Friday, April 27, 2012

Blank Barack

The American commentator Thomas L. Friedman was in Beirut this week and had two interesting things to say about the upcoming American presidential election. He remarked that “barring some crisis between now and November, foreign policy will be a net plus for Barack Obama.” And, from what we can see today, the election will be “very, very close” and could come down to the vote in Ohio and Florida. “This could be Bush-Gore all over again,” Friedman said.

These observations tell us something significant about America’s approach to the Middle East under Obama. The Democrats, to gain votes, will point especially to the president’s decision to end or wind down two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Americans are tired of a decade of conflict, and Obama justifiably intends to exploit this.

The closeness of the race, in turn, will ensure that the president sidesteps all risks. No one should expect major initiatives, let alone imagination, from Obama. Like most lawyers, he was risk-averse to start with, which is why he has been so timorous when addressing the carnage in Syria, or for that matter the recent detention of American democracy workers in Egypt. Though Obama supported the Egyptian revolt last year, he has been wary of the consequences. Washington still feels most comfortable dealing with the country’s army, because it remains the guarantor of the peace with Israel.

But avoiding problems and removing soldiers is not a strategy. As we look back on Obama’s achievements in the Middle East, the record is not particularly impressive. There are three principal reasons for this, all interlinked. Obama has spent too much time fighting the legacy of George W. Bush; he has put forward no powerful idea to inspire his decisions; and he has worked at cross-purposes in trying to manage an American disengagement from the region while also pursuing objectives that require considerable regional attention.

A good case can be made that Obama has done well to position himself as a contrast to Bush. Americans were weary of Iraq when the president took office, and all he did was accelerate a pullout that was coming anyway. Certainly, an indefinite American presence was untenable. However, you do have to wonder, then, why the United States sacrificed so many lives, Iraqi and American, if the end result was a hasty exit that has left Washington with little to salvage politically from its long Iraqi campaign, and Iran much stronger.

Obama also had his eye on Bush when he argued that Afghanistan was the “right war,” unlike Iraq, because that was where the threat from al-Qaeda was most pronounced. Perhaps, but then the president transcended his relatively limited anti-terrorism priorities and embarked on a belated and ambitious nation-building project that he almost immediately appeared to doubt. Once Osama bin Laden was killed, it became possible to declare victory and act on that doubt. Obama saw a ticket out of a country that had become a headache.

Obama’s wavering has reflected his most blatant flaw, namely the absence of an overriding philosophy guiding his foreign policy actions. The president has managed crises, but has rarely allowed deep-felt ideas to define his behavior. What does Obama stand for? No one knows. He says the right things, about human rights and democracy for instance, but never quite seems to mean them.

The Middle East has been a case in point. Obama made good decisions in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, but only after others had taken the lead and imposed choices on Washington. Sometimes a values man, sometimes a realist, but never deploying these in tandem in a well-defined direction, the president has confused many people. Obama has also frequently allowed events to dominate him, rather than use American power to shape events to America’s advantage.

Partly, this has been the consequence of his foreign policy contradictions. The president tends to desire things and their opposite. If the Obama administration seeks to contain Iran in the Gulf, as it claims it does, then it should, and could, have done much more to leave behind conditions in Iraq that made this possible. To simply depart from the country without preparing the political aftermath in a way that preserved American interests was foolish.

Similarly, when Obama announced his troop surge in Afghanistan in 2009, it made no sense for him to simultaneously announce it with a timetable for withdrawal. Anyone watching the president, friend and foe alike, knew that he would be indecisive, when he sought to send precisely the opposite message. Today, Obama is realigning America toward Asia. That’s sensible in absolute terms, but the challenges in the Middle East remain immense, and the president doesn’t have the luxury of simply dropping a vital region as if it were an unwanted toy.

There was a time when the mood in Washington was characterized by greater foreign policy consensus. That began breaking down under Bush, and Obama has faced an even more polarized political climate. That doesn’t make it easy to settle on the best options. However, the president has not helped by seeming so equivocal about a world that he once assured us he knew well, by virtue of his adolescent travels.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Political changes in Beirut hit a wall of sectarian reality

The Lebanese will vote in a new parliament next year, and the campaign has already begun. Given the tensions in Syria, regional volatility, and also a host of domestic factors, Lebanon's politicians and political forces are already manoeuvring in anticipation of an election that could have far-reaching consequences for the country.

At the heart of myriad calculations in Beirut is the situation in Syria and the possibility that the regime of President Bashar Al Assad will fall - or continue to face a prolonged period of instability. Mr Al Assad's allies, while they insist that he will remain in power, realise his survival will be difficult. Each is responding to that prospect in different ways.

Hizbollah has the most to lose from regime change in Damascus. There have been reports that, along with Iran, the party has been assisting in the Syrian repression. In Lebanon, however, it has played the stability card, ensuring that the government of Prime Minister Najib Mikati remains in place until the elections. Hizbollah fears that if there is a political vacuum in Beirut, this may turn to its disfavour and precipitate an internal sectarian conflict.

Other notable partners of Syria, such as Nabih Berri, the Shia speaker of parliament, have a different agenda. Mr Berri wants to regain his post after the elections, but also intends to reinvent himself if his long-time patrons are ousted. He has chafed at Hizbollah's domination of the Shia community, and of him. The speaker has marched in lock-step with Hizbollah, out of necessity or under duress, but knows that to survive politically in a post-Al Assad order, he would have to become a centrist Shia, by mediating between the Sunni community and Hizbollah.

Mr Berri's electoral options are not great. Hizbollah-backed lists are expected to win a lion's share of seats in mainly Shia areas, while the party will most likely pursue its collaboration with Michel Aoun in mixed Christian-Muslim districts. The speaker has no choice but to stick with Hizbollah in most places. However, his electorate can play on the margins, particularly in mixed Christian-Shia constituencies. Mr Berri lost Christian seats to Mr Aoun, whom he loathes, in 2009. He hopes to regain them to better portray himself as a national leader with a cross-sectarian parliamentary bloc.

On the Christian side, the major groups are all eyeing each other with suspicion. Mr Aoun controls the largest number of Christian seats in parliament. However, his political movement has lost momentum lately, because it has been unable to make anything of its substantial representation in Mr Mikati's government. Though he labelled his bloc the Change and Reform bloc, Mr Aoun has achieved neither. Rather, he has embraced with gusto Lebanese patronage politics and nepotism, far more than those he condemns.

