Thursday, February 28, 2013

Outside powers seek to define Syria's endgame

When the Syrian opposition coalition announced Saturday that it would boycott the Friends of Syria conference in Rome today, this was in part blackmail to get more solid commitments of backing from western governments. The tactic may have been successful.

The opposition reversed itself on Tuesday, when it agreed to go to Rome at the insistence of the US secretary of state, John Kerry, who has begun a nine-day tour of Europe and the Middle East. The decision came after the coalition's president, Moaz Al Khatib, persuaded his comrades, at a meeting in Cairo, to change their mind and amid reports the Obama administration will begin sending non-lethal aid to the Syrian rebels.

This reversal confirmed that Mr Al Khatib retains influence, despite criticism from coalition members that his recent offer to start talks with the Syrian regime was made without consulting them.

The idea of negotiations appeals to western countries and Russia, because it is regarded as the only way to effect a smooth transition in Syria and prevent the country from breaking up into sectarian statelets.

On the same day, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Al Muallim, while in Moscow, agreed to a dialogue with "those who hold the weapons". President Bashar Al Assad was clearly pressured by Russia to accept negotiations, in light of Mr Al Khatib's offer to do the same.

Many in the opposition are uncomfortable with talks, but Mr Al Khatib's hand is not as weak as it may seem. Talking to Mr Al Assad will imply a measure of legitimacy for the Syrian president, from an opposition coalition that insists he step down for his responsibility in the death of tens of thousands of Syrians. But amid signs that the military situation is turning against the regime, open lines of communication may ease a Syrian transition.

The opposition has made military gains in recent weeks, after receiving fresh supplies of weapons across the Jordanian border. These have reportedly been paid for by Saudi Arabia, and acquired from Croatia. The dual objectives of supplying better weapons is to facilitate an offensive against Damascus, the heart of the Assad regime located at a relatively short distance from the southern province of Deraa, and to reinforce Syrian opposition units not affiliated with the Al Nusra Front, which is suspected of having ties with Al Qaeda.

The military gains apparently have troubled two of Mr Al Assad's allies, Russia and Iran. Russian anxiety was probably behind the effort to persuade the Syrian regime to accept talks with the opposition. And Iranian worries that Mr Al Assad might lose control of the strategic highway linking Damascus to the coastal region, through Homs, is what prompted Hizbollah to attack villages held by Syrian rebels around Qusayr, near the Lebanese border.

The highway serves several purposes for Mr Al Assad's regime. It allows the transfer of weapons and supplies from the coast, where the Alawite community holds sway, to troops in Damascus. It is also an exit route if the Syrian regime ever decides to leave the capital. Hizbollah's intervention heightened Sunni-Shia antagonism in Syria and Lebanon, but given the risk the price was worth paying.

On what can the Americans and Russians agree? A managed transition is desirable to both countries. Russia's objective is to retain a stake in a post-Al Assad Syria. To achieve this, any eventual departure of Mr Al Assad must be negotiated, not be sudden and catastrophic, so that Moscow retains leverage to protect its friends in the regime, especially in the army and intelligence services. The Russians also do not want to see militant Islamists triumph by force, as this could wreak havoc regionally, and even lead to volatility in Muslim states neighbouring Russia.

The American position is not so very different. Washington, too, fears that chaos could destabilise neighbouring countries, and feels that a transition process will make Mr Al Assad redundant. On the other hand, in looking back at American errors in Iraq, the Obama administration seeks to preserve the Syrian army as a symbol of national unity and to maintain order once Mr Al Assad departs.

Mr Al Khatib will have to manoeuvre the opposition through this minefield of foreign desirables. For a start, he must guarantee that negotiations will not allow Mr Al Assad to remain in office. Nor can he embrace a process protecting the perpetrators of the most brutal crimes in Syria. However, a negotiated transition that brings the opposition to power is eminently attractive if it can save lives and avert sectarian fragmentation in Syria.

