Across the Bay

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Target: UNIFIL and the Tribunal

As per my previous post, Hezbollah has once again affirmed its (and Syria's and Iran's) targets: UNIFIL (and UNR 1701) and the tribunal.

The other day (1/29), I spotted this (my translation) in L'Orient-Le Jour (link expired):

According to the head of Hezbollah's parliamentary bloc [Mohammad Raad], what is taking place today on the local scene is the conflict between two projects: the first, that of the opposition, seeks to preserve the country's unity and independence. The second, that of the majority, wants to place Lebanon under foreign suzerainty. According to M. Raad, the instruments used by the proponents of the second projects are the disarmament of Hezbollah and the international tribunal, knowing full well that this tribunal will not uncover the assassins of Rafik Hariri. That is why, he said, we posed questions about the implication of the parties who are pushing for the international tribunal into this assassination.

Hezbollah, as had been noted by Bill Harris, has intentionally entangled the tribunal with the controversy over its armed state within the state, with all the sectarian implications of this.

If Hezbollah persists with this agenda, the repercussions on communal relations, as I noted in my previous post, will be disastrous.

Intimately tied to Hezbollah's state within a state and its determination never to give up its weapons, or the idea of an open front in the south, is the matter of UNR 1701 and the UNIFIL.

As I mentioned in my previous post, Nasrallah and Hezbollah (echoing Syrian officials) have been sending consistent threats against UNIFIL. Nasrallah's recent reference to the "multi-national forces" was an ominous hint at 1983 (first made by Walid Moallem. I was also told by an EU official of direct Syrian threats to the French).

But it probably won't be done openly by Hezbollah. It would be done indirectly. Nasrallah recently gave a hint in an interview with the Kuwaiti al-Anbaa (1/15. Emphasis added):

Q: Deputy Sec. Gen. Sheikh Naim Qassem warned the UNIFIL against spying on Hezbollah in the south. Does this reflect your fears of additional tasks for the UNIFIL after the French reconnaissance planes were brought up? Moreover, what is the likelihood of a renewed Israeli aggression and under what circumstances?

A: ... Of course the Sheikh wanted to send an open warning message so that it's understood that this issue is known to us and it's serious, and because there are popular remarks in the south, for what Hezbollah knows could be kept low profile and raised with the particular countries. But the people of the south observe and follow and see the movement of some of these forces which arouse suspicion or distrust. We also don't want people to do uncalculated or unstudied acts to express their objection or rage against some of these movements by some of the forces, and not all the forces of UNIFIL. We're working on dealing with this matter with the governments of these countries.

Certainly, some of these forces have overstepped all limits of responsibility. For example, they don't have the right to enter a village and raid houses and search them. This is not the mandate of the UNIFIL, but some forces in UNIFIL have done this, once or twice. We raised these remarks with the government of these forces.

Now, for example, talk of French reconnaissance planes, which are said to be making flights, and this idea was proposed as an alternative to Israeli reconnaissance flights, this is a laughable and silly matter. It's as if they're telling the Israelis: "the information you need, and the pictures and films and visuals, we will offer them to you, so don't bother." In reality, we didn't raise this issue in the media. We called the French embassy in Beirut and asked them, is this serious? Does France really want to do this? If it is serious, then this is a dangerous matter, and it will have dangerous repercussions. It would mean that the UNIFIL forces will become a spying airforce for Israel. They promised us to carry this to their government. A few days after our contacts, the French Foreign Ministry issued a statement denying France's intention to use reconnaissance planes. But after a few days we heard this possibility on the lips of the French Defense Minister. At any rate, this issue has not been settled. And in any case, we say that the UNIFIL must abide by the set missions and not go beyond these missions at all. When these missions are transgressed, we seek to handle them through direct contacts. We do these contacts and also ask the leadership of the Lebanese Army and the concerned officials to do these contacts in order to end these violations.

We certainly don't want any tension in the relation between Hezbollah, and the resistance in the south, and the UNIFIL forces. We seek the best relation. But at the same time, we are cautious that the UNIFIL act only within its pre-determined mandate.

The implicit threat is clear (the bizarre incident with the Spanish troops, immediately after the Nasrallah interview, and the spin it received in the pro-Syrian, pro-Hezbollah media, may have been related to this). But Nasrallah may have set the stage for potential attacks in his Ashoura speech on Tuesday. Mohammad Salam explains:

However, after saying it is "no secret" that Hizbullah fighters are no more in the confrontation zone of south Lebanon, Nasrallah made a call for the creation of a "sole" multi-faction national resistance movement to liberate the Shabaa Farms.

Nasrallah even went as far as saying that "whoever has been banned from liberating (the Farms) should step forward to liberate (the area) and we'll be with him."

The key note in this National Resistance call by Nasrallah is "we'll be with him."

