Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Syrian elections put Tehran and Moscow in a fix

In June, President Bashar Al Assad will be “re-elected” as Syria’s president, closing the door on any political settlement of the Syrian conflict. For his Iranian and Russian backers the difficulties will begin.

In war, Tehran and Moscow have been successful at keeping Mr Al Assad in power. They have armed him, sent combatants to reinforce his exhausted armed forces and have reportedly taken strategic decisions allowing his regime to regain territory.

In peace, however, it is difficult to see what they have gained. For Mr Al Assad to steadily regain authority over a fractured country more will be needed than weapons. An underlying plan of reconciliation and renovation is required, which can underpin his rule. And it’s almost impossible to imagine the Syrian president formulating such a thing.

Nor is Mr Al Assad remotely close to a full military victory. The United States apparently intends to accelerate the training of Syrian rebels in the south, while the daily Al Hayat newspaper cited opposition sources on Tuesday as saying that Washington had lifted the ban on supplying rebels with anti-aircraft missiles. There was no sign of this from Washington.

Meanwhile, in the north of the country, regime forces continue to face heavy pressure in Idlib and Aleppo province. The Syrian war will likely continue this way for some time yet, an endless back and forth where no side gains a decisive advantage.

Ironically, Iran’s tactics may delay a decisive military outcome. Many believe Tehran is not interested in Mr Al Assad’s recapturing all of Syria, but is focused solely on controlling the country’s vital areas – Damascus, the border with Lebanon, the Syrian coast, and communication lines in between.

In that way, the argument continues, the Iranians can protect their Hizbollah allies in Lebanon, and the party’s supply lines in the event of a conflict with Israel. For Iran, preserving a deterrent along Israel’s border is paramount.

That interpretation may be correct, but it shows how much Mr Al Assad has become a pawn in an Iranian power game. Moreover, some analysts insist that, given the Syrian president’s vulnerabilities, Iran has no intention of pushing Mr Al Assad out of office. So reliant is he on Tehran, that Iranian officials will do everything to keep him where he is.

If so, there is a potential flaw in the Iranian thinking. Maintaining Al Assad rule over a rump Syrian state is not only a minimalist strategy, it is one bound to be highly draining on Iran’s resources. Furthermore, it resolves nothing, maintains Syrian dependency that can only further discredit Mr Al Assad, and may well generate discontent on his part.

Absent a political horizon, all that we will see is extended decay in Syria. And if Tehran is intent on keeping Mr Al Assad in place, that decay is assured, given that the Syrian president is incapable of leading a project of national revival or securing the necessary financial aid for reconstruction, let alone of leading reconciliation with a society he has slaughtered.

Syria may be too big to fail, but if the Iranian idea is to maintain the status quo, without persuading Mr Al Assad or a possible successor to engage in a serious political dialogue, then Iran will, both literally and figuratively, pay for the consequences.

It is ironic that the Obama administration is pushing for a political outcome in Syria, while, until now, it has failed to give the opposition the military leverage to impose such a solution. Meanwhile, Iran and Russia, even though they officially endorse a negotiated settlement, are undermining one by giving Mr Al Assad the military means allowing him to sidestep negotiations.

A main criticism directed against the Obama administration is that it has failed to understand the circular nature of the Syrian conflict. Something must happen qualitatively on the ground to break the deadlock.

But are Iran and Russia, both of whom have had a clear strategy in Syria until now, really any better? President Barack Obama merits condemnation for his lack of initiative in Syria, but unlike Iran and Russia the conclusion he proposes qualifies as an endgame. Iran and Russia have been so focused on saving Mr Al Assad that they have formulated no realistic endgame.

Both countries have missed the boat by not opposing the Syrian president’s desire to seek re-election. In so doing, they indicated that any final political resolution in Syria would be defined by the balance of forces on the ground.

But this resort to pure power politics only evaded a more profound question. If Mr Al Assad cannot crush his enemies on the battlefield, and all the signs are that he cannot, then will Iran and Russia want to sustain a war that is open-ended?

To some observers, Iran’s key role in recently negotiating a resolution to the standoff in the old city of Homs, one that involved allowing rebel combatants to withdraw with their weapons, was a sign that it is conscious of the necessity to talk to and compromise with the opposition. And the reason went beyond the fact that the rebels held Iranian hostages.

However, at a higher level no such impetus is visible. Mr Al Assad remains the major obstacle to any normalisation in Syria, even as he offers no workable alternative to perpetual conflict. His Russian and Iranian backers are in a quandary of their own making. Thanks to them the Syrian president is still in place, but as long as he’s in place there can be no peace in Syria.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Unholy trinity - Why Aoun’s three-way division of power is dangerous

On Tuesday, Michel Aoun told Hezbollah’s Al-Manar station in an interview, “Former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, and I should be a three-sided triangle, and triangles cannot be broken up.”

There are several problems with Aoun’s vision of politics in Lebanon as, essentially, a division of influence between three individuals, supposedly representing Lebanon’s main sects.

The first is that Aoun’s comments were noteworthy for whom he failed to mention, most prominently Walid Jumblatt, Samir Geagea, and Nabih Berri. By saying that he, Hariri, and Nasrallah were the principal Maronite, Sunni, and Shiite interlocutors, Aoun was implying that all others didn’t merit such recognition. The arrogance was extraordinary, as was Aoun’s insinuation that one should disregard pluralism in the political system. Hariri’s unspoken opinion of this came on Monday, when Geagea held a press conference in Paris, one almost certainly coordinated with the former prime minister.

The Lebanese Forces leader reported that Hariri, in a conversation with Geagea, had raised the matter of Aoun as a consensus candidate. Geagea allegedly replied that, given Aoun’s past, this was not realistic. Perhaps not coincidentally, his remarks echoed those of the Saudi foreign minister, Saud al-Faisal, purportedly made to his Lebanese interlocutors in Paris, namely that the Saudis had not forgotten Aoun’s history.

Geagea’s press conference did three things: it suggested that Hariri was amenable to an Aoun presidency, preserving relations between the Future Movement and the Free Patriotic Movement; it implied that Geagea had veto power over Future’s support for any alternative to him as presidential candidate; and the latter implication shielded Hariri from the accusation that he was doing the Saudis’ bidding in not voting for Aoun.

In pushing Geagea into the forefront of the response against Aoun, Hariri made it clear that there are politicians other than Aoun who speak for the Maronites. And this rule applies across the board: None of the main Muslim representatives has an interest in funneling his ties with the Christians, particularly the Maronites, through a single person. They prefer to play on Christian divisions by dealing with a range of individuals.

While Aoun’s differences with Berri are well known, why the conscious effort to disregard and debase Jumblatt? No doubt the Druze leader is facing difficult times, having alienated Hariri in 2011. No doubt, too, this may pose problems in the parliamentary elections next November, so that Maronite and Sunni resentment may conceivably mean he has to face a challenge in the Shouf from Hariri and even from Aoun. Perhaps that’s why Jumblatt has said he would not be a candidate.

