Thursday, May 31, 2012

Collective rights came with a cost for the individual

How do libertarians everywhere respond to the so-called Arab Spring? For a political and social movement that coalesces around the notion of personal liberty, the upheavals in the Arab world during the past year, which have been directed against tyrannical, absolute and predatory regimes, would seem to vindicate their ideals.

And yet is that true? For American libertarians, the Arab world in the last decade has embodied everything they stand against. Isolationist libertarians by and large opposed President George W Bush's military intervention in Iraq. Those more willing to spare a moment for Mr Bush's "democratisation" project were yet unable to persuade themselves that it would work in Arab societies, which have a different outlook on life, religion and individual freedom than Americans.

But beyond America, there are libertarians (present company included) who take a less parochial view of freedom - who feel that it has special value in all societies, and who loathe the overbearing weight of the state wherever it manifests itself, from Los Angeles to Pyongyang. But as we watch the Arab revolts and take delight in the resistance to state oppression, we can lament the fact that, until now, there has been relatively little thought given to how individual freedom should be enhanced in the societies concerned.

No surprise there. The uprisings have been vast collective enterprises; so too has been the way these societies have managed the aftermaths. Outcomes have been defined by tribal and regional relationships (in Libya), sectarian solidarity (in Syria), or in more cohesive societies (as in Egypt), the interplay between corporate or political entities, including state institutions. But where is the individual in all this?

Let us take the latest developments in Egypt. This week it was announced that the Muslim Brotherhood presidential candidate, Mohammed Morsi, would face Ahmed Shafiq, the candidate of the old regime, in a run-off next month. Were Mr Shafiq to win, many would regard this as a reversal of the gains of the revolution.

But does that mean that Mr Morsi personifies the liberalising urges that led to President Hosni Mubarak's overthrow? Many would have trouble saying such a thing about the candidate of a party that was never a bastion of free expression, let alone one sympathetic to the refreshing intemperance often underlying personal liberty.

Only in Tunisia has there been mention of individual liberties, mainly in reference to the rights of women under the personal status law. However, this has been more the exception than the rule. In Libya, one of the first decisions taken by the transitional council was to permit polygamy. In Egypt, the fall of the Mubarak order did little to curtail the abuses perpetrated by the army and the security forces.

And amid the ongoing carnage in Syria, the mere thought of broaching matters of personal liberty, no matter how valid, seems terribly out of touch with the magnitude of the tragedy.

For those on both sides of the divide in the Arab world - those who seek to be rid of authoritarian leaders and those defending previous orders - the focal point of consideration continues to be the state. In Egypt, as in Syria or Tunisia, there has been no substantial effort on the part of one-time opposition groups to radically cut back the role of the state, which is still regarded as an instrument of deliverance. Statist impulses remain strong in the Arab world.

Only in Libya and Yemen have there been fundamental challenges to the centralised state. Yet the motivation has not been the augmentation of personal liberty, but rather the assertion of tribal or regional agendas for autonomy or independence. Indeed, more often than not such agendas impose internal unity to achieve a common goal, reducing the margin for dissent. This unanimity is evident, for example, in Syria, where the latitude of Alawites to question the leadership of Bashar Al Assad has hit up against the exigencies of communal survival.

Syria is interesting for another reason. The conflict has unleashed centrifugal forces in the society, so that it is difficult to imagine a return to the unitary Syria of the recent past. If the regime of President Al Assad falls, Alawites may well contemplate a plan to fall back on their communal heartland in north-west Syria. On the other hand if Mr Al Assad prevails, he will surely struggle to convince the Kurds, whose rights have been trampled for decades, as well as others, to return to the status quo ante of early 2011.

Such dynamics, existential in nature, cannot benefit the individual in search of personal emancipation. Nor have there been sustained demands by citizens for - to borrow from an American concept - a bill of rights in Arab societies in ebullition. Instead, democratic change, pluralism and reform, from Morocco to Jordan, from Egypt to Bahrain, are primarily perceived as consequences of a top-down mechanism, derived from the state and extraneous to the individual.

This is understandable, but the flip side of that proposition is that it affords tremendous influence to those controlling the apparatus of the state, against whom citizens become helpless. This has been despairingly true in Egypt, the Arab country where the state is arguably the most powerful, but also where society is less riven than elsewhere by ethnic and religious divisions. State authority has outlasted the Mubarak era, and will likely stay dominant, whether it is the army, the Muslim Brotherhood, or anyone else who is ruling.

Arab societies favour collective over individual rights, some might point out. Maybe, maybe not; but the first and last bulwark against the suffocating state is the individual. Until individuals learn to say no, in defence of their liberties as individuals, the Arab revolutions will be open to manipulation by its enemies.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Lebanon pays the price as Hizbollah shores up support

The continuing tension in Lebanon has raised fears that the country may be engulfed by what is fast nearing a civil war in Syria. That outcome may occur, but it is also at odds with the interests of Hizbollah, which played a key role - with Syria - in triggering the latest unrest. Next year, the party hopes to strengthen its hold over the commanding heights of the Lebanese political and security order.

The latest violence came after the killing last weekend of two Sunni Muslim sheikhs at an army checkpoint in the Akkar region of northern Lebanon. What happened remains unclear, but the opposition, in particular supporters of the Future Movement led by Saad Hariri, have held the government of Prime Minister Najib Mikati responsible, with some politicians even accusing elements in the military of deliberately murdering the clerics.

Relations between Lebanon's Sunni community (the Akkar, along with the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli, is predominantly Sunni) and the army have been abysmal in recent years. While a substantial number of soldiers are Sunni, reportedly 40 per cent, the perception in the community is that the institution is dominated by Hizbollah, with a significant number of Christian officers sympathetic to the party.

Sunnis still remember with bitterness what happened in western Beirut in May 2008. At the time, Hizbollah gunmen and their allies overran that part of the capital. For days armed gangs ruled the streets, and the army did little. In fact, certain units purportedly collaborated with Hizbollah.

The Sunnis' diminished respect for the army, or at least for the military command, is a worrying development. With Lebanon's centrifugal forces gaining ground, the army alone can avert a security void. Yet there are limits to what a multi-sectarian military, mirroring the profound contradictions within Lebanese society, can do. On many occasions the army's preference to stand by the wayside, although objectionable, succeeded in preserving unity in the ranks.

Equally disturbing this week was the spread of fighting to Beirut, for the first time since 2008. While the clashes were contained in the mainly Sunni quarter of Tariq Al Jadideh, and involved anti-Syrian groups attacking the offices of a pro-Hizbollah Sunni party, the potential for such confrontations to spread is considerable. Sunnis and Shiites live side by side in the area, and Tariq Al Jadideh is not far from the pro-Hizbollah, Shiite-majority southern suburbs of Beirut.

