Thursday, July 19, 2012

As Syria's civil war explodes, preparing for the aftermath

The bomb attack on Wednesday that killed Syria's defence minister, Dawoud Rajha, and more importantly his powerful deputy, Assef Shawkat, brother-in-law to President Bashar Al Assad, underscores that we are in a radically new phase of the Syrian conflict.

This was indirectly affirmed last weekend, when the International Committee of the Red Cross declared the situation in Syria to be a "non-international armed conflict" - in other words, a civil war. This the ICRC did to ensure that combatants would respect international humanitarian law.

However, definitions mean a great deal, especially when the Syrian opposition prefers to define its struggle as one directed against a homicidal regime bent on retaining power.

Even emancipative crusades can still qualify as civil war, or a stage of civil war, when the enemy principally includes one's countrymen, and when fighting becomes institutionalised and rationalised. Rather than tussle over words, it may be better to accept the reality of civil conflict in order to neutralise its worst manifestations.

Where those unhappy with the civil war appellation may have a point is in arguing that events in Syria have taken on the characteristics of a proxy war. Some describe it as an Iranian-Saudi confrontation; others as a battle between Russia and the West; yet others as a complex array of conflicts fuelled by outsiders.

Perhaps, but without Syrians firing on Syrians there would be no hostilities. Many civil wars transform themselves into proxy wars.

It's not surprising that the ICRC can now identify Syria as a country in civil war, given the breakdown of efforts to resolve the crisis. Diplomats are the most resistant to adopting terms such as "civil war", because it limits their options. The plan of the United Nations-Arab League envoy, Kofi Annan, is a dead letter, despite Mr Annan's efforts to find common ground between the western countries on the one side, and Russia, China and Iran on the other.

Mr Annan's failure derives precisely from the fact that the former UN secretary general underestimated domestic Syrian animosities in the initial formulation of his peace plan. By calling for negotiations between the regime of President Assad and the opposition - even though Mr Al Assad's forces had by then killed between 10,000 and 15,000 people - Mr Annan ignored the deep gulf in Syrian society.

It is easy, and perhaps unfair, to blame Mr Annan for dynamics that have largely remained outside his control. When he arrived, his task was to engage with all sides. This was never made easy by the significantly different aims of his official sponsors - the Arab League, which was looking for a transition away from Mr Al Assad, and the United Nations, where there was no consensus over such an outcome.

But Mr Annan has also found himself too much a believer in, and a prisoner of, the negotiating process. When those in Syria's opposition cast doubt on whether they are in a civil war, they should admit that it was their understandable and laudable refusal to reconcile themselves with Mr Al Assad, or to give him leeway to survive politically, that made them dismiss Mr Annan's project. To say no to a mass murderer, even if civil conflict ensues, is not always reprehensible.

Fortunately or unfortunately, the direction of events in Syria will be determined by the Syrians themselves, not foreigners. The spread of fighting to Damascus in the past days was never in doubt. For months the regime had been losing support in the capital, particularly among the Sunni-dominated merchant class, which had so decisively swung behind Hafez Al Assad during the early 1980s when he was in a showdown with the Muslim Brotherhood.

While the armed opposition is still incapable of taking control of Damascus, its ability to seize the initiative at the very centre of the regime's power base, after months of savage military assaults by Mr Al Assad's units, indicates that the tide is turning. Yesterday's suicide bombing in the heart of the capital underscores this trend. Those vital intangibles in winning wars - will, persistence, confidence - have shifted decisively to the president's enemies.

Eventually, this will trigger a collapse in the will, persistence and confidence of Mr Al Assad's followers, who may have no choice but to contemplate retreating to Alawite areas in north-western Syria. If that happens, Syria could possibly enter into a more devastating phase of its conflict.

To assume a rapid endgame once Mr Al Assad flees Damascus may be simplistic. Centrifugal forces have been unleashed, and if the Alawites decide to go one way we should expect the Kurds in north-east Syria to go a way of their own. This could undercut the emergence of a unitary Syria and even lead to ethnic cleansing in districts where communities live side by side. The only way to avert such a nightmare scenario is to begin working now to try reconciling the different religious and ethnic groups.

That is why recognising the civil component of the ongoing war is crucial. If it's merely about ousting Mr Al Assad, then the opposition could one day be surprised to find itself triumphant but also ruling over a fragmented Syria where communities mistrust one another - and specifically where the Sunni majority is feared by minorities.

The Lebanese are still paying for their inability to accept that they were caught up in a civil war. Post-war reconciliation was never regarded as important enough to be made even a secondary priority. That is why the society is riven with doubt today, lacking in cohesion. Syrians should avoid that mistake, and they still have time to do so.