Here, the role of the western countries and Russia will be vital. Mr Al Khatib heard encouraging words from Mr Kerry, who suggested the United States would step up aid after the Rome meeting. Yet the US objective is to get negotiations started, not to give the opposition a means to score a military victory, which seems unlikely today. To have leverage over the opposition, however, the US must help it in some regard, and there has been speculation that Washington was informed of the dispatch of the Croatian weapons, suggesting tacit approval.

We are potentially entering a new phase in Syria, one in which political aims will be defined by military operations. If talks are held, we should at some point expect an escalation of the conflict as each side tries to shape the outcome in its favour. But a political endgame must be defined first, and that process may soon start. Whether Mr Al Assad can control it is the big question.

Lost in Geagea’s maze of maneuvering

The tension between Samir Geagea and the Future Movement is palpable thanks to Geagea’s support for the Orthodox election proposal. But beyond the political calculations that we know – the fact that the Lebanese Forces leader does not want to appear “less Christian” than Michel Aoun (in a rivalry that has devastated Christian fortunes) – what deeper thoughts explain his decision? A fair answer shows that there continues to be Christian mistrust of Muslim political power. Amid talk of Sunni-Shiite tension threatening Lebanon, we cannot underestimate that an old fault line, between Christians and Muslims, still very much survives, despite Geagea’s alliance with Saad Hariri and Aoun’s closeness to Hezbollah.

In discussions with journalists, Geagea has reportedly justified his support for the Orthodox scheme by arguing, among other things, that he sought to contain Walid Jumblatt. For Geagea, the 1960 law will lead to a similar alignment to what we have today, which will give Jumblatt the ability to hold the balance between March 8 and March 14. This the Lebanese Forces leader wanted to prevent, insisting that by pushing Jumblatt into a corner, he would then force the Druze leader to rejoin March 14, which is good for the coalition.

Perhaps, but there are several problems with this rationale. For one thing, the 1960 law is far more likely to bring March 14 a parliamentary majority, while the Orthodox plan will not do so. So, forcing Jumblatt to adhere once again to March 14 seems slightly ridiculous a goal if, ultimately, there is no majority to show for it; or rather, if the plan to compel Jumblatt to reintegrate March 14 actively ensures the coalition will not win a parliamentary majority.

Moreover, Geagea’s calculation may be faulty in another way. Recently, Jumblatt visited Saudi Arabia in what was plainly a reconciliation visit. This suggested that Saudi funding may have resumed, or will soon resume, which is essential to Jumblatt’s power of patronage. Under such circumstances, does he have any latitude to betray March 14 a second time, which would mean a new cutoff of Saudi money? Can Jumblatt afford this at a difficult time economically for his electorate?

All this suggests a more profound malaise in Geagea, one that goes beyond his declared aims in approving the Orthodox law. It’s very likely that the Lebanese Forces leader took badly the meeting between Jumblatt and Saad Hariri last January to discuss the electoral law. This came at a time when the 1960 law was likely to prevail given the inability to agree on an alternative, and neglect by Future officials of Geagea’s own election law proposal. The meeting also was held at a moment when the mood in the Future Movement was that Hariri would not place Lebanese Forces candidates on his lists as Geagea had sought.

The Hariri-Jumblatt meeting must have provoked complex thoughts in Geagea. Here was the Druze leader being received with open arms by the man whom he had undermined a year earlier, while he, Samir Geagea, the unshakeable ally who had done more than most to reconcile Sunnis and Christians, was taken for granted. Worse, here was Geagea holding the fort in Lebanon, while Hariri had spent nearly two years abroad, and getting nothing for his efforts.

So, as the Lebanese Forces leader saw it, he was the Christian dupe, destined to pick up the crumbs of a Sunni-Druze entente. Hariri’s mistake was not to sense this displeasure and head it off, no doubt the heaviest price he has had to pay for his prolonged and damaging absence. But more worrisome is that Geagea likely interpreted his predicament in the context of Christian-Muslim mistrust.

