19 07 2011
Dr. Bashar Assad

The crisis in Syria is deepening and the Assad regime is fighting for its life. The rhythm of the revolution is familiar: The state cracks down on demonstrators throughout the week, inevitably committing some new outrage on its citizens; rage builds and explodes on Friday after prayers; repeat as necessary.

The state’s crackdown seems more futile with each passing week. The Alawite grip on power in Syria seems to be slipping away and the events could foreshadow a similar path in Lebanon.

Imagine a future where Lebanon’s Shia have managed to conquer Lebanon with brute force. The situation seems hardly possible, but Syria faced a similar situation forty years ago. Syria’s Alawites, who comprise only 15% of the population, managed to subdue the nation under Hafez Assad in 1970.

It’s not impossible to imagine something similar in Lebanon. One thousand reasons could be given why this would never happen, but surely the same could be said of Syria all those years ago. While success is unlikely, an attempt is possible.

The Shia are Lebanon’s largest minority, and as such they wield significant political power. Beyond that, Hizballah is considered to be the most powerful fighting force in the country. They have strongholds in the south and in the southern suburbs of Beirut, but do not always feel at home in the cosmopolitan capital.

Lebanon’s Shia for years occupied the bottom of the socio-economic spectrum. Long ago they realized that the only way they would get anything in Lebanon is if they took it with force, as the merchant-class Christians and Sunnis in Beirut would never give up anything willingly. This is the genesis of the Amal Movement in the 1970’s, and later Hizballah.

While it’s impossible to know whether Hizballah will ever gain a monopoly on power in Lebanon, perhaps we can learn something about what their trajectory might look like by considering the Alawite experience in Syria. Consider the following excerpt from a report from the International Crisis Group, “The Syrian People’s Slow-motion Revolution”:

Yet, the sectarian survival instinct upon which the regime relies could backfire. The most die-hard within the security apparatus might well be prepared to fight till the bitter end. But the majority will find it hard to keep this up. After enough of this mindless violence, this same sectarian survival instinct could push them the other way.

After centuries of discrimination and persecution at the hands of the Sunni majority, Alawites and other religious minorities concluded that their villages within relatively inaccessible mountainous areas offered the only genuine sanctuary.

They are unlikely to believe their safety is ensured in the capital (where they feel like transient guests), by the Assad regime (which they view as a temporary, historical anomaly), or through state institutions (which they do not trust). When they begin to feel that the end is near, Alawites might not fight to the last man. They might well return to the mountains. They might well go home.

Hassan Nasrallah

Partly due to Hizballah’s helps, Lebanon’s Shia have come a long way over the past 40 years. Today the sect wields real power, both politically and militarily. The can bring down the government, as they did this year, and they can take over the capital, which they did in 2008.

But something doesn’t seem right. Hizballah’s actions are becoming more aggressive towards the state, especially since the indictments in the Hariri Tribunal were made known. This week, Hassan Nasrallah announced that the state would never be able to arrest members of Hizballah.

Nasrallah has been vocal in his support for Syria, which badly exposes him as a hypocrite who is grossly out of touch with the Arab tide of history. This was after proclaiming support for protestors in Tunisia and Egypt.

He has also maintained steadfast support for Iran, which also continues to oppress its citizens. Because of these patently opportunistic and self-serving stances, Hizballah’s credibility on the Arab street has to be plummeting, particularly amongst Sunni Arabs.

How long can this keep up? Can Hizballah count on the unconditional support of the common Shia? Is there a limit to what they will accept? Hizballah’s support for authoritarian regimes, coupled with its ultra-aggressive posturing at home, will only lead to growing isolation for the group, and the Shia by extension.

The common enemy in the Middle East used to be the United States, which had supported the likes of Mubarak and Ben Ali for decades. But in 2011, Arabs realized that instead of getting the United States to abandon its support for the region’s dictators, they had to remove the dictators themselves. And they’re doing right now.

Suddenly, corrupt and oppressive regimes became the enemy (whether they supported the US or not) and Hizballah found itself on the wrong side of history. With the region’s political calculus undergoing such significant changes, it follows that Hizballah would alter its strategies accordingly. But they didn’t and in the process revealed themselves to be little more than an outpost of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, beholden to the Ayatollah instead of their constituents.

The question then becomes whether we will see any daylight developing between Hizballah and the “average Shia”. It’s not clear how unconditional support is for Hizballah amongst the Shia, but there are signs of cracks developing. The downfall of the group’s financial chief, penetration by Israeli spies, support for brutal regimes in Iran and Syria, isolation from Sunnis, and isolation from the world in general… both the group and the sect are under tremendous pressure.

The whole situation seems to be coming to a head. There are just too many highly-volatile moving pieces. It’s likely that Hizballah can count on its sectarian constituents if push comes to shove; the Shia won’t have any choice. The shoves will be coming from the Sunnis and the Shia will likely close ranks and band together in the event of a civil conflict.

