Lebanon in Syria

The fates of the modern states of Lebanon and Syria are inextricably linked. It is important to read their history not just as was done conventionally that is Syria never fully recognizing Lebanon as an independent state but also the reverse, as Lebanon, or particular segments of the Lebanese political establishment involving and using Syria for its own survival as a small state. During the first half of the twentieth century and until the 1970s, Muslims and pan-Arabists of all creed had difficulty recognizing that Lebanon should be a separate state as such. The civil war forced the Christians to realize that they needed help from the Syrians first when the Phalangists risked defeat against pro Palestinian forces around the second half of the 1970s, second when a section of the Christian establishment had allied with the Syrian help after 1982 Israeli invasion, and third after the Taif agreement of 1982. Even Michel Aoun the staunchest opponent to Taif and the Syrian regime realized that such categorical attitude was detrimental to Lebanon’s strategic advantage.

In the beginning of the 1990s, and after bitter clashes with the Syrian regime, it was Hizbullah’s turn to realize that they could not survive and strive as a resistance force without Syrian geographical strategic positioning, as well as security and logistical support. This brought them closer to other political groups in the country during the 1990s. Then events unfolding after 2005 when the former prime minister Rafic Hariri was assassinated should be understood as a struggle to fill the security vaccum left by the withdrawal of the Syrian army and more importantly the removal of the Lebanese-Syrian security nexus that was built during the post-war period. Hizbullah’s recent intervention in Syria and in Qalamoun in particular should be read in this light, as an effort to create a protective boundary around the small state of Lebanon that the Syrian regime once provided.

Likewise Sunni politics in the post-war period should be read in this way. Hariri needed pax-Syriana to implement his reconstruction program and the various economic (and oh so social) changes that ensued. It is only when he was constantly paralyzed by his political counterpart the President Emile Lahoud, that he urged the Syrians to intervene on his behalf. The Syrians refused given that Lahoud represented the security complex which helped build the pax-Syriana. And yet, it is not even clear if Hariri was fully convinced that Lebanon did not need the Syrian regime. The Hariri-Hizbullah negotiations that took place before he was killed attest to this ambivalence. After 2005, Sunni politics was slowly driven to increased intervention in Syria in trying to work for regime change. This process involved many groups from “moderate” to radical all the way to al-Qaeda and ISIS type. The Arsal episode is a perfect example of the blurred political boundaries between Lebanon and Syria.

The whole point here is to recognize that overall, various Lebanese actors strived to change things to their advantage in Syria just as it was done by Syria in Lebanon. Some day the history of this “intervention” should be written through that lens.

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Israel and Hizbullah: A quick round up

This is a summary of the latest events between Israel and Hizbullah. It starts when Hizbullah’s SG Hassan Nasrallah engaged in a long description of Hizbullah’s readiness to fight Israel even if involved in the Syrian quagmire, on Mayadeen TV. Obviously, I would be simplifying if I started the story then, as it is involved in a general buildup of coalitions in the regional arena. Israel’s actions are partly a result of freaking out when Nasrallah boasts about Hizbullah’s capabilities and partly to test if the new regional situation can work on its favor.

There seem to be no doubt that this preemptive strike comes as a direct reaction to this interview. It is also possible that this interview was pushed for in order to send clear messages to Israel based on intelligence reports that Hizbullah must have been getting around the Israeli military brewing something. But then military initiatives bring to light new possible alliances. Israel finds in Jabhat al-Nusra (it’s ugly like ISIS but with a different costume) a reliable ally or at least someone who wouldn’t stand in its way.

Hizbullah’s retaliation is then inevitable, if anything in order to avoid war: thus, today’s attack on what Hizbullah’s media characterized as being Israel’s “Golani” troops. This also mean that enemies have tested each other’s capabilities. The success of Hizbullah’s operation will determine the likelihood of escalation. As of now it looks quite successful. Then, the balance of power has been restored after having been tested, and given the regional situation, it seems doubtful that there will be more escalation in the very short term. But let’s see what the spring or the summer brings.

