Friday, March 30, 2012

Barack’s non-vision thing

History is full of political figures whose destiny leads them in one direction, before they storm off into quite another. George W. Bush, for instance, was supposed to be an insular president, for whom the furthermost horizon was Mexico. Instead, he took the United States into Afghanistan, Iraq and a global war against terrorism.

Barack Obama would shudder at the comparison, but he too is a man of displaced attention. Last November, the president announced that the United States would henceforth concentrate on the Asia-Pacific region in its foreign policy. He implied this would come at the expense of the broader Middle East. “As we end today’s wars, I have directed my national security team to make our presence and missions in the Asia-Pacific a top priority,” Obama declared.

Obama had a point in realigning the United States toward Asia. Washington’s most substantial long-term competitor for global power is China, which also happens to be a vital prop for America’s unsettled financial system. At the same time, at a moment of grave economic fragility, the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan were, and in the latter case still are, a drain on limited American resources.

However, it’s difficult not to lament the fact that Obama’s haste in exiting from the Middle East, unseemly haste, has denied him a golden opportunity to redefine America’s regional role. After decades of stalemate, which America buttressed, the Arab countries are going through great transformations. Yet all Obama appears to want to do is leave the house and slam the door, as if ending a bad marriage.  

Surprisingly, Obama has earned high praise from numerous American pundits for lacking any vision whatsoever in dealing with the Arab uprisings. It’s funny how the foreign policy commentariat has traditionally been partial to those favoring nullifying prudence over audacity that might open up new political opportunities. Obama used the term “audacity to hope” in his election campaign, but when hope was expressed in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Syria, what most of us saw was an American president almost irritated by this.

That’s not to suggest that it’s been all mistakes by Washington. Ultimately, if belatedly, Obama embraced the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings. While he was dragged kicking and screaming into Libya, he did go along with the military campaign when it became clear that the Europeans would take the lead. However, it’s in Syria, the bloodiest of the rebellions—therefore where America should have displayed the utmost moral authority—that Obama has been the most feckless.

The Syria crisis has profound repercussions for global human rights, not least with regard to the doctrine of the responsibility to protect. It also has strategic implications for Washington’s standing in the Middle East, particularly in the way it affects the crucial American relationship with Iran. Yet Obama has largely strayed away from Syria, concealing his inaction with loud but empty rhetoric.

Worse, the president has effectively followed the lead of Russia, whose objectives have been reflected in the strategy of Kofi Annan, the Arab League-United Nations envoy on Syria. That means endorsing negotiations between President Bashar al-Assad and the Syrian opposition. Yet Assad’s victims reject this. They know it may allow the Syrian leader to regain control of his country.

It’s a pity that Syrians have to pay a price for Obama’s electoral calculations. With American voters going to the polls in November, the president wants to show that he is reorienting the United States away from the unpopular Middle East. But he could have taken another route. America has been offered a rare moment to reinvent itself in the Arab world, as the sponsor and defender of more open, pluralistic political orders. Why did Obama not consider this?

For years, many laughed when anyone mentioned liberty and democracy in the region. Then entire Arab societies took to the streets demanding liberty and democracy. The careful lawyer in Obama didn’t quite know how to react to this remarkable renaissance of ideas. Rather than identify an opening (in the same way, for example, that Qatar did) for America to mobilize its tremendous ideological influence and soft power, the president made it seem as if Arab aspirations were an imposition on American priorities elsewhere.

Political Islam has doubtless been a freezing factor on American behavior. There is a simplistic view in Washington that if you give Arabs the right to vote, Islamists will win. But Islamists have gained because they often were the only organized, or semi-organized, opposition to the autocrats. Their popularity has substantially been a result of their hostility to corrupt, violent regimes. This should be a lesson to the Americans, who bolstered these regimes. 

Ultimately, liberty, whether it is stifled by ruling families or by resurgent Islamist movements, will prevail as the yardstick for popular Arab aspirations. Obama should have sensed that before turning away from the Middle East. In failing to do so he has lessened America’s ability to shape aftermaths in the region. No true visionary would have so readily surrendered such a weapon.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Iraq torn over Syria as it assumes Arab League leadership

It's ironic that a main concern at the Arab League summit this week in Baghdad will be to ensure that the conflict in Syria does not turn that country into a new Iraq.

"Iraqisation", like "Lebanonisation" three decades ago, has become a byword for the breakdown of the state through sectarian and ethnic antagonism. And yet after the American invasion in 2003, the Iraqis repeatedly confounded those who had predicted the worst. While Iraq entered into a prolonged and bloody period of civil conflict, it avoided descending into a full-blown civil war, where violence becomes systemic and mobilises large swathes of society.

How disquieting, then, that sectarian relations have soured in recent months. Things began seriously deteriorating when Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki sought the arrest last December of the most senior Iraqi Sunni politician, Vice President Tareq Al Hashemi, accusing him of running death squads. Mr Al Hashemi, who sought refuge in Irbil in Iraqi Kurdistan, denied the charge, and recently accused Iraqi security forces of having killed one of his bodyguards under torture.

In fact, the divisions go deeper. Mr Al Maliki first angered the main rival bloc, Al Iraqiyya, of which Mr Al Hashemi is a member, when he refused to implement a power-sharing deal after the 2010 elections. While Al Iraqiyya is led by a Shiite, Ayad Allawi, it is perceived by Mr Al Maliki and other Shia leaders as a repository for Sunni political aspirations and sympathy for the era of Saddam Hussein.

Nor has the prime minister successfully handled other pressing issues. Relations between Baghdad and the Kurdish autonomous region remain poor, and have not been helped by Mr Al Hashemi seeking refuge in Irbil. And while there has been some improvement in Iraq's rapport with its Sunni-dominated neighbourhood, above all with Saudi Arabia, there is persistent mistrust in the Arab world for a regime that is regarded as favouring the Shia community against Sunnis, and that is seen as under the control of Iran.

The Baghdad summit will be tricky for Mr Al Maliki. All of Iraq's contradictions risk being aggravated by how Arabs address the Syrian crisis. Initially, Baghdad was reluctant to support the uprising against President Bashar Al Assad, but recently it has moved with the Arab consensus. Mr Al Maliki, whose government will hold the Arab League's rotating presidency after the summit, will soon be in the front row. He will have to reconcile the discordant views of Arab regimes over practical ways to dislodge Mr Al Assad, while avoiding alienating Iran, which backs the Syrian repression.

To be fair to Mr Al Maliki, he is someone who knows Syria from both ends, so to speak. He sought refuge in Damascus as an Iraqi exile during late 1970s and again during the 1990s. But he was also prime minister in August 2009, when he blamed Syria for a series of attacks against Iraqi ministries. Nor can Mr Al Maliki be readily labelled an Iranian stooge. He has little margin to oppose Tehran, but has also frequently manoeuvred at the expense of Iran's allies.

Many Iraqi Shiites worry that if Mr Al Assad falls, Iraqi Sunnis will feel empowered by what they will interpret as a victory for their brethren next door. This could destabilise Iraq, and surround the country with Sunni states - Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Turkey and potentially a Syria that could opt to overhaul its ties with an Iranian ally. That explains why the Iraqi prime minister, and also Iraq's Kurds, were reluctant to endorse the Syrian revolt for much of the past year. For separate reasons, both preferred the status quo.

That attitude is no longer possible. Arab states may differ over what to do next in Syria, but there was broad approval to suspend Syria's membership in the Arab League, and there is an acceptance that Mr Al Assad must go. The question is how. From an Iraqi perspective, the proposal of Kofi Annan, the Arab League-United Nations envoy to Syria, buys wiggle room. Mr Annan has proposed, among other things, negotiations between Mr Al Assad and the Syrian opposition. This has undermined an Arab League plan demanding that the Syrian president step down and cede power to his first vice president.

For countries such as Russia, China, Iran and even the United States, the Annan plan represents an alternative to civil war. Mr Al Maliki probably agrees, and will support anything that calms the conflict in Syria. The problem is that a majority in the Syrian opposition reject dialogue with a man they consider a mass murderer. Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which have emerged as Mr Al Assad's most ardent foes, also appear to feel that a dialogue will strengthen Syria's president. There have been reports that they are arming and financing the opposition.

Not all Arab states are happy with such an initiative. Mr Al Maliki may try to exploit Arab ambiguities. If Syria descends into civil war, he doesn't want Iraq drawn in, or used as a conduit for weapons. The prime minister will have to juggle a hot diplomatic potato, satisfying the Saudis and Qataris, who don't trust him, while simultaneously building up a common Arab position on Syria that shields Iraq from a prospective Syrian implosion.

When Baghdad asked to host the Arab summit, it imagined the gathering would affirm Iraq's return to normality. The coming months promise something very different for Mr Al Maliki. The prime minister will have to deploy all his diplomatic skills to ensure that Iraq doesn't get sucked under by Syria's sectarian animosities. Not easy for a man who has hardened sectarian animosities at home.