Aoun, or when tragedy becomes farce

We can take it as a given that for as long as Michel Aoun can take a full breath without the assistance of a respirator, he will continue to aspire to the presidency. And if that respirator becomes a necessity, the general will think seriously about transporting it to Baabda with him.

The farce in which the Aounists have engaged during the past few days has exposed their anxieties. On the one side they have blocked roads to support the Army, after three officers were detained for their alleged involvement in the killing of Sheikh Ahmad Abdel-Wahed and Hussein al-Mereb last May. On the other, the Aounists have picked a fight with contract workers at Electricite du Liban, on the grounds that they were undermining the authority of the state.

Why the sudden, and brazen, encouragement of the Army? It didn’t take much to see that Aoun’s embrace of the military institution was more embarrassing than helpful.The Army can be ham-fisted when organizing campaigns to bolster its popularity, but the blocking of the Sarba highway was not something it would have readily done. The demonstration exasperated thousands of drivers. It also implied that the Army command was behind the protests, therefore was disrespectful of the legal system in place to deal with the officers. An Army statement released Tuesday sought to dispel that impression.

Aoun is aware that his primary competitor for the presidency in 2014 will be Jean Kahwagi, the Army commander. Kahwagi is dancing like a ballerina these days, as the Syrian regime totters, wondering just where to place his political feet. He is looking to remain on the good side of the Americans, but also of the Sunni community, which will gain in power once President Bashar Assad is ousted. Recently, the head of military intelligence in the north reportedly contacted Khaled Daher of Al-Jamaa al-Islamiyya, who has been especially critical of the Army. The conversation, unlike those in the past, was apparently cordial.

Aoun wants to see Kahwagi discredited. Ideally, he would like one of his own to lead the Army, perhaps his son in law Shamel Roukoz, to better pave the way for Aoun’s election as president. Under the veneer of defending the Army, the Sarba incident did not make Kahwagi look good. Worse, it put him in a bind if the officers are found guilty and sentenced. Kahwagi would then appear to be someone incapable of defending his institution; someone too willing to please those like Khaled Daher, in other words those Sunnis (and Aoun’s cynical appeal to Christian sectarian sentiment was plain) who purportedly do not have the Army’s interests at heart.

The EDL episode was related. Even though the contract workers whom the Aounists assaulted are in their majority regarded as clients of Nabih Berri, the parliament speaker, the Aounists were indirectly targeting Hezbollah. In fact, there were accounts that the Aounists shouted insults at both Berri and Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s secretary-general. Why did Aoun go after his Shiite allies?

For two reasons, primarily. Aoun knows that Hezbollah is more likely to approve of Kahwagi as president than of Aoun himself. That is intolerable for the general. Not only have Hezbollah and Amal partisans burned tires against Aoun’s son-in-law, Gebran Bassil, for his abysmal handling of the electricity crisis; not only did Berri attempt to impose a fait accompli on Bassil with respect to the contract workers, in a way that favored the speaker and created a sectarian imbalance; not only have Hezbollah and Amal failed to come down on Aoun’s side in government disputes, particularly over civil service appointments. On top of this, there are no guarantees that Hezbollah will endorse a Aoun presidency, in fact quite the contrary.

So, Aoun was out to catch Nasrallah’s attention, and the two men purportedly plan to meet soon to discuss their differences. That said, a divorce is to the advantage of neither party. Aoun will require the Shiite vote, above all in Baabda, Jbeil, the Metn and Jezzine, to be successful in parliamentary elections next year; while Hezbollah will very much need a Christian partner in several mixed districts.

Which leads us to a second reason why Aoun has decided to lash out against his Shiite partners. Even as the general seeks to strengthen his bargaining hand with Hezbollah and Amal, he also needs to rally Christian voters behind him at election time. If elections were held today, Aoun would probably do fairly well, thanks to the bloc votes currently provided by his Shiite and Armenian allies.

However, these are volatile times. The Aounists, by their own admission, are losing ground in the Christian heartland district of Kesrouan, which is always a good barometer of the communal mood. Their atrocious performance in government has been a debilitating drag. So too has the ambient Christian disgust with the way Hezbollah and Amal have behaved in Lebanon’s streets (a habit the Aounists have since taken up), not to mention supposed Shiite indifference to Christian sensitivities. For example, Christians were greatly disturbed by the way Shiite inhabitants of Lassa behaved in a land dispute with the Maronite Church last year, as they were by Shiite students praying on the esplanade of the Antonine University in March.

