May 31, 2008

Hezbollah's Downfall?

Beirut's David Kenner thinks Hezbollah's latest move will ulimately lead to its downfall.

I think he's right, which is what I was getting at when I wrote in COMMENTARY that Hezbollah's power is now at its apogee. Hassan Nasrallah isn't likely to ever be stronger than he is right now. It's all downhill from here. It would be foolish to expect him to fall in the short or medium term, but Kenner's piece is especially worth reading if you're worried that Lebanon will become the next Gaza.

UPDATE: See also Michael Young's latest column in Beirut's Daily Star, which contains this humorous tidbit: "Thanks to the Israelis, who may soon hand a grand prisoner exchange to Hizbullah, Nasrallah may earn a brief reprieve for his "resistance." It's funny how Hizbullah and Syria, always the loudest in accusing others of being Israeli agents, are the ones who, when under pressure, look toward negotiations with Israel for an exit."

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 5:50 PM | Comments (18)

May 29, 2008

Introducing Standpoint Magazine

Daniel Johnson just launched an impressive new magazine in the U.K. called Standpoint. His deputy editor Jonathan Foreman asked me if I’d like to contribute a story for the second issue, and I said sure without even seeing the magazine. Now that my first dead-tree version has arrived in the mail and the Web site has been launched, I’m happy to say I’ll be associated with them in some way and I’m honored to be invited.

Here’s the description on the About Us page:

Standpoint’s core mission is to celebrate our civilization, its arts and its values – in particular democracy, debate and freedom of speech – at a time when they are under threat. Standpoint is an antidote to the parochialism of British political magazines. It will introduce British readers to brilliant writers and thinkers from across the Atlantic, across the Channel and around the world.

In a market swamped by the journalistic equivalent of fast food, Standpoint offers the discerning reader a feast of great writing, properly edited and presented in an elegant design that makes even longer pieces a pleasure to read. Unashamedly highbrow in an era of relentless ‘dumbing down,’ it responds to the unfulfilled needs of the educated public.

Take a look. And for an on-topic piece, here is a dispatch from Beirut by Michael Young. Hariri: An Assassination Too Far.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 4:52 PM | Comments (0)

May 28, 2008

Home Again

By Michael J. Totten

I’ve returned home with quite a lot of fresh material, mainly from Kosovo, but also from Serbia, Bosnia-Hercegovina, Montenegro, Macedonia, and Albania. I spoke to religious leaders, American soldiers, political dissidents, Israelis, current and former ambassadors, and all sorts of other interesting characters.

I initially thought the former Yugoslavia might be a bit far afield from my usual beat in the Middle East, but the more time I spent there, the less I thought so. The troubles that wrack that part of the world really are identical to many of those in the Middle East. This should not be surprising. Most of Europe’s Balkan peninsula belonged to the Turkish Ottoman Empire and was cut off from the West and rest of Europe for hundreds of years. The peoples of Belgrade, Sarajevo, and Prishtina belonged to the same political entity as most of the Arabs for a longer amount of time than the United States has existed as a country. Al Qaeda and like-minded fanatics insist the region will belong to their future caliphate once again.

The stories I have in store for you are more varied than what I’ve been publishing lately. I felt like I was writing different versions of the same story over and over again in Iraq. There isn’t much going on there right now that I haven’t already written about. Perhaps at the end of this year that will change, and I will go back. Lebanon has changed, and I’m more likely to return there in the meantime. We’ll have to see.

Stay tuned. I finally have time to sit down and write, and it seems jet-lag has spared me this time. (I can barely write when I'm jet-lagged.) Hopefully you’ll find my new material entertaining as well as informative.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 9:33 AM | Comments (12)

May 23, 2008

Hezbollah's Victory

by Michael J. Totten

Lebanon’s “March 14” majority coalition in parliament managed to hammer out a temporary agreement with the Hezbollah-led opposition in Doha, Qatar, but that doesn’t mean it’s time to raise a toast to the new peace in Beirut just yet. The streets are quiet and normal again for the most part, but none of Lebanon’s most serious problems have been resolved. While diplomats from Washington to Riyadh are pretending, for form’s sake, that this is a terrific breakthrough for stability and national unity, Charles Malik put it more bluntly and honestly at the Lebanese Political Journal. “The Doha negotiations were never meant to solve everything,” he wrote. “They were meant to stall the violence until after the summer tourist season is over.”

Supposedly this agreement, like most of Lebanon’s arrangements, is a compromise that leaves both parties unsatisfied. But I’m having a hard time figuring out what, exactly, Hezbollah has to be gloomy about. Eighteen months ago thousands of Hezbollah supporters built a tent city downtown and forced the semi-permanent closure of much of the city center. They demanded enough seats in the cabinet to wield veto power over any decision the government makes, despite the fact that they couldn’t win enough seats in the last election to earn it. Well, they finally got their long-demanded blocking minority status in Doha, so they happily took down their tent city. If this weren’t a victory, they’d still be seething downtown.

And it’s a dangerous precedent. A year and a half of mostly non-violent resistance yielded Hezbollah bupkis. After one week of murder and mayhem, the Lebanese government caved. The lesson for Hezbollah is clear: when things don’t go your way, take the rifles out of the garage, hit the streets, and start shooting people and burning down buildings.

Read the rest in COMMENTARY Magazine.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 2:11 PM | Comments (19)

May 21, 2008

Writing While Traveling

by Michael J. Totten

I find it difficult to write the long dispatches you're accustomed to reading while traveling. It takes the better part of a week for me to transcribe the interviews on my voice recorder and the observations and quotes in my notebooks, organize and upload photographs, and write a well-written and thoughtful feature-length article. It doesn't make much sense to spend so much time doing all that while I'm paying for a hotel room and need to be out doing field work. None of my material from Kosovo and the surrounding area is time-sensitive anyway.

