Across the Bay

Friday, July 28, 2006

L'Etat C'est Moi

If true, this is a very disturbing story:

Several suspected spies were shot dead in the southern Lebanese port of Tyre, witness said on Thursday.

Passengers on board an evacuation ship told medical doctor Boris Buck from the German city of Munich that they had seen members of the Lebanese Shi'ite Hezbollah group or their sympathisers killing 18 Lebanese people during the night.

The victims were suspected of helping the Israeli air force pick out targets.

This is yet another indication that Hezbollah's plan all along was a classic coup d'etat, very similar, as Pierre Akel recently wrote, to the fascisti's takeover in Italy. The myth that Hezbollah's weapons were not aimed at the interior was always a laughable fig leaf, and it was already unmasked even before the current crisis. As Martin Kramer put it, "[t]he Nasrallah personality cult has been a way to keep the faithful in line. Not so long ago, Hezbollah thugs took to the streets after a Lebanese television station broadcast a satire of Nasrallah. The mob burned tires and cars. The episode showed that Nasrallah's moral standing had slipped, and that the movement had been reduced to intimidation to keep up the facade."

But this is the clearest example, the most tragic and disturbing example, of what Hezbollah had in mind, and how it saw itself, the Lebanese government, and the Lebanese people. When stupid Hezbollah groupies in the West regurgitate the party's "romantic" line that it is akin to the French resistance, this is what they are justifying: extrajudicial martial law by a non-state actor, in the full presence of a state and its institutions! Hezbollah believes it has the right to hold Lebanese citizens and dispense with due process and execute them on the spot. It is beyond outrageous, and gives a whole new meaning to Nasrallah's threat, which was understood by Walid Jumblatt: "As for his saying that whoever supports me deserves praise and whoever does not will be held accountable, that is a message. We received the message."

Update: Caveman provides another example of how the myth of the function of Hezbollah's weapons has been exposed for what it is:

Residents who have recently escaped from Mari tell of a dramatic, desperate situation in the village. The Druse residents, who have no affinity at all for Hizbullah, resisted Hizbullah's attempts to enter the village. The IAF apparently and unwittingly assisted in their resistance by bombing the roads leading into the village, cutting off the militia's ability to enter the town, at least temporarily. Hizbullah responded by cutting off the town's electricity and water supply, essentially laying seige to a town on its own side of the border, hoping that its residents would pack up and leave. Many of them have done so. My sources say that Hizbullah has been desperate to enter the village but has as of yet been unable to do so in large numbers. Residents also describe a growing humanitarian crisis in the village due to the lack of fresh water.
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Hizbullah attempted to enter Mari not to defend it from attackers, but so they could fire rockets from the village toward Israel. Hizbullah's intention was to bring Israeli reprisals on the town, ostensibly to destroy or damage it significantly, and to cause greater civilian suffering. Hizbullah's MO and tactics are well-known in the south. However, Druse typically defend their own villages, and in the case of Mari (a place I have been to several times, many of whose residents I know personally), the residents have desperately tried to keep Hizbullah fighters out of their area.

Update 2: Rampurple offers another example from Ain Ebel, via a story in the NYT.

The Folly of Talking to Syria

With all the kerfuffle and the excessive mindless repetition of one-liners and ill-thought out conventional wisdom in the media about how the US must "engage" Syria, the administration's position has been admirably sober, refusing to entertain such nonsense. But it's not just the administration. In fact, people who know the Syrian regime well and have dealt with it in the past, know not to touch it with a ten-foot pole.

First among those is French President Chirac, who has been burned repeatedly by the Assad regime.

In an interview with Le Monde the other day, Chirac was asked about Syria. His response was actually close to my own line of argument, especially with regards to Syria as a secondary player in this equation. Here's a translation of the relevant parts:

Should and can Syria weigh in on this situation in Lebanon?

I would be more inclined to talk first about Iran, whose position is more important than Syria's.
...
Furthermore, in the current conflict, Iran is partially responsible. The information at our disposal proves that sophisticated weapons and finance are being sent by Iran, most probably through Syria, to Hezbollah. That's a problem.

But we can discuss this with Iran. I would like to remind you that at the time of the elections in Lebanon, there was a point when we were wondering what the reaction of Hezbollah would be to these elections. Would they be contested? We had contacts at the time with Iran. And I must say that Iran was rather cooperative.

Do you think that the triggering of this crisis, on July 12, carries the mark of Iran?

I don't want to accuse anyone. I have the feeling that Hamas as well as Hezbollah did not take these irresponsible initiatives on their own. That's my impression.

As for Syria, I think that's a slightly different problem. Syria, it must be said, has a very minoritarian and very particular regime, which is at once judge and party, and which has taken badly to the obligation, after 30 years of occupation, of withdrawing its troops -- 15,000 men -- from Lebanon, with all the political, economic, and social consequences that that carried. I don't have the same feeling about Syria that I have about Iran.

What could do good for Syria, to protect itself and its population, especially with regards to quality of life, and development, is for it not to seek to extract vengeance from Lebanon. That risks becoming very dangerous for it.

...

With regards to disarming Hezbollah, is there then an agreement between France, the US and Israel?

On the need to fully implement [UNR] 1559, there is a general consensus.

...

We are not at all in the situation of 1982 or 1996. Things have evolved.

...

How to move forward without dialogue with Syria?

There was a time when I spoke to Bashar al-Assad. I used to speak to his father [as well]. In order not to hide anything from you, that dialogue was disrupted. It is he who wanted that [the disruption]. And I realized that nothing would come out of it [dialogue with Assad]. [I realized] that the regime embodied by Bashar al-Assad appeared to me hardly compatible with security and peace.

Chirac is not alone of course. Another diplomat who had the misfortune of having to deal with Bashar is none other than Martin Indyk. Indyk, in his capacity as peace processor, was once a supporter of engagement with Bashar. Until he realized, like Chirac did, that that was a fool's errand. He made an unequivocal switch and became a strong critic of Bashar. I posted on that twice last year if you care to get more background.

Indyk has once again come out against "engaging" Syria over the Lebanon crisis:

I think a lot of people have speculated that because of Hezbollah's close ties to both Syria and Iran, it is important to get those two countries involved as active players. Is the United States making a mistake in ignoring them directly?

