Thursday, July 31, 2014

The limits of Hezbollah’s conciliation

As Iran continues to absorb its recent setbacks in Iraq, one place where both the Islamic Republic and Saudi Arabia appear to be aiming to contain any Sunni-Shiite confrontation is Lebanon. That should be good news.

Hezbollah has toned down its rhetoric of late, preferring to push to the forefront the speaker of Parliament, Nabih Berri, who has taken on greater prominence in the search for a new president. In Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah’s speech last week on Jerusalem Day, he spoke about Gaza, steering clear of domestic politics.

Nasrallah also met with the Druze leader Walid Jumblatt last weekend. While Jumblatt represents a small community, he has been active, with Berri, in trying to effect a rapprochement between Sunnis and Shiites. Allegedly, Jumblatt and Nasrallah spoke only about Gaza. But that doesn’t seems very probable after a two-year interruption in their meetings.

At the same time, a Future parliamentarian has noted that the tone of Iran’s new ambassador in Beirut, Mohammad Fathali, was conciliatory in his recent courtesy meeting with former Prime Minister Fouad Siniora. What seemed clear to those present was that Fathali was engaging in outreach to moderate Sunnis, not surprising given Sunni radicalization throughout the region.

On the Saudi side things are less clear. And yet the behavior of pro-Saudi politicians in the country, always acutely sensitive to the temper in Riyadh, suggests a similar impetus. Both Nouhad Machnouk, the interior minister, and Ashraf Rifi, the justice minister, have sought to oppose radicalism in the Sunni community, particularly in the north; yet they have also tried to reassure Sunnis by abolishing wanted lists based on flimsy testimony prepared during the period of the Syrian presence.

The move may have had more symbolic value than anything else, but the Saudi decision earlier this year to lift the ban on travel to Lebanon by its citizens was also an indicator of a change in the kingdom. This prompted other Gulf countries to follow suit. The economic impact has been limited, but the decision contributed to increasing optimism in the country, despite the arrest of foreign visitors last month due to terrorism fears.

As the last country with a complicated sectarian mix that has not descended into conflict, Lebanon remains important not only to Iran and Saudi Arabia, but also to the international community. No one wants to see a new sectarian war in Lebanon, in a Middle East that is already veering out of control.

And yet the desire all around to stabilize Lebanon has not affected deeper political objectives and interactions. Hezbollah may be under duress in Syria, but that only makes it more determined to bring in a Lebanese president who will give it the political cover it wants. It seems doubtful that Michel Aoun is that man. The party is looking for predictability and consensus in volatile times, and Aoun assuredly does not promise that.

Nor does Hezbollah appear to be in any hurry to have a new president, given the uncertainties in Syria and Iraq. The ongoing fighting in the Qalamoun area northwest of Damascus shows the grinding nature of the Syrian conflict, and the foolishness of Hezbollah’s belief that a corner has been turned to the advantage of President Bashar Assad’s regime. A corner has indeed been turned, but what looms ahead is something far more worrisome for Hezbollah, Assad and many others.

Lebanese sectarian relations seem manageable for now, which has been reinforced by shared Sunni and Shiite outrage with the Israeli assault on Gaza. When Nasrallah speaks about Palestine, it allows him to revert to his past persona as a unifying Arab figure, rather than as the sectarian leader he was portrayed as after Hezbollah’s entry into the Syrian conflict.

But Hamas’ appeal to Hezbollah that it open a Lebanese front against Israel may prove embarrassing. Hezbollah has no desire to enter the Gaza war today when it is so heavily committed in Syria. Nor would this do anything but increase the hardships of a country already forced to deal with over a million Syrian refugees and nearing the precipice economically.

Iran too must see a need to momentarily step back. Its policies and those of its allies in Iraq have proven disastrous. Nor has the Iranian reaction to the offensive of the Islamic State been effective. There now seems to be movement to remove Nouri al-Maliki, but initially he is said to have resisted Iranian entreaties that he withdraw his candidacy for the prime minister’s post. Unless Iraq’s political stability can be consolidated and a reconciliation forged with Sunnis so that they can turn against the Islamic State, it will be nearly impossible to reverse the jihadists’ gains.

But what holds in Iraq holds elsewhere. If the Iranians want to calm tensions with the Sunnis, it will not be enough to do so in Lebanon and even Iraq, while pursuing policies elsewhere, above all in Syria, that enrage Sunnis. Yet Iran has proven unwilling to compromise on its basic political aims in the region. It has adhered to the power principle, where it will stop pushing only when it meets equal resistance from its foes.

Therefore, while Lebanon may benefit from an Iranian (and a Saudi) desire to reduce tensions, this will be precarious for as long as Tehran refuses to downscale its regional ambitions, which will only provoke harsher Sunni counter-reactions.

Lebanon has many shortcomings, but one reason why it has managed until now to avoid the plights of Syria and Iraq is that its very imperfect system is yet based on sectarian compromise. Iran and Hezbollah must grasp that lesson, or else their expedient efforts to placate Sunnis will all be for nothing.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

US policy reflects America’s lack of interest in the world

Hardly a day goes by in the United States without the publication of a commentary critical of President Barack Obama’s foreign policy. The general tenor of these pieces is that Mr Obama, in reducing American intervention overseas, has created a dangerous void that threatens American interests.

Yet the American president is under little pressure at home to change his ways. Polls suggest that a significant percentage of his countrymen are even more reluctant to intervene in the world than he is. For instance, a recent Politico poll showed that a substantial majority of Americans, around two-thirds, supported either current levels of American involvement or less involvement in Syria, Iraq or Ukraine.

Respondents were asked which of two statements came closest to their own view: “US military actions should be limited to direct threats to our national security” or “As the world’s moral leader, the US has a responsibility to use its military to protect democracy around the globe.” Sixty seven per cent cited the first statement, but only 22 per cent cited the second.

In terms of his foreign policy, Mr Obama seems to have read the polls carefully. His critics, while they may often be correct about the president’s inadequacies internationally, hold a minority view. Their criticism seems to be an elite reaction more than anything else, with only two per cent of respondents citing foreign policy as the issue that concerns them the most.

His foreign policy statements notwithstanding, Mr Obama has more often than not used the “pursuit of national interests” as an excuse to do nothing. Whenever the president has sensed he may be pushed into a commitment overseas he does not like, his reaction has been to say that he will not intervene because his intention is to pursue only American interests.

