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Date: Monday, 21 Jul 2014 14:37

The Craven News Network gives it to us straight.

A couple of weeks have elapsed since Gaza was drawn into the center of Mideast strife” and the chorus of outrage has grown louder, with several Nobel peace laureates calling for a military embargo against Israel and a US Secretary-of-State famous for his “who-moi” moments giving an impromptu shot across the bow from a hot mic. Will it matter? Does it ever?

The cravenness of some US-based newspapers on the situation is just mind-boggling. I don’t like blaming “The Media” for every last open pothole in Middle East politics because there are many good reporters working on the ground who have their hearts and minds in the right place.

But the headlines have been nauseating. “Hamas: Israeli soldier captured” screams CNN, reserving a mention of 87 dead Palestinians for the subtitle. “2 Israeli soldiers killed in Gaza clash” says the Washington Post, adding “Death toll tops 330 as Hamas militants step up attacks.” As a friend commented on Facebook:

The 330 Palestinian lives (the overwhelming majority of which are innocent civilians) are not as worthy or important to the American press as 2 Israeli lives. In fact, they do not even deserve to be named (Palestinians). Whereas the Israelis are named and described as having been “killed,” the Palestinians are just “dead”– either they mysteriously stopped breathing, or they are responsible for their own killing, or Hamas is to blame (as is insinuated).

If you want to help in a small way, here is a list of aid organizations. Beyond the present crisis, the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement — which has emerged as one of the most visible and effective methods of nonviolent advocacy for Palestinian rights — is organizing a military embargo petition. Read more here.

Finally, here is Hanan Ashrawi, one of the most eloquent spokespersons for her people’s rights, discussing the situation on ABC News.

ANERA (American Near East Refugee Aid): An NGO with offices in the West Bank, Gaza, Lebanon, and Jordan, working in the region since 1968.

PCRF (Palestine Children’s Relief Fund): A non-political, non-profit organization dedicated to addressing the medical and humanitarian crisis facing Palestinian youths in the Middle East, since 1991.

MAP (Medical Aid for Palestinians): Delivers health and medical are to those worst affected by conflict, occupation, and displacement. Offices in Beirut, Ramallah, Jerusalem, and Gaza City.

UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency): funded almost entirely by voluntary contributions, providing assistance for some 5 million registered Palestinian refugees.

Oxfam: Fighting poverty around the world.

KinderUSA (Kids in Need of Development, Education, and Relief)


Author: "Qifa Nabki" Tags: "Israel, Palestine, Gaza"
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Date: Wednesday, 02 Jul 2014 22:17

Screen Shot 2014-07-02 at 6.11.43 PMLebanese politics often resembles a game of FreeCell to me. Or, for the millennials among us: 2048, which I often catch my students playing on their phones before class begins. For long stretches, the board is locked down. There is an occasional opening, a small shift in the grid, but it comes to nothing. Hardly anything moves for several rounds as the prospect of a game-ending rigor mortis looms. Then, a fortuitous tile appears and suddenly the whole board becomes a slurry of synergies.

We commentators dignify such moments with terms like “grand bargain” but I often feel that coincidence has more to do with it than anything else. Is the vacancy of Lebanon’s presidential palace a story of irreconcilable ideological differences and fragile political coalitions, or is it a function of the fact that there are no compelling reasons for any stakeholder to abide by any precedent, deadline, or authority?

I was discussing this question with a friend of mine over lunch in Beirut a few months ago. At the time, it was the Prime Minister’s office that was vacant rather than the President’s. Lebanon, I observed to my lunch companion, is like an out-of-work, out-of-shape, depressed, recently divorced, middle-aged man who stays home all day watching the World Cup and can’t find his phone charger. (Obviously, the FreeCell analogy had not yet occurred to me…)

The missing phone charger would appear to be the least of his worries, but in fact it’s the psychological key to his predicament. Not being able to find the charger means that he cannot charge his cell phone, which means he cannot take calls from his friends or his family or his creditors, which means, finally, that he can’t face up to his situation. Lebanon’s inability to hold an election – parliamentary, prime ministerial, or presidential — without several months of fruitless “negotiations” tells a similar story. Outside the door, there is a refugee crisis, a burgeoning jihadi movement, a simmering conflict in neighboring Syria, and the fourth-highest public debt-to-GDP ratio in the world. Is it any wonder that Lebanon’s political elites can’t find the phone charger?

The latest “solution” to the crisis being touted by the FPM is a popularly elected president, to replace the Ta’if-based system of electing a president in Parliament. Michel Aoun believes that the same majorities that gave the March 8 alliance a 55% popular vote victory in 2009 (despite losing the electoral math) would carry him into office as well. Naturally, no one is biting on the M14 side. Another unhelpful three of clubs, when what we really need is that two of hearts… yeah right.

A few weeks ago, it seemed that we were nearing one of those synergistic moments on the presidential FreeCell board, as Saad Hariri and Michel Aoun reported several “positive meetings”. What scuttled the initiative is anyone’s guess.

Then again, even if a Hariri-Aoun deal brings either GMA himself or one of his relatives to Baabda, the election would trigger the dissolution of the cabinet, at which point another prime minister and cabinet would have to be nominated and elected, followed by the November parliamentary elections (which will trigger the dissolution of the infant cabinet and the election of yet another one, at which point we should be ready for a new president again…)

Clever Lebanon. Just as it finds its missing charger, it discovers that it’s an old Nokia one that doesn’t work with its new iPhone. May as well go back to watching the World Cup.

Author: "Qifa Nabki" Tags: "Elections, Free Patriotic Movement, Leba..."
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Date: Saturday, 21 Jun 2014 07:06

iie-syriaThere’s a report out about the situation of Syrian students in Lebanon, authored by a specialist team of researchers affiliated with the University of California at Davis, the Carnegie Corporation, and the Institute of International Education. I know a couple of the authors very well and vouch strongly for their knowledge of the region’s politics, societies, and languages. This is a terribly sad situation, and one worries about the long-term consequences of having such a large and under-served refugee population in a country as small and overburdened (infrastructurally, economically, psychically) as Lebanon.

Among the key findings worth noting are the following points:

  • The overwhelming majority of displaced Syrian university students in Lebanon are not continuing any form of higher education or advanced training.
  • The crisis of a “lost generation” will grow worse as Syrian students in Lebanon will be unable to complete high school.
  • There is an opportunity here for private education providers in Lebanon to open up their enrollments to Syrian students but there is some reluctance to do so on the part of higher education institutions.
  • Syrian faculty face very high barriers to entry at Lebanese academic institutions.

Read the full report here.

Author: "Qifa Nabki" Tags: "Lebanon, Syria, refugees, Syrian Civil W..."
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Date: Wednesday, 18 Jun 2014 14:35

arabic-msAs one Iraqi city after another has fallen to the jihadi juggernaut that is ISIS (or ISIL), military and intelligence experts have been baffled by the group’s stunning victories on the battlefield. Whether humbling the US-trained Iraqi army, surviving relentless bombardment by the Syrian Air Force, or fighting toe-to-toe with Hizbullah and IRGC special forces commandos, this motley crew of unkempt radicals and rootless cosmopolitans in medieval garb is a YouTube-sharing, hashtag-tweeting, fatwa-issuing paradox.

That is, until now. High-level sources at the Pentagon have confirmed to The Qnion that they have unlocked the secret to ISIS’s (or ISIL’s) success: a medieval Islamic manual on the art of war, long thought to have been lost.

