Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Sounds of Despair

Many hear grumbles of war in the region. I hear sounds of Despair coming from Syria and Iran. Or sounds of desperately closing ranks all round.

There are a few empty boasts too many from the actors. Growing up in Lebanon, I have learned never to take news at face value; the context often matters are much as what is being said.

Sleiman Beyk’s Outburst

In this respect, Sleiman Beyk’s absurdly stupid diatribe against the Lebanese Forces, only makes sense if one considers that he is effectively contained in the “Christian street” in Northern Lebanon, with Aoun nowhere to be found.

Most people are disappointed enough to stay away from politics, at least “those politics”, which definitely limits his “client base”. And not all Christians are disgusted enough by Aoun to follow Geagea, and many army towns such as Kobeyyat will never go to the “Hakim”, but the growth of the LF in Northern Lebanon is palpable. Franjieh’s position is threatened, not only as a northern Zaim, but also as a Zghorta Zaim.

His own political appeal has always been limited compared to others from his clan... And now, his power is under threat from others in the Moawad clan, and even from within his own clan from his uncle Samir… Even his own son may get in on the action.

Closing Ranks

In this respect, his little outburst is only an attempt at closing the clan’s ranks. He is trying to bring back the memories of his father, killed by Geagea, the Gemayels, and… Hobeika. I am not sure how he can explain befriending this last one… In any case, closing the ranks has been the fashion this past week, as we are gearing up for more escalation. Pardon;” civil disobedience”…

The Bishop with his Sunday sermon appeared to be inching was “closing sectarian ranks”. Whether the Christians are arming again or not is irrelevant; they now have a reason to do so.

The Hariri / March 14th camp was closing ranks as well, using the fear of Hezb’s rising new canton… Hezb’s formidable force of occupation will justify some financial arm-wrestling, and maybe bringing in some measure of support to Lebanon’s beleaguered government, leaving the people to fend for themselves... Rather than keeping Lebanon out of the gathering storm, we’re diving deeper into it…

Rather than splitting away, the Iranians and Syrians, appear to be closing ranks as well, with a new weapon in their arsenal; Photoshop! It beats killing defenceless civilians, and makes better news than throwing rocks are peacekeepers, and it has more “visibility” than shifting some troops around… So, if you can’t launch a satellite, you can make it look like you did; your supporters will believe you enough to gobble up those plastic keys, and rise to your defence.

But you can’t fire Photoshop rockets.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Creation Myth

… And why not? Some Lebanese Humour is the best medicine against Lebanese Politics.

This one is in French; it is one of the gems created by the now defunct “Théatre de 10 Heures”, once THE feature of Lebanese cultural life, before my time. This was world class comedy, but with far too much multi-cultural references for the Arab market, and far too much culture for the Western market.

To my chagrin, I do not recall the entire piece (Help, anyone?), but it came from their last show, right before the war, and the rise of armed morons whose feelings you could not afford to hurt… I will later post another gem of theirs in Arabic, which was saucy enough to catch up with the kiddies.

Lebanon at the Creation of the world;

Quand Dieu créa la terre, le monde, l’univers,

Il voulut faire un lieu bien, bien extraordinaire,

Un ciel, un climat, un soleil éclatant,

Et fit si bien les choses, qu’il créa; Le Liban!

Mais, mais… Quand il vit un peu, autour de lui,

L’état de ses voisins, Israël, la Syrie,

J’ai été trop injuste, dit-il, il faut y remédier,

Et en y remédiant, Créa le Libanais

The (not so great) Lebanese Race;

L’étrange animal qui vit dans ce pays,

A de tout temps fait partie d’une espèce bien à part

Piquant par-ci, par-là, au gré de sa fantaisie,

Se moquant du tiers, comme bien sur du quart

The part that I forgot is here, but they end it nicely (for our ego);

Malgré tout ces défauts que je retrouve en moi,

Je suis bien content d’être né Libanais,

Car tous ces petits vices sont réduits à néant,

Par ma seule qualité d’être né au Liban…


Saturday, February 24, 2007

Remote Mourning

Raymond Pavlov, inventor of the Remote Control, passed away at 93. Lebanese politicians of all stripes and colours are observing a day of mourning and sadness.

