Friday, February 28, 2014

Apocalypse Now - Will the crimes in Syria shake indifference?

While there are no signs that American public attitudes towards Syria are changing, things are less definite among politicians and public intellectuals. The months ahead may further deepen the growing uneasiness with the policies of President Barack Obama.

In recent weeks, two prominent public figures, the physicist Stephen Hawking and the Harvard professor Michael Ignatieff, have published articles in leading American newspapers condemning the inaction of the world in Syria.

Their compelling articles, while they may not budge Obama, do something else: they help redefine the debate over Syria as a humanitarian imperative, as a matter increasingly meriting global outrage, instead of as a war against terrorism, which Syria’s regime has sought to do. This can pack a wallop if it gathers momentum.

As Hawking wrote, “What’s happening in Syria is an abomination, one that the world is watching coldly from a distance. Where is our emotional intelligence, our sense of collective justice?” He then issued this striking appeal: “As a father and grandfather, I watch the suffering of Syria’s children and must now say: No more.”

Ignatieff, in turn, argued that “[t]he conventional wisdom about Syria is that nothing can be done… The trouble is that the conventional wisdom may be fatalism parading as realism and resignation masquerading as prudence.”

He went on to point out that only direct Western military intervention, through the use of air power, drones, and cyber weapons, could deny the Assad regime air superiority. The aim would not be to advance the agenda of the Syrian rebels, but to “relieve the unrelenting pressure on the civilian population and force Mr. Assad to return to Geneva to negotiate a cease-fire.”

It is interesting that Ignatieff refers back to the Bosnia experience in discussing Syria. That’s because Bosnia’s war presents interesting parallels with Syria’s. When Bill Clinton became president, he, like Obama, vowed to focus on domestic issues, particularly health insurance for all Americans. Clinton’s campaign against George H. W. Bush was built around a catchy slogan, “It’s the economy, stupid,” against Bush’s well-known partiality to foreign policy issues.

As the war in the former Yugoslavia raged, Clinton avoided involving the United States in any meaningful way. However, in the face of continued Bosnian Serb atrocities, above all the Srebrenica massacre of July 1995, the administration was forced to reevaluate its position. The Americans used military force against the Bosnian Serbs and helped the Croatians organize an offensive in the Krajina area of Croatia, which led to the flight of up to 200,000 Serbs. Under such pressures, the Serbs ultimately folded, agreeing to a process that would ultimately lead to the signing of the Dayton peace accord.   

To this day, Western involvement in Bosnia, like that in Kosovo in 1999, is regarded as a high point for humanitarian intervention. The public has reacted very differently to both those conflicts than it did to George W. Bush’s war in Iraq. Perhaps that’s because they ended relatively quickly, or were perceived as more acceptable because the crimes they ended had taken place in the heart of Europe.

But the savagery of the Syrian war has not yet shaken Western public opinion. Instead, the focus has been on the jihadists proliferating in Syria. That is why it has not been easy to convince societies in the West that the removal of President Bashar al-Assad is desirable. Rather than consider the fact that Assad’s actions are what allowed the jihadist phenomenon to thrive, many in the West naively view him as an acceptable alternative to and bulwark against militant Islam.

Assad has perpetrated countless Srebrenicas, and even his regime’s use of chemical weapons against civilians has not lessened Western indifference. But as Andrew Tabler of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy has argued, things may change in the coming months. And the reason for this is Assad’s non-implementation of the chemical weapons agreement reached last year, with Russian help.

Under the agreement, the Syrian authorities are obligated to collaborate in the elimination of all their chemical weapons by the first half of this year. Yet the Syrians have already delayed on the accepted timetable, and reports suggest that they are refusing to destroy their chemical facilities. If this continues, the Obama administration may have no alternative but to consider military action once again, which could be doubly necessary in a Congressional election year when Republicans will exploit any sign of hesitation by Obama.

The combination of a human rights imperative and the need to enforce an international agreement on Syrian chemical weapons could push Obama to take more decisive action, regardless of the public mood. Western-Russian divisions over the Ukraine make any confidence in a successful diplomatic track foolish. Russia is unlikely, in a moment of geopolitical vulnerability, to consider easing Assad out of office, even if that was theoretically possible for a time.        

Obama would do well to learn something from Bill Clinton. An American president cannot expect the world to wrap itself around his agenda and priorities, and Clinton never did. Instead, he adapted to the often inconvenient world in which he found himself. Such flexibility is the essence of successful politics. As Obama continues to avoid taking the tough decisions on Syria, he will increasingly find himself the target of critics who are more principled than he is. 

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Popping Hezbollah’s resistance bubble

How ironic that when Hezbollah insists that the new government’s policy statement include a mention of the privileged role of the resistance, that role was imperceptible when Israeli aircraft attacked earlier this week near Nabi Sheet.

It’s still not clear what the Israelis bombed Monday night, though news outlets suggested Wednesday that it was a shipment of missiles from Syria. Hezbollah downplayed the incident, which Information Minister Ramzi Joreige admitted had taken place inside Lebanon. Party officials did not comment.

Israel’s Channel 10 TV station reported the raid followed warnings from Israel to Hezbollah, transmitted through European governments, that the party’s deployment along the border with Syria had strategic implications, therefore Israel would attack if Hezbollah maintained its positions. Border control is still seen as the duty of the Lebanese Army, with which Hezbollah is so keen to be equivalent in the people-Army-resistance triad advocated by the party.

Hezbollah has sought for years to position itself as a protector of the Lebanese state – hence its insistence on retaining its weapons. How funny, then, that the border has never been so porous, with officials telling us that the car bombs in Lebanon are being rigged in the Syrian town of Yabroud، before passing through Hezbollah areas on their way to Beirut.

Not only has Hezbollah been incapable of defending the borders, it has been utterly incapable of defending its own community. The bombings directed against the party and the Shiite community have only rarely occurred in faraway places where security is patchy. It has, clearly, been the intent of the attackers to strike at the very heart of Hezbollah’s quarters, regardless of the security measures, and destroy any sense of confidence that the party can protect its own.

What was the Israeli message Monday? In recent years, before the party was drawn into the Syrian quagmire, Hezbollah and its mouthpieces voiced great ambitions. Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah, the party’s secretary-general, spoke of a new weapon that would surprise the Israelis. He promised that in a future war, Hezbollah would seize territory in northern Galilee. And there were some who suggested that the time was ripe for the imposition of new rules of the game between the party and Israel, along the lines of the 1996 April Understanding.