“It’s of a piece with their old-timey kind of aesthetic,” said one source who commented on condition of anonymity. “They wear the clothes, they’ve got the black banner, they’ve got the project to re-establish the caliphate. We’ve seen all this before. But what makes ISIS (or ISIL) different is that they’ve also got this ancient text, which has become a total game-changer.”

Unlike other jihadist groups which have been undone at times by sophisticated counter-insurgency (COIN) strategies deployed by the US and its allies, ISIS (or ISIL) has managed to escape unharmed.

“This text is a kind of counter-counter-insurgency (CO-COIN) manual,” says noted COIN expert Andrew Muxe. “It’s COIN kryptonite.”

The contents of the medieval manuscript are a closely guarded secret. However, Iraqi troops have recovered fragments of its teachings copied into the diaries of fallen ISIS (or ISIL) jihadists. The Qnion’s star reporter Bala Tafnis was able to access these fragments, which we translate below in a Qnion exclusive.


On holding territory upon capturing it – The learned sage Abu Uthman Abd al-Malik ibn Zayd al-Kufi (may he rest in peace) said: “After the conquest of a village or hamlet or town is complete, round up all the men and adolescent boys and give them two choices: (1) either to be put to death in a grisly mass execution; or (2) to pretend to be dead while witnesses from nearby villages are brought to the site of the “grisly mass execution,” at which point many of them will faint from terror and have to be revived and sent back to their homes where they will spread the news of your horrific military prowess. In the meantime, the men and boys whose lives had been saved will be so grateful to you that they will spread word of your mercy and magnanimity. This maneuver is known to the ancient sources as a “win-win”.

Finally, once they have spread word of your mercy and magnanimity, round up the men again and put them to death in a grisly mass execution.”

On confusing your opponentsThe esteemed shaykh and wonder of his age Abu l-Fada’il Ibn Zubayr al-Qayrawani (may he rest in peace) said: “Let there be great confusion about your origins, your creed, your objectives, and especially your name. Let all who attempt to refer to you be struck by a confounding paralysis. Cultivate ambiguity.”

On winning the population to your sideThe learned jurist and poet Abu Hamza al-Balkhi (may he rest in peace) said: “No sooner than you have finished pillaging and rampaging in a given territory, set your sights upon improving the living conditions of its inhabitants. Collect garbage from the street corners, direct mule traffic, sweep the public spaces, organize poetry festivals, and hire entertainers to provide levity and mirth for the villagers. Make their lives so wonderful that they will deplore the return of the Sultan’s rule. Anyone who complains that things aren’t actually so much better than they used to be should be decapitated.”

On material supportThe scholar and preacher Ibn Zakariyya al-Baghdadi (may he rest in peace) said: “The Sultan will contrive to choke off your supply lines and to turn the population against you by starving you of resources. Retaliate by seizing the Sultan’s properties in the countryside and selling his own goods (cattle, musk, camphor, precious gems, and so on) back to him at a premium. He will not be happy about it, but that is not any of your concern.”

On relations with other rebelsThe theologian and astronomer Shihab al-Din Hasan al-Marwazi (may he rest in peace) said: “Your success will inspire other groups to imitate you and follow your example. Make alliances with these groups in the interests of fighting a common enemy. Over time, your ruthless strategies will begin to disturb them. Seize the moment to accuse their leadership of being Byzantine stooges or Sasanian flunkies, and draw their fighters into your ranks.”

On recruitment – The bookseller Jamal al-Din al-Iskandari (may he rest in peace) said: “The Sultan will, from time to time, open the doors of his dungeons to release the foulest, most bloodthirsty, and mentally unbalanced prisoners in the hope that they join your movement and sully your cause with their twisted antics. Welcome these prisoners with open arms, for they make the best fighters.”

On projecting historical gravitas – The historian Abu Ali Ibn al-Zajjaj (may he rest in peace) said: “Each time you pass from one territory to the next, commission a poet to write an ode about the meaningless of old borders, and the dawn of a new imperium. This will impress people, even if they don’t know what you mean.”


Author: "Qifa Nabki" Tags: "Syria, The Qnion, Al-Qaeda, Iraq, ISIS"
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Date: Saturday, 31 May 2014 12:25

disney-frozenSee below for an excerpt from my latest piece for The New Yorker, on Disney’s translation of its hit musical Frozen into Modern Standard Arabic. We’ve discussed this subject before on this blog. If you’re interested in reading earlier discussions, check out the following comment sections:

After reading the New Yorker piece, be sure to come back here to comment.


Translating “Frozen” into Arabic

For the past few months, I’ve lived my life to the soundtrack of Disney’s mega-hit musical “Frozen.” I wake up to the sound of my two daughters singing the Oscar-winning power anthem “Let It Go” at the top of their lungs as they get dressed for school. By breakfast, we’re on to “Do You Want to Build a Snowman?” followed by the peppy duet “Love Is an Open Door.” Between bites of oatmeal, my four-year-old chimes in with well-rehearsed counterpoint as her older sister closes her eyes and solemnly belts out the reprise to “For the First Time in Forever.”

On a scale of infectiousness, these songs are pestilential. This is a good thing; “Frozen” recently became the fifth-highest-grossing film of all time. The story of two orphaned princesses—Elsa (aloof, traumatized, cryokinetic) and Anna (headstrong, starved for companionship)—in the fjord-riven realm of Arendelle, the film spent many years in development, as one producer after another tried to adapt Hans Christian Andersen’s dark fairy tale “The Snow Queen” into something Disneyesque. The result looks almost nothing like the original story, thanks in part to “Let It Go,” which prompted a re-write of Elsa’s character and turned her from a frigid hermit into a spunky feminist. (keep reading)

Author: "Qifa Nabki" Tags: "Language, My articles, Arabic dialects, ..."
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Date: Saturday, 26 Apr 2014 16:18

presidential-chairLebanon failed to elect a president this week, but the failure was rather dignified by recent standards. Unlike the 2008 election — preceded by twenty months of government paralysis, public demonstrations, a parliament building locked by its Speaker, and several high-profile assassinations –  it was a relief to watch 124 parliamentarians show up at the Chamber of Deputies last Wednesday and cast their votes.

Most commentary over the past couple of weeks has centered on the maneuverings of the likely candidates. Would Saad Hariri cut a deal with Michel Aoun? Has Samir Geagea successfully transformed himself from a convicted war criminal to a respectable presidential contender? Is there a ghost candidate waiting in the wings? One can dream

I have to admit that I’ve found these discussions unsatisfying. More relevant than the matter of who the next president will be is the question of whether Lebanon needs a president at all, a quarter century after the Ta’if Agreement.

Consider the President’s powers and duties (articles 49-63 of the Lebanese Constitution). Apart from serving as “the symbol of the nation’s unity” and safeguarding “the constitution and Lebanon’s independence, unity, and territorial integrity,” the President of the Republic does very little without the say-so of the Council of Ministers. He or she accredits ambassadors and promulgates laws, but doesn’t have a vote in cabinet, cannot select a Prime Minister without binding consultations with the Parliament, cannot dissolve Parliament without permission of the Council of Ministers, and cannot effectively block a law from being passed. 

Before Ta’if, the Presidency was far more powerful than it is today, at the expense of both the Chamber of Deputies and the Prime Minister’s office. If there is one thing that unites Lebanon’s Christian parties, it is their revanchist attitude toward Ta’if and their demand that the President’s powers be restored. This seems very unlikely today, but I agree that some drastic reform of the position needs to be considered.

The presidential election process in Lebanon (courtesy of IFES). Click to enlarge.

The presidential election process in Lebanon (courtesy of IFES). Click to enlarge.