There's no question Iran and Syria helped to light the fire that is now engulfing Lebanon and northern Israel, and if they want to be part of the solution, they could certainly help to douse the flames. But the question is: What is their price? If we were to ask Syria to help, that would be tantamount to an invitation to Syria to interfere again in Lebanon's affairs. And that would be tantamount to a betrayal of the millions of Lebanese who came out into the streets of Beirut and insisted that Syria stop interfering in Lebanon's affairs, that it takes its troops out of Lebanon. So talking is not the issue. The question is: What is the message to Syria? Is it is a message like [then Secretary of State] Henry Kissinger sent [then Syrian President] Hafez al-Assad in 1976, which was "Please intervene in Lebanon, it's a civil war"? If we invite his son [Syrian President Bashar al-Assad] to intervene to stop Hezbollah, then we are essentially handing Lebanon over again to Syrian control. I think that's an unacceptable outcome. So the message, I think, to Syria and to Iran, which can be delivered by Kofi Annan, or Prince Bandar of Saudi Arabia, or anybody else who wants to take the message is: "Beware. If you don't stop Hezbollah, then don't be surprised if this conflict engulfs you."
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The idea that Syria or Iran should become the arbiters of Lebanon's fate is basically to reward the arsonists by giving them control of the place where the fire's burning.

Indyk's reading of the calculations -- including Syria's -- behind the crisis is also similar to mine. He even used the same word I used in all my interviews: "confluence of interests":

Why do you think Hezbollah actually started this whole round by abducting those soldiers, and thereby triggering this Israeli response?

Well, this is speculation of course, but I think their original intention was to take another ride on the Palestinian cause. Basically what they were doing was kidnapping soldiers so they could demand not only their own prisoners, of which Israel is holding three, they also demand that Palestinian prisoners be released too, showing that they're supporting Hamas, and that they were supporting the cause of getting Palestinian prisoners released. From [Hezbollah leader] Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah's reactions and statements since, it's clear that he did not expect this would result in the kind of escalating conflict they are now engaged in. I suspect the Iranians had their own reasons for wanting to create a diversion from their nuclear program on the eve of the G8 Summit. So there was a confluence of interests here. And the Syrians would understand that his could make them players again since they would calculate exactly what's happened: That people would look to Damascus to calm the situation down just as previous American administrations have done every time Hezbollah clashes with Israel.

I was looking at [former Secretary of State] George Shultz's memoirs the other day, and he recalled how President Reagan had sent a note to Hafez al-Assad in 1985 asking him to resolve the TWA hijacking problem, which he did.

Yes, but the context was different. I was involved [in the Clinton administration] with Secretary of State [Warren] Christopher and [Special Middle East envoy] Dennis Ross in several efforts to deal with the situation in Lebanon after Hezbollah launched rockets into Israel. That was in 1994 and again in 1996 [TB: note Chirac's reference to 1996 above]. And we went to Damascus and got Syria to curb Hezbollah. But the context there was one in which we were engaged in promoting negotiations between Israel and Syria on a peace deal, and Syria had 15,000 troops in Lebanon. And we could go to them and say: If you want us to continue negotiating the peace deal with Israel, you have to stop Hezbollah. The context is very different now. Now, the Syrians have withdrawn their troops from Lebanon, not because of our demands but because of the demands of the Lebanese people. And to ask them now to help solve this problem is to invite them to play a role again in Lebanon, which would be a betrayal of the Lebanese.

Indyk also had the exact same reaction to Bashar as Chirac: he was unreliable. "But what was clear was whatever he said to me, there was no follow through on any of the things." Here I'm also reminded of the quote by Anthony Cordesman in my previous post. But this is classic behavior by the Assad regime. That's the modus operandi, and that's why thinking that the solution lies with Syria is incredibly silly and detached from historical reality.

As Indyk notes, Syria is complicit in this latest act of violence -- what I called a "regional coup" led by Iran, and to which Syria is hitching itself as Iran's Arab client. Hence the silliness of the incredibly ill-informed notion that Syria can be "weaned away from Iran back to the Sunni Arab fold." First of all, as I wrote before, not only is the concept of a "Sunni Arab fold" itself baseless, but the idea that Syria was ever part of that -- whatever that is -- is equally ludicrous. Syria sided with Iran against the Sunni Arab states back in the late 70s and 80s. It had an arrangement with Iran in the 90s in Lebanon to bolster Hezbollah over and against the central government. As for the current alliance, it dates back to at least 2003. It wasn't a coincidence that the first people the Syrians jumped to after they killed Hariri were the Iranians. Sharaa made an appeal to the Iranians the following day after the murder. It was the plan at least since the passing of UNR 1559, if not before. This is not a "sudden" alliance of convenience. This is a strategic choice that has been made at least 3 years ago that is only being consolidated now, as Andrew Tabler noted:

"Obviously Iran and Syria have strengthened their relations over the last nine months," says Andrew Tabler, Damascus-based researcher and a fellow with the Institute of Current World Affairs. "And their ideological correspondence has come along with suitable iconography. So, before the Syria-Iran defense pact was about to be signed in mid-June, we started seeing these posters with Bashar, Nasrallah, and Ahmadinejad. You used to have to go to the Bekaa Valley or the south suburbs of Beirut to see posters of Iranian leaders. Now we get them in the middle of an Arab capital."

Thus the Iranians have started to invest heavily in what some are calling the Shiitization of Syria, a country with a roughly 70 percent Sunni majority. "There are reports of entire villages becoming Shia," says Tabler. "And we know for sure that they're fixing up Shia shrines and building Shia mosques, even in majority Sunni towns."