So Nasrallah wants Hizbullah, which did not even allow the regular Lebanese army into south Lebanon during its monopoly era, to return to the confrontation zone with Israel, but this time with "partners" under the banner of a "national" resistance movement.

The next move would, almost certainly, be a declaration forming this "national" resistance outfit, which would group Syrian-backed factions that form Lebanon's opposition.

The Arab Socialist Baath Party, Lebanon's chapter of Syria's regime, is expected to be part of the new resistance along with the Syrian Social National Party (SSNP) and Osama Saad's Popular Nasserite Organization.

I would also add Fathi Yakan's people. It may also be that Nasrallah still thinks he can sell this to the Sunnis, in an attempt to split them, maybe by appealing to the Jama'a Islamiya (which Hezbollah had tried to cajole but failed to get them to align with them). In other words, now that Hezbollah's standing with the Sunnis is in the sewer, it may want to revive the strategy of the 90s, which was designed, and is being used today (and failing miserably), to sell Iran to the Sunnis, by presenting Hezbollah (and by extension Iran) as patrons of the Palestinian cause, and thus, true Arabists. Now that Hezbollah's explicit Khomeinism is strongly back in the spotlight, it might want to recreate that fig leaf (whether it can work is an entirely different question, and it will not. That ship has sailed). The other possibility is that this is designed to counter the attack by Tufayli.

But what this means is that Nasrallah (and Syria and Iran) could be setting up front organizations (which of course they'll try to sell as being "national") through which they could return to action in the south, and more specifically, target the UNIFIL. As Salam put it:

First they would have to cross the 23-kilometer deep buffer south of the Litani river patrolled by the Lebanese army and troops of the U.N. Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL).

Geographically, Nasrallah's "liberation" road to Shabaa Farms goes through UNIFIL's area of operations. This is a fact.

Was Nasrallah setting the stage for a "national" war on UNIFIL?

It could be argued that in many ways, this is a sign of weakness on the part of Hezbollah, which has hit a brick wall, and has had a "meltdown" in recent months, as Michael Young put it. But it's also a very dangerous proposition if Salam's analysis is accurate -- and given the consistent threats, and Syria's and Iran's intent on doing away with UNR 1701, it's well within reason.

Both strategies will be disastrous for Lebanon, and, as I said, for communal relations, which Hezbollah has already strained to the limit.

Monday, January 29, 2007

The Path to Suicide

It's been clear since at least March 2005 that Hassan Nasrallah is intent on taking the country to war.

After Thursday's deadly Sunni-Shiite clashes, what does Nasrallah do? Escalate further.

In an Ashoura speech, Nasrallah came full circle. He returned to explicit, open, and full-blown Khomeinist rhetoric. Naturally, he never gave this up. It was covered during the 90's in order to win Sunni support by repackaging Hezbollah as an Islamo-Arab nationalist force. It was decidedly uncovered during the summer war. Now, the political discourse in Lebanon commonly refers to Hezbollah in those terms, as it used to during the 80's.

Nasrallah quoted Khomeini in the speech, and made reverential references to Khomeini and Khamenei, to cheers from his audience.

What was his message to the Shiite community and the Lebanese? It was one of war, death, and suicide. This was best crystallized in a truly disturbing historico-religious analogy he offered his audience. He told them that when Imam Husein
led a "reformist" charge, like Hezbollah today (according to Nasrallah), he was faced with two choices: surrender, or death. And he chose death.

The message is quite simple: the Shi'a community has no choice. The other Lebanese are the equivalent of the murderers of Shiism's icon, and in dealing with them, there is really one option, if one were to emulate this icon: death. Any other option would be surrender, and that's no option, because Hezbollah will "not surrender" and it will emerge "victorious" (over the Lebanese!).

The Shi'a community, therefore, is to be led to the slaughter. Nasrallah has placed it on the path to suicide, pitted against the other Lebanese, who are "serving Israeli interests." Besides, who needs the other Lebanese, or the Lebanese state anyway? Nasrallah told his audience, "we are capable of defending ourselves, and we have God."

This implication was understood, ironically, by Hezbollah's former leader, Subhi Tufayli, who has been expelled from the ranks of Hezbollah and has had an ongoing feud with Nasrallah. Tufayli put it plainly: "this is crazy ... we'll be slaughtered like sheep even in Lebanon. This is a reality."

Tufayli also stressed that Nasrallah was in charge of carrying out Khamenei's policy in Lebanon. Here one can argue that Nasrallah is escalating in order to pressure the Saudis in the ongoing Saudi-Iranian negotiations, and to strengthen the Iranian hand. Furthermore, it's Nasrallah's way to continue serving the agendas of Iran and Syria. It signals, in case anyone had any doubt, that Nasrallah will continue to place these agendas over Lebanon, and the Shi'a, anytime.