Then there is Syria. Aoun has nailed his flag to the survival of Assad, the latest of the general’s ruinous calculations, in a vast anthology. If Islamists come out on top in a post-Assad Syria, Aoun will try to play on Christian fears. But the general will mainly see his pro-Syrian allies in Lebanon weakened, which will harm the Aounists, and he will pay a heavy political price for his sustained hostility to the Sunni community. Aoun cuts an utterly pathetic figure these days, but he really needn’t obstruct our roads to halt his anticipated decline.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Scared by the tribunal, who me?

Remember when the Special Tribunal for Lebanon was the nuclear bomb in Lebanese pants? Hezbollah members would be accused, civil war would ensue, and Sunnis and Shia would fight, in the memorable words of Bashar al-Assad, from the Mediterranean to the Caspian Sea.

Now the tribunal provokes hardly a yawn, as lawyers pursue the laborious legal process in their Dutch bubble. This week, the Lebanese state paid its contribution to the institution, without fanfare and without tension between Prime Minister Najib Mikati and Hezbollah.

Is anyone asking the obvious question: Why does Hezbollah seem so sanguine about the tribunal? Could it be that the party now believes the legal outcome will be less devastating than initially feared?

Until this point, the prosecutor, Norman Farrell, has not issued an amended indictment, one that implicates more Hezbollah figures. Last March the pretrial judge, Daniel Fransen, rejected the prosecution’s request to amend the indictment prepared by Farrell’s predecessor, Daniel Bellemare, by adding to it the crime of “criminal association” under Lebanese law. The term had to be clarified first by the appeals chamber, Fransen argued. This requirement will have only added more time to the process.

Hezbollah is perfectly aware that the Bellemare indictment suffers from a fundamental flaw: It offers no motive for the assassination of Rafik Hariri. We have four individuals, not one of whom will stand in the dock, who are accused of a crime the rationale of which has not been elucidated—at least not in the publicly released indictment.

Worse, the timeframe once the trial begins hardly suggests an early endgame. According to sources at the tribunal, we may not have a trial until next year. One individual intimately familiar with court procedures of this kind expects the trial to take three to four years, the appeals stage to take an additional two years, and he points out that if the defendants ever surface, the trial will have to be restarted from scratch. If that assessment is correct, we should expect some kind of verdict by 2017 at the earliest, 12 years after Hariri’s killing.

I wouldn’t worry if I were Hezbollah, would you?

The party is protected to an extent by another factor. Most Lebanese believe, probably rightly, that if Hezbollah participated in Hariri’s murder, then it did so in close collaboration with the Assad regime—indeed very probably at the instigation of the Syrian leadership. Within the coming years, there is a good chance that Bashar al-Assad will fall, and with him the edifice of repression and intimidation so instrumental in targeting Lebanon’s late prime minister.

What an irony. Some believe the Syrians sought to place the Hariri assassination entirely at Hezbollah’s doorstep by eliminating key individuals who might have provided a link in the conspiracy between the party and Damascus. But if Assad is ousted and the Hezbollah suspects are never caught—or if they are somehow declared innocent by the tribunal—then the last laugh would be the party’s.

As a weapon against impunity, the Special Tribunal has been an abysmal failure. The notion that political assassinations will not occur in the future for fear that the international community might set up new tribunals as it did for Lebanon is laughable. If anything, the myriad shortcomings of the investigation and the delays in going to trial will work against a repeat of the Lebanon experience.

After all, a more consensual and, arguably, effective body, the International Criminal Court, has not managed to dissuade mass murderers. Though the ICC has accused prominent leaders of terrible crimes, notably indicting Sudan’s president, Omar Hassan al-Bashir, this did not prevent fellow dictators, such as Bashar al-Assad, Moammar Qaddafi or Ali Abdullah Saleh from massacring their populations.

At this stage, the Special Tribunal for Lebanon is useful mainly as a political weapon inside Lebanon. That is why the March 14 coalition continues to swear by it, and perhaps why Walid Jumblatt, who denounced the tribunal as “politicized” in the days when he was cozying up to the Syrian regime, recently praised the American senator, John McCain, for having been steadfast in defending the institution. As leverage against Hezbollah, the tribunal still serves a purpose, but no one should expect results soon.

However, you have to wonder whether March 14, beyond political expediency, is still convinced that the investigation and Special Tribunal were successful experiments. The members of that loose fraternity should feel hoodwinked by the United Nations. Outrage is in order, even though the parties in the opposition will never express it, given their political stake in upholding the tribunal’s credibility.

