Friday, July 29, 2011

Ban Lebanon’s sillier laws

The arrest this week of singer Zeid Hamdan for allegedly defaming President Michel Sleiman provides a good example of why Lebanese law can, now and again, be an inexhaustible fount of amusement.

Wednesday, Hamdan was taken into custody on orders from the interior minister, Marwan Charbel, before later being released. The reason was that in 2010 he recorded the music video of a tune he wrote in 2008, in which he sang, “General Sleiman, you’re a mean old man,” before inviting him to “Go home, General Sleiman.”

The remarkable promptness of our security agencies in detecting this year-old violence directed against the presidential office was only marginally less peculiar than Hamdan’s oddly respectful use of the word “general” in addressing our head of state. Genuine insolence would have dictated ignoring rank altogether and dangling Sleiman by his last name. But indeed nothing is more odious to Lebanese presidents than a request to go home. Even when constitutionally obligated to abide by that command, most prefer to linger.

This is not the first time that someone has been arrested for showing disrespect to Sleiman. A year ago, several supporters of Michel Aoun were detained for doing so on Facebook, before the incident petered out. We can expect the same thing with Hamdan. His arrest has sparked outrage; observers have decried the absence of freedom of speech; the courts may take up the matter, or pretend to; and in the end the dispute will slide off the radar, with no one punished.

In a sense such an ending is fitting. It would be an embarrassment to the president if a private citizen were to spend any lengthy period of time behind bars for saying unkind things about him. After all, many a politician has done so publicly, without paying a price. The third paragraph of the preamble of the constitution describes Lebanon as a democratic republic that is “based on respect for public liberties, especially freedom of opinion and belief, and respect for social justice and equality of rights.” That’s why it is neither sensible to apprehend people for expressing reservations with Sleiman, or anyone else, nor fair to sanction only those who are not politically connected.

There are many constraints in our “democratic republic,” both official and unspoken. One cannot attack “friendly” Arab countries, and for a long time one took a risk by criticizing Syria or Saudi Arabia publicly. Yet no policeman was dispatched to haul in Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, when he condemned Bahrain’s regime some months ago. And while the Lebanese can call politicians all sorts of names, and mock them on satirical programs, this is off limits when it involves Nasrallah himself, because his supporters might block the airport road and deploy toughs to register their discontent.

In 1998, Emile Lahoud was appointed president (the word “elected” seems so inappropriate), and for a moment naïve Lebanese imagined that humility and integrity had entered Baabda Palace. Usually bright people would enthusiastically mention the president’s simplicity, the fact that he drove his own car without bodyguards. Whether these stories were true, no one could affirm. However, soon military officers were calling newspapers to point out that they were better off not depicting the president in political cartoons. The purportedly simple man was apparently soaking with vanity.

And even when Lahoud was on the ropes in 2005, the intelligence services were still active in protecting the sacred icon. At the March 14 rally that year, a group of agents forced demonstrators to take down a large sign poking fun at the president. You had to admire their tenacity in the midst of a colossal, unfriendly rally, though they didn’t quite work up the nerve to arrest those slandering “sisterly Syria.”

Lebanon is not alone in restricting certain types of activities in ways that transcend social necessity to sometimes verge on the petty. In Singapore, for example, chewing gum is prohibited. In the United Kingdom, engaging in loud sex can earn you a citation for anti-social behavior. More seriously, in France it is illegal to deny the Holocaust. Each case is considerably different from the other, but all in their way reflect an intention of the state to enforce behavior deemed desirable, but where the law also jars with freedom of action and expression.

The same logic has gone into Lebanese laws to prevent offending this politician or country or that. As in Singapore, the UK or France, we can see that the urge to write into law specific conduct—including conduct deemed to be moral—extends the state’s power to domains that citizens are better off managing informally, between themselves. It is not up to the state to tell people what they must think and say, any more than it is to instruct them what to consume.

The impulse to over-legislate also rarely works well. You still cannot chew gum in Singapore. However, in the UK the wide dissemination of so-called anti-social behavior orders under previous governments provoked a negative backlash. The French Holocaust law has also sparked controversy, regardless of the vileness of Holocaust deniers.

Lebanon merits some credit. Hamdan’s tribulations will end up being a tempest in a teapot. It’s a relief that Lebanese still react with indignation to arrests like his. But Michel Sleiman would gain much by recommending that the law justifying them be banned altogether. Among his roles is safeguarding the constitution, and the preamble is clear about freedom of expression. Representatives of the state should stop wasting their time and ours by keeping on the books silly legislation that their self-respect prevents them from applying.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Pathos in Beirut, and new directions

Pathos has become standard fare in Beirut lately. There was something pathetic in the bearing of Prime Minister Najib Mikati during his recent interview with CNN’s Richard Quest. And no less pathetic have been the assurances of March 14 figures that Saad Hariri will return to Beirut during the month of Ramadan.

With Mikati the pathos came in the prime minister’s unpersuasive effort to put a brave face on a bad situation. He told Quest that the four individuals indicted by the Special Tribunal for Lebanon were being actively sought by his government, even as the dubious reporter reminded him that Hezbollah’s secretary general, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, had vowed never to surrender the men. Mikati, too smart to engage in self-delusion, instead spread a pitiful illusion.

As for March 14, there was something just as wretched in the statements heralding Hariri’s homecoming. The former prime minister’s bloc and allies have been embarrassed by their leader’s disappearance and the contradictory explanations for this. Now Hariri is coming back and a zephyr of hope has kicked up in the coalition’s ranks, as no more explanations have to be offered.

Lebanon is being damaged by fragmentation in the political game. Nasrallah is flying the banner of defending our offshore gas fields – in search of new relevance for a party that has lost its meaning beyond being the armed sentinel of the Shiite sect, and that may soon be deprived of a valuable Syrian ally; Mikati is engaged in an elaborate act that all is dandy in Lebanon, to reverse waning confidence in stability; March 14 is all sound and fury, but signifying nothing as it fails to define an alternative to the vague program on the other side.

