Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Egypt is poorer for the demise of a wily playwright

Even post-mortem, Ali Salem’s critics could not bring themselves to say something nice about him. The death of the Egyptian playwright last week at 79 was greeted with customary denunciations of a man who, in 1994, published a book about his drive through Israel. Mr Salem, a defender of normalisation with the Israelis, paid a high price for this attitude.

However, those who condemned Mr Salem often left unanswered a fundamental question relating to peace with Israel: if peace was a strategic option of Arab regimes – and in the early 1990s when the playwright decided to visit the country it was – then of what value was peace without normalisation?

Even today an Arab peace offer remains on the table. The Arab Peace Initiative, first proposed by Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and approved at an Arab League summit in Beirut in 2002, has not been withdrawn. Yet Israel never showed any interest in the Arab offer, which could be summarised as “full withdrawal from occupied lands in exchange for full peace”.

Israel’s rejection of the initiative only made Mr Salem’s efforts appear more Quixotic, but it did not clarify what peace should entail. And here the experiences of the playwright showed that, while certain Arab intellectuals are well-endowed with outrage, they have greater trouble proposing practical solutions.

Famously, Mr Salem was expelled from the Writers Union in 2001, a decision that was reversed when he went to court. With a typical sense of provocation, Mr Salem then resigned. I recall him repeating the story to me in a hotel room in Doha. One could sense that, whatever Mr Salem’s critics did, they would not prevail over this indomitable man of oversized personality.

In deciding to turn Mr Salem into an outcast, his critics in Egypt resorted to behaviour that smacked far more of intellectual Stalinism than dedication to principle. His challenge was made in the realm of ideas; their answer was to engage in intimidation. Israel is unresponsive to peace, but that was always the best argument against Mr Salem, not segregation.

Perhaps, also, Mr Salem had greater faith in Egypt than his detractors. As the American journalist Charles Paul Freund recalled in a piece written for the Daily Star in 2005, Mr Salem describes an incident in his book that occurred after the signing of the Oslo Accords. An Egyptian academic described to novelist Naguib Mahfouz his fears that normalisation could mean that Israeli culture would threaten Egypt’s heritage.

Mr Mahfouz responded: “Do you really think that Israel is capable of doing this to us?” When the academic said that he did, Mr Mahfouz’s rejoinder was laconic: “If Israel is capable of annihilating the artistic, literary and cultural heritage of Egypt and the Arab world, then we’d better all die.”

By telling the story, Mr Salem was expressing his own confidence, alongside that of Egypt’s most eminent writer, in what his country stood for. He had shrewdly grasped that there was much more in his detractors than displeasure with his political stance toward Israel; there was a lack of conviction in Egypt itself and its capacity to defend its priorities.

Such doubts, to Mr Salem, were probably associated with an Egypt of the past, in which a sense of insecurity towards Israel was tied in to the many Egyptian defeats at Israel’s hands. In their refusal to address normalisation, his critics showed an inability to define a self-assured vision for Egypt in the region.

My last encounter with Mr Salem took place, perhaps not surprisingly, in the most surreal circumstances. He was visiting Beirut years ago and called me, asking me to pick him up at his hotel. I was happy to oblige and arrived at the Beau Rivage, with some amusement.

At the time the Beau Rivage was near Syrian intelligence headquarters in the capital, and the Lebanese would nervously use the hotel’s name to refer to Syrian intelligence rule. I entered the grim, empty lobby and waited for Mr Salem, wondering how on earth an advocate of normalisation with Israel had ended up in such a place.

The playwright soon arrived and provided an answer, blithely telling me that he had been invited to Lebanon by an Iranian television station for an interview.

This highlighted one of the paradoxes surrounding the man – no less so than the fact that his book on Israel became a bestseller in Egypt. It showed that even as Mr Salem faced censure, there were not a few people, Egyptians and others, interested in hearing what this iconoclast had to say. It’s a shame we won’t be able to do so any more. Egypt is poorer as a consequence.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Uncle Gamal - Forty-five years later, Nasser’s legacy still escapes us

On 28 September, some Arabs will commemorate the 45th anniversary of Gamal Abdel Nasser’s death. But in one respect the onetime Egyptian president never left us, laying the foundations of the Arab security state that prevails to this day.

Those romantic about Arab nationalism will want to remember Nasser as much more than that. It was he who sent shockwaves throughout the region when, as the leading figure in the Free Officers movement, he overthrew the monarchy of King Farouq in 1952. It was also he who struck a blow against the declining colonial powers, when, in 1956, he nationalized the foreign-owned Suez Canal Company, saying its revenues would help finance the then symbol of Egyptian economic reaffirmation, the Aswan High Dam.

