Friday, July 31, 2015

Iran in a bubble - What the American debate over the nuclear deal misses

As the American Congress prepares to vote on the recent nuclear deal with Iran, the silly season has set in. Worse, next year is an election year, so there are no limits to what candidates are willing to say to enhance their chances.

The prize for most ludicrous observation goes to Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee, who told Breitbart last weekend: “It is so naive that [President Barack Obama] would trust the Iranians. By doing so, he will take the Israelis and march them to the door of the oven. This is the most idiotic thing, this Iran deal. It should be rejected by both Democrats and Republicans in Congress and by the American people.”

The comment provoked hilarity among people who felt that Huckabee’s Holocaust reference was over the top. It was, not only because the comparison was ridiculous, but because the Americans’ fear for Israel is at odds with the reality of the power balance in the Middle East. It also highlights their indifference toward how the nuclear deal might affect Arab states, which will face its consequences far more than will Israel.

But the Arabs don’t have much of a voice in Washington, so their efforts to derail the deal are unlikely to bear much fruit. Instead, they are hoping that Israel’s allies can do it for them. While it remains unclear whether a vote against the deal could override a presidential veto, polling suggests Americans are less opposed to the Iran deal than opponents are admitting.

For example, a Public Policy Polling survey indicates that 54% of those polled support the deal, while 38% oppose it. The poll also shows there are no potential negative repercussions for those in Congress approving the deal, with 62% of respondents saying that if their representatives vote in favor, they will either be more likely to vote for them or it won’t make a difference in their future voting.

J Street, the liberal Jewish group that supports a two-state solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, asked GBA Strategies to conduct a poll on the attitude of American Jews toward the nuclear accord. According to the survey results, Jews support the deal by a wide margin of 60% to 40%.

Polling can be tricky and other polls have shown more ambiguous results. But the real problem is that the nuclear deal has now been sucked into the American bubble — its value judged entirely on the basis of how it plays out in the internal contest of American disputation, where arguments both for and against are frequently unrelated to realities on the ground.

While Israel opposes the agreement, it is likely to feel less of an impact than the Arab countries, where Iran is already exerting major political influence today. That’s not to say Israel will not have to adapt to an Iran empowered by the lifting of sanctions, but Israel is a nuclear state, with a counter-strike capability of its own located on its submarines and far more nuclear weapons than Iran can ever hope to build in the foreseeable future.

The real threat lies elsewhere. The lifting of sanctions will release funds permitting Tehran to pursue its regional agenda with much greater ease. That means there will be more money to fund the regime of Bashar al-Assad, which now appears to have formally adopted a policy of partition in Syria, as the speech of the Syrian president made clear last weekend. Syria’s war will only drag on, amid widespread apathy in America.

It means that Iran will continue to back Hezbollah operations in Lebanon, allowing it to further reinforce a parallel structure to that of the state while pursuing its battles around the region.

It means Iran will continue to reinforce Shiite militias in Iraq that have behaved independently of the government in Baghdad, blocking the emergence of a sovereign Iraqi state.

All this is off the radar in the United States. And only a few commentators have raised a related issue bringing together anxieties about Israel and what the nuclear deal means for Iran’s regional power. That is whether the administration has fundamentally shifted in its outlook on regional alliances. In other words, would improved ties with Tehran mean that the United States will accept Iran as a major partner in the region, one with which it can jointly address major crises?

Certainly there is some justification for such a worry among Washington’s tradition regional allies, including Israel and Saudi Arabia. As Tony Badran, who has covered the topic extensively, recently wrote on this site: “Obama wants to integrate Iran into a regional concert system presumably based on ‘equilibrium.’ However, this would be akin to establishing equilibrium in Europe at the height of Napoleon’s power.”

The point is well taken. If Obama, as a foreign policy ‘realist,’ is indeed interested in a new balance in the Middle East, then he must ensure that there is a balance in the first place to which he can then hold the Iranians. However, there is none, and handing Iran the financial means and political cover to challenge any new balance makes the proposition irrelevant.

Obama has failed to explain how he views the future of Iran in the Middle East, and America’s response to this, given the president’s strenuous efforts to disengage from the region. Those are the most important questions Congress must clarify.

But Congress has a problem. The tribulations of the Middle East are of little interest to its members, and even less to their voters. What happens in Aleppo, Beirut or Diyali might as well take place on the moon for all they care. But that is the discussion Americans should be having, and that Obama seeks to avoid. 

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Assad laments losing his father’s grand vision

As Syria breaks apart into de facto mini-states, it’s difficult to recall that its leaders always portrayed it as the prime Arab nationalist state. In other words, Syria’s ultimate destiny was to be a vanguard in forming a broader Arab nation.

Yet in a speech last weekend Bashar Al Assad said something quite different. He admitted his military was suffering from “manpower” problems and as a consequence it might have to consolidate its hold over certain areas at the expense of others.

