Friday, July 26, 2013

Taking your money and your life

Lebanese with American citizenship have reacted with serenity to the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act, or FATCA, and with relative indifference to reports of massive surveillance conducted by the National Security Agency. Moreover, to many of them the two programs are separate. But they must realize that both derive from a similar rationale and may ultimately feed off each other.

FATCA, like the NSA surveillance programs, is justified by a notion that all personal information is potentially valuable to the federal government – whether it is to fight tax evasion in the first case, or to combat terrorism in the second (even if the information collected by the NSA often seems to go well beyond fighting terrorism). This line of reasoning has led to a view that the privacy of Americans is not sacred if undermines what is perceived as the greater good – though who defines that good is a matter of debate.

As of next year, FATCA will enter into force. It is a program introduced by the Internal Revenue Service that requires foreign financial institutions to report annually on all accounts of Americans worth over $50,000. If an American citizen holds the account with a non-American, usually a spouse, this non-citizen will also be included in the financial institution’s reporting. The American authorities will be told what funds went into the account, and when, what sums left the account, and when, and the account balance.

There is still a question as to whether FATCA can be implemented. The US government has sought to sign inter-governmental agreements, or IGAs, with other nations to allow FATCA to work. That’s because in many countries it is illegal to hand over bank information to a foreign government, or bank clients are protected by banking secrecy laws. Therefore these agreements are needed to give legal protection to institutions reporting to the Americans.

However, many countries are demanding reciprocity in exchange for the IGAs. They want American financial institutions to also give them information on their nationals with accounts in the United States. Because this will impose a heavy burden on American banks, both the Texas Bankers Association and the Florida Bankers Association have filed a federal lawsuit against the Treasury Department and the IRS, saying they would lose billions of dollars from the measure. Protests from within Congress have further cast doubt on the likelihood of reciprocity, which could ultimately sink FATCA. 

Already, FATCA has been delayed until the middle of 2014, and some in Congress have suggested that the law must be repealed. But beyond the fiscal implications of FATCA lies a more disturbing reality. The IRS has authorized itself to enter one of the most private domains of Americans, their bank accounts, and it has the legal framework necessary to use this information in matters unrelated to taxation.

FATCA is even worse than the already invasive collection of telecommunications metadata being carried out by the NSA. Metadata is information pertaining to communications, but does not include the actual content of conversations. FATCA is a look into the content of accounts, and would almost certainly have provoked outrage had it been implemented in the United States.

Can the information gleaned through FATCA be shared with other government agencies, especially those seeking to uncover terrorist activities? According to the Association of Certified Financial Crime Specialists, the answer is yes. A closer examination of the US tax code, the ACFCS has argued, proves that anyone who actually “believes that his or her problems with US agencies from disclosure of non-US accounts will be limited to tax issues is mistaken.”

Title 26, Section 6103 of the tax code opens doors that allow US government agencies, including intelligence agencies, and even Congress, to gain access to information obtained through FATCA. For instance, ACFCS notes, Section 6103 “permits disclosure of ‘return information’ to certain Federal officers and employees and law enforcement agencies for purposes of combating terrorism.”

Here FATCA intersects with the logic behind the NSA surveillance programs, allowing federal agencies to share the private accounts of individuals in criminal investigations. But while there are legal safeguards to protect the rights of such individuals, the reality is that when it comes to terrorism, the tendency of judges is to give the benefit of the doubt to intelligence and law enforcement agencies.

Where dual Lebanese-American citizens, among others, should be concerned is that FATCA will provide the American authorities with free access to the Lebanese banking system. Once that information is readily available, expect certain agencies to look at it very closely, and perhaps refer names to the NSA surveillance programs in cases of allegedly suspicious behavior. The law does not allow fishing expeditions, and there must be probable cause to justify sharing a person’s returns; but FATCA will do more than determine whether Americans are reporting income truthfully. It represents an additional means through which the government can keep tabs on citizens.

In that context, Shiite Lebanese-Americans may be particularly vulnerable to surveillance, given the possibility of ties with Hezbollah. That’s not to say that such action would be defensible, but given the frequency of ethnic profiling after the September 11, 2001 attacks, don’t assume the authorities will err on the side of caution, especially when they have the authority allowing them to push further. 

As the NSA’s surveillance has shown, the US government will usually interpret its mandate in the widest possible terms when it can justify this on the grounds of national security. FATCA gives it a new lever with which to work. The law rides roughshod over individual privacy, and if it passes, it will create another window, and a frightening one, that the intelligence agencies can open on American citizens.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

The illusion of U.S. engagement in Syria

When generals want to avoid military intervention in a conflict overseas, they provide options, all of which are bad.

This week, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Martin Dempsey, did precisely that in a letter to Carl Levin, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, presenting a list of options for intervention in Syria. This included training opposition personnel, engaging in airstrikes, and enforcing a no-fly zone over parts of Syria. Dempsey noted that long-range strikes against military targets of the Syrian regime would require “hundreds of aircraft, ships, submarines and other enablers,” and would cost “in the billions.”

Dempsey did not address the American decision to arm the Syrian rebels, however, as that is a Central Intelligence Agency operation. But his pessimism about what the United States could do must have echoed sympathetically in the White House, where enthusiasm for military involvement in Syria is low.

Dempsey alluded to the essence of the problem in Syria when he observed, “Once we take action, we should be prepared for what comes next. Deeper involvement is hard to avoid.” The general had a point. But the Obama administration has time and again approached Syria by taking one step forward and two backward. From the start it misread the dangers of the conflict, and did nothing to affect the outcome, which, if Iran and Bashar Assad triumph, will have negative repercussions for American interests in the Middle East.

But now is now, and America is in a rut. No one seriously expects American small arms and ammunition to make a difference on the ground. At best Assad’s enemies are hoping that the weapons will draw Washington further into their war, leading to precisely the scenarios sketched out by Dempsey. But that is very unlikely since President Barack Obama’s decision to send weapons is more an effort to avoid doing more in Syria – a sop to the Syrians that buys the U.S. wiggling room – than a real change in American attitudes.

