Across the Bay

Sunday, October 30, 2005

It's the Flynt-stones

Readers know well by now that I think Flynt Leverett is one of the most overrated people running around Washington. The guy never ceases to amaze me, and he succeeded yet again today in a typically useless piece in the WP. It's all the more surprising considering that his boss, and once fellow traveler, has given up on Bashar. But when your entire career has been tied to your book and thesis on Bashar you would need to defend it to the bitter end.

In reading Leverett, one cannot escape the feeling of morbid fascination with thuggish behavior, the kind that exists with observers of the Italian mafia. The way he presents Hafez's "struggle" is a possible example. It becomes quite perverse when Leverett intimates that we haven't yet given Bashar enough time to do the same (how inconsiderate of us): "in the Middle East, a national leader in office for five years is just beginning to be taken seriously because he hasn't been shot." Yes, let's give him time to massacre 20,000 people like his father did, you know, just to make his bones (no pun intended). Don't brush this off as an exaggerated joke. Remember how my friend Josh Landis at one point made the irresponsible and foolish argument that the US should back Bashar as he takes care of the Sunnis in Syria who supposedly would be opposed to Bashar cooperating on Iraq?

Flynt essentially repeats the standard formula du jour: "[m]aybe, just maybe" Bashar will give up Maher and Asef and "be the only man left standing at the end of the day." And that's about it. Then, we move to the "real" field of expertise, where Flynt will once again take this opportunity to recite his policy advice that he's been peddling. The brief history offered before reaching that is also important, as that remains the golden age for Leverett, the Paradise Lost that he wishes he could recapture. The age of "process." "The Clinton era," when the Syrians were treated like the strongest regional power. It's inextricable from his thesis. Of course, then there is the inevitable reference to Syrian "cooperation" on intelligence, followed by the ritual stoning of Neoconservatives, and, naturally, there has to be a reference to "carrots" and "sticks" somewhere in the midst of the blather.

One of the funniest things to note when reading Bashar groupies is how they handle Syria's role in the Iraqi insurgency. You have the Imad Mustapha line (published by Josh), about how Syria has done all it can, but somehow, it can still "do more" if the US accepts Syria's offer of undefined secret intelligence cooperation (but apparently, one that Flynt would jump on) in return for public US acknowledgment of Syrian good behavior, and ceasing of pressure. Flynt here characterizes Syria's position as "unwillingness, absent a broader strategic understanding with Washington, to stem the flow of people and supplies into Iraq." Yes, "strategic understanding." In other words, the US leaves Iraq immediately, and Syria expands its influence into Iraq. Josh Landis himself wrote that the Syrian regime sees the U.S. presence in the Middle East, specifically in Iraq, as the most serious threat to its vital interests in the region, even more serious than the threat of radical Sunni Islamists. So no amount of "cooperation" will matter. Despite what the Syrians say, it's diametrically opposed to their interests. Furthermore, I'll remind you of what Bashar told Amanpour in the interview on CNN. He made sure to distinguish between insurgents who kill Iraqi civilians, and those who kill US troops. That should give you an idea. The only "deal" the Syrians have in mind, to quote a friend of mine, is one where the U.S. agrees to withdraw, and a "partnership" in which the Syrians see it out the door -- in Lebanon as well as Iraq. Syria pays no price, makes no public shift in policy, and only offers a dubious, unclear, and secret, intelligence "cooperation." Flynt sees that as a good deal. I think, and I believe the administration thinks so as well, it is a typical Syrian manoeuver.

Flynt then expresses more compassion for Bashar, as he was "climbing a slow learning curve." And the cutest part: "He has been forced by changing circumstances to adapt the foreign policy script he inherited from his father -- with some dismal results." Yes... because you see, before that, he was using a different, vibrant, revolutionary foreign policy, that drastically departed from that of his father!! And you see, he was "forced" to move away from his "reformist" impulses (I, mean, come on, just look at the woman he married for a "confirmation of his reformist impulses"), and got pulled back into the ways of his father. Godfather III sucked, so, spare me the Michael Corleone lines. I guess he was "forced" to blow up Hariri as well. I mean it's all part of a slow learning curve.

Also, I couldn't help but laugh reading this part:

His overly aggressive handling of the Lebanon "file," documented in the U.N. report, alienated French President Jacques Chirac and set the stage for the passage of Security Council Resolution 1559 in 2004, which mandated the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon.

If memory serves me right, and it does, Flynt at the time was against Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon! He thought, of course, that Bashar should be allowed to hang around Lebanon, and Lebanon could then be used to get supposed Syrian cooperation in Iraq! Who was the genius who hired this man?! Of course, you didn't hear Bashar complaining! In fact, he gave Flynt exclusive access at the blockbuster event known as the Baath Party Conference, which was truly one groundbreaking moment in Syrian history!

Then after all the yacking, comes the dramatic climax. Unfortunately, it's nothing original (nothing Flynt says ever is):

Yet it remains unclear what outcome France, Britain and the United States are ultimately seeking. If the international community imposes sanctions on Syria, the regime may be able to hunker down like Saddam did in the 1990s, an unsatisfactory outcome for the West as well as for the Syrian people. If, on the other hand, the regime implodes, that could pose even greater dangers. Ethnic and sectarian violence could feed into and off of instability in Iraq while an anti-American, heavily Islamist leadership could fill the political vacuum in Damascus. Even if Bashar did order Hariri's killing, do we want to treat him like a Milosevic-type criminal figure? Or do we want to offer him a way out as an inducement for Syria's strategic realignment, much as we made a deal with Libya's Moammar Gaddafi, whose regime killed not 22 people, but 270 people (mostly Americans) in the bombing of Pan Am 103?

I mean, it goes without saying. If you cut a deal with a man who killed 270 people, you surely could give my boy a break. After all, he only killed 22, "[e]ven if Bashar did order Hariri's killing"! But, seriously, what do you expect from a man who judged Bashar's "reformist impulses" by the woman he married! I thank the entire pantheon of gods, every day, that Flynt is as far away from government as I am.

Needless to say, the comparison with Qaddafi is utterly useless. How does Syria's position parallel Libya's, geopolitically? How high up the US list was Libya when Qaddafi made his offer!?

Anyway, it's the same old "do we want to offer him a way out as an inducement for Syria's strategic realignment"? First of all, that assumes that he will be able to give up Maher and Asef, which is doubtful. Secondly, he has already signaled his unwillingness for a public reversal of the 30-year old foreign policy (you know, the one he was "forced" to adopt), and as Andrew Tabler noted, it's unclear if he even can. Moreover, it shouldn't be discounted that he may be an ideological hardliner anyway.

Bashar's offer so far has been the covert intelligence cooperation on Islamists. Period. It's nothing new, and it won't fly. Landis has said that the real change of behavior that's being asked of him -- the complete reversal of Syrian foreign policy -- is tantamount to regime change as far as Bashar is concerned. Furthermore, there is a "false sense of confidence" in Assad's last remaining card (boosted by Flynt), that after him, will come chaos. That's more than enough reason for Flynt to propose giving his boy a chance. Why? There's really no other reason anymore! That's it! That, and the "slow learning curve!" Leverett doesn't even feel the need to explain further. He can't, anyway, and that's what his boss understood. But then again, he didn't tie his reputation to Bashar's ship (which is why, unable to muster enough honesty to admit his misreading, Flynt needs to lash out against "Neocon theology"). Which leads us to the moral of this little tale:

It may be tempting to see Bashar as a Macbeth-like figure, driven to paralysis by his victim's ghost and doomed. But policymakers are not just passive members of the audience in this drama. On the real world's stage, they share responsibility for what happens next, regardless of Bashar's fate.

Yes, deep... If only you were the policymaker Flynt. Bashar would've been a happy man.

Update: Over at Beirut to the Beltway, Kais writes on Syria's plan of attack. It's bad news.

Saturday, October 29, 2005

Empty Shell?

Yassin al-Haj Saleh writes in the DS:

The Damascus Declaration could be seen as an early Syrian reaction to the Mehlis report. The intention of the signatories was to propose an option different than what the Syrian regime has been offering: either the regime on the one hand or chaos or extremist Islamism on the other. The signatories sought to say that there would not be a vacuum of power should the doors of the country be opened to the unknown, and should the regime collapse under international pressure.

As George Sabra, a speaker from the Syrian People Democratic Party, put it, the document was intended to show that "Syria is not politically an empty shell." He underlined that there do exist popular forces in the country, with a long history of democratic struggle - trustworthy groups that can be dealt with. These forces are united in their support for democratic and national change, and have a program that dovetails with the spirit of modernity in this era of world history.

Now that the Mehlis report is out, it is becoming increasingly clear that it will be difficult, perhaps impossible, for both Syria and its regime to be saved together. The Damascus Declaration, in calling for change, has the aim of separating the fate of Syria from that of its regime. This is the great challenge that the Syrian opposition will have to face up to in the coming months. The stronger and more united and active the democratic opposition is, the less grim the future of the country will be.

Perhaps, combine that with my proposal (which is flexible), and perhaps it's something to keep in mind. I would even say, if Bashar decides to give up Asef and Maher (doubtful), he needs to be pushed in this direction. Even if he stays as president, the structure gets redefined and the base broadened to allow proper participation (on road to a proper power-sharing formula), and all the reform process gets quickly and seriously activated, under close EU and US supervision and follow-up.

