Across the Bay

Monday, April 25, 2005

Home Alone

Naseer al-As'ad, member of the newly formed Lebanese Shiite Gathering, wrote a strong criticism of Hizbullah's political choices in Al-Mustaqbal (hat tip: Doha Melhem of The Lebanese Bloggers).

He highlights three such decisions:

1- the backing of Abdelhalim Mrad (strongly opposed by the opposition) for Prime Minister instead of Najib Miqati.

2- the symbolic gift offered by Hasan Nasrallah to Syria's intelligence chief in Lebanon, Rustum Ghazaleh, whom the opposition believes is directly involved in the Hariri assassination.

3- the "protection" that the Party said it would offer to the maligned Lebanese security chiefs, namely Jamil es-Sayyed.

As'ad goes through the list, pointing out the following:

1- the image that the Party is drawing for itself is one of holding on to the remains of the Lebanese-Syrian security system in Lebanon, which was supposed to be one that he didn't benefit from. Furthermore, the Party has been careful to claim that it wasn't taking sides with the former authorities.

2- by so doing, the Party is placing itself outside the compromise that led to the latest developments, i.e., the selection of a government which proclaims its readiness to cooperate with the international investigation, and which promises to hold elections without delay. This is the compromise that all the other parties in Lebanon have agreed to, both opposition and the remains of the loyalist camp.

3- the obvious question is, why does Hizbullah distance itself from this compromise, and what damage does it do to it that it rejects it? Sources from the various political centers say that the Party may have "smelled" hidden points related to it, or that it assumed that it is open to further points related to the Party to be implemented in the next stage. [Ed.'s note: In other words, the Party is paranoid and convinced that the decision to neutralize it has been taken with the complicity of the Lebanese actors whom it doesn't trust.]

4- nevertheless, even if we accept the Party's concerns, is the best way to counter such an alleged decision against it to appear as an outsider to Lebanese consensus against the collapsing police state? Or is the best way is to move towards the prevalent Lebanese position and cut a deal with it?

5- according to many sources, the performance of Hizbullah is raising concerns regarding its (at least objective) alliance with those damaged by the compromise which opens the door for Lebanon, especially after the elections, to move into a truly new epoch. The Party's apparent rejection of the new political reality baffles those sources, especially when the dominant forces of that new reality are asserting that it won't be targeting Hizbullah.

6- the sources are asking where the appointment of Trad Hamade, who is close to Hizbullah, to the Ministry of Labor and Agriculture fits in this scenario. [Ed.'s note: nevermind the quote in Cobban's pathetic Boston Review piece on Hizbullah that the Party is not yet considering joining the government.] This indicates that no one objected to the entrance of Hizbullah into the government through the appointment of one of its friends didn't raise any negative reactions domestically and internationally.

As'ad then quotes the various sources reminding the Party of certain facts which are now taken for granted, and stressing that they should be taken into consideration:

1- the Syrian exit from Lebanon that is leading to the opening of a new Lebanese page came in the context of regional and international developments, and is itself an indication of further such developments in the same direction.

2- Syria's position is no longer the same, even if the Lebanese are adamant about building healthy relations with it, and refuse to participate in anything that destabilizes and hurts Syria.

3- the country is moving because of these developments from the era of tutelage to the era of a Lebanese embrace of the constitution and consensual accord. Not participating in that represents an outdated vision.

4- the security system is taking its final breath, and no effort to revive it will work. The international investigation will almost surely confirm some dereliction of duty or complicity of these appartuses in the assassination. This is not to mention that the new government is set to restructure the entire system.

5- there will be no protection or guarantees for any party that is outside the national accord and the democratic line, and it is illogical for anyone to block the compromises that emanate from the dialogue between the Lebanese.

It's a mistake to say that the latest compromise is a "second Taef" because it's only a stage in the reconsideration of the Taef, which, when it's agreed that it is the reference concerning the consensual accord and the Convivencia, all of its points must be acknowledged [Ed.'s note: one of those is the disarmament of all the armed militias in Lebanon.]

Therefore, As'ad concludes, the sources hope that Hizbullah consider all the above because therein lies its benefit. They also hope that it quickly correct the image which portrays it all alone among the principal powers. The Party should acknowledge the new realities and changes, and, As'ad says, the collective Lebanese mind is capable of producing a formula that provides guarantees to all the parties. Whatever adjustment the Party is forced to make, As'ad writes, it will be far less costly than "bucking heads" with the obvious powerful realities, domestic, regional and international. The current image expose Hizbullah and does not provide it with cover.

On a related note, the PSP's (Jumblat's party) Wael Abou Fa'our was quoted as making the following significant statement: "the era of intimidation through raising the issue of eliminating political sectarianism is gone, and any reformist suggestion has to be consensual." Amen.

It is in this light that Michael Young's latest op-ed considers such reformist suggestions and adjustments to the Lebanese system (cf. Jonathan Edelstein excellent post on the subject). Any adjustment must be within the consociational framework. As Michael put it:

A priority is to arrive at a political system that can simultaneously satisfy demographically majoritarian communities while reassuring communal minorities. In this context, one can readily dismiss the scheme that proposes imposing simple majority democracy on Lebanon, on the grounds that this is the "fairest" system. It may be, but in a sectarian society like Lebanon's it also tends to be a source of deep divisions, particularly as there are no clear-cut majorities or minorities. That is precisely why most of the sects are willing to pursue the consociational system existing today, where Christians and Muslims are represented evenly in Parliament despite their demographic differences. But it is also worth questioning whether such a system can provide long-term political stability if demographics shift further, whether in favor of Muslims or Christians.
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Critics will complain that sectarianism and a weak state are what is wrong with Lebanon; in fact they are the only things making it democratic in a region awash with despotism, though a more supple system would allow the Lebanese to move beyond sectarianism if they so desire.

As Jonathan noted, "it seems certain that [the consociational system] will exist in Lebanon for a long time to come, and that democratization will take place within that context." And that is the most prudent and effective way to go.

Good Riddance

Within the next 24 hours, the 30-year old Syrian "presence" will be over.

The Lebanese are jubilant:

As soon as the truckloads of Syrian soldiers had left for home, Mariam Majzoub started dishing out paint to erase the last vestiges of their 29-year presence.

Her children, nephews, nieces and neighbors stuck Lebanese flags on top of the abandoned posts near her home in this tiny Bekaa Valley village, slapped whitewash on the walls and celebrated the departure date in green paint: "Independence 2005, Sunday, April 17."

"We started dancing in the street even before they turned the corner," said Majzoub, her plump face glowing with joy. "We could finally express ourselves, and there was nothing they could do about it."

Donna Abu Nasr can write whatever she wants, and indulge the humiliated Syrians, but the reality is, as Michael Young put it: "No doubt they will continue to try to play a role in Lebanon, but the structure of their system of authority in Lebanon has collapsed."

An important sign of this collapse is the resignation of the notorious security chief Jamil as-Sayyed. Another sign was the disarray in the carcass of the pro-Syrian gathering, which has already split, long before the much-maligned opposition did. Also, already the (Syrian-inspired) loopholes in the Taef Accord that lead to deadlock (which assured a Syrian interference) are being challenged, and a proper application of the consitution is being called for.

But Michael does remind people of an important caveat: the Lebanese prisoners in Syria. I've been collecting material on this story for a long time, but never got around to posting about it, so I'm glad that Michael put it out there. Needless to say, the sad angry clowns and experts of this world not only didn't mention Syria's departure, but they have yet to say anything about those prisoners.

A UN team will arrive in Lebanon to verify the Syrian withdrawal.

A new chapter begins.

Friday, April 22, 2005

A Shiite Alternative

Unfortunately, I don't have too much time right now to fully explore this story, but I wanted to put it out there, especially as many writers were pointing to strong divergence of opinion as a sign of weakness in Lebanon, and putting out such silly equations as Hizbullah=the Shi'a.

A new Shiite political gathering ("The Lebanese Shiite Gathering") has emerged as an alternative voice in the Shi'a community, "a new Shiite voice leaning toward the opposition in as much as it is a movement calling for change."

The movement is clearly distinguishing itself from the two main Shitie parties, Hizbullah and Amal. A leading member, Shiite cleric Muhammad Hasan al-Amin had some strong words:

Now that the power of tutelage is over, isn't it the right of the Shiites to breathe? Is it right or useful to propagate fear and anxienty and illusions in the midst of an entire sect so that it seems that what happened, even if it was to the benefit of all the other sects, was not to the benefit of the Shiite sect?

Yes, we are worried about such directions. Is it required that the Shiite sect, which possesses all the elements of integration in the Lebanese homeland and which is a part of this fabric, be an isolated sect, fearful, setting up an artificial line against the rest of the Lebanese of all sects and colors?
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Why this gathering and why now? Is it because we don't have enough political movements to express the will of the Lebanese Shiites? Yes, we believe that the Shi'a, in fact, are no less than a large segment of the Lebanese. However, the Shiites, specifically, are not allowed to put forth a political manifestation unless it was under the wing of the Shiite political establishment within which the Syrian power of tutelage wanted to limit affairs.

We tried and were able to convince some established parties in the political equation that it was in no one's interest that the Shiites be reduced in that fashion. There is a need to launch the largest amount of diversity possible, which is certainly the basis of the national interests of the Shi'a... Is it really true that the arrival of an investigative committee spells danger for the Shiite community?

