Friday, June 27, 2014

Bombs away - Will terrorism in Lebanon bring in a new president?

Perhaps it’s my natural skepticism, but there is something terribly fishy about the bomb explosions that have hit Lebanon in the past week.

Most noticeable in all three incidents is that they were somehow thwarted by one or the other of Lebanon’s security services. All took place after the offensive in Iraq by the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), which sent shockwaves throughout the Middle East. And all come at a sensitive time for Lebanon, which has been unable to elect a president to replace Michel Sleiman.

However, this is very little to go on. But it’s a fact that while the security services, bolstered by those of Hezbollah, were unable to prevent any of the bomb explosions that took place earlier this year in the southern suburbs, despite myriad checkpoints, in the space of a week they have repeatedly, if not interrupted attacks, forced alleged bombers to detonate their loads early.

It’s possible that the security services have gotten a hold of accurate intelligence information, but that doesn’t apply to the blast in Tayyouneh, which occurred after an alert officer from General Security became suspicious of a driver. As for the bomb in Dahr al-Baydar, the versions of the story told by General Security Director Abbas Ibrahim and the Internal Security Forces (ISF) did not match, and indeed tended to contradict one another.

During this period the intensity of the panic has been multiplied, propelled by reports of terrorism cells being uncovered in Tripoli, purported threats against Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri followed by his cancellation of an Amal conference last week, and statements, with little corroborative evidence, that we are witnessing a terrorism offensive by ISIS.

This sense of panic has been further intensified by arrests of foreigners in Beirut hotels and elsewhere. Last week two Tunisians were interviewed by Al-Jadeed after spending the morning detained by the ISF. They were among the more than 22 people brought in on the day of the Dahr al-Baydar explosion. Far from being hardened jihadists, the pair was in Beirut to attend an Arab nationalist conference. Reports the next day indicated that several of those detained had been set free.

So where is all this leading? A great deal remains unclear or elicits skepticism: security services that behave like James Bond; official explanations that are immediately questionable; assassination lists that keep getting longer; and the near-automatic presumption that ISIS cells are involved.

That is not to say that ISIS is a victim or that there are no terrorist cells in Lebanon. Far from it. ISIS is a real threat to the region, and would readily use terrorist actions to build on its credibility. But until now the evidence in Lebanon seems to be limited. All we have are suspicions, warnings of plots, but nothing that definitely tells us what is true and what isn’t.

Maybe that’s why certain Lebanese politicians view the panic in Lebanon as a manufactured effort to affect the outcome of the presidential election. In this view, Hezbollah and its allies seek to bring in a candidate of their choice to the presidency, thereby using the two elections scheduled this year – the presidential and parliamentary elections – to reinforce their hold over the country. According to this narrative, the Party finally feels that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is relatively secure in power, and would like to reflect that reality within Lebanon.

In this context, Hezbollah has an interest in taking advantage of the security situation, and even in heightening the fear level. The theory is that Hezbollah has two favorite candidates in its scabbard: the army commander, Jean Qahwaji, and Michel Aoun. To impose them on the political scene, the argument goes, their elevation must be justified by the unstable security situation, making the public more willing to embrace either man.

Neither Aoun nor Qahwaji has been accused in any way of involvement in this purported conspiracy. And given Interior Minister Nouhad Mashnouq’s allegiance to March 14, he is hardly someone likely to be complicit in such a scheme.

And yet one thing can be said if this theory is true: it is not Aoun who would benefit most from a public backlash against the climate of insecurity in the country, but rather Qahwaji, as army commander. Therefore, putting both men in the same basket may be misleading. Hezbollah may be keeping the prospect of an Aoun presidency alive both to neutralize the general, who avidly desires the post, and to absorb potential reactions against Qahwaji, who may remain the party’s first choice as president.

Indeed, Aounist suspicions of such a scenario were evident in an ambiguous piece penned by Jean Aziz last week in Al-Akhbar. Aziz, who is close to Aoun, looked back at how the Nahr al-Bared battle was used to bring Sleiman to power in 2008, blocking Aoun. His implication was that the latest violence may be used in the same way, though Aziz underlined that he was not accusing Jean Qahwaji of complicity in such a move.  

Too many pieces of the puzzle are missing to decisively conclude what is going on. But there does seem to be a calculated intention to scare the Lebanese after months of relative calm. Maybe that’s a response to a real threat from terrorism, or maybe someone is simply letting things happen to exploit this politically. Whichever it is, there is more than meets the eye to this affair.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Fouad Ajami, or the death of a paradox

The death of Fouad Ajami prompted me to reread an email he sent me in late 2011. I had just written an obituary of Lebanese historian Kamal Salibi, and Fouad send me a note saying: “Do me a favor please, after 24 years and don’t ask me what the number means, I would love for you to write an obit of me!”

I’m not sure whether Fouad was ill at the time, but it’s difficult to understand his message as anything but a witty reference to the cancer that carried him away this week. I had graduated 24 years earlier from Johns Hopkins, where Fouad was my professor, yet had foolishly failed to grasp his meaning. Now I may, and I find myself writing what I insisted at the time I hoped never to write.

I first met Fouad in September 1985 after arriving at Johns Hopkins. I wasn’t sure what to make of this spirited man who, once he knew I had just come from Lebanon, began talking about the mobilization there of the Shiite community, before handing me a copy of an article he had recently written on the topic for Foreign Affairs titled “Lebanon and Its Inheritors.”

In those two years I would become Fouad’s friend and for a time serve as his graduate assistant, a task that required me to do only two things: Find the age of the Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea and go to the National Archives and copy all American diplomatic correspondence pertaining to Antoun Saadeh, the founder of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party.

Ajami’s singular gift was to add narrative texture to his observations of the Middle East. There was a literary bent to the man that gave a sweeping quality to his writings. Some disliked this, saying it allowed for no nuance. Yet rare are the writers on the region, among them Edward Said, a man revered by Ajami’s detractors, who caught the region’s impulses as subtly and brilliantly as he did, against a backdrop of larger historical forces.

The most notable example was Ajami’s early recognition of the significance of the Shiite revival. In this regard his biography in 1985 of Lebanon’s Musa Sadr, titled “The Vanished Imam,” was ahead of its time, showing what would become an Ajami paradox: his exhilaration with the phenomenon of Shiite affirmation alongside misgivings about specific Shiite political actors such as Hezbollah or Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

However, it was Ajami’s views of America that would come to define him more than anything else. His adversaries would lazily brand him a “neocon.” But what really mattered to Fouad was not American power per se, but the fact that it might be used to transform the Middle East democratically. That may have been too idealistic by half, but it was born of his deep frustration with an Arab world that, for most of the time he had studied it, could not break free from suffocating authoritarianism and sterility.

I believe this view of America was at the heart of his rift with Said, like him an Arab immigrant who had gained prominence in the country. Ajami could never quite stomach someone who had earned recognition thanks to his life in New York, only to build on this through perpetual condemnation of America and its role in the Arab world. Where Said reaffirmed his Palestinianness at every occasion, Ajami invariably spoke of himself as an American, even if he never rejected his Lebanese identity and retained until the end a complicated relationship with his birthplace.

All of Ajami’s books were in most ways outstanding, but his admirers will perhaps remember “The Dream Palace of the Arabs” with the greatest intensity. As the subtitle suggests, the book is about an Arab generation’s odyssey, one that ended in failure and disappointment – the generation that came of age in the 1950s, weaned on Arab nationalism and hope that the region could be transformed for the better as a consequence. Yet Ajami began his book with an account of the suicide of the Lebanese poet Khalil Hawi in 1982 in reaction to Israel’s invasion of his country. For him Hawi’s act of desperation was a requiem for that generation, exemplifying the shattering of Arab expectations.

This had particular resonance for me, as I had been in Beirut at the time of Hawi’s suicide. While I felt no great sympathy for Arab nationalism, having spent years watching Lebanon laid waste almost as much by inter-Arab mendacity and rivalries as by the destructiveness of its own people, Ajami’s narrative of defeat only reflected accurately what I and others had seen all around us. As a chronicler of this desolate reality, Ajami had few peers.

