Across the Bay

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

The Joke's On Them

Michael Young comments on the Husam comedy (Josh Landis, not surprisingly, was impressed by the spectacle. Contrast that with Ammar Abdulhamid's reactions here, here, and here). I should add that this charade comes after the Saudi king went public (already a very bad sign) with the fact that he managed to get Asad to cooperate with the investigation (a fact the Syrians have been desperately downplaying), and to send the suspects to Vienna, and told him that the time for machismo and bravado was over. It was also noted today that the king's envoy to Syria, Prince Bandar, reportedly told Bashar that he should stop seeking to obstruct and undermine the investigation. But Bashar simply does not get it, and has allegedly managed to piss off Mubarak on this very same point. You can bet the Saudis aren't pleased either. Already, Abdullah's intervention came after Mubarak tried to convince Bashar of the same, and was given the usual run-around, and empty promises that were never followed through. It was reported that after sending Bandar the first time (he's been there like 10 times already. Another very bad sign), Asad (aka. Syria's Arafat) said that he would take Abdullah's advice. Then he recanted, which pissed off the Saudis royally. So this latest stunt is just another indication that Bashar will continue to lose any veneer of support in the Arab world. As Ammar says, they have a tendency to outsmart themselves.

Michael advises the extension of Mehlis' mandate, which is what PM Seniora was preparing to request (along with the request for an international tribunal, or at least a mixed one and not in Lebanon), and what seems likely now.

Instead of giving Asad what he wants, continue to isolate him while holding this sword over his head. In the end, as Michael notes, the joke's on him and his thugs.

Saturday, November 26, 2005

Lebanon in a Picture


PM Seniora has been gaining my respect ever since he came to office. He and his wife Hoda paid a visit to May Chidiac (who's planning to return asap to her job), where he is quoted to have said that he learned from May "patience and rising above wounds." In a nutshell, and a photograph, that's the story of Lebanon.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Bashar, Iraq, and Other Funny Stories

I'm sad to say that my friend Josh Landis continues to put up posts narrowly concerned with one thing: saving the Asad regime (which in his mind means saving Syria from chaos). As a result, his policy recommendations have become increasingly nonsensical and marred by sophistry and paradox.

In his latest post, Josh repeated the same old paradoxical, cliched and tired lines, and offered a bizarre set of proposals, all aimed at one thing -- saving Bashar -- but presented as "US interests."

Take for instance the unsubstantiated (and quite problematic) claim that Syria is seeking to limit Iran's role in Iraq. Or, worse still, the argument that the US should use Syria to counter Iran in Iraq!

If you really boil it down, what Josh is proposing is recreating Syria's Lebanon experience in Iraq. In fact, I'd argue that that is really the framework that's guiding his reasoning. Good plan, Josh! Let me elaborate a little bit on the Lebanon experience, and why Josh's analogy is hopelessely slanted toward the regime's version of reality. In Lebanon, the Syrians were fanning the flames, by arming all factions. They were a party in the war. For Asad, the war in Lebanon was as much a domestic war as it was a foreign war. The sectarian issues and the Palestinian issues were all related to dometic matters. The deal that some Lebanese agreed to in 1976 was for an Arab force and an Arab umbrella for a settlement. Instead, that morphed (as it did again with the Taef) into a Syrian hijacking of the country, and turned the country into a battleground for Syria's wars with its Arab competitors. If this is what Josh has in mind for Iraq, then good luck! The notion that Syria's itnervention in Lebanon in 1976 brought stability is a Syrian regime myth.

The argument is not only reprehensible, it's quite ridiculous and is really a throwback to the 70's and 80's, where this regime is stuck (and Josh along with it). It's a laughable version of Saddam's role as buffer to Iran, that fails to take into account the different variables involved here.

Bashar has no weight whatsoever in Iraq. The notion that Iraq should be placed (without its consent!) in such a deadly triangle is really absurd and unnecessary. Does Josh have in mind a recreation of the "special and brotherly ties" that Syria had with Lebanon in Iraq!? Why would the Iraqis limit themselves to this kind of bilateral relations with a country whose regime has done nothing but assist in their killing, and whose regime is isolated by the entire universe, except for Iran!? Why would Iraq place itself in such a precarious situation, beholden to the interests of two of its regional neighbors, and limit its maneuverability? This is especially so if we agree with Josh's bizarre statement that Syria is at odds with Iran (has he missed the fact that the country that has expressed most solidarity with Syria has been Iran? Has he missed that Hizbullah is Syria's last remaining ally in Lebanon? Has he missed the Saudi angle and Saudi-Iranian relations, and the fact that the Saudis would like to see Bashar go and that he's declared war on their man in Beirut, Saad Hariri, after killing his father?). Why would Iraq, and certainly the US, hamstring themselves with such a narrow option? Why would the US put Iraq in Syria's hands!? (Perhaps, one should also add that the model being fostered in Iraq is radically opposed by Bashar, especially given he's an Alawite. How would the success of that model reflect on demands by Kurds and Sunnis in Syria, and the survival of Bashar's narrow grip on power? Etc.)

The US, naturally, has not done so. Instead, and perhaps Josh missed it, we have the Cairo conference. Let the Iraqis come together, under a broad regional, not narrow bilateral, umbrella. Let Sunni Arab states, not a pariah Alawite family regime, give the Sunnis both the push and the reassurance they might've needed.

This was supposed to be the case in Lebanon. A broad regional and international umbrella to get the parties to talk and reach a compromise. That was called the Taef. Syria hijacked it, inserted itself as a primary actor (in a triangle with Israel), and prevented any other Arab or international initiative that denied it primacy and the final say in Lebanese affairs. Josh wants to essentially recreate that in Iraq! The funny thing is, Bashar has no weight whatosever in Iraq. Even funnier still is the fact that Josh himself had shot down this same argument in the past. He is just no longer aware of the fact that he's talking from both sides of his mouth.

In past posts, Josh told us that the Sunni tribes in the Jazeera region in eastern Syria are really semi-autonomous. That Bashar really has no control over them (this is when he was busy saying that Bashar really has nothing to do with the fighters slipping into Iraq, and that it's out of his control). That they feel more Iraqi than Syrian, etc. Now, all of a sudden, Bashar matters!?

If indeed they are in close contact with their Iraqi cousins, and support Allawi, as Josh says, then the agreement will be reached irrespective of Bashar! If the Sunnis, based on whatever agreement they may reach in Cairo, and based on a conviction to join the process more fully, especially in the upcoming elections, decide to cease partially or fully the insurgency (I'm not counting the foreign element here), then their cousins in eastern Syria will surely stop as well. Bashar is immaterial here, based on Josh's own post!

What we have here, as I've said before, is another Arafat. He has control, he doesn't have control. He blackmails, but he doesn't deliver. Are you expecting anyone to put Iraq's fate in the hands of Syria's version of Arafat?! The entire world, including the French, have given up on Bashar because he never delivers. Be it out of weakness or out of malice. Bottom line, he never delivers.

Josh's intention becomes clear when he says that Bashar wants to hasten the US exit (we know, I've said this before that this is Bashar's driving concern, which is why he made sure to let killers pass through, and that "cooperation" with the US was nothing but a joke. Just read Indyk). Bashar made his strategic choice. Now Josh wants to get him to reap the rewards from the US, but for the wrong strategy! It seems the motto for the Syrian regime these days is "too late!" The Cairo conference already renders that route obsolete and unnecessary. If anything, should the Iraqi Sunnis agree to the Cairo compromise and join the process, any continuation by Syria to allow Jihadis through would only isolate it more. He wants to give Bashar an undeserved "carrot" (it's more like a whole carrot cake actually! and for what?) for something that can be largely achieved without him (and in the case of the tribes, it indeed has nothing to do with him and his family/regime), and through a maneuver that, if successful, would force him to comply anyway, or face more isolation and other measures. (Addendum, 11/24/05: I just spotted this excellent op-ed by Michael Young where we seem to be in agreement on this point: "Iraqis are nearing the final phase in the legitimization of their new political system, with elections next month to a new Parliament; the Arab countries, for various reasons, are aware of the need to find a durable settlement to the conflict, which will turn up the heat on those states, such as Syria, that continue to allow foreign Islamists to enter Iraq through their borders.")

Speaking of isolation, it's quite something to read Josh's comments on Lebanon. Syria is isolated for its lack of cooperation on UN resolutions. Its regime is facing sanctions. Yet, Josh finds it logical to allow it to assume a major role in Iraqi domestic politics, and still be able to pressure it elsewhere! Yes, very effective pressure, that! It's the kind that Bashar has been begging for (through Flynt Leverett). But he is quick to acknowledge Lebanese fears about Syria using that kind of deal to declare open season in Lebanon! Thanks, Josh but Martin Indyk has already told us that. The notion that the US should undermine whatever it's doing on the Lebanese angle through Josh's proposals on Iraq is ludicrous. Josh wants to insert a fake separation here, but he knows that it's a bogus proposal. If the UN Security Council imposes sanctions on the regime, how can they be effective if Syria is made a major player in Iraq!? Am I missing something here? How is that unrelated?! How can one pursue pressure in that case?!