This is the ideal situation, but no one believes Bashar will do this on his own. The EU and the US can do much to push in that direction, and make sure that in the end, the status quo in Syria changes. Only in this context is keeping Bashar a viable option.

Like Lee said, this is an internal Syrian battle that should be put in its actual internal framework inside Syria. The Syrians need to start taking part of that and taking responsibility for their own fate, instead of sticking their heads in the sand as their fate is being determined for them by a bunch of hapless kepltocratic thugs. They need to start looking at each other, and facing their differences in the open (the Lebanese and Iraqis aren't better), and stop being taken hostage by the regime's threats of après moi le deluge, and exorcising their demons at the expense of their neighbors.

Nasrallah's Self-Righteous Rant

On the eve of the annual Hizbullah rally, Michael Young wrote a really excellent op-ed on Hizbullah and Shiite isolation:

Surely, the camp of murder suspects is not where Hizbullah and Lebanon's Shiites even objectively want to be, let alone deserve to be. At the March 8 demonstration at Riad al-Solh Square, Nasrallah turned himself into the primary sentinel of the Syrian order in Lebanon; his party's television station, when it paid any attention at all to the "Independence Intifada" gatherings, tried to depict them, most notably the massive March 14 demonstration, as a Trojan horse for alleged Christian extremist groups. This was not only insulting; in retrospect it was foolish.

No good will come to the Shiites if, following Hizbullah's and Amal's lead, they side with Syria against the consensus in Lebanon building up around the Mehlis report. No good will come to Hizbullah and Amal if they use skepticism directed against the report to protect themselves from their foreign foes. Certainly, if Syria becomes increasingly entangled in its own contradictions on the Hariri assassination, Hizbullah will lose a vital ally; but that only makes it more urgent that the party transcend the alliance, not latch on to it irresponsibly so that it will sink if the Syrian regime does, while damaging domestic communal relations in the process.

Yet, placing itself above Lebanese consensus is Hizbullah's trademark, along with it self-righteous claim to a monopoly on nationalism (backed of course, by a threat of arms!), which I've touched on before, linking to pieces by Hazem Saghieh on the subject. What that really amounts to is Hizbullah seeking to dictate foreign policy.

Nasrallah did not disappoint, delivering the usual self-righteous rants, the thinly veiled threats, and the standard ritual stoning of the devils. Highlights of his speech can be found here (Arabic) and here (English). Leave it to the typically stupid editorial of the DS to call it "the right message." The piece of garbage editorial left out that for all his talk about the "popular agenda of the Lebanese people," Nasrallah stood against it in his own pro-Syrian rally on March 8, offended it with a tasteless photo-op with murderer Rustom Ghazaleh, and continues to stand outside Lebanese concensus with his stance on the Mehlis report, and his defence of the Syrian leadership, hiding behind that disingenuous talk about "concrete evidence." I'd like to see Nasrallah's reaction should Hariri or Seniora make a speech defending Mu'ammar Qaddafi, and exonerate him of all charges in the disappearence of Imam Musa as-Sadr, on the basis that no "concrete evidence" was ever brought against him.

But once again, this is merely a case of HA self-righteousness and haughty absolutism. So while indeed Nasrallah's focus was more on Roed-Larsen's report (on the implementation of UNR 1559), Nasrallah took enough tasteless jabs at Mehlis as well, accusing him of trying to sow strife among the Shiites and Sunnis through the "Mr X" (Nabih Berri) reference. If there is tension it's because of HA's insistence on undermining consensus and directly opposing (and offending) the national sentiment. The Lebanese bloggers saw right through his hypocrisy. See here, here, here, and, earlier, here and here.

Nasrallah launched yet another indirect attack at Seniora, essentially accusing him of betrayal. He veiled it by making it seem like an attack on Roed-Larsen:

"When officials talk to us about their policies, they tell us exactly what they state in their ministerial statement; they are not with 1559, and the Cabinet confirmed this stance in its latest session," he said.

"However, the report claims the officials told Larsen in private just the opposite," he added. "Larsen wants to plant the seeds of suspicions and cause trouble."

First, the cabinet did not say it is against 1559. The cabinet's statement actually ignored 1559 altogether, and that was its hapless way of rejecting HA's pressure through its ministers to oppose it outright, and has also called for it to be handled internally through "dialogue." Seniora reiterated this stance after HA's fanfare:

We have clearly said that we seek the continuation of dialogue, and this is the position of the Lebanese government. We have always expressed that Lebanon respects the decision of international law. Lebanon is not at all in conflict with international law. We undergo this process through our respect for international resolutions on the one hand, and on the other hand, through expressing that some articles in UNR 1559 require consensus among the Lebanese, and this consensus comes about through a process of dialogue that we seek and continue to do. (Emphasis added.)

So Seniora contradicted Nasrallah's interpretation of the government's position. But Nasrallah turned it on Roed-Larsen, and that he was seeking to sow divisions among the Lebanese, and adding that he lied in making it seem as if Seniora was telling him one thing and telling HA another. That last part was an attack on Seniora, not Roed-Larsen, and it was meant to dictate Nasrallah's interpretation of the government's position as the official stance: rejection of UNR 1559.

Seniora quietly refrained from adopting that. But he needs to be much more forceful and not be bullied by Nasrallah's threats. Bshara Sharbel said the same thing:

The duty of the cabinet of the problematic majority is to be aware that while the turtle pace gives the impression of patience and wisdom, it also could be seen as losing the race.

Now you understand what I meant when I said that HA's weapons destroy all semblance of internal balance. And this is also why I keep calling on Aoun not to undermine Seniora.

Furthermore, calls for properly defining the framework and mechanisms of this "dialogue" are on the rise, including from Seniora himself, and rightly so. Of course, what the rest of the country means by dialogue is different from what Hizbullah means. Their understanding is: don't talk about it, don't even think about it, it's not happening, toe our line on the matter. In essence, we are witnessing (contrary to the stupid assertions by twit HA groupie Helena Cobban) HA's conception of government, and it's in no way "democratic."

Moreover, a separate rally in the Bekaa included the highly unpopular Syrian-backed PFLP-GC (yet another provocative and offensive move by HA), and saw Hamas banners alongside HA ones, in yet aonther assertion of HA tying the fate of the Palestinian factions' weapons with its own. That was emphasized in the speeches, including this gem by the PFLP-GC representative (whose speech was followed by HA's representative), which echoed Ahmadinejad's remark:

We say to the world, especially to the Lebanese, that we will not abandon our weapons, our resistance, and our Jihad. We will not back down until Israel is eliminated from existence, and the withdrawal of the last American soldier from the region. Short of that, the weapons will stay in our hands to defend our nation, our land, and our Jerusalem. We warn against any attempt to touch the Islamic state in Iran and Syria. We will defend them together in the Islamic resistance in Lebanon, and the Intifada inside Palestinine, hand in hand, through the Mohamedan arsenal.

In light of all this insanity, I found Michael's conclusion perfectly on target:

Lebanon's future will be intimately affected by how Shiites decide to shape it. They can, like Hizbullah, dream of turning the country into a Hanoi rather than a Hong Kong, to paraphrase Walid Jumblatt; into a citadel of rejection opposed to whomever Nasrallah brands a mortal enemy. But the fact is that only a minority of Shiites (indeed of the Lebanese in general) has such an aspiration, hostility toward Israel and the U.S. notwithstanding. That's why its time for the community to more clearly define its aims and set out its demands, in such a way that all the religious communities can agree. There is no sense in turning Detlev Mehlis into a bone of domestic contention, not if the upshot is that others will think you are shielding criminals.

But I'd like to end with this brave piece by Shiite cleric Hani Fahs, using remarkably strong terminology, and which echoed Hazem Saghieh's argument (see links above):

The existence of the weapons, outside government [control], is in itself a temptation for internal strife (fitna), superiority, elimination [of the Other], and ostracism (takfir). It is perhaps the single official proof for those who carry it of the apostasy (kufr) of the Other and his/her unpatriotism.

For Lebanon to move forward away from, to use Sharbel's words, a "balance of terror" between the communities, brought about by the Syrian-imposed 2000 electoral law, and the Jumblat-Hizbullah tactics (they specifically imposed the 2000 law, with Berri, to marginalize southern voters, particularly Shiite voters, who were not expected to vote for them. They had no confidence they would be able to win all Shiite seats, let alone non-Shiite seats, alongside Berri at the qada level. On the eve of the elections, the late Samir Qassir lamented the fact that the opposition was not going to run in the south, even if it was going to lose under this law. HA is still trying to amend its relations with all the parties it bullied in the last election because of that strategy.), and into more intra-communal diversity, more dissenting Shiite voices need to make themselves heard.

Update: For the absolute dumbest, most ridiculous, anachronistic, psychologically issue-laden, and disingenuous piece of crap presented as "analysis" of Hizbullah and Nasrallah's speech, you need to enter the bizarro world of the Angry Hair. It's remarkable in its stupidity and dishonesty, I don't even know where to begin. I can't decide which is worse, him or Cobban. Both are equally useless and wrong. Be warned, before you click. The level of stupidity is alarmingly high.

