Friday, August 28, 2015

My brother, my enemy - Christian ambiguity toward Sunnis is real and risky

Amid reports that Hezbollah may seek to impose Michel Aoun’s presidency on Lebanon’s political class, a subtext of this is the Christians’ relationship with the Sunni community in Lebanon and the Middle East.

The reason is that Aoun’s election, if indeed it happens, is not an end in itself. For Hezbollah, the general’s election would put him in a position to drive a process of constitutional revision. With his large Christian bloc, and in alliance with the Shiite blocs, Aoun could announce that Taif needs to be modified. For Hezbollah, a new constitution is needed to protect the party’s interests at a time when Sunnis feel increasingly empowered by the declining fortunes of Bashar Assad’s regime in Syria.

The party understands that if Assad were to go, Lebanon’s Sunnis would be electrified, making it all but impossible for Hezbollah to pursue an independent agenda on behalf of Iran. At the least demands for the party’s disarmament would rise, posing an existential threat that Hezbollah will not allow.

That is why the party seeks a constitutional transformation and abandonment of Taif. The often-mentioned solution is for a change in sectarian representation in parliament, the government, and the civil service from a 50-50 breakdown of Christians to Muslims to one of thirds — with roughly a third of positions reserved for Maronites, a third for Sunnis, and a third for Shiites, with smaller sects distributed within this framework.

The rationale is that Shiites and Christians would form a structural majority of two-thirds over Sunnis, retaining control over the political system and ensuring that any backlash from events in Syria will not seriously affect Hezbollah’s fortunes.

From the Christians’ perspective, however, what is there to gain from seeing their representation decrease from half the shares in the state to a third? On its own, nothing. But proponents of a division of thirds see things differently. In addition to the purported long-term security such a deal would bring Christians, they would also endorse in exchange for being granted greater decentralization, a clause in Taif that was never implemented.

In fact, in their recent joint declaration, the Free Patriotic Movement and the Lebanese Forces both denounced the “incomplete” implementation of Taif and, in Article 14, stated their commitment to “administrative decentralization.” In a key clause they also endorsed financial decentralization, which Taif does not mention, declaring their support for the “transfer of a large share of the prerogatives of the central administration, in particular those related to development, to elected decentralized authorities in accord with the rules, and the securing of [self-generated] revenues necessary for this.”

Christian fear and resentment of the Sunnis is very disturbing, but is linked to regional developments as well as past frustrations. The progress of Sunni extremists in Syria has alarmed Lebanon’s Christians, and the fate of their brethren in Iraq and Syria has only increased their anxieties. This reaction, however, has been without nuance. Rarely do Christians pause to see the extent to which opponents of the Sunnis have been been responsible for the rise in extremism.

Then there is the longstanding antipathy directed against the Future Movement and Rafiq Hariri’s legacy. To Christians, Taif replaced a system in which Christians were dominant with one in which they became marginalized. The embodiment of this, as many Christians see it, was Hariri himself, who dominated the postwar scene and, with regional and international backing, consolidated a system in which Christians felt they were being shunted aside. Again, this reading, along with the whitewash of the Syrian role in the sidelining of Christians, is crude, but it has resonance among quite a few in the community.

Part of the problem is that these views have been grafted onto past attitudes towards the Sunnis — always perceived as the dominant sect in the region with little tolerance for minorities. To Christians the Ottoman Empire was an instrument of Sunni domination. Similarly, Arab nationalism was later regarded as a mechanism for Sunni ascendancy in the guise of a secular ideology, while support for the Palestinian cause was a byword for a Sunni yearning to control Lebanon before the Civil War.

That’s not to say there were no Christian Ottomanists, Arab nationalists, or pro-Palestinians. But to many Christians all these ideologies or political positions were mainly a facade for Sunni sectarian ambitions and solidarity. And while it’s easy to mock Christian paranoia, Ottomanism, Arab nationalism and support for the Palestinians did frequently reflect, even personify, the attitudes of the Sunni majority in the region.

That is why many Christians regarded Hariri’s political promotion in 1992 as a further stage in this process — the consequence of a political arrangement between the Assad regime in Syria and Saudi Arabia. When the Christian boycott of parliamentary elections in 1992 was ignored, it brought home to many in the community how inconsequential they had become.

Their bitterness, which Aoun has spent the last decade exploiting, never quite left, even if it is difficult to generalize. But Aoun’s success in mobilizing voters against Saad Hariri and the Future Movement in two elections, like Samir Geagea’s great sensitivity to seeing several of his parliamentarians brought into parliament thanks to Sunni votes, shows that the uneasiness with Sunnis is more widespread than we imagined.  