So much of the heroic symbolism in the modern Middle East is tied into things with which Nasser was associated, that to reduce him to the establishment of an authoritarian order seems low. Perhaps, but nearly half a century after his death, that part of his legacy remains more alive than any other.

It is interesting that among those who helped reinforce Egypt’s security order were the Americans, in particular the Central Intelligence Agency. During the 1950s, the Americans were looking to strengthen their ties with Arab nationalist regimes that, they thought, would be better able to contain communism in the Arab world. Nasser seemed an ideal choice, but in Syria as well the CIA sought to build up a relationship with another officer, Husni al-Zaim, who seized power in 1949 in a coup.

And yet a great misnomer is that Nasser ushered in the era of Arab military regimes. As Cambridge sociologist Hazem Kandil has written in a fascinating revisionist book published in 2012, titled Soldiers, Spies, and Statesmen: Egypt’s Road to Revolt, Nasser spent much of his time trying to counterbalance the military.

For Kandil, many of the developments in post-revolution Egypt were driven by Nasser’s rivalry with his old friend, Abdel Hakim Amer, who had built a powerful position for himself as commander-in-chief of the armed forces, before becoming first vice president and deputy supreme commander. Nasser felt threatened by Amer. But being unable to clip his wings from within the military hierarchy, he did so politically, resorting to the novel tactic of establishing the Arab Socialist Union. This mass party was used to mobilize support for the regime and prevent the military from staging a coup.

“Nasser’s real goal was to create a civilian network of vested interests to enhance his power vis-à-vis the military,” Kandil writes.

Similar patterns were replicated under Anwar al-Sadat and Hosni Mubarak, though each man adopted different measures. Sadat built up the powers of the Interior Ministry to offset the military. Mubarak, even as he continued to do the same thing, also encouraged the expansion of a capitalist class tied to the regime, which was given greater power in the system to formulate policy.

Kandil’s book is an eye-opener because it explains the brutal subtleties of Arab regimes. Their priority is survival, which means Arab dictators tend to destroy all institutions or individuals posing a potential threat to them. That is why the rubric “military regime” is so misleading. Leaders often emerge from the military, but then seek to undermine those mechanisms that initially propelled them to power by curtailing the effectiveness of the armed forces.

This can involve installing a vast security apparatus to control the military. It can also mean placing loyalists in key positions in the armed forces to keep an eye on what is going on. Arab leaders have usually done both, taking care even to watch the watchers, as no one can ever truly be trusted. That is why parallel intelligence services have proliferated, notably in Syria, as each one keeps tabs on the others. All information is centralized at the top, where the leader alone has a comprehensive picture of what is taking place.

The protections Arab regimes put in place to survive can be very efficient. In Libya, Muammar Gadhafi may have been ousted, but that was only because Western airpower supported the rebels. In Syria, Bashar Assad may have lost large swathes of territory and has engaged in mass murder against his society, but the core of his regime has held. He is perceived by many dupes as a foe of jihadism and his foreign backers have come through. Sadly, his foul regime may now be gaining in strength rather than the contrary.

One of Kandil’s most interesting arguments is that the great disaster of the Nasser period, the defeat of the Arab armies in the 1967 war against Israel, came about because Nasser’s efforts to counterbalance the army were so successful. As a consequence of this, Amer and his acolytes sought to achieve something spectacular to regain the initiative. Though Amer knew Egypt was in no condition to fight Israel, he took provocative steps in the run-up to June 1967 “to salvage the image and influence of the army.”
According to Kandil, Nasser, who is often blamed for the 1967 war, strongly opposed the Egyptian decision in May 1967 to request a withdrawal of the United Nations Emergency Force in Sinai that separated the Egyptian and Israeli armies. Nasser, aware that a full withdrawal would raise the probability of war, told Amer to request only a partial withdrawal, but this was never implemented. Amer, not Nasser, then closed the Straits of Tiran to Israeli ships, provoking a casus belli that led to the devastating Israeli attack.

Forty-five years after his death, Gamal Abdel Nasser continues to leave an ambiguous legacy — being blamed for that for which he may not have been responsible, even as the nature of his authoritarian power is equally misunderstood. It’s surprising that to this day no great biography has been written of the man. Banished to the realm of myth, Nasser remains elusive even after all this time.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Imagination, not exclusion, revives central Beirut

After weeks of demonstrations in Beirut’s city centre, last week the Beirut Traders Association held a press conference. The association, a bastion of bourgeois Lebanon, asked demonstrators to leave the downtown, saying their actions were undermining the area’s economy. The association’s head, Nicolas Shammas, then uttered a phrase he would regret.

Mr Shammas vowed that the area would never again return to being, as he put it, “Abou Rakhussa”, a colloquial term referring to the pre-civil war atmosphere when goods were sold off the pavement. “Rakhussa” derives from the Arabic word for “cheap”, so Mr Shammas was effectively saying the demonstrators were cheapening the area, planned as a hub for high-end retail outlets.