In saying so, Mr Al Assad engaged in a double betrayal. On the one hand, he gave up on his Arab nationalist aspirations by admitting that Syria’s regime, far from working towards a greater Arab nation, was accepting fragmentation at home. And the president engaged in a second betrayal – this one less obvious and more paradoxical – of an ideology to which the Assads always implicitly adhered, but would never have admitted to.

That ideology is pan-Syrianism, whose most prominent advocate was Antoun Saadeh with his Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP) founded in the 1930s. The SSNP sought to establish a Greater Syria in the Fertile Crescent, in the territories of modern-day Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan and Palestine.

There was a time when the Baathists and the SSNP were the bitterest of rivals. The desire to create a Greater Syria was regarded by pan-Arabists as contrary to their own drive to make Syria part of a larger Arab nation. In fact, in the 1950s, the SSNP was accused of being behind the assassination of Adnan Al Maliki, a senior military officer close to the Baath party.

This led to a severe crackdown on the SSNP, until Hafez Al Assad became president after a coup in 1970. The party was increasingly tolerated by the regime, and in 2005, under Bashar Al Assad, it was legalised. Yet in many respects Hafez and Bashar have behaved more as pan-Syrianists than as Arab nationalists.

While they were never able to create a Greater Syria, their policies in surrounding countries were very much focused on imposing Syria’s priorities upon them. This helped reinforce the Al Assads’ Syrian nationalist bona fides, while usefully detracting from the fact that an Alawite minority was running the country.

Syria deployed its armed forces in Lebanon for 29 years, effectively ruling the country for four decades. While there was no formal integration of Lebanon and Syria, Hafez Assad’s intent was always clear in his description of the Lebanese and Syrians as “one people in two countries”. In other words the ties that bound the two were deeper than formal unification.

The Assad regime, and indeed the Salah Jadid-led regime before it in which Hafez Al Assad served as defence minister, also sought to control the Palestine Liberation Organisation starting in the mid-1960s. After the assassination in 1966 of Yusif Urabi, a Palestinian officer in the Syrian army whom Mr Al Assad had tried to force on the Palestinian leadership, Yasser Arafat and other Palestinian officials were briefly imprisoned.

Syria’s efforts to take control of the Palestinian cause continued throughout the 1970s and 1980s. When Bashar Al Assad came to power in 2000, he pursued this strategy by backing Hamas against Fatah and the Palestinian Authority. With the outbreak of the uprising in Syria, however, his ties with Hamas deteriorated.

In Iraq, too, the Assads have always aimed to retain leverage, partly because the Iraqi Baath was a rival of the Syrian Baath.

While the two countries organised occasional terrorist operations against each other in Hafez Al Assad’s day, it was under Bashar after 2003 that Syrian interference in Iraq rose to new levels.

Following Saddam Hussein’s removal, Mr Al Assad feared that Iraq would be used by the Americans as a staging ground to topple his regime. His intelligence services built up ties with their former enemies in the Iraqi Baath to support them against the Americans, while also funnelling Sunni jihadists into Iraq.

The Syrians repeatedly tried to shape policy in Iraq later on, which meant encouraging attacks against prime minister Nouri Al Maliki’s government. Syria then acted independently of Iran, which supported Mr Maliki.

However, since 2011, Iran’s influence in Syria has risen dramatically, so that Syrian and Iraqi interests were brought into alignment. Baghdad, fearing a Sunni jihadist victory against Mr Al Assad, backed him against his foes.

The great innovation of Hafez Al Assad, both to preserve his regime and defend Syrian stakes, was always to export instability to Syria’s neighbours, making Damascus indispensable for resolving the ensuing crises. That is why Mr Al Assad saw it as essential to keep a finger in the pie of surrounding Arab countries.

This may sound far from the SSNP’s dream, but it derives from a similar motive: to turn Syria into a focal point for the region, in such a way that Damascus can impose its political agenda. Now, Bashar Al Assad can only lament what he has lost. As he has admitted, he is struggling to maintain a smaller Syria.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Israel would gain from the Arab Peace Initiative

US president Barack Obama has shown an inclination for addressing unresolved conflicts. He re-established diplomatic relations with Cuba after decades of hostility and has just concluded a nuclear accord with Iran despite years of enmity. But Mr Obama has not embarked on what he described as a priority during his first election campaign: a resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

In a speech in 2008 to AIPAC, the main pro-Israel lobby in America, Mr Obama vowed: “As president, I will work to help Israel achieve the goal of two states, a Jewish state of Israel and a Palestinian state, living side by side in peace and security. And I won’t wait until the waning days of my presidency. I will take an active role, and make a personal commitment to do all I can to advance the cause of peace from the start of my administration.”

Mr Obama didn’t fulfil his promise, even if, initially, he did seek a freeze in Israeli settlement activity. However, his efforts led nowhere, and soon, the US president appeared to lose interest in mediating between Palestinians and Israelis. That is why we are as far today from an agreement as we have ever been.

