Friday, June 24, 2011

Maronites and the two Michels

Here is one argument for why Lebanon’s Christians, and the Maronites in particular, should seriously consider surrendering the presidency. We can sum it up in just three words: the two Michels—as in Michel Aoun and Michel Sleiman.

With Aoun we have a familiar figure in Lebanese political tradition: a Maronite ravenous for presidential power who has illustrated better than most the destructiveness of his ambition. From the days that President Amin Gemayel appointed him to lead a transitional military government in 1988, until 2008, Aoun has dreamt of becoming our head of state. He dreamt of it in the darkest days of his exile at La Haute Maison, amid the open fields of an isolated hamlet in the distant periphery of Paris. He dreamt of it when he allied himself with Hezbollah after his return to Lebanon, imagining that the party’s weapons and Syrian patronage would impose him on his enemies.

And when they didn’t, Aoun still dreamt of Baabda. He concluded that even though Michel Sleiman had been elected in May 2008, it was Michel Aoun’s right to be president in place of the president. And here we are reminded of what the great French historian René Grousset once wrote of the Roman general and politician Pompey. Somehow, he also offered up a succinct, incisive portrait of Michel Aoun:

“What was it his ambition to attain in the Republic? A sort of moral presidency to which, after the services he had rendered, he had some right? To rule, with our without a formal title? Especially to accumulate honors, many honors, which would have satisfied his vanity and his irresolution, but which his secret mediocrity would have prevented him from turning into something redoubtable?”

Having won a lion’s share of ministers in the new government, Aoun may have succeeded in attaining a moral presidency and will now strive to rule without a formal title. But his secret mediocrity will get the better of him, as his attempts to display resolution will expose his innate recklessness. All that will be left is vanity, discolored by cynicism deriving from Aoun’s corrosive dissatisfaction.

Aoun’s rival, Michel Sleiman, has only a formal title and the honors accompanying it to hold up as a bulwark against irresolution. Hailed as a savior in 2008 at the pinnacle of his career, the president has left no vale of hesitation, of reversal, unvisited since that time. Having been handed two of the four sovereign ministries in Fouad Siniora’s government of July 2008, and those again and more in Saad Hariri’s government of December 2009, the president should have built himself sturdy political foundations. Instead, he has relegated himself to the status of political nonentity, the latest insult being his obligation to “share” the Interior Ministry with Aoun.

Perhaps the ultimate statement on the presidency was provided by Emile Lahoud. Though the man benefited from the backing of Syria, Hezbollah, and the intelligence services, he ended up toothless, reviled, a casualty of the impossible incongruities of presidential office. Sleiman is learning a similar lesson. To be potent, a president must be a Maronite chieftain and play the communal game hard-nosedly, without inhibition—isolating foes, picking fights to rally the partisans, driving opponents into minefields of disputation. But Sleiman, whose conceit compels him to disregard the fray, stands blankly, godfather to a government over which he has little influence.

This reality should invite a profound reassessment in the community. Is the Maronites’ continued insistence on retaining the presidency a source of strength or weakness? Not only has competition over the office become a source of inter-communal cannibalism, but the presidential institution has lost much of its punch. Worse, it has become a repository for those embodying the lowest common denominator of agreement among Lebanon’s diverse political actors, who must appeal to everyone because they threaten no one.

Recently, Maronite Patriarch Bechara al-Rai made an ill-considered statement on the matter. He called for the Taif Accord to be renegotiated in order to give the president more power. It didn’t seem to occur to the patriarch that amending Taif might well push the Muslim communities, quite legitimately, to demand that the accord be implemented in full, which would imply abolishing political confessionalism. And if Lebanon abolishes political confessionalism, then the presidency would no longer be reserved for Maronites.

It’s a pity that Rai and Maronite leaders in general refuse to address that possibility. Yet picture a system that gradually erodes confessionalism, or sectarianism, and that allows, at least in an interim period, for the different communities to rotate between the top posts. In that context we might envisage Lebanon as a real country rather than an assemblage of religious tribes. As spirited citizens of a nation rather than the fearful offspring of a dwindling minority, Maronites could begin reinventing themselves in a reinvigorated society.

The presidency is no more a guarantor of Maronite strength than Michel Sleiman represents the highest aspirations of his coreligionists. How demoralizing that for months the community has been driven by the calculations of the two Michels over cabinet portfolios. If you missed that clash, it’s a good sign. It means you understand the triviality surrounding presidential maneuvering.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

An economic vice squeezes Assad's patronage system

In his speech on Monday, President Bashar Al Assad made pointed reference to the dangers that Syria's burgeoning protest movement posed for the country's economy. What he didn't say, however, was that a prolonged economic crisis also threatened his regime. The crisis may be nearing the tipping point if one is to believe a report prepared in May by European Union diplomats based in Damascus.

The report paints a dire picture of what lies ahead economically for Syria. The diplomats do not make political predictions, but they do not need to. For an Assad regime fighting for survival, the economy is an Achilles heel, undermining the leadership's patronage power and its ability to keep onside a demoralised business class that is a pillar of the system.

The document warns that Syria's political predicament "could potentially lead to a long-term recession or even a collapse of the economy if the unrest continues". The European diplomats cite projections by the Institute of International Finance of a 3 per cent contraction in GDP this year. Liquidity has been running low, forcing the closure of companies, while the Damascus Securities Exchange, the report continues, has lost 20 per cent of its value since January.

Syria's tourism industry has been hit especially hard, with zero occupancy rates reported in major hotels for the foreseeable future. This is ominous for a sector that accounts for 15 per cent of GDP and employs, officially, 6 per cent of the workforce. Trade has also declined, even if the figures are sketchy. Internal trade has been interrupted by insecurity on the ground, while the transit trade from Turkey to the Gulf is estimated to have declined by 30 per cent. The demand for imports has also declined, eating into customs revenues.

The European diplomats are particularly troubled by prospects for inflation. In an effort to alleviate public displeasure, the Assad regime earlier this year raised public-sector salaries and pensions by around 25 per cent, effectively doing the same for those in the private sector. This, along with other recent governments commitments, represents an additional budgetary burden equivalent to $2.4 billion (Dh8.9 billion). The report predicts that the government will probably have to finance its deficit "through expansion of the monetary base (ie, printing money) as the availability and cost of international financing is set to be influenced by the lack of stability in Syria".

In plain English, the regime is pursuing clashing policies. On the one side it urgently needs to stabilise the Syrian pound, and on the other it may have to adopt inflationary measures that will most probably generate contrary dynamics. The regime has sought to cope with this contradiction by increasing the demand for pounds through higher interest rates on deposits. However, the diplomats warn that "the hike in interest rates will make credit more expensive which might discourage investment even further".

The authors point to "concern among influential Syrian business people and investors" with the turmoil and the possibility that the regime will impose more protectionist economic policies, reversing liberal reform. In other words, the regime may seek to use the economy as an instrument in its political struggle, which would be very damaging for investments, particularly from the private sector.

