Lebanese political figures have become notorious for taking their rather unseemly catfights to Twitter and Facebook, leading some to wonder whether tweeting their spats is the only thing keeping these pillars of the Lebanese community from literally being at each other's throats. Former Prime Minister and leader of the March 14 coalition, Saad Hariri, is by far the most egregious offender, using Twitter as a platform for his many grievances against the ruling Hezbollah-backed March 8 bloc. Hariri waxes philosophical in this July tweet:
"I hope the Holy month will bring all closer to the values of brotherhood and tolerance. An occasion for some to go back to their conscience."
Hariri, who used to tweet so frequently that the AFP actually wrote a story about it last year, has been noticeably quiet lately following some cringe-worthy virtual gaffes. In January, he cheerfully tweeted "Good morning" to the Israeli minister of defense, prompting widespread outrage, since Lebanon is still technically at war with Israel. As if that weren't bad enough, Hariri displayed some markedly undignified behavior when let himself be baited by one of his followers in May. A few samples:
Another noteworthy virtual brawl took place in April, when the head of the Free Patriotic movement, Michel Aoun, held a question-and-answer session on his Facebook page. While answering one of the questions, Aoun insulted Lebanese President, Michel Sleiman, by saying that the leader of Lebanon should command a parliamentary bloc instead of "begging at the door of some ministers." Sleiman responded by tweeting that "At least a consensual president does not beg for the presidency. On the contrary, everyone asks him to accept the post of president."
According to Think Media Labs, a Lebanese social media marketing agency, July was quite an active month for the many Lebanese politicians who frequent Twitter. Minister of Energy Gebran Bassil was the most prolific tweeter, with 226 tweets, while member of the pro-Western March 14 alliance Antoine Haddad was the most responsive to his followers.
Perhaps Twitter, by providing Lebanese politicians with a platform to get snarky, is the only thing standing in the way of another civil war. Who needs to start shooting when you can run your mouth instead?
Lebanese security forces arrested the former information minister of Lebanon and close ally of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad on Thursday. Michel Samaha, who served as minister of information under the late Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, was detained on what appears to be suspicion of being involved in a plot to detonate a number of explosives near the Lebanese-Syrian border.
Lebanon's Daily Star reported that Samaha was awakened in the middle of the night by police from the Internal Security Forces branch of information, who proceeded to raid his house and remove several items, including his wife's car. This prompted a flurry of speculation by local media outlets that he had been involved in an assassination plot against a member of parliament, while other news organizations claimed that Samaha had been arrested for collaborating with Israel. However, Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati, who is a member of the Hezbollah-backed March 8 alliance, made a statement denying that Samaha's arrest was linked to espionage.
According to the Daily Star, 20 "highly effective" remote bombs were found in several areas of Northern Lebanon. They were diffused and brought to Beirut by explosive experts.
The Guardian reported that in 2007, Samaha was put on a White House list of Lebanese and Syrian figures working to undermine the pro-Western March 14-dominated government that was ruling at the time.
The war in Syria has been bleeding into northern Lebanon in recent months, with a number of skirmishes taking place between Syrian and Lebanese security forces as well as cross-border shelling. The Syrian government has accused towns in the north of Lebanon of harboring rebels..
However, the March 8 coalition of the Lebanese government has remained a staunch supporter of Assad's embattled regime. In contrast, the March 14 party has been extremely vocal in its espousal of the Syrian opposition's cause.
Samaha's arrest highlights the deep division that permeates the Lebanese government, especially where Syria is concerned.
Although the Arab Spring hasn't won Israel many friends in the Middle East, Haaretz reported yesterday that its navy "recently strengthened its cooperation with the Lebanese Navy in the Mediterranean." The partnership, Israel hopes, will prevent provocations in the form of possible pro-Palestinian flotillas to Gaza on May 15, or Nakba Day, which commemorates "the displacement of Palestinians following the establishment of Israel in 1948, and on Naksa Day, which takes place in June and commemorates the displacement of Palestinians after the 1967 war."
It's no surprise that Israel would turn to regional multilateralism in order to avoid a repeat of the Gaza flotilla incident of 2010. According to the Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center, "pro-Palestinian activists from Sweden [have] announced their intent to organize another Gaza flotilla this year, saying they have already bought the ship."
Whether this friendly strategic cooperation will last, though, is an entirely different question. Israel and Lebanon may soon be engaged in nasty disputes over natural gas fields in the Levant Basin, which as Robin M. Mills reported for FP last year "spans not only Israel's offshore but also that of Lebanon, Cyprus, and Syria." In 2009, U.S. exploration company Noble Energy found Tamar, a deepwater field that holds 8.5 trillion cubic feet (Tcf) of natural gas. Noble discovered Leviathan, which has an aerial area of 125 square miles and contains a potential 20 Tcf, in early 2010. As Mills noted, the U.S. Geological Survey estimates that the entire basin "could contain 120 Tcf of gas, equivalent to almost half of U.S. reserves."
With Tamar set to come online in April 2013, and Leviathan expected to begin production by 2016, what is for now just a dispute over maritime borders could soon turn into a regional conflict over natural gas.
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Off shore, and generally off the radar, a fight is heating up between Israel and Lebanon over who controls a valuable piece of the Mediterranean that is known to have two major gas fields possibly worth billions of dollars. As always, when it comes to border issues between these two nations, the rhetoric has become heated -- and there's the fear that this could signal the next big clash between Israel and Hezbollah. Hezbollah's deputy secretary general Sheikh Naim Qassem minced no words, saying today the group "will remain vigilant in order to regain its full rights, whatever it takes."
