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Global Politics with a focus on The Middle East

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Lebanon in the event of an Iran strike

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This piece was originally published at NOW!Lebanon, titled “Lebanon in the event of an Iran strike

The past few weeks have seen a flurry of discussion in US foreign policy circles about the potential for a unilateral Israeli strike on Iran. Much of this discussion has been focused around Jeffrey Goldberg’s lengthy and alarmist cover story for The Atlantic Magazine about the likelihood of such a strike happening within the next 12 months. However, no discussion of an Israeli, or indeed American, strike on Iran can ignore the unavoidable involvement of Lebanon, and the subsequent impact on the country.

Goldberg interviewed around “forty current and past Israeli decision-makers” as background for his piece, but many of them remain anonymous, and those who are named appear to contribute little different to what we already knew: Israel considers Iran an “existential threat” and is very worried, and all options are always on the table, some of them more likely than others. Thus, the motivation of Goldberg’s sources must be better understood. Why would Israeli decision makers be telling Jeffrey Goldberg that there’s a good chance of an Israeli strike on Iran? Because they understand Goldberg’s influence in Washington, and they want to mainstream the idea of not only an Israeli strike, but a potentially pre-emptive one from the US. This story has already had a broad ripple effect in the political media ecosystem, having been expanded into a fully-fledged debate on The Atlantic website and picked up by other outlets and blogs alike. This process helps an idea gain a legitimacy it didn’t have before the original big story dropped.

While, of course, such a story alone cannot be blamed for a military strike, in many ways, this process is reminiscent of similar discussions in the lead-up to the 2003 Iraq war, during which Jeffrey Goldberg played a remarkably similar role. In 2010, the potentially disastrous consequences of such a strike by the US, many of which would also eventuate in the case of an Israeli one, cannot be easily dismissed, and some are even mentioned by Goldberg himself: a closing of the Straits of Hormuz; a massive spike in the price of oil, exacerbating the global recession; destabilisation of the Gulf region; deadly reprisals from Iranian-sponsored terrorist outfits abroad; a nail in the coffin for the Iranian “Green Movement;” and a shoring up of sympathy for Iran’s regime internationally. Most alarmingly, Iran’s actual pursuit of nuclear-weapons capacity, both the details and progress of it, are still in doubt. A strike would, much as it did with Israel’s strike on Iraq’s Osirak reactor in 1981, impel Iran’s regime to redouble its efforts to reach such a capacity.

The consequences of a strike on Iran for the fragile détente between Israel and Hezbollah are unpredictable at best and a powder keg at worst. “Israel or the United States cannot just bomb Iran and (expect) things to continue normally,” Sheikh Naim Qassem, Hezbollah’s deputy leader, told Reuters in March. “Any attack on Iran could ignite the whole region and the assailant will pay a heavy price whether it’s Israel or the United States.”

Cross-border rocket reprisals from Hamas and Hezbollah are widely expected in the case of a strike on Iran, but the extent of the potential conflict cannot be precisely anticipated. Many analysts already believe that the next war between Israel and Hezbollah is a matter of when, not if, and there are plenty of potential excuses for war already. One major cause for concern is the exploration of Tamarand Leviathan,two recently-discovered gas fields that could, as estimated by the US partner in exploration Noble Energy, contain up to 30 trillion cubic feet of gas. The maritime boundary between Israel and Lebanon is not well defined, and Beirut has also taken steps to begin off-shore exploration. Natural resources aside, Hezbollah’s steady rearmament since 2006 and Israel’s continued manned overflights over Lebanese territory, both in violation of UN Security Council Resolution 1701, are reason enough for a major conflict to be sparked by either side.

Concerning Hezbollah’s rearmament, as noted by Daniel Kurtzer in his July report for the US-based Council on Foreign Relations, the party has improved both the quantity and quality of its weaponry since 2006, although it is unclear exactly by how much. Since Gabi Ashkenazi’s ascendancy to IDF chief of staff, Israel has also maintained that it is far more prepared today to fight a war with Hezbollah than in previous years. As repeatedly noted in Kurtzer’s report, Israel has not only levelled at Hezbollah the as-yet-unproven charge of acquiring Scud missiles from Syria, but also prepared for it, as well as the strategic threat from Syrian M-600 rockets or even advanced surface-to-air missiles, such as the S-300, which Israel considers a “red line.”

What this indicates is that Israel takes the threat from Hezbollah very seriously, and would be keeping this threat in mind in accompaniment to any potential strike on Iran.