Update 2: Ghassan Tueni wonders (in his typical jabby style) why, among other things, didn't Nasrallah issue a single statement of condemnation of the targeting of civilians and civilian areas after the Syrian withdrawal, and why there was not a single word of solidarity with them. And as he hails the calls for defining the dialogue with the Party and the Palestinians, he chastizes HA for resorting to demagoguery, "which has caused and continues to cause Arabs to pay a heavy price in land and blood."

What Will Bashar Do?

A few items on Syria. An interview with Michael Young by Bernard Gwertzman of CFR as well as this op-ed by Young in IHT:

Bogus cooperation will not go far, nor will efforts to try the possible suspects in Syrian courts, unless this follows an internationally endorsed Syrian investigation. It is unlikely that a political deal - where Syria might be offered breathing room in exchange for ending its support for the Iraqi insurgency, leaving Lebanon alone and cutting its ties to Palestinian militant groups and Hezbollah - could avert a handover of officials who might have participated in Hariri's assassination. At best, Assad can play for time and avoid giving Mehlis anything to strengthen his case.
...
Assad will enforce unity inside, but may also accept confrontation outside.
...
The real question, however, is whether political forces inside Syria will sit idly by as the regime takes the country into a period of prolonged uncertainty. There may be no alternatives today to Bashar Assad, but as his regime prepares for a siege, political spaces may be filled by those who do not wish to suffer for the Assads.

The confrontation has indeed been flexed, with the Palestinians in Lebanon, and perhaps with the IJ operation in Hadera, which has prompted the Quartet to call on Syria to expel IJ. As for cooperation, after a surprise lightning visit by Mubarak to Damascus, where the Egyptian president told his Syrian counterpart that he has no choice but to cooperate, Bashar announced the launching of a Syrian investigation to work with the UN probe. The typical Syrian aspect of this move was to also beat the Security Council vote on a resolution demanding cooperation that is said to have gathered the nine required votes to pass. On the other hand, it undermines Syria's rejection of the Mehlis Report.

It is doubtful, as Michael wrote, that the UN will simply accept a Syrian-led effort that will produce nothing new. Proper interviews with Asef, Maher, and Bashar himself have to be conducted in a proper environment abroad. I share Michael's skepticism that this will go smoothly.

IHT also published another op-ed by Andrew Tabler. Reading Andrew's piece, you can see some of Josh Landis' proposals on "carrots" repeated (Andrew is actually the source of the Iraqi-pipeline "carrot"). Andrew's piece contains some inherent paradoxes. For one, Andrew doubts whether anyone in Syria can reverse the 30-year old policy. But then he says that Assad should be given a chance to prove he's in charge. In charge to do what? Aren't the demands precisely the abandonment of Syria's 30-year old foreign policy? I mean, if not, then what exactly is the change in behavior that's being requested!? I'll tell you, based on that incredibly stupid letter by the hapless Imad Mustapha that Josh published, what Bashar's fantasy is: covert intelligence cooperation in Iraq. Period. Well, that's not gonna happen.

Secondly, if the country is run by committee (what I've called the family's inner circle, and certainly Bashar is part of it, so he's not the odd man out), then what does consolidating power even mean?! He already did that and there is absolutely no progress, and by doing that he made Asef in charge of several key positions. So if the suggestion is consolidating more power in the hands of Bashar alone (a proposal that could be dubious on its own, since it even narrows the base more!), doesn't that mean dumping Maher and Asef? isn't that what we've talked about (Michael Young, Lee Smith and I) and how it's quite unlikely (as Josh himself said), if he tries there's bound to be violence? So in the end Andrew's proposal takes us nowhere new. It's the same dilemma. Andrew's proposal has already been made through the edited version of the Mehlis Report. When that report named Asef and Maher, everyone knew the deal, as Lee Smith made clear. Everyone doubts that Bashar will comply with that demand. The question then becomes whether he'll do the old thing of sitting tight, burning up his neighbors, and hoping this whole thing goes away (as Josh said in so many words in recent posts). It's a big gamble. It remains to be seen what the Mubarak visit and Bashar's decision of cooperation actually mean. The move on the Syria-Iraqi border doesn't mean anything to me. In fact, it's perhaps an indication of Bashar's intransigence on the limits of what he's willing to do, and the games he still thinks he can play (offer hints of something, just enough to get into a process, then stall indefinitely on everything else).

If the idea is behavior change, then don't be suckered. Let it all be public (no covert intelligence cooperation coupled with double talk) and clear, and followed up on. Syria's game is talk and hints, but no real action. It would be disastrous for all involved (including the Syrian people) if there is no accountability. The EU has a lot of leverage and it's clear that all that matters to Bashar is the US. It was made clear to him what's requested of him. His only remaining shot at presenting himself as a viable option to be worked with is for him to dump Asef and Maher, open up to the opposition, and open up the system, while still remaining in power, but by quickly enacting serious reforms and serious concrete steps towards democratization, while abandoning the fantasy of returning to the pre-February 14 status quo in Lebanon, let alone the Iraq and Palestinian fronts. But I seriously doubt he'll do that.

Lee Smith's op-ed in the DS also ponders this matter.

[T]he Syrian "deal" that the Bush administration allegedly floated two weeks ago - namely that Damascus give up the suspects in the Hariri assassination, abandon Palestinian and Lebanese rejectionist groups, lay off Lebanon, and end the passage of combatants into Iraq in exchange for leaving Syria alone - demanded that President Bashar Assad effectively renounce his father's legacy and at last recognize that he's not going to get anything (never mind the Golan Heights) by negotiating over other peoples' dead bodies.

The opening hinted at in the Mehlis report is arguably more palatable: that the president give up his brother Maher, and his brother-in-law, Assef Shawkat, and he will get yet another chance to prove what so many desperately want to believe - that the Westernized Internet-savvy young president is a reformer at heart who wants what's best for his people. He probably could make such a concession; after all, the region resounds with the names of men and women who have been done in by friends and family, and what echo do the names of the bad ones have in history? But it is improbable Assad will do so.

Lee's point, which dovetails well with Michael's call for the Syrians to move from passiveness, is that the regime should not be allowed to play out its internal battles in its neighbors' yards and at their expense:

Perhaps a more practical approach is for the international community to find how to shift Syria's preferred venue for settling its own issues, which is anywhere but inside Syria. Such a scenario, however, might well fulfill my Alawite friend's fears: ordinary Syrians will not feel safe in their own country, at least not until they've found a way to make their leaders responsible both to their own people and to Syria's neighbors.

Michael called this Assad's final card, that the world is afraid of chaos in Syria should he be deposed. Well, it's not an acceptable option that Bashar continues to burn his neighbors for fear that the Syrians will fight each other! That's hardly regional stability! Nor is it acceptable to succumb to Bashar, and get him back in control of Lebanon, keeping the rejectionist gun over Abbas' head, and the Jihadists flowing in to massacre Iraqis, all while hiding under the rhetoric of Arabism. Lee put it well:

Arabism is not what it once was because more often than not these days the enemy is so obviously other Arabs.

A quick reminder of the truth behind this statement is the reaction of the Iraqis to other Arabs, as well as the reactions of the Lebanese blogosphere, in all its sectarian diversity. This note about Algeria's attitude at the SC is the perfect example of what drives the Lebanese people crazy: "Algeria is also suspicious about demands that Syria stop meddling in Lebanon's internal affairs and stop supporting terrorism." Naturally! But now you understand why Hariri and Seniora are asked to confess their allegiance to Arabism, as it is obvious that that the "citadel of Arabism" next door not only murdered Hariri, but is still terrorizing the country.

So the Arabism nonsense may buy Bashar some time, but it certainly won't bail him out, as the other Arabs states won't cover him if he doesn't cooperate, and if he continues destabilizing his neighbors. Thankfully, an already passed UN resolution (1559) deals with Syrian intervention in Lebanon, and can be used separately to make sure Bashar doesn't get lofty ideas. That's why Seniora's calls to properly demarcate the border with Syria and to exchange embassies are very important and necessary and should be fully supported by the Int'l Community (as in this initiative by French MPs).

Let's wait and see. Knowing Bashar's record, and Syria's foreign policy, I'm not hopeful.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

That Ol' Neocon Conspiracy

I don't have time to write now, although there are some good articles I want to highlight. However, I just spotted this item, a precis of a debate involving AEI's Reuel Marc Gerecht and MEF's Daniel Pipes.

You've all probably seen the silliness (some would call it sinister demagoguery) about the Neocon conspiracy against Syria really lying behind the Mehlis Report (Hariri's assassination and the continuing acts of terrorism against Lebanon have all naturally been relegated to oblivion!) over at Syria Comment and elsewhere. Well, I want you to take a look at Pipes' position on ME democratization and Islamists, and compare that to Josh Landis' position on Syria and democratization and Islamists. You'll find that they're almost identical, especially now that Josh can no longer convince anyone with the "Bashar as reformer" joke, so he's revised it and tempered it (and most often, he simply opts not to mention it anymore, preferring instead to just support the plain old "Bashar as thug" reality!).

This is just to show how silly this whole Neocon business is, considering how sharply these two "Neocon" figures from "Neocon central" AEI and "the citadel of Zionism" MEF differ, and how one of them is in full agreement with Landis, the latest herald against the lurking evils of Neoconservatism!

Come on people, get serious...

