Across the Bay

Friday, September 28, 2007

The Losing Ways of Thugs

I recently reiterated my long-held and often-stated belief that people are mistaken if they think that they could entice Assad with carrots to change his behavior in Lebanon. Instead, I wrote, "Assad thinks he can get it all in Lebanon, through blackmail, without budging from his intransigence." The Ghanem assassination was the bloody expression of this position.

Here's a good editorial in NOW Lebanon today that addresses the possible repercussions:

So this is what we have. A Syrian regime that everyone knows is behind the violence in Lebanon; that rejects even those offers it might turn to its advantage; that provokes instability in Iraq, the Palestinian areas, and other places; and that is plainly a major threat to the region. What on earth, then, is everyone supposed to do to stop this schoolyard bully?

The Syrians might ponder the inevitability of that question before slapping the wife again. The Israeli air attack against a Syrian military facility, while it was sold as the bombing of a nuclear site, remains obscure. But what wasn’t obscure at all was how virtually no government in the Arab world could muster even the slightest outrage with the attack. If it was against a nuclear site, then the Syrians are just pining for regional pariah status.
In other words, a retributive machine may have been set in motion that could, through a combination of US, European, and Arab annoyance with Damascus, do President Bashar Assad’s regime much harm.

Then there is the Hariri tribunal. Few doubt that the main Syrian goal in devastating Lebanon is to work out an “arrangement” with the international community on the tribunal. What Assad doesn’t get, however, is that the more he intimidates and murders Lebanese while ignoring UN resolutions asking Syria to respect Lebanon’s sovereignty and independence, the more everyone will see the tribunal as the only lasting source of leverage over Syria. Why? Because all other methods of bringing Syria into line have quite simply failed. So, rather than making the tribunal less likely, Assad is doing the precise opposite, much as the Syrian regime did when its allies’ efforts to thwart approval of the tribunal in Lebanon led to its endorsement under Chapter VII of the UN Charter.

If Assad is suicidal, then who are we to stop him? But, because we are like that beleaguered wife, we wish he would pause and think this through. The only way Syria’s regime will save itself is to turn into something worth saving. For now, it is confirming on a daily basis that it is worth terminating. Sooner or later the Arab world and the international community will discover what to do with Syria. And by then it may be too late for this impulsive Syrian leadership to avoid the worst.

For more on this theme, see these recent pieces by David Schenker: First, this report for the JCPA on Syria's role in regional destabilization. Second, this piece in the Weekly Standard on Bashar's chronically terrible track record:

Policies pursued by the Asad regime, particularly since 2003--from Iraq, to Lebanon, to the Palestinian Authority--have been highly provocative. Syria under Bashar has actively worked to undermine stability in four of five neighboring countries. And now, revelations about the Syrian nuclear program threaten to ignite a war with Israel.
While Bashar and his ruling Alawite clique retain hold on power, Syria's regional and international position has declined dramatically under his leadership. This has occurred not because Bashar departed from the problematic policies of his father, but rather, because these policies have been pursued without regard to changing regional and international dynamics. Hafiz Asad was no panacea, but he was cautious. His son Bashar is reckless.
Syria had been trucking with North Korea for some time, receiving technical assistance from Pyongyang on its missile and chemical weapons programs, drawing little international attention or sanction. But as with Hezbollah, Hamas, and Iraq, Bashar apparently went too far.

Finally, Dennis Ross explains what Israel gained from its strike against Syria:

Israeli military officials to whom I have spoken have become convinced that Syria's president, Bashar al Assad, has begun to believe that he could fight a limited war against Israel. Using as many as 20,000 rockets -- with some chemically armed as a reserve and a deterrent to prevent Israel from striking at the strategic underpinnings of his regime -- he appears, at least according to many in Israel's intelligence community, to believe he could fight a war on his terms. He was impressed by what Hezbollah did in the war with Israel in the summer of 2006 and believes he, too, could win by not losing in a limited war.

Israel has been looking for ways to convince Assad that he is miscalculating; that he will not be allowed to fight a war on his terms; and that he had better not play with fire. This summer, Israel has conducted military exercises designed not just to improve Israel's readiness but to convey a message to Assad. The raid not only blunts Syria's nuclear development but also reinforces the Israeli message of deterrence. In effect, it tells President Assad that Syria has few secrets it can keep from Israel. For a conspiratorial and paranoid regime, this is bound to keep its leaders preoccupied internally trying to figure out what Israel knows and doesn't know.

Beyond this, the raid sends the message that Israel can hit what it wants -- no matter how valuable and sensitive to the regime -- when it wants, and Syria is powerless to stop it. Here the silence from the Arab world, even if a function of Israel's silence, can provide small comfort to President Assad. No one in the Arab world much cares if Syria suffers blows to its prestige and losses to its military capabilities.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Irrationality, Iran and the Westphalian System

Lee Smith recently penned a sharp critique of the Walt-Mearsheimer rubbish.

In there, Lee makes an excellent point about Iran and the international system:

... IRI's project for the Middle East is a direct assault on the theoretical conceit on which Walt and Mearsheimer have built their careers.

In Iraq, Iranian assets are determined to tear Iraq to pieces; in Lebanon, Iran's client Hezbollah has created a state within a state; and in Gaza, the Iranian-funded Hamas has established an Islamic emirate that for now at least puts an end to any ideas about a Palestinian state. Iran is making a very cogent argument through force of arms and oil receipts that the international system of state sovereignty does not suit its rational self-interest. Why are Walt and Mearsheimer blind to the Iranian project for the Middle East? Because of the Israel lobby. The idea of Jewish power has made them irrational.

