Friday, June 26, 2015

Divided we may stand - Federalism and confederalism re-enter the Arab discussion

The Middle East is caught in a situation similar to the one at the start of World War II, characterized by large-scale population movements with the intention of changing the demographic and geographical face of Europe.

At the beginning of the world war, these movements were primarily provoked by Nazi Germany, which sought to repopulate areas it had conquered with ethnic Germans, all part of an effort to expand Germany’s “living space” and ultimately establish a Greater Germanic Reich. Ultimately this plan failed, and in retaliation at war’s end some 31 million ethnic Germans were themselves expelled from Eastern Europe.

Today in the Middle East similar, albeit more intricate, population movements are taking place. In the wake of the Iraq war, Iraqi Shiites altered the demographic makeup of Baghdad by pushing out Sunnis, just as Kurds did Arabs in the north. During the Syrian conflict, Sunnis were forced out of the area of Homs, to ensure the regime maintained control over the strategic city and its environs. Syria’s Kurds are also allegedly aiming to create new demographic realities by removing Arabs from the areas they have conquered in northeastern Syria.

The list goes on. But ultimately, what will the outcome be? Logically, there are two possible paths in the present regional environment: the continued pursuit of “pure” sectarian or ethnic mini-states; or new political arrangements to manage sectarian or ethnic differences consensually in mixed states. The first option is a formula for perpetual war; the second offers a chance for non-violent solutions through mutual compromise.

As myriad examples of violent ethnic or sectarian cleansing have shown, the consequences can be dramatic and the resentments produced irreparable. Israel’s Jews, who engaged in ethnic cleansing in 1948, are still facing a Palestinian population that refuses to accept its misfortune. The fate of the ethnic Germans in Eastern Europe between 1946 and 1948, like that of Indians and Pakistanis who agreed to partition in 1947, is a further sign, if any is needed, that large-scale population transfers bring with them endless suffering and hatreds.

From the end of World War I the Western powers had to think of what to do about the Middle East’s minorities. In Syria and Lebanon, France adopted policies favoring minorities — initially creating autonomous areas for the Druze and Alawites in Syria, before later reversing this for financial reasons. In Lebanon, the French approved of the creation of Greater Lebanon in line with the demands of the Maronite Christian leadership. At the time the community was perhaps not a minority within the new Lebanese state, but it certainly was in the larger region.

In Iraq, the British favored the old Ottoman Sunni elite and the Sunni Arab community over the Shiite and Kurdish majority of the population. Indeed, after the Iraqi revolt of 1920, the British opted to bring in as monarch the Hashemite Prince Faysal to calm tensions. Yet Shiites and Kurds were uneasy about the arrival of this prominent Sunni from the Hejaz, and in many respects Iraq never recovered from its sectarian disconnects.

For a long time both Iraq and Syria were kept together by a combination of factors: Western control, followed by relatively centralized regimes, followed, after World War II, by more harshly authoritarian ideological regimes, most of them proclaiming a militant form of Arab nationalism. With the exception of Lebanon, the emerging states allowed very little latitude for minority identities, imposing a fake unity under the umbrella of Arab nationalist aspirations. Because all Arabs were purportedly as one in wanting to join a broad Arab nation, there was no room in individual states for minority dissent.

That edifice was shattered in Iraq in 2003 thanks to the American invasion, and later in Syria and Libya after the uprisings of 2011. In Syria and Iraq, particularly, what followed were efforts by the different communities to define territories that might one day become permanently theirs.

As noted earlier, the Kurds did so in contested areas of northern Iraq and the Shiites in Baghdad. In Syria, Alawites focused on maintaining open communications lines between Damascus and the coast, as well as with Shiite areas in eastern Lebanon. This required depopulating Homs and Qalamoun from their Sunni inhabitants, most of them now refugees in Lebanon. The Kurds, thanks to Western air power and under the guise of fighting ISIS, expanded their territory from Kobani to Qamishli, despite the remnants of government forces in the latter.  

What comes next in the region? The conversation in the Arab world has shifted toward the types of political arrangements that might safeguard Syria and Iraq as unified states. Hitherto a taboo subject, now Arab analysts are openly speaking of federal or confederal solutions to do so. The suffocating Arab nationalist state is dead, and encouragingly so. But what are the chances of rebuilding new states that recognize minority rights?

