Lebanon enters “very serious phase” with STL

26 07 2010

Rafik Hariri

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

Hizballah leader Hassan Nasrallah announced in a press conference Thursday that he expects Hizballah members to be charged in the investigation into the 2005 assassination of Rafik Hariri, and that as a result, Lebanon was now entering a “very serious phase”.

Depending on who is charged within the group, the indictments could be extremely damaging for the Party of God and could push Lebanon into instability.

Nasrallah dismissed the forthcoming charges as an Israeli plot, linking the United Nations Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) to a wave of Israeli espionage that has been continuously uncovered since 2009.

Charges that the STL investigation is a politically motivated Israeli plot are less believable in the wake of the UN’s Goldstone Report regarding Israeli’s Operation Cast Lead  in Gaza in 2009. The scathing report accused the IDF (as well as Hamas) of war crimes, exhibiting the UN’s capacity for carrying out a seemingly neutral investigation.

Saad Hariri

Current Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri (son of the aforementioned slain Rafik Hariri) has, as reported by Nasrallah, declared that he will make a public distinction between Hizballah as an organization and “undisciplined members” who might have been involved in the plot.

While this may be just a way for Hariri to keep his ties with March 6 alive, the move may also be to keep Lebanon from tearing itself apart. If Hariri shows no public animosity towards Hizballah after the charges are released, it will be difficult for any other party to show it either.

Since Hariri took office, he has made it apparent that he values Lebanon’s stability over almost anything else. His reconciling with Bashar Assad, his seemingly endless trips abroad to garner support for his small nation in the face of Israeli aggression, and now his handling of the STL results…every move made is with one end in mind: stability.  Whether that quest for stability is out of love for his country or some personal interests is anyone’s guess, but his commitment is beyond question.

In his own effort to diffuse tensions, Sayyed Nasrallah has gotten way out in front of the issue. From political blogger Elias Muhanna, as reported by the AFP, “By the time that the STL gets around to indicting Hezbollah members a few months from now… the development will be old news, already dissected, analyzed and picked over by Beirut’s punditocracy…No one will be surprised and (if Nasrallah and others get their way), no one will really care.”

Sandwiched between “What happened to Imam Musa Sadr?” and “Who killed Imad Mugniyeh?”, “Who killed Rafik Hariri?” remains one of the Middle East’s most intriguing mysteries. Syria  had the most to gain from Hariri’s death, as well as the intelligence and technical capabilities to pull it off, but it is also unlikely that Damascus could have undertaken such sophisticated operation without getting the attention (an perhaps the approval) of Hizballah.

Hassan Nasrallah

It is hard to see where Israel would fit in to all of that. I suppose, in this land of smoke and mirrors and castles made of sand, that anything is possible. But when Hizballah takes to blaming everything on Israel, the charge kind of loses its effectiveness. Just like not everyone that criticizes Israel is an anti-Semite, not every problem in Lebanon is caused by the Jewish State. In this case, attempting to dismiss the STL investigation as an Israeli ploy sounds childish coming from a warrior like Nasrallah.

Nasrallah’s actions aside, the big question going forward will be how this news affects the stability of Lebanon and the greater Middle East. At first glance, this is an internal dispute- a Lebanese killed by Lebanese- but it is sure to have repercussions for the surrounding states and beyond.

Damascus has to be secretly smiling right now. As long as those charged do not start giving up names of Syrian intelligence operatives, President Bashar Assad has dodged a bullet for now. However, don’t be surprised of those charged “turn up missing” for good measure.

Israel must also be enjoying this moment, as there is little doubt that many there relish seeing Nasrallah in such a predicament. But it is likely that they are also wary that, with Hizballah in such a tight spot, the group may do something unexpected.

Iran cannot be happy with the news, as it could make the Islamic Republic seem to be a more active and nefarious meddler in Lebanon than ever before.

Indictments against Hizballah members could also have an effect on regional relations. Rafik Hariri was an immensely popular figure in the Sunni Arab world, and charges linking the Shiite organization to his death could be damaging within Lebanon and without. For example, Hariri’s assassination destroyed Saudi Arabia’s relationship with Syria, which took four years to rebuild to where it is today.