Mr Aoun will be in his late 70s next year, one reason why his bitter Christian rival, Samir Geagea, the head of the Lebanese Forces, has been aggressively preparing to bring a large Christian bloc of his own into parliament. Mr Geagea, who survived an assassination attempt some weeks ago, believes now is the time to challenge the Aounists. Mr Geagea senses that Christian anxieties, and the tribulations of Mr Al Assad, create new opportunities for him to exploit.

Lebanese Christians are worried about their future. The community makes up around a third of the population, and Sunni-Shia dynamics are shaping Lebanon far more than Christian-Muslim dynamics. Mr Geagea is positioning himself as the man best capable of navigating his coreligionists through the uncertainty of a region in flux, in which he believes Sunnis will regain the upper hand against Iran and its followers. That's why he has sided with the mainly Sunni Arab regimes in opposing Mr Al Assad's rule, when Mr Aoun and Maronite patriarch Beshara Al Rai have defended Syria's leadership.

Mr Geagea's strategy will be to build on his good relationship with Lebanon's principal Sunni politician, Saad Hariri, and ask that many more Lebanese Forces candidates be placed on lists benefiting from pro-Hariri votes. He will also play on Christian fears of Hizbollah, especially in mainly Christian districts where the Shia swing vote can yet be decisive, such as Baabda, Jbeil, and to a lesser extent the Metn.

The Lebanese Forces leader is not only a thorn in Mr Aoun's side; his ambitions are also alarming his own Christian partners. For instance, the Phalange party, one of Lebanon oldest, worries that Mr Geagea's appetites, and the electoral demands he will make of Mr Hariri, will come at their expense. Given the party's declining weight, Phalange candidates may well be bumped for Mr Geagea's.

There has been much discussion recently that a new electoral law, one based on proportional representation, will be adopted for 2013. That seems doubtful, because proportionality would erode the hegemony of the big political actors. To become law, it would need to be approved by parliament, which is dominated by the very actors who stand to lose most from the proposal. In the absence of agreement over a new election law, the 2009 law, or some version of it, will prevail.

This leaves us with an irony. While Lebanon may be on the cusp of a new era free of Syrian meddling, in which Hizbollah will have to re-examine its options without the backing of Damascus, the country's election system will perpetuate the same political entities. That's why the Lebanese are so dubious today, even as they prepare for an election with the potential to change more than they imagine.

The hollow echo of proportional voting

Has there ever been a greater red herring than the debate over proportional representation in Lebanon’s elections? The latest news is that President Michel Sleiman intends to consult with prominent politicians and others over a law that guarantees “the best representation for all segments of the Lebanese people.”

Sleiman has been a prominent defender of proportionality. He believes that the 1960 election law, under which voting takes place at the level of the qada, or the small electoral district, and which serves as the basis of the current law, produces “only sectarian fragmentation.” Perhaps, but proportionality hardly reduces fragmentation, which doesn’t mean that it is undesirable.

The president is playing populist politics – portraying himself as the defender of unrepresented voters, of cross-sectarian unity, of national concord, and what have you. But the fact is that there is no momentum in parliament to approve a proportional law, despite statements to the contrary, and Sleiman is well aware of this.

The reason is simple. The major parliamentary blocs would lose seats if proportional representation were introduced, and they’re the ones who have to sign off on any new election law. That’s assuming that the government can agree to a draft law in the first place, which is doubtful, since Walid Jumblatt would first withdraw his ministers from the Cabinet, decisively weakening it, before siding with those opposed to a proportional law if it came to a vote before parliament. Given that March 14 has refused to discuss an election law based on proportionality “in the shadow of Hezbollah’s weapons,” we can assume that the project would be cut down by the combined rejection of Jumblatti and March 14 parliamentarians.

Hezbollah, the Future Movement, Walid Jumblatt and Michel Aoun, all have a vested interest in preserving the status quo. They are delighted with a law that awards them all or most seats in electoral districts, simply because the system today benefits candidates on the stronger lists. Whereas a proportional system might measure the percentages earned by each list, and distribute seats accordingly, the present law counts the top vote-getters. In most areas, those on the list backed by the major political representatives of a district in question are virtually guaranteed of winning the most votes. And where several politicians or political organizations are present, the preference has been to divvy up the pie through electoral alliances.

This system has long permitted Hezbollah to sweep numerous Shiite-majority districts in the south and the Bekaa, the Future Movement to do well in predominantly Sunni districts, Aoun to rake in the major share of Christian seats in Mount Lebanon – in collaboration with Hezbollah in Baabda, Jbeil and Metn – and Jumblatt to have a headlock on the Chouf and Aley. Not one of these politicians or blocs is remotely sympathetic to proportional representation.

Even Samir Geagea, who seeks to challenge Aoun as the leading Christian figure in Parliament, prefers the current law, since it allows several of his candidates to ride Hariri’s coattails, and perhaps even Jumblatt’s, in districts where the two men dominate. The reality is that Lebanon’s political class, for all its disagreements, will rally around proposals perpetuating its rule – which generally means, because the system engenders equilibrium, collective rule.

What is the president’s objective in advocating proportionality? To curry favor, certainly, but perhaps also to toss out a line that may reel in a larger fish. Almost by default, Lebanese presidents maneuver to extend their mandates. Sleiman has recently advanced on parallel tracks, pushing for a proportional mechanism while also defending the right of Lebanese expatriates to vote. This has allowed him to position himself as a champion of those seeking a third way, free of the stifling March 14 versus Hezbollah and Aoun dichotomy. Moreover, the expatriate vote idea is popular among Christians, who view it as a means of counterbalancing their numerical decline.

If Sleiman succeeds in getting this message across, he may create new opportunities for himself in the future. For instance, if there are no elections next year, let’s say due to ongoing conflict in Syria, this could facilitate an extension of the president’s mandate a year later. Pushing for the expatriate vote is a good idea in itself. If Sleiman is doing a bait and switch, where he is pushing proportionality in order to impose a compromise that would implement expatriate voting, then all the better. But he is not doing this gratuitously. To have any chance of winning an extended mandate, the president wants to be perceived as an election reformer, not least by his own coreligionists.

