ISIS and the specter of Zionism

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I’m not saying that Zionism and ISIS are identical or anything as simplistic. But in trying to find generalizing labels for ISIS, such as being a fascist organization, or a totalitarian state and so on, and in the effort to draw parallels between different political experiences one can more subtly propose that ISIS and Zionism have some features in common.

ISIS just like Zionism (at least if we take seriously their media production, in itself a matter of debate) does imagine that a land is promised to them, or should belong to “the Muslims” at large, irrespective of creed, culture, local tradition, etc. ISIS does project the notion that the Muslim homeland involves a rejection of what is not Muslim, or at least a seclusion from what is perceived to be a political other. From the first issues of their newspaper Dabiq, ISIS highly encouraged people to emigrate to this land, to perform “hijra”, based on the idea that the prophet Muhammad also moved from Mecca to Medina to found his community of believers.

Some may retort that Zionism was a secular ideology, yet the seriousness with which the Jewish movement treats passages of the Old Testament as part of the history of a political community is quite similar to what ISIS does with stories of the prophet and his companions, especially when it comes to relating these stories to a material experience involving the seizure of territory and management of population. In fact, the differences (how the religious uses secular textual technologies) as well as the similarities (what they actually do with it) can shed light on the peculiarity of state or other organizational formations in the Middle East.

The production of a climate of fear is essential to ISIS’s political strategy which involves pushing some people out of the territory they control (and thus turning them into refugees) and inviting others, who share their ideological views, to come and live with fellow like minded Muslims. Yet this was exactly what early Zionists practiced in different ways in the beginning of the twentieth century, with the most spectacular image being the Haganah and then the more virulently powerful Irgun, but also the less spectacular political tactics of various groups practicing land appropriations that follows similar rationales. These groups were definitely different from what ISIS is today, just as the context in which they operate, but the political logic is mostly the same.

Because these movements are essentially foreign and irremediably unpopular, their objective is to drive out an eternally discontented population, and to invite another that travels for mostly ideological reasons. In the failure to do so, these movements cannot survive on the long term, which is another reason why a politics of violence is inherent to their modus operandi. And ultimately, just like Zionists Jews imagined belonging to one secular rationalized community despite different geographies and histories, Muslims from all over the world travel to Syria and Iraq in order to belong to a similarly imagined community.

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.

The myths of democracy

Make no mistake, democratic deliberations will always be inversely related to community formation and actual political action. What we see taking place in Syria, Egypt, and in other countries of the Middle East all bear witness to the fact that there is no such thing as democracy if there isn’t prior to that, a non-democratic (meaning non-negotiable by the public) set of rules that inform community bonds.

Don’t be fooled by thinking that Western (and other) democracies around the world permit a public to deliberate freely about all sorts of problems without resorting to violence in the absence of that functioning State that, as it happens, has already laid out the rules of the game. See how France gets crazy just from seeing a veiled woman strolling around a “public space”. See Belgium forbidding the construction of mosques, or British “public” vehemently opposing UK’s involvement in the Iraq war but in vain. Certain demands simply cannot be made democratically or involve one community of people or “interest” imposing their views on another as it may jeopardize the very existence of the State in place or change its nature, its “raison-d’être”.

The particular properties of these community bonds vary from country to country, but there is one thing that does not vary the least, the presence of a strong (Nation)-State with a monopoly over the means of coercion, a very sensitive security network or alignment with another greater neighboring power. Once these things exist, and evidently are established through non-democratic means, then one can play the game of what people mistakenly call today democracy, which could more accurately called an oligarchy if one wants to stick to using Greek terms, as is fashionable in the modern age.

Why do we have an “authoritarian” ruler in Syria highly determined to crush an opposition while the latter can only express discontent through the use of arms? Why do we have a government army pitted against a social movement in Egypt to the point where they freely open fire at demonstrators and have the president declaring that the political party, the Muslim Brotherhood, should simply be abolished? Because in both instances, the conflict is about the very crafting of the rules of the game that would serve as a guide for community building and maybe future “democratic” negotiations. However, the terms of these negotiations will be revolving around the views of the prevailing party that become “raison-d’Etat” (the translation adopted in English is “National Interest” but seem to lose the original meaning of “reason” or logic, or even views that the State reserve itself the power to enforce).