In this otherwise dispiriting context, there may yet be interesting things to watch for that will shape Lebanon’s political future. One, is whether the notion of a government of “one color” can provide a model of sorts, or alternatively will turn into a practice best avoided. Another, is whether such a “one-color” government will help spawn in positive ways a responsible opposition.

As much as a national-unity government is preferable given our present political predicament, because Lebanon needs a forum for dialogue in volatile times, that choice has not been the norm in modern Lebanon. One must differentiate between a representative government and a national-unity government: the first brings in a range of political forces who agree on the basics of policy, but does not necessarily integrate all major forces in the way that a national-unity government does. Lebanon has frequently had representative governments that were not national-unity governments.

It is too early to judge how the Mikati government will perform. However, the signs are not heartening when the prime minister finds himself on a different wavelength than Hassan Nasrallah, his far more powerful confederate. Oddly, this may not end up mattering much. Whatever the outcome for the government, success or failure, it may help bolster the view that a government of compatible political partners is better than a national-unity government.

Here’s why. If the Mikati government succeeds, then many Lebanese will, of course, applaud the experiment, seeing little to condemn in a politically compatible governing team. Conversely, if the government fails, then this is likely to discredit Mikati and those around him in their political capacity, but not at all the principle of a like-minded government. In other words, disappointment with the current ministers and their sponsors could create a backlash leading to the establishment of a substitute Cabinet of March 14 and its comrades.

Many Lebanese are tempted to favor compatible governments over national-unity governments. But that can only work if partisanship is kept in check and there is broad agreement over Lebanon’s social contract. When government actions and political and security appointments serve mainly to consolidate a politician’s or party’s interests at the expense of the majority, inside or outside government, then the advantages of compatibility break down.

And what of the opposition? March 14 has disappointed on a host of questions since Mikati took office. Tactically, the coalition has sought to highlight the flaws of the government, and the prime minister in particular. But it has been wishy-washy on sensitive issues, from addressing declining economic conditions, where the responsible position requires backing Mikati, to taking a stance on the Syrian situation, to providing a convincing counter-offer to the majority’s tendentious vision for a national dialogue. Demanding that Hezbollah’s weapons be included in a dialogue is natural, but this will not serve as the basis of serious discussion until March 14 corners the party by presenting a detailed project for disarmament that incorporates a political quid pro quo.

If we were to predict the popularity of March 14 in an election, what might we discover? Looking through a narrow but useful prism, if elections were held today in the different districts of Mount Lebanon, which accounts for a hefty number of parliamentarians, I would wager heavily that Michel Aoun would again win a lion’s share of seats. That’s not because the general is more popular than in 2009, but because his adversaries have lost ground. It was no coincidence that Michel Murr, an astute electoral operator, voted confidence in the Mikati government after his list’s disastrous results in the Metn two years ago. Expect him to negotiate with Aoun in 2013.

This should be a cautionary tale for March 14. A government of one color imposes obligations on an opposition. Even if the public has doubts about those in authority, that doesn’t mean it will side with their critics. Until now the opposition has appeared strident, devoid of ideas, and focused on provoking Mikati’s collapse. That’s not a serious strategy and it’s not working. It makes Mikati look good when his difficulties should expose how feeble the prime minister really is.

Lebanon's political bellwether turns away from Syria

It is often said that where Walid Jumblatt goes, Lebanon follows. More accurately, where Lebanon is going, Mr Jumblatt goes first, his powers of anticipation having kept the leader of the country's Druze community politically onside and relevant for almost four decades.

This is worth recalling as Mr Jumblatt has begun to realign once again to prepare for the probable collapse of the Assad regime in Syria. For many weeks now the Druze leader has quietly written off the survival of the Syrian leadership, arguing that the real question is under what conditions President Bashar Al Assad will leave office - by way of a peaceful transition or following a civil war.

Last weekend, in a speech in the district of Rashayya, Mr Jumblatt went further than ever before in condemning the crackdown in Syria. Simultaneously, Lebanon's pre-eminent political acrobat harked back to the Syrian revolt against French imperialism in 1925, which spread to Rashayya and in which many Druze lost their lives; he declared that those who had committed crimes in the ongoing Syria revolt be held accountable, that prisoners be released and that a new Syrian constitution be drafted. And he lamented that while Mr Al Assad had promised reform, there were those around him opposed to this.

In a phrase rife with meaning in the Arab context, Mr Jumblatt proclaimed: "Only a free people can free persecuted and oppressed peoples, and the theory of a resistance system has no value." His dismissal of a "resistance system" was effectively a denunciation of states and organisations - principally Syria, Iran and Hizbollah - that have taken pride in forming a unified front to combat what they deem to be Israeli and western dictates.

Mr Jumblatt may be agile, but even by his standards the past two years have imposed substantial gymnastics. After the assassination in February 2005 of Lebanon's former prime minister Rafiq Hariri, the Druze leader became a principal figure in the March 14 coalition hostile to Syria, which was blamed for the crime, and Hizbollah. Under threat of assassination, Mr Jumblatt spent four years as a prisoner in his home, watching Syria reassert its power in Beirut.

Then, in February 2009, something changed. At an Arab economic summit in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah initiated a reconciliation with Mr Al Assad. The Saudis and Syrians had been bitterly divided over Lebanon, and the Saudis concluded they had lost more than Syria in that bruising encounter. Mr Jumblatt realised that it was a matter of time before King Abdullah compelled his protégé Saad Hariri, Rafiq's son and Lebanon's pre-eminent Sunni representative, to reconcile with Mr Al Assad. Once that happened, the Druze leader knew, he would be left hanging, ripe for elimination.

So Mr Jumblatt drifted away from his March 14 allies, hoping to settle his differences with Syria before Mr Hariri did, thus preserving his political sway by placing himself advantageously in a revitalised, Saudi-blessed, Syrian-led arrangement for Lebanon. The gambit failed as Mr Al Assad ignored his advances. Once Mr Hariri visited Syria in December 2009, understandings between Syria and its other ex-Lebanese enemies became possible. Mr Jumblatt endured Syrian-imposed humiliations to be received in Damascus in April 2010 - weak, mortified, but still alive. I saw him on the night of his return and we actually walked to a local restaurant, something unthinkable weeks earlier.