If Goldberg’s story, particularly its many statements from Israeli officials, is to be viewed largely as an Israeli PR exercise, then Israel probably wishes to allow time for the off chance that the Obama administration will conduct a US strike on Iran, something Israel almost certainly prefers. The administration is in no hurry. As reported in the New York Times last week, administration officials believe that there is roughly a year before Iran achieves “breakout” nuclear capacity, or the time it would take to convert low-enriched uranium into weapons-grade.  Iran’s distance from real nuclear-weapons capacity, and Israel’s current wariness of an immediate military conflict with Hezbollah indicate that a strike would likely occur toward the end of Goldberg’s proposed 12-month window, if at all.

No mistake should be made about the consequences for Lebanon. Benjamin Netanyahu has already made it clear that, as a result of Hezbollah’s inclusion in Lebanon’s cabinet, the whole country would be held responsible for attacks on Israel. This is an apparent extension of Israel’s supposed “Dahiyeh Doctrine” to cover not only southern Lebanon but the country’s institutions and infrastructure on a national level, bringing with it alarming possibilities stemming from Israel’s destruction of Gaza during Operation Cast Lead.

Obama does not have the stomach for the initiation of another major conflict, but only time will tell whether Israel is prepared to put aside concerns of a complicated entanglement with Hezbollah, along with the other host of issues mentioned above, and actually execute a strike on Iran unilaterally. The possibility for unmitigated disaster is great, and hopefully cooler heads will prevail.


How far away is the next Israel-Lebanon war?

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United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) commander General Claudio Graziano awards medals to members of the peacekeeping force in Southern Lebanon | GETTY Images

This is a question that has been discussed for years, arguably since the last open conflict in 2006 ended in an Israeli withdrawal and an expanded UNIFIL (United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon) mandate to keep the peace in the southern part of the country. That conflict may have ended but its after-effects linger. Long after the cluster munitions fired from both sides settled into the earth, many of them remain unexploded and continue to kill civilians. Long after the withdrawal, the near-universal consensus that Israel was not the clear ‘winner’ it intended to be and the Winograd Commission’s findings were published, Israeli embarrassment at not having been able to ‘win’ simmers and the conflict festers.

Most commentators believe that a new conflict (though the two countries are still technically at war) is a matter of when not if. Note this interesting discussion on the Qifa Nabki blog (an excellent point of reference for Lebanon, for the uninitiated) with Nicholas Noe, founder of The Middle East Wire,

The roots of the conflict are broad. Hizbullah is only gaining in power and prominence in Lebanon. It has a ready supply of arms, funding and is gaining legitimacy across the sectarian divide in Lebanon. Many Lebanese perceive Hizbullah as the dominant military power in Lebanon and the only power capable of defending Lebanon against Israeli aggression. Israel, particularly its right-wing-stacked political climate, cannot cope with a resurgent, popular and increasingly assertive Islamist opposition on its Northern border. This, along with its less than impressive display in 2006, are a cause for embarrassment among Israeli war hawks.

Factor in the continued aggressive moves by Israel in Lebanon and you already have a veritable powder keg. For example, Israel continues to operate manned overflights in Lebanese air space, in violation of UNSCR resolution 1701 and international law generally. Or take Israel’s continued occupation of several disputed areas on the border between Lebanon and the (equally occupied) Golan Heights.

Recent news is only set to aggravate tensions. Clashes have broken out along the border between UNIFIL and local villagers, reportedly unhappy with military exercises being performed and the perceived ‘pressure’ on Hizbullah from the international community over an alleged Scud rockets transfer (that is far from proven) and its ongoing arms buildup.

More threateningly, ongoing exploration of the Tamar and Leviathan gasfields has become a real cause for concern since it was estimated that they may contain up to 35 years of Israel’s current consumption of natural gas and may even make it a net exporter. The territoriality of the fields is disputed by Lebanon which says that they may also be part of its own natural waters. This was followed by Israeli Infrastructure Minister Uzi Landau’s comments to Bloomberg last week that Israel would use force if necessary to defend its right to develop and produce the fields. [via FP’s Oil & Glory]

The reality is that Israel’s infrastructure advantage means that they are far better positioned to develop and explore these fields than Lebanon. Also, the Western backed coalition, led by Prime Minister Saad Hariri, that holds a tenuous grip on power in Lebanon, is unlikely to do anything real to challenge Israel on its hegemony over the gasfields. Hizbullah, which dominates the country’s opposition bloc, is likely to make a real issue of this.