The situation is little different than the calculations behind the Geneva conference, which was hurriedly endorsed by the administration so that Obama could deflect rising criticism of his unwillingness to react to reports that the Assad regime had used chemical weapons. Supplying weapons are the president’s latest method of doing something limited to avoid a more radical approach.

That is why Dempsey’s letter was quite useful for the president. It implicitly defined the limits of what would be acceptable to the United States. And it was no surprise that Congress decided to go ahead with the administration’s plan to arm the rebels, even if the covert arms program was not specifically mentioned, and despite deep skepticism with the American plan in general.

Perhaps sensing that the Obama administration’s Syria policy is much ado about nothing, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov announced that he had not discussed the deployment of Russian S-300 surface-to-air-missile systems with Syria’s deputy prime minister, Qadri Jamil, this week in Moscow. The missile systems are a deterrent against the use of Western air power in Syria, but if the Russians were worried, Dempsey’s doubts, and Obama’s evasiveness over Syria, must have reassured them that American jets would not soon arrive.

The Obama administration appears to be increasingly resigned to the prospect that the war in Syria will continue for a long time, and that Assad will probably remain in office. For over a year the American line was that Assad’s days as president were numbered, so it was strange to hear White House spokesman Jay Carney change emphasis and say, “While there are shifts in momentum on the battlefield, Bashar Assad, in our view, will never rule all of Syria again.”

That the United States is apparently not preparing for Syria’s crack-up is in itself remarkable. Beyond Assad’s durability is a more worrisome reality, namely that swathes of Syria could turn into areas under no real authority, ruled by armed groups, especially Salafist jihadist groups. Perhaps that is what Assad is counting on, since once such entities emerge, his latitude to enter them militarily, with international backing, as France did in Mali, will only increase.

Lavrov also declared that Assad would be willing to go to Geneva without preconditions, and urged the U.S. and the European states to push the opposition to come to the table. This was tactical, but it shows what the Russians are thinking. With the Obama administration looking for any outlet from Syria, Geneva offers a way, but one almost certain to widen the gap between Washington and the opposition. Where the opposition will not want to negotiate from a position of weakness, the Americans, who seem so reluctant to give them the means to bargain from a position of strength, will probably set as their priority getting a negotiating process started.

The Russian strategy is to strengthen Assad’s position militarily, push for talks that allow him to consolidate his gains, and use the presidential election in 2014 (which Assad will, of course, manage to win) to anchor him even more solidly in place. Nothing in the American outlook truly worries the Russians, as they can now see that the U.S. military has no appetite to involve itself in Syria, and Obama no intention of wasting political capital by seriously addressing the situation there.

So, Dempsey’s doubts have only strengthened an attitude already prevalent in Washington, namely to do as little as possible in Syria. If a few small arms and bullets can keep the illusion of engagement alive, then so be it. But no one in Washington is fooled. The U.S. will continue to keep Syria’s war at arm’s length, whatever happens.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Ex-Obama officials lament US president's lack of Middle East policy

It is revealing that two former Obama administration officials have become critics of current US policy in the Middle East. Both are respected academics, have a high profile in media, and have argued that Washington is not using all the instruments at its disposal to advance its political interests in the region.

The first is Anne-Marie Slaughter of Princeton University, who has denounced the administration's policy in Syria. Slaughter, who served as director of policy planning at the US State Department between 2009 and 2011, has lamented President Barack Obama's lethargy. Theodore Roosevelt once said, "Speak softly and carry a big stick", she writes, but Obama's predisposition in Syria has been to "speak loudly and throw away your stick".

Slaughter is no neoconservative who opposes the president on ideological grounds. But like Vali Nasr, the second one-time official ill at ease with Obama's disinterest in the Middle East, she is concerned that the US risks no longer standing for much in the world. Nasr, a former adviser to Richard Holbrooke, the late US special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, came away disillusioned from his experience, and has just published The Dispensable Nation, on the absence of a coherent US policy in the broader Middle East. Exiled from Iran after the 1979 Islamic revolution, Nasr is currently dean of John Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington DC, and one of America's most authoritative commentators on international relations.

In his introduction, Nasr writes that he thought long and hard about writing his book, as he did not want it to become a "political bludgeon". Whatever his intentions, the book is a devastating broadside against Obama's approach to a region at the centre of his predecessor's preoccupations. What makes the book so effective is that it rises above the limiting neocon versus realist dichotomy prevailing during the George W Bush years, and addresses the topic squarely from the realist perspective favoured by the president.

Nasr argues, first, that the Obama administration has concentrated foreign policy decisions in the White House, giving undue authority to two groups of people with limited experience in the matter: the president's coterie of political advisers, who based their decisions on how foreign policy issues would play at home; and the military and intelligence agencies, who offered "swift and dynamic, as well as media-attracting, action …"

The loser in this context was the foreign policy establishment, the experienced hands such as Holbrooke and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who time and again found themselves rectifying administration errors. What they unsuccessfully sought to advance, Nasr writes, is a "patient, long-range, credible diplomacy that garners the respect of our allies and their support when we need it".

Nasr is calling for something that is indeed woefully lacking under Obama: a cohesive foreign policy strategy that integrates and gives meaning to American actions in the Middle East and South Asia. Instead, Obama's administration has seemed without direction, avoiding decisive decisions in crises demanding urgent action, while expressing grand ambitions - such as working to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict - that it makes no serious effort to fulfil.

Instead, the administration's tendency has been to "lead from behind", which speaks volumes about Obama's desire to have his cake and eat it too. The president is a man who avoids taking political risks - a tendency Nasr has particularly seen in US policy towards Iran, Afghanistan and the Arab world - his perennial caution suffocating his ability to exploit valuable political openings.