With so much ink being spilled on the Iranian nuclear deal, both by supporters and opponents, the Palestinian issue has fallen by the wayside. While for a long time it was afforded exaggerated importance as being at the heart of most regional considerations, simply ignoring the Palestinians may be a recipe for disaster.

The deadlock in Palestinian-Israeli relations helped trigger an intifada in 2000-2005 and rounds of violence in Gaza in recent years. Meanwhile, the Israelis’ main Palestinian interlocutor, Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas, has seen his credibility wane as talks with Israel have lost any meaning and he has been viewed by his people as incapable of ameliorating their dire situation.

This has suited Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu just fine, as he has no real intention of engaging in serious negotiations with the Palestinians, let alone surrendering land. Facilitating Mr Netanyahu’s obstructionism has been the regional situation. With wars raging throughout the Arab world, especially in neighbouring Syria, the Israeli prime minister has felt no pressure whatsoever to halt settlement-building.

There is even a view in Israel that the recent nuclear deal with Iran has helped the country politically, by bringing about a de facto rapprochement with Arab states equally displeased with what was negotiated with Tehran.

Perhaps, but if Israelis truly believe that this is more than a transitory reflection of parallel interests, then they are living an illusion. The Arab states, particularly those in the Gulf, appear highly unlikely to take relations with Israel to a higher level, partly because their standing is tied in to their support for the Palestinian cause; partly because of what occurred in 2002.

Thirteen years ago, the Arab states, meeting at a summit in Beirut, offered what would become known as the Arab Peace Initiative. In the Saudi-led initiative they urged Israel to accept a comprehensive peace settlement based on international legality in exchange for Arab recognition of Israel within its 1967 borders. The government of prime minister Ariel Sharon ignored this unprecedented proposal.

As far as the Arab states are concerned, Israel is useful only as a counterweight to Iran and even then, the probability of its playing such a role is remote. With the nuclear deal signed, Israel’s capacity to attack Iran or block progress in Washington has diminished, and so too has Arab interest in Israel.

For Israel to seriously expect improved ties with the Arab states, particularly in the Gulf, it will take much more than shared antagonism toward Iran; it will require that the Israelis finally approve the Arab Peace Initiative. But with Mr Netanyahu as intransigent as was Mr Sharon, the prospects for better Arab-Israeli relations remain virtually nil.

What the Arab states appear to realise much better than the Israelis is that as the likelihood of a Palestinian-Israeli settlement dims further, a future Palestinian leadership may become far less flexible than the one today. The Arab states fear that as polarisation increases, it could facilitate the emergence of more extreme groups aiming to take over the reins in Palestine.

The Israeli focus on Hamas is misplaced. The movement has lost much momentum in recent years, not least because of Egyptian opposition. Partly to compensate for this, Khaled Meshaal and other top Hamas leaders met Saudi Arabia’s King Salman last week. It is not inconceivable that a group such as ISIL, which has declared war on both the Egyptian state and Hamas, could eventually seek to exploit Palestinian discontent.

That is not to say that Palestinians would go along with this, but the Israeli gift for closing any and all doors to a resolution has only increased the volatility of the Palestinian condition, whose emotional power has not diminished. Mr Obama will soon be gone, but the absence of a horizon for peace in Palestine will remain with us, as will its inevitably dangerous repercussions.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

All fall down - Why did Michael Hayden get Lebanon so wrong?

The Washington think tank and consulting community gives significant relevance for the American capital. It can also be something of a bubble, where the reality of a particular region (the Middle East, for instance), can at times be distorted by a lens the effects of which are exacerbated by distance.

A case in point is a phrase of Gen. Michael Hayden, a member of the Chertoff Group consultancy, to the French daily Le Figaro. A former director of the National Security Agency and the Central Intelligence Agency, Hayden has vast experience. That is why one particular comment he made was jarring.

In response to a question about whether the influence of the United States was being diluted in the Middle East, Hayden responded that it was very difficult today for Washington to have a policy there. “Let’s face it: Iraq no longer exists, nor Syria. Lebanon is nearly undone, Libya too probably.”

This translation from French is perhaps inaccurate, but Hayden’s meaning is clear. Lebanon is listed among those states in the region that have collapsed, so that even Libya’s grim fate, in Hayden’s words, appears to be more open to question.

It’s difficult to argue that Lebanon is a healthy country, but it hardly qualifies for inclusion in a list with Syria, Iraq and Libya. If anything, the country, though dancing on a volcano, is an oasis of relative stability, even if this can change at any moment.

For as long as American policy-makers have given any attention at all to Lebanon, they have regarded it as a hopelessly divided place. In Diplomat Among Warriors, the American envoy to Lebanon in 1958, Robert Murphy, wrote: “Lebanon disputes were not limited to major political differences and division between Christians and Muslims. There also was factional strife within political parties and between religious sects.” Murphy could have been writing about the Lebanese reality today.

