Friday, September 28, 2012

Mideast's religious minorities approach point of no return

It's been 10 days since Pope Benedict XVI left Beirut, but his portraits still hang along Lebanon's roads. That is not because of the pope's popularity - the Lebanese preferred the more charismatic Pope John Paul II, who visited in 1997 - but it does symbolically capture the anxiety among Arab Christians today, as if acknowledgement of the pope's departure were an admission of the Christians' abandonment.

Officially, Pope Benedict's visit was organised so that he could sign the Apostolic Exhortation that followed a synod on the Christians of the Middle East held in October 2010.

More prosaically, his aim was to give renewed confidence to Lebanese and Arab Christians at a time of political uncertainty in the region. He also came to urge them not to abandon their homelands, in that way exacerbating their demographic regression.

On both counts, Pope Benedict must have few illusions. While the pontiff could hold Lebanon up as a model of religious coexistence (although, a often very troubled one), the future of Catholics and other Christian minorities throughout the Arab world remains in serious doubt. Worse, for the Vatican, the Arab uprisings have largely benefited Islamists, which does not bode well for Christian minorities.

While the Catholic Church has endeavoured to take a more nuanced view of the uprisings, its initial ambiguity about the transformations in the region endures. For instance, upon arriving in Beirut, Pope Benedict called for an end to arms transfers to Syria. This was directed as much against the Syrian regime as the rebels, and yet in presuming equivalence between the two sides, particularly at a time of barbaric repression by the forces of President Bashar Al Assad, the pope surely angered many in the Syrian opposition.

Last year, the patriarch of Lebanon's Maronite community, Beshara Al Rai, made controversial statements suggesting the Assad regime was a guarantor of Christian rights. He was much criticised by Syria's Christian foes in Lebanon, but the patriarch was probably reflecting a strong trend in the Vatican at the time. That he has since backtracked is as much a response to the indefensible brutality of the Syrian leadership as to the Catholic Church's own shifting attitude.

One should not expect an ardently conservative pope who heads a traditionally conservative institution, particularly in Arab countries, to take naturally to an uninhibited drive for popular emancipation. Moreover, minorities in the Middle East have often paid a hefty price for the ideological passions of the day. However, the church's early coolness did pose problems on a moral level, implying that autocrats were acceptable if they didn't happen to massacre Christians.

And yet, there is understandable fear for the Christian presence in the region because in several countries we may already have reached a point of no return. In Iraq, it is difficult to imagine a massive homecoming of Christians in the foreseeable future, if ever. In Syria, unless the conflict ends soon and a post-Assad government takes urgent measures to reassure the country's myriad minorities, the exodus of Christians will only gain momentum.

In Egypt, relations between the state and the Coptic community were never very good under former President Hosni Mubarak. Since the revolution last year, however, things have gotten worse. Neither the armed forces nor the Muslim Brotherhood, from which President Mohammed Morsi hails, has given the Copts reason to feel at ease. The recent furore over a film critical of the Prophet Mohammed, reportedly produced by a Copt, will not have improved matters.

In Lebanon, the one Arab country where Christians hold leadership positions, circumstances are more complicated. While Christians are believed to make up roughly a third of the population, their political weight and the fact that Lebanon's Sunnis and Shia are divided has allowed Christians, potentially, to play a vital balancing role in politics and society. What's more, Muslims have generally been sympathetic to the Christian presence, and have endorsed, at least in principle, the merits of a sectarian mosaic, even when they have pursued political agendas that do little to preserve it.

A major problem is that Lebanon's Christians, particularly the Maronites, are divided. The community has long been litigious, if also democratic, presenting an obstacle to the formulation of a unified strategy of communal adaptability and survival. This continues, with a portion of the Christians siding with Hizbollah and the Shia, another with the March 14 coalition led by the Future Movement of Saad Hariri, a Sunni, and a third that is neither here or there.

Pope Benedict's message was one of self-assurance, but it will not be easy for Lebanon's Christians to embrace such an outlook. For one thing, Christian politicians frequently adopt demagogical rhetoric to enhance their authority, playing on Christian fears of being overwhelmed by Muslims. Even the Maronite Church has gotten into the act, moving to sponsor an accord over an election law where Christian candidates are chosen solely by Christian voters.

All such actions only reaffirm Christian weakness. That may be justifiable, but when it comes to preserving the future of the community in Lebanon and the Arab world, much will depend on projecting Christian strength, not a sense of irreversible doom. At the same time, overconfidence can lead to faulty assessments of the true Christian condition, while provoking a backlash from Muslim communities. For example in Egypt, Iraq or even Palestinian areas under the control of Hamas, the willingness of Islamists in power to respond positively to Christian assertiveness is negligible.

Pope Benedict's visit to Lebanon reinforced Christian-Muslim harmony. However, it will not fundamentally alter the dynamics of the Christian retreat in the Arab world. What Christians need is to redefine their role beyond the numbers, boldly but also realistically.

Prisoners of Bashar

Slowly but inexorably, even the allies of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, above all Russia, appear to be coming to the realization that any transition in Syria cannot take place if he remains in power. And yet, despite this, don’t soon expect a change in their policies.

Several days ago, media outlets focused on the apparent departure to Dubai of Bushra al-Assad, the president’s sister and widow of Assef Shawkat, the deputy defense minister who was killed in a bomb attack last July in Damascus. It’s not clear why she left, although the signal it sends is that even the inner core of the Assad regime is fraying.

There had been rumors that Shawkat favored a more multifaceted approach to the uprising, blending negotiations with repression. Some sources suggested that this was opposed by other Alawite officers, including Maher al-Assad, the president’s brother. This led to speculation, with little evidence, that the bomb blast that killed Shawkat and others was a regime job, designed to ensure that the Alawites remained unified around a policy of brutal subjugation.

If this is true, it is conceivable that Bushra sided with her husband and that his made her position in Syria untenable. She was either forced out of the country or chose to leave. Whatever the answer, her exit is more significant than that of Manaf Tlass or former Prime Minister Riyad Hijab. The Assads oversee a system of family rule, based upon sibling solidarity, but the family is, plainly, fragmenting, regardless of whether Bushra held a position of responsibility or not.