The Annan plan will bring more violence

There was something nauseating in Russian President Dmitri Medvedev’s recent comments that the plan currently being peddled by Kofi Annan, the Arab League-United Nations envoy on Syria, represents the last chance to avert a Syrian civil war.

Medvedev knows that Russia has been greatly responsible for escalating the violence in Syria, sending weapons and advisers to help President Bashar Assad repress his own people. Diplomatically, however, the Russians are paying no price. In fact, they’re making headway.

The outgoing Russian president isn’t alone. Annan’s six-point plan has been picked up by the international community as the way to resolve the Syrian crisis. That the plan is awash with ambiguity, so that each government can interpret it advantageously, has been its strongest point. However, imprecise plans are usually easier to market than to execute. Annan’s scheme is no different.

The former United Nations secretary-general has put together a package that includes kick-starting a Syrian-led process of negotiations “to address the legitimate aspirations and concerns of the Syrian people”; a commitment by all sides to end the fighting, under U.N. supervision; the provision of humanitarian assistance to areas affected by combat, including implementation of a two-hour humanitarian pause to allow this; intensification of the “pace and scale” of release of “arbitrarily detained persons,” as well as identification of their place of detention and authorization to visit such facilities; agreement to grant freedom of movement throughout Syria to journalists; and respect for “freedom of association and the right to demonstrate peacefully as legally guaranteed.”

The Syrian regime has accepted this proposal, and one can immediately see why. It ensures that Assad will remain in office to bargain with the opposition in the “Syrian-led process.” In that way, Annan has effectively undermined an Arab League plan demanding that the Syrian president step down and surrender power to his first vice president. Annan’s plan also buys the Syrian security services more time to suffocate the uprising, since it will take weeks to bring all the machinery in place, not least a sizable U.N. observer team.

And last but not least, it gives Assad considerable leeway to dance around the wording. Two examples: Who defines what an “arbitrarily detained person” is? The Syrians will argue that those arrested broke Syrian law, and it’s not clear what authority, let alone information, the U.N. will have to disprove this. As when it comes to freedom of association and the right to demonstrate peacefully, what does the caveat “as legally guaranteed” tagged onto the end imply? If the Syrian regime deems a demonstration illegal under its laws, what happens then? Anticipate endless bickering over the details, and don’t expect Russia and China to contradict Assad in these disputes.

The most contentious aspect of the plan is that Assad stays in place. It’s remarkable that some Western observers regard the Annan project as a mechanism for ousting the Syrian president. On this page, for instance, David Ignatius writes that it “could open the way toward a ‘soft landing’ in Syria that would remove Assad without shattering the stability of the country.” And yet Annan’s plan is but a modestly reinforced version of an Arab League plan from last November – one also accepted by Damascus – that hardly weakened Syria’s president.

We should have no illusions. Russia and China consider the Annan plan a formula for saving Bashar Assad, not getting rid of him. The most ridiculous claim in the past two weeks is that Moscow and Beijing have softened on Syria, and proved this by moving closer to the Americans and the Europeans in the Security Council, where they signed on to a presidential statement backing Annan’s mission.

The truth is that it’s the Obama administration and its European partners that have adopted the Russian and Chinese perspective. When President Barack Obama says that Assad will fall, that’s empty oratory destined to keep Syria at arm’s length during an election year, and avoid accusations that the U.S. president is soft on mass murder. But Obama’s focus is elsewhere. He prefers to subcontract Syria to regional states, even to the feckless Russians, so that he can pursue America’s strategic reorientation away from the Middle East.

The Russian calculation is that if Assad can begin negotiations with the opposition, he will prevail. The different opposition groups will be divided, with some endorsing talks and others rejecting them, permitting the Syrian regime to select its interlocutors. Those who say no to Annan’s offer, Moscow believes, will lose international legitimacy. Once the situation is calmer, the Syrian president will reassert his writ, isolate his foes, introduce cosmetic reforms, and perhaps even integrate opposition figures into a government that otherwise has no margin to challenge the Assad-led security order.

The problem is that most Syrians are wise to the dangers of Annan’s plan. Many prefer civil war to more Assad rule, compounded by barbarous retribution if the Syrian president regains his grip. Annan wants Assad’s victims to cede to their president the latitude to subjugate them for years to come. The provisos in his project manufactured in New York won’t change that. Annan’s six points offer only generalities to defend the Syrian people, with no valid implementation mechanism, and no penalties if Assad ignores the conditions.

That is why Annan’s endeavors will likely accelerate a military conflict. The Syrian opposition will refuse to deal with their killer; those who do so will be marginalized. As many Syrians observe the international community endorsing the Russian and Chinese position; as they realize that Obama and Nicolas Sarkozy are patent hypocrites; and as they witness outsiders, including Syrian exiles hostile to the Assad regime, maneuvering without consulting them, they will become more frustrated and angry, and they will purchase weapons. There will be war, all because no one dares show Bashar Assad the exit.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Voting for the prodigal son

It’s never a good idea to write off Saad Hariri, who next month will have spent a year outside Lebanon. However, several telltale signs suggest that the former prime minister’s absence could cost him politically in the parliamentary elections scheduled for 2013.

The first is that Hariri’s Future Movement apparently continues to suffer from cash-flow problems, severely curtailing its powers of patronage. The movement has already laid off staff, and recently the two Hariri television stations, Future and Future News, merged, to further reduce expenses. While a rationalization of Future’s political expenditures was always a necessity, what we have today is more serious. Unless Hariri reinvigorates his funding networks before election time, the shortfall may decisively affect voting in areas.

A second sign is that new figures are stepping into the vacuum that Hariri has left. The case of Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir in Saida is a good example. Assir appeared on Marcel Ghanem’s talk show last week. He was critical of Hariri for being absent from Lebanon and for having labeled him an extremist, before coming across as someone both coherent and composed. Assir is emerging as a significant player in Saida. This cannot please the Hariris, who hail from the city and regard the mood there as a barometer of their popularity.

Even among Hariri’s followers, there is dissatisfaction. For instance, Mouin Meraabi, a parliamentarian from Akkar, has disparaged the Future Movement’s policies in the district, in particular its poor response to the humanitarian crisis brought about by the arrival of Syrian refugees. A number of Meraabi’s fellow bloc members, too, are wondering what is going on. They will not break with Hariri, but they readily acknowledge a sense of loss in Future’s political direction.

If there is to be a backlash against Saad Hariri, where might it be most potent? The Assir phenomenon in Saida needs to be watched closely. There may well be sporadic contact between the sheikh and members of the Future Movement, despite Assir’s harsh words for the former prime minister. But even if the mutual antipathy softens, the sheikh will definitely have a say in elections when Saida votes next.

In the North, Hariri should be equally careful. Already in place is the solid core of a rival list in Tripoli. It includes, of course, Najib Mikati, Mohammad Safadi, and Faysal Karami. While Mosbah al-Ahdab has been loyal to March 14, he bears a grudge against Hariri and the Future Movement for having failed to appoint him a minister in May 2008, after Michel Sleiman’s election to the presidency, and for having dropped him entirely from its list in 2009. Ahdab could conceivably join Mikati if Tripoli enters into an electoral confrontation, bringing with him valuable anti-Syrian bona fides.

Nor can we forget that there is a wild card in the city, namely Ashraf Rifi, the Internal Security Forces chief. He is popular in the North and has been protected by both Hariri and Mikati. Which list would he join if he were a candidate? The choice could be fateful. 

In Beirut, the situation is different. Hariri remains dominant because there is no obvious Sunni alternative. However, observers of Beirut politics, assuming the districting in 2013 is the same as in 2009, expect the former prime minister, because of his long absence, to be more vulnerable to the demands of his allies, among them Samir Geagea. The Lebanese Forces leader is thought to want to place at least one loyal Christian on Hariri’s list in the heavily Sunni third district of Beirut, where three Christian seats are up for grabs.

There is also some question as to how Al-Jamaa al-Islamiya will lean. Currently, the group has one parliamentarian, Imad al-Hout, from the third district in Beirut. However, Al-Jamaa has sizable bloc votes in Beirut, Saida, and Sunni districts in the North. Wherever there are races, it will find itself in an ideal position to play Hariri off against eventual challengers and demand more Al-Jamaa candidates on electoral lists, before backing the highest bidder.

In the West Bekaa and Zahle, Hariri continues to have influence over Sunni voters, but probably not as much as in 2009, when Lebanon was more polarized. In the Chouf, where a third of the electorate is Sunni, Hariri will almost certainly side with Walid Jumblatt. In exchange for this, the Druze leader is likely to see Ghazi al-Aridi taken on a Hariri list in Beirut and Wael Abu Faour in the West Bekaa. In other words, in mainly rural areas the capacity of Hariri to reconfigure or abandon his 2009 alliances will be limited.