And if political calculation is behind their silence, that only gives us another reason to regret what the United Nations has spawned. Here the international body set up a judicial body to stay above politics and dispense justice. Now its purpose, at least in Lebanon, is to serve as a political tool, while justice is kept waiting, indefinitely.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Invoking the past serves only to poison the present

When it comes to the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, it's funny how some leaders remain alive even in death, while peace talks between representatives of the two peoples are all but dead.

Israel's one-time prime minister, Yitzhak Shamir, died on June 30, at the age of 96. His consistent intransigence when it came to making concessions to the Palestinians earned him hearty praise from the current prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. Israel's government today reflects much more the views of Mr Shamir than it does, let's say, those of Yitzhak Rabin, who defeated Mr Shamir in 1992.

One of Mr Shamir's phrases was "the sea is the same sea and the Arabs are the same Arabs". He meant that Arabs would never change with regard to Israel, which would always have the sea at its back. Mr Netanyahu picked up on that comment, noting that, despite the criticism directed against Mr Shamir for his disdainful determinism, "today there are of course many more people who understand that this man saw and understood basic and genuine things".

If Mr Shamir's ideas have taken on new life in Mr Netanyahu, last week another ghost came back to haunt us. An Al Jazeera investigation revealed that Swiss specialists had discovered elevated levels of polonium 210 in the belongings of Yasser Arafat, the late Palestinian leader, possibly suggesting that he was poisoned. The Swiss noted that the findings were inconclusive and that Mr Arafat's remains would have to be analysed to reach more definite conclusions.

The Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, has given approval for the remains to be exhumed, after Mr Arafat's wife Suha demanded it. It was Mrs Arafat who passed on her husband's clothing and other items to Al Jazeera.

Many Palestinians loathe Mrs Arafat for her alleged corruption. She may be trying to salvage her reputation by being instrumental in proving that her husband was assassinated.

Israelis and Palestinians disagree over Mr Arafat's death, which was never properly explained. Few Palestinians believe he died of natural causes. As one official, Saeb Erekat, told Time magazine, "In my heart, I have always said that President Arafat was assassinated, was killed," he said. "Do I have evidence? I don't … This is why we should do everything humanly possible to get to the truth."

Israelis have strenuously denied killing Mr Arafat. Some go further. For Barry Rubin, a US-born Israeli academic, the murder charge fits into a broader line of thinking directed against Jews, one with chilling consequences: "This is a blood libel, an alleged crime that then leads to the view that Jews are absolutely evil and should be wiped out. In short, it is a rationale for genocide," he wrote.

Mr Rubin's extrapolation seems excessive. However, Mr Erekat's desire to get to the truth requires clearer justification. Why should Palestinians, who face far more urgent challenges, reopen this door on their past? Whether or not Mr Arafat was poisoned is irrelevant; he's not coming back to life; Palestinians expect the worst of the Israelis regardless of whether they were behind Mr Arafat's elimination; and, even assuming he was done in, Palestinian officials would still need to prove that the Israelis were responsible, not someone else.

And here the contrast between the use of Mr Shamir's legacy and that of Mr Arafat could not be more flagrant: Mr Netanyahu is employing the late prime minister as a medium through which to justify his obstinacy now and in the future; while the Palestinians are allowing themselves to be sidetracked by an exploration firmly anchored in the past, one that will only further polarise opinion and render more difficult a negotiated Palestinian effort to regain occupied land.

No doubt Mr Abbas knows this, and was not particularly keen to reopen Mr Arafat's tomb. However, once the opportunistic Mrs Arafat saw an opening and insisted on digging up her husband's remains, it was difficult for the Palestinian president to disagree.

If one thing can be said of the stalemated Palestinian-Israeli peace track, it's that the dead continue to have too great a say over what happens today.

That was always the case, of course, for a conflict allegedly rooted in centuries of history. But present generations have lustily manipulated the past, disinterring the dead when convenient to advance their political agendas.

This is not to fall back on the cliché that we could all get along if only we would try. Mr Netanyahu will resurrect any and all corpses to maintain Israeli control over most of the West Bank and Jerusalem. There are those in the Palestinian ranks who will defile the remains of Yasser Arafat, and anyone else, to gain marginal leverage over Israel (not to mention pursuing their personal interests). Because the dead cannot speak, it's always advantageous to speak in their names.

But the Palestinians will get nowhere by trying to elucidate whether Mr Arafat was killed; just as Mr Netanyahu will not resolve Israel's dilemmas when it comes to the Palestinians by remembering favourably a sinister man without an ounce of sympathy for a people he helped dispossess. When in power, Mr Shamir and Mr Arafat proved that they did not have all the answers. Putting aside blame for a moment, both men in the end failed to defend the best interests of their peoples, something they invariably claimed to be doing.

