Saturday, February 4, 2012

As War Engulfs Syria, Foreign Forces Could Turn The Tide

Ahmad Al Attar and William J Moloney

Supporters of the Free Syrian Army block a street during a protest in Reef Damascus, north of Damascus, early Saturday morning, 

As the Syrian city of Homs tipped towards open war yesterday, international resolve was still mired in confusion. The ability of a UN Security Council resolution to stem the bloodshed is in doubt, while with few exceptions foreign observers are waffling on military intervention.
The strongest statements have come from Qatar's Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, who recently told the US television channel CBS that "troops should go to stop the killing". The proposal, however, was short on details, and it remains to be seen who would be involved.
Turkey is still trying to hold on to the last vestiges of its "no problems with neighbours" foreign policy. The Arab League is caught between states that are dealing with their own revolutions, states that are wary of what comes after the Assad regime and states that are apathetic.
There is a general lack of political resolve, but if the violence continues as we have seen in Homs, intervention is the only option left on the table. But even if there was the will to intervene, could it be accomplished?
First and foremost, the goals of intervention must be highlighted. The mandate behind such a mission would be explicitly to bring an end to the Assad regime. As was witnessed in Libya last year and in Iraq in 2003, the only way to bring an end to a despotic and highly centralised regime is to decapitate it by seizing the capital. Diehard units may continue to hold out after the political centre has been captured, but for all intents and purposes, the dictatorship would have lost the ability to use the state apparatus to wield control.
The forceful removal of the Assads by military means faces several key challenges. The Free Syrian Army does not have the manpower, materiel, or necessary organisation and support capabilities to defeat the much larger Syrian Army and Republican Guard (not to mention Damascus's extensive naval and air assets). Unlike Libya, intervention in Syria would require the deployment of foreign ground forces.
The staging of a ground intervention would be critical. While Syria borders five countries (Turkey, Lebanon, Israel, Jordan and Iraq) not all of them would be suitable candidates to support an invasion. A militia that is invested in the survival of the Syrian regime controls Lebanon; Israel is unlikely to support the removal of the "devil they know"; and Iraq is too unstable to support another deployment of foreign troops on its territory. Only Turkey and Jordan would be capable, and potentially willing, to host a ground offensive.
To defuse Damascus's claims of "imperialism", the ground component would best be conducted by a Turkish-Jordanian-GCC force, fighting the regime on both northern and southern fronts, with US and Nato air and intelligence ground support.
The Syrian ground forces seem formidable on paper, with 1,600 T-72 tanks, 2,200 BMP armoured vehicles, plentiful anti-tank weapons (including advanced AT-14 Kornet missiles) and substantial artillery and air-defence systems. While the Syrian air force has about 60 relatively modern planes, the remaining 524 combat aircraft are ageing models from the 1960s and 1970s. The navy is the smallest and most poorly equipped of the branches, and would be almost irrelevant anyway in an intervention staged from Turkey or Jordan.
The first phase would be the aerial campaign preparing the way for close air support of a ground advance. Surface-to-air missile sites (SAMs) and air force planes and installations would have to be completely destroyed, which would take significantly longer than the initial salvo against air defences in Libya.
There is a precedent in the 1999 Nato intervention in Kosovo, which stretched out over three and a half months, involving over 1,000 combat aircraft and 38,000 combat sorties. It involved almost all Nato members, and heavily relied on the US air force's diverse capabilities.
The 2011 intervention in Libya relied even more heavily on US air force support. While US and Nato forces should not have boots on the ground, their expertise in winning air superiority would drastically limit casualties.
The best-case scenario would be a two-front war. On the northern front, the Turkish army would push south to take Aleppo and severe Damascus's links to the Syrian Mediterranean region (which contains a large Alawite population). This would reduce the likelihood of a repeat of the battle of Sirte, where Qaddafi loyalists held out for several weeks after the fall of Tripoli.
On the southern front, a combined Jordanian-GCC force would take Al Harisa and Shahba, before pushing on to Damascus. The rationale is based on low population density. The Syrian military may have units that are better trained in defensive asymmetric warfare, which would fortify themselves in urban environments, having learnt from the experience of Hizbollah in Lebanon. The southern approaches to Damascus are relatively flat, supported by a road network and have a lower population density, allowing a mobile offensive that avoided urban areas and minimised civilian casualties.
Middle East militaries' ever-present problems with practical combined forces and manoeuvre warfare would slow the southern advance, but a conventional ground offensive backed by close air support could avoid a long, drawn-out war, as was seen in Libya. Estimates of Libyan civilian casualties are uncertain, but certainly aggravated by urban warfare and the poor training of Libyan militias.
If the political or humanitarian situation in Syria changes to a degree where intervention is the only option, it could be successful. But it must be focused and decisive to shorten the conflict and minimise casualties. As the Homs massacre continues, this could be the only solution to the crisis.
-This commentary was published in The National on 05/02/2012
-Ahmed Al Attar is an Emirati security affairs commentator & William J Moloney is a defence analyst