In a few days I will be home and can sit down and do some serious writing. I'll try to have another short piece or two for you to read in the meantime. Thanks for being patient while I'm abroad, and thanks again to Tony Badran and Lee Smith for helping out when they can.

The Balkans is a bottomlessly fascinating region where everything I've learned in the Middle East is turned upside down. It's like an alternate history novel here, and it's too bad the region fell off the media map after September 11, 2001. (The Kosovo War, if you recall, occurred only two years before.) If the Kurds of Iraq are instructive foils for Arabs – and they are – they've got nothing on the Albanians in Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, and Albania proper.

PS – Considering the latest developments in Lebanon, I most likely will return to Beirut again sooner than I expected.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 4:56 AM | Comments (9)

May 17, 2008

Lebanon's Future

by Michael J. Totten

Lebanon will not become the next Gaza.

Commenters both inside and outside the country compared Hezbollah's invasion of West Beirut last week to the Hamas takeover of Gaza last year, which is perhaps understandable: that's what it looked like. If Lebanon's mainstream Sunni-dominated party--Saad Hariri's Future Movement--has a militia that is able and willing to fight, it didn't make much of an appearance. Hezbollah seized the western half of the city in a walk. Most journalists focused on this portion of the conflict because West Beirut is where almost every journalist in Lebanon lives and where almost every hotel for visiting journalists is located.

Far less attention has been paid to Hezbollah's military and strategic failure in the Chouf mountains southeast of Beirut where Lebanon's Druze community lives. Hezbollah picked a major fight there and lost. After three days of pitched battles, its gunmen were unable to conquer a single village--even when they brought out mortars and heavy artillery.

The Druze are among the fiercest of warriors, and everyone in Lebanon knows it. They are well-known in Israel, too, where they often serve in elite units of the Israel Defense Forces and suffer lower-than-average casualty rates in battles with Hezbollah and Palestinian terrorist groups. Most of Israel's Sunni Arabs abstain from military service, but Druze Arabs are as loyal to the Israeli state, and are as willing and able to fight for it, as their Lebanese counterparts are in their own country. There's a reason two of the Middle East's religious minorities--Maronite Christians and Druze--live in Lebanon's mountains in significant numbers: attempts to invade and subjugate them are ill-advised, very likely to fail, and therefore rarely attempted by even large armies.

It's debatable whether or not Lebanon's Sunnis are organized and well-armed or not. Certainly they are not compared to Hezbollah. No one in Lebanon is. But Druze chief Walid Jumblatt's Progressive Socialist Party proved they have no shortage of weapons, and they fought off Hezbollah's invasion even though he told them not to. A tiny percentage of Druze are partially loyal to Talal Arslan, Hezbollah's only Druze ally, but they defected in large numbers when Hezbollah launched its attack. They fought on the same side as the rest of their community. Political alliances have their limits, and Arslan's people and Hezbollah discovered theirs. It is now almost safe to say that Hezbollah has no friends at all in the mountains overlooking the dahiyeh, their “capital” and command and control center in the suburbs south of Beirut.

Read the rest in Commentary Magazine.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 12:26 AM | Comments (31)

May 16, 2008

The Real Iraq

by Michael J. Totten

Moment of Truth in Iraq, by Michael Yon (Richard Vigilante Books, 227 pp., $29.95)

Iraq is where ideologies go to die. Arab nationalism, Baathism, anti-Americanism, al-Qaidism, Donald Rumsfeldism, and Moqtada al-Sadrism have either died there or are dying. Conventional liberal opinion, more or less correct about the foundering American war effort from 2004 to 2006, has been severely bloodied—along with Iraq’s worst insurgent groups and militias—by General David Petraeus’s leadership of the American troop surge. Even post-9/11 fear of Islam has proven unsustainable for those who regularly interact with ordinary Iraqis. Independent journalist Michael Yon, who has spent more time embedded with combat soldiers in Iraq than any other reporter, is a refreshingly unideological analyst of the war. His self-published dispatches have earned him a loyal following around the world, and he has set out to reach even more people with the publication of a terrific new book, Moment of Truth in Iraq.

Yon begins his story in medias res. “We are in trouble, but we have a great general,” he writes on the eve of Arrowhead Ripper, the major battle last summer against al-Qaida’s terrorist army in Baqubah, just north of Baghdad. Iraq was all but lost before the battle, when American forces under Petraeus surged into the capital and beyond. Yon then takes us back in time and to the northern city of Mosul, where Petraeus first proved that he knew how to counter an insurgency by working with the local population and protecting it from killers. Yon spent many months in Mosul embedded with the 1-24th Infantry Regiment, or “Deuce Four,” and his first-person narrative of firefights in the city’s streets and alleys is relentless and gripping.

Read the rest in City Journal.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 6:07 AM | Comments (9)

May 15, 2008

Hezbollah's Delusion and the Shia's Dire Straits

By Tony Badran (cross posted at Across the Bay)

Two excellent items in NOW Lebanon:

One, a superb piece by Michael Young on the repercussions of Hezbollah's mad, and failed, coup attempt on the Lebanese Shi'a. It's really a must read (and you can see echoes in Abu Kais' moving post yesterday).

Two, a sharp editorial on Hezbollah's weapons and its dead-end options within a unitary state. Again, it's worth reading in full.

Posted by Tony Badran at 5:03 AM | Comments (13)

May 14, 2008

Hezbollah's Third Botched Coup Attempt

By Tony Badran (cross-posted at Across the Bay)

In three years, since the murder of former PM Rafik Hariri, Hezbollah has attempted three coups -- and failed.

On March 8, 2005, Hezbollah thought that by rallying supporters they would nip the independence movement in the bud, maintain the Syrian occupation of Lebanon, and move on as though nothing happened.