Israel's rhetoric has been equally heated. Last year, Deputy Prime Minister Uzi Landau said Israel "would not hesitate to use our force and strength to protect...international maritime law."
Qassem's comments today were in response to Israel, which on Sunday issued a map that it plans on submitting to the United Nations. Lebanon says, though, that the Israeli map encroaches on their territory by more than 1,500 square kilometers. Last year, Lebanon submitted a map of their own to the world body -- hoping for mediation.
Israeli officials say Hezbollah, boosted by its new political clout, is trying to pick a fight with Israel as a pretext for continuing their conflict.
But Hezbollah says that Israel is trying to snatch valuable territory and that it won't be "frightened by" Israeli threats.
A resolution is tricky. There is a lot of money at stake for the two resource-poor countries -- maybe up to $90 billion worth of gas. Hezbollah's position is not dissimilar from the previous Western-backed government led by Saad Hariri, which also accused Israel of taking part of its offshore territory.
So, who actually controls what? The only internationally recognized border between Lebanon and Israel -- the blue line -- was drawn up in 2000 by the United Nations, following the Israeli withdraw from southern Lebanon.
But trying to extend that into the sea isn't so simple. Israel says it drew a straight line out from shore to demarcate the sea border. But Lebanon says the angle Israel used gives it more territory than it should have, since it's drawn too far north. The territory extends to water controlled by Cyprus (both Israel and Lebanon have separate agreements with that country).
International law says countries that share sea borders have to reach bilateral agreements on how to demarcate them. But that's not so easy, given Israel and Lebanon are still technically in a state of war.
Israel would seem to have an advantage, legally -- since it has already staked its claim and is exploring the fields, experts say.
That's why Lebanon is asking the United Nations to step in. Though, as with everything when it comes to that world body, the process is sure to take a long time, if it's ever resolved. In the meantime, there will be more heated rhetoric. This weekend, Israel's Vice Prime Minister Moshe Ya'alon, compared the sea dispute to Shebaa Farms, the tiny area that Lebanon and Israel both claim and have led to flare-ups in the past. Given what's at stake in terms of mineral wealth, and the history of the border -- whether it stays at just heated rhetoric, or escalates to something more significant, is a question that has to be considered.
Lebanon's current political upheaval resembles a mirror image of the strife that overwhelmed the country from 2006 to 2008, when Hezbollah and its allies embarked on a two-year effort to topple the government. But this time, the tables have turned: It's Hezbollah that has mustered the votes to form a government, which will reportedly be headed by former Prime Minister Najib Miqati. Meanwhile, Lebanese caretaker Prime Minister Saad Hariri and his allies are on the outside looking in, left to express their displeasure through street protests and acts of violence.
Lebanon's political ground rules hold that the president must hail from the Maronite Christian community, the prime minister must be a Sunni, and the speaker of parliament must be a Shiite. A parliamentary majority, therefore, is theoretically able to elevate political figures that have little support within their own community.
But the recent reversal of fortunes has shown that the reality on the ground is somewhat different, and that the only real law in Lebanon is sectarian solidarity. Back in 2008, Hezbollah was appalled and outraged that the ruling coalition would consider replacing its resigned ministers with Shiite figures that had little support in their own community - now they're preparing to bring to power a Sunni prime minister that can count on only token Sunni support. Meanwhile, Hariri, who had defended the democratic legitimacy of the government when he had a solid parliamentary majority, now denounces the election of a new opposition-friendly government as "virtually a coup d'état."
All signs currently point toward chaos: The new Miqati government, once it is established, will vote to discontinue government support for the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, which is expected to implicate Hezbollah members in the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. But as Elias Muhanna pointed out in FP last week, it's hard to see what the opposition gains from this maneuver. As the recent protests have shown, Miqati doesn't have the credibility to convince his community that the tribunal's indictments are flawed. And after he moves to disrupt the investigation of a murdered Sunni leader, his already meager support among his own community will likely fall further.
Hariri and his allies may be tempted take some solace in this dynamic. They will point to this fact as evidence that Hezbollah still needs them, and will therefore be forced to compromise. The situation, however, is not nearly so sanguine: Lebanese politics has a tendency to return to equilibrium only after no small degree of bloodshed and lost economic opportunity. Once again, it is the Lebanese people who will bear the cost of their fundamentally tribal and dishonest political system.
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For the past two and a half years, Lebanese politics was played much like a game of touch football. That is, it operated within the confines of a strictly defined set of rules: It didn't always make for the most compelling sport, but at least nobody got hurt. This was the legacy of the May 2008 Doha Agreement, which gave Lebanon's Hezbollah-led opposition veto power in the new national unity government.
But it's unity no more. The rival coalitions finally faced an issue where no compromise was possible: The Special Tribunal for Lebanon, which was established by the U.N. Security Council to prosecute those behind the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, is expected to soon issue indictments implicating Hezbollah members in the crime. Prime Minister Saad Hariri, his son, has staunchly resisted Hezbollah's attempts to pressure him to disavow the court. Today, Lebanon's opposition cabinet ministers resigned in protest, forcing the collapse of Hariri's government.
The new rules of Lebanese politics will make for a full-contact contest worthy of the NFL. The parties now begin what promises to be a protracted process to form a new government. The opposition will likely try to pressure Hariri by raising alternative candidates for prime minister. However, any other potential premier would be hard-pressed to help Hezbollah undermine the tribunal's credibility.