Friday, February 3, 2012

Cairo's Undercover Strongman

Meet Murad Muwafi, the most important man in Egypt you’ve never heard of.
                                                                               Murad Muwafi
When Hosni Mubarak fell from power in February 2011, many elements of his regime remained in place -- at least at first. In the year since then, the Egyptian army, the police, and the business elite have struggled to cope with the tide of revolutionary change washing over the Arab world’s most populous country.
Not one of these institutions has made it through the process entirely intact. The deeply unpopular national police force has seen its authority relentlessly eroded by protestors and the press. Mubarak-era crony capitalists have landed in jail, their old deals under fire from rivals or the courts. And the military, which has ruled the country in the guise of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), has become the focus of popular anger as it struggles to maintain its control. Now the Muslim Brotherhood, which has ridden recent electoral victories to a dominant position in the new parliament, is set to advance its own agenda, thus adding a fresh element of unpredictability to the struggle for power.
Yet one pillar of the old regime has survived the turmoil with its authority intact -- if not expanded. It is the General Intelligence Directorate (GID), the country’s most powerful intelligence agency. As the elderly generals of the SCAF have only fanned the flames of discontent with their clumsy maneuverings in recent months, the GID, which reigns supreme among Egypt’s competing security services, has gradually emerged as something like the brain trust of the leadership. Unlike the ruling generals, its officers act outside of the limelight, their workings largely obscure to the media and the public. Its role has enabled the GID (commonly known in Arabic as the Mukhabarat) to capitalize on the uncertainty that plagues other reigning institutions. As a result, the man who runs it -- an inscrutable 61-year-old by the name of Murad Muwafi -- is now poised to assume a key role in the next phase of high-level intrigue.
It is understandable that historians of revolution tend to focus on the revolutionaries, the drivers of change. Yet every political upheaval also spawns its share of Muwafi-like figures, the backroom operators who use their command of bureaucratic intrigue to make the leap from the old regime to the new. To be sure, the Egyptian spymaster is no Talleyrand. In contrast with that shrewd defender of monarchy who went on to side with the French Revolution and ultimately served as Napoleon’s foreign minister, Muwafi is no silky intellectual. His rare appearances on Egyptian TV, for example, have tended to highlight his less-than-perfect command of Arabic -- befitting a long-time military officer who has risen through the ranks by virtue of a prodigious memory and a shrewd understanding of the realities of power. Yet there is no question that his long years as political trouble-shooter have uniquely equipped him to maneuver through Egypt’s turbulent transition.
When, for example, the leaders of the military decided it was time to talk with human rights activists last fall, it was Muwafi who represented the SCAF at the meeting. One factor may have been his ample experience as Egypt’s chief mediator between Israel and the Palestinians. And when the SCAF dispatched emissaries to Washington last year, Muwafi figured in that delegation, too. (He even had his own private audience with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.) U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta made a point of including Muwafi among his interlocutors when he visited Egypt in the fall -- right after a session of cheesecake and bowling with SCAF supremo Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi. And perhaps most revealingly of all, it was Muwafi -- rather than Tantawi or the Egyptian foreign minister – to whom Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu turned when a mob stormed the Israeli Embassy in Cairo in September.
Yet no one should make the mistake of assuming that the GID’s work is restricted to lofty strategic issues. Muwafi’s agency is uniquely equipped to navigate the everyday details of domestic politics by virtue of its position as the country’s top domestic security agency. To this day, no one can get a job in Egypt’s vast public bureaucracy without being vetted by the secret police -- and the GID has full access to the files, along with its lower-ranking sister agency, the State Security Service (rebranded in March last year as the “National Security Force"). Decades of tracking, interrogating, and blackmailing dissidents give the GID vast leverage over Egypt’s new generation of politicians.
Given its past involvement in matters that hardly fit the traditional Western definition of national security (such as management of the government crisis response during Nile flooding), the spy agency almost certainly has extensive knowledge of Egypt’s economic affairs as well. “Events since the fall of Mubarak demonstrate that SCAF’s plans to control Egyptian society were actually dominated by State Security and the GID, which served as the eyes and the memory of the regime,” wrote political analyst Amin Al-Mahdi in a column last year. Former army officer Ahmed Ezzat, who started a Facebook page that tracked allegations of corruption among Egypt’s military establishment, claims that the GID has used its budget funds to start private companies whose profits benefit high-ranking officers of the intelligence service. What’s more, says Ezzat, GID companies have no-bid access to government contracts. “The GID is a state within the state,” he writes. “There is no professional, financial, or legal oversight of its operations.”
Muwafi’s background remains something of a mystery. But what is clear is that he would not be where he is without Omar Suleiman, his predecessor as Egypt’s chief spymaster. During his 18-year reign as head of the GID starting in 1993, Suleiman, one of Mubarak’s key confidants, vastly extended the agency’s reach, broadening its more traditional intelligence portfolio to include sensitive national security issues ranging from relations with Iran and Israel to monitoring the Islamist opposition. At the same time, however, the GID continued to involve itself in the minutia of everyday Egyptian life. GID operatives have been known to intervene in a sectarian conflict involving a Coptic Christian priest, or to arbitrate a labor dispute between managers of a textile factory and their dismissed employees. Cairo human rights lawyer Ahmed Seif El-Islam Hamad recounts a case when sociologists at a provincial university decided to conduct a survey on young people’s attitudes towards sex. Unsettled by the potentially sensitive nature of the study, a dean at the university called in a local GID officer for advice.
Muwafi’s talents made him a perfect fit for the peculiarly Egyptian national security establishment. Beginning his career as an army officer, he gradually rose to the head of Egyptian military intelligence. (A rare Arabic-language article on his career is shown here in a rough version provided by Google Translate.) That background served him well when he took on a job as governor of the strategically sensitive Northern Sinai District in 2010. Though he was able to take some credit for improving security in the border zone, he later came under fire for describing the area’s itinerant Bedouin tribes as “criminals” who earned profits from their smuggling business with Gaza.
In January 2011, Mubarak promoted Suleiman to the vice presidency in a desperate bid to bolster the foundering regime. But Suleiman, like his boss, failed to live up to the task, and he resigned soon after the dictator’s ouster. Meanwhile, State Security found itself facing the indignities of popular discontent. In early March, a mob attacked its offices in Cairo, seizing files documenting persecution of the government’s opponents. But unlike the seemingly comparable storming of Stasi headquarters in East Berlin in January 1990, this event didn’t mark the end of Egypt’s internal security services. If anything, it ended up shifting even more power to the elite GID, which, as part of the military establishment, maintains its most sensitive facilities on inaccessible army bases, out of the reach of the turmoil on the streets.
Muwafi, in any event, has only continued to thrive in the post-Mubarak era. Last spring he was one of the first Egyptian officials contacted by the U.S. after it emerged that the SCAF had freed the brother of al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri from jail as part of an amnesty for political prisoners. The brother, Muhamad al-Zawahiri, was re-arrested just a few days later. Around the same time Muwafi was mediating in "unity talks" between Hamas and Fatah, as well as participating in discussions with Hamas about a possible move of its headquarters from Damascus to Cairo. (So far, at least, the move has not materialized.) When Muwafi made an unprecedented trip to Syria last year in connection with those talks, the event was a source of considerable disquiet to both the Americans and the Israelis, who wondered whether Egypt was in the process of reorienting its policies away from the relatively pro-Israel line of the Mubarak era. Muwafi was also credited with helping to broker the prisoner exchange that freed Israeli soldier Gilad Schalit from Hamas captivity.
But Muwafi -- though rarely figuring in Egyptian media coverage -- has continued to expand his domestic portfolio as well. As SCAF bosses continued to make misstep after misstep, it was Muwafi who engaged the regime’s opponents in two separate meetings in October 2011. Hamad, the human rights lawyer, who participated in one of the sessions, recalls Muwafi saying that he would report on the talks directly to Tantawi. The encounter was revealing for the insights it afforded into the Machiavellian mindset of the governing military elite. When some of the activists present suggested firing Prime Minister Esam Sharaf, at the time trying to negotiate a delicate course between the SCAF and the demands of protestors in the streets, Muwafi, according to Hamad, responded, “If we let him go now he will become a national hero.” And when the oppositionists demanded the government lift the state of emergency effective in the country since 1971, Muwafi declined on the grounds that “it will look like we succumbed to American pressure.”
There is scant indication that the GID or Egypt’s military rulers have changed their thinking in any substantial ways. Even today, many months after Mubarak’s downfall, activists tell of development projects that have been scotched by the intelligence service’s refusal to grant a “security approval.” It is widely rumored that the recent raids on 17 Egyptian and foreign NGOs, ostensibly triggered by funding irregularities, were based on reports supplied by the intelligence agency. “The SCAF places more trust in the intelligence service because it’s part of the military,” says Bahi El Din Hassan, head of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies. “Reports from the Interior Ministry”  -- which controls the police -- “don’t enjoy the same sort of credibility.”
The dialogue Muwafi started with the activists did not continue. “It seems that the mission was linked with its timing,” says Hassan. “That was a period when the SCAF was making lots of mistakes in its management of the transition period and criticism of its actions was rising.” It may be that the Muslim Brotherhood’s success at the polls has convinced the generals that they no longer need to take the secular opposition into account; many observers of the Egyptian political scene suspect that the SCAF and the Brotherhood may have already negotiated a covert power-sharing deal. But no matter what happens next, expect to see Murad Muwafi playing a pivotal role.
-This article was published in Foreign Policy on 03/02/2012
-Egyptian journalist Magdy Samaan works for the Daily Telegraph bureau in Cairo. He was a visiting fellow at the Atlantic Council's Rafik Hariri Institute for the Middle East and was a 2011 MENA Democracy Fellow at the World Affairs Institute

Equality For Palestinians? Israel Won't Have It

Elected representatives of the Palestinian community in Israel face growing harassment by the state, fellow MKs and the media
By Ben White
Activists wave Palestinian flags
Activists wave Palestinian flags in the East Jerusalem district of Sheikh Jarrah, September 2011. Photograph: Mahmoud Illean/Demotix/Corbis
The presence of a few Palestinian members in the Knesset (MKs) is often touted as a sign of Israel's robust democracy. Yet elected representatives of the Palestinian community inside Israel face growing harassment by the state, by fellow MKs and the media.
On Monday, the trial of MK Said Naffaa, from the Balad party, opened in Nazareth. Naffaa is charged with "travelling illegally to an enemy state, assisting in organising a visit to an enemy state, and being in contact with a foreign agent" – all relating to a trip he made to Syria as part of a Druze delegation in 2007.
Naffaa has denied the charges, insisting that "all his activities and meetings fall within the framework of his duties as an elected public official".
Two years ago the Knesset house committee voted overwhelmingly to strip Naffaa of his parliamentary immunity. At the time, the committee chair declared: "Holding a Knesset seat is not a permit to visit enemy countries and hold meetings with terrorists." MK Michael Ben-Ari (National Union) suggested that Naffaa and "his colleagues go to the Syrian parliament and work from there".
An editorial in the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz has called the prosecution of Naffaa "unwarranted, harmful and smack[ing] of political persecution based on nationality". It is part of the state's efforts to use criminal law against the Palestinian leadership in Israel. Another Arab MK, Mohammad Barakeh is still facing two charges (of an original four) relating to his participation in demonstrations in 2005 and 2007, and the allegation he assaulted or insulted police officers.
MK Haneen Zoabi, while not facing criminal charges, has been the target of the most vicious incitement and smears. Two weeks ago, a photograph was published in the Israeli media of her meeting with the Hamas-affiliated Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) speaker Aziz Dweik in the West Bank. That was followed by reports that two other Arab MKs had met with Dweik.
The response was an outpouring of invective. MKs from prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu's Likud urged the state to "immediately remove the fifth column from the Knesset", while the chair of the house committee, MK Levin described Arab MKs as "competing [to be] the greatest traitor and terrorist sponsor". Another Likud MK, Miri Regev, said that "the time has come for Arab Knesset members to realise their place".
MK Alex Miller, from Yisrael Beiteinu (a partner in the coalition government) urged that it was time to disqualify Balad, while MK Uri Ariel said Zoabi should be tried as a traitor. Some analysts have noted the strong possibility that Zoabi, as well as her Balad party, and maybe also the United Arab List, will be banned from the next election. In 2010, the chair of the committee that removed Naffaa's immunity said: "We must make a serious decision on whether or not these parties can continue to sit in the Israeli parliament, even while they operate against the country".
Along with articles calling Zoabi a "clear and present danger" to Israel's national security, I found myself being used in the campaign against her, on account of the fact she wrote the foreword to my new book. The Israeli newspaper Yediot Ahronot ran a pathetic smear piece in both the Hebrew print edition and the online English version. Readers' comments included numerous attacks on Zoabi as a "traitor" – including a call for the death sentence.
So why are representatives of the Palestinian minority being targeted so viciously? First, the current Knesset includes political parties shaped by hard-right nationalist ideology, including those in the coalition government. Second, the likes of MK Ahmad Tibi, Zoabi, and Barakeh have forged links with Palestinians in the occupied territories – as well as those working for Palestinian rights regionally and internationally. These are seen as dangerous solidarity ties, and go against the efforts made by the Israeli state since 1948 to isolate "Israeli Arabs" from the wider Arab world and Palestinian struggle.
Finally, Zoabi and other community leaders are at the forefront of the Palestinian political struggle inside the state, especially the demand that Israel be a state of all its citizens. This is beyond the pale for the Zionist political-security establishment, who continue to define the boundaries of "acceptable" dissent with regard to Palestinian citizens, an approach that goes all the way back to the era of military rule between 1948 and 1966.
In 2007, Israel's internal security agency, the Shin Bet, stated it would "thwart the activity of any group or individual seeking to harm the Jewish and democratic character of the state of Israel, even if such activity is sanctioned by the law". In 2008, Shin Bet's chief, Yuval Diskin, told US officials that many of the "Arab-Israeli population" are taking their rights "too far". Last month, MK Tibi had two proposed bills thrown out by the Knesset presidency on the grounds that they undermined "Israel's existence as the state of the Jewish people" (in accordance with the Knesset's rules of procedure).
Thus, as Palestinian citizens work for an end to decades of ethno-religious discrimination, a clear message is being sent through the targeting of their political leadership. The threat that is deemed intolerable by the state is devastatingly simple: the demand for equality.
-This commentary was published in The Guardian on 03/02/2012
-Ben White is a freelance journalist, writer, and human rights activist, specialising in Palestine/Israel. His new book, with a foreword by MK Haneen Zoabi, is 'Palestinians in Israel: Segregation, Discrimination and Democracy'. Ben's articles have appeared in a variety of publications, and his first book, 'Israeli Apartheid: A Beginner's Guide', was praised by Desmond Tutu, Ilan Pappe, and Ali Abunimah, among others

