A couple of months ago, my friend Nadim Shehadi made an interesting comment in one of this blog’s discussions about potential “solutions” to the Syrian crisis. I’ve been meaning to publish his contribution as a stand-alone commentary ever since, and I do so now with his permission. If developments in the intervening months have changed his views, I trust he’ll weigh in below.
Three Outcomes in Syria
Guest commentary by Nadim Shehadi
The word ‘solution’ is misleading because it implies that there is a problem and that it will be resolved and that the outcome would be ‘good’. I prefer the word ‘outcome’ because there are several and not all are ‘good’.
I can see three possible outcomes:
Outcome #1 is Iraq 1991-2003. I urge you to look up the statements from the period, as they are echoed by those we hear now about Syria. The outcome would be as follows: Assad is kept in power and allowed to crush the rebellion. There would be some protection of areas like the north and the south. Crippling sanctions would drive Syria back to the Stone Age. Occasionally there would be military strikes but they would be calibrated not to upset the balance. Colin Powell was the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the time and he wrote later that the US’s practical intention was to leave the regime in Baghdad with enough power to survive. So, in a nutshell the first outcome would be to keep Bashar in power, pretend to hit him from time to time, and severely punish the Syrian people for having disturbed the peace and stability we all so cherish.
Outcome #2 is, in a nutshell, something like the Dayton Agreement. Take a snapshot of the current balance of power on the ground and freeze it in an agreement. In Lebanon, a Dayton would have been the agreement between the militias in 1985 when the country was very neatly partitioned between the warlords. I recommend a visit to Sarajevo to listen to what the Bosnians think of the Dayton Agreement. When I was there in December I could understand very well when they said that what was implemented was based on reality at the very worst time in their history. They are not really like that but they have no options to return to a model of coexistence because the agreement sets very strict boundaries. So a Dayton in Syria would mean a conference where Bashar also remains in power and becomes the governor of the coastal region and there would be boundaries between the Alawite area, Druze area, Ismaili towns, Kurdish areas, tribal areas etc.
Outcome #3 is something like the Ta’if Agreement which means an abstract dysfunctional power-sharing agreement that would keep Syria as one state and one society but where the interests of all groups would be taken into account and no group would be able to take over and have absolute power. This is the internal element of Taif which was, in effect, reached as early as 1976.
The thirteen years that followed the entry of Syrian troops into Lebanon in 1976 produced the second part of Ta’if which included the mandate to ‘keep the peace’. In fact Assad is now asking for that second part of Ta’if in Syria itself where he remains in power or else all hell will break loose. It was hell in Lebanon, but it froze over when Assad was in charge. I am not talking about this part of Ta’if, as in Syria this would be the first outcome described above (i.e. Iraq 1991-2003).
So, outcome #3 would be without Assad, I know he will be missed especially in Washington, but there you are. One has to make sacrifices for peace. It would be a decentralized state, with no boundaries as such but with administrative measures that give locals the choice of shaping how they want to live with enough checks and balances to ensure that no single group will take over. Kurds will be Kurds, you would have topless beaches in Tartus and niqabs in parts of Raqqa and the country would be able to live uncomfortably with all these contradictions.
These very checks and balances would also paralyze the central government in times of crisis, but you can’t have it all and government would not really matter because it does not do much anyway. This will of course be declared to be a “temporary solution”. The model is pre-modern; everybody will hate it and Syrians can pay lip service to abolishing it. A minority will be foreign-funded to create ‘secular’ movements and all twenty of them can demonstrate outside the Syrian parliament demanding that the system be abolished.
Today’s attack on the Iranian embassy in Beirut recalls a similar bombing thirty years ago against the US embassy in the same city. There is no mystery concerning the identity of the bombers nor the meaning of the bomb. As Bashar presses his advantage across the border, Lebanon remains an opening field for supply chain wars, assassinations, and suicide bomb diplomacy. It will be interesting to see how the U.S. responds to the bombing, given the rapprochement track Obama has chosen with Tehran.
This is an open thread for discussion. Apologies for the long break between posts. It’s been extremely busy over the past month or so, and Lebanon has been blissfully quiet, until today.
Apologies for the long hiatus in posting. If you’d like to know what I’ve been up to, check out Brown University’s Conference on the Digital Humanities + Islamic & Middle East Studies, which is being held on October 24-25. There is a live webcast, which can be accessed via the conference website. I’ve posted the program below.
Next week, I’ll return to regular programming.
Thursday, October 24, 2013
8:30 – 9:00 am: Coffee and pastries
9:00 – 9:30 am: Welcome and opening remarks by Kevin McLaughlin (Dean of the Faculty) and Beshara Doumani (Director of Middle East Studies, Prof. of History)
9:30 – 10:45 am: Digital Ethnography | chair: Beshara Doumani (Brown)
- Peter McMurray (Harvard), “Berlin Islam as Acoustic Ecology: An Ethnography in Sound”
- Nadia Yaqub (UNC), “Working with Indigenous Digital Humanities Projects: The Case of the Mukhayyam al-Sumud al-Usturi Tal al-Za‘tar Facebook Group”
10:45 – 12:00 pm: Manuscript Visualization and Digitization | chair: Sue Alcock (Brown)
- Alex Brey (Bryn Mawr), “Quantifying the Qur’an”
- David Hollenberg (Univ. of Oregon), “Preserving Islamic Manuscripts Under Erasure: The Yemeni Manuscript Digitization Initiative”
12:00 – 1:00 pm: Lunch (registered participants)
1:00 – 2:45 pm: Text Mining | chair: Beatrice Gruendler (Yale)
- Maxim Romanov (Tufts), “Abstract Models for Islamic History”
- Guy Burak (NYU library), “Comparing Canons: Examining Two 17th-century FatawaCollections from the Ottoman Lands”
- Kirill Dmitriev (St. Andrews), “Arab Cultural Semantics in Transition”
2:45 – 4:00 pm: Databases | chair: Elli Mylonas (Brown)
- Sebastian Günther (Göttingen), “A Database & Handbook of Classical Islamic Pedagogy”
- Will Hanley (FSU), “Prosop: A Social Networking Tool for the Past”
4:00 – 4:15 pm: Coffee break
4:15 – 5:30 pm: Mapping | chair: Sheila Bonde (Brown)
- Till Grallert (Freie Univ. Berlin), “Mapping the Urban Landscape through News Reports: Damascus and its Hinterlands in Late Ottoman Times”
- Meredith Quinn (Harvard), “Putting Middle East and Islamic Studies On the Map”
5:30 – 6:45 pm: Reception, Watson Institute lobby
7:00 pm: Dinner for speakers, chairs, and invited guests at Faculty Club (1 Magee St.)
Friday, October 25, 2013
8:30 – 9:00 am: Coffee and pastries
9:00 – 10:15 am: Digitization and E-Publication | chair: Ian Straughn (Brown)
- Dagmar Riedel (Columbia Univ.), “Manuscripts and Printed Books in Arabic Script in the Age of the E-Book: The Challenges of Digitization”
- Chip Rossetti (Managing Editor, LAL), “Al-Kindi on the Kindle: The Library of Arabic Literature and the Challenges of Publishing Bilingual Arabic-English Books”
10:15 – 11:30 am: Disciplinary and Theoretical Considerations | chair: Elias Muhanna (Brown)
- Afsaneh Najmabadi (Harvard), “Making (Up) an Archive: What Could Writing History Look Like in a Digital Age?”
- Travis Zadeh (Haverford), “Uncertainty and the Archive: Reflections on Medieval Arabic and Persian Book Culture in the Digital Age”
11:30 am – 12:30: Keynote address by Dr. Dwight Reynolds (UCSB): “From Basmati Rice to the Bani Hilal: Digital Archives and Public Humanities”
12:30 – 2:00 pm: Roundtable discussion over lunch (registered participants)
Over the past few decades, humanistic inquiry has been problematized and invigorated by technological advances and the concomitant emergence of what is referred to as the digital humanities. Across multiple disciplines, from history to literature, religious studies to philosophy, archaeology to music, scholars are tapping the extraordinary power of digital technologies to preserve, curate, analyze, visualize, and reconstruct their research objects.
The humanistic study of the Middle East and the broader Islamic world has been no less impacted by this new paradigm. Scholars are making daily use of digital tools and repositories including private and state-sponsored archives of textual sources, digitized manuscript collections, densitometrical imaging, visualization and modeling software, and various forms of data mining and analysis. However, there have been few calls to bring researchers together to showcase their experiments in digital humanistic scholarship within their respective fields, or to discuss the opportunities and challenges engendered by this changing scholarly ecosystem.
