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”…