That Bashar al-Assad’s outside support may be eroding was alluded to in the remarks of a diplomat at the United Nations to Raghida Dergham of Al-Hayat. According to the diplomat, who is evidently close to the mission of Lakhdar al-Ibrahimi, the United Nations-Arab League envoy on Syria, “Differences remain between Russia and the Western countries over the form of a transfer [of power in Syria] and the participation of the regime in [this transition] and at what level; yet Russia has agreed to the principle of a transitional phase.”

Given that Ibrahim himself has made it amply clear that Syria simply cannot return to where it was before the revolt began, and his implicit criticism of Bashar al-Assad for believing that the country can, the diplomat’s interpretation of Moscow’s intentions was significant. The Russians seek to play a central role in the establishment of a new order in Syria, but they also want to protect enough of their comrades in the Syrian system so that Russian interests will prevail.

We may be near the moment where the weak link in this process is the president himself. If an orderly evolution requires him to leave office, the Assads may find themselves isolated. Russia’s capacity to bring the Alawite military and intelligence elite into such an arrangement will be vital. Moscow doesn’t want the Syrian leadership to crumble, as this would undermine its stakes in Syria. But the longer Assad lingers, the more difficult a manageable transition will become.

Iranian calculations are as important here, if not more so. Much in Ibrahimi’s mediation will depend on whether Tehran and Moscow remain on the same page over Syria. Like the Russians, the Iranians have bolstered Assad militarily, on the quite sensible grounds that if his authority becomes shaky, Iran may lose everything.

Iranian power centers are allegedly divided over Syria, even as they must sense that a military solution is now impossible. If so, the consensus position between the factions in Tehran may eventually be to agree that Bashar al-Assad is expendable, and that a move away from the Assads is the only way to preserve the political and military edifice with which they have collaborated closely in the past years.

That said, there are two fundamental obstacles to Assad’s removal, which is why efforts in that direction may not come now, or ever. The first is that the president embodies the system, so that once he goes, even in the context of a package deal, his system could collapse. And the second is that the Syrian opposition will never agree to bargain with those who have slaughtered tens of thousands of innocents.

And there is another small matter: Assad may refuse to step down. The Syrian president has well understood the paradoxical dynamics of his situation. Though he is losing his grip, both Iran and Russia need to avert a catastrophic disintegration of Assad rule, because otherwise it will mean a disintegration of Iranian and Russian sway over Syria. So the weaker Assad is, the greater the Russian and Iranian urgency to ensure that he remains in place, until such time when he can regain ground and perhaps negotiate from a position of strength.

But that only begs another question: If Bashar al-Assad regains ground, why would he contemplate leaving office?

In other words, Moscow and Tehran are far more Assad’s prisoner than he theirs. They may talk about a transition in Syria, and even plan one, but they cannot conceivably implement such a strategy today without risking everything. Assad grasps this, which is why he remains confident, the peacemakers’ desires notwithstanding.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Was Michel Aoun assassinated after all?

Michel Aoun is getting a taste of his own medicine. When Samir Geagea declared earlier this year that he had been the target of an assassination attempt, the general expressed dubiousness. Now March 14 is doing the same about a alleged attack against Aoun in Sidon, in which one of his vehicles was hit by a bullet.

Would Aoun invent such an incident to bolster his electoral chances? The general would do, and has done, far worse. For the commander who abandoned his soldiers and family on Oct. 13, 1990, when Syrian soldiers overran the areas under his control, to the man who now defends the unbounded barbarity of President Bashar Assad’s repression, to lie for electoral gain qualifies as an improvement.

But Aoun is right in one regard. Let’s wait for a thorough investigation to determine what happened in Sidon. If someone did shoot at him, then it’s a serious matter. However, perhaps it’s another question that we should ask of Aoun. Did Pope Benedict XVI, during his recent trip to Lebanon, assist in the general’s political assassination?

The pontiff came to Beirut with two principal messages to Christians: Remain in your country so that demographically the Christians of the Middle East will not disappear; and embrace the Lebanese model of coexistence, because only that, in the end, can truly preserve the Christian presence in Lebanon. Underlying his visit was advocacy of self-confidence, the notion that Christians must believe in themselves and not succumb to a debilitating sense of irreversible decline.

Aoun is an acutely paradoxical practitioner of that epistle. He has always presented himself as the embodiment of Christian, particularly Maronite, strength and vigor. And yet his practice is to play on Christian fears, above all a fear of Sunni domination. In his alliance with Hezbollah and Syria, Aoun has also drifted close to a strategy of dhimmitude, a belief that it’s best for vulnerable Christians to seek protection from the stronger Muslim party (and for much of the period after 2005, the Shiite community and Syria were that party).

In many respects Aoun has destroyed Christian morale, even as he has purported to reinforce the community’s presence. Aoun’s Christians, and not only them, are profoundly, and understandably, anxious about their destiny in Lebanon. Demographically, Christians are believed to make up no more than a third of the population. Their youths (like those from all communities) are emigrating, with very limited opportunities that would encourage them to remain.

The problem is that Aoun is constitutionally incapable of addressing this crisis through the prism that Pope Benedict favors, namely to anchor the Christian presence in a context of religious toleration and harmony. Largely, that’s because the general has adopted the ways of a populist and benefits from sectarian divisiveness. His hostility to the Sunnis has brought him dividends, but hardly the most advantageous ones in that conditions in the region, and in Syria especially, point to a future in which Sunnis will be more dynamic and influential.

What happens to Aoun is less important than what happens to those Christians who are loyal to the general. There can be only terrible consequences from a situation where the Christians play sides in the Sunni-Shiite rivalry, and gamble on one side or the other. Christians hold a great advantage in being able to have close relations with all Muslim communities, which creates openings for them to advance their values and agendas in Lebanon’s national conversation.