Update: Finally, someone talks some sense to Josh Landis and presents a more realistic, non-demagogic, picture of US policy. It's a refreshing change from the hysteria of the previous posts.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

And Then There Were None

You know you're all by your lonesome when even Martin Indyk gives up on you (hat tip, Daniel Drezner):

The UN Security Council should now take the next step by ratcheting up the pressure on the Syrian regime. Because the Mehlis report makes clear that the investigation needs to be pursued further and that Damascus is obstructing, it there is now an opportunity to pass a resolution that would extend Mehlis’s mandate and threaten sanctions if Syria does not cooperate quickly.

This will place the weak and maladroit Syrian president on the sharp horns of an irresolvable dilemma. To cooperate with the investigation may mean surrendering his brother-in-law to international justice – an unthinkable betrayal of family that for Mr Assad would entail the risk of a coup. To dismiss the demands of the UN Security Council, however, would subject his country to increased isolation and economic hardship and over time risk the increasingly tenuous hold on power of his minority Alawite regime.

Mr Assad has already sought a middle way out of this dilemma, sending emissaries to Washington to offer a Libyan-style “package deal”, involving the surrender of lesser officials and an end to Syria’s rogue activities. But his offer comes far too late.

President George W. Bush has already taken the measure of the man and found him unreliable. Mr Assad’s commitment to stop Syrian support for the Iraqi insurgency was honoured in the breach. His withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon was followed by a bombing campaign that has forced many of the Lebanese political class to flee. Even people in Washington (like me), who once advocated a “carrots and sticks” approach to the Syrian ingénue, have given up on him.

Indyk is still singing the tune of people "holding sway" over Bashar, suggesting that he's not really in charge. I remain extremely skeptical of this position. I don't buy it for one second. It's perhaps Indyk's way of justifying his earlier error in judgment. It doesn't really matter much. He goes on to write (echoing Lee's reading a little bit):

[W]e should expect ugly actions in response to international pressure rather than compliant ones. But Syria’s behaviour is now under an international microscope. Lies, obstruction of justice, sponsorship of terrorist attacks, assisted suicides and assassinations will only serve to tighten the noose around the regime’s neck.

The rest is similar to, or at least compatible with, what I and Michael Young have written. Although Indyk is right to write: "Western powers should remain patient and methodical as they bring the last rogue regime in the Arab world to account. Steps will need to be taken to deter Syria from further destabilisation of Lebanon and to prevent insurgents crossing into Iraq." He doesn't offer tacit proposals.

Finally, he may be too optimistic on the value of sanctions and the "Syrians doing the rest." But it's quite clear Bashar has lost all audience. Well, almost... but those still in attendance don't really matter, especially now with Indyk jumping ship (Seale bailed out much earlier).

How to put this into song?*

*The song (part two, continued from above), "sahran li-wahdi" ("I lie awake all by myself"), is by famed Egyptian Diva Um Kulthoum. First performed in 1947, it was composed by giant Egyptian Oud player and composer, Riad es-Sunbati, who collaborated with Um Kulthoum for about 38 years, from 1935-1972 (the longest working relationship she had with any composer), and composed 89 of her songs (the most). The lyrics are by the great poet Ahmad Rami, who also long worked with Um Kulthoum, writing some of the finest poetry for her. The duo of Sunbati and Rami really exemplifies the very finest of mid-20th c. Egyptian music. Rami was also in love with Um Kulthoum (unrequited), and his songs reflect these emotions. Which brings us to this song, whose lyrics, combined with the main maqam (musical mode), Huzzam, which has both a solemn and melancholic, even supplicative feel, reflect this desperation perfectly. I found it quite fitting!

Update: Ammar Abdulhamid has a related post that reflects on the ongoing "war" regarding US policy in the ME. You hear me (and IraqPundit as well, with Iraq) talking about this all the time when it comes to commentators on Lebanon (or Iraq, etc.) like Helena Cobban or Juan Cole. These people aren't writing about Iraq or Lebanon. They're fighting a much narrower internal battle, in their heads.

Monday, October 24, 2005

Clipping Bashar's Wings

A number of items on Syria and Lebanon:

First, an excellent piece by Michael Young in Slate. It recaps and elaborates on his WSJ op-ed (see below). The following statement I found interesting: "It becomes obvious that the Syrian strategy was one of imposing omertà, or the law of silence, by implicating as many people as possible." One of the things that struck me about the report, which I mentioned in my post yesterday, is how it's an indictment of the entire structure, down to Farouq ash-Sharaa and Walid al-Muallim, and it will be impossible to pin on some low-level security or intelligence official. Nevertheless, it's something that baffled the Angry Hair in his useless "analysis" of the Report, which was more about Israel (needless to say) than Syria!

The following concluding paragraphs address what I wrote about in yesterday's post:

The ["track changes"] incident provoked confusion, with Mehlis telling a press conference he had removed names from the final version because the men were identified by a single source and he wanted to maintain the presumption of innocence. That was nonsense: In other parts of the report, suspects who are also identified by single sources are named. Moreover, Shawkat reappears elsewhere in the document on the basis of a single source, who says he forced the apparent scapegoat of the assassination to tape a bogus statement claiming responsibility. It may well be that Mehlis and U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan agreed to release the report with the track changes visible as a warning to Syria that suspicion has reached the highest levels of the regime, so, Assad had better cooperate.

The thing is, Assad has no such leeway. His brother and brother-in-law are arguably more powerful than he is, and neither will voluntarily become a fall guy. On Tuesday, the U.N. Security Council meets to decide how to respond to the Mehlis findings. It is unclear if the Security Council will agree to sanctions, but it seems almost certain it will demand that Syria allow its officials to be interviewed outside the country. That would put Assad in a bind, by compelling him to cooperate with an inquiry his officials have already condemned. Or he could refuse and suffer the consequences. Assad knows that his regime can either stand, and eventually collapse, united; or it can collapse much sooner if a family rift develops over addressing the Mehlis inquiry.

I've heard suspicions about the "track changes" that might support Michael's thesis of an Annan message to Bashar, which then developed into a call for Bashar to cooperate. That then leads to the two options (as I noted yesterday), and how both are bad for Assad. Michael's "dog eat dog" (to milk the Reservoir Dogs theme!) scenario at the end was also explored in my post.

Lee Smith dissents, and writes this in response to my post:

I think Bashar probably could give up Maher and Assef and survive--it's arguably a better deal than the one Bolton ostensibly floated. By the way, I'd give Imad Mustafa a break since I think his silliness was largely a response to Bolton's overture, which was essentially a pretty funny riff on the regime's lovely Arabist adventures--with the punch line that the US will toss you an aid package. How's that for legitimacy? Anyway, Bashar of course probably won't take the deal suggested in Mehlis and he'll probably explain that to Maher and Assef both calmly with some sort of attack on Lebanon very soon. See, fellas, like Dad said, we stay together by settling our regime issues and establishing legitimacy outside the country and we get away with it because we conduct our regional violence against all comers under the guise of Arabism and resistance. So, let's stay together on this one. Maybe what's going on outisde Ain al-Helweh today is a part of his mash note to Maher and Assef.

Of course he'll also keep negotiating with the US in Lebanon. I think the Mehlis report, especially the tracked changes was a part of the US negotiating tactics and it shows a very strong hand. Syria may not seem to have a strong hand but then again a little bit of violence goes a long way at this point with this White House. It's still unclear to me what they can do about Syria. No one as far as I know has done a good job explaining this. Military actions? Like what? More cross-border stuff? Sabotage? Sanctions? Even the most dire sanctions may put pressure on the Syrian people but it is unclear how that is going to affect the regime. I think we should keep in mind first that not only don't we know how much tolerance a populace has for leaders that put the country, and its economy, in an ugly place--look at Iraq and the USSR--and, second, that this is a nation that has chosen stability with dictators for many years now--I don't know how ordinary Syrians express their dissatisfaction with the regime. So, why can't the regime outlast Bush? and more? I'd really love to read someone explain how exactly sanctions are going to bring down this regime, step by step. I think everyone is whistling in the dark on this one.

Anyway, I think that's the regime's position and the problem is that they are going to keep negotiating with the US and they're going to do it in Iraq, Israel but mostly through Lebanon since there is no security here at all. So maybe the question isn't really how to get sanctions to work or how to change the regime or what action the US and France can take against Syria directly, but how to get the regime to change its venue and face off against each other. It has to go from Lebanon and Iraq and back to Syria itself. I know it sounds crummy and it broke my heart to hear a young Alawite woman upset yesterday about the country losing its security but they've had it at the expense of their regional neighbors for 30 years now, so it's time for them to take responsibility. The Mehlis Report is a part of this, especially as Maher and Shawkat are named, but unless the US and others keep driving a wedge in this regime they're going to stay whole and rather than fight there they'll 'negotiate' elsewhere.

By the way, a question for other readers: does anyone know anything about Syria's new private TV station, Sham, which is ostensibly very Islamist in its discourse? I know very little about it, but if it is very Islamist, as I've heard, this would suggest that since the regime licensed the station they are confident that they have a pretty good grip on their Islamist problem.

There are two seemingly contradictory points in Lee's comment. On the one hand, Lee essentially thinks that instead of infighting, the regime will tough it out and take its own battle, as it has always done, to its neighbors, and play chicken with the international community. In other words, it's the politics of brinksmanship that Michael talked about in his WSJ op-ed.