Read the whole thing.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

The Nationalism of Idiots

Once again Hazem Saghieh pens a superb piece (original Arabic here) slamming the insufferable insanity of Michel Aoun and his movement.

It's a really sharp, harsh piece, that nails the issue perfectly. After his piece the other day, which jabbed at Hezbollah (as well as Aoun), Saghieh came back blazing at Aoun.

The focus on Hezbollah, and its suspected complicity in the assassinations, has been evident in Lebanon since the attempt on Marwan Hamade, and then after the Tueni assassination, but has come out to the forefront with the Ghanem assassination when fingers were pointed at the airport security services, which are penetrated by Hezbollah.

Most striking were Jumblat's statements on Hezbollah in his weekly editorial yesterday. I will come back with a separate post and translate it for you. It's well worth the read.

He hit hard again today after the parliamentary session when he told reporters that, as he made clear in his editorial, he thinks "the accomplices who protect the Syrian and Iranian regimes are murderers, yes."

Jumblat accurately identified Hezbollah as a "company or brigade in the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps" and slammed the formula enshrined by the Syrians, in direct coordination with their allies in Iran, when they colonized Lebanon, and especially after 2000.

The formula was referred to by Jumblat as the "duality theory," which postulated "coordination" between the state and Hezbollah, which would remain parallel to the state. I had explained this construct, and its roots in the Iranian model, specifically the IRGC, here.

But Saghieh also touched on a very important issue in his piece, and that is the dangerous, if petty, delusion that underpins Aounism:

As a comment on the political Lebanonization that overcame the Sunnis in Lebanon after the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafic Hariri, the Aounists say that it's a passing event, because any transformation that happens in Syria to the benefit of the Sunnis will return Lebanese Sunnis to their old Arabism. This is an example of fortune-telling and it's inappropriate for him to call it a policy, especially since it includes transformations in the meaning of "Arabism" in its countries that have an impact on Lebanon. This is not to mention the fact that a Syrian transformation of this type might put the entire Mashreq before questions in which the positions of Lebanese sects become a passing detail. Meanwhile, the sane find it hard to believe that we can witness coexistence between this wariness about the Arabism to which the Sunnis of Lebanon "might" return, and an "understanding" that links the Aounists to an armed fundamentalist party like Hizbullah, which threatens the foundations of the political entity itself!

I had touched on this suicidal notion in my piece on Aoun in the Los Angeles Times, where I noted that the flip-side of this theory was long held by the Syrians' obedient lackey, Suleiman Frangieh: "Franjieh may envision a new alliance among Maronites, Shiites and the ruling Alawites in Syria."

This is one area of objective intersection between Aoun and the murderous sectarian Alawite family clique in Syria that makes him a rather useful, highly destructive, idiot for them and for Hezbollah (I've described Aoun's "understanding" with the latter as having little more value than toilet paper).

Needless to say, this is just suicidal lunacy (and the anti-Aoun Maronite vote in the Metn by-elections settled this, as observed at the time by Sateh Noureddine), or, to quote Saghieh, "a state of political idiocy that's rare to come across." But then again, this is precisely why Saghieh described Aounism as "the nationalism of idiots, a nationalism that prompts its followers to ally with the true danger to the country against false threats… to ally with the killer, against the killed."

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Brazen Gangsterism

Kudos to The Boston Globe's editorial page for nailing what the terrorist gangsters in Damascus are, and formulating it perfectly right:

Gangsterism on this scale may sound too brazen to be believable, but those familiar with the ways of the Syrian regime know otherwise. Before being killed, Rafik Hariri told friends that Assad threatened him in person, warning that if Hariri did not do Syria's bidding, Assad would break Lebanon over his head. The point of such crude methods is to use fear and intimidation to magnify the power of the ruling clique in Damascus.

Syria expert Eyal Zisser, writing in Yisrael Ha-Yom the other day after Ghanem's assassination, also put it well: Syria is trying to make its way back into Lebanon "corpse by corpse."

In response, one of the Lebanese leaders on Syria's death list, Walid Jumblat, told the terrorist killers in Syria:

Whatever the capacity of the Syrian regime and its allies for sabotage and criminality, we will not bow down. We will go democratically, peacefully to the election and we will say yes to a sovereign, free, independent Lebanon, just like when all the people of Lebanon stood on March 14, 2005. But we will not bow down. They had better not, those in Damascus or their allies in Lebanon, they had better not think we will bow down. They will not be able, even if they killed more MPs, to break the will of a free and proud people to live or bring it to its knees. It's impossible for a people that wants to live in freedom to bow down.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

No Equivalence

Hazem Saghieh's piece in al-Hayat today (al-Hayat's mediocre English translation is here) is worth reading as it demolishes the often-used contemptible and facile equivalence trope when discussing the murders perpetrated by the Syrian regime (something that is done by the regime's own media and flacks, as well as their allies, objective or actual, in Lebanon):

This all reveals a series of truths that are difficult to hide: There is in Lebanon today a growing populist language -- a product of eras of disgust, despair, and the feeling of a political dead-end -- which holds that politicians share equal responsibility of what is happening. That is incorrect, for those being killed are not in league with those benefiting from their diminishing number. This is not to defend March 14 but rather to emphasize that holding them accountable is contingent on the presence of a state, of laws, of borders and a monopoly on arms in the hands of legitimate authorities. As for the opponents of March 14, their damage affects the fundamentals, preventing what should be final from being finalized, thereby providing the politics of assassination with its tools and actual capability.