Such hubris was not surprising from those who considered the 2006 summer war a Hezbollah victory. But today such puffery is more difficult to justify. The party has imported the Syrian war into Lebanon and has become a hostage to the grinding, open-ended battle on behalf of a Syrian regime delighted to have fresh, non-Syrian bodies to feed into the battle.

But the air raid this week suggested something else. That if anyone is seeking to impose new rules, it is the Israelis. If Channel 10 is correct, then we can wonder whether Israel’s intention is not to increase the cost of Hezbollah’s deployment along the border with Syria in the future.

Indeed, as the Syrian regime increases its control over areas adjoining those under Hezbollah’s sway in the northern Bekaa Valley, Israeli anxieties can only rise. With the battle for Syria’s Qalamoun district in high gear, Israel is worried that a secure Lebanese-Syrian border will facilitate the transfer to Hezbollah of advanced weaponry that can hit Israeli cities.

Hezbollah, with thousands of combatants in Syria, has a very narrow latitude to respond to the Israelis if the air attacks escalate. Israel sees a golden opportunity to impose red lines of its own on the party, and Hezbollah cannot do much about it.

All this was predictable months ago, when Hezbollah’s recklessness in Syria promised to bring Lebanon nothing but strife. One can only stare in disbelief as the party continues to insist on the people-Army-resistance formula, when none of its Lebanese partners view it with any conviction.

What is most flagrant is that Hezbollah, even as it seeks to impose a form of hegemony inside Lebanon, has been shown to be no better than an auxiliary force regionally for both the Iranian and Syrian regimes. The party cannot be happy to see its men in the vanguard of the Syrian regime’s actions, even as the Syrian army’s effectiveness remains suspect. And though the Iranians and the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council are negotiating a final nuclear deal, the party is in no position to act as a deterrent to Israel if these talks break down.

In other words, Hezbollah is struggling, at no small cost to Lebanon’s interests and its own, to defend Syria and Iran, but it simultaneously seeks to force this priority on the Lebanese through a formula that would allow it to retain its weapons. Needless to say, this cannot conceivably go together with Hezbollah’s efforts to reduce sectarian and political tensions at home. There are too many contradictions in the party’s multiple ambitions, which the Israeli attack only further damaged.

For now, March 14 and the centrists should reject the people-Army-resistance formula. Hezbollah is the one that needs cover for its participation in the Syrian conflict, so let it make the concessions. The party cannot even secure its core areas against the jihadists and Israel, so it should stop trying to convince us that it merits a special role as protector of Lebanon.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

America’s new envoy to the region must manage anxieties

The appointment of Robert Malley to the US National Security Council as senior director in charge of relations with the Gulf states and Iran has led to speculation over what this will mean for the Obama administration’s policy in this region. Mr Malley was director of the Middle East and North Africa programme at the International Crisis Group, and he advised the Clinton administration on the Middle East peace process.

His extensive ties among Arabs and Israelis have suggested to some observers that the Obama administration will soon devote greater energy to a region from which it has substantially disengaged in recent years.

That doesn’t seem very probable. Mr Malley (with whom I’ve worked on ICG projects in the past) is a classic process man, someone able to manage an ongoing diplomatic relationship with intelligence and imagination, but who is unlikely to effect a major reversal in the White House’s refusal to be drawn firmly back into regional politics.

Mr Malley’s principal brief will be to manage the relationships with Saudi Arabia and Iran. He replaces Puneet Talwar, who developed contacts with Iranian officials in the period leading up to the interim Geneva accord on Iran’s nuclear programme. Mr Malley, however, has been more involved in the affairs of the Levant and North Africa, and his background could hold both advantages and disadvantages for him.

Mr Malley is hardly conventional. He is the son of Simon Malley, a prominent journalist born in Cairo from a Syrian-Jewish background, known as a staunch supporter of Third World struggles. Mr Malley speaks impeccable French, and critics have focused on his father’s ideological leanings to condemn the son, accusing him, among other things, of supporting the Palestinian cause.

It was Mr Malley’s contacts with Hamas while at the ICG that derailed his chances of getting a position in Barack Obama’s first administration. According to individuals who spoke to Mr Malley recently, perhaps given the controversies of the past he was not persuaded that he would get the nod the second time.

Mr Malley angered supporters of Israel after he wrote an article in The New York Review of Books in 2001, with Hussein Agha, offering an alternative interpretation of the breakdown in Palestinian-Israeli negotiations at the Camp David summit of July 2000.

Against a prevailing view that Yasser Arafat had rejected a favourable Israeli proposal, the authors wrote that this version failed “to capture why what so many viewed as a generous Israeli offer, the Palestinians viewed as neither generous, nor Israeli, nor, indeed, as an offer.” While this challenge to the mainstream narrative of the Camp David talks will do Mr Malley no harm with the Gulf states and Iran, one aspect of his ICG work could increase Saudi uneasiness. A recurrent objective of his was to try to establish common principles for reviving the Syrian-Israeli negotiating track, an effort that necessitated restoring the Assad regime’s credibility in Washington.

The ICG went so far as to open an office in Damascus in 2007, which required the approval of the Syrian regime. This came at a moment when the Syrians were actively engaged in destabilising Lebanon, were backing Hamas in its power struggle against the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority and were funnelling jihadists into Iraq to carry out attacks against American forces and Shia targets.

Mr Malley’s efforts to portray Syria as a potentially reliable partner for peace, when it was inciting conflict throughout its neighbourhood, understandably angered many people. He would perhaps have replied that, as the ICG does conflict resolution, engaging Syria would have made it less prone to undermining other countries.

But given the hostility to Syria today in the Gulf, especially in Saudi Arabia, a similar response would provoke derision. Mr Malley’s Arab interlocutors will want to make sure the Obama administration does not initiate a diplomatic process that effectively strengthens their foes in Damascus, and more particularly in Tehran.

To the Saudis, American engagement of Iran in recent months has posed an existential threat, exacerbated by the success of the Syrian regime in recapturing territory at home. Mr Malley will have to simultaneously reassure the Saudis and advance in negotiations with Iran, all at a time when the Syrian conflict is profoundly dividing the two countries, and as President Bashar Al Assad’s regime is failing to implement an agreement to destroy its chemical weapons.

Mr Malley’s reputation as a process man in an administration in which foreign policy is controlled tightly by the president and his political advisers should make us realistic about what he can achieve. He will have little clout to alter Mr Obama’s behaviour. This is doubly true on Syria, when no one has even been named to replace a retiring Ambassador Robert Ford to coordinate with the Syrian opposition.