Not surprisingly, Fouad’s last book was on Syria. By that time the America he knew had changed, its president and people willing to witness the Syrian carnage without flinching. “In reckoning with the evils of the Syrian regime, American power was either naive or willfully indifferent,” he wrote last February. It must not have been easy for Fouad to hear moral censure of the supporters of the Iraq War by Americans who had no moral compunction about allowing the slaughter in Syria to continue unabated.

You wonder what Fouad felt at the end about the country he had embraced so completely. His articles became more caustic, his condemnation of President Barack Obama’s inaction sharper. Fouad’s Arab solidarity seemed to be reimposing itself as dominant against an elusive America he had romanticized, one distancing itself decisively from the world he knew best. Perhaps his odyssey, too, ended at a roadblock of disenchantment.

Friday, June 20, 2014

The foreigner’s gift - Why Iran would gain from US military intervention in Iraq

What does one make of the apparent rapprochement between the United States and Iran over Iraq? It’s difficult to say, principally because both countries have very different agendas in the country, even if their shared aim is to contain the offensive of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS).

For Iran, fragmentation in Iraq is not only acceptable, but also – if controlled – desirable in helping the Islamic Republic impose its hegemony over the country. Tehran has backed Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki through thick and thin, doing nothing to restrain his divisive Shiite-centric policies that have so alienated the Sunni community. It has also persuaded other Shiite leaders, most prominently Muqtada al-Sadr, to go along with Maliki, even when they had no desire to do so.

In parallel, the Iranians have retained influence over Iraq’s Kurds. That’s understandable, given the border shared by Kurdistan and Iran, and the fact that the Kurds are sandwiched between Turkey and Iran while being caught up in a tense relationship with the rest of Iraq. In this context the Kurds simply cannot afford to alienate their powerful neighbors. Illustrating the ties, even when he was president, Jalal Talabani was said to meet regularly with General Qassem Soleimani, the head of the Quds Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards.

For Iran, enhancing fragmentation is a necessary strategy to assert its power. The Islamic Republic, which is in the midst of expanding its regional influence, would find it much more difficult to control unified Arab countries. With chaos, on the other hand, Iran can make gains amidst division and exploit the political openings provided by perpetual conflict.

That is precisely the plan Iran has followed in Syria. Tehran has bolstered the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, but only in a strategically important area that includes Damascus, the border with Lebanon, the Syrian coast, and communications lines in between. Outside those areas Iran, both for reasons of necessity and choice, has not helped Assad’s army re-conquer territory, effectively helping to harden de facto partition lines in Syria.

What disturbs the Iranians today in Iraq is not that the state appears to be falling apart. It is that the Sunni uprising risks undermining vital Iranian interests, while simultaneously obstructing the geographic continuity between Iran and Syria and Lebanon. This is particularly important in the event Iran must rearm or supply Hezbollah or the Assad regime. 

Unlike Iran, the United States is not after fragmentation in Iraq: it is after integration. Its message to Maliki has been that he better integrate Sunnis into the Iraqi state if he seeks American assistance. Washington has reportedly also asked the Kurds to help the Maliki government regain territory from ISIS, a request the Kurds have reportedly resisted. Iran has asked the same. But where the Americans did so in order to rally Iraq’s different communities, seeing the ISIS threat as a potential national unifying factor, Iran seems far more concerned with reversing the broader Sunni challenge, even if that means mobilizing Shiites in a campaign bound to heighten sectarian animosities.

What would this mean for collaboration between Iran and the United States? The Obama administration has just announced that it would send 300 advisers to Iraq, a relatively minimal response to the situation there. It doesn’t want to be used by Maliki and Iran as a weapon against the Sunni community, and even less so does it want to reinforce their position in a way that may damage American interests and those of its regional allies.

But President Barack Obama must still decide what his priority is in Iraq. If it is simply to fight terrorism and its consequences, then he has to answer a simple question posed by a former Obama administration official, Anne-Marie Slaughter, in a New York Times opinion piece this week: “Why is the threat of ISIS in Iraq a sufficiently vital interest, but not the rise of ISIS in Syria – and a hideous civil war that has dismembered Syria itself and destabilized Lebanon, Jordan and now Iraq?”

If it is to bolster the Maliki regime, then Obama must address the argument of another former official, Steven Simon, also writing in the Times. Simon believes that Iran will win in Iraq, and that the Sunni revolt will only isolate the community further. The result is that the “rump Iraq” controlled by Maliki “will be ever more in thrall to Iran, and committed to domestic policies that make the reconstitution of the country via a political process ever more unlikely.”

In both cases there are no good choices for America, at a moment when the Obama administration remains deeply reluctant to involve the country in Middle Eastern conflicts.

Simon is correct in seeing Iran as the ultimate beneficiary of American missteps. No doubt the Iranians view collaboration with the Americans as possible leverage in the nuclear file, something that enhances goodwill and can be reflected in a satisfactory outcome to the nuclear talks.

But there would not be much in it for the United States. Maliki is unlikely to open up to the Sunnis, and Iran has no intention of making him do so. American-Iranian cooperation in Iraq would essentially benefit the Islamic Republic. If Obama is unwilling to go all the way and resolve the ISIS headache both in Syria and Iraq, then it’s better he do as little as possible. America’s short attention span tends only to favor its adversaries.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Robert C Ames and the death of an American view of the Middle East

Beirut, April 18, 1983. I had just stepped out of Khayyat’s bookshop on Bliss Street when a truck bomb struck the American Embassy. Though the embassy and Bliss were separated by the American University campus, I could hear glass around me breaking from the force of the explosion. For inhabitants of Beirut reared on such violence, this was no ordinary blast.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning author Kai Bird has just published an outstanding biography of the most prominent victim that day, Robert Clayton Ames. At the time Ames was director for the Near East and South Asia in the Central Intelligence Agency’s Directorate of Intelligence, the analysis arm of the CIA, after having spent much of his career on the agency’s operations side.

Ames was visiting Beirut and in a career of more than two decades had become one of the CIA’s more charismatic figures – a man of integrity with a profound interest in and empathy for the Arab world. Much of Bird’s book is taken up with Ames’ signal achievement, the opening of a path to negotiations with the Palestine Liberation Organisation, through a dialogue he initiated (thanks to a Lebanese middleman, Mustapha Zein) with Ali Hassan Salameh, the chief of Yasser Arafat’s Force 17 security unit. Ames saw this initiative as, potentially, a step in American normalisation with the PLO, which could facilitate an Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement.

Yet Bird admits that the contacts with Salameh “played a small role in opening the path to negotiations”, and in that way Ames’ legacy “remains an unfinished story”. That is why his book is most rewarding less as an account of a vital individual, than as the story of two very different moments in the Middle East and American efforts to come to grips with them: the post-1967 interregnum, defined by Palestinian nationalism, so that Washington’s refusal to speak to the PLO became untenable; and the period after the Iranian Revolution of 1979, when the old verities of the Arab-Israeli conflict were overtaken by Islamist militancy spurred by an Iran with regional ambitions, which had expanded into the Levant to confront America and Israel.

Bird is very effective at transforming Ames into a prism through which to survey a shifting region. Ames was perhaps the first American to establish a relationship with Abdel Fattah Ismail, the effective ruler of Marxist South Yemen until 1980. He was a regular visitor to Beirut before and during the civil war. Ames was in Iran in the early 1970s, as the country moved toward its revolution, and then right after – before working on the hostage crisis as national intelligence officer for the Middle East.

Two criticisms often levelled against Ames were that he was too analytical and that he had gone native in the Arab world. A number of colleagues, for instance, never forgave him the fact that he had not recruited Salameh, preferring to keep him as a privileged source rather than a paid agent.

