Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Israel’s policy goals make the prospect of peace impossible

Albert Einstein once famously defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over again, expecting different results.

That sums up the shortcomings of the peace process between Israelis and Palestinians during the last two decades. Again and again the US has offered the same approach – bilateral negotiations aimed at agreeing confidence-building measures that would facilitate a permanent peace settlement – with no tangible results since the late 1990s.

Whenever one discusses the peace process, the tendency is to hold both sides equally responsible. But it has become apparent, even to the Americans, paramount facilitators of negotiations, that Israeli actions on the ground are preventing any accord with the Palestinians, a situation Washington has been either unwilling or unable to change.

Barack Obama tried to address the settlements issue during his first term, by asking for and getting a temporary settlement freeze. However, he was forced to back down when opposition rose in the US Congress. This showed how vulnerable Mr Obama was domestically, and how mistaken he had been to pick a fight he could not or would not win.

Negotiations have been undermined by two series of recurring dilemmas. On the one hand, because of Israel’s fractured party politics, it is rare for an Israeli prime minister to make serious concessions on settlements without risking the collapse of his or her governing coalition, as parties opposed to returning land threaten to pull ministers out.

Of course, that’s assuming the prime minister is committed to the principle of withdrawal from the West Bank with land swaps, as well as an accord over Jerusalem. With Benjamin Netanyahu no such commitment exists.

The other side of the dilemma is that Israel’s friends in the US Congress have opposed pressure to stop and reverse Israeli settlement building. In the divisive climate in Washington, Mr Obama has had little margin to act decisively on Israel, which enjoys support on both sides of the political aisle.

Nor has the president been willing to alienate his Jewish electorate, a key component of the Democratic Party base, especially as he contemplates losing seats in this year’s congressional elections. Mr Obama’s standoffishness in the negotiations initiated by John Kerry was partly aimed at averting the Israeli-Palestinian vipers’ nest in an election year.

In this context, it is virtually impossible to move to the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Instead, all we have is a recurring cycle of limited confidence-building measures that create a semblance of progress.

The US has continued to resist publicly declaring the outlines of a final settlement, the details of which would be negotiated by the parties. The American fear is that this would box Israel in, when the US believes a final deal must be reached by the parties themselves. Perhaps, but such an attitude has only helped guarantee more stalemate.

No wonder the Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas, has sought parallel progress by gaining access to United Nations agencies and why he finalised a reconciliation deal with Hamas last week. Israel used this as a pretext to break off negotiations, but this was pure opportunism, a chance to end talks Mr Netanyahu never wanted in the first place.

Israel’s excuse that Hamas seeks Israel’s destruction was too hasty. After the reconciliation, Mr Abbas told the UN representative to the peace process, Robert Serry, that Hamas had accepted the conditions set out by the Quartet: recognition of Israel, non-violence, and adherence to previous agreements.

Hamas will probably bob and weave to fudge this acceptance. But given its weaknesses regionally, with a hostile government in Egypt and a legacy of failure in Gaza, the movement’s ability to undermine the Quartet’s conditions is much diminished.

Nothing obliged Israel to reject the Palestinian unity agreement so swiftly. Mr Netanyahu could have waited to observe the new Palestinian government’s policies before cutting off contacts.

These dynamics were always predictable, yet Washington did not change tack and Mr Obama made a minimal personal effort to push the process forward. The credibility of the US as a mediator, already greatly damaged, now lies in tatters.

Mr Kerry warned of the implications by saying that if a two-state solution failed, a “unitary state” might ensue. But as he put it last Friday, “a unitary state winds up either being an apartheid state with second-class citizens – or it ends up being a state that destroys the capacity of Israel to be a Jewish state”.

Israeli officials were angry at the comparison with South Africa. But Mr Kerry was being generous. Israel has direct or indirect control over the lives of millions of Palestinians, who have been under illegal occupation for nearly half a century. The Netanyahu government’s demand that Palestinians recognise the Jewish nature of Israel can only be understood as a means of weighing the system against Israel’s own Arab citizens.

A more probable outcome is that we will see neither a two-state nor a one-state solution. Israel will create a reality that makes peace impossible. With nothing to lose, with their misery rising, a new generation of Palestinians, not of Israel nor independent of it, will consider a new war of liberation.

This will create an impossible situation for Israel. It can engage in repression, but the costs will be very high. South Africa, where a peaceful transition was possible, will become a model to follow. For as long as Israel prefers occupied land to peace, the more likely will be this nightmare scenario.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Reversal of fortune - Will Saad Hariri give Michel Aoun the presidency?

With the first round of the presidential election having ended, all eyes are now turned toward candidates who can hope to win votes from both the March 8 and March 14 coalitions. Ironically, the person who feels he has the best chance of doing so is Michel Aoun, who has presented himself as the compromise candidate who can break the prevailing deadlock.

But it this scenario realistic? Would Saad Hariri order his parliamentary bloc to vote for Aoun, in that way fundamentally shaking up the alliances that came into existence in Lebanon after 2005, when Syrian forces withdrew from the country and Aoun built a relationship with Hezbollah against March 14?

That possibility is not only worrying two leading politicians who stand to lose from such a deal, Samir Geagea and Walid Jumblatt, but also Future Movement parliamentarians. They have spent the better part of eight years condemning Aoun before voters and have no desire to suddenly alter direction to make him president.

The narrative circulating in Beirut these days is that Hariri would endorse Aoun, in exchange for which he would return to Lebanon with security guarantees from the general to serve as prime minister. This follows on from a gradual improvement in relations between Hariri and Aoun, culminating in their two blocs’ recent collaboration in forming a committee to discuss the impact of the higher salary scale on the economy – a decision opposed by Aoun’s allies Hezbollah and the Amal Movement.

Undoubtedly, a Future-Free Patriotic Movement rapprochement would be an interesting development on Lebanon’s otherwise deadlocked political scene. But it would also present major challenges to Hariri, not least a political rift between the former prime minister and the Lebanese Forces. It would also exacerbate the relationship with Jumblatt, with whom Future was allied between 2005 and 2011, before the Druze leader alienated Hariri by backing Najib Miqati to replace him as prime minister. 

Hariri may be willing to risk strained relations with Geagea if he could attract Aoun and draw him away from Hezbollah. In parliamentary terms Aoun has a much larger bloc than the Lebanese Forces, and, even if Geagea opposes Hariri’s opening to his principal Maronite rival, the argument goes, he could not realistically realign himself with Hezbollah in response.

In other words, Geagea, with few other options, would be obliged to maintain a partnership with Future, even if it meant that he became a secondary Christian ally of the Future Movement.

As for Jumblatt, if Hariri and Aoun were to strengthen their ties, his role as the man in the middle of Lebanese politics, able to play one side against the other, would disintegrate. Worse, a Christian-Sunni partnership could have consequences for him in the mountains, particularly the Shouf, where Christian and Sunni voters roughly make up 60 percent of the electorate, even if the Lebanese Forces may be stronger than Aoun in the district.

Ultimately, Jumblatt’s greatest trial will be to ensure that the law governing parliamentary elections next November continues to give him a dominant role in Aley and the Shouf, while allowing him to bring in his Druze candidates in Beirut and the West Bekaa. To Jumblatt’s advantage, Aoun and Hariri both benefit from the 1960 law, which the Druze leader favors, even if Aoun has declared his opposition to the law for tactical reasons, because Christian communities feel it marginalizes them.