Similarly, a dissident Syrian analyst, Fayez Sarah, recently spoke about this issue. Commenting on the (incredibly thin, and heavily filtered through the NYT's own projections) report in the NYT that the US was seeking to drive a wedge between Syria and Iran, Sarah expressed his conviction that all these rumors were "far from reality":

"The US does not have a strategy or political movement to dislodge the Syrian-Iranian relations at this stage." The reason is very simple in his view. "The US is not in agreement with Syrian policy on the level of principles, just as it is not in agreement with Iranian policy, to the same degree." "This does not mean that the US cannot benefit from a dispute, or to try to generate conflict between Iran and Syria," but that is an entirely different matter in his opinion. As for the role of some Arab states in isolating Syria from Iran, he sees that "in the past period many Arab states, especially Egypt and Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries were pushing to isolate Syria from Iran, but practically, none of this happened. On the contrary, what happened was that Syria strengthened its relations with Iran to a degree that could be described as a grand strategic alliance on the political, economic, military, and even cultural level. In fact, it's to a degree that it can be said that the Syrian-Iranian relations are at their highest level since establishing relations between the IRI and Syria in 1979." Sarah adds, "the overall result of the efforts of some Arab states, especially Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, and the Gulf states, was that they failed in separating or diminishing the relations between Syria and Iran." He stressed that based on their political behavior and their statements, "they are not ready to lower the level of their exisiting relations." (Emphasis added.)

In other words, all the brilliant proposals of the "experts" have indeed been tried. In fact, the entire last year was spent on doing just that. That misplaced effort, based on that faulty premise, is itself part of the reason why we are now in this crisis. It was a waste of precious time that allowed Syria to regain some of its balance in Lebanon, and the cajoling of Hezbollah, itself also based on this premise, resulted in what we now have. In other words, the proposal is a proven failure, and not, as Tom Friedman put it, "worth a shot." (By the way, Friedman even admits that splitting Syria from Iran is unlikely, yet he thinks it's "worth a shot." That's not how you do diplomacy, I'm afraid. Just ask Chirac and Indyk.)

So now that it seems that the Saudis, Egyptians, and Jordanians (all of whom were threatened in some way by Bashar, by the way) finally realized what's going on, and that Bashar was using them, and the notion of Syria playing the role of "mediator" between the Arabs and Iran (a role the Syrians now want to play with the US. Does that sound like they're ready to break off with Iran, or that they're playing their typical double game!?) to facilitate the Iranian-led shift in the regional balance of power, where he thinks he would be the pivotal Arab state, we're asked to dump these traditional allies and empower the weak link in the Iranian axis at our allies' expense! That's "brilliant" diplomacy!

Finally, Indyk added the following:

And there's something else that people who think the solution lies in Damascus should bear in mind. The relationship between the son and Hezbollah is different to the relationship that existed between the father and Hezbollah. For Hafez al-Assad, Hezbollah was a tool in his hand to remind Israel that if they didn't negotiate the return of the Golan Heights, he could hurt them in Lebanon. And he used that—it was like a tap that he could turn on and off.

The relationship between Bashar al-Assad and Hezbollah is very different. He is dependent on Hezbollah to maintain Syrian influence in Lebanon because he no longer has the troop presence that gave him control of Lebanon. He is dependent on Hezbollah to defend against an Israeli ground attack through Lebanon's Bekaa Valley into Syria. And therefore, his ability to curb Hezbollah is much more limited, if it's there at all.

Not just that, his relationship with Nasrallah is also important. Bashar actually idolizes Nasrallah and shares his ideology (not an Islamic state, but the idea of pan-Arab, pan-Islamic "resistance" to the US and Israel). This was noted by Dennis Ross in an article last year:

Hearing Bashar describe Hizballah’s leader, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, as a democratic figure who understood broad social and public forces and from whom he could learn a great deal—as I did in 2000 [TB: That's 2000!]—reflected what appeared to be Bashar’s genuine admiration for Hizballah. Bashar even invited Nasrallah to speak at a ceremony in his family’s village on the first anniversary of Hafiz’s death.

Michael Young also commented on this issue in a post at Reason's Hit and Run yesterday:

One wonders if those peddling the idea have any memory at all: it was under Syria that Hezbollah became a military power, and what the Syrians will demand, or maneuver to achieve, in exchange for "helping" would be onerous. They will want the international investigation of Rafiq Hariri's murder to be dropped, to save their regime that ordered the crime; and they will want oversight power over Lebanese affairs, which, with an armed Hezbollah as Praetorian Guard, would effectively mean they would again rule the country.

Or, as one anonymous Western ambassador put it to Neil MacFarquhar: "Essentially you are asking them to connive in their own demise... Persuading Hezbollah to commit hara-kiri doesn’t make sense from Syria’s point of view. It would mean the loss of their No. 1 card, not only in Lebanon, but with Israel."

Syria neither has the will nor the capacity to do anything. It is in the same bunker as Hezbollah and Iran, and that's where Assad wants it to be. He believes that's the winning horse, and all the statements of the Syrian officials point in that direction. Besides, Iran is the real reference for Hezbollah, not Syria. Even the cheerleaders admit this. And Syria is but a client of Iran at this stage. So the address for Hezbollah's masters is not Damascus, but Tehran. Syria is just hitching itself to Iran's star and trying to maximize its gains as much as possible at the expense of the Lebanese government and parliamentary majority, Mahmoud Abbas in the Palestinian territories, and the Sunni Arab allies of the US, Egypt, KSA, and Jordan. Actually falling for their bluff is utter folly.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Selling Snake Oil (But No One's Buying)

My friend Caveman recently pointed out how the Syrian regime's propaganda self-implodes all on its own, and gave us an example:

[Even Syrian experts say] Syria does not have full control of Hizbullah and its Shiite counterparts in Lebanon. In other words, Syria wants to play a role in Lebanon, but even its most die-hard supporters admit that it cannot really accomplish the objectives in Lebanon that it claims make it absolutely indispensable. So, what is it that Syria brings to the table again?

The answer is absolutely nothing. It's what I called trying to pull a fast one.

But these are the regime's propagandists, and they're not really interested in actual arguments and policy options. They're interested in maximizing gains for the thugs of the Syrian regime, period.

And they're all the same. The names change, the location changes, the venue changes, but the message (as with all propaganda) is pre-recorded. I mean you can substitute a Moustapha, or a cheerleading blogger, or Shaaban, or Moubayed, or a Khaimi, or a Salem, or a Shu'eibi, but the message is exactly the same pre-packaged garbage.