Which leads us to a third motivation, namely that Geagea is nervous about the Sunni revival that is occurring thanks to the uprising in Syria, a revival he feels may marginalize him completely. Geagea was already embarrassed by Sheikh Ahmad Assir’s foray into Faraya on the Prophet’s Birthday, which angered many Christians. He felt, rightly, that it was a case of Assir provoking a confrontation to rally support, and that his own political interests were completely ignored.

But beyond Assir, Geagea senses that if Islamists triumph in Syria, there will be negative consequences in Lebanon, and many Christians may well embrace those who best express their fears. Aoun has been a consistent opponent of Sunni Islamism, and Geagea doesn’t want to lose political ground to him over Syria. Worse, with the Future Movement frequently outmaneuvered by Salafist groups, Geagea worries that the trend in the Sunni community is toward radicalization.

The diagnosis may prove correct, but Geagea’s reaction is bizarre. The only way Salafists will be marginalized is if the Future Movement and other moderate Sunnis do well in the elections. This will definitely not happen under the Orthodox proposal. On the contrary, if the proposal passes, thanks to the proportional representation it mandates we can expect fringe groups to do far better than under the 1960 law.

Some will insist that the entire debate is worthless, given that the Orthodox proposal is unlikely to be approved by Parliament. Perhaps, but in that case Geagea has been duplicitous, with some journalists who have talked to him suggesting that he favors the Boutros commission election proposal. So basically Geagea is playing sectarian politics for reasons of convenience, which means, additionally, that we should doubt his reasons for supporting the Orthodox proposal. But an arch-maneuverer is not likely to secure public confidence, particularly when he has earned the mistrust of his political allies.

Voters will judge Geagea on his ideas, not his acrobatics. In recent years he has stuck to his positions, as others have readjusted theirs. This made him credible. However, his latest moves on the Orthodox proposal smack of opportunism, sectarian opportunism above all.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Can Kerry make a difference?

Next week, the new US secretary of state, John Kerry, will be visiting the Middle East to discuss, among other things, Syria. It’s reassuring that Kerry’s first foreign trip will encompass a region that President Barack Obama has carefully avoided. However, there is much to make us doubt a substantial shift in Washington’s Syrian policy.

Kerry may not want to be reminded of how he once saw Syria as a ticket to foreign policy relevance and a step in his march toward Foggy Bottom. By opening a channel to the Assad regime that he felt could be exploited by the Obama administration, Kerry gambled that this would help him become the person most likely to succeed Hillary Clinton.

Kerry’s efforts led nowhere. And the senator saw early on during the Arab uprisings the murky alleyways into which his ties with the Syrian autocrat might lead. In a speech before the high-profile US-Islamic Forum, organized by the Brookings Institution, in April 2011, Kerry described Assad as someone aware of Syria’s problems. By then the revolt had started and Assad’s security forces had killed many people. Kerry’s failure to mention this, and his depiction of Assad as a man concerned by his people’s welfare, outraged many in the audience.

This was brought to Kerry’s attention and may have led him to take a step backward. To his credit, he subsequently maintained his distance from Assad and, fortunately, we did not hear much again about their friendship. With the Obama administration since then calling on Assad to step down, Kerry will not play that game anymore.

But what room does this leave for maneuvering on Syria? The only thing Kerry can do is advocate a policy in which the United States takes a more active role in supporting the Syrian opposition. But limiting this to the provision of non-lethal aid, as the US has done until now, will change nothing. Obama resisted sending weapons when senior officials debated this before the American elections in November, although four of his senior advisers were in favor of doing so.

Some argue things may change, but it will be up to Kerry to persuade Obama that a shift is worthwhile, assuming he believes this. The president is reluctant to involve the US in a proxy war, and worries that arms may reach militant Islamic groups who might use them against Americans or Israel. It will not be easy for Kerry to convince Obama that Syria can be turned into a win-win situation, the only kind favored by a risk-averse president with a minimal interest in the Middle East.

Nor is there any real sense that Kerry has great influence over the president. Recall that Obama did not name him as his secretary until after he had chosen Susan Rice, the ambassador to the United Nations. When Rice’s chances dived because of the inaccurate way that she portrayed the attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, she withdrew.