Palestinians and Israelis are nowhere near peace these days thanks principally to their inability to break free from a past, usually a reinvented past, stifling their outlook on the future. That doesn't imply that there has to be moral equivalence when considering the two parties. But whether victims or victimisers, the living would do best to allow the dead to lie in peace, and to leave us in peace.

America writes itself out of the script

Lately, the U.S. administration has been so preoccupied with domestic issues vital to President Barack Obama’s re-election, that you wonder where the Middle East stands in Washington’s future. That’s not to say that American officials are ignoring the region. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has devoted much effort to Syria and Iran, while related American concerns further afield, such as those in Afghanistan and Pakistan, have also preoccupied decision-makers. The problem is more fundamental. Because the president’s mind is focused elsewhere, there is a sense of conceptual confusion when addressing the Middle East.

It is understandable that Obama’s aims are to revive the U.S. economy and shift foreign and defense priorities toward Asia, where American interests are bound to expand in the coming decades. What is less explicable is that at such a revolutionary moment in the Arab world, when foreign policy certitudes are collapsing almost on a daily basis, the administration does not appear to have any long-term overriding vision or interpretation of the region to help define how the United States must act to advance its national interests.

In many ways strategy is a narrative that policymakers apply to situations to explain probable outcomes, allowing them to take the long view in planning advantageous behavior.

Developing a foreign policy strategy is complex, demanding clear direction from the president or a State Department mandated by the White House to take the lead in policy formulation. It entails interaction between different, often competing, government bureaucracies, which have to ultimately hammer out compromises (successful or not) that ensure everyone is on the same page. At some stage Congress, which controls the money, is brought on board, and usually will try to impose alternative paths of its own. Ideally, a strategy requires flexibility, so that Washington can adapt to political surprises, which tend to overwhelm the big ideas and can substantially rewrite the story.

But if crafting a strategy is never easy, articulating it so that foreign capitals and the public know what is going on is not rocket science. The administration will insert relevant references in speeches. Officials will write op-ed pieces and publish papers. Think tanks will be enlisted to disseminate or will pick up new policy vibes from the administration. And the president and his aides will get on an airplane and spread the good word. Time is valuable, so the time that a president devotes to an issue shows how important he thinks it is.

On the basis of all this, the Middle East seems to be a rather poor cousin in the Obama administration. After high-profile visits early in his term, Obama has kept away from the Arab world. Even in his speeches, his disinterest is palpable. And the speeches of others reflect no guidance on the region from the White House, but rather multiple guidances that rarely seem properly integrated.

For instance, in Syria, where the Americans have the capacity to politically cripple a principal regional rival, namely Iran, the Obama administration is still dependent on the goodwill of Russia and China, two countries that want to see American power reduced.

Is that surprising? Washington is still stuck in the old ways. During the past 18 months there has been no visible overhaul in American thinking to adapt to the transformations in the Arab world. There have been conferences, statements of purpose, reactions to events, promises, much sound and fury, but none of it noticeably part of a larger cohesive framework in the minds of administration figures.

Even the military involvement in Libya last year was done in spite of Obama’s manifest misgivings. The president allowed himself to be dragged into the conflict because he did not want to be accused of allowing a massacre in Benghazi. As in Egypt a few weeks earlier, the U.S. seemed to be caught off guard, propelled by events largely outside its control, for which it seemed inadequately prepared.

Most of the pillars sustaining American involvement in the Middle East since the end of World War II have collapsed. The relationship with Saudi Arabia has been severely shaken during Obama’s term. Egypt has entered a new phase of its history, one in which American influence is in decline. The so-called Palestinian-Israeli peace process is without a process and offers no prospects of peace.

On the more encouraging side, a prominent American adversary, Syrian President Bashar Assad, is struggling to survive, and his almost certain fall will weaken two American enemies, Iran and their Lebanese followers in Hezbollah. And Iraq, while it remains under the significant sway of Tehran, will slowly move away from Iran and assert its political independence, not least thanks to the revitalization of its oil production capacities.

It is astonishing that at such a crucial stage in the Arab world, Washington is doing little hard thinking. Obama has written himself out of the script, a distant apparition alien to the peoples of the Middle East. But the region remains critical, no matter what the president believes, and it can still bite the world in the rear end. When that happens, the Americans cannot afford to lead from behind. They need to be up front, knowing precisely what they want.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Can Hezbollah give war a chance?

This week there were fresh strains in the relationship between the followers of Michel Aoun and Hezbollah, as Christian and Muslim parliamentarians split over a scheme to permanently hire Electricité du Liban contractual workers. The Aounists argue that the plan, devised by the parliament speaker, Nabih Berri, favors his Amal base, and accused Hezbollah of doing nothing to neutralize the dispute.

