Friday, December 27, 2013

Syria and the banality of evil

To borrow a clich̩, in 2013 the violence and suffering in Syria came to embody the banality of evil. The tragedy has grown to such proportions that it has become repetitious Рwithout variation, respite, or hope.

In much the same way, the mass of humanity that has fled Syria has also become banal. So omnipresent are the beggars and peddlers in neighboring countries, that one looks not at their misery but at the inconveniences they have created. In Dante’s Divine Comedy, the center of hell is distinguished not by fire but ice. So, too, the inferno faced by Syrians – one of absolute, frigid, unalterable immobility.

The past year has also reaffirmed what we knew about Hezbollah, but which the party’s devotees always sought to play down: that it is an obedient branch of Iran’s security and intelligence apparatus, one that will willingly offer up its children to secure the interests of its sponsors in Tehran. Though the party’s leaders are competent and its intelligence services efficient, ultimately, like others in Lebanon, their role is that of employees advancing the political agenda of their paymasters.

How well I recall a statement in summer 2006, after the start of the war with Israel, issued by 450 intellectuals and academics, many of them Lebanese. They expressed “conscious support” (have you ever heard of “unconscious support”?) for Hezbollah’s resistance against Israel, and observed that “resistance is an intellectual act par excellence …[and] cultural and critical activity [is] an integral part of the Lebanese national resistance, indeed of resistance to injustice anywhere in the world.”

One wonders what cultural and critical activity Hezbollah engaged in before it entered Syria to participate in the savage suppression of a population that had dared to resist the injustice of Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Will we hear the same luminaries ever admit that they were deluded about the party, that Hezbollah has come to embody the very antithesis of the qualities they had bestowed on it?

Not likely, because 2013 was also the year when the Syrian uprising allowed itself to be hijacked by al-Qaeda jihadis, changing the entire narrative of the conflict. The incompetence of the Syrian opposition was plain from the start. But its dire situation also reflected the cynicism and mediocrity of the opposition’s backers, for whom all abuses have become acceptable in defense of their own regional preferences.

The Iranians, Russians, and Saudis are all squaring off in Syria, but the bodies are mainly Syrian. Behind them are the craven Americans and Europeans, who might have been useful had Assad’s enemies been able to load their guns with empty words. The distillation of all that is wrong in the Western approach to Syria is the policy of Barack Obama, Nobel Peace Laureate and a man who, when it comes to Syria, has confirmed that he is without any substance, principle, vision, or courage.

Bashar al-Assad may be momentarily strengthened as preparations continue for talks on the Syrian conflict in Switzerland next January. That’s because the uprising is now viewed in the West as posing a terrorist threat, shifting attitudes toward the Syrian regime.

But Assad must also be worried about what the medium-term consequences of the post-Geneva process will mean for him, in a year when his presidential mandate is scheduled to end. This may turn into a convenient cut-off point for the regime’s sponsors and enemies, who are looking to terminate the conflict. With Assad in office, Syria’s war will only continue indefinitely, benefiting al-Qaeda; without him, there is some hope, albeit small, for a transitional plan that allows the Syrian state to reconstitute itself and turn its guns on the jihadis.

This may be an optimistic interpretation, but both Russia and the West may see the presidential election this year as an opening they cannot afford to miss. The anti-terrorist drive can cut both ways, as Assad surely realizes, since nothing will do more harm to al-Qaeda than the replacement of his regime by a legitimate Syrian government that steadily begins filling the vacuum the jihadis have exploited.

With Iran improving its relations with the West, the possibilities are many. No one believes that President Hassan Rouhani has the latitude to redefine Iranian policy toward Syria, given that such issues appear to be under the control of the Revolutionary Guard and the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. But Syria has been costly for Iran and an open-ended drain on its resources. Rouhani, whose focus has been economic rehabilitation, cannot be forever be marginalized on Syria. At some stage the West will seek to place Syria on the agenda with Iran, compelling Tehran to make hard choices that might not benefit Assad.

The optimistic version is that Syria hit rock bottom in 2013, therefore it has no place to go but up in the coming year. Given the beginning of negotiations in January and the end of Assad’s term, this attitude may be justified. But it is just as likely that the country will remain at the bottom for months or years to come, while the gangrene of its conflict spreads to Iraq and Lebanon. In fact, negotiations may well mean a further escalation in violence, as all sides seek to improve their leverage.

Whatever happens, Syria has become a blemish on the region and the world, a moveable atrocity that daily demolishes the moralistic pretensions of an international order supposedly built on a foundation of norms and values. Like the Spanish civil war, the war in Syria has come to define the worst of an age, and perhaps foreshadow new nightmares ahead. This was what Obama once called “someone else’s civil war.” Even in their terrible trial, the Syrians must suffer fools.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Russia has the power, but will it force change in Syria?

Bashar Al Assad will travel to Switzerland in January for the Montreux and Geneva talks on Syria strengthened by the deep divisions within his enemies’ ranks. However, he remains justifiably concerned that he may pay a political price for any solution.

This was brought home last week when Mikhail Bogdanov, Russia’s deputy foreign minister, told the Interfax news agency that Mr Al Assad’s remark about the possibility of him running in Syria’s presidential election next year “makes the atmosphere heavier and does not make the situation calmer”. Mr Bogdanov continued: “We believe that ahead of the peace talks there should be no statements which someone may not like and can cause emotions and a reaction in response.”

This was the first open criticism by Russia of the Syrian president, and it brought a heated response: “Nobody has the right to interfere and say [Mr Al Assad] must run or he should not run,” the Syrian deputy foreign minister, Faysal Mekdad, told AFP.

Mr Bogdanov’s comments could be read in one of two ways: as an admonishment to ensure that no one undermines negotiations in Switzerland before they start. Or, alternatively, to signal to the Syrian leader that Russia may place his political fate on the table if that becomes necessary to secure a resolution of the Syrian conflict.

The latter possibility worries Mr Al Assad because it comes at a delicate time for him. The only way he could block a concerted international effort to make him step down would be to fall back on Iran. But with Iran and the West engaged in dialogue, there is uncertainty on that front as well. Mr Al Assad fears finding himself isolated, so that his removal becomes the cornerstone of a settlement in Syria.

