Lebanon and the Syrian Unrest

2 05 2011
Major Basil Assad

These are troubling times for Lebanon. Even for a country under the thumb of Damascus, things seem to be out of their control. The most anyone can do is just wait and see.

Since 1963, Syria has been under control of the Baath party.  Hafez Assad took power in 1970 and ruled the country with an iron fist until he died in 2000. His son, Major Basil Assad, had been groomed to take his place, but the young man died in a car accident in 1994 at the age of 31. The regime was forced to go with Plan B.

“Plan B” was Basil’s younger brother, Dr. Bashar Assad. Bashar was studying ophthalmology in London when his brother died and he was forced to return to Damascus and enlist in the army. Bashar Assad was never supposed to be “the guy”. Bashar took power upon his father’s death, insulated by a wall of mostly Alawite men chosen by Assad Sr. to facilitate his son’s ascension.

Dr. Bashar Assad

The Alawites are considered to an offshoot of Shia Islam. In the early part of Hafez Assad’s reign, he was met with challenges from Syria’s Sunni majority, who believe the Alawites to be infidels. In 1973, Lebanon’s most prominent Shiite leader issued a fatwa declaring Alawites to be a full part of the Shiite family. In return, Sadr received support in developing his Amal militia, a precursor to Hizballah. (Assad also threw his support behind Sadr’s friends in Iran when they overthrew the Shah in 1979.)

After those shaky few early years, the next internal challenge Assad faced was the revolt of the Muslim Brotherhood in the early 1980’s. The unrest came to a head in 1982, when Assad’s forces surrounded the Muslim Brotherhood stronghold of Hama. The army razed the town killing thousands in the process. For the rest of Assad’s reign, he would not face another serious challenge from within.

As the protests in Syria continue to spiral, the memory of Hama is in the minds of the protesters. When Bashar Assad took power in 2000, he was considered to be a “reformer”, a characterization still maintained by the West, including US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. It was unclear whether Bashar was capable of playing by what Thomas Friedman famously termed “Hama Rules” in his book From Beirut to Jerusalem.

With the unrest growing and spreading to the capital, it seems we are learning the answer. The city where the protest began, Deraa (sounding eerily similar to “Hama”) is currently under siege. Deraa is surrounded by the military. Water, electricity, and food supplies have been cut.

But there is a difference between a siege of a town and its complete destruction. If Bashar Assad gives the order to shell Deraa into oblivion, we will know that he is capable of playing by Hama Rules.

The protest that started in Deraa have spread to the rest of the country. Thousands of people are in the Damascus calling for the removal of the regime, a scenario that was previously unthinkable.

To date, over 450 people have been killed. The cycle is a familiar one, repeated many times throughout the Great Arab Intifada: people protest, the government cracks down, people are killed, protest grow following funeral and Friday prayers, repeat.

The implications of the unrest in Syria for the region and beyond are many. Starting with Lebanon, refugees from Syria have already started pouring over the border to escape the violence. Sunni Lebanese politicians have been accused of encouraging the protests and even funding the opposition. Syria holds tremendous influence in Lebanon and what is felt in Damascus will surely be felt in Beirut.

Lebanon was already in a tenuous political position when the protests started. Hizballah had just supplanted Saad Hariri as Prime Minister with their own man, Nijab Mikati. As a result, Mikati is still in the process of forming his new cabinet of ministers and Lebanon is forced to weather the current crisis without a government.

The situation seems to be a tinder box. It’s alarming to think about the prospect of the United Nations Hariri Tribunal releasing handing down its indictments right now. Even without that, it’s conceivable that Assad could unleash one of his many proxies in Lebanon to start trouble as a distraction or misdirection.

That scenario is unlikely however, because the only distraction big enough to avert the world’s eyes from another Hama-style massacre would be for Hizballah to start hurling rockets at Israel. In the wake of the damage done in the 2006 War combined with all the political gains Hizballah has made since then, the group would likely balk at the idea of starting another fight with Israel at this point.

The West, led by the United States, has tried to enact sanctions against Syria in the UN Security Council, but faced resistance from China and Russia, as well as Lebanon, who is currently serving as a non-permanent member. Russia and China have their internal concerns and are understandably weary about encouraging international interference in what they see as the domestic affairs of the state.

The unrest in Syria has many implications for the Middle East and beyond. For the Lebanese, the result is a new sense of powerlessness over their destiny. Its one thing for a state to have its own problems, but what do you do when your overlord is convulsing?

The billion dollar question right now is what will happen if the Assad regime falls? This is a strategic question for the West, but the outcome will have vast consequences for Lebanon. Suppose a Sunni regime ascends to power; will that translate to the Sunnis in Lebanon wielding more power? How will the other sects react to this scenario? Suppose the new regime is hostile or neutral towards Iran; what will the mean for Hizballah, whose weapons and cash from Iran are shipped through Syria? Will Hizballah then become isolated in Lebanon? How would they react to the isolation?

Iran is in a similar situation. If the Assad regime is replaced by one that is less sympathetic to their needs, and perhaps closer with other Sunni Arab countries like Egypt or Saudi Arabia, the Islamic Republic will face a whole new level of international isolation. In this perceived zero-sum game, any loss for Iran is seen as a gain by the West. The loss of such a crucial ally combined with a deteriorating internal situation could make Tehran more pliable to the demands of the by the United States.

Saudi King Abdullah

Saudi Arabia though is in an odd position. On one hand Iran is their arch enemy, and the casting off of the Assad regime would surely be a significant blow to the Ayatollah. Some analysts have put forth the idea that thwarting Shiite Iran is the key national security issue of the Kingdom (see: Bahrain, Lebanon, and Yemen).