More interesting than that scrap over sectarian quotas was how the context affects Hezbollah. The party is already facing a Shia community in ebullition. Economic conditions are harder than ever; state services are in disarray; security in key Shia districts, including the southern suburbs and the Bekaa, has declined; and now, Hezbollah’s ties with its Christian partners are under stress, even if this is unlikely to turn into a full-fledged rift. Moreover, the party has failed to liberate Shia pilgrims abducted in Syria, despite early promises that they would be set free, and Shia have been expelled from Gulf states because they are associated with Hezbollah and Iran.

This is not necessarily the beginning of the end for Hezbollah. But it could be the end of the beginning—of that phase when Hezbollah’s supporters imagined the party was incapable of doing wrong. Hezbollah dominates the government and most of the security bodies, and has great sway over the army. It has chased its main rival, Saad Hariri, out of the country, replacing him with a prime minister of its choice. And yet what does Hezbollah have to show for all that authority? A Lebanese state that has never seemed so dysfunctional.

Meanwhile, the party’s principal Arab ally, Syria, is going through a savage conflict that will, in all likelihood, eventually lead to the overthrow of Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Hezbollah has not only morally supported Assad against his own people; it stands accused of actively participating in the repression. This poses problems for a party that claims to speak on behalf of the deprived, and whose legitimacy was built on what it described as resistance to Israeli oppression.

How does all this affect Hezbollah’s strategic objectives, above all its ability to act as Iran’s vanguard in the Levant? The party has continued to underline in one way or another that its fighting capacity, like its deterrence capability, is undiminished. No one doubts that Hezbollah has the weapons to retaliate against Israel if necessary—for instance if Tehran requests this of the party following an Israeli attack against Iranian nuclear facilities.

However, less clear is whether Hezbollah has both the political and logistical props in Lebanese society that would be needed to pursue a confrontation with Israel. War is not just about weaponry; it involves myriad intangibles that Hezbollah would need to secure before carrying Lebanon into what is bound to be a devastating altercation, one far worse than what we experienced in summer 2006.

And here, the picture is very hazy indeed. An Assad regime under duress might yet be able to send arms to Hezbollah in the midst of a battle with Israel. Indeed, it could be tempted to send what is most destructive in Syria’s arsenal, even chemical weapons, though what Hezbollah would choose to do with such material is a different matter.

But what of Shia morale and Lebanese national solidarity behind Hezbollah, essential ingredients in defining the latitude the party has to engage in a war, sustain it and even escalate if necessary? On both levels Hezbollah is facing serious problems. For a start, the party would have to ensure that a war looks like self-defense, which is no easy task. Lebanon’s Shia will back Hezbollah against patent Israeli aggression, but it is much more questionable whether they would do so on behalf of Iran, in defense of its nuclear program.

That said, the Shia community, given the uncertainty it is facing, does not relish the prospect of war under any circumstances. The Shia have too often suffered, too often served as cannon fodder, to readily allow Hezbollah to put them through the ringer once again. Nor will there be anywhere near the same amounts of money available for reconstruction after a forthcoming war (if one takes place) as there was six years ago. Unless destroyed Shia towns and villages are rebuilt quickly, Hezbollah’s standing could suffer in a decisive way.

As for national solidarity, Hezbollah can dream on. A majority of Sunnis, even those bitterly hostile to Israel, loathes the party. The Druze, who would absorb the first wave of Shia refugees, cannot forget how Hezbollah attacked their mountains in May 2008.

As for the Christians, the purported camaraderie between the Aounists and Hezbollah is not what it was, and the disagreement over the EDL contract workers highlighted this. Ironically, collaboration in the government has put a distance between the two sides, with the Aounists and Hezbollah pursuing incompatible objectives. Nor were the ties ever strong on the ground in the first place, despite efforts by naïve observers to read into the rapport something intense and novel.

Other than the bombing of the coastal highway and relay antennas, Christian areas were largely spared during the 2006 war. In any future conflagration, the Israelis are bound to hit a wider swathe of infrastructure targets, including the electricity grid, which will bring the war home for many Christians. Whether Hezbollah’s friends or foes, most Christians see no rationale for a war, would blame Hezbollah for doing Iran’s bidding, and would resent paying (as would everyone else) the hefty financial price that ensues.

