Friday, September 20, 2013

Cassocks fly over Syria

When listening to many Syrian Christians, or their Lebanese brethren, you would think that only Christians are suffering from the Syrian conflict. These fears are understandable. Whatever happens to Christians takes on an existential turn: when they leave a country in the Middle East, they rarely return.

And yet communal survival should not mean giving up one’s principles or ignoring the teachings of one’s religion. It has been dismaying in the past two and a half years to see Christians, both in Syria and Lebanon, portraying Bashar al-Assad as a protector, even as he and his men have been engaged in mass murder. To place one’s future in such hands is not only reckless, it is suicidal.

Among the ecclesiastical chorus chanting Assad’s name has been, of course, the Maronite Patriarch Bishara al-Rai, who in his greed for travel, exposure, and extravagance has forgotten what the Assad family did to his own community. Alongside him is the Greek Catholic Patriarch Gregory III Lahham, who has rarely missed an opportunity to pander to the Assad regime, helping ensure that his flock will file toward Syria’s borders when or if Assad is overthrown.

But the corruptions and stupidity of the Eastern clergy sometimes grate with their counterparts in the West, less agile in reconciling moral and political inconsistencies. Lately, a public row has broken out after the French bishop of Angouleme, Claude Dagens, criticized Patriarch Lahham’s attitude toward the Syrian conflict, provoking an agitated response from the Greek Catholic cleric.

What bothered Lahham was that in a radio interview Dagens accused him of coordinating closely with Assad during an October 2012 synod in Rome, after which a Vatican delegation was to visit Syria. The delegation was to be headed by the secretary of state, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone. However, the visit was ultimately cancelled.

Particularly galling to Lahham must have been Dagens’ cutting remark that while at the synod he “saw on numerous occasions the illustrious Patriarch Lahham, the leader of the Greek [Catholic] Melkites getting up.” Getting up for what? The implication was to communicate with the Syrian regime as decisions were being taken, implying that Lahham was acting as an agent for Damascus.

In response to a journalist asking him about whether Assad was a barrier to Islamization, Dagens was scathing: “Don’t go with this dramatization, which is a lie and serves the propaganda of Bashar al-Assad. We know that Christians are persecuted in the Middle East for multiple reasons, and we are in solidarity with them; we know what happened in Iraq, and we won’t forget Iraq. But let us not use this argument to defend a dictator who is preparing to commit the worst [crimes], and has already done so… We know that a civil war is taking place, that a bloody dictator is manipulating this bloody war, and that he is manipulating public opinion throughout the world.”

Dagens then dismantled the Assad regime’s misinformation, noting that even the Maalula fighting had been used as a propaganda tool to curry favor among Christians and the West. He was keen to remind listeners of the long Syrian hegemony over Lebanon and the Assad regime’s assassination of Rafiq Hariri, followed by its efforts to prevent the trial of Hariri’s killers. Dagens was equally mordant about the Russians: “Who supplied chemical weapons to the [Syrian] regime,” he asked, “they didn’t come down from heaven…”

Well in fact they did, but only in the moments before they landed on thousands of civilians, after being fired by the soldiers of a regime now somehow held up as a champion of the region’s Christians.

The bishop of Angouleme is one of the rare members of the clergy who understands the perilous stakes today for the Christians of Syria, and even Lebanon. But the reality is that his superiors in the Vatican have been embarrassingly ambiguous and duplicitous about the Syrian conflict and about Assad himself, allowing opportunists such as Rai to defend the Syrian regime with abandon.

And yet the Vatican’s attitude that the enemy of my enemy is my friend is not only irresponsible, it also happens to be historically false. For nearly three decades Syria did everything to weaken the power of the Christians in Lebanon, because it saw that the community was the main obstacle to Syrian control. Two Christian presidents, Bashir Gemayel and Rene Mouawad, were assassinated by the Syrians, while those who made it alive to the palace were humiliated and saw their powers routinely eroded, as did non-Christian politicians.

After the war, Syrian officials passed one electoral law after the other that marginalized Christian voters. In 1992, parliamentary elections took place even though most Christian voters boycotted them. No effort was made to reassure the community or address its anxieties.

As for Syria’s Christians, aside from making money what is their destiny in Syria? As in Iraq under Saddam Hussein, to be protected by a tyrant who will not hesitate to crush them if they ever step out of line. That Christians can take solace in this secondary status and interpret the Assad regime’s “tolerance” of them as commendable is odd. It is odd because a recurring Christian lament about Egypt’s Copts, a yardstick for Christian irrelevance in the region, is that they are second class citizens merely tolerated by Egypt’s regime.

So, what is condemnable in one country is praiseworthy in another. Credit Dagens for being true to himself, and for avoiding the mental acrobatics of speaking in the language of high principle only to hypocritically embrace its most repulsive contradiction. 

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Diplomacy may make Bashar disposable

Within a week, one story – punishing Bashar Assad for his probable use of chemical weapons against civilians in the Ghouta region – has been pushed aside by another: the possibility of a rapprochement between Iran and the United States, even as Washington is coordinating its policies toward Syria with another adversary, Russia.

