Tied to the whipping post…

Yesterday, I attended a Brookings policy briefing on Syria after the Mehlis report. On hand were Martin Indyk, former US Ambassador to Israel, Flynt Leverett, former NSC official, and Ammar Abdulhammid, the Saban Center’s “resident Syrian.” First some aesthetics: Ammar clearly stole the show, seeming witty and knowledgeable in comparison to the more wooden Leverett, who seemed unable to escape a script he had in his head. Good Marxist that I am, I attribute this to a division of labor, rather than considering this to be any indicia of their personalities or intellectual prowess. Ammar is bieng paid to be the Syrian, with supposed knowledge of which way the winds are blowing on the Syrian street and thus can be colorful. Flynt is being paid to counter whatever Syrian policy seems to be coming out of the White House and thus speaks the language of a policy wonk who wants to criticize but does not want an unseemly mark on his public record. Indyk served as moderator and thus did not speak too much. What little he added to the dialogue reminded me of his bitterness toward Arafat after the failure of the Camp David accords in 2001. I normally describe this frustration as the “why can’t the fat kid run fast?” (if he could run fast he would not be the fat kid). His recent WSJ editorial captures much of this — Bashar is maladroit, weak and unreliable … Again according to my simplistic division of labor theory, this seems predictable for a former diplomat. As an aside, I would also note that my opinion of Robin Wright, who has an article about Syria in today’s WaPost, suffered. She seemed to be both arrogant and ridiculous. But whatever… And while I dont know the name of An-Nahar’s DC correspondent, he put a good question to Ammar that basically undermined much of Ammar’s position and Ammar was unable to intelligently fire back…

Okay, khalas, I leave substance to my next post… (sorry, no time)

Syrian Opposition and the US

Well as expected the Syrian opposition is trying to grasp the one time opportunity it may have to take over power positions and displace Assad from the throne. But what was not expected by the media and ideologues at large is to find the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria entertaining links with US officials, discussing possibilities of cooperating with a new regime by relinquishing a sharia based legal structure.
The linked article states that Ali Sadr al Din al Bayanouni of the Muslim brotherhood has asked Farid al Ghadiri, a Syrian opposition figure close to right-wingers in the US and Israel such Nathan Sharanski and others, to “open a line of discussion” with the US, and agreed to accept change on a “secular basis”.
Although traditional opposed to American intervention in the changing of the Syrian regime structure, the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria or at least some of its prominent figures have opted for pragmatism in this case.
If this is true – as it was leaked by another opposition figure, writer Nabil Fayad in Al Arabiya – then Syrian politics are undergoing profound changes. One needs to look at these event at the societal level. Alliances are shifting so rapidly that shrewed observers are needed to understand the importance of the changes witnessed.

Syria in the worst position ever

When neoconservatives and so-called liberals agree on what the specific policy to follow should be, it is highly likely that a country under threat from this possible consensus will be dealt with severely.
Martin Indyk of the Brookings Institute (ex-US ambassador to Israel, and ex-director of AIPAC) said in the Financial Times that Syria should come clean, lest severe sanctions would ensue and that Bashar is a “weak and maladroit Syrian president” with a “rogue regime”.
This comes closer to the official position barked by hawkish right-wing think-tanks like the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. WINEP’s “scholars” are working hard – using their expertise – to advocate policies for the US but also for Assad, such as opening the political system for the “majority Arab Sunnis and ethnic and religious minorities, centralizing power in the hands of his own Alawi clan”.
Now how’s that going to happen? On what kind of understanding of politics is this policy based?
How can you open up the system but centralize in the hand of a tribe (although the centralization part is already there)? And why would this be good to Syria?
When reading the list of policy recommendations I see that there main objective is to help the US manage the region, and is not specifically in Syria’s own interests.
But what this author (Robert Rabil) says out in the open with no subtelty whatsoever, Martin Indyk says it with wit, and diplomacy.

O, art thou sighing for Lebanon…

In the long breeze that streams to thy delicious East …

Cheer up, Bech. At least your olfactory senses are working, which is more than some can say. I take your post to be laden with figurative-meaning — even though I do not doubt the possibly very real stench blowing from Dora — and thus have provided a little Lord Alfred.