But at the least the Druze leader would have his wings clipped and doesn’t relish that prospect. That’s why he has warned Future that if Hariri were to support Aoun, this could revive the rivalry that existed between Rafiq Hariri and Emile Lahoud.

Jumblatt of course has an interest in saying such a thing, but he may also be right. Nothing guarantees that a Hariri-Aoun marriage will be harmonious. Hariri may be gambling that a President Aoun will take on the characteristics of his new office and defend state sovereignty against Hezbollah. But Aoun may just as easily follow another presidential inclination and affirm his prerogatives against those of the prime minister, implementing a longstanding vow to try to overhaul the Taif agreement.

Is that to say that Hariri’s exploration of a new relationship with Aoun is necessarily a bad idea? Not at all, but the foundation on which such an idea has grown, namely that Aoun will turn against Hezbollah, appears to be deeply flawed. Aoun has frequently been astute, and given the middle ground of the presidency he may try to exploit his situation by playing Hariri and the Future Movement off against Hassan Nasrallah and Hezbollah.

Perhaps such a situation would allow a President Aoun to better fulfill his constitutional role to defend national unity. It may even help him maintain equilibrium between Sunnis and Shiites, containing any tension or conflict between them. But balancing acts usually require heightening the contradictions of one’s rivals, so it’s just as likely that Aoun, in order to consolidate his power, could end up aggravating Sunni-Shiite relations.

Ultimately, Hariri’s political choices are his own. His decision to back Michel Sleiman in 2007 proved to be a success. If the former prime minister decides to pull another rabbit out of his hat and do the same for Aoun, the outcome may be positive. But, knowing Aoun’s track record until now, it’s easy to be skeptical. In fact, skepticism is a duty when it comes to a man who has repeatedly helped destroy Lebanon in pursuit of his personal ambitions.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

For Christians, blessed are the dividers

Why is it that many people misjudged the Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea’s presidential bid by whether he became president? Using that benchmark, Geagea’s inability to secure a majority Wednesday was a defeat. In fact, his aims were different, and win or lose, he came out of the experience in a better position.

Geagea had three principal objectives in his candidacy: to compel March 14 in general, and the Future Movement in particular, to endorse him as their favorite. In that way he strengthened his hand as the coalition’s primary Christian representative at a time when Future has improved its relationship with Michel Aoun.

Geagea also apparently sought to turn the election into a contest between him and Aoun, knowing that such a situation would effectively neutralize both, blocking Aoun. Whether this gambit has actually succeeded remains to be seen.

And third, Geagea sought to legitimize the idea that Samir Geagea can be a presidential candidate, amid a widespread belief that, given his past, he could never pretend to such an office. While the Lebanese Forces leader is no worse than others from the war generation who are in positions of authority today, the stigma that has stuck to him has somehow been more enduring. That is why Geagea sought a way of rewriting his personal narrative.

Geagea can look with some satisfaction on his strategy and will hope to cash in on this when parliamentary elections come later this year. But there was also something disconcerting in Geagea’s endeavor, a feeling that he was wrestling with old phantoms. No event better illustrated this than Geagea’s decision to show journalists a replica of his Defense Ministry prison cell that he built at his home in Maarab, complete with sound effects.

Most would have buried that past. Geagea, partly for opportunistic reasons, has refused to do so. That is not surprising given that Geagea and Aoun, whose enmity once devastated the Christians, are still the main protagonists in a struggle for communal predominance. They cannot break free from that rivalry, and Christians cannot break free from both men.

Unlike Geagea, Aoun has not bothered to grace the public with a political program. There was a time when the Aounists serenely explained that they had such a program, and that their understanding with Hezbollah was written down. Not that such transparency changed much, but the implicit message was that Aoun did politics differently than other leaders in Lebanon.

Today things have changed, and the Aounist faithful are not averse to a backroom deal that could bring their champion to office. Aoun has not declared his candidacy, preferring to present himself as a compromise candidate who will take power only if invited by Lebanon’s diverse factions.

By virtue of his larger representation in Parliament and government, Aoun has been less a hostage to the past than Geagea. He has had more on his political plate to propel him forward. And yet his ambitions, too, were once thwarted by an inability to shake off earlier animosities.

In 2006, Aoun formally allied himself with Hezbollah against the March 14 coalition, hoping this would advance his plan to become president once Emile Lahoud’s term ended. In fact it did precisely the opposite, ensuring that Aoun would be opposed by the March 14 parliamentary majority. Had Aoun remained in the center, between March 8 and March 14, he would have been Lahoud’s natural, indeed uncircumventable, successor on the basis of the large victory he had won in the elections of 2005.

What motivated Aoun was, principally, his hostility to the Hariri family and Walid Jumblatt, whom he blamed for having tried to isolate him politically, and who had been the general’s political adversaries prior to that. Rather than putting his personal antagonisms aside in the pursuit of the presidential prize, Aoun allowed himself to be manipulated in the March 8-March 14 battle, ultimately being shunted aside when a consensus candidate was found in Michel Sleiman.

Aoun appears to have realized his error, and recently he has tried to sound presidential. But it could be too late, though there is a possibility that Saad Hariri could support Aoun in a maneuver that has several politicians worried, Geagea and Jumblatt above all.

With the first round of elections over, there is now room for a variety of options. Aoun can delight in the fact that Geagea received fewer votes than the number of blank ballots. Jumblatt can be happy that Henri Helou received 16 votes. In other words, if March 14 were to support Helou in the second round, they and Jumblatt would name the president. This could ward off a Hariri-Aoun rapprochement, which would marginalize Jumblatt.

But beyond the specifics of the election, a larger question is how long will the Christians be ruled by the figures from their past? The broader community, and the Maronites in particular, are in perpetual search of a strongman. This makes them no different than Lebanon’s other communities. But when the men toward whom they are turning are the same ones who destroyed Christian fortunes, you have to wonder about the Christians’ priorities.

For now Lebanon is still without a president, and it’s not for the Christians to decide who becomes one. The next president will have a far more momentous task, that of leading Lebanon through the labyrinth of Sunni-Shiite tensions and ensuring that the country remains united. Having divided their own community, Aoun and Geagea seem poorly equipped for such an undertaking.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Even an uncertain presidency binds Lebanon’s democracy

On Wednesday, Lebanon held the first round of its presidential election. No single candidate won the requisite majority of votes in parliament, which chooses the president, and a second round of voting has been scheduled for next week. The results show that only a consensual candidate can hope to emerge.

But why would anyone want to be Lebanon’s president? The Taif Accord of 1989 substantially transformed, and diminished, the president’s constitutional role. Though far from powerless, the president must shape policy in a more subtle ways today than before. He or she must seek power within the cracks of the political system.

By the unwritten rules governing Lebanon’s consociational power-sharing system, the main posts in the state are distributed between the country’s three main sects. The president is a Maronite Christian. The community retained the presidency as compensation for the shredding of its power. Yet the president remains the head of state and “symbol of the nation’s unity”.

Through the Taif amendments, the president, who had been the paramount official in the state, lost his executive power to the council of ministers as a collective body (as opposed to that power being handed to the prime minister). The president also was deprived of the right to name a preferred prime minister, having, instead, to rely on binding consultations with parliament.

The president cannot block legislation. He or she can delay it for up to a month; or, in consultation with the council of ministers, ask that a law be reconsidered once – which parliament must do, before passing the legislation with an absolute majority.

