Thursday, September 5, 2013

Five Facts and a conclusion


Fact number 1: A united and  peaceful Syria ruled by Assad is simply not possible anymore.It has been like that for some time.The status quo ante cannot be restored. Iran and Hezbollah  realize this more than anyone else.

Fact number 2: The Assad regime is incapable of adapting to a powersharing   arrangement as contemplated by the Geneva principles. The regime is brittle and fragile as it is brutal and ruthless. It can break but cannot bend. Assad knows it and Iran knows it.

Fact number 3: A free and democratic Syria would be a strategic disaster for Tehran. If given a choice, the Syrian people would be certain to sever their country's geopolitical alliance with the Islamic Republic and stop providing a geographic corridor to Iran's military arm in Lebanon.. 

Fact number 4: Iran's second best alternative to the irretrievable  status quo ante is simply a protracted war. This is now Iran's victory strategy. A bloody and chaotic Syrian theater  will still be usable by Iran  and Hezbollah more flexibly and efficiently than their western enemies.  Remember the civil war in Lebanon?

Fact number 5: A protracted war in Syria will help terrorism flourish even more. Both the kind manipulated used by the regime to blackmail the west and the "authentic" strain that festers and spreads in open wounds, like opportunistic parasites.

Conclusion: If Iran's militant ideology and hegemonic ambitions and radical "Islamic" terrorism are the two strategic threats that need to be overcome, then the policy towards Syria  should aim at bringing to a quick end both the devastating war and Assad's rule. Humanitarian considerations aside, any policy that is based on the premise that a protracted conflict in Syria is costless is misguided and dangerous. It is exactly what Iran wants and it will help the scourge of terrorism to thrive.

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Why and Why now?


Why is the US considering a strike on Syria at this time? And what is the purpose and extent of such a strike?

While the use of chemical weapons is the announced trigger for the use of force by the US, another factor  is probably also at play.

The war in Syria reached a stalemate some time ago. Iran has long realized that it will be very difficult to restore the status quo ante in Syria. But for Tehran a transition to a democratic Syria would be disastrous, because it is inconceivable that the Syrian people will democratically and willingly maintain a strategic alliance with Iran or access to Hezbollah in Lebanon. So, Iran's strategy has been to shore up the regime in Damascus and keep the war going. A syria at war is Iran’s second best to an outright victory for the rebels. 

On its part, the US is not ready to carry the risk and incur the cost of the massive intervention needed to  force a regime change in Syria similar to that in Iraq. Obama was in fact elected because of his, and America's, anti-interventionist sentiment following the Iraq debacle.  On the other hand, a disorderly downfall of Assad and a chaotic militia-infested Syria that might ensue would be disastrous. An agreement on a power sharing transition has proved elusive, and is likely to remain so. So what has been the US policy? Basically a mirror image of Iran’s: to shore up the Syrian rebels, not to topple Assad by force but to give the rebels an edge or at least keep a battlefield balance until such time that an acceptable deal is reached. 

However this strategy appeared to be faltering in recent months. The flow of military support to the rebels was proving to be insufficient and ineffective and certainly not a match to the much better equipped regime forces. Assad's army (aided by Hezbollah and Iran’s RG) continued to press on both in Central Syria and the strategically critical Damascus suburbs. A victory by Assad, long-considered an impossibility, started to look like a conceivable nightmare. Thus the decision of the US to intervene militarily; to give a much needed nudge the embattled and outgunned rebels. It is not merely the use of chemical weapons.

Obama is under no public pressure to intervene in Syria. In fact, It is quite the opposite.  Only a minority of Americans support military intervention by the US. A new poll shows that even if the use of CW is confirmed, most Americans would not support military action by the US.

According to  this analysis, the timing and motivation behind the strike is not only due to the use of chemical weapons, despicable as that is.  The purpose may well be to degrade the regime’s military capability enough to restore some balance to enable the rebels to continue the war; a boost that helps restore the military status quo ante prior to the regime's recent offensive. 

This implies that the strike will be more than symbolic; substantive though  less than decisive. It also implies that we should brace ourselves for a long and bloody war in Syria, and for potential blows below the belt against the West and GCC in the always-convenient Lebanese theater.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Obama and the Syrian Spectacle

That the Syrian conflict is complex is obvious. This ancient land is now the focal point of a number of simultaneous historic transformations and conflicts, which blur visions and policy choices of many players, in Washington and elsewhere. Is it an overdue revolt by the people of Syria against a brutal dictatorship which has already sacrificed tens of of thousands of innocent lives just to stay in power?  Is it a age old domestic feud with shifting communal and sectarian fault lines with a collection of extremist groups and violent cults committing horrible acts? Is it the main theater for the strategic regional and global face off between Iran and its allies on one side and their many enemies and adversaries on the other? Is it a conflict with serious implications for the evolution of political Islam and the global threat of jihadist terrorism? The answer is yes, yes, yes and yes. All these elements are there. And they are all interrelated, which makes the picture even more complicated. Anyone who's ever tried to solve four simultaneous polynomial equations can appreciate the predicament of analysts and policy advisors on Syria. But who said leadership is easy? It is mostly about making tough decisions. Making difficult choices. 

Hegel once described a Greek tragedy as a conflict between two goods. Difficult to chose sides, when it is not a clear choice between right and wrong. Actually, many  Syria watchers in Washington see the conflict in Syria today as one between two evils. Not only making it difficult to chose sides but making it even desirable to encourage the fight to go on; to fuel the conflict for as long as possible - presumably without burning one's fingers. Sounds like a sensible conclusion. But is it?

