Friday, February 27, 2015

Final act - The curtain closes on journalist Eric Rouleau

The death of journalist Eric Rouleau this week, at the age of 89, was another symbolic closing of the curtain on a particular era when Arab nationalism dominated the region.

That this could be embodied by an Egyptian Jew, born Elie Raffoul, was not the least of the anomalies of Rouleau’s life. In 1985 Francois Mitterrand would name him French ambassador to Tunisia, before he would go on to head the embassy in Turkey. Not often do former journalists, particularly those considered engagĂ©, transition successfully to the world of diplomacy, where autonomy of expression is dreaded.

In reading Rouleau’s 2012 memoir, Dans Les Coulisses du Proche-Orient: Memoires d’un Journaliste Diplomate (1952-2012), one is struck by the author’s preoccupation with a world that was, by the time of publication, largely anachronistic. His discussions of Gamal Abdel Nasser and the Palestinian cause seemed drawn from a bygone era, at a time when the region had been shaken by uprisings in Egypt, Syria and Libya.

Not surprisingly, perhaps, in each of these countries the regimes in place portrayed themselves as Arab nationalist. By then they had morphed into sinister police states without ideals or ideas, their Arabism solely a vehicle to stifle aspirations for the future.

It’s difficult in reading Rouleau’s recollections not to see a direct link between the world he recalled with nostalgia and these revolts. Nasser, a man whom Rouleau admired, was the main instigator of an authoritarian regime with a DNA that other Arab leaderships would replicate in subsequent decades. While Nasser would seek to promote the idea of “Egypt for the Egyptians” and egalitarian policies, the price to pay was a suffocation of democratic political life and cultural richness.

It is interesting that Rouleau focuses on the latter point, despite his support for Nasser’s anti-imperialist message. As he wrote bitingly in his memoirs: “Although legitimate, the policy of ‘Egyptianization’ had its flip side: the exodus of several hundred thousand people from ‘minority’ backgrounds disfigured the Egypt I had known in my younger years—tolerant, rich in its creative diversity and in the communities that contributed largely to its economic and cultural life. Greeks, Italians, English, French or Jews of all nationalities, for the most part from modest backgrounds, were victims of the discriminatory measures that followed nationalization of most of the large and medium enterprises, and, more generally, the climate of insecurity generated by exacerbated nationalism.”

For those who knew Egypt before the revolution, such a verdict is familiar. Yet it is a tribute to Rouleau’s honesty that he can be so candid, despite being one of those who helped make Nasser known to the West, particularly through a famous interview he conducted with the Egyptian leader for Le Monde in 1963.

Doubtless what was behind Rouleau’s longing for Egypt’s bygone cosmopolitanism was that it allowed him to break free from the manacles of imposed identity. Though a Jew, he could write with sympathy of Arab nationalism and the Palestinian cause, while until the end his Arabic was that of a native.

No one is insensible to the passage of time, and even those critical of Arab nationalism can read Rouleau with a certain sense of nostalgia for an era that contrasts so strikingly with the disintegration of the Arab world today. In the 1950s and 1960s the region seemed a place of limitless possibilities, amid the hopes and spasms of “revolution.” That optimism was partly a sham, culminating in the ignominious Arab defeat by Israel in June 1967 and the destabilization of the region thanks to the Palestine Liberation Organization. But in his book, Rouleau, as a prime chronicler of that period, succeeds in teasing self-delusion out of us, and it’s not unpleasant.

The late Malcolm Kerr, in his classic book The Arab Cold War: Gamal Abd al-Nasir and His Rivals, 1958-1970, wrote that “[S]ince June 1967 Arab politics have ceased to be fun. In the good old days most Arabs refused to take themselves very seriously, and this made it easier to take a relaxed view of the few who possessed intimations of some immortal mission.”

Kerr himself would fall victim to such people in January 1984, when he was assassinated at the American University of Beirut. However, his comments are apt in the time of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the personification of messianic humorlessness. It’s ironic that what Kerr lamented after 1967, we can yet look back on with consideration today amid the mass murderers all around us. We have hit rock bottom in a region defined exclusively by violence, mediocrity, and disenchantment.

In his long life Rouleau was able to witness the permutations of the region into ever-lower life forms. He had come from a more promising, more civilized, time, which is why we can forgive him the mirages frequently appearing in his accounts. They are the mirages we are creating ourselves in this time of desolation.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Against all odds, Lebanon keeps strife at bay

Lebanon has been without a president since last May, and the negative implications are beginning to dawn on Christian leaders. Yet filling this vacuum is just one of a series of challenges the country will be facing in the coming months.

When Michel Sleiman’s term ended last year, the refusal of leading Christian politicians to rally around a consensual successor effectively prevented an election. The reason is that parliament elects Lebanese presidents, who must come from the Maronite Christian community.

The parliamentary bloc led by Michel Aoun refused to attend election sessions because he wants to obstruct the process until he is chosen himself. Hizbollah’s bloc, in solidarity with Mr Aoun, has done the same, preventing a quorum.

While Mr Aoun’s stubbornness is the apparent reason why a president hasn’t been elected, to most observers the real reason is that Hizbollah wants to delay a vote, and has exploited the Aounists’ tactic to do so. The party’s aim is to await a more propitious time when it can bring in a president who is guaranteed to defend its independent weapons arsenal.

That could come if the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany reach a nuclear accord with Iran. To Hizbollah such an agreement would give Tehran greater political latitude in the region, allowing the pro- Iranian party to bring in the president it wants.

Meanwhile, Maronite figures are realising that even without a president the cabinet is continuing to function. That is why many oppose the efforts of Tammam Salam, the prime minister, to agree to a new cabinet voting process to replace the unanimity now required for decisions. Such a mechanism, they argue, will make the cabinet more efficient, reducing the urgency to elect a president.

The cabinet dispute comes at a bad moment for Lebanon, amid fears that jihadi groups in Syria’s Qalamoun region are planning to destabilise the Lebanese border area. In recent weeks, the Lebanese army has received an influx of weapons from abroad. These are designed to permit Lebanon to defend its borders.