Kerry then became the natural choice, though the initial reports had been that he would be appointed secretary of defense. Obama’s choice of Rice suggested something else: that the president wanted someone close at the State Department, to have better control over the foreign policy agenda. Perhaps Kerry was seen as too independent, even if after Rice’s withdrawal it was natural for the White House to choose him, as one of the most prominent foreign policy figures in Washington.

But that still does not indicate any particular closeness between the new secretary and Obama, though this may change. Nor has Kerry ever publicly disagreed with Obama over Syria. If anything, the view of observers is that Kerry will not rock the boat, let alone challenge a White House that refuses to be drawn into overseas conflicts.

But in Syria the alternatives are few. Assad will refuse to negotiate his own departure for as long as he feels he can survive politically. Neither Russia nor Iran will give up on him, because both fear that this would undermine their stakes in Syria. If the US is so convinced that Assad cannot remain in power, as officials have said many times, then it must ensure the prediction becomes true, mainly by giving the opposition the military means to overthrow his rule.

Admittedly, this will mean an escalation of the conflict. But it will also lead to fewer casualties than the grinding stalemate of today, which is only radicalizing Syrian society and creating a golden opportunity for militant Islamic movements to enter the fray. As in Bosnia during the early 1990s, it is often better to send weapons to the weaker parties, as was done then to the Muslim and Croatian forces, to compel the stronger side to accept a compromise or risk defeat.

Obama should look back at the experiences of President Bill Clinton. Clinton too sought to steer clear of the Bosnian conflict. It was only after the massacre at Srebrenica, and the indignation this provoked, that he reversed himself. There have been many Srebrenicas in Syria, but not the American reaction that greeted the crimes in Bosnia, so Obama’s standoffishness has not come with a political price tag.

But the world is not an extension of domestic American politics. Perhaps this is where Kerry will be most useful, in reminding Obama of the dangers of making global events secondary to politics at home. What he must do, first, is devise a credible foreign policy strategy. That’s because it’s difficult these days to explain what the US stands for in the world, therefore how we are supposed to interpret its actions. Hopefully, Kerry can provide the outlines of an answer.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Desolation gains a foothold in Bkirki

Put aside for a moment that Christian approval of the Orthodox plan Tuesday seemed a natural misstep for a community bathed in self-doubt about its own future, as Christian numbers have declined. The reality is that the largest Christian community, the Maronites, have as their spiritual leader a man, Patriarch Beshara al-Rai, who has only reinforced this desolate mood by heightening Christian fears. No wonder Michel Aoun called Rai to congratulate him on passage of the Orthodox scheme.

The scheme still has to pass Parliament and Cabinet, which is no easy feat. But how will Christians react to a possible rejection, other than to view it as another example of how the community’s aspirations are usually thwarted. And in this context Rai would have a central role to play, reassuring them that so abysmal a plan would only isolate them further and ensure that opportunities for cross-sectarian collaboration and concord are substantially terminated.

But that is precisely what the patriarch will not tell them, because he is incapable of marshaling such openness. This provincial priest sees isolation as a form of security, and was precisely the wrong man to lead the Maronite Church when he put on the gold, purple and red of a patriarch. Rai has done nothing of what was expected of him when he took office. His church is still in need of reform, yet he has not advanced on that front, presiding over the same gaggle of dubious bishops in place when he was promoted. In fact, as his recent trip to Syria shows, he is a man who does not improve with age. Rai is an ecclesiastical wrecking ball, to be surveyed with constant trepidation.

Only a man devoid of modesty, devoured by self-love and self-importance could take his own verbal idiocies as seriously as he does. Rai recently explained events in Syria in this way to a Protestant delegation. According to one of those present, the patriarch noted that the war there was a U.S. and Jewish plot to get rid of the Middle East’s Christians. Rai always had a soft spot for the Syrian regime, but if anything can be said of the Americans it is that their neglect of Syria has been deplorable. As for “the Jews,” Israel too once appreciated the Assads, but does not seem to hold much hope for Bashar anymore. And the thought that the two would join together to marginalize the Christians, who seem thoroughly marginal to regional affairs anyway, is so laughable as to constitute a punch line.