Bashar Assad

But are Hizballah’s dismissals entirely unfair? As no entity in the Middle East has a monopoly on the truth, Hizballah’s counter charges must be addressed. While it is most improbable that Israel was involved with Hariri’s assassination, it is far less improbable that both Israel and the United States did not at least try to influence the findings of the STL.

Obviously Israel, whose last 18 months seem to have been a never ending public relations nightmare, enjoys Hizballah’s implication in the plot. But as for the United States, the situation is more opaque. Washington has been courting Damascus’ assistance in both containing Iran and helping the stability of Iraq. It is conceivable that Washington used its influence to direct the STL away from a Syrian indictment. But just how likely or possible that scenario is remains to be seen.

Though the names of those charged have not been released, it’s hard to imagine the men named would be anything other than low level conspirators. If Hassan Nasrallah, Bashar Assad, or even former Syrian intelligence chief Rustom Ghazaleh were charged, that would be truly astounding.

In the mean time, Nasrallah’s tone in his press conference was threatening (in text). In his speech, the Secretary General stated, “There is a dangerous project that is targeting the resistance…We are not at all afraid, nor are we worried. We know how to defend ourselves.”

Such rhetoric has been an interpreted to be a not-so-subtle hint warning the STL that it should tread carefully in the coming months, as their actions could have a disastrous impact on the future of Lebanon. Such talk is a stark reminder of the chaos that ensued in May 2008, when government forces clashed with Hizballah and Lebanon nearly went back into the abyss.

It is an interesting theoretical exercise: is knowing the so-called truth about Hariri’s assassination worth all the harm it could do? Unfortunately for the people of Lebanon, it looks like we are going to find out.


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.

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.


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.

America and Iran

28 05 2010

Last week Iran announced an arrangement, brokered by Brazil, where the Islamic Republic would ship out uranium to have it enriched in Turkey. The deal, similar to one offered by the United States last year, was denounced by Washington as a means to delay United Nations Security Council (UNSC) sanctions against Iran.

Iran was offering to have a large portion of its uranium enriched abroad to levels that are consistent with nuclear energy and not nuclear weapons. Once the uranium is turned into rods for nuclear reactors, it cannot be further enriched to be used for nuclear weapons.

The problem that Washington had with the deal is that Iran would still be holding onto a significant portion of its uranium that could be used some day to make a nuclear warhead, and Tehran has stated that it has no intention of halting its current enrichment program.

The Prospect of Sanctions

Russia and China

The battle over Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons program has been slowly escalating over the last year or so, encompassing Obama’s entire presidency. To date, the Obama administration has opted to take a confusing, passive-aggressive, diplomatic course in dealing with the Iran: make offers and talk about diplomacy while arranging sanctions and preparing the Gulf for war.  This strategy only seems to be “diplomatic” in the absence of a battle.But, as mentioned, one battle has been raging for months: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s political wrangling to arrange sanctions on Iran in the UNSC.

If you don’t know how the UNSC works, it has fifteen members, five of which are permanent and have veto power (the P-5: USA, UK, France, Russia, China) and ten members selected on a rotating basis for a period of two years. Usually, the United States can impose its will on the majority of the non-permanent members of the council, but the P-5 members sometimes must be aggressively courted to produce a “yes” vote. In the current situation with Iran, the UK and France were not hard to win over, but Russia and China have been.

Generally speaking, Russia loves to exploit any situation where the United States needs Russian assistance, but at the end of the day it is unlikely that they would veto something that is obviously so important to Washington. In return for their support (if tepid), however, America had to scrap a missile defense system that it was planning on installing in Russia’s sphere of influence in Poland and the Czech Republic.

And just recently, it seems that China has come aboard the USS Sanctions. Traditionally, China will do business with anyone as long as it benefits China and as long as the other country doesn’t criticize the government in Beijing. Iran fits nicely into this mold: China buys millions of barrels of oil without facing any condemnations from Iran regarding communism or human rights (the same goes for Burma and Sudan). The oil goes on to fuel economic growth that China needs to stave of domestic instability. (I guess the theory is that as long as people are being productive, they will not demand freedom of the press or the right to vote.)