One week later, March 14 happened, in large part as a reaction to Hezbollah's rally. It secured the expulsion of the murderous Assad regime's occupying force.

Then in 2006, with the July war and its aftermath, especially the movement in December 06-January 07.

In their first attempt in January 23-25, Hezbollah tried its coup and relied on Aounist elements. That proved a disaster as the Aounist riffraff were done away with in a matter of hours, ending any prospect of relying on Christian proxies to do Hezbollah's bidding. The Lebanese Forces' Samir Geagea, whose supporters were instrumental in dispersing the Aounists, was the central figure during that coup.

Then came this last attempt, which Nasrallah deliberately placed in parallel to the aftermath of the Hariri assassination: i.e., this was intended to be the official reversal of the independence movement.

After Hezbollah took west Beirut, attacking civilians in their homes, ransacking and terrorizing neighborhoods and media outlets, following a conscious decision by Hariri not to put up a fight, the Iranian militia foolishly thought that it can just as easily overrun Jumblat on his own turf in the Shouf.

Hezbollah had another thing coming. For three days of intensive fighting in the Shouf, and contrary to the lying info ops and disinformation of Hezbollah water carriers like this clueless Hezbollah willful tool (on whose propaganda for Hezbollah I've written in the past and will soon be ripping to shreds once again), not a single village in the Shouf fell to Hezbollah. Not Niha, like that Hezbollah watercarrier MacLeod wrote, not anything.

Quite the contrary. According to the PSP and other local sources, more than three dozen Hezbollah fighters were killed and a number of their vehicles were destroyed. The fact that they had to introduce artillery and vehicles (mounted with heavy machine guns, like so, and recoilless rifles, like so) only showed that they could not make advances into the villages.

Not just that, but Hezbollah's attack has led Talal Arslan's fighters to switch and fight alongside the PSP against Hezbollah, undermining Hezbollah's tiny Druze ally -- which is precisely why Jumblat put him in the forefront from the get go (it was not, as shrill commentators and dishonest flacks read it, a sign of "weakness." It was a shrewed move by a master tactician.).

At the end of the day, the PSP maintained control of the strategic hills of the Barouk to the east and Ras al-Jabal west of Aley, overlooking the Dahiyeh.

And so, Jumblat and the Shouf played a historical role these last few days (and I will have a lengthy post on Jumblat's role in this crisis asap) and have essentially botched Hezbollah's coup.

All the idiotic commentators, from Paul Salem onwards, who talked about a different "political balance" as a result of the fighting, don't and never did know what they're talking about. This is political suicide for Hezbollah, who has already made contacts with Hariri through a third party informing him that they're looking for an exit. They know they're in a jam.

Not just that, now the government is in a position to leverage rescinding its decisions -- which it could never implement to begin with! -- and we're already seeing M14 and government sources expressing that.

For one, all M14 officials -- including Hariri who made a powerful, uncompromising speech yesterday -- are now unanimous about placing the fate of Hezbollah's weapons as the first item on any "dialogue" agenda. Gone are the days of the "sanctity" of the weapons of the "resistance." Minister Joe Sarkis has added that any rescinding of the decisions has to be met by not just a withdrawal of armed men from the streets and the reopening of all roads, but also the evacuation of the tent city in downtown Beirut.

The mere fact that M14 and the government are bartering the rescinding of a decision that was never going to be implemented (and if the government was illegitimate, according to Hezbollah, then why even bother focusing on its decisions and thereby affirm its legitimacy?) suggests, regardless of outcome, that they know that there's no "new balance" advantageous to Hezbollah that forces them to capitulate.

Army Commander Suleiman is now under tons of pressure. Hariri himself criticized the Army's performance, and we know that 40 senior officers submitted their resignation (which would've split the Army) in protest of Suleiman's handling of the situation (and we also know that criminal pro-Aounist officers were particularly egregious during the crisis). Saudi outlets have even criticized the Army's performance, putting more pressure on Suleiman to get his act together if he wants to become president (especially now that any gambit about Hezbollah tilting the balance has failed). The US, which also has leverage through its aid to the Army might also do the same. These kinds of pressures, domestic, regional and international, and Suleiman's susceptibility to them, is why Syria won't take a chance with him. Anyone who doesn't fall and lick Bashar's boots without hesitation at a moment's notice cannot be trusted as far as the murderer of Damascus is concerned, and it's why Syria knows that it must return militarily to Lebanon in order to rule it. Even doing it by proxy, through Hezbollah, hasn't worked.

This is far from over. In fact, this has only just begun.

Posted by Tony Badran at 9:53 AM | Comments (17)

May 12, 2008

Jumblatt's Men Set Back Iran's Militia in Lebanon

By Lee Smith

Our friend and colleague in Lebanon Elie Fawaz writes in to remind us that The War for Lebanon has not even begun yet in earnest and Hezbollah's "victory" in Beirut is not all it seems:

"So, we know that Hezbollah's well-trained fighters are in control of most of west Beirut. The decision taken by Walid Jumblat and Saad al-Hariri not to fight back in Beirut, but rather hand most of their positions to the army ended any illusion regarding the sanctity of the "resistance" – that it would never turn its weapons inward, for now its hands are dripping with the blood of innocent Lebanese. But it's different in the Chouf where Jumblatt's forces bloodied Hezbollah.

"The Chouf is calm now after fighting over the weekend in which forces belonging to Talal Arslan, part of the Hezbollah-led opposition, jumped sides and joined alongside Jumblatt's men. As the Progressive Socialist Party website reports: 'The free people of the Shouf roll back an attack by the Iranian militias causing severe casualties in lives and equipment.'

