Lebanese Sunni Fight Each Other While Hezbollah Calls for Unity

Miqati becomes prime minister of Lebanon with the Sunnis politically fractured and fighting each other. Is there hope for replacing Lebanon’s delicate and anti-democratic confessional structure with a modern political system?
In a clear reference to former Lebanese prime minister Hariri (junior), the press office of Sunni member of parliament Mohammed Safari held those responsible for inciting violence to be responsible. The offices of Sunni lawmaker Safari were attacked by Sunni protestors angry at his support for the new Lebanese prime minister, the Sunni businessman and briefly prime minister in 2005 Miqati.
The Lebanese political situation is unfolding on at least three levels:
  • Hezbollah vs. Sunni;
  • U.S./Israel vs. Iran and those Lebanese who want a Lebanon free to pursue a policy independent of U.S./Israeli wishes;
  • Internal Sunni politics.
The attack on Safari’s Tripoli offices addresses my question yesterday about the possible significance of a split in the Sunni camp.  With the Lebanese Shi’a probably already the largest and fastest growing “confessional” group in Lebanon, not to mention the one with both the most modern political party and the most powerful militia, an open split among the country’s billionaire Sunni businessmen politicians would seem pretty significant for Lebanon’s balance of power.
If Lebanon’s leaders can manage to cooperate enough to avoid the civil war that Israel may well be anticipating with glee, it is just possible that this split in Sunni ranks might lead to revision of Lebanon’s bizarre and delicate confessional political structure to pave the way toward real democracy. That is the long-term silver lining in the very dark Lebanese political thunderhead we see today.
If Hezbollah wants to seize the initiative as leader of patriotic Lebanese, a convincing policy to help the poor of all confessions that clearly offered something to the poor Sunni of Tripoli and perhaps even the long marginalized Palestinian refugees who fled the Israeli ethnic cleansing campaign of 1948-9 would be a landmark first step.
Miqati is calling for unity; can he come out swinging as the true reform candidate Lebanon needs? To do so will require some creative thinking: with Saudis, Americans, and Israelis all either alienated or actively opposed to the success of Miqati’s imminent rule, he has few places to go for resources. Mr. Erdogan, are you listening? Some spare change and a small Turkish “peace corps” effort right now would really put Turkey on the map as a regional leader.

Lebanon Upside-Down

Just a quick thought and a question on the latest from Lebanon…

The establishment, “pro-democracy,” “pro-stability,” “pro-US” candidate for prime minister has his guys in the street burning tires and is screaming the most incendiary rhetoric about all his opponents being traitors and refusing to compromise while Hezbollah–that representative of the largest confessional group in Lebanon–is playing precisely by Western democratic rules. In classic British tradition, Hezbollah brought about the fall of the government and now gets the chance to form a new government. What’s not to like? Surely you are not going to tell me we in the West only like democracy when our guys win!?!? I mean, these are “our” rules that Hezbollah is following! Ain’t democracy a beautiful thing?

Question: is the real news here the installation of a Hezbollah government or the splitting of the Sunnis?

Impunity for (Some) Political Murders

Obama noted, in reference to the murder of Hariri, that the “era of impunity” should be brought to a close.

“Era of impunity?”
Was Obama, bless his heart, implying a reference to principle with these words?
That principle would presumably refer to something like “thou shalt not kill” or, more to the point, “thou shall not kill for political purposes.”
Now that’s something over which we can perhaps all come and reason together.
No more political murders: as in Hariri, Iranian nuclear scientists, Mavi Marmara, Hamas official Mahmoud Abu el-Mabhuh.
I agree with President Obama: it is time to end the era of impunity.

Ankara Stumbles and Lebanon Slides Down the Slippery Slope

Rushing to be a player, Ankara trips over its own diplomatic feet.

Judging from a Turkish media report, Ankara seems to have stumbled embarrassingly in its Mideast diplomacy, a misstep that seems likely only to aggravate regional tensions. Reportedly, Ankara agreed to join a French initiative designed to exclude Iran from efforts to resolve the Lebanon political crisis, then–following Iranian protests–backtracked and decided to offer its own approach, of course open to all regional players. What could Ankara have possibly been thinking in imagining that participating in an effort shutting out Tehran could either achieve a solution to a problem that has Iran deeply embedded in its essence or enhance Ankara’s claims of offering a new style of inclusive diplomacy?

Now, instead of seizing the moral high ground as the leader of regional moderation and conciliation, Ankara appears to be the dupe of Tehran. Tehran will not be pleased because it had to push for the inclusion it should have been able to count on. The West will not be pleased because Ankara has gone back on its word. Such clumsy diplomatic miscalculation sets everyone’s teeth on edge; this is not the way to lead a group of violence-prone, zero-sum politicians toward the new win-win world that Davutoglu has been advocating. Ankara’s stumble just pushed Lebanon a little further down the slippery slope to chaos.

Can a compromise solution to murder be discovered?
Lebanon’s future hangs on a case of murder – that of Hariri senior. At first glance it seems hard to imagine a compromise: someone murdered Hariri and that person should be punished. Disagreeing with Palin, those behind-the-scene manipulators should also be punished. But how…without harming the people of Lebanon? Hariri is not the only regional figure to have been murdered recently. Perhaps the politicians who risk so easily the lives of others could start with the voicing of a general principle: political murders are bad. They could cite the case of Hariri, the case of Iranian nuclear scientists, and the case of the Hamas leader in Dubai, and the case of the Mavi Mamara.