This points to a second disconnect in the Assads' approach to the unrest. The regime needs to maintain the loyalty of the business class, but few of its actions today will encourage business people to tie their fate to the president and his family in the long run. That is already increasingly apparent. Lebanon is awash with stories of Syrians having removed their funds from Syrian banks in order to place them in Lebanese institutions. Moreover, if investments plummet further in Syria, this will heighten unemployment, exacerbating social unrest.

The European economic report does not address patronage, which will be vital to the regime's staying power. The praetorian units of the Syrian army, notably the Republican Guard and the 4th Armoured Division, have long benefited from higher salaries and favours than their peers, even if one should not overestimate this in absolute terms. There have been stories of members of the elite corps having to take a second job to make ends meet. As for the regular army, opposition sources claimed in May that salaries had not been paid the previous month. The information has not been verified, but if true it would be serious, perhaps illustrating the liquidity shortfall.

As the regime feels the harder economic pinch, as pressures mount on the Syrian pound, and as the popular upheaval continues, there will be more stress on the army and the security forces. There is something deeply debilitating for a soldier or officer, even the most dedicated, to engage in mass repression and murder without respite. Numerous observers believe that the fatalities and arrests in Syria are much higher than those being publicised. If the regime's power of the purse deteriorates while the psychological load and fatigue felt by its security bulwarks intensify, the Assads will be more vulnerable.

It is difficult to see how the Mr Al Assad and his acolytes will be able to put Syria's genie back into the bottle. They know that time is of the essence, that popular resistance must be overcome swiftly in order to avert a meltdown. But they are working at cross-purposes. Syria's economic health requires social health and confidence. Massacring one's own population is not ideal for securing that outcome.

Many Christians are blind on Assad rule

Last week I happened to catch a program on OTV, the Aounist television channel. The topic was Syria and at one stage the host described how he had seen footage of people recently demonstrating in the city of Hama. A sign held up by a protester read “We will not forget Hama 1982,” or some similar phrase. For the host this illustrated the “vengeful intentions” of the Syrian uprising.

It was revealing that the presenter should have interpreted the perfectly creditable remembrance of an episode of mass murder, one in which tens of thousands of innocent people are estimated to have lost their lives, as something reprehensible. What the Aounists believe, as do quite a few Lebanese Christians with them, is that if the Alawite-dominated Assad regime falls, this will play out to the advantage of the Sunnis, and more specifically of Sunni Islamists.

Throughout his political career, Michel Aoun has been adept at making bad choices. He sided with Saddam Hussein just before the Iraqi leader became an international pariah in 1990. He flirted with Syria and its envoys before returning to Lebanon in 2005, only to see the Syrians withdraw their army in April after the assassination of Rafik Hariri, the former prime minister. In pursuit of the presidency in 2006 and 2007, Aoun allied himself with Hezbollah against the parliamentary majority whose support he needed to win office, on the assumption that the party, along with Syria, would impose his election. They didn’t, and during the 2009 elections Aoun was unable to secure a parliamentary majority with his partners, actually losing Christian votes when compared to the results four years earlier.

Today, Aoun and his followers may be on the verge of making a far more critical mistake: They are wagering that Syrian President Bashar Assad will crush the ever larger demonstrations against his authority. Indeed, they are hopeful that this will happen. However, in the process they are setting themselves up, and Christians in general, for a potentially decisive, long-term rupture with Lebanon’s Sunnis, but also down the road with a post-Assad government in Syria.

Aoun is not alone responsible for this situation. However, he merits the greater blame for allowing his entourage to articulate most forcefully the foolish notion that Christians have an interest in allying themselves with other Middle Eastern minorities, against the Sunnis. It has been alarming to hear a sizable number of Lebanese Christians expressing fear that the Assads’ defeat would spell disaster for their community. They forget that no one has done as much as the Syrian regime to undermine Lebanese Christian power in the past decades.

It should be obvious by now to those watching the unrest in Syria that those hostile to Assad rule have mostly avoided resorting to sectarian symbolism. Rather, sectarian violence has been largely the work of the Assads’ praetorian units and security forces. Not many people, inside Syria or out, believe the regime’s narrative that the protests are the work of armed Sunni Islamists, nor have the Assads’ propaganda outlets provided any convincing evidence. An inept Information Ministry spokeswoman was fired for pointing out that the thousands of refugees flowing into Turkey from Jisr al-Shoughour were merely visiting family members across the border. But her bankruptcy, both professional and moral, only reflected that of the leaders she served.

And yet there are those Lebanese Christians buying into the Syrian government’s fabrications. Aounist spokespersons will pen stories in foreign publications echoing uncritically the disinformation peddled by Damascus. They seem incapable of reading the Syrian unrest in political, as opposed to sectarian, terms. For them it’s about religion, about the Sunni menace, not about a multi-sectarian population striving for emancipation from a despotic clique. In defense of Christian interests, they deem it justifiable to endorse scoundrels.

You would have expected the Christians to learn from their coreligionists in Iraq. The fate of Iraqi Christians is often cited by the Lebanese as an example of the dire future awaiting them and their Syrian brethren if the Assads disappear. How odd, for the real lesson offered up by Iraq’s Christians was that siding with Saddam Hussein against a majority of the Iraqi population was an existential blunder.

The safety and security of minorities cannot possibly reside in taking a stance against their fellow countrymen – especially joining with another minority in stifling the legitimate aspirations of a majority. The wheel of fortune turns. That is why the only solid protection for Arab Christians lies in transcending their minority status by reinforcing links with other communities, and between communities, while preserving their own individuality and ensuring that the rights of all are respected within a consensual, democratic context.

It is difficult to see how Bashar Assad’s regime will survive what is going on in Syria today. His regime may last for awhile, or it may collapse more rapidly than we imagine, but Syria is not going back to where it was three months ago. In the framework of domestic Lebanese communal relations, how should Christians prepare for this eventuality? Praying for the Assads to crush the revolt is morally outrageous and politically shortsighted. By the same token, cynically gambling on a Sunni victory in Syria makes no sense, because the revolt may proudly impose itself as a non-sectarian phenomenon.

A third alternative seems more promising. The Christians of Lebanon may be on the verge of a rare and valuable moment in their modern history, one in which they can contribute to forging a historical reconciliation between a democratic Syria and a democratic Lebanon. Rather than playing religious politics, they should think in terms of values – those of liberty, of pluralism, of representative government – and define their behavior now and in the future by such values.

This may sound terribly naïve. However, Michel Aoun and his supporters conveniently forget that they once portrayed their confrontation with the Assad regime in precisely those terms. The best safeguard for minority rights in the Arab world is democracy and the rule of law, within free societies. It is not, and cannot ever be, a dictatorship that readily exterminates its own people.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Echoes of Arkan in Syria

What is Syria’s leadership up to as it mounts a nation-wide armed onslaught against its own people? The simple answer, and it would be an accurate one, is that it is engaged in mass repression. However, we may be missing something more subtle, and more specific. The angry condemnation of the Assad regime’s brutality last week by senior Turkish officials could provide us with a clue as to what this is.