However, what Christians must not do is fall into the trap of imagining that an alliance with Shiites against the Sunnis is the solution. Other than the fact that it may undermine the principles of the Lebanese system of power-sharing and coexistence, it also implicitly means aligning with Hezbollah and Iran against a majority in the Arab world. The costs of such a foolish position are potentially very high, when Christians would do far better by maintaining close ties to all.

Between 1975 and 1984, Christians, by fighting the Palestinians and aligning with Israel, also found themselves isolated, against a Sunni majority in the region. The results were catastrophic and by 1990 they paid the heaviest price for peace in Lebanon. History teaches us a lot. Christians would do best to read it.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Party nepotism hinders Aoun’s wider ambitions

Last week in Lebanon, Gebran Bassil, the son-in-law of the Christian politician Michel Aoun, was effectively handed the presidency of the Free Patriotic Movement, when Mr Bassil’s only real rival in the presidential election scheduled for next month withdrew from the race. The rival, Alain Aoun, is Michel Aoun’s nephew, and his decision seemed anything but voluntary.

Alain Aoun and Mr Bassil do not like each other and their electoral contest represented a clash between different visions for the Aounist movement. Yet Michel Aoun did not relish a confrontation as he favoured a Bassil win. The former general has long sought to make his son-in-law his political heir, facilitating his appointment to lucrative ministerial posts destined to increase Mr Bassil’s patronage power.

The official Aounist version was that both candidates were going to receive a substantial share of the vote in September, so that allowing an election would only have split the Aounists. This did not seem persuasive, however, since a fair, democratic vote could only have strengthened their organisation.

More likely there was another reason. Unconfirmed reports recently indicated that polls among the Aounists showed Alain Aoun winning. Facing this unwanted outcome, Michel Aoun asked Alain to retire. It remains unclear what quid pro quo convinced Alain Aoun to do so. He may be appointed a vice president of the Free Patriotic Movement.

Then there is the matter that in recent months Mr Bassil changed the internal rules of the organisation to strengthen the president’s prerogatives with regard to the politburo, with an eye to consolidating his position once he won.

Yet when the initial announcement was made that Alain Aoun had stepped down, there were reports that the party’s bylaws would be changed again to curb the president’s powers. That could have been the compromise, but it remains to be seen, as Michel Aoun would not have arranged his son-in-law’s victory only to approve of bylaws limiting his authority.

Whatever Michel Aoun does, he leaves a movement whose leaders are divided. When he withdrew from the race, Alain Aoun said he feared that if elections went ahead they would reflect “a dangerous omen of division that may threaten the unity of the Free Patriotic Movement in the post-elections stage”.

The remarks revealed the rifts at the heart of the organisation. For years certain militants of the Free Patriotic Movement, especially a group based in France, have called for democratic elections. Indeed, after Alain Aoun’s announcement, one of them, Fares Louis, declared his intention of standing against Mr Bassil in September, to ensure a contest took place.

In truth, the Free Patriotic Movement has been undemocratic, though it portrays itself as the opposite. Michel Aoun has maintained tight control over his movement, engaging in open nepotism by backing the advancement of his sons-in-law – Mr Bassil; Shamel Roukoz, whom the Aounists have put forward as a candidate for the post of army commander; and Roy Hashem, who heads the Aounists’ OTV television station.

The avoidance of an electoral contest was important for Michel Aoun. Had the election been divisive, it might have weakened him at a crucial moment in his political manoeuvrings. He continues to want to impose himself as Lebanese president, and for a year and a half has prevented the election of a president by parliament to blackmail the political class into voting for him.

Mr Aoun has also continued to insist on Mr Roukoz’s appointment, hindering government action as leverage to do so. However, the defence minister recently extended the term of the current army commander, angering Mr Aoun. And Aounist ministers insist that the prime minister, Tammam Salam, is exploiting the presidential vacuum to usurp the Maronite Christian president’s powers and sideline Christians.

Mr Aoun’s obstructionism has led some to believe that he, along with Hizbollah, is seeking to alter Lebanon’s governance system to replace it with a system that may grant Christians more autonomy, albeit lessening their shares in the central state. If true, Mr Aoun is taking a risk, as many Christians will hesitate before seeing their representation in the state reduced.

