Sunday, October 21, 2012

Slaying in Beirut holds many warnings for foes of Assad

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Geagea searches for electoral relevance

Samir Geagea, the Lebanese Forces leader, visited Saad Hariri, the former prime minister, in Jeddah on Tuesday. There is no reason to doubt reports that the meeting went well, and that there was “full agreement on national issues.” However, the debate over an election law is exposing contrasting interests among the March 14 allies.

The Geagea-Hariri alliance is solid and will remain so. However, when the Lebanese Forces leader flies to Saudi Arabia so soon after a meeting between his parliamentarian, Antoine Zahra, and Hariri, you know something is amiss. There is a gap between the two sides over the election law, particularly in light of the reconciliation in Paris several weeks ago between the former prime minister and Walid Jumblatt. It was clear that both were on the same wavelength in opposing a government draft election law based on proportional representation.

The rapprochement between Jumblatt and Hariri poses a number of challenges for Geagea. There are reports that Zahra was informed by Hariri that the political relationship with Jumblatt was very valuable to the former prime minister. This is not surprising when Sunni voters make up a third of the electorate in the Chouf, and must collaborate with the Druze to ensure the victory of Hariri lists in Beirut and the West Bekaa. Geagea’s Jeddah trip may have been an effort to see just where he stood with Hariri and perhaps earn guarantees for the future.

The Lebanese Forces leader is perfectly aware that where Hariri and Jumblatt go on an election law, March 14 will follow. The opposition has presented an electoral project that divides Lebanon into 50 districts. The exercise is a waste of time. Hariri publicly says he supports the plan, but only because he needs to show a united front. There will be no accord over the March 14 proposal in Parliament, nor will there be one over the government’s draft law. This strongly implies that, by default, the 2009 law will again govern elections.

Geagea’s problem is that the 2009 law is markedly unpopular among Christians, because it means that many of their candidates are chosen by predominantly non-Christian electorates. When Michel Aoun is backing a law that allows Christians to vote for Christians, this provides him with a tactical advantage over Geagea. Whether the Lebanese Forces leader likes it or not, he will ultimately have to go along with Hariri, who has no problems with the 2009 law. This could cost Geagea among Christians, unless he can be compensated in some way.

What might Geagea be satisfied with? A significant number of his appointees on Hariri and Jumblatt lists, perhaps. A serious effort to move the Maronite seat in Tripoli to Batroun – or barring that, the naming of a Lebanese Forces candidate for the Tripoli seat. Financial assistance for the campaign. But also, and more broadly, a solid reaffirmation of the centrality of the Lebanese Forces in the partnership with Hariri. After all, if Jumblatt can be welcomed back by the former prime minister, despite his betrayal last year, Geagea, who always remained loyal, merits something better in return. His ambition is to challenge Aoun as the principal Christian representative, and Hariri’s lists and electorate are his tickets to that ambition.

Unfortunately, Geagea suffers from political shortcomings. The Lebanese Forces are less influential than they like to imagine. The party has made great strides in recent years, yet it is capable of forming lists in very few constituencies. In the Christian heartland of Mount Lebanon the Lebanese Forces have a definite presence, but not a dominant one. In the Metn, Kesrouan, Jbeil, Aley and the Chouf, the party is not a decisive electoral force, its undeniable importance notwithstanding. In Baabda, the Lebanese Forces have greater sway, but this is more than neutralized by Hezbollah’s voters, real and imagined, whose numbers can be expanded almost at will depending on how many votes the party needs to win.

Geagea would be right to respond that he embodies rather more than a mere election tool for Hariri. After all, he is the leading Christian in March 14. His collaboration is critical for a mainly Sunni Future Movement that aspires to cross-sectarian appeal. Moreover, Geagea has been steadfast on those issues essential to Sunnis – above all opposition to Hezbollah’s arms and support for the uprising in Syria.

But Geagea is in a dilemma. If Lebanon votes according to the 2009 law next year, and the Lebanese Forces endorse it because they’ve received more candidate seats, the party risks being discredited among Christians as an appendage of the Future Movement. But if Geagea doesn’t gain seats, the Lebanese Forces could be perceived as having fatally stagnated. The Jeddah encounter may have been a great success, but expect more before Geagea and Hariri achieve full harmony.

A pair of proxy wars that bode ill for Lebanon's future

In many regards the conflict in Syria has become a proxy war for political alignments in neighbouring Lebanon. Given that Lebanon has long served as a game board for countries in the Middle East, this represents no small irony. And yet the irony contains another.