With this in mind, Middle East Studies at Brown University – with the support of the Brown Humanities Initiative – is pleased to announce a pioneering conference on October 24-25 2013 that will explore the state of the art in digital scholarship pertaining to Islamic & Middle East Studies. Some of the guiding questions we are interested in include:
(1) Where are the most important digitization projects of historical sources in Arabic, Persian, Turkish, and other languages taking place around the world?
(2) What kinds of digital technologies and methodologies have proven most fruitful for scholars in different disciplines (e.g. data mining, pattern recognition, social network analysis, etc.)?
(3) How are existing technologies challenged by the manipulation of data in non-Western languages, and what are the most significant technological desiderata for researchers?
(4) As digital tools and media become more widespread, what ethical issues relating to privacy and human consent must be carefully considered, particularly in projects involving contemporary political and social issues?
We are happy to welcome as our keynote speaker Dr. Dwight Reynolds (Professor of Religious Studies, UCSB), who is among many other things the architect of the Sirat Bani Hilal Digital Archive, “an open access resource for the preservation and dissemination of audio recordings, written texts, photographic images and other materials related to the Epic of the Bani Hilal Tribe,” a thousand-year-old epic poem. The conference will be webcast and several papers may be selected for publication in an edited volume.
Dr. Hanan Ashrawi, the noted Palestinian leader, scholar, and activist will be speaking at Brown University this afternoon on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the Oslo Accords. Dr. Ashrawi is one of the most eloquent and widely respected advocates for Palestinian rights and for a just solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict. I highly recommend tuning in to watch her talk at 4:00PM EST.
The link for the live webcast can be found here, and I’ve pasted the press release for the event below.
Hanan Ashrawi, the Palestinian leader, legislator and activist, will visit Brown University Sept. 25 and 26, 2013, to deliver a lecture and take part in a panel discussion as part of the “Oslo is Dead; Long Live Oslo” series offered by the Program in Middles East Studies. The lecture and discussion are free and open to the public and will be streamed live online.
PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — Palestinian leader, legislator, and activist Hanan Ashrawi will visit Brown University Sept. 25 and 26, 2013, to kick off a series of events organized by the Middle East Studies Initiative marking the 20th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Principles on the White House lawn. All events in the series, “Oslo is Dead; Long Live Oslo,” are free and open to the public.
On Wednesday, Sept. 25, Ashrawi will deliver a lecture titled “Process Versus Peace,” which will examine how the process took over to displace peace as an objective. A participant and close observer, Ashrawi will present what she sees as the structural, procedural, and substantive flaws inherent in the “peace process” that has been the center of the U.S. policy in the Middle East following the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993. She will also suggest a framework that could lead to a resolution of the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Ashrawi’s lecture will take place at 4 p.m. in the Salomon Center for Teaching, De Ciccio Family Auditorium. It is free and open to the public and will be streamed live on the Brown website.
On Thursday, Sept. 26, Ashrawi will take part in a panel discussion titled “After Oslo: Critical Conversations on Palestine/Israel,” which will bring together Brown faculty to talk about lessons learned from the Oslo experience. That event will take place at 4 p.m. at the Watson Institute for International Studies, Joukowsky Forum. It is free and open to the public and will be streamed live.
Both events are part of a larger year-long series, “Oslo is Dead; Long Live Oslo,” hosted by the Middle East Studies Initiative, that is organized around the 20th anniversary of the Oslo signing and seek to examine the peace process — what has changed on the ground since the signing and what the possible future of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict may be. The series will include another “Critical Conversation” panel in the spring and a major international conference “New Directions in Palestinian Studies.”
These public events will be supplemented by several courses on the Israeli-Palestinian issue, including a new seminar by Beshara Doumani, director of Middle East studies, on the history of Palestinians and the Arab-Israeli conflict, to be offered in the Spring 2014 semester.
“Ever since Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization signed the Declaration of Principles on the White House Lawn under the watchful gaze of President Clinton in 1993, the ‘Peace Process’ became a household phrase and the centerpiece of U.S. policy in the Middle East,” Douomani said. “The Oslo Accords, as it has become known, has led nowhere, and the lack of progress threatens to drive the region into another major cycle of violence and war. There is perhaps no better place than the University campus for a frank and informed discussion about what happened to the ‘Peace Process’ and where we are going.”
Information on these events can be found on the Middle East Studies website.
Sharmine Narwani and Radwan Mortada published an investigative piece on Narwani’s blog for Al-Akhbar English yesterday, which raises doubts about the UN chemical weapons (CW) report on Syria. I think they do a worthy job of pointing out the investigators’ indebtedness to rebel-friendly tour guides on the inspection dates (which the report also mentions), but the most potentially damaging element of their piece is the question they raise about where sarin was deployed in the area and the delivery mechanisms used.
Looking closely at the UN report’s Appendix 7, Narwani and Mortada argue that one of the sites surveyed shows a very high exposure to sarin among its residents but not a single environmental sample that demonstrated exposure to the gas:
There is not a single environmental sample in Moadamiyah that tested positive for Sarin. This is a critical piece of information. These samples were taken from “impact sites and surrounding areas” identified by numerous parties, not just random areas in the town. Furthermore, in Moadamiyah, the environmental samples were taken five days after the reported CW attack, whereas in Ein Tarma and Zamalka – where many samples tested positive for Sarin – UN investigators collected those samples seven and eight days post-attack, when degradation of chemical agents could have been more pronounced. Yet it is in Moadamiyah where alleged victims of a CW attack tested highest for Sarin exposure, with a positive result of 93% and 100% (the discrepancy in those numbers is due to different labs testing the same samples). In Zamalka, the results were 85% and 91%.
It is scientifically improbable that survivors would test that highly for exposure to Sarin without a single trace of environmental evidence testing positive for the chemical agent.
I have no way to verify this claim, but it has the virtue of sounding reasonable. On the other hand, when we look closely at the Appendix they are drawing this conclusion from, it turns out that while none of the 13 Moadamiyah environmental samples tested positive for sarin, five of them did test positive for either isopropyl methylphosphonate (IPMPA) or diisopropyl methylphosphonate (DIMP), the chemical substances that sarin degrades into.
So here’s a question: does anything else degrade into IPMPA or DIMP?
The author of the Moon of Alabama blog (which was the first to raise doubts about Appendix 7, a few days before Narwani-Mortada published their post) argues in a comment to a doubting reader:
A few “degradation and by-products” in some four probes out of thirteen could be anything. None of the probes has a CW agent while the probes taken later at a different place finds CW agents. Byproducts of organophosphate degradations are the same as from some fertilizer or some solid rocket fuels. They do NOT point to CW agents.
Is this true? I don’t know. This article in The Guardian argues that isopropyl methylphosphonic acid is considered “proof positive for sarin”. Maybe someone can confirm this for me. This would be an important step to determine whether Narwani and Mortada are justified in arguing that “there was no Sarin CW attack in Moadamiyah. There can’t have been – according to this environmental data.”
The next section in the post tries to raise questions about human testing, which is puzzling because the chief witness they call confirms that sarin was “clearly used,” perhaps alongside other unknown substances. The final section of the post addresses the question of rocket trajectories, which has formed the basis of the conviction among most Western analysts that the sarin was delivered by rockets that the rebels would not have had access to, from a location occupied by regime forces.
Here, Narwani and Mortada argue that one of the two impact sites that the UN felt could be used to judge rocket trajectories should be immediately discarded (i.e. Moadamiyah) because the rocket “was not found to have traces of Sarin, and is therefore not part of any alleged CW attack.”
But Appendix 7 shows that two samples taken of metal fragments in Moadamiyah tested positive for the trace chemical that sarin degrades into. Am I missing something? It seems to me that the UN covered its bases quite thoroughly by pointing out that the rockets could have been moved and the impact sites tampered with prior to their arrival, so we should be cautious about what conclusions to draw. But surely an alternative explanation would require a much greater burden of proof, given the contamination of the 330mm rocket in Ein Tarma.
This post is not meant to be a take-down of the Akhbar piece, just a request for some crowd-sourced clarification. If anyone at the UN would like to get in touch to comment on the report, send me an email via the contact page.
I taped a segment this weekend on Al-Jazeera’s Inside Syria program, along with Dr. Saleh Mubarak of the Syrian National Council and Anna Therese Day, author of the Daily Beast exclusive “Dining with Al Qaeda“ . You can watch the show below, or read a synopsis here.
