Thursday, April 30, 2015

The beginning of the end in Syria

President Bashar Assad’s regime is beginning to crumble despite assistance from Iran and its allies. However, such a prospect did not prevent the recent liquidation of Rustom Ghazaleh, once the head of Syria’s military intelligence network in Lebanon.

The Syrian regime’s loss of Idlib and Busra al-Sham in recent weeks, followed by the defeat in the strategic town of Jisr al-Shughur last week, has exposed the gangrene at the heart of Assad rule. Something has been broken in the Alawite backbone of the state, with younger men in the community preferring to escape Syria rather than sacrifice themselves for a leader who cannot conceivably endure in the long term.

What are the Iranians thinking? They have made Assad’s political survival a strategic priority, but the incompetence and brutality of his regime – to which Iran has amply contributed – have ensured the task is unachievable. Even with Iranian and Russian help Assad is losing ground rapidly. Partly that’s because the life is gone from his armed forces, which have been successful only in their campaign to slaughter tens of thousands of civilians.

What the Iranian regime has failed to grasp is that violence and terrorization are rarely sufficient to keep a leader in office indefinitely. For the past four years Assad has deployed no other methods. He never offered those who fought on his behalf a vision of a desirable future that would make them pursue the fight. To stick with Assad offered no compensations, no light at the end of the tunnel. Only more depravity and abuse.

There are those who argue that the war in Syria will continue for some time yet. Assad is well-entrenched in Damascus and Iran will invest what it takes to ensure that he doesn’t fall. Perhaps. But then what? How will the Iranian security establishment reverse the tide? Assad is not salvageable. The cohesiveness of the regime is disintegrating amid myriad rifts. Even Hezbollah, whose men are dying to ensure that Assad stays, has nothing but contempt for the Syrian army. The corpse’s stench is growing and no amount of Iranian stubbornness will reverse this.

Ghazaleh’s fate is a reminder of affairs in Damascus. While many believed his death was a result of disagreements within the Syrian security establishment over Iran’s exaggerated role in Syria, the truth may be more prosaic. As the Special Tribunal for Lebanon refocuses on Syria’s role in the assassination of Lebanon’s former prime minister, Rafik Hariri, it may be that the regime feared that Ghazaleh might be called in as a witness. He was interviewed by United Nations investigators back in 2005, and as one of those present described Ghazaleh then, “He looked guilty as hell.”

Imagine if Ghazaleh had been summoned again. By refusing to comply the Syrian government would have been viewed as hiding something. Had he gone, there was a risk he would be detained, and given Ghazaleh’s anxieties that he could become the fall guy for Hariri’s murder, he might have spilled the beans. Better to get rid of that problem now to avoid headaches in the future.

The prosecutor of the special tribunal can alter his indictment at any stage, and one thing the harried Assad regime does not need today is to find itself accused by an international court of assassinating Hariri. Ironically, this may have more bearing on the regime than the carnage for which it has been responsible at home, because the trial, made possible thanks to a U.N. decision, can alter the behavior of states. Russia would be especially embarrassed by having to defend Assad and his acolytes against an institution that it was instrumental in creating.

Ghazaleh’s death helped propagate the image of a regime that is devouring its own. Most people assume Assad has become a puppet in the hands of Iran. In light of this what hope is there for the inheritors of Hafez Assad? Every rule the late Syrian leader imposed to preserve Alawite domination has been broken by his inept sons, assisted by the vast criminal enterprise of an inhumane intelligence apparatus.

Only fear of what might come after Assad has made countries reluctant to help accelerate the Syrian president’s exit. To quote the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, John Brennan, who was speaking last month to the Council on Foreign Relations, “The last thing we want to do is to allow [Islamic extremists] to march into Damascus.” That attitude has long prevailed in Washington, but only now are the Americans realizing that their hesitancy to see Assad pushed out in 2011 only created conditions that made a worse outcome probable.

That is worrisome, particularly for Syria’s minorities. As far back as 2011 Syria’s Christians were warned that wagering on Assad would only bring disaster. Even Lebanon’s Christians, represented by that great moral paragon, Maronite Patriarch Beshara al-Rai, endorsed Assad on his foreign visits. We now have someone else to thank, then, at a moment when the Christian presence in the Middle East is under existential threat.

Assad may hold out for a time. But he has nothing on which to rebuild his authority. His community is in disarray; his army and intelligence services are as well. Iran, Hezbollah and Russia are filling the void, but with increasingly limited effectiveness and no hope of amelioration. Bashar Assad’s regime is on life support. Someone needs to pull the plug, preferably Assad’s friends, while a negotiated transition in Syria is still vaguely possible.

On our own - Regional states could soon ignore America in Syria.

Recently former Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri was in Washington to meet with officials. While there he held a get-together with Arab journalists, in which he said there was a new Arab attitude to act against Iranian influence in the Middle East.

In Syria, Hariri reportedly said, the establishment of “safe zones,” or the provision of “air cover” to advancing rebels in the north and south of the country was “inevitable.” According to journalist Joyce Karam, who was in on the meeting: “For Hariri, however, such action in Syria could come regardless of Washington’s position or whether it strikes a nuclear deal with Iran or doesn’t by the end of June. The main Arab objective as Hariri spells it out, is ‘restoring Arab will after years of Iran trying to break it.’”

It was interesting that Hariri, even as he was meeting with the Americans, felt a need to implicitly criticize the United States. While this reflected a more assertive Arab attitude, it also revealed genuine anger with President Barack Obama’s unwillingness to seriously counter Iranian inroads into the Middle East.

However, the current situation is paradoxical. The United States, in order to disengage from the region, wants the Arab states to become more proactive and stop turning toward Washington at every crisis. At the same time, the Arab attitude risks endangering an Obama administration priority, namely the conclusion of a final nuclear deal with Iran that can lead to normalized relations.

That’s not to say that the Arab states can block a nuclear deal if the leaderships in Iran and the United States want one. But it is very much within their capacity to create situations in which the Obama administration will be forced to choose one side over the other, and there the American president’s principal concern will be to avoid alienating his regional allies. This could greatly limit his options.

Syria is a good example. If Saudi Arabia leads the Arab states in a campaign to oust President Bashar al-Assad--which would benefit from Turkish support, amid reports the two states are coordinating their actions--Washington would have to make a choice. Nothing suggests the Americans want Iran to dominate in Syria, quite the contrary, but Assad’s fall would represent a strategic defeat for Tehran. Any Iranian reaction may target Arab states. If Obama comes to their defense, this could jeopardize his opening to Iran.

Obama is learning the travails of suddenly downgrading one’s presence in a region where the United States was deeply involved until a few years ago. He never prepared the ground with his regional allies to ensure a smooth transition away from this.

The Saudi-Turkish partnership, despite the two countries’ profound differences over the Muslim Brotherhood, represents a significant new phase in the Syrian conflict. While it’s difficult to determine how responsible each is for the string of rebel victories in recent weeks, their shared interest in Syria appear to have ensured at least that the rebels are well resupplied.

Neither Riyadh nor Ankara wants openly to be seen as backing the Jaysh al-Fateh, or Army of Conquest, coalition that led the rebels’ takeover of Idlib and Jisr al-Shughur in April. The reason is that the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra plays a dominant role in the coalition. Indeed, the information that has emerged speaks only of Saudi-Turkish coordination to back non-jihadist groups.

Yet despite this, it is probable that the Turks are behaving with intentional ambiguity toward Jabhat al-Nusra. The group’s foreign recruits have been allowed to pass through Turkey (as have ISIS recruits), and there have been numerous reports of militants traveling to Turkey for rest and medical treatment. More difficult to gauge is whether Turkey has given such groups intelligence and weapons to help them in their battles against the Syrian regime.

A key issue that the Saudis and Turks will seek to determine is who ultimately takes Damascus. Both countries know that Washington does not want jihadists to capture the Syrian capital--nor indeed do the Saudis and the Turks themselves. That is why there has been a heating up of the southern front this week, as rebels strive to overrun key regime positions on the approaches to Damascus.

The southern rebels are considered more moderate than those around Idlib. And they too have made advances in recent weeks, capturing Bosra al-Sham and the last regime-controlled border crossing with Jordan in April. What we are witnessing is a race between different anti-Assad groups to decisively defeat the regime, and in that way determine what a postwar Syria looks like.