However, in the wider context of national coexistence, the Christians have no stake whatsoever in discrediting the man behind communal reconciliation in the mountains. That’s why Jumblatt made such a big thing of the Brih settlement last weekend, inviting President Michel Sleiman to the ceremony. It was important for him to remind everyone of why he is important, and to have this endorsed by the Maronite president.

A second implication of Aoun’s Al-Manar comments is that, once again, the general has lent legitimacy to an arrangement floated by Hezbollah, namely the notion of a three-way separation of communal power in Lebanon. The political system continues to be based on a 50-50 ratio, with Christians and Muslims each making up half of the council of ministers and parliament. That is the essence of the post-Taif order and is regarded as a guarantee to the Christians, who demographically represent much less than half the population.

Why would Aoun agree to question this hallowed principle when it is one of the last Christian privileges recognized in Lebanon? Largely for self-centered reasons: if Lebanon is built on a three-way division of power, this would allow Christian political figures to exploit their ties with one Muslim community or the other to advance their own agenda, and in that way always form a majority against the third community.

It’s all very short-sighted, and could very easily turn against the Christians if the Sunnis and Shiites came to an accord on their own. But Aoun, in going along with an idea advanced by his Hezbollah allies, is solely interested in advancing his political interests. He has repeatedly failed to acknowledge the profound implications of institutionalizing the Christians’ demographic disadvantage in political institutions.

A good argument can be made that the Christians would benefit from eliminating the idea of a sectarian breakdown of seats in parliament themselves, since in the future pressure to do so may come from the Muslim communities. At least this way, if the impetus comes from the Christians, they would be in a better position to manage a transition carefully.

In contrast, Aoun’s tolerance of a three-way power division does not do away with sectarianism in political institutions. Rather, it keeps the sectarian foundations in place, while also accepting a new breakdown that only anchors Christian disadvantages.

President Michel Sleiman is well aware of the risks. In an interview with L’Orient-Le Jour published on Thursday, he stated, “Through my positions [in a speech delivered in Amshit], I’ve contained, preventively, the three-way division of power. I refuse this equation… It is not on the agenda, but developments on the ground could take us in this direction.”

Aoun’s supporters continue to argue that he would be a strong president who is best placed to defend Christian interests. But if so, they must explain how these characteristics are reflected in someone who envisions a political system dominated by just three men, at the expense of pluralism, and who can go along with a three-way division of power that marginalizes Christians.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Brace yourself for Aoun’s frustration

It has become obvious in recent days that much of the speculation about whether Saad Hariri would order his parliamentary bloc to vote for Michel Aoun was unfounded.

Part of this speculation was heightened by politicians who have no desire to see Aoun become president. Their tactic, it seems, was to draw the general down into the pit of presidential disputation, when Aoun had sought to remain above the fray, and in that way provoke and intensify negative reactions to his possible election, further eroding his chances.

That’s why even Samir Geagea’s revelation that Hariri had raised the possibility of Aoun as a consensus candidate could conceivably have been a coordinated effort to neutralize the general, while also preserving Hariri’s ties with the Change and Reform Bloc. Geagea’s statement that Aoun, given his past, could not be a consensus candidate added impetus to the argument that Aoun fails to embody Lebanese unity, a president’s primary constitutional role. It also created the impression that Geagea has veto power over whether Future shifts its support to presidential candidates other than him.

Aoun’s election was always a long shot, but he played his cards as well as he could have. By not entering the campaign early on, he kept his hat in the ring, buying time for a possible regional consensus to build around his presidency. That wasn’t to be, but the general had few other options.

Aoun may feel that Hariri led him on, but he should really look closer to home, at his own allies. While Hezbollah did what it had done in 2007-08 by hinting that it supported Aoun, the reality is that the party’s favorite candidate remains Gen. Jean Kahwagi, the Army commander. Aoun’s unofficial candidacy was and is a useful facade allowing the party to eventually slip in someone better able to advance its agenda.

Some observers have astutely pointed out that the real battle is not over the presidency, but over who will lead the Army. In light of this, Aoun’s victory would very likely mean that his son in law, Shamel Roukoz, would succeed Kahwagi, and it appears that Hezbollah is not keen for this to happen. Aoun and Roukoz have their own networks within the officer corps, independent of Hezbollah’s, therefore the leeway to make decisions involving the military of which the party may disapprove.

What are Aoun’s options now? Some media outlets have speculated that if no consensus is reached over a president, the general will force the issue on his candidacy either by taking his ministers out of the government or by blocking its performance.

There are no indications that this is true, but given Aoun’s past performance, it cannot be ruled out. And yet, the worst thing Aoun can do is resort to a strategy of blackmail. This will not only hinder the state at a particularly sensitive time, it will also disturb Hezbollah, which does not want an open-ended vacuum in the presidency. The party is keen to consolidate its position in Lebanon this year, in parallel to Bashar Assad’s gains in Syria, and bringing in a president with whom it is comfortable is one half of its strategy. The other is to secure, with its allies, a parliamentary majority in elections scheduled for November.

Hezbollah does not want anything, or anyone, to interrupt or delay this process, even if it will manage relations with the general carefully so as to preserve their alliance during and after the parliamentary elections. Lebanon moves primarily to the rhythm of Sunni-Shiite relations today, and Aoun’s obstructionism would come across as a vain effort to reaffirm Christian priorities in a system that has transcended this.

Moreover, the formation of Tammam Salam’s government revealed a shared desire by Hezbollah and Hariri, backed by Iran and Saudi Arabia, to contain the threat of sectarian conflict in Lebanon. That imperative is as relevant today as it was several months ago, and any effort by Aoun to undermine it is likely to upset both Hezbollah and the Future Movement.

But will this be enough to dissuade the general? Very unlikely. There was not much he could do in 2008, when a consensus behind Michel Sleiman in Lebanon and the Arab world helped bring him to office. But in 1989, Aoun plunged Lebanon into a fresh state of conflict once he felt the Taif Accord would be used to sidestep him for the presidency. Before long, he was caught up in a war with the Lebanese Forces that devastated Christian-controlled areas and Christian political fortunes in general.

In this context, if Aoun decides to throw a political tantrum, two Maronites in particular could be asked to intervene. The Maronite patriarch, Beshara Rai, has been irrepressible when it comes to politics. But if Aoun decides to impede the work of the government, Rai has a duty speak out and insist that this would not only harm the state, it would also marginalize the role of Maronites and further divide Christians at a critical juncture.

The second Maronite is Sleiman Frangieh. As an ally of Hezbollah and Aoun, his refusal to go along with a project that effectively paralyzes the government would have an impact, especially on members of Aoun’s bloc close to Frangieh. Among them is Gebran Bassil, who has a stake in remaining in office while the auction for oil and gas contracts takes place.

