Friday, December 28, 2012

Persona non grata in Beirut

The sudden departure from Beirut of the Syrian interior minister, Mohammad al-Shaar, was a sign of how much has changed in the Syrian-Lebanese relationship. Shaar allegedly took to the skies after being warned by the Lebanese that Interpol might issue an arrest warrant for him, and that Lebanon would have to implement it.

Shaar was brought to town after he was injured in a bomb explosion at the Interior Ministry in Damascus. According to physicians familiar with his case, he mainly suffered burns, but nothing that warranted an extended stay in the Lebanese capital.

The Shaar episode tells us a great deal about what the Assad regime has lost in Lebanon in the past eight years, since the withdrawal of the Syrian army in April 2005. It comes after a Lebanese indictment was issued against the pro-Syrian Lebanese former minister Michel Samaha and against Ali Mamlouk, a senior Syrian security official. But the Shaar incident tells us more. It shows that when the Lebanese face international demands, they will respect them, regardless of how this may damage Beirut’s ties with countries in the Middle East.

Of course, there are limits. The Special Tribunal for Lebanon has requested, to no avail, that four Hezbollah operatives be taken into custody for their alleged participation in the assassination of Rafiq Hariri, the former prime minister. However, this only affirms that Syria doesn’t have the same pull in Lebanon that it once had, with Shaar standing out in grim contrast to the Hezbollah suspects.

If Lebanon no longer represents a fallback refuge for Bashar al-Assad’s entourage, especially those who have led the vicious repression at home, then what is its ultimate value for the Syrian regime? Lebanon always served as a convenient extension of Syria, a place where Syrian officials could do as they pleased, and where the risk and blame was invariably pushed onto the Lebanese.

This is particularly true of the welfare of the Assad regime’s financial assets, which has been threatened by the imposition of sanctions on Syrian officials, as well as by other pressures from Western countries. The fear among Lebanese banks that they may be punished for acting on behalf of Syrian regime figures is the financial side of international retaliation against the repression in Syria, of which Shaar’s potential arrest would have represented the human rights side.

Among those who will be watching the aftermath of Shaar’s escape is the Syrian ambassador to Lebanon, Ali Abdel Karim Ali. The ambassador was sanctioned by the US Treasury Department in September 2011 and accused of being responsible for the harassment and disappearance of Syrian dissidents who had fled to Lebanon.

Hezbollah, too, will observe what happens in the future. The party has resisted all efforts to deliver its members to the Lebanese authorities. However, this won’t make their problem go away. If the state begins to bend to foreign requests, Hezbollah may be caught in the middle. For instance, once a trial in absentia begins in The Hague and details emerge on the specifics of the Hariri killing, it could be much more difficult for the party, and for the Lebanese government, to simply do nothing about the four suspects.

Lebanon is being pried open by other demands coming from outside. For instance, the American Internal Revenue Service will impose on Lebanese financial institutions by the start of 2014 legislation known as the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act, or FATCA. FATCA compels financial institutions worldwide to report on their American clients for tax purposes, or else risk seeing the US withhold 30 percent of their income on American financial assets. In a place that swears by banking secrecy, FATCA is no less a challenge to Lebanon’s traditional red lines than would have been Shaar’s arrest.

That doesn’t mean that FATCA, for all its faults, is equivalent to an Interpol arrest warrant. But Lebanon realizes that its latitude to resist demands from abroad is limited, so that one imposition, like the other, confirms the further breakdown in Lebanon’s ability to say “no.” In that context, the Syrian-Lebanese relationship is bound to be harmed even more in the coming years, as Syrian officials are sought out by international bodies for one reason or another.

Syria is used to hitting out against the messenger, and Lebanon is a vulnerable target. Yet the Lebanese are willing to absorb punishment if they can avoid more damaging retaliation from the international community. The choice between satisfying regional countries with an agenda in Lebanon and those further afield will hardly be easy. Beirut’s airport could be busy as individuals leave a city they had once thought safe, international opprobrium biting at their heels.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Arab uprisings put to rest a hackneyed theory of democracy

As the Arab world passes through a period of tremendous upheaval, it is worth recalling a discussion that surfaced during the years of President George W Bush. His administration argued that the Middle East needed more democracy, and purported to be pursuing this in Iraq. While one could question Mr Bush's motivations, there was no question that more democracy was precisely what the region needed.

From Tunisia to Egypt, from Libya to Syria, Arabs have revolted not just against economic conditions, but against their impossible relationship with the state. The Arab malady in the postcolonial period has been dysfunctional states, where freedom and aspiration have been undermined by regimes for decades.

States became instruments of total control, exacerbated by the their failure to offer citizens anything but fear. The Arab state was characterised by intimidation and violence, usually unstated. This was accompanied by limited economic opportunities, corruption, favouritism and political-military elites who were never subject to the rule of law.

Some in the Bush administration sensed that the September 11 attacks were a consequence of this reality. Young people, unable to thrive in stifling environments, facing absolute leaderships, turned against their political systems by embracing the one ideology that was more or less allowed to remain untouched: Islam. This Islam was of an altogether different variety than that sanctioned by regimes. It was radical, and promoted the use of violence against allies of the Middle East regimes, in particular the United States.

The Bush administration's conclusion was not without its critics. The Iraq war was widely regarded as a power bid that, only after it turned sour, was conveniently explained away as a war for democracy. The prevailing mood in the United States was that Arabs were incapable of embracing democracy, since it was not in their culture. Not surprisingly, two prominent sceptical voices on the topic happened to be former government officials.

The first was Francis Fukuyama, who wrote in his 2006 book America at the Crossroads, that democracy was not the "default regime" to which societies naturally reverted once dictatorships were removed. In the Middle East in particular, he contended, societies did not have the institutions to "move from an amorphous longing for freedom to a well-functioning consolidated democratic system with a modern economy".

Certainly, the difficult democratic transitions in the Arab world would seem to prove Mr Fukuyama right, and yet his conditions were so onerous that you wondered if any state could satisfy them. After all, the United States went through a long period of institutional readjustment to function properly as a democracy, and even then it was only during the civil war of 1861-1865 that an agrarian economy propelled itself into the modern industrial age.

The second official was also a political realist, Brent Scowcroft, the national security adviser to Mr Bush's father. In an interview with The New York Observer in 2004, he remarked, "It's not that I don't believe Iraq is capable of democracy. But the notion that within every human being beats this primaeval instinct for democracy has not ever been demonstrated to me." Again, Mr Scowcroft may have been right, but nothing adequately explains the revolts in the Arab world in the last two years better than a "primaeval instinct" for democracy.

One should not over-idealise the purity of democratic impulses in the Middle East. Everywhere, there remains a danger of a slide backwards into authoritarianism. But this is not solely an Arab problem; western states with notable democratic traditions, including France and Germany, once reverted to authoritarian, even totalitarian, systems, after being democracies.

One would not expect Mr Fukuyama or Mr Scowcroft to mention these examples, which complicate their overly simplistic conclusions. A retreat from democracy is more common than is acknowledged. As Arabs aspire to build more democratic orders, such retreats - countered by populations protecting their recently won freedoms - are to be expected as part of the institution-building process.

Indeed, in the past decade Arabs have fought hard, and with great loss of life, to establish open and accountable systems. In Iraq in 2005, millions of voters braved death threats to vote for a transitional assembly. And in Lebanon the same year, hundreds of thousands took to the streets to defy Syria and the pro-Syrian Lebanese government after the assassination of Rafik Hariri, the former prime minister. Voting and demonstrating may not be democracy as such, but those who participated certainly saw their endeavours as a way of advancing democracy.

In some 21 months of fighting, over 40,000 Syrians appear to have been killed to overthrow the regime of Bashar Al Assad. In Libya, several thousand perished to get rid of Muammar Qaddafi. On we can go. Ideal democracies may not emerge from these maelstroms, but only dreams of democracy explain why people can confront the near certainty of death or injury for so long. Against the homicidal inclinations of dictators, people will risk everything only for an ideal.

And Arabs have taken risks, more so than has America, with its doubts about the suitability of democracy among other peoples. It is true that democracy cannot be ushered in overnight, and that it requires vigilance to survive. But it also requires persistence and courage, and on that front no one can doubt that Arabs have a right to be taken seriously in the debate over democracy.

Lebanon’s year of living dangerously

Lebanon never ceases to depress, and the Lebanese never cease to depress by harping on that fact. And yet, as 2012 closes, with mediocrity on all sides, there are hopeful signs of better. And this may shape how we behave next year.

The most hopeful sign of 2012 was that the Lebanese avoided war, and were infused with a very real sense that events in Syria must not overwhelm civil peace in Lebanon. Instead, the Lebanese fought each other by proxy, with Hezbollah and Lebanese Sunni groups sending combatants to Syria to prevent or accelerate Bashar Assad’s downfall, assuming this would somehow affect their fate at home.

There were moments of worrisome exception. On the night of Wissam al-Hasan’s funeral, gunmen in Tariq al-Jadideh began firing on quarters in which Shiite parties are based. The army intervened the following day to bring the gunmen to heel. Fighting between Bab al-Tabbaneh and Jabal Mohsen has been frequent, though mostly containable. And in Sidon, the men of Ahmad al-Assir entered into a gunbattle with Hezbollah, reminding us that the southern city remains a dangerous confrontation line between Sunnis and Shiites.

This is hardly proof that all is well, but the Lebanese in their majority recoiled before any prospect of new violence. This was especially true of the botched effort by March 14 members to forcibly overthrow Prime Minister Najib Mikati by storming the Serail building after Hasan’s burial. Even March 14 supporters were shocked by this display of loutishness that echoed behavior they had once denounced in Hezbollah, which, with its allies, sought in 2006-08 to overthrow the government of Prime Minister Fouad al-Siniora.

Which brings us to another promising sign from 2012, namely that many Lebanese began seeing the advantages of the political center. With March 14 having broken off all relations with Hezbollah, it was inevitable that the Lebanese would be drawn to political forces able to speak to both sides. One shouldn’t over-idealize the center, whose influence remains relatively limited. However, its ability to stand aloof of polarization is something the Lebanese have applauded.