One problem is the way in which presidents are elected, which — like the process by which cabinets are put together — is far too vulnerable to spoilers masquerading as political consensualists. This is partly the fault of the constitutional language describing the process. In the first round of voting, a candidate needs an extraordinary majority (two-thirds, or 86 votes) to be elected. In subsequent rounds, an ordinary majority (51%, or 65 MPs) is sufficient. What happens, though, if no political bloc commands a majority in Parliament, as is often the case? And what if one bloc declines to participate in the session, denying a quorum? The Constitution provides no answer to these questions, and as we saw in 2007-08, this can be a problem. As a wise friend recently put it to me: “A constitutional vacuum is one thing; a vacuous constitution is another.”

On the other hand, it’s short-sighted to approach the question of presidential powers from an exclusively constitutional basis. The Speaker of Parliament’s powers are very limited as far as the Lebanese Constitution is concerned, and yet Nabih Berri has wielded them to great effect. Conversely, we’ve seen the powers of the Prime Minister (who is, textually speaking, primus inter pares) effectively eroded since 2005 with the introduction of the blocking third in the Council of Ministers and the ever-lengthening cabinet formation period.

From this perspective, President Michel Sleiman has similarly been able to do more with his limited powers than the Constitution suggests. Ziad Baroud’s nomination as Interior Minister in 2008 was apparently a Sleiman demand, and the work on a new electoral law for 2013 was carried out by another of his appointees, Marwan Charbel. However, whenever the Commander-in-Chief made the mistake of expressing his opinion on military matters, he was quickly put in his place.   

Twenty-five years after Ta’if inaugurated Lebanon’s Second Republic and nearly nine years after the Syrian departure gave us a new, mysterious set of protocols (what I like to think of as Lebanon 2.5), it is time to rethink the country’s principal institutions and symbols. The President today is responsible for safeguarding a Constitution that is consistently ignored, convening a national dialogue process that is ineffectual, and leading a Christian community that no longer thinks of itself as a single political unit. In this context, why should the identity of the President matter?

In other news, I’m happy to report that I’ve just wrapped up my teaching for the year, and I should have more time to devote to blogging again. Please forgive the long hiatus.

Author: "Qifa Nabki" Tags: "Lebanon, Reform, Michel Aoun, Michel Sle..."
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Date: Tuesday, 01 Apr 2014 12:22

bassam-1 crp copy 2A couple of months ago, I caught up with my friend Bassam Haddad, Director of Middle East Studies at George Mason and a co-founder and editor of Jadaliyyaand interviewed him for Guernica Magazine. The introduction is below, followed by a link to the main body of the piece.

Also, here’s a crowdsourcing challenge to the Lebanese expatriate readers: I’m going to be in Cambridge, MA this weekend, giving a talk to the annual convention of the Lebanese Collegiate Network. My brief is to give advice to students and young professionals who want to “further develop their understanding of life and society in Lebanon,” and to “enrich their connection to Lebanon” through their studies and work in the US. If you have an opinion on this topic, post it below. How many of you return regularly to Lebanon? How often do you go? Are you involved in any cultural, humanitarian, or political organizations? How do you stay in touch with the day-to-day, if at all?


In the fall of 2010, I was crossing a crowded hotel lobby at the Middle East Studies Association convention in San Diego when a friend introduced me to the writer, editor, and scholar Bassam Haddad. “Bassam is starting a website,” she said. “You should know each other.” He slipped me a business card with the word Jadaliyya (Arabic for “dialectic”) on it. “There isn’t much online yet,” Haddad explained. “We just launched.”

A few weeks later, Mohamed Bouazizi lit himself on fire in the Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzid, setting off a mind-bending chain of uprisings from Libya to Yemen. In the four years since, dictators have fallen, elections have been held, constitutions drafted, political parties established and banned, and presidents elected and jailed, as millions have protested and millions more have become refugees of civil conflicts. Meanwhile, Jadaliyya—which Haddad co-founded and co-edits with several other writers—has emerged as one of the most widely read sources of commentary on the politics, literature, history, and culture of the Middle East. More specialized than a mainstream periodical but more nimbly attuned than an academic journal to the evolving microclimates of expertise on the Middle East, Jadaliyya now reaches nearly two million readers each week, and is run by a growing network of volunteers around the world. Together they commission and publish a couple hundred articles every month—opinion and analysis, poetry, criticism, news roundups, book reviews, conference reports—in four languages: English, Arabic, Turkish, and French.

In the context of contemporary debates over the irrelevance of the academy, the corporatization of higher education, the end of scholarly publishing, and the disruption of old media by new media, Jadaliyya seems to be portentous of something. Is this the perfect marriage of informed scholarship and public engagement, or is it just a larger bubble of academics speaking to each other and few others? In our many conversations, Haddad has appeared allergic to both the trivialization of the region’s complexities by the mainstream media and the obscurantism of much academic writing. “We are trying to publish the most interesting work,” he told me over coffee in Beirut a couple years ago, adding, “but we don’t need every last footnote.” (keep reading)

Author: "Qifa Nabki" Tags: "Lebanon, Syria, Bassam Haddad, Jadaliyya"
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Date: Wednesday, 05 Mar 2014 16:06


Just a note about a talk I’m giving tomorrow evening at Brown, in the Medieval Studies lecture series. It’s at 5:30pm in Providence, in case any Boston-area medievalists are interested. And here’s an essay on a related topic (“Why was the 14th century a century of Arabic encyclopedism?”) that just came out a few months ago in a edited volume from Cambridge Univ. Press.

We return to regular programming this weekend.

Author: "Qifa Nabki" Tags: "My articles, Arabic literature, encyclop..."
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Date: Friday, 21 Feb 2014 18:53

syrie-grandlibanI’ve written something about the cabinet formation for The New Yorker’s News Desk blog. First graf is below, with a jump to the full piece. Come on back here to comment.


Lebanon’s War in Syria

The birth of a new government in Lebanon is often greeted with ironic festivity. People pass around trays of baklava and bowls of meghle, a spice pudding served when a baby is born. For a week or so, respectable newspapers turn into society tabloids, which I pretend not to read. Who visited whom to offer congratulations on his new ministerial appointment? Which two former rivals had a “great lunch” and vowed to work together in the national interest? A few news cycles’ worth of political play-by-play dramatize the decisive moments of the negotiations, leaning hard on obstetric metaphors.

“The labor pains began on Wednesday night, but only a few of us knew about it,” one insider told me. “By Thursday, it was clear that the government was coming, but there were a few complications on Friday. Then everybody woke up on Saturday morning to a brand-new government.” (Keep reading)

Author: "Qifa Nabki" Tags: "Elections, Hezbollah, Lebanon, March 14"
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Date: Saturday, 15 Feb 2014 19:22
Lebanon's new government (2014). Click to enlarge

Lebanon’s new government (2014). Click to enlarge

After nearly eleven months (329 days to be exact), Lebanon has a new government. Some thoughts are forthcoming about why the process took so long, what happened to facilitate it, and what this suggests about a shifting regional picture on the situation in Syria, but in the meantime, here are some quick observations:

  • There are twenty-three men in the cabinet and one woman. (Update: Alice Shabtini is a judge who previously headed the Military Appeals Tribunal, and was reportedly President Michel Sleiman’s preferred candidate to head the Judicial Supreme Council. As the head of the Military Affairs Tribunal, she played a role in knocking down the sentence of Fayez Karam to just two years, despite being convicted of collaborating with Israel. Fun fact…)
  • The two main blocs (March 14 and March 8) are each represented by eight ministers, while the Prime Minister, the President, and Walid Jumblatt control another eight ministers between them, in the so-called “centrist” bloc.
  • The one-third share for each bloc is designed to prevent passage of any significant legislation by denying quorum to the cabinet. This innovation dates back to the Doha Accord of 2008 and has more or less guaranteed the paralysis of the executive branch ever since.
  • In addition to the one-third share, it appears that each bloc also has a mole in the centrist bloc, whose sole function is to help bring down the government if one side decides to resign. (A cabinet falls when more than one third of its ministers resign). March 14′s mole is Ramzi Jreij; March 8th’s mole is Abd al-Muttalib Hennawi. In other words, this probably isn’t an 8-8-8 cabinet but a 9-9-6 cabinet. Why both blocs have agreed to keep up appearances is not yet clear.