Why is it desired for the Shi'a to be viewed with suspicion, paranoia, and questioning?
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Why was it requested that the Shi'a not participate in the great national spectacle (the demos in Martyrs' Square)? Yes, we are at odds with our brothers in the resistance and Amal when they think that such a policy is the one that safeguards the Shiite community. We disagree over the gains; there are no gains for the Shiites specifically.

There is one essential gain for the Shi'a and that it for them to be proponents of this authentic national amalgam with their brothers of all the various communities.

Hariri's Al-Mustaqbal paper quoted another member, Naseer al-As'ad:

Facing the developments which are leading to Lebanon's second independence, the Shiite political establishment looked severely confused and did not join the democratic struggle for independence. Rather, it approached it with fear and the spreading of fear. If the fear of the Shiite political establishment stems from the fact that a lot of its strength was based on the status quo that is being overhauled, then spreading fear regarding the new turn the country is making is an attempt to frighten the Lebanese Shiite masses who don't see these developments leading to independence and freedom a victory for a particular Lebanese party or group, but a victory for an independent, sovereign, and free Lebanon. If the fear of the Shiite political establishment, which holds a firm grip on the fate of Shiite representation, is understandable in that the restoration of Lebanon's sovereignty changes the political balance, or could change them, the spreading of fear clashes with the fact that the fate of the Lebanese Shi'a is part and parcel of the fate of Lebanon and the Lebanese. It's identical to the fate of all the communities in that it's a matter of contract, i.e., the Lebanese Shiites represent an essential cornerstone in the national compact and no national contract stands without them.
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The Lebanese Shiites, because of the prevalent Shiite political estbalishment, appeared outside the Lebanese consensus. This image is not true, naturally. That is because the Shiite Muslim community, with all its historical diversity and pluralism cannot be coopted by the current political representation which represents a break with the history of Shiite representation. The Shiite community, in order for it to return to its pluralist democratic heritage, needs to be happy about the restoration of a normal political life, free of the chains and pressures produced by the years of Syrian tutelage over Lebanon.

It's ironic, as Jonathan Edelstein pointed out to me the other day, that the loyalist camp was bargaining on an internal split within the opposition, but the Syrian withdrawal ended up leading to a split within the loyalist ranks! Perhaps, we're witnessing something similar in the dominant Shiite political establishment.

The other day, Iyad Abu Shaqra wrote that by stressing the proportional system, within the larger district, the Shiite parties Amal and Hizbullah were exacting the highest price possible from their co-patriots in the aftermath of the dimishing of Syrian influence. They hoped to maximize their representation and that of other Syrian allies, for, as Abu Shaqra notes, the Shi'a don't get more than 4 seats out of 26 outside their strongholds in the south and the Bekaa. But it will be another irony if the proportional system ends up hurting them in their own strongholds, by giving seats to movements like The Lebanese Shiite Gathering, the As'ad family, and other active parties in those areas like the Communist party, which were also pressured in the past by the Syrians to give way to Hizbullah.

We'll see. In any case, we're witnessing the return of normal political life to Lebanon, with all its complexity and diversity.

Thursday, April 21, 2005

Hizbullocracy (or, how Cobban got her groove back)

Caveman Rich clobbers Hizbullah groupie Helena Cobban and her ridiculous article on the party.

The post is very good all around, but I would like to highlight the parts on the Lebanese system, which the cobbler hates with a passion:

Hizbullah faults the Lebanese system not just for being "corrupt" (not just some people within it), but for the necessity within that system of the building of coalitions and pandering to the requirements of a multifarious political system. Within the confines of such a system, Hizbullah is not able to advance its single-prong agenda, to "influence [the government's] whole program." Z.H. claims that "elsewhere, you can have one party in government, with one program." Which democratic countries are these? we ask. Perhaps these kinds of democracies are the "People's Democratic" varieties that have always been so successful in the past. The very mention of this kind of challenge to the Lebanese polity is a direct challenge to democracy itself. It seems to me that Hizbullah is upset not at the "corruption" found within some sectors of the system, but with the party's inability so far to hijack the whole process altogether and turn the Lebanese government into its own sock puppet. Yet Cobban never misses a beat...

Some political scientists would refer to the Lebanese system as an "accomodationalist" system, and for good reason. The seventeen (not fifteen) different religious groups and numerous political parties, some of which are indeed based more on tribal affiliation than on political ideology, need to be made to feel that they are participating. A rationally-functioning Lebanese government can afford to exclude a major clan, tribe, religious group, or political bloc about as much as the U.S. government can afford to exclude any of its states. And here is the point - democracy is about participation, not agendas. The fact that Hizbullah appears so hesitant to join coalitions says something about the acceptability of its political program in the eyes of the Lebanese people, and Hizbullah itself appears fully cognizant of this reality. Hence, we see Hizbullah nearly unable to hide the fact that unless they control the entire political process in Lebanon, its agenda is going nowhere. The fact that some American academics have bought Hizbullah's democracy gimmick hook-line-and-sinker only exacerbates the concern of this critical observer.

Rich's post reminded me of a passage from Arend Lijphart, a guy I've been quoting a lot (to the dismay of some):

The majoritarian interpretation of the basic definition of democracy is that it means "government by the majority of the people." It argues that majorities should govern and that minorities should oppose. This view is challenged by the consensus model of democracy. As the Nobel Prize-winning economist Sir Arthur Lewis has forcefully pointed out, majority rule and the government-versus-opposition pattern of government that it implies may be interpreted as undemocratic because they are principles of exclusion. Lewis states that the primary meaning of democracy is that "all who are affected by a decision, should have the chance to participate in making that decision, either directly or through chosen representatives." Its secondary meaning is that "the will of the majority shall prevail." If this means that winning parties may make all the governmental decisions and that the losers may criticize but not govern, Lewis argues, the two meanings are incompatible: "to exclude the losing groups from participation in decision-making clearly violates the primary meaning of democracy."
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[I]n plural societies -- societies that are sharply divided along religious, ideological, linguistic, cultural, ethnic, or racial lines into virtually separate subsocieties with their own political parties, interest groups, and media of communication -- the flexibility necessary for majoritarian democracy is absent. Under these conditions, majority rule is not only undemocratic but also dangerous, because minorities that are continually denied access to power will feel excluded and discriminated against and will lose their allegiance to the regime.
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In plural societies, therefore, majority rule spells majority dictatorship and civil strife rather than democracy. What these societies need is a democratic regime that emphasizes consensus instead of opposition, that includes rather than excludes, and that tries to maximize the size of the ruling majority instead of being satisfied with a bare majority: consensus democracy.

I think that this is, grosso modo, the right approach.

In any case, Cobban's piece, as Rich shows, highlights how fundamentally illiberal some of the Third-Worldist/Leftist attitudes can be (cf. Rich's excellent reference to "people's democracies.") Elie Kedourie talked about it in reference to Arab nationalism as well.

But, I think there may also be something else at play here, which might relate to the attitudes towards ethnic identity that we've touched on with Cole and Massad. Underlying the argument, may be the old "modernist" premise that ethnic identities are but a transient phenomenon. Jonathan Hall says it well:

The expectation that ethnicity would disappear in the American 'melting-pot' was as unrealistic as it was undesirable.
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Similarly, if there is anything to be learnt from the recent ethnic conflicts throughout the world, it is that the refusal to recognize ethnicity is more like to exacerbate than to eliminate its potency.

That's why it is much more suitable for people like Cobban to talk about the Lebanese system either in socio-economic terms, which ring a more familiar bell (the proletarian impulse that Rich identified). Or, they present it in evolutionary terms. That's when you hear it described negatively as "tribal" where tribalism is viewed as a pre-modern stage in the evolutionary development toward the bureaucratic state. Neither one of these approaches is suitable, and they both glance over many other factors quite uncritically (but that's what propagandists do).

So while the consociational system might have some elements at odds with some Enlightenment ideals (cf. Jonathan Edelstein), the alternative zealously cheered on by Cobban in that piece is far more illiberal. Thankfully, nothing Cobban has to say makes an iota of difference in Lebanon.

Sunday, April 17, 2005

Dispelling Myths

One of the myths Hizbullah likes to propagate (and which always finds eager and willing, uncritical, groupie journalists like Cobban) is that the party never used/es its weapons against other Lebanese. This is historically false (I'm not sure how people forget Hizbullah's wars with its Shiite rival Amal, and even with the PSP), and remains false today (with often-deadly clashes with Amal going on on a regular basis).

But here's one incident that happened yesterday, not against Amal, but against the local police in the town of Aramoun (Aleyh - Chouf). An-Nahar reports that the police, acting on a municipal order, were taking down some loudspeakers at a residential coop when they were "forbidden" by Hizbullah members from performing their duty. This led to a fist fight and a heated exchange, which then developed to a shoot out, and Hizbullah's people surrounding the police car and preventing it from leaving the place.

Here's the kicker. The Army was called in, and six guys from the police were arrested!

The incident reportedly reverberated quickly in the surrounding area, amidst political efforts to contain it and to prevent it from escalating, especially as the townspeople gathered in front of the municipal building this morning demanding that the cops, themselves local boys, be set free.

The head of the municipal council held a press conference where he repeated the necessary glorification of the party's efforts in liberating the south, but, based on the clear popular anger, also declared that "we do not accept that the party's arms be turned against our sons."

