Sunday, March 06, 2005

Puzzling Out Syria

Starting from this interview with Steven A. Cook, Bradford Plumer examines the current state of Syria:

Josh Landis had a post awhile back about how even if Bashar Assad wanted to crack down on the Iraqi Baathists inside Syria, he might not be able to due to corruption, bureaucratic inefficiency, incompetence, etc. etc. Now it seems with the latest capture of a high-ranking Iraqi insurgent—one of Saddam's half-brothers—by Syrian intelligence, this might change. On the one hand, the dude was captured in Beirut, where Syrian intelligence seems really quite good, so it's no guarantee that the Damascus government can continue to crack down on Iraqis. And on the other other hand, perhaps this is all a shrewd move by Syria to get the U.S. off its back. ("We'll capture you some nice juicy Iraqi Baathists, you let us wander around in Lebanon for a bit longer, eh?")


Blogger Management said...

Steven A. Cook, a Council expert on Syria, says that Syria must be suspected in the February 14 assassination of popular political and business figure, Rafik Hariri, because Damascus has a history of assassinating political opponents in Lebanon. "I think your default position has to start with a suspicion of Syrian involvement," says Cook, "whether it is Bashar al-Assad's government, or some element within the Syrian security services who organized it."

The large street demonstrations calling for the withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanon recall the recent pro-democracy demonstrations in Ukraine, Cook says. But he cautions that Syria retains significant support in Lebanon, especially from Shiite militant group Hezbollah, which has organized demonstrations calling on the Syrians to remain.

Cook, the Council's Next Generation fellow, was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for, on February 22, 2005.
Other Interviews

Let's start briefly with a run-down on the relations between Syria and Lebanon. Both came under French control after the 1919 Versailles Conference.

Well, from the Syrian perspective, Syria and Lebanon were made one country; in fact, the Syrians have irredentist claims on Lebanese territory.

Under the Turks, the two nations were under the same jurisdiction?

Yes. Under the Ottoman Empire, they were known as the Levant states. The Syrians consider Lebanon to be part of historic Greater Syria. In fact, you hear some Syrians--not all, by any means--talk about one people, two countries. The connotation is that the two countries are the artificial creation of colonial powers.

Did the French want Syria and Lebanon divided?

It wasn't necessarily the French who wanted the territory divided, although the French colonial policy was to build up minorities at the expense of the overwhelming majority. [More importantly], Maronite Christians within Mount Lebanon lobbied the French government as fellow Christians to create a separate country [after the end of World War I].

And at that time the Christians were a larger percentage of the Lebanese population than they are now?

Exactly. [In 1932, Christians comprised some 51 percent of the Lebanese people. In 2003, 39 percent of Lebanese were Christians, according to the CIA Factbook.]

Jumping forward, it's well known that the Syrians sent troops into Lebanon in the 1970s to put down a civil war. Talk a bit about that.

It's a very complicated situation, because the Syrians, when they committed troops to Lebanon, were inconsistent. They came in to assist the Christians, ended up supporting Muslim factions, then turned around again to the Christians, and then back again. The problem for the Syrians, once the Lebanese civil war began, was essentially two-fold. First, the ethnic and sectarian differences underneath the surface in Syria had exploded in Lebanon, and the Syrians wanted to keep them from infecting Syria. Second, Syrians feared an unstable Lebanon caught up in civil war because they were concerned it would lead to an Israeli invasion [to counter Palestinian Liberation Organization factions operating in Lebanon]. The Israelis did invade and occupy parts of Lebanon, first in 1978, and again in 1982. This presented serious security problems for the Syrians, who feared that if Israelis were in Lebanon, they could squeeze the Syrians from Lebanon and the Golan Heights, which the Israelis have occupied since the 1967 war.

How much does it cost Syria to keep thousands of troops in Lebanon? Do the Lebanese pay for their expenses?

No. The Lebanese don't pay for them per se, but Lebanon has become an economic lifeboat for Syria. There are thousands of Syrian workers, along with Syrian soldiers, in Lebanon who send money back to Syria. There is a certain amount of smuggling that goes on through Lebanon. And so Syria, which is facing a dire economic situation right now, sees Lebanon as very important economically.

Bring us up to date on the events of the last few years. [Former Syrian President] Hafez al-Assad died in July 2000. His first son, the heir apparent, had died in a car crash, so [Syrian President] Bashar al-Assad took over. He was not a political player. After he came in, how did the Syrian-Lebanese relationship change?

You're quite right; Hafez al-Assad's other son, Basil al-Assad, was being groomed as the heir apparent, and in Damascus, you still see pictures of Basil. His [younger] brother, Bashar-- not a political person by any stretch--was then appointed the successor and was very quickly groomed by his father to become the political leader. One of the portfolios that was given to Bashar upon Basil's death was the Lebanon portfolio, and Bashar was the one responsible for the Syrian presence and managing Lebanese politics.

Bashar al-Assad has been in power now for a little less than five years. But it remains unclear whether he's been able actually to consolidate power, or whether he has just become someone who's easily manipulated by his father's old guard, much of which still remains in government. Bashar al-Assad has made a number of strategic blunders over the years, one of which is saber-rattling with the Israelis and another is his heavy-handed approach to Lebanon. Last fall, the Syrians, exerting authority through their Lebanese agents, changed the Lebanese constitution to extend the term of Lebanese President Emile Lahoud, a man who has served Syrian interests in Lebanon.

