Friday, September 7, 2012

Syria: enter the worst-case scenario

Bassem Hassan

Well over a year ago – 16 months to be precise –shortly after the start of the Syrian revolt against the Baathist regime, I made the prediction on this blog that the regime’s violent response was the sort of grave error that would put what was then still largely a peaceful popular uprising at a point of no return.

Truth be told, that was more hope than insight, and an optimistic bet that the fires of the Arab Spring would not be quelled in Syria. Today, no more than 18 months since the start of the Syrian uprising it has potentially reached a second point of no return. This prediction however, is the product of fear and a gut-wrenching pessimism, rather than hope. The revolt in Syria is going to triumph, to be sure and the regime will, sooner or later, fall. The question is what comes next. Judging by the current situation, the outlook is far from rosy. It is rather crimson: the color of blood. Many areas in Syria today are in a veritable state of civil war. Encounters with many Syrians living in Lebanon reveal tales that are eerily familiar. Neighbors with whom one shared one’s life, are suddenly turning into mortal enemies simply because they are of a different sect. The burning of houses and the killing of innocent civilians is going on in Syria at two levels: the horrendous atrocities committed almost daily by the regime, and the “spontaneous” attacks among the population on the basis of sectarian and ethnic differences. This does not bode well for the post-Baathist era and the long term future of Syria, as a chilling New York Times report from a Syrian refugee camp reveals. We would argue that a sectarian civil war is in fact a greater danger to the Syrian revolt, than the power of the regime’s security forces.

There is, however, a second, equally profound, threat to the Syrian revolution: its lack of unity. Every popular revolt is made of an alliance of different factions. This is inevitable, and not necessarily a threat in and of itself. However, if the different factions do not resolve their disagreements through a political, ideally non-violent, mechanism, the consequences can be dire. It can be argued that the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions, although they brought to power the Islamist parties that were certainly not among the leaders of the revolution, did so by institutionalized mechanisms (elections) that can be in turn used to unseat them from power. This is a highly advanced achievement, that should be recognized as such, but one that is in fact rare in the history of revolts. The norm for revolutions is that they devour their children. The violent struggle after the French revolution (arguably the mother of all modern revolutions!) brought a period of oppression and dictatorship that resolved only slowly and over a significant amount of time. Closer to home – literally – the Iranian revolution resulted in the violent oppression of liberal Islamic and leftist parties that initiated the revolution, and the establishment of a veritable theocratic dictatorship of fundamentalist Islamists. That is precisely what the Syrian revolution is at risk of.

It is no secret that the Syrian rebels are currently a collection of factions with little in common other than the immediate goal of the fall of the Asad regime. The rise in sectarian tensions is strengthening the hand of the islamists, particularly the more virulent fundamentalists among them, as is the active involvement of Saudi and Qatari money and Turkish logistical support. Although much of the resistance to the regime stems from the heroic fighting of local, self-organized citizen militias, it is easily imaginable that the islamists with foreign financial and military support will grab the reigns of power, particularly if the fall of the regime brings with it a widened sectarian civil war. It is very unlikely that their rule will be any less violent and oppressive than that of the Iranian clergy. The repercussions for neighboring Lebanon and the region at large could be dire.

 In sum, the Syrian revolution today is facing a serious double-edged risk. While it will certainly end the Baathist regime, as it stands, it is likely to end up plunging Syria into a nightmarish civil war that is likely to end with the rise of a fundamentalist Salafist take over. This might yet be the worst legacy the Asad-led Baathist regime leaves behind!