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.

War always

General Hassan ShateriI was listening to Hizbullah’s Al Nour radio station two days ago when I heard, in the words of the radio speaker, that the main guy behind the reconstruction of the south, an Iranian engineer, Hassan Shateri, was killed in some kind of an ambush returning from Damascus to Beirut. I was wondering why the Syrian rebels would want to kill an engineer who was responsible for the building of homes in the South and, according still to the speaker, in Iran after the Iran and Iraq war, and in Afghanistan. Basically the guy comes to build after wars in conflict areas.

Next day I stumble across this article in the Guardian titled “Elite Iranian general assassinated near Syria-Lebanese border”. So now things made a bit more sense, although it still is a plus to know that Iranian generals can be sorts of philanthropists after war. Somehow people involved in war do have economic occupations linked to pre-war or post-war possibilities (Dick Cheney may be an example although away from the idea of comparing Shateri to Cheney).

In any case, killing this general along with the multiple events that have been taking place in the past two years are making sure that we are going straight into a regional explosion where Syria will be the main battlefield. For now the forces are not of equal match for a large scale mobilization to become a possibility, although this asymetry unfortunately increasingly resembles the Lebanese wars settings that were prevalent from 1975 to 1990: a weakened state/security complex, lots of parties who stand to gain from keeping it that way, not one party who can (or wants to) actually create a peace situation through hegemonic positioning and a militia economy slowly feeding on itself and largely annoyed if things would come to change.

Confusion in the age of democracy

Today in Beirut, people are confusing an assassination that has clear regional causes and implications with very narrowly defined local demands, which may just worsen the current regional situation. The assassination of Wissam al Hassan, head of the Internal Security Forces is clearly the consequence of a long cold war that has began 7 years ago when the former prime minister Rafic al Hariri’s convoy was blown up with similar material.

But just to skip a few chapters and focus on the latest events, since the outbreak of popular unrest in Syria, the militarization of the conflict has spilled over into Lebanon and in so doing has opened the door to all sorts of political opportunities for groups, local, such as the Future movement and its loose allies (such as Salafist groups) and Syrians (such as the defecting military units) to team up in order to challenge the Syrian regime.

People forget that Lebanese political actors are involved in regional gambles that assure their position in power in the first place, or at the very least inform the particular local strategies they choose to adopt. And today, people are asking for a political outcome that ignores these regional dimensions. When Wissam al-Hassan was heavily involved in these gambles, people ask the government to step down on the legal ground that it cannot ensure the security of the nation. Since when was al-Hassan working with the intent of ensuring the security of the nation? The “security situation” has never been isolated in national enclaves, and if anything the modicum of a government that people have in Lebanon is one of the last obstacles, albeit a fragile one, to total security breakdown.

This is one of many examples why “democratic demands” of a seeming “civil society” in Lebanon are terms that produce more contradictions than facilitate the search for an effective solution.

Fath al Islam: a quick update

Itani has a little update on the state of affairs regarding the bad guys in the north and their friends in the south, in the Palestinian camp of Ain el Helweh. I just want to point out one or two things that I think we can conclude from everything that happened pre and post the Nahr el Bared debacle.

1- Syria, Saudi Arabia, and the US voluntarily and involuntarily had a hand in making circumstances ripe for Fath al Islam and other darker versions of “Islamists” militants to emerge. Syria, by kicking “al Qaeda” elements out of its country in order to clean its landscape and throwing it back on us. the US through the Mustaqbal movement, and actually the Mustaqbal movement on its own by trying to co-opt these wild creature and try to tame their zealousness with a bit of cash and status promises, and Saudi Arabia by simply sending official delegations to Lebanon for some conference who never went back. It seems also that the international “Rafic Hariri” airport of Beirut has unfolded red carpets for many of these dudes.