In order to reduce sectarian tensions, the Future Movement led by Saad Hariri, and Hizbollah, have been engaged in a dialogue for several weeks. This has taken place despite the ongoing trial of Hizbollah members suspected of assassinating his father Rafik Hariri in 2005. That the Future Movement has gone ahead with the dialogue nonetheless suggests that Saudi Arabia has pushed for it.

While there are fears of radicalisation among poorer Lebanese Sunnis, the security situation has been kept under tight control by the army, the internal security forces and, though it’s mentioned less, by Hizbollah. However, that does not mean there is no anxiety. The presence of some 1.5 million Syrian refugees as well as Salafist groups in the Palestinian refugee camps remains a cause of concern for the Lebanese authorities.

One paradox of the Lebanese situation has been that the country that once stood as the embodiment of sectarian violence has proven remarkably adept at averting it this time around. Lebanon’s different sects have been acutely aware of the dangers of a Sunni-Shia conflict, and have taken steps to alleviate tension.

While countries such as Syria and Iraq have collapsed due to sectarian violence, Lebanon, despite the civil war of 1975-1990, did not break apart. State institutions, though they were marginalised, continued to operate even in the darkest years of hostilities.

That is probably because the Lebanese political elite from the time of independence took into consideration the country’s sectarian differences. It put in place a political system that included power-sharing and compromise. While the system has been deeply dysfunctional at times, it recognised and adapted to Lebanon’s communal complexities.

This is in stark contrast to Arab nationalist regimes in countries, notably Syria and Iraq, that always buried sectarian divisions under a surface of sham secular nationalist unity, usually imposed from above. That is why when both faced sectarian and ethnic conflict, there were few mechanisms in place to resolve differences, facilitating the shattering of the two states.

In the months ahead Lebanon will probably be tested militarily in the border area, even as its cabinet struggles to find a modus vivendi between the different political factions. Hizbollah and Future will pursue their dialogue, even as the first gets drawn further into the maelstrom in Syria. Economically, the country will continue to suffer, as it has for four years.

But even as the Lebanese will sense the proximity of the abyss, their system is more apt than most in the region to absorb its shocks. Too much self-confidence is bad, as anxiety pushes the Lebanese to be conciliatory. But it is a refreshing anomaly that the country expected to be the least resistant to the sectarian anarchy sweeping the region has managed to stay afloat until now.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Eyeless on Tehran - Iran’s aim is Arab fragmentation, but America won’t see it

There has been much partisan discussion in Washington over the Obama administration’s efforts to reach a nuclear deal with Iran. However, a different concern emerged this week in newspaper articles and commentaries, namely how the actions of pro-Iranian Shiite militias in Iraq were undermining the campaign to defeat ISIS.

In a column for the Washington Post, David Ignatius echoed this view, noting that Iraqi Sunnis were wary of cooperating with the government of Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi, because it had allowed Shiite militias to operate in mainly Sunni Anbar Province.

Implicit in these readings was a sense that because the United States and Iran have a shared interest in fighting ISIS, it makes no sense for pro-Iranian militias to behave in ways that damage the aim of rallying anti-ISIS Sunnis against the terrorist group.

Reflecting this atmosphere, in December US Secretary of State John Kerry described Iranian attacks against ISIS this way: “[T]he net effect is positive.” Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, also observed: “As long as the Iraqi government remains committed to inclusivity of all the various groups inside [Iraq], then I think Iranian influence will be positive.”

Dempsey’s caveat about inclusivity notwithstanding, both statements displayed a limited grasp of what Iran’s strategy in the Middle East is all about, or how it only makes more likely the emergence and survival of groups such as ISIS.

The reality is that during the last decade Iran has been actively pushing for fragmentation of the Arab world. Early on the Iranians encouraged their Iraqi Shiite allies to advance a divisive sectarian agenda, alienating Sunnis and making impossible the rebuilding of a unified Iraq under a national central government.

In Syria, the Iranians have helped preserve Bashar al-Assad’s control over parts of Syrian territory — namely Damascus, the coastal areas and communication lines in between — while allowing large swathes of mainly Sunni territory to fall outside regime control. This effective partition of Syria may have resulted from a realistic reading of Assad’s limitations, but early on the regime and the Iranians also sought to make it permanent. They engaged in sectarian “cleansing,” pushing large numbers of Sunnis out of their areas.

On the Palestinian front, too, the regime has played on the divisions in Palestinian ranks, exploiting the differences between Fatah and Hamas. Tehran’s ability to exploit the contradictions in the Arab world, a policy pursued in Lebanon and Yemen as well, has been a recurring feature of Iran’s behavior in the Middle East for some time.

What is the rationale? Quite simply that an Arab world deeply divided, shattered into sectarian entities, and weakened represents fertile ground for Iran to impose its hegemony regionally. In such a context one can understand better Iran’s efforts lately to open new fronts against Israel. In the broad Iranian vision, the only serious regional rival it has is a nuclear-armed Israel.

Turkey also represents a potential problem, but the efforts of Recep Tayyip Erdogan to transform his country into a Middle Eastern powerhouse have failed. Moreover, by permitting a measure of Turkish cooperation with ISIS, Erdogan has undermined Turkey’s international credibility, even as his focus on pushing Assad out has become less of a priority as regional dynamics have rapidly evolved.

The Iranians are more than willing to allow the United States and the Arab states to bombard ISIS, as the group represents an irritant in that it straddles vital Iranian supply lines between Iraq and Syria. But ISIS hardly represents a strategic threat to Iran; on the contrary, by drawing Western attention to the terrorist problem, it distracts Western governments from Iran’s larger project in the Middle East.

It is ironic that in countries such as Iraq, Yemen and Lebanon, American interaction with governments or political forces is now filtered by Iran or its local allies. Even the pro-American Kurds in Iraq are careful not to cross Iran when making their decisions. The success of the Iraqi Kurds has been their ability to play Washington off against Tehran, without taking steps that might antagonize any side — for instance, by advancing toward independence.