This leads us to the second of Nasr's general arguments, namely that the US appears to be retreating from the Middle East, a direction Nasr considers potentially "disastrous". Obama is not the first president who has sought to refocus away from a foreign policy course or region that he believes has monopolised too much of America's time and money. Lyndon Johnson sought to concentrate on domestic American affairs after 1964, with his Great Society programme, as did Bill Clinton in 1992 and George W Bush in 2000. All three were blindsided by reality. Mr Johnson became a prisoner of the Vietnam war, Clinton involved himself deeply in the Bosnian conflict and Palestinian-Israeli peace negotiations, and Bush, after the September 11, 2001 attacks, embarked on military campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the "global war on terrorism".

There has been hubris in Obama's behaviour that considers foreign policy pursuits only as important as the amount of attention the US devotes to them. And yet, as the conflict in Syria has shown, that proposition is nonsensical. Two years after the uprising began, Obama has sensed the dangerous implications of a conflict that may engulf the region. And yet for much of that time, administration officials and their echo chambers in the media insisted there was no benefit in the US getting involved.

Nasr disagrees. He believes that the US will be judged by whether the so-called Arab Spring produces "better Arab states that do right by their people and live up to their responsibility to the international order and its institutions". Achieving this will bring American values and interests into alignment. In contrast, "Obama's disengaged attitude toward the Middle East has served neither American values nor its long-term interests".

The war in Syria has turned into a proxy war drawing in American allies and foes, creating a chaotic situation accompanied by terrible human suffering. Obama cannot be bothered with human rights, we now know, but as Nasr advises, the US must bolster regional stability, regardless of whether it is less dependent on Arab oil than it once was. Oil markets will definitely be affected by conflict in the region, impacting on the global economy. And it seems ludicrous to have to defend the proposition that enhanced Iranian and Hezbollah influence in the region will negatively affect US interests, especially if it pushes Arabian Gulf states to take self-defensive actions that strengthen militant Islamists and heighten sectarian animosities.

Obama's withdrawal from the Middle East has, in its own way, been revolutionary, the product of a view that the US cannot behave as it once did in the region. Too often this outlook has been confused with American decline. It is something else: a result of a growing realisation that America's problems cannot be resolved militarily, an attitude that prevailed during the last decade when American military power was frequently deployed with success. But this brings out a contradiction in Obama's stance. He has long been sceptical of America's engagement in overseas wars. One of his first acts was to accelerate the pullout from Iraq. He is winding down American involvement in Afghanistan. Yet these processes were not accompanied by greater reliance on diplomacy. On most major issues in the Middle East, the president has refused to expend political capital or engage himself personally. Instead, he has resorted to the least costly of tactics, namely assassination, usually by relying on drones.

Nasr reserves his last chapter for a stimulating discussion of what he views as the central role of the Middle East in the growing Chinese-American rivalry.

Commenting on the Obama administration's "pivot to Asia", much hailed by American officials as a necessary move away from the Middle East to a more vital region of the world, Nasr writes: "A retreat from the Middle East will not free us to deal with China; it will constrain us in managing the competition."

The chapter is an effort to engage in strategic thinking of the kind Nasr did not see during his days in government. He presents an often fascinating rundown of the strategic interests of China, which, unlike the US, has approached the Middle East with a long-term game plan to serve its geopolitical ambitions and energy needs. The US-China competition is about "global power", writes Nasr, before faulting the Obama administration for failing to quite understand what this means. What may emerge, he warns, is an all-powerful China that controls gas and oil supplies to Asia from the Gulf, and squeezes the energy lifeline of America's Asian allies.

But Obama has too often spoken of US limitations to be a decisive defender of America's global pre-eminence. He has pursued the politics of neglect, convinced that this will make America stronger. But an American president doesn't have the luxury of aloofness. Whatever he does wrong, other countries will usually pay for.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Betrayed by Microsoft

The revelations that have emerged thanks to Edward Snowden’s leaking of top secret government documents are a gift that just keeps giving. They chronicle a vast surveillance effort conducted by the National Security Agency against both Americans and non-Americans.

Last week The Guardian newspaper revealed that Microsoft had lied to customers about how its systems protected their privacy, particularly when they used Skype, the voice-over-IP service that the company bought in 2011. “Microsoft has collaborated closely with U.S. intelligence services to allow users’ communications to be intercepted, including helping the National Security Agency to circumvent the company’s encryption,” an article in the newspaper reported.

Microsoft has defended itself by pointing out that it had an obligation under the law to comply with government requests. Perhaps, but that doesn’t make the company’s assurances to its customers about their privacy any less deceitful. Moreover, it only confirmed that tech companies had opened their servers to the NSA under the Prism program. In the case of foreign customers, no warrant is needed to gather information, while the NSA can apparently collect the communications of Americans if targeting a foreign national overseas.

Most disturbing, it is odd that companies that have advocated, and derived considerable profit from, the free flow of information, and have held this up as a liberating experience, should so supinely bend to secret government directives embodying precisely the opposite.

The attitude toward NSA surveillance appears to be changing in the United States, particularly with respect to material collected on Americans. At a hearing of the House Judiciary Committee this week, members of Congress threatened not to renew legislative authority authorizing the surveillance, which exceeded what the lawmakers had originally intended. “This is unsustainable, it’s outrageous and must be stopped immediately,” said John Con­yers, the highest-ranking Democrat on the committee. Another Democratic member of Congress, Zoe Lofgren, stated, “I think very clearly this program has gone off the tracks legally and needs to be reined in.”

This shift in the mood of Congress appears to reflect the changing mood of the American public as well as anger with the dissembling of American officials. Despite the fact that many Americans initially appeared more sanguine about NSA surveillance, polls suggest another story. A poll recently conducted among registered voters by the Connecticut-based Quinnipiac University showed that 55 percent of respondents considered Snowden to be a whistle blower, implying that he legitimately exposed abuse by the government, against 34 percent who said he was a traitor. By a margin of 45 percent to 40 percent, respondents said the government had gone too far in restricting civil liberties as part of the war on terrorism.

Meanwhile, American civil liberties organizations, such as the American Civil Liberties Union, have sued the U.S. government for conducting the surveillance program. But their focus has been on the collection of metadata, or the information rather than the content of communications. “Collecting those details – ‘metadata’ that reveals who people talk to, for how long, how often and possibly from where – allows the government to paint an alarmingly detailed picture of Americans’ private lives,” wrote ACLU legal fellow Brett Kaufman.