It’s a thin reed for the president, but he doesn’t have much room to act. And talk of delaying the election is almost certainly just talk. There will be no consensus over such a decision, making it infinitely more difficult for the government of Prime Minister Najib Mikati to put into practice. Nor does Mikati have an incentive to discredit himself by endorsing a departure from constitutional deadlines.

The pattern of dysfunctional politics in Lebanon is well established. When major decisions are to be reached, everyone throws in a caveat to gain from the process. In the end a compromise is reached, so that much remains the same. The elections next year will most probably resemble those of 2009, even if the stakes are higher. Almost everything you’re hearing today is the hollow echo of manipulation.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Berri Berri

There is the political ally of Syria, Hezbollah and Michel Aoun, who closed down parliament for 18 months, and whose gunmen disgraced the streets of western Beirut in May 2008. And then there is the veteran politician who is preparing for the possible fall of Bashar al-Assad’s regime, who chafes at Hezbollah’s domination of the Shia community, and who detests Aoun—not least for having humiliated him by winning against Berri in Jezzine during the last elections.

This is also the man who was the impresario of the parliamentary mud fest that took place this past week. As usual, he cajoled, browbeat, cut off and encouraged this parliamentarian or that, often in ways designed to advance the speaker’s own political agenda.

Berri has been a major irritant to March 14 and for years was in the vanguard of the March 8-Aounist strategy of obstructionism, thanks to his position. But the speaker is both vulnerable and indispensable today, and the arch maneuverer is looking to reinvent himself.

He is vulnerable because his Syrian sponsors are facing an existential crisis, even though they never much cared for Berri and allegedly threatened him some months ago to ensure that he stayed in line. And Berri is indispensible, therefore influential, because, unlike Hezbollah, he can reposition himself as the “centrist” Shia in any post-Assad future. He could thus preserve his position while also mediating between the Sunni political leadership and Hezbollah.

A commonly heard criticism of the Future Movement is that it has played Berri badly. There is some truth here. Rather than exploit the speaker’s desire to expand his options within his community and beyond the parliamentary majority, Saad Hariri’s men have had a tendency to embarrass Berri when possible. Then again, that tactic has sometimes made the speaker more desirous to please, so it has had some benefit. However, a more subtle strategy is required, because Berri may play a decisive role in next year’s elections.

If there is any likelihood that Berri will take a different tack than Hezbollah, the elections will provide it. That’s not to say that the speaker will break with the party. In many electoral districts he has a strong interest in forming joint lists with Hezbollah. However, there are places where Berri might go his own way. That’s probably true, again, in Jezzine, but also Jbeil, where he controls Shia votes; perhaps the Metn, where a small Shia electorate is present; and most intriguingly Baabda, where the speaker could potentially play Hezbollah and Aoun off against March 14 and Walid Jumblatt.

Would Hezbollah afford Berri that latitude? Much will depend on what happens in Syria. If the Assad regime imposes that the speaker march in lockstep with Hezbollah and Aoun, there will be little that he can do to challenge the decision. But if not, Berri has no incentive to return to being an appendage of Hezbollah, and the party may steer clear of a confrontation with the speaker to avoid splits within Shia ranks. The reality is that Berri only has an ability to play on the margins in most electoral districts. A safe tactic would be to enter into arrangements that potentially adversely affect Aounist candidates and certain other Hezbollah allies, but not Hezbollah candidates.

The ultimate objective of Berri is to remain speaker after 2013. That may not be too difficult. It’s not obvious who could challenge him. A Hezbollah official would be too divisive, while March 14 has few Shia as it is—and none with legitimacy in the eyes of a majority in their community. However, this time around Berri would prefer that his speakership not be a bone tossed his way by Hezbollah. That’s why he will be keen to bring a multi-sectarian bloc back to parliament, something Aoun denied him in 2009. This will affect Berri’s electoral decisions in mixed sectarian districts.

March 14 should take all these factors into consideration as it plans for elections next year. It makes no sense to alienate Berri, even if it makes even less sense to concede too much to the speaker. One person who has avoided a head-on clash with Berri is Samir Geagea. The calculations may cut both ways. When neither Aoun nor Hezbollah called the Lebanese Forces leader to congratulate him for surviving an assassination attempt, Berri did. He also reportedly saw to it last year that Antoine Zahra, the Lebanese Forces parliamentarian from Batroun, would remain in the Parliament Bureau, despite behind-the-scenes efforts to remove him.

Geagea realizes that Berri’s support might come in handy at voting time. So, too, does Walid Jumblatt, who has maintained open channels to his wartime comrade through fair weather and foul. Every day new cracks are appearing in the parliamentary majority. If dealing more shrewdly with Nabih Berri can help widen them, then why not do so? The speaker asks for nothing more.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Shadow of another war hangs over southern Lebanon border

The negotiations in Turkey over Iran's nuclear programme last weekend were not particularly high in the attentions of the Lebanese living along their country's southern frontier with Israel. And yet if Iran is one day attacked militarily because the talks have failed, the Marjayoun-Hasbayya district will probably again become a front line in a destructive confrontation between Hizbollah and the Israelis.

This serene district, located in Lebanon's south-east corner, is a reminder of the country's bracing contradictions and essential beauty, whatever its status as a past and future battlefield. Lying at the foot of Mount Hermon, the area includes inhabitants from most Lebanese religious groups. It's not wall-to-wall harmony, but the intricacy of the communal geography, like the economic challenges faced by all, has favoured collaboration over conflict.

Hizbollah remains the ultimate decision-maker. However, the party maintains a low profile, and is largely unseen in the succession of non-Shia towns and villages stretching from the majority Christian agglomeration of Marjayoun to the mainly Druze Hasbayya. This contrasts with Hizbollah's much greater visibility in the central section of the border area, principally around the Shia township of Bint Jbeil. That may partly explain why United Nations troops deployed in Marjayoun-Hasbayya seem more relaxed, and can be seen eating at sidewalk cafes without perceptibly heightened security measures.

And yet all around there is precariousness, and an uneasy equilibrium. Israel's northernmost settlement, Metulla, is so close as to seem a part of the Lebanese landscape. Israeli listening posts dot the ridges leading from Mount Hermon southward, and behind them is the Golan Heights, which Israel occupied in June 1967. Among the Israelis, Hizbollah, the Lebanese army and UN contingents, we have one of the more heavily militarised of international boundaries.