He went on to explain the incident in the conference. Basically, someone apparently linked to Hizbullah put up several loudspeakers (among several other violations) on roof tops and balconies. The townspeople started complaining (since October 2004) and the city council sent cops to check it out, and they were promised that all but one loudspeaker would be removed. Upon follow up, it turns out that nothing was done. So a Hizbullah member came by and was told that they would like all the loudpseakers removed except for one, which will be turned away from the residential area. The Hizbullah member told him that they were converting a depot into a mosque and the speakers were to be put there. After checking the location, a license was issued approving the project.

However, the complaints kept on coming and the loudspeaker situation remained the same. And, the councilman said, every time cops were sent, they were faced with contempt and were not taken seriously. Also, every time that would happen, they would receive a call from the party. This last time, the Hizbullah people were informed that the speakers were going to be taken down, except for one. As for the sports field, another was offered further away from the residential area.

However, when the cops arrived, a Hizbullah guy pulled his gun and started shooting. The cops were not all armed (municipal cops aren't always packing), and had only two hand guns. Hizbullah brandished AK 47s, and refused to let the police car out, even after the municipality called Hizbullah officials. Then the Army came and arrested guys, and the councilman was lamenting that the main instigator was not touched. The councilman was outraged and said that the dignity of the town would not be touched, and the council will not be provoked.

He went on to reveal a few more things that dispell a few more myths about Hizbullah. He revealed that he "made a compromise" with them on the rent amount (for the field I presume), according to the range that "they saw fit!" They then asked for lighting, and he provided it, and cleaned the roads. "Everything they asked for we supplied." However, "provocation, shooting, and blocking a police car, that I won't tolerate." He also insistted that he won't compromise on the loudspeakers, except for one for the prayer house.

Later, all who were arrested were let go.

This is an example of some of the things that go on in Hizbullah areas, a state within a state. Keep that in mind the next time you read Cobban and her likes.

Saturday, April 16, 2005

Well, That Settles It

The Daily Star published an interview with Hizbullah #2, Naim Qassem. The stuff he said marks a remarkable shift in the official rhetoric. For the longest time, Hizbullah denied lending any material support to the Palestinian militants, claiming moral support only. Qassem put that to rest:

"We believe in cooperation in all possible and appropriate ways and forms, whether it be material, financial or moral support. And we consider it our obligation."

He added: "Why would some people denounce our support for the Palestinians in their struggle. Can't they see how the U.S. backs Israel with $3 billion each year, in addition to their military support and the political acceptance of daily crimes and aggression against the Palestinian people? It is only normal that countries sharing the same ideas cooperate to face alliances threatening their existence."

Qassem said Hizbullah has always regarded the Palestinian struggle as something that concerns the whole Arab world.

He said: "To those who do not believe in our support for the Palestinians as neighboring people under occupation, we say there is also a direct benefit for Lebanon in supporting them. Helping the Palestinians stand up to the Israeli offensives will disable Israel's ability to expand its aggression into neighboring countries, of which the first would be Lebanon, and we have suffered from this in the past."

As for the issue of disarmament, Qassem also dismissed all illusions about Hizbullah's willingness to lay down their arms, even if Israel withdraws from Shebaa:

"To our partners in the country who may not approve of us maintaining our weapons, as a defensive force, after Shebaa Farms are liberated, we say will be willing to sit down behind closed doors and discuss this issue and try to convince them of the need to keep the resistance's power, which is Lebanon's power facing Israel's military superiority."

He also wrote off the theory of Hizbullah merging with the army:

"The Lebanese Army does not enjoy as much freedom in operating as the resistance does as it is restricted with the political situation and international formulas it can not bypass. That is why we need to keep our autonomous work to preserve our independent operation."

"The resistance's arms are there as a defensive line against continuous Israeli aggressions. If they withdrew from the Shebaa Farms, Lebanon would remain under Israeli threats. If we do not have a defensive power what can we do to face this threat?"

So, that settles that. The question is, what are they thinking? I mean we all knew that this was their held position, but this is a direct provocation, domestically, regionally, and internationally. I don't care how many delegates they send to Europe to "work on the party's image." Apparently, not only the Syrians misread the Europeans.

Is this supposed to shore up the party's image internally with the Shi'a constituency for the elections? Are they basically inviting trouble? This is precisely what everyone has been accusing them of, domestically and internationally. Is it that they basically don't care, because they figure no one has the will to forcefully disarm them? Is this deliberate intimidation, after the numerical one failed? They are basically snubbing the entire Lebanese interior, not to mention the entire world.

But this is the bottom line. This is what Hizbullah is, and always was: a militant Islamist group with a regional agenda (and a program aimed at overthrowing the Lebanese system).

I eagerly await the official responses on this one.

Friday, April 15, 2005

US Ideas on Syria

Michael Young asks around in Washington about US positions on the fate of the Assad regime, and the role of Hizbullah in post-Syrian era Lebanon:

The mood in the Bush administration is that the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad is not viable, perhaps even in the medium term, and that talk of gradual "reform" along the lines of what Assad and his acolytes have been trying to peddle abroad in the past four years is ridiculous in the current context. Worse for Assad, there seems little American fear that once he leaves or is made to leave office, Syria would be dominated by Islamists.

The Syrian regime has tried to heighten that fear, but has also helped undermine the effort by making conciliatory gestures toward the Muslim Brotherhood of late, including returning property confiscated from its members in the area of Hama in the early 1980s, at the height of the anti-Baathist insurgency. That has smacked of weakness, both with the Brotherhood and in the United States, as did the release two weeks ago of 312 Kurdish prisoners. Everywhere, it seems, Assad is throwing off ballast, but he may soon get rid of too much, including vital pillars of his power.

Michael derives some satisfaction from the contempt the Syrians are now facing in Washington, as well as complete lack of interest in cutting a deal with Syria over Lebanon, or even allow for the "special relation" to return to the suzerain-vassal dynamic established by the Syrians:

It is some satisfaction that the Syrians are facing the same contempt in Washington that they have so liberally dispensed when dealing with Lebanon. No doubt they would deny having anything to do with the delay in Lebanese parliamentary elections (much as a Syrian prankster at the United Nations denied they controlled security in Beirut when former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was murdered). However, no one in the Bush administration buys such assertions; even State Department doves are watching the Syrians like hawks. As one official put it, the U.S. is "not in the souq" with Syria on Lebanon.

At the National Security Council (NSC), meanwhile, a top official insists that while relations between Lebanon and Syria may be "special" by virtue of the countries' being neighbors, "it shouldn't be a colonial relationship. There will be friction with Syria if it doesn't respect this." Asked whether the Syrian regime is on life support, he avoided a direct answer, but accepted that the U.S., like most Arab regimes, thought "Syria was not maneuvering very well." He also said, with a hint of derision, that "pressure on Syria has not been very great; it can be greater," implying that Assad had perhaps caved in by so quickly withdrawing from Lebanon.

By the way, that attitude on Lebanese political independence seems to be firmly shared by France.

It also seems that Assad needs to pull one hell of an act to convince anyone on the issue of reform (see Ammar's latest post on what's going on in Syria. He's not holding his breath either). In other words, if he thinks that more of the same of what he's been doing for the last 5 years will suffice, he's sorely mistaken:

Assad is on his own, and his austere brief is to change everything, to do so quickly and to demand absolutely nothing in return. 

The US is insisting that elections be held on time, and the attempts by Syria's sycophants to delay it won't be tolerated:

If there is any salvation for those politicians congregating in the debris of the Ain al-Tineh grouping (barring, for the moment, Hizbullah), it is not in hitching their fortunes to a sinking Syria; it is in participating in the creation of a consensual new Lebanese order. For starts this means that a new prime minister-designate with some backbone be named, and that the upcoming government not be turned into a goldmine for pre-election patronage.

It seems, as Jonathan Edelstein pointed out, that a compromise candidate to lead the caretaker government has been elected, and that's Najib Miqati.

As Jonathan noted, at this stage, it's fine, and Miqati seems to be someone everyone can live with to do his limited job:

All things considered, this probably isn't a bad outcome. Given Mikati's previous insistence on freedom of action in forming a cabinet, it seems likely that he'll act quickly to form a neutral, technocratic government, possibly drawn primarily from outside Parliament. This would be acceptable to the opposition and the moderate loyalists, and will increase the chances of a timely electoral law and a smooth, professionally administered vote. In contrast to the one-party government that Mrad would have tried to install, this seems to the best way to get out of the current crisis and move on to elections.

Considering the immense popular frustration (including hints at taking it to the streets again, should the elections be botched), and the apparent flexibility of the opposition on this issue, I think that Miqati will likely act as Jonathan said.

Walid Choucair noted the other day:

Damascus' rigid policy has so far remained in place and was evident in its support of the naming of outgoing Lebanese Defense Minister Abdel-Rahim Mrad as Lebanon's new prime minister. Syrian officials contacted their Lebanese allies, asking them to name him in parliamentary consultations.

According to some of Damascus' closest allies, the fact that Syria chose Mrad instead of Tripoli MP Najib Mikati, another close ally, is due to Mikati's willingness to abide by some of the opposition's demands.

Those allies said Damascus was not embarrassed by its preference for Mrad but rather it chose the outgoing defense minister because its policy is to opt for confrontation when under pressure. Damascus does not want to fulfill the opposition's demands under pressure, especially those related to the dismissal of security chiefs, who Mikati has said he will give an administrative vacation if he succeeds in forming the new Cabinet.