The Aounist presidential election implicitly confirms that the era of Michel Aoun is nearing its end. Though spry, the general is 80 years old. But he still has the ability to express Christian fears of Sunni empowerment. Such fears have been exacerbated by the progress of Sunni extremists in Syria. This has made more palatable his alliance with Hizbollah, which many Christians view as a barrier against extremists.

But in doing so, Mr Aoun has highlighted a contradiction in his position. By manipulating sectarian fears he cannot expect to become a national consensus candidate for president. Ironically, while the general has successfully pushed the careers of family members, he has systematically failed when trying to do it for himself.

Friday, August 21, 2015

What’s up, Doc? - Did Future even notice that Samir Geagea had left them?

It is remarkable how invisible was the reaction of the Future Movement when its Christian partner Samir Geagea signed a declaration of intent with the Free Patriotic Movement. How different from Hezbollah, which has determinedly kept Michel Aoun happy to ensure he does not abandon his alliance with the party.

Geagea’s decision to effectively jump ship on the remnants of March 14 was less dramatic than Walid Jumblatt’s in 2009, but no less significant. It showed that the Lebanese Forces leader sees little potential in his alliance with the main Lebanese Sunni organization. That does not mean Geagea’s relations with Future are over. Rather, he has expanded his political options.

Future may find that this will come back to haunt the Sunnis. The country is moving toward an overhaul of the constitution to replace the post-Taif political order with one weighed against Sunnis. And in this context Geagea’s treatment as a poor relative by the Future Movement, particularly since Saad Hariri’s departure from Lebanon in 2011, has been a grave mistake. The head of the Future Bloc, Fouad al-Siniora never visits the Lebanese Forces leader and is not well-attuned to the Christian mood. Nor, unlike Hassan Nasrallah, has he considered it vital to work hard to maintain a strategic partnership with Christians to protect his own community against the demands of the other main Muslim community.

Nasrallah’s speech last week was a clear indicator of what Hezbollah seeks to achieve. As the situation in Syria turns to the party’s disadvantage, Hezbollah and Lebanon’s Shiites will have to brace for a Sunni backlash and sense of empowerment. The only way Hezbollah can protect itself is to change the balance of representation in Taif to ensure a structural majority for Shiites and Christians. To win over Christian backing, Hezbollah may very well agree to go along with the idea of a highly decentralized administrative system, which has long been a core Christian demand.

Hezbollah’s ambition is why, for Nasrallah, gaining Christian support remains so essential. And it explains his keen defense of Michel Aoun last week, when the Hezbollah leader insisted the party would not allow the general to be isolated or “broken.”

As many have observed, the most likely way for Hezbollah to reinforce itself in the state is to alter the 50-50 Christian-Muslim balance in Taif and redistribute sectarian shares so that Sunnis, Shiites and Maronites each have roughly a third of representation in parliament and government. Shares of the smaller sects would be adjusted in this general framework.

In that way, Christians and Shiites would retain a permanent two-thirds majority over Sunnis, allowing Hezbollah to shield itself from within the state. Many Christians would be reassured, feeling this would protect them against a Sunni wave in the region, which they believe — rightly or wrongly — would lead to the marginalization of minorities.

Indeed, many Christians today favor a highly-decentralized system in Lebanon precisely because they have misgivings about their future in a Muslim-majority country. But it is also true that most feel more reassured by the Shiites — a minority in the region like them — than they do by the Sunnis, whom they associate, quite simplistically and undiscerningly, with higher levels of religious extremism.

In this complicated sectarian climate, Future would only gain by having Christian partners in order to better moderate Christian attitudes. That’s because fear will lead Christians to make decisions that may undermine the reflexes of sectarian compromise and power-sharing at the heart of the political system.  

One wonders whether some officials in the Future Movement have fully absorbed the meaning of the presidential vacuum. It goes far beyond Hezbollah’s wanting to bring Aoun to office and by now this should be perfectly obvious.

Hezbollah and Aoun are collaborating in an effort to change Taif and the post-Taif system. Each has his own reasons for doing so, but the larger objective is the same: to amend a political arrangement that both believe is to their disadvantage and to the advantage of the Sunni community. What matters here is not the reality of Taif’s uneven implementation, which has harmed all sides at times, but perceptions. And these Michel Aoun and Hassan Nasrallah have successfully manipulated in pursuit of their aims.

There are senior officials in the Future Movement who are openly admitting that Taif is dead, so no one can plead ignorance. If so, it’s time for Future to give added weight and recognition to its Christian counterparts. Otherwise, before long we will see the likes of Geagea and the Gemayels opening a dialogue with Hezbollah, which has shown a greater inclination to take Christian anxieties seriously.