Aounists will complain that they are no worse than Samir Geagea and the Lebanese Forces, who have allied themselves with the Sunnis against the Shiites. True, but Geagea has not done so primarily on the basis of sectarian rancor because he and his supporters have an aversion to Shiites; he has done so because, as he sees it, Hezbollah threatens the foundations of the sovereign Lebanese state. Once the issue of Hezbollah’s weapons is resolved, it’s likely that the Lebanese Forces will see benefits in rebalancing their relationships with the political representatives of the Muslim communities.

Aoun has been equally ambiguous when it comes to the role of the president. The general has insisted time and again that the Taif Accord, at least that aspect of it dealing with the prerogatives of the presidency, must be revised. The implication is that the president has lost valuable power – another Aounist lament about Christian regression.

The presidency surely has lost power, but no parliament will ever reverse this. And the surprising effectiveness of President Michel Sleiman in recent weeks in managing blowback from the conflict in Syria shows that a president can be highly effective if he functions imaginatively within the confines of a national consensus.

Sleiman’s newfound credibility coupled with Pope Benedict’s words of encouragement have destabilized Aoun, at the very moment when the general and his followers are worried about how they might fare in parliamentary elections next year. Even in the Maronite bastion of Kesrouan, Aounists will admit that they are losing ground. We will have to wait and see, but it does make you wonder: Michel Aoun may have escaped elimination in Sidon, but elsewhere the story may be rather different. Many Christians seem tired of his perpetual spite.

Friday, September 21, 2012

America’s dangerous lethargy on Syria

Amid signs that Barack Obama is moving closer to winning a second term, one question that comes to mind is whether his victory might mean a better future for Syrians. The president has been inept and dishonest, neither formulating a cohesive policy toward Syria nor properly guarding against the repercussions of the absence of a policy.

One problem is that the Free Syrian Army is not benefiting from sufficient military assistance. Some argue that Turkey, with American encouragement, is preventing certain types of weapons from entering Syria, for fear that they will fall into the wrong hands. Others suggest the problem is principally poor organization or favoritism in the delivery of arms. Whatever the truth, this situation is ensuring that the carnage in Syria drags on for longer than it needs to. Is this intentional? Perhaps not, but the Obama administration cannot imagine that the Syrian rebels will interpret it in any other way.

The United Nations secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, put it well earlier this week when he noted, “Unfortunately both sides, government and opposition forces, seem to be determined to see the end by military means.” Ban went on to say, “I think military means will not bring an answer.” He may be right, but Washington is neither here nor there on the matter. The Americans clearly believe that there is no political solution possible with President Bashar al-Assad, but have taken no steps to ensure that a military solution will succeed either.

Such dallying only makes more likely the exacerbation of violence, therefore the breakup of Syria. This cannot be desirable to the Americans. Syria’s disintegration would put considerable stress on other ethnically and religiously mixed societies in its vicinity, namely Iraq, Lebanon and Turkey. Obama’s objective in avoiding direct American involvement in sending weapons to Syria, while also regulating weapons flows by others, is to avoid allowing a worsening of the conflict. Yet everything the president has done, by thwarting a decisive outcome, has only worsened the conflict.

Unfortunately the Americans are unlikely to soon change their approach, in light of the attacks on American diplomatic missions last week. The prevailing wisdom in Washington is that the Arab uprisings have only reinforced forces hostile to the United States, and that the administration’s decision last year to take a stance against autocratic regimes brought America few tangible benefits, or popularity.

In that context, the stilted America view may well be that Islamists will, once again, gain from outside assistance in Syria, even though there is, plainly, a struggle there between secular rebel groups on the one side and Islamist groups on the other. American intelligence officers are on the ground and must be aware of what is taking place. If so, it’s up to Obama to formulate a policy that shapes whatever happens in Syria to the advantage of the United States.

Then there is the fact that the administration’s lack of initiative in Syria is apparently allowing chaos to prevail in the arms-distribution process. This can only further increase the risks for Washington.

In a fascinating article for Time magazine, Rania Abouzeid chronicles the different agendas of Saudi Arabia and Qatar in getting weapons to the rebel forces. She describes “disorder and distrust” between Riyadh and Doha, noting that “the rift surfaced in August, with the alleged Saudi and Qatari representatives in charge of funneling free weaponry to the rebels clearly backing different factions among the groups--including various shades of secular and Islamist militias--under the broad umbrella that is the Free Syrian Army.”

According to Abouzeid, the Saudi effort is being run by Oqab Saqr, a Lebanese parliamentarian from the Future Movement (and someone formerly in charge of the Arabic section of NOW Lebanon). Saqr, who has denied participating in efforts to equip the rebels, has been criticized for showing favoritism toward certain groups. The Qataris, in turn, reportedly prefer to send arms to the regional military councils formed by the rebels for distribution. They are also apparently reinforcing groups affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, from whom the Saudis are staying away. 

If Abouzeid is correct, then this is potentially very dangerous for the Americans. After all, the fragmentation of the rebel forces, especially over weapons, can create the same kind of pandemonium that the administration now regrets in Libya. It’s in such volatile environments that militant jihadists tend to thrive. That is precisely why the Obama administration has a vested interest in imposing order on the provision of arms, while also transferring weapons that provide the rebels with fundamental tactical advantages, for instance anti-aircraft missiles, so that the war can end quickly.

Washington was surprised by the revolutionary events in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya last year. That shortcoming should be alarming enough not to be compounded by the utter absence of a strategy in Syria today. What is it with the Obama team? The Middle East will not simply drop off the American plate. Syria will get very much worse before getting better. If the Americans don’t want to absorb the backlash, then it’s time they end their hypocritical game of condemning Assad then doing nothing to push him out of office.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

When imperialists happen to be Muslim

It never ceases to amaze how Arab eyes are forever on the lookout for some manifestation of Western hegemonic intent or condescension toward the Arab world, and how this vigilance seems to breaks down whenever it involves non-Western states behaving the same way.

This comes to mind after the announcement Sunday by the commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, Gen. Mohammad Ali Jaafari, that members of the Guard’s Quds force were present in Syria and Lebanon, albeit only as “advisers.” Imagine the sarcasm had Barack Obama said such a thing. Jaafari, against overwhelming evidence to the contrary, explained that the Revolutionary Guard’s presence “does not mean that we are militarily present [in Syria and Lebanon]. We offer advice and opinions based on our experience.”