This is important, because it implies that in many constituencies the former prime minister will perhaps react more than he initiates. In Saida and Tripoli, whether there is a contest or the political differences with his opponents are papered over, Hariri may be less the dominating force that he was during the previous two elections. Even in Beirut, he may have to pay a fee to his allies, who will feel that they are entitled to more from the former prime minister for having remained in Lebanon through difficult times when he was abroad.

The outcome in Syria will have a fundamental impact on the next elections, and on the Sunni mood specifically. Until now, Hariri and his followers have been insufficiently active, except verbally, in taking advantage of what has become a defining struggle for the Sunnis of Syria, and by extension of Lebanon. The former prime minister still expects to alight at the last minute, promise assistance and win a new majority. But things may not be quite so simple.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Annan's muddled diplomacy is a fig leaf for Syrian regime

Last week, Sergei Lavrov, Russia's foreign minister, made a disconcerting revelation. Kofi Annan, the United Nations-Arab League envoy to Syria, is not discussing the departure of Syrian President Bashar Al Assad from office. "I can assure you that there was no talk about Assad's departure," Mr Lavrov declared in an interview, describing what Mr Annan had told him.

If that's true, then what precisely is Mr Annan's mandate? When the former United Nations secretary general was appointed, we were told that his assignment was to implement the Arab League plan for Syria drafted in January. This calls for Mr Al Assad to hand over power to his first vice president, which would be followed by the formation of national unity government that would seek to end the violence by withdrawing the army from cities and releasing prisoners.

Mr Annan is being buffeted by the bargaining all around him. Recently, Russia and the Arab League, after a tense meeting in Cairo, agreed to several principles for resolving the Syrian crisis. However, behind a facade of concord, the two sides had different priorities.

Mr Lavrov, at a press conference with the Qatari foreign minister, Sheikh Hamad bin Jassem Al Thani, listed the following principles: agreement to end the violence, whatever the source; the establishment of an impartial monitoring mechanism; the rejection of foreign intervention; and the removal of obstacles blocking the distribution of humanitarian aid to Syrians.

The last principle was by far the most ambiguous and open to contradictory interpretations. As the Russian foreign minister put it, Russia and the Arab League had agreed to strongly support the Annan mission so that it could initiate a dialogue between the Syrian government and the opposition - as Mr Lavrov added, one based on references "accepted" by the United Nations and the Arab League.

Sheikh Hamad repeated the same principles, but used a slightly different formulation on the final point, mentioning the references "adopted" by the United Nations and the Arab League. Since only the Arab League has actually adopted decisions on Syria, while the Security Council has been stalemated, this could have been a subtle way of redefining the accord as Arab governments construe it.

Word games aside, what the Arab League and Russia agreed, like the Security Council statement being prepared to bolster Mr Annan in his task, will mean different things to different governments. Arab countries, particularly Saudi Arabia and Qatar, along with a large majority of the Syrian opposition, still consider his mediation as a lever to get rid of Mr Al Assad. Russia, in contrast, views it as a device allowing the Syrian president to regain legitimacy and remain in power.

Mr Annan will have to manoeuvre between these conflicting objectives, which reflect the substantial divergences between the United Nations and the Arab League. The envoy has a six-point plan of his own, which he presented to the Security Council last week. While it has not been made public, it appears similar to that outlined by Mr Lavrov and Sheikh Hamad, including a Syrian-led dialogue, an end to violence and a UN observer operation of some sort.

There are profound difficulties with this approach. The core of the problem is that once a dialogue begins, Mr Al Assad will necessarily represent the Syrian regime. The logic of such negotiations will ensure that the president stays in office, since what kind of national dialogue can take place that sets as a precondition the eventual exclusion of one of the parties? And if Mr Al Assad fails to vacate the presidency, then the Arab League plan is meaningless.

That is what the Russians are wagering on, and Mr Annan's remarks suggest he is closer to Moscow than to the Arab states. No wonder Mr Lavrov is so keen to assist Mr Annan, while advocating humanitarian aid. The Obama administration, as well, favours a political solution, ruling out arming the Syrian opposition. The French agree, while Turkey seems unsure of what to do. Ankara's warning last week that it might set up a safety zone inside Syria should be taken seriously, but without international cover, such a move could backfire.

If Mr Al Assad dominates the Syrian dialogue, and the opposition is made to participate, the president will regain the initiative. At best he will form a feeble national-unity government with opposition figures whom he selects. Only the president, bolstered by the security services, holds true power in Syria. That is why political dialogue is a byword for the successful repression of the Syrian uprising.

The large fly in the ointment of the dialogue delusion is that the vast majority of Syrians hostile to their regime refuse to deal with a president who has behaved with unspeakable barbarity. A number of powerful Arab states, too, are uneasy. Who can disagree? Mr Annan is close to selling out the Syrian opposition. If he is about to undermine the Arab League plan, then the Arab states should insist on tightening his terms of reference to their satisfaction. Otherwise, they must withdraw their endorsement of the envoy.

Of course, the Arabs won't dare openly do such a thing. Instead, they will arm the opposition, hoping to weaken Mr Al Assad on the ground. Mr Annan's strategy and that of all those pursuing the pipe dream of dialogue will not stabilise Syria. On the contrary, Mr Al Assad's political survival will just make things worse, and it will guarantee further militarisation of the conflict, without the benefit of a parallel political strategy to contain the consequences.

Professional negotiators adore talking, because it is the stuff of diplomacy. But many Syrians today couldn't care less about diplomacy. They see a mass murderer in Mr Al Assad and will pursue his ruin to the end. Mr Annan insults them by ignoring this reality.

Aoun-Hezbollah ties hit a glass ceiling

You have to wonder what Michel Aoun thought about the incident on Monday at the Maronite Antonine University, in which Shiite Muslim students prayed in front of the facility’s church. The ideals of religious coexistence aside, as a private religious institution the university did have the right to restrict such an act within its confines.

Aoun’s relationship with Hezbollah provides an interesting backdrop to the episode. Aounist students asked their Shiite comrades to respect university rules, but it was the Lebanese Forces who led the condemnation. It has been just over six years that Aoun signed an agreement with Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s secretary-general. During that period, both sides benefited. Yet, ultimately, Aoun failed to become president, which was at the heart of his calculations, and the party did little to help him in the 2008 election.

What about today? The reality is that the Aounist-Hezbollah partnership appears to have hit a glass ceiling. Both sides remain friendly. They may very well renew their electoral collaboration in 2013, though precisely how will be shaped substantially by the events in Syria. But the limits of the association are clearer than ever.

A few naïve souls once interpreted the Aounist-Hezbollah alliance as a historic reconciliation between Maronites and Shiites. Aoun represented a fundamentally new type of Christian leader, they gushed, someone who had embraced the reality of the Shiite revival. Such considerations failed to take into account that Maronites began flirting with the Shiites as far back as the early 1980s, when they sensed that the community was as hostile to the Palestinian military presence as they were. During Israel’s invasion of 1982, many Shiites openly welcomed the removal of Palestinians from the south, while a number of Amal-controlled Shiite neighborhoods in the southern suburbs of Beirut opposed the presence of Palestinian combatants.

This did not go far, partly because President Amin Gemayel never opened a serious channel to the Shiites, partly because Nabih Berri, then the community’s champion, fell under Syria’s sway. But Aoun was no maverick in looking to Hezbollah, not any more than Samir Geagea was in allying himself with the Sunni leader Saad Hariri or with the Druze leader Walid Jumblatt. Amid the shifting tectonic plates that is Lebanese politics, cross-sectarian alliances are frequent.

Unfortunately, Aoun’s and Nasrallah’s rapprochement had little impact at the social level. Christians are not any more or less friendly to Shiites than they were previously. The Christians of Hadeth, many of them solid Aounists, are even more anxious about the extension of predominantly Shiite quarters into their vicinity than they were before Aoun’s alliance with Hezbollah. The vast majority of Michel Aoun’s electors in Mount Lebanon hardly deals with Shiites at all, or in a way that reflects the Aoun-Nasrallah understanding.

That is normal, you would say. After all, why should political ties trickle down to the popular level? Absolutely true, in postwar Lebanon they have tended not to do so. Which is precisely why we should not read more into the Aounist-Shiite rapport than it merits. And the controversy over what happened at the Antoine University brought home again the regrettable chasm between the communities.

Yet even politically, Aoun and Hezbollah are drifting in separate directions. Both support the barbarous repression undertaken by Bashar Assad in Syria. Both remain hostile to March 14. However, Aoun and Nasrallah have incompatible priorities for the government, and this has led to real, if understated, tension between them.

The aim of Aoun is to use his successes in the Cabinet to consolidate his authority among Christians, possibly make a bid for the presidency in two years’ time, and eventually pave the way for a smooth succession within the Aounist movement, presumably to his son-in-law. Nasrallah’s objective is to brace Hezbollah for sudden transformations in the regional order – above all the fall of the Assad regime, but also a possible war with Israel, or even the consequences of embarrassing revelations before the Special Tribunal for Lebanon.