In 1982, the Reagan administration committed to Lebanon after the Israeli invasion that summer. American and European forces deployed to the country to help the Lebanese government re-impose its authority after a seven-year civil war. Very quickly the multinational peacekeeping mission became mired in a regional struggle over Lebanon, with Syria and Iran on one side and the United States and its allies on the other, each side using Lebanese proxies to advance its interests.

Amid the rising violence in Lebanon, bomb attacks targeted the American Embassy in Beirut and Awkar in 1983 and 1984, while a truck-bomb attack killed 241 American servicemen at the Marine barracks near Beirut airport, and another led to the death of 55 French paratroopers.

By February 1984 the Reagan administration had decided that Lebanon was a losing venture, and began pulling its forces out of the country. For two decades Lebanon was firmly banished from the American consciousness, bestowed with pariah status.

Hayden’s throwaway comment seemed to emanate from that deep well of wariness. But given the circumstances Lebanon is facing today, not only is the country not coming undone (or whichever English word Hayden used), it is doing rather well — surely better, I suspect, than the United States would do facing an inflow of refugees equivalent to a quarter of its population.  

One of the stranger aspects of Lebanese society is that what many regard as its fatal flaws, namely its chronic unruliness and social divisions, often happen to be advantageous. Even if we can ridicule the idea that “Lebanon’s strength lies in its weakness,” rifts and factionalism have become a default setting nationally. That means that the Lebanese, so accustomed to chaos, are frequently better equipped at managing disorder than well-organized countries where stability prevails.

And for all its many problems, Lebanon’s disorder reflects an inherent pluralism that is far less restrictive than what characterizes most other Arab states. Lebanon may be a highly imperfect democracy, but its sectarian system and the fact that its society is stronger than the state create spaces of liberty allowing individuals to more or less live their lives freely.

American policy-makers, like political scientists, may not see anything inspiring in this dysfunctional, unsettling place, so unlike America and where prediction is difficult. Perhaps that’s because an essential aim of the think tanks and consultancies is to forecast trends for policy makers. That’s why even when Lebanon keeps its head above the waves, as it has done since 2011, informed observers in Washington lazily insist on seeing a place drowning alongside the rest of the region.

That’s not to say that Lebanon is out of the woods. The dragon is at the door and many developments, not least the presence of a massive Syrian refugee community unlikely to return home soon, if ever, are profoundly worrisome. Find a confident Lebanese today, and you will have discovered a pink elephant. But Lebanon is not Iraq and it certainly is not Syria or Libya. It is a country that has retained some steadiness, even a culture of compromise and pluralistic politics, against all odds.      

Lebanon is worth nothing in Washington. It’s a sideshow of a sideshow of a sideshow. But the country at least merits more than to become someone’s throwaway remark, especially that of a man who was once perhaps the best-informed official in America. C’mon General Hayden, get our facts right.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

The clock can no longer be turned back in Syria

A remarkable omission from discussions on the Middle East these days is the notion of democratisation. That is strange for two reasons: a decade ago the topic was at the centre of deliberations over the region, especially in the US, and in 2011, the Arab uprisings began with calls for democracy.

The mood change was predictable in June 2009, when Barack Obama made his much-publicised speech in Cairo. Democracy was one of the four points Mr Obama raised in the address, though he did so briefly and non-committally.

Most noticeable was the president’s reference to the “controversy” surrounding democracy in Iraq. Betraying his thoughts on the subject, namely that the Bush administration used democratisation to justify a war he opposed, Mr Obama added: “No system of government can or should be imposed on one nation by any other.”

For a long time this association between democracy and war tarnished all talk of democratisation. A natural extension of the condemnation of the Bush administration was criticism of democracy promotion – viewed as an excuse to pursue an agenda of US expansionism.

Oddly enough, when the 2011 Arab uprisings occurred, almost nobody seriously revived the debate over democratisation, except to say that what was taking place went against what Mr Bush had advocated. Rather than change coming from outside, the Arabs were showing that real change came from within.

Today, however, the descent of several Arab states into cycles of violence – from Syria to Iraq, and from Libya to Yemen – show that a democracy debate is necessary. Yet the heart of the conversation should no longer be whether democracy is desirable, but rather to determine what kinds of open systems work best in each particular national context, because social realities vary.

Multi-sectarian and multi-ethnic states, such as Iraq or Syria, are less likely to put in place a one-person, one-vote system that focuses on the individual over the community. There are countless possible alternatives to such an arrangement, but these must have a basis in a country’s complex make-up.

Lebanon was an early model for a divided society that tried to manage its differences through a consensual, sectarian power-sharing arrangement. Ideas that have circulated in Lebanon – sometimes implemented, sometimes not – may have relevance for other Arab states. This can include reserving specific posts for certain sects, administrative decentralisation, separate personal status laws for different communities, and more.