He also makes a good point in identifying the "cold, bureaucratic calculation of 'ideological' regimes" and movements in his discussion of the systematic annihilation of March 14 MPs, which is what I tried to show in my piece today in The Daily Star:

This alleged equivalence takes on another form as it camouflages the political sources of assassinations and murders. Leaving aside the mythical tendency amongst the Lebanese to exonerate themselves, this criminal tactic recalls a non-Lebanese condition. It is true that Lebanese made and fought a civil war and committed all kinds of atrocities and obscenities. Yet assassinations of the kind that befell Antoine Ghanem and those before him require the cold, bureaucratic calculation of 'ideological' regimes. For example, we note that conservative and traditional Arab regimes were not known for assassinations nor did they excel at car bombs and explosives. For Riad al-Solh, King Abdullah I of Jordan, Hazzah al-Majali, Nassib al-Metni, Kamel Mroueh and Wasfi al-Tal were slain either at the hands of 'ideological' parties and organzation or of military regimes also 'ideological' in their own way. Similarly, Lebanon's political conflicts, with the exception of the later episodes of the civil war, when militias became complete closed structures, did not know this method of settling disputes. Beshara al-Khoury never liquidated Emile Edde, nor did Fouad Shehab assassinate Camille Chamoun.

This underlines the fundamental contrast between the factions involved. This is what several local factions are trying to cover up; factions whose power and representation only drives the level of pessimism to that of despair. For how to live with strong mendacity that enjoys popular support?!

Read the whole thing.

Addendum: Also read Walid Choucair's piece (English translation here), which complements Hazem's. See especially this graph: "With each assassination targeting Lebanon, certain people - including those of the Lebanese opposition - are quick to highlight the state's and security forces' responsibility for exposing the perpetrators in a clever attempt to turn a blind eye to the intentions and goals of such operations. This comprises a campaign to turn people's attention away from bids to alter the balance of power through murder, to foster an acceptance of such methods and to acknowledge the murderer's supremacy over the entire political community. This implies a legitimization of murder as just another tool in politics - akin to casting a vote, to issuing a policy statement… or to forming alliances based on temporary convergences of interests."

See also a similar comment from Abdel Rahman al-Rashed in Asharq al-Awsat today: "The [parliamentary] minority... is, regrettably, killing its own political system, and is laying the foundation of their own targeting in the future by the same faction and others who see the ease with which they can settle demands through the language of crime.
It is a scandalous thing that will go down in history as a blot of shame against every single one of them." (Emphasis mine.)

Friday, September 21, 2007

The Meaning of Ghanem's Murder

Here's my latest in The Daily Star on the Syrian regime's assassination of Antoine Ghanem.

Read it in tandem with Michael Young's latest piece, which I posted earlier today, to get a full picture.

Addendum: The UN Undersecretary General for Legal Affairs Nicholas Michel said Friday that he "see[s] a link between the assassinations in Lebanon and the establishment of the international tribunal, because its establishment will put an end, through punishment, to those responsible for the assassinations." He added, "the tragic consequences of the crime confirms the need for putting an end to impunity through the establishment of the special tribunal with an international character for Lebanon."

Update: It seems that I am in agreement in my proposal with the position of the PSP's Wael Abu Faour.

Showdown in Lebanon

Michael Young has an excellent piece in today's WSJ on the Lebanese presidential elections and the Ghanem assassination. Michael outlines what's at stake:

The outcome will also help determine whether Syria can win an important round in a regional struggle pitting its alliance with Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas against a loose coalition of forces including the United States, the mainstream Sunni Arab regimes, and European states. Amid heightening polarization throughout the Middle East, a Syrian victory in Lebanon could also exacerbate simmering tensions elsewhere.

In fact, the election might conceivably not take place at all. Mr. Assad realizes that any successor to Mr. Lahoud who seeks to consolidate Lebanon's sovereignty would be a barrier to the revival of Syrian supremacy. Damascus's Lebanese allies, most significantly Hezbollah, agree.

Hezbollah, which presides over a semi-autonomous territory with a private army of its own, knows that only renewed Syrian sway over Lebanon would allow it to continue its struggle against Israel and the U.S. Iran backs Syria, both to keep alive Tehran's deterrence capability against Israel (thanks to the thousands of rockets it has supplied Hezbollah in south Lebanon), and because Syria is a vital partner in allowing Iran to expand its reach across the Middle East.
This election is not just about a president; it is also, for many of those involved, about existential issues. Hezbollah, a revolutionary, military party that feeds off conflict (or "resistance") to survive, has no place in a liberated, liberal, cosmopolitan country at peace with the world. Similarly, Syria's most prominent enemies -- the Sunni leader Saad Hariri, the Druze chieftain Walid Jumblatt and the Christian Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea -- all risk political and even physical elimination if Syria triumphs. Damascus, if it cannot impose its man or a cipher whose flimsiness would allow Syria to gain ground, will encourage its allies to create a political vacuum as leverage to subsequently push a favorite into office.

Syria is also waging an existential fight. The tribunal to convict those responsible for the assassination of Hariri has been approved under Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter, and several weeks ago the Dutch government agreed to locate the court in the Netherlands (the exact location as yet undecided). For Mr. Assad, whose regime is a prime suspect in the Hariri murder, the signs are ominous. By again bringing Lebanon under his authority, the Syrian president doubtless feels he can hamper the court's proceedings, perhaps until more favorable circumstances allow him to negotiate a deal similar to the one that got Libya's top leadership off the hook for the Lockerbie bombing in 1988, as well as that of a UTA French airliner in 1989.
That is why Mr. Assad might, after all, be more interested in holding a presidential election now, so Syrian allies in Beirut can gum up the tribunal's machinery before it's too late. In this scenario, Damascus would want a weak consensus candidate who stands somewhere in the middle. However, the nub of Syria's strategy could be to ensure that its comrades in Beirut, in collaboration with the Christian politician Michel Aoun, gain veto power in the government that will be formed after the election. That veto power -- plus a limp president and Syria's control over parliamentary procedure through the pro-Syrian parliament speaker -- would give Damascus substantial influence in Beirut, including over administrative decisions relating to the tribunal and to the implementation of the U.N. resolutions to disarm Hezbollah and maintain tranquility in the southern border area.