For President Michel Sleiman, who embodies the center better than most, the slogan has been continued dialogue. He seeks to reinvigorate a National Dialogue, which is today rejected by March 14, on the grounds that one cannot hold a dialogue with killers. But as many Lebanese accept, when the well-being of the state is at play, everything is possible. They do not want their country thrown into a new civil war because political coalitions aren’t willing to speak to one another. And if dialogue is hypocritical, then better a hypocritical dialogue that defuses tensions to none whatsoever, which makes violent behavior more likely in the future.

What will all this mean at election time next year? It’s not clear that the center has the electoral weight to challenge Hezbollah or March 14. Lebanon remains polarized, despite it all, which is why there are those at both extremes who argue that supporting the political center is a waste of time. Yet polarization may mean that the representatives of the center, Sleiman or the Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, may emerge from next year’s elections again holding the balance of power in parliament, and will be essential in forming a government.

Even the international community, through foreign ambassadors in Beirut, are tired of the March 14-Hezbollah rift. The ambassadors, alas, now seem to regard March 14 as part of the problem in Lebanon. Hopefully this will change, but in the meantime there is more comfort with the political actors in the middle, who are willing to use constitutional means to limit Hezbollah’s ability to bend the system in its own direction. The party will not disappear, whatever happens in Syria, the envoys feel, so it’s best to keep an open channel to Hezbollah’s leadership to negotiate a solution to their weapons.

The Lebanese also went through the year without an economic collapse. The advantages are limited, given that many Lebanese are asking that a salary increase be implemented. For bankers, such a step would spell the collapse of the pound, and would shake the banking system to the very core.

It’s debatable whether next year will be better. Lebanon is suffering from the negative effects of the Syrian conflict, which has suffocated Lebanon’s overland export trade, has limited the number of Arab tourists driving to Lebanon, and has cut into Syrian and Arab demand for Lebanese goods and services. That’s not heartening, but nor is it bad news that the country has managed to keep its head above water despite 21 months of a debilitating war on its doorstep.

The year 2013 may be difficult for the Lebanese economically. Yet much will depend on what happens in Syria. If the Assad regime collapses relatively quickly, Lebanon may be at the forefront of reconstruction there. Assad’s departure may usher in a period of instability, and may even force rival Lebanese alignments to clash with one another. On the other hand, this is hardly inevitable, and Assad’s exit may, instead, help stabilize a Lebanon that has spent decades shaking to the rhythms of Syrian-imposed volatility.

With the Assads gone, Hezbollah’s ability to wage war will be greatly reduced. The party is aware that most Lebanese, including Shiites, are not eager to go to war with Israel. No one wants to face the consequences of such a conflict, above all the destruction that would ensue, especially if it is perceived as a favor done to Iran.

The past year has not been an easy one for the Lebanese, and next year may bring more headaches. However, bad years impose modesty, and the Lebanese have few illusions left. Fear of violence, a desire for dialogue and economic vulnerability are not things that induce recklessness. In that conclusion lies hope for a people forever afflicted with doubts about their future.

Friday, December 21, 2012

The Syrian endgame

The question that everyone seems to be asking these days is when Bashar al-Assad’s regime will fall, and how this will occur. Understandably, Assad is in no hurry to answer the question. However, it’s hard to see the Syrian president reasserting his authority over Syria after tens of thousands of people have been killed by his soldiers, and after he has lost large swathes of territory.

There has been much reference lately to an idea first discussed last year, namely that once Assad feels he can no longer hang on, he will leave Damascus for areas of Alawite concentration along Syria’s northwest coast. The sense is that the president is nearing that stage. His armed forces have been trying for weeks, indeed months, to clear rebels out of the Damascus suburbs, to no avail. Earlier this week Assad’s aircraft bombed the Yarmouq Palestinian refugee camp, which afterward fell squarely into the hands of the opposition. As a result, Ahmad Jibril, who heads the pro-regime Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command, fled to Tartous.

It seems that whatever Assad does, the consequences end up being precisely the opposite of what the president intends. He thought that he could repress the rebellion in blood last year. Instead, he gave it new life. He tried to intimidate Yarmouq. Instead he lost it completely. At every stage, the brutality of his crack units and militias has disturbed his supporters and swelled the ranks of his enemies.

We’re in the presence of a dying regime that is lashing out madly in each and every direction. But Assad has one more historical mistake to make, and seeking refuge in Alawite districts is it, for several reasons. The most obvious is that along the coast, Alawites do not necessarily form a majority. As Hussein Ibish wrote this week, the city of Latakia has a Sunni majority, and for Alawites to safely relocate there may require ethnic cleansing on a monstrous scale.

Indeed, a number of observers believe that this is where the fight over Homs comes in. The city is the door from Damascus to the coastal areas, to be opened or shut depending on the regime’s objectives. If the Alawites decide to remove Sunnis from the coast, the road from Homs may be closed until enough crimes are committed to provoke a mass exodus, when it would be opened to allow civilians to flee.

However, this seems too easy by half. Rebels are operating in the vicinity of Latakia, and don’t expect hundreds of thousands of people to stay idle while the Assad regime plots their massacre or exile. The Alawite homeland plan is more likely than ever before, and the difficulties more apparent than ever before. If the recent past is anything to go by, the plan, if implemented, will only accelerate the Assads’ downfall and seal the fate of Alawites in alarming ways.

There is a second aspect of the retreat-to-the-coast project that cannot be ignored. Namely, the reaction of the Alawites themselves. After decades of ruling over Syria and migrating to other parts of the county, above all to Damascus, Alawites will not take kindly to being forced to return to their mountain of origin. For this they will surely blame the Assads and could seek some form of retribution against the family that has visited so terrible a calamity on the community.

Once Bashar al-Assad escapes from Damascus, he will no longer be able to pretend that he is the prime defender of communal interests. After that realization sinks in, Alawites may be tempted to look for alternatives to protect themselves in a post-Assad Syria. If Assad evacuates the seat of his power, the unwritten contract between the ruling family and Alawites will stand no more, for the president will be blamed for having brought on communal marginalization.

That is perhaps one reason why Assad is likely to stick it out in Damascus for as long as he can, and use this period to negotiate a transition in which he plays a role. That’s not easy given the insistence in the West that the president must go first, and the Russian and Iranian failure to alter that idea. Moreover, the Syrian military has little helped Assad, having been unable to make gains on the ground that would bolster the president’s political aims.

At this stage, Assad’s only realistic substitute for a fallback plan is to engage in negotiations over his departure. But that also would alarm his Alawite entourage, as it fears the aftermath of the president’s exit.

So the choices for Syria’s president are diminishing: negotiate over a transition to rebel rule, and terrify the Alawites; quit Damascus and move to the coast, thereby angering the Alawites; or fight until the bitter end in Damascus, so that the chances that Assad will end up like Moammar Qaddafi become be very real. He would be butchered, just as he has butchered others, without pity and without remorse.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Hizbollah doubles down as its allies in Syria collapse

In a speech last Sunday, Hizbollah's secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah, affirmed that the rebels fighting the regime of President Bashar Al Assad could not defeat him. "The situation in Syria is getting more complicated," he observed, "but anyone who thinks that the armed opposition is capable of [winning] the military battle is very mistaken."

Nevertheless, Hizbollah appears to have factored such an eventuality into its political calculations in Lebanon. As the party contemplates the possibility of a future without a Syrian ally, it has fallen back on stopgap mechanisms to ensure that it can retain its weapons in a Lebanese society that is not eager to enter into another war with Israel. A new war would be far more devastating than that of 2006, with Hizbollah seen by many as a protection force for Iran's nuclear programme.

The party has systematically rejected all calls for its disarmament, knowing that Tehran would regard such a step as betrayal. For an organisation with an organic link to Iran's supreme leader, disarmament is unthinkable. And yet Sheikh Nasrallah realises that once Mr Al Assad goes, Hizbollah's latitude to employ its weapons will be severely curtailed, given that the party will have lost the strategic depth that it enjoyed through its alliance with Syria.

These cannot be happy times for the party. Inside Lebanon, the Sunni community is mobilised, taking its strength from the uprising in Syria, which is about to remove a regime that has for decades marginalised Lebanon's Sunnis. Indeed, the assassination of Rafik Hariri in 2005, for which the Syrian regime is widely believed to have been responsible in collaboration with Hizbollah, was interpreted in Lebanon as a way of preventing Hariri from emerging as a stronger Sunni leader after the 2005 elections.

Sunni factions were repeatedly humiliated by Hizbollah after Hariri's killing. This culminated in the May 2008 military takeover of western Beirut, which forced the government to overturn decisions that Hizbollah had opposed. This led to a profound rift between the Shia community led by Hizbollah and Sunnis led by Hariri's son, Saad Hariri.

Today, many Sunnis seek payback. While Mr Hariri has been out of Lebanon since April 2011, there are more extremist groups willing to stand up to Hizbollah. This is worrisome in that Hizbollah retains an extremely powerful military capacity. If defying the party carries the country into a sectarian civil war, it could be disastrous.

Hizbollah must also contend with a very different environment in the event of war with Israel. Facing domestic hostility, the party cannot easily impose a fresh conflict on a Lebanese population that refuses to see its country destroyed on Iran's behalf. And without the presence of a friendly Syria, Hizbollah will find it difficult to rearm.

Moreover, there is some question whether the Shia community would want to be put through the wringer yet again, especially when outside Arab reconstruction aid is unlikely once the fighting ends.

Absent a domestic consensus behind the "resistance" option against Israel, and without Mr Al Assad on hand to rearm Hizbollah, the party's ability to be an effective fighting force and carry Lebanon into war without worry of a backlash will disappear. And yet Hizbollah's response to this reality has not been to embrace more modesty in its political ambitions; it has tried to strengthen its control over the Lebanese political system to safeguard its military capabilities.