Rai has missed the entire point of his mission, not surprising for someone besotted by the fantasy-laden view of himself as a grand political strategist. His duty was to heighten confidence in the Maronite community and remind Christians in general that, even though their political power has diminished, they still had a major role to play in Lebanon’s destiny, and much to gain from a rapprochement with Muslims. He could have also been more specific, reminding them that their domination of the economy is still largely intact and that though the Maronite president is not what he once was, he yet retains considerable influence thanks to his position between the often-contending Sunni and Shiite communities.

He could also have looked at Syria and jogged his memory just a bit to recall that the Assad regime, far from being a protector of Christians as he once claimed, broke the back of Lebanon’s Maronites. When Rai stated in Damascus that “Everything that is said and demanded in the name of what is called reform and human rights and democracy is not worth the spilt blood of an innocent person,” what did he actually mean? That faced with violent intimidation it was best to keep quiet and accept the worst forms of dictatorship and corruption?

Is this a message that Lebanon’s Maronites would embrace, they who fought against the Syrian army so often? In saying that human rights and democracy are not worth a fight, Rai is speaking a language entirely out of touch with the direction of the world today, that of a despot’s sidekick. One would never have heard such inanity from Patriarch Nasrallah Sfeir, who, despite his advanced age, understood better that religion must be intimately tied in with a defense of human rights. And Sfeir always refused to visit Damascus because he knew that no one, especially a clergyman, could simultaneously condemn barbarity on moral grounds and also legitimize it.

Yet no amount of savagery by the Syrian regime seems to shake Rai. The bombardment of civilian areas by the regime’s armed forces, the routine slaughter of women and children by government militias, and the destruction of villages and neighborhoods has provoked hardly a dissenting word from the patriarch, hardly an angry sermon on the comeuppance of tyranny. Ultimately this tells us what Rai really is: a man who is ethically loose, insubstantial, whose only true motivation appears to be self-promotion, whose religious integrity is nonexistent, the mellifluous voice there to camouflage the emptiness of the whole.

While Pope Benedict XVI is not inspirational given the abuses he covered in the German Church at one time, he is intellectually far ahead of Rai. The pope’s decision to resign appears to be a result of a frustration with his inability to reform the church’s behavior. No such worries exist in Bkirki. And yet deep down we wish Rai would show the same discernment as Benedict and accept his limitations when it comes to tackling the tasks at hand. Then we would expect him to step down and make room for someone better

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Obama's foreign policy has shifted from timidity to farce

Watching Katherine Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty, a thought immediately comes to mind. Here is a film ultimately about the daring and omnipotence of America. Yet it comes at a moment when the country has never seemed less daring or omnipotent. Indeed, President Barack Obama, who ordered the assassination of Osama bin Laden, has made it a point time and again to affirm the limitations of the United States, against those demanding more effort.

Zero Dark Thirty is, of course, about the relentless way the Americans tracked down bin Laden to Abbottabad, in Pakistan, and had him killed inside his home by Navy commandos. As the film describes it, the persistence of a single female CIA agent brought about this outcome, even if others have since insisted that it was the combined work of many agents that led to bin Laden's door. But America's myths usually involve acts of individualism, and Ms Bigelow told the story she knew would resonate with her audience.

What she didn't realise was that her film would also tell us much about how the Obama administration thinks. These days foreign policy, especially towards the Middle East, is made with a very low tolerance for risk, and a wide latitude for avoidance. Before examining why a specific policy course must be adopted, the administration will argue why it should not be adopted.

As Mr Obama showed once again in his State of the Union address this week, he continues to strive for minimalism overseas. The tenor of his speech was mostly directed at a domestic audience. The president continued to assure Americans that he sought a drawdown in Afghanistan, and he mentioned the conflict in Syria only twice.