Mr Jumblatt's strategy has been to employ manoeuvrability to compensate for his minority status and the fact that even among Lebanon's minorities his rural community is demographically negligible.He has made his share of mistakes, issued an infinite number of apologies to comrades forsaken then reunited with after his myriad reversals. However, since 1977 when he inherited power from his father Kamal, who was murdered by the Syrian regime, Mr Jumblatt has remained at the centre of Lebanon's political stage, his pragmatism, indeed his cynicism, always a mortal weapon.

It has become a cliché that Mr Jumblatt is a paradox in being a traditional, autocratic, sectarian mountain patriarch as well as the head of the Progressive Socialist Party. For him contradiction is no vice in protecting his Druze community, and his paramount authority over the community. This helps explain Mr Jumblatt's calculations when it comes to Syria, where some 300,000 Druze reside.

The Assad regime never took kindly to Mr Jumblatt's influence among his Syrian coreligionists. The Druze leader always avoided challenging this Syrian red line, but with Mr Al Assad's rule sliding he has sought to ensure that Syria's Druze are not viewed as being on the regime's side, therefore open to retaliation in a post-revolution Syria. That is why Mr Jumblatt called for reform from the early days of the uprising, even as he implied that Mr Al Assad must lead it. His doublespeak has irritated Syrian officials, at times forcing Mr Jumblatt to backtrack. His latest remarks, the strongest yet, indicate that the Druze leader senses the Assads are on their last legs.

It is a source of merriment in Beirut that Mr Jumblatt, who jumped through countless rings back into the Syrian fold, now finds himself frantically reversing himself with regard to Damascus. His former March 14 allies, like his untrusting new partners in the Hizbollah-led majority, will observe that the man has betrayed one time too many and is politically finished. But Mr Jumblatt is a master of reinvention and has a gift for creating spaces and provoking crises to make himself indispensable. Only the naive readily write him off.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Sami Gemayel and Christian insecurity

The “false witnesses” controversy is back on the table. According to news reports, the justice minister has devised a formula to transfer the matter of alleged false witnesses in the investigation of Rafik al-Hariri’s murder to the Justice Council, long a Hezbollah demand.

Maybe this was a consequence of the ridicule Sami Gemayel heaped on the government recently during the parliamentary debate prior to a vote of confidence; or maybe it was not. However, when Gemayel accused the new cabinet of hypocrisy for failing to mention false witnesses in its policy statement, even though Saad al-Hariri’s government had been brought down because the prime minister had resisted transferring the matter to the Justice Council, he hit a nerve.

In fact, go back to Gemayel’s speech, and you will notice that he hit quite a few nerves. For some time, I’ve been uneasy about the young parliamentarian’s exclusivist Christian nationalism. It’s fair to say, and his speech and previous remarks have implied this, that Gemayel aspires to a Lebanon where Christians live largely among Christians; where they remain as shielded as possible from the political zephyrs affecting their Muslim countrymen. This may mean creating a federal structure, a confederal one, or what have you. But Gemayel plainly believes that the Lebanon of 1943, based on a centralized system of power-sharing between religious communities, can no longer work.

The problem with this is that Gemayel’s views are almost certainly shared by a majority of Christians. Return to that parliamentary session a second time. Recall that as Gemayel was orating, the Hezbollah parliamentarians looked on in stony silence, while the Aounist representatives were equally subdued. I will wager that Hezbollah’s bloc knew very well that it was listening to views widely held by the followers of its own Aounist allies—and that includes Gemayel’s references to the double standards enjoyed by the party and the Shia community when it comes to abiding by the law.

This is a reality Hezbollah should heed. Despite five years of political collaboration between Michel Aoun and Hezbollah, the partnership has not percolated down in any significant way to influence social relations. The supporters of Aoun and Hezbollah still live in separate worlds. The party has benefited from Christian, particularly Maronite, fears when it comes to the Sunni community, but this has not translated into a long-term embrace of Shia aspirations, let alone a willingness to pay a heavy national price for Hezbollah’s pursuit of an armed struggle.

Never have Lebanon’s Christians been as closed in upon themselves as they are today. In light of this, the future of the community may be determined much more by exclusivists such as Sami Gemayel than by defenders of the 1943 formula. This would be a pity and would show the Christians at their worst in terms of self-confidence. However, it’s also true that Lebanon’s Muslim communities have a responsibility to show that they respect the institutions of Lebanese coexistence.

Hezbollah has consciously exacerbated Shia misgivings about Lebanon. As Hezbollah’s parliamentarians heard Gemayel speak, they must have sensed a double irony. On one level, here was a great skeptic when it comes to the traditional Lebanese power-sharing arrangement, yet he was badgering Hezbollah for refusing to bend to a more equitable power-sharing arrangement. And on another level, Gemayel, otherwise a member of the March 14 coalition, was voicing reservations about Hezbollah that the Christian partisans of Michel Aoun haven’t dared voice because their movement’s leadership is in bed with the party.

One can challenge Gemayel, but it’s rather difficult to point to anything in Lebanon today that would prove how wrong he in pursuing, effectively, greater Christian isolation. Take the false witnesses dispute. Hezbollah wants to force down everybody’s throat that the party is the victim of an Israeli and American conspiracy. This will only further enrage Sunnis, who are being asked to adopt under duress an entirely spurious hypothesis to explain the murder of their onetime communal champion. In that context, and most unfortunately, it’s not difficult to see why someone like Gemayel will affirm that Christians are better off distancing themselves from Sunnis and Shia.

The Lebanon of 1943 is certainly in need of profound reform. However, greater communal segregation cannot be in the country’s best interest. When people like Sami Gemayel condemn, quite rightly, the perils of a Hezbollah-dominated state within a state, they should also be aware that their own doubts about Lebanon as it is today will encourage many of their coreligionists to aspire to a Christian state within a state—even if Gemayel personally has no desire to go that far.