Those levelling such accusations could never quite explain what was wrong with being analytical, and failed to understand the nature of ties in the Arab world. Against the American tendency to turn everything into a contractual relationship, Ames grasped that one could get more out of Salameh (who had twice rejected clumsy recruitment efforts by the CIA) by maintaining a personal friendship with him. He was also astute enough to realise that in a region where ambiguity can be the norm, the American compulsion to impose clarity could backfire.

But the critics may have had a point in one regard. Being an agent might have saved Salameh’s life. The Israelis assassinated him in January 1979, under the belief, perhaps false, that he had masterminded the killing of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympic Games. In his memoirs, Muhammad Daoud Audeh, known by his nom de guerre Abu Daoud, a central figure in the Munich hostage takeover, always denied Salameh’s involvement, as well as that of others whom the Israelis killed in retaliation. But, as Bird suggests, the Israelis perhaps had another motive: to sever the link between the CIA and the PLO, which they would not have readily done had he been on the agency payroll.

Salameh’s fate struck somewhat closer to home for me, as both his mother and sister were neighbours in Beirut, whom my mother would frequently visit. Oddly, it is of them I first thought when watching ­Israeli soldiers deploying below our building after occupying West Beirut in September 1982. We had just endured a terrible three-month siege, and here was the two women’s very worst nightmare lounging at their doorstep.

Arabist sympathies in the CIA have been a recurring theme lately and were the subject of another fine book, America’s Great Game by Hugh Wilford, published last year. But Ames came from a later generation of CIA officers than that described by Wilford. By the 1960s and early 1970s, regional dynamics had been shaken up by the mobilisation of Palestinian refugee communities and, after the June 1967 war, the consolidation of an independent PLO. At the same time, the CIA had to deal with a political mood in America that had swung sharply in favour of Israel.

In this context, people like Ames were not only willing to go against the consensus, particularly on the Palestinian question, they did so at a time when the CIA was caught up in a period of great turbulence, facing congressional scrutiny and therefore not apt to take risks. Yet the Near East section managed to escape the turmoil and, to Ames’ credit and that of his superiors, the Palestinian channel was pursued, while Ames, pushed by the CIA director Richard Helms, rose in the agency.

These days it is difficult to persuade Arabs that they had early sympathisers in the American intelligence services, or that there were people such as Ames who regarded the region as valuable not simply because of what it meant for American power, but for what it was. How unlike today, with an American president and public rarely concealing their aversion towards an Arab world that hijacked American attentions for more than a decade.

Bird himself is a product of the American encounter with the Middle East. His father was an American diplomat who served in Jerusalem and Dhahran, Saudi Arabia. Ames and his family were the Birds’ neighbours, so that Ames’ story is partly Bird’s own (which he recounted at greater length in a much-praised autobiography in 2010, titled Crossing Mandelbaum Gate.

For me, Ames’ death is associated with another that took place less than a year after the embassy bombing, and had similar symbolism. In January 1984 the president of the American University of Beirut, Malcolm Kerr, was shot outside his office. The assassin was never identified, but to many Kerr was a victim of the dynamics that had killed Ames: Iran and Syria, operating in tandem, out to undermine America’s policies in Lebanon.

Kerr, too, was a knowledgeable Arabist, born in Beirut of American missionary parents, whose passion for the region would make his own death especially poignant. In the preface to the third edition of his The Arab Cold War: Gamal ’Abd al-Nasir and His Rivals, 1958-1970, Kerr had famously written that “since June 1967 Arab politics have ceased to be fun”. What he meant was that the violent breakers released by the Arab-Israeli war that year had engulfed the region. For someone “who all his life has had friendships and memories among the Arabs to cherish, I have found no relish in describing it”, he wrote.

Both men were victims of a world very different than the one in which they had come of age professionally. Gone was the idealism that had initially accompanied America’s first steps in the Arab world, and yet to the end Ames and Kerr appeared to retain some hope that they could improve things. Perhaps they were simply prisoners of Yankee optimism; or perhaps they really somehow believed in a region that still has trouble believing in itself.

Lebanon can parry regional fragmentation

There has been much talk lately of the possibility that the ongoing conflicts in the Middle East will lead to a redrawing of the region’s borders.

While these borders have lasted for almost a century, in the last decade Sunni-Shiite antagonism has escalated, bringing into doubt the survivability of states with mixed sectarian or ethnic populations.

At the end of World War I, when the borders of the modern Middle East were drawn by the Western powers, a principle defended by the League of Nations was the protection of minority rights. Yet after World War II the situation changed. By then minority treaties had been scrapped and the victorious powers sanctioned vast population transfers in Eastern Europe.

The historian Mark Mazower has written, “Minorities were now seen as sources of destabilization, and liberals and socialists were as passionate in demanding their eradication as fascists ... Ethnic homogeneity [was regarded] as a desirable feature of national self-determination and international stability.”

Such a tendency now seems evident in the Middle East, where religious pluralism and coexistence are increasingly viewed as unrealistic and threatening. This attitude was kept in check for a long period by Arab nationalism, which imagined an Arab identity transcending religious and sectarian affiliation. As Arab nationalism lost all credibility in the 1970s and 1980s, the space it left was filled by religion and the emergence of religious-political forces that would gain ground in many Arab countries.

The utter discredit of modern Arab states, with their brutal regimes, corruption and undemocratic social contracts, only pushed people to abandon all hope in the state and fall back on primary identities such as sect or tribe in times of crisis. From there to a recognition that people of different sectarian or ethnic origins could not live together the distance was not very large. In Iraq and Syria this mood has been reinforced in the past three years, while in Lebanon it has remained latent, though real.

As the Lebanese look toward the conflicts in Syria and Iraq, there is no reason to be reassured. Lebanon’s sectarian makeup is similar, while the presence of over 1 million mostly Sunni Syrian refugees who are not likely to soon return home may emerge as a major source of instability. That is why Hezbollah and Iran have an interest in ensuring that President Bashar Assad allows the refugees to come home, so they do not reverse Sunni-Shiite demographics in Lebanon to their disadvantage.

Lost in the sectarian free-for-all are Lebanon’s Christians. Already, they can sense, national dynamics are being largely driven by Sunni-Shiite relations. This has led some Christians to discuss the introduction of alternative political systems for the country, above all federalism. The only problem with federalism is that there are no truly homogenous areas in the country: Lebanon is not Switzerland, and minorities in federal districts dominated by other sects will never feel secure.

If, as some are predicting, the states of the region break down into separate entities, the impetus to follow suit will likely reach Lebanon. The country was created in 1920 against the aspirations of many of its Muslims to be part of a larger Arab nation. One of the principal motives of the Maronite supporters of the Lebanon project was to avoid becoming citizens of a state in which they would be swallowed up by a Muslim majority.

The fragmentation of Lebanon would represent a complete reversal of such tendencies. Muslims, who once aspired to an Arab state of which geographical Lebanon would be only a part, would effectively be abandoning coexistence and a common destiny to embrace the antithesis of the Arab nationalist ideal.

While this is not comforting, it’s usually the way separation is achieved that makes all the difference. As in Bosnia during the 1990s, divorces can be violent as everyone tries to grab as much land as possible, expelling or killing those from other communities in the areas conquered. We are seeing such impulses in Iraq and Syria, and they are very worrisome. But against this, as Mazower observed, there is also a pervasive sense that sectarian or ethnic purity ultimately bring stability.

The Lebanese went through a similar experience between 1975 and 1990, but they never went all the way in formalizing new entities. Perhaps the country is, quite simply, too small. But more effort is required to ensure that Lebanon can weather the storms gathering on the horizon. Unfortunately, very little in the behavior of Lebanon’s political actors generates optimism.

That is why the continued bickering over a new president seems so out of place at this time. Hezbollah, clearly, sees things in a different light, viewing the choice of president as vital in its effort to protect its weapons in Lebanon, therefore maintain a role in Iran’s regional strategy. And that is why Michel Aoun seems so petty in his refusal to accept that he cannot be elected as a consensual candidate. Constitutionally, the president is the symbol of the nation’s unity, yet neither Hezbollah nor Aoun appears to have given this much thought, while the decision of March 14 to stick to Samir Geagea shows a similar obstinacy.