What lies ahead for Lebanon? It's easy to take the bleak view, and in fact little is reassuring in the country's dysfunctional political environment. Making matters worse, this week several Gulf states warned their citizens to stay away from Lebanon for security reasons. This promises another anaemic tourist season for an economy that has already taken a hard hit from the Syrian uprising.

What is going on is hardly coincidental. The episode that triggered the latest instability, namely the arrest in Tripoli on May 12 of an Islamist, Shadi Mawlawi, by the General Security directorate, appeared meant to provoke a furious Sunni counter-reaction.

General Security is close to Hizbollah, and the view among many is that Syria and Hizbollah knew that the Sunni Islamists would take to the streets in protest, making it appear that Tripoli was a Salafist stronghold. This would lend credence to the narrative in Damascus that the regime is fighting armed jihadists at home and in Lebanon.

Mr Mawlawi's detention came just before Syria's ambassador to the United Nations, Bashar Al Jaafari, sent a letter to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. Mr Jaafari claimed that arms were reaching Syrian rebels through bordering countries, including Lebanon. He accused Lebanese parties, particularly Mr Hariri's Future Movement, of harbouring members of Al Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood.

The Jaafari letter was a serious shot across Lebanon's bow. Mr Mikati rejected Mr Jaafari's contention, amid reports that the Syrian regime has put pressure on him to take a more forceful position against the Syrian opposition in Lebanese territory. The prime minister has resisted doing so because he doesn't want to alienate his own Sunni base in Tripoli, and knows that this approach would only widen the divisions within his own government.

Mr Hariri's followers have been particularly harsh on Mr Mikati lately. They still have not forgiven him for going along with Hizbollah's unceremonious removal of Mr Hariri in January 2011. That's understandable, and the prime minister's record has not helped. He has spent time managing crises, rather than pushing policy forward. However, after the killing of the two sheikhs, the assaults on Mr Mikati and demands that he resign, seemed risky brinkmanship.

If Mr Mikati were to step down, Lebanon would probably enter a prolonged vacuum. Hizbollah doesn't want such a situation, because the party is looking towards parliamentary elections next year to consolidate its position in the event President Bashar Al Assad falls. Hizbollah aims to win a majority in parliament with its political partners, name a president the following year when a presidential election is scheduled, and form a government it controls.

Expect Syria and Hizbollah to continue to manipulate the Sunni community. However, all-out sectarian conflict between Sunnis and Shia may not be as likely as many imagine. Otherwise, how could Hizbollah implement its plan? Perhaps that's why Mr Mawlawi was released on Tuesday, to let steam out of the pressure cooker.

Lebanon’s perilous street politics

Consider Shadi Mawlawi, Sheikh Ahmad Assir, the combatants in Bab al-Tabbaneh, Jabal Mohsen and Tariq al-Jadideh, and the angry youths in Beirut’s southern suburbs who burned tires on Tuesday to protest against the abduction of Shia religious pilgrims in Syria. Lebanon is succumbing to populist impulses and their impresarios, which cannot represent a good development for the future.

Lebanon’s political class is frequently, and quite reasonably, maligned. However, the street is infinitely worse. It was a clearly concerned Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah who took to the airwaves Tuesday evening urging young Shia to calm down after the news of the pilgrims’ fate broke. What Nasrallah sought to avoid at all cost was an outbreak of violence between Shia and Sunnis.

To a great extent, Hezbollah has only itself to blame. The arrest of Mawlawi by the General Security directorate was a reckless, suspicious operation that was certain to lead to a heightening of sectarian animosities. The party, and behind it the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, manipulated events in Tripoli to show that the city is a Salafist stronghold—in that way confirming Assad’s contention that he is fighting a coalition of armed jihadists.

Like many traps, it threatened to backfire when two Sunni clerics were killed in Akkar and fighting spread to Beirut. A Sunni-Shia conflict is not something Hezbollah desires, not when its strategic objective is to use legislative elections next year to gain control of parliament, then the presidency, then the broader apparatus of the state. This mad scheme cannot conceivably work, even less so when the Sunni community feels invigorated by the failure of the Assad regime to prevail in Syria. Yet Hezbollah, in order to survive in a post-Assad Middle East, needs to anchor itself somewhere while simultaneously avoiding suicide in a new Lebanese civil war.

That is where the street comes in. No less than Nasrallah, former Prime Minister Saad Hariri sensed the potential dangers on Tuesday when he felicitously issued a statement calling for the release of the Shia pilgrims. This should be taken further. King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia has called for a resumption of dialogue between the Lebanese parties. While March 14 sources spun this into censure of Prime Minister Najib Mikati’s government, it actually meant rather more than that, creating an opening that must be exploited.

King Abdullah is right about one thing: Lebanon’s leaders urgently need to engage in dialogue. For now the agenda must focus on achievable ambitions, above all avoiding Lebanon being dragged into the Syrian conflict. Syria has reportedly sought to pressure Mikati into taking a more forceful stance against the Syrian opposition. But such a step would only break the country apart and push the Lebanese toward the very predicament that Hezbollah, and everybody else, seeks to avert, namely sectarian civil war.

Hezbollah’s views on the pressure against Mikati seem ambiguous, but if the party fears Lebanon’s breakup then it must welcome a dialogue. Yes, it might have to accept Mikati’s efforts to defend Lebanese non-alignment, or split personality, over the Syrian crisis. On the other hand this would provide valuable advantages down the road, because Hezbollah’s self-preservation would necessarily require that the party improve relations between Shia and the other Lebanese communities, above all the Sunni community.

And what would be in it for the Sunnis? Justifiably, Hezbollah’s arms remain a bone of contention for many Lebanese, and that will not soon change. However, the more urgent priority today is to impede a slide toward the sectarian abyss. As for the longer term, if Assad falls, as he will, the Sunni leadership can then engage in a conversation with Hezbollah from a position of strength over those issues that it considers essential—weapons above all. But that should not prevent a dialogue today. Nor should it prevent March 14 from mobilizing to challenge Hezbollah politically when the elections come.

As King Abdullah surely knows, for an inter-Lebanese dialogue to make sense, Saad Hariri must be intimately involved in it. The former prime minister cannot participate by proxy, especially as there is a worrisome drift of the initiative in the Sunni community toward the extremes. The extremists remain a minority, but as we saw in Tripoli last week, in periods like these they can impose their will.

After initial confusion, Future politicians read the dangers of the Mawlawi arrest relatively well, and did so again after the shooting of the two sheikhs in Akkar. However, their allies on the ground took a different tack. When Khaled Daher of the Jamaa Islamiyya—who worried that he might be overwhelmed from his right—accused elements in the army of deliberately killing the clerics, this crossed a red line that disturbed many people, not least Future’s Christian ally Sami Gemayel.