Given that squabbles over natural resources are a perfect pretext for countries to go to war, it’s difficult to see how this news makes war even remotely avoidable. As Nicholas Noe puts it to Qifa Nabki, linked above, the only foreseeable thing that could stop this are “some bold moves by the Obama administration in the next year.” Given the Administration’s recent history in the region and its many policy failures to date, this eventuality seems rather unlikely indeed.

Written by alexlobov

July 6, 2010 at 7:13 pm

Lebanese sectarianism in 2010

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Image above: Hat/Tip: Matthew Cassel

It has been over 20 years since the Taif accord was signed to officially bring about an end to the Lebanese civil war, a war so long and bloody that it brought a country to the brink of ruin and saw it ruthlessly exploited by foreign interests.

An approximation of the distribution of Lebanon's main religious groups, 1991. H/T: Wikipedia

The accord changed the system of power established by the National Pact in 1943 by checking the political power of Lebanese Christians, an edge that had become progressively disproportionate as Lebanese demographics changed to a sizeable Muslim majority. Where the Christians once enjoyed a 6:5 parliamentary majority, this became 50:50, and the Prime Minister (who was usually a Sunni Muslim as per the pact) was no longer accountable to the President (a Maronite Christian) but instead to the House of Parliament.

Apart from bringing an end to the devastating war, one of the major aims of the Taif Accord was also to bring about an end to sectarian politics in Lebanon and to establish a united country. Unfortunately, the path to achieve this was ambiguous and not explicitly stated in the Accord itself, and with good reason. How do you go about uniting a country that has been divided for so long? A country that has only survived by virtue of a deeply divisive, sectarian compromise in the form of a National Pact? How do you go about uniting a country where even sectarian intermarriage (the symbolic unity between Lebanese of different sects) is effectively impossible? Lebanon’s very existence, rooted in the colonial history of the Sykes-Picot agreement, Maronite West-leaning lobbying and fear of persecution as part of Greater Syria is questionable and a deeply divisive topic.

So more than 20 years later, the BBC reports that civil society activists in Lebanon are “hoping that thousands will turn up for an unprecedented rally in Beirut.”

The march for secularism will call on all Lebanese to unite and work towards the abolition of the country’s deeply divisive sectarian system.

The organisers say it is time to redefine what it means to be Lebanese.

Apart from a potential lack of trust in ‘secularism’ as a solution, I wonder if these civil society activists face the same old questions when proselytizing their new, non-sectarian Lebanese nationalism. Eg. Which sect do they belong to? Who do they support politically? Who is funding them? It seems an evolution from sectarianism in Lebanon always faces the same brick walls, especially while the country is still being used as a proxy for foreign powers. From Syria, to the Saudis, to the Americans, to the Israelis, to the Iranians, everybody still wants a finger in the Lebanese pie. Can you then blame the Lebanese for being suspicious, cynical, divided? Is it really possible to achieve any kind of civil peace in these kind of social conditions?

In an excellent piece for Beirut’s Daily Star, Fadia Kirwan answers some of these questions:

The elites and political leaders of the various communities must realize that absent far-reaching reform, the Lebanese state will remain dysfunctional. These community leaders should, therefore, come together around a common agenda and launch a media campaign in which they directly engage political leaders on the imperative of strengthening the state’s political institutions, raising awareness in the public of the cost of continuing down the path of systemic paralysis.

A good place to start is with in-depth reform of the public sector and judiciary, banning cronyism and pie-sharing among the political leadership on behalf of their respective communities.

The second step must be a genuine overhaul of electoral law to institute a proportional voting system: in an initial round, there could be uninominal voting (one member per district) based on 128 districts, which is the current number of members of Parliament; next, a determining round could take place in which the country would be divided into medium-sized constituencies – proportionally comprised of six to eight seats, with the option to arrange these candidates in order of preference.

The benefits of such a law would be twofold: first, Lebanese citizens would vote on a political rather than community basis and, second, this would reduce or remove the stranglehold of a religious majority over any given constituency.

Of course I’m not entirely sure what the ‘medium-sized constituencies’ that Kirwan envisions would actually look like, what sort of ethnic mix they would include and how it would all work out practically. Nor am I sure that Lebanon is ready for such action. Banning cronyism and pie-sharing are excellent things to do, but is Lebanon ready for politicians that try to unite rather than divide? Or is the ever lurking specter of civil war, stemming from a mutual distrust and fear for survival, something to genuinely fear?