I wonder, contra Choucair, whether the election of Miqati, the way it happened, already signals a weakening of Syria's coercive powers (although Mrad did "consult" with Rustum Ghazaleh who's still in Anjar). For instance, Berri's bloc abstained from nominating anyone, and didn't back Mrad outright (lack of fiat from Damascus, or internal political repositioning?). Berri also made his backing conditional on the adoption of the electoral law he favors, i.e., the larger district (mouhafaza) with proportional representation, and not the small district (qada') favored by the Patriarch Sfeir and the opposition. Walid Jumblatt laid out his preferences: the small district. If not, then the mouhafaza based on the Taef, but after redrawing them. If neither one works, then back to the 2000 election law. (cf. this post by Jonathan Edelstein.)

It might also be that Berri played a smarter hand than Hizbullah on this one. Hizbullah apparently backed Mrad. Does Hizbullah really think it can still fool people into believing that it's a neutral "nationalist" party, and not Syria's Praetorian Guard? They have cast their lot heavily with Syria at every chance. It's not lost on the rest of the Lebanese. Furthermore, a lot of their rhetoric on the Lebanese system has echoed much of their earlier position on the Islamic state. Take for instance this quote from a truly repulsive, and barely concealed propaganda piece by Hizbullah groupie, Helena Cobban:

“Z.H.,” who asked to be described simply as “a source close to Hizbullah,” talked to me about the party’s strategy for working within Lebanon’s problematically democratic political system. At the parliamentary level, the Hizbullah-led bloc now has 12 deputies out of 128, including, as Z.H. eagerly noted, “two Sunnis and one Christian.” Although Hizbullah has held a parliamentary bloc of around this size since 1992, it has thus far refused to seek any ministerial slots. Z.H. explained why:

    We feel that a party that’s in the government should influence its whole program . . . But in Lebanon, you can’t pursue your own party’s program in government because governments are always formed through coalitions. Elsewhere, you can have one party in government, with one program. And then, it’s easier to hold the party accountable.


Cobban may find this cute, but anyone familiar with Hizbullah's earlier rhetoric cannot help but recognize the familiar overtones. One ruling party, with one "program," that influences thing, and a disdain for coalition politics. That's a barely modified version of their talk about an Islamic state in the 80's. It may very well be a bargaining tactic, but I've yet to be convinced that Hizbullah has been "reformed." Their Islamist agenda never disappeared, despite all the nonsense Cobban wrote. Their line (as well as Fadlallah's) has been: "circumstances are not right" for the establishment of an Islamic state. You have to "convince" the Lebanese public to play along (cf. the quote in Cobban's piece: "If we want to get to full democracy here we need to have everyone persuaded of its benefits, and not afraid that they would be overthrown. ... So we’ll hang onto this confessional balance we have for now. But I don’t know what will happen in 20 years." I.e., substitute "democracy" for "Islamic state." Groupies like Cobban swallow the line whole, naturally.) That, more than anything, is why they're eager to do away with the current system, and they see this as their chance to make headway in that direction. I don't think it will work.

Back to Michael's piece. "And what of Hizbullah?" asks Michael:

The NSC official insists he is "worried" with the party, but also argues it "has its own interests, separate from Iran and Syria." He thinks there must be a "realistic timeframe" for Hizbullah's disarmament, and suggests the way to do this is to reinforce the Lebanese Army, which could fill the gap left by the party. "The new [Lebanese] government should tell us what the army needs."

As for Syria's using its links with Hizbullah to destabilize Lebanon, but also engaging in other efforts to provoke chaos once its soldiers pull out of the country, the senior NSC policymaker put it this way: "We have told Syria you are responsible for violence in Lebanon. If Syria wants to escalate the violence, it will be another Syrian mistake." This phrase was echoed in the lapidary opening question posed by a senior Pentagon official known as a hard-liner on the Middle East to two Lebanese visitors: "What mistake will Assad make next?"

Michael seems to share my position on the weakening of Syrian coercive influence:

The simplistic assumption is that the longer elections are delayed, the more the opposition will fray and the better the pro-Syrians will be able to protect themselves and stage a comeback. The only problem is that it will be much more difficult for Assad to sustain collaboration once Syrian soldiers and intelligence agents are gone. Gradually, the political class, which will include present Syrian allies, may see fewer and fewer advantage in deferring to Damascus.

I wonder if Berri's move falls in that category. And, as Michael notes, this shouldn't surprise anyone:

After all what does Syria offer its local friends except subservience? After 29 years, the Syrian regime, which we must reportedly thank for having robbed Lebanon blind, assassinated its leaders, bombed it cities and killed many thousands of its civilians, leaves a legacy no one cares to resurrect. Even the politicians who seconded Syria in its endeavors must realize that they finally have an opportunity to break free. If the world's superpower advises this and is willing to make things happen, shouldn't those who until recently took orders from Assad bother to take a chance?

As I have made it a habit to say, "let's see!"

Thursday, April 14, 2005

Who Trashed JR?

When I first read this insane post by our friend Juan Ricardo (JR), I didn't think too much of it: yet another anti-neocon seizure. It was extra colorful, I thought, falling back on the post-Orientalist fixtures, with a special emphasis on psycho-sexual stuff. It had the feel of an ill-tempered piece, well, more than usual that is. It also focused exclusively on The New Republic as the center of neocon evil (what, no Weekly Standard!?).

Well, now we know why. It was a vendetta piece against The New Republic, which published a devastating piece (reg. req.) by Efraim Karsh, trashing Cole and his "bad blog."

As you may remember, Cole "accused" the guys of Iraq the Model of being CIA agents, and part of a -- you guessed it -- neocon scheme. Why? They had dared to question his authority (or authoritaaa, if you're into South Park). That's something JR simply does not take kindly to.

The sad thing is that in his mind he really thinks there's a Right-wing/Jewish/Neocon/Likudnik conspiracy to take him down, which may help explain the off-the-hook material on Jews recently. As Jonathan Edelstein put it in a comment to my post the other day: it's a total meltdown chez Juan. Well, small wonder, considering what Karsh wrote. Here's a sample:

Cole suffers from many other common Arabist misconceptions that deeply prejudice and compromise his writing. Having done hardly any independent research on the twentieth-century Middle East, Cole's analysis of this era is essentially derivative, echoing the conventional wisdom among Arabists and Orientalists regarding Islamic and Arab history, the creation of the modern Middle East in the wake of World War I, and its relations with the outside world. Worse, Cole's discussion of U.S. foreign policy frequently veers toward conspiratorial anti-Semitism. This is hardly the "informed" commentary Cole claims it to be.

Not that that's anything new to my readers!

PS: Martin Kramer also called Cole on not having written a single book on Iraq, and for having the gall to belittle Kanan Makiya, who's written two:

Juan Cole, president-elect of MESA, hit a foul (as usual), by attacking Kanan Makiya, who's a pillar of Middle Eastern studies at Brandeis. "He is not a scholar," Cole blurted. "Last time I checked he was an architect." Makiya has published two books on modern Iraq with a leading university press. The last time I checked, Cole, who poses as an Iraq expert on his blog, hadn't published any.

See this earlier post of mine as well.

NB: Karsh quotes Cole as only saying that a "small percentage" of Neocons are Jewish. However, this was but a belated attempt at backtracking what Cole had written earlier about the make-up of Neocons. Back then he said that they were "predominantly Jewish."

Inventor Joe the Third (Rate)

I thought that this quote from Joseph Massad would tie together my post on Cole the other day. It shows that the underlying premises are very similar, both with regard to the ancient material and ethnicity. This is from an interview in History Workshop Journal (2002) entitled: "'No Common Ground': Joseph Massad and Benny Morris Discuss the Middle East."

The claim made by the Zionists, and by Professor Morris, that late nineteenth-century European Jews are direct descendants of ancient Palestinian Hebrews is what is preposterous here. This kind of anti-semitic claim that European Jews were not European that was propagated by the racist and biological discourses of the nineteenth century, that they somehow descend from first-century Hebrews, despite the fact that they look like other Europeans, that they speak European languages, is what is absurd. Basically by this kind of analogy, the Germans of today should claim northern India as the place of the birth of their nation and go back there.
...
Many can claim easily that the Palestinians of today are the descendants of the ancient Hebrews, and this is the bigger irony. (Emphasis mine.)

The highlighted words are the key premises shared by Cole in his view of the past and his view of ethnic identity. I wonder how widespread this primordialist understanding of ethnicity really is in ME Studies. It would be interesting to find out. I know from my reading of works on the ancient material that many just assume what ethnicity means, and often that assumption is primordialist. I suspect the same in this case.

Similarly to Cole, ethnicity for Massad is a matter of biological descent, biological features (Cole's pictures), and language (Cole had language and religion). In other words, it's textbook primordialism! It's funny because like Cole, Massad makes these assertions while simultaneously denouncing the late 19th c. "racist and biological discourses" and romantic nationalism (like Cole)! Yet he has no problem calling the Israelites "ancient Palestinian Hebrews"!

Clearly then, Massad hasn't the first idea of how ethnic identity works, and like the fathers of Arab nationalism, is operating under racialist and primordialist premises himself.