Only the future will tell. Sectarian or ethnic ministates may be tempting to many, but they tend to generate more conflict than prosperity — or, in the rare case of Israel, prosperity amid conflict. Moreover, states created against different sectarian or ethnic groups tend to be more illiberal than states aiming to enhance coexistence by agreeing social contracts that allow their diverse groups to manage their differences collaboratively.

Both paths are opening up before the Arab peoples. Past experience doesn’t allow us to be optimistic. But there is time, and we can only hope that talk of new social compacts, federal, confederal or other, will gain the upper hand in the future.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Empty rhetoric characterises the Obama years

Many Americans bristle when they hear that Washington bears some responsibility for the war in Syria. The US shouldn’t be blamed for a conflict between Arabs taking place thousands of kilometres away from its shores, they insist.

There is truth in this. Had the US not been a superpower, we would not have heard such an accusation. However, because it is, and its decisions have a bearing on international affairs, the criticism comes. And because American ambitions are global, Washington’s actions invite reprobation when these ambitions are not met.

For instance, a reading of the Obama administration’s 2015 National Security Strategy, with its sweeping prose, shows how wide the gap between aspiration and reality is. The NSS claims to provide “a vision and strategy for advancing the nation’s interests, universal values, and a rules-based international order through strong and sustainable American leadership”, with particular emphasis placed on the last five words.

Events in Syria have shown the shallowness of American pretensions. The suffering there, the endless human rights violations, the continued use of chemical weapons, the abandonment of universal values, have revealed only that the Obama administration is good at empty rhetoric.

In their focus on fighting ISIL while ignoring all other outrages in Syria, the Americans have displayed marked disregard for universal values and a rules-based international order.

Even on an issue that once seemed likely to bring about American intervention – chemical weapons – the Obama administration has lost interest. After concluding a deal to destroy Syria’s chemical arsenal, Washington has ignored the bombing of civilians by the Syrian regime using chlorine gas.

The writer and academic Ziad Majed wrote a book on the Syrian uprising, aptly referring in his title to an “orphaned revolution”. Indeed, very few in the West have embraced the revolt against Bashar Al Assad’s regime, let alone claimed its paternity. Rarely has such an epic humanitarian catastrophe sparked so little mobilisation globally, so little indignation.

And yet, Syria was destined to be a test case for the rules-based order Washington claims it wants to consolidate. The lack of a consensus at the UN was not Barack Obama’s fault. Yet the response to politically-induced blockage should not have been inaction. It took nearly two years for the Obama administration to prepare the framework for a resolution of the conflict, in tandem with the country blocking progress at the UN.

The Obama administration also prevented the establishment of a no-fly zone, which could have reduced air attacks against civilians and contained the refugee burden on Syria’s neighbours. It made no effort to organise the Syrian opposition and precipitate Mr Al Assad’s downfall, despite acknowledging that regime crimes rendered the president illegitimate.

Nor did the Obama administration seek to ensure that senior Syrian officials responsible for war crimes would later be brought to justice. That is especially true of those behind the chemical weapons attack of August 2013, which Washington and the UN confirmed.

Why has Syria not mattered to Americans in the formation of a rules-based international order? Why have universal values been less meaningful when applied to Syrians? In fact, as the Obama administration negotiates with Iran, why have human rights never come up given Iran’s deep involvement in human rights abuses and sectarian cleansing in Syria?

Two decades ago, Bill Clinton tried to remain aloof from the war in Bosnia, but the massacre in Srebrenica in 1995 forced him to re-evaluate American behaviour. What Mr Clinton grasped was that the public and Congress would turn against a president who didn’t act in the face of mass murder.

Mr Obama has felt no such pressure. Most Americans are indifferent to what happens in Syria. Recall that after the chemical weapons attack of 2013, a New York Times/CBS News poll showed that 60 per cent of respondents said they opposed military action by the United States against the Syrian regime, even though 75 per cent said they thought Mr Assad’s forces had used such weapons.

That was a disheartening reaction to a terrible massacre that killed, according to American estimates, 1,429 people, including at least 426 children. No wonder Mr Al Assad has continued using chlorine gas. He knows he can get away with it.

It’s difficult to understand what is behind this western attitude. One may fall back on the glib argument that it’s all about racism, that Syrians count little for Europeans or Americans. But such an explanation is unverifiable and doesn’t explain why Washington, which alone has the power to unite and spur western action on Syria, has so readily abandoned its stated aims.

