Mr. Hariri goes to Washington

17 05 2010

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

Hariri and Obama

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Syria: has a country ever done more with less?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hariri and the Security Council

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

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

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

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

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


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.

Disarming Lebanon’s Palestinian Militias

21 01 2010

Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri and Syrian President Bashar Assad

by Patrick Vibert

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lebanon and Turkey Strengthen Ties

14 01 2010




by Patrick Vibert

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Iran: Movement or Revolution?

11 01 2010

by Patrick Vibert

On the Foreign Policy website, author Hooman  Majd recently characterized the events taking place in Iran as a civil rights movement (as opposed to a revolution) and he predicted that, whatever you call it, the situation is highly unlikely lead to regime change. This is sure to disappoint those in the West that have proclaimed the end of the Ayatollah and his unfriendly regime.

To recap, protests erupted in Tehran following a questionable election results of June 2009. The “reform” candidate, Mir Hussein Mousavi, was trounced by the incumbernt Mahmoud Ahmedinejad. If a free and fair election had taken place, this may have very well been the outcome, but there were some  questionable results. Mousavi was badly beaten in Tehran, where he enjoyed broad support, and in his own home district, which is extremely dubious. Many analysts came to the conclusion that while the regime in Tehran may have fudged the results, Ahmedinejad would have would handily anyway.

Still, this reasoning did not sit well with the voters and soon protests erupted in urban areas, where Mousavi support was strongest. What started out as a show of disapproval after a controversial election result turned into a catharsis of wide spread civil disobedience stemming from years of brutal government oppression. The government was caught off guard at the display, and once people started to realize what they could get away with, the movement quickly started to gain momentum.

The world watched as the people of Tehran took to the streets to protest the regime. Aided by Facebook updates, Youtube clips and Twitter feeds, people could follow along with the action and voice their support for the people who were truly risking their lives by speaking out against the government. Eventually the scale of the protest started to ebb, but the Iranian’s bitter dissatisfaction with the government continued to smolder.

The controversy was a gift to the West as it represented and opportunity to initiate a change in Iran. Decades of sanctions and isolation (led by the United States) have only strengthened the resolve of the regime, and to date the strategy has bore little fruit. Now there was real pressure being put upon the regime, but this time it was coming from the inside.

At the height of the protests, many pundits declared that the time was ripe for the Ayatollah and his men to be toppled, but the United States wisely stayed out if it (at least publicly). President Obama did little to encourage the protests, only calling for a fair election.

This was the way the Iranian opposition wanted it. If the United States had openly encouraged regime change, then the protesters, it could be said, would be doing the bidding of Washington. And in a country with such a poor history of foreign influence (see Operation Ajax 1953, the subsequent reign of the Shah 1953-1978, and the U.S. aid of Saddam Hussein 1980-1988), a position such as this taken by the U.S. would have been a non-starter for any opposition movement.

As expected, no matter how much Western leaders tried to stay out of the matter (publicly) the regime still tried to blame the unrest on foreign meddling. While this type of conspiratorial rhetoric may have played well with the crowds in the past, in this case the savvy Persians saw right through it and knew that the regime only had themselves to blame for the unhappiness of the people.

However, contrary to the wishful thinking of some, the regime in Tehran remains very strong and its immanent demise remains unlikely. If one  looked only at clips of protests and listened to exiled opposition figures, one would assume that the regime is crumbling and that it is only a matter of weeks before Ayatollah Khamenei & President Ahmedinejad are fleeing for their lives as angry mobs storm their compounds. But this is just not the case.

To begin with, the unrest starts not with the masses, but between the elites. A subtle power struggle is taking place between the ultra-conservative Ahmedinejad & Khamenei set and the pragmatic-conservative Khatami-Rafsanjani clique. This latter group is extremely powerful and influential, so while they may be the opposition to the President and Ayatollah, they still very much represent a large swath of the establishment and it is because of them that the protests were initially allowed to flourish.

Even within the first group, President Ahmedinejad and Ayatollah Khamenei, there is some friction. For years the Islamic jurisconsult, headed by the Ayatollah, was the heart and soul of power in the Islamic Republic. But over the last five years, that power has been slowly  eroding into the hands of the Islamic Republican Guard Corps (IRGC) headed by the President . This has occurred to the extent that  some analysts feel that Iran has morphed from a theocracy into a militocracy.

The position of the Ayatollah was eroded even further when he took a side in the election controversy. In Iran, the position of the Ayatollah is meant to be an above-it-all, objective, and unifying force that does not get involved or take sides in political issues. It is meant to guide the republic, similar to the Queen of England, but with far more formal power. When Khamenei sided with Ahmedinejad, he betrayed that objectivity and  further demonstrated how far the revolution had strayed from its original ideals.

All of this is taking place against the backdrop of the high-stakes game of cat and mouse that Iran is playing against the United States with its nuclear energy/weapons program. The United States has been scrambling to secure United Nations Security Council support for a sanctions against Iran. While the Obama administration has had some success with Russia (after making concessions of the Missile Defense System that was to be placed inside Russia’s zone of influence), China has steadfastly foiled any move against Tehran and it is highly unlikely that Beijing will change its tune at any point in the future.

Some have criticized President Obama for not taking a tougher stand, even going as far as to advocate a military intervention in Iran. Obama’s options seemed to be between diplomacy and war, but there was another option: do nothing, and so far this is the path that he has taken. Perhaps the intelligence that he is getting is suggesting that he let the situation in Iran play itself out, and there is evidence that this strategy is starting to pay off.