Democracy in mixed Arab societies may also have to contain elements favouring pluralism over individual liberty. Liberty is undoubtedly at the heart of democracy, but in many conservative Arab societies resistance to some aspects of personal liberty may translate into opposition to the very idea of democracy itself. That is why a balance has to be struck between freedom of the individual and of the community, in the expectation that the latter will enhance the former.

A wider discussion is now necessary over new political arrangements governing Arab states, of which democracy is but a part. Syria, Iraq, even Yemen are all undergoing fundamental changes and a radical transformation in communal relations.

In Syria, the state has effectively broken down into separate entities, a development accelerated by the Al Assad regime and backed by Iran. Their establishment of a de facto Alawite-dominated statelet between the coast and Damascus, which includes most of Syria’s population, facilitates Bashar Al Assad’s and Tehran’s control over what is described as “vital Syria”.

Whatever happens in Syria, the country is unlikely to go back to what it was: a united, multi-confessional country that buried its rifts under an ersatz layer of Arab nationalism. Yet sooner or later the country’s nightmare will end and Syrians will have to define what political order best suits their society.

Alternatively, what may follow is partition, but even there some sort of understanding will have to be worked out between the country’s separate components. And an essential factor in this will be whether Syria’s entities can interact in ways that preserve the interests of minorities. This may not be democracy per se, but a debate over democracy will lead precisely to the questions Syrians will have to address in the future.

The worst thing that can happen to the idea of democratisation is that it remains politicised as it was after President George W Bush used it to validate his campaign in Iraq. Since that time Mr Bush’s foes have erred in throwing the baby out with the bathwater: in denouncing Mr Bush they have denied any legitimacy to a sensible examination of Arab democracy.

With the focus today on ISIL and violence throughout the region, this trend has only been reinforced. Nowhere, it seems, is democracy less likely to flourish than in the Middle East.

But deadlock and suffering also often impose innovative thinking. For the states of the region to return to the repression of the past while also remaining secure does not appear feasible. Nor will fragmentation bring long-term stability. The democracy debate will inevitably return as Arab societies search for arrangements that are both permanent and peaceful.

Friday, July 10, 2015

We pay, you die - Why Obama’s Syria plan is such an embarrassment

The seriousness of the Obama administration’s commitment in Syria became obvious on Tuesday, when Defense Secretary Ashton Carter told the Senate Armed Services Committee how many “moderates” the United States had vetted to fight against ISIS. Only 60 had passed American muster to date, Carter said, in a program worth $500 million to train and equip 5,400 combatants the first year.

One reason for this is that the American vetting standards are particularly high, almost absurdly so in light of the chaotic circumstances prevailing in Syria. But the greater problem is that the program is a splendid example of American crassness and self-centeredness.

After watching Syria burn for years, without doing anything to prevent the carnage, the Obama administration decided last year to put in place a scheme to mobilize and arm Syrians against ISIS. One condition of the American program is that the Syrians agree not to fight the Assad regime. In other words, recruits should abandon their own cause and replace it with that of the American government.

The reason is simple and has been repeated by administration officials: they do not want a military defeat of the Syrian regime. Rather, they seek a transitional political settlement that would oblige President Bashar Assad to step down. Anyone following Syrian dynamics knows this may sound persuasive on Pennsylvania Avenue, but that it has absolutely no basis in Syria’s reality.

It is incomprehensible to many Syrians why they should give up on their efforts to overthrow a leader who has spent four years butchering them, on behalf of an American president who, during that time, has been secure in his indifference to their fate.

Washington has been a divided capital over Syria since 2011. There has been no agreement on which policy the United States should adopt there, and neither Obama nor his national security adviser Susan Rice, whose role is to coordinate and unify policy, has done much to impose direction on American behavior.

Instead, the administration has pursued its failed plan to train ‘moderates’ against ISIS while relying increasingly on other armed groups it has not vetted, and in some cases has actively shunned. In northern Syria, the United States is collaborating with the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), the armed wing of an affiliate of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). The PKK has been designated a foreign terrorist organization by the State Department.

In Iraq, America’s de facto allies against ISIS happen to be pro-Iranian Shiite militias. These have engaged in sectarian crimes and have even challenged the authority of the Iraqi government the administration claims to be backing.

Such pragmatic alliances have been driven by necessity, given the dearth of effective armed groups available to fight ISIS. Yet, there are two major difficulties in this reasoning that Obama and his advisers will have to address sooner or later.

The first is that, while ISIS may be the focus of American attentions, those in the region have other priorities that may well clash with those in Washington. The YPG’s main concern is protecting Kurdish areas and exploiting the current conflict to carve out an autonomous Kurdish territory in Syria. Indeed, there have been multiple reports of Syrian Kurds expelling Arabs from the areas seized from ISIS.