Michael Young recently addressed these issues:

However, that reality only reaffirmed how Hizbullah has been juggling contradictory agendas. The Iranians may not want sectarian discord, but what happened this week was fulfillment of the Syrian side of Hizbullah's agenda. The main obstacle remains the Hariri tribunal and Syria's refusal to permit its creation. How Tehran and Damascus will work out their clashing priorities is anybody's guess. You have to assume that with the Lebanese so close to doing battle, and given the dire implications of what this would mean for Hizbullah and its already dilapidated reputation in the Sunni Arab world, Iran will remind Nasrallah of who pays the checks. On the other hand, the Iranians realize that the tribunal might be fatal to the Syrian regime, depriving the Islamic Republic of a key asset in the Levant.

Indeed, the tribunal remains the central issue on the Syrian agenda. It was no coincidence that on Tuesday (the day of the riots), the pro-Syrian rag ad-Diyar made sure to include a section in its lead story about the necessary changes that need to be made to the tribunal draft, in order to empty it of any substance. One such change is that the tribunal's jurisdiction would only be Lebanon, and if the UN wants to extend it to another Arab state, i.e. Syria, the UN would need to sign a treaty with Syria like the one with Lebanon. This is the Syrian demand as expressed by Faysal Mekdad, who said that Syria considers itself "not concerned" with the tribunal because no such treaty has been signed with it.

Once again, leaks are coming out that the Saudi-Iranian negotiations have hit a brick wall: the tribunal. The most recent leak added another well-known Syrian demand: the tribunal should not be established before the investigation is over and Brammertz submits his final report. Only then "could it be discussed" and seen whether it's "necessary."

This again exacerbates tensions between Shiites and Sunnis, and indeed, all other Lebanese communities. That it should emerge that the Shiite Hezbollah is blocking the tribunal into the assassination of a Sunni symbol, a Greek Orthodox MP (Tueni) and various other figures, the son of a prominent Maronite political family (Gemayyel), and an attempt against a leading Druze minister (Marwan Hamadeh) would seriously imperil communal ties even more than they already are, especially given the state of Sunni-Shiite tensions in the region.

So what is Hezbollah's answer to this? Blame it on the non-Sunnis: Geagea and Jumblat. There has been a vicious campaign against these two leaders in the pro-Syria/Iran/Hezbollah rags in Lebanon, most notably al-Akhbar, but also as-Safir and ad-Diyar, not to mention al-Manar TV.

This is Hezbollah's lame answer: attack other Lebanese! So naturally, Nasrallah attacked Geagea without naming him by calling him a servant of Israel who is seeking to ignite Sunni-Shiite strife in Lebanon. The same has been said about Jumblat, that he's the mastermind of fitna between Sunnis and Shiites, who would otherwise be all lovey-dovey. So, we are asked to ignore that Sunnis marched in numbers in the Bekaa at the funeral of a Sunni youth who was killed by the Hezbollah-led rioters, and that the Sunni Mufti of the Bekaa openly held Nasrallah responsible for the death, saying that the youth's blood was "on his neck."

Nasrallah had tried to turn this further away by trying to make it an inter-Christian fight. Unfortunately for him, Aoun was roundly beaten and put in place. His move was a total dud. So once again Hezbollah couldn't hide the real issue, that this is very much a Shiite-Sunni conflict. That's what Thursday's events showed. They also showed just how much of a foreign tool Nasrallah is.

Having reportedly first threatened the Army not to interfere on Tuesday, Nasrallah was made to eat crow on Thursday. Iran is said to have directly called him off the streets when it appeared that Sunni-Shiite clashes could spin out of control. A fearful Berri also made sure to give the Army all the cover it needed to impose a curfew. Also, Jumblat's and Geagea's decisive statements and moves were instrumental in aborting Nasrallah's plans.

Cornerned, now Hezbollah is threatening more violence and trying to bully March 14 into not trying to show up in numbers to commemorate the second memorial of Hariri's assassination on February 14. With incredible nerve, one of Hezbollah's pitbulls, Mohammad Raad, told them that there were plenty of streets in the country other than the downtown, further cementing the perception that the downtown is being occupied by Hezbollah's hordes. Brilliant move.

As if that weren't enough, Nasrallah also lashed out against the US, directly threatening it, and probably the UNIFIL. Having painted the other Lebanese as latter day Yazids and agents of Israel (i.e., consummate evil) who must be vanquished, to the death (à la Husein), he tried to present himself as magnanimous (and how!): "we will not take our revenge from these slaves and servants. We will seek it from their masters." Who are their masters? The West, America and France in particular (and maybe an implicit threat to Saudi as well).

Given how Nasrallah and Hezbollah have been, in sync with the Syrians, directly threatening UNIFIL (Nasrallah the other day used the term "multi-national force", an ominous reference, first made by Walid Moallem, to Hezbollah's 1983 attacks), this could signal a threat to hit the UNIFIL, which, as I have written repeatedly, is the second target, along with the tribunal, as it directly threatens Hezbollah's foremost objective: maintaining its state (and weapons) above the state.