The recent death of Hizbollah combatants in Syria only confirmed what had been an open secret in Beirut, namely that party members were participating in the repression carried out by the regime of President Bashar Al Assad. Hizbollah, echoing its sponsors in Iran, regards Mr Al Assad's downfall as a strategic menace, an effort to undermine the axis of resistance against Israel and the United States.

But Hizbollah, in bolstering Mr Al Assad, also seeks to consolidate its position in Lebanon, where the party remains the vanguard of the Iranian presence in the Levant. For a decade and a half it was Syria's hegemony over Lebanon that permitted Hizbollah to thrive. The party built up its tremendous arsenal while Syria kept its Lebanese partners in check, ensuring that Hizbollah retained wide latitude to pursue its agenda. Maintaining Assad rule would be a way for the party to secure itself against the resentment of its domestic foes.

On the other side, there is growing evidence that those close to the former Lebanese prime minister, Saad Hariri, are involved in assisting rebel forces. According to reports in Time magazine and The New York Times, one of Mr Hariri's parliamentarians, Oqab Saqr, is believed to be distributing weapons to the rebels in Syria on behalf of Saudi Arabia. Mr Saqr is also said to represent the Saudis in a secret command centre based in Istanbul that manages assistance to rebel units.

Mr Saqr, a Shiite who was elected from the town of Zahleh in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, is a peculiar choice. A former journalist, he was once tapped by Mr Hariri to organise a Shiite opposition front against Hizbollah in the Baalbeck-Hermel region of the northern Bekaa. The project was both dangerous and probably unworkable given the party's sway, but it did show that Mr Saqr is a man willing to take risks. Yet his gun-running experience is limited, and in Syria he has allegedly been having trouble dealing with supply issues.

Mr Hariri undoubtedly views his own actions in Syria as payback against Mr Al Assad and Hizbollah, whom he believes were behind the assassination of his father, Rafik Hariri, in February 2005. However, beyond that the former Lebanese prime minister, a Sunni, is very likely making a bid for an influential role in a future Syria, once the Sunni community there regains the upper hand. That would help him increase his leverage over Hizbollah, his main rival at home.

The irony of the Lebanese proxy war in Syria is, of course, that the Lebanese are working on behalf of powerful states in the Middle East. What we have is a war by proxy playing out inside a much larger war by proxy. Hizbollah serves Iran, while Mr Hariri is purportedly acting on Saudi Arabia's behalf, even as both Lebanese parties have objectives all their own, which have meaning principally in the Lebanese context.

This only reaffirms that Lebanon risks once again becoming a plaything for outsiders. Even as Hizbollah and Mr Hariri lend a hand to one side or the other in Syria, they may find themselves prisoners of regional dynamics over which they have little control. Most perilous is that Lebanon's Sunnis and Shiites, so busy acting out their differences vicariously today through Syrian factions, may one day enter into direct confrontation with one another.

Neither Hizbollah nor Mr Hariri desires such an outcome. But both are pushing the envelope in a war ultimately not quite theirs. Lebanon's Sunnis, who bitterly oppose the Syrian regime, feel more empowered than ever by Mr Al Assad's predicament. Hizbollah, in turn, remains especially well armed, even as its uncertainty about the fate of the Syrian leadership has generated anxiety in party ranks.

These volatile contrary forces - an increasingly confident Sunni community eager to challenge a militarily potent Hizbollah, at a moment of rising apprehension among Shiites - are deeply disquieting.

Then there is the question of how Mr Hariri's activities in Syria will affect his career in Lebanese politics. The former prime minister still leads the largest bloc in parliament, and elections are scheduled for next summer. If Mr Hariri performs as well as he did in the 2009 elections, he would be favoured to return as head of a new government. Yet in the present political climate, it is difficult to see how this would fail to heighten animosities with Hizbollah. In other words, Mr Hariri's Syria strategy, justifiable or not, may hamper his ability to play the role of consensus prime minister in Beirut.

For the Lebanese to shield themselves from the spillover in Syria, they must be very careful in the coming months and beyond. Once the fighting ends, the contradictions of the multi-confessional, multi-ethnic Syrian polity will come to the fore, and this may exacerbate the inadequacies in Lebanon's own social contract. Potentially, Lebanon could find itself before one of three paths: that of serious reform to agree on a new social contract; the perpetuation of stalemate; or conflict.

The two alternatives could feed into each other. Stalemate may lead to open conflict, while conflict will only guarantee further stalemate. The savagery of the Assad regime and the justice of the Syrian uprising notwithstanding, Lebanon's priority must now be to safeguard its own shaky political order. That is one reason why the Lebanese have displaced their disputes to Syria.