A second problem, related to the first, comes from the fact that Obama and his team have ignored their own valid conclusion that the fight against ISIS cannot be won by force alone. They always believed there needed to be a political component to reinforce the military gains made on the ground. That is why in Iraq the administration early on sought to push the Iraqi government to adopt more inclusive policies toward the Sunnis, feeling that Sunni discontent acted as a valuable recruiting tool for ISIS.

Yet it’s unclear how this squares with Washington’s de facto backing of sectarian Shiite militias in Iraq, even if they are the only forces upon which the Americans can rely. Nor does it really explain why the logic of Sunni inclusiveness applicable in Iraq, where Sunnis are a minority, was never applied in Syria, where Sunnis are a majority.

Complicating matters further, the Obama administration appears ready to sign a nuclear accord with Iran in the near future. If this actually goes through, the Americans may be even less likely to challenge Iranian interests in Iraq and Syria. This is bound to increase Sunni radicalization in both countries. In other words, Obama’s incomprehensible, contradictory policies may lead to precisely those outcomes the president seeks most to avoid.

In a sense, we should celebrate the fact that only 60 Syrians have been vetted to fight ISIS in Syria. This paltry figure exposes the true nature of the American effort, as well as the lack of commitment, the cowardice, the superficiality, and the moral poverty prevailing in Washington. Obama has lied about American intentions in Syria since the beginning, and only fools, present company included, imagined things might someday change.

If Obama needed $500 million to gull Congress into believing he was doing something serious in Syria, he should have saved his cash. The Syrians will never become American cannon fodder. They, first, have to consider their own lives, suffering and future, for which a majority of Americans have displayed not the slightest concern.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Ankara has yet to define the result it wants in Syria

A few weeks ago when Tel Abyad fell to the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (PDY), many said the loss served to sever ISIL supply lines. Left strangely unmentioned, however, was that these supply lines led only to Turkey.

While Turkey has denied backing ISIL, the relationship is far more complex than is apparent. Ankara views the group as a weapon against two principal enemies, the Kurds and Bashar Al Assad. This illustrates the strange byways that Turkey has taken under Recep Tayyip Erdogan, particularly since 2011, when the uprising began in Syria.

Turkey’s actions in recent years have brought uneven results. Since 2011, the Turks have mismanaged their relationship with the United States, for little tangible gain. They have failed to oust Mr Al Assad. They have seen their regional rival Iran build up influence along their southern border. They have faced a major Syrian refugee crisis and now the Turkish government is perceived as being in bed with extremists.

On top of that, Mr Erdogan is increasingly contested at home and the policies he is pursuing in Syria are unpopular. Indeed, recent leaks that Turkey’s military would establish a buffer zone inside Syria were soon taken back, amid signs that the move would not be welcomed by many Turks.

Turkey and the United States today find themselves on opposite sides of the conflict against ISIL, and, consequently, differ over the endgame in Syria. The Obama administration seeks a political solution, but in the absence of this does not want Damascus to fall to jihadists. Mr Erdogan also wants to compel Mr Al Assad to talk, but to do so he has helped groups such as Jabhat Al Nusra, while providing ISIL with logistical depth.

Nowhere has Ankara and Washington been working at cross purposes more than in northern Syria, where the coalition has collaborated with the PDY against ISIL. This has alarmed Turkey, which fears that Kurdish gains may spur separatist impulses among its own Kurds. Yet its response, namely assisting ISIL, has only isolated Turkey internationally.

The Turks legitimately argue that Barack Obama’s Syria policy has been incoherent, obliging Turkey to take its own path. Repeatedly, the Americans have blocked initiatives from which Turkey might have benefited, such as the creation of safety areas and the imposition of a no-fly zone. Not doing so exacerbated the refugee crisis Turkey is facing today.

Yet American incompetence aside, Turkey, too, contributed initially to the chaos among Syrian rebel groups, supporting the Muslim Brotherhood, with which the ruling AKP Party sympathised. This failed, contributing to the fragmented rebel leadership. Since then Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar have unified their efforts, but without calculating how the groups they support might ultimately affect regional stability.

Beyond that, the likelihood of a nuclear deal with Iran will further put pressure on Turkey. An accord, by removing sanctions on Tehran, will free up funds allowing it to pursue its regional agenda, especially in Syria. Beyond that Washington, whose ties with Turkey have declined under Mr Erdogan, may gradually build closer relations with Iran in the region, shifting its reliance away from traditional allies.

When he came to power over a decade ago Mr Erdogan sought a radical realignment of Turkish foreign policy, with a greater focus on the region, to the extent that observers saw this as a form of “neo-Ottomanism”. Yet Ankara’s ambitions collided with those of major Arab states, particularly over its support for the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. But Mr Erdogan seemed unable to match reality and expectations, creating a sense of flailing as Turkey became bogged down in regional quarrels.

