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Saturday, December 24, 2011

Syria: the Libyan link

France's LeFigaro reported briefly today on Libyan troops helping out the Syrian Free Army against Assad's regime.

The report is very brief and does not shed more light on the reasons and implications of this. I will try here to do that.

It is interesting first to note that the links between Syria and Libya are old and complex. During the war between Kaddafi and Libya's NTC (rebels), Syria's Assad provided a major support to Kaddafi. Indeed before NATO's air blocade over Libya, it was Syrian pilots who bombed the civilians. They were more willing to do this than Kaddafi's unmotivated troops or his mercenaries (not very knowledgeable of airplane usage)

During Kaddafi's last days, he regularly provided messages to Syrian TV channels close to Assad's regime, and after his fall, the NTC was the first to officially recognize Syria's own opposition as the legitimate government.

The interesting part of LeFigaro's article is that the Libyan troops helping out Syria's rebels are Abdelhakim Belhadj's people. His implication is very telling:

Belhadj is an Islamist, previously jailed in Guantanamo, and trained in Afghanistan. During the Libyan uprising he led the unit that took over Tripoli. Belhadj was notoriously helped by British and French special troops, and financed by Qatar. Many assume he now works for the CIA. In the Libyan political structure he is the representative of the militant Islamists in the power structure. He was reportedly arrested recently by another Libyan group as he was traveling to Turkey with large cash amounts (source says: $600K)

Belhadj's involvement in Syria is therefore a strong indicator of:
1. US and Qatar's decision to beef up the military aspect of the uprising
2. The strong Turkish-Qatari coordination
 3. the increased involvement of Islamist troops and coordinators in Syria's armed rebellion.

Add to this the various reports of French secret service personnel training some of the Syrian rebels, and what you have is the recipe for a prolonged civil war.

The situation is very similar to Lebanon v.1975, many back then also believed that the war would end took 30 years!

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Syrian expat boom

There is a visible surge in the number of Syrian daily workers in Lebanon. Just walk around Beirut's streets and you can notice that the numbers have significantly increased.

This is probably one of the most "visible" impacts of economic & political problems Syria is facing. Its excess man-force is being sent to Lebanon. This can help Syria's Assad in two ways:
1. bring in much needed currency back to Syria (earn in Lebanon, send to Syria)
2. get rid of a large number of young males, that could eventually become protesters in Syria. Interestingly enough, it is easier for Syria's Assad to control this population in Lebanon than in Syria itself. All Syrians leaving Syria needed to register with the Moukhabarat (secret service), and Syria's Lebanese allies are powerful enough to "control" these migrant workers.

I discussed with a small group of these recent arrival workers this morning. While very vague (or rather citing all possible reasons) on the reasons for coming to Beirut, they clearly made me feel that they were strongly "encouraged" to do so...

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Communication vs Pragmatism

update: a few hours after publishing this post, the Mikati government with the tacit approval of Hezbollah has approved the financing of the STL.

...or why Hezbollah's self interest actually calls for financing the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) for Rafic Hariri's murder (Lebanon is due to pay its share of the financing of the tribunal. Prime Minister Mikati has said he would resign if it is not approved by the government)

Hezbollah is confronted today with the most basic of all political choices: prefer communications and the party's image or act pragmatically and prioritize the party's political interests.

The communication choice, would be to utterly reject the STL. This has been Hezbollah's stance since 2005: The tribunal has been portrayed by Hassan Nassrallah and every party member as a US and Israeli tool, and Nassrallah has openly said that he will never accept to finance it. Doing so now, might seem for Hezbollah's constituents and allies as a sign of weakness.

On the other hand, the pragmatic choice would be to go for the financing considering the alternatives the party has, and for the following reasons:
1. A strong Assad in Syria is a survival necessity for Hezbollah. Syria's own interests in Lebanon requires the prime minister to remain. In light of the Arab Leagues attacks on Syria, Assad needs a friendly Arab government, and this Lebanese government has proven to be very friendly with Assad's regime.
2. Financing the tribunal will provide PM Najib Mikati with a needed boost within his own Sunnite community. Both Assad and Hezbollah need to counter the influence of Saad Hariri within the Lebanese Sunnite community. Reinforcing Mikati can therefore only benefit Hezbollah on the short term.
3. A quick alternatives political analysis, shows that even if Lebanon does not finance the Tribunal, the Tribunal will probably keep going on. So what ever Hezbollah's moves are, the Tribunal will remain. Better therefore for the party to reinforce Assad and Mikati.
4. By financing the Tribunal, Hezbollah would have stripped the main communication argument March 14th has been using against the Government. M14 will find themselves in a difficult communications situation.
5. Hezbollah can barter this tacit approval of the financing with a major political gain for the party or its allies (like Aoun): revive the shouhoud el zour case, finance Aoun's pet projects etc...Thus ultimately benefiting with the public opinion.

Hezbollah's history has shown that being politically pragmatic has always been a key feature of their policy. Furthermore, considering 1. the communications strength the party has, and 2. the utter trust the Shiite community has in the party, Hezbollah can easily spin this choice.