However, that capability can end at any time, with possibly frightful consequences.

Friday, October 5, 2012

The election law debate wastes our time

If there were any doubts as to how futile the debate over a new election law has become, they were dispelled when the parliament speaker, Nabih Berri, declared that he supported the formation of a parliamentary subcommittee to discuss such legislation. That’s because the body will only push the discussion into a labyrinth of recrimination, without an exit.

As usual, when it comes to altering the basis of Lebanese elections, there is much chatter and gnashing of teeth leading to stalemate, all of this ensuring that the old law will be revived. That’s not to say that the political actors in the country are stupid. Some parties have an interest in putting forth proposals they know will be rejected in order to cash in politically by accepting a substitute project later on.

What is on the table today? Two things in particular: acceptance of the principal of proportional representation and the ultimate size of electoral districts. The government has passed a draft election law based on proportionality, with Hezbollah in the forefront. The party has calculated that proportionality would damage March 14’s prospects in several key districts, above all Beirut, whereas Hezbollah expects to lose little or no ground in areas under its control.

Saad Hariri, the head of the Future Movement and the strongman of the March 14 coalition, rejects a proportional vote and any redistricting that would reduce his influence in Beirut. The Druze leader, Walid Jumblatt, agrees, for reasons of his own. Together, the two men’s blocs, Future and the National Struggle Front, do not make up a majority in parliament. However, their combined influence, and the fact that no one in March 14 will stand against Hariri (except temporarily to extract political concessions from him), suggests that what the former prime minister wants, he will get. And together with Jumblatt, March 14 does hold a majority at voting time.

Hariri is said to support the March 14 project for small districts. The reality is that he knows nothing will come of it. This allows him to put up a united front as the small-district system would be benefit the opposition. But it will never pass, and anyway would not please Jumblatt, whose power comes from pasting together broad candidate lists that he can form in Aley and the Shouf. That’s why Hariri loses nothing by backing the March 14 idea, then waiting for it to evaporate.

Then we had that strange principle that Bkirki tried to peddle, namely a law that would allow only Christians to vote for Christian candidates. This echoed an earlier initiative presented by representatives of the Greek Orthodox community. The fact that the person behind that proposition was Elie Firzli, a prominent ally of Syria, was apparently not suspicious enough to warrant a second look from most of the Christian participants in the Bkirki deliberations.

Yet what is the Greek Orthodox plan, and with it the desire of the Christians to alone to elect Christian parliamentarians, except a fresh nail in the coffin of national unity? The Syrians have no problems with this, but what was Maronite Patriarch Beshara al-Rai doing championing the formula? The Maronite Church’s role is to defend inter-Lebanese concord, not exacerbate inter-Lebanese discord.

If a parliamentary panel is set up to discuss the election law, all it will do is highlight how far apart are the politicians. Assuming the speaker and Hezbollah cannot get a law based on proportional representation, they lose little by returning to the 2009 law. Both Hezbollah and Amal are bound to win a lion’s share of votes in Shiite-majority districts, whichever election law prevails. The open question is how well their Christian ally, Michel Aoun, will do.

Aoun’s disastrous recent visit to Jbeil showed that his Christian backing appears to have declined in a hitherto safe district. As for the Keserwan, where Aoun was elected, the Aounists are now openly admitting that their appeal has eroded. And in the Metn, the general was already strongly contested during the 2009 elections.

But does this mean Aoun will lose? Not at all certain. He will continue to enjoy a large Shiite bloc vote in his favor in Jbeil. In the Metn, much will depend on how the Armenian electorate votes, so Aoun must now focus on ensuring that the Tashnaq Party remains on his side. In Baabda, he will benefit from an endlessly expandable Shiite vote, in areas where election monitoring is very difficult. And in Jezzine, Aoun may still win out in that his main rival is Berri, for whom Christians in the area are reluctant to vote.

Therefore, Aoun, too, is not overly disturbed by the 2009 law. And if the law is acceptable to Hezbollah, Aoun, Berri, Hariri and Jumblatt, then we can assume it will remain in place, while the cacophony today makes agreement over an alternative law highly improbable. So, follow the election law conversation at your peril. It’s a waste of time.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Syria widens Hezbollah’s contradictions

Reports that a Hezbollah member, Ali Hussein Nassif, was killed in Syria last week, along with other party members, should not surprise us. While Hezbollah has denied involvement in the Syrian conflict, the participation of its members in President Bashar Assad’s campaign of repression has been an open secret for some time in Lebanon.