It’s best in these cases not to get carried away by optimism. Diplomacy and dialogue are not ends in themselves. Yet the potential opportunities are great, whether for Syria or the rest of the Middle East, if broader understandings can be reached between the main regional and global actors. And tectonic shifts, if they occur, may ultimately ensure that Assad is politically disposable.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has made normalization with the West a central plank of his political program. Critically, he seems to have the support of the supreme leader, Ali Khamenei. On Tuesday, Khamenei endorsed Rouhani’s position, saying Iran should embrace diplomacy over militarism and that it was time for “heroic leniency.”

In remarks to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, Khamenei said, “[I]t is not necessary for the IRGC to be active in the political field, but defending the revolution requires that they understand political realities.” This appeared to be Khamenei’s way of legitimizing Rouhani’s opening in front of an institution that, potentially, may pose problems for the president down the road.

From the Obama administration’s perspective, bringing Iran into negotiations on Syria’s future is necessary, even if the pitfalls are many. Supporting Assad’s regime has become a burden even for his closest partners, who might welcome a transition away from the Syrian president if it means they can preserve their interests in Syria.

The Obama administration has no intention of challenging this logic, as it searches for a cure for its Syrian headache. The notion that the U.S. will seek to deny Moscow and Tehran a political foothold in Syria seems absurd, as the Americans view Russia, and probably Iran, as parties that can help deliver a peaceful outcome in the country.

Still, Russian and Iranian interests in Syria do differ, and the U.S. can play on this to its advantage in formulating postwar preferences. At the same time, American, Russian and Iranian interests are not as far apart as they appear. All three want a political solution; all are wary of the emergence of jihadist groups; and all perceive that the side they are backing in Syria is probably unable to win a military victory.

They must also sense that Assad today is the primary obstacle to a political solution. Iran has poured much money into the war on Assad’s behalf, and has instructed Hezbollah to bolster his regime militarily. While this allowed Assad to regain his balance, it has not brought victory, while Hezbollah has been transformed into the Assad regime’s cannon fodder, a situation the party cannot relish.

Russia, on its side, has been embarrassed by the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons. The United Nations report released this week did not determine responsibility, but no one could fail to see that the technical details all pointed toward Syrian Army units. The Russians have been hardy, even foolhardy, in their defense of Assad, but this only makes sense in the context of a plan that leads somewhere else. It is next to impossible to imagine that Assad represents a long-term solution for Russia, so bloody and sordid has been his legacy. If anything, his remaining in office will only fuel the war indefinitely.

As the U.S. defines what it wants in Syria, it may find it useful to widen the differences between Iran and Russia, while ensuring that both agree to Bashar Assad’s departure. The Russians and Iranians are closer to each other than either is to the Obama administration, but that may change as Assad’s presidential term nears an end in 2014, providing an opportunity for an orderly power transfer in Syria.

Assad may hope to play on Iranian and Russian divergences to stay in office – for instance by shifting to a greater reliance on Tehran if Vladimir Putin says that Russia would not support a new Assad term. But the Syrian president may be in a more precarious situation than he knows. Since 2011, he has become so dependent on outsiders that his survival will be determined by them. Iran can see that it has wagered heavily on an incompetent, and may judge that it benefits more by preserving its relationship with Russia and improving ties with the U.S. than in indefinitely propping up a mass murderer.

An yet Iran has vital interests in Syria. The country provides strategic depth to Hezbollah and gives Iran considerable influence over a second country on Israel’s border, after Lebanon. Iran can also rely on, and will protect, its Syrian Alawite and Shiite allies. Squaring this with U.S. objectives and Russian preferences will not be easy. But if the three countries engage seriously, Assad’s fate could be sealed.

America will have a key role in reassuring the Gulf countries, who would regard any improvement in U.S.-Iranian ties as a threat. It’s difficult to imagine a package deal over Syria without Saudi approval, and this only the Obama administration can deliver. One thing is certain, namely that any such deal, because of the stalemate in Syria, will force all sides to accept less than their maximal objectives.

Like China’s Deng Xiaoping, Assad may have become important largely for what will come after him. Though old and senile, Deng was kept as titular head of the Chinese power structure to better prepare the aftermath. That may be Assad’s destiny too. He’s the path through which a Syrian settlement may have to pass, on the understanding that he will make way once a power-transfer mechanism is agreed. We shall soon see how, or whether, this intricate dance can begin.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Flighty libertarians ignore the freedom and rights of others

As Kentucky Senator Rand Paul emerges as a possible contender for the Republican nomination in the 2016 presidential election, questions are being asked about what his libertarianism may mean for American foreign policy. Mr Paul has been a prominent opponent of military action in Syria, and is sceptical of foreign intervention.

Mr Paul embodies a growing trend in the United States towards greater isolationism, with a large majority of Americans saying the president should concentrate on domestic issues.

A prominent libertarian, David Boaz, has defined libertarianism as “the view that each person has the right to live his life in any way he chooses so long as he respects the equal rights of others … Libertarians define each person’s right to life, liberty and property – rights that people possess naturally, before governments are created.”