But Nasrallah's speech included a direct threat to the US as well, and perhaps, the US embassy (and most specifically, Ambassador Feltman) there should take extra precaution. Keep in mind that Hezbollah routinely refers to the Seniora government as "the Feltman government."

It is around staunch opposition to UNIFIL and UNR 1701 that Iranian, Syrian, and Hezbollah interests most obviously converge. A hit against UNIFIL remains more than a possibility.

All this simply shows the complete failure of Hezbollah in the post-Syrian Lebanese order. Nasrallah, the alleged political "genius," has proven nothing more than a thug, not a politician. Hezbollah has shown its inability to function as a political party within the Lebanese system. Its interest is to keep its weapons, a state within and above the state, and an open front against Israel as Iran's spearhead. It has lost the ability to enforce acquiescence and submission on this issue (which was done on its behalf by the Syrians), and now its intimidation tactics have not only become hollow and useless, but worse, they're steadily paving the way to war. Here again Tufayli, ironically, had it right: "There cannot be two states and two weapons, that of Hizbullah and that of the government. We need to unify the weapons under one command. Two states would lead to war," he said.

Michael Young also put it well:

The last six months have been a period of meltdown for Hizbullah. The party has been neutralized in the South, at least for the moment; its reputation in the Arab world lies in tatters because it is seen as an extension of Iran; domestically, Hizbullah is viewed more than ever as a menace to national coexistence and civil peace; few Lebanese, other than Hizbullah's own, believe that its insistence on participating in the political process means respect for the latter's rules, free from foreign interests; and none of Nasrallah's political rivals trust him anymore.


At the same time, Hizbullah has shown that under all that weaponry lie weak knees. The party's threshold has been surprisingly low in moments of internal crises. It took only three and a half weeks during the 2006 summer war with Israel for Nasrallah to announce that he was amenable to a cease-fire under any conditions. This was an acknowledgment that his Shiite community could not long endure living in public facilities, streets, and parks. Six days after the start of the December protests, Nasrallah retreated before a wall of Sunni opposition. He did organize a massive rally a few days later, but only to cover for the fact that the government had beaten Hizbullah to a draw in the Downtown. And on Tuesday evening, Hizbullah's decision to "suspend" the protests proved that the party could not transgress certain limits in bullying the majority. This may have exhibited good judgment, but it also exposed Hizbullah's vulnerabilities.

In response, Nasrallah has said, I'm going to take the Shiites, and Lebanon, to the slaughter.

Now you understand why when Jumblat called in on LBC's Kalam an-Nas program on Thursday, he urged Nabih Berri to return to the institutions in order to save Lebanon, but more specifically, Jumblat added, to save the Shi'a.

Addendum: An interesting cartoon commentary on the subject from my friend and fellow Lebanese blogger _z.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Funniest Story of the Year!

Naturally, it simply has to come from Bashar's internet propaganda tool, Cham Press.

The story reports the "predictions" of Syria's most famous astrologer.

Here they are, in (her) order (of hilarity!):

1- Bashar's re-election will take place without any opposition or problems! (I kid you not!)

2- 2007 will be more secure for Syria, despite some minor acts of violence (you know, like your average "Jund al-Sham" incidents!) but nothing big, it will instead be a year of reconciliation (like, maybe with the Saudis!), compromise deals (naturally, those are always around the corner, esp. with the US!), and negotiations (like, you know, with Israel!).

3- Relations with Lebanon will be better (Yes, no more of that tribunal or March 14 shit!), and there will be reconciliation (aka. "liquidation"!), and what happened last year won't happen again (EVER!).

4- Death of a number of Arab leaders (though not all through car bombs from Bashar!) and the fall of several Arab governments (that's if the bit about reconciliation doesn't happen, or maybe death to Jordan and Saudi anyway!).

5- Also, concomitantly, this year will witness the birth of many "national unity governments" (as in Iraq, the Palestinian territories, and of course Lebanon!), especially after the third month. As for the Lebanese Seniora government, it will not fall before the second month (Great, that's in a few days folks! Hopefully by then I will have stopped laughing uncontrollably!).

Now get this -- only in Baathist Syria -- this hilarious astrologer actually denied having any contacts with regime officials! (Although I could've sworn I've read all this in Tishrin and on some blog!)

Ahh Syria... Where astrology, fantasy and propaganda unite!

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Sunni-Alawite Clash in Northern Lebanon

Among the sectarian tensions and clashes spurred by Hezbollah's fiasco yesterday, the most curious was a violent incident in northern Lebanon between (loyalist) Sunnis and (opposition) Alawites, which continued today.

