Sunday, February 18, 2007

Lebanese Standoff

The dynamics of this standoff would be interesting if the potential for bloodshed were not so real. it has undertones of the calm that preceded Europe descent into religious wars during the renaissance. In this context, Lebanon and Syria are nothing but the stage for a greater sectarian struggle, not only within Lebanon, but also over the entire "Fertile Crescent"...

Frozen Lebanon

Whether one blames HassAoun or Hariri, The Lebanese sectarian system has broken down; as each side develops their own media and identity, they will soon evolve separate economies. As each leader has now retreated to their own community, a pattern emerges; a communitarian alliance, grouped around “March 14th”, is facing off a challenge led by Hezb and the PSNS, with Aoun, Franjieh, and others reduced to mere fig leafs.

Nasrallah's not a revolution; Kamal Joumblat, who knew a thing or two about it, famously stated that a "revolution is about contributing something beautiful". Shater Hassan's whole mess can only go south, literally, Shater Hassan is not merely looking “outside” to balance the fast mounting hostility “inside”; he desperately needs a war to reinvigorate his long lost legitimacy. Following up on his instructions to revive the “resistance”, his minions are already probing, striving to find the best way to reignite Lebanon’s southern border. This is not the fist time UNIFIL's Spanish peacekeepers have been targeted; first on Jan. 18th, and now Feb. 18th, there may well be an escalating pattern there.

I fear more in March; it may all start with some new kidnappings, or a humble stone.

Thawing Syria

Whether we like or dislike the Syrian regime, we have to realize that they are forced to stick to their simple bottom line; Assad has little choice but to sticks to his uncompromising stance and “does not want to hear of the Hariri tribunal”. Unless you intend to talk about talking about it.

To outsiders, this obstinacy in sticking to such a maximalist position may seem baffling, but to anyone with a sense of history, this is the only logical option left to Bachar. By succeeding his father, Bachar inherited the legacy of Hama, and the blood of its 10,000 to 40,000 victims has now fallen on his hands. Any sign of “being reasonable” could be interpreted as weakness by the Alawite regime’s many opponents.

Far from being embittered by its isolation”, the regime’s intransigence is only “in character”; it is a product of the same bloody-mindedness that allowed the Alawites to rise to prominence in Syria over the 1960’s and 1970’s. In this context, the moment UNSC 1559 was signed, Rafic Hariri’s fate was sealed, as Assad understood the inevitability of “a confrontation with the United States and France”. In this context, he moved to secure his “rear guard”.

No Alawite would ever pull out of Lebanon, leaving behind such a powerful Sunni leader, with a strong appeal to his brethren within Syria (70% of the population). No Baathist could tolerate a leader with such cross-sectarian appeal within, and without Lebanon, especially one who has won more minds than they could ever hope to brainwash. The late Kamal Joumblat had some of this, and Aoun had the potential, till he went over to the "dark side"...

In any case, Today's world has moved on, and so did Western interests. In this optic, the same doggedness that allowed them to reach Damascus is now hindering their continued control over it. In the context where any potential patrons are more interested in mercenary deal-making, the Syrian leader’s inflexibility as appears ill adapted to the new ecosystem. The Syrian regime is thawing under its own devices, melting away its own power over the country. What remains to be determined is the timing; before, or after the US election?

Before you debate whether the United Stats should engage Syria or attack it, note the following fact; the operative words above are “Syrian Leader” and “Syrian Regime”. The entire logic changes when you recall that, Assad is a “Alawite Leader”, and his regime a “Alawite Regime”. This is your classical Syria we're fighting against...

Unfreezing the Middle Eeast

Oh, what a little word can do…

Indeed, the regime’s fight ceased to be about Syria the moment it was forced out of Lebanon. This was not missed by Joumblat, with his diatribe on leviathans of seasons past. The Syrian rags may raise hell, and the "opposition" protest that "speeches to poison mediation efforts" (as if Nasrallah and his co-master Bachar never did such a thing) but that's just a political "rear guard" action; the fight is now about the Alawite Sanjak of Lattaquieh, and other fiefdoms of Damascus, Aleppo, Homs, Bkerke, Nabatieh, Baalbeck… In threatening to destroy Lebanon over Hariri’s head, Assad was actually threatening to destroy Syria.