However, as a libertarian myself, I find that my brethren in the US often seem to approach the matter of freedom in an insular way. Beyond America’s borders, Mr Boaz’s definition seems to break down.

Two things inform modern American libertarians’ approach to foreign affairs – as well as a misunderstanding.

The misunderstanding first: isolationism today is different from what it was less than a century ago, when the mood in the US scuttled President Woodrow Wilson’s plans to enter the League of Nations. Today only a fringe would seriously suggest pulling out of the United Nations. Most libertarians embrace an integrated world, one built around unfettered commerce and communications.

American isolationism tends to be focused against military involvement, as well as overseas ventures that use up limited American resources, such as foreign aid.

But in the past it was more than this. What has reinforced the non-interventionist seam in American libertarianism is that it was anchored in a mainstream American attitude not so long ago. For instance, until the 1950s even the Republican Party had a powerful non-interventionist wing. Its standard bearer, Robert Taft, was twice a presidential candidate, and lost the party nomination to Dwight Eisenhower by a narrow margin in 1952.

While Mr Paul and others may be regarded as anomalies by some, their views reproduce an impulse among many Americans to view their nation as somehow separate from the world. This outlook goes back to the founding of the republic and was reflected in Secretary of State John Quincy Adams’ famous 1821 invocation that America “goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy”.

Secondly, a basic tenet of libertarianism – mistrust of government – has shaped its followers’ views of foreign intervention. Libertarians, always lucid about government abuse, believe the conditions of war facilitate such abuse. Civil liberties have frequently been trampled upon when America is in conflict, during which the expansion of the armed forces and the powers of intelligence agencies have often been conducted with little oversight or public approval.

This libertarian argument is a powerful one, and is justified in many ways, but it also poses the obvious question: If the individual’s natural right to life, liberty and property is sacred to libertarians, then doesn’t the US have an obligation to advance these in the world whenever it can? Can a libertarian foreign policy be constructed around double standards on this question?

In his 1821 speech, Mr Adams suggested it could. “[The United States] well knows that by once enlisting under other banners than her own, were they even the banners of foreign independence, she would involve herself beyond the power of extrication, in all the wars of interest and intrigue, of individual avarice, envy and ambition, which assume the colours and usurp the standard of freedom.”

That is certainly a feeling that many Americans share about intervention in Syria. Yet it doesn’t really answer the criticism of libertarianism, namely that it sets particularly high ambitions when advocating for natural rights, only to follow this up by indicating that the US is entitled to ignore these rights when they do not directly concern Americans.

Recently Vladimir Putin criticised America’s sense of exceptionalism in The New York Times. Mr Paul disagreed, arguing, “America’s exceptionalism is rooted in our founding documents and values.” This was interesting, because he seemed to imply that America was exceptional because it had much to offer the world through its freedoms and democracy.

But if that’s the case, then for America to ignore the freedoms and rights of others, Syrians for instance, would seem not only to undermine any possible merits of American exceptionalism, it would also appear to echo a more cynical approach to foreign policy, one usually associated with political realism, where only interests count.

This duality in American foreign policy, between the pursuit of interests and of values, has long existed, and exemplifies a certain schizophrenia among Americans in general, not just libertarians. Many want their country to do the right thing when it comes to the world, but they don’t feel it has a duty to be a global policemen.

Yet libertarians, who have growing influence in America today, have an obligation to clear up the inconsistencies when it comes to the values they cherish and their relevance for foreign affairs. For what would be the significance of freedom in America if throughout the rest of the world freedom had no meaning whatsoever? If that is what American exceptionalism means, what a selfish notion it must be.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Is Bashar good for Moscow?

With global attention focused on whether President Barack Obama was outmaneuvered by Vladimir Putin and Bashar al-Assad over Syria, little has been said about Assad’s growing dependence on outside actors, and how this has made him politically vulnerable.

It was not always that way. A tenet of the late Hafez al-Assad was that Syria would always be the master of its own destiny. In defense of Syrian priorities, the late president was willing to confront the Soviet Union when he deployed his army to Lebanon in 1976 and fought the Palestine Liberation Organization. Likewise, he built up a strategic relationship with Iran during the 1980s, even though this angered many powerful Arab countries, who supported Iraq.

His son Bashar, in contrast, has so mismanaged affairs that he depends on Russian arms and diplomatic support, Iranian weaponry, and Hezbollah manpower to survive politically. He is increasingly irrelevant to Syria’s future, even if neither Russia nor Iran will let him cede power under rebel pressure, because this would bring the entire Syrian political and security edifice crashing down.  

But this may change for Russia as it looks ahead. Despite a brief moment months ago when it appeared that Hezbollah would tip the military balance in favor of the regime, we are still in a generalized stalemate. Hezbollah played a key role in Qusayr and Homs, but further afield it is as much a prisoner of the conflict as anyone else.

At one time the US naively believed that the Russians would negotiate an Assad departure if their interests in Syria were preserved. But that was a misunderstanding of Syrian dynamics. Moscow knew that once the principle of Assad’s exit was conceded, it would have no leverage to negotiate. So the Russians, and with them the Iranians, armed the regime, allowed it to regain its footing, and obstructed diplomatic initiatives that might have undercut Assad.