But on the other hand, the Saudi royal family does not wish to see another dictator removed from power in the Middle East, as it increases the chance that they could be next.  Both Iran and the Arab Intifada pose existential threats to the regime in Riyadh, but it seems the Saudis have deemed the Intifada the more immediate threat.

Israel also has a great deal to be concerned with. Syria lost the Golan Heights territory to Israel in the 1967 War and the two have been in negotiation for its return ever since. Damascus under the Assads maintained a hostile-yet-predictable stance towards the Jewish State over the years and it seems that Tel Aviv is in no rush to see another regime, possibly under the leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood, take its place.

Were this to be the case, Israel could find itself boxed in by two countries under the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood. The last thing Israel wants to see is an emergent- and possibly hostile- Syria and Egypt united under political Islam, which could threaten Israel’s national security and weaken their hand significantly when trying to arrive at a final solution over Palestine.

Khaled Meshaal and Ahmedinejad

Just last week, Hamas merged with the Palestinian Authority in a move that some analysts attributed the Hamas’s insecurity concerning the unrest in Syria. Hamas has enjoyed the patronage of Syria for years, and it’s leader-in-exile, Khaled Meshaal, lives in Damascus. Were Hamas to lose that support, the group could be dramatically weakened. The move to merge with the PA is understandable on the grounds that they risk losing relevance should the Assads be removed from power.

The United States is watching the unrest in Damascus closer than perhaps any of the other Arab revolts. The key to Syria’s power has always been geography: it borders Turkey, Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, and Iraq. The Assads in particular have deftly exploited this position, gaining enough concessions to remain in power for forty-plus years.

As the United States deals with a myriad of foreign policy obstacles and issues in the region, Syria is always in the picture. The new Cold War with Iran; the safety and security of Israel; the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; the emergence of Turkey; maintaining the balance of power between the Sunnis and the Shia…Syria is close to every single issue. The outcome of the unrest will have enormous consequences for the United States, especially if the Assad regime falls.

Syria represents a growing concern for the region. The Assad regime has plugged Alawite loyalists into every meaningful post in the military, security, and intelligence apparatus. For revolutions to succeed swiftly, the protesters need the help of the military, or at least their neutrality. This was the case in Egypt and Tunisia. But in Libya and Bahrain, we have seen what happens when the will of the people is opposite that of the military.

If the regime can quell the unrest with violence, it does. If not, the country descends into chaos and civil war. Right now, it looks like the demonstrations in Syria will continue to grow, especially since the rate of protesters being murdered continues to increase. At the same time, the goal of the Syrian military is to protect the regime, and that is unlikely to change. Unfortunately, steadily increasing cycles of violence are likely in the near-to-medium term.

As a side note, it is interesting to consider the possibility of jihadis coming to fight the Assad regime if the country descends into civil war and the conflict is perceived by the region’s Salafi warriors as “a battle to protect good Sunni Muslims from the heretical Alawite murderers”. Damascus has fostered extremist groups in the region for so long, the irony of them coming home to roost is delicious to ponder.

For now, all eyes are on Syria to see what will happen next. The prospect of the downfall of the Assads has vast implications for the Lebanon and the Middle East. With the removal of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and Zine el Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia, and the likely removal of Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen and Muammar Qaddafi in Libya, we could see the end of 125 years of despotic rulers in the Middle East. This has been a remarkable year for Arabs, and it’s only April.

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US stops military aid to LAF

5 04 2011

Editor’s note: this article originally appears on the Foreign Policy Association website.

It was a question Washington had been struggling with since the George W. Bush administration: How can America strengthen the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) without simultaneously aiding Hizballah?  This week, US Defense Secretary Robert Gates decided that it was impossible.

Since Hizballah began participating in Lebanese elections in the 1990’s, the group has steadily risen in power. Hizballah is currently one of the most influential political groups in Lebanon. In January of this year, the group withdrew it’s allied MPs, collapsing pro-Western government led by Saad Hariri.

Now Lebanon is in the process of forming a new government, this time led by Syrian-approved billionaire businessman, Nijab Mikati. Although there have been challenges in forming the new government, the look of it will be decidedly pro-Hizballah. It seems with this development Hizballah has reached some sort of watershed that makes Washington very uncomfortable.

Lebanon is now perceived by America and the West as being led by Hizballah (as much as any one group can actually lead Lebanon). In the current political context of Hizballah’s hostility towards Israel and Washington’s Cold War II with Iran, this is unacceptable for US policymakers. Now for them, to aid the LAF is to aid Hizballah.

There has long been a fear in Washington that US weapons meant for the LAF would end up in the hands of Hizballah, which is likely why the LAF never received high-powered or high-tech weapons from the US government. Though the US appropriated tens of million of dollars in aid over the years, most of it was in the form of light weapons, ammunition, and vehicles. In other words, nothing that could inflict serious damage on Israel.

It is questionable just how much Hizballah would be interested in pilfering US arms from the LAF. Iran and Syria already provide Hizballah with weapons, much of it far more potent than LAF supplies. In addition, Hizballah would have little use for tanks or helicopters, which do not match up with its guerrilla-style warfare and could be easily destroyed by the Israeli military.

Hizballah is more interested in rockets or missiles that are potent-yet-portable. The Katyusha rockets they launched at Israel by the thousands in the 2006 War fit this mold. They can be set up, launched, dismantled, and stowed in minutes. Not much of what the US has donated to Lebanon in the past matches this description.

With Hizballah’s strategy of having it’s members serve in the LAF, it’s unclear if the two can even be regarded as wholly seperate entities.According to Stratfor, “(Hizballah) makes it a point to discharge a portion of its recruits after they serve two years in the military wing and then enlists them in the Lebanese army. This allows Hizballah to both control the composition of the army’s ranking officers and influence specific operations.”