One potential flashpoint is the Israeli-controlled town of Ghajar, which is considered the westernmost extension of the territory taken from Syria. Half the town belongs to Lebanon, but was again seized by Israel during the war of summer 2006. The inhabitants are Syrian Alawites who once thrived on smuggling. In 1981, when Israel annexed the Golan, they accepted Israeli citizenship.

I recall overhearing a conversation some years ago between two members of a Shia political party walking below Ghajar. "Who are they?" one asked, wondering whether he should return a wave from the villagers. "Even they don't know," his comrade answered.

How true - of Ghajar and sometimes of the Lebanese in Marjayoun-Hasbayya, who still are dealing with the legacy of the long Israeli occupation that ended in 2000. Many of those who remained during that time collaborated with Israel, or in one way or another benefited from its presence. This was usually the consequence of necessity, but it's also undeniable that thousands of Lebanese - Christians, Shiites and Druze - had ties to the instruments of occupation, above all the South Lebanon Army, the Israeli-backed proxy militia.

No one likes to mention it, but at the time the economy of the border region was more prosperous than today. The combination of an open border and a substantial number of people on the Israeli payroll meant a transit trade of sorts and cash to spend. In contrast, Marjayoun-Hasbayya has today become Lebanon's dead end, far from the centres of economic vitality, facing closed doors all around. The situation there is more difficult than in the Bint Jbeil district, where Shia money, bolstered by significant remittances from a dynamic emigrant community, has produced additional work opportunities.

Everyone in the south, however, suffers from the fact that the Lebanese army does not allow foreigners near the border without authorisation from the defence ministry. Hizbollah in particular, ever worried about Israeli spies, is equally reluctant to see travellers traipsing through a strategic area. The restrictions are resented by the population, which is eager to benefit from Lebanon's tourism trade. That's understandable, because the virgin region potentially offers a wide variety of leisure interests.

There is a consensus that if a new war were to break out between Hizbollah and Israel, it would be far worse than that of 2006. The Israelis would probably re-enter Lebanon, and they have reportedly been training for this eventuality. Marjayoun-Hasbayya, particularly the Hizbollah stronghold at Khiyam, would be a prime target in any ground campaign, as Israel strives to dismantle Hizbollah's infrastructure. The district also provides ready access northwards, into the lower reaches of the Beqaa Valley, where Hizbollah has built a defensive line that extends into the Jezzine district.

If the Israelis were to remain in Lebanon for an extended period of time, to impose a resolution on Hizbollah, Marjayoun-Hasbayya could turn into a double-edged sword for the party. The topography makes it ideal to pursue a guerrilla war. At the same time, however, the sectarian mix would require Hizbollah to be careful when it comes to managing the aftermath. Everyone in southern Lebanon, including Shiites, dreads having to endure yet another round of fighting. But while the discontent among Shiites could be easier for Hizbollah to neutralise, that would be less true for the other communities.

That's where the tranquillity of Marjayoun-Hasbayya, and much of the rest of southern Lebanon for that matter, is most meaningful. The mild people of the south are sick of the destruction that has been visited on them for decades. Hizbollah risks quite a bit if it drags Lebanon into fresh hostilities, above all on behalf of Iran. An idyllic setting hides myriad anxieties that still remain unaddressed.

Nasrallah, Assange and injustice in Syria

Which devotee of the anti-globalization left, enlivened by anti-Americanism, could resist a frisson of pleasure when watching Julian Assange interview Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s secretary-general? And on the Kremlin-backed Russia Today channel, no less.

Getting Nasrallah to chat earlier this week was a coup for the founder of WikiLeaks, but not an unexpected one. The Hezbollah leader, when he grants interviews to Westerners at all, generally does so with those who share his passion for sticking it to Washington.

Syria was a major topic of discussion in the Assange interview, and Nasrallah transformed an apparent revelation into a weapon against the adversaries of President Bashar Assad. He observed that Hezbollah had contacted the Syrian opposition in a bid at mediation, but that it had rejected a dialogue with the regime. “From the beginning we have had a regime that is willing to enact reforms and is prepared for dialogue,” Nasrallah declared. “On the other side you have an opposition which is not prepared for dialogue and is not prepared to accept reforms. All it wants is to bring down the regime. This is a problem.”

It certainly is a problem, though mainly for Hezbollah. What Assad’s enemies know is that Syria’s ruling family – no less than Hezbollah and its patrons in Iran, or for that matter the decision-makers in Moscow and Beijing – regards “dialogue” principally as an instrument to neutralize the uprising. That is why Russia, in endorsing the plan of the United Nations-Arab League envoy, Kofi Annan, followed it up with insistent demands that the Free Syrian Army be compelled to terminate its armed resistance. Within the pro-Assad alignment that objective is essential, and its pursuit continues.

What dialogue is Nasrallah talking about? He has long argued that there can be no dialogue between victim and oppressor. Recall what the Hezbollah leader said in a 2002 speech on the anniversary of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s death. It was usefully translated in “Voice of Hezbollah: The Statements of Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah,” edited by Nicholas Noe. Describing the so-called 15th of Khordad massacre by the army of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi in 1963, Nasrallah saw this as an occasion when a massacre provided “a tool of mobilization, a strong incentive, and a spiritual moral, and humane impetus to generate victory, hope, and trust, and strike fear into the enemy’s heart.” And in a phrase he would do well to remember today, Nasrallah noted that “[a]n army that shoots on unarmed and helpless people is in the final analysis a weak one, on the verge of collapse.”

In the unlikely event someone engages in a dialogue with Bashar Assad, let us imagine the dynamics. Which opposition figures will the regime sit with? It will exploit the divisions among its foes to select its interlocutor, possibly members of the National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change, which has been open to negotiating with the regime. Many in Syria will reject such an initiative; but outside, Assad’s foreign allies will maneuver to silence potential displeasure by insisting that this represents implementation of the Annan plan. Moreover, the reputation of the Syrian National Council is so wretched that it might be difficult to interrupt the momentum of a dialogue, no matter how bogus, after it begins.