Not only is it self-contradictory, but it's also pathetically obvious in how it is trying to balance two practically mutually exclusive positions: on the one hand, the regime has to claim distance so as not to be considered a direct culprit. So that's why you hear the propagandists selling you the line that really Syria only supports Hezbollah "morally" and "diplomatically" but does not supply it with arms or funds, etc. But then, despite just making themselves totally irrelevant, they tell you that "Syria is indispensable for any solution." Never mind that history and the track record 100% (that's 100%, no exception whatsoever, feel free to check!) suggests otherwise, but it's clear that really Syria is in fact a secondary player here (in the Iran axis) despite the misplaced conception by the thugs in Damascus that they're really a "player." They're a client-proxy. The two are different things, but it's difficult to realize that when you're a thug and thuggery is what you think of as and call your policy (hence, as I said before, the so-called "cards" that the regime loves to talk about, are its policy). The comment by Anthony Cordesman in that SF Chronicle piece actually nails it: "Syria usually gives way for a while under pressure, but then goes to covert operations, more support of proxies, and resumes activity the moment there is a new window of opportunity."

Therefore, the administration's, and Olmert's, dismissal of the Syrians is not only logical, and based on experience, it's also the right policy. That won't stop the Syrian propaganda from trying to sell itself, by offering snake oil coated with explicit threats (after all, what else do they have to offer?)

As for the "splitting Syria from Iran" comical fairy tale, or the even funnier one, "returning Syria to the Sunni Arab fold," I'll refer you first to this comment:

"Obviously Iran and Syria have strengthened their relations over the last nine months," says Andrew Tabler, Damascus-based researcher and a fellow with the Institute of Current World Affairs. "And their ideological correspondence has come along with suitable iconography. So, before the Syria-Iran defense pact was about to be signed in mid-June, we started seeing these posters with Bashar, Nasrallah, and Ahmadinejad. You used to have to go to the Bekaa Valley or the south suburbs of Beirut to see posters of Iranian leaders. Now we get them in the middle of an Arab capital."

Thus the Iranians have started to invest heavily in what some are calling the Shiitization of Syria, a country with a roughly 70 percent Sunni majority. "There are reports of entire villages becoming Shia," says Tabler. "And we know for sure that they're fixing up Shia shrines and building Shia mosques, even in majority Sunni towns."

Also, I'll soon be translating what a dissident Syrian analyst said about this fiction (and questioning the entire NYT line -- which was thin to begin with -- that this whole media much ado about nothing has been based on), but let me simply ask these two questions: 1- what is the "Sunni Arab fold"? And 2- when was Syria ever part of it?

Finally, I'll end with this hilarious translation of regime tool Shu'eibi's comment, courtesy of my friend Caveman:

"To dismiss Damascus is absurd. Syria is on the frontline of direct confrontation with Israel, and Hezbollah is the nub of the problem. Israel will not support a long hard war and the international community will eventually have to ask for help from Damascus," he said.

TRANSLATION: To dismiss Damascus would be disastrous for our regime. Syria has tried so hard to put itself on direct confrontation with Israel, using Hizbullah as bait, because this was the only way to get anyone's attention. We hope that Israel will not support a long war, because otherwise, eventually, nobody will ask for help from Damascus.

I'm sure Moratinos sympathizes. Too bad nobody else does. Somehow the Syrians just keep hearing: UNR 1559.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Walid Jumblatt Slams Nasrallah

Lebanese Druze MP Walid Jumblatt strongly criticized Hezbollah's chief Hassan Nasrallah in an interview published on Sunday in the Saudi-owned daily Asharq al-Awsat. It's packed with jabs. Here's a translation of what he said:

"The priority now is to stop the offensive, and then we gather the state together and go back to where we stopped at the national dialogue to discuss the subject of the defense strategy [i.e., Hezbollah's weapons]. At the same time we are saying that there should be no weapons outside the control of the state. We must send the Army to the south, and the decision to go to war should be in the hands of the state, not in the hands of one party, who, in the name of the umma or what have you, throws Lebanon into the unknown." He added, "what took place throws Lebanon into the struggle between two axes: Iranian-Syrian on one side and American-Israeli on the other."

Commenting on Nasrallah's recent interview on al-Jazeera, Jumblatt said:

"I could not find a Lebanese element anywhere in his talk. He reminds me of Arafat's experience in the siege of Beirut in 1982. In the end, Arafat left Beirut, but things are different here."

He added, "Iran has decided to fight the US by launching a war against Israel, which is an American [client] state of sorts, in response to the conflict over the nuclear issue. As for Syria, it wants to escape the international tribunal [for its role in the Hariri assassination.]" He asked, "Does Hassan Nasrallah have any Lebanese part when he talks about having friends in Damascus and Tehran? This insults our intelligence. As for his saying that whoever supports me deserves praise and whoever does not will be held accountable, that is a message. We received the message."

Jumblatt warned of a project "to reconsider the Taef Accord and the political direction, the reconstruction and the reconciliation [efforts] of Rafik Hariri."

As for what could be done to end the crisis, he said, "the matter is out of our hands. The decision is his in the end. He is mistaken when he says that he is relying on the cabinet statement, because no one commissioned him to fight in order to restore the Shebaa Farms and the prisoners. The Farms are liberated through [border] delineation [with Syria], and then through a request at the UN. The prisoners' case is solved through finding the body of Ron Arad." He warned, "the Lebanese public opinion is not convinced of the method and the price we are paying to bring back the prisoners, Hassan Nasrallah's way."

The solution in Jumblatt's opinion is for Hezbollah to "hand over its decision and its arms to the Lebanese state according to the mechanism of the [national] dialogue." He mentioned that "PM Fouad Seniora said in the last session of the dialogue that the summer was promising tourism-wise, and that one and a half million tourists were expected in Lebanon. Nasrallah replied then, 'you see Mr. Prime Minister, the weapons of the resistance do not scare off tourists.' But what happened did scare them off and has turned thousands of Lebanese into refugees."

He then asked Nasrallah, "where do you stand with respect to Lebanon and the Lebanese state? If you are a target, then now the entire country is a target." He denied having any contacts with Hezbollah in order to find a solution to the crisis, saying, "we have commissioned PM Seniora to negotiate in order to find solutions." He added, "there is great hope pinned on Speaker Nabih Berri, who was one of the pillars of the Taef Accord, along with [former] PM Hariri, for the sake of the future of the Shiite community in Lebanon, for a large community and a partner in the country should not feel as if it was dealt a blow after this storm passes."