Josh knows it's bogus, and the obvious implication is to drop the entire Mehlis affair. But he hasn't hidden the fact that he believes this whole Hariri and Mehlis business should just be swept under the rug. It's, as he once implied, "boring." I'm sure Bashar couldn't agree more. That's why it never really factors in his posts. In his mind, this is all US-Syrian haggling at the bazaar.

What really bothers me though is some of the disingenuousness in the language. For one, Josh is making it seem (like the regime propaganda) that all this is because of Lebanese lobbyists and Neocons (of course) badly influencing US decisions. We've heard that before. The result, of course, is a variation on the ridiculous, but popular (just ask Farouq Sharaa and Buthaina Shaaban and the regime's "reformer" Dardari) claim that a cabal of Jews and Israelis are running all US policy. If it weren't for Israel, my God, the US and Syria would be locking lips. Now, especially after Bashar's speech, Lebanon has been added to that list of evil spoilers. Now the Lebanese are the ones scheming to ruin Syria and influencing the US decisions! I would laugh, but it's actually a pathetic and dangerous proposal. For instance, Josh is now advertising a truly horrendous, and breathtakingly stupid conspiracy-mongering piece on Mehlis from Counter Punch. That's Juan Cole and Justin Raimondo territory.

But the notion that the US shouldn't be blinded by "Lebanese interests" (like those supposed "Israeli interests" I presume) and should pursue its own interests (as if the two are by default mutually exclusive) is so disingenuous. What Josh proposes instead is for it to be driven by Bashar's interests (not by Syrian interests -- as the empowerment of this fourth-rate kleptocratic thugocracy is certainly not in Syria's interests). Leave Lebanon aside. Forget this Mehlis mumbo jumbo. To sell us this in pseudo-Scowcroftian rhetoric of "American interests" is quite disingenuous. To claim some sort of objectivity here is unconvincing. Josh is coming from a very particular "native" perspective here, that has internalized the fear that if Asad falls, the Alawites will eat it. Therefore, his objective is extremely narrow, and that is to make sure Bashar survives. Everything else is secondary. As for Lebanon, it's way, way down on the list. That's precisely why Josh's fellow traveler, Flynt Leverett advised the US to leave Syria in Lebanon (Josh wants to add Iraq! When have you heard of a fourth-rate thug being offered two neighboring countries!?). Leverett too is driven by the necessity of Bashar's survival, albeit for very different, not quite altruistic, reasons.

Unfortunately, this has blinded Josh from the obvious sophistry in his positions. I hope he realizes that.

Update: Ammar Abdulhamid joins this party.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Disingenuous Comment

It's well beyond "Speculative Comment" with Juan Cole. Cole's disingenuousness is nothing new, but it's quite something to observe this man misrepresent Arabic sources to his readers, just to push his ideological line.

Witness how Cole decides to represent, without offering a link to the original source of course, an Al-Hayat report about the Cairo conference on Iraq:

The other surprise of the Cairo conference is that the negotiators accepted the right for Iraqi groups to mount an armed resistance against the foreign troops. The participants were careful to condemn universally the killing of innocent non-combatants. They decried "takfir" or declaring a Muslim to be an unbeliever.

Of course Cole would like to convey this message as it's his fantastic ideological vantage point that he's been pushing for two years (remember that piece in Le Monde Diplomatique in 2004, when Cole jumped on the failed insurgency of the "young Shiite nationalist" Sadr, and declared the rebirth of a "transcendent nationalism" that would unite Shiites and Sunnis against the imperial colonial occupiers?). It's your average Third-Worldist (with a sprinkle of romantic Arab nationalism) fantasy worldview.

But his version has little resemblance to the original. First off, he conveniently leaves out important details from the report. For instance, al-Hayat notes the fact that the Shiite delegation refused the initial draft which made a distinction between resistance and terrorism (as Bashar Asad has maintained in all his recent interviews, whether on CNN or in As-Safir). The initial draft would've declared "a distinction between terrorism and resistance, and the consideration of resistance as a legal right for people under occupation." Jawad al-Maliki, the Shiite representative, threatened the withdrawal of the Shiites from the talks if this wasn't changed. He's quoted as having said: "recognizing the resistance means dealing a blow to the legitimacy of the government which had asked the foreign troops to extend their mission in Iraq. How can we ask them to stay in the country and at the same time sanction their targeting?" This line has been echoed by Talabani and others in various recent statements (Iraqi VP Adel Abdul Mahdi, and Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani, both made similar statements [PDF] afterwards about the insurgency not being a "resistance." Barzani noted that the US a liberation force, and is there by request of the Iraqi government. Abdul-Mahdi said that the only resistance acceptable is political or diplomatic.)

The final compromise formula said that while "resistance is a legal right for all peoples, however terrorism does not constitute legitimate resistance. As such, we condemn terrorism and the acts of violence and killing and kidnapping that target Iraqis and humane and civil institutions and the government and the national resources and religious places, and request they be opposed immediately."

In other words they've condemned everything that's been going on in Iraq, without distinguishing one thing as terrorism and another as resistance. While the statement leaves out any reference to foreign troops, it also leaves out any reference to occupation, which in itself neutralizes the angle of legitimate resistance. The addition of the government and state institutions in there by default refers back to Maliki's words that it is in fact the government that requested the foreign troops. Therefore, any attack on them is by default an attack on the government's authority.

While not perfect, it's a far cry from Juanito's skewed and dishonest version. Remarkable, this fellow. I won't even bother comment on the other silly remarks he made. It's Cole after all.

Hizbullah Snubs the Lebanese

I can't say I'm surprised by Hizbullah's latest stunt. HA launched a series of attacks in the Shebaa Farms area and northern Israel (Metula). Apparently, Israel wasn't surprised either, as its intelligence had been warning that such an attack was imminent, and that such an operation has been in preparation for a while. The Israelis struck back at the source of fire, and bombarded HA bases in the south.

Apparently, the operation, which may not be the last, was aimed at abducting Israeli soldiers in the Shebaa Farms area. Abducting Israeli soldiers to gain the upper hand in the bargaining for Lebanese prisoners in Israel (see below), and revive their dying image, has long been declared by Hizbullah. The file of the prisoners is important to HA and their image and prestige. One prisoner, Samir al-Quntar, is of particular interest to the Party.

Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz remarked on the attacks:

Mofaz said the latest escalation is a result of the pressure exerted on Syria over the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri, as well as international pressure on the Hizbullah.

"The Hizbullah action is an attempt to draw Israel into an escalation and divert attention to our region," he said.

Meanwhile, IDF sources said Hizbullah has been facing heavy pressure recently aimed at ending its existence as an armed group. Accordingly, the Lebanese group is attempting to stir trouble in order to create legitimacy for its action through false claims, the sources said.

A senior IDF officer told Ynet Monday’s events show the Hizbullah is again spitting in the face of Lebanon’s government by "carrying out such operation on the eve of the Lebanese Independence Day."

It is indeed hard not to make that connection, as it's so consistent with the Party's rhetoric and positions since the March independence movement. Nasrallah and HA have been singing (solo) the tune that the "real" enemy and occupier is Israel, not Syria. Meanwhile, the focus of the rest of the Lebanese scene has been, naturally, on Syria. It was also obvious that the speeches in the celebrations of Independence Day were going to be focused on Lebanon's independence from Syrian occupation, and the recently restored sovereignty and freedom. Indeed, PM Seniora delcared that "Syria has to get used to the fact that Lebanon is an independent sovereign country." Furthermore, as I noted in my post yesterday, Walid Jumblat again emphasized the need for border demarcation with Syria, and its official recognition of the Lebanese ownership of the Shebaa Farms (which it still has not done, and the Farms remain officially Syrian territory. More on that below.)

So it was expected that HA would refocus attention on itself and its agenda, in order to try and dictate domestic discourse: independence is from Israel, not Syria. The Farms are Lebanese. The "Resistance" will continue. The UN and Seniora (with emphasis on Seniora), should never forget who has the final say and who has the weapons. It also falls in line with HA's campaign against Seniora, and its pressuring him to reject UNR 1559. HA's attacks have prompted UN undersecretary-general for political affairs, Ibrahim Gambari, to urge the Lebanese government to extend its control over all its territory (which is stipulated in UNR 1614, and also in 1559). They seek to embarrass Seniora, and to push him on 1559. If they don't like it, they could always leave government, as they keep threatening. That would also mean Amal's withdrawal, which would mean, thanks to the horrible 2000 election law, the absence of Shiite representation in the cabinet.

In the face of growing domestic isolation, increased tension with Seniora, and lately a strong rebuke by Jumblat (who had given them most cover up to that point. A good analysis in Arabic can be found here), HA fell back (it never really changed) on its trademark: violence. This came after playing its other characteristic card: demagoguery. That's what HA is, afterall. All those praising the supposedly "democratic" behavior of HA should take note at how HA operates in government: it blackmails it and undermines it through demagoguery and extra-state violence (see Dalal al-Bizri's devastating piece. English synopsis here). That's why its weapons destroy the domestic political balance and are a direct affront to the state, as Christopher DeVito recently pointed out: "Democracy can’t work while Hezbollah remains an armed faction holding everyone hostage."