But beyond Hezbollah, Aoun and March 14, Lebanon must better prepare for the riptide that is coming. If the communities opt for coexistence, as they must in so diminutive a country, then there are underlying prerequisites for it to succeed. And if coexistence becomes impossible, then peaceful change of the political system must be discussed. But war must at all costs be averted. Lebanon has already been there, and Iraq and Syria offer models that no one has any desire to follow.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

It’s time for a coordinated response in Iraq and Syria

Much of the discussion about Iraq today has been focused on the potential terrorist threat posed by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Almost nothing, however, is being said about Syria, and how it fits into any effort to reverse ISIL’s gains.

What most governments appear consciously to be ignoring is that there is an organic link between Iraq and Syria. And that is precisely the message ISIL has sought to confirm in its claims to be erasing the borders between the two countries on the path toward a new caliphate.

For Iran, any acknowledgement that the situation in Syria is partly responsible for creating ISIL risks turning into an indictment of the Islamic Republic’s role in the country. Indeed, Iran’s support for Bashar Al Assad’s repression of the uprising against his rule has been perceived as an effort by Shia Iran to bolster a minority regime against the Sunnis.

The American perspective has been somewhat different. By portraying the situation in Iraq as, principally, a terrorism issue, and by failing to mention how the situation in Syria has affected this, Barack Obama has once again sought to avoid a debate over a reorientation of Washington’s Syria policy.

But whatever is done in Iraq can never be complete unless a complementary policy is adopted in Syria. The reasons are fairly obvious. First, eastern Syria has provided ISIL with a vast territory that escapes any government control and that contains oil reserves the group has exploited to finance itself.

Second, with an open Syrian-Iraqi border, militants facing military attacks in Iraq can always slip back into Syria while waiting for the situation to blow over. And given Sunni discontent in Iraq, undoubtedly there would be many opportunities for ISIL to return there, especially as it is unlikely the Iraqi government can seal the border with Syria.

The only realistic means to ending the ISIL threat is to alter the environment in which it is operating. That means, above all, putting an end to the vacuum that ISIL has been able to fill in both Syria and Iraq. On the Iraqi side, it doubtless also means persuading prime minister Nouri Al Maliki to open up to the Sunnis, whose discontent ISIL has latched on to.

Mr Al Maliki was never sympathetic to the Sunni Awakening, the American-led effort to mobilise the Sunni tribes of Anbar against Al Qaeda in Iraq. When the Americans withdrew from Iraq, the prime minister cut funding to the Awakening councils, one of several measures that pushed the Sunnis to turn against the central government in Baghdad.

Unfortunately, Mr Al Maliki is not a conciliator by nature, and the Shia-centric policies he has pursued have had the backing of Iran, the most influential actor in Iraq. Yet unless the prime minister better integrates Sunnis into the Iraqi state, they will remain hostile to him, and ISIL will take advantage of this.

Moreover, Mr Al Maliki’s policies have alienated the Kurds as well, making them press forward toward de facto independence. Therefore the Iraqi prime minister’s approach is only accelerating Iraq’s break-up into separate sectarian or ethnic entities, and this will continue unless he changes course.

In Syria, too, a parallel strategy must be pursued to deny ISIL a separate area over which it has control and in which it can finance its operations. This would involve arming and training Syrian opposition groups opposed to ISIL. Already, ISIL has reportedly sent weaponry and equipment back to Syria in an apparent bid to follow up its successes in Iraq with steps to expand its area of control in Syria. This has to be prevented.

The Americans do not seem opposed to such action, and indeed in a speech at West Point recently Mr Obama declared he would “work with Congress to ramp up support for those in the Syrian opposition who offer the best alternative to terrorists and brutal dictators”. But there are many ways to interpret such a mandate, and until now the United States and its partners have not clearly defined what this support might entail.

The irony is that the American fear that terrorist groups may get a hold of American weapons through the Syrian rebels has already taken place because of the sudden disintegration of the Iraqi army, which Washington had considered reliable.

For now Mr Obama says he has taken no final decisions on what to do in Iraq. There is even talk of American collaboration with Iran in combating ISIL. All this opens potentially interesting doors. However, given US-Iran differences over Syria, there can be no serious prospect of integrating Syria into a counterterrorism policy embraced by the two countries.

It would be a mistake for the Obama administration to take action in Iraq that places it on one side or the other in the escalating sectarian conflict in the country. ISIL’s success has been to anchor itself into a widespread movement of Sunni dissatisfaction, one that has the backing of many Arab states. By fighting ISIL, the Americans may be seen as bolstering Iraq’s Shia community against the marginalised Sunnis.

One way to avoid this is by giving the mainly Sunni Syrian rebels the means to oppose and defeat ISIL and show that there is no sectarian agenda behind American decisions. Dealing with Iraq while doing nothing in Syria will only allow ISIL to survive. It is time for officials to address this reality head on.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Over the edge - How Sunni discontent has backfired on Iran

The gains of the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) in recent days have been partly made possible by the participation of discontented Iraqi Sunnis. ISIS is a vanguard, to which various Sunni-dominated groups, including onetime Baathists, have attached themselves, all fighting the Shiite-dominated government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

If so, this can tell us a great deal about the pitfalls of Iran’s approach to the Arab world, particularly its seeming refusal to push for conciliation with Sunnis in Iraq or Syria.

For years, Maliki has embarked on a reckless path of marginalizing Iraqi Sunnis, generating the rancor that has greatly facilitated the ISIS campaign. Maliki began by alienating the Sunni Arab Awakening that American forces had put in place in Anbar province to fight Al-Qaeda in Iraq. He then had an arrest warrant issued against Tareq al-Hashemi, the vice president and most senior Sunni official, who later fled Iraq. And finally, Maliki used force to break up a months-long protest in Anbar where Sunnis had gathered to denounce the government’s mistreatment of their community.

Iran, which has considerable influence over Iraq, and over Maliki in particular, apparently did nothing to dissuade him from pursuing his Shiite-centric policies. Today it is paying the price, with reports suggesting that Qassem Soleimani, the head of the Quds Force in Iran’s Revolutionary Guard and someone often described, rightly or wrongly, as Iran’s proconsul in Iraq, is feverishly working to contain the debacle. 

Iran’s strategy in the Arab world is, to a great extent, based precisely on the type of behavior that led to catastrophe in Iraq. In Iraq and Syria in the past three years, where their allies have not had a realistic chance of co-opting enraged Sunni communities, Iran has encouraged fragmentation. It has done so on the assumption that the Islamic Republic is better able to exert its influence in divided, conflictual Arab societies than in ones that are unified and can stand up to Iranian hegemony.

In Iraq, this has meant that Iran accepts Maliki’s divisive policies and supports him in his sectarian standoffs. In Syria, it has led to the consolidation of President Bashar al-Assad’s control over Damascus, the border area with Lebanon, the Syrian coast, and communication lines in between. Outside those areas the regime and Iran haven’t the manpower or the wherewithal to recapture and hold territory. This essentially means Iran has helped harden Syria’s sectarian partition lines.

In Lebanon the situation is somewhat different. Because its Hezbollah allies have been able to play a dominant role in the institutions of the Lebanese state, Iran has not sought fragmentation. Instead, Hezbollah has resorted to the language and practice of consensus, backed by the occasional threat or use of violence, in such a way as to neutralize its adversaries. 

Everywhere, Iranian behavior is based on a careful reading of the balance of forces – of what Iran’s allies can impose on those who disagree with them, no matter how contentious. Almost nowhere (Lebanon sometimes being an exception, due to its complicated sectarian makeup and Hezbollah’s need to preserve key political alliances) has there been a sustained effort by Iranian-backed officials or parties to engage in the politics of compromise with disgruntled Sunni communities.

We are now witnessing a counter-reaction to this inflexible approach in Iraq, while in Syria Assad’s policies have virtually ensured that he may never rule over a united country again. Arab divisions may benefit Iran, but that’s assuming the Islamic Republic can indefinitely contain the potentially devastating consequences of the policies it abets, which is not guaranteed.