In other words, the Obama administration’s Gulf Arab interlocutors are searching for greater coherence and commitment in American behaviour towards the region, but are seeing few real signs of this. It will be Mr Malley’s job to manage their anxieties, even as one of the main items on his agenda, and which will define his success, namely progress with Iran, can only worry the Gulf Arabs even more.

The Obama administration’s Middle Eastern policy has been so shaky that the naming of a regional expert has overly raised expectations. As a process man, Mr Malley’s leverage will be lacking, even as he walks a tightrope between Iran and the Arabs. His may be a thankless task.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Talk water, Arthur Nazarian

Two weeks ago I wrote a commentary for NOW News on the water crisis in the country. This prompted a response from the then energy minister, Gebran Bassil. Bassil provided links to reports on how his ministry planned to address water issues in the years ahead. He also linked to a report on wastewater, which made for sobering reading.  

It would be unfair to blame Bassil alone for Lebanon’s water problems, which have accumulated over the decades. But the reports to which he linked mainly involved strategic planning for the water sector as a whole, whereas the question today for many Lebanese is how their daily water burden can be lessened in the year ahead. It seems likely that, prayers for rainstorms aside, we should expect a waterless year, with potentially terrible consequences. 

A new minister, Arthur Nazarian, is in place, albeit for a few months, and the Energy Ministry has to do much more than offer links to past reports. In more advanced countries the government would be thinking of declaring a state of emergency. It would be adopting measures to ensure that the water that people are buying from private distributors is affordable and above all properly treated for health hazards. Until now, however, nothing has been done.

In my own neighborhood of Ashrafieh, we haven’t had water for three weeks, not a solitary drop. The excuse is that the neighborhood sits on a hill, and therefore there is not enough pressure to transport water from the water company to the area, though it takes five minutes to walk from one to the other. And this despite the fact that the water company raised water fees this year by more than 25 percent.

These are the kinds of problems Nazarian will have to confront, and that he must attempt to resolve. He may be gone by the end of May, but that’s just before the summer season when the water crisis is felt hardest. In other words, the minister alone can formulate a strategy to deal with the aftershocks of a winter that simply never arrived, and that almost certainly will not arrive in the coming weeks.

We can expect that cutbacks in agricultural production will raise prices on fruits and vegetables, which will affect not only households, but also the businesses relying on them. This, in turn, will cause, indeed has started to cause, inflationary pressures across the board, with many Lebanese already in financial straits. More businesses will lose customers and close down, increasing unemployment.

With its existential political and economic problems, Lebanon now has to face an environmental calamity, and is unprepared to do so.

The government should write off this year and declare a state of emergency, while the council of ministers has to take a series of decisions on all matters somehow related to water. More oversight is needed of the chaotic and unregulated private distribution of water, with particular attention to quality. The government treats all water and keeps an eye on companies that distribute drinking water; therefore it should not be insurmountable to put in place a system that tests, then treats, water being sold to households.

Just pumping water out of the ground and selling it is simply not tolerable. No one knows what chemical products have entered the water with which Lebanese wash their food. The overall impact of such pumping could have serious environmental repercussions, not least the growing salinization of groundwater, which, among other things, could negatively affect the quality of agricultural land.

Strategic planning is necessary, and now is already very late for Lebanon to begin thinking about water and desalination projects for the decades ahead. Climatic changes suggest the country may face many more winters like the one this year, and most climate models suggest Lebanon is in a high-risk zone for climate change.

There is an exaggerated tendency in Lebanon to demand that the government resolve each and every problem in society. But when it comes to a vital resource such as water, only the state can deal with it. Only the state can impose controls on water distribution and quality, and only the state can think ahead and examine ways to guarantee supplies of water for when it doesn’t rain in Lebanon.

Nazarian may have the most important job in the Salam government, given that it has so little time to do much that is decisive with respect to Lebanon’s political and economic challenges. But there is time to put on track a medium-term strategy to alleviate the very heavy load the Lebanese will feel this year from the absence of water.

No one expects miracles. Mismanagement and corruption will continue to plague the sector. But what the Lebanese need now is water whose price is kept within affordable boundaries and whose quality is checked by state bodies, and treated accordingly. Nazarian should start by speaking to the Lebanese. But will he?

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Toward conflict or concord in Beirut?

According to the new information minister, Ramzi Joreige, President Michel Sleiman is pleased with the government of Prime Minister Tammam Salam, because it reflects the nature of the Lebanese system and was “made in Lebanon.”

The Cabinet certainly reflects the nature of the political and confessional system, for good and evil, but it is far less certain that an agreement became possible because the Lebanese parties alone decided that an 11-month vacuum was intolerable. Clearly, regional governments wanted to calm the volatile Lebanese situation.

That’s reassuring. Since we’re incapable of agreeing between ourselves, let others make us do so. Perhaps that’s the only positive thing in the Salam government, which will have little time to do much before the presidential election in May. But then the government isn’t really here to do more than generate concord and ensure that a successor to Michel Sleiman can be consensually agreed.

Hezbollah’s haste is motivated by the situation in Syria, and the success of President Bashar Assad’s regime in regaining ground in recent months. The party seeks to reflect this by reinforcing its own dominance in Lebanon through the presidential election and parliamentary elections scheduled for November. Most important, it does not want such a project undermined by a breakout of sectarian violence in Lebanon, which is why Hezbollah has sought to contain the consequences of bombings, the latest yesterday, in Shiite areas.

It was with full knowledge of this reality that the Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea refused to join a national-unity government. He did not want to appear to be covering for Hezbollah at a time when the party has violated the Baabda agreement by entering into the Syrian conflict, effectively pushing Sunni jihadist groups to take their war to Lebanon, threatening the country as a whole.

But what is most troubling is that Geagea’s attitude, while understandable, reveals a lack of coordination between the different parts of March 14 at a key moment for the country. The Lebanese Forces are understandably suspicious of Hezbollah, but the best way to respond is by staying united with its March 14 partners and preparing for the next phase, namely the formulation of a new election law. If the Lebanese Forces and the Future Movement remain on different wavelengths, Hezbollah and the parliament speaker, Nabih Berri, will have no trouble dividing them by putting forward election law proposals over which they disagree.

Hezbollah today has serious political and security challenges to juggle. Whatever the party’s successes in Syria, it is trapped in an open-ended conflict, while virtually every week a bomb is going off in Shiite-majority areas of the country. Hezbollah can control the response for a time, but it is doubtful it can do so indefinitely. These pressures give its adversaries more leeway to press their demands, most recently the naming of March 14 or Sleiman appointees to head the Interior, Defense and Justice ministries.