In recent weeks, the brunt of the onslaught has been conducted by predominantly Alawite units under the orders of Maher al-Assad, the brother of President Bashar al-Assad and commander of the regime’s praetorian guard. Action has taken place along two lines. After earlier concentrating its attacks on Tal Kalakh and Arida, located along the northern Lebanese border, the military shifted its attention to Jisr al-Shughur, near the Turkish border. At the same time, the Syrian army and security forces have pursued operations in a parallel corridor along the Homs-Aleppo road. The latest assaults have been directed against Maaret al-Naaman, between Hama and Aleppo.

According to eyewitnesses, the pattern of aggression lately has been similar. The army surrounds and bombards a town or village, or shoots at protesters, accusing the inhabitants of being members of “armed groups.” In a number of localities, the population, mainly Sunnis, has chosen to flee or has been forced out, before soldiers and security agents enter, accompanied by Alawite gangs unleashed primarily to sow terror. In Jisr al-Shughur, for example, refugees have reported rape, theft and the burning of crops.

If this sounds vaguely familiar, then perhaps you have a good memory for the tactics used during the wars of the former Yugoslavia. At the time the Serb-dominated Yugoslav army and the regime of Slobodan Milosevic sponsored a number of paramilitary groups, most notoriously the Serb Volunteer Guard under Zeljko Raznatovic, better known as Arkan. Working in conjunction with the army, these groups were responsible for ethnically cleansing swathes of Croatia and Bosnia in order to create a contiguous Serb-majority territory.

Might we be witnessing something similar in select parts of Syria? It’s very difficult to say. However, look at a map of northwestern Syria where the Alawites are concentrated, particularly the mountain range known as Jabal al-Nusayriyya, or Jabal al-Alawiyeen, that runs in a north-south direction from the Turkish border to the foothills above Lebanon’s Akkar plain. If you draw a meridian from Tal Kalakh to Jisr al-Shughur, it runs along the eastern edge of that range, where the plain begins and stretches further east toward Homs and Hama. To consolidate the Alawite heartland, the Assad regime needs to hold that meridian, particularly its northern and southern hinges at Tal Kalakh to Jisr al-Shughur, as well as a third hinge at Arida.

At the same time, over the decades Alawites have migrated into the plain, moving to areas around the mainly Sunni agglomerations of Homs and Hama, as well as to other places in Syria. It makes sense for the regime, in order to maintain its power, to regain control of the Homs-to-Aleppo passage. However, it is also true that if the Assads are thinking in sectarian geographical terms, this passage would be the first line of Alawite defense along an Alawite-Sunni fault line.

A good argument could be made that the policy of the Syrian regime has little to do with any scheme to establish an Alawite mini-state, the presumed outcome of any ethnic cleansing campaign. After all, dominating Arida and Tal Kalakh, like Jisr al-Shughur, may just be efforts to seal off potentially dangerous border transmission points to and from Sunni districts in neighboring Lebanon and Turkey.

But that only begs three other questions: Why has the Assad regime so heightened sectarian animosities by playing on alleged Sunni-Alawite differences, when anti-regime demonstrations have sought to avoid sectarianism altogether? Why has the behavior of the Syrian army, security agencies and irregular forces in some areas been plainly designed to cause panic specifically among Sunnis, thereby displacing populations and ensuring they would not soon return? And why has the regime, by most accounts, been arming Alawite villages?

In the statements of Turkish politicians last week, as well as those of American officials, there was palpable alarm with the potential sectarian consequences of the Assad regime’s measures to eradicate dissent. The Turks are understandably worried that if Syria were to break up into ethnic mini-states, Turkey would face not only the prospect of an Alawite entity across from the province of Hatay – which the Syrians call Alexandretta, where an estimated 300,000 to 400,000 Alawites live – they would also have to deal with the real possibility that Syria’s Kurds would go their own way, with dangerous repercussions for Turkey’s management of its own Kurdish minority.

While the Assad regime may not be pursuing a broad ethnic cleansing strategy, in and around Jisr al-Shughur and Tal Kalakh specifically it is doing something suspiciously similar. The plan beyond that, especially in the plains of Homs, Hama and Aleppo, may conceivably involve a two-stage process: first, to try to neutralize the situation on the ground through offensive action in areas with a large Sunni urban presence; and if that fails and the regime’s survival is threatened, to lay the groundwork for a defensive strategy leading to the eventual consolidation of a territory in which Alawites can protect themselves.

There are plenty of problems with this theory. Alawites are spread throughout Syria, and there are very substantial Sunni populations in Syria’s coastal cities that would, presumably, be integrated into any Alawite statelet. For now nothing suggests that the Assads have given up on re-imposing their writ over all of Syria. However, quite a few incidents in the northeast also suggest that the regime is calculating in sectarian terms and pursuing a sectarian strategy. Only time, and the continuation of the uprising, will elucidate the Assads’ endgame.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

With allies like these, Beirut will not be able to rule itself

Syria's President Bashar al Assad may be struggling with problems at home, but he still has pull in Beirut. On Monday, Lebanon's prime minister designate, Najib Miqati, finally formed a government after a five-month delay. Syria's fingerprints were all over it.

Confirming this, Mr al Assad immediately called Lebanese President Michel Suleiman to congratulate him, and did the same with Nabih Berri, the parliament speaker. Last week, in a meeting with the Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, the Syrian president had signalled his desire to see a new government soon. This sense of urgency pushed Mr Berri to break the logjam by conceding a Shiite seat to the Sunnis.

What is it that suddenly altered the mood in Damascus? After all, the Syrian leadership had not previously applied pressure on Mr Miqati and its friends in Beirut, strongly suggesting that it welcomed a Lebanese vacuum. One can only speculate, but the widening revolt in Syria and the regime's growing regional and international isolation, particularly its divorce from states such as Turkey and Qatar, were surely factors. With so much shifting around Mr al Assad and his acolytes, they apparently concluded that it was preferable to employ Lebanon as a tool in their confrontation with the outside, by forming a favourable government, rather than exploiting the void in the country.

This does not bode well. Mr Miqati insisted that his cabinet would represent all Lebanese, a reminder that the March 14 coalition led by the caretaker prime minister, Saad Hariri, has refused to join. That Mr Miqati is not a national-unity government will create tensions in a country pathologically wedded to political balance. Aside from Syria, those bolstering the new team are Hizbollah and Michel Aoun, whose hostility to March 14 is profound. Mr Miqati and his "centrist" allies in the government - Mr Suleiman and Mr Jumblatt - will labour to ensure that their partners do not settle political scores.

Mr Berri's decision, and more important that of Hassan Nasrallah, Hizbollah's secretary general, to accept a smaller Shiite share of ministers was not fortuitous. It facilitated Mr Miqati's task, therefore aiding the Assad regime. The lower Shiite profile also was destined to achieve two other objectives: it allows Mr Miqati to say that his government is not controlled by Hizbollah, lending it Sunni legitimacy inside Lebanon while also reassuring Arab states and the international community. And, more perniciously, it places the onus of failure on the prime minister, even if Hizbollah knows that it will have great sway over cabinet decisions despite having few ministers.

