Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Two week break

I won't be available to blog for the following two weeks as I'm moving apartment and the ISP has informed me that it will take 10 - 15 days to connect the new property.

It isn't the best of time to be pausing from citizen journalism as we enter an incredibly decisive week for Lebanon and the Middle East.

Let's hope that Annapolis offers a Christmas bonus for Lebanon and the region.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

This is the difference between democracy and the Middle East

Australian Federal Elections, November 24th, 2007:

Lebanese Presidential Elections, November 24th, 2007:

Australia shifts left, Lebanon into the abyss

Australians finally ousted Bush's conservative ally, John Howard, from the reins of power yesterday. The country overwhelmingly sweeped in Kevin Rudd's "new leadership" of the centre-left Labor Party.

Rudd has promised:

- to roll back controversial, unfair workplace laws introduced last year by the Howard government;

- ratify Kyoto, which will further isolate the United States in the climate change arena, but come as a breath of fresh air to Australians after a five-year drought and an 11-year stagnance from the conservative Howard on the situation;

- officially apologise to Australia's native, Aboriginal population for past wrongdoings by British colonialists and their white Australian descendants, including massacres and the theft of thousands of Aboriginal children from their parents in the stolen generation era. Rudd will use the word "sorry", a word previously avoided by Howard;

- boost ties with China and other Asian countries, establishing a foreign policy more independent of Washington than his predecessor, Howard;

- and withdraw 500 frontline troops from Iraq, but will retain logistical operators and a naval taskforce.

For the first time, Labor will have total leadership in the country, including state and territory governments.

Rudd's victory will torpedo the nation out of Bush's orbit of neocon proxies in the world. After 11 years, Australia has returned to the left.

The Guardian has a good wrap of the election.

As for Lebanon, Robert Fisk sums it up the best.

Darkness falls on the Middle East

In Beirut, people are moving out of their homes, just as they have in Baghdad

24 November 2007

So where do we go from here? I am talking into blackness because there is no electricity in Beirut. And everyone, of course, is frightened. A president was supposed to be elected today. He was not elected. The corniche outside my home is empty. No one wants to walk beside the sea.

When I went to get my usual breakfast cheese manouche there were no other guests in the café. We are all afraid. My driver, Abed, who has loyally travelled with me across all the war zones of Lebanon, is frightened to drive by night. I was supposed to go to Rome yesterday. I spared him the journey to the airport.

It's difficult to describe what it's like to be in a country that sits on plate glass. It is impossible to be certain if the glass will break. When a constitution breaks – as it is beginning to break in Lebanon – you never know when the glass will give way.

People are moving out of their homes, just as they have moved out of their homes in Baghdad. I may not be frightened, because I'm a foreigner. But the Lebanese are frightened. I was not in Lebanon in 1975 when the civil war began, but I was in Lebanon in 1976 when it was under way. I see many young Lebanese who want to invest their lives in this country, who are frightened, and they are right to frightened. What can we do?

Last week, I had lunch at Giovanni's, one of the best restaurants in Beirut, and took out as my companion Sherif Samaha, who is the owner of the Mayflower Hotel. Many of the guests I've had over the past 31 years I have sent to the Mayflower. But Sherif was worried because I suggested that his guests had included militia working for Saad Hariri, who is the son of the former prime minister, murdered – if you believe most Lebanese – by the Syrians on 14 February 2005.

Poor Sherif. He never had the militia men in his hotel. They were in a neighbouring building. But so Lebanese is Sherif that he even offered to pick me up in his car to have lunch. He is right to be worried.

A woman friend of mine, married to a doctor at the American University Hospital, called me two days before. "Robert, come and see the building they are making next to us," she said. And I took Abed and we went to see this awful building. It has almost no windows. All its installations are plumbing. It is virtually a militia prison. And I'm sure that's what it is meant to be. This evening I sit on my balcony, in a power cut, as I dictate this column. And there is no one in the street. Because they are all frightened.

So what can a Middle East correspondent write on a Saturday morning except that the world in the Middle East is growing darker and darker by the hour. Pakistan. Afghanistan. Iraq. "Palestine". Lebanon. From the borders of Hindu Kush to the Mediterranean, we – we Westerners that is – are creating (as I have said before) a hell disaster. Next week, we are supposed to believe in peace in Annapolis, between the colourless American apparatchik and Ehud Olmert, the Israeli Prime Minister who has no more interest in a Palestinian state than his predecessor Ariel Sharon.

And what hell disasters are we creating? Let me quote a letter from a reader in Bristol. She asks me to quote a professor at Baghdad University, a respected man in his community who tells a story of real hell; you should read it. Here are his own words:

"'A'adhamiya Knights' is a new force that has started its task with the Americans to lead them to al-Qa'ida and Tawheed and Jihad militants. This 300-fighter force started their raids very early at dawn wearing their black uniform and black masks to hide their faces. Their tours started three days ago, arresting about 150 citizens from A'adhamiya. The 'Knight' leads the Americans to a citizen who might be one of his colleagues who used to fight the Americans with him. These acts resulted in violent reactions of al-Qa'ida. Its militants and the militants of Tawheed and Jihad distributed banners on mosques' walls, especially on Imam Abu Hanifa mosque, threatening the Islamic Party, al-Ishreen revolution groups and Sunni endowment Diwan with death because these three groups took part in establishing 'A'adhamiya Knights'. Some crimes happened accordingly, targeting two from Sunni Diwan staff and one from the Islamic Party.

"Al-Qa'ida militants are distributed through the streets, stopping the people and asking about their IDs ... they carry lists of names. Anyone whose name is on these lists is kidnapped and taken to an unknown place. Eleven persons have been kidnapped up to now from Omar Bin Abdul Aziz Street."

The writer describes how her professor friend was kidnapped and taken to a prison. "They helped me sit on a chair (I was blindfolded) and someone came and held my hand saying, 'We are Muhajeen, we know you but we don't know where you are from.' They did not take my wallet nor did they search me. They only asked me if I have a gun. An hour or so later, one of them came and asked me to come with them. They drove me towards where my car was in the street and they said no more." So who are the A'adhamiya Knights? Who is paying them? What are we doing in the Middle East?

And how can we even conceive of a moral stand in the Middle East when we still we refuse to accept the fact – reiterated by Winston Churchill, Lloyd George, and all the details of US diplomats in the First World War – that the Armenian genocide occurred in 1915? Here is the official British government position on the massacre of 1.5 million Armenians in 1915. "Officially, the Government acknowledges the strength of feeling [note, reader, the 'strength of feeling'] about what it describes as a terrible episode of history and recognises the massacres of 1915-16 as a tragedy. However, neither the current Government nor previous British governments have judged that the evidence is sufficiently unequivocal to be persuaded that these events should be categorised as genocide as it is defined by the 1948 UN Convention on Genocide." When we can't get the First World War right, how in God's name can we get World War III right?

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Lahoud calls in military, Lebanon on the brink

Tensions increased in Lebanon yesterday, as negotiations failed to break through the deadlock. Lahoud's successor will not be decided before the weekend's close. The now former president called in the military to assert control of the country in the interim, a move described as "unconstitutional" by Siniora, but a necessary precaution by the Opposition.

Michel Aoun's candidacy is up on the cards again, but the government faces a serious paralysis. Failing to elect a suitable Christian head as President, in addition to the resignation of the cabinet's Shi'ite ministers, means that two of Lebanon's largest religious communities (Shi'ites and Christians) are not represented in the positions of power.