"Hence, Jumblatt sounded more assertive last night on LBC news because he knows he got the upper-hand in the Chouf battles (Reuters is reporting at least 14 Hezbollah gunmen killed. Meanwhile, the PSP website is claiming 32 Hezbollah fighters killed and 250 wounded.). He was willing to hand his offices over to the army to deflect some of the tension and because he wants to avoid a civil war."

In short, what happened in West Beirut was a given. According to a report from the pro-Hezbollah Lebanese paper Al-Akhbar, this coup had been planned well in advance and its mastermind was the recently assassinated Hezbollah commander Imad Mughniyeh. The government may in fact have forced Nasrallah to show his hand at a time of its choosing, not his. Hezbollah's walkover in Beirut came as a surprise to no one; nor did the performance of the army, except perhaps the Bush administration which must now reconsider the amount of money it has spent on equipment and training for the Lebanese Armed Forces.

As for the pro-government fighters in Beirut, contrary to most press accounts, there are no Sunni "militias" in the capital. Rather, it is mostly defensive armament, private citizens with small arms defending their families, homes and property. So it is hardly any surprise that Hezbollah managed to overrun Sunni neighborhoods easily. But that is merely one small part of Lebanon, and while the attention of the foreign press has focused on fighting in one sector of the capital, events throughout the rest of the country suggest that Hezbollah's "rout" is illusory. Tony Badran, drawing on various Lebanese accounts and his own reporting, offers this account:

"After taking over West Beirut, Hezbollah tried to move to the Shouf, where there are two Shiite towns, Kayfoun and Qmatiyye. Hezbollah is trying to link them up to the Dahieh through the Karameh road, which links Dahieh to Choueifat-Aramoun-Doha-Deir Qoubel-Aytat-Kayfoun and Qmatiye, so that it can make encroachments, maintain access routes and not allow the Druze to surround the two Shiite towns.

"That was the plan, but Hezbollah got a severe beating in the Shouf. They were not able to penetrate anything, relying instead – for the first time in the current fighting – on artillery/mortar fire. To no avail. Yesterday alone we heard that seven Hezbollah fighters who tried to infiltrate got killed.

"Hence, Hezbollah burned its Druze ally, Talal Arslan. Whatever tiny following Arslan had before this, it's safe to say it has been seriously damaged. Witness for instance the fate of Syria's little Druze creation, the pitbull Wi'am Wahhab, who, it is rumored, has taken his followers (which on a good day may actually reach about 100) and left the Shouf altogether.

"Meanwhile in Northern Lebanon, the pro-opposition Alawites are being slammed by Sunnis in the Baal Mohsen area. Similarly, Sunnis in the Akkar area in the north attacked and torched offices of the SSNP, Baath party, Hezbollah and Aoun, killing a good number of SSNPs. As with Arslan, we see a parallel development, former PM Omar Karami, a Sunni who is at the same time trying to support Hezbollah while shoring up his Sunni bona fides. So he lamented the "deep wound" that has occurred between Sunnis and Shia, and told Hezbollah that if this becomes a sectarian fight, then we have two choices: to either stay home, or fight with our sect.

"So far we've had the luxury of not seeing this sad charade play out in the Christian areas. Sleiman Frangieh has been inconspicuously quiet these last few days. Michel Aoun, on the other hand, can't help himself. So, while there are rumors that he might be urging Hezbollah in to East Beirut, others are watching to see if Nasrallah will attempt to do with the tiny Shiite communities in Nab'a, Metn, and Keserwan/Jbeil, what they did with Qmatiyye and Kayfoun.

"And so, the Party of God has achieved the 'great victory' of conquering a few Beiruti streets, terminating the credibility of the army, hastening the prospect of its disintegration, and damaging beyond repair for the foreseeable future, the Shiites' ties to the Lebanese social fabric."

Hezbollah and its allies have won one small battle in a war that has just begun.

Posted by Tony Badran at 6:39 AM | Comments (65)

May 11, 2008

The Tea Boy

By Lee Smith

The other day the Obama campaign distanced itself from Robert Malley for his dealings with Hamas. Never mind the disingenuousness of a campaign that up until the day before yesterday when he was fired from the campaign said Malley was not with the campaign, even though a New York Times defense in his behalf said he was with the campaign. What is manifestly clear however is that Obama and his banished adviser/non-adviser share the same worldview. Consider this passage from a press release expressing his "support" for Lebanon.

It's time to engage in diplomatic efforts to help build a new Lebanese consensus that focuses on electoral reform, an end to the current corrupt patronage system, and the development of the economy that provides for a fair distribution of services, opportunities and employment.

Yes, the problem with Lebanon is not the militia backed by Damascus and Tehran that who have squared off against almost every US ally in the Middle East. No, in the Obama worldview, the issue is about "the corrupt patronage system." What is more corrupt than the issues that instigated the current crisis: Hezbollah's efforts to, a, build a state within a state and, b, undermine the sovereignty of the Lebanese government? And what is a more unfair distribution of services than an armed party at the service of foreign parties?

Obama's language is derived from those corners of the left that claim Hezbollah is only interested in winning the Shia a larger share of the political process. Never mind the guns, it's essentially a social welfare movement, with schools and clinics! – and its own foreign policy, intelligence services and terror apparatus, used at the regional, international and now domestic level. But the solution, says, Obama, channeling the man he fired for talking to Hamas, is diplomacy.

Abu Kais over at From Beirut to the Beltway has a takedown of the half-term Senator from Ilinois' statement on Lebanon that is a must read.

Oh the time we wasted by fighting Hizbullah all those years with rockets, invasions of their homes and shutting down their media outlets. If only we had engaged them and their masters in diplomacy, instead of just sitting with them around discussion tables, welcoming them into our parliament, and letting them veto cabinet decisions. If only Obama had shared his wisdom with us before, back when he was rallying with some of our former friends at pro-Palestinian rallies in Chicago.