A story Tuesday in Alaraby Aljadeed cast a light on possible Arab military aid. A Free Syrian Army source was quoted as saying, “Rebel factions in the [south of Syria] are preparing for large-scale military operations and have received promises of Arab air cover, or at least the provision of anti-aircraft missiles.”

You have to wonder how the Obama administration will react to all this. Will it urge caution, as it has done in Yemen? Or, on the contrary, would it regard an Iranian setback in Syria as a golden opportunity to deal with a more vulnerable, more malleable, Islamic Republic? That’s not at all clear, particularly when the American focus remains on defeating groups such as ISIS and Al-Qaeda affiliates in Yemen, Iraq and Syria.

Obama’s strategy toward the Middle East has, at the very least, generated great unpredictability, which Washington may regret before long. Sometimes you have to be careful what you wish for.  

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

US may regret turning its back on the region

There has been much debate over the USA’s pivot away from the Middle East and toward East Asia. Defenders of president Barack Obama have backed this realignment as necessary. Critics have said Washington’s new priority is unwarranted when the Arab world is in such turmoil.

Neither view is complete. Mr Obama’s focus on Asia is certainly defensible in a global environment defined by the rise of China and the eastward shift of economic power. As for disorder in the Middle East, that is exactly why the Obama administration has moved away. Managing events here has sapped American energies and finances, for little gain.

However, justifiable criticism can be directed at Mr Obama’s methods. When he took office, the US president outlined a change of direction away from a region that, for decades, had become heavily dependent upon Washington. He didn’t realise, or care to realise, that this would create a vacuum and instability that have, in fact, hampered his prioritisation of Asia.

Often the trickiest phases in diplomacy are navigating major transitions. Mr Obama is discovering that now, as he continues the nuclear negotiations with Iran. Radical foreign policy swings affect vested interests, impose new behaviour on bureaucracies, alter the time that presidents devote to particular regions and mean that budgets have to be redirected.

That is why transitions have to be conducted carefully, not only to ensure that they are successful, but to avoid leaving allies in the lurch. In that sense Mr Obama’s pivot to Asia is a textbook case of how not to effect a strategic transition.

For 70 years, the Middle East had been at the centre of American preoccupations. Four presidential doctrines were directly or indirectly aimed at enhancing regional security. Post-war ties with Saudi Arabia, America’s first strategic relationship with an Arab state, were built on a foundation of American protection in exchange for the kingdom maintaining stability in oil markets. To suddenly indicate that the region has lost importance was bound to wreak havoc.

Mr Obama’s main problem is that he has done two things simultaneously that have generated panic. He has disengaged from the region and at the same time sought normalisation of relations with Iran through a nuclear accord. This will bolster Iran’s means to pursue its regional ambitions at a time when Washington’s allies feel they’re on their own.

Mr Obama’s error was that he showed no patience for the diplomacy that should have surrounded his east Asia pivot. He had no appreciation of how a dependent Middle East might respond to a shift in policy that the US never bothered to coordinate with its allies. And if this dependency on the US was unhealthy, the Americans were greatly to blame.

Rather than effect a smooth transition, in which Mr Obama made his intentions clear, then worked with regional allies to create structures to fill the void, the president did nothing. He has visited the region relatively few times and devotes scant attention to its problems. He has carried the foreign policy bureaucracy with him.

The paradox is that when directing its attentions away from a region, an administration often has to spend more time on it in an interim period. Europe was a focal point of American efforts during the Cold War. Yet when the rivalry with the Soviet Union ended, the US remained concerned with Europe, leading to its involvement in the Balkans. A policy of cold turkey, as adopted by Mr Obama, is irresponsible.

Mr Obama may be seeking to create a new balance of power in the Middle East to lessen the burden on the US. However, to regional partners this smacks of abandonment. America’s Gulf allies, not to mention Israel, have regarded American normalisation with Iran as a betrayal.

An opening to Iran might have many benefits. But Mr Obama has never quite explained what he intends. In response to this ambiguity, America’s Arab allies have adopted policies to combat Iran’s influence in Syria, Yemen and Iraq. This has led to a number of crises that paradoxically make it more difficult for Washington to redirect itself away from the region.

Indeed, the Syrian uprising, which became a regional proxy war that Mr Obama neglected, created an environment that permitted the rise of ISIL and drew America back into the region militarily. Similarly, the war in Yemen, while it may illustrate a new initiative on the part of many Arab states, has led to a situation that has allowed Al Qaeda to expand its area of control.

In speaking to backers of the Obama approach, one is often surprised to hear a narrow defence of the president’s attitude. Their argument that America no longer has the financial means and is no longer reliant upon the region’s oil seems justification enough for Washington’s detachment.

But it’s not enough. Inaction has consequences. Mr Obama, by avoiding a managed transition, failed to prepare for the ensuing void, heightening regional volatility and America’s policy confusion. This will haunt the US for years to come.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Not coming home - How Lebanon is affected by sectarian cleansing in Syria

You have to hand it to the Aounists. They have a gift for speaking out most forcefully against developments for which they or their allies are responsible.

This week, Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil said the following at an Education Ministryconference: “There is a genuine scheme to keep the Syrians in Lebanon, and this must be confronted so they should not be turned into permanent refugees.”

Bassil is correct. Syrians must not be resettled in Lebanon. But who is behind this “scheme”? The same people who turned the Syrians into refugees in the first place, and who do not want a mainly Sunni population to return to areas in Syria from which they were chased out. It doesn’t take a prodigy to grasp that this can only be the Assad regime, with Hezbollah collaborating.

Were they Bassil’s targets? More likely he was simply highlighting a demographic reality that threatens to engulf Lebanon’s Christians, but did not want to embarrass Hezbollah and Assad. So he adopted typical Lebanese obliqueness, hinting that what was taking place was a conspiracy.

However, the minister was making a valid point, one that has been shamelessly overlooked internationally (despite efforts by activists to highlight the reality of sectarian cleansing). In its policy of guaranteeing territorial continuity between Damascus and Alawite areas on the coast, the Syrian regime and Iran have sought to alter demographic realities, particularly in the district of Homs, the pivot linking the capital and coastal Syria.

According to figures provided by the United Nations’ High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the majority of Syrian refugees in Lebanon come from adjoining regions in Syria, among them Homs and Qalamoun. Both have strategic importance for Bashar al-Assad’s political survival. If the connection with the Alawite-dominated coast were cut, and with it the means to resupply his army in Damascus with weapons and manpower, the Syrian president would be obliged to abandon the capital and his regime would effectively collapse.

In 2013, Walid Jumblatt had already warned of an effort to alter demographic realities in Homs, warning that real estate records in the city were being destroyed. “The destruction of real-estate records in the city and their replacement with others of different sects is an attempt to alter the political and sectarian identity of the regions stretching from Damascus to the Syrian coast,” Jumblatt had written in an editorial in the weekly Al-Anbaa.

Sources at the UN later confirmed this information to me. Jumblatt cited such sectarian cleansing to condemn the reaction, or non-reaction, of the international community.

When one recalls what happened in Kosovo, this denunciation of double standards is justified. At the height of the conflict in 1998-1999, there were reports that the Serbs had begun to engage in identity cleansing, confiscating passports, land titles and other documents, in order to make it much more difficult for fleeing Kosovars to ever come back.

The reaction in the West was outrage. As this came not long after the ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, preventing such behavior was regarded as a test. Ultimately, Western powers prevailed and moral support for the war was determined by a refusal to see another example of Serbian-provoked ethnic cleansing.

The Syrians haven’t been so lucky. Few in the international community have highlighted sectarian cleansing in Syria, let alone identified it as a clearly-planned, systematic objective of the Syrian regime, backed by Iran and abetted by Assad’s other ally, Russia. It is as if the experiences of the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, and Iraq, to name only them—all characterized by violent efforts to alter demographics—have been forgotten.

Bassil would be making a tragic mistake by taking up the issue of Syrian refugees merely to curry favor among his Christian political base. The fate of the refugees is an existential matter for Lebanon and must be addressed away from populist politics.

