Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Hizbollah’s policies push Lebanon towards conflict

After signs last week that a new Lebanese government would be formed, the process has stalled amid continuing disagreements over cabinet portfolios. This represents another setback for Hizbollah at a time when the party is facing multiple challenges and risks undermining Lebanon’s shaky stability.

The government impasse was resolved after Hizbollah and its political rivals in the March 14 coalition agreed to an equal number of ministers. However, a new problem emerged when the party’s ally, Michel Aoun, rejected any rotation of portfolios. This had been a principle behind the earlier agreement, but Mr Aoun does not want his son-in-law, Gebran Bassil, to lose the energy ministry.

That’s understandable from a material perspective. The ministry oversees all projects related to offshore oil and gas, and is a cash cow. Those who want Mr Bassil out merely seek to exploit the opportunities that the lucrative ministry presents. The disgusted Lebanese watching this spectacle unfold can only groan.

But Hizbollah is groaning too. President Michel Sleiman has said that if a national-unity government is not formed, he and the prime minister-designate, Tammam Salam, would form a government of their own to fill Lebanon’s political void. Hizbollah has warned against this, but given that its plans for a unity cabinet have been derailed by an ally, its margin of manoeuvre is limited.

A unity government is essential to Hizbollah’s strategy this year. The party feels that only this can create a consensus that will contain sectarian tensions while it continues fighting in Syria. A consensus is equally necessary so that all sides can agree to a replacement for President Sleiman, whose term ends in May. Hizbollah wants to be rid of the president, who has been a political thorn in its side.

Everywhere, the party is being buffeted by forces it unleashed through its intervention in Syria. While Hizbollah may be able to contain the repercussions for a time, rarely has it seemed as vulnerable, particularly as this increases prospects for a scenario the party is intent on avoiding: sectarian conflict between Sunnis and Shia.

With alarming regularity, bombs have gone off in Shia neighbourhoods and towns in recent months. What has made the attacks especially disturbing is that several have been carried out by Lebanese Sunnis, an entirely new phenomenon. This has come amid signs that Al Qaeda-related groups involved in Syria have decided to take the fight against Hizbollah to Lebanon.

While this does not appear to have shaken Shia support for Hizbollah, the public reaction is not necessarily indicative of the real mood in the community. There have been reports that Shia families are leaving Beirut’s southern suburbs, where Hizbollah is headquartered and the bombings have been concentrated. This means there is less confidence in the party’s ability to protect the Shia, and implicit acknowledgement that Hizbollah has brought Syria’s war to Lebanon.

As for the conflict in Syria itself, Hizbollah finds itself hostage to an open-ended military commitment that is likely to last years rather than months. While the party played a decisive role in the area of Qusayr last June, and in Damascus, both were largely defensive campaigns designed to loosen the rebel ring around Damascus and to keep supply lines open between the capital and the coast.

But recently, rebels have sought to regain ground in Qusayr, showing that Hizbollah’s hope of winning decisive battles is an illusion. The war in Syria will grind on until either one side can make significant gains, or until both sides realise that continued stalemate necessitates a political solution that today is evading negotiators in Geneva.

Beyond this, Lebanon’s Shia may want to look back at what has happened since 2005, when Syria withdrew its army from the country following the assassination of Rafik Hariri, the former prime minister.

A tribunal is currently listening to the cases of five Hizbollah members indicted for that crime. Sunni-Shia relations in Lebanon have never been so poor. In the past nine years Hizbollah has pushed Lebanon into war with Israel, provoked a mini-conflict in May 2008 when it occupied western Beirut, made Shia objects of suspicion in the Gulf, carried them into a war in Syria, and has drawn Sunni jihadists to Lebanon. And all this at a time of economic crisis for Lebanon.

The Shia are remarkably resilient, but the party they have supported time and again has brought them little by way of prosperity or stability in recent years. From a party that always claimed that its priority was Lebanon’s interests, Hizbollah has now embarked on a thankless military campaign on behalf of the regime in Syria, in accordance with a political agenda set in Tehran.

In this context, Hizbollah’s plan to use elections in Lebanon – the presidential election in May and the parliamentary elections in November – to bring in a president, parliament and government more in line with its preferences is sure to be difficult.

Hizbollah has enraged many people in recent years through its utter disregard of how its actions might harm Lebanese political and sectarian relations. The party’s suspected participation in numerous assassinations, its past assaults on Sunni quarters and Druze villages, and its repeated threats against its rivals, only to turn around and demand that they participate in governments to cover for Hizbollah’s excesses, was bound to lead to violent pushback.

In Lebanon, communal hubris has often precipitated conflict. The policies pursued by the Maronites and the Sunnis helped provoke the civil war that began in 1975. Today, Hizbollah’s implementation of an Iranian strategy can only do the same, to the detriment of all Lebanese, above all the Shia whom the party claims to be defending.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Divided we fall - The Geagea-Hariri rift threatens to grow

There is an untranslatable phrase in French that sums up well the uncompromising position of the Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea toward a new government: “Il dit juste, mais pas vrai.”

What it means, roughly, is that Geagea, in his justifications for not joining a new national-unity government, is correct; but overall, in its implications, what he says is faulty, promising major problems ahead. If Geagea persists in his opposition, the likelihood is that March 14 will enter the crucial stages of the presidential and parliamentary elections divided, undermining the aims of their political alliance.

Geagea’s position is understandable to an extent. With unidentified drones flying over his residence and with Saad Hariri having met 10 days ago with Michel Aoun in Paris, the Lebanese Forces leader is feeling isolated. In Lebanon, isolation is more than a state of mind; it can represent an anteroom to assassination, as anyone who recalls the period predating Rafiq Hariri’s killing will remember.

On the matter of principle, too, Geagea can legitimately say that he has often stuck to his positions when others were willing to compromise. Then again, compromise in politics is frequently necessary, as Geagea himself has shown in the past. In the three national-unity governments formed in 2005, 2008, and 2009, the Lebanese Forces named ministers, though it was plain that Hezbollah had been involved in outrageous actions similar to those which Geagea is denouncing today. And two of those governments were established after the party’s military takeover of western Beirut, a reckless act that could well have sparked a new Lebanese civil war.

The stakes today, however, are more important than political consistency. When Hezbollah agreed to form a government on the basis of an 8-8-8 formula, and Saad Hariri approved, two things should have been clear to Geagea: that Iran and Saudi Arabia gave a green light to their local allies to go ahead with a government, mainly to contain Sunni-Shiite tensions in Lebanon; and that Hezbollah would integrate this relative concession into its political strategy.  

It is the view of the Lebanese Forces that Hezbollah is weakened today, mainly because of its open-ended involvement in Syria, and that this must be taken advantage of. To an extent that’s true, and it explains why Hariri has refused to give in to the party’s insistence that the Army-People-Resistance formulation be included in the next government’s policy statement.