Worrisome in all this is that Israel is watching closely. Will the Israelis be inclined, if they feel that Hezbollah is vulnerable, to initiate an assault themselves in order to do away with the party? That would be terribly foolish, but it cannot be discounted. All certitudes when it comes to Hezbollah are changing, slowly but surely.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Russia surrenders its options in Syria by arming Assad

The international meeting on the Syrian conflict held last weekend in Geneva was, as anticipated, a failure. The five permanent members of the Security Council and four Middle East states were represented, called together by Kofi Annan, the United Nations-Arab League envoy on Syria. A major point of discord was Russia's continued refusal to call for the departure of President Bashar Al Assad.

Moscow's motivations have been explained time and again. The Russians' attitude toward Syria is not defined primarily by their interests in the Middle East, we are frequently told, or even by a desire to ensure Mr Al Assad's continuation in office - although Moscow is keen to preserve influence in Syria, the last of its Cold War-era allies, where it has a naval base. Rather, Moscow's main impetus is to resist changes in the global order that may marginalise it.

As Dmitri Trenin of the Carnegie Moscow Centre recently observed: "It is about who decides: who decides whether to use military force? Who decides the actors for use of that force? And who decides under what rules, conditions and oversight military force is to be used?"

Be that as it may, in Geneva the Russians may have assured their future political marginalisation in the Arab world. After watering down the agreement on a proposed national-unity government, Moscow is again refusing to attend a "Friends of Syria" meeting, this one in Paris this week.

Moscow's advantage had always been that it alone had the latitude to mediate a solution with the Syrian leadership, because it could weaken Mr Al Assad by withdrawing its backing for his regime. Yet the Russians had also won the president's trust by rejecting regime change, reflecting a realist respect for state sovereignty.

However, Russian behaviour may negate these advantages. Let's start with Moscow's power of mediation. The truth is that Russia is now Mr Al Assad's hostage rather than the contrary. Time and again, Russia's foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, has hinted that the Syrian leader was expendable. But in fact, Russian interests today are so tied to his remaining in office during this phase that Mr Al Assad must be bolstered at all costs.

That is why the Russians are arming the Syrian regime. Moscow is no longer an arbitrator; it has become an active participant in Syria's repression. Yes, Mr Al Assad is expendable in that Russia is not committed to his indefinite political survival. However, that's a meaningless concession when translated into the language of realpolitik, which Russia understands well. Mr Al Assad's exit today would mean the collapse of Moscow's Syria strategy.

Mr Al Assad has managed two significant achievements. He has effectively undermined Russia's role as intermediary, making it much more difficult for Moscow to sacrifice him at the bargaining table. And in so doing, Mr Al Assad has tied the administration of President Vladimir Putin much more tightly to his own political fate, earning vital military assistance at a crucial time.

By providing Mr Al Assad with the military capability to resist his foes, Russia has made the negotiated solution it claims to favour far less feasible. The Syrian leader has no intention of surrendering power, and Russian weaponry allows him to ignore outside entreaties to leave office. But if Mr Al Assad intends to fight on, and Moscow is handing him the means to do so, then Russia's purported added value in being able to peacefully resolve the Syrian conflict is an illusion.

This contradiction in the Russian position leads to another. Far from upholding the principle of state sovereignty, Russia, thanks to its intransigence despite the butchery carried out by its Syrian comrades, has left the international community with no outlet except to demand that Mr Al Assad step down. Moscow has not succeeded in delivering a transition plan of its own, has angered many Arab governments in the process and cannot push Mr Al Assad beyond certain limits, because it would then risk losing its sway over him.

Worst of all, Russia has missed an opportunity to work with Europe and the United States, which earlier this year implicitly accepted that Mr Al Assad could be part of a peace plan, and even that Moscow could take the lead in implementing such a plan. Instead, Moscow's mistrust of Washington has meant that the Russians find themselves on the periphery, defending a regime that cannot possibly weather the tempest.

The Russians have not only misread diplomatic dynamics, they have been blind to the vitality of popular revolts. Apparently, Russian officials are immune to outrage. Don't expect better from Mr Putin, but what decision-makers in Moscow have missed is that their preference for an engineered, measured changeover will never fly with Syria's opposition because Mr Al Assad has slaughtered tens of thousands of people. And yet it was obvious from the start that Mr Al Assad's barbarity would keep the Syrian revolt alive.

There will be payback. The Russians may believe there is method to their contradictions, but those in the Syrian opposition see none. All they know is that Russian weapons are killing more innocents every day. That's why once Mr Al Assad is cast out, Russia may follow.