The foreign minister is in a position to help shape a consensus around the refugee question. He can speak to Hezbollah, whose Shiite community would lose greatly from the permanent settlement of well over a million Sunni refugees. Hezbollah, in turn, has access to Iran and the Assad regime. This, ultimately, might help ensure the return of the refugees to Syria one day.

At the same time, because Syria is in the midst of conflict, such efforts will fail today. For military reasons neither Assad nor Iran will accept returning a Sunni population that might act as a friendly environment for anti-Assad rebels. Indeed, when 1,500 refugees sought to return to Syria last year after the fighting in Arsal, they were refused entry by the Syrian authorities.

What this means in the future is fairly stark. For the refugees to return home, either Assad must win the war in Syria outright or he must lose. If he wins—which is highly unlikely—expect repatriation to take a long time, as the Syrian regime will want to consolidate itself before taking back a large Sunni population.

If Assad loses, the refugees are more liable to return. However, with Syria’s infrastructure devastated, the pace may, similarly, be slow, even if years of living in abysmal conditions in Lebanon will encourage many to go home nonetheless. Moreover, the need to rebuild Syria will mean job opportunities, assuming there is capital to finance such a monumental project.

Lebanese officials have a duty to raise the refugee issue worldwide, particularly the long-term consequences of permanent resettlement. Yet it serves no purpose talking about ill-defined plots and schemes. Stoking paranoia is not sound policy. Bassil and the Lebanese government must coolly examine ways to reduce pressures on the country.  

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Border wars will determine Assad’s fate

In recent months there has been much talk of a Hezbollah offensive in the Qalamoun district of Syria. The expectation was that it would take place some time in spring. However, there have been so signs of when, or if, this will actually happen.

Last February Iran organized a pair of offensives in Syria – one in the north around Aleppo, the other in the south. This signaled a strategy of neutralizing Syria’s border areas and cutting off rebel supply lines from Turkey and Jordan. A Qalamoun operation was viewed as applying the same logic.

The problem is that Iran’s plans went haywire. In the north the hostilities west of Aleppo turned to the Iranians’ disadvantage, with heavy losses among those fighting on behalf of the Assad regime, particularly Afghan Shiites. Within a matter of weeks Bashar Assad’s enemies had counterattacked and captured Idlib, a significant reversal for the Syrian regime and Tehran.

In the south a similar pattern soon developed. An Iranian-led offensive also stalled. This was followed in subsequent weeks by the regime’s loss of Busra al-Sham, and after that the last regime-controlled border crossing with Jordan at Nassib.

In light of this, one wonders if Hezbollah’s calculations have not changed. While the failures in Syria’s north and south make urgent a successful campaign against the rebels, they also make it necessary for Hezbollah to avoid any setbacks. For Iran an indecisive campaign in Qalamoun, after the other recent losses, would be disastrous. It would create an impression that Iran and Hezbollah can be beaten, at a time when the Syrian regime is vulnerable and cannot readily mobilize military manpower.

This would be a valuable victory for Turkey and Jordan. By helping undermine Iran, Assad and their allies along the border, both have protected their stakes in Syria. They are unwilling to allow an expansion of Iranian influence up to their borders with Syria – an attitude shared by Israel, which has imposed a red line against Hezbollah and Iran operating on the Golan Heights.

However, Lebanon is a different matter. In recent months Hezbollah has carefully laid the groundwork for an attack in Qalamoun by pushing the Lebanese Army into a border interdiction effort. The Army, under the heading of “fighting terrorism,” has obliged, with the help of Western countries that have sent arms and participated in surveillance operations. That jihadi groups inside Qalamoun still hold Lebanese soldiers and policemen hostage has facilitated Hezbollah’s task of portraying the battles there as an effort to combat extremist groups.

Yet there appear to be limits to what the Army is prepared to do. The Syrians and Hezbollah have pushed for tighter coordination but the military command is not eager to be drawn into the Syrian conflict, and does want to be perceived as taking part in the Qalamoun campaign. It will try to limit its role to defensive duties: seizing the high ground, blocking access across the border and maintaining security among Syrian refugees, many of whom are related to the Qalamoun combatants.

Hezbollah and Iran, not to mention the Syrian armed forces, have their work cut out for them in Qalamoun. The area is large and very difficult to control. There is also much corruption among the Syrian forces. The possibility that rebel groups and their jihadi allies will be able to send reinforcements through Syrian lines cannot be ruled out.

Hezbollah is reportedly optimistic about its chances of defeating the rebels. Qalamoun is vital as it straddles communication lines between Damascus and the Syrian coast, and if the Assad regime is to reinforce itself that passage must be secured. But we’ve often heard party officials sound upbeat about the direction of the Syrian conflict, only to be blindsided by reality.

Worse, Hezbollah must know better than most the profound degradation of the Syrian Army and security forces, with which relations are particularly tense. There can be no illusions within the party about the ease of military action in Qalamoun.

Control of Syria’s borders is essential to preserving Bashar Assad’s regime. Until now that struggle is being lost by the regime and Iran. Only the Lebanese border provides some hope for them. And even then the rebels in Qalamoun are relatively isolated and surrounded, unlike those in the south and north, who have the space to expand their territorial control.

What happens in Qalamoun, or fails to happen, will give us an insight into what lies ahead in Syria. But one thing is evident: Assad’s future will be determined by developments along Syria’s frontiers. The regime has been unable to reverse the tide of losses along its boundaries. Iran is discovering that its regional foes can bleed it with a thousand pin pricks. It wants to be sure that a Qalamoun offensive will not add to the flow.


In my column of last week I mistakenly wrote that Al-Jadeed had revealed the personal details of witnesses in the trial before the Special Tribunal for Lebanon. Only Al-Akhbar did so. While one may question Al-Jadeed’s motives in highlighting the leaks surrounding the trial, my statement was incorrect.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Will Saudi aid force a rethink from Hizbollah?

The Lebanese army has received a long-awaited shipment of weapons from France, paid for through a $3 billion (Dh11bn) gift from Saudi Arabia. This highlighted the changing role of the military in a country where the dominant political force is Hizbollah with its own militia that is separate from the state.

The Saudi aid, while benefiting the army, was in effect a reward to France for its tough position on nuclear talks with Iran. But it was also an effort to build up a counterweight to Hizbollah at a time that the pro-Iranian party is caught in a grinding war in Syria on behalf of Iran and president Bashar Al Assad’s regime.

Oddly, the army has benefited from Hizbollah’s campaign. It is now deployed in areas where this was virtually inconceivable a few years ago. Widely perceived as the only institution that can maintain national stability, the army has gained by including all religious communities, which are united in working for a common purpose.

The army’s credibility took a beating during the years of the Syrian military presence, and afterwards, when Hizbollah’s refusal to surrender its weapons reflected badly on the state.

After the Lebanese conflict ended in 1990, the Syrians rebuilt the army, but also ensured it would be pro-Syrian. Having taken control of the personnel files of the military, the Syrians promoted friendly officers and marginalised opponents. They also trained officers in Syria. Meanwhile, Hizbollah was maintained as an autonomous armed force to combat Israel, creating a duality between the army and “resistance” that has plagued Lebanon.

Since then Hizbollah has opposed calls to integrate into the army, portraying itself as a more effective defender of Lebanon against Israel. In a speech in 2012, its secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah, barely concealed his contempt for the idea of integrating with the army. He argued that the army, as an organised institution, was unable to hide its weapons in case of war, whereas Hizbollah could.

“Therefore, those who ask for the handover of Hizbollah’s weapons to the army want the Resistance and the army to be destroyed,” Mr Nasrallah said.

Similarly, when the army surrounded the Nahr Al Bared Palestinian refugee camp in 2007, following the killing of 27 soldiers by jihadists, Mr Nasrallah warned it against entering the camp. This was widely criticised and, thankfully, ignored by the military command.

For a long time, the army was viewed as being under the thumb of Hizbollah, which had gained political power in the years after the Syrian withdrawal. The party and its allies retain influence over the military intelligence services and the office responsible for the promotion and posting of officers.

That situation has not greatly changed, but what has is the context. As Hizbollah has embroiled itself in the Syrian quagmire, it can no longer depict itself as a defender of the nation. Given the sectarian polarisation in Lebanon, Hizbollah has alienated Lebanon’s Sunnis. Moreover, as the war in Syria draws in Hizbollah fighters, the party knows it needs the army to maintain domestic peace and address security threats at home.