Americans and the Congress may be starting to understand the full impact of a system that has generated unprecedented levels of intrusion in the private lives of individuals, without any suspicion of wrongdoing and against the letter and spirit of the Fourth Amendment of the American constitution. The amendment unambiguously affirms the right of the people “to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures,” and it states that no warrants shall be issued “but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

The edifice created by the government includes a secret supervisory court, whose decisions are secret, overseeing a metastasizing surveillance effort that has been hidden from the public. Secret courts and decisions are the stuff of Stalinist nightmares, not of thriving democracies, and keeping Americans in the dark about programs involving them is the antithesis of democratic behavior.  

As useful as is the debate about domestic surveillance by the NSA, there has been almost no discussion of the far more invasive programs to gather information on non-Americans, which is precisely what Microsoft was helping the NSA to collect. And here the international reaction, while slow and disorganized, could have a major impact not so much on the government, as on the fortunes of American tech companies assisting the government’s surveillance efforts.

European citizens have been urged to shift away from American Internet companies. In Germany, the NSA scandal is turning into an election issue for Chancellor Angela Merkel. This week she declared, “Germany has made it clear that it wants Internet companies to tell us in Europe to whom information is being transferred.”

Already, private search engines such as StartPage and Ixquick have seen their traffic expand. Both are metasearch engines, meaning they feed search terms into other search engines, but without leaving the browsing trail that Google and others store. At the same time, a free browser such as Tor, which allows one to surf the Internet anonymously, is becoming much more appealing, and it is even being distributed by such institutions as the Committee to Protect Journalists to allow journalists to avoid a government’s prying eyes.

Snowden’s leaks will cause much more damage before this is over. All countries engage in surveillance, but increasingly in the West the public is saying there must be limits. Though citizens may live in democracies, they can sense that the infrastructure of surveillance going up around them is no different than what would be present in a totalitarian system. This disconnect is no longer reconcilable, or tolerable.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Is Iran altering Syria’s sectarian map?

Rumors have circulated recently that Iran is sponsoring a plan to redraw Syria’s demographic map, including the granting of Syrian nationality to 750,000 Shiites from throughout the Middle East. Allegedly, the Iranians have paid $2 billion into the Real Estate Bank of Syria to buy up land in southern Homs province.

The Lebanese Druze leader Walid Jumblatt has declared that the land registry office in Homs has been burned down to remove evidence of property ownership and facilitate the dispossession of Sunnis in the province, in that way changing its sectarian makeup.

“In addition to shelling and systemic killing in Homs, the Syrian regime is also destroying property records ... in a plan to transform the minority into a majority through several steps, including the killing and the displacement of the population,” Jumblatt recently wrote in his party’s Al-Anbaa newspaper.

This came as Syrian opposition sources indicated that Iran was also seeking to extend its influence in the Jabal al-Druze, through local agents. This included settling Lebanese Shiites and Syrian Shiites displaced by the fighting in the area of Swaida.

All this information is suspiciously sourced, so should be treated with caution. That said, Jumblatt does not make such claims lightly, and has long believed that Homs province is the key to the battle in Syria, as it provides geographical continuity between predominantly Alawite areas along the Syrian coast and Shiite-controlled areas in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. For Iran to protect its investment in Lebanon’s Shiites, it needs to ensure that they are not isolated and that they can secure an outlet to the sea in the event of a conflict with Israel.

Even if the reports from Syria cannot be confirmed, it would be common sense for the regime and Iran to prepare for Syria’s likely future if President Bashar Assad’s forces prevail. Even according to the most optimistic assessments, Syria will be in for a prolonged period of instability as the regime claws back power. The priority will be to ensure that there are no further uprisings to threaten Assad rule, and in this volatile context demographic politics will be essential. Assad will see to it that he is not vulnerable again along the strategic axis between Damascus and the coast as he was until recently.

That does not necessarily mean that Iran seeks to create Shiite enclaves, although that would not be so difficult to imagine after Hezbollah used the defense of Shiites in Syria as its initial justification to deploy combatants in Qusair. And Tehran has bought up land in Lebanon to help guarantee a geographical connection between areas of Shiite concentration, most notably around Jezzine, which links southern Lebanon and the Bekaa Valley.

That hundreds of thousands of Syrians are refugees in neighboring Arab countries facilitates schemes to alter Syria’s demographics. That is why the international community must do more to determine whether the Syrian regime and its backers are indeed intending to prevent refugees from returning to their homes, and whether property ownership is being manipulated to facilitate such an outcome.

During the war in Kosovo in 1999, one of the news items that had a great impact on international public opinion was that Serbs were engaging in identity cleansing. They were confiscating personal documents, land titles, automobile license plates, and other official papers to make sure the Albanian population did not come back, or would have no proof of identity or ownership if they did.

Other than Jumblatt’s warning, there have been no such reports from Syria, while the demographic game has been a complicated one. Both sides appear to have engaged in sectarian cleansing in certain districts, but there are also Sunnis who continue to side with the Alawite-led regime. The majority of refugees are Sunnis from rural areas, injecting a class dimension into the overall picture.

The debate will not be resolved through unverified statements, nor will the refugees benefit if their fate is publicized merely to score political points. A systematic, widespread project to “cleanse” the Sunni population, if confirmed, would be a very serious matter, therefore confirming or denying accusations to that effect must be made a priority, especially at the United Nations.

The Lebanese have a particular interest in knowing the truth. If refugees from Homs can no longer return to their villages, they will remain in Lebanon. The Lebanese reaction to the refugee crisis has been inept. To avoid a situation similar to the Palestinians, the government refused to build refugee camps for the Syrians. As a result, the refugee population is fragmented, difficult to control, and open to influence from private groups with agendas of their own.