The Turks may finally be making some headway in Syria. They reportedly helped Mr Al Assad’s enemies achieve major gains in Idlib province. The regime is also losing ground in Aleppo, and may soon have to abandon the city. However, in Syria’s north-east, Turkey seemed unwilling to deploy troops as it might have created discontent at home while also leading to a confrontation with the United States over the Kurds.

Ankara has to define the outcome it desires in Syria, and coordinate this with other regional and international actors. It intends to raise the heat on Mr Al Assad to impel him to step down. Yet the Syrian president is more an Iranian-backed figurehead these days than anything else, therefore at the heart of Turkey’s considerations is, really, its relationship with Tehran.

The most probable outcome is that as Syria breaks apart, both countries will satisfy themselves with a zone of influence – Turkey in the north and north-east, Iran in coastal areas, Damascus and along communication lines in between.

Or Turkey may back armed groups challenging the Iranian zone.

Until then, Mr Erdogan will have to adjust to greater Iranian power in the Levant, while reassuring the West that Turkey is not a terrorism sponsor. That may not be easy given the reported influence ISIL enjoys inside Turkey.

In wanting his country to become a power in the Middle East, Mr Erdogan has brought the region’s intractable problems home.

Friday, July 3, 2015

Dumb and dumber - Christians should use Taif and forget the popularity poll

These days Lebanon’s Christian leaders seem engaged in a sustained contest to determine who can present the most idiotic political proposals. The latest gem came from Michel Aoun last May, when he called for a poll to be taken among Christians to establish who was the most popular Christian politician.

The purpose in going through with such a plan is to decide which of the politicians merits to be endorsed by Christians at large as their candidate to become president.

The Lebanese Forces, who in supporting the Orthodox proposal in 2011 displayed a similar tendency toward electoral cretinism, have gone along with this. So now, Christians, who daily lament their dwindling power and worry about their existence as a community in a Middle East changing in radical ways, have been embarked in a scheme with absolutely no constitutional validity, the results of which even many Christians care little about.

At the time of writing the details of the poll remained unclear. As The Daily Star reported, there is, as yet, no agreement over which company will conduct the poll, the size and geographical distribution of the sample or details about the questions that will be asked. Hopefully this vagueness is a sign of recognition that the whole endeavor is a splendid waste of time that should be abandoned at the first opportunity.

For Michel Aoun, who thinks he can win the poll, the introduction of a filter to conclude which presidential candidate Christians would like to put forward to the Muslim majority as theirs presents an interesting challenge. Going ahead with the poll means adopting a mechanism that Aoun can turn to his advantage, making him appear as someone rallying Christians around an initiative that gives a voice to the community.

On the other hand, those who oppose a poll must invariably offer an alternative method of defining popularity. The logical choice is representation in parliament. In that case Aoun, again, would benefit, given the large size of his parliamentary bloc.    

The disadvantages, however, cannot be dismissed. In the context of the post-Taif constitution, Aoun’s plan challenges the spirit of national coexistence. The reason is that the president, as the constitutional “symbol of the nation’s unity,” should not be a Christian choice first, only to be approved by the rest later on.

Maronites have complained that the constitution effectively grants the different Muslim communities veto power over presidential candidates, so that what invariably emerges is a weak compromise president with little communal appeal. Instead, they seek a “strong” president, while many consider Taif to be a contract that wrote Maronites politically out of Lebanon.

This attitude shows great poverty of imagination and an inability to face reality. For better or worse, Taif protected Christian representation when a worse agreement might have reflected demographic reality and handed Christians a smaller share than the 50-50 breakdown outlined in Taif.

Similarly, embodying national unity, particularly at a time of Sunni-Shiite discord, means that presidents have significant potential power if they can interpret their role creatively. It also means Christians can position themselves as a bridge between the divided Muslim communities, giving themselves a valuable national sense of purpose, but also long-term security in a region in which Christians are disappearing amid sectarian conflicts.

The poll idea suffers from other problems as well. Once the results come out, what is to be done with them? The Aounist parliamentarian Ibrahim Kanaan, admitting the outcome would not be binding, said that it would have a “moral effect.” But what does that mean? All the poll really presages is more dissonance, as the victor will play up the numbers to his advantage, the losers will play them down, and Christians will remain as split as ever.

Suleiman Franjieh took the Solomonic path by saying that whoever won, he would continue to support Aoun as president. Which makes one wonder why anyone is going through with the charade. Franjieh’s behavior will almost certainly be replicated by many other Christians. Aounists will never want Samir Geagea as president if he wins, nor will Geagea’s partisans embrace Aoun.

A subtext to this affair was raised by Walid Jumblatt this week. Wading into the murky waters of Christian insecurity, the Druze leader alluded to another idea recently raised in the Christian community, namely the establishment of a federal system in Lebanon. “It is impossible to have a federation,” Jumblatt said. “The Taef Accord is the only guarantee for Lebanon’s Christians.”