But more broadly, Hezbollah’s strength when it comes to the government is not based solely on its weapons. It derives from the fact that the party speaks, to a large extent, for one of Lebanon’s major communities. Forming a government against Hezbollah and the Shiites, as Geagea has suggested in backing a neutral cabinet, is no less misguided than was Hezbollah’s unconcern for Sunni preferences when it brought down the Hariri government in 2011. So misguided, in fact, that the subsequent Miqati government never gained Sunni legitimacy, and ultimately collapsed as a consequence.

A neutral government, even one accepted by all, would not be able to adequately contain Lebanon’s contradictions, so what if such a government failed to win a confidence vote in parliament, as is likely, and is actively opposed by several of the country’s leading political forces? A neutral government, though desirable in theory, is simply not going to succeed in stabilizing Lebanon, which currently faces a significant number of overwhelming challenges.

As important are the tactical repercussions of allowing a Lebanese Forces-Future Movement split over the government. March 14 realizes that Hezbollah’s support for a cabinet is designed to advance the party’s political agenda this year. Without a unity government, Lebanon will arrive at the presidential election divided and unable to forge any consensus over a successor to Michel Suleiman, whom Hezbollah wants to replace with a more pliable president.

Hezbollah also probably intends to go through with parliamentary elections next November. Once it has a president it favors, it can then move to guarantee a majority in parliament. This would allow it to name the next parliament speaker and play a central role in appointing a new prime minister and forming a government.

But to get a parliamentary majority, Hezbollah needs to secure passage of an election law to its advantage. Given the rifts last year within March 14 over such a law, with Geagea and the Kataeb behind the Orthodox proposal, Hezbollah sees an opportunity to exploit those differences. However, securing a law that will protect Walid Jumblatt’s electoral interests, and those of Aoun, will not be easy. Both prefer the 1960 law (though Aoun officially opposes it, because Christian public opinion does), which would likely bring in a new parliament similar to the one elected in 2009.

Even if the party backs the 1960 law, it could probably rely on Jumblatt to obtain a parliamentary and government majority. This would allow the Druze leader to continue to hold the center, playing March 8 and March 14 against one another, to his own benefit.

As the Lebanese Forces and Future prepare for the months ahead, they gain nothing by allowing their disagreement to persist, especially over the formation of a government that many Lebanese want. If their rift widens, this will handicap them in the lead-up to the presidential and parliamentary elections, and bring about the very outcome Geagea opposes: a tightening of Hezbollah’s hold over Lebanon.

To waste political energy over a temporary new government is far less useful than remaining united to counter Hezbollah’s projects further on in the year. And if Geagea prefers to obstruct any cooperation with the party, then he must be prepared to persuade the Lebanese, and with them a very worried international community, that perpetuation of the debilitating vacuum in Beirut is good for Lebanon.  

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Hariri tribunal proves the long road to justice is an empty one

When the United Nations investigation of Rafik Hariri’s assassination began in 2005, I, like many others, wanted to believe it would end impunity for such crimes. Nine years later, with the trial of suspects having begun in The Hague, I realise this expectation was naive.

Having written about the subject during much of that time, and after interviewing many of the participants, I discovered how a UN project of this magnitude could become a labyrinth of conflicting motivations, ambitions and personal and political agendas, often upheld by a very misleading, tendentious interpretation of what was going on.

Lost in this mishmash were Lebanon’s victims of assassination, transformed into that most dismal of appellations: martyrs. While I did not know Hariri, Bassel Fuleihan, who was next to the former prime minister when he was killed, was a colleague at university. The journalist Samir Kassir, killed near my apartment two months later, was a friend. And Mohammed Chatah, who was assassinated last December, was someone I knew relatively well and respected greatly.

In retrospect, none would have imagined that their death could change much in Lebanon. And yet for years, at every new elimination, the same refrain could be heard: that justice would come, and that the guilty would be brought to trial.

The Hariri assassination trial has started. Not surprisingly, none of the accused, all allegedly members of Hizbollah, are in the dock. They are to be tried in absentia on the basis of evidence that, while compelling, in fact only covers a narrow part of the crime.

Hariri was the victim of a vast conspiracy, as UN investigators concluded early on, but today only five suspects, involved at the operational level, have been indicted. All are Lebanese, even though it is inconceivable that the former prime minister could have been eliminated without a green light from the Syrian leadership.

More troubling is the fact that the prosecution has not outlined a motive for the assassination, which the defence has already tried to exploit. And yet that was not always true. In his opening report, the first commissioner of the UN investigation, the German Detlev Mehlis, provided a motive: that Hariri was killed for political reasons, as it was well-known in Lebanon that he was likely to challenge and defeat Syria’s candidates in the summer 2005 elections.

Mr Mehlis has been much maligned since he left his position in late 2005. The criticism, however, has been almost entirely politically motivated, because early on he concluded that there was Syrian and Lebanese intelligence involvement in the crime. In this he repeated what many Lebanese knew to be true, given the then extensive nature of Syrian control over Lebanon and its security.

“Given the infiltration of Lebanese institutions and society by the Syrian and Lebanese intelligence services working in tandem, it would be difficult to envisage a scenario whereby such a complex assassination plot could have been carried out without their knowledge,” Mr Mehlis had written in his report.

To the UN, Mr Mehlis was a headache. When he began his assignment, he later told me in an interview, UN secretary general Kofi Annan had made it clear “that he did not want another trouble spot”. Mr Mehlis didn’t oblige. He sought to take down President Bashar Al Assad’s witness statement, setting up a confrontation with Syrian officials that pushed the Security Council to back Mr Mehlis.

However, Mr Al Assad’s allies in the council could not have been pleased. They had no choice but to defend a man they had approved, but Mr Mehlis was stubborn. Indeed, after he was told by the UN that, for security reasons, he could no longer conduct his investigation from inside Lebanon in 2006, the German government said this would be unacceptable and he left his post.

Two questions arise here. Were the Germans looking for any opening to remove Mr Mehlis, because he was damaging their relationship with Syria? And second, if the UN admitted that it could not protect the commissioner in Lebanon, then who precisely were they worried might try to kill him? The answer pointed in only one direction.

Far more palatable to the UN was Mr Mehlis’s successor, the Belgian Serge Brammertz. Perhaps that’s because Mr Brammertz progressed very little in his investigation.

In my interviews with former investigators who had worked with the Belgian, as well as with senior Lebanese judicial officials who dealt with him, the story was the same: Mr Brammertz had wasted time, even delaying a key aspect of the investigation, namely analysis of telecommunications data that is the basis of the present indictment.

This was later echoed in a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation report, based on interviews with former investigators. One who was equally unimpressed with the investigation was Mr Mehlis, who went on the record with me to cast doubt on his successor’s efforts.

Mr Brammertz’s promotion to the position of prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia appeared to show that the UN was happy with his poor performance.

But it also showed that the momentum that initially led to the UN investigation had been lost. Mr Brammertz’s work not only was questionable, but the UN did not seem to want it otherwise. His successor would take three more years to issue an indictment, showing how empty was the Belgian’s dossier. Meanwhile, many more people were assassinated in Lebanon, ridiculing the end-of-impunity claim.