Before his latest brush with the Party, Jumblat had been constantly making statements about their weapons and the state of the conflict with Israel. Those statements ranged from the maximalist, pro-HA "the weapons are a guarantor of protection against Israel," to the most recent, post-Bashar speech, opposite: the weapons are not a guarantor of protection. National consensus and dialogue are.

This came after HA made it clear that it would work in coordination with Syrian interests in seeking to undermine the Seniora government, and thereby Lebanese stability and sovereignty. It started especially on HA's "Jerusalem Day" parade, which Jumblat and all his party's MPs did not attend. Nasrallah's speech that day was particularly offensive, and clearly outside Lebanese consensus. It was hammered by commentators in Lebanon, and negatively received by Jumblat himself. That's when Jumblat started his shift back to his earlier position in March. Now, he's repeating his earlier position (which was at one point also voiced by Aoun) that the situation with Israel should be governed by the 1949 armistice agreement.

He also included this caveat for HA: before returning to the armistice, the Shebaa Farms (once officially acknowledged to be Lebanese by the Syrians, and after demarcating the borders) should be restored, the Lebanese prisoners held in Israel should be set free, and Israel should hand Lebanon a map of all the landmines left over in southern Lebanon. Essentially, Jumblat had previously floated this proposal in late October, and he presented the armistice as a stipulation of the Taef Accord.

Today, the Daily Star quoted Seniora's spokesman Aref Abed as saying:

"Hizbullah has implied in its declarations it would be ready to discuss wars to protect Lebanon from Israel and 'maybe' disarm if a series of conditions were met." According to Abed, those conditions were: "Israel withdrawing from the Shebaa Farms, releasing the Lebanese prisoners from Israeli jails and providing the maps of the mines placed by Israel in the South of Lebanon during the occupation."

Abed said Siniora has mentioned these conditions to Javier Solana, the EU high representative for common foreign and security policy, during his visit to Lebanon, adding Siniora also asked Solana to convey this to Washington.

According to Abed, Siniora is waiting for Hizbullah to "propose a framework for national dialogue over the issue of the resistance's arms."

There's not much to go on there, and it's been like this from the beginning. This so-called "dialogue" was never even explicitly defined. Seniora is now pushing to define and finally start it. HA is still pushing the PM to reject UNR 1559, and pressuring him on other UN-related matters, such as the mission of Gere Pedersen. It's also currently opposed to the calls for border demarcation with Syria.

Speaking of which, this report in al-Hayat says that Damascus has agreed to Lebanon's request to demarcate the border. But, as you might have expected, it will be done "in stages," and will start from northern Lebanon southward. Oh, and Shebaa is off the table "until the Israelis withdraw from it and from the Golan in full" (emphasis added)! And the cherry on top: the Farms' identity will not be clarified until Israel withdraws! So it's all a bunch of hot air and typical Syrian maneuvering.

HA's attacks also come after the UN prosecutor, Mehlis, had reportedly rejected Syria's choice of venue for the interrogation of six Syrian officers, including Bashar's in-law, Asef Shawkat. This will add to the general perception in Lebanon that HA is indeed working in tandem with the Asad regime.

Walid Choucair wrote recently in al-Hayat that while there is certainly a convergence with Syria, the ultimate reference for the Party, as is well known, is Iran. Choucair notes that the Syrian situation is now a card in Iran's hand, to use in Iran's own confrontation, regionally and internationally. Choucair believes that this new development is a main reason why HA altered its dealings with the Future Movement and Jumblat's PSP. The Party's Iranian reference point has been a theme in recent commentaries, including al-Bizri's.

Whatever the reasoning behind the move, everything the Party does now is outside Lebanese consensus, and is viewed as serving Syrian attempts at destabilizing Lebanon and its government, and functioning as Iran's proxy in its regional battle with Sunni powers, as well as its international battle with the West. It will increase its isolation domestically, increase calls on the full implementation of 1559, and heighten tensions.

This is what HA thrives on. Moderated by participation in government? I think not. HA was advised that national consensus is the only option. Today's move shows exactly what they think of that and of the rest of the Lebanese. It was a response to Jumblat and Seniora. Now HA's alone. This attack was not against Israel. It was against Lebanon (Seniora in particular). Al-Bizri put it well: "...anxiety [is] not about the Party's danger to Israel, but its danger to life in Lebanon. ... [HA chants] 'Death to Israel!' In other words, death to us."

Critical times lay ahead.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Democratic Change in Syria

I've been meaning to post on some developments in Syria, but I've been tied down with work. However, Arabic readers might want to take a look at this series, "Democratic Change in Syria," currently being published in As-Siyassah. It's in its eighth episode, and, I think, still ongoing. It's a set of interviews with various activists, including the guide of the MB, Bayanouni (2nd episode). It gives an idea as to the variety of voices calling for change, and their consensus on the fact that the current regime is the problem, and it stands in the way of real change and reform.

I've collected the links to the PDF versions from the archives, and here they are for your convenience (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8).

I'll keep updating with new links until the series ends. Also, see this op-ed by exiled Syrian writer, at-Taher Ibrahim (who's also interviewed in episode 8). Ibrahim critiques Bashar's speech, and the current chauvinistic jingoism that's being engineered/sanctioned/manipulated by the regime (on that, see also the quote by Hazem Saghieh that I posted recently. It nails it on the head.)

Bashar's strategy is to use the Syrian people as cannon fodder, while attempting to split the opposition and to dictate the nature and the pace of domestic discourse. All this circling of the wagons is meant to avoid a deadly fight inside the regime (or should I say, the triumvirate) -- even perhaps trouble in the Alawite community -- while hiding behind a fearful and manipulated populace that's been put in front the barrel of the gun that Asad himself has brought to their head. By doing so, he eliminates the split between the regime and the people that the opposition declared in the Damascus Declaration, when it called for the handing over of suspects for interrogation by the International Commission, and proclaimed that the fate of the Syrian people should not be tied to that of suspected murderers. But, as Ibrahim put it, Bashar is using the Syrian people themselves as a "card."

Update: Here's episode 9 (PDF), with Abdallah Turkmani.

Update 2: Here's episode 10 (PDF).

Update 3: Here's episode 11 (PDF).

Update 4: Here's episode 12 (PDF).

Update 5: And here's the final episode (PDF).

Addendum: Meanwhile in Lebanon, Jumblat has picked up his campaign against the Syrian regime, separating them fully from the Syrian people. And while insisting on close brotherly relations with the Syrian people, he called the regime "guilty until proven innocent," and that it "has yet to prove its innocence from Hariri's blood." He also called for internal solidarity in the face of "attempts by the Syrian regime at sabotaging Lebanon's independence and its Arabism." (English synopsis here.) And, in an interesting remark he noted that "weapons don't provide protection; consensus and dialogue do." Furthermore, Hasan Nasrallah's attempt at combining the Syrian people and the regime in his "Jerusalem Day" speech (where he expressed solidarity with Syria's "people and leadership") was brutally critiqued in a daring piece by Dalal al-Bizri in al-Hayat, that really demolished HA's hypocrisy and its policies (English synopsis here. Hat tip, Jonathan). The Syrian "leadership," she noted, is a security apparatus that operates through violence outside and above the law. To stand in solidarity with it, in the face of such a massive crime, is appalling.

This in itself is another contrast to Bashar's speech. Whereas now in the post-Syrian era HA is no longer immune from severe criticism in the media, Bashar threatened everyone in Syria (media and opposition) that if they do not rally around the regime, they will be targeted as traitors. And Leverett wants us to "empower" Bashar! Sigh...

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Right and Left in Lebanon

Recently, my friend Mustapha of The Beirut Spring wrote a post about possible socio-economic issues serving to bring together parties like Aoun's FPM and Hizbullah.

I wrote him a note cautioning against a quick and exclusive socio-economic diagnosis. But I also noted that identities (sectarian, socio-economic, political...) in Lebanon often interlace. Error takes place when one is dismissed for the other, or one is mistaken for the other, or too closely identified with the other. That leads to huge mistakes and confusions in interpretation.

I brought up a couple of good quotes from Theo Hanf on the subject:

The lack of census figures stimulated not only political, but also social fantasies. And the products usually correlated with the analyst's political convictions. From the mid-1970s onwards, a number of authors more or less equated social class and community in Lebanon, and interpreted conflicts between these communities as class struggles. Of course, this thesis was an effective mobilizer. It also satisfied the desire of some media for simple explanations of complex situations. The cliché of 'rich Christians' and 'poor Muslims', has had a brilliant journalistic career -- and it may not be over yet.
...
People live within a complex system of loyalties, but these are less opposed than you'd imagine. Everyone's linked to society in various ways - gender, marital status, political parties, region, clan, religion and so on and so forth.