The army is a house of myriad murky corners, but it is the only national institution that stands between a semblance of peace and a security void. There are also substantial numbers of Sunnis in the ranks, so it makes no sense to undermine the military in the eyes of the community. Only a national dialogue, with a reinforced role for the Army at its core, can counter the perils of visceral politics.

Now is not the time to engage in petty politicking. Mikati made many enemies by becoming prime minister against the will of a majority of his coreligionists, in what was a sordid arrangement that has brought him, and us, only misery. However, if Mikati were to resign today, the absence of a consensus would mean a prolonged period without a functioning government. This vacuum would carry Lebanon into the unknown, and into another minefield favored by Syria.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Syria lets loose a bogeyman on Tripoli's troubled streets

The fighting in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli in recent days has been intimately related to the conflict in next-door Syria. Indeed, all the indications are that it was a Syrian trap, and that the enemies of the regime of President Bashar Al Assad fell right into it.

Last weekend, agents of the Lebanese General Security directorate arrested one Shadi Mawlawi, an Islamist active in assisting Syrian refugees in Lebanon. Mr Mawlawi was lured to a social aid centre belonging to the finance minister, Mohammed Safadi, where he was apprehended. This triggered a wave of condemnation in Tripoli, followed by armed clashes between pro and anti-Syrian quarters - principally the Sunni Bab Al Tebbaneh and the mainly Alawite Jabal Mohsen.

The background to the incident explains the sudden violence. Tripoli, a largely Sunni city, is a bastion of opposition to Syria and Hizbollah. It has always been watched closely by the minority Alawite Assad regime, fearful of cross-border solidarity between Lebanon's and Syria's Sunnis. This was especially true after the Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon in 2005, once Tripoli was free of Syrian intimidation.

During the tense years after the pullout, Lebanon was politically split between the so-called March 14 coalition and a pro-Syrian Hizbollah-led alliance. Hizbollah, thanks to its weapons, was able to retain the upper hand in Beirut, but March 14 ruled in Tripoli. As a result, Hizbollah began backing pro-Syrian factions in the city, financially and through arms supplies. This has reportedly escalated during the Syrian uprising, with both Hizbollah and Syria keen to ensure that Tripoli remains divided and does not host anti-Assad activities.

However, the Syrians and Hizbollah have also seen another advantage in manipulating politics in northern Lebanon. The narrative put out by the Syrian leadership this past year has been that it is fighting jihadists. Although uncertain, the charge that Al Qaeda-affiliated groups are participating in the Syrian uprising has gained traction in the West. For instance, it was echoed by US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta last week, who then threw in a caveat that "we don't have very good intelligence as to just exactly what their activities are".

The intention of the Syrians, through Mr Mawlawi's arrest, was to lend further credence to this version of events. The Salafist phenomenon in Tripoli is exaggerated, with only a minority bearing arms, and many of the city's various Islamist groups are at odds with each other. Notably, during an earlier round of fighting in 2008 between Jabal Mohsen and Bab Al Tebbaneh, the leading Lebanese Salafist figure, Dai Al Islam Shahhal, mobilised at best 30 combatants on the front line. As one activist put it to me at the time: "The confrontations ended up showing how weak the Salafists were."

And yet when Mr Mawlawi was taken into custody, the initiative shifted to those disjointed bearded bands in the streets protesting against what had happened. Some picked up weapons against the better armed Alawites. Suddenly, the Assad regime's contention that Tripoli was a jihadist base on Syria's eastern flank seemed true. And in condemning the behaviour of the General Security directorate, many March 14 representatives (albeit not only them) somehow came across as being affiliated with Sunni Islamists.

Yet everyone was right to be suspicious. General Security, headed by General Abbas Ibrahim, normally operates at the airport and border crossings; it does not organise sting operations. Gen Ibrahim is a Shiite who is said to coordinate with Hizbollah and Syria. He recently provoked anger in Tripoli by appointing a fellow Shiite as commander of the General Security branch there. Rightly or wrongly, critics saw this as another example of Hizbollah's inroads into Sunni areas.

Some Lebanese politicians believe that Mr Mawlawi's arrest was prepared at Syria's behest. The intention was to elicit a vehement sectarian response, thus supposedly confirming that if Mr Al Assad were one day ousted from office by an alliance of Syrian and Lebanese Islamists, this would transform Syria into a radical Islamic state.

It is important to ponder what is happening in Tripoli in light of Lebanese parliamentary elections next year. The situation in Syria will not soon improve, which is why Hizbollah is quietly bracing itself for a post-Assad order. To gain protection, the party must secure a tighter grip on Lebanese national institutions, above all parliament. The vote in predominantly Christian areas will be decisive in shaping the electoral outcome. That is why Hizbollah's skill in heightening Christian doubts when it comes to the Sunnis, by portraying the entire community as being under the thumb of the Islamists, will be essential in swinging voters behind Hizbollah's Christian partners.

For now, the skirmishing in Tripoli may be brought under some nominal control, even if animosities are bound to persist. Hizbollah does not want the situation to get completely out of hand. This could lead to widening sectarian clashes and bring down the government of Prime Minister Najib Mikati, himself a Sunni from Tripoli. Any ensuing political vacuum could undermine the party's ability to retain the levers of state, something fundamental to Hizbollah as it prepares the ground for elections that it wants to be certain of winning.

Outsiders watching what has happened in the past days in northern Lebanon interpreted it as a sign that the Syrian conflict was starting to spread. Mr Al Assad must have been pleased. Anything that appears to point to the onset of chaos conveniently frightens the international community. This buys him time to pursue repression. The Syrian game of blackmail, honed for decades, never ends.

Will Tripoli make Samir Geagea pay?

Among the less obvious victims of the fighting in Tripoli this past weekend was Samir Geagea. The head of the Lebanese Forces has made an alliance with the Sunnis a cornerstone of his electoral strategy next year, but suddenly many Christians saw, or thought they saw, that not a few of these partners were fearsome, bearded gunmen.

The Syrians set a trap in Tripoli, and the city fell for it, as did a number of politicians in the March 14 alliance. When Shadi Mawlawi was arrested by the General Security directorate, the counter-reaction was predictable. Armed Islamists would descend into the streets demanding his release; fighting would begin between the Sunni quarter of Bab al-Tabbaneh and the mainly Alawite Jabal Mohsen; and suddenly Tripoli would resemble Kandahar, lending credence to the Syrian regime’s claim that it was fighting a coalition of “Salafist” forces both inside Syria and in neighboring Lebanon.

The reality is somewhat different. While there is a good chance that northern Islamists have become more militant in the past year due to the Syrian uprising and the continued detention without trial of their comrades in Roumieh, Islamist groups in and around Tripoli, the Salafists among them, have traditionally been divided, not especially prosperous, and by and large opposed to jihadism. Indeed a number of Islamist groups are pro-Syrian. Upon closer look, the Islamist landscape in the north is complex and fractured.

