Lebanon loses a giant

6 07 2010

by Patrick Vibert

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

Sayyed Fadlallah

Thousands of people from all over Lebanon and the Middle East turned out today to mourn the passing of Grand Ayatollah Hussein Fadlallah, who died this past Sunday at the age of 75. The loss is big not only for Lebanon, but for the entire region, as Fadlallah was a highly revered and influential figure in the Shiite community and beyond.

Though he was known in the West for his tough stance against Israel and the United States, those that are familiar with the region know that he was frequently the voice of reason and pragmatism in Lebanon.

He was often cast as the “spiritual leader” of Hizballah, but that term is a bit of a misnomer. While Hizballah’s massive following in Lebanon no doubt revered Fadlallah, the organization’s upper leadership frequently proclaims Iran’s Ayatollah Khamenei as their leader. This is in direct contrast with the fact that Fadlallah was often critical of the concept of walayat al-fiqah, which establishes Shiite holy men as politicians to rule over the people. Over the years, both Hizballah and Fadlallah have denied any direct affiliation with one another.

Before becoming the pillar of the Shiite community in Lebanon, Fadlallah was busy in Najaf helping to advance the equally marginalized Shia of Iraq. He helped form the Dawa party to give the Iraqi Shia some political influence. Today, the Dawa is one of the most powerful political parties in Iraq, and is headed by current Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

Fadlallah’s death leaves a gaping hole in the upper echelon of Shiite leadership. Though Tehran has expressed its condolences for his passing, the regime has to be quietly happy at the removal of one of its most powerful critics. It is one thing for Ayatollah Khamenei to be criticized by the President of the United States, but the words carried much more weight when they came from a respected rival in Khamenei’s own religious community.

The leadership of the Shiite community is primarily based in Lebanon, Iran (Qom), and Iraq (Najaf). Ten years ago, Ayatollah’s Fadlallah, Khamenei, and Iraq’s Sistani and al-Khoei were the most influential Shiite holy men in terms of followers. But with al-Khoei’s death in Iraq in 2003, and Fadlallah’s death this week, only Sistani and Khomeini remain at the top*. This means that there are far less men capable of credibly criticizing Tehran than at any time in the past.

*Iran’s Khamenei and Iraq’s Sistani maintain opposing views in regards to religion and politics. Sistani seemingly goes out of his way not to get involved in politics, while Khamenei is of the opinion that the two are inseparable.

Perhaps another Shia scholar will step into the power vacuum that Fadlallah’s death has left, but right now it does not appear that any one person is ready or capable. Those Shia in Lebanon that are aligned with Hizballah’s ideology will continue to be influenced by Ayatollah Khamenei, while Fadlallah’s followers that are looking for new spiritual leadership will likely be divided between Ayatollah Sistani and Fadlallah’s successor as Grand Ayatollah of Lebanon.

Imam Musa Sadr

Fadlallah’s life resembled that of another Shia giant of Lebanon, Imam Musa Sadr. The two were only separated in age by six years, and like Fadlallah, Musa Sadr was born outside Lebanon (in Sadr’s case, Qom), but returned to his ancestral homeland to become a force in Islam. Both Sadr and Fadlallah were highly influential, and both worked tirelessly to improve the lives of the downtrodden Shia of Lebanon, establishing many social, educational, and charitable programs. Both were regarded as “moderates”, preaching science, reason, and cooperation between the sects. Both were commonly associated with Shiite militias either by fact (Musa Sadr founded Lebanon’s Amal Movement) or by rumor (Fadlallah was often linked with Hizballah).

Musa Sadr’s disappearance on 1978 trip to Libya is seen as one of the major events that precipitated the bloody downward spiral of violence that was the Lebanese Civil War. Some have written that if Sadr had been around, the relationship between the sects would not have deteriorated in the way that it did. Right now it is unclear how the loss of this monumental voice will go on to effect Lebanon and the greater Middle East, but the passing of such men frequently results in subtly vast geopolitical tectonic shifts that are only visible through the distant rearview mirror of history.

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Nasrallah to Turkey

16 06 2010

Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah

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

The Kuwaiti newspaper As-Siyassah is reporting that Hizballah Secretary General Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah has been invited to Ankara to meet with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Neither Hizballah nor the Turkish government have confirmed the story, but if it is true, it marks a significant deterioration in Turkey’s relationship with Israel in the wake of last month’s botched flotilla raid.

Hizballah is one of Israel’s greatest foes, and Erdogan inviting its leader for a high-level meeting would show that the once close bond that existed between the two countries is in worse shape than most people previously thought. Relations between Turkey and Israel have been strained lately, stemming from January 2009’s Operation Cast Lead, in which Israel assaulted Hamas forces in Gaza, killing hundreds of Palestinian civilians in the process.

Erdogan

Turkey’s ruling AKP party is said to be more Islamic in nature than previous regimes, and it has been increasingly difficult for the party to maintain close ties with Israel, which many Muslims consider to be waging war on the Palestinians. The result is that the AKP benefits greatly both regionally and domestically when it takes sides against Israel.

Asharq al-Awsat’s Tariq Alhomayed characterized Turkey as “pulling the rug out” from under Hizballah and Iran in terms of supporting the Palestinian resistance, but it is unclear just how much this popularity contest actually means to either party. Mr. Alhomeyed’s statement was made in regards to Turkey’s stern condemnation of Israel after the flotilla raid.

Turkish television’s NTV reported that the alleged future meeting between Nasrallah and Erdogan was suggested by Hamas’ leader-in-exile Khaled Meshaal. The report also stated that Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps would facilitate the logistics of Nasrallah getting to Ankara, out of fear of IDF assassination attempts.

Such a summit between  Erdogan and Nasrallah would further represent Turkey’s reassertion of power in the region, as it tries to maintain productive ties with the West while also embracing its post-Ottoman role in the Middle East.