But even if Iran is wary of Kurdish independence because this might give ideas to its own Kurds, it is hardly motivated by safeguarding the unity of Arab states. For example, in Iraq’s oil-rich Basra Province there is a growing movement for autonomy, as resentment of Baghdad’s neglect of the region grows. The south is majority Shiite, but this has not prevented a yearning to widen the margin of self-government with respect to the Shiite-dominated government in the capital.

Iran, which has considerable sway in the Basra region, has apparently not sought to curtain such sentiments, which only advance its divide-and-rule approach to the region.

But Iran is also ensuring that as wide spaces escape from government control due to the fragmentation of Arab states, they become more vulnerable to non-state actors such as ISIS. In other words, the American strategy of building consensus to reinforce governance institutions and prevent the emergence of vacuums in the region is precisely what Iran is systematically undermining.

Iran has benefited from the mistakes of the Bush administration — namely its mismanagement of the postwar situation in Iraq — but above all from the Obama administration’s disengagement from the Middle East. Whereas the first created an opportunity for Tehran to enter Iraq and start pulling sectarian strings to its advantage, the second opened a highway for Iran to pursue its long-term ambitions.

The Obama administration should remember this as it argues that the United States and Iran have a common benefit in collaborating against ISIS. The fact is that ISIS is a direct consequence of Iranian policies in Iraq and Syria — policies Iran is still implementing. The Americans are deaf, but they don’t have to be dumb and blind.

The region crumbles and Lebanon trembles

As prospects for the emergence of new sectarian and ethnic entities rise in the Middle East to replace illegitimate, authoritarian states, it is necessary to ask what will happen to Lebanon, the only Arab state that has sought to build its political system around a formula for sectarian compromise.

Lebanon’s most pressing danger is the presence of some 1.5 million Syrian refugees in the country, most of them Sunnis from areas the Assad regime considers vital for its political survival. Many have fled Homs and Qalamoun, which sit on vital communication lines between Damascus and the coast. These are both places the regime intends to retain, even as it has given up on far-flung districts that it has no real hope of controlling, such as Syria’s north, northeast and east.

Bringing back hundreds of thousands of Sunnis to Homs and its environs, the vulnerable neck of Bashar Assad’s “useful Syria,” is not something the regime in Damascus intends to do, amid rumors that the Iranians have resettled friendlier Shiite populations there from outside Syria and even the region. So, what happens to most of the refugees now in Lebanon?

Developments don’t offer much of an answer, let alone provoke optimism. Barring a major victory by the regime to retake all of Syria, which seems highly unlikely, the country will continue to fragment. Illustrating this, Syria’s Kurds last Friday declared their intention of pursuing the “geographic and political unity” of Kurdish areas in the context of a “federal state.” Under the circumstances, however, that is less than what they hope to achieve – indeed what is achievable – namely a virtually independent Kurdish entity in a very loose state structure.

Is the permanent settlement of Syrian refugees in Lebanon a possibility, as some Lebanese have warned? Certainly it is, and what is more worrisome is that there are those Lebanese willing to go along with such a project, seeing that it will boost Sunni demographics at the expense of Shiites. International humanitarian organizations have insisted that Lebanon is obliged to care for the refugees, but have given scant attention to the long-term, political implications of their presence.

That is not to justify the disgraceful calls to expel the refugees, itself an utterly unrealistic option in light of the vast numbers involved. However, Lebanon must start raising international awareness of the lasting repercussions of the Syrian refugee presence, particularly in light of the problems accompanying the Palestinian refugee presence in Lebanon after 1948.

It took nearly two decades for the Palestinian refugees to be mobilized politically, and the consequences were devastating for the Lebanese. The possibility of this happening again with Syrians is infinitely more worrisome. If the refugees come to form the core of a new insurgency operating from outside Syria, Lebanon would very quickly be caught up in the maelstrom.

However, one factor alone plays in Lebanon’s favor. Iran has helped provoke Syria’s fragmentation – no less than Iraq’s – believing that its influence is much easier to exercise in an Arab world broken up into countless ministates. But those who could be expected to lose most from the massive rise in the Sunni population in Lebanon are Shiites, and it is doubtful that the Iranians or Hezbollah would welcome this.

So what are the options for Assad, Tehran and Hezbollah? To eventually allow a return of Sunnis to Syria, but then to ensure that they will not resettle in the strategic Homs and Qalamoun areas from where they originate? Perhaps, but how easy is that? After engaging in ethnic cleansing in those areas in recent years, the regime would have to do so again, this time pushing the population into parts of Syria where Sunnis are a majority and over which today only ISIS has some control. This would not only be complicated, it would be no solution at all.

Populations are not sacks of potatoes. As the regime’s intent becomes clearer, the refugees will understandably resist it and many will refuse to leave Lebanon. Ultimately, the thinking may be that if a Sunni ministate emerges in Iraq, a broader Sunni state between Iraq and Syria may attract rural Syrian Sunnis. However, such a view smacks of wishful thinking and hubris, and may well perpetuate sectarian conflict in Syria indefinitely. Worse, from Lebanon’s perspective it may heighten domestic sectarian hostility, damaging communal relations.

The simple fact is that there is no good solution to the Iranian and Syrian regimes’ efforts to engage in durable sectarian cleansing in Syria. All scenarios are either unrealistic, flawed or damaging to those most closely allied with Tehran.

Beyond that, the millions of Syrians in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey are a potential reservoir of difficulties not only for the region but also for the international community. A consequence of Sunni alienation in Iraq was ISIS; the Syrian refugees present risks far more perilous, as millions of people without a future, a territory, an anchor are circulating among fragile countries already at their limits in coping with the present situation.

That the international community – starting with Europe, the United States, the Arab countries, and Russia – has been less than useless with regard to the Syrian refugees is self-evident. Nor have they taken any measures against those exacerbating the refugees’ terrible predicament, namely the Syrian regime and Iran. But the problem will not go away; it will only get worse for everyone. It’s past time for the world to wake up.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

The solution in Syria is bigger than Assad

When the United Nations envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, declared last week that president Bashar Al Assad was “part of the solution” in Syria, he knew he would raise a firestorm.

