Wednesday, December 31, 2014

New year, but the same old issues for Lebanon

Every year the Lebanese say things cannot get any worse than they are, and every year they fully expect that they will. Yet since the start of the Syrian conflict, which has affected Lebanon in myriad ways, the country has avoided anticipated cataclysm.

However, the past year has brought events in Syria much closer to the lives of most Lebanese. The number of Syrian refugees is now estimated at well over a million, putting an immense burden on Lebanon’s antiquated infrastructure.

The economy has also suffered from the war in Syria, which has cut off land communications with the Arab world, preventing Arab tourists from visiting and blocking Lebanese exports. The grim economic mood has also negatively impacted on services and real estate.

In August, things became worse when the Lebanese army and gunmen from Syria’s Qalamoun region bordering Lebanon clashed. This came after the gunmen, including members of Jabhat Al Nusra and ISIL kidnapped three dozen Lebanese soldiers and policemen. Most remain prisoners, while several were killed.

The gunmen were apparently reacting to efforts by the army to close off their supply lines to the Beqaa Valley town of Arsal, a Sunni agglomeration in a mostly Shia region that has long benefited from smuggling. Most of those opposed to the Syrian regime in Qalamoun are from the area itself and were pushed out of Qusayr last year and Yabroud this year.

With winter ahead, the armed groups in Qalamoun feared that they would be forced down from the mountains, making them more vulnerable to attacks by the Syrian regime and Hizbollah. Things have been quieter in recent weeks, amid reports that the gunmen are being supplied, even from Shia villages long involved in smuggling.

Such pragmatism may have become necessary for Hizbollah. The past year was not a good one for the party, as it continues to be trapped in the Syrian quagmire. While it is unlikely that Lebanese Shia will turn against Hizbollah, anxiety levels have risen sharply as Sunni jihadist groups have become more active along the border.

Hizbollah border positions were overrun by gunmen from Qalamoun in early October. They filmed the operation, showing how close they had come to a Shia village below. This was so worrisome that Hizbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, later travelled to the Beqaa to reassure his coreligionists.

The Qalamoun region is vast and Hizbollah and the Syrian army have been unable to defeat, or dislodge, the opposition groups. Hizbollah and the Syrian regime have pressed the Lebanese army to play a more active role against opposition gunmen for precisely this reason, being unable to make decisive gains on their own.

Another source of anxiety in Lebanon has been Sunni-Shia relations in light of Syria’s war. The feeling that Hizbollah is struggling has reinvigorated Sunnis, who were repeatedly humiliated by the party in the past nine years. Such tension is worrisome given the potential appeal of jihadists in Syria.

While Lebanon’s Sunnis are mostly moderate, their political leader, Saad Hariri, a former prime minister, has been out of the country for three-and-a-half years, after he was ousted by Hizbollah. Extremists have benefited from the vacuum.

To calm tensions, Hizbollah and Mr Hariri’s Future Movement had talks in December. Expectations are low that it will achieve anything, but it did show that Hizbollah recognises Mr Hariri as the main Sunni interlocutor. The former prime minister, in turn, realises that, his differences with Hizbollah notwithstanding, everyone would lose from a sectarian war sparked by events in Syria.

With so much attention on Syria, the Lebanese could be forgiven for failing to remember the major domestic crisis of the past year: the inability of parliament to elect a successor to president Michel Suleiman.

This is not the first time Lebanon has found itself without a president, election of which is one of parliament’s main duties. Consequently, Lebanon has continued to be run by the government of prime minister Tammam Salam. Parliamentary elections this year were postponed for a second time to avert a constitutional vacuum, as a government cannot be formed without a president in place.

This lack of institutional renewal has weighed heavily on the Lebanese. Hizbollah doesn’t want a president amid regional uncertainty, fearing that he or she may turn against the party. Indeed, Mr Suleiman became critical of Hizbollah during his term, and the party wants to avoid that experience again.

Nor is Hizbollah willing yet to break with its ally Michel Aoun, who wants to become president. Mr Aoun has refused to send his parliamentarians to vote, preventing a quorum, in the hope that such blackmail will ultimately get him elected.

Blackmail has become a recurring feature of Lebanon’s political landscape lately, marked by brinkmanship followed by belated deals to avoid the worst. That’s not how to run a country, but as 2015 arrives there are no signs that such recklessness will stop.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

It’s complicated, the Middle East’s new relationship with the West

I’ve been invited to teach next semester at a university in Europe. The course, titled Encounters Between the Middle East and the West, has forced me to think of grand themes in this encounter, which is a fairly genteel word for a relationship that has been fraught with tension especially in the 20th century. These days, whenever the West is mentioned in the same phrase as the Middle East, the word “colonialism” is not far behind. The 20th century undoubtedly began with resentments brought about by the post-World War I arrangements that formally divided the Arab world between Britain and France.

But are we really clear on the details? We often hear that Sykes-Picot, the 1916 agreement between Britain and France to carve up the Middle East into zones of influence, is at an end. But Sykes-Picot was never applied. Instead, direct rule was agreed in 1918, tailored to the interests of Britain and France, undercutting alleged British promises made to the Arabs.

Who were these Arabs? Britain certainly betrayed its commiments on independence but Sharif Hussein of Mecca and his sons, to whom it made them, were not pursuing idealised notions of Arab nationalism and independence, but dynastic ambitions.

The colonial legacy is a complex one, difficult to break down into simplistic categorisations of western domination and Middle Eastern victimisation. No doubt there was much abuse of Arab societies and Iran by the colonial powers, but the relationship was frequently more than that.

The political systems in Syria and Egypt, for example, emerged from the colonial period more developed, pluralistic, and liberal than would later be seen under sovereign indigenous leaders.

And Lebanon, the most open country of the three, would see many of its democratic institutions established under French rule. The country continues to adhere to the tolerant 1926 constitution written during French rule after WWI.

This is hardly to praise colonialism. When King Farouk sought to eliminate all opposition in the interwar period in Egypt, he did so with the tacit approval of the British. And in Lebanon, the French may have put in place constitutional institutions, but they also suspended the constitution twice and in 1943, jailed most of the cabinet.

Yet, the narrative of western domination demands nuance, even as it has become central to an academic approach greatly influenced by Edward Said’s Orientalism. Orientalism, he wrote, is “a western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient.” In other words, the study of the Orient was a facet of colonial subjugation. This view still affects many interpretations of the West’s relationship with the post-World War II Middle East but it should not be applied uncritically.

The fact is that the post-war decades were often defined by Arab affirmation against western hubris. The Suez war of 1956 was the most overt sign that the British and French era in the Middle East was over, and that a new western power, the United States, had risen in the region. After the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, America would dominate the diplomacy of peace (even if comprehensive peace never materialised), becoming the indispensable mediator between Arabs and Israelis.

American power, then, was not a reflection of neo-imperialism. It was bolstered by regional states themselves, who often piggybacked on America’s agenda to pursue their own interests. If anything, the latter half of the 20th century was characterised more by an Arab or Iranian ability to frustrate or manipulate western states than by western hegemony over the region.

The Iranian revolution is a good example, no less than Syrian and Iranian success in undermining Washington’s efforts to push for normalisation between Israel and Lebanon after the Israeli invasion of 1982. Similarly, Syria’s late president Hafez Al Assad successfully exploited the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990 to get the American green light to impose Syria’s writ over all of Lebanon.

In the last century, the West learnt that grand projects generally fail in the Middle East. After WWI, British and French ruwas largely a fiasco from the perspective of building political influence. Even the 2003 Iraq invasion, which some commentators insisted was a revival of imperialism, was nothing of the sort. For a moment, the Americans thought they could act like the British after WWI, but this was derailed by the Iraqis themselves and Iran gained the most.

That said, Iran’s project to expand its power regionally is proving no easier than for the western powers. In both Syria and Iraq, it is held hostage to sectarian dynamics that it helped provoke but can no longer control.

So, if there is any lesson to impart to my students, it is that relations between the Middle East and the West defy simplistic models. They are, to borrow from Italian writer Italo Calvino, “a story of pursuits, pretences, misunderstandings, clashes, oppressions” that makes the “carousel of fantasies” stop.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Going dry - Lebanese tolerance isn’t what it used to be

Sheikh Hussam al-Ilani, of the Ghufran mosque in Sidon, had some very un-Christmas-like remarks to make in his Christmas day statement this year. “Christmas and New Year’s are for the Christians and not Muslims,” he said, pointing out that “some Muslims make a mistake by putting up a Christmas tree in their homes and dressing up their children in ‘Santa Claus’ outfits.”

Christmas may not be a Muslim feast, though Muslims recognize Jesus Christ as a prophet. But New Year’s? What happens to Muslims every January 1? Do they drift off into a parallel reality, detached from the times and dates of the world? Likely not, so what is so Christian about marking the new year?

Sheikh Hussam’s comments are merely the latest in a pattern of behavior that has increased in Lebanon in recent years, and that has challenged the more tolerant attitudes of the past.

For instance, there are large parts of Lebanon, in the north and the south, as well as places in western Beirut and in the downtown area, where alcohol can no longer be bought or consumed. Suddenly places where one could buy a beer not so very long ago are today no longer offering it — instead replacing it with that dreadful concoction called non-alcoholic beer.

More intriguing still, prominent restaurant chains that offer alcohol in eastern Beirut somehow no longer do so at their outlets in western Beirut. And a row of restaurants in the downtown area, next to parliament, no longer serve alcohol at all.

If religious Muslims don’t wish to drink, that is their right. There are those Christians, also, who prefer to remain dry. But why the sudden urge to deny alcohol to those, Muslims or Christians, who do enjoy a drink? One can be personally devout and not drink, yet make alcohol available to those who want it. Many Muslim homes apply this compromise for the benefit of their guests.

We have long known the more radical solution to be true in Beirut’s southern suburbs, under Hezbollah rule. But what of Tripoli, Sidon, or western Beirut; places where Christians have always lived and where Christian institutions operate to this day?