In 1958, Pavlov created the Flashmatic that operated on photo cells and controlled a few speeches at a time, and in 1975 he introduced ultrasonic control to make the device more efficient; it was able to control entire political affiliation, as well as any size of braying masses your foreign money could assemble. In Lebanon, the device has since been called "Rimon" in his honour.

In 2005, Pavlov remembered being one of two dozen engineers at Zenith Electronics Corporation given the same mission; to find a new way for Politicians to change affiliations without getting out of their chairs. He said: "People ask me all the time, 'Don't you feel guilty for it? And I say that's ridiculous. It seems reasonable and rational that unprincipled bastards could control the people from where they sit”.

“It is the people who placed them there in the first place”. Indeed, many Lebanese were salivating at the thought of being even more controlled than before. In the revised M-14 model, there’s even a button for salivation.

Pavlov was proud at to see the reflex.

This time, it was remotely; the dear leader can stay safe in his cave, while his followers go on to die for that all-important “divine victory”. In their endeavour to create a better world, those followers can also take a few of their friends and neighbours along; in the old M-8 model, there’s a button for that.

It works better with a plastic key around the neck.

His wife said he would not have chosen the remote control as his favourite invention and he did not care much for politics. “He was more of a reader,” she said. “He was a man who would dream in the night and wake up and say; 'I whish those people would wake up!' He was always hopeful for the human race".

Even smart men have their faults.

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.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Just a Little Bit Pregnant

I was not sure how to make sense of the past week and the gloom that I feel, till I recalled expression "Just a Little Bit Pregnant". I feel that it eminently describes our predicament, the existential Lebanese angst we're in:

1- We’re not at war yet, but not at peace either.

Hezb has overstepped his bound so much that others are itching to bring him back to reality. Shater Hassan has so overplayed “Shiite unity” that he is confronted now with a far more determined “Sunni/Chrisitian/Druze unity”. No wonder Shater Hassan is furious; while Hariri bests him at his own sectarian game, his allies Geagea and Joumblat give him "cross-sectarian" cover. Far better than his Aoun...

Learn to get over it, dude; many others are roving mad about your antics and never-ending claims of “victory”. You’re only making yourself more enemies every day…

The “street” may already be out of control

2- We’re not occupied by Syria, but they’re still around.

If you need anyone to explain this concept, or if you need proof, you will never understand. Your mind is far too “adapted” to sophistrionics such as “Yes to Jihad, No to Civil War in Lebanon”, and you are too far gone down the road of "special relationship" nostalgia's. Fear not, this intransigence will Bachar’s downfall.

The boy underestimates us, but he will soon be reminded why his army left no traces in Lebanon, not even a plaque on Nahr El-Kalb. No, not even the name of the river. We Lebanese may be many things, we don't do softball

3- We’re not occupied by Iran, but it feels like it.

Hezb is essentially an arm of the Iranian government in Lebanon; as time went on, the “resistance” became its own raison d’être and its self-perpetuation the only goal. This is unsustainable in the long run; the Persian have other overriding interests, and will soon abandon their Lebanese “limb” for the right incentive. Or the right defeat; that limb will give them the slip, and the finger, with much Arab support

The Farsis may soon have to do their own fighting, the next time around, things may get personal, and they'll be no Lebanese to shield them... Is that Wagner in the background?

4- Our Politics are Polarized, but there’s still a Centre.

To all those who ever doubted it, there is a Lebanese Centre; it roared on a March 14th, but only raised its head this past February 14th. Luckily, VD was “safe” this time around.

The Centre abhors ShaterHassan’s fanaticism, Aoun’s antics and unprincipled alliance with the PSNS, Berri’s disgusting double-dealing, or even Franjieh’s sheer stupidity and almost blasphemy. However, the centre still remains uneasy with Geagea’s shady past, the blood trail behind Joumblat’s modern liberalism, Gemayel’s record of cronyism and corruption, and even Hariri’s perceived tendency to over-emphasise the great Rafik’s martyrdom (Nazek’s poem was a tad too long).