Hariri’s killing was an eminently political crime, so it was no surprise that politics would affect the investigation, even partly undermine it. Yet we should have predicted this nine years ago, amid all the idle talk that the killings in Lebanon would end.

Give Syria’s dead a chance to speak out

“I carry in me a great cemetery,” says the main character in Mustapha Khalifeh’s novel “Al-Qawqaa,” (The Shell). “At night the tombs open their doors. Those in them look at me ... talk to me, reproach me.”

The character has just been released from the Syrian prison at Palmyra, which Yassin al-Haj Saleh, who spent 15 years incarcerated in Syria, once described as a place “that literally eats men ... where every day primitive and vengeful torture is carried out at the hands of heartless people.” Khalifeh’s broken character cannot escape his memories of a netherworld characterized by suffering and humiliation.

It is the consequences of this world that an anonymous photographer, “Caesar,” recorded, before defecting to the opposition. He and his colleagues’ photographs of thousands of dead victims of the Syrian security services form the basis of a report released this week highlighting the torture and execution of detainees, showing evidence of war crimes and crimes against humanity. The report was prepared for Carter-Ruck and Co. Solicitors of London, on behalf of Qatar.

Caesar was a military police photographer. When the uprising began in Syria, he and his colleagues were ordered to photograph the corpses of those killed in the custody of the security services. This was done to allow the issuing of death certificates without the families asking to see the bodies; and to confirm that execution orders had been carried out.

One can admire the paradoxes in the venture. To document in the smallest detail the death of individuals, only to better conceal the method of their murder from inquisitive families. And to show due regard for an administrative requirement of the state, the preparation of a death certificate, as a result of actions that completely undermined the basic role of the state as a protector of its citizens.

But the photographs also appear to be something else: A record to ensure that orders were obeyed, certainly, but also a surreptitious means of keeping the murderers in line through a process of implication in crimes, by a regime living in perpetual fear of betrayal by its own. Each corpse was documented and given a reference number “related to that branch of the security service responsible for his detention and death,” the report reads.

The precision of the security services provides a potential way to identify the guilty. According to estimates by the inquiry team that prepared the report – which includes three former prosecutors who served in the Special Court for Sierra Leone and the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, as well as three forensic experts – the photographic evidence involves some 55,000 images. Since each victim was photographed four or five times, the team estimated that it had images for approximately 11,000 dead detainees.

To many aid agencies involved with Syria, this is just the tip of the iceberg. Syrian activists told Martin Chulov of The Guardian that some 50,000 detainees remain unaccounted for. This figure roughly corresponds to the one reached by Razan Zeitouneh, a Syrian activist and human rights lawyer who worked with the Violations Documentation Center. Zeitouneh disappeared last year and until then her group had documented the disappearance of some 47,000 people.

In response to the report, Amnesty International released a statement calling for immediate access to Syrian places of detention for the inquiry team, and some sort of concerted response to the revelations. Philip Luther, the organization’s Middle East and North Africa director, declared, “If confirmed, these would be crimes against humanity committed on a staggering scale. It certainly raises the question once again why the Security Council has not yet referred the situation in Syria to the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court.”

That’s a good question, and Luther knows the answer. Syria is not a signatory to the International Criminal Court Statute. That means crimes there can only be referred to the ICC if the Syrian government were to accept its jurisdiction, or if a case were to be brought by the United Nations Security Council. The first condition will never be met by the Syrian regime, while the second would mean that Russia and China agree not to use their veto, which is almost as unlikely.

In fact, amid all the talk of Russian success in outmaneuvering the West over Syria, the blunt reality is that Moscow, like Beijing, has been abetting horrific crimes by President Bashar Assad’s regime. This may not be surprising from a country led by Vladimir Putin, but what is equally remarkable is that the United States has not seemed overly preoccupied with the human rights situation in Syria, nor has it taken the lead in pushing for judicial accountability. Then again, the U.S. isn’t an ICC signatory either.

In a reckless comment, President Barack Obama described the Syrian conflict as “someone else’s civil war,” this at a time when the savagery of Assad’s security services was well established, amid evidence that his regime had ordered the murder and torture of tens of thousands of people.

Assad’s forces have behaved like beasts because there has been wide latitude for them to do so, without any penalty. Yet rarely have the horrors of war been made so available, through thousands of videos taken by citizen journalists and activists. However, outrage has been muted. Syrians are entitled to wonder why they count for less than citizens of the former Yugoslavia, or of Libya, who benefited from Western military intervention to avert a massacre in Benghazi.

As the Geneva conference begins, foreign countries should not lose sight of what has occurred in Syria. If a settlement comes at the expense of accountability for war crimes and crimes against humanity, any hopes for a more just and principled international order will be dashed, and we shall all carry within ourselves part of a great cemetery.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Great expectations: The biggest risk in the Hariri assassination trial

As the trial of suspects in the assassination of Rafiq Hariri begins, I confess to having mixed feelings about the process that led us to this stage. Despite the optimism in March 14, the trial comes across as one that makes the best of a process that should have gone differently.

Supporters of the tribunal will continue to defend the length of the investigation as normal in a complicated crime. Perhaps, but anyone who followed the aftermath of the Hariri assassination closely, by this time knows that there were unnecessary delays before the indictment was issued, and, more disturbing, that investigative shortcomings ensured that important avenues of exploration were not pursued.

The indictments are heavily based on analysis of the communications of the alleged perpetrators rather than on the testimony of witnesses. Thanks to a documentary by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), we know that the second commissioner of the United Nations International Independent Investigation Commission (UNIIIC), Serge Brammertz, delayed telecommunications analysis until after this was undertaken by a Lebanese police officer, Wissam Eid.

Eid and his superior, Samir Shehadeh, were both the targets of assassination attempts – successful in the case of Eid. From my own conversations with former members of the UN investigation team and senior Lebanese officials who were closely involved in the investigative process, I heard that Brammertz had hardly progressed at all during his two years in office.

The most public statement casting doubt on Brammertz’s investigation came from his predecessor, Detlev Mehlis. In an interview that I conducted with him in Berlin for the Wall Street Journal at the end of Brammertz’s term in January 2008, Mehlis said, “I haven't seen a word in his reports during the past two years confirming that he has moved forward.”

Subsequent discussions appeared to confirm this view. One Lebanese judicial official told me that before leaving Beirut, Brammertz had told his Lebanese counterparts that there was not much new in his files, but that one more year would be needed to conclude his work. As the official pointed out, if Brammertz had so little in his files how could he be so explicit in setting a deadline for the investigation?

If that was not enough, the lengthy period that Brammertz’s successor, Daniel Bellemare, required to put together an indictment – three years rather than one – suggested that he was left with a very unsatisfactory dossier by his predecessor. Bellemare never criticized Brammertz publicly, but he could not have been happy.