2- When something happens, like a crisis or something, the stupidest thing to say is “he’s the guy responsible for it”. Even in the case of an assassination or the start of a war. What’s important is why in the first place such an event is possible and in this case political circumstances are many, are multi-faceted and at the end of the day, what counts is who gets to gain from it, and who gets to lose.

Creating disgust based on projected cultural and class differences


In a couple of years, the history of the recent ‘upheaval’ years of this country that came to be known as Lebanon, will mainly be remembered through this dark spot that is the history of the Mustaqbal movement. It will probably be the first and (hopefully) last Sunni chauvinistic movement in the history of the Middle East. I wonder to what extent will the Mustaqbal party succeed in producing a somewhat nationalist Lebanese discourse, given the pan-arabist antecedent of Sunni Lebanese movements. If it does it will be built on the hatred of the Syrian people and other sects (in Lebanon) affiliated with it. The politics of Lebanese-Syrian relations may change with the changing wind of interest and influence, but the worldviews and understandings of the Lebanese followers may well stay chauvinistic with or without a rapprochement. The days where most Lebanese thought they were either Syrians, or simply not very different from Syrians (and others in the region) are very much gone.

Now I’ve looked a long time to get a picture of this because for some reason they quickly removed that particular ad from all of Beirut’s billboard. I had to wait until I went to the Bekaa yesterday in order to capture some pictures of remaining billboards in the Dahr el baydar area.

This picture is part of the desperate campaign to mark the territory of what was dubbed the Cedar revolution. The objective here is simple: Do you want these ugly and dirty dudes to come back in our opulent backyards? Please, think a bit about this image. It is not a picture of the Syrian president, it is not one of any decision maker in Syria or even the picture of some murderous act the Syrian could have committed, but simply poor simple soldiers who look, well, “Syrian”. And the slogan says it all: “Come down so that they don’t come back”. Yes, this is the only reason why people should come down, because those ugly bastards you see in this picture could come back. Of course here, one can clearly see, beyond the works of the party, the actual efforts and morbid talent of advertising agencies professionalism in playing on people’s most obscure emotions, if not creating them and nurturing them. They excel at the task of crystallizing the idea that feeling of disgust must be associated with something you can now point out that is called “Syrian”. Certain extreme types nationalism (the fascistic trend of Europe for example) start out like that.

On another billboard ad, there is a picture of the 14th of March rally in martyr square and the following slogan: The field (al sa7at) is ours, and the martyrs are ours (al sa7at sa7atouna, wal shouhada2, shouhada2ouna). Horrible possessive exclusionary types of slogans. I think I don’t need to comment here, and that’s without mentioning how desperate this campaign looked, as I decided to only focus on the formation of differentiation based on feelings of superiority.

On our way back from Damascus

Yesterday I was in Syria. And before yesterday too. I liked how at the Syrian customs they have a poster of Imad Mughnieh that’s the size of Bashar Assad’s portrait, with Nasrallah stickers here and there on the windows that separate employees from the travelers. I also noticed that they have sidewalks in Damascus unlike in Beirut. And most of the Arabic language books they print in Beirut are sold there at half their original price because Lebanese are mostly busy reading in French and English.

But what I liked the most was this: On our way back they stopped us at the Lebanese customs and asked us to open the trunk of the car. I explained to the soldier that the bags he saw were musical instruments so that he does not go crazy and starts opening them randomly. After a short glance, the guy says that it’s ok and that I can go, but then all of a sudden another guy jumps from behind him and starts mumbling about the fact that we had to declare our instruments when we were leaving the country and that because we failed to do so, we should pay (the other guy who stayed silent the whole time) a little something and he’ll let the matter pass. So I told him that we had our bags checked on our way out and nobody told us anything about declaring. The guy answered that “maybe they thought you weren’t coming back”… But what kind of lie was that? I did not realize at first. So my friend who had no patience to argue took out a 10,000L.L. bill and paid the guy (who stayed silent). Very pissed, I looked at him and said “shame”.