As Tony Badran wrote me this morning: "I think Obama's statement is counterproductive in that it will be read by Syria as confirming their hope that there might be a chance with an Obama presidency to get back Lebanon.

"And so, there's a good possibility that the first thing the Syrians will do in 2009 is to coordinate Hezbollah launching an attack on Israel. Syria would then present its services promising to 'deal' with the situation. Obama would be pressed by the foreign policy luminaries to send a delegation to 'negotiate' with Syria, the way many were urging President Bush to do in 2006, but he wisely resisted. Simultaneously, Syria would push a return to a peace process with Israel, and presto, the rules of the 1990s, which the Syrians have been desperately seeking after, are reinstated, whereby Syria would be able to pursue proxy war and a peace process simultaneously while restoring its control on Lebanon, which is the primary objective."

The number of Western journalists, academics and policymakers who have bartered their minds and souls in the political bazaars of the Middle East for blandishments real and imagined is too mind-numbing to contemplate. Like tourists in the souq, they are too flattered by the hospitality to suppose that the man who stands in between them and the beautiful chessboard they want to take home with has already exacted his price just by seating them. And how would you like your tea, President Obama?

Posted by Tony Badran at 10:10 AM | Comments (27)

May 10, 2008

Lebanon’s Third Civil War

by Michael J. Totten

The third civil war has begun in Lebanon.

The first war was a short one. Sunni Arab Nationalists in thrall to Egyptian dictator Gamal Abdel Nasser wanted to attach Lebanon to the United Arab Republic – a brief union of Egypt and Syria. An even larger bloc of Maronite Christians resisted. A nation cannot hold itself together when a large percentage of its population – roughly a third – wish to be annexed by foreign powers.

The second war was a long one. This time, Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian Liberation Organization formed a state-within-a-state in West Beirut and South Lebanon and used it as a launching pad for terrorist attacks against Israel. Again, Lebanon’s Christians resisted, as did Lebanon’s Shias. The second civil war was actually a series of wars that were merely triggered by that first fatal schism.

The third civil war resembles both the first and the second. With Iranian money and weapons, Hezbollah has built its own state-within-a-state in South Lebanon and South Beirut which is used as a base to wage war against Israel. Hezbollah also wishes to violently yank Lebanon from its current pro-Western alignment into the Syrian-Iranian axis. Roughly one-fourth of the population supports this agenda. No country on earth can withstand that kind of geopolitical tectonic pressure. For more than a year members of Hezbollah have tried unsuccessfully to topple the elected government with a minimal use of force, but their patience is at an end and they have turned to war.

My old liberal Sunni neighborhood of Hamra near the American University of Beirut – the best in the Middle East – is now occupied by the private army of a foreign police state. Masked gunmen take up positions in a neighborhood of five star hotels, restaurants, and cafes (including a Starbucks) where students like to hang out while reading books by authors like Jean Paul Sartre and Albert Camus. They burned down Prime Minister Fouad Seniora’s Future Movement headquarters building. They stormed the offices of TV and radio stations and threatened to dynamite the buildings if the reporters refused to stop broadcasting. They seized the property of Saad Hariri – son of the assassinated former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri – and they control all the exits. Member of Parliament Ammar Houry’s house is now occupied. Al Arabiya says they attacked the Ottoman-era Grand Serail, the current prime minister’s office.

Hezbollah used automatic weapons, mortars, rocket-propelled grenades, and sniper rifles to seize all, if not most, of West Beirut. The only weapons its gunmen haven’t deployed are its Katyusha rockets, which are useless in urban warfare, and car bombs, which aren’t.

Read the rest in Commentary Magazine.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 2:01 PM | Comments (58)

May 9, 2008

Terrific Lebanon Coverage

by Michael J. Totten

Lebanon always seems to explode when I'm somewhere else and can't get there. It is impossible to predict when it will happen, and the airport is always the first casualty. So I can't report first-hand. No one else can get there either. That didn't stop me from filing a medium-length piece just now for Commentary, which I will republish here when it goes up over there. In the meantime, check out Noah Pollak's coverage at the same magazine. It is excellent.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 4:20 PM | Comments (11)

May 8, 2008

Hezbollah's Endgame? Pt. 2

by Lee Smith

David Wurmser, formerly Vice President Cheney's Middle East adviser, writes in to comment on Iran's role in the Beirut crisis.

"Iran has suffered some pretty serious defeats in Iraq, foremost is that the Shiites there kind of turned on Iran. May they not need to pull back and focus on their role as the champion of the Shiites right now, even at the cost of compromising their efforts to jump the Sunni-Shiite divide? They may actually be in no better a shape among Lebanon's Shiites as they are among Iraq's. Second, there were these really odd nasty exchanges between Zawahiri and Iran, which may have been born of Iran's desire right now to solidify its own role as Shiite champion.

"Ahmadinejad himself has presided over a fairly turbulent few weeks, as the principalist faction, of which he and the speaker of the Majlis are both part. That faction has descended into caustic bickering – probably as a result of the traditional clergy of Qom's resisting his increasing militarization of government – over a number of matters from ministerial resignations to constitutional wrangling to banking and fiscal independence, while his own mentor had one of his papers unusually slam him for meeting with former nationalists associated with Mossadeq. He may even face a no confidence move if the Majlis maneuvers to force another cabinet resignation. And all this while faces a chorus of response from the traditional clergy of Qom, who are horrified about his claims to be informed by the 12th imam.

"And there's something else, too: In that press conference Walid Jumblatt held about the airport security, he also called for the expulsion of Iran's ambassador. That could be a redline for Iran. And if it happened, it would deal a heavy blow to the Iranians."