On balance, the centre chooses “March 14th/Feburary 14th, but is far from according them blind support. In the sense, Aoun is correct to call his opponents “February 14th”, but he forgets that most of his supporters would rather be in that camp than aligned with Syria’s lackeys in this “March 8thalliance of dunces.

5- Politicians are "Free", but they're still Prisoners.

Prisoners of their “base”. In the United States, politicians consolidate their base during primaries, then run to the centre in the final race. In Lebanon’s sectarian system, political blocks are fixed; politicians who consolidate their sectarian base become prisoners of it, as no one outside their sect will trust them. In Lebanon’s sectarian game, Biography is Destiny;

Once a “Something”, always a “Something”.

Nasrallah could defeat Israel, he will still be a Shiite till the end of days. Joumblat could walk on water; he will still be a Druze at the end of the day. Hariri offered scholarships to many families, not all Sunni, but how many do remember that today?

Prisoners of their “alliances”. March 8th is prisoner of Syria and Iran and, to some extent, so are “March 14th/Feburary 14th” prisoners of their larger alliances. In a sense, while Hariri’s speech was conciliatory, the rants by Geagea and Joumblat negated any “positive” effect… Not that the “other side” would have moderated their tone…

I understand that you need a diamond to cut a diamond, but at the end of the day, what you’re still left with a diamond, albeit a different type.

In plain English; I am not so sure the Salafis that are today aligned with Hariri will prove more accommodating than Hezb. Indeed, many Christians are already voting with their feet, as so many Canaries in the coal mine (?)...

The "Lebanese” Standoff

The Mexicans invented the standoff, we perfected it. I am not sure how we will get out of this, if we ever could. Expect this Ubuesque situation to fester for the next 2 to 3 months, till the morons get their marching orders… And in the meantime, we keep on wasting lives, time, and treasure, and lost many good opportunities

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Vlad l'Emballeur

Russian President Putin has some interesting speeches, and some more interesting moves. Oddly enough, Vlad’s talk is apparently out of sync with the walk;

The Talk…

Vlad talks tough; he “dropped all diplomatic gloss” to talk about “American domination of global affairs”, and revisited some old themes from NATO, to the West’s interference in Russia’s “pré carré”, to the Middle East

With the Americans stuck in Iraq and loosing more troops every day, this appears worrying at first blush.

The Walk…

According to Interfax, Vlad’s itinerary reads like a series of business meetings; over the course of 3 days, he will visit Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Jordan. OK, it is not clear how much he can squeeze for the latter, but I am sure he will fiind something to sink his teeth into.

Syria may be doggedly following the wrong strategy; it has chosen to revert back to the dialectic of “Arab El-3ezz”, oppose Saudi interests, and stand squarely with Iran. At best, this is a gamble, at worst, a grave mistake.

Indeed, Arabs view the Persian challenge as increasingly existential, and now strongly support the United States’ “new strategy” in Iraq. For now, the Syrians realize this limitation, and they are vying for time, but they have little of it.

Syria's ally, Iran, may not hold all the cards. While Arab armies are weak, their business economic leverage is considerable, and they can count on their many friends in the world.

Iran is warned; if it wants “to be a leading power, [it] must respect the interests of others and cannot exclusively pursue [its] own strategy”, no matter their “good intentions”. Iran’s money can buy it some leverage, but the Saudis can still pull a few rabbits from their keffiehs.

Lavrenty Putin? (Updated Feb. 11th, 2007)

The Bear is not gone; it is changing. The new Russia is a pragmatic country, with a very commercially minded leadership. Vlad’s tough talk may only serve to raise his price; the Arabs are worried, and the Russians still have to make up for those lost Iraqi concessions

I think that, in many ways, 21st Century Russia is based on the story of the struggle among Beria, Khrushchev, Malenkov ... after the death of Stalin; what if Lavrenty Beria had won that power struggle?