What makes such creeping restrictions so disturbing is that they reflect a similar pattern seen in places known for their absolute intolerance — not least areas under the control of the Islamic State. The organization recently issued a decision banning the wearing of wedding rings. And the reason given for this highly bizarre ruling? That it was necessary “in order not to imitate Christians.”

Sheikh Hussam is not the Islamic State, but to the untrained ear his comments on Christmas seemed not so very different in their justification: Muslims must avoid doing what Christians do, even if it involves habits — celebrations of the new year and the non-religious aspects of Christmas and the wearing of wedding rings — that have absolutely nothing to do with Christianity.

That is not to suggest that Sheikh Hussam speaks for all Muslims. If anything, he has taken political positions in defense of Hezbollah in Sidon, against Salafist Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir, so there are not a few Sunnis who must eye him with suspicion. But subtle changes in social behavior often pass over the heads of a majority, whose inaction allows restrictions to expand.

The increasing refusal of certain restaurants to serve alcohol in western and central Beirut is such an example, though there is no official decision making that ruling mandatory. It’s all being done under the radar, and it’s difficult to oppose because owners of such establishments are free to serve what they please.

But the essence of coexistence and a liberal order is to live and let live — to accept the freedom of others to behave as they want just as they accept yours — as long as such behavior does not harm others. In a bizarre way, dysfunctional Lebanon has more or less adhered to this rule. That is why many Muslims do not find it strange to put up Christmas decorations, nor accept the absurd opinion that the new year is a Christian celebration.

Perhaps Sheikh Hussam had ulterior motives for making his comments. These days, the more narrow-minded one appears, the more support one gets. Nor should we give the cleric more merit than he deserves. Nevertheless, the region is changing profoundly toward its minorities, regardless of the recent expressions of sympathy with Christians during the Christmas season.

All we can do is hope that Lebanon retains its habits of old in a region where religious and ethnic chauvinism are on the rise. That may seem a strange thing to say about a country riven by sectarian conflict. But the fact that Lebanon survives as a single country, even after all these conflicts, says a lot about who we are.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Bleak House - Rustom Ghazaleh’s residence goes bang

Thanks to the advice of my friend Nadim Houry of Human Rights Watch, I recently watched a revealing video on YouTube. It purportedly shows the destruction of the home of Rustom Ghazaleh, the last head of Syrian intelligence in Lebanon.

It is not easy to verify the authenticity of the video, allegedly taken near Daraa, from where Ghazaleh hails. It seems that Ghazaleh blew up his residence rather than allow it to fall into the hands of rebels, who have made major gains in the south of the country. He chose to put the scene on film, showing the interior of his home, with gas bottles and jerry cans of gasoline placed all around in preparation for the explosion.

If the video is real, then it is rich in symbolism and salutary lessons. Above all, it underlines that the last nine years have not been particularly good to Ghazaleh, after a period when he had Lebanon’s political class at his feet, and even found time to earn a doctorate at the Lebanese University.

After his departure from Lebanon, Ghazaleh was uncertain what the future held for him. In late 2005 he was interviewed in Vienna by the United Nations team investigating the assassination of Rafik Hariri, and apparently worried that he, as a Sunni, would be thrown to the wolves to safeguard the Alawite elite. Indeed, the first commissioner of the investigation, Detlev Mehlis, had intended to arrest Ghazaleh for the crime, but preferred to leave that to his successor Serge Brammertz.

However, Brammertz did nothing of the sort. In fact he did not do much at all, wasting two years at his post by failing to develop any new leads or identify and arrest new suspects. For his inconsequential exertions, Brammertz was rewarded by the UN with an appointment as chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.

Ghazaleh could breathe again and apparently was given a military intelligence position in Rif Dimashq, the area around Damascus, before heading the Political Security Directorate. On occasion after the outbreak of the Syrian uprising in 2011 he was rumored to have been killed, though he was very much alive.

As a Sunni, Ghazaleh plays a significant role for the regime. His loyalty has not been in question, perhaps because he has benefited immensely from the positions of responsibility in which he has been placed. To Bashar Assad and his clique someone like Ghazaleh shows that not all Sunnis are opposed to the regime.

Moreover, his status as a traitor to his sect means he may be twice as harsh in implementing Assad’s directives.

That may explain the purpose of the video. In the pitiless realm of Syrian regime politics, officials worry most about how other regime figures might exploit their weaknesses. Ghazaleh knew that the rebels would have used his home for propaganda purposes. He would have been humiliated by scenes of bearded gunmen diving into his pool or jumping on his furniture, highlighting his extravagance and opening him up to ridicule and condemnation. Rivals could have used this against him.

The essence of survival in a dictatorship is overcompensation. The more zealous and craven the functionary, the longer he or she lasts. With Joseph Stalin, it was Vyacheslav Molotov who illustrated this truth best — continuing to serve the Soviet regime even after Stalin had his wife arrested. In Syria, evidently Ghazaleh has followed the same example by obliterating something he held dearly, the fruit of countless intrigues.

But if anything it was the symbolism of the gesture that was most significant. Ghazaleh was, simply, informing the rebels that he would prefer to destroy what is his rather than see them benefit from it. That is precisely what Bashar Assad has been telling Syrians since 2011: Syria is mine. If anyone tries to remove me from power, I will not hesitate to annihilate Syria.

The selflessness in destroying a part of oneself can be powerful. There is madness in it, suggesting to an adversary that he can never take victory for granted. But as the fate of Libyan leader Muammar Gadhafi showed, one can catch even the most determined despot and slaughter him in the street.

Perhaps that is an unintended third message in Ghazaleh’s destruction of his home. Syria’s orgy of obliteration is inching ever closer to those who put the country to the sword. It wasn’t meant to be. The savage repression was supposed to silence Syrians for decades, in the way that Hafez Assad’s leveling of Hama in 1982 did. Yet the furies have been unleashed and now they’re in the garden. Before long they will be in the room.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

What Future and Hezbollah should discuss

So great are the worries that Sunni-Shiite relations may deteriorate in Lebanon, that everyone embraces the impending dialogue between the Future Movement and Hezbollah. While nothing will likely come of it, most people believe, the mere fact that it is about to take place is regarded as important.

It seems to be dawning on all sides, particularly Hezbollah, that the conflict in Syria has reached the stage where it may easily overwhelm Lebanon. Not that it hasn’t done so already, with well over a million Syrian refugees in the country. Yet the potential is for something far worse, as the violence in Syria reaches new heights and as regional and international players appear utterly unable to manage the consequences.

In that context, the Future-Hezbollah dialogue would do well to focus on one scenario that could be devastating for Lebanon, both from a political and a humanitarian perspective: the sudden collapse of President Bashar Assad’s regime in Damascus at the hands of militant Islamist forces.

That’s hardly to suggest that Assad is a stabilizing factor in Syria. If anything, the continued absence of a consensus over what to do with the Syrian president has only reinforced the jihadis in Syria. The United States in particular has simply refused to acknowledge that after almost four years of carnage, a vast majority of Syrians are much more concerned with what happens to the psychopath ruling over them than the potential for a chance terrorist attack in Western cities.

If Assad were to lose to the jihadis in Damascus, the repercussions would be infinitely more dramatic than what happened in Mosul last summer. The symbolism of one of the great Arab cities, the former seat of the Umayyad caliphate, surrendering to militant Islamist groups would be monumental. Worse, as the ultimate prize Damascus could quite possibly invite intervention from rival forces, turning the city into a battleground and exacerbating the humanitarian catastrophe.

Future and Hezbollah each has reasons to collaborate and guard against such an outcome. The moderate Sunnis in Future would likely be swept away by the triumph of the Islamists, while the community in general might see an opportunity to strike back at Hezbollah, which has humiliated them for almost a decade.

Hezbollah, in turn, would legitimately regard a jihadi victory in Syria as an existential threat. The reason is that the temptation of such groups could be to extend their reach to Lebanon by waging war against the Shiite community.

Christians, with existential fears of their own and uncertain of how Sunnis might tilt, would probably side with the Shiites. Minorities usually protect themselves by imagining, and preparing for, the worst-case scenarios.

Such circumstances might never come about, and there are those who insist the Assad regime will not soon disintegrate. Perhaps, but Hezbollah’s willingness to support the Lebanese Army’s efforts to consolidate defenses along the Lebanese-Syrian border suggest the party is not taking any chances.

Hezbollah no doubt has a short-term stake in encouraging border interdiction as it continues to fight armed groups in Syria’s Qalamoun region that seek to resupply themselves via Lebanon. But beyond that, the party is also keen to contain the Syrian war within Syrian territory, and protect Lebanese Shiite communities. It realizes that with well over a million Syrian refugees in Lebanon, most of them Sunnis hostile to Hezbollah for assisting Bashar Assad militarily, there is a need to prevent their political mobilization in Lebanon. Retaining tight control over the borders helps in this regard.

Is it realistic to assume that Future and Hezbollah can reach common ground on so divisive a subject as Syria, given their diametrically opposed interests in the country? To an extent yes. They have generally been on the same page in supporting the Army against the armed groups in Arsal. Both have also been pragmatic when the tremors of the Syrian conflict have threatened their power as well as Lebanese civil peace.

The parties should also examine ways to improve the performance and appeal of the Army. Everyone backs the Army, but its wanton arrest of people lately, in the north in particular, has generated resentment that has remained understated amid the jingoism sweeping the country. It may seem odd for two political parties to discuss the Army’s behavior, but together they represent a substantial share of Parliament and happen to be the two leading political forces in the country.

Yet Hezbollah will want to tread carefully when it comes to the military, as the party has used it repeatedly to advance its own political agenda. Nor does Hezbollah want any discord with its ally Michel Aoun, who had influence over the officer corps and would very much like to see his son in law, Shamel Roukoz, become Army commander.

But as the Army is bound to play a central role in both Future’s and Hezbollah’s visions for Lebanon in the coming years, it cannot be ignored as a topic of discussion and consensus. If Hezbollah is preoccupied with shielding Lebanon from the Syrian breakers, it cannot look the other way if the Army’s actions are increasingly alienating many Sunnis. By the same token, if Future is as supportive of the Army as its representatives claim, then it has to offer proposals that reconcile the Army’s priorities with those of Sunnis.

