Thursday, September 29, 2011

The Syrian intifada, a grim update

Six months into its uprising, Syria is facing ruinous stalemate. President Bashar Assad can thank his late father, Hafez, for having first installed the magnificent engine of repression that guarantees his political survival. And yet Syria’s system is incapable of gradual amelioration, which is at the heart of the Assads’ dilemma.

Syria today is like the picture of Dorian Gray. For many years the Assad regime was sought after by numerous Arab and Western governments, even by prominent nongovernmental organizations, for being regarded as an essential key to resolving regional problems. The evidence suggested otherwise, but few apparently seemed to care. Today the picture is out in full view. What the world sees is the sordidness and depravity behind the ersatz fa├žade.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is correct in saying that Assad will not triumph over the Syrian intifada. But the mad band ruling Syria can hold out for a while, and will do its utmost to transform the crisis in a way that ensures it has a fighting chance of staying in power. If that doesn’t happen, a plausible alternative would be for it to fall back on the Alawite heartland, whose access points the regime put a lock on months ago – from Jisr al-Shoughour in the north to the area of Tell Kalakh along Lebanon’s border.

This week two news items revealed Assad’s mounting difficulties. The Financial Times reported that the Syrian authorities had instructed foreign companies to sharply cut back their oil production. Syria has been unable to bypass the European Union embargo on its exports of crude, so that the country’s oil storage capacity is filling up. Despite claims by Syrian officials that the embargo would fail, the newspaper noted “not a single cargo of Syrian crude has left the nation’s main export oil ports this month, according to shipping data.”

And Monday, the Syrian government adopted a budget for next year that will increase spending by 58 percent when compared to 2011. A Syrian economist, Nabil Sukkar, expressed his astonishment to Abu Dhabi’s The National newspaper. “Where are they going to get the money from to pay for this? That’s the big question,” Sukkar asked. He warned: “Our concern is that they are going to start printing money to meet their expenditure, which will lead to serious inflation.” This is precisely what European diplomats based in Damascus had predicted would happen in a report early this year.

As the regime’s revenues decline, its patronage and influence network will shrink. Resources will be concentrated on crushing the revolt. At the same time, economic hardship will hit the Syrian population, which has been exhausted by months of upheaval. Yet here is the danger. As the situation worsens, it is improbable that the Assads will gain the upper hand in a decisive way. What is more likely to happen is a radicalization of the conflict, something that may already be inevitable in the face of the utter savagery displayed by the Syrian army, security services, and predominantly Alawite armed gangs.

All future options may be bad for Syria. If the army falls apart, then we will move squarely toward armed resistance and civil war; and if the army remains relatively united and the largely peaceful protests continue, then we could see open-ended carnage. Both situations have a better than even chance of ceding the initiative to those wanting to pick up weapons. That may be the Assads’ wager. They feel that such a development would favor Sunni Islamists. An armed Islamist rebellion would polarize Syria, rally many inside Syria and out to the regime’s side, and justify a policy of eradication, as in Algeria during the 1990s, against an enemy the Assads essentially created.

Some observers believe the Assads are hoping to impose a somewhat less cynical solution: to contain the demonstrations until fatigue sets in, after which the regime will introduce cosmetic reforms that divide the Syrian opposition while simultaneously silencing the international community. If that’s indeed the regime’s aspiration, it relies on a particularly optimistic reading of the dynamics in Syria. Something is fundamentally broken in the country. That Assad can take his people back to where they were seven months ago is fanciful.

That said, the Syrian president has room to maneuver, with outside pressure on him still bearable for now, despite the ominous pinch of European sanctions. The Arab League has been catatonic on Syria, it’s so-called plan to resolve the Syrian emergency having little momentum. The United Nations Security Council for weeks has been debating a resolution on Syria, yet one reportedly that will not punish Damascus. The United States has ratcheted up the rhetoric against the Assads, but has otherwise done virtually nothing to bring the different parties together behind a consensual transition plan. And Turkey has officially separated from Damascus, but is restrained by anxiety that a Syrian collapse will lead to a confrontation between Ankara and Syria’s Kurds, which will have domestic repercussions.

A leitmotif adopted by the Arab League, but also the ventriloquist dummies of the Assad regime and even some opposition members, is that there must be no outside involvement in Syrian affairs. The reality is that Bashar Assad and his clique will only be ousted through a combination of domestic and international efforts, hopefully short of military action. The Assads thrive on conflict. Everything must be done to deny them the oxygen of violence.

'Zero problems' in Ankara is havoc for the neighbourhood

Much hyperbole has been deployed in describing Turkey's reorientation towards the Middle East. Partly, this has been the fault of the Turks themselves, who have sought to ride the wave of Ankara's popularity in the region - primarily a result of its rift with Israel and vocal support for the Palestinian cause. But the reality is considerably more complicated, as Turkey is increasingly drawn into the treacherous byways of Arab and Iranian affairs.

In a much-discussed book he wrote before taking office, Turkey's foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, enunciated what he called the policy of "zero problems with neighbours". This has shaped Ankara's approach to the Middle East in past years. However, today the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan finds itself managing problems - open or more subtly stated - with virtually every country in its perimeter, especially those to the south and east.

This was predictable. For nearly a century Turkey has focused on Europe. Ankara's renewed attention southwards poses a challenge to Arab states and Iran, which are little prepared to make room for what can come across as an overbearing Turkish government with a tendency to overplay its hand. Arab regimes have publicly embraced Mr Erdogan. But they have also set limits to Turkish actions involving them.

Take Mr Erdogan's recent visit to Egypt. Although it was hailed as a success, Egypt regards Turkish involvement on the Palestinian front, particularly in the Gaza Strip, as an irritant. Cairo views itself as the interlocutor of choice with the Palestinians, and President Hosni Mubarak's ouster has not changed that. Anything that strengthens Hamas could have damaging repercussions for Egyptian internal security. The military leadership in Cairo is also watching carefully how the mildly Islamist government in Ankara inspires elements of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, which the generals mistrust.

Turkish spokesmen erred in announcing before the Egypt trip that Mr Erdogan might enter Gaza. Neither Egypt nor the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, relished such a prospect, and ultimately the Turkish prime minister backtracked. Here was a classic example of Mr Erdogan going too far. Mr Abbas opposed a move that would have legitimised Hamas at his expense. The military council in Cairo surely agreed, seeing no reason to hand Turkey a new wedge to insert itself politically on Egypt's eastern border.

Mr Erdogan justifiably expressed outrage with Israel after its soldiers killed Turkish protesters trying to breach the Gaza blockade in May 2010. Israel's government refused to apologise, leading Turkey recently to downgrade diplomatic ties. Early on, the Turkish prime minister caught the mood of exasperation with Israel for its intransigence toward the Palestinians, which he has used to his advantage to garner Arab approval.

However, once the indignation is used up, does Turkey really gain from having undermined the mediation role it once could play between Arabs and Israelis? Did Mr Erdogan need to go as far as he did? He has made an apology and the lifting of the blockade of Gaza conditions for the resumption of normal relations with Israel. The first demand is defensible, but is Gaza enough of a Turkish national priority to justify the prime minister's second, tougher stipulation?