Failed Sanctions On Iran

By David Cortrigh
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad tours a nuclear facility
          Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad tours a nuclear facility
During his State of the Union address President Obama trumpeted the supposed success of tougher sanctions on Iran. U.S. policymakers seem to believe that stronger measures will deny the regime’s nuclear capability and force it to cry uncle. Although sanctions are indeed causing serious harm to the Iranian economy, they have not forced the government to comply with U.S. demands.
Greater pressure seems only to have hardened the regime’s determination to press ahead with the nuclear program, while weakening the position of the country’s beleaguered civil society opposition.
Research in other cases has shown that the success of sanctions depends not on their severity but on how skillfully they are mixed with incentives as part of a diplomatic strategy. This was the case with Libya in 2003 when Gaddafi gave up weapons of mass destruction. The success of sanctions also depends on whether significant political factions within the target country support external sanctions, as was the case during the international campaign against apartheid in South Africa. Neither of these conditions exists in Iran.
Punishment, Not Diplomacy
Sanctions against Iran have been used primarily to punish not to provide bargaining leverage. This method of sanctions policy has proven ineffective in numerous cases. U.S. sanctions were imposed more than 30 years ago in response to the Islamic revolution and the subsequent hostage crisis. They have remained in place ever since. In the 1990s they were reinforced by President Clinton and the U.S. Congress via the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act. The declared purposes of U.S. sanctions include ending Iran’s support for militant groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah and preventing the development of nuclear weapons production capacity. The Iranian leadership has refused to discuss these topics until sanctions are lifted and the United States returns billions of dollars of financial assets frozen in 1979. Since 2006, the United States and its allies, along with the United Nations, have imposed additional multilateral sanctions focused on ending Iran’s nuclear program and halting uranium enrichment. These measures have imposed costs on Iran’s nuclear program and may have slowed its development, but they have not stopped Tehran from steadily enhancing its nuclear capability and developing the technologies and materials that could be used to build a bomb.
Nearly every objective analysis of U.S. sanctions against Iran has judged them a failure. In 2001 the Atlantic Council issued a report concluding that the sanctions were not achieving the desired policy results and were an obstacle to the realization of U.S. interests. The Council strongly recommended lifting sanctions on Iran and pursuing normalized diplomatic relations.  Any hopes for such a change in policy were dashed when President Bush included Iran in the “axis of evil.” The Obama administration has further intensified pressure against Iran as part of its attempt to curry favor with pro-Israeli interests in the United States.
Sanctions are hurting not helping our potential allies within Iran. Democratic opposition leaders and supporters of the Green Movement do not favor international sanctions on their country.  Former presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi has labeled President Ahmadinejad's foreign policies "wrong and adventurist," but he has consistently opposed sanctions. "Sanctions would not affect the government,” he said in 2009, “but would impose many hardships upon the people, who suffer enough as a result of the calamity of their insane rulers." The regime is able to use its defiance of Western demands to rally domestic political support. Iranian human rights advocates warn that increased external pressure often means greater repression against domestic opponents. "The government will say that critics of their policies are doing the foreigners' bidding and will use sanctions as a pretext” to silence them, said Ali Shakouri-Rad, a leading opposition voice. Restrictions on public assembly and internet access have tightened in recent years as external pressure has intensified.
Persuasion, Not Force
The history of nonproliferation teaches that nations must be persuaded to give up nuclear weapons capability. They cannot be forced. Over the decades more than two dozen countries have decided not to acquire or maintain nuclear weapons capability. Security assurances and positive inducements played an important role in many of these nonproliferation decisions. Coercive disarmament worked only once, in the exceptional case of Iraq, which was subjected to draconian multilateral sanctions and subsequently defeated in war. In all other cases nations decided to give up the bomb on their own. They did so for a variety of reasons--a domestic shift toward democracy, the lure of greater openness to the global economy, improved security relations with neighboring states, and security assurances from major states. In many cases economic and security inducements helped to make denuclearization the preferred option.
This does not mean that sanctions have no role to play, especially when combined with incentives. In the case of Libya lifting sanctions formed a central part of the agreement to abandon weapons of mass destruction. The offer to lift sanctions can be a potent inducement for cooperation. The art of diplomacy lies in creatively blending pressures and inducements to exert persuasive influence and reward a state for adopting a desired change in policy. As nonproliferation expert Leon Sigal observes.
Convincing countries not to build the Bomb requires cooperating with them, however unsavory that may be. Countries that seek nuclear arms are insecure. Trying to isolate them or force them to forgo nuclear arming could well backfire.
Such states need assurances to ease their insecurity. The best approach, according to Sigal, is a “strategy of diplomatic give-and-take that combines reassurance with conditional reciprocity, promising inducements on the condition that potential proliferators accept nuclear restraints.”
Peace, Not War
Diplomatic options are available for defusing tensions with Iran. A settlement of the nuclear standoff could be based on international acceptance of Iran’s right to enrichment, in exchange for enhanced monitoring of its nuclear program. Iran has recently renewed its willingness to negotiate with the United States and its European allies and has indicated continued interest in arranging a fuel swap with foreign countries. Under the terms of the proposed deal, Iran would transfer some of its low-level enriched uranium to another country (France or Russia have been mentioned), where the fuel would be enriched to higher levels and returned to Iran for medical uses. The removal of a portion of Iran’s nuclear fuel would lower its growing stockpile of low-enriched uranium.
The proposed arrangement could set a precedent for greater transparency and international participation in Iran’s nuclear program. U.S. and European officials complain that the proposed deal has many loopholes and would not shut down continuing enrichment. Negotiating a fuel swap is not meant as a final solution but rather as a confidence-building process to begin diplomatic dialogue. When Iran, Turkey, and Brazil formally proposed the fuel swap two years ago, they specifically referred to the proposal as a “starting point to begin cooperation and a positive constructive move forward among nations.”
The United States has shown no interest in negotiating with Iran, and that will probably not change in this political season as the Obama administration seeks to outflank the right in pressuring Iran. Some in the administration no doubt believe that tougher sanctions will stay the hand of those urging military strikes. This is a dangerous game, for it maintains and deepens the isolation of Iran and increases the risk of miscalculation. The United States needs a completely different policy, based on a willingness to talk (which Obama promised and took some heat for in his 2008 campaign). After 30 years of failed sanctions, it’s time to try a different approach, using persuasion rather than punishment. Let’s offer to begin lifting sanctions in exchange for steps toward greater transparency and assurances that Iran’s nuclear program is genuinely peaceful.
-This commentary was published in Foreign Policy In Focus on 02/02/2012
-Foreign Policy In Focus contributor David Cortright is director of policy studies at Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies and author or editor of 17 books, including the Adelphi volume Towards Nuclear Zero (International Institute for Strategic Studies/Routledge, 2010)

Finish Him

Without international intervention, there's a good chance that Syria's dictator, Bashar al-Assad, could still rule for years.