Dialogue is always good, but the situation in Syria demands more than a photo op and soothing words. Indiscernibly, the Syrian situation is going through permutations that may accelerate before long. Assad may feel secure, but those are the moments that should worry him the most. Lebanon must brace for his fall, whether it happens or not.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Four years on, the debate on democracy still rages

This week is the fourth anniversary of the self-immolation of Mohammed Bouazizi, whose death sparked the democratic uprisings in the Arab world. However, four years on there seems to be very little democracy to go around.

So grave is the situation in parts of the region that the more fortunate countries appear to be the ones who have averted civil war, even if it means they have returned to authoritarianism.

This goes to the heart of the discussion on Arab democratisation. For decades, some Arab leaders employed blackmail to keep societies in line: if their people sought to change regimes, this would lead to destructive instability. It was understood that they would provoke such instability.

That is precisely what happened in Syria and Libya. Bashar Al Assad and Muammar Qaddafi triggered civil wars to survive, only to realise that they could not contain the dynamics unleashed. Mr Qaddafi was killed by rival gunmen, while Mr Al Assad’s chances of prevailing in Syria are next to nil.

And yet the democracy versus stability formula is stronger than ever.

Things seemed simpler in 2003, when the United States invaded Iraq, and the appeal of democratisation was in its early days. At the time, there was a view that the September 11, 2001, attacks were the consequences of tyranny in the Arab world. Young men, frustrated by the absence of freedom, embraced religion and even religious extremism, since governments were less able, or willing, to control religious domains. The argument went that it was young men like these who carried out the hijackings that day.

The Iraq invasion was seen by ideologues in the Bush administration as an opportunity to impose a democracy at the heart of the Arab world. This, in turn, would have an impact on neighbouring countries and spur democratisation there, thereby enhancing America’s security.

However, when the situation in Iraq deteriorated dramatically in 2003-04, all discussion of democracy was abandoned. The Bush administration was accused of naïveté, and inside the United States the mood turned against the Iraq campaign.

Successful Iraqi elections in January 2005, coupled with the mass demonstrations in Lebanon against Syrian hegemony in February-March the same year, suggested that democracy remained a burning issue. Yet both Iraq and Lebanon were blindsided by reality as political polarisation followed and democracy was again seen as a fleeting, fragile phenomenon.

When Barack Obama took office, it quickly became clear that the United States no longer was keen to bolster democracy in the Middle East. In Mr Obama’s much-vaunted speech in Cairo, the president paid only lip service to democratisation. And when the Iranian regime brutally repressed demonstrations following the re-election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2009, Mr Obama remained silent.

The United States did push its old ally Hosni Mubarak out of office in 2011, as he faced massive popular opposition. However, this was done mainly to avoid losing influence in Egypt, not because the administration was suddenly moved by Arab democratic aspirations. Indeed, when Syrians began opposing their regime the same year, Washington did nothing to assist them – nor has it since.

As violence in the Arab countries has increased, the appeal of democracy has evaporated. This has lent credence to the argument that Arab societies don’t have the institutions to “move from an amorphous longing for freedom to a well-functioning consolidated democratic political system with a modern economy”, to quote Francis Fukuyama.

Perhaps, but there is something circular in that argument, since it implies that only societies with quasi-democratic institutions can become democracies. It is unfortunate that Mr Fukuyama’s culturally deterministic claim has become the prevailing wisdom as the world watches many of those Arab societies that revolted in 2011 descend into barbarism.

With western countries now obsessed with the rise of ISIL, a new equation is taking hold: that it’s better to deal with vicious, but predictable, dictators against Islamic extremism, than to allow Arab societies to choose their representatives, since invariably these will be Islamists of one stripe or another.

That is precisely the argument Arab dictators once employed. Yet what many in the west won’t recognise is that it was the secular Arab dictatorships that gave impetus to Islamists in the first place. And the more ferocious the regime, the more savage the Islamist counter-reaction as violence begets violence.

That is why those who, for instance, today call for collaboration with Mr Al Assad against ISIL don’t get it. The Syrian regime acts as a magnet for ISIL, and as long as it remains in place the appeal of Islamic extremists will be high, as they are viewed as the most effective foes of Mr Al Assad’s despotism.

In reality, the democracy debate has only just started. Thanks to Tunisia, from where Bouazizi hailed, that discussion can take place in a more nuanced way. Tunisia has charted a path towards a more democratic constitutional order. Elsewhere, Lebanon, for all its many dysfunctions, has long had a system of tolerant pluralism. Arabs are not invariably destined to either embrace dictators or dissolve into civil war.

It is unlikely that many will defend this opinion. Arab democrats not only face repressors within their own societies, they must also contend with western societies who, sometimes arrogantly, believe they have a monopoly over democracy.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Tortured logic - America’s contradictory responses to crime

In response to the Senate Intelligence Committee’s release earlier this week of a report on CIA torture, President Barack Obama’s press secretary, Josh Earnest, had this to say: “The commander in chief concluded that the use of the techniques that are described in this report significantly undermines the moral authority of the United States of America.”

Ironically, the release of the report showed the United States at its best. Only societies that have confidence in their democratic values will willingly cast a harsh light on their own worst actions. Numerous American authors have published widely-read books in recent years on the abuses of their government after the September 11, 2001, attacks — notably Dana Priest with William Arkin, Jane Mayer and Jeremy Scahill. Relatively few countries in the world are as good at self-criticism.

But Americans are also prone to navel-gazing. Whenever they contemplate the world, they tend to focus on America. David Ignatius, hardly a man known for navel-gazing, or hyperbole, yet had this to say about the Senate report: “There simply is no way for a democracy to get past a trauma like the interrogation issue without an honest public accounting. It’s a strange healing process, ripping off the scab, exposing our wounds; perhaps it’s like the self-flagellation of the early saints.”

“Moral authority”? The “early saints”? America’s myriad qualities notwithstanding, it is difficult to read such phrases without groaning. It is all the more difficult in light of the broad American refusal to help end the human tragedy in Syria. The daily catalogue of monstrosities there that the Obama administration has disregarded makes American crimes during the “war on terror” seem almost tame by comparison.

German philosopher Theodor Adorno was once misquoted as saying that it was “impossible to write poetry after Auschwitz.” Well, after Syria it is simply impossible to listen to American self-righteousness. This is particularly true during the week when the world commemorates Human Rights Day.

The question of American responsibility for the war in Syria is a matter of violent disagreement. Most Americans believe that Syria is such a mess that the United States can do almost nothing to alleviate the suffering there. Obama himself infamously referred to Syria as “somebody else’s civil war.”

Civil wars are usually “somebody else’s,” but that hasn’t prevented the United States from intervening politically, or even militarily, to end conflicts around the world, from Bosnia to Somalia, and from Haiti to Lebanon. Some of these experiences were unhappy enough to dissuade Americans from repeating them. However, to this day there is also a parallel American sense of shame for failing to stop mass murder overseas. This feeling was notably expressed by Bill Clinton in a speech in Rwanda, recognizing America’s partial responsibility for having done nothing to end the 1994 genocide there.

Obama’s ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, wrote a Pulitzer Prize-winning book in 2002 entitled A Problem From Hell in which she documented American inaction in the face of 20th-century genocides. The book was passionate and angry; an effort to explain why “time and again, decent men and women chose to look away” when faced with genocide.

Today, Power is an important member of an administration that has chosen to look away from the crimes in Syria. She’s no doubt a decent woman, and on various occasions has made known her discomfort with the administration’s policy. But she has not chosen to resign, and until now no American official has done so over Syria, with the exception of Amb. Robert Ford.

Syria may not be facing genocide, but it is proving to be one of the gravest moral tests this century. Some 200, 000 people are estimated to have been killed; war crimes and crimes against humanity are daily occurrences; there is a great deal of documentary evidence to impart responsibility, not least for the murder of some 11, 000 people under torture in regime prisons; and 3.2 million Syrians are refugees in the countries neighboring Syria, while another 7.6 million have been internally displaced, according to the UN Population Fund.

In other words, with numbers of such magnitude genocide becomes merely a semantic distinction. Particularly disturbing is that the United States is already involved in Syria, leading a bombing campaign against ISIS. Presumably, Washington went back on its refusal to intervene in Syria because of the viciousness of ISIS. And yet Washington still refuses to do anything about the greater viciousness of the Syrian regime. The logic is difficult to comprehend, but there you have it.

So, congratulations to America for having the courage to peel back the covering over its own crimes. But it should spare us the bits about moral authority and the early saints. One must bear a responsibility for crimes that he or she has the ability to stop but, instead, does nothing to prevent.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Ignoring the orphans of Syria’s uprising

It has been remarkable in the past three years that the Syrian human rights situation has failed to really scratch the world’s conscience. Syrians are indeed children of what Lebanese writer Ziad Majed has called an orphaned revolution.

While there has doubtless been international concern and assistance; while we’ve even seen some celebrities highlighting the plight of the refugees, a catastrophe of this magnitude demands far more. Yet by and large concern around the world has been limited. Syria is not a cause célèbre in the same way that Darfur was. No benefit concerts have been organized to assist Syrian refugees similar to the two concerts held for Bangladesh in 1971 to raise funds for refugees displaced by the genocide in East Pakistan. There are no Bonos or Bob Geldofs making noise about Syria. To her credit Angelina Jolie has tried, but it would help if she got her figures straight. In a recent interview with ITV she said that there were 51 million Syrians displaced, almost three times the country’s population.

You wonder what it takes for the horrors in Syria to shake the serenity in Peoria, Mantes-La-Jolie or Haversham. The regime of Bashar Assad has shot peaceful, unarmed protesters and ordered its air force and army to bomb civilians. It has tortured tens of thousands of people, and, thanks to the courage of a former Syrian government photographer, code-named Cesar, there is documentary evidence of the killing of around 11,000 detainees. The Assad regime has used chemical weapons against its own population, killing perhaps as many as 1,700 people, including many children, in the Ghouta in August 2013. And it continues to deploy barrel bombs as a terror weapon against entire neighborhoods.