This situation reflects more than anything else the end of March 14. The coalition has had many deaths, but the breakdown of cross-confessional collaboration buries it once and for all. When Samir Geagea went his own way he was confirming such finality. The Lebanese Forces leader will henceforth take his own political path, and at no time was this more evident than last week when he and his followers said little about the anti-Sunni slogans of the Aounists.

It’s a fact that Hezbollah is out-maneuvering Future on the Christian front. Christians err if they believe that taking sides in the inter-Muslim rivalry will benefit them, but that won’t stop them from trying. For Christians, true security lies in protecting themselves behind a wall of Sunni and Shiite moderation, in a society where all communities interact and coexist as equals.

But that’s not what is happening on the ground. Instead of encouraging Christians in this direction, the moderate Sunnis of the Future Movement are allowing Hezbollah to take the initiative and advance its own divisive agenda. The Lebanese political system has always relied on mutual sensibility. That is missing today, and it’s a shame that Future suffers more from this failing than Hezbollah.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

US nuclear deal may give Rouhani the upper hand

Assuming the nuclear deal with Iran is passed in the United States, the parliamentary elections in Iran, scheduled for February, may see a rise in the representation of president Hassan Rouhani and his allies.

Yet it is a mistake to see the contest between Mr Rouhani and his rivals, who are more inflexible in defending the fundamental principles of the Iranian revolution, as a zero-sum game. The Iranian president is very much a creature of the system and, above him, the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, will work to maintain a balance between different factions.

However, what may be at play is Mr Rouhani’s margin of manoeuvre. The lifting of sanctions that should come as a consequence of the nuclear accord will be welcomed by many Iranians, and the president will look to reinforce his power. One factor that may help him is an assessment of what Iran’s foreign policy – which is directed by the hardliners, particularly the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) – has won Iran.

The results in the region have been mixed since the uprisings in the Arab world began. Indeed, in most places where Iran has used its influence – Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen – the story has been one of setbacks or obstacles, often forcing Tehran to adopt policies that only compound its difficulties.

In Syria’s war, Iran and its Shia militia allies from around the Middle East have been unable to turn the tide in favour of Bashar Al Assad. While they have managed to keep the Syrian president’s regime in place – no mean feat – they have also steadily lost territory in the face of concerted opposition attacks.

This situation led Iran to compel Mr Al Assad to adopt a different approach, namely to hold on to certain key areas – Damascus, the Syrian coast and the territories linking the two – while surrendering others. The Syrian regime has accepted this, but opposition gains north of Homs last week suggested regime efforts to retain even these areas may fail.

Iran’s plan has also effectively led to Syria’s fragmentation. That’s not surprising since the Iranians long ago learnt that exacerbating domestic divisions in Arab countries would allow them to maintain hegemony by playing contending groups off against one another. That is also what Iran did in Iraq after the American withdrawal, and is doing in Lebanon today.

Iran’s role in Syria has brought it into a proxy war with Turkey, as well as Saudi Arabia, which Iran is losing. Tehran’s ability to prevail is limited, given Mr Al Assad’s depleted forces and the logistical and financial advantages from which his foes benefit.

In Iraq, pro-Iranian Shia militias have been at the forefront of anti-Sunni policies, previously backed by the pro-Iranian former prime minister, Nouri Al Maliki. This approach, however, facilitated the rise of ISIL. Iran’s reaction to ISIL, namely mobilisation of Shia militias, has only heightened sectarian tensions while marginalising prime minister Haidar Al Abadi, who is viewed as more conciliatory toward Sunnis.

Now Mr Al Abadi is striking back. Under the guise of an anti-corruption campaign, and backed by the influential Ayatollah Ali Sistani, he has sought to sideline Mr Al Maliki and remove senior pro-Maliki officers from the security forces.

One can either interpret this as having come after an Iranian green light, or as being directed against Iranian policies. Either way, it betrays recognition that the approach previously pursued by the IRGC in Iraq has not worked well. Iran will remain strong in Iraq and may try to co-opt Mr Al Abadi, but he will want to shape the system his way, as did Mr Al Maliki.

In Lebanon, Iran had its greatest success story thanks to the power enjoyed by Hizbollah. Yet what has this really brought the Shia? The party is trapped in Syria, where it has taken significant losses. And the presence in Lebanon of well over 1 million Syrian refugees, most of them Sunnis, poses a major medium-term demographic threat to the Shia.