If Erdogan welcomes Nasrallah to Anakra, Tel Aviv and neoconservatives in Washington will no doubt be furious, as such a meeting would indicate Turkey’s continued alignment with the Resistance at the expense of Israel.





Calls for a post-sect Lebanon

3 05 2010

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

There have been at least two odd scenes in Beirut over  the last couple of weeks. The first was a soccer game played by MPs which was supposed to demonstrate cross-sectarian cooperation, and the second was a fairly large march & rally whose participants called for a more secular Lebanon. Both events reflect the sentiment of a Lebanese public that has grown weary with institutionalized sectarianism and all that is has to offer.

The soccer match was played in an empty Beirut stadium, which is closed off to the fans out of fear of violence between the various groups of fans (Sunni, Shia, etc). The scene was probably less symbolic of cross-sectarian teamwork than it was of just how far Lebanon is from being “post-sect” in the same way that the US is supposedly (but not really at all) “post-race”.

Playing a soccer game in an empty stadium will probably be just as effective as electing a minority as President of the United States was in terms of getting people to forget their historical differences. The difference between the two is that electing Barak Obama was not a shallow, political PR stunt, but at least the soccer match indicated that the people in government are hearing what a growing number of Lebanese are calling for: a Lebanon free from state sanctioned sectarianism.

The secularist rally this past Sunday was more genuine. The event was organized using (increasingly valuable) social networking websites, and what was originally expected to be a gathering of a few hundred people mushroomed into a crowd of thousands with the help of some beautiful weather.

The large turnout and diversity of the group was shocking to many, including the organizers. The protesters called for the end of sectarianism and the beginning of secularism. But what exactly this means, as well as how the change would occur, and what the future implications were, was less clear.

One of the major demands was the start of civil unions.Though Lebanon is perceived as more modern and liberal (read: Western) than many of its neighbors, people are still required to marry in their mosque or church, depending on what sect they are registered to. Cross-sectarian marriage is not possible in this system, so some couples are forced to travel to neighboring countries (Cypress, for example) to get married.

There are at least seventeen recognized religious sects in Lebanon, with the  Shia, Sunni, Maronite Christians, and Druze make up the lion’s share. Over the years, the country has managed to develop a tenuous balance between the groups, but periodic bouts of inter-sectarian violence have ranged from worrisome to devastating. As a result, the state has institutionalized the notion that every group must be represented and have their say, no matter how stifling to progress, lest there be more violence.

Today, there is a system in place that allocates parliamentary seats between the groups and distributes the various government offices between the sects. The president must be a  Maronite, the Prime Minister a Sunni, the speaker a Shiite, and so on. This pattern extends to the business world, with companies adhering to set quotas. As mentioned, one’s sect is printed right on their ID card (although just recently the option of striking your sectarian designation from the ID has been allowed).

The system permeates nearly all levels of life in Lebanon. When I was living in Beirut, my roommate (a Lebanese student at the AUB) would indicate every person’s sect that he brought over to the apartment. While he may have been seemingly overly conscious of sect, it did not seem to matter too much to him. Perhaps this is indicative of the modern greater Lebanese condition: everyone might be conscious of sect, but it’s questionable how much it matters on a person-to-person level. And while this may be the case today, it has not always been this way.

In the 1970’s tensions between the sects were starting to heat up as the power sharing system at the time no longer reflected the true demographics of Lebanon. At a time where Muslims outnumbered Christians because of differing birthrates, parliamentary seats were split between Christians and Muslims 6:5, respectively. Due the explosiveness of the issue, an official census has not been taken in Lebanon since 1932.  This condition led to frustration among the people who felt underrepresented in what was supposed to be a democracy, and led to fear in those that did not want to lose power. The arrival of the PLO eventually set the country ablaze in 1975, leading to fifteen years of civil war at a cost of over 150,000 lives and immeasurable economic damage.

So when people talk about ending sectarianism in Lebanon, the notion must not be simply deemed correct for this particular situation because of the prevailing notion in the West that the separation of church (or mosque) and state is a good thing. For the West it is a good thing, but it might not be in every case.

In a perfect world, state and religion would not mix, but it should be considered that perhaps sectarianism is the glue that holds Lebanon together at the moment. Over time, Lebanon should absolutely work towards this goal of ending institutionalized sectarianism by shifting towards a meritocracy and eliminating sectarian quotas from business and government. But right now, Lebanon is not ready.

Lebanon had a very strong year in 2009, when inter-regional political breakthroughs led to stability (or vice versa), which in turn led to significant economic advances. But one good year does not mean that Lebanon is ready to take the training-wheels off. Right now and however poorly,  sectarianism works in that it is a large contributing factor to stability.

6:5 was the rule until the country couldn’t take it anymore. A civil war was fought and it went to 1:1 to more accurately reflect the modern demographics. Then the Shia started asserting themselves as  the largest sectarian block and they got veto power in the president’s cabinet. The point is that there is a system in place that can  be tinkered with to assuage anxieties. What would happen if that system were abolished today?

From the Guardian, “Recent polls have shown that there is significant public support for abolishing the confessional system in Lebanon, but, like many issues, this is also influenced by a sectarian calculus: most of the support lies among Lebanese Muslims, whose numbers relative to the Christian population have grown over the past several decades. Many fear that trying to impose sweeping changes on the country without the support of a majority of the Christian community could have severe repercussions.”

As much as sectarianism is an instrument for stagnation, it is also an instrument of stability. While some  may argue that it accentuates the differences between the sects, the consensus-based system also ensures that every voice is heard. The Lebanese must ask themselves, one, do they believe sectarianism adds to or decreases stability, and two, what price are they willing to pay to see an end to it.