The list of ministers is below, but I’ve also made a graphic that you can download (see above).

March 8

  • Ghazi Zeaiter (Public Works – AMAL)
  • Ali Hassan Khalil (Finance – AMAL)
  • Mohammad Fneish (Parliamentary Affairs – Hizbullah)
  • Hussein Hajj Hassan (Industry – Hizbullah)
  • Arthur Nazarian (Energy — Tashnaq/C&R)
  • Gebran Bassil (Foreign — FPM/C&R)
  • Elias Abu Saab (Education — FPM/C&R)
  • Raymond Arayji (Culture — Marada/C&R)

March 14

  • Boutros Harb (Telecoms — M14)
  • Michel Pharaon (Tourism — M14)
  • Nouhad Mashnouq (Interior — Future)
  • Nabil de Freige (Administrative Reform — Future)
  • Rasheed Derbas (Social Affairs — Future)
  • Ashraf Rifi (Justice — Future)
  • Sejaan Azzi (Labor — Kata’ib)
  • Alain Hakim (Economy — Kata’ib)


  • Tammam Salam (Prime Minister)
  • Samir Moqbel (Defense & Deputy PM — PM’s share)
  • Mohammad Mashnouq (Environment — PM’s share)
  • Ramzi Jreij (Information — President’s share / likely M14 mole)
  • Alice Shebtini (Displaced — President’s share)
  • Abdelmotleb Hannawi (Youth & Sports — President’s share / likely M8 mole)
  • Akram Chehayeb (Agriculture — Jumblatt)
  • Wael Abu Faour (Health — Jumblatt)

Author: "Qifa Nabki" Tags: "Elections, Free Patriotic Movement, Hezb..."
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Date: Monday, 10 Feb 2014 20:12

684px-Flag_of_the_Marshall_IslandsThe former Lebanese security chief, Jamil al-Sayyed, is the Marshall Islands’ new ambassador to UNESCO, AFP reported today. Among the benefits of this post (in addition to approving nods and kind words from fellow guests at cocktail parties), is the diplomatic immunity it confers upon its holder, who may or may not be the target of prosecution by the U.N. Special Tribunal for Lebanon, later this year.

The Qnion has learned that since Mr. Al-Sayyed’s appointment was announced, several other ex-spymasters, security officials, army generals, and former defense ministers announced their interest in serving as ambassadors to UNESCO.

“We’ve just been inundated by requests,” said Ms. Fiona Weatherby, a program officer at the headquarters of the humanitarian organization in Paris. “It’s very puzzling.”

New rumored appointments include former Tunisian security czar Ali Seriati, who has been mooted as the UNESCO ambassador for the Pitcairn Islands (population: 56). Unconfirmed reports also indicate that Habib el Adly, the disgraced and imprisoned long-time Minister of the Interior under Hosni Mubarak is petitioning to become the official envy of Tokelau, a tiny island in the South Pacific (area: 10 km2).

“Don’t get me wrong, I think this is really admirable,” said Weatherby. “The idea that these men could discover their humanitarian streak so late in life is… well, it’s inspiring is what it is.”

UNESCO would not confirm or deny any of the nominations besides that of Mr. Al-Sayyed. However, one high-ranking official at the organization who asked to remain anonymous did suggest that representatives of the late Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon had lobbied intensively for him to be named as the UNESCO ambassador from the Cocos Islands (population: 596) before his death last month.

“We considered the request long and hard,” the official confided, “but the fact that he had been in a coma for eight years made it tough to accept the application.” He added: “It was one of those 50-50 calls. Could have gone either way.”

Reporting by Youssef Tafnis for the Qnion

Author: "Qifa Nabki" Tags: "The Qnion, Jamil al-Sayyid, Special Trib..."
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Date: Monday, 03 Feb 2014 00:45

chess2There has been some movement in recent days on the cabinet formation stalemate. Saad Hariri agreed to join a national unity government with Hizbullah, a welcome development after months of deadlock.

How many months precisely? Nearly ten. Tammam Salam was appointed PM-designate on April 6, 2013. As you will recall, Lebanon’s previous premier Najib Mikati spent five months forming his government in 2011 (which was about how long Saad Hariri took to put together a cabinet after the 2009 parliamentary elections.)

In view of these historical trends, I thought I’d tally up the total amount of time that Lebanon has spent since the 2009 election under a caretaker government. All told, in the 1702 days since June 7 2009, Lebanon has spent 625 days (or 37%) under a caretaker government.

Here’s the breakdown:

  • Saad Hariri: Took office on November 9, 2009 after 155 days (since the June 7, 2009 election).
  • Najib Mikati: Took office on June 15, 2011 after 153 days (since the collapse of the Hariri cabinet on January 12, 2011)
  • Tammam Salam: Has been trying unsuccessfully to form a government for ten months (actually 317 days since Mikati’s resignation on March 23, 2013)

(Note that I have calculated the figures above from the end of one cabinet to the formation of a new one, which includes both the amount of time that a PM-designate spends putting together his cabinet as well as the previous period of appointing a PM-designate.)

In other words, Salam’s difficulties have precedents rooted in well-documented structural flaws of the Lebanese system, which has proven to be unworkable in the years since the departure of the Syrian army. For some context on this particular problem (cabinet formation), here are some links to my commentary from years past.

Hariri cabinet formation process (June-November 2009)

Mikati cabinet formation process (Jan-June 2011)

Salam cabinet formation process (March 2013 – today)

Update: If we push the start date of this experiment back to the day the Karami government fell following the Hariri assassination in February 2005, we end up with a similar quotient of around 37% of the last nine years without a functioning government, because we’d have to include the twenty months of no government during the Hizbullah sit-in from November 2006 until May 2008.

Author: "Qifa Nabki" Tags: "Elections, Free Patriotic Movement, Hezb..."
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Date: Sunday, 19 Jan 2014 15:24

saehI’ve written something for The New Yorker’s literary blog about the fire at the Sa’eh Bookshop in Tripoli. The first paragraph is below, followed by a jump to the site.

If you’d like to donate books to the library, check out the book drive’s Facebook page. Would prefer to make a cash donation? Here’s the relevant page.


Letter from Lebanon: A Bookshop Burns

On a Friday night shortly after New Year’s, a group of men broke into an antiquarian bookshop in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli and set it on fire. The shop belonged to Father Ibrahim Sarrouj, a Greek Orthodox priest. A longtime resident of Tripoli’s old Serail neighborhood, he had amassed a large collection of books—rare first editions of scholarly texts, novels in different languages, dictionaries, encyclopedias, out-of-print magazines—in the forty-plus years since he opened for business. The fire burned for under an hour before it was discovered, but an untold number of books were destroyed.