Aoun’s strategy inevitably leads to confrontation, since the man knows no other tactic to get his way than heightening polarization, for example threatening to bring down the government. The general is in a hurry. He wants to decide all major Christian administrative appointments; he wants to decisively weaken the Future Movement while it’s down; and he wants to assist Gibran Bassil, whose schemes are designed to exploit the monumental cash cow that is the Energy Ministry.

Nasrallah, on the contrary, seeks to calm the game. He wants the government to remain in place, and to succeed. This he made plain in a speech several weeks ago, in a patent stab at Aoun. Hezbollah doesn’t benefit from a vacuum, which may mean losing its grip on the ground, which is already evident anyway. The party is unsure about the president, Michel Sleiman, the prime minister, Najib Mikati, the Parliament speaker, Nabih Berri, and, of course, Walid Jumblatt, but it needs to keep them onside for now, to avert isolation.

That is why Hezbollah has remained neutral on administrative appointments, weakening Aoun’s hand; and it is why the party allowed Mikati to fund the special tribunal when Aoun was recklessly leading the charge against this. It is also why Nasrallah has not opposed Berri’s and Jumblatt’s maneuvering over budget legislation, even though their endorsement of a package deal to legitimize past outlays by March 14-led governments undermined Aoun’s position.

Aoun has a gift for painting himself into a corner, then screaming so others will let him out. Hezbollah used to help him, but not much anymore. The party faces existential challenges, and has little incentive to advance Aoun’s parochial agenda. The confrontation at the Antoine University will be papered over, but it stands as a useful reminder of the guardedness coloring Shiite-Christian relations, and now increasingly those between Aoun and Nasrallah.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Hariri tribunal limps along, tainted by dubious motives

A revealing interview was published in the Ottawa Citizen last weekend, related to the investigation of the assassination in February 2005 of Rafiq Hariri, Lebanon's former prime minister. The case is now in the trial phase, before the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, and four suspects, all Hizbollah members, have been indicted.

The interview was with Daniel Bellemare, the Canadian judge who recently stepped down as prosecutor of the special tribunal. Before taking that position, Mr Bellemare was the last head of a United Nations commission set up to investigate the Hariri killing. He replaced Serge Brammertz, a Belgian who is currently the prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.

The Hariri investigation figured prominently in a book I wrote describing the period in Lebanon after Mr Hariri's assassination.

In researching The Ghosts of Martyrs Square, I spoke to onetime members of the UN team, as well as to Lebanese judicial officials who had collaborated with the international investigators. I learned from them that Mr Brammertz, who took over from the German Detlev Mehlis in January 2006 at a critical moment in the enquiry, had progressed very little during the two years he was in office.

Which brings us back to Mr Bellemare's interview. The former prosecutor did not say much, but what he did say unambiguously implied that Mr Brammertz had indeed not done his job. As the newspaper described it, when asked about the state of the investigation when he arrived in Beirut, Mr Bellemare "pauses, smiles tightly and says, 'Let's say there was a lot of work to do.'"

In 2010, a Canadian documentary accused Mr Brammertz of delaying a key facet of the investigation, namely examination of mobile telephone calls between participants in the crime. This confirmed information that I, too, had heard. Instead, it was a Lebanese military officer, Wissam Eid, who cracked the telecommunications data. Why so sensitive a task was left to the Lebanese, when a UN commission had been set up to undertake precisely such assignments, was never explained. My understanding is that Mr Brammertz wanted it that way.

Mr Eid was later killed, but his conclusions spurred UN investigators to pick up where he had left off. Indeed, telecoms analysis served as the basis for the indictment drafted last year. Mr Bellemare confirmed the essential role played by Mr Eid, declaring that a review of his work "was a very, very key starting point for us".

This is no place to address Mr Brammertz's actions. However, there is a strong case to be made that his failures crippled the UN investigation, and that this has had a decisively damaging impact on the trial. All the suspects named until now were allegedly active at the operational level. But investigators early on concluded that Mr Hariri was the casualty of a vast conspiracy, one that went up the political and security hierarchy in Syria and Lebanon. The number of suspects falls woefully short of those who should be in the dock.

Mr Bellemare has been replaced by Norman Farrell, another Canadian and previously Mr Brammertz's deputy at the former Yugoslavia tribunal. Before leaving, Mr Bellemare reportedly filed an expanded indictment. Because he based his initial indictment on the suspects' telephone use, it's likely that the amended indictment will accuse some or all of those in the initial indictment of taking part in further assassinations or assassination attempts before and after Mr Hariri's killing.

New individuals may also be identified, but they will probably be linked to the first batch of suspects.

None of the Hizbollah members are in custody, nor is there any hope that the Lebanese authorities will arrest them. That is why in February the special tribunal decided to pursue a trial in absentia.

Not having the suspects in court could represent a major challenge for the prosecution. Mr Bellemare's case, by his own admission, was based on circumstantial evidence more than on witness testimony. While this is perfectly credible, it is also more difficult to prove in court, particularly if the prosecution and defence become embroiled in technical arguments over the validity of the telecoms evidence.

Here is where the poor quality of Mr Brammertz's work comes in. When he took over from Mr Mehlis, the Belgian was expected to consolidate his predecessor's work by gathering more witness statements. Mr Mehlis never doubted that high-level Syrian and Lebanese officials were behind the Hariri murder. He interviewed senior intelligence figures in both countries, even seeking to take down the testimony of Syrian President Bashar Al Assad. His strategy was to conduct his probe from the top down - to go after principal decision-makers and use their statements to unravel the layers of the plot.

Mr Brammertz abandoned that approach. Instead, he investigated from the bottom up. Not surprisingly, he lost momentum and was soon bogged down in forensic minutiae. The shift left the UN mission in an investigative no-man's land. That is why Mr Bellemare had so little in his files when he took over. Most damaging, Mr Brammertz formulated an indictment without an articulated motive. Suspects are named, but no reason is offered for why they eliminated Mr Hariri.

The special tribunal may yet find suspects guilty. But no one seriously believes that those who ordered the crime, and most of those who facilitated it, will be punished.

This was not always the case. There were high hopes when Mr Mehlis departed that the truth would come out, ending impunity for assassins in Lebanon. Thanks to Mr Bellemare we now know that Mr Brammertz had other ideas.

The Assads go postal

On Wednesday, the British daily The Guardian published private emails of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his wife Asma. From a voyeuristic perspective, the correspondence is eloquent indeed in exposing the crassness of the Syrian ruling family. However, if we base ourselves only on what was made available to readers, it tells us relatively little about Assad’s role in Syria’s merciless repression.

The newspaper received a trove of 3,000 emails from a Syrian opposition source. It then conducted a methodical verification effort to confirm they were genuine. Only a handful have been highlighted by The Guardian to date, and what these exchanges show, primarily, is Bashar al-Assad and his interlocutors discussing ways to shape foreign coverage of the uprising in Syria, and Asma Assad buying expensive consumer goods online. One email, sent by the daughter of Qatar’s Emir Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani to Asma, recommends that the Assads leave Syria, adding that they could move to Doha.

It does tell us something that in the midst of the Syrian crisis last year, both the president and his wife seemed devoted to shopping—he, for music applications, she for expensive household decorations. Such behavior creates the impression of a family strangely detached from the day-to-day suffering in Syria—the Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette moment of the Syrian revolution. It is rather more difficult to imagine the late Hafez al-Assad sending his wife Anissa a music app of their generation’s equivalent of Blake Shelton’s “God Gave Me You” while his army was crushing the uprising in Hama.

Not long ago, diplomats in Damascus believed that Bashar al-Assad regularly attended the meetings of senior intelligence chiefs to address the protests, before leaving soon thereafter when practical measures were agreed. One interpretation, the generous one, is that he is a hands-off leader who has little disposition to implicate himself in the details of power. Less kindly, one might assume the Syrian president is well aware of the mass murder being committed in his name, therefore prefers to keep up a layer of deniability.

In one respect, the cache of emails leaked to The Guardian may do a disservice. For some they suggest—and, again, we’re only talking about the limited number that have been made public until now—that Bashar is something of a nebbish, a weak-willed, adolescent leader. This portrayal plays up his relative innocence, in contrast to his brother Maher, for instance, who is regarded as someone who would never hesitate to climb down personally into the killing pit.

Yet while Bashar may not himself be preparing lists of those whom to kill and maim, he is the cornerstone of the system, the final arbiter between the officers when there are disagreements or decisive choices to be made. And his verdicts are not transmitted via the Internet. They are presented orally, even if they do sometimes filter down into written orders, of which several have surfaced in the past year.

In commenting on the emails, The Guardian noted that they showed Bashar al-Assad employing the tactics of his father, namely maintaining parallel lines of communication to his subordinates, in order to play them off against one another and avert a coup. In fact the emails don’t show that. Hafez al-Assad’s separate lines of authority and reporting were with his military and intelligence chiefs. Bashar al-Assad may well have a similar system in place, but it is not revealed in the emails.