These constraints don’t tell the whole story. Because most policy in Lebanon is negotiated and requires compromise between sectarian leaders, the president’s function can transcend his or her constitutionally-mandated role. Moreover, there is room in the constitution, and in the customs of the state, allowing presidents to exploit and expand their prerogatives.

For instance, President Emile Lahoud emerged as a forceful, if ultimately mediocre, president in 1998, mainly because he had sustained Syrian backing. He was able to use the ambiguities in the constitution, as well as his networks within the armed forces, which he had earlier commanded, to curtail the actions of two of his prime ministers, Salim al-Hoss and Rafik Hariri.

But when all is said and done, the power of the president is, above all, moral. As the embodiment of the nation’s unity, he or she can issue statements that can have a major bearing on the political actors, under the pretence of defending the state.

This was particularly true of the outgoing president, Michel Sleiman. On several occasions Mr Sleiman made statements critical of Hizbollah and its independent military arsenal. The party was angered by his remarks, one reason why it has been so insistent that the president leave office when his term ends, unlike his two predecessors whose mandates were extended.

While Mr Sleiman’s statements had little practical impact, they shifted the public debate over Hizbollah’s relationship with the state in important ways. That is why the party, while it cannot impose a president of its own on the country, is very keen to block any candidate who might threaten its agenda and arms.

With the president, the two other main officials in the state are the prime minister, from the Sunni community, and the speaker of parliament, a Shiite. Given that a most Sunnis are hostile to Hizbollah, and that the prime minister must take this mood into consideration to preserve his or her legitimacy, Hizbollah seeks to avoid a situation where the president and prime minister can coordinate their positions in opposition to the party.

Regionally and internationally, the presidential election may not rate highly, but it does have some meaning, particularly today with the conflict in Syria raging. Arab and western governments want an election so there is no vacuum in Lebanon, which could lead to unwanted instability and a new regional headache.

The fact that a government of national unity was formed in February reflected an effort by Saudi Arabia and Iran, the regional sponsors of the Future Movement and Hizbollah, Lebanon’s main Sunni and Shia parties, to contain sectarian tensions in the country. A presidential vacuum may impair this effort, but the government’s broad representation prepared for the possibility that no one would be elected, in which case the government would run the country alone.

One of the advantages, if it can be called that, of the president’s diminished powers is that a presidential vacuum is less catastrophic than many believe. When Mr Lahoud’s term ended in late 2007, there was no agreement over a successor. It was not until May 2008 that Mr Sleiman was elected. While that period was marked by high tension, the cause was not the absence of a president and it was ultimately brought under control.

That is why even if the divided political alignments cannot agree to a successor to Mr Sleiman, we should not necessarily assume the worst. More worrisome is the absence of a government, and Lebanon in the past year managed to carry on with relative steadiness through a 10-month period with a caretaker government.

It is easy to dismiss Lebanon’s presidential election as relatively meaningless on the global stage. Perhaps it is, but in a region where elections are mostly a sham designed to keep dictators in power, it is also an exception. The Lebanese may not know who will be their next president or whether they will have one soon, but somehow that uncertainty is a refreshing rarity in the Middle East.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Bullet box - Assad uses war to secure his re-election

For Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, the offensive in the Qalamoun area along Syria’s western border with Lebanon has become as much a campaign issue as a military one. With Assad preparing for his re-election this summer, he needs to rewrite the narrative of the Syrian conflict as a successful endeavor to defeat so-called armed terrorist groups.

A former Russian prime minister, Sergei Stepashin, helped Assad get this point across. Recently, after meeting with the Syrian president in Damascus, he told the ITAR-Tass news agency, “To my question about how military issues were going, this is what Assad said: ‘This year the active phase of military action in Syria will be ended. After that we will have to shift to what we have been doing all the time – fighting terrorists.’”

The regime’s victory in Maaloula several days ago, after successes in Yabroud and Rankous, pushed media outlets in the West to buy into Assad’s version of events, making them ask whether we were witnessing a turning of the tide in Syria.

There is no doubt that the regime has made great strides in consolidating its control over the central axis of Syria in the last year, and the likely impending takeover of the old city of Homs will only reinforce this trend. The Qalamoun operation has had several purposes: to cut off supply lines between Lebanon and Syria; to consolidate the regime’s control over communication lines between Damascus and the coastal areas and Aleppo; and to further clear areas around the capital of rebel forces.

But these aims are primarily defensive in nature, and are not, or not yet, part of a broader process to go on the offensive nationally to defeat the rebels. They also are variations on old themes. The Assad regime has reported recapturing Homs on countless occasions, and indeed controls much of the city, so the defeat of rebels in the old city has more symbolic value than anything else. Maaloula, too, was retaken by the regime last year. Several villages that were said to be captured recently by the Syrian army were in fact not under the control of rebels.

In other words, the battle narratives today are mostly self-serving, suggesting decisive encounters when the reality is of a much more fluid conflict, with the regime and rebels alternatively gaining in some places and losing in others. The regime may indeed be strengthening its hold on the north-south corridor and between Damascus and the coast, but for the past three years it has more or less managed to maintain a level of control over these communication lines, in such a way that the rebels have never completely isolated the capital from the coast. 

We must understand the military campaign primarily in political terms. Assad’s principal objective, above all others, is political survival. That’s why he has been so heavily focused on securing his re-election, which will probably happen in July.

Assad has been able to ignore any potential Russian unease with his plans, so that Russian officials and others well-versed in Moscow’s foreign policy are now saying that his re-election will not mean anything. But the Syrian president clearly doesn’t see things that way. Then again, the Russian statements may be simply destined to cover for Assad and contain reactions to his re-election while playing down Russia’s inability to stop it. 

One could argue that Assad’s hold on the north-south axis and Homs is the first step in an eventual military victory. But expectations of a military solution to the Syrian conflict appears “imaginary,” to quote Vitaly Naumkin, a Russian specialist familiar with Syria, who was speaking with As-Safir.

The reason for this is that controlling communication lines does not substitute for the Syrian regime’s need to hang on to recaptured territory, as well as retake lost areas far from Damascus. And these goals require adequate manpower, which the regime doesn’t have. The situation has improved somewhat with the expansion of popular militias, but they cannot resolve the manpower problem nationally. The Syrian army continues to take heavy losses, with some estimating the figures at some 30,000 dead, even if it’s very difficult to verify such a figure.

At best, even if the regime recaptures major cities, it will be stuck with a long guerilla war with no clear outcomes. We are nowhere near that stage today, however, with rebels mounting a major attack in Aleppo in the past 10 days against Air Force intelligence headquarters. Nor do the rebels appear to have been dislodged from northern Latakia province, where they had reached the coast after taking the Armenian town of Kasab.

In the south, however, talk of a much-vaunted spring offensive appears to have stalled amid Jordanian and American reluctance to give the rebels the means to succeed. The Obama administration wants to pressure Assad into stepping down and accepting a transitional authority, but it has not done nearly enough to advance such an improbable plan.

The idea that Assad must not seek re-election this year because he has lost all legitimacy is quaint. Since when have Syrian elections bestowed particular legitimacy anyway? Assad is motivated exclusively by power, and the imperative of retaining it. Even if he were elected solely by his house servants, he would declare victory, celebrate, and act as if he meant it.

The narrative of a Syrian regime moving deliberately toward a final victory in the coming months is laughable. But Assad knows it is laughable. His intention is entirely different: to create a context, no matter how fictional, to justify his election. And unless someone pops that bubble, Assad will have advanced another step in his political endurance test.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Why confuse gibberish with knowledge?