In death, Yitzhak Shamir is triumphant

Yitzhak Shamir was the kind of person whom you didn’t remember was alive until learning that he was dead. The strange thing about many of the comments that followed the demise last week of Israel’s onetime prime minister was that he was portrayed as a relic – someone out of touch with the political temper in Israel today. For author Gershom Gorenberg, Shamir “began and ended his career as an extremist who damaged the cause of Jewish independence to which he was dedicated.” Commentator Chemi Shalev wrote that Shamir had been modest and moderate as a person, but “nonetheless a fanatic [sic] devotee of his vision of the Jewish people and the Greater Land of Israel. The end, in his eyes, always justified the means.”

Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, affirmed that Shamir had been right when he once declared that “the sea is the same sea and the Arabs are the same Arabs.” The statement was interpreted as meaning that Arabs would never reconcile themselves with Israel’s existence, and would always seek to throw the Jews into the sea. For Netanyahu, despite the criticism directed at Shamir for his remark, “today there are of course many more people who understand that this man saw and understood basic and genuine things.”

Far from embodying an Israeli past defined by intransigence on the Palestinian question, Shamir has seen himself reincarnated in those such as Netanyahu. The current prime minister may be a slicker knock-off of his cynical, disdainful predecessor; he will mouth words on Palestinian statehood that Shamir would never have uttered; but the results are really little different. Israel still controls millions of Palestinian lives, a wide swathe of the West Bank, access to the Gaza Strip, and it is further consolidating this unviable state of affairs.

At the same time, Palestinians are caught in a situation similar to the one that Israel sought to impose on them through the Camp David Accords of 1978. One of the two agreements signed between Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin was a “Framework of Peace in the Middle East.” It outlined a five-year transitional period, at the end of which Palestinians would gain full autonomy and self-government. Egypt viewed full autonomy as statehood. Begin envisaged it, as best, as a form of administrative self-government while Israel expanded settlement building.

The current Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, would be hard-pressed to identify how present circumstances are qualitatively different than what Begin, and with him Shamir, imagined over three decades ago. Palestinians administrate themselves in entities that are, effectively, under Israeli control; settlement construction goes on; and the Israeli prime minister continues to manipulate the card of eternal Palestinian hostility to the Jews, when his policies have closed off all horizons of amelioration for Palestinians, hardening that hostility.

More broadly, the cataleptic status of the so-called peace process is a testament to the stubbornness and bullheadedness of the heirs of Yitzhak Shamir, for whom all substantial Israeli concessions were seen as intolerable. His inflexible successors have brought the lumbering machine of open-ended negotiations to a halt. We are where for years we knew we would be: absolutely nowhere. There is much blame to distribute on the Palestinian side, but it was always Israel that retained the initiative on a final deal, because it held the land, the military whip hand, and the greater favor of the United States.

Netanyahu and his ideological pairs are confident for the future. The prime minister managed to neutralize the U.S. administration during the past four years. Barack Obama once said he would make Middle East peace a priority, and held it against George W. Bush that he had not. Now, the president has gotten the measure of that cheerless enterprise, and if one thing preoccupies him when it comes to Israel, it is to avert an Israeli attack on Iran. The Palestinians are out of the picture, and no one in Washington has a desire to embark again on what is regarded as the fool’s errand of Israeli-Palestinian talks.

Nor will things be different if Obama is re-elected; and even less so if Mitt Romney becomes president. The Israeli-Palestinian track is in permanent deep-freeze, and one fears that it will only regain life when a new crisis emerges. Indeed, what prospects do the Israelis seriously imagine that they have? The Palestinians won’t disappear – in fact their numbers, and resentment, will only grow. One day they will get over their debilitating disagreements and could opt for more a drastic solution to their desolate condition.

We can thank earlier Israeli leaders like Shamir for distilling the underlying contempt for Palestinians that seems to have influenced poor Israeli decision-making in the past 40 years. It’s the same contempt that many Israeli politicians had for Arab societies that seemed to accept the stranglehold of authoritarian leaders (leaders with whom the Israelis were otherwise content to deal). That passivity has evaporated in the past 18 months, as Arabs have sought emancipation. Are the Palestinians different? Surely not.

There are perhaps many Israelis who would accept a fair peace settlement with the Palestinians. There may even be Israeli politicians who would agree, although most tend to espouse such an agenda when they’re out of office, after having done virtually nothing to advance it while in office. But the reality is that Israel is no closer to finalizing peace with the Palestinians than it was when Shamir was prime minister. Netanyahu may have altered the optics somewhat, but the aims haven’t changed, nor the deadlock.

So Shamir can rest calmly in his grave. He was always a man better at saying no than yes. Despite a brief moment of hope during the mid-1990s, Israel’s political class in recent years has mostly followed his example. Shamir is no lost echo from a bygone time; he is Israel’s present, and an ominous portent of the country’s future.