Monday, March 24, 2008

Anschluß Delayed...

As we gear up for the summit, Syria assures us that all it wants is peace

Peace Indeed

More accurately; all Syria wants is this piece of land we call Lebanon. In this, the current regime is no different from any of the regimes that preceded it by refusing to recognize Lebanon and calling for the reunification of this “wayward province” into the Syrian fold. With this in mind, Al Hayat’s recent editorial put the whole debate about the Summit in the right perspective;

The fact of the matter is that it is an extensive accumulation of the resistance towards dealing with "Lebanon the State", whether from the Lebanese side - currently represented by the Opposition - or by "Syria the State", which is attempting to correct the "historical mistake" of announcing "Greater Lebanon" at the beginning of the past century.

The behaviour of the current regime is made worse by the country’s identity crisis and its rulers’ lack of legitimacy.

In the Beginning Was The Baath…

It had first started as a “minority rule” under the Baath’s “Military Committee”, a joint Alawite-Druze affair. Then it evolved into a Alawite takeover of the country under Assad, after he dispatched other Druze officers such as Salim Hatoum. As Assad’s power rose, his power base shrank as a proportion of the Syrian population.

Having no “internal” pull to attract supporters, Assad-the-father had to resort to an “external” push.

Until 1973, Israel’s suppression of Palestinian aspirations played an effective role in mobilizing in support of the regime. After that, and especially after Egypt dropped out of the “Arab struggle” in 1978, the regime had to find its legitimacy somewhere else. By then, we Lebanese had come to the regime’s rescue; having started to rip each other apart in 1974-1975, we provided an easy avenue for Syrian involvement. They came in first on the “progressive” side via fronts such the “Saika”. After “victories” such as the massacre of Christians in Damour, they switched sides to the “American” allied “Isolationists” in ’76, then back to the “Progressives” in ’78…

And the game continued until they were allowed (by those same Americans) almost total control of Lebanon. But that was back in ’90-’91, when Saddam was “liberating” Kuwait on his way to “free” Palestine of those evil Zionists.

Like Father, Like Son?

Today, Assad-the-Son is struggling to repeat his father’s feats, and studiously going though the bloody pages of the “Book of Hafez”. He is now supporting a “progressive” opposition in the face of a “regressive” government whom his lackeys characterise as an “Zionist/American” creation, a “cancerous sore”.

But today’s fundamentals are different, and Assad-The-Father’s policies are not adapted to the mew context; the region has changed.

With the cold war over, the United States find themselves the only power in the region’s oil fields. And with the Sunni domination over Iraq gone, the Arabs find themselves in “direct contact” with the Persians. In such a context, both the United States and the Arabs feel threatened by Syria’s constant alignment with Iran. And this leaves Syria with few local cards; the Sunnis are not on board, the Palestinians are not playing along (for the most part, at least), and Christian are sidelined thanks(?) to their divisions.

Risk of Contagion

So Assad-the-Son can move his toys around, but he can do little else. Yes, Siniora may be a weak leader, but he’s no Schuschnigg, thanks to all that Western Support. Yes, Lebanon may not be present at the (irrelevant?) Arab summit, but with the absence of the Arabs, no Chamberlain will be attending. Yes, Israelis may not actively oppose Bashar’s policies in their quest of “peace” with Syria, but they are holding off support, at least until ‘09… And yes, there are some idiots and hacks left in the United States, but they are increasingly ineffective.

So Assad-the-Son can do little or risk exposing himself and pushing more on Lebanon’s division, and thus provoking a Sunni-Shiite war. Yet such a move would be ill-advised, as that could be uniquely contagious. And far more dangerous; the son’s regime is far weaker than the father’s.

For one, the minority ruling group bequeathed by Assad-the-Father has shrunk to “family and friends”. This process recently accelerated during the son’s accession, with the sidelining of the likes of Khaddam and Shehabi, the assassination of Hariri, and the “suicide” of Kanaan and his brother. Underneath this solid facade, the Syrian regime’s power base is shrinking fast and Alawite unity is further eroding; witness the latest string of arrests in Qardaha, the Assad’s hometown.

For another, 21st Century Syria is much poorer. With the “occupation rents” from Lebanon gone, the army’s sources of patronage are diminished. The regime also has to contend with shrinking oil reserves, and Syria will soon become a net oil importer. Unable to develop its oil industry any further, the regime will struggle to reform a “state dominated” economy, and a growing population will find less and less employment.