Military aid to Lebanon has been under scrutiny for several years now. Many in Washington became concerned with the issue after Saad Hariri’s visits to Syria and Iran’s President Ahmedinejad’s visit to Lebanon, where he was welcomed in Shiite neighborhoods by throngs of supporters. In December 2010,  US Congress lobbied against a proposed sale of French anti-tank weapons to the LAF. It seems the collapse of the Hariri government was the last straw.

The decision to withdraw support for the LAF will not be without consequences for the United States. Many Lebanese already feel that Hizballah is their best option for protection against Israel, which has invaded twice in the last thirty years, and occupied Lebanese territory from 1982 to 2000.

Making matters worse, many of the arms used against the Lebanese in the 2006 War with Israel were of American origin. In 2009, Lebanon received $60 million in US military assistance. Israel received $2,380 million for the same period.

America’s declining influence in Lebanon leaves the door open for Syria and Iran to increase their presence there. One possible solution could be to continue the military support at past levels while encouraging relationship-building between senior officers in the US military and the LAF. This was the case in Egypt, which was fortunate for the US when the Mubarak regime crumbled.

The same situation might not play out in Lebanon, but at least Washington would have some sort of inside track on events there, with the possibility of influencing them. The way things are now, America appears to be leaving Lebanon to the wolves, namely Israel, Iran, Hizballah, and Syria.

 





The Case of Yemen

23 03 2011

Yemen

Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s grip on power grew even more tenuous this week, as top generals, politicians and tribal leaders defected to the opposition. The news of the defections was met by the protestors with jubilation. At this rate, the question of Saleh losing power has shifted from “if” to “when”.  However, this Machiavellian politician has managed to stay in office for three decades and his survival skills should not be underestimated.

Right now, Yemen appears to be following the lead of the Tunisia and Egypt; other countries that managed to overthrow despots who had ruled for decades.  But even if Yemen manages to shake off Saleh and his regime, the country still faces monumental challenges in the days ahead. These issues need to be addressed immediately and a prolonged conflict could spell doom for this Arab nation.

Before the Arab revolution, Yemen was dealing with rebels in the north and separatists in the south. The country will be out of oil and water in ten years. There is a strong al-Qaeda presence. Now we can add widespread political unrest to the list. Complicating matters is the fact that Yemen shares a border with Saudi Arabia. For our purposes, these are the relevant facts.

Timeline

Ali Abdullah Saleh was selected by parliament to be president of North Yemen in 1978. North and South Yemen were united in 1990. In January 2011, protests erupted in the capital, Sana’a. The protests continued throughout February, with demonstrators demanding Saleh step down. On March 18, up to 50 protestors were gunned down in the capital by men believed to be regime loyalists. The killing of the protestors seemed to mark a turning point, as several major figures (tribal leaders, generals, high-level politicians and diplomats) began siding with the opposition.

The biggest hit to the regime came with the defection of Major General Ali Muhsin al-Ahmar. It is now believed that at least half the army is with the opposition. There have been reports of army soldiers clashing with loyalist Republican Guards, which are led by Saleh’s son Ahmed.  General Ahmar has sent forces to protect the protestors from the state, similar to the role the military played in Egypt.

Tribes

Like Libya, Yemen has a strong tribal presence. Some major tribal leaders have begun defecting to the opposition, but it is unclear how they would fair in a democracy. The tribes wield a tremendous amount of power, which is sure to be diluted in the installation of a true representative government in Yemen.  Saleh may not be much of a leader, but he might be the only force capable of holding the country together. Yemen could fragment along tribal lines if and when Saleh steps down or is removed.

Saleh

Saleh’s deft political maneuvering is what has kept him in power for over thirty years. Many factions have been upset with him during that period, just not all at the same time.  Saleh was a master of juggling alliances to keep enemies at bay to remain in office. When threatened by one group gaining too much power, he would prop up another group to balance things out, and the next month he would do the opposite. Saleh made sure that no faction grew too strong or too weak, and somehow he always managed to come out on top.

Externally, he was almost as skillful. Yemen borders Saudi Arabia, and Saleh was able to play on Saudi paranoia of Iran to guarantee support from the Kingdom. Saleh’s diplomatic overtures to Iran would be countered by Saudi Arabia, who would use its influence with the Yemeni tribes to help the Saleh avoid trouble and remain in power. He used the same strategy with the United States, always playing on fears of Al-Qaeda to extract aid and support from Washington.

Challenges

Yemen is in rough shape. It is already the poorest country in the Middle East, with unemployment around 35%. Three quarters of government revenue comes from oil, which is expected to run out within the decade.

During that same time, Yemen is also predicted to be the first country to run out of water. There are two main reasons for this: drought and qat. Nothing can be done about the drought, but problems from qat are manmade.

Qat is a mildly-narcotic plant whose leaves are chewed for the desired stimulant effect. It’s use in Yemen is rampant, especially in men. The usefulness of the plant is debatable (life in Yemen is hard and it’s natural for people to look for an escape), but its effects on the environment are undeniable. The plant sucks up an atrocious amount of water yet bares no fruit, only the leaves.  But try telling that to the people who grow it, who have no other sources for earning an income for their families.

Qat farming is one of the only viable industries in Yemen and the use of water in its cultivation takes an enormous toll on the nation’s aquifer. Hundreds of illegal wells have been dug and used up dry. Competition for water sources is fierce and is often the cause of violence.  This will continue to be a growing problem for Yemen, especially with a guns per capita ratio second only to the United States.

To make matters worse, the state is using oil to fuel water pumps and desalinization plants. Running out of oil or water would be a disaster for any country. Running out of both at the same time could be fatal. Yemen faces the possibility of running out of water, its largest natural resource and supplier of government revenues (oil), and its only major crop and employer (the qat industry) all at the same time.

Conclusion

Whatever results come from the protests, Yemen faces a historic catastrophe in the not-too-distant future. Any government that comes out of the turmoil will have to address these problems immediately, and should seek support from the international community to do so.