That won’t matter to Christian voters, though, who next year will determine, as they did in 2009, the makeup of the Lebanese Parliament, therefore of the state in the coming years. Hezbollah is maneuvering to shape the electoral aftermath in its favor. If President Bashar Assad falls (and no one can afford not to prepare), the party will protect itself by tightening its hold on national institutions. The only way it can do so is by ensuring that it controls a parliamentary majority, which would then select a compliant head of state.

Michel Aoun imagines that he will be that head of state. Other politicians in Beirut are more dubious. They believe that General Jean Kahwagi, the Army commander, will be the anointed one. Before then, however, how might the legislative elections come out?

Hezbollah supports a proportional system of representation, as Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah informed us last week. Their reasoning is that the principle of proportionality will take more seats away from March 14, the Future Movement in particular, and, implicitly, Walid Jumblatt, than it will from the Hezbollah-Aoun alliance. Not surprisingly, Jumblatt views the project as an existential threat, and if there is a vote in parliament to approve a proportional law, he and March 14 would probably have the numbers to defeat it.

However, that wouldn’t substantially handicap Hezbollah. The party and its pro-Syrian partners will sweep seats in those electoral districts where Hezbollah dominates. Saad Hariri’s absence from Lebanon may pose further problems for the former prime minister’s lists in hitherto “safe” March 14 constituencies such as Beirut and Tripoli. But the big question is what will happen in those districts where Christian voters decide, and the picture there is far more convoluted.

Geagea’s objective is to challenge Aoun’s primacy among Christians in terms of parliamentary representation. One facet of his plan is to place his candidates on strong Hariri lists in districts where the Sunni vote prevails or carries considerable weight. However, the Lebanese Forces leader must also devise a parallel approach allowing him to fare better than the Aounists in Mount Lebanon, because that is where the balance of power in Parliament may ultimately play out.

A key electoral battlefield will be Baabda, where the Aoun-Hezbollah alliance will be difficult to beat. The Lebanese Forces have a presence in the area, but to gain ground they would need to persuade a large share of undecided Christian voters to back March 14 candidates. There are divisive issues to play on, not least a fear among Christians in the areas around the southern suburbs that they will soon succumb to the Shiite demographic expansion. Geagea is also wagering that Aoun has lost popularity in recent years, and that his failure to do anything in government will have turned many against him.

Perhaps, but whichever way one cuts it, Aoun appears to retain the upper hand in Mount Lebanon because most of his potential opponents seem so anemic. In the Metn, Sami Gemayel and Michel Murr may pass, but unless Aoun manages to lose the large pro-Tashnag Armenian bloc of voters, it’s hard to see who else will be able to take seats from him. The same holds true in Jbeil, if Aoun enjoys a unified Shiite vote in his favor.

The situation in Kesrouan is less clear. There are no hegemonic voting blocs in the district, amid suggestions that Geagea has made inroads into what had been a solidly pro-Aoun electorate. That could be true, but most of those likely to stand against the Aounists are not necessarily more credible, and do not enjoy the advantages of incumbency, therefore the power of patronage. The assassination attempt on Geagea’s life may have made voters wise to the infiltration of Hezbollah into Christian-majority areas – which is the message Geagea tried to get across – but will that matter at election time?

The tension in Tripoli has made Christians pause. Between Sunni Islamists and Shiite Islamists, they are lost. Unless Samir Geagea can show that most Sunnis have nothing to do with the Islamist fringe, which requires less ambiguity from the Future Movement on incidents such as the Mawlawi arrest, the Lebanese Forces leader will find himself on an uphill trek to garner Christian sympathy.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Syria’s war enters third gear

In a bombshell revelation, both literally and figuratively, the Washington Post reported this week that weapons were reaching the Syrian opposition, and that the process was being partly coordinated by the United States. This represents a fundamentally new stage in the Syrian conflict, and in Washington’s approach to it.

The article, citing Syrian opposition activists and American and foreign officials, noted that the Syrian rebels “have begun receiving significantly more and better weapons in recent weeks,” and that the effort was financed by Persian Gulf nations. Among the early signs that the arms were making a difference was that opposition forces had overrun a military base in Rastan, killing 23 soldiers.

As one opposition figure put it, “Large shipments have got through. Some areas are loaded with weapons.”

Decades ago, British journalist Patrick Seale wrote a book titled “The Struggle for Syria.” The topic was how post-independence Syria had found itself pulled every which way by the regional rivalry between Egypt and Iraq—a prize sought by both. The situation today has again made of Syria a valuable prize in a proxy war, this time between Iran and the mostly Sunni Arab states as well as the United States on the one hand; but also between the United States, backed by several European powers, and Russia on the other.

These two interconnected wheels render the Syrian situation even more complex and volatile than it already is. The American calculation is that the first will ultimately overcome the second: In other words, once the Russians realize that the regime of Bashar al-Assad cannot survive militarily, Moscow will reverse course and seek some form of transition away from Assad’s rule.

That may be true, and it may not be. But the situation today is, plainly, heading toward further escalation, as the plan of Kofi Annan, the United Nations-Arab League envoy, lies in tatters. This week, a particularly experienced Lebanese politician I happened to be visiting heard that a local security official had predicted the Assad regime would soon prevail. The politician laughed, replying, “If he thinks that, then he’s mistaken. We’re only at the start of this.”

The United States has been all over the place on Syria, and it’s difficult to explain what its intentions are. One State Department official described the American role this way: “We are increasing our nonlethal assistance to the Syrian opposition, and we continue to coordinate our efforts with friends and allies in the region and beyond in order to have the biggest impact on what we are collectively doing.”

That’s a particularly clever way of hinting that the Obama administration is helping determine where the weapons and assistance are going, perhaps ensuring they do not reach the wrong people. Another official said there were currently no military or intelligence personnel on the ground in Syria. But that did not mean there weren’t any in the past. In fact, some months ago there were unconfirmed reports in Beirut that the CIA had sent agents to Syria to examine ways of organizing the opposition, but that they had come away frustrated with the disorganization among Assad’s foes.

Equally interesting, the United States is also contacting Syria’s Kurds to see if they might open an eastern front, so to speak, against the Assads. While the Kurds are divided, the reality is that the Syrian crisis, not to say civil war, is reinforcing the centrifugal forces in the country. Even if Assad can hold on for a while, it is virtually impossible to imagine him again re-imposing his writ over a unified country. The Kurds will not return to the conditions that prevailed just over a year ago, and even Alawites, Christians and Druze may no longer feel secure in a united Syria after everything that has passed.

We are already beyond the stage where Bashar al-Assad can refloat his sinking ship. The dynamics are all moving against him. At some stage Russia, who, with Iran, is the regime’s principal bulwark, will have to determine whether it prefers to pursue a proxy war against Washington, Europe and the Sunni Arab states, or to take on the difficult but politically lucrative task of guiding regime change in Damascus. The Russians claim they are not wedded to Assad’s remaining in office. If so, crunch time is fast approaching.