Saturday, July 22, 2006

How Was Hezbollah's Decision Made

Magnus Ranstorp, the Swedish specialist* on Hezbollah, talked to Georges Malbrunot of Le Figaro about Hezbollah's kidnapping of the two Israeli soldiers. (For Arabic readers who can't read French, here's a translation courtesy of ME Transparent.)

The title of the piece carries a quote by Ranstorp which reads, "the escalation was decided by Hezbollah and Iran." Malbrunot asked him how Hezbollah made the decision to kidnap the two soldiers. Here's a translation of Ranstorp's answer:

Such a decision is taken by its head, Hassan Nasrallah, within the Shura Qarar, the highest decision-making body of the movement. It consists of seven members, two of whom are Iranians attached to the Iranian embassy in Beirut, and who are tied to the intelligence services of Tehran. Through them, Iran knows exactly what Hezbollah is doing, especially when the decision goes beyond the normal red lines, such as attacking Israel outside the Shebaa Farms. In this case, Hezbollah also consults with the Syrians, because the kidnapping of Israeli soldiers carries implications for Syria's security. The consultations with Damascus are often done through the liaison Hassan Khalil, who is in contact with the military intelligence services in Damascus.

What about other links between Hezbollah and Iran?

They go through the Iranian embassy in Beirut, the most important one outside Iran, and by the personal representative of the supreme guide Ali Khamenei in Lebanon, Sheikh Mohammad Yazbek [whose house the Israelis targeted early on, to deliver the message that he's a marked man. -- AE]. But that's not all. Imad Mughniyeh, who was responsible for the kidnapping of Westerners in Lebanon during the 80s, plays an equally very important role. He shuttles between Tehran and Beirut, through the Damascus airport, before using the military routes of the Bekaa valley. Mughniyeh, who is always tracked by the Americans, never passes through the Beirut airport. He is tied directly to Nasrallah, who himself has old personal ties with the Iranian directors. Through Mughniyeh, Hezbollah and Iran have been involved in the Palestinian intifada since 2000. Mughniyeh is notably in charge of recruiting foreigners for reconnaissance operations in Israel or elsewhere. In Beirut, the representative of Hamas, Ussama Hamdan [whose office was also hit by the Israelis in recent days -- AE] is also an essential pawn in the Iranian involvement in Palestine; he was previously the representative of Hamas in Tehran.

Update: From Middle East Newsline: Iran spent more than six months training and planning Hizbullah to prepare for its current war with Israel.

Western intelligence sources said the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps held a series of exercises with Hizbullah on the use of new weapons and techniques. The sources said IRGC also prepared arsenals of medium-range rockets and missiles in the Bekaa Valley and Syria to sustain any war with Israel.

"Iran's IRGC planned this war carefully throughout 2006," an intelligence source who monitors Iran said. "IRGC sent weapons and hundreds of volunteers through Damascus in a war designed to contain several stages."

The sources said Western intelligence agencies detected a high level of IRGC-Hizbullah coordination as early as April 2006. They said the Hizbullah conflict was planned in cooperation with Damascus, which agreed to the emergency deployment of Iranian troops in Syria.


Addendum: More from Magnus Ranstorp, via the Counterterrorism Blog.

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* You'll notice the Hezbollah emblem on the front cover of Ranstorp's book. It reads "the Islamic Revolution in Lebanon." That was the original Hezbollah emblem before it was changed (I think in the 90's, but I'm not sure) to "the Islamic Resistance in Lebanon" in an attempt to gain broader Sunni Arab support and so as not to constantly remind people of its direct and organic connection to the Islamic Revolution of Iran.

Nasrallah's Delusion

Fouad Ajami provides us with a truly fantastic piece on the current crisis.

The piece is packed with excellent lines in typical Ajami style. It's a brilliant analysis of Nasrallah's delusion, his agenda, and that of his backers, Iran and Syria. It would do it injustice to pick and choose from it, so read it in its entirety.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Martin Kramer Nails It

The best analysis of the crisis, by far, is this one by Martin Kramer. It's long, but it's worth quoting most of it:

"Hezbollah's hubris has created an opportunity for Israel.

"Since Israel's withdrawal from Lebanon, Hezbollah has basked in the illusion that it defeated Israel - that it somehow discovered a path to victory that had eluded Arab governments and the Palestinian movement. It began to puff itself up, as the only force willing and able to stand up to Israel. Hezbollah lost its respect for Israeli power, and began to portray Israel as unable to sustain a protracted conflict.

"Nasrallah allowed a personality cult to develop around himself, and Hezbollah marketed him as the only strategic genius in the Arab world. Increasingly, it would seem that the higher echelons in Hezbollah began to believe their own propaganda.

"I doubt Hezbollah expected the Israeli reaction to be as swift, extensive and destructive as it has been. Hezbollah probably believed it would score a few points in Arab public opinion by a cross-border operation, and that it would make one more incremental change in the rules of the game.

"It was a strategic miscalculation. Hezbollah didn't internalize changes in the broader strategic climate. The top regional issue today is Iran's nuclear drive, not the fate of Hamas or the Palestinian issue. If Hezbollah had understood this fully, it would have laid very low until needed by Iran in a mega-crisis with the United States. At that point, its threats against Israel would have been added to the overall deterrent capabilities of Iran, and might have caused the United States to think twice.

"Hezbollah apparently didn't understand this. If Iran was directly involved in the decision, it also shows an erosion of discipline in Iran's own decision-making process. Iran had nothing to gain from this little adventure, and a lot to lose. It may well be that President Ahmadinejad's rhetoric is beginning to cloud judgment in Tehran.

"In any case, it is in the interests of Israel and the United States to deal with the Hezbollah threat now, and not later in the midst of a far more dangerous crisis over Iran's nuclear plans. So a war now to degrade Hezbollah is a shared Israel-U.S. interest, which means that Israel can wage it without many constraints.

"Hezbollah now finds itself spending all sorts of military assets that were supposed to serve a much more important purpose than freeing a few Lebanese prisoners or winning a few propaganda points. These are assets it probably won't be able to replenish, and their very use exposes them and makes them vulnerable.