Iran has never hidden its sense of neo-imperial entitlement in the Middle East, despite its claims to speak for the oppressed of the earth and to represent a bulwark against imperialism. Leaders in Tehran look upon their country as a natural regional dominator, and such thinking helps explain why they feel that they have a right to develop nuclear weapons, or at least the capability to build them.

Iran maintained an expansionist urge following the fall of the shah in 1979. Many regarded Iran’s regional militancy as reflecting a broad desire to lead a revolutionary global umma, or Muslim community. In fact, Iranian nationalism has repeatedly proved more powerful in influencing Tehran’s behavior in the Arab and Muslim worlds. And when Jaafari says that Iran offers “advice,” he means it will ensure that Syria and Lebanon serve Iran’s interests.

The Iranian-Israeli standoff over nuclear weapons is a tale of competing regional hegemonies. Israel seeks to maintain its monopoly over such weapons, while Iran means to end that monopoly. Both have a dangerously exaggerated sense of self-importance. Iran has threatened to engulf the region in flames if it is attacked, while Israel has sought to enlist the U.S. in an assault on Iran to prevent the Iranians from developing a nuclear capability, the dire consequences notwithstanding.

The Middle Eastern lexicon today fails to properly express that the impulse for regional domination is as strong among non-Western Muslim states as among Western states, if not more so. How odd, given that most of the empires ruling over what would become the modern Arab world were native to the region – Egyptian, Sassanid, Umayyad, Abbasid and Ottoman, to name the more obvious ones.

The story of the Arab world in the last decade has been one of increasing marginalization at the hands of its periphery, above all Iran, Turkey, and Israel, even if Israel’s superiority has been in relative decline when compared, let’s say, to what it was during the 1960s and 1970s. Great attention has been focused on the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, which is usually interpreted as an instance of aggressive Western neo-imperialism. And yet how ironic that the Iraqi intervention allowed Iran to again throw its weight around regionally, thanks to the Bush administration’s removal of an old Iranian enemy in Saddam Hussein and his replacement by a Shiite-controlled order, many of whose representatives were close to Tehran.

Turkey, in turn, reacted to the European Union’s implicit rejection by looking for newfound relevance within its vicinity, and under an Islamist government no less. This has pleased some Arab states and displeased others. However, the Turkish aspiration for “zero problems with the neighbors,” as Foreign Minister Ahmed Davutoglu envisaged it, proved absurd. As Turkey began advancing its core interests, these were always going to clash with the core interests of its neighbors.

It’s puzzling how many people in the Arab world appear more amenable to the regional ascendancy of Muslim states such as Iran or Turkey than to that of Western countries, above all the U.S. Puzzling not because consistency requires that they should embrace Western hegemony as well, but because it requires rejecting any form of hegemony whatsoever, whatever its origin.

There are Arabs who fear the rise of a Shiite Iran, just as there are others, mainly Shiites, who welcome this. By the same token, Turkey is frequently deemed by Sunnis to be a valuable counterweight to Iran, which cannot but displease certain Shiites. Sectarian discord has divided the Arabs, making it easier for Iran and Turkey, and others, to augment their authority at the Arabs’ expense.

Turkey and Iran are perhaps not as forceful as Western colonial powers were at the start of the last century. Still, Lebanon and Syria are close to being Iranian protectorates, and Turkey has never hesitated to enter Iraq or Syria to subdue the Kurds. When the two countries, and Israel, reflexively shape their surroundings in order to preserve their regional sway, this tells us that we are in the presence of domination not so different from the one once enforced by Western states. But then the West offers so much more convenient a target.

Assad thinks he can survive by confusing his neighbours

At a conference recently in Beirut, a Syrian analyst once close to the regime of President Bashar Al Assad said something interesting about the current thinking in Damascus. He argued that Mr Al Assad and his entourage believed they were winning the conflict in Syria, because they had managed to hold on for this long and still enjoyed the support of countries such as Iran, Russia and China.

If that assessment is correct, then what we are witnessing today in the Syrian authorities' disruption of countries surrounding Syria should be familiar. Whenever the Assads have felt threatened, they have destabilised the neighbourhood to survive politically.

However, this also tells us something disturbing about the strategy of countries opposed to Al Assad rule. The United States, but also Turkey and even the Saudi and Qatari governments, have been treading relatively softly on Syria, fearing that by allowing the opposition to acquire more sophisticated weaponry they might only make the situation on the ground worse.

That may be true, but all this is doing is giving more confidence to Mr Al Assad, who in a meeting last weekend with the UN-Arab League envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi, again displayed no signs of compromise. Instead, his regime has hit out in various directions, above all against Turkey and Lebanon, in a bid to show that its fall could set the region afire. That undermines the premise that a softer approach reduces instability. In fact, it heightens the instability.

This reality extends to Iraq, where the sectarian and ethnic nature of the Syrian conflict is having repercussions all of its own. In recent weeks the country has been wracked by bomb attacks, probably the work of Sunni militants. Meanwhile, the country's Sunni vice president, Tareq Al Hashemi, was sentenced to death by a judiciary under the thumb of the Shia prime minister, Nouri Al Maliki.

Relations between Baghdad and the autonomous Kurdish areas are also at their lowest since the American invasion of 2003. The Iraqi Kurds are playing a major role in shaping the choices of Syrian Kurds, who have widespread control over a swathe of territory in north-eastern Syria. The delicate balancing act in Iraq will necessarily be shaken by outcomes in Syria, and the country's capacity to avert the worst-case scenarios have not been helped by Mr Al Maliki's divisive policies.

On the other hand in Lebanon, long considered the weakest link bordering Syria, there has been an encouraging transformation in the political mood lately. A former pro-Syrian minister, Michel Samaha, was arrested on August 9 for planning bomb attacks in northern Lebanon, the aim of which was to provoke sectarian discord. The evidence shows that Mr Samaha coordinated his efforts with General Ali Mamluk, a senior Syrian intelligence official.