Not surprisingly the phrase hit a nerve. Many people interpreted the remarks as those of a prosperous merchant telling Lebanese of more modest means that they should steer clear of a luxury area they would degrade by their presence. Since the demonstrators had spent weeks protesting against serious government failings, his warning was doubly insulting.

But in one way Mr Shammas cast a useful light on the original flaw in the city centre area, managed by a private property company named Solidere. The company was formed after the 1975-1990 civil war to facilitate reconstruction of the largely destroyed district, and former property owners were compensated with shares.

From the start, the 1991 master plan for the area, which defined Solidere’s reconstruction model, provoked controversy. In 1992, writing in The Beirut Review, sociologist Nabil Beyhum criticised the project for, among other things, focusing on luxury shops while excluding popular ones: “Conceived of as an island of wealth and power, the city centre would no longer have a centralising role but would instead become an island like all other urban islands which arose during the war.”

Since then, many of Mr Beyhum’s predictions have been borne out. The city centre, while attractive, has indeed emerged as an urban island, cut off to a large extent from the areas around it.

Yet, ironically, this was not true in 2005, when hundreds of thousands of demonstrators from all over Lebanon descended on the area after the assassination of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri. Now, a nonsectarian protest movement has chosen the city centre to condemn government inaction and corruption.

Political disputes have allowed the area to play a role as geographical unifier, located as it is between predominantly Muslim western Beirut and mainly Christian eastern Beirut. Mr Shammas doesn’t realise that there is more to a city centre than spaces of consumption. In his plea for protesters to leave the area, he failed to mention that large swaths of it were already empty, many shops having long closed down.

It would be unfair to Mr Shammas not to recognise that politics have indeed partly been the undoing of the downtown. In 2006, Hizbollah and its political allies, in an effort to force the resignation of prime minister Fouad Al Siniora’s government, staged a sit-in of several months in the area, killing its economy.

There was more than a little schadenfreude involved. The identity Solidere sought to embody, that of a bastion of style and luxury in the heart of Beirut, was sure to provoke the ire of the protesters at the time, who mostly came from low-income backgrounds. Moreover, Solidere was identified with the rival Hariri camp, the late Rafiq Hariri having owned a significant share in the company, so it became a political target.

But there was more to it than that. The opening of the new Beirut Souks in 2009 drew businesses and customers away from the central part of the city, causing businesses there to close. Solidere has also been inflexible, continuing to charge high rents and making shops unprofitable as Lebanon has gone through an economic downturn brought on by the war in Syria.

Today the area is struggling – it has fallen far short of Hariri’s dream of turning it into an axis of regional commerce. To walk through the area is to see Lebanon’s unfulfilled ambitions during the past 15 years. Mr Shammas’s disappointment is understandable, for those ambitions were shared by Lebanon’s business community.

But he is dead wrong in blaming demonstrators. The area was suffering long before from a lack of tourism due to regional tensions. Its desire to appeal to the financial elite only made matters worse, as it kept many Lebanese away. Paradoxically, returning to “Abou Rakhussa” might revive the city centre, even if it shatters the glittery image Mr Shammas seeks to project.

Cities are living organisms, a fact ignored by Solidere and Mr Shammas. Whatever vision they have for the centre, it will not thrive if large parts of it remain empty. This requires more than blaming protesters. It requires an imaginative policy by Solidere to resurrect the area. Mr Shammas should know that.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Opposites protract - Alas, Russia has a plan in Syria, but America doesn’t

One day someone will write a book on how the United States and Russia behaved in Syria. They will argue that whereas the Russians had a clear idea of what they wanted to achieve, the Americans had none whatsoever, and spent years backtracking or adjusting to a reality that surpassed them.

This was made evident again this week when General Lloyd Austin, the commander of US Central Command, admitted to Congress that only “four or five” Syrians who had been trainees under a $500 million program to arm and train “moderate” rebels were fighting in Syria. This was a shock, despite Defense Secretary Ashton Carter’s disclosure in July that the United States had trained only 60 rebels to combat ISIS in Syria.

The Obama administration now accepts that its program has failed and is looking to change direction. The Americans aim to bring in up to 500 Syrians as “enablers and liaisons” to coordinate between US forces stationed outside Syria and groups inside that have been deemed effective against ISIS.

In other words, the administration is still avoiding what is at the heart of the Syrian conflict: Bashar Assad. Even as they tell the Russians that Assad’s presence is fueling the war, the Americans refuse to take action that might force him out. Washington has refused to arm and train rebels to fight the Assad regime, fearing that its sudden collapse might benefit ISIS.