That was, for instance, implicit in the argument he used with journalist and former Democratic Party adviser George Stephanopoulos in September 2013, when he described the conflict in Syria as “somebody else’s civil war”. Mr Obama, having just struck a deal with Russia, had reversed a decision to strike against the Syrian regime after it used chemical weapons against civilians. He argued that the US could not affect the outcome of the Syrian conflict militarily.

But Mr Obama’s standoffish attitude in Syria, like that in Iraq, has come back to haunt him. Today, the region and the world face a threat from the Islamic State, which has carved out a large and lucrative territory between Iraq and Syria, one far more dangerous than Al Qaeda’s base in Afghanistan.

Yet Mr Obama has done virtually nothing about it. How ironic when the president claimed in 2012 to have defeated Al Qaeda and used this as one of his central campaign slogans.

In the same way that Mr Obama has used the defence of American interests benchmark as an excuse to sidestep action abroad, so too has he thrown up another canard: that those pushing for intervention invariably seek military intervention. But the reality is, in Syria most notably, that other options always existed, yet the administration never seriously investigated them.

Mr Obama’s pattern of avoidance in the world, his clear intention to put most of his energies into domestic American concerns, above all the economy, has come with a hefty price tag: a growing vacuum, most ominously in the Middle East, that has so destabilised the region that America and Europe may be endangered. The US administration admits to this risk, but not to its responsibility for helping bring it about.

Even outside the Middle East, in Asia and Europe, the Obama administration has alienated close allies with its combination of indolence and vacillation. Mr Obama often seems so deliberate in taking his decisions that little gets done. And so, frustrated allies compensate by pursuing their own agendas, which sometimes only further adds to the ambient instability.

For a president who once said his administration would pursue a rules-based international order and would engage in multilateralism to achieve this, what we are seeing today is precisely the opposite. In the Middle East and Asia, multilateral structures are under great stress, while the role Washington once played as mediator and balancer has all but disappeared.

As attitudes in America show, however, there was much in the George W Bush years that disturbed Americans – above all the high cost of foreign wars that strained resources at home, and the poor management of domestic crises. Yet reversing the Bush administration’s policies never required so radical an overhaul of foreign policy as Mr Obama has done.

What we are witnessing is more than an effort to deal with the errors of the Bush years. Rather, Mr Obama has offered a radically new philosophy outlining an American retreat from global affairs – an apparent admission that the empire is in decline, and that America, and the world, must adapt. This determinism is not only self-fulfilling in accelerating America’s waning, it is creating the volatility Mr Obama sought to avoid.

If that is Mr Obama’s vision, then it displays great hubris. The president is acting as if 60 years of American global dominance can simply be reduced without consequences. Nor has the administration formulated a systematic foreign policy strategy to prepare for such a direction. Mr Obama’s world view, if it can even be called that, remains exceptionally shallow.

Maybe the president feels that a world less reliant on America is a good thing. He could be right. But in the interim, American disengagement is proving disastrous, and all Mr Obama’s declarations about America’s interests sound utterly empty.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Don’t count on us

To get a better sense of the mood in the United States on how the country should behave overseas, it is worth looking at a recently-published Politico poll. The poll illustrates an intense distaste among Americans for military intervention abroad, but also a remarkable change in perceptions of America’s role in the world, particularly with respect to democratic values.

The poll shows, first, that a substantial majority of respondents, 89%, consider a presidential candidate’s position on foreign policy important in their electoral choices. That means that those who claim the United States is isolationist must be careful. American foreign policy behavior may indeed indicate greater reluctance to be involved overseas, but the public still regards foreign policy as an important electoral issue.

On a series of foreign policy challenges today, respondents indicated a very clear refusal for the United States to become implicated. On Syria’s war, only 15% supported more involvement, while 42% sought less involvement and 26% supported the current level of involvement.

Figures on Iraq were similar. Only 19% supported more involvement, while 44% sought less involvement and 23% supported the current level of involvement. Somewhat ironically, given these figures, 42% believed that events in Iraq affected American national security “a lot.”

In Afghanistan, 77% supported the American decision to withdraw all troops by the end of 2016. And even on Ukraine, only 17% of respondents advocated more American involvement, while 34% sought less involvement and 31% approved of current levels.

In several examples, the difference between less involvement and maintaining current levels of involvement seemed academic. In Syria, for instance, it is not easy to determine how Washington can do less than what it is doing, or even why its involvement, largely limited to general statements that are not implemented, represents too much for many Americans.

But perhaps the most revealing question was the one that asked respondents which of two statements came closest to their own view: “US military actions should be limited to direct threats to our national security” or “As the world’s moral leader, the US has a responsibility to use its military to protect democracy around the globe.” Sixty-seven percent cited the first statement, while only 22% did the second.

If only one in five Americans feels the US has an obligation to protect democracy, which implicitly includes humanistic values, then this indicates a significant change from the Cold War years. At the time, there was great support for vast American deployments around the globe to confront the Soviet Union.

This also suggests that the global norm of a Responsibility to Protect faces major obstacles, with the world’s most powerful nation, also its leading democracy, having no appetite to expand its acceptance. Coming from a country that mobilized enormous resources for over half a century to contain Communism, portrayed as anathema to democratic values and principles, this turnaround is quite stunning.

But what does it tell us about the United States? Doubtless, that there is fatigue with costly foreign ventures at a time when the American economy is still struggling. Indeed, 45% of respondents cited the economy as the issue that concerned them the most. A mere two percent said foreign policy was their priority, while another two percent said terrorism was.

But more profoundly, something fundamental appears to have changed in how Americans view themselves in the world. While many may still regard their country as a wellspring of democracy and humanistic values, they do not transfer this to their nation’s behavior abroad. That is why Americans have watched the carnage in Syria without batting an eyelid. And it is why they look at Iraq with similar unconcern.

Those who suggest that Americans simply have an aversion to the problems of the wider Middle East because they do not identify with the peoples of the region may be partly correct; or they may not be. However, American attitudes toward the crisis in the Ukraine greatly qualify such a view. No one, it seems, European or Arab, is worthy of American intervention.

It’s easy to criticize what comes across as American self-centeredness, but Americans are hardly alone in displaying such behavior. European societies also seem less and less tolerant of foreign undertakings as they, too, struggle with weak economies. Moreover, the level of horror in the Middle East has reached such breathtaking levels that the region’s problems can often seem overwhelming. Why would anyone in their right mind want to enter such a viper’s nest?