If Syria does prefer a president to a vacuum, this vulnerability must be exploited in coming weeks by those who want Lebanon fully freed of Syrian domination. Mr. Assad will play hardball, but he faces some heat. An Israeli air raid against Syria earlier this month, though reported to be directed against some sort of nuclear facility, may conceivably have been interpreted by Syria as an effort to intimidate it before Lebanon's election. In recent weeks, moreover, Saudi-Syrian hostility has escalated to unheard-of levels. Both King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt are fearful of Syria's close ties with Iran. For these two countries, a hegemonic, Islamist, Shiite Iran threatens their regional power and their Sunni-led regimes. This Sunni-Shiite rivalry happens to be playing itself out in Lebanon, where the results could have serious consequences for the Saudis and Egyptians.

The U.S. also knows the hazards of the Lebanese presidential election, and the Bush administration will not sign off on a president it regards as pro-Syrian. The difficult situation in Iraq, like Saudi- Syrian tensions, will probably make the administration tougher in opposing candidates it doesn't like. However, the European states -- France, Spain and Italy -- making up the bulk of the U.N. force in South Lebanon, worry that a void in Beirut might harm their soldiers. All have made it amply clear to Syria that it must change its ways in Lebanon, but they remain vulnerable on the ground, amid suspicion that Syria played a role, direct or indirect, in an attack last June that killed six troops of the Spanish U.N. contingent.

All sides, even Syria, would like to avoid a Lebanese vacuum at the end of November when Mr. Lahoud's time will be up -- if they can achieve their goals. The danger is that in the quest for compromise we might be heading toward a lowest common denominator on the presidency, thus giving Syria and its allies precisely what they want: a weak, ineffective president followed by a decisive advantage in any new government. That would only aggravate the current polarization in the country. Lebanon has the startling potential of becoming either the Middle East's salvation, or its nightmare. What happens here will have serious repercussions for what happens in the region as a whole.

Addendum: Here's what Walid Jumblat said after the funeral of Antoine Ghanem today:

"Whatever the capacity of the Syrian regime and its allies for sabotage and criminality, we will not bow down. We will go democratically, peacefully to the election and we will say yes for a sovereign, free, independent Lebanon, just like when all the people of Lebanon stood on March 14, 2005. But we will not bow down. They had better not, those in Damascus or their allies in Lebanon, they had better not think we will bow down. They will not be able, even if they killed more MPs, to bend the will of a free and proud people to live and bring it to its knees. It's impossible for a people that wants to live in freedom to bow down."

Addendum 2: See also Walid Jumblat explain the dangers of a so-called "compromise president."

Thursday, September 20, 2007

NYT Conveying Syrian Threats

Once again Hassan Fattah serves as a water carrier for the murderers in Damascus, conveying their threats to the Lebanese people, as well as to the international community, a day after the Syrian killers assassinated yet another March 14 MP:

Mahdi Dakhalallah, Syria’s former information minister, said in a telephone interview, “This could be destabilizing for Lebanon, Syria and the whole region.” He added, “I hope this event will be more reason for Lebanese to go and vote to elect a new president for national unity.” (Emphasis mine.)

Capisce? Unless the president we dictate comes to power, and does what we want, this will continue.

Now, we know that this is the nature of the terrorist murderers in Damascus. The question is, why is the New York Times acting as an outlet for their threats?

Addendum: Michael Young explains what "president for national unity" really means. Dakhlallah's statement (and other similar ones by other Syrian functionaries in the last couple of days, including in the mouthpieces al-Watan and al-Thawra) supports Young's thesis that the Syrians in fact don't want a vacuum; they want an election on their terms that would bring about an outcome favorable to them. They can't afford a vacuum with the tribunal moving forward.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

King of Comedy!

Numerous times on this blog I've addressed the issue of Syrian regime hands writing "analysis" which is not only unreliable and self-contradictory, but often reflecting official talking points in Damascus, if not misinformation part of the regime's information operations. I've documented some examples of this involving Sami Moubayed, and you can revisit them here and here.

Moubayed continues this "tradition." He's still trying to find a selling point for Fateh Islam (the group whose leader, who worked all his life for the Syrian proxy Fateh Intifada, was charged with planning terrorist attacks, was imprisoned for a mere two years -- well less than civil society activists, he was never handed over to the Jordanians who had also charged him and requested his extradition, instead he was released and dispatched to Lebanon into camps of the Syrian regime's proxies, which he took over without a peep of objection, and received political and material cover from Syrian proxies and allies in Lebanon after his attack on the Army, and received fighters and material through the Syrian border), and, in the midst of trying to add new spin, ends up contradicting and undermining the centerpiece of his own previous contentions and that of other regime hands.

Witness his latest gig:

Fatah al-Islam tried - and failed - to affiliate itself with al-Qaeda. That is the information from Beirut as interrogations continue with the arrested members of the terrorist organization that held the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp in north Lebanon hostage for over 100 days.

Fascinating! So they're not al-Qaeda after all. But then I recalled the following from one of Sami's previous comedy skits, when he was working the circuit in May, right when the fighting in Nahr al-Bared broke out:

The last thing Lebanon needed was an internal war between its armed forces and clandestine cells with links to al-Qaeda. ... Fatah al-Islam, or the new al-Qaeda as some are calling it, was established last November. (Emphasis mine.)

