Friday, August 29, 2014

Home work - For Maronites, salvation begins in Lebanon

The patriarchs and bishops of the Eastern churches met on Wednesday in the presence of several foreign ambassadors to sound the alarm on the Christian presence in the Middle East.

In reference to the offensive by the Islamic State, the clerics condemned “the silence in the face of what is happening, in the absence of a unified regional plan on the part of [those with] influence in the world –notably Islamic, spiritual and political authorities – as well as the lukewarm international attitude toward these events.”

Their anxiety is understandable. Christians face an existential threat. Even in the best of scenarios it’s difficult to imagine that the communities in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon will go back to where they were demographically even a decade ago.

But one community stands out in the desolate field of dwindling Arab Christian minorities: the Maronites. Of all the region’s Christians, they alone have a senior post reserved for them, namely the presidency of Lebanon. Better still, they have a patriarch whose vanity and pomposity have frequently pushed him to speak in the name of all Eastern Christians.

But before picking up the sword on behalf of his Arab brethren, Patriarch Beshara al-Rai should clean nearer to his front door. There is perhaps little he can do to prevent the jihadist threat in the region, but the Maronites are facing a host of lesser challenges, some of which Rai can help resolve in such a way as to create a climate benefiting the whole community. 

To get a sense of Rai’s priorities, however, recently many Lebanese learned that the patriarch had asked a leading engineering firm to prepare a preliminary project for the construction of hotels and cable cars in the Qadisha Valley. The valley, which has historical importance for Maronites, is listed by UNESCO as a world heritage site.

There is uncertainty whether the project will go forward. No one is happy with the plan and the church probably wants to avoid an unseemly confrontation over a place regarded internationally as worthy of preservation. But Rai is mulish. Whenever he has made mistakes he has bull-headedly pressed on in his errors.

Yet it is a mistake for Rai to vulgarize the collective Maronite memory. If there is one thing Maronites must preserve today, it’s a focal point for communal identity, and the valley has served such a function. To see it transformed into an ecclesiastical version of Club Med would be an insult.

Even those who do not read scripture know the story of Jesus attacking the money changers in the temple, accusing them of turning a house of prayer into a robbers’ den. The Qadisha Valley may not quite be a house of prayer, but in the Maronite psyche it is very nearly so. It is not worth devastating it just so that Rai can take his cut from tourist package tours.

A principal thing the patriarch has failed to do is reform his corrupt church. When Rai came to office in 2011, there was hope he would replace the upper echelons of the clergy. Instead, the same decomposing crew is around, though several bishops have long passed retirement age. If these are the men who hold the church’s future in their hands, don’t be surprised that the Maronites are facing a crisis of confidence – or that the younger clergy are as feckless and materialistic as their predecessors.

Nor is this solely a religious matter. The Maronite Church is powerful thanks to its network of parishes, schools, social institutions and media. These are instruments allowing it to spread its ideas and agendas. If there is rot at the top, you can be sure that it will soon spread to the bottom.

No one can mention Rai without commenting on his passion for politics. The thing is, he is bad at it, which has eroded his standing nationally. From Rai’s early defense of Bashar Assad’s regime to his recent efforts, all vain, to play midwife to a new Lebanese president, the omni-patriarch has sinned by excess. He has an opinion about everything, travels everywhere, delivers speeches anywhere. Rarely does he mention religion, and when he does it serves as dull filler while his mind races to elections.  

Would resolving these problems save the Maronites? Probably not. And to give Rai credit, he has rightly grasped that the presidential vacuum is bad for the community as a whole. But the health of the Maronites rests on two foundations: the ability of the community to revitalize and reform itself, and the ability of Maronite elites to adapt to a changing regional environment.

The church is vital to the first aim, given its control over many of the institutions that profoundly shape Maronite society, above all its youths. And while the second involves all Christians, the church’s function is essential in a region where religion is central to social and political life. The Maronites’ strategy toward both Sunnis and Shiites, for example, cannot possibly be formulated without church backing.

This doesn’t diminish the importance of the call by the Eastern churches. But salvation begins at home. A corrupt and venal church will end up reflecting on the community it represents. Christians who refuse to leave Lebanon do so because they feel they have something for which to fight. But if the church – as the spiritual and symbolic embodiment of the community – is a robbers’ den, don’t expect Christians to fight for very long.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

What Christians mean to Walid Jumblatt

Walid Jumblatt has faced a wave of criticism in recent days over his comments on the presidential election. For the Druze leader, Lebanon needs a president quickly, and he recently observed that the presidency did not belong solely to the Christians.

On Monday, in a speech in Bsharri, the parliamentarian Strida Geagea expressed her “surprise” at Jumblatt’s comments, asking “would [he] accept that the head of the Lebanese Forces, Samir Geagea, discuss the number of Druze parliamentary seats with the speaker of Parliament?”

Geagea’s comparison was very odd. In constitutional terms, the president is “the symbol of the nation’s unity,” so Jumblatt, like anyone else in the country, is entitled to talk about the presidency without this in any way undermining the foundations of the National Pact, as Geagea implied. If a vacuum in the presidency negatively affects Lebanon’s stability, then it is not Maronites alone who are entitled to address and remedy the situation.

But reactions such as Geagea’s also show a lack of understanding of what sustains Jumblatt’s power. The Druze leader, while he exerts control over Christians in the areas he represents, is also dependent on their being effective political actors nationally. Once Christians are marginalized – so that major national decisions are taken principally by Sunni and Shiite representatives – Jumblatt and the Druze will be too.

That’s why, at their last meeting, Jumblatt warned Hezbollah’s secretary-general, Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah, that Christians and Druze were leaving Lebanon, implying that a presidential void would only heighten insecurity and accelerate the process. And it is why Nasrallah, who has shown little sympathy for the rules and compromises of the sectarian system, and no appreciation that a Christian cushion between Sunnis and Shiites benefits both communities at a time of rising mutual tension, evaded an answer.

The Maronite relationship with Jumblatt is a complex one. Many have not forgotten that the Druze leader, when he sought to improve his relationship with the Shiite community and the Syrian regime in 2009, apparently leaked a video taken on a portable telephone in which he referred to the Maronites as a “bad type” or “bad seed.” The description was harsh, even if Jumblatt’s reversal was understandable at the time, coming at a moment when Saad Hariri, at the Saudis’ instigation, was about to begin a reconciliation process with President Bashar Assad.

The paradox of Jumblatt leadership is that it has tended to work against the Maronites while depending upon them. Kamal Jumblatt was instrumental in bringing Camille Chamoun to power in 1952, though he was soon caught up in a bitter rivalry with the president. And when Fouad Chehab succeeded him in 1958, Jumblatt became a staunch ally, serving several times as a minister. The Jumblatts’ ability to gain from inter-Christian divisions has been a recurring feature of their strategy; but their preference for nonpartisan presidents has also been very clear.

That is why Jumblatt made such a big deal of his political alliance with President Michel Sleiman. To Sleiman’s credit he immediately understood this, and saw that the presidency gained by allying itself with Jumblatt in the political center. This explains why one of Sleiman’s last high-profile visits was to Mukhtara. It served as an endorsement of Jumblatt’s role as a balancer in the system and someone who could counter the extremes. Significantly, Sleiman saw a similar role for the presidency.