But I wanted to know how things worked. So I went to a superior and I asked about the declaration and he said that it exist as a legal requisite. So, actually, given the fact that the custom officers that were there when we left did not ask us for anything although they knew we were coming back (we had to fill special papers of ‘return’), did that on purpose so that we fall in this little trap and pay a little ransom…

Anyway, a short while later once we finished checking our passports, the taxi driver comes back with the money and says that the officer returned it to him for some reason. We spent the drive back home questioning ourselves on the possible causes that prompted the guy to return the 10,000L.L. bill. We soon had a flat tire after falling in an enormous hole in the road (you know how it is), that took 2hr (I’m not exaggerating) to remove because the wheel was stuck.

Past and practically current events in the life of Brid. Gen. el-Hajj

So a quick recap of Brigadier Francois el-Hajj’s military history in reverse chronological order

1- Played a central role in the destruction and defeat of Fath al Islam’s forces in Nahr el Bared.
2- Lead battles against the bad guys in Deniyeh (replicas of Fath al Islam) 7 years ago, only to find them released along with Samir Geagea in the euphoria run-up of the cedar revolution.
3- Countered Lebanese Forces attacks in 1989 moments after Geagea (leader of LF) assured him that the army (under the command of General Aoun at the time) won’t be attacked. Hajj accordingly led the attack from Qolei3at and pushed LF forces back to Nahr el Mot.
4- Escaped an Israeli-LF assassination’s attempt back in 1976, after Bashir Gemayel’s forces (LF old face) had asked him to coordinate with the Israelis in order to set up a security zone in the south, to which he refused.

Now consider this:

1- El-Hajj is from Rmeish (Christian), a border village with Israel that is a couple of minutes away from Ayta Shaab (Shiite) famous for its fierce resistance to Israel incursions (especially during the last war). During the latest Israeli murderous adventure, most people from Ayta sought refuge in Rmeish their neighbors with whom they have strong ties due to their common economic work (tobacco cultivation) and age-old family friendships. Considering the fact that Hizbullah and the Lebanese army were coordinating on many levels, I would not be exaggerating if I say that it is possible that people like El-Hajj played key roles in that process. People like that are either preciously cherished (politically I mean), or vehemently hated.

2- El Hajj was going to be the next General of the army.

3- This and that.

Does this look like a guy the “Syrian-Iranian axis” would try to kill? Only if they want to shoot themselves in the foot. More on this later.

The difference between ideology and reality

Even Iraqi officials acknowledge it:

Mowaffak al-Rubbaie, Iraq’s national security adviser… called on Washington to engage with both Damascus and Tehran, warning that security in the Gulf was interlinked and “you cannot stabilise Iraq and destabilise Iran”.
Speaking at a conference in Bahrain, Mr Rubbaie sought to assuage fears that Iraq faced the threat of falling under Iranian dominance, saying that Baghdad was working on a long-term strategic agreement with the US that would underline its outlook towards the west.

Some Lebanese are still fantasizing nonetheless (in awful terms):

America has instigated democracy lovers in Lebanon. Yet now that they have stood up, America seems willing to stand down. It’s taking the easy way out by talking to weakened Syrian dictator Bashar Assad and rewarding him with a free hand in Lebanon to finish off the freedom fighters.

Lebanese advisers to the US senate

Hey Abu Muqawama I took this from your blog. Because a point must be made. See the US does not need anymore home-grown policy advisers, they come all the way from Lebanon to offer their services.

Emile Hokayem (a Lebanese Expert on the Middle East) gives advice to the US senate not to engage Syria before taking into considerations a few things:

In examining whether the US should engage Syria, the Senate should consider why Syria has failed to cooperate with every attempt to obtain Syrian cooperation on Lebanon— some of which have offered attractive incentives. Saudi Arabia and other Arab states offered Syria reintegration into the Arab fold and much-needed investments; France has promised “spectacular returns” in exchange for a hands-off approach to Lebanon; the European Union has offered economic assistance and cooperation; and countless European officials have promised to support re-launching the peace process with Israel.