Unfortunately, Benny Morris isn't much better. His reaction to Massad's quote reveals similar underlying premises:

There is a clear, direct line of descent [of Jews]. I'm sure it's genetic as well, but it's certainly religious, and in terms of historical tradition and culture and memory and so on, and the Hebrew language is a living proof of that.

Now, Morris comes closer to a better understanding of ethnic identity when he talks about collective memory. In other words, when he talks about the narrativization of identity, which allows it to define itself and mark its difference (the process of identification and differentiation that I alluded to the other day). Religion certainly plays a role, and so does "culture," although one needs to be very careful equating ethnicity with religion or culture. That narrative line is what would allow Morris to say: "It's ridiculous to disclaim any connection between the Jews of today and the Jews of yesteryear."

Yet I found it ironic that in their respective positions on Zionism and Arab nationalism, the two highlighted much of the same elements, especially language -- the backbone of Arab nationalism -- with its facile equation of language and ethnicity (the greatest fallacy of all). I might come back to discuss this at length some other time.

But the best thing about Massad is his ready answer to everything: "it's an invention" of Orientalists or 19th c. Europeans! Some might remember my earlier post on one of Massad's terrible pieces in Al-Ahram where he informed his readers of the following:

"The term "Semite" was invented by European philologists in the 18th century to distinguish languages from one another by grouping them into "families" descended from one "mother" tongue to which they are all related. In this context, languages came to be organised into "Indo-European" and "Semitic", etc. The philologists claimed that Arabic, Hebrew, Aramaic, Amharic, etc., were "Semitic" languages, even though philologists could never find a parent Semitic language from which they all derived.
...
In keeping with the Protestant Reformation's abduction of the Hebrew bible into its new religion and its positing of modern European Jews as direct descendants of the ancient Hebrews, post- Enlightenment haters of Jews began to identify Jews as "Semites" on account of their alleged ancestors having spoken Hebrew. In fact the ancient Hebrews spoke Aramaic, the language in which the Talmud was written, as well as parts of the bible. Based on this new philological taxonomy and its correlate racial classifications in the biological sciences, Jews were endowed with this linguistic category that was soon transformed into a racial category."

That's the unfortunate (but logical?) result of Edward Said's thesis: when in doubt, claim it's an Orientalist invention! It's much easier that way. You can cover up for your ignorance while sounding "sophisticated" and get away with stupidities like this statement from the quote above: "Jews began to identify Jews as "Semites" on account of their alleged ancestors having spoken Hebrew. In fact the ancient Hebrews spoke Aramaic."

But in that HWJ interview, Massad takes that line to another level:

Joseph Massad: But as far as generalizations of racism, Professor Morris, it is you who seconds ago told us about the alleged Muslim tradition of xenophobia.
Benny Morris: It's not racist. It's a cultural tradition which denies the stranger legitimacy.
JM: These are Orientalist and racist claims.
BM: Christians and Jews in the Islamic empire were always considered second-class citizens and the rest of the world was considered infidel, unbelievers, and given to the sword. And you know that.
JM: This is just a rehearsing of tired old Orientalist claims.
BM: This is Koranic tradition.
JM: Perhaps from the Zionist and the racist Orientalist perspective, this is indeed the Muslim tradition as viewed by them, but not in reality.

Beyond the allegation of intimidation at Columbia and what have you, the guy is simply third-rate, and his third-rate assertions on ancient history and ethnic identity seem to be shared by the president-elect of MESA, one John Cole.

Addendum: The question that arises out of the last two posts is linked to the interpretation of the ME to the American public (and others in general): how can someone who has very problematic views about ethnicity properly interpret ethnic conflict, or ethnic identities that may lie at the heart of an ongoing conflict? In fact, the problem goes beyond the lack of a grasp on its workings, to doubting its validity as an analytical category and dismissing it outright. That's why Cole denies that the Darfur conflict is an ethnic conflict. Instead, they favor fitting things in a more familiar box, ideologically. That's why you have more emphasis on class and socio-economic identities as the root of conflict, even when they are not primary mobilizers. Or, you get categories that are all but useless like "right-wing" vs. "left-wing." You see this with AbuKhalil and Cole among others. Incidentally, Stacey Yadav has been noting some related problems in her outings in Beirut's southern suburbs, which are often used by the pseudo-Marxists as proof of the class element. Some of the ideological premises also came to the front with reactions to Lebanon's consociational system (cf. Jonathan Edelstein's excellent writing on this).

Now, when you consider that these are the gatekeepers, with AbuKhalil set to write a book on Lebanese identities when perhaps he provides the most distorted, ideologically biased and dishonest interpretation of them, you know there's a problem (see also Ussama Maqdisi's less-than-mediocre book on sectarianism). And it goes beyond academics to journalists as well. This became glaringly obvious in the coverage of Lebanon, and my primary focus is Lebanon. This is why I tried to shed some light on what I see as a serious problem.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Heeeeere's Johnny!

I love it when John ("Juan") Cole expands his "expertise" to areas he knows absolutely nothing about. It's always an occasion to laugh at this poseur.

Today, he decided to go into the Ancient Near East to drive home the point that historical Jewish ties to Jerusalem are minimal at best:

[I]t is worth noting that the Assyrian and other ancient scribes, who wrote down everything that happened in the Middle East in the 900s BC, even mentioning obscure little rulers, never heard of David or his kingdom, and for all we know he was actually a bedouin chieftain later mythologized into a king with a city.

What we do know is that Jerusalem was under Muslim rule for nearly 14 centuries, longer than it was under the rule of anyone else.

Fascinating, considering that the Assyrians didn't expand westwards until about a century later (that would be beginning in the early 800s, not the 900s), that is about 100 years after David's death, and about 50 years after Solomon's death. It started with Assurnasirpal II, but really, it's tied to the campaigns of Shalmaneser III and his successors.

Although John's characterization of the Assyrian scribes is hilarious, I will point out that they did write down the names of contemporary Israelite rulers as they came in contact with them through their invasions! For instance, you have the mention of Humri (Omri, king of the northern kingdom of Israel) and bīt Humri (the House of Omri), i.e., the Omride dynasty. In fact, the northern kingdom of Israel was known in the Assyrian records as māt bīt Humri, "the land of the House of Omri." That king and his dynasty were also mentioned in the 9th c. stele of a Jordanian king, Mesha the Moabite. The Assyrians also mention King "Hezekiah the Judahite" in Sennacherib's annals during his siege of Jerusalem in 701 BCE, when Sennacherib boasts that he has besieged Hezekiah in Jerusalem "like a bird in a cage." Also mentioned in the Assyrian records is Jehu, who in the Bible is said to have overthrown the Omride dynasty in the north.

David's mention comes from a mid-9th c. Aramean stele found in Tel Dan in northern Israel, probably erected by King Hazael, king of Aram-Damascus, a power player of the time. In fact, Shalmaneser's 841 campaign was aimed at crushing Hazael. He survived, and made incursions into northern Israel, which is the likely context of the Tel Dan stele. The stele mentions byt dwd, "the House of David" (i.e., the Davidic dynasty in Judah) in parallel to "Israel" (i.e., the northern kingdom). So, as evident from the Assyrian records and the Moabite stele, the northern kingdom of Israel was known as "the House of Omri" and, based on the Tel Dan stele, the southern kingdom of Judah was known as "the House of David." The fact that Assyrian scribes (whom John makes out to be wired bloggers!) didn't mention David means little.

Cole's purpose is clearly not a history lesson. His point is an old one, painting Jews as having no real or substantial historical tie to the land. He's free to think whatever he wants of course, but it becomes quite hypocritical when you hear Cole talk about 19th c. romantic nationalism:

Historians are unkind to nationalism of any sort. Nineteenth century romantic nationalism of the Zionist sort posits eternal "peoples" through history, who have a blood relationship (i.e. are a "race") and who have a mystical relationship with some particular territory. The Germans, who were very good at this game, called it "blood and soil." Nationalism casts about for some ancient exemplar of the "nation" to glorify as a predecessor to the modern nation. (Since nations actually did not exist in the modern sense before the late 1700s, the relationship is fictive. To explain what happened between ancient glory and modern nationalism, nationalists often say that the "nation" "fell asleep" or "went into centuries of decline. My colleague Ron Suny calls this the "sleeping beauty" theory of nationalism.)

But there are no eternal nations through history. People get all mixed up genetically over time, except for tiny parts of the genome like the mitochondria or the Y chromosome, on which too much emphasis is now put. Since there are no eternal nations based in "blood," they cannot have a mystical connection to the "land." People get moved around. The Turks now in Anatolia once lived in Mongolia (and most Turks anyway are just Greeks who converted to Islam and began speaking Turkish).

I'm not interested in the validity of this quote. But it struck me especially when compared to Cole's statement today about the Muslim tie to the land:

What we do know is that Jerusalem was under Muslim rule for nearly 14 centuries, longer than it was under the rule of anyone else, and Muslims consider the mosque on the Haram Sharif to be the third holiest site in the world.

Well? I think we all know the answer. If it's Arab nationalism, Palestinian nationalism, or some Islamic tie across the centuries, then that's ok. Otherwise, it's Nazi. You can't pick and choose when to accept this type of approach.

Perhaps it's a bit much to ask John to be consistent, but if he were really "unkind" to nationalism of any kind, one would expect to see that applied to Arabs and Muslims as well.