Hizbollah has helped perpetuate a Lebanese presidential vacuum, and many believe this is designed ultimately to alter the constitution and give the Shia more representation. An Al Assad loss in Syria would certainly oblige Hizbollah to reinforce itself in Lebanon’s political order to protect its interests.

In Yemen, Iran has seen its Houthi allies lose ground in recent weeks. While Yemen may be a peripheral battle for Iran, one designed to pressure Saudi Arabia as the Saudis do the same to Iran in Syria, losing that card would confirm that Iran’s regional ambitions can be successfully reversed.

Whether Iran’s role in the Middle East will be a factor in the Iranian elections remains to be seen. But the Islamic Republic has seen the region unite against Iran. The IRGC strategy has mainly bred chaos, brought few victories and damaged Iran’s friends.

The nuclear deal means there may be a struggle over the money released by the lifting of sanctions. If Iranian voters react negatively to the chequered record of the hardliners, Mr Rouhani may find he has more latitude to impose his own priorities.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Michel Aoun, leave the government! - It makes no sense to continue collaborating with ISIS

In the realm of political cretinism, the followers of Michel Aoun have been pioneers. Yet the spectacle on Thursday was beyond anything we had seen before. The sheer sordidness of their political messaging made many Lebanese wonder whether the Aounists are entitled to any regard whatsoever.

Consider this image of the former telecommunications minister, yes minister, Nicolas Sehnaoui, holding up a sign with the cartoon of a monkey wearing a blue tie — the blue tie of the Future Movement — with the following text: “Hi I’m ISIS, ISIS Can Also Wear a Tie.” Next to Sehnaoui stands another bright bulb, holding up a sign showing a bald man from behind, clearly meant to represent Tammam Salam, with the phrase: “Not All Extremists Have Beards, They Can Also Be Bald.”

Sehnaoui’s performance shows that class is no prerequisite for a ministerial appointment. You have to pause and ask: Are these people serious? Do they truly believe their contemptible accusation that Salam is an extremist? Or that the Future Movement is another form of ISIS? If the Aounists answer yes, then it’s high time that they pull out of the government and spare us all the consequences of their irresponsibility.

However, it’s funny that not so long ago Michel Aoun was running doggedly after Saad Hariri to gain his approval for an Aoun presidency. Presumably, he would have also expected the former prime minister’s green light to bring with it a favorable vote in parliament from Tammam Salam, his ally in Beirut.

So are we to understand that the general was consciously courting extremists then? Are we to conclude that Aoun will do anything, even celebrate his 80th birthday with Hariri, to be elected, all the time aware that his Sunni interlocutors are disciples of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and Ayman al-Zawahiri? If so, Aoun is a hypocrite, or perhaps he was misled. If the latter, then his only option, now that he’s seen the light, is to withdraw his ministers and retreat to his borrowed residence.  

The thing is that Aoun will not pull out of the government, because he knows that if he does nothing will happen. His exit will not provoke a similar reaction from his principal allies — Hezbollah, Nabih Berri, or even Suleiman Franjieh. Aoun will be on his own, the government will likely function better, to everyone’s relief, and the general will ruin any remote chance he has of becoming president. That’s why the mendacious Aoun would remain in government even with the real ISIS.

In their frustration, the Aounists have become merely vulgar. But their vulgarity has consequences, because if Sunnis see their most moderate leaders described as extremists, this can only have dire repercussions for Sunni-Christian relations. It must be said: the crudeness of the Aounists makes one ashamed to be from the same community as Aoun and his ilk.

Time has caught up with Aoun and is quickly overtaking him. The general has dreamed of the presidency for decades, and he knows he will never see it. He has an insatiable family to satisfy but his nepotism has surpassed his ability to fulfill his promises.

Aoun’s patent favoritism toward Gebran Bassil has forced him to satisfy another son-in-law, Shamel Roukoz. However, Aoun’s mismanagement of the security nominations means Roukoz’s ambitions will be thwarted. The person most pleased with this, in our Rabieh version of Dallas, is Bassil, who won’t have to worry about a potential rival for Aounist affections down the road as he prepares for September elections in the Free Patriotic Movement. That’s assuming elections take place, amid rumors that internal FPM surveys show Bassil’s main rival for the presidency, Alain Aoun, winning. What a delicious irony if the elections are postponed in light of that information, given Aoun’s anger with the decision to delay parliamentary elections.

The Aounists are all over the place these days, but the effort to insult Hariri and Salam was beyond the pale. Sehnaoui and his comrades have scraped the bottom of the barrel — no mean feat when they have spent the better part of a decade several rungs lower. Aoun destroyed the Christians once in his political career, and is on track to do so again, supported by a gaggle of imbeciles who, demanding their legitimate rights in the political system, on a daily basis invite only scorn.   