"In sum, Hezbollah overplayed its hand, and Israel is taking full advantage of its mistake."

What is the way to end the crisis? And can Israel defeat Hezbollah?

"Ending the crisis is obviously not an end in itself. The objective has to be to reduce Hezbollah to a negligible factor in larger calculations, to degrade and deplete its capabilities, to the point where it's about as significant a constraint as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt or Jordan. It will take some time to reverse the years of neglect, and Hezbollah will not allow the halo around it to be smashed without fighting back. But Israel has a U.S. license to take its time now and get it right, and it would be foolish not to use it.

"In any event, Israel has no choice. Islamism has come to fill the space that used to be occupied by Arab nationalism in Nasser's time: an ideology of rejection, resistance and false promise of a Middle East without Israel. Israel's withdrawals from Lebanon and Gaza, whatever their merits, have only fed this Islamism with lore of sacrifice and victory. The Islamists have a narrative, and they think the world conforms to it. The narrative is based on a very partial reading of reality. It has to be defeated, just as Nasser's narrative had to be defeated. It took the 1967 war to demolish the Arab nationalist/Nasserist narrative. Israel has no choice but to deliver a blow sufficient to destroy the Islamist narrative, in which Hezbollah looms large.

"Incredibly, Nasrallah is making the same mistakes as Nasser. By puffing himself up, he isn't deterring Israel; at this point, he's only making himself and his movement a bigger and more legitimate target. Hezbollah has become a prisoner of its own myth, which is that at any moment it can go one-on-one against Israel - and win. It can't,, and now is the best opportunity to prove it - to Lebanese Shiites, to all Lebanese and to the rest of the Arab-Muslim world.

"At any moment in time, it is Israel that can turn Nasrallah either into a cinder or a shadow figure like Osama bin Laden, reduced to sending defiant missives from some basement or cave. And Israel can scatter the big chiefs of Hezbollah like the United States scattered the Taliban. This has to be the objective - bin Ladenization of Nasrallah, Talibanization of Hezbollah - and it is not beyond reach. Of course, bin Laden and the Taliban still exist, but they aren't a regional or global factor. That is the objective here as well.

"Any number of developments could threaten this scenario. It's not so much what Hezbollah might do, as what mistakes Israel might make. The most obvious pitfalls are too much 'collateral damage' or a reoccupation of part of Lebanon. Either could drain Israel legitimacy, sap American support and leave Israel isolated. Since this is a new government headed by a new prime minister, it's impossible to predict whether they will know how to handle the unexpected twists that are inevitable in war."

How popular, influential and strong is Hezbollah in Lebanon?

"Lebanon is a divided society. Hezbollah's power base is limited to the Shiite community, and even there, allegiance is not total.

"Hezbollah basked in the admiration of many Lebanese after Israel's withdrawal, but that aura has been eroded steadily over the past few years. This is because, following Israel's withdrawal, Hezbollah's continued 'resistance' along the border fell outside the national consensus.

"As a result, we have seen more and more political figures in Lebanon criticize Hezbollah. The Nasrallah personality cult has been a way to keep the faithful in line. Not so long ago, Hezbollah thugs took to the streets after a Lebanese television station broadcast a satire of Nasrallah. The mob burned tires and cars. The episode showed that Nasrallah's moral standing had slipped, and that the movement had been reduced to intimidation to keep up the facade.

"The point here is that Hezbollah is no longer the darling of Lebanese nationalism, and its recent conduct has made it increasingly look like something foreign. This is certainly the message that is being sent by leaders of most other factions in the country: that Hezbollah has usurped the power of decision-making on war and peace from the legitimately constituted government, and that it is acting outside the Lebanese national interest. The more Israel intensifies its attacks, the more that criticism is likely to spread - even among Shiites. I do not see the country rallying around Hezbollah."

Do you expect this crisis will tear apart the fragile fabric of Lebanese society?

"I don't know about the society, but I do expect it to tear apart the fragile fiction of Lebanese politics. An independent Lebanon is incompatible with an extra-legal, extra-territorial status for any militia. This fact could be papered over before; now it is exposed for all to see.

"Of course, no one faction in Lebanon is in a position to disarm Hezbollah, and neither is the government. Only Shiite opinion can achieve this. So it is up to Israel to demolish Hezbollah's argument that its arms deter Israel. Israel must demonstrate the opposite: that Hezbollah's arms invite Israeli attack, especially against Shiites. Only if the Shiites themselves realize this, and only if they become the main source of criticism of Hezbollah's strategy, will Hezbollah feel compelled to modify it. This will not happen overnight; it could take months or years.

"What is certain is that Lebanon is better prepared to confront its devils now than it was 10 or 15 years ago. There is a new generation that does not want to go back to the old days. It is they who will have to come out in the streets to make yet another Cedar Revolution - this time, one in which the Shiites have a predominant role."

The analysis is spot-on all throughout, but the last three passages quoted above are particularly excellent.

What Kind of Ceasefire?

LBCI News quoted Lebanese Druze leader Walid Jumblatt as calling on Egyptian TV for a ceasefire 'within the framework of a resolution that protects Lebanon and does not come at the expense of the state.' He stressed that the need is to safeguard the Taef Accord and the armistice agreement with Israel, so that war does not erupt again under whatever pretext.

He was also quoted in AKI as saying, 'southern Lebanon needs international protection and not a [Hezbollah-Israeli] ceasefire at the country's expense.' (Update: More of Jumblatt's comments on Egyptian TV, in Arabic, can be found here.)

Jumblatt rejected the latest address by Hezbollah's Hassan Nasrallah, especially the part where Nasrallah said that Lebanon was in a war 'whether it wants to or not.' Jumblatt said nobody can singlehandedly hijack the decision of war and peace, and the solution is for the Lebanese state to exert its control over all its territories, adding: 'no one can play around with the security of the south and the security of Lebanon.'

The Druze leader also criticized the bombastic rhetoric of the Iranian president who 'does not care for the Lebanese people,' and who has bigger non-Lebanese calculations, as well as the talk of the Syrian regime and of presidents Bashar Assad and Emile Lahoud, who hold a 'vengeful hatred towards the state of independence in Lebanon.'