This is the worst possible choice. Hizbollah intends to win parliamentary elections next year, along with its allies, and use this parliamentary majority to bring in a friendly president in 2014, when the mandate of President Michel Suleiman expires. Hizbollah would use the state to protect itself.

But this will not be easy. For Hizbollah to gain a majority, it will need a new election law that few of the major political actors approve. The party has pushed a law that would allocate parliamentary seats by proportional representation, assuming that it would lose far fewer seats than Mr Hariri's coalition under such a formula.

However, such a law would spell defeat for a Hizbollah partner in government, the Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, who benefits from the current 1960 law, which is based on a winner-take-all system.

Mr Jumblatt has rejected the proposal for proportional representation, and he holds the balance in parliament. He can hand the majority to either Hizbollah or to the opposition March 14 coalition led by Mr Hariri. If Mr Jumblatt were to abandon Hizbollah's coalition and call for a vote of no confidence, the government would collapse.

Hizbollah is not used to compromise, and is unlikely to reconsider its political strategy. However, the party is effectively setting itself up for a clash with Sunnis, at a moment when the alignment of regional forces is not to its advantage. Hizbollah is perhaps wagering that Christians' anxieties about Sunni rule in Syria will rally them to its side. Yet few Christians approve of the party's refusal to hand over its weapons to the state, and they certainly do not welcome the prospect of another war with Israel.

If Hizbollah feels that the way out of its dilemma is to forge blindly ahead against the majority of Lebanese opinion, it is mistaken. The party must step back and reconsider its options more lucidly. The future, once Mr Al Assad goes, will be very different from the past. Hizbollah must adapt, or be isolated in Lebanon and in Syria as a vestige of an Iranian agenda that many Lebanese will want to cancel.

What ignoring Jalal Talabani implies

In the past two days, it has been strange, though not unexpected, to see the Obama administration reacting with little public interest toward the hospitalization of Jalal Talabani. On Tuesday, the Iraqi president reportedly died in a Baghdad hospital, although his heart started beating again, leaving him in a state of clinical death. Talabani’s rise to the presidency of Iraq was a foundational moment in the post-2003 period in Iraq, and a triumph for the United States. But it’s a success that President Barack Obama is not particularly eager to highlight, he who built his election victory in 2008 on disillusionment with President George W. Bush’s Iraq war. Recall how Obama admitted in his much-admired Cairo speech in 2009 that Iraqis were “ultimately better off without the tyranny of Saddam Hussein,” before qualifying this by saying the war had also shown why diplomacy and international consensus were preferable.

Talabani, along with Massoud Barzani, the other principal Kurdish leader, knew this was nonsense. Had the United States awaited an international consensus over Iraq, Saddam Hussein would still be in power and Talabani still maneuvering to stay alive. Nor would he have been elevated to the presidency, an act affirming the transcendent irony of history. No one could fail to remark, when Talabani took that office, that if one thing was good about the Iraq war, it was that the victims were now in charge.

However, this seems lost on Obama, who views Iraq as an issue best walked away from. For a president engaged in a regional struggle for influence with Iran, or compelled to engage in that struggle, indifference to Iraq is incomprehensible. Iraq is the main battleground, a truism grasped far better by the Gulf states than by the country that removed Saddam Hussein in the first place. Rather, Obama’s primary war is with Bush’s legacy, and it is a rare contest to which this most standoffish of leaders seems deeply committed.

But it doesn’t stop at Bush. Today, the Iraqi armed forces and Kurdish Peshmerga face off against one another, principally because of their disagreement over disputed territories south of the autonomous Kurdish region, in areas around Kirkuk and Mosul. Among the reasons for this tension is oil, and the fact that the American multinational ExxonMobil is preparing to drill in the territory starting next summer, after reaching agreement with the Kurds.

The government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki opposes this, and has indicated that it would go to war to prevent it. Barzani, in turn, had underlined that, if attacked, the Kurds will defend themselves. Talabani mediated in the dispute. However, he is out of the game now, and only Washington (or perhaps Iran) has the means to negotiate a durable solution. But Obama is not keen to immerse himself in Iraqi affairs, even though ExxonMobil is an American company which would doubtless listen to the White House.

Obama may yet immerse himself in this knotty situation, if only to make up for having done so little initially to prevent ExxonMobil from coming to an understanding with the Kurdish authorities. American officials have also told the New York Times that the administration had not discouraged the company from drilling in 2013, even though U.S. diplomats have tried to reconcile the rival parties, proposing an arrangement that was turned down by Maliki and Barzani.

Talabani did gain American support for a deal whereby Maliki and Barzani would soften their rhetoric and agree to form a committee to propose security solutions for the disputed areas. However, this is at best a stopgap measure, one that leaves the hostility between Kurds and Arabs in northern Iraq largely untreated. For a more lasting settlement, Obama would have to get his hands dirty and put his personal prestige on the line. This the president has done only domestically, and even then with extraordinary caution.

That Obama’s minimalism over Iraq has brought on a succession of lost opportunities is well known. But is the president really prepared to let the situation fester in the country so that he may soon have to defuse an armed conflict between allies, albeit one far more ambiguous about America than the other? Perhaps the trashing of Bush’s Iraq policy is, deep down, what Obama desires. What better way to prove that the former president was utterly misguided?

For Talabani, these concerns may already be a thing of the past. It’s not likely that the 79-year-old president will make it back from the stroke he suffered, at least without dire ramifications if he does survive. For a Kurd who for a long time managed without the assistance of outsiders, indeed usually suffered from their unwanted interference, American aloofness is par for the course.

Yet Obama is missing an important message. Talabani’s rise to the Iraqi presidency was one of those things, everyone can agree, admirable about the American campaign in Iraq. It was a reversal of fortune of the kind we seem to be routinely praising today, with Arab despots being replaced by those whom they had persecuted.

The late Christopher Hitchens was thinking, among others, of Talabani when he made a presentation in February 2009 at the American University of Beirut, asking “Who are the real revolutionaries in the Middle East?” At this stage in his life, maybe the last stage, Talabani deserves better from Barack Obama. The U.S. president should praise the avatars of revolution in a region from which he has largely kept his distance.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Remembering Gebran Tueni the right way

It’s been almost two months since Wissam al-Hassan was killed on a side street in Ashrafieh. And on Wednesday, Lebanon commemorated the seventh anniversary of Gebran Tueni’s assassination. The contrast between the ways March 14 reacted to each crime is instructive.

When Tueni was murdered in December 2005, a majority in the government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora did not demand that Hezbollah’s ministers resign by arguing that coexistence was no longer possible. Indeed, March 14 went on to participate in the national dialogue, under the auspices of Emile Lahoud no less, in which it made political gains, albeit empty ones in retrospect.

The core of the March 14 strategy then was to persist in strengthening the state and upholding state institutions against all efforts to undermine them by Hezbollah. When the party, in May 2008, turned its guns against fellow Lebanese and terrorized them for several days in western Beirut, the mask fell. The assault showed there could be no real coexistence between a sovereign Lebanese state and a sovereign armed group completely beholden to the regime in Iran.

Today, March 14 has sought, unsuccessfully, to take on a different, unnatural persona: that of a coalition willing to behave, if need be, outside the confines of the state. The opposition insists that state institutions, above all the government and the army, are controlled by Hezbollah, which allegedly justifies their political tactics.

Yet how valid is this assessment? There is no doubt that Hezbollah has great influence over the government. However, a blocking third pursues different priorities and has been able to successfully resist the party on major issues. The Special Tribunal for Lebanon was funded, against the wishes of Hezbollah and the Aounists. The party’s desire to pass a new election law based on proportional representation has been undermined by Walid Jumblatt, who, with the Future Movement in parliament, would be able to block approval of such a law.

As for the army, Hezbollah and Michel Aoun do have a significant say over its behavior, not least because the army commander, Jean Qahwaji, believes the party will back him to succeed President Michel Suleiman. However, the army is a complicated institution, with many among its rank and file opposed to Hezbollah and Aoun. There is only so much the army command can do without risking a split in its ranks. Ultimately, Qahwaji will not want to confront Hezbollah’s enemies, and be in bad odor with a part of Lebanese society that he will have to rally to his side if he ever becomes head of state.

That was a lesson learned from Michel Suleiman. Suleiman carefully avoided using violence against opposition demonstrators after Rafiq al-Hariri’s assassination. Yet he made it equally clear that the army would not permit the forcible overthrow of Emile Lahoud. The army commander showed that he could walk through raindrops. When a successor to Lahoud was sought, Suleiman was seen as a suitable choice by the Future Movement thanks to his earlier performance.

While Suleiman is still treading gingerly when it comes to Syria, he has lent legitimacy to the arrest of the former minister Michel Samaha. And in the national dialogue sessions, he has taken the lead in proposing that Hezbollah’s weapons eventually be turned over to the army. And what has March 14 done? It has hung the president out to dry, while there are those in the opposition who will publicly express their doubts about the armed forces.

What kind of state-centered strategy can work when national dialogue is denounced and when doubt is cast on the institution expected to make Hezbollah’s control over its weapons redundant? No one is asking March 14 to embrace naiveté when it comes to Hezbollah; only to be consistent with its own actions in the past, and with the approach it adopted in the wake of Hariri’s killing.

No one doubts what Hezbollah is capable of when it comes to preserving its own interests. But making headway against the party does not mean isolating or condemning the men who have sought to contain Hezbollah within the confines of national institutions. That includes Suleiman, Jumblatt, and Prime Minister Najib Miqati. Perhaps the recent dinner in Mukhtara between Jumblatt and Siniora, accompanied by a group of Future Movement officials, is a sign that there are some in March 14 increasingly unsure about their growing marginalization, following on from their hostility toward Miqati, their refusal to dialogue, and their boycott of parliament.

Perhaps, too, there are those in March 14 who can see the obvious, namely that the international community, including the United States, prefers any Lebanese government, even one in which Hezbollah is represented, to a political vacuum in Beirut.