US officials told media outlets last July that an agreement had been reached with Turkey over the creation of an ISIS-free zone in northern Syria, which could double as a safe zone for displaced Syrians. Yet Austin contradicted this when he told Senator John McCain that he did not recommend such a zone “at this time.”

The Americans have warned the Russians against a military build-up in Syria, arguing it would only prolong the war. The Russians are keeping a mass murderer in place, but for Washington to tell the Russians this when American inaction for nearly five years has allowed the conflict to drag on and become a humanitarian nightmare shows remarkable nerve.  

Russia is morally condemnable in Syria, yet President Vladimir Putin quickly grasped one thing in 2011: It’s better to know what one wants and pursue it with conviction than to try to be morally upright and allow one’s indecision to make a situation worse. Neither Syria’s opposition nor their Arab backers has made Russia pay for its pro-Assad line, while the Obama administration is viewed by both with ill-concealed contempt.

What is the Russian plan in Syria? There is more to it than merely arming and bolstering Assad. The Russians tend to think in strategic terms, and see that keeping Assad in power must be fortified with a political arrangement. Apparently Putin believes the time is ripe for such an arrangement, with Europe facing a major refugee crisis, the United States still having no Syria policy, and the Syrians exhausted by years of war.

If one had to guess, the Russians see an opening to use terrorism fears in the West as an opportunity to push through a political plan that keeps Assad in power and that would isolate his foes, above all Saudi Arabia and Turkey. The plan in question is likely to be a modified version of the one proposed by the United Nations envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura.

De Mistura has proposed that four working groups be set up, including representatives of the regime and the opposition, to discuss safety and protection, political and constitutional issues, military and security issues, including fighting terrorism, and public institutions and development.

Revealingly, De Mistura has said that his plan is based on two pillars: combating terrorism and protecting Syrian state institutions. This must be music to Russian ears. The plan would outline a transitional phase, during which a temporary government would be formed with executive powers. The proposal has been adopted by the UN and welcomed by Egypt, but is rejected by the Syrian opposition.

Indeed, much of the plan is vague and there is no mechanism for Assad to step down. However, whereas De Mistura may favor turning Assad into a figurehead to attract opposition approval, the Russians have excluded this. Moscow feels it can impose Assad as a leader, and a recent British proposal that he remain in power for a limited transitional phase, like signs of a Spanish shift on Assad, shows they may be justified.

At the same time the Russians are said to be deploying forces to the city of Hama. If confirmed, this would put them on the front line in fighting Jabhat al-Nusra and to a lesser extent ISIS in Aleppo Governorate. Having proven their bona fides in combating terrorism, and having secured Assad in Latakia Governorate, the Russians would be in a better position to push everyone toward a solution in Syria that ultimately keeps Assad in place.

That is easier said than done, but the Europeans are so overwhelmed by Syrian refugees that they may be willing to consider it. The Americans have criticized the Russians, but are focused on improving ties with Iran and have no enthusiasm for seriously opposing Russian actions. And the Arab states and Turkey offer nothing but more war and radicalization, so that their position may be eroded internationally, forcing them to reconsider their actions in Syria if a consensus emerges.

The Russians’ intentions are cynical, but their single-mindedness may pay off. What they really see is that on the other side of the aisle they have an Obama administration that has proven utterly incompetent in Syria. The highway is open and the Russians will ride it until they get what they want. 

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Egypt redefines its sense of regional purpose

In recent years, Egypt has paid a high price for two developments. The first was the uprising against Hosni Mubarak in 2011, which set dynamics in motion that transformed the country and created ongoing instability. The second was the transformation of Egypt’s regional role thanks to the Obama administration’s pivot away from the Middle East.

Today the country is facing major challenges: a burgeoning terrorist threat, particularly in the Sinai; a vulnerable economy, thanks in part to the decline in tourism amid a perception that the country is unsafe; and uncertainty about Egypt’s regional function.

To be fair to Abdel Fattah El Sisi, however, the decline in Egypt’s regional influence predated his coming to power. Under Mr Mubarak there was already a crisis of confidence because the issues through which Egypt gained regional status, such as Palestinian-Israeli negotiations, terrorism, and Egypt’s role as a cornerstone of the American alliance system in the Middle East, had become less of a priority.

When Mr El Sisi took power, he was backed by Gulf allies who shared Cairo’s opposition to the Muslim Brotherhood. Other priorities have complicated the picture since then, including the Saudi-led coalition’s campaign in Yemen and the potential impact of developments in Syria on Egyptian security.

The reversal over Syria has been a useful indicator of how Mr El Sisi has pursued Egyptian interests, even if this leads him away from his traditional allies.

The Egyptian fear may be understandable. Mr El Sisi is concerned that a victory by jihadis in Syria might embolden those in Egypt. Nor are the Egyptians alone. Jordan is equally concerned by the prospect of Jabhat Al Nusra or ISIL taking over in Syria, which is why it has prevented opposition groups in the south from mounting attacks against Damascus.