The problem with the Iranian strategy is that its reliance on “creative Arab chaos” makes it difficult for Tehran to build something durable through its alliances. And yet, historically, Iran is a nation of institutions, and has succeeded remarkably in some cases – for example in its creation of Hezbollah in Lebanon. But in Syria and Iraq, its partners have been brutal or irresponsible abusers of institutions, emptying them of their meaning and turning them into bulwarks of personal power.

The Iranians must think long and hard about the Iraqi lesson. ISIS is simply a symptom of the fire spreading through the drywood of Sunni regional discontent. That’s why Tehran may have no choice but to consider a different approach to the region’s Sunnis, or face sectarian blowback everywhere.

Potentially, this realization can open valuable doors for cooperation with Saudi Arabia, especially as both have an interest in defeating ISIS. However, it may also require an overhaul of Iranian thinking on the Arab world, as well as a modest understanding that power plays in the region cannot long succeed when directed against the Sunni majority. 

The collapse in Iraq has been a setback for the United States, which spent a trillion dollars on the country, lost thousands of lives, and trained Iraq’s army. But it is, above all, a reversal for Iran, whose ally Nouri al-Maliki pushed the Sunnis over the edge, which now threatens Iran’s vital interests. To calm the furies, Tehran will have to reexamine its methods, and decide whether sectarian brinksmanship is the way to keep going.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

What Mosul could mean for Obama

In his excellent book “A Line in the Sand,” on the Franco-British rivalry in the Middle East, James Barr quotes a British officer in Deir al-Zor as writing: “We must control the desert, not only for the safety of our military communications, but because who holds the desert also, in the end, holds the sown.”

That should sound familiar after the fall of Mosul this week to the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), and areas closer to Baghdad. With ISIS controlling the Syria- Iraq border, able to shift its men between either country, and living off oil resources in Syria, we are seeing the consolidation of a territory controlled by no state, one that may prove far more destabilizing than Afghanistan after Osama bin Laden moved there from Sudan.

In a speech at West Point in May, President Barack Obama observed, “For the foreseeable future, the most direct threat to America, at home and abroad, remains terrorism, but a strategy that involves invading every country that harbors terrorist networks is na├»ve and unsustainable.”

No one disagrees with the straw man Obama set up. Yet the president must admit one thing: Any solution to the ISIS problem must come from both Iraq and Syria. Obama is learning why a Syrian conflict he once recklessly qualified as “someone else’s civil war” has turned into a regional danger.

As the former U.S. envoy in Syria, Robert Ford, wrote this week in the New York Times, “We don’t have good choices on Syria anymore. But some are clearly worse than others. More hesitation and unwillingness to commit to enabling the moderate opposition fighters to fight more effectively both the jihadists and the regime simply hasten the day when American forces will have to intervene against Al-Qaeda in Syria.”

Ford is right. The Obama administration’s staying out of Syria at all costs has effectively meant it allowed a situation to fester that may impose its intervention at a later stage. It’s funny how the lessons of the West’s abandonment of Afghanistan after the Soviet withdrawal were ignored. This led to the consolidation of an unruly territory that allowed the perpetrators of 9/11 to plot their crime. But in Obama’s Washington memories are short, while the refusal to consider intervention is rarely measured against the negative consequences of such a choice.

At West Point, Obama also declared: “I believe we must shift our counterterrorism strategy, drawing on the successes and shortcomings of our experience in Iraq and Afghanistan, to more effectively partner with countries where terrorist networks seek a foothold.” Indeed, but what is the president’s plan in Iraq, a country which he has largely ignored in the past five years, despite the high cost in American lives and money?

And what are Obama’s intentions in Syria? There are reports that the U.S. intends to train Syrian rebels, apparently to fight Al-Qaeda groups as well as President Bashar Assad’s regime. According to David Ignatius, writing on this page, the plan is to train some 9,600 rebels by the end of this year.

The only problem is that it remains unclear how realistic are American aims. If the goal is to transform Syria’s rebels into an American proxy to fight ISIS and the Nusra Front, the brains in Washington may quickly realize that the Syrians have other priorities. Their aim is, above all, to overthrow the Syrian regime, whereas the Obama administration still clings to a policy of forcing Assad to the negotiating table. This implicitly means denying the rebels an opportunity to defeat him.

Assad knows this all too well. His regime initially gave ISIS the leeway and leverage it needed to expand, knowing full well that this would so agitate Western states that they would hesitate to arm and assist the Syrian rebels. And yet Obama still refuses to dislodge a Syrian regime that will continue to defend itself by exporting instability through groups such as ISIS.

Unless the U.S. devises a strategy that encompasses both Iraq and Syria, and that addresses the complex, multifaceted nature of the Syrian and Iraqi crises, failure is probable. This is a test for Obama, one that will have a bearing on his commitments elsewhere, above all in Afghanistan. It will also be a test for ties with Iran on the region. While obstacles to a nuclear deal remain, when it comes to Iraq, the U.S. and the Islamic Republic appear to be, objectively at least, on the same side.

The problem is that the Obama administration always seems to be the last to pick up on dynamics in the Arab world. The ISIS challenge is a complicated one, involving several regional states and feeding off intricate, contending domestic ambitions inside Iraq and Syria. This is not a headache that Obama can resolve with his usual urbane detachment. He has made fighting terrorism a priority, and combating ISIS will involve a political and military commitment, even without deploying U.S. forces, that will have to be measured in years not months.

During his election campaign, Obama claimed that Al-Qaeda had been “decimated” under his watch. What is intriguing about ISIS is not so much that it has proven Obama’s statement wrong; it’s that its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, seems to be challenging Al-Qaeda’s Ayman al-Zawahri for the top spot. The ISIS push into Mosul was as much part of an internal struggle over leadership of the jihadist international as anything else.

By taking over Mosul, ISIS may have compelled the United States to overhaul its Syria policy. But nothing in Obama’s record makes us hopeful about his reaction. Iraq and Syria require American time and effort, which the president has been consistently unwilling to give the Middle East. The only bitter satisfaction is that a region he arrogantly thought he could ignore has just bitten a big chunk out of his leg.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Dysfunction of Arab states puts stress on colonial borders

The capture of Mosul by militants of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant has shown the increasingly nominal nature of Middle Eastern borders. Ironically, these borders, created by Britain and France after the First World War remained durable for a century.
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In the past week, two prominent Arab figures expressed doubt that Syria would remain as it was, with its war into its fourth year. Lebanese politician Walid Jumblatt told the Associated Press: “We are still at the beginning of the war in Syria. In the long term, the map of the Middle East will be redrawn.”

Meanwhile, the former United Nations envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, declared to Der Spiegel that Syria would “become another Somalia. It will not be divided, as many have predicted. It’s going to be a failed state, with warlords all over the place”.

Mr Jumblatt and Mr Brahimi have differing views of Syria’s destiny. The Lebanese Druze leader believes that, ultimately, Syria will break down into new entities, which will affect the region as a whole. Mr Brahimi disagrees, arguing that Syria will remain united, but only in name. Fragmentation is assured, he believes, also impacting negatively on the region.

Just as the borders of the Middle East were drawn by outsiders, they may continue to be preserved, or threatened, by outsiders. When Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, it was the United States that expelled the Iraqi army. By and large, Western states have defended the status quo in the Arab world, even urging their Kurdish allies to remain a part of an Iraqi federal state.

Only in the Israeli-Palestinian context has there been a project to create a new Palestinian state, while the establishment of South Sudan in 2011 merely formalised a longstanding rift between Khartoum and Sudan’s south.

The fear of fragmentation in the region derives from an understanding not that its states were created by Western colonial powers, but from the fact that they have become more contested by their own citizens. This has been true of Syria, Iraq, Libya and even Lebanon, which yet remained one country despite a terrible civil war.

This dysfunctional nature of the Arab state is the consequence mainly of social contracts that promise citizens only intimidation and repression, usually under the eye of a brutal ruling class, with little by way of rights or economic and human development.