This is why it has been so hard for America to convince China to go the sanctions route: one, China needs the cheap oil; two, China thinks its domestic policies are no business of foreigners; and three, if Iran did acquire a nuclear weapon, they would not be using it against China anyway. So why should they care enough to upset such a crucial trading partner?  This is the question that Hillary Clinton has been trying to answer since she took office.

China can’t be threatened with force; it has a very large army and scores of nuclear missiles. China can’t be bullied economically; it is the United States’ largest trading partner and holds over a trillion dollars in US currency and debt.  So figuring out the right mixture of carrots and sticks has been understandably difficult for the Obama administration. But it appears something has worked, because just after Iran announced its plans with Turkey and Brazil (both of which are emerging powers that are starting to assert themselves in the diplomatic arena), the United States announced that it had reached an agreement on sanctions with both Russia and China.

Why did China change its mind? While Beijing’s first impulse might be to do the opposite of what the West wants it to do, it doesn’t change the fact that China’s relationship to Europe and the U.S. is very important as it represents two massive markets that buy Chinese goods, which in turn fuels the economic growth that fosters domestic stability. And once Russia was aboard, it was that much more difficult for China to stand alone.

As for the sanctions themselves, it is difficult to say whether they will have any real impact on Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons program. Historically, the effects of sanctions in guiding rogue nations to the right course have been spotty at best, as sanctions usually only serve to strengthen the position and resolve of the regime while only the citizens of the sanctioned nation suffer.

In order to make sanctions work, you need to make the regime suffer. In this case most analysts agree that, while imposing certain banking and trading restrictions on Iran might be at most an inconvenience, they will likely not achieve the desired result.

For Iran, the key weakness is in its gasoline imports. Iran may have a lot of oil, but years of sanctions have crippled its ability to refine oil into gasoline (score one for sanctions). As a result, Iran must import a large portion of its gasoline, mostly from Russia. This is where Russia could have played a key role: if Russia agreed to halt gasoline exports to Iran, the Iranian economy would have ground to a halt and would have easily inflamed the anger of a public that is already visibly discontented with the regime in Tehran.

But the current UNSC resolution makes no mention of gasoline imports, and it looks like the price of having Russia and China on board was that the resulting resolution would be devoid of teeth. Perhaps the Obama administration thinks that it is more valuable to have their support to give the resolution the appearance of a multilateral consensus than it was to have a resolution that could actually have a direct effect.

Iran Gets Nukes: So What?

Enriched Uranium

With all this talk about what’s to be done with Iran, it is easy to get lost in the rhetoric. When such a big deal is made about a particular issue, and everyone has strong opinions on all sides, but they don’t really disagree, the question must be asked: why do we care?

(My personal policy is this: there should be no nuclear weapons anywhere in the world, and the international community should work hard towards that goal. But if Russia is to have one, the United States is to have two.)

The list of countries with (known) nuclear weapons is long: US, UK, France, Russia, China (the P-5), India, Pakistan, Israel, and North Korea. Really, aside from being counter non-proliferation, what is one more country?  The problem isn’t so much of “what” as it is “who”.The country in question has been hostile to the United States for over 30 years, continuously referring to the America as “the Great Satan” (with Israel being the “Little Satan”).  But that’s not really it either, as the United States was not nearly as aggressive towards North Korea’s nuclear weapons program (a rogue regime if there ever was one, one that actually fought a war with the U.S. in the 1950’s). Perhaps it was because Pyongyang’s possession of nuclear weapons came as a surprise and by the time the world knew about it, it was too late: because they had nuclear weapons.

No, America’s interest in Iran is different and its concerns are two-fold: the first is Iranian hostility towards Israel; the second is Iran’s direct challenge to American hegemony in the Middle East.