But that does not mean that Putin views Assad as a viable long-term option for stabilizing Syria, or that Russia is personally committed to the Syrian president. In fact, if the Russians, as good political realists, are pursuing their national interests, it seems likely that Assad will have to be sacrificed at some point for them to succeed. The reason is simple: in the absence of a military victory, his indefinite presence as head of state would only provoke indefinite conflict in Syria.

Assad’s chances of reimposing himself as a legitimate leader – after more than 100,000 dead and acknowledgment that he has chemical weapons, which he had previously denied – is negligible. If Russia seeks stability, Assad’s staying in power is the major obstacle to this.

Caught between realizing that Assad must go, but not wanting him to go under opposition duress, Putin has relatively limited options. Most observers look to the presidential election in Syria next year as a convenient cut-off point for a managed change in leadership. If Assad serves out his term, he will have stuck to constitutional principles, which is important for the Russians who reject regime change by force. But also, this additional time will allow his foreign backers to put in place the mechanisms of a political transition favorable to them, if indeed Russia decides that Assad’s time is up.

Putin is in a prime position to bring such change about. His greatest challenge is less the United States, than Assad’s ability to play on potential Russian and Iranian differences to safeguard his rule. But what Putin has done in the past week is to position himself as a guarantor of Syria’s behavior internationally, and as a barrier to a Western military attack. If Assad were to rebuff the Russian president at some stage, he might find himself standing alone with Iran against the United States, Israel, Europe, and a majority of Arab states.

Since Prince Bandar bin Sultan visited Moscow recently, there has been a view that Saudi Arabia would not oppose a greater role for Russia in Syria and the Levant, as long as the outcomes do not threaten core Saudi interests. With Obama so indecisive and leading an American drawdown in the Middle East, the Saudis may welcome a more reliable foreign presence in the region, from a country that shares their desire for stability and antipathy to democracy.

If that interpretation is true, and if the Russians are indeed looking toward the Syrian presidential election as the moment to effect change in Syria, then Saudi support would be absolutely vital. Until then, Moscow will bolster Assad and, more importantly, the various institutions of the state, above all the armed forces, that it would seek to preserve even with Assad were to leave the stage.

In this context the Geneva II conference becomes more interesting to Putin as a forum allowing Assad to appear firmly in power, and that can later metamorphose into one from which a broad political accord for Syria can be derived if Assad leaves office. The paradox of the Russian strategy may be that Assad must look strong up until when he decides that Syria needs another president, and departs voluntarily.

As the Taif agreement ended the Lebanese civil war, Syria needs a new political-social compact to replace more than four decades of Assad dictatorship. Russia, perhaps rightly, feels that a military victory by the opposition would only create chaos, as well as a political vacuum that is as damaging to Syria as it is to neighboring countries. The Obama administration agrees. If so, we will have to closely watch the Russian-American pas de deux in the coming months.

It’s by no means certain that Russia seeks Assad’s removal. But the Russians know the Syrian president has become spoiled goods, and that their interests will suffer as a consequence. The Americans have failed to remove Assad, but he is highly vulnerable and may not be so lucky with the Russians, when, or if, the right moment comes.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Syrian crisis shows public opinion cannot be ignored

In 1983, as many Europeans opposed the deployment of medium-range missiles in Europe to counter those of the Soviet Union, French President Fran├žois Mitterrand famously declared in Brussels: "Pacifism is in the West and the Euromissiles are in the East. I consider that an unequal relationship."

Mr Mitterrand's remark could easily be adapted to Syria: the pacifists are in Europe and the United States and the chemical weapons are in the hands of Bashar Al Assad. An international agreement brokered by Russia for control of Syrian chemical weapons may change that in the near future, and has momentarily, perhaps indefinitely, derailed an American assault against Syria.

The consequences of anti-war sentiment and the intensity with which it has been expressed, despite signs that the Syrian regime's deployment of chemical weapons killed many innocent civilians, have been disturbing. A poll published by The Daily Telegraph last week showed that a majority in the United Kingdom opposed bombing Syria even if the regime used such weapons.

It is hard to see how states can enforce international norms of behaviour when such attitudes prevail, especially when there is no United Nations route because of divisions in the Security Council. The "democratisation" of the aims of war had led to consequences both "disastrous and revolutionary," wrote American journalist Walter Lippmann in The Public Philosophy. "The democracies became incapacitated to wage war for rational ends and to make peace which could be observed or could be enforced," he observed.

While an attack against Syria has been delayed or averted, that doesn't change the fact that western leaders today find themselves with much less latitude to confront the Al Assad regime.

On Monday, the US Secretary of State John Kerry pathetically described what was then still an impending attack as "unbelievably small," to rally support for an effort otherwise intended to alarm and deter Mr Al Assad.

The Syrian president probably interpreted the accord over Syria's chemical stockpiles as a victory, a chance to buy time, even if his acceptance was an admission that he had such weapons, which Syria had denied. Meanwhile, President Barack Obama acknowledged that he might not have the votes needed to authorise military intervention.