For now, there is no discussion of ousting Mr Al Assad. Western governments allegedly told the Syrian opposition that the talks in January should not lead to his removal, because jihadists would exploit the ensuing vacuum. Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, declared that counter-terrorism would top the agenda and that Syria’s opposition and regime must unify to fight the terrorist threat.

All this would seem to reinforce Mr Al Assad. A focus on terrorism plays into the narrative his regime has been peddling since the Syrian uprising began in 2011.

However, there is another side to the story that the Syrian president cannot ignore: his continued presence in office after the presidential election next year would only lend new momentum to Syria’s civil war and prolong a conflict that all sides, including Russia and Iran, want to bring to an end.

That is not to say that Moscow has decided to shift on Mr Al Assad. But ultimately it was always his regime more than the man himself that it sought to protect. Russia also wanted to impose a rule that it could not be pushed around by the West anymore, after the removal of Muammar Qaddafi in Libya. Vladimir Putin has made his point, so the preferred Russian policy in Syria may conceivably be to preserve the regime but not Mr Al Assad.

Many doubt this can be done. To all intents and purposes, the Al Assads are the regime. Whoever emerges as a possible alternative in the coming months risks being killed. Yet any negotiated settlement in Syria will require substantial concessions on both sides: perhaps an opposition commitment to end its campaign against the regime and turn its guns on Al Qaeda, and Mr Al Assad’s acceptance that he will leave office once his term has ended, having safeguarded constitutional forms.

These may or may not be the outlines of a solution, but one thing is clear to everyone: short of an outright military victory, Mr Al Assad’s ability to fully govern Syria again will remain zero; and since no victory is forthcoming, at best this will mean many more years of war.

Precisely because of this, even Iran’s position may be more ambiguous than we know. Even though it has supported Mr Al Assad, Iran would be reluctant to oppose an internationally mandated solution for Syria that enjoys Russian backing. The Iranians may also not be averse to a formula that maintains the structures of the Syrian regime, even if the price to pay is Mr Al Assad’s departure.

Iran is believed to have sunk billions of dollars into the Syrian war on the regime’s behalf, and its Hizbollah allies are caught up in an open-ended sectarian conflict that might spread to Iraq and Lebanon. Despite Hizbollah’s relative gains in recent months, Syria is turning into a costly quagmire for Tehran, and it may welcome a way out, particularly if this improves ties with the West and the Arab world.

Terrorism has become the main international concern in Syria. That may benefit Mr Al Assad in the near term, but the only effective way of countering Al Qaeda down the road is to put in place a more consensual government that can direct military efforts against the jihadists. Mr Al Assad’s presence in power blocks such a scenario.

Persuading Mr Al Assad, if that indeed becomes the aim, will not be easy. But Russia and Iran have the resources needed to make a change if this becomes necessary. Nothing may happen to the Syrian president, but he is absolutely right to feel dispensable.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Hear, hear, A victory for privacy, except for non-Americans

On Monday, a US district judge, Richard J. Leon, granted an injunction blocking the collection of phone data of two plaintiffs – one of them conservative lawyer Larry Klayman – and ordered the government to destroy any data it had accumulated on them.

Leon found that the legal suit had “demonstrated a substantial likelihood of success” on the basis of Fourth Amendment privacy protections against unreasonable searches. He went on to argue that the National Security Agency’s data collection programs were most probably unconstitutional, even though he delayed action on his decision pending an appeal by the government. 

Leon wrote, “I cannot imagine a more ‘indiscriminate’ and ‘arbitrary invasion’ than this systematic and high tech collection and retention of personal data on virtually every single citizen for purposes of querying and analyzing it without prior judicial approval.” He went on to note, “Surely, such a program infringes on ‘that degree of privacy’ that the founders enshrined in the Fourth Amendment.”

The decision was welcomed by opponents of the NSA’s surveillance programs, including Edward Snowden, the contractor who first leaked documents on the programs to the media. More importantly, Leon’s decision represents the first legal reversal to an array of US surveillance operations. While these have been approved by a panel of judges, critics allege that the information given to the panel presents only the government’s side of the argument and therefore does not allow a proper assessment of the surveillance programs’ legality.

As an example, Leon made the startling revelation in his decision that “[t]he government does not cite a single case in which analysis of the NSA’s bulk metadata collection actually stopped an imminent terrorist attack.” One of the government’s principal arguments in defending its surveillance is that on several occasions it prevented such attacks. Leon has undermined that bogus claim.

In fact at every stage the US government has been caught lying about both the scope and intent of its surveillance. The government was protecting Americans by monitoring terrorists and their contacts, we heard officials say. But that argument now comes with a laugh track, amid revelations that that the NSA was also listening in on the cellular telephone conversations of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and other leaders, as well as on the diplomatic missions of, among others, European nations in New York, Washington, and Brussels.

Officials also insisted that, while the global surveillance effort did target non-Americans, the privacy of America’s citizens and residents was always protected – and anyway the government only collected metadata, in other words information about communications, not the actual content of people’s emails and conversations.

But that too was quickly shown to be nonsense. The sheer volume of material gathered meant that vast numbers of Americans, and the details of their private communications, were being swept into the NSA’s wide net, if only by virtue of being in touch with people overseas. As Leon pointed out, this was tantamount to a “dragnet” that intruded on a constitutional expectation of privacy.

In response to the government’s argument that it had “special needs” requiring it to have quick access to data in order to thwart terrorist plots, Leon was acerbic: “No court has ever recognized a special need sufficient to justify continuous, daily searches of virtually every American citizen without any particularized suspicion,” he wrote.

In describing the NSA programs as “almost Orwellian” in their scope, Leon showed that he understood the frightening magnitude of what is going on. Unfortunately, American judicial decisions only affect Americans or those living in the United States. For most people around the world there are no safeguards protecting their privacy, whether they are being monitored by the NSA or the eavesdropping arms of dozens of other intelligence agencies in Europe or Asia.

Faced with global anger with the United States, pressure from technology companies who fear losing valuable business, and continuing uncertainty over what Snowden has in his possession, the Obama administration retreated. The White House formed the Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technology to make recommendations on how to limit the NSA programs.

Earlier this week the White House released the review group’s report sooner than originally planned. This was apparently a reaction to the mounting anxieties of the technology companies, but also a response to Leon’s ruling, which embarrassed the administration. The panel’s recommendations, while they went a certain distance in addressing critics’ fears, fell short of what they had been demanding.