To be sure, Lee's point about taking this battle back inside Syria, and further exploit the rifts within the regime is crucial. But I don't understand how he squares it all with the earlier suggestion that Bashar can give up Maher and Asef without them figuring out and doing something about it, which brings us back to the issue of implosion and infighting. Lee's other proposal of exporting their problem is more likely, and that's what everyone expects them to do. That will only precipitate a more concerted action against them, and eliminate once and for all the fallacy that the Assad regime is a guarantor of stability (to the contrary, it's a source of chaos). That effort would likely include the Arab power players who are trying to avoid chaos as much as possible, and if Bashar continues to foment it, they will lift what little (if any) symbolic cover they still offer him, and by that I mainly mean Egypt (for more, see further down).

There's another difference between Lee's and Michael's premises. Lee frames this in terms of a US message to Syria. I don't think I agree. I think this is more of a UN thing that the US may have went along with in order to let the investigation take its course, and basically let Bashar stew and force him to make an unfavorable decision either way (as Michael points out). But they're not waiting this one out, à la Qaddafi, and they've made that clear. There will not be a years-long sanctions regime, I don't think. I think everyone is aware that that will not do the job, as Lee rightly points out (although there will most likely be targeted sanctions against the fingered regime members). I think this is now much broader, and Syria (and Josh Landis) is misreading it.

Lee is right to point out that there are no clear-cut mechanisms that have been made known. What they're likely to do, is continue the investigation beyond December, impose sanctions on Syrian regime figures, and pressure Bashar to let senior figures be interviewed abroad, and let him stew, keep eliminating all his regional options, and turn this internal battle inwards.

With regards to Lebanon, the section of the Report quoted by Michael is incredibly important, and it seeks "sustained effort on the part of the international community to establish an assistance and cooperation platform together with the Lebanese authorities in the field of security and justice." These are the two places that Bashar will seek to exploit in Lebanon. If he does so with violence, I don't think it will get him results, and neither do the Lebanese interviewed by Michael Totten. It will terrorize the Lebanese but won't make the Int'l Com. balk, and suddenly give Bashar a pass. It will make him look even more guilty, and eliminate the "Annan option" of giving him one last chance. If it escalates too far, who knows, it might even lead to UN-sanctioned military strikes.

He might attempt proxy violence, as he did with the Jund ash-Sham people, who have long been suspected to be Syrian-controlled, if not Syrian-invented (they're the ones who threatened Mehlis and Seniora -- nice coincidence -- in leaflets that were treated with great skepticism by Feris Khishen, who also figured they're Syrian-controlled, or Syrian-invented. Syria tried to sell them as some sort of a Zarqawi/al-Qaeda offshoot that threatens them just as much. No one bought it at the time, no one buys it now. See English report here, hat tip, Athena. As'ad "the Hair" AbuKhalil pathetically spat out some half-baked nonsense about this being the "new" Lebanon and the result of Hariri-armed groups! For more, see the Lebanese Political Journal). He will also try to use Hizbullah and Amal. Yesterday I noted that Seniora scored a relative victory by getting the cabinet (which includes HA and Amal representatives) to support the Mehlis Report, and to call for him to finish his mandate, until Dec. 15th. Yet, outside the cabinet, Amal and HA later issued a joint statement somewhat echoing the Syrian line. "The report did not lead the Lebanese to the awaited truth," said the statement issued after a joint meeting of the leadership of Amal and Hizbullah. "In order to find the truth, more serious and judicious investigation is required that is based on facts and tangible evidence -- not politics." To be sure, it's a carefully worded statement, and a careful position (some would say smart-ass), in that it is consistent with the compromise made with Seniora of supporting Mehlis' remaining investigation, while at the same time scoring brownie points with Syria. But I think this may be less about Syria than it is a message to Seniora to be careful with the choices he makes, and how far he goes along with the US (the end-all for Hizbullah is its own interests, and that means keeping their weapons). It's blackmail, which is what Hizbullah does best. But it's also the move of a party feeling threatened, especially since the Security Council will also be receiving Roed-Larsen's report on the implementation of UNR 1559 (perhaps the choice of the Jund Ash-Sham venue was meant again to raise the Palestinian factor for Seniora, as was done earlier with the other pro-Syrian Palestinian factions, and their smuggling of weapons across the Syrian border). Perhaps this piece by Sarkis Naoum, in which he relays the answers of a "top Shiite" cleric, may give an insight into the (paranoid) way HA is viewing the developments with Syria.

One hopes that it stays on this level, and that they don't go farther with this line. But if the investigation continues to bring out the goods against Syria, their position will be less tenable, and they've left somewhat of an escape hatch for themselves. It's a tight rope, and no one has forgotten Nasrallah's tasteless photo op with murderer Rustom Ghazaleh, a prime suspect in Hariri's assassination (hat tip, Stacey), which has given their self-righteous absolutism, and self-bestowed monopoly on "nationalism" a good hit (as Hazem Saghieh wrote, this type of attitude is inherently incompatible with Lebanon).

So far, it's being carefully handled, and the option of a full-blown Sunni-Shiite strife is not a given for Bashar. Let's see if it remains that way, and I think it will, because I don't think Amal and HA really want to be the ones responsible for such a situation. They will not destroy themselves for Bashar's sake, especially when the future of his regime is in doubt. But this is why I've been calling for Aoun to back the center, and not play with fire with Hizbullah (even as he continues to dialogue with them). Seniora will also continue to get all the international and Arab backing. Furthermore, if the investigation keeps delivering the goods, and it will, this whole thing will basically be just another stinker on HA's record (like the Mr. X is for Berri), that would be quickly swallowed up. However, for the investigation to work, the UN should continue to pressure Bashar to cooperate, and push it in a way that takes the battle inside Syria, and not let it play out in Lebanon. Let the regime turn against itself.

If Bashar continues to show himself to be a source of chaos, what will the Arab players do? The Arab League is now trying to foster a "national reconciliation" conference involving all Iraqi groups, which will hopefully give the Sunnis more confidence in the political process. It's also acknowledged the Kurds (breaking away from the tradition of Arab nationalism), and got the cooperation of the Shiites. In other words, it's an "Iraqi Taef" of sorts (which, by the way, will remove the option of letting Syria have a say in Iraqi affairs, which actually exceeds its weight, as Josh Landis so irresponsibly proposed, as part of a "deal" -- that ubiquitous word -- between the US and Syria. Notice how Iraq, and in Lebanon's case, Lebanon, are always secondary if not absent in such stupid scenarios). As I've mentioned again yesterday, this is my proposal for Syria as well. Unfortunately, the Arab League, being the dysfunctional body that it is, always comes after war had already broken out! But if stability is what Mubarak and the rest want, then Syria's regime, whether Bashar cooperates or not (for even if he cooperates, that itself may lead to infighting, but especially if he opts for brinksmanship or the usual regional "cards" or his fantasies of "negotiation"), may soon seem (if it hasn't already) quite an annoying source of instability better done away with altogether, even from the Arab standpoint (for the time being, their advice to him is "cooperate"), and my proposal would be a good way to go.

Update: Another pro-Syrian Palestinian faction attacks a Lebanese Army patrol.

Update 2: Tariq Tarshishi writes on Hasan Nasrallah's position.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

Stuck


Well, I'm stuck in the middle with you
And I'm wondering what is I should do
It's so hard to wipe this smile from my face
Lose control and I'm all over the place
Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right
Here I am, stuck in the middle with you


Talking to Anthony Shadid about what comes next for Syria, Lebanese MP and political scientist Farid el-Khazen said, "This is simply the beginning. There is little room for maneuver left for the Syrians now. They have to cooperate fully to save themselves from more isolation or they opt for rejection of the report, claiming it is all political. Syria doesn't have a middle-ground option."

Michael Young seems to agree:

With his back to the wall, what can Mr. Assad do? He can, of course, fully comply with the U.N. But that would be political suicide amid the fingers pointed at members of his inner core. Efforts to put Syrian suspects on trial at home, meanwhile, would be rejected out of hand by the international community. At best, the Syrians can pray that eventual wrangling over a mixed or international tribunal means Lebanon must try the case itself, under Syria's threatening eye. That will not protect Syria, however, from the retaliation of hostile states once the Mehlis report has been fully digested.

Or Mr. Assad can pursue brinksmanship -- in Lebanon, Iraq and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict -- assuming this will strengthen his hand at a time when there is no ready alternative to his rule. He may be right, and his regime's collapse may take some time as nobody wishes to see Syria descend into chaos. However, such an impasse only heightens the chances that Syria will face increasingly harsher sanctions and perhaps even military retaliation from the U.S. over Iraq. Mr. Assad is being offered several ways to impale himself; his only leeway is choosing which is the most painless.

Even Josh Landis, who lately has been regurgitating the regime's line, concurs: "Bashar cannot possibly do what Washington is demanding of it -- give family members to an international court. My guess is that the regime will stick together on this. ... President Asad has not been directly implicated, but the rest of his family has been. Trying to separate him from them will require fratricide. He won't do it. He cannot do it."

Earlier he wrote, "If the bar for the investigation is raised too high, by demanding that top Syrian officials leave Syria to be interrogated, Syria will have to stonewall. Then the UN will have little choice but to impose sanctions."