That does sound incredibly bad from a public relations standpoint, since it was such a blatant manipulation. Why did they show such an outright lack of concern for Lebanese law?

I think there are two factors. One, let's not underestimate the fact that Syrians have a tin ear for these kinds of things. The Syrian regime is sort of caught in the 1960s and the 1970s, where this is the kind of thing that was done, [and when it occurred, it] went widely unremarked upon, except in some political salons in the United States, Western Europe, and some parts of the Arab world. The other thing is, don't underestimate the Syrian desire to show the Lebanese who will remain the boss in Lebanon. There was increasing unease among the Lebanese with the Syrians, and so [the constitutional change] was clearly a demonstration of strength. But this seems to have backfired on the Syrians.

Let's talk a bit about Syria's relations with Israel. Martin Indyk, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel, was in Syria at the end of last year and came away feeling that the Syrian leadership was quite eager to deal with Israel on settling the dispute over the Golan Heights. What happened?

I would never argue with Martin on that: his expertise on peace-process issues is unrivaled. But I think that what the Syrians are trying to do is, they have been under pressure from the United States with regard to the Iraq situation, they're under pressure from the United States and France on the Lebanon situation and the situation of Emile Lahoud and extending his term, so the Syrians are looking towards the Arab-Israeli conflict as a way to release some of the political pressure. Bashar al-Assad may, in fact, be genuine in his desire to open up a dialogue with the Israelis, but I'm not sure he has in mind a strategic vision of peace. He has in mind more of a tactical effort to release the political pressure being applied by the United States and the international community.

And, of course, Bashar al-Assad is not going to want anything but the total return of the Golan Heights.

He cannot accept anything less than what his father demanded, which was the entirety of the Golan Heights.

Which is what the late Egyptian President Anwar Sadat got in the Egyptian-Israeli peace accord in 1979, the return of the entire Sinai.


Now let's get into the Lebanon crisis. Tell us about Rafik Hariri, who was assassinated a week ago, and his relations with Syria.

Well, Hariri was the man who people consider single-handedly responsible for the rebuilding of Lebanon over the course of the last 15 years. As chairman of the Solidere Corporation and as prime minister of Lebanon [1992-98, and 2000-04], he had close ties to the Saudis and was someone who--not without corruption, not without problems--was interested in reform and rebuilding Lebanon. And to a large extent, he was successful at that. He had turned on the Syrians because of their heavy-handed efforts to extend the term of office of Emile Lahoud.

As prime minister, hadn't he worked closely with the Syrians?

Yes. He had worked with the Syrians; he was, in fact, the prime minister when the Syrians worked to extend Emile Lahoud's term. He subsequently resigned and relations turned sour. He was, in fact, summoned to meet in Damascus with Bashar al-Assad in the fall--that meeting lasted 15 minutes. Rather than returning to Lebanon directly after the meeting, Hariri traveled to either Corsica or Majorca, because he felt the situation was too tense for him to return to Lebanon.

What was he doing in Beirut at the time he was killed?

Hariri was ramping up for the Lebanese elections in May. I believe he was going to galvanize the opposition and return as the leader of Lebanon--as prime minister of Lebanon on an anti-Syrian, pro-reform platform, or as the leader of the opposition.

Talk about the street demonstrations we're seeing now in Lebanon. There was another one yesterday demanding that Syria get out. What are we seeing here?

Yesterday's demonstration was the largest yet and, according to press reports, there were tens of thousands of people in the streets screaming, "Syria out!" And like what happened in the Ukrainian situation, people are now draping themselves, not in orange, but in [the Lebanese national colors of] red and white, expressing their opposition to the Syrian presence and their opposition to the Syrian government.

But there was also a rather sizeable demonstration that was held under the auspices of Hezbollah over the weekend that was a counter-demonstration, saying people should not trifle with the government, should not trifle with the Syrians, and that Hezbollah supported the current arrangements. And Hezbollah is the largest and most powerful militia--the only remaining militia--in Lebanon. So there seems to be a groundswell of average people--Muslims, Christians, and Druze--who are opposed to the Syrian occupation of Lebanon. But at the same time, Hezbollah is also able to mobilize a significant percentage of the population in support of this continued Syrian presence.

Over the weekend, there was also an announcement in Tehran about a new alliance.

An alliance or some sort of cooperation between the Syrians and the Iranians.

It's the "axis of evil" come true, right?

Exactly, although the Syrians had been left off the original axis of evil [which, as enunciated by President Bush in 2002, consisted of Iraq, North Korea, and Iran]. This isn't anything new or surprising. During the Iran-Iraq war, the one Arab country that supported Iran was Syria, and that was because the competition between Hafez al-Assad and Saddam Hussein underscored the historical enmity between the two branches of the Baath Party [which dominated the two nations respectively]. Of course, there's another issue that leads into it: the Shiites recognize the Alawi sect from which the Assad family and most of the Syrian leadership hails as a Muslim sect. The Sunni world does not necessarily recognize the Alawis as Muslims.

A side question: If Syria so disliked Saddam Hussein, and Syria even went to war on the U.S. side in 1991, why have the Syrians been helping the insurgents in Iraq?

