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.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Syrian disdain for diplomacy has lasted for four decades

Last week the American ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, was attacked by a group of pro-regime supporters while meeting with an opposition figure in Damascus. This came only days after France's ambassador, Eric Chevallier, was assaulted in a similar manner. The violence was, plainly, organised by the Syrian regime.

Confirming this, on Sunday the official Al Baath daily warned that Mr Ford, who has strongly condemned the ongoing repression in Syria, could expect more "unpleasant treatment" if he continued acting in the same way.

Threatening or harming diplomats is one of the more established prohibitions in international relations. When foreign envoys become targets of intimidation or worse, formal ties between states effectively end, with unpredictable consequences. The United States and Iran have yet to reconcile decades after the hostage takeover at the US Embassy in Tehran in 1979. Israel, in turn, reacted in a relatively subdued way to the attack on its embassy in Cairo in September, because it feared the political costs of severing peaceful relations with Egypt.

Yet when it comes to ignoring the immunity of foreign envoys and missions, Syria is in a class of its own. Bashar Al Assad's regime and that of his late father, Hafez, have never hesitated to strike against foreign missions in the pursuit of their political objectives. Nor have they been shy in employing Syrian diplomats to commit crimes.

A leadership that butchers its own people is unlikely to be overly preoccupied with diplomatic niceties, one might argue. True, but foreign governments should have realised much sooner that a regime unconcerned with one of the oldest foundations of international interaction, diplomatic privilege - enshrined in international law through the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations of 1961 - is also one more apt to butcher its own people.

Take what happened at the Danish Embassy in Syria in February 2006. At the time, Denmark was facing a harsh backlash for the publication by a Danish newspaper of cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed. A mob, roused by officially-appointed clerics, marched on the embassy offices in Damascus and set it on fire - also damaging the Chilean and Swedish embassies housed in the same building.

In a cable released by WikiLeaks, the US chargĂ© d'affaires in Damascus at the time, Stephen Seche, reported that a Sunni sheikh, whom he described as "one of the most influential Sunni religious figures in Damascus", had virtually confirmed Syrian government "involvement in escalating the situation that led to the violent rioting in Damascus … including communications between [Prime Minister Muhammad Naji Al Otri's] office and the Grand Mufti."

Mr Seche also wrote that the "Danish Ambassador confirmed to us separately that the Minister [of Religious Endowments] had inflamed the situation the day before the rioting, with his remarks at Friday prayers in a mosque."

Most interesting was the sheikh's interpretation of why Syrian officials had encouraged clerics to denounce Denmark in their sermons, "without setting any ceilings on the type of language to be used." He believed the regime was trying to say the following: "'This is what you will have if we allow true democracy and allow Islamists to rule.' To the Islamic street all over the region, the message was that the [Syrian government] is protecting the dignity of Islam, and … allowing Muslims freedom on the streets of Damascus they are not allowed on the streets of Cairo, Amman, or Tunis."

Throughout the years it dominated Lebanon, Syria likely knew about or played a role in bomb or assassination plots against foreign missions. While the motives varied the underlying purpose was usually to guarantee that their governments would not challenge Syria's supremacy in Beirut.

It is difficult, for instance, to imagine that Syria's intelligence services did not have prior knowledge of the suicide car-bombings against the US Embassy complexes in Lebanon in 1983 and 1984, even if these were carried out by suspected pro-Iranian militants. The same can be said of the bombing of the Iraqi embassy in Beirut in December 1981, and the bomb attack against the French embassy in May 1982. And Syria was widely accused of being behind the killing in September 1981 of Louis Delamare, France's ambassador to Lebanon.

Even as Syria's regime has ignored diplomatic conventions, so too has it corrupted its own Foreign Ministry, often employing Syrian embassies in support of its security agenda. In 1983, for example, Syria's embassy staff in East Berlin stored the bomb used by Carlos the Jackal to destroy the French Cultural Centre in West Berlin, with the full knowledge of the ambassador at the time, Faysal Sammaq.

More recently, Syria's foreign minister, Walid Al Muallim, and his ambassador to Lebanon, Ali Abdul Karim Ali, were sanctioned by the US Treasury. And the State Department accused Mr Ali of harassing Syrian opposition figures in Lebanon, and helping organise the disappearance of others.

The beef with Mr Al Muallim is older. In a leaked UN document from 2007, the minister warned UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon that the US ambassador in Lebanon, Jeffrey Feltman, had to leave the country. Washington took this as a threat, especially when an embassy vehicle was bombed in January 2008.