Assad has pursued sham reforms in recent months, topped off by a nonsensical parliamentary election a few days ago. At the best of times Syrian elections were a travesty. And yet the Russians once regarded this kabuki dance as necessary for neutralizing hostility to the Syrian regime. That’s not surprising coming from Vladimir Putin. But most Syrians are not dupes. Alas, more war lies ahead.

Friday, May 11, 2012

An empty court press

Every few days, it seems, I receive another email from the Special Tribunal for Lebanon press office, informing me of some new action or initiative at the institution. Earlier this week, Lebanese academics were in Leidschendam visiting. Such transparency is laudable, but the more urgent question is: When will the trial begin?

Not until later this year, or even 2013, if you believe sources at the tribunal. One cause for the delay is that last March the pretrial judge, Daniel Fransen, rejected the prosecution’s request to amend the indictment, to which the crime of “criminal association” had been added. The term must be clarified by the appeals chamber first.

Yes, trials of this nature take time, we’ve been wearily assured time and again. However, given this fact, does it make any sense whatsoever to continue to argue that the Special Tribunal will end impunity for political crimes in Lebanon? If anything, the entire trial process, and what we anticipate will be a seven- or eight-year delay between the date of the central crime and the beginning of court proceedings, would seem to confirm the absurdity of that proposition.

The wheels of justice move slowly, to repeat an old cliché. But there is a difference between domestic and international courts. It is considerably more difficult to set up a special international judicial body, so that when the process is further loaded down by extensive time lags, there is even less for prospective criminals to fear. What likelihood is there that another special tribunal will be set up in the foreseeable future in the event of fresh assassinations? None.

An associated problem is that the measure of success is rather different for those working at the tribunal than it is for the families of the victims—or simply those who want to see justice done. I recall hearing a lawyer at the Lebanon tribunal arguing that the benchmark of achievement would be the proper functioning of the legal procedure. That’s true in part, but it really must involve more. For most Lebanese, success will be determined by whether the guilty, or a substantial number of the guilty, are identified and convicted.

Then there are the politics. The Special Tribunal for Lebanon has been accused of many bad things, not least of politicizing its accusations. Nonsense, but that doesn’t mean that politics did not play a part in shaping the investigation of the Hariri killing.

When the first commissioner of the United Nations investigative team, Detlev Mehlis, met with Kofi Annan in 2005, before beginning his mission, the then-UN secretary general told him that he did “not want problems.” This showed that Annan was calculating in a political context, perhaps seeking to avert controversy that might split UN member states, even as he did support Mehlis throughout.

On the other hand, if Annan told Mehlis’ Belgian successor, Serge Brammertz, what he told Mehlis, that may help explain why Brammertz was so reluctant to conduct an aggressive investigation. Among his failures was that he never took down a formal witness statement from President Bashar al-Assad, which Mehlis had wanted to do and for which he had secured Security Council backing. Despite spending two years without much advancing the case, Brammertz was promoted to the position of prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. Politics were at play there, but not in the way the tribunal’s critics allege.

The Special Tribunal’s spokespersons and supporters in Lebanon have long affirmed that the body represents a qualitatively new and valuable innovation in terms of international justice. Many Lebanese have regarded it as a rare weapon against those holding the guns in their country, above all the Syrian regime and their allies in Beirut. But we have to be honest: The UN investigation did not stop the killing after 2005, and few people seriously believe that the tribunal will make criminals think twice about repeating this in the future.

Look at Bashar al-Assad. Here he is butchering his own population in the full light of day, despite warnings that he may eventually face a trial of some sort. Look at President Omar al-Bashir of Sudan, who has been indicted by the International Criminal Court, and who continues to travel without hindrance. They have taken the measure of international justice, and see it wanting. Ending impunity for crimes is a worthy undertaking. Unfortunately it’s difficult to believe that this is what the Special Tribunal for Lebanon will do.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Middle East policy radically revised in Bush-Obama years

George W Bush and Barack Obama would wince at the comparison, but they have more in common in the Middle East than they care to admit. Both, in different ways, challenged the consensus that had for decades shaped American policy toward the region.

What was this consensus? It varied over time, but from the 1940s onward and throughout the cold war, the United States saw the Arab world mainly through the prism of oil and containment of the Soviet Union. Washington accepted friendly regimes as they were - and most were authoritarian - supporting a status quo that guaranteed the steady supply of cheap oil while denying Moscow a regional foothold.

This was only partly successful, as Egypt, Syria and Iraq developed close ties with the Soviet Union, albeit usually as equals. That is one reason why, during the late 1960s, the Americans strengthened the bond with Israel and, as a corollary, Washington came to regard Arab-Israeli peace as a near-permanent political objective.

This prioritisation of peace and the preservation of an equilibrium, not to say stalemate, in Arab governance systems was last pursued by President Bill Clinton. Yet Mr Clinton was only replicating the ways of his predecessor George H W Bush, who, though he went further than Ronald Reagan in the "peace process", was yet working within a framework that no president from the time of Richard Nixon ever disputed.

The September 11 attacks broke the pattern. George W Bush, the man least likely to overhaul foreign policy thinking anywhere, did precisely that in the Middle East. The president adopted a pre-emptive strategy to neutralise emerging threats, undermining the prior devotion to balance. He also ordered the invasion of Iraq, which was viewed additionally as a means of keeping Saudi Arabia in line.

While Mr Bush was focused on exercising American power, he raised the exhilarating banner of democratisation. Many regarded this as hypocritical, an effort to lend life to his wilting Iraq campaign. Yet that does not tell the whole story. The president's evocation of democracy was destabilising to Washington's Arab partners, even if it was unevenly practised. Freedom was at the heart of Mr Bush's second inaugural address, and in Iraq and Lebanon the president remained surprisingly consistent on the issue.

That did not mean Mr Bush welcomed a break with the Egyptians and Saudis, Washington's principal regional allies. Throughout his two terms there was a profound tension between Mr Bush's aspirations and conduct, between an impulse to effect a radical repositioning in the Arab world and allegiance to the old ways.

This was contradictory. However, Mr Bush introduced a volatile element into US perceptions of the Middle East - an urge for change. Mr Bush was not the godfather of the Arab revolts last year, but his removal of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, like the Lebanese intifada against Syria in 2005 that he backed, helped define the first decade of the new century as one in which old certitudes were no longer persuasive.

When Barack Obama took office, his aim was to rid the United States of Mr Bush's Middle East legacy. The new president sought an accelerated path out of Iraq, toned down references to democracy and characterised his role as that of reconciling America with a Muslim world that Mr Bush had allegedly alienated.