Rather, what we know is that he communicated with several people who offered advice on media-related affairs, circumventing other more established figures who usually manage information in Damascus. Two pen pals were relatively inexperienced young women, another was his father-in-law, while a fourth was Hussein Mortada, a Lebanese businessman with connections to Hezbollah and Iran. This had nothing to do with preventing the overthrow of the regime, and none of these individuals are in the chain of command. In truth, the ideas voiced in the exchanges frequently sound amateurish. 

There are exceptions. One of Assad’s correspondents is Khaled al-Ahmed, whom The Guardian describes as a “former senior regional official” who keeps Assad apprised of what is going on in Homs and Idlib. In one email he urges  the president to “tighten the security grip to start an operation to restore state control in Idlib and Hama countryside.”* Interestingly, Ahmed tells Assad that he had agreed with another individual, whose identity The Guardian has concealed, to prepare an “action plan for dealing with the Alawite street.”

What is this action plan? And if Ahmed is discussing the launch of an offensive with Assad, then presumably the president was far more involved at the operational level than the other emails suggest. Given the savagery of the assaults on Homs and Idlib, what did Assad know and when did he know it?

Similarly, if Bashar al-Assad was aware that foreign journalists were in the Homs area, as Ahmed informs him in another email, then we can assume that this was an issue of considerable importance to the Syrian leadership. That brings us one step closer to assuming that the Western journalists killed in the Baba Amr district were specifically targeted, and that the president was no stranger to the development.

Ultimately, the emails will be truly valuable if they permit the preparation of an indictment for crimes against humanity. To learn that Assad and his wife have not a shred of compassion is, frankly, nothing new at this stage. Perhaps The Guardian will release more material in the coming days and weeks that better confirms just how complicit is the Syrian president in the destruction of his people.

*The original passage read:

There are exceptions. One of Assad’s correspondents is Khaled al-Ahmed, whom The Guardian describes as a “former senior regional official” who keeps Assad apprised of what is going on in Homs and Idlib. In one email he urges  the president to “tighten the security grip to start [the] operation to restore state control in Idlib and Hama countryside.” Interestingly, Ahmed tells Assad that he had agreed with another individual, whose identity The Guardian has concealed, to prepare an “action plan for dealing with the Alawite street.”

What is this action plan? And if Ahmed is awaiting the launch of a specific offensive, then presumably Assad and he had discussed it, meaning the president was far more involved at the operational level than the other emails suggest. Given the savagery of the assaults on Homs and Idlib, what did Assad know and when did he know it?

The passage was changed because the translation from the Arabic in The Guardian was faulty. Ahmed did not mention “the” operation in Homs, but “an” operation.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Bkirki offers us dictatorship on Rai

You have to wonder what the Maronite Church and the Vatican were thinking when they replaced the old but smoothly functioning Nasrallah Sfeir with a malfunctioning Beshara Rai.

The patriarch took a lashing this week from Samir Geagea, the Lebanese Forces leader. He merited far more. Rai’s defense of the Syrian regime and his recently expressed views on Muslims, and even the Vatican, have been immoral, patronizing, prejudicial to his own community, foolish, or some combination thereof.

In an interview with Reuters last week, Rai observed, “We are with the Arab Spring but we are not with this spring of violence, war, destruction and killing. This is turning to winter.” The patriarch expressed his fears for Christians in the Middle East, and implied that Syria’s leadership represented less of a threat to the community.

“It’s true that the Syrian Baath regime is an extreme and dictatorial regime, but there are many others like it in the Arab world,” Rai said. “All regimes in the Arab world have Islam as a state religion, except for Syria. It stands out for not saying it is an Islamic state ... The closest thing to democracy [in the Arab world] is Syria.”

The passage provoked derision and outrage. Rai is evidently unable to distinguish between democracy and religious pluralism. One is not necessarily the other, and Syria shows us why. The patriarch also seems incapable of understanding democracy. It is most definitely not the military repression of a majority by a minority preserving its prerogatives. He is equally at sea about how to read the Syrian uprising in the context of the so-called Arab Spring. After all, it is Bashar Assad’s regime, the one he supports, that has carried Syria into the deepest recesses of winter through its systematic butchery of the civilian population. And by the way, did Rai read Syria’s new Constitution? It mandates that presidents must be Muslim.

Rai’s defenders say the man should be allowed to speak his mind, to defend the Maronites. Yet whenever the patriarch has done so, he has divided his flock. Perhaps he was too busy chattering away in the recesses of his parishes to hear of the virtues of silence. There are topics on which one’s opinions are best left unstated.

Given his profession, the patriarch’s views on Syria are astonishing. For years Rai appeared on the Christian station Tele-Lumiere to lecture the faithful on religious morals. To this day we are blessed with reruns of his silky homilies. That this same individual should presently be defending a mass murderer tells us much about Rai’s celestial insincerity. It must also leave not a few practicing Christians wondering what it is about their religion that they missed.

Never one to deny narcissism, Rai recently invited a Paris-Match reporter to spend three days with him in Bkirki for an interview. The outcome was a useful compendium of what not to say.

Rai was singularly disdainful of the Arab world in general, and of Muslims in particular. “Presidents are re-elected with 99.9 percent of the votes,” he pointed out, as if such electoral margins retained any legitimacy whatsoever. “With such a mentality, what can the alternative be between a sovereign and a president for life? The source of legislation in all domains is the Quran. There exists a single party, with all political, judicial and military power in the hands of Muslims who address every point through the Shariah. Democracy and theocracy are as contradictory as snow and fire.”

Well, there are Muslims and there are Muslims, someone might be tempted to explain to Rai, just as there are Christians and Christians. There are Christians who believe in religious coexistence; who try to avoid painting Muslims in broad, condescending brush strokes; and who know enough modern history to recognize that there has been a powerful secular current in the Arab world during the past century, even if religion has made a comeback, mainly thanks to the brutality of self-styled secular leaders like Bashar Assad and Saddam Hussein. And then there are Christians like Beshara al-Rai, who are prisoners of an insular, hierarchical mindset, who deem all change to be menacing, and who prefer to become the playthings of a tyrant, in order to protect their measured gains, rather than to extend liberty to all.

Geagea is right, Rai’s outlook is doing a terrible disservice to Lebanon’s Christians. But having alienated many in his own community, not to mention Syrian democrats and Muslims throughout the Middle East, the patriarch in his Paris-Match interview also irritated the Vatican. And this exposed another dimension of the man: his impulsiveness and immodesty.

When asked to describe relations between the Vatican and the Maronite Church, the patriarch answered they were “good,” before launching into criticism of the Roman Catholic Church. “I wish that our patriarchal churches and synods [in the Middle East] could be the object of greater consideration ... [A] certain decentralization at the level of the Roman Curia is desirable, and a better understanding of our churches.” Rai complained that the Vatican “sometimes spends months investigating our new bishops. This mistrust is not pleasant for us ... Let them give us more autonomy in our internal affairs!”

You have to wonder if a magazine is the place for a Maronite patriarch to settle scores with the Roman Catholic Church. This is all very interesting, and perhaps Rai is justified in his protests (though I, too, would set months aside to investigate our clerics), but these are subjects best settled quietly, within the church itself, not in a publication that reports on the escapades of Johnny Halliday.

More in the interview makes us doubt Rai’s judgment. For example, he asserts that Maronite priests, because they can marry, are “more serene” than their Roman Catholic counterparts, whose vow of celibacy “engenders frustration.” Some still hope to persuade the Vatican to push for Rai’s removal. That won’t happen, because the church’s reputation has become a hostage to his fate. However, a very troubling man resides in Bkirki, and Lebanon is the worse for it.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Eyeless in Syria

Every other day, it seems, an American official complains that the conflict in Syria is a tricky one for the United States to tackle.

On Monday, President Barack Obama described Syria as “more complicated” than Libya. Two days later the cautionary note was sounded by Leon Panetta, the defense secretary, and Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, before the Senate Armed Services Committee. The Pentagon officials were effectively responding to Senator John McCain, who has called  for airstrikes against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.

Dempsey revealed that the White House had asked the Defense Department to begin a “commander’s estimate” of military options. But his tone, like Panetta’s, suggested that this was more a case of contingency planning than the reflection of a serious desire to go to war in Syria. Indeed, the options under review in Washington are humanitarian airlifts, naval monitoring, aerial surveillance of Syria’s military and the establishment of a no-fly zone. All fall short of decisively shifting the advantage to the Syrian opposition.

Why is it that Obama and his advisors have had such trouble clarifying their thoughts on the broader Middle East? Why have they been so poor at adopting a holistic strategy toward a region where there is considerable integration between different countries and crises? A principal reason is that this president, even more than his predecessors, is moved primarily by American domestic affairs.

For instance, America’s behavior in Iraq was never truly defined by Washington’s rivalry with Iran. For Obama, it was all about reversing the legacy of George W. Bush and bringing the troops home. Tehran interpreted things differently. Iranian officials saw ascendancy in Baghdad as a vital step toward regional hegemony.

