Sunday, May 18, 2014

What Saudi-Iran talks could mean for Lebanon and the region

[Originally posted at NOW]

Signs of rapprochement between Riyadh and Tehran have fuelled optimism in Lebanon, though few expect change in Syria in the short term.

In a potentially momentous surprise move that could herald an alleviation of political and sectarian conflict across the Middle East, Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal announced on Tuesday an invitation to his Iranian counterpart to travel to Riyadh to enter negotiations over the rival countries’ “differences.”

Saudi and Iran, powerhouses of Sunni and Shiite Islam respectively, presently support opposing sides in many of the Middle East’s major confrontations, and are often seen as having radically divergent and competing visions for the future of the region.

Which is why, in Lebanon – a country where the two powers wield extensive influence over their respective allies – the news of a possible rapprochement has already sparked confidence that political deadlock on a number of key disputes may be resolved, perhaps even defying expectations of a presidential vacuum by ushering in a successor to President Michel Suleiman in time for the expiry of his term on 25 May.

“I [now] believe we will have an elected president on the 25th,” said MP Ahmad Fatfat of the Saudi-supported Future Movement. “That [Prince Faisal’s] invitation was public means they already agreed on many points under the table. That means the negotiations regarding the new president have already been done.”

Beyond the elections, Fatfat added the talks would likely also yield wider benefits in terms of security and the economy. Earlier this week, Saudi lifted what has been described as an “unofficial ban” on its citizens traveling to Lebanon, fueling hopes of a boost to the country’s struggling tourism industry. Saudi analysts concurred that the overall situation in Lebanon would likely improve in the near future.

“I think in Lebanon there is already agreement [between Saudi and Iran],” said Jamal Khashoggi, veteran Saudi journalist and former advisor to then-ambassador Prince Turki al-Faisal. “The agreement in Lebanon is to contain the situation.”

In neighboring Syria, however, where Iranian-backed regime forces continue to suppress a Saudi-supported armed rebellion, Khashoggi expects very little to materialize from Saudi-Iranian talks.

“I’m not optimistic,” he told NOW. “The Saudis and Iranians are still far apart. The Iranians must relinquish their expansionism toward the Mediterranean, or we have to give up Syria. And I don’t think we can afford to give up Syria. And besides, even if we decide to give up Syria, the Syrian people are not going to give up Syria.”

“So basically, the Iranians are acting like the Israelis – they want peace, and they want to keep the land.”

Other analysts, while conceding any progress would be slow, had somewhat more positive forecasts on the Syrian front.

“[Syria] is a tough one to happen quickly, but at least if they start talking then it’s a good thing,” said Andrew Hammond, policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations and author of The Islamic Utopia: The Illusion of Reform in Saudi Arabia.

“Fundamentally, the chances of the Syrian tragedy being brought to an end, or the beginning of this disaster being brought to an end, require these two countries to come to an agreement […] They are the keys to the Syrian conflict, so they have to start talking, even though it will take a long time.”

Accordingly, with little chance of the two reaching agreement on Syria in the immediate future, the talks may in fact focus on other areas of dispute, such as Iraq, where a new coalition government is being formed following parliamentary elections on 30 April.

“The other issue is Iraq, now that the election is over and all the horse-trading is beginning,” said Hammond. “I wonder whether that actually may have been the main impetus for this invitation.”

Perhaps the most significant changes resulting from Faisal’s initiative in the long run, however, will pertain to Saudi itself. Having been “shocked,” as Hammond put it, by the United States’ decision to pursue warmer ties with Tehran last year, and initially threatening a “major shift” in its relations with Washington as a consequence, Riyadh may now be grudgingly coming to terms with the new order envisaged by President Obama.

“It does suggest there is a potential for them to reassess the situation and try and move things forward, find some way of having a new relationship with the Iranians, given the fact that the Americans clearly want to move forward, and the smaller Gulf states do as well,” said Hammond.

Myra Abdallah contributed reporting.

What happens if there's no president?

[Originally posted at NOW]

Lebanon has just 11 days to elect a new president. NOW looks at what could happen if it fails to do so.

There are only 11 days left before the expiry of Lebanese President Michel Suleiman’s term in office, and two parliamentary sessions scheduled during which lawmakers may reach agreement on his successor. With the country’s key March 14 and March 8 coalitions remaining deeply divided on the issue, expectations are low that these parliamentary sessions will even yield the quorum necessary to assemble at all, let alone deliver a new arrival to Baabda Palace.