That’s true, even if one can make a good case that American and European indifference has contributed to a worsening of the situations in Syria and Iraq. But in the end it is the Arabs themselves who must resolve their own problems, especially as they have long condemned Western interventions in the region.

More disconcerting is the fate of values. If democratic and humanistic values can be so readily abandoned internationally, and by the states that best embody them, then all talk of a global order based on international law and respect for human rights is an illusion. It means states will accept a free-for-all, a global state of nature, where no one prevents barbarous crimes.

Americans and Europeans may not realize that this is what they are contributing to, but they are doing so unambiguously.     

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Until now, Israel is flailing in Gaza

The war in Gaza continues while the outcome remains uncertain. But from the Israeli perspective, the conflict must appear increasingly worrisome, despite the successes of the Iron Dome system. The reason is that few conflicts have better illustrated the void and contradictions at the heart of Israel’s approach to the Palestinians.

The contradictions first. The Israelis have portrayed the war as an effort to weaken Hamas, but everything they have done has strengthened the movement, after a period in which its popularity had dived domestically and its lucrative, vital tunnel system was closed by a hostile Egyptian government.

Hamas was also seeking to revive its financial and military relationship with Iran, severed because of their disagreement over Syria. That relationship appears to have been restored, even though it will be tougher to smuggle new weapons into Gaza given Israel’s and Egypt’s controlling access to the territory. However, a complete cutoff of arms to Gaza will be difficult.

From a political perspective, Hamas has gained more from the Gaza war than Israel

Hamas has benefited in other ways. It has underlined how inconsequential is Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, advancing its agenda to ultimately remove him and his Fatah movement as the dominant actors in the Palestine Liberation Organization. This does not necessarily displease Benjamin Netanyahu. The Israeli prime minister has time and again discredited his Palestinian interlocutors, in order to avoid giving up occupied land. But the broader consequences of having Hamas lead the Palestinians are serious.

And Hamas has also gained by showing it can target Israeli cities, regardless of the Iron Dome’s effectiveness. The attacks have altered daily life in Israel, most recently by pushing foreign airlines to suspend their flights to Ben Gurion Airport. Technology is not stationary. If Hamas’ rockets are relatively primitive today, in the future they can, and likely will, be improved. Israel’s ability to conduct wars entirely in the lands of its neighbors is becoming less possible by the day.

Then there are the tunnels. Hamas has taken a considerable risk by digging passages into Israel. Like Hezbollah, which has promised to send combatants into Galilee in any future war with Israel, Hamas sees going on the offensive as a way of shifting the military ground rules to its advantage and show Israelis that they are vulnerable even inside their borders. The only problem is that it will make the Israelis even more reluctant to give up land in the future, and will only strengthen the Israeli hard-liners’ self-serving claim that Israel is under perpetual threat.

Perhaps that helps show how Hamas and the Israeli government have parallel interests. Both gain from an intractable adversary, because it allows them to sidestep difficult choices: Israel avoids surrendering land, while Hamas evades the contentious matter of talking to Israel. Each side accentuates dangers the other exploits in its own favor.

But from a political perspective, Hamas has gained more from the Gaza war than Israel. Yes, Palestinian civilians have been killed, but this is not of great concern to Hamas. If it can emerge from the war still firing, it will declare its own “divine victory,” helping to absorb any popular anger for what happened.

More questionable is how Hamas will rebuild Gaza. With Egypt and Israel controlling the borders, the movement will find it very difficult to organize a costly reconstruction effort, which could exacerbate popular dissatisfaction. But Hamas must feel it can survive that eventuality, otherwise it would not have so readily rejected Egypt’s cease-fire proposal last week.

Hamas is looking beyond that at the benefits of the conflict. It is now much more difficult for Abbas to continue giving Hamas a secondary role in a Palestinian unity government. As for Netanyahu, his efforts to undermine such a government may have been damaged, since any resolution to the Gaza crisis may have to include the Palestinian government as a party.

Worse, for the Israelis everything about Gaza has served to highlight the extent to which they have no strategic framework in which to deal with the Palestinians. Netanyahu will justify his actions in the name of self-defense or fighting terrorism or what have you, but many Israelis, once the fighting stops, will ask a more fundamental question: Where is Israel going in its relations with the Palestinians, at a time when the country’s image in the world is more negative than it has ever been?

The reality is that what many people in the world see today is a government that has no serious intention of giving up land, that finds excuses to freeze progress in negotiations and that never hesitates to make the life of its Palestinian victims more intolerable than it already is. It is no longer rare to hear Israel mentioned in the same breath as apartheid South Africa, let alone to hear officials publicly imply that hundreds of civilian casualties in Gaza is an outrage.

One consequence of this is that we will hear an increasing number of voices calling for engagement of Hamas. Whatever the serious problems of doing so, after this latest violence it may seem absurd not to include Hamas in negotiations. These are not dynamics Israel can welcome, not when it has found no solution to Palestinian demographics and the fact that the Palestinian population under Israeli control is rising inexorably.

Israel may occupy all of Gaza and remain there for months while trying to dismantle Hamas. But at what price? Such a scenario is improbable, yet short of that Israel has no victorious endgame in Gaza. It can kill, but unless it moves toward giving the Palestinians independence, its problem will become increasingly unmanageable. Israel will continue to flounder in explaining how open-ended repression can be sustainable.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Mosul may mark a critical moment in the region’s history

The exodus of Christians from Mosul in recent days has provoked greater awareness of their plight in a rapidly changing Middle East. Yet, while the event was in itself deplorable, the decline of Christianity in Iraq and the region has been a reality for some time, with no signs that the trend will be reversed.

The Christians of Mosul left the city in response to a deadline set by the Islamic State group, giving them one of three choices: to pay a tax (or jizya), to convert to Islam or to be killed. The jizya was paid by religious minorities under Muslim rule until the 19th century in return for exemption from military service. It contradicts the notion of equal citizenship under the law in a modern state.

Long before Mosul, however, the Christian presence in Iraq was affected by the aftermath of the US-led invasion of 2003. Whether because they were caught up in sectarian fighting between Sunnis and Shiites, or because they were targeted by extremist groups, several hundred thousand Christians left Iraq. Estimates are that between 200,000 and 400,000 remain in the country, from a population of 1.5 million before the invasion.