By the way, to eliminate any possible distortions or strawmen, I am not saying this in support of any attempt to destroy the Aqsa Mosque or what have you! The Israeli government itself is after such extremist groups (Kahanists, etc.).

My point is let's deal in the realm of politics. Don't jump back and forth. But Cole has made a living writing apologetics. Take for instance this recent tirade against -- who else? -- "rightwing Zionists," which sounds more like Louis Farrakhan than anything else:

As with the Zionist Right generally, he makes the mistake of racializing the Sudan problems, using anti-Semitic language accusing "Arabs" of killing thousands of "black Africans."

But the "Arabs" of the Sudan are black (some are brown or lighter shades of black, but not by any means all, and anyway so are e.g. Eritreans just to the south). The Sudanese "Arabs" just speak Arabic or identify with the Arabs. It isn't a matter of US-style race, which is based on color. Moreover, the people of Darfur are Muslims and many know Arabic. So the massacres in Darfur are not about "Arabs" versus "black Africans." They are between two groups of Muslim black Africans.

[here Cole posts two pictures of two African men]

I defy anyone to tell me which is the "black African" and which the "Arab" Janjawid in these pictures.

The rightwing Zionists want to racialize the Sudan conflict in American terms, as "Arab" versus "black African" because they want to use it to play American domestic politics, and create a rift among African-Americans and Arab-Americans. Both of the latter face massive discrimination in contemporary society, and they should find ways of cooperating to counter it. What is happening in Darfur is horrible with regard to the loss of life and the displacement of persons, but the dispute is not about race. It is about political separatism and regionalism.

Only Cole could racialize and primordialize ethnicity while simultaneously denouncing the supposed racializing of ethnic conflict! He never once mentions that the terms "black" and "Arab" are in fact used by the parties in the conflict themselves. The Arabs call the Fur, Masalit, Baggara and Zaghawa, zurga ("black") and identify themselves as Arab (and are called "Arabs" by the Fur et al.) Regardless of the fact that they both share the same skin color, or the same religion or language! This is very much an "ethnic conflict"! These are ethnic boundaries, regardless of whether we can tell them apart in pictures!

The one other time that Cole even bothered to mention the massacres in Darfur, he wrote to enlighten us:

Most of the principals on both sides of the conflict are Arabic speaking Muslims, demonstrating that such ethnic markers do not explain everything, or sometimes very much, in the Middle East. In this case a traditon of provincial autonomy and conflicts between herders and settled farmers are more important.

Here he decided that ethnicity should be reduced to religion and language! Oh, and for good measure, categorically asserted that this was not an ethnic conflict because it's more about "provincial autonomy between herders and farmers" (what he now fancily calls "political separatism and regionalism." Can you feel the expertise?)

In other words, ethnicity for Cole is to be viewed in "primordialist" terms. It's a bunch of trait lists (language, religion, race/skin color, etc.) that are observable to the outsider. In that sense, he himself is one step removed from Husri and Aflaq and the racialist primordialist Arab nationalists.

Ethnicity doesn't work that way. Ethnicity is a process of identification and differentiation. In that sense, it's the group itself that decides what are the meaningful markers and boundaries. It may not be color, language or religion! That doesn't make it less an ethnic conflict. It's cognitive. And the fact that they use terms like "zurga" or "Arab" means that these are meaningful ethnic boundaries for them.

In contrast to primordialism, there is the "circumstantialist" or "situational" approach. The main name attached with this approach is Fredrik Barth, who in 1968 edited the now classic Ethnic Groups and Boundaries. In that book, it so happens, there's an essay by Gunnar Haaland entitled "Economic Determinants in Ethnic Processes." Coincidentally, that essay discusses the Fur at length. John should've read that essay before blurting out his nonsense.

But, again, this wouldn't be the first time John wrote apologetics (especially on behalf of Arabism), even as Darfur was almost completely ignored and brushed aside by the Arab league and much of the Arab press. Ironically, the fact that he brought in the "Zionists" into this, accusing them of "creating" categories is eerily similar to the official line from Khartoum! Once again, Cole and the tyrannical regimes are practically indistinguishable. I'm not even going to bother commenting on that insane Farrakhan-like statement about "Zionists" planting the seeds of strife between African-Americans and Arab-Americans! That's more nut-house material to be discussed by Cole and his conspiracy theorist friends.

How can anyone take such a poseur seriously?

Thursday, April 07, 2005

Syria, Lebanon, and Hizbullah

Some important developments on several key issues:

1- Syrian-Lebanese relations:

The US, the EU, and the UN are pressuring Syria to open an embassy in Lebanon, something which it has refused to do since the inception of both countries. This is an important step towards a normal relationship between two independent and sovereign countries.

An-Nahar quoted a US State Department official who put it well: "[opening an embassy will be] an important symbolic procedure [to end the feeling that Lebanon is some sort of Syrian protectorate]."

The Daily Star also quote a State Department spokesperson who reportedly said: "We have always urged Syria to recognize Lebanon as a spearate and independent state and to establish an embassy there."

In another important development in the normalization of Syrian-Lebanese relations, there seems to be movement to regulate labor laws so that Syrian workers would be documented and pay taxes, etc.

2- The Shebaa Farms and Hizbullah

Roed-Larsen has been consistently firm on the Shebaa Farms, stressing that they belong to Syria. He said this after meeting with Sharaa in Syria (Sharaa, who was present, did not comment when Larsen made his statement!) and he said it again in Lebanon:

During a wide-ranging press conference yesterday Larsen also insisted the Shebaa farms are Syrian, not Lebanese.

Larsen said: "The UN Security Council took a unanimous decision on the matter. Let me stress on the word unanimous, and allow me to remind you that the Security Council is the highest international authority, and its decisions and resolutions are binding to UN state members. These decisions should be respected."

He added: "The UN considers the Security Council's Resolution 425 implemented, as Israel has completely withdrawn from the Lebanese territories."

So what does this mean, if we assume that Hizbullah won't disarm until Israel withdraws from Shebaa? The DS story notes that Kofi Annan said that "the disputed land was an issue to be discussed between the related countries - Lebanon, Israel and Syria." So this leaves a way for Syria to be in on negotiations with Israel. But that requires the Syrians to officially recognize, in writing, that the Farms are Lebanese. After that is settled, the question then is whether Hizbullah will refrain from military operations while negotiations are going on (assuming they will be going on!).

The author of the DS story, Leila Hatoum, makes a troublesome claim: "Hizbullah have refused to disarm even after the Shebaa Farms are liberated, saying there is a necessity to maintain a deterrent to Israeli threats." This was not attributed to any Hizbullah official, but Hizbullah itself has not come out and said that they will disarm once Israel withdraws from Shebaa. That theory is based on what Jumblat said after meeting with Nasrallah.

However, the quotes from Hizbullah's MP Mohammad Raad are very interesting:

Hizbullah MP Mohammed Raad proposed the idea of transforming Hizbullah's military wing into reserves for the Lebanese Army.

In an interview with a local television channel on Tuesday Raad said: "Hizbullah's arms will be discussed between all Lebanese parties to find the best solution for it.

Nick Blanford, who follows Hizbullah closely (and has talked with Raad, among others), told me of this possibility several weeks ago, after Hariri's assassination. In fact, Qornet Shehwan member Nassib Lahoud proposed to hold the resistance as a "strategic reserve" until peace is concluded with Israel. Nick figured that this will be adopted as a face-saving compromise. Nick also thought that the Shebaa Farms campaign would cease (not that there's much of a campaign anyway) and the Lebanese army would deploy to the border. Then, Nick wrote, "perhaps the Islamic Resistance would become some sort of frontier protection force under the joint command of the army and Hizbullah." Perhaps, if that does take place and the army is in control (and Hizbullah is coopted and neutralized), it will provide an incentive for the Israelis to consider withdrawing from Shebaa (similarly to what they're doing in the West Bank).

Based on Raad's statements, it seems that all of the points Nick made are being seriously considered as a face-saving compromise. In the end, Hizbullah has little choice when the majority of the Lebanese are no longer comfortable with it retaining its arms indefinitely and acting out on its own. Hizbullah understands that, I'm sure, and their ultimate goal is survival. Right now they feel threatened, and they must realize that the Lebanese are their only real safety net. Hence Raad's comments:

In an interview with a local television channel on Tuesday Raad said: "Hizbullah's arms will be discussed between all Lebanese parties to find the best solution for it.

"Hizbullah feels that it is a national matter that has to be agreed upon between the Lebanese themselves, and not the U.S. or the UN through its envoy Larsen."

Raad added that Hizbullah constitutes a line of protection for Lebanon, along with the Lebanese Army, and that UN Resolution 1559 constitutes a probable declaration of war on Hizbullah.

This is why Nasrallah has met with Jumblat, and continues to hold talks with others in the Maronite community, and the Patriarch Sfeir has confirmed that channels of dialogue are ongoing with Hizbullah. This will be the basis of the compromise, or at least, so we hope.