The Syrian crisis has shown that the public, whatever its choices, must never be taken lightly. Mr Lippmann's misgivings notwithstanding, democracy is about informing and preparing the public, even if the difficult decisions are ultimately taken by elected leaders. And Mr Obama, like Prime Minister David Cameron of the UK and President Francois Hollande of France never adequately explained the stakes in Syria to his sceptical compatriots.

For two years Mr Obama dithered, indicating that the Syrian conflict had no real bearing on the United States. That this was false, that the Syrian situation had a direct impact on American interests and allies in the Levant and the Arabian Peninsula, was never seriously addressed by administration officials. Over 100,000 people have been killed, but Mr Obama only woke up recently.

Mr Obama has made America's withdrawal from Middle Eastern conflicts a core theme of his presidency. Therefore, it was not surprising to see the public puzzled by, and resistant to, the president's turnaround. If American apathy toward the suffering in Syria is troubling, the greater share of the blame lies with Mr Obama, who failed to prepare the ground for his sudden shift in attitude

And yet the US president could have learnt from his British counterpart, Mr Cameron, the first to pay for the anti-war mood in the West. The prime minister initially declared that he did not require parliamentary approval for an attack in Syria. He then backtracked and went to parliament, before having to accept a Labour condition that two sessions be held for authorisation. He was defeated in the first, and opted not to participate in a military operation.

Mr Cameron misread his party's and the public's mood. While the British government has been more vocal on Syria than the Obama administration, it too failed to persuade voters that the Syrian conflict harmed British interests. Mr Obama and Mr Cameron paid an additional price for the mistrust generated by George W Bush and Tony Blair after they presented misleading justifications for the 2003 war in Iraq.

Regardless of the shortcomings of political leaders or governments, the principle of imposing normative guidelines for state behaviour internationally is based on an expectation of public outrage if these norms are undermined. In fact an underlying premise of international law - the same law opponents of American intervention in Syria held up to avert an attack - is that the general good is served by implementing universal moral and ethical values.

As lawyers Robert Howse and Ruti Teitel have argued, the UN Charter does not prohibit all uses of force, only those harming a state's territorial integrity or political independence, or that contravene UN principles. "Promoting and encouraging respect for human rights, including the right to life, are also among the UN's purposes, as stated in Article One of the Charter," they write.

Refusing to react to the killing in Syria is, therefore, all the more disconcerting when it is held up as a defence of international law. If a more normative world is what western societies seek, then they should have acknowledged long ago that Syria was an exception to this rule, and that their indifference was disgraceful.

Moscow saves Assad’s bacon, for now

The Russian-sponsored agreement to put Syria’s chemical weapons under international supervision may well have headed off an impending American strike against President Bashar Assad’s regime. But the question many people are now asking is whether it will lead to a broader agreement over Syria between Washington and Moscow.

U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin reportedly discussed the chemical weapons plan last week at the G-20 summit in St. Petersburg. This suggests it was more than just a Russian maneuver to buy Assad time. It has offered Obama a way out of a military confrontation in which he never seemed eager to engage.

The mood in Washington has swung back and forth like a pendulum in the past two weeks. Initially, Obama sought a limited attack against Syria, before deciding to gain the approval of Congress. Last week, he seemed to widen the objectives when he stated that “we have a broader strategy that will allow us to upgrade the capabilities of the opposition [and] allow Syria ultimately to free itself” from its civil war. The New York Times reported that the Pentagon had been asked to expand the target list in Syria, suggesting a larger operation.

But as the Obama administration began to measure the depth of congressional and public opposition to a military move, officials in Washington backtracked, suggesting again that an attack would be limited. This culminated in a remark by Secretary of State John Kerry on Monday that it would be “unbelievably small,” suggesting that the universal misgivings had gotten to the administration.

Then Russia sprang its proposal, to which Syria readily agreed. Assad’s endorsement of the Russian plan was an implicit admission that his army had such weapons and may even have used them. After all, the Syrian regime did not demand that the rebels place the chemical weapons the regime has alleged is in their possession under any similar arrangement.

The reality is that American and Russian aims are not very far apart in Syria: Both want to see a political solution to the conflict; both share an aversion to the Salafist-jihadist groups taking advantage of the fighting; and both realize that the longer the conflict drags on, the more unstable the entire region will become.

Moreover, in the subtle dance between Russia and Iran, the advantage may have turned decisively in Moscow’s favor. It is more difficult now than it was for Assad to play on Russian-Iranian differences to remain in office if Russia one day decides he must step down. Putin will not alienate Iran, but Russia is in a far better position to set the tempo of a transition, by virtue of the fact that it has become the guarantor of the Syrian regime’s behavior.

On Tuesday, France presented a draft Security Council resolution to narrow Syria’s wiggling room on the chemical weapons. The resolution, formulated under Chapter 7 of the U.N. Charter, authorizes military force if the Syrians fail to hand over their chemical weapons. Russia has opposed the French draft, but there remains some room for negotiations. The U.S. Congress must add to that and approve the use of U.S. military power in the case of Syrian noncompliance. If there is no agreement at the U.N. over a resolution, congressional approval would then allow Obama to bomb.