This episode was a wake-up call for Lebanese officials, President Michel Suleiman and Prime Minister Najib Mikati in particular. Both men have sought to navigate a neutral path over Syria during the past year and to maintain friendly ties with the Assad regime. However, the Syrians were never truly satisfied with this, believing that those Lebanese not with Mr Al Assad were against him, regardless of how such partiality might have harmed Lebanese unity.

The Samaha plot, Syrian involvement in provoking clashes in the northern city of Tripoli, as well as continuing cross-border violations of Lebanese territory by Syria's armed forces, brought home to Mr Suleiman and Mr Mikati that Syria's leadership was manipulating Lebanese insecurity to protect itself. No one in Lebanon, including Hizbollah, wants to be dragged into a civil war on Mr Al Assad's behalf. Which is why the president and prime minister have been able to take increasingly independent positions vis-à-vis Damascus.

In Turkey the situation is more complicated. The de facto self-rule of Syria's Kurds has understandably alarmed the Erdogan government, which fears that this will encourage Turkey's own Kurdish population to demand autonomy, or more. However, there is a fresh worry as well, namely that there are many Turks located near Syrian territory who, for ethnic or religious reasons, sympathise more with Mr Al Assad than with the opposition.

That is why the Turkish authorities have started requiring that Syrians who have sought shelter in Turkish border districts either move further inland or relocate to refugee camps, where they can be better controlled. Despite expectations that Ankara would play a significant role in helping to overthrow Mr Al Assad, the fact is that Turkey's myriad vulnerabilities have been further exposed.

Indeed, the Turks, with American encouragement, have by most accounts restricted weapons flows to the Free Syrian Army. Such actions have angered the Syrian opposition without greatly advancing Turkish objectives. Ankara has irked both sides in Syria, long ago lost its ability to act as mediator, and yet appears to be hesitating to accelerate Mr Al Assad's demise in a decisive way.

To a large extent the problem is the absence of a clear strategy on Syria on the part of Mr Al Assad's foes. Whereas Iran, Russia and China all grasp that an advantageous Syrian transition for them requires that Syria's president survive politically, at least for now, the western countries, Turkey and the Arab states are pursuing contradictory goals. The Syrian regime has exacerbated their fears by showing that if it were to go, chaos would ensue in the Levant.

Mr Al Assad will pursue his border wars, with various levels of success. This may bring diminishing returns, even one day accelerate the regime's collapse. But for now Syria's leadership sees confusion among its enemies, giving it room to cause more major headaches.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Romney was foolish, but right

We can take it as a given that if the star Alpha Centauri were to suddenly explode, Mitt Romney would issue a communiqué blaming the Obama White House.

The Republican presidential candidate has taken flack for criticizing the administration in the aftermath of the attacks against American diplomatic missions in Egypt and Libya, at a time when national unity would have been more becoming. The tenor of Romney’s remarks was foolish: he outrageously suggested that the administration had shown “sympathy” for the attackers, then somehow ignored that you never criticize your government when American lives have been lost.

However, the candidate also made a defensible point in arguing that American officials had, at one point, failed to adequately defend the American constitutional right of free expression. “We stand for the principles our Constitution protects,” Romney stated, and “[w]e encourage other nations to understand and respect the principles of our Constitution, because we recognize that these principles are the ultimate source of freedom for individuals around the world.”

The topic of disagreement was a statement released by the American Embassy in Cairo before Egyptian protesters gathered outside the facility. To defuse rising tension over an American video critical of the Prophet Muhammad, the embassy publicly condemned those who had “hurt the religious feelings of Muslims.” It also affirmed that “[r]espect for religious beliefs is a cornerstone of American democracy. We firmly reject the actions by those who abuse the universal right of free speech to hurt the religious beliefs of others.”

The problem with the last sentence is immediately evident. The universal right to free speech, as understood in the United States, allows individuals to hurt the religious beliefs of others. There is no abuse here under American law. Those individuals behind the Muhammad film, or who have defended it, may be the scum of the earth, and the vulgar showboating of Pastor Terry Jones has cost too many lives. Yet American constitutional principles protect their folly.

In fact, the Obama administration, realizing the problem, later disavowed the embassy statement (of which Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had initially disapproved), even as it accused Romney of playing politics over a national tragedy. No doubt Romney was doing so, as was the Obama administration, which sought to nail the Republican candidate for opposing a statement it also opposed.

The debate over how free should free speech be when it comes to religion is a recurring facet of the discord between Western nations and the Muslim world. The tradition in the West is to allow criticism of religion, whatever the price. Most Western societies are inheritors of the Enlightenment, which ultimately separated Church and State. Moreover, these societies’ modernization rested, to a significant extent, on transcending the stranglehold of religious establishments.

In the Muslim world the situation was more complex. During the 19th century, thinkers such as Jamal al-Din al-Afghani and Muhammad Abdu saw Islam as a potential lever of social and political reform and revitalization. At the same time, a parallel trend emerged, one often associated with minority publicists, that perceived the rebirth of the Arabs in broader cultural and nationalistic, therefore somewhat more secular, terms. During subsequent decades Arab nationalism grew further apart from Islam. At the height of the Arab nationalist phase during the 1950s and 1960s, there was a deep disconnect in many states between secular regimes and Muslim political groups.    

Islam as a religion distinguishes far less between the secular and the religious than do Western societies. However, this also applies to non-Muslim minorities in the Middle East, who will fully integrate their religious identity into their political identity. That is why when discussing where to draw the line between free speech and respect for religion, the focus on Islam is misleading; there is also a refusal among non-Muslims to favor free expression in religious matters. 

Such a debate may seem irrelevant in light of growing suspicion that the attack in Benghazi had nothing to do with free speech or Islam; rather, that it was carefully prepared by Salafists seeking to regain the initiative inside Libya. Maybe, but that the American government, through the White House and the Cairo embassy, was of two minds over how to respond to the Muhammad film, showed that the United States is uncertain about which democratic values to defend in its interactions with foreign, particularly Arab, countries.