 

 





Top 5 MEA Murder Mysteries

18 03 2011

*Editor’s note: Everything in this article is speculation, all evidence circumstantial.

5. Sayyed Abdul-Majid al-Khoei

Born/Died/Age 1962-2003 (age 40)

Base of Operations Iraq

Who Was He? Sayyed al-Khoei was a widely respected Shiite religious figure in Iraq who fought against the Saddam Hussein regime in the 1991 Shia uprising. He was forced to flee Iraq and settle in London, where he worked for the al-Khoei foundation to give the Shia a voice in the international community.  After the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, al-Khoei returned from exile and was promptly murdered. He was hacked to death by unknown assailants and died at Moqtada al-Sadr’s front door. When Sadr learned that al-Khoei was mortally wounded and bleeding to death on his doorstep, Sadr reportedly ordered is men to have al-Khoei moved to die somewhere else.

Location of Death Najaf, Iraq

Likely Suspects Moqtada al-Sadr followers, Sunni Baathists

Best Guess Moqtada al-Sadr’s followers possibly killed al-Khoei in order to eliminate a rival of their leader. It’s unclear whether Sadr ordered al-Khoei’s murder, but Sadr’s reported treatment of the Sayyed after learning that he was dying in front of his house raises suspicions.

Implications of Death Al-Khoei was considered a to be a moderate and respected voice among Iraqi religious leaders. His shocking death foreshadowed the violence Iraq was about to descend into. Had al-Khoei lived, he may have been able to prevent the cycles of violence that plagued Iraqis from 2003 to 2007, in which thousands were killed.

4. Abdullah Yusuf Azzam

Born/Died/Age 1941-1989 (age 47)

Base of Operations Afghanistan

Who Was He? Azzam was a Palestinian jihadi who led his forces against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. He was killed by a roadside bomb.

Location of Death Peshawar, Pakistan

Likely Suspects Pakistani Intelligence, CIA, Mossad, Afghani Rivals

Best Guess Mossad is a likely suspect because, by 1989, the war had been won by the jihadis in Afghanistan, and Azzam was a strong advocate for the fight to be taken to Israel next.

Implications of Death Azzam was a mentor of Osama bin Laden throughout the anti-Soviet jihad. By brining bin Laden to Afghanistan, Azzam introduced him to the people and the land he would later use as his base of operations from which to attack the United States. Azzam’s opinions were published and widely read among jihadis.


3. Imam Musa Sadr

Born/Died/Age 1929 to 1978 (age 49 when disappeared)

Base of Operations Lebanon

Who Was He? Musa Sadr was an influential Shiite cleric who can be credited with starting the current Shia revival in Lebanon and throughout the Muslim world. Sadr used his influence to build hospitals and schools and established badly needed social services in poor Shiite neighborhoods in Lebanon.  Sadr went on to form the Shiite militia Amal.

Location of Death Disappeared on a visit to Tripoli in 1978; may not be dead

Likely Suspects Muammar Qaddafi

Best Guess Muammar Qaddafi  is the main suspect, as Sadr disappeared on a visit with the Libyan despot. Sadr may not technically qualify for this list as he might still be alive, but it is highly unlikely. Out of the recent chaos erupting in Libya came conflicting reports about the fate of Imam Sadr, with one saying he was being held deep in a Libyan prison, the other saying he had been killed and buried out in the desert. Sadr would be 82 today.

Implications of Death Sadr was a uniting voice in Lebanon, as well as an advocate for respect and harmony between country’s multiple religious sects. It’s been said that had he lived, Lebanon would have avoided the bloodiest parts of its Civil War (1975-1990). Even today, the mention of Sadr provokes a strong reaction among Lebanese Shia. His posters still adorn walls in every Shiite neighborhood throughout Lebanon as believers wait, one way or another, for his return.

In the recent measure passed by the UN Security Council regarding Libya, Lebanon was one of the few Arab countries that supported Western intervention. This is still a raw wound for many in Lebanon.



2. Imad Mugniyeh

Born/Died/Age 1962 to 2008 (age 45)

Base of Operations Lebanon

Who Was He? Considered an arch-terrorist by Western intelligence agencies, Imad Mugniyeh was a Palestinian Shiite from southern Lebanon. He started out in the PLO, eventually working his way up to become a bodyguard to Yassar Arafat. He has been linked to many events, including the 1983 bombing of a US Marine barracks in Beirut, the 1985 high jacking of a TWA airliner, the 1992 bombing of the Israeli embassy in Argentina, the 1996 bombing of Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia, and numerous kidnappings throughout the Lebanese Civil War.

Mugniyeh was involved in the formation of Hizballah in the early 1980’s. He was a particularly shadowy figure, even for the world of international terrorism. He worked with Hizballah, the PLO, Syrian intelligence, and Iran’s Revolutionary Guards (IRGC). Mugniyeh is usually remembered as a member of Hizballah, but that may not be entirely accurate. He worked closely with the IRGC and his position may have been something closer to the Ayatollah’s black ops commander; Tehran (or Damascus) could use him when they wanted, but Hizballah would get all the blowback.

Mugniyeh had been in hiding for the better part of 15 years when he was killed, and his use by Hizballah during that time is questionable. This coincides with the transition (phasing out kidnapping and international terrorism while focusing on Israel) the group was undertaking after Hassan Nasrallah was named Hizballah Secretary General in 1992. He was killed by a car bomb.

Location of Death Damascus, Syria

Likely Suspects CIA, Mossad

Best Guess Mossad

Implications of Death Few outside of the PLO/IRGC/Hizballah community were sad to see him go. Hizballah continues to vow revenge for the “martyred” Mugniyeh. Although Nasrallah has made many public statements to the contrary, it’s conceivable that Nasrallah, while saddened by his death, was slightly relieved by it. Mugniyeh represented a link to Hizballah’s ultra-violent past as an international menace, and his death removed a big hurdle  for The Party of God in terms of legitimacy. Much more on Mugniyeh below.