Tripoli is a mess. Just a few miles from the Syrian border and comprising a religiously mixed population, it’s become one of the most dangerous places in Lebanon. Sunnis and Alawites—variously at odds since the Lebanese civil war and now feeling the stakes of their feud deepened by the existential conflict next door—lob mortars and rocket-propelled grenades at each other’s neighborhoods while car bombs explode outside congregational mosques. A preponderance of religious and political powerbrokers in the city has made it difficult for the Lebanese Army to establish order. Radical Islamists—previously a kooky fringe in Lebanese politics—attract more support each day from Tripolitans incensed by Hezbollah’s involvement on the side of the Assad regime in the Syrian civil war, which has brought over a million refugees into Lebanon. Meanwhile, the princes of the alleyways (as neighborhood strongmen are sometimes called) vie for influence with the city’s other grandees, including two Sunni billionaire politicians and a former security czar. (keep reading)

Author: "Qifa Nabki" Tags: "Lebanon, Syria, Salafists, Tripoli"
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Date: Thursday, 16 Jan 2014 13:49

STL courtroomWhether you regard the Special Tribunal for Lebanon as a transparent (if expensive and plodding) search for the truth about the Hariri assassination, or a Zionist conspiracy against the last bastion of anti-imperialist resistance in the Arab world, today is a historic day. The UN court that was established to try the men accused of killing 22 people in an explosion that  changed the course of Levantine political history will be called to order this morning in Leidschendam.

The proceedings will occupy us for the next several months. To get your bearings, here’s a primer on the STL that I put together a couple years ago. In addition to the links in that post, I’d also have a look at the following subsequent writings.

To read everything I’ve written on the subject, see here.

Author: "Qifa Nabki" Tags: "Hezbollah, Lebanon, March 14, Special Tr..."
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Date: Friday, 03 Jan 2014 16:12


Yesterday, following the suicide bombing in Haret Hreik, Hizbullah’s deputy secretary-general Naim Qassem warned that Lebanon was on “the road to ruin”. Such statements have become just as routine as the security incidents that prompt them. Political figures and newspaper columnists tell us daily that Lebanon risks opening the gates of hell, that it teeters on the brink of the abyss, that the worst-case scenario will soon be upon us. Grave euphemisms and portents of doom pretend to invite a sober accounting of the situation, but they actually function as palliatives to keep the grittiest realities at bay.

A member of my family has the habit of asking me to predict Lebanon’s future. “Is it safe to go out in the streets today?” she asks me. “Is this neighborhood secure?” “What’s going to happen next?” Much to her annoyance, I am allergic to prognostication, but in light of the recent events at Starco and in al-Dahiya, and in the vain hope that such an exercise might have some apotropaic value, I’ve broken custom and written the following essay. Whether it is of any relevance to Lebanon’s future or just a reflection of my dark mood is for you to decide.


What is the worst-case scenario? Let’s dispense with the PG-rated version and be adults, shall we? In 2014, Lebanon’s worst-case scenario begins with a sequence of car bombs targeting various mosques, embassies, and party headquarters in al-Dahiya, Tripoli, Sidon, and downtown Beirut. The tit-for-tat bombings rapidly become more brazen and spectacular, going after busy residential and commercial areas, major hotels, and even that long-discussed assassination attempt of a Shiite leader that Nabih Berri has been warning us about for years. (The Esteez escapes unharmed, natch.)

By early March, the civilian death toll is in the several hundreds. Hospitals are filled to capacity; calls for blood donations are announced daily; the economy totters; the banks eye their softening credit ratings; foreign nationals are recalled; sales of alcohol, weapons, and drugs skyrocket; schools are closed two days out of five.

Strained to capacity, the Lebanese Army stands by as Hizbullah re-establishes its security cordon in South Beirut and various Sunni “neighborhood watches” take control of large swaths of Tripoli. Salafist suspects are arrested and a prison riot at Roumieh results in the deaths of a dozen security guards and a near jail break. Ahmad al-Assir releases a fire-and-brimstone videotape (from somewhere in northern Syria, it is said) vowing revenge and calling for jihad against the Lebanese Army.

Hizbullah’s mood remains defiant as the party doubles down on its commitment in Syria, cycling hundreds of fighters in and out each month.  Nasrallah continue to speak of an existential struggle in Syria, while hinting darkly at the consequences of forming a government without his party’s involvement. Roads to ruin, gates of hell, you get the idea…

Meanwhile, the UN prosecutors for the Special Tribunal for Lebanon begin presenting their case against Hizbullah. Each day, the M14 press reports on a new batch of evidence linking Mr. Ayyash and co. to the Hariri assassination. The M8 media yawns and dismisses the spectacle as an Israeli pantomime for external consumption, even as they blame the deteriorating security situation at home on a foreign conspiracy. Coincidentally, open season is declared again on March 14th-allied politicians, military officials, and media figures. Many of them leave the country. When they return, they are surveilled by nameless assassins and liquidated in their decoy cars.

With the arrival of spring, Syria’s masses stumble out of their beleaguered winter fastnesses, only to find the skies full of barrel bombs, hurtling down at them from Syrian Army helicopters. The death tolls are sickening. Tens of thousands of civilians flee across Syria’s borders each week. The refugees in Lebanon now amount to a third of the country’s population. There are more destitute Aleppan Sunnis living in refugee camps than there are Lebanese Druzes, Alawites, Evangelicals, Protestants, and Roman Catholics combined. People mutter sourly about adding “refugee” to Lebanon’s list of official communities and granting them seats in Parliament.

Militias begin to form in the camps despite the siege-like efforts of the LAF to contain them and the constant surveillance of Hizbullah intelligence and Syrian mukhabarat. When an ISIS-linked group tries to declare one of the camps an Islamic state and impose sharia law, Lebanon’s Christians and Druzes decide they’ve seen enough. The LF, Kata’ib, and PSP quietly resuscitate their wartime paramilitary units and begin covert training programs to transition their truant children from Call of Duty to real mountain combat.

By early autumn, clashes between Syrian refugee militias in Lebanon, Tripolitan platoons led by the umara al-aziqqa, SSNP fighters, and Hizbullah black-shirts are routine. There’s a security incident every other day. A suicide bomber attacks the funeral of a major Hizbullah commander killed in Syria, killing dozens of mourners. Two days later a high-ranking intelligence official from a Gulf Arab state is assassinated in his hotel room in a Central European country.

As the year draws to a close, Lebanon exists in a state of low-intensity civil war. The Army has begun to fracture along sectarian lines. Saudi-bought French weaponry begins to arrive, but the army’s arsenals are raided by militia groups, and sophisticated bomb jamming devices begin appearing on the tops of warlord convoys in the refugee camps. Hizbullah fears it is over-committed in Syria so Iran sends IRGC special-ops groups to man command stations in case of an Israeli attack, which looks increasingly likely as Abdullah Azzam Brigade rocket attacks into northern Israel become a weekly occurrence. The refugee crisis grows worse by the day. The borders are un-policeable. The economy is in free fall. Even Skybar has to initiate an evening happy hour to attract weekend revelers.

The struggle grows more “existential” despite the reality that, as in Syria, there is less and less to fight over with each passing day. This is the worst-case scenario.

Happy New Year.

Author: "Qifa Nabki" Tags: "Hezbollah, Lebanon, March 14, Syria, Syr..."
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Date: Friday, 27 Dec 2013 16:00

chatah1I met Mohamad Chatah in late 2011. I was in Beirut for a couple of weeks, interviewing politicians and civil society members for a research project on bicameralism and consociationalism, and a mutual friend put us in touch. He had been interested in the idea of a Lebanese senate for many years, and so he invited me to meet him at Center House, not far from where he was killed this morning.