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Talks suggest the endgame is afoot in Syrian crisis

With the Syrian regime losing ground in the Ghab Plain and Qaryatayn last week, the protagonists in Syria are slowly preparing for the aftermath of the conflict. Few believe president Bashar Al Assad can prevail in the war, and even he conceded his army’s difficulties late last month.

With Mr Al Assad’s foes gaining, all eyes have been on diplomacy in recent weeks. Russian, Saudi and American officials have met in Qatar, the Russian and Saudi foreign ministers met in Moscow on Monday, and Russia mediated a recent meeting in Jeddah between the Saudi deputy crown prince and defence minister, Mohammed bin Salman, and the head of Syria’s National Security Bureau, Ali Mamlouk.

Even Iran has offered a plan for a political solution in Syria. Two things are apparent in these exchanges: Mr Al Assad’s vulnerabilities have prompted his allies to begin a process of finding a negotiated outcome in Syria that could potentially save him and prevent a power vacuum that benefits extremists; and the Syrian president has become increasingly irrelevant, his fate almost entirely in the hands of others.

Mr Al Assad’s enemies have sensed this, which is why they have raised the pressure on his regime. The progress of Jaysh Al Fatah, a coalition of opposition forces including the Al Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat Al Nusra, in the Ghab Plain on the weekend was highly significant. The plain borders the Alawite heartland and now the rebels have the option of heading southward toward Hama or westward into Alawite districts.

The ISIL advance into Qaryatayn was, by most accounts, an effort to link up with militants already in the Qalamoun district bordering Lebanon. That would allow the group to cut the vital Damascus-Homs highway, position men in Qalamoun for an offensive against Damascus, and challenge Jaysh Al Fatah and others in shaping the aftermath of Mr Al Assad’s downfall.

In the south of Syria, reports have suggested that the Jordanians are thinking along similar lines. They want to ensure that extremists do not take control of the Syrian capital. That may explain why ISIL, under increasing attack in northern Syria, saw a need to capture new areas in Homs to guarantee that it is not marginalised in the Syrian endgame.

Little has filtered out on the tenor of the diplomatic deliberations, and what has is often politically manipulated. While accounts of Mr Mamlouk’s visit to Saudi Arabia were published in Lebanon’s pro-Hizbollah Al Akhbar newspaper, last Saturday the Saudi daily Al Hayat ran its own version to counter it.

According to Al Hayat, the Saudis linked Mr Al Assad’s fate to a Syrian political process. For one to begin, however, a primary condition is the withdrawal of Iran and Shia militias from Syria in exchange for an end to Saudi support for the opposition, “so the solution [can be] a Syrian-Syrian one”.

In its version, Al Akhbar did not go into details, saying only that the meeting failed. Yet if the Saudi condition is true, it is also subtle. It effectively invites the Syrian president to regain authority over his country from Iran. At the same time, the Saudis allegedly insisted they did not demand a severing of ties between Damascus and Tehran.

By keeping Mr Al Assad’s destiny vague, the proposal fudges over a major obstacle to the negotiations, even if the Saudis insist the Syrian leader must ultimately go. It is interesting that Al Akhbar underlined that Russia did not believe Mr Al Assad could be removed. To buy time for Mr Al Assad, Moscow has sought to create an antiterrorism coalition including Syria and Saudi Arabia. However, last week the Gulf countries rejected it.

The Russian attitude toward Mr Al Assad is likely to be more nuanced, Al Akhbar’s account notwithstanding. Moscow is said to have been unhappy that the Syrian president undermined its efforts to initiate dialogue between the regime and moderate opposition groups. Yet it does not want Mr Al Assad’s removal to be a prerequisite of a political accord even if it knows that for as long as he stays in power a solution will be near impossible.

Increasingly, Russia’s view of events in Syria seems at odds with Iran’s. Where the Iranians have exacerbated Syria’s fragmentation to preserve Assad rule, Russia believes this has created an ideal environment for extremists, many of whom hail from Central Asia and the Caucasus and may later threaten Russia.

Some observers believe the recent military victories by Jaysh Al Fatah were aimed less at bringing about a collapse of the regime than to impose a political solution. That may be true. Most parties, with the exception of ISIL, seek a managed transition in Syria, not a destructive free-for-all as in Afghanistan after 1988.