1.  Rafik Hariri

Born/Died/Age 1944 to 2005 (age 60)

Base of Operations Lebanon

Who Was He? Hariri was a former Prime Minister of Lebanon who was assassinated on Valentine’s Day 2005 as his car passed through the Beirut seaside. He was a popular Sunni politician, a billionaire who was close friends with the president of France and the King of Saudi Arabia. During the latter years of the Syrian occupation of Lebanon, Hariri was growing in influence and represented an increasingly formidable rival to Syria’s President Bashar Assad. In Syria, Assad’s Alawite regime rules over a Sunni majority, and the last thing he wanted to see was a powerful Sunni political presence in Lebanon to challenge his authority. For Syria, a strong Sunni Lebanon is bad news.

Location of Death Beirut, Lebanon

Likely Suspects Hizballah, Mossad, Syrian Intelligence

Best Guess My best guess is that Syrian Intelligence arranged the Hariri hit. They had motive (Hariri’s growing influence) and opportunity (Syria had thousands of troops and intelligence operatives stationed in Lebanon).  It also seems likely that Hariri’s death is linked to that of Imad Mugniyeh, a theory I have not heard anyone else present.

Syria is likely behind Hariri’s death, and soon after people connected with the hit began to turn up dead. It’s obvious that whoever killed Hariri would want to cover their tracks. Furthermore, it is widely believed (as Hassan Nasrallah himself stated) that members of Hizballah would be named when the UN tribunal tasked with investigating Hariri’s murder releases its findings.

Hizballah as an organization had little or nothing to gain by killing Hariri, and it is believed that Hariri had good relations with Nasrallah just before he was killed. It doesn’t make sense that “Hizballah” would kill a man whom the group was friendly with, but that doesn’t mean that “rougue members” of Hizballah weren’t involved.

This is where Mugniyeh comes in, as there was no one more rogue than he. If you were a high level Syrian intelligence official in Damascus and you wanted Hariri gone, who would you use? The logical choice is Mugniyeh: as a black ops veteran, he has proven that he is capable, and as a man (rightly or wrongly) associated throughout the world with Hizballah, he provides plausible deniability, which is always important in an assassination. Also, Mugniyeh is believed to be behind the spate of assassinations of journalists and politicians that were critical of Syria that came in the mid-2000’s.

Mugniyeh was living under Syrian state protection in Damascus when he was murdered. If the presence of the Syrian intelligence apparatus is strong in Beirut, it is omnipresent in Damascus. The Assad regime knew where Mugniyeh lived and he wouldn’t have been able to stay without permission.

So why the change of heart from Assad?  There are two, possibly three, reasons: One, Assad was likely concerned with the growing risks of harboring a known and widely-wanted international terrorist in the post 9/11 world. Two, he wanted to wipe out the mastermind behind the Hariri operation. And three, Assad was entering secret negotiations with Israel at the time of Mugniyeh’s death. What better way to eliminate a such a massive national security liability and offer a symbol of good faith to Israel than to turn over Mugniyeh to Mossad?

Mugniyeh’s death always bugged me. He was protected in Damascus, and the intelligence services no doubt kept a close eye on him. In addition to Syrian intel watching out for him, Mugniyeh was also a security mastermind in his own right. He eluded capture for years and only a handful of pictures and almost no written records exist of the man. A guy like this isn’t taken down unless someone sells him out, and the only ones in a position to do so were Assad’s people.

I keep coming back to it: if the regime in Damascus was behind the Hariri hit, who would they use? Most likely Mugniyeh, a man used many times before. The problem for Imad Mugniyeh is that he just became too much of a liability for Syria and it was time to go.  Whoever ordered the hit on Hariri is likely the same person that arranged or allowed for Mugniyeh’s death as well.

Implications of Death Lebanon still lives under the cloud of Rafik Hariri’s murder. After his death, massive protests erupted forcing Syria to end its 30 year occupation of Lebanon. It was a particularly tumultuous time for Lebanon, when people took sides with Syria or against Syria.

This is still the dominant political fault line today. Rafik Hariri’s son, Saad Hariri, went on to replace him as the head Sunni politician in Lebanon. The UN’s Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) is still in the process of investigating Hariri’s murder, with findings expected to be released in the coming months. If Hizballah members are indicted by the Tribunal, the result could be a deeper, more serious rift between Sunnis and Shia of Lebanon and beyond.

It’s not known who the STL will name specifically, but is unlikely that it will be major players. Maybe someone who drove a car or used a cell phone in the operation, but probably not whoever planned it and almost certainly not whoever ordered it. Though it’s unlikely, Hizballah may very well have been behind the hit- meaning that upper leadership, including Nasrallah, approved the operation- but like I said, that is not likely. In any case, Hizballah seems to be taking the fall on this one, even if against their will.

Perhaps Hizballah members did participate in the hit, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t working at the direction of Syria. In this corner of the world, where sometimes the only way to get things done is with guns, bombs, and spies, who someone really works for is never quite clear.  However, maybe that’s all part of the bargain for Hizballah: in exchange for money and weapons from Syria and Iran, The Party of God has to provide political cover for its generous patrons every once in a while.

It seems to be a high price to pay.






Hariri and Hizballah

17 03 2011

Editor’s note: this article originally appears on the Foreign Policy Association website.

Last Sunday, Saad Hariri’s March 14 coalition held a rally in Beirut to commemorate the six-year anniversary of the group’s founding. In front of a crowd of thousands, Hariri questioned the usefulness of heavily armed non-state actors in Lebanon, and said that the Lebanese state should have a monopoly on the use of force. Hariri was referring to Hizballah, the only Lebanese group to retain its weapons after the Civil War ended in 1990.