    Syrian President Bashar al-Assad
As world leaders huddle at the United Nations to debate whether to demand Bashar al-Assad's ouster, the smart money is already betting that his time is short. The president of Syria is a "dead man walking," according to one U.S. diplomat, a view shared by Israel's military and predicted by a surveyed group of foreign policy experts. Reports of Assad's death, however, appear greatly exaggerated. The Syrian president has survived almost a year of demonstrations and growing violence, and if not pushed by outside actors he may yet cling to power.
It's easy to see why many think Assad's time might be up. Despite the deaths of over 5,000 protesters and the arrests of thousands more, Syrians have bravely defied the regime, which seems unable to intimidate them into submission. As the protesters have stood strong, Assad's international support has plummeted. Although the world initially did little while Syria gunned down its own people, President Barack Obama declared in August, "The time has come for President Assad to step aside." The European Union joined the United States and imposed comprehensive sanctions against the Syrian regime, including over its oil sales. Meanwhile, the Arab League has repeatedly called for a ceasefire and tried to broker a deal for Assad to hand over power, and some Arab leaders -- like Jordan's King Abdullah II -- have taken the unprecedented step of demanding that a fellow head of state must go. Assad scorns these calls for regime change, but the collapse of trade and investment and massive capital flight are souring many Syrians on the government, and the cash-strapped regime will soon find it harder to pay its security services. Rather than kill their own people, thousands of soldiers have defected from the Syrian army. The pace is escalating, and many more are confined to barracks because the regime doesn't trust them. The Free Syrian Army, apparently composed largely of defectors, has gotten stronger and is operating freely in more of the country.
Each blow has hit the regime hard, but Assad has neither bent nor broken -- and he still has a number of serious assets on his side of the equation.
Look first to the loyalty of the military and security services. The opposition army is getting stronger, but it lacks tanks and other heavy weapons and can't hold its own in an open battle. Without mass defections, the regime is still stronger than the opposition. The officer corps in particular is still loyal, and Assad's relatives hold key positions. The overwhelming majority of the officers come from the president's minority Alawite community, and most Alawite families have at least one member in the security service. And the Alawites -- a religious minority, often scorned by mainstream Sunni Muslims for their supposedly deviant religious practices -- have a visceral reason to resist regime change.
Although only a tenth or so of Syria's population is Alawite, this community is a strong base for the regime: It is armed, mobilized, and fearful that the fall of Assad might mean a brutal death, not just a loss of perks. The regime has mobilized Alawite militias along with military forces, using them as thugs and snipers against their Sunni fellow citizens. As the violence escalates, sectarian killing increases too.
Sunni Arabs dominate the opposition, but Assad has long tried to co-opt other minority groups, such as Christians, Druze, and Kurds -- as well as leading Sunni families -- in order to prevent a united front against the regime. None of these are as loyal as the Alawites, and none has as much to lose -- but that doesn't mean they will go over to the opposition. Minorities look fearfully at Iraq, in particular, and worry that the collapse of the regime and civil war will lead to massacres.
Sanctions are dealing blows to the regime's popularity, but when the pie shrinks access to the government becomes even more important. Those with guns eat first; the opposition eats last. Saddam Hussein's Iraq endured crippling sanctions for over a decade: It found work-arounds and used the scarce revenue to reward supporters while denying aid to enemies. And the humanitarian toll was a particularly effective public relations tool to discredit those who would isolate it internationally. Remember, it took a foreign invasion to topple that dictator.
Nor is Assad standing alone. Iran looks to be doubling down on Syria, its only Arab ally. Tehran, though it is under pressure itself, can give the regime an economic lifeline and enough bullets and shells to keep shooting down protesters -- resources that can make all the difference. Next door, Assad's and Iran's partner Hezbollah offers the Syrian regime another ally and an economic lifeline for smuggling through Lebanon. Iraq's regime, which may be eager to do Tehran a favor, may also turn a blind eye to smugglers bringing goods and weapons into Syria from Iraqi territory. And then there's Russia -- an arms provider and the veto-wielding immovable obstacle at the United Nations, blocking international efforts to isolate the regime.
Perhaps the biggest hope for Assad is the disorganization of the opposition itself. No charismatic leader unites the opposition. Syria has strong local and regional identities, and the opposition Syrian National Council's factionalization reflects this on-the-ground reality. How many Syrians the SNC speaks for is an open question, and critics claim it is dominated by Islamists and does not speak for many Syrians. In contrast to the Libyan rebels, the SNC operates largely in exile, because it doesn't control a part of Syria from where it can base itself without risk. Not surprisingly, there are sharp divisions between those inside the country bearing the brunt of the regime's brutality and those who live safely outside Syria and represent the country abroad. So far at least, the rebels enjoy some sympathy from international governments but at most limited, active support from major powers -- which are also quick to emphasize that international military intervention is not on the table.
In short, the Syrian dictator is not strong enough to subdue the opposition, but they are not strong enough to oust him -- a scenario for continued civil war.
So, if Assad is to go he may need a push from the international community. Particularly important is the effort to build up the Syrian opposition: uniting it and training its militias so they can be more effective in battle. At the same time, the opposition must be pushed to avoid religious sectarianism at all costs. Not only will this make the Alawites and other minorities fight all the harder, but it will also make Syria more difficult to govern should Assad fall. In Libya, one of the less dramatic but more important steps Western powers took was to build up the Libyan opposition and make it a more representative and effective institution.
But intervention must also be on the table to signal that the regime cannot put down the opposition by force -- U.S. and allied rhetoric should warn that this option will grow more likely if Assad doesn't step down. Ratcheting up the pressure today will help convince Assad loyalists that the regime cannot weather the storm and that they need to abandon ship now -- rather than do so when the opposition is more bloodthirsty and less in the mood to bargain. Only this forceful effort will end the rule of the leader who has been walking his people into a nightmare. Any less will see the bloodshed continue indefinitely, possibly sucking in neighboring states like Turkey and Israel, disrupting Iraq's fragile state-building efforts, raising tension further between Iran and the West, and giving autocrats elsewhere in the Arab world credibility when they claim that the alternative to tyranny is not freedom but chaos.
-This commentary was published in Foreign Policy on 02/02/2012
-Daniel Byman is a professor in the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University and the research director at the Saban Center at Brookings. He is the author of A High Price: The Triumphs and Failures of Israeli Counterterrorism

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Tribalism In The Arabian Peninsula: It’s A Family Affair