The following view by Hassan Mneimneh is also relevant:

It has become both usual and convenient to conceive of Lebanon in terms of its religious communities: Maronites, other Christians, Sunnis, Shi'is, Druze. However, the history of modern Lebanon has been one of "horizontal" connections across communities, intercepted or interrupted by "vertical" resistance by communitarian reactions, reflecting hesitation or dissatisfaction with unsettling changes, or promoted by populist rhetoric from communitarian leaderships at risk of losing influence.

The reducing of identities and politics (as well as conflict) to the familiar ideological frameworks of, e.g., Modernization Theory, Marxism or Third-Worldism has been a constant hallmark of journalism and scholarship on Lebanon. That's the origin of the labels "Right-wing" and "Left-wing" used so profusely by people like Cole, AbuKhalil, and Cobban in their writing on Lebanon. As Hanf pointed out, these labels and other socio-economic labels are then assigned to sects. The result is often gross misrepresentation and distortion.

It turns out Bernard Lewis agrees. In a 1977 essay for The New Republic entitled "Right and Left in Lebanon," Lewis wrote:

The seating arrangements of the first French National Assembly after the Revolution do not express a law of nature, and the practice of classifying political ideas, interests and groups as right or left obscures more than it illuminates even in the Western world where it originated. As applied to other societies, shaped by different experiences, guided by different traditions, moved by different aspirations, such imported labels can only disguise and mislead.

The article was recently republished in Lewis' From Babel to Dragomans, and can in fact be read online via Amazon's "Search Inside" feature. It starts on p. 284 and ends on p. 289.

Monday, November 14, 2005

Homs Declaration

Right after Bashar's speech, the "regime liberals," Ibrahim Hamidi and Sami Moubayed, both wrote back-to-back op-eds in English arguing the line of regime-led reforms (the same nonsense that Bashar and his cheerleaders have been inundating us with for 5 years) as the only way out of the crisis (contrast that with Ammar's remarks).

I couldn't figure it out at the time. Now it's making sense. A group of (Communist, Leftist, Arab nationalist, i.e. more of the same) intellectuals have issued the "Homs Declaration," which supports working with the Assad regime to enact some of these "reforms" that Assad has been talking about for 5 years (and which the Baath Congress brushed off). These guys stand to benefit most of these so-called reforms, which seek to create little more than more "mini-Baaths" to be coopted by the Progressive National Front, as is the case today. That would allow the regime to further crack down on and deligitimate people like Labwani, by calling them tools of the West, and to allow the regime to point to the other guys and say, "see, we have real reformers here." It's a kosher "opposition." An Arab nationalist opposition. One that in the end rallies around Bashar. This is consistent with Bashar's speech, where he split Syrian (and Lebanese!) society and media between "nationalists" and "collaborators." These are the "nationalists."

The obvious intent is to undermine and weaken the Damascus Declaration. The opposition's contradictions will certainly help in this regard (see Ammar's post above), as it at once called the regime part of the problem, but was still trying to work with it.

This is just another example of how reform (and cooperation) is really the last thing on Bashar's mind, regardless of what Flynt Leverett says, and regardless who Bashar is married to. This enables him to crack down on and fragment opposition voices, while maintaining a grip on all initiatives domestically, as he prepares to drag the country to international sanctions, and thinking he'll weather the storm and come out on top.

Juan of Arabia

More lessons from Cole for all you aspiring blogger-experts out there.

The following (cached) is from a post on Saturday:

Al-Zaman reports that Shiite nationalist Muqtada al-Sadr has decided to launch a petition and fundraising in several Shiite regions, including Pakistan and Lebanon, in a drive to build a Shiite shrine at Baqi` in Saudi Arabia. The statement said that surely the Saudis did not have an objection to do so.

As Muqtada knows, the Saudi Wahhabi branch of Islam abhors shrines and has often attacked and defiled them.

It's obvious that Cole really hasn't the slightest idea what the reference to al-Baqi' (al-Baqee') is really about (let alone what al-Baqi' actually is!).

Apparently someone must've tipped him off, and so what does Cole do? He falls back on his standard M.O.: quietly delete, edit, republish, and maintain veneer of infallible expertise (you know, like what he did with the famous Jenin post, embarrassing chunks of which consequently "vanished").

So, true to form, and after quickly dusting off his Google, Cole went back and surreptitiously edited his post. Here's the brand new product:

Al-Zaman reports that Shiite nationalist Muqtada al-Sadr has decided to launch a petition and fundraising in several Shiite regions, including Pakistan and Lebanon, in a drive to build a Shiite shrine at the Jannat al-Baqi` Cemetery in Saudi Arabia. The statement said that surely the Saudis did not have an objection to do so.

The Jannat al-Baqi` cemetry in Medina contains the graves of Shiite holy figures.

As Muqtada knows, the Saudi Wahhabi branch of Islam abhors shrines and has often attacked and defiled them.

Mission accomplished. Expertise reaffirmed. Well, not quite. Apparently, he didn't spend enough time on Google to learn more about Jannat al-Baqi'. It's not just a cemetery where the "ahl al-Bayt" (members of Muhammad's family, including his daughter Fatima Zahra and Ali son of Husayn) are buried, but it once contained large mausoleums. Then in 1925, having seized Mecca (1924) and then Medina, the Wahhabi King Abdulaziz Al Saud (Ibn Saud) destroyed these mausoleums (the second time the House of Saud had done so in the span of 125 years), in accordance with Wahhabi doctrine (esp. about grave sites. King Fahd for instance, was buried in an unmarked grave). After he was finished, the place layed in ruins. The graves now look like this.

The Sadrists were then making a very specific reference that Iraqi Shiites and Saudis would not miss. The only "expert on Shiism" to miss it, even after a Google-assisted attempt at a cover-up, is the Grand Imam of Cole-abad. And he still has the audacity to use terms like "on the street in Iraq" and "on the ground in Iraq" when he not only has never set foot in the place, but he even fails to catch a glaringly specific reference from that Iraqi Shiite "street".

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Cole-cocked

You gotta love Cole. Here's Cole yesterday, on the Jordan attacks:

Claims were made on the internet that the four suicide bombers who attacked tourist hotels in Amman, Jordan on Thursday were Iraqis, including a wife-husband team. Although the four were claimed as members of "al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia" by "Abu Musab al-Zarqawi," this allegation makes little sense. Zarqawi's group is alleged to be made up primarily of foreign fighters, including Jordanians, Saudis, Algerians, etc. So where did they get these Iraqi members, and why send them to Jordan, when Jordanians from say Zarqa would have been under less scrutiny than foreigners? Some eyewitnesses heard one of the bombers speaking with an Iraqi accent. This information bolsters the case I made yesterday for the remnants of the Baath Party being behind these bombings. I believe that they blame their worst misdeeds on "al-Qaeda," so as to divert attention from their own sinister role. The Iraqi nationalists and post-Baathists fighting the guerrilla war routinely punish "collaborators" with the Americans. Since those tourist hotels are typically full of "collaborators," and since the Jordanian regime cooperated extensively with the US invasion of Iraq, the Baathists intended the bombings to punish King Abdullah II.

Hmmm, yes. Oozing expertise, categorical, and... full of it. I especially loved the scare quotes around Zarqawi. You know, maybe he's a Shiite forgery.

Of course, there is no real analysis or any mention of Baathist money in Jordan (see Lee Smith's piece on the subject) or any of that jive. It's just a categorical assertion (like the one he made after the London attacks, which was also 100% wrong) based on absolutely nothing.

Here's Cole today:

Jordanian authorities have captured Sajida Mubarak Atrous al-Rishawi, the wife of suicide bomber Ali Hussein Ali al-Shamari, who detonated his belt bomb at the Radisson in Amman. She turns out to be the sister of the Anbar leader of the Monotheism and Holy War (al-Qaeda in Iraq), who was killed at some point in Fallujah. His name was Thamir al-Rishawi.

So this Amman operation really does seem to have come out of Zarqawi's group, rather than just using that group as a cover, as is so often done inside Iraq.

No more scare quotes. Here today gone tomorrow. The guy makes it up as he goes along. Like my friend, who recently came back from Iraq put it: "you'd think he'd take it easy with the speculating, given how often he gets it wrong."

My friend just doesn't understand the depth of the expertise involved here. Besides, "Speculative Comment" just doesn't have the same ring to it as "Informed Comment."

Update: See this important post from The Counterterrorism Blog. It addresses the theory espoused by Cole about foreign Jihadists in Iraq.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

Interpreting Bashar's Speech

In my post on Bashar's speech, I included a number of pieces from the Lebanese papers reacting to it. I also noted the piece by Sami Moubayed that preceded the speech and foreshadowed it. That piece was published simultaneously with another one by another Syrian journalist close to the regime, Ibrahim Hamidi. Whereas Moubayed's piece signaled the hardcore Arab nationalism that we saw in Bashar's speech (it's almost like a set of bulletpoints that were taken up in the speech), Hamidi's floated the idea that the regime is willing to cooperate on regional issues.