To be fair to Mr Obama, the US economy does not allow the costly overseas interventions that George W Bush engaged in, even if Mr Obama did endorse the war in Afghanistan. During his first term, the priority was reviving the economy and getting re-elected, which stymied many foreign policy initiatives that might have undermined the image that Mr Obama sought to create at election time. For him, bin Laden's assassination represented precisely the kind of operation America could afford when he took over.

Bin Laden's elimination showed Mr Obama employing the audacity from which he seems so naturally to stray away. But it also revealed the methods lying at the heart of American strategic thinking today: swift operations with narrowly defined military goals, that cost little money in relative terms, that have limited political risk, and that bring immediate political gratification.

This takes us back a few years to the discussion within the administration over how to proceed in Afghanistan. At the time, the question was whether the US should increase the number of troops there, in the context of a counterinsurgency strategy that included elements of a nation-building project. Arguing against this was Vice President Joe Biden, who urged the president to focus on a less elaborate antiterrorism effort targeting Al Qaeda members.

Although Mr Biden lost the argument at the time, he has won it since. The administration has pulled back from a nation-building approach. Instead, it has focused on using drones to assassinate Al Qaeda's leadership and their Taliban allies. The cynicism involved, the values it evoked, and the implication of assassinating without due process has led to fresh doubts in the US Congress, most recently as senators have questioned John Brennan, Mr Obama's choice to head the Central Intelligence Agency.

As Zero Dark Thirty shows, finding bin Laden involved activities with which many Americans don't feel comfortable. There has been much criticism of the film's depiction of waterboarding. While one might question whether this actually led to bin Laden's hideout, it is undeniable that a wide array of abuses was permitted by the so-called "war on terrorism", from waterboarding to extraordinary rendition, where terrorism suspects were sent by the US to other countries in which torture was often used in interrogations.

Still, most Americans approved of bin Laden's killing, as they support Mr Obama's disengagement from Middle Eastern affairs. Yet they seem less sure when facing the moral ambiguities created by an exclusive focus on antiterrorism. This focus implies that the US no longer needs to concern itself with the details of politics, which can be complicated and frustrating. That has been Mr Obama's default setting in the Middle East, as he has shown great reluctance to involve himself in the region's crises, let alone use his office to advance his aims.

However, relying on drones and assassinations in a dominant antiterrorism strategy is hardly policy. It is substitution for policy. It is what you do when you have no interest in developing an integrated course of action towards a part of the world in which you can think only of reducing your presence. As we watch the character Maya hunting down bin Laden in Zero Dark Thirty, all we can think of is that she and her comrades are working in a bubble, unrestrained by the political constraints and hard choices faced by politicians.

Maybe that's because Mr Obama has so little taste for politics outside the United States. He seems rarely to travel, to devise new foreign policy initiatives, to display the same passion for the give and take of diplomacy that, let's say, Bill Clinton did in the 1990s. It's not surprising, then, that the president relies so heavily on drones and targeted killings today, for they fill the vacuum left by his standoffishness.

Mr Biden must have sensed this in the president when he saw that he would not have the stamina to stick with nation-building in Afghanistan. He realised that less is more in the Obama White House.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Skirmishes in Bekaa Valley risk the faith in Lebanon's army

Last week, two Lebanese army members were killed in the village of Arsal, in the Bekaa Valley, after they shot a man whom they were pursuing. The incident highlighted the tensions between the army and Lebanon's Sunni community. Arsal is a Sunni outpost in a mainly Shia area.

There are two versions of what happened. The first, presented by the army, is that the soldiers were killed in an ambush. The villagers, in turn, said that they initially thought that it was Hizbollah who had entered Arsal to abduct the suspect, Khaled Hmayed. They said that Mr Hmayed was shot in his vehicle, and his body dragged out, leading to a firefight. Whichever version is true, the episode showed that the army must urgently address its Sunni problem.

The rancour of the Sunnis is a result of two major factors. There is a Sunni perception that the army sympathises with Hizbollah, particularly after the Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon in 2005. The army is accused of having done nothing to prevent Hizbollah from overrunning western Beirut in May 2008, and indeed of having collaborated with the party. There is also a profound sense that most Christian officers are loyal to Michel Aoun, Hizbollah's chief Christian ally, so that they will favour the party's interests.