Raï in Jerusalem

Maronite-Cardinal-Beshara-Rai-Getty-1The new Christian maronite patriarch Cardinal Bechara Boutros el Rai, has been making some bold moves since the beginning of his mandate. First his visit to Syria in the midst of the conflict degenerating, and now his decision to visit Jerusalem as the Catholic pope has schedule a Middle East tour, all show that Rai wants to re-assert some form of power for Christians in the Middle East. Now I don’t know why everyone on the left side of the political spectrum (whatever that really means nowadays) lashed out at Rai, I think this visit is deemed to be considered as involving novel strategies that inscribes Rai as the most Arab of Christian Maronite authorities since the coming of the French in the region.

Rai kept on repeating, as he defended his controversial trip to Jerusalem, that he was going strictly for religious reasons. But then Rai added “I am going there to say this is our city, I am going home, and I am going to see my people. We have been present in Haifa and Galilee long before Israel.” Now that’s cleverly said as it contributes in a way to challenge the sovereignty of Israel over this chunk of land. Holy land is not to be possessed by nation-states. But that’s the Khomeinist rationale as explicited by his Jerusalem Day commemoration. That’s probably why Hizbullah was not so vociferous about Rai’s visit, opposing it publicly but quickly silencing the subject at the media level.

In the land where “non-state actors” prosper with or without the support of official states, what better way of producing political leverage than to use the various institutional tools at one disposal. Rai seems here to have learned from Hizbullah who uses Iran to further the interest of their community in Lebanon, producing political actions that can spill over outside of Lebanon.

Rai’s power material and symbolic springs from two different directions. His constituency and the various implications of the confessional system in Lebanon, and his institutional affiliation to the Catholic church based in the Vatican. This means that if Rai wants to bolster his position he can act on both these fronts. His recent visit to Jerusalem is clearly an attempt at gaining leverage through the organizational hierarchy of the Catholic Church especially now that the latter elected somewhat of a “third world” oriented pope. And in so doing, Rai can gain more independence as a figure representing a community that is not delimited by nation-states (Maronites in Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, etc).

By using the “religious” card, his institutional affiliation to the Church, Rai reminds contemporary societies that communities are still represented by institutions that transcend State boundaries (in this case Israel and Lebanon). Most importantly, they remind us that where State fail to provide solutions for communities, other institutions can be used. Given the type of power the Catholic Church has, this is probably the best political move they can do. And by saying that his motivation are non-political and strictly religious, these are religious motivations that are strictly political.

It remains to be seen the extent to which Rai’s move manifest an action that transcends the State, it is still framed by State-related political calculations, in this case, the power leverage Christian can get in Lebanon.

Illusions of Terrorism and Democracy

XU*5034480The recent bombings in Beirut elevates Lebanon to the ironic status of a democratic country, in the modern Western sense of the term. Sadly, this is no privilege at all, more of a burden really. As I argued earlier, Terrorism as a particular form of carrying out political action is only possible if certain democratic structures are part of society’s general culture. Terrorism targets the feelings of civilians because the latter can, through this particular human disposition, extract concessions from political elites.

After 2005, most assassinations in Lebanon involve a mix of vendetta types of violence that target political actors and this “democratic” form of politics. Vendetta types of violence do not necessarily target the feelings or views of a specific group of people, only political actors. Terrorism though does and is peculiar to the modern age. There is no terrorism without some form of democratic politics as understood through liberal ideals of representations (such as individualism, freedom of choice, mass consumption economy, etc.) and the political setting of the Nation-State. Wherever there were terrorist attacks in the non-Western world, it is noticeable that they always involved a political message either to foreign countries (say attacking touristic sites, nightclubs), or local political regimes that are democratic in the sense that the “feelings” of their societies can have a direct bearing on the political process.

Yet even though nowhere before have we been faced with the immediacy of distant death, nowhere before have we been so distant to killings that are incurred by people who are trying to send a message to us. In effect, terrorism targeting civilians is not targeting the people who were actually killed but potentially any people that are part of a political delineated community (here the Shi’i community but also the Lebanese, and so on). Terrorism in this sense is one of these rare instances where violence is used on a person or group who is not the real target.

To come to the recent suicide explosion in Dahyeh, I’m not here analyzing the political message sent to the elite (Hizbullah’s political party, or whoever is incurring such attacks) or to the constituency of a political movement or organization. I’m more interested in what people actually do about it. Although people can be “terrorized” by what is happening they seem helpless as to what to do about it. Can they really force political actors to change their course of actions?