One can understand Aoun’s frustration. But for him to hold Lebanon hostage to his political ambitions is no solution. It will not alter the presidential equation, but it will show, during a time of near-existential vulnerability in the country, that certain individuals cannot break free from their egoism. Lebanon merits better than to face the consequences of this again.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Michael Aoun eyes the presidency in a divided Lebanon

Lebanon is fast approaching the end of the month-long period in which it must elect a president to succeed Michel Suleiman. Parliament votes for the president, and until now no consensus has emerged behind any candidate. But one man who still has hopes is Michel Aoun, the head of the largest Christian bloc.

Mr Aoun’s expectations may be higher than his chances. Last week a senior Lebanese politician told me privately that he feared that Mr Aoun, a former general who headed a military government between 1988 and 1990, would be backed by the Future Movement of Saad Hariri, a former prime minister. The politician said he was on his way to Paris to meet the Saudi foreign minister Saud Al Faisal to determine if Riyadh, Mr Hariri’s political patron, supported Mr Aoun.

But the news early this week was contradictory. The Lebanese daily Al Safir, quoting someone familiar with Mr Al Faisal’s meetings, said the prince had not endorsed Mr Aoun. Allegedly, he declared: “We in the kingdom have not forgotten this man’s history”, particularly his opposition to the Saudi-devised Taif Accord that helped end the Lebanese civil war.

This came after one of Mr Aoun’s rivals, the head of the Lebanese Forces Party, Samir Geagea, revealed that in a meeting with Mr Hariri in Paris, the latter broached the idea of Mr Aoun as a consensus candidate. Mr Geagea disagreed with him, but the exchange only increased speculation that Mr Hariri was still considering ordering his bloc to vote for the general.

In reality, Mr Aoun’s chances appear more remote than many believe. To speak of a candidate is often a way of burning him, since such speculation mobilises opposition to a candidacy. Not surprisingly, many of the politicians who predicted an Aoun victory also happened to strongly oppose such an outcome.

Mr Aoun’s history is that of a man who has scored periodic political successes, but has never managed to cash them in for the one prize he most desires: the presidency.

In 1989, as army commander and head of the military government, he embarked on a so-called “war of liberation” against Syrian forces in Lebanon, attracting many Lebanese fed up with Syrian hegemony over their country. When the Taif Accord was negotiated, however, Mr Aoun rejected it, saying it did not specify a clear timetable for a Syrian withdrawal.

It didn’t, but what bothered Mr Aoun most was that Taif circumvented him, when his aim was to be named president. Within months he was caught up in a new conflict, this time with the Lebanese Forces, and the internecine Christian war doomed Mr Aoun’s chances of reaching office. In October 1990 he was ousted by the Syrians and fled into exile in France.

After Mr Aoun returned home in 2005, his presidential ambitions soared. He won a large share of the Christian vote in parliamentary elections, then allied himself with Hizbollah against the March 14 parliamentary majority, hoping this would improve his chances of succeeding President Emile Lahoud. In fact, all it did was alienate the majority he needed to win the vote, allowing Mr Suleiman to emerge as a compromise.

Time and again Mr Aoun wantonly took positions that he knew would anger Lebanon’s Sunnis. His alliance with Hizbollah was the primary beef against him. But it did not stop there. When the Syrian conflict began in 2011, the general openly sided with the regime of President Bashar Al Assad, which many Sunnis took as an affront.

Most damagingly, Mr Aoun publicly questioned the Taif Accord, which amended the Lebanese constitution and severely limited the president’s powers. The general sought to revise Taif and reverse this. The position was popular among Maronite Christians, from whom the president comes, but it alarmed Sunnis, who did not want to see a concomitant weakening of the council of ministers, headed by a Sunni Muslim.

The perception among Sunnis that Mr Aoun was hostile to their community meant that when the general moved closer to Mr Hariri months ago, many viewed this as rank opportunism. Here was Mr Aoun looking to build ties with a politician whose support he needed to become president.

In an effort to avoid being shot down as a candidate early on in the election process, Mr Aoun never officially declared his candidacy. Instead, he presented himself as a compromise figure, available when all other major candidates failed to win. This tactic worked for a time, but as the deadlock over the presidency persisted, Mr Aoun was dragged into the discussion, provoking divisiveness. His triumph became less likely.

Ultimately, to win, Mr Aoun needs Mr Hariri’s support. If Mr Al Faisal was quoted correctly, and if his comments reflected the official Saudi view, then Mr Hariri will not vote for Mr Aoun. But Mr Hariri does have a vested interest in maintaining good relations with the general in order to reduce his reliance on Hizbollah. Mr Aoun, too, benefits from such ties, so he can play Mr Hariri and Hizbollah off against each other.

If Mr Aoun has been ruled out, the lesson must be a bitter one for him. He is 80, and his chances of ever becoming president are just about nil. No matter what his convolutions, no one can ever fully trust a man who has played destructive politics the way he has. For the general, provoking conflicts was often a clever way of rallying his base. But it also created many enmities.

Almost two decades ago I visited Mr Aoun in his French exile. He struck me as a man shaped, alternatively, by mistrust, vindictiveness and isolation. These are hardly ideal qualities for a man who, as president, must embody Lebanon’s unity.

Monday, May 19, 2014

In the name of the son - Walid Jumblatt won’t retire in these momentous times

Walid Jumblatt’s remarks to the Saudi daily Al-Sharq al-Awsat that he was seriously thinking of staying out of parliamentary elections this year were not the first sign that the Druze leader is preparing a transition to his son Taymour. But Jumblatt’s words notwithstanding, he will remain with us for the foreseeable future.

And yet there are a number of issues that preoccupy Jumblatt and may help explain why he tends to leave a door open, at least in theory, for an exit from the political scene.

As he looks around him, Jumblatt can see that his power is being seriously questioned as communal dynamics take on a direction he cannot control. Since the elections of 2009, and particularly after the removal of Saad Hariri as prime minister, Jumblatt has managed to keep his head above the water only by maneuvering into a central role in the political system.

It was he who helped oust Hariri by helping to bring in Najib Miqati as prime minister. This allowed him to play an axial role through his ability to give a majority to one alignment or the other in parliament, depending on how his bloc voted. By the same token, when Miqati stepped down Jumblatt played a key function in endorsing his successor Tammam Salam, who, like Miqati, gave Jumblatt important service ministries essential to reinforcing the Druze leader’s patronage power.

But these tactical successes could not hide changes elsewhere, and indeed perhaps helped reinforce them. For one, Jumblatt’s pivotal political role provoked much resentment among other politicians, who did not feel the Druze leader merited the power he had accumulated. Jumblatt’s disloyalty toward Hariri significantly damaged relations between the two.