Jumblatt and the Druze would potentially pay for Sunni-Shiite conflict on two levels: They would be caught up in a battle taking place all around their mountains, and even several areas within. This would devastate the already vulnerable mountain economy, spurring a Druze exodus. And such an exodus would effectively terminate the Jumblatt leadership.

That explains why Jumblatt, whose militia was responsible for the expulsion of Christians from the mountains in 1983, took the lead in bringing them back once the war had ended. Economically speaking, the Christian return helped revive the mountain, while the Jumblatt leadership only lost by being perceived as having only narrow Druze appeal. Jumblatt has always sought to portray himself as the leader of a broad coalition of Druze, Sunnis and Maronites, and his insistence on keeping Henri Helou in the presidential race is a sign of this.

That is why Strida Geagea’s comments showed impetuous disdain for Jumblatt’s approach to confessional politics, even as her remarks revealed that the Geageas have not forgiven the Druze leader for failing to back Samir Geagea’s candidacy.

Jumblatt’s perennial quest to keep alive his traditional family domination in the mountains has earned him many enemies, not least among Christians who may form a majority there. Walid Jumblatt may not be a modern democrat but he has done two things in the areas he controls that are worth remembering. He has chosen for his lists non-Druze who have local legitimacy and a measure of representativity; and he has preserved confessional coexistence. It has been in his political interest to do so, but that does not make his efforts any less credible.

Rarely a day goes by without Christians lamenting their future in the Middle East. If so, those who claim to worry about the Christians must realize that in a country where they still hold a major political post, the community as a whole loses if the presidency remains empty and comes to be regarded as unnecessary. When Jumblatt echoes this, he is not ignoring the National Pact. He is reminding Christians of its importance.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

The battle against extremism throws Al Assad a lifeline

The Syrian regime’s effort this week to portray itself as part of an anti-terrorism coalition was rich in irony and vulgarity. At a press conference in Damascus, foreign minister Walid Al Muallem declared that Syria was ready to collaborate in the fight against terrorism, embodied by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).

It was lost on no one that the regime of president Bashar Al Assad had facilitated the rise of ISIL, in large part to create the very enemy that would allow it to portray itself as a victim of terrorism. And yet Mr Muallem’s hypocrisy aside, the Syrian regime, in its efforts to survive a domestic uprising that began in 2011, has bought more valuable time to do precisely that.

The United States and Germany were quick to denounce the Syrian invitation, accusing the Assad regime of committing atrocious crimes at home and of being responsible for allowing ISIL to expand. The Obama administration responded that it would continue to work with “moderate” groups in Syria and had no intention of collaborating with the Syria authorities.

However, the Americans’ and Germans’ principles aside, an American decision to combat ISIL inside Syria may inevitably lead to implicit cooperation between the Assad regime and Washington. The reason is that air strikes are most effective in conjunction with ground forces, and there are not many places where Syrian “moderates”, in contrast to the regime’s army, could take advantage of American attacks.

Of course, the United States can bomb fixed targets to degrade ISIL’s military capabilities, and can use drones to assassinate its commanders. However, if the aim is to defeat the group, a more systematic effort to regain territory is required, and that means relying on combatants on the ground.

That is not to say that there would be concerted coordination between the United States and the Syrian military. In fact that’s unlikely to happen. However, it could mean understandings are reached, perhaps through third parties, that if attacks occur in certain areas the Syrian army could take advantage.

The refusal to legitimise Mr Al Assad has not been free of ambiguity.

Last weekend, for instance, foreign ministers from five Arab states participating in the Friends of Syria group met in Jeddah. Their purpose, as summarised in an Egyptian foreign ministry statement, was to discuss a “political solution” to the Syrian conflict after the “growth of ISIL in Iraq and Syria, which threatens regional security”.

While none of this specifically contradicted the past positions of these states, the tone seemed different. It has been some time since Arab states have spoken of a “political solution” in Syria, given that the term was used by the Syrian regime and its Russian and Iranian backers to mean a solution that would include regime figures, above all Mr Al Assad.

Moreover, the linkage between a political solution and the rise of ISIL indicated that a new set of priorities existed in Syria: an end to the conflict there is necessary to address the greater regional threat posed by ISIL. This suggests that getting rid of Mr Al Assad may now be secondary.

The reference to a political solution represents, if nothing else, an admission that there is no military outcome in Syria. While one can blame western countries for hesitating to arm the Syrian rebels, and America for reversing its decision last year to bomb Mr Al Assad’s military when it used chemical weapons against civilians, Arab states have also been divided over Syria.

Jordan, one of the participants in the ministerial meeting in Jeddah, has refused to allow qualitatively better weapons supplies through its borders. It fears the opening of a southern front would destabilise the kingdom. This is understandable given the very volatile situations on Syria’s borders elsewhere.

Whether there is a similar reluctance in other Arab capitals to take risks in overthrowing Mr Al Assad is not at all clear. His regime has long sought to allow the emergence of extremist groups in the Syrian opposition in order to portray itself as a preferable alternative. The brutal repression of his own people, the Syrian president knew, would accelerate this process.

Today, however, the equation is a simple one to many foreign governments: If the Syrian regime collapses, this would leave a vacuum for ISIL to exploit.

For the group to take over Damascus would be terrifying not only to Iran and Russia, Mr Al Assad’s main supporters, but also to most Arab states and Israel. That is why western countries, even if they loathe the Syrian regime, feel they have a stake in its survival.

But does that mean Mr Al Assad has beaten the odds and will remain in office? The exhaustion of the Syrian people may help him, but after the carnage he has overseen in Syria, long-term survival is in no way guaranteed. Mr Al Assad will also need to rebuild Syria to consolidate his power. But that will require massive financial assistance that few are willing to give him.

For now at least Mr Al Assad has reached a new way-station in his efforts to remain in office. It’s called anti-terrorism. What an irony that a regime that has shown a visceral flair for terrorist behaviour should now be able to claim it as its lifeline.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Panic buying - Why arming against the Sunnis is a terrible idea

There have been reports recently of Christian villages arming themselves in northern Beqaa, allegedly with the help of Hezbollah. One story circulating this week was that Christian groups in Zahleh had acquired weapons. However, people in the town qualified the story, saying that some young men had been armed to protect their neighborhoods, and in one case had coordinated with Hezbollah located nearby. Nothing more.

All these stories have one thing in common, whatever their accuracy: they suggest growing Christian fear of Sunni jihadists, particularly the Islamic State, after the expulsion of Christians from northern Iraq and the recent Arsal battle. This attitude risks expanding into general animosity toward Lebanon’s Sunnis, most of whom have absolutely no taste for the group. A frequent comment among Christians is that moderate Sunnis have failed to sufficiently condemn the Islamic State.

The accusation is a false one, but it does reflect an unhealthy reality taking hold in Lebanon today. Panic among the country’s non-Sunni communities is pushing them into making reckless decisions. At the same time, the Sunni “moderates” have to be more conscious of the shifting mood in the country, and must do much more to address it, to the benefit of all.

Nor is the panic limited to Lebanon. All throughout Europe, people reacted with horror to the beheading of American journalist James Foley, particularly the fact that his killer appeared to be British citizen. At the United Nations, the United States and Europe are in the process of putting together an international coalition to combat the Islamic State, in collaboration with regional countries. In a bizarre twist of imagery, their aim is to “cut off the head of the [Islamic State].”