Where Mr Obama was most innovative was in his wilful decision to break free of the Middle East's embrace. After observing Mr Bush devote much blood and treasure to successive wars in the region, the president believed that America had to move on, not least because of its economic constraints. Earlier this year, Mr Obama announced an American realignment toward Asia, but the flip side of that proposition was that too much had been invested in the Middle East.

This modest recognition of American limitations had far-reaching consequences. Mr Obama, no less than Mr Bush, although in a contrary way, abandoned the traditional American approach to the region. He promised to midwife a Palestinian-Israeli settlement, but soon lost interest; supposedly a realist, he promised to consult with America's established Arab comrades, but in the end helped topple President Hosni Mubarak, and has presided over a relationship with Saudi Arabia riven with mistrust.

With the drawdown in American forces in Iraq came a more subtle drawdown in America's psychological obligation to the region. The United States remains a key actor in the Middle East, and nothing will alter that, but Mr Obama has been elsewhere mentally. Even when finally succumbing to them, he has resisted dynamics entailing a greater commitment of American energies than he would like.

That is why Mr Obama reacted with such uneasiness, and a lack of political imagination, to the Arab uprisings. At the very moment when Arab societies demonstrated their revolutionary potential, the president was reluctant to deal proactively with the new situation. That is not to say the administration has done nothing. Rather, it has failed to formulate a comprehensive design that lends coherence to its myriad, frequently disjointed, regional reactions.

Mr Bush overstated American power, hard and soft, while Mr Obama has understated it. But the Middle East is a place that disappoints the over-ambitious and entraps the wary.

Neither president has offered a successful model to emulate, but both sensed, correctly, that the smugness and predictability of the past was unsustainable.

Prepare for the long haul in Syria

One thing that the Lebanese can usually do with some precision is predict stalemate. Their own conflict between 1975 and 1990 was one long, debilitating lesson in destructive deadlock. So when those in Beirut look toward Syria today and shake their heads, that’s because they can hear echoes of their own past predicament.

Among those shaking their heads are lucid Syrian allies who will mock the propensity of some of their comrades to insist that victory for President Bashar Assad is just around the corner. This gloom is shared by Kofi Annan, the U.N.-Arab League envoy. This week he lamented that violence in Syria remained at “unacceptable levels,” while insisting that the observer mission he has put together “is the only remaining chance to stabilize the country.”

Annan has a plan, and because it’s the only plan in circulation everyone in the international community is clinging to it. And yet you will not find two people who truly believe that the deployment of United Nations monitors will slow the leviathan of civil war in Syria.

One reason is that Annan’s scheme pursues incompatible objectives. On the one side the envoy wants to contain the death and destruction, bringing it down to (well, the implication is his) “acceptable levels.” This Annan seeks to do through an all-inclusive dialogue between different Syrian political forces, regime and opposition. On the other side, however, he wants to facilitate the relatively peaceful overthrow of the Assad leadership, by creating conditions allowing for unhampered anti-regime protests.

The Syrian president is no dope. He won’t implement those features of Annan’s plan that might undermine his authority. As for the opposition, it has no intention of embracing dialogue unless this leads to Assad’s departure, and unless it receives assurances that the regime will halt its brutality. The envoy is perhaps still hoping against hope that Russia’s government will decisively shift on Syria and compel Bashar Assad to become more conciliatory. However, that’s not likely.

The Russians are ensnared in a knot of their own making. Their support is, indeed, essential for Assad’s survival. However, Moscow is so disinclined to surrender that singular leverage that its diplomatic flexibility has effectively been neutralized. Assad has the Russians’ measure. They cannot readily give up on him, because that would mean forfeiting their strongest card and caving in to the Americans at the Security Council. Russia has become an agent of the status quo, regardless of its assurances to Annan that it is not committed in principle to the perpetuation of Assad rule.

The charade will persist. Annan, to protect his plan, will continue to suggest that Russia might succeed in pressing for a change in Assad’s behavior. The Russians, who don’t want to see the envoy’s proposals abandoned, since that would leave a vacuum and only highlight Moscow’s ineffectiveness, will continue to hint that they can deliver a breakthrough. Everyone else, the United States above all, will wait and see. No one wants to be held responsible for a void in Syria, and no one has an alternative to Annan’s project.

Therefore, the diplomatic movement is mostly meaningless. As we saw in Lebanon more than three decades ago, political initiatives can take on a life of their own, and similar to the limbs of spiders continue to twitch even after death. Syrians, like the Lebanese before them, expect almost nothing from the international community. We are in a logic of chronic civil conflict in Syria, with the revolt taking on the dimension of a guerrilla war, bolstered by endemic and systemic recalcitrance in many cities and towns. How does one walk back from the precipice?

There are those arriving from Syria who will point out that the situation is not as bad as media outlets say. But they are missing the forest for the trees. The contract of fear hitherto imposed by the Assads has collapsed, taking with it a second contract that held up their political system: a sense that the regime, for all its faults, stood at the nexus point of multiple interests in Syrian society.

What most Syrians can see at present is that the ruling family is fighting for itself and its community, and that it will never be able to glue the pieces back together again. At best an improbable triumph would have to be reinforced by years of ferocious intimidation, in the context of a disintegrating economy, in a society devoid of cross-sectarian cohesion and solidarity. Assad has neither the skills nor the wherewithal to rebuild his legitimacy, and as his late father well understood, a minority regime with no national legitimacy cannot long endure.

We’re not quite at the stage where Syria has institutionalized a civil war. But we’re nearly there, and the prospective political and military dynamics are not liable to derail such a terrible outcome. The diplomatic impasse will only encourage outside countries to arm the rebels. Assad and the criminal enterprise he leads will not cease their repression, because that would spell their end. This was obvious a year ago when the Syrian uprising began, and yet the international community did nothing. Now we have a colossal mess to clean up.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Sarko d’Arabie

Toward the end of the lengthy debate on Wednesday night between France’s presidential candidates, President Nicolas Sarkozy and his Socialist challenger Francois Hollande, there was a brief segment on foreign policy. By then many people had gone to bed.

Polls suggest that Hollande will be France’s next president, despite his inexperience in matters overseas. Voters have other priorities, above all the economy and the future of the European project, which is as close to “foreign” as the French will allow. But for those of us living in the Middle East, what has been Sarkozy’s legacy in the region, or at least the Levant and the Gulf, where Paris has tried to leave its mark?

Recall this interesting assessment of Sarkozy’s predecessor, Jacques Chirac, for a partial answer. In their 2006 book Chirac D’Arabie, Eric Aeschimann and Christophe Boltanski argued that Chirac had managed on numerous occasions to create valuable openings in the Arab world, without exploiting them. In Iraq, Lebanon, Algeria, Morocco, and in negotiations between the Palestinians and Israelis, the authors wrote, he “conquered the power to act, then did nothing.”