Mr Erdogan's ability to exploit regional transformations has been neutralised by his outspokenness. A resumption of Arab-Israeli, even Palestinian-Israeli, negotiations is, admittedly, unlikely in the foreseeable future. However, Turkey could have seriously aspired to play a key role in a revived peace process. But today, Israeli ill-feeling against Mr Erdogan, the Palestinian leadership's refusal to see their position undercut by the prime minister's demagogical instincts, and international recognition that Turkey is now more a part of the problem than the solution, have effectively sidelined Ankara.

In Syria, Turkey has broken with President Bashar Al Assad's regime. That was to be expected. But Syria is tricky for the Turks. If the country collapses into civil war, this might not only push Syria's Kurds, who have no affection for Ankara, to seek autonomy. It might also drive Arab Alawites in Turkey's Hatay province to assist their Syrian brethren.

At the same time, Mr Erdogan cannot afford to do nothing. The prime minister heads a Sunni Islamist party, a substantial part of whose appeal is that it can build bridges to Arab Islamists. To allow Mr Al Assad to pursue his slaughter of peaceful protesters, many of whom happen to be Sunnis, represents a humanitarian and religious affront to the values Mr Erdogan claims to espouse. More cynically, as the uprising in Syria takes on an overtly sectarian colouring, thanks principally to the brutality of Alawite-dominated security services and military units, Ankara does not want to be on the losing side.

That Mr Erdogan has turned against Mr Al Assad is to his credit. Yet Turkey's worsening ties with Syria have also heightened tension with Damascus's ally Iran - which lately has also opposed Turkey's decision to host a Nato early-warning radar system. Iran and Turkey are vying for regional influence, so they are destined to clash many more times. Not surprisingly, this rivalry has affected Lebanon, where Turkey has invested in predominantly poor Sunni areas. Earlier this year Mr Davutoglu helped Qatar mediate in the Lebanese political crisis. Their efforts were thwarted by Hizbollah and Syria.

As Turkey gets caught up in the Middle East's contradictions, it can no longer seriously portray itself as being above the fray, on friendly terms with all. Words are cheap, and when Mr Erdogan hears praise he should be wary. No one will give Ankara a free ride in a region that cheerfully grinds down the self-assured.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Mikati may not be that dead after all

The electricity expansion project remains a substitute battlefield for the factions making up Lebanon’s government. On Wednesday, ministers named by Prime Minister Najib Mikati, Nabih Berri and Walid Jumblatt agreed to a demand from March 14 that forced their Aounist ministerial colleagues to swallow a bitter legislative pill.

As you might recall, the cabinet recently passed a draft electricity bill that was approved on Thursday by parliament. That draft included certain oversight measures—the introduction of a regulatory authority to supervise the sector, the naming of a new board for the electricity utility, and the adoption of a revised mechanism to consider bids. However, when the energy minister, Gebran Bassil, sent the draft law to parliament this week, those measures had been removed.

March 14 parliamentarians balked, demanding that the government resend the draft passed earlier by the council of ministers. Bassil and his Aounist partners replied that it was not up to the legislature to impose oversight conditions on the executive. However, they backtracked when Mikati, Jumblatt and Berri sided with March 14, accepting that Bassil should resubmit the original draft.

Some time ago I described Mikati as Lebanon’s very own dead man walking. To an extent I still believe that is true. The prime minister’s margin of maneuver on a variety of essential national issues remains very slim, not least Lebanese cooperation with the Special Tribunal for Lebanon. More ominously, Mikati continues to be a hostage to his community’s reservations about him. He has had to balance every decision because he is caught between Sunni outrage with Hezbollah and the Syrian repression on the one side, and his own alliance with the party and with President Bashar al-Assad on the other.

Economically, the prime minister is equally constrained. He faces a veritable minefield when it comes to macroeconomic reform. One might observe that the Hariri government didn’t greatly progress on that front either. However, Mikati presides over a government of “one color,” or so they say, therefore theoretically better apt to endorse a broad reform plan than an unwieldy government of national unity.

But one has to be fair. The shortcomings of Mikati’s government are not very different from those demonstrated by the government of Saad Hariri. Bearing in mind that no authority could have arrested the four Hezbollah suspects, the prime minister has sought as best he can to work with the STL, against the predictions of many, present company included, that he would toe Hezbollah’s line. Mikati has also refused to sanction retribution against the previous majority through political appointments, rebuffing Aoun’s demand that Ashraf Rifi and Wissam al-Hassan be removed at the Internal Security Forces.

Left largely unmentioned amid the discord within the government over the electricity expansion scheme is the core reason for the dispute: Mikati doubts Bassil’s integrity. A senior politician currently represented in the government told me months ago that Mikati did not want to return Bassil to the Energy Ministry, on the basis of disturbing information he had in his dossiers. Mikati was compelled to do so when the Syrians demanded that a government be formed quickly. A lack of trust alone explains why the compromise over the electricity plan involved breaking down payment into four installments and improving oversight and bidding methods.

The Aounists would complain that Berri and Jumblatt are hardly entitled to take the moral high ground against Bassil. However, Mikati has no reason to be defensive, and has fought hard when he needed to fight. Even on Lebanon’s funding of the STL, the prime minister has shown a readiness to go all the way. He has used Hezbollah’s and Aoun’s helplessness to bring the cabinet down (since Syria would say no) as leverage to push his agenda forward.

The maneuvering within the Mikati government is more interesting than initially forecast by March 14. It was plain early on that Berri and Jumblatt would work with Mikati to clip Aoun’s wings. Interestingly, Hezbollah has responded to this with some restraint. The party avoided leaning too heavily in Aoun’s direction on the electricity plan, and has not followed the general’s lead on appointments. Instead, Hezbollah is employing its power sparingly to protect its “red lines.” The party has embarrassed Mikati when it comes to the STL, but until now has also remained relatively quiet over funding, leading some to believe, perhaps naively, that a compromise will be found. 

The calculation of March 14 has been that Mikati is the weakest link in the government, therefore that he is the man the coalition must target. Maybe. The prime minister is indeed vulnerable to decisive shifts in the Sunni mood, and events in Syria remain unpredictable. However, Mikati has one advantage. Efforts to undermine him risk being interpreted by many Lebanese as just another way of undermining the country’s wellbeing, therefore their own. Mikati also happens to be in Lebanon and his rival, Hariri, abroad, which could be to the advantage of the prime minister in public opinion.

If Mikati is working to reinforce the authority of the state and to contain Lebanon’s growing economic problems, then it would be irresponsible not to support him. That is even more imperative if the situation in Syria deteriorates further. Whether March 14 likes it or not, in a potential struggle between the partisans of a sovereign state and Hezbollah to fill a possible post-Syria Lebanese vacuum, Mikati will be the man representing the state. And if his performance in recent weeks is anything to go by, he will do so with conviction.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Maronites pray to a dispiriting trinity

This week the Kuwaiti newspaper Al-Anbaa, citing sources at the Maronite patriarchate in Bkirki, reported that relations between France and Patriarch Beshara Rai had deteriorated. Rai apparently sought an apology from the French ambassador, Denis Pietton, for having declared last week that his government was “disappointed” with Rai’s recent comments in Paris, and would seek clarification.