Hezbollah, through a party publication, announced the death of its members, but not their presence in Syria, saying only that they had been killed “while performing their jihadi duties.” The party, echoing the Iranian regime, has viewed events in Syria as an effort to undermine the axis of resistance against Israel. In other words the collapse of the Assads is a strategic threat to be prevented at all costs.

In this context, recently the commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, Gen. Mohammad Ali Jaafari, admitted that members of the Guard’s Quds force were present in Syria and Lebanon, albeit only as “advisers.” Tehran later disavowed Jaafari’s remarks, saying that he had been misquoted. However, no one doubted the veracity of his statement, given Iran’s perceptions of the stakes in Syria.

As Hezbollah’s role in Syria becomes clearer, and as the party continues to contribute to the Assad regime’s viciousness, its vulnerabilities will increase. However, the notion that the Shiite community will turn against Hezbollah is wishful thinking. If anything, as sectarian hostility rises in Syria, therefore in Lebanon, Hezbollah will find it easier to impose Shiite unanimity behind the party’s choices, no matter how repugnant its behavior in Syria.

But where Hezbollah will not escape blowback is in those aspects of its public image where, for years, it has put up façades of deception. The party has always asserted that it is on the side of the dispossessed and justice; it has systematically played down its image as a sectarian Shiite organization; and while it has always affirmed its loyalty to Iran and its supreme leader, the party has promoted an outlook that it has a wide margin of maneuver vis-à-vis Tehran.

All three of these arguments are disproven by Hezbollah’s actions in Syria. There the party is, plainly, on the side of the dispossessors and injustice. Drawing Arab attention back to Israel is not going to alter this. Strategic necessity has torn away the party’s mask of virtue. This virtuousness had already been dented in Lebanon, after Hezbollah worked hard to return Syrian hegemony over the country following the assassination of Rafik Hariri – a crime in which four party members stand accused of having taken part. Nor was there much moral decency on show when Hezbollah and its allies militarily occupied western Beirut in May 2008, killing dozens of civilians.

Strategic necessity is a reason why Hezbollah has supported Syria’s Alawite-dominated regime, but sectarianism is also a factor. In Syria, the Iranians and Hezbollah have played a game of paradox and nuance: They have sought, on the one hand, to portray themselves as avatars of pan-Arab impulses, above all opposition to Israel and the United States, thereby appealing to perennial “Sunni” ideological preferences. On the other hand, Iran and Hezbollah have pursued in Syria, as they have in Lebanon and Iraq, a policy of bolstering Shiite pre-eminence though political, military and financial means.

Few are fooled anymore. Gone are the days when Hezbollah and its leader, Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah, won popularity contests in Arab streets. Thanks to Syria, the Arab world has been cracked by the pulsations of sect. Hezbollah’s old partner Hamas has largely abandoned the Assads, as have the different branches of the Muslim Brotherhood, above all in Egypt. Long before Bashar Assad ordered his warplanes to bomb civilians, Syrians were already burning Iranian and Hezbollah flags, grasping that power politics, but also communal fear and solidarity (even if Shiites and Alawites remain considerably different), reinforced Shiite backing for the Alawites.

As for Hezbollah’s devotion to the Iranian leadership, the party’s growing isolation over Syria has strengthened the umbilical cord tying it to Tehran. It is nothing new for Hezbollah members to act as covert operatives for Iran. From Iraq to Latin America, and now in Syria, only the naive would insist there is much sunlight between Iranian military and security institutions and those of Hezbollah.

Party members have tried to suggest otherwise, usually by offering up a non sequitur: because Nasrallah is so respected in Tehran, Hezbollah cannot possibly be a mere accessory of the Revolutionary Guard and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Nasrallah is respected, and in Lebanon during the past months Hezbollah has had the latitude to act with subtlety in order to avert a Sunni-Shiite confrontation. And yet when it comes to the fundamental issues affecting Iran’s interests, such as deploying men on behalf of Assad rule or defending Iran’s nuclear program, that latitude suddenly and inexorably shrinks.

There is an erroneous conviction among March 14 leaders that Hezbollah may be irreversibly crippled by the fall of the house of Assad. The party will lose a great deal, but it will also retain a great deal, not least its formidable arsenal. Hezbollah’s declining reputation is one thing, but its effectiveness is something else entirely. With or without Syria it will have the ability to wreak havoc in Lebanon and elsewhere. So, take heart that the party’s contradictions are being exposed, but don’t assume Hezbollah is on its last legs.