Jumblatt called for a passageway for humanitarian purposes, but said that it should not be via Damascus, 'whose regime is assassinating [former PM] Rafik Hariri for a second time.' He added, 'we say to this regime that our patience is long, and one day the truth will be revealed.' He pointed out that since the war broke out, the Syrian regime has been trying to escalate in order to escape the international tribunal, as it is the only court that could hold it accountable. He assured that 'no matter how many bombs fall on us, we must not forget the issue of the international tribunal, no matter the price.'

Jumblatt, it seems, gets it.

Addendum: The point is, since the Syrian regime's sinister cheerleaders have already come out from under their rocks to suggest that the US should "cut a deal" with Syria (why, they never say. They're just propagandists, either sinister and malicious, or plain stupid.) over Lebanon and that somehow Syria will "solve" this issue (yes, cause you see, Syria's history and current status suggest that!). Jumblatt understands the Syrian trap here, its false claim. The Syrian intention -- and that of its despicable, contemptible cheerleaders both here in the US and in Syria -- is to undermine the state. That is why it is trying now to interfere in order to maximize its own gains, and those of Hezbollah (or at least limit its losses, which are in fact its own). But that is all. Because Syria's aim is the same as Hezbollah's: undermining the Lebanese government, and the reduction of Lebanon to Hezbollah (that is why those "spontaneous" "solidarity" rallies in Syria only have Hezbollah flags and Hezbollah posters.)

In fact, that is what this whole thing is all about from the Syrian angle. By reducing the Palestinian Authority to Mashaal and Lebanon to Nasrallah, Assad aims to undermine the respective governments and tries to then sell himself, with the help of his propagandists, cheerleaders, and sycophants in the US, as the real reference or the man who holds the solutions. But everyone knows that he is not! It's a big deception. A big bluff. It has no substance. It's an attempt to pull a fast one. All those people talking about "the Sunni Arab fold" should ask themselves what the "fold" is, when did it exist, and when was Syria ever part of it?! As for those who say that Syria can still be pulled away from Iran, they should find themselves another line of work, as they clearly understand nothing, nor have they been following events closely. It's cheap cliches and one liners like "old guard" and "reformist impulses." It's plain old garbage.

Assad is but a two bit thug who is only good at killing and destroying. The Assad regime was never able to be part of any solution ever, not under Hafez and certainly not now. The Bush administration clearly is not falling for this stupidity, nor are the French or British. This won't stop the propagandists, cheerleaders, and sycophants in the US.

Addendum 2: Since the Syrian regime's hounds are barking louder, let me just remind readers of the White House position. Here's WH spokesman Tony Snow:

"Q Just one final one on this. Why shouldn't the President be the one to mount an aggressive diplomacy, pick up the phone, call Assad of Syria and say, put an end to this, and start negotiating directly with the Syrians?


MR. SNOW: Because the track record stinks. I don't know if you remember all the old pictures of diplomats in the Reagan years going -- in the Carter, Reagan, and maybe even the early Bush years, the first Bush administration -- who knows, Clinton may have done it, too -- sitting around there drinking tea with Hafez al-Assad, the father, having to sit there for five, six, ten hours, listening to polite but long discourses on greater Syria, and at the end of that, having gotten nothing.

There is absolutely no reason to assume, based on the track record, that negotiations and conversations with the Syrians would yield any fruit."

Enough said. Now let the hounds bark as loud as they want. It makes no difference.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Weapon Shipments from Syria

The Lebanese station LBCI is reporting that the IDF has struck four trucks carrying weapons to Hezbollah coming from Syria. The station's news ticker is reporting that the IDF is now conducting strikes and air raids in the Bekaa region, in eastern Lebanon, and near the border with Syria.

Update: The 'News Flash' section on the Lebanese news site Naharnet reads:

'The Israeli army says aircraft destroyed four trucks traveling from Syria with weapons and munitions destined for Hizbullah in the Bekaa.'

'Israeli planes raid the Deir al Ahmar bridge that links north Lebanon to the Bekaa Valley.'

Monday, July 17, 2006

1967 Revisited

To follow up on the theme of my previous post about how the Assad regime is the center of terrorism and instability in the Levant, here's an article by Michael Oren that really nails it.

One might add that Syria's destructive role is not confined to 1967. In fact, they were at the heart of the calls for war in 1948. The reason all along was a power struggle between Syria and other Arab states. It was a bid for domination of the Levant and the Arab system.

This is what it is about today as well. Syria, a rogue, terrorist, pariah dictatorship, is bidding for regional dominance in the Levant as a client of Iran, itself bidding to become the regional hegemon. That's the reason behind the Mashaal and Nasrallah fiasco: to center the decision of war and peace in the hands of the Iran-Syria-Hezbollah-Hamas axis. This is why Mubarak was snubbed by Mashaal and the Saudis insulted by Nasrallah. This is why Jordan was threatened. Assad is trying to substitute the Soviet Union's patronage with Iran's, and he's threatening the regional Arab states with that and with terrorism, as well as with playing the tune of destabilizing demagoguery to elements within Egypt and Jordan (the Muslim Brotherhood) as well as Saudi Arabia (a Saudi Shiite group called Hezbollah of the Hijaz came out with a statement condemning Saudi "treachery," in reference to its criticism of Hezbollah in Lebanon and Syria. This latter phenomenon reminds you of the thinly veiled threat thrown at KSA by Hezbollah's Naim Qasem on al-Jazeera in November.)

These Arab states realize what's at stake and realize that this is nothing short of a coup. It's a coup in Lebanon, a coup in the Palestinian territories, and it's a coup in the region as well, and Syria is at the center of it. So Oren is absolutely right. Either way there is no return to the status quo ante. Hezbollah has been exposed and the decision has been taken to eliminate its military threat. In other words, the concept of war by proxy, the idea of a trump card, that itself is the target of the Israeli offensive and it has the backing of France, Britain, and the US. The next step will be a renewed focus to disarm Hezbollah. But a crucial element in this is the neutralization of Assad. As Oren put it : "as long as Syria remains hors de combat there is no way that Israel can effect a permanent change in Lebanon's political labyrinth and ensure an enduring ceasefire in the north."