If Pietton is spared a surplus of patriarchal masses, he may come out of the dispute a happy man. However, on Wednesday the ambassador visited Rai, suggesting that their disagreement had been contained. Yet it is extraordinary how Rai has made a splendid mess of things in just a few weeks, damaging his own reputation, and with it that of his church. The patriarch gains nothing by picking fights with foreign envoys who represent countries rather important for Lebanon.

Someone should remind Rai that France has a large contingent in UNIFIL, the United Nations force in southern Lebanon. It is well within Paris’ remit to ask for clarifications from the patriarch when the position he has taken on Hezbollah’s weapons – indicating that the party should hold on to them until the Arab-Israeli conflict ends – directly contradicts Security Council Resolutions 1559 and 1701.

Rai’s gaffes are a manifestation of a larger problem among Maronites. The community, through what is traditionally regarded as its three senior representatives – Rai, but also President Michel Sleiman and the army commander, Jean Kahwagi – has had pitifully little to add to the intellectual, spiritual, political, and communal revitalization of a state that Maronites played so large a role in creating and sustaining. The community is not alone in this shortcoming, but it can offer considerably more for holding the crucial balance between Sunnis and Shiites, who find themselves at profound odds over Lebanon’s future.

Ironically, the one individual who once tried his best to define a particular idea of Lebanon is former Maronite Patriarch Nasrallah Sfeir. Today, he finds himself routinely abused by followers of Michael Aoun and those pleased with Rai’s political innovations.

That Sfeir made his share of mistakes is undeniable. In the end he presided over a divided community, which sullied his reputation. However, he was always a reluctant political actor, unlike his successor, and it was inevitable that he would be sucked under by his fragmented flock. In the years when he stood alone against Syrian hegemony, with Samir Geagea in prison and Aoun in exile, Sfeir never wavered from a simple message: After a devastating 15-year war, Lebanon was entitled to genuine sovereignty – meaning that Syria had to withdraw its army from the country. And such a Lebanon could only survive through coexistence between its religious communities.

Sfeir’s critics would do well to recall that this vision ended up informing theirs. In the early postwar years when Aoun’s partisans were being beaten and arrested, they sought Sfeir’s protection and sanction – though they had humiliated the patriarch during their general’s failed campaign against the Lebanese Forces. Aoun and Geagea, who contributed more than anyone to the Christians’ ruin, still retain the loyalty of a majority in the community. But the old man who echoed an earlier generation of Maronites, for whom Lebanon personified communal self-confidence, achievement, and an often idealized form of transcendental appeal, now finds himself compared unfavorably to the careerist who followed him.

Rai has long tied his fate closely to that of Michel Sleiman, which should be a cause for nervousness. To borrow from Vernon Walters’ remarks about former U.N. Secretary-General Javier Perez de Cuellar, Sleiman is a man who couldn’t make waves if he fell out of a boat. There was high promise the day he was inaugurated, and that’s where the promise stayed. No one can say with a straight face that Sleiman has turned himself into a credible alternative to Aoun or Geagea. His influence among Maronites is anemic, and yet he has not succeeded in incarnating the state either – particularly for those in the Muslim communities. When confronted, he has consistently backed down, playing it safe and preserving his measured gains. As a friend once put it, Sleiman came to office with the ambition of being an ex-president, and it’s difficult to disagree with so decapitating a phrase.

As for Kahwagi, he is now in the throes of that great malady of army commanders: an expectation that he will become Lebanon’s next president. The stark measure of the Maronites’ political poverty these days is that when it is not their clergymen fiddling with politics, it is their soldiers. Since Emile Lahoud was selected in 1998, it seems the presidency is reserved for anyone wearing a cocked beret. And so we Lebanese for years have had to endure army commanders who have meticulously, almost seismographically, assessed prevailing power relationships in the country before taking their every decision – and who have relatively frequently faced the dilemma of having to choose between their own welfare and that of the institution they lead.

Absent from this triumvirate is any farsightedness as to the destiny of the Maronites. Rai still seeks to unify the community, with a meeting planned for this Friday in Bkirki, even as he has provoked the greatest internal upheaval that Maronites have experienced since Aoun and Geagea fought each other more than two decades ago. Sleiman is marching stalwartly toward a legacy whose greater part threatens to be inconsequence. And Kahwagi will remain a hostage to the house of many mansions that is Lebanon’s army – over which Hezbollah has inordinate influence, arousing the suspicion of Sunnis – incapable of transforming its battalions into the valid basis of a national project.

Maronites have the institutions, talent, and memory to reverse their community’s steady mediocrization. What they don’t have is the self-assurance required to reinvent themselves in the shadow of their demographic decline. Rai, Aoun, Sleiman, perhaps even Kahwagi, have adjusted to this decline by accommodating the view that their minority has a stake in allying itself with other minorities, no matter how repressive these may be. Such is the path to communal suicide.

Figureheads fall, but security forces are the test of change

When the time comes to gauge the democratic success or failure of this year's Arab uprisings, one criterion will be more important than most others: whether the instruments of repression of the old regimes - above all the security services, the army and the police - have been replaced by qualitatively different institutions that respect the rule of law, civilian oversight and human rights.

While much differentiates the revolts in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, Yemen and Syria, all have one thing in common in that protesters have sought, or are seeking, to overthrow authoritarian regimes backed up by networks of militarised intimidation. These vary from country to country, which is why organs of repression are often valuable, indeed essential, windows through which to examine a country's leadership, sociology and political culture.

In Libya, for example, the security services were in the hands of the Qaddafi family and their tribal allies. Favoured units of the Libyan army were controlled by the leader's sons and were designed to act as a praetorian guard, while other components of the armed forces were left to languish. A similar situation holds in Yemen, where family members of President Ali Abdullah Saleh are in charge of vital military and security branches responsible for regime survival.

In Syria, since the 1960s and 1970s, authority over the military and security agencies has reflected and sustained the rise of the minority Alawite community. At the same time, the Assad regime has used Alawite security and military appointments (like those in the Baath Party) to keep a headlock on the system, guarding against coups and uprisings, and as a source of communal patronage.

A different situation exists in Egypt, where the military and security agencies embody the timeless power of the state. When protesters demanded that President Hosni Mubarak leave office last January, the military command was able to engineer the removal of the man without hastening the collapse of the security edifice that he had supervised. Unlike Syria, Libya and Yemen, where a leader's departure means the departure of those who managed repression, in Egypt security institutions have remained more or less intact. Mr Mubarak was expendable, as was the former head of military intelligence, Gen Omar Suleiman. And they were expendable precisely to ensure the survival of the system they had dominated.

Central to the motives of those who have taken to the streets throughout the Arab world is an aspiration for freedom and democracy. However, the long-term health of the countries involved and the realisation of their revolutionary potential, will be defined by how repression is exercised after the autocrats. If one repressive order merely replaces another, then little will have been achieved.

What is happening in the societies that have rid themselves of oppressive leaders, or are trying to, is not necessarily encouraging. In Libya, tribalism, regionalism and the divide between Islamists and secularists (and the myriad splits within those categories) make for a devilish brew. The new order will be shaped by the de facto power balance as the war seemingly begins winding down. Who prevails could be determined by the tense interaction between the disparate elements in the transitional authority. This is not ideal for building up accountable security institutions.