Well, that's a very, very interesting question, and it's one of the things that I'm not sure we have a real handle on. It doesn't make sense for the Syrians to be supporting a largely Sunni, Baathist-based insurgency in Iraq. And I'm not quite sure that the Syrian government is directly involved in supporting the insurgency. I think what's happening is that there's a certain amount of benign neglect. They are not policing their borders; they are allowing people who would join the insurgency to come across the borders. They're allowing money to come across the borders to help fund the insurgency, and along with the money, there are also weapons, explosives, and things along those lines--the payoffs. But there's no love lost between the Baathists of Iraq and the Baathists of Syria, that's clear.

To sum up, do you think Hariri was killed by Syria, or agents working for Syria, as the people in the street in Lebanon are charging?

Well, in the absence of evidence, given the fact that the Syrians have blood on their hands in Lebanon--they have assassinated a variety of Lebanese leaders in the past-- and the heavy-handed way in which they deal with Lebanon, I think your default position has to start with a suspicion of Syrian involvement, whether it is Bashar al-Assad's government policy, or some element within the Syrian security services who organized it. In addition to the 14,000 Syrian troops in Lebanon, there are thousands of Syrian security agents there as well. So I think that has to be your beginning point. But again, there is no evidence right now to directly point the finger at the Syrians.

Is it the sort of thing Hezbollah would have done?

It is probably not the sort of thing that Hezbollah would have done. But, of course, Hariri had spoken out against Hezbollah.

He wanted them out also.

Well, after an episode in which Hezbollah had attacked Israelis across the border, and the Israelis had responded quite robustly, he had said this kind of thing, provoking this kind of response, isn't in the interest of the Lebanese people.

Wouldn't Hezbollah feel threatened by the U.N. Security Council Resolution, sponsored by the United States and France, which among other things, calls for all militias in Lebanon to be disbanded?

But who is going to disband Hezbollah? The Lebanese government certainly isn't going to do that.

6:20 PM  
Blogger Management said...

Puzzling Out Syria (And Lebanon!)

Steven Cook has an interesting take on Syrian "support" for the Iraqi insurgency:

Q: A side question: If Syria so disliked Saddam Hussein, and Syria even went to war on the U.S. side in 1991, why have the Syrians been helping the insurgents in Iraq?

[Cook:] Well, that's a very, very interesting question, and it's one of the things that I'm not sure we have a real handle on. It doesn't make sense for the Syrians to be supporting a largely Sunni, Baathist-based insurgency in Iraq. And I'm not quite sure that the Syrian government is directly involved in supporting the insurgency. I think what's happening is that there's a certain amount of benign neglect. They are not policing their borders; they are allowing people who would join the insurgency to come across the borders. They're allowing money to come across the borders to help fund the insurgency, and along with the money, there are also weapons, explosives, and things along those lines--the payoffs. But there's no love lost between the Baathists of Iraq and the Baathists of Syria, that's clear.

Very interesting. Josh Landis had a post awhile back about how even if Bashar Assad wanted to crack down on the Iraqi Baathists inside Syria, he might not be able to due to corruption, bureaucratic inefficiency, incompetence, etc. etc. Now it seems with the latest capture of a high-ranking Iraqi insurgent—one of Saddam's half-brothers—by Syrian intelligence, this might change. On the one hand, the dude was captured in Beirut, where Syrian intelligence seems really quite good, so it's no guarantee that the Damascus government can continue to crack down on Iraqis. And on the other other hand, perhaps this is all a shrewd move by Syria to get the U.S. off its back. ("We'll capture you some nice juicy Iraqi Baathists, you let us wander around in Lebanon for a bit longer, eh?") Hard to say.

While I'm still trying to catch up on all things Syria (yes, yes, expect "insta-expert" postings starting in a day or two, but for now I actually have to admit my ignorance and stuff), this Josh Landis post makes a lot of sense to me. The U.S. needs Europe to place sanctions on Syria in order to get any mileage—since most of Damascus' trade is with Europe—but Europe doesn't want to get caught in a permanent state of sanctions, from which the U.S. will never let them leave. And the Bush administration will never relent, presumably, until Bashar's regime collapses.

The Bashar regime, meanwhile, is trying to "add[] up local support." Seems they're really counting on Muslim loyalists from within Lebanon—Tony Badran sees some signs of that happening, but it's still very unclear whether the Sunnis will rally to the pro-Syrian government in Lebanon. So, as Josh says, "eyes are on the Shiites and Hizballah to help lead Syria out of its morass." And Iranian support. Hizbullah, I would imagine, is dead set against anyone enforcing UN resolution 1559, which gets Syria out of Lebanon, mainly because 1559 requires Hizbullah to disband. So the anti-Syrian opposition in Lebanon may try to negotiate some other form of Syrian withdrawal in order to get Hizbullah's support. I'm not sure what.

At any rate, it's hardly a sure thing that the Syrian regime will lose out here, from what I can tell. Perhaps Bashar's regime will suddenly and magically start finding more and more Iraqi Baathists within Syrian borders. In that case, the U.S. could strike a deal—after all, the Iraqi insurgency is a far greater threat to American interests than the Syrian occupation in Lebanon—but I don't know exactly how this would work. Maybe it won't be enough to appease the White House.

Meanwhile, there's the longstanding question of whether Lebanon will implode or not. This fellow says: "look for Syria to sow chaos, then make the standard claim that only they can keep Lebanon peaceful." Meanwhile, As'ad Abu Khalil has three posts suggesting that unrest in Lebanon will lead to chaos. Read all of his posts—he has a very dour tone, but he knows a hell of a lot. He says the Shi'ites—who perhaps comprise a majority in Lebanon—still support Syria, and that party includes Hizbullah. The Sunni opposition, meanwhile, is hardly united. And a revolt seems to be brewing within the Lebanese Army. If Syria leaves, says As'ad, "[the world] will soon discover that the divisions among the Lebanese are real and deep."