Should no one be elected by May 25, then, the question inevitably arises as to what happens next. Article 62 of Lebanon’s constitution stipulates plainly that the cabinet assumes the president’s powers “by delegation” in the event of a presidential vacuum “for any reason.” Prime Minister Tammam Salam has already made remarks to this effect, seeking to reassure citizens that the government would continue to function more or less as normal. Temporary presidential vacuums are by no means unprecedented in Lebanon – indeed, a six month interregnum occurred at the end of the term of Suleiman’s predecessor, Emile Lahoud.

There are, however, other possibilities. One is an extension of Suleiman’s term until a successor is found. This is reportedly favored by the Maronite patriarch – whose influence, over an appointment customarily reserved exclusively for Maronites, is not insignificant – and the US ambassador, among others. All analysts with whom NOW spoke agreed, though, that the proposal is unfeasible, given that it would require a two-thirds majority in parliament to make the necessary constitutional amendment; a majority it could not secure in light of March 8’s firm and vocal objection to it. Suleiman himself, moreover, has stated from the beginning that he rejects the extension of his term.

In which case, observers told NOW the likely alternative is a caretaker presidency handled by the cabinet, as per the constitution, until all relevant political factions come to agreement on a successor.

“It is very difficult [to imagine that] a president will be elected before the 25th,” said Hareth Sleiman, a senior member of the independent Democratic Renewal (Tajaddod) Movement. “We are now looking for a candidate on which both axes will agree.”

This prospect has raised concerns that any presidential void could persist for some time, much as the country went without a cabinet for almost 11 months before the current one was formed in February 2014.

“If there’s no election by 25 May, I don’t know if there’ll be one by 25 June, or 25 August,” said Kataeb Party head Amin Gemayel – himself a candidate – on Monday.

There are a number of reasons why this delay could be substantial, according to observers. One argument postulates that the country’s powerbrokers are waiting for the resolution of numerous regional political question-marks, particularly as regards neighboring Syria, where the outcome of the civil war could have momentous consequences on Lebanon. Lebanese presidential terms last six years, which the country’s factions may deem a long time to endure the consequences of any political miscalculations at this stage. Adding to this is the news earlier this week that Saudi Arabia has agreed to enter talks with its longtime foe, Iran. Both countries wield extensive influence over Lebanon’s March 14 and March 8 coalitions, respectively, and any changes in their relationship would likely have corresponding implications for Lebanon.

“[In light of the Saudi-Iran news,] there might [now] be coordination between different external and Arab powers to get a neutral president, like [Central Bank governor] Riad Salameh,” Sleiman told NOW.

Others observers say the delay will also be caused by conflicting interests between Hezbollah and Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement (FPM); nominal March 8 allies who may nonetheless be supporting different candidates. According to March 14 MP Bassem al-Shab, the FPM seeks to elect Aoun himself, while Hezbollah quietly prefers Lebanese Armed Forces commander General Jean Qahwaji, and this divergence is causing both parties to favor a delay.

“If General Aoun is elected president then the other General’s [political] career would end,” Shab told NOW, referring to Qahwaji. “And if the head of the army becomes president, then the career of [Aoun] comes to an end […] I think a lot of people would like to see the deadline pass without a president because that would really favor [Qahwaji].”

There is, in addition to the above scenarios, another alternative, according to a source within the centrist Progressive Socialist Party who spoke to NOW on condition of anonymity: that of Prime Minister Salam’s resignation. While the source deemed it an unlikely event, its likelihood would reportedly increase if excessive pressure were placed upon Salam in his dual role as prime minister and caretaker president. The effects of such a move, should it transpire, could be considerably debilitating, said the source.

“It isn’t exactly a vacuum if we don’t get a president after 25 May, because the cabinet takes over the president’s powers.”

“But if Salam were to resign, then we would have a real vacuum.”

Myra Abdallah contributed reporting.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Is Lebanon Winning Against Al-Qaeda?

[Originally posted at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace's Sada journal]

Despite its weak and fragmented state, Lebanon has had evident success against al-Qaeda, though it may be too soon to declare “mission accomplished.”

In the first two months of 2014, Lebanon appeared to be descending rapidly, almost inexorably, into a mire of alarming bloodshed and instability. An unprecedented wave of al-Qaeda-linked attacks on civilians was accelerating, adding 34 deaths to the more than 50 men, women, and children that such attacks had killed in the second half of 2013. And then, almost without anyone noticing, the attacks ceased. April 2014 was the first month to witness no explosion since October 2013. Even before then, a slowdown had been detectable—from five suicide bombings in February 2014 to two in March, the latter confined to the Syrian border region. Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, stated confidently in an April interview that “the risk of [further] explosions has diminished very significantly.” While this was a plainly political statement—aimed at retroactively justifying his group’s controversial military intervention in the neighboring Syrian war on the side of President Bashar al-Assad—it appears to have held up so far, and has been echoed by the head of the Lebanese army.