Hamidi then came back after Bashar's speech (as I mentioned in my previous post) and explained that the speech was the result of the failure of all the diplomatic efforts by the Egyptians to get the Syrians off the hook of having to be questioned by Mehlis in Monte Verde, in Lebanon. That was reflected in the speech as well (btw. UNR 1636 denies the Syrian regime the right to determine the venue of the questioning). Nicholas Nassif of an-Nahar claimed that on Wednesday, the legal consultant to the Syrian Foreign Ministry, Riad Dawoodi, secretly went to Monte Verde and met for two hours with Mehlis. Apparently it was an attempt to try and convince Mehlis of accepting another venue than Lebanon. Mehlis obviously refused, and that sealed Bashar's decision to adopt the other alternative, floated by Moubayed, of a hardcore stance. (For this scenario in English, see Walid Choucair's commentary in the DS.)

Now Hamidi is back defending the line floated in his previous piece, and offering an "official interpretation" of the speech. That interpretation, versions of which did already appear in various outlets in Lebanon (and of course the BBC), holds that underneath the hardline rhetoric is indeed a signal that Bashar will cooperate. I tend to agree with Bshara Sharbel's assessment that those efforts seeking to find this "alternative reading," and digging for signs of pragmatism underneath the hardcore ideological discourse, are more wishful thinking than anything else. There was a line in the speech about the outsiders going after the "members of the household." Perhaps that's more than just figurative language.

But let's assume for the sake of argument that there is indeed a signal for a readiness to cooperate. What is Bashar's proposal? Let's turn to Hamidi for the answer. It's the same old line:

Because of his conviction that "the case is political not criminal" and that Mehlis will say in mid December that Syria "did not cooperate," Assad sent signals of moderation on the other fronts: Iraq, Palestine, peace [with Israel].

Where have we heard this before? Here's where. It's from Martin Indyk's interview with CFR where he talked about his meeting with Bashar in September of last year, after the passage of UNR 1559:

I came away from the meeting thinking that he had developed what appeared to be a very shrewd strategy; that he would cooperate with us over Iraq, that he would pursue peace with Israel in a serious way, and that he hoped in that way we would leave him alone to have his way with Lebanon.

Bingo. Bashar is not willing to offer anything new! (notice also, how Lebanon is what Bashar wants, while the Golan is negotiable! But of course!) It's pandering back to that "age of process" that I've described before, which was the hallmark of peolpe like Indyk and Leverett, who were both deeply involved in all the "processes" of the 90's (the difference is Indyk has now dumped Bashar, but Leverett, because he has much more at stake, is still holding the fort -- or should I say the "citadel of steadfastness"). I've described what Bashar has in mind in a recent post:

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."

Naturally, Bashar said precisely that in his speech. For one, he called for the US to withdraw from Iraq. He called for the Iraqi government to deal directly with him, so that he can offer help "beyond the border issue" (i.e., to try, as Landis once ludicrously advocated, to have a say in the Iraqi political process!).

As for Lebanon, the message is clear: Lebanon is ours (forget the Golan, Lebanon is what he's after). The way he went about conveying that message is telling. First the venue: the University of Damascus. Almost 30 years ago, that was the place where his father made that famous speech about Lebanon, in July 1976. Bashar's bombastic Arab nationalist rhetoric was an unmistakable throw-back, meant for both the domestic audience (I am my father's son) and for the Lebanese. References to "Tripoli of ash-Sham" (Bilad Ash-Sham means something like "the north country." At the time of the Mamluks, Tripoli was made a governorate, one of six polities that constituted what Arabs called Bilad ash-Sham. The territory of Bilad ash-Sham covered roughly modern Syria, Lebanon and parts of Palestine.) are intended to reflect that Bashar still considers Lebanon to be part of Syria, i.e., under Syrian control.

The mythology involved here is a good example of the amalgamation of Arab nationalism and a perverse Syrian nationalism through historical revisionism. The logic goes that since Tripoli was part of the distrcit of Damascus, it means that it is part of Syria. The problem is that "Syria" was not a polity. Damascus was an Ottoman governorate, from which Tripoli was governed, under the Ottomans. When Lebanon was created, many Sunni Arab nationalists weren't thrilled (and this sentiment persisted in the Nasserite era) to be cut from the broader Sunni interior in Damascus (it has nothing to do with them feeling "Syrian" as opposed to "Lebanese"). That same logic by the way was used against Syria by Abdullah of Jordan in the 40's, which led to Syria drumming up for war against the Zionists in order to fend off Abdullah's ambitions of ruling the former Ottoman governorates that made up Bilad ash-Sham.

But this is now a hollow card, demolished by Tripolitan Sunni participation in March 14th, (and their calling Bashar and Syria "the enemy of God" during pro-Hariri chants, near his burial site. The chants went: "There is no God but God, Asad/Syria is the enemy of God." They also drew the ire of Hasan Nasrallah in his Jerusalem Day speech, who thought that they should be directed at Israel, not Syria.) as described on March 14 by native Tripolitan blogger, Mustapha:

i'm getting word-of-mouth accounts from Tripoli today that are unbelievable!

Lebanese Flags on all houses, people desperate to go to the Beirut Demo and not finding places on the hundreds of buses lined up. Loud speakers in every street blarring nationalistic music. Some gas stations offering Benzine for free for cars going to beirut... such a lively bee-hive Tripoli has become (bye bye lethargy), i never felt so proud i am from there...

i was watching T.V this morning, you really know that the Syrians are losing influence big-time when you see a poor guy from dinnyieh [ed's note: poor northern outback, long under Syrian control], with no political backbone whatsoever, demanding the Syrian army to withdraw now!

This is a message my sister just sent me from Tripoli
"Everybody is happy, everybody is greeting everybody on the streets, everyone has a flag, i am actually waving a flag from d car to other people. Our flag is great!"

That same Tripoli rejoiced by distributing sweets upon the withdrawal of Syrian troops from its streets, and embraced the Hariri list in the Parliamentary elections. With a history of emasculating and targeting Sunni leadership (including the Sunni Mufti Hasan Khaled) culminating in the assassination of Hariri, not to mention his abuse of Saad Hariri and Seniora, Bashar is shooting blanks with this kind of rhetoric, and only drawing more anger. Meanwhile, Seniora summoned and met with a number of Arab ambassadors in Beirut (KSA, Kuwait, Jordan, Egypt, UAE, and Algeria), shoring up Arab support for his office as Prime Minister, especially after the cabinet issued a statement supporting him and rejecting Bashar's tirade. Meanwhile, Bashar cannot even get an Algerian veto, or even an Arab summit to break its isolation. In other words, Seniora just gave the Lion Cub a lesson in diplomacy.

Another Tripolitan blogger, Raja of the Lebanese Bloggers (please note their URL change) discussed the changes in the definition of this Arab identity. Hell, even bona fide Arabist Abdel Wahhab Badrakhan is slamming Bashar.

So Bashar's remarks amount to nothing more than anachronistic chauvinism. Anachronistic and sclerotic because in so many ways they sound like his father's remarks of 30 years ago. Here are excerpts from Hafez's speech in 1976. Notice the convergence and the continuity. There is also some divergence, which shows that no matter how hard he tries, Bashar cannot fill daddy's shoes:

Indeed, our interpretation was shared by many parties in Lebanon who call themselves nationalist as well as by groups of the Palestinian resistance. We argued that the events of Lebanon were the result of an imperialist plan which seeks, first, to cover up for the Sinai Agreement, second, to drag the resistance, smash it, liquidate the camps, and embarrass Syria, and third, to partition Lebanon.
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Throughout history, Syria and Lebanon have been one country, one nation.
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Lebanon, whether united or divided, does not at present constitute a burden to Israel and is not expected to become a military burden within the foreseeable future as far as Israel is concerned. ... Israel seeks the partition of Lebanon for a political and ideological reason. It is superfuluous to mention that Israel wants to create small sectarian states in this part of the world so that it can become the strongest of them all. ... Israel wants the partition of Lebanon in order to discredit the motto of a secular democratic state.
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We decided to intervene under the guise of the Palestine Liberation Army. The Palestine Liberation Army began to enter Lebanon.
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In the middle of April we held a meeting with resistance leaders which lasted the whole night, as I recall. The following morning we made public the points we had agreed upon.
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4. To reject American plans and solutions in Lebanon.

5. To adhere to the continuation of the Syrian initiative.

6. To reject internationalization of the conflict and the entry of any international troops into Lebanon.

7. To reject Arabization of the crisis in Lebanon.
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Our policy, however, does not change. It is based on unchanging principles for the sake of a just cause which we consider to be our own cause. Our policy will remain as it was and will never change.

While clearly many things have changed since then, Bashar is still playing with the same ingredients. While aiming to avoid internationalization and/or Arabization, Bashar has brought on both. Now he has a number of UN resolutions against him and his interference in Lebanon, and an Arab consensus that Lebanon is no longer Syria's exclusive colony. But Bashar is still playing the "nationalists" vs. "agents of American and Israel" game, and still playing the various pro-Syrian Palestinian factions, etc. He also still tells the Lebanese (and the Arabs and the West), in his speech, that they cannot think they can "alter the equation." It's that same chauvinism that is behind his refusal to allow Syrians to be interrogated in Monte Verde (again, see Choucair's piece linked above). It also certainly plays a role in his shelving of all plans at border demarcation and exchange of embassies with Lebanon.