Syria has been a prime example of this pattern. Other than the prospect of ending the violence, little encourages Syrians to return to the sordid state in place before 2011. At the same time, the incentive to see Syria divided into mini-states, constructed around sectarian or ethnic identities, is no stronger. Both sides in the conflict seek to defeat the other and win all of Syria.

But is that true of everyone? President Bashar Al Assad’s staunchest ally, Iran, appears to have a different agenda, at least in the medium term: to consolidate the Syrian regime’s hold over “vital Syria” – Damascus, the border with Lebanon, the Syrian coast, and communication lines in between, through the city and province of Homs. Outside those areas, Iran has neither the manpower nor the incentive to help Mr Al Assad recapture territory and hold it for an extended period.

The implications are very serious. Unable to impose its allies’ control over large swathes of Sunni-dominated areas in Syria and Iraq, a hegemonic Tehran may prefer fragmentation, allowing it to dominate digestible components of disintegrating Arab states.

Nor can Mr Al Assad challenge this, given his dependency on Iran and its Lebanese and Iraqi Shia clients for his own political survival. But whether Syria’s divided territories consolidate into lasting entities is a question that remains unresolved.

The possibility of a parting of the ways between Mr Al Assad and Iran is improbable, but possible. The Syrian president has not sought to build up an Alawite mini-state in northeast Syria, while he has done his utmost to maintain a grip on ­Damascus.

Perhaps he feels that a resort to a blatantly sectarian project would not only undermine the idea of Al Assad rule over all of Syria, it could destroy the family’s standing among Alawites. In the past half-century the story of the Alawites has been one of expansion outside their traditional areas and integration into the Syrian state. To be forced back into the mountain now could prompt them to turn against Mr Al Assad’s rule.

The Syrian state as we knew it is not likely to return in the foreseeable future, if ever. But if anything helps achieve this it’s the efforts of regional powers to accelerate the breakup of Syria – or Iraq, for that matter – in order to better exploit the aftermath.

Colonial-era borders in the Arab world have proven far more resilient than critics of colonialism will admit. But post-colonial Arab regimes, by presiding over failing states, have made the task that much easier for countries gaining from their divisions.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Iran benefits from creative Arab chaos

With all the attention focused on a nuclear deal between Iran and the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany, there has not been much discussion in the West of the expansion of Iranian influence in the Middle East.

While Arab states, particularly in the Gulf, have expressed anxiety with Iran’s growing power in the region, little has been said about the limits of Iranian ambition and the strong counterreactions it has provoked and will continue to provoke.

Iran has a finger in several Arab pies. Tehran’s influence over Iraq and its government is said to be significant. In Lebanon, the ties with Hezbollah have given it a major role in deciding the fate of the country. In the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, Iran has re-established ties with a financially strapped Hamas. And in Syria, Tehran has greatly expanded its authority, having played an essential part in bolstering Bashar Assad’s regime.

However, just leaving matters there means ignoring the tremendous contentiousness and complexity of any Iranian project for regional hegemony.

The primary medium through which Iran has extended its influence is Arab Shiite communities. The most obvious problem here is that in no Arab country do Shiites rule on their own. Everywhere, even where Shiites form a majority, they must coexist with sizable Sunni minorities, and the perception of an Iranian threat has usually meant that these Sunnis are, or quickly can become, mobilized against Shiite power plays.

A second problem is geographical. The continuity of territory between Iran and the Levant (or Iran and Yemen), which can allow Iran to arm and assist Shiite communities there, is never uncontested. This has created a vulnerability in the Iranian position, pushing the Islamic Republic to frequently resort to Shiite communal solidarity, which itself has hardened sectarian fault lines and redoubled the obstacles Iran faces.

In Iraq, the Shiite-centered policies of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki have only generated discontent among Sunnis and Kurds. The Iraqi government is facing a full-fledged revolt in Anbar, a consequence of its mismanagement of relations with the Sunni tribes that had spearheaded the Sahwa, or Awakening, movement. Jihadist groups have sought to take advantage of the ensuing sectarian tensions.

As for the Kurds, earlier this week Massoud Barzani, the president of the Iraqi Kurdistan region, threatened to take Kurdistan out of Iraq if Maliki was appointed to a third term as head of government. There are many specific disputes between the Kurds and the government, but Barzani has been particularly critical of Maliki’s methods of governance in the past.

As they survey this state of affairs, are the Iranians happy? There is a view that as Tehran cannot control Arab countries directly because of their sectarian makeup, it is left with playing on their divisions. An astute observer has suggested that Iran benefits from “creative chaos” (a term once directed against American neoconservatives) in the Arab world. Unable to impose a classical model of hegemony in the region, it is destined to look for openings in its chronic disorder.

To a large extent that conclusion is true. But Iran is also a country of institutions, where the impulse is to create permanence. Its strategy in Lebanon, which involved anchoring Hezbollah in Lebanon’s Shiite community, is a prime example of this and a particularly successful one.

In contrast, when it comes to Syria, Tehran’s most important battlefront today, the Iranians have kept Assad’s regime in place. But they have done so by effectively pushing a policy that partitions Syria, with their focus on consolidating Assad’s control over Damascus, the coast, the border with Lebanon and all regions in between. Outside that vital area, the Iranians seem little concerned with what happens. Nor have they presented a proposal for a political settlement of the conflict, one that can reunify the country.

All this leads to a more nuanced interpretation of Iranian power, one that involves two sets of contradictory objectives: In some countries where it sees the possibility of controlling the commanding heights of decision-making, the Islamic Republic will perpetuate dynamics of unity. Lebanon is a good example.

However, in countries where political, sectarian and ethnic divisions make this impossible, Iran will exacerbate fragmentation. In that way, it can control chunks of a country, usually the center, while enhancing the marginalization and debilitation of areas not under its authority. Iraq and Syria are good illustrations of this version of creative chaos.

Whether the Iranian approach has been an effective one is a different question altogether. Certainly, it has given Tehran considerable latitude to be a regional player and obstruct outcomes that might harm its interests. But there is also fundamental instability in a strategy based on exploiting conflict and volatility, denying Iran the permanence it has historically achieved through its creation of lasting institutions.

Ironically, the United States may help Iran in this regard. If a nuclear deal is reached this year, it could prompt the Obama administration to engage Iran in the resolution of regional issues. This recognition of Iranian power will reinforce those in Tehran who seek a greater say in the Arab world. But if what we have seen until now is anything to go by, it may not necessarily lead to a more settled Middle East.

On the presidency, look at Hezbollah

There has been much speculation in Beirut about how to get Lebanon out of its presidential impasse. The focus has been on convincing the main Maronite candidates to withdraw in favor of someone who is acceptable to all, an approach regarded as the key to ending the current stalemate.

With all the attention on the Maronites, relatively little consideration has been given to Hezbollah, which remains the most influential elector in Lebanon and, with Iran, perhaps in the region. Conveniently for Hezbollah, the Maronite rivalry has filled the foreground, and may continue to do so for some time. But it is the background, and Hezbollah’s interests, that may tell us what the ultimate outcome will be in the presidency.

For some time Hezbollah has viewed the Lebanese situation as part and parcel of the Syrian situation. The party always considered its success in strengthening Syrian President Bashar Assad as a check that also had to be cashed in Lebanon. As Assad consolidates in Syria, Hezbollah intends to do the same at home, where the Syrian civil war repeatedly gave hope to the party’s domestic foes that its domination could be challenged.

With Hezbollah now believing that the tide has turned in Syria, it is moving ahead with this project. The party did two things last year to prepare the ground. It pushed for an extension of Jean Kahwagi’s term as Army commander, in order to maintain his relevance in the presidential pre-election period, even though this angered Michel Aoun, who had hoped his son-in-law, Shamel Roukoz, would replace Kahwagi. And Hezbollah worked to delay parliamentary elections – partly by having another ally, Nabih Berri, divisively push for an impossible agreement over an election law, partly by going along with the argument that the security situation did not permit an election.