At the same time, Jumblatt can also see that the growing sense of marginalization in the Maronite community is turning to his disfavor. Last year the Maronites led opposition to the 1960 election law, which is essential to Jumblatt’s political survival. While the result was a rift between Hariri and Samir Geagea over the so-called Orthodox proposal, this has since been papered over. But Jumblatt knows there will be another divisive debate over an election law later this year. While the parties are still divided over such a law, the impulse to reach a compromise may well lead to the abandonment of the 1960 law.

Geagea and Hariri are not the only ones who regard Jumblatt as a political irritant. Michel Aoun, too, would welcome nothing more than an opportunity to cut the Druze leader down to size. That is why Aoun has refused to try to persuade Jumblatt to vote for him in the presidential election. The general has made it clear he much prefers an arrangement with Hariri.

It is also why Jumblatt regards a potential Hariri-Aoun deal over the presidency as posing a political threat to him. Not only would he be shunted aside: both men share a yearning to reduce his power. Moreover, two-thirds of the electorate in the Shouf is Christian and Sunni. If Aoun were president and Hariri prime minister, they could use their offices and communal power to weaken Jumblatt in his core district.

Until now, no Hariri-Aoun deal has been reached and may never be. But Jumblatt will not rest until it is definitely buried. However, with Aoun, Hariri, and to a lesser extent Geagea all aligned against Jumblatt, and with the centrists momentarily neutralized by the departure of President Michel Sleiman, the Druze leader’s only option is to lean more on his relationship with Hezbollah. Regional developments may prove him right. 

By most accounts the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council and Germany are moving toward a long-term deal with Iran over its nuclear program. While obstacles remain, American officials are optimistic about a successful outcome, and view this as an opening for the United States to address a host of regional issues with Tehran.

The Saudi decision earlier this week to invite Iran’s foreign minister to Riyadh suggests the kingdom is aware that it must either board the train of an Iranian-Western rapprochement, or it may be left on the platform. If Iran emerges as a main interlocutor of the West to resolve regional tensions, above all Syria, Riyadh will have to adapt to the new situation.

Jumblatt may be marginal in this bigger picture, but he cannot afford to miss the possibilities for his own political survival. If Iran gains in regional influence, then it’s more than likely that the Druze leader will reinforce his ties with Hezbollah, even if he also tries to maintain a good relationship with Saudi Arabia. Indeed, the statement that he might step down may have been an effort to signal again to the Saudis that his son is on the way, further legitimizing him as a future interlocutor.

An Iranian-Saudi accord could do two things in Lebanon: calm tensions between Sunnis and Shiites, and lead to a broader understanding to jointly manage domestic political relations in the country – of which the election of a new president may be a consequence. Jumblatt benefits from Sunni-Shiite harmony, which would facilitate his primary aim in the coming years: to hand over to Taymour, who must take on the Sisyphean task of preserving the traditional Jumblatt leadership in a Lebanon where this increasingly appears anachronistic.

So Jumblatt will be around for some time yet, to navigate through a period of fascinating transformation in the Middle East. His gift is adaptability, but not everyone has it. In the next year we will see who calculated correctly in Lebanon, and who didn’t.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Which foundations for postwar Syria?

The announcement that Lakhdar Brahimi, the United Nations special envoy on Syria, would step down at the end of this month raised a number of interesting questions.

Brahimi’s departure is to a large extent a consequence of President Bashar Assad’s decision to stand again for the presidency in June, which undermines efforts to negotiate a transition in Syria. This makes Brahimi’s role redundant.

But beyond what it means for a negotiated settlement in Syria, Assad’s decision to seek re-election poses a more profound question. In the highly unlikely event that the Syrian president can defeat the uprising against his rule, on what foundations might he build a postwar Syria?

The question is hardly an academic one, as Hafez Assad understood all too well. He knew that a minority-led regime needed ideological cover to sustain its domination. The late Syrian president used Arab nationalism, in the guise of Baath Socialism, to do such a thing. By the time he died in 2000, Baathism had lost most of its ideological luster, but it still represented something tangible for an interest group that had benefited from the regime’s socio-economic policies.

Bashar pretty much destroyed what his father spent decades building up, and now he promises to come back for more. But under what heading will a new Assad presidency be placed? If Bashar imagines that he will anchor his legitimacy in the claim that he spearheaded a successful war against terrorism, then he is drinking from the regime’s fountain of propaganda.

Many Syrians will welcome an end to a conflict that has been the ruin of their country. But when reality has had time to sink in, when people look back on the past three years of carnage and determine responsibility, the Syrian president will not be spared. He will need more than brutality and the phony claim that what he was fighting in 2011 was “armed terrorist groups” to persuade Syrians that his leadership is valid.

The reality is that Bashar’s sole barometer for staying on as president is the power equation: Unless his foes defeat him, he’s staying put. That may be acceptable in the context of war, but the Syrian president will find it almost impossible to govern a postwar Syria on such a principle. If his aim is to return to reliance on the security services to preserve his regime, as he did before 2011, then Syria will never completely emerge from its conflict, and Bashar himself may become disposable.

Assuming the regime manages to consolidate itself in a postwar period, then the imperative to keep Bashar in office will no longer be quite the same. Bashar may emerge stronger from the maelstrom, for having survived in the face of a withering revolt, but the impulse to be rid of him may prove just as compelling. Even the Alawite community could come to see an advantage in removing the man who personifies its original sin.

For now, the prospect of an Assad victory in the Syrian war appears all but absurd. The regime simply doesn’t have the manpower necessary to recapture and control Syria, and its strategy today is centered on political survival. But if the regime can slowly expand the areas under its control – and that’s a big “if” – until the point where it can realistically contemplate victory, such a “victory” will be pyrrhic for having come through the slaughter of tens of thousands of its own citizens.

Bashar seems unperturbed by this, and there are other examples to encourage him in this attitude. The Algerian military-led regime survived a terrible civil war during the 1990s, one in which its ferociousness could not be denied. Yet only a few weeks ago, its debilitated presidential candidate, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, was re-elected for a fourth term.

Perhaps, but the Algerian leadership was not controlled by a religious minority, and the country did not become a regional playing field in the same way that Syria has. Those countries that have bolstered Bashar, Iran and Russia above all, must be aware that keeping the Syrian president in power is only the first stage. Unless his regime is placed on sounder foundations, their efforts may have been for nothing.

So what might these foundations be? Baathism is dead. A Greater Syria scheme sounds preposterous when Bashar has alienated a substantial portion of his population, and all that is left is a regime upholding sectarianism and supported principally by Syria’s minorities. The fact is that the Assad regime has nothing in which to anchor its rule beyond continued terrorization.

Even after a vast campaign of purges, Joseph Stalin yet had communist ideology to uphold the autocratic Soviet system. When World War II began, he fell back on Russian nationalism to mobilize his society against Nazi Germany. Bashar has no such instruments at his disposal. He has only the gun.

