanism. But what we are witnessing today is something more complex. When Brazil, India and South Africa refuse to condemn the manifest thuggery of a Syrian regime whose crimes can be readily called up on the BlackBerrys of their United Nations ambassadors, they happen to be sending contradictory messages.

They are saying, first, that the balance of power in the Security Council has changed, and it has changed in that the three states are no longer willing to docilely toe the line set by the United States and the Europeans. This is an act of affirmation, not displaced inferiority, a consequence of these states’ growing regional and international influence, thanks in large part to their economic successes.

But the reaction is also one that incorporates resentment of a Western-dominated international order. It is even, to an extent, an illustration of lingering sentimentality for Third World causes. That the particular “cause” in Syria happens to be mass murder is irrelevant. President Jacob Zuma of South Africa, like President Dilma Rousseff of Brazil, comes from a leftist tradition, where the default setting was once to align with regimes from the developing world. India, with its history of nonalignment, is no different.

South Africa has been equally ambiguous on Libya, backing Moammar al-Qaddafi despite his declared intent to crush his opponents “like rats.” For Zuma, Qaddafi defended the African National Congress in a time of need, earning such solidarity. Yet there is a problem when solidarity is expressed for individuals at the expense of democratic ideals. What kind of hypocrisy is it for a government dominated by the ANC, which spent decades fighting against an oppressive, discriminatory political system, to now side with the oppressor in Libya—and by omission in Syria?

One expects less discernment from the likes of Venezuela, Cuba, Nicaragua, Bolivia and Ecuador. The principal prism through which they consider Syria, or Libya, is that of hostility toward the United States and inherent sympathy for America’s enemies. Cuba and Venezuela are effectively led by dictators, so they have no profound philosophical difficulty with Assad, or with Qaddafi. But it must have been disheartening indeed for the average Syrian to observe this exotic deputation of Latinos, thoroughly illiterate in the ways of Syria or its uprising, disembarking in Damascus to defend a homicidal autocrat whom most of them know next to nothing about.

The duplicity of the so-called “people’s republic” of China and Vladimir Putin’s Russia is well established when it comes to covering for the abuses of foreign governments. Moscow and Beijing have always been realists to the core, pursuing their interests regardless of the transgressions of their overseas partners. China sold weapons to Qaddafi even as his regime was collapsing, while Russia has intervened brutally too many times in the Caucasus to readily set a new precedent against such behavior by condemning Assad.

What conclusions can we draw from this catalogue of insincerity? The most obvious is that Western democracies, for all their own insincerities, have tended to be more consistent in bolstering humanistic values than much of the rest of the world. The Obama administration was initially disinclined to get involved in Libya, and took far too long to demand Assad’s departure. But when the decisions were taken—and the United Kingdom and France were instrumental in leading on the Libya and Syria fronts—the diplomatic or military machinery, or both, kicked commendably into gear.

The template of a naturally domineering, exploitative West facing off against a vulnerable, victimized South is utter nonsense. This characterization may sound like an exaggeration, but it is far less so than you might imagine. The romance of revolution (for many of the governments backing Qaddafi and Assad somehow perceive themselves to be revolutionary, or on the side of revolution internationally) is often made doubly powerful by its imprecision. Only such imprecision, the imposition of a black-or-white reading of Syria’s standoff against Europe and the United States, can induce governments to take the side, explicitly or implicitly, of a leader who merits a seat in the dock at the International Criminal Court.

I will wager you an all-expenses trip to Managua, Havana or Cape Town, that the cynical reckonings of Assad’s new international comrades will prompt no invitation for us to reinterpret the current state of international relations. That countries arousing so many positive expectations in the past should somehow find themselves protecting, essentially, criminal enterprises, is a sign of moral and ideological bankruptcy. And yet those countries will continue to elicit warm feelings worldwide for allegedly challenging the global status quo. Few will see this impression for the lie that it is.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

The Hariri assassination needs a motive

This time, at least, the Special Tribunal for Lebanon managed to navigate through an official’s resignation by immediately appointing a successor. The tribunal’s president, Antonio Cassese, stepped down this week, to be replaced by Sir David Baragwanath of New Zealand. The smoothness of the transition aside, Cassese’s departure with a trial looming did little to bolster the institution’s credibility.

In recent months, the debate over the special tribunal has been largely defined by those yearning for its failure. Even the prime minister, Najib Mikati, is in a bind. He went far in promising that his government would approve funding for the tribunal, only to see this turned against him by Hezbollah and Michel Aoun. What the outcome will be is anybody’s guess, but Mikati will probably opt to delay the issue indefinitely, averting a showdown in which he is bound to be humiliated. He may be wagering that an international community incapable of approving a Security Council resolution condemning the savagery of Bashar Assad’s regime in Syria, will be equally unlikely to punish Lebanon for failing to honor its financial obligations.