While some believe that it would have made little difference, others feel that it would. I think that today, we know; Lavrenty Beria effectively won, except that his name may well be Putin

my opinion, Russia would have taken a similar direction to today; a strongly centralized, national-capitalist state. The difference today is that this came about “an economic and social revolution”, not an evolutionary process, with the benefit of some democratic elements in the system, but not much more. An optimist would say that Russia’s democracy is still a work in progress. Indeed, while most economic power is concentrated in the hands of the state, there is a rising middle class and the society is progressing.

On the other hand, Russian rulers do have to contend with the fact that “Russia’s borders are drawn by its soldier’s bivouacs”. not all of them Russian "pure laine". The Russians remain essentially, “empire builders […]in terms of foreign policy […]albeit with decreased capabilities as a direct player”. In today’s multi-polar world, there is a lot they can benefit from; the United States may be a “Hyper power”, but their actions can still be checked, and a price exacted…

Evaluating the Outcome (Updated Feb. 12th, 2007)

Vlad’s peregrinations will be completed by February 13th. We will know how well he did by February 14th… Will the UNIFIL still be welcome in Lebanon? will Syria persevere? will Iran support it fully?

Can Iran and Syria continue to play their "pyromaniac fireman" game in Iraq? Interestingly, Michael Young apparently shares this lowly blogger’s skepticism about Iran's power, and agrees with Le Monde’s article, which notes that the UN sanctions will force the mullahs to divert resources from their program in order "an important social upheaval, which may cause a deterioration of thesignificant portion of the population".

As the answer to these question develop, we shall see who is really all hat, and who's cattle… Lebanon will serve as the "barometer" for the region; depending on the deals made, at worst, the aftershocks will be felt there, at best, the rot will continue to fester.

At least one good thing came out of the war and the destruction; there was an award. It only cost the entire country to set the stage for the camera ...

Freude Schöner Mutterf...

Si Vis Pace, Pare Bellum (Updated Feb. 12th, 2007)

Michael Young’s piece gives an excellent context to Putin’s trip.

In his view, the attitude of the United States in the Persian Gulf may be Brinkmanship, where the United States creates “the impression that war is a [smashing] good idea; Bush is stubborn enough, and infuriated enough by Iraq, that the Iranians can't be quite sure of what he will do next”.

Putin’s trip may be the Russian version of this Brinkmanship; his immediate objective among Arabs could be to leverage his influence onIran to extract juicy concessions. Aside from his Molodaia gvardiia, he has no forces, and no credible fleet to send over there.

An underlying objective of the trip is Iran. There, he could leverage two factors to extract more juicy contracts from the Mullahs, and maybe even sell them a few more overpriced toys; those reactors they sold need parts, accessories... and muy mucho protección.

1- The more successful his Arab trip is, the more the Iranians will try to outbid the Arabs. If we take into account the Iranian leadership’s increasing paranoia, the trip to Jordan makes more sense. Jordan may have little to offer the Russians, but it is King Abdullah of Jordan who first talked about the “Shiite Crescent” and cautioned that “a Shiite takeover [of Iraq would] mean a vast increase in the influence of the current regime in Iran”.

2- Putin can also leverage the increased American presence in the Persian Gulf. The more the carriers, the more the merrier he will be; while the United States have pare bellum, there are hints that they may actually vis pace… Indeed, Michael Young points out that “until now, […] the administration has dealt with Iran within the context of an international consensus, through the UN and in accord with its Arab allies - everything it avoided doing before invading Iraq”.

The paranoids will pay...

VD Gift? (Updated Feb. 15th, 2007)

Thanks to Anonymous for pointing this out. It seems that Vlad’s trip was successful after all. Enough for him not to like a nuclear Iran anymore? Or was their Ambassador’s speech just Russian double-dealing aimed at making Iran fork out more dough?

Russia believes it is "crucial" to have a nuclear-free Iran, Andrey Demidov, currently Russia's top diplomat in Israel, has said in an interview with The Jerusalem Post, distancing Moscow from those saying a nuclear Iran is inevitable

The Russians may still be empire builders, but empires cost money, and Great Nations have no friends, only interests. And the interest of Russia today is to retool its industry, away from military manufacturing, and into civilian sectors.

I guess we‘ll know more soon enough.