Gemayel’s speech before parliament was an important moment both in the budding politician’s own career and in bringing to light Christian insecurity in a Lebanon shaped mainly by the interaction between Sunnis and Shia. This will not go away. Muslim representatives should be conscious that whatever the Christians choose will have a significant impact on Sunni-Shia relations. It may be easy to dismiss Sami Gemayel and those like him as inexperienced diehards, but in times of uncertainty they are the kind of people who set the agenda.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Indictments II, a disappointing sequel?

The Special Tribunal for Lebanon is lucky to have Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah as a foe. On Tuesday, he again described the institution’s accusations as part of a conspiracy against Hezbollah. Were it not for the secretary-general, whose anxiety tends to confirm the tribunal’s seriousness, observers might have examined more critically the shortcomings in the United Nations investigation of Rafik Hariri’s assassination and those of many others between 2005 and 2008.

There are reports, which may well be true, that further indictments are forthcoming. Last year officials from the tribunal’s prosecution office were privately declaring the indictments would be issued in stages. Any final verdict on the success or failure of the legal process is premature. However, from what we know, there is reason to doubt that the outcome of the trial will be the identification and conviction of all, or even a large number, of those behind the Lebanese killings.

The principal reason for this is that the U.N. investigation altered its strategy in mid-stream between 2005 and 2006. This left the third investigator, and current special tribunal prosecutor, Daniel Bellemare, with little that was tangible when he began his mission.

Under Detlev Mehlis, the first commissioner of the United Nations International Independent Investigation Commission, investigators directed their suspicions at the upper echelons of the Syrian and Lebanese political and security leadership. As Mehlis explained to me in an interview in 2008, “The Hariri case is an unusual one. Usually in investigations you start at the bottom and work your way up. In the Hariri case we started pretty much at the top and worked down. We had an accurate view of how the assassination took place from above, but less clear a view of what happened on the ground.”

Mehlis based his strategy on a number of factors. First, on the deductions of Peter Fitzgerald, an Irish policeman who had prepared a preliminary U.N. report shortly after Hariri’s death. He concluded that the former prime minister had been the victim of a conspiracy involving “considerable finance, military precision in its execution, [and] substantial logistical support.” While he did not name culprits, he described a situation that made it virtually impossible for the Syrian and Lebanese security services not to have known of the crime. He also cast doubt on their intentions by revealing that Hariri’s state-provided security detail had been cut back, and accused the Lebanese security services of contaminating the crime scene.

Mehlis also had his personal experiences to go on in devising his approach to the investigation. He was familiar with the conduct of the Syrian intelligence services from the time he had investigated a bomb attack against the French cultural center in West Berlin. A Syrian diplomat who turned evidence carried the bomb used in that attack from East Berlin, under the orders of Syrian intelligence operatives.

And finally, once his investigation took off, the testimony Mehlis collected further justified a top-down approach. This included the statements of Syrian intelligence chiefs, as well as that of the former Syrian vice president, Abdel Halim Khaddam. All could attest to the centralized, hierarchical nature of decision-making in Damascus.

Under Serge Brammertz, the strategy was reversed. Mehlis’ successor adopted a bottom-up approach, reduced the pace of the police investigation, brought in more analysts, and generally slowed the investigative machinery down. Shortly before his term ended two years later, the commissioner was telling his Lebanese counterparts that he had not substantially advanced in his inquiry; and proof of this was that he had made no new arrests.

If we are to believe a much-discussed documentary produced by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation last summer, Brammertz was also lax in pursuing the analyses of telephone communications. Reportedly, he waited until late 2007 to bring in a British firm to look more closely at the evidence, after significant progress had been made in evaluating the telecommunications data by Wissam Eid, a Lebanese police officer who was assassinated in January 2008.

While this issue continues to provoke considerable disagreement, two things are undeniable: It made no sense whatsoever for Eid and the Lebanese to be handed the lead in probing by far the most sensitive facet of the U.N. investigation, namely telecoms. The Lebanese did not have the technical expertise to conduct such an exercise, and Brammertz had, earlier, ordered his team to minimize communication with the Lebanese security forces, fearing that they had been infiltrated.

Something else is undeniable: Eid was killed, and he had long anticipated his violent ending. This suggested that the officer had made some sort of breakthrough on telecoms, a view shared by Lebanese judicial figures dealing with the Hariri investigation.

Given these circumstances, when Bellemare came in he most probably found himself lost in an investigative no-man’s land. On the one side he had the testimony garnered by Mehlis pointing in the direction of senior Lebanese and Syrian political and security figures. On the other, he had the fruits of Brammertz’s limited endeavors focusing on the minutiae of the case, an approach that, effectively, undermined Mehlis’ hypothesis by failing to build on it. And yet Brammertz had repeatedly reconfirmed the detention of the four Lebanese generals, implying that he presumed that they were culpable. This mess, many maintain, obliged Bellemare to begin from scratch.

By most accounts the telecoms information was instrumental in preparing the first indictment. But future indictments, if there are any, may be more problematical precisely because they may be damaged by the disconnect between the way Mehlis investigated the Hariri killing and the very different way Brammertz did. So, for example, if Syrians are accused – and Bellemare may have to accuse Syrians because he desperately needs a motive for the crime – he would have to rely on material gathered under Mehlis that was never sufficiently supplemented by Brammertz. That means Bellemare may have to put together a case dependent to a great extent on circumstantial evidence, which is tougher to prove in court.

Much of this is speculation. However, there is nothing reassuring in recognizing that Bellemare, in all likelihood, was obliged to extensively rebuild the Hariri investigation as of 2008, a full three years after the former prime minister was murdered. We may see new indictments, but will these will be solid? Don’t bet too heavily on it.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Obama’s great escape on Syria

The Obama administration has embraced evasion and self-delusion in dealing with the ongoing repression in Syria. Until now it has avoided demanding an end to Bashar al-Assad’s rule, even though all the conditions for such a demand have been met, while peddling the absurd possibility of a dialogue between the regime and the opposition.

Assad has interpreted this irresolution as a green light to pursue the carnage. However, if we momentarily abandon the moral argument for supporting Syria’s emancipation movement and look at America’s performance in light of its own national interests, what do we see? Behavior, again, characterized by evasion and self-delusion.