Indeed, all his "offers" (more like threats of burning the region if not accomodated) are aimed at recapturing that equation, despite everything. It was therefore rather gratifying to hear President Bush not mention Iraq or the "process," and simply tell Syria that it should respect Lebanon's independence and sovereignty. Not just that, but that the US supports democratic change in Syria. Hence, this statement by the White House Press Secretary (see also Sec. Rice's remarks in al-Manama):

We are deeply disturbed by reports that Dr. Kamal Labwani was arrested by Syrian authorities upon his arrival in Damascus earlier this week. Only last week, Dr. Labwani attended a meeting at the White House. We stress that the United States stands with the Syrian people in their desire for freedom and democracy.

The Syrian Government must cease its harassment of Syrians peacefully seeking to bring democratic reform to their country.

President Bush calls on the government to release all political prisoners, including those arrested after the Damascus Spring: Arif Dalilah, Riad Seif, Mamun al-Homsi, Walid al Bunni, Habib Issa, and Fawaz Tello.

So I guess Hamidi's suggestion has fallen on deaf ears. Chirac (not the US!) has already threatened sanctions if Bashar continues "not to understand." The EU's Solana has told Bashar that this is no longer the time for discourse. Let's see how far Bashar really wants to take this.

Friday, November 11, 2005

Syria on Bush's Mind

President Bush made two interesting references in his speech today:

This week, the government of Syria took two disturbing steps. First, it arrested Dr. Kamal Labwani for serving as an advocate of democratic reform. Then President Assad delivered a strident speech that attacked both the Lebanese government and the integrity of the Mehlis investigation into the assassination of Lebanon's former prime minister.

The government of Syria must do what the international community has demanded: cooperate fully with the Mehlis investigation, and stop trying to intimidate and destabilize the Lebanese government.

The government of Syria must stop exporting violence and start importing democracy.

It's significant that the message is being sent out that the US is not just interested in changes (or, to use the common parlance, "deals") in regional policy (notice, no mention of Iraq in this scenario), but is also interested in supporting democratic reform in Syria.

Ammar Abdulhamid has two relevant posts on this issue. Here's his advice to the Syrian opposition:

Moreover, balking at American support for ideological reasons, or what might seem at first like “strategic considerations,” is simply foolish. America is the main mover and shaker in the region these days and any group seeking to present itself as a viable alternative to the regime needs to show that it is capable of dealing with it constructively...

If the opposition can just let go of its ideological predilections for a while, they can see that there is absolutely no way they can present themselves to the Syrian people as a credible alternative to the regime without showing themselves capable of gaining international recognition first. Even Bashar needed French approval to be internally accepted. Gaining international legitimacy and credibility will be translated into internal legitimacy and credibility as well.

Meanwhile, the opposition in Syria should begin to realize that if they are indeed serious about “saving” the country as they said in the Declaration, then the first step that they need to learn is the Art of Compromise. In our situation, this means that they need to bite their leftist tongues and talk to the Americans.

His reminder is equally important:

it does not matter in the least that Syria’s opposition does not have a popular mandate at this stage. Guiding the transitional process is an elitist mandate anyway. The main task of the opposition now should be to prepare itself for this task and to hasten its arrival.

The current crisis affords a unique opportunity for challenging the regime from the inside. But this window of opportunity is not going to be there for long, should the internal opposition in Syria, and the secular elements in particular, fail to take advantage of it. Else, the regime, which is bound to collapse under the deadweight of its own internal contradictions, is going to collapse on our heads, and there will no one to manage the aftermath.

Let's see what happens.

Hersh-ey Barf

Michael Young responds to a pathetic statement by the conspiracy-prone and spasmatic (when it comes to "neocons") Seymour Hersh on Syria's role in the Hariri assassination. Here's what Hersh said:

I'm exceedingly skeptical, and I have been all along, of the point of view of what happened to Hariri. The American point of view is that it was Syria with the aid of some people in Lebanon. Despite all the back and forth about how the American press corps was totally manipulated, to its embarrassment, about WMD, I would still argue, we're still being totally manipulated by this administration about Syria and Lebanese involvement.

Here's part of Michael's response:

Hersh has apparently caught a rampaging malady among those reflecting on American behavior in the Middle East; it is now fair game, it seems, to interpret any regional news story through the parochial prism of a "wag the dog" scenario, so that the Katrina and Harriet Miers debacles, or George W. Bush's wilting ratings, have become perfectly good explanations for U.S. policy toward Syria, Iran, Iraq, or anything you might want to shoehorn into a preposterous narrative. (The fact is that U.S. policy toward Syria was shaped months before Bush won the 2004 election, at a time when he was doing very well, and this was encouraged by, of all people, French President Jacques Chirac.)

This line of thinking was peddled by the insufferable Buthaina Shaaban (possibly one of the source of Hersh's wisdom on things Syrian) in her rants/op-eds in ash-Sharq al-Awsat. That paper also featured an equally brain-dead op-ed by Mamoun Fandy that followed that same logic, which Fandy mistook for cleverness. But perhaps the cake should go to the most boring individual to write on things Middle Eastern, mildew incarnate, Clovis Maksoud, for a typically diarrhetic piece in an-Nahar along those same lines.

Varieties on the same theme can be found at places like the Daily Kos, etc.

So if we were to give Hersh an Andrew Sullivan-style award, who would we name it after? I ran through some candidates in my mind, and I think for this kind of silliness, the best candidate really cannot be anyone but the hilarious Justin Raimondo. (By the way, if you wish to donate to the "Help Raimondo Buy His Medication" fund, contact me for more info.) I think we have a winner.

I should add that this kind of nonsense (pandered by the BBC for instance, and certainly Al-Jazeera) has driven Lebanese bloggers crazy (scroll down for links to samples). One of them, The Beirut Spring, decided to even start a petition in support of Mehlis.

Update: Michael Totten chimes in from Beirut. He makes a point similar to my last one, about the Lebanese sentiment. He notes that he has met a total of two people in Lebanon who don't think Syria was responsible: a conspiracy-prone extremist Christian, and an extremist Shiite (from Hizbullah). I think that gives just about the accurate picture. The extremes are outside the moderate center of Lebanese consensus. The latter was seen on March 14th, when 1.2 million people took to the streets and pointed the finger squarely at Bashar, and did so after Hizbullah flexed its muscles a week before then, thus showing them to be outside the moderate Lebanese consensus. (By the way, Michael uses the term "right-wing" for the Christian fellow. It should be added that Hizbullah is not "left-wing." Hizbullah is as right-wing as it gets, only from the Shiite Muslim side. I've expressed repeatedly my distaste for such terminology as "right" and "left" in Lebanon, as its value is limited, especially when it gets mixed with sectarian identification.)

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Bashar Opts for Brinkmanship


Public "emotions" in Syria are, to a large extent, the product of the authorities and what these authorities do. It is a well-known case in military and dictatorial regimes, where the societal sentiment is subject to daily cooptation and regulation.
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The "patriotic" awareness that is being produced by the Syrian regime -- chauvinistic, hateful of Lebanon and the Lebanese -- may succeed in absorbing the contradictions of said regime, yet it will certainly not succeed in building a healthy Syrian patriotism.
Hazem Saghieh, Al-Hayat, 07/30/05.

How is Syria coping with the pressure? The way it always has, with violence. It is worthwhile to note that a state fearful of sectarian conflict runs a regional policy in Lebanon, Iraq, and Israel that aims to provoke elsewhere its own worst nightmares at home.
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This real fear of being surrounded and vulnerable not only drives the regime's authoritarian apparatus, it is also the source of Syrian identity.
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Eventually, Syrians will have to learn how to construct a positive national identity out of a multisectarian, multiethnic society without dispatching their demons abroad or sweeping them under an Arab nationalist rug.
Lee Smith, The Weekly Standard, 10/10/05.

Rallying around this regime, under whatever pretext and regardless of the motives, is like rallying around a corpse. The only thing that this regime can deliver is decay.
Ammar Abdulhamid, 11/09/05.

To noone's surprise, Bashar has opted for brinksmanship. In a speech, aptly described by an AFP report as "typically long and rambling," the Syrian dictator essentially declared war, as Josh Landis put it. Similarly, Lebanese politician Roger Edde described the speech as "a decision to go to war against the International Community, and against the political stability and security of Lebanon, represented by its Prime Minister." The direct targets of the war, consistent with long-established Syrian foreign policy, are Syria's neighbors, especially Lebanon.

This is a predictable move, and certainly more expected than the fanciful notion that Bashar would bring the battle home and turn against his brother and/or brother-in-law, as some analysts like Seale and Leverett suggested. Back on Oct. 23, Michael Young explored Bashar's two equally bad options:

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.
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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.

If the Baath Party Congress didn't convince you that Bashar was a believer, or, at the very least, that he was going to stick with "revolutionary" Arab nationalism, then his speech today should end all discussion on the issue (see Beirut Spring for links to an English summary and audio excerpts).