The Opposition is exerting maximum pressure, and offering proposal after proposal, to find a solution to the situation ... a solution preferable to them no doubt. Aoun's offer of an interim president appointed by the Opposition, and an interim prime minister appointed by March 14 until the 2009 parliamentary elections, was knocked back again by Hariri. It appears the March 14 is proving to be an incredibly difficult partner to negotiate with. Earlier in the week they derailed French efforts, and since then have not shown any willingness to come to the table. Hariri asked Russia to step in on behalf of Syria to force a compromise from the Opposition, the Russians didn't.

Yet despite all this, Hariri still remains optimistic that a consensus can be reached. Considering he has rejected most of the offerings, I'm not sure where Hariri sees such a consensus happening? March 14 have to be careful that they don't end up being seen as the negative, stubborn partner jeopardising Lebanon's interests. Michel Aoun offered to elect a candidate outside of his parliamentary bloc, that is a massive compromise considering Aoun's well-known presidential aspirations. Jumblatt conceded on Michel Edde, but Hariri and Geagea rejected the idea. March 14 have to bite the bullet and make some strong concessions.

What remains ambiguous is March 14's foreign support. The group angered France during the week, so where is March 14 receiving its continuous drive and determination to refuse every proposal? The United States?

Check The Daily Star's long summary of the blame-game by Opposition and Loyalist MPs.

Christians sidelined?

Lebanon's Christians will join the Shi'ites in the politically irrelevant list as the Sunni, Druze and tribal Christian coalition (March 14) continue to reject a solid Christian leadership for presidency.

The President has traditionally been recognised as a symbol of Christian power in the country, just as the Prime Minister serves a similar role for the Sunnis and the Speaker of Parliament for the Shi'ites. However, Lebanon's confessional parliamentary system provides an extraordinary bias towards Sunnis, who number almost half of the Shia population, but are allocated the same amount of parliamentary seats. In other words, 2 Shi'ites equal 1 Sunni.

The Shi'ites form Lebanon's largest sectarian bloc, but yield little influence in the confessional system. Hizballah never minded under Syrian tutelage, but Syria's withdrawal forced Hizballah to demand a larger, fairer representation in Lebanon's confessional system. This is what the whole struggle is essentially about.

Lebanon's confessional system was drawn up by the French in 1943, and reshuffled at the end of the war in 1990 to suit Syria's then allies - now turned enemies - in Jumblatt and Hariri Snr. However, the sectarians system still fails to accurately reflect Lebanon's demographics. Christians who number 39% of the population, still command 50% of seats in parliament.

Yet the Christian argument is that an electoral law imposed on Lebanon under Syrian rule redistributed Christian enclaves into largely Muslim regions, bypassing the Christian vote. The redistribution and carving of Christian enclaves was to suit Hariri and Jumblatt, then servants of Syrian rule. Obviously, the two have preferred to retain the system as it serves their interest, despite their divorce from Syria. The Christians contend that their political voice is still being undermined as the electoral law does not offer them a fair slice of the cake.

Feelings of despair and political under-representation is what lies at the core of the Shia-Christian marriage into a fierce Opposition, led by the two sects main parties, Hizballah and Michel Aoun's Free Patriotic Movement (FPM).

The Opposition charges that the March 14 coalition is largely a "false majority" as they do not accurately reflect Lebanon's demographics. The charge isn't far from the truth, as Lebanon's political system is still based on an old interpretation of the country's sectarian mix, in addition to the few alterations the Syrians implemented to accomdate their interests.

The presidential issue has raised the climax of the core debate ... a fair balance between Lebanon's sects. The position is sacred to Christians in Lebanon, thus it is fairly understandable why Aoun's supporters (the majority of Christians) feel angered that they are being denied their constitutional right to choose their preferred leader as Lebanon's President. Sunnis do not ask for Christian or Shi'ite input on their preference for Prime Minister, likewise the Shi'ites for the Speaker of Parliament, so why should the Christians consult the other sects for their sacred position ... the presidency?

The main problem for Aoun is that the main opposition he receives to his candidacy is from within his community. His arch rival, minority militia leader Samir Geagea, and the traditionalist Maronite Patriarch Sfeir, have been at the forefront of Christian opposition to Aoun. The Patriarch, though, may pay tough consequences for his rejection of Aoun in the long run. The Patriarch is alienating his own community by refusing their preferred political choice, endangering his power of influence in Christian politics. The Maronite supporters of Aoun are already beginning to feel a sense of disenchantment with their Patriarch, a sign that ought to be worrying to the clergy.

The country is going through a crucial transitional phase where the system will ultimately be realigned to suit today's demographics. Regardless of March 14's objections, room will have to be made in the system to accomodate the Shi'ites and Christians. Indeed, the first to lose out of this reshuffling will be the Druze and the Sunnis, as their representation in parliament will shrink. However, it will accurately reflect their demographics. The Sunni-Druze alliance led the calls for Syrian withdrawal, but they failed to realise that such a withdrawal would also require the removal of all the political gestures the Syrians gave the Sunnis and Druze during their 15 years in power. The two sects cannot call for the head of Assad on one hand, and continue to hypocritically live off the political charities - such as the electoral law and Taef - the Syrians gave them.

The FPM is indeed hoping this to-ing and fro-ing for political power will ultimately result in a secular system where allocated seats are no more. Unfortunately, though, the country must first go through the hard yards to reach the light at the end of the tunnel. Let's just hope those hard yards do not entail another civil war.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Annapolis round-up

Although punters were quick to dismiss Annapolis as a waste of time, it appears these talks have a lot on stake. All sides are handing gestures, while exercising their muscles in the background. If the talks do not lead to at least a continuation of dialogue in the region, then conflict may be the only other alternative.

US to allow Golan Heights on Annapolis agenda

Diplomatic to-ing and fro-ing between US, France and Syria. Annapolis, Lebanon, Golan, all cards are on the table. But the question remains, who will play which hand?

The Syrians and French are showing signs that they are co-operating on the presidential issue in Lebanon, and now the US has given the green light for the Golan Heights to be put on the Annapolis agenda. Do all these sudden gestures mean Syria will be attending Annapolis?

Israeli military warns of annexation of Palestinian territories should talks fail

In the meantime, Israel's military is warning of pandemonium consequences should the US conference fail. The IDF will be pressing ahead its reasoning to annex the Palestinian territories if the talks fail. Failure to provide Abbas a concrete deal to present to his people could bring disastrous consequnces to the Palestinian Authority, the IDF warns.

Likudnik hawks attempt to undermine peace summit

[Excerpt] Hard-liners associated with the American Enterprise Institute and Freedom's Watch, a bountifully funded campaign led by prominent backers of the Republican Jewish Coalition, among other like-minded groups, are mounting a concerted attack against next week's meeting which they fear could result in pressure on Israel to make territorial concessions.

The Who's Who invitation list

Forty-nine countries have been invited to Annapolis, check the list.

Do or die in Lebanon ...

That's how I interpreted this article from Milton Viorst, an experienced journalist who has been covering the Mid East for 40 years.

It's a succinct, detailed perspective that gives an accurate historical background. It is always important to remain mindful of the fact that Lebanon's current problems (and indeed the Middle East's current problems) are directly a consequence of what beset this country during the post-colonialist era and the fall of the Ottoman Empire. Lebanon's problems are historic. Failure to address the root causes of our internal strife is akin to failing to deliver a solution to our problems today.