Moreover, without camps, the Lebanese are at a disadvantage when lobbying for foreign assistance. Donors rightly worry that a disjointed distribution network of aid, where there is little accountability and many middlemen, would facilitate corruption. As usual, the Lebanese have addressed the matter in a slipshod way, while the potential political and social consequences of this neglect are extremely grave.

There was a time during the last century when population transfers were acceptable. Bringing people of the same ethnicity or religion together in one place, the argument went, allowed for more homogeneous and stable entities. And so there were repeated massive population exchanges, for instance between Greece and Turkey after World War I and between Pakistan and India in 1947.

Today the consensus has changed and involuntary population transfers are viewed as reprehensible, even if in the Middle East the notion of religiously uniform entities appeals to many people. That is why the U.N. and its member states must examine what is going on in Syria, and if there is evidence of sectarian cleansing, prevent it and make certain that all refugees will one day be able to go home.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Isolate Hezbollah, and dialogue with it

You wonder how Michel Aoun reacted to Nabih Berri’s announcement that the March 8 coalition was no more. After all, the general had long held that he was not a member of March 8, and that his alliance with its members was based on a memorandum of understanding signed with Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s secretary general.

March 14 has dismissed Berri’s statement as a tactical maneuver to secure a blocking third in the government. The reasoning is that as the Shiite parties, Hezbollah and Amal want five ministers in a government of 24, Aoun and his Christian allies, given their parliamentary representation, would be entitled to more than three ministers. This would hand Aoun, Hezbollah, and Amal the votes necessary to block any government decisions they don’t like.

That’s probably true, but it misses the point at two levels. It is virtually impossible to allocate shares in a government to avoid potential future alliances between different parties. To say that Aoun might side with Amal and Hezbollah on certain decisions, and to insist that this necessarily constitutes an unacceptable blocking third, means a prime minister must aim to put together a government where no possible combination of votes can defeat a decision.

The March 14 reaction also ignores the lessons of recent months in Lebanon. March 8 and March 14 have been internally divided by the contending political calculations of their members. The Christians in March 14 favored the Orthodox proposal against the wishes of other March 14 partners. And Aoun opposed an extension of parliament’s mandate, and refuses to extend the term of the army commander, Jean Kahwaji, against the preference of Hezbollah and Amal.

These constitute real differences, and nothing guarantees that they will not play out in a new government. The notion that Berri would engineer a bogus rift simply to acquire veto power is to assume that Aoun, Hezbollah and Amal are on the same wavelength, and that all signs to the contrary are an illusion. That’s not the case.

Aoun still has an ambition to become president. But the general can read the tea leaves. In wanting to extend Kahwaji’s term, Hezbollah has made its aim apparent, namely to keep the army commander in reserve for the presidency. By successfully extending parliament’s term, the party has also likely delayed President Michel Suleiman’s departure from office, pushing the next election until a time when Aoun will be too old to have a realistic chance of getting elected.

Rather than supinely denouncing Berri’s move as a ploy, March 14 could try to play on the differences between Hezbollah and Aoun. This would not please the Lebanese Forces, who regard any effort at rapprochement with Aoun as a threat, nor is it guaranteed of success. But the Saudis have shown a willingness to build up ties with the general, and have invited him to the kingdom. That creates an opening that March 14 might exploit to its advantage.

At the same time, and after the recent bomb blast in Bir al-Abed, much more can be done by leaders on both sides to calm sectarian tensions. If Berri’s announcement facilitates the formation of a new government, by suggesting that Hezbollah and Amal no longer insist on a blocking third, then Tammam Salam should grasp this to finalize his team. And he appears to want to do just that.

A new government is imperative, as most observers expect the bomb attacks to continue. Beyond the March 8-March 14 framework, it is necessary for the Lebanese parties to ameliorate communal relations, so that Sunni-Shiite animosity does not grow. Sunni political and religious leaders, perhaps meeting under the aegis of Dar al-Fatwa, could issue a statement warning against the targeting of the Shiite community and distancing themselves from such actions.

At the same time, Suleiman must try to revive the national dialogue as a forum to alleviate tensions. Hezbollah would welcome this, all the more so as it would provide some cover for its military actions in Syria. That is precisely why the Sunni community, and the Future Movement in particular, would hesitate to go along. However, the alternative, if a campaign of bomb attacks against Shiites begins, is that very quickly Sunnis in general will be associated with those planting the bombs. This must be avoided at all costs.

The choice is a stark one: Can the Sunni community find ways to calm the mood with Hezbollah and the Shiites, despite the party’s continuation of its campaign in Syria? Or do Sunni leaders refuse to do so, making more probable a sectarian conflict that would destroy Lebanon while doing nothing to help Assad’s foes in Syria?

March 14 had a similar choice to make when Fouad al-Siniora formed a government in 2005, and when Saad Hariri did the same in 2009. On both occasions, despite deep suspicions that Hezbollah had participated in the assassination of Rafiq Hariri and March 14 figures, the answer was the same: normalize with Hezbollah and spare Lebanon Sunni-Shiite violence.

March 14’s belief that Bashar al-Assad’s fall was imminent is no longer relevant. The Syrian conflict will drag on for a long time, and Assad seems to have gained the upper hand. That means we are in an interregnum in which dealing with Hezbollah is a necessity. If attracting Michel Aoun away from the party can help balance the game somewhat, better still. It’s time for March 14 to be imaginative and flexible, qualities it has rarely displayed in recent years.    

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Backlash inevitable as no one likes being spied upon

Since Edward Snowden, a contractor with Booz Allen Hamilton, leaked documents revealing that the United States National Security Agency is collecting data on vast numbers of Americans, much of the debate in the US has focused on whether this is a breach of the American law. However, there has been little outrage with the NSA's surveillance of the communications of non-Americans.

Such surveillance may not violate the law because spying overseas is generally regarded as defensible. But such actions represent a serious violation of privacy. They may affect foreign individuals, especially those with ties to the US, in negative ways. And they may even harm future cooperation between America and other countries.