That is why Hizbollah has had to make concessions to the army. When car bomb attacks targeted Beirut’s Hizbollah-controlled southern suburbs in 2013, the party set up roadblocks at every entrance. This provoked displeasure from businesses, which Hizbollah absorbed by handing the posts over to the army.

For years, Hizbollah’s foes demanded that the army be deployed along the frontier with Syria, which the party refused. Yet as tensions escalated in Syria’s Qalamoun district, along Lebanon’s eastern border, and Hizbollah moved forces there, the army’s presence became necessary to interdict resupply efforts in Lebanon by Syrian rebels and help protect villages.

Today, the army has reinforced its positions along the border, while the United Kingdom has helped it to build a string of defensive towers. At the same time, according to journalist Nicholas Blanford, the army has allowed US special forces to operate drones above the area to feed it information about jihadist groups. As the northern Beqaa Valley is a Hizbollah stronghold, the party cannot welcome these intrusions.

Not much will change in the short term between Hizbollah and the army. A confrontation is improbable. But with Lebanon so divided over the war in Syria, most Lebanese believe the army alone is capable of containing domestic unrest. This comes as Hizbollah’s fealty to Iran is bitterly contested, which means the party can no longer defend its weapons as a national need.

Will Hizbollah willingly dissolve itself as a militia? Definitely not, but with the presence of an increasingly credible Lebanese army backed by a popular consensus, the party will find it more and more difficult to justify an independent militia that refuses to recognise the ultimate authority of the state.

Friday, April 17, 2015

All in the family - Michel Aoun between the presidency and the great beyond

Michel Aoun has threatened to leave the cabinet if the terms of Lebanon’s military and security chiefs are extended. The general is apparently angry that there is a political consensus to extend the mandates in order to maintain stability at a time when the country faces multiple challenges.

The contradictions inherent in Aoun’s position are many. For starters, Aoun himself has contributed to the political deadlock that has delayed the appointment of new security officials. By refusing to allow his bloc to attend presidential election sessions in parliament, the general has helped freeze the system, doing precisely what Hezbollah wants him to do: create the conditions to bring in a president of whom the party approves.

But there is something else taking place below the surface that tells us something about the atmosphere around Aoun. When the general indicates that he wants new military and security appointments, a major issue on his mind is who will replace Jean Qahwaji as commander of the armed forces. Aoun’s candidate is his son-in-law Chamel Roukoz, who leads the army’s commando regiment, the Maghaweer.

For a man who derided the nepotistic ways of the political leadership in Lebanon, Aoun is turning into the platonic form of nepotism. He has tirelessly promoted another son-in-law, Gebran Bassil, handing him the most lucrative ministries. One suspects there are those in the family who now want to spread the benefits more evenly. This is all the truer as Roukoz is seen as a competent officer. But there is more to it than that.

One discerns an emerging struggle over who might succeed Aoun as head of the Free Patriotic Movement. While Bassil has his allies in the movement, a number of senior Aounist figures cannot stomach him, and would have no intention of accepting his takeover of the movement. Their principal option, then, is to put their weight behind someone like Roukoz, whose position and reputation make him a natural counterweight to Bassil.

Indeed, there have been recent reports that Aounist parliamentarians known for their hostility to Bassil have traveled to Washington to push for Roukoz’s appointment.

What is Aoun’s position on all this? The general is in something of a quandary. On the one hand, he still insists on becoming president, meaning he is in no mood to prepare for his succession. On the other, the man is 80 and reportedly not in the best of health. In other words, he has to consider what happens to his political movement the day after he’s gone.

In that sense, Aoun’s promotion of Roukoz, aside perhaps from addressing a family issue, may be his way of showing that he has no preferences when it comes to his succession. Or better still, Aoun—no fool when it comes to self-interest—could be well aware of the resentment against Bassil and sees a need to provide his followers with an alternative who is more consensual.

Whatever the rationale, it appears that the issue of military and security appointments also touches on the internal dynamics of the Aounist movement, and is therefore important to Aoun. Yet his latitude in taking out his frustrations by withdrawing from the government is limited as it hits up against Hezbollah’s red lines. The party, caught in a complicated, grinding campaign in Syria, does not want to simultaneously face a domestic political crisis.

Aoun, sensing Hezbollah’s vulnerabilities, may choose to act nonetheless. But one thing is apparent: if Aoun becomes president, the likelihood that he will be able to bring Roukoz in as armed forces commander will be diminished. In other words, having granted Aoun his wish to become head of state, the political class, including Hezbollah, will forcefully resist giving him influence over the Lebanese military as well.      

This raises another interesting question. If we reverse that equation, so that Roukoz’s appointment lessens Aoun’s chances of becoming president, how serious is Aoun about his son-in-law? And if he is serious, then what does it tell us about Aoun’s frame of mind? Would he be willing to give up his presidential ambitions for something in exchange? Some Aounists are already talking about a Roukoz-for-Aoun deal.

Yet it’s difficult to imagine Aoun being so selfless. Rather, if one had to guess, Aoun is putting all his demands on the table now in the hope of not ending up empty-handed. The general has often found himself abandoned by the political wayside, with nothing, when his maneuvering promised better outcomes.

At the heart of Aoun’s considerations is the relationship with Hezbollah. The party says it backs him for the presidency, but you wonder if that is just empty talk to keep the general quiet. Aoun must sense this, hence his threat to leave the government. But Aoun also knows he has to resolve a parallel issue; namely, what happens to his movement after he’s dead.

That is what is most difficult for Aoun to accept. If he has to plan for his succession now, it doesn’t make sense for him to focus on the presidency. The latter is geared toward the future, the former toward the past. Aoun is caught in the middle—on the one side his family and legacy; on the other his selfishness.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

A tribunal on the road to Damascus?

The remarks Tuesday by Hezbollah parliamentarian Hasan Fadlallah, deriding the Special Tribunal for Lebanon “as a scandalous breach of Lebanese sovereignty,” were better suited for a stand-up comedy routine. Hezbollah is a party that Iran created as an instrument to advance its agenda in the region and therefore, almost by definition, undermine state sovereignty.

Fadlallah was expressing his support for Al-Jadeed editor Karma Khayat, who Thursday starts facing a trial for obstruction of justice and contempt of court. In a 2012 report, Al-Jadeed unlawfully disclosed the personal details of the witnesses in the trial of the Hezbollah members accused of having participated in the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. This information, of course, should have remained confidential.

In moments such as these, I think of the Al-Akhbar journalist Omar Nashabe, long a critic of the special tribunal. His views only echoed an attitude prevalent at Al-Akhbar, which Nashabe himself helped shape. Nashabe was especially disapproving of the United Nations’ independent investigative commission’s work early on, believing its first commissioner, Detlev Mehlis, had failed to take measures to establish a credible witness protection program.

Today, Nashabe is counsel in the Special Tribunal’s defense office. Yet the court for which he works is about to put on trial a journalist and media outlet for endangering witnesses – pretty much what Nashabe accused Mehlis of doing a decade ago. If one agreed with Nashabe’s views then, it is only natural to apply the same logic today and approve of Al-Jadeed’s being censured, not to mention Al-Akhbar, which also illegally published a list of witnesses.

For the media foot soldiers enrolled in the battle against the tribunal, the latest developments arouse unease. The shoddy work of Mehlis’ successors, Serge Brammertz and Daniel Bellemare, was apparently not enough to neutralize the court, with the current prosecutor, Normal Farrell, going in investigative directions recalling those pursued by Mehlis. For the German former prosecutor, there was never much doubt that the Syrian regime was behind Hariri’s murder, and the witness statements Mehlis took down in 2005 supported this view. Yet public attention was drawn to the “false witnesses” dispatched to mar the U.N. investigation. However, Mehlis always insisted he had based his findings on much more than the testimony of these witnesses.

It’s strange how nobody ever asked what had happened to the testimony gathered by Mehlis, as Brammertz wasted time for two years without bothering to seriously expand his investigation to Syria. Mehlis interviewed Syria intelligence officers and sought to take down Bashar Assad’s witness statement, which the Syrians refused. The Security Council issued Resolution 1636, backing Mehlis in his efforts to conduct his investigation as he saw fit. Yet when Brammertz met with Assad in 2006, he failed to record a formal statement, though he had a mandate to do so.