By Sultan Al-Qasemi
[Image from the 2010 Al Qa'qa' TV show, funded by Qatar. Image from unknown source]
[Image from the 2010 Al Qa'qa' TV show, funded by Qatar. Image from unknown source]
Across the Arabian Peninsula and stretching well into North Africa and Sudan, there is a common bond, perhaps only behind religion and language in importance, that binds Arabic language speakers together. Museums across the Gulf proudly display lineage maps illustrating the family trees of ruling members, linking them through lines and photos from bygone centuries up to the current leader. Major financial institutions in Dubai and Bahrain display in their offices large-scale maps detailing prominent ruling family members of the Gulf States and their marital, government, and business affiliations. Tribalism in modern day Arabia is alive and well. In this article, I highlight recent developments to illustrate how those in power in the Gulf and the Arabian Peninsula use tribalism, and how, sometimes, it is used against them.
Tribalism Will Be Televised
The centuries-old phenomenon of tribal diplomacy continues to manifest itself in the modern Arab world of satellite televisions as well as in defining politics amongst neighboring Gulf States. In the summer of 2010, for instance, Elaph, a popular Saudi-owned news portal, carried a story on what it deemed were the Emir of Qatar Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani's attempts to “restore glory to his ancestor.” This ancestor, Al-Qa'qa' ibn ‘Amr Al Tamimi, is a legendary Arab warrior who helped spread Islam to the Levant. He was portrayed heroically in a thirty-two episode Ramadan soap opera. The Emir, whose youngest son is also named Al-Qa’qa’, allegedly supported the major television production to the tune of eight million dollars. Elaph quoted Saudi analyst Abdullah al-Shammari, who claimed that there are ulterior motives behind the financing of this television show. “We all know that the Bani Tamim tribe doesn’t have a leader, unlike the (tribes of) Shammar, ‘Anaza, and others. That is why Al Thani [the Emir of Qatar] is seeking its leadership, especially because it is larger and more spread out than others.” The logic goes that since the Bani Tamim, who come from Najd in central Saudi Arabia and whose descendants include the Al Thanis of Qatar, do not have a leader, the mantle is up for grabs.
There were other instances when tribal politics found its way onto the small screen. Following complaints from two influential Saudi tribes in September 2008, a 2.5 million-dollar soap opera on the al-Awaji tribal conflicts of 1750 and 1830—produced by Abu Dhabi television—was pulled off the air. The National also reported that just a week earlier another soap opera called Finjan al-Dam, whose plot revolved around nineteenth-century tribal conflicts, was due to be broadcast on Saudi-owned MBC but was abruptly cancelled.
On the other hand, the emirate of Abu Dhabi endeared itself to millions in the Arabian Peninsula after it launched the "Poet of Millions"  competition that rewarded individuals for mastering Bedouin Nabati poetry. The popular television show preserved tribal dialects and vocabulary in a manner deemed respectful of their traditions and culture, although a number of female participants were subject to tribal pressures and even death threats. 
The ‘Anaza Connection                                         
Today, the ruling dynasties of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Kuwait all belong to the ‘Anazas of central Arabia. The ‘Anaza tribe is amongst the largest and most ancient Arabian tribes. Its members can be traced back to Prophet Mohammed’s companions and its descendants can be found across the Arabian Peninsula, as well as in non-Arab Iran and Turkey. In 1891, the ruling Al Rashid tribe of Hai’l exiled the family of Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud, the founder of modern Saudi Arabia, to his tribal ‘Anaza cousins in Kuwait. Abdul Aziz, only fifteen years old at the time, remained there for eleven years before leading forces back into Riyadh and capturing it from the Al Rashid family in a bloody battle. Almost exactly a century later, as Saddam Hussein’s forces invaded Kuwait, the Al Sauds returned the favor by offering sanctuary to the Kuwaiti ruling family when they were forced into exile during the attendant Iraqi occupation. Similarly, when the rule of the Al Khalifa regime of Bahrain was in jeopardy in the spring of 2011, Saudi Arabia sent in troops—along with the United Arab Emirates (UAE)—to the island kingdom as part of the Peninsula Shield Forces. Three months later, one of the Bahraini king’s sons, Sheikh Khalid Bin Hamad, got engaged to the daughter of the Saudi King Abdullah. Another of his sons, Sheikh Nasser, a full brother of Sheikh Khalid from a Saudi mother, had already married the daughter of the ruler of Dubai and UAE Prime Minister in 2009. The vast reach of the ‘Anaza tribe across the Arab world cannot be overestimated. Toward the end of 2010, former Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi claimed at an Arab summit that he also belonged to the 'Anaza tribebut that his ancestors had left Arabia because of a dispute. If true, it would mean that he was a distant relative of several ruling Gulf families.
Recent incidents illustrate the delicate manner with which tribal relations need to be handled, swiftly and with care. In 2003, for example, Talal Al Rashid of the Shammar tribe, a well-known poet and the scion of the Al Rashid family—the historic rivals of the Al Sauds—was killed in an ambush in Algeria. The late Saudi Crown Prince Sultan Bin Abdul Aziz immediately dispatched a private plane to fly Talal’s body back to Saudi Arabia as a sign of respect and perhaps even to quell various conspiracy theories that were circulating online. In another instance, the UAE Prime Minister’s brother in law, King Abdullah of Jordan—whose family had ruled Ottoman Hejaz and later the short-lived Kingdoms of Iraq and Syria—ran afoul of tribes in his own country last year. In an uncharacteristically public manner, an open letter signed by thirty-six representatives of the main Bedouin tribes accused Queen Rania of corruption, prompting a strong denial by the monarchy.
In addition to strengthening bonds, tribal marriages often go hand in hand with financial developments. It is common to find Gulf ruling family members marrying into wealthy merchant families in a marriage that preserves both the peace and the wealth. These marriages also extend beyond national borders, as the above cases in Bahrain illustrate. In the mid-1960s, the former ruler of Qatar, Sheikh Ahmed bin Ali Al Thani (deposed by his cousin, who was in turn deposed by his son, the current Emir), married the daughter of the former ruler of Dubai (and sister of the current ruler and UAE Prime Minister). Despite regional reservations, an interstate gulf monetary union called the Dubai-Qatar Riyal came into place on 21 March 1966 and lasted until well after the formation of the UAE in 1971. Familial ties and economic collaboration are deeply intertwined: one is often prompted by the other. Today in the Gulf, the marriage phenomenon between inter-state ruling families continues with the younger generation, bringing with it economic security as well as strengthening political ties between the families.
UAE: Tribalism Squared
The UAE is an ecosystem of tribal networks and alliances all its own. The ruling families of both Abu Dhabi and Dubai belong to the House of Falahi and House of Falasi respectively, both being branches of the Bani Yas tribe of southern Arabia. The families split in 1833 when Sheikh Maktoum bin Butti Al Falasi led 3,600 individuals from Abu Dhabi Island on a 120-kilometer trek up the Gulf coast to the southern borders of the emirate of Sharjah(where I am from). The ruling families of Sharjah and that of the northernmost emirate of Ras Al Khaimah, who are direct cousins, are even more closely connected. A network of close family intermarriages also connects all members of the UAE ruling families without exception. Either the ruler himself, the crown prince, or the deputy ruler of a specific emirate has immediate family members who hail from one of the other ruling families of the UAE. In the continuous absence of credible federal institutions, this inter-marriage network has been overlooked as an element that has no doubt contributed to the survival of the UAE as a federation over the past four decades.
UAE tribalism was evident in recent managed parliamentary elections that were so skewed in favor of familial ties that it was not uncommon to read of voters who proudly pronounced that they only voted for family members and no one else. In fact, in Abu Dhabi, the largest of the seven emirates, members from the al-Ameri tribe won three out of the four available parliamentary seats. This may have been a result of the peculiar strategy that the UAE authorities followed, in which it hand-picked twelve percent of the population to elect half of the forty members of the Federal National Council. Such skewed results may disenfranchise those who seek to further empower the national population in the UAE, a nascent country that is in need of stronger federal institutions, to demand a greater say in government affairs. In Saudi Arabia’s September 2011 municipal elections, a similar pattern emerged in which tribal candidates formed alliances with those from other districts. This phenomenon ensures that candidates who do not come from a tribal affiliation, no matter how qualified or competent, do not stand a fair chance in running for elected office.
As the UAE was trying five reform activists for insulting the country's leaders, thousands of citizens packed tents traditionally set up for weddings or funerals to listen to their tribal leaders pledge allegiance to the UAE president. The National reported that tribal members “handed pins, the national flag and medallions bearing pictures of Sheikh Khalifa, President of the UAE.” One woman who spoke to the paper said, “We live here in the UAE as tribes and our leader is a sheikh. Having free elections and more elected Emiratis won't make a difference in our daily lives.” Similarly, the Dubai-based Gulf News reported that members of various tribes, including the Al Shuhooh—to which the most prominent of the arrested activists, Ahmed Mansoor, belonged—gathered to “show solidarity and support to the government.” Gulf News also relayed that “most of the tribes in the emirate of Abu Dhabi” had agreed to file a lawsuit against the activists. I asked Mansoor, who was denounced by leaders of his own tribe, about the reason he never uses his tribal affiliation. He informed me that he “doesn’t like fostering tribalism” and that as a human rights activist he “would like people to deal with each other in a more abstract way” since a tribal name “orients people here.”