Currently, there are just too many factors that could  contribute to instability in Lebanon without changing the entire system of government. The real and constant threat of attack from Israel, the presence of a well-armed sub-state organization in Hizballah, the presence of 400,000 frustrated and disenfranchised Palestinian refugees, the  constant meddling and creeping influence of Syria…any one of these could be enough to destabilize Lebanon, but all four are here at the surface at all times. Perhaps sectarianism is the rusty ship that is carrying Lebanon through these troubled waters.

Another question to ask is how the secularists will convince those in power (even the ones playing in cross-sectarian soccer games) to give up the source of that power. As written in Time Magazine, “Changing Lebanon’s sectarian system, however, would require that a political class led mostly by sectarian warlords and their families dismantle the very source of their power.” While they may be willing to participate in transparent PR team building exercises, getting them to abandon the very system that keeps them in power could prove to be difficult. The good news is that perhaps when they are ready, Lebanon will be ready too.

Lebanon certainly isn’t ready for it this week or this year, but it is a goal worth working towards in the future. A peaceful and stable post-sect Lebanon would be a good example for the Middle East and the world in general.




Disarming Lebanon’s Palestinian Militias

21 01 2010

Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri and Syrian President Bashar Assad

by Patrick Vibert

Editors note: This article originally appears on the appeared on the Foreign Policy Association website.

The Lebanese government recently issued a policy statement that declared Hizballah’s arms to be a legitimate part of the country’s defenses. In 2006, Hizballah managed to repel an attack from Israel, albeit one that the Party itself had incited. Still, many Lebanese view Israel as the biggest external threat to their safety and national security, and view Hizballah as their most capable defender.

Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s government did not have many options when it made its endorsement of Hizballah. The choices were between trying to disarm the group, tabling the issue for the future, and embracing the Party and its weapons. The first option was a not viable, because at this point Hizballah is not willing to disarm on its own, and the Lebanses Armed Forces (LAF) is incapable of disarming them by force. The second choice, procrastination, was also not feasible because the issue was sure to cause friction and controversy in the future, and would obstruct any government progress until it was settled. So Hariri did they only thing he could by legalizing Hizballah’s  weapons. This way, Hizballah will likely be more cooperative in the future because the groups insecurity has been assuaged. Or so the thinking goes.

The parties that are most upset about this are the United States and Israel, but this won’t really affect the former’s relationship with Lebanon, and the latter all but forced Hariri’s hand into this deal. In November, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak issued a statement that Israel would hold all of Lebanon accountable for the actions of Hizballah. So, with Hariri being unable to disarm the group, unable to accomplish anything without their cooperation, and faced with the prospect of Lebanon and Hizballah’s fate being one in the same in Israel’s eyes, Hariri decided that he couldn’t beat Hizballah and that he was going to join them, so to speak.

No country wants independent militias operating within its territory, and Hariri must have swallowed hard when he made his deal with Hizballah Secretary General Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah. That brings us to Lebanon’s Palestinians.

There are between 250,000 and 400,000 Palestinian refugees living  in Lebanon. Most of them live in camps, and there is agreement with the government that, for the most part, the LAF does not enter the camps and that security in the camps is provided by the Palestinians themselves.

It’s akin to the United States’ relationship with the Native Americans. They have special rules and polices for the reservations, and they are allowed a lot of leeway in terms of how how they operate.  For most crimes, if you get in trouble on the reservation, you have to answer to the tribe. However, crimes committed outside of the reservations are subject to normal US laws.

This seems acceptable as long as whatever arms the Palestinian’s maintain are for security purposes only, and that the armed groups  stay within the camps . The problem is that there are a number of militant groups operating in the camps who answer to  different people, who have far more weapons than they would need for mere security enforcement in the camps, and some of the groups even still operate openly outside of the camps.

Some groups represent only the Lebanese Palestinians or the camp that they are in, but others have different masters. Fatah al-Intifada and the PFLP-GC are backed by Syria, and other groups remain loyal to Hamas or Fatah in the Palestinian Occupied Territories.

Due to the history of Lebanon, particularly the last 30 years, people may think that it is natural and reasonable for assorted militias to still be operating in Lebanon. The PLO was there, the Syrians were there, Hizballah is there, and all these Palestinian militias are there. But what other stable and modern nation on Earth would allow not one, but possibly dozens of militias to operate  within its borders? And why is it acceptable for Lebanon?

In most countries, the government maintains a monopoly on the use of force. Due to the previously mentioned circumstances the Lebanese government had to hand part of the monopoly over Hizballah. Call it an “oligopoly of force”. In that case, Hariri didn’t have much of a choice, but with the Palestinian militants, he does.

The PLO wreaked havoc on Lebanon when it used the country as a battlefield in its war with Israel. The group had already worn out its welcome in Jordan, and in Lebanon the story was more of the same. Today, the Lebanese have  mixed feelings towards the Lebanese Palestinians. They sympathize with them in their plight, but they are still resentful from all the destruction that their leadership wrought upon Lebanon.

It is not in Lebanon’s interest to have independent militias operating within its borders, and disarming them should be seen as a measure to improve security and stability. The Palestinians that live in the camps are very poor and live in awful conditions, and there is a high unemployment rate among young men there. This is the recipe for breeding extremism and unrest.

One can’t help but to draw comparisons with Hizballah. Hizballah was formed by marginalized Lebanese who wanted to improve their situation and be a resistance to Israel. Although Hizballah is influenced by its patrons in Damascus and Tehran, the group maintains it independence, especially in relation to the Lebanese government. Some people claim that Hizballah, with its extra-governmental militia, makes Lebanon less secure, not more.

But there are many differences to be considered as well. To begin with, fair or unfair, the Palestinians are Palestinians and not Lebanese, and that makes the militias  foreign entities. And Hizballah represents a large portion of Lebanese voters, while the Palestinian organizations represent zero Lebanese voters.  Disarming Hizballah is politically untenable, while disarming the Palestinian militias has broad support. Hizballah is the most capable group in Lebanon to defend against an attack from Israel, while the Palestinian militias would likely offer little more than fearless yet token resistance.