In Egypt, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces has exploited the rifts within the ranks of those who opposed Mr Mubarak to assert its will. Recently, the council expanded the emergency powers introduced during the Mubarak years, representing a significant setback to the high expectations last January. Far from following the lead of the Egyptian government, the supreme council is calling the shots. The most organised opposition force, the Muslim Brotherhood, has also increasingly sided with the military as elections loom, probably in November. All this makes it considerably more difficult to reform, let alone overhaul, the vast Egyptian security apparatus.

In contrast, Syria's President Bashar Al Assad and his acolytes know there is no middle ground allowing their regime to change while also staying in place. This explains the ferocity with which the Alawite-dominated security services, praetorian divisions of the Syrian army, and irregular militias have crushed mostly peaceful demonstrations. They perceive the challenge to Assad rule as an existential threat to their community, an attitude the regime has hardened to quash all political alternatives. The question is: even if Mr Al Assad is ousted, the more this would this occur? A negotiated exit will more likely facilitate a process placing the security apparatus under civilian authority than if the Assads are removed through violence.

Stalemate in Syria, or in Yemen and in Bahrain, where the standoff of several months ago has not been resolved, is upheld by built-in mechanisms of equilibrium. It is a truism that armed deterrence in most Arab states is primarily directed inward. Arab armies and security services rarely win foreign wars, but until recently they were quite adept at stifling domestic discontent. The regimes did this by balancing interests and patronage, blending coercion with co-optation, neutralising political or social forces apt to undermine the status quo, and securing regional acquiescence for their policies.

Some observers prefer to use the term "Arab revolutions" over "Arab Spring" when describing the transformations in the Middle East and North Africa today. But revolutions frequently devour their own, substituting fresh oppressive orders for those that existed before. Overcoming that foul predisposition will be the benchmark of success in a new Arab world, not vague rhetoric about the allures of liberty.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Jumblatt’s Sunni disposition

To write that Walid Jumblatt is shifting political direction is a conspicuous waste of perfectly good words. Changeability, we know, is par for the course with the Druze leader. And Jumblatt’s acrobatics, particularly his efforts to curry favor with a Sunni community from which he has been alienated for months, were always expected.

Jumblatt’s most recent foray into defending the Sunnis was his response to Patriarch Bechara al-Rai, who publicly warned last week that the Muslim Brotherhood might win out in Syria if the regime of President Bashar al-Assad were to fall. Jumblatt described Rai’s statement as “inaccurate,” and was rewarded with condemnation from the patriarch’s partisans. Jumblatt was right, but to compensate for his disapproval and preserve good relations with the Maronites, he prepared a warm Druze welcome for Rai on his tour of the North Metn and the Chouf, and will reportedly visit the patriarch soon.

There are two principal reasons why Jumblatt cannot endure lasting Sunni resentment: Lebanese parliamentary elections and the Druze leader’s view of the long-term interests of his community.

Jumblatt’s influence is closely tied in to the size of his bloc in parliament. The Druze leader knows well that his political representation is exaggerated, given his community’s scant numbers. What lets Jumblatt punch above his weight is the current election law, which allows him to dominate in the Chouf and Aley districts, and at one time gave him a significant say in Baabda. However, in the Chouf Sunnis form a third of the electorate (with the Druze and Maronites each making up a third), and in 2009 they were numerically the largest single voting bloc. For Jumblatt to have his way in the district, since he can never be sure of how the recalcitrant Christians will lean, he must guarantee that Sunnis stay on his side.

That’s not all. Two of Jumblatt’s closest Druze collaborators, the parliamentarians and ministers Ghazi al-Aridi and Wael Abu Faour, were essentially elected in 2009 on Sunni-dominated lists backed by Saad al-Hariri: Aridi in Beirut and Abu Faour in the West Bekaa. Were Jumblatt to enter the 2013 elections on bad terms with Hariri and the Sunnis, the pair would almost certainly fail to be re-elected, representing a major setback for the Druze leader.

In parallel, between now and election time expect Jumblatt to lead efforts to undermine an election law based on proportionality. Such a law would threaten the Druze leader’s tight hold on the mountains. Nor will he be alone. Lebanese election laws grant winning candidate lists all the seats in voting districts. This system favors major politicians and factions—who in turn perpetuate the system.

Beyond elections, however, Jumblatt has long regarded it a strategic necessity for the Druze to be allied with the Sunnis in Lebanon and outside. Quite sensibly, he has grasped that a minority like his only gains by tying itself to the community forming a majority in the Arab world. This partly explains Jumblatt’s reflexive recourse to Arab nationalist symbolism, but also his persistent efforts to situate his actions, when possible, in the context of an Arab consensus. During the postwar period, and until 2004, he managed to maneuver with ease because Saudi Arabia and Syria, and with them most Arab states, were on the same wavelength in Lebanon.

More prosaically, Jumblatt is well aware that a close affiliation with the Sunnis opens doors to Saudi Arabia and the vast resources allowing the Druze leader to exercise his power of patronage. Jumblatt sounded appropriately glum earlier this year when he announced that the Saudis had severed their ties with him following his break with Saad al-Hariri. That was indeed costly—and yet Jumblatt had positioned himself at the crossroads of a Syrian-Saudi deal to neutralize the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, urging Hariri to endorse such an arrangement. In the end it was to no avail.

For now Jumblatt is inching closer to the Sunnis, but he’s not there yet. He faces several obstacles. The first is that Syria and Hezbollah are not pleased with his realignment, so that his relations with both have noticeably cooled. However, the Druze leader will not permit a full-fledged divorce. The notion that he will return to March 14 seems almost absurd. Jumblatt aims to mend fences with Hariri specifically, but he has no interest in fully reintegrating a cumbersome coalition that would limit his latitude to pursue his own agenda.

Moreover, Jumblatt holds the balance of power in parliament. He can hand the majority either to March 14 or to Hezbollah and the Aounists depending on how his bloc votes. The Druze leader will not soon surrender such leverage, which requires him to play March 14 and the Hezbollah-Aoun alliance off against one another.

A second obstacle for Jumblatt is the uncertainty surrounding Saad al-Hariri’s intentions. Rumors have been swirling about the former prime minister’s political future, his cash flow problems and even his relations with Saudi Arabia. Whatever the truth, Hariri has been perplexingly absent for months, probably because the Saudis don’t want him in Beirut during the Syrian uprising. This makes planning difficult for his allies—and for Jumblatt, who needs to discern better where Hariri stands before preparing his next move.

It’s a sign of how bad things are in Syria that Walid Jumblatt is slipping out from the Assads’ embrace while still relatively confident that he is not a top priority for assassination. Nonetheless, the Druze leader must be careful. The Assads don’t forgive or forget. Jumblatt will pursue his balancing act with the precipice rarely far away.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Lebanon’s troublesome political priest

If reverse had multiple gears, Beshara Rai would be shifting into fourth about now. Since his return from France last weekend, the Maronite patriarch has tried to qualify what he said during his trip, while blaming everyone but himself for his irresponsible statements. With bad grace (pun intended), on Tuesday Rai declared that his remarks had been taken out of context, probably intentionally.