Mr. Chatah was a Lebanese economist, minister, ambassador, and senior adviser to the Hariri family. In the course of our discussion, he struck me as curious and flexible in his thinking, a realist uninterested in pie-in-the-sky ideologies. We chatted about the political situation, about bloggingand about my doctoral research, and then moved to a discussion about his ideas on the role a senate might play in Lebanese political life. Some of those ideas informed my working paper on bicameralism for Stanford’s Program in Arab Reform and Democracy (see link above).

Like many other countries, Chatah suggested, Lebanon was caught between an ethic of individualism and communalism. “We don’t have a geography that allows for a federal system. And we also like to think of ourselves as equal individuals in a nation. That is a principle or a value that is well entrenched. At the same time, we are communities… And we’re old enough and wise enough to know that history does not dissolve the lines between communities.”

There was no unitary structure of government, to Chatah’s mind, that could respect individual equality, communal equality, and the importance of communal borders. Political confessionalism, he argued, was an inevitability in Lebanon for the time being, but it could be tamed to make the system function more efficiently and equitably:

I don’t want to get rid of confessionalism; I want to put it in its proper place… There’s no way to remove confessional quotas from the system unless you force it through with some kind of authority. Once you think of political sectarianism as an evil that we should do everything possible to get rid of… I think that’s the wrong way to think about this country. I want to base any system that comes out of this structural reform on certain realities that we are confident of, and I’m confident that these demarcation lines between Sunnis and Shia and Christians and Muslims will be with us for a long time. I don’t want to base the system on an unrealistic world. As desirable as it may be, that’s not something that serves as a model.

If communalism is inevitable, I asked Chatah, why bother with a senate? Why add another layer of bureaucracy to a system that is already choked with inefficiency and sectarian-flavored gridlock? As he himself admitted, Lebanon “is not easy to keep together; the fault lines are an extension of most of the religious and cultural fault lines in the world today.” 

Chatah’s interest in a senate, and in structural reform more broadly, was because “the basic tools of democracy are not working now. All of the links between the people, the MPs, the ministers, and their decisions are broken in Lebanon. Cabinets are formed in a way that is not related to the outcome of the elections, and cabinets can’t take decisions even when they’re formed.” A senate, he argued, would provide the necessary communitarian assurances, while giving space to the Parliament to get things done.

The next several days will be full of speculation about who wanted Mohamad Chatah dead. There will be a great deal of tail-chasing commentary about motives and mysteries, “which side benefited most from the assassination” and which side was weakened by it. Was his death a message to President Sleiman and March 14 to drop their campaign for a neutral cabinet? Was it a message from Syria to the international community that it still has the ability to create havoc in Lebanon, in the build-up to the Geneva conference? (The most laughable theory is already in circulation in the press, insinuating that his death was related to something he tweeted about Hizbullah on the morning of his assassination. Why not scan the rest of his Twitter feed for other culprits, from Christmas-hating jihadists to Ziad Rahbani…)

Another very sad day in Beirut. I’d like to express my condolences to Mr. Chatah’s family and friends. May he rest in peace, and may his killers be brought to justice.

Author: "Qifa Nabki" Tags: "Hezbollah, Lebanon, March 14, Syria, Bic..."
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Date: Thursday, 19 Dec 2013 03:38

In the discussion section of the last post (“Syria and the Lessons of Iraq”), my friend Joshua Landis made an interesting comment that I felt should be promoted to the main page. I publish it below with a few minor edits, and with Joshua’s permission. It is followed by some brief comments by me.

I’ll ask some friends and colleagues who work on these issues to see if they’d be willing to contribute their thoughts as well.


The Great Sorting Out: Ethnicity &  the Future of the Levant

(Guest commentary by Joshua Landis)

I believe that the best historical European comparison to what is taking place in the Middle East today is Eastern Europe, which was multi-ethnic and multi-religious. Much of it was part of dynastic empires, much like the Levant: a multi-religious/ethnic part of the Ottoman Empire. Perhaps the single greatest outcome of WWII in Europe was the creation of nation states that were more ethnically homogeneous than ever before. Tony Judt writes:

At the conclusion of the First World War it was borders that were invented and adjusted, while people were on the whole left in place. After 1945 what happened was rather the opposite: with one major exception boundaries stayed broadly intact and people were moved instead…. he term ‘ethnic cleansing’ did not yet exist, but the reality surely did — and it was far from arousing wholesale disapproval or embarrassment.

Poland was 68% Polish in 1938. By 1946 it was overwhelmingly Polish. Germany was nearly all German. Czechoslovakia, which was populated by 33% minorities, including Germans, Hungarians, Carpathian Ukrainians and Jews before the war, shed this third of its population. One can go down the line of Eastern European countries, Hungary, Ukraine, Bulgaria, Romania and find the same ethnic cleansing and great sorting out. Thirteen million Germans were expelled or transferred from the Eastern European countries between 1945 and 1947. They had lived in these countries stretching from Poland in the north to the Ukraine and Romania in the South for hundreds of years.

Central European nation states were tidied up and their peoples rearranged according to nationality. Unlucky nationalities, such as the Jews and Gypsies that had no homeland, were in some cases exterminated. This is what is going on in the Levant. For example, the Jews, who used to be scattered throughout the Middle East, were driven out of their native cities (the Jews of Baghdad in 1918 were the largest religious community in the city). They have collected in Israel, from which they expelled the Palestinians.

Christians have all but disappeared from many countries of the region. Anatolia was 18% Christian in 1914. By 1922 they constituted less than 1% of Turkey’s population. In Palestine and Iraq, their populations have been decimated by nationalist foment and religious intolerance and discrimination. They same thing is happening in Syria to Christians today. I will not be shocked if by the end of troubles in Syria, the 20% religious minorities have been driven out and the 10% Kurds have joined their brethren in Iraq to form an independent nation. The Alawites today are behaving like the Germans of the Sudetenland during the first years of the war. But it is altogether imaginable that their time will come, when they will be treated like the guilty minority of Germans in Czechoslovakia.

It is easy to push the analogies between Central Europe between the two wars and the ex-Ottoman lands of the Levant too far. But I see a very clear process of nation building in the region. It is brutal to all, but particularly to the nationalities that do not find a home in one of the “artificially” created states. The problem with multi-ethnic empires is that there are no “natural” or “organic” borders. Whatever borders are drawn to make way for nation states, they will be unjust to many.

Because this is a “Lebanese” blog, it is only natural that I should try to fit Lebanon, where I lived 8 years of my humble existence, into this model. Lebanon has not built a better nation. Its three major ethnic groups – Shiites, Sunnis and Maronites – have not settled their national problem. Are they all Lebanese and one ethnicity, divided only by religion? Or are they three distinct ethnic groups? We don’t know yet. We hope they will resolve their differences, but it is not at all certain that they will. The balance of power between the groups makes ethnic cleansing impractical.

The Syrian occupation forced the Ta’if Accords on the warring factions, after taking their guns from them. What will the largely Sunni influx of Syrians do to the balance? Will the smaller minorities – Armenians, Alawites, Palestinians, Jews, Protestants, etc be driven out or assimilated? We must all hope that Lebanon figures it out eventually and provides a liberal model for the other Levantine states. So far it isn’t working out so well, despite the rosy predictions of some who believed that the Lebanese consociational model would catch on in Iraq and then the rest of the region.

In sum, we are witnessing the rearrangement of populations in the region to better fit the nation states that were fixed after WWI. Some new borders are being drawn, such as those around the Kurdish regions of Iraq and perhaps Syria, but mostly, what we are seeing is the ethnic cleansing of much of the region to fit the borders.

[End of Landis guest commentary]


Ethnicity is Not The Problem: (A Response by QN)

Much of what Joshua says here is very suggestive. I’m in favor of widening the aperture and re-framing contemporary ruptures within the context of broader historical forces, but I’m uneasy with many of the assumptions underlying the above commentary.