In this context, internal March 14 disputes are pointless. But something else bothers Geagea, namely that government deadlock was ended through an agreement between Saad Hariri and Michel Aoun. While resentment of Aoun remains high in the Future Movement, some in the Hariri camp feel more should be done to exploit the differences between Hezbollah and Aoun.

For Geagea, this represents a danger, since he has always sought to be the principal Christian interlocutor with the Future Movement. The relationship began fraying when the Lebanese Forces last year backed an election law, the so-called Orthodox proposal, that was opposed by Hariri. Geagea’s calculation was that the proposal, if implemented, would significantly boost his power in Parliament, in that way giving him a bloc able to counterbalance Aoun’s.

Geagea’s strategy may have backfired. By refusing to enter the government, he has ceded ground to the two major Christian political parties – the Free Patriotic Movement and the Kataeb – with which the Lebanese Forces are in competition for Christian votes. And with Hariri and Aoun engaged in a dialogue, Geagea’s relative political value could decline. Aoun, in turn, benefits from maneuvering between Hezbollah and Future, even as both sides will avoid alienating him as they prepare for the parliamentary elections.

Salam’s government will not have an election law to worry about; that headache will likely occupy the government that comes after the presidential election. But in much the same way that Hezbollah sought a government to create the mood allowing Sleiman to be replaced, it may seek to use the new government to lay the groundwork for future harmony over an election law because, as things stand, no alignment can unilaterally impose a law.

Hezbollah will be weighing its domestic behavior against regional developments. If the Syrian rebels, who are being trained by the Americans and receiving American and Gulf Arab money and more advanced weapons, mount an offensive in spring against Damascus, the party will find itself in the forefront of the battle. This could impel Hezbollah to freeze domestic cooperation pending a clearer outcome. At the same time, Hezbollah will have to measure how this affects sectarian relations, which the party does not want to see deteriorate.

Hezbollah will also await the result of negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program. It will try to exploit any breakthrough to consolidate its position. But with Syria increasingly imposing itself on the United States and regional actors, nuclear matters may be pushed to the back burner, even if Tehran will have to balance the gains from a nuclear deal against the economic crisis at home, made worse by Iran’s costly commitment to the Assad regime.

Michel Sleiman may well believe that the Salam government was made in Lebanon. But wherever it was really made, it is the events in the region that will ultimately decide whether it breaks or not.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Inconsistencies make the US guilty in Syria’s stalemate

Recently, the Obama administration has become more critical of Russian support for the Syrian president, Bashar Al Assad, suggesting that this is hampering a resolution of the conflict in Syria. “They’re, in fact, enabling Assad to double down, which is creating an enormous problem,” secretary of state John Kerry said a few days ago.

Mr Kerry is right to be critical of Russia, which, with Iran, has underwritten the most appalling crimes of the Assad regime in the past three years. However, the secretary could also reflect more on the considerable contradictions in the position of the United States, whose inconsistencies in Syria have effectively allowed the mass murder of civilians there to go ahead.

The Americans want Mr Al Assad to leave office, but have been deeply reluctant to give his adversaries all the military means necessary to bring about such an outcome.

The dilemma for the Obama administration is a fairly straightforward one. American officials believe that if they were to give the Syrian rebels the weapons needed to win a victory in Syria, such weapons could ultimately end up in the hands of jihadi groups. Moreover, the collapse of Al Assad rule threatens to create a vacuum in which extremist Islamists could thrive.

On the other hand, by not supplying qualitatively better weapons to the rebels, the US and western countries have ceded a decisive military advantage to Mr Al Assad, whose Russian and Iranian backers have given his forces what they need to win. This has not only undermined a negotiated settlement, since the Syrian leader has no impetus to concede anything if he is prevailing, it has also strengthened the jihadis who gain by fighting him.

Adding to the complications, the US appears to have implicitly allowed Gulf states to supply portable Chinese anti-aircraft missiles, or manpads, to the rebels, effectively undercutting its own efforts to keep such weaponry out of the conflict.

The Americans must realise that they are pursuing irreconcilable objectives in Syria. There is a growing sense in Washington that American dithering on Syria since 2011 helped facilitate the present situation. Had the Obama administration acted sooner, and more decisively, many believe, the situation might not have festered as it has, and jihadis would have been less able to exploit the Syrian chaos. Today, however, all the options are, admittedly, bad and risky.

This reality led to an odd situation in which Mr Kerry announced last week that Mr Obama had been presented with new policy options on Syria. This was played down by White House press secretary Jay Carney, even if he appeared to confirm the essence of what the secretary of state had said. The impression left was that the president did not want to over-emphasise real change in his Syria policy, which Mr Kerry seemed to be advocating.

It may be that new options will be presented, but there is no sign – or no sign yet – that the American position on Syria will fundamentally shift very much. And the president still has no intention of involving America’s armed forces in Syria, not after the public refusal last year to endorse American missile attacks following Mr Al Assad’s use of chemical weapons against civilians.

This combination of American diffidence and failure has removed the initiative from the hands of the Obama administration and placed it firmly in the hands of Russia and regional actors such as Iran, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. What this effectively means is that the dynamics in Syria, which may have dangerous repercussions for the US down the road, are today being largely defined by others.

However, Mr Obama is beginning to grasp that Syria, far from being “someone else’s civil war”, as he once blithely put it, is now very much an American and European concern, if only in the way it might provoke terrorist blowback against the US and Europe. His detachment from Middle Eastern affairs has facilitated this state of affairs. It also increasingly alienated him from governments in the region, many of them American allies, even if that could be changing now, making it considerably more difficult for America to affect outcomes in Syria.

Are there really no solutions? Whatever happens, the US must advance a strategy that involves building up, with its Arab allies, a rebel alignment that can both oust Mr Al Assad and act as a bulwark against Al Qaeda-related groups.

Washington must create a military situation where Moscow is ultimately forced to abandon the Syrian leader, even if it requires using American military power. This could be limited to air power, which former president Bill Clinton successfully employed in Bosnia in the 1990s.

Once the balance on the ground changes, the Obama administration would be in a better position to shape the political endgame, even if it means re-engaging with the Russians and even Iran, this time from a position of strength, to facilitate a transfer of power and avert a vacuum in Damascus. This is immensely tricky, but the notion that the muddled policy of today can be sustained indefinitely is absurd.

The Obama administration must decide what it wants in Syria. If it wants Mr Al Assad out, then it has to do everything to ensure that this happens. If it wants him to remain in office, then it should stop demanding that he leave. But continuing to say that he should leave while giving the rebels no means to remove him is the height of cynicism, one the Russians do not alone possess.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Open your eyes - A sound US Syria strategy does not require military intervention

Surprise, surprise, the talks between the Syrian parties in Geneva are deadlocked. “I think Geneva under the current circumstances will end in failure,” Ali Haidar, Syria’s reconciliation minister, told AFP in Damascus. Which makes you wonder what a Syrian reconciliation minister is doing in Damascus, when he should be in Geneva.