Tehran makes no bones about its dislike of Israel. The regime’s leaders constantly denounce Israel to gain support from the masses. For any nation, it helps to have an adversary for which to rally domestic support. North Korea has South Korea, Israel has Iran (they have each other), America had Communism, and now it has Terrorism. The question is whether this hostile rhetoric goes beyond mere speeches.

For Iran and Israel, it certainly does. Iran has been funding and training Hamas for years, and in 2006, Israel fought a 34-day war with Hizballah, an Iranian proxy. But what came first, the chicken or the egg? It’s difficult to say. On the surface, it would appear that Israel would have no problem with Iran if Iran had no problem with Israel. However, the Iranian revolution of 1979 was Islamic in nature, and one of the claims of the new regime in Tehran was that Zionism was evil, as it oppressed Muslims. Whatever you believe, one thing that’s true is that Israel worked closely with the hated former leader of Iran: the Shah. As it turns out, something that Iran’s three greatest enemies (US, UK, Israel) have in common is their ties to Reza Shah Pahlavi, the former King of Iran.

Since the Islamic Republic came in to being, it has been hostile towards Israel. And while Israel might have one of the most advanced militaries in the world, it is still a very small country in relation, and is understandably afraid of one of its greatest enemies acquiring weapons of mass destruction, particularly nukes. However, this doesn’t explain why the United States is so concerned. Or does it?

It is extremely unlikely that Iran would make a nuclear weapon, attach it to a missile, and launch it at the United States, because America would respond in kind and that would the end of the regime in Tehran. (The same goes for Iran attacking Israel for that matter.)  While not usually on the same page with the international community, it is safe to say that Iran is led by rational actors in that they value regime survival beyond anything else.

Let’s just say that Iran manages to build a nuclear weapon and launches it Israel the next day. Israel would likely reciprocate and the regime in Tehran would be toast. But even if they weren’t, Khamenei and Ahmedinejad would likely face a level of international isolation that they had never dreamed existed. Not only would they have been responsible for the Holocaust Part II, thousands of fellow Muslims would have been killed in the process. Adding another layer is that those Muslims would be Arabs, which would further widen the chasm between Arabs and Persians. The average (surviving) Persian, thoughtful and literate, would likely be appalled and ashamed of their government’s course of action. And not only would Tehran be destroyed, but likely Qom, the Shiite Vatican, along with it. Without exaggeration, it could very well mean the end of Persian civilization.

So while Israel would likely not ever face an Iranian nuclear assault, when you combine Iran’s hostility to Israel, as well as the two nations’ proximity, Israel’s concern is understandable.

And when Israel is concerned, America is concerned. This is a factor of the Zionist lobby’s power in Washington, especially as the U.S. heads into midterm election season. Congressmen from both sides of the isle draw support from pro-Israel advocates, and therefore we see Israel’s needs being quickly addressed. (Witness the recent Scuds to Hizballah scenario; a week later President Obama is clamoring for a $200 million missile defense system for Israel.) So if our “close ally” is threatened because it “lives in a tough neighborhood”, then the U.S. will  respond, as it has been for the past 43 years.

Of course, there is the other reason why Washington is taking such a firm stance with Iran: the continued defiance of Iran threatens American hegemony in the Gulf and symbolizes America’s deterioration as a superpower.

After WWII, the United States and Russia emerged as the only two superpowers (closely related to their own nuclear arsenals). The two engaged in the Cold War for nearly fifty years until the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. After that, America was the last man standing and for the next 20 years or so, what America said, went. But now, with the ascents of Russia, India, Brazil and especially China (referred to as the BRIC countries); America is losing in terms of relative power. In this zero sum game of power politics, the gains for the BRIC countries represent loses for the United States. This means that these countries will be competing more than ever for natural resources to either ensure their position in the world (in the case of the United States) or to ensure their continued growth.

The International Relations landscape is shifting to a multi-polar world where there is no clear superpower. In fifty years, we could see America, China, India, Brazil, and Europe (if there is such a unified body at the time) exerting similar levels of influence in the world (Russia is left off because of its declining population and its inability to reform economically). This transition could be rough or smooth. Intuitively, such an adjustment would create conflict and war, but the end of the Soviet Union came so swiftly and gently that it caught everyone by surprise. The point is that we as a nation should do whatever it takes to ensure a smooth transition.