Few reforms were proposed on foreign surveillance. The reality is that spying is much more controversial when directed against one’s own citizens; when directed overseas, there is little momentum to discontinue surveillance programs. But the technology companies, because they function in a global market, think differently. They will remain vulnerable to the retaliatory mood abroad for as long as they are perceived as being in league with the American government.  

Ultimately, it is unrealistic to expect a surveillance-free world. The Obama administration backtracked because American society remains democratic. Under the withering glare of publicity, it became difficult to ignore its disregard for constitutional guarantees.

But many countries routinely invade individual privacy. Conveniently, the focus on the United States has drawn attention away from them. The fight for privacy will continue, but expect victories only in those countries where liberty actually means something. 

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Hezbollah is caught in an Al-Qaeda vise

Lebanon has entered a new phase of instability as attacks against Hezbollah and the Lebanese Army have occurred in rapid succession in recent days. Understanding what is happening may help us better predict what to expect in the future.

The Army has been targeted in recent days at the Awali checkpoint and in Majdalyoun, around Sidon, while a car bomb blew up near a Hezbollah base in the Bekaa Valley, before a rocket barrage was directed at Hermel Tuesday. Accounts have differed as to what precisely happened in the three bombings, but a source in the Sidon Consultative Gathering told the daily An-Nahar that nothing in the attacks against the Army suggested they were suicide operations.

Those behind the bombings targeting Hezbollah were probably not the same ones who attacked the Army, despite the media’s tendency to see them as part of the same package. Officials have suggested the Sidon attacks were carried out by followers of Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir. Given their amateurishness, that may well be true.

But the car bomb in the Bekaa, near the village of Sbouba, was a different matter. The large quantity of explosives used and the fact that the blast occurred near a Hezbollah base, which must have been under observation for some time, indicated a level of professionalism similar to the one evident in the bombings at the Iranian Embassy in October. It also implied that those behind the attacks sought to hit high-value military sites of the party, not just provoke carnage among Shiite civilians.

If so, we can identify three categories of actions in recent months: small-scale attacks against the Army, indiscriminate bomb attacks against civilians, and more professionally prepared attacks against Hezbollah and Iranian objectives.

The first could possibly be a sign of greater militancy by Lebanese Sunni Salafist groups, in Sidon and probably Tripoli. They are angry at the Army’s assault against Assir’s mosque in Abra last June and feel that its repeated arrest of Salafists reflects an implicit alliance with Hezbollah and animus toward the Sunni community.

The attacks against civilians have been a straightforward terror weapon against (until now) Shiites, to show that there is a price to be paid for Hezbollah’s involvement in the Syrian conflict.

The third type of attack, against political and military targets, may point to an effort to shape the political and military environment in specific ways. The Sbouba attack could have been linked to the party’s ongoing campaign in the Qalamoun area of Syria; the blast at the Iranian Embassy was an obvious political message that the Iranians, despite the presence of Hezbollah, are vulnerable in Lebanon.

One thing is increasingly clear: Such operations are taking place in a wider context of Al-Qaeda’s reaffirming itself regionally, especially in a swathe of territory stretching from Iraq to Syria and now extending increasingly to Lebanon. This has been characterized by the effort of Al-Qaeda franchises to seize territory and systematically eliminate all those, including Sunnis, who might stand in their way.

The Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria, which is active in Syria, is an extension of Al-Qaeda in Iraq, so their actions in Syria and Iraq must be viewed as part of a coordinated strategy. In Syria, ISIS and the Nusra Front have, from the start, been concerned less with fighting the regime of Bashar Assad than with carving out spaces in areas under the control of the Syrian rebels and the Kurdish community. This territory, particularly Syrian oil fields, has provided them with a steady source of income, therefore leverage over other rebel groups.

In an effort to consolidate an alternative Islamist alliance to Al-Qaeda, the Saudis formed the so-called Islamic Front in November, made up of seven Salafist rebel groups. Its ambition of creating an Islamic state in Syria worries Western states, which believe no transitional political project is feasible if it ignores the fears of Syria’s minorities. However, in a sign of the confusion permeating American and British policy on Syria, the Obama administration and the Cameron government have just suspended aid to Syrian groups they had been supporting, guaranteeing their further marginalization.

President Bashar Assad must be delighted. Reports this week indicate that the Syrian National Coalition has been told by Western governments that the Montreux conference in January should not lead to the removal of the Syrian president, for fear that jihadists would exploit the ensuing vacuum. The SNC had said that it would not attend the conference unless it led to a transition away from Assad, so what this will mean for its participation remains unclear.

Ultimately the political mess in Syria benefits both Assad and Al-Qaeda in the medium term. The paradox is that Hezbollah, the Assad regime and the United States are all, implicitly, on the same side – which is precisely the conclusion the Assad regime wanted everyone to reach when it allowed the jihadists to thrive.

The only problem is that Hezbollah now finds itself transformed into cannon fodder in a battle against Al-Qaeda, when its initial goal was merely to defend Assad rule. Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah has claimed that his party’s aim is to fight the “takfiris.” However, far more effective forces than his have failed to triumph over Al-Qaeda. The only success came when the United States collaborated with the Sunni Awakening movement in Iraq to push the jihadists onto the defensive.

Hezbollah doesn’t have that capacity. The party has imported the Syrian war to Lebanon, even if it is not the only one to do so. Its hubris has been a curse to the country, and will remain so for some time.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Honest debate about Syrian refugees in Lebanon is vital

Recently at a conference in Beirut, discussion turned to the presence of Syrian refugees in Lebanon. An audience member said that one had to consider their situation in light of what the Syrian regime had done to Lebanon. Reading this as a racist justification for the refugees’ ill-treatment, the chairman silenced the audience member.

Such a view is indeed disturbing when considering the near-biblical proportions of the refugees’ suffering, in Lebanon and elsewhere. And yet it is far more widespread than politically correct Lebanese care to admit. Sometimes it’s best to address controversial topics head on rather than sweep them under the rug.

It’s difficult to generalise when looking at how the Lebanese have dealt with Syrian refugees. The government has refused to build refugee camps, fearing that it would re-create the example of the Palestinians who fled to Lebanon in 1948. They never left, and over the decades became a destabilising presence, playing a key role in the Lebanese civil war.