Here was a useful insight into the man – a readiness to resort to self-pity and demagoguery when cornered. In recent days Rai and his bishops have said much that is incoherent to detract from the patriarch’s endorsement of the Assad regime, his implicit willingness to accept Hezbollah’s weapons until the Palestinian issue is resolved, and his fear that if the Syrian opposition were to win, this would profit Sunni Islamists. We’ve been told that Rai was misunderstood; that the partial rendition of his words did not reflect his real views; that the Maronite Church’s decisions are taken after deep reflection, unlike the superficiality of those criticizing the patriarch, and so on.

Perhaps Rai was misunderstood, but if so, he was misunderstood by those on all sides of the political spectrum. The followers of Michel Aoun and Sleiman Franjieh have rushed to the patriarch’s defense, as have members of Hezbollah. What can we conclude from this ecclesiastical mess, beyond its immediate political ramifications?

Rai’s problems greatly transcend the split between March 14 and March 8 and the Aounists. The patriarch did alienate the supporters of March 14, but in that sense he was only as guilty as his predecessor, Patriarch Nasrallah Sfeir, who took positions that clearly leaned toward those of March 14. True, Sfeir’s opinions were more attuned to the traditional outlook of the Maronite Church – its support for national sovereignty, its rejection of armed groups outside the control of the state, and, specifically, its hostility to Syrian hegemony over Lebanon. But it is equally true that before stepping down, Sfeir presided over a hopelessly divided community, and that this was a black mark against him as far as the Vatican was concerned.

Then again, Rai took only six months to wreak havoc. For those without strong political affiliations, the patriarch sinned in three ways. He foolishly and unnecessarily split the Maronites, when one of his principal duties is to unify them; he gratuitously insulted the Sunnis by presuming that all they could produce was Islamists; and he implicated his community in a foreign crisis when he was under no obligation to do so. Worse, he placed Maronites on the side of a Syrian regime that has been engaged in barbaric repression.

It is astonishing that Rai could not have foreseen where his comments would lead. The patriarch is notoriously verbose, and plainly prefers his politics to religion. However, surveying the wreckage of the last few days, we can conclude that he is really not particularly good at politics. Rai was reportedly told by French President Nicolas Sarkozy that President Bashar Assad is finished, therefore that Rai had to prepare Christians for the aftermath. That the patriarch persisted in bolstering the Assads after that exchange was a sign of hubris from a denizen of the sacristy who yearns for the governor’s chair.

Some outraged Maronites are seeking to persuade Rome to push for Rai’s resignation. That’s no solution. It would only throw the Maronite Church into disarray while resolving none of its outstanding problems. And who would replace the patriarch? The upper echelons of the clergy form a vale of mediocrity and moral wretchedness. Rai may be contentious, but he’s better than most of his bishops – as condensed a compilation of shifty characters as one is likely to uncover.

Instead, Rome must press Rai to play less politics and reform his institution. The Maronite Church is being torn apart by greed and petty factionalism. What it needs urgently is an injection of less politicized, credible, younger clergy to replace the gargoyles in office. If Rai and his acolytes looked closely, they would see that while Maronites will go through the motions of their religion and fiercely defend its traditions, when one digs deeper, they also have profound contempt for the corruptions of their higher clerics. The alacrity with which many of Rai’s coreligionists turned against him was a sign that the church does not enjoy unlimited credit among the faithful.

If the patriarch wants to rebuild his reputation, the only way for him to do so is to convince believers that he can rejuvenate their church. That means giving Maronites confidence in the future rather than playing on their fears of political and demographic decline. It means thinking in the long term how the community can coexist peacefully with both Sunnis and Shiites, not one or the other. It means ensuring that the vast network of institutions that the church controls – schools, universities, social institutions, sporting clubs and much more – serves those ends. And it means defending pluralism, liberty, democracy and openness, for only a society imbued with such rights and values can safeguard the Christian presence in Lebanon.

For believers, and even unbelievers, a church that sustains a butcher is a contradiction. What kind of sordid religious establishment is it that takes the side of a despot against his own people? How can Rai pontificate about Christian love and communion, then with a straight face warn of the potential dangers if the Assads are removed? If he’s unsure, then the patriarch has the option of remaining silent. Rai mentioned the fate of Iraq’s Christians as a path to be avoided by Maronites. Unfortunately, that community is suffering today precisely because it was identified with Saddam Hussein’s brutality. Is that the outcome Rai seeks for Syria’s Christians, or Lebanon’s?

Beshara Rai would do himself and us all an immense favor by pausing, taking a break from politics, and exploiting his ubiquity by reconnecting with, and listening to, his Maronite base. Maronites expect more from their church than a patriarch who divides them and bishops who despoil them. In this time of uncertainty, the church, for better or worse, has a role to play in communal renewal. Rai may not be the best man to lead that effort, but it’s his job to begin trying.

Arab League's indecision in Syria is a chronic condition

It showed the lack of esteem that Syria's President Bashar Al Assad has for the Arab League that he initially postponed the visit of the body's secretary general, Nabil El Arabi, to Damascus before the two men met last Saturday. And the Arab League's dwindling confidence in itself was revealed in the initiative Mr El Arabi brought with him that remains wrapped in ambiguity.

This is hardly surprising. For months the Arab League was silent about events in Syria, even as the death toll was rising. Nor have Arab governments been duped by the official line of the Syrian regime that what is occurring is an insurgency by armed groups. Several weeks ago, in a move condemned by Damascus since it implicitly cast doubt on its depiction of the crisis, the Arab League issued a statement calling for an end to the bloodshed in Syria.

Arab ambivalence was again on display after the Assad-Arabi meeting. The secretary general declared that the Arab League had proposed to take a prominent role in national reconciliation talks between the government and the opposition. This bolstered Mr Al Assad's purported endeavour to initiate internal dialogue. However, it also placed the opposition on the same level as the regime, while edging the Arab states into a process that Mr Al Assad wants to control alone.

Mr El Arabi also took the Syrian regime's side by expressing the Arab League's rejection of "outside intervention" in Syrian affairs. However, upon returning to Cairo, the secretary general issued a strong statement saying that he had transmitted the League's desire that "immediate steps" be taken to end the violence - a demand that Arab foreign ministers reiterated on Tuesday - and for "guarantees [allowing] a transfer that will achieve the aspirations of the Syrian people for change and reform and protection".

For now, words are about all Mr El Arabi has to achieve his aims. The continuing upheavals in the Arab world have crippled the Arab League's effectiveness, never great in the first place. In recent years Arab summits have mainly been bad-tempered talk shops. Major challenges such as the Iraq conflict, the Lebanese crisis, Palestinian-Israeli relations, and the convulsions in Sudan and Somalia, to list only a few, have underscored collective Arab failures.

And yet it hasn't always been sound and fury signifying nothing. In rare moments, Arab states have been able to take far-reaching decisions. For example, in 2002, at an Arab summit in Beirut, Arab heads of state passed what became known as the Arab Peace Initiative - to this day an even-handed foundation for negotiations to end the Arab-Israeli conflict. The initiative was re-endorsed at the 2007 Riyadh summit, after which the Egyptian and Jordanian foreign ministers travelled to Israel to persuade officials to take the offer seriously. The Israelis never did, a mistake that has only helped exacerbate the country's political isolation internationally.