Brammertz came at a key moment during the investigation. It was his work that was supposed to build on Mehlis’ investigation and firm up his strong suspicions and those of the initial UN investigator, Peter FitzGerald, that the Syrian regime was involved in the killing.

In the weeks after the assassination, FitzGerald had written a report that would lead to UNIIIC’s establishment. He noted, “[T]he Lebanese security services and the Syrian Military Intelligence bear the primary responsibility for the lack of security, protection, law and order in Lebanon … [T]hey have severely failed to provide the citizens of Lebanon with an acceptable level of security [contributing] to the propagation of a culture of intimidation and impunity. The Syrian Military Intelligence shares this responsibility to the extent of its involvement in running the security services in Lebanon.”

While FitzGerald shied away from directly accusing the Syrian regime for Hariri’s killing, he wrote that it was the result of a conspiracy requiring “considerable finance, military precision in its execution, [and] substantial logistical support.” In other words, the Syrians and their Lebanese partners could hardly have avoided noticing it. This was as close as FitzGerald came to linking Syria to the crime. As for Mehlis, he never concealed his belief that the regime was involved.

So, today when the indictments include only the names of Hezbollah members, it makes one wonder: What happened to the first line of investigation that led toward Damascus? It is inconceivable that Hariri could have been eliminated without a green light from the Syrian regime. That’s why it is probable that Brammertz simply shied away from the Syrian path, a conclusion that appears to be reinforced by the fact that he never formally took down a witness statement from President Bashar al-Assad, despite his declared intention to do so.

Brammertz didn’t do much investigating on the Syrian front, and only authorized telecommunications analysis near the end of his term, after the legwork had already been done by Wissam Eid. The first half of this incredible conclusion was confirmed to me by a former UNIIIC investigator; the second, by former investigators speaking to the CBC.

Brammertz must have been on to something, for despite having wasted two valuable years in Lebanon, he was promoted to become prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. There are magistrates in Europe convinced that the UN rewarded him for his politically-safe idleness in Beirut.

It’s a relief after nine years to see the trial begin. But it’s difficult to identify very much that is encouraging in it. None of the suspects are in court; the individuals indicted, if guilty, are only a small part of a much larger conspiracy, most of whose members are unknown; the indictments don’t offer a clear motive; and many Lebanese have lost the interest they had in 2005 and 2006 to uncover the truth.

The trial will doubtless reveal information deeply embarrassing to the perpetrators. But it will not end impunity for political crimes. The danger today is that the Lebanese may await too much from an institution that was never able to meet their great expectations.    

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Why foes of a unity government are wrong

After alienating many of his comrades last year through his support for the so-called Orthodox election law proposal, Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea is making his way back into the hearts of March 14 stalwarts by opposing a government with Hezbollah.

Geagea played the populist card this week, stating at a rally in Maarab for the late Mohammad Shatah, who was killed by a car bomb in December: “The wave of assassinations, bombings and threats on a daily basis and the economic collapse necessitate the formation of a homogenous, effective Cabinet capable of making decisions to restore security and calm and lift Lebanon from this decline.” Geagea also mentioned the start of the trial this week of suspects in Rafik Hariri’s assassination, observing “the era of truth and justice has arrived.”

Geagea’s opposition to a unity government was echoed by other March 14 figures. That Saad Hariri, whose antipathy toward Hezbollah is second to none, has endorsed it suggests that he has Saudi approval. International pressure has mounted to fill the political vacuum in Beirut, amid disturbing signs that its perpetuation may lead to a decisive breakdown in sectarian relations.

Hezbollah’s willingness to compromise, after months of deadlock, suggests that the same impulse may exist on the Iranian side. This is the year that Hezbollah hopes to consolidate its hold on Lebanon – first by replacing President Michel Sleiman with someone more compliant; then by holding parliamentary election on the basis of a law that divides its adversaries in March 14. To advance on both fronts requires a minimal level of political consensus in Lebanon.

For some in March 14, participating in a national-unity government is a way of facilitating Hezbollah’s takeover of Lebanon. Perhaps, but there really is more to the country than the March 8-March 14 rivalry. The Lebanese face serious economic, social, sectarian and political challenges, and ideological purity aside, they need a government. Geagea may be right that the government will not be harmonious, but that was never going to happen anyway, even when the Lebanese Forces participated in three unity governments after 2005.

As for talk of a neutral government, or better still a government of technocrats, one wonders what supporters of such a project have been smoking. The Mikati government collapsed last year under multiple pressures, despite the backing of a majority in parliament and despite the fact that Hezbollah did everything to keep it in place. Imagine what a neutral government would face – one that has no political clout and whose decisions are bound to arouse opposition from all sides of the political spectrum, its success necessary to no one.

The same goes for technocrats. Since when has technical competence been a prerequisite for public office in Lebanon? That’s unfortunate, but the essence of any government’s power is the ability to implement a program, which is fundamentally political in its redistribution of limited resources. So, unless the politicians are on board (and why should they be when technocrats are effectively denying them the patronage power provided by control over lucrative government ministries?), the whole system tends to gravitate toward deadlock.

Hezbollah may be objectionable as a national partner, not least when several of its members stand accused of participating in the assassination of a former prime minister. But the party and its supporters in the Shiite community cannot be made to suddenly disappear. Lebanon is run inefficiently with Hezbollah, but it can assuredly not be run without it. Accepting this may mean encouraging blackmail, but, once again, 4 million Lebanese cannot put their lives on hold merely to satisfy the ideological consistency of a few.

And March 14 tends to protect its political stakes better in government than outside. If indeed Hezbollah regards 2014 as a crucial year when it hopes to strengthen itself institutionally within the Lebanese system, and in that way ensure that it can retain its weapons, the best way to oppose this is from within the government, not sitting on the sidelines issuing empty statements.

The West’s opening to Iran has been largely viewed in negative terms by March 14, as providing a blank check to Iran to pursue its agenda in the Middle East. But just as likely is that it will also open up possibilities for understandings with Arab countries, since Iranian normalization with the West will not mean very much if it is not accompanied by normalization with the mainly Sunni Arab world.

The Iranians, like the Saudis, see few advantages in sectarian conflict between Sunnis and Shiites. Iran cannot bludgeon Arab countries into compliance, let alone function properly in a region where sectarian mobilization against Iran and Shiites has become commonplace. Even in Syria, Tehran’s military support for President Bashar Assad has not offered any solutions as to how his regime will reimpose its power against a Sunni majority bitterly opposed to his rule. Sunnis who have sided with Assad realize that the sectarian social contract in Syria has been broken. This means that, at best, the country may be at war for years to come if he remains in office, which will only further drain Iran.

Neither Iran nor Hezbollah has a fast track to resolving the region’s ineluctable complications. The Turkish government learned that lesson long ago, when its Libya and Syria policies backfired; condemning Israel is not enough to retain approval in the Arab world. Iran’s policies in Iraq have provoked rising Sunni opposition to the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, to the extent that there have been reports that Tehran may soon back a replacement.