Let’s take, for instance, the concept of ethnicity. What intellectual work does this category do for us in explaining Levantine politics? In the case of Kurds and Armenians — two examples mentioned above — the parallel with the European experience after WWII strikes me as reasonable, but this is mainly because of the problem of language. In the other cases that Joshua mentions — Middle Eastern Christians, Jews, Alawites, Sunnis, Shiites — we are talking about something else entirely.

Joshua asks: “Are [Maronites, Sunnis, and Shiites] all Lebanese and one ethnicity, divided only by religion? Or are they three distinct ethnic groups? We don’t know yet. We hope they will resolve their differences, but it is not at all certain that they will.”

I find this very puzzling. In what sense is it meaningful to distinguish, on the basis of ethnicity, between two people who speak the same language, eat the same food, laugh at the same jokes, share the same set of cultural references, and may even live in the same village, just because they happen to belong to different religious groups? Ethnicity is not a useful category here, and re-drawing the map of the Levant to sort its various minority groups into new nations defined by these sectarian identities is not going to address the core issues at the heart of the current uprisings.

Are the nations of the Levant “artificial”? I suppose so, but what does that mean, nearly a century after their borders were fixed by the Mandate powers? Nationalisms do not derive their emotional and political force from subterranean wells of ethnic or historical authenticity. They have far shorter memories, being made and remade sometimes in the space of a single generation. The Sunni students who marched in downtown Beirut after Hariri was assassinated, carrying “Lebanon First” placards and calling for Syrian troops to scurry across the border were the sons and daughters of the formerly reliable allies of Damascus, who felt more Arab than Mediterranean, more Greater Syrian than Greater Lebanese, etc. etc. So what happened? How was that they suddenly re-invented themselves as something other than what their ethnic or sectarian DNA dictated?

When the Arab Spring roadshow rolled into Egypt, I remember reading a great deal of commentary about how the mass protests were proof that Egypt was a true nation (unlike Syria or Lebanon) with a real identity rooted in its 5,000 years of history, and so on. Two years later, we’re hearing about how Egypt’s travails reveal the hollowness of the Egyptian national idea, and how it’s just a collection of tribes held together by an authoritarian state. Neither conclusion is correct, in my view.

The upheaval we have seen in the region over the past couple of years is a story of politics and economics, not ethnicity. It’s a story of the breakdown of certain social contracts and the emergence of new ones. The violence in Syria is not some messy centrifugal separation of an artificial state into its primordial ethnic or sectarian ingredients. Under the right economic and political conditions, there should not be anything inevitable about such affiliations. In the absence of real alternatives, however, people will revert to the most traditional networks — kinship, religious communities, etc. — to protect and organize themselves.

Enough said by a scholar of the early modern Levant… If Josh responds, I’ll post his rejoinder along with thoughts by other readers.

Author: "Qifa Nabki" Tags: "Lebanon, Syria, Eastern Christians, Josh..."
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Date: Tuesday, 17 Dec 2013 17:31


Joshua Landis and Murhaf Jouejati were on the PBS Newshour a few nights ago discussing the Obama administration’s stance on Syria in the wake of its decision to withhold non-lethal aid from the Free Syrian Army. The interview is brief; I recommend watching it all.

After the PBS clip went live there was a discussion on Facebook with Murhaf, Sean Lee, Greg Gause, Nadim Shehadi, and some other Syria watchers. Josh agreed to let me publish one of his comments, which I do below.


[Landis commentary begins here]

Murhaf, it was great to discuss Syria with you. You are undoubtedly right that the only hope that liberal Syrians have of taking power or ensuring that both the regime and the radical Islamists are defeated is if the US intervenes heavily. The West is the only source of power which would support liberals. Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, UAE, Qatar, Iran, Iraq and even Turkey have not supported liberals. In fact most of the private money flow, according to pundits and think thanks, is flowing from the Gulf to both the Islamic Front and the al-Qaida linked militias. This means that regional forces have abandoned liberals. Only the US supports them. Washington would have to outbid its allies and competitors in powering up a military that could defeat both the Iranian/Russian backed Assad and the Gulf back Islamists.

It is clear by now that Obama will not commit the US to this costly and uncertain task. It is also clear, following the September vote on striking Assad, that Americans, have no interest in getting involved in Syria, even to combat chemical weapon use by a brutal regime. Obama would have zero support for trying to fix Syria. This is a true American failing, as you point out, but clearly the US has been sapped of any conviction that it can put liberals into power in the Middle East by the Iraq and Afghan experience.

A new elite has emerged in Syria that is neither liberal nor moderate. It seems to have swept all before it, driving out Idriss and the FSA forces that remained loyal to him. Even if the US had hundreds of billions of dollars to spend on Syria, I am doubtful that it could have build a liberal alternative. It didn’t work in Iraq or Afghanistan. Of course Syria is different from both of these countries, but it doesn’t have a long or deep liberal tradition. Liberals in Egypt have a longer and richer history than do those in Syria, and even they are too weak and were forced to turn to the military to drive out the Islamists with force.

assad couch[Murhaf Jouejati and Nadim Shehadi responded by pointing out Assad's brutality and the way in which the extremism of the Islamists has made Americans squeamish about intervening. Josh responded as follows]: 

There is no doubt that Assad is a failure, is responsible for the destruction of Syria, and has used every threat, divide-and-rule tactic, and torturous method to stay in power. We agree on that.

The questions we dispute are two:

1. What is likely to happen to Syria if the US destroys the Assad military and regime?

2. Can the US get an outcome that suits its interests at a price that is politically acceptability to American voters and politicians? We have already had a lot of grand statements, red lines, and promises from US statesmen that have gone unfulfilled. US direct donations so far are over $1 billion, but indirect costs have been much higher.

The first question is the one that interests us most. I think Iraq is the most comparable example to Syria, from which we must try to draw lessons. At the beginning of this conflict, I predicted that Syria would go the way of Iraq and Lebanon and fragment into intense sectarian and regional fighting. Most opposition people said I was wrong. But that is how it has worked out. Syria is not an exception in the region. It is an integral part of a multi-ethnic and multi-sectarian region of the Ottoman empire that is finding its way toward nationhood.

The comparisons are many between Syria and Iraq, which make it our best guide: 20% religious minorities ruling; one-party Baath rule; security state with similar mukhabarat culture; Kurdish minority that wants autonomy if not independence; Shiite-Sunni divide; Saudi-Iranian proxies; big Turkish interest, particularly in the Kurdish regions; major divide and competition between southern and northern cities; bad distribution of wealth; bad education systems that propagate illiberal values, and widespread poverty, creating class divisions which find their expression in a difficult urban-rural divide; lots of tribalism and clannishness, which makes party and national military formation very difficult and leads to intense factionalism and fragmentation, even within the same regions and religious groups.

Little has kept the Syrian rebels from uniting except themselves.If you don’t like the Iraq example, we can use the Lebanon example, which is very similar. Or we can use the Palestinian/Israeli example.

Pouring in more guns and firepower I don’t believe is the answer. It will only lead to more destruction and refugees. Trying to get a cease fire is the only logical pursuit for the US now. That means trying to talk to the Salafis and the regime. This is very difficult because they hate each other. But I don’t believe the call for the US to destroy the Assad regime will be met in Washington with any agreement. Perhaps in two and a half years, if a Republican president is elected, policy priorities will change. But even a Republican interventionist, I believe, would have a very difficult time convincing the US that producing a liberal outcome in Syria is something the US can do. The US already looks at Syria in terms of containment. This is a very sad reality. But I don’t see it changing any time soon.