Far fetched? Conspirational? Not really, only crassly sectarian. It is the same logic that would see a Hassan Nasrallah provoke Lebanon's destruction and ruin, only to rejoice at the rush of "pure pious money". This is beyond the "Arab el-3ezz" myth, we're in a world of tribes... Or in the case of Shater Hassan, the myth of the Mahdi's return, for whom so many Bassidji are gearing up to fight.

The analogy with the period that preceded Europe’s 16th Century religious wars and its "querelles d'Allemands" is striking; similarly to the Catholic Europe of the time, the Arab and Muslim world is similarly in a profound crisis, with long repressed problems boiling just under the surface. Just like his Tikriti doppelgänger, the Alawite regime has so undermined Syria that removing it will precipitate the region into chaos, a Fertile Crescent version of Europe’s 30-year war.

The forces are already lining up in Lebanon, and no, it is not nationalism. As Hezb provides the muscle and the PSNS the death squads, a Shiite-Alawite Alliance is effectively forming, with Persian blessing. Bachar and Nasrallah are ordering their communities’ ranks to “Vorwerts beschliesset eurer Glieder” like medieval pike formations of Europe’s religious wars.

By refusing reform and by continuing to play this as a zero-sum game, they are forcing others to follow suit. The “current officeholders” in Lebanon may have already more than caught up with them; in some ways there may be some truth to Hezb’s complaint that other militias are arming. But those are “legal” outfits that need not “shoot first”; they only need to wait for “March 8th” to move first, on a terrain already demarcated to “March 14th” advantage.

From a narrow Alawite perspective, this is not such a stupid move; far better than Iraqi Tikrit, Jabal Al-Nusairiyeh’s hold is secure over the cities that matter; Lattaquieh, Tartous, and Banias. As Lebanon bears the brunt of the fighting, and as Iran bears the brunt of the spending (with a decreasing oil price), they can thus secure their real bottom line, while we’re busy establishing the tribunal, rebuilding Beirut, or quenching the fires of Damascus

That is, unless some cold war nostalgic is willing to beg Syria's forgiveness and allow them back; then they will help break this Lebanese Standoff, and bring “peace for our time”…

Munich, anyone?

Follow-Up (Feb. 19th, 2007): Mea Culpa

OK, the “Munich cliché” is “overused”, as Patrick points out. Indeed, it is often misused to negate any dialogue and justify one side’s maximalist position, and hence ensure continued confrontation.

However, I think that it still applies in this case. In the context of the time, Munich was a mistake because the British were trying to negotiate with Hitler, who's bottom line was the enslavement of Europe. This was clearly nothing they could have commonly agreed on, rather than surrender outright.

In the context of Lebanon, you can dialogue with Aoun, at best; his main interest is the Presidency. From lofty beginnings, he has “cut himself down to size” thanks to his close association with Hezb. He may now prefer to “cut a deal” before being trounced thoroughly in the next elections. Indeed, while he still claims to speak "for the marginalized Christians" Herr General has been making conciliatory comments, stating that he "will personally sign [the treaty to create a Special International Tribunal for Lebanon] even if they did not listen to the Opposition's remarks".

In a sense, he got the message from the successful Feb. 14th demo. As part of such a “dialogue”, the 3 Tenors left him relatively off the hoook in their speeches, but I still fear that “March 14th” may be unwilling to offer him an acceptable compromise. Doing this would be overreaching (again), thus storing more trouble for the future.

However, you cannot dialogue with Bachar, neither can you talk to Nasrallah/Iran.

Bachar does not care about Damascus if you do not include Beirut in the package. His only interest in talking to you is that you allow him to come back to Lebanon, but is able to "offer" nothing in return, other than more terror and more assassinations. He cannot “disarm” Hezb, since this will go against Iran’s interests, and he cannot make peace with Israel, since the continuation of the struggle is his only claim to legitimacy.

There may also be a character flaw; the Saudis are now convinced that the father was more "reasonable", and that the boy acts like a spoiled brat who "wants it all". Joumblat is no fool; you only cut “moawiya’s hair” with dead men.

You cannot dialogue with Nasrallah; his Holiness (CBUH) is far gone in his Millenarian quest for the Mahdi. At the very least, he owes too much to Iran, who invested far too much in this outfit to see it disarmed/disbanded. I do not see a way for parties like the Hezb or the Ahbash to continue within the framework of a plural Lebanon.