Whatever happens, Russia has a stake in guaranteeing that the arrangement it proposed is respected. Its credibility as a mediator in a resolution of the Syrian conflict depends on it. But do things stop there, or are the Russians and Americans thinking beyond that?

An article in Israel’s daily Haaretz suggests yes. The paper reported Tuesday that Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem would propose to Putin a step-by-step transitional plan that would involve moving up the date of the Syrian presidential election scheduled for next year, with the understanding that Assad would not be a candidate. Nothing suggests the report is credible, especially as the plan purportedly comes from the Syrian side, but any political outcome in Syria must necessarily be linked to the election deadline.

The Russians’ decision to avert an American attack may have revealed their doubts about Assad’s real strength. Any systematic bombardment of Syrian regime targets, the Russians perhaps feared, might have led to unwanted consequences. According to pro-Syrian sources in Beirut, there are an estimated 40,000-50,000 rebels around the Syrian capital, a surprisingly large number if true.

If the Russians feel that Assad’s staying power is doubtful, it is conceivable that they may consider some sort of transition plan. That’s not to say that they are doing so, but both Russia and America gain nothing by remaining bitterly divided over Syria, especially as their differences are not unbridgeable, and as Assad’s prospects of again becoming an acceptable, legitimate leader appear negligible.

The 2014 presidential deadline is not one Moscow can readily ignore. It’s difficult to know what the Russians truly feel about Assad. Probably not much; but if he has to go, they want this to happen through an orderly process that allows them to manage the transition, bring in an acceptable successor, and ensure that their allies and interests in Syria are not undermined. Russia also seeks to guarantee that jihadist groups do not emerge triumphant.

Astute observers have remarked that the agreement to place chemical weapons under international supervision can eventually be applied to Iran’s nuclear material. By proposing it, Russia, and with it America, has opened several potentially exploitable doors in the Middle East. In the months ahead we’ll see whether Assad becomes a political casualty of improved relations between the U.S. and Russia.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Be patient, the vacuum will last

There have been suggestions in recent days that Saudi Arabia has told the Future Movement to move ahead with the formation of a government, even if it means accepting conditions set by Hezbollah. The reason is that the party is expected to come out of the American strike against Syria weakened, and therefore would be much more resistant to forming a government afterward.

Reportedly, Saad Hariri has rejected this, as he has a proposal to form a government that would bring in nine ministers from March 14, nine from March 8, and six from the so-called centrist bloc. Why? He wants no one to have a blocking third.

Hariri is apparently willing to compromise in allowing Hezbollah to name ministers in the context of an 8-8-8 breakdown. Recall that Future’s position is that any new government must include technocrats and professionals, and not be “political”, but the former prime minister is willing to make an exception for Hezbollah.

But whatever the truth about Saudi advice, it raises an interesting question: How will the expected American attack and its aftermath affect the Lebanese government formation process?

For some time Hezbollah has seen events in Syria as intimately tied to the situation in Lebanon. The party apparently seeks the following: If Bashar al-Assad, aided by Hezbollah, triumphs in Syria, Hezbollah intends to anchor, or institutionalize, this advantage in the Lebanese state, through control of parliament and the government.

It is the uncertainty in Syria in recent months that has pushed the party to delay parliamentary elections and the formation of a new government, until things became clearer. Meanwhile Hezbollah’s military superiority on the ground has permitted it to maintain a measure of control over the political situation, and not allow any developments to take place that might threaten its interests.

But an American assault may disturb that convenient arrangement. This week there have been contradictory indications of what is being planned. On Tuesday, President Barack Obama stated that aside from degrading Assad’s chemical weapons capabilities “we have a broader strategy that will allow us to upgrade the capabilities of the opposition [and] allow Syria ultimately to free itself” from its civil war.

Last week, when the president spoke of a “limited” operation in Syria, he had not linked it to the fortunes of the opposition. That is why on Tuesday, Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, both prominent advocates of employing U.S. military force to get rid of the Assad regime, acknowledged the changing mood after meeting with Obama and expressed confidence in his plans for Syria.

McCain said, “We still have significant concerns, but we believe there is in formulation a strategy to upgrade the capabilities of the Free Syrian Army and to degrade the capabilities of Bashar al-Assad. Before this meeting, we had not had that indication.”

Adding to this, on Friday the New York Times reported that the Pentagon had been ordered to expand its list of potential targets, with a focus on military Syrian units.

But two days earlier, on Wednesday, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee heard senior administration officials, including Secretary of State John Kerry, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey. The emphasis was more on the limited nature of the American action, to persuade the majority in the House of Representatives that opposes any American military intervention.

Even then, McCain inserted into the Senate resolution authorizing an attack an amendment stressing the goal of strengthening the Syrian rebels and undermining Assad.

The reality is that even if Congress limits the time and conditions allowed for a military operation, there is not much it can do once the missiles begin flying. And it is precisely this uncertainty that has many observers wondering whether we are not heading toward a situation which may bring about the downfall of the Assad regime.