However, it is in Lebanon, with its complex sectarian makeup, that overreaction could have serious consequences. On the side of Christians, Shiites, and Druze – all minorities that would pay a heavy price were a Salafist-jihadist wave to sweep over the county – one principle must prevail: avoid falling into the trap of believing there is a widespread “Sunni threat” and taking steps to isolate the Sunnis. This would only strengthen the influence of the extremist fringe at the expense of the reasonable majority.

Arming and mobilizing for the worst will do one thing. It will provoke a similar counter-reaction among Sunnis, and set off dynamics guaranteed to be driven not by those who believe in coexistence, but by those who do not. Many of these people would have a vested interest in provoking conflict that could ultimately benefit them, both politically and financially.

When war comes, moderates stay home. That is why the campaign, spearheaded by the Future Movement, affirming the moderation of Lebanon’s Sunnis is both laudable and beside the point. A campaign directed at the outside is one thing; far more urgent is for the moderate Sunni leadership, above all former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, to take control on the ground and ensure that moderation prevails there.

Hariri returned to Lebanon recently, but almost immediately left the country again. He will probably reappear at the end of this month, but no sustained policy of taking the Sunni street in hand and calming sectarian tensions can work if the person in charge is never in the country long enough to follow through on such a plan. Hariri has security worries, and must take precautions. But he cannot delegate this effort to others.

When he returned with $1 billion of Saudi money to distribute to the Lebanese Army, Hariri had a mandate. He appears to have some money to distribute to Sunni communities vulnerable to influence by Islamist extremists. But this entails setting up an effective network to distribute and follow through on aid. The Future networks may have to be revived, but more importantly, a supervisory authority must be set up to avoid the corruption that undermined and discredited the movement’s patronage and assistance activities during the past decade.    

If this sounds as if “moderation” is something that has to be purchased, that’s partly true. Extremists find green pastures in communities that are poor and where frustration with the status quo, and with state authorities, is high. The Islamic State was able to take over large swathes of territory in Iraq, including Mosul, because it was acting in an environment already well-disposed to rejecting Iraqi government authority.

Many Sunnis in these areas had no real sympathy for the extremists’ ideology, yet had no will to oppose it. For them to turn against the extremists, however, the government has to provide them with a stake in the system, for which they would be willing to fight. Patronage works in much the same way. It can help expand a community’s commitment to stability and continuity.

For Lebanon’s Sunni moderates to regain the initiative, a multifaceted strategy is needed. It involves bolstering the security forces, intervening in vulnerable Sunni localities (this has been promised by Hariri in Arsal), marginalizing radical groups, and bringing on board those who are influential in local communities. More broadly, Hariri has to embark on a persistent dialogue with other communities, including Hezbollah, to reduce misunderstandings that can spark tension. And above all, Hariri himself must remain in Lebanon, to avert a new Sunni vacuum that extremists will try to exploit.

Hezbollah has sought to play on the mood of fear in Lebanon, portraying itself as a bulwark against the Islamic State. But the party must end such provocations, since it would be utterly incapable of containing an armed Sunni uprising in Lebanon, if one were to happen. Hezbollah needs the moderates, too, and everyone stands to gain from ensuring that extremism does not gain a foothold in Lebanon.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Iraq requires a long U.S. attention span

The reversal suffered by the Islamic State, formerly the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria, at Mosul dam has raised exaggerated expectations about the ability to defeat the group. The Islamic State will remain a major headache, even as there is still no comprehensive strategy in place to defeat it. Much has been made of the Obama administration’s military intervention in defense of the Kurdish areas. Only when Irbil was threatened, the argument goes, did Washington deploy its aircraft. That’s only partly true. Turning back the Islamic State in the north was as much a priority for Iraqis in Baghdad and Basra as for those in Kurdistan. And Iraqi special forces were as involved in the takeover of Mosul dam as were the Kurdish peshmerga being rearmed by the West.

The real question is not why the United States entered the fray. It is where the campaign to defeat the Islamic State is going. Until now there have been only haphazard signs of what the U.S. administration intends to do, with President Barack Obama hesitating to outline the specifics of a sustained campaign for fear it may turn the American public, which has no appetite for a new war in the Middle East, against him. The Islamic State’s beheading of American journalist James Foley was apparently designed to exploit this mood.

On the political side, the United States was able to help oust Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. In this regard it found an objective ally in Iran, which though it had intended to keep Maliki in office, was compelled to eject him when a significant number of Iraqi Shiite leaders, above all Ayatollah Ali Sistani, refused to endorse a third term for the prime minister.

Washington is hoping that Haider al-Abadi, Maliki’s replacement, will form a government that is more inclusive of Sunnis, and that can spearhead a counteroffensive against the Islamic State. In parallel to this, the United States is seeking to work out an arrangement between Baghdad and the Sunni tribes, one that involves devolving regional military decision-making to the Sunni-dominated governorates, and putting the forces there back on the payroll of the central government.

That’s a good plan, but one should watch out for Iranian displeasure. In recent weeks Tehran has seen several things in Iraq that it does not like: a return of the American military, which even if it does not fundamentally threaten Iranian hegemony today, does complicate the picture significantly; Western arming of the Kurds, which may help advance a project of Kurdish independence; the potential arming of anti-Islamic State Sunnis, which down the road could undermine the power of the Shiite-dominated central government; and signs of affirmation from Iraq’s Shiites, who compelled Iran to fall in line with their desire to oust Maliki, though he served Iran well.

Iran is caught in a tight spot today. If it derails Abadi’s efforts to unify Iraqi Sunnis and Shiites against the Islamic State, this could bolster a jihadist group that endangers vital Iranian interests in Iraq and Syria. And if it goes along with American preferences, it could see a lessening of its influence in Iraq, as Sunnis and Kurds gradually break away from Baghdad and view America as their primary mediator with the capital.

In Iran’s favor, as always, is America’s short attention span and Obama’s reluctance to play a deeper role in internal Iraqi politics. Even America’s military plan against the Islamic State is ambiguous. Obama has implied that the campaign may take some time, but he has not defined what the conditions are to end it. Instead, the administration has held to an absurd rationale, saying that American military intervention is designed above all to protect the safety of Americans in Iraq.

Obama needs to say this for domestic political reasons. However, it is worrisome if Americans swallow such nonsense while remaining oblivious to the very real dangers posed by the Islamic State. In this regard, Foley’s murder could backfire. Far from pushing Americans to oppose military intervention, it could have the effect of making them rally around the president in fighting the abomination that is the Islamic State.

More significant is what does the United States do about the Islamic State’s presence in Syria? For now the subject is off the table. But the reality is that any effort to push the Islamic State out of Iraq risks simply displacing the problem to Syria, where the group has made important gains.

The regime of President Bashar Assad is happy to portray itself as an enemy of terrorism, as this helps it to survive politically. It is not inconceivable that Assad will soon be part of a de facto anti-terrorism alliance, as he has been planning for three years after facilitating the emergence of the danger he is now fighting. Yet, if Iraq’s army can collapse as suddenly as it did, there are no guarantees that Syria’s army, worn down by years of battle, will not do the same. Assad’s confidence may be misguided.

Obama’s craven Syria policy has only helped the Islamic State. The president has promised military assistance to “moderates,” as much to fight the Islamic State as the Syrian regime. But the soonest this can happen, if it happens at all, is next spring. By then there will be no moderates left, as extremist groups, above all the Islamic State, overcome them. This shows why an Iraq-centric American military plan, as welcome as it is, may be neutralized by the absence of a Syria component.