At the best of times Christians throughout the Arab world, in Iraq, Syria and Egypt above all, have been tolerated minorities. In Syria and Iraq, Christians tended to back supposedly secular Baathist leaders, because these were seen as keeping the Islamists at bay. But there was little more: under both dictatorships, everyone faced equal oppression.

Today, with the conflicts in Iraq and Syria descending into violence and sectarian animosity, the long-term presence of Christians is seriously threatened. While Christian suffering is no less acceptable than that of non-Christians, we could be at a critical stage in the region, where effectively the centuries-old Christian presence will soon be no more.

In Syria, numerous Christian communities exist, but the continuing conflict has already forced many to flee the country. Aleppo, the city with the largest concentration of Christians, has been extensively destroyed, making their return highly unlikely in the near future. As the war continues, the possibility of recreating a Christian presence will diminish as Christians settle permanently elsewhere, especially in the West.

Underlying Arab Christian attitudes is a perpetual sense of doom, a feeling that events will be defined almost entirely by the Muslim majority. This has created a self-fulfilling prophecy that there is no future for Christians in the region. Such an attitude has pushed Christians in many countries to emigrate (if they are lucky) or to flee their country (if they are not), accelerating the process of regression.

Standing out as an exception, albeit an increasingly questionable one, is the destiny of Christians in Lebanon. These Christians, especially their largest community, the Maronites, have held genuine political power as a bloc, unlike Christians in other Arab countries. According to an unwritten agreement between the Lebanese communities, major posts in the state are divided along sectarian lines, with the presidency reserved for a Maronite and half of the seats in parliament set aside for Christians.

But even Lebanon’s Christians find themselves in a dire situation as demographics kick in. The higher birth-rate among Sunnis and Shia, coupled with Christian emigration during the civil war years, has reduced Christian numbers. Today, while there are no official population estimates, Christians are believed to make up around a third of the Lebanese population.

In parallel to this, Christian political power has eroded. The powers of the presidency, once paramount, were substantially curtailed in the last major constitutional rewriting in 1989. Politics have been increasingly driven by Sunni-Shia dynamics. While Christians still play an important role, their ability to set the national agenda continues to shrink.

In several Muslim-majority districts where Christians once had an active presence, their numbers have gone down. Making matters worse, Lebanon’s Christian – particularly Maronite – political forces remain perpetually divided, making it easier for the major Muslim parties to exploit their internecine rivalries.

And yet it is improbable that Muslims in Lebanon would welcome the disappearance of the Christians. Given relations between the Sunnis and Shia, Christians often play an essential balancing role between the two major Muslim sects. And many Muslims regard the more westernised Christian lifestyle as a key aspect of Lebanon’s culture, allowing them to pursue such a lifestyle themselves against their own radicals’ preferences.

There was a heartening reaction in Iraq to the fate of Mosul’s Christians. Condemnation of the Islamic State’s actions has been widespread – actions all the more embarrassing for being justified by a warped interpretation of Islam.

And yet mere words will not be enough to alter Christian behaviour. The only way Christians will remain in their countries is if pluralistic, democratic systems are introduced that allow minorities to feel secure, thrive economically, and enjoy an adequate level of political representation. Yet in most Arab states even Muslims have trouble achieving this.

That is why the problem of Christians in the Middle East has much more to do with the dismal reality of Arab societies than any specific sectarian challenges. Religious prejudice is on the rise, many Arab states are fragmenting, and all Arabs are paying a price. For Christians, however, this has taken on an existential quality, because once they depart, it is rare for them to return.

State fragmentation shows something else. Most Arab countries seem unable to establish social contracts that ensure communal coexistence.

The consequence is that states are breaking up into more cohesive sectarian entities, where minorities, particularly Christian minorities, are left by the wayside. Mosul was awful, but it may well be left by the wayside in the new Middle East.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Smell of victory - Hamas is benefitting from the latest clash between Israel and Palestine

The Israeli campaign in Gaza is ongoing, so it may be premature to designate winners and losers just yet. However, from the perspective of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, the fighting until now has allowed both to attain a number of political and military objectives at a crucial time in inter-Palestinian relations.

The latest Gaza war has been very different from previous ones by virtue of the weapons the Palestinian groups have deployed. Whereas Hamas and Islamic Jihad mainly bombed Israeli localities near the Strip in the past (because their weapons didn’t allow otherwise), today they have the capability of targeting Israeli cities such as Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

Plainly, a significant rearmament effort took place during the years of chaos in Egypt after January 2011, with Iran apparently the main supplier. Syrian long-range M302 rockets have also made their way into Gaza, probably through Iranian or Hezbollah channels, though that remains to be confirmed.

This signals that Hamas has rebuilt its relationship with Iran since the two parted ways over the conflict in Syria. Hamas had an interest in this. It has lost much revenue over the past year, since the removal of Egyptian President Muhammad Morsi, because the authorities in Cairo (effectively Egypt’s military) closed most of the smuggling tunnels into Gaza. These tunnels earned Hamas some $200 million annually in tax revenues.

The current conflict shows Iran the value of its Palestinian ally while allowing it to test its weaponry. Though Israel’s Iron Dome air defense system has been successful in shooting down longer range rockets, Hamas’s implicit message is that as the quality of its weapons improves, Israel’s success rate in protecting its cities will decline and casualty rates will rise.

That may be true or it may not be. With Abdel Fattah al-Sisi now president of Egypt, Hamas’s ability to import better arms will continue to be hindered. However, for Hamas the question is one of perception. The movement saw its relative power decline in recent months, and if it can show, as it has, that its military capabilities have improved, that goes a long way toward reversing the appearance of growing ineffectiveness.

In fact, Hamas sees Gaza as a means of underscoring the political marginalization of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. With the failure of the American-sponsored “peace process” evident to everyone, Abbas’s credibility has been severely damaged. Nor have Palestinians, angry as they are with Israel’s continued refusal to compromise over its settlements, regarded Abbas’s collaboration with Israel favorably.

While Hamas may not bring Palestinians many gains by launching rockets at Israel, the movement’s actions in recent days contrast sharply with Abbas’s futility. Hamas is seen as having retaliated for the killing of a Palestinian youth (and may have provoked that killing if indeed it was behind the murder of three Israeli teenagers). It forced Israelis everywhere to flee by bringing the war to their doorsteps. This has resonance with a Palestinian population suffering daily from Israel’s occupation.