One can go on. The respectability once enjoyed by Syria's regime has now been torn away. However, in 41 years in power the Al Assads, both father and son, have shown disdain for foreign representatives whose governments nevertheless continued to confer international respectability on them. It's a shame that it has taken seven months of carnage in Syria to terminate that particular indignity.

A U.N. veto buys Bashar time to kill

For a brief moment, Lebanon can say that it behaved relatively courageously in comparison to Russia and China at the United Nations. On Tuesday, Moscow and Beijing vetoed a Security Council resolution on Syria, arguing that the text, in the words of the Russian envoy, “was based on a philosophy of confrontation.”

Lebanon had little choice. As the Arab representative on the council, its decision reflected the discord in the Arab world over Syria. Abstention was the logical outcome of the region’s treacherous cross-currents. However, in light of the Russia and Chinese votes against, Syria cannot have been overjoyed with the non-committal Lebanese attitude. You have to wonder if the Syrian army’s brief incursion into Arsal on the day of the voting was not, partly, a warning to Beirut.

What bothered the Russians and Chinese was that the resolution threatened retaliation against Damascus if the violence in Syria continued. The draft did not mention “sanctions,” to satisfy Moscow, replacing it with the more ambiguous “targeted measures.” Responding to claims that the resolution would lead to military action in Syria, as it had in Libya, U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice was scathing. She called such worries a “cheap ruse by those who would rather sell arms to the Syrian regime than stand with the Syrian people.”

In a way Rice was right. A September report in Toronto’s The Globe and Mail indicated that Chinese arms companies negotiated contracts worth some $200 million in the past months with the regime of Moammar Gadhafi. This violated Resolution 1970, approved by China, which imposed an arms embargo on the Libyan government. However, Rice was less convincing in implying that Washington stood staunchly with the Syrian people. It took months for the Obama administration to do anything of substance on Syria, with officials complaining that the United States had little leverage in Damascus.

As with much else, this outlook showed President Barack Obama at his self-neutralizing best. Political leverage is something built up over time, patiently. Only the U.S. stands at the center of the network of countries with a say in Syria – the Arab states, Turkey, the permanent U.N. Security Council members, and the European Union. If anyone can bring all the pieces together to fashion a consensual stance toward Syria that persuades the regime to depart, it is the United States.

This does not diminish the cravenness of Russia and China. Both saw an opportunity to abort international momentum in favor of using humanitarian arguments to intervene in the Middle East and North Africa, where the two have political and economic stakes. Moscow and Beijing know that they are fated to follow when humanitarianism beckons, wedded as they are to political realism, which enjoins pursuing one’s interests abroad without worrying about the domestic abuses of the regimes with which they are transacting.

This is short-sighted. Modern communications mean that the outrages of brutal leaders are out there for all to see, on television screens, computers and mobile telephones. The old realism, which accepts an artificial barrier between a partner’s foreign affairs and his internal behavior, is no longer as tolerable as it once was. When Syrians routinely burn Russian and Chinese flags in the streets of their cities, that means there will be reckoning down the road, when the foul edifice of the Assads collapses, as it is destined to.

President Bashar Assad will appreciate what Russia and China did for him. However, it may little change things. At this stage the dynamics in Syria appear to be increasingly beyond the reach of foreign actors – which is precisely why the international community and the Arab states in particular are blameworthy for having dawdled on Syria, so eager was everyone to wish the problem away. Whatever Moscow and Beijing do, there is no repressive solution to the Syrian crisis. On the other hand, both have just ensured that Assad gets enough spare oxygen so that his security forces and armed gangs can murder more people – even as this heightens the prospect that the protesters will move toward further militarization of their revolt against Assad rule.

Was it a good idea to go for a vote in the Security Council, despite the likelihood of Russian and Chinese vetoes? Yes. We have to accept that none but the most anodyne text would have been approved by Moscow and Beijing, which would have surely discredited the council far more than disagreement over a stronger resolution. Still, the U.N. is indeed deeply divided over Syria. At a time when its secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon, has gone commendably far in denouncing Bashar Assad and his methods, the capacity of the international body to mediate in the Syrian upheaval has been substantially reduced.

If the U.N. cannot address Syria effectively, individual states will fill the vacuum. Turkey played an essential role by hosting the founding session of the new representative council of the Syrian opposition, and soon intends to impose sanctions on Syria, after an arms embargo. Other governments are expanding sanctions already in place. The pressure is hurting. Last week Syria’s government suspended the importation of goods with tariffs above 5 percent, to avoid the flight of hard currency. However, when Syrian traders complained, the government backtracked. But to have taken that step in the first place, and risk alienating those whose support is indispensable for the regime’s survival, showed how reckless Bashar Assad and those around him have become.