American administrations shy away from multifaceted entanglements. The focus is now on Iraq, only Iraq. But such an approach poses risks, particularly with the administration having failed to define its aims there beyond protecting Americans. Obama may spoil everything if he fails to adequately address the complexity of the situation in Iraq and Syria.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Putting America first isn’t always the best policy for the US

Libertarians in the United States feel a new-found momentum on the issues most important to them. Their preferred candidate for the presidency, Rand Paul, has consistently ranked high in pre-election opinion polls. America has never seemed so reluctant to intervene overseas. And the federal government has faced significant pushback for its intrusive surveillance methods, into whose net many Americans have fallen.

However, the growing non-interventionist impulse of Americans highlights a shortcoming in the libertarian position: its insularity. Most libertarians are “America firsters” in that their values seem to apply only at home. That would be fine, except when it has a bearing on the single issue that most defines libertarians, namely liberty.

I speak as someone of the house. I have long written for the libertarian Reason magazine, where I am a contributing editor. The libertarian position on domestic liberties in the United States is one with which I sympathise deeply. To me the National Security Agency’s eavesdropping programmes, revealed by Edward Snowden, are an outrage. But on foreign affairs, I part ways with my American libertarian comrades.

American libertarians generally oppose overseas military campaigns. They’re often right, but they’re also wrong when such intervention can advance, or just protect, liberty.

The English writer Christopher Hitchens hit the nail on the head in a 2001 interview with Reason. Though sympathetic to libertarianism, Hitchens said he joined the left “because on all manner of pressing topics – the Vietnam atrocity, nuclear weapons, racism, oligarchy – there didn’t seem to be any distinctive libertarian view. I must say that this still seems to me to be the case, at least where issues of internationalism are concerned. What is the libertarian take, for example, on Bosnia or Palestine?”

In fact there isn’t one. And yet, the libertarian position on military intervention is grounded in an accurate understanding of the dynamics released. When the United States enters foreign conflicts, this often alters its society. As the government mobilises for war and a security imperative takes over, state power expands. Meanwhile, domestic priorities are put on hold.

Libertarians also tend not to believe that the US should seek to spread its liberal values throughout the world by force of arms. Such modesty is no doubt laudable, but it also differentiates between what holds at home and what holds overseas, and the result can be double standards.

Take the recent American intervention in Iraq. Those who defend the right-to-protect norm passed by the United Nations, hold that the Obama administration merits praise for having come to the assistance of civilians threatened by the Islamic State. Given the horrors perpetrated by the group, they say, the international community had a duty to prevent loss of life – and even, in the case of the Yazidis, genocide.

But American libertarians had mixed feelings. While the Islamic State represents everything libertarians stand against, there was profound reluctance to see the US engaged again in the Middle East. In the end, libertarians argued, it is not up to America to settle every foreign crisis. In this, libertarians share a platform with political real­ists, who believe that intervention is only valid when American interests are at stake.

But where the realists defend an amoral approach in foreign policy, calculating only interests, libertarians do not. They defend human liberty as a good, as a fundamental aspect of the human condition. Man is born free, they believe, and the role of the state, a necessary evil to libertarians, is to manage human affairs while restricting liberty as little as possible.

The problem comes in defending such an argument when it applies to America and ignoring it when it does not. This shows libertarians to be far more concerned with what affects their own country – a national impulse – than with any transcendent significance of liberty – a universalist impulse.

If libertarianism only has standing in a national context, does that make it less appealing? Perhaps not if one is American. But it also leaves no flexibility in foreign policy thinking. Inevitably, a libertarian foreign policy will be lost between realism, which shows no real concern for liberty, and liberal internationalism, which makes it difficult to avoid any war deemed moral.

That is why libertarians never had anything interesting to say about the carnage in Syria, or indeed about the Arab uprisings in general that began in 2011, except that they were not America’s problem. And yet, even if these uprisings have since descended into boundless violence, at their beginnings they should have been the very embodiment of libertarian ideals.

There were American libertarians who saw the potential, but they were in a minority. The majority simply took no position whatsoever, or opposed helping the protesters. Libertarians delight in Mr Paul’s chances of being the next president, but they must think more about how a Paul administration’s foreign policy might enhance their values.

If their desire is an American withdrawal from the world, similar to the mood prevailing in the country after the First World War, then they have to measure the consequences. For the past seven decades the US has been the mainstay of international liberalism and democracy, albeit an imperfect one. How would reversing this advance the cause of liberty?

Having one benchmark of liberty for Americans and another for the rest means that liberty ultimately has no absolute meaning. Until American libertarians resolve this inconsistency in their thinking, their beliefs will have little resonance in the world.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Inland empire - Even in foreign affairs America is hopelessly self-obsessed

When outsiders watch how America debates foreign policy issues, they are usually taken by the extent to which these become almost entirely domestic conversations.

Before the Iraq war in 2003, as the Bush administration was preparing the ground for an invasion, Americans seemed little concerned for the Iraqis themselves. What preoccupied them was what it all meant for America. And today, as President Barack Obama adds caveats to a new American military intervention in Iraq, it is clear that his main concern is support at home, not the suffering of Arabs or Kurds, Yazidis or Christians.

That may be normal in a democracy, but it can also quickly morph into navel-gazing. Much of what America does in the rest of the world, good or bad, very quickly ends up being about America itself. So, when former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made comments critical of Obama’s foreign policy to The Atlantic last week, the story quickly turned into one about Hillary, Barack, their interaction at Martha’s Vineyard, where both are vacationing, and the next presidential election.

Many people reflected on Clinton’s remarks about Obama’s Syria policy. She declared, “The failure to help build up a credible fighting force of the people who were the originators of the protests against Assad – there were Islamists, there were secularists, there was everything in the middle – the failure to do that left a big vacuum, which the jihadists have now filled.”

The secretary of state had been among those in the administration calling for assistance to the Syrian rebels in 2012, but Obama never acted on that recommendation. Today, with the Islamic State having expanded deep into Iraq, and with fears rising that jihadists could strike against targets in the United States and Europe, Clinton’s accusations put Obama in a very unpleasant spot.

However, Clinton said something else with significant ramifications for America’s role in the world. The interviewer, Jeffrey Goldberg, noted: “At one point, I mentioned the slogan President Obama recently coined to describe his foreign-policy doctrine: ‘Don’t do stupid shit’ (an expression often rendered as ‘Don’t do stupid stuff’ in less-than-private encounters).”

In response to Goldberg’s observation, Clinton tartly stated: “Great nations need organizing principles, and ‘Don’t do stupid stuff’ is not an organizing principle.”

Few seem to have focused on that devastating rejoinder. What Clinton was effectively saying was that there was no substance to – or underlying principle guiding – Obama’s foreign policy.

One can mock the need for a foreign policy strategy, but presidents have long considered this a key component of their administrations, as well as a vital aspect of their own philosophy. When Jimmy Carter announced that he would pursue human rights in the world, and created the post of assistant secretary of state for human rights, choosing Patricia Derian as his appointee, he was making as much a statement about himself and his beliefs as he was about his vision for America.