The absence of refugee camps has both positive and negative consequences. On the positive side, camps often become almost independent entities, controlled by political factions and criminal gangs, competing over a captive population. As such, they tend to be uncontrollable and lie outside the authority of the state. So avoiding camps can, to an extent, reduce such risks.

On the negative side, without camps it becomes more difficult for the host state to obtain funds to assist refugees. Because the refugees are scattered all over a country, foreign donors hesitate to give aid money to national and local governments, fearing corruption. Concerted aid programmes are also difficult to enact if refugees are not concentrated in specific locations.

Lebanon’s reluctance to organise for the arrival of refugees – over one million are in the country, registered and unregistered, equivalent to a quarter of the population – has not prevented many communities from welcoming them. There have been limited drives by associations and non-governmental organisations on behalf of the refugees, but history has intervened to prevent broader campaigns of solidarity.

There are Lebanese who will admit that the 29-year Syrian military presence in their country has shaped their perception of the refugees. This admission is based on the fact that Syrian political, military and intelligence officials were responsible for tens of thousands of deaths during their time in Lebanon – bombarding civilian areas and abducting men and imprisoning them in Syria, with many never returning – and plundered the nation’s coffers.

Lebanon under Syria became a protectorate and much more. Rare were the senior government, civil service, military and security appointments the Syrians did not have to approve, generating great bitterness in the country. Lebanese presidents, prime ministers and speakers of parliament were given very little latitude to behave independently, and the penalty if they tried could be severe.

In their collective memory, the Lebanese are equally wary of the Palestinian example. While, politically, there are many who sympathise profoundly with the Palestinian cause, just as there are many Lebanese politically aligned with the Syrian regime, there is a general acceptance that the Palestinian refugee experience harmed Lebanon – and there is anxiety that the Syrian refugee crisis will do the same.

Nor is this fear unfounded. Many of the Syrian refugees are Sunnis from areas considered strategically important by the Assad regime, such as Homs. The regime has no intention of allowing them back soon, even as statistics from other refugee crises suggest that, on average, it can take several years for refugees to return to their places of origin even after a conflict has ended.

It’s easy – and true – to say that the past should have nothing to do with the way in which Syrians are treated today in Lebanon. But unless the government addresses Lebanese resentment now, this may develop into something more dangerous later. Already there has been an increase in attacks against Syrians, in part because many groups, for different reasons, view them with hostility.

Many Shia worry that Syrians may act as a fifth column on behalf of the Syrian rebels, planting bombs in Shia neighbourhoods as payback for Hizbollah’s involvement in Syria’s war. Christians are worried that the demographic weight of the mostly Sunni Syrians is only further transforming them into a minority.

Lebanese labourers regard the Syrians, who accept far lower wages, as unfair competitors for limited jobs in an already troubled economy. And everyone is unhappy that the presence of a large refugee population is putting an intolerable burden on the inadequate national infrastructure, negatively affecting services for everyone.

But the Syrians are not about to depart, and more must be done by the state and NGOs to facilitate their presence in their surroundings. Efforts are already visible in some places, with NGOs organising forums for refugees to interact with local communities in order to lower potential tensions. But informal channels of mediation between locals and refugees are needed in other places.

The state may also consider setting up hotlines to allow Syrians to report abuse directed against them, and in that way ensure that Lebanese will not feel they have a licence to mistreat refugees. And much more can be done to highlight and address the plight of the Syrians, and make this known to a Lebanese public that is likely to be more generous once it truly realises the magnitude of their predicament.

The Lebanese are not inherently unwelcoming or racist, as some have claimed. But they have paid a heavy price for regional misfortunes. They must accept that the Syrian refugees had nothing to do with this, even as they are suffering and facing monumental challenges. Grasping this simple fact can only benefit civil peace in the future.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Blaming a victim?

Bo Astrom, the first deputy chief investigator of UNIIIC, the United Nations’ commission that investigated the assassination of Rafiq Hariri, caused a flap this week. He told the Al-Jadeed television station that the absence of the Internal Security Forces officer Wissam al-Hassan from Rafiq Hariri’s motorcade on February 14, 2005, was suspicious, and that he was not persuaded by Hassan’s alibi.

Astrom’s remarks echoed those in a documentary prepared in 2010 by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, which indicated that UN investigators had their doubts about Hassan. But as Neil Macdonald, the CBC correspondent who helped prepare the documentary, later wrote: “[T]hose suspicions, laid out in an extensive internal memo, were not pursued, basically for diplomatic reasons.”

The reaction of the former prime minister, Saad Hariri, was virulent. In a statement, he defended Hassan, who was killed by a car-bomb last year, describing the comments as “garbage on the rails” in “a new hysterical chapter of the campaign against the international tribunal.” The “train has left the station,” he affirmed, and could not be stopped before the trial of his father’s alleged killers begins on January 16.

Hariri’s anger was understandable. The former prime minister does not want the defense to gain any ammunition. The only problem is that neither Astrom nor Macdonald can in any realistic way be regarded as part of a campaign to undermine the international tribunal.

I was interviewed by Macdonald for his documentary, and the tone of the program was critical of the UN investigation after the arrival of Serge Brammertz as commissioner in early 2006. But Macdonald was highly complimentary of the assassinated ISF investigator Wissam Eid. Macdonald’s point was that Brammertz had delayed analyzing valuable telecommunications data, something Eid had done on his own and which had led him to uncover a Hezbollah link in the Hariri killing.

If anything, Macdonald was unhappy not with UNIIIC’s progress, but with its lack of progress on so central an aspect of the investigation. Astrom and others in the Mehlis team shared the same misgivings about Brammertz as did the Canadian journalist.

I met Astrom in May 2010, when I was invited by Mehlis to Manila, to participate with other journalists in the preparation of a press guide to cover extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances in the Philippines. This was done in the context of a European Union assistance program to end such crimes in the country.

I had met Mehlis while he was in Beirut and on several occasions we had communicated on the tribunal. We became friends and it was in a January 2009 interview that I conducted for the Wall Street Journal that he first publicly voiced reservations about the Brammertz-led investigation. At no point during my stay in Manila did Astrom appear to hold views noticeably different than those of Mehlis.