This view is supported by the facts, even if there is some exaggeration. The armed forces, particularly the intelligence service, were close to the Syrians when they were in Lebanon. Often Lebanese intelligence personnel arrested individuals whom the Syrians wanted, before handing them over to their Syrian counterparts. The relationship improved when Gen Aoun, a former army commander, and Hizbollah's Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah signed an accord in early 2006, consolidating their political ties.

However, it cannot be said that the army is compulsively anti-Sunni. A substantial number of troops are Sunnis and, as a national institution, the armed forces cannot afford to alienate so major a Lebanese religious community. Yet the army has complicated loyalties, and is, to borrow from the late Lebanese historian Kamal Salibi, a "house of many mansions". Like the society it serves, army members have myriad, frequently clashing loyalties, over and above which lies a unifying sense of corporate solidarity.

In the past two presidential elections, the natural choice for president has fallen on the army commander. The current president is Michel Suleiman, who succeeded Emile Lahoud as head of state. Mr Lahoud was also his predecessor as army commander. The leading candidate in the next election in 2014 is the current commander, Jean Qahwaji, who reportedly has the support of Hizbollah. This reality pushes commanders to step carefully, making it difficult for the army to act decisively in crises.

In fact, it has become almost a truism to underline that the army needs "political cover" for any initiative to put an end to fighting in a given situation, or to alter the parameters of its interventions. But given the divisions of the Lebanese political class, political cover is rarely forthcoming, so the army has to resolve situations by building consensus around its strategy.

The politicisation of the army by ambitious commanders is not good. Nor is it healthy that at every election a military man should be a favourite. In Lebanon's early post-independence history, only one man, Fouad Chehab, came from the military ranks, and he displayed marked antipathy for the politicians. His election after the civil war of 1958 was not due to lobbying on his part but was the result of international efforts to resolve the Lebanese crisis by bringing in someone who had shown respect for constitutional institutions.

And even then, Gen Chehab's tenure was controversial. Military intelligence came to play a leading role in national politics, much to the antipathy of politicians. This led to what would become a recurring, if idealised, dichotomy: a military institution seen as being honest and above political cleavages separate from a fractured, self-seeking political class in search of patronage opportunities, usually at the expense of Lebanese society.

In the post-war period, foreign powers, among them the United States, have sought to build up the army's effectiveness to ensure that the state should have a monopoly over the use of violence. This was principally aimed at disarming Hizbollah, which claims that it needs to hold on to its weapons to protect Lebanon from Israel. The army has benefited from outside aid, but the results have been mixed.

For example, in 2007, the army fought courageously against Fatah Al Islam militants in the Nahr Al Bared refugee camp near Tripoli. However, the units were obviously ill-equipped early in the battle. Eventually, when military supplies and ammunition arrived from the United States, the source of much of the army's weaponry, there was progress in overcoming Fatah Al Islam's resistance. Yet at no point did the army's high command seem to have a well-thought-out plan to take over the camp, which was levelled.

As military units continue to surround Arsal in search of those who killed the two soldiers, the army command should keep one thing in mind: Lebanese Sunnis must be persuaded that they are not targets of a military that has sided with the regime they oppose in Syria. Perhaps Gen Qahwaji's presidential aspirations will be useful. He cannot afford Sunni animosity if he seeks the presidency. Then again, a mood of conciliation must be built on more than one man's political fervour.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Can Lebanon survive Syria’s war?

Reports that Israeli warplanes bombed a truck transporting Sa-17 missiles to Hezbollah only show us, once again, that the Lebanese are being dragged into a conflict not theirs. This news came only days after The Washington Post published an article reporting that Lebanese Sunni Islamists were flocking to Syria to fight against the regime of Bashar al-Assad. Can Lebanon survive the Syrian civil war?