Brammertz’s integrity was also seriously questioned by a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation documentary in 2010, which accused him of having mismanaged telecommunications analyses, leaving that burden to Lebanese investigators Wissam Eid and Samir Shehadeh. Both made headway and, as a consequence, became the targets of assassination – in the case of Eid a successful one. My own information about Brammertz’s conduct on this front is even more damning of the commissioner’s performance.

Bellemare’s failings were partly explained by the fact that he followed in Brammertz’s footsteps, therefore starting with a substantially empty investigation file. But the Canadian judge did not remedy the situation. Ultimately, he built his indictment around the telecoms analyses that Brammertz had neglected until his last weeks in office. This created a remarkable disconnect.

Bellemare’s indictment, focused as it was on technicalities, offered no motive for Hariri’s assassination. This was an egregious error, one that Farrell, a serious prosecutor, is apparently seeking to address. To most observers Hariri was killed because he intended to challenge Syria and its allies in the parliamentary elections of 2005, and likely would have won a majority with his partners. That is why Farrell has taken the trial in Syria’s direction, bringing to the witness stand individuals who could help consolidate a case for Syrian involvement in the Hariri assassination. Walid Jumblatt’s appearance next month before the tribunal, after that of Hariri acolytes in recent weeks, bolsters such an interpretation.

Hezbollah is unhappy, but should it be? If the trial redirects toward Syrian involvement, the party could argue that it is innocent. While those indicted are party members, Hezbollah could cast doubt on their actions having been the consequence of a party decision. Even if it is unconvincing, this could reduce the heat domestically.

The Syrian regime, in turn, may be taking precautions of its own. Many believe the beating of Rustom Ghazaleh several weeks ago by the men of another intelligence chief may have been linked to the tribunal. Ghazaleh was apparently seriously injured, with unidentified sources telling Al-Hayat that he was “clinically dead.”

Jameh Jameh, Ghazaleh’s deputy for Beirut when he was military intelligence chief in Lebanon, was killed in Deir al-Zor in 2013, reportedly by a sniper. Assef Shawkat, Assad’s late brother-in-law and the overall Syrian military intelligence chief when Hariri was assassinated, was killed in a bomb blast at a meeting of senior Syrian security figures in July 2012.

While it may be impossible to determine if these deaths were related to the Hariri affair, in practical terms they may have severed ties between the Syrian regime and the assassination, because military intelligence was at the heart of Syria’s Lebanon policy. With the Assad regime worried that the prosecution could expand its indictments and call Syrian officials to testify, wiping the slate clean may be advisable. In the months ahead we will see what Farrell does. But for now Khayat’s trial shows that the special tribunal is gaining in confidence and perhaps moving forward.


In my column of last week I mistakenly wrote that Al-Jadeed had revealed the personal details of witnesses in the trial before the Special Tribunal for Lebanon. Only Al-Akhbar did so. While one may question Al-Jadeed’s motives in highlighting the leaks surrounding the trial, my statement was incorrect.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

The war goes on for families of the disappeared

Monday marked the 40th anniversary of the start of the Lebanese civil war. One of the more tragic legacies of that conflict is the fate of the thousands of people who disappeared, their families still caught in a limbo of uncertainty.

This has personal relevance for me because a friend of mine, along with his sister and uncle, was kidnapped in 1985. For years, my friend’s mother continued to believe they were alive, even if this became increasingly more difficult to accept with time. Her waiting ended in May 2009, when, after leaving a gathering of the families of the disappeared, she was hit by a car and killed.

The number of disappeared is a matter of disagreement. While the official figure is 17,000, the Committee of the Families of the Kidnapped and Disappeared in Lebanon has information on about 2,500 people. Someone who advised the committee once told me he estimated the number at 5,000-7,000 people.

The greatest difficulty faced by the families is that discovering what happened to the disappeared was simply not regarded as a priority in postwar Lebanon; reconciliation was, especially within the political class. This included warlords whose men were involved in a majority of abductions.

This approach was upheld by Syria, which dominated Lebanon and relied on the politicians to manage the postwar order. Reflecting this attitude, in August 1991, Lebanon’s government passed a general amnesty law covering most wartime crimes.

A second difficulty was that there remained inherent ambiguity in what had happened to the disappeared. Many vanished in chaotic conditions, at the hands of militiamen only loosely controlled by their leaders. Others disappeared during the Israeli takeover of Beirut in September 1982, when Israel and its Lebanese allies arrested perhaps as many as 1,000 people.

A third difficulty was that the mood at the end of the long Lebanese war was to turn a page and look towards the future. The principal promoter of Lebanon’s revival was the prime minister at the time, Rafiq Hariri, whose focus was on rebuilding Lebanon, not dwelling on the past. The absence of clear-cut solutions to the problem of the disappeared only made Mr Hariri more reluctant to address it squarely.

To the families of the disappeared, this meant delays in finding solutions to the legal problems created by the disappearances. Because the disappeared were not officially dead, families were frequently unable to dispose of their belongings. This could have serious implications for families in dire need of money.

Most repulsive of all was the way the families of the disappeared were exploited by charlatans to extract money. The mother of my friend was contacted time and again with news that her children were alive and given bogus information in exchange for a fee.

In his 1998 film Kidnapped, the Lebanese documentary film director Bahije Hojeij interviewed the father of Andre Cheaib, a senior official at Lebanon’s central bank who had been abducted. The father, who was by then an old man and exhausted by years of trying to elucidate the fate of his son, explained he had sold virtually everything he owned for information.

The scene highlighted the double tragedy of families. Mr Cheaib knew that he was being swindled, but simply could not resist paying those promising him news on the off-chance that it might be true. It was a terrible predicament, one that also illustrated the depths of human depravity.

On this anniversary of Lebanon’s war, it is the families of the disappeared alone who have been denied the means to look back and reflect. To them, the war remains an open wound. Even if very few still believe their loved ones are alive, the burden of not knowing what happened remains insurmountable.

In this regard, the state has done far too little to help the families. This is partly because it is very delicate for the government to declare everyone dead. There are families that to this day refuse to admit such a thing without evidence. But it is also partly because a declaration of death might deny the disappeared their civil rights if by some remarkable providence they are still alive and return.

What the state can do, however, is to officially honour the memory of the disappeared. A memorial may not bring them back, but at least it would indicate that the authorities feel it necessary to acknowledge them. If the government could swiftly pass a general amnesty in 1991, it can also show due consideration to the victims of those it whitewashed.

A museum of wartime memory is to be opened in a landmark building on the old “green line” separating eastern and western Beirut during the war. The initiative is commendable, though how the past will be dealt with remains to be seen. But one thing is worth considering. The families of the disappeared must provide input. If there is one group that can speak best to the ravages of memory it is them.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Lebanon’s Civil War, 40 years on

In a book on life in Syrian prisons, where he spent 16 years, the Syrian intellectual Yassin al-Haj Saleh wrote that it was not rare to feel nostalgia for one’s years of incarceration.

Without minimizing the brutalities and humiliations of prison life, Haj Saleh explained that the reason for this nostalgia was that “he who endures this sacrificial rite accedes to something extremely precious, which rarely appears twice in one’s existence: a new departure, a resurrection, a second birth, a mandate to reinitiate life.” To him, the prison experience gave structure to his existence at a time of confusion and despair.

In many respects the war in Lebanon, which began 40 years ago next week, on April 13, provokes many of the same paradoxical reactions. To an unknowing observer, the sheer horror of the 15-year conflict that destroyed and transformed the country cannot in any way invite nostalgia. And yet for many of those who lived through the war’s permutations, it also provided an enthralling occasion to be reborn, to seek new departures and it provided a structure and meaning to the lives of those who survived.

There has been a cliché circulating since the war ended in 1990 that the Lebanese have developed amnesia toward it. However, put together any group of Lebanese over the age of 30, mention the war, and you will see that the reality is precisely the contrary. Indeed, a factor that has calmed political ardors in the past decade is the recollection, and fear, of what war brought us.