When Barack Obama became president, Washington’s principal priority in the Middle East was containing Iran and ensuring that its nuclear program would not serve military ends. Yet the administration never developed a cohesive strategy to achieve those objectives. Obama accelerated the pullout of American soldiers from Iraq, to Iran’s delight, and while the US backed new sanctions against Tehran, this often seemed a substitute for a more multifaceted, versatile American approach to addressing the Iranian challenge.

One news item this week shows what the Obama administration is up against. On Wednesday, in a highly significant event, the Iranian first vice president, Muhammad-Reza Rahimi, traveled to Baghdad to preside over the signing of six cooperation agreements between Iran and Iraq. The more profound import of the visit was that Tehran is consolidating its ties with Iraq as Washington prepares to withdraw its remaining forces from there by the end of the year. Rahimi declared that “the pain of the past” was behind the two countries, and added that Iran was willing to help restore security in Iraq.

In the ambidextrous language of diplomacy, an offer to help restore security is another way of saying that one can create insecurity. Rahimi’s statement was, implicitly, a warning to the Iraqis that Iran would really much prefer that the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki not extend the American military mission in Iraq beyond 2011. To push that message home, in recent months Iran has supplied sophisticated weaponry and equipment to Shia militias in Iraq, allowing them to mount more effective attacks against American soldiers. Last week, for instance, three Americans were killed in a rocket attack at a base near the Iranian border.

What has the administration done to counteract this Iranian bid to expand its already substantial influence over Iraq? Very little. With Obama so keen to terminate America’s long Iraqi interregnum, his latitude to sanction Iran has been greatly reduced. This alacrity has exacerbated Washington’s vulnerabilities in Iraq, but has also severely damaged its relationship with the Gulf allies, Saudi Arabia above all. The Saudis have little faith in American protection, and the great danger is that their anxiety will lead them to further destabilize Shia-dominated Iraq by manipulating its sectarian antagonisms.

Even more puzzling, the Obama administration does not appear to have seriously debated the advantageous role Syria’s crisis might play in thwarting Iranian ambitions. It doesn’t take a particularly discerning mind to understand that the fall of the Assad regime would represent a major blow to Iran in the Levant. Yet instead of thinking the option through, Washington has continued to uphold, against the wishes of a majority of Syrian protesters, the possibility of a dialogue over reform between a sanguinary leadership and its victims.

We are not talking about Washington imposing its hegemony over Syria, let alone resorting to armed force in the country. This is not about repeating the ill-thought-through Libyan experience. Rather, the US can, and must, take a principled position in favor of democracy in Syria, which means openly advocating the departure of the Assad regime, which has lost all legitimacy. Only Washington has the authority to oversee an Arab and international diplomatic endeavor to prepare for a smooth Syrian transition.

This wouldn’t be easy, but it is doable. The Saudis and Egyptians could be persuaded to lead Arab action if they are convinced that Assad’s exit would weaken Iran. At the United Nations, the Obama administration would have a hard time with the Russians and Chinese. But as the regime in Syria loses ground, the likelihood that the confrontation there will take on an overtly sectarian coloring can only increase. Such a development would be a disaster for Syria; it could also be one for its neighbors with mixed sectarian societies. Regional peace would suffer, justifying Security Council intervention.

If the Arabs, the Security Council, and Europe (where France and the United Kingdom have been far ahead of the US on Syrian matters) can reach a consensus on a transition in Damascus, they might be able to induce the Assads to leave quietly, given certain guarantees. It is not set in stone that the family will fight to the last man, but it will fight on for as long as it sees the Americans and everybody else dithering.

The humanitarian, principled case for insisting that the Assads cede power is the most compelling. But Washington’s lethargy has been little shaken by the potential strategic benefits of a democratic change of regime in Syria, guided by Syrians. Iran is watching Syria with trepidation. However, it must find terribly reassuring Barack Obama’s ostrich-like yearning to escape fresh involvement in a Middle East trouble spot, and his incongruous assumption that Iran can somehow be restrained by an America reversing at full-speed in the region.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Najib Mikati, our own dead man walking

Last Saturday, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s secretary general, did more to discredit Prime Minister Najib Mikati than did all the sour statements issued by March 14. In rejecting any cooperation with the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, Nasrallah undermined Mikati’s acrobatic efforts to reassure the international community that Lebanon would fulfill its international obligations.

Rather than react to this humiliation by responding to his alleged political comrade, Mikati instead warned March 14 last Monday, on the eve of the parliamentary session preceding a vote of confidence, that “sabotaging the nation is a crime.” Such an act would indeed be a crime, one the former majority should stray away from. But one has to be serious: If anything will sabotage the nation, it’s a statement to the effect that the special tribunal, and implicitly the Lebanese authorities, will never arrest the four suspects in the assassination of Rafik Hariri. “They cannot find them or arrest them in 30 days or 60 days, or in a year, two years, 30 years or 300 years,” Nasrallah told his audience, explaining most transparently that he bows to no nation, least of all the nation in whose government he has two ministers.

Mikati must feel himself being sucked into a maelstrom he cannot withstand. Things looked simpler in January, when he took a political risk in standing against Saad Hariri and getting the nod as prime minister. Mikati thought that he could embody a Saudi-Syrian understanding over Lebanon, which had escaped Hariri. He also believed that he enjoyed support from France and Qatar, and no opposition from the United States. Perhaps he even imagined that these advantages would compel March 14 to enter a national-unity government.

These were more or less defensible calculations to make, except for two things: The Saudis and Syrians had explored ways to break off altogether Lebanon’s relationship with the special tribunal. Mikati, in contrast, has never publicly shown a willingness to go that far. And he knew that foreign endorsement of his team, as well as acceptance by March 14, would hinge on displaying clarity toward U.N. resolutions.