Once everyone is around a table, what happens? Not much. The security edifice of the Assads will remain intact, while the opposition will have to end all military operations, or risk being accused of torpedoing the Annan plan. The regime will go around in circles, perhaps eventually offering the opposition the ragged bone of limited representation in a new government. This will be hailed as a victory for peace, but no Syrian government of the past 42 years has ever held power. By the time Assad’s pliant interlocutors realize this, the game will be up and the Syrian president will have dodged a bullet.

That’s what Nasrallah is hoping. But most Syrians are no dupes, nor do they particularly appreciate the double standards the Hezbollah leader displayed in the Assange interview. When asked why he had supported several Arab uprisings, but not the one in Syria, Nasrallah replied: “Everybody knows that the [Assad] regime ... has supported the resistance in Lebanon and Palestine and it has not backed down in the face of Israeli and American pressure, so it is a regime which has served the Palestinian cause very well.”

That may have prompted a nod of assent from Assange, but it also leads to an unflattering conclusion. By Nasrallah’s logic, domestic repression is tolerable if an Arab state upholds the proper kinds of struggles regionally – against Israel and the United States. For the Hezbollah leader, injustice, therefore, is a relative term, one tied to his party’s interests. This disqualifies Nasrallah from passing moral judgment on a variety of developments in the Middle East.

In which case why do so many otherwise intelligent people cede to Nasrallah the high ground when it comes to political principle? When the secretary-general remarked that “the passage of time does not negate justice” for the Palestinians, Assange should have inquired as to how a man so dodgy about injustice in Syria could blithely lecture viewers about justice in Palestine.

If there is justice in Syria one day, it will sweep away those such as Nasrallah wagering heavily on Assad’s victory. But the Hezbollah leader is a perceptive man. He can toss out chaff, but because he once marshaled the energies of his own community in its resistance against Israel, he cannot fail to grasp that most Syrians today view their battle in a similar light. Nasrallah is correct about one thing: The passage of time does not negate justice.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Sectarian fears and regional loyalties pull Syria to pieces

As Syria suffers under the repression of President Bashar Al Assad's regime, which launched cross-border attacks this week against Turkish and Lebanese territory, a key question is whether the country can remain united. The dynamics of fragmentation have taken hold. Even if the leadership falls, it is difficult to imagine Syria remaining politically and geographically as it was.

Several developments support this conclusion. From the start of the conflict last year, Mr Al Assad and his Alawite-dominated military units and security forces functioned on two levels: on the one hand, they sought to crush the rebellion and reassert their control over the whole of Syria; on the other, they paved the way for a potential fallback plan, namely an Alawite withdrawal to the community's mountain areas in north-west Syria and the coastal cities below.

Early on, the military strategy was to control the hinges of the Alawite heartland - in the north at Jisr Al Shoughour and in the south at Kfar Kalakh. The regime's devastation of Homs has been interpreted by some as a further stage in this scheme. The city is of great strategic importance, controlling access between central and northern Syria and the north-western mountains and coast, but also between Alawite-majority areas and that part of Lebanon's Beqaa Valley where there is a Shia majority friendly to Alawites.

The area around Homs is the front line of defence for the Alawites, who have a presence in the city and its environs. It is also a door the community can open and close at will if it ever decides to empty the coastal districts of the Sunni presence, in a Syrian version of ethnic cleansing. There are rumours that the Assad regime intends to move Iraqi and Iranian Shiites into Homs, to change its demographic make-up. This is unsubstantiated, but it suggests that as the conflict escalates, the logic of creating ethnic enclaves could take over.

In Syria's Kurdish areas, things are even more confusing. The opposition Syrian National Council has been unsuccessful in co-opting the most representative Kurdish parties into the anti-Assad campaign. The regime, in turn, has granted considerable leeway to the Kurdish Workers Party, or PKK, to conduct activities against Turkey. The Syrian branch of the PKK, the Democratic Union Party, has backed Mr Al Assad, while 11 other Kurdish parties have formed the Kurdish National Council, which is close to Iraq's Kurds.

In an interview with the daily Al Hayat published last weekend, the Iraqi Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani made an explicit offer to the Syrian opposition. Asked about why he had been restrained in encouraging Kurdish support for Mr Al Assad's enemies, he answered that the Syrian National Council had failed to take a far-reaching stance on the rights of Kurds in Syria.

"The Kurds will not join the opposition if there are no guarantees of a fundamental and radical change in [the Kurdish] condition in Syria, and [Kurds] are recognised," Mr Barzani said.

Mr Barzani's statement came in the context of his broader criticism of politics in Iraq, in particular what he described as the increasingly dictatorial behaviour of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki. He warned that unless Mr Al Maliki changed his ways and shared power, the Kurds would seriously consider going in their own direction in Iraq, and that he would put the issue to a referendum.

While there are significant regional obstacles to Kurdish independence, whatever happens in Iraq will have a profound effect on events in Syria. Syria's Kurds can see that even a federal arrangement in Iraq is faltering; and daily they are observing the dissolution of Mr Al Assad's rule. It is unlikely, as a consequence, that they will willingly surrender their quest for some degree of self-rule, whatever the outcome in Syria, whoever triumphs in the end.

The Syrian opposition is of many minds on the structure of a post-Assad state. If the Alawites, sensing defeat, move to establish an entity that they dominate, the instinct of the opposition will be to reverse this militarily, and reimpose the bases of a unitary state. This could hit up against Kurds' determination to expand their autonomy, conceivably through a federal framework.

The centrifugal pressures in Syria will not end there. Under all the likely scenarios that conclude with Mr Al Assad's departure, the country will almost certainly pass through a phase during which central authority will be diminished. This could, effectively, devolve powers to the different communities and regions, each with its own specificities and trans-border relationships. As in Libya, the conflicting interests of the winners may be exposed once the uprising concludes.

Alawites and Kurds will look across Syria's borders towards Turkey, Iraq or Lebanon, to their brethren or well-wishers on the other side who might offer them greater security. So, too might the Druze and Christians, whose eyes will be on their Lebanese coreligionists. As in Iraq, Syrians will have to agree to a consensual social contract, but without the presence of a strong occupier to bolster the centre.