Lebanon’s conflict pales in comparison with the unadulterated savagery of the one in Syria – and that’s saying something because what took place in Lebanon was once regarded as a benchmark for the potential barbarism of sectarian hatred and state decomposition. The word “Lebanonization” is still used these days, but it is almost beginning to sound quaint in light of the merciless slaughter in other parts of the Middle East.

What does one remember in a war like Lebanon’s? The friends lost, certainly. The ultimate foolishness of partisanship and unbending political conviction as alliances and beliefs were altered in light of changing circumstances. The terrible price a country can pay for losing a generation or more to emigration. But also the enjoyment felt when the nightmare was over, when streets were no longer borders and when one finally woke up to grasp, and abandon, the countless lies sustaining the war. Often, after killing there is tolerance, and management of such tolerance is one of the most difficult of postwar legacies to negotiate.

This anniversary gains in meaning from the fact that the roles have been reversed since 1975. Whereas then Lebanon was a rare country at war in a region characterized by cataleptic stability, today it seems to be a country that, for all its trials and the proximity of chaos, yet has avoided the worst. Let’s hope this lasts amid the maneuvers of those who refuse to isolate Lebanon from the region’s enmities, thereby threatening the country.

Nor does the Christian-Muslim divide have the meaning it once did. Lebanon’s Christians at present are a minority in a country defined largely by Sunni-Shiite relations, at a time when Christians in the region face existential challenges. Wars throughout the region, beginning in Lebanon, started the process of Christian flight. In a matter of decades, two of the Arab world’s ancient communities, the Jews and Christians of myriad denominations, became increasingly less a part of the Arab landscape. What was once an area of religious and ethnic diversity is drifting into drab, necrotic sectarian uniformity as animosities gain ground and homogeneous territories follow.

In that sense Lebanon, 40 years after the start of its war, has something to offer. The country may be riven by mutual antipathies, and no one should have too many illusions about the Lebanese being intense missionaries of coexistence. But the reflexes of coexistence are a different matter. The Lebanese are well-versed in the language and games of compromise. Ours can often be a violent country, but years of war only brought home to those who lived through the conflict the merits of having a social contract like the often-maligned National Pact.

For all its rigidities and shortcomings, the National Pact outlined a system based on the principle of compromise, even as it recognized and adapted to Lebanon’s sectarian and confessional differences. Rather than artificially camouflage this under a tarpaulin of bogus Arab nationalism, the Lebanese sought to address their pluralism and manage it through a commonly agreed arrangement. This could not prevent the war in 1975, but perhaps it was responsible for ensuring that it did not break Lebanon up irrevocably, despite the attractions of partition among some of the wartime political leaders.

The same cannot be said of Syria or Iraq, both of which are being undone, quite literally, by the centrifugal forces that have been released in their societies. It seems difficult to imagine that Syria will ever be one again, while Iraq will at best survive in the context a political system that ensures a very loose confederation. The greater the nationalist myths, evidently, the harder the fall.

Lebanon is not out of the woods, and war not out of our thoughts and anxieties. But I recall some Syrians quoted in newspapers following the imposed departure of their army from Lebanon in April 2005: “The Lebanese will soon eat each other,” was a notable comment. It was a shameful, bitter thing to say, and without an ounce of schadenfreude one can reply that it’s always better not to tempt fate. We began learning that lesson four decades ago, and it’s a pity that much of the Arab world, depraved and degraded, is only starting to learn it today.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Guns over butter - America’s priority in Lebanon is security cooperation

It is interesting that when he visited Beirut this week, the US deputy secretary of state, Antony Blinken, condemned only Hezbollah’s actions in Syria. He said nothing about the party’s actions in Lebanon. In a year marking the 10th anniversary of Rafiq Hariri’s assassination—for which party members have been indicted by a mixed Lebanese-international tribunal—one would have expected to hear something more forceful.

Blinken also appeared to step back from remarks by Secretary of State John Kerry a few weeks ago, in which he said that the United States would be willing to talk to President Bashar al-Assad to find a solution to the conflict in Syria. That remark provoked an angry backlash among Washington’s allies, notably France, and was steadily emptied of its meaning by the Obama administration in the weeks after Kerry’s comment.

Blinken emphasized that the United States was committed to a transition in Syria that excluded Assad. “The United States is committed to helping bring about a political transition in Syria that leads to an inclusive government and a future of freedom, dignity and security for the Syrian people,” Blinken said. “Dignity cannot be brought if the current dictator—a man who has gassed and barrel bombed the people of Syria—remains.”

It’s refreshing to hear an American official mention Assad’s crimes now and then, particularly after Kerry’s remarks and those of John Brennan, the CIA director. Brennan recently told the Council on Foreign Relations that the Obama administration did not want to see a collapse of the Assad regime, as this would be to the advantage of Muslim extremists. “The last thing we want to do is to allow them to march into Damascus,” Brennan said.

The problem is that the military situation in Syria is rapidly changing. The Assad regime has never looked so vulnerable, after the recent fall of Idlib and Busra al-Sham to the rebels. The Iranians and their allies had tried to neutralize the northern and southern borders a month ago by organizing an offensive to cut off the rebels’ supply lines. Instead, they suffered major reversals, apparently facilitated by Turkey and Jordan, as their offensives petered out and the rebels captured territory. This culminated last week with the regime’s loss of its final post on the Syrian-Jordanian border, a vital lifeline to the Arab world.

The Americans may not want the Assad regime to collapse, but that process is nearer than it has ever been in four years, and the Americans have to adjust. Blinken’s remarks on Syria, and his condemnation of Hezbollah’s involvement there, reflected just how much.

Lebanon’s status in this dynamic situation is uncertain. To the Americans, the priority today is reinforcing the Lebanese Army and security agencies and giving them the means to contain the backlash from any dramatic shift in Syria. Ironically, Hezbollah, which Blinken denounced as a destabilizing factor in Syria, is viewed as a stabilizing force in Lebanon, where its military and intelligence networks can be used against any jihadist threat.

In this context, how will the planned Hezbollah offensive in Qalamoun fare? The party has been planning it for some time, and there are daily reports of the Lebanese Army capturing high ground, suggesting something is afoot. But the rebel gains in Idlib and the south, while they may invite a harsh counter-reaction, also raise the stakes for Hezbollah. This is not a battle the party can in any way afford not to win. Another reversal after those of recent weeks would be devastating to Iran and its allies.

At the same time, the Lebanese Army is not at all eager to enter the fray against Jabhat al-Nusra, since that’s not its fight. Nor does the military command want to be seen in the Arab world as collaborating with the Assad regime and its allies when the Sunni-majority Arab states are aligned against Iran in Yemen.

The situation in Syria has altered Hezbollah’s relations with the Lebanese Army. Only a few years ago it was inconceivable to imagine that the army would be reinforcing its positions along the border with Syria, flying its own aircraft and benefiting from American drones to monitor movements in the area. But with Hezbollah trapped in the Syrian quagmire, and unable to win, the party has had to concede much greater latitude to the army. In exploiting this opening, Washington, like Saudi Arabia earlier, has helped strengthen the Lebanese state.

The Americans appear to have grasped the situation well. They recently welcomed Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouq in Washington on a visit that was also heavily focused on security issues. One parliamentarian had an interesting take on the implications of this. “The Americans are happy with the current batch of Lebanese officials involved in security cooperation,” he noted. “In other words, a new Lebanese president may not be their priority, as it would mean an overhaul in security appointments, which could affect the level of cooperation today.”

If so, Blinken didn’t let on, observing: “Until the [presidential] seat is filled, Lebanon cannot make important policy decisions that would improve the lives of its people.” But it’s clear that the main priority for the Americans today is security. Everything else is secondary. The Lebanese state can use this to its advantage in expanding the scope of its sovereignty, even if Washington recognizes Hezbollah as one ingredient in Lebanon’s defense.    

Use of Shia militia is a bad way to run foreign policy

The behaviour of Shia militias in Iraq, particularly after the recent regaining of Tikrit from ISIL, was a reminder of how Iran has repeatedly used such militias since the 1980s as an instrument to advance its interests in the Middle East.

The template was the formation of Hizbollah after Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982. Since then, the party has been a cornerstone of Iran’s regional agenda, fighting as Tehran’s surrogate on battlefronts, training other militias and conducting intelligence operations and attacks against civilians on its behalf.