But Geneva is and always was a way station on the path to an eventual Syrian settlement. Above all, it was a sop to the Americans and Russians, who have spent three years calling for negotiations to end a conflict in which neither side has any inclination to negotiate.

This week, President Barack Obama hosted the French president , Francois Hollande, a partner in the lamentable international response to the Syrian conflict. Obama declared that his administration “continues to explore every possible avenue” to help reach a settlement in Syria, but again declared that he had no intention of ordering an American military intervention.

This refrain has found a hearty echo in American society. Whenever anyone suggests that Washington alter its Syria policy, the prepackaged response is something like this: “We will not embark on another war in the Middle East, so don’t try to push for one!”

If the idea is that an American intervention should involve deploying ground troops, then indeed it would be a terrible idea. One has a stronger case in justifying the use of air power. This was done in Libya to great effect and spared that country many more years of indecisive fighting, whatever the shortcomings of the postwar transition. 

But the accusation that one sins by asking for the United States to do more in Syria also conceals striking hypocrisy. After the September 11, 2001, attacks, the American public supported military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Bush administration’s justifications for an invasion of Iraq were flawed, but Americans only turned against the war later on, once the situation in Iraq deteriorated. A convenient narrative developed that it was all George W. Bush’s fault. But Bush could not have done anything had Americans not given him wide latitude to pursue his wars.

Americans have changed, comes the reply. They learned from their mistakes and now are wise to the dangers in new conflicts. Perhaps, but an either-or choice is a false one. Obama’s options in Syria cannot be reduced to either engaging in military action or pursuing a policy that has been utterly chaotic and sterile.

Geneva is the latest example. It must have occurred to American diplomats that nothing could be achieved there without certain preconditions: either a decisive military advantage by one side that obliged the other side to accept a settlement; or a broad regional and international consensus around a package deal that would bring the war in Syria to an end, as happened in Lebanon with the Taif accord.

And even in Lebanon the war formally ended only when Michel Aoun’s forces were militarily defeated by the Syrian army. In other words, it’s very rare to see parties to a conflict reach settlements when there is stalemate, and therefore no real impetus to make the concessions that can facilitate an agreement.

Today, Syria benefits from neither condition. President Bashar al-Assad has managed to regain the military initiative and push the rebels away from Damascus, but his ability to alter the military balance throughout Syria is very limited. At the same time there is a diplomatic track in place, no agreement on possible outcomes between the main regional and international actors exists. Russia and Iran, for instance, feel that time will benefit the regime, allowing it to regain ground and impose a more advantageous resolution.

These dynamics have evidently bewildered the Obama administration, which has dithered from the outset in the bloody Syrian chess match. The Americans, as is their way, seek a calibrated, almost dainty, solution that will contain the jihadists while bringing about a negotiated transition away from Assad rule. But they do not want the rebels to win outright, or Assad to lose, as the ensuing vacuum may be filled by Islamists of all stripes.

As Michael Weiss has observed, these contradictory and highly convoluted aims have led the United States to send weapons and help in the coordination of rebel operations in the south of Syria. However, “the rebels’ new guns are meant only to again test the fantasy that Assad can be talked out of power,” he wrote. 

Demanding that the Obama administration devise a more effective strategy toward Syria is not tantamount to calling for military intervention. But at the very least it requires that Washington understand how the game in Syria is played, and to adapt accordingly. The Americans are up against hardnosed adversaries in Moscow and Tehran, but have shown no sense of how to put them on the defensive, or of how to exploit their own advantages in Syria’s conflict.

Secretary of State John Kerry appears to be aware that American policy toward Syria is failing, as is Obama. There is speculation that the mood in Washington may be shifting on Syria, but for now the optimists only have a few presidential words to go on.

All that continued American uncertainty has done is prolong a war that has proven disastrous for Syria and its neighbors, including key American allies. To demand that the world’s most powerful nation do something intelligent on Syria, after years of doing nothing, should not send Americans into spasms of indignation. If anything merits indignation, it is standing back while well over 100,000 civilians, many of them children, have been massacred indiscriminately.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Why the shameless can’t take topless

Apparently, a girl who exposes her breasts can agitate some Lebanese much more than a man who clubs his wife to death.

Lebanese alpine skier Jackie Chamoun Tuesday was forced to issue an apology on her Facebook page because she appeared topless in the video of a photo shoot three years ago for a sports calendar.

Chamoun’s photos for the calendar were far less explicit than what appeared in the video. So, Chamoun, with her teammate Chirine Njeim, is essentially being held responsible for how she appeared in her off-camera moments.

Chamoun wrote, “I want to apologize to all of you, I know that Lebanon is a conservative country and this is not the image that reflects our culture. I fully understand if you want to criticise this.”

Chamoun did nothing for which to apologize. She should have said that only her photos on the calendar revealed what she intended to reveal and that it’s really no one’s business how she dresses, or undresses, outside that particular context. Whether Lebanon is conservative or not should be irrelevant here, and whatever its culture, Chamoun has not been accused of breaking any laws.

In response, caretaker Sports and Youth Minister Faisal Karami asked the head of Lebanon’s Olympic Committee to initiate the “necessary inquiries” into the incident. Usually that’s just a stock reaction to cover oneself, while intending to do nothing. Hopefully that is the case this time. The country has enough major problems not to waste another moment on a pair of athletes who happened to bare their breasts.

What made the reaction even more absurd was that similar outrage was absent when Mohammad al-Nhaily recently beat his wife Manal Assi to death with a pressure cooker in front of their daughters. While the crime was taking place, a neighbor called the police to intervene. They refused, arguing that this was a family matter.

What a pity the interior minister did not launch an investigation into why the police failed to enforce the law. Recall Karam al-Bazzi, who regularly beat his wife Roula Yaacoub and their five daughters. Last July, Yaacoub was found in a coma in their home in Halba and later died. It remains unclear whether Bazzi was responsible, and an investigation later determined that he was not. Yet some neighbors and human rights organizations disagreed with this conclusion. Had the authorities shown more readiness from the outset to arrest Bazzi for assaulting his wife and daughters, perhaps we would have been spared such a debate over cause of death.

When a draft law to end domestic violence came up for a parliamentary vote last year, Islamic leaders opposed it. A bone of contention was whether marital rape should be criminalized. Sunni sheikhs and Hezbollah opposed it, arguing it would interfere with relations between husband and wife.