Regardless of Josh's dishonest attempt at entirely making this an issue of the US vs. Syria (which is the way the Syrian regime is conceptualizing it), his last remark seems to be precisely what the Syrian regime is going to do: cooperate, within limits. In other words, although they are faced with only two choices, both bad, they are trying to carve out a third, impossible, and smart-ass alternative. This, in a nutshell, summarizes their entire foreign policy, which is something that Landis either refuses to see, or dishonestly keeps away from his readers. But that's another issue for another day.

Anthony Shadid's summary of the Syrian attitude explains the impossibility of the Syrian "third way": "offering enough gestures to fend off international pressure but making no concessions that might imperil a government that already feels besieged." Again, Syrian foreign policy in a nutshell. The tragico-comical thing is that the Syrians are still playing this game (it's the only one they know how to play) even at this stage (as in that pathetic letter by the stooge Imad Mustapha, that Josh so stupidly paraded on his blog in a brain-dead moment of frustration. Its essence is this: we will give you these half-assed gestures in Iraq [it's so perfectly telling that Josh left out the Lebanon part from the letter. Ask Flynt Leverett, he'll tell you why] in secret through intelligence channels -- ah, the good ol' days! -- and you publicly acknowledge our help and stop pressuring us in Lebanon.) It's the fantasy dream of the Assads and their cheerleaders, born out of a terribly inflated self-image.

So Josh's earlier assessment, that the Syrians will stonewall, and will not give up people like Asef Shawkat or Maher Assad, is correct. This brings us back to square one: there are only two options, with no third. Neither one looks good for Assad.

Another possibility that Assad would like to pursue, as pointed out by Michael, is to try to avoid an international or mixed trial and keep the process local in Syria (where he can follow through on his statement to Amanpour to treat any guilty parties as "traitors," just as long as they're small potatoes) and Lebanon, where Assad will try to use the threat of violence, as well as bank on breaking consensus in Lebanon by using pro-Syrian politicians fearful of embarrassing revelations.

The first option will clearly backfire, in light of the report of Terje Roed-Larsen on Syria's failure to fully implement UNR 1559, and especially now in light of the latest arrests of saboteurs, who confessed to being asked by a "non-Lebanese" security service to carry out terrorist operations in Lebanon. Quoting security sources, Al-Mustaqbal named Syrian intelligence official Jameh Jameh as the "non-Lebanese" in question (hat tip, Kais, who has been doing a great job blogging the Mehlis report and its aftermath). Furthermore, the French made it very clear that Syria will be held responsible for any terrorist attacks (explosions, assassinations, etc.) in Lebanon.

As for the other part, the embarrassing material has already come out in the interim report, most notably in the matter of "Mr. X" and his conversation with murder suspect Rustum Ghazaleh. Mr. X turned out to be Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri.

Saad Hariri is already capitalizing on that. In his televised address to the Lebanese people, Hariri spoke repeatedly about how the previous order attempted to "politically assassinate" his father, and when that failed, they assassinated him physically. Hariri, backed by the majority in Parliament, is adamant that the culprits be tried in an international tribunal. The only ones that were opposing this were the Lahoud people and the two Shiite parties, Hizbullah and Nabih Berri's Amal. It would be disastrous for the the Shiite parties to oppose it now, as it would take on sectarian dimensions -- what Assad wants. But Seniora is working on eliminating that option.

Proof is in the pudding as they say. Today, An-Nahar's headline story read: "the HA representatives [in the cabinet] were alone asking mild questions about the international tribunal, but the majority of the Ministers expressed their support for the call to establish such a tribunal, but delayed the issuing the demand to the right moment." In other words, HA has begrudgingly agreed not to sabotage Seniora's and Hariri's demands, and defer the issue, with the compromise being agreeing to Mehlis completing his mission until December 15. Hizbullah's stance can perhaps be discerned from Jumblat's statement: backing an international tribunal "if necessary," and under strict UN oversight (i.e., so as not to be used by the US). This comes after a late visit from Seniora to Hasan Nasrallah (Seniora also met with Berri). The An-Nahar piece also notes that the cabinet meeting was held without Lahoud's approval. He has no more standing whatsoever.

Hizbullah has also been cleared in the Mehlis report, so that is a great thing for internal Lebanese stability, and the avoidance of Sunni-Shiite sectarian tension. Going along with the international tribunal (or at least a mixed tribunal with Lebanese judges serving as well, but safe from Syrian intimidation) will be a wise additional move in that direction. Feris Khishen had written about this the other day, and concluded, "the tribunal needs reassured witnesses. Reassured witnesses need to be free from the terrorist pressures placed on Lebanon. The judges in turn need assurance, for if terrorism doesn't hit them, it may hit their families. Since things are that simple, whoever among the Lebanese will stand against the international tribunal will be an accomplice in the crime of obstructing justice by a proper trial. This is what everyone will avoid." It should be noted, however, that Seniora (and Jumblat) has said that he is opposed to sanctions on the Syrian people, but for targeted sanctions against those involved in the crime.

In his piece today, Khishen noted the clearing of Hizbullah by the Mehlis report in his rejection of the charges made by Syria that the report is "politicized" (a remarkably stupid charge). If the issue was to use UNR 1595 to get results on the remainder of UNR 1559 (Hizbullah's and the Palestinian camps' weapons), then one would've at least expected a reference to either Hizbullah or the Palestinian camps. However, the report cleared them both, and the only Palestinians to be fingered by the report belonged to factions controlled by Syria. As for Abu Adas, the Islamist that the report says was coerced by Bashar's in-law, Asef Shawkat (who is named on this issue even in the "edited" version of the report), Khishen sees this as the attempt by Syria to use the Islamist angle to try to continue its attempts at reaching an intelligence-based deal with the US like the one stupidly flaunted by Josh.

This may have an element of truth in it, especially if you heard the remarks of Syria's ambassador to the UK, Sami Khiyami, on BBC News. It was quite comical, and typical of Syrian officials. Khiyami accused the report of "starting out" professionally, but instead of further investigating the "fundamentalist organization" responsible, and inquire about "what government" had infiltrated it (Sami's "subtle" hint: Israel or perhaps the CIA!), it decided to instead revert to "witnesses and telephone calls" (sic! I kid you not!). Unfortunately for Sam, the report does investigate the fundamentalist organization (the Ahbash. The other one was likely invented by Syria) and does find that it was propped up and infiltrated by the another government: Syria!

In light of this dilemma, the ever-funny As-Siyassah published two hilarious tabloid-style articles on Assad yesterday and today. In yesterday's article (accessible in PDF), it claimed that Assad's mother has decided that Asef cannot be handed over, as he's the strong man of the regime. Therefore, Bashar is said to have offered the heads of two Arab states (presumably Egypt and Saudi Arabia) that he would step down and move to London, provided he's not prosecuted! Today, it claimed that Bashar has lost weight and is taking tranquilizers, and is no longer speaking to his brother and brother-in-law, out of suspicion, but is nevertheless unable to hand them in! In yesterday's article, it alleged that Asef has mobilized his loyalists in the military, while Maher has mobilized his in the Presidential Guard, as the top dogs of the regime now all don't trust each other.

All kidding aside, the possibility of infighting over this is not too far fetched. David Ignatius recently raised that possibility: "If Assad's grip weakens and he can't or won't clean house in Damascus, the season of coup and counter-coup will begin for real."

Ammar Abdulhamid, now safely away from the reaches of the embattled "General Dashing" (Asef Shawkat), notes the possibility of "implosion", and quotes a local saying, that now that the cow has fallen, or is about to fall, the butchers will multiply.

While that's a possibility, "going down together" is equally, if not more, plausible. At this stage, they're all in this together. The Mehlis report showed how the entire structure is involved one way or another, down to the clown Farouq ash-Sharaa and his deputy Walid al-Muallim. And they're all stuck. As Michael put it, "Mr. Assad is being offered several ways to impale himself; his only leeway is choosing which is the most painless."

Perhaps it's a good time for me to once again present my proposal, for when the time comes.

Update: Bashar makes a move in Lebanon? Jund ash-Sham engages in a firefight with locals in Ta'mir outside the Ain el-Helweh camp.

Update 2: Al-Mustaqbal claims that the questioning of the three arrested suspects -- alledgedly commissioned by Jameh Jameh -- have confessed that Jameh had asked them to throw sound bombs into the March 14th crowd in order to cause clashes between the demonstrators and the Army.

Friday, October 21, 2005

The Mehlis Report

Reactions to the Mehlis Report (.doc) have naturally started to flood in. My two cents will soon follow. Before that, however, a couple of items by Michael Young.

First, a post at Hit and Run speculating about the interesting tracked changes involving the names of Maher Assad, Bahjat Suleiman, and Hasan Khalil (as well as Asef Shawkat, but his name is mentioned elsewhere in the report anyway, which is very significant).

Second, an op-ed in the WSJ, reproduced here for your convenience. More to come.

The Mehlis Report

By Michael Young
Oct 21, 2005
Wall Street Journal, pg. A.14

BEIRUT -- Yesterday, Detlev Mehlis, the German prosecutor tasked by the U.N. to investigate the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, handed his report over to Secretary General Kofi Annan. As Security Council members receive it, the report is already being widely distributed. In Beirut, Hariri's followers can stop counting the days between the killing and the time when the truth emerges. In contrast, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad may be facing a report that initiates the countdown to his own regime's demise.