The Assad regime offers desolation to Syrian society. It may survive for now, but the gates that Hafez Assad sensibly sought to keep closed have all been opened, unleashing the very forces that the late president was always careful to keep in check. It is not Bashar Assad who will be able to close them again.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

If a nuclear deal is done, the US will have to tread carefully

Next week, Iran and the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany will resume negotiations for a final deal over Iran’s nuclear programme. While obstacles remain, a broader question is how a breakthrough in talks, if it occurs, will affect American-Iranian relations in the Middle East.

There is a perception among many governments that the Obama administration sees a nuclear accord as an opportunity to advance American disengagement from the region. Only by reaching a broader regional understanding with Iran, the argument goes, is such disengagement possible.

While this may be overstated, there is some truth that the Obama administration sees a nuclear accord as potentially transcending nuclear questions. In the minds of American officials, an improved relationship between Iran and the United States could facilitate resolutions to a number of problems in the Middle East. The administration has made no statements in this regard, but any reconciliation with Iran could, for all practical purposes, expand Iranian influence in the Arab world.

That is the interpretation reached by many Arab states and Israel, which is why they worry about the nuclear talks. Reports earlier this week, as well as a statement by Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, may have kept up their hopes.

By most accounts a major obstacle to an accord is the P5+1’s insistence that Iran cut the number of its uranium-enriching centrifuges from 19,000 to a few thousand. Iran, in turn, has indicated it intends to expand the number, saying they would serve to fuel a civilian nuclear power programme.

Ayatollah Khamenei has echoed this view, declaring that Iran would expand its nuclear infrastructure, while on Sunday he rejected Western efforts to limit Iran’s missile programme as “stupid and idiotic”. Some Iranian statements may be posturing, but the administration of President Hassan Rouhani will not be able to pass an agreement that is strongly opposed by Ayatollah Khamenei and Iranian hardliners.

The position of the Obama administration has been that there will be no discussion of regional issues until after a nuclear deal is concluded. It fears that widening the negotiating agenda now would only create new obstacles to a nuclear accord. That’s perhaps true, but in the context of new-found concord after an agreement, the ambition to do more could suddenly rise.

And here is where the Obama administration must manage its strategy carefully. For while President Barack Obama may want to lower American commitments in the Middle East, he has no interest in allowing a destabilising free-for-all provoked by his allies’ fear that Washington is abandoning them to Iran.

The problem is that this administration has shown a noticeable willingness to tolerate spheres of influence, and none of America’s regional allies believe it will oppose one in Iran’s case. In both Crimea and the South and East China Seas, for instance, the Americans have allowed Russia and China to expand their zone of control, reacting in only limited ways.

On the other hand, if a nuclear deal is reached, the United States could not simply avoid engaging in a wider discussion over the future of the region. If it were to do so, Iran could take advantage of this by exploiting the termination of economic sanctions to finance a series of regional power plays.

That is why better preparation for a post-negotiations phase is required from the Obama administration. There has been much talk of a new regional security architecture in the Gulf region and beyond, and Washington would be in an ideal position to help bring such an idea to fruition. But would Iran go along with it?

The probable answer is no it wouldn’t. By announcing it would effectively pivot away from the Middle East, the Obama administration created a conundrum. Given its overwhelming power, the United States never had the luxury of simply turning its back on the region. In doing so, however, it created a vacuum others have sought to fill.

Iran has striven to consolidate its power in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and the Palestinian areas. In Iraq, the Americans pulled out early, leaving behind a volatile situation ripe for manipulation by regional states. In Syria, after the 2011 uprising, the Americans never contemplated defeating Iran. Instead, they limited arms supplies to the rebels, allowing the stalemate to continue while pursuing an unrealistic path of negotiations.

On the Palestinian front, too, US-sponsored talks recently reached an impasse. As for Lebanon, the Obama administration has been indifferent, merely supporting measures to reduce tensions in the country, with otherwise limited involvement. Nowhere has there been visible planning for a region in which America no longer chooses to play a central role.

That is why negotiations with Iran over the region are so disquieting. If the aim is merely to facilitate America’s regional disentanglement, the consequences could be chaotic as Iran seeks to enhance its hegemony. But if Washington, instead, intends to put in place a new regional order, then it must take measures first to frustrate and reverse Iranian assertiveness.

Yet such a venture would serve only to underline that America intends to remain the predominant regional actor, when Mr Obama has done everything to dispel such an impression. That is why a nuclear deal with Iran, as desirable as it may be, will launch a thousand American foreign-policy contradictions.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Presidential finding - Is Lebanon really deadlocked over a head of state?

Lebanese President Michel Sleiman (C) meets with Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri (L) and prime minister-designate Tammam Salam at the presidential palace in Baabda ahead of announcing the formation of the new Lebanese government following a 10-month vacuum

Two weeks into Lebanon’s presidential election period, we seem to be in a deadlock. In an election that everyone has called a purely Lebanese affair, it seems the Lebanese are failing to take advantage of their newfound leeway.

That’s the story at least. But usually solutions in Lebanon are devised at the last moment, when the situation becomes so untenable that everyone is ripe for an alternative. Where are we today, and what has the election revealed to date?

It has shown us, first, that both the Future Movement and Hezbollah are prisoners of their alliances. Future did not want to back Samir Geagea as its leading presidential candidate, nor Hezbollah Michel Aoun (even if the general is not officially a candidate). However, both were more unwilling to lose a vital Maronite ally by failing to publicly back Geagea or Aoun, respectively.

A second message is that March 14 did not try to anticipate the Geagea gambit by selecting a more conciliatory figure early on who could have won votes from members of Walid Jumblatt’s bloc as well as from independents. This showed that Future has been less adept at shaping March 14’s strategy than Hezbollah has been at defining March 8’s.

Aoun, to his credit, read the dynamics rather well. He did not corner Hezbollah and force it to take an official stance on his candidacy. In return, the party agreed to follow Aoun’s lead in attending the election sessions. If there is movement toward a compromise candidate, Aoun will not be embarrassed by having announced his candidacy, which means that Hezbollah will retain the flexibility to approve of someone else.

A third message is that even if foreign powers are not directly involved in the election, the calculations of several regional governments are inherent in the presidential process. When Hezbollah determines who it wants, it will ensure that he is someone acceptable to Iran and, to a considerable extent, Syria. By the same token, Saad Hariri must guarantee that any candidate of his choice is not objectionable to Saudi Arabia.

Western governments, too, have a say in what goes on, though less than that of the regional powerhouses. The primary Western concern is to avoid a vacuum, and a headache, in Beirut, particularly as several European countries have contingents in the United Nations force in southern Lebanon. It’s difficult for them to justify domestically that that the troops are maintaining stability, when the Lebanese are allowing a potentially unstable situation to emerge at the head of their state.