Excerpt from:

A powder keg in Lebanon

LA Times - Milton Viorst

Lebanon's problems are not new. They are rooted in the 1920s, when France's colonial regime created the country out of Syrian territory and squeezed Christians, Druze and Muslims -- Sunni and Shiite -- into it. At that time, the Maronite Christians, whose close ties to France dated to the Middle Ages, were the colonial power's political allies, so the constitution that France imparted required that Lebanon's president, its most powerful official, be a Maronite. The prime minister, under the constitution, would be a Sunni Muslim and the speaker of the parliament would be a Shiite. The system, a peculiar form of democracy, is called "confessionalism."

For full article, click here.

Syrians find new friend in Beirut

I picked up on the following article and found it of particular interest. Since Syria's latest crackdown on major social networking sites, including Facebook and our very own Blogspot, many young Syrians have chose to lead their lives elsewhere to enjoy even the slimmest of freedoms. Of course, the obvious choice in the Middle East still remains Lebanon.

Lebanon has generally played host to fleeing dissidents throughout its history. From the Maronites who originally settled in Lebanon centuries ago to escape Orthodox Christian persecution, to the Armenians who were on the run from a Turkish genocide over 100 years ago, to current Christian converts from the Gulf who fear for their lives, and to now, young internet savvy Syrians who are increasingly having their cyber links to the outside world shut down by their regime. Lebanon caters for all, so it seems.

It's a pleasure to know that despite the dark clouds that consistently hover over Lebanon and the desperate attempts by Lebanese to get a hold of a Western visa, many of the millions in the region - who's constant suppression by their dictators we so often forget - still see the mountainous treasure as a save haven.

If only the Lebanese stopped taking their country for granted, it could be a safe haven for them too.

Facebook ban marks latest in series of restrictions that have driven dissidents to Lebanon

Globe and Mail Update

BEIRUT — To the outside world, Lebanon's constantly turbulent political scene can make the country seem like a dangerous place to visit. But to Syrians who have fallen out with the regime of President Bashar Assad, the tiny country next door is a democratic paradise.

With Mr. Assad's regime moving in recent months toward even tighter controls on free speech and dissent - this week it banned access to the popular Facebook social-networking website - a growing number of young Syrian dissidents have settled here in Lebanon, the only Arab country where they feel free to express their opinions and continue their political activism.

"It's a safe place for us as Syrians. All the other Arab countries are dictatorships," said 23-year-old Ahed al-Hindi as he sat on the terrace of a Starbucks coffee shop in Beirut's trendy Hamra neighbourhood.

Mr. al-Hindi knows that first-hand. He was arrested in a Damascus Internet café late last year after the café manager filmed him posting what Mr. al-Hindi says were "political comments on the human-rights situation" on a Syrian news website and reported him to the police.

He spent a month in prison for his online comments, and Mr. al-Hindi says the country's mukhabarat secret police continued to follow him after his release, repeatedly asking him to report on the people he met and foreigners he knew. At one point, they confronted him about a Danish woman he was dating, telling him they suspected she was working for Israel's spy agency, the Mossad.

"When I saw my life would be like this - that everything I did would be monitored - I decided to leave," he said.

Mr. al-Hindi fled first to neighbouring Jordan, then to Egypt, but said he didn't feel comfortable in either country, both of which mix a touch of democracy with a heavy dose of Syrian-style dictatorship. Finally, he travelled to Beirut, where he became friends with a group of other young Syrians who also came here to escape persecution at home.

Mohammed Abdullah, the son of a prominent dissident who was himself jailed six months last year after giving a news conference calling for his father's release from prison, believes he's in Beirut to stay. After being released from jail, the law student was initially banned from all travel, but was finally given a one-time pass to go to Lebanon, though only to collect his documents from the university where he studied before he was imprisoned.

Once he arrived in Lebanon, the 24-year-old decided there was no point in returning.

"I'll never go back. If I do, I'll have more problems with the government," Mr. Abdullah said. His father, Ali, has been jailed repeatedly for speaking out against the regime and his 22-year-old brother, Omar, has been in prison since early 2006 for publishing pro-democracy articles on the Internet.

"I miss my family and friends, but it's better to stay here. It's safer."

Mr. Abdullah served his jail time alongside both his father and brother - though he didn't see them through 52 days he was kept in solitary confinement in a windowless cell less than two square metres in size - as well as some of Mr. Assad's most prominent opponents, including journalist Michel Kilo and human-rights lawyer Anwar al-Bunni.

Both Mr. Kilo and Mr. al-Bunni have been in jail since May, 2006, when they were among those who signed a document known as the Beirut-Damascus Declaration, which called for Syria - long accused of meddling in Lebanon - to normalize relations with its smaller neighbour.

Their arrests marked the beginning of a larger crackdown that signalled the end of brief hopes among the opposition that Mr. Assad planned to reform the security state created by his father. Now, Mr. Abdullah said, the repression is widening.

The latest target - as evidenced by the arrests of Mr. al-Hindi and Omar Abdullah - is the Internet, where Syrian surfers frequently use the cover of anonymity or false names to criticize Mr. Assad and his regime. When Facebook was blocked to users in Syria on Monday, it joined popular sites such as YouTube and Blogspot, as well as a host of news websites, on the list of banned sites.

The ban, however, didn't look to be completely successful yesterday.

"Facebook is closed now in Syria but not on all connections [because] here in Syria we have a lot of ways to connect to the Internet and every way has its own proxy. So we still have the ability to access Facebook in other ways," wrote Eyad, a Syrian who defiantly posted on Facebook from inside the country yesterday. "The reason [the government did this], I really don't know."

Others were less diplomatic in their assessments of the Facebook ban and what it meant, in the process exercising the exact type of freedom of speech Mr. Assad's government is apparently afraid of.

"Democracy is being able to question why Bashar is doing this to his own countrymen and when [he is] not answering, he is out and someone else is in!" wrote one visitor who posted on the Syria network page of Facebook, noting that there was no government effort to block access to pornography sites. "I wanna fucking swear at Bashar from now till eternity and no one can stop me."

Clarification: Mohammed Abdullah and Ahed al-Hindi are not interested in joining a Beirut-based political movement that would fight for change in Syria. Information published Wednesday in The Globe and Mail may have left the wrong impression.

France taking charge in Lebanon deadlock

Good post I found on SyriaComment by a frequent user, Idaf.

It’s been quite a busy 48 hours in diplomatic circles in Damascus, and the focus of all this diplomacy is the upcoming Lebanese president.

France is back to realism on Lebanon. One key result of Sarkozy’s trip to the US few weeks ago was France taking back Lebanon into its sphere of influence after two years of being closer to Saudi and the US administration. France knows very well that any lasting solution in Lebanon should include all the internal and external key stakeholders. It is also fully aware that Syria is on the top of the list of external stakeholders in Lebanon to be accommodated as Lebanon’s stability is a matter of national security for Syria, but merely foreign policy and power for other stakeholders such as Saudi and the US administration.

This is why since Sarkozy’s “massage of American ego” in his speech to the congress, he got a freehand in Lebanon and immediately moved to full engagement with Damascus to reach a sustainable solution to Lebanon’s presidency.

Yesterday, Sarkozy called his Syrian counterpart Bashar al-Assad, reopening top-level contacts after a three-year break in a bid end the political crisis in Lebanon. In addition, Sarkozy’s Chief of Staff, Claude Gueant, met Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus “to seek support for Paris’s efforts”. Moreover, French foreign minister Bernard Kouchner, has been to Damascus a couple of times in the past few weeks.