Much earlier, at the Fez summit of 1982, Arab states had shown a willingness to be conciliatory. Despite a recent war in Lebanon, they endorsed the Fahd Plan at the request of the Reagan administration. The initiative was subsequently surpassed by more ambitious ones, yet it did support United Nations Security Council "guarantees of peace between all states of the region", by which it also meant Israel.

At summits in Riyadh and Cairo in 1976, the Arab states wrestled with the ruinous civil war in Lebanon. The two gatherings, held at an interval of almost two weeks, mandated the deployment of an Arab Deterrence Force to put an end to the Lebanese fighting. In the short term this curtailed the violence, even if the ADF soon became a cover for Syrian hegemony, laying the groundwork for new hostilities.

The Arab League's influence has always been a function of what is known in regional jargon as the "the politics of Arab axes" - the ebb and flow of rivalry between the region's major states and their allies. At the same time, the organisation's secretariat has been a defining instrument of Egyptian foreign policy - of the League's seven secretary generals, only one, Chedli Klibi, was not Egyptian. At the end of the Cold War, the Arab League was shaped principally by the interaction between Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Syria. The three states emerged victorious from the 1991 war over Kuwait, their policies in broad harmony with the interests of the United States, the dominant superpower.

As a result, throughout the 1990s and until 9/11 there was relative consensus among the Arab countries. Syria received an Arab green light to rule over Lebanon, and enjoyed Arab approval as it negotiated with Israel. Egypt became the obligatory Arab mediator between Arabs and Israelis, while benefiting from Washington's largesse. And Saudi Arabia felt secure thanks to the American security umbrella protecting the kingdom, the containment of Iraq, Arab-Israeli peace talks and the stability this brought to the Gulf and the Levant.

The comparative tranquillity was swept away by the American invasion of Iraq in 2003. The invasion, Iran's growing sway in Baghdad and regionally, the aftershocks of Syria's involuntary withdrawal from Lebanon, Tehran's and Damascus' rising leverage over Palestinian affairs through Hamas, America's drawdown in the Middle East, and more undermined the equilibrium. The ensuing divisions had not been overcome when popular revolts this year further shattered the hitherto unshakable pillars of Arab immovability.

Sympathise with Mr El Arabi. If he speaks for Arab unanimity, then expect only whispers. Syria is a predicament, among others, in which the secretary general's margin of manoeuvre is narrow. The Arab League is adrift because so too is the Arab world. But more refreshing, the organisation, customarily a temple of regional stalemate, is now compelled to reinvent itself. Otherwise it risks lasting irrelevance.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Patriarch Rai, you’re wrong

Perhaps I’m alone, but in recent months almost no significant remark from Maronite Patriarch Bechara Rai has failed to disappoint me.

Rai’s first priority always was to renew the Maronite Church, and no doubt he deserves more time to carry forward such a thorny project. The patriarch has certainly seemed more lively to his coreligionists than his predecessor, thanks to his energy and ubiquity. But he has also tended to pronounce far too much, especially on Lebanon’s public affairs, betraying a profound yearning to be a political player.

Soon after taking office in March, Rai announced that he intended to travel to Syria. In that way he hoped to signal a clean break with Patriarch Nasrallah Sfeir. However, he didn’t have to take such a hasty step, one soon made irrelevant by the outbreak of the Syrian intifada, when he had more urgent priorities at home. It looked like the patriarch was currying favor with Damascus, and nothing that Rai has done since then has shown this interpretation to be false.

More disturbing, in May the patriarch made an ill-advised statement on the Taif Accord. After meeting an Aounist parliamentarian, Neematallah Abi Nasr, Rai observed that the Taif “has flaws and needs to be reformed.” He went on to insist that the powers of the president should 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,” he declared.

Evidently, it didn’t occur to the patriarch that before Taif can be reformed, the accord needs to be implemented in full, otherwise its amendment will appear selective. And for it to be implemented in full requires ending sectarian quotas in parliament, therefore the 50-50 ratio of Christians to Muslims. In condemning Taif, all Rai did was articulate Christian, particularly Maronite, resentment toward the current state of confessional affairs in Lebanon. He would be much more useful injecting self-confidence into his flock and finding ways for Christians to reach a mutually advantageous modus vivendi with the Muslim majority, in that way arresting their demographic decline.

This week Rai blundered again, with perfectly reckless comments on the uprising in Syria, offered up in separate contexts. The cycle started when the patriarch, deploying high ecclesiastical ambiguity while on a visit to Paris, wondered in a France 24 interview, “Are we heading in Syria toward a Sunni-Alawite civil war? This, then, is a genocide and not democracy and reform. Are we heading toward a division of Syria into sectarian mini-states?” Rai then warned the French, “What we are asking of the international community and France is not to rush into resolutions that strive to change regimes.”

The essence of the message was relatively clear. Rai fears for Syria’s Christians, who have been well treated under the Alawite-dominated regime of Bashar al-Assad, therefore it is best for everyone to think twice before pushing for the Syrian president’s removal. But what did Rai mean by “genocide”? Genocide by whom? Of whom? If he was warning in absolute terms against the consequence of civil war, then it’s true that such a catastrophe would lead to horrifying bloodshed, which may well resemble a genocide of all Syrians.

However, that interpretation merits two responses. Until now it is principally the Assad regime that has brought together all the ingredients that may plunge Syria into civil war, not the opposition, which by and large has stuck to its strategy of peaceful protest. It is also the regime that, if its authority begins slipping, will consider reverting to a strategy of establishing an Alawite mini-state to guarantee its survival. In other words, maintaining the Assads in power is likely to trigger the very consequences that Rai fears most.

Secondly, when Rai mentions “genocide,” are we sure that deep down he actually means a genocide of all Syrians—Alawites, Sunnis, Christians, Druze and what have you? Genocide usually involves a specific ethnic group, and even if the patriarch might defend himself by saying that he’s worried for everyone, the tortuous structure of his phrasing, his resort to a sectarian argument, suggests a more focused anxiety. What appears mainly to alarm Rai—quite understandably, if narrowly—is that war in Syria may lead to a Christian genocide. After all, who do patriarchs ever lose sleep over but their own?

According to a tweet by Antoine Haddad of the Democratic Renewal Movement, in his meeting with Rai, French President Nicolas Sarkozy cautioned that Bashar al-Assad was finished and that Christians had to prepare for such an outcome and work toward the establishment of a civil state. If that exchange indeed took place, it reveals French impatience with the patriarch, and it is also excellent advice.

A Lebanese cleric has no business publicly telling the international community how it must address the Syrian situation. It is even less Rai’s business to implicitly take the side of a despot against his own people—a people that the Assads and their security organs have been slaughtering for months. No need to mention Christian doctrine here and the injunction against killing, because the patriarch apparently operates on an elevated plane of strategic contemplation. And it is not Rai’s business to send a message to those protesting in Syria that Christians and their religious representatives sympathize with the tyrant—let alone to commit all Maronites to such a controversial stance—because if anything will harm the future Christian presence in Syria if the Assads fall, and in Lebanon, it is such a perception.