This could be traumatic, but it need not be. Ironclad centralisation is not a default condition for states. New situations impose new thinking. For instance, the head of Syria's Muslim Brotherhood, Riad Al Shakfeh, has expressed a willingness to discuss federalism in Syria. It will require compromises for societies in and around the Levant to navigate through the looming discord over national identity. That is why the struggle for Syria is indeed a struggle for the Middle East.

Syria’s border blackmail may backfire

Pity Ali Shaaban for the hypocrisy that surrounded the reactions to his death. From Hezbollah we heard that the cameraman’s killers had to be punished, even though the party has no intention of seeing its Syrian allies disciplined. But Shaaban was a Shiite, so something had to be said. Then there were the reactions from March 14. The coalition exploited the fact that a Shiite had been gunned down by Syrians to drive a wedge between Hezbollah and its own community. This was blatant and indecent, but there you have Lebanese politics today.

The regime of Bashar Assad is anxious about its borders. Shaaban’s killing came on the same day that Syrian soldiers were ordered to fire into Turkey. The aim is to blackmail, to warn that if the Syrian conflict becomes a proxy war, it may spread to Syria’s neighbors.

But there are proxy wars and proxy wars. The Assads have been readily accepting military instruction and assistance from Iran and Russia. For instance, a leaked video broadcast on the Al-Arabiya channel last week showed a Syrian Republican Guard general reassuring officers that additional soldiers were being trained inside Syria and outside. That could mean only one thing: that they were being prepared for action in Iran or areas controlled by Iranian allies.

The international community is sticking with the plan of Kofi Annan, the United Nations-Arab League envoy. There is much hypocrisy in that acceptance, too. Annan has just visited Iran, after Russia and China, because he feels that Assad’s benefactors might persuade him to discontinue massacring his population. They might, once they are assured that the Syrian regime has regained the upper hand and can manipulate Annan’s scheme to break the opposition’s back.

The Annan plan is a mishmash of incompatible ideas, which all sides have interpreted as they wish. Russia, Iran and China view it as an instrument to neutralize the armed struggle and consolidate Assad rule. The Syrian National Council doesn’t care for the plan and expects it to collapse, but has embraced it to avert diplomatic isolation. Saudi Arabia and Qatar have been equally mistrustful, and are preparing to increase their assistance to the opposition once the plan fails. Turkey has a more urgent concern, namely managing the rising number of Syrian refugees entering the country. That’s why Ankara would welcome an international green light, and the legitimacy that would accompany this, to carve out a buffer zone inside Syria. And the United States, while it has endorsed Annan’s mission, has also approved non-lethal aid to the opposition, betraying its doubts as to the mission’s success.

Annan has expressed surprise that the criminally long deadline he approved for implementation of his plan had led to more violence. Who was he kidding? That he afforded Syria’s security forces valuable time to carry out more murder discredited his efforts. Annan seems oblivious to the dynamics of the situation. The Syrian regime is pursuing a strategy of absolute eradication, and will only go along with his proposals if they advance such a strategy.

There are those who suggest that Annan is well aware that his initiative will go nowhere, but needs to prove this before moving to stronger medicine. Perhaps, but that means that every new victim of the carnage in Syria must be put at the envoy’s door. After all, his approach is merely a reheated version of an Arab League plan from last November that the Syrian regime undermined time an again.

By ordering its troops to fire across two international borders, the Syrian leadership has only reconfirmed that it is looking to crush the rebellion. You don’t seal your borders unless your intention is to ensure that you can regain the upper hand militarily, while denying that capacity to your enemies. And if Annan is going to provide cover for Assad to continue along this path, then the envoy must end his mediation right away, or seriously overhaul it. Going hat in hand to Moscow, Beijing and Tehran only strengthens Syria’s leadership.

Assad’s problem is that Syria’s borders will remain vulnerable to outside infiltration. As the Annan project is gradually emptied of all meaning, the logic of a proxy war in Syria will come back with a vengeance. You can fire at the Lebanese, but the Lebanon border will stay porous. Because of national cleavages over Syria, the Lebanese Army’s hands are tied when policing the area, not least when this is done upon the instructions of Syria’s ambassador.

Geographically, the Turkish border with Syria is far more difficult to cut off. Quite foolishly, the Syrian regime has recently granted wide latitude to the Kurdish Workers Party, or PKK, to operate in northern districts against Turkey. This Ankara cannot long tolerate, and Assad’s short-term gain may bring him a lasting headache if the Turks decide to move their army into Syrian territory. Until now they have not done so to avoid a confrontation with the Kurds and Iran. However, by playing the Kurdish card, Assad is hitting against a vital national interest of his northern neighbor, which may leave Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government with no choice.

The borders with Iraq and Jordan are also wide open, even if the governments in both countries remain wary of backing the Syrian uprising. However, if there is no political solution and the Syrian regime persists in its policy of obliteration, then arms and funding will flow across as all parties prepare for their stake in a post-Assad Syria. Ali Shaaban was an unfortunate victim of these perilous border games. Don’t be surprised if there are more to come.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Two bullets and a ballot

It has been a busy few weeks for the Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea. On Wednesday he dodged a bullet—in fact two—just days after organizing a rally to commemorate the dissolution of his party in 1994. This followed Geagea’s high-profile criticisms in mid-March of two leading Maronite figures, Patriarch Bechara al-Rai and Michel Aoun—both men for defending the Syrian regime, and the second for having assailed the Sunni community.

The security forces are investigating the assassination attempt. Regardless of what they find, Geagea is high on any list of politicians slated for elimination. Nor is there much doubt as to who would carry out such a crime. What will be interesting to determine, however, is how the Lebanese Forces leader uses the incident as he prepares for an essential moment in his political resurrection after his release from prison in 2005, namely parliamentary elections next year.

That’s not to suggest that the sniper attack was a setup. But Geagea is a political animal par excellence, and someone shrewd enough to employ all the means at his disposal to ensure that he can bring a substantial bloc to parliament and challenge that of Michel Aoun.

There has been much speculation about what the assassination attempt actually meant. Are we returning to a new spate of killings similar to the one in 2005-2008? Geagea certainly sought to place the assault in that context, linking it, strikingly, to the elections of 2005 and the rationale behind the killing of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. “Why did they assassinate … Hariri?” Geagea asked in a press conference, before explaining: “All he did was acquire greater power than they had given him, and it was clear that he was likely to acquire a parliamentary majority during the 2005 elections.”