Hizbollah has two priorities. The party wants a clear policy statement by the government officially sanctioning its weapons; and it wants the state to take its distance from the Special Tribunal for Lebanon dealing with the assassination in 2005 of Rafiq Hariri, the former prime minister. The tribunal is expected to issue an indictment within three months, and there have been indications that Hizbollah members will be accused of involvement. Indeed, the collapse of Saad Hariri's government in January was a consequence of domestic differences over how to address the indictment.

However, Hizbollah also has a more overarching ambition. The party anxiously realises that Syria's regime is facing an existential threat, and that its collapse would transform power relations in the Levant to Iran's detriment, and therefore its own. It has no ready solution to this predicament, but Hizbollah will strive more than ever to anchor itself in the institutions of the Lebanese state, and to dominate them and marginalise its political adversaries in order to resist potentially disadvantageous change. That is why Mr Miqati's government will hit turbulence, especially over whatever affects Hizbollah's future.

The prime minister can already anticipate three major headaches. The first is that Hizbollah will push for the government not to cooperate with the special tribunal. It's difficult to see how Mr Miqati, against the wishes of Syria, Hizbollah and Mr Aoun, will be able to resist this demand, despite his worries that it could place Lebanon on a collision course with the United Nations Security Council, which established the institution. Even Mr Jumblatt has little room to manoeuvre on the tribunal, having repeatedly denounced it as a "politicised" body.

Mr Miqati was also obliged to accept an appointee of Suleiman Franjieh, a prominent Syrian ally, as defence minister. This will further discredit the Lebanese army in the eyes of the United States and many in the international community. American military assistance will almost certainly dry up. Equally worrisome is that several countries participating in the UN force in southern Lebanon believe the army to be under the influence of Hizbollah. This impression, not altogether unjustified, could well determine their continued commitment to maintaining troops in Lebanon, when some contingents have already expressed an intention to leave.

A third problem for Mr Miqati will be internal political discord. The foes of March 14 today have wide latitude to dismantle the political, security and financial edifice the coalition put in place after the Syrian withdrawal in 2005. While Mr Miqati will try to limit the damages, such measures will provoke a backlash from March 14, particularly the partisans of Mr Hariri, the dominant Lebanese Sunni figure. These conflicts, at a time of crisis in Syria and volatility in the region, could destabilise Lebanon in dangerous ways.

That's not to mention the myriad other challenges Mr Miqati will wrestle with - above all a potentially serious decline in economic confidence and the strains following from the state's support for the Assad regime, when most Lebanese Sunnis sympathise with the Syrian opposition. Lebanon's new government may mean the country is out of the frying pan, but nothing suggests it will avoid the fire.

March 14 may regret boycotting Mikati

There is no doubt that President Bashar Assad’s regime played an essential role in accelerating the formation of the Lebanese government.

Only a Syrian nod could have compelled President Michel Sleiman to approve a Cabinet lineup that will thoroughly marginalize him, and could have made Speaker Nabih Berri surrender a Shiite seat to the Sunni community.

Despite this, we have to wonder whether March 14 did well not to participate in the new team.

From the moment that Saad Hariri’s government was brought down last January, the March 14 parties took an uncompromising position on Najib Mikati, the prime minister designate. Hariri, justifiably, felt betrayed by Mikati and there was much talk of a “coup.” Syria, Hezbollah and their allies did stage a coup, but a constitutional coup within the confines of state institutions.

Mikati, whether by persuasion or compulsion, won over a majority of parliamentarians, which should have been a lesson to March 14: If institutions could be used against the coalition, March 14 could use institutions in its own favor. When you denounce a coup, your duty is to obstruct it.

Instead, the order came down that March 14 was to stand aside and isolate Mikati. There were exceptions. The former prime minister, Fouad Siniora, kept a low-key line open. The former president, Amin Gemayel, tried to find common ground with the prime minister designate.

However, to distance himself from the endeavor, Hariri flew to France. March 14 made unrealistic demands on Mikati, asking him to clarify in writing his position on Hezbollah’s arms and on the Special Tribunal for Lebanon. When he refused, this was portrayed as a lack of seriousness about integrating March 14 into the government.

Was that true? Had March 14 declared from the outset that it would participate in the government on condition that it be granted veto power, things might have been different. The veto provision had earlier been respected for March 8 and the Aounists, and March 14’s share in Parliament justified it.

Mikati would have resisted at first, but as his efforts to put together a government floundered, he might have reassessed in order to expand his margin of maneuver, accepting the conditions set by March 14. But had he persisted in his refusal, that would only have weakened him further, confirming that he was beholden to Hezbollah and Syria, damaging him among Sunnis.

Assume that March 14 did the right thing at the time. Did it do the right thing in not reconsidering its attitude once the situation in Syria began unraveling? Suddenly, the issue was no longer whether Najib Mikati would gain legitimacy if March 14 took part in his government.

It was no longer whether Hezbollah had staged a coup, since the signs, after weeks of deadlock over the Cabinet, were that the momentum of such a coup had been slowed by uncertainty in Syria. The issue was whether March 14 would be in the government or out at a critical juncture in Lebanon’s history, with the Assad regime facing an existential challenge. March 14 did not even debate the question.

So where are we today? Instead of adapting to developments in the region, March 14 is still locked into a very parochial reading of the political situation. It has criticized the government for being a Syrian creation, bolstered by Hezbollah.

Undeniably it is. No less true is that Damascus, through this government, intends to enlist Lebanon in the Syrian confrontation with the international community. The country is in for a bumpy ride in the months ahead, which will impact on the economy and on financial confidence in negative ways.

March 14 may welcome such circumstances for discrediting the Mikati government. However, this is short-sighted. The state, whose promotion March 14 has claimed as its principal concern, benefits not at all when the welfare of the Lebanese becomes a weapon in domestic disputes.

Nor is it obvious what national project March 14 offers in contrast to that of the current majority. During the months of stalemate the March 14 leadership did little to exploit the political bankruptcy on the other side, whereby alleged reformers haggled like fishwives over their share of ministers and lucrative portfolios.

The conventional wisdom is that the Mikati government is not long for this world; March 14 spokespersons have linked its longevity to that of the Assads in Syria. That may be true, but the Assads could linger for some time.

The view displays great passivity on the part of the former majority, giving a wide berth to Hezbollah and the Aounists to dismantle what March 14 spent years patiently building up. Remarkably, at the very moment when Syria’s allies and sympathizers appear most vulnerable, March 14 has managed to hand the reins of government over to them.

As the Lebanese look ahead, what they see is worrisome. On the one side a government bound to increase Lebanon’s misery, with a core of revanchist Aounists and an armed organization whose overriding preoccupation is to turn the country into a sandbag to protect its weapons and preserve its autonomy.

And on the other side, a coalition without a persuasive vision for a sovereign Lebanese state, whose paramount figure has been absent for weeks (reportedly because of death threats), which is presently wagering on the failure of the new government, regardless of how the Lebanese might suffer from this.

