Friday, May 29, 2015

Between the IRS and ISIS - How the internet and transparency put citizens at risk

Most Lebanese with American citizenship probably did not follow the news this week that hackers had gained information about more than 100,000 American taxpayers through an application on the Internal Revenue Service’s website.

The scheme involved entering an IRS website called “Get Transcript,”,pretending to be an American taxpayer seeking to access tax filings from previous years. The personal information the hackers needed to provide to enter the individuals’ files (social security numbers, addresses, birthdates, tax filing status) had already been stolen earlier, and allowed the hackers to do two things: gain even more information on the taxpayers, and apply for tax refunds, which the criminals could then direct to addresses, or accounts, they controlled.

According to sources at the IRS, the criminals involved in this latest cybercrime were based in Russia. To Lebanese-Americans this may all seem very far away, and of no real concern to them. But is that true, especially in light of the massive amount of personal information circulating on the internet, particularly information being sent by a host of institutions to the IRS?

Since the introduction of the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act, or FATCA, which the IRS began implementing last summer, the amount of personal information available on Americans living abroad has risen exponentially. What is worse, it is often held by foreign institutions that have poor security protocols ensuring the information is not misused.

As Americans pay tax on their worldwide income, FATCA is legislation that the United States has introduced as a means of preventing tax evasion by citizens who live abroad. It obliges foreign financial institutions, or FFIs, to report on the accounts of its American clients, or risk a 30% withholding tax on all source payments from the United States. More important, it requires that these FFIs send an annual report on the financial status of their American clients to the IRS.

The American government never sought to seriously ensure that the information gathered by the FFIs was well protected—accessible as it is to tens of thousands of employees overseas. At best, the majority of these employees have little knowhow to defend against cybercriminals; at worst, a minority may have a stake in using the information for personal gain.

This can put Americans at risk, or facilitate matters for those who seek an American identity to strike against the United States. At a time when America is engaged in a battle to “degrade and ultimately destroy” ISIS, this is a genuine worry.

Not surprisingly, because of FATCA, in recent months there has been an uptick in efforts to engage in identity theft. This forced the IRS to issue a FATCA fraud alert last year, warning of efforts by fraudsters, pretending to be IRS representatives, to contact FFIs and ask for the details of their American clients.

The IRS alert noted that “[t]hese types of scams are typically carried out through the use of unsolicited emails and/or websites that pose as legitimate contacts in order to deceptively obtain personal or financial information.”

The benefits of identity theft to criminals are many. According to Peter Warren Singer, who writes on cybersecurity. He told the New York Times, “It’s rare for the actual attackers to turn the information directly into money. They’re stealing the data and selling it off to other people.”

The question is what those who buy identities seek to do with them. And here the imagination runs wild. It can span the gamut from using the information to entrap people by discovering their vulnerabilities and forcing them to work for you, to gaining access to further websites providing confidential information. The exploitation of such information by terrorists, in particular, is not only probable; it is to be anticipated.

Some have defended the IRS, saying that it takes cybercrimes seriously and always defends against them. Perhaps, but the IRS’s negligence when it comes to security issues under FATCA shows a very different face. A circular from the IRS to FFIs around the globe cautioning about online trickery is hardly a sufficient means of protecting Americans abroad, particularly if a majority of cybercrimes are ignored by banks and the police—as is reportedly the case in the United Kingdom.

Given ever more intrusive demands for the personal details of individuals, and new Know Your Customer procedures in banks that require customers to be transparent about many aspects of their life, we are exposed more than ever to criminals. What is most galling, however, is that the Western countries that have imposed such transparency and placed this personal data online have shown far less regard for their citizens’ safety than for whether their tax revenues are properly reported.

Americans in Lebanon must be conscious of this reality. Many are understandably wary of the IRS, which has zero credibility in Washington. But what they should really be concerned about is that if the IRS knows everything about them, it should not be hard for others with far more evil intent to know just as much

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Where’s the plan for dealing with post-Assad Syria?

After the fall of Ramadi to ISIL last week, American policy came under renewed criticism. Far from degrading and ultimately destroying ISIL, as Barack Obama had promised, the United States was helpless to prevent it from expanding.

That’s a consequence of Mr Obama’s policy in the Middle East designed to guarantee minimal American involvement. But it’s also true that America’s Iraqi allies have proven incapable of fighting ISIL effectively, while efforts to arm a Sunni national guard were blocked by Iraqi Shia politicians close to Iran.

American lethargy is especially evident in Syria. The potential consequences of getting Syria wrong are serious. What happens could undermine efforts to contain ISIL in Iraq, and could create a situation in which Washington finds itself a prisoner of the Middle East, despite Mr Obama’s aim to ensure the contrary.