Mikati’s fortunes took a slide immediately after his appointment. Syrian friends, the Turks and the Qataris were more unhappy with Hariri’s ouster than it initially appeared, and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan expressed this to President Bashar Assad at a February meeting in Aleppo. Damascus paused, as it did again when demonstrations began against President Hosni Mubarak in Egypt. Why impose a hasty outcome in Beirut, the Syrians seemed think, amid so much regional volatility? Better to wait and see.

So, Mikati waited and what we saw was the outbreak of an emancipation movement in Syria. Suddenly, the prime minister-designate’s world started unraveling. Mikati had counted on his good rapport with Assad to provide a counterweight to his new and troublesome political associates, Hezbollah and Michel Aoun. The Syrians were, at least for the moment, out of the picture, focusing on repression at home. Mikati realized that a poorly balanced Cabinet could mean his utter marginalization. His Sunni base in the north was surveying events in Syria with growing discontent. And so Mikati had no choice but to delay putting a government together.

Shrewdly, Aoun read Mikati’s motives correctly and pursued his maximalist demands on ministerial portfolios, sensing there was no point in conceding anything if a government was deferred. Like Hezbollah he waited for the situation to change, and it did once the Assads realized that they had a full-blown insurrection on their hands, one with existential implications. Lebanon had initially been viewed by the Syrian regime as a hostage which it could destabilize to warn outside countries against weakening the Syrian regime. Then Bashar Assad and his acolytes reconsidered, sensing that the country would be more useful as a pliable weapon in Syria’s hands.

After Walid Jumblatt met with Assad on June 9, word came down that the Lebanese had to reach an agreement quickly on forming a government. Mikati managed to get two more Sunnis than Shiites, and with Jumblatt and President Michel Sleiman has 11 ministers. This provides the three, who make up a so-called “centralist bloc,” with veto power over government decisions. However, the numbers are symbolic. The prime minister knows perfectly well that Jumblatt’s and Sleiman’s margin of maneuver, like his own, is almost nil.

Then Nasrallah put everything into perspective Saturday night. What should Mikati do about it? It’s probably too late for him to salvage his political career. The prime minister is the prisoner of partners whose priorities can only sink him and his agenda. With the tribunal indictment out, Mikati will find himself protecting Hezbollah against a widespread perception among Sunnis that the party helped murder their pre-eminent communal representative.

As the carnage continues in Syria, Mikati can prepare for more headaches. His electorate fears for Syria’s Sunnis against an Assad-led military onslaught. As for the prime minister’s latitude to resign against Syria’s wishes and bring down the government, it is very narrow indeed. Such a move would not only spell an end to Mikati’s brief political audition, it would probably come with a financial price, since Mikati’s M1 Group owns the largest single share in a South African company operating one of the mobile networks in Syria.

Now, with Nasrallah renewing his condemnation of the special tribunal, Mikati’s government is on a collision course with the U.N. and the international community. The prime minister pitiably articulated that Lebanon, even if it was not quite committed to international resolutions, nonetheless would “respect” them. But in just a few sentences Nasrallah affirmed that the government could employ whatever language it desired, but the reality was that Hezbollah defined the red lines of the government’s actions, not Najib Mikati.

The prime minister’s fate is now tied to Bashar Assad’s. If the Syrian regime goes, Mikati will follow. The problem is that if Assad stays, Mikati will remain a cipher, even less consequential than was Salim al-Hoss when he headed the first government under President Emile Lahoud. Mikati’s foes want to see him politically debilitated; but the prime minister’s problem is that most of his colleagues in government want that too, for it ensures that he remains their man.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Even partial justice leaves Lebanon in a quandary

On Thursday, the Special Tribunal for Lebanon sent an indictment in the assassination of the former prime minister Rafiq Hariri to Lebanon's judiciary. Many cheered that justice had finally arrived. The optimism may be misplaced. After six years of investigation only four suspects were named, although Mr Hariri was the victim of a vast conspiracy.

The Lebanese government has 30 days to arrest the individuals, believed to be members of Hizbollah. The indictment was sealed yet their names were immediately leaked. Two of the men are Mustapha Badreddine, a cousin, brother in law and collaborator of Imad Mughnieh, the party's late military leader; and Salim Ayyash, who allegedly led the cell participating in Mr Hariri's killing. The others are unknown. Both may be Hizbollah militants, but their role and affiliation will only be known once the indictment is made public.

The tribunal has divided the Lebanese for years. The fact that Hizbollah's secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah, revealed last summer that party members would be implicated (although he used the disclosure to dismiss the tribunal as a "politicised" institution) cushioned the blow of last week's announcements. However, on the political front, the government of Prime Minister Najib Miqati, which is dominated by Hizbollah and its ally Michel Aoun, is in for difficult times ahead, even as it has barely begun to function.

If Lebanon fails to take the suspects into custody, this will lead to heightened tension between Mr Miqati and his domestic opponents in the March 14 coalition. Just as seriously, the international community, and the special tribunal in particular, will not take it lightly if the cabinet, over which Hizbollah has substantial sway, announces that it is unable to detain the suspects. Lebanon could find itself facing Security Council opprobrium, which will otherwise not prevent the tribunal from trying the suspects in absentia.

Mr Miqati has declared that his ministers would behave "responsibly" with respect to the indictment. However, the prime minister is the weak link in the impending phase of sharpened political polarisation. On the one hand he will have to satisfy the demands of Hizbollah and the Aounists, who have condemned the tribunal. On the other, he cannot afford to lose support among his Sunni coreligionists by appearing to cover for a party they believe helped to murder Mr Hariri, a communal champion. If Mr Miqati loses what Sunni legitimacy he retains, his days in office will be numbered.

What worries the prime minister most is the reaction overseas. Mr Miqati, a well-connected businessman, has an acute sense of how international displeasure might lead to measures undermining economic confidence in Lebanon, essential for stability and civil peace in the country. The US House of Representatives is drafting a bill to prevent American funding from reaching Hizbollah through the Lebanese government. A Lebanese bank has been in the US Treasury Department's crosshairs for money laundering on Hizbollah's behalf. Mr Miqati does not need a dispute with the United Nations, especially with its permanent Security Council members, over Hizbollah's refusal to surrender suspects to the special tribunal. Nevertheless, that could be where Lebanon is heading, unless Hizbollah changes its mind or Mr Miqati resigns.