Opposition groups have accused the envoy of going back on the Geneva framework for Syria, which calls for the establishment of a transitional government to replace Mr Al Assad. In other words, they outline a solution without him.

It could be that Mr de Mistura was simply reflecting the changing mood internationally, as Mr Al Assad’s removal is no longer a priority while the fight against ISIL escalates.

Or he could have been using an anodyne phrase to push Mr Al Assad to approve the plan for a ceasefire in Aleppo, without any broader implications for the Syrian president’s destiny. Diplomacy often advances ambiguously and there is much to suggest that Mr de Mistura, an experienced international diplomat, was deploying calculated ambiguity here.

But an interesting development last week also put the efforts of the Swedish-Italian UN envoy into some sort of perspective. Representatives of Syria’s main Kurdish organisations, meeting on Friday in Qamishli, called for the “geographic and political unity” of Kurdish areas in northern and north-eastern Syria in the context of a “federal [Syrian] state”.

The representatives also sought to agree to a process of coordination between two Syrian Kurdish parties, the Democratic Union Party and the Kurdish National Council, the first seen as close to Abdullah Ocalan’s Kurdish Workers Party, the second to Massoud Barzani, president of the Iraqi Kurdistan region.

This movement towards a Kurdish consensus was made possible by the fact that Mr Barzani’s peshmerga came to the assistance of the People’s Protection Units, or YPG, in Kobani last year, despite previous conflicts between Mr Ocalan and Mr Barzani. Ironically, this did not displease Turkey, which has good relations with Mr Barzani and saw the intervention as a way of controlling the YPG.

Yet as Mr Al Assad slowly but surely consolidates himself politically, the question remains over what kind of Syria he will rule if he does manage to remain in power.

Since the logic of the anti-ISIL campaign dictates that Mr Al Assad may ultimately remain in office, does it not also suggest that Kurdish autonomy in Syria will end up being accepted by many countries? In both cases the primary aim internationally is to allow governing structures to be put in place that can defeat ISIL and prevent the revival of similar groups.

The reason is that the success of ISIL has been made possible by dysfunctional, divided polities. Therefore, all measures that increase political cohesiveness in Arab states or entities will be embraced if they can ward off the revival of jihadists who benefit from the vacuums proliferating around the region.

As the map of the Middle East is being redrawn, particularly in Syria and Iraq, what happens to Mr Al Assad will no longer be that important. The territories he controls, stretching from Damascus to the Syrian coast, plus the areas in between, are more or less reconciled with his rule. Within these confines a weakened Mr Al Assad will be tolerated by the international community.

The Kurds in Syria and Iraq appear to have interpreted these dynamics rather well. While they have not called for an independent Kurdish state, which is unacceptable to both Iran and Turkey, one can expect their version of federalism to be much closer to some sort of loose confederal arrangement.

In other words, the Kurds, rather than fret over Mr de Mistura’s comments, may have properly read the endgame in Syria as one of effective separation. This has tempered their views of Mr Al Assad and the merits or demerits of his remaining in place.

As commentators such as Al Hayat’s Hazem Al Amin have astutely remarked, similar developments are at play in Iraq, where Kurds, Sunnis and Shia are creating the outlines of new sectarian or ethnic entities. Helping push this process is Iran, which realises it would have much more influence in a region that is fragmented than in one where strong Arab states prevail.

It was Iran that apparently first formulated Mr Al Assad’s strategy of holding on to what has been referred to as “useful Syria”, permitting the north and north-east of the country to fall outside the regime’s control. The recent regime offensive in the area of Qunaitra is primarily an effort by Iran to ensure that it retains an open confrontation boundary with Israel.

That is why one should perhaps not overinterpret Mr de Mistura’s phrase. The Geneva framework is all but dead, and the envoy knows this. That is why he has avoided a full discussion of Mr Al Assad’s future as the value of such a discussion at this stage has only propaganda value. One can sympathise with Mr Al Assad’s foes, but the situation is bigger than them, or him.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Adding injury to insult - The dangerous repercussions of Khalid Daher’s remarks

The controversy surrounding the remarks of Khaled Daher, a Jamaa Islamiyya parliamentarian who until Wednesday was also a member of the Future Bloc, has had a profound impact, one which the Sunni community must address carefully.

On Sunday, Daher led a protest against the removal of Islamic flags around Nour Square, part of a campaign to remove political posters, flags and banners from the streets of Beirut, Tripoli and Saida. Inexplicably, he then turned his wrath on the Christians, who had nothing to do with the decision, remarking: “If they want to remove religious symbols, let them start in Beirut. Let them start with the Christ the King statue. Let them start with the pictures of some saints ‘who are opening their arms wide’ in Jounieh.”

Not surprisingly, this provoked an angry counter-reaction, especially from Future’s Christian constituency. Daher then “suspended” his participation in the Future Bloc. It was a typical Lebanese compromise, one sought by both Daher and Future. Future did not want to sever its relationship with the electorally potent Jamaa Islamiyya, but also could not cover for Daher’s statements without alienating its Christian supporters. Daher, in turn, benefited by depicting himself as a maverick in defense of Islam, without isolating himself from the Future network.

But the danger in such an otherwise petty episode was that it reinforced growing Christian wariness of Sunnis in general, a process that began last summer when ISIS captured large swathes of land in Iraq and expropriated and expelled Christians in the north of the country. This has been exploited by Hezbollah, which has used it to advance its agenda in Syria, and has portrayed itself as a barrier defending Shiites and Christians from the depravity of Sunni jihadist groups in the Qalamoun area.

Though a majority of Lebanese Sunnis are moderate, the Christians’ existential fears have often made many abandon all nuance in this regard. Daher’s foolish remarks will not have persuaded them otherwise. Yet growing Christian worries are also a reflection of a broader sentiment of decline, one that both Sunnis and Shiites have an interest in alleviating, since what happens to Christians will impact upon Sunni-Shiite relations.