It is remarkable that even as the regime of Bashar Al Assad has started to collapse, the Obama administration still has not formulated a clear Syria policy. Instead, it has slogans and a vague plan to train Syrian “moderates” to fight ISIL, a foolish scheme that is bound to fail, particularly as the dynamics of the Syrian conflict shift to removing Mr Al Assad.

Nor has the United States shown much conviction in advancing this strategy. The force it is organising has taken for ever to be armed and trained. The Americans want combatants who will fight ISIL, believing, naively, that if the Assad regime begins disintegrating, these men will continue to serve American interests and not seek to be in on the kill of the regime.

Far more disturbing is that the Obama administration appears to have taken no well-defined positions on what should happen once Mr Al Assad goes. His exit may not be imminent, but as the regime loses ground in the north, south and east, due to the Syrian army’s inability to mobilise enough troops, Mr Al Assad’s days appear to be numbered.

The problem is that Mr Obama has never taken the war in Syria very seriously. When the US president led a military effort against ISIL last summer, he pointedly avoided formulating a plan for Syria. Aside from the boilerplate about not helping Mr Al Assad, he still has not integrated Syria into his anti-ISIL campaign.

Even this refusal to cooperate with the Syrian regime has been ambiguous. In a talk before the Council on Foreign Relations in March, CIA director John Brennan said the administration did not want to see the collapse of the Assad regime, and above all did not want to see Muslim extremists march into Damascus.

Mr Brennan was not quite endorsing Mr Al Assad. Rather, Washington worries that a catastrophic breakdown of his rule could leave a vacuum that is exploited by jihadist groups. Fair enough, but Mr Al Assad is going regardless, and the Americans have to adapt to this rapidly changing reality.

Instead, the Obama administration has been focused on ensuring that Congress will not block a nuclear deal with Iran, which remains to be finalised. Given this concern, it is not surprising that Mr Obama has been so standoffish on Syria. Why allow the situation there to become another obstacle to improved American ties with Tehran?

Mr Obama’s preference seems to be to use an agreement with Iran as a platform on which to build a consensus over Syria, one that brings Iran and Saudi Arabia closer together. If that’s the idea, then officials in Washington are, again, ignoring the dynamics in Syria. The Saudis, like the Turks and Jordanians, see that Iran is losing. Therefore, they have no incentive to reach a deal that preserves Iranian interests.

At a meeting between US secretary of state John Kerry and Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov on May 11, there were also no signs of Russian flexibility over Syria. Despite reports that the Russians, like the Iranians, are beginning to tire of Mr Al Assad, they will only compromise over him once they feel they have no other choice. So, both the backers and foes of the Syrian regime are in no mood yet to negotiate over his future.

A deal with Iran may loosen up Iranian funds to help the Syrian regime survive a bit longer, making prospects of an Iranian-Saudi arrangement over Syria far less plausible. That’s why Mr Obama should not remain on the fence. Only by raising the heat on Mr Al Assad can he hope to accelerate talks leading to a solution in Syria.

America also has to integrate Syria more actively into its broader anti-ISIL operations. And the administration must work more closely with Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar to define a desirable Syrian endgame, and how to achieve it.

Mr Obama has so ignored Syria that his influence has waned. Regardless of talks with Iran, the president must end the Syria war first and ensure that what follows is stable. If it loses Syria, Iran may be more accommodating, and the Arabs will have greater confidence to talk to Tehran.

Friday, May 22, 2015

No go zone - The army must avoid Hezbollah’s trap in Arsal

Hezbollah’s tactics in the battle for Qalamoun are becoming clearer by the day. The party is trying to push the Lebanese Army into taking an active role in eliminating the rebel and jihadist groups located in the district, in that way risking drawing the Lebanese state more deeply into the Syrian conflict.

Michel Aoun, who seeks Hezbollah’s backing for a number of reasons—supporting his own election to the presidency as well as the nomination of his son-in-law, Chamel Roukoz, as army commander—endorses the scheme. That’s not surprising. Aoun was a master at pushing the military into divisive conflicts that led to its ruin. His dismal record alone should persuade the government to ignore his advice.

For months, Hezbollah and the Syrian regime have called on the Lebanese military command to coordinate with them to eliminate Bashar al-Assad’s foes in Qalamoun. The army has tried to resist for several reasons. First, it sees no reason to take sides in a conflict in which the Lebanese state is, officially, neutral.

Second, there are a significant number of Sunnis in the army, such that siding with Hezbollah and Assad may well cause rifts or sectarian tensions inside the armed forces.

And third, jihadist groups are still holding a large number of Lebanese soldiers and policemen hostage. Their fate may be tied in with how the army behaves in Qalamoun.

Until now, the army has avoided moving beyond the protection of Lebanese borders, an essentially defensive approach. In recent weeks, however, Hezbollah and the Syrian Army have begun an offensive in Qalamoun, and have taken over territory in the area of Flita, northwest of Yabroud. While they have hailed this as a major victory, the reality is that the armed groups in the area, rather than engage in fixed battles, have simply withdrawn northwards, in the direction of Arsal.