Prior to the high profile trial, the UAE embarked on a controversial campaign to "change and unify the designations of tribes as per the new list" according to directives from the Ministry of the Interior. Most objections were made on socal media, since this was an official decree that could not be criticized in the public media. Families whose names sounded alike, such as Al Abdoul and Al Abdouli, were allegedly due to be lumped together. Objections to such actions stem from the fact that one family is of Arab Bedouin descent and the other is of Persian descent. However, the UAE is not the first Arab state to alter family names; in 1959, former President Bourguiba of Tunisia embarked on a similar exercise, although citizens were allowed greater flexibility in changing their tribal names. During the course of 2011, social media forums in the UAE reported that the tribal name changes were not as significant as expected, which may be a nod of recognition and appreciation to the tribes for showing loyalty to the government.
Tribe Versus Religion
It is very simplistic of political observers to declare that the six Gulf Arab governments are bound to each other merely due to the Sunni nature of the regimes. In reality, the bonds highlighted above illustrate that tribalism plays no small part in these relations. Historically, in fact, Arabian Peninsula ruling families supported each other regardless of religious sect.
One of the strongest bonds between two families in the Gulf was that of Kuwait’s Sunni Al Sabah and the Shia Al Kaabi of the semi-state of Arabistan in the al-Ahwaz region, in what is today Iran’s southwestern Khuzestan Province. During his reign (1897 to 1925), Sheikh Khazal, the Arab Emir of Arabistan, was in constant contact with the tribal chiefs of Basra (both Sunni and Shia), Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia. In fact, he had called for an Arab alliance in the face of what he saw as a growing Persian threat. Relations had remained tense for over a century between the Bani Kaab of al-Ahwaz and Al Sabahs following a battle in 1783. They were only strengthened in the era of Sheikh Khazal Al Kaabi. In fact, Kuwait’s Sheikh Mubarak Al Kabeer granted Sheikh Khazal a prime plot in Dasman, where the latter built a palace that survived the invasion of Iraqi forces in 1990. The Kuwaiti government is currently renovating Sheikh Khazal’s house and will turn it into a museum. According to reports, in 2010, Iran destroyed the al-Faylia Palace of Sheikh Khazal, whose family was expelled to Kuwait in 1925.
In Yemen, on the other side of the Arabian Peninsula, a war broke out in the 1960s between the royalists—backed by Saudi Arabia and Jordan—and the Egyptian-backed republicans. Tribalism trumped religion in this proxy war as well, when Saudi Arabia supported Imam Mohammed al-Badr of the Mutawakkilite Kingdom of Yemen, who followed a Shia sect known as Zaidiyyah, over its coreligionist, the Sunni Jamal Abdul Nasser of Egypt.
Furthermore, the ruling family of the Sultanate of Oman, which was promised ten billion dollars by the Gulf Arab States in March 2011 following civil unrest, adheres to the Ibadi sect of Islam, which is neither Sunni nor Shia, while in Iraq, tribes such as the Jiburi and the Shammar have both Sunni and Shia members. The Shammar, to whom the current Saudi King Abdullah’s mother Fahda bint Asi Al Shuraim belonged, and who claim to be 1.5 million strong in Iraq, extend as far deep into the Arabian Peninsula as Yemen and the UAE. In 2004, Sheikh Ghazi Ajil al-Yawar, one of the chiefs of the Shammar tribe who spent time in Saudi Arabia in the 1980s, was appointed interim president of Iraq. In 2004, Sheikh Al Yawer also became the first Iraqi president to visit Kuwait since the 1991 Gulf War. Following Al Yawar’s appointment, Salon magazine published a report  titled “Saudi Arabia’s Man in Baghdad” and called the development “one of the White House's few smart moves.” Unsurprisingly, Riyadh congratulated Sheikh Al Yawar on the nomination, perhaps the last time it has done so to any Iraqi leader.
The tribes of central Arabia also displayed a degree of pragmatism that has gone missing in recent years, a phenomenon which may be an overreaction to the perceived threat of globalization. Amidst the male chauvinistic world of tribal Arabia, a woman was nominated by tribal elders to keep the peace between two of the Peninsula’s largest and most powerful tribes: Al Rashid and the Shammar. Following the death of her tribal chief husband, Fatima Al Zamil ruled the province of Ha’il from 1911 to 1914 as an administrator of her minor grandson's estate as a trustee of both tribes.
Tribal affiliation, however, can also be a reason for discrimination with regard to jobs and opportunities in the region, as well as a tool of collective punishment. In 2005, prior to a Saudi-Qatari rapprochement, the latter expelled thousands of members of the Al Ghafran clan of the Al Murrah tribe to Saudi Arabia after stripping them of their citizenship, forcing them to seek refuge in the eastern al-Ahsa region of the Kingdom.
Governance Through Tribalism
Tribal governance in the Arabian Peninsula today entails allocating certain government posts known as “sovereign portfolios” to family members. These portfolios include defense, foreign affairs, security, intelligence, the interior ministry, and the premiership. This system all but ensures complete allegiance and loyalty to the tribal leader, takes precedence over competence, and undermines meritocracy. Even within the ruling families, seldom do members whose mothers are of a non-tribal or foreign affiliation rise to prominence, although there are exceptions. I personally encountered much criticism online and in person following the publication of an article on the contributions of prominent UAE citizens of mixed background, whom I was told were not “regular citizens.”
I have also noted in an article in Gulf News how, during the economic boom of the 2000s, tribal leaders in the Gulf neglected their historic duties such as meeting citizens in their majalis and listening to their demands, and instead spent more time in executive board rooms pursuing material gains. The tribal majlis or dewaniya culture became so important to Gulf states that it was one of the main launching pads of the civil society movement in states such as Kuwait, where the customary practice is now semi-institutionalized. In Kuwait, not only does the Emir pay the tribal majlis regular visits but so do foreign officials, such as the late Saudi Crown Prince and Defense Minister Sultan Bin Abdul Aziz who paid a private visit to these tribal gatherings in 2007. As in Kuwait, it is common for tribal leaders and citizens in the rest of the region to pay allegiance to Gulf leaders as well. The latest example was upon the nomination of Nayef bin Abdul Aziz as Saudi Crown Prince following his brother Sultan’s death. In keeping with tribal customs, citizens were invited to swear allegiance to Crown Prince Nayef in person and by proxy in front of provincial governors, who are usually members of the ruling Al Saud family.
Gregory Gause, professor of Political Science at the University of Vermont, has argued in his latest publication on Saudi Arabia that the Al Saud relied on strong historical ties to central Arabian tribes along with the Wahhabi movement and vast oil wealth to build and sustain support in the kingdom. Gause attributes the relative stability of Saudi Arabia during the Arab uprisings to the security forces that “are recruited disproportionately (though not exclusively) from tribes and areas the regime sees as particularly loyal.” Tribal loyalty continues to be employed even within state borders as a tool of managing populations when the criteria for citizenship in a modern state should be measured in different metrics altogether. Additionally, Saudi political scientist Khalid Al Dakhil told Reuters that tribalism would take several decades to disappear and that the state “uses tribal mechanisms for political ends”.
Tribal connections in the region once formed a powerful force of resistance to colonial powers and contributed to a collective Arab peninsular identity. Historically, this network formed through tribal affiliations assured a layer of trust among its members that was vital for survival. Today, however, tribalism is perhaps second only to religion as the greatest obstacle standing in the way of a civil and democratic state in the Arabian Peninsula. Lately, tribalism has been a component of the so-called exceptionalism theory of the Gulf States monarchies that have weathered the Arab uprisings through a variety of means.
Tribalism effectively sidelines non-tribal and naturalized citizens in these countries. Such “irregular” individuals can never truly become integrated in tribal societies, even after decades of intermarriage. Unlike, say, a political party or social movement that a citizen can join, a tribal network is exclusive toward those not carrying a specific last name.
Tribalism also undermines alternative social and political affiliations, such as secularism, liberalism, socialism, and even Islamism, which already exist in the region in one form or another. Going forward, tribalism is likely to pose a challenge to the Peninsula States in their quest to advance from being “developing nations.” Loyalty to leaders of states that are mere decades old can come into question, either by the governments or rivals, when Arab tribes have for centuries transcended artificial borders imposed by imperial powers. Perhaps its biggest disadvantage is that tribalism is a sort of elite club that outsiders can never truly belong to. While it is not possible to negate, nor should it be, it is advisable for the countries of the Arabian Peninsula not to stoke the flames of tribalism, either through the media, favoritism, or collective punishments, if they truly intend to build a modern civil state.
-This commentary was published on on 01/02/2012