Now and then something drops into your in-box that makes you wonder. In my case, the email in question was a press release for a new book titled “Min Fami: Arab Feminist Reflections on Identity, Space and Resistance.” If someone wanted to spoof the postmodernist craze in academia today, he – or I hasten to say she – could not have come up with a better title.

What is the relationship between identity, space and resistance? One turns to the press release for some illumination – to no avail. We are told the book is “an anthology that cradles the thoughts of Arab feminists, articulated through personal critical narratives, academic essays, poetry, short stories and visual art.” I never realized anthologies could cradle anything. Nor does it do much good for the theme of the book to associate the thoughts of Arab feminists with, most familiarly, babies.

The press release goes on to inform us that the book is “a meeting space where discussions on home(land), exile, feminism, borders, gender and sexual identity, solidarity, language, creative resistance and (de)colonization are shared, confronted, and subverted. In a world that has increasingly found monolithic and one-dimensional ways of representing Arab womyn, this anthology comes as an alternate space in which we connect on the basis of our shared identities, despite physical, theoretical, and metaphorical distances, to celebrate our multiple voices, honour our ancestry, and build community on our own terms, and in our own voices.”

Now, I must confess that as I read this I wasn’t quite sure if the misspelling of “women” concealed a profounder meaning or was merely a typographical error. Looking at my keyboard to see if the “y” was near the “e” (and noticing it wasn’t), I surmised that spelling women as “women” might have merely replicated the monolithic and one-dimensional ways in which Arab women are portrayed.

The editors of this work are two young ladies (heavens, have I said something wrong again?), named Ghadeer Malek and Ghaida Moussa. Malek is “a Palestinian feminist activist, aspiring writer and spoken word poet.” That must mean she never writes her poetry down, I speculated. But then, when I saw that she published in something called Shameless Magazine, I assumed it meant her verse was filled with colloquialisms.

It was Moussa’s biography that had me truly transfixed. She is reportedly “a scholar, educator, and dj” and someone who “has been devoted to translating anti-colonial notions onto dance floors, thinking through ‘home’ in the cracks between anchored locations and collective memory, and practicing pedagogy from the heart in the classroom and in alternate spaces of education.” An egghead with a turntable, I thought, while conjuring up images of Fred and Ginger doing a paso doble in keffiyehs.

There is nothing original in making fun of the linguistic gibberish permeating deconstruction-influenced academic works, deriving from a belief that language can conceal deeper social and cultural constructs. As Christopher Hitchens once wrote on the topic, “Not surprisingly, the related notions of objective truth or value-free inquiry are also sternly disputed; even denied.”

This was most famously expressed by the Palestinian intellectual Edward Said, who in the introduction to his book “Orientalism” wrote “Orientalism is a Western style for dominating, restructuring and having authority over the Orient.” In other words texts on the Orient, what Said referred to as representations of the Orient, by misrepresenting its realities and reflecting Western prejudices, facilitated its domination by imperial powers.

In effect, language came to advance political control. That is perhaps why so many of Said’s followers seem incapable today of expressing themselves in language that is even vaguely comprehensible.

Said had a destructive impact on a whole generation of earnest students, who were convinced that some of the great scholars of the Middle East and Islam were mere facilitators of a Western hegemonic project. This was terribly stifling. Robert Irwin, who wrote a devastating critique of Said’s book in his “For Lust of Knowing: The Orientalists and their Enemies,” observed that a disadvantage of “Orientalism” is that the ensuing debate on the subject was largely defined by parameters set by Said.

Yet what brings together the late Edward Said and two young Arabs whose book has a publicity sheet that reads like a parody? Blaming Said for all the ills of cultural and gender studies is surely unfair. But one can yet see the old man’s shadow behind Malek’s and Moussa’s use of the words “resistance,” “exile” and “decolonization,” behind their denunciation of the tendentious portrayal of Arab women. And stylistically, Said helped make obscure language acceptable (though he was far clearer than his imitators), launching a thousand unfathomable books.

Why should this matter? Because, as Irwin implies, Said’s legacy has endured in today’s classrooms and still shapes the debate. That’s not to say that alternative views do not exist; quite the contrary. And books such as Malek’s and Moussa’s are destined to chase away those in search of knowledge rather than manifestations of intellectual pretentiousness. But there is still too much of their nonsense going around and too many academic fields still blighted by impenetrable curriculums.

In his classic essay “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell wrote the simplest of truths: “[The English language] becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.” Clear language makes for clear thoughts, “a necessary first step toward political regeneration.”

That’s about right. It’s a sad reality that there are many slovenly practitioners of the English language floating around, who are earning degrees from respectable universities. Rather than helping to regenerate us politically, or socially and intellectually, they want to imprison us, as they are imprisoned, within high walls of incomprehension.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Shamefully, Hizbollah has abetted Assad’s worst acts

Last weekend, Bashar Al Assad was quoted as saying that the Syrian conflict was turning to his government’s advantage.

Few may take such optimistic comments seriously, but there is a broader implication in what Mr Al Assad said: that a military solution to the Syrian conflict is achievable. Among those who seem to support this view is Hizbollah, which has deployed thousands of combatants to Syria to defend the regime.

But what Mr Al Assad really means is that he intends to resolve Syria’s problems by drowning the uprising in more blood. And that has implications for Hizbollah. The party’s involvement in that effort, its strategic partnership with Syria’s leadership, backed by Iran, has fundamentally altered its image.

From a party once hailed on the political left as part of the “resistance axis” against Israel and the US, Hizbollah has become complicit in the Syrian regime’s brutality.

The party’s image was damaged in Lebanon years earlier, after it sought to reverse the 2005 uprising against Syria following the assassination of a former prime minister, Rafik Hariri, which led to a Syrian military pullout. Party members were indicted in Mr Hariri’s killing, while many believe Hizbollah was involved in other assassinations between 2005 and 2013.

But somehow, Hizbollah’s action in Lebanon did little to dent its reputation worldwide among those on the left describing themselves as “anti-imperialists”. They tend to view the world mainly through a prism of hostility towards the United States.

For its admirers on the left, Hizbollah symbolised not only resistance to America and Israel – culminating in the liberation of South Lebanon in May 2000 – it also embodied the triumph of a once-poor Shia community that had long been accorded a secondary status in Lebanon, which the party helped reverse.

There was much here to rouse a feverish revolutionary imagination: a successful anti-imperialist, Third-World liberation movement that had also overcome a corrupt political system to end Shia social and political marginalisation.

Largely ignored was the other side of the coin. Hizbollah’s admirers seemed entirely to disregard the party’s more pronounced characteristics – as an armed and authoritarian religious and military organisation with a disturbing tendency to mobilise its supporters through a cult of death – jarring with many of the values the left claims to embody.

This was perhaps best shown in 2006, when Hizbollah provoked an unnecessary war with Israel after kidnapping two Israeli soldiers. At the time, the Lebanese government, in which Hizbollah was represented, issued a statement taking its distance from the party, which had failed to consult with anyone in the state before the abductions. Israel retaliated with air attacks, plunging Lebanon into a month-long war.

In response to the government, a group of 450 academics and intellectuals, many of them politically on the left and working in the west, issued a statement expressing “conscious support” for Hizbollah’s resistance against Israel, “as it wages a war in defence of our sovereignty and independence … a war to safeguard the dignity of the Lebanese and Arab people.”