What Hezbollah probably wants to do is trap the rebel groups there, with the Lebanese Army attacking from the one side and Hezbollah and the Syrian Armed Forces from the other. This means that military coordination between the three is desirable for Hezbollah. However, this is opposed within the government by those who favor the uprising against the Assad regime.

Indeed, there have been divisions within the cabinet over whether to discuss a policy for Arsal. While Industry Minister Hussein al-Hajj Hassan, a Hezbollah member, said Wednesday there was such an agreement, this was later denied by the justice minister, Ashraf Rifi. Prime Minister Tammam Salam has not put the item on the agenda, principally because there is no consensus over what needs to be done.

Aoun’s and Hezbollah’s position is that the army must push the armed groups out of the outskirts of Arsal. While this sounds fine in theory, since those remote areas are within Lebanon’s borders, there are many risks involved. Once the battle is engaged, it may become unavoidable for the army to work in tandem with Hezbollah and the Syrian regime, in that way foolishly wading into the Syrian quagmire.

There is also a risk that the army will be drawn further eastwards in an effort to consolidate its gains, drawing it more actively into the Qalamoun battle and exposing it to attack. At present, units more or less sit behind a static defensive line, built around a series of watchtowers that the United Kingdom helped fund, even if the army has taken high ground in the vicinity of its positions in order to better control access to these.

The Lebanese government and army must not fall into the trap being set by Hezbollah and the Assad regime. It absolutely must avoid being sucked into their losing battle in Syria. Every week, it seems, the Assad regime cedes more ground and Hezbollah’s ability to prevent this has been shown to be very limited. It makes no sense for Lebanon to take actions that run directly counter to the momentum of the Syrian conflict.

Nor should the Lebanese forget something else: there are 1.5 million Syrian refugees in their country, and many of those in the area of Arsal are related to combatants in Qalamoun. Actively assisting Hezbollah and the Syrian regime to crush the Syrian rebels will only heighten tensions with the refugee population, with potentially serious consequences.

No matter how much one sympathizes with one side or the other in Syria, the fact is that Lebanon has no stake in deepening its involvement there. This is as true for the Lebanese Army as it was true for Hezbollah. Now the party is hopelessly ensnared in a war it cannot win. This should be a cautionary tale for those Lebanese who recklessly insist that the army should take a more active role in fighting Bashar Assad’s enemies.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Our shared values are lost amid the ruins of Palmyra

International consternation at the prospect that ISIL might overrun Palmyra, with its heritage site, has illustrated the warped lens through which many people have tended to view the conflict in Syria.

Though more than 200,000 people have been killed, the surge in public outrage only became evident when an archaeological location was threatened. If only we had the good fortune to be stones, many Syrians must have thought.

One of the rarely discussed themes in wars is how important international attention and solidarity are in sustaining populations in conflict. Feeling that one matters greatly helps people emerge from traumatic events in better condition.

However, such concern also has more practical implications in determining whether the international community has the will to implement, and enforce, global norms of behaviour.

For many years while living in America during the 1980s, I kept a tiny newspaper clipping taken from The Washington Post pinned to my memo board. It described a bombing in Beirut that had killed a woman and her child, and injured her second boy.

The woman was married to my cousin, and this episode, which garnered only two lines in a foreign newspaper, effectively destroyed four lives. The clipping served as a reminder, to borrow from George Orwell, that all victims are equal, but some are more equal than others.

The anxieties over Palmyra were all the more surprising in that the public reacted with relatively little indignation to the destruction of other Syrian heritage sites, not least the old city of Aleppo. But ultimately what are ruins when human beings are being slaughtered daily in Syria, without any mercy?

Recall how Bashar Al Assad’s regime used chemical weapons against civilians in the eastern Ghouta in 2013. In a New York Times/CBS News poll conducted at the time, as president Barack Obama was considering retaliating, 60 per cent of respondents said they opposed such action. This occurred even though 75 per cent of respondents said they believed Mr Al Assad’s forces had used chemical weapons.

Even acknowledging that a war crime had been committed by the regime, a majority of those polled wanted to do nothing about it. In such an atmosphere where societies, especially liberal western societies, are indifferent to the perpetration of crimes far from their shores, there is little hope of reinforcing humanitarian norms and values worldwide.

Many in the West may protest that conflicts overseas are no concern of theirs. Why should an American or European be responsible for what a Syrian despot does to his own people?

The question may seem fair, but it hides a contradiction that those in liberal societies must address. If one defends liberal and humanistic values at home, how serious can this be when one is apathetic to how they are addressed abroad? Worse, isn’t such a reaction an implicit sign that those overseas are less deserving of the same treatment than those in the West?