In a sense Romney was right: Trying to find a middle ground between free speech and respect for religion just won’t work. No compromise will be reached that does not impinge either on the rights of advocates of free speech or on the sensitivities of believers. In that case, America does best by standing up for what it holds dearest, namely the notion that people in America have a right to express their views unreservedly, without having to fear violent retribution, no matter how objectionable they are or how distasteful their views.

Will this message gain legitimacy in the Arab world? Almost certainly not. A vast majority of Arabs, not to say many Americans, will always regard religion as off-limits when it comes to free expression. There will be more deaths to lay at the door of this debate of the deaf. And everyone will justify their actions by using the name of God in vain.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

America just cannot be the loved one

Dozens of disappointing Pew polls later, with the United States government having earmarked vast sums of money for public diplomacy, you have to wonder whether Washington hasn’t run up a blind alley in its desire to be popular among Arabs.

An obscure Israeli-American real estate developer in California uploads a video condemning the Prophet Mohammad, and mobs storm the American consulate in Benghazi, killing an ambassador. In Cairo, demonstrators attack the fortified American Embassy building. Utterly irrelevant, evidently, is the fact that Egypt has benefited from billions of dollars in American aid for over three decades, or that the U.S. helped militarily overthrow Moammar Gadhafi last year.

However, the issue here is not the ungratefulness of the Arabs. There were doubtless quite a few Egyptians and Libyans unhappy with what took place this week. There were probably many more with no opinion whatsoever, who are neither fond of America nor the contrary, largely because America is absent from their daily life.

That doesn’t change the fact that anti-Americanism is more the norm than the exception in the Arab world, even if a vast majority of people never expresses that sentiment in violent ways. Yet who can deny that the mainstreaming of hostility toward America greatly facilitates the violence of minorities? At no time was this more obvious than after 9/11, whose 11th anniversary we commemorated this week, when initial shock soon made way for explanations, then implicit justifications, of the mass murder that had occurred.

It was 9/11, and the question posed at the time, “Why do they hate us,” that sent American officials scurrying for remedies to that hatred. Public diplomacy was given a bureaucratic face-lift, radio and television stations were opened broadcasting in Arabic, and despite the invasion of Iraq, many thought they had discovered the best therapy in the exit of President George W. Bush and his replacement by Barack Obama, who, fortuitously, had “Hussein” as a middle name.

Well, apparently not. Whether it is Obama or Bush, the American sirens calling for more love are apparently not having their effect. There are many reasons for this, but listing them would serve only to reinforce the argument that the Americans are to blame and must, therefore, reshape their conduct to please the Arabs. The Americans are indeed to blame in many ways, just as many in the Arab world are at fault, not least for their hypocrisy when it comes to America. However, the disconnect between America and the Arabs goes beyond perceptions of mutual behavior to include more systemic problems.

It’s a given that the powerful are disliked, and no country has been more powerful than the United States in recent decades. If you have the ability to change things, but no change comes, then you somehow become responsible for everything that goes wrong. The Americans were indeed the defenders of a debilitating status quo in the Middle East, but since 2011 they have been on the side of emancipatory change, despite intense uneasiness. Yet they remain perpetually disliked, with the poll figures sometimes edging up, sometimes down, but always reflecting deep ambiguity toward the superpower.

There is the Israel excuse, of course. Washington’s support for Israel is the knee-jerk pretext whenever an explanation is sought for why America is loathed by Arabs. There is a great deal to censure in Washington’s seemingly unquestioning devotion to Israel, frequently against America’s better interests, but let’s get a grip. For years numerous Arab countries have ruthlessly mistreated or manipulated the Palestinians and their cause, without provoking a discernibly negative reaction from Arab societies.

In light of this, perhaps we must seriously consider that the Arab world has so internalized its disapproval of the United States over time, integrating it perfectly into a prevailing sense of Arab misfortune and frustration, that anti-Americanism has become a constant of Arab political discourse, a crutch of sorts. That is not to say that America is blameless or the Arabs always wrong; it’s to say that the positivist belief among Americans that they can be loved simply by altering their actions and manners is naively overstated.

Being loved is not nearly as important as being respected, and in that regard the United States has been riding a roller coaster. When each post-Cold War administration has cast fundamental doubt on the Middle Eastern policies of its predecessor, holding it responsible for everything that is haywire in the region, expect Arabs to enjoy those catfights, but also to see their doubts about America reinforced. The reality is that when no clear, overriding strategy exists for America’s approach to the Middle East, administrations function more on the basis of domestic politics, calculations and rivalries, and these tend to be alien to the concerns of the Arab countries they influence.

Few Arabs held dear Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, but America fundamentally and advantageously overhauled its policy in the region during the 1970s under their stewardship, on the basis of a careful, long-term reading of Washington’s well-being. In contrast, though George W. Bush injected democracy into America’s regional perspectives, he soon recoiled on that front, before his legacy was overturned by Barack Obama, whose principal motive in the Middle East is to minimize American involvement.

The White House and the State Department would do best to save their public diplomacy funds and focus more on a redefining a lasting, bipartisan strategy toward the Middle East that can span antagonistic administrations. This has not been done in a serious way since 9/11, and it needs to be at this essential moment when Arab countries are facing momentous change. In politics, love is overrated.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Punishing the men of winter

The decision of the Mauritanian authorities to extradite to Libya Abdullah Senussi, the intelligence chief under Moammar Qaddafi, represents another essential moment in the Arab uprisings.

Senussi, Qaddafi’s brother in law, was a markedly brutal face of the former Libyan regime. Last year he was one of those indicted by the International Criminal Court while the Libyan conflict was raging, although the Libyan authorities have insisted that he and Qaddafi’s imprisoned son, Seif al-Islam, must be tried in Libya. 

The so-called “Arab Spring” is about many things, but above all it is about ending the predatory dominance of intelligence and security agencies. From Tunisia to Egypt, from Libya to Syria, the shared aim of the protesters was and is to be rid of the unaccountable organs of repression deployed by carnivorous regimes. The success of these revolts will be defined by whether the current orders in each country impose the rule of law on security and intelligence agencies.