I asked David if Jumblatt's request might signal that Washington is fully aware of, and behind, March 14's actions at this point.

"It may be part of our effort to push back on Iran right now. As far afield as Afghanistan you find the Afghani government saying that Iran is sending weapons. So, across the board, we are pushing back against Iran. But the thing with the Iranians is, if you push you had better be ready to take it to the next level with them, because they will push back hard."

While countless US, European and Israeli policymakers, analysts and journalists counseled that diplomacy would manage to "wedge" Syria away from Iran, there was really only wedge issue between them: Iran wanted to avoid sectarian warfare while the Syrians were willing, eager, to set fire to Lebanon – again. If this crisis is different, as David Wurmser says, different from the rest of the various crises that have plagued Lebanon the last three years, ever since the April 2005 withdrawal of Syrian troops, it is because there no longer is any difference between Tehran and Damascus' Beirut strategy.

Posted by Tony Badran at 2:09 PM | Comments (23)

The Military Situation in Beirut

By Tony Badran (cross-posted at Across the Bay)

Fighting in Beirut has broken out between Hezbollah/Amal and Future Movement supporters. Here's a brief look at the military situation. For a political reading, see the post by Lee Smith below, and make sure to read the excellent quoted op-ed by Michael Young.

The tactics are reminiscent of the 1970s-80s war, with two essential differences: 1- the trigger is not the Palestinian guerrilla threat to the state, but Hezbollah's threat to Lebanon, and 2- the beginning fault line is to the west of the 1975 flash point.

The current areas of clashes are roughly along a crescent from Hamra and the vicinity of the Serail in the north down to Tariq el-Jdideh in the south, and the vicinity of Qoreitem (Hariri's residence) and Ain el-Tineh (Berri's residence) in the west to Ras el-Nabe' in the east.

The areas therein are mixed Sunni-Shiite areas, especially in the Corniche Mazraa-Barbour area, and the fighting has even touched on the Druze neighborhood northward, next to Hamra. The vicinity of the Serail has also seen some fire.

The armed clashes have included standards of the civil war: light and medium machine guns, grenades and RPGs (and, apparently, we're now seeing light mortars by Hezbollah in Ras el-Nabe' -- also a staple of the 70s-80s), and sniping, which was/is a highly effective tool to control opposing movements and neighborhoods in built-up areas.

The nature of the fighting, again, typical of the 70s-80s, involves control/blocking of access routes (using bulldozers, landfills, etc.), main roads and highways, control of neighborhoods (esp. those that are mixed), and control of strategic tall buildings (for sniping).

There's no clear report yet regarding casualties and the situation on the ground in terms of advances, if any, by the combatants and the control of neighborhoods. Interestingly, the blockages of roads has involved both parties. The coastal road leading to the south has been cut, in a message to the ability to cut off the communication between Hezbollah areas, isolating them in certain areas, should the fighting develop.

The Army is positioned at certain roads, and is attempting to open certain roads.

This is a brief synopsis and I'll hopefully have more as time permits.

Posted by Tony Badran at 12:56 PM | Comments (2)

Brief Dispatches from the New Lebanon War

by Michael J. Totten

Is there actually a new war in Lebanon? Maybe. That's what it looks like if you read the brief dispatches on my friend Charles Malik's blog. He is in Beirut now and hearing gunfire and rockets in his neighborhood. That used to be my neighborhood. Anyway, more war in Lebanon is inevitable as long as Hezbollah exists.

Another friend told me in an email today that Lebanon is actually in worse shape than it appears in the media. This is new. It is usually the other way around.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 12:51 PM | Comments (5)

Hezbollah's Endgame?

By Lee Smith

Elie Fawaz, a friend and colleague with the Lebanese Renaissance Foundation in Beirut, provides on-the-ground analysis on the developing situation in Lebanon:

"Beirut witnessed another round of sectarian violence yesterday following decisions of the Lebanese government to sanction and remove Hezbollah's illegal private telecommunication lines, and to replace the head of the international airport security for his direct responsibility in allowing Hezbollah to install private spying cams on one of its runaways.

"Hezbollah closed down the roads leading to the airport, and a couple of others leading to its headquarters in Dahieh by unloading trucks of dirt and sand and by burning tires. They also clashed with Sunni groups in areas of Beirut.

"The Christian suburbs stayed calm, unwilling to participate in the demonstrations despite the calls of Free Patriotic Movement leader Michel Aoun to join in. This proves clearly that Aoun's popularity is seriously damaged, as it also shows that the majority of the Christians refuse to grant Hezbollah a cover for its attempted coup.

"More remarkably, the Grand Mufti of the Lebanese Republic Sheikh Mohammed Rashid Qabbani (the religious head of the Sunni community) accused Hezbollah of staging a coup, and warned that Sunnis of Lebanon are fed up with Hezbollah's ways and Iran's interference. He also called on all Arab and Muslim nations to help put an end for this crisis. These two developments, for the first time since the conflict between the opposition and the majority began, left Hezbollah, alone and uncovered.

"For years Hezbollah has tried to jump the sectarian divide by defending the causes of the umma. But when Israel withdrew from South Lebanon in 2000, Hezbollah's armada lost its raison d'etre. Yet even after the Syrian occupation ended in 2005 following the assassination of Rafiq al-Hariri, the party refused to terminate its mission and give up its arms and the many privileges enjoyed under Damascus' tutelage. To survive, Hezbollah needs its perpetual resistance, but the Party of God is today at odds with the rest of the Lebanese, and the survival of Lebanon as a state depends on the government bringing an end to this conflicted situation. There is no way one state can have two centers of decision-making, two policies, two armies, two economies, that are at odds with each others. The road to the airport must be re-opened at any cost, and Hezbollah must cease his state within a state either by negotiations or by force."