Humanistic values, no less than the foundations of humanitarian law, have meaning precisely because they are universal. A further contradiction is at play here. When people around the world worried about the Palmyra site, were they not making a statement about universalism? Weren’t their fears based on a sense that the ruins were the common inheritance of humanity?

That these same people then refuse to apply the same logic to humanistic values tells us a great deal about their confusion. Dictators engaging in the repression and killing of their own populations spend a great deal of time assessing such confusion in determining their margin of manoeuvre to commit crimes.

When Mr Al Assad saw that his use of chemical weapons did not bring a meaningful response from the West, he rightly interpreted this as a green light to pursue mass murder within certain bounds. While his chemical stockpile was dismantled, at Russia’s urging, he has continued to use chlorine gas against his enemies and civilians, with no reaction from those who had threatened him in 2013, above all the United States.

Mr Al Assad exploited the reports of Palmyra’s imminent fall to regain some favour in the West, among the many dupes who regard him as a barrier against ISIL. As news came that ISIL had been partly repulsed by regime troops, many breathed a sigh of relief, ignorant of Mr Al Assad’s role in strengthening the group.

The Palmyra site doubtless deserves to be preserved. But another site in Palmyra does just as well: the regime prison, which a one-time inmate there, Yassin Al Haj Saleh, described to me as “a place that literally eats men … where fear is a way of life … where every day primitive and vengeful torture is carried out at the hands of heartless people”.

If the past can inform us about the present, then the Palmyra prison is no less telling than the ruins. People should deploy outrage in Syria, but cannot do it selectively. Destroying heritage sites is no more intolerable than destroying humans.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Murder incorporated - Investigators prepare a legal case against Syria’s regime

In its edition last Tuesday, The Guardian published an article describing efforts to collect material and bring senior officials in Syria to trial for crimes committed during the uprising there.

According to the British daily, “A three-year operation to smuggle official documents out of Syria has produced enough evidence to indict President Bashar al-Assad and 24 senior members of his regime, according to the findings of an international investigative commission.”

Those who have been secretly amassing information on regime involvement in the widespread murder of their countrymen may, ultimately, do the most harm to the Assad regime. Like the photographer Caesar, who brought to light the starvation, torture and killing of some 11,000 prisoners, the proof they are gathering will be difficult for foreign governments to ignore.

According to The Guardian, of the 50 investigators who have smuggled regime documents out of Syria, one has been killed while several have been detained and tortured. Not surprisingly, the regime feels most uneasy with such people, who quietly and tenaciously are exposing its best-kept secrets.

It is a paradox that dictatorships with not the slightest regard for judicial practice or independence feel most threatened by legal cases against them. That’s because such regimes thrive on their ability to exploit the unknown; to maintain fear in their societies by ensuring that no light is ever shined on their most fearsome actions. The unknown generates far greater terror than what is known, and the Assad regime has applied that rule to great effect for the past 45 years.

That is why, for instance, Bashar was so adamant about undermining the formation of a special tribunal to try the assassins of the former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. A little-known episode, leaked to the French daily Le Monde and published in June 2007, is highly revealing in this regard.

At a 24 April 2007 meeting in Damascus between Assad and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, the Syrian president warned Ban against establishing the tribunal, doing his best impersonation of John Gotti: “Lebanese society is very fragile. [The country’s] most peaceful years were when Syrian forces were present. From 1976 to 2005 Lebanon was stable, whereas now there is great instability.” Assad went on to caution that the instability would get worse if the special tribunal were established, as this “might easily cause a conflict that would degenerate into civil war, provoking divisions between Sunnis and Shiites from the Mediterranean to the Caspian Sea.”

That Assad made an implicit reference to Hezbollah’s involvement in the Hariri assassination (since why else would Sunnis and Shiites enter into conflict?) showed the depth of his anxiety. The president was willing to hint at the party’s role to derail the court, fearing its work might also uncover Syrian responsibility. No wonder Hezbollah doesn’t trust Assad.

Assad’s efforts failed. The Special Tribunal for Lebanon went ahead anyway and the exchange was likely leaked initially by someone in Ban’s entourage to embarrass Assad. The Syrian president’s sensitivity is why those who claim his regime cares little about the tribunal don’t know what they’re talking about.

If there is documentary evidence pointing to crimes by the Syrian regime, it would have implications for Assad’s allies—namely Russia and Iran. Even as they clamor Assad’s innocence, such information could shift the nature of their interactions with other states. In the Hariri assassination, for instance, Russia supported a UN investigation of the crime, and while it did not vote in favor of Resolution 1757, which established the special tribunal, it chose not to veto it either.

Assad’s worry is that if he ever has to leave Syria, he would find himself cornered by international justice. Nor, if his regime falls, might his allies have the same impetus to protect him as they do today. Doors will close, and while Assad may always find refuge with one gangster or another, it is not his ambition to live the remainder of his life in Pyongyang or Moscow, where the destinies of the regimes may one day take a sharp turn.