In other words, mentioning the suspicions UN investigators had about Hassan does not mean being part of a plot to damage the tribunal. It would be more credible to reject those suspicions on the basis of the evidence. If Hassan was in on the Hariri assassination, then Hezbollah and Syria, the parties likely behind that crime, had a priceless mole inside Lebanon’s security apparatus and in March 14.

But both were also the prime suspects in Hassan’s elimination last year. While the general maintained open channels to all sides, it could have been his assistance to the Syrian rebels that made him a marked man. How does this square with an assumption that Hassan was working for Syria? And if Hassan was playing both sides, he was surely too important to Syria and Hezbollah to be killed. Which leads to the conclusion, and probably a fair one, that he was no double agent.    

In claiming Astrom’s comments were part of an alleged plot against the tribunal, Hariri and his followers have unintentionally delayed the transfer of the tribunal process from the realm of political manipulation to one of legal reality – a delay with which the enemies of the tribunal are delighted. For years they have sought to discredit the Hariri investigation as politicized, and have invented stories suggesting that it is all part of a grand conspiracy to target Syria and Hezbollah.

For Hariri to speak in the same language, albeit from the opposing side, only bolsters the adversaries’ claim that the entire process is riddled with trickery and deceitfulness. Moreover, Astrom may conceivably be invited by the tribunal as a witness for the prosecution, so it makes no sense to demolish his credibility beforehand.

However, Hariri is right that the train will soon arrive at the station, even if the outcome of the trial remains uncertain, given the absence of suspects in the dock and clear signs that Brammertz and his successor, Daniel Bellemare, failed to properly investigate all angles of the Hariri assassination. The best thing the former prime minister can do now is allow the legal process to unfold away from politics.

That’s why the Hariri camp’s efforts to discredit Astrom by using Mehlis against him were unwise. In an email on Astrom’s comments he shared with me, sent to the pro-Hariri journalist Fares Khashan, Mehlis chose his words carefully: “These are private views and thoughts of UNIIIC’s former deputy head of the investigation. During my term, Wissam Hassan was at no time a suspect in the case.”

Astrom had not said otherwise, and Mehlis sought to harm neither his former investigator’s reputation nor that of Wissam al-Hassan. That is a useful example for the pro-Hariri camp to follow. Rather than generate more controversy in the run-up to the trial, it should aim to limit it. Lebanon has waited almost nine years for this moment. Allow the trial to begin, and let the truth speak for itself.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Lebanon is no country for young men

Saturday evening, while walking in Sassine Square, I came upon a nauseating scene. Two young men had gotten out of their car and were furiously punching the Syrian driver of a delivery vehicle, over what appeared to be a traffic dispute.

The Syrian protested that he had said nothing, which only brought on more blows. Eventually some bystanders broke up the altercation, and the two thugs got into their car and left. But what was most disturbing was the ease with which the men assaulted someone in the middle of Beirut, with no apparent fear that they would be arrested for their actions.

Similarly, I recently met a young foreigner whose ankle was broken after he was hit by a car. The driver sped off, leaving his victim lying in the street. At such moments, and many more in Lebanese daily life, you cannot help but ask: What has gotten into the Lebanese?

Traffic casts the brightest and most disquieting light on our national pathologies. The latent violence and aggression of many drivers, their rudeness, selfishness and utter indifference to the consequences of their foolish risk-taking, are but three of the familiar characteristics of what is a daily descent into Lebanon’s heart of darkness.

Unfortunately, there is much more. Everywhere, it seems, the Lebanese are swindled, and feel it. Restaurants charge European-standard prices, but the vast majority serve mediocre food. Many contractors will demand the highest fees for their work, but take no pride in it. They will bring in cheap laborers to save money, so that one must pay nearly double to repair the myriad errors.

Every day, it seems, Lebanon has become a vast con game, an unprincipled country where violence is given free rein, where charlatanism is rewarded, where incompetence is generalized and where legalized theft is widespread – a country which it is easy to leave and from which the young understandably seek escape.

Such a broad accusation may invite protests. Lebanon also has its advantages – its beautiful mountains, its joie de vivre, a people that can often behave insufferably, yes, but have talent and initiative. Perhaps, but talent and initiative are cruelly lacking these days, as the country finds itself mired in crisis after crisis, without hope, without much of a functioning state and with a deteriorating economy.

But blaming the state, as many do, is also a way the Lebanese have of denying their own responsibility for the decline in the country. The Lebanese never tire of complaining of the “political class,” but will faithfully elect the same leaders time and again. They will lament the absence of law and principles in their society, but then routinely behave outside the law, without principles. The worst thing is that there is some truth in their defense that Lebanon is not a place where one gets much done by scrupulously applying the law.

Paradoxically, in this explanation lies a clue to a long-term Lebanese advantage: the flexibility of its society. In Lebanon, as in much of the Mediterranean, the law isn’t absolute. Mediterranean societies are old and the states frequently weak (though not everywhere), so that traditional instruments of mediation outside the scope of the state have more importance than they do in countries formed around the core of a strong legal system, buttressed by a respected constitution.

That is one reason why Lebanese society is more resilient to crises, and more resistant in times of conflict, than those in which the breakdown of the state means a breakdown of everything emanating from the state. That’s why the ultimate dystopia in many Western cultures is one in which state authority has collapsed and where people are living in anarchy, relying on their wits to survive.

In Lebanon, with some exaggeration but not too much, aspects of this image seem to exist today. Institutions and services substituting for those the state has failed to provide are so prevalent that emergencies are better absorbed, even as society functions in parallel to the state.

Wide spaces outside the state do not always lead to desirable outcomes. In a place such as Sicily, surprisingly similar to Lebanon in many regards, it led to the strengthening of the Mafia, which infiltrated and came to dominate the state. But in the early 1990s, after the assassination of two prominent magistrates investigating the Mafia, Sicilian society rose up and forced the government in Rome to take stronger action against organized crime. The Mafia wasn’t eliminated, but it was weakened, with many of its leaders arrested.