Numerous surveillance programmes are currently in place. Through one of them, Prism, the NSA has access to the American servers of major technology companies, such as Google, Skype, Facebook, Yahoo, Microsoft, YouTube, AOL and Apple, among others. In this way, it has scooped up certain data of non-Americans living overseas as it passes through those servers as well as, inevitably, the data of Americans communicating with them. This information includes the actual content of communications, not just so-called metadata.

Through the Fairview programme, according to Glenn Greenwald of The Guardian, the NSA has partnered with an unidentified American telecommunications company, which in turn has partnered with foreign telecoms companies, allowing the NSA to enter the latter's systems and direct telecoms traffic to the agency's computers.

In parallel, the United Kingdom's GCHQ, the counterpart of the NSA, has been collecting massive amounts of data by tapping into fibre-optic cables passing through the country. Though not American, the operation, code-named Tempora, has amassed information shared with the NSA (though under which legal authority remains unclear), probably circumventing American oversight mechanisms. The NSA has simultaneously provided information to GCHQ. The two sides have co-operated within an ambiguous legal framework, which they have likely exploited to expand the information they can gather.

When Mr Snowden's leaks were made public, allies of the US saw that Prism was being used to spy on their citizens. Several European countries threatened to delay negotiations for a US-European free-trade agreement until the matter was resolved but did not follow through on this. France has engaged in its own surveillance scheme, reinforcing the view that since everybody does it, precipitating a crisis with the US was not a good idea.

That does not help citizens whose privacy is routinely being ignored by the NSA and its British counterpart. America's European partners may not want to get caught up in a catfight with the Obama administration but such blanket surveillance can have repercussions that damage their relations with the US. And all those who fear being mistakenly caught up in the massive web of information accumulated by the Americans are right to worry.

Innocent foreigners who have ties with the US, or who travel there, could be vulnerable through information provided by Prism. Arab names in particular often are confusing to non-Arabs, leading to cases of mistaken identity. People will continue to be wrongly placed on no-fly lists, a step the Americans never justify. The amount of information is such that the potential for foreigners to be wrongfully suspected will be high.

The information from Prism also facilitates blackmail, since the intelligence agencies can accumulate the most intimate details of a person's life. This may be par for the course for these agencies but it is especially worrisome when individuals are pursued into the depths of their own homes thanks to a surveillance campaign that utterly ignores local laws, let alone Article 12 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which defends privacy.

Worse, for the internet to be transformed into an instrument of blackmail could have a far-reaching impact on American domination of the web and the financial health of the companies routinely providing access to US intelligence agencies. These companies have reacted with embarrassment and caginess to accusations that they participated in the Prism programme. They are the weak link in the larger picture, for if they begin systematically challenging NSA requests, this may severely hinder the collection process.

Another problem has to do with cooperation down the road between the US and other countries over terrorism, and much more.

If friendly countries feel the US is wantonly spying on them, their willingness to share information with Washington may decline. Vital facts may not be passed on as intelligence agencies become more adversarial. While a complete breakdown is unlikely, foreign intelligence agencies may have an interest in leveraging their importance by showing how disregarding them can be costly to American security, forcing the US to curb its eavesdropping.

The NSA's unbounded surveillance efforts open a Pandora's box. In the long term, the backlash may be more severe than US intelligence officials realise. People don't like to be spied on, nor do governments.

America's effectiveness has always come from enlisting others in collective security endeavours. Whether this can be maintained is a question Americans must think about carefully, rather than scoffing at those criticising their highhandedness.

Assad’s narrative is making headway

If it is proven that the explosion in Bir al-Abed Tuesday was caused by the Syrian enemies of President Bashar Assad, then Lebanon could be in for a very difficult time. But what is more disturbing is that such attacks only reinforce Assad’s narrative that his regime is the last line of defense against Salafist jihadists, who are destabilizing the countries around Syria.

Assad did everything to bring about precisely this violent outcome; and had his Hezbollah allies not intervened militarily in the Syrian conflict, it is unlikely that we would have seen car bombs in Lebanon. But as we assess the balance of forces, the Syrian regime and its backers have gained the upper hand, while the Syrian opposition is now viewed with uneasiness because of its association with the jihadists.

Observers warned of this two years ago, when the Americans and Europeans were fiddling over what to do in Syria. They still are and the vacuum they helped perpetuate only facilitated the emergence of jihadist groups that Western governments had feared bolstering.

At the same time, the lack of credibility of the opposition in exile and the fact that armed opposition groups inside Syria remain divided thanks to political rivalries between their foreign sponsors has handed Assad a decisive advantage. The Syrian army has been rearmed and reorganized under the supervision of Russia and Iran, who early on decreed that Assad’s survival was a strategic objective.

In contrast, U.S. President Barack Obama has embraced the politics of evasion, while France and the United Kingdom have produced much sound and fury signifying nothing on Syria. Obama has subcontracted Syria to America’s regional allies such as Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, who have become a major part of the problem there. The mishmash of clashing interests and priorities among Assad’s foreign adversaries has allowed the Syrian regime to reverse the tide, with no sign that Arab states and the West are any closer to an integrated strategy for removing Assad and controlling the aftermath.

Even if Assad makes decisive military gains, Syria will nevertheless remain unstable for a long time as rebels resort to guerilla warfare. The jihadists will surely contribute to this rearguard action, perhaps by planting more car bombs. Yet all this will do is strengthen Assad further, as he portrays himself as the purveyor of tranquility. And the Syrian people, exhausted and bloodied, many of whom have no desire to remain refugees forever, may agree. Though they may detest Assad, two years of war has only brought them ruin, but also little to enhance their faith in the governing capacity of the opposition.

And now, if the opposition begins destabilizing Lebanon, all this will do is alienate Lebanese who are unwilling to see their country descend into war because of Syria. Hezbollah’s forays into Syria are more acceptable to many of them, because the impact is felt elsewhere. But if Assad’s foes seek to undermine Lebanese security, this will further turn the national mood against the rebels, making the lives of Syrian refugees in Lebanon even grimmer than they already are.