Tony Badran, also blogging here in Michael Totten's absence, weighs in as well:

"What this has done is lay bare all the charades of the last two years that Hezbollah's is a "national" opposition, etc. What we saw yesterday is that Christians didn't budge (Aounists that is), in any region. And so, what you have here is Hezbollah vs. the rest, and Hezbollah vs. the state. Politically this is very bad for them, and obviously for Aoun. In that sense it was a shrewd political move by March 14, because it hit them on a point that they can't get sympathizers for outside their thugs (i.e., they have no allies, and they're fighting the state!). Second, it puts them in a corner: they either force the government to capitulate, or they lose themselves. Nasrallah is against the wall."

In his press conference today, Nasrallah demanded that the government must back down from its decision. The government says no, that would mean the end of the state. Washington, along with the other international and regional actors like France, Saudi Arabia and the UN that have stood alongside the Lebanese government these last several years can only be pleased that the government has asserted its sovereignty in key respects; and it should be noted that Hezbollah's redline appears to consist of the government acting like a government. However, as Michael Young points out in The Daily Star, Hezbollah's security apparatus had penetrated the Rafiq al-Hariri international airport long before it installed cameras. Indeed, the assassinations of several March 14 figures a day after they had returned from abroad, especially Gebran Tueni and Antoine Ghanem, indicated that the airport was riddled with pro-Syrian assets. The question then is, why did the government act now?

In an email, Michael Young suggested it might be because of the debate today at the UN on Security Council 1559 that calls for the disarmament of all militias in Lebanon. "Suddenly the issue of Hizbullah's weapons is back on the table internationally, where the majority wants to put it," writes Michael.

There are two other possibilities Tony Badran and I have been entertaining today.

The first is that the government may believe that Hezbollah's preparations for another war with Israel have reached a critical point; given that Siniora and his cabinet have long understood that their actions would lead to a confrontation with Hezbollah, another war with Israel is a more daunting threat.

Second, as Tony conjectures, the Lebanese are watching closely a the US presidential campaign unfolds and are likely concerned what an Obama presidency represents for March 14, especially if Hezbollah starts a war with Israel: it means the pillar of the international alliance supporting a democratic Lebanon is apt to go hat in hand to Hezbollah's patrons in Tehran and Damascus looking to "engage." If there is another war, the US impulse will likely be to go over March 14's head and sue for peace with Iran and Syria, which is precisely what Bush resisted.

Finally, as Tony and Elie Fawaz and Michael Young are always careful to insist to Lebanon watchers, it is important to consider not just the local situation, but also the regional and international dimensions of the Lebanese arena. Assuming that the Syrians have no problem with sectarian strife in Lebanon, or anything to delay or obscure the international tribunal into the Hariri assassination, the foremost questions then concern Iran.

A Shia-Sunni conflict in Lebanon might well damage Iran's own efforts to jump the sectarian divide. What level of control does Tehran have over Hezbollah at this stage while the Party may well be in an existential fight over its role not just as an armed militia, but as a Lebanese party? Further, and perhaps most importantly to Washington, what will Hezbollah's actions, and Tehran's decisions, say about Iran's war against the US-backed order throughout the rest of the region – from Gaza (Hamas vs. Israel and Egypt), through the Arab Gulf states, and most especially Iraq? If the Iranians fear they are losing in Iraq, will they agree to heat up Lebanon, or do they understand that Hezbollah is inviting a civil war it cannot win, and thus risking Tehran's near 30-year, multi-billion dollar investment in exporting the Islamic Revolution?

Posted by Tony Badran at 9:47 AM | Comments (5)

May 6, 2008

The Real Moderates

by Michael J. Totten

I'll have a proper-length dispatch published here shortly, and in the meantime here's a short one for you to chew on over at Commentary.

Lee Smith laments that American Muslims have to read almost exclusively about scary Muslims and slightly less scary Muslims in the mainstream American media. “One can only sympathize with American Muslims,” he writes,

those who may or may not be religious, but surely have no attachment to the obscurantist fanatics that drove them from the region, and must now be wondering what is wrong with the New York Times that the only Muslims that register with the paper of record are very scary ones, and less scary ones.

I have noticed and been annoyed by this tendency myself, and it goes double today: I'm writing this from the capital of Kosovo, the least “scary” Muslim country on Earth. I've grown accustomed to moderate Muslims after living in and traveling to places like Beirut and Istanbul, but Kosovo is surprising even to me. Islam in this country is so thoroughly liberal (“moderate” doesn't quite cover it) that, if it weren't for the mosques, there would be no visible evidence that Kosovo is a Muslim country at all. I've been in Prishtina, the capital, for four days, and I can count the number of women I've seen wearing a hijab on one hand. Aside from the conservative dating culture, women here are as liberated as Christian women in the rest of the Balkan region.

A large number of Kosovo's Muslims are Sufis--the most peaceful and the least fundamentalist of all the world's Muslims. Sufis can be found in many parts of the Islamic world, but here in Kosovo they proudly proclaim that they are the most “progressive” of all.

Soft-imperial Wahhabis are trying to export their brand of Islam from the deserts of Saudi Arabia to this fertile green land. They have their work cut out for them with this crowd. Bosnia notoriously welcomed thousands of Salafist mujahideen fighters from the Arab world during Yugoslavia's violent demise. But the Kosovo Liberation Army brusquely told them to stay the hell out of their country--even while they faced an ethnic cleansing campaign directed from Belgrade.

Read the rest in Commentary.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 2:35 PM | Comments (79)

May 5, 2008

More From the Less-Scary Muslims File

By Lee Smith

After the Hamas-loving Bensonhurst imam, Tariq Ramadan, and feel-good sharia, yet more from the New York Times on Moderate Islam.