Though prisoners of their past, with its unbending strictures, the Lebanese also have no difficulty destroying their past. Rare are the cities more hideous than Beirut, with its systematic obliteration of all that is beautiful. Since we mentioned Sicily, to this day Sicilians lament the so-called “Sack of Palermo” in the decades following World War II. During that period, the city’s historic center was allowed to deteriorate and was demolished, to be replaced by lucrative modern apartment blocks. The Mafia benefited from the construction contracts, which it won thanks to a corrupt Palermo city government.

The “Sack of Beirut” is well advanced, as entire neighborhoods have been razed to make room for monstrous buildings in which very few people can afford to live. Beirut’s history and architecture are being annihilated without any legal restriction, even as its most basic and essential laws – those governing everyday relations between citizens – are ignored. What kind of country so willingly erases its past in favor of a present that is both lawless and repugnant?

The solution will require conditions that are so difficult to achieve that any revival may be doomed from the start. Certainly, it will also require a revolution in the mindset of the Lebanese themselves. That means working to improve the next generation, in that short interregnum before the young race to an airplane and depart from the country.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

As Obama abandons democracy, the US foreign policy suffers

Amid the violence in the Middle East since 2011, the term “Arab Spring” has become more a source of mockery than inspiration.

Eight years ago, democratisation, the idea at the very heart of the Arab “Spring”, meant something. It was the centrepiece of former president George W Bush’s second inaugural address. But president Barack Obama reversed this and adopted what his advisers claimed was a “realist” foreign policy that focuses on furthering national interests. The consequences have been disconcerting, as the United States today seems lost between apathy towards democracy and human rights on the one hand, and a very shaky grasp of realism on the other.

Americans tended to react with scepticism to Mr Bush’s call to arms. To many of them, the Arab world was not a place institutionally or culturally prepared for democracy. Their doubts were echoed in the words of a former US national security adviser, Brent Scowcroft, who was speaking specifically of the Iraqis: “It’s not that I don’t believe Iraq is capable of democracy. But the notion that within every human being beats this primeval instinct for democracy has not ever been demonstrated to me.”

The influential writer and former State Department official Francis Fukuyama broadly agreed, in a 2006 book titled America at the Crossroads: Democracy, Power and the Neoconservative Legacy. For him, liberal democracy was a possible by-product of the modernisation process, not a default system to which societies reverted once dictators were removed. That this appeared to contradict his earlier writings to the effect that the end of the Cold War had brought an “end of history” characterised by the ideological triumph of liberal democracy was irrelevant.

Few westerners would disagree with Mr Fukuyama at present, at least when observing the Arab world. All over, it seems, popular uprisings against despots, initially interpreted as healthy signs of a democratic instinct, have turned sour. In Egypt, elections brought in a Muslim Brotherhood president, Mohammed Morsi, who behaved autocratically, until he was overthrown by the army with the support of a large portion of Egypt’s population.

In Libya and Syria, dictators provoked civil wars to protect themselves against protests, assuming that the chaos would allow them to use overwhelming force. This appears to be working in Syria, but failed in Libya, where Muammar Qaddafi was defeated thanks to western military intervention. For outside observers, however, these wars, driven primarily by sectarianism and tribalism, only confirmed their doubts about the possibility of Arab democracy.

And yet, to relinquish the democracy card would be a mistake for the United States, for it would mean surrendering a powerful foreign policy instrument as well as an essential aspect of America’s identity. The latter may seem paradoxical, with Americans often ambiguous about spreading democracy abroad. Yet they will also embrace American exceptionalism, of which democracy has become a key part.

Americans are also profoundly uneasy when their nation remains aloof toward democratisation. Any administration that pursues national interests with no concern for human rights and democratic values usually opens itself to criticism far more than one seeking to promote democracy and humanistic principles. Not many Americans would welcome someone like Vladimir Putin in the White House.

At the same time, as administrations since the Second World War have realised, the support for democracy will usually be inconsistent, depending on circumstances. Recently, the Obama administration alienated the Egyptian army by pushing for democratic change in Egypt, when it had not done so previously. The ensuing loss of influence in Cairo earned Mr Obama much criticism. Perhaps that was because he has systematically failed to integrate democracy and human rights into his foreign policy agenda, and so he was not taken seriously when he did.

It’s better to be inconsistent against a backdrop of outspoken support for democracy, than it is to promote democracy when the American message is that self-interest now guides American foreign policy decisions.

Mr Obama had the same problem when he tried to rally support for military action against Bashar Al Assad’s regime after it used chemical weapons against civilians last August. For over two years, Mr Obama had ignored the mass slaughter taking place in Syria, before he reversed himself and said that the US had to intervene militarily to prevent more such outrages.

The American public, to whom the president had spent two years describing the Syrian conflict as “someone else’s civil war”, failed to understand why Syria had suddenly become America’s problem. This was surely callous on its part, but it was also a reflection of the contradictory statements emanating from the administration.

The Arab uprisings provided an opportunity the United States should have exploited, as the world’s leading democratic power, to expand its influence in the Middle East. But after siding with the uprisings, the Obama administration failed to engage in a sustained effort to stabilise their aftermaths. Nor did the president commit personally to such a project, insisting instead that the US had other priorities.

Despite its purported realism, the White House did not see that its interests are to be taken seriously, particularly on a value-based issue such as democracy. Instead, the Obama administration is viewed as being neither here nor there – the worst place for it to be.

Friday, December 6, 2013

America's unlearned lessons

After the September 11, 2001 attacks against New York and Washington, you would often hear from Americans that Washington had botched the aftermath of the civil war in Afghanistan. Instead of helping stabilize the country after having armed the Afghanis in their struggle against the Russian occupation, it had left behind a vacuum that was later exploited by al-Qaeda.

While the situation in Syria is somewhat different, similar dynamics have been at play: a devastating conflict has led to a breakdown in the state and in traditional social structures, creating an ideal space in which militant jihadis can thrive and gain in strength. Ultimately, the existence of such failed entities poses a threat to the West, because the jihadis either move back to Europe and the United States from where they came, or use their lawless territory to mount terrorist actions against ideological enemies abroad.

American officials are increasingly aware that Syria poses such a risk for the West, and this is greatly shaping their outlook on the conflict in Syria. No longer is their priority to push for the removal of President Bashar Assad; rather, it is to avoid anything that might turn to the advantage of the two rebel groups linked to al-Qaeda, namely Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham.