The Future-Hezbollah dialogue notwithstanding, what is required is more than that. Christians must be brought into a broader dialogue with the Muslim communities, and their anxieties attended to. Until that happens Christians may remain a pawn in the Sunni-Shiite sectarian rivalry, to everyone’s detriment.

Admittedly, the Christians are their own worse enemies. The presidency, constitutionally, is the political post that allows Christians to position themselves at an equal distance between Sunnis and Shiites. Yet caught up in their internecine contests for power, Christian leaders have been unwilling to fill the presidency with a compromise candidate. Even as they lament their growing marginalization, they have heartily and shortsightedly contributed to this very outcome.

But while blaming the Christians is always easy, today moderate Sunni leaders also bear responsibility for how their community is perceived; in particular the growing, if simple-minded, tendency of Christians to assume the Sunni community is a wellspring of extremism. Sunni moderates can only benefit by showing that it is they who have sway over the larger part of their communities, otherwise they will continue to be tarred by the extremists’ brush.

It has been four years since Saad Hariri left Lebanon, and it is unfortunate that few are asking anymore when he will return. However, on the 10th anniversary of the assassination of Rafik Hariri, the question of the future of Lebanon’s Sunni leadership is more relevant than ever. The community is in flux, watching daily the fate of its brethren in Syria and Iraq. It seems self-evident that a moderate leadership is needed to ensure the community is not pulled in every direction, toward greater fragmentation.

Statements like Daher’s are signs of a larger problem. As the vacuum has persisted at the head of the Sunni community, others have tried to take advantage of this, playing on sectarian solidarity and political frustrations to gain popularity. Daher is no Ahmad al-Assir, but the symbolism he employs and the populist message off of which he feeds are not so very different.

Neither the Future Movement nor the Future parliamentary bloc can substitute for a Sunni leader. Saad Hariri’s presence is needed, and it is no longer credible to suggest he cannot return for security reasons — not when his movement is engaged in discussions with Hezbollah to lower sectarian tensions, despite the fact that party members have been indicted for Rafik Hariri’s murder.

Hariri’s return would not only help calm growing Christian worries about Sunni militancy, it would also revive a much-needed anchor to the Sunni community itself, and fill a vacuum that, in the last four years, has done Sunnis harm. The consequence would be a re-equilibration of communal relations in the country — essential at a moment when the repercussions of the conflict in Syria threaten Lebanese stability.

The anniversary of Rafik Hariri’s assassination would be an apt occasion to make this happen. Daher’s comments should be a glitch in Sunni-Christian relations, but they will only seem that way to Christians if a credible Sunni leadership is on hand to affirm it. For now, Sunnis, and many Lebanese, are still waiting.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Why Bashar Assad appears so smug

Bashar Assad’s smugness in a series of recent interviews may be justified. As the Syrian president looks around him, he sees that several regional developments are going his way. Whether this means his regime is saved is another question, but for the first time in four years his barbaric policies appear to be paying off.

Assad’s efforts in 2011 to depict the uprising against his rule as no more than the work of armed terrorist gangs has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. The Syrian regime helped assure that extremists would gain control of the revolt and turn it into a sectarian conflict. Today, even Arab countries opposed to Assad have made the campaign against ISIS a priority, undermining the primacy of the struggle against a brutal Syrian regime.

Terrorism is the new catchword and has fragmented those opposed to Assad. Egypt, though it has close ties with Saudi Arabia, has taken a different tack from Riyadh. When President Mohammad Morsi was overthrown in 2013, Egypt’s new military regime re-established diplomatic relations with Damascus, which Morsi had suspended. President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi has his own terrorism problem in Sinai, and this week he hosted one of Assad’s main backers, Russian President Vladimir Putin, who seeks to benefit from tensions between Cairo and Washington and is pushing his own peace plan for Syria.

Assad must also be delighted with the very visible shift in American attitudes. While U.S. officials continue to mouth the line that “Assad must go,” the reality is that the Obama administration prefers Assad to the unknown. Moreover, even if it will not admit it, the U.S. knows that ground forces are necessary as it tries to “defeat” ISIS, and for better or worse that means Assad’s forces in certain areas of Syria.

Beyond that Washington has increasingly adopted a position favorable to Iran in the Middle East, reassuring it that the United States does not intend to weaken Iranian allies in Iraq and Syria. To put it bluntly, the Americans prefer Qasem Soleimani and Hasan Nasrallah to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Even in Yemen the administration’s reaction to the Houthi takeover has been subdued, with the U.S. focused on pursuing its anti-terrorism operations against Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

As for Lebanon, the U.S. has just dispatched new weaponry, including heavy artillery, to the Lebanese Army, to better fight jihadi groups along the border with Syria. Beyond this, the “anti-terrorism” rubric means that Lebanon is now effectively a player in the Syrian conflict in Qalamoun. That is precisely the situation into which both the Syrian regime and Hezbollah had sought to push the Army, as they put the squeeze on rebel supply lines between Lebanon and Qalamoun.

Assad has also benefited from the errors of his enemies. The more moderate Syrian opposition early on failed to grasp how the growing power of the Nusra Front and ISIS would radically transform perceptions of the uprising in Syria. While it warned of how the Syrian regime would exploit the “anti-terrorism” argument, it failed to adequately prepare for this.

This week, the decision of Zahran Alloush, head of the opposition Islam Army, to bomb Damascus only further played into the regime’s hands, as his forces targeted civilian areas. Most media outlets focused on the bonbing, ignoring the vicious regime retaliation against civilians in eastern Ghouta.

Perhaps the greatest loser has been Turkey, accused today of collaborating with ISIS. In his zeal to oust Assad, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan turned his country into a passage for jihadis entering Syria. The repercussions were dramatic during the siege of Ain al-Arab and, especially, after the wife of French jihadi Amedy Coulibaly fled to Syria via Turkey. As a result the Turkish authorities have been forced to tighten border controls, while Erdogan’s reputation has suffered greatly.