"As the son of the slain leader -- with Hezbollah looking for some form of absolution or some way of getting itself off the hook [for the Special Tribunal's indictments] -- Saad Hariri is in a particular position to do that much more so than anyone else," noted Mona Yacoubian, the director of the United States Institute of Peace's Lebanon Working Group.
Few expect the situation to quickly devolve into violence -- the more likely scenario is long-term government paralysis, punctuated by rival political demonstrations organized to show the various factions' popular support. In other words, the country appears poised to return to the political deadlock that existed in 2006, after Shiite cabinet ministers resigned in an earlier attempt to prevent the Lebanese government from lending its support to the international tribunal.
On the bright side, Lebanese political parties are making an effort to prevent the situation from turning into a sectarian turf battle between the Shiite and Sunni communities. Reached for comment, a delegation from Hariri's predominantly Sunni Future Movement declined to comment. A Hezbollah official also said that his party had decided to not make any further statements for the next two days on the matter. By staying above the fray for the time being, the parties are trying to keep this as a dispute between two political blocs, rather than turn it into a dispute between rival sects.
That has left the political field open to Lebanon's Christian parties, which are divided between the two sides. "Any democratic means [to achieve the opposition's goals] are allowed; this is what the opposition has committed to," a senior official of Gen. Michel Aoun's Free Patriotic Movement, the largest Christian party in the opposition, told me. "If there is a need for street protests, why not?"
Labor Minister Boutros Harb, a Hariri loyalist, shot back that "this government will be under the obligation to continue running the current affairs of the ministries" until another cabinet is formed. He also criticized Aoun, saying that his ambition to be president was "a big part of the problem" currently facing the country.
By the standards of Lebanese rhetoric, this is still relatively tame -- Druze leader Walid Jumblatt once referred to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as an "ape" and a "murderer," but now counts himself among Assad's allies. Lebanon still hasn't returned to that level of vitriol -- but the rules that ensured its politics were kept within certain boundaries have now been broken, and nobody can be quite sure where the game is headed next.
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The Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) claimed to have uncovered two Israeli spy cameras placed in the mountains overlooking Beirut. And how did it know that the devices belong to Israel? Well, one of them had the word "Israel" written in English on its side. The LAF promptly posted photos of the cameras on its website.
A mysterious explosion also rocked the southern Lebanese city of Saida on Wednesday night, which Lebanese media said was caused by Israel destroying another espionage device. Israel denied that was the case, and Lebanese authorities have so far been unable to produce munitions with "Israel" written in large letters on its side.
The old saw goes that history repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce. Omar Bakri seems to have leapfrogged over that first step.
The radical Sunni Islamist sheikh, who fled to Lebanon after being banned from Britain in 2005, was just sentenced to life in prison by a Lebanese court on charges of inciting murder. Bakri was tried in absentia, and has 15 days to appeal the verdict before being arrested.
Sheikh Omar currently lives in Lebanon's northern city of Tripoli and, as it happens, hasn't changed his phone number in three years. "I will never, ever give myself up to any non-Islamic court," he told FP. "They have no evidence, not a shred of proof."
Bakri also said that he has an escape plan. "If worse comes to worse, I will go to Beirut and ask Hezbollah for protection," he said. He added that he was planning to leave for Beirut tonight to discuss with Hezbollah the terms of any protection that they would be willing to offer him.
This may all sound very nefarious, but it's actually rather difficult to take seriously. Bakri likes to talk a big game -- particularly to Western journalists in nice Beirut cafes -- about his admiration for Osama bin Laden, but his actual influence among Sunni youth in Tripoli is suspect. Given his vocal statements, it was inevitable that a Lebanese court would eventually pin charges on him, but among the many cause of instability in the country, Bakri is small potatoes.
Bakri insisted that Hezbollah would be willing to ensure his safety because he shared their anti-Israel and anti-American bona fides. Perhaps, but I'm not so sure. The Party of God is allowed to operate outside the normal rules of society because many Lebanese think it serves as a necessary defense against the threat posed by Israel and their other enemies. Many Lebanese are already chafing at Hezbollah's current impunity; if the party extends their security umbrella to a loudmouth with no obvious constituency, it will make the status quo even more difficult to justify.
Bakri and Hezbollah may share some political views, but there is one important difference -- only one of them is able to put their words into action.
The Iranian energy sector may currently be the target of aggressive and renewed U.S. sanctions, but that's not stopping it from offering assistance to the energy sectors and consumption needs for other countries -- especially those in the Arab world.
Iran is now looking to expand energy ties with Lebanon, in addition to longer standing negotiations it has been conducting with the Persian Gulf countries of Bahrain and Oman. This time of year, it seems, the talk is all about cash, pipelines, and energy.
When it comes to Lebanon, the country "continues to suffer from power shortages that can reach 15 hours a day," reports Bloomberg news. That's a problem Iran wants to have a role in solving. "Iranian officials said they were looking into helping with the rehabilitation of Lebanon's two refineries, which currently are only used for storage."
An Iran-Lebanon pipeline could potentially be in the works, theoretically passing through Iraq, Syria, and possibly even Turkey, according to the same report. Iran has even offered the Lebanese government (note: not Hezbollah, but the whole government) "unlimited" economic and military support, following the United States' suspension of $100 million of military aid to the country a few months prior.
In no small part due to sanctions that specifically target its gasoline refining capacities, Iran has enacted rationing within its own borders and invested heavily in updating its refining capabilities -- reportedly not only attaining self sufficiency, but also exporting gasoline for the first time last month.