With these two pieces in place, Hezbollah bought valuable time to go on the offensive in Syria, playing a vital role in helping Assad’s forces recapture the Qalamoun district. In that way it cut off the link between Syria and Lebanon and reinforced the Syrian regime’s hold over the communications lines between Damascus and Homs, and Homs and the Syrian coast.

Kahwagi has been Hezbollah’s candidate from the start, and very little appears to have changed in its position. The party always expected a mash-up between the Maronite presidential contenders, so it was a question of maneuvering around this for a time, even if it perpetuated a temporary vacuum, while setting up the conditions for the election of its nominee.

That’s why Aoun, who is perfectly aware of Hezbollah’s plan, has been so busy trying to make himself relevant to both the party and to Walid Jumblatt, who can hand him a majority. The recent leak to Al-Joumhouria, in which Aoun said that it was necessary to accept the fact that Assad could win in Syria, was directed at the first; his statement that he would participate in elections on the basis of the 1960 law was aimed at the second.

Part of Aoun’s implicit message to the Future Movement has derived from this logic: Either you vote for me, or you will have to face a Hezbollah candidate. Today Aoun’s insistence on blocking any compromise figure is directed even more against Hezbollah than it is against March 14, since once the principle of compromise is accepted, Kahwagi’s chances will go up, bolstered by the fact that the Army commander has led successful security plans in Tripoli and the Bekaa Valley.

That’s why Samir Geagea’s accusation on Wednesday that Aoun was responsible for blocking the election was music to Hezbollah’s ears. Only if inter-Christian rivalries rise can all the principal candidates be discredited, opening the door to a Hezbollah candidate. But Aoun, for all his stubbornness and opportunism, is not the main issue. The issue is Hezbollah’s agenda. In this context we should look ahead at the second part of the party’s plan, namely winning the parliamentary elections.

Hezbollah believes, with good reason, that March 14 will not win a majority in the forthcoming elections. Even on the basis of the 1960 law, the breakdown of parliamentary seats will probably be roughly similar to what it is today, with Jumblatt retaining a balancing role. That is why Hezbollah wants to preserve its relationship with Aoun, whatever their momentary disagreements over the presidency.

Aoun, too, has an interest in preserving a good relationship with the party. Even if he doesn’t become president, he would retain significant power as head of the largest Christian bloc. And for that to happen, Aoun needs Hezbollah’s Shiite votes in several key districts, particularly Baabda, Jbeil and Jezzine.

The potential loser in all this is March 14. The coalition took its hardest knock when Jumblatt headed for the political center. It’s possible this will lose him two Druze seats in the West Bekaa and Beirut. But then again both Jumblatt and Saad Hariri may benefit from reconciling. Jumblatt has as much to gain by securing Sunni votes as Aoun does by winning Shiite votes. As for Hariri, he only loses by alienating Jumblatt.

How might Hezbollah set up a Kahwagi victory? It’s difficult to say. There are those who argue that as there is a vacuum today, no constitutional amendment is needed to bring the Army commander to office. That’s imaginative. Some fear the party will manipulate the security situation to make Kahwagi more appealing. Whatever happens the situation will have to fester until the mood is ripe for Hezbollah’s chosen solution.

Kahwagi’s candidacy will also need Sunni backing. Unless the Saudis give a green light to their Lebanese allies, the general will face serious obstacles in his path. The weeks ahead will reveal what the presidential election is really about, and they will better expose Hezbollah’s role in preparing for its preferred end game.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Wasted martyr - The plaster saint

Few words are more detestable than “martyr,” and nothing brought that home as well as the assassination of Samir Kassir. This week we commemorate the ninth anniversary of his murder. Has his status as martyr taught us anything?

Perhaps naively, some people, present company included, once thought that Samir’s death would not go unpunished. Almost a decade later, that hope has evaporated, and the only sentiment left is that even the most heroic death in the end is largely meaningless. Beat the drums and play the pipes, but nothing will come of it, certainly not in Lebanon.

Shortly after Samir’s killing, already the calculations on all sides began to change. The Aounists, with whom Samir had engaged in a sustained dialogue, abandoned his memory as they built up their alliances with Hezbollah and Syria. By 2009, even senior figures in March 14 were compelled to normalize their relations with Bashar al-Assad, albeit reluctantly, welcoming him to Beirut. Walid Jumblatt, surveying the changes all around him, decided to effect his own reconciliation with Assad, reversing course only when the uprising in Syria began.

This was all par for the course in a country where the political class is either unwilling or unable to behave autonomously. In such shifting sands, what chance did Samir Kassir’s fate have to leave an enduring mark on justice in Lebanon, and to change the way the country functioned politically? None at all. 

Kassir understood well the interconnectedness of Arab dissatisfaction and solidarity. Only six years after his death, this would be demonstrated in a succession of Arab uprisings feeding off each other. These were dynamics which Kassir would well have understood, given his tendency to consider the Arab world as an integrated whole. For him, there was something intimately linking the Lebanese desire for freedom from Syria to the Syrian people’s longing for liberty at home. And the Palestinians’ yearning for a state seemed no different in his mind from the Iraqis’ pursuit of political self-determination after 2003. Kassir was no defender of the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq, but he was also not as willing as many of his contemporaries to dismiss the advantages to Iraqis of finally being freed from a pathological, homicidal regime.

Had Kassir been alive, what would he have told us about the situation in Syria? Some 160,000 people have been killed there, yet the individual most responsible for this butchery is still in power and has just organized his own fraudulent re-election. Kassir would have surely been one of the most biting commentators on this outrage and a vocal defender of the opposition, but also one of its most lucid critics.

Kassir would have been pitiless in condemning the West’s pathetic response in Syria. Though he always warned of the dangers of Western intervention in the Middle East, Kassir also grasped its liberalizing potential. That’s why he told me in an interview a year almost to the day before his murder, “[T]he West must accept that the strategic importance of the Middle East must not justify denying its peoples the right to self-determination, and that means, particularly, the Palestinians.”

One can imagine the disdain he would have felt for Western countries, above all the United States, who have behaved with almost surrealistic indifference and incompetence in Syria. Twenty years after the Rwandan genocide, with Western officials regretting their inaction at the time, another killing field is in place, its horrors multiplying daily, unabated. Is that the way it has to be? Permitting a slaughter to continue, only to regret it two decades hence, when guilt matters not at all?

Kassir’s last book Considerations sur le Malheur Arabe (with the far less evocative English title of Being Arab) received many plaudits after his assassination. Its main theme is that the Arabs can plot a path toward national revival through a reconsideration of their own rich history, one that could help them do away with the “perennial powerlessness” [that] “annulled the possibility of a new reawakening.”

There was much of the author’s optimism and exuberance in the book. Its tragedy was that this singular intellectual’s effort to try to see through the region’s miasma toward the possibility of a sunnier future was cut short by the reality of the Arab world’s violent present. That present is still with us, more offensive and vicious than ever. And the hope that Kassir’s senseless murder would somehow alter this situation proved illusory.

Like the Cheshire Cat in Alice in Wonderland, all that is left of Samir is his grin. It appears to be a grin both humorous and provocative. March 14, perhaps understandably, made a plaster saint of him, when he never had the slightest intention of being something so dull. Instead, he was all life, and it is that which defined his outlook on his country and the Middle East.

Nine years later the grin is still there, but we’re not sure if it is an expression of satisfaction or a grimace of displeasure for what he has been turned into. All we can say with every passing year is that Samir Kassir becomes more relevant, his absence more oppressive. His writings brought order to the chaos of a region that eats its children. What a waste his death has been.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Obama’s lack of interest opens the door for Iran

Recently, in response to questions about the Obama administration’s disengagement from the Middle East, a former American official visiting Beirut offered his interpretation. Though he was not necessarily advocating Washington’s actions, what he presented revealed the incomprehensibility of the American strategy towards Iran and the Arab world, Syria in particular.