Fortunately, much more is going on, with the Erdogan-Assad-al Thani and Davutoglu-al Thani-Nasrallah meetings being prime examples. But public missteps that violate fundamental principles are costly, and the principle of inclusion of all in an effort to find a compromise seems to be a key component of any real solution.

My Safety Requires Your Surrender

Danger: when I am prevented from hitting you. For example, allowing women to defend themselves endangers muggers. Similarly, some countries cannot be allowed to defend themselves.
According to Haaretz, U.S. Representative Steve Rothman has urged France to rethink its plans to sell anti-tank missiles to Lebanon, stipulating that the volatile situation in that country meant that it would put Israel into “grave danger.”
If the Lebanese armed forces obtained anti-tank missiles, then they might actually choose to defend Lebanon the next time Israel decides to invade. Alternatively, those weapons might end up in the hands of Hezbollah, which will surely defend Lebanon the next time Israel invades. Of course, Israel could still destroy Lebanese infrastructure at will from its jet bombers and litter the land with white phosphorus terror weapons, like those that still maim Lebanese children as the result of Israel’s 2006 invasion, but if it could not drive its tanks through Lebanon, Israel would be put in “grave danger.”
Well, yes, this U.S. congressional spokesperson for the Israeli expansionist right wing has a point. After all, the best Israel could manage in 2006 was a draw – it provoked the flood north of a million or so Lebanese refugees, ravaged the land and wrecked civilian infrastructure, but Hezbollah was able to hold on and claim credit for stopping the regional superpower in its tank tracks. So giving Lebanon the means to defend itself would endanger…well, obviously not “Israel” but at least the expansionist plans of the right wing. After all, how seriously is Iran going to take Israeli threats if even tiny Lebanon starts defending itself? The whole house of cards would start to shake.

Defending Zionism

The Israeli Navy has once again defended Israel against the onslaught of terrorists, provocateurs, and other enemies of Zionist regional military hegemony. In the event, if one cares about the details of this particular case, a handful of saboteurs attacking the permanent state of war against Islam, including Israelis (!), attempted to break the Gaza blockade in a tiny craft containing medicines and other weapons of peace. With overpowering force, as is their wont, the Israeli Navy once again emerged victorious over the forces of peace and understanding. It naturally follows that U.S. military aid to Israel should immediately be increased – and delivered by the usual emergency airlift, following the model of the jet bomber fuel sent during Israel’s attempt to destroy the economic infrastructure of southern Lebanon during the hot summer of 2006.

The IDF’s own spokesman condemned the “surreal assignment” of diverting the navy from defending Israel to chasing peace activists, but he missed the point: the Israeli military were not “diverted;” it is not their job to defend Israel. The assignment given to the Israeli military by the Israeli regime of Netanyahu is to defend Zionist expansionism; the blockade of Gaza, the occupation of all useful West Bank land, and the subordination of neighboring countries from regular invasions of Lebanon to nuclear threats against non-nuclear Iran are all critical pieces of that imperial structure.

Small as Gaza may be, allow it freedom, allow it to select its own leaders (that would be Hamas), and the whole structure of Israeli military domination will collapse. Such a victory by Hamas will lead to the catastrophe (for Zionists) of a democratic election in Palestine, which Hamas would win in an explosion of Palestinian patriotism, just as it won the first such election in 2006. From there to a flood of illegal Israeli settlers returning to Israel from the West Bank would be a short road. Hezbollah would be reinvigorated, Ahmadinejad would be crowing, and Erdogan would be offering to negotiate “a new friendly Mideast.” Worst of all, it might even bring the Israeli left back from the dead and provoke a resurgence of Israeli democracy.

Syrian Scuds to Hezbollah Signal Frustration

More than a year after Obama entered the White House, it is not clear what anyone has gained from the new conciliatory tone in U.S.-Syrian relations. If anyone knows of any substantive concession yet made by either side, please send me a note. Words matter…but they only go so far, especially in a context where words pour out from all quarters in a steady flood that mixes nice with nasty just the way real floods mix rain with mud. So what are we to make of the new story of Syrian Scuds being turned over to Hezbollah?
If Israel made this story up, then it is extremely serious for it would suggest Israel is looking for an excuse to start another war. But that is a very cynical interpretation for which I have no evidence, so enough about that.
If Syria in fact gave Scuds to Hezbollah or plans to give them or is trying to create the impression that it intends to give them, then the most obvious interpretation would seem to be that, amazingly, Damascus has figured out…that it is not clear it has gained anything from the new conciliatory tone in U.S.-Syrian relations. This statement rests on the assumption that what Syria really wants is a combination of national security and the return of the Golan Heights. On neither score is it getting anywhere.
Perhaps the enormous prestige of having a U.S. ambassador in residence and the possibility of various economic incentives that might flow from an improved bilateral tone are more important than security and territory, but land and security are normally pretty basic goals. By Occam’s Razor, I’m going to stick with that assumption until presented with some persuasive evidence to the contrary. It flows from this logic that Damascus has decided that it needs to signal Washington that its core interests are not being served by a “new tone” in bilateral diplomacy. This isn’t a romance; it is an effort to create a military balance in the Levant to replace the current Israeli dominion that sees Israel with not just an overwhelming military edge but also with the political ability to 1) decide what weapons its opponents may possess, 2) attack without being attacked in return, 3) overfly its opponents’ territory without penalty, and 4) keep in perpetuity whatever it conquered in 1967.
The Scuds, balanced against Israeli weaponry, aren’t much of a strategic military weapon, but they constitute a serious political statement. Washington should be interpreting the Scuds not as a threat but as a message. Lunch on the White House lawn is not Syria’s goal; it’s goal is redress of grievances.