How, then, did a weak and fragmented state like Lebanon manage to prevail against al-Qaeda? The principal reason was that al-Qaeda’s Lebanese franchisees, Jabhat al-Nusra and the Abdullah Azzam Brigades, united Lebanon’s most powerful actors against them. Foremost among these actors is Hezbollah, which, in addition to its paramilitary manpower and hardware, also maintains its own intelligence-gathering and telecommunications networks that allowed them to keep close tabs on the two groups. Jabhat al-Nusra and the Abdallah Azzam Brigades made hostility to Hezbollah their raison d’être, branding it a heretical “Party of Satan” (playing on its name, which means “Party of God”) and stating after every attack that they would continue until the party’s militants withdrew from Syria. Then there are the state forces, which also run multiple and sizeable intelligence-gathering operations. The general outline of the response to the attacks, then, consisted of a manhunt carried out by state security forces in tandem with Hezbollah, based on their combined intelligence, with the blessing of the political establishment and its international backers, including the United States.

This manhunt involved both arrests and targeted killings. In March 2014, a militant wanted for involvement in at least one of the car bombings in Beirut’s southern suburbs was gunned down in a Lebanese army ambush in the mountainous outskirts of the town of Arsal, near the Syrian border. Less clear were the circumstances of the October 2013 killing of a suspect wanted in connection with two car bombings, whose vehicle was reportedly targeted by rocket fire in a remote area, also near Arsal. While state media described it simply as an “armed ambush,” Hezbollah was also accused. Similar mystery surrounded the death in custody of Majid al-Majid, the internationally wanted Saudi leader of the Abdallah Azzam Brigades, credited with masterminding a double suicide attack on Beirut’s Iranian embassy in November 2013. His demise in December, just nine days after his arrest by Lebanese army intelligence, was officially attributed to natural causes—but the Brigades blamed Hezbollah, who in turn pointed the finger at Riyadh.

State authorities also made swift progress on other fronts. A jihadist cleric from Arsal arrested in January 2014 reportedly informed the army of the identity of one Naim Abbas, a Palestinian refugee who became Lebanon’s most wanted suspect and was arrested the following month. Abbas was charged with overseeing two suicide bombings in Beirut’s southern suburbs and reportedly revealed the locations of several explosive-laden vehicles, which were subsequently intercepted by the army. Various other associates of Abbas were also arrested.

As the arrests and indictments mounted, a clearer picture began to emerge of how the militants operated. Prosecutors identified a network linking the Palestinian refugee camp of Ain al-Hilweh in the southern city of Sidon with the eastern border town of Arsal. A common denominator in more than one attack was the fugitive Lebanese cleric, Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir, who went into hiding after his militiamen fought a bloody battle with the army and Hezbollah in Sidon in June 2013. At least three suicide bombers claimed in video testimonies to have fought alongside Assir’s men in the clashes.

It was Arsal, however, that Hezbollah officials repeatedly branded as the principal gateway for extremists entering Lebanon from Syria. Three kinds of checkpoints were set up around the town—two manned by the army, and one by Hezbollah gunmen (aptly symbolizing the partnership between the two). Though the latter checkpoints became notorious for harassment and even violence against passers-through, and were eventually removed, the system did have some success as a barricade against attacks—both of the two most recent suicide bombings took place at these checkpoints.

Undergirding all these efforts was the carte blanche given to the army and Hezbollah by the political class, including the patrons of the Sunni community. This in turn was encouraged by influential regional and international powers, including the United States, which has reportedly been sharing intelligence with the Lebanese authorities since July 2013; this was apparently instrumental in the arrest of Naim Abbas. “What happened proves once again that the security situation in Lebanon is directly related to the political situation,” said Riad Kahwaji, head of the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis. “Whenever we have political agreement, the security situation suddenly becomes very good.”

With that said, the “mission accomplished” attitude struck by Nasrallah and the army commander may yet prove premature, as well as counterproductive. For while Hezbollah may tout its recent advances in Syria’s Qalamoun region on the Lebanese border as a “grand victory” against “terrorism,” this will only harden the hostility felt toward the Shia group by the many Lebanese Sunnis who continue to see the Syrian rebel cause as a just struggle against tyranny. While the country’s Sunnis are on the whole a moderate community, any inflammation of sectarian animosity can only be a boon to the extremist minority, which has grown in numbers and resources as a result of the Syrian war—particularly after Hezbollah’s intervention there.