There’s been some speculation in the press this week about what a possible thaw in US-Iranian diplomatic relations (the product, no doubt, of an extensive public relations campaign) might mean for several big-picture issues, such as Iran’s nuclear program and the threat of an American strike, the territorial and strategic balance of power in the Persian Gulf, the Arab-Israeli conflict, and so on.
Syria is part of the discussion but it’s not clear what Iran can deliver on this front, assuming that the negotiations on the larger and more complex issues develop productively. Last week, I argued at a teach-in we held at Brown that if the Obama administration is serious about a political solution to the Syrian crisis (or a “political outcome,” as my friend Nadim Shehadi puts it), then the US should be talking to the Iranians, not the Russians. Unlike Moscow, Tehran has an enormous strategic, financial, and military investment in its alliance with Bashar al-Assad, and so has more to lose from the current state of affairs.
Iran exerts considerable leverage over its client, but having leverage means little without a workable political settlement in view. What can Iran actually deliver? A couple weeks ago, we had a debate in the comment section about what a Syrian Ta’if Accord might look like, once the principal combatants agreed to lay down their arms. Very few readers could see their way to such an agreement in the near term, citing geopolitical factors as the main obstacle.
But if the geopolitical environment is looking more amenable to a regional agreement over Syria’s fate — what with Iranian smoke signals and White House pen pal letters — it’s worth asking the question again: What kind of agreement by outside powers can be imposed effectively in Syria, in the way that Ta’if (for all its warts) managed to end Lebanon’s Civil War and has kept the peace for nearly a quarter century?
Steve Walt believes that “the most one could hope for is an agreement that imposed a cease-fire, acknowledged the de facto partition of Syrian territory into government and opposition zones, began negotiations on some sort of power-sharing arrangement, and maybe got outside powers to reduce their support for their various clients.” My regime contacts’ views on what a potential compromise should involve envision a more ambitious process.
If we take Walt’s more limited position as a base line, could Iran help broker such an agreement? Would they commit troops to enforcing a ceasefire, or lend support to a UNIFIL-type force to do the job? Do they have the leverage to force Assad to step down and sponsor a new power-sharing arrangement in Syria? At this point, it may not even be sensical to speak about a “political solution” in Syria without some form of military involvement to enforce it, just as Syria enforced the Ta’if Agreement in Lebanon.
And, of course, assuming one can even separate the Syrian file from all the larger issues involved, how to square the Resistance/Hizbullah circle? Rouhani is in no position to sacrifice a major strategic asset in the service of better relations with the United States. Unless, of course, the Arab-Israeli conflict is solved in the process.
Surely that’s what President Obama’s plan was all along.
I’ll be joining three of my colleagues at Brown this evening at 5:00 PM EST to discuss the situation in Syria. The audience will likely be a mix of students, faculty, and members of the community, and we hope to have a lively discussion afterwards. The event will be live-cast on the Brown University website, so those of you inclined to watch can tune in here.
If your connection is not strong enough to watch the webcast, I’ll be tweeting some of the talking points during the event (@qifanabki).
Last week, I asked readers to contribute their own views on a political solution in Syria, and promised to feature some of them in a subsequent post. As the Obama administration cracks heads and bends ears on Capitol Hill (with the help of a legion of AIPAC lobbyists) in the hope of winning Congressional approval for what must be the most anti-climatic military strike in the history of the world, why would anyone bother debating political solutions?
There’s no question that this debate has already been going for a long time in Washington and other capitals, but very few government officials have been willing to speak publicly or even anonymously about what kinds of scenarios are envisioned. This is interesting, given the insistence of the Obama administration, the EU, Russia, Iran, and China that the Syrian crisis cannot be solved militarily. Here are some informed speculations about the alternatives:
Ben Ryan said:
The initial question here was about a political solution, so I will try and address that. That’s a hard one, but not obviously harder than a military solution, at least from an American perspective. We have stated clearly that we will not try to topple the regime, we have demonstrated clearly that we will not try to stop or significantly slow the violence itself, and “punishing” Assad for using chemical weapons is neither here nor there. He wouldn’t have done it if he didn’t feel he had to, and short of credible threats to topple him or destroy his stockpile (which we won’t, and probably can’t, respectively) we won’t deter him if he feels he has to in the future.
(By the way, I’m assuming for this discussion that the preferred outcome of a political solution is the removal of Assad, the prevention of the ascendance of Jabhat al-Nusra or other such groups, and the reform of the regime under a new civilian democratic system.)
So, politics. How do you bring the sides to the table? Turkey, Qatar, KSA, Jordan and the U.S. (and others variably linked to these parties) are all aiding the rebels. Russia and Iran (and others etc.) are aiding Syria. Removing their external supporters would force either side to have to negotiate a political settlement, and absent that they can keep fighting. The disagreements between the external supporters are also less existential, so we should look to an agreement between them to begin a political solution.
In this context, the recent use of chemical weapons may be a boon to negotiators. Rouhani’s response – condemning CW use and urging “the international community” to do whatever is necessary to prevent their use, “especially in Syria” – would seem to indicate some flexibility on Iran’s part in their support for Assad. Yes, Iran’s president does not make the key foreign policy decisions and yes losing their only consistent Arab ally is a big deal, but 1) Rouhani does not strike me as the Ahmadinejad or even Khatami type, to excessively freelance in his public statements without considering Khamenei and the IRGC, and 2) this conflict is embarrassing and costly for them. I suspect they would be willing to entertain solutions that don’t involve keeping Assad if they can have a hand in shaping who does come to power.
Russia has indicated no such flexibility so far, in part because this conflict is less costly and embarrassing for them. But it is also less important for their geopolitical position than for Iran’s to keep Assad himself in power. If Assad falls precipitously they lose a friend in the region, but they also almost certainly lose their investments (material and strategic) in that naval base in Tartous. Here again the use of chemical weapons – and the suspense around the U.S. response – may help. If the U.S. gets involved militarily, that could be a huge headache for us. But as we’ve seen in Iraq, that doesn’t have to mean it’s not a huge headache for everyone else, too. Could there be chemical weapons depots at that naval base in Tartous? Entirely possible! Might get bombed as part of the “punishment,” who’s to say? Russia might be willing to talk turkey with Assad on a political solution and peaceful exit if they have some confidence that they will retain certain rights and influence around that naval base with whoever comes in to power afterward.
I think a “bi-partisan” coalition of external powers backing a “national-unity” committee or coalition on the ground is achievable. The national-unity committee signs a basic cease-fire agreement between the government and moderate/secular opposition groups to begin the process of ending the violence. Not everyone will agree – you’ll have pro-government militias, Islamist rebels, and secular rebels who all refuse to lay down arms and will have to be fought or bargained with – but you’ll have started, and if the external actors stick together peace will snowball.
There are lots of tricky details left – reconciliation commissions, resettlement of refugees, a new constitution and transitional government measures. I am embarrassed about how much I’m hand waving right now, but 1) it was hard enough to get us to this point and 2) I’ve got to get to work.
The political solution that ended the Lebanese war saw a state being given the custody of “peace” in the region for the next decades. That state was Syria. The penetration by Iran — one of the candidates in the race for regional hegemony — into the pivotal Syrian state, has made that status not longer valid for the other side.
Which one of the concerned states will be given the custody of the region for the near future? That is the question that needs to be answered, and the “political solution” will only be a translation of which warring side showed the biggest resilience (translate: which one cared less for the number of dead and mutilated, especially on the other side.) One point has been won, though, by the “West”: Syria won’t have any meaning regional role in the near future, and that does take a joker from the hands of the Resistance team.
[I fear] that it will take many many more lives, displaced, destruction, before a “winner” materializes. It wont probably take as long as the Lebanese war, but it will bring even more destruction and pain. And if the history of the recent past tells us anything, at the end, there won’t be a “winner takes it all” solution.
Unlike the Lebanese war, though, this one will constantly threaten regional peace and stability, even the structures of surrounding states could be put in jeopardy. After all, that was the reason why the Assads were treated with so much patience to start with: their throne was a wasps nest, everyone knew, and everyone was reluctant to touch it.
What were the ingredients for the success of Ta’if [i.e. the agreement that ended the Lebanese Civil War]?
- Syrian boots on the ground
- Saudi, Syrian, American and Iranian converging interests
- Utter fatigue after 15 years of civil war in Lebanon
Which of these ingredients is there today? None whatsoever.
- There will not be a player in Syria that is willing to do Syria’s job in Lebanon.