The real challenge is going to be with the anti-Hezbollah camp. How to re-mobilize the street if the STL issue is "deflated". Time for an urgent meeting between Hariri, Geagea and Gemayel!

Sunday, November 27, 2011

LBC : Christian mirror

I finally got to see yesterday the LBC report on Myriam Al Achkar's assassination. For those not following Lebanese news, Myriam was killed by a Syrian worker while going to a Church called "path to heaven". The killing has outraged the Christian community and generated a series of anti-Syrian comments: Myriam was a pious Christian

The Lebanese blogosphere is up and raging against this "racist" and "xenophobic" report:
view Beirut Report or BeirutSpring's accounts.

Even though I agree with all those criticizing LBC's report as completely unprofessional, it is interesting to note that this report really reflects the mood of a majority of Lebanese Christians in general. Marcel Ghanem (the show host where the report was aired) and Philippe Abou Zeid (the senior reporter) are both Christians living in the heartland of Christians, and usually capture very well the mood of the community:

  1. Most were enraged by the fact that reports indicated that the Syrian killer (he has confessed) worked for the notorious Syrian moukhabarat (secret service) believed to have killed many Lebanese over the last 30 years. As trouble brews in Syria itself, a large number of Christian Lebanese are deep down looking at the cross border event with a sens of revenge (it is their turn, finally. Though they are also afraid for the future of Syrian Christians). The calls for revenge in the report are really an expression of 30 years of frustrations.
  2. Because Christians are afraid for their future in the region, the community has become oversensitive. Any  non political event even if remotely linked to Christianity, becomes a community trauma, and is perceived as a "proof" of the fragility of the community.
  3. Lebanese Christians - in a self defense reaction - are becoming more and more in3ziliyin (separatists) and perceive any foreigner (to the community) as a potential aggressor.
LBC's report - though biased and racist- has therefore at least one big merit: it is a mirror to how the Christian heartland is evolving.

Somehow it reminds me of 1975....

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Aoun and Syria: joker please!

If you follow the semantic change in Michel Aoun's stances in Syria in the last 2 weeks, you will realize there is an attempt to reposition his extreme pro-Assad position into that of a philosopher watching and saddened by the events.

Aoun seems to have understood now that whatever the outcome of the events in Syria, Assad is bound to come out at minima as weakened. In his own savvy knowledge of the way Lebanese Christians think, Aoun has understood that positioning himself as an advisor to Syrians "I understand your fears and please don't fight" can help him stop his dwindling Support amongst Christians.

Aoun is actually playing on:

1. Christians fears of what will come next after Assad

2. fear of a civil war (spill over) in Lebanon

3. Trying to portray himself as a knowledgable, experienced and responsible politician

...All while trying to hedge his bets: continue supporting Assad but send mix messages.

So expect in the next few weeks: press conferences supporting Assad and insulting others, but also media press releases advising peaceful solutions in Syria and hinting at the need for reforms.

Friday, November 25, 2011

STL & why it is still relevant

Just read Elias Muhanna (aka Qifa Nabki)'s feature in the NY Times  "Just another day in Lebanon".

Quite interesting, Elias makes a point that Lebanon's future is at best uncertain, and wonders about the future of the STL (Special Tribunal for Lebanon)

Though I agree with him, I wonder why the pessimistic tone around the STL's role and influence. I think it is playing a much more important role in Lebanon's current political crisis than it shows:

  1. It is still used as a rallying cause for various M14 leaders
  2. It is used by Walid Jumblatt as a justification for his political re positioning (caused by Syria's troubles)
  3. It is (if well utilized) a negotiation tool in the post Assad redrawing of Lebanon's influences
  4. On the long term it acts as a continuous looming threat over Hezbollah and Syria's Assad (never know when it can be fully utilized)
  5. When there is nothing else to discuss, it serves as a back up for journalists!

My main problem with the STL is the "communications obsessed" way Mustakbal leaders use it. They are the main reason behind diluting its perceived importance among the public opinion. Overuse it, you'll kill it.

Part of the communication's success of the STL (in my opinion) is to keep a shroud of mystery around it. Hezbollah works hard to destroy that...By over communicating, Mustakbal leadersare doing a better job!

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Jumblatt and the absurdities

Jumblatt slammed today the "absurdities" of Lebanese politics.

I like Jumblatt as a person: funny, educated and an analytic mind. But flip flop Jumblatt criticizing the absurdities of Lebanese politics ??!?! common! this must be the most absurd statement of the day.

That said, if you google "walid jumblatt" + absurd, you'll find 21,800 references. It seems he likes the word a lot.

Syria: Scenarios and Civil War

article I originally posted in March 2011 in

(check out, really great analysis site)

“Protests in Daraa-Syria”; When I read this ticker in my favorite news channel, I can’t honestly say I did not feel goose bumps. As a Lebanese, anything that happens in Syria directly affects my country and probably the entire geopolitical (dis)equilibrium that has characterised the Middle East since the last Israeli-Arab wars of 1973.

Four days after the Daraa spark, I counted twelve cities where unrest was happening. Busy with the very rare YouTube videos and the inevitable contradictory death toll, news channels forgot to analyze the essential question: what next for Syria, and what about the impact on the region.