Which is why March 14 is in need of a better strategy. The coalition has painted itself into a corner politically, and has somehow transformed its adversaries, most absurdly Hezbollah, into premier embodiments of the state. How unfortunate, and how short-sighted. The opposition must focus on the essential: bolstering the state and its avatars, even if it includes those with whom it has differences, against a Hezbollah that has time and again shown profound contempt for the state, at least one over which it cannot rule.

On the anniversary of Gebran Tueni’s murder, it’s important for March 14 to get it right. There is no gain in having to bury more dead while being seen as the problem in Lebanon, rather than the solution.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

For Obama, it’s not too late on Syria

President Barack Obama has promised to recognize the Syrian opposition. Not a moment too soon, after 21 months of carnage in Syria and American dallying while the killing took place. Some insist that recognition is too little, too late. The opposition owes nothing to outsiders, having faced butchery without outside assistance.

There was a time when it wouldn’t have taken nearly two years for an American president to side with an initially unarmed population rising up against a tyrant, especially one hostile to the United States and responsible for the death of Americans. Other leaders than Obama might have seen the obvious advantages in bringing down a Syrian regime that has been instrumental in sustaining the influence of America’s prime regional rival, Iran, in the Levant. A less diffident administration would have played a more active role in organizing the Syrian opposition, just as the Iranians and Russians have been at the heart of efforts to keep Syrian President Bashar Assad afloat.

The thing is that Obama tends to focus on the problem before venturing to find solutions to it. The president has little strategic foresight. His administration first thought that the revolt against Assad might be used to bring his regime back to the negotiating table with Israel. Then it claimed to want to avoid exacerbating the fighting in Syria. It later came to see the uprising through a faulty prism from the past, namely Afghanistan, and worried that foreign jihadists would transform the country into a rallying point for their agendas.

How foolish that was. As if the prolonged void in Syria would not attract jihadists anyway; as if standing and watching the slaughter and failing to do anything about it would not encourage the jihadists to profit from American indifference and turn this against the Americans. Had Washington made an effort to openly bolster the fractured opposition forces and impose unity on them, they would have been far better able to curb the extremists while handing a decisive advantage to the vast majority of Syrians who have no yearning whatsoever to see Muslim emirates in their midst.

The Obama administration has designated Jabhat al-Nusra, which is allegedly close to Al-Qaeda, as a foreign terrorist organization. That is understandable, but once again it confuses the American message with a Syrian people that now has a minute reservoir of consideration for the U.S. government. To them it seems that whenever Obama gives something to Syria, he also takes something away. Jabhat al-Nusra may worry those in Washington, as it does many in Syria. But it has also been successful in combating the ferocity of the Syrian regime, which the U.S. has done nothing to neutralize in practical terms.

Obama’s continued ambiguity over Syria is disconcerting. He favors a negotiated settlement, but feels that Assad must leave office as a precondition for this. The Syrian opposition agrees with the second objective, but does not trust the implications of the first. Negotiations, by their very definition, invite compromise, and today Assad’s foes have no incentive to compromise with members of his regime responsible for the abominable crimes of the past year.

But Obama is correct in one regard. A negotiated settlement is far more preferable than war until the bitter end, which would alarm Syria’s minorities and possibly carry Syria into a prolonged and debilitating vacuum. Whether the opposition likes it or not, it has no alternative but to find common ground with the Alawites to pave the way for a consensus in postwar Syria. This will involve swallowing a bitter pill in some cases, though the worst criminals need not escape punishment. Communal reconciliation alone can save Syria from the worst consequences of its ongoing civil war.

The problem is that the U.S. has not pushed hard enough for a desirable endgame in Syria. It has not done much to prevent certain Arab countries from arming groups like Jabhat al-Nusra, nor has it outlined what it views as an ideal political solution, around which it can build international concord. In effect, Obama has not played the role of superpower, even as the U.S. has failed to harmonize the contradictory interests of its regional allies. No wonder the Syrians are angry. They see no clear plan from Obama, and the Americans today enjoy too little credibility among Syrians for the administration to impose on them conditions that they find unpleasant.

And yet the U.S. must rebuild its relationship with Syrians. This will be important for many reasons: to isolate the jihadists; to have a say in likely future talks between a post-Assad Syria and Israel over the Golan Heights; and to block Iran out of the country, and in that way contain it regionally. With some attention, this is achievable.

Many years ago, Patrick Seale wrote an excellent book titled “The Struggle for Syria,” in which he outlined how the country had become a valued prize in the regional rivalry between Iraq and Egypt. Things have changed since that time, but not Syria’s centrality in the Middle East. If Barack Obama plans to have a policy toward the region, then he must define a cohesive policy toward Syria. The president is not there yet. Such a lack of enthusiasm is incomprehensible at a time of great opportunity in the Arab world.

Amid the diplomacy, Iran can still play the spoiler in Syria

Last weekend, the Russian foreign minister and American secretary of state met in Geneva, with the United Nations-Arab League envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi. Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov denied that Moscow was discussing a transition away from President Bashar Al Assad or had softened its position on Syria. "All attempts to portray things differently are unscrupulous," Mr Lavrov said.

The portrayals were not so much unscrupulous as tending to look at only half of the picture. There is another country with power in Syria that cannot be overlooked in a final settlement, namely Iran. For as long as Iranian support counts with the regime of Mr Al Assad, Russia and other outside powers will find it difficult to reach agreement on the future of the Syrian regime.

Influence lasts for as long as one can play the diplomatic game. Iran, like Russia, fears that too sudden a downfall of the Syrian president would undermine its Syrian stakes. These are most pronounced in the military-intelligence apparatus, which for decades has allowed Iran to reinforce its strategic presence in the Levant, above all in Lebanon.

Were Iran to lose its Syrian ally, its interests in the eastern Mediterranean would be greatly harmed. Tehran's ability to bolster Hizbollah in a time of war would be crippled, limiting Iran's and the party's deterrence capability. Hizbollah would find itself isolated in Lebanon, surrounded by an unfriendly Sunni community at home and in Syria. The party would be much less able to strike back at Israel in the event of an Israeli attack on Iran's nuclear facilities.

That is why Iranian officials have sought to protect Syria's military-security network. An Iranian politician, Hamidreza Taragh, made this clear when he told The New York Times this week: "But whatever the cost [of a peaceful solution through political reform in Syria], we want to keep Syria in the group of resistance against Israel."

"Resistance" is shorthand for maintaining Syria's military capability. Security figures in Tehran realise that it is in the armed forces and intelligence services, top-heavy with members of Mr Al Assad's minority Alawite sect, that they will continue to have a say. The rebels, in turn, have no incentive to side with Iran if they triumph, both from a sectarian perspective and because they cannot afford to alienate the Gulf states before a costly post-war reconstruction effort.

Reports from pro-Syrian figures in Beirut show the extent of Iranian involvement in the regime's operations. Apparently, Iran has played a leading role in planning the regime's counter-attack around Damascus, to push the rebels out of the capital and diminish their ability to surround the city. Iran still believes that Mr Al Assad can survive politically, but feel his military must regain the initiative.

If that's the thinking, the Iranians may be disappointed. Nothing suggests that the Syrian regime is making significant headway around Damascus. Instead, there is more wanton violence. If the aim is for the regime to show that it is solid and has a plan in the capital, it will have to do better than replicate the butchery of the past months.

Some observers wonder whether the Syrian army is too exhausted to do what the Iranians want. The army has remained unified and still has substantial weaponry. Yet there is a prevailing sense that it has permanently lost the initiative. Such a perception of steady reversal can only lose the regime the backing of powerful domestic actors, above all economic actors, who can help it to survive.

In major challenges to the regime, such as recapturing Aleppo and maintaining an open supply line to units in northern Syria, Mr Al Assad has come up short. Moreover, the president has been unable to progress in his strategy of last year, namely to use military might to force the opposition to come to the negotiating table and accept a disadvantageous deal. Iran appears to feel there is still room for this outcome, but other countries are more sceptical.

Mr Al Assad may not be about to fall, but his worries must have suddenly redoubled. A desirable scenario for many governments is that members of the Alawite officer corps will oust the president, and in exchange will win assurances that they will be able to retain authority in a post-war order. However, there would be much uncertainty involved. It would divide the Alawites and probably bring few concessions from the Syrian opposition.

Iranian backing is essential in that regard. If there is one thing that Iran can do, it's to keep an eye on the mood among senior Syrian officers, and so protect Mr Al Assad. Despite its talk of political reforms, Iran seems profoundly reluctant to find a solution that involves sacrificing the Syrian president. His removal could send an unwanted message homeward, where the leadership has employed repression when change from the street has seemed possible.

Iran's limited margin of manoeuvre in Syria is not enviable. The Islamic Republic is playing a game of double or nothing. Either Mr Al Assad wins, or he loses everything, and with him all those who have been fortifying his regime in the past 21 months. But it is improbable that he will win, which means Iran is virtually ensuring that a post-revolutionary Syria opposes Tehran.

This has led to speculation that Iran will destabilise a Syria it cannot control. Better chaos than letting the Syria prize fall into the hands of its enemies, the rationale goes. However, this could facilitate Syria's fragmentation, and possibly that of Iraq and of Lebanon, harming Iranian allies there. Iran has placed all its chips on Mr Al Assad, and this could backfire. For what the Iranians want to preserve is the hated core of his regime, which most Syrians cannot accept.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

A rudderless Obama is poorly equipped for new Middle East

There is hope among many that the Obama administration during its second term will reverse its attitude of relative detachment toward the Middle East that was evident during the first term. That may well happen, but attitudes in Washington, not to say the nature of the crises the US faces, do not make this very likely.

There is, first, the dubious outlook of administration officials to contend with. They have been reluctant to give the Middle East the attention it has merited in the past year. Instead, the focus is on a "pivot toward Asia". That President Barack Obama should have made his first post-election trip to Asia spoke volumes. This represents a strategic choice that will endure. For Mr Obama, the Middle East has merely sapped America's energies and treasure since September 11.