Yesterday's clashes resulted in the death of a supporter of the (Hariri-led) Future Movement. Clashes erupted again today during his funeral.

The area where this took place has a history going back to the war in the 80s. The two adjacent neighborhoods are Bab el-Tibbaneh (Sunni) and Baal Mohsen (Alawite).

During the war, Syria escalated the fighting in Tripoli in 1981 between the pro-Srian Alawite militia led by (Alawite) Ali Eid and the Popular Resistance militia of Bab al-Tibbaneh.

Then fighting broke there in December 1982 between the Syrian-created Alawite militia, the Arab Democratic Party (fronted by Nassib Khatib but actually directed by Ali Eid), and the Sunni militias in Bab al-Tibbaneh. At the time, Rashid Karameh hinted that Assad was behind the conflict. It was, as Marius Deeb put it, "reminiscent of previous occasions when Asad fomented a conflict, and called for numerous cease-fires that would not hold, so that eventually the local political leaders as well as the Lebanese government sought Asad's mediation to stop the conflict, which he had wittingly incited."

I'll quote some more from Deeb's Syria's Terrorist War on Lebanon and the Peace Process:

All groups in Tripoli had called for the "evacuation from the city and its outskirts of the deterrent forces [Syrian troops] and all armed organizations, Lebanese and non-Lebanese, and the handing over of security to the legitimate government, i.e., the army and the internal security forces." This was precisely what Asad meant by conspiracy: "any request from Tripoli for the deterrent forces [Syrian troops] to move out of Tripoli and the north would be viewed by Syria as a 'conspiracy' against it...every time the pressure of the Tripoli request increases groups in Tripoli supportive of Syria [the `Alawis of Ba`l Muhsin] explode the situation."

Some leading politicians like former president Camille Chamoun openly accused Syria of being behind the ongoing conflict in Tripoli. The Sunni deputy, `Abduh `Uwaydat, called for the Lebanese government to save Tripoli, because the Syrian troops of the ADF had become "a force of occupation" and had to be withdrawn back to Syria.

The fighting there continued for three years, serving various purposes for Assad. This report, for example, dates back to 1984.

The scars of this history were again scratched yesterday and today.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Chirac Nixes Engagement with Syria

French President Jacques Chirac spoke today in a televised session with three journalists, including LBC's Marcel Ghanem (aired on LBC and Future TV). He was asked why he does not engage Syria. His response (my on-the-spot translation of some excerpts):

I have great respect for the Syrian people. But experience has taught me that the current Syrian leadership, who are a minority of the Syrian people, it's difficult to believe them.

Those few in Europe who did go to talk to the Syrian leadership were very disappointed. They got absolutely nothing.

This has been Chirac's position, and indeed that of the Quay as well (contrary to the illusions of Syria's cheerleaders).

I was recently at a hearing on Syria at the EU Parliament, where I spoke to several EU officials. One official told me that in France, support for Lebanon is "across the board" (and not just Chirac, as many cheerleaders like to think). He also repeated what Chirac said (which is something I've said before, re: the British envoy Scheinwald, the German FM Steinmeier, and even US Sen. Bill Nelson) that the Europeans who went to talk to Assad got "absolutely nothing." No surprise there, as I've written numerous times before.

He also added that it was very clear that all this riff-raff now in Lebanon is aimed at one thing: scuttling the international tribunal. Again, no surprise there.

News Item du Jour

This is by far the funniest news item of the day, in an otherwise pathetic day in Lebanon:

In Beirut's Mar Elias commercial thoroughfare, hooded supporters of Hizbullah and the Shiite Amal movement also blocked traffic by blazing rubber tires and rocks.

However, some motorists insisted on driving through the blockade. A lady, driving a dark blue Mercedes, was attacked by protestors who tried to smash her vehicle's wind shield.

The apparently determined lady sped-on hitting three of the protestors, who were evacuated later by an Amal ambulance.

Hilarious!

I will hopefully soon be providing more commentary on Nasrallah's, and his little useful idiot Aoun's, pathetic thuggish fiasco today (check out Abu Kais and Michael Totten and Rampurple for news updates). Alas, what I wrote in a recent article on Aoun, is predictably playing out:

Now, by agreeing to be the vanguard of a Shiite-led coup attempt against a Sunni prime minister, he has broken an unwritten rule against getting his community involved in a Sunni-Shiite conflict, potentially putting the already polarized Maronite community at risk.
...
As such, Aoun is but the latest in a line of challengers of Lebanon's unwritten codes. He will fail like all the others; the question is how much damage he causes in the meantime.

Some in Lebanon are fearing the same, given the General's history: "Aoun went to war and destroyed the Christian community. Now he is doing the same."