The implication was that Geagea, too, had been targeted because he was expected to perform well in upcoming elections. Moreover, his remarks were designed to induce his audience to set off into specific speculative directions, all otherwise left unstated by the Lebanese Forces leader. Who loses if Geagea gains? Aoun, of course, but also his allies in Hezbollah. What does this tell us? Among other things, that Hezbollah has infiltrated the Christian mountains, where Geagea resides. And who has covered for Hezbollah’s growing military presence in these mountains? Obviously Michel Aoun.

That thought process could be damaging to Aoun next year. It comes in the wake of a dispute at the Antonine University, in which Shia students prayed outside a church in contravention of the institution’s rules. The Aounists were embarrassed by the consequences, and in the eyes of many outraged Christians responded lamely to what had occurred. Meanwhile, MTV, over which Geagea enjsoys influence, has broadcast reports of how Christian neighborhoods abutting the southern suburbs are being transformed by Shia-led construction.

Baabda, where Aoun and Hezbollah are powerful, will be a key electoral battleground for Geagea. Expect the Lebanese Forces to play on Christian fears of the demographic shifts in their neighborhoods. More broadly, from one side Geagea will scare Christian voters by raising the Shia scarecrow; from the other, Aoun will raise the Sunni scarecrow. The election themes in Christian districts will revolve around communal anxiety and identity politics, which risks leaving Christians even more isolated and wary than they already are.

Nor will there be a Maronite patriarch in place who can unite the community and inject confidence into his flock. Instead, the Maronites merely have Bechara al-Rai, who in sectarian terms has proven to be even more polarizing than Geagea or Aoun. Given the cleric’s weakness for politics, and his compulsive recklessness, the patriarch will be open to manipulation by both men.

Geagea is a deliberate operator. Whenever he does something, he usually has put some thinking into it. The Lebanese Forces leader has been consciously in the limelight lately, defining himself more sharply while differentiating himself just as sharply from other Maronite figures. He’s backed the Arab uprisings, especially in Syria, unlike most of his Maronite political and religious counterparts; he’s defended the Sunnis against Aoun, when many Christians are worried about Sunni political Islam throughout the Middle East; and he’s even attempted to portray himself as a man of regional stature, by inviting speakers from various Arab countries that are currently experiencing political upheavals to address the Lebanese Forces ceremony.

Elections are high on Geagea’s mind. He evidently feels that now is his time to make a qualitative leap forward to become Lebanon’s dominating Christian representative in the coming years. Aoun is his primary impediment, but time isn’t really on the general’s side, and many believe that the Free Patriotic Movement and its electorate will fragment once he leaves the scene. Someone will have to pick up the pieces, and Geagea aspires to amass a large share. 

In that context, we can say, rather cynically, that the bungled assassination attempt could ultimately serve Geagea well. It casts a disparaging light on everything the Lebanese Forces leader has warned against, and, as during his 11-year imprisonment, shows him to be a man defying the odds. Geagea’s enemies, but also his allies, will have to remember that once election season comes.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Lebanon's politics shaped by a strategic enmity for Assad

On Saturday, the Lebanese Forces party commemorated its 1994 dissolution by a pro-Syrian Lebanese government. This was followed at the time by the arrest of Samir Geagea, the party leader, and his imprisonment for 11 years. At the gathering last weekend, Mr Geagea loudly praised the recent transformations in the Arab world, not least the uprising in Syria against President Bashar Al Assad.

Mr Geagea portrays himself as a figure of regional import - several of the speakers on Saturday were from Arab countries that have faced recent upheaval. However, for now his political horizon remains domestic. The Lebanese Forces leader is looking to expand his influence among Christians, but also to appeal to the Sunni community. In his mind the two are related. Mr Geagea hopes his performance in Lebanon's elections next year will confirm his grander political role.

In March, Mr Geagea sought to sharply differentiate himself from two other prominent Christian public figures. In a television interview, the Lebanese Forces leader harshly criticised the Maronite patriarch, Beshara Al Rai, for having defended the regime of Mr Al Assad, on the grounds that it was friendly to Christians. Mr Geagea noted that the patriarch had "put all the Christians in the region in danger" by taking a position so at odds with the mood in Syria and beyond.

At around the same time, Mr Geagea also attacked his foremost Maronite Christian rival, Michel Aoun. Even more than Patriarch Al Rai, Mr Aoun has been a staunch backer of Mr Al Assad, affirming that he is facing a Salafist armed revolt. In response, Mr Geagea came to the defence of the Sunnis, insisting that Mr Aoun was "trying to picture [Sunnis] as extremists, at a time when there are many intellectual and moderate liberal Muslim Sunnis".

Always calculating when choosing his words, Mr Geagea was making a larger point: among the main Maronite Christian representatives, he was almost alone in standing on the right side of history. The Lebanese Forces leader has made a strategic choice to affiliate himself with the Sunnis regionally, much as he has inside Lebanon through his alliance with former prime minister Saad Hariri. It remains to be seen, however, if Mr Geagea can succeed in becoming a legitimate Lebanese Christian interlocutor with the country's Sunnis.

Mr Geagea has also sought to build bridges to Iraq's Kurds, and visited Irbil last January. Another Maronite notable, former president Amin Gemayel, did the same, as did the Lebanese Druze leader Walid Jumblatt. While each man had different motives in visiting Iraqi Kurdistan, they probably did share one: for Arab minorities it is increasingly attractive to hedge by developing political relationships with other minorities, without harming ties with Sunni Arabs.

The primary aim of the Lebanese Forces leader in the elections next year is to bring a sizably larger bloc to parliament than the one he controls today, and challenge the dominant Christian bloc of Mr Aoun. Mr Geagea sees that Mr Aoun is getting on in years - he's 77 - and that his lumbering Free Patriotic Movement will most probably fragment over who eventually succeeds him. Now is the time, Mr Geagea feels, to attract part of the Aounists' electoral base.

While the Aounists deeply dislike Mr Geagea, there are many Christians who voted for Aounist candidates in elections past who are not necessarily hard-core movement members. They have rallied to Mr Aoun because of their minority anxieties. It is these people, Mr Geagea believes, whom he can ultimately rally, who will appreciate that he has read regional dynamics properly, therefore can negotiate from a position of strength and goodwill with Sunnis.