Actually, we caught a glimpse of what the theme of the speech was going to be from the "regime's liberal" Sami Moubayed, who wrote a long English version of the "Syria as the Pan-Arab citadel of steadfastness" (which, by the way, said the exact opposite of his piece from a couple of weeks earlier). Lending credence especially to the quote by Saghieh, but also the ones by Smith and Abdulhamid above, Moubayed informed us that "there is a consensus between the street and government" on the issues of "Lebanon, Palestine and the Iraqi resistance." That was one of the main messages of the speech: that there is no chasm between the Assad regime and the Syrian people.

While Bashar's chauvinistic and paranoid (see Feris Khishen's piece) speech splattered the Iraqis, its main target was Lebanon. (And for all the "deal on Iraq" folks, let me point out what Bashar said in his speech -- the Americans must pull out of Iraq -- and what I recently wrote on the issue: "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.")

Bashar laid the standard line on Lebanon (reflecting, I might add, a deep-seated contempt and general outlook), and echoed much of Hasan Nasrallah's speech, with all the charges of treason, and collaboration with Israel (May 17 reference), culminating in a characterization that Lebanon has become a passageway, factory, and financier of conspiracies against Syria. One rather obvious was the line about how "the agents who brought the colonizers" [i.e., the Lebanese] will be hurt if any damage should befall Syria. An interesting point of convergence however between the two speeches was the focus on PM Seniora (and MP Saad Hariri). In a sense, this reflects the bad blood between the Assads and the Hariris, but also truly explains and vindicates the late Hariri's statement that "our problem really is with Bashar." I think now more than ever it's clear that good and healthy relations with Syria are seriously at odds with the current Assad-led status quo. I think the omission of Lebanon from all discussion by the Bashar cheerleaders, be it Leverett or Landis, is also indicative of this fact. The assassination of Hariri, contrary to the assertions about him made by Bashar in his speech, is the direct outcome of the horrible relation that Hariri had with Bashar from day one (again, see Khishen's piece. Khishen adds that Bashar's speech has lent credence and added support to the fact that he did threaten Hariri in their last meeting).

Bashar already has one dead Sunni PM on his hands. By coming out after Seniora, who is backed by Saudi Arabia and all the Gulf States and Jordan, he is, in essence, at once reflecting his total isolation (not to mention paranoia) from his Sunni Arab surrounding (except for the tiniest of self-interested efforts by the Egyptians to get him to cooperate, which, as this speech makes clear, have failed. Ibrahim Hamidi suggests that the speech is a result of these diplomatic failures), and sealing it. Bashar may soon find that even his last remaining card (that after him comes chaos) might no longer have any value if (as Lee also pointed out in the piece linked above) Assad's Syria becomes an intolerably destabilizing element anyway. This operates on several fronts: first there's obviously Iraq. But now that has expanded to Jordan. Regardless of whether Syria had anything to do with the latest attack in Amman or not, that attack will have repercussions on it. Zarqawi's network relies on Syrians operating from Syria, and this was an issue in the perivous attempt in Jordan using a truck full of explosives that originated in Syria, and which caused great tension between Syrian and Jordan, and added to their history of animosity and suspicion. Today King Abdallah declared his own war on terrorism and "those who support it." That might prove significant as Syria continues to support Jihadists in Iraq, and those are now finding their way into Jordan, via Syria.

The issue also expands to the Palestinian factions and the Palestinian camps. Jordan may also end up having a role in the West Bank (like Egypt in Gaza) and they are supporting Mahmoud Abbas (just like the Lebanese are trying to establish direct and official relations with Abbas to try to solve their own Palestinian problem). If Syria continues to undermine Abbas by supporting all the rejectionist factions, it will soon find itself in more trouble with the Jordanians, the Lebanese and the Egyptians (who themselves got hit earlier, and need to keep the Sinai and Gaza in order).

There may be yet another element in the Jordanian angle. Lee Smith wrote about this not too long ago in the Weekly Standard:

In the last two years, Amman has grown exponentially, with new luxury hotels, malls, and restaurants that seem to be positioning this once undistinguished Arab capital as a second Beirut. Indeed, some of the cash coming in is a direct result of Syria's forced withdrawal from Lebanon. "Lots of Syrian money came after it left Beirut," says Braizat. "The Syrians are investing to escape Bashar [al-Assad's] regime."

So, what does it mean that Syria's merchant class is putting money into the coffers of the country's long-time regional rival? "If the private sector in Syria is connected to the private sector here," Braizat argues, "then this is cementing its relationship with the government here, and they don't see the [Syrian] regime surviving."

In other words, Bashar has another Sunni problem: the Syrian merchant class. There have also been reports of flight of capital to Gulf accounts. If he continues to lead the country, and whatever financial interests they have, over the edge, they may soon decide to turn against him too. All this is speculative of course, but it's not quite fanciful either. Assad's base has already narrowed down to his immediate family, and even Alawites are voicing dissatisfaction (especially after Kanaan's death).

President Chirac (not the US) already told Assad that he's looking at sanctions. And, as Sec. Rice noted, "Mehlis can report problems at any time to the Security Council and does not have to wait until his final report, which is due Dec. 15. The next two weeks will be critical in determining Syria's intentions, Rice said." The State Department called Bashar's speech, "appalling."

Finally, there's Lebanon, where all of this is likely to play out. We are perhaps to expect more bombs, and more activity by pro-Syrian Palestinian factions (by the way, members of the Sa'iqa organization and the PFLP-GC were arrested on charges of belonging to a terrorist network with ties to Syrian intelligence officer Jameh Jameh, and for smuggling weapons respectively). But all eyes will be on Hizbullah. So far, there's been a rhetorical identity between the two. Also, the Shiite Ministers (representing Amal and Hizbullah) walked out of a cabinet session because Seniora wanted to discuss Bashar's attacks on Lebanon and on him personally. While they said that this didn't amount to a resignation from cabinet, the show clearly highlighted the tension between Hizbullah and Seniora that's been building for months. Yet, as L'Orient-Le Jour put it, it didn't amound to a cabinet crisis. The quote by Amal MP, Mohammad Khalifeh, supports my own reading, that before they made a decision, the Shiite MPs needed to confer with their respective leaderships.

How the episode transpired, according to the reports, is that Seniora (after opening the session addressing the Israeli violations of Lebanese airspace, so that HA doesn't jump all over him) wanted to discuss the speech, and the HA Minister Fneish decided that it shouldn't be discussed, under the pretext that they didn't get to study the speech (i.e., he didn't get yet what Nasrallah's reaction to it will be). In other words, Seniora wanted to force them to make a stand, and they wouldn't commit. The cabinet did issue a statement rejecting Assad's comments, and expressed surprise at his choice of words. The Hariri bloc also expressed its digust with the language, and that Assad decided to "stoop so low." As-Siyassah quoted anonymous sources in the Future Movement who considered the speech a direct threat against Lebanese leaders, which would open the door again to assassinations and physical liquidations of those who reject Syrian hegemony over Lebanon. They added that this serves to close the doors between Beirut and Damascus, that were being slowly attempting to reopen (On the repercussions on Lebanese-Syrian relations, see this piece by Bshara Sharbel). They also characterized ithe speech as hostile towards the Lebanese people, and eerily similar to speeches made by Saddam Hussein right before he was deposed, which makes it very dangerous, even amounting to suicide. For similar views, see Gebran Tueni's op-ed.

Even Jumblat (who was hoping the Egyptians would convince Bashar to cooperate) told Reuters that "describing Fuad Seniora in this fashion as an obedient slave of a hired slave is something not fit of the President of the Syrian Republic. Seniora's Arab credentials are clear." He added on Syria's cooperation: "his [Bashar's] talk about the subject of the investigation was ambiguous. UNSCR 1636 is clear, and cooperation will be in the interest of the Syrian regime. We want the truth to come out, and to know whether some of the members of the Syrian regime named in report were guilty or innocent." Apaprently, having Syrians interrogated in Monte Verde proved too much for Bashar to swallow, so much so that he even mentioned it in the speech.

Seniora replied indirectly to Assad at the end of a speech he gave at the opening of a Francophonic book fair: "I would like to address all the Lebanese inside Lebanon and abroad, and all the Arabs that the will of Lebanon and the Lebanese to hold on to a life of independence, freedom, democracy, and sovereignty will remain [unshaken]. Lebanon will remain committed to being part of the Arab nation and its causes, and its identity regardless of what has been and is being said. Lebanon is Arab, independent, sovereign, free, and democratic, and the unity of the Lebanese is the basis. Lebanon will remain attached to these values and will remain open to all cultures, first and foremost to the French culture."