- There is no convergence of interests and there is not likely to be one because of the essential part Syria plays in the “axis of resistance”. Any solution will have to determine Syria’s geopolitical stance. Neutrality would not be accepted by the Iranians and the West and KSA will not accept Syria remaining in the axis. On another dimension, the Turks and much of the Syrian opposition will not accept a solution where religious parties are not allowed. The regime supporters would rather burn Syria than allow religious parties.
- The sides still look raring to fight.
So let’s not waste time discussing a possible political solution just yet.
Sam Adams the Dog said:
The only way forward to a political solution that i can see would be an alliance between Assad and the liberal secularists to allow broader representation, sharing of power, and protection of the rights of minority as well as majority confessions. In other words, an agreement to move toward the kinds of liberal reforms that were the goals of the demonstrations that were so ruthlessly suppressed in 2011. Civil war and repression would continue against the Islamic extremist factions, but said extremists would then be isolated. But it seems to me that this would offer the best, though still slim, hope for something better than the utter destruction or fragmentation of Syria. Such an agreement could imaginably be supported by the West as well as the Russians. I’m less sure about the Saudis and the Qataris.
To close, and by way of keeping up the momentum of the discussion, here are two excellent pieces by Steve Walt about the strategic incoherence of military strikes and the way forward toward an imaginative diplomatic solution.
My dear friend Sean Lee has written a great “open letter on Syria to Western narcissists” over at his blog, The Human Province, later picked up by The Huffington Post. He scratches an itch that’s been bugging me for years. Read it.
The other piece to read this morning is Bassam Haddad’s interview with Democracy Now, which makes the case that American intervention in Syria would be disastrous. Bassam has argued from the start that a political solution is the only way to end the civil war:
The only solution to this is something that is akin to a political solution where the serious international actors, the ones that are powerful, can come together force—literally force—the local players on all sides to actually come together and find a political solution. There is no other solution. There is no military solution to this. And the more dangerous that the chemical weapons that President Obama is discussing is the more reason to actually push for a serious political solution. One wonders, however, if that is indeed desired, as far as desired by these powerful actors, including the United States, and especially the United States.
When I was in Lebanon earlier this month, I must have heard the phrase “Syria needs its own Ta’if Accord… nothing else will end the war” about two dozen times from people on both sides of the conflict. Isn’t it ironic that Ta’if — the long suffering scapegoat of Lebanese politics — is now begrudgingly seen for what it is: a remarkably resilient political solution that has kept the peace in a post-Civil War state for nearly two and a half decades…
To oppose intervention and call for a political solution is reasonable enough, but where does one start? A couple months ago, I wrote a piece that attempted to lay out the terms of a political solution as envisioned by the regime side. I’d be curious to hear the readership’s views on what kind of political solution they would push for, if they had President Obama’s ear for ten minutes in the Oval Office, just before he heads down to the Situation Room to order the first set of missile strikes. If the conversation yields something interesting or surprising, I’ll sift through the best comments and re-post them.
The floor is open.
As the United States prepares for a likely military strike on Syria, speculation about the timing and extent of the operation is the topic de jour. Lucky for you, the political team here at The Qnion has received the transcript of a closed-door press briefing attended by White House Press Secretary Jay Carney and a select group of journalists from major media outlets.
[Classified: Off the Record and Not for Public Circulation]
White House Press Secretary Carney: Alright everyone… I think we’re ready to start. [Inaudible... laughter and background noise.] Thank you all for showing up on such short notice. Obviously the situation is developing very quickly so we’d like to get the information out to you in a timely manner. I’ve just come from a meeting in the Situation Room, and have some important updates.
First, as we have stated on multiple occasions, the government of the United States condemns in the strongest terms the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime. We consider this to be a violation of international norms, and continue to support the efforts of the United Nations on the ground in Syria. As you know, the President has decided that these efforts are not sufficient, and is now considering options for decisive and uncompromising military action.
[Raised voices, lots of inaudible questions]
Reporter: What kind of military options?
Jay Carney: I’m glad you asked, Jim. Obviously, it is not in the interests of the United States to share sensitive details about military operations. We reserve the right to strike anywhere in Syria so as to punish the regime for its reprehensible and brutal attacks on its own people.
Having said that, we’re primarily considering two sets of Tomahawk missile strikes (between 8 and 11) launched by the USS Mahan and the USS Gravely against a set of military bases in the Syrian desert, including but not limited to… [ruffles some papers]… and let me see if I can get these names right: the Marj Ruhayyil Military Airbase, Al-Nayrab Military Airbase, the Suwayda Army Base, the Marj al-Sultan Military Heliport… Wait, no scratch that. My bad. The heliport is not under consideration. I mean, it may or may not be under consideration. Let’s see, where were we? Oh, also the Shayrat Military Airbase and the Khalkh… you know what, I’m not even going to try to pronounce that one.
We’ve put together a list of the potential targets that you can pick up on your way out, along with geographical coordinates and correct spelling, and so on, just to facilitate things.
Reporter: How soon can we expect the strikes to begin?
Jay Carney: Again, we’re not in the business of revealing sensitive information, Judy. All I can tell you is that we may or may not strike the potential targets during the hours of 21:00 and 23:00 on Friday August 30th, and again between 15:00 and 17:00 on Saturday the 31st. Please note that we’re talking about the Damascus time zone, which is GMT +2. I know that can be confusing.
Anyway, after the strikes which may or may not take place between those hours, we may or may not launch a surprise follow-up attack again the following week on Monday morning between 10:30-11:00 am, depending on the situation on the ground.
[Eruption of questions]
Jay Carney: No, I’m afraid we just can’t discuss any details. However, the Obama Administration would like to emphasize and assure the brave Syrian people that they are not the targets of these highly surgical strikes. Only people and military equipment that happen to be in the vicinity of those areas during those limited time frames that I mentioned may or may not be potentially targeted. The Assad regime should consider that a warning.
Reporter: Are you hoping that these strikes will bring down the Assad regime?
Jay Carney: I’m really glad you asked that, Bill. This may come as a surprise to you, but we are not, repeat not, envisioning any regime change scenarios, despite the decisiveness with which we may or may not strike. We, in fact, have several contingencies in place to modify the proposed operation in case regime collapse looks imminent. This is why we are being so deliberate and careful.
Jay Carney: Now I can see a lot of hands in the air, but I’m not at liberty to say anymore, lest we compromise the integrity of the mission. Thanks very much for coming, everybody. On your way out, don’t forget to pick up the handout that summarizes all the information I’ve given you and includes a few more details like the military assets under attack on the potential sites that I mentioned. Also, to repeat: Damascus is seven hours ahead of Washington. GMT +2. I know I already said that, but it’s an easy thing to overlook.
Ok, everyone. More soon.
Whenever a bomb explodes in Lebanon, conversations both public and private revolve around an old parlor game that we might call: “Motives & Mysteries”. For those unfamiliar with the genre, here’s a snippet:
Abu Michel: Terrible, the news from Tripoli.
Abu Samir: Just awful.
Abu Michel: A bunch of jihadi dogs and salafist mercenaries. I hope the Resistance hunts each of them down and strings them up.
Abu Samir: My dear fellow, do you realize that the bombs targeted Sunni mosques?
Abu Michel: So?
Abu Samir: So, it obviously wasn’t the work of salafists. Why would they kill other Sunnis? It had to be Hizbullah.
Abu Michel: Nonsense.
Abu Samir: Payback for the Dahiyeh explosion. Sending a signal to al-Assir’s boys and the other militant Sunni factions that they won’t be pushed around.
Abu Michel: That’s ludicrous. Hizbullah has no motivation to inflame sectarian tensions. The Tripoli operation was obviously carried out by someone who had an interest in emboldening Sunnis to take revenge against Hizbullah.
Abu Samir: That’s what Hizbullah wants you to think. They struck back at the salafists, knowing full well that no one could imagine they could be so stupid as to blow up a Sunni mosque.
Abu Michel: Too clever by half, my dear friend. It was actually the jihadi groups who planted the bombs, knowing that no one would accuse them of killing other Sunnis.
Abu Samir: Hizbullah is fighting in Syria in the broad light of day, alongside a regime that is gassing hundreds of innocent civilians. Do you think they are worried about offending Sunni sensibilities? The Tripoli bomb was the work of a thuggish militia that doesn’t mince words.