This, among other achievements, has prompted Juan Cole to ceremoniously label Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as "Mahmoud the Great." Though, admittedly, there is a lot to debate on that subject.
These talks also come on the brink of a historic visit to Lebanon by Ahmadinejad -- his first as president, and a visit that the Israelis have been frantically trying to prevent (Secretary of State Hillary Clinton does not appear to be too pleased, either). Ahmadinejad is planning on visiting southern Lebanon, the stronghold of Hezbollah, including villages hit particularly hard during the 2006 Israeli invasion. To further get into the spirit, Ahmadinejad may actually be throwing a rock at Israel while at the border.
This might be the closest direct contact that Iran and
Israel, I mean
the Zionist Regime, may approach in a long time. Talk about one-sided
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All eyes in the Middle East are on Iran, but it may be Lebanon that is closer to war. On Sunday, the former head of Lebanese General Security, Gen. Jamil al-Sayyed, announced that he had been informed by his lawyer that a Damascus court had issued arrest warrants for 33 figures for misleading the international tribunal charged with bringing the killers of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri to justice. One of those individuals was a former chief investigator of the U.N.-led investigation itself, Detlev Mehlis. But in comments to Foreign Policy, Mehlis poured cold water over the truth of Sayyed's claims, and suggested that he has no intention of backing down from his work in Lebanon.
Sayyed has a particular axe to grind in this case: He was imprisoned for over four years on suspicion of being involved in Hariri's killing. And the man partially responsible for putting him behind bars was none other than Mehlis, who asked Lebanese authorities to arrest him along with three other pro-Syrian generals.
"I should mention that I am not aware of any investigation against myself and members of my previous UNIIIC-team anywhere in the world," Mehlis said. "I realize that Mr. Sayyed has brought up the story of an arrest warrant, just as he brought up the story of a French arrest warrant a year ago, and I do not believe a word of what he is saying. "
The Syrian government has so far yet to confirm whether an arrest warrant has been issued. But even if one has, Mehlis left little doubt about the opinion of such a document. "If indeed there is a Syrian arrest warrant, it would be baseless, illegal, and politically motivated, without any practical implications," he said.
As the showdown over the tribunal heats up, Mehlis's work has been fiercely attacked by the court's critics in an attempt to discredit the entire enterprise. As Syria and Hezbollah attempt to use their increased leverage within Lebanon to scuttle the court entirely, there is no doubt that such condemnations will continue. The only real question is whether anyone will speak out against them.
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In an inspired bit of YouTube surfing, Gawker has assembled a compilation of military recruitment commercials from around the world. There are a few clunkers -- three minutes is an awful long time to watch a Russian paratrooper sort of rapping in front of an obstacle course -- and I have my doubts that this Japanese ad is not an elaborate sophomoric hoax, but on the whole they make for pretty fascinating viewing.
Watching these as an American, the most immediately noticeable thing is how little time most of the ads spend overtly appealing to patriotism. There's Estonia, which does it cheekily, and Lebanon, which does it with a slow-motion sentimentality that would be cloying under other circumstances but is actually quite poignant in the context of a country that is eternally trying to keep things together. France and India, meanwhile, both hearken back to the U.S. military ads of the pre-9/11 era, in which we mostly see the life-advancing stuff that enlistment is supposed to get you, with a minimum of actual warfighting. (A career in the Indian army evidently prepares you for a lifetime of golfing and competitive diving.)
The Ukrainian army opts for an admirably straightforward "you'll get girls" approach. Singapore features a naval vessel transforming into a giant robot, presumably developed to contain the same giant lava monsters that have long plagued the U.S. Marines. Britain's jarring entry -- which a student of post-colonialism would have a field day with -- looks like it was directed by Fernando Meirelles. (This kind of "I dare you" approach to recruiting must work in the U.K. -- back in the '90s, when the U.S. Army was mostly promoting itself as a way to pay for college, the Brits ran magazine ads showing a Royal Marine eating worms as part of a survival training course.)
But the real winner here, I think, is Sweden, which is promoting military service to young women as a means of avoiding working as an au pair for awful Americans:
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Sure, there are plenty of people who have it worse than billionaire Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri. But as someone whose government is marginalized in large parts of Lebanon, whose interests are ignored internationally, and who -- if the history of his country and his family is any guide -- faces good odds of meeting a violent death, there are also plenty of people who have it better than Sheikh Saad. The latest headache came today, with the news that the Lebanese army had opened fire on Israeli jets flying over the country.
This isn't a novel development: Israeli warplanes have continued to violate Lebanese airspace since the 2006 war, and the Lebanese army continues to periodically fire at them, and miss. But for Hariri, who attended his first U.N. Security Council meeting today and spent Monday and Tuesday in Washington, where U.S. military assistance to Lebanon was on the docket, the timing couldn't be worse.
It's a no-win situation. If Hariri wants to keep military aid flowing to Lebanon, he needs to convince U.S. lawmakers that a strengthened Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) will contribute to regional peace. That just became harder. And Hariri can't simply order the army not to target Israeli planes -- he's still trying to build bridges to Syria and Hezbollah, and his own Sunni community wouldn't stand for it. As with Hassan Nasrallah's fire-and-brimstone speech yesterday, the prime minister keeps finding the spotlight wrested away from him during his big trip.
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We're happy to feature today an excerpt from Michael Young's new book, The Ghosts of Martyrs Square, that explores the immediate aftermath of the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri on February 14, 2005. I caught up with Young to hear his thoughts on how this event continues to reverberate, both in Lebanon and in the international arena. Here's what he had to say:
FP: How does Hariri's assassination continue to affect Lebanese politics today?