Obama, on the other hand, cannot be identified with very much in his approach to the world. Any overview of his foreign policy statements over the years would show only dismal boilerplate – nothing indicating the pursuit of a particular agenda, of specific objectives the president hopes to attain in the world. There is little about which Obama, a cold fish, appears to feel strongly.

And Obama’s adversaries have his number. Whether it is Vladimir Putin, Bashar al-Assad, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, or anyone else, they all know that the president, when given an opportunity to avoid a confrontation abroad, will embrace it with alacrity, even if it means they can advance their own interests to the detriment of those of the United States; and even if it means that American officials are undermined.

That is what happened, for instance, in August 2013, when Obama announced he would bomb Syrian military targets after the Assad regime had used chemical weapons against civilians, killing well over 1,000 people, including many children. At the last minute, Obama accepted a Russian plan to postpone an attack and remove Syrian chemical weapons, even while his officials were publicly defending impending military action.

Secretary of State John Kerry was embarrassed, as the episode showed he had not been consulted. As for the moral cost of allowing a regime that had just committed a terrible atrocity to get off without reprisals, it was profoundly disturbing.

Obama’s friends in the media have defended him at every turn. And American public opinion has become so isolationist that the president has faced little domestic censure for his inaction.

However, America’s position in the world has suffered, and this has bearing on American power. With the United States increasingly seen as disengaged from the world, its ability to affect global outcomes has been reduced. When Obama implies that the world must adapt to less of America, he reinforces a belief that American power is waning. Is that really the message he, allegedly a political realist, wants to flash out to the world?

Perhaps it is, but many Americans would not endorse Obama if he stated it so bluntly. The problem is that there is no internal exchange today over America’s role in the world. Because the public has become more insular, politicians and media echo that mood. No one gains by highlighting its negative consequences.

That’s why Clinton’s criticism was transformed into a personal matter between her and the president. Would they reconcile in Martha’s Vineyard, or not? Clinton’s serious foreign policy point dissolved into a soap opera. Such is the parochialism of America these days that no one found this even remotely annoying.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Pity Lebanon’s reckless Christians

Michel Aoun might want to learn a lesson from Nouri al-Maliki, Iraq’s ousted prime minister. It is that the longer you cling to a tenuous position, the more apt are others to decide for you.

In fact, Lebanon’s Christians in general should be careful. It has been months since a president was scheduled to be elected, yet Aoun’s ambitions and Christian rivalries have helped make agreement over a candidate impossible. Worse, the Christian parties have pursued the thoroughly idiotic tactic of boycotting legislative sessions in Parliament until a president is elected, as if blocking passage of needed legislation can in any way help their cause.

Aoun, of course, deserves some blame. Like Maliki, he obstinately seeks power, the negative repercussions for the state be damned. And Hezbollah, as their Iranian patrons did in Baghdad with Maliki, seeks only to avoid a direct confrontation with the general, preferring to let others undermine his position. That Hezbollah wants Aoun as president is nonsense and hides that the party wants to allow the situation to fester so Aoun can fall off the branch on his own.

The irony is that Aoun rarely misses an opportunity to lament Christian misfortunes in the Middle East, and to focus on those groups that pose a threat to the Christian presence. Yet his unwillingness to help fill the presidential vacuum, and the damage this has caused for the state and for the Christians’ position in Lebanon, has been ignored by him and his partisans.

But in the end Aoun is not the main factor today. His fault is to act as a convenient foil, a dupe, for Hezbollah. The party is caught up in an unwinnable conflict in Syria, sees Iran struggling in Iraq, and so its aim is to delay any decisive decisions in Lebanon before it can be sure of manipulating the outcomes in its favor. That’s why it it appears to back an extension of Parliament’s mandate, despite public statements suggesting the contrary, and it’s why it has done nothing to push Aoun to be more flexible over the presidency.

But if the void in the presidency leads to a further breakdown in the state that harms Lebanon’s stability and risks exacerbating Sunni-Shiite tensions, there is a very real possibility that the Maronites will find themselves circumvented. The Muslim leaderships could very easily, and quite understandably, decide to back a compromise candidate who does not have much communal credibility, but who at least satisfies their needs.

We’re not there yet, to an extent because Saad Hariri and Hezbollah, and above them Saudi Arabia and Iran, have not reached a compromise. However, there is nothing permanent in this situation, especially when Tehran and Riyadh appear to have a shared interest, both in Lebanon and elsewhere, in neutralizing the Sunni drift toward greater extremism.

At a time when Christians in the Arab world are in serious danger, with communities in Syria and Iraq not likely to return home, Lebanon’s Christians still have the luxury of engaging in petty disputes. Aoun may really care whether he becomes president, but most people do not. What they worry about is the dysfunctional state, with infrastructure disintegrating and the economy at serious risk of bankruptcy.

There was a time when Christians were associated with the state and its amelioration. Lebanon’s great administrative, infrastructural and educational reforms were driven by the likes of Presidents Fouad Chehab and Camille Chamoun. When the Civil War began in 1975, Christians portrayed themselves, rightly or wrongly, as defenders of the state in confronting the Palestinian armed presence. And during the postwar years of Syrian hegemony, it was the Christians – the Maronite patriarch, Nasrallah Sfeir, most prominently – who were especially active in opposing the protectorate that Syria had imposed on Lebanon and that undermined its sovereignty.

To a great extent that legacy appears to be dissipating. Many Christians are simply opting to leave Lebanon or to send their children abroad. In their internecine struggles for comparative advantage, Christian politicians have facilitated deadlock in state institutions, even if they are by no means the only ones. The Lebanese system has become rotten to the core, and the great problem is that the young simply no longer have any incentive to stay and contribute to the country’s development.

This is as great a menace to the Christians’ future in the Middle East as is the barbarity of the extreme jihadist groups or the Arab regimes who will slaughter their populations to remain in power. What is most worrisome is that what we are witnessing today is not likely to be transitory; it is permanent. As an example, many of the Christians who left during the years of Lebanon’s Civil War have not returned, and will not return.

So amid the sterile disputes between Christians over the presidency, there is a more profound and implicit message: The divided Christians are incapable of collectively considering, and most importantly preparing for, the broader regional transformations menacing their existence in the Arab world.

On the contrary, their small-mindedness is only guaranteeing that as regional crises grow, Christian marginalization will be assured. Already in Lebanon, between Aoun’s obstruction over the presidency and Samir Geagea’s support last year for the suicidal Orthodox proposal, the Christians’ inane choices are paving the way toward their complete irrelevance.

It is sad to see what is happening to Christians in the Middle East. Threatened with extinction, they are yet a vital part of the region’s cultural wealth and vitality. An Arab world without Christians will only sink further into debilitating unanimity and intolerance. There have been some statements denouncing this, but most Arabs have failed to grasp its true implications. And Christian behavior, alas, has not helped them to do so.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Assad’s strategy is based on survival in the short term

All eyes have been on Iraq and Gaza lately, but the carnage in Syria just grinds on. Despite military gains earlier this year by the regime of President Bashar Al Assad, its prospects of prevailing do not look good. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine the regime surviving as it is in the medium-term, let alone the long-term.

In recent weeks, the Al Assad regime has suffered several setbacks, particularly in the north-east of the country. It has lost most of its positions in Raqqa and Deir Ez Zor provinces, as well as a large number of soldiers, to the Islamic State, formerly the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant or ISIL.