In this context, a government of national unity, no matter how mediocre, would have been better in carrying Lebanon through this period of transformation in Syria, and in managing the aftermath. We missed that opportunity and now we have a government that is infinitely worse, one that may not vanish as soon as we think.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Michael Young on France24

Friday, June 10, 2011

UN discord will be measured in Syrian dead

The lead role played by France and the United Kingdom in presenting a draft resolution to the UN Security Council condemning the brutality of the Syrian regime is laudable. This comes not long after the two countries led the pack in preventing Libyan leader Moammar Qaddafi’s forces from overrunning Benghazi. Such advocacy has been in refreshing contrast to the Obama administration’s lethargy.

It is a coincidence, but a revealing one, that the Europeans are again showing nerve soon after the arrest of the Bosnian Serb war criminal Ratko Mladic. Bosnia was a watershed for Europe, a test the continent ignominiously failed. It was the military intervention of the United States that tilted the balance against the Serbs, leading to the signing of the Dayton Accords. For a time afterward the Europeans went through a crisis of confidence, but what makes French and British foreign policy activism today so intriguing (and that may explain why such activism is on display) is that it comes as the European unification project is moving through considerable turbulence.

In Washington, meanwhile, a glum Barack Obama is watching the polls. Americans are expressing displeasure with the president’s economic performance, while the brief bounce he earned from Osama bin Laden’s assassination has evaporated. With money on everyone’s mind, and so little to go around in the United States, Obama may be contemplating a rapid drawdown in Afghanistan. Even as the French and British are in an expansive mood, the Americans appear to be in shopkeeper mode: counting their dollars and cents and complementing their dearth of funds with a dearth of ambition.

That has been most unfortunate for the Syrian people. Washington was compelled to follow the European lead in Libya, but it has been more or less standoffish in Syria. In a May 19 speech at the State Department, Obama declared that President Bashar al-Assad had a choice of leading a transition to democracy in Syria or leaving. But he has yet to ask Assad to step down, even though, since then, the Syrian regime has pursued its violent campaign of repression, showing no inclination to embrace democracy. According to anti-regime activists, roughly 1,300 people have been killed. The real figure is probably much higher, since thousands have gone missing and are presumed dead. Some 10,000 Syrians are said to have been arrested.

The Europeans, notably British Foreign Secretary William Hague, have echoed Obama’s phrasing. However, American and European diffidence has become increasingly embarrassing in light of the Syrian carnage. That’s why France and the United Kingdom have again pressed for a Security Council resolution. A few weeks ago the Russian and Chinese refused to endorse one. This time around, however, the French and British appear willing to confront the two naysayers, even if it means the resolution will be vetoed.

The Obama administration has backed Paris and London. However, the intentional weakness of the draft resolution, even if it exhibits a desire to co-opt Russia and China, also may take into consideration continued American reluctance to advance too quickly on Syria. The text condemns the behavior of the Syrian regime, demands that it put an end to the crackdown, and warns that the “attacks currently taking place in Syria by the authorities against its people may amount to crimes against humanity.” It also calls for a lifting of the siege of Daraa and Jisr al-Shoughour by the army and the security forces.

However, the resolution fails to impose sanctions, and repeats the absurd logic of Barack Obama in presuming that the Assad regime might yet lead a democratic makeover. The draft reads that the “only solution to the current crisis in Syria is through an inclusive and Syrian-led political process,” one taking into consideration “the stated intention of the Government of Syria to take steps for reform.”

No one, certainly not British and French diplomats at the United Nations, are under any illusion that this will happen. The problem is that, given the Libya precedent, no one wants to make a push in Syria that might ensnare the international community in a new conflict it cannot manage. That’s understandable. But this approach ignores that the Arab states and the international community don’t have the luxury of wasting more time over Syria, where the breakdown may soon affect the Middle East in especially dangerous ways.

The new resolution is designed to be a wedge, one that commits the Security Council to future action. If the document is passed and the Syrian regime refuses to implement its clauses, as we can expect, there will have to be a follow-up resolution imposing penalties on Damascus. The problem is that this will buy the Assad regime weeks of international vacillation, during which it will kill more Syrians.

The Assad regime has been its own worst enemy. It is plausible that it will escalate the butchery at home in the coming days and weeks, virtually begging the Security Council to accelerate, and escalate, its response to developments in Syria. Already, Turkey is facing thousands of Syrian refugees crossing the border. The draft resolution states that the Syrian crisis represents a threat to international peace and security. If the Russians and Chinese admit to this by voting in favor, it would be a major concession. Until now they have insisted that international peace and security are not in jeopardy.

Most disappointing has been Barack Obama. In his State Department address, the president vowed that the United States would henceforth bolster democracy in the Middle East. But Obama is worried about his re-election. He doesn’t want to take on overseas tasks that detract from the economy. When he does come around on Syria, as he had to on Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen, the president will once again appear tardy and unconvinced, therefore unconvincing.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

A foreign policy of instability cannot save Syria at home

The tables are turning on the Syrian regime. Several weeks after the praetorian military and security units of President Bashar al Assad, led by his brother Maher, began a fierce campaign of repression, popular protests are expanding. But more worrisome for Syria's leadership, it is finding increasing difficulty in exporting instability to the Middle East as a means of bolstering its domestic authority.

The late president Hafez al Assad was a master at manipulating this interplay between regional instability and regime survival. By exploiting, and more often provoking, insecurity among Syria's neighbours, Mr al Assad was able to bring Arab and western actors to his door to negotiate solutions. In that way, he ensured that Syria could punch well above its weight in the Arab world, which added to his credibility internally, strengthening his rule.

In fact, this was precisely the logic used by his son, Bashar al Assad, in a Wall Street Journal interview last January, before the start of the Syrian upheaval. When asked about the revolts against authoritarian rule in such places as Tunisia and Egypt, the president replied that in Syria things were different because ideology was a stabilising factor, uniting people with the regime. By this Mr al Assad meant that Syrians approved of his foreign policy - defending the option of "resistance", supporting good relations with Iran, Hizbollah and Hamas, opposing Israel and to an extent the United States, and so on.

Compare this to what Mr al Assad's influential cousin Rami Makhlouf told The New York Times some weeks later, this time in the midst of the Syrian revolt: "If there is no stability [in Syria], there's no way there will be stability in Israel." Here was the cynical flip side of Mr al Assad's logic. Where the president had claimed that foreign affairs, or more accurately the ideology sustaining them, was a decisive agent in consolidating his power domestically, Mr Makhlouf, realising this was no longer the case, threatened regional volatility if outside countries turned against Mr al Assad and his family.

Today, the Syrian game is faltering primarily on three fronts - Iraq, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and Lebanon. When it comes to Iraq the regime is tasting its own bitter medicine. After having allowed foreign jihadists to cross over into Iraq for years to conduct attacks and suicide bombings, Mr al Assad lately dispatched his foreign minister, Walid al Muallem, to ask Baghdad to close its border and avoid arms transfers to Syria. The Iraqis responded, as the Syrians once did, that it was a lengthy border to seal, and set as a condition that Damascus returns Iraqi Baathists operating in Syrian territory.