BRIC Leaders

But right now we are going through the birth pangs of our transition to the new multi-polar world order, and Iran is at the center of that transition. The United States has chosen to make Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons program a priority. Washington has burnt a lot of calories and invested a lot of political capital in making sure Iran does not continue to enrich uranium, so much so that the whole situation has become symbolic of declining American power. This is why the U.S. is trying so hard to get it’s way: Iran’s position on the matter is the ultimate defiance of the West and if America can’t get Iran to change its ways after investing so much time and energy into it, it projects to the world that America’s time as captain of the ship is over, and its decline may be happening in a more precipitous manner than was once thought.

America’s (and Israel’s) interest in Iran’s nuclear capability is boldly hypocritical. The biggest behind-the-scenes cheerleader for sanctions has been Israel, who has an ambiguous nuclear arsenal of its own and refuses to sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), but you would never hear Washington criticize this. Also on the list of those with nuclear weapons is India, where the U.S. actually encourages proliferation. Then we have Pakistan, an incredibly unstable country with an active al-Qaeda presence, which should be ten times more alarming than the prospect of Iran acquiring “the bomb”. Rounding out the list is North Korea, at best an enigmatic nation (at worst, insane) which actually withdrew from the NPT in 2003, and soon after declared that it had nuclear weapons. Popular opinion characterizes Pyongyang as a rational regime, in that it values regime survival, but in reality we have no idea what Kim Jong Il is capable of.

Pakistan and North Korea are far more threatening nations that have nuclear weapons; the problem is that they already possess them. But Iran does not, not yet anyway, and many think that it only a matter of time before they do. Then what? Iran should not possess nuclear weapons for many reasons, but there are worse scenarios for the United States. One of which is  the prospect of going to war with Iran to forcibly prevent (delay) Tehran from attaining them, as the result could be catastrophic for the world: war, oil shortages, economic collapse, domestic instability, war, repeat.

The fear of proliferation resulting from Iran acquiring nuclear weapons is probably overblown.  America actually still has sufficient clout to make sure others in the region – Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Gulf States – do not follow suit. There will be a certain level of anxiety added to the region with a Persian nation having such a defensive leg up, but that will likely only push those countries closer to the United States for protection, with the bonus of significant additional arms sales. Also, if Iran becomes nuclear capable, the regime in Tehran might be more secure not having to face the prospect of an Israeli or American attack, which could make Tehran less reliant on the destabilizing use of proxies such as Hizballah and Hamas.

Long Term Strategy

One way or another, the United States needs to reconcile with Iran. It would be better if it happened before Iran acquired nuclear weapons, but it should surely happen afterward (though reconciling immediately after could set a bad example). A friendly relationship with Iran could be highly beneficial to the United States. Just think how useful they could be right now in Iraq and Afghanistan, not to mention America’s war with al-Qaeda. Also, if America had Iran, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia as allies, it could really make our nation’s transition to post-oil that much smoother. Like it or not, the U.S. faces heavy competition for resources from the emerging giants of Brazil, India, and China, and having the aforementioned Middle Eastern countries locked down as allies would secure America’s access to petroleum in the days after peak oil.

Another beneficial move would be to increase America’s ties with Turkey. Turkey is a large Muslim nation situated in a key geographic region between East and West. Turkey, a long time member of NATO, has always had a foot in both camps, but lately it seems to be shifting to the East as a way to assert itself. Turkey has proven itself over the years to be an honest broker of sorts when it comes to diplomacy, as it has facilitated negotiations between Syria and Israel, as well as brokering the current deal (with the help of Brazil) to enrich uranium for Iran. Turkey would be a strategic ally in ensuring Europe’s access to natural gas. This natural gas would come from Iran, which in turn would provide Europe with an alternative to Russian natural gas. This would weaken Russia’s hand strategically, which is always nice.