MY: In the aftermath of Rafiq al-Hariri's assassination on February 14, 2005, the U.N. Security Council established an independent commission to investigate the crime, the first time the organization had ever done such a thing. In 2007, the Security Council went further and created a Special Tribunal for Lebanon to indict the guilty. Indictments may come later this year or early next, and Lebanese political life is bracing for the consequences, given that although Syria likely gave the order and a suicide bomber actually carried out the attack, Lebanese parties -- many people in Beirut believe Hezbollah -- participated in some capacity. There is fear that an accusation against Hezbollah, if the party was indeed involved, or against other Lebanese might destabilize Lebanon. Still, the Lebanese authorities have a responsibility to go through with this, since from the outset those who supported the investigation and tribunal knew where it might lead, and saw these measures as a way of preventing similar killings in the future. On a more personal level, I feel that for the tribunal to truly succeed, it has to identify all the guilty, not merely low-level enablers. However, I'm not at all sure that this will be the outcome.
FP: You discuss how Hariri's murder caused a fundamental split between the Lebanese Sunni community and the Syrian regime. Has this relationship healed with time, or do Lebanese Sunnis still largely hold Syria responsible for the death of Hariri?
MY: The Sunnis know who killed Hariri, but the imperatives of Arab politics have intervened to alter the Sunni-Syrian relationship. Just over a year ago, Saudi Arabia began a reconciliation process with Syria--its intention to draw Damascus away from Iran, whose rise the Arab countries, particularly those in the Gulf, view as a threat to their own regimes. An implicit quid pro quo emerged, whereby the Saudis gave Syria greater latitude in Lebanon, in part to contain the pro-Iranian Hezbollah. The Syrians gladly took that offer in order to reimpose their writ in Beirut, but have offered little in exchange. Syria's regime has maintained its close ties with Tehran and continues to arm and support Hezbollah. A byproduct of that Saudi-Syrian rapprochement was a so-called ‘reconciliation' last December between Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri, Rafiq's son who is politically beholden to the Saudis, and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The Sunnis today have less room to condemn Syria, but neither they nor Saad Hariri himself have forgotten what happened to Rafiq al-Hariri.
FP: The Obama administration recently announced the appointment of Robert Ford as ambassador to Syria -- the first ambassador to the country since the United States withdrew its ambassador following Hariri's assassination. What was the U.S. reaction in response to this attack, and is its resolve to bring the perpetrators to justice waning?
MY: I don't see evidence that American interest in bringing the perpetrators to justice is waning, and from what I'm hearing that's not the case. But can we be sure? The Hariri investigation (which was independent, we should remember) was and is a complex case that has suffered from investigative flaws. Those shortcomings have tested the commitment of many countries, amid continued reluctance at U.N. headquarters to deal with the consequences of a potentially destabilizing investigation. I don't necessarily believe that Robert Ford's appointment is a sign that Washington has given up on the Hariri investigation. My problem with the step is that the Obama administration got nothing in exchange for that concession; but paradoxically that may only increase its interest in seeing the Hariri tribunal through, in the hope that the ensuing accusations allow it to squeeze the Syrians. That's not to say the indictments, if or when they come, will serve a specific political agenda, but there is no doubt that they will have political consequences.
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The territorial issues surrounding the village of Ghajar are probably understood well by only a few hundred Americans -- and, truth be told, the village's history is not known all that much better in Lebanon. Nevertheless, there have been three stories on Ghajar in major U.S. publications in the past week: The Wall Street Journal released their article last Friday, the New York Times published their piece today -- and, of course, Foreign Policy produced the best article on Ghajar, which we put out last night.
This is curious because Israel administers the village as a military zone -- foreign correspondents need the IDF's permission to enter the village, and are escorted by the Israelis as they do their reporting. It is one of those issues where Israel is able to shape pretty easily what media accounts, if any, come out of the area.
So, why would the Israelis open the floodgates to Ghajar reporting at this time? As you'd know by reading our article, Israel is currently in negotiations with the United Nations and Lebanon over returning the northern part of the village to Lebanese sovereignty, while the area would be administered by soldiers from the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL). Those talks have currently hit a few snags: Israel is leery of the precedent set by a deal which would place Israeli citizens under international control. By letting reporters interview the village residents, who oppose the deal because they want to be reintegrated with Syria, not Lebanon, the Israelis could be attempting to gin up public pressure which will give them a reason to drag their feet further on negotiations.
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The Lebanese sure showed Israel this weekend. For years, the two held the same thing sacred, while only one could hold the title. That title, of course, is who could make the largest batch of hummus.
Israel used to hold the record for making the largest plate of the dip, but no longer after Lebanese chefs served up over two tons of chickpea-y goodness on Saturday. The entire affair is comical in the sense that too often it seems like neither side is actually talking about hummus.
The slogan for the event was, "Come and fight for your bite, you know you're right," illustrating the growing frustration. Several Lebanese businessmen also used the belligerent rhetoric.
"Lebanon is trying to win a battle against Israel," Fady Jreissati, the events promoter said. "Hummus is a Lebanese product and part of our traditions."
This isn't the first time the two counties have clashed over the dish, last year the Association of Lebanese Industrialists sued Israel in an effort to stop them from marketing hummus as Israeli. Saturday, the head of that group said, "If we don't tell Israel that enough is enough, and we don't remind the world that it's not true that hummus is an Israeli traditional dish, they will keep on marketing it as their own."