Then, Terrorism is doomed because on the one hand it assumes that the feelings that civilians have, fueled by media strategies, are going to influence political elites to do something about it, and on the other hand, it assumes that civilians feelings are in themselves a motive of political change. Raw emotions do not create interesting change at the political level. Only does reason. And it is reason that is the stuff from which political decisions are made.

This is why terrorism is a victim of the media effect, and democracies or ideals of democracies are experienced as a spectacle in today’s societies. In our modern political systems that are animated by the technological and media industry, “feelings” and “emotions” understood in a raw sense are the primary human traits that is meant to dictate political action. This is why terrorism exist. In the absence of such human predisposition, terrorism would not be a viable weapon.

Here lies one of the contradictions of the culture of democracies and how they are the source of  their own misery. Democracies as they function today involve a politics of emotions that traditionally was never linked to politics as such. It does not mean that traditionally, feelings where not getting in the way of correct handling of political matter, far from it. War practices always involved forms of cruelties that surely were triggered by specific types of emotions and feelings and in turn triggered these types of feelings. But never, were feelings used in a way were curtailed by higher forms of politics that ordered the way agreements were reached, successions were arranged, or war were started.

EU blacklisting Hizbullah’s military wing

hezbollah_EUEU’s decision to label Hizbulah’s military wing a terrorist organization is a silly decision, one that betrays a simplistic understanding of the politics of the Middle East in the last three decades.

My intuition is that this decision is the fruit of years of erroneous analyses about the organization that is thought to have “changed”, to have become “moderate” and “democratic” because it is now fully engaged in the local political Lebanese game. This representation of Hizbullah has pushed forth the crazy idea that if one could just somehow neutralize some military wing of the party then a fully gentrified Hizbullah can strive in a healthy democratic and pluralistic Lebanese arena.

Non-sense.

Hizbullah never changed and Hizbullah does not have different “wings”. Hizbulah is the Islamic Resistance, or simply the Resistance as a military project that fights Israeli occupation and ambitions in the region. Hizbullah political “wing” is only a democratic representation of this project in the parliament. This means that people who support the military resistance against Israel voted for Hizbullah to be represented in the Lebanese parliament.

By blacklisting a “military wing” the EU is condemning (or judging!) a popular and legitimate political demand to fight occupation. To give a European example, it is a bit like condemning French resistance “military wing” against the Nazi regime. This is why, most Lebanese political parties whether pro or anti-Hizbullah criticized the EU decision. If anyone in the EU thinks that Israel is a danger to its neighbors and has been committing atrocities (or terrorism for that matter) against the Palestinians then please let us know if anything else than military resistance can force them to reconsider their actions. It is not a hazard then that not one single EU state is willing to tackle the Israeli-Palestinian question seriously.

Hizbullah will disarm only if a comprehensive and just solution to the Israeli-Palestinian problem is found and activated. This is what the EU, Arab States, and whoever is putting his nose into our affairs should be working on instead of distributing silly labels.

Whether the recent events in Syria initiated such a step, by blacklisting the “military wing”, the EU is condemning the idea of Resistance against Israel through military means. This is another proof that whether intended or not, most political actions with regards to Syria against the Asad regime are irremediably serving Israeli interests.

Isolationism or Regionalization?

Recently the Phalangist MP Sami Gemayel has proposed to “amend the preamble of the constitution to stipulate Lebanon’s neutrality towards regional conflicts”.

“We request amending the constitution to clearly state that Lebanon must stay neutral towards regional events,” Gemayel said after the weekly meeting of the party’s political bureau. He elaborated: “We are very concerned about Lebanese factions’ participation in the Syrian war and this can lead to transferring the fighting into Lebanon.” “We remind those publicly declaring that they have fighters in Syria, particularly Hizbullah, that they have signed the Baabda Declaration that clearly states we must disassociate Lebanon from regional crises,” the MP noted.

The Baabda declaration took place in June 2012 during one of these so-called “national dialogue sessions”. Whether Lebanon should get involved in regional questions or just adopt an isolationist stance is at the heart of a historical debate that is as old as the existence of the State. Logically enough, the isolationist stance was traditionally endorsed by the Lebanese Christian Right (and still represented by the Phalangist party although recently joined by several other groups). This stance found many enemies whose political existence depended on the resolution or simply the management of regional questions. The coalitions of pro-Palestinian formations, resistance groups against Israeli occupation, pro-Syrian political parties, and so on).