Senussi’s return to Tripoli, as significant as it is, may become meaningless if the Libyan authorities botch his trial. It is reasonable for the Libyans to want him and Seif al-Islam to stand before a Libyan court rather than an international one. Yet the potential pitfalls are many, not least the urge to use the judiciary solely to exact revenge on the accused; but also, and more perniciously, to precipitate a possible execution to silence the two men, avoiding embarrassment to those in the new Libya who might have skeletons in the closet of the old Libya.

The trial of Saddam Hussein personified the first worry. No one had ever doubted the criminal, even genocidal, nature of the Baathists in Baghdad. And yet the muddled way Saddam was tried, sentenced and hanged played against those who were in the right. The court, in wanting simply to establish a pretext to kill Saddam relatively quickly, focused on some of his crimes but not on the vast majority of them, or even the more serious ones. This effectively meant that most of his victims were afforded little of the recognition they merited.

The trials of onetime regime insiders provide an opportunity to deconstruct, therefore to dismantle, what existed before. They allow a new leadership to expose previous networks of intimidation and patronage, to uncover what made a repressive regime tick and retain power. Such initiatives are a necessary glimpse into the abyss, to better guard against the revival of foul systems in the future.

The difficulty, however, is that authoritarian regimes often tend to reflect the societies they subjugated in ways that are rather too uncomfortable to recall. The matter of guilt is rarely black and white. This was a principal lesson that several of the countries of Eastern Europe learned when they overthrew Communist systems and embarked on post-Communist reckonings and purges. Autocrats last because too many of their countrymen are willing to adapt to them.

That is the message, anyway, from the countries in which leaders were overthrown last year—and from Syria, which is still doing so today. Quite what the last straw was remains unclear, after Egyptians, Tunisians, Libyans and Syrians had previously accepted insufferable bullying and humiliation for decades on end. That is why to shine a light on past repression quite frequently means shining a light on the readiness of a society to look the other way on such repression.

This makes us fearful for the trial of Abdullah Senussi and Seif al-Islam Qaddafi, and partly explains why the trial of former senior political figures and security officials in Egypt was a disappointment. In Libya, there may be those who served Qaddafi who have no desire to see their crimes or misdemeanors pushed out into the open. There are perhaps also many Libyans who fear that if the dark side of the dictatorship is revealed, it may hinder reconciliation today.

This philosophy underlined Lebanon’s approach to postwar reconstruction: Don’t punish the guilty, don’t rock the boat, and don’t create unnecessary new divisions among the Lebanese. It wasn’t quite about whitewashing a dictatorship; it was about whitewashing the deeds of myriad small dictators. And, given the complex makeup of Lebanese society, the choice was, paradoxically, both inadequate and necessary, for there was no way to punish all the communal leaders without risking new sectarian conflagrations.

What happens in Libya will be a fresh test for the ability of Arab societies to transform themselves into democratic entities. But there is more to this than a trial. Egypt may have failed to properly sanction its former security chiefs, but the early days of President Muhammad Mursi suggest that the struggle between civilian and military rule will be a long one, with the advantage shifting back and forth, even as a struggle over the nature of civilian rule takes place in parallel.

Abdullah Senussi’s return means something, amid growing worries that the Arab Spring has become an Arab winter. And yet when the men of winter are detained and forced into the dock, that’s a good thing, assuming governments know how to make the most of it.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

As politicians hide, Lebanon is skittish about the future

A good illustration of where Lebanon stands today with respect to the conflict in Syria is the habit of major politicians who oppose the regime of President Bashar Al Assad. Virtually all of them are not leaving home for fear of assassination.

There is continued anxiety among Lebanese that their country will be sucked into the Syrian violence. That is possible, particularly when the Assad regime believes that it can save itself by destabilising its neighbourhood. However, that may be less probable than the Lebanese choosing to revisit their social contract in a dangerously divisive way once Mr Al Assad is ousted.

Lebanon is a paradox for the Assads. The country contains many enemies, above all a Sunni community wholeheartedly supporting the Syrian uprising. But it is also dominated by Hizbollah, a close ally that is sponsored by Iran, Mr Al Assad's staunchest foreign backer, so the ability of the Syrian leadership to take steps that might undermine Iran and Hizbollah's Lebanese interests is limited. That perhaps explains why the situation on the ground has been so volatile, with periods of tension followed by periods of uneasy calm.

The Syrians suffered a blow recently when one of their prominent Lebanese allies, the former minister Michel Samaha, was arrested for allegedly organising a bomb plot in collaboration with a senior Syrian security official, General Ali Mamluk. The evidence (which was subsequently leaked to a local newspaper) was compelling, so much so that Hizbollah reacted in a surprisingly low-key way to the accusation. Recent Syrian attacks in the Lebanese border area may be payback for Mr Samaha's arrest.

Hizbollah's strategy involves walking a tightrope. The party has actively, if surreptitiously, hit Syria's Lebanese enemies, particularly in the northern city of Tripoli and the Akkar region, both Sunni strongholds. It has employed elements of Lebanon's security services, principally the General Security directorate but also sympathisers in the army, to do favours for the Syrian regime. At the same time, however, Hizbollah has sought to avoid a situation that might precipitate sectarian confrontations between Sunnis and Shiites.

The party realises that Mr Al Assad cannot survive politically. That does not mean, however, that it will not help him for as long as it can, militarily and otherwise. Meanwhile, it is beginning to prepare for the aftermath by manoeuvring to retain control over the commanding heights of the Lebanese state. This it hopes to do by winning a parliamentary majority, with its partners, in the elections scheduled for next summer. For that to occur, Hizbollah must avert a breakdown that could bring about a civil war.

But will elections actually take place? Already, there are those in the government raising the possibility of a delay if the situation in Syria remains unchanged by the middle of next year. Their reasoning is that voting could further exacerbate Lebanese animosities. The prime minister, Najib Mikati, is said to prefer establishing a non-partisan government to organise the elections at a later date.