With respect to the documents currently being collected on Assad’s crimes, the situation is more complex. There is no tribunal to indict the Syrian leader, largely because Russia will veto any recourse to the International Criminal Court or the creation of an ad hoc court. The body gathering the information—the Commission for International Justice and Accountability—is hoping that once it has files on the Assad regime, the burden of the evidence will generate momentum that Russia cannot stop.

Whether such a calculation is justified or not will have to be seen. But dictatorships are usually very good record-keepers. When great crimes occur, everyone strives to ensure that responsibilities are clearly delineated so as to avoid being accused of something that someone else may have ordered. Assad may one day pay a heavy price for such meticulousness.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Israel’s hard sway to the right is nothing new

A group of former Israeli soldiers from a group calling itself Breaking the Silence released testimonies this month from troops who fought in last summer’s Gaza war. The soldiers claimed that the rules of engagement in the conflict had been indiscriminate.

According to the United Nations Coordinator for Humanitarian Affairs, about 2,200 Palestinians were killed in Gaza, including almost 1,500 civilians. Entire neighbourhoods were razed, and have yet to be rebuilt.

Hamas’s responsibility for what happened cannot be underestimated. Israel’s bombardment of Gaza followed rocket fire from the strip as tensions rose after the killing of three Israeli youths in June, followed by the retaliatory killing of an Arab teenager. Given Israel’s reactions in the past, Hamas could not have anticipated a less destructive outcome.

The soldiers’ admissions highlighted how Israel is drifting towards an aggressive ethno-nationalism that often seems little different from the bigoted sectarianism raging in the Arab world.

Nothing brought this reality home better than Benjamin Netanyahu’s divisive populism on election day in March, when he rallied his supporters on Facebook. “The right-wing government is in danger. Arab voters are heading to the polling stations in droves,” he declared. “Left-wing NGOs are bringing them in buses.”

Mr Netanyahu effectively mobilised one portion of Israel’s population against the other, namely its Arab minority. Not surprisingly, the prime minister later apologised, but his sincerity was dubious since his indecent tactic won him the election. The White House spokesman earnestly described Mr Netanyahu’s actions as undermining “democratic ideals”.

But it’s not democracy that Mr Netanyahu has undermined as much as the prospect of settling Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians. To do that he has consolidated Israel’s shift to the political right. His new government is the most hard-line ever, with several ministers advocating annexation of the West Bank.

During the election campaign, Mr Netanyahu made clear that he opposed the establishment of a Palestinian state. Nothing suggests he will change his views. On the contrary, he has repeated that at a time of increasing extremism in the Middle East the creation of such a state would be a terrible idea.

For those on the other side of the regional divide, condemnation of Israel is second nature. But as Israelis look at their own country, what do they see? What future do they envisage? Time and again a majority of Israelis has expressed a desire for peace in opinion polls, yet at election time voters bring in governments whose policies make peace all but impossible.

There is always some idea in the air that induces the majority to accept measures that only exacerbate relations with the Palestinians: that there is no Palestinian partner for peace; that the Middle East is too unsettled for Israel to surrender land; even that the Palestinians are “beasts” and “not human”, to quote Rabbi Eli Ben-Dahan, the new deputy defence minister responsible for the military administration of the West Bank.

Palestinians are indeed facing problems of credibility, but Mr Netanyahu has only aggravated them to advance his scheme of retaining occupied territories. The more profound question is what price will Israelis pay by indefinitely controlling, directly or indirectly, the lives of nearly 4 million Palestinians, while treating the 1.6 million Arabs of Israel as citizens to be feared?Such a situation is not tenable for ever.

To ward off difficult decisions the Israelis have tended lately to highlight the interests they share with Arab states in containing Iran. That is an illusion. Past Israeli officials also thought that they could resolve their Palestinian problem through the Arab states. In 1982, Menachem Begin and Ariel Sharon ordered the invasion of Lebanon, hoping that by destroying the Palestinian leadership and forcing it out of Beirut they could compel Palestinians in the West Bank and Jerusalem to fulfil their political aspirations by seeking a state in Jordan.

More recently Israelis have been heartened by the hostility between the Sisi administration in Egypt and Hamas in Gaza. Yet parallel Israeli and Arab interests will, at best, earn Israel tactical advantages, while leaving the core issue alone.

Nor is this solely Mr Netanyahu’s doing. Looking back at most Labour governments after the June 1967 war, a similar refusal to give up occupied land was evident. Even a man later hailed as a peacemaker, Moshe Dayan, took a position not so very different from that of Naftali Bennett today, arguing that the West Bank was “part of our land, to be settled, not abandoned”.