Apparently, this French pragmatism is good for Lebanon. During most of the Syrian time in Lebanon, the Lebanese president was always a Syrian-French compromise. France is back to the formula that worked in the past in Lebanon. This close consultation on the Lebanese president between France and Syria however, caused many in the M14 group to lose sleep at night. Seeing Paris getting closer to Damascus, Hariri is desperately trying to open new channel with an ally of Syria hoping to pull Russia away from Syria. An amateurish step that Russia will definitely try to milk without giving back much to the inexperienced Hariri junior.

Jumblat and Jeajea seem to be the ones to lose most by having a consensus president that most external and internal parties agree on. It is becoming clearer that they are the ones that are blocking this consensus. France’s Kouchner who is struggling in Lebanon to reach a solution was frustrated by “some parties” in Lebanon that are blocking such solution and has threatened to “name the spoilers publicly”. Clearly, he did not mean Aoun and definitely not Syria’s allies Hizbulla and Berri. If the pro-Syria parties were the ones he meant then from the French perspective, there would have been no reason to keep their names secret, on the contrary this would’ve make it easier for the French to push their candidates for the presidency. Kouchner also added that Syria had “accepted Cardinal Sfeir’s list of potential presidents”.

French Foreign Ministry spokeswoman confirmed that Syria and Iran are not the spoilers in Lebanon this time. Pascale Andreani denied that Syria or Iran is working to block the Presidential elections in Lebanon. The spokeswoman demanded in a statement Tuesday non engagement in such disputes on this subject.

Kouchner’s threat was clearly targeted at someone in the March 14 camp (Jumblat and maybe Jeajea). This threat has worked with Jumblat and in the last few days he stopped launching his anti-Syria and anti-opposition inflammatory statements, and for the first time, Jumblat obediently started to act reasonable. He accepted Sfeir’s list and started talking about concessions to reach an agreement on the president instead of his usual daily inflammatory rhetoric.

France has a tough job saving Lebanon from a potential civil war scenario. Many external and internal parties have managed to torpedo earlier attempts by the Arab League, the EU and the UN. It seams that the French are doing a good job so far. They do understand the Lebanese “system” better and they follow a realist and pragmatic approach. It seems that the neo-conservative elements in the US administration have accepted defeat in Lebanon. If so then this would mean a diminishing Saudi role as well in the power struggles in Lebanon to the benefit of French and Syrian influence. This has worked well in the past to a certain extent in the Lebanese “arena”. In the future, if the Lebanese public would not abandon their sectarian Zai’m culture, and opt instead for an independent, secular and powerful president then Lebanon will continue to be an “arena” for power struggle in the Middle East for France, US, Israel, Saudi, Syria, Iran and other powerful players in the Middle East, as was the case since the country’s creation.

Turkey - Iran sign power pact

To the annoyance of the US, Turkey is persisting in boosting ties with America's regional foes in Syria and Iran.

The latest move was the signing of an energy pact to establish joint power-production projects. Turkey's Energy Minister, Hilmi Guler, revealed that more agreements between the two were in the pipeline.

Turkey has been ignoring US calls for its allies to cut business ties with Iran and has instead ventured in the opposite direction. Ankara has sought to greatly develop economic and bilateral ties with both Syria and Iran, particularly as a number of divergent issues begin to converge on similar interests.

Talks of a 3,000km pipeline from Central Asia via Iran to Turkey for export to the EU, bypassing Russia, are progressing. Ironically, the proposed project has attracted disdain from both Moscow and Washington, but may come as a relief to European customers paranoid over Russia's unpredictable use of gas as a weapon.

Nonetheless, Turkey's new sense of direction and renewed interest in the Middle East is likely to be welcomed by some and disapproved by others.

Read the AFP article featured in The Daily Star.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

The election that won't happen

After mediation efforts collapsed on Monday, Lebanon's presidential election was again postponed until the end of the week.

France is intensifying its efforts to find a solution, with Sarkozy sending his top aide to Damascus and speaking to Assad by telephone.

I think the world is getting sick of waiting, as are the Lebanese people. This has dragged on for far too long. Lebanese politicians have a habit of embarrassing the country in front of the world's eyes, but this is simply beyond ridiculous. I urge all Lebanese parties to simply take a step back and view the situation through a different pair of goggles so as to see how pathetic you are all behaving.

The French are demonstrating an unusually high level of interest, perhaps because they feel guilty for the mess they created? After all, France was the country that installed our joke of a political system that gave way to the bunch of cronies now defiling the country.

Michel Aoun is adamant the post should be his. His contention seems to be along the lines that Lebanon's political system is divided into three centres of power, with the presidency ultimately being reserved for the Christians. As Aoun is the main Christian leader, he should have the main Christian post. Another argument his supporters have been concocting is that three major parliamentary blocs - March 14, the Resistance bloc (Hizballah/Amal), and the Reform & Change bloc (FPM) - should receive equal representation in power. FPM's argument is that the post of Prime Minister is representative of March 14, the Parliament Speaker represents the Resistance bloc, thus leaving the presidency to represent Lebanon's third largest bloc ... Michel Aoun's FPM and his allies. Of course, this seems rather dubious to March 14 as they don't really see any difference between the Resistance bloc and the Reform & Change bloc, as both camps have united to form an Opposition that still commands fewer seats than the March 14 coalition.

Nonetheless, the Opposition is fearful that a March 14 victory in the presidential race will sideline Hizballah and the FPM from the decision-making process. March 14 will have control of all the major power positions in the country, including the presidency, the prime minister's office, defense and internal security. The Opposition threats of forming a separate government are intended to limit March 14's influence to its constituencies if such a scenario unfolds.

The US sees the presidential chair as an urgent necessity to empower March 14 in order to pass through key decisions that have been blocked by Lahoud and the Opposition boycott of government. Rumours of an American military base in Kleiat, North Lebanon begin to come into play here. These rumours are starting to find some reasoning, and tie in well with military plans to strike Iran. A US base in Kleiat, on the Syrian border, and 40 kms from Russia's new naval base in Tartous is vital to station a rapid reactionary force in case of a Syrian or Hezballah reprisal, as well as keeping in check Russia's Middle Eastern movements, in light of an attack on Iran.

Another key factor is the US presidential elections, which are rapidly approaching. All fingers are pointing to a Democratic victory, which - one would hope - steer the US from the neocon approach of all-out conquer to that of diplomacy and restraint. If any move is to be made against Iran, Lebanon needs to be placed under control now, which may explain the US' unwavering stance on a presidential compromise. Bush won't have time to build a US base in Lebanon before the end of his term, which may quell fears of a base at Kleiat in conjunction with an Iranian attack. However, the US has sought this base for over 30 years and it is an essential step in its grander, geopolitical battle with Russia, so it still may be a pressing reason why the Americans so desperately want the presidential chair.

There appears to be a cemented feeling within Opposition ranks, and indeed their higher powers in Damascus and Tehran, that a change of hands in the White House will change the landscape in Lebanon and the greater region. All Syria, Iran and the Lebanese Opposition seem willing to do is block American attempts to control Lebanon until a more rational leadership acquires power in US, and for Syria, until a strong government forms in Israel that will have the public support and the will to enter into negotiations. Syria and Iran could have pushed the Opposition to topple Siniora's government last December when 1.5 million protesters holed the PM up in his residence. But they didn't, aware that any move would have drawn a vicious response from the US and the EU. The Syrians will just continue to frustrate US efforts to exert its influence in Lebanon until Bush's time is up.

A new president will be a sitting duck, in the midst of two determined forces in the country that will not yield ground. The direction of Lebanon's political crisis will be determined by who enters office in Washington, not in Beirut.