Casualties have been so high that there have been reports of regime efforts to mobilise among minorities, including Christians, to fight the rebels. This reliance on minorities cannot endure. Not only does it mean the regime is depending on a relatively small and dwindling demographic base, in the end it will tie the fate of the minorities with that of the regime – and that could pose an existential threat to them. As in Iraq, they will pay the highest price for the conflict.

At the same time, the regime has engaged in an underhanded form of sectarian cleansing in sensitive areas under its control. In central Syria, along communications lines between Damascus and the coast, the regime’s bastion, the largely Sunni population has fled, and the regime has not allowed them to return.

Yet even in this area, which abuts the Lebanese border in the Qalamoun district, the regime’s hold has been tenuous. Mr Al Assad and Hizbollah have made much of their takeover of Qalamoun earlier this year, but their victory was, at best, a pyrrhic one. Some 4,000-5,000 rebels remain in the area and the regime and Hizbollah has been unable to crush them.

While there are no accurate figures for the number of Hizbollah combatants in the area, in Lebanon estimates are that as many as 10,000 men are engaged in the Qalamoun fighting. If true, this would represent a heavy drain on Hizbollah’s resources, for a battle in a thankless area traditionally difficult to control.

Even near Damascus the Syrian regime has found it very difficult to expand its writ. All around the capital it is caught up in a succession of bloody stalemates. For instance the regime has been unable to take Mleha in the south-eastern suburbs of Damascus, despite months of heavy bombing. That means that the road to Damascus airport remains exposed.

But beyond the growing casualty toll and the stubbornness of his foes, Mr Al Assad’s real problem is that he offers no political horizon. The regime has manoeuvred itself into an open-ended war, the outcome of which must be a victory by one side or the other. Given that the regime’s backbone is the Alawite community, with other minorities, it is almost impossible to imagine them ultimately defeating the Sunni majority.

Mr Al Assad’s strategy has been focused on short-term survival. But as the war drags on, it will become even more of a burden on the Syrian president’s allies, Iran and Hizbollah above all. Mr Al Assad’s options will continue to shrink. All he can do is try to stay in place and hope for the best, hardly a winning plan.

Iran has paid $18 billion (Dh66bn) to prop up Mr Al Assad, according to an Iraqi politician speaking privately. The figure must be confirmed, but Hizbollah has lost many of its best combatants in Syria. The party and Iran have suffered for their hubris, believing there was a military solution to the Syrian crisis. Yet with Iran now facing a major challenge in Iraq and still under severe international financial pressure, any project of Iranian regional hegemony appears to be collapsing.

Furthermore, at the heart of Mr Al Assad’s approach today is a fundamental flaw. He has focused on controlling Damascus, the coastal area and the areas linking the two. This has amounted to virtual abandonment of the rest of Syria. How can a president pursuing a strategy of de facto partition triumph, especially when he cannot even secure areas under his control?

Meanwhile, Mr Al Assad’s forces are persisting in their barbaric attacks against civilians, making any prospect of a negotiated outcome, even one involving his own departure, unworkable. This situation can only benefit extreme Islamist groups, such as the Islamic State, who enjoy abundant financing and will carry on their attacks against Mr Al Assad’s decrepit regime.

In light of this, former secretary of state Hillary Clinton’s criticism of President Barack Obama merits repeating. Mr Obama’s failure to build up a more moderate fighting force in Syria left a “big vacuum” that has been filled by the jihadists, she told The Atlantic last week. Mrs Clinton is right. America can fight the Islamic State all it wants in Iraq, but for as long as it refuses to do so in Syria, the organisation will remain potent.

All these factors – rising losses among his troops, the near hopelessness of a decisive military victory, the absence of any political horizon, the ongoing brutality of the Syrian army, and the exhaustion of Mr Al Assad’s leading regional allies – suggest the Syrian president is living on borrowed time. He and his community and their allies will be swallowed by the chaos they have created in Syria. What comes after cannot be reassuring.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Falling for it

In recent days a story has been circulating on social media that was picked up by Samir Mansour in a column Wednesday for the daily An-Nahar. It affirms that the United States was responsible for the establishment of the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) – since renamed the Islamic State.

That would have been a remarkable scoop, had it only been true. On Wednesday the US Embassy in Lebanon issued a statement saying the story was “a fabrication.” More surprising is how easily Mansour was duped, as Al-Nahar’s publication of his article lent credibility to an otherwise doubtful story.

In the article, Mansour cited an alleged passage from Hard Choices, former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s recently-published memoir. According to the passage, the United States sought to use the Islamic State as an instrument to partition the Middle East, including the territories of such longstanding allies as Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and control its oil. Along with other countries, Clinton purportedly wrote, Washington was prepared to recognize its state as soon as it was formed.

Everything about Mansour’s article displays sloppiness and gullibility. For a start, he should have simply picked up Clinton’s book to confirm that incriminating passage. Instead, he appears to have reproduced it from a social media outlet, simply assuming it was accurate. In fact, no such quote exists in the memoir, and no one would seriously expect it to.

The reason is fairly obvious. American politicians, particularly those with their eye on the presidency, do not generally admit to cooperating with terrorist groups, let alone supporting a vast conspiracy to break up and destabilize the Middle East. Surely that alone should have set off alarm bells in Mansour’s head.

Secondly, Mansour should have remembered that a principal reason why the United States has avoided sending weapons to the opposition in Syria is because it fears that they may fall into the hands of jihadists such as the Islamic State. America wants to avoid blowback, similar to what happened on September 11, 2001. If you write a column, you should be able to grasp context to better distinguish the truth from the nonsensical.

This was also an embarrassment for An-Nahar, where nobody caught Mansour’s mistake. It really does pay to hire fact-checkers. Yet on Friday, after the embassy’s denial, the piece was still up on the newspaper’s site. Was there no alert editor around to ask Mansour, for example, on what page the Clinton quote was located? Ghassan Tueni must be rolling in his grave.

But beyond the awkwardness of Mansour’s article, a great deal has been written about the propensity in our region to believe conspiracy theories. The irony is that such accounts can be reassuring. If events are explainable and appear to have a rational, guiding hand, they are easier to absorb than those that seem propelled by chaos – neither planned nor predicted.

The impulse to believe and disseminate conspiracy theories can also be ahistorical: the narratives are often based on archaic interpretations of behavior, frozen in time. Hence, Mansour still adheres to the image of an omnipotent America that no longer corresponds to reality, if it ever did.

Arabs should wake up and see that America, despite its great strength as a nation, is in relative decline. It is struggling economically; its infrastructure has deteriorated dramatically; its uninspiring politicians can’t work together as populism gains ground; and its people have lost the confidence they once had, and are wary of their country’s involvement in the world as they find themselves increasingly preoccupied by parochial concerns.

Obama may be the worst president in decades, but his focus has been, understandably, on reversing the malaise at home. One thing he is definitely not thinking about, and does not want to think about, is being sorcerer’s apprentice to the Middle East’s disintegration. Why do so many Arabs not see this, instead harking back to an all-powerful America working slyly to manipulate all global events to its advantage?

The problem with conspiracy theories is that, to the believers, efforts to deny them are regarded as their confirmation – a sign that powerful forces seek to conceal their ways. This is where Mansour comes back in. His piece has legitimized the arrant absurdity of Clinton admitting to an American plot to break up the Middle East. He must admit his error and withdraw his article. All journalists slip up, so we will sympathize.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

The Army must not enter Syria’s war

There are several versions of what happened in Arsal last Saturday. But whichever one applies, the Army must avoid being drawn into the Syrian conflict and taking one side against the other. It will not be able to manage the consequences.