The report cites "converging evidence" of both Lebanese and Syrian involvement in the murder, and states that Hariri's assassination was planned months in advance. It also states that it was "carried out by a group with an extensive organization and considerable resources and capabilities." The report finds that, "given the infiltration of Lebanese institutions and society by the Syrian and Lebanese intelligence services working in tandem, it would be difficult to envisage a scenario whereby such a complex assassination plot could have been carried out without their knowledge."

Both senior Syrian and Lebanese officials stand accused. For example, the report mentions that a witness implicated Mr. Assad's brother-in-law, Assef Shawkat, who heads Syria's military intelligence service. Syria's Foreign Minister Farouk Sharaa was also explicitly mentioned for his attempts to mislead investigators. Another potentially devastating piece of information is that one of the suspects called Lebanese President Emile Lahoud, a close Syrian ally, on his personal cell phone minutes after the blast. All this means that Mr. Assad is likely to face charges that, by action or omission, he was responsible for Hariri's death.

---

As Mr. Mehlis must have known, the small details are essential for Mr. Assad's future. Mr. Shawkat, for example, is not only married to the president's sister, Bushra; he has accumulated much power in recent months and is an essential pillar -- among rapidly weakening pillars -- of Mr. Assad's power. If he were publicly accused, the allegation would create a dilemma for the president, one that could potentially lead to a rift in Syria's ruling family. Mr. Assad recently told CNN's Christiane Amanpour that "if indeed there is a Syrian national implicated . . . he would be considered as a traitor and most severely punished." However, he may have been thinking ahead when he added that if it was treason, "where the trial will take place [is] different," suggesting Syria may refuse to give suspects up to a non-Syrian court.

Mr. Assad could face other problems. Because the decision to assassinate Hariri was part of a complex plot developed at senior levels, the president will have to convince the international community that some knew, while others did not. For, as anyone with knowledge of Syria understands, the regime has long thrived on balancing its contending parts, so that any accusation against one senior figure implicitly suggests that others (for example Mr. Assad himself, or his brother Maher, who heads the Presidential Guard) would have been in the loop, since it is improbable that so daring a decision as the murder of a Lebanese prime minister could be taken by one person without the others knowing.

There had been speculation that the late interior minister, Ghazi Kanaan, whom the Syrian authorities said committed suicide last week, would become the fall guy for the Hariri assassination. However, such a shifting of blame is no longer possible for the Syrian regime. Moreover, framing him (he was Mr. Ghazaleh's predecessor as intelligence chief in Lebanon) always meant ignoring two things: that he largely relinquished the Lebanese file in 2002 when he returned home; and that he enjoyed a lucrative relationship with Hariri. More convincing are claims that Kanaan, who was from the ruling Alawite community and had the temperament, money and networks to be an alternative to the Assads, was regarded as a coup threat. That is why many believe he was either made to commit suicide or eliminated.

While it is clearly climactic, the Mehlis report is only the start of a long process to bring the perpetrators to justice. According to Security Council Resolution 1595, which set up the Mehlis mission, the U.N. investigation is designed to help Lebanon's judiciary "within the framework of Lebanese sovereignty and of its legal system." However, in summarizing the investigating team's work last August, U.N. official Ibrahim Gambari admitted that Lebanese witnesses had "deep mistrust" of Lebanon's security agencies and judicial process. He recommended that "particular attention will need to be directed towards restoring credibility of the judicial and security apparatus and restoring public trust and confidence if any possible prosecution and trial is to go forward."

Because of the divided nature of Lebanon's political system, its judiciary will have a hard time bringing to justice its own nationals who participated in Hariri's killing; since Syrians are implicated, this becomes virtually impossible. However, there is also resistance in some quarters to setting up an international tribunal, the option favored by the Lebanese government, which leaves a mixed international-Lebanese court as the most likely venue for a trial. Yet its formation, if agreed, will make Lebanon a continued target of Syrian intimidation.

***

Mr. Mehlis's team could get an extension to continue helping the Lebanese build a case. But the real impact of his report, which will be discussed by the Security Council on Tuesday, is that it will add a powerful political element to the legal process. On Wednesday, the Washington Post reported that the Security Council may pass two resolutions next week against Syria -- the first in response to the Mehlis report. The second may condemn Syria's incomplete compliance with Resolution 1559, which calls for both a Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon and the disarmament of militias, including Hezbollah and Palestinian groups. Syria is said to have recently encouraged the flow of weapons to Palestinian militants in Lebanon, to help destabilize the country.

With his back to the wall, what can Mr. Assad do? He can, of course, fully comply with the U.N. But that would be political suicide amid the fingers pointed at members of his inner core. Efforts to put Syrian suspects on trial at home, meanwhile, would be rejected out of hand by the international community. At best, the Syrians can pray that eventual wrangling over a mixed or international tribunal means Lebanon must try the case itself, under Syria's threatening eye. That will not protect Syria, however, from the retaliation of hostile states once the Mehlis report has been fully digested.

Or Mr. Assad can pursue brinksmanship -- in Lebanon, Iraq and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict -- assuming this will strengthen his hand at a time when there is no ready alternative to his rule. He may be right, and his regime's collapse may take some time as nobody wishes to see Syria descend into chaos. However, such an impasse only heightens the chances that Syria will face increasingly harsher sanctions and perhaps even military retaliation from the U.S. over Iraq. Mr. Assad is being offered several ways to impale himself; his only leeway is choosing which is the most painless.

---

Mr. Young, a Lebanese national, is opinion editor at the Daily Star newspaper in Beirut and a contributing editor at Reason magazine.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Bashar and Hariri

Gary Gambill has a piece in the National Post on Ghazi Kenaan's death. He sees this as a likely scenario:

Specifically, the Bush administration was trying to ascertain whether anyone within the Syrian regime would be willing and able to assume control in the event of Assad's downfall. It wanted the dictator out, but without sparking an insurgency by Syria's Sunni majority against the minority Alawite-controlled government. The Harirists were said to have given exuberant assurances that Kanaan would take care of everything.
...
Although these talks were behind closed doors, there is good reason to believe Assad was apprised of them and feared that they might lead Washington to intensify the UN investigation into Hariri's murder. Eliminating Kanaan may simply have been Assad's way of putting an end to the discussion.

Gambill goes on to question whether Kanaan had any influence left, after having been sidelined for a couple of years. Then he makes this rather overstated analogy:

Much like Ahmed Chalabi's Iraqi National Congress did before the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, the Harirists may have been deliberately misleading U.S. officials. By this time, Kanaan had been largely shorn of real power in the regime (his appointment as interior minister, putting him nominally in charge of a civil bureaucracy solidly controlled by Assad's allies, was intended to curb his influence in the military intelligence apparatus). Talk of Kanaan running things was simply empty bluster intended to encourage U.S. efforts to overthrow Assad.

It is true, as I've noted before, that Kanaan was being sidelined, especially by Asef Shawkat, who launched quite a campaign against him. But Gary's characterization is I think slightly exaggerated. I'd mentioned that the Asef vs. Kanaan power struggle was nowhere near done. The fact that anti-Kanaan leaks persisted until weeks before his death suggests that the struggle was still ongoing, and, as I've said before, some inside Syria didn't think that it was a given that Asef would come out on top. Yes, Asef filled key offices with his people, but that doesn't take away from Ghazi's connections.

Furthermore, and this may be significant, this wasn't an issue of the Hariris pulling strings to bring down Asad as much as it was the Saudis. The meetings in France are said to have involved the French and the Saudis, as well as Khaddam and Shihabi. As I've noted before (and as Gary himself has noted in his excellent article on Lebanon and Syria), in his struggle against Bashar's crew, Hariri managed to get the support of Khaddam and Shihabi, as well as Kanaan. Jumblat's recent eulogy of Kanaan again repeated this basic power-struggle, and was full of jabs at Bashar and his men, Ghazaleh and Lahoud. Kanaan was dissociated from them.

This then widens the circle beyond Kanaan, and includes the Sunni Khaddam and Shihabi. So I think that Gary's Hariri-Chalabi analogy is overblown and leaves out the Saudis and the French (and makes this too much about "the US and the Hariris"). But also, I think his view of Kanaan's pull may be too minimalist, and leaves out Khaddam and Shihabi. Being the only one inside Syria, and an Alawite, not to forget on bad terms with Asef, Kanaan was doomed.

However, the idea that the Hariris dislike Bashar (even more so now) is not novel. I've been making this argument for a while. Hariri's relation with Bashar was horrible from the very beginning, when Bashar took over the Lebanon file (hinted at again in Jumblat's eulogy of Kanaan). This was made public by former Hariri aide Nouhad Mashnouq in an interview in al-Hayat. He revealed that, unlike what Bashar said in his interview on CNN, Bashar was incredibly abusive and violent in his dealings with Hariri, especially in a particular meeting attended by Mashnouq when Bashar threw a fit and started accusing Hariri of all kinds of things (being an Israeli agent, etc.). So Bashar is not "a quiet person." Not by a long shot! He's a thug with a temper, as I've said before. After that stormy meeting, Mashnouq said that Hariri went and had a calm meeting with Kanaan at the latter's house.