At the end of Lebanon’s civil war in 1990, both Syria and Iran saw an advantage in ensuring that Hizbollah would not be disarmed as other militias were.

The party was a convenient weapon to use against Israel’s occupation of southern Lebanon. More broadly, Hizbollah’s survival ensured that Iran retained leverage in Lebanon, particularly after Syrian forces withdrew in 2005.

Iran has seen several advantages in sponsoring sectarian militias, particularly Shia ones. The most obvious is that these can act on Tehran’s behalf, usually reporting in one way or another to Iranian officials or institutions. They also provide the Iranians with a way of circumventing established governments, even as their participation in, or collaboration with, these governments is frequently used to fudge the issue of state sovereignty.

The flip side of this is that the existence of militias tends to weaken governments, facilitating Iranian sway over a country. In Iraq and Lebanon, pro-Iran militias have been used to push Iranian preferences over those of state bodies, which can do little to oppose them. As a result governments are forced to find a modus vivendi with the militias, in the process agreeing, against their better judgment, to surrender a part of their authority.

And finally, militias offer deniability. For instance, the crimes committed by Shia militias in Iraq were rarely attributed to Iran or to the Shia-led Iraqi government, even if both benefited politically and bore a share of the responsibility for their excesses.

This was particularly true recently, when Tikrit was recaptured by the Iraqi government, led by Shia militias. The looting, killing and destruction of property in the town was attributed primarily to the combatants themselves. Not a word was said about Iran, especially the commander of the Quds Force of the Revolutionary Guards, Gen Qassem Suleimani, who directs Shia militia leaders and is said to have planned the Tikrit offensive.

Yet the fact is that Iran often benefits from militia abuse. Only someone naive would fail to see that Iran allowed the sectarian cleansing of predominately Sunni areas of Baghdad in past years, seeing it as a way of consolidating Shia control over the city.

In Lebanon, Hizbollah militants stand accused of participating in the assassination a decade ago of a former Lebanese prime minister, Rafik Hariri. While Syria is believed to have been behind the plot, Hizbollah’s role, if proven, means Iran signed off on the operation, regarding Mr Hariri as a threat to the pro-Syrian order in Lebanon, and by extension to Hizbollah.

In Syria, Iran has been a driving factor behind the establishment and training of militias, particularly the National Defence Force that emerged from the pro-Assad militias known as Popular Committees. Similarly, Iran ordered Hizbollah and Iraqi Shia militias to deploy in Syria, and has brought in Afghan Shia to bolster them.

The militias in Syria have taken on greater importance as the Syrian army has been degraded due to heavy losses in four years of bitter fighting. Bashar Al Assad’s regime is surviving thanks to two factors: Russian assistance to his armed forces and security apparatus; and Iranian involvement on the ground, either directly with Iranian combatants or through Shia militias.

Indeed, reports that Iraqi Shia militias had returned to Syria after having gone home to fight ISIL seem to indicate Iran’s alarm with Mr Al Assad’s deteriorating situation. Two weeks ago, in major reversals, the Syrian army and regime militias lost Idlib and Busra Al Sham to the rebels.

Iran’s strategy has been largely successful over the years, and has compensated for its very real limitations in many Arab countries. By establishing armed vanguards in places where the Shia are present, as a majority or even a minority, Iran has been able to exercise political power out of all proportion with what might otherwise have been expected.

The instability perpetuated by such groups has also been to Iran’s advantage. Tehran can only advance in mixed Arab societies that are divided.

Its backing of sectarian militias has allowed it to play on contradictions wherever it seeks power. That is why the rivalry between Iran and Sunni-majority Arab states will continue, at the forefront of which will be the militias sustained by Tehran.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

The regional quagmire traps Hezbollah

As a coalition of mainly Sunni countries has formed to contain Iran’s expanding power in the Middle East, many eyes are turned on Hezbollah.

The party has long embodied Iranian successes in the region, but now it has come to reflect Iranian limitations thanks to the blowback provoked by these successes.

In his most recent speech Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah condemned the Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen against the Houthis. Hezbollah also expressed displeasure with Prime Minister Tammam Salam’s speech at the Arab League summit in Sharm el-Sheikh, in which he seemed to implicitly support the operation in Yemen. Yet the party found itself isolated at home, with the Aounists supporting Salam. Fears that the Cabinet might collapse as a consequence were not borne out.

That was not surprising, since Hezbollah is stretched to the limits. It cannot afford a political vacuum in Lebanon, because its ability to control a worsening situation on the ground is lacking. The party needs an effective Lebanese Army and state not only to maintain domestic peace, but also to legitimize its planned military campaign in the Qalamoun area of Syria against rebels opposed to Bashar Assad’s regime.

The fall of Idlib last week raised worrying questions for Hezbollah. The city was held principally by the Syrian army and pro-Assad militias, and their lamentable performance appeared to show that the military effectiveness of the Syrian regime is near its end. That means that the burden of fighting will continue to be shifted onto the shoulders of Iran and Hezbollah, as well as Shiite militias from Iraq and even Afghanistan.

However, their record has not been particularly impressive. Several weeks ago the Iranians and their allies mounted offensives south of Damascus in the areas of Deraa and Qunaitra as well as in the north around Aleppo. These seemed designed to cut off supply lines between the rebel groups and Jordan and Turkey, respectively. The results around Aleppo were disastrous, while in the south initial gains by Hezbollah and Iranian combatants soon stalled.

The counterreaction, however, did not. Last week Busra al-Sham, southeast of Deraa, fell to the rebels, followed by the much bigger prize of Idlib. Now Hezbollah must consider what to do in Qalamoun, where it has been planning an attack for months. Everything suggests the party will go ahead with an operation, for several reasons: to reverse the sense of collapse prevailing in pro-Assad ranks; to show that the neutralization of the border region with Lebanon can succeed, even if this failed in the north and south; and to inflict a defeat on the Nusra Front, when the group’s central role in the takeover of Idlib has given it a great lift among Syrians opposed to the regime. Hezbollah does not want Nusra to gain strength at the expense of ISIS, whom many Syrians accuse of undermining their revolution.

However, Hezbollah should be very careful. Qalamoun is a thankless place, and any military reversal there for the party, in light of those in recent weeks, would be devastating for Iran and the Assad regime. Hezbollah has to be sure that it can win in Qalamoun.

The Syrian army and militias will be essential to this. Yet after their mediocre presentation in Idlib, Hezbollah must have doubts about them, particularly if corruption on the Syrian side is exploited by the rebels to allow reinforcements.

The Lebanese Army will also have an important part to play in blocking the border and capturing high ground to trap the combatants in Syria. Yet Arab mobilization against Iran and its regional partners may make the army command think twice, particularly as Lebanese Sunni confidence has been bolstered by the response in Yemen. The army will want to avoid being seen as collaborating in a military action on behalf of Iran and Hezbollah while most of the Arab world is battling them.

Nor is Hezbollah’s ability to intimidate the government and its political adversaries what it once was. Salam knows he has some margin to maneuver because the party is worried about the million and a half Syrian refugees in the country, most of them Sunnis. Salam is anxious about them too, but he also grasps that Hezbollah’s ability to bring down his Cabinet is severely constrained as it is deeply committed in Syria and does not have enough men in Lebanon to impose its supremacy.

Syria may yet become Iran’s and Hezbollah’s Vietnam. But the Arab states, including such Sunni powerhouses as Egypt, Turkey and even Pakistan, appear willing to take the fight to Iran and its allies, and Yemen has become a new front in that struggle. In light of this one recalls with irony the notion of a “resistance axis” used to describe the alliance between Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas and the Assad regime. Hamas is no longer a part of this coalition, Hezbollah is overextended, the Assad regime appears to be on life support, and Iran finds itself facing a united Sunni front throughout the Middle East, one with an unlimited amount of the money to fund its endeavors.

The challenge for Lebanon will be to manage Hezbollah’s fluctuating fortunes. The dialogue with the Future Movement must be continued. The Army has to expand its control over the border area, but avoid coordinating with Hezbollah and the Syrian army in their planned offensive in Qalamoun, if it goes ahead. And above all it must pursue efforts to gain Arab and international assistance to help Syrian refugees and avoid anything that might destabilize the security situation.