Today, Washington’s key ally in the Middle East is Israel, but that relationship is becoming more trouble than it is worth. This is not to say that Israel is not a friend of the U.S. or that we should not support the Jewish State as we would any ally, it’s just that the benefits that America gets for its special relationship with Israel need to be closely evaluated against other possibilities as we enter a critical juncture in American history. A closer relationship with Turkey and reconciliation with Iran would have many long term strategic benefits for the United States, and this needs to be weighed honestly against what Israel brings to the table. Also, closer ties with Turkey and Iran do not necessarily have to come at the expense of Israel. Obviously Israel loses by not having its American big brother take its side in every conflict, but prudent U.S. foreign policy should be guided by national interests and not by guilt or sentimentality.

The decisions that the United States will make over the next ten years will have a direct effect on the next hundred years in terms of America’s place in the world. The too-brief period when America was the lone world superpower is coming to an end and Washington needs to carefully evaluate how it proceeds from here. Who are our true friends? Who do we want to be our new friends? What do we have to gain by being hostile to certain states and not hostile enough to others?

It is easy to beat the drum of America being too dependent on oil, but it is. However, this is not the problem. The problem is that the rest of the world is too, and state competition for resources causes conflict. Sometime over the next fifty years or so we will likely start running out of oil, and America’s access to cheap, readily available energy is absolutely critical to United States national security. From here on out, it behooves us to proceed with great caution.

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.

Got SCUDs?

16 04 2010



Israeli officials claimed yesterday that they had intelligence indicating that Syria has been arming Hizballah with SCUD missiles. If so, it would mark a significant departure  for Hizballah in terms of military strategy and weapons capability.

Now, nothing should come as a surprise in the Middle East, but this news would be shocking if it was true. Hizballah having SCUDs just doesn’t make any sense strategically.

The IDF is one of the world’s most powerful fighting forces, including an air force that is capable of incredible devastation (see Lebanon- 2006). Still though, despite the ferocity of the IDF, Hizballah has managed to be remarkably effective when the two face off.

This is no accident. Hizballah has based it entire warfare strategy on fighting with the IDF. For them, this means having a large amount of smaller-sized weapons that can be fired or launched, broken down, hidden away, and moved in a rapid manner. Because it won’t take long before the Israeli Air Force (IAF) discovers your position and reacts accordingly.

Hence their use of Katyusha rockets, Fajr-3  missiles, and C-802 Silkworm missile. The latter two are still fairly large, but can be disguised easily in the back of a truck, which makes them relatively easy to fire, hide, and move.

In the past, we have seen what happens when traditional armies face off against the IDF (see Jordan, Syria, and Egypt- 1967). Large weapons make large targets for the IAF, it is that simple.

So it is strange to hear reports of Hizballah acquiring SCUDs. SCUDs are enormous and clunky. Though they have a much longer range than some of  Hizballah’s other weapons, SCUDs still do not fit with the groups past strategy of favoring portability and concealment over big and destructive.

Remember Saddam Hussein’s SCUDs from Dessert Storm? They’re as big as an RV, and they must be launched from that goofy-looking truck. How long would it take the IAF to find every single one of those and destroy them in a possible future war? Hizballah might as well have acquired some tanks or some helicopters.

So if it is true that Syria has somehow transported these massive weapons over the border and into Hizballah’s hands, it would be very surprising indeed. Would it indicate that Hizballah has given up on it’s guerrilla tactics (that have been so successful in the past) in favor  a more traditional way of doing battle that plays right into the hands of the IDF? Again, one never knows, but it would be surprising.

And if it’s not true, why would Israel report it? One possible reason that comes to mind is that Israel has been under immense pressure recently from the United States to make a peace deal with the Palestinians, and releasing this sort of SCUDs to Hizballah story serves at least as a distraction, and a most the story repositions Israel as America’s good friend in a tough neighborhood.

Or perhaps Israel is trying to build a pretext for a preemptive strike on Lebanon and possibly Syria in the event that  Israel attacks Iran’s nuclear weapons facilities. Some have speculated (and Israeli defense experts have recommended) that Syria is the real target, and that Hizballah and Syria (H&S) need to be neutralized before an attack on Iran in order to prevent retaliation from H&S while Israel is dealing with the Iranian response.