That America does not want to get drawn into the Syrian conflict is understandable. What isn’t is that while America proclaims to all its vision of a better international environment, its actions in Syria have not only belied this, they have actively undermined it. Such hypocrisy is morally repugnant. So much for strong and sustainable American leadership.

Friday, June 19, 2015

After me, the deluge - The fight over Michel Aoun’s succession has started

To understand the often-incomprehensible behavior of the Aounist movement today it’s important to grasp that behind it lies a struggle for succession. With Michel Aoun over 80, we are seeing maneuvers by the divided leaders in his movement to ensure that they will come out on top once the general expires.

An interesting article by Claire Shukr in Al-Safir on Wednesday highlighted disagreements over the internal regulations of the Free Patriotic Movement. An initial draft of the regulations was replaced by a revised draft that was sent by the FPM to the Interior Ministry on Monday. According to Shukr, the amendments would effectively ensure that Gebran Bassil, Aoun’s son-in-law and the foreign minister, would be able to consolidate his hold over the movement when the time comes.

However, several senior Aounist figures are hostile to Bassil and have no desire to see him inherit the mantle of FMP leadership. As they look around, the only person who might have a chance of challenging Bassil for control of the FPM is Shamel Roukoz, the charismatic soldier who married another of Aoun’s daughters. Knowing it would improve Roukoz’s chances immensely, Bassil’s enemies are trying to have him appointed as commander of the Lebanese Army to succeed Jean Qahwaji.

But in pushing for Roukoz’s promotion, the Aounists have blocked all cabinet activity. They have insisted that this issue, among others, must be decided before Qahwaji’s term ends in September, otherwise they will boycott all cabinet sessions in which security appointments are not an agenda priority. In other words, the system is frozen partly because some Aounists want to enlist Roukoz as a Trojan Horse against other Aounists.

After a decade of watching Aoun and his acolytes work, it is no surprise that a party that once portrayed itself as a builder and champion of institutions, has regressed to a petty group of bit players squabbling over which one of Michel Aoun’s son-in-laws will lead the FPM. And worse, this abysmal state of affairs has held Lebanon hostage politically and economically at the most dangerous and trying period in its recent history.

But the Aounists are apparently not alone in preparing for Aoun’s departure. Much has been made of the Aounist-Lebanese Forces reconciliation. This was variously interpreted as an effort by both parties to signal that they were the dominant actors on the Christian scene, and a sign of recognition that Christians need unity at a time when the community is under existential threat in the Middle East.

But it may also have been something else. Samir Geagea can count just as well as Aounist officials can, and perhaps he feels that a settlement of his problems with the general now would allow him to benefit from support among Aounists down the line. His assessment could be that the FPM will face a major rift once Aoun dies—hardly an impossible outcome—and that he can exploit this politically by picking up some of the pieces.

Geagea has no better way of doing so, the argument goes, than by presenting himself as someone who made his peace with Aoun in the interests of the Christians, in that way papering over his image among Aounists as an arch-villain from the past.

One has to pity Aoun in some ways. No one likes to be surrounded by vultures, especially someone who still has ambitions and somehow believes he may yet become president, even after nearly three fruitless decades of trying. But what is more of a problem is that Aoun’s default setting for the past 10 years has been obstruction and permanent brinksmanship. In pursuit of his aims he has done more damage to Lebanon, and to his own Maronite community, than just about anyone else.

Roukoz’s fate is a good illustration of how Aoun’s stated goals can end up undermining his own interests. If by chance Roukoz does become army commander in September, it would almost certainly end Aoun’s chances of becoming president. The political class will not accept that two of the most senior Maronite posts in the state be in the hands of Michel Aoun. He can obstruct the system all he wants, but it won’t happen.

How reminiscent this is of Aoun’s recklessness in 2006. At the time, the general was the dominant Christian political figure, someone whom it would have been nearly impossible to circumvent as a successor to Emile Lahoud. All he had to do was strengthen his ties with March 14 after the disagreements of summer 2005, while maintaining friendly relations with March 8. Who could have disregarded Aoun after that? Instead, the general, not sure of whether his priority was to be president or to undermine March 14, allied himself with Hezbollah against the majority, ensuring that he would never be elected.

Today, again, Aoun is not sure whether he wants to become president or whether he wants Shamel Roukoz to be army commander. It’s an either-or proposition and the general must choose. If he wants Roukoz, then he is guaranteed of getting what he wants, on condition that he accept a new president other than himself. But if he insists on being president, then he has to give up on Roukoz and allow the government to function.