On the Palestinian front, there has been a cooling of relations between Syria and Hamas, in part because the Islamist movement has failed to endorse the Assad regime's crackdown. Damascus, using Hamas, had repeatedly undermined inter-Palestinian reconciliation under Egyptian auspices to prevent a breakthrough on the Palestinian track that might isolate Syria. However, in April Cairo successfully sponsored a Hamas-Fatah pact. While the outcome is unclear, this was a diplomatic blow to Syria that confiscated its Palestinian card.

Syria has also managed to alienate Israel. Once a silent partner in Syrian hegemony over Lebanon, the Israelis always preferred the heavy hand of Damascus to the uncertainties of a weak Lebanese state. Israel's leaders have also been well-intentioned toward the Assads for maintaining a quiet Golan Heights border since 1973. However, Mr Makhlouf's warnings, backed up by two recent border incidents on the Golan and an attack against United Nations forces in Lebanon - widely believed to be a Syrian message - have erased that goodwill. Israeli officials believe Mr al Assad is doomed, and apparently see little latitude in western capitals to bolster his political survival.

Even in Lebanon the mood is changing. While officially the Lebanese authorities and army have supported Mr al Assad, as has Hizbollah's secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah, Damascus's allies are starting to discreetly brace for the fall of the Syrian order. For instance, Walid Jumblatt, who reconciled with Syria last year, has few illusions and is taking his distance. He rarely issues a statement these days without expressing the need for Syrian reform.

Even Sheikh Nasrallah was careful not to push for demonstrations last Sunday along the Lebanese frontier with Israel to commemorate the Arab defeat during the war of June 1967. Hizbollah evidently feared Israeli retaliation if things got out of hand, and therefore quietly consented when the Lebanese army sealed off of the border area. This created a highly symbolic moment - violence on the Golan Heights and dead calm in Lebanon. For years the Syrian leadership had done its utmost to profit from the contrary situation.

In some respects Mr al Assad was right that what happens inside Syria and Syrian perceptions of what occurs outside are mutually reinforcing. That he misread his people's mood is a testament to his hubris; but it's also true that if the Assads are unable to gain from stoking conflict in surrounding countries, this shortcoming can only exacerbate Syria's internal contradictions. Once the regime's regional leverage disappears, a harsh lens will reveal just how debilitated are its capacities at home.

For decades the Assads ably surfed the troubled waters of the Arab world. But the Syrian people are reminding them that this is now insufficient. Notions such as welfare, liberty, opportunity, even democracy, cannot forever be postponed by feeding off the travails of others, an approach that can only be defined as vampiric. Dissenting Syrians, to their great credit, aspire to something more elevated.

Our omnipatriarch, an early assessment

Maronite Patriarch Bishara Rai is not a man of few words. Since being elected to office he has issued myriad statements on the events of the day.

And if those are not sufficient, you can still hear his taped interventions on Tele Lumiere from the period when he was a bishop. The patriarch is ubiquitous, which is not always a good thing.
It’s no secret that Rai very much likes his politics. His spirituality notwithstanding, the patriarch arrived in Bkirki when the Maronite Church desperately needed to depoliticize its clergy. Instead, he has been far more vocal on political matters than his predecessor, Patriarch Nasrallah Butros Sfeir, who was criticized at the end, unfairly, for presiding over a divided Maronite political class. If Rai continues in this vein, he, too, may succumb to the Maronites’ ample contradictions.

To Rai’s credit, he has brought Maronite leaders together in what are early steps in a communal reconciliation effort. This is valuable, and the fact that he twice hosted Samir Geagea and Sleiman Franjieh under the same roof is an achievement. What will emerge from the initiative is unclear, but the patriarch’s role is to act as a shepherd; he can’t be blamed if rivalries among his discordant flock endure.

More generally, Rai has injected dynamism into the Church, which Maronites have welcomed. He is everywhere, an omnipatriarch: one day in Rome, another in Bkirki, a third in Jbeil, making this comment or that, pushing for a new government, taking a stance on the Constitution, presiding over the naming of new bishops, and so on.

How very useful, but where Rai has come up short is in placing his endeavors within a cohesive strategy. Is his priority to reform the Maronite Church, which needs to be cleaned out with a large broom? Is it to be a mentor to or promoter of communal politicians? Is it to act as a bridge to the Muslim communities? We don’t know. Rai is so hyperactive that he risks overreaching, in the end getting little done.

An inexperienced new patriarch is entitled to make mistakes. Rai did so early on when he effectively endorsed Ziyad Baroud’s return to the Cabinet before a congratulatory delegation led by the interior minister. This came at a stage when Baroud’s future was a bone of contention between President Michel Sleiman and Free Patriotic Movement leader Michel Aoun in the government formation process. The patriarch was doing Sleiman a favor, but it was tactically unnecessary when one of Rai’s aims, ultimately, should be to rise above Maronite politicians.

Then in March Rai showed poor timing when he declared that he would visit Syria later this year, for religious purposes. The patriarch was hasty. Someone attuned to politics should have better grasped that his visit would be interpreted by the Assad regime as a sign of esteem, one that it had done nothing to earn, just weeks after it had engineered the collapse of the Hariri government, confirming Syrian indifference to a sovereign Lebanon. By so doing, Rai also needlessly dissociated himself from Sfeir, who had, laudably, refused to go to Syria because he disapproved of its behavior on the sovereignty issue.

Rai could not have guessed that at around the same time he announced his plans, the Assad regime would begin its violent repression in Daraa. But it should have been a lesson to him that it’s sometimes better to consolidate one’s position first and wait before wrestling with controversial matters. As Rai surveys the carnage in Syria, he must be wondering why he made a commitment that he cannot possibly want to implement today under Assad rule.

The most egregious of Rai’s assertions has involved Taif. In late May, after meeting with the Aounist parliamentarian Nemetallah Abi Nasr, the patriarch said of Taif that it “is not a holy document that descended from heaven.” He remarked that the accord “has flaws and needs to be reformed,” before adding that the powers of the president had to be expanded. “We are with the equal division of shares between Christians and Muslims but we do not support it when the president has no power to make a decision,” Rai observed.

It’s a pity that even the head of the Maronite Church can still be living under the illusion that Shiites and Sunnis will readily surrender political power to a Maronite president when they spent over a decade of conflict taking that power away, and now consider the Maronites over-represented in Parliament. Taif is not holy, but since Rai is willing to juggle the profane and the divine, he should know that it is reckless to open the door on presidential power from a position of resentment, by boldly doubting the constitutional foundations of our political system. That’s because amending Taif will cut both ways.

What is Rai’s point? If it is to merely return more authority to the president, then what is to prevent the Muslims from responding, quite legitimately, that Taif needs to be implemented fully, which means abolishing political confessionalism? That’s a good idea, but it’s not one the patriarch welcomes. It makes no sense for Rai to selectively focus on Christian interests and shatter the consensus around Taif, then assume that non-Christians will applaud this.