Perhaps he is right, but for the first time in decades, much is changing in the Arab world. Mr Obama's unwillingness to exploit this, his tendency to address current matters with yesterday's mindset, means opportunities are being missed. It often seems that the president is still fighting George W Bush's legacy, and that his convictions when addressing America's challenges abroad are not very profound.

But if that is true, there is also the reality that in the coming years there will be much to discourage a risk-averse administration from taking fresh directions in the Middle East. Whether we are talking about Syria, Egypt, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, or Iran, to mention only the most salient issues, there is not much room to act successfully, and good reason to avoid involvement.

Syria first. The war there has gone on with little American intervention since March last year. Mr Obama has created a dilemma of major proportions: he has refused to accelerate President Bashar Al Assad's downfall, fearing that exacerbating the conflict in Syria would destabilise the neighbourhood. Yet by allowing the killing to continue unabated, he has only heightened instability and radicalisation, allowing religious extremists to gain credibility among Syria's opposition.

Worse, the Obama administration has not seriously considered how Mr Al Assad's exit might weaken America's main regional rival, Iran, and its Lebanese ally Hizbollah. This is beginning to sink in, but as yet there is no clear policy on Syria, beyond baby steps to organise the opposition and lend some assistance to its combatants.

Mr Obama and his advisers have not been impressed by Syria's opposition. That's reasonable, but policy rarely awaits perfect circumstances. Things will not soon ameliorate. The extremist shift to Syria will continue to stymie an American rapprochement with the opposition, as will fear of sectarian chaos once Mr Al Assad leaves. This requires attention of the kind Washington hesitates to give.

In Egypt, too, the United States has gone with a flow it doesn't control. The cooperation with President Mohammed Morsi, of the Muslim Brotherhood, has been new for Mr Obama, but he has had no choice. Egypt is too important. The Americans are right not to enter into the minutiae of Egyptian politics, but they are, plainly, unsure of their objectives if they were to do so. Democratisation is not a word used by the administration, which has been low-key on Mr Morsi's recent effort to place presidential decisions above the law.

The administration's self-neutralising view is that when America takes sides in Arab states, those whom it supports lose. That has meant that perceptions of public opinion in places such as Egypt can determine American behaviour. No wonder Mr Obama's default setting is to avoid rocking the boat, since the boat seems perpetually tilted against America. That alone will mean further hesitation by the administration to shape events in Cairo in ways it finds desirable.

On Palestinian-Israeli peace, Mr Obama has been clumsy. After promising to push negotiations forward during his 2008 election campaign, the president did nothing. He made the freezing of settlement building a condition for talks, but soon backtracked in the face of a withering Israeli counterattack, which involved turning Congress against Mr Obama. Settlements are a central problem, but the president boxed himself into a corner even as he was unwilling to go all the way in compelling Israelis to abandon them.

It's hard to see much changing now that Palestinians and Israelis are further apart than ever. The administration was in a minority when it opposed the Palestinian decision to seek recognition as an observer state at the UN. And it was embarrassed soon thereafter when the Israeli government approved new settlement building in Jerusalem, which could cut Palestinian areas off from the city. The administration emerged from this fiasco looking utterly ineffective.

Finally, on Iran the administration has pursued sanctions, hoping that this will derail movement toward war. That's a good thing. However, given reports that Iran is still moving ahead with its nuclear programme and Mr Obama's promise that Iran will not be allowed to build a nuclear weapon, America could be trapped again by its declared policy. Iran believes that Mr Obama's priority is to avert war, which hardly strengthens the president's leverage.

This is bound to lead to a prolonged standoff, until Mr Obama finds himself with fewer options. No one in Washington is amenable to a radically new path with Tehran, so the president won't test the waters. Yet he must sense that there is no certainty that sanctions will bring Iran to the table. He needs a backup plan for if sanctions fail, but for now he doesn't seem to have one.

Mr Obama is not a man of diplomatic surprises, and the Middle East doesn't provide easy returns, but favours stalemate. Regional dynamics are volatile enough to dissuade the president from gambling. A re-elected Mr Obama may not be very different than the guarded man we've come to know.

Monday, December 10, 2012

FATCA’s security problem

America is alone among industrialized nations in requiring citizens to pay taxes even if they live outside the United States. FATCA is an invasive law that will compel financial institutions worldwide to report on their American clients for tax purposes, or else risk seeing the US withhold 30 percent of their income on American financial assets. The institutions will incur substantial costs to find and keep up with American clients, far more than what the US hopes to rake in from the law, estimated at a paltry $8 billion over 10 years.

The legislation was supposed to be introduced in January 2013, but its complexity has compelled the Internal Revenue Service to delay implementation for a year. When it does go into effect, foreign financial institutions, above all banks, will be asked to send annual reports on their American customers with bank accounts of more than $50,000, a measure that would be unacceptable if adopted in the United States. Financial institutions will detail the balances, receipts, and withdrawals from Americans’ accounts. In this way, the IRS will know all the transactions of each individual living abroad.

Because such information is usually private, American citizens will be obligated to sign waivers suspending their rights under foreign laws that may protect their privacy. If an American has a joint account with a non-American spouse, the waiver will affect both account-holders, though the non-American should not be subject to American scrutiny. FATCA imposes that banks also acquire the names of the Americans’ relatives. Refusing to sign a waiver may compel banks to identify an account as delinquent and perhaps report this to the IRS.

The fiscal advantages of FATCA are limited. The heavy burden on foreign financial institutions is abusive—a case of America throwing its global weight around. And the civil liberties implications are profoundly disturbing. FATCA has already created problems for Americans, with many foreign financial institutions refusing to open accounts for them. Because FATCA treats companies in which Americans own more than 10 percent as American tax entities, it has become far more difficult for citizens to enter into partnerships internationally, representing a net loss for the American economy.

However, there is one aspect of FATCA that has not been sufficiently examined, but that remains potentially hazardous. The American government is effectively asking foreign institutions to prepare detailed data bases of American citizens, with no guidelines explaining how this information must be protected. For a country obsessed with the security of its citizens in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, such behavior is paradoxical, indeed astonishing.

Foreign financial institutions will effectively become vast repositories of information on Americans—including what they earn, the sources of their income, what they spend, where they live, who their family members are, and so on. In their zeal to implicitly label Americans living abroad as tax cheats requiring monitoring, the sponsors of FATCA have shown utter indifference to the safety of their citizens.

In some countries, the American authorities are well aware that their enemies have ready access to financial institutions. The Lebanese Canadian Bank scandal, in which bank managers were accused of helping Hezbollah launder money, showed that this was true in Lebanon. What is to prevent anti-American groups elsewhere from gaining access to data on American citizens, and possibly using this to their advantage? FATCA helps make it eminently possible.

Strangely, we have heard nothing about FATCA from the State Department, which is responsible for Americans overseas. At a time when American embassies regularly issue advisories to citizens to guarantee their safety, we are seeing the IRS asking institutions abroad to gather the most sensitive facts on Americans, with no oversight. The irresponsibility is breathtaking. Worse, because FATCA imposes pariah status on Americans abroad, whatever rightful protest they have against the legislation will sound suspicious.

No wonder that Americans across the globe are outraged. Even if they owe no taxes, they must adhere to stringent, and costly, reporting rules, failure of which can bring on severe penalties. That they should be additionally humiliated by seeing a wealth of personal information circulating freely among employees of foreign institutions sends a bad signal, one the IRS would not dare replicate in the United States.

But are you surprised coming from a country that has spent a decade whittling down domestic civil liberties in the name of allegedly compulsory security? Somehow this security has been swept away overseas, where some groups will welcome having access to everything about the Americans in their midst—their networks, financial habits, and much more. Evidently, raising tax revenue is a perfectly good reason to leave Americans in foreign climes vulnerable.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Making the Special Tribunal work

Last week, Sir David Baragwanath, the president of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, visited Beirut, perhaps to remind the Lebanese that the institution he leads means business. I spoke to Baragwanath, who well understands the stakes in a tribunal that has progressed very slowly in recent years. Its credibility has suffered from a perception, on the critics’ side, that its work is politicized; and on the supporters’ side, that the United Nations investigation didn’t go far enough, accumulating woefully few facts for a broad indictment.

Baragwanath is a fine front man for the tribunal. A New Zealander with impeccable legal credentials, he succeeded the Italian Antonio Cassese in October 2011. Where Cassese was seen as a man who sometimes was willing to say too much, Baragwanath is careful not to fall into that habit, for fear of discrediting the tribunal’s work. He is blunt, however, even if that bluntness is often off the record.

As Baragwanath sees it, he has three jobs: He’s a member of the Appeals Chamber, which must deal with the sensitive matter of an unfamiliar legal jurisdiction while maintaining the integrity of the tribunal. This he must do by balancing dual requirements: to be fair and expeditious. “Every day that passes,” remarks Baragwanath, “is one in which the victims do not have their concerns addressed.”

The president must also wear a diplomatic hat, and is responsible for dealing with foreign countries, including Lebanon, to support the tribunal’s work. And third, Baragwanath has a general duty to ensure that the tribunal’s many branches function properly.

One thing that Baragwanath appears to have understood better than most is that the tribunal was established to serve a purpose beyond uncovering who killed Rafik Hariri and other victims of assassination. This makes for openness that is in refreshing contrast to the first years of the tribunal, when the prosecution seemed utterly unprepared for a public role that it had no choice but to play. Baragwanath will not allow everything he says to be published, but he will speak his mind enough for a listener to understand that he or she is not in the presence of a taciturn judge, indifferent to how the assassinations in Lebanon affected the society as a whole.

When the U.N. investigation was set up in 2005, the implicit assumption was that the Lebanese legal system did not have the means and autonomy to uncover the truth about the crime. Beyond that, the investigation was seen as a means of bolstering the Lebanese judiciary, to make it much more difficult in the future for such crimes to be repeated. The first commissioner of the U.N.’s independent investigative commission, Detlev Mehlis, was conscious of the need to be as transparent as possible with the Lebanese public, which contributed to his work as potential witnesses and therefore needed to feel secure in the effectiveness of the process.