Jumblatt was both right and wrong. Indeed, Taif is the best guarantee for Christians, but in their recent joint document the Aounists and Lebanese Forces did not endorse a federation. Instead, in Paragraph 14 they referred back to Taif and used it as a reference to implement administrative decentralization.

Taif indeed outlines such decentralization, but the Aounists and Lebanese Forces added an idea not found in Taif, by also calling for financial decentralization. Taif refers only to a “unified and comprehensive development plan for the nation” that leads to the “development of the various Lebanese regions economically and socially.” Nowhere is financial decentralization mentioned.  

However, Christians are not wrong to push harder for implementation of Taif in the direction of administrative decentralization. This has long been a communal demand and it makes far more sense in developmental terms than the over-centralized, cumbersome administrative system in place today.

Taif provides a variety of means for Christians to enhance their influence in ways that correspond to the constitution. But for that to happen Christians have to put aside puerile projects that lead nowhere. Above all, Aoun should order his parliamentarians to parliament to vote for a president, in that way preserving the senior Maronite post in the state, whose future is uncertain.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

In Lebanon, the public turns its back on politics

An event that occurred last weekend may not have been high in the attentions of most Lebanese, but still had some meaning in a region reeling from violence and intolerance.

On Sunday, elections were held for the leadership of the National Council of March 14, a coalition of political forces formed in the aftermath of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri’s assassination in 2005. The election was won by Samir Franjieh, a well-known political activist who hails from a prominent north Lebanese Maronite family and who was active in the Muslim-Christian dialogue during the 1990s.

March 14 announced the establishment of a National Council last March, its aim being to develop a new political platform. This decision was implicit recognition that the coalition needed to revitalise itself after years of decline and marginalisation.

Elections were also held for a 14-member bureau and 14 specialised committees. Within three months an executive office is to be elected. But beyond the organisational details, the attempt to breathe new life into March 14 also represents an effort to transcend politics. The coalition’s history provides insights into why that is the case.

March 14 was named for a massive demonstration held in central Beirut on that date in 2005. It came on the one-month anniversary of Hariri’s murder and only days after a large Hizbollah rally in favour of Syria, which was believed to have been behind the former prime minister’s killing. Estimates put the number of participants at around one million.

This was the culmination of a month-long series of popular gatherings and events at Martyrs Square, mainly to demand a Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon, the government’s resignation, and removal of security and judicial officials who had harassed Hariri. The spontaneity of the demonstrations created a sense that March 14 was more a product of Lebanese civil society, outraged by Hariri’s fate, than of political parties.

Whatever the accuracy of the sentiment, what emerged from all this was a feeling that March 14 reflected a deeper set of ideals and impulses transcending organised politics. Among the most powerful was Lebanese unity after the Hariri assassination. Not only were the Lebanese united, they were united in defence of liberal values and the rule of law against a criminal pro-Syrian order defended by a “Syrian-Lebanese security apparatus”.

The sense among March 14 partisans later was that once the politicians hijacked their popular movement, it was only a matter of time before political divisions would ensue. March 14 adopted a formal structure by establishing a general secretariat. This body, lost amid the contending agendas of the parties making up March 14, exemplified political irrelevance to many.

During that time March 14 lost much ground. The final nail in the coffin came in 2011, when Saad Hariri, the son of Rafik, himself a former prime minister and a driving force behind March 14, left Lebanon, fearing assassination. This left only the general secretariat in place, releasing statements nobody read.

Mr Franjieh, along with his close partner Fares Souaid, the coordinator of the general secretariat of March 14, now hopes to reverse this. Their desire to go back to the original principles of March 14 is astute. Not only does it play off the coalition’s one-time appeal to civil society, it also adapts to the growing disgust in Lebanon with the political class, and seeks to uphold national unity at a time of deep rifts in the region.

Mr Franjieh said that preparations were being made for an “intifada of peace” and the establishment of a civil framework allowing the state to overcome confessional and sectarian polarisation. He also vowed to work with “forces of moderation and democracy in the Arab world that oppose extremism”.

This may have sounded naïve, but the message will appeal to the March 14 faithful precisely because it contrasts with the sterile political discourse prevailing in the country today.

If one judges the initiative to resuscitate March 14 by common political benchmarks of success – popular representation, portfolios in government, and so on – disappointment is ensured. Rather, the success or failure of the venture will be determined by March 14’s ability to shape political interactions by pushing issues that have resonance among the Lebanese.

That will not be easy. The Lebanese today, it seems, have switched off to politics. Nor does the country seem to be in a mood to embrace the temperance and openness voiced by Mr Franjieh. To many Lebanese, March 14 is just another mediocre manifestation of a wider problem, that of a country riven by political bickering and the petty ambitions of its leaders.

But if Mr Franjieh and his comrades can offer ideas that help advance national unity, reconcile the sects, and enhance Lebanese democracy and popular participation, they may make headway. The ambition to return politics to where it should be, namely the people, may have some life in it yet.