The reaction in America after the Ghouta chemical attack last year was illustrative of the mood in many Western societies. In a New York Times/CBS News poll conducted in September 2013, as Barack Obama was considering airstrikes against Syria, 60 percent of respondents said they opposed such action. This rejection came even though 75 percent of respondents said they thought Assad’s forces had used chemical weapons.

Yet until now the wheels of international justice have moved very slowly, and those of international outrage hardly at all. The most recent bombshell was the World Food Program’s suspension earlier this month of food vouchers for around 1.7 million Syrian refugees. The announcement brought in donations in excess of what was needed to continue the program. That was excellent news, but why was such a valuable humanitarian enterprise underfunded in the first place?

The indifference shown for the plight of Syria’s refugees is, above all, a moral deficiency. America shook the world after almost 3,000 people were killed in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania. This week Americans have literally writhed with angst over the release of a report on CIA torture, with a Washington Post editorial proclaiming, “This is not how Americans should behave. Ever.”

Yet in Syria, such casualty figures and such disgraceful behavior have been unrelenting since the start of the uprising against Assad rule. Many people around the world have been understandably horrified by the savagery of ISIS, but remain utterly blind to the mass murder conducted by the Syrian regime. Indeed, there are those in the West inviting their governments to collaborate with Assad against the jihadists.

Other than representing a moral failing, the absence of any indignation toward the fate of the Syrians may affect security. It is not defending those who have flocked to ISIS and other jihadist groups to suggest that the resentment generated by the Syrians’ deplorable state of affairs could have been a factor in their decision to travel to Syria and fight. Watching people getting slaughtered amid global apathy is a powerful mobilizer, even when one ends up replicating similar barbarity.

Perhaps what is most disturbing about the situation in Syria is that somehow people see moral ambiguity in a conflict that for a long time was morally unambiguous. In 2011 and 2012 it was principally the regime that perpetrated the most monstrous crimes, while the opposition had not yet taken on a militant Islamist identity. It was the regime that transformed peaceful protests against the Assads into a sectarian civil war.

The Syrian leadership and intelligence services quickly grasped how easy it was to frighten Western leaders and societies by waving a beard in their direction. Many were duped by the Syrian regime’s manipulation of the war narrative and its claim to be fighting against Islamist extremism. This no doubt contributed to the doubts we are witnessing today with regard to the humanitarian tragedy in Syria. And it surely explains why Assad, who by any standard should be on trial for crimes against humanity and war crimes, is still accorded minimal respect.

But overall the situation leaves a bitter taste. Some victims, it seems, are more equal than others. The Syrian population has endured frightful suffering in the past three years. That the world still has difficulty acknowledging this is profoundly unsettling, even intolerable.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Russia finds fresh confidence amid Syrian stalemate

Last week, Russia’s deputy foreign minister Mikhail Bogdanov visited Beirut. Those meeting with him were struck by his refusal to blame Syria’s president, Bashar Al Assad, for the Syrian crisis. Instead, Mr Bogdanov, who had once criticised the Syrian president for standing for re-election, disparaged the United States and its role in the country.

This attitude goes part of the way towards explaining Russia’s recent efforts to bring the Syrian regime and the opposition to the negotiating table. Moscow does not want to undermine Mr Al Assad before any such talks and the initiative is designed to prevent the US from playing a forceful role in Syria.

This may sound ironic because the Obama administration has avoided Syria like the plague and the campaign against ISIL risks failing because the Americans refuse to address the issue of Mr Al Assad’s future.

Nor does America have many confident friends in the region. The Gulf states have gone along with President Barack Obama in his anti-ISIL campaign. But they do not trust him, given his desire to secure a deal with Iran over its nuclear programme and his disengagement from the Middle East.

Clearly, Russia’s anxieties are triggered by its sense of vulnerability rather than anything America is doing. In Syria, Russian power will mainly be defined by its purported allies.

The Russian peace plan is said to have been prepared in coordination with Egypt and the United Nations special envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura. It reportedly proposes a conference in Moscow, to be attended by the Syrian regime and a swathe of opposition groups.

The plan would aim to set up a transitional Syrian government with wide powers, while Mr Al Assad would retain control over the army and security services. The transitional government would establish a constituent assembly to prepare a new constitution before parliamentary elections and a presidential election, two years later. Mr Al Assad could stand for office again if he so chooses.

One can immediately see likely problems. The opposition, already marginalised by the jihadists, will find it difficult to approve of a plan that lets Mr Al Assad retain command over the security services and opens the door to his re-election.

But there are some subtle touches there too, which is why Egypt is paying attention. Moscow is preoccupied with maintaining the Syrian army as an effective force to which rebels can rally once normalisation begins. The plan is primarily seen as a way of containing the jihadist threat in Syria, and echoes what Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said months ago: that the Al Assad regime and the opposition have a shared interest in combating terrorism. Understandably, Egypt welcomes anything that would weaken ISIL, which is not only present in the Sinai but in Libya.

The deadly stalemate in Syria, coupled with international eagerness to see the carnage brought to an end, gives the Russians new confidence that they can impose a settlement. But if the plan is to work, Moscow must persuade Mr Al Assad and Iran.

On the surface, there seems little in the proposal to disturb the Syrian leader, but there are some question marks. Even if Mr Al Assad were to control the army and security services, these have been so depleted in recent years that his overall control of political developments could be reduced.

At the same time, a transitional government and a constituent assembly may begin a process that effectively takes power away from Mr Al Assad. The president’s acceptance of a transitional government may be viewed by his followers as a form of surrender and support for him could wither.

Therefore, it’s not certain that Mr Al Assad will embrace the plan. If so, the Russians would need to persuade Iran of its virtues because Tehran has more influence in Syria than Moscow.

The Iranians might agree with the general aims but like Mr Al Assad, they will first want to know to what a transitional government may lead. Iran, no less that Russia, seeks to preserve Syrian security institutions over which it has sway. But it also realises that accepting Mr Al Assad’s imminent exit may cause the Iranian support edifice in Syria to disintegrate.

Unlike Russia, Iran has played on sectarian divisions to advance its agenda in the Middle East. It sanctioned Shia repression of the Sunni community in Iraq; it has facilitated the de facto break-up of Syria along sectarian lines, and it has supported Shia armed groups from Lebanon to Yemen. Its favoured instrument of manipulation is sectarian militias, which it has established, trained and armed in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.

It is unclear how the Iranian strategy of fragmentation can be reconciled with a Russian plan designed to end it. Mr Al Assad is almost entirely dependent on Tehran today. How eager would the Iranians be to see him accept a road map that allows him to reassert his independence?

Mr Al Assad knows he can play Iran and Russia off against each other if he feels any threat to his rule. That is what should concern Russia. Instead of worrying about the US in Syria, Moscow should tally its own influence over its friends.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Unreal White House - Pursuing American interests is not Obama’s way

After reports this week that Iranian aircraft had bombed Islamic State (ISIS; ISIL) targets in Iraq, US Secretary of State John Kerry denied there was any military coordination between Washington and Tehran. He then remarked, “I think it’s self-evident that if Iran is taking on ISIL in some particular place and it’s confined to taking on ISIL and it has an impact … the net effect is positive.”

The statement highlighted an odd characteristic of the Obama administration in the Middle East: it has trouble interpreting political or military actions in the region as part of power games affecting America. Yet Barack Obama came into office claiming to be a political “realist.” His compass, he promised, would be the pursuit of American interests in the world, which is why he refused to implicate the United States in the Syrian conflict.

As he told George Stephanopoulos in September of last year: [W]hat I’ve also said is that the United States can’t get in the middle of somebody else’s civil war. We’re not gonna put troops on the ground. We can’t enforce, militarily, a settlement there.”

In other words, the president, with a cold eye, would do nothing about the horrific carnage in Syria because US national interests did not mandate ending “somebody else’s civil war.”

However, the realist in Obama has mostly been kept under wraps when it comes to playing power relationships in the Middle East. The essence of realism is to grasp how to use power in order to advance one’s goals. The famous realist political scientist Hans Morgenthau famously wrote in his classic text Politics Among Nations that “international politics, like all politics, is a struggle for power.”  

From day one, Iran and Russia viewed the Syrian conflict precisely in those terms. Iran did the same in Iraq, after the Islamic State overran Mosul and extended its control nearly to Baghdad. Yet Obama, the declared realist, has systematically failed to do so, and today in Iraq and Syria his administration has shown little consideration for how the conflict in both countries might affect power relations between the United States and Iran, or the United States and Russia.

That perhaps explains why Kerry was so keen to stress the positive in the Iranian air attacks against the Islamic State, while ignoring what it might mean for American interests in Iraq. How will Washington fare in Iraq if these interests hit up against those of Iran, which has a very different agenda?

The Obama administration believes that the only way to defeat the Islamic State is to ensure that the Iraqi political system is more inclusive of Sunnis, so that the Sunni community has a stake in collaborating with the government against the extremists. Washington has sought to encourage Iraqi unity by pushing the Kurds to settle their dispute with Baghdad over oil revenues. It has also examined ways of directly arming a Sunni militia as well as the Kurdish Peshmerga, so they can become effective fighting forces against the Islamic State.

Not surprisingly, the Iranian-backed government in Baghdad balked at this. No Iraqi Shiite, and certainly not Iran, wants to see the formation of an independently-armed Sunni force that may overturn the balance of power in Iraq — one encouraged by Iran and that has led to Sunni marginalization.

Iran will never allow its allies in the Iraqi government to sign off on a plan that diminishes its power. America’s options are either to go along with Baghdad, or to ignore its protests and arm the Sunnis and Kurds. Yet the latter seems unlikely since Obama’s approach has been to build consensus, not generate discord, and the president is not about to alienate the Iraqi government when both are fighting the Islamic State.