It is conceivable that, in the long term, the latest round in Gaza will help impose new thinking in Israel. There is a line of reasoning that the only way to make Israelis accept a new template for dealing with the Palestinians is to show them that their occupation will only bring escalating risks. Therefore, with Israeli cities now under attack, the only long-term solution with the Palestinians is to end the occupation and make peace.

That may be true, but neither Hamas nor the Israeli government has shown much inclination to embrace that logic. Hamas may have changed with regard to a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, but  it still refuses to recognize Israel. This means that it does not really see the Gaza conflict as part of a wider process of negotiations leading to an eventual settlement, while its efforts to undermine Abbas, who can talk to the Israelis, reduce the likelihood of a successful negotiating track.

For now, Hamas’s priorities appear to be less ambitious: to show how vulnerable Israel has become; to reinforce its ties with Iran, restoring a source of financing and improved weaponry; and to show how irrelevant Abbas and Fatah are, allowing Hamas to eventually take control of the Palestinian national movement.

The fact is that Israel has few means to respond to this. Israel’s international standing has taken a hit in recent years, with its right-wing government widely viewed as unwilling to make any concessions for peace. At the same time, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu offers no alternative project out of the deadlock, even as his assumption that there is a military solution to the Hamas problem is rejected even in Israel.

In other words, Hamas benefits from the political bankruptcy of Israel’s government. Netanyahu may order his troops into Gaza in the coming days, but even if he does, then what? Holding on to the territory is hardly an ideal option, while destroying buildings and then leaving will only ensure more of what we have today.

If Israel’s short-term goal is to push the international community to isolate Hamas, then this has probably failed. Most governments, even the Obama administration, have accepted Hamas in a Palestinian unity cabinet. If the party emerges stronger after Gaza, many governments will not want to ignore it. In other words, Netanyahu’s strategy will have backfired.

We will see in the coming days if Hamas’s sense of accomplishment is justified. The movement has learned from Hezbollah that merely surviving an Israeli onslaught can be played up as a victory. As for Netanyahu, what does he need to do short of destroying Hamas to declare an Israeli victory? It’s not at all clear. That’s why Hamas feels so confident.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

How our region is preparing for suicide

It was obvious several years ago, when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was Iran’s president and the Islamic Republic was expanding its power in Iraq, Lebanon, the Palestinian areas and Yemen, that this endeavor would provoke a backlash from the Sunni Arab states. And it was just as clear that this backlash, to compensate for Iran’s demographic and military superiority, would be primarily sectarian in nature.

Today, we are living through the sectarian response to Iran’s sectarian strategy throughout the region. The potential consequences are frightening, and we are already seeing the precursors of this in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon.

There has been much debate over whether the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) represents a majority of Sunnis, particularly in Iraq. The question is naïve. ISIS almost certainly does not represent most Sunnis, but nor did the Bolsheviks in 1917 Russia. Vanguard movements are not often democratic in nature. They seize the initiative during periods of social and political vacuum, rapidly mobilize supporters against established orders and, before anyone has had time to react, create dynamics in their own favor before systematically eliminating their rivals.

The Iranians should know this more than anybody else, since that is how Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini came to power and ultimately consolidated his authority after the revolution. And it is what ISIS is doing today in Iraq, this week having started to arrest Saddam-era Sunni military officers in Mosul, in order to ensure that no political counterweight can emerge.

In Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, Iran bolstered Shiite or Alawite regimes or parties that sought as best they could to marginalize the Sunni community. This has now blown up in Tehran’s face. Iraq is breaking apart, Syria’s regime is pursuing an active policy of partition and Hezbollah is facing an increasingly dangerous Sunni challenge in Lebanon that it will not be able to contain. Only in Yemen are Iran’s favorites making headway, and even then, for every action there is usually an equal counterreaction.

The Lebanese situation is especially alarming. While most of Lebanon’s Sunnis have no patience for ISIS, they are caught between two very disturbing realities: The absence of a moderate leadership on the ground that can contain the more radical elements in the street; and a perception among many in the community that the regional sectarian tide is turning, so that the million and a half Syrian refugees in the country, most of them Sunnis, are regarded as a welcome addition in the perceived struggle with Hezbollah and the Shiites.

This is extremely worrisome, because if Lebanon’s Sunnis are pushed in a direction where extremists impose on them an abandonment of coexistence, the country will be finished.

Should Sunnis come to be dominated by their radicals, sectarian dynamics will once again kick in. Lebanon’s Christians and Shiites will almost certainly move closer together in a shared reflex of self-preservation. Those Sunnis who are happy today with the Syrian refugee presence should beware: In 1975 the community took a similar attitude toward the Palestinians, and, similarly, regarded the Lebanese Army as doing the work of its political foes. The results, as we know, were calamitous.

But Hezbollah is hardly innocent. For years the party was warned that its reckless policies and acts of intimidation after the Syrian withdrawal in 2005 would only exacerbate sectarian relations. But it was all hubris from Hezbollah, culminating in the party’s military takeover of western Beirut and its attacks in the mountains against the Druze in May 2008. Hezbollah continued on this path long afterward, entering the Syrian conflict to help Bashar Assad’s regime crush a mainly Sunni uprising, helping to import the Syrian war into Lebanon.

The Sunni genie is out of the bottle, and there is little Hezbollah can do about it. The party is too involved in Syria on behalf of its Iranian sponsors. Even in the ongoing war in Gaza, Hezbollah hardly qualifies as an afterthought, as Hamas and Islamic Jihad show Tehran what they can do with its rockets.

What does this tell us about Iran’s hubris? The Mideast is a graveyard for grand projects of hegemony, and if America failed we shouldn’t be surprised that Iran is doing the same. The Islamic Republic backed the maximalist, sectarian policies of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in Iraq and Assad in Syria, precipitating the disintegration of both countries. Iran, too, is multisectarian and multiethic and may not be shielded from the aftershocks.

It’s easy to believe in a cataclysmic scenario for the region. What makes one so conceivable is the fact that sectarian animosities are grafted onto a body of failed Arab states, where democracy, economic development and any redeeming sense of personal and social amelioration have been frustrated for decades. There seems to be no way to resolve differences except through repression of the other. And on those rare occasions when conciliatory policies might have been adopted and sectarian coexistence reinforced, precisely the opposite was done.