A key factor in deciding outcomes will be the choices of the Druze leader Walid Jumblatt. Mr Jumblatt holds a swing vote in parliament, and if he decides to align with the opposition March 14 coalition, he can sink the current majority. It's no coincidence that Mr Jumblatt is one of those leaders who is a virtual prisoner of his residence. An early critic of the repression in Syria, he is still officially collaborating with Hizbollah in the government, but he knows the relationship is a tentative one.

The Lebanese political class is also worried about the prospect of an Israeli attack against Iran's nuclear facilities. In a rare interview on Monday, Hizbollah's secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah, observed that while he did not believe Israel would bomb Iran, if it did so Tehran would "not be conciliatory" and might attack US bases in the region.

There was doubtless some bravado in Mr Nasrallah's comments. While a war between Israel and Iran has the potential to give Mr Al Assad valuable breathing space if it spreads, Hizbollah is not keen to inflict a new war on its own Shia community; nor, for that matter, are Shiites eager to be turned into cannon fodder on Iran's behalf.

Lebanon may well continue to weather the Syrian tempest for now. More troublesome is that Syria will probably enter into a prolonged crisis once Mr Al Assad falls, with centrifugal forces perptuating the instability. Without a consensual transition scheme in place, Alawites on the one side and Kurds on the other may challenge the central authority. If that happens, the different Lebanese communities may side with their brethren next door, or simply see an opening to overhaul Lebanese sectarian relations, undercutting their own social contract.

This need not necessarily be unhealthy, since Lebanon needs to recast its communal relations. But given the lack of preparation or cooperative discussion over such an alternative, as well as the worrying mistrust between Sunnis and Shiites, the state may be incapable of containing the worst impulses in the society. At best, the outcome might be the perpetuation of a dysfunctional state.

A reunion Michel Sleiman must exploit

So Walid Jumblatt and Saad Hariri are back on speaking terms. That’s good news for the March 14 coalition, but it’s also good news for another leading politician, President Michel Sleiman, who in recent weeks has moved a significant way away from his previous reticence on Syria, as the uprising there rages on.

A settlement between Jumblatt and Hariri was always in the cards. Both must collaborate over the matter of parliamentary elections, scheduled for next year – to block a proportional law in Parliament and to form joint lists and exchange votes on election day. In addition, Jumblatt is eager to get back into the good graces of Saudi Arabia, which provides him with the power of patronage.

Sleiman may be unhappy that his proposal for a proportional election law will be shot down, but the president always knew that this would happen given the makeup of Parliament. As he looks ahead he has other priorities. Extending his mandate is very likely one of them, but also to maneuver more freely within the Christian community and land on his feet once the regime of President Bashar Assad falls.

The Syrians are known to be unhappy with Sleiman, who has taken a more forceful position on recent Syrian violations of Lebanese sovereignty than the Assad regime would like. That’s where the Jumblatt-March 14 rapprochement becomes most useful for the president. He now finds himself at a nexus point between the prime minister, Najib Mikati, Jumblatt, and March 14, better able to protect himself politically by navigating through their contending interests.

Already, Mikati is reportedly thinking ahead to election time next summer. If the situation in Syria is still where it is today, the prime minister will contemplate delaying elections. Such a move would be controversial, but the major political forces might ultimately agree to it: Saad Hariri, because he would not want to manage with a Sunni community more radicalized than ever in the midst of conflict; Jumblatt, because he is perennially in favor of averting sectarian confrontations; Mikati, because he does not want a security fiasco; and Hezbollah because it rules over a parliamentary majority and won’t lose anything through perpetuation of the status quo.

That Jumblatt might leave the government before then does not seem probable. The Druze leader gains by playing all sides against one another, and bringing down Mikati’s Cabinet would effectively mean sawing off the branch on which he sits. More interesting is what Jumblatt would do if the elections were postponed. He would then be in a position to side with Mikati and March 14 and perhaps demand the formation of a more neutral government in the run-up to the delayed elections, assuming he seeks such an outcome.

Given all the talk about deferring the elections, Sleiman must be shivering with anticipation. Here is a man of whom it was once said that his great ambition was to become a former president. Yet now he actually has the latitude to make a difference, and knows that any delay in parliamentary elections, for a year let’s say, would mean that his own term, which ends in May 2014, is extended.

The president’s Maronite rivals are in abeyance. Michel Aoun is backing the wrong side in Syria, which can only benefit Sleiman. The president gains from keeping friendly channels open to the Sunni community, whose role in Syria and Lebanon will be enhanced in the coming years. As for Samir Geagea, he has little choice but to support Sleiman, to avoid handing an advantage to Aoun or even in some respects to Patriarch Beshara Rai, who has vacillated on Syria, but also because the president’s inclinations frequently echo his own.

How can Sleiman exploit his newfound respectability? He has some influence over the Army, but that house of many mansions is open to all sides, not least to its commander, Jean Kahwagi, who dreams of succeeding Sleiman in Baabda. And in the dysfunctional Cabinet, Sleiman will continue to hit up against Aoun, who considers himself the paramount Christian representative, and against Syria’s partners, who intrinsically mistrust any independent Maronite president.

That leaves two things for Sleiman to do. The first is to impose a measure of moral authority over his coreligionists, by defining a more consensual path for Lebanon’s Christians in light of the major regional transformations coming up. This must necessarily involve realigning the community with regard to both Sunnis and Shiites, so that Christians reconcile both, and with both, as with the state itself, permitting them to better impose their preferences in the future.

A second aim of Sleiman must be to reassert the institutional power of the presidency. During the last two decades, the president has become a factotum, the weakest link in the ruling triumvirate of power. This has destabilized the political system and undermined Maronite confidence. Hariri and Jumblatt have traditionally opposed a strong presidency, but they now need Sleiman as much as he needs them.

The problem is that this president is not the most profound or inspiring of thinkers. If his focus in on staying in office beyond 2014, then expect no miracles from him. But two years, and perhaps more, is plenty for Sleiman to help alter the Christian mindset and revive the vitality of the presidency if he opts to do so. The Jumblatt-Hariri reunion opens up a valuable path in those directions.