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.

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