The Pragmatics Of Lebanon's Politics

By Hilal Khashan

Demands to disarm Hezbollah have grown since its 2006 war with Israel from Sunni as well as from some Shiite politicians only to be countered by other leaders in the patchwork politics that is Lebanon
Lebanese society has had a remarkable ability to overcome deep-rooted sectarian and religious divides that could readily have imploded less problematic countries. This has been largely due to its pragmatic political system, which avoids acting upon polarizing issues on principle, opting instead for pragmatic loopholes. Given their confessional political system, Lebanese are conditioned to think pragmatically even when the issue at hand is divisive and does not lend itself to resolution. In Lebanon, pragmatism is a necessity and not an option as failure to accommodate other sects might ruin the country's delicate fabric.
Three vivid illustrations of this dynamic can be seen in the handling of the issues preoccupying Lebanese decision-makers these days: Hezbollah's continued militarization, the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL), and the Syrian connection.
Hezbollah's Militarization
Most non-Shiite Lebanese find it difficult to accept Hezbollah's armament and have not missed an opportunity to express displeasure with the fact that, while the 1989 Ta'if agreement called for the demilitarization of all Lebanese militias, Hezbollah was exempted on the grounds that it was resisting Israel's presence in southern Lebanon. As much as they disapprove of Hezbollah's behavior, Lebanese find it politically correct to praise its "resistance." The proverb "kiss the hand you cannot bite" seems to fit the way many Lebanese view the militant Islamist group.
Against this backdrop, it is hardly surprising that Hezbollah's military buildup and its rivals' intensifying demand for its disarmament have been the most divisive issue since Israel's withdrawal from its security zone in south Lebanon in May 2000. This demand for disarmament gained considerable momentum after the July 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war as the eviction of Hezbollah from its bases south of the Litani River and the deployment of the Lebanese army in its place led critics to question the need for the group's continued militarization.
Thus, for example, the pro-Hariri member of parliament (MP) Ahmad Fatfat argued that Hezbollah's primary concern had shifted from confronting Israel to controlling Lebanon "and transforming it into a forward base on the Mediterranean for Iran."[1] His parliamentary peer Sami Jemayyil compared "Hezbollah's expansionist behavior in Lebanon" to that of the Zionists, while former Lebanese president Amin Jemayyil noted that "Hezbollah seems preoccupied these days with controlling the site of the Lebanese government in Beirut and the Special Tribunal's location in [the] Hague."[2] Addressing his supporters on the sixth anniversary of the March 14 coalition, former prime minister Saad Hariri criticized "the supremacy of [Hezbollah's] arms and the manner in which it is influencing the formation of the country's forthcoming cabinet [of Najib Miqati]."[3]
Even Nabih Berri, speaker of parliament and leader of the Shiite Amal movement—who showered Hezbollah with praise and defended its right to resist "the Israeli occupation" as "non-negotiable"[4]—was paraphrased by a released Wikileaks cable as having privately said that "he supported Israeli military action against Hezbollah in 2006 as long as it did not backfire and create more public support for the party."[5]
It makes eminent sense for Berri to wish the demise of Hezbollah, whose rise to prominence among Lebanese Shiites came at Amal's expense. This does not seem to be the case with Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, who has perfected the shadowy art of doublespeak, rejecting Hezbollah's use of arms for domestic purposes while refusing "to expose Lebanon to Israeli aggression."[6] Jumblatt won notoriety for continuously vacillating from one political camp to another. His ambivalent statement above suggests that he does not preclude the possibility of returning to the March 14 coalition should Hezbollah's fortunes wane.
But most surprising and perplexing was the change of heart of Bishara Boutros Rai since his appointment as Maronite patriarch in March 2011. In his previous capacity as archbishop of Byblos, he voiced deep concern over Hezbollah's arsenal.[7] Once appointed to the top religious post, however, he expressed understanding of the group's reluctance to disarm: "The international community has not pressured Israel to pull out of Lebanese territory. Hezbollah also wants to help armed Palestinians in Lebanon who want to be granted the right of return to their lands. … When this happens, we will tell Hezbollah to disarm."[8] Ibrahim Amin Said, head of Hezbollah's politburo, concurred: "The issue has nothing to do with the manner in which the resistance uses its arms as some would like to argue; the issue pertains to the justification of the very existence of the resistance, and whether Lebanon should have a defense force capable of deterring the Israeli enemy."[9]
Special Tribunal for Lebanon
The issue of the U.N. Special Tribunal is even more divisive than Hezbollah's militarization. While Hezbollah takes pride in its weapons, presented as a deterrent to Israel, its implication in the 2005 assassination of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri brings shame to the organization. It seems that Hezbollah is more concerned about the moral blow to its image and prestige attending an association with the assassination than the arrest of its indicted members and their surrender to the U.N. Special Tribunal. The tribunal for its part scaled down the scope of its investigation, choosing to indict individuals in Hezbollah rather than the organization itself.
Accommodation and pragmatism have been extended even to the pursuit of justice where a delicate balance was struck between law enforcement and public peace. At least in their public pronouncements, Hezbollah spokesmen were still dissatisfied with the tribunal, even in its reduced scope. In a press conference held by Muhammad Raad, head of Hezbollah's parliamentary bloc, he described the tribunal as a "creation that serves international interests at the expense of the will and interests of the Lebanese people and their constitutional institutions" and called upon "all free, honorable, and nationalist Lebanese, regardless of their affiliations and positions, to boycott the tribunal's requests."[10] Nabil Qawuq, deputy chair of Hezbollah's Executive Council, derided the indictment of Hezbollah personnel as "an effort by the U.S. to compensate for its political defeats in Lebanon and the rest of the region."[11] Hashim Safieddine, chair of the council, ridiculed the Special Tribunal as "a political and media farce totally divorced from the pursuit of justice."[12]
Despite the overwhelming evidence implicating Hezbollah in the assassination, Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah and his allies have never ceased to plead the group's innocence. As soon as the tribunal indicted four Hezbollah members in the assassination, Nasrallah described them as honorable men who resisted Israel's occupation and, instead, laid the blame on the Jewish state, which had allegedly plotted the indictments.[13] When the tribunal revealed the names of these operatives shortly afterward and requested the Lebanese government to turn them in within thirty days to stand trial, Nasrallah responded disdainfully: "They cannot find them or arrest them in thirty days, or sixty days, or in a year, two years, thirty years, or three hundred years."[14] Nasrallah advised the leaders of the March 14 opposition not to expect the government of Prime Minister Najib Miqati to do in connection with the tribunal "what the government of his predecessor Saad Hariri couldn't do."[15]
For his part, Miqati emphasized Beirut's commitment to fulfill its international commitments, which included "paying its share of $32 million toward the cost of the STL operations,"[16] yet refused to "talk about solutions now, because I want the government efforts to succeed."[17] He also disregarded U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon's concern about the Lebanese government's reaction to the deepening crisis in Syria, noting that he would not "endanger Lebanon by violating the rules of the international legitimacy."[18]
This did not escape Hezbollah's eye. Though repeatedly voicing his disapproval of financing the tribunal, Nasrallah and his colleagues were sympathetic to Miqati's predicament, claiming that the prime minister "must not be embarrassed by the reaction of the international community and his own constituency if he reneges on Lebanon's commitments."[19] They understand all too well that there is nothing they can do to stop the working of the tribunal. They can resent it and plead their innocence with their Shiite constituents—the main target audience of Hezbollah's rhetoric. As far as Hezbollah's leadership is concerned, what matters is how the Shiite community perceives them; the tribunal's activities are of far lesser concern as they seem to believe that its eventual impact will be minimal.
The Syrian Nexus
Lebanon's government finds itself in an unenviable position of having to accommodate Syrian interests and sensitivities, on the one hand, and the positions of its own divided communities vis-à-vis Syria, on the other. Ever since Lebanese independence, Damascus has been a constant political actor in its neighbor's affairs, forcing successive Lebanese governments to play a delicate game of appeasing everyone. Thus, for example the Lebanese government has recently stated that it cannot support a U.N. Security Council resolution on Syria, but it will abide by international resolutions, irrespective of what it thought of them.[20]
For their part, the Syrians have never reconciled themselves to Lebanon's creation on what they perceive as part of their territory. They also resented Beirut's development during the French Mandate from a slumbering provincial city into a business, medical, and educational hub, and it did not take long for relations to sour after the French departed in 1946. In 1950, the Syrian regime unilaterally dissolved the bilateral customs union and instigated the practice of closing down passenger and trade routes at will. Since then, bilateral relations have been characterized by envy, suspicion, resentment, and hate. It took the entry of the Syrian army into Lebanon in 1976 to finally give the Damascus regime a sense of vindication. Damascus's hegemony in Lebanon lasted until 2005 when the Syrian army pulled out shortly after Hariri's assassination.
Given their intense involvement in Lebanese affairs, the Syrians could always count on Lebanese allies. Certainly, any government in Beirut, irrespective of its relations with Damascus, understands the inherent mindset of the regime, which views the Lebanese as unappreciative of the selfless sacrifices of the Syrians on their behalf. Because Syrian officials seem to believe that retribution follows ingratitude, their Lebanese counterparts have been especially careful to avoid incurring their wrath. This has been particularly the case since the beginning of the Syrian uprising in mid-March 2011. The simultaneous inception of the Syrian protests with the decision of the March 14 coalition to boycott the Miqati cabinet gave ammunition to Damascus's official claim that "the security of the two countries is inseparable."[21] The Bashar al-Assad regime immediately accused the Future Trend party of providing material support for anti-regime elements. The secretariat general of the March 14 coalition responded by issuing a denouncement of the Baath regime's "baseless accusations of intervention in Syrian affairs, including support for saboteur networks."[22]
There is no denying that many Lebanese, especially Sunni Muslims, have expressed jubilation about the Syrian uprising, criticizing the Miqati government's decision to refrain from providing relief for the thousands of refugees fleeing Syrian army reprisals. Tripoli MP Muhammad Kabbara urged the Lebanese people to take the side of the Syrian people: "I hurt because the brotherly Syrian people are subjected to a systematic massacre, and I am ashamed because we are letting them down. We are under history's watchful eye. We must take political, moral, and humanitarian action to lend support to the Syrian people."[23] As in most protest organizing in Arab countries, the mosques played a key role in galvanizing Lebanese support for the anti-Assad movement. One hundred Sunni clerics convened in a Tripoli mosque to "express solidarity with the glorious popular uprising in Syria and to condemn the brutality of the Assad regime against unarmed protesters." They took issue with the regime's "labeling of demonstrators as foreign lackeys."[24]
In response to a call by the militant Hizb al-Tahrir al-Islami (Islamic Liberation Party)[25] for a pro-rebel demonstration in downtown Beirut, Lebanon's Arab Youth Party (a Syrian intelligence creation with no active membership) organized a counter rally in support of Assad. Party head Nadim Shimali condemned the anti-Assad rally as a violation of the 1989 Ta'if agreement, which stipulated that Lebanon would not allow itself to provide a base for any force, state, or organization seeking to undermine Syria's security. He urged the Lebanese authorities to crack down on anti-Syrian activities, threatening that otherwise his party would be forced to take matters into its own hands.[26] "The security forces complied with Shimali's warning and ensured that no activity would take place in Beirut or Tripoli to support the Syrian protest movement," lamented a communiqué issued by Hizb al-Tahrir. "They threatened to prevent any show of support outside mosques. In contrast, the [Lebanese] authorities allowed a handful of the Syrian regime's gangsters to demonstrate."[27]
However, this complaint was not entirely true. The government tried to strike a middle-of-the-road approach to the Lebanese divide vis-à-vis the Syrian upheavals. Lebanon's open political system did not interfere with the free expression of opinion on the Syrian situation. The Phalange Party, for example, announced that its branches in northern Lebanon were providing humanitarian and social aid "to Syrian families seeking refuge there."[28] The Future Trend party and Islamist groups threw themselves into providing humanitarian aid to several thousand Syrian refugees despite protests by the Syrian government and Hezbollah on the grounds that the refugees included subversive elements. The Lebanese military simply pulled out from the border area and allowed the Syrian army to chase defectors while, at the same time, it did not attempt to prevent sympathetic Lebanese groups from providing them with shelter. The Beirut government did all within its power to minimize the damage to its relations with Damascus as a result of the strong support among most Lebanese for the Syrian uprising. Foreign Minister Adnan Mansur made it clear that Beirut would not vote in favor of a Security Council resolution condemning Damascus.[29] This position was hardly defensible or consistent given that Lebanon's ambassador to the U.N. had proposed that the Security Council implement a no-fly zone over Libya to protect its people from the excesses of the Qaddafi regime.
The spread of protests inside Syria coincided with the deterioration of the security situation in Lebanon, including several attacks against the U.N. Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) in the south of the country. According to Fares Said, coordinator of the secretariat of the March 14 coalition, the surge of violence in Lebanon appears to be tied to statements from Damascus. Said was specifically alluding to the attacks on the French and Italian contingents in UNIFIL, the abduction of seven Estonians in the Bekaa Valley, and the Marun al-Ras incident where the Israelis opened fire on demonstrators who attempted to climb the border fence.[30] Indeed, Assad's cousin Rami Makhluf had warned that Israelis could not expect to live in peace while Syrians suffered from turmoil whereas Syrian foreign minister Walid Muallem threatened that EU sanctions against Damascus were bound to have an adverse impact on Europe's security.[31]
Small wonder that the Assad regime exhibited anger at expressions of solidarity with the protesters, especially by the Lebanese armed forces and the Phalange. Phalange MP Nadim Jemayyil made a statement that particularly infuriated the Syrian regime: "We cannot but side with the Syrian people in their confrontation of the repressive and dictatorial regime. We are willing to open a new chapter with the Syrian people and join hands to build a new Middle East founded on freedom and democracy."[32] Assad's people expected nothing less than such statements as Hezbollah MP Hassan Fadlallah asserted that Washington was punishing Damascus by promoting the Syrian protest movement "in order to settle historical scores with the country that has always stood on the side of the forces of opposition to Israeli and American occupation."[33]
President Assad seemed in no mood for advice, certainly not from mercurial Druze chief Jumblatt who exhorted him "to think differently and recognize his people's legitimate demands in order to prevent Syria from slipping into chaos." Speaking carefully to avoid triggering a defensive reaction, Jumblatt explained that "the best advice he could give to the Syrian president had to be motivated by truthfulness, and not flattery."[34] When the Druze leader would not cease his repeated calls on Assad to reform, the Syrian authorities finally informed him that he was unwelcome in Damascus.[35] For Assad, his late father's brutally repressive practices of the 1970s and 1980s appeared fully appropriate in the second decade of the twenty-first century. He may have believed that his Tunisian and Egyptian counterparts fell too soon because they did not use sufficient force to suppress the opposition. Among his many repressive measures, Assad instructed his Beirut ambassador Ali Abdulkarim to chase and apprehend Syrian enemies of the regime in Lebanon. Indeed, Abdulkarim was singled out for U.S. and EU sanctions for his role in abducting opposition members in collusion with Lebanese authorities.[36]
The Lebanese government clamped down on Syrian opposition in Lebanon because of heavy pressure by the Assad regime to do so. Yet it showed leniency in dealing with the anti-Assad Lebanese protesters. Members of the Syrian opposition in Lebanon are not part of the country's political process and can be readily controlled. Dealing with the Lebanese groups and sects, by contrast, is a different matter altogether as they have a veto power and can bring the country's political system to a standstill.
Rational Polemics
Lebanon is not a failed state. Though its self-steering capability is grossly wanting, it is perfectly capable of making waves. Its political system may be akin to a person paralyzed below the waist but with functioning arms and intact vocal abilities. The creation of Greater Lebanon may not have been an entirely happy historical accident, yet it appears to be quite capable of dealing with its disabilities. It cannot make its own sovereign decisions, but it can almost always modify them to fit the exigencies of its unique political formula. For some countries, controversy can be politically debilitating; in Lebanon, it is a means of survival.
-This article was published in The Middle East Quarterly in its Winter 2012 issue
-Hilal Khashan is a professor of political science at the American University of Beirut.