And then I remembered another exceptionally priceless gig he did about 10 days ago:

So fragile was the political scene that some even doubted whether the state would pull through this latest - very unexpected and untried - experience of combating radical, military Islam groups affiliated with al-Qaeda. ... Syria cannot afford the mushrooming of radical al-Qaeda-linked groups, either on its territory or in Lebanon, from where they can easily spill over into Syria. ... A few days earlier, Lebanese Army commander Michel Suleiman made similar remarks, saying that Fatah al-Islam was linked to al-Qaeda, not Syria. (Emphasis mine.)

Ahhh, good stuff!

So let's see: on May 22 and Sept. 5, Fateh al-Islam was al-Qaeda. On Sept. 15, it had never been part of al-Qaeda! Now what does that do to the idiotic parading of the Suleiman statement (which is as shallow and as pathetic an "analysis" as it gets), as did Moubayed's fellow regime court jester (but with nowhere near the comedic sense!)? That kinda undermines that claim, doesn't it? You know, that al-Qaeda, which adopts pretty much anything these days, did not adopt Fateh Islam.

Never mind. There's more great material here; the real purpose of the piece:

Other Saudis, however, with mixed affiliations between Fatah al-Islam and al-Qaeda, are operating from Lebanon.

One is Ahmad Merii, who was arrested by Lebanese authorities on charges of a terrorist bombing in Ain Alaq in Lebanon in 2006. He too was a liaison officer between the two terrorist organizations.

We won't tell Sami that Mer'i is not Saudi (or that he was not the one charged with the Ain Alaq bombing), but OK, we get it! The Syrian regime, since feeding Sy Hersh the New Yorker story about Fateh al-Islam (which Sami quotes in his Sept. 5 and July 20 pieces), before the fighting broke out, as part of their information warfare, has been just bending over backwards, with its usual "subtlety," to tell us that the "real" problem is Saudi Arabia and its client, Hariri. Sami's punchlines are always as "subtle" as the regime he works for, and they all have that distinct ring of "truth" to them (especially the bits about how Syria doesn't -- nay cannot! -- work with Islamic extremists, even when he himself has written the exact opposite), as I showed here in one of my homages to his comedic treasure.

So what's the shtick this time? Well, the punchline, if you pay close attention, is to turn an accusation against Syria into one against Saudi Arabia, whose relations with Syria are now in the sewer. How clever!

So Ahmad Mer'i is now the Saudi (wink wink!) liaison between Fateh al-Islam and al-Qaeda. He's no longer the liaison between Fateh al-Islam and the Syrian intelligence services as a number of reports have revealed.

But then I recalled this little item I spotted in July in the pro-Syria/Hezbollah/Iran rag al-Akhbar (i.e., not in the Saudi- or Hariri-financed papers):

أكّدت مصادر مطلعة على سير التحقيقات القضائية لـ«الأخبار» أن مرعي، الذي كان مطلوباً للقضاء اللبناني، كان قبل عام 2005 يتمتّع بتغطية سورية سمحت له بالبقاء حراً، بسبب علاقته ووالده بالمخابرات السورية في الشمال

Sources with knowledge of the ongoing investigation confirmed to al-Akhbar that Mer'i, who was wanted by the Lebanese judiciary, enjoyed before 2005 a Syrian cover that allowed him to remain free, because of his father's ties to Syrian intelligence in the north.

Also, just as Sami supposedly "solved" the Abssi issue, his piece came out right before the Lebanese Army arrested Fateh Islam's spokesman, the so-called Abu Salim Taha, whose real name is Muhammad Saleh Zawawi. Zawawi, according to the reports, came from the Yarmouk camp in Syria. In other words, he came from the bosom of Syrian intelligence services.

So let's recap: Fateh Islam now "failed" to be associated with al-Qaeda even when Sami had confirmed that it was "al-Qaeda-linked" and "affiliated with al-Qaeda" -- nay, "the new al-Qaeda."

And now, Ahmad Mer'i, whom the pro-Syrian al-Akhbar, quoting well-informed sources, admitted "enjoyed a Syrian cover" because his father worked for Syrian intelligence, and whom reports said that he was a liaison between the group and Syrian intelligence (which, given his and his family's history would be plausible) is now a Saudi liaison between Fateh Islam and al-Qaeda!

This should give one pause when reading these "analysts." And given the Sy Hersh experience, journalists should pay close attention when quoting these "analysts," so as not to end up being part of information operations by a terror-sponsoring regime, as Hersh was in the most extreme case.

Friday, September 14, 2007

The Dictator has no Clothes

The purported Israeli overflight in Syria, whether it actually targeted a missile base or factory, or an arms shipment to Hezbollah, uncovered Bashar's regime as it really is.

This, as Syria expert Eyal Zisser put it, is a complete and total embarrassment for Bashar. It makes all the bluster (the "half-men" speech, "we will liberate the Golan through all possible means," etc.) sound even emptier, and makes all the current threats ("wait for it, it will come in the right place at the right time," "the response will be tough," etc.) sound all the more pathetic (it even drew a chuckle from As'ad AbuKhalil of all people!).

Consider for instance, this pitiful comment, full of petrified bluster, by Syrian Ambassador to the UN, Bashar Jaafari:

"They were fleeing and in order to speed up the planes, they dropped the munitions," he told The Associated Press from New York.
Al-Jaafari said he had no further details on the incursion, but denied news reports Israeli troops had been inside Syria.

"This is absolutely not true," saying the reports were an attempt to show that Israel could land troops wherever it wants.