On the other hand, if Rai drew on his disapproval of Taif to gain tactical advantage by currying favor among his coreligionists, then his words were even more embarrassing. Patriarchs are not here to play petty politics, particularly on so essential a matter as constitutional reform. Nothing whatsoever obliged Rai to take a position on Taif at this time. His recommendations were short-sighted and gratuitous.

Lebanon’s bane is that clergymen dream of being politicians and politicians dream of being clergymen. Rai came in at a pivotal moment for Maronites, one of existential importance. The community’s paramount challenges are internal revival and the adoption of a radically new approach in its relations with Muslims. Rai should address these and abandon the more sordid byways of Lebanese politics.

Friday, June 3, 2011

For Arab despots, the skies are limited

Imagine, for a thrilling moment, that you are an Arab autocrat. Your regime has just crumbled all around you and there you are, standing alone on the tarmac of the airport with slabs of bullion being loaded onto your private jet. Where on earth, literally, do you fly to?

It’s some relief to know that the expansion of international justice and accountability during the past decade makes an answer increasingly difficult to come by. At one moment there was speculation that the Libyan leader, Moammar al-Qaddafi, would bolt to Venezuela. But honestly, Venezuela?! Tunisia’s Zine al-Abedine bin Ali made his way to Saudi Arabia. Yet who readily wants to end his days in Wahhabi austerity? And while Hosni Mubarak announced that he would die in Egypt, then flew to Sharm al-Sheikh to prove it, this only guaranteed that he would become a pawn in a post-revolution power struggle between the armed forces and youths who overthrew his regime.

Venezuela, Saudi Arabia, perhaps one or two other outposts in the Gulf, even in Central Asia – the choices are thinning fast for the dictator on the run. Qaddafi and bin Ali were once received with full honors in European capitals, rather like Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, but it’s very unlikely that any of the three will be able to shop in Paris, London and Rome again, at least without facing arrest or legal action.

This is a useful message to ponder days after the discovery of the Bosnian Serb general, Ratko Mladic, 16 years after he masterminded the butchery of some 8,000 Muslims caught in the vise of Srebrenica. Mladic was among the first to learn that in this era of televised and videotaped atrocities, you’re only as good as your last movie. It takes a bold leader to order his soldiers and security forces to massacre unarmed opponents; but also one who has trouble understanding that the world is changing, so that you can suddenly find yourself crushed by the terrible power of international embarrassment.

Take Bashar al-Assad. He was feted for so long, his wife admired so fawningly, that it is understandably difficult for the Syrian leader to grasp that he may soon conceivably become an international fugitive.

In retrospect, what a foul crew of rulers the Middle East has thrown forth in recent decades. Omar al-Bachir of Sudan, along with Qaddafi, are wrestling with indictments issued by the International Criminal Court. Mubarak may yet stand trial at home. Saddam Hussein faced an Iraqi court and was executed in a parody of justice, but no one would seriously argue that he didn’t deserve what he got. Yemen’s Ali Abdullah Saleh is close to starting a civil war in order to stay in power. Bin Ali, his wife and her family sucked Tunisia dry, arresting even modest dissenters at will. And Assad and his brother and cousin have been personally sanctioned by the United States and the European Union, even as they continue to command the slaughter of civilians.

Mladic’s fate is a good illustration of the advantages and occasional pitfalls of broadening the implementation of justice and human rights norms worldwide. Serbian nationalists have defended the general, but in the end his arrest will prove even less troublesome than that of the former Serbian president, Slobodan Milosevic, who was indicted while in office by the tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. Serbia can now look forward to entering the European Union, and with time Mladic will become a forgotten, if uncomfortable, interlude.

But there are downsides. Bosnia is not near true reconciliation more than a decade and a half after the end of its war. The Dayton Accords created a federation including a Bosnian Serb entity and a Muslim-Croat federation, and much of the discord that Mladic embodied in the most brutal of ways has yet to be resolved. Advancing justice and human rights is laudable, even necessary, in post-conflict societies, or in those moving away from authoritarianism. Yet it hardly resolves all the outstanding issues that spawned conflict in the first place. In fact, pushing for justice frequently widens the fractures in societies.

It’s a good thing, indeed a historic transformation, that Arab societies are finally feeling, and expressing, the outrage that they were obliged to suppress for so long. And it’s a good thing, too, that this outrage is based primarily on a heightened sense of the need to implement the rule of law. That reality is why Arab despots are realizing, to their horror, that the future may hold little different for them than what it held for Ratko Mladic. Will this alter the behavior of leaders in the Middle East? It should, but the road to justice can be a rocky one.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Amid revolts, Mladic's arrest is a reminder to lawless leaders

The arrest of the Bosnian Serb general, Ratko Mladic, 16 years after he masterminded the massacre of some 8,000 Muslims trapped in the town of Srebrenica, is instructive for the Middle East. As the so-called "Arab spring" turns increasingly violent, several Arab leaders who had ordered their forces to violently repress dissent find themselves facing a judicial process, or the prospect of one. This is virtually unheard of in a region where political crimes have routinely gone unpunished.

The International Criminal Court recently sought the arrest of the Libyan leader, Colonel Muammar Qaddafi, his son Saif al Islam and his intelligence chief, Abdullah al Senussi, for crimes against humanity. Egypt's former president, Hosni Mubarak, may face a domestic court for his handling of opposition rallies earlier this year. And while legal action has not been taken against Syrian President Bashar al Assad for the brutal crushing of demonstrations in Syria, he and other regime figures have been sanctioned by the United States and Europe, and no one can seriously discount the possibility that the United Nations Security Council will eventually refer them to the ICC.

An expanded application of human rights norms and justice has finally reached the Middle East. Yet the first warning shots came years ago, before this season of Arab revolt. In 2005, the UN Security Council set up an international investigation following the assassination of Rafiq Hariri, Lebanon's former prime minister. This later led to the creation of a mixed international-Lebanese tribunal to try the suspects, with expectations at the time that it might ultimately point the finger at senior Syrian officials, as well as others.

Another much-publicised case was the ICC's issuing of an arrest warrant for Sudanese President Omar al Bashir in March 2009, accusing him of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes in Darfur. It was the first time that the body had indicted a sitting head of state (although Slobodan Milosevic had also faced indictment while in office by the special tribunal for the former Yugoslavia).

The two processes have generated some controversy. Years on, the tribunal dealing with the Hariri killing has yet to issue any formal accusations. Mr al Bashir's indictment, in turn, has been opposed by states and regional organisations, including the Arab League and the African Union. While the outcomes will have a bearing on public approval of the widening boundaries of justice, these boundaries have undeniably been broadened during the past decade in the Arab world.

Is that a good thing? Legal purists would argue that the nature of justice, specifically the integrity of its institutions and practices, is as important as identifying and punishing the guilty. In other words a more universal implementation of justice is laudable when international legal norms and forms are respected. No doubt, but when it comes to affecting the behaviour of leaders, even more unsavoury legal retribution can sometimes serve a useful purpose.