Update: I think I came across something even funnier than the item above! Today on Future TV, they showed a couple of Sunni ladies from the heavily pro-Hariri (and Sunni) Tariq Jdideh neighborhood in Beirut. One of them addressed Nasrallah directly, making sure to say that she wasn't afraid, and told him that "Olmert is more honorable than you Nasrallah." Another lady ridiculed Nasrallah's new residence -- the underground bunker -- referring to it as a "foxhole" and Nasrallah as "abu jihr" (jihr means foxhole in Arabic), and dared him to come out of it!

Monday, January 22, 2007

Stick to Syrian History, Sami

Some of you may not know who the hell Sami Moubayed is. You haven't missed much. Said to be "close" to Asma Assad and the Tlass boys, he's also an on-and-off, quasi-spokesman of the regime for the western media, repackaging the usual regime trash in English as "analysis."

While he is a historian of Syria, his Lebanon material is utter garbage and it shows. He now came out with a pure and unadulterated piece of crap of an article that rehashes the idiotic propaganda of his bosses (and their "media") and sets records in stupidity and factual distortions. Listen to this nonsense:

Lahoud's post was indeed renewed by the Syrians, but who were the deputies who approved the decree in parliament? They were, among others, Walid Junblatt, Siniora and Marwan Hamadeh.

Umm, no Sami, but congrats, you got it wrong on all three. Go learn some recent history, you being a historian and all. Jumblat's bloc resigned in protest over the (unconstitutional) extension of Lahoud's mandate, which his parliamentary bloc opposed. As for Seniora, it's actually much easier: he was not an MP.

But I guess the point about Seniora is to say this: "In fact, the greatest okay - with reservations - came from none other than Hariri himself." Yeah, only Sami boy ignores the history of that, as recounted in the UN reports into his assassination by Sami's bosses, that Hariri did not want to do it, and was threatened, by Bashar himself, into approving it, and then he refused to form a cabinet with Lahoud in office. Minor detail that, you know, for a grand historian like Sami.

I mean, even the BBC got it right:

Mr Hariri had initially opposed the extension to Mr Lahoud's term, but eventually came into line after Syria put pressure on him, correspondents say.

His resignation had been expected, but the announcement he would not try to form a new government surprised many pundits.

Four cabinet ministers from Mr Jumblatt's bloc quit the government in September over the constitutional change.

And there was that other minor thing that happened to Hamadeh, who was one of those who resigned in protest. Bashar dispatched a nice car-bomb to blow him to bits. He barely survived. At the time, some of Jumblat's supporters were arrested as well, etc.

I won't bother with the rest of this pile of horse manure of an article. I have enough trouble holding down the garbage from the Syrian "media," I don't really need to hear it rehashed and sold to me as "analysis." It's insulting. So Sami, and all his "analysts/spokesmen" ilk (Imad Shoueibi, Marwan Kabalan, et al.), both US- and Damascus-based, do us all a favor, and put a cork in it.

Addendum: I must add one last note. So stupid is Sami's article that if I were to pick at it we'd be here for a while and I would need a shower. But this part cannot pass without a comment for its silliness and dishonesty:

When March 14 got a chance to oust Lahoud one year ago, and promised to do so by mass demonstrations similar to those taking place today, they fell short of doing it.

They feared - among other things - that if Lahoud left office then Aoun would replace him as president. And bringing Aoun to power means a strong-minded leader who most probably would overshadow his Sunni prime minister.

Again, Sami, find yourself another area of "analysis." Here's the undistorted account. The reason why March 14 backed down at the time was because the Maronite Patriarch did not want to set a precedent of a President (the office of the Christians) being toppled through street protests. This is Lebanon after all. And there's that other minor thing. At the time, Gen. Aoun himself, who now wants to topple a Sunni Prime Minister, and "bring in" another Sunni Prime Minister of his and Nasrallah's choosing, was barking at the top of his lungs that the President "is not brought down in the streets." Remember that one? Hariri and Jumblat backed down so as not to inflame sectarian relations, and the March 14 Christians deferred to the Patriarch's position, so as not to create a rift in the Christian community.

That much cannot be said about Aoun and the Hezbollah-led opposition today, or for that matter, for Sami's genius "analysis." Here's a lesson in Lebanese politics to Sami, for free, cause he obviously needs it, having shown how much of an ignoramus he is in that field. A Shiite militiaman cannot say "I want to bring a Sunni of my own choosing," when this Sunni Prime Minister has a broad, cross-sectarian Parliamentary majority backing him. And most certainly, nor can an egomaniacal Maronite General, who hypocritically opposed the same when it came to the Presidency (despite its unconstitutional status and its tarnished role given the implication of people close to Lahoud in the Hariri murder). Understood, Sami?

As for Aoun's "strength," there is a thing called the Taif Accord. Maybe you've heard of it. Consult it on this matter. As for Aoun's candidacy and its viability, consult my recent article. Much of it, I'm afraid, is proving rather accurate.

Such utter garbage.