Please find below an AP article on French - Syrian efforts, and an email I received from an FPM supporter explaining why Michel Aoun should be president:

French presidential aide in Syria for talks on Lebanon's political deadlock

The Associated Press
November 20, 2007

French President Nicolas Sarkozy sent his top aide to Syria for talks aimed at defusing the crisis over Lebanon's presidential election, Sarkozy's office said Tuesday.

France is intensifying efforts toward a solution to the political crisis in Lebanon, a former French protectorate. French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner is currently in Beirut, where rival factions are struggling to reach a compromise over a presidential candidate before the incumbent's term expires Saturday.

A planned Wednesday parliament session to elect a president was postponed by two more days as intense mediation between rival factions struggled to reach a compromise candidate.

Sarkozy's chief of staff, Claude Gueant, was in Damascus, Syria, on Tuesday, the president's office said in a statement. Sarkozy also spoke by telephone with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

"This development is aimed at encouraging all the countries of the region to play a positive role" in helping Lebanon choose a president, the statement said.

Gueant visited Damascus earlier this month in the first high-level visit by French officials in more than two years. French and Syrian relations have been cold since the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, which many have blamed on Syria. Syria, which dominated its smaller neighbor for nearly 30 years, denies the claim.


By Elie Khalil

As stipulated by its constitution, Lebanon is a consensual democracy. This simply translates to a 'power sharing' system of rule. It is therefore logical for the ruling troika to be elected/appointed according to the true representation of the country's political groupings. The current Lebanese parliamentary make-up is extremely skewed due to a gerrymandered election law that brought in a highly unrepresentative parliament. Therefore this should not be used as a measure of true representation. A much more accurate measure is the number of votes received by each political grouping during the last elections. These are approximated to be as follows:

February 14 Coalition: 25%-49%
Change & Reform Block: 25%-49%
Resistance Coalition: 25%-49%
Other: <25%

In a consensual democracy, proportional representation must be employed to determine the identity of each position in the troika. The quota for a position in terms of voter percentage can be calculated by the formula:

100/(number of positions in troika + 1) = 100/(3+1) = 100/4 = 25%

Therefore, each position in the troika must elicit a representation of >25% of the population. According to this formula, a position should be allocated to each of the three groups whose representation exceeds 25%. The February 14 coalition were given their position through the Prime Minister. The Resistance Coalition were given their position through the Speaker. If the Lebanese are truly to accept consensual democracy, the remaining troika position, President, must now be given to the Change & Reform Block. Had the February 14 Gathering achieved >50% of the popular vote, then its fair that they be given the Presidency. However their representation in a consensual democracy (<50%) does not also entitle them to the position of President.

Additionally, in a consensual democracy, what is required is a 'consensual troika' and not a 'consensual president'. The three positions of the troika must be treated as equal. If each of the three major groupings is to choose one position, then they must have no say over the other two positions. Either that, or the three groupings all agree on consensual candidates for the three positions. This directly implies that since the February 14 Coalition and the Resistance Coalition were already allocated their fair share of the troika positions, they should have completely no say on the Presidency, which should be solely the choice of the Change and Reform Block. If the Change and Reform Block choose General Michel Aoun to be president, then he should be accepted unopposed by all sides, in accordance with the spirit of consensual democracy and hence the constitution.

For all those people who dispute the popularity of the Change and Reform Block and insist it to be <25%, the only way to prove this is through new parliamentary elections under a fair election law. So either you accept Aoun as president, or you support new elections. The gerrymandered election law brought in an unrepresentative parliament in 2005 and hence delivered an unrepresentative government. Do we also want an unrepresentative president? Either you accept the results of the previous elections, or you call for new elections. How can it be any simpler? To impose an unrepresentative president is a heinous breach against democracy and ruins any chance of restoring justice to Lebanese society.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Old, but valid analysis on Walid Jumblatt

Peter H brought to my attention an old Jumblatt analysis posted on another blog in March. It still remains extremely valid, given that little has changed since March, and Jumblatt still seems to be as frenetic as he was earlier in the year when the Opposition threatened to topple the government.

Jumblatt's power in Lebanon, and the weight of the Druze community in internal affairs, hangs by a thread. Bush's term will soon expire, the Democrats will most likely pursue a more pragmatic, diplomatic approach on the Lebanon front, possibly spelling an end to Walid Jumblatt.

The emergence of the Shi'ites in Lebanon has pushed the country into a transitional phase where the traditional balances of power will be forced to change. The Druze will be the first to lose out, as Lebanon's political landscape makes way for the inclusion of the country's largest, and most neglected, sect. If Hezbollah and its Christian allies succeed in reforming the political system so that it comes to reflect Lebanon's demographics, Jumblatt and the Druze will find themselves as irrelevant as the Greek Orthodox. A shadow amidst the larger sects of the country. For Jumblatt, he would risk another civil war to prevent this nightmare scenario, as is demonstrated in his firey speeches. What would be the next option for the Druze post-PSP? Secularism?

I'll take a trip down memory lane to the 1930s and 1940s when Lebanon's sects began aligning themselves under the French mandate. The Maronites, then the country's heavyweights, had lined up behind the right-wing doctrine of the Phalangist movement. The Sunnis weren't equally as united due to geographic differences, but in general supported left-wing pan-Arabist ideals. However, the economic status of the Sunnis as a result of preference under Ottoman rule gave them plenty of leverage in Lebanon's politics.
The smaller sects such as the Orthodox, Druze and Alawites, faced the possibility of being sidelined in this new entity. The Shia fell into the camp of the smaller, helpless sects, simply because their economic fortunes (or misfortunes) rendered them as the underclass of Lebanese society. The main rival to the Phalangists in those early days were not pan-Arabists, but in fact the SSNP, a secular pan-Syrian nationalist movement that drew its main popular base from the smaller sects that felt disenchanted. Large numbers of Orthodox, Alawites, Druze, and indeed Shi'ites, rallied behind the SSNP, under the banner of secularism and Syrian unity, to challenge the Maronite hegemony. Even Kamal Jumblatt, once upon a time, was a member of the SSNP.

It wasn't until the Jumblatti clan, with Syrian support, began to branch out on its own and re-establish its own political voice among the Druze, that this community really had an independent stance that could challenge its Maronite and Muslim rivals. Once the Jumblatt card disappears, and the Druze community rejoins the Orthodox and Alawites as the irrelevant sects that number 5 - 7% of the population, what path will this community choose to follow next?

Read the excerpt of the analysis below, for the full piece click here:

Jumblat is the leader of one of the smallest sects in Lebanon. As such, he potentially has the most to lose in post-Syrian Lebanon if things don’t go as he wishes. During the Syrian years, Jumblat enjoyed a power share that was largely disproportionate to the size of his sect. Lebanon’s sectarian divides were definitely the defining feature in the political organization of that period, but they were very carefully monitored and controlled by the Syrians. Rather than a full-blown tribal reality where the power of each sect is largely determined by demographics, the Syrians established a power balance where their allies enjoyed a larger share at the expense of other marginalized players. On one hand, the major Christian sectarian leaders were blocked from participation, and the nature of Christian representation in government and parliament was largely decided by the Syrians. On the other hand, Hezbollah had not yet become a player in the country’s highest institutions, and was content with its role of national resistance with guaranteed political cover supplied by the pro-Syrian government.

Walid Jumblat was one of the main beneficiaries of this political structure. He enjoyed a parliamentary bloc and a share in the successive Hariri governments that he could not have possibly dreamed of if widely neutralized portions of the Lebanese population were allowed to participate in policy making.

The Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon changed this reality. The old traditional Christian guard returned to the political scene. Hezbollah was now forced to take a more proactive stance in internal politics, now that support for their armed presence was no longer a given. All those new players were now going to actively pursue and demand their share. In fact, in practical terms, Jumblat might be the politician who in the long run is most likely to suffer the most due to the collapse of the old status-quo.

Jumblat immediately realized two things:
First, in a new reality where sectarianism was crystallized and intensified, any deal or coalition between the three major Lebanese players (Michel Aoun, Hezbollah, and Saad Hariri) would necessarily be at his expense (and also at the expense of his ex-enemy Samir Geagea, but that is a discussion for later).
Second, in the case that a clear regional power emerges as the ultimate victor on the Lebanese scene, Jumblat must be certain to be in a good position in order to reap the benefits and extract as much power and influence as possible, just like he did in the Syrian years.

Jumblat has subsequently drawn his post-Hariri strategy based on these two observations. On one hand, observing the sweeping neoconservative tidal wave in the region, he decided to completely throw in his lot in with the Bush project for the Middle East. On the other hand, with parliamentary elections approaching, he actively pursued isolating Michel Aoun from the March 14 coalition and blocking him from imposing his Christian nominees in the Chouf-Baabda area. This was achieved by receiving Hezbollah’s backing in Baabda in exchange for false guarantees and thus securing victory for weak, marginal and easily manipulated Christian mini-leaders against Aoun’s nominees.

Jumblat took a risk by completely throwing himself at the feet of the Bush administration and its allies. He has completely burnt his bridges with the Syrians, and his fate is all the more linked to the success or failure of the American policy in the region. Just as any deal between Hariri and Hezbollah would constitute a major blow to his ambitions, any form of dialogue between the current Syrian government and the White House would spell disaster for Jumblat. Jumblat’s worst nightmare is a détente between Iran, Syria and the United States, where Hezbollah’s and Hariri’s respective sponsors push for an internal coalition that would irrevocably slash his own influence. As such a scenario is never completely dismissible, Jumblat is in a continuous state of frenzy, as if in a race against time.

The only way for Jumblat to guarantee that no such deal is ever reached is to altogether remove Hezbollah from the equation, either by another direct military strike, or by completely neutralizing Syria, thereby cutting them from their Iranian sponsors. Such cataclysmic events are not likely to happen anytime soon, and they are in any case completely and absolutely beyond Jumblat’s circle of influence (which extends just a little further than the Mount Lebanon area). He could also settle for a civil war where Shias and Sunnis slaughter each other in Beirut while he reigns supreme in his small kingdom in the mountains, but that is a path that Hezbollah are extremely reluctant to take.

This explains why Jumblat acts like a man with a serious nervous condition. He chose sides, and his side is not likely to achieve total victory anytime soon. In fact, his side might veer its policy in a more pragmatic direction sometime in the future (when it is the turn for a new American administration, or perhaps even sooner) without taking his fate into consideration.

Jumblat took a risk but it was a risk he was forced to take. In fact, Jumblat is aware that the extremism of his political position must be inversely proportional to his actual real political size on the Lebanese scene. He knows he has not much to offer to his backers. Walid Jumblat is not Saad Hariri; he is not the leader of a relatively large and imposing sect with deep-rooted connections to a key country in the region. He is not Hassan Nasrallah either; he cannot mobilize hundreds of thousands of supporters within hours, nor is he the head of a sophisticated military entity that has demonstrated its ability to thwart a huge, complex and highly orchestrated war designed to neutralize it and even immerge with political capital to spend.

IDF will push for large-scale summer invasion of Gaza

If Annapolis fails, the likelihood of a Lebanon War scenario occurring in Hamas-controlled Gaza next northern summer is highly likely.

Just as in Lebanon, the invasion will cost hundreds of innocent Palestinian lives, not that human life was ever an Israeli concern. I recall the bombs when I was in Beirut during last year's war, and the images of people on fire. It's not a situation I would wish upon anyone, but of course, what foolish, utopian world do I think I'm living in?

This is the Middle East.

Ynet's full article.

Jordan's King in surprise visit to Syria

King Abdullah II has made an unannounced visit to Damascus for talks with Assad.

It's been four years since his last visit to Syria, and relations between the two have been sour to say the least, so why the quick shuttle now?

Abdullah tends to assume more the role of an American diplomat in Arab affairs, more than that of an Arab king. His four year snub of Syria has mirrored Washington's four year snub of Assad. Suddenly the US invites Syria to a regional peace conference, and Abdullah lands in the Syrian capital?

Israel's PM has in the past week expressed hope that the Syrians attend the Annapolis conference, after Assad warned his country will not participate if the Golan Heights are not on the agenda. The Jordanian visit appears to be another attempt by the Americans to persuade Assad to send a high-level delegation to Annapolis. The Jordanians don't generally have any diplomatic leverage in regional affairs, unless they're carrying a message from the United States, which I assume Abdullah II is precisely doing on this trip.

Will it work is the question?

Ynet's full article.

Syria to release 250 Jordanian prisoners

Following their short chat, Assad instructed the release of 250 Jordanian prisoners held in Syrian jails.

After all these long years of struggles by Lebanese families to retain their loved ones trapped in Syrian prisons, it only took the Jordanian king 30 minutes to get the nod. If it's that easy, why don't we send our President to Damascus with some Tripoli sweets and win back our prisoners?

Of course, the hard part is to first elect a president.

AFP article.

Compromise candidate blocked, France furious

Kouchner stormed out of a meeting with Hariri yesterday fuming. Efforts by France to push the two Lebanese camps to agree on a candidate has been blocked, leaving us further away from an agreement before the November 24th deadline.

The French FM couldn't keep his cool:

"I want to know who is blocking and who will take responsibility, but I say to you ... that the one who takes responsibility for having blocked this process agreed by everyone, will carry the responsibility for the destabilisation of Lebanon and its regional consequences," he said.

Kouchner stated that even the Syrians agreed to their compromise candidate, suggesting that Hizballah was in agreement also, so who blocked the consensus? Reuters hints at rival Christian leaders. We know Michel Aoun is angry about not being chosen president, but he wouldn't part from his alliance with Hizballah over it, or would he? Perhaps it was Samir Geagea, it's not the first time he has prevented his March 14 colleagues from reaching a deal with the Opposition. Or was it an external source, perhaps the US?

Again, it wouldn't be the first time the Bush administration would've faced accusations of hindering diplomatic efforts in Lebanon, but I'll hold my breath until more is revealed about les rendez-vous de Monsieur Kouchner du weekend.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Ban-ki-moon has his hands full in Lebanon

Image courtesy of the Blacksmiths of Lebanon.

The Blacksmiths have placed forward Charles Rizk as their preferred compromise candidate, stating that Rizk has the character "to preserve the Lebanese peoples' drive for sovereignty, to tackle the issues that will dominate that drive over the next six years, and to do so in a fashion which could, once and for all dispose of the tainting and sidelining that has plagued the Presidency since that fateful extension in 2004."

Perhaps, Rizk would be the ideal middle man. He was a close Syrian ally during the Baathist reign over Lebanon, but has demonstrated an even-handed approach under the pro-American Siniora.

I haven't exactly placed my preference for the Lebanese presidency, because essentially it's highly irrelevant. Neither the US nor Syria will get their preferred candidates in charge, which more than likely means a nobody who simply occupies the post for aesthetic purposes will assume the role.

Neither the US nor Syria are in the mood, or showing any willingness, to allow a president to test their patience. That suggests to me that any compromise candidate will do as advised, and keep his mouth shut.