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

The Ghost of Bachir Gemayel

Joseph El-Khoury
This year, August, as opposed to September was the month of Bachir Gemayel.  The change in month is also coupled with a change in image. A new re-looked Bachir, better suited for the 21st century, was unveiled for the celebrations organised by his son Nadim in memory of the former’s 1982 election. The Lebanese Forces, stuck to a more traditional portrait of their historical leader for the annual mass honouring their martyrs.
In times of crisis, and this is certainly one for Lebanese Christianity, the soul searching seems to bring this community back to the ‘golden era’ of Maronite domination ...and Bachir.
Few will argue convincingly against the new reality in effect since the mid 1990s. The balance of power is now unashamedly shared between three population blocks, with Sunnis and Shiaas no longer constituting a single political and social ‘Islamic’ entity. As the heating conflict between Sunni sand Shiaas escalates to boiling point, we hear a deafening silence on the Christian front of the Lebanese confessional arrangement.  The burning tyres in the Southern suburb and the sniper shots in Tripoli seem to have a muffling effect on the figureheads of the Christian camp, all affiliation included.
Nonetheless the delusion of power seems unshakable. For many of these a return to pre-1989 if not 1943 remains a realistic goal.  The nostalgia for better times is certainly deeply engrained in the Christian Lebanese psyche and perpetuated by the affiliated media. Politically, it is fuelled mostly by the posturing of General Michel Aoun, darling of the Christian middle classes and embodiment of their state of denial.  Michel Aoun for his supporters is what they want him to be; father figure, saviour, astute political mover, and visionary. The man himself is less important than the function he fulfils: Michel Aoun is everything they would have expected from an older Bachir Gemayel, had the latter not been brutally assassinated on that fateful day of 14th September 1982.
It is well known that those who die young, at the height of their productivity, are always idealised in the minds of their public.  This applies to Bachir Gemayel (who died age 35), as much as it did to the guerrilla leader Che Guevara (died age 39) or the singer from the doors Jim Morrison (died age 27) with the obvious differences between these characters.  Exploiting their memory is often a cleansing experience to those left behind, who end up being compromised by life and experience.
The grief suffered by the Christian population, at the time hurled in an ever narrowing ghetto, and gripped by the paranoia of a threatening increasingly alien surrounding, lingered for many years. There were no obvious replacements to Gemayel. Neither the mild mannered, always neatly dressed Ameen could fill his brother’s shoes, neither did the second nor third in command in the Lebanese Forces, who had operated under Bachir as loyal sidekicks without much clout.  For the following years, the leadership struggle resembled more a boardroom overhaul rather than a true fight for the soul of the Christians. This is until the final showdown in the mid-1980s between Samir Geagea and Elie Hobeika, resulting in the dominance of the first and the exile of the second.  The Christians of the ‘centre’, effectively those who originated from parts of Mount Lebanon and Beirut did not take to Geagea, son of a northern village.   His humble origins did not fit with their image of themselves as the country’s intellectual and financial elite. The fact he had not completed his medical studies, although for very justifiable reasons, did not sit well with the liberal professionals (doctors, lawyers). Despite his articulate style and his ruthless determination, Geagea in military garb or in a suit could simply not replace Gemayel.
Enters Michel Aoun in 1988. Until then a respected yet not over-influential army general, Michel Aoun became the last minute attempt at avoiding a complete disintegration of state institutions. The man brought in as a stop-gap until better solutions could be found had other plans and a well-rehearsed rhetoric to accompany his ambitions. Words such as ‘state’ army’ ‘order’ security’ have the effect on the Christian Middle Classes you would expect from a 7 year old child presented with a cone of ice cream.  Aoun used them again and again in a litany that mimicked the simple message that had sold Bachir Gemayel (the one of 1982, not 1976) to the hearts of that population: We, the Christians can reverse the effect of the civil war and can bring back order and prosperity to this country, working hand in hand with those from other confessions who choose to be as patriotic as us.
This perverse view of patriotism as more inherent to one sect over others, unfortunately explains why the alliance between Aoun and Hezbollah is viewed so positively by large sections of the Christian population, despite its obvious imbalance in favour of the Shiaa militant organisation, with which they have little in common, culturally, politically and socially. It also explains why March 14th has not succeeded in breaking Aoun’s popularity. By adopting Geagea, maybe by default, as a Christian figure head and allowing the Hariri clan to treat their disparate array of Christian allies with some disdain, they had gone too far in trampling on the pride of the Christian middle classes. This situation persists today.  Despite the shift in his discourse, which should assure him a broader appeal, Geagea, it is doubtful that he will ever be in a position to capture the imagination of the majority of Christians. This handicap is what maintains the hope of the new generation of Gemayels  in regaining a position of leadership they believe is rightfully theirs. But their real challenge is elsewhere. If they ever manage to ever place their differences to one side, it is primarily the Patriotic movement they will need to wrestle for the ghost of Bachir Gemayel.