The same can be said of Nicolas Sarkozy. Though he desperately sought to break with Chirac, the current president was, similarly, caught up in a crisis of purpose. That may have been inevitable. France today remains a second-tier power in the region. American disengagement under President Barack Obama has left a vacuum largely filled by Arab states and Iran, not by the Europeans.

And yet Sarkozy merits applause for his actions during the past year in Libya and Syria. He and his British counterpart, David Cameron, led the air campaign (albeit with considerable American logistical support) against Moammar al-Qaddafi’s forces, and earlier than most recognized the absolute savagery of Bashar al-Assad’s repression. It is the French foreign minister, Alain Juppé, who was the first to mention setting up humanitarian corridors in Syria, a scheme that may yet be implemented as the plan of Kofi Annan unravels.

It’s true that the ambitions in Paris were repeatedly outpaced by France’s limited military and diplomatic capabilities. However, there was boldness and imagination in the French approach to Libya and Syria, contrasting starkly with the sluggishness and inconsistency in Washington. There has also been refreshing outrage. It seems to make a difference in Paris that innocent people are being slaughtered, whereas the Obama administration has seemed far more detached.

Looking back through the full complement of Sarkozy’s years in power, the president entered the Middle East full of sound and fury. Except for the last 12 months, this has usually signified nothing.

Soon after taking office in 2007, Sarkozy sought to overhaul his relationship with Syria, while mediating in the Lebanese crisis. The consequences were embarrassing. His foreign minister at the time, Bernard Kouchner, was more an impresario than a diplomat, a man of baroque yet hollow initiatives; all intangible movement.

When Emile Lahoud’s term ended, there was disagreement in Lebanon over who would succeed the president. Kouchner’s priority was to fill the void in Beirut by persuading Bashar al-Assad, who was largely responsible for that void, to give the green light for an election. Assad had no incentive to do so. His ability to block progress earned him more leverage, and anyway his focus was not on normalizing with France; it was to reopen contacts with the United States after the rift that had followed the assassination of Rafik Hariri in 2005. 

Kouchner came and went—even organizing a Lebanese dialogue session in St. Cloud, a Paris suburb—to no avail. The most egregious French error was to undermine Security Council Resolution 1559 of September 2004, which France had co-sponsored with the United States. The resolution was designed, among other things, to prevent Syrian interference in Lebanon’s presidential election. And here was Kouchner pleading with Assad to interfere in a presidential election.

France’s interest in Lebanon waned somewhat after the Doha Accord of May 2008. Before long, Sarkozy could see that his flirtation with Assad had become a one-way street, and that French influence over the Syrian leader was negligible. It was with the resentment of a lover once spurned that Sarkozy and his new foreign minister, Alain Juppé, turned against Assad in 2011, after the start of the Syrian revolt. This reaction was similar to that of Turkey, which had also wagered heavily on Assad’s otherwise imaginary reformist impulses.

Sarkozy’s most interesting Middle Eastern innovation was the expansion of France’s relationship with Qatar. This was risky in light of the uneasy relationship between the emirate and Saudi Arabia. The French president was criticized for placing too much emphasis on the Qatari connection, when France had been used to a broader range of political ties. And yet the friendship with Qatar’s emir served Paris well, not least during the Libya conflict as well as economically, with the Qataris investing heavily in the Paris property market.

Looking back on Sarkozy’s tenureship, the path he has cut in the Arab world is a zigzag. In Libya and Syria, the president initially went in one direction, ameliorating ties with Qaddafi and Assad, before moving in diametrically opposed directions when the circumstances changed. In Lebanon, too, the ardor of engagement was tempered by the reality of France’s shortcomings. This contradictory behavior revealed an absence of political depth. However, volatility was not always a bad thing, as when the French, with less to lose, proved more agile in responding to the Arab uprisings than the Americans.

Sarkozy’s policies toward the Arab world, like Sarkozy himself, have been energetic, opportunistic, audacious and chaotic, deriving more from gut instinct and personal amity than from a clear strategy. Not surprisingly, foreign affairs were decided more often at the Elysée Palace than at the Quai d’Orsay. Sometimes successful, sometimes calamitous, France’s performance was never boring.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Military element to Annan's Syria plan looks inevitable

There is much to criticise in the plan devised by Kofi Annan, the United Nations-Arab League envoy on Syria. However, Mr Annan's intention to end the Syrian carnage is sound and necessary. Unfortunately, there has been little creative thinking, in particular among the so-called Friends of Syria group, to give the plan teeth.

Mr Annan's propositions are a potpourri. His ambition is to break the momentum of armed confrontation and return Syria to a situation in which the regime of President Bashar Al Assad would have to permit peaceful protests, presumably protected by international observers. The envoy is thus echoing the Arab League plan of last November and December, although this time with more muscular backing. His assumption is that ever-larger protests will erode Mr Al Assad's authority, ultimately bringing him down.

The second facet of the Annan plan, however, is rather different. It calls for an all-inclusive Syrian dialogue over reform, which would include the president, or someone named by him. Since Mr Al Assad is not in the least inclined to cede power, or open up the political space, the process gives him latitude to neutralise the opposition and remain in office. Not only does this tend to undermine the first objective in the plan, it is unacceptable to most segments of the Syrian opposition, making continuation of the armed insurrection likely.

These two irreconcilables have only heightened the tensions in Syria. Mr Al Assad will ignore conditions that weaken his rule, while the disjointed armed opposition, whose ties with the political opposition in the Syrian National Council are tenuous, will not soon discontinue its resistance as it receives weapons through bordering countries.

There are worrisome reports that jihadists, some from as far as Chechnya, are entering Syria. This is music to the ears of the Syrian leadership, which has sought to portray itself as combating an Islamist insurgency.

That is why Mr Annan's plan requires a military component. That's not to say that he must prepare direct foreign intervention in Syria - a near impossibility in the political climate of today. Rather, governments opposed to Mr Al Assad must help to reduce the growing chaos in the Syrian opposition, particularly among armed units on the ground. This they can begin doing by organising and training the opposition, regulating as best they can the types of weapons entering Syrian territory, and better integrating military efforts with a political strategy, be it the Annan proposal or some revised version of it.

This will not be easy, since Mr Annan's scheme specifically seeks to avert a military approach. Russia has insisted that pressure be put on the Free Syrian Army to end its operations, and it will try to block further militarisation. The problem is that the situation is deteriorating anyway, and is escaping the control of the international community. By allowing a policy vacuum at the military level, the Friends of Syria and Russia are conceding a key dimension of the Syrian conflict to those on both the Syrian government and opposition side with no interest in a settlement.

What are some of the measures that can be explored? Refugee communities, given the frustration and hardships that they face, are potential hotbeds of extremism. To leave the Syrian refugees, particularly those in Turkey, without an organisational anchor is dangerous, especially if jihadists seize the initiative in the fighting. Young men have to be taken in hand, given a purpose, and shown that they can play a meaningful role in a new Syria.