The issue of Hizballah’s arms is highly controversial in Lebanon. Lebanon has a sizable population of Shia Muslims (estimated around 40% of the country’s total population), a historically disenfranchised lot who credit their recent political ascension in large part to Hizballah, its strategies, and its weapons. Lebanese Shia might agree that no other group should be allowed to have weapons in competition with the state, but when it comes to the Party of God, they find the concept acceptable.

Lebanon’s Shia did not get where they are today by the goodwill of the Christians and the Sunnis; they got there by Hizballah’s use of force, cunning, and ruthlessness. However, the amount of MP’s allocated to the various sects is still skewed in favor of the Christian parties and, all things considered, the Shia still have a long way to go to achieve an equitable share of seats in parliament in relation to their numbers.

Lebanon’s whole political system, from the National Pact (1943) to the Taif Accords (1989) to the Doha Agreement (2008) is based upon harmony between the sects. As time has gone by, it has become clear that these are only band-aids to Lebanon’s real political problem: the system does not reflect the demographic reality. The Christians (and to some extent the Sunnis) know their numbers have dwindled (due to emigration and lower birthrates), yet they are reluctant to change the Lebanese government to reflect this shift because they will be the ones to lose out.

The Daily Star’s Michael Young recently wrote an interesting article on this topic, proposing that March 14 should offer the Shia additional political powers in exchange for Hizballah relinquishing their weapons. Young stopped short of calling for a one-man-one-vote system, where each sect would have an accurate representation in the government, but the move could force Hizballah to choose between its weapons and its people.

Young calls Hizballah’s weapons “the elephant in the room”, but in Lebanon elephants abound*. The outdated and unfair political allocations are the deeper problem, because as long as there is a disparity between population and power, there will always be insecurity in the form of weapons to make up the difference.  This mis-allocation will continue to haunt Lebanon until a more representative system takes its place.

*The STL is one, Syrian influence is another.

Saad Hariri’s call for Hizballah to disarm occurs when March 14’s power and influence is at a low point. Hizballah, fearing some of its members would be fingered by the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (the hybrid UN-Lebanese body tasked with investigating the assassination of Rafik Hariri), wanted Hariri to withdraw his support for the Tribunal. When Hariri refused, Hizballah and its allies maneuvered to oust him as Prime Minister. Ironically, up until the time he was pushed out of office, Hariri’s government publicly supported Hizballah’s weapons as an integral part of Lebanon defenses.

The time to call for Hizballah to disarm was when March 14 was in power, when dealing from a position of relative strength. However, March 14 had only won by a slim majority in the June 2009 parliamentary elections, and without a clear mandate from the people, they needed the help of the opposition to form a government. Hariri knew he needed Hizballah’s help and it would have been political suicide to make enemies with them straight away after taking power.

Throughout his term in office however, that reality never changed. Now Hariri is fighting for his political life and calling for Hizballah to lay down their arms will likely sit well with his constituents as he tries to re-energize his base.

In light of the unrest sweeping the region, it is interesting to ponder what the current state of Lebanon’s Shiites would be today had Hizballah never existed (if Israel and the PLO had never invaded). It is not hard to imagine this marginalized group taking to the streets and to demand reform, similar to the Bahraini Shia today. Would then Lebanon be in a more stable position in which to reform, or would the powers that be use force to maintain the status quo? As with current day Bahrain, the answer is probably closer to the latter than the former, with the reason being that any political advancement by the Shia is seen by Sunnis and the West as a win for Iran, a preconception that has led to disaster in the region for the United States.

Speaking of which, no discussion of Hizballah’s arms is complete without mentioning Iran. Hizballah is part of Iran’s national security strategy. The group’s stronghold of South Lebanon abuts with Israel and represents the “tip of the spear” for Iran should Israel attempt military action on Persian soil. The reality is, whether true or not, Israel and Iran represent existential threats to each other and their foreign policies reflect this. As a result, Iran has supported Hizballah with hundreds of millions of dollars in cash and arms since helping to form the group in the early 1980’s.

If Hizballah were to disarm, it would be effectively abandoning its duty to keep Israel in check, thereby increasing the likelihood of Israeli military operations against Iran. For Tehran, losing Hizballah would be a nightmare. For Hizballah’s part, the group would be hard pressed to replace the financial support of Iran, nor does it want to. One of Hizballah’s stated “pillars” of existence is to resist Israel, and the group has many times pledged its allegiance to the Ayatollahs of Iran.

Right now, Hariri is trying to rally his political base by calling for Hizballah to disarm. He knows this is what a large portion of the people want to hear. But what good is having a huge rally for your cause when Hizballah could do the same the very next day. We already know Lebanon is divided and that each side can produce large crowds at their rallies. If Hariri really wants to disarm the group, he would have to create to space between Hizballah (the Party of God) and the Shiites themselves.

Michael Young’s aforementioned strategy is closer to this: offer Hizballah weapons for power and let the Shia watch The Party make their choice. If Hizballah chooses to disarm, great. If they choose to keep their weapons at the expense of increased political power for their people, then their hand will be played for the world to see.

The problem is that both the Christians and the Sunni will have to give up power in order the achieve it. Unfortunately, no one in March 14 seems to be thinking about what makes Lebanon more stable in the long run and every day that goes by sees Hizballah increase its power.

In the past, Lebanese politicians have called for Hizballah’s arms to be folded into the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF). If major political concessions and adjustments aren’t made in the near future,  one day we could be hearing Hassan Nasrallah calling for the LAF to be folded into Hizballah.