That Hezbollah has given no indication it intends to withdraw any time soon—and is, indeed, believed to be eyeing new offensives in Aleppo and Daraa—means a fundamental underlying cause of the jihadists’ proliferation is set to remain for the foreseeable future. Moreover, it remains possible that Hezbollah’s displacement of Syrian rebels, including al-Qaeda-linked militants, from Qalamoun has in fact had the effect of drawing them across the highly porous border into Lebanon. New reports of Jabhat al-Nusra conducting kidnappings in Arsal, following a series of skirmishes between Syrian gunmen and the Lebanese army in the area, suggest this process may already be underway. In which case, Lebanon’s al-Qaeda problem may not have been resolved so much as merely interrupted.

Monday, May 12, 2014

The Pope seems in more danger in Israel than he was in Lebanon

[Originally posted at NOW]

Around three years ago, while doing some desktop research on religious extremism, I signed up for the mailing list of the Christians United for Israel (CUFI) organization, an influential American fundamentalist outfit (boasting over a million members) that advocates the total colonization of historic Palestine by Jewish settlers, to whom God eternally granted the land in the Book of Genesis.

It’s been an invaluable window into the underworld of Christian Zionism ever since, regularly dispatching Christmas greetings from Benjamin Netanyahu; invitations to conference calls with Glenn Beck and Michele Bachmann and; above all else, reminders of the multiple options available to me for making tax-deductible cash donations.

What it takes great care not to disclose, however, are the actual realities of the Christian situation on the ground in the Holy Land today. There is curious silence, for instance, on the fact that Israeli troops occupy the land of the world’s oldest Christian community – the Palestinian one – whose access to religious sites in Bethlehem and, particularly, Jerusalem is subject to the whim of a foreign military authority. Nor is there mention of the steady rise of Jewish fundamentalist bigotry against Christians, which sees churches regularly defaced by fanatics (“Jesus is garbage” read a slogan sprayed on a Jerusalem church last week) and is officially represented in parliament: sent a copy of the New Testament by Christian well-wishers in 2012, MK Michael Ben Ari tore the thing up and threw it in the bin, calling it an “abominable book” that belonged “in the garbage can of history.”

These omissions of detail can often occur with unfortunate timing. Thus, my latest receipt from CUFI, sent six days ago, tells me that:

The freest Christians and Muslims in the Middle East are the Christian and Muslim citizens of the Jewish state of Israel […] While Christians throughout the Arab world are being bombed, shot and decapitated, the Christian population of Israel can worship in complete safety.

Which is rather odd, because the Israeli Haaretz newspaper reported last week that anti-Christian hate in Israel has grown so toxic that police fear a “massive hate crime” is being planned by Jewish fundamentalists to coincide with Pope Francis’ visit to Jerusalem later this month; something Christian patriarchates in the city say authorities are doing almost nothing to forestall. Indeed, the only discernible action taken by police so far has been the removal of a sign welcoming Francis to the Old City – lest the fanatics deem it a provocation!

Incidentally, this makes for an interesting contrast to Lebanon, where the Vatican flags erected all over the damn place in anticipation of Pope Benedict XVI’s 2012 visit still haven’t been taken down in some neighborhoods, and where – however contrived it might all have been – every one of the country’s twelve non-Catholic sects wore a smile and professed joy at His Holiness’ arrival (in a vulpine gesture, Hezbollah even sent its Mahdi Scouts to receive him at the airport). Is the Pope, then – and are Christians in general – at greater risk in Israel than in Lebanon?

Friday, May 9, 2014


[Originally posted at NOW]

Despite an initial media backlash, the Maronite patriarch’s upcoming trip to Jerusalem has the backing of all parties, including Hezbollah.

In the immediate aftermath of the news that the Maronite Patriarch, Cardinal Beshara al-Rai, would make history by being the first head of Lebanon’s largest Christian community to visit Jerusalem since the creation of Israel, it looked as though he would face stiff opposition from a key segment of the political class.

“The historic sin: Al-Rai to Israel!” ran the headline of one leading newspaper on Saturday, saying the trip – scheduled from May 24-26 – was tantamount to “normalization with the occupier.” An open letter, written by the Campaign to Boycott Supporters of Israel in Lebanon, published in another prominent daily, urged the patriarch against visiting the “Zionist entity,” noting that many Palestinian and other Arab Christian clergy, including Rai’s own predecessor, advocate against travel to Israeli-occupied territory. One Christian politician in the pro-Syrian March 8 coalition even warned the trip could be a first step toward a full peace treaty with Israel.