If Assad were to survive politically, it would rewrite international rules of behavior. Until recently many Western governments pompously declared that “there is no room” for leaders who engage in the mass murder of populations. However, who can believe such nonsense when Assad has been engaging in widespread slaughter for almost four years, with no concerted reaction from the international community.

If ISIS cruelty merits a military response – and it does – then the infinitely more numerous crimes of the Assad regime do as well. Rare are the atrocities that the regime has not committed, from slaughtering women and children to firing chemical weapons and ballistic missiles into civilian areas to using starvation tactics. But Assad has gotten away with all this, even as Obama has reassured Iran that the Syrian leader is safe.

The injustice of this attitude will have repercussions. ISIS and the Nusra Front have perpetrated terrible atrocities, but the global indifference to Syrian suffering, alongside a prevailing sense in the region that a sectarian regime has been given free rein to crush Syria’s Sunnis, has proven a valuable recruitment tool for them. Only a blind man would fail to see the intrinsic link between Assad’s terror methods and the appeal of the jihadis.

This means that even if Assad remains in office, the jihadis will retain significant mobilizing power. But the United States seems oblivious to this, so determined is Obama to avoid taking any position on Assad’s future. The U.S. war against ISIS has only one component, a military dimension, while neglecting a broader approach to avert the rise of new jihadi groups. So, while Assad can be satisfied with the alignment of factors in his favor, Syria will remain unstable for a long time to come.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Obama must beware of Iranians signing deals

Amid uncertainty as to whether the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council and Germany can reach a deal with Iran on its nuclear programme lies a deeper question: would a deal lead to Washington’s acceptance of a dominant role for Tehran in the Middle East?

The evidence that it might is more than anecdotal, even though the US has not made explicit statements about a shift in regional policy.

That the American administration is still unclear about the future with Iran was evident in recent remarks by Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammed Javad Zarif, and president Barack Obama. Both have said that if a nuclear accord were not reached by the end of March, a further extension would be of no benefit.

Such an attitude suggests we have reached a crucial moment in talks. Yet a nuclear agreement is a priority for Mr Obama and as a further incentive, the president and officials in his administration have implied that America would be willing to recognise Iran’s regional influence.

This was most obvious when Mr Obama sent a secret letter last October to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. According to The Wall Street Journal, which first mentioned the letter, the US president sought to highlight the advantages of reaching a nuclear deal. He stressed parallel interests in fighting ISIL and sought to reassure Mr Khamenei that coalition attacks in Syria would not target president Bashar Al Assad’s forces.

The paper also reported that the Americans offered reassurance that they would not aim to weaken Tehran’s Iraqi allies. A striking illustration of the implications occured last August. Iraqi militias linked to Iran broke the ISIL siege of Amerli, the town in northern Iraq where thousands of Shite Turkmen had been surrounded by the militants for months. The siege ended with assistance from US aircraft and video showed the head of Iran’s Quds Force, General Qassem Soleimani, celebrating in the town.

In December, US secretary of state John Kerry said of Iranian attacks against ISIL that “the net effect is positive”. And General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, has echoed this view.

These are all signs of a significant reversal in Washington’s view of Iran’s regional sway. Even the Houthi takeover of Yemen, viewed by neighbouring Saudi Arabia as a threat, did not seem to alarm the White House. Indeed, reports indicated that the US had opened channels to the Houthis, as both share a hostility toward Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

Some say that the administration regards Iran as a more reliable long-term partner in the region than the Sunni majority countries of the Gulf. This school of thought rests on a perception that the Gulf states have contributed, officially or through private channels, to the expansion of jihadist groups in the Middle East and beyond. Moreover, the Sunni Arab world is more fragmented than the Shiite, over which Iran has significant authority.

Poor relations between the United States and Saudi Arabia in recent years haven’t helped matters. Ties were severely strained over America’s abandonment of president Hosni Mubarak’s regime in Egypt in 2011. Add to this Mr Obama’s refusal to take action in Syria and his administration’s seeming openness to Iran.

However, Mr Obama himself does not seem to view the relationship with Iran and the Sunni Arab countries as an “either or” proposition. Rather, he seems to believe that America would gain from a wider array of regional contacts. We are nowhere near a return to the 1970s, when Washington regarded Iran as the anchor of security in the Gulf allowing it to purchase massive amounts of US weapons.

Just as the Obama administration’s relations with Saudi Arabia have deteriorated, so have those with Israel. Mr Obama’s personal ties with Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu are abysmal, in part because of deep disagreement over Iran and in part, because Mr Netanyahu has done nothing to advance peace negotiations with the Palestinians.

But how long will this situation last? If there is no nuclear agreement, it will be very difficult for Mr Obama to sustain his position with respect to Iran because it breaks every rule that has been followed in Washington for 30 years. But it could be that the Iranians, sensing Mr Obama’s keenness, will accept an agreement, having extracted as many American concessions as they can.

Even so, Mr Obama should be careful. He has pushed his plans with Iran quietly while making no serious effort to reassure traditional American allies in the region. Nor has he given due regard to the profound importance of the Syrian conflict. The president may have a case for realigning regional relations, but he has managed the process poorly. If this heightens Sunni anxieties it can only further destabilise the Middle East.

In one way, the strategy will reinforce the status quo in the region. Recognition of Iran’s importance means that Mr Obama is signing off on a continuation of Mr Al Assad’s rule in Syria. At the same time the Shia-led Iraqi regime is less likely to open up to the Sunnis if Tehran is given leeway to block it. Iran will take from America, but it has little impetus to give.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

The US is unwise to imitate British ways so closely

Last week, The Washington Post revealed that the Central Intelligence Agency and Mossad had collaborated in the February 2008 assassination of Imad Mugniyeh, reportedly the head of Hizbollah’s international operations.

The revelation raised questions as to under what authority Mughniyeh was killed. It reminded many people of Israeli assassinations of Palestinian militants. “The operation in Damascus highlighted a philosophical evolution within the American intelligence services that followed the September 11, 2001, attacks,” the Post wrote. “Before then, the US government often took a dim view of Israeli assassination operations.”