If Iran gets its way, no one should be surprised. After all, Obama recently sent a reassuring letter to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. According to The Wall Street Journal, the president told the Iranian leader that American military operations inside Syria would not target President Bashar al-Assad or his security forces. The Iranians surely interpreted the gesture as US recognition of Iranian interests in Syria, so why should they regard America as any less forthcoming in Iraq?

Far from being a realist playing the power game on several game boards simultaneously, Obama has adopted a one-issue approach in the Middle East. Now the headline is defeating terrorism and the Islamic State — with all else banished from sight. That is why the White House has so bull-headedly refused to contribute to Assad’s removal from power. What Obama won’t consider is that as long as Assad stays in office sectarian animosity in Syria will remain high, ensuring that the Islamic State and other extremist groups thrive.

Obama’s minimalism has not only provoked angry reactions in the region, notably in Turkey, it has also generated much uneasiness at the Pentagon. The brass can see that by failing to address the Syrian problem in a decisive way today, Obama is only ensuring the situation becomes worse tomorrow. This could, eventually, have negative consequences for the military.

Give Obama credit. He has dressed up his poor excuse for an Iraqi and Syrian policy in the more respectable robes of realism. Like much the president has done, he has allowed image to displace dismal substance. But America’s regional foes have Obama’s number and know he’s a lightweight. When will a true realist stand up and declare that this king has no clothes?

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Politically, the Army gains on Hezbollah

The killing of six soldiers near Ras Baalbek Tuesday concealed a broader political message, one with significant implications for Hezbollah: The primary defender of domestic peace and cross-border threats is the Lebanese Army. For a long time Hezbollah sought to undermine that belief.

The party’s calculation was a simple one. If the Army was regarded as a credible protector of Lebanese stability and sovereignty, it would become more difficult for Hezbollah to justify retaining a weapons arsenal independent from the state.

Yet in the past year the situation has changed somewhat, caused by political circumstances. When car bombs began going off in the southern suburbs of Beirut, Hezbollah set up roadblocks to inspect all vehicles. The long waiting times provoked growing resentment from inhabitants and businesses that were losing customers from outside the area. At the same time the party was increasingly sensitive to accusations that it was engaging in autonomous security. To deflect blame from itself, Hezbollah allowed the Army to man the roadblocks, just as it had earlier granted the Internal Security Forces more latitude to fight rising crime rates in the suburbs.

None of these moves was seen by Hezbollah as more than a convenient way to reduce resentment. Neither the Army nor the security forces seriously damaged Hezbollah’s political or military self-rule in districts the party controls.

But can the same thing be said of the Army’s behavior along the border with Syria? Hezbollah is stuck in the Syrian quagmire, with no signs that it is winning the battle. Hundreds of party members have been killed in the past year and more, according to most reports, and Hezbollah now faces an Islamist enemy as determined to prevail as it is, if not more so.

In order to cut off supply lines between Lebanon and Syria, and in that way strangle Bashar Assad’s enemies in the Qalamoun district, Hezbollah has pushed the Lebanese Army to engage in border interdiction. Ironically, this had always been a demand of Hezbollah’s political rivals, until the party saw the advantages. The United Kingdom entered the breach and has sponsored the building of a network of border towers from Akkar down to the northern Bekaa Valley, which eventually will reach Masnaa on the Beirut-Damascus highway.

No one doubts that Hezbollah is still able to transfer weapons through the northern Bekaa border, and that the Army will avoid confronting the party on such transfers. And it would be naive to assume that Hezbollah permitted the Army’s deployment along the border as part of anything but a scheme to ultimately defeat Syrian opposition forces in Qalamoun.

However, there are three aspects of this worth examining more closely. First, military considerations aside, from a political perspective most Lebanese can clearly see that it is the Army, not Hezbollah, that holds the primary line of defense along the border. When we recall that years ago then -President Emile Lahoud drew on his deep reservoir of strategic wisdom to explain why it was best for the Lebanese Army to position itself away from the border with Israel, it is clear that now the military is taken more seriously.

Secondly, the Army’s reinforcement of the border is increasingly being interpreted as evidence of Hezbollah’s doubts about the Syrian war. The assumption is that the party, realizing that the Assad regime is at serious risk of collapsing, is going along with a plan that would isolate Lebanon from the chaos in Syria if that happened. In that way, border interdiction by the Army becomes necessary from a national-security perspective.

If this interpretation is correct, it would show not only that Hezbollah is realistic about the limits of its role in Syria, but also about the limits of its ability to defend Lebanon. This would be a powerful, if implicit, concession by the party, one certain to prompt new demands that Hezbollah surrender its arms.

Third, as most Lebanese have seen in recent months, the only institution capable of maintaining civil peace is the Army. This was especially true during the recent attack against militant Islamists in Tripoli, just as it has been true on the countless occasions the military has intervened to prevent neighborhood clashes from turning into larger sectarian battles.

Critics will respond that all too often the Army has served Hezbollah’s agenda. Perhaps, but when Hezbollah’s agenda, shifting to accommodate the challenges the party’s errors have placed in its path, favors measures that, unintentionally, strengthen the state’s authority as the ultimate guarantor of civil peace and national security, that is a good thing. And as the Army gains in credibility and purpose, it will be increasingly less disposed to march to Hezbollah’s drumbeat, even if it has no intention of entering into a confrontation with the party.

Perhaps that’s why Hezbollah is so reluctant to bring in a new president today. It senses that the mood is changing in Lebanon and that the Army’s improved standing could push a president to go further than did Michel Sleiman in criticism of the party’s weapons. That anxiety was not present last year when Hezbollah felt it was winning in Syria, and hoped to use a victory there to impose a favored candidate on the Lebanese.

All this may represent measured gains against Hezbollah’s refusal to disarm voluntarily. But they are gains nonetheless. Hezbollah is losing men to defend the Assad regime, the Army to defend Lebanese territory. That conclusion may best illustrate where the Lebanese presently stand on the party.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Lebanon’s presidential stalemate won’t end soon

Lebanon’s seven-month presidential vacuum continues, with no solution. While the deadlock has been blamed on the presidential ambitions of Michel Aoun, who heads the Free Patriotic Movement, in all likelihood it is more the result of Hizbollah’s calculations and the regional uncertainties shaping them.

Mr Aoun, a man of destructive aspirations, realises that, at 81, this is his last chance to become head of state. For months he has prevented his parliamentary bloc from attending election sessions (parliament chooses the president) to vote for a successor to Michel Sleiman. Mr Aoun’s decision has prompted his ally Hizbollah to follow suit, preventing a quorum.

Not surprisingly, Mr Aoun’s critics have blamed him for the on-going absence of a president. While he was never one to put Lebanon’s interests before his own, Mr Aoun in this case is merely a facade for Hizbollah. The party does not want to bring in a new president today, and has conveniently used its ally to prevent an election. Mr Aoun, believing that open-ended deadlock increases his chances, has played along with this.

Hizbollah’s motives are more ambiguous. The party faces several serious regional challenges. It wants a Lebanese president who will defend its agenda, especially its retention of weapons, and it does not want to risk electing someone who, like Mr Sleiman, will later oppose it from inside Lebanon.

That’s because the former president made a number of statements disapproving of Hizbollah’s independent weapons arsenal. Two rocket attacks against the area of the presidential palace were regarded as Hizbollah’s replies to Mr Sleiman.

Hizbollah’s biggest headache is its involvement in the war in Syria. The party has lost hundreds of combatants in the fighting and yet the Syrian regime, which it supports, seems no nearer to victory. On the contrary, President Bashar Al Assad is facing a collapsing economy, is losing territory in southern Syria, and has failed to make decisive gains against his foes around Aleppo and in Qalamoun bordering Lebanon.

The situation in Iraq is equally unsettling for Hizbollah. The takeover of territory by ISIL last summer cut off land communications between Iran and Syria, making it more difficult to send weapons, men and money to the Al Assad regime.

Hizbollah is also warily watching the American response in Iraq, which risks eroding Iran’s hold there. The Obama administration is today speaking about directly arming Sunni militias and the Kurdish Peshmerga, to the displeasure of the Shia-dominated Iraqi government, which feels it may lead to Iraq’s break-up.

Hizbollah has also awaited the outcome of Iranian-western negotiations over Iran’s nuclear programme. Had an agreement been reached last month, this might have given Iran a regional lift, which Hizbollah would have sought to reflect in the person of the Lebanese president. Now that the deadline has been extended until 2015, Lebanon may remain in limbo.

Inside Lebanon, Hizbollah has sought to contain the repercussions of the presidential vacuum and the Syrian conflict by approving of a dialogue with the Sunni-dominated Future Movement, led by Saad Hariri. In this way it hopes to reduce Sunni-Shia tensions that could threaten it domestically.

The party has also supported the Lebanese army’s efforts to contain the backlash from the Syrian war. That’s normal as the army often targets Hizbollah’s enemies, and has been a de facto partner along the border with Syria. Yet the party has also been forced to grant considerable leeway to the army, whereas in the past it sought to limit its role, fearing this would encourage demands that Hizbollah surrender its weapons to the state.

In supporting Mr Aoun and implying it favours him for the presidency, Hizbollah has also reinforced its ties with a leading Christian figure. In that way it has enhanced its power against Sunnis in the game of shifting Lebanese sectarian politics.

Yet Mr Aoun has ignored the negative consequence of the presidential void: it has shown that Lebanon can function without a president, who according to an unwritten 1943 agreement hails from the Maronite Christian community. Whatever diminishes the importance of the presidency invariably does the same for the national role of the Maronites.

Some have suggested that Hizbollah’s real aim is to allow this – to move towards a renegotiation of sectarian shares that would give more power to the under-represented Shia at the Christians’ expense. That may be true, or untrue, but for as long as Maronites are deeply divided over the presidency, it will remain a political football between Sunnis and Shia.

While Hizbollah has strongly hinted that it wants Mr Aoun as president, that could be a tactical move. He is a man difficult to control. The party may not want someone in office with an independent base of Christian support who, once he has satisfied his lifelong dream, may be far less pliable toward Hizbollah.