In light of this it may be useful for Lebanese Sunni representatives to issue a joint statement, under the sponsorship of Dar al-Fatwa, telling the armed Syrian opposition that the community rejects efforts to exacerbate sectarian relations in Lebanon and target the Shiite community, regardless of what Hezbollah is doing. This may have no impact, but it will allow Sunni representatives to distance their community from future violent acts justified in its name.

The shifting alignment of regional forces has played in Assad’s favor. In Turkey, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has faced challenges to his rule, reflecting a secular-religious rift in Turkish society that will not be easily repaired. Moreover, this rift defines Erdogan’s differences with the armed forces, a bastion of secularism in the Kemalist state. The prime minister must also contend with a lack of support for his stance on Syria in southern Anatolia, where the population sympathizes with the fate of the Alawites next door.

In Qatar, the emir has stepped down and handed over power to his son. While this may not mean far-reaching changes in Qatari policies in the near term, the process led to the removal of Prime Minister Hamad bin Jassem Al-Thani, the person most closely associated with the emirate’s approach to Syria. It is conceivable that Syria could become less of a priority for Qatar as the new monarch, Emir Tammim bin Hamad, focuses on consolidating his rule domestically.

In Egypt, the removal of President Mohammad Mursi has allowed Assad not only to cheer the downfall of an adversary, but also to revive the narrative that Islamists in the Arab world are on the run and that he, Assad, best embodies a secular alternative. This account may seem laughable when Assad heads a deeply sectarian regime and once assisted jihadists making their way to Iraq, but it is surprisingly effective in a region increasingly mistrustful of Islamists in power.

And Jordan, though no great friend of Assad, worries that militant Islamists will triumph in Syria and inspire Jordanian Islamists. Now that King Abdullah has secured American military protection, he finds it easier to limit aid to the Syrian rebels, while their reversals around Damascus have made a rebel offensive launched from the south, which would implicate the kingdom, less probable than ever.

While some might argue that the Syrian opposition had little choice but to accept the assistance of jihadists against Assad, because no one else was helping them, this association is proving fatal. For their own sake, Assad’s opponents have to break this link, and the Arab states must help them. Assad understandably feels confident today as his adversaries, near and far, make one error after the other.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Aoun plays hardball with Hezbollah

This week Michel Aoun received the Saudi ambassador in Beirut, prompting speculation about the general’s intentions. For a man who has made his alliance with Hezbollah and hostility to Sunnis a cornerstone of his public image, to receive the representative of the leading Sunni state in the Arab world merited commentary.

It’s too early to read too much into the visit, but the ambassador’s statement that Aoun was welcome to visit the kingdom suggested the Saudis are willing to make more of the relationship.

Not surprisingly, everyone wondered whether this was a sign of deteriorating ties between Aoun and Hezbollah. Aoun and his entourage have been ambiguous. They have insisted that all is well with Hezbollah, but have disagreed on two issues of great importance to the party: the extension of parliament’s term and the extension of army commander Jean Kahwaji’s mandate.

In mid-June, Aoun’s son in law, Gebran Bassil again used a Saudi channel to send messages to the party. In an interview with the Saudi daily Al-Sharq al-Awsat, Bassil accused Hezbollah of “stabbing us and stabbing democracy” by extending parliament’s term and preventing meetings of the Constitutional Council that might have reversed the decision. Bassil added that the alliance with Hezbollah would persist, but he had fired a shot across the party’s bow.

The meeting with the Saudi ambassador was another such shot, and Aoun must be careful not to fire too many unless they begin hitting wood. That’s because the party knows what Aoun is trying to say, but it is also aware that the general’s options are limited. If his backup plan is to shift to the Saudis, it realizes, he may lose his ability to play both sides, and risks losing credibility among his supporters, who have long accused March 14 of being on Riyadh’s payroll.

Not that Aoun has been lacking in Gulf sponsors. He was close to Qatar in the past, when the emirate funded the reconstruction of predominantly Shiite areas in Lebanon. Some have speculated that the Qataris gave financing to the Aounists’ OTV television station, though in such matters it is always difficult to confirm. But those were the days when being with Qatar was a way of being against Saudi Arabia, and the relationship between the two Gulf states, even if still marked by rivalry, has improved since that time.

Aoun’s eye, Hezbollah knows, is still on the presidency. By keeping the 2009 parliament in place, the party did two things: it denied Aoun what would likely have been, under the 1960 law that prevailed in early June, another successful parliamentary campaign. And it effectively extended President Michel Suleiman’s term, delaying the presidential election until a new parliament is in place.

Both developments mean that Aoun may have to give up on the presidency. He had hoped that a new Christian majority would act as further proof that he is the principal Christian representative in the country, heightening his chances of becoming president; while any delay in holding a presidential election only damages his odds, as two years from now Aoun will be 82.

Keeping Kahwaji in place is a second source of tension with Hezbollah. Aoun wants his son in law, Shamel Roukoz, to replace the army commander, while Hezbollah wishes to extend Kahwaji’s term. For the party this is a strategic objective, since it hopes to bring Kahwaji in as president once Suleiman leaves. That would allow the party to control the presidency as well as parliament, through the speaker, Nabih Berri. Hezbollah’s calculation is that it will be able to pass an election law serving its interests, and in that way it would be in a position to set the agenda in all major state institutions.  

Therefore, Aoun’s desire to promote Roukoz challenges Hezbollah’s plan. But Aoun, too, has a vital interest in seeing Roukoz appointed army commander. With his son in law in that post, Aoun would have a vital conduit to the military leadership, his early elevator to power in the 1980s. The army is not only a platform to Christian relevance, it has become a platform to national relevance, and a particularly desirable passage to the presidency for ambitious Maronites. 

The battle over the army leadership is all the more interesting in that there is great anger in the Future movement today with the current command. The fighting in Abra, many Sunnis feel, was caused by Hezbollah’s manipulation of the army and using it to crush Sunni defiance, and they hold Kahwaji, among others, responsible for this. That is why the temper among Future parliamentarians is reportedly very much against extending the commander’s term, despite Saad Hariri’s recent public backing for such an extension.