Iran and Hezbollah have vowed not to allow that to happen. However, their options to prevent it are not many, which nevertheless doesn’t mean they will not act. Their repeated threats to target Israel, for instance, are more likely to lead to outcomes that will harm Hezbollah and Assad than the contrary. If Israel retaliates against Lebanon, Hezbollah, and the Shiite community could pay a very heavy price, without this improving Assad’s fate in any way.

The assumption that any setbacks for Assad will make Hezbollah doubly difficult to deal inside Lebanon is correct. The party regards Assad’s political survival as an existential matter. Its natural reflex if he were undermined would be to become more uncompromising, on the assumption that under such circumstances it’s best to show one has not been harmed and to fight for every inch of political advantage.

That’s why the belief among some in March 14 that Assad’s defeat will suddenly mean a more flexible Hezbollah is wishful thinking. In the same vein, if the prime minister designate, Tammam Salam, were to form a de facto government against Hezbollah’s wishes, the party could be expected to react violently. President Michel Suleiman appears to agree, and has called for a broad government of parties, even as he tries to reconvene the national dialogue sessions.

The reality is that until the Syrian situation is more comprehensible, the formation of a government will be all but impossible in a way that satisfies both sides. And the political deadlock may continue even if Assad is ousted from power. Hezbollah is worried enough about the future that it is refuses to accept anything confirming its reversals.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Lebanese Christians need to shift stance for safer future

One of the paradoxes of the conflict in Syria is that many Lebanese Christians are as fearful, if not more, of victory by the opposition than they are of victory by the regime of Bashar Al Assad.

That this is odd should be understandable to any observer of Lebanon's recent history.

Unlike their brethren in Syria, most Lebanese Christians have long opposed the regimes of Hafez Al Assad and then his son Bashar. Syria's 29-year military presence in Lebanon, which ended in 2005, was characterised by the systematic dismantling of Christian power, the assassination of Christian leaders and the marginalisation of Christian electorates.

And yet today, fearing the triumph in Syria of an Islamist-dominated opposition, many Lebanese Christians, though very far from all of them, side with Mr Al Assad. They believe that as bad as the Syrian regime is, it is dominated by an Alawite minority that will always be antagonistic to the rule of Sunni Islamists and Salafists.

This rationale is based on false premises. The number of jihadists in the Syrian opposition is exaggerated and Mr Al Assad's suspicious former ties with the jihadists ignored. But many Christians in Syria and Lebanon have bought into the narrative of the regime, which holds that the Syrian uprising is the work of Salafist jihadists, not an initially peaceful revolt by Syrians seeking to overthrow a dictator.

Many Christians today are reacting solely out of fear. In the last three decades, they have become a minority in decline. Christian power in Lebanon was substantially reduced by the Taef agreement of 1989. Amendments to the constitution redistributed political power away from the Maronite Christian president to the Sunni prime minister and Shia parliament speaker.

Demographically, Christians in Lebanon are estimated today to make up around a third of the population. While no census has been taken since 1932, when Christians were 54 per cent of the total, the broader community (which is made up of the Maronites, the Greek Orthodox, the Greek Catholics, and more than half a dozen other sects) long ago lost its numerical advantage, with Sunnis and Shias each believed to represent a third of the population.

A sign of the times, the dynamics of Lebanese politics are being largely driven by Sunni-Shia interactions, and more disturbingly the growing hostility between the two Muslim communities.

The Christians, particularly the Maronites, have been divided, with their two most prominent leaders, Samir Geagea and Michel Aoun, respectively siding with the Sunni-dominated Future Movement and the Shia Hizbollah. This has covered the Christians politically, but it has also highlighted the subordinate role they have come to play.

The situation in Syria may well shift the demographics of Lebanon further, in some cases to the Christians' disadvantage. There are an estimated one million Syrian refugees in the country, most of them Sunni and many from the Homs and Damascus districts, both highly strategic for the regime. There are fears that, in order to maintain its grip on those districts, the regime may block the return of the refugees, effectively pursuing a policy of de facto ethnic cleansing.

By the same token, the refugees themselves may hesitate to return while the regime still controls their areas. From the Lebanese perspective, any delay in the refugees' return home poses the threat of making their presence in Lebanon permanent. While the situation was somewhat different for Palestinians, those who fled to Lebanon in 1948 have become a permanent fixture of Lebanon's landscape, and in the 1960s and 1970s created great instability in the country.

On the other hand, if the Assad regime is overthrown, a different type of population inflow may occur. Alawites may choose to flee to Lebanon, along with many Syrian Christians. Such a situation would only exacerbate Lebanese communal relations, given the likelihood of Sunni hostility to an Alawite community that, to the Sunnis, repressed their coreligionists in Syria, and whose natural allies would very probably be Hizbollah and the Shia.

Some have speculated that Lebanese Christians might welcome Syrian Christians if they boost their numbers. But things are not so simple. Iraqi Christians who came to Lebanon after the removal of Saddam Hussein's regime have not been received with particular warmth. Many live in poverty, and enjoy limited aid from Christian churches. They are perceived more as a burden than as a community that might reverse demographics to the Christians' benefit.

Ultimately, minorities are best served when they avoid playing to a constantly shifting balance of power, which at any moment can turn against them.