The fate of the Palestinians is not high in the region’s concerns today. But like many problems in the Middle East until a few years ago, it is a cataclysm waiting to happen. As Israeli Jews drift towards ethno-national exclusivism, they should consider that this will only reinforce the same attitude in their enemies. And as the Arab world is discovering, mutual denial is suicidal.

Friday, May 8, 2015

Qalamoun is a test of Hezbollah’s hopes

There were contradictory statements this week as to whether Hezbollah would proceed with an offensive in Qalamoun.

An unidentified “security source” told this newspaper, “Hezbollah, after an in-depth military assessment, concluded that there was no need for a costly wide-scale offensive.” Often, a security source means someone from the military, meaning the statement was probably coordinated with the party.

Yet the next day, Hezbollah’s media office released a statement by the deputy secretary-general, Sheikh Naim Qassem, in which he made the contrary claim.

“The Qalamoun battle is coming, and it has already stuck its neck out, proving once again that the takfiris are unable to expand as they wish,” Qassem was quoted as saying. “This battle is the battle of protecting Lebanese villages and prevents takfiris from expanding and achieving their goals.”

In the evening, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah added to the uncertainty. In a speech he said, “We have not issued a statement, and we will not issue a statement. When we launch a [Qalamoun] operation, it will be obvious to everyone.”

Hezbollah is careful with its messaging, and an anonymous source sounds less credible than party leaders speaking on the record. But both Nasrallah and Qassem’s comments betrayed uneasiness. They know the delay in initiating a Qalamoun offensive has led to doubts about Hezbollah’s capacities.

An attack in Qalamoun had meaning in a very different military context in Syria. In March Iran organized major operations in Syria’s north and south, the main objective being to cut off rebel supply lines to Syria and Jordan. Both offensives failed ignominiously, and were followed by major rebel gains, so that resupply lines into Syria have now been secured.

The reversals completely altered the stakes for Hezbollah, and for the Syrian army whose role would be essential in a battle for Qalamoun. The party cannot take military action in the area without a guarantee of victory, since a further defeat in light of those in northern and southern Syria would be disastrous. Yet such a victory is far from assured, for several reasons.

First, Qalamoun does not lend itself to unequivocal outcomes. It’s a vast, thankless region extremely difficult to control, which is why it was so appreciated by cross-border smugglers.

Second, Hezbollah’s ally in such a venture is a demoralized and depleted Syrian army, whose combat effectiveness has steadily deteriorated in recent years. Hezbollah has no confidence in the Syrians, and even less that they would prevent rebel reinforcements from other areas. Corruption is rampant in the Syrian ranks and as the tide turns in Syria this is bound to increase as units begin preparing for a future without Bashar Assad. Such hopelessness could facilitate rebel efforts to buy their way through Syrian lines to Qalamoun, possibly creating a situation where Hezbollah will send its men into a meat grinder.

We have quite possibly reached a new stage in Syria. The countries backing the opponents of Assad have unified their efforts, and it seems to be working. Their most likely strategy is to pursue and consolidate their battlefield gains and push Iran into accepting a compromise at the expense of Assad. This would presumably allow a managed transition away from his rule, in that way averting the chaos of Libya.

The United Nations envoy Staffan de Mistura has seen a small opening. On Monday he began talks with a wide range of political actors from Syria and the region in an effort to relaunch negotiations and end the Syrian conflict. At this stage de Mistura’s objective will not be to achieve a breakthrough, but to prepare a forum that can facilitate negotiations in the future when or if the parties see a need for them.

As negotiations with Iran continue over a final nuclear accord, several officials have already suggested that those talks, if successful, could lead to Iran playing a role in finding a solution to the war in Syria. That supposition may be too optimistic by half. Iran is a house of many mansions, and it’s not at all evident that those inside the country who may lose from a nuclear accord, principally the Revolutionary Guard and their allies, would willingly go along with a process whose ultimate outcome is the removal of Bashar Assad.

Yet if Assad’s foes in Syria make more significant gains, then his allies in Tehran may not have much of a choice. That is why their natural instinct would be to claw back territory to improve Assad’s bargaining hand in the future. In that context a battle for Qalamoun takes on especial importance. But so too does the strategic necessity of getting Qalamoun right. That is why if an offensive doesn’t take place in the coming weeks, it is not because justification for it is lacking; it will be because Hezbollah and Syria’s army are unable to triumph decisively.

And if that’s the case then the limits of Iran and Hezbollah’s effectiveness in Syria will be visible, and therefore their ability to keep Assad in place will be reduced. But to admit this will be difficult for some in Iran, which is why Hezbollah will have a role in determining what decision Iran ultimately takes with regard to the Syrian conflict. The party cannot afford to so involve itself in Syria that it loses control in Lebanon, or, as Qassem insinuated, leaves Lebanon’s Shiites without suitable protection.