Meanwhile, his own movement is preparing for political battles ahead. The likelihood is that Aoun won’t be around for those. That’s not so bad, as there are few battles that Aoun has decisively won, or from which he or Lebanon have gained. 

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Christian parties in Lebanon can mitigate sectarianism

Recent developments in Lebanon’s Maronite Christian community suggest that, despite political rifts, there is a good sense of the existential threats faced by Christians in the region. This reality requires a spirit of compromise and unity.

The most important event was the reconciliation between Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement and Samir Geagea’s Lebanese Forces. The two principal Christian political organisations have long been at odds, and Mr Aoun and Mr Geagea remain rival candidates for the Lebanese presidency.

That’s why they agreed a document that sidestepped political disagreements and outlined agreed positions of principle. They implicitly expressed the view that Christians have been marginalised in the political system since the Taif Accord of 1989 and the period of the Syrian presence.

The document mentioned that Taif had been implemented in an incomplete way, requiring rectification through a “return to the pillars of the National Pact and the provisions of the Lebanese constitution, based on a genuine 50-50 breakdown [in Muslim-Christian representation] and the soundness of effective parliamentary representation.”

The coded wording aside, the Christian parties have felt acutely dependent in recent years on major Muslim political actors to win parliamentary seats. For example in three major districts – Baabda, Jbeil and Zahleh – Aounist candidates have benefited from a sold pro-Hizbollah Shia vote in their favour.

While this has not overly troubled Mr Aoun, it has created unease among many Christian voters who feel their candidates are being brought in by a non-Christian electorate. This has forced Mr Aoun to go along with Mr Geagea in calling for a change in the electoral law, even if he doesn’t quite mean it.

Mr Geagea’s frustrations are more palpable. In the last two elections, in 2005 and 2009, the Lebanese Forces earned just over half a dozen parliamentary seats because the election law does not benefit them. Mr Geagea believes that more such mediocre results could permanently sideline his party.

So the Aounist-Lebanese Forces agreement is, in part, a self-serving attempt by both sides to reaffirm that they and they alone represent most Christians.

Perhaps that reality helped precipitate a second recent development in the Maronite community: the election last weekend of Sami Gemayel as president of the Kataeb (Phalange) Party, replacing his father, Amine, a former Lebanese president. At 35, Mr Gemayel will aim to attract more young people to the party, which is particularly important in light of the dominance of the Free Patriotic Movement and the Lebanese Forces.

It was Mr Gemayel’s late brother Pierre who began that endeavour after the Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon. He was killed by gunmen in November 2006 and several politicians linked the killing to his ability to rejuvenate the Kataeb, which was viewed as a threat by Syria and its allies.

Parochial Christian politics aside, it is the backdrop of the Christian parties’ efforts to revitalise themselves and improve mutual relations that is important. As Christian communities in Iraq and Syria have been displaced, perhaps permanently, Lebanon’s Christians – Maronites in particular – have felt vulnerable about what the future holds for them.

The war in Syria has only heightened their anxieties. The disappearance of Syria’s Christians thanks to an Islamist-led insurgency would only reinforce the sense that Christians have no prospects in the Middle East. President Bashar Al Assad’s regime has exploited this to garner minority support, but as it begins to lose ground, he may well take down all minorities, including his own Alawites, with him.

The mistake of the Christian minorities in Iraq and Syria is that they played the card of an “alliance of minorities”. They linked their fortunes with ruling minorities against majorities in each country and they accepted the repressive policies of these minority regimes to perpetuate control. The 2003 war in Iraq and the Syrian uprising undermined this, and now Christians are facing the predictable backlash.

The Christian parties in Lebanon must consider a different path. Rather than a suicidal alliance of minorities, they must exploit the singular role they can play as a balancing force between the divided Sunnis and Shia. But to do so they need to reaffirm their belief in the system of sectarian coexistence that governs Lebanon.

This the Aounists and Lebanese Forces have done. But they now have to persuade their base. There is still a deep conviction among many Christians that the region will never tolerate minorities, and that Islamists are bound to govern. That may be true in some places, but in Lebanon it hasn’t been, with the most serious blows to Christians often being self-inflicted.