Hezbollah is little different. It takes more than intimidation to have one’s way in Lebanon. If March 14 seeks to pursue the battle over Lebanon’s future, it will have to be patient, flexible and above all united. The formation of a new government is a necessity today. At the very least, it will help preserve a country worth fighting over.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Riyadh readjusts its policies as regional dynamics change

On January 20, an interim deal between Iran and the five permanent members of the Security Council, plus Germany, to freeze much of the Iranian nuclear programme will take effect. In

Saudi Arabia has been worried that any lifting of the sanctions, for nothing in return, will only give Tehran latitude to pursue a campaign of domination in the Middle East. But the Saudis, in their hard-nosed attitude toward Iran, are also increasingly isolated, as many governments, including governments in the Arab world, welcome improved relations. Sensing this, the kingdom appears to be in the process of readjusting its policies in order to compensate.

Saudi mistrust of the West – and particularly the US – opening to Iran did not sit well with the Obama administration, which views better relations as a step that may lower tensions in the Middle East. This optimism has not pleased the Saudis, but it also must have made them wary of allowing a rift to widen with Washington, the ultimate guarantor of the kingdom’s security.

Even in the Saudis’ immediate zone, the Gulf, the kingdom’s scepticism has not necessarily been shared. Both Kuwait and Qatar welcomed the nuclear deal with Iran. Qatar’s foreign ministry issued a statement saying it would enhance peace and security in the region, an opinion that must have made the Saudis groan.

But the Saudis were jolted when the Al Qaeda-affiliated Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (Isil) took over large parts of Fallujah and Ramadi two weeks ago. While the kingdom is no friend of Iraqi prime minister Nouri Al Maliki, the prospect of an Al Qaeda-controlled territory on the kingdom’s northern border posed a major threat.

It was no surprise, then, that in Syria the Saudi-backed Islamic Front, a coalition of mainly Salafist rebel groups, took the lead in fighting Isil in and around Aleppo, Idlib and Raqqa. Realising that the narrative of the Syrian conflict had changed due to the presence of Isil – from that of a legitimate uprising against a dictator to a war that was allowing Al Qaeda to spread throughout the region – the Saudis saw the reaction against Isil as a way of saving the Syrian revolution and giving it renewed credibility.

This was also necessary to regain some credibility for the Saudi regime itself, which had been accused by its political enemies of backing Al Qaeda groups in Iraq and Syria against Iran and its allies.

In Lebanon, which is also on the front-lines in the continuing Sunni-Shia struggle, the Saudis gave the green light for the formation of a national-unity government that may be announced this week. Saad Hariri, who is close to the Saudis, has accepted to be part of a government that will also include Hizbollah, even though he has strongly implied that the party was behind the assassination of his adviser Mohammed Chatah in December.

Hizbollah has also become more flexible in accepting a power-sharing formula that will satisfy all sides, probably encouraged by Iran. This may be to lower sectarian strife in Lebanon, but also because the party needs to build a consensus to cover its controversial intervention in Syria, and in the run-up to the Lebanese presidential election in May, when it hopes to replace the president, Michel Suleiman, with a more compliant figure.

Three weeks ago, it was announced that Saudi Arabia would provide the Lebanese army with $3 billion in military assistance. The primary aim of the gesture is to discredit Hizbollah’s claim that it must retain its weapons because the army is not strong enough to fight Israel. There have been fears that Hizbollah’s allies in the Lebanese government, notably the defence minister, Fayez Ghosn, would try to block the assistance. But the money is to be paid directly to French companies, so this will not be easy. More importantly, after a long period in which the Saudis had seemed detached from Lebanese affairs, the formation of the government and the funds to the army suggest a renewed concern with what goes on in Lebanon.

The Saudis are also keeping an eye on the Geneva conference on Syria, which is scheduled to start next week. The kingdom’s allies in Syria have gained strength, with the Islamic Front sidelining the western-backed Supreme Military Council of Salim Idriss. This puts the Saudis in a better position to block any accord reached in Geneva with which they are unhappy.

One thing the Saudis and Iranians seem to share is a desire to avert a broader Sunni-Shia sectarian conflict in the region. This explains why both countries allowed a government of national unity to be formed in Lebanon, after several months of deadlock. It is also why the Iranians and the Saudis are objective allies in trying to contain Isil in both Syria and Lebanon.

With many Gulf states, the US and Europe welcoming the opening to Iran, the Saudis cannot be seen to be taking a contrary position, especially through actions that exacerbate sectarian hostility. That explains why the kingdom has shifted its behaviour in Syria and Lebanon, even as it continues its efforts to gain the upper hand in Syria. Balancing its different objectives will be tricky, but Riyadh can see that much is changing around it.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Secretary of offense: Why Robert Gates is the latest Obama doubter

The former American secretary of defense, Robert Gates, has just published a memoir in which he voices criticism of President Barack Obama. Perhaps this is not surprising. Other onetime administration officials, albeit in lesser positions than Gates, have already shared their misgivings about Obama’s foreign policy.

In his memoir, Gates writes that in Afghanistan Obama “doesn’t believe in his own strategy, and doesn’t consider the war to be his. For him, it’s all about getting out.” In describing Obama’s reaction to his own 2009 surge of troops in the country, Gates observes, “[t]he president was ‘skeptical if not outright convinced it would fail.’” This is a serious charge, suggesting that Obama sent soldiers into battle without believing that their mission would succeed.

In an effort to temper the severity of the accusation, Gates adds, “I never doubted Obama’s support for the troops, only his support for their mission.” This is a perfectly ludicrous statement in that having no faith in a mission to which one has deployed tens of thousands of members of the armed forces almost inevitably leads to vacillation when giving them all necessary support.

Harsh words have also been directed at the Obama administration by two other individuals who served in the first term. Vali Nasr, currently dean of the Paul Nitze School of Advanced International Studies and formerly an advisor to Richard Holbrooke when he was the special envoy to Pakistan and Afghanistan, wrote a devastating account of his time in office in a book titled Dispensable Nation.

Nasr lamented the lack of a cohesive strategy by the administration, and its tendency to allow important foreign policy decisions to be taken by Obama’s coterie of domestic political advisors.

Anne-Marie Slaughter also served in Obama’s first term, as the director of Policy Planning. While she has not published a book on her government service, in columns she has been less than gentle with Obama. Like Gates and Nasr, she seems to see indecisiveness in the man and an inability to commit to a given strategy.

Last May, recalling that President Theodore Roosevelt had once said “Speak softly and carry a big stick,” she wrote that Obama was pursuing a policy in Syria of “speak loudly and throw away your stick.” In this way “the US has cast aside one of its most important foreign policy tools,” creating “an incentive for the Syrian government and its supporters to keep fighting until they are in the most advantageous position possible to negotiate a settlement – that is, if they have any incentive to negotiate at all.”