The statement also expressed “utter rejection of the Lebanese government’s decision to ‘not adopt’ the Lebanese Resistance operation, thereby stripping the Resistance of political credibility before the adversarial international powers …”

Absent in this paean was any recognition that Hizbollah’s actions had undermined the authority of the government, the embodiment of national sovereignty. Nor that Hizbollah was seeking to assert itself at a time when it worried that Lebanon might break free of Damascus’ influence a year after the Syrian military withdrawal, thereby consolidating its independence.

It was easy to have contempt for Hizbollah’s rivals in the Lebanese political class. Most of them were purveyors of old-fashioned patronage, usually engaged in shady political deal-making. Hizbollah seemed on a higher plane. Its seriousness came from its alleged refusal to compromise on its principles.

But today in Syria this image has been substantially altered. While Hizbollah’s jihadist adversaries elicit no sympathy in the west, the majority of those suffering from the regime’s and the party’s gains are average Syrians who simply no longer want Mr Al Assad in power, and initially sought to remove him peacefully.

Either by action or omission, Hizbollah has aided and abetted the worst crimes of the Syrian regime. Video evidence shows party members shooting wounded prisoners, which is a war crime. The party has collaborated with military and intelligence services that have massacred, tortured, bombed or starved civilians – not least Palestinian refugees in the Yarmouk area south of Damascus and refugee camps elsewhere in Syria.

Yet, despite all this, condemnation of the party has been scant among its western devotees. Nor any sense that the cruel fate of Mr Al Assad’s Palestinian victims, given their symbolic importance for western anti-imperialists, has prompted a reconsideration of Hizbollah. No communiqués have expressed “utter rejection” of the Syrian regime’s cruelty.

Can Hizbollah continue to remain a model for its western aficionados? Can those on the political left continue to approve of a party that openly acknowledges its leading role in the Syrian regime’s barbaric three-year campaign of repression? The answer has been only remarkable silence.

The American left-wing academic Norman Finkelstein once defended Hizbollah’s resistance against Israel by saying: “There is a fundamental principle. People have the right to defend their country from foreign occupiers … from invaders who are destroying their country.”

Perhaps Mr Finkelstein is right. But that would mean that Syrians are entitled to defend their country against Hizbollah. But a wager says we will not hear that line anytime soon.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Avec moi le deluge - Russia wanted Bashar al-Assad, now they can’t get rid of him

When President Bashar al-Assad recently told a former Russian prime minister, Sergei Stepashin, that much of the fighting in Syria would end this year, was he serious?

The ITAR-Tass news agency quoted Stepashin as saying, “To my question about how military issues were going, this is what Assad said: ‘This year the active phase of military action in Syria will be ended. After that we will have to shift to what we have been doing all the time – fighting terrorists.’”

Presumably, what the Syrian president meant was that by the end of 2014 his army would have so progressed, recapturing lost territory, that it would essentially be left fighting a counter-terrorism campaign against the remaining Syrian rebels.

Assad has displaying much bravado of late. He also told Stepashin to “[t]ell Vladimir Vladimirovich [Putin] that I am not [deposed Ukrainian President Viktor] Yanukovych, I’m not going anywhere.” This remark seemed as much directed against the Russians as at them. It was Assad’s way of telling Moscow that he would not accept a political solution leading to a transitional government and his removal as president.

In light of public statements by the Russian deputy foreign minister, Mikhail Bogdanov, one can understand the import of Assad’s remarks. Bogdanov, in an interview with the Saudi-owned Al-Hayat during the Arab League summit two weeks ago, warned that “a military solution [in Syria] is dangerous, harmful and difficult because of the sharp divisions within society.”

Bogdanov also minimized the impact of an Assad re-election this year. “The Syrian presidential election will not change anything,” he said, noting it would take place on a small portion of Syrian territory and would not be recognised by the opposition. Bogdanov added that any accord with the opposition could open the door to a new election.

By implying that he would pursue a military solution, one he suggested was working, Assad essentially rejected Bogdanov’s interpretation. More significantly, he didn’t even broach the idea of a political settlement, and surely disagreed with the assessment that the presidential election would change nothing.

Assad is pursuing a particular narrative of the Syrian conflict that looks increasingly at odds with Russian preferences. The Russians have done everything in their power to sustain Assad’s regime, but the aim was almost certainly to impose a political outcome that preserved their interests. However, it is becoming apparent that they may be more Assad’s hostage than he is theirs. Despite Putin’s vaunted tactical prowess, the reality is that a tin-pot Syrian dictator who has lost control of most of his country has somehow outmaneuvered his Russian patrons.

Weakness can be a virtue in international politics. Assad’s vulnerabilities are such that his regime can still collapse, which would represent a major reversal for Russia (and Iran). But this has allowed Assad to increase his options – first by surrendering nothing on a transitional government at the Geneva talks last January, then by imposing a fait accompli in preparing for his re-election, which Bogdanov had criticized before Geneva. At every stage, Moscow has had to bend to Assad’s agenda.  

The United Nations’ special envoy on Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, has refused to schedule a new round of talks in Geneva. In large part that is because there continues to be disagreement between the United States and the UN on the one side, and Russia on the other, over the aims of such a conference. The Geneva I conference, held in June 2012, and which included Russia, had called for a “transitional government body with full executive powers.” But today the Russians are unwilling to push Assad in that direction. More significantly, they appear unable to.

If Assad can relish the fact that he has defended his position against Putin, it’s an entirely different story whether he can do so against his Syrian foes. His optimistic remarks about an imminent end to the war in Syria are somewhat reminiscent of the joke in which a man announces that he will soon marry the top model Claudia Schiffer: “I agree, as do my parents. Now all I need to do is persuade Claudia,” he says.

Assad’s belief that he will soon win in Syria seems ludicrous. And even if he can consolidate his control over Syria’s urban areas and the communication lines between Damascus, Aleppo and the coast, any effort to regain the south and the east of the country can hardly be reduced to “anti-terrorism” actions.

While Assad has an interest in displaying confidence, too much of it can come back to bite you. President George W. Bush learned that lesson after prematurely declaring, in May 2003, that military operations in Iraq had come to an end.

If Assad is after a military solution in Syria then the tragedy of the country will drag on for years. It is difficult to see what the Russian advantage is in permitting this, let alone the Iranian advantage, with Assad so costly a project to sustain. But the Syrian leader cares little. His aim is to survive, whether over the corpses of his citizens or the misgivings of his allies.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

The presidential chess game has begun

Samir Geagea has declared his candidacy for the Lebanese presidential election, launching a thousand speculations. The Lebanese Forces leader has pushed his allies into a corner, forcing them to support him. He feels that, even though he may not win, the prospect of a Geagea victory remains far more credible than one by Michel Aoun. But how true is that?

Geagea’s calculation is roughly as follows. He reckons that, with March 14 and independent support, he would have well over 50 votes in his favor. With the backing of Walid Jumblatt’s bloc, the Lebanese Forces leader would be able to garner the 65 votes needed to win an election in a second round of voting. There are two problems with this assessment: Geagea’s estimation of the votes he already has seems quite optimistic and Walid Jumblatt’s backing is in now way guaranteed, on the contrary.

One principle on which Geagea seems to be basing his calculations is that Aoun cannot win a majority because his allies actually do not want him to win. That may be true, but Aoun appears to have taken it into consideration. Two weeks ago in an interview with Al-Mayadeen, the general announced that he would not stand against Geagea, since, as he put it, “I am in competition with nobody.”