In recent days there have been reports that the Maronite patriarch, Beshara al-Rai, had taken up the matter of extending President Michel Sleiman’s term with the speaker of parliament, Nabih Berri, in order to avert a vacuum. How strange coming from a man who had earlier spoken of the election as a national necessity. Does Rai now believe it is no longer so, and that it is therefore time to shift to keeping Sleiman in power?

If so, the patriarch, not for the first time, is jumping the gun, and he’s doing so in a political context very unfavorable to a Sleiman extension. Hezbollah wants the president out, and not surprisingly Berri is said to have made no commitments to Rai. It appears, however, that the speaker may have tried to push for a constitutional amendment that would allow Hezbollah’s preferred candidate, the army commander Jean Kahwaji, to stand for elections. Rai rightly rejected that proposal.

More realistic is a scenario that takes into consideration the imperative that brought Tammam Salam’s government to life. Both Hezbollah and Future, and very likely their regional sponsors, saw benefits in filling the increasingly dangerous vacuum in Lebanon with a national unity government. No one wants Lebanon to descend into sectarian violence, particularly when sectarian relations in Syria and Iraq are so worrisome.

Nothing has changed in this regard since the Salam government was formed. The major Sunni and Shiite representatives are still very keen to avoid conflict. That is what makes more likely the possibility that as the presidential election period nears its end, a candidate will emerge who can win a majority in parliament and satisfy most governments in the region.

For now, eyes are on former parliamentarian and minister Jean Obeid. He recently visited Saudi Arabia, and is believed to be favorably viewed by Saad Hariri, Hezbollah, and Walid Jumblatt – not to mention the Syrian regime. He’s the kind of candidate that Samir Geagea warned against when he insisted that a compromise candidate would seek to satisfy all sides, and therefore would not be a “strong president.” But Obeid remains a favorite precisely for those reasons.   

To get to Obeid, more time is needed for the current stalemate to fester. That’s why talk of an open-ended vacuum may be premature. Now is the time for Hariri and Hezbollah to persuade their Maronite allies that they must give up on the presidency and go for a compromise, as Sunni-Shiite relations demand it. Stalemates often produce solutions. We shall soon see if Lebanon can pull a rabbit out of its hat again this time.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

The winters of our Maronite patriarch

Whether one agrees with Beshara Rai’s decision to visit Israel and greet the pope, the Maronite patriarch appears to have a boundless capacity to place himself in situations that end up demeaning him and his office and that harm his community.

The patriarch Tuesday addressed the uproar over his visit to Jerusalem by mentioning his religious mandate and leaving politics to the side – odd for a man devoured by a desire to be a serious political player while his church awaits much-needed reform.

Rai justified his upcoming visit by pointing out, “I am the Maronite Patriarch of Antioch and all the East, of regions expanding from Turkey to Mauritania, Saudi Arabia to Iran. It is my duty to welcome the pope in any country in these regions.” He went on to argue, “ Jerusalem is our city as Christians before anyone else, and it is an Arab city. I am going there to say this is our city. We have [religious] authority there, and we have people who follow our church. I am going home, and I am going to see my people. We have been present in Haifa and Galilee long before Israel.”

While there was typical grandiloquence in these remarks, Rai had a defensible point: The Catholic Church has long contested Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem, which is a city for all its communities. By going there, therefore, Rai only drives the latter point home. In contrast, if he were to refuse to travel to Jerusalem, that would mean that he has conceded to Israel a final say over whoever visits and whatever happens in the city.

Perhaps, but the broader problem is that Rai has often failed to see, or has refused to see, how his decisions implicate the broader Maronite community that he represents.

When Rai says that he will not meet with Israeli officials, he is acting like a simpleton. It’s not the fact that he will meet with anyone that makes the difference; it’s that a man of his stature has decided to travel to Israel in the first place. When he visited Damascus in February 2013, Rai did not shake the hands of Bashar Assad’s pilots who had bombed civilians, nor did the Syrian regime ask him to. It was satisfied that Rai had simply come to Syria, after his predecessor, Nasrallah Butros Sfeir, had refused to do so, even when Pope John Paul II visited the country, and it played this up as an endorsement of Assad rule.

Why, at a moment when Lebanon’s Maronites are already being accused of sympathizing with the Assad regime, does Rai need to lend weight to another indiscriminate charge that has long circulated, namely that Maronites are supportive of Israel? Neither accusation is especially true, even if Rai foolishly defended the Syrian regime in the past, but both have taken on a life of their own over the years, and have served only to isolate the community from its Sunni or Shiite surroundings.

What would be lost if Rai did not go to Israel? Essentially nothing, and Pope Francis would doubtless understand the patriarch’s position, just as Pope John Paul did Sfeir’s refusal to accompany him on his Syrian visit. But where Sfeir had the stature of a patriarch, avoiding moves that might contradict his stated principles and belittle his office, Rai has time and again walked head-on into the wall, losing respect as a consequence.

Take the patriarch’s position on the presidential election. In theory, Rai was right to insist that an election take place, and he sought to ensure this by repeatedly urging the main candidates not to undermine the vote and meeting with them to get this point across. But in the end, Michel Aoun and Sleiman Frangieh ignored him when they refused to go to the election sessions in Parliament. Rai’s authority, not for the first time, looked tenuous, when it would have been more advisable for him to make a few general statements and leave it there.

But that wasn’t enough. With Parliament unable to choose a successor to Michel Sleiman, the patriarch has reportedly sought to secure an extension of the president’s term to avoid a vacuum. So, the man who only a few weeks ago was calling for a presidential election as a constitutional necessity, today is trying to finagle an extended term for Sleiman, intervening with the speaker of Parliament, Nabih Berri, to bring this about.

Of course Berri, knowing that Hezbollah wants Sleiman out, made no commitments, and Rai, the Maronite patriarch of Antioch and all the East, of regions expanding from Turkey to Mauritania, Saudi Arabia to Iran, has descended to the level of political wheeler-dealer. What, other than Rai’s vanity, can justify such ill-conceived behavior? Not only is Rai interpreting the role of the patriarch well beyond its boundaries, he also happens to be politically careless and impulsive.

For someone who seeks, or claims to seek, a revitalization of the Maronite community, Rai has done it all wrong. Ultimately, what will help the Christians in general and the Maronites in particular is a better understanding of how to interact with the region. That’s not at all to say that Christians must behave as a frightened minority and mindlessly echo the platitudes of the Muslim majority, itself divided between Sunnis and Shiites.