Take the trial and execution of Saddam Hussein, the former Iraqi president. Critics justifiably condemned it as a mockery of justice. The post-Baath Iraqi leadership missed a golden opportunity to showcase Saddam's cruelty. And yet even that rough revenge reminded Arab leaders of the perils of hubris. When the Iraqi leader directed the butchery and deportation of Kurds during the Anfal operations of 1988, or the suppression of the Shiites after the Gulf war of 1991, he could never have imagined that he would one day answer for both. He did, and since then it has been more difficult for Arab autocrats to contemplate mass killing without worrying about payback.

The proliferation of media is one reason for this. Technologically, it is much easier for information to circulate, and therefore for news of abuse to reach a global audience. Col Qaddafi's onslaught against Benghazi was a useful illustration of the fact. Western democracies were simply unwilling to stand by and permit carnage in the city, fully aware that this would go viral worldwide, and that the backlash would ultimately be directed against them for their indolence.

However, media coverage tells only half the story. Ideas remain at the heart of the fundamental change in Arab attitudes when it comes to the misdeeds of rulers. Syrians are not braving bullets and torture just because they know their endeavours will be posted online and generate sympathy abroad. They are doing so in the name of abstract concepts such as liberty, emancipation, democracy, a rejection of systematic fear and corruption, and much else. That Mr al Assad and his family should have lorded over Syria for so long has become an insult to most Syrians, a blight on their sense of self-respect.

And it is such abstract ideas that are at the heart of the expanded Arab awareness of injustice - therefore of justice. The impetus may have come from outside; it may be very imperfectly expressed, and very unevenly applied across the Middle East. But for the regional upheaval to retain momentum, it must consolidate in Arab minds a determination that human life has autonomous value and that this must be protected by clearly stated laws. For the first time in decades, individuals from Tunisia to Yemen to Syria to Egypt to Libya have openly expressed outrage with the lawlessness of their leaders.

The essence of justice is memory; it is about remembering the wrong that was done. Memory is what allowed Mr Mladic to be caught more than a decade and a half after Srebrenica. In contrast, the Lebanese ended their civil war by whitewashing most wartime leaders. Such amnesia jars with this revolutionary Arab moment. Justice may or may not prevail in the region, but if it is to prevail, then we should welcome the novel refusal of societies to let bygones be bygones.

The void in Beirut. Who really gains?

What did Walid Jumblatt mean when he told the daily Al-Akhbar this week that Hezbollah did not want to form a government?

And when the Druze leader went on to say that a government was necessary for the party and Syria as well, was that a discreet way of saying that it was Damascus that was holding up the government-formation process – a thought that Jumblatt, of course, immediately perished by refusing to link the Syrian tension to the Lebanese government crisis?
There can be no serious doubt that the situation in Syria weighs heavily on the stalemate in Beirut. The explanations are many for why Najib Mikati has been unable to form a government, and quite a few happen to be true; but perhaps the most significant is that Syria has been lukewarm in pushing for a new team. The prime minister-designate is not about to embark on fashioning a Cabinet without strong Syrian backing, especially a partisan Cabinet in which he would have to stand his ground against Hezbollah and Michel Aoun.

Which returns us to the implications of Jumblatt’s remarks. The regime of President Bashar Assad evidently has no real interest in a Mikati government, because it has no interest in filling a Lebanese political vacuum that it seeks to exploit in order to survive at home. Through Lebanon, Damascus can send, and has sent, warning shots regionally and internationally, to the effect that it must either be the Assads and their Makhlouf cousins in power, or else chaos will ensue. That was the essence of what Rami Makhlouf, the financial pillar of the Syrian regime, told The New York Times in a recent interview.

Since that interview was published, two things have happened in Lebanon to bring home Makhlouf’s message. Hezbollah, with perceptible Syrian approval, and in a move coordinated with similar measures on the Golan Heights, helped mobilize demonstrators along the Lebanese-Israeli border to commemorate Nakba Day. This was a pinprick, destined to echo Makhlouf’s comments that “If there is no stability [in Syria], there’s no way there will be stability in Israel.”

And last Friday, an Italian UNIFIL unit was the target of a bomb attack in Rmeileh. It’s unclear who planted the device, but the attack came at the very moment when foreign embassies were indicating that Makhlouf had pointedly mentioned, in an off-the-record aside during his New York Times interview, that United Nations forces in Lebanon might be assaulted. If there were any doubts, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem had earlier dispelled them when declaring, after the European Union imposed sanctions on Bashar Assad, “I say this measure, just as it will harm Syria’s interests, it will harm Europe’s interest. And Syria won’t remain silent about this measure.”

Although Hezbollah is siding with the Syrian regime against Syrian protesters, as its secretary general, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, made clear last week, you have to wonder whether the party and Syria share the desire to maintain a void in Lebanon. In strict terms Jumblatt may again be right that Hezbollah doesn’t want a government, but is this a matter of choice, or is the party obligated to follow the Syrian lead?

Only a few months ago Hezbollah was willing to take the hazardous step of barring Saad Hariri’s return to office, in the hope that it could follow this up by swiftly forming a favorable government that would face supposedly imminent indictments issued by the Special Tribunal for Lebanon. Today, we must believe that Hezbollah’s sense of urgency has evaporated and that the party is no longer concerned with the likelihood that the tribunal will formally accuse party members of involvement in the assassination of Rafik Hariri. There is a disconnect here, one suggesting that Syria’s objectives and Hezbollah’s may not be as closely aligned as some assume over delaying a Cabinet.

It is a matter of anxiety in Beirut how Hezbollah might react if the situation in Syria were to deteriorate further and the Assad regime’s hold on power were loosened further. In that event the existence of a Lebanese government would help Hezbollah, because if the party has to watch one of its principal allies collapsing, it would prefer to do so after having anchored itself in the legitimacy of Lebanese state institutions. In other words the party needs a government in place that it can dominate, both to bless its weapons and help it absorb the aftershocks of a tribunal indictment and radical change in Syria.

The assessment of some foreign observers is that if the Assads are ousted, Hezbollah will respond by striking a harsh blow domestically to reaffirm its authority. Perhaps, but this, more reasonably, would be an act of desperation. In the Lebanese context it might lead to civil conflict, particularly if the party were to take such a step minus its valuable Syrian partner, in the presence of a new order in Damascus bound to be hostile to Hezbollah. Another May 2008 would fail, even more so when we recall that Hezbollah was hard-pressed to end its military operations quickly at the time, after the triumph in western Beirut. Seizing territory is easier than controlling it. Hezbollah would be reckless in assuming that it can successfully overcome all of Lebanon.

The deadlock will persist in Beirut, with Najib Mikati remaining unable to form a government. However, it’s still an open question whether Hezbollah truly gains from this state of affairs, even if Syria does. Assad wants an open Lebanese playing field to manipulate. Yet at some stage Nasrallah needs the state to be credible, as it may become the last bastion between Hezbollah and regional and international demands that the party surrender its arms.