It is not a coincidence that the isolationist stance went well with the famous dictum “Lebanon’s strength is in its weakness” that Pierre Gemayel (again former Phalangist leader and grandfather of the PM Sami Gemayel) declared at some point in the 1970s referring to the multi-confessional nature of the political process and the neutrality position Lebanon strove to enjoy at that time. The event following 1975 were to prove the extent to which this declaration was detrimental to those who found themselves to be Lebanese nationals. It is ironic also, that in the midst of the event following the 1975 debacle, the same party that had adopted an isolationist line had ended up asking for Syrian interference in order to defeat the leftist-Palestinian coalition. Syria was then on an integral part of doing politics in Lebanon. So in order to protect an isolationist/neutral stance the party was forced to ask for a regional cover.

More generally, the paradox of Middle Eastern states is that the more they push for national isolation (for security reasons) the less they are able to confront bigger political forces and thus end up weakening their political bargaining power. The Sunni-Shi’i conflict that has been nurtured gradually since the 1990s is the last mess that threatens to wreck any power the region can accumulate in facing forms of domination. It all started when Iran took precedence in establishing itself as the only regional force that can challenge Israel and the US, a development that left many jealous states and parties across the region. And crucially enough, Iran could only do that because Syria, Hizbullah and Hamas were working together to that effect. These movements are born from the consequence of State ineffectiveness at carrying vital political actions in order to liberate territory and create a strong military deterrence power. Again, the regional nexus permitted local parties to become stronger and voice certain political demands that could not be answered and delivered by local institutions. Whatever one’s stand toward the Syrian uprising (and elsewhere), this development weakens states at the regional at least in the short to mid term as it forces new groups to shorten their attention to “the inside”.

The irony though here is that Middle Eastern countries are not all sticking to a plan of focusing on “the inside” The Gulf and in particular Saudi Arabia and Qatar have tried in all possible ways to challenges Iranian foreign policies by targeting its proxy, first Hamas and Hizbullah, then the Syrian state. This regional war cannot be dissociated from its potentiality of boosting certain states or political formations over others that do have regional agendas. Then, in a context such as the Middle East where occupation is regionally organized, where some states have regional agendas, the isolationist stance resemble what is called ostrich politics (where the ostrich is said to try to delude her enemies by hiding her head in the sand). They fail to see how they cannot avoid the fact that any genuinely political action must involve regional interference whether from within or from without. While Gemayel shouts for a Lebanese neutral stance above, members of his most important political ally (Al Mustaqbal party) and its main sponsors (such as Saudi Arabia) are all deeply involved inside Syria.

I am not trying here to defend Hizbullah’s intervention in Syria but more appropriately to explain why it is impossible for them not to intervene, just like it was practically impossible for Palestinians not to try to wage political militant activities from Lebanese territories, or why more generally, regional issues dictates local ones. This is so because first, local quests for influence need certain regional leverage, and second, because certain political questions are irremediably “trans-national” (such as the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict). But the only way to carry out transnational actions is by putting in place a political formation of State, institutions, organizations or groups, that can operate freely away from the vagaries and individualizing tendencies of the democratic push. More on this later.

The framing of a “research question”

resources-for-the-mediaI came across this paper written for a particular Middle East Policy Council. I have never seen a more awkwardly posed question regarding Hizbullah’s political development:

Hezbollah’s evolution speaks to a larger question in the literature on nonstate actors, both in the Middle East and elsewhere: Why do some nonstate military groups survive attempts to uproot them from particular pieces of territory while others do not? And what lessons do organizations learn from earlier confrontations that enable them to better survive later ones?

So Palestinian organizations, have been “uprooted”, “commies” too, other Arabic or Islamic infestious protuberances all gone. Now Hizbullah. Why are there only failed attempts at uprooting that bad plant? I mean, they did come from outer space (like all the other predecessors) after all? What can Israel or the US, the indegeneous, do to fix this problem? They did try everything after all…

If, “The Middle East Policy Council is a nonprofit organization whose mission is to contribute to American understanding of the political, economic and cultural issues that affect U.S. interests in the Middle East”, then it’s quite understandable that finding that “rootedness” is a resilient attribute of the link between Hizbullah to its people can pose a big problem!