The defense of privacy is laudable, and the so-called “castle doctrine,” which holds that an individual has certain protections and immunities within his own home, is a valued principle in many countries. But in no way should it be employed to permit blatant violations of the law. The blurring between what is public and private, and how the law should apply in each domain, is a recurring shortcoming in Lebanon.

Chamoun’s case adds to the confusion. What she did only became public when Al-Jadeed broadcast a video of her photo shoot. Otherwise, the video was largely intended as a private record, and the topless scenes were filmed far from the crowds of Farayya. Nor has Chamoun been charged with public indecency. Condemnation has come only because she “created a bad image of Lebanon.”

Chamoun’s experience, like that of Assi, exposed a troubling view of women in Lebanese society: Evidently, when they are submissive, particularly sexually submissive, this is somehow deemed acceptable by the authorities and their conservative supporters; but when they display any inkling of sexual liberation or independence, officials rise up in indignation and order investigations.

That’s not to say Chamoun has no supporters. Quite a few Lebanese took to social media sites and newspapers to deride the sheer idiocy of the episode. I suspect that titillation, rather than moral righteousness, was behind many of the criticisms directed against her. Like so much in Lebanon, what you see is not what you get.

Several years ago, a Lebanese celebrity was embarrassed when a video of her and her boyfriend filmed in one of their more intimate moments began circulating in Lebanon. Somehow, the video had been leaked, and many people eagerly watched it. The late journalist Samir Kassir was disturbed by this reaction, feeling that the woman was entitled to her privacy. A few months later, in a sign of support, he put her on the cover of the magazine he was editing.

Here was decency otherwise so lacking in our society. Chamoun would do well to ignore what happened and focus on the Olympics. If she wins, she can be assured that the song will change. The hypocrites will turn silent once Lebanon applauds.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

‘Democracy or peace’ formula is a false choice for Arab states

From the start of the Arab uprisings in 2011, the most valid benchmark for success was how the revolts would affect existing formal institutions – the army, intelligence services, police and the judiciary. For Arab republics to succeed in their democratic endeavours, it was necessary that these bodies be placed under civilian authority deriving from democratic elections.

Three years later, the results have been disheartening. Only in Tunisia has there been a more successful constitutional process, and even there much remains to be defined as the new constitution is implemented. On the other hand, in Egypt, Syria and Libya, the institutions have either prevailed or were not replaced by a framework allowing for civilian oversight.

In Egypt, the return of the military and security institutions has been far more circuitous than in Syria. However, the consequences will likely be longer-lasting from an institutional perspective. In 2011 the military played a vital role in removing Hosni Mubarak, when the United States withdrew its support for the Egyptian president. It also allowed a fairly democratic process that brought former president Mohammed Morsi to power and an Islamist majority to parliament.

This acceptance, however, did not constitute a submission to civilian authority. The military sought to protect its special status in the draft constitution being prepared under Mr Morsi, while mistakes he made alienated large segments of Egyptian society. Economic conditions deteriorated and the opposition grew, leading to Mr Morsi’s removal last July.

The removal of Mr Morsi had considerable public support, which the armed forces and its commander, Abdel Fattah El Sisi, found helpful in passing a constitution the military favoured. Field Marshal El Sisi is now preparing a presidential bid, though the military has been cagey about his intentions.

In Syria, the situation was different. From the start, the army and intelligence services refused to cede any ground to protesters, embarking on a ferocious campaign of subjugation. More than 130,000 people have been killed in what quickly developed into a civil war, one the regime provoked to survive politically. The intelligence services quickly grasped that a heightening of the violence and exacerbation of sectarian animosities would radicalise the rebellion and lead to the emergence of those jihadi groups the regime had claimed to be fighting.

Already familiar with jihadist networks from the time it made use of them to channel combatants into Iraq, the Syrian regime released prisoners and took measures essentially reinforcing extremist groups. This splintered the rebels and changed the narrative of the Syrian conflict. Bashar Al Assad’s removal is now increasingly viewed in the West as a means of delivering Syria to Al Qaeda and its affiliates.

Mr Al Assad is more solid than he has been in the three years of the uprising. Whether he regains control over all of Syria is not his principal preoccupation at this stage. Until now, he has survived politically and weathered the worst that his foes could muster. The opposition, meanwhile, remains more fragmented than ever.

The Syrian apparatus of repression never considered blending politics with force. Mr Al Assad offered vague political concessions in 2011, but otherwise it has been all violence since. While the Syrian regime may in the end prevail, the foundations of Assad rule will remain shaky until they can be buttressed by some sort of consensual political understanding.

In Libya, the anarchy that accompanied the end of the war against Muammar Qaddafi’s regime carried over into the post-war period. The divisions within the opposition hardened once the conflict ended, with no recognised central authority to unify them. While the post-revolution authorities dismantled Qaddafi’s apparatus of repression, they failed to fill the ensuing vacuum with a credible replacement.

Since then, the Libyan authorities have struggled to rein in the wartime militias. In an effort to reverse this disturbing trend, the United States, Italy, Turkey and the United Kingdom have sought to set up and train a new Libyan army, or “general purpose force”. While this is welcome, and to an extent builds on lessons learnt in Iraq, the obstacles to the force’s effectiveness cannot be underestimated.

After Iraq, the West, especially the United States, has been of two minds on the role of repressive institutions, particularly militaries, in the Arab world. When such institutions are absent and democratic practices are not well entrenched, there is a high probability that instability will ensue. On the other hand, instability is often manipulated by repressive institutions as justification for the continued rule of authoritarian leaderships.

And this latter ploy works abroad. While the Obama administration had sharp differences with the Egyptian military after the July 2013 removal of Mr Morsi, three years of volatility in Egypt will almost certainly push the Americans to endorse a new military-led regime in Cairo. After all, from Gamal Abdel Nasser to Hosni Mubarak, Washington never had any trouble backing Egyptian military leaders.

Arab democrats can legitimately lament their inability to outmanoeuvre their countries’ military. The cravenness of western states aside, Arab societies have too often been pushed by their regimes into either-or choices – where it is stable autocracy versus unstable liberty; or imposed, but stable, unity versus unstable fragmentation, whether sectarian or tribal.

How to escape from such desolate binaries will be the task of future generations of Arabs. For now, most of the Arab uprisings after 2011 have utterly failed to create democratic alternatives to what existed before, and the world will accept the consequences without protest.

Friday, February 7, 2014

No liquidity - Lebanon braces for a year without water

Amid exploding taxi buses, an economy in disarray, the presence of hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees, and fears of a sectarian war, the Lebanese will have yet another biblical calamity with which to contend this year: Their country is suffering from a serious water shortage that is unlikely to be reversed.