The agendas of Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey are different to those of Egypt and Jordan, despite official exclamations of cooperation and the fact that all are united in opposing Iran. This tells us much about how the region has changed in five years, as state interaction is being shaped by a far more complex array of interests.

Domestically, Mr El Sisi has used the backlash against former president Mohammed Morsi to reimpose strong political control. This has not been without consequences. A crackdown against journalists, for instance, provoked international outrage, even if this was later tempered after a rise in terrorist attacks pushed governments to take a softer line with Mr El Sisi.

Egypt has also had to redefine its sense of regional purpose in light of the Obama administration’s radical shift away from the Middle East. The Egyptian armed forces never forgave the US for supporting the Muslim Brotherhood-dominated government.

Barack Obama’s utter inaction in helping find a resolution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict was a blow to Egypt, as it had always played a vital mediating role in negotiations. In fact, under Mr Obama the Americans have shown little regard for Egypt’s previous standing as a leading American ally.

While Mr Obama did speak to the Muslim world from Cairo in June 2009, he did so first from Ankara, where he addressed the Turkish parliament. In the past American officials had tended to make Egypt one of their first stops on trips to the region. Under Mr Obama, Turkey and Iraq were, while the Cairo visit came only two months later. More important, the president never returned.

Egypt reacted to this sense of relative marginalisation by improving its relationship with Russia, which has astutely exploited Arab anger with America’s negligent attitude. Russia has supplied Egypt with weapons and Mr El Sisi and Vladimir Putin have met on numerous occasions.

It’s difficult to see where this might lead, but Russia has re-entered the Middle East’s centre stage after almost two decades of being pushed to the sidelines by the United States. Egypt and Syria may anchor new Russian affirmation in the region, but for now the distinct sense is that Mr El Sisi, facing major domestic obstacles, is still working hard to get Egypt’s reinvention right.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Winter of our discontent - Michel Aoun, Christians and the Arab Spring

Recently, Michel Aoun, in a speech to his followers, decried the impact of the Arab Spring on Lebanon. While the uprisings in the Arab world have indeed proven to be catastrophic, or have failed, it was surprising to hear this from the general.

Let me take you back to the end of the 1980s and explain why. At the time, I worked in a research center, and one of my jobs was to read all of Aoun’s speeches when he was head of a military government and fighting the Syrians and the Lebanese Forces. In his regular addresses to his followers Aoun portrayed himself as a revolutionary figure who sought to eliminate the privileges of the Lebanese political elite and overturn the sectarian system. The fact that Aoun was someone from the social periphery, a rural Maronite who had grown up in Haret Hreik, whose social promotion had taken place through the army, was a theme always implicit in what the general said.

The Arab uprisings, regardless of their successes or failures, were motivated by similar impulses. So for Aoun to refer to a desire for change solely as a catastrophe, without stopping to mention how the political orders that provoked the uprisings were themselves catastrophic, was instructive.

It would be easy to dismiss this as just another example of Aoun’s hypocrisy and double-dealing, of which examples abound. But his reaction reflects that of many members of religious minorities in the Middle East, who regard the Arab Spring merely as a byword for an Islamist revival. Indeed, such fears are one reason why Aoun has defended Bashar Assad’s regime in Syria, after having fought it back when Hafez Assad was responsible for ravaging Lebanese Christian fortunes.

For a start, Aoun’s reaction shows that his old promise of a secular order was a sham. The general is as sectarian as they come, but in this he is hardly alone. A good part of his populist message has been to attack Sunnis, with his followers recently depicting the Future Movement and Prime Minister Tammam Salam as socially acceptable versions of ISIS.

But it’s Aoun’s approach toward reform that is the greater question mark. In 2005 he joined the ruling class that he had earlier denounced. He and his family members began to profit from the political system, all the time insisting to their gullible followers that they were improving matters, or trying to, but that those with vested interests were hindering them.

Recall that Aoun held up the formation of Saad Hariri’s government in 2009 until his son-in-law Gebran Bassil was handed the lucrative energy ministry (this after Bassil had headed the prosperous telecommunications ministry). His reformist skills were hardly on display. Though Bassil promised 24 hours of electricity a day, the condition of Lebanon’s power system has never been as disastrous, with parts of Beirut (including my own) seeing power cuts of up to eight hours a day. And that’s not beginning to mention rural areas, where electricity is rather like the Virgin Mary: everyone has heard of it, but almost no one seems to ever see it.

It was revealing that when protesters took over the environment ministry two weeks ago, Aoun sided with the rest of the political class in condemning the move, warning that chaos was not a solution. In siding with the politicians against an initiative pushed by non-sectarian civil society activists, Aoun contradicted another of his promises from the 1980s. The general may be right in doubting the success of the activists, as are many people, but his willingness to affirm the mood of a political class he had done much to condemn was remarkable.