First a confession: I am utterly baffled by the demise of Ghazi Kenaan. Like probably many others, I am hard-pressed to believe that Kenaan punched his own ticket to eternal purchase. A fragile psyche, wounded easily by taunts and tatters, we do not have here. One assumes he was given an offer he could not refuse, but then why and by what hand?

I will admit I was equally confused by Hariri’s slaying. Certainly, both men were not in short supply of enemies, real and imagined, but I cannot for the life of me figure out how one could have predicted their passing.

Of course, a parade of fools, both inside and outside Lebanon, are at hand to feed to me what it all means, but I cannot but choke on what is certain to be an unhealthy diet.

Still, despite the stench, I remain hopeful. My faith resides in the law of unintended consequences. Out of all this mess, I pray that there emerges new and more energized Lebanese voices that will no longer tolerate the rot and stench of the current political order in Lebanon and its suffocating effect on meaningful electoral politics.

For example, I will consider the Mehlis report a great, even historic triumph, if it draws even scant attention to the kleptocratic practices of Lebanon’s (and Syria’s for that matter) ruling elite. We may have lost a star witness for the prosecution in that case, but witnesses abound and the case or cases still need to be made.

It is not so much a case of the veil being lifted — an impossibly romantic idea — but rather some small ray of light shining through the more thread-bare corners of the cloth. I guess, in a sense, I am wishing for a great unraveling, but I will take it a piece at a time. It is all, Lord Alfred says, we can really hope for: to find a pearl in this stormy gulf.

A note on the side

Lately (those who are living in Beirut know what I am talking about), a horrible smell of waste and death coming from the slaughter houses next to Dora (or some other place) is invading the capital, making sure that everyone rich or poor are aware that when it comes down to knowing what’s putrefaction, all humans across sects tribes sexes races and other categorizations understand the bitter “truth”.

But isn’t it what they are looking for lately? It seems they forgot that truth either comes thinly disguised with dancing and colourful forms that makes her impossible to grab, or is the sudden and raw manifestation of death or human limits.

Oil offshore drilling in Lebanon (an update)

I want to apologize for the last article I wrote. I have misinformed the public at large. I should have asked for more expert advice.
It turns out, drilling for offshore oil and gas on the shores of Lebanon is no given thing. It could be very expensive to produce (meaning that the State will find it hard to get revenues out of this venture).
this means that alternative means to get energy should be favored. And again in this case, Lebanon should acknowlege the fact that it is (and is in its interest to be) heavily depended on neighbors.

Now this is how the story goes:
At first, I talked to Roudi Baroudi a so-called energy expert who worked under Energy Minister Hmayed right before the extension of Lahoud’s term in Sept-Oct 2004. it seems that this team approached (or was approached) by an oil & gas company Schlumberger for consultation work – to prepare the ground for launching the bidding for parts of the offshore to drill.
I looked at the contract. They were getting huge amount of money for basically nothing. They were supposedly “updating” studies that were already done by seismic survey companies, and some irrelevant things.
So much so that the advisers of then Energy Minister Sehnaoui did not pursue the deal any further (although they did not stop it), by not paying Shlumberger. Sehnaoui’s adviser Raoul Nehme told me that “As soon as we came to the ministry, the Shlumberger had simply disappeared.”
And after looking at the contract Nehme told me that they were not approved by the council of ministers.
so there you go, although I stopped “looking for the truth” on this one I am sure that something smells fishy. Anyway, Nehme’s team favored completing the gas pipeline that links Syria to Lebanon, and tried to find means to respond to EDl’s huge affordable energy needs.