The case of Libya

25 02 2011

by Patrick Vibert

“Those people who took your sons away from you and gave them drugs and said let them die are launching a campaign over cellphones against your sons, telling them not to obey their fathers and mothers, and they are destroying their country”

-Colonel Muammar Qaddafi

As the Arab Revolt continues to engulf North Africa and the Middle East, Libya appears to be the next country on the brink of regime change. The oil rich eastern part of the country, including the city of Benghazi, has already fallen, and towns in the west are following suit. Qaddafi is currently holed up in Tripoli (the capital) with a few thousand mercenaries and loyalists, and everything he has said or done so far indicates that he is not going down without a fight.

Qaddafi’s handling of Libya’s unrest thus far indicates he is a man whose soul is every bit as ugly as his physical appearance. He sent out his thugs to stamp out the fire of the protesters using whatever means necessary, including going door-to-door killing dissidents, and ordered the Air Force to bomb protesters. At least two pilots refused, choosing instead to eject and crash their jets into the desert.

The rebels are closing in on Tripoli and the battle for Libya seems to be reaching the decisive point. Qaddafi is reportedly gathering his remaining loyal forces including something the press is ominously referring to as the “irregular army”. Whatever happens, there is no going back for Qaddafi and the citizens of Libya.

The case of Libya resembles that of Tunisia and Egypt, but several factors set it apart. Libya is a major oil exporter. The army is not respected by the people. Tribalism remains a powerful aspect of Libyan society. Qaddafi is not a rational actor. Libya has no civil society. The transition to democracy (if that is where Libya is heading) is unlikely to be peaceful and civil war remains a strong possibility. For our purposes, these are the key facts.

History

Muammar Qaddafi seized power in 1969. He was 27 years old. Qaddafi made it his goal to be the thorn in the side of America, becoming one of the world’s worst state sponsors of terrorism in the process. Libya began investing heavily in chemical weapons manufacturing.

After the US removal of the Saddam Hussein regime in 2003 however, the despot realized that there was little to be gained by being hostile to the world’s remaining superpower. Qaddafi agreed to halt WMD development and essentially “came in from the cold”, opening up Libya to foreign direct investment. Since then, Libyans have seen capital flooding into their sparsely populated nation, particularly from Europe.

Despite the increased presence of foreign dollars, Qaddafi maintained an iron grip on his citizens, ruthlessly punishing dissent. Some societies will tolerate totalitarianism if enough is gained in return in the form of stability and quality of life (see Saudi Arabia, whose GDP per capita is higher than Poland and Portugal). Unfortunately for Qaddafi, he didn’t hold up his end of the bargain.

Petroleum

One could make the argument that Libya’s unrest is based on natural resources. Libya is in the top 20 exporters of oil and natural gas, and it has relatively small population of about 6 million people. The exact same thing could be said about Norway, which also is a lead exporter of oil & natural gas with relatively small population. Yet the difference in the quality of life between Norway and Libya is almost immeasurable*.

*While traveling in Jordan some years ago, I met two Americans who were working as civil engineers in Libya. They told me that they got a four weeks paid leave every third month (basically a month off every season) as well as a plane ticket to anywhere in the world. Astounded, I thought about this for a minute before responding, “Wow, Libya must be real shitty”. They each concurred with this assessment.

However, I have also heard that Libya has some of the best historical ruins (both Roman and Islamic) in the entire world, as well as breathtaking natural beauty. As a result of these two conflicting accounts, I am eager to find out for myself. Hopefully a post-Qaddafi Libya will be more conducive to tourism.

This must be frustrating for the people of Libya, who have watched the Qaddafi regime squander the country’s natural resources and make little improvement to the nation’s infrastructure over the last 40 years. Libya should be doing better. At the same time, they have watched other resource-rich countries like UAE, Kuwait, and Bahrain provide a much higher quality of life for their citizens. Maybe the people of Libya realized that the world was quickly passing them by and placed the blame on their longtime ruler.

Civil Society

Throughout his tenure, Colonel Qaddafi made it a point to eliminate any semblance of civil society. From the LA Times:

Libyans stand almost alone among other Arabs for the extreme isolation they experienced not only under Qaddafi’s iron-fisted rule but over a decade of international sanctions for the country’s role in the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. Until a few years ago, Internet communications were virtually nonexistent and the only local news source was state media. Satellite television, especially Al Jazeera, had opened Libyan eyes to developments in the world and region, but reports about Libya by international or independent journalists had been a rarity.

Libyans thus had little opportunity to assemble components of civil society. Political associations, human rights organizations, independent professional associations or trade unions were all strictly proscribed, and organized opposition to the “ideology of the 1969 revolution” was punishable by death. On my first visit to Libya in 2005, the specially selected “civil society representatives” permitted to talk with us, and even government officials we met, displayed anxiety about expressing any opinions outside their sanctioned talking points. They literally recited chapter and verse of the Green Book, Qaddafi’s small manuscript on governance. The performance was unmatched by anything I had seen in Syria and Iraq.

A strong civil society does not necessarily lead to a Jeffersonian Democracy (see Iran) but it can help, especially when a country attempts to find its way forward after 40 years under dictatorship.

Tribalism

Tribalism still plays a strong role in Libya. The only Libyan I have ever met (perhaps a testament to the country’s closed-offness) was in grad school. He told me that the state provided very little to people outside the major cities. As a result, a large portion of the population (over half, according to my friend) relied on tribal affiliations for social services.

If Libyans are depending on their individual tribes more than they are on the government, it does not bode well for the country going forward in terms of national unity. In a post-Qaddafi world, tribal differences could contribute to chaos in a fractured society as the various tribes vie for control. Here is a good summary of the tribal situation in Libya.

The Military

Even with officers defecting and pilots crashing their planes in refusal to bomb civilians, the military situation in Libya is vastly different from that of Egypt. In Egypt, the military was a respected part of society; it was responsible for protecting the country’s borders, not squashing civil disobedience. The Egyptian military’s strength was exhibited in the way that it handled the unrest, taking sides with the protesters against the police while stabilizing the country.