And yet, away from the media, no tangible or consequential political opposition has in fact emerged. Aside from Progressive Socialist Party leader Walid Jumblatt, no major politician has publicly voiced or even hinted at disapproval of the patriarch’s plan. Most conspicuously, there has been silence from the one group that might have been expected to put up the strongest objection – Hezbollah, the militant Islamist movement whose fighters attacked Israeli soldiers as recently as March this year.

Indeed, a Maronite church spokesman explicitly said Thursday there was “no dispute with Hezbollah” over the visit. Elaborating on this, senior church official Father Abdo Abu Kassem portrayed the visit to NOW as a strictly religious affair, saying the patriarch was not going “to do politics or collaborate with Israel […] and Hezbollah knows that.”

To be sure, the patriarch is not actually breaking any law, according to lawyer and constitutional expert Marwan Sakr. While for almost all citizens “it is a criminal offence under Lebanese law to visit Israel,” Sakr told NOW there is legal exemption “for Maronite clergymen.” Sakr cited the example of the Lebanese Bishop Boulos Sayyah, who for a while actually lived full-time in Jerusalem, and who is among a number of Maronite clergymen who routinely travel from Lebanon to historic Palestine.

Yet Hezbollah’s tacit acceptance of the patriarch’s visit likely has a political, rather than legal basis, according to several analysts with whom NOW spoke. The prevailing view is that Hezbollah, like all Lebanese parties, has a strong interest in avoiding conflict with the patriarch at the present time, given the ongoing negotiations over the country’s next president, in which the Maronite church wields considerable influence (up to and including the shortlisting and vetoing of candidates, according to some reports). For Hezbollah, the argument goes, remaining on favorable terms with the patriarch is of much greater importance than an ultimately symbolic trip to Jerusalem.

“What counts for [Hezbollah] is the relationship with Rai,” said Dr. Charles Chartouni, professor of politics at Beirut’s Université Saint Joseph and the Lebanese University. “The other issues can be discounted.”

Some even argue the trip could be of political benefit to Hezbollah, helping it to re-brand itself as a moderate, pragmatic player with whom the West can build partnership, in line with the broader American-Iranian rapprochement across the region driven, in large part, by common enmity to militant Sunni Islamist groups proliferating in Syria and Iraq.

“It’s a new era,” said Dr. Imad Salamey, professor of political science at the Lebanese American University. “[Hezbollah’s] real enemy is emerging as the Sunni extremists, so the question of Israel being an enemy is not as [prominent] as it used to be.”

Moreover, believes Salamey, in signaling its comparative leniency vis-à-vis the patriarch’s visit, Hezbollah is “trying to gain US support for the perspective” that the region’s Christians, Shiites, and Jews comprise a “minority coalition” against the common Sunni enemy – a tactic designed to draw the US closer to the Shiite side of a regional Sunni-Shiite divide.

Myra Abdallah contributed reporting.

Qatari funding of Al-Jadeed confirmed?

[Originally posted at NOW]

It’s never been an especially well-kept secret that Lebanon’s Al-Jadeed (“New”) TV station, renowned for its attacks on the Saudi-backed Hariri dynasty, benefits from the pecuniary resources of Saudi’s neighbor and rival, Qatar.

And yet, as with all such “it-is-knowns,” it was something that had never been definitively proven. As I reported in 2012, Al-Jadeed’s owner Tahseen Khayyat would vaguely acknowledge having ties with the Gulf promontory, and his business conglomerate does have offices in Doha, but beyond these one could establish very little about Qatar’s involvement in Al-Jadeed specifically.

Until now, apparently. An audio clip circulating online purports to be a leaked phone call between former Qatari ruler Hamad al-Thani and the late Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi, in which al-Thani talks of “creating” a TV station called Al-Hiwar in London and funding (he literally says “feeding”) Al-Jadeed in Lebanon. Later, the man supposed to be al-Thani adds that these two stations could be used to promote Saad al-Faqih, a Saudi opposition figure.

Assuming the leak is genuine, it may help explain the comparatively neutral – or, rather, incoherent – editorial line adopted by Al-Jadeed toward Syria (the killing of its cameraman, Ali Shaaban, by the regime in 2012 was presumably a factor too). Access to Qatari petrodollars is also likely to be appreciated given the station has just been summoned by a United Nations tribunal for contempt and obstruction of justice – charges that carry a potential fine of up to 100,000€ ($139,000), not to mention seven years in jail for Khayyat’s daughter, Karma, the deputy head of news.