Lebanon's so-called compromise

So much talk and fear has been instilled in Lebanon and world capitals as a result of this contentious presidential election.

Neither the US nor France will accept a candidate favoured to Syria or Iran, and vice versa. The Opposition will boycott parliament if it's not happy with the candidate, and the ruling coalition has warned it will simply ignore the constitution altogether and elect a president with a simple majority instead of a two-third quorum.

All this tension has raised the fear of renewed civil conflict, and world diplomats are flying in and out of Lebanon, to every regional capital, to Brussels, Paris, Washington, London, when a simple solution to this problem is staring us all right in the face.

Ever heard of the Lebanese people? Has anyone asked them who they would prefer as their president? It baffles me that the Western and Arab media, who have so extensively warned of the dangers if a president isn't decided by November 24th, have failed to raise this obvious solution.

Who is exactly doing the electing in this election? US, France, Syria, Iran, and the warlords of our country? Well it makes as much sense. Half of the Lebanese parliament represents the US and France, and the other half represents Syria and Iran ... there's no room in this "democratic" equation for the Lebanese people.

Fair Lebanese Elections Petition

Another online Lebanese petition has been launched, not that any of the previous ones made much of a difference.

It does show, however, that there are Lebanese people out there who are aware of their democratic rights. Demonstrations, online petitions ... if only they could decide their own president.

Knock yourselves out!

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Response to Alan Bock

Alan Bock gave a doom and gloom overview of the situation in Lebanon yesterday in his piece Lebanon: The Next Civil War?

Indeed, Lebanon's political crisis is giving many people cause for grave concern. Next week's presidential election is vital to ensuring Lebanon does not resort to a two-government situation, or worse, a civil war.

Despite all the talk of possible internal conflict in this tiny Middle Eastern entity, Bock's doomsday assessment seems rather stretched from the geopolitical and strategic realities. Much of Bock's article is valid and accurate in summarising Lebanon's current climate, bar for one crucial sentence that throws his overall contention out of balance:

"It is doubtful that the United States can do much beyond urging all factions not to resort to violence and urging Syria not to interfere too violently, as U.S. and European diplomats and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon have been doing, probably to little effect."

Bock gravely understates the importance of the United States in Lebanon's internal politics. The US is so entrenched in Beirut that if it were possibly not for its intense backing of the Siniora Government, the Opposition would have overthrown the March 14 leadership last December during its mass popular protests and strikes.

Following the collapse of Syrian authority in Lebanon in 2005, the Americans have sifted through the country, expanded its intelligence operations, and assisted to form the current March 14 alliance, which encompasses once sworn enemies from Sunni, Christian and Druze corners. If neocon US policy in the Middle East has revealed anything post 9/11, it's that Lebanon is high on their agenda.

Lebanon has long been considered of strategic importance in the Israeli-Syrian equation. It has long suffered the role of being the proxy front between these two rivals. The control of Lebanon is crucial to the survival of both Israel and Syria. The Lebanese Civil War of 1975 - 1990 was as much about domination of Lebanon as it was about internal, sectarian rivalries. The scene has changed little since. Syria not only views Lebanon as historically part of its territory, ripped away from it by European colonialists, but it is also aware that the key road to Damascus starts in Beirut.

The Syrians will not allow a Lebanon hostile to its regime, for fear it would be used against it, something it fears the US will do if Lebanon completely falls into its orbit. The Americans and Israelis fought the Syrians between 1975- 1990 to turn Lebanon into that hostile, anti-Syrian state, and failed. Bush Snr's attention turned to Saddam Hussein in 1990, and abandoned the battle for Lebanon. Clinton continued this policy, but it appears the neocon hopefuls have revived the ambition to strike at Syria through its gateway ... Lebanon.

Syria withdrew from Lebanon, partly due to the mass demonstrations following the assassination of Rafik Hariri, but mostly due to the great pressure exerted on Damascus by Washington and its allies. It was when the US deemed Syria's presence in Lebanon unstable and unnecessary that the Syrian occupation of its smaller neighbour ended.

The Bush administration's engagement in Lebanon and support for the Siniora Government is pivotal to the survival of the March 14 grouping. An alliance that enlists Samir Geagea of the right-wing Maronite faction, the Lebanese Forces (LF), and Walid Jumblatt of the Druze left-wing Progressive Socialist Party (PSP) - and has survived intact for more than two years - could not have been achieved without magic from an external source. These two factions fought a bloody conflict in the 1980s that saw both sides commit ethnic cleansing and other unspeakable atrocities against each other. Today, they walk hand-in-hand, not as a result of a genuine forgiveness, but as a consequence of the interests of the United States.

The US is the cornerstone of the March 14 alliance. Without the backing of Washington, March 14, and indeed the Siniora Government, would have little raison d'etre. Much of the same can be said of Syria's proxies. It was the magic of Syria and Iran that pushed the two rival Shia factions, Amal and Hezballah, to put their differences aside and form a united front. Damascus has simply added to the Shia mix its other allies in Lebanon, including the Christian Marada faction of Sleiman Franjiyeh, the secular Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP), and a variety of Palestinian, Druze and Sunni factions that profess loyalty to Syria. The only extra addition to the Syrian-backed Opposition is Lebanon's main Christian faction, the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) led by Michel Aoun, who entered into an alliance with Hizballah after his relations with March 14 fell through following Syria's withdrawal.

Essentially, it very much comes down to the wishes and interests of the United States, as well as Israel and Syria. Lebanon's rivalries are intense, and irrational errors can cause a spark to explode, but an internal war will not last if the patron regional power brokers are not willing to play ball. It's quite clear that Hezballah is the most organised and sophisticated military organisation in Lebanon. March 14 acknowledge the obvious fact that they wouldn't stand a chance against Hezballah alone. The Shi'ite group has a strict policy of not attacking fellow Lebanese, thus any war would have to be instigated either by another Syrian proxy, such as the Palestinians or the SSNP, or by one of the March 14 factions, perhaps the LF or a Saudi-backed Salafist movement.

For March 14 to sustain an armed conflict against Hezballah - let alone the entire Opposition - it would require massive training, funding, recruiting and weapons supplies, which could only be sourced from the US, Israel or Saudi Arabia. Considering the US is the prime backer of March 14, no arms, no training, no funding, and no war will take place without the consent of Washington. Indeed, reports have consistently emerged over the past year of military training camps of March 14 militias, but a lot more than discreet training on a mountain top is required to confront Hezballah. Any war with the Iranian-backed guerrillas will require the military intervention of Israel. Only with the support of the Israeli air force, navy, and perhaps land forces, will March 14 have a possibility of defeating the Opposition. Therefore, consent from Tel Aviv is another prerequisite for a civil war in Lebanon.

Whether Israel is prepared to commit to another Lebanon war remains unknown. The Israelis have been giving mixed messages as to what its future plans are for its northern border. It launched a mysterious air strike against Syria in September, and recently conducted military manoeuvres on the Lebanon border. At the same time, it has confessed to have resumed secret negotiations with Damascus and has publicly expressed its willingness to engage in peace talks with Assad. It must also be factored in that the Olmert government is still struggling in local popularity as a result of last year's disastrous Lebanon War. It appears highly unlikely that the Israeli public would stomach another major offensive into Lebanon in the near future, particularly one that could drag on for years.

Negotiation and compromise persists as the only possibility to breaking the impasse in Lebanon's political crisis. The US, as the prime supporter of the March 14 alliance, has the power to decide whether compromise or war will prevail in Lebanon. If Israel's unprepared to participate in any internal Lebanese conflict, then all the odds will point to a Hezballah victory if war were to breakout. That is a possibility the US won't risk to take.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Tories cite "anti-Semitism" as reason to ban Lebanese journalist

Tories leader, David Cameron, has pressed the British Government to ban Ibrahim Moussawi, former editor of Hizballah's TV channel Al Manar, from entering the country for an anti-war event.