For Hariri, disarming the various Palestinian militant groups is a viable option, while disarming Hizballah is a practical impossibility. And while it might be acceptable to allow the Palestinian groups in the camps to keep their weapons, having Palestinian militias operating outside the camps throughout Lebanon is not. In 2007, Fatah al-Intafada was involved in a battle with government forces that left hundreds dead and destroyed the Nahr el-Bared refugee camp. This incident illustrates just how unstable the situation has become and how much the government needs to get things under control.

This is where Hariri needs help, and here he should cash in on his deal with Hizballah to get it. For the sake of national harmony, Hariri acquiesced to Hizballah by stating formally that Hizballah is Lebanon’s legitimate defender from Israel.  So if the LAF and the other government agencies are handling the remainder of Lebanese national security, where do the Palestinian militias fit in to the equation? Hizballah has pattern of respecting the legitimacy and the jurisdiction of the LAF, so it would be interesting to hear the group take a  stance on this issue that would be favorable to the government.

Complicating matters is that, as previously mentioned, Fatah al-Intafada and the PFLP-GC are Syrian creations, so there will be some resistance coming from Damascus. Lebanese leaders should be less affected by Syrian influence than in years previous,  however, even though the Syrian army was expelled from Lebanon in 2005,  Syrian President Bashar Assad has shown no signs of accepting a diminished role for his nation there. Recently, the Lebanese government has been talking up the notion of disarming the militias, but when Fatah al-Intafada stated that it was open to negotiations, the government responded grimly by telling the group that “Lebanon’s sovereignty cannot be negotiated”, to which the group responded that it would not disarm. This exchange should be seen in the context of the Syrian-Lebanese relationship, and is thoroughly examined here by the Daily Star’s Michael Young.

Indeed, Hariri just made his first trip to Damascus since becoming Prime Minister. His meeting with President Assad must have been sureal, as Hariri believes that the Syrian president is behind his father’s assassination. Hariri must have had to do a lot of tongue biting on his trip, and he did it for the good of Lebanon. But maybe this tough stance taken against the Palestinian militias, some of which are direct Syrian agents, is all just a stern-but-subtle diplomatic rebellion, a sign that Hariri may be willing to deal with Syria, but that he has not forgotten that they are behind his father’s death.

The Lebanese government made a deal with Hizballah allowing the group to keep its weapons and share the responsibility for Lebanon’s security with the LAF. This means that between Hizballah and the LAF, Lebanon’s safety is covered.  Where do the armed Palestinian groups fit in? And is it worth it for Lebanon to have these groups  operating within its borders? These groups don’t have the organization or the discipline that Hizballah has, and they do not represent any Lebanese. Indeed, two of the most prominent groups answer to Syria. So now, an expression of dissatisfaction with them becomes an expression of dissatisfaction with Syrian influence in Lebanon. And this is where things get interesting.

Will Hizballah go along with the Lebanese government, or will they do the bidding of Damascus? After the Lebanese government officially legitimized them as a defender of Lebanon, will Hizballah state that there is room for other militias in Lebanon too? Hizballah’s leaders are extremely wily, but are they heading for a point where they may have to declare there allegiance to Lebanon or risk being exposed as foreign agents? Does Lebanon have the independence and does Hariri have the political will to resist the power of Damascus? Which side will Hizballah come down on? Only time will tell. The old Hizballah, if there is such a thing, might have come out with a statement supporting the other militias as brothers in arms against the Zionist entity. But today Hizballah members make up a large part of the government, and they fought hard to have their armed forces declared legitimate.

As this situation plays itself out in Lebanon, we should keep in mind that Hariri’s rejection of the militias represents his rejection of Syrian influence. Perhaps the young Prime Minister is just using the militias as a bargaining chip for some other end, but it’s clear that their presence is a blow to Lebanese sovereignty and a threat to Lebanon’s stability.





Lebanon and Turkey Strengthen Ties

14 01 2010

 

Turkey

 

by Patrick Vibert

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

Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s recent three day visit to Ankara to meet with his Turkish counterpart symbolizes both the emergence of Hariri out from under the shadow of his father’s legacy, as well as Turkey’s emergence as a major diplomatic player in the Middle East.

Rafik Hariri was a self-made billionaire with friends in very high places, including the President of France and the King of Saudi Arabia. He used his wealth and influence to help rebuild Lebanon after the civil war (1975 to 1990), and his achievements endeared him to a broad swath of Lebanese who had become accustomed to distrusting anyone outside of their sect. After his assassination in 2005, it was unclear if anyone could fill his shoes.

After his older brother, Bahaa Hariri, decided to shun politics and remain in the business world, it was Saad that stepped forward to claim his father’s legacy. Saad wasn’t exactly a novice, but he certainly hadn’t yet developed his father’s political acumen, and some thought he never would.

However, in the past few months, Saad Hariri has shown himself to be a pragmatic and savvy operator both within Lebanon and without. This is no small feat considering the extreme complexities of the Lebanese political scene as well as that of the greater Middle East.

In the past seven months, Hariri has been elected Prime Minister, formed a government, and reconciled with Damascus. This last item is very important, as Syria almost totally surrounds tiny Lebanon and is still extremely influential there both economically and politically.

Inside Lebanon, Hariri has gained the approval of a broad section of Lebanese political groups, including Sunnis,  Christains, Druze, and Shia. Outside Lebanon, Hariri has managed to win the support of diverse players such as Syria, Iran, the European Union, and the United States.

Now add Turkey to this list. Hariri has announced that he plans to ink deals with Ankara across an array of sectors, including military, culture, energy, and transportation. And in an effort to boost tourism and business between the two nations, Turkey and Lebanon will be eliminating visa requirements. This move reflects a greater openness in travel between Turkey and the Arab world, with Turkey signing similar agreements with Libya, Morocco, Tunis, Jordan and Syria. Turkey also has announced plans to do the same with Iraq in the future.