UPDATE: Ah, Matt Yglesias provides a pithier take, suitably skeptical. At the moment I can't say whether the Lebanon "revolution" is A Very Good Thing or A Very Bad Thing. I'm just trying to figure out what the f— is going on!

6:23 PM  
Blogger Management said...

Syria's Dead End

I have republished this post because the "permanent Link" was not working and comments could not be displayed or added.

Syria's Dead End

The squeeze has been placed on Syria, and cracks are beginning to form in the ordinarily stolid constitution of a people accustomed to disappointment and hardship. Everyone wants to criticize the government as their anxiety overflows the lip of well practiced patience. With a minimum of prodding, one gets a flood of complaint. The leadership has led the country into a blind alley. It will be the people who pay the exit price.

Everything turns on European sanctions. Unlike the US, Europe is Syria’s major trading partner. Sixty per cent of Syrian trade is with European states. France has already called for sanctions. Will Germany and Britain follow suit? If Germany and Britain agree to join an economic embargo of Syria, the entire EU will be pulled behind them, whether they like it or not. Spain and Greece, the states which have traditionally been most outspoken in Syria’s defense, will be mute. Surely the European powers will look for ways to stop the sanctions train before it leaves the station.

The problem for the European states is that once they attach their wagons to America’s economic sanctions engine, they are hostages to George Bush’s Syria policy. Once imposed, sanctions are likely to continue for decades. In all likelihood, they will not end until there is regime change in Damascus. Even if the European powers enter into a sanctions regime with the US for the sole purpose of forcing Syria from Lebanon, they will not be able to escape sanctions until the entire list of American demands are met. America’s list of demands is endless. It wants Syria to end support for the Palestinian resistance and Hizballah. It demands Syria pull out of Lebanon; it wants Syria to give up its WMD; and it wants Syria to arrest a long list of Iraqis accused of financing and organizing the resistance in Iraq. Syria will never meet all these demands. Not so long as is a Baathist state.

Should Europe try to end sanctions on Syria before all of America’s demands are met, Washington will accuse them of recognizing Syria’s right to WMD or its right to support Palestinian fighters. Sanctions on Cuba have lasted 40 years, those on Iran have been in place since the revolution, sanctions on Iraq lasted until the overthrow of Saddam, and US sanctions on Syria as a terrorist state have been in place since the late 1970s. Sanctions are a very blunt weapon that once begun can rarely be ended. Moreover, they hurt the defenseless masses more than the well provisioned leadership. At least initially, they stoke the passions of nationalism and popular will to resist, rather than the opposite. The logical end to sanctions will be regime change. This Europe wants to resist. The Europeans were opposed to President Bush’s plan to reform the greater Middle East when it was declared and most still do.

The European diplomats in Damascus disagreed with Bush’s policy of driving Syria to the wall. Many privately blame the US for creating the political tension that has led to Hariri’s assassination. They wanted Washington to cut a deal with Bashar al-Asad months ago, to trade the Golan for a Lebanese withdrawal. They never bought into the notion of “Democracy in the Middle East.” Perhaps “old Europe” appreciates the difficulties of democratic transformation in “old societies” better than young America? Or, perhaps, as Washington claims, Europe is merely stubborn and contrary, having failed to appreciate the new temper of the times? Washington refused to negotiate with Syria for ideological reasons. “It would not negotiate with dictators and terrorist states.” Europe, at least initially, hoped to make something out of Bashar.

The Hariri assassination has placed the Europeans in a very awkward position. If they don’t agree to economic sanctions, the US will accuse them of sanctioning murder. Bashar’s blunders have cut the legs from underneath Europe. A few days ago, when the Canadian PM claimed that the Lebanese situation was a delicate one and that Syrian troops played an important role in maintaining security, he set off an uproar. Opposition members and supporters alike forced him to retract his statement. When Solana – the EU foreign minister – initially said that Europe’s relationship with Syria would not change until the author of Hariri’s murder had been found, his words were drowned out by Tsunami of American and French accusations. Europe will have to give way to America on the Syria-Lebanon question. Chirac has stated that Lebanon is France’s Iraq. All Europe will soon be confusing Beirut with Baghdad.

The Syrians, inept at making European calculations, are busy adding up local support. Will Iran stand firmly by them or inch toward recommending withdrawal? Will Hizballah remain faithful or will it cut a deal with the Lebanese opposition? How will the Lebanese Sunnis stand now that their leader has been cut down? Will they unequivocally blame it on the Syrians? Or will their sense of Arab nationalism and sensitivity to being called pro-Israeli prevent them from breaking with Damascus and joining whole-heartedly with the “Lebanese,” anti-Syrian camp? Who can speak for the Sunnis now that their za’im is gone? Will they fragment as they did during the dark years of the civil war, remaining without a single voice or strongman to unite them? Who someone emerge to fill Hariri’s shoes, or will they produce a sea of leaders, ripe for Damascene fishing expeditions? Can the opposition hold and gain strength as it claims it will? Or will the Lebanese grow weary of revolution? Most of all, eyes are on the Shiites and Hizballah to help lead Syria out of its morass.