It is extremely difficult to play the Arabist card with a Sunni. The Alawite Assad cannot out-Arabize the Sunni Seniora and Hariri. I've said this before, and now you realize the historic significance of the Sunni participation on March 14th, and the movement it represented. Moreover, as Lee put it, "Arabism is not what it once was because more often than not these days the enemy is so obviously other Arabs." What Seniora said, including the last part about Lebanon's openness to the West, is quintessentially Lebanese. Therefore, Hizbullah should be very careful in how it decides to respond and behave. It stands to look bad on both the Arab and Lebanese front if it reacts in the wrong way. And with the regional Shiite-Sunni tension as high as it is regionally (with all the implications of the Party's Iranian ties), they need to be exceptionally careful. It's not the Christians they're facing (they are quite secondary in this case), it's a regionally and internationally-backed Sunni PM with a majority, multi-sectarian Parliamentary bloc. A good example of the kind of support Seniora has can be seen in this statement by Lebanese Forces MP Antoine Zahra, quoted in as-Siyassah, which I think reflects a broad Lebanese sentiment: "we are proud of our methodical, diligent, and humble Prime Minister, who seeks to restore Lebanese rights without provoking anyone." He added his rejection of such contemptuous and haughty reference to Seniora.

On the other hand, a good example of what I meant about Seniora and Arabism can be found in the recent words of the PFLP-GC's Ahmad Jibril. A couple of weeks ago, when the Army layed siege to pro-Syrian Palestinian camps in the Bekaa, Jibril lamented that the "Arabist Sunni" current was being dragged into a stand-off with the Palestinians. His choice of words is very telling: "Arabist Sunnis." It's far more difficult to accuse a Sunni of being an Israeli agent and a traitor to Arabism, which is why Nasrallah's attacks have been relatively muzzled and qualified. We'll see how he decides to respond to Bashar's speech (and I anticipate he'll take an ambiguous stand, which he'll mistake for intelligence, but which will make him look even more bad domestically). Like I said, he stands to lose both domestically and regionally.

So in the end Bashar hasn't surprised anyone, and has stuck with petty defiance, which Syria has perfected. Let's see how, to quote Michael, he decides to impale himself... and burn his neighbors, especially Lebanon, doing it. The title of Ziad Makhoul's L'Orient-Le Jour piece said it well: "Assad lays down his final card: trying to burn everything before sinking."

Update: Kais of Beirut to the Beltway comments on Bashar's speech.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Bashar and Brookings

A couple of weeks ago, I posted on Martin Indyk's FT op-ed where he lambasted Bashar. Last week, Indyk was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman of the Council on Foreign Relations. Indyk piled it on.

Commenting on Syria's talent of misreading developments (exemplified by the brilliant Farouq ash-Sharaa), Indyk said:

The one thing I regret about this process of getting the Security Council resolution, is that somebody seems to have bragged beforehand about how sanctions, or the threat of sanctions, was going to be in there. That appeared as you know, in the New York Times Monday morning. But to get unanimity, the threat of sanctions was dropped. There is only the threat of further action if Syria does not cooperate.
That’s an inevitable result of the negotiating process in the UN Security Council, but what it does, I’m afraid, is send the wrong signal to the Syrians, who are chronically prone to misreading the map. They may conclude that the United States failed in this resolution to get a reference to sanctions and therefore they don’t have to worry about it, which would be a big mistake on their part, but I’m afraid that’s how they’ll read it. To tell you why I’m afraid of this, I happened, by pure coincidence, to be in Damascus the day after UN Resolution 1559 was passed [calling for Syria’s withdrawal from Lebanon] and the Syrian foreign minister Farouk al-Sharaa told me that we, the United States, were very fortunate that Syria allowed the resolution to pass. Otherwise, it would be a great humiliation for us if it had failed. This is the kind of disillusion that the Syrians indulge in. It would be unfortunate if a unanimous Security Council resolution demanding Syrian cooperation would be interpreted in Syria as something that was weak and somehow dodged a bullet because it doesn’t mention sanctions.

Then Indyk revealed some of things that were discussed when he met Bashar in private in September of last year, after the passing of UNR 1559:

I came away from that meeting, which was unusual because he was there on his own—he didn’t have a translator, note-taker, or foreign minister that is normal for presidential meetings—and we had a long talk that I thought was pretty candid. He talked about the problems he faced within his own regime, the incompetence of the people around him. He was quite disarming about the situation of Iraq, in which he said that Syria had assisted the insurgency because it was not in its interest for the United States to have an easy time in Iraq because the United States would then turn its attention on Syria. But he told me that all that had changed now; that the interests had changed because they were concerned that chaos in Iraq would spread chaos to Syria, and so now he was ready to cooperate with the United States.
I came away from the meeting thinking that he had developed what appeared to be a very shrewd strategy; that he would cooperate with us over Iraq, that he would pursue peace with Israel in a serious way, and that he hoped in that way we would leave him alone to have his way with Lebanon.

By the way, now you realize why the Bashar cheerleaders always "leave out" Lebanon when discussing a potential US-Syrian "deal" -- a secret deal of course, where Syria doesn't concede anything publicly -- (like Josh Landis has been doing. Flynt Leverett actually explicitly said that Bashar should keep Lebanon!). But the other thing is how quickly Bashar managed to squander the immense unearned capital that he had coming in. It was a capital built on a lie; a joke. It was the myth of him as the modernizing reformer, but one hampered by the "Old Guard" (turns out, this trope of the Old Guard was even used in Hafez's days!) and all kinds of similar myths and lies that he managed to milk for 3-4 years (and still does to some extent, in different varieties). Indyk realized this after their meeting, and to his credit is now admitting it:

He was under pressure, but he seemed to have figured out an approach of which making peace with Israel was a critical component. And he said some things about his willingness with Israel that was a departure from his father’s position. But what happened in the aftermath of that, I think, tells you a lot about this guy. He did not cooperate in terms of stopping the support for the insurgency from Syria. And other than repeating statements he made before about a willingness to make peace with Israel, he did nothing to follow through on that to indicate any kind of seriousness or genuineness about his desire for peace.
Instead, he wreaked havoc in Lebanon; he apparently allowed for the assassination of Rafik Hariri. There’s a great disconnect between the words and the actions, which leaves me with a big question mark about whether he simply says one thing and does another, or whether he’s not capable of pulling the levers of power in Syria in a way that he can deliver on what he’s talking about. Either way, he has proved himself to be a master at making all the wrong mistakes—all the mistakes possible.

Indyk's description is remarkably similar to what I've said about Bashar, calling him "the Syrian version of Arafat." Indyk also called Bashar's regime by its true name: a "thugocracy."

The part about Bashar willing to concede on Iraq and sign a peace with Israel is not new. I seriously doubt its real validity, as I've explained before. It's consistent with Syrian maneuvering. But what's funny about it is now we're being sold the "Bashar as the last bulwark of Arab nationalism" line! The hilarity lies in that the people peddling this line are the same people who were saying that he didn't really believe in Arab nationalism. Sami Moubayed who wrote the pathetic piece linked above, himself wrote a few weeks ago that "In fact, ideological parties were never too popular in Syria. Michel Aflaq, for example, the founder of the Baath, ran for office on a party ticket in 1943 and 1949, losing both times because Baathist ideology was not appealing to the Syrians." And like Josh's contention that Bashar is really a technocrat-friendly modernizer, Moubayed wrote back then that "as ideologies fail their creators all over the world, the new generation of Syrians will head towards politicians who have no ideological convictions and are working only for the interests of their respective communities. This means, the future is for moderate politicians in Syria." Now it's the opposite! Now we are told that "there is a consensus between the street and government, and these issues mainly concern Lebanon, Palestine and the Iraqi resistance."

This not-so-subtle shift can also be seen in the attitude of Flynt Leverett, whom I recently criticized. I noted how toned down is all the fawning about Bashar's "reformist impulses" (and how they're confirmed by just looking at the woman he married. Bashar's sister Bushra also defied her father when she eloped with Asef Shawkat. I guess that confirms her and Asef's reformist impulses as well.). Now the most prominent line of argument is "don't remove Bashar or else we'll have chaos." And Leverett has the audacity to criticize the US and the EU for supposedly not having a clear policy when it comes to Syria!

Recently, Ammar Abdulhamid gave a talk at Brookings (which I'll try to come back to in depth later. See also his earlier appearance on Foreign Exchange with Fareed Zakaria), and he and Leverett answered questions afterwards. Leverett again tried to sell us Bashar's "long-term agenda for Syria" (echoed by Josh Landis), and how he might seize the moment and get rid of Asef and his brother Maher (see Ammar's recent post that touches on this). Now we're being told that it's really Asef who's the "real" bad guy, and Bashar should get rid of him and embark on the road of reform (i.e., another variation of the Old Guard "holding him down" meme). But like I said before, Flynt has tied his reputation to this line, so he will defend it to the bitter end. Indyk, to his credit, has recognized this to be the nonsense that it is, and has identified it as such in so many words. (Even the Syrian opposition inside Syria which used to urge Bashar to adopt reform, has given up on this option by declaring Bashar part of the problem.)

Ali Hamadeh in his column today said that Bashar tried to use Indyk to create some sort of a pro-Bashar cheerleading squad (he called it a lobby) in Washington. Whether that's true or not, it didn't work out, as is clear from Indyk's remarks. In other words, Bashar went to Washington and all he got was a lousy "Inheriting Syria" t-shirt.