Iranian cash is helping, for now, but even that well is not bottomless. But this alliance may well be one of the main reasons of the regime’s long term weakness. This weakness is made worse by the results of the Hama massacre, which ensured that the regime’s rule will always have sectarian underpinnings. And the weakness is now further weakened by isolation.

True, in the sectarian context, the minority Alawites had little choice but to align with (Shiite dominated) Iran, to use as leverage against the rest of the (Sunni dominated) Arab world. But the Arabs now fear for their oil, and building alliances to face the Persian threat.

Joumblat’s Sensing the Change

No wonder Joumblat increasingly calls for the regime’s change. Such assertiveness has less to do with Lebanese masses, and he would not dare risk a backlash against Syria’s Druze if he did not perceive the regime’s inherent weakness. Now, this Syrian regime has wasted much time, and cannot realistically return to Lebanon unless they are willing (or able) to change… But chances are events will change it.

As long as the regime maintains its present course, it will have no option but to retreat from Damascus back a (much improved) Alawite heartland, and delay its grand plans about a “Greater Syria”…

Anschluß delayed is Anschluß denied…

…At least for now.

20 comments:

JoseyWales said...

Hi Jeha,

Any idea why your post is linked under my blog at Open Lebanon?

It's happening all the time, with my blog being linked to stories unrelated to me.

Jeha said...

JW,

No idea. But it could be because I had linked your to your coverage of the "Live" interview of that great Well of ... wisdom.

JoseyWales said...

Thx.

I now see the link. Still, I can't figure it out. I appear under others' stories and sometimes my own posts do not show up on Open Leb.

Keep on blogging

Amos said...

Jeha,

I guess a lot does hinge on how long the Iranians will be able to dole out oil money. How much time do you give them?

Is the Syrian economy really in such bad shape, btw? The fundamentals don't look good - to Western eyes - but is there any possibility that it will prove to have more longevity than we're assuming?

Anonymous said...

It is Hazbani again.
You commented about some not very clever writers and politicians in Israel and their opinions and words about Lebanon. Yes, such people are ready to do do nothing against the re-occupqtion of Lebanon by Syria and will do nothing I for one object to such Syrian move but people like me can do very little.
Few observations
1. My English is poor so please bear with me.
2. Palestine, including Israel, and Jordan are also on Great Syria map. If I remember correctly, and I do, the Israeli Army, few years ago, even when Jordan was at war with Israel, with the backing of GB and the USA stopped Syrian tanks on the way to North Jordan.
3. Many Israelis, like me, think for very many good (in our eyes) reasons that free, independant and rich Lebanon is a good thing any time under almost any conditions, even if it does not recognize Israel.
4. The number of these Israelies is going down and so is the Israeli public opinion supporting such Lebanon.
5. Public opinion in Israel counts. Nasralla equates this with fear it is not only that. A strong Israeli public opinion on Lebanese matters, one way or the other, can do something, not as much as some people imagine, but some thing never the less.
6. If Lebanon, in regards to Israel, is worse than Syria, listen to Nasralla, than very few people in Israel will support a free Lebanon, who wants a permanent war of extermination ?. This is, I am afraid, one of the greatest political achivements of Nasralla in the Israeli public opinion. If many Israelies will be told that for the Golan Syria will send Nasralla to Hariri senior and will make a small El-Hamma in Dahia and will put a Syrian governor in Beiruth that will assure that the Lebanese border will be like the Egyptian and Jordenian border and the Syrian line very few Israelies will object to such deal, ead "Haaretz" please.
It will be wise to tell this to your PM who is not helping Lebanon at all in this matter, in the Israeli public opinion when he talks about Israel. If Azmi Beshara a famous leader of the Israeli Arabs think that Syria is such a good thing, see his visits to Asad, what can one expect from the Jews?

Jeha said...

Thx, JW. I have no idea how those bots collect information.

Amos,
The Syrian economy is indeed in a bad shape, but the people remain ill-informed about it. That explains why, among all the assassinations in Lebanon, a large proportion are directed at Journalists. A free press is a dictator's worse enemy.