On the side of those who endorse the tribunal, present company included, there has mainly been uncritical acquiescence to whatever the institution does. Some cracks in confidence have started to appear, not least after it became known that the prosecution would not be taking up several bomb attacks committed in 2005, including those against journalists May Chidiac and Samir Kassir. However, the March 14 coalition continues to view the tribunal as its principal weapon against the majority.

Tactically, this is understandable. But for those more interested in whether the special tribunal represents a qualitative judicial achievement that enhances the rule of law in Lebanon, the picture is more blurred. Six years after the assassination of the former prime minister, Rafik Hariri, such an ambition has evaporated. Perhaps that was to be expected, but it has also been facilitated by long, unjustified, and damaging delays in the investigation of the crime.

The indictments issued by the tribunal offer us, bluntly, a crime without an articulated motive. It is embarrassing that after six years of investigation, only four suspects, all active at the operational level, have been named. This may change, indeed it must change if the prosecutor is to strengthen his case. In practical terms this requires indictments of those who ordered Hariri’s elimination, with an explanation for why they did so. And yet something tells us that this may be it for now – with the prosecutor, Daniel Bellemare, hoping to use the initial indictments as a wedge for further indictments.

Motive is the key to most crimes. Detlev Mehlis, the first head of the independent investigative commission of the United Nations, concluded that Hariri had been killed for political reasons. He and his allies were on the verge of winning a parliamentary majority in the summer 2005 elections, a point acknowledged by Syria’s Lebanese allies. The former prime minister himself was telling foreign envoys that he would gain a majority whichever election law was adopted.

When you put this together with what the Syrians were then saying, a hypothesis becomes clearer. A Syrian friend familiar with regime thinking in Damascus informed me in January 2005 that Assad intended to “respond to” Security Council Resolution 1559, which, among other things, called for Syria’s army to be removed from Lebanon. Syrian forces would be redeployed in the direction of the Syrian border, he said. But no one was talking of a full withdrawal.

The Syrians had a good reason for imagining that this ploy would work. In early 2005 the United States was willing to advance in stages on a withdrawal. In the words of the former ambassador in Beirut and current assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, Jeffrey Feltman, Washington sought “to avoid allowing the perfect to be the enemy of the good.” In other words, the Americans considered a partial Syrian pullback preferable to none at all. In his speech before Syria’s parliament in early March 2005, three weeks after Hariri’s murder, Assad behaved precisely according to that playbook. He declared that Syrian troops would soon start moving toward the border, though he did not say that they would actually cross it.

Here is probably what the Syrians were thinking. At some point in late 2004, they concluded that an election victory for Hariri and his comrades represented an existential threat to the Syrian order in Lebanon. Hezbollah concurred, anticipating that a Hariri government would undermine the substantial military and political advantages the party enjoyed under Syrian rule. A decision was taken to get rid of the former prime minister, to be followed by steps suggesting that Syria would implement Resolution 1559 and move all its forces into the Bekaa Valley. This injected a useful ambiguity into the equation, since it could be depicted as falling in line with the Taif Accord (which even Walid Jumblatt preferred to hold up at Syria instead of Resolution 1559). With Hariri gone, the Syrians would win the elections hands down, bring in a friendly government, and under the rubric of Taif negotiate with that government a continued Syrian presence in Lebanon, circumventing Resolution 1559.

What spoiled the scheme? We have to assume growing Arab and international pressure on Syria, but also the mass demonstration of March 14, 2005, which convinced Assad that his plan had backfired. He now faced a united and mobilized Sunni community, working in tandem with a unified Christian community and the Druze. The elections, Assad could plainly see, would lead to the very outcome that the Syrian president had sought to avert. He apparently concluded that it was better to bring his troops home before that happened.

Is this interpretation debatable? Sure, but until now the Special Tribunal for Lebanon has little enriched the conversation. We have suspects, but no hint as to their purpose. Bellemare may propose an explanation by indicting new figures, or he may outline his thinking in court. But without new suspects his case will be weak, and many of us will be even more persuaded that the tribunal has let us down.

Friday, October 7, 2011

The patriarch loses the plot

Among the geopolitical gems that Patriarch Bechara al-Rai has endowed us with in recent weeks is the notion that there is a grand scheme to divide the Middle East into sectarian statelets.