For the Christians to survive in the Middle East, they must be on the side of democracy, human rights and the rule of law. Only democracy and genuinely civil orders, to borrow from Sarkozy, can truly protect them—not a sordid game of alliances with other minorities, particularly repressive minorities. Bolstering butchers will spell the end for the Christians, and Bechara Rai should know that by now.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Kamal Salibi, crossroads to the man

In 2009, at the death of David Dodge, a former president of the American University of Beirut, I wrote that one might be tempted to portray his passing as a page turned in the American educational and moral enterprise in the Middle East, which began during the mid-19th century. However, I disagreed with such an assessment. To me, the page was turned when Malcolm Kerr, another AUB president, was assassinated in January 1984. That dark moment more truly marked the end of a dialogue between Western humanism and the culture of the Arab world, mediated by optimistic Yankee Protestants.

But I hadn’t yet met Kamal Salibi. His death last week at the age of 82 represented a new closing chapter in Beirut’s declining relationship with the objective rationalism and confidence that AUB’s founders sought to instill, which found its highest expression in that complex, contradictory Anglican of Greek Orthodox origin from the mountain town of Bhamdoun. For those fortunate enough to have met Salibi, what shone through was a Protestant ideal: modesty, invariably more pronounced for contrasting with Lebanese grandiloquence.

I met Salibi late in his life, through a mutual friend, a protege and student of his named Makram Rabah. Salibi’s Ras Beirut apartment was functional, a nice painting here and there, but otherwise without superfluities, a time machine of sorts back to the 1960s. At the appropriate moment, it was the end of the day, he served scotch, enjoying his momentary release to vice. His latest discovery was Facebook, affirming that Salibi, though he did not go out at night, was the most sociable of men. Yet he could readily turn a decapitating phrase against those he disliked, or an insightful compliment, when required.

I hadn’t read all of Salibi’s books when meeting him, but somehow he didn’t make you feel that this mattered. However, his “The Modern History of Lebanon” had long been a valuable companion in my research, as had his “Crossroads to Civil War: Lebanon 1958-1976,” even though the work was soon overwhelmed by the monumental conflict whose origins it aspired to chronicle. However, it was “A House of Many Mansions: The History of Lebanon Reconsidered” that has proven to be Salibi’s most influential book, and rightly so.

The essence of the book is modesty, and I would add Protestant modesty. That’s because Salibi approaches his subject from the standpoint of an individual belonging to a minority maneuvering among more forceful, numerically larger minorities. A friend once noted, citing the sociologist Ahmad Beydoun, that the better historians of Lebanon were those from marginal religious sects, including Salibi, but also Edmond Rabbath and Zein Zein, who could take their distance from a narrative shaped principally by Maronites and Sunnis during the years when modern Lebanon was finding its feet.

“A House of Many Mansions” is a product of modesty because it is constructed around the most modest of urges: to doubt. Salibi’s mission is to examine critically the contending views of Lebanese history – essentially the historical myths that Lebanon’s communities have adopted to assert their own prevailing ideologies against the other Lebanese communities. It is a subtle, devastating book, fundamentally out of joint with what so many Lebanese take as truth.

The German political scientist Theodor Hanf astutely remarked near the end of Lebanon’s war that “A House of Many Mansions” could potentially serve as a core post-war reference for Lebanese students, a unifying text in a country deeply divided by historical interpretation. Yet that quality is why Salibi’s book was never made, and never will be made, to serve such a worthy objective. Lebanon is not a country where communities are partial to the truth when it clashes with their self-image, let alone with tradition perpetuating a stalemate in power.

That could be one explanation for Salibi’s intriguing love-hate relationship with the Maronites. In one sense, he was doubly predisposed and indisposed toward the Maronites. Predisposed as a historian, for he could not avoid being fascinated by a community whose rise in the 19th and 20th centuries was, in many respects, that of Lebanon itself – a community that became the life-force of the modern Lebanese state; and predisposed as a Protestant, and through his ancestors as a Greek Orthodox, for Salibi could not help but be enthralled by Maronite affirmation as a stand-in for wider Christian affirmation, therefore partly Protestant affirmation, which his own minority within a minority could never replicate.

And yet fascination can also carry with it revulsion. Salibi was conceivably doubly indisposed to the Maronites from his vantage point as a Protestant and a Greek Orthodox, for what is the story of the weaker Christian sects than a yearning to strike back against what they deem to be Maronite hegemony? So that even as Salibi wrote about the Maronites, and published a monograph on their historians, his most potent weapon against the weight of Maronite historiography (and not only Maronite historiography) was skepticism, expressed through a reconsideration of Lebanese history.

Toward the end Salibi seemed torn between despair with what he identified as a Christian, and specifically a Maronite, impulse for self-destruction, and anxiety with how such communal suicide might adversely affect the Christian presence in the Arab world. In an interview with Now Lebanon in 2007, he lamented that Christians “are so bent on destroying themselves … [I]t seems that they enjoy the lack of charity more than they enjoy life for some reason.”

Now here was a forgotten word: charity. Charity, modesty, temperance, diligence, all virtues that this unique professor had learned from those sturdy American Protestants of yesteryear, in whose educational institution he had thrived, now erected by Salibi as barriers against a Lebanon, in particular a Christian Lebanon, that seemed to be going in a different direction than what he would have preferred. But this Christian Lebanon, concurrently attractive and repulsive, vital and reckless, was a profound part of Kamal Salibi, a man of myriad personalities, a house of many mansions.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Sleeping with the killers

On Wednesday, Al-Jazeera English broadcast an interesting report based on documents discovered at the headquarters of Libya’s intelligence services. The documents allegedly show that a former US State Department official, David Welch, and a US congressman, Dennis Kucinich, tried to help the Libyan regime at the height of the NATO military campaign in which Washington played a major role.

Welch is said to have proffered advice to Libyan interlocutors in Cairo on how the Qaddafi regime might win the propaganda war against NATO—in part by providing information to the United States on Al-Qaeda. He also purportedly proposed that Moammar al-Qaddafi step aside without relinquishing all power. Kucinich supposedly asked for information allowing him to lobby fellow members of Congress to suspend their support for the Libyan National Transitional Council and end NATO air strikes. More egregiously, Kucinich also sought information that would both help in the defense of Seif al-Islam Qaddafi if he were brought before the International Criminal Court and permit a lawsuit against NATO and the United States.

The veracity of the documents remains to be proven. Kucinich issued a statement to The Atlantic magazine’s website that passed for a denial. However, read it more carefully and you’ll see that its wording and elisions appear to lend some credence to the accusation. At the time of this writing, Welch, now employed by the Bechtel Corporation, had not responded to Al-Jazeera requests for clarification.

If the documents are truthful, then what is surprising is that we should be surprised. The two Americans may have taken a position in contradiction with the policies of the Obama administration. However, Welch is a private citizen (even if what he may have said could raise legal issues in the United States) and Kucinich opposed Washington’s line on Libya from the start. The stronger argument against their actions is the moral one. Why were the men explicitly or implicitly cozying up to an absolute ruler who had promised to hunt down his opponents like rats and murder them? Unfortunately, Welch and Kucinich may have too ready an answer.