Damascus has rebuffed all offers because it is still hoping for a complete reversal of fortunes in Lebanon. One needs only to look at the delighted reaction of the Syrian leadership following the visits of American congressional delegations and European foreign ministers over the last year, or invitations to participate in Arab League meetings, and the utter lack of Syrian responsiveness afterwards.

So don’t engage Syria because these people are fickle!! It is important to bear in mind that when you advise the US on future policy course you must not at all include in your analysis of the politics of the region the actual US foreign policy approach that is already on the ground and how that could possibly influence state (or non-state) actors on the ground. This is a rule Emile diligently respect. Syria ‘behaves this way’ not because it perceives a threat (say US expansive military strategies in the Middle East, or US plans to change the regime, or complete Arab-state alliance with the US, etc.) but simply because the FINALITY, the ESSENCE of Syria’s foreign policy is to control Lebanon. This tautological argument (that there is no other rationale to control Lebanon but to control Lebanon) has erased all real and rigorous considerations of Syrian strategy-making in its region.

And here the ideological creeps in more visibly (my emphases):

The logic of unconditional reengagement carries other risks and costs that its proponents dismiss too easily. US engagement without Syrian concessions on Lebanon will hurt further US credibility in the region, jeopardize multilateral processes, alienate Arab allies worried about Syria’s alignment with Iran, and comfort Syria’s image as a tough resister that can force the United States to come to terms on Syrian terms.

Unconditionally reengaging Syria is tantamount to subordinating the sovereignty and future of Lebanon to the fortunes of the peace process, Syria’s cooperation on Iraq, or the fluctuations in the Persian Gulf, and this is after more than a million people turned out in the center of Beirut on March 14, 2005 to peacefully demand and obtain the end of Syria’s hegemony over Lebanon.

Emile is concerned about US credibility in the region. Emile is also concerned about Arabs getting more scared of Iran. See the real problem in the Middle East is the ‘rogue’ behavior of Syria and Iran. How best can you internalize dominant discourse? But also and this is the weakest part of his argument, how on earth if you engage Syria and find a constructive (of course assuming you dropped the idea that Syria has an ontological irrational drive to eat Lebanon) solution will this alienate other ‘Arabs’? Since when compromise and solution alienate?

But see here is the trick: there are “more than a million of people” that screamed ‘Syria out’ on March 14. These guys primordial worry is that the US show ethical integrity to them and only them. And the only thing Lebanese care about is not that the US show some military restraint, find lasting peace, stabilize, stop its warmongering activities (that in a way may probably change Syrian policy but that is not even taken into consideration as I explained above).

No the US must help in taming Lebanese paranoia vis-a-vis the Syrians, and restore our dignity (narrowly defined). You can continue doing your stuff in Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine (and soon enough in Iran and Pakistan), but at the very least save your face in Lebanon, because we in Lebanon esteem your efforts.

This is why dissociating Syria’s foreign affairs from its obligations towards Lebanon is a serious mistake. It is ironical but only fair for Lebanon to constrain Syria’s policy options after Syria did so for so long.

Now this is expertise! And look how convincing! Did you notice what is the ideological charge in this argument? Please refer to previous posts on the moralistic in reasoning. Practical advice (constructive advice for the resolution of conflict) is based on the subjective idea of fairness, what ‘Lebanon’ whoever that is thinks is fair), meaning the abstract idea of a Lebanese nationalism. Forget about what the other half of the country think it is ‘fair’ for example (Hizbullah).