It is often said that the United States enters into foreign commitments, then abandons them in the middle of the road. That is true sometimes, but in general the US has been steadfast. It contained the Soviet Union for half a century, and stationed forces in Europe for all that time. In Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, American troops fought for many years, often against difficult odds. America continues to defend South Korea, almost six decades after the end of the war in the Korean peninsula.

America has a strong isolationist streak, but it is difficult to imagine many countries with its geographical separation from the rest of the world being as central in global affairs. The problem appears to be a different one: the Obama administration has no broad, integrated conceptual framework in which to place its foreign policy decisions and no overriding strategy for its actions in the world. What it does is usually ad hoc, driven by short-term considerations, which is why Obama wavers so often.

Take, for instance, the administration’s haphazard responses to the uprisings in the Arab world since 2011. President Hosni Mubarak was only abandoned by the US when he could no longer remain in power. America relied on the Egyptian army to remove him. Yet when the same army removed Mohammed Morsi in 2013, similarly backed by a popular uprising, the US was unfavorable, alienating the same army it had earlier trusted.

In Libya, the US collaborated with France and the United Kingdom in a new military intervention, though Obama had said he would avoid military interventions. This he did to avert an imminent massacre in Benghazi. Yet in Syria, where there were Benghazis almost every day, Obama did nothing, even holding off on retaliating for a chemical weapons attack near Damascus, despite saying this would represent a “red line” for Washington.

As events changed in the Middle East, a bewildered America reacted without a sense of where this would lead. By the same token, in Syria there was no foresight that the violence in 2011 would become sectarian, and that unless it was ended quickly, the war would attract extreme jihadis, who have emerged as a regional and global threat. For Obama, Syria was merely “somebody else’s civil war.”

Even John Kerry’s aim to broker a Palestinian-Israeli settlement seems out of whack with current priorities in the Middle East. Had the Obama administration had a strategy, Kerry would not be wasting time and credibility in an effort that, while laudable, seems marginal among the region’s cataclysmic preoccupations.

More and more people accept that Obama has been a major disappointment. That’s why Ian Bremmer of Eurasia Group considers the greatest risk factor in 2014 to be America’s foreign policy behavior. “[T]he commitment of the US to allies abroad is absolutely in decline, he told the Daily Ticker. “US foreign policy as a force that drives relationships and orientations of other countries around the world is absolutely in structural decline.”

Robert Gates may have shaken the administration, but his was only the latest voice in a growing chorus of skepticism about the American president from those who once wished him well.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Lebanon is hearing the alarm bells

With the alchemists of government formation discussing a new ministerial formula involving March 8, March 14 and the centrists, there is hope that Tammam Salam may soon have a Cabinet to lead.

For months, the so-called 9-9-6 option (nine ministers each for March 8 and March 14 and six for the centrists) has been on the table, but was rejected by Salam and March 14. Now, the idea is to repackage the 9-9-6 formula and call it 8-8-8. Each group would have eight ministers, but March 8 and March 14 would select an additional minister each from the centrist quota. Presto! Lead would be turned into gold and Lebanon would emerge from its vacuum.

If this scheme succeeds, it will have come after a dizzying array of maneuvers and counter-maneuvers, conditions and counter-conditions over a new government, all of which served merely to delay agreement over the 9-9-6 formula pushed by Hezbollah. Not surprisingly, foreign governments with a stake in Lebanon have become increasingly disenchanted and anxious over the paralysis in the country and have made this clear to Lebanese officials.

Foreign ambassadors have reportedly warned March 14 figures that it is necessary to form a government rapidly, since the ability to protect them is very limited. The Belgian foreign minister, Didier Reyners, was in Lebanon last week and explained that international interest in the country was declining, so that if the situation deteriorated further, Lebanon could be on its own. Belgium has troops in UNIFIL, which is why its officials merit added consideration. If the impasse persists, foreign governments will find it increasingly difficult to justify the continued presence of their soldiers in the international force.

Similarly, the recent advances by the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) in Iraq’s Anbar province were a warning shot to the region. While ISIS has suffered setbacks in the past few days in both Iraq and Syria, the prospect of Al-Qaeda extending its sway to Lebanon (especially after ISIS claimed responsibility for the car bomb in the southern suburbs last week) has alarmed everybody.

March 14 has made tactical mistakes in rejecting the 9-9-6 formula outright, and in linking dialogue with Hezbollah to the party’s military withdrawal from Syria. First, what precisely in the 9-9-6 proposal is so unacceptable? Or rather, how can its disadvantages be averted given the realities of power on the ground?

March 14 has opposed the fact that 9-9-6 grants Hezbollah and its allies a blocking third in the government (though March 14 would be entitled to the same veto power), and prevents a two-thirds majority if March 14 and the centrists are in agreement. But even without this blocking third, Hezbollah could very likely have its way on policies it opposes and even bring the government down. The reason is that Salam comes in as a consensual figure, not someone, like Fouad Siniora in 2006-2008, who would go to the line against Hezbollah.

March 14 is understandably reluctant to cede any ground to Hezbollah, especially after the assassination of Mohammad Shatah. But the fact is that governments of national unity were formed after the elimination of Rafik Hariri in 2005, after the election of Michel Sleiman in 2008 and after the 2009 elections, which March 14 won, despite numerous assassinations of March 14 figures and Hezbollah’s military takeover of western Beirut in May 2008.

As for linking dialogue to Hezbollah’s pullout from Syria, that too has created a negative backlash. Many people feel Lebanon should not be held hostage to the situation in another country. This protest sidesteps the fact that Hezbollah’s intervention in Syria has imported its war to Lebanon, but there is some truth to it. Given the challenges Lebanon faces today, the country cannot afford a stalemate that will only bring on political and economic collapse.

Sleiman, sensing this mood, has used the threat of unilaterally forming a government with Salam as leverage to unblock the frozen political process. The president knows that a government not approved by Hezbollah, Walid Jumblatt, the Maronite patriarch, Michel Aoun and Nabih Berri has no chance of winning a confidence vote. And he also knows that once this happens the current government will be unable to govern effectively in a caretaker capacity. But Sleiman needs to be hyperactive because, despite his public comments to the contrary, he would welcome an extension of his term after it ends in May.

Hezbollah wants Sleiman out, however, which explains its renewed interest in forming a national-unity government. Otherwise, with the country as polarized as it is, prospects for reaching a consensus over a replacement would be negligible. Moreover, if the party seeks to bring the army commander, Jean Kahwagi, or somewhat more likely Central Bank governor, Riad Salameh, to office, it will need to ensure that it has a two-thirds majority in Parliament first to amend the constitution and allow him, as a Grade One civil servant, to stand.

Lebanon cannot afford a void in the coming months, and fear of one is universal overseas. The Lebanese are getting the point, even if March 14 is worried that it will pay the price in any new order dominated by Hezbollah. But the alternative could be even worse. That is why the opposition must update its rhetoric, agree to a single presidential candidate and reach an accord over a new parliamentary election law for next November, to avoid the election law fiasco of last year.