If this is confirmed, Aoun would have a valuable ally in blocking Kahwaji. But Future may not be alone. Many Christian presidential pretenders are naturally ill disposed toward the army commander, and even Walid Jumblatt, who is not eager to leave a vacuum at the head of the army, mistrusts Kahwaji. His instinct is to side with Hezbollah as he does not want Roukoz as commander. But the Druze leader will also gauge the Sunni mood. If Kahwaji emerges as a problem, there is a chance that Jumblatt will be pragmatic so as to avoid alienating his Sunni partners, especially in the Shouf.

So is it the end between Aoun and Hezbollah? Probably not, as the party will always need a Christian partner to avoid being isolated in Lebanon. Aoun will use this as leverage, but seems increasingly unwilling to bend to the party’s dictates if it means sacrificing his own aspirations. He gains more by opening up to all sides, including the Saudis and the Future movement. Hezbollah may find itself more constrained in the months ahead thanks to its Aounist friends.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

The Lebanese mood shifts on Syria’s war

There seems no doubt that Hezbollah played a suspect role in the removal of Sheikh Ahmad Assir in Abra. This has angered many Sunnis, understandably so. However, the sense of doom hovering over Lebanon before that showdown has subsided and many Lebanese backed the Army and do not regret Assir’s defeat.

In part this is a reflection of the changing attitude toward events in Syria. Whatever the barbarism of his men, President Bashar Assad has succeeded in redefining the debate over the conflict in his favor. From the outset his regime portrayed the uprising as one led by jihadists, and created the objective conditions ensuring that jihadists would join the fight. This granted Assad the means to pursue a war of eradication, similar to that of the Algerian generals during the 1990s, and rally to his side those fearing Sunni Islamists the most.

Few were duped by Assad’s tactics. They saw clearly that for months his men murdered and tortured unarmed protesters. But this provoked no response from supine Western governments and Assad pursued his policy of repression and radicalization, knowing that jihadists would soon fill the void left by Western unresponsiveness.

This radicalization also had repercussions for the countries surrounding Syria. In Iraq, the government is facing car bomb attacks in Shiite areas on a daily basis, consolidating communal fears and giving Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki the justification he needs to support the Assad regime. In Jordan, fears that jihadist gains in Syria might harm Jordan has forced the regime to play a balancing game: assisting the rebels in line with the policies of the Gulf states, but also setting limits on that assistance, while looking for ways, if possible, to push the Syrian refugee crisis outside the kingdom’s borders.

In Lebanon, the mood is changing decisively against the Syrian uprising – not because of sympathy for Assad, but because there is a perception that the war next door may spread to Lebanon. Making matters worse, the Sunni community, outraged by the way the Army allowed itself to be manipulated by Hezbollah in Abra, is increasingly isolated, as its narrative of events there is in stark contradiction to that of other communities in the country – who believe a radical Salafist provoked the Army and paid a price for his recklessness.

The involvement of Hezbollah in the Syria conflict, while a source of sectarian tensions in Lebanon, has become a fait accompli. The threats by the Syrian opposition to strike back against the party inside Lebanese territory are viewed with alarm by many Lebanese who refuse to be drawn into the fighting next door. Hezbollah benefits from this uneasiness, and some have speculated that the party, realizing this, was behind the recent rocket attack against Shiyah.

Assir’s championing of the armed uprising in Syria, combined with the alarming statements of Syrian rebels on Hezbollah and the fears that Lebanon may be heading toward a sectarian war, has damaged the Syrian opposition. Moreover, arms supplies across the Syrian-Lebanese border have been hindered by the takeover of Qusair and Tal Kalakh and Hezbollah’s effort to break the geographic link between Lebanese Sunni areas and rebels inside Syria.

We got a good sense of the thinking in Hezbollah when its secretary-general, Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah, recently invited the party’s Lebanese adversaries to fight Hezbollah inside Syria, not in Lebanon. This was seen at the time as a provocation, a way of daring the Sunni community, who Nasrallah unwisely and insultingly associated with “takfiris.” But in fact it was an accurate reflection of the party’s desire to avert a debilitating civil war in Lebanon.

Ironically, Hezbollah’s inflammatory moves aside, Nasrallah’s call to spare Lebanon is an approach that appeals to most Lebanese, even if Sunnis have interpreted it to mean that Sunni demands inside Lebanon would be sidelined to steer well clear of civil conflict. That is indeed the implicit message in Nasrallah’s rhetoric, and the downside is that it may push Sunnis to follow the lead of their most extreme elements, even though a majority of Sunnis has no patience for the Salafists and Ahmad Assir was regarded as a nuisance by leading Sunni politicians.

With this in mind, continued Sunni mistrust of the Army, albeit understated, may backfire, and will be used by Hezbollah and Syria’s friends to their political advantage. But to Sunni representatives, they’re damned if they do something, and damned if they don’t. The latest indication is that the preference in the Future movement is not to vote for an extension of the mandate of Gen. Jean Kahwagi, the Army commander. If that happens, it could create a momentary alliance between Future and Michael Aoun. But the general reaction will be that Sunni leaders are punishing Kahwagi for the Abra attack, regardless of whether this leaves a vacuum in the Army’s command. It would also discredit Saad Hariri’s call for Kahwagi’s extension, which some Future figures felt should not have been made without getting something in return.

Hezbollah has ignored the decision of Lebanese leaders to stay out of the Syrian conflict. But unfortunately the party is not alone in doing so. As much as we wish good luck to Assad’s foes, Lebanon cannot be drawn into a new war that will destroy the country. If reaching this conclusion helps Assad and isolates the rebels, then so be it, because war is a red line the Lebanese cannot afford to be ambiguous about.

This will not alleviate Sunni anger. The community is paying for the absence of any credible leadership. But Hezbollah faces much uncertainty in its Syrian campaign, and could falter. Exploiting such openings must become Sunni communal priorities, but within the limits of avoiding a war and putting off the temptation to discredit the Army. No one gains from that except Hezbollah.