[End of Landis comment]


As usual, my point of disagreement with Joshua lies in the issue of how similar Syria is to Lebanon. I think they are substantially different (look up “Landis” or “Shehadi” in the search box above to find your way to some of the better debates), and I’m uncomfortable with the insistent privileging of the sectarian lens as the most salient one to all Levantine politics. Are Syrians, Lebanese, Palestinians, and Iraqis really as primordially sectarian as all that? Isn’t there something to be said for the constructivist understanding of sectarianism (see the work of Ussama Makdisi and Max Weiss)? Aren’t there other factors in play?

Perhaps, but in the context of conflict, displacement, exile, and severe social stress, I feel that Joshua’s perspective is the indispensable one. In that respect, he’s a bit like the trauma surgeon who may or may not be the guy you want to advise you on the holistic factors contributing to your lousy health, poor self esteem, and troubled marriage, but he’s the person to have in the ER when you’re bleeding to death after a car accident.

I’m sure Joshua will respond to reader comments below, so don’t hold back.

Author: "Qifa Nabki" Tags: "Syria, Bashar al-Assad, Free Syrian Army..."
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Date: Wednesday, 11 Dec 2013 20:32

jihadisSince the signing of the US-Iran nuclear agreement, several curious news items have stoked speculation that some of the major players in the Syrian crisis may be coming around to a more accommodating negotiating posture, in advance of the Geneva peace conference scheduled for January 22, 2014.

On December 3, Hizbullah secretary-general Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah told a Lebanese TV station that the US-Iran deal would have major regional implications, revealing that his organization had been in touch with Qatar and Turkey. Nasrallah also claimed that Qatar was looking to moderate its stance on the Syrian crisis and re-establish contact with Assad, or so he’d been told by a government envoy. Qatar immediately denied Nasrallah’s claims.

On the same day, a piece in The New York Times by Bobby Worth and Eric Schmitt quoted Ryan C. Crocker (the former US ambassador to Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Pakistan, Lebanon, and Kuwait, ironically dubbed “Sunshine” by President G.W. Bush because of his darkly sober strategic assessments) as saying:

We need to start talking to the Assad regime again [about counterterrorism and other issues of shared concern]… It will have to be done very, very quietly. But bad as Assad is, he is not as bad as the jihadis who would take over in his absence.

This prescription echoed sentiments Crocker expressed last summer to the effect that Assad would eventual prevail in the conflict “yard by bloody yard,” because the regime built by his father in the wake of the Hama massacre in 1982 was designed precisely for a conflict like the one it is fighting today. Betting on Assad’s demise is a fruitless and destructive option, he hinted sunnily; it would be wiser to pursue a policy of containment and negotiation with a vastly weakened regime.

This new accomodationist turn — let’s call it the Sunshine school — is ascendant in the east as well. A useful report from Al-Monitor documents similar statements from the Iraqi and Qatari foreign ministries, as well as U.S. Rep. Mike Rogers, chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. The reason for the shifting consensus has less to do with a new appreciation of Assad’s solidity than an anxiety about the huge disaster that is the foreign fighter presence in Syria. Along these lines, I’d highly recommend reading two recent pieces: (1) an interview with Aaron Zelin at Syria in Crisis, a great blog edited by Aron Lund at the Carnegie Middle East Center; (2) a strong article by Thomas Hegghammer for Foreign Policy Mideast Channel on “Syria’s Foreign Fighters

free-syrian-army-fightersZelin puts the number of Sunni foreign fighters (since the beginning of the conflict, not at any given moment) at 5,000-10,000. They’ve come from “over 60 countries” in the Arab world, Europe, the US, Africa, and elsewhere. Zelin believes there has been a similar number of foreigner troops fighting on the regime side, drawn from Hezbollah, IRGC, and Iraqi Shiite militias such as the Hezbollah Battalions, Asaib Ahl al-Haq, the Badr Organization, the Abu-Fadl al-Abbas Brigade, the Sayyid al-Shuhada Battalions, the Zulfiqar Brigade, the Ammar ibn Yasser Brigade, the Imam al-Hasan al-Mujtaba Brigade, the Martyr Mohamed Baqir al-Sadr Forces, and the Khorasani Vanguard Company. (Stay tuned for a post offering ideas to jihadi commanders casting about for new turath-flavored names to give to their nascent battallions…)

Why are there are so many foreign jihadis in Syria? This is the question Thomas Hegghammer addresses, arguing that the short answer is because it’s so easy to get there. Unlike the situation in Iraq during the second Gulf war, there is no effort among powerful European, American, and Arab intelligence agencies and militaries to prevent jihadis from entering Syria. The borders are basically open. This has led to a situation likened by Ryan Crocker to an enormous wild fire in the Pacific Northwest:

I’m from the West and every now and then we get monster forest fires out there. You can’t put them out. All you can do is contain them. The fire breaks and let them burn themselves out. That’s kind of like Syria. We can’t stop that war. What we can do, or should do, is everything possible that we can to keep it from spreading into Iraq and into Lebanon and it’s already done a little bit of both.

Which brings me to the title of this post. Let’s assume for the moment that the accommodationist hints we’ve seen in the press since early December actually betoken something optimistic about the upcoming Geneva talks. In other words, let’s say the Obama administration has one more trick up their sleeve, and that the Iran nuclear deal contains a yet-to-be-revealed agreement on a “transition” that will help to contain Syria’s horrible civil war. Assad agrees to stay on until the elections of 2014 at which point he will “decide not to run again”. A general amnesty is issued. A new constitution is cooked up. Everyone declares victory. The bids from Gulf-based reconstruction firms start flooding in. You get the idea…

In such a case, where will all the jihadis go? It would be nice to believe that they’d wither on the vine once their funding sources dried up, but the folks I speak to who’ve been paying close attention to such logistical issues suggest that the picture is considerably muddier. The funding sources are mostly private and will be difficult to police and curtail without a multi-year GWOT-style campaign, which no Western power has the inclination or resources to commit to.

So again: where will the jihadis go?

Author: "Qifa Nabki" Tags: "Hezbollah, Syria, Nasrallah, Qatar, Ryan..."
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Date: Friday, 06 Dec 2013 22:27

hariri-mandelaSaad Hariri released a statement today commemorating the death of Nelson Mandela, which contained the following sentence:

“بلغ مانديلا من العمر حدود المئة، وبقي حتى اللحظة الاخيرة من حياته قطعة نادرة من الذهب الأسمر التي تلمع في ارجاء البشرية، وتقدم في كل يوم أمثلة حية عن قيم الصفح والمصالحة والاعتراف بالآخر، وإنزال العقاب المعنوي والأخلاقي بكل المفاهيم التي تجعل من الانسان وحشا ضاريا يخوض صراع البقاء بروح التسلط والاستئثار والانتقام”.

“Mandela nearly reached the age of a hundred, and remained until the last minute of his life a rare piece of brown gold glittering over humanity, presenting live examples of the values of forgiveness, reconciliation, the recognition of the other… etc.”

I hereby announce a competition to find an even more insulting way for a Lebanese leader to commemorate the great man. Leave your suggestions in the comment section below. Here are some ideas to get you started:

  1. “He was an obsidian rock of hope in the whitewater rapids of prejudice…”
  2. “He was the black hole that made all the racism in the galaxy go away…”
  3. “He was the brown bread that made humanity’s diet so much healthier…”

It’s days like this…

Author: "Qifa Nabki" Tags: "Lebanon, Nelson Mandela, Saad Hariri"
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