Syria appeared as it really is. This is its actual regional weight. It appeared impotent, without even a diplomatic response. Its complete isolation (both European and Arab) was on full display (not even the Arab League came to its aid), and its diplomats sounded and looked even more pathetic than they usually do.

Here's what Zisser said:

“In the short term, Syria looks like it’s getting back to normal. That’s what they are broadcasting. But the significance of getting back to normal is to erase all of the media and propaganda achievements that Syria got out of the Lebanon war; it’s to go back to a situation in which Syria stands by impotently and weak next to Israel,” said Eyal Zisser, an expert on Syria at Tel Aviv University’s Moshe Dayan Center for Near East and North African Studies, told Israel Radio.

“It’s as if we discovered Bashar’s bluff. He’s been threatening for a year. And suddenly something happens, and he’s helpless. That is significant. I don’t know how Bashar will digest this, and that is what the concern is.”

Zisser is right. It is because they have no weight, and because Bashar is a young hothead mesmerized by the Nasrallah cult and who has no concept of military engagement and defeat, they can do something dangerously foolish (naturally, it would involve other people's lands and lives). But given the Arab and international reaction (see here. Scroll down to the update), they had better think twice.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

How Berri Condemned Himself and his Allies

I just finished listening to Speaker Nabih Berri on LBCI. I was quite disappointed with the host's weak performance, and for not pushing Berri on several accounts.

For instance, Berri tried to say that the parliamentary majority had to concede the necessity of the two-thirds quorum for the election of a new president.

Berri knows that the constitution itself does not spell this out and that there is a good argument that it's unnecessary. What is true, however, is that in the past, common practice (what's called in Arabic 'urf) always had a two-thirds quorum at the sessions.

Knowing this, Berri tried to push his view by running through a list of the quorums of all the elections since Lebanon's independence. The point he wanted to make was that never in Lebanese history was there an election without that quorum.

The problem with this argument -- what the host missed here -- is that Berri just condemned himself and his colleagues in the so-called opposition. By showing that throughout Lebanese history, even during the war, and with the presence of three foreign armies (Palestinian, Syrian and Israeli), at least a two-thirds majority of Lebanese MPs always showed up for the election, regardless.

Not once, not even during the war, did a parliamentary bloc threaten to prevent a quorum unless it was able to impose its candidate of choice (thereby nullifying the process of the election itself). This did not happen even in 1982 when the Syrians threatened to kill MPs who went to participate in the session to elect Bashir Gemayel, whom the Syrians later assassinated (and then tried to assassinate the Sunni leader Saeb Salam who, despite the controversy around Gemayel's election, and the two figures' clashing visions, offered to open a new page with him and work with him. Salam later fled the country after the failed assassination attempt. Hariri wasn't as lucky. Furthermore, the Speaker at the time, Shiite leader Kamel As'ad, was threatened by the Syrians not to call parliament into session, but he did anyway. His house was subsequently attacked by RPGs. He was lucky as he only ended up paying a political price for it.)

In other words, by providing this data, Berri showed that he and his buddies have the dubious honor of being the first MPs in Lebanese history to behave this way. When Hezbollah is put to the democratic test, it shows its true colors.

To his credit, a non-Hezbollah Shiite, Ibrahim Shamseddine (son of the late cleric), made the most sense: "it's time for us to abide accurately by the constitution, and for parliament to elect a president out of several candidates, and not for a single president to be made outside parliament and then sent there. This is a critical and essential matter. ... The characteristic of a democratic system is that it allows the peaceful rotation of power, and the ruler is not eternal. Those who don't like an incoming president should wait until a new one is elected. Those who don't like a government can hold it accountable and change it in parliament. Those who don't like [the make up of] parliament can change it after 4 years."

But Berri made even more ominous statements, confirming every fear we've expressed about the "opposition's" intentions. Berri said that the new president (which, of course, is the one they impose -- after all, this is the purpose of his "initiative"), will bring with him his share of ministers in the new cabinet that would be formed after the election. Furthermore, Berri informed us, this cabinet (in which they would have veto power and maybe more) would proceed to review every decision made by the Seniora cabinet. And, echoing the recent statements by Hezbollah, Berri specified that one UNSC resolution in particular would be immediately trashed and that is UNSCR 1559.

This obsession with reviewing all the Seniora cabinet's decisions, and the fixation with 1559, just shows how Berri is totally susceptible to Hezbollah and Syrian pressure.

It doesn't get any clearer than this. This is the "opposition's" vision for Lebanon.

Update: NOW Lebanon's editorial addresses the same issue. Also, more commentary from Abu Kais.

Piling it on

It's interesting to see how the European stance towards Syria is remarkably similar to the Bush administration's position, which is supposedly "ideologically intransigent," as we're told by regime flacks and self-styled, latter-day pseudo "realists." We're now seeing the Europeans pile condition after condition before initiating dialogue with Syria. The bottom line is Syria has to pay up front. Furthermore, as I've said repeatedly on this blog, Lebanon is very much the litmus test. But the list of demands is growing even beyond that.

The French position on renewing dialogue with Syria is now for Syria to "play a positive role" in the Lebanese presidential elections (i.e., to quote Javier Solana, "the best way for Syria to help Lebanon is to let Lebanon do its job, and I think that the leaders of Syria must understand that.") by not blocking them through violence and assassinations, as FM Kouchner speficially spelled it out hinting at Syria: he hoped "the election will take place without any foreign interference, brutality or assassinations which often come from outside Lebanon" and, "We also hope that there will be no meddling in the country's presidential elections by either foreign or surrounding countries." (Moreover, one French source specified it even more: the president is to be choice of the parliamentary majority with the approval of the opposition). But there's an additional condition: Syria must play a positive role for regional stability, which it obviously is not doing. As such, the French spokesman said, "the conditions for visiting Syria are not yet there."