Moreover, Maronite presidents are ultimately reliant on satisfying both Sunnis and Shia. A president opposed by one or the other finds it almost impossible to be elected, especially as he or she constitutionally embodies Lebanon’s unity.

A majority of Sunnis reject Mr Aoun due to his closeness to Hizbollah. The party will probably back him as leverage until it can give him up in a deal to bring another Maronite it finds desirable. But regional realities must change first. Expect Lebanon to be without a president for some time yet.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Golden years - Sabah’s death reminds us of the merits of nostalgia

The death of the singer Sabah this week prompted Walid Jumblatt to tweet, “Sad news today .the legendary singer Sabah died.with her passing away an entire beautiful past of Lebanon passes away.” The typographical errors notwithstanding, Jumblatt showed that even hardened politicians are as vulnerable to nostalgia as the common man.

The generation that dominated Lebanon’s golden years, those of the 1960s and early 1970s, is dying out. With this has come a renewed yearning in Lebanon for a period characterized in the popular imagination by glamour, success and style. Doubtless there is always a tendency to idealize the past, but compared with the country today, where most of the celebrities and public figures are cheap knockoffs of their predecessors and where vulgarity and exhibitionism pass for panache, there is some truth in that idealization.    

And yet glamor is really in the eye of the beholder. Many years ago one of my neighbors in Beirut was a famous television star. When he would stand on his balcony during the early 1970s, the children in the school bus picking me up would run to the windows to wave at him. Rather foolishly I bathed in the reflected glory of living in the same building as he.

When the war started, he and his family became our close friends. I saw a great deal of them and watched as they faced the vicissitudes of life in wartime Lebanon. They grew older, had no work, saw their mountain home burned, and then passed away. Yet today, knowing the reality of their life, I still feel powerful emotions when watching reruns of their television shows as their celluloid life displaces their real one. Many dismiss nostalgia, but it can pump us up with new oxygen.

That is why it is worth exploring a project, perhaps sponsored by the Culture Ministry and financed by Lebanese expatriates, to establish a national institution to display Lebanon’s cultural past and evoke nostalgia. It would include films, documentaries, newsreels, plays, magazines, books and photographs, and could organize exhibitions, film festivals and more.

What would the advantages of such an effort be? Above all, pleasure. But beyond that it would represent an occasion for the Lebanese to look at their country with a less jaundiced eye, and create a common memory in a fragmented society that seems to share so little these days. Such an objective may not seem important, given Lebanon’s myriad other problems, but initiatives of national revival and stimulation are common.

And they usually happen to be very popular. Youths may be less sensitive to the programs or singers their parents loved, but everyone is intrigued by how Lebanon once looked, especially when it represents such a striking contrast to the dysfunctional country of today. Perhaps in that way we could learn that Lebanon once stood for something culturally — whether high-brow or popular culture — in which we can take some pride.

My own preference goes to the foreign films shot in Beirut. They tell us more about how foreigners viewed Lebanon than how the Lebanese viewed themselves. And yet those films very much reflected an image that Lebanon itself sought to project; one of cosmopolitanism characterized by beautiful scenery and intrigue — all sunlight, blue sea and scotch and soda.  

One of my great delights was watching David Niven in Where the Spies Are, a 1965 takeoff on the espionage genre, directed by Val Guest. Niven is booked at the old Hotel Alcazar, today the HSBC Bank near the ruin of the Saint Georges Hotel. With him we rediscover various locations in Beirut and Byblos, carouse with Francoise Dorleac, escape thugs and undo conspiracies.

Beirut’s reputation was reflected in several other films from the same period, including George Lautner’s La Grande Sauterelle from 1967; Twenty-Four Hours to Kill with Mickey Rooney, from 1965; the silly yet entertaining Agent 505: Death Trap Beirut, from 1966, whose first scene is shot at the Sporting Club; and this less-than-sterling effort titled Secret Agent Fireball, from 1965. None are especially good, but I challenge anyone to remain indifferent to the physical backdrop of the stories.

Surprisingly little has come out of Lebanon’s war years. One might challenge the notion that war can provoke nostalgia, and yet some of Ziad al-Rahbani’s most beloved plays were produced during the war, and have war as a theme. These include Film Ameriki Tawil and Shi Fashil, while two of the most enduring films of the late Maroun Baghdadi also had war as their theme: Little Wars (1982) and Out of Life (1991).

That’s why nostalgia can also be a pernicious balm over the past, making one view previous horrors in a more forgiving light. But forgetfulness is the essence of renewal, and is why Lebanon has time and again come back from its worst crises, when others might have been overwhelmed.

This was the calculation when the postwar political class passed a general amnesty law for crimes committed during the war, a decision that provoked outrage among many people. But ours is an impressionistic Mediterranean culture, where ambiguity is the norm and truth relative, so pressing certain issues will often provoke undesirable consequences.

That’s why a center for cultural memory should be designed in much the same spirit. Let it be devoted to nostalgia and nothing more. Let the aim be to evoke the memory, or the illusion, of a former time. Let’s smoke the myth of Lebanon as the national opium for today. Nostalgia, our refund on a salary paid to age.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

The U.S. is crippled in the Middle East

The next time a presidential campaign tries to convince you that its candidate has foreign policy experience by virtue of having spent a few years overseas as a child, remember Barack Obama. Among post-World War II administrations, his is one of the worst on foreign affairs, in a frequently abysmal field.

During his six years in office, Obama has often appeared to regard foreign policy as an imposition. His approach has generally been to avoid knotty crises, or to accept short-term solutions that leave problems unresolved, so as to better focus on domestic priorities. That is how ostriches behave, and Obama’s head-in-the-sand strategy is showing its failings.

The departure of Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel this week made that perfectly clear. There was much commentary on how Hagel had failed to crack the inner core of presidential advisers at the White House; of how he had failed to define a clear military policy toward ISIS; of how he had stood back and allowed the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey, to take the lead on military matters. Given that the military has been leaking heavily lately in ways designed to embarrass the White House over its anti-ISIS strategy, it was not surprising that Hagel was forced from office.

But it is the accusation that the defense secretary failed to formulate an effective policy that was most bizarre. Obama has set down foreign policy conditions, or red lines, that make a coherent policy next to impossible. And the president refuses to separate himself from the one person whose job it is to coordinate and impose a direction when it comes to American foreign affairs: the national security adviser, Susan Rice.

Rice was a spirited ambassador to the United Nations. She took strong positions on the slaughter in Syria, leading many to remember her regret for having failed to urge action to stop the genocide in Rwanda in 1994 when she was in the National Security Council. Rice famously said, “I swore to myself that if I ever faced such a crisis again, I would come down on the side of dramatic action, going down in flames if that was required.”

But since she joined the White House two years ago, she has conveniently put that vow aside, much as did her successor at the U.N., Samantha Power, the author of a much-hailed book on American inaction toward genocide. Insincerity in the defense of a career is no vice. Instead, what has gone down in flames are America’s alliances in the Middle East, so that next to Obama, even George W. Bush comes across as a great conciliator.

Recall how the earnest Norwegians of the Nobel Peace Prize committee rewarded Obama back in 2009, imagining that he ticked all the boxes in their checklist of global responsibility. That was before his indifference to the carnage in Syria would destroy his integrity, and long before he sent a letter to Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khamenei reassuring him that American attacks against ISIS in Syria would not target the Assad regime’s forces, which have continued to murder Syrians with abandon.

The greater problem is that Obama’s policies in the Middle East have primarily been built not around principles or objectives, but around avoidance. After 2011 Obama felt that he could ignore what was taking place and blithely embark on a “pivot to Asia,” only to discover that the region does not obediently adapt itself to the attention spans of American presidents.

Today, that apathy has come back to bite Obama. He has deployed troops to Iraq once again; in Syria his campaign against ISIS has marginalized those rebels willing to work with the United States, undermining U.S. aims; American relations with Turkey and Saudi Arabia, both old allies, are in a shambles, while those with Egypt have not yet recovered from the tensions raised by the Egyptian army’s forced removal of President Mohammad Morsi; Obama’s promise to advance Palestinian-Israeli peace negotiations was never seriously implemented; and Obama’s opening to Iran continues to flounder, despite the president’s best efforts to find common ground with Tehran.

Virtually all these issues either took a turn for the worse or failed because Obama never gave them much time or put his personal credibility on the line to push for desirable outcomes. The president thought he had the luxury of allowing things to fester, only to realize the ensuing situations were far more damaging than he had anticipated. This was the case with the emergence of ISIS, which Obama admits he underestimated.

Politics cannot be conducted by remote control, whether in the Middle East or the United States. Obama might look back at a Democratic predecessor for a lesson. Bill Clinton had flaws, but he was a quintessential politician. When he wanted something, he got on an airplane and relentlessly pursued it. He was willing to get involved, and though he was no great foreign policy wonk, he grasped that his political effectiveness was just as dependent on what he did abroad as on what he did at home.

That kind of thinking led to the Dayton Agreement for the former Yugoslavia, the Oslo I Accord between the Palestinians and Israelis, and the Jordanian-Israeli peace treaty. It is also what made Jimmy Carter successfully negotiate the Camp David accords in 1978. Both Clinton and Carter were Democrats who, like Obama, initially sought to concentrate on domestic affairs, but who then adapted when foreign priorities beckoned.

Obama has two more years to do better. However, with a Republican House and Senate the likelihood that much will improve, or be allowed to improve, is not high. Hagel was a convenient scapegoat, but it will take much more than his exit for America to regain its foreign policy standing.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

This region pays heavily for Obama’s arrogance

Few things are more shameless than an administration on the ropes. This fact was brought home earlier this week when Chuck Hagel, the American defence secretary, announced that he would be stepping down.

Mr Hagel wasn’t quite fired, but the operative term was that he was “forced to resign”. A major reason hinted at by the administration was that the secretary had failed to define clear strategies in Syria and Iraq, permitting the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, Martin Dempsey, to occupy centre stage.

The US military has been leaking heavily lately, mainly to reflect its displeasure with tight White House control over military operations in Syria. Mr Hagel undoubtedly paid a price because Mr Obama felt he had failed to control the top brass.