The American willingness to follow Israel’s lead in the Middle East is hardly new. Even though their contact with Arab societies is highly restricted, the Israelis have long been regarded by Americans as experts on the region. This confidence in Israeli expertise has given Israel an interpretive edge that translates into considerable influence in Washington.

Yet Israel has not been alone in American admiration. As the Bush administration’s behaviour after the invasion of Iraq in 2003 showed, there were apparently those who looked at Britain’s experiences in Iraq when making decisions. The same may hold true of the Obama administration’s more recent decision to resort to air power against ISIL in Iraq and Syria.

Discussions within the Bush administration regarding the American occupation of Iraq were recognisable to those familiar with the debate over the British administration of Iraq after the First World War. Britain had a League of Nations Mandate for Iraq.

The first head of the post-occupation American administration was a retired general, Jay Garner. His priority, when Baghdad fell, was to put in place mechanisms that would hand power over to the Iraqis. Mr Garner didn’t last long before the Pentagon brought in Paul Bremer, who sought to establish a more intrusive American administration that did not make elections a priority. The Office for Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance was transformed into the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA).

Mr Bremer formed an interim Iraqi Governing Council, but selected the members himself and retained veto power over its decisions.

When Mr Bremer organised Iraqi elections later on, he aimed to implement a system of provincial caucuses to select members to a transitional national assembly. The members were to be vetted by the CPA. This was opposed by Iraq’s top Shiite cleric Ayatollah Ali Sistani, who demanded elections. He prevailed and in June 2004, his term having ended, Mr Bremer returned to America.

Under the British there was a similar dividing line over Iraq in 1918-1920. Arnold Wilson, the acting civil commissioner for Mesopotamia, advocated a direct form of British control. He rejected measures to hand over authority to the Iraqis, even manipulating an opinion survey requested by London to show, quite misleadingly, that Iraqis desired British rule.

Opposing Wilson was the oriental secretary, Gertrude Bell. She favoured handing over some powers to the Iraqis. While Whitehall would go along with the acting civil commissioner, the British government had no clear ideas about how to govern Iraq and it would reverse its position after the revolt of 1920.

Facing severe financial constraints due to the economic losses of the First World War and the cost of addressing uprisings in Ireland and Egypt, as well as financing a brief war against the Bolsheviks, the British government would seek to cut expenditures across the board. Wilson’s direct-rule scheme was expensive and provoked resentment. By 1932, Britain would hand over power to a nominally independent Iraqi state under King Faisal I.

One consequence of this situation was another innovation that the Americans appeared to have followed in Iraq: maintaining security from the air. In line with Britain’s decision to cut spending, it was the Royal Air Force that policed Iraq. In 1930, Britain imposed a treaty on Baghdad granting it the use of two airbases, at Habbaniyeh and Shuaiba.

Today the United States is employing a similar strategy, limiting its spending and exposure in Iraq by relying primarily on air power against ISIL. While this will not resolve fundamental problems in the country, it has contained a dangerous situation with minimal risk.

It’s difficult to determine just how much Washington has intentionally reproduced British policies. But one must look at the bigger picture. British rule in Iraq was of uneven success, partly because it went against the mood in the country. American actions come in a different context. Doing what the Israelis and British did may sometimes work, but the gains are usually short term. The imitation game means little if broader dynamics in the Middle East are misunderstood.

Assad’s Western dupes - On ignoring Syria’s role in the rise of ISIS

You knew it was coming the moment a Jordanian pilot was burned alive by the Islamic State (ISIS). Syrian President Bashar al-Assad called on Amman to work with Syria in fighting “against terrorism represented by the organization Daesh and the Nusra Front ... and other terrorist organizations associated with them in Syria and the region.”

As Martin Chulov reminded us in an article on the establishment of ISIS, published in The Guardian last December, it was Assad’s regime that first allowed jihadis to expand and use Syria as a passageway to enter Iraq to fight Americans and murder Iraqis. At two secret 2009 meetings in Zabadani, Syria, in which the Iraqi government managed to insert a spy, the Syrians coordinated with Saddam Hussein-era Iraqi Baathists as well as senior figures in Al-Qaeda in Iraq to destabilize the American-backed Iraqi order.

A similar story has been told about the rise of ISIS, the successor to Al-Qaeda in Iraq. When the group emerged on the Syrian scene in 2013 and 2014, there were many accounts of how it had coordinated, usually implicitly, with the Syrian regime. One report quoted an ISIS combatant as saying that he and his comrades knew that they would not be attacked by Syrian aircraft.

The Assad regime’s rationale was cynical, though straightforward. If the extremists gained in strength at the expense of the more moderate opposition, the regime would soon be viewed as a bulwark against jihadism and the international community would be more wary of calling for regime change in Syria. That is one reason why the regime purchased oil from ISIS — perhaps satisfying its own demand for fuel, but also helping to fill the group’s coffers.

If anyone is under the impression that Assad’s transparently hypocritical offer to collaborate in the fight against the jihadist groups is not working, look again. The Obama administration has indicated that it is on the same side as Iran in the battle against ISIS. In a letter to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the president also reassured the Iranian leader that coalition airstrikes in Syria would not target the Syrian regime.

There have also been reports in Beirut that Paris was willing to resume a dialogue with Syria over terrorism after the Charlie Hebdo attack in January. One Lebanese parliamentarian told me a few weeks ago that a French envoy had been sent to Damascus in this regard. The story remains unconfirmed and there have been no separate indications since then that it is accurate, but such reactions by Western governments do not seem so far-fetched.

What is remarkable is how Assad has been allowed to put himself in this position, where he is once again being viewed as an ally in extinguishing the very fires his own regime helped spread. This was the classical approach of his father, Hafez al-Assad, who exported instability to the region in such a way as to make Syria an indispensible partner in quelling its worst repercussions.