A former US diplomat in the Middle East, Ryan Crocker, expressed the changing American mood best, when he told The New York Times this week, “We need to start talking to the Assad regime again [about counterterrorism and other issues of shared concern]. It will have to be done very, very quietly. But bad as Assad is, he is not as bad as the jihadis who would take over in his absence.”

Crocker is no fool, and faced similar situations in Iraq and Afghanistan, where he served. And yet such a statement suggests that even experienced Americans are falling into a trap that the Assad regime set for them almost three years ago, when it radically escalated the level of violence in Syria. It knew that this would generate greater religious extremism on the rebels’ side, ultimately validating the regime’s narrative that it was fighting a jihadi insurgency. 

What has remained largely unsaid, however, is that the Obama administration bears indirect responsibility for the emergence of the al-Qaeda danger in Syria. This reality has only highlighted that if the US understood the lessons from Afghanistan, it did absolutely nothing to apply them during the Syrian conflict.

For over a year after the start of the war in Syria in 2011, the administration insisted that it wanted a managed transition, one that would avoid a vacuum that might profit jihadis. But it never grasped that by refusing to help the Syrian rebellion – on the grounds that it did not want weapons to reach Islamist extremists – it only created objective conditions favorable to the jihadis.

As the Syrian people were being crushed by a barbarous regime while the West stood by issuing empty statements, it was natural for the extremists to take advantage of this outrage. The Assad regime’s brutality meant that anyone fighting against it would be welcomed by rebel combatants and opposition sympathizers, and would have an ideal rallying cry to attract young militants from around the world.

The extremists were good fighters, were willing to die, and captured territory. The Obama administration urged the more moderate rebel groups to build up governing administrations in the areas under their control, but otherwise did nothing to ensure that this would take place. Al-Qaeda groups proved far more serious in pursuing such a project, and implemented a cynical strategy of eliminating rival rebel groups that might challenge their authority.   

By failing to read the situation properly and by making very little effort to work toward building up a unified, moderate opposition with a well-armed force, the Americans facilitated a void the jihadis would fill, replicating the Afghan experience. Now the Americans are eager to clean up the mess, and their specialists are suggesting that the best way to do so is to collaborate with a regime that made it possible.

The real problem was the faulty template used by the Obama administration when addressing Syria. Officials never tired of saying that this was “someone else’s civil war.” They never mentioned that many internal conflicts in the world today – for instance in Yemen, Somalia, and Libya – have repercussions beyond their borders. And yet the Americans must know this, since their special forces are operating worldwide, allegedly to protect America from terrorism.

In reality, President Barack Obama’s only real concern in Syria was to avoid being drawn back into the Middle East. His was a self-centered, short-term, foolishly insular reaction, in a region in which the US otherwise has significant stakes. Obama and his advisors never made any real effort to estimate the costs of such a policy, or rather non-policy, and are now scrambling to make up for their negligence.

The administration has shown not only that it failed to adequately learn the lessons from the past, but that it was also incapable of deriving lessons from its own current policies. The implications of the Syrian conflict for America are not likely to end soon. Expect more mistakes as the US stumbles to get a handle on things.  

Thursday, December 5, 2013

In Tripoli, a conflict exploited by all

We often hear that the fighting in Tripoli is a consequence of the city’s neglect by the state. Perhaps that’s part of it, but the current dynamics in northern Lebanon are being driven by other factors which make relative that stock accusation.

Earlier this week, the Lebanese Army began implementing a security plan in Tripoli after yet another round of fighting in which several civilians, notably a 12-year-old boy, were killed. The city has functioned in a separate dimension for years, torn apart by sporadic battles while the rest of Lebanon carries on more or less normally.

The story of Tripoli is, first of all, a story related to Syria. For decades during the Syrian military presence in Lebanon, the city remained under the watchful eye of Syria’s intelligence services. A reservoir of Sunni youths, it was located too close to the Syrian cities of Hama and Homs to be readily ignored by an Alawite-led Syrian regime conscious of the vulnerabilities inherent in minority rule.

Tripoli is also where the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat returned to after his expulsion from Beirut in 1982. The Syrians, then seeking to extend their control over the Palestinian factions, considered his presence a challenge, largely political but also to an extent sectarian. They bombed the city in 1983, forcing Arafat to leave Lebanon for a second time.

In 1986, Damascus’ containment of the Sunnis took a new turn when the Syrian army entered Bab al-Tabbaneh and killed or arrested hundreds of young men, some say thousands, creating the resentment that exists to this day between the quarter and the predominantly Alawite Jabal Mohsen. A recurring theme has been Syria’s desire to ensure that Tripoli does not pose a threat to the Assad dictatorship. The outbreak of violence in the city after the start of the Syrian conflict has helped keep its youths occupied, rather than fighting in Syria, even as the city has been used as a political mailbox to Syria’s Lebanese foes.

In parallel, there have been other calculations unrelated to the specifics of the Tripoli conflict. There is, first, the credibility of the Army, at a time when the Army commander, Jean Kahwagi, is a leading contender for the presidency. For the armed forces to stand by while the killing continues is not something that Kahwagi can afford politically.

It is no surprise that criticism of the government’s policy in Tripoli has come from the Aounists, who opposed an extension of the Army commander’s term. They know that what happens in the city will have a bearing on Kahwagi’s chances of being elected next year – with Michel Aoun still hoping to become president despite his advanced age.

Beyond electoral politics, Kahwagi also realizes that a substantial portion of his troops hail from the north, particularly from Akkar. There have been disturbing sectarian killings in Tripoli and Akkar lately, and if this spins out of control, the consequences could affect the Army, undermining its effectiveness in the north. Given that the Army has already been accused by many Sunnis of favoring Hezbollah, this is not a situation the military leadership can ignore or allow to deteriorate.

At the same time, Kahwagi does not want Tripoli to become a trap for his men. There are many today who have a stake in discrediting the Army commander, and he will steer clear of any moves that might draw the military into the treacherous byways of Tripoli’s politics. Nor does he want the Army to be portrayed as an enemy of the city, which some local Salafist leaders appear keen to do, as they did in Sidon.