From a judicial perspective, the scope of the tribunal's indictment is disappointing. A preliminary United Nations inquiry after Mr Hariri was killed in February 2005, like the international investigation that followed, concluded that the crime had been a plot that included the Syrian and Lebanese intelligence services. The theory was never abandoned, even if the last UN investigator, Daniel Bellemare, now the tribunal prosecutor, only had evidence to focus on Hizbollah.

In a 2006 report, UN investigators advanced an important hypothesis that "there is a layer of perpetrators between those who initially commissioned the crime and the actual perpetrators on the day of the crime, namely those who enabled the crime to occur". If we assume, as investigators did at the time, that the Syrian regime, then all-powerful in Lebanon, commissioned the crime; and if the perpetrator was a suicide bomber, as the investigative commission established; then this implies that the suspects named in the indictment will most probably be accused of having enabled the crime.

But what about those who ordered the crime? It is unclear whether Mr Bellemare's indictment will stop where we are today. He may issue new indictments, encompassing Syrians, perhaps a necessary step to identify a motive for Mr Hariri's elimination. Media reports have hinted this could soon happen. However, nothing yet proves it will happen, or that fresh indictments will be confirmed. Nevertheless, how odd, if the prosecutor has enough to arrest Syrian suspects, for him to start the indictment process against relatively low-level figures who only facilitated the action.

We should give Mr Bellemare the benefit of the doubt. However, in researching my book on Lebanon after the Hariri assassination, I interviewed Lebanese officials and former international investigators who criticised his predecessor, Serge Brammertz, for his lethargic approach to the Syrian angle of the investigation. Detlev Mehlis, the first commissioner of the international commission, told me in 2008, as Mr Brammertz was preparing to leave office, that he had seen no real advances in the investigation. "When I left [at the end of 2005] we were ready to name suspects, but [the investigation] seems not to have progressed from that stage," Mr Mehlis said.

If true, Mr Bellemare's indictment, with its concentration on Hizbollah, may be all we see from the special tribunal for now. That will not reassure Mr Miqati as Lebanon's prime minister, but the limited reach of the prosecution's case would be easier to contain than a trial drawing in senior Syrian and Lebanese figures. That said, years of work for so small a catch is hardly something to celebrate.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Syria’s partition could crack Lebanon

It is difficult to see how President Bashar Assad will prevail over the growing protests demanding an end to his regime. More than two months of carnage by the Syrian army and security forces have failed to shake the demonstrators’ determination, and surely will not.

There are many scenarios for what might happen in Syria. Lebanese should pay attention to one in particular. As it dawns on the Assads that their days in power are numbered, we should consider the option that they and the minority Alawite community will move to an alternate plan. Unable to subdue Syria, the regime may contemplate falling back on an Alawite-dominated statelet in northwest Syria.

There is little certainty surrounding such a scheme. In recent weeks the army and security services have been active in Idlib province along the Turkish border, after their assault near the Lebanese border, particularly in Talkalakh – accompanied by an ongoing campaign to pacify the Homs to Aleppo axis. Even if the Assads’ priority is to reimpose their writ over Syria in its entirety, the actions in these areas may, simultaneously, serve another purpose: to consolidate Alawite control over the margins of a future mini-state.

Alawites are concentrated in the mountain region and cities of Syria’s northwest, even if they have moved elsewhere during the past decades. Notably, they have moved into the plains of Homs and Hama, where they generally live around the main cities. If the community sought to establish a statelet, it would have to implement a three-tiered process. This would involve preparing a forward defense line near areas of Sunni urban concentration, along the Homs-Hama-Aleppo road. It would also entail strengthening Alawite control over the community’s heartland further to the west, particularly over the coastal cities, while arming Alawite villages.

The third stage of the process would necessitate securing a parallel line of defense along the eastern edge of the Alawite mountains, above the plains leading toward Homs, Hama and Aleppo. Not coincidentally, perhaps, the northern hinge of this boundary is at Jisr al-Shughour, while the southernmost hinge is at Talkalakh. These are places allowing the regime to close off access to predominantly Sunni districts across the borders. However, the terror tactics adopted by the Syrian army, security forces and irregular pro-regime militias are disturbingly similar to those of the Serb-dominated army and Serb paramilitaries during the conflict in the former Yugoslavia. Is the aim to cause permanent population displacement? That’s unclear. However, there is a geographical rationale behind the Assads’ strategy, and its repercussions cannot but affect sectarian relations.

As Lebanese watch developments next door, how might they react? If the Assads manage to retreat to an Alawite fortress, the repercussions in Lebanon (not to say Iraq) could be frightening. Attention would be drawn to Lebanon’s Shiites, but also Christians, to see if they might envisage a similar route toward communal self-preservation.

The Shiites are far less likely to be tempted by the idea of forming a communal statelet than are the Christians, for obvious reasons. The areas of Shiite concentration are not contiguous. Dispersed among the northern Bekaa Valley, the western Bekaa, southern Lebanon and Beirut’s southern suburbs, the Shiite community would be unable to bind these regions together into any sort of cohesive whole.

In reality, the hazards lie elsewhere. If the Assad regime were to collapse, this would represent, potentially, an existential setback, for Hezbollah. The party would strive to defend itself, and its options are limited. Some have speculated that Hezbollah might try to tighten its grip on the state and weaken its adversaries decisively, perhaps through a military strike broader than that of May 2008. However, that would almost certainly fail, instead provoking civil war.

Hezbollah must be aware of this. The party is immensely potent as an armed force, but the only real solution to its dilemma if Assad rule were brought down is a far-reaching domestic political compromise. The party would be reluctant to engage in one, however, at least from a position of weakness. The reason is that any serious internal dialogue would necessarily have to address Hezbollah’s disarmament, which the party’s leadership will not sanction.