Hazbani,
I just have this to say; in your point (2) answers your other points regarding Lebanon's need for support. If we Lebanese are united, we do not need much support of our neighbours. A nation who relies on the good will of its neighbours, competitors, or enemies does not deserve to live.

With this in mind, strongmen like Bashir, Nasrallah, Geagea, Aoun, Joumblat... are only symptoms of our larger disease of short-sightedness and division. There would have been no "niche market" for such "leaders" if there were no occupations. And there would have been no occupations if there was a workable system of government to hold crooks in check, and an Army strong enough to keep jealous neighbours at bay... Or at least, make war far less cost effective than cooperation.

I do not mean to appear bellicose in my comment above; I am stating it this way because there are no Bonobos in this Middle East of ours. In our local context, and until we evolve better minds, I fear that only strength can keep peaceful people peaceful.

A note; I note a slight difference between the Hebrew version of Ha'aretz and the English version. I find this odd; did anyone else pick up on that?

Anonymous said...

Hazbani again.
How true are your words, pity these who need the support of their neigbors. Yet even the USA like to have the support of Canada and Mexico. And Israel does its best to get some form of some support in some things from Jordan and Egypt. And Russia would have liked very much to get some support from Poland and not what it is getting now, and Russia is paying for support by the Ukraine. Japan is trying to buy some North Korean support. So I think, wronly perhaps, that it will do Lebanon no harm to get some form of Israeli support in some things. As we learned in thermodynamics it is very easy to destroy it not that easy to build and then any litle help counts.

Nobody said...

Amos said...

Jeha,

I guess a lot does hinge on how long the Iranians will be able to dole out oil money. How much time do you give them?

Is the Syrian economy really in such bad shape, btw? The fundamentals don't look good - to Western eyes - but is there any possibility that it will prove to have more longevity than we're assuming?


this is a question i am asking myself ... basically they are projected to become a net oil importer before the end of the decade ... and their budget is going to go through the roof this year because of fuel and food subsidies ... on top of this the employment situation is deteriorating fast because economically they are now just a few years after the peak of their demographic explosion that happened 25-30 years ago ... if i believe wikipedia they have almost 40% of the population under the age of 14 .. which means that within next 15 years their workforce will almost double itself ...

on the other hand their moment is truth should be this year as they are planning to start removing subsidies .. basically if they float prices of food and fuel this should wipe out a good part of the internal demand ... by some estimates they are losing up to 1/4 of their oil only to smugglers ... so if they let prices go up high enough they may gain up to one decade more of oil exports ... and they are one of the few countries in the region that export food, so they can profit from price liberalization in this respect too as more agricultural produce will become available for export ...

so apparently they have means to save themselves macro-economically but this would require acting fast and putting their people through severe hardships ... my impression is that their economic team is up to the task and they know what they have to do ... so the reforms are coming ... the question is if they can push them through without exploding socially ...

Nobody said...

by the way

i dont know if you follow but by all reports i read lately yemen is done ... they are running out of everything from water to oil and food and unlike syrians they are failing to reign in their population growth ... the story looks like copy pasted from some malthusian demographics textbook .. i was wondering about the regional implications if they go down .. in particular what it means for their neighbors like saudi arabia

Nobody said...

a bit unrelated but have you noticed how many countries in the region are running out of oil ?? syria, yemen, egypt, oman, some emirates in the gulf ... i mean it's not only that they are becoming net importers because the internal demand outstrips the production .. the production is actually declining ... maybe in the end there is something to this peak oil theory ??

Jeha said...

Hazbani,
Whatever the neighbourhoods, we Lebanese need to ascertain ourselves first. Canada and the United States are the best of neighbours today, but in 1812, the Canadians had to shed some blood, tears and sweat to ensure there would be something to NAFTA about later. In the Middle East, each of the children of Abraham is a long way from there yet

Nobody,
I am not sure if there is something to the Malthusian theme; I am more partial to (the great iconoclastic hero) Julian Simon's well substantiated views that the ultimate resource is the human mind. He had consistently proven his point in the face of much opposition, but the press keeps brandying about Ehrlich's mistaken ideas...

Our local shortages may be due to the fact that, in the region, we have been using our mental resources to devising optimal ways to "wasting" one another... So it is no wonder that we're running out of resources; we're too busy digging foxholes, not wells.