Of the agreements on the table between the two countries, the one regarding energy is one of the more interesting. Lebanon has long been plagued by energy shortages, and Turkey could play a big role in alleviating the problem. This prospect is even more exciting for Lebanon if the proposed Nabucco natural gas pipeline is completed.

Hariri’s trip to Ankara has revealed him to be an effective successor to his father’s diplomatic legacy, and the benefits of the deals he is signing could pay economic and political dividends for Lebanon for years to come.

For Turkey, the agreements with Lebanon represent the latest in string of diplomatic deals that have strengthened that nation’s ties to its neighbors in the Middle East.

In the past, Turkey’s relations with its neighbors had been sour due to post-Ottoman Arab nationalism. Now it seems like many of these nations are putting aside history in favor political and economic advancement.

Some have indicated that this shift has occurred in the wake of Turkey’s decades long rejection by the European Union. However Turkish leaders would be quick to point out that Turkey is still close with the EU and is merely trying to be friendly with every nation where doing so would benefit Turkey.

What is evident though is, as Turkey’s relations with its Muslim neighbors have flowed, its relations with Israel have ebbed. Turkey, a regional powerhouse, is one of the only Muslim nations to keep open an embassy in Tel-Aviv. In the past, Turkey has attempted to broker peace deals between Syria and Israel as well as prisoner swaps between Israel and Hamas.

These days however, relations between the two are strained. A year ago, Turkish leaders loudly criticized Israel for its behavior for its brutal assault on Gaza. During a joint press conference with Hairir this week, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan condemned Israeli aggression against Lebanon as well as its refusal to adhere to UN resolution 1701, which calls for Israel to respect Lebanon’s sovereignty.

(Erdogan was referring to Israel’s continued occupation of the Sheba Farms territory in South Lebanon and its repeated violations of Lebanese airspace. Supporters of Israel would point out the hypocrisy of condemning a country for failure to adhere to UN guidelines, as Lebanon has thus far failed to adhere to UN Resolution 1559, which calls for all militias, i.e. Hizballah, to disarm. Lebanese leadership hopes to neutralize the issue by embracing Hizballah as a legitimate defense force of Lebanon.)

Relations between Israel and Turkey took another turn for the worse this week, when Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon called in Turkey’s Ambassador to Israel  Oguz Celikkol for a public dressing down over a Turkish television show that Ayalon felt portrayed Israel in a negative light. Some analysts have suggested that the move was intended by the opposition to torpedo any deal being made between Turkey and Israel’s Defense Minister Ehud Barak of the Israel’s Labor Party during his upcoming visit to Ankara.

One thing that is for certain is that a significant shift is taking place in the Middle East, with Turkey at the helm. The question is whether this is a positive development or a negative development.

Greater cooperation in the region could lead to greater economic prosperity, and the easing of trade and travel restrictions could lead to greater mobility of people and ideas. Hopefully the participating nations will have a good influence on each other.

In the West, the rise of Turkey on the world stage should be seen as a breath of fresh air. Turkey and counties like the United States might not agree on everything, such as the behavior of Israel, but the positives greatly outweigh the negatives in the situation.

One, the rising influence of moderate Turkey could provide a nice regional counterbalance to Iran. Also, Turkey could serve as an effective negotiator to conflicts in this volatile region. Finally, it might be nice to have a secular democracy like Turkey wield its influence on its neighbors instead of the despotic regimes of  the traditional Middle Eastern powers of Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

Turkey was a world hub for culture and trade for centuries. Perhaps, after a hundred-year decline, it is ready to regain that title.





Israel reiterates Lebanese culpability for Hizballah

27 11 2009

 

Ehud Barak

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak reiterated on Tuesday his nation’s grim warning that Israel will hold all of Lebanon accountable for the actions of Hizballah.

The statement came the day before the newly formed Lebanese cabinet was to make an announcment regarding the government’s official stance on Hizballah’s weapons.

On Wednesday, it was declared by the government that it supports Hizballah’s right to its weapons, as they are necessary for defending Lebanon against Israel.

Hizballah has been at war with Israel since 1982, when Israel invaded Lebanon. The two armies faced off in fierce battles over the years, with Israel being forced to withdraw completely in 2000.

After a cross-border raid by Hizballah into Israel in 2006, Israel launched a massive air assault on Lebanon. Having sustained substantial damage to its infrastructure, much of Lebanon was left in ruins in the wake of the 34-day war. Road, bridges, and entire neighborhoods were completely destroyed by Israeli bombs.

UN resolution 1701 eventually brought an end to the hostilities. The agreement calls for Hizballah to disarm and for Israel to respect Lebanese sovereignty. Though the agreement stopped the fighting, neither side has adhered to the additional guidelines.

Hizballah continues to stockpile weapons near the Israeli border and Israel continues to violate Lebanese sovereignty with flyovers and other activities.

Lebanese frustration was sparked earlier this year with the discovery of a massive Israeli spy ring operating within its borders. So far, dozens  of alleged spies have been arrested in the plot.

Over the years, Hizballah has been playing an increased role in the government. In the June parliamentary elections, though its coalition failed to win the majority, Hizballah did very well in its own districts. In the current government, Hizballah holds two seat in the cabinet. Israeli doesn’t accept Hizballah’s position in the new government.

Defense Minister Barak stated that Lebanon would answer for Hizballah’s transgressions for letting the Shiite resistance movement operate on its soil. The United States used a similar pretext for invading Afghanistan, as the Afghans had allowed al-Quaeda to operate within its borders when the terrorist organization planned its 9/11 attack on the US.

Hizballah has made clear that its weapons are not up for debate.

The Lebanese government likely made its policy for lack of a viable alternative. In May 2008, the government attempted to disable Hizballah’s communications system. As a result, Hizballah stormed the western half of the city and reasserted its dominance over Lebanon’s other security forces, including the  police and the army.