For example, what Michel Aoun proposed on Tuesday is precisely what Lebanon should not do. Aoun declared, “I warn against carrying out negotiations with terrorists as we should negotiate with Damascus, not the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria.” He added, “Monitoring the border is the responsibility of Lebanon and Syria, based on past agreements between the two countries.”

This was rank populism blended in with self-interest. No one has seriously suggested negotiating with the Islamic State in the first place. But for some time the Syrian regime and Hezbollah have sought to integrate the Lebanese Army into their own efforts to crush the rebels in the Qalamoun region, which stretches from Zabadani, near Damascus, all the way up to Qusair, near Homs. Aoun’s proposal effectively echoes that demand. What Syria and Hezbollah want is for the Army to cut the rebels’ resupply lines into Lebanon, so they can be defeated in Qalamoun.

The consequences would be exceptionally serious if the Army agreed to do so. It would mean taking part in Syria’s war, particularly on one of its most decisive fronts. One can expect the Syrian rebels, along with their Lebanese allies, to turn on the Army in order to undermine its efforts to close entry and exit routes into Qalamoun. This would only further destabilize Lebanon, turning the Army into a privileged target of the rebels. The repercussions could fatally harm sectarian relations.

That is not to say that the Army does not have a right, and a duty, to defend itself and ensure that the rebels, especially the extremists among them, will not exploit their access to Arsal in order to commit attacks in Lebanon. But becoming a partner in an offensive by the Assad regime and Hezbollah in Qalamoun is a far graver matter, marking the end of official Lebanese dissociation from the Syrian conflict. This is something that Prime Minister Tammam Salam must be very careful to avoid.

But will the Army commander Jean Kahwagi agree? Kahwagi has the presidency in mind, and his choices are not easy ones. If he refuses to implicate the Army in efforts along the border to suffocate the Syrian rebels, he risks alienating Hezbollah, which is his strongest backer to become president (despite the party’s claim to support Aoun). On the other hand if he does what Hezbollah and Syria want, he risks splitting the Army along sectarian lines, pushing Lebanon into a civil war, and almost certainly ensuring that Sunnis will reject his presidency.

Aoun is aware of Kahwagi’s dilemma, and seeks to drive the Army commander into the wall. That’s why he warned against talking to extremists. He wants to lock Kahwagi into a position that makes him less likely to adopt a median strategy in Arsal, one that balances the Army’s desire to avoid the risks of greater involvement in Syria with the rebels’ desire to keep border passages open. Aoun also wants to show Hezbollah and President Bashar Assad that, as president, he would do their bidding.

Walid Jumblatt met with Aoun on Wednesday, in an apparent effort to put an end to the presidential vacuum. Jumblatt feels that a new president would create a semblance of normality, helping to lower tensions in Lebanon. Perhaps, but after Aoun’s foolish position on border cooperation with Syria, it’s difficult to see him gaining any Sunni backing. If anything, Aoun’s election would exacerbate sectarian relations, with Sunnis viewing him as another facet of Hezbollah’s project to rule Lebanon

The Syrian gunmen in Arsal have done themselves no favors. Their attack against the Army and the abduction of soldiers and Internal Security Forces members prompted the military to react, opening the door to a more expansive interpretation of its role along the border, in line with Hezbollah’s and Syria’s desires. But the rebels appear to be divided, with reports on Wednesday suggesting that a large number had left Arsal overnight, even as other groups reportedly wanted to continue fighting the Army. Yet the gunmen would gain nothing by opening a front against the Army, nor by taking the inhabitants of Arsal hostage. The best they can do is withdraw to Arsal’s hinterland and avoid a clash with the Lebanese state. In return, this may prompt the Army to stand back and continue to contain the dynamics in Arsal, without moving decisively to cut the rebels’ supply lines.

That may not be ideal, but it would preserve the Army for its more urgent responsibility of preserving internal peace. Arsal’s hinterland is a difficult place to dominate and the Army would not be able to impose itself without being sucked into a debilitating foreign conflict that would only bleed it, without any obvious endgame. Hezbollah has been fighting in the same unforgiving terrain in Qalamoun, and has been unable to defeat the rebels.

Hezbollah also must know that if the Army were to break apart and Sunnis and Shiites were to go to war in Lebanon, the party’s entire Syria strategy would collapse. It would be forced to repatriate its combatants from Syria, leaving the exhausted and vulnerable Assad regime to face the rebels alone, while Hezbollah would be mired in an internal war it has no hope of winning.

That’s why the party must reconsider its efforts to persuade the Army to close the border near Arsal. This would bring only catastrophe to Lebanon, and likely to Hezbollah itself in the end. Kahwagi must have the courage to tell Syria and Hezbollah no, whatever it means for his presidential ambitions.

The fear of another civil war hangs heavily over Lebanon

The outbreak of fighting in the Lebanese town of Arsal last Saturday threatens to draw Lebanon further into the Syrian war, exacerbate already tense Sunni-Shia relations and lead to a potentially devastating internal conflict.

The fighting began after the Lebanese army arrested a Syrian, Imad Jomaa, who was a Jabhat Al Nusra commander until he switched allegiance to the Islamic State. According to early news reports, after the arrest, Mr Jomaa’s partisans took over army positions in Arsal, forcing the military to mount an offensive to retake them.

The location of Arsal itself is important. Near the Lebanese-Syrian border, Arsal is a Sunni agglomeration in the mainly Shia northern Bekaa Valley. As the war in Syria has raged on, Arsal has been deeply affected, with tens of thousands of Syrian refugees flocking there. Many of the townspeople had depended on cross-border smuggling for their livelihood, and Arsal has served as a resupply base for the Syrian opposition.

This situation has disturbed Hizbollah and the Syrian regime, who have been trying to crush stubborn rebel resistance on the Syrian side of the border in the Qalamoun district.

The Syrian regime and Hizbollah have for some time sought to implicate the Lebanese army in their efforts to weaken the Syrian rebels.

Not surprisingly, the army commander, Jean Qahwaji, avoids such topics. On Sunday, he declared instead that the gunmen in Arsal had planned their attacks against the army long before Mr Jomaa’s arrest, implying a carefully planned conspiracy. Some politicians echoed this version of events.

While it’s not clear exactly what happened, armed Syrians did seize army positions in and near Arsal. While the army suggested it was fighting jihadists, and highlighted Mr Jomaa’s links to Jabhat Al Nusra and the Islamic State, on Tuesday mediation efforts stumbled amid signs that the gunmen were fragmented. This indicated a less cohesive and unified group than the army had initially indicated.

The danger is that Lebanon’s more extremist armed Sunnis, who have long accused the army of collaborating with Hizbollah, will take to the streets, particularly in the heavily Sunni north of the country, in protest against the military’s operation in a major Sunni town, and enter into a confrontation with the army.

This could ultimately deteriorate into fighting with the Shia. Given the presence of more than a million Syrians in the country – many of them Sunni refugees who resent Hizbollah’s role in Syria – a conflict could quickly spread

There was also a more cynical interpretation of what took place. Hizbollah may have precipitated the army into a clash with Syrian gunmen in Arsal, by encouraging a more aggressive military posture there, with two objectives in mind: to push the army to cut supply lines between Lebanon and Syria’s Qalamoun region, thereby facilitating Hizbollah’s and the Syrian regime’s stumbling efforts to defeat the rebels there.