Rather, Lebanon’s Christians must adopt and embody general principles – adherence to the Arab consensus on Israel, a refusal to approve of anything that undermines Lebanese sovereignty and stability, a rejection of repression and violence and support for pluralism and democracy. Above all, Rai should stop trying to be an omnipatriarch – a cleric, politician, world traveler and diplomat all wrapped into one. He should stick to what he knows, otherwise Maronites will continue to pay for his errors.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

The Obama administration and its mixed-up strategies

In his book Figures de Proue, written in 1949, the French historian René Grousset drew portraits of great historical figures. One of his principal themes was how several of these individuals went against what seemed to be their historical destiny and the momentum of their times.

For instance, Frederick II Hohenstaufen, the Holy Roman emperor, opted not to pursue a German-centric policy in the northern part of his empire, preferring to indulge in the southern part, Sicily, with its opening on Arab North Africa and the Levant. Both culturally and politically, the emperor was always drawn more towards the Mediterranean than to northern Europe.

Though historical posterity may not be for Barack Obama, the president repeatedly misjudged the possibilities of his time. When Mr Obama came to office, the prevailing view in his administration was that the United States had wasted enough effort on a Middle Eastern region that generated only violence, authoritarianism and underdevelopment.

The so-called “pivot to Asia” was a reaction to this. It was as much a political and psychological pivot away from six years of military involvement in the broader Middle East, including Afghanistan, as it was a pivot towards a region that seemed to represent the future, economic growth, and progress.

In other words, the Obama administration saw its disengagement from the Middle East as an effort to go with the times and break free from a foreign policy albatross that had endured more out of habit than anything else. But that assessment proved rigid, especially as the Asia pivot came after the outbreak of the uprisings in the Middle East in early 2011.

At the very moment when the Middle East seemed on the cusp of change, the United States failed to see the potential advantages in the new situation. Rather than grasp that the Arab upheavals could benefit American long-term interests if properly managed, the Obama administration addressed them with a combination of improvisation and disregard.

Above all, the administration displayed a remarkably short attention span, failing to adequately complete what it had begun. This was particularly true in Libya and Egypt.

In Egypt, the administration initially showed considerable boldness in pushing its old ally Hosni Mubarak out of office in January 2011, when it realised that his regime was no longer tenable.However, in the aftermath of Mr Mubarak’s removal Washington seemed to distance itself from Egyptian affairs, playing a limited role in stabilising the country. Egyptian-American relations deteriorated after the authorities in Cairo arrested members of foreign, including American, NGOs, and after the American embassy was stormed by protesters.

In Libya, the Obama administration intervened militarily with European states, to overthrow the regime of Muammar Qaddafi.

Yet again there was much ambiguity, with the administration agreeing to participate only because the Europeans were in the lead, and to prevent a massacre of civilians in Benghazi by the Libyan regime.

Once the war ended, the United States swiftly withdrew and did not do much to shape the aftermath in Libya. As in Egypt there was little follow-through in American policy, facilitating the country’s subsequent descent into chaos.

A similar situation happened in Iraq, where Mr Obama pulled his troops out early, failing to consolidate the political stability that thousands of American soldiers had died to restore. For instance, when administration officials were told by Nouri Al Maliki that a senior Sunni politician would be arrested, the administration did nothing to prevent a reckless move bound to exacerbate sectarian tensions.   

In Syria, the situation has been even more disheartening. Given an opportunity to be rid of Bashar Al Assad and contain Iran and Hizbollah, Mr Obama instead declared he would not get involved in someone else’s civil war. This negligence has created a vacuum that was, predictably, exploited by jihadists, so that FBI director James Comey is now openly saying that extremists fighting in Syria may pose a threat to the United States.

The Obama administration’s behaviour in the Middle East has been paradoxical. Rather than simply refusing to get involved, it has acted haphazardly, getting involved here, refusing to do so there. There has been no sense since 2011 that the United States has systematically thought through regional developments, or that it has considered ways of strengthening itself and its allies.

Regional politics are, understandably, a slippery proposition. In defending a democratically elected president in Egypt in 2013, the Americans angered the Egyptian armed forces and a large number of Egyptians opposed to the Muslim Brotherhood. But Mr Obama claims to be a realist. He could have adapted to Mohammed Morsi’s removal, as he did to Viktor Yanukovich’s downfall in Ukraine, to better defend American stakes.

 In Syria, the Obama administration is under the illusion that Mr Al Assad can be brought to the negotiating table. It still does not view the conflict there as a struggle over the future of the Middle East. Yet that is precisely what Iran and even Russia have known since the beginning, and why they have invested so heavily in saving the Syrian regime.

Mr Obama has projected an image of someone in total control of his foreign policy agenda, even as he rarely seems to immerse himself beyond the generalities. Nowhere has this been truer than in a Middle East undergoing radical transformation. America needed a leader with the imagination to exploit this situation. Instead it has one who takes pride in refusing to do so.

Friday, May 2, 2014

What's the point? The debate over Obama’s awful Syria policy

Does the United States have a strategy in Syria? That question has been asked since 2011, when the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad began. Three years on it still has not been adequately answered.

One argument is that the Obama administration has allowed the situation in Syria to worsen because several of its enemies are paying a heavy price in a regional proxy war. A cash-strapped Iran is spending money to prop up the Assad regime, bleeding itself dry financially. Hezbollah is losing valuable manpower in a grinding struggle. Assad is sinking ever deeper into a quagmire in which victory is impossible. And Al-Qaeda-linked jihadists are being killed in large numbers, in many cases in bloody internecine fights.

With America’s enemies going at each other with abandon, what’s not to like in the Syrian war? That is supposedly what the more cynical American policymakers are saying, even as they insist that the United States has no advantage in getting involved in Syria. The only imperative is to protect vital American allies in the region, above all Israel and Jordan, by containing the violence as much as possible.

A second view is that the United States has no strategy in Syria, and that all that really preoccupies the administration is avoiding being drawn into the conflict. Because America cannot coldly ignore the mass murder of civilians, it has taken positions in the past setting conditions for military intervention, such as when Barack Obama established “red lines” against the use of chemical weapons. But even there, when an alternative was found, the destruction of Syria’s chemical arsenal, Obama seized upon it to escape any involvement.   

Last week my friend and colleague Tony Badran, writing on this website, dismissed both these arguments and presented one of his own. “In reality, what’s remarkable is not that the administration lacks a strategy; it doesn’t,” he maintained. “Rather, it’s that it has been pursuing a consciously pro-Iranian strategy.” As Badran sees it, the United States seeks to reduce its “profile” in the Middle East, and “establishing a new equilibrium with Iran is essential” to this.

Each argument has something going for it, yet each is also unsatisfactory as a broad, one-stop explanation for American behavior. Perhaps that’s because all policy must forever adapt to changing circumstances, so that what may be true in one context is not necessarily true in another. For instance, avoidance has, indeed, been a principal American motivation since the outset of the fighting in Syria, but that doesn’t prevent, when possible, the pursuit of a more hard-nosed strategy of bleeding America’s enemies.