Now of course towards the end, Emile clumsily integrate all this in an overarching diplomatic argumentative twist. The idea is to propose a resumption of talks for a possible peace negotiation with Israel, stopping the Syria Accountability Act, etc. All that is beautiful (and certainly nice in wonderland), but if one cannot point out from the beginning the dynamics of Syrian foreign policy, which would involve not reading them from a Lebanese persecuted perspective, then I don’t think one can arrive at any piece of advice to be given to the US. And this my take on the subject: Any advice to the US government must include a full critique of current US foreign policy in the whole of the Middle East and beyond. Syria calculates according to that, nothing more nothing less. Follow the big fish.

Emile, I think I remember now that we were in the same class at school (I just checked your picture on google, amidst the ‘research fellowships’ you have accumulated, and yes it is certainly you). What a long way we have come to, you advising the Americans on tightening the screws on the Syrians, and me… well me… not much for now…

Front page of Al-Akhbar today

In front of the parliament, a Sukleen worker cleans…

Update: Just noticed that l’Orient le Jour had a very similar picture on its front page but with this as a caption: “une place de l’Étoile noyée au cœur de l’interminable sit-in de l’opposition et totalement déserte”…

When I am killing time in front of a blank page instead of writing for my thesis

I tell an anecdote

I was strolling around Bourj Hammoud yesterday with my friend Cara looking for cheap clothes. I was happily surprised to find a bustling street with people walking on sidewalks (for non-Lebanese residents in the world, people actually walking on sidewalks in itself is quite an event in Lebanon, see the previous post). So I find this shop that have a pair of pants for 30,000L.L. I don’t hesitate, try a pair and buy two different colors. The woman holding the shop is watching TV showing the meeting in France between Lebanese factions, and suddenly she starts screaming when she hears from the live reporter that “Fneish (Hizbullah) had just finished having lunch with Hamadeh (14 of March), along with other politicians”. She burst that all “hal 3kerit 3ambyetba2ato” (these **** are stuffing themselves) happily in France while they “niko ekht” (***ing the sister of) the country when they are here, and that we’re the only ones paying the price of this status-quo. So I start liking her (who wouldn’t?) and I approach to pay, and she looks at me with clear disgust and asks me: “Are you Syrian?” and I say “euuh no”, and then she continues: “so why are you wearing sandals?” Not having anticipated this remark I did not know what to answer so I mumbled something like: “because it is comfortable…” It was too late I had already paid…

The new Frenchman in the East

Well, it turns out that there may well be interesting developments in French politics with the arrival of Nicholas Sarkozy as president. The French envoy Jean-Claude Cousseran who was roaming around the backdoors of Syrian government buidings around the time Mustaqbal deputy Walid Eido was killed, turns out to have a history of confrontation with French ex-president and Hariri long time friend Jacques Chirac. In this article dated from June 2002, Cousseran is said to have been fired by Chirac because he was trying to find proof of corruptive practices done by the latter. More than that, Cousseran was the head of the main French espionage agency, the Direction Generale de La Securité Exterieure (DGSE).

So please can somebody tell me why when this type of guy goes to Syria to investigate possibilities of change in French-Syrian political relations does a newly found Lebanese “anti-Syrian” politician get killed?

Local motives, international triggers

I have this little theory that the latest political assassinations (starting with Rafic Hariri) in Lebanon are carried out by local actors (Lebanese mostly but may include regional players) are triggered by international political shifts and decisions in order to force a status-quo on Lebanese political alignments and decisions. Although I don’t have the time to do this with great historical investigative detail but I kind of recall that most of the assassinations followed or preceded either the voting of UN resolutions, or the issuing of the finding of UN commissions, the visits of political delegates from outside, or some regional political agreement or re-alignment.

For example, Walid Eido’s assassination was preceded by renewed French diplomatic activity with Syria. In the case of Pierre Gemayel there was a very similar circumstance: Syrian and Iraqi rapprochement. I’ll try to find similar patterns later on. It’s like every time something is opening up in the face of Syria, some ‘anti-Syrian’ guy in Lebanon is being blown up. Of course, not any sort of “anti-Syrian” guy, but someone who represents the lamb, the ideal scapegoat, the ‘weakest link’ (Eido and Gemayel are perfect examples). As I argued for Gemayel’s killing, Eido’s assassination obeys the same type of political logics. No material costs (the guy has no popularity for example), but high symbolic effect (represents Hariri’s staunchest supporter).