In the end, this will perhaps be the fatal blow to Syria's regional ambitions. There are no more cards. Now it's down to pure neogtiations, without the military pressure card that was Hizbullah and the Palestinian rejectionist factions. And you can tell that Asad is feeling the heat. In an interview on CNN Türk, Bashar lashed out with the usual cliché statements (the kind of formulaic garbage usually reserved for the venomous Buthaina Shaaban's unreadable op-eds in the DS and, even, the LA Times. Considering how formulaic all these statements are -- whether uttered by Shaaban, Imad Mustapha, Farouq Sharaa, or Bashar himself -- you get the feeling that they are blueprints to be used by any Syrian official!). But one of them took the cake. Bashar denied feeling uncomfortable for being labeled a dictator in some US circles. He said that he would feel uncomfortable only if this accusation came from the Syrian people!! Wait there's more! He went on to assert that he didn't come to power through a military coup and said: "those who accuse me of being a dictator are targeting the Syrian political system." He added: "were it not for the external interference, we would have gone a long way in the reform process." So now it's no longer the "old guard," it's "external interference." (Can you hear the crickets?)

Finally, and this is to keep us all happy, the Boston Review is promising an upcoming essay by Hizbullah groupie Helena Cobban "on Hizbullah and the prospects for a Muslim democracy." I don't know about you, but I can hardly wait!

Update: The following BBC News story (hat tip, Mechul) apparently supports Nick Blanford's position (see above):

[Hizbullah deputy leader] Sheikh [Naim] Qassim told the Financial Times that Hezbollah would discuss disarming "after Shebaa, but on condition that a credible alternative is found to protect Lebanon".

He said a Hezbollah reservist army might be "a formula for co-ordination with the Lebanese army".

While it seems that this may very well be the extent of the compromise Hizbullah is willing to make at this juncture (as apparent from Walid Jumblat's acquiescence), and that they're holding a dialoguing posture with the rest of the Lebanese (although with a preset red line!), it's still not clear to me what the "condition" they raise entails. It's not lost on anyone that their hanging on to the Shebaa Farms is a double-edged sword; a hornets nest of ambiguity: they are asking Israel to withdraw from territory that the UN holds as belonging to Syria (a position stressed by Larsen in his last visit to Syria and Lebanon). So, do they see this is an absurd condition, which means that they will get to keep their weapons indefinitely? Are they using it to maintain a regional role precisely because of the ambiguity of the ownership of the Farms?

It's still very unclear and tricky. It would be interesting to see if their bluff could be called. For instance, let's assume that they do end up taking on an "army reservist" role, and thus coordinate with the Lebanese Army. Then let's say a joint Hizbullah "reserves" and Lebanese Army patrol takes over the border control, with a declared cessation of Hizbullah military offensives in Shebaa. What happens if Israel sees this as satisfactory and decides, to call the bluff, to withdraw from Shebaa? Will we then get another set of conditions, maybe the "liberation" other "Lebanese" territory? Already, no one trusts them in the country (especially not Jumblat). What would happen then? Who knows. For now, this is the red-line they're drawing and the condition they're setting. Let's see if it's just a bluff, or stalling tactic, or if they really feel that this is a face-saving compromise.

Monday, April 04, 2005

Like Father, Like Son

Lee Smith has yet another excellent piece in the Weekly Standard on Bashar al-Asad.

One of the points Lee makes is that Bashar is not really all that different from his father, and that all things told, he will likely come out of this current crisis beaten and humiliated, but on his feet and he will survive:

The catch is that since Arab rulers do not have to answer to popular constituencies, they can absorb blows that liberal democracies cannot. Hafez, for one, reigned for three decades after he lost the Golan. If Bashar really is like his father, he will get through this very rough spot slightly humiliated, but without any fatal internal challenges to his power.

In fact, Lee thinks Bashar has an advantage that his father didn't have, and that is the myth of the "old guard":

It was Bashar's continued support of the Iraqi insurgency that, well before the assassination of former prime minister Rafik Hariri, led many observers to wonder if the novice dictator was in over his head. Perhaps so, but his presumed weakness has afforded him a gambit unavailable to his late father, Hafez, with whom he is so frequently and unfavorably compared. Bashar has managed to convince many people inside and outside of Syria that he is hostage to his father's "old guard." People want to believe this is so because they had hoped the young, Western-educated, computer-literate president would be a real reformer. But if the "old guard" has prevented him from implementing internal reforms for five years, they did not stop him from appointing his brother-in-law Asef Shawkat chief of military intelligence, the top security position in the country, immediately after the Hariri murder.

To banish or kill your enemies and circle the wagons with relatives and tribal associates is a principle favored by all Arab regimes. Syria is a family business, and even without the aura and experience of his father, Bashar runs it very much the way the old man did. Bashar is thought dim-witted because he has backed the Iraqi insurgency and Palestinian terrorist groups despite U.S. warnings, and because he overplayed his hand in Lebanon. But what would Hafez have done in the same circumstances?

It is true that Hafez signed on for the first U.S.-led Gulf War in 1991, but if that Bush White House had decided to depose Saddam and maintain a large presence in neighboring Iraq Hafez would have perceived it as his son now does--a violation of his sphere of influence. "He would've stayed out of the war and supported an insurgency," says Khazen. Bashar is only following the example Hafez set when he backed groups that killed and kidnapped Americans in Lebanon in the 1980s.

This "old guard" myth has gotten so much on my nerves, especially in how much some in the Western press have been willing to indulge it, even as it was clearly an insult to anyone's intelligence. The list is long, Joe Klein's piece in Time magazine being the latest. See also this faulty and incomplete piece by Nadim Shehadi of the Chatham House. This section is not only telling, it's jaw-dropping:

President Bashar al-Asad of Syria has spent the past two years trying to mend fences with Washington. After the fall of Baghdad, he found himself cornered on all sides by pro-US neighbours: Turkey, Iraq, Jordan and Israel. With the assassination of Hariri, he also lost his closest allies, France and Saudi Arabia. Lebanon, his only card left, is being snatched away too.
Asad has offered Washington concessions on all the issues of common interest. There has been co-operation over Iraq, where he can better control the border and provide intelligence using Syria’s extensive contacts with the Iraqi opposition that was based in Damascus before the war.
He is also offering collaboration in the ‘war’ on terror where he has proved useful in the past few years. Then there is the willingness for an unconditional resumption of peace talks with Israel, in contradiction to his father’s line.
Asad has visited Turkey and signed a treaty resolving the conflict over the border province of Antioch. Subsequently Ankara mediated for him both with Israel and the US. He has shown willingness, if not eagerness and enthusiasm, for economic and political reform, by among other things, releasing political prisoners and allowing private media and banks, as well as abolishing Ba’ath party military education in schools. (Emphasis added.)

Josh Landis has argued against the "old guard" myth, and recently turned our attention to a piece by Subhi Hadidi that made a similar argument, that the people who run Syria are not the old guard, but Bashar and a circle of limited family members (as I and Michael Young have also argued). Hadidi makes a claim similar to the one made by the Kuwaiti as-Siyasah right after the Hariri assassination, that the decision to eliminate Hariri was taken way up in the power chain and was in fact opposed by the old guard figures of Kanaan and Khaddam (a similar claim was made by Michael Young, and an identical claim was made after the attempt on Marwan Hamade):

Après ce survol, la question qui s’impose aujourd’hui est de savoir si ce groupe de décideurs, ou plus précisément le cercle des six, est assez solide et compact pour faire face aux épreuves à venir. C’est en tout cas ce que les développements dans les mois qui viennent ne manqueront pas de mettre en évidence, avec l’aggravation de la crise du régime, la perte de la carte libanaise et l’exaspération des antagonismes au sommet de l’Etat. A ce propos, et selon les dernières rumeurs qui circulent à Damas, il semblerait que Ghazi Kana’an et Abdelhalim Khaddam avaient voté contre l’élimination de Hariri, alors que Assef Shawkat, Maher al-Assad et Bahjat Soulaymane avaient voté pour. Quant au président Bachar, les rumeurs l’ignorent complètement et ne daignent même pas signaler s’il s’était abstenu ou pas!…

I'll translate the last part:

According to the latest rumors circulating in Damascus, it seems that Ghazi Kanaan and Abdelhalim Khaddam had voted against the elimination of Hariri, whereas Assef Shawkat [Bashar' brother-in-law], Maher al-Assad [Bashar's brother], and Bahjat Suleiman [extremely powerful intelligence officer, and an early backer of Bashar] had voted for it. As for president Bashar, the rumors ignore him completely and do not even deign to signal whether he abstained or not!

Perhaps Farouq al-Sharaa's frenzied attempts at removing from the UN report the threat made by Bashar to Hariri in their last meeting is an indication as to where his vote went (Kofi Anan refused that as well as the embarrassing attempts by pro-Syrian Lebanese officials at rewording the French proposal for an international investigative committee). Like father, like son indeed.

Hizbullah Items

My apologies for the long absence, but I've been, and continue to be, swamped with work.

Here are a few items from last week on Hizbullah that might be of interest.

First, Michael Young's op-ed. Michael, who thinks that disarming Hizbullah is no longer "a question of whether, but of when" is advising Hizbullah to dialogue directly with the Christians, as opposed to making inflammatory suggestions on Al-Manar (I've mentioned Nasrallah's nasty interview a while back). Michael notes the previous collaboration between Aounists and Hizbullah, and that might be tried again as this Naharnet piece suggests, quoting Aoun:

The general also said he would possibly "meet with Hizbullah" after his return and possibly conclude an election pact with Party of God leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah.