The jury is still out on the Arab Spring, but it’s fair to say that the record until now has not been heartening. A number of dictators and tyrants were overthrown, while others are still hanging on. The ensuing destruction, as well as the rise of extremism, will have made many people utterly cynical about the consequences of challenging authoritarian leaders. Better a despot who maintains order, many will insist, than democracy that leads only to undemocratic, intolerant religious rule.  

Certainly the Arab Spring demands introspection by Arab societies. Why is it that, with the relative exception of Tunisia and to a lesser extent Egypt, the revolts led to a combination of civil war and religious radicalism? Much of the blame can be directed at the regimes themselves, especially in Libya and Syria, who provoked civil war to protect themselves. But it is also true that those opposing the regimes quickly allowed their movements to be taken over by a powerful extremist fringe.

So what should non-Muslim minorities, not to say Muslim majorities, think? Aoun’s reaction, while terribly shortsighted, is also one that many Christians in the region will echo. Is their salvation, then, to continue to survive in the shadow of absolutist regimes that stifle all freedom and suffocate all ambition? The decline in Christian numbers in the region, and indeed the large number of Muslims walking through Europe today, suggests not. Anyone who can, chooses to emigrate.

So, Aoun, once a defender of reform and change, views the Arab Spring as calamitous. He’s right that Lebanon has paid a high price, but without change and reform the Arab world will head toward new tragedies of biblical proportion. Aoun’s own career is a fine illustration of how the region can breed mediocrity.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Russia capitalises on US hesitancy, bolstering Assad

Officials in Washington have recently expressed their concern that Russia may be escalating its military involvement in Syria in defence of Bashar Al Assad’s regime. While the Russians have denied deploying ground forces to the country, there are numerous indications that the Russian military presence is expanding.

Whether the Russians are playing a combat role or merely an advisory one remains unclear. The evidence suggests that the Russians are reinforcing the Syrian regime militarily in key areas, particularly Latakia, the heartland of the Alawites. On Monday, the London daily Al Hayat reported that Latakia’s airport is now controlled by Russian experts.

A source told the paper that Moscow’s aim was to impose a balance of forces in Syria and prevent the collapse of the Syrian army, for the purpose of reaching a political solution based on the principles agreed in Geneva. What this means is that Russia has no intention whatsoever of accepting Mr Al Assad’s departure as a basis for negotiations – quite the contrary.

In this, both Russia and Iran are on the same wavelength. And they are watching the United States very carefully to assess their own margin of manoeuvre. The Obama administration’s reaction will determine to a great extent how Europe and the Arab states react to Moscow’s and Tehran’s moves in Syria, but for now neither Russia nor Iran has much to worry about.

While the Obama administration has opposed a military build-up and has persuaded friendly countries to close their airspace to Russian transport planes, both also see that the Americans are profoundly ambiguous when it comes to Mr Al Assad’s future, not quite saying what they really believe. On the one hand they want the Syrian president ultimately to leave office. On the other, they do not want this to happen precipitously, fearing it could leave a vacuum that would be exploited by ISIL.

This attitude has given Russia and Iran wide latitude to reinforce Mr Al Assad and turn the international anti-ISIL effort to their advantage.

The Russians will be able to justify their military escalation in the context of the anti-terrorism campaign that Vladimir Putin has called for in the past weeks, and that was rejected by the Gulf states in early August.

What Mr Putin realises is that the Americans have fundamentally shifted in their outlook towards the region. In the wake of the nuclear deal with Iran, president Barack Obama has been much more willing to recognise and defer to Iranian interests in Syria, a point he implicitly acknowledged in a letter last year to Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Moreover, Mr Obama’s primary interest in Syria continues to be ISIL, and far less so inter-Syrian dynamics. Putting two and two together, Russia and Iran have concluded that Washington will probably not seriously oppose their actions in Syria, nor will it greatly bolster efforts by Mr Assad’s foes to bring him down.

Indeed, the continued delay in Turkey’s establishment of a security zone in northern Syria may confirm this. Even though news of an agreement over the zone was leaked by American officials as far back as July, until now there has been no evidence that the plan is about to be implemented.

In remarks to a conference of G20 finance ministers in Ankara last week, Ahmed Davutoglu, Turkey’s prime minister, declared that his country had tried to persuade the international community of the need to create a security zone in Syria to shelter Syrian refugees, but the response had not been positive.

Mr Davutoglu was speaking in the shadow of Europe’s migrant crisis, but there were broader implications to what he said. The Obama administration is still reluctant to allow a security zone, fearing several things: that anti-ISIL Syrian “moderate” rebels are not yet prepared to fight the group in this area; and that Turkish and American military involvement may help bring about the Syrian regime’s disintegration.