A Spoiler Is Not a Player

Bashar Assad (and Qatar) wanted to score a coup, against Egypt and Saudi Arabia, by inviting Mahmoud Abbas to Damascus and getting him and Khaled Mashaal to issue a statement of agreement from Damascus, to show how Assad is a "real player" in the region who "holds the keys" to Hamas.

From the beginning there were doubts about the meeting even taking place. Well, it finally took place, but it blew up in Bashar's face, showing the limits of Syrian "influence" -- not just in Iraq where everyone agrees it's marginal -- but also on the Palestinian issue, the two issues on which the Iraq Study Group wanted to "engage" Syria (as Lebanon was explicitly off the table, and Syria's political influence there is restricted to Hezbollah, an Iranian asset).

Now the Syrians are trying to save face. So, naturally, Ibrahim Hmeidi comes out with a report on the bust of a meeting. Hmeidi's report shows how the Syrians scurried to salvage the visit from total embarrassment and disaster by at least setting a meeting, even if it was to be meaningless. The Syrian spin transmitted by Hmeidi? Syria's "interference" got them to meet! Yes, it's that pathetic.

Hmeidi reports that at one point Abbas said: "if there is no agreement, why even meet?" Well, so that Syria doesn't look hilariously bad. So they concocted a meaningless statement to justify the meeting, about how the Palestinians will continue dialogue and so on.

But there's something else. The reason the meeting failed is because Hamas does not want to agree to "abide" by treaties previously agreed to by the Palestinian government. So the question arises, either Syria has no serious influence to speak of to get Hamas to make that commitment, or the Syrians are actually in agreement with Hamas on this point. It's probably both. Hmeidi indicated as much: "[Syria] expressed 'understanding' towards Hamas's position that using the formula 'abiding by the signed treaties' would indicate a huge change in Hamas's doctrinal position."

I have pointed out before that it was none other than Syria who sabotaged the Saudi initiative in 2002, emptying it of all meaning. So I am not at all surprised that it supports Hamas's hardline position. All that it has been trying to do is to merely find a linguistic trick to mask this hardline position in ambiguous language to scam the world into supporting the Hamas government without it having to actually change its hardline position.

But more than this, the Iranian movement in all this, including Larijani's meetings with the Palestinian Islamic Jihad and Hamas, is also very telling, and shows just how penetrated Syrian foreign policy is by Iran. It also accentuates the severe limitations of the Syrians. In the end, Syria's so-called "cards" -- Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and Hezbollah -- are actually Iran's. It wasn't a coincidence that Jordanian Islamists attacked Hamas for being an Iranian tool, and that Fateh supporters even went as far as to call (Sunni) Hamas "Shiites." After all, it wasn't Syria that pledged $250 million for Hamas. It was Iran.

Immediately after Larijani's visit, Walid Moallem went to Tehran and issued a statement there (the location is also telling) denying all the recent chatter about supposed secret non-governmental Syrian-Israeli talks.

All this just goes to show that all the recent chatter about Syria's "influence" and "constructive role" (HAAA!), and the "prying Syria away from Iran" theory, and all other such illusions have to be checked against reality, not wishful thinking. Syria punches above its weight and aspires to be a major "player" through one thing, inherently tied to the domestic survival of its minority Alawite family regime: supporting terrorism. A spoiler that thrives on terrorist blackmail is not the same thing as a player. Enough illusions.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Arafat on Steroids: Syrian Style

I've long commented on Bashar being "the Syrian Arafat": a killer and a chronic liar who will say just about anything, but whose promises are worth absolutely nothing.

This characteristic has become something of a common knowledge among people who have dealt with him, from French President Chirac to former processor Martin Indyk. But it's also known even among Arab leaders. One famous line that has circulated in the Arab press is that an Arab diplomat said of Bashar that his father never promised much, but delivered on what little he did promise. Bashar talks a lot, but never keeps his word. (One could list the instances, be it the myriad ones involving Colin Powell, or the famous recent ones regarding forcing the renewal of Lahoud's mandate and then his "pledge" not to harm Hariri, etc.)

This is what's behind Walid Jumblat's recent statements on Bashar as a liar whose guarantees mean nothing. Jumblat was talking to Turkey's Erdogan, and told him flat out that it would be a mistake to mediate with Syria, because Bashar is a killer and a liar with no credibility even among Arab leaders.

But this is part and parcel of that thugocracy in Damascus, and it marks even its lowest functionaries, who lie just as they breathe. This is most evident on the issue of "peace" with Israel. The Syrians have been lying through their teeth, saying just about anything in order to get the Israelis to bite, believing that renewed talks with Israel would be their way out of their isolation and would bestow some sort of international legitimacy on the regime, restore their domination over Lebanon and end the international inquiry and tribunal into the political murders they committed in Lebanon.