American actions in Afghanistan have, similarly, been shaped by domestic politics. Obama once described Afghanistan as the “right war” and demonstrated it by adopting a counter-insurgency scheme with a nation-building component. The president soon changed course, focusing on anti-terrorism, when he sensed his ambition would be costly and that Americans were uninterested. Regional priorities little affected Obama, whether the proximity of Iran or the Afghan role in tensions between India and Pakistan.

The same lassitude is evident in Syria. The options are limited; the situation is thorny; there isn’t a lot America can do. These are the despondent tropes we hear time and again from the administration, as if the situation in Syria is, above all, a matter of persuading the American public that Obama is blameless.

But politics and foreign policy are about imagination, about creating opportunities, about turning complex situations to one’s advantage. Iran and Russia have been cruel and cynical in Syria, but they know precisely what endgame they want to impose. They want to maintain Bashar al-Assad in power. What endgame does the White House hope to impose? Obama has assured us that the Syrian leader’s downfall is inevitable, so what course of action is America examining to accelerate that outcome? Humanitarian airlifts, naval monitoring and aerial surveillance? Let’s be a bit serious.

The problem is that the debate in Washington is, as usual, centered on America itself. Senator John McCain’s outrage over Syria is laudable. However, there are many things that can be done, in collaboration with the Syrians themselves, short of deploying American warplanes.

The United States, with its Arab and European partners, must help arm, train and organize anti-Assad combatants, allowing them to neutralize the regime’s military advantage, and set up and then expand areas where the Syrian regime cannot enter. It can assist in preparing a police force to manage security in “liberated” areas. And if this proves successful, it can engage Russia to persuade President Vladimir Putin to reassess his objectives in Damascus.

Yes, this is “complicated,” but maybe that’s because the world is a complicated place. Unfortunately, like President Bill Clinton with Bosnia during the early 1990s, Obama only reacts to criticism from within the United States. Clinton’s decision to intervene in the Bosnian war was mainly provoked by the massacre at Srebrenica and his fear of the domestic backlash this might cause. His empty oratory aside, Obama, especially in an election year, doesn’t want to be painted by his adversaries as soft on mass murder.

Whatever happens in Syria will have a profound bearing on American interests. This has been said enough times for Obama to grasp the importance of getting Syria right. Assad’s exit would represent a major setback for Iran and Hezbollah. A democratic Syrian government would likely return to negotiations over the Golan Heights (this may not please Israel, but resuming such talks are a declared American ambition). And ideologically, a Syria rid of dictatorship would presumably represent a net gain for America, which insists that it favors a liberal, pluralistic Arab world.

But don’t expect Barack Obama to go into those details. He has no real strategy for Syria, and will only develop one if pushed to do so. Syrians will continue to be killed, America’s welfare will continue to be harmed, and bureaucrats in Washington will continue to fidget.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Afghanistan dashes invaders' dreams despite themselves

The recent rioting in Afghanistan, over the burning of Qurans, startled western officials and highlighted an alarming phenomenon, the killing of Nato soldiers and advisers by their Afghan collaborators.

Such events risk undermining a successful transition to Afghan self-rule after 2014, a change that will require cooperation between Nato forces and their Afghan counterparts.

Last year Rodric Braithwaite, a former British ambassador to Russia, published a book, Afgantsy, on the Soviet campaign in Afghanistan between 1979 and 1989. The work presents a valuable backdrop to the problems Nato faces, and is especially sobering for dispelling several myths colouring interpretations of that war.

Mr Braithwaite argues that the Soviet Union did not enter Afghanistan unaware. Rather, it got caught, despite its better judgement. Like Nato in 2001, Moscow realised the country was a graveyard for foreigners. Following an uprising in Herat in March 1979 against the communist regime in Kabul, Soviet leaders debated whether to intervene militarily. They rejected doing so, opting to send more weapons and advisers to the Afghan army.

What ultimately moved the Soviet Union to invade Afghanistan was bloody infighting within the ruling People's Democratic Party there. When Hafizullah Amin overthrew and killed Nur Mohammed Taraki, a protégé of Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, the Soviets organised a coup in December 1979 to replace Amin with Babrak Karmal. They then sent in their 40th Army, feeling this was necessary to stabilise the situation, and to help facilitate Afghanistan's transformation into a modern society.

For the Soviet Union, as for the United States later, the decision to go in was characterised by contradictory motivations. Both saw action in Afghanistan as a strategic necessity; the Soviets to block US inroads into the country during the Cold War; the Americans to neutralise the Al Qaeda threat by denying it a base of operations.

Both powers had a keen sense of the political and cultural complications of interacting with Afghan society. However, this awareness failed to displace an element of hubris in their endeavours.

Social engineering was a facet of Soviet behaviour, Mr Braithwaite points out. And it was evident in US President Barack Obama's initial Afghan policy, with its nation-building component. That the Americans have now abandoned that ambition, as did the Soviet Union before them, is not so much a testament to their lucidity as a recognition that their early misgivings were sound.

Once Soviet leaders reckoned that they could not win militarily in Afghanistan, they fell back on an alternative strategy: to shift the burden of the conflict onto the Afghans themselves, and to change their military mission to a support and advisory role. This is precisely what Mr Obama intends to do, and it is why the hostility directed against Nato poses such danger to the US withdrawal deadline.

As Mr Braithwaite underlines, Soviet leaders did rather well in leaving behind a defensible regime. They replaced Mr Karmal with the more competent Mohammed Najibullah, who was able to retain power with Soviet help until September 1992, three years after the Soviets went home. His downfall came when the collapse of the Soviet Union ended military and economic aid to Kabul.

Will Mr Obama, or a successor, manage a similar handover? As many observers have noted, the investment in life and capital that foreign governments must expend to maintain military sway in Afghanistan usually surpasses what is gained.

When Moscow determined that the country was a net drain on its resources in its rivalry with the US, and that there was no chance of remodelling Afghan society, it headed for the exit.

Mr Obama can well appreciate today what Mikhail Gorbachev appreciated in 1985: Afghanistan is easier to enter than to leave. When he took office, the Soviet leader had already settled on withdrawal. But like the US in Vietnam, the Soviets sought to pull out with honour. Some officials, notably the foreign minister, Eduard Shevardnadze, pushed to leave behind a force of 10,000 to 15,000 troops. Only in February 1989 did the last regular units go home.

Afghanistan is a hard country, Mr Braithwaite explains, because, like a Rubik's Cube, most combinations of colours fail to bring harmony. As disparate as Afghan society is, and as divided as the Mujahideen were, this never produced long-term benefits for the Soviet war effort. On the contrary. Afghan discord can offer tactical advantages to military occupiers, but makes it infinitely more difficult to impose a cohesive national government and project. That is Nato's biggest test, and it is one the alliance is failing.

One illustration of this is obvious. As in Soviet days, many Afghan urban areas are in the hands of foreign forces and their local allies, but the countryside is friendlier terrain for their enemies. In a rural country where communications are poor, this is a crippling weakness for a central authority. Things may be better for the Nato forces on that front than they were for the Soviet Union, but waging war in Afghanistan can still be like punching holes in water.

Given their openness to new ideas, US officers have surely read Mr Braithwaite's book. The lessons it provides will hardly reassure them.

Afghanistan is a place which takes a great deal of effort to dominate, but which foreigners quickly conclude they do not truly want to dominate. Those contrary dynamics make victory elusive.

Make Vladimir Putin reassess in Syria

The Obama administration wants President Bashar Assad to leave office. He massacres his population. Washington refuses to arm Syrian rebels. Iran and Russia send weapons to Assad’s killers. This is the dispiriting equation with which Syrians are living today.

What is it about the Syrian conflict that Barack Obama does not get? On Tuesday, the American president assured us that Assad would not last. “Ultimately this dictator will fall,” he declared, before adding that the United States would not engage in unilateral military action. Syria is “more complicated” than Libya, Obama observed. He was right, but its complications do not entitle him to formulate an unintelligible policy that only ensures the dictator slaughters more innocents.

Adding to the sense of bewilderment among Assad’s foes is an ambient assumption that Vladimir Putin’s election in Russia might change Moscow’s approach to Syria. This presumes that Putin regards Syria primarily as a domestic issue, when it was always considerably more than that. And yet Russia’s behavior will be essential in facilitating Assad’s exit, provided that Putin is made to realize that the Syrian regime is a burden he cannot afford to carry for very long.

The Americans insist that they don’t want to provoke a Syrian civil war by arming the Free Syrian Army. That vindication is inaccurate, disingenuous and incomplete. It is inaccurate because Syria is effectively in a civil war of sorts, one propelled by the regime and its outrages. It is disingenuous because, while Washington does not want to resort to a military option, others will, including U.S. allies Qatar and Saudi Arabia, and the Obama administration probably won’t actively hinder such steps. And it is incomplete, because American officials have omitted from the conversation the sinister role played by Iran and Russia, confirming that they regard the survival of the Assad regime as a strategic necessity, mainly against American interests.