When Mehlis left, the Lebanese were left with Serge Brammertz, who from a public-relations perspective was a disaster. It would be nice to say that Brammertz saw his public role as secondary to that as an investigator, yet he advanced very little in his investigation, even as he largely ignored the Lebanese. Not once did he address them directly. Brammertz seemed isolated, a careerist apparently uninterested in the implications of the crimes he was examining for Lebanese society.

Baragwanath is different and his visits to Lebanon are, partly, efforts to show that he cares. “The Lebanese people have unfinished business [with the legacy of assassinations],” he says, and the tribunal has embarked upon a number of initiatives in order to make itself known to the public and to the legal profession. Baragwanath has lectured to Lebanese lawyers’ associations and regularly meets senior judicial figures. As divisive as it may be politically, the tribunal is recognized as a legitimate body by the judiciary, as well as by the government, when that was not the case in 2009.

But one thing the tribunal will have to confront, and that Baragwanath will not discuss this on the record, is that there is a deep disconnect between the assassination of Hariri, which was always seen as a vast conspiracy, and the fact that only four individuals, most acting at the operational level, have been accused by the prosecution. What is needed for an accusation, of course, is evidence, and if the prosecutor cannot cast his net widely enough, then the inevitable conclusion is that the evidence is lacking. This tells us more about the quality of the investigation than about the tribunal or its president.

This disconnect cannot be the least of Baragwanath’s preoccupations, however, for it will influence the court’s reputation. During the proceedings, implicit questions will arise without answers. While the president’s responsibility is not to answer the questions, he cannot be eager to preside over an institution seen as wanting by the victims.

In that light, Baragwanath speaks highly of the prosecutor Norman Farrell, as he does of the head of the defense team, Francois Roux. Overall, he seems happy with his court. But again, for many Lebanese much will depend on the strength of the prosecution. For while those participating in the tribunal, Baragwanath among them, believe that the measure of success will be, in large part, whether “the verdict is impeccable,” based on the available evidence, as he puts it, what will interest the Lebanese is whether an indictment is persuasive and can stand.

For them that will be the true benchmark of success, not whether the tribunal functions in an efficient way. Sir David Baragwanath, to his credit, would seem to have that angle covered.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Big Sunni gains may bring Lebanon pain

In recent days, the regime of President Bashar Assad has suffered significant setbacks in northern Syria. This may not be the end, but it only affirms that the dynamics of the conflict are being driven by the armed opposition, so that for the first time since March 2011, Assad rule appears to be decisively shaken, not to say terminally ill.

From a Lebanese perspective, the greatest danger will come once the battle in Syria is over. Lebanese Sunnis will feel triumphant, and legitimately so, after decades when they were regarded as a threat by the Assad regime. Their sense of renewed empowerment, in parallel with that of their brethren in Syria, could make them overconfident. This in turn could bring them into confrontation with an increasingly fearful but still militarily potent Lebanese Shiite community, led by Hezbollah. Managing this phase properly will require mechanisms of compromise and dialogue to avert the worst.

The problem is that for Sunnis, the removal of the Assads will represent a seminal moment. For decades, Sunnis have seen their powerful communal figures fall or marginalized. Rafik Hariri was assassinated, as was the mufti of the Republic, Sheikh Hassan Khaled, and other clerics, allegedly by Syria or their allies. Damascus sought to limit ties between Sunnis and their traditional regional reference points. The Syrian fear was that a resurgent Sunni community in Lebanon would give dangerous ideas to their brothers in Syria, in that way weakening the hold of the Alawite-dominated regime. Hariri’s elimination in 2005 could be well understood in this context.

The withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanon that year did not immediately ameliorate matters. Hezbollah responded to the so-called Cedar Revolution with poorly concealed contempt. The party mouthed the necessary words about Hariri, while all the time doing its best to derail an international investigation of the crime – a crime, it now appears, in which Hezbollah members participated.

In 2006, after provoking an unnecessary war with Israel, Hezbollah went further, hoping to use its self-declared victory as a lever to overthrow the government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora. For 18 months Hezbollah and its partners held a sit-in in the downtown area, destabilizing Lebanon and exacerbating Sunni rancor. This interregnum ended in May 2008, when the party’s gunmen and their partners, in response to a government decision to investigate Hezbollah’s illegal telephone network, overran western Beirut and humiliated the Sunnis, in the process killing dozens of people.

Hariri was trapped in his mansion, but would later tell me that he had avoided a political explosion by not calling for help from his Sunni followers outside Beirut. That was true. Hezbollah’s massive firepower neutralized its foes, but a call to arms from Hariri, which would certainly have ended up being clothed in sectarian language, would have been a catastrophe of unheard of proportions.

The Sunnis understandably never digested this violence done to the unwritten rules of the Lebanese sectarian system. When the equilibrium is undermined and one side gains the upper hand, especially through arms, the consequence is that the other side begins to accumulate weapons as well. As we saw on the night of Wissam al-Hasan’s funeral, Sunni groups in Tariq al-Jadideh have guns, even if their arsenal is nothing like Hezbollah’s. It doesn’t take much to start a war, and in war acquiring more weapons is easy.

Equally worrisome is that there is fragmentation in the Sunni community. Saad Hariri has been out of the country for a year and a half, creating large openings for others. The person who has benefited the most is Prime Minister Najib Mikati. More ominously, so too has the Salafist Sheikh Ahmad Assir in Sidon. Assir has criticized Hariri for his absence, and has loudly condemned Hezbollah. Earlier this month, there was a clash in Sidon between Assir’s partisans and Hezbollah, followed by a promise from Assir that he would form a militia, though he later said he would delay this.

If anyone is reassured by this purported delay, they should not be. The default setting of a populist firebrand like Assir is to enhance hostility, to rally more supporters. The sheikh has both discredited March 14 by declaring it ineffective and drawn on the deep reservoir of resentment among Sunnis against Hezbollah and its arrogance. This is a volatile mix, pushing Hariri and March 14 to stake out a hard-line position on national politics after the Hasan killing, in order, partly, to retain the allegiance of the Sunni street.

Yet there are signs of fraying. March 14 has little say over Assir, and it had little say over the armed groups that took over Tariq al-Jadideh and sought to provoke clashes with Shiite parties in nearby Barbour. Like the fighting in Sidon, this was a portentous moment for Lebanon, one too soon forgotten by many Lebanese. That is why Hariri can no longer delay his return. He has to regain control over his community and offer an alternative to warfare.

Presumably, the former prime minister will be on the first airplane back to Beirut after the collapse of the Assad regime. His primary aim must be to come to an agreement with his Sunni rivals first, before initiating a dialogue with Hezbollah and finding practical ways to avoid friction in the street. Hariri’s mantra must be the strengthening of the Lebanese state, which requires him to speak as one alongside President Michel Sleiman, Najib Mikati and Walid Jumblatt. It may be personally difficult for him to talk to Hezbollah, but the former prime minister has to remember that the future is his once the Assads go, and that political power will derive from his ability to manage the relationship with the party in a way that reassures the Lebanese.

When high expectations transcend the capacity of a political system to absorb the consequences, instability follows. We’ve learned this on countless occasions in Lebanon. Prepare to learn it again.

Sixty-year-old warnings still relevant for today's Palestine

Very few people today still read Michel Chiha to understand the continuing confrontation between Israelis and Palestinians. And yet quite a bit of what we are witnessing was predicted by this Lebanese thinker, writing in his newspaper, Le Jour, between 1945 and 1954.

This week, a conference to assess Chiha's legacy was organised in Beirut to commemorate Lebanese Independence Day. A banker, Chiha was best known as a drafter of Lebanon's constitution as well as an ideologue of the country's consociational system. For some, he mainly embodied Lebanon's ruling class - he was connected by marriage to Bishara Al Khoury, independent Lebanon's first president, and to Henri Pharaon, a leading light of the independence generation. For others, he remains a sophisticated and erudite voice from an alluring Lebanon long gone.

Both views are in some ways accurate. But on Palestine, he read events with great lucidity and took a position critical of the West, with whom Lebanon's leaders had otherwise maintained friendly relations. He is best known for his daily commentaries in Le Jour, in which he left a prominent place for Palestine, an issue that preoccupied him and on which he wrote frequently until his death in December 1954.

The essence of Chiha's views on the subject is that the Zionist project, in seeking exclusivity for the Jewish community, was bound to lead to an open-ended struggle with the Palestinian Arabs. As Nabil Khalifeh, Chiha's translator into Arabic, has astutely remarked, this exclusivity jarred strongly with the pluralism defended by the writer in the Lebanese context. Chiha did not oppose a Jewish presence in Palestine; rather, he defended the notion of a binational state, and even saw Lebanon as providing instruction in this respect.

As he wrote in a column on October 22, 1948: "The desire to live together, extreme tolerance, the total respect for liberty of conscience which we have used to illustrate our little country [Lebanon] can and must be proposed to the reflection of the world, if only as a humane solution to the Jewish question in Palestine."

This ambition he saw as threatened by the United Nations' partition plan of 1947, which could bring only tension. How could one divide a small country such as Palestine, he asked. Partition would create a place of discord, "a poor land that is narrow, stunted and disinherited". In this slight place, it was inevitable that one side would seek to seize everything, as that alone would provide security.

And here, Chiha explains, is the real problem with Israeli statehood. Perpetually insecure, the Israelis would seek to expand their hold over their geographical environment, and bolster this with demographic growth to consolidate their gains. While the writer was wrong in assuming that the Israelis would venture to extend their control all the way to the Euphrates, he was on the money in describing their inherent psychological drive for annexation.

To Chiha's credit, he was also acutely sensitive to the power of symbols in the land of the three great religions. He grasped that both Jews and Palestinians had applied idealistic and historical values to their national aspirations, which would be difficult to reverse. This was especially true in Jerusalem, of supreme significance to the three monotheistic religions, which was still a divided city at the time when he was writing, against the yearning of the Jews.