Over a year later, it’s still doubtful that the government could disarm the group even if it really wanted to. The last time they tried, Lebanon came dangerously close to falling back into civil war.

With its aggressive posturing, Israel puts the Lebanese government in the awkward position of possibly suffering for a group’s crimes that it has almost no control over.

By all accounts Hizballah is even more well armed than the last time the two faced off, having stockpiled tens of thousands of rockets all over southern Lebanon. But it is highly unlikely that the group would launch a large-scale assault againt Israel unless it was faced with another monumental assault from the Israeli air force.

It is likely that Israel  knows that Hizballah is not likely to attack, and Israel is also likely well aware of the Lebanese government’s inability to control the group. So all this aggressive rhetoric might be just to warn Hizballah- and the  world- what costs will be incurred by Lebanon if they are attacked. This way Hizballah is well aware of the challenges it will face if it provokes another war on Lebanon.

After all, Hizballah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah famously stated back in 2006 that if he had known how the Israelis would have responded to his raid, he never would have done it. Well now he knows.

On a more regional level, Israel is also facing off with Iran, Hizballah’s financial and military patron. If war breaks out between the two countries, Hizballah would already have plenty of warning of what it will face if it decides to get involved.

Another possibility is that Israel might use an attack from Hizballah to justify and  attack on Iran. In 1982, Israel used the attempted assassination of Israeli diplomat Shlomo Argov in London as casus belli for invading Lebanon.

While no government wants an independent army operating within its borders, it seems that Lebanon is comfortable to table to problem for now. The situation will likely not be addressed comprehensively until the government, the economy, and the military are all much stronger. Until then, there is little choice in the matter.

 

 

 

 





Israel to attack Iran?

18 11 2009

by Patrick Vibert

There has been a lot of talk recently in certain circles about America going to war with Iran.

The train of thought is this: the US doesn’t want to go to war with Iran, but Israel is so afraid of Iran having nuclear weapons that they will draw the US into the conflict by bombing Iran. The US will then be dragged in because Iran will certainly try to close the Strait of Hormuz (through which 40% of all traded oil passes) and the US simply cannot let this happen because of the effect that the ensuing skyrocketing oil prices will have on the world’s fragile economic state.

Israel bombs Iran to prevent them from getting nukes, Iran closes the Strait of Hormuz in retaliation, the United States is forced to get involved to prevent a global economic calamity. That whole scenario sounds plausible on the surface. After all, given all that has happened involving the United States and the Middle East in the last ten years, I suppose anything is possible. However, we should take a closer look at that course of action for the parties involved and walk through the likely outcomes.

But first, let’s examine the implications of Iran successfully acquiring the ability to make some nuclear weapons…because, of course, the second that they acquire a nuclear weapon, they will no doubt immediately launch it at Israel.

IRAN NUKES ISRAEL

Let’s say Iran secretly makes half a dozen nuclear weapons, attaches them to long range missiles (which they already possess), and launches them all at Israel. Then they somehow manage to strike targets in such a manner that they completely disable Israel’s ability to respond in kind.

Then what?

Iran would have just incinerated hundreds of thousands of people – a large portion of which would have been Muslims – and completely contaminated the entire Holy Land in the process. Israel is not very big, and it wouldn’t take much to completely poison the entire country. And let’s not forget that Islam’s third holiest site is located in Jerusalem, which would also be rendered uninhabitable.

So Iran has successfully vanquished their Zionist enemies, then what? The Palestinian diaspora is supposed to flood back to their ancestral lands waving the Iranian flag and praising the Ayatollah for his great victory because they now get to return to a toxic wasteland? Unlikely. And as a consequence, Iran has now greatly harmed countless Sunnis Arabs, which historically have been at odds with the Persian Shia.

So Iran has destroyed Israel with it’s brand new nuclear weapons, then what? They reap a bunch of imaginary Muslim “street cred” and then go back to business as usual?

No.

First, the United States would be very upset at Iran for destroying one it’s closest allies. If the US didn’t immediately launch a full scale invasion of Iran on it’s own, they would certainly have the backing of the entire United Nations Security Council to do so, as well as to implement whatever sanctions it wanted.

If the United States were able to halt the supply of gasoline into Iran, many experts think that this alone would be enough to plunge the country into chaos. (Iran, while sitting on a sea of oil, has precious few refineries that can turn that oil into gasoline, which forces them to rely heavily on imports.) The United States, if finally able to implement a full array of sanctions, might not have to drop a single bomb in their effort to see regime change there. And it would all occur with the backing of the free world.

All this for what? So the Iranian regime can cement itself on the throne of Muslim warriors forever? It is unthinkable that the Ayatollah and his people would risk their survival for this reason. For one thing, they are already at the forefront of Israeli agitation, and they can stay there without challenge  just by making fiery anti-Zionist speeches and continuing to not-so-covertly aid Hamas and Hizballah.

So why all the fuss? Many in Israel are generally frightened over the prospect of Iran acquiring nuclear weapons which, given Jewish history, is to be expected. But for Israel’s policy makers, perhaps all this talk of the Iranian threat is useful to shape the debate and how the US deals with Iran, which Israel views as its greatest threat.

Indeed it seems extremely unlikely that Iran would launch a nuclear strike against Israel if given the opportunity.

ISRAEL BOMBS IRAN

Now let’s examine the situation from the Israeli point of view. If Israel launches a strike against Iran, there is a strong chance for events to escalate quickly to a level that Israel would not be comfortable with.

There is always the possibility that Israel could send bombers to Iran to take out their  nuclear installations and face no retaliation. Though highly unlikely, there is some precedent for this. In 2007, Israeli jets quietly flew into Syria and destroyed that country’s nascent nuclear energy program (which Syria was legally entitled to). There was no overt retaliation and Syrian officials barely mentioned the matter publicly, but its almost unfathomable that Iran would exercise that same restraint.