The so-called Arab Spring broke the back of the old order of supposedly secular dictatorships, but failed to bridge the gap toward more democratic and pluralistic entities. Today we are caught in a political no-man’s land – with neither the security offered by the dictators nor the representativeness of pluralistic systems.

The Middle East is at a foundational moment in its history, one perhaps more momentous than the post-World War I period when the region’s contours were redrawn. The optimists will say that all change brings something better. But until that time it will bring a great deal that is worse, as regional states come to the realization that their arrogance and irresponsibility has released forces with the potential of devouring them.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Lebanon pays a heavy price for the continuing Syrian crisis

With Syrian refugees in Lebanon estimated at around 1.1 million, if not higher, there is growing fear among Lebanese that their country will pay a long-term price for this presence, similar to the one Lebanon paid for the Palestinian refugees who arrived after the Arab-Israeli war of 1948.

The problems are two-fold: how to address the short-term needs of the refugees and how to regulate their presence until they can return to Syria, if they return. On the first, international aid to Lebanon has been woefully inadequate, given that the refugee population is now equivalent to 20 per cent of Lebanon’s entire population.

The United Nations asked for $1.89 billion for the refugees in 2014, but only around 22 per cent of that sum has been paid. The refugee presence has put further pressure on Lebanon’s already highly inadequate infrastructure: electricity rationing has increased dramatically this summer, while Lebanon is suffering from a serious water crisis exacerbated by a dry winter.

Moreover, the World Bank has estimated that the Syrian conflict cost Lebanon $2.5 billion in lost economic activity in 2013 alone. A downwards trend has been recorded since the Syrian conflict started in 2011. With Lebanon’s national debt rising, and the debt to GDP ratio at well over 150 per cent, there are genuine worries about national bankruptcy.

Even more disturbing are the lasting dangers of the refugee presence and the demographic imbalance this may create in Lebanon. A majority of the refugees are Sunnis who oppose president Bashar Al Assad and come from regions the regime is not eager to repopulate while the conflict continues.

That is not to say that the Syrians will settle in Lebanon, but the prospects of their return within the coming three to five years seems doubtful given that Syria will doubtless remain unstable. And yet so sensitive is the issue of the permanent settlement of non-Lebanese that Lebanon’s constitution specifically bars it.

Even if Syria’s regime recaptures Aleppo and holds the major cities between Damascus and the north, it may prevent the refugees from returning. There have been unconfirmed reports of regime efforts to change sectarian demographics in Homs. Even if this is untrue, Mr Al Assad’s intelligence services will not give rebels an opportunity to redeploy along the Damascus-Aleppo axis by infiltrating a population of returning refugees.

In an effort to address the refugee crisis, Lebanon’s foreign minister, Gebran Bassil, has suggested that refugee camps be built inside Syrian territory to house those who fled to Lebanon. This would require the approval of the Syrian government, however, and Syria’s ambassador to Lebanon recently shot down the idea publicly, even if Mr Bassil suggested he had heard something different when the two met.

Yet the reality is that Syria’s regime is in no hurry to lessen the hardship in Lebanon, since its survival strategy is to export instability to its neighbours, forcing the international community to deal with it. Nor do Mr Al Assad and his acolytes relish becoming responsible for hundreds of thousands of refugees when they are engaged in an existential battle.

Another problem with Mr Bassil’s proposal is that international law prohibits placing refugees near the border of the country from where they have fled, as this may put them at risk of retaliation. At the same time, the minister opposes the establishment of refugee camps deeper inside Lebanon, fearing this would only make their presence in Lebanon permanent.

Refugee camps can also become islands of insecurity when dominated by factions pursuing a political agenda. That is precisely what happened with the Palestinians, and it proved disastrous for Lebanon in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

There is as well a rising fear in Lebanon that more extremist Islamist groups may exploit the Syrian refugee population. Given the recent spate of bomb attacks and security incidents in the country, few officials will willingly advocate the creation of areas that may slip out of the state’s authority.

But there are also problems with not building camps. For one thing, it makes it more difficult to obtain international aid. A structured environment facilitates the organisation of assistance, reassuring international donors who fear corruption and waste when help is distributed haphazardly.

A camp, if properly secured and managed, can also be a means of better controlling security. The problem is that the Lebanese are not particularly adept in this regard. There are doubts that the Lebanese Army and security agencies are properly trained to watch the camps while also respecting the refugees’ rights.

With many Syrians wary of the army’s ties with Hizbollah, the refugee population may also actively oppose efforts by the Lebanese state to control their environment. This is harmful when a successful refugee programme must involve trust and collaboration between a refugee population and a host country.

The head of Lebanon’s General Security agency, Abbas Ibrahim, was recently quoted as saying that Lebanon would probably be obliged to set up refugee camps, despite opposition inside Lebanon. Mr Ibrahim may be right: as the war in Syria drags on and international aid agencies plan for the long haul, Beirut may have to end the chaotic way refugees live in Lebanon.

Mr Ibrahim also may mean that as the political hazards associated with the refugees increase, with Sunni-Shia tensions in the region at an all-time high, it would be best to concentrate Syrians in locations where such problems can be contained. There are definite downsides, but the reality is that there are no good options for Lebanon today. The country usually pays heavily for reflecting the region’s contradictions.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Imperial IRS - How Fatca forces Lebanon to disregard its own laws

This week the United States began implementing the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act, or Fatca. The legislation will be applied worldwide, but in many countries it has raised legal issues since Fatca can violate domestic legislation. Lebanon, whose banks have readily embraced Fatca, is one such place.

In reality, Lebanese banks didn’t have much of a choice. Fatca has been imposed by the United States on banks and other financial institutions internationally, obliging them to report to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) on their American account holders with accounts above $50,000. If the financial institutions are deemed non-compliant, 30% of their gross payments from American payers are to be withheld. This can be onerous; hence, all financial institutions whose transactions go through the United States have no alternative but to accept Fatca.

What this means specifically is that at the end of every year banks will inform the IRS about their American clients, reporting the total sums in their account, interest, and transactions. In that way, the IRS believes, it will become extremely difficult for Americans overseas to underreport, or not report, their income in order to evade taxes.

However, there are several problems with Fatca. One involves principle. The legislation mandates hitherto-unprecedented intrusion into the private affairs of Americans overseas. Few things are more private than an individual’s personal financial accounts or business relationships, and what Fatca does is to tear away the blanket of privacy and demand that foreign financial institutions effectively spy on their American clients.