Bear in mind that the US has not accused Syria for Eido’s assassination. This of course is not a signal that Syria is not behind the assassination but tells you more about specific political configurations, and possible re-alignments. Is it possible that something is cooking in the corridors of regional diplomacy and that some party (Lebanese most probably, but with possible regional help, even groups within Syria) is trying to force a specific status-quo on the Lebanese local political platform?

Ouch, Frankie-Baby…

“Filth is bad but this kind of American filth is the worst.”

Annahar and its sources

Today Annahar reported that after interrogating members of Fath al Islam, it seems they were preparing for a ’11th of sept’ style of attack on hotels in Beirut, and that they got arms from Syria. Basically, the perfect ‘terrorist’ group. I wonder is Annahar reporting what it wants to hear (as the ideological construct works on an unconscious level), or are the interrogators really extracting such informations? Who basically is interrogating FI? Because if the interrogators are the Lebanese army, I would doubt that they would reveal stuff like that, at the very least for diplomatic purposes.

Syrian workers cleaning Lebanese mess

Syrian workers opening the road that goes through the St Georges hotel to Raoucheh, the road on which former PM Hariri was assassinated. This road stayed closed until now waiting for ‘the international tribunal’ to be put in motion. Don’t ask the logic of it. This is how we do in Lebanon.

Yawn …

It seems someone woke me up from my nap with news from New York. Why do they do that? Be a dear and close the door on your way out … Thanks … zzzz ….

Self-Doubt …

Sometimes I wonder if I am completely wrong, but then I come across something like this and I remember that things could be worse. Such work suggests that it is indeed possible to become completely detached from reality (of course, having motivation$ for such is another matter). And so for my threadbare tethers, I am eternally grateful, compassionate for the further lost, and confident in final victory, by which I mean something other than the total defeat of unannounced dispatch into oblivion.

Of Asses and Alberts: The Other Sayyed …

The dizzying pace of the conspiracy theory machines has me recalling when Jamil al-Sayyed told al-Hayat that the killers of Rafik Hariri had to be “either donkeys or Einsteins.”

Indeed, but in truth, there are among us very few donkeys and even fewer Einsteins (I will leave it to the moral philosophers to tell me whether this is a “good” thing or not, although I tend to agree with St. Augustine that the “City of God” suggests that it does not matter much). The truth of the matter is always somewhere in between, so the question is always: what is by design and what is by accident. As the “light of london,” otherwise known as bech-bouche, has pointed out: “there are no conspiracies only post hoc policies following specific readings of political bursts.” Thus, Jamil’s comment (actually I believe it is best understood as a kind of warning) is telling in untold ways.

Unfortunately, there are no easy answers. All we can do is adopt a healthy attitude of doubt toward the givers (and signs) of meaning, (all who remember, doubt. Who calls that strange?), while at the same time refusing to submit to the paralysis of despair. In all things, we are truly called to heed both “the pessimism of the intellect and the optimism of the will” (even good athiests like Gramsci cannot escape the Passion). The eternal discipline of patient circumspection is very much its own reward.

And in that spirit, let me just offer this as you join me in trying to wade through all of this: the only difference between politicians and gangsters is that politicians also read newspapers.

Enter the Jackals, Stage Right …

“Khaddam hired the good offices of Sandra Charles to lobby for him and obtain access for a high profile visit he’d like to make to Washington.
Sandra Charles is on a substantial retainer with the Hariri family (from father to son) Her group has one of the more potent rollodexes in Washington, and she was amongst Brent Scowcroft’s most able advisers (she sat on G W Bush’s NSC) She also does limited work for Bandar .She is friends with Amal Mudallali, a Hariri, who is Saad’s point woman in Washington, having served his late father.
If our government (US) chooses to work with this slug, I believe that we have slipped to a level I did not think possible. Perhaps we should grant citizenship to the assassins of Ambassador Francis Meloy and Economic Counselor Robert O. Waring!”