That brings us to two leitmotifs in Chiha's writings. First, the need for the great powers to implement the internationalisation of Jerusalem decided by the UN General Assembly in 1949, but never put into action. He believed this could only be done if backed by a physical presence and military force. And second, Chiha sought international guarantees for Arab-Israeli frontiers. In most of his later articles on the Palestinian question these goals are repeated almost as an obsession.

Chiha was absolutely correct. In June 1967, Israel would prove him so when it occupied all of Jerusalem, the Sinai peninsula, the Golan Heights and the West Bank. If peace remains elusive, that's because the Israelis continue to regard much of occupied Arab land as barriers necessary to protect them from their Arab neighbours. The Israeli settlement project in the West Bank and the divergences over Jerusalem are prime factors in undermining an overall peace deal.

Most enduring in Mr Chiha's tone on Palestine is something that tells us much about the author himself. Throughout, we are in the presence of a man both rational and liberal. Chiha is deeply troubled by what he knows will endure as a focal point of violence in the Middle East. The partition plan, by making this inevitable, was always an irrational choice, and what ensued was a conflict that would do much to overwhelm liberal impulses in the Arab world.

To a Lebanese political system based on openness and coexistence, Chiha realised, Palestine represented a mortal threat. It unleashed the worst atavisms, which could not do well for Lebanon's mixed Christian-Muslim society, while placing an expansionist Israel at Lebanon's doorstep. And it made recurring wars unavoidable, which would, in time, exacerbate Lebanon's contradictions. Chiha had played a leading role in balancing these, through his always sensible judgments on the functioning of the delicate political system.

Israel still uses its insecurities as justification for occupation. A united Jerusalem is still regarded as the eternal capital of the Jews. And, as the recent war in Gaza showed yet again, death and destruction are the only outlets in a dispute seemingly without end. Meanwhile, Lebanon remains vulnerable to developments southward, its society divided over whether to fight Israel or to remain neutral.

Michel Chiha warned us of all this decades ago. Alas, his fears are our reality.

Monday, November 26, 2012

For March 14, renewal time

It is an unfortunate but very real fact that the March 14 coalition is facing a credibility gap with many of the Western countries that had backed it during the years 2005-2009. That is not to say that the coalition has been abandoned, but rather that its ability to embody the state has suffered as President Michel Suleiman and Prime Minister Najib Miqati have filled the political center.

Miqati’s visit to France this week exposed the nature of the problem. The prime minister was received with all the honors, at a time when Samir Geagea launched what seemed a frivolous attack against Nabih Berri, the parliament speaker, accusing him of having kept parliament open despite the killing of several parliamentarians in the past seven years. How odd, given that Geagea’s allies had earlier blamed Berri for closing the institution between 2006 and 2008.

These types of petty conflicts, at a time of fear that Lebanon may be on the cusp of civil war following on from regional instability, make both foreign representatives and even many in the March 14 base groan. Suleiman and Walid Jumblatt talk about reconciliation; Miqati promises to make the government more effective. Here are the kinds of statements that foreign embassies want to hear. March 14 is justified in demanding an end to the wanton assassination of its partisans and allies. But in rejecting all dialogue it is perceived as part of the problem, which defeats the purpose.

It should have been clear to the March 14 leadership that they had lost the embassies in the wake of Wissam al-Hassan’s elimination. Even many of their supporters were worried about the sectarian consequences surrounding a crime that threatened to bring Sunnis into conflict with Shiites. This was evident before Hassan’s funeral, and yet the sad event only confirmed everyone’s worst fears, when demonstrators tried to storm the Serail, and when that night armed gunmen in Tariq al-Jadideh took to the streets in an eerie re-enactment of the opening stages of Lebanon’s civil war in 1975.

The strength of March 14 was always that it did not do that kind of thing—even if the gunmen were acting independently of the coalition. Hezbollah spent 18 months outside Fouad al-Siniora’s door from 2006 to 2008, yet the party did not storm the prime minister’s office, for fear that it would spark Sunni-Shiite clashes. On the other hand, the party did occupy western Beirut militarily, with allies, and it was to Saad Hariri’s great credit that he did not call in his brethren from the north to save him, for that would have meant war.

The integrity of March 14 came from the fact that it accepted the full authority of the state, even at those moments when shootings and bomb attacks were cutting down some of its leading lights. Of course, at the time the coalition held a parliamentary majority and controlled the cabinet. For it to abandon those principles today because the prime minister happens to be Najib Miqati is politically suicidal, and smacks of opportunism and hypocrisy. When the elections come around next year—elections that will be seminal, for they will define who will lead Lebanon after the exit of Bashar Assad in Syria—it will be very difficult indeed to mobilize voters on those seedy foundations.

There is time for March 14 to backtrack, even if there is little will to do so. One day Assad will fall, and that will radically alter the political landscape for Hezbollah. The party will not go away, but it will be far less able to carry Lebanon into a destructive war with Israel on Iran’s behalf, with much of Lebanese society wanting no such thing. Patience is required, time for the Syrian regime to go, to be followed by a serious effort at reconciliation with the Shiite community to eventually push for integration of Hezbollah’s weapons into the state.

Easier said than done. However, that must be the strategy followed to avert sectarian tensions which, paradoxically, the end of the war in Syria may make more rather than less likely, thanks to the wave of triumphalism that will seize the Lebanese Sunni community. Sunnis will face off against a politically debilitated Hezbollah, but also one massively armed and on its hind legs. Negotiating that phase will require a lucid March 14, not one out to settle old scores, even if Hezbollah has done much to make that sentiment inevitable.

In that way, March 14 will earn both the respect of foreign governments, essential for Lebanon’s wellbeing internationally, and newfound loyalty from its increasingly disenchanted followers. For now the focus must be on winning the elections next year and regaining control over state institutions. Miqati is not the issue, nor Berri. It is how Lebanon will emerge from the Syrian maelstrom, and whether sectarian relations can remain free of violence. March 14 must do more to convince us that it has thought this issue through.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

March 14 has taken its eye off the ball

It has been just over a month since the assassination of Wissam al-Hasan. In that time, the March 14 opposition has taken its eye off the political ball. This may have serious repercussions at election time next year. There is an opportunity to change tack, however, and Michel Sleiman and Walid Jumblatt’s reconciliation efforts provide it.

For weeks, the opposition has sought the departure of Najib Mikati’s team and its replacement by a neutral Cabinet, to no avail. A solid parliamentary majority stands behind the government and, alas, no new government can be formed against the wishes of Hezbollah. Moreover, none of the opposition’s friends overseas will accept a void in Beirut. The position of March 14, as understandable as it is in light of the Hasan killing, will lead nowhere, and indeed is backfiring.

March 14 must remember that before the murder of Hasan it had achieved two notable successes. It had built up a political axis with Sleiman, Jumblatt and even Mikati, in defense of the state; and it had laid down the cornerstone of an arrangement for winning parliamentary elections next year.

Hezbollah was not happy with this de facto March 14-Sleiman-Jumblatt-Mikati collaboration. For the first time since 2005, March 14 could say that both the president and prime minister shared its objectives, in a context far more stable than Saad Hariri’s Cabinet of 2009-2011, which Hezbollah and Syria did everything in their power to undermine. Under Mikati, Hezbollah was compelled to accept the maneuvers of its government partners, even when these went against the party’s preferences, for fear of seeing Mikati resign.

March 14 had a voice in the house, so to speak, and it was no surprise that both Sleiman and Jumblatt were managing to push Hezbollah into a corner on its arms, openly saying that the party had to integrate its arsenal into the Lebanese Army. This was an important advance on the president’s part, and Mikati agreed with it. To insist on the prime minister’s resignation in that context seems not only counterproductive, it unnecessarily grants Hezbollah breathing space.

Then there are the elections, which will largely define who controls Lebanon once the regime of Bashar Assad falls in Damascus. Hezbollah fairly early on gauged the significance of these elections for its own future, realizing that whoever controls Parliament as of next summer would have the means to bring in a friendly government, and the next president in 2014. This legitimacy would protect Hezbollah in a post-Assad Levant and allow it to pursue the “resistance” option against the wishes of many of its compatriots.

Yet the seminal import of the elections has not sunk in on the March 14 side – above all that the opposition will find it difficult to do as well as it did in 2009 without building a broad alliance with so-called centrist forces, including Sleiman and Mikati. Hariri has reconciled with Jumblatt, a good thing, but the real challenge for March 14 will be to win majorities in the predominantly Christian districts of Mount Lebanon. In Baabda and Jbeil, Michel Aoun continues to benefit from the support of rock-solid Shiite electoral blocs, as well as a unified Armenian bloc in the Metn, providing him with decisive advantages, regardless of whether his popularity has declined in relative terms.

For March 14 to gain on Aoun, it will need an electoral relationship with other Christian political forces better able to challenge Aoun in Mount Lebanon, where March 14’s popularity remains limited. Even in the Metn, the Kataeb is uncomfortable with the opposition’s strategy, which could harm March 14’s fortunes. An opening must be made to Sleiman and other independent Christians who will confront Aoun. This cannot be done when March 14 is leaving the president hanging out to dry on reconciliation, which bolsters his credibility.

As for Tripoli, the prevailing animosity toward Mikati could cost March 14 a sweep in the city. The prime minister has his critics, but he also has money and voters. If there is an electoral battle, which is not certain, the opposition could lose one or two seats, a worrisome prospect in what is bound to be a tight race.

Sunni unity is the foundation of March 14’s strength. Yet what we see today is a community increasingly in disarray, buffeted by the Mikati-Hariri rivalry, and more disturbingly by the emergence of radical figures such as Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir in Sidon. By attacking the prime minister, March 14 only opens a wide avenue for Assir to do the same, even as the sheikh contests the credibility of Hariri and March 14. Better for March 14 to side with Mikati, albeit critically, and in that way guarantee that a majority of Sunnis remains on the side of the state, at a time when Assir’s warning that he may form an armed group has taken him in a contentiously opposite direction.