Assad’s tactic is to crush the rebellion, village by village, town by town, and city by city. How the Syrian president intends to govern his sullen citizens after that is an open question. But if the principal American motive is a responsibility to protect civilians, then issuing statements of condemnation and piling up sanctions are unlikely to change Assad’s behavior; and a new Security Council resolution will either be vetoed by Russia or so watered down as to be irrelevant.

Whether Obama likes it or not, the only way to put the Assad regime on the defensive is to devise a plan that includes both military and political components. No one is asking that the United States go to war in Syria; but the administration can, with its Arab and Western partners, assist in organizing, training, and coordinating the actions of anti-regime combatants. The ultimate objective would be to negate Assad’s military superiority and compel Russia to alter its stance.

What the Free Syrian Army needs is the means to establish territory outside the control of the Syrian regime. I’m no military expert, but the Americans and Europeans have plenty. They must, with their Syrian counterparts, determine the kinds of weapons that would permit the Syrian opposition to create defensible autonomous zones where a government could take root, toward which deserters and civilians could flock, that would serve as points of distribution for humanitarian aid, and that would affirm daily that Assad is losing ground, with the tremendous psychological boost this would bring.

If such territories are created and expanded and Assad’s efforts to impose his will by force are seen to have hit a wall, it would become easier to advance a diplomatic solution. Necessarily, the basis for such a solution would be the departure of Bashar Assad and his acolytes. The imposition of a stalemate on the ground would effectively undermine the Russian (and Iranian) scheme to give Syria’s president the leverage to negotiate with the opposition from a position of strength. If an alternative government is formed in “liberated” areas, and is recognized by the Arab states and the international community, Moscow would have little choice but to consider Assad’s departure.

In that case, the United Nations Security Council could ask the Russians to mediate a resolution, alongside Kofi Annan, the new U.N.-Arab League envoy on Syria. The rationale would be to give Moscow latitude to defend its stakes in a Syrian transition. In the end, it will be up to a new Syrian government to determine what it expects of Russia, but there do not appear to be insurmountable objections in Washington, Brussels, or even Israel to granting Russia the influence it seeks in Damascus, on the condition that it embrace a change of regime.

For this to succeed, the regime’s military advantages have to be offset. The confidence and determination of the rebels is high. It took weeks for Assad’s army to enter Baba Amr. Even then, the regime employed tremendous firepower and brought in its crack 4th Armored Division to finish the job. A calibrated, well-thought-out military aid program could prove decisive. The Americans and Europeans might study Hezbollah’s tactics against Israel during the 2006 war for ideas.

Much more can also be done to lay the groundwork for a post-Assad order. The analyst Michael Weiss has astutely suggested putting together a police force, to maintain security in areas freed from Assad rule. The Syrian National Council has been utterly incompetent, justifying Western and Arab hesitation. But the opposition leadership can be thrust in the right direction if the United States, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the Europeans collaborate in sponsoring a more effective coalition. After all, they hold the powerful weapon of recognition.

Unchanged, the current dynamics will bring chaos. Some Arab states have promised to send weapons to the rebels. If this is uncontrolled, it could destabilize Syria’s neighbors, through which the weapons would have to pass; the impact could be limited; and it might strengthen the otherwise relatively weak Syrian Islamists, alarming many in the West.

The Obama administration is keen to see a negotiated outcome in Syria. That is why it must embrace a military approach that defines a political endgame. Bashar Assad and Vladimir Putin have to feel that their reliance on intimidation is going nowhere. Only then might Putin show Assad the door, so he himself remains in the house.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Aoun-goals, day after day

Keeping up with Michel Aoun’s contradictions is a full-time job. On Tuesday, the general said he objected to the fact that Lebanon’s new history books omitted mention of October 13, 1990, when Syrian warplanes bombed Aoun out of the presidential palace at Baabda,

Yet recall that Gaby Layoun, the culture minister named by the Change and Reform Bloc (and Aoun’s nephew by marriage), has defended the exclusion of the Independence Intifada of 2005 from the history books. You have to wonder what Aoun’s sense of priorities is. The protests that year were a splendid moment for the Aounists. They were in the vanguard of the demonstrations after Rafik Hariri’s assassination, the culmination of years of valiant struggle against Syria amid reprehensible indifference from many Lebanese.

Instead of highlighting that triumph, however, Aoun prefers the manuals to evoke the whimper that he has the temerity to imagine is an illustration of his military fortitude. What can possibly be worth remembering from that sordid day? Aoun’s craven abandonment of his wife and daughters and flight to the French Embassy? That the general was told by countless emissaries on the eve of his ouster that the Syrians intended to attack the next day, and that he dismissed all the warnings? That his stubbornness led to the pointless death of many of his soldiers, whom he refused to order to surrender even when all was lost, as he settled into the safety of France’s mission?

Rather quickly we took the modest measure of our patriotic changer and reformer. Aoun is thorough when it comes to making mistakes. Despite the large number of ministers he controls, few are the fights the general has managed to win. Every day, it seems, brings a new October 13, as Aoun’s political program is exposed as no more than a vulgar grab for Christian supremacy—catch-up for all those years when he and his entourage were denied the pickings of office.

The Charbel Nahhas embarrassment was only one in a long line of embarrassments. Aoun cried loudest against financing for the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, only to quiet down when Hezbollah let the moneys through. He has positioned himself as the prime defender of the Christians, while leaving no stone unturned to undermine the authority of the chief Christian representative, President Michel Sleiman, who holds the office Aoun still craves in old age.

And ever the enemy of nepotism and patronage politics, the general has insisted that he decide on the bulk of Christian administrative appointments, even as he has named more family members to the government and to his own movement than any other politician.

Aoun’s big problem is that he is caught between the interests of Hezbollah, Syria and Prime Minister Najib Mikati, and his ambitions have rarely been considered important enough by these three actors for his blackmail to succeed. Hezbollah’s priority today is to ensure that the government remains in place, and the party knows that on certain matters Mikati would prefer to resign than to cede ground. Paying Lebanon’s fees to the Special Tribunal was a case in point. So, Hezbollah has been flexible with the prime minister, at the same time striving to calm relations between Sunnis and Shia.

Because Aoun cannot topple the government, he has been without leverage against the efforts of Mikati, Sleiman and Walid Jumblatt to block his appetites when it comes to naming his favorites to public positions. Hezbollah has steered well clear of such disputes, leaving Aoun out on a limb. This was equally true when Charbel Nahhas refused to sign the transportation allowance. Aoun found himself trapped between two unpalatable choices: compromising with Mikati or getting rid of a minister regarded by the Aounist base as a man of integrity and precisely the kind of figure whom the Change and Reform Bloc should be promoting in government.

Instead, those rising the highest in the Aounist firmament are individuals close to the general with metastasizing prosperity. You will not persuade Aounists that their movement is as mendacious as any other in Lebanon, as drawn to the corruptions of the system as those whom Michel Aoun denounces daily. But then what has Aoun’s legacy actually been? No politician has had as sizable a share of cabinet posts as the general, with so scant a return on investment.

Hezbollah’s secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah, cautioned last week, “We must work hard in order [for the government] to achieve something. Now is not the time for the toppling of governments, nor [is it] the time for political tension in Lebanon.” It didn’t take much perspicacity to grasp that these words were directed principally at the Aounists, who have obstructed the government’s progress and generated political tensions more than any other.

It was difficult not to see irony in Nasrallah’s comment, given that he spent 18 months trying to topple a government between 2006 and 2008, bringing Lebanon to the brink of civil war. But in this case the Hezbollah leader had a point. If the Mikati government fails, the country will enter into a dangerous political void. Everybody will lose.

Will Aoun get the message? Alas, he never quite seems to. Maybe the general is right: We should bring up October 13, 1990, in our history texts. What better way to assess Michel Aoun?

Thursday, March 1, 2012

For minorities, now is the time to report

It is unfortunate that among those most anxiously observing the uprising in Syria (and not only Syria) have been members of the Middle East’s religious and ethnic minorities. Indeed, Syria’s Alawite leadership is perpetrating a butchery partly because it expects its community to be marginalized if Bashar Assad falls.

Minority solidarity is a dangerous impulse. It has led many of Syria’s Kurds and Druze to watch from the sidelines as their countrymen have been slaughtered – when they have not actively participated in the repression. In Lebanon, it has pushed leading figures in the Christian community, among them Maronite Patriarch Beshara Rai, to defend the Assad regime. And the vile Sister Agnes Mariam of the Cross, of the Catholic Media Center, has been a useful idiot on behalf of Syria’s intelligence services, echoing regime propaganda.

The foolishness and inhumanity of these reactions does not mean minority questions will be any less important once the current consignment of autocrats disappears. Minorities will gain in significance, because in many countries the breakdown of authoritarian rule also represents a breakdown of the ideological and intimidatory underpinnings that once kept minorities in line.