That is why the Aounist-Lebanese Forces reconciliation is a good first step. But it must lead beyond that to a redefinition of the Christians’ role as a moderating force working to reduce Lebanon’s sectarian polarisation. That means embracing Lebanon and the region rather than being alienated from it. With many Christians looking to leave Lebanon, this will not be easy.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Opposites attract - Why Obama wants one thing with ISIS, and gets the other

When the Obama administration began implementing a plan to “degrade and ultimately defeat” ISIS last year, many people warned of its incoherence. Since then, the group’s expanding reach in Iraq and Syria has only exposed a policy in disarray.

At the heart of Obama’s problems are the myriad constraints he has imposed on his administration’s actions, all creating an ambiguous policy designed to show that the United States is committed to the fight, but not that committed. The ensuing confusion has been frustrating for Washington’s allies and heartening to ISIS, which has exploited the large holes in the Americans’ often-incomprehensible strategy.

Obama’s guidelines for his recent decision to expand the American military presence in Iraq to help train Iraqi forces are a case in point. The president intends to send 450 more troops, but everything about his scheme ensures that, at best, the process of degrading, let alone defeating, ISIS will be slow.

American advisors will be present with Iraqis in their headquarters, but will not deploy near the front lines or be used as spotters for American bombing missions. As the Washington Post put it: “The president’s focus, for now, is on forcing the Iraqis to solve their own problems. He is also determined to keep Americans—who haven’t suffered a single combat casualty in the fight against [ISIS] in Iraq and Syria—out of harm’s way.”  

However, forcing the Iraqis to solve their own problems can come with a price. Because the Iraqi army has proven so incompetent, the fallback mechanism has been to rely on sectarian Shiite militias. These militias are close to Iran, and their expanded role has undermined the authority of Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi, whom the Obama administration is backing.

That is important because Abadi has gone along with an American project to arm and train a Sunni national guard to fight ISIS—the intention behind the sending of the additional American troops. Yet the Iraqi prime minister has had trouble advancing this due to opposition from Shiite politicians in Baghdad. Indeed, Iran itself is not keen to see Iraq’s Sunnis rearmed, as it could threaten its power in the country.

As a consequence, Abadi’s, and Obama’s, idea to empower Sunnis is faltering. Shiite militias have gained the upper hand, and against its own declared aims the administration has said that the United States would support the “multi-sectarian, popular mobilization” force seeking to retake Ramadi from ISIS.

The convenient use of the word “multi-sectarian” has fooled nobody. The units fighting in Ramadi are in their vast majority Shiite. And the Americans, so keen to rout ISIS, have no choice but to rely on such militias if they want to make any gains against the group. Obama’s actions are leading to outcomes diametrically opposed to those the president says he seeks.

A second Obama condition—that the United States not get involved in the Syrian war—is proving equally tricky. While the president’s reluctance is understandable, given the mess in Syria, it has also highlighted a major shortcoming in his anti-ISIS efforts. ISIS has been adept at shifting men, arms and equipment between the Iraqi and Syrian fronts, so fighting the group in Iraq but only modestly so in Syria makes no sense.

Obama’s only real action in Syria involved defending Kobani. The defeat may have had a negative psychological impact on ISIS and probably caused heavy casualties, but the group soon got over it and moved in other directions. Yet the United States has not done so. The expansion of ISIS into areas of Syria is, at best, being lightly opposed by the Americans today.

As the dynamics in Syria have shifted in recent months, with the Syrian regime losing ground, there have been no adjustments in American behavior toward the country. That whatever happens in Syria will affect the fate of ISIS is inevitable, but until now Washington has not fundamentally altered its conduct in Syria.

The reality is that Obama has so tied American policy in knots to ensure that America remains disengaged in the Middle East, that he has created numerous incompatibilities. The United States wants to be less engaged in Iraq, but is slowly becoming more engaged because its policies have not been working; it wants to reinforce the authority of the Iraqi government and favors Sunni-Shiite reconciliation, but is assisting sectarian Shiite militias that have actively undermined Abadi and national reconciliation; it wants to degrade ISIS, but is pursuing a minimalist approach in Syria that has only helped revitalize it.

Washington may believe that a nuclear accord with Iran will somehow allow it to shift the burden of fighting regional terrorism onto Tehran and its allies. Yet that’s an optimistic reading of the Iranians’ capabilities. They have no interest in taking on the entire Sunni world. Worse, American recognition of Iran’s stakes in the Levant could heighten sectarian tensions even more, allowing the likes of ISIS to gain ground.