Abu Michel: Thuggish militia? Hizbullah’s a ladies book club compared to the savages crossing the border from Syria. These guys decapitate their enemies, eat their organs, and post the photos on Instagram. They take selfies with severed heads. Saudi Arabia is paying Al-Qaida to blow up Sunni mosques in Lebanon so as to cause a Sunni-Shiite war that will bog Hizbullah down, thereby making it easier to defeat Bashar al-Assad in Syria.
Abu Samir: Nice try. But let me enlighten you. The Tripoli bomb was obviously an Iranian-Syrian plot carried out by Hizbullah in order to make mainstream Sunnis fear a descent into a sectarian civil war, leading them to give up their opposition to Hizbullah’s weapons and relinquish their support for the Syrian revolution by painting their enemies as foreign mercenaries and radicals.
Abu Michel: I see you’ve been thoroughly indoctrinated by the American-Zionist-Wahhabi axis.
Abu Samir: Not nearly as brainwashed as you are by the Russian-Iranian-Shabbiha axis…
You get the idea.
Once upon a time, I engaged in such conversational helices in the hope that they would lead to some kind of convergence. On rare occasions they do, but typically not. Over the years, I’ve devised a simple rule to gauge whether or not it’s worth engaging.
The rule is this. Ask your interlocutor what they would say if the awful truth were conclusively established, and their heroes were implicated in the grotesque crime under debate. For example, if it were unequivocally confirmed that Bashar al-Assad gassed 1300 civilians, what would Abu Michel have to say? What if it came to light that Ahmad al-Assir organized the car bomb on the Tripoli mosques? How would Abu Samir’s outlook change in that case?
If such a revelation only leads your discussion partner to start another round of Motives & Mysteries (“there had to have been a good reason for it… it was unfortunate but necessary … casualties are unavoidable in a war against imperialism …”), then smile politely and just move along.
Hizbullah Secretary-General Sayyid Hasan Nasrallah addressed a large crowd of supporters in Aita al-Shaab this evening via videolink from Beirut. The topic was yesterday night’s car bomb in al-Dahiyah, which killed two dozen people, wounded hundreds, displaced hundreds more, and caused enormous damage to a residential neighborhood.
Nasrallah called on the Lebanese to work together to uncover the networks of terrorists plotting more attacks in the country because, as he said: “These groups have killed even more Sunnis than Shi`a, even more Muslims than Christians. They send bombs into mosques just as they send them into churches… So anyone who thinks that they will only target the Shi`a is deluded.”
He described the takfiri groups fighting in Syria as murderous barbarians and indiscriminate killers motivated only by sectarian rage, unlike Hizbullah’s men who fight “according to values and principles,” never targeting civilians or killing prisoners of war. Addressing his opponents in the pathos-filled finale, he promised to double the number of Hizbullah fighters in Syria should Lebanon be attacked again:
If we currently have 100 fighters in Syria, they’ll become 200. And if we have 1000 fighters in Syria, they’ll become 2,000. And if we have 5,000 fighters in Syria, they’ll become 10,000.
I can appreciate the importance of keeping a stiff upper lip in the face of increasingly brazen attacks, but one wonders whether Nasrallah’s double-down strategy is only going to end up costing more lives. Who is his threat meant to frighten and deter? Surely it will only embolden these groups to launch more cowardly attacks against civilians so as to lure Hizbullah’s fighters into Syria, where they can be fought on the lawless steppe.
Hizbullah’s fighting machine was developed over the past three decades with the single goal of facing Israel’s army and intelligence services. It overcame Israel’s qualitative military edge by waging effective asymmetric and psychological warfare, and preying on the fears of the Israeli public. Today it faces a foe that is adopting the same strategies, and yet Hizbullah appears poised to make the same mistakes that Israel once did, underestimating its enemy and trying to cow them with hubristic threats and military surges.
As Nasrallah correctly affirmed: we, the Lebanese, are all in this together. If Lebanon is sucked into the Syrian maelstrom, it will be our civil peace that is shattered, our tenuous balance that is disrupted. And yet the ironic truth is that the most eloquent prophet of the impending sectarian apocalypse is, simultaneously, inviting its horsemen in with promises of fresh fodder and ample bedding.
I’m in Beirut for a few weeks this month, seeing family and attending weddings. The mood is eerily pleasant, though now that the Eid has passed everyone seems to be bracing themselves for the return to arms.
I caught up with my friend Abbas yesterday. Some of you may remember him from his appearances in the Conspiracy Chronicles series a few years ago. Abbas is in his forties and lives in Beirut with his wife and kids, where he works as a driver and bodyguard for a Lebanese businessman. He’s an ardent supporter of Hizbullah and grew up in South Lebanon under the boot of the SLA.
One of the last times we saw each other, we’d discussed the Syrian-Israeli peace negotiations, and Abbas had scoffed at the notion that Bashar al-Assad could possibly be serious about cutting a deal. “You’re going to tell me that an Alawite dictator is going to put his eggs in a Zionist basket and abandon the most popular political movement in the Arab world? For what? “Peace?” He won’t last a year,” he laughed.
When we sat down yesterday to chat, I asked Abbas what he thought of the situation in Syria and its reverberation on the Lebanese domestic scene. Here are some paraphrased highlights from our conversation.
So what do you think of the war in Syria?
It’s not going to end anytime soon. Everyone has shown their cards – the regime, the Arabs, the Europeans, the Americans, the Iranians – and they’re in it for the duration. Everybody’s all in. The Americans thought that Bashar would fall in a couple months and they were mistaken. Everywhere else in the region, the Americans were playing on their own playgrounds. In Egypt and Tunisia, they simply asked the army to step aside and the regimes crumbled. They couldn’t do that in Syria because Syria is not their playground. Al-Assad has his own army, and it’s a true army that won’t be pushed around.
They seem to be having trouble putting down the revolt though, don’t you think?
Assad’s mistake was that he didn’t act decisively enough. His father faced similar opposition in the 1980s and he was able to put it down in a few weeks. Bashar should have finished it off when he could have (kan lazim ya7simha). Instead, he gave the Saudis and Qataris an opportunity to pour fighters into Syria, and so now we have a full war.
Which is why Hizbullah got involved in al-Qusayr?
The Syrians don’t have experience with this kind of warfare. And actually, Hizbullah was also surprised by the tactics of the Nusra fighters. The Resistance lost a lot of men in al-Qusayr, but they were mostly killed at the beginning of the battle. The Hizb had taught its methods to Hamas who in turn taught them to the rebels. So for the first phase of the battle, the commanders had to study what was happening on the field and change tactics. They were up against larger numbers and a foe that was entrenched. By all accounts, the rebels should have won the battle, but the Hizb analyzed the situation rationally and figured out how to defeat them. In a fight, you have to use your brain, not just your muscles. Israel’s muscles are much larger than ours. But we’re smarter. This is the reason for the success of the Resistance.
But don’t you feel that the involvement of Hizbullah in Syria has had negative repercussions on Lebanon? The Sunni community is seething after all…
This is a matter of priorities. Our priority is the security of Lebanon. When the survival of our country is at stake, we can’t pay attention to what people on the street say. They don’t like it? That’s fine. We’re not trying to win a popularity contest. We’re defending Lebanon.
If the building next door to you is burning, you can’t wait for it to reach your house before you pull out a fire extinguisher. You have to go outside and put out the flames.
I don’t think that the boys in Tripoli see it that way.
That’s fine. If they have a different reading of the situation, let them pick up their rifles and go to Syria to fight. We’re fighting for what we believe in, and we believe that Lebanon will be in grave danger if it falls into the hands of Jabhat al-Nusra. These people cannot coexist with anyone, not even other Sunnis, let alone Christians, Druzes, and Shi`a. They’re even fighting other extremist Sunni groups in the opposition. If Syria falls to them, then Al-Qaida will have a base on the Mediterranean Sea. For some reason, the Americans and the Europeans are ok with this, but they call Hizbullah a terrorist organization for defending our country.
Jabhat al-Nusra is on the terror list, though. And the Americans have refrained from sending them weapons.
But they’re letting the Qataris and Saudis arm them to the teeth! I don’t understand US policy anymore. Do you? (Abbas became genuinely puzzled at this point) How do you explain their policy in Syria? Why would they be supporting Al-Qaida?
I think the Obama administration is looking for ways to not be involved. They’re doing just enough to cover themselves domestically while washing their hands of the conflict. This has opened space for their Arab allies to pursue Assad with a vengeance. What do you think the long-term scenario is?
There’s been too much blood for a return to the way it was before 2011. I can only see partition as a solution. Syria will have to be divided.
You mean an Alawite state and a Sunni state?