Syrian military elite could be weaned away from Assad

Last week the US defence secretary, Leon Panetta, declared that the Syrian army had moved its chemical weapons to better protect them. This came amid reports that the United States believed that the main sites where such weapons were stored remained secured.

While Mr Panetta's remarks could be interpreted in various ways, he was clearly attempting to sound a reassuring note. The Obama administration fears that chemical and biological weapons might end up in the hands of militant groups, above all Hizbollah, which could then deploy them against Israel. That the regime of President Bashar Al Assad, instead, appeared to be maintaining control over the weapons was good news to the administration.

This leads us to a broader question, namely what the foundations of possible negotiations for a resolution of the Syrian conflict might look like. For now the notion of talks seems ludicrous amid the escalating violence. We may indeed be heading towards a military endgame in Syria. However, prolonged stalemate is more likely in the interim. The fact that the Free Syrian Army is being under-supplied and is not receiving weaponry that would allow it to decisively shift the military balance in its favour is, partly, a consequence of US reluctance to allow jihadists to seize the initiative in the rebellion.

The strangling of military supplies is not designed to force the rebels to the negotiating table. However, persistent deadlock makes more probable an eventual time-out in the fighting, followed by bargaining. This may not prove decisive, and an interim might be used by both sides to reinforce themselves. However the international community is looking for any opening. The Obama administration, plainly, prefers a negotiated outcome, albeit one that leads to the departure of Mr Al Assad, whose presence is the principal obstacle to peace.

Syria's allies in Beirut suggest that the Syrian president is no longer in effective control of military operations on the ground. Rather, the armed forces and intelligence services are said to be functioning with a wide margin of freedom. This raises interesting questions, if true. Assuming the army sought to deliver a positive message by relocating some of its chemical weapons to safer locations, was it thinking in the context of a quid pro quo with the Americans?

If so, Mr Al Assad and his family may become the weak link in any future arrangement. Already, the president's sister has reportedly left Syria for the UAE. Her husband, Assef Shawkat, was killed in a bomb attack that some observers continue to believe was an inside job by the regime, to be rid of a man who sought a less brutal strategy for dealing with the uprising. There is no evidence for this, but nor is there convincing evidence that the opposition was behind the July 18 blast that killed Mr Shawkat and several high-ranking officials.

Senior officers in the Syrian military and intelligence services, especially the Alawites among them who dominate these institutions, must sense that if they eventually hope to preserve a measure of authority, they will have to engineer a transition away from the Assads. This would play into the conventional wisdom that no solution can be found in Syria that fails to address the interests of Alawites and other religious minorities.

What is it that the Americans and their allies want, and what is it the Alawite elite wants? The Americans want Mr Al Assad out, so that they can then calm the situation, stabilise Syria's neighbours and prevent jihadists from consolidating their presence in Syria. Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia largely share these concerns. But the Turkish aim is also to block the emergence of autonomous Kurdish areas in Syria and Iraq, which would encourage Turkish Kurds to demand autonomy, or even independence, from Ankara.

The Alawite elite, in turn, wishes to maintain a role in Syria's leadership, both political and military. That may be an ambition too far, given the carnage of the past 19 months, but the Alawites are unwilling to lose everything. They might make concessions to the opposition, but only as long as they can retain much of their status and safeguard their community in a new Syria. They doubtless prefer this to falling back on the Alawite heartland. The community hasn't descended from their mountain to return there now.

But even assuming their goals are more modest, the Alawites have enough firepower today, if they can remain united, to demand considerable guarantees and self-rule in prospective talks. How they would manoeuvre is another question. On the one side they have allies such as Iran and Russia, who intend to preserve their stakes in the Syrian power edifice; on the other there are the rebels, who will reject any compromise that keeps the current system intact.

That is where the dynamics of negotiations come in. If the Americans are interested, they could pressure the opposition into accepting a middle ground. However, middle ground satisfactory to the rebels will surely be hard to reach. That's because once the Alawite elite looks beyond Mr Al Assad, if it ever does, the community will appear truly vulnerable. Fear of this perception of vulnerability is perhaps a reason why Alawites have tolerated the Syrian president for so long.

As the killing in Syria goes on, all sides, particularly those hoping to prevail politically after the uprising, are beginning to recalculate. In time the Assad family will be on the table rather than at the table. For now, though, there is too much uncertainty for anyone to act decisively. However, a grand bargain may not be as remote as we imagine, as everyone looks for a way out of a dreadful situation.