The situation in Syria will take a long time before clarifying. Russia and China are betting on the opposition’s exhaustion, or perhaps on a shift in the balance of power, granting them room to address a new Security Council resolution under improved conditions. Whatever is the thinking, many Syrians will not forgive them their cynicism.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Their own worst enemy

It is unfortunate that at a moment when the head of the Lebanese Forces, Samir Geagea, has made one of the better public presentations in recent years, his allies have come across as increasingly irrelevant. The opposition is adrift, a view shared by many inside the house.

March 14 parties met this week at Saad Hariri’s residence to “coordinate their stances.” They should have considered defining a clearer national role for themselves, because the coalition seems gripped by confusion. Hariri has been abroad for months, an affront to those who elected him. His money problems are genuine and have not yet been resolved, taking a toll on his patronage network and political authority. The former prime minister is not out yet, however if his occultation lasts much longer, his leadership will melt.

Many sympathizers wonder what Hariri actually stands for. Who did they mobilize to elect in the 2009 elections? No answer has come from the Future Movement, which has morphed into something of an annoying jack-in-the-box—popping its head up episodically to deliver some statement or barb against Prime Minister Najib Mikati.

In the March 14 firmament these days, Geagea is an exception. His speech on Saturday was, in its own right, highly significant in the context of current Maronite history. Here was the leader of an organization once described as “isolationist” during Lebanon’s war years, saying that the salvation of Christians lies in their affirmation in the Middle East and the spread of freedom. This was, in part, a response to the foolishness of Patriarch Bechara al-Rai, who has sought protection for his community under the wing of the depraved rule of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. But it was also more than that: an alternative framework for how Arab Christians all over might interpret the momentous transformations in their political environment, and an enlightened one at that.

One nuisance the Future Movement has faced is that it has based much of its strategy in the past months on bolstering the Special Tribunal for Lebanon. The expectation among the Hariri camp and its allies was that Mikati would formally break Beirut’s ties with the institution, at the insistence of Hezbollah. In fact the prime minister has not done so. The matter of Lebanese funding has yet to be finalized, but Mikati is in favor of payment, meaning that he appears willing to fight for his money. To the dismay of March 14, the prime minister has neutralized their main argument against him—and he even garnered international legitimacy on his trip to New York.

But that’s not all. As important as the tribunal is, most Lebanese have other priorities. With the economy in a dark patch and many people worried, rightly so, about the country’s future finances, for March 14 to give inordinate weight to the Special Tribunal is awkward. Whether the population likes the government or not, or embraces Mikati or not, it will always look toward the state to defend the much broader range of concerns that it has. Unless March 14 can offer an alternative governance project of its own, one as comprehensive as the government’s, it will come across as a single-issue interest group.

March 14 has been equally insubstantial on the question of Hezbollah’s weapons. These weapons are at the heart of the political crisis in Lebanon today. As parliamentarian Sami Gemayel astutely pointed out in a NOW Lebanon interview this week, until the issue is settled, it will impede national dialogue over reform. “If there are to be negotiations about developing institutions, you’d be sitting at the same table as someone who has an arsenal,” Gemayel said.

But what has the opposition done to advance a serious discussion of weapons? Saad Hariri made Hezbollah’s disarmament a cornerstone of his address at the March 14 rally this year. However, he did so in the most inflexible of ways, by throwing it down as a gauntlet. The former prime minister did not integrate discussion of the weapons into a broader political package, one that might involve a quid pro quo that eventually appeals to the Shia community. The demand was there to be accepted or rejected. Hezbollah—no surprise—rejected it.

Since then, Hezbollah has found a very useful friend in Bechara al-Rai, who gave the party until the end of the Arab-Israeli conflict to hold on to its guns. The blank check issued by the patriarch further destabilized March 14, while doing something else: It precipitated a quarrel between the opposition and Rai, who has evidently decided to transform himself into a sandbag for the parliamentary majority, behind which Hezbollah can now comfortably shelter itself.

An opposition parliamentarian put it succinctly to me: “March 14’s trouble is that it doesn’t know whether it is a loyal opposition or a coalition that must block what it has described as a Hezbollah coup.” Quite true. March 14 has principally behaved in the second way, which is why its interventions have tended to be shrill and disruptive, losing it the esteem that constructive oppositions generally enjoy.

You have to wonder if Najib Mikati didn’t get lucky when he stood against Hariri for the post of prime minister. Yes, he did join in a Syrian- and Hezbollah-led constitutional coup of sorts, and yes, Saad Hariri was always the Sunnis’ first choice. But since then March 14 has done virtually nothing to make us regret its absence in government. And this is fortifying Mikati day after day.