We are nearing decision time in Iran. A nuclear deal might loosen up funds to bolster Assad in Syria, but all that would do is delay his end, so decayed are the Syrian regime and army. Hezbollah must consider the risks of going down with Assad’s ship. What it does or does not do in Qalamoun will be an illustration of the frame of mind in the party’s leadership.

Trial and errors - The UN must assess the investigation of Rafik Hariri’s killing

As I listened to the prosecution’s questioning of Walid Jumblatt this week before the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, several thoughts came to mind. All were related to the quality of the United Nations investigation of Rafik al-Hariri’s assassination, and why it requires a critical assessment by the world body.

The first thought was, with all the information available showing the profound tensions between Hariri and the Syrian regime, why did the United Nations investigative team under its second commissioner, Serge Brammertz, fail to actively pursue an inquiry into possible Syrian involvement in his killing?

The recordings that Hariri made of his interactions with Syrian officials, not to mention the testimony of witnesses pointing to growing Syrian animosity toward the former prime minister, certainly imposed such an inquiry. This despite the fact that Brammertz’s predecessor, Detlev Mehlis, had focused on a Syrian motive for the crime, and had even interviewed several Syrian intelligence chiefs in Vienna.

In light of those interviews, Mehlis, as he later informed me, had requested that Brammertz arrest Rustom Ghazaleh, the former head of Syria’s intelligence network in Lebanon. The Belgian commissioner had ignored this.

During his term, Mehlis had also entered into a standoff with the Syrian regime by requesting to take down the witness statement of President Bashar al-Assad. The Syrians refused, and Mehlis had gained support from the UN Security Council, through Resolution 1636, requiring that Syria cooperate with his investigation. When I first met Mehlis a few weeks after that decision he stated, “The conditions we have are almost perfect. It makes our work easier. We are very happy.”

He was particularly happy in that he had tightened the legal framework for the investigation, creating a path for Brammertz to dig further into the potential implication of Syria. Instead, the Belgian commissioner came in and did nothing. As one investigator who served under the first two commissioners told me: “Not much investigating was done” under Brammertz.

In fact, Brammertz avoided conducting one of the most obvious and necessary of tasks, namely taking down Assad’s witness statement after the Security Council had backed up the UN investigation. The commissioner traveled to Damascus and met with Assad, but he never took down a formal statement. With the focus of the trial now shifting to Syria, that there are no statements by Assad to eventually place against what is being said against him in court is inexcusable.

Brammertz was also criticized because of his behavior with respect to the telecommunications analysis surrounding the Hariri assassination. This was brought to light by a hard-hitting Canadian Broadcasting Corporation documentary in 2010.

The CBC affirmed that the UN investigative commission had delayed telecoms analysis of its own and had misplaced a report by a Lebanese investigator, Wissam Eid, identifying the cellular calls of those participating in the assassination. Eid’s conclusions were later confirmed by investigators brought in by the commission and these formed the basis of the initial indictment of five Hezbollah members.

The merits of the CBC report notwithstanding, the scandal was really elsewhere. Why was Eid conducting the most sensitive facet of the investigation in the first place? That was the duty of the UN investigative commission itself. Indeed, it should have been an absolute priority for Brammertz and his team.

At the time, Brammertz had tightly sealed his investigation, limiting the information handed to the Lebanese side, so as to prevent leaks. Therefore, one can only conclude that either he was negligent in his duties, or far more damagingly, that he pushed the telecommunications analysis onto the Lebanese, before he himself initiated telecoms analysis over a year later—in October 2007, according to the CBC documentary—when the UN commission asked a British company, FTS, to do so.

If this interpretation is correct, Brammertz is guilty of having purposely postponed looking at one of the most vital aspects of the Hariri assassination. But the careerist in him must have sensed the mood at the UN well, for when he left office in 2008 he was rewarded with a plum posting as prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.

Brammertz’s refusal to go to the heart of the investigation had implications for the initial indictment prepared by Brammertz’s successor, Daniel Bellemare. Brammertz was instrumental in appointing Bellemare, and one can understand why. The Canadian judge never called into question his predecessor’s work, though the fact that he took three years to put together an indictment shows how little Brammertz had left him in his files.

And what an indictment. Bellemare’s work was as shoddy as Brammertz’s was dishonest. The Canadian offered no motive for why Hariri had been eliminated, presenting the defense with a golden opportunity to discredit his case. Not surprisingly, when his successor Norman Farrell took over as prosecutor, he was scornful of Bellemare’s efforts. Searching for a motive, he went back to the original hypothesis of Syrian involvement, and has concentrated on that with witnesses in recent months.

That is what has disturbed the Syrian regime. As Farrell has zeroed in on a Syrian reason for killing Hariri, even revealing a recording of a conversation between Hariri and Ghazaleh, the leadership in Damascus must have expected that Ghazaleh would be called in as a witness, even arrested. By blocking his appearance in court, the Syrians would have appeared guilty. By accepting it, there was a risk Ghazaleh would talk. That is why the best solution may have been to have Ghazaleh liquidated.