From the Friday-Lunch-Club, an “interesting” little blog.

Syria is more pro-Hizballah than Hizballah is pro-Syria

With this insightful formula Emile Hokayem introduce the thorny topic of Hizballah-Syrian relations of which he reviews and analyzes the various changes undergone since the early 80s up till today. His article is really worth reading and being discussed. I may add comments on his text later on.

Wobble On …

In a special statement of clarification, the bureau stressed that Olmert had told Pelosi that Israel continued to regard Syria as “part of the axis of evil and a party encouraging terrorism in the entire Middle East.”

It’s hard to believe how shaky Ehud Olmert’s standing must be that he must declare immediate and total fidelity to Bush Administration policy vis-a-vis Syria. Protecting his right flank to be sure, but it is fun to watch the Israelis and certain Lebanese parties try and out-Bush Bush. I guess they don’t get US polling data in the Levant. Either that, or they get their reports on Iraq from John McCain.

Alternative Measures …

Well, it seems the Lebanon First crowd is not so hung up on that whole national sovereignty thing. Big surprise, I know. What’s puzzling is that I had thought that many of their leaders were intimately familiar with the pratfalls of relying on American and French support to secure their respective suzerainties. I guess they have “gotten over” those wartime memories.

Pushing a Chapter Seven UNSC res. is absolute insanity and can only be explained by the desperate position in which the anti-Syrian coalition finds itself. With Iraq imploding a bit more every day and Iran nearing situation critical, it is foolish to think that the Americans and French will be willing to spend the diplomatic cash a Chapter 7 resolution will require.

Don’t these guys follow the news? Actually, I would argue that they do and appreciate how quickly their window is closing. Make no mistake: this is a last-ditch gambit of troubled coalition. If the UNSC does not respond favorably, they will have either lost or severely weakened their position on the domestic level. As they say, desperate times call for alternative measures, or something like that …

Lebanese prisoners in Syria

News from upper class colonial remnants a.k.a. L’Orient-le-Jour

Ok so whereas most of the newspapers (of course not Al Mustaqbal) were reporting about Chirac having asked Israel to attack Syria in the midst of the July war (as leaked in Israeli newspaper Maariv, english link), l’Orient le Jour was busy living its ideological fantasy world, of a French president decorating a wealthy successful Lebanese (mini-Hariri). Its front page titled: Chirac à Hariri : Le Liban ne peut exister que libre, uni et souverain. The subtitle was much more outrageous: Demain, place de l’Étoile, les députés de la majorité rappelleront Berry à ses devoirs. Doesn’t it show L’OJ blind trust that ‘the majority’ is legitimate and is going to ‘teach a lesson to ‘Berri’ the evil guy close to the ‘other side’?

See, this is blunt ideological practice. What I like in L’Orient le Jour is that you don’t need to scratch your head too much, it’s so blatantly there in front you. It is the easiest target of criticism. And one of the reason is language: the discursive differentiation operated by language (it is a French newspaper). More on that one day.

Everything is symptomatic of the upper class French network. Check this for example also on its front page:

Nouveau président de l’Institut du monde arabe (IMA) à Paris, Dominique Baudis, qui connaît parfaitement le Liban, prépare une méga-exposition sur le thème « Les Phéniciens et la Méditerranée » qui se déroulera dans les locaux de cette maison prestigieuse. Baudis viendra à Beyrouth très prochainement dans le cadre de la préparation de cet événement.

I have a special message to Baudis (although he may not understand): Come Baudis and show us true civilization. We need people like you from France, just like Chirac who gives medals to his private cash disburser. Come and make us continue living in our fantasy world populated by the ideas of Michel Chiha and other early ideologues of the Christian-elitist Lebanon.

Assad Finds a Friend …

Despite everything, it is preferable to have Bashar Assad sitting in Damascus – rather than the Muslim Brotherhood.