Indeed, does it want to? Hezbollah has also sent fighters to Syria to defend Assad’s dictatorship. And Iran is playing a vital role in bolstering the Syrian regime, whose potential overthrow a senior Iranian official, Ali Akbar Velayati, has called a “red line” for Tehran. If Hezbollah is now defending an Iranian “red line” and the Sunnis are answering the call for a jihad against Assad and his followers, while Syria is transferring advanced weaponry to Hezbollah for a possible war with Israel, Lebanon cannot possibly emerge unharmed.

Nor is the country’s economic situation reassuring. Take, for instance, the fear among politicians of recent efforts to raise the salary scale. This was opposed by the government, which feared it would carry Lebanon over its own fiscal cliff. Central Bank Governor Riad Salameh warned that the move could cause inflation to rise by 2 to 3 percent a year and reduce job opportunities by at least 4 percent. More alarmingly, it would be too expensive for the state, undermining its efforts to cut the deficit and support the Lebanese pound. This, in turn, could harm the banking sector, the backbone of the economy.

Lebanon’s financial woes are also a consequence of the Syrian conflict, which has choked off the export of goods to Arab countries and land tourism to Lebanon from these countries, and has negatively affected the health of large Lebanese banks operating in Syria. While a financial collapse may not be around the corner, for the first time in years economists are not so readily dismissing that outcome, despite the Central Bank’s efforts to reassure the Lebanese.

Perhaps most worrisome is that a large part of the political class seems far more preoccupied by the intricacies of an election law than by the risks to Lebanon’s existence. Perhaps the dominant problem is that there is no unity of purpose in the country. The election law debate is significant because all sides have different objectives, and hopes that a new law will help them in their parochial pursuits.

Hezbollah wants a law that will allow it to win a majority of seats in parliament, so that it can control the legislature, with its allies, and bring in a friendly president in 2014. The party realizes that Assad may not survive politically, and needs to anchor itself in state institutions in order to survive. And if it is not guaranteed of an election law that brings victory, Hezbollah will push hard, through persuasion or a resort to violence, for a delay. Already, the expectation today is that elections will not be held in the summer.

Nor is this universally unpopular. Many economic actors regard elections under the present circumstances as destabilizing. And there are politicians inclined to agree with this assessment. Moreover, there are those surveying the wreckage left by the debate over an election law, and most doubt a consensual outcome is possible. Under those circumstances, they feel, it’s better to wait, which also means that President Michel Suleiman’s term will likely be extended.

So, Lebanon could see immobility in its institutions in the years ahead. This will put additional pressure on Prime Minister Najib Miqati, if he decides to stay on, and it will hardly reassure the business sector, regardless of its reluctance to go ahead with elections. After all, stalemate is bad for investment, particularly when Arab states seem disinclined to do anything that might strengthen Miqati. 

What are the prospects for confidence in the future? National cohesiveness is bound to suffer. The danger from events in Syria is very high, but not nearly as high as the growing and debilitating rifts within Lebanese society. Sectarianism has reached levels not witnessed since the civil war years, and there seems to be no chance of a national dialogue as long as the Future Movement and its March 14 partners refuse to participate in one. Even at the social level, Lebanon is drifting. The latest example is the debate over civil marriage, which prompted the mufti, Muhammad Rashid Qabbani, to threaten, quite scandalously, Muslim officials. 

Even if Lebanon averts political and financial collapse, you have to wonder where the country is heading. Politics are at an impasse, and will remain so as long as politicians bicker over seemingly petty issues and as Hezbollah continues to bend the country out of shape to accommodate its arsenal, there to serve Iran. The economy will further decline, as the government has neither the imagination nor the wherewithal to introduce much-needed reform. And sectarian relations are abysmal, as Christians fret at everything, and Sunnis await Assad’s downfall, hoping for greater power against a Shiite community that fears any challenge to its arms and domination. 

There was more direction to Lebanon during its war years. Today the country is going nowhere, while the interaction and irreconcilable aims of its political forces are breaking Lebanon apart. Syria, as Assad predicted, is too large to fall to his enemies. He intends to make good on that prediction. As if he hasn’t done enough damage.