Things get clearer if you read what comes next:
These are the comments made by PFC energy expert Yahya Sadowski:

If any oil company thought there were “commercial” (i.e., cost effective) concentrations of natural gas in Lebanon, they would be offering to do the survey work themselves. That people expect the government of Lebanon to pay the costs suggests that they think discoveries are unlikely. Of course, if the Lebanese government conducts a survey and discovers reserves, it can demand a better price for exploration blocks than it would be able to command without a survey. But only IF it makes confirmed discoveries.
People who advocate that the government of Lebanon pay for a 3D survey up front, I suspect, do so for several reasons: a) they have an economic or political interest in not having Lebanon rely upon gas imports from the regional grid; b) they know very little about the geology of natural gas; and c) they may be getting a lucrative retainer from one of the companies that is offering to do the survey and/or advise the Lebanese government. I guess there is a fourth reason that might be in play: they might be Lebanese and therefore excessively optimistic, confident–despite a lack of indications–that Lebanon is sitting atop massive quantities of shallow, cheaply produced gas.
Just to give you one more thing to think about: the Saudis and the Iraqis produce massive quantities of gas as a byproduct of their oil production. Both have traditionally “flared” (burnt) this gas off as if it was a worthless byproduct. Now that the Qataris and Iranians are pioneering gas exports from the Gulf (both using the expensive LNG process, which allows them to market in Asia without the need for pipelines), Baghdad and Riyadh are starting to think about how they might put their product into a regional gas grid. Both are able to produce gas far more cheaply than Lebanon could under any imaginable circumstances. Why would it be in Lebanon’s interest to produce its own expensive gas rather than to import cheaper product from Iraq, Syria, Egypt, or Saudi Arabia?

And this is the first e-mail I got from Prof. Sadowski:

I read one of your recent pieces about oil and I would urge a little caution. Rudy Baroudi is one of the most corrupt officials to ever be associated with EDL, and I think it flatters him to call him an “expert in privatization.” (He privatizes public funds into his private pocket.) He is correct that there is natural gas, and probably oil too, within Lebanon’s territorial waters. It is not surprising: there is natural gas almost anywhere you dig in the Middle East, there is actually a vast regional surplus. The real question is whether the gas can be produced and marketed profitably. Most gas deposits are too small and scattered to be worth producing at current prices. And a big part of this problem has to do with transportation and marketing: gas is much more expensive to transport than oil, since it requires either liquification or special pressurized pipelines. This only becomes cost effective when you have a contract with a large, long-term consumer like Turkey.
In the 1990s Egypt encouraged oil and gas exploration by offering the oil companies “put or pay” contracts to drill the Delta and offshore. Lots of gas was discovered. But Egypt is losing money on the deal. It uses some of the gas domestically, but it has never found a secure buyer–and the terms of the contract require the government of Egypt to buy any of the gas that cannot be sold. (Egypt, like Iran and Iraq, had hoped that Turkey would buy its gas. But Turkey’s economy performed too irregularly to be an effective customer.)
It is a shame that the government of Lebanon doesn’t have any honest experts in energy issues who might steer them away from this type of scam.

Lebanon an energy producer?

yes possibly, according to my reporting in today’s Dailystar. That would save us a lot of money my friends. And this is serious stuff, many studies have confirmed that should the government accept to dust off the legal books and shuts off the drives of the cartel of oil importers – that by the way already botched numerous numbers of good opportunities for the country to lower its energy bill and stop exploiting its poorest constituentcy – then we could meet all our energy needs, and easily service our debt (that incompetent oligarch should bear and not the poorest majority) by drilling for oil and gas in the sea next to our shores.
Egypt and Israel did it, hell even Gaza did it (shows you that good governance does not necessarily mean independence!).

All-out war between Syria and Lebanon

Nowhere in the history of both countries were relations at this low. The deputy prime minister of Syria Al-Dardari just annouced that Syria simply does not need Lebanon for its Syrian work force who are going to flock back in to fill what he labeled as massive job vacancies created by $16 billion of investments made by Gulf and German companies. Check out the story in the Daily Star taken from propos exchanged in Iktissad Wa Aamal.

I think the only Lebanese and Syrian that still like each other are the bankers. Lebanese banks are currently expanding in Syria by attracting more capital, but I can’t find an article for you to read without paying money, for those interested you can always check the Syria report).
Strangely enough I must say, it is reassuring to know that the value of money has no “nationality”, although its precise value remains to be determined. But that’s a completely different story.

– bech –