Things are accelerating in Syria, even if the contours of a political settlement remain uncertain. We are at a stage where regional and international powers are manoeuvring to determine what others will accept. But for the first time we are seeing not the end of the war in Syria, but maybe some hints of an end.

Friday, August 7, 2015

Bedlam in Washington

The Obama administration’s way of making foreign policy decisions has come under scrutiny lately as it adopts new, seemingly paradoxical, policies in the Middle East.

From the start, President Barack Obama concentrated foreign policy matters in the White House. This has led to a bloated National Security Council, which the Washington Post argues “has come to symbolize an overbearing and paranoid White House that insists on controlling even the smallest policy details, often at the expense of timely and effective decisions.”

After the first term, a number of former foreign policy officials criticized this. In The Dispensable Nation, Vali Nasr, an advisor to Richard Holbrooke, the special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, complained that two groups benefited from the over-centralization of policy, both with limited foreign policy experience: the president’s domestic political advisers, who based their decisions on how foreign policy issues would play at home; and the military and intelligence agencies, which promised “swift and dynamic, as well as media-attracting, action…”

However, very little appears to have changed since Nasr published his book in 2013. Indeed, things may have gotten worse as the United States’ incomprehensible behavior in Syria can attest. The administration’s actions in the Middle East have been so confusing that the repercussions are bound to be long-lasting. Today, two of Washington’s most prominent regional allies, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, deeply mistrust America.

A powerful National Security Council need not mean an incoherent foreign policy. Under Richard Nixon, the NSC was headed by Henry Kissinger, with whom the president shared a worldview. And Kissinger kept tight control over his institution, gave it direction, and, thanks to Nixon’s interest in foreign affairs, could rely on the president not to make all his decisions primarily through a prism of domestic political calculation.  

Today a very different reality exists. The national security advisor, Susan Rice, does not seem to have imposed a clear political vision on her institution, nor has she been able, it seems, to overcome the influence of Obama’s domestic policy advisors. She took office in June 2013, and events in Syria since that time have repeatedly exposed her shortcomings.

The role of the national security advisor is to coordinate the decisions and actions of the different bureaucracies that have a say in foreign policy. The national security advisor must also have the capacity, thanks to his or her proximity to the president, to devise a broader strategy and cohesive policies that are in lockstep with the president’s priorities, and, above all, that fit in with one another in a consistent way.

In Syria we have seen the precise opposite of this. Everything the administration said it would not do there, it has ended up doing; and everything it has said it would do, it has not done, or has done without any conviction.

Last year Obama resolutely played down the idea of extending the battle against ISIS to Syria, preferring to focus on Iraq. At the same time the United States continued to oppose the establishment by Turkey of a safety zone in Syria. But today, the president has reached an agreement with Turkey that allows for such a zone, and that also permits coalition aircraft to use the Incirlik air base to be launched against ISIS in Syria. Washington has gone further, saying it would use its aircraft to defend “moderate” armed groups against extremist foes.

The fate of the ‘moderates’ is a good example of the administration’s lack of seriousness in Syria. For a long time the administration vowed to arm and train moderate groups, and requested $500 million to do so. Yet in July, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter reported that only 60 rebels had been vetted and trained to date. Soon thereafter several ‘moderates,’ including their leader, were kidnapped by Jabhat al-Nusra, Al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria. That is what prompted Washington to say that it would deploy aircraft to protect its allies.

All this would be laughable if the administration’s actions and omissions did not mean more lives lost. This was evident in August 2013, when President Bashar al-Assad’s forces fired chemical weapons against civilians in Ghouta, killing up to 1,700 people. At the time Obama described a chemical attack as a “red line,” vowing to retaliate militarily if one took place.

Instead, at the last minute Obama changed his mind, agreeing to a Russian scheme to remove the chemical weapons from Syria. Nor was Secretary of State John Kerry consulted. He looked out of the loop when Obama’s decision came even as Kerry was advocating a military response before Congress.

This was Rice’s first major test and she failed, as the White House and State Department seemed to be on very different wavelengths. During Nixon’s first term the secretary of state then, William Rogers, was marginalized by Kissinger. Rice has not quite been able to do so to Kerry, who played a central role in negotiating the recent nuclear accord with Iran. Yet the secretary of state must be suffering: he and his staff were only told late in the game about negotiations with Cuba by NSC officials, and the Iran deal must have been gratifying payback.

But solely blaming Rice and her staff is too kind. The person most responsible for the foreign policy muddle is Obama himself. The president has often praised Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals, on the Lincoln administration and the strong, clashing personalities who served the president.