In this context it would be beneficial to establish the embryo of a police force, which could one day assist in restoring security in a post-Assad Syria, or even in so-called humanitarian corridors if that becomes necessary. A vital part of such a project would be to instruct recruits that, because they will become the defenders of a truly civil order in a future Syria, they must reflect this in their behaviour and values, which must emphasise reconciliation and tolerance.

Another step could be to impose a monitoring mechanism over weapons deliveries to the Syrian opposition. Some might regard this as the very antithesis of the Annan plan. In a way it is. However, weapons are entering Syria one way or another, allegedly through middlemen over whom there is apparently minimal influence. This is neither in the interest of the Friends of Syria nor of Russia and China, whatever their disagreements over Syria.

Closely supervising the supply effort also can represent a way of reining in the armed opposition and making sure that its activities buttress negotiations towards a political transition.

For the international community to put all its eggs in Mr Annan's basket makes little sense. There is a better than even chance that his endeavours will not succeed.

On the other hand, the envoy has created an environment, albeit one that is fragile, that could facilitate a combination of military and political pressures. Since a majority in the Syrian opposition, the Friends of Syria countries, and Moscow and Beijing all have no desire to see Syria turned into a jihadist haven, they have a stake in preventing an armed struggle that is unrestrained.

It is obvious that for Syria to return to normalcy, Mr Al Assad will have to leave office. Even the Russians, allegedly, have been willing to acknowledge this reality. The Syrian president will exploit the jihadist threat to derail such an outcome. That is precisely why Mr Annan's plan requires a military complement - not to undercut it, but rather to better push for a negotiated solution while avoiding fragmentation of the opposition and a hijacking of the Syrian cause by outsiders.

Lebanon’s Sunnis and Shiites must speak

It is understandable that Saad Hariri, the former prime minister, has little patience for normalizing relations with Hezbollah. Party members stand accused of having participated in his father’s assassination; Hezbollah abruptly pushed Hariri out of office last year and replaced him with Najib Mikati, against the wishes of a majority of Sunnis; and four years ago, in May 2008, party gunmen assaulted western Beirut to reverse a formal government decision.

Next weekend, on the occasion of Martyrs Day, Hariri will be making a speech addressing several issues pertaining to Syria and Hezbollah. Among the domestic topics he will apparently raise is how the party has undermined the spirit of the Doha Accord, which ended the brutal operation of 2008 and led to the election of Michel Sleiman as president. According to a parliamentarian from the Future Movement, speaking to this newspaper, the former prime minister will not launch a new initiative toward Hezbollah and its partners.

That’s a shame, because if Hariri’s assessment of the outcome in Syria is correct – that the regime of President Bashar Assad is destined to fall – then he has no option but to engage in some sort of dialogue with Hezbollah, even if it means pinching his nose while doing so.

Yes, Hariri remembers what happened to his father when he embarked upon an exchange of ideas with the party’s secretary general, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, before the parliamentary elections of 2005. There is no need to be starry-eyed about a dialogue with a party that is anxiously, and by all accounts violently, protecting its political turf by contributing to the Assad regime’s repression. However, from a purely pragmatic national perspective, Lebanon’s Sunnis and Shiites need urgently to introduce mechanisms to lower the tension between them, especially as the departure of Bashar Assad will unleash political and sectarian forces that may become uncontrollable.

Because Hariri is likely to come out on top in Lebanon if his Syrian enemies suffer defeat, any opening must come from him. This would allow the former prime minister to better manage a post-Assad strategy and have greater control over the agenda with Hezbollah. Hariri need not e personally in discussions with Nasrallah. At this stage both men can name confidants to pursue regular behind-the-scenes contacts, without ceding ground on principles.

Some politicians have suggested that Hariri at least send out feelers to Nabih Berri, the speaker of parliament. This seems to be good advice. Berri’s interests and those of Hezbollah may diverge if there is a transformation in Syria. The speaker has a desire to be somewhat more autonomous from Hezbollah, and certainly from Michel Aoun, in the elections next year. However, Berri will not break with Hezbollah, nor can he challenge the party electorally, so it’s best to keep expectations low as to what he can and cannot do.

That’s why Hariri and Nasrallah must be at the heart of a conversation between the Sunni and Shiite communities. Hariri’s long absence has not yet decisively eroded his influence among Sunnis. Assad’s ouster will not magically disarm Hezbollah. The equation is a simple one in that sense: Sooner or later, if new leaders come to power in Damascus, both Hariri and Nasrallah will have to shield Lebanon from the backlash, whether it is positive or negative.

Hariri’s calculation is that time is on his side. Why legitimize and strengthen Hezbollah through a dialogue at a moment when it stands accused before the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, has endorsed official savagery in Syria, and has pitifully failed in its efforts at one-sided governance through the dysfunctional Mikati Cabinet? That’s a defensible position if the aim is merely to earn political leverage.

However, the risks are rather more serious these days. The sectarian genie has been let out of the bottle in Syria, thanks to the recklessness of the Assads. Foreign jihadists are reportedly entering the country, even if many in the Syrian opposition reject such assistance. Sectarian paranoia cannot be far behind, and if there is one thing that Hariri and Nasrallah share – and maybe one thing alone – it’s a yearning to avoid being sucked into a wider Sunni-Shiite conflict.

The primary objective of a Hariri-Hezbollah discussion must be to find ways of sidelining sectarian confrontation on the ground, by developing ways to neutralize flashpoints. Admittedly, this will not be easy when Hezbollah is reportedly financing anti-Hariri groups in Tripoli, and is playing on contradictions in the Sunni community. Nasrallah won’t cede ground on his vital interests, nor should Hariri. Which is why any basis for contacts must be relatively unambitious. There will be no long-term political agreement between the parties; nor should one expect a debate over political ideas. For now, Nasrallah and Hariri can only address a single item: finding practical ways to lower sectarian hostility between their followers.

This can involve anything from moderating their public statements and media coverage, to naming people on the ground in mixed districts who can manage or mediate in disputes. It will also require, necessarily, that both sides re-examine certain aspects of their political behavior. Don’t ask Nasrallah to abandon the Assad regime, nor Hariri to discontinue assistance to the regime’s foes. But there is room within this framework to reconsider irresponsible actions that will unnecessarily provoke the other side.

Hariri and Nasrallah have to think into the future. Both need to devise a fallback plan in case their initial expectations are proven wrong. If the Assads hold out, Sunni anger in Syria and Lebanon will rise. If the Assads tumble, Lebanon’s Shiites will feel more vulnerable than ever. Conceivably, the Syrian regime may have a scheme to retreat to the Alawite heartland. Whichever scenario plays out, it will impact on communal relations in Lebanon. The country needs a sectarian safety net now, and Hariri and Nasrallah alone can provide it.