Ultimately, an American-Iranian rapprochement this year, if it happens, will provide new opportunities for all sides. It may also generate greater sectarian tension, but ultimately none of the regional powers has an interest in proliferating sectarian wars, which could consume them. Lebanon may be losing Western attention these days, but it would be a mistake to let it drift toward ruination.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Fresh questions emerge as Syrian rebels fight Al Qaeda

Within a matter of days, the situation appears to have greatly changed for the Al Qaeda-affiliated Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (Isil) in the two countries where it operates. After it recently took over the Iraqi city of Fallujah and large parts of Ramadi, Isil, separately, faced an offensive by rebel groups in Syria. The group was pushed out of positions in Aleppo, Idlib and Raqqa.

The news comes not a moment too soon for the Syrian rebels and the countries backing them. Many will have noticed that the Saudi-backed Islamic Front, a coalition of predominantly-Salafi Syrian rebel groups, has led the fight against Isil, whose progress in Iraq’s Anbar province alarmed Riyadh. The Saudis regard an Al Qaeda-controlled territory on their northern border as a threat.

The Syrian rebels, with their Arab supporters, have finally realised that unless Isil is eliminated from Syria, the uprising against President Bashar Al Assad’s regime will be doomed. Already, many in the West largely associate the rebellion with jihadists.

The Saudis in particular, who supported the Islamic Front as a core around which the fragmented rebel groups could unify, saw that everything for which they had worked in the past two years was collapsing. Mr Al Assad is winning the narrative of the Syrian conflict, successfully depicting his enemies as a menace not only for his regime, but also for Arab and western security in general.

Few bothered to notice that Mr Al Assad’s strategy was to give a wide berth to Isil and another Al Qaeda group, the Nusra Front, and release their militants from prison so that they would divide rebel ranks and confirm what the regime had been saying since 2011: that it was at war against an insurgency led by Islamist terrorists.

The progression of Isil in recent months posed other problems for the rebels. It put the United States, the Iraqi government, the Syrian government, Russia, Iran, and Hizbollah on the same page against Al Qaeda, while Saudi Arabia was increasingly isolated in its defence of a rebel effort seen as having lost its direction.

In recent days, the Obama administration has promised to assist the Iraqi government against Isil, and has urged Sunni tribes to do the same. Hizbollah has publicly portrayed itself as a bulwark against extremism, conveniently evading how its participation in the Syrian war has helped attract Sunni jihadists to Syria and Lebanon.

In Lebanon, Isil claimed responsibility for the car-bomb attack in Beirut’s southern suburbs last week. Arab regimes have no sympathy for Hizbollah, but no one wants Lebanon to descend into sectarian violence that may spread. Sectarianism, even though exacerbated by all sides, may have dramatic repercussions for Arab states, especially those in the Gulf with mixed populations of Sunnis and Shia.

In this context, it is difficult to see how the Geneva conference on Syria scheduled for January 22 can be successful. One of the moderate opposition groups, the Syrian National Council, has already announced that it would not attend, casting doubt on the attendance of the larger body to which it belongs, the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces.

While the National Coalition is hardly dominant, it is the most acceptable face of the Syrian opposition as far as the West is concerned. Meanwhile, rebel units on the ground have rejected Geneva and profoundly mistrust the notion of negotiating with the Assad regime. If they manage to rout Isil, their credibility will rise and their ability to shape or alternatively block any peace plan will be that much greater.

These dynamics must provoke a paradoxical reaction, particularly in the West. All governments would applaud the military defeat of Isil; but if this strengthens Mr Al Assad’s adversaries – therefore making fewer of them less likely to endorse a negotiated solution in the coming months – it would only mean the war continues unabated.

That may be somewhat welcome for the rebels’ Arab backers, who likely fear that American, Russian and Iranian cooperation over Syria will subvert the opposition there. Mr Al Assad’s Arab enemies probably believe that the rebels must regain territory before talking, in order to better impose their conditions on the Syrian regime.

Many observers regard the Geneva meeting as a vital moment for Syria. However, if the balance of power shifts in the coming months, a more important deadline may be the end of Mr Al Assad’s presidential term in the summer. If the rebels make gains before then, this could force a transitional solution that leads to the Syrian president’s departure, despite his evident intention to run as president for a third time.

There are many “ifs” involved. For starters, Isil has been damaged, but nothing yet suggests that it has been decisively defeated. Nor can the Nusra Front be reassured about its own future, which may lead to friction with rebel groups down the road. Then, the rebels must ensure they don’t lose more valuable ground to the Assad regime because of their conflict with Isil. And finally, they must prevail against a combined force of the Syrian army and Hizbollah.

Negotiations may begin this month and continue in parallel with the fighting. Rather like a Russian doll, Syria is now characterised by battles within battles, as all sides strive to consolidate their position before any serious talking begins. But so much remains unclear today that expectations of a solution anytime soon seem illusory.

Friday, January 3, 2014

You've got the power

Lebanon may be shaped largely by the dynamics of the tense Sunni-Shiite relationship. However, in 2014 Christians will have a vital say in two events that will profoundly affect the country in the years ahead: the presidential and parliamentary elections.

If Hezbollah’s intention is to tighten its control over Lebanon, in parallel to the consolidation of President Bashar al-Assad’s rule in Syria, then the elections will be vital in that effort. For a start, the party is keen to be rid of Michel Suleiman, who has taken positions very different than those of Hezbollah. The party has even threatened retaliation if he forms a government of which it does not approve.

But Suleiman is finding little backing from within his own community, so eager are Maronite leaders, of all stripes, to have a say in whoever becomes president – particularly if it is themselves.

For a long time the favorite appeared to be the army commander, Jean Kahwaji, who, it was said, was Hezbollah’s candidate. Kahwaji’s term was extended last year with this possibility in mind. But a number of things indicate that the commander is really only Hezbollah’s first shot, allowing the party to better sight the second.

Kahwaji does not enjoy a consensus nationally. Most Christian leaders would probably not vote for him, especially Michel Aoun; the Sunni community in general mistrusts the army command’s close ties to Hezbollah; and the political class is broadly uneasy about bringing yet another military man in as president.

Most important, as a grade-one civil servant, Kahwaji would require a constitutional amendment to stand for the presidency. That necessitates a two-thirds vote in parliament, which will be very difficult if not impossible for Hezbollah to achieve.

There is, however, another grade-one civil servant who has a much better chance of being elected, who is more consensual, and who, several insiders insist, is Hezbollah’s true candidate: Riad Salameh, the governor of the Central Bank. Salameh may outbid Kahwaji because he is apolitical, has been a successful governor, has garnered credibility abroad, can generate financial confidence, is not a military man, and, from Hezbollah’s perspective, is politically weak, therefore may be easier to control than other Maronites.

If Salameh, or any other candidate, emerges as the favorite, Maronite approval will be necessary. Even if several candidates, from Samir Geagea to Suleiman Franjieh to Michel Aoun, announce their bids for the presidency, they will see that gaining a majority is not easy, given the makeup of parliament. The question is whether, having arrived at this conclusion, they will rally to the likely victor or dissolve into factionalism. In this, Patriarch Bishara al-Rai, whose sole fixation seems to be politics, will have an important unifying role to play.