[1] An-Nahar (Beirut), Mar. 14, 2011.
[2] Ibid., Sept. 2, 2011.
[3] Al-Liwa (Beirut), Mar. 14, 2011.
[4] As-Safir (Beirut), Sept. 3, 2011.
[5] "No One Likes Them," Now Lebanon (Beirut), Sept. 15, 2011.
[6] Al-Hayat (London), Mar. 28, 2011.
[7] Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation (Beirut), Feb. 9, 2010.
[8] As-Safir, Sept. 9, 2011.
[9] Al-Manar TV (Beirut), Mar. 21, 2011.
[10] An-Nahar, Mar. 5, 2011.
[11] Al-Jarida (Beirut), Mar. 6, 2011.
[12] An-Nahar, May 15, 2011.
[13] BBC World News, July 3, 2011.
[14] Ibid., July 29, 2011.
[15] As-Safir, July 4, 2011.
[16] As-Siyasa (Kuwait), Sept. 6, 2011.
[17] The Daily Star (Beirut), Sept. 12, 2011.
[18] An-Nahar, Sept. 3, 2011.
[19] Ukaz (Riyadh), Sept. 7, 2011.
[20] Ar-Rai (Kuwait), Oct. 4, 2011.
[21] Al-Jarida, May 28, 2011.
[22] An-Nahar, Apr. 21, 2011.
[23] Ibid., May 17, 2011.
[24] Al-Akhbar (Cairo), May 9, 2011.
[25] Committed to the reintroduction of the worldwide caliphate, this party rejects the existing order in all Arab and Islamic states and advocates its violent overthrow.
[26] The Daily Star, June 4, 2011.
[27] An-Nahar, June 4, 2011.
[28] Al-Anwar, May 27, 2011.
[29] As-Siyasa, Sept. 18, 2011.
[30] An-Nahar, May 29, 2011.
[31] Ibid.; al-Akhbar, Apr. 11, 2011.
[32] Al-Liwa, May 31, 2011.
[33] An-Nahar, May 9, 2011.
[34] Ibid., May 24, 2011.
[35] Al-Anba (Fallujah), Sept. 24, 2011.
[36] Ukaz, Sept. 7, 2011.