A great deal will be determined by what happens in Syria. Amid reports, all unconfirmed, that the Russians and Iranians may be nearing acceptance of an arrangement that could lead to Bashar Assad’s departure from office, there has been talk of Russian-American contacts to reach a political solution. Allegedly, there is still no consensus over what political structure would prevail in a postwar Syria. But a negotiated settlement, if successful, could paper over the very real problems in Obama’s approach. We’re far from that stage yet, unfortunately, and until further notice the Americans will continue to work against themselves.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Federalism can calm sectarian differences in the Arab world

As Syria and Iraq break down, it is evident that the curse of the modern Arab world has been the over-centralised Arab nationalist state that has facilitated despotic rule and suffocated all manifestations of religious or ethnic diversity.

In this context, a political idea has gained in prominence, even though at one time it was considered taboo. That idea is federalism. As multi-sectarian Arab states disintegrate, there is a growing view that the only realistic frameworks to replace them are more decentralised political arrangements that allow different communities to run many of their own affairs.

Yet on its own federalism will not resolve the myriad problems faced by Arab countries once led by Arab nationalist regimes. That’s partly because of the legacy left by these regimes and partly because federalism must be based on certain consensual foundations that are agreed beforehand.

The Baath regimes in Syria and Iraq, like Muammar Qaddafi’s in Libya, were built on a myth of Arab unity. Because Arabs strived for unity, no room was left to recognise, let alone manage, religious, sectarian and ethnic differences. These identities were regarded as divisive and therefore officially ignored.

Ironically, the supposed nationalist unanimity only hid minority rule – in Iraq by the Sunnis, in Syria by the Alawites. In the end this fact, as much as any other, helped discredit the Arab nationalist pretensions of the regimes. What Iraqis and Syrians saw was that Arab nationalism was a screen for minority leaders who maintained themselves in office through repression.

When the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, and the uprisings began in Syria and Libya in 2011, the Arab nationalist facades used to govern were swept away. Sectarianism, tribalism and ethnicity came to the fore with a vengeance. This was particularly the case as the regimes had left no institutions in place to allow for political arrangements that could manage differences peacefully.

While a federal system was installed in Iraq, its notable failings only highlighted a second challenge faced by such systems: unless it is based on compromise and consensus, federalism will be impaired and can facilitate fragmentation.

Iraq’s Sunnis, after dominating under Saddam Hussein, have been systematically discriminated against since 2003, after a Shia-dominated government took over. At the same time, the Kurds have also felt increasingly alienated from Baghdad. Many advocate full independence, realising that the federal system was, in part, a way of containing their separatist ambitions. These dynamics have undermined Iraqi federalism, threatening the existence of the state. The problem is that in the absence of a centralised state or some form of federalism, all that’s left are sectarian or ethnic entities vulnerable to non-state interference.

Arab confusion has not been helped by history. After the formation of the Iraqi and Syrian states following the First World War, Britain and France, the Mandatory powers, alternated between different political and administrative arrangements. The French initially favoured minorities in Syria, granting autonomy to the Alawites and Druze, before reversing this and replacing it with a system of administrative decentralisation.

This promotion of minority interests, particularly in the armed forces, had a major impact once minorities saw the military establishment as an instrument of social promotion. By the 1960s, minorities controlled Syria through the military.

In Iraq, the British approach was different. After creating the country by joining three separate Ottoman provinces, Britain decided, in the aftermath of the Iraqi revolt of 1920, to bring in the Hashemite Prince Faysal as king, to calm the situation. This made the Shiites and Kurds uneasy, but it also centralised power, laying the groundwork for a Sunni-dominated elite and subsequently, an expanded role for the military in Iraqi politics.

In both countries, authoritarian regimes were ultimately able to impose control from the centre. That these regimes were minority-led made decentralised systems much more unlikely, as, controlling the state, they had no impetus to devolve political power.

Today federalism, or even confederalism, seems a natural compromise to rebuild atomised Arab states. But in all cases, nothing will come of political systems that discriminate against a significant portion of their people. A social contract, as its name indicates, has to be about mutual agreement. Until this basic concept is understood and implemented in the Arab world, dysfunctional states will remain the norm. Indeed, if anything has been at the heart of the region’s discontents since independence from colonial rule, it’s the fact that states have utterly failed to fulfil their required role.

That’s why a debate over federalism, like that over any new social contract, has become necessary. In complex societies, imagining new ways to manage the complexity is hardly a betrayal of unity. If anything, it may help preserve the states that today seem to exist only in the mind.