Parliamentary elections are another matter altogether. Hezbollah’s ability to manipulate the outcome of the voting, by imposing an election law to its advantage, is limited. The party is caught in a dilemma: the current 1960 law would probably create a balance in parliament similar to what we have today – with Walid Jumblatt’s bloc giving the majority either to March 8 or to March 14. But the law is also one that earned Aoun a disproportionate share of Christian seats in parliament, because his candidates benefited from friendly Shiite electorates in Baabda, Jbeil, Metn, Jezzine, and even Kisirwan.

In other words, the law that best suits Aoun is also one that may force Hezbollah to rely on Jumblatt’s backing, something the party is not at all eager to do. Aoun declared last year that he was against the 1960 law, but that’s only because the mood in the Christian community was hostile to it. In reality, the general knows that no other law will give him such a substantial share of Christian seats in parliament.

That is why Samir Geagea and the Kataeb Party were so willing last year to break with their March 14 allies over the 1960 law. They knew it would have again limited them to tiny blocs, perhaps permanently marginalizing them in the Christian community.

Hezbollah, to secure a majority behind any law, must reconcile the interests of Jumblatt and Aoun. That’s not difficult given Aoun’s stake in the 1960 law and the Druze leader’s understanding that it is the only law on the table allowing him to dominate in Aley and the Shouf.

But Hezbollah, on the other hand, does not want to run the risk of replicating the outcome of 2009. Nor can it rely on Jumblatt to side with Hezbollah in the future. For a party that regards 2014 as the year to consolidate its hold over Lebanon’s political system, after three years of war in Syria, this uncertainty is not reassuring.

What that means is that the Christians, and the Maronites in particular, will have a significant role to play in deciding outcomes in Lebanon. Yet that depends on whether they can unite around a president and an election law – or else expect elections to again be postponed as no agreement emerges over a law.

But that optimistic reading means Christians will be on the same page, and nothing is more doubtful. How ironic at a moment when Christians agree that they face existential dangers, lost as they are in the midst of an alarming struggle between Sunnis and Shiites. 

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Hizbollah’s message to all its opponents: stay out of the way

The assassination last Friday of Mohammad Chatah, an adviser to former prime ministers Saad Hariri and Fouad Siniora, provoked consternation in Lebanon. Why, many wondered, was Chatah, a low-key, scholarly economist, targeted? For his political allies, the killing was a sign of more violence ahead.

After the crime both Mr Hariri and Mr Siniora strongly implied that Hizbollah was responsible. In his last tweet, Chatah himself may have hinted at the killers and their motive. “Hizbollah is pressing hard to be granted similar powers in security [and] foreign policy matters that Syria exercised in Lebanon for 15 [years],” he wrote.

The location of Chatah’s assassination was probably not coincidental. He was killed near the place where former prime minister Rafik Hariri was killed in 2005. To many, this was a message before the trial that starts in January of four suspects, all Hizbollah members, indicted in Hariri’s assassination: Do not think the trial will weaken Hizbollah. To observers and his political comrades, Chatah’s relative unobtrusiveness, as well as his sect – he was Sunni – were precisely what explained his elimination. For them, Hizbollah has embarked on a concerted effort to strengthen its control over Lebanon, after losing ground during the Syrian conflict, and the main obstacle it faces is Sunni resistance to this project.

The party feels it can contain the more extreme Sunni groups. However, only coercion of the moderates, men such as Chatah, who stood at the nexus between Mr Hariri, Mr Siniora, the Saudis and the Americans, can allow Hizbollah to tighten its hold over state institutions and protect itself and its arms from demands that it dissolves its militia and accept the authority of the state.

Some will argue that until those culpable are definitely identified, it is unfair to blame Hizbollah. Maybe, but targets are usually lucid about who is trying to kill them. March 14 politicians believe Hizbollah was behind Chatah’s assassination, which recalled what happened in 2005-2008, when several March 14 figures were also killed. In Chatah’s killing, his comrades see a new campaign against them.

Whatever the truth, Hizbollah feels it has an opportunity in 2014 to consolidate its hold over the Lebanese political system, and impose a hegemony similar to what Syria had, as Chatah noted. There are two reasons for this: President Bashar Al Assad has regained ground against a fragmenting opposition, undermined by its association with Al Qaeda groups; and the United States and Iran have initiated a dialogue, in the context of talks over Iran’s nuclear programme.

At the same time, Hizbollah’s foes are off balance. Saad Hariri, once March 14’s leader, has been out of Lebanon for almost three years, fearing assassination. And Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, whose parliamentary bloc can give a majority in parliament either to March 14 or to the Hizbollah-led March 8 coalition, will have read Chatah’s killing as a stark warning not to oppose Hizbollah.

A presidential election is to be held in May, and Hizbollah seeks to replace President Michel Suleiman, who has taken positions contrary to the party’s. Hizbollah at some point seemed to favour Jean Qahwaji, the army commander, but it will be difficult to get him elected, as he enjoys little consensus among the different political alignments.

As a result, many now believe that the favourite is Riad Salameh, the central bank governor, who can secure broader approval, especially at a time of economic crisis. Mr Salameh presents another plus to Hizbollah in that he is politically weak, and may be easier to influence than General Qahwaji or even Michel Aoun, Hizbollah’s ally who has an independent base of Christian support.

But Hizbollah will need more than a friendly president to control Lebanon. A parliamentary election is scheduled for November, and the party would like to see an election law that can win it a majority, with its allies. This would allow it to name the parliament speaker and a new government, effectively allowing Hizbollah to control the three governing institutions in the state.

But agreeing to an election law will not be easy. Hizbollah may bully to push its agenda forward. Yet this will only complicate matters for the party, as it will only increase the resistance of its enemies.

In a sign that the Saudis and the French are helping them fight back, last week Mr Suleiman announced that Saudi Arabia had granted the Lebanese Army $3 billion to purchase French weapons. The assistance was provided to undermine Hizbollah’s claim that the army is too weak to fight Israel, requiring the party to remain armed.

It was also directed against the United States, which has been the main weapons supplier to the army, but has done so selectively. The Saudis have been angry with the Obama administration’s opening to Iran, and sought to reward France, which has sided with the Saudis in Syria and has been more sceptical of Iran than Washington.

Lebanon represents a political minefield for Hizbollah, despite the party’s military capacities. Hizbollah is locked in a civil war in Syria, is opposed by a substantial portion of the Lebanese population and Sunni regimes in the region, and has a limited window in which to make a move inside Lebanon before Iran may be asked to make concessions regionally to facilitate dialogue with the Americans.

Hizbollah is not one to shy away from obstacles as it fulfils its contract with Iran. This could mean months of tension ahead, as the party tries to bend the Lebanese system its way. But others have tried and failed. Lebanon’s realities can be unforgiving to the over-confident.