And secondly, the aim may have been to burnish the profile of Mr Qahwaji, whom many regard as Hizbollah’s choice to become president.

By appearing to spearhead a battle against “terrorists”, the army commander could suddenly emerge as the leading candidate for the presidency at a time when Lebanon is without a president. An election has been repeatedly postponed for lack of a consensus.

In this interpretation, the Syrians attacked the army because they did not want their supply lines to be severed. But by doing so, they also rallied Lebanese support behind the army and turned most people against the Syrian rebels – now portrayed as seeking Lebanon’s destabilisation. Mr Qahwaji would be elected and Hizbollah would pursue efforts, with Syria’s regime, to crush rebels in Qalamoun, who could no longer rely on Lebanon.

That’s possible, but it’s equally true that an extended, bloody confrontation in Arsal could make Mr Qahwaji unacceptable to Sunnis as president. His performance in recent days indicates he has the presidency in mind. He organised a rare press conference after the attacks, and said the army would continue to combat terrorists and takfiri groups. Thus do saviours speak.

There have since been attacks on the army in areas where Sunni anger is high, most notably the northern city of Tripoli. If violence increases there, it could spread to the Sunni-majority Akkar region further to the north and create a very difficult situation for the government to control.

Hizbollah has committed several thousand men to the fighting in Syria. After Iran’s reversals in Iraq, it needs to defeat Syrian rebels in Qalamoun, in that way consolidating the territory controlled by President Bashar Al Assad between Damascus and the Syrian coast, the regime’s heartland.

The Lebanese army, by design or default, may become a part of this project. That’s worrying, because it could heighten sectarian tensions that undermine the army’s unity, since a substantial portion of soldiers in the army are Sunnis.

Hizbollah must also beware. If Lebanon collapses into a new civil war, Hizbollah would have to abandon Syria to fight at home. In other words, it would effectively have to give up on the Al Assad regime at a time when the latter’s capacities to remain in power are already doubtful. This may not only mean that Iran, Hizbollah’s sponsor, could lose Syria; it would mean that Hizbollah suddenly finds itself trapped in a civil war that it simply cannot win.

We will see if such a cataclysmic scenario is true. But one thing cannot be doubted: Sunni-Shia relations in Lebanon have hit a new low. Any misstep could push the country into the abyss.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Return of the native - Why we may see Muhammad Dahlan back in Gaza

As the war in Gaza grinds on, it remains unclear what kind of political order will govern the territory once the fighting stops.

The American secretary of state, John Kerry, faced criticism last week when he formulated a ceasefire plan in consultation with Turkey and Qatar, two states regarded as particularly close to Hamas. Kerry’s plan was to stop the fighting, with the more contentious issues left to be discussed at a later stage. This angered the Israelis, but also Hamas’s opponents in the Arab world, who view the conflict as an opportunity to reassert their influence in Gaza, at Hamas’s expense.

But as the Lebanese publisher and activist Lokman Slim has been arguing, there may be an interesting subtext to this. As political solutions are sought in Gaza – yesterday a 72-hour ceasefire was agreed to discuss a resolution, but almost immediately collapsed – they may open the door for the return of Mohammad Dahlan, the former head of Fatah’s Preventive Security force in Gaza, who fled the territory in 2007 after his men were routed by those of Hamas.

Dahlan’s return to Gaza, if it were to come about, would reflect a number of political realities on the Palestinian front. First, Dahlan has the support of the Egyptians and Saudis, which would see in his comeback a way to influence politics in Gaza and stifle Hamas. This would be especially true if his men were to control the border with Egypt, allowing Dahlan to prevent any Hamas rearmament effort as well as earn revenue by taxing cross-border trade. That money, in turn, would permit him to expand his patronage power in Gaza at Hamas’s expense.

A second advantage of a Dahlan return, as far as the Egyptians and Saudis are concerned, is that he could eventually emerge as the natural successor of Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, giving them a decisive say on the Palestinian front. Abbas has long viewed Dahlan as a threat, and last May a Palestinian court sentenced him to two years in prison for allegedly “slandering the institutions of the state.” Dahlan, who currently resides in the United Arab Emirates, denounced the sentencing as politically motivated.

Even if Abbas’s doubts about Dahlan are understandable, the Palestinian president faces a dark future. The Israelis have consistently undermined him and destroyed his credibility in their negotiations, while Hamas’s latest conflict with Israel has only marginalized Abbas further. The president has been hailed in the West as a “moderate,” but this has brought him few benefits from Israel, while losing him much Palestinian support. 

The more vigorous Dahlan may be seen by the Egyptians and Saudis as an alternative to Abbas, and someone who can help revive the fortunes of the Palestinian Authority and Fatah. That’s not to say Dahlan would succeed, or that his personal track record is encouraging. But Egypt and Saudi Arabia are not really concerned about his integrity; they’re looking for someone who can eliminate Hamas and who can represent them in the Palestinian arena — against Qatar and Turkey, but above all against Iran, which is said to be close to Mohammed Deif, the head of Hamas’s Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades.

That is why the Gaza war today is as much a regional conflict as it is one between Palestinians and Israelis. When Kerry blundered into the hornet’s nest and seemed to favor one side over the other he got bitten. What we are witnessing is also the latest counter-reaction by Arab regimes to the revolutions that began in 2011 and that bolstered Islamists in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, and Syria, threatening their own hold on power.

According to Slim, a Dahlan revival would represent a new reversal for Iran. The Islamic Republic has already suffered a significant setback in Iraq with the offensive led by the Islamic State. It is paying a heavy financial price in backing Bashar al-Assad in Syria, and is seeing Arab states united in thwarting Iranian political initiatives, often by using sectarian solidarity.

Hamas has succeeded in achieving a number of important objectives in Gaza in recent weeks, above all showing the Israelis that it can attack their territory at will, with rockets or through tunnels. For Israel to cancel out these Hamas gains, it may have to press its offensive until it can impose its conditions, including who controls Gaza’s border areas. In this it will continue to be quietly supported by a number of Arab states.

This will be easier said than done. Hamas will strongly resist all efforts to weaken it, even if, as the carnage in Gaza gets worse, its margin of maneuver may be increasingly constrained by the suffering of Palestinians. Given Palestinian enthusiasm for the recent national unity government formed by Hamas and Fatah, it may be difficult for Hamas to block a Fatah return to Gaza.

Who would control Fatah military units is unclear. If Egypt and Saudi Arabia want Dahlan to do so, they will first have to effect a reconciliation between him and Abbas, which is by no means guaranteed. The Saudis will have considerable leverage, since a great deal of money will be needed to reconstruct Gaza. But Fatah and Hamas will also be united in not wanting to see Dahlan back, and can be expected to try to thwart it.

Gaza will remain a playing field for regional rivalries, which will complicate Egyptian and Saudi efforts to shape the post-conflict environment in the strip. Dahlan, who still has considerable support among Fatah members in Gaza, may benefit from this, or he may be beyond the pale. But Cairo and Riyadh, with Israel, want their favorites to dominate in Gaza, which is why Muhammad Dahlan’s resurrection cannot be readily dismissed.