No, I think there will be a statelet for the radical Sunnis and then a state for everyone else. It’s either that, or they come to Lebanon.
That’s what we’re fighting against, habibi. It’s the only way. There can be no co-existence with these types of people. They call anyone who doesn’t think like them a heretic. They go into villages and massacre people because of their religion. They chop off the heads of their enemies and desecrate their graves. And the West embraces these terrorists while attacking Hizbullah, which didn’t raise a finger against its enemies in the South Lebanon Army after the Day of Liberation in 2000. The only way to deal with these terrorists is to kill them.
In the meantime… Lebanon? Government formation? What do you think?
Lebanon’s in the freezer. Nothing will happen here until someone wins in Syria. Our fates are intertwined. Neither side in Lebanon has enough strength to push through what they’d like, so we’re just going to have to wait.
What’s up with the souring relationship between Hizbullah and Aoun?
It’s fine. We disagree on a few domestic issues. Aoun wanted to hold elections and we felt that the time was not right. He felt that he could win a few seats at Geagea’s expense, but he wasn’t paying attention to the big picture. How could anyone secure a ballot box in Saida or Tripoli under the current conditions? Aoun’s problem is that he’s interested in scoring political points against his Christian rivals. But when you’re in politics you have to take the larger picture into consideration.
When the time comes, what kind of electoral law will be passed?
I don’t know. Our big problem in this country is that the political class is happy with the status quo and they depend on the majoritarian law to stay in power. What we need is proportional representation. Only under those circumstances will challengers to the existing leaders come about. Every sect, even the Shi`a, will see new people elected. This is why the politicians don’t want it. And even the Christians couldn’t agree on a law that served their purposes. So how do you expect anything to happen in Lebanon until Syria is settled?
People are saying that Hizbullah acted against al-Assir in Abra, but the Lebanese Army denied it. What do you think?
Of course they acted. And I don’t see anything wrong with that. Why should anyone be ashamed of admitting that they fought alongside the army to protect their country? I think Hizbullah should not be ashamed of stating this openly.
Obviously they felt that it would inflame sectarian tensions.
The sectarian tensions have been stoked by Sunni leaders, not by Hizbullah. Al-Assir was an idiot, but he was only the tip of the spear. All across the country, there are militias being formed and armed by the Saudis. Al-Assir was meant to just be the match that lit the powder keg. Fortunately, the Army – with the help of the Resistance – was able to defeat this plan.
I hear that Hamas is trying to quietly repair its relations with Hizbullah.
That’s probably true. And unfortunately, the Hizb will likely go along with it. I think that we’re too principled when it comes to Palestine. We need to be more tactical.
Why would you make amends with someone who betrays you? They’ll only do it again.
Some folks are up in arms about the recent revelation that US intelligence agencies warned the Lebanese government about an Al-Qaida plot to smuggle several tons of explosives into Lebanon. As Mitch Prothero writes in McClatchy:
The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency warned Lebanese officials last week that al Qaida-linked groups are planning a campaign of bombings that will target Beirut’s Hezbollah-dominated southern suburbs as well as other political targets associated with the group or its allies in Syria, Lebanese officials said Monday.
The unusual warning – U.S. government officials are barred from directly contacting Hezbollah, which the U.S. has designated an international terrorist organization – was passed from the CIA’s Beirut station chief to several Lebanese security and intelligence officials in a meeting late last week with the understanding that it would be passed to Hezbollah, Lebanese officials said.
I spoke to J. Dana Stuster at Foreign Policy about this story yesterday, and he has helpfully assembled a set of reactions by various US-based pundits who are outraged that the Obama administration would not seize the opportunity to let Al-Qaida kill one or two Hizbullah sympathizers, even if that means scores of civilians would die alongside them in a multi-ton truck bomb blast.
Hey Verizon? Can you show me where in my terms-of-service agreement I can find the line about passing on information to help Hezbollah?—
Spencer Ackerman (@attackerman) July 16, 2013
If we know AQ is going to attack Hezbollah, we should warn them but give them a bogus location so they're unprepared at the actual target.—
B. A. Friedman (@brettfriedman) July 16, 2013
The speculation on Lebanon’s evening talk shows this week is going to be all about what this intelligence-sharing decision reflects about US policy toward Syria. As one of Mitch’s sources, a Hezbollah commander, puts it:
The Americans are starting to realize how bad their friends in Syria are, so they’re trying to get out of this mistake,” he said. “They also think that if a bomb goes off in Dahiya, we will blame America and target Americans in Lebanon. That will never happen, but they’re scared of this monster they created.”
Obviously, this is just spin on Hizbullah’s part, aiming to deflect attention away from the uncomfortable fact that the US provided actionable intelligence that probably saved lives in Dahiyeh. In my view, the move is consistent with a broader US policy of trying to curb the influence of the more radical elements in the Syrian opposition. Truck bombs set off by Syrian rebels against Hezbollah in Lebanon are likely to turn more Lebanese against the opposition’s cause, or at least estrange them from it. It won’t matter that people will blame Hezbollah for dragging Lebanon into the conflict; it will also cause a fragmentation and sectarian catastrophe that no one will be able to contain, and which will play to Assad’s advantage in the long term.
A commenter on my last post asks the following question, which many others have been asking today in the wake of two pieces written by Nicholas Blanford and Mitchell Prothero about Hizbullah’s alleged participation in the Lebanese Army’s confrontation with Shaykh Ahmad al-Assir’s supporters in Saida:
“I can’t believe the claim Hizballah was involved. TV crews from half a dozen stations were down on the scene reporting minute by minute. This includes Future TV, MTV, and LBCI, not particular fans of the hizb. And only Prothero and Blanford saw the fighters? I call bullshit. They are either helplessly befuddled journalists out of their depth or simply fabricating news.”
I asked Mr. Blanford and Mr. Prothero if they’d like to respond to the question of how they were able to get this story when no one else reported on the presence of Hizbullah fighters. They sent me the following statement, which I publish with their permission.
On Sunday night in preparation for Monday’s reporting in Sidon, Nick figured as a back-up plan approaching Abra from the east if it was too difficult to get to Abra from the west – the city – side. After tooling around for a bit in central Sidon Monday morning, it seemed the eastern approach was the one to go for. Bit of a schlep, but Nick knows the roads through Joun across the Bisri river and then hitting the Jezzine-Sidon road near Anan, then back through Kfar Falous toward Sidon. It took a little under an hour.
When we reached the western end of Majdalyoun and the bangs were getting loud, we parked up and continued on foot. We weren’t expecting to see any Hezb fighters, just wanted to get closer to the action. But after a couple of hundred meters as we entered the outskirts of Abra, some guy yelled at us to get off the road. He was hanging out with about seven or eight other guys all dressed in paramilitary clothing, some with yellow ribbons and very obviously Hezbollah. They were paranoid about our cameras and didn’t know what to do with us at first. But the sniping had picked up and so they said we could stay.
They were friendly for the most part and polite and grew accustomed to having us around. After an hour or so, we were driven down the road in one of their vehicles so the local commander – Haj – could check us out. After they saw nothing incriminating on our cameras, Haj relaxed and was remarkably open to us. He had no problem with us seeing what was going on and even agreed that we could use a couple of his comments albeit off the record. Neither of us have never seen so many Hezb fighters in one place at one time gearing up for action – they looked like a mix of saraya, regulars and special forces and probably all locals. Quite extraordinary sight. Once Haj had given us his blessing, all we got from the other fighters were brief curious glances and that was it. They didn’t bother us. Some of them were happy to chat to us or openly chat to themselves in front of us.
We stayed longer than intended because sniper fire had cut us off from Nick’s car. After a while Haj arranged for a fighter to drive Nick to his car. He took him to the junction at the top of the road, then said “where’s your car?” Nick said, about 300 metres up the hill. “300 meters? I’m not going up there,” he says. So Nick said “if you’re not going up there, I’m bloody well not going up there.” So we stayed another hour with the guys until the sniper had been dealt with.
Our location was clearly the assembly point as there is a direct road to Haret Saida nearby which is Shia populated. The fighters piling into Grand Cherokees were heading up to the mosque area which was about 700 meters to the west. One of more talkative guys said he had just returned from the mosque complex. Don’t know if there were Hezb units elsewhere on the eastern side, but doubt it. There’s no way they would come through the western side of town to reach Abra so anyone reporting from the city itself – i.e. the opposite side of Abra from us – would not have seen them. We didn’t see any other journalists on the eastern side of town, but there were plenty of civilians who were driving through the area and saw the Hezb guys.
