Mr. Hariri goes to Washington

17 05 2010

Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri is scheduled to meet with President Obama in Washington on May 24th, and the two will have much to discuss.

Hariri and Obama

Lebanon’s and the United States have a long relationship loosely based on their common democracy and Christian influence. But the relationship between America and Lebanon is not solely based on cultural commonalities. There exists a history between the two that has not always been pleasant. And more often than not, this tiny country has factored greatly into US foreign policy in the Middle East.

So after the two men shake hands and comment on their counties’ shared democratic and economic values, the real topics will be brought to the surface.

Hizballah, Syria, Israel, Iran…Lebanon’s involvement with these four parties has taken what would likely be an otherwise successful, stable, and desirable country nestled nicely on the inner Mediterranean, and turned it into an unfortunate battlefield that the aforementioned powers use to settle their scores. If not for these four, Lebanon might be just some Middle Eastern banking and party haven; Switzerland with fun and sun, Dubia with a soul.

Alas, it is impossible for a country to change it’s neighbors and Lebanon must play with the hand that it has been dealt. This brings us to Hairi’s first official visit to Washington as Premier.

While there is likely no enmity between the leaders, that does not mean that the meeting will be pleasant, as there are some serious issues at hand.

First, there is this business about Syria transferring Scud missiles to Hizballah. Damascus has denied it, Beirut has denied it, and Hizballah maintained its policy of not commenting publicly on its weapons. However, whether or not Syria gave Hizballah the Scuds, one thing is clear: the group is armed to the teeth and those weapons (that they don’t comment about) more than likely came either from Syria or through Syria. Being the Prime Minister, Hariri will have to answer for this.

Ironically, the United States itself  is a big  reason that Hariri is in this predicament.

Syria: has a country ever done more with less?

For thirty years, Syria occupied Lebanon. Damascus had an army there, had an intelligence network there, and had its tentacles in all aspects of government and business. With the assassination of Rafik Hariri in 2005, Syria was forced to end the formal occupation, but much of their influence remained dormant.

Since then, the United States has changed its strategy in relation to Syria from one of  isolation to one of reconciliation. This is for two reasons. One, the US wanted to pry Syria out of its alliance with Iran, and two, Washington realized that it would need Syrian cooperation in order to achieve stability in Iraq. The former was a failure and the latter was arguably a success, but one thing didn’t change: Henry Kissinger’s adage about how there can be no peace without Syria.

Syria has a terrible economy, no natural resources, and a weak and outdated military. However, something that Syria is not short on is incredibly shrewd strategists that allow the country to do more with less*. This means strategic alliances, the use of proxies, and knowing when to make trouble and when to acquiesce.

*It is impressive that the regime in Damascus has survived this long. Its people (though extremely warm and friendly, from personal experience) are dirt poor and have been for a very long time. The majority of Syria is Sunni, but the country is ruled by the fifteen percent (or so) of Alawites, and offshoot of Shiism.  They make up the vast majority of the ruling class. Except for a brief stint in the early 1990’s, Syria has always been in America’s doghouse. How many other regimes could be enemies with a superpower, while ruling over vastly poor majority, and still stay in power for fifty-plus years? It’s remarkable.

In this case, the grand strategists of Damascus have leveraged their controversial relationship with Tehran and America’s weak position in Iraq to reenter Lebanon in a big way. Many analysts have noted that while Syria may not have the soldiers on the ground anymore in Lebanon, they are almost just as powerful there as when they did.

This is no accident. Damascus’ main long-term goals include regime survival, the return of the Golan Heights, and the constant expansion of influence in Lebanon. As far as the last goal goes, they are right on course. Aside from a few Christian holdouts, it is difficult to pick up nary a whisper of criticism of Syria in Beirut these days amongst the politicians.

A key moment came last September, after Lebanon’s parliamentary elections, when Syrian President Bashar Assad traveled to Saudi Arabia to meet with King Abdullah. The Saudis shared American concerns about Iraqi security, and were allegedly concerned themselves with the spread of Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). It is believed that the Saudi’s made a deal with Damascus: help America secure Iraq and stop the spread of Al Qaeda in exchange for Syria’s re-admittance into Lebanon.

Soon the hurdles fell, and two of Syria’s biggest critics changed their tune. Walid Jumblatt, out of concern for his vulnerable Druze population, defected from Hariri’s March 14th coalition and began the long and humbling process of making public apologies to Damascus. Then Hariri was summoned to Damascus to make nice with Assad, the man that he believed was responsible for the murder of his father. Today some Christian factions remain hostile, but two of Syria’s biggest opponents now trumpet the tune of Damascus.