This was Obama’s way of saying he sought to lead an administration of forceful individuals, no matter what their disagreements. This shows the president’s tolerance for confusion, and his hubris. Abraham Lincoln always had a clear sense of direction. No one would confuse Obama with Lincoln.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Assad watches on as sands of diplomacy shift

Lebanon’s daily Al Akhbar, which supports Hizbollah, revealed last week that Russian mediation had led to a recent meeting in Riyadh between Ali Mamlouk, the head of Syria’s national security bureau, and Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s deputy crown prince and defence minister.

While nothing was reportedly agreed, the fact that the meeting occurred at all was an opportunity for Al Akhbar to imply that the Saudis accept that Bashar Al Assad is here to stay. The reality may be different. It is more likely that the Saudis sought to do Russia a favour at a crucial time in Moscow’s own reconsideration of the Syrian situation.

The nature of this reconsideration is not yet clear, but, according to Al Akhbar, it appears the Russians made the argument to the Saudis that the real risk in Syria is the rise of ISIL and terrorism. Mr Al Assad would not be toppled, the Russians allegedly said, but unless the Saudis and Syrians co-operated, ISIL and other terrorist groups would gain.

The Russians have called for an alliance against terrorism that includes Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkey and Jordan. They worry that the large number of combatants in Syria from Central Asia and the Caucasus may return home to combat Russia.

The Saudis, while sympathetic to the terrorism argument, are not ready to cooperate with Mr Al Assad, and this week the Gulf countries rejected the Russian proposal. But there could have been another calculation behind the Saudis’ agreement to meet Mr Mamlouk: to play on the potentially different Russian and Iranian approaches to Syria.

While nothing suggests there are profound disagreements between Tehran and Moscow – both continue to have significant parallel interests – there has been a difference in attitude to the conflict there. While the Russians have sought to preserve Syria and its army and security forces relatively intact, Iran has advanced a project leading to fragmentation.

Indeed, Iran has facilitated a new reality in which Mr Al Assad and his regime have been marginalised. By supporting the creation of militias that tend to answer to Iran and its allies, for instance, the Iranians have been able to circumvent Syria’s leadership when necessary, a strategy also adopted in Iraq.

Russia is said to have backed Iran in advising Mr Al Assad to defend core geographical areas in Syria and avoid dispersing his army. But ensuring Mr Al Assad’s immediate political survival does not mean that Russia approves of Syria’s partition.

Things are far less clear with Iran. For the Iranians to advance their interests in Arab countries where the Shia are a minority, they must divide societies and exploit their contradictions, allowing them to retain control over key districts. And here Moscow and Tehran may not be on the same wavelength.

Russia and Iran regard ISIL as a major danger. But ISIL and Jabhat Al Nusra, the Al Qaeda affiliate, can only thrive in a fragmented Syrian environment.

That appears to be why the Russians are so keen to enhance Mr Al Assad’s legitimacy and allow him to stabilise himself at home, whatever their medium-term plans for him. This can only be done by returning Syria to the Arab fold. Moscow regards the antiterrorism agenda as the country’s door back into the region.

Iran, on the other hand, has shown no such inclination. Mainly, that’s because it is regarded by most Arab states as the essence of the problem in Syria and is mistrusted. But it is also because if Mr Al Assad is embraced by Arab governments, Iran understands that a condition for his acceptance will be that he downgrade Syrian relations with Tehran.

For the Iranians a weak Syrian regime dependent on them allows Iran not only to maintain its influence in Syria and Lebanon, but also exploit the chaos to open new fronts against Israel. Yet for the Russians such a situation creates only volatility and impermanence, while empowering the extremists opposed to Mr Al Assad. This may ultimately threaten Russia.

To presume this will lead to a split between Russia and Iran goes too far. Both want to save Syria’s regime, or at least its core. Both welcome a negotiated solution that does so. But what Iran does not want is for a political process to reduce its power in Syria.

Russia’s priority is different. It wants to sustain its sway in Damascus but above all avoid a failed Syrian state, thereby ensuring that Syria does not remain a reservoir for anti-Russian terrorism.

The nuclear deal with Iran is a part of it. As the Saudis adapt to American disengagement from the region, both they and the Russians may see advantages in exploring relations to counter the eventuality of closer Iranian-American ties. This is perhaps an additional reason why the Saudis acceded to the Russian request that Prince Mohammed meet Mr Mamlouk.

As the regional context changes, Russia, Iran and Saudi Arabia will manoeuvre to guarantee they do not come out losers. Mr Al Assad can only watch, think the same thing, and worry.