However the food wars don't end with hummus. Yesterday the Lebanese also made the world's largest batch of tabbouleh, a salad which Lebanon claims the Zionists are trying to take as their own.
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Robert Worth has a great piece in today's New York Times on Salah Ezzedine, the billion-dollar pyramid schemer being called "Lebanon's Bernie Madoff". Ezzedine seemed to use his close ties to Hezbollah to rope in Shiite investors, not dissimilar from the way Maddof preyed on eldery Jewish investors:
Many of the investors — mostly Shiites living in Beirut and southern villages like this one — say those party links were the reason they chose to risk their hard-earned savings with a man who offered 40 and 50 percent profits but never showed any paperwork.
The scandal has embarrassed the party, which prides itself on a reputation for honesty and selfless piety. It has also illustrated the way many of Lebanon’s Shiites, despite their ascent from near feudal poverty just a few decades ago, remain in some ways a nation apart. Their residual distrust of mainstream Lebanese institutions, which helped fuel Hezbollah’s rise as a virtual state within a state, also appears to have made them vulnerable to Mr. Ezzedine’s schemes.
The big question now is whether the scandal will be a blow to Hezbollah's credibility, or whether the party can use the same trust Ezzedein preyed on to lay the blame on the usual suspects:
Mustafa Fneish, a wizened 54-year-old taxi driver in Mahroub, said he invested $10,000 with Mr. Ezzedine and had received an 80 percent profit on his investment, or $8,000. When asked whether he had received the principal back, he looked confused, and said no.
“All this happened because of the United States and Israel,” Mr. Fneish added, echoing a refrain that springs easily to people’s minds here. “When they discovered that Ezzedine was close to Hezbollah, they ruined him.”
Lebanese politics tend to oscillate between tragic and absurd. With Saad Hariri's announcement yesterday that he was stepping down from his position as Prime Minister-designate and abandoning attempts to form a national unity government, we are clearly in the realm of absurdity. Since his March 14 Alliance won a decisive victory in last June's parliamentary elections, Hariri and his allies have been unable to agree to terms with the Hezbollah-led opposition over the composition of the new government.
In a true democracy, Hariri would now likely abandon his attempts to include the opposition in the national unity government and move forward with the composition of a cabinet composed solely of his parliamentary majority. But Hariri, along with his allies in Saudi Arabia and the United States, are leery of forming a partisan government set up in opposition to Hezbollah. As in 2008, such a move would risk a downward spiral of recrimination and violence, culminating in Hezbollah using its superior force to settle the matter. Hariri, prevented from even threatening to form a March 14-only government, has been robbed of the leverage that his parliamentary majority should give him in the negotiations over the form of the government.
While there is no shortage of sideshows in Lebanon, the fundamental issue remains that the country's two poles, Saad Hariri and Hassan Nasrallah, have yet come to an agreement over the distribution of political power. Under Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, Saad's father, Hezbollah was willing to leave economic policy to Hariri in exchange for free reign to maintain its military, social and economic preeminence in South Lebanon.
But following the armed confrontation in May 2008, which pitted Hariri's supporters against Hezbollah in Beirut, Hezbollah does not have sufficient confidence in Saad Hariri to give him the same latitude. If these two actors fail to reach a modus vivendi, Lebanese politics will likely swing once again from absurd to tragic.
David Kenner, a former editorial researcher at FP, is an assistant researcher at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
So, it turns out that Lebanon's ruling pro-Western coalition managed to hang on to power, defeating a rival coalition that includes Hezbollah.
The editors over at HuffPo appear to credit this development to Obama's Thursday speech, blaring these headlines:
I hate to burst the bubble, but there's simply no evidence yet that Obama had any impact on the outcome. As Paul Salem explained Friday for FP, there were plenty of indications - such as the fact that it only ran 11 candidates -- that Hezbollah didn't really want to win and give up its cozy seat in the opposition. And further, it was Hezbollah's coalition partner, the mostly Christian Free Patriotic Movement, that seems to have underperformed expectations. In any case, the AP story on HuffPo flatly declares, "Obama's speech did not resonate in the election campaign."
Nor should we breathe a sigh of relief just yet. Now comes the ugly business of negotiating ministries, and it's likely that Hezbollah (whose power is measured in more than just parliamentary seats) will again demand a veto in a cabinet of "national unity" -- to the extent that such a thing exists in fractured Lebanon. It could be months of agonizing negotiations before a new government is formed.
The good news, of course, is that the Hezbollah-FPM coalition didn't win, which could have led to ugly recriminations, or worse, if the ruling Sunni-Druze-Christian alliance didn't accept the results. But I don't think we can chalk these results up to any "Obama effect" just yet, if ever.
UPDATE: Elias Muhanna weighs in:
Far more decisive, in my opinion, seems to have been: (1) the high turnout of Sunnis in Zahle — many of whom came from abroad — coupled with a low turnout of Christians; (2) strong feelings of antipathy towards Hizbullah by the Christians of Beirut who voted decisively for March 14th’s list in the district of Achrafieh; (3) some rare rhetorical blunders by Nasrallah in the past couple of weeks, calling the events of May 7th “a glorious day” for the resistance.
JOSEPH BARRAK/AFP/Getty Images
If you were worried that Hugo Chavez's global reach would shrink right along with the oil prices, there good news for your today, as Lebanon inaugurates the Hugo Chavez shawarma spot. The Venezuelan ambassador was on site for the "emotional" opening of the restaurant, replete with great festivity all around.