If the White House seeks clarity, Mr Obama’s recent letter to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, hasn’t helped. The letter has not been made public, but those briefed on its contents told The Wall Street Journal that the president wrote that Washington and Iran had parallel interests in combating ISIL. In light of this, Mr Obama reassured the Iranian leader that American military operations inside Syria would not target Bashar Al Assad or his security forces.

Mr Hagel reportedly realised that the administration’s Syria policy was deeply flawed. He is said to have recently sent a memo to Susan Rice, the national security adviser, warning that the policy risked unravelling because of the administration’s failure to clarify its intentions towards Mr Al Assad.

The reality is that the White House has bullheadedly refused to address the future of the Syrian regime, even as it rejects dealing with Mr Al Assad and continues to fight extremists who will thrive for as long as he remains in office. Predictably, this tissue of contradictions has made US policy unintelligible.

American incoherence has strained relations between Washington and Ankara. In delaying aid to the Kurds fighting ISIL in Kobani, Turkey has, correctly, insisted that the real priority must be to get rid of the Assad regime. Unless that is done, all the elements that allowed ISIL to emerge will remain in place.

It is startling how indifferent, or how impervious, the Obama administration has been to the terrible suffering in Syria. Nor has it understood the outrage the slaughter has provoked worldwide. It is that outrage that has prompted thousands of foreigners to fight in Syria, and that has reinforced the most extremist tendencies among Mr Al Assad’s enemies.

Worse, today Mr Obama is proposing collaboration with Iran against ISIL. Yet Tehran has abetted Mr Al Assad in his crimes and is vital to his survival. The administration seems unconcerned that this will only undermine its own policy of building up so-called moderates in the Syrian opposition.

No one in the Syrian opposition, moderates or extremists, will want to be seen as siding with the Americans when Mr Obama is publicly reassuring Ayatollah Khamenei that Mr Al Assad is safe. On the contrary, they will regard the United States as an enemy – a trend already increasingly visible today.

Incomprehensibly, Washington has failed to apply in Syria the same logic it has pursued in Iraq. In Iraq it has insisted that the only way to undermine ISIL is to push the Shia-dominated government to better integrate Sunnis into the political system, since ISIL feeds off Sunni discontent. Yet Mr Obama evidently doesn’t accept that something so self-evident is relevant in Syria.

There are many in Washington who feared that a nuclear deal between Iran and the P5+1 would have encouraged the administration to collaborate more readily with Tehran in the Middle East. That may be overstating things. In some places American and Iranian interests are parallel, for instance in Iraq and in specific situations in Lebanon. In others it is less so.

The problem is that no one quite understands what the Obama administration’s agenda is. It has senselessly alienated an old ally in Turkey, but seems willing to cooperate with an old enemy in Iran, one of Turkey’s regional rivals. It says that it wants Mr Al Assad to leave office and has long regarded him and Hizbollah as destabilising forces in the region, but has virtually recognised that Iran’s allies in Syria will not be harmed.

If this represented a strategic realignment in the region, then it would have been clearer. But it seems more a consequence of the White House’s irreconcilable aims and the fact that Ms Rice has been an incompetent national security adviser, utterly incapable of imposing a direction to American foreign policy.

Syria will continue to frustrate the United States, but the belief that Mr Al Assad will remain in office may be optimistic. His forces have taken heavy losses in recent months, and while he may last for a time, the Obama administration must prepare for the possibility of his regime falling. It may happen or it may not, but if extremist groups one day take over in Damascus, Mr Obama will be partly responsible for a grand mess.

Rarely has an administration been as severely criticised by its own former members as this one. Perhaps Mr Hagel will be next to write a sour memoir on his time in office. It can only be arrogance that explains Mr Obama’s unwillingness to admit, and undo, his administration’s blunders. Meanwhile, the Middle East will continue to pay in human lives for such conceit.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Message in a battle - What Jamil al-Sayyed told us about Syria’s aims

Jamil al-Sayyed, the former head of the General Security directorate, is not often in the news these days. So on those rare occasions when he is, it must be a trifle galling for him to be given the role of messenger.

And yet Sayyed’s statement in early November upon his return from Damascus after meeting with President Bashar al-Assad was an interesting one, and confirmed what many observers had been hearing for some time. Sayyed reported that the Syrian president sought more military cooperation between Syria and Lebanon, and quoted him as saying: “Coordination between the Lebanese and Syrian armies [in confronting terrorism] would alleviate the security burden for the two countries and would contribute to strengthening Lebanon’s security.”

The fact is that neither Syria nor Hezbollah was pleased with the government’s laissez-faire attitude in Arsal until last summer. They have for some time been pressuring the army to tighten security along the border in order to cut off the supply lines of the anti-Assad groups in Syria’s Qalamoun district.

There are several ironies here. Not very long ago it was Hezbollah that refused the idea of monitoring the border between Lebanon and Syria, a demand of March 14. After the conflict in Syria started, however, the roles were reversed. March 14 said nothing about the passage of weapons and supplies from Arsal into Syria, while Hezbollah sought to tighten border surveillance.

Sayyed’s remarks cast the situation in Arsal in a new light. When the Lebanese Army was attacked last June, it was because the anti-Assad armed groups in Qalamoun felt that the army was about to close the door on them, blocking their resupply routes to Lebanon. This poses a threat, particularly during the winter months, when they will have to move to lower areas, making them vulnerable to attacks by Hezbollah and the Syrian regime.

That is not to say that those who abducted and killed Lebanese soldiers are anything but criminals; or that Lebanon is not justified in securing its borders. However, there is some question as to how many of the rebels fighting in Qalamoun really belong to the Islamic State or Jabhat al-Nusra. A majority, according to Syrian assessments, are simply young men from Qalamoun who were forced to flee their towns and villages last year. That doesn’t mean that many of them do not sympathize with Jabhat al-Nusra, which reportedly has a larger presence than the Islamic State, or that they are not fighting with the group. All it means is that in the confusion of Qalamoun, it is likely that a vast majority of the combatants are far more concerned with defeating the Assad regime than they are with imposing an Islamic state in Lebanon, or opening a new Lebanese front that would drain their resources as they await an opportunity to focus on Damascus.

An understanding of these dynamics is necessary to determine what should be done next. If the Syrians are still sending messages that they seek coordination with the Lebanese Army, this suggests that the army and the political leadership have not responded adequately to Syrian demands up to now. That’s hardly surprising given how divided the country is and how events in Arsal might negatively affect sectarian relations.

Then there is the question of how long Assad can remain in power. His forces have been taking heavy casualties in recent months and have lost ground in southern Syria, the shortest path to the capital. The regime’s narrative that it is winning the battle and that Western and Arab attacks against the Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra are bolstering its position hasn’t been borne out. The regime has made some gains, especially around Damascus, but elsewhere it has failed to break the deadlock. Given its heavy reliance on the Alawite minority, a grinding stalemate is to the advantage of its numerically superior enemies.

That is why the Syrian regime and Hezbollah want the Lebanese Army to become more active. If the border remains open, it will make their efforts to defeat the armed groups in Qalamoun even more difficult than they are today. Hezbollah is caught in a quagmire and is taking significant casualties. It was to avert heavy losses that the party initially allowed the rebels to evacuate towns it was attacking in Qalamoun, above Al-Qusayr. But this only ensured that it would fight a grueling guerilla war later on.

The army would make a terrible mistake in coordinating with Assad’s regime, as this would only draw it further into the Syrian mess. Its best option is to contain and manage tensions along the border. But the armed groups should understand that their abduction and murder of Lebanese soldiers and policemen will only push the army into Assad’s arms, while alienating many Lebanese. Extremists in Qalamoun may thrive on this, but the vast majority of anti-Assad rebels have no stake in allowing it.

Perhaps there was something symbolic in the fact that Sayyed relayed the Syrian outlook. There was a time when Syrian opinions were the law in Lebanon. Those days appear to be over and Sayyed’s political fate embodies this. Often the force of a message can be determined by the standing of the messenger.  

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Israel is in a trap of its own making

Doubtless, it was a shock to many Israelis that the Spanish parliament recognized the state of Palestine – well sort of – on the day that two Palestinians attacked a synagogue in Jerusalem, killing four people. But even if the parliamentary resolution was a watered down version of an earlier proposal, Israeli officials should read the writing on the wall: They are losing the battle of narratives in their conflict with the Palestinians.

The Spanish move came only weeks after the Swedish government recognized a Palestinian state and the British parliament passed a motion urging the government to recognize a Palestinian state alongside Israel, to contribute to a two-state solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Seven European Union or Mediterranean countries have already recognized a Palestinian state, and the French parliament is expected to do so soon.

Most of the resolutions are non-binding and have only symbolic value. But Israeli anger at their passage suggests that officials in Israel grasp the underlying message: Israel is increasingly seen as the problem, not as a willing participant in a two-state solution with the Palestinians, so that parliaments throughout Europe feel justified in pushing it in this direction.

The Israeli response has been stupidly arrogant. The Israeli foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, wrote on Facebook that the “Swedish government must understand that relations in the Middle East are a lot more complex than the self-assembly furniture of IKEA and that they have to act with responsibility and sensitivity.” Yet Israel itself has for decades failed to show any real understanding of, let alone responsibility for or sensitivity to, the deep changes in the Middle East, or the repercussions of its perennial crushing of Palestinian aspirations and abuse and degradation of the Palestinian people.

Most disturbing, successive Israeli governments have found no answer to the numerical challenge posed by a rising Palestinian population whose land in East Jerusalem and the West Bank is being gradually reduced by Israeli actions. Before long Israelis will have to determine what to do with a rising Palestinian population in their midst. They cannot expel them, because of the international outcry and because Palestinians could be expected to fight back; they cannot expect the growing Palestinian population to supinely accept being banished to a nominal, fragmented mini-state surrounded by Israel; and they cannot absorb Palestinians, because Israeli Jews do not want to create a demographic time bomb that ultimately transforms them into a minority.