Not surprisingly, there is nothing here to dissuade Mr Putin from building up Russia’s military role. If anything, Russia and Iran are regarded by Washington as objective allies against ISIL, in much the same way as were Shia militias in Iraq, despite American criticism of the militias’ sectarian behaviour.

In light of this, it’s easy to be pessimistic about the recent American-Saudi summit in Washington, regardless of efforts by both sides to accentuate the positive.

Almost nothing unites the Americans and Saudis in Syria. Nor is it likely that Mr Obama convinced King Salman that America is serious about containing Iran regionally. The president has sought to integrate Iran more into regional solutions, and previously recognised Tehran’s interests in Syria.

Russian and Iranian resolve in Syria is in proportion to American detachment. The Obama administration seeks a negotiated solution, as do the Russians and Iranians. But while the Americans know what they don’t want in Syria, they are unsure of how to arrive at what they do want. Moscow and Tehran will continue to take advantage of their indecision.

Friday, September 4, 2015

Still fooling us - America remains inconsistent on Bashar Assad

To get a sense of how confusing the Obama administration’s policy in Syria remains, recall that about a year ago the United States was preparing to assist the Iraqi government in fighting ISIS. Yet critics of the administration warned that doing so in Iraq and not in Syria was a fool’s errand. ISIS would just shift forces between the two countries and in that way protect itself.

At the time, the administration had not completely ruled out attacking ISIS in Syria. Indeed, in a nationally televised address President Barack Obama had declared: “I have made it clear that we will hunt down terrorists who threaten our country, wherever they are. That means I will not hesitate to take action against [ISIS] in Syria, as well as Iraq.”

However, the real question was whether Obama would apply the same logic in Syria as in Iraq. Whereas in Iraq he had argued that a fundamental aspect of the anti-ISIS strategy was to integrate Sunnis into the political system, in that way ensuring ISIS could not exploit Sunni discontent, in Syria there was no such  motiviation. Obama continued to reject involving the United States in the Syrian conflict (“somebody else’s civil war,” as he infamously described it in 2013), and completely avoided addressing how to reduce Sunni discontent in Syria.

The Obama administration’s attitude toward President Bashar Assad remains profoundly ambiguous. The Americans want him, ultimately, to leave office, but fear that his sudden collapse today might represent a boon for ISIS and other extremists. Yet the United States has also accepted the idea, with Turkey, of setting up a “safety zone” in northern Syria, from which ISIS would be expelled. Much about the zone remains unclear, but it does create options that may affect the Syrian endgame.

Washington’s and Ankara’s approval of the zone facilitated an agreement allowing American warplanes to launch strikes in Syria from Turkey’s Incirlik Air Base. But an ISIS-free zone would also mean securing an area through which the rebels could transfer large quantities of weapons into Syria. This could precipitate the collapse of regime forces in Aleppo. And if the Turks move Syrian refugees into the area, it would provide a vast reservoir of fresh combatants for Assad’s foes.

Given all this, is Washington truly happy with all the implications of a safety zone? Or does it worry that it might help precipitate Assad’s downfall at a moment when Washington is not eager for this to happen? That the safety zone has yet to be established a month and a half after the idea was first leaked to the media may tell usa great deal.

The imperative of finding a solution to the war in Syria has been made more urgent by the growing migrant crisis affecting Europe. While the United States has not been affected by this, the pressure is building fast to find a resolution after four years of disgraceful American and international lethargy.

However, that has not made the American strategy any more cohesive. As Russia and Iran have engaged in diplomacy over Syria, they have made it apparent that they will not accept Assad’s departure as the starting point of a political process. Can you blame them? They see that the Obama administration is equivocal about Assad’s fate and have no reason to concede the point. That’s why Russia and Iran insist that what happens to Assad can only be decided by the Syrians themselves.

At the heart of the problem is the fact that the Obama administration still regards Syria as important principally due to ISIS. There is little consideration of the war on its own demerits — a legacy of Obama’s persistent refusal to take on another Arab headache. He can’t see that this has ensured the Americans will be unable to resolve their own dilemma in Syria: they accept that Assad will remain in power, even momentarily, as an enemy of ISIS, while they are also trying to enroll Syria’s Sunnis in an anti-ISIS campaign that they will have little impetus to join while Assad remains in power.

Meanwhile America is implementing the adage, ‘when it doubt, kill.’ Absent a broad, coherent policy toward the country, the administration has engaged in an effort to assassinate ISIS leaders in Syria using drones and special operations forces. This won’t do much harm, but it allows the administration to say it is acting, without posing a major risk to American personnel.