The restaurant, it seems, is quite patriotic indeed -- decorated with flags and pictures of the Venezuelan president and, nearby as the press release from the Embassy put it (my translation), "instructions of our head of state relating to the fight for the sovereignty of the oppressed people of the world against the pretensions of potential imperialists."
What atmosphere! Add the waiters' red shirts and hats, clothes traditional to Venezuela, and you've go the whole deal. Now, I just wonder how good the shawarma is.
Two weeks before Lebanese Parliamentary elections, Der Spiegel has released a blockbuster report contending that U.N. investigators for the Special Tribunal for Lebanon have acquired new evidence implicating Hezbollah in the 2005 assassination which took the life of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.
The piece reports that Lebanese security forces discovered that the mobile phones used by Hariri's assassins were often in close proximity to another network of phones, all belonging to members of Hezbollah's powerful militia. The investigators received another break, the article claims, when one of Hariri's killers used his "hot" phone to call his girlfriend, allowing him to be identified as Abd al-Majid Ghamlush, a Hezbollah member who had completed training courses in Iran.
There are good reasons to be skeptical of this story. First, the entire piece is based on the claims of one anonymous source. The timing is also suspicious, with the news breaking just as Lebanon prepares for Parliamentary elections which pit Hezbollah and Saad Hariri's Future Movement. The story could simply be intended as one of the most macabre voter mobilization effort in recent memory, stoking the anger of the predominantly Sunni Future Movement in order to draw them to the polls. Nor is the author's explanation for Hezbollah's motivations in killing Hariri particularly convincing. For what it's worth, Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah denounced Der Spiegel's claims yesterday as an "Israeli accusation."
Hezbollah has been known to overreach -- most recently, with the revelations of a Hezbollah cell operating in Egypt. Involvement in Hariri's assassination, however, would be Hezbollah's most spectacular overestimation of their domestic position in history. While the Special Tribunal for Lebanon has officially remained mum on its findings, whenever the court reveals what it has uncovered in the past four years of investigation into Hariri's murder, it promises to have a significant impact across the Middle East.
MAHMOUD ZAYAT/AFP/Getty Images
Barack Obama made the first tentative steps toward opening lines of communication with the Syrian regime in the past week. In Sharm el-Sheikh, Hillary Clinton exchanged a handshake with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem. Contacts were also reestablished in Washington, as Jeffrey Feltman, the acting assistant secretary for the Near East, held a two-hour meeting with Syrian Amb. Imad Moustapha. Today, Clinton tapped Feltman and National Security Council aide Daniel Shapiro as envoys to Damascus.
While the Obama administration has proven its willingness to engage with Syria, it is also signaling that negotiations do not mean that the United States is surrendering to Syrian demands. Clinton downplayed the possibility of a speedy improvement of U.S.-Syrian ties at a press conference in Jerusalem, saying that "we have no way to predict what the future with our relations concerning Syria might be."
In his discussions with Moustapha, Feltman raised the issue of Syrian support for terrorist organizations such as Hezbollah and Hamas, its pursuit of nuclear weapons, the regime's meddling in Lebanon, and its worsening domestic human rights situation -- not issues that top Damascus's preferred agenda for U.S.-Syrian negotiations.
The very presence of Feltman (shown above being burned in effigy by Hezbollah supporters) in U.S.-Syrian negotiations is also a message. Feltman is a former U.S. ambassador to Lebanon, and was consequently the point man for George W. Bush's hawkish Lebanon policy. In Beirut, he has a reputation as a strong and energetic supporter of Lebanon's pro-Western, anti-Syrian political coalition. He was a bête noir of Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah, who took to calling Lebanon's anti-Syrian government "Feltman's government," rather than the government of Prime Minister Fuad Siniora. This antipathy no doubt extends to the Syrian regime.
Nevertheless, Obama's decision to establish Feltman as a primary U.S. interlocutor with Syria is a welcome sign that he is approaching a possible rapprochement with few illusions. Syria will try to leverage a decrease in tensions with the United States to attract business to the country, and gradually break down the economic sanctions regime erected against it. Feltman has the reputation to dissuade the Syrian regime that it can get something for nothing. Syria has to realize that it must take tangible steps for reconciliation to take place, not just engage in the process of negotiations. For Obama's first foray into the Arab world, this is a good start.
HAITHAM MUSSAWI/AFP/Getty Images
A bulldozer crushes pirated CDs and DVDs at a parking lot in the Beirut suburb of Kfarshima on Feb. 24. The Lebanese Intellectual Property Unit affiliated with the judicial police forces destroyed about 100,000 pirated CDs and DVDs confiscated from Lebanese vendors and traders. Soaring piracy of CDs, DVDs, business software, and cable networks has devastated the cinema, video, and related industries in Lebanon. More than half of the CDs, DVDs, and software sold in Lebanon are copies, according to the International Intellectual Property Alliance, a private-sector coalition that represents U.S.-based copyright industries.
Meanwhile, check out question 6 of the latest FP quiz: What percentage of the world's music downloads are illegal?Loyal Passport readers know that we love a good crushing picture. Here are two classics:
It appears that FP contributor and public intellectual, Chrisopher Hitchens was involved in a "vicious street brawl with shoe-shopping thugs" while in Lebanon this past weekend, and it was not of the intellectual variety.
While the writer is no stranger to public altercations, this time around Hitchens used fists, not brains to fend off attackers, even taking a punch through a taxi window.
It all started when Hitchens, accompanied by two other Western journalists who, after attending an event commemorating the assassination of Rafik Hariri, noticed a poster of the "Syrian Social Nationalist Party, a far-right group whose logo bears an uncanny resemblance to the Nazi swastika."