Yesterday, my barber and two taxi drivers insisted that Syria would not withdraw from Lebanon. “Syria is strong,” they stated. Whether such bluster and demonstrations of national resolve are designed to impress “the American” or constitute real expressions of steadfastness, who can say. All the same, there are some here ready to hunker down, like in the bad old days, and wait out the storm. That is not the majority opinion among the upper-classes though. Most Syrians are beginning to curse their masters.

Acrimonious debate is dividing Syria’s leaders over how to proceed. The old Sunni patricians of the regime – the Khaddams and Tlases, who have been edged aside by the young bucks of the palace – are angry about the avalanche of misdeeds. The death of Hariri has hit them hard. They want the “Lebanon portfolio” back in their hands, where it had been secure and well tended.

Is the President being held hostage by cousins, in-laws, and siblings? Many are coming to believe this conjecture. Do they have a vision? Or has miscalculation fed by darker interests propelled them into a dead end?

Where did things begin to go wrong? What would Hafiz al-Asad have done” is one of the often asked questions here? One closely placed source answered this question without hesitation: “The father would have joined Bush’s “coalition of the willing,” just as he joined Bush the father in 1991. In exchange he would have secured a free hand in Lebanon.” The president stood against America in Iraq. For that he will have to pay with Lebanon – perhaps more.

The initial line that seems to be emerging from the palace is that Syria will not be chased from Lebanon with its tail between its legs. It would seem Syria is still holding out for a deal. Bush and Chirac are in no deal making mood.

Much will depend on Britain and Germany. Much will also depend on the Lebanese people. Even more will depend on Syria’s president to find an exit from the present cul de sac.

6:24 PM  
Blogger Management said...

While it's obviously A Good Thing in a broad sense to see the people of Lebanon standing up and trying to get the minions of a quite odious Syrian regime to leave their country, I feel like there are a few skeptical notes that ought to be sounded here. One is that, near as I can tell, there's no really clear sense in which the Syrian sphere of influence in Lebanon is bad for the United States of America. Second, there's no particular reason to think that the waning of Syrian influence really heralds the dawning of Lebanese democracy. Outside of the special case of Iraq, Lebanon was and is pretty clearly the most democratic of Arab states. They have elections which are vigorously contested. They have a quite robust politics at the local level. The legislature is a closer facsimile of a proper democratic one than anything else in action in the Arab world. And they have a reasonably free press and free media.

It's not what you would call a real democracy for a variety of reasons. I won't get into them but see this two part primer for all the gorey details. Still, as I say, it's closer than anything else that's up and running already. I don't see any particular reason to think that kicking Syria out will fundamentally change the nature of the Lebanese polity, which is a kind of facade of democracy at the national level masking what is, in fact, a very weak state apparatus governed by interest-group deal-making. Cracking open the Lebanese political system would be a very risky course of action, and I don't think we should be surprised to see enough influential people not want to see it happen in order to ensure that it doesn't happen. Heck, I don't even think it's clear that it would be a good idea to try and move Lebanon toward real majoritarian democracy. One could imagine that simply leading to a breakdown of the current settlement and a resumption of civil war.

6:25 PM  
Blogger Management said...

Lebanese politics for beginners, part 1

This is the first article in a series that I probably shouldn't be writing, because I'm a beginner at Lebanese politics myself. Up to now, I was familiar with the broad outline of the history and politics of Lebanon, but the minutiae were something I never got around to learning. Now that Lebanon has taken center stage on the world scene, I'm giving myself the crash course; this, and the articles that follow, will share my learning process.

The central aspect of the Lebanese political system (other than Syrian influence, which will be discussed later) is a consociational distribution of power among religious groups that dates from the French Mandatory period. The Lebanese system has a party-political as well as a confessional axis, and party allegiances sometimes cut across religious lines - two of the Hizbullah delegates in the current National Assembly are Christian - but as Hassan Khrayem points out, the party axis is very much the weaker of the two. Less than a third of the parliament elected in 2000 formally belongs to a political party, and while some of the independent MPs are allied with organized factions, many others belong to one-person or family-based groupings. In the absence of a strong party system, the sectarian divisions are the bases of power - which, in a self-fulfilling process, has encouraged the formation of parties with strong sectarian and weak ideological foundations.

The religious divisions are also the ones that have caused wars. At independence, the National Pact of 1943 apportioned parliamentary seats and government portfolios at a 6 to 5 ratio between Christians and Muslims, which reflected the country's demographic balance under the census of 1932. During the succeeding generation, however, this arrangement became steadily less equitable as the Muslim population began to outnumber the Christians. The parties' failure to agree on a reapportionment was one of the driving forces behind the outbreak of the civil war in 1975 (map here), which lasted more than a decade, devastated the country and resulted in intervention by Syria and Israel. In 1989, the civil war was brought to an end under Syrian sponsorship by the National Reconciliation Accord, commonly known as the Taif Accord, which provided for an even distribution of seats between Christians and Muslims, divided the three top political positions among Maronites, Sunnis and Shi'ites, and cast Syria as the guarantor of the Lebanese political system. The first postwar election in 1992 was held under the Taif system, as have the subsequent elections of 1996 and 2000.

The Lebanese consociational system, both under Taif and before, isn't a simple Muslim-Christian division; instead, both the Christian and Muslim allotments are subdivided among individual sects. The 64 Muslim seats, for instance, are divided into 27 each for Shi'ites and Sunnis, eight for the Druze population and two for the Alawites. Of the 64 Christian seats, 34 are reserved for Maronites, 14 for the Greek Orthodox community, eight for Greek Catholics, six for Armenians, one for Protestants and one for everyone else. (The Armenian seats are distributed five for the Orthodox and one for the Catholic.)