Alternately, an international effort, backed by strong Egyptian, Jordanian and Saudi support (at least for now, albeit one year late, they all seem to be willing to do this, at least rhetorically), to effectively empower the Lebanese government and disarm Hezbollah, and enforce the 1949 armistice and resolve the border issue with Syria, will essentially strip Assad of his last remaining "card."

Friday, July 07, 2006

Assad Regime = Instability

Ammar Abdulhamid has written an excellent op-ed for the Daily Star explaining the real nature of the Assad regime in Syria (père et fils) and reminding us why the Assads (plural), and the ineherent nature of the regime they created, can never "reform" or abandon the destabilizing foreign policy, which is inseparably tied to domestic policy and regime survival. That last point I've said a million times before, and so have other insightful commentators such as Michael Young and Lee Smith.

Therefore, it was always amusing to me to hear how the Assad regime was a source of "stability," or better still, that the younger thug is a "reformer." Both arguments always struck me as naive and/or ill-informed at best, or worse, apologetics and propaganda.

Ammar first points out why it was always impossible for Bashar to reform anything even if he had wanted to, which nothing suggests that he did/does.

But there are a set of excellent points that should perhaps be summarized into bullet points, and should serve as constant reminders every time you hear someone talking about Syria, and "engagement" and "process."

* "The aggressiveness of the Assad regime, therefore, seems intrinsic."

* "[T]ransferring power from father to son was meant to preserve this state of affairs: Alawite rule in Syria and the Assad family's control of the Alawite community."

* "Rather than introduce reform, Assad's real mandate was to maintain the status quo."

* "Thus, as had been the case with his father previously, the young president's inability to change much in domestic Syrian affairs left foreign policy as the only outlet for Assad to draw much-needed legitimacy for his rule."

* "Bashar can never truly be interested in a final resolution of Syria's outstanding foreign entanglements. Having to continuously manage outside crises is the only way for him and his family to maintain their grip on power."

* "Adventurism, therefore, will remain a mainstay of Syrian foreign policy."

(AE: On this point and the one preceding it, as well as the very first point, see this excellent quote by Lee Smith: "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.")

* "Assad and the rest of his family will continue to up the ante in their confrontation with the international community."

* "To them the game and the endgame are synonymous."

(AE: Hence the need to be locked in a "process" without having to reach, or ever even being interested in reaching, a solution or compromise. Those ubiquitous so-called "cards" are policy. Which is why Ammar hit it on the head when he said "Bashar can never truly be interested in a final resolution of Syria's outstanding foreign entanglements.")

As such, Ammar rightly concludes, "stability in Syria and in the region" contrary to the common wisdom of the apologists and cheerleaders, "will remain [an] illusory goal for as long as the Assads are at the helm in Syria."

Addendum: Here's a classic article for your records. This piece also explains a lot of the nonsense that we've heard and continue to hear about the Assad regime and supports much of the points raised by Ammar.

Take this paragraph for instance:

References to Syria's "old guard" predate Bashar's ascension. The term first gained currency among Western observers in the mid-1990s, when the elder Assad was said to be on the brink of signing a peace treaty with Israel. In 1994, Janes Defence Weekly reported that Assad was replacing much of the "old-guard, combat-tested officers who have kept him in power since he took over in November 1970, with a new breed of security controllers" who were less opposed to peace.[3] Although Assad did, if fact, fire many senior security officials, he remained as unwilling as ever to make peace with the Jewish state. Nevertheless, the notion that it was the regime's "old guard," not Assad, that obstructed peace persisted. "Assad must still cater to the old guard," reported Business Week in 1999. "The Syrian President maintains his power through a network of military and intelligence commanders, and he must be careful not to look soft in the talks. That's one reason Assad can't afford to settle for anything less than a full Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights."

There's a wonderful section on the real maneuverings behind the so-called Damascus Spring:

The Damascus Spring was a temporary, carefully managed political opening engineered by Assad to outmaneuver his rivals and consolidate his grip on power by drawing support from outside the regime. Once he had fully asserted his authority, the activities of the reformers became a liability for the Syrian president and were quickly curtailed. While many in the regime had misgivings about the increasingly bold activities of Syrian dissidents, many of those who were arrested ran into trouble after they criticized people close to Bashar or challenged the legacy of his father. For example, the country's leading dissident, MP Riyad Sayf, was arrested after he released a study showing that a lucrative mobile phone contract awarded to Syriatel, a company controlled by Assad's cousin, Rami Makhlouf, would cost the government billions of dollars in lost revenue. Riyad al-Turk was arrested after he condemned the country's "hereditary republic" - a direct swipe at Bashar.

And this excellent concluding quote:

"This story of an old guard that prevents some reforms is nonsense," concurs one Syrian businessman interviewed by a Western NGO. "Bashar manipulates everybody and this serves him as a cover, especially for intoxicating European officials who believe in him."

Yes, but it was more than just European officials. It was specifically that particular species, the "peace processors," who were really responsible for this term. It was applied to Hafez in the heyday of the "process" and was revived for his son by smitten "processors" who were given court access.

Just for the record.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Ma'moun Homsi Interview

The Syria Monitor has translated and published long excerpts from an interview with dissident former Syrian MP Ma'moun Homsi, which he had given to Middle East Transparent.

Homsi, one of the leading figures of the so-called Damascus Spring, along with the likes of Riad Seif, has left Syria, and for a while was in Jordan before the Syrians "pressured" the Jordanians to ask him to leave, which they did.

Homsi, along with Seif, had long moved from calling for the regime to reform itself, and has since been calling for regime change. In the interview he explains the fallacy of the ridiculous notion that the regime is capable of or willing to reform itself. He also chronicles the regime's tactics in trying to co-opt reformists, or to present them with difficult choices: to be co-opted, thus losing their credibility and becoming mouthpieces for the regime, or to be persecuted. One can see this with so-called or self-proclaimed "outsiders" and "reformers" like Dardari or even someone as marginal as Imad Moustapha, both of whom are totally entrenched now and act as mere parrots of the official line, justifying and whitewashing the crackdown on the domestic opposition figures and even slandering them, and in the case of Moustapha, writing thuggish threats against the Lebanese Prime Minister.

Homsi exposes this charade and states that his priority now is to urge the free world to apply effective and constant pressures on the regime in order to bring about regime change.