That statement seemed both ridiculous and arrogant: ridiculous, since what is an election but a competition? And arrogant, because Aoun appeared to signal he would only stand if he alone was the candidate – presumably of national consent.

In reality, the general was more cunning than that. He knows that if he and Geagea run against each other, they will only cancel each other out, with neither securing a majority. This would facilitate the emergence of a compromise candidate. Aoun seeks to avoid such a scenario, and Geagea, who also knows the score, is hoping to build momentum for his candidacy before Aoun has had time to react effectively.

What are Aoun’s options? If he is not a candidate and sees momentum shifting toward Geagea, the general, with his allies, may boycott the election session and prevent a quorum. We would then have a situation that Aoun could exploit to present himself as the only person capable of breaking the ensuing deadlock.

However, a policy of blackmail would almost certainly alienate March 14, and the Future Movement in particular. In addition, it would be perceived as an effort by Hezbollah (since Hezbollah would be as much compelled to back Aoun as Future to endorse Geagea) to impose its man on Lebanon.

In the end, much depends on what Walid Jumblatt decides. Geagea may feel that the Druze leader is more inclined to lean toward him than toward Aoun, but that may be a miscalculation. Jumblatt prefers that neither man become president, but today he has a more pressing problem that he needs to resolve, namely to ensure that the parliamentary elections next November are held on the basis of the 1960 law – or any law that perpetuates his domination over the Aley and Shouf districts.

If Jumblatt loses his supremacy in these districts, he is politically finished. And he knows that Aoun is much more amenable to the 1960 law than Geagea, because it has twice given him large Christian majorities in Parliament. Geagea, in contrast, has no intention of allowing the 1960 law to stand, because it has marginalized the Lebanese Forces electorally. That is why last year he was so adamant in pushing for the so-called Orthodox proposal, which would have given the Lebanese Forces a much larger share of Christian seats in parliament.

Jumblatt’s strategy will be principally determined by the prospects for a return to the 1960 election law. Aoun doubtless knows this and will try to use it to get Jumblatt’s votes. But the Druze leader will not give in easily. His preference is for a more consensual figure, and a Maronite who will not challenge him in the mountains. That’s why Jumblatt may prefer to allow an election delay, perhaps through a March 8-Aoun boycott, to give time for a consensual figure to emerge, or, conversely, to drive up his price for backing a candidate meeting his conditions.

The irony is that Geagea’s candidacy may benefit Aoun. By turning the election into a choice between the Lebanese Forces leader and Aoun, Geagea may force those on the fence to take sides. And there are no assurances Geagea will win, as Jumblatt’s case illustrates. Geagea believes that several independents will vote for him; but it is also true that those who prefer a compromise could vote against him if offered no choice.

Aoun has alienated many people in the past nine years, especially in the Sunni community. But Geagea, despite his best efforts, has not been able to shake his past in the Lebanese Forces. Even among Sunnis, he should not overestimate his popularity. Geagea, like Aoun, is something of a headache to his Muslim allies: a candidate expected to disturb the atmosphere of conciliation that seems to be prevailing these days.

Aoun and Geagea have high expectations, maybe too high. Neither can be ruled out when it comes to the presidency, but in the coming weeks most of the non-Christian political forces will look for ways to circumvent them. If that fails, the onus will be on the centrists, Walid Jumblatt above all, to lean one way or the other. That’s when the real bargaining will begin.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Lebanon must move quickly to benefit from gas reserves

Lebanon’s politicians, always on the prowl for new sources of revenue, are greedily eying the country’s offshore gas reserves. However, unless the Lebanese government organises the gas sector soon, Lebanon could miss out on a valuable source of revenue at a time of serious domestic crises.

Last year, the government of prime minister Najib Mikati was supposed to pass two decrees allowing for the start of a licensing round, in which foreign oil companies would bid to explore Lebanese waters. The decrees were never passed, however, because of political divisions. Until they are, there will be little progress in offshore gas projects.

Now, foreign companies have asked the Lebanese to delay the auction, saying they need more time to prepare bids. This will probably happen given the delay in passing the decrees. Foreign companies are also reportedly unhappy that Lebanon has not put all of its blocks up for bidding. According to press reports, several companies have shifted their investment to countries that have opened up their entire shoreline for exploration.

This sense that things are not moving has been exacerbated by a broader question: how does Lebanon export its gas once it is extracted? In a recent opinion piece, a Lebanese MP, Basem Shabb, warned that unless Lebanon found a cost-effective way of exporting its gas, it could fail to cash in on its offshore wealth. “A window of opportunity for Lebanon to fully exploit its hydrocarbon wealth is fast disappearing without a clear and profitable export option,” he wrote.

The reason is that domestic demand is insufficient to make extraction cost-effective. This would change if the Lebanese agreed to participate in a project to build a liquefied natural gas plant in Cyprus, to prepare gas for export. But for such a plant to be profitable, Mr Shabb argued, it would need to rely on Israeli, Lebanese and Cypriot gas supplies, and the Lebanese have ruled out participation if ­Israel is involved.

Complicating matters is the fact that Israel and Lebanon continue to disagree over a gasfield along their disputed maritime border. The United States is seeking to find a solution to the disagreement, and last week the US deputy assistant secretary for energy diplomacy, Amos Hochstein, was in Beirut to talk to officials on the matter.

Mr Hochstein urged the Lebanese not to drill in the disputed waters. He also sounded a cautionary note, saying in an interview: “The longer you wait on resolving this dispute, the less likely it is that international oil companies will wholeheartedly invest in that area.”

Given these obstacles, is Lebanon about to see the window of opportunity close on its gas reserves? The prospects for gain, political and personal, tend to reduce this risk. But if gas is there mainly to serve the interests of the politicians, it leaves little hope that Lebanon will gain in the way it could.

The formation of the Salam government was delayed because the previous energy minister, Gebran Bassil, refused to surrender his portfolio in an agreed rotation of ministries. A compromise was reached when the ministry was given to an ally of the Aounists, of whom Mr Bassil is a leading figure.

Though he is now foreign minister, Mr Bassil will, doubtless, have a say over gas policy until a new government is formed after the presidential election scheduled for May. And if his father-in-law, Michael Aoun, is elected president, Mr Bassil’s sway over the oil sector may be extended, to the displeasure of other politicians.

But for as long as the energy ministry provokes political envy, this could hinder a consensus over gas policy. For instance, the differences between Mr Bassil and the speaker of parliament, Nabih Berri, are palpable, and this could exacerbate a relationship already damaged by Mr Aoun’s challenge to Mr Berri in the elections of 2009.

Mr Berri’s approval will also be necessary for any compromise proposal offered by the Americans to resolve the dispute with Israel. As for the decrees allowing the licensing round to go ahead, it is imperative that Mr Aoun and Mr Berri be on the same wavelength, otherwise Lebanon as a whole may suffer.

Even if self-interest ultimately makes a consensus over the gas sector possible, agreement over the export of gas presents myriad complications. Lebanese and Israeli gas are part of the same Eastern Mediterranean fields, so all sides win from cooperation. Yet it is doubtful in the current political climate, with Hizbollah’s presence in the government, that Lebanon would join a consortium with Israel.