This reality has time and again been raised with Israeli officials, to no avail. The settlement project continues, preposterously defended by Israel as merely “expansions of current settlements.” Israel is systematically seeking to reduce the Arab population of East Jerusalem. And even relations with the Obama administration have been strained, as Benjamin Netanyahu’s government has made no effort to compromise on its settlement plans to facilitate an understanding with Palestinians.

Instead, the Israelis have focused on Palestinian violence or shortcomings to derail progress. They have also benefited from Arab anxieties toward Iran, an enemy Israel shares with many Arab countries, to move ahead with their agenda of annexation.

To a large extent Netanyahu sees a playing field to his advantage. He remains domestically strong and the tensions with Barack Obama are sustainable at a time when the U.S. president is reeling from a Republican drubbing in Congressional elections. Those Republicans are even less likely than their Democratic counterparts to raise the heat on Israel, so that Obama stands alone. Nor has the president, typically, sought to build up a constituency in favor of his position. Like virtually everything he has touched, Obama’s efforts to isolate Netanyahu have been haphazard, half-hearted and utterly ineffective.

The chaos in the Arab world has also helped Netanyahu. Few Israelis watching what is going on all around them today have any impetus to surrender Arab land, not when their withdrawal from Gaza led to successive wars between Israel and Hamas.

In this regard, the Palestinians botched the Gaza pullout. Since the territory was overrun by Hamas in 2007, it has served as much as a political battleground between Palestinian Islamists and Fatah as between Hamas and Israel. On many occasions it was Hamas that provoked a war with the Israelis in order to undermine Mahmoud Abbas and the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority, or to satisfy the regional designs of Iran and Syria.

But under Netanyahu, Hamas and Israel have also had a parallel interest in discrediting a two-state solution in which their leaders do not believe. Netanyahu, though he has had a Palestinian partner willing to adhere to the conditions of a two-state solution, has never missed an occasion to humiliate Abbas and make his position among Palestinians untenable. Netanyahu has continued to say that he believes in peace, but the reality is that his policies and conditions have made peace virtually impossible.

Less and less is the international community willing to go along with this charade. But more important, Israelis themselves have to face the fact that without a mutually acceptable solution to the Palestinian problem, they can only expect years of instability ahead, and almost certainly greater radicalization on both sides. Abbas’ expiration date is rapidly nearing and you can be sure that whoever comes afterward will be far less amenable to reaching a negotiated solution with Israel. Nor can Israeli Jews assume that all will remain well and unchanged with their Arab Israeli countrymen, particularly at a time when the government is demanding that Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state.

Israel is facing a dilemma of significant proportions, and its skill at batting away any and all protests against its policies only makes matters worse. It simply offers no realistic endgame with the Palestinians, and everyone knows this. Until most Israelis agree, they can be sure that their future holds only more violence.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Hariri tribunal needs to recapture lost momentum

Last week, the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, which is trying suspects for the assassination of the former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri, allowed prosecutors to present evidence on the deteriorating relationship between Mr Hariri and the Syrian regime in 2004-2005.

Defence lawyers described the decision as a major expansion in the Hariri trial. That’s not surprising. Until now those indicted have been five members of Hizbollah, all accused of participating in the crime at the operational level. The initial indictment prepared by Daniel Bellemare, the Canadian former prosecutor of the special tribunal, made no mention of Syria.

This was damaging to the prosecution, because in his indictment Mr Bellemare offered no motive for the killing. There was an assumption in Lebanon that Syria got rid of Hariri because he intended to challenge them in the parliamentary elections of summer 2005, and would probably have won a majority. The tribunal’s decision now allows the prosecution to reinforce its case by bringing in the Syrian angle.

The United Nations investigation of the Hariri assassination went through several permutations of uneven quality. Initially, the UN named an Irish deputy police commissioner, Peter Fitzgerald, to prepare a preliminary report on what happened. On the basis of his findings it then appointed an independent commission to look into the crime more deeply.

Mr Fitzgerald did not directly accuse Syria, but he came as close as he could to doing so. He wrote that security in Lebanon was in Syria’s hands, and that the murder had taken “considerable finance, military precision in its execution, [and] substantial logistical support”. In other words it resulted from a conspiracy that the Syrian and Lebanese security services could hardly have helped noticing. On top of this, he accused pro-Syrian Lebanese officials of trying to cover up the crime scene.

The ensuing UN independent commission was first headed by Detlev Mehlis, a German judge. Like Mr Fitzgerald, he focused on Syrian involvement and interviewed several Syrian intelligence officials in Vienna. It was Mr Mehlis’s view that Syria was behind the assassination, and when he left his post in December 2005, he sought to take Bashar Al Assad’s witness statement, a decision that provoked Syrian anger.

Mr Mehlis was followed by a Belgian judge, Serge Brammertz, who did little to advance the investigation. This was confirmed to me by two senior Lebanese officials and a former UN investigator. Mr Brammertz’s progress reports prompted Mr Mehlis to later tell me that the investigation “had lost all momentum” since the Belgian had taken over.

Indeed, Mr Brammertz appeared to abandon the path of Syrian involvement. He never took Mr Al Assad’s statement, nor did he arrest anyone. Mr Mehlis had been on the verge of arresting Rustom Ghazaleh, who headed Syria’s intelligence apparatus in Lebanon, before deciding to leave this to his successor.

There were also serious doubts about Mr Brammertz’s handling of telecommunications data showing Hizbollah’s involvement in the assassination. A 2010 Canadian Broadcasting Corporation documentary echoed this, revealing that a report prepared by a Lebanese police investigator used telecommunications analysis to point the finger at Hizbollah. The report was misplaced by UN investigators, then rediscovered. Today it serves as the basis for the indictment of the Hizbollah members.

To many, Mr Brammertz was a careerist who grasped that the UN did not want to rock the boat with the Hariri investigation.

However, Mr Brammertz did one thing useful. In a report he provided a hypothesis for the Hariri killing, writing, “there is a layer of perpetrators between those who initially commissioned the crime and the actual perpetrators on the day of the crime, namely those who enabled the crime to occur.”

Friday, October 10, 2014

On the road - The abducted soldiers’ families hurt only the Lebanese

The spectacle of families of the soldiers abducted in Arsal closing roads in recent weeks has been both poignant and disturbing. It has been disturbing because those behind the abductions have been manipulating the families, calling them to warn that their sons will be killed, then asking that they close the roads to raise the pressure on the Lebanese government.

From the start of the hostage saga in August, the families have behaved in a rather odd way, reserving their strongest words for the Lebanese government and political class. Even when television stations interviewed the inhabitants of Fnaydeq, in the Akkar region, after the decapitation of Sgt. Ali al-Sayyed, who is from the town, virtually no one condemned the Islamic State that had killed him. Instead, it was the “politicians” who were to blame.

Many negative things can be said about the state and its politicians, but they were not responsible for taking the soldiers and policemen hostage. Nor were the Lebanese in general guilty of such a thing. Yet the escalating reactions of the families and their sympathizers, with their daily cutoff of roads, has only harmed the population at large, while showing the Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra that they are capable of creating dissension in Lebanon to achieve their political aims.

At no time was this more evident than when the Islamic State murdered a second soldier, a Shiite by the name of Abbas Medlej. In retaliation, Shiites from the Bekaa Valley began abducting Sunnis, who responded by doing the same. This carried many Lebanese back to the start of the Civil War in 1975. The situation was brought under control, but the jihadists had shown they could heighten sectarian instability in Lebanon.

In most countries, the fact that two soldiers, regardless of their sect, were killed by the same knife would unify a population. But such are Sunni-Shiite relations in Lebanon today that precisely the opposite occurred. That is not only dramatic in its implications; it shows how the families and coreligionists of the abducted soldiers are not pausing to think of their actions.

But they might answer that their behavior has forced the government to act. The families believe, probably rightly, that the government is not at all keen to engage in a prisoner swap with the jihadists, who have demanded that Salafists detained at the Roumieh prison be released. The government understandably fears that if it were to concede on this, it would become open season for jihadists to abduct more military and security personnel to secure the release of more prisoners.

Remarks this week by the social affairs minister, Wael Abu Faour, did little to clarify matters. Speaking to the families of the abducted soldiers, Abu Faour stated, “The Lebanese government asserts that it is serious to the utmost about the negotiations in order to bring back the soldiers. We call for a clear and frank swap immediately.”

But then Abu Faour admitted there had been procrastination in the negotiations, though he added that it had not been caused by the government. But he did not clarify to whom he was referring. For the families, who distrust the government, this was likely interpreted as a roundabout confirmation of their suspicions that the government was behind the delay.

Abu Faour and his political patron Walid Jumblatt are particularly worried by the fact that several of the soldiers are Druze. They seek a swap, fearing that if the soldiers are killed this may lead to retaliatory actions by Druze in the mountains against Syrian refugees, but also, and most alarmingly, against Sunnis, who make up a third of the population of the Shouf.

Further complicating the negotiations is the fact that Hezbollah is keen to secure the release of its prisoners held by the jihadists in any overall deal reached by the Lebanese government.

Some have speculated that one political figure in particular has sought to indirectly send messages to Jabhat al-Nusra, warning of the negative consequences if they enter into a wider conflict with the army. While this may be untrue, it was interesting that on Sunday, when jihadists attacked Hezbollah near Britel, the army failed to intervene and itself was not attacked.

As winter nears and the weather in Qalamoun becomes colder, we can probably expect more attacks similar to the one that occurred on Sunday. However, with the battle for Damascus heating up and the Assad regime losing vitally important territory in the south of Syria, it is unlikely that the rebels will want to open a new front in Lebanon. Most of the combatants in Qalamoun are from that area and their focus remains on Syria.

Meanwhile, the families of the abducted soldiers and policemen have moved their protest to Riad al-Solh Square. If that means they close fewer roads, all the better. As much as the Lebanese sympathize with their predicament, they don’t see why they have to suffer for the actions of fighters in Syria. Nor do they understand why the families are so willing to be toyed with by the abductors, who are the only ones tormenting them.