(This is like going to fight a guy, but before you do so, you beat up his two friends first so they can’t jump in while you are mixed up with your main target.)

This is how smart nations protect themselves. Unfortunately, if Israel bombs Hizballah, all of the Lebanese will suffer. This is less true for Syria, whose military installations are likely more removed from civilian populations.

It might be time to ask why this hasn’t been the plan before? It is no secret where Hizballah gets it weapons: most of them come through Syria. The ones that don’t (such as those shipped by boat) run the risk of being intercepted by the Israeli navy. Instead of taking it out on Lebanon next time, perhaps more attention needs to be focused on its neighbor-patron Syria; the king of the Let’s you and him fight! mentality.

Also, if Israel really had proof of SCUDs in Lebanon, why not release it? It should be easy enough to prove…you just need a couple clear satellite pics showing those ridiculous SCUD trucks crossing the Syrian border into Lebanon. We’ll see if said photos materialize.

In conclusion, it would be strange if Hizballah really had acquired SCUD missiles from Syria. It would mark a departure for Hizballah and would be a highly risky move for Syria, as Israel has shown recently that it is absolutely aching for a fight. Why would Syria take such a chance to provide Hizballah with such a strategically useless weapon?

If it is not true, then Israel is lying. But if it is, then something much bigger is going on here.

Hizballah vs Israel, Part II

5 02 2010



Katyusha Rocket

by Patrick Vibert

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

These are good days for Lebanon. The country is relatively stable, stocks are up, and the tourists are back. The government is semi-functional, business is booming, and construction is everywhere. The people of Lebanon are showing the world what they are capable of when their country is not at war. But many Lebanese are fearful that this peace will not last; that it is only a matter of time before Israeli bombs rain down on Lebanon once again.

In for a penny, in for a pound

Recently, all sides have upped the ante. Israel proclaimed that it will hold all of Lebanon accountable for the actions of Hizballah. In return, the Lebanese government declared that Hizballah was a legitimate defender of Lebanon. Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, seeing no way out of these trouble waters, decided to wade into them chest deep. And with that, Hariri put the safety and stability of all Lebanon in the hands of Hizballah.

Many believe that one of the major factors that led to the 2006 War was that Hizballah was eager to prove its usefulness in the wake of Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000 and the end of Syrian occupation in 2005. There were UN resolutions calling for the disarmement of Hizballah, and suddenly they had no cover from Syria and no one to “resist” against.

You would think that two occupiers leaving your country would be a good thing, but counter-intuitively this was highly destabilizing for Lebanon.  It caused an internal rift between Hizballah and the government over the disarmament issue, and created the need for Hizballah to prove its “usefulness” to Lebanon. Officially declaring Hizballah’s weapons to be part of Lebanon’s defense negated both those issues.

This was a shrewd move for the young Prime Minister, who is quickly proving his ability to negotiate the complex political landscapes of Lebanon and the Middle East. By accepting the reality of Hizballah’s arms, he pulled the group deeper into the political establishment thereby increasing their responsibility for the safety of Lebanon, and conversely, their culpability for its destruction.

The new Cold War

The way things stand today, Israel is unlikely to attack unless provoked, and Hizballah is unlikely to provide that provocation. This tense and tenuous state of affairs has held so far, but if it fails, the result would likely leave Lebanon in complete ruin, even more so than the 2006 conflict.

On the surface, Israel and Hizballah seem like two scorpions in a glass jar, but this may not be the case. Some analysts speculate that the least spark could set the situation ablaze. However, recent events have shown that it will take more than a tiny spark to reignite this fire.

Periodically, over the last year, rockets were launched into Israel from Lebanon, likely originating from militant Lebanese Palestinians. If Israel wanted to, it could have used these rocket attacks as a pretext for another war, but it didn’t. No one was killed, Hizballah said they didn’t do it, and that was that. It will likely take an offense on the level of what set everything off in 2006 (when Hizballah killed a handful of Israeli soldiers and took two of them into Lebanon) to start another war.