There are two very clear messages in the Fatca legislation, and they are quite disturbing: the first is that the American government does not trust its own citizens, and therefore will push them into a surveillance system operated by foreign entities; and second, that no financial institution – or country – has the latitude to refuse to implement Fatca because the United States could close off their access to the American market. For anyone transacting in US dollars, this is the kiss of death.  

In other words, Fatca is effectively an instrument of financial imperialism, while also being a very blunt mallet used against America’s own citizens. For critics of Fatca, a democracy should not be engaging in such wanton behavior, especially as the highly invasive oversight it imposes on Americans’ accounts would never be accepted by citizens in the United States.

But there is also something else: Fatca forces countries to ignore their own legislation, and the IRS knows this. In many countries, reporting on bank accounts, particularly to a foreign authority, is not legal. While that may be changing in a world where governments are increasingly agreeing to an exchange of financial information on citizens and are hunting for tax revenues, it suggests there is more to Fatca than meets the eye.

In Lebanon, for instance, banking secrecy remains in place, even if it has been gradually eroded over the years. There is also a legal principle known as the “right to an account,” which means that banks cannot deny an individual an account. While these principles have been imperfectly applied, they yet remain foundations of the Lebanese banking system and speak to the more fundamental liberal philosophy underpinning it.

Fatca undermines both. The reporting conditions effectively deny banking secrecy to Americans, who are obliged to waive their right to confidentiality. And if American clients refuse to waive that right, their accounts can be declared recalcitrant and banks can choose to close them. This, in turn, is contrary to the right to an account principle enshrined in Lebanese law.

But Fatca also imposes extra-territorial conditions. If an American is married to a Lebanese citizen and the two hold a joint account, the financial institution must report on both account holders. That means Lebanese banks are tasked with reporting on the transactions of Lebanese clients simply because they are married to Americans. From a legal perspective this is highly dubious, and could push Lebanese to demand that the authorities apply the law and protect them from IRS scrutiny.

It is to clarify such legal ambiguities that the United States has signed what are known as inter-governmental agreements, or IGAs, with foreign countries, to circumvent their domestic legislation. Many governments have gone along with this, but Lebanon has not signed an IGA. What this means is that financial institutions in the country are likely to be maneuvering in a legal gray zone for the foreseeable future.

The banks’ attitude has been realistic. Between the dire threat of American financial retaliation and the need to respect Lebanese law, they have regarded the former as the greater priority. And the Central Bank has not persuaded them otherwise, telling the vulnerable Lebanese banks to deal directly with the IRS.

Given the unevenness of Lebanon’s judiciary, rare are those who go to court to challenge legislation. That’s why banks prefer to focus on the present, while waiting to address any legal challenges when and if they present themselves.

As for the American authorities, they care not at all about the effects of Fatca. Foreign banks have paid large sums of money to be compliant, and will defer most of the costs onto their clients. How strange that the US Treasury, in order to enforce American tax law, has imposed an onerous system demanding that other countries disregard their own legislation.  

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Watching the Aoun movie while we wait

You have to hand it to Michel Aoun. He can say whatever he wants, no matter how foolish or contradictory, and still retain the backing of a substantial number of Christians.

Take Aoun’s latest proposal for a presidential election. The general called earlier this week for the president to be elected in two rounds of popular voting. In the first, Christians alone would vote. Then the top two candidates would go on to a second round, where all Lebanese – Christians, Muslims and others – would choose a president.

At the same time, Aoun again declared his support for the so-called Orthodox proposal, in which each religious sect would elect only its own parliamentarians. His rationale was that, under the current 1960 law, most Christian parliamentarians were being brought in by Muslims. “This is not fair,” Aoun said. “When every religious group elects its own officials, we are ensuring justice and fair representation.”

So essentially, we have two proposals that apply opposite principles. When it comes to the presidency, Aoun is willing to give the clear Muslim majority in Lebanon the power to bring in a Maronite president, in that way bypassing Parliament, where Christians and Muslims are represented equally. But when it comes to parliamentary elections, Aoun intends to neutralize the Muslim majority that he will otherwise empower on the presidency.

It all makes perfect sense. Of course, Aoun would argue that the key lies in the two-stage presidential process, which presumably gives Christians the right to filter their two leading candidates in the first round. Perhaps, but the scheme, aside from raising serious legitimacy questions in a consociational system, is such that there are no guarantees either candidate will represent a majority of Christians, let alone that the winning candidate will. Far more significant is that Aoun opens the door to the principle of allowing Lebanon’s Muslim majority to effectively use its numbers to determine political outcomes. That means undermining confessional parity in the post-Taif institutions, which Christians regard as a protection, given their minority status.

With Aoun, we learned long ago that duplicity in the service of self-interest is no vice. More than any other Christian politician, he helped destroy his community, along with Samir Geagea, in the last years of the Lebanese war, in what began as a struggle against a Syrian regime he now backs. Aoun can still rally communal support, but this tells us more about the desperate mindset among Christians than about the man’s merits.

Aoun’s proposal has been panned, and understandably so. What is it about Aoun and Geagea that in the past year has made them back election proposals, presidential or parliamentary, that, while they may bring them some political benefit, are destined to harm Christian interests in the long term? The Christians can no longer afford politicians who mobilize them in their internecine battles.

For now, the most startling embodiment of Maronite fortunes is the absence of a president. And once again, Aoun has been pushed into the forefront of a confrontation in which he counts for relatively little. In reality, the agenda is being set by Hezbollah, with Aoun a useful facade to delay a final decision on a president and probably to protect the party’s favorite candidate.

Aoun, no idiot, senses this, and is trying to exploit what limited margin of maneuver he has to force the issue on his candidacy. But it is clear that Saad Hariri, even if he wants to maintain a good relationship with the general, has no Saudi backing to endorse Aoun. Walid Jumblatt has also sought to block Aoun, fearing that any Aoun-Hariri rapprochement would jeopardize his own balancing act in the center of the political spectrum, while ultimately threatening his authority in the Chouf.

Hezbollah has allowed this situation to play itself out, knowing that it would block the election process, buy the party time, and increase the frustration necessary to bring in a candidate of its choice, which many observers believe is Army commander Jean Kahwagi. The security threats in recent weeks, while real, have also been played up to make Kahwagi more appealing to the public and to foreign governments that have doubts about him.