Friday, August 24, 2012

From Stockholm to Ezzaz - The saga of the Lebanese hostages in Syria

Joseph El-Khoury
I rarely agree with Hasan Nasrallah. But the comments he made in his latest televised speech on the media's handling of the Lebanese detainees in Syria resonated profoundly with me. Nasrallah was less composed than usual as he accused the media of prioritising their need for a scoop over any other implications.
I shared that feeling from the time that Tania Mehanna irrupted all cameras blazing into that living room flanked by a smiling Abou Brahim. the detainees, whose political affiliation would be fairly predictable went on, in response to Mehanna's questions to voice unconditional support to the cause of their captor. some were more restrained than others, but all displayed fear and despair. 
I do not know who thought that the visit to Ezzaz, the town near the Turkish-Syrian border, was a good idea. Where did the inspiration for the scoop come from? Was there any consideration given to the impact it would have on the detainees, their families or the wider public. Until that date most Lebanese had had a fairly abstract relation with the subject. We knew the detainees had been kept safe and were awaiting for the unravelling of some regional arrangement so they could return home.
The prolonged visit of the Lebanese TV crew created an unprecedented personal bond between the public and all the actors in this tragic soap opera.  It is hard to see how this would not have played a role in the retaliatory kidnappings carried out by Shiaa clans over the last few days. 
LBC and New TV, for all their declared good intentions, in effect contributed to the humiliation imposed on these detainees by the Syrian rebels. Parading them helpless and fearful; asking them to make statements under duress while portraying an atmosphere of osmosis between captor and captive can only be described as unethical. One would remind these media professionals that PRESS TV, the English language outlet of the Islamic Republic of Iran, had recently been prevented from broadcasting in the UK under the premise that they had interviewed an opposition activist who had been detained and tortured by Iranian security forces. I agree totally with the principle. Being forced to make statements you do not agree with is humiliating. Humiliation is traumatic, whether it follows torture or intimidation. Broadcasting the humiliation of a human being makes you complicit in it.
Many who followed the saga in screen drew parallels with the 'Stockholm syndrome'. This psychological term was coined by experts following a bank robbery in 1973 Sweden. It refers to the situation whereby a hostage develops empathic bonds with his captor and becomes complicit in his own kidnapping. There are a number of variants of this syndrome, which rely on many factors; the need for self-preservation being one of them.  Thanks to Tania Mehanna and her colleagues, we have now a media-manufactured Stockholm Syndrome. The consequences so far have been dreadful and with the bombing that followed and might have cost the lives of some hostages, the dust is still to settle both literally and psychologically.
Better care next time.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Difficult Conversations: Syria as seen from Lebanon

Joseph El-Khoury

Few Lebanese can pretend to be fully objective when it comes to events in Syria. The emotional baggage from the 'Pax Syriana', the infamous Status quo imposed by the Assad's regime on the country, still runs deep in the Lebanese psyche bringing significant bias to any cold-hearted analysis.

From the mid 1980s onwards the Syrian regime through its instruments of domination and deception determined the balance of power between the various religious sects; and also within these sects.  The winners and losers from this orderly distribution of musical chairs that followed the chaos of the civil war are the same principal actors of the current political stage, characterised by the confrontation between March 8th and the March 14th alliances (pro- and anti-Hezbollah respectively). Ever since that fateful day in 1976 when troops under the banner of the Arab dissuasion forces rolled across the border at Masnaa, we have had a pro-Syrian camp and an anti-Syrian one. Neutrality was not an option, and contrary to the politically correct discourse, it is that dichotomy that trumps all others, including the divergence of position vis-a-vis Israel and the Palestinians.

And Syria; from Lebanon; for all intent and purposes is Assad's Syria; with its figures, its slogans and its modus operandi.

My compatriots can pretend, on both sides of the argument, that their interest in the future of Syria is primarily motivated by a sense of justice and deep empathy for those dying in  the uprising that has raged on in March 2011. Te truth is that their position on this matter is neither selfless nor shaped by facts. For most Lebanese It is pre-established and unshakeable.

Personally, I am from that generation that was at the receiving end of that mixture of humiliation, pain and fear that simply won’t go away; and invariably I seek some form of retribution. Still, which opinion is not shaped by personal experience; and who can argue with a straight face that it is unreasonable to wish for the demise of the Baath regime or at least a radical overhaul?  My position is unashamedly based on its track record since 1970, not March 2011, in Syria and also in Lebanon. For me, it avoids the distraction of arguing over whether the demonstrators in Deraa were armed infiltrators who shot first or those in Homs are trained Jihadists with Salafi ambitions.

Even if Assad can claim support among sections of the population, including minorities and the business classes, his assessment sheet should make disappointing reading for any outsider sympathisers. With the threat of an Islamic Emirate internally and the challenge of an Arab-Western a coalition externally, after 40 years of totalitarian rule a self proclaimed secular progressive regime has failed at delivering its socialism, freedom and unity; at home and abroad.

As for us Lebanese; the neighborhood is changing and a radical adjustment is on the cards.