But of course, these people are masters of duplicity. So Bashar would tell European papers that talks could be done in 6 months, and Walid Moallem insinuates ambiguously that they may not have preconditions -- a big lie which the regime let the media spin out of control -- but then when the hapless Arlen Specter was asked whether in his talks with Assad he indeed got a serious answer on the issue of preconditions, Specter's reply was hilariously telling: "it got kind of fuzzy." Of course it did.

Barry Rubin masterfully analyzed this phenomenon in a piece on Farouq al-Sharaa.

The other big delusion is that talks will somehow "pry Syria away from Iran" -- the most ridiculous notion around today. The Syrians are more than happy to let idiotic pundits and journalists in the US and Israel make all kinds of assertions on this issue. They're perfectly pleased with people blaming the "US-imposed isolation" as leaving Syria "no choice" but to enter in a "marriage of convenience" with Tehran (see Moustapha's satisfaction with the terrible Michael Slackman of the NYT). All rubbish by the way. But here's the funny part. The Syrians themselves have been clear that this is not reality. Their alliance with Iran is old and enduring, and has only been solidified and strengthened, and as far as the Syrians are concerned, it has brought dividends, and will never be abandoned. Syria's "economy tsar" Abdullah Dardari even said that if the EU thinks that by signing the Association Agreement with Syria it would distance it from Iran, then it [the EU] is "silly and naive." Syria, as I have repeatedly said, has long made its strategic choice.

It gets better. Enter "thug-caricature" Imad Moustapha, the loudest bull horn -- and gargantuan liar -- about Syria's "peaceful" and "constructive" goals with regards to Israel, Iraq, and Lebanon. Moustapha, I remind you, is the author of a thuggish May 25 op-ed in al-Hayat against PM Seniora and Walid Jumblat.

Moustapha was interviewed by Nir Rosen, and uttered what is perhaps the best argument against the idea that Syria could be pulled away from Iran to become "more moderate":

The Syrian Iranian relation is not about Syria adopting positions proposed by Iran. It’s the other way around. Iran under the Shah cooperated with Israel. We have historical policies about Israel and the resistance that have not changed. It’s not like we were lured by Iran to support policies we had not supported before. We supported resistance before Hizballah existed. If God forbid Iran will change its position Syria will not.

I urge you to read Barry Rubin's piece and then once again read Moustapha's statement. It's a classic example. (The Assad dynasty's scribe, Patrick Seale, openly admitted this on Israeli radio recently: talking to Syria will not distance it from Iran, as some Israeli geniuses seem to think.)

This is what many have been saying. Syria's interest is a continued state of belligerence, even as it wants to be locked in a permanent peace process, but never actually reaching a permanent peace. This is the bluebrint of what they were doing in the 90s, during the much-vaunted "Madrid era": they were simultaneously talking and using terror, while cementing their annexation of Lebanon (the real goal, not the Golan). They are, as Bashar himself put it, two sides of the same coin. Moustapha just explained it further (repeating a top-down memo that's been put out before by the regime and its officials): even if Iran (as in Ahmadinejad's "wipe Israel off the map" Iran) changed its policies toward Israel, Syria will not. Syria has been attacking Israel well before Iran and Hezbollah (which is true), meaning that Iran has nothing to do with Syria's hardline position, and Syria will continue to maintain that hardline position (as it did when it sabotaged the Saudi initiative in 2002 by eliminating any mention of normalization) in the future regardless of Iran, because that suits its interests (so please, to all aspiring luminaries, don't pretend to know Syria's "real" interests better than how its leaders define them). As I recently wrote:

Bashar knows his own interests and has been pursuing them rationally as he defines them and according to his worldview. Subversion and anti-Americanism is his interest! The idea that US diplomats can show him where his best interests really lie is not diplomacy. To believe that one can show him the "true" nature of his interests is missionary work. Christian missionaries failed spectacularly in the ME and this approach will fail also.

What is amazing about Moustapha's statement isn't the substance: that much is old news to serious observers. What is striking is the "we don't give a damn" attitude, where Moustapha and the Syrians can make such statements and not care whether people will read them. The Syrians, like Pavlov's dog, have been trained that their actions and words have no consequences. They can have their cake and eat it too. They can kill, assassinate, support al-Qaeda and a myriad terrorist group (this is what Assad essentially said to Specter), and at the same time, people (like said Specter) will still say "we should talk to them," "they are serious about peace," "peace is in Syria's real interest," and "Syria really wants to be with the West" and other such silliness.

That, as Barry noted, was the amazing twist that "doubled consumption of the product." People see and hear only what they want to see and hear. The Syrians know this, have perfected the scam, and they play their interlocutors for fools. In fact, they don't even bother to cover their lies or conceal their threats anymore. To paraphrase caricature-thug Imad Moustapha's proverb: the lying murdering thugs live off the stupid and the insane.