At best, you can force Hezb to play by the rules, but you cannot convince them to do so of their own free will; they answer to a higher authority, above you or I, above any logic they have left, and above their conscience. An additional parameter is; how can Hezb guarantee its physical survival without its "holy weapons"? Can it trust the infidels, the United States and Israel, not to act against it?

This is why I can only see a bad ending; when a situation becomes so entangled, only the sword can cut through such a Gordian knot.


Patrick said...

Great post, but with a bad ending.
Even though everything you say is true, I am sick of the overused Munich cliché.

If we were to apply the Munich analogy to every single situation, we would be living in perpetual war. The prowar crowd told us the same thing before the Iraq war. It turned out we were not in 1938 and Saddam was no Hitler overall.

Standing firm is one thing, showing intransigence and refusing any dialogue is another thing.

ghassan karam said...

The lessons from Munich 1938 can never be overstated and must act as a guide to all political negotiations. It is crucially important that we make the clear distinction between compromise and appeasement. Dialogue can often lead to a successful resolution of a conflict especially when both partise share the same values, goals and principles. Compromise is at uts best when it is a disagreement about the means but not the end.
What many would like to pass for compromise , in certain circumstances, is on the other hand nothing short of appeasement arrived at in the spirit of deescalation by one party. Such outcomes are often counter productive. They lead to greater disasters after a short term lull. That was the big mistake of Mr. Chamberlain and it has been the mistake that has been commited over and over again by March 14 in their dealings with HA. The disagreements is not only about the means but it is also about the end. In that case, it has been abundantly clear to this observer for a very long time that the two sides are extremly incongrous. Red lines are to be respected and elemental ideas of modernity must necer be endangered even in an attempt to by peace in the short run.

When two opposing ideas confront each other a synthesis will emerge but only after the conflict is allowed to run its natural course. Artificial schemes, as well intensioned as they might be , will always fail unless the resulting synthesis is capable of surviving on its own, i.e of becoming the new staus quo. That will not happen when we adopt such silly, artificial and irrational ideas as "La ghaleb wa la maghloob". Maybe it is time to have the courage to stand for what each side believes in and when the dust settles one side will prevail and the other will lick its wounds. I am afraid that the Lebanese tug of war must end with one side dragging the other through the mud.

R said...

As usual, I would usually agree with you. Unfortunately in this case, I just don't see how Syria or Iran would allow their side to be dragged through the mud, which means at best a prolonged civil war with la ghaleb wala maghloob, unless Syria and Iran are "dealt with" by the west... I suspect both of these countries would put their entire weight behind HA and in the context of Lebanon taht is not to be underestimated. Recall taht during the civil war any advantage that any side had was due to Syrian (or Israeli) direct involvement either thru armament or actual combat.

Amir in Tel Aviv said...


That is an outstanding post.!
This is what I'm looking for, in blogs I follow, that is fresh and knowledgeable analysis, and learning things I don't know. In your blog I get just that.
They all talk about WW2, but I feel the situation is closer to pre-WW1, were tensions ran so high, that it needed just a tiny pretext ( Franz Ferdinand ) to ignite this explosive matter. And just like in 1914, every participant feels that he can emerge victorious, and gain, rather than lose from the outbreak.
Great post.!

Blacksmith Jade said...

I hear you Jeha my friend. I've been scratching my brain for a week trying to come up with a positive forecast for the country (positive simply because I'm sick of my own pessimism for the medium-term) but alas, a quick look at my blog will tell you how succesful I've been. In any case, I await the salvation promised in Chapter 7, as fleeting as it may turn out to be.

Jeb said...

Jeha, the impending conflict that you write about does seem to be right on the horizon. I am frightened for what the implications will be for Lebanon, Syria, and the region as a whole.

Jeha said...

Thank you all,

I hope to be wrong in what I see. Jeb, I too am frightened; the "interesting" times ahead do not augur of too many good changes on the horizon. BJ, I too am sick of my own pessimism, and may even revert back to sarcasm every once in a while. However, I think there is a "good thing" in better understanding the parameters; at least we know the game.. Amir, you may be right; an eery resemblance to WW1 is that, as back then, no one really wanted a conflict...