Friday, June 5, 2015

Legionnaires’ disease - Iran’s risky involvement in Syria is on the rise

A Lebanese politician frequently describes a meeting he held several years ago with a Russian official. The envoy from Moscow affirmed that Iran would not allow Bashar Assad’s regime to fall, adding that, if it became necessary, Tehran would send its own troops to Syria to prevent it.

With the news that thousands of Iranian combatants, accompanied by Iraqi and Afghan Shiites, are being deployed to the Syrian conflict, we may have reached that stage.

The actual numbers are unclear. A Syrian “security source” told AFP that “[a]round 7,000 Iranian and Iraqi fighters have arrived in Syria over the past few weeks and their first priority is the defense of the capital. The larger contingent is Iraqi.”

The source indicated that the Iranian aim was to reach 10,000 men, “to support the Syrian army and pro-government militias, firstly in Damascus, and then to retake Jisr al-Shughur because it is key to the Mediterranean coast and the Hama region.”

A Lebanese “political source” offered different figures, telling The Daily Star that Iran had sent 15,000 combatants—again Iranians as well as Iraqi and Afghan Shiites. The source echoed that the new arrivals would spearhead an offensive in Idlib Province, where the Assad regime has suffered serious setbacks.

The Star’s source outlined the two principal Iranian goals: “One is to reverse the falling morale of regime supporters in the wake of the battlefield losses and high casualties, while the second is to achieve successes by the end of this month, which coincides with a deadline for Iran and world powers to finalize an interim deal on Tehran’s nuclear program.”

Whatever the numbers, the direct implication of Iranian troops is on the rise in Syria. There have already been numerous accounts of Iranians fighting there, and Revolutionary Guard and Basij commanders have been reported killed. Whether the new deployments signal massive intervention by Iran remains to be seen. But given its grave doubts about the staying power of Bashar Assad’s exhausted army, this may become inevitable.

The news comes as the Syrian regime is seeking to recruit Alawites to a new force known as the Coastal Shield Brigade. With rebel forces having advanced in Idlib, taking Jisr al-Shughur and, most recently, Ariha, Assad’s foes have several options. They can strike westwards into the Alawite heartland; they can drive southwards toward Hama and Homs; or they can complete the expulsion of regime forces from Aleppo.  

It is the second option that apparently worries Iran the most. Amid reports that the Iranians are pushing Assad to abandon outlying regions and concentrate his forces in what has been called “useful Syria”—Damascus, the coastal areas, and lines of communication in between—a rebel push against Homs and Hama could represent a direct threat to this core region.

Some observers have argued that Iranian assistance could push the rebels back, and that, while Assad’s regime “is clearly under strain” talk “of its impending demise [is] greatly overstated.” Perhaps, but the broader message is rather different. Iran is being drawn more deeply into a conflict that it cannot win; more importantly that it does not really seek to win. Significantly, it could also soon find itself facing Turkey in Syria, raising the level of animosity between the two powers.

Tehran is wagering on the fact that it has relatively specific military intentions in Syria. It wants only to protect “useful Syria,” while accepting that the rest of the country remain outside regime control. But that’s misunderstanding that the regional powers want more. They seek to dislodge Bashar Assad and Iran from Syria. In other words, they will put all their weight behind ensuring that Iran and its allies are sucked into a debilitating quagmire that will end in their defeat.

As the United States learned in both Korea and Vietnam, borders are essential. When American-led forces got too close to the Chinese border with North Korea in October 1950, it triggered intervention by China. In Vietnam, the porousness of the Cambodian border was a major frustration for American commanders throughout the conflict, as it allowed men and supplies to transit southwards to those fighting the United States and the South Vietnamese government.  

In Idlib, Syria’s rebels, and with them Jabhat al-Nusra, will enjoy an open channel of supplies through the nearby Turkish frontier. Even if Iran and its allies can retake positions, they will be in for a long, grinding, indecisive campaign. The symbolism in the Iranian move will be double-edged: it may indeed raise Syrian morale, but more perniciously it will also tell Alawites that others are there to fight their battles for them.

That is why the Coastal Shield Brigade is so important. By recruiting Alawites at a time when many youths in the community are avoiding mandatory military service, the regime is trying to show that it is committed to winning its own war.

But that is questionable, if only because the “useful Syria” concept illustrates that Syria no longer exists as a country. The Iranian plan is tantamount to partition, and Assad’s credibility is harmed by such a project. It implies he will never rule over all of Syria again, and that his survival is only being guaranteed by Iran and its proxies, for their own narrow reasons.