The talking point de jour among the more Gandalfy fringe of the Sunni commentariat is to refer to the Lebanese Army as a “Safavid“, “Majusi“, “Batini” fighting force under the sway of Hizbullah and its Iranian patron. Medieval mud-slinging is in, big time. Dust off your Shahrastani if you want to have any chance of sorting out who’s who.
More seriously, though: Nick Blanford and Mitch Prothero — two reporters who have a thing for reverse-commuting into conflict zones — have published a couple stories today confirming the presence of Hizbullah fighters in close coordination with the Lebanese Army in Saida. Recall that this was one of the main accusations leveled at the army yesterday by the supporters of Ahmad al-Assir, and even by political figures who applauded the army’s response while condemning the role being played by Hizbullah. Here’s a snippet from Nick’s piece:
Although the Lebanese Army’s special forces units spearheaded the assault on a mosque and compound belonging to Sheikh Ahmad Assir, a Salafist cleric who had holed up there with 200 to 300 of his followers, it became evident today that they received some assistance from Hezbollah’s battle-hardened fighters.
“Today we are doing surgery,” says Haj, a local commander of Hezbollah forces in an area on the eastern edge of Abra, the hilltop Sidon neighborhood where Sheikh Assir’s mosque is located. “We are removing a cancerous gland in a quick clean operation to cure the city.” [...]
Ah yes, a quick and clean surgical operation: this is how Hizbullah described its May 7 2008 incursion into Beirut, which led to the Doha Accord. Removing cancers, restoring security, etc. All very selfless of them, don’t you think? Positively Hippocratic…
The trouble is, there is no such thing as a quick and clean surgery to remove a cancerous gland, not if the cancer has already metastasized all over the body. And even if the cancer were confined to a specific area, the use of a carcinogenic implement to remove it would doom the patient anyway.
In 2008, the Lebanese Army stood by as Hizbullah scrubbed up and went into surgery. Today, they’re performing operations together. I find the sectarian garbage slung at the Army by Tripoli shaykhs to be as offensive as the next guy, but can anyone deny that Hizbullah is an equal partner in this latest effort to take Lebanon back to a scene of flashing swords, whinnying horses, and medieval heresiographies?
The Lebanese political talk show Kalam Ennas with Marcel Ghanem will be broadcasting a special episode this evening about the confrontation between the Lebanese Army and Ahmad al-Assir’s followers in Saida. I’ll be live-blogging and translating some of the salient bits, providing the webcast holds up.
8:48: Program begins. Questions: Are we facing a new Shaker al-Absi and Fatah al-Islam? What is the future of Ahmad al-Assir? Guests: Bahiya al-Hariri, Imad al-Hout, Ghassan Jawad, Michel Elefteriades, Osama Saad, Shaykh al-Shahhal and others. Online poll at the Facebook page: “Do you support the Army in Saida?”
8:51: Playing a clip from Ahmad al-Assir’s visit to Kalam Ennas on March 15 2012. At that time, he said: “I am the imam of a mosque against violence and sectarianism.”
8:53: Bahiya al-Hariri calls in, supporting the Lebanese Army. Our citizens are afraid of returning to Saida. Marcel Ghanem asks her if she supports the continuing military pressure on Assir. She responds by asking how Assir managed to get away in the first place? Who is responsible, asks Ghanem? She says she doesn’t want to point fingers. Emphasizes the importance of Saida and all it has given to the Lebanese nation.
8:59: Hariri: “Any side that uses weapons on the domestic front promote sectarian strife.” She wants to see all sides disarmed, including the pro-Hizbullah brigades in Saida. Ghanem: “Who shot at your house yesterday? Was it Assir’s people?” Hariri: “No it wasn’t. It was the group who occupied the area surrounding my house, and they are allied with Hizbullah.”
9:08: Hariri: The Lebanese Army is our life raft. We support the Army completely. We thank everyone who has worked to restore peace to Saida.
9:19: Clip from March 15 2012 when Assir was a guest on Kalam Ennas: at that time, he said that he wasn’t a salafist, and that anyway this was not a derogatory term in the first place. He is against violence, and the Lebanese Army and authorities are a red line and should not be attacked. If the rights of Islamists are infringed upon, the appropriate state organs should act to address these infringements.
9:24: The Jama`a Islamiyya MP Imad al-Hout tells Marcel Ghanem that there have been many pressures on people in Saida over the past several months. Some people can handle the pressures; others resort to defending themselves.
9:26: Ossama Saad (former Saida MP) says that the issue today is not the (pro-Hizbullah) Resistance Brigades. What we need to talk about is how March 14 created an environment that engendered the rise of people like Assir through its sectarian incitement against the weapons of Hizbullah.
9:29: Another guest: March 14 is responsible for all the pressures that the Army has come under, calling them shabbiha and Safavids (i.e. Persians).
9:32: Michel Elefteriades (owner of Music Hall… and by the way, an FPM officer? Who knew?) is asking why people are attacking the Army today.
9:34: Imad al-Hout says that Assir was provoked into acting. Who provoked him? If not the Army, then who was it? Ghanem responds with a special report by one of his reporters: Army reports suggest that Assir’s militia men included some foreign fighters, and their tactics resembled those of Al-Qaeda and Fatah al-Islam. Today, the Army says, Saida has been returned to the Lebanese state, and wrested away from the extremists.
9:39: Ossama Saad: Saida is a city of diverse communities: Christians, Sunnis, Shiites, Communists, Islamists, Nasserists, progressives, conservatives. To talk about Saida, we have to recognize this reality. For anyone to impose their views on everyone else in the name of religion, this is rejected. Ghanem replies: Isn’t Hizbullah doing the same thing? Saad: Hizbullah is part of the fabric of the city. There are people from Saida who are members of Hizbullah and Amal. What are they forcing on Saida? Ghanem: What about the people who surrounded Bahiyya Hariri’s house? Saad: The geography we’re talking about is a very interpenetrated one. There is a larger context to think about. Ghanem: Some people are saying that Saida has been held hostage by both Assir’s people and the Resistance Brigades. And others are saying that “this is part of the fabric of the city.” What do you say? Saad: How can I live with someone who wants to impose his views on me?
9:46: Imad al-Hout says that all of Lebanon should be for all people. The Army has to extend its power over all of Lebanon. Today, there were bearded men wearing black uniforms with yellow insignias on their shoulders who were inspecting houses. Why should they be allowed free rein?
9:50: Michel Elefteriades: we need military rule in Lebanon. We need a coup d’etat gardien. We need a military that is immune to political influence.
9:59: Ghanem to Saad: Do you think the Army should continue its operation until it catches Assir? Saad: I believe there should be security, and the Army should do what it has to do.
10:01: Ghanem to Imad al-Hout: Do you think the Army should continue its operation until it catches Assir? Al-Hout: I believe that Saida has suffered enough, and that life should return to normal.
10:04: Imad al-Hout: I am not against the Shiites. The Shiites are our brothers in this country. I am against the party that speaks in the name of the Shiites and is fighting in Syria. Ghassan Jawad: You are putting the weapons of the noble resistance that fought Israel on the same level as the weapons of this apostate shaykh Assir?
10:22: Shaykh Shahhal criticizes the media that has distorted the image of the Sunnis. Syria is ruled by an apostate, and Hizbullah is trying to replicate Assadist rule in Lebanon. I am prepared to have a theological debate with Hassan Nasrallah. The army is taking sides.
10:26: Imad al-Hout: What I think the shaykh is saying is that we need to protect the Army from being pulled from one side to another. Let’s let Saida be an example. Can we learn from this example and have the Army turn Saida into a city without weapons?
10:40: Marcel plays a clip from YouTube showing Fadl Shaker bragging that he killed two soldiers. He asks the Tripoli shaykh al-Shahhal what he thinks of this, and al-Shahhal dodges the question.
10:42: Elefteriades: I, a Christian, served in the Army in 1989-90 and I was required to fight against Christians who were causing troubles in the country. No one criticized the Army for targeting a community then. Why today?
10:44: Shaykh Shahhal: Hizbullah is pushing Lebanon to this situation. Hizbullah is pushing the army to target the Sunnis. Hizbullah wants to exert its hegemony on the country. The government is completely powerless before Hizbullah. Ghassan Jawad asks the shaykh: Did your son fight in al-Qusayr? Shahhal: It is a source of pride that he fought in al-Qusayr.
10:47: Argument between Ghassan Jawad and Shaykh Shahhal about Syria, Qusayr, etc. Jawad: The Future Movement has been involved in Syria since the first moment, and we all know that.