A story about Pakistani schools opened by Fetullah Gulen, a controversial Turkish theologian and political activist with close ties to Ankara's ruling AK Party. "He has lived in exile in the United States since 2000," writes the Times, "after getting in trouble with secular Turkish officials." That's certainly a fine way to put it. According to Michael Rubin's recent article on Gulen, the Turkish judiciary charged him in 1998 with trying to "undermine the secular system" while "camouflag[ing] his methods with a democratic and moderate image."

While it is possible the paper merely failed to report Gulen's conviction, it would be in keeping with the thrust of the Times' campaign on behalf of Moderate Islam to airbrush this rather inconvenient fact. A Turkish Sufi, even if he tried to undermine the secular nature of a US ally, is less scary than the adolescent Pakistani mobs he is trying to educate; Tariq Ramadan, even if he is of two minds about stoning women to death for adultery, is less scary than bin Laden; Brooklyn's Reda Shata may have mourned the death of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, but he is less scary than Omar Abdul Rahman, the Brooklyn sheikh jailed for his role in the 1993 WTC attack. Unfortunately, it seems to be beyond the scope of the Times to recognize that this is how politics is typically waged in the Muslim Middle East, with the "moderates" serving as both arsonists and firemen, using the violence of the "extremists" against the established order and promising to rein them in.

Finally, one can only sympathize with American Muslims, those who may or may not be religious, but surely have no attachment to the obscurantist fanatics that drove them from the region, and must now be wondering what is wrong with the New York Times that the only Muslims that register with the paper of record are very scary ones, and less scary ones.

Posted by Tony Badran at 10:39 AM | Comments (32)

May 2, 2008

The Syrian Track: Much ado about Nothing

By Tony Badran (cross-posted at Across the Bay)

Jonathan Spyer has penned what is by far the most sober analysis of the current soap opera involving Turkey, Syria and Israel.

Put briefly, Spyer explains why this is a dead end because the main objective of Syrian track enthusiasts in Israel -- taking Syria out of the Iran-Hezbollah-Hamas nexus -- is a fantasy.

But Spyer's insight lies in his explanation as to why this is the case. As some of you might know, this is something I've discussed at length on my blog. The main deficiency in the prevailing ignorant punditry on the subject is that it sets out from two faulty premises: 1- that the motivating force for Syria's behavior, including its alliance with Iran, is grievance -- i.e. it's reactive. And 2- therefore the solution lies in finding the right price to settle that grievance.

Spyer's argument is that Syria has its own objectives and its own role conception -- what EU MP Jana Hybaskova correctly dubbed "an over-exaggerated" self-image -- and that is the motivation behind its alliance. Or, as Maher Assad tool Samir Taqi put it, "It is naïve to think Syria would behave foolishly and abandon its strategic alliances with Iran and Hizbullah, which are not limited solely to the Israeli-Arab conflict but also touch on topical geopolitical issues. These strategic associations are for the long term." (Emphasis mine.)

In other words, as many of us have been saying for the longest time, the Middle East (and regime interests and ambitions) doesn't revolve around the "peace process" -- except of course for the Western "peace processors." Spyer explains what those "geopolitical issues" are, and how they are directly related to the regime's nature as well as its limited -- all violent -- assets which "allow it to punch above its weight in the region":
Syria lacks the size of Egypt and the resources of Saudi Arabia. But it has been able to project power and influence in the region because of its willingness to support radicalism, act as a disruptive force and thus create a situation in which it cannot be ignored. Thus, Damascus backs a host of Palestinian groups opposed to a peaceful settlement of the conflict with Israel - including Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, PFLP-GC and others. Syria offered significant support to the Sunni insurgency in Iraq. And most importantly, Damascus maintains influence in Lebanon - following its ignominious departure in 2005 - via its relationship with the pro-Iranian Shia militia, Hizbullah. The ability to foment chaos and project influence in Lebanon is key for the Assad regime.
[O]nly by backing the radical power in the region can Syria maintain its powerful role as mischief-maker. No Iran means no more fomenting radicalism, no more reaping the benefits of having to be bought off, no more pro-Iranian militias to help out in Lebanon, no return to Lebanon, and the nightmarish possibility of seeing major regime figures collared for the killing of Hariri. It is a near certainty that the regime will prefer to maintain all of these - with the additional mobilising charge of the "occupied Golan" into the bargain - rather than give it all up and become a minor, status quo power.
This is why, as Spyer goes on to note, the absurd notion of "returning Syria into the Sunni Arab fold" always was an incomprehensible hilarity to me, as I've written several times on this blog. Spyer concludes:
In other words, Syria is too deeply committed, on too many levels, to its alliance with Iran to consider abandoning it for the Golan and the Arab mainstream. Syria's conflict with Israel can't be separated out from Damascus's larger regional concerns. Hence, with all due respect to the Turkish mediators, we are faced here with another manifestation of that well-known Middle Eastern phenomenon: much ado about nothing.
Or, as the regime's Oklahoma-based poodle put it: "inducing Damascus to follow a 'Syria First' policy, much as Jordan follows a 'Jordan First' policy ... is a tall order as it requires Syria making an ideological and strategic about face. It's entire identity would need to be turned inside out."

This echoes the assessment made by Hybaskova: "Anything we touched, [the] answer was similar. Syria is different. Syria is unique. As such it quite clearly cannot be a normal, equal member of the international community, of [the] community of states in the Middle East. Syria is so different that it can pursue its relations with its neighborhood differently than normal states. It reserves for itself the right to interfere, to collaborate openly with terrorists."

And since this is the case, Spyer rightly concluded that all this riffraff is much ado about nothing. The Assad regime will not "flip," because, as that same regime poodle put it, it views such behavior and identity change as "tantamount to regime change."

Posted by Tony Badran at 12:58 PM | Comments (2)