Hezbollah may also want more time to decide because the regional situation has again become unpredictable. With the offensive by the Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) and the Sunni uprising in Iraq, the party is under greater pressure. Iraqi Shiite militias have returned home to fight ISIS, forcing Hezbollah to fill the void in Syria. For its part, Iran is scrambling to impose some order on the Iraqi chaos, even as the country fragments between its Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish components.

In this context, Hezbollah faces two sets of problems. On the one hand, Lebanese divisions make an early resolution to the presidential deadlock in a way the party favors highly improbable. On the other, with the situation in Iraq so volatile and Hezbollah heavily committed in Syria, it’s better for the party to perpetuate a Lebanese vacuum until Iran and Hezbollah can shift the tide regionally. At that stage, Hezbollah would seek to impose a new balance in Lebanon that reflects this reality.

There are many uncertainties in such a scenario, which is probably why we can expect a further delay in parliamentary elections scheduled for November. With everything stalemated, the prospect of a consensus over a new electoral law seems very remote. Nor is Hezbollah keen to return to the 1960 law, which may lead to a Parliament similar to the one we have today. This would force the party to be dependent on the centrists, which it doesn’t want.

Lebanon is set for many more months of much ado about nothing. But before anyone assumes we are entering an uncontrollable vacuum, the reality is that we are in a well-planned holding pattern. Michel Aoun is the in-flight entertainment while we wait, courtesy of Hezbollah.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

As Iraq fractures, is this the start of regional collapse?

Massoud Barzani, the president of the Iraqi Kurdistan Region, has released a statement stating that a referendum would be held to determine the fate of the disputed province of Kirkuk before its possible integration into Kurdistan. This has much wider implications than are immediately visible.

Kirkuk’s status has been a matter of dispute for decades. The late Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein sought to change the ethnic make-up of the province by increasing the Arab population and driving out Kurds and Assyrians. After Hussein’s removal in 2003, the status of Kirkuk continued to divide Kurds and the government in Baghdad.

The deadlock was broken in recent weeks by the offensive of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), now renamed the Islamic State, and its takeover of the city of Mosul. Iraqi security forces withdrew from Kirkuk as a consequence and Kurdish Peshmerga forces moved in to fill the vacuum.

With the province having fallen into the Kurds’ lap, and the central government in disarray, no one believes that Kirkuk will return to Baghdad’s authority soon, or ever. Mr Barzani’s promise of a referendum will have little reassured those who know the Kurds will seek to win the vote at all costs.

Yet this is only the first stage in a process likely leading to Kurdish independence. In an interview with the BBC’s Jim Muir, Mr Barzani has said that as Iraq is effectively partitioned, it is the Kurds’ right to achieve independence: “Are we supposed to stay in this tragic situation the country’s living? It’s not me who will decide on independence. It’s the people. We’ll hold a referendum and it’s a matter of months.”

Yet Mr Barzani will have to be careful about regional reactions to the emergence of an independent Kurdistan. Traditionally, Turkey, Iran and Syria have opposed any such outcome, fearful that this would encourage their own Kurdish minorities to pursue greater autonomy or independence. But the regional situation has greatly changed, altering attitudes all around.

Turkey is the main economic and oil outlet for Iraqi Kurdistan, and over the last decade Kurdish-Turkish relations have substantially improved, making Ankara more amenable toward Kurdish independence. Huseyin Celik, the spokesman for the ruling Justice and Development Party, has told the Financial Times: “In the past an independent Kurdish state was a reason for war [for Turkey] but no one has the right to say this now.”

Mr Celik used a logic similar to Mr Barzani’s, arguing that Iraq was breaking apart, and if “Iraq is divided and it is inevitable, [the Kurds] are our brothers…” That said, there continue to be disagreements within Turkey over policy toward Turkey’s own Kurds, even if prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government believes that Iraqi Kurdish dependency on Turkey would place a Kurdish state in Turkey’s area of influence.

Iran, in turn, has more reservations about the idea of Kurdish independence. The Islamic Republic has repeated that it supports the unity of Iraq and opposes separation and partition. According to the daily Al Hayat, in a recent meeting between Iranian officials and the prime minister of the Kurdistan region, Nechervan Barzani, the Iranians expressed their “worry” about recent developments involving Kurdistan.

As for Syria, there is no effective government there to oppose Kurdish aspirations. Some Kurdish groups are closer to the Kurdish Workers Party of Abdullah Ocalan while others are closer to Massoud Barzani. The closer ties between Turkey and the Iraqi Kurds, like the possibility of a successful peace process between the Erdogan government and Turkey’s Kurds, could potentially reduce tensions between Syria’s Kurdish factions.

If that were to happen, Iran could find itself in a situation it would not completely control. The Iranians do not want Turkish influence to grow among Kurds, while the Kurdish faction with which Tehran is closest, Jalal Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, has been neutralised somewhat by the fact that Mr Talabani had a stroke in 2012 and has been in Germany since.

Mr Barzani will doubtless tread carefully before declaring Kurdish independence. But if the Kurds do have their own state, this will serve not only to reinforce the separatist desires of Kurds everywhere, it will be the strongest confirmation yet that the post-First World War borders of the Middle East are collapsing.

There is a growing realisation, and consensus, that neither Syria nor Iraq is likely to be put back together again. Not only have sectarian and ethnic divisions worsened dramatically in both countries, but there are no competent and conciliatory leaderships in place to reunite either. The ineptitude, brutality and maximalism of the regimes in Iraq and Syria are as much an obstacle to national unity as are their social divisions.

This has given rise to fears that the countries of the Middle East, particularly those with mixed sectarian or ethnic societies, are heading toward fragmentation. Almost none has a social contract to regulate communal relations, other than Lebanon perhaps, so the region is poorly equipped to resist such momentum.

The legitimacy of borders is often a function of the legitimacy of states. ISIL’s effort to erase the Syrian-Iraqi border may be a temporary phenomenon, but Iraq’s Sunnis will not want to fall under a Shia-dominated government in Baghdad again. As for the Kurds, whatever their tactical retreats in establishing a state, they broke psychologically with Iraq long ago.

We often hear that we are witnessing the end of the Sykes-Picot agreement. In fact we are witnessing the end of the willingness of communities to be part of states incapable of reforming or meeting their citizens’ aspirations. In the face of irreconcilable differences, divorce becomes more appealing.