The American program to train ‘moderate’ Syrian rebels is ongoing and American commentators friendly to the administration have been trying to reinforce the idea that Obama is serious about it. Perhaps, but until now we have not seen a sustained effort to remove ISIS from the prospective safety zone in northern Syria, nor the kind of American military commitment we saw last year in defense of Kobane.

Nearly five years after the start of the conflict in Syria the United States is still prevaricating. Barack Obama is a prisoner of his own inconsistencies, not least a promise made to Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei last year that American operations in Syria would not target Assad’s forces.

With Obama now certain of passing the nuclear deal with Iran, we are likely to see more of the same. Every American move suggesting change in Syria during the past four years has proven to be a mirage. Obama can keep up this game until he leaves office. Not a few Syrians will be happy to see his back.  

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Don’t be fooled by the trash talk in Lebanon

The recent demonstrations in Beirut against the government have prompted many people to describe what is happening in superlatives. While the effect shouldn’t be underestimated, it’s a mistake to assume the actions represent a fundamental challenge to the Lebanese political system.

The demonstrations against the government were provoked by the rubbish collection crisis, which began in July when the site that took refuse from Beirut and Mount Lebanon was closed down. The government failed to find an alternative location and waste soon accumulated all over the country.

Public anger led to the formation of groups demanding a solution to the crisis, but also denouncing the corruption of the political class – whose efforts to redistribute the profits from refuse collection was behind the crisis in the first place. This led to a widening of the protests as everyone with a beef against the state became part of a burgeoning effort to condemn the government.

Large demonstrations took place the last two weekends, with four conditions set by activists: firstly, the resignation of the environment minister, who oversees rubbish dumps. Secondly, an inquiry to determine who among the security forces fired at protesters two weeks ago and the resignation of the interior minister if he was responsible. Thirdly, parliamentary elections, which have twice been delayed and, finally, a sustainable solution to the refuse crisis, coupled with an investigation of the waste-management sector.

The government was given 72 hours to meet these demands. It horribly mismanaged the situation by ignoring them and, on Tuesday, activists took over the environment ministry to force the minister’s resignation. But beyond giving the government serious headaches, what can the activists really do to change the system?

For a partial answer it’s useful to compare what is happening today to the demonstrations in 2005, following the assassination of Rafiq Hariri, the former Lebanese prime minister.

At the time, protests took place for weeks on end, bringing together people of different sects under a single demand: a Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon, given Syria’s likely role in Mr Hariri’s killing. The protests culminated in a rally of one million people at Martyrs Square on March 14, 2005. By the end of April, Syria had pulled out its forces after a 29-year presence.

The ensuing euphoria led to a misinterpretation of what had happened. Like today, there were those who saw the protests and the unity shown by all as signs that the Lebanese had transcended sectarianism and that a new national identity had replaced it. The same talk can be heard today. Yet what happened in 2005 was inherently sectarian. Most of those demonstrating did so with the encouragement of their sectarian leaders, while supporting parochial political agendas. The power of the anti-Syrian rallies came from the fact that everyone came to Martyrs Square for their own reasons. The Lebanese were joined through their differences and their hostility to Syria.

Indeed, once the Syrians left, the different groups began to fragment. By the time parliamentary elections were held, the Lebanese were again bitterly divided and the idealistic interpretations that had accompanied the anti-Syrian demonstrations had disappeared.

While the protesters today are not being manipulated by sectarian leaders, the fact that there is cross-sectarian disgust with the incompetence of the state is unlikely to change much. The protesters have limited means to implement their demands and replace sectarian politicians. They can continue demonstrating, but this is a tactic with diminishing returns. The longer they rally the more they will be contested.

Nor is Lebanese society in any mood to challenge sectarian leaders. It is easy to denounce the political class in general, but when it comes to specifics people respond differently. For instance, while many poor Sunnis are bitter with systematic government negligence, they regard the demonstrations against prime minister Tammam Salam as targeting the post of the Sunni prime minister.

The denunciation of sectarianism is a common theme adopted by Lebanese who have a more modern vision of what should constitute a national identity. However, sectarianism is deeply rooted in the culture, and has gained in legitimacy because it has spawned a paradoxical form of liberalism. Paradoxical, because sectarianism is thoroughly antithetical to liberal principles.

How has it done so? Lebanon’s sectarian groups are collectively more powerful than the state, so political and social life has been shaped by interaction between these groups and their leaders. Such interaction – usually defined by compromise and pluralism – has, however, created spaces where state control is minimal and in which the Lebanese can enjoy significant liberty.

This system, with all its faults, contrasts with the authoritarianism throughout the Arab world. The Lebanese denounce their politicians, but also retain the freedom to denounce them. The system has not worked well, but it creates a sense of identity and security. Writing it off is a fool’s venture, and those honest people who want profound change in Lebanon should bear it in mind.