But it is unclear how far rank and file Shia will go in support of the Party of God. Perhaps a look at the fate of Syria’s Alawites over the last 40 years can give some clues.


				




Lebanon waits out the crisis in Syria

13 06 2011

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

As the current civil crisis rages in Syria, Lebanon and others await the outcome.  Coinciding with the so-called Arab Awakening throughout the Middle East, demonstrations that started earlier this year in Syria have continued to build. The protests have been met with force by the government.

The Tunisian and Egyptian governments fell quickly in the face of demonstrations, but subsequent revolts stagnated or flamed out completely. Battles still rage in Syria, Libya, and Yemen. However other countries, particularly the Gulf, saw uprisings squelched before they became a problem for the regimes.

Syria did its best to stomp out the flames of dissent before they could spread. The Bashar Assad regime broke up protests, arrested thousands of demonstrators, and allegedly recruited Iranian protest-breakers to put down the unrest. Today Syria is beset with conflict, both internally and externally.

It seems the more violence is used against the people of Syria, the less likely they are to submit. The United States and many European nations have condemned the use of state violence against peaceful protestors. Bank accounts of the Assad regime have been frozen, and resolutions criticizing Damascus have been drawn up. There may be an official charge brought by the ICC.

The Iranian regime, not exactly on firm footing itself, is watching and waiting. Tehran has been on the defensive since massive protest swept the nation after the disputed 2009 election. The protests were squashed, but the situation remains tense. Adding to trouble is the power struggle between Ayatollah Khamenei and President Ahmedinejad.

Syria is key to Iranian foreign policy. Syria gives Iran a foothold in the Arab world, a way to transfer weapons to Hizballah, and way to directly menace Israel. If the Alawite regime in Damascus is replaced with a Sunni regime, particularly one closer to Egypt and Saudi Arabia, it would be a huge blow to Tehran and could lead to a level of international isolation the regime has never seen.

Hizballah has been relatively quiet through this. Aside from the odd demonstration to show support, Hizballah’s leadership must be aware that exhibiting approval for Assad’s killing of his subjects, especially Sunnis, is bad for business. The Party will likely wait out the crisis like everyone else, while trying to maintain Syrian holdings in Lebanon in the process.

The crisis in Syria is also a large reason why Lebanon has been unable to form a cabinet just yet. Assad’s handpicked Prime Minister-elect Njiab Mikati has been unable to coerce and horse trade his way to a new government without the full strength and support of Damascus. Until the conflict in Syria is settled one way or another, it is understandable that Lebanese politicians are unwilling to make a deal based on political realities that may not be in place next month or next year.

Over all of this, the Hariri indictments loom. Hizballah members are expected to be named, with arrest warrants to follow. However, this is not guaranteed. The powers that be (the United States) are currently the biggest supporters of the Hariri tribunal (STL) and are the biggest reason it has not gone away. At the time it was set up, the STL was meant ostensibly to find Hariri’s killers, but also to punish Syria, who is the consensus prime suspect.

With the regime on the defensive it may not be necessary for the US to play the STL card. (It’s not clear just how much say in the matter the United States actually has, but it is likely enough to get it squashed or move it forward depending on the needs of Washington.) Whatever the case, it is strange that we have not seen an indictment yet, and if one is handed down in the near future, it could add a whole new dimension to the conflict.

Today, tanks, helicopters and soldiers approached the northern town of Jisr al-Shughour, and Assad’s forces began shelling. The situation is a grim reminder of Hafez Assad (Bashar’s father) razing of the town of Hama in 1982 after similar unrest. Thousand were killed and the unrest was put down; Hafez never faced another test to his power.

Today, 11 years into the rule of Bashar Assad, the world waits to see if he is capable of the same.





Hizballah, Israel, and the Syrian Unrest

9 05 2011

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

The protest movement in Syria continues to grow, with thousands of demonstrators taking to the street on Friday for a “day of rage”. We have seen similar days of rage in the other Arab countries that have undergone or are undergoing revolutions. The people of Syria, at first demanding reforms, are now openly calling for an end to Bashar Assad’s entire Baathist Alawite regime.

Syria is viewed by many as the linchpin of the Middle East. Damascus is involved in the Arab-Israeli conflict, the US-Iran conflict, and the Iraq War. When there is talk of regime change in Syria, many ears turn toward the conversation. On this topic there is no shortage of interested parties, but perhaps none more so that Israel and Hizballah.

Hizballah has counted on Syrian support for over 25 years. Syria’s previous leader, Hafez Assad, considered the group a tool to be used when necessary, but to be kept at bay and in check at all times. Under Assad Junior however, the Party of God has enjoyed much more influence and flexibility. Over the years Syria has used its formidable political power in Lebanon to ensure the interests of the group.