In Libya, the military is not as strong or trusted. A post-Qaddafi Libya could see various military factions competing for power, possibly along tribal lines. Libya’s tribal and military characteristics could contribute to chaos if the Qaddafi regime indeed falls, making the prospect of civil war far more likely than in Egypt or Tunisia.

America

Libya under Qaddafi has had an interesting relationship with the United States. For instance, in 1986 Qaddafi arranged the bombing of a Berlin disco, resulting in the death of two US servicemen. To teach him a lesson, Reagan ordered the bombing of targets in Libya, which resulted in the death of Qaddafi’s adopted daughter. In retaliation, Libyan agents arranged the 1988 bombing of Pan Am flight 103, which exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland. This explains Libya’s frosty relations with America, 1969 to 2011.

Conclusion

The combination of Libya’s small population and vast supplies of oil and natural gas (as well as its geographic location) should have led to a far wealthier and educated Libyan society. It hasn’t, and the people are fed up. Libya’s manifestation of the Arab Revolt will not go as smoothly as it did in Egypt or Tunisia. A weak and untrusted military combined with the complex tribal affiliations of Libyan society should contribute to post-Qaddafi chaos. As the situation in Libya grows more unstable, so does its leader, who could turn to his chemical weapons arsenal as he becomes more desperate in his bid to retain power.






The case of Bahrain

18 02 2011

by Patrick Vibert

As protests erupt across North Africa and the Middle East, the tiny island nation of Bahrain is seeing its share of unrest. Thousands of demonstrators have taken to the streets in the capital Manama to protest against a regime that is viewed by many as oppressive and discriminatory. Bahrain seems to be following the examples set by Egypt and Tunisia, who have each toppled longtime rulers.

As an Arab country seeking a democracy, Bahrain appears to have much in common with other nations in the region that are facing unrest. But its sectarian makeup and geographic position make it a special case, especially for the United States.

Bahrain is an island that sits off the coast of Saudi Arabia in the Persian Gulf.  It was a part of the Persian Empire until it achieved independence in 1783. Today, it is the home of America’s Fifth Fleet, which is responsible for patrolling the Persian Gulf, the Red Sea and the Arabian Sea. The country’s Sunni majority rules over a Shiite minority. For our purposes, these are the key facts.

BahrainBahrain

Shia outnumber Sunnis in Bahrain 2 to 1. However, the country is ruled by Sunnis who occupy the upper echelon positions in military and government.  Sunnis are aware that toppling the regime means toppling their cushy position in Bahraini society and as a result, the protests have taken on a sectarian dimension.

Unlike Egypt and Tunisia, it is unlikely that the military will side with the protesters. In the past 24 hours, we have seen an up-tick in violence, with soldiers opening fire on demonstrators. The state-sponsored use of violence will likely only add fuel to the fire of the rebels, but don’t look for the regime to go down without a fight. As said, Egypt and Tunisia had the help of the military, and it is unlikely that any of the revolutionary movements taking place in the region today would get far without it. Right now, the protesters in Bahrain don’t have it and aren’t likely to get it.

Saudi Arabia

The Saudis are concerned with growing Shiite (and therefore Iranian) influence. As mentioned, Bahrain is two-thirds Shiite and Iran is almost entirely Shiite. Saudi Arabia has its own population of Shiites, though not as many as Bahrain and Iran. The problem is that Saudi Arabia’s Shia population lives in the oil-rich eastern provinces, which happen to border Bahrain. If the regime in Manama falls giving way to a Shia dominated government, Iran is clearly a beneficiary, as the Islamic Republic would then have an ally right off the coast of its biggest rival in the region.

Saudi Arabia was already concerned with creeping Iranian influence before this mess, going as far as taking sides with Israel against the Persians and supporting the Yemeni government in their war against Shia Houthi rebels near their common border.  The current unrest has to be deeply troubling for The Kingdom, and it is rumored that Riyadh has dispatched security/intelligence advisors to Bahrain to aid in the crackdown and to report back events on the ground.

United States

The United States is in a tricky position. The Obama administration wants to be “on the right side of history”, but Washington has proved over the last few weeks that it has a hard time deciding what exactly that is. When it comes to old allies, the United States prefers the status quo.

This was true in Egypt, but when it became clear that the Mubarak regime was falling America had to readjust to the reality on the ground and support the protesters in their pursuit of democracy. Washington will take the same approach to Bahrain, as the American public has a soft spot in their hearts for the image of besieged patriots trying to overthrow a king.  But the strategic implications of the Shiite majority taking power in Bahrain is likely causing sleepless nights for the officials who are paid to worry about such things.

As mentioned, America’s Fifth Fleet is parked in Bahrain. The Fleet represents US power projection in the region and sends the message to state actors and non-state actors alike that American bombers, fighters, warships, and Marines are never that far away. If a Shiite regime that is allied with Iran takes power in Bahrain, the Fifth Fleet will quickly find itself in need of relocation, with few options*.

*Slim pickens here. Saudi Arabia is out, because stashing US warships in the Custodian of the Two Holy Cities of Mecca and Medina is controversial to say the least. Iran is out for obvious reasons, though it would be funny to ask. Oman or Qatar could do it, but they wouldn’t be happy about it. Kuwait is the most likely choice, as “they owe us one” for repelling Saddam Hussein in Gulf War I.

Along with Bahrain and the Saudis, the United States is also concerned with creeping Iranian influence (see Lebanon and Iraq). The US economy depends on the free flow of oil, much of it originating in the Persian Gulf, and maintaining the flow of oil is a key national security goal of the United States.  America is playing a zero sum game with Iran, where any gain by Tehran is seen as a loss for Washington. And a Shiite revolution in Bahrain would be seen as a huge win for Iran.