Still, I won't go as far as to claim that our supply of barrels is guaranteed in the long run. We should note that there are solid facts behind "peak oil"; the pace of oil discoveries has been steadily decreasing, and whatever oil we're finding is ever more expensive and dirtier. In addition, one notes the pace of new refinery construction had been slowing down between the mid-80's and the late 90's, leading one to consider that the oil companies are not really as bullish as they claim.

Nobody said...

Nobody,
I am not sure if there is something to the Malthusian theme; I am more partial to (the great iconoclastic hero) Julian Simon's well substantiated views that the ultimate resource is the human mind. He had consistently proven his point in the face of much opposition, but the press keeps brandying about Ehrlich's mistaken ideas...

Our local shortages may be due to the fact that, in the region, we have been using our mental resources to devising optimal ways to "wasting" one another... So it is no wonder that we're running out of resources; we're too busy digging foxholes, not wells.


my comment was not intended in any way as a promotion of malthusian or neo malthusian ideas ... nevertheless, when you have the fertility rate hovering around 6 children per woman and the population doubling itself every 20 years, while your water aquifers are depleted and the oil production is declining, your situation may soon start looking like a showcase of the collapse from overpopulation theory ..

never mind that yemen is exceptional in this sense ... i think they and oman are the only countries left in the region with demographics reminiscent of the situation of the arab world 20-30 years ago ... at least the syrians had a rapid fertility decline in the last years which means that at least theoretically you can expect their population to start stabilizing at some point in the future ... there is no end to yemen's population pressures on the horizon though ....

Jeha said...

Nobody,

Sorry for the misunderstanding. I did not mean to imply that you were doing the "promotion of Malthusian or neo Malthusian ideas". However, while I think there is something to what you are saying, I think it has more to do with our focus "away" from things that matter.

At the very least, this creates distraction and inefficiencies in our systems of (mis)government.

Look at it this way; most of our population expansion owes more to diesel pumps than anything else. How else would we have tapped all those aquifers? We are currently reaching the limits of this technology; since it is based on an extraction scheme, not a creation scheme.

We now need to look elsewhere. But without a semblance of "good business environment" around the place, we're all unlikely to make any progress.

Nobody said...

Jeha

No good business environment will save you when your population doubles every 20 years. Believe me. It was tried before

:D :D

Jeha said...

Nobody;

I guess I'll disagree with you on that; Lebanon taught me to be more optimistic about the potential of the human mind. I have seen many far to many roses grow in the muck to realise that, as long as people are not being (too) obstructed, good things can happen, and innovations can come forward. Note that the famines of this century were not caused by lack of food, but by excessive interference from the great and good.

All we need to do maintain a system that "keeps honest people honest", and the others co-opted, coerced, under lock and key, or even "deep-sixed"...

Otherwise, we might as well call off evolution, or even reverse it and go back to the trees, peeling bananas and chasing squirrels...

Nobody said...

Note that the famines of this century were not caused by lack of food, but by excessive interference from the great and good.

It can be partially true but it's difficult to quantify. Mao's great leap forward was probably the most devastating of the last famines but it was carried out by a very pro natalist regime. How much of that famine was due to its out of control demographics is difficult to determine, but it's not for nothing that the next governments soon switched to the one child policy which they ensured by quite draconian methods. Just a few weeks ago the Chinese considered it necessary to officially deny rumors that the one child policy is going to be relaxed.

Even arithmetically it's easy to see why. The economy growing at 4-5% (which is a good growth) with a productivity growth of 1-2% will be barely able to keep up with the population growth of 3%. Never mind reducing unemployment or carrying on through periods of reduced economic growth. In the post war period both Morocco and Tunisia knew times of prolonged and robust growth but most of it was wiped out by demographics.

Maybe that's why the country considered by many as the most modern and advanced Arab state, which is Tunisia, is also held one of the most advanced in family planning. It's true that a few decades ago it was a common opinion that development is the only thing that matters and will do the trick on itself, but I don't think that after the experience of the last 30 years there are left many proponents of this theory.

Jeha said...

Nobody,

I disagree on the points you made.

On Famine;
Amartya Sen work demonstrates that it is not so difficult to quantify. Famines have been mostly traceable to trade disruption, mostly through political interference. This is verified through "personal" experience; in my own family's experience famine has been omnipresent until my parents generation, and I am sure it is the same with most Lebaense. But all would recall stories that link famines to something the Turks did; the last one cause more than 30% mortality and was partially caused by WW1 and the British embargo.