Given Lebanon's current demographic breakdown - or at least the estimated breakdown, since political pressures have prevented any census from being taken since 1932 - this distribution favors the Christians, and particularly favors the Maronites. It also fosters intra-Christian and intra-Muslim rivalry as sectarian groups jealously guard their apportionments; for instance, many Shi'ites resent the fact that their representation is equal to that of the much smaller Sunni community. As in the pre-Taif period, apportionments tend to correspond much more closely to the political power of the respective sects than to their population.

The actual parliamentary constituencies since Taif have been multi-member electoral districts that are further subdivided by religion. In 2000, for instance, the Beirut-2 district elected two Sunni MPs, one Shi'ite, one Greek Orthodox, one Armenian Orthodox and one "Christian minority" representative. In theory, these distributions are supposed to reflect the confessional balance within the district. In fact, they can be used to dilute or magnify the vote of a particular group, or to exclude candidates of certain groups outright. A popular Armenian Orthodox leader that the government doesn't want in parliament, for instance, could be kept out by assigning all the Armenian Orthodox seats to other districts.

There have been a number of calls for a single-electoral-district scheme which would eliminate some of these inequities. However, an at-large system would also increase the power of the south and the Beka'a valley at the expense of the smaller districts in Mount Lebanon and the capital, and would make election to the Christian seats contingent on the support of a largely Muslim nationwide electorate rather than predominantly Christian local electorates. As such, the proposal threatens powerful interests and has gained relatively little political traction. Given the gerrymandering possibilities inherent in the current system, it's little wonder that the districting law is one of the most contentious issues in any election year, and that the opposition's current political threats include obstructing the districting process.

Other features of the electoral system also lend themselves to manipulation, which in the post-Taif context has generally meant Syrian influence. Elections typically take place in several rounds over a period of weeks, allowing Syria to take measures if the results of the early rounds prove threatening. As Dan Corstange notes in his article on Lebanese party politics, the Syrians did precisely this in 1996:

Events in the 1996 betrayed both the secular/pragmatic bent of certain Lebanese elites and the depth of Syrian influence in the country. Prime Minister Rafik Hariri launched a political offensive against the revivalist parties--especially Hizbullah--in an alliance with Berri. Lebanese balloting is held over the course of several rounds (five in 1996) on successive weekends, and early results showed smashing victories for Hariri and his supporters; the prime minister’s 16-member list, for instance, won 13 of the 19 seats in Beirut. After that round, with 82 of the 128 seats decided, Hariri and his allies controlled 55 (Deutsche Presse-Agentur, "Prime minister Hariri defeats fundamentalists in Beirut polls"). The contentious coalition of "Islamic groupings"--already at odds over ideology--seemed in disarray and faced a dramatic reversal of electoral fortunes following Hariri’s earlier victories in the Mount Lebanon and Northern Lebanon polling (Deutsche Press-Agentur, "Beirut’s political giants set for fierce election battle").

Syria had to this point refrained from overtly influencing the campaign so that the election would be seen as free and fair. A few days after Hariri’s success in the Beirut district, the Deutsche Press-Agentur observed: "Syria, in a demonstration of its control over Lebanese politics, on Wednesday halted a political offensive by Prime Minister Rafik Hariri against… Hizbullah in this year’s parliamentary elections. Syrian leaders meeting in Damascus with Lebanese House Speaker Nabih Berri… pressured him to shift his alliance to Hizbullah and turn against his partner in power, [Prime Minister Hariri]" ("Syria acts to support Hizbullah in Lebanese elections"). Hariri nonetheless urged the electorate in southern Lebanon--Hizbullah’s base, where it struggled for dominance with Berri’s Amal Movement--to vote for the secular-oriented Berri rather than Hizbullah candidates. After Syrian intervention, Hizbullah shored up its disappointing early performance, losing just one seat in the legislature overall.

The methods of political influence used by Syria and its local proxies are numerous, including financing favorable candidates, negotiating and breaking political alliances, placing administrative and procedural obstacles in the way of opponents and, at the last instance, using violence. They are aided in this by low voter turnout, the large number of independent candidates whose allegiances are negotiable and the weak ideological foundations of many political parties. They are also aided by the fact that politics in rural Lebanon (as in the rural areas of many other countries) are essentially feudal. A review of historical election results shows that rural precincts tend to provide lopsided majorities to candidates from prominent local families and that many of the family names in politics today - Lahoud, for instance - are the same ones that were there in the 1940s or 1960s. The Syrians have proven skillful at making deals with local squires, which enables them to influence politics in vast swathes of rural Lebanon.

The Lebanese political system is commonly characterized as a facade of democracy that provides legitimacy to effective Syrian rule. In areas such as foreign policy, defense, and economic policies that affect Syrian interests, this characterization sometimes approaches the truth. Syrian control isn't complete, though, and in other ways, Lebanon is closer to a democracy in actual fact - there is a considerable degree of self-government in areas that don't affect Syrian interests, local elections are competitive and subject to much less outside influence, and members of parliament are often responsive on local issues. Lebanon also has a relatively free press (albeit one that is sometimes subject to intimidation), functional courts, accountability mechanisms that work at least some of the time and a well-established civil society. The foundation of a democracy exists in Lebanon; whether it can overcome Syrian influence and local sectarian divisions to emerge into the light is a question for the future.