More important is what America’s approach to Syria means for its own standing and for its allies. To Badran, the American tilt to Iran has come at the expense of its traditional regional alliances, losing America much influence in the region. Yet while the Obama administration favors a new relationship with Tehran, nothing indicates it will permit Iranian hegemony over the region.

That it has not actively hindered Iran may have other explanations, including the fact that Obama does not want to devote American time and resources to a region that has sucked up an inordinate amount of American energies and that offers few political rewards. Containing Iran costs money and Obama is continuing to struggle with a vulnerable American economy, while enjoying no real domestic mandate to re-engage actively in the Middle East.

The vacuum in Syria, which the Americans helped perpetuate through their inaction, has allowed jihadist groups to thrive. Even if America implicitly supports Iran and Hezbollah today against the jihadists, its initial inaction reinforces the view that Obama was motivated to a large extent by avoidance of Syria, and why Washington is compelled to welcome containment of the jihadists, even by its enemies.

The jihadists pose a problem not only for Jordan and Israel: they also can spread across borders to places such as Iraq, Lebanon and Turkey, all countries the United States wants to keep stable. Badran’s theory, like that of a cynical America allowing its enemies to destroy each other, is a time-specific conclusion, applying only to a period after the jihadists were in place. Yet for well over a year – almost two – jihadists were not a major factor in Syria, and yet during that time the Americans simply allowed the situation to fester.

America’s main allies, Jordan and Israel, were partly behind this caution. Both countries were, and remain, concerned that a sudden collapse of the Assad regime would create extremist blowback that can ultimately harm them. Jordan’s reluctance to countenance a southern offensive against Damascus is a manifestation of this mood.

As for Israel, it always benefited from an implicit understanding with the Assad regime to keep the Golan front quiet. The Syrian war has shattered this arrangement, though it’s difficult to sustain a view that the Obama administration is tilting toward Iran and Hezbollah when the latter has exploited Syria’s chaos to attack Israelis in the Golan.  

Two things must be kept in mind when analyzing the Obama administration’s Syria policy. The first is that not all its actions, or inactions, are the result of a prearranged plan. Very frequently governments do stupid things because political realities crowd in and impose decisions that are far from optimal.

There are also domestic factors at play, and they are many. Obama has no enthusiasm for the Middle East. Americans are tired of the region and its problems and have repeatedly expressed a strong unwillingness to get involved in Syria. That doesn’t contradict the theories about America’s behavior in Syria, but it does lend more credence to the assumption that, far from being carefully thought-out, America’s Syria strategy is defined more by what America seeks to evade rather than what it hopes to achieve.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Samir Geagea and guilt by manipulation

During the first round of the presidential election last week, several parliamentarians put the names of prominent assassination victims on their ballots, implying that the leading candidate, Samir Geagea, had been responsible for their death.

That act raised a number of disturbing questions. Those who wrote the names knew what they were doing. They realized that Geagea saw the election as an opportunity to give himself new legitimacy, and they wanted to spoil that effort. It is questionable whether several of those they named were actually killed by Geagea, but somehow the Lebanese Forces leader, nine years after his release from prison, cannot seem to escape the stigma of his Civil War legacy.

Why is that? Why is the single former militia leader who has actually spent time in prison, who has apologized for his actions, held up as a distillation of all the evils of the Civil War, while other former warlords, many with a record as bad or worse than Geagea’s, are regarded as pillars of the state?

And yet it is a tragedy that the Maronite community remains partly a prisoner of Geagea and of his rivalry with Michel Aoun. The two men who most contributed to the bloodbath that engulfed the Christians in 1988-1990 are still regarded as the community’s principal de facto representatives.

It was this rivalry that pushed Geagea last year to back the odious Orthodox election law proposal. It was Geagea’s assessment that if elections were held on the basis of sect – with Maronites voting for Maronite candidates, Greek Orthodox for Greek Orthodox candidates, Shiites for Shiite candidates, and so on – the Lebanese Forces would gain a much larger share of parliamentarians against Aoun than under the 1960 law, which allows Aoun to benefit from Shiite electorates in key districts.

How odd that a man who sought to promote an election law proposal that would have divided Lebanon further, that would have undermined the principle of elections as an instrument of common national interaction, today is presenting himself as a presidential candidate who can best defend the Lebanese state. Geagea seems lost between what he views as Lebanon’s national interests and his own parochial political interests, which are often contradictory. What is good for Lebanon is not necessarily good for Samir Geagea, and vice versa.

But is Geagea alone in this? That formulation can apply to most of the country’s politicians. That is why the tendency to place the Lebanese Forces leader in a separate category seems so absurd and unfair. Those who condemn Geagea on moral grounds forget that the political class approved an amnesty law in 1991. The government at the time was led by Omar Karami, who, along with other parliamentarians from Tripoli, has accused Geagea of killing Rashid Karami.

Karami may be justified in doing so, but he cannot ignore his role in passing the amnesty law pardoning most wartime crimes, even if technically his brother’s assassination was not covered by that law. If the former prime minister wants to deny Geagea forgiveness, official or unofficial, he will find hundreds of thousands of Lebanese who will demand the same treatment for the killers of their relatives who remain unpunished.

There are two possible approaches to Samir Geagea: the political and the moral. A political approach involves assessing his public choices and political program; a moral approach involves deciding whether, ethically speaking, Geagea is entitled to aspire to the highest office in the land. Confusing the two is a bad idea, unless one is prepared to do so with all the wartime leaders and militia members. And, quite frankly, Lebanon doesn’t have the institutions to do such a thing fairly, nor does the political context permit a reopening of wartime wounds.

Strangely enough, Geagea has rebuilt a replica of his prison cell in his home. He has sought to exploit his experiences for political reasons, to create a permanent exhibition highlighting his ordeal. Yet one couldn’t imagine a Nelson Mandela, let’s say, building a memento of his imprisonment at home. When the great man exited prison, his primary objective was to transcend that long interregnum, to say that the politicized guilt that had been forced onto his shoulders did not merit a backward look.

That’s why a political approach to Geagea is much more useful. Today he seeks to be a “strong president.” He has said that a consensual president would be the worst outcome for Lebanon, as he or she would seek to satisfy all sides. “The strong president is he who states clearly what he wants, he who enters the battlefield in front of the people, not in embassies or closed rooms,” Geagea said a few weeks ago. It’s a shame that the Lebanese Forces leader sounds like Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah when making such statements, and it is disconcerting that his view of the presidency involves the image of entering into battle.

Geagea is also wrong about the constitutional role of the president. As defender of the nation’s unity the president must, by definition, seek a consensus. But being consensual does not necessarily mean being weak. All this talk of strength and doing battle suggests that the Lebanese Forces leader does not quite realize what the presidency today is all about.

But then let’s judge Geagea by that standard, not whether he is a moral paragon. So few people are in our republic, which is why the discussion of Geagea’s crimes can sound so contrived.