There is also a more pragmatic reason why the Lebanese Forces leader appealed to the Sunni mood in condemning Patriarch Al Rai and Mr Aoun. If Mr Geagea wants a substantial parliamentary bloc, his best way of achieving this is to place his candidates on Hariri lists or lists openly or implicitly allied with Mr Hariri in constituencies with significant numbers of Sunni voters. This applies, among others, to the third voting district in Beirut, as well as the Shouf, Zahleh, the West Beqaa, Akkar and even Tripoli, with its single Maronite seat.

Some have said that Mr Geagea has presidential ambitions. Which Maronite does not? However, this appears to be less a priority for the Lebanese Forces leader at the moment than to consolidate his authority nationally. That won't be easy among the fractious Maronites, especially for a man still resented as a onetime warlord. But Mr Geagea is playing the so-called "Arab spring" right, and his conviction that the Assad regime is destined to fall seems more persuasive than Mr Aoun's and Patriarch Al Rai's assessments, and above all their defence or minimisation of Mr Al Assad's crimes.

There is an irony in Mr Geagea's Sunni flirtation, and it goes beyond the fact that his militia during the war years was a bitter foe of the Sunnis. Rather, as the son of the secluded northern mountain village of Bsharri, Mr Geagea was always the least likely Maronite to manage a reconciliation with the Sunnis, particularly urban Sunnis, and to turn that understanding into a prop for his own political revival.

No one should underestimate Mr Geagea. The Lebanese Forces leader spent 11 years in an underground cell, much of that time in isolation. That he emerged sensible and sane tells us something about the man. Willpower can go a long way, and Mr Geagea feels that his time has come, even as his enemies fight for their political survival.

Annan’s plan should be regime change

What a shock it must have been for Kofi Annan to realize that the Syrian regime and opposition agree over nothing except to largely ignore his splendid little plan for ending the conflict in Syria.

Annan, the United Nations-Arab League envoy, is no naïf. He did what all good diplomats do: He added a splash of reciprocity, a pinch of incentives, an aroma of consensus, and presto, he presented us with a more refined version of a failed Arab League plan crafted last November. The core of the Arab proposal was that the Syrian regime should withdraw its forces from cities, put an end to its violence against protesters, release prisoners, and begin a dialogue with the opposition. Yet President Bashar Assad could never implement such a plan, since it would encourage millions of Syrians to go out into the streets and call for his head, without fear of retribution.

When Annan took over, he did concede something to Assad, namely the latitude to lead negotiations with the opposition, and in that way regain a measure of legitimacy. This was a retreat from the Arab League project of last January, which called upon the president to step down and hand over power to his vice president. The envoy brought the Russians and Chinese on board to pressure Assad, but it was Annan’s obligation to understand that the dynamics of the situation made implementation as impossible today as it was last November.

Once Assad starts loosening his military grip on society, he will be finished. He has promised to respect a cease-fire as of April 10, but still hopes to beat the Syrians senseless to earn himself a breather and transact from a position of strength, with an opposition he selects. But that ambition is going nowhere. It took a month for his army to crush Baba Amr, which involved deploying elite units. Yet Homs is far from pacified, let alone the provinces of Idlib, Damascus and Deraa.

Assad rule is crumbling. The regime is on a conveyor belt of repression, and will be overwhelmed if it stops. Annan sought, somehow, to do two things simultaneously: neutralize the fighting on the ground while creating an environment that would facilitate the removal of the Syrian president through peaceful means – a “soft landing” as some have described it. However, that did not make a good plan. In fact, it has made a plan so unrealistic that neither Assad nor the Syrian opposition has any intention of implementing it.

The most contentious facet of Annan’s plan was that he seriously expected the opposition, after the slaughter by the Syrian army and security forces of between 10,000 and 15,000 people, to sit at the same table with the individuals responsible. The opposition is divided, but groups willing to engage with Assad are well aware that they would be discredited if they actually did so. In other words, Annan’s call for an inclusive Syrian dialogue was unrealistic, and his goal of accelerating prisoner releases and widening the opposition’s margin to demonstrate against the regime was unworkable.

The envoy’s efforts were shaped by the fact that Russia held the diplomatic initiative when he took over his post. And the Russian priority is to force the opposition to lay down its weapons. The Obama administration, meanwhile, is shifting with the political winds – one day endorsing the Annan plan, which seeks to end the fighting; the other, agreeing with participants at the Friends of Syria conference in Istanbul last weekend to fund and dispatch aid to the armed Syrian opposition, which will prolong the fighting.

What is the way out? Already late last year, when the Arab and international diplomatic maneuvers over Syria began, it was plain that Assad was finished. The sole basis for a comprehensive solution is his departure into exile, with his family, followed by negotiations leading to a smooth transition of authority. Anything else is a waste of time, and Annan’s stumbling project has again shown us why.

The conventional wisdom is that the Russians will oppose this. We can speculate that Annan offered a plan that he knew would falter to satisfy the Russians, in order to then press a more achievable alternative once Moscow saw that its initial preferences could not be realized. Or that may be too clever by half. There is no doubt, however, that Russia is the key to a changeover in Syria, and that once Assad loses Russian backing the game will be up for him. That’s why Annan would be better off focusing on how to persuade Moscow that Syria’s current regime is quite simply unsustainable, and that Russia could have an important role to play in a new Syria. The envoy might also reassure the Russians by furthering contacts between their representatives and those of the Syrian National Council, which for better or worse is the only broad-based coalition the Syrian opposition has.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov warned this week that the Syrian opposition would never defeat Assad’s army. It doesn’t need to. If it manages merely to impose a military status quo and hold territory, Assad’s options, and Moscow’s, will shrink. It’s hard not to believe that the Homs offensive received a Russian green light, explicitly or implicitly, along with a fresh supply of heavy weapons and ammunition. That is why Istanbul was a success in rejecting Moscow’s efforts to deactivate the Free Syrian Army.

The single workable strategy for Annan is to explicitly push for regime change in Syria, and to convince Russia that there is no substitute. The Russians must sense that it’s time for Plan B in Damascus. Their guy is not gaining. He has to keep killing just to avoid being killed.