The edifice began collapsing in 2003, when the United States invaded Iraq, removing the minority Sunni regime of Saddam Hussein. The Americans, for a moment, naively aspired to sponsor an equitable Iraqi social contract, with federalism at its core. In reality, they ushered in a Shiite-dominated regime, while federalism permitted the Kurds to consolidate their autonomy in the north. The Sunni Arabs, despite combating Al-Qaeda, have since then grown alienated from Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government, generating worries that Iraq’s centrifugal forces may become unmanageable.

Fear of what might happen in Syria if the majority Sunnis regain power has colored the behavior of the country’s minorities. Their fixation has been deformed by the expectation that if the Sunnis return, they will do so as resentful Islamists.

So much in that expectation is left unsaid. First, that minority apprehensions, including those of the Alawites, are based on an impression that the brutality and absoluteness of Alawite conduct will necessarily bring an equally brutal and absolute reckoning from Sunnis; that, just as the Alawites favored those from their community, at least those integrated into the political and military elite, and calculated on the basis of communal interests, so too will their foes; and that at the heart of the Arab world’s political arrangements there must be antagonism between minorities and majorities, because that was always the nature of things, even before independence.

Arab nationalism has played a critical role in shaping so stark an outlook. In Syria and Iraq, ruling minorities drew on Baathism to detract from their status by positing a larger Arab identity to which all had to bend. The uniformity this tenet enforced was as much designed to stifle alternative identities as to justify crushing dissent. Where majorities have governed, they have been no gentler with minorities, while non-Arab states such as Turkey and Iran have similarly deployed a muscular nationalism against their minorities.

In Lebanon, where minorities coexist, the story is somewhat different. Christians by and large rejected Arab nationalism during the first three decades after independence, extending this to include wariness with the Palestinian cause when Beirut hosted the Palestine Liberation Organization starting in 1970. Shiites, too, remained mistrustful of Arab nationalism, which they regarded as a surrogate for Sunni pre-eminence. And yet ironically, Hezbollah, created and sustained by Iran, later sought to hijack the symbols of Arab nationalism and the Palestinian struggle to legitimize itself among Sunnis while drawing attention away from its Shiite personality.

As the old political structures disintegrate in Syria, many are panicking. Turkey’s leaders, for instance, worry about what might happen to their own Kurdish population, or to Arab Alawites in the province of Iskenderun, were Syria to break up. If Syria’s Alawites decide they can no longer hold on in Damascus, they may seriously contemplate falling back on an Alawite mini-state in the northwest. For much of my youth I was told how Israel and Henry Kissinger intended to fragment the Middle East into weak sectarian entities. Now that purported scheme threatens to be carried out by Syria’s Alawites, with a sympathetic partner in Lebanon’s Shiites under Hezbollah’s authority. Iran must be confused. A Syria in pieces would compel Tehran to guarantee that Alawites and Shiites cooperate. But if one of those pieces is a self-ruling Kurdish entity in Syria’s northeast, alongside Iraqi Kurdistan, then the Iranians, like the Turks, could face a major headache with their own Kurds.

Some Lebanese minority leaders are looking afar for new friendships. Walid Jumblatt and Samir Geagea visited Iraqi Kurdistan in recent months. Both men are astute enough to sense that the Kurds will be big players during the coming decade, and are unlikely to fall under the thumb of Islamists. Jumblatt and Geagea support the Syrian uprising, but are also aware that the policies pursued by the Assad regime, as well as the aid Syria’s opposition is receiving from Qatar and Saudi Arabia, may cede the initiative to Islamists and Salafists, who are as hostile toward the Druze as toward the Maronites. In such circumstances, novel minority alignments may prove useful in the event communal self-preservation becomes the name of the game.

Christians have used the fate of their coreligionists in Iraq as a cautionary tale for what awaits minorities in the Middle East. That’s a shallow way of looking at things. Minorities – Kurds, Shiites, Druze, Alawites and Christians in general – will be vital in defining what occurs next in the region. Be that good or bad, to assume that an iron curtain of Sunni Islamism will necessarily descend on us all is to underestimate the influence of those, secular Sunnis and Islamist Shiites included, who reject such an outcome.

The Bosnia lesson: intensifying war in Syria almost certain

While the conflict in Syria today and the one in Bosnia two decades ago are different, they have provoked similar debates internationally. That's not surprising; in both, a powerful military force abused civilians defended by inadequately armed groups.

The war in Bosnia, which lasted from 1992 to 1995, followed the breakdown of the Yugoslav federation, and was essentially fought over territory. The uprising in Syria, in contrast, has become a sustained effort by a growing number of Syrians to be rid of a dictatorial regime. However, as the international community grapples with how best to protect Syrian civilians, the Bosnian experience offers instruction.

A more obvious illustration of this fact is the continuing discussion over whether to arm deserters who have joined the Free Syrian Army. In its final statement, the Friends of Syria summit in Tunis last weekend carefully sidestepped the issue. Irritated by the timorousness of the participants, Saudi Arabia and Qatar quickly made it plain that they would dispatch weapons to the Syrian opposition.

The United States has distanced itself from such an option, but is unlikely to hinder it. This replicates the dissension during the Bosnia war, when members of Congress and later President Bill Clinton supported "lift and strike" - lifting the arms embargo on Bosnia that had handed the better-armed Bosnian Serbs an advantage over the Muslims. When the embargo was removed, the Muslims were able to regain the initiative. Today, prominent figures in Congress, including Senator John McCain, are insisting that Syria's rebels be armed.

President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton might not fully disagree. The brutality of President Bashar Al Assad's repression in Homs could well represent a Srebrenica moment for them. Srebrenica is the town that was overrun in July 1995 by the Bosnian Serbs, where some 8,000 Muslims were slaughtered. The appalling crime turned the mood decisively against the Bosnian Serbs, particularly in Washington.

If the Syrian opposition gets the proper weapons, it will be in a better position to defend key territories. In another echo of the Bosnian war, the insurgents may conceivably set up safe areas. In Bosnia, it was the United Nations upholding such areas, until the UN failed to protect Srebrenica and a second enclave at Zepa. In Syria, the dynamics are different. It's the Free Syrian Army that would have to establish safe areas - to host an alternative Syrian government, act as rallying points for deserters and refugees, and serve as conduits for medical assistance.

However, the creation of safe areas poses considerable risks for the international community. As in Benghazi, but also to avert new Srebrenicas, those siding with the Syrian rebels would inevitably have to guarantee the security of these zones. As a consequence, the areas could become levers employed by the Syrian opposition to increase military backing from outside countries, drawing them into what could possibly metastasise into a full-scale civil war.

If the Syrian conflict develops into a war for land, we might witness an even eerier reminder of Bosnia: the formation of ethnic statelets. The Alawite-dominated Assad regime has been functioning on parallel tracks in the past months. It has sought to reimpose its writ over Syria as a whole, while simultaneously facilitating a substitute plan, if one becomes necessary, allowing Alawites to fall back to their communal heartland in the coastal areas and mountains of north-western Syria.

The assault on Homs, like the efforts to secure nexus points along the eastern edges of the Alawite mountains, at Jisr Al Shughour and Kfar Kalakh, can be understood against a backdrop of this dual strategy. However, unlike the Bosnian endgame, where the agreement signed at Dayton divided Bosnia-Herzegovina into a federation along ethnic lines, a similar outcome in Syria would be disastrous. For one thing, an Alawite statelet, to survive, would need to ethnically cleanse the coastal cities, where substantial numbers of Sunnis live. No country would dare legitimise such action by giving it formal recognition.

More importantly, the break-up of Syria into ethnic or sectarian entities is a red line for Syria's neighbours. Turkey, Iraq and Iran would then have to confront Kurdish national aspirations; Sunnis in Iraq might seek to break away from their Shia-dominated state; Syria's atomisation could have dangerous repercussions in Lebanon; and so on. Any Alawite statelet scheme would be made to fail, but it would also be monstrously traumatic.

The grim reality is that Bosnia showed how a military dimension became necessary to contain Bosnian Serb dominance. The notion that it would be a mistake to escalate the fighting in Syria is, in a way, almost irrelevant. The intransigence of the Assad regime and its allies in Russia and China, no less than the inability of the United States, the European powers and the Arab states to impose a political solution, make intensifying combat inevitable. Unless Russia changes tack and helps mediate Mr Al Assad's unavoidable exit, the battle over Syria risks turning into a ferocious proxy war.

Only offensives by the Muslims and the Croats, in tandem with Nato bombing, forced Bosnia's Serbs to make concessions. Syria need not duplicate that pattern to the letter, but someone needs to catch Mr Al Assad's attention and compel him to reconsider. It's not at all certain that sanctions and peaceful protests alone can do this. Bosnia will be studied carefully in the comings months. It should be, to ensure the violence in Syria is ultimately shaped by a framework of negotiation.