Moussawi had been invited by the Stop The War Coalition to attend the "World Against War" day in London on December 1. The former Al-Manar editor was also prohibited from participating in an anti-war event in Ireland after the country rejected his entry last month on similar grounds. The Daily Star reports that the US Government pressured Ireland to refuse Moussawi's entry, which outraged the Irish Anti-War Movement, who had organised the event.

Suppression of Hizballah's media affiliates has been a common scene in the Western world, largely attributed to the successful attempt by Jewish lobbies to censor the Shi'ite Party's perspective. In recent years, countries such as Australia, Canada, and the UK have all followed the US in succumbing to the pressure of Jewish lobbies and banning media affiliated with Lebanon's largest and most popular political party.

The Irish decision was the most surprising, as Ireland has long sought the path of diplomacy and dialogue in the Middle East ... so long as that dialogue doesn't take place in Ireland it seems.

If Western governments aim to win the "hearts and minds" of Middle Easterners, then perhaps it would be wise to honour their own words. Hurls of hypocrisy are often the typical response by the Arab world each time the West gives its lecture on democracy, free speech and dialogue... and rightly so. It's a great pity that under the hawkish auspices of George W. Bush, democracy and free speech have become selective, almost hampered within the Occident.
Thank heavens that the internet was invented before Bush came to power.
I wonder what would have become of us simple Western taxpayers had total censorship of information taken place instead of a free world wide web ... perhaps something eeringly resembling the greatly censorsed and closed societies of the Arab and Islamic world?

Censorship has no rewards.

Meanwhile on the topic of racist attacks, here's an example of one that generally goes unnoticed:

Christians in Jerusalem want Jews to stop spitting on them

A few weeks ago, a senior Greek Orthodox clergyman in Israel attended a meeting at a government office in Jerusalem's Givat Shaul quarter. When he returned to his car, an elderly man wearing a skullcap came and knocked on the window. When the clergyman let the window down, the passerby spat in his face.

Full story from Haaretz.

Return to Civil War unlikely ... for now

There has been a lot of diplomatic to-ing and fro-ing in the past week.

European ministers continue to fly in and out of Lebanon and Syria; UN head Ban-ki-moon dropped into Beirut; the Arab League's irrelevant leader Amr Moussa was in Damascus; Israel confessed that it's resumed secret dialogue with Syria.

I presume the UN, the Arab League and the EU all went to Damascus pleading, threatening or sweetening Assad in order to get him to compromise on Lebanon's presidency.

To make matters even more confusing, Hizballah has launched investigations into Al-Qaida's activities in Lebanon and its apparent assassination plot against their number one, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah.

What a week!

In the meantime, Lebanon's constitutional (not that the Lebanese revere their constitution) deadline to appoint a new president is rapidly approaching, and a chosen candidate for November 24th remains elusive. The most neglected aspect of the puzzle, the Lebanese people, are baffled, yet still remain in fear of what may occur should consultations to elect a new president fail. Reports (or allegations) of Lebanese factions re-arming themselves in anticipation of an internal conflict have been emerging for the past year, and the Lebanese people wonder how many more assassinations and bombs the fragile state can sustain before one of these factions explodes.

However, whilst many are looking inwards to find a solution, my concentration is fixed on where Lebanon's key decision-makers lie ... beyond Lebanon's borders.

Critics have already voiced their scepticism of the looming Annapolis Conference, especially from the Arabs, with obviously good reason. The Israelis and the US have on several occasions before invited Arab states for "serious" negotiations, which have often ended up as mere PR stunts. Syria's insistence that the Golan Heights be placed on the agenda - with the backing of America's Arab allies - alludes to the great cynicism of Arab states when it comes to negotiating with Israel.

But Lebanese ought to be focusing on Annapolis and other diplomatic initiatives for key reasons. Whether every Lebanese faction is armed to the teeth or not, guns will remain silent so long as the US, Israel and Syria want them to. The latest expression of willingness from Israel and Syria to resume some kind of dialogue (despite the high possibility of no fruitful outcome being achieved) signals that neither side is interested in embarking on another military initiative in the meantime. Of course, tensions still remain high after Israel's mysterious airstrike on Syria in September, but it is possible that the Israelis and the West are trying to soften Assad's stance to win a few compromises.

Arab critics are probably accurate in their pessimism at achieving a peace agreement at Annapolis, but is this conference really designed to bring peace, or to simply calm the waters? Is this conference a sign that - behind-the-scenes - the US and Israel are willing to conduct a dialogue with Syria over Lebanon, Iraq and the Palestinians?

The speeches of Nasrallah, Aoun, Geagea or Hariri deliver little more than affirmation of the status quo. We are incapable of making our own decisions, otherwise I'm sure we would have a new president by now. There will be no president so long as the US, Israel and Syria are not satisfied. Let us not forget that it was a consensus between the US, Israel and Syria that ended the Lebanese Civil War in 1990. Regretfully, our deep inter and intra-religious divisions ensure that we are not the bearers of our own destiny.

Until the Lebanese learn to take initiative in their internal matters, my eyes remain fixed on regional developments and for the time being, Annapolis.

US-Israel divisions begin to surface

Israel to US: We want dialogue with Syria, and action against Iran. Give Lebanon to Syria in exchange for severing alliance with Iran, but keep Golan Heights

US to Israel: We want dialogue with Iran, and action against Syria. You're wasting your time with Damascus, they won't accept anything less than the Golan ... And get used to an Iranian bomb.

From Haaretz, full article here.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Not forgotten

I'd like to excuse myself from my month-long absence from this blog. I have been bogged down by major commitments, which took up a good chunk of the 7-day week. One of those commitments has been a placement at the Australian online political mag Crikey. Commentary on this blog will resume, but activity will remain sporadic as the next few months present themselves as a telling time for myself personally.

Despite my absence, my eyes have remained fixed on the Middle East, although very little new has developed. Another Lebanese MP assassinated, the same rhetoric from the same chieftains, Israel taunting Syria, and a failed presidential election. What is promising is that the Lebanese factions have agreed to engage in active dialogue, either in full public light or behind the cameras, in order to avert another catastrophe in the country. This period offers analysts and spectators of the Lebanese conflict an opportunity to judge and scrutinise the chess players.

Who will co-operate? Who will compromise? Who will seek to sabotage?


(Pictures: Reuters images of Japanese journo being killed, I drew the red circle around the dead man)

The people of Burma obviously have no fears in confronting totalitarians, is that an option for Lebanon? Our problem remains that we do not have a single totalitarian, but rather an oligarchy of totalitarians. In that light I consider Burma fortunate, the end of the tunnel appears to be more illuminating. Nonetheless, I endorse my support for the plight of the Burmese people, and all suppressed peoples.

I'd like to bring attention in this drama to Russia, who - for the past 12 months - has transparently sought to re-establish respect and supremacy on the international stage. It appears the Russians have fallen short once again in vying to be a responsible power. Its complete silence on Burma in favour of lucrative military deals with a crook regime demonstrates that Moscow cannot be trusted as a source for global security.

I don't mean to absolve other world powers from their obligations in global affairs. The Middle East is great evidence of "democratic" powers pushing aside principles to feed an ever-expanding economic appetite. We long for the day when humanity becomes the pillar of a government's national interest.