Assad, therefore, has become marginal. As this becomes increasingly evident, Iran will have to pour even more men into Syria. The conflict will become a magnet for Sunni militants. Fighting Iran and the Shiites will turn into a regional crusade. Iran could discover that it is choking on what it has bitten off.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

A social contract is the way to end minorities issue

Reports that the Syrian regime is seeking to recruit Alawites to a new Coastal Shield brigade shows how much President Bashar Al Assad has lost in recent months. Syrian rebels have advanced in Idlib province, just east of the centre of Alawite power along the Mediterranean coast and its surrounding mountains.

The formation of the brigade could be designed to rally young Alawites at a time when tens of thousands of them have avoided mandatory military service. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the figure may be as high as 70,000.

The effort is a sign of desperation, an example of a minority circling the wagons as its wager on maintaining power fails. It offers a general lesson about minorities in the Middle East. In countries such as Syria and Iraq, where minorities have dominated a majority usually through repression, the outcomes have generally been catastrophic.

Even before the First World War, the question of the region’s minorities in the region preoccupied foreign powers. In 1860, a civil war in Lebanon led to the massacre of Christians by another minority, the Druze. This was followed by the massacre of the Christians of Damascus with the approval of local Ottoman officials. French military intervention ensued, followed by international agreement with the Ottomans over a new administrative arrangement in Mount Lebanon known as the Mutassarifiyya. It held that the Ottomans would appoint a Christian governor of Mount Lebanon, assisted by an administrative committee made up of all its religious communities.

In the aftermath of the First World War and the imposition of French and British control over Lebanon, Syria and Iraq, France and Britain again favoured minorities. In Iraq, the British worked principally through the minority Sunni elite that had risen under the Ottoman Empire. The Sunnis would dominate until the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003.

In Syria and Lebanon, the French were also partial to minorities, such as the Maronite Christians and Alawites. This favour went against the political aspirations of Sunnis, who wanted both countries to become part of an Arab nation. While Maronites were not a minority in the new Lebanon, they were in the Middle East.

This ambiguity over minorities only highlights an essential aspect of the region: somewhere, all communities are a minority. The Sunnis in Iraq; Shia in Lebanon and Syria; Druze in Lebanon, Syria and Israel and all Christian denominations in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Palestine. In other words, dreams of supremacy by minorities are bound to crash sooner or later. What is needed is a social contract that binds the interests of all communities, allowing each to be represented in the political system. The academic word for this is consociationalism, but other than in Lebanon and formally, but not effectively, in Iraq after 2003, sectarian power-sharing has been rejected in the region.

This is because Arab regimes, especially the Baathist ones in Syria and Iraq, concealed their societies’ sectarian divisions under an ersatz covering of Arab nationalist unity. This was partly to hide the fact that they were dominated by a minority that suppressed a majority.

Ironically, Lebanon has managed to weather the sectarian tremors in the region partly because its power-sharing system has generated reflexes of compromise. Whether this can last is another matter, but for now, it is an achievement. That wasn’t always the case. In 1975, the country descended into a terrible 15-year conflict, one that taught another valuable lesson: all regional minorities have an interest in arriving at a modus vivendi with the Sunni majority in the Middle East.

Lebanon’s Maronites learnt this lesson at their own expense, as the Alawites are doing today. While the Maronites were not opposed solely by Sunnis, they challenged a major “Sunni” cause when they took up arms against the Palestinian militant groups in Lebanon. And they transgressed another regional red line when they allied themselves with Israel.

Ultimately, the Lebanon war ended when a new power-sharing arrangement was agreed in 1989. The Taif Accord, as it was called, transferred executive power from the Maronite president to a council of ministers led by a Sunni prime minister.

The Sunni uprising against Mr Al Assad has become a sectarian confrontation because the Syrian regime transformed it into one. Now the Alawites are opposed by most Sunni states and are losing. Similarly, even Iraq’s Shia majority will never truly stabilise the country unless it reconciles with Sunnis.

The Middle East is at a parting of the road. Increasingly, states are disintegrating into unstable sectarian or ethnic mini-states. Yet the region can only thrive by devising and implementing social contracts based on sectarian cooperation and compromise.

We are very far from that objective, amid a regional power struggle that is making conciliation all but impossible. The question of the unsettled minorities will continue to define the region’s future.