Lebanon has a front-row seat on the regional conflagration. It must ensure that it isn’t dragged onto the stage. But even Hezbollah, increasingly conscious of its own vulnerabilities, seems to be aware of the risks.

At any price - What Washington is missing in a deal with Iran

The prolongation of nuclear talks with Iran has highlighted a flaw in the American approach to the issue. This was neatly summarized by Gerard Araud, France’s ambassador to the United States, in a tweet: “We want a deal. They [Iran] need a deal. The tactics and the result of the negotiation should reflect this asymmetry.”

Yet the extension of negotiations has made it appear that the United States needs a nuclear deal. After all, President Barack Obama said he would “walk away” from a bad deal, and presumably the continued inability to finalize an accord signals precisely that. And yet the Americans are still at it, because Obama and his secretary of state, John Kerry, are desperate for an agreement.

What is disconcerting is that the administration has put on blinders, disassociating what is going on in Switzerland from the reality on the ground in the Middle East. Iran and the Sunni-majority Arab states are facing off in Yemen. In Syria, where a war that the United States has done its best to ignore rages on, Iran has tried to change the balance in President Bashar al-Assad’s favor. Yet it suffered major defeats last week with the losses of Busra al-Sham and Idlib to rebels. All this has not affected the nuclear talks. A coalition of mainly Sunni states, including Turkey and Pakistan, is today aligned against Iran, but Obama and Kerry seem blithely indifferent to this.

The American attitude is that the nuclear negotiations involve highly technical issues, with many parties participating, therefore factoring in regional politics only complicates an arrangement. The White House has time and again shot down American initiatives that might mar talks. In the American way of negotiating it is important always to display goodwill, eliminating moves that might indicate animosity and show less than an absolute commitment to improving relations.

The Iranians address political matters very differently. Even as they have negotiated with the Americans and the other permanent members of the United Nations Security Council they have relentlessly pursued their agenda of expansionism in the Middle East. To them the nuclear issue is part and parcel of a broader strategy of regional hegemony, and has nothing to do with warm feelings and photo ops, in the way Americans have viewed the talks.

While a nuclear deal would undoubtedly be good for the Middle East, a bad deal in which Washington ignores the regional impact of an accord would be a waste of time. If the Obama administration won’t participate in containment of Iran’s destabilizing ventures in the region, then what is the value of a nuclear accord? Iran’s nuclear program transcends proliferation. It is really about Iran’s political power. But Obama and Kerry are focused on proliferation risks.

If a deal is not reached, the Americans should take a serious look at the regional response to Iran. The main fear in Washington is that no accord will mean a nuclear arms race. Yet the only real way to avert this is to take the lead against Iran. Only if Arab countries feel the United States is seriously engaged in curtailing Iran’s regional sway will they hold off on building their own nuclear weapons.

That would mean devising a strategy that makes it infinitely more costly for the Islamic Republic to pursue its regional political agenda. Syria is a bottomless pit for Tehran, and Iraq is a draining one if the Iranian strategy of isolating the Sunnis is pursued. The Houthis can be isolated by land and sea, making Iran’s support ineffective. Tying Iran up in countless wars while sanctions are maintained may be the best method to push it to the edge financially so that it alters its ways.

Yet how realistic is such an expectation? Obama has so invested in disengagement from the Middle East that his embracing a contrary policy seems almost impossible to conceive. Therein lies the fundamental problem with the American approach to Iran. It is the Iranians who seem to hold the stronger cards by virtue of the fact that Barack Obama has systematically limited his own options.

But Araud is right. It is Tehran that is in a weaker position, even if the dynamics of the negotiations have repeatedly shown that it is Obama and Kerry who are the supplicants, simply because they want America out of the Middle East at any price. But a sloppy deal, negotiated by an administration that has made its antipathy for the region so obvious, will ensure precisely the contrary.

Obama and Kerry, running after an elusive legacy, refuse to see what is plain. The region is going in one direction, toward all-out confrontation with Iran, while the United States is going in the other, toward reconciliation. Reconciliation is not a bad thing, but it has a Pollyannaish quality to it when the Middle East is in the midst of a new cold war and the United States refuses to take any position.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Tehran may have been unwise to start this fire

Whatever happens in negotiations over Iran’s nuclear programme, the mainly Sunni Arab states, backed by Turkey and Pakistan, have begun a struggle to prevent Iranian regional dominance, one reminiscent of the Arab cold war during the 1950s and 1960s. Tehran may have bitten off more than it can chew.

The situation in Yemen illustrates this. While there has been disagreement over whether the Houthis are agents of Iran, with the Houthis denying a link, Tehran has armed and assisted the group. Arab regimes view the Houthis as an extension of Iran, provoking the recent military reaction against them. This can only guarantee Iran’s continuing assistance.

The outcome of the Saudi-led counter-offensive in Yemen is far from clear. Yemen is a notoriously tricky country for outsiders, as the Egyptians could attest. In 1962 they embarked on a disastrous military campaign there in support of republican forces against the royalists under Muhammad Al Badr, imam of the Zaydis and king of the Mutawakkilite kingdom of Yemen in the north of the country.

At the time the Saudis backed the royalists. They viewed Egyptian intervention as an effort to surround and undermine the kingdom, at a moment when the Middle East was divided between Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Egypt and other Arab nationalist regimes and the conservative monarchies in Jordan and the Gulf. Indeed, the Saudis must view events today as an echo of that past, an effort by a regional powerhouse to make inroads into its backyard.

That the Saudis have rallied the Arab League, most Gulf states, Egypt and Pakistan, shows that the Sunni countries have aligned against a perceived Iranian, Shia regional threat. Tehran has behaved with great hubris and will face hard times ahead as it becomes entangled in increasingly costly military ventures abroad.

Nowhere is this truer than in Syria, where the Iranian-backed regime of president Bashar Al Assad has faced two major setbacks in the past week, namely the loss of Idlib in the north and of Busra Al Sham in the south. That both defeats came on the tail of failed Iranian-backed offensives around Aleppo and near Daraa and Qunaitra several weeks ago only added to the bitterness.

What was even more disturbing to the Iranians is that it was Iranian combatants and Iran-backed Shia militias from Iraq, Lebanon and Afghanistan that were involved in the fighting, not the Syrian army. In other words, Iran is now directly implicated in the battle, and all the signs are that it is not making headway.

The offensives in the north and south were, in part, designed to cut rebel supply lines to Turkey and Jordan, and in that way remove both of Syria’s neighbours from the military equation. Mr Al Assad accused Turkey of helping the forces that took over Idlib. There was no way to confirm this, but Turkish support for the president’s foes is well established, and Turkey has considerable interest in thwarting Iran’s domination of Syria.

To alter the momentum, Iran’s Lebanese ally, Hizbollah, is expected to soon mount an offensive in the Qalamoun district of Syria, alongside Lebanon’s eastern border, to push rebel groups out. The Lebanese army is expected to play a role in this effort by taking the higher ground and blocking the cross-border movement of combatants. Yet, with the region split and the rebels in Syria making gains, there are those in the military who may push for doing less, putting additional pressures on Hizbollah.

Iran and its allies have awakened a giant, namely Sunni hostility to Iranian, Shia hegemony in the Middle East. That formulation may sound simplistic, but that’s how the current confrontation is being portrayed regionally, and how it is being fed.

Even in Iraq, where Iran has influence, it has stumbled lately, with pro-Iranian militias having to rely on American air power to progress in the battle for Tikrit, while refusing to admit this. The country’s sectarian antagonisms have highlighted how Tehran can advance only in fragmented Arab societies.

In other words, while Iran can exploit divided societies in the pursuit of its regional agenda, it is much more difficult for it to build durable foundations of control on such unstable sands. Instead, Iran’s allies usually have to use intimidation to keep their rivals in line, only generating greater animosity and facilitating further mobilisation against Iran or its sympathisers.

Iran’s resources are stretched to the limit, as are its regional allies. That is why Tehran will find the struggle with the Sunni world hard to sustain. A nuclear deal and the lifting of sanctions in the future may mean more funds for Iran to pursue its regional projects. But if that does not happen over the course of the year, the renewed mood of confrontation with the West will heighten the desire to weaken Tehran. Either way, the conflict between Sunni states and Iran will continue.