10:55: Elefteriades: Why should the Army have to take permission from religious authorities to go after assailants who attacked soldiers? If the Pope goes through a checkpoint and his bodyguards shoot at Lebanese soldiers, they have the right to respond immediately. Shaykh Shahhal: That’s fine, as long as you apply those rules to everyone equally. My own personal bodyguard has been refused an official permit from the Army to carry arms. What does this mean?
11:02: Nada Andraos (reporter) gives the different narratives concerning the whereabouts of Assir himself. Some say he is still in Abra; others say he is out of Abra but still in Lebanon.
11:10: Ghanem to Shahhal: What is Assir’s fate? Shahhal: We are looking for real security, and that a proper investigation be carried out on the situation. We are against Lebanon being taken hostage by an Iranian, Safavid, Batini, Zoroastrian project. (He said this with a self-deprecating smile…)
11:19: Closing words. Ghassan Jawad: There is no conflict today between the Army and the Sunnis, or Hizbullah and the Sunnis. Michel Elefteriades: I want to go beyond mourning the fallen soldiers. I want the Army to take control of the country. I want a military council to take control and to shut everyone up or else we’re going to have a major war in this country. I don’t want parliamentary elections. I don’t want democracy. I want the boot of the army to come down on the country and to get rid of all the za`raan (trouble-makers). We can only build a country if we have the Army bearing down on us, which is better than having Islamists or Rustom al-Ghazali bearing down on us.
Translation: “To all of our supporters: we are coming under attack from the Lebanese Army, which is Iranian-[controlled] and sectarian, and also from the shabbiha of Hassan Nasr al-Lat and Nabih Berri. I call on all our supporters: the peaceful ones should go and block the streets. And I call on the honorable men — both Sunni and others — in the Lebanese Army to leave the Army immediately. And I call on our supporters outside Lebanon to go to the Lebanese embassies to protest. And on all of our supporters in every region who are prepared to come defend our religion and heritage and our women. We’re being shot at from Mar Elias, the Shiite neighborhood in Saida. We’re being shot at with every kind of shell, rocket, and mortar. God suffices us, and an excellent guardian is He.”
So announced the Lebanese salafist shaykh Ahmad al-Assir earlier today on YouTube after some of his followers clashed with the Lebanese Army, leaving several people dead including five soldiers. The army vowed to strike back “with an iron fist” and demanded that Saida’s politicians and religious figures (read, the Sunni imams and muftis who have been cowed by Assir’s vitriolic rhetoric) to “express in complete frankness their stance: either to stand next the Lebanese Army to protect civilians … and prevent [an explosion] or to stand beside the provokers of strife and killers of soldiers.”
Hizbullah and the March 8th alliance have been waiting for Assir to make a blunder like this, and did he ever deliver a doozy. Killing soldiers in plain daylight? Has Assir forgotten the near-universal support among Lebanese for the Nahr al-Barid operation in 2007, which saw an entire refugee camp reduced to rubble in the service of squashing a salafist group? Charismatic and flush with cash though the shaykh may be, his political instincts remain tender, and have made him vulnerable to the maneuverings of his opponents.
It will be interesting to see how Lebanon’s mainstream Sunni leadership handles the aftermath of this crisis. Assir initially emerged as a minor irritant to the Future Movement (FM), then blossomed into a more serious liability as his movement caused messaging issues for Hariri and his allies, particularly on the Syrian question. Today, Assir is gambling that his stance against Hizbullah and Syria will transform him from a fringe phenomenon punching above his weight into a force to be reckoned with. Whether or not he succeeds will depend, in certain ways, on how skillfully the FM can appease the Sunni street while disavowing Assir’s antics.
Next week’s political talk shows will be must-see TV. Check in here for commentary and post-game analysis.
The Lebanese MP and former minister Suleiman Franjieh gave a long interview to LBC’s Marcel Ghanem last week on Kalam Ennas. Topics covered included the situation in Syria, the disputed extension of the Lebanese Parliament’s mandate, and the upcoming Lebanese presidential elections. Franjieh, who is the scion of an established political family and the grandson and namesake of a former president, is perennially mooted as a presidential candidate by his followers and allies, but because of his family’s longstanding ties to the Assad regime, it is highly unlikely that he will ever see the inside of Baabda.
What I’ve always found interesting about Suleiman Franjieh is his representation of a certain old-fashioned party boss discourse, which has mostly disappeared from the rhetoric of Lebanon’s modern elites. The country’s other communal leaders — from Nabih Berri to Saad al-Hariri to Walid Jumblatt — apparently feel the need to keep up a pretense of cloaking the true sources of their popular standing in the language of democracy and institutionalism. Franjieh rarely bothers with this charade. He knows what he is and he’s proud of it: a traditional Zgharta seigneur who is not above rolling up his sleeves and disciplining the serfs himself, if it comes to that.
These qualities, coupled with his plainspokenness, make for good television, and in this case, the most undisguised defense of the Lebanese zu’amocracy as you’re likely to see today. I’d like to believe that the mentality Frangieh embodies is endangered, but he seems fairly confident. Here are some of the choice bits:
1:18:35: He defends his son Tony’s candidacy for Parliament, despite the fact that Bashar al-Assad apparently wanted Franjieh to nominate himself again. The two men are very close; Franjieh referes to Bashar as “a brother” and he in fact named his second son, Bassel, after Bashar’s older brother. When Marcel asks him why he nominated Tony to his seat in Zgharta, Franjieh says that he is very proud of his son’s political instincts, and if Tony ends up winning more seats than his father did, this would be a source of pride and a fulfillment of his hope that he is going to “succeed me one day in the future.”
1:16:20: Franjieh tells Marcel that he speaks to Bashar perhaps two or three times every week, and that the Syrian president is very confident. Marcel asks him about a controversial statement that he made the previous week, when Franjieh reportedly told the Lebanese newspaper al-Akhbar: “Bashar al-Assad is here to stay, and Hafiz Bashar al-Assad is here to stay.” In other words, just like Tony Franjieh, Bashar’s twelve year-old son is going to inherit the throne. Amazing…
1:21:56: He discusses his vision of the Lebanese presidency, saying that he doesn’t respect the chair; he respects the person who sits in the chair. And that person does not derive his strength from the “poetic language” of constitutional powers but rather from his stature in Lebanon and within his own community. When the President is the za’im of his confession, then official powers don’t matter.
“Today, what is it that has made the Shiites strong in Lebanon?” he asks. “Is it that Nabih Berri has constitutional powers? Or is it because he’s a big ol’ Shiite za’im? [...] Any President has to be strong in his community so that he can say what’s what. Our problem [i.e. the Christians] is that we elect someone and he stands there with his five pages from the Constitution in front of Nabih Berri and says I’ve got these five pages, etc. What strengthens you is your strength on the ground, here in Lebanon, not what is written down in [the Constitution].”
مضبوط ولا لا؟
Update: One of QN’s smart readers, Charles (a pioneer of the Lebanese blogosphere, way back when), makes the following intervention in the comment section:
Franjieh speaks crudely, but reveals a relevant truth. The only thing that gives a leader strength is the system he leads. Lebanese idealists love to point to rules and constitutions and assume ideals uphold the systems in the West. In reality, only once one has the authority to project violence over terrain does one actually control it. Nasrallah and Berri have that. Jumblatt does, too. Only Rafiq Hariri was able to get the “authorities” and thugs to go only with him without having means to project violence over terrain.
The Lebanese system is weak. The institutions are fragmented. The zuama system allows leaders to dominate limited terrain, but their unwillingness to cooperate with each other corrupts the whole system. From the founding of the country, the modern Lebanese parliament empowered zuama and perpetuated limited monopolies in every sphere. However, no dominant authority could be called in to finally settle disputes. Even the Army and Fouad Chehab could hardly broker a settlement. “No victor, no vanquished” also means no one with enough power to settle the petty squabbles.
Bashir Gemayel understood this: get the other grandees to stand with you, or annihilate them. Unify authority and use it to project power outward. It’s not about Christian influence versus Muslim influence: Bashir killed a significant number of Christians. It’s about building one Lebanese state powerful enough to crush those that oppose the decisions of the executive, but also with checks on executive power. Rafiq Hariri followed the Louis XIV model: lure all of the feudal lords to the capital and tempt them into a luxurious life of effete courtly competition while you slowly erode their bases of support without them realizing it. Hezbollah followed the Wallenstein model: if no one is paying attention to you, but you have resources, build an army so powerful you can bring empires to their knees.