Lebanon faces serious financial and sectoral challenges, making exploitation of its gas reserves necessary. The public debt is around $64 billion (Dh236bn), and the debt to GDP ratio is estimated at 163 per cent, according to some economists. In addition, Lebanon’s electricity sector is in a shambles, with most regions of the country continuing to face hours of rationing per day.

The pressures on the country do not give the government the luxury to delay agreement over the gas sector. The two decrees must be passed as soon as possible – and the new energy minister said on Tuesday that they would be by the end of April, with the gas-licensing auction to be held within four months – and Lebanon must define a long-term strategy for exporting its gas. This can only be done through a political accord, which, unfortunately, will mean that all major parties will want a share of the profits.

Gas has another meaning for Lebanon. For as long as the country is seen as a potential gas producer, there will be an incentive to maintain its stability. But once that window is closed, or alternative windows are opened elsewhere, maintaining Lebanese stability will become less vital. This is a fact the politicians must absorb now before tomorrow.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Last one standing - The obstacle course of presidential candidacies

Barely two months before the presidential election in Lebanon, the country’s political alignments are still waiting for that mysterious voice that will descend from the heavens to tell them for whom to vote. Being in a pre-election phase, and assuming the election is actually held on schedule, everyone awaits the verdict of their regional sponsors.

Of the most-discussed candidates only Samir Geagea is officially a candidate until now. But everyone’s list of possibilities includes, in addition to Geagea, the parliamentarians Michel Aoun and Sleiman Franjieh, the head of the Kataeb, Amin Gemayel, as well as Jean Kahwaji, the army commander, and Riad Salameh, the Central Bank governor.

The conventional wisdom is that the front-line candidates are there to be shot down. Behind them are less prominent figures more likely to survive the initial carnage. Among those in the second tier is Jean Obeid, a former parliamentarian and minister, Robert Ghanem, another parliamentarian, to a lesser extent Boutros Harb, currently the telecom minister, as well as Maronites whose names get tossed out seemingly because they don’t bother anybody – for instance industrialist Naamat Frem and former minister Damianos Kattar.

To be on the candidate list does not mean very much. Any Maronite with some recognition can make it; the trick is ending up on the short list before the ascent to Baabda. So what are the criteria allowing access to the short list? Here are a few, though the inventory is hardly exhaustive.

First, the successful candidate must not face a veto from any of the major non-Christian political alignments. A successful president will need to be approved by both Hezbollah and the Future Movement, or at least not arouse their mistrust.

That would seem to rule out Geagea, Franjieh, Gemayel, and Harb, and quite possibly Aoun. Geagea and Franjieh in particular are not only beyond the pale for Hezbollah and Future, respectively, there is some question as to whether they are seen as viable candidates by their own allies.

Future, for example, still considers Geagea a close partner, but it is unwilling to navigate through the political turbulence that would ensue if it pushed for his candidacy. Nor does it feel that he would be best for the country at a time of deep polarization. Gemayel and Harb, though moderates, as March 14 figures are, similarly, not viewed as consensual.

Franjieh would pose similar problems for Hezbollah. The party embraces him, but to impose Franjieh on the Christians in general, and on Sunnis in particular, would be difficult when the party wants to calm sectarian tensions while it is locked in an open-ended campaign in Syria.

What About Michel Aoun? The general hasn’t declared his intentions yet, but is doing his best to sound like a national candidate. In remarks made on Wednesday to Al-Mayadeen, Aoun ruled out Kahwaji (and by extension Salameh), arguing that he needed a constitutional amendment to stand for office. In other words: Don’t expect my vote for an amendment.

Aoun said he would back Franjieh’s candidacy, which means nothing since Franjieh has said he would not run without Aoun’s consent, meaning he will not run against Aoun. And finally Aoun said he would not run against Geagea, since “I am in competition with nobody.” It’s unclear what Aoun will do now that Geagea is a candidate, but he has warned that if Future backs Geagea’s candidacy, this would have “negative repercussions.”

To win, Aoun would still need to persuade Future or Walid Jumblatt to vote for him. For now Jumblatt has shown no such inclination, and Hariri would need Saudi approval. He would also have to persuade the Sunni community of the benefits of electing Aoun, by no means an easy task given Aoun’s repeated provocations against Sunnis over the years.

And finally, Hariri would have to persuade his own parliamentary bloc to vote for Aoun. While he can do this, it may provoke a revolt in the ranks. The Future bloc’s leader, Fouad Siniora, cannot stomach a man who has often attacked him, and who covered for Hezbollah’s takeover of western Beirut when Siniora was prime minister. 

A second rule the candidates will face is that, aside from Saudi Arabia and Iran – the sponsors of the two major local actors – Syria must also approve any candidate. The assumption is that Syria, given its civil war, is out of the Lebanese game. Nothing could be more untrue. Hezbollah will not back anyone with whom the Syrians are unhappy.

Ironically, this may rule out Aoun. In recent days, a leading Baath parliamentarian has been openly denigrating Aoun before his colleagues, in what could be an effort to undermine the general’s candidacy. Hezbollah probably agrees. In the eyes of the party, Aoun ultimately remains a loose cannon.

Which brings us to a third rule that no one mentions, but that has been fundamental in elections since 1992: The successful candidate must be a relatively weak Christian.

This is a subcategory of the first condition, but is also rather different. The reality is that the non-Christian leaders are united in rejecting candidates with an independent base of support in a community they do not control. That doesn’t mean that Sunnis are happy with strong Shiite leaders, or vice versa. But they usually cannot veto such figures, whereas the presidential election allows them to do precisely that with Christians.

So who is the favorite today? Names are circulating, but bear in mind the conditions outlined here. The obstacle course is not an easy one for our presidential commandos. Nor for the rest of us who have to watch the spectacle for many more weeks.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Patrick Seale: an appreciation

The word from London is that the British journalist Patrick Seale is gravely ill. For those who know him or simply have read or heard him, the news is most regrettable.

When it comes to the Middle East, Seale has been a clarifying presence for some five decades.

Seale has been a contested figure for at least part of that time. His critics charged that his closeness to the regime of Hafez Assad often drifted into advocacy. Perhaps, but Seale was no fool. He knew that the heart of the Syrian regime was made of lead, and he put the access he received to good use. Seale’s biography of the late president, despite its frequent praise and omissions, remains a classic.

There was something highly laudatory in Seale’s interpretation of Assad as a grand regional chess player (the book’s subtitled, “The Struggle for the Middle East,” makes that obvious). But to a certain extent, this was true. Assad skillfully maneuvered between the United States and Russia and managed to remain an axial figure in regional affairs, even though by the end of his life his influence was in disproportion to the dilapidated country that he governed.

Like Bashar Assad, Hafez was a killer, but unlike his son, he rarely killed to cover for his proliferating mistakes. Though he was ruthless, he understood that leadership built almost exclusively on repression and intimidation could be shaky. That’s why he surrounded his regime with a bodyguard of Arab nationalist symbols and attitudes while generally avoiding measures that would highlight its minority underpinnings. Assad never ignored the details, was careful before taking major decisions and did not overestimate his power. Seale’s biography brings out the complexity of the man and his leadership.

A tour de force moment in the book is Seale’s chapter on the key episode in November 1983 when Rifaat Assad sought to take power from his brother after he was temporarily incapacitated. However, Rifaat was quickly opposed by a phalanx of generals, and Seale ably illustrates the way the balancing mechanisms that Assad had put in place to avert a coup were used to contain Rifaat.