Again, the way things stand today, a repeat of that scenario is unlikely.

Syria gets involved

A wild card in this scenario is Syria. Just last week, Israeli analysts were recommending that any strike against Hizballah be widened to include Syria. This is because almost everything that Hizballah has in terms of weapons and cash either comes either from Syria, or from Iran through Syria.

While cutting off an opposing army’s ability to rearm itself has historically been of strategic importance,  it might not apply in this case. Hizballah has already completely restocked its itself with everything that it will need for another conflict with Israel. If the IDF gets involved with Hizballah again, and Hizballah exhausts its weapons supplies, that will mean that the conflict had probably drawn itself out to a duration the Israel is likely to be very uncomfortable with. It is unclear whether Israel is even capable of sustaining Hizballah long enough for the Resistance to necessitate reaming itself.

The whole makeup of the IDF is geared towards quick and devastating preemptive strikes, not intense, long and drawn out conflicts. Some may point to the thirty-year occupation of Lebanon as proof that the IDF can sustain itself in hostile territory for long periods of time, but that was an entirely different case. Israel originially invaded Lebanon because the PLO was using it as a base of attack. Israel invaded June 1982 and the PLO was expelled September of that same year. In just four months, the IDF had reached its primary objective.

Historically though, even four months is a long time for Israel. The Six Day War of 1967 comes to mind, but also the Yom Kippur War of 1973 lasted less than a month. Flash forward to Israel’s 2006 War with Hizballah, which itself lasted only34 days. If Syria gets involved, or more precisely, if Israel involves Syria, it could prolong the conflict to a duration that Israel just is not comfortable with. Hizballah already has its weapons, and the IDF will likely have its hands full with them without getting Syria into the mix.

One thing that must be considered, however, is the strength of the Syrian defenses. Syria uses less-than-state-of-the-art weapons and defense systems, some of it having come from the Soviet Union  back when there was such a thing. In 1967, a time when Israeli forces were not nearly as advanced as they are today, the IDF laid waste to the Syrian Air Force before it even left the ground.

More recently in 2007, the Israeli Air Force traveled deep into Syrian air space and destroyed suspected nuclear weapons sites. Syria was completely taken by surprise, its air defense system completely failed, and to this day Syria has not responded.

It is not that far of a stretch to imagine the IDF doing the exact same thing today, with the same result. In this scenario, there would be a simultaneous attack on Hizballah (or more accurately, Lebanon) and Syria, and when the smoke cleared, only Hizballah would be still fighting.

Hizballah vs Israel, Part II

Whether or not Syria “gets involved”, it is likely that another war between Hizballah and Israel would last longer than 34 days. First, the 2006 War only stopped because Israel withdrew, as Hizballah showed no signs of slowing down. That time, Hizballah was estimated to have about 16,000 rockets as well as a few anti-tank and anti-ship missiles. Today however, the group is believed to be much more prepared (as are the Israelis, no doubt). In addition to more than doubling its Katyusha rocket stash to over 40,000 strong, Hizballah has also likely acquired more sophisticated weapons, and higher quantities of them.

Katyusha rockets are highly inaccurate and only travel several kilometers. Still though, a barrage of several thousand was bound to do some damage. If reports are true, Hizballah now has more advanced rockets that can travel further and hit their targets.

In a situation where Tel Aviv and points south are taking direct rocket fire and suffering multiple casualties, how long can the IDF sustain an attack against Hizballah? Over 1,400 Israeli lives were lost in 2006. Is Israel ready to accept a death toll in that neighborhood again? Also in 2006, the IDF was never able to stop Hizballah’s rocket assault, and Hizballah generals are believed to have never lost communication with their front lines. What makes Israel think  that this time will be different, when Hizballah has had over three years to plan and prepare?

The result of another war between Hizballah and Israel would be terrifying for all involved. Lebanon would likely be destroyed beyond recognition, and Israel would likely suffer damages and casualties that it has not seen in generations, if ever. Just as the concept of Mutually Assured Destruction kept the USA and USSR out of a nuclear war, maybe it will also keep Hizballah and Israel from once again squaring off.