March 14 will probably not reassess its position, but if it were to do so the obvious means would be to embrace Sleiman and Jumblatt’s endeavors to resume the National Dialogue. Yes, a dialogue is difficult with Hezbollah, but March 14 worked with the party after the 2009 elections, despite many assassinations and Hezbollah’s takeover of western Beirut in 2008.

Bashar Assad will fall, which will weaken Hezbollah, but in the meantime Lebanon has to be secured against Sunni-Shiite conflict. March 14 must also prepare for the big test that is the election next year. With Sleiman and Jumblatt, the opposition can bring victory for those wanting to reaffirm state authority against Hezbollah’s project. Hasan’s death has derailed that scheme, and the only beneficiaries are those with no interest in a cohesive state. March 14 cannot afford to lose sight of where its interests truly lie.

Political paralysis in Lebanon bodes well for Hizbollah

Lebanon's contradictions were on display on Monday. Even as Prime Minister Najib Mikati was meeting French officials in Paris, two rockets were discovered in the south of the country aimed at Israel. And this just over a month after the assassination in Beirut of Wissam Al Hassan, the head of the intelligence service of the Internal Security Forces, whose killing greatly destabilised the domestic political scene.

The Lebanese today are facing a range of dangerous challenges. The country continues to be shaken by the war in neighbouring Syria; the economy is suffering; sectarian relations are under alarming stress, particularly between the Shia and Sunni communities; and if Israel and Iran were to confront each other over Tehran's nuclear programme, Hizbollah's likely entry into the fray on Iran's side would have devastating consequences for Lebanon.

The national mood is grim amid fears that the country will succumb to the violence all around it. Such an outcome cannot be discounted, though the Lebanese have one thing going for them: the utter absence of a desire among a large majority of the population to embark on a ruinous civil war that would resolve nothing.

Since the elimination of Mr Hassan, the March 14 coalition, which was close to the dead officer and whose most prominent figure is Saad Hariri, the former prime minister, has focused on bringing down the Mikati government. It has boycotted parliament and national dialogue sessions hosted by President Michel Sleiman. March 14 has also called for the formation of a non-partisan government to oversee parliamentary elections next summer.

These demands have failed to make headway, in part because the United States and the European countries fear that if Mr Mikati were to step down, Lebanon would enter into a prolonged and dangerous vacuum. Nor does Hizbollah have any desire to see a new government take over, and without the party's acquiesce it is difficult to see how any government, neutral or otherwise, could be formed.

Mr Mikati's trip to France, during which he was provided with an opportunity to reaffirm his legitimacy, was a further blow to March 14's strategy. Worse, the Lebanese opposition finds itself being overtaken on its right by Sunni groups disappointed with what they consider to be Mr Hariri's passivity. The former prime minister has been outside Lebanon since April 2011, leaving open spaces in the Sunni community to be filled by far more radical figures, for instance Ahmad Al Assir, a Salafist sheikh in Sidon whose men recently clashed with Hizbollah in the city.

The Sidon fighting followed armed clashes in Beirut on the day of Mr Hassan's burial, when armed Sunni groups in the Tariq Al Jadideh district of Beirut began firing on neighbouring Shia-dominated quarters. This showed that the Sunnis, or at least the angriest among them, are armed. In both cases the army intervened with unusual decisiveness, but ambient tension remains palpable.

The frustration of March 14 is perhaps understandable. Mr Hassan was a political ally and only the latest among the many figures in or close to the coalition wantonly killed in the past seven years since Syria was forced to withdraw from Lebanon. The view in March 14 is that he was murdered on Syria's orders, but that the operation was carried out by Hizbollah, which had an interest in removing a competent man of the shadows who headed an intelligence agency opposed to Hizbollah and the Assad regime in Syria.

Because Mr Hassan provided protection to March 14, the coalition members have felt increasingly vulnerable. They believe that unless Mr Mikati's government is brought down, and by extension that of Hizbollah, which plays a leading role in government, they will remain at the mercy of a system stacked against them. That could well be true, but the error of March 14 has been to pursue calculations that are presently unrealistic, at a moment of great international anxiety when no one is eager to see Lebanon enter a void.

So, March 14 must accept that western countries today prefer a Lebanese government dominated by Hizbollah to the unknown. It is with this in mind that both Mr Sleiman and the Druse leader, Walid Jumblatt, have sought to defuse Sunni-Shia tensions and bring about a measure of reconciliation between March 14 and Hizbollah and its political allies. The president has called for a resumption of the national dialogue. Mr Jumblatt has echoed Mr Sleiman's invitation and pushed an initiative to create a national-unity government.

Mr Jumblatt has much to gain - because he has much to lose if the Sunni and Shia communities begin fighting. The areas under his political control contain or are surrounded by concentrations of the two communities. The economic lifeline of the vulnerable Druse depends on Sunni-Shia harmony. Moreover, Mr Jumblatt is in a sensitive spot: his bloc holds the balance in parliament, and can give the majority to one side or the other. March 14 has criticised him for failing to bring down the government. But the Druse leader feels that this would needlessly antagonise Hizbollah, make the formation of a new government impossible, and heighten animosities further.

For now, March 14 has rejected Mr Sleiman's requests and any talk of a national-unity government. But the paradox is that March 14's maximalism may weaken it further. By discrediting Mr Mikati the coalition only encourages more extreme forces in the Sunni community to go even further. Recently, Mr Assir hinted that he might form an armed group. Yet by doing nothing, March 14 risks being dismissed and outmanoeuvred by these same groups.

These dynamics are hardly reassuring for a country already having great trouble swimming in the region's troubled waters.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Slaying in Beirut holds many warnings for foes of Assad

The assassination on Friday of General Wissam Al Hassan, in the Beirut neighbourhood of Achrafiyeh, was a message sent in various directions. But above all it was a devastating blow to the former prime minister, Saad Hariri, and to the March 14 coalition that opposes Syria.

As head of the Information Department of the Internal Security Forces, Gen Al Hassan was the keeper of the secrets. Among pro-March 14 security figures he was perhaps the man with the greatest insight, along with his superior, Ashraf Rifi, into the murkier corners of Lebanese political life.

Gen Al Hassan had long been a target of the Syrians and Hizbollah, but, typical of the intelligence world, he was also in regular contact with the chief of Hizbollah's intelligence service. He had even flirted with the Syrians, when Mr Hariri negotiated an uneasy rapprochement with Damascus after the 2009 elections under Saudi pressure.

The general also played a central role in the recent arrest of a pro-Syrian Lebanese former minister, Michel Samaha, who stands accused of plotting bomb attacks in Lebanon in conjunction with Ali Mamluk, a top Syrian security official. Many observers, rightly, have interpreted Gen Al Hassan's killing as payback for Mr Samaha's apprehension, and will point to the fact that he was killed very near to Mr Samaha's apartment.

But at the same time, the killing was about more than payback. It was also a warning to Mr Hariri, who was Gen Al Hassan's political sponsor. The former prime minister left Lebanon in April 2011, in part because he feared assassination. Gen Al Hassan's fate will guarantee Mr Hariri stays away even longer, leaving a void in Sunni political ranks.

Mr Hariri has also assisted Syrian rebels, and it is probable that Gen Al Hassan supported this agenda. His elimination will hinder the efforts of the Lebanese foes of Syrian President Bashar Al Assad to gain the initiative at home against the Syrian regime's partners.

Gen Al Hassan, a Sunni from northern Lebanon, was someone with a close eye on Islamist movements in his area of origin. He had infiltrated many Islamist groups in Tripoli, and his death means that the Internal Security Forces will need some time to rebuild their knowledge base in the city. At a moment when the northern Islamists are mobilising in favour of the Syrian uprising, this is worrisome, as it means the state has less ability to establish what is going on in those circles. General Rifi is also from the north, so he can partly compensate for this intelligence void. But he is scheduled to retire at the end of this year.

The killing of Gen Al Hassan was also a broader message to the members of Lebanon's political class, above all President Michel Suleiman, that there will be retribution for distancing themselves from Damascus. In the aftermath of the Samaha affair, Mr Suleiman, like Prime Minister Najib Mikati, became more outspoken about Syria's destabilisation of Lebanon. Now they can measure the consequences: Lebanese concord can be undermined at any moment, leading to a ruinous confrontation between Sunnis and Shiites.

The question is who was behind the bombing that killed Gen Al Hassan and injured about 80. The prevailing view in Beirut is that Syria ordered the operation, but that it was implemented by Hizbollah, which alone has the network to know Gen Al Hassan's movements and act on this in real time. Samir Geagea, the head of the Lebanese Forces party, accused Syria and its Lebanese allies, by which he implicitly meant Hizbollah. The Druze leader Walid Jumblatt blamed Mr Al Assad but not Hizbollah explicitly, mainly to avoid falling into a Syrian trap of heightening sectarian hostility.

There had been speculation that Syria took the odd step of enlisting the militarily untested Mr Samaha in a bombing campaign with the aim of provoking sectarian clashes because Hizbollah was reluctant to do so on Syria's behalf. The rationale was that the party, though close to the Assad regime, had no desire to exacerbate Sunni-Shiite animosities, as this might suck it into a debilitating civil conflict.

If true, then how does one explain the assassination of Gen Al Hassan? It's possible that Hizbollah, if it was indeed involved in the crime, had little latitude to refuse a Syrian request to get rid of the general. More likely, it saw an advantage in removing a man who was regarded as a favourite to succeed Gen Rifi, and concluded that sectarian tensions could be contained.

Above all, there was benefit in removing a Sunni who headed an institution, and had the skills, to stand up to Hizbollah in a post-Assad period, when the party will seek to consolidate its hold on Lebanon without Syrian backing.

Gen Al Hassan was no choirboy. He visited Damascus for a meeting with Mr Al Assad in the interregnum when Mr Hariri's ties with Syria improved. To senior Lebanese politicians, such a political reward must have involved a quid pro quo. No one could deny Gen Al Hassan's litheness, a quality of good intelligence chiefs - and he certainly was one. A replacement will not be found easily.