Which brings us back to Hariri and Obama. When the United States let Syria back into Lebanon (whether actively or passively), Washington basically opened the gates for Syria to transfer weapons to Hizballah unfettered. America may have made some progress in Iraq as a result, but now Syria and Hizballah are much stronger in Lebanon. Once again, Lebanon’s sovereignty and democracy have been sold out,  and Syria continues to play chess while America plays checkers.

Hariri and the Security Council

The other big issue for Hariri and Obama will be the topic of Iran, and this is where the Prime Minister is in a tight spot. At least he can blame the “weapons to Hizballah” problem on circumstances that are beyond his control. But not with Iran. Lebanon currently heads the United Nations Security Council, which the United States has been desperately wrangling lately to produce sanctions against Iran for its nuclear energy program.

There are many times where it is acceptable to play the fence in International Relations, but this is not one of those times. If the issue of sanctions comes to a vote, Lebanon will be forced to make a decision. With Hizballah being such a powerful player, Lebanon can’t really vote for sanctions. But on the other hand, it would could be extremely damaging to vote against sanctions as it could badly tarnish US-Lebanon relations. The alternative is to abstain, but this would please no one and could turn out badly if the abstention still ends up effecting the verdict one way or another.

If the United States goes through all the trouble of corralling Russia and China and the motion fails due to a Lebanon ‘no’ vote or abstention there will be trouble. And if the motion for sanctions on Iran passes due to a Lebanese ‘yes’ vote or abstention, there will be trouble. This is a no-win situation for Mr. Hariri, and it is likely that these scenarios will be discussed at the May 24 meeting at length.

On a hopeful  note, the United States has pledged $20 million to help repair the Nahr al-Bared Palestinian refugee camp. The camp was leveled by the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) in 2007, after fighting broke out between the LAF and Fatah al-Islam. Perhaps this goodwill gesture foreshadows that some sort of progress will be made in the relationship between the USA and Lebanon in their upcoming summit. Whatever the case, the meeting will be interesting.

The United States has it’s hands full with Iran, Iraq, and Israel right now, and Lebanon figures prominently into all three.


Saudi border war with Yemeni Shia

24 11 2009

by Patrick Vibert

Saudi Arabia, in cooperation with the Yemeni government, is waging a quiet and fierce war against Shia tribesmen located near their shared border in the Saada region of northwest Yemen.

Tensions have been building for months, but the conflict erupted after two Saudi border guards were allegedly murdered by Yemeni Houthis in a cross-border raid in the remote region of southwestern Saudi Arabia. Since then the Saudi air force has been pounding  Houthi rebel sites across the border in Yemen.

The rebels have criticized the Yemeni government for allowing Saudi Arabia to violate Yemen’s territorial sovereignty, but the government likely welcomes the help from the Saudis as it struggles to gain the upper hand in the situation.

As a result of the bombardments, thousands of Yemeni citizens from the region have been displaced and are now caught between the Yemeni Army, the Houthi rebels, and the Saudi air force in a conflict with a high potential for escalation.

The Houthis are part of Yemen’s Shia, which make up about 40% of that countries total population. The rebels accuse the  government of sectarianism, while the Yemeni government considers the conflict political in nature.

While the Houthi rebels are clashing  with the Yemeni military, and Saudi officials claim that they are only trying to keep the conflict from spilling over onto Saudi soil. The Saudi-based Al-Sharq Al-Awsat has reported that nearly 1000 Houthi rebels have been taken prisoner by the Saudi military.

For years the conflict had been between the rebels and the Yemeni government, but recently the escalation of violence has led to Saudi involvement, with Iran and even Al-Quaida being dragged into the mix.  As a result, the conflict has taken a more regional tone, with both Iranian and Saudi governments trading barbs.

The Saudi’s accuse Iran of aiding the Houthis in a way to gain a foothold in another country that is politically dominated by Sunni, such as it did in Iraq and Lebanon. Tehran has denied aiding the rebels, but has expressed concerned for the safety of the Shia in that country.

This week, protests erupted in Tehran in support of the Houthis, as hundreds of students reportedly rallied in front of the Saudi and Yemeni embassies there.

Relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia have been particularly frosty in recent years, as Riyadh grows increasingly weary of expanding Persian influence in the region.



With the decision of Mahmoud Abbas not to seek reelction and the apparent dissolution of the Palestinian Authority, the situation is entering a new phase.

End of PA

Hamas Quiet

Quote about Jews living under persecution for 4000 years

Clear that Israel has no intention of leaving the Palestinians enough territory to make a state

Obama fails, is called out by Nasrallah

World may still be concerned, but is fed up with Palestinian leadership

What awaits: passive acceptance, or third intifada?

Saudi Arabia, in cooperation with the Yemeni government, is waging a quiet and fierce war against Shiaa tribesmen located near their shared border. Tensions have been building for months, but the conflict erupted after a Saudi policeman was murdered by Yemeni Houthis in a cross-border raid in the remote region of southern Saudi Arabia.