It is beginning to dawn on the Lebanese that the absence of rain this winter (if what we have today can be called a winter) will have serious repercussions throughout the year. Agricultural production will be curtailed, pushing up the price of fruits and vegetables across the board; the Lebanese will be obliged to buy overpriced and dirty water from private water distributors, putting even greater pressure on their already tight budgets and posing increasing health risks.

Nor has this dire situation come as a surprise. For years specialists have warned that Lebanon’s inadequate water distribution system ensured that the country, though it usually benefits from rainfall and underground water, would reach such a crisis stage. But now, on top of this, some climate models suggest that Lebanon is in a region of high to extreme risk when it comes to climate change.

In an interview with NOW Lebanon in 2010, Bjorn Lomborg, an influential author and the head of the Copenhagen Consensus Center, echoed this view, warning that “Lebanon or the Eastern Mediterranean will get warmer, and it will get drier. Those are two very constant outcomes of global warming models…”

So two trends have come together in Lebanon to create – and the term is apt in its absurdity – a perfect storm of catastrophe with regard to water: a global trend making for warmer climates, which means less rain and snow to replace underground water, exacerbated by a wholly inadequate water distribution and storage system.

The big disagreement today, as a new government is in the works, is over the energy ministry. It doesn’t take much to know what that’s all about. The ministry manages the lucrative offshore gas and oil contracts, and ministerial rotation is effectively another way of saying that everyone must be given access to the state’s cash cows.

Unfortunately, no one seems overly concerned that the ministry also runs Lebanon’s water resources and must oversee a radical change in national water policy as the climate changes. Water is more valuable than oil, but our politicians haven’t yet realized how much.

When he came to office, the energy minister, Gebran Bassil, complained that he had a plan to build several dams, but that the political class was preventing him from advancing on that front.

Unfortunately for Bassil, even if what he said was true, his plans, whenever they are examined more closely, usually end up being ventures in which the public’s interest seems less of a priority than his own (witness the expensive contracts signed last year for maritime power stations). Bassil has never properly addressed the water issue. He will, doubtless, manipulate the water crisis to his advantage, but for as long as water management remains under the authority of the highly corrupt energy ministry, don’t expect serious reform.

Mismanagement, corruption, a lack of planning, and climate change are all contributing to the inevitable water disaster this year. But adding to the misery of the Lebanese is that there will be plenty of people, among them officials, who will seek to exploit this situation.

Much to our surprise, the Beirut and Mount Lebanon water authority had the temerity this year to raise its annual water consumption fees, even though last year many of us spent months without any water. When people complained, the reply was delivered with a straight face: the higher fees are needed to improve the distribution system.

Rather than play the Lebanese for fools, the authorities must, at the very least, alleviate the costs in the months ahead. No one expects the bankrupt state to subsidize water consumption, though if the funds could be taken out of kickbacks and the outrageous fees we are paying to the water company, that would be worth considering.

More seriously, something must be done to regulate the private water distributors, who charge exorbitant fees to deliver water for which we’ve already paid. However, given that officials are likely to be in on this vile commerce, any expectation of change is illusory. In parts of the Metn, for instance, water distributors have long held the inhabitants hostage, yet no broad movement of protest has formed, let alone any amelioration seen in the water situation.

A second thing that must be done, but will not be, is to verify the quality of the water that is distributed. Anyone who has consumed water delivered by tanker truck knows that it is usually filthy. The water is used not only for cleaning, but also for cooking. Children are made to wash in it. If ever there was a public health motivation for the government to intervene, then this is it. Government inspectors examine the quality of all water, and there is no reason why they should not do so the water distributed by private individuals.

But such entreaties are bound to lead nowhere, so dishonest are the networks integrating the water authorities, private distributors, and all those who gain from supplying the Lebanese with a basic necessity of life. Before we speculate about how the dearth of water will provoke the wars of the future, let us first ask how they will affect Lebanon’s stability, and who among us is going to do something about it. 

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Obama’s Syria policy is disintegrating

For most Americans, including President Barack Obama, the benchmark of success is whether they can stay out of the Syrian conflict. But statements by U.S. officials suggest that this ostrichlike approach, with America’s head firmly in the sand, could backfire.

That, at least, is what one gets out of the statement released Tuesday by James Clapper, the director of national intelligence. Clapper admitted that President Bashar Assad had “strengthened” his hold on power in Syria and that his regime had taken advantage of an agreement approved by the Obama administration to abandon his chemical weapons. More ominously, this came as anxiety has risen that some of the more extremist groups in Syria, which are gaining in potency as the chaos there persists, might one day target the U.S.

Add to that the growing realization in Washington that Assad has sought to undermine the main diplomatic project pushed by the administration, the Geneva process, which had gone nowhere by the time the first round of talks came to a close last week.

Welcome to wrestling with the Assad regime. The Obama administration has been a bumbling, stupid giant in the face of a Syrian regime that has defined cynicism in its quest for political survival and a Russian leadership that has delighted in exploiting the impotence and anti-war mood in Washington and Europe.

Only at one stage did the administration scare both: when Obama, cornered by his own rhetoric, announced that he would bomb regime targets in Syria last summer. It was not as if the president hadn’t tried to reassure the Assad regime and the Russians, repeating time and again that he planned a limited operation. But they apparently were more lucid about American military power than the White House, and almost everything they have done in the past three years has aimed to neutralize an Obama administration seeking nothing less.

The chemical deal with Russia was designed to derail an American attack. The Assad regime’s effective encouragement of jihadist groups was intended to scare the Americans and Europeans and discredit the Syrian opposition. And Assad’s agreement to go to Geneva was a sop to Russia, so that it could keep the Americans engaged in a “process,” because process, whether successful or unsuccessful, has become the standard for American diplomatic seriousness.

On the nuclear deal and at Geneva, the Syrians have taken a page out of the book of the late Hafez Assad. They have negotiated every last detail, usually in bad faith, making minimal concessions only to keep the empty processes alive and buy time. The Russians have in no way challenged this. On the contrary, they have led the Americans on, bending only when necessary to keep the bait and switch going.

That is why the Syrians will continue to hold on to a significant portion of their chemical weapons, and it is why Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem will continue to ensure, in line with his president’s instructions, that Geneva goes absolutely nowhere – certainly not toward any serious discussion of a transition away from Assad rule, avoidance of which is the regime’s absolute priority.