The problem with Kirwan’s, and other similar plans, is that the distrust and foreign meddling is a chicken-or-egg paradox. Lebanon cannot unite without a truly Lebanese security force able to protect the country from foreign threat, while that security is in the hands of Hizbollah, peace can never be achieved. However, the country’s biggest security threat is Israel to its south, explaining the polar nature of security in Lebanon. A US-backed group cannot be trusted to truly defend the country so security falls to Hizbollah, but Hizbollah is sectarian by nature and linked to its benefactors in Syria and Iran, so it equally cannot be trusted either. The reality of modern politics in a country like Lebanon is that the group with the guns has the power. This, more than anything, defines the modern Lebanese experience. So how can a transfer of  responsibility for security occur without first uniting the country’s sects? And how can the sects be united while the firepower is disproportionately spread? And if it was to be spread more equally but the other reasons for mistrust removed, would that bring about a situation of civil war again?

I do not have the answers to these questions but I can say one thing for certain. A comprehensive solution to the Israeli-Palestinian impasse that brings about a state for the Palestinians, and a dignified state at that, not a paper tiger stripped of the right to its own defense and its rightful capital of East Jerusalem, would go a long way to helping Lebanon. If the threat of Israel was removed or at least diminished, and if the element of Arab solidarity and moral outrage at the treatment of Palestinians that drives animosity towards Israel within Lebanon was also removed, then the enemy on the southern border could be viewed in different terms, as could the national security situation. This would go some way to allowing Lebanese to focus on Lebanon, and remove an excuse for foreign powers seeking to meddle. This is just another reason why Israel-Palestine holds the key to truly stabilising the Middle East.

Written by alexlobov

April 25, 2010 at 9:49 pm

Syrian Scuds & Israeli Settlements

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It’s been a Middle East fest for the Obama Administration today with several key pieces of news being discussed. An issue that’s dominated discussion over the past few days is the alleged transfer of scud missiles from Syria to Hizbullah in Lebanon, with Hillary Clinton fielding questions on it on Thursday. Israeli President Shimon Peres has accused Syria of sending Scuds to Hizbullah. Syria denies the charge and says Israel may be using the accusation as a pretext for a military strike. (Daily Star)

The National gives a succinct roundup of the latest phase in Syrian-Israeli games:

Syria wants the Golan Heights back, but Israel does not feel the necessity to make concessions to a weaker adversary. Israel wants Syria to break its ties to Iran, but Damascus will not abandon an alliance that gives it more influence. When the two countries have engaged in indirect talks, most recently under Turkish mediation, they have been interested in theatrics, not progress.

FP’s Blake Hounshell, in a controversially titled post, cannot understand why Syria would do something like this, given its position:

For all the figures you read in the press about the size of Syria’s military and its vast arsenal of tanks, the country is essentially a tin-pot dictatorship with little ability to project power beyond Lebanon, where for decades it has dominated its smaller neighbor’s domestic affairs.

That post drew the ire of a Syrian embassy spokesman in Washington that fired back:

How can the “dumbest country” outmaneuver the strongest country in the world, and its superpower, along with the numerous Western and other countries that followed in its footsteps and that tried to isolate it? How can the superpower, during its previous administration, work so diligently on isolating “the dumbest country”, yet end up being isolated itself (former Bush-official and current Obama-appointee, Assistant Secretary of State Jeffery Feltman: “consequently, the United States, not Syria, seems to be isolated”; Senators John Kerry and Chuck Hagel in a 2008 op-ed: “our policy of non-engagement has isolated us more than the Syrians.”)?  how can the “dumbest country” face all these economic sanctions imposed by the superpower, while simultaneously achieving some of the highest economic growth figures in the region and being considered one of the top ‘frontier markets’?

It seems this Scud fiasco is provoking a broader discussion about Syria’s position in the region and the future of Syrian-Israeli talks as well as Obama’s policy of engagement.

UPDATE: There is growing doubt about whether this transfer actually took place and, it seems, certain US officials at least, agree that Syria is usually not a dumb country:

“We don’t think Scuds of any shape or size have been moved to Lebanon,” one of the officials said.

“The Syrians aren’t always known for making the right political calculations. But in this case, surely they realize that transferring this kind of weapons system to Hezbollah — and especially to Hezbollah in Lebanon — could lead to serious consequences,” the official added. [Khaleej Times]

Meanwhile, Netanyahu has rejected President Obama’s request to halt settlement construction in East Jerusalem:

The aides said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivered his government’s position to Obama over the weekend, ahead of the arrival Thursday of the US president’s special Mideast envoy, George Mitchell. They spoke on condition of anonymity because the contact between the two leaders was private.