For  one thing  saving countless Syrian lives should not be a trivial matter to anyone. Especially to the foremost global power, which prides itself on anchoring  its policies and global role in values and principles; "American" values and principles. But non-altruistic interests are at stake as well. It is simply too dangerous to let Syria percolate indefinitely  thinking that it will remain a conflict between "evils" fighting it out in a distant land. An anarchic Syria can be a very serious threat to many other countries in the region and to the world at large. For decades, the Iran-led alliance has used Assad's Syria as a tightly controlled and reliable ally in their regional and international pursuits.  A protracted war in a chaotic Syria is also a suitable theater for Assad's allies in their regional and international machinations. To be used in even more sinister ways. The Lebanese civil war of the 1980s is a good reminder.

This doesn't necessarily make Obama's  policy choices easier. Syria may not be a simple fight between good and evil or a Hegelian tragedy of good against good. But neither is it a fight between two evils where good people can sit and enjoy the show.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Assad's Shifting Strategy

Where is Syria heading is a question many are pondering, as the world watches the recent crescendo of violence in the two year old rebellion.The answer may lie in what is emerging as the new strategy of the Assad regime.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

A Ride Across the River

Good  to be back after a a few weeks hiatus. Observing current developments from Beirut, there are many things to talk about. Mostly bad. Some are awful, such as yesterday's  reckless vote by the joint committees of the Lebanese parliament in favor of an election law that pushes the country further down the slippery slope of sectarian disintegration.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Less than an endorsement

The transition drama continues to unfold in Egypt, and the rest of the world is watching with keen interest.  It should be. The implications are important for the region and for the broader Arab and Islamic worlds. The recent referendum on the controversial draft resolution showed close to 64 percent in favor and 36 percent against. Putting aside the serious problems that many of us have with the draft constitution, on the face of it 64 percent sounds like a respectable endorsement by the people of Egypt.But is it really?

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Déjà vu

As soon as he assumed office as prime minister almost exactly twenty years ago, Rafic Hariri was made to understand the rules of the game in Lebanon. The Hafez Assad rules, that is. And the first and foremost rule was that no one can question Syrian authority in Lebanon. Also that the Lebanese government (and people) had no business interfering in such issues as: Lebanon’s national security, matters relating to Lebanon’s own army (including its geographical deployment and officer promotions), Lebanon’s policy on the Arab Israeli conflict,  the Palestinian militias in Lebanon, as well as all other security and foreign policy matters that really mattered. 

Sunday, December 16, 2012

No, it is not enough!

After being mum for days following Syria’s issuance of arrest warrants against former Prime Minister Saad Hariri and Deputy Okab Sakr, Lebanon’s Prime Minister Najib Mikati finally made a passing comment on the issue this weekend. He described the Syrian action as “completely political” and “void of any legal merit or value".

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Morsi’s Flawed Referendum

A sharply divided Egypt begins voting today on a controversial draft constitution. In principle, this important way station in the country’s democratic journey is an occasion for Egyptians to celebrate. Casting a vote in a free election or a popular referendum are clear manifestations of the democratic process. Another reason to be optimistic about Egypt is the way the Egyptian people reacted to what seemed to many as an attempt by President Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood party to tighten their grip on the country through the President’s constitutional declaration.

Monday, December 10, 2012

The Brotherhood's Choice

Last June I commented on the Islamic Brotherhood's election victory in Egypt. The current events in Cairo bring back those very same thoughts. I am still as optimistic about Egypt's transformation as I was then. Here is an excerpt from last June's posting.

Wrong Lessons from Gaza 

The Palestinian people and the Palestinian authority deserve to celebrate the hard won recognition of their statehood by a large majority of the world, overruling a shameful and politically nonsensical negative vote by the US. This comes only weeks after the newest Gaza battle, which ended with both Hamas and the Israeli government both  claiming victory. Those claims are misplaced; and so are the lessons which the forces of "Resistance" in the region seem to be drawing from the eight-day  Israeli aerial assault and the rockets lobbed on Israeli towns.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

A Panel Discussion on the Future of Christians in the Middle East

(from Almoustaqbal daily in Arabic) 

 نظمت "دار سائر المشرق" يوم السبت الماضي ندوة حول كتاب "بقاء المسيحيين في الشرق خيار اسلامي" لانطوان سعد شارك فيها الوزير السابق الدكتور محمد شطح، الوزير السابق كريم بقرادوني، السفير السابق د.عبد الله بو حبيب وأدارها  الاباتي بولس نعمان في حضور حشد من المهتمين والمثقفين.

Sunday, November 25, 2012


The State of Palestine at the United Nations

In the coming days the United Nations General Assembly (GA) will vote on Palestine’s bid to become an observer state. This will circumvent a guaranteed US veto at the Security Council, which is the body that decides on full-fledged membership at the UN. While the US has already indicated that it would vote against a Palestinian state at the General Assembly it will be joined by only a minority of the 193 members. The latest tally I have seen (which may not be up to date) shows that only 27 countries plan to vote against, while 115 (more than half) plan to vote in favor. 51 are still undecided and are being lobbied heavily by both sides.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

They Say a Picture is Worth a Thousand Words

If you are wondering how confused (and confusing) some Lebanese can be, then here is an illustration of the political battle lines in today's Lebanon...

And the New York State Supreme Court ruling is….

On August 4 this blog pointed to an interesting case before the New York State Supreme Court. Justice Ellen Coin who had been assigned the case has now ruled against the plaintiff (Mr. Adnan Abu-Ayash of the now defunct Al-Madina Bank) and in favor of the defendants (eight major international banks with branches in New York).