Rai raised this issue on his controversial visit to Paris some weeks ago, and repeated it on the eve of his departure to the United States, when visiting with President Michel Sleiman. The pair issued a statement in which they agreed that Lebanon was facing myriad dangers, among them that plan to fragment the region by religion.

Rarely do clergymen provoke any wistfulness in me, but reading Rai’s remarks I was transported back to the mid-1970s, and those balmy afternoons in the sitting room hearing family elders discussing politics. And it came to me that the recurrent topic of conversation back then was the same elaborate plan to divide the Middle East into sectarian and communal statelets. Who was the mastermind? Naturally, the US secretary of state at the time, Henry Kissinger, while the principal beneficiary of the project was Israel.

A separate part of Kissinger’s plan, we learned, was to empty Lebanon of Christians and hand the country over to the Palestinians (the ships that would evacuate us were said to be offshore, though it was never revealed where we would be deposited). Given that the Christian political groupings looked to be on relatively good terms with Israel, and that Israel was on bad terms with the Palestinians, our adolescent minds were somewhat puzzled by how Israel would benefit. However, the plan was complex, and teenagers had no business questioning their parents—and even less the diabolical ways of Henry Kissinger.

Decades on, the Middle East still hasn’t dissolved into sectarian statelets. Which makes you wonder, who is in charge of the plan these days? Perhaps Rai knows, or Sleiman. If so, the patriarch has been rather cagey on that point, although he has mentioned the concept of a “new Middle East” as the strategic backdrop to the process. When you hear the words “new Middle East,” you know someone is thinking of the George W. Bush years and the alleged plot to reshape the region in America’s image, of which the Iraq war was a centerpiece.

I’m willing to accept that the Bush administration, for a time, saw Iraq as a lever to alter broad political realities in the Gulf and the Levant in the wake of the 9/11 attacks against the United States. However, the political campaign in Iraq was so incompetently carried out, with American officials often pushing conflicting bureaucratic agendas, that it was obvious by the end of 2003 that Washington was increasingly mystified about how to proceed with the Iraqis. Even as Bush mentioned the “new” Middle East, his military was struggling mightily to contain the consequences of the old Middle East.

And all this had nothing to do with breaking Iraq up into sectarian statelets. If anything, the Bush administration sought to avoid that result at all costs—even if it proposed a federal system for Iraq, which was natural given Iraqi realities. I remember interviewing the deputy defense secretary, Paul Wolfowitz, in 2004, soon after agreement was reached over the Transitional Administrative Law—Iraq’s constitution until a permanent basic law could be agreed. Wolfowitz made quite plain his uneasiness with what he regarded as too much autonomy for the Kurdish areas, a sensitive admission in light of the close relationship between Washington and the Kurdish parties.

Nothing that the Bush administration did in Iraq after that period contradicted American fears of a sectarian breakdown. Yes, there was a battle in Baghdad between the Sunni and Shia communities, but the ethnic cleansing that ensued was not the fruit of an American stratagem. In fact, had the US wanted to split Iraq apart, it would not have played such an essential role in assisting Baghdad to re-impose its writ over Sunni areas, above all Anbar province, in collaboration with the Awakening Councils. Nor would it have attempted to find a solution between Kurds and Arabs over the disputed city of Kirkuk.

What about Syria? If any party to the unrest there today is implementing measures that might break the country up into sectarian statelets, it’s the Assad regime, which Rai has invited us all to reconsider with a more compassionate eye. By unleashing its predominantly Alawite praetorian units and Alawite armed gangs against mainly Sunni protestors, the regime has intentionally heightened sectarian animosities. This it has done to bolster Alawite solidarity and ensure that those in the community remain united; but also to make the prospect of a sectarian civil war so real, that foreign states, to avert this outcome, will not risk undermining Assad rule.

And since when has the US, or for that matter Israel, tried to break Syria up into smaller states? For decades Israel and Syria have been the best of enemies, their border as tranquil as a Sunday afternoon in the Scandinavian countryside. It was no coincidence that in a New York Times interview last May, Rami Makhlouf, President Bashar al-Assad’s cousin, warned: “If there is no stability [in Syria], there’s no way there will be stability in Israel.” Very succinctly, and openly, he admitted that Syria and Israel protected each other—a source of great discomfiture in Damascus, even if Makhlouf was telling the truth.

Priests enjoy vast political intrigue, because so much of it seems to surround their institution. But Rai can do better than offer us a reheated version of a spurious conspiracy theory from the 1970s, reinforced by his sketchy grasp of current realities in the Middle East. Patriarchs really shouldn’t echo dated, imprecise salon gossip.