The State Department responded via spokesman Philip Crowley who told reporters that the long-standing Israeli position on settlement in East Jerusalem is understood but that the status quo cannot last. There has also been talk of a “gentleman’s agreement” between Obama and Netanyahu whereby Israel won’t publicly announce a freeze in East Jerusalem so as not to lose face but will not announce any new settlement building either. This, to me, at least seems the most likely case. While it’s obvious that Netanyahu cannot afford to to be seen as if he is giving in on this issue so as to preserve his coalition in Israel, neither would he want to rock the boat further by announcing more settlements, considering the shit-storm the last announcement caused.

The other piece of US-MidEast news today has been further talk of renewed Iran sanctions in May. Read the full story here.

Updated: Saad Hariri resigns, to be reappointed as Lebanon PM

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Saad Hariri, photo credit


Hariri will be reappointed as PM again by the President Michel Suleiman, according to reports published in Lebanese newspapers, as we earlier pointed out via the BBC news story. How Hariri’s second round of efforts to establish a government go down will be seen in the weeks to come, but hopefully there won’t be a third round of this never-ending saga.

Original post:

And after all the euphoria, the question to ask is… was this really that unexpected? We knew Hariri would have problems forming a govenrment, especially after the fairly strong showing of the Hizbollah-led M8 coalition at the election. We witnessed months of political to-ing and fro-ing, som epeople wondered why Hariri was giving so much ground to M8, other, like Qifa Nabki, wondered what the point of it all was of it all is:

As we’ve discussed many times before, one really wonders what the point of a national unity government is, under these circumstances. If it has taken them this long to fail to form a goverment, how is it even imaginable that a national unity cabinet is going to get anything done? Does Hariri think that Aoun is going to become easier to deal with once he joins the cabinet and that the FPM is going to stop behaving like an aggrieved opposition party? I venture to say that the opposite will be true.

While the National Unity government certainly has its problems, many struggle with what the alternative would be, especially an alternative that pleases the many foreign fingers that are in the Lebanese pie and while appeasing these foreign fingers is perhaps a cynical suggestion to make, it’s a realistic one given today’s political climate. Not appeasing them is simply not possible. The current failures to form a unity government are nicely summed up by Qifa Nabki once again:

The problem with the current process in Lebanon is that the smaller blocs have no need to “sell themselves” to the big bloc because they know that the big bloc is already committed to including them in some way in the government. With no fear of being left out in the cold, they can continue to make one demand after another.

Many, Qifa Nabki included, are suggesting that Hariri and M14 consider governing alone, much as Hassan Nasrallah threatened earlier while his M8 coalition were expected to win the election comfortably. However is this a possibility realistically? If Hizbullah is not given a proper piece of the pie then will this not lead to further destabilisation in Lebanon? Would Nasrallah then simply be chomping at the bit to destabilise the situation further? The issue of foreign interference seems to be underlined by this recent report from Now Lebanon with confirmation from ‘an official source’ that Hariri stepped down due to ongoing obstruction from Iran, who were using Lebanon as a bargaining chip with the West, and Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement. The text of Hariri’s resignation speech can be found on Saad & Rafiq Hariri’s website but the money shot for me (though not much of a money shot really) is here:

This lineup is a true opportunity that has been wasted due to the new conditions, even though everyone knows that it doesn’t sideline anyone. On the contrary, it follows the principles of full participation without turning into a means to contest the results of the Parliamentary elections.
Since it has been impossible to reach an agreement on this lineup for known reasons, and as I refuse to turn the President or the Prime Minister-designate into a box office through which we receive the decrees to nominate ministers coming from political parties; and given that my commitment to form a national unity government has run up against known difficulties, I announce that I have informed the President of the Republic that I have stepped down from forming the government.

Well it’s basically Hariri whinging, or at least sounding like a considerable whinger, though I guess you wouldn’t expect anything less in Lebanon. The ‘decrees to nominate ministers’ bit is obviously referring to Aoun… and ‘known difficulties’, well yes I’d say we do all sort of know the difficulties, and for those that don’t know, Emirati The National has a decent round-up of them, though a little outdated as it’s pre-resignation.

The National calls this move ‘tough brinkmanship’, The BBC is speculating that, according to Lebanese papers, Suleiman might actually reappoint Hariri, the future of Lebanon once again hangs in the balance.

Written by alexlobov

September 11, 2009 at 3:39 pm