Iran’s main area of power and negotiation on the world stage is its nuclear energy program, and destroying that would not sit well with Tehran at all. In the case of Syria, their nuclear energy program was not as important to them publicly as Iran’s is, and anyway there was very little that Syria could do to Israel in response.

But Iran is not Syria. Iran has a substantial military, as well as countless proxies that the Revolutionary Guard has been training for the last thirty years. Hizballah and Hamas are only two. Tehran has many ways to strike back against Israel.

There is also the sentiment that, while the United States is the biggest player, Israel is the one with their finger on the trigger in this situation, and they are the ones who will decide the outcome. If Israel moves, the United States will be forced to move to.

So Israel bombs Iran, Iran tries to close the Strait of Hormuz, and the US is forced to intervene. Israel has just started a fight with one of the largest armies in the Middle East.

Iran was instrumental in forming Hizballah and has been contributing hundreds of millions of dollars to the group since the early 1980’s. If Iran finds itself under attack, there is little doubt that they will call in a big favor from Hizballah, meaning an assault from Israel’s northern border.

And Israel’s publicly stated policy with Hizballah is that if they harm a single Israeli, then they will take it as an act of aggression from the entire country of Lebanon, and Israel will respond as such. Israel nearly destroyed Lebanon in 2006, where Israel said that it acted with restraint because of a memo they received from President Bush at the time. Israeli officials have stated that in the event of a future attack, they would exercise no such “restraint”.

So Israel bombs Iran, Iran responds, and the US is forced to intervene. If we follow the scenario through, Hizballah would likely attack Israel. (Here, Hizballah would miss the genius arch-terrorist General Imad Mugniyeh, but there is probably some other man or men that could pick up where he left off. ) Then Israel would attack and destroy Lebanon. Now, not only is Israel at war on multiple fronts (Israel’s historic nightmare), but now it has lost the only thing it gained from the 2006 War: a stable northern border. And with all the ensuing chaos unfolding, its not hard to imagine Bashar Assad in Syria taking a swipe at the Golan Heights during Israel’s moment of weakness.

As previously stated, Iran is not Syria and a quick one time strike there without repercussions is highly unlikely.  Israel would be drawn into a potentially lengthy conflict. Maybe they could avoid this by the United States stepping in, but betting on that is both risky and foolish.

Israel, a nation of 7 million people, would most likely find itself at war with a nation of 66 million people, a third of which are fighting-aged men. A force that large could travel down through Syria (Iran’s close ally) and easily overwhelm the tiny nation.

Not to mention that a prolonged war with Iran would be incredibly destabilizing for Israel. Israel is a nation of the “citizen soldier on leave for 11 months a year”. They have a standing army, but in the face larger threat, the whole country mobilizes into wartime mode. People have to leave their jobs and productivity plummets. Their absence from the workplace saps the Israeli economy. While it may not be as bad as in past years, a prolonged engagement with Iran could likely destroy the Israeli economy for decades to come.

Another thing to consider is that Israel’s population is  25% Arab. This part of the country’s loyalty to the Israeli government is questionable, and it is unclear how they would respond in the event of their country going to war with a Muslim nation. How would the Arab Israelis react? At the very least, it would be unwise for the government to count on their full support.

Israel would also have the West Bank and the Gaza Strip to worry about while fighting Iran. If they rose up in a third intifada while Israel was at war with Iran, it would complicate matters significantly. If the situation spins out of control for Israel, we could see jihadists coming from all over the Muslim world to battle the “Zionist occupiers”, like we saw during with the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. Of course, none of these scenarios are guaranteed, but they must be considered by Israel’s policy makers.

THE UNITED STATES INTERVENES

So the United States attacks Iran to keep the Strait of Hormuz open in order to insure the continued flow of Gulf oil and to avert the world from an economic catastrophe.

At this time, it’s not even clear that Iran is capable of “closing” the Strait, but it could certainly significantly disrupt it. Is it worth it then for the United States to get involved in order to prevent this disruption?

The US is already fighting two very costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Those countries don’t even have armies, and it’s still very tough going for American forces there. Iran, on the other hand, has a sizable and formidable military. Even if the US and Israel manage to destroy Iran’s air force with a surprise attack, Iran can still make an extraordinary amount of trouble for the two countries.

For example, the United States could kiss goodbye all the progress it has made in Iraq over the last couple years. Contrary to popular belief, the calming down that occurred in Iraq in 2008 was not so much due to Bush’s troop surge as it was due to help from Iran.

For five years after the initial invasion, Iraq was plagued by sectarian violence and Iran was behind much of this. Washington’s aggressive posturing towards Iran directly resulted in the rising violence in Iraq. And soon after the Bush administration toned down its rhetoric, Iran acquiesced in Iraq.

Some of the most fearsome fighters in Iraq were Muqtada Sadr and his Sadr Militia. Sadr gave the US a tremendous amount of trouble in the slums of Sadr city and he could  not be vanquished. But one call from Tehran and he was back in Qom studying the Koran and out of  America’s hair.

Then, also with Iran pulling the strings, Iraq’s sizable Shia population was suddenly willing and eager to participate in the new government that was being formed. Iran had removed one half of the sectarian violence equation and it wasn’t long before Washington was talking about a withdrawal. None of this would have been possible without Iranian cooperation and it could all be unraveled with one word from Tehran. All of that would have to be weighed against a possible strike on Iran.

Also, the United States couldn’t just launch a few dozen Cruise missiles at Iran and be done with it. They would have to see it all the way through to regime change because there would be no going back. The Iranian regime would likely unleash everything it has in its nasty arsenal if faced with an existential threat like that. We could see the return of 1970’s level international terrorism.