Two leading Sunni figures are also fighting it out politically in Tripoli, while others are watching intently from the sidelines. They are the caretaker prime minister, Najib Mikati, and the former head of the Internal Security Forces, Ashraf Rifi. It is no secret that Rifi has political ambitions, and both men are competing for influence in the city. Last weekend, Rifi tried to outmaneuver Mikati by saying he should stop performing his duties in protest against the fighting. Coming at a time when the government was being accused by the city’s inhabitants of not doing enough for them, that advice was the equivalent of asking Mikati to commit political suicide.

Several years ago, while visiting Tripoli after a round of fighting, I met several men in Bab al-Tabbaneh who pointed out that weapons used in the fighting with Jabal Mohsen were being sold in their quarter by an arms dealer close to the former prime minister Omar Karami. This seemed odd, given that Karami was officially an ally of the Alawite Arab Democratic Party, at whom the men in Bab al-Tabbaneh had been firing.

The version of events gained some credibility when Rifaat Eid, the son of Ali Eid, who heads the Alawite Arab Democratic Party, told me, “The last round of fighting started when the men of an opposition politician fired a rocket-propelled grenade at us.” He didn’t mention Karami by name, but from the context and what we had heard earlier, it was obvious that he was referring to the former prime minister.

The incident showed that events in Tripoli were often propelled not by national or regional developments, but by parochial calculations. Karami may have been part of the opposition to March 14 at the time, but he needed to reinforce his sectarian bona fides, even if it meant firing at his purported Alawite allies. By the same token, many other politicians or security figures today have a stake in exploiting what goes on in Tripoli, or at least ensuring that they will not lose out if the situation turns to their disadvantage.

Most of Tripoli’s inhabitants know this, which is precisely why they have so little hope of seeing a definitive end to combat in their city. They expect, and are probably right in expecting, that the cynical shadow play will continue with no decisive outcome. Until the conflict in Syria ends, and perhaps even afterward, Tripoli will continue to suffer the repercussions of the wars of others.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Assad’s position strengthens in lead-up to Geneva talks

The Geneva II conference on Syria has been scheduled for January 22. As things stand, the Syrian opposition views the idea of a conference with trepidation. If it fails to participate, the opposition may be marginalised and accused of rejecting a peace settlement; if it does participate, the Al Assad rule may be implicitly legitimised.

Not surprisingly, President Bashar Al Assad finds himself in a much stronger position today. His army has made significant gains around Damascus, Homs and Aleppo, to the extent that no one is seriously considering the opposition demand that negotiations be based on a prior condition that the president leave office.

The opposition, meanwhile, is in disarray, which has changed the dynamics of the Syrian uprising. The main opposition in exile, the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, has announced that it will attend the Geneva conference, but otherwise has no power on the ground in Syria to implement an eventual deal. In turn, the fragmented armed groups in Syria, which hold true power, have staunchly refused to go to Geneva.

On top of this, Mr Al Assad can take solace in the fact that the narrative has changed. His savage repression and responsibility for tens of thousands of Syrian dead have slipped into the background, as fears have arisen that Syria is fast becoming a base for Al Qaeda, and as Al Qaeda-affiliated groups have initiated a military campaign against more moderate opposition groups.

Al Qaeda’s shadow has covered everything, which is precisely what Mr Al Assad wants. Even Syrian opposition figures are now addressing this publicly. Gen Salim Idriss, who heads the Free Syrian Army, told journalist David Ignatius that the main Al Qaeda group, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (Isis), had become “very dangerous for the future of Syria” and that once Mr Al Assad left office, his forces would join the regular Syrian army in fighting Isis.

But Mr Al Assad has other ideas. He has no intention of departing, and his main weapon in avoiding such an outcome is to give wide latitude to the Al Qaeda-affiliated groups, to sow dissension in the opposition’s ranks, while portraying his regime as a bastion against militant jihadists. With the help of Iran and Russia, the Syrian president hopes to use Geneva to consolidate his position.

Whether Mr Al Assad is physically present at the conference or not, he will be the principal interlocutor of the Syrian opposition and of the Arab and western powers hostile to his regime, just as he was over the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons. This will confer on the president a measure of recognition, while buying time for his army and allies to make more military advances, increasing his leverage.

All talk of Mr Al Assad stepping down will be put on hold, as this threatens to block the diplomatic track. Nor, in truth, do western countries, above all the United States, really want him to step down, if by doing so he leaves behind a volatile political vacuum in Syria.

Instead, their strategy is to encourage Mr Al Assad to depart once a smooth transition of authority can be agreed – in other words the president is expected to voluntarily surrender his own authority. But as Mr Al Assad has absolutely no intention of doing so, the western scheme is absurd. And because it is, and western governments know this, they will sign off on any agreement that can scale back the violence in Syria, whatever Mr Al Assad’s political fate.

The moderate Syrian opposition is equally lucid about its dire situation, but can do little to improve matters. Hopelessly divided, battling the regime and Isis simultaneously, devoid of a realistic political vision to end the Syrian conflict, it will yet have to go to Geneva, even if it knows that its setbacks will most probably be reflected in any political plan that emerges from the conference.

Expect the National Coalition to do two things in Geneva: to be intransigent, in order to regain some credibility with the opposition inside Syria; and to stall, in the hope that this may change the balance on the battlefield, as countries such as Saudi Arabia scramble to unify the opposition and send much-needed weapons. However, anything that threatens the success of Geneva and a post-Geneva diplomatic phase will antagonise the Obama administration, which is eager to end the war in Syria quickly and initiate a political alternative.

What this could very possibly mean is that Washington will accept a transitional government, even if it requires that Mr Al Assad’s fate remains undefined. This would satisfy the Syrian president, as acceptance of such an outcome by the National Coalition would provoke further rifts between the opposition at home and in exile.

The Russians, anticipating this, have sought to include in the Geneva talks so-called domestic opposition groups that are willing to leave Mr Al Assad in power. By complicating the picture, Moscow is manoeuvring so that groups friendlier to Mr Al Assad will impose an agenda the regime can accept, while armed groups inside Syria will be depicted as obstacles to peace. The opposition will be further discredited, allowing the regime to make additional military progress.

Geneva will be a first step in a longer interplay of negotiations and war. Little will be resolved there, but the aim is to get the ball rolling. Mr Al Assad can be satisfied that, despite his appalling crimes, he is more secure than he has been in nearly three years. He has Russian and Iranian intransigence, and western stupidity, to thank for that.