Iran also enjoys a close relationship with Hizballah. Hizballah Secretary General Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah has sworn allegiance to the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic. The group acts as Iran’s insurance policy against Israel and the West. In return, Hizballah is showered with weapons (light arms and medium-range rockets) and cash (reportedly in excess of $100 million per year). Cash is easy enough to move, but the weapons must come through Syria, so the whole arrangement is predicated on Syrian cooperation.

If the regime in Damascus is replaced by a Sunni group, the country is simply less likely to continue its close relationship with Iran, and this has to be troubling for Hizballah. A Sunni-led Syria, particularly with a moderate Islamist tone, would likely turn southwest towards Egypt in terms of regional associations. The two countries were actually united into one for a brief period of time in the late 1950’s under the banner of Pan-Arabism (the country was named the “United Arab Republic”).

When protests began to take their toll on Tunis and Cairo, Hizballah came out in favor of the protesters. After all, those movements were attempting to remove key US allies from power. The Party never anticipated that the Arab Intifada would spread to Syria, where Bashar Assad had touted his resistance to Israel and the West as the reason his people loved him and would never revolt.

Hizballah’s support for those movements is proving uncharacteristically short-sighted. Hizballah’s roots are in helping the oppressed and disenfranchised of Lebanon (historically, the position of the Shiites) and supporting Bashar Assad in his bid to oppress and disenfranchise the people of Syria seems incredibly transparent and self-serving.

After Hizballah successfully expelled Israel from Lebanon in 2000 (with help), the group was shown a rare degree of respect from Sunnis, who had been worn down by years of failure to do the  same from their own lands. That support spiked when Hizballah repelled the IDF for 34 days in 2006.  As the first Arab group to enjoy such success, it didn’t really matter that they were Shia.

But over the years, that glow has worn off. Now Hizballah is seen by many as a tool of the Iranians, who are both Persian and Shiite. Today, the Arab world is undergoing a major awakening of sorts, and Hizballah has chosen to fight against the tide of revolution. This is what Barak Obama refers to as “being on the wrong side of history”.

Hizballah risks looking hypocritical by supporting the Assad regime, yet it must consider what it would mean for the Shia of Lebanon to have Sunnis take over in Damascus. Israel is in the same boat: Assad might not be the optimal choice, but he is probably better than the alternative.

Israel has been at war with Syria since the Jewish State declared independence in 1948. In 1967, Syria lost Lake Tiberius and the Golan Heights to Israel, and the bulk of Syrian foreign policy over the years has been dedicated to getting it back. It’s the primary reason Syria supports Hizballah: to use the group as a tool against Israel. Land for Peace.

Syria is one of the few supporters of Iran, which has also been hostile to Israel over the years. Tehran refers to Israel as “the Little Satan” and supports groups like Hamas and Hizballah. Since 1979, the Ayatollah and Company have been under intense pressure from the West, and during that time Syria has been the only country standing between Iran and total global isolation.

It seems Israel would be on board with a change in leadership in Damascus: Syrian support is critical to Hizballah and Iran, Israel’s two greatest threats. However, the Israelis are understandably nervous about all of this.

Israel is already concerned with the intentions of the new leaders of Egypt, where the Muslim Brotherhood seems to be making solid gains. Will Eqypt’s peace treaty with Israel be reconsidered? It’s doubtful, but when combined with the potential blossoming of relations between Syria and Egypt, two historic foes, it’s unclear whether it is better to see Assad stay or go.

Israel can’t really support the protesters publicly, as doing so could paint the revolt as an Israeli invention, but it should not do anything to stand in their way. This includes closed-door meetings in Washington. Their fear of the unknown is understandable, but in the long run the spread of democracy in the Middle East should be good for Israel.

For now, Israel and Hizballah can only wait and see how far the revolution in Syria will go.





The Case of Yemen

23 03 2011

Yemen

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

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

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

Timeline

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

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

Tribes

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

Saleh

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

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

Challenges

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

 

 





Top 5 MEA Murder Mysteries

18 03 2011

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

5. Sayyed Abdul-Majid al-Khoei

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

Base of Operations Iraq

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

Location of Death Najaf, Iraq

Likely Suspects Moqtada al-Sadr followers, Sunni Baathists

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

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

4. Abdullah Yusuf Azzam

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

Base of Operations Afghanistan

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

Location of Death Peshawar, Pakistan

Likely Suspects Pakistani Intelligence, CIA, Mossad, Afghani Rivals

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

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


3. Imam Musa Sadr

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

Base of Operations Lebanon

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

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

Likely Suspects Muammar Qaddafi

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

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

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



2. Imad Mugniyeh

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

Base of Operations Lebanon

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

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

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

Location of Death Damascus, Syria

Likely Suspects CIA, Mossad

Best Guess Mossad

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

1.  Rafik Hariri

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

Base of Operations Lebanon

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

Location of Death Beirut, Lebanon

Likely Suspects Hizballah, Mossad, Syrian Intelligence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It seems to be a high price to pay.






Hariri and Hizballah

17 03 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*The STL is one, Syrian influence is another.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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





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.