But when will someone talk about Brammertz’s actions, and denounce Bellemare’s indictment for the incompetent document that it is? The credibility of a UN legal process was undermined by a Belgian judge who remains on the UN payroll and a Canadian judge who was always in over his head. But no one wants to rock the boat. The UN ignores this at its own peril.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Special tribunal tests Jumblatt’s opposing views

This week the Lebanese Druze politician Walid Jumblatt has been in the witness stand at the Special Tribunal for Lebanon. Mr Jumblatt, a political gymnast, aimed to achieve a number of things under questioning but his performance on his first two days also showed he preferred to sidestep others.

Early on, the Druze leader viewed the United Nations investigation of Hariri’s assassination in a Beirut bombing in February 2005 as a means of political leverage to reduce Syrian influence in Lebanon. However, in 2009, when Syria and Saudi Arabia effected a political rapprochement, president Bashar Al Assad’s regime set a condition. It wanted the Saudis to push their ally Saad Hariri, who had become Lebanese prime minister, into publicly denouncing the UN investigation.

The then-prosecutor, Daniel Bellemare, was still preparing an indictment for the special tribunal in early 2011, when the Obama administration blocked these Syrian-Saudi efforts to discredit the court. In retaliation, Hizbollah and its allies pulled out of Saad Hariri’s government in January 2011, bringing it down.

Mr Jumblatt, who had reconciled with Syria months earlier, had initially urged Mr Hariri to accept the Syrian-Saudi deal. But 2011 was the year the uprising began in Syria and the Druze leader changed tack. He sided with the Syrian opposition and the tribunal became an instrument that could be used against Mr Al Assad.

One thing that did not change was Mr Jumblatt’s relationship with Hizbollah. When he improved ties with Syria in 2010, he also did so with Hizbollah. Despite his differences with the party over the Syrian conflict, the Druze leader has preserved that relationship. This is, in large part, to ensure domestic peace in Lebanon, particularly in areas he controls, which have a significant Shia population.

But the special tribunal has tested Mr Jumblatt’s conflicting attitudes. On the one hand, five Hizbollah members have been indicted by the court, which cannot please the Druze leader. On the other, Mr Jumblatt would like the tribunal to accuse the Syrian regime of Hariri’s murder.

Indeed, many of the Syrian security officials involved in, or who had information about, the Hariri assassination have died or been killed. Rustom Ghazaleh, who headed Syria’s intelligence network in Lebanon, was said to have died last week. Mr Jumblatt is not alone in linking all these deaths to the murder of Hariri. The argument is that the Syrian regime, already much weakened, could not afford to allow Syrian officers to be called by the court and possibly confirm its involvement.

Mr Jumblatt has been brought in by the prosecution to throw some light on the Syrian decision-making process and on relations between Hariri and the Syrian leadership. That is a subject the Druze leader has readily expanded upon.

But Mr Jumblatt will not target Lebanese parties that might have participated in the plot against Hariri. Just as he has steered clear of Hizbollah, he does not want to mention the Lebanese Army, whose intelligence services may have had prior knowledge of the assassination. In 2005, army intelligence was very close to Syria and Hizbollah, and it remains close to the party today.

At a time when the army maintains domestic peace in Lebanon, Mr Jumblatt will avoid tarnishing its reputation, particularly among Sunnis. Indeed, in his testimony on the first day the Druze leader was generally evasive about how the army had contributed to the intimidation of the former prime minister.

Many might look askance at Mr Jumblatt’s political aims in a legal process that should be above politics. But that would mean ignoring the fact that the Hariri assassination was a political crime, with implications for all aspects of Lebanese political life.

It will be up to the court to distinguish between the political agendas of the witnesses and their testimony. But the politics and the trial are irrevocably intertwined.

This has become even more relevant as the prosecution has taken the trial in the direction of Syrian involvement. Clearly, prosecutor Norman Farrell did not feel the original indictment, prepared by Mr Bellemare, was adequate, because it failed to determine a motive for the crime.

Mr Jumblatt’s testimony will be central to establishing a political context for Hariri’s killing. As every Lebanese knows, the former prime minister was preparing to head a coalition against pro-Syrian lists in the elections of summer 2005. This coalition would probably have won a majority, making the Lebanese parliament a focal point of opposition to Syria and to its man in Beirut, president Emile Lahoud. This would have threatened Syria’s presence in Lebanon.

That Mr Bellemare missed this in his indictment was a scandal, especially as there was ample information in witness statements taken down in 2005, which pointed in Syria’s direction. Mr Jumblatt’s role is to add meat to the prosecution’s bone. By shedding light on Syria, Mr Jumblatt hopes to reduce the focus on Hizbollah.