On demography;
The second argument you make is similar to the one made by Ehrlich early on. Aside from the fact that there are problems with those statistics, especially about productivity, there is something to be said for the human capacity to wrestle serendipity out of randomness. The human mind remains the "ultimate resource", but politics always throws a spammer in the works. On the Chinese example, let time decide, when those single kids will realize that;

1- Thanks to growing life expectancy, they still have to nurse aging parents,

2- Thanks to privatization, they have to pay their only child's way through college,

3- When when they get to ensuring retirement, they will discover the pitfalls of living in a society with no reliable old age pension scheme, not to say health insurance.

On Arab "Modern" States:
Correlation is not causation, and there is much more to data than meets the eye. Especially official data published by dictatorships. It is true that Tunisia is a beacon for much of the Arab world, but there's much that hides behind Ben Ali's facade. I'll take Lebanon's mess (or even war) any day over Tunisia's "chape de plomb", or any other Arab country for that matter. Is true you're "safe" as long as the lid is on, and as long as you do not think too much... But when the lid is off, watch out for shrapnel.

Nobody said...

I don't know if you realize it but in the last years Syria and Tunisia have more or less the same growth of 5-6%. It's just that Tunisia has by now a population growth of less than 1% while Syria's population grows by 2.5% with its workforce expanding by 4%. As far as I know Tunisia has never gone through a period of Hong Kong/South Korea style economic expansion. It was not stagnating but neither it has ever an economic super tiger. It's the population control policies that has won it its special place in the Arab world.

As to Lebanon, it's not a good example at all. First of all Lebanon is among those few Arab countries that have already entered the sub replacement fertility zone. Its demographics are more European than Arab. Second, Lebanese Christians make it difficult to compare Lebanon with the rest of the Arab world. Here in Israel Christian Arabs are probably the most prosperous of the four communities. They are for sure the most educated one. If the majority of Israeli Arabs were Christians I can easily imagine the situation in reverse with Jews complaining about discrimination and neglect and not Arabs.

Nobody said...


On demography;
The second argument you make is similar to the one made by Ehrlich early on. Aside from the fact that there are problems with those statistics, especially about productivity, there is something to be said for the human capacity to wrestle serendipity out of randomness. The human mind remains the "ultimate resource", but politics always throws a spammer in the works. On the Chinese example, let time decide, when those single kids will realize that;

1- Thanks to growing life expectancy, they still have to nurse aging parents,

2- Thanks to privatization, they have to pay their only child's way through college,

3- When when they get to ensuring retirement, they will discover the pitfalls of living in a society with no reliable old age pension scheme, not to say health insurance.


By the way, I am not sure that the Chinese are so oblivious to the disadvantages of the one child policy you outline here. I think they understand well the negative aspects involved but they seem to be more preoccupied with various issues brought by overpopulation. For example they are reported to be taking very seriously their growing dependency on food imports as they are running out of cultivable land while experiencing water shortages in some places. Security of food supplies for the Chinese seems to be what the security of oil supplies is for the US.

It should be also noted that despite decades of the one child policy and sub replacement fertility the Chinese population is still growing, though at a much slower rate, as they are still having a certain amount of unspent population momentum they inherited from Mao's era. The Chinese were reported several times in the recent years to be deliberating turning the one child policy into a two child policy as apparently they have largely exhausted their main reservoirs of cheap labor. In fact in some places labor shortages and sharp wage rises are reported while in other areas whole villages stand depopulated because of the migration to the cities. The demographic window is indeed expected to start closing very soon - somewhere around 2015 the dependency ratio will level off and then start deteriorating because of the rapid aging of the population. The Chinese leadership probably knows this better than me. Nevertheless they made that point that while some concessions will be made eventually at some point in the future, they can't afford it right now.

Nobody said...

Of course I would agree that family planning on itself can't substitute economic development. On the other hand if you are a normal developing nation without oil resources and not used to double digit growth rates of east Asian economic tigers, but you are very familiar with double digit fertility rates of Islamic demographics (a joke. I know it's never that high even in Muslim nations), then developing yourself will turn for you into a Sisyphean work.