Other statements from the French and German leaderships specifically stressed UNSCR 1559 and 1701 as the basis. This is what both Sarkozy and Merkel have said, stressing the need to recognize Lebanon's sovereignty (code for UNSCR 1559, 1680, and 1701). In fact, when a German minister visited Syria recently, and even when she stressed to the Syrians the need to respect Lebanon's sovereignty, the visit caused quite a stir among German officials, both in the coalition and the opposition, denouncing the visit as irresponsible. The head of the parliamentary opposition said Germans were now paying the very people "who are torpedoing our efforts at stabilization."

The Italians, often seen as a weak spot, are on the same wave length.

D'Alema said that he told Sharaa that "we ask from Syria a very clear position on Lebanon's independence and sovereignty and (emphasis mine) we ask of it to participate positively in peace and stability in the region and the respect of Lebanon's independence.

Prodi for his part made a statement ahead of Sharaa's visit where he placed conditions on inviting Syria to the peace conference, that it should give "clear signals of commitment, goodwill, and openness to dialogue" which are currently lacking.

Addendum: The Maronite Patriarch Sfeir, who is visiting Italy and the Vatican, was asked what the Italian officials told Sharaa, who tried to preempt the Patriarch's visit (to sell the usual snake oil that Syria is the true guarantor and protector of Lebanese Christians, and thus it should get to nominate the president). He replied: "They made Syria understand that it should not interfere in Lebanese affairs and that it must respect Lebanon's sovereignty and independence, and that there should be reasonable relations between the two countries, that is relations between two neighboring countries who share certain interests."

Meanwhile the Saudis are not only not talking to the Syrians and recently had a very ugly public row with them (which I will come back to in a separate post), they even very publicly snubbed them by canceling a visit by Walid Moallem to Jeddah, which the Syrians publicized in advance as evidence of how relations with Saudi are "quite normal." (Side joke: One pathetically hilarious Imad Moustapha poodle tried to "prove" how my reading of Bashar's invitation to the Riyadh summit in March was "clearly wrong" by posting pictures of Arab leaders alongside Bashar! Clearly, that was airtight proof that the Saudis had buried the hatchet with Bashar! Yes, that clearly shows deep understanding of ME politics!)

And so you see what we've been saying all along: the Bush administration's position is hardly the exception. It's not ideological, and it's the mainstream policy across the board with important US allies (close to an international consensus, enshrined in UNSC resolutions). Syria with its terrorist policies is the problem.

Update: On a related note, a piece in The Jewish Week, commenting on the alleged Israeli overflight in Syria, notes: "The incident highlighted Syria’s isolation — few Arab states came to its defense — as well as a base of international understanding of Israel’s position." It goes on to quote an Israeli analyst: "I don’t see Javier Solana coming out and slamming Israel like he did in the worst days of the intifada. I don’t see the UN Security Council getting together and issuing a condemnation. This is something."

Indeed, AKI writes that the French FM Kouchner went further to express "understanding" for the operation, assuming it actually took place. It quotes him as saying: "if it is true that it was targeting weapons shipments being carried to Hezbollah, then we can understand the motive behind the operation. Everyone in Lebanon knows that large shipments of weapons cross the border from Syria."

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Deterrent Effect

Lee Smith examines President Bush's Executive Order in a piece for NOW Lebanon:

The point of the Executive Order dealing with Lebanon, says one former administration official who did not have clearance to go on the record, was to get it out sooner rather than later, before the presidential elections. “It was intended to have a deterrent effect, especially for people sitting on the fence and who might be tempted to go the other way.”

Nonetheless, a list of names is being assembled by the US Department of Treasury, which may be made public within the next couple of months. “The fact is,” says the official, “the Executive Order serves a purpose even if no one gets designated.”

Read the rest.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Gen. Petraeus Reports to Congress

RealClearPolitics has published Gen. Petraeus' report to Congress.

Specifically with regards to the role of Hezbollah, Iran and Syria, Gen. Petraeus echoed his earlier comments to al-Watan al-Arabi, which I translated here. Gen. Petraeus reported:

We have also disrupted Shia militia extremists, capturing the head and numerous other leaders of the Iranian-supported Special Groups, along with a senior Lebanese Hezbollah operative supporting Iran's activities in Iraq.
The fundamental source of the conflict in Iraq is competition among ethnic and sectarian communities for power and resources. This competition will take place, and its resolution is key to producing long-term stability in the new Iraq. The question is whether the competition takes place more - or less - violently. ... Foreign and home-grown terrorists, insurgents, militia extremists, and criminals all push the ethno-sectarian competition toward violence. Malign actions by Syria and, especially, by Iran fuel that violence.
In the past six months we have also targeted Shia militia extremists, capturing a number of senior leaders and fighters, as well as the deputy commander of Lebanese Hezbollah Department 2800, the organization created to support the training, arming, funding, and, in some cases, direction of the militia extremists by the Iranian Republican Guard Corps' Qods Force. These elements have assassinated and kidnapped Iraqi governmental leaders, killed and wounded our soldiers with advanced explosive devices provided by Iran, and indiscriminately rocketed civilians in the International Zone and elsewhere. It is increasingly apparent to both Coalition and Iraqi leaders that Iran, through the use of the Qods Force, seeks to turn the Iraqi Special Groups into a Hezbollah-like force to serve its interests and fight a proxy war against the Iraqi state and coalition forces in Iraq.
[N]one of us earlier this year appreciated the extent of Iranian involvement in Iraq, something about which we and Iraq's leaders all now have greater concern.
the findings of a 16 August Defense Intelligence Agency report on the implications of a rapid withdrawal of US forces from Iraq. Summarizing it in an unclassified fashion, it concludes that a rapid withdrawal would result in the further release of the strong centrifugal forces in Iraq and produce a number of dangerous results, including a high risk of disintegration of the Iraqi Security Forces; rapid deterioration of local security initiatives; Al Qaeda-Iraq regaining lost ground and freedom of maneuver; a marked increase in violence and further ethno-sectarian displacement and refugee flows; alliances of convenience by Iraqi groups with internal and external forces to gain advantages over their rivals; and exacerbation of already challenging regional dynamics, especially with respect to Iran.