Syria is not Egypt and even less Tunisia. In these two North African countries, the revolts featured distinctive social demands: jobs, a future and freedom. In Syria, these three basic demands are complicated by an extra sectarian flavor. Syria’s 75% Sunni population is ruled by Bashar Al-Assad’s Alawites who make 10% of the population.

Social demands mixed with sectarian unrest ia a usual recipe for disaster: a special kind of one, civil war.

Daraa is an interesting city for the start of the revolution. It is close to Damascus, and its population is a mix of Sunni, Alawites and Druze. As anyone who has ever lived through civil war would tell you, trouble always starts within mixed areas which act as point of frictions: living side by side with the 'other' ferments jealousy, anger and hatred. Daraa exploded, Aleppo and Lattaquia followed; two other highly mixed cities. The Sunni citizens of these towns are usually more religious, and have more reasons to imitate their Egyptian and Tunisian Sunni “brothers”.

The first reaction of the regime has been to bring down to the streets the pro-Assad protesters, and contrary to Egypt’s Moubarak or Tunisia’s Ben Ali, the Syrian regime does have real supporters: the Assad’s own Alawites, but also most of Syria’s Christians and Shiite minorities. The Druze community- well advised by their cousins in Israel and Lebanon- will probably wait to see how things turn before taking a stand.

I remember long talks with my Syrian friends, telling me how many of the Alawites from Lattaquia for example, were armed by the regime, and how the roads between Sunni dominated cities and others were on purpose never fully operational: call it “trouble insurance”, but the regime has always been prepared for when that “Sunni” pride day would come. The regime and its supporters are very aware that a “simple” change of power will not – and cannot- happen peacefully. The only way out is probably war, civil war.

While that civil war scenario is – in my opinion – the most likely, three others exist.

In the first, and as the protests gain momentum, the Alawites tribal heads could decide to drop the Al-Assad family. Fearing for the future, these traditional leaders – who also lost part of their power at the hands of the ruling family- might conclude that joining the protest momentum is the best way to “protect” the community. The Christians and hesitant Druze groups would then be forced to do the same. The domino effect would then be terminal for the current regime.

In the second, the Syrian regime analyzes that most foreign countries have no interest in seeing the regime fall, and cracks down on the protest the hard way, the Hama way. In 1982, Bachar Al-Assad’s father had ended a similar revolt by killing an estimated 5,000 people. Most countries remained silent, as Syria’s stability was –and still is- a guarantee for all the countries in the region. Al-Assad will then be free to break the revolt. But in 1982, there was no Facebook, Al-Jazeera or Al-Arabiya ; information is the enemy of dictatorships.

In the third, Al-Assad decides that dropping Iran and getting close to Saudi-Arabia is his best bet to “calm” Sunnite protests. While the regime will probably try this path – as early reports of last minute meetings between Saudis and Syrian leaders show – it is doubtful that it will impact or calm the protesters. The Syrians might find this path to be a dead-end.

The rest of this article analyzes the regional impact in case the civil war scenario does unfold. Part of the proof lies in an unnoticed tweet by BBC’s correspondent in Syria – Lina Sinjab – she reported that protesters had arrested Iranian and Hezbollah operatives working alongside the Syrian security forces.

Syria is Iran’s best friend in the region and the main conduct for Iranian weapons to Hezbollah. Iran can simply not afford to lose the Al-Assad regime. As the BBC Tweet showed, Iran will spend the right amount of money, effort and men to keep the Syrian regime alive. On the other hand, Saudi Arabia will not accept to sit down and watch its arch-enemy Iran take over Syria. The Saudis will probably send weapons and support to the protesters. Syria would then – ironically- become a new Lebanon (not the other way around) and fall into civil war.

If the current Syrian regime falls, one can expect the following impact on the region:

- Reconciliation between Hamas and PLO in Palestine: the changes in the region will weaken both their sponsors, and drive the Palestinian people to request more from their leaders. Both Hamas and PLO leaders might have no choice but coordinate.

- Depending on how things turn out in Syria, Iran will have to choose between either 1) negotiating with the Saudis and Americans, or 2) going full speed with a destabilization of the region: and eventually a regional war.

- Iran’s repositioning will impact Hezbollah’s choices: 1) Use its weapons to negotiate a constitutional settlement that favors it, or 2) Decide that taking over Lebanon is its best long term choice, before losing its vital Syrian weapons conduct. Lebanon’s civil war could then get re-ignited, and the country heading towards a de-facto federation.

- Saudi Arabia’s Shiite community will be pushed by Iran to stand-up to the Monarchy. Expect more trouble in the oil rich – and Shiite dominated- eastern region of Saudi Arabia.

- Israel’s best interest would be to wait and see how the events turn out. But as Lebanon’s civil war history has shown, anarchy at Israel’s borders increases the possibility of “independent” groups firing rockets at Israel. The Israeli reaction might further put pressure on the Israeli government to “act”.

In all the scenarios, the region is bound for some tough times: nothing new in the book’s cover, but all new in its content.

The blog is Back

After one year of dormant blogging activities (I joined Twitter meanwhile) I am reactivating this blog!!!

at least I hope so!!