But beyond tactical talks, it behooves Hizbullah to start an honest reconciliation with the rest of Lebanon, and stop playing the game of double-talk: claiming an above the fray nationalist stature, while simultaneously playing a specifically Shiite card (with all the elements of the Lebanese Shiite narrative). No one is buying it anymore. I'll touch on this in an upcoming post, but for now, see Hazem Saghieh's scathing remarks in this al-Hayat piece (Arabic).

Perhaps Nasrallah's latest painfully obvious attempt at machismo, supports Michael's reading of the inevitability of Hizbullah's disarmament. Nasrallah is famous for this rhetoric, especially when everyone knows the outcome! It's a bid to score a cheap point, for free! The thing is that this is so tired and obvious, I don't know who he thinks he's kidding, except for those in the Shiite community who actually believe this kind of rhetoric.

In a sense, after seeing the writing on the wall, and perhaps signaling a readiness to disarm provided with some face saving measure of the Shebaa Farms, it was to be expected that he will highten the "defiant" rhetoric, to try to sell the "tough" and "resiliant" image, of the Party not bowing to American pressure. At this stage, the Lebanese attitude is "whatever, as long as you'll eventually disarm!"

To those who misread Jumblat's statements after meeting with Nasrallah (see my previous post), Michael had this to say:

The real explanation is that the Syrians are reportedly to complete a full withdrawal within the next two weeks. If the information is true, the short deadline imposes on Jumblatt and the opposition, but also on Nasrallah, agreement on a number of fundamentals. If we are to understand Jumblatt's remarks properly, he reassured Hizbullah that its interests would not swiftly collapse with the Syrian order in Lebanon. He also probably sought to see what Nasrallah's intentions were now that the Syrians are departing. In that context, it's also time for the party's traditional adversaries in the Christian community to echo the assurances of the Druze leader, but also make their own deep worries known to Nasrallah.

But beyond local realities and immediate regional ones (the Syrian withdrawal), the Iranian element should also be considered. This is addressed in this Al-Ahram piece, which thinks that Hizbullah ultimately won't be able to rely on Tehran. The Iranian issue is very complex, and I frankly don't know how that might play out.

Michael Herzog wrote the following analysis for WINEP. Herzog is correct in seeing Hizbullah's vulnerability in the wake of the Syrian withdrawal, but I disagree with much of his analysis. I think ultimately, it's coming from a narrow perspective prevalent in some quarters in Israel that once the Syrians withdraw, Hizbullah would or "could further provoke Israel free of Syria’s restraining hand." I don't think that will happen. The only thing I'm still unsure about, with regard to military operations, is whether Hizbullah's insistance on the Shebaa Farms card might be an excuse to carry on limited minor operations in that area. However, like Farid el-Khazen recently noted, " Hizbullah's stand has little support and the party's popularity outside its Shiite base has continued to decline since the Israeli withdrawal from South Lebanon in 2000." Also, the growing resentment among Palestinians will further curb Hizbullah's meddling in their affairs, as Mahmoud Abbas moves to implement a truce and disarm the militants. If he succeeds, the pressure will grow even more on Hizbullah to disarm. The only remaining excuse would be the Golan, and I doubt that that issue would be resolved other than through negotiations. Just like Syria's regional card has been severely diminished, so has Hizbullah's (although, tragic decisions can never be ruled out).

Finally, Ali Abdallah lays out what he thinks is the proper course of action for Hizbullah:

By getting involved in the internal struggle on the side of the loyalists and putting its popular and military capabilities at the service of the Syrian equation in Lebanon will make the execution of Resolution 1559 and its coupling with the Taif Accord, namely the disarming the resistance/Hizbullah, as Larsen and some Arab countries have done, a universal demand. The adoption of the Taif Accord as a blueprint for solving the current political situation will not remove the danger hanging over Hizbullah's head, but can give it enough time to effect the necessary move to the post liberation and post Syrian period in Lebanon - especially in view of the many Israeli messages to the effect that it is ready to evacuate the Shebaa Farms if the Lebanese army deploys there, which if it happens, will completely close the circle around the Movement.

The opposition's insistence on the implementation of the Taif Accord is a message of appreciation and friendship towards Hizbullah, which the latter should seize upon and quickly dissociate itself from the internal struggle, accelerate the implementation the Taif Accord, take part in the upcoming general election which aims at formulating a new national equation based on sovereignty and independence, and transform itself accordingly into a Lebanese political party.

Jumblat's meeting should be seen in that light. The next step for the Party is, as Michael said, to hold real talks with the rest of the Lebanese, as the latter are, now more than ever, its only viable option.

Update: I'm glad to see Rich is back! He shared his thoughts, and as it happens, my view, on Hizbullah. His post nails it (don't forget to read his comment in the comments section as well):

Is your movement backed into a corner? Are you smarting from pressure from local and international opposition? Are you seeing the guarantor of the status quo in your neighborhood sneaking out the back door under pressure from within the country? Well, if you are, then it must be time to make some new allies, and Nasrallah seems to be trying to do this.

First and foremost, we must consider that Hizbullah's statements weeks ago about safeguarding national unity and sovereignty in Lebanon, as I fully expected, were completely meaningless. Hizbullah is not a Lebanese national movement, after all – it is a resistance movement that defines itself based on its religious foundations and on its antipathy toward Israel. It began as an attempt to export the 1979 Iranian revolution abroad, and it still maintains at its core a pro-Iran and pro-Shiite religious and political orientation. Hizbullah is concerned primarily with itself, and it has hardly wavered from its standard line of contempt for the multifarious nature of Lebanese political life. It would like nothing more than to continue to be able to do what it has been doing all along - to aggrandize itself at the expense of diminished prospects for long-term Lebanese stability. That said, with Nasrallah feeling a bit isolated now under the specter of a complete Syrian withdrawal, Hizbullah possibly stands to lose many of the gains it made within the Lebanese state under the post-civil-war order in Lebanon. Aligning themselves with Palestinian groups, namely those in the camps in Lebanon, makes quite a bit of sense under these circumstances. The Palestinians of these camps - who are politically isolated, armed, organized, radicalized, and basically deprived of any legal rights under the Lebanese state - were used for years as a bargaining chip by Syria with which to influence the Lebanese state; Nasrallah may find the same utility in them as well. Rest assured that whatever Nasrallah finds in them, it is for Hizbullah's reasons alone – not for the good of Lebanon, and certainly not for the Palestinians.

This is from his comment:

Hizbullah is trying to divide the opposition - because if it does not, Hizbullah itself may splinter and weaken in the process. The clock is ticking, and Nasrallah knows that he cannot keep up this marathon dance that he started doing on March 8.

The essence of Hizbullah's position since March 8 has been defensive - a position they established as soon as they decided to come out and claim that they were fighting for Lebanese sovereignty. The natural response of incredulous Lebanese would be to say "prove it." In this light, subsequent events, namely the massive opposition demonstration soon thereafter, pretty much sent Hizbullah back to the drawing board. Not only would it have to find a way to demonstrate that it represents more than a quisling plurality (if even that) within the electorate, but it would need to find ways to shake up the opposition and divide it against itself. Not easy under the circumstances.

Hence all the finger-pointing about traitors and collaborators within the opposition, while simulataneously seeking allies within the very groups that strike fear in the hearts of Lebanese government members (Palestinian militant groups). I take this to mean that Hizbullah is near desperation - the center of the Lebanese polity is holding, and it is doing so without Hizbullah's sponsorship. Methinks Nasrallah doth protest too much, actually; he has shown us what we all should have been able to expect upon hearing his speech on March 8. Lots of threats, that is.

It's quite pathetic when the only ones who will cheer you on are the rejectionist factions in the Palestinian camps. The thing is, the Palestinians in the territories have had it with Hizbullah. So just like the skirmishes in the Shebaa Farms didn't sell, this won't either. It's meaningless. Instead of spending the energy where it counts, it's being spent on empty rhetoric to an irrelevant audience. But then again, that has been Hizbullah's calling card, especially as it turned to a form of Islamic Pan-Arabism (Nasrallah as Nasser).

This is all in a bid to maintain regional relevance when everyone is pressuring them to dump it. The problem is that they have built their internal power on that regional role. That's why Nasrallah needs to up the fiery rhetoric. But the louder it gets, the more meaningless it is, and more importantly, the more painfully obvious it is.

Update 2: This report in Haaretz may explain Hizbullah's recent excessive rhetoric and its Palestinian context as outlined by Rich:

Over the past few weeks, Hezbollah has eased the pressure it had been placing on Palestinian terror organizations to carry out attacks on Israelis, a senior Israel Defense Forces officer said on Tuesday.

The IDF believes the decline in Palestinian violence will continue through the implementation of the disengagement plan.

The senior officer said the current period of relative calm serves the interests of most of the Palestinian players and added that he does not expect an outburst of violence before the Israeli pullout from the Gaza Strip and northern West Bank, which is scheduled to begin in July.

The IDF attributes the change in Hezbollah's position to the group's internal politics in Lebanon in light of the call to withdraw Syrian military forces from the country.

The Palestinians have shown their resentment of Hizbullah and Syrian meddling in their affairs, and it was most evident after the recent Tel Aviv attack, which the Palestinians attributed to Hizbullah, while Israel traced it to Islamic Jihad in Damascus. The Haaretz piece also notes that the Syrians have also issued directions to IJ forbidding them from launching attacks.

So Hizbullah is upping the rhetoric as its actual activity is being curtailed due to internal and international pressure.