Kais from Beirut to the Beltway turns our attention to a piece by Feris Khishen in al-Mustaqbal. He reveals that in a closed session, Hariri said the following: "Our problem is not with Emile Lahoud. Look how he 'shrank' when the orders came down in favor of Omar Karami. Our problem is not with Rustom Ghazaleh, who, as the Syrian leadership has repeated, 'represents what we want in Lebanon and executes it word by word.' Our problem, in reality, is with Bashar al-Asad himself." Khishen goees on to say that Hariri dealt with Rustom Ghazaleh as Bashar's personal representative in Lebanon, which is precisely what he was (his and Asef's), which is why he replaced Kanaan.

It's interesting, but not surprising, to hear that Hariri may have thought that Lebanon's future, and its proper relations with Syria, would be seriously hampered should Bashar stay in power, or at least, stay on that course (and, as Michael Young has noted, Bashar has incredible contempt for Lebanon, which dictated the way he dealt with the country). On a side note, it's notable that the Bashar cheerleaders always either "fail to mention" Lebanon, or assume that Syria should keep its hold on the country, whenever they advocate for Bashar.

That Jumblat has apparently jumped on this bandwagon comes from his realization that Bashar will never forgive him. As is always the case with Jumblat, this realization came after repeated attempts by him to reopen channels with Bashar that have all been turned down and countered with violent responses.

This really leaves one party in Lebanon that is backing Bashar and his posse, beside Lahoud and the old sycophants. It's the only party that posed, after Hariri's murder, with Rustom Ghazaleh and praised him and Bashar. That party is of course Hizbullah, who continue to attack the Mehlis investigation and defend Bashar.

Nabih Berri has been careful. While continuing to back the Syrian line, he has made some interesting statements that could be open for interpretation. For instance, in his recent trip to the Gulf, he defended Syria and insisted on its stability, and kept the language on the level of the countries and the peoples. That can be understood in various ways, even the point about stability. Its ambiguity may be telling. It will be interesting to see how the chips will fall internally in Lebanon after the Mehlis report, and how people will realign themselves.

Meanwhile, regardless of all this, Seniora continues to press on with the "new method," mentioned by Khishen, of establishing healthy and proper relations with Syria, and is calling for border demarcation and exchanging embassies, two things that Syria has always loathed. He's getting full support from France, the US, and the Gulf states.

Strike Juan, Two, and Three

So, Juan has retracted his silly comment about the Zawahiri letter. Well, not quite. It's only a half-baked retraction (although, we should probably salute Martin Kramer, because this time around, Cole's "slip of the keybord" was explicitly noted and didn't mysteriously disappear into thin air like several others in the past!). Here's what he wrote:

A lot of Muslim and Arabist readers have written to say that my argument below (now at bottom in italics) is incorrect and that I have confused the ritual of saying blessings on the Prophet when Muhammad's name is mentioned (during which Sunnis typically do not mention the family of the Prophet) and the ritual salutation at the beginning of a letter, in which the mention of the family and companions of the Prophet by Sunnis is not unheard of.

Uh huh... "Not unheard of." Yeah, that's right. And it's not just a matter of "Sunnis." How about it being used verbatim by a Salafi wesbite devoted to Zarqawi's teacher!?

But anyway, I digress. Now, Cole is back with another dubious comment. He just had to come back and have the final word, in order to assert that despite the fact that the backbone (compare the amount of space dedicated to it to that spent on the other points) of his earlier argument was dead wrong, his theory is indeed correct. Here's what he added:

The other thing that struck me as odd about the Zawahiri letter was that at the end he raises the question of whether a non Iraqi should be leading the insurgency. This is odd for several reasons. Al Qaeda does not think in terms of nationality but of the umma or Muslim community. It reads to me like an attempt to undermine Zarqawi. And it is an insult.

Cole's dogmatism has been his Achilles' heel. And as I've noted in the past, it's also been a problem in approaching Islamist groups, their ideologies, and the various identities they evoke. However, there's more here than just rigid categorizations and assertions ("Al-Qaeda does not think in terms of nationality." Yet, these Salafis like to add their nationality to their nicknames, as in Abu Mus'ab as-Suri, or Abu Hamza al-Masri, or Abu Faraj al-Libi. Don't forget the hierarchy, especially in the camps in Afghanistan.). It's actually a very incomplete (even somewhat dishonest) description of what the passage actually says, especially if read in the broader context and overarching theme of the letter. Here's my translation of the whole passage in question:

"Another matter having to do with Iraq that I hope you could clarify for us, for you undoubtedly know better, is whether having a non-Iraqi lead the mujahidin or a section of the mujahidin could rouse sensitivities among some. If there is such sensitivity, what is its effect? What is the way to get rid of it? All the while maintaining the cohesion of the jihadist operation and not exposing it to any seisms. We ask that you detail us on that matter."

I don't even have to add anything, really. It's very clear what the author is interested in and what he's saying. On the other hand, Juan has only the rigid conventional ideological categories to regurgitate. He's out.

Friday, October 14, 2005

Cole-ology

Professor/Inspector Cole is once again bedazzling his fans with some stellar philology and Islamic sectarian nuances -- mixed with his usual weakness for conspiracy theories -- as he analyzes the recently publicized letter (PDF, in Arabic) from Zawahiri to Zarqawi.

The clue that caught Cole's eye was the inclusion of "wa alihi wa suhubihi (sic)" to the formulaic blessing on the Prophet:

But before I went to Pakistan I had never, ever heard a Sunni Muslim add "wa alihi" (and his family) to the salutation. I associated it strongly with Iran and Shiism, and was taken aback to hear Sunnis say it on Pakistani television. Certainly, I never heard that form of it all the time I lived in Egypt.

I just put "salla Allahu `alayhi wa alihi wa sallam" into google in English transliteration and *all* the sites that came up on the first page were either Shiite or Pakistani Sunni (Chishti, Barelvi, etc.) I tried adding Misr (Egypt) to the phrase and got a Shiite attack on the medieval Sunni hardline thinker, Ibn Taymiya. I tried adding Qaida and got a Shiite attack on Sunni extremism.
...
My gut tells me that the letter is a forgery. Most likely it is a black psy-ops operation of the US. But it could also come from Iran, since the mistakes are those a Shiite might make when pretending to be a Sunni. Or it could come from an Iraqi Shiite group attempting to manipulate the United States. Hmmm.

Hmmm, indeed. Like IraqPundit said, I have no idea whether this actually is "psy-ops" or not. I'm more concerned with Cole's assertion quoted above regarding the language of the blessing.

Cole says that he googled the English transliteration (perhaps because his Arabic is not free of colecisms). Well, I did it in Arabic (even though I don't have a perfect Najafi accent), and, among the various results I found that would deflate Cole's categorical assertion, this one in particular stood out. It's the "minbar at-tawḥīd wal-jihād," a Salafi website. The greeting at the very top reads "waṣ-ṣalātu was-salām 'ala rasūli l-lāh wa ālihi wa ṣaḥbihi wa man wālāh." (Emphasis mine.) In other words, it's the exact same wording as the one in the Zawahiri letter. What's more interesting about this site is that it has a link dedicated to Islamist Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, Zarqawi's former teacher!

Again, I have no idea whether the thing is authentic or not. Moreover, I'm not an expert on Islamic sects, nor do I speak Urdu at home or hang out with mainly Muslim Indians in Lucknow and Delhi, but this wouldn't be the first time we've been entertained by Cole's philology involving Salafi diction. After the London attacks, when Cole was busy making a fool out of himself, shooting from the hip, he informed us that Salafis would never use words like "baṭal" ("hero") in conjunction with "mujāhid." Of course, he was wrong, and I linked to a statement by Maqdisi, using the terms together! So there goes that!

All this of course has not prevented twit Helena Cobban from jumping all over Cole's claims and labeling them "very convincing" and that the letter was "almost certainly" a fraud. Indeed, indeed... because you see, she too is steeped in Arabic philology and Salafi diction!

Well, better luck next time. Until then, I only have one question to ask...

Addendum: A friend who knows a lot more about these kinds of websites has written informing me of the following: "Minbar al-Tawheed does not just have a link to Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, it is devoted to him, and possibly even administered under his guidance. It is also, or was originally, accessible on the adress maqdese.com. It is al-Qaeda's library on the web, the single most important and largest collection of al-Qaeda materials. If you want to know what the radical Islamic ideology is, that's the place to go."

That is very much the case. The link devoted to Maqdisi contains an archive of his collected writings and speeches. Other advertised links include all kinds of Jihadist material.

Furthermore, one of the other hits I came across was this site, Al-Qal'ah, which is not just Salafi, but al-Qaeda affiliated.

Addendum 2: I just picked this up from a commentator on Marc Lynch's site, who apparently did the same kind of research I did, and reached the same or similar conclusions. He also spotted this, which I missed. It's the text of a previous video message by Zawahiri. It was published on al-Jazeera. It starts -- surprise surprise! -- with the following greeting:

د. أيمن الظواهري: بسم الله والحمد لله والصلاة والسلام على رسول الله وآله وصحبه ومن والاه.

It's the exact same greeting as the one in the present letter.

Again, if this is a forgery, the guy/team who did it did their research infinitely better than Cole, with his supposed bona fides.