Iran, in other words, is the major strategic threat. As Gen. Petraeus said to al-Watan al-Arabi, it is the long term threat. Iraq and US presence in that country are to be seen through that lens.

Addendum: Re-read this piece by Michael Young in Reason Magazine.

Badran vs. Regime Flack Landis

Here's a discussion about Syria on Radio Times (Listen to this show via Real Audio | mp3) with me and the Syrian regime's contemptible media flack, Landis.

Best quote from this dishonest agent of influence: "to say that the Syrian regime is a mafia racket is largely (sic!) ridiculous." :-)

Or was it the comparison of Syria to the statue of liberty? I'm not sure which is more pathetically hilarious.

It must be a great accomplishment for an American academic to be a spokesman and advocate for killers and terrorists.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

The Syria Connection

An interesting bit of information in a NYT report on the thwarted terror plot against US facilities in Germany:

[The interior minister of Bavaria] Mr. Beckstein said the nationality of some of the other suspects was still unclear, and two are only known by their aliases, making it impossible to know their origins or whereabouts. He declined to identify by name any of the suspects still at large but said that two other suspects were known to have spent time in Lebanon and Syria and that the detonators found in Tuesday’s raids had come from Syria.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Gen. Petraeus on Iran, Hezbollah and Syria in Iraq

Gen. David Petraeus gave an interview to the Arabic magazine al-Watan al-Arabi.

In it, he was asked about the role of Iran and Syria in Iraq. He replied that their role was not positive due to their interference in Iraqi affairs. Iran's goal, he pointed out, was apparently to turn a part of the Mahdi Army into an organization like Hezbollah (see this report Lieberman's recent op-ed). He added that most of these are suicide bombers who have caused tremendous suffering to the Iraqi people.

Here's my translation of the relevant sections of the interview:

Al-Qaeda in Iraq is the biggest direct threat to this country in the short term, and we must face this threat to secure Iraq.
There is growing awareness that the extremist militias supported by Iran, which target innocent civilians with rockets, mortars rounds, kidnappings, murder, blackmail and terror are the biggest danger in the long term on the Iraqi state, as these militias have the capability to become a militia similar to the Lebanese Hezbollah. In other words, forces that work for Iran which would lead to the destabilization of Iraq.
It seems that the Mahdi Army was affected by the long period of absence of its principle leaders -- including Muqtada Sadr -- in Iran, in addition to the targeting by the coalition forces of elements that are involved in sectarian killings, assassinations, kidnappings and the use of armor-piercing charges and rocket attacks against civilians, coalition and Iraqi troops. All Iraqis must be concerned about the elements that have been armed, trained, equipped, financed, and in some cases directed, by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps -- the Quds Force -- and these forces have caused huge and terrible violence and are not doing anything constructive.
The positions of Syria and Iran are not positive and that is in their interference in Iraqi affairs, where Iran supports extremist secret cells in the Mahdi Army militia as well as arming, training, equipping, financing, and sometimes directing these groups.

Iran uses another force subordinate to it, and that is the Lebanese Hezbollah forces, in order to help train the groups in Iraq. And due to their presence in Iraq, we were able to arrest the leader of secret groups and the deputy leader of elements belonging to the Lebanese Hezbollah, which were formed to help the Quds Force train Iraqis. These special cells are involved in rocket and mortar attacks, kidnappings, murder, and the use of armor-piercing charges against Iraqi troops, coalition troops, and Iraqi officials. It seems that Iran's goal is to turn a section of the Mahdi Army into an organization similar to Hezbollah that works inside Iraq, and this raises fears among many Iraqis.

As for Syria, it allows thousands of foreign fighters to cross through Damascus Airport, and this has created serious problems in Iraq. In truth, these [foreign fighters] are the majority of suicide bombers who have caused great suffering to the Iraqi people and horrible killing and torment.
Iran is trying to have a dominant role in Iraq, and is using its political and military power in order to expand its presence in the country. And as we mentioned before, Iran is trying to turn a part of the Mahdi Army into a militia like Hezbollah in order to dominate at least a part of Iraqi territory, and at the same time, the armed groups supported by Iran have tried to destabilize the Iraq government through campaigns of rocket and mortar attacks, murders and assassinations, kidnappings and terror.

Update: US troops arrested a man who works for Syrian intelligence during a raid against al-Qaeda networks in northwestern Iraq:

US forces declared in a statement yesterday that "Iraqi special forces, under the supervision of US advisors, dismantled an al-Qaeda cell and arrested six suspected terrorists during a raid at dawn on Monday in the region of Rubei'a (west of Mosul)" close to the border with Syria, according to the AFP.

The statement added, "the cell is responsible for a number of attacks against innocent civilians as well as attacks against the police and coalition troops, and financing terrorist attacks in the region." The statement asserted that "one of the terrorists arrested is tied to Syrian intelligence and receives money from it in order to support the insurgency in the country." The statement added, "the operation also led to the arrest of 40 suspects with ties to al-Qaeda in Iraq during a search of five houses."