Explaining why the United States had not exploited the opportunity to severely weaken Iran in the Levant by helping to push President Bashar Al Assad out of office in 2011 and 2012, the former official presented what, by now, has become a familiar refrain: the administration, facing a major economic crisis, did not have the latitude or desire to act in Syria.

Moreover, in this regard the American public was unwilling to approve of any intervention in the Arab world, even if there were many more options than deploying ground troops.

When asked about whether the US viewed Iran as a strategic rival in the Middle East, the official said it did. In other words, there is clear recognition in Washington of the power stakes in the region and no effort to minimise this.

When the former official was queried about whether a nuclear deal with Iran might open the door to a broader American dialogue with the Islamic Republic over regional issues, the answer was “probably not”. With American midterm elections looming and suspicion of Iran high in Congress, anything seen as ignoring the Iranian danger could hurt President Barack Obama.

There was nothing here that hadn’t been said before. And yet, putting the implications together, what was the message? That the Obama administration does view Iran as a major foe in the Middle East, but that it preferred to do nothing about it in Syria (though it was willing to make an effort in Libya). That while Mr Obama today considers terrorism emanating from Syria as a major threat to America, he failed to fill the dangerous vacuum in the country when he was specifically warned that it might lead to the emergence of jihadist groups.

The former official had a point in saying that once engaged in Syria, the US could not simply hand the problem off to someone else once its goals were achieved, namely Mr Al Assad’s removal. The complexity of the Syrian situation meant that some sort of medium-term commitment was necessary.

Perhaps, but the impression was that the Obama administration is mostly unwilling to make any effort in the region, even if this has negative strategic implications. There is a great disconnect between the perceived importance of the regional challenge posed by Iran and America’s willingness to respond to it.

It has often been said that the Iranians play chess while the Americans play checkers. But these days, the Obama administration seems hardly to be playing at all. Even though it is in dire financial straits, Iran has gone all the way on behalf of Mr Al Assad. The Obama administration, though assisting the Syrian opposition would have cost much less, refused to do so.

Syria may be more vital to Iran than it is to America, but that again raises the initial question: What is the Obama administration’s assessment of Iranian power in the region? If Iran has to be contained – and negotiations over Iran’s nuclear programme suggests it does – then can this be done if the US is so reluctant to take on any regional respons­ibility?

The lack of commitment on the part of Mr Obama – indeed, what appears to be his utter lack of interest – will have profound implications for the Middle East in the foreseeable future and perhaps beyond. America’s allies are already preparing for a post-American period in the region, with some even wondering whether it is not time to arrive at some sort of understanding with Iran.

As long as the Saudis and other Gulf countries view Iranian influence as an existential threat, such a process may be limited. But even Saudi Arabia seems to have accepted the implications of American abandonment – and that word is not too strong. The recent Saudi invitation to Iran’s foreign minister to visit the kingdom may be the first step in an effort to peacefully coexist with the Islamic Republic in light of this.

In Lebanon, similar dynamics may also take shape. In lieu of open-ended confrontation, the Sunni community, following the Saudi lead if the kingdom warms up to Iran, may see a similar benefit in improving relations with Hizbollah. The formation of a national-unity government earlier this year, apparently sanctioned by the Saudis and Iranians, showed the relative advantages of a process of sectarian normalisation.

But one should not be naive. There is nothing heartfelt in adapting to a new reality of power in the region. Quite simply, America’s allies in the region believe that the Obama administration has no will to pursue its obvious interests, and therefore they are going their own way. And when they hear Washington’s weak rationale for its minimalism, this only confirms to them that the US is not likely to soon change.

Is that what Mr Obama wants? Does he feel that America has entered a new phase in the region and that there is no going back to the past? American officials may not admit as much, but the Arab states have already made up their mind. Iran is making headway and no one can rely on America to prevent this.

Monday, June 2, 2014

No regrets - Obama sticks to his checkered foreign policy path

Barack Obama never ceases to disappoint. His speech at West Point on Wednesday, portrayed as a major statement on foreign policy, was in fact a whimper sold as a bang.

Six years into an eight-year presidency, Obama essentially restated major foreign policy themes already associated with him. Little new was revealed, and there was no sense that the president sought to correct past errors. His speech was mainly a justification of what he has done until now, a foreign policy counteroffensive amid mounting criticism from some quarters.

But if Obama stuck to his guns, it is undoubtedly because he felt that a majority of Americans agreed with him that their country must be implicated less in resolving overseas problems.

Yet the president also declared, “It is absolutely true that in the 21st century, American isolationism is not an option.” True, but isolationism is as much a state of mind as anything else. It may not be realistic in an integrated world; however, what is possible, and present today, is an American attitude that invariably tends to stray away from most foreign interventions.

When it is implied that all such interventions are potentially dangerous because they may lead to large military commitments, things becomes stifling. In Syria, for instance, Obama has from the start misrepresented the stakes, implying that if America entered the fray, it could soon find itself in a new Iraq war. The reality is that there always was a menu of options such that, even if the American military was deployed, it could have kept the risk of being caught in a quagmire at a minimum. Establishing no-fly zones was an example.

Most remarkable was Obama’s need to mouth the platitudes of American greatness. Because American values inspire people worldwide, the president declared, “the United States is and remains the one indispensable nation. That has been true for the century past, and it will be true for the century to come.”

It is difficult to identify precisely what values Obama was thinking about. If America can stand idly by while a tyrant slaughters over a hundred thousand of his own citizens; if 60 percent of Americans can oppose any action against Syria after Bashar al-Assad fired chemical weapons at civilians in the Ghouta last summer, even though 75 percent of respondents said they thought Assad’s forces had indeed used such weapons; after all this, then American values are really about indifference.

The president’s use of the term “indispensable nation” was equally surprising. Much of Obama’s efforts in the past six years have been to underline that the world should not expect America to play a role everywhere while the country focused on rebuilding its economy. Indeed Vali Nasr, who served in Obama’s first term, wrote a book very critical of the president’s foreign policy titled, you guessed it, “The Dispensable Nation.”

Obama’s comments on Syria came mainly in the context of the president’s vow to fight terrorism. Obama did say that the United States must “help the Syrian people stand up against a dictator who bombs and starves his own people.” But he added, “In helping those who fight for the right of all Syrians to choose their own future, we are also pushing back against the growing number of extremists who find safe haven in the chaos.”

America’s self-centered obsession with terrorism is understandable, but as David Ignatius, who is often gentle when discussing Obama, bitingly observed: “Surely the president recognizes that terrorism has a deadly new face in Syria in part because he turned down a mid-2012 recommendation to train moderate opposition forces to counter the extremists.”

There has been much speculation about what Washington might do to assist “moderate” Syrian rebels, but, strangely, Obama did not see fit to mention specifics. Perhaps that’s because the president did not want to embarrass Jordan, which would doubtless host American efforts in this regard. Or it could be that Obama did not want to offset the general tenor of his speech by outlining what could be a controversial decision to increase America’s contribution to Syria’s war.

But the reality is that Obama has still not wrapped his mind around Syria, and remains uncertain how an anti-terrorism focus can coexist with a broader effort to alter the environment that allows terrorist groups to gain in strength. Obama faced a similar dilemma in Afghanistan, and reacted in contradictory ways: he initially advanced a counter-insurgency project that included elements of nation-building; he then reversed course to focus on a less ambitious counter-terrorism strategy.

High policy aside, Obama’s primary preoccupation in his West Point speech may have been the congressional elections next November. The president expects to be hammered by the Republicans over his indecisive foreign policy. By clarifying his thinking on the matter, of which many Americans are bound to approve, Obama may have sought to blunt future criticism.

One can only admire Obama’s skill over the past six years in selling his foreign policy snake oil to a largely-sedated American people. But that approval has also frayed somewhat in light of the president’s lack of initiative and imagination, so that even the Washington Post’s editorial board can write that Obama’s foreign policy has “been consistent – consistently bad.”

The West Point speech was a perfect illustration. It told us nothing we didn’t know, and much we would rather not know.