Thursday, November 24, 2011

Pragmatic diplomacy enables Qatar to punch above weight

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amid Lebanese chaos, a chance for reform

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 18, 2011

The Rai rumor tells us little

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Assad's regime crumbles one frayed relationship at a time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Speechless in Bashar Assad’s Syria

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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