Their answer would probably be that everybody in the West at one time or another was hungry for a piece of Libyan largesse, political and financial, including senior officials in the United States and Europe. That Welch and Kucinich, relatively small fry in the decades-long minuet with Libya, may have done so after the start of the revolt in Libya is virtually matched in its odiousness by Western companies such as Narus, Amesys or VASTech. These companies provided the Qaddafi regime with equipment and training to eavesdrop on the Internet and mobile telephone conversations of ordinary Libyans.

Not so long ago, Qaddafi was loudly feted in Western capitals. American government officials pursued him with almost as much assiduity as their European counterparts. Libyan money and oil contracts were heady incentives, but also the perception that the Qaddafi regime was a valuable ally in the battle against Al-Qaeda. The sense of urgency in the United Kingdom a few years ago to resolve the case of Abdel-Baset al-Megrahi, the accused Lockerbie bomber, was one example of a sympathetic disposition. Qaddafi and his mad brood were just as generously pampered and humored in Paris and Rome.

Strangely, less affluent Arab autocrats also had oversized leverage in Western capitals. Do we really need to mention the warm receptions reserved for Bashar al-Assad on his visits to France or Spain, for instance, even though the Syrian president’s security services continued to engage in massive repression at home, and Damascus was then inciting violence in neighboring Iraq and Lebanon. Syria’s export of instability seemed to work especially well when Barack Obama advocated a dialogue with Assad upon taking office, hoping this would ease the way toward a negotiated settlement with Israel.

Arab despots, from the Gulf States to North Africa, have grown adept at playing foreign politicians or companies against one another. If a company refuses to deal with a foul regime on the grounds that it abuses human rights, others will pick up the slack. The same applies in politics. There is always a leader willing to fill the vacuum of relations with a dictatorship when this can bring strategic advantage.

Certain benchmarks will help us determine the success of the Arab intifadas, and shame is one of them. If foreign officials and companies, particularly from Western countries where democracy and human rights carry weight, can be shamed into taking a stand against autocrats, this will mean that something has been gained. Such conduct will be imperfectly applied and provoke rancor among those who refuse to let pass political and economic opportunities. But politicians and firms who get into bed with autocrats should at least be forced to do so out in the open, in the glare of ignominy.

Shame still packs a punch. Remember that fawning Vogue photo shoot of Asma al-Assad, wife to the Syrian president? It was greased by the international public relations firm Brown Lloyd James. But when Mr. Assad began slaughtering his own people, the magazine was self-conscious enough to take the piece down. Click here to enjoy the outcome of embarrassment in pursuing tainted riches.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

A familiar road to nowhere as good intentions falter in Syria

In his influential book Deliver Us From Evil, published in 2000, the British author William Shawcross chronicled the frequent disconnect between the ambitions of the international community to resolve political and humanitarian crises in the 1990s and the shortcomings of implementation. From Cambodia to Bosnia to Somalia to Rwanda and beyond, prominent states acting through the United Nations often promised too much and did too little.

In Syria, both the Arab world and the broader international community have promised little and, until recently, done even less. For five months the regime of President Bashar Al Assad has been slaughtering its population at will, with over 2,000 people said to have been killed, although the figure does not include the disappeared who are feared dead. Many thousands more have been arrested. The UN's Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights recently observed that a fact-finding mission had "found a pattern of human rights violations that constitutes widespread or systematic attacks against the civilian population, which may amount to crimes against humanity" under the statute of the International Criminal Court.

Despite this, only last weekend did the Arab League criticise Damascus. The organisation issued a statement calling for an end to the bloodshed, and then announced that its secretary general, Nabil Al Arabi, would meet Mr Al Assad and discuss an Arab initiative, whose details were not revealed. Syria's delegate reacted furiously to the statement, which apparently had not been agreed beforehand, saying his government would behave as if it never had taken place.

Syria's isolation is growing. Turkey's president, Abdullah Gul, remarked at the weekend that his government had "lost confidence" in the Assad regime. Even stalwart Syrian allies Iran and Hizbollah have advised Mr Al Assad to consider his people's demands. However, for months the United Nations Security Council has failed to agree to a resolution on Syria because of Russian and Chinese opposition. Moscow is now drafting a text of its own, largely because its position has become untenable amid the bloodletting. However, the Russians also hope to offset a stronger resolution that the Europeans and Americans have been preparing that imposes sanctions on Syria.

Syria is a black mark on international integrity and foresight. Whether by action or omission, Arab countries, Turkey, the United States and European powers all handed Mr Al Assad the latitude he needed to crush the revolt. Only when he could not do so did we hear rumbles of discontent, accompanied by further dallying. The Turkish government, which is reluctant to push too hard because of fears of a Syrian vacuum, recently gave Mr Al Assad valuable additional time to effect reforms; he pursued his repression. Washington remains wary of Syria, preferring to allow the Arabs and Turkey to take the lead. The Russians have just issued a two-week extension to Mr Al Assad to introduce change. Expect more death, arrests and disillusionment.

Shawcross described how extensively crises during the 1990s reduced the vigour with which states managed subsequent crises, stretching the limited resources of the UN. The conflict in Libya, like the convulsions in other Arab countries, prompted many governments to steer clear of involvement in Syria. However, it was always plain that the carnage could have dire repercussions on the Middle East if not dealt with at the right moment. That's why Arab and international concern with Syria today may be too little too late.

There never was a doubt that the Assad regime would respond to the Syrian intifada by employing sectarian reflexes. Whatever the laudable goals of the multi-sectarian opposition, Syria's leadership from the start saw the demonstrations as a threat to Alawite primacy, and conducted itself accordingly. For instance, when countering the protests in Deraa last March, the Assads swiftly deployed praetorian units under the control of Maher Al Assad, the president's brother.

To many Alawites, what is taking place is a zero-sum game. For a minority that has ruled Syria since 1966 - and with an even harsher hand since 1970 - Alawite domination is not something over which there can be compromise. If those in the streets triumph, Mr Al Assad and his loyalists know, they will dismantle the current structure of power. Alawites view the intifada in existential terms, blind to the fact that their ferocity only threatens their community's existence more.

There was no excuse for outside actors to ignore how such dynamics might destabilise Syria's neighbours. Turkey, Iraq and Lebanon all have mixed ethnic-religious societies. The violence visited on Syrians by the Assads has the potential to bring on sectarian civil war that spreads beyond the country's borders, undermining communal relations elsewhere. If that does not pose a threat to international peace and security, nothing does. And yet the Arab League, the United Nations, the United States and the Europeans have all failed to devise a political plan to bring about a peaceful transition in Damascus.

The silence surrounding the Arab proposal, as well as the haste with which it was put together, are worrisome. At the best of times the Arab League is a futile body. With Mr Al Assad having lost all legitimacy and the near impossibility that Syria will return to where it was six months ago, there is no alternative to the president's exit. However, Arab regimes, sturdy agents of sovereignty, are by tradition hostile to backing changes of leadership. Yet unless this happens, the situation in Syria will fester and prospects for a generalised conflict will rise.

That the situation in Syria is taking centre stage in regional anxieties is a good thing. But it may not be enough. Having waited for too long to act, without a cohesive strategy, and divided by clashing agendas, foreign actors are ill placed to contain the Syrian emergency. That means more devastation until the rotting fruit of Assad rule falls.