The remaining four parts of this series, which will appear over the next few weeks, will discuss Lebanese political parties, personalities, an overview of the current situation and possibilities for reform.

6:31 PM  
Blogger Management said...

Lebanese politics for beginners, part 2

The first thing to remember about Lebanese political parties, as mentioned in Part 1 of this series, is that they aren't the dominant force in national politics. No single party controls more than ten percent of the legislature, parties as a whole have never accounted for more than 30 percent, and the allegiances of most members of parliament are based on personal or sectarian rather than ideological ties. Even the web site of the Lebanese parliament lists its members by name and district, but doesn't bother to organize them by party.

Still, parties are important in Lebanese history, and not only because they often form nuclei of extra-political power. They provide platforms for coalition-building in parliament and are frequently the centers around which legislative factions coalesce. They are also the forums in which sectarian politics merges at least partially with ideological debate over the future of the country. As such, while the political party system in Lebanon is weak, parties have made a significant contribution in articulating its aspirations.

At the outset, it is necessary to distinguish political parties from electoral alliances. Lebanese parliamentary candidates, both with and without party affiliation, frequently form informal blocs to support each other during election campaigns. In the 2000 election, such blocs had names like "Dignity and Renewal," "People's Will" and "National Struggle," and all but three elected MPs were affiliated with one. Membership in an alliance is an enormous advantage to a candidate; alliances reduce the cost of campaigning, provide logistical and moral support and serve as a mechanism by which candidates in mixed districts become known to voters of other faiths. The ability to form and support blocs of friendly candidates is also one of the ways that Syria exercises influence over the political process.

Such blocs differ from true political parties, however, in that they are generally not ideologically based, exist in only a single district or group of adjacent districts, and last only for the duration of the campaign. The fact that certain candidates campagned together in an electoral bloc doesn't necessarily mean that they will be allies in parliament (where other mutable factions emerge). Actual political parties are thinner on the ground, with less than a third of the current parliament belonging to one.

Lebanese parties are usually broken down by sectarian or personal affiliation, but there's at least one other way to view them: chronologically. Going down the list of political parties in Lebanon is a glimpse of the detritus of history, the ghosts of conflicts past. Every crisis period in Lebanese history - the Ottoman era, the French Mandate, the National Pact period and the civil war - has given birth to political parties, and the formation of each corresponds to the political awakening of their constituent groups.

The oldest are the Armenian parties, which date from the late Ottoman period when the Armenians were a politically aware and increasingly nationalist minority. The Mandate gave rise to competing Maronite, Syrian and pan-Arab nationalisms, mainly among the Christians and the Sunnis, as well as the emergence of the (historically marginal) socialist left. During the 1950s and 1960s, a number of largely unsuccessful attempts to form cross-sectarian parties based on a combination of ideology and personal allegiance. The Shi'ite political formations, which are the newest, emerged during the civil war along with militias of rival sects. And nearly all these groupings still exist.

The three Armenian parties, which are more than a century old, are the Tashnag (Dashnak), Henchag (Hunchak) and Ramgavar. All are offshoots of parties which were originally founded in Russian Armenia and subsequently spread throughout the Armenian diaspora in the Ottoman Empire and elsewhere. Perhaps because of this long political tradition - and because many Armenian political leaders lived in exile in Lebanon during the Soviet period - the Armenian parties are more cohesive than most, and a majority of the Armenian seats in parliament are held by party candidates.

The Tashnag, which was originally a social democratic party, has drifted a considerable way from its counterparts in Russia and Armenia, and is identified in Lebanon with the Armenian right wing. Henchag is the party of the Armenian left and the Ramgavar is a third force and the "party of the intellectuals," but all three parties tend to interpret their ideology loosely and support the incumbent government. The Armenian delegation in parliament has historically been dominated by the Tashnag, but a bitter contest in 2000, which had its roots in a rivalry between the Tashnag and Rafik Hariri, saw the Henchag take its place as the largest Armenian party.

The Mandate period, in which electoral politics came to Lebanon in earnest, saw the formation of political factions among the Christian and Sunni populations. One of the earliest to form was the National Bloc of Émile Eddé, a pro-French party that dominated Lebanese politics during the late Mandate and was influential through much of the First Republic. Opposing it from a Maronite nationalist standpoint was the Kataeb, better known as the Phalange (Phalanx), which was founded by Pierre Gemayel in 1936 and modeled after the Spanish movement of the same name.

The Phalange was relatively marginal until the 1960s but became steadily more influential between then and the civil war as the National Pact began to break down. During the war, it functioned as a militia and became infamous for its role in the Sabra and Shatila massacre. It was largely discredited (although, unlike other right-wing Maronite militias, not outlawed) after the war, winning no seats in the 1992 and 1996 elections. Although it made a modest comeback in the 2000 election and has three seats in the current parliament, it has become largely a vehicle for the Gemayel family and its allies.

Another Mandate-era nationalist current was represented by the Syrian Social National Party founded by Antoun Saadeh. Its ideology was the reunification of Greater Syria and, as such, was opposed to both French rule and Maronite nationalism, with its primary constituency among Christian minorities. Despite Saadeh's inauspicious end at the hands of a Lebanese firing squad, the SSNP still exists and, for obvious reasons, is favored by Syria; its Greater Syrian ideology is somewhat muted these days but it is one of the most reliable parliamentary advocates of a close Lebanese-Syrian relationship.