Among those Americans calling for cooperation with Assad is Leslie Gelb, the president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations, an avowed realist who literally delights in making proposals that most people would shrink from making. In a recent article for The Daily Beast, Gelb wrote that while Assad was indeed responsible for massacring his own population, “[t]he U.S. must have effective working arrangements with Syria and Iran to check and defeat the Islamic State. There is no other way.”

Views such as these are controversial, but they seem to have the benefit of lighting a clear, albeit unpopular, path. America has a soft spot for hardnosed pragmatists, and Gelb plays that role well. The only problem is that he fails to really address a difficulty at the heart of his analysis: For as long as Assad remains in office, the appeal and mobilization potential of jihadist groups will remain high. The man with whom Gelb wants Washington to collaborate is a powerful stimulus for the jihad Gelb wants to defeat.

But don’t expect Assad to enlighten anyone. His sinister game is working and the dupes are plentiful. Lost amid the chaos of the Middle East, Western governments are resorting to the old habits with which they are familiar. The Assads were always on hand to help resolve terrorism problems and there are plenty of useful idiots around to recommend returning to that period.

But the price Assad will demand will be onerous. He will want, of course, guarantees assuring his political survival; the reopening of embassies in Damascus; measures against his regional enemies who back opposition groups. The list will be long, even if what is implemented is limited. Assad knows things have changed in the maelstrom created by ISIS. What happens to him is no longer a priority, particularly in Barack Obama’s White House.

One has to hand it to Assad and his Iranian and Russian backers. They sensed early on that the Western countries could be manipulated. They measured Obama up, and saw that the president was a lightweight. With the focus on a problem Assad helped create, he can retain power and persuade everybody that he’s the good guy. The dumber fishes will bite first.

ISIS reaches a decisive turning point

The burning alive of a Jordanian pilot reminds us how a few months ago many people, while acknowledging the savagery of ISIS, were also praising the cleverness of its leadership. Today that conclusion appears less persuasive.

The strength of groups such as ISIS is that when they are expanding, they generate momentum that draws in the undecided in countries that the group seeks to affect or take over. This was the message in the rapid ISIS advances in Syria and Iraq last summer. The group’s successes built on, and profited from, the alienation felt by Iraq’s Sunnis toward a state led by a man openly favoring the Shiite community.

The success of insurgent movements is often based on their ability to exploit existing social contradictions and cleavages. However, ISIS soon forgot how central this had to be to its strategy, and instead highlighted its sheer brutality. Violence can be a valuable tactic to sow fear among foes; but there is a stage at which it has a contrary effect. It unites previously divided adversaries; it provokes outrage and dread that makes resistance much more bitter; and it may define a group at the expense of the more important image it seeks to project.

All this has been visible in recent months. By conquering territory in Iraq and decapitating American hostages, ISIS precipitated a tacit alliance between the United States, Iran, Iraq’s government and the Gulf states, whose divisions and rivalries had allowed ISIS and other jihadi groups to grow in the first place. This coalition has turned the tide, spearheading the recapture of Diyala province in Iraq as well as large swathes of northern Iraq, making ISIS-controlled Mosul vulnerable.

The inhumaneness of ISIS has also made its enemies more determined to fight back, as we apparently saw when the group tried to take control of the Deir al-Zor military base last December. Whereas the group had seemed unstoppable in eastern Syria, it was unable to triumph this time around.

Much the same can be said of the ISIS offensive against Ain al-Arab, or Kobani, which proved to be the group’s great blunder. While the town’s strategic significance was limited, its symbolic importance was immense: it was a battle that the U.S., ISIS and the Kurds could not afford to lose. Ultimately, coalition aircraft were able to inflict far heavier losses on ISIS than was sustainable and the group was obliged to withdraw.

Moreover, Turkey emerged from the confrontation bruised, as its implicit collaboration with ISIS came under international scrutiny. Worse, the U.S. formed an alliance with Syrian Kurds close to the Kurdistan Workers Party opposed to Ankara.

The third error of ISIS was to allow itself to be characterized by its violence, when the ultimate aim of its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, is to set up a caliphate that will draw Sunnis toward him. Yet aside from psychopathic terror groups, who really wants to rally to such a repulsive, pathological entity whose sustainability is in greater doubt by the day, and whose only attribute is an ability to concoct barbaric ways to kill people?

If ISIS were ever to have appeal as a state project, it would have to incorporate elements of “soft power” into its agenda. Ironically, the Nusra Front, otherwise little better than ISIS, has attempted to do so, showing itself to be more merciful, which has shielded it in certain parts of Syria.

Baghdadi’s state has been an illusion. Hubristically, it announced some months ago that it intended to print a new currency. Yet its economic backbone is collapsing; those living in its areas appear to be less and less satisfied with their predicament; and there are even senior figures within ISIS who now regret having joined the group, as Martin Chulov reported in a recent piece for the Guardian on the formation of ISIS.

To those who might have followed ISIS once, the appeal is largely gone. The group has been so vicious, while offering no recompenses, that few see benefits in joining it. As Al-Qaeda’s Ayman al-Zawahri wrote to Abu Musaab al-Zarqawi, the leader of Al-Qaeda in Iraq, in July 2005: “In the absence of ... popular support, the Islamic mujahed movement would be crushed in the shadows, far from the masses who are distracted or fearful ... Therefore, our planning must strive to involve the Muslim masses in the battle, and to bring the mujahed movement to the masses and not conduct the struggle far from them.”

While there will always be marginalized individuals who answer the call of ISIS, Zawahri was making a larger point that a jihadi movement must anchor itself in a population to thrive and survive. ISIS has done the contrary, terrorizing societies under its rule, and even senior members of its leadership who dare not challenge its policies for fear of retribution.

ISIS will remain with us, but it’s fair to say it has created a perfect storm of animosity and opposition, which means its ability to extend its authority has been decisively curtailed. Rather than pick its battles carefully, the group roused myriad enemies simultaneously. Opening new fronts can be useful when on the upswing, but ISIS has done so lately mainly to limit its losses. Baghdadi’s ambitions may have gotten the better of him and now the shortcomings are visible.