Recently, surrounding the Shia holiday of Ashura, protests started to spark back up. Adding to this is the recent passing of Grand Ayatollah Monterazi, one of the founders of the revolution who was a staunch and deeply respected critic of the regime. The two events have breathed new life into the movement, which has now spread to the heart of the theocratic establishment in the city of Qom.

Getting back to the original statement, that this so-called Green Revolution is more like a civil rights movement than a true revolution, the changes that the opposition is demanding are unlikely to satisfy the national security needs of countries like Israel, the United States, and the West in general. The powerful men at the top in Iran want to see change, but definitely not changes that could result in the lessening of their wealth or influence. And the vocal public at the other end of the opposition spectrum are not advocating for the overthrow of their government; they more likely just want changes in their civil liberties, like free speech and more transparent elections.

As events continue to evolve and unfold in Iran, it is unclear where the country is heading. The position of the Ayatollah has been weakened, the people have begun to speak out, and their discontent is starting to spread. One thing that is for sure is that things cannot go back to where they were before the June elections. For Iran, the cat is out of the bag.

Obama works to secure support on the Iranian Issue

28 11 2009


The International Atomic Energy Agency issued a rebuke yesterday of Iran’s nuclear energy program.

Iran insists that its intent is only to use the technology for power production purposes, but many nations suspect otherwise.

The statement condemning Tehran’s secret nuclear energy project in Qom was passed by a vote of 27 to 3, with 5 abstentions.

In a sign of the Obama Administration making progress on the issue, both Russia and China were among the ‘yes’ votes. As permanent member of the Unite Nations Security Council, their cooperation is key to any credibility behind the threat of sanctions on Iran.

The Obama Administration has made Iran’s nuclear energy program one of its top priorities. Among the key players in the situation are Russia, China and Israel.

Iran is already under heavy sanctions, but that has had little effect on the grip that the regime has on the country.

Sanctions typically lead to crises that are big enough to have a negative effect on the people,  yet small enough as to be manageable by the government. As a result, the people and the government are usually unified in the face of the sanctioning nation, which is usually much more powerful than the one being sanctioned.

The sanctions, if they cause civil unrest like they are meant to do, enable the government to curtail democracy and civil liberties, which only strengthen their position in their country.

This has certainly been the case with Iran. If anything, the country has moved from an Islamic theocracy headed by the Ayatollah to a military dictatorship headed by the Revolutionary Guard.

Many think that the only sanction that would  have any major effect on Iran would be stopping its gasoline imports. While Iran sits on a sea of oil, its refining capabilities are extremely limited, which forces it to import a large portion of the gasoline that they use (which is Iran’s argument for wanting a nuclear energy plant in the first place).

If Iran was unable to import the supplementary gasoline, some analysts predict that this could  lead to massive civil unrest and ultimately regime change in favor of a government more sympathetic to the needs off the West.

This is where Russia and China come in. As mentioned, they both sit on the Security Council, which is the only UN body that can impose sanctions. The United States needs their votes.

On top of that, Iran imports most of its refined gasoline from Russia. So Russian cooperation is doubly imperative.

And while President Obama is trying to garner the support of Russia and China, he has Israel ratcheting up tensions with Iran by threatening to attack with or without the help of the US if this issue doesn’t get resolved.

For Israel the threat is likely a bluff, in that they probably wouldn’t attack without the go-ahead from the United States, and they would greatly desire US military assistance. But the aggressive rhetoric is there and that is enough to get Obama to move on the issue.

To secure Russia’s help Obama first had to thaw the frosty relations that had developed between the two nations during the Bush II Administration, and then present an offer to Russia in an unrelated area to entice cooperation.

This is why we saw Obama agree to halt US plans for a missile defense shield to be built in Poland and the Czech Republic back in September. The issue was huge for Russia, and would have greatly strained relations between Washington and Moscow for the foreseeable future.

In this case, the United States didn’t give up that much strategically, as many military analysts doubted the  missile defense shield’s effectiveness, and similar systems already installed on US naval vessels are far more accurate and are capable of deploying anywhere in the world.

Obama gave up the shields as a show of good will to gain Russian cooperation on the Iranian issue. So the obvious question is whether there is anything similar that he can offer the Chinese to bring them wholeheartedly on board like the Russians.

There is nothing obvious that stands out. China maintains a policy of non-judgment of other nations because the ancient country of over a billion people hates being judged itself. China doesn’t want people to criticize its human rights abuses,  its civil liberties, the treatment of minorities, or lack of democracy…and it doesn’t bring up those issues when it’s doing business in countries like Sudan or Burma.

China buys oil from Iran, oil that it needs to grease the gears of it massive economy. If the machine breaks down, and the people grow angry at the government, the communist regime in Beijing might be sent out. Not only is this unacceptable, everything must be done to prevent the scenario. So if it can do business with a nation, China believes that it is not up to them to pass judgment on that nation.

So President Obama really has his work cut out for himself on the issue. Russian and China’s ‘yes’ vote on the IAEA statement is a sign of progress, but that is a far cry from a ‘yes’ vote on UN Security Council sanctions.

Perhaps the biggest reason for China to come aboard is the fact that a US/Iran war would have a drastic and dire impact on the People’s Republic. Primarily, a war like this would severely disrupt the fragile world economy and cause a global calamity that could lead to chaos in countries with a tenuous grip on its population, like China. Secondarily, China has over a trillion US dollars in its foreign reserves, so it is heavily invested in the secure and prosperous future of the United States.

So maybe the Chinese have recognized that it is in their best interest for them to  care about this one issue. Either way, Obama has a long road ahead of him, but acquiring the support of Russia and China could go a long way to prevent the next war that nobody wants.