The US would be at war on a 2000 mile front with three countries. This might have seemed possible under George W. Bush, but with Obama it’s muchless likely. The military is already greatly overextended in Iraq and Afghanistan and the economy is in a very fragile state. Going to war with Iran in order to ensure the flow of oil and to keep the world economy stable doesn’t really make much sense when you consider the implications of such actions. If Israel attacks Iran with the hope of American intervention, I hope they are sorely disappointed.

SO IRAN GETS NUKES

Israel bombs Iran, and the United States intervenes. And all of this is supposed to be due to the possibility of Iran trying to make nuclear weapons. Even the most conservative estimates put Iran  a year away from refining enough uranium for making a weapon. Iran has recently agreed to allow International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors in to see their newly unveiled nuclear operation outside of Qom. This is their obligation under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation treaty that they have signed.

Now, everyone already assumes that Israel has nuclear weapons. So if Iran develops their own, why would they use them on Israel when their destruction is mutually assured? One may accuse the regime in Tehran of religious fanaticism, but they are not suicidal. When faced with an existential threat, they will chose regime survival over their religious commitments, and in this way they are logical actors.

It’s not logical for Iran to attack Israel, and it’s not logical for Israel to attack Iran. Some in Israel may be frightened of Iran, with the disturbing rhetoric regarding “driving the Jews into the sea”, but this is not what is on the minds of the Israel’s policy makers. Right now, Israel is the only nation in the Middle East to possess nuclear weapons, and Iran acquiring them would greatly complicate the geopolitical landscape of the region forever.

Incidentally, this is why the United States is so concerned with the issue of Iran’s nuclear weapons  program. It’s not because Washington thinks Iran would actually use them, but because of the way it complicates things for the US in the future. Iran would have to be dealt with differently  if they possessed nuclear weapons. This is scary to Washington.

Another thing to consider is the idea that if Iran develops a  nuclear weapons program, then Saudi Arabia will want to as well, and the whole thing leads to more proliferation in a historically unstable region. One could argue however that Iran having nuclear weapons makes the region more stable not less, as the region’s most disruptive actor, Israel, would be severely curtailed in its hostilities. Israel would have to think twice before taking on Hizballah and destroying  Lebanon like they did in 2006.

OPERATION AJAX, PART II

The United States has a relatively long history with Iran. In 1953, the newly formed CIA overthrew a democratically elected government to install a king who was more sympathetic to American business interests. (Before we go any further, think of the irony of the United States overthrowing a democracy to install a king. It’s amazing.)

For the next quarter century, Iran was ruled by the brutal and oppressive king. In 1979, the  people had had enough and they overthrew him. But in stepped the Ayatollah Khomeini, who was extremely hostile to the United States. He was seething with hatred after witnessing of what Iran had went through at the hands of America’s puppet monarch. What we have now in Iran is a nation where half the people are for the Ayatollah and angry at the United States for messing in its affairs, and the other half is against the Ayatollah and angry at the United States for overthrowing the only democratically elected government Iran ever had.

In his fascinating book on the subject of the 1953 coup, Stephen Kinzer writes about the folly of attacking Iran in the current day:

“A variety of prominent Americans have described President George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq in 2003 as the worst strategic blunder in their country’s history. Attacking Iran right now might prove even more disastrous. It would turn that county’s oppressive leaders, who are now highly unpopular at home, into heroes of the Islamic resistance; give them a strong incentive to launch a violent counter-campaign against American interests around the world; greatly strengthen Iranian nationalism, Shiite irredentism, and Muslim extremism, thereby attracting countless new recruits to the cause of terror; undermine the democratic movement in Iran and destroy the prospect for political change for at least another generation; turn the people of Iran, who are now among the most pro-American in the Middle East, into enemies of the United States; require the United States to remain deeply involved in the Persian Gulf indefinitely, forcing it to take sides in all manner of regional conflicts and thereby making a host of new enemies; enrage the Shiite-dominated government in neighboring Iraq, on which the United States is relying to calm the violence there; and quite possibly disrupt the flow of Middle East petroleum in ways that could wreak havoc on Western economies.”

CONCLUSION

Iran doesn’t have nuclear weapons right now, and it is unlikely that they would use nuclear weapons against Israel even if they did have them. The consequence of such an action would vastly outweigh the symbolic value of wiping Israel off the map for good.

Also, it would be unwise for Israel to launch an attack of it’s own under the assumption of either American intervention or of Iranian non-response. That scenario is similar to  a child taking a swipe at the class bully when he knows the teacher is present. The child is relying too heavily on either the bully not reacting or  the teacher’s swift intervention, and that is not smart the because the teacher will not always be around to intervene, and the bully will not forget. And neither would Iran.

For America, attacking Iran either on Israel’s behalf or to keep the flow of Gulf oil going doesn’t make much sense either. America is stretched to the brink both militarily and economically, and American intervention in a dispute between Israel and Iran would surely lead to more chaos in the region, not less. In addition, the United States would not want to jeopardize all the progress that has been made in Iraq.

Today, eight countries are known to possess nuclear weapons: USA, UK, France, China, Russia, India, Israel and Pakistan. That does not include all the weapons that went missing after the breakup of the Soviet Union. The United States is the only country to ever use a nuclear weapon in the act of war. At this point, the United States should be more concerned with Pakistan’s arsenal, as that country is far more unstable than Iran and is besieged by the Taliban and Al-Qaeda, two groups that would actually use them if given the opportunity. On top of that are all the USSR nukes that are missing. Those are the two areas of nuclear security that seem to demand more attention than Iran.

Finally, in each case, the consequences of an attack outweigh the benefits. For Iran attacking Israel, for Israel attacking Iran, and for the United States attacking Iran, in each case the world would be made drastically more dangerous by action than by inaction. Washington needs to make it clear to Israel that the United States will not be drawn into a conflict with Iran, and make it clear to Iran that the United States will respond dramatically to the harming of one of its allies.

Right now, events seem to be progressing at a rapid speed in the wrong direction for all three parties.  Hopefully cooler heads will prevail.