So, Clapper’s admission that Assad is getting stronger and that he benefited from the chemical deal was a statement of the obvious. It was also implicit confirmation that Obama’s claims that the chemical agreement represented a diplomatic breakthrough were wrong. One person apparently displeased with the administration’s policy is Secretary of State John Kerry, whom Senator Lindsey Graham described as frustrated with Russia and Assad after the secretary held a closed-door meeting on Sunday with Congressional leaders.

Pity Kerry. He was once under the illusion that Assad could be a force for reform in the Middle East, this at a time when the Syrian leader was dispatching jihadists to Iraq to kill American soldiers and was seeking to reimpose Syrian hegemony over Lebanon. But now that Kerry is inside the ring, he can see how thoroughly the U.S. has been taken for a ride, and how Obama’s standoffishness, even indifference, toward the Middle East has encouraged this.

To put it bluntly, not one of America’s objectives in Syria has been achieved, even as the Syrian conflict has destabilized the region. Obama can talk to his electorate about health care, drug legalization and gay marriage all day, but at some point he must inform them that the U.S. still has strategic interests in the Middle East that require more than passing attention. Part of any policy is preparing the public for a particular course of action. Obama’s failure to do so was precisely why his intention to strike Syria after the chemical attacks last August was so roundly opposed by many Americans.

The reality is that the Obama administration needs to overhaul a Syria policy that is disintegrating by the day. Obama should shake himself out of his lethargy and make a strong case for such a change, much as Bill Clinton did after the Srebrenica massacre in Bosnia in July 1995. Like Obama, Clinton also sought initially to be a “domestic president,” but unlike him, he adapted when he realized that the world didn’t bend itself around the American president’s agenda.

With Clapper and Kerry stating that America is being hoodwinked over Syria, including by its supposed Russian partner, Obama has to wake up. Perfunctorily adhering to an empty negotiating process that will move only when one side gains militarily guarantees that the situation in Syria will worsen. And as Afghanistan showed, America can pay a heavy price for its indifference to faraway places.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

The Assad regime is Syria’s problem, not a colonial line in the sand

Recently, a prominent Lebanese politician well attuned to the twists and turns of the Middle East expressed concern about the future of Syria. He was displeased with US Secretary of State John Kerry’s statement that certain countries were willing to send peacekeeping forces there in the event of a settlement, and that one of their objectives would be to protect minorities.

A second news story could not have reassured him. It came from the Sunday Times suggesting that President Bashar Al Assad of Syria had surrendered only a tiny portion of his chemical and biological weapons. He is allegedly hoarding them, the newspaper reported, in areas controlled by his Alawite community, as an insurance policy in case Syria is eventually partitioned.

What worried the Lebanese politician was that peacekeeping forces could serve to harden current lines of separation, facilitating a formal partition of Syria. The Sunday Times story appears to confirm a similar trend, with the journalist quoting a Russian expert as saying: “Down the line, Assad is doomed. His plan B, C, and D is to retreat to the Alawite enclave and try to protect the Alawite community.”

It’s anybody’s guess where Syria is heading, and a further break-up of the country remains a definite possibility. But there is a sweeping narrative taking hold today that the countries that emerged after the First World War Sykes-Picot agreement, which drew the borders of the modern Middle East, were destined to disintegrate, especially in the absence of a foreign power able to impose stability.

Germany’s former foreign minister, Joschka Fischer, has repeatedly echoed this view. Recently he wrote: “Indeed, the partial withdrawal of the US implies that the end of the enforced stability of the old Middle East will not spare the Sykes-Picot borders. Developments in Syria and Iraq already suggest as much, and the future of Lebanon and Jordan has become increasingly uncertain.”

The reality is far more complicated, in part because the premises are faulty. One cannot ignore two essential details: time has meant that the borders have taken on a legitimacy of their own; and Arab nationalistic aspirations after the First World War, often portrayed as more legitimate than those the Europeans imposed, would have created borders no less contentious and volatile than the ones today.

The time argument cannot be underestimated. Nearly a century later, those seeking to alter Syria’s borders, or Lebanon’s, or Jordan’s, or even Iraq’s, face an uphill battle. These borders may not be ideal, in light of political developments since they were formed, but they have taken on a durable quality of their own. Moreover, there is a stigma in the Arab world that opponents of unity serve foreign agendas.

None of the protagonists in Syria’s conflict has cast doubt on its borders, or has called for a Sunni or Alawite state. Their rhetoric has almost entirely been couched in nationalistic terms, with their aim being the control over all of Syria. Even Mr Al Assad has never expressed interest in falling back on an Alawite mini-state, and if he does so that would only be because he can no longer hold Damascus.

In Lebanon, national cohesion has been doubtful for decades, but even during the civil war between 1975 and 1990 none of the actors sought to formalise partition. At most, those who are unhappy with the unitary system today propose a federal structure to replace it. However, no one seriously believes that partition is possible, or would bring many benefits if it were adopted by the Lebanese.

The second argument – that the borders favoured by Arab nationalists would have been no less litigious than what the colonial powers created – is equally true. Many nationalists envisaged their ideal borders as far more inclusive than what Sykes-Picot outlined. Syrian nationalists sought to incorporate parts of Lebanon and Palestine, even though both had developed autonomously from Syria. Similarly, Iraq long considered Kuwait its 19th province.

Not only would Syrian nationalists have clashed with Lebanese and Palestinian nationalists had Sykes-Picot not existed, we have seen many examples of regional states seeking to impose their nationalist vision on others – as Syria did on Lebanon for nearly 30 years or on the Palestine Liberation Organisation as of the late 1960s; and as the Iraqis tried in Kuwait in 1990.

Sykes-Picot may have been a wretched product of western colonial hegemony, but Arab states have never shown any hesitation to push their own hegemonic ambitions. Throughout the last six decades, it’s not so much disintegration that has characterised Arab states, as efforts by regimes to consolidate centralised rule and, when possible, extend their influence beyond their borders.

That’s not to say that many Arab states do not have strong centrifugal social forces. However, these often are not a product of western colonialism or even necessarily artificial borders; they are a consequence of dysfunctional states and inadequate social contracts. The problem in the Middle East is the failure of the modern Arab state, the excess of bad government, not a colonial-era inheritance.

When mixed societies in the region cannot find a social contract to govern their relations, conflicts between sects and ethnic groups are exacerbated and signal a breakdown in the state. But the real trouble is that no adequate mechanism is in place to manage society’s differences, not that groups have an ingrained intent to separate.

That is why the region is likely to continue to manoeuvre in a no-man’s land of mediocre, autocratic states, within geographical entities that remain largely the same as the ones prevailing today. That’s not to say that states will never break up, but rather that they are more liable to break down within their present structures.