The roots of the Ba'ath also lie in the Arab nationalist currents of the 1930s, although the party was not formally founded until 1947. Unlike the SSNP, the Ba'ath's ideology was pan-Arabist, although it also became identified with Syria after Hafez al-Assad's Ba'athist coup. The Ba'ath has three representatives in the current parliament, all Muslim.

The final significant Mandate-era formation is the Lebanese Communist Party, which was founded in 1924. The PCL was unique at the time in being multi-sectarian and anti-nationalist. However, it fell prey early to the factionalism that affects the left in many countries, was periodically outlawed, and has never succeeded in becoming a broad-based movement or electing representatives to the legislature. The Communist Party is legal today is legal today and is quite vocal, but is mainly an intellectuals' party.

During the early First Republic, political currents followed those of the late Mandate, with the National Bloc forming the nucleus of the consociational system. By the 1950s, it was beginning to face a challenge from pan-Arabism among Muslims, particularly after the Progressive Socialist Party was founded in 1949. The Druze-based PSP's original platform called for social insurance, agricultural cooperatives and workers' rights as well as a pan-Arabist ideology that played a part in Lebanon's first civil war, but it has since shed most of its socialist and pan-Arabist roots to become the political vehicle of the Jumblatt family. It has functioned largely as a Druze sectarian party and is one of the largest and most cohesive in the current parliament.

The 1958 civil uprising led in turn to the formation of the National Liberal Party (Ahrar) of former president Camille Chamoun. Like the National Bloc, this party was right-wing and pro-Western, but Chamoun was able to expand it beyond its Maronite base to become a broad coalition of the right. During its peak in the 1960s, it was proportionally larger than any party today and, although still primarily Maronite, included representatives from all the major confessions. Had the Christians and Muslims been able to work out a peaceful reapportionment of the National Pact, Chamoun's party might have evolved into the center-right part of a more conventional multi-party democracy, but as things stood, it rapidly became a shell once the civil war began. The party still exists and is one of the few Lebanese organizations advocating non-consociational liberalism, but it's a voice not too many people want to hear at the moment.

The fourth crisis period - the 1975-89 civil war - saw a general militarization of politics among the major sectarian groups and a retreat by the minorities. On the Maronite side, this period led to the growth of hyper-nationalist militias like the Lebanese Forces, the Guardians of the Cedars and General Michel Aoun's Free Patriotic Movement. All of these are largely defunct in Lebanon today, with organizations operating in exile, although this may change if Aoun makes good on his promise to return to politics.

The fortunes of the Shi'ite militias, in contrast, have risen dramatically since the end of the war. Although the Shi'ites are underrepresented in the Taif Accord consociational system, the militias filled a vacuum. Until just prior to the civil war, there were no organized Shi'ite political formations, and the Shi'ite politics that developed during the middle to late 1970s coalesced around the militias.

The more secular of the two major Shi'ite parties, the Amal movement, began as the "Movement for the Dispossessed" in 1974 and switched sides a number of times during the war before settling with Syria. It is currently the second-largest party in the current Parliament with nine seats, and its leader, Nabih Berri, is the Parliament speaker and a member of the de facto ruling triumvirate. Amal is Shi'ite nationalist but not Islamist, has generally advocated reform rather than abolition of the consociational system, and is arguably the nucleus of the pro-Syrian camp in the current crisis.

And then there's Hizbullah, the more religious of the two. Hizbullah is the largest of Lebanon's parties with 12 parliamentary seats, but it's also a state within a state. Unlike the other militias, Hizbullah didn't disarm after Taif, and refused to do so even after the IDF quit southern Lebanon in 2000. It is virtually autonomous in parts of southern Lebanon even while taking part in national politics, and has been used by Syria and Iran to enforce their regional policies.

At the same time, Hizbullah has increasingly acquired Lebanese nationalist credentials. The Israeli withdrawal greatly enhanced Hizbullah's prestige, and it has also developed a track record as a reformist party in municipal government. This has given it a certain freedom of action from Syria and Iran, and, as evidenced by its neutrality in the post-Hariri crisis, it has shown signs of pursuing a more independent policy. It has also begun to build alliances beyond its traditional base; its representatives in the current parliament include Sunnis and Christians. It is somewhat ironic that an Islamist militia might be the closest thing Lebanon has to a multi-confessional reformist faction.

Which brings us back to the reason for analyzing Lebanese political parties in chronological order. There seem to be two constants in Lebanon's political history: each crisis period thus far has led to the formation of new parties, and once an idea enters the political spectrum, it never really goes away. Given this experience, the current crisis is also likely to generate new political formations and lead to new variations on old ideas. The difference this time is that there are no previously non-politicized groups in Lebanon that can experience an awakening.

Some of the new factions that will emerge in Lebanon will no doubt represent a reformation of traditional sectarian politics. Certainly, if artificial stasis is removed from Lebanese politics, the various forms of nationalism will be able to make a renewed appeal, as will the left, the democratic liberals and proponents of various reformed consociational systems or federalism. At the same time, there might also be expansion into the only real area of growth that remains: cross-sectarian ideological alliances. The seeds for this are already present in the loose opposition factions in parliament, and the present crisis could give them the impetus they need to coalesce into formal parties. If so, we could be on the threshold of the next stage of Lebanon's political evolution.

6:40 PM  

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