The incompetence of Bashar Assad today has frequently resulted in efforts by the Syrian regime to go back and adopt the ways of the father. Though over 30 years old, Seale’s biography of Assad is still relevant in deconstructing the principles of the Syrian security order, and more broadly to see why a power remained in good health, in the sense of crime of course, until the debacle that began in 2011.

Before his biography of Assad, Seale had written another classic, “The Struggle for Syria.” In it, he described the Syria of the late 1940s and 1950s, buffeted as it was between conflicting ambitions in Baghdad and Cairo. To a great extent, Syria’s relative weakness in those years colored the author’s views of Hafez Assad, who gave his especially vulnerable country prominence after decades when it had been a playing field for regional and international rivalries.

Watching the Syrian conflict today, we can see how Bashar’s singular achievement has been to carry Syria back to those years and again transform his country into a terrain for proxy wars. Seale was always careful when writing about the Syrian regime, but he could not have been impressed with what followed Hafez Assad’s death in 2000; even less so the futile savagery of Bashar, which has undermined all that the father built with patience and cynicism.

Seale’s entrée into Hafez Assad’s hermetic circle was admired by many people, some of whom would later try to imitate him. But Seale always remained a gentleman, never trying to justify and protect his access by prostituting himself to his Syrian contacts by engaging in wanton attacks against those critical of the Syrian regime.

However, Seale’s qualities could not detract from remarkable missteps, for example the article he published in The Guardian after the assassination of the former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. “If Syria killed Rafik Hariri, Lebanon’s former prime minister and mastermind of its revival after the civil war, it must be judged an act of political suicide,” Seale wrote. He concluded: “So attributing responsibility for the murder to Syria is implausible. The murder is more likely to be the work of one of its many enemies.”

Seale had reached a similar conclusion in his biography of Abu Nidal. He argued that Abu Nidal had done so much damage to the Palestinian cause that it was possible he was an Israeli agent. Indeed, Israel exploited Abu Nidal’s crimes – for example using his attempted assassination of the Israeli ambassador in London, Shlomo Argov, to launch its invasion of Lebanon in 1982. But Seale provided no evidence to sustain his theory. The biography was interesting in other regards, but his reputation suffered as a consequence.

The assumption that unwanted outcomes must point toward the responsibility of the enemies of those initially accused of a crime is a recurring theme in conspiracy theories. But if that were necessarily true, how would Seale explain Bashar Assad’s actions in 2011? Was his repression in Deraa not politically suicidal? Yet who would blame anyone but Bashar for that monstrous blunder. As Seale knows, for having covered a region replete with such behavior, despots are predisposed to act stupidly because they are never sanctioned.

After a career covering the Middle East, Seale deserves to be remembered for more than his slip-ups. His books on Syria are an indispensable part of any education on the region. As these words are being written, Seale is alive. One can only hope that he gets better. But whatever happens, such a moment cannot pass without comment.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Russia kept Assad in power, but now it’s stuck with him

There has been speculation lately as to whether Russian president Vladimir Putin’s actions in Crimea were improvised, or whether they were the result of a longer-term strategic plan. A similar question can be asked of Russian behaviour in Syria. When Mr Putin decided to bolster the regime of President Bashar Al Assad in 2011, did he have an endgame in mind?

Egypt’s foreign minister, Nabil Fahmy, apparently feels that the answer is no. A Lebanese politician who recently spoke to him says that Mr Fahmy’s impression from speaking to Russian officials was that Moscow is at an impasse in Syria. Mr Putin has blocked all efforts to undermine Mr Al Assad, but that does not mean he has been able to impose a solution of his own.

Take the remarks last week by the Russian deputy foreign minister, Mikhail Bogdanov, to the Saudi daily Al Hayat. Mr Bogdanov spoke about Mr Al Assad’s plan to seek re-election next July. For the Syrian leader, such an election would be a significant step in his efforts to survive politically and insist that he remains the legitimate president of Syria, one who will continue to lead the fight against so-called “terrorist groups”.

Mr Bogdanov said that the presidential election would not turn the page on the need for a political settlement to end the Syrian crisis. “The Syrian presidential election will not change anything,” he said, noting it would take place on a small part of Syrian territory and would not be recognised by the opposition. Moreover, he added, any agreement between the government and opposition might well open the door to a new election.

Mr Bogdanov continued: “A military solution is dangerous, harmful and difficult because of the sharp divisions within society.” Repeating what Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said last year, the deputy foreign minister said Syria faced a terrorist threat that had to be combated by the regime in conjunction with moderate groups in the opposition.

Mr Bogdanov was the official last year who said of a Syrian statement that Mr Al Assad would seek re-election in 2014 that it “makes the atmosphere heavier and does not make the situation calmer”. This had brought a heated response from his Syrian counterpart, Faisal Mekdad, who insisted: “Nobody has the right to interfere and say he must run or he should not run.”

Mr Bogdanov is an old Middle East hand who served as a diplomat in Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen, was ambassador to Egypt and Israel, and headed the Middle East and North Africa Department at the Russian Foreign Ministry. His remarks were not improvised, and he is senior enough to be taken very seriously by the Syrian regime whenever he says something.

But there was also an element of powerlessness in his remarks. There is no change in Russian policy toward Syria. The Russians have probably concluded that Mr Al Assad will go ahead with a re-election, which they simply cannot prevent. However, they also realise that Syria is a giant headache for everyone, and that the Syrian president’s decision can only prolong the agony.

Moscow has been singularly incapable of putting forth a political plan to accompany its systematic obstruction of efforts at the United Nations to take decisions over Syria. It has armed Mr Al Assad, allowing his soldiers to engage in mass atrocities. When he used chemical weapons against his own population, breaking a commitment the Russians appear to have made to the Americans, they headed off an American military attack by making him surrender his chemical arsenal.

Three years since the beginning of the war, Russian behaviour has only perpetuated the military stalemate that Mr Bogdanov is lamenting today. Vladimir Putin has beaten his enemies to a draw in Syria, but he is no closer than the United States is to devising a consensual solution to the Syrian conflict, and Russia may pay for this politically down the road.

Mr Al Assad can take solace in the fact that the situation in Crimea makes an entente between Washington and Moscow over Syria much more difficult. Yet the Russians must also worry that their isolation reduces their effectiveness. It could mean that Mr Al Assad, seeing Russia’s vulnerability, will take whatever action he wants regardless of Russian preferences.

The violence in Syria, which the Russians have abetted, has made the Syrian president ever more incapable of making political concessions. The Alawite community, like Mr Al Assad’s inner circle, will not allow him to accept a deal that might expose them to retaliation. In that context, any voluntary transition away from Mr Al Assad is highly unlikely.

The Russians are stuck with the man they did everything to keep in power. For as long as Mr Al Assad remains in office there can be no political solution in Syria. So let the Russians resolve that dilemma, even as Mr Bogdanov repeats that the war in Syria can only end through a political arrangement.

There has been justified criticism directed against the Obama administration for its hesitant Syria policy. Russian policy, in contrast, has been unambiguous. But today the limits of the Russian approach are all too evident. If Russia has a strategy, it’s not immediately obvious how it will succeed.

Listening to Mr Bogdanov, the Syrians must sense his limitations. Yes, the Russian official will have helped discredit Mr Al A­ssad’s re-election. But he will also have played down its negative impact, in a way covering for the Syrian leader. Russia often seems as much Mr Al Assad’s hostage as he is theirs.