The ensuing deadlock could push Hezbollah to do two apparently contradictory things: maintain its presence in state institutions at all costs in order to protect its interests; but also, facing an invigorated Lebanese Sunni community bolstered by an invigorated Syrian Sunni community, further separate territories under its influence from the rest of Lebanon, both physically and psychologically. In other words, even as it rejects a Lebanese sectarian breakup, Hezbollah may be compelled to pursue that very path to survive. And this could be accompanied by an impulse, even a political need, to collaborate with other friendly sectarian entities, an Alawite entity above all.

Which leads us to the Lebanese Christians. There is profound alienation among many Christians from post-Taif Lebanon, and from the idea of coexistence with the country’s Muslim communities in the context of the centralized state that emerged after independence in 1943. This has been debilitating for Christians, accelerating the community’s isolation and sense of decline. Yet virtually all mainstream Christian political groupings deep down aspire to a Lebanese state – federal, confederal or otherwise – that allows a majority of Christians to govern themselves and live among their own.

This mad project is more likely to lead to communal regression and suicide. And yet many Christians will look closely at a Alawite statelet, if one were to take shape, and see how it might serve or buttress their own aspirations. And if this were to come at a moment when the Shiites themselves were experimenting with some de facto scheme of disconnection from Lebanon, it could intensify the centrifugal forces in the country and even eventually prompt a sizable number of Christians and Shiites to join efforts against a perceived Sunni threat.

For now, and hopefully well beyond, this may be political fiction. But ours is not a healthy national mood to defend the Lebanese entity as we know it. Even during the war, Lebanese unity was, paradoxically, more solid than today. The fire lit in Syria could feed Lebanon’s divisions. Unless we’re sensitive to the risks, Lebanon could burn.

Much ado about almost nothing?

Now that the Special Tribunal for Lebanon has confirmed an indictment in the February 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and subsequent crimes, we’re in a better position to assess the success of the investigation that led to this long-awaited moment. And what we’re seeing is not encouraging.

Until now, the tribunal appears to have accused Hezbollah members of involvement in the Hariri killing. Four Lebanese are said to be in the crosshairs of Daniel Bellemare, the tribunal’s prosecutor. From what we know, mainly information in documents leaked to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, which used them last year as the basis of a compelling documentary, several of the suspects were identified through analyses of cellular telephone conversations.

This is all fascinating stuff, and may well be true. However, if the indictment stops there, then we will at best have been offered a narrow glimpse of what actually took place. After six years of investigation led by three separate commissioners, with millions of dollars spent, the results would be desperately short of expectations. In fact, it would represent a black mark on the United Nations.

Unconfirmed reports on Thursday suggested that the special tribunal team was preparing to head to Damascus after Beirut, to announce the indictment of Syrians. This was untrue, and yet the credibility of the investigative phase, and of the special tribunal itself, will very much depend on whether Syrians are called to the suspects’ dock.

Here’s why. Soon after Hariri’s elimination, the United Nations sent an Irish policeman, Peter Fitzgerald, to Beirut to look into the matter. In his report, Fitzgerald concluded that it had taken “considerable finance, military precision in its execution, [and] substantial logistical support” to carry out the assassination. In other words, the former prime minister had been the victim of a conspiracy that the Syrian and Lebanese security services could hardly have avoided noticing.

If there were any doubts, in a report from October 2005, Detlev Mehlis, the first commissioner of the United Nations International Independent Investigation Commission, wrote something very similar. Given the “infiltration of Lebanese institutions and society by the Syrian and Lebanese intelligence services working in tandem,” he observed, “it would be difficult to envisage a scenario whereby such a complex assassination plot could have been carried out without their knowledge.” Once again, a seasoned investigator was describing an extensive conspiracy, one that went well beyond a small group of Hezbollah participants and their superiors. Fitzgerald and Mehlis bluntly implicated Syria and their Lebanese proxies in the plot.

Mehlis’ successor, Serge Brammertz, continued to suspect Syria. This we know because in 2006 he revealed to the US ambassador in Lebanon, Jeffrey Feltman, that he believed only a single Syrian intelligence agency had participated in Hariri’s murder. “If anything, you probably had one security service involved, and the order came from on high and, how high, we’ll have to figure out,” Feltman quoted Brammertz as telling him. An educated guess suggests that the commissioner was referring to Syrian Military Intelligence, which had a vast network already in place throughout Lebanon.

However, Brammertz, according to Lebanese and non-Lebanese sources I spoke to very familiar with his work, did not much advance in his investigation. Whether this was intentional or not is unclear. However, he took a momentous decision in altering the investigative strategy set by his predecessor. Mehlis had approached his inquiry using a top-down approach. As he told me in a Wall Street Journal interview in January 2008, “The Hariri case is an unusual one. Usually in investigations you start at the bottom and work your way up. In the Hariri case we started pretty much at the top and worked down. We had an accurate view of how the assassination took place from above, but less clear a view of what happened on the ground.”

With Brammertz, however, there was a very noticeable decline in interviews of high-level suspects, in Lebanon and especially in Syria. According to onetime commission members, the commissioner brought in analysts but cut back on police investigators needed to gather and assess witness testimony. The top-down approach was shelved in favor of a de facto bottom-up approach, albeit a deficient one. If the CBC report is to be believed, Brammertz was as lethargic in the telephone analyses as he was in other aspects of his investigation. For example, he only brought in a British firm, FTS, to examine telephone data near the end of his term, and that only because of valuable work done by Wissam Eid, a Lebanese police officer.

It’s no surprise, then, that when Bellemare took over he had relatively little in his files. Yet he pursued Brammertz’s bottom-up approach, meaning that he could not benefit from Mehlis’ labors. This left, principally, the telephone material to build on. Bellemare’s intention today may be to crack open that angle of the conspiracy, which as it happens implicates Hezbollah, in the hope that it will lead upwards to those senior officials who gave the order to kill Hariri.

If so, Bellemare could prove too optimistic by half. The two years of dallying during Brammertz’s time in office may have fatally crippled the Syria side of the investigation, though we have to wait to see if the Syrians are off the hook. However, no one seriously believes that Hezbollah, if the party’s involvement is proven, acted alone against the former prime minister. For now, and until proof of the contrary, the tribunal’s indictment is the mountain giving birth to a mouse.