As Lebanon's Christians look around them, they can see the fate of communities, in Syria and Iraq, that wagered on one side, only to face the wrath of their opponents. Under the circumstances their best, albeit risky, option was to back national reconciliation and stick to principle, to avoid alienating one side or the other.

This is easier said than done, but minorities often benefit by identifying themselves more as citizens of a state than as members of a religious tribe. The future is hazy for those Lebanese Christians sympathising with Mr Al Assad, but nothing will be made clearer by tying their future to that of a butcher. Nor would Christians be true to the values they claim as their own if they continue doing so.

It may be curtains for Bashar Assad

There was a distinct mood change in Washington Tuesday, as congressional leaders supported President Barack Obama’s proposal to retaliate against the regime of President Bashar Assad for its use of chemical weapons in the Ghouta area near Damascus.

Obama is likely to win Senate approval for military action, and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee has agreed to the wording of a resolution authorizing U.S. military force. The House of Representatives is a tougher nut to crack, but the president received a boost this week when the speaker, John Boehner, and the majority leader, Eric Cantor, both Republicans, backed him up. Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic minority leader, and Steny Hoyer, the Democratic whip, are also on board.

More significantly, the language has changed compared to last week. Whereas Obama had diffidently spoken of a “limited” operation then, he went much further on Tuesday, stating that aside from degrading Assad’s chemical weapons capabilities “we have a broader strategy that will allow us to upgrade the capabilities of the opposition [and] allow Syria ultimately to free itself” from its civil war.

Secretary of State John Kerry told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that “Only the most willful desire to avoid reality can assert that [a chemical attack] did not occur as described or that the regime did not do it. It did happen, and the Assad regime did it. ... This is not the time for armchair isolationism. This is not the time to be spectators to slaughter.”

Across the board, members of Congress echoed this view, making the kind of moral case that usually precedes American military operations.

But what can America do specifically, given that Obama wants to avoid a war in Syria and will not deploy American soldiers? That remains unclear, but the most plausible assumption is that the U.S. will seek ways to coordinate its attacks, which may well include aircraft, with ground operations by the rebels, who have made significant gains in the areas around Damascus in recent weeks.

Indeed, there has been considerable speculation that Assad’s resort to chemical weapons came in the aftermath of a rebel advance into the northeastern quarters of the capital. And even then, pro-Syrian sources in Beirut are admitting that the Syrian army’s effort to reconquer the lost neighborhoods was exceptionally difficult.

Perhaps the Americans are gambling that the Free Syrian Army units with whom they are in contact can take Damascus, or at least make inroads that force Assad to step down or accept a political transition. This would give the FSA a decisive advantage over Al-Qaeda-affiliated groups concentrated in the north. Moreover, American officials may have realized that a U.S. bombing campaign will persuade many military units to defect, making Assad’s downfall all but inevitable.

Henri Barkey of Lehigh University perceptively tweeted: “I’ve always had sneaking suspicion that the delay had to do with the [aircraft carrier] Nimitz. It cannot launch aircraft from current location.” Indeed, there is now open talk about using aircraft, which was not the case last week. The value of aircraft in Syria would mainly be tactical, providing support to those fighting on the ground.

The mood is changing in Moscow as well. On Tuesday, President Vladimir Putin said Russia “doesn’t exclude” supporting a U.N. resolution on punitive military strikes if it were proven that Damascus had used chemical weapons against its own people. He also announced that he had stopped shipment of S-300 anti-aircraft missiles to Syria, which Assad would need to defend against Western aircraft.

The U.S. had sought Russian help in preventing Assad from using chemical weapons, and the Russians may have been embarrassed when he did not listen. With international outrage rising, Putin has no choice but to alter his position, knowing that if he doesn’t he will be isolated if Assad is pushed out. He may prefer to position himself as a mediator in a transitional solution. Some have speculated that this may be discussed at the G-20 summit in St. Petersburg this week.

Iran and Hezbollah will be watching carefully to see what happens. The options are limited. If their plan is to target Israel with rockets, this will do little good. Hezbollah would invite a devastating Israeli response if it fires from Lebanon, at a moment when its Syrian policy is unpopular at home and thousands of its combatants are in Syria. A war would also create hundreds of thousands of Shiite refugees, who would angrily wonder why they have to suffer to defend Assad.

Moreover, Hezbollah and Iran’s ability to absorb Shiite discontent is restricted. There will be no Arab money this time to rebuild; and Iran is too financially pressed – even as it is paying a hefty financial bill to prop up Assad rule in Syria – to rescue Lebanon’s Shiites.

If, as some have speculated, Hezbollah targets Israel from Syria, this may precipitate the very outcome that Iran and the party seek to avoid. It makes no sense to respond to an American attack against Syria through a mechanism that invites an Israeli attack against Syria, one bound to undermine Assad’s position further.

Obama’s last-minute decision to postpone an attack against Syria confused everybody. But Assad’s satisfaction with the delay was premature. The bully’s bluff has been called, an American attack is coming, and it will hit very hard – unless Russia can devise a political resolution before then that would force Assad from office. It’s not yet the end of the Assad regime, but it could well be the beginning of the end. And when nightmares end, there is only relief.