Here's his account as he told it to the Guardian:
I couldn't tear it down but I got my marker out and wrote on it, effectively telling them to 'fuck off'."
Hitchens' political statement was witnessed by a group of SSNP activists, who have a strong presence in Beirut. "With amazing speed, in broad daylight on this fashionable street, these guys appeared from nowhere, grabbed me by the collar and said: 'You're coming with us'. I said: 'No I'm not'. They kept on coming. About six or seven at first with more on the way," he said.
He described how he was knocked to the floor, ended up with his shirt covered with blood after he cut his arm in the fall, and "skinned" two fingers on one hand. Hitchens added that was walking with a limp for several days after. "They were after me because I was the one who had defaced the poster," he said.
Golly, that's hardcore.
Amanda Edwards/Getty Images
I argued a few days ago that Hezbollah has no interest in provoking a war with Israel over the situation in Gaza. But that doesn't mean they aren't at risk of getting one. At least three rockets were launched from South Lebanon into Israel this morning, landing near the town of Nahariyeh.
The rockets were likely fired by Palestinian militant organizations based in the refugee camps, not Hezbollah. Still, the rockets put Hezbollah in an awkward position. Hassan Nasrallah, after announcing that his group "will not abandon the fight or our weapons," cannot easily condemn the rocket attacks. Note that Hezbollah's initial denial of responsibility for the rocket attacks did not come from the group itself, but from Tarek Mitri, the government Information Minister. Nasrallah may not want a war, but he has placed himself in a position where he cannot oppose one.
Today's rockets lightly injured two Israelis. Though the IDF responded with mortar fire, they seem ready to shrug off the event as a minor incident. But if a subsequent attack hits a school or a hospital and the casualties are in the dozens, Israeli retaliation might be far more severe. And that could very easily drag Hezbollah into a conflict, whether they want one or not. The rockets being fired are primitive, unguided devices -- whether they hit military targets, unpopulated areas, or civilian neighborhoods is simply the luck of the draw. Cruelly, the fate of many innocent people in Lebanon largely depends on where these rockets happen to land.
Photo: ANWAR AMRO/AFP/Getty Images
Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah has castigated
Because he isn’t suicidal. IDF
generals have made clear that another war with Hezbollah would likely be far more
destructive than the 2006 confrontation and would likely include a ground
invasion. Hezbollah is adept at fighting an insurgency in South Lebanon
because they have always been able to draw on the support of the Lebanese Shia
and capitalize on a weak or complicit central government in
“If they start something, they know the biggest loser will be their constituency,
the Shia community of
In the larger Lebanese political scene, this is an awkward time for military
adventurism. The pro-Western forces in
the government have insisted on a “national dialogue” to determine a national
defense strategy, which could constrain Hezbollah’s use of its militia. Hezbollah and its allies have managed to
stall this discussion, but if Hezbollah were to unilaterally launch a war
Photo: ANWAR AMRO/AFP/Getty Images
The explosive events that regularly occur in Lebanon tend to obscure, rather than reveal, the balance of power in the country. Analysts have a habit of taking
the latest news as proof that the country is completely dominated by
By far the worst example of this is former Middle East
correspondent Thanassis Cambanis, who pontificated recently in
the Middle East Bulletin that, "
Are Hezbollah and
Hezbollah recently won an important victory against the
government through an armed invasion of Sunni areas of
An unusual visitor is being hosted by Lebanon's political leaders today: Khaled Meshaal, the head of the political bureau of the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, is making the diplomatic rounds in Beirut. In the past, Hamas's primary interest had been in its activities within the Palestinian territories, and the organization had exerted only limited influence on the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon.
The visit puts Lebanon's pro-Western leaders, particularly Sunni leaders such as Saad Hariri, in an awkward situation. Hariri has been a vocal supporter of the Palestinian resistance, which is a prerequisite for maintaining his status as leader of Lebanese Sunnis. However, he cannot ignore the United States, which has propped up his government, and will not look kindly on Hariri's embrace of a leader they consider a terrorist.
So, why would Hamas leaders risk upsetting this delicate balance of political alliances by heading to Beirut?
It is possible that, as they feel more secure in their control of Gaza, they are looking to extend their influence to the Palestinian camps in Lebanon. They would find ample opportunity in the Ain al-Helwe camp, which has been a consistent flashpoint for violence between Palestinians loyal to the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and those belonging to the disparate Islamist groups in the camp. Meshaal specifically mentioned Ain al-Helwe after meeting with Lebanese officials, calling for "the launch of a Lebanese-Palestinian dialogue to discuss all the problems of Palestinian camps, Ain el-Helwe or others."
If Hamas is indeed looking to move in on the PLO's turf in Lebanon, don't expect much from the PLO-Hamas "reconciliation" talks scheduled to take place in Cairo on Nov. 10.
Photo: AFP/Getty Images
Twenty-five years ago this week, a truck laden with explosives crashed through the security gate surrounding the compound housing the U.S. Marine presence in Beirut. The suicide bomber drove straight into the lobby of the Marine barracks and detonated explosives equivalent to 12,000 pounds of TNT. The force of the explosion collapsed the building, killing 241 American servicemen.
The bombing entered the 2008 U.S. presidential campaign when John McCain bragged that he stood up to President Ronald Reagan in opposing the deployment of the Marines to Beirut because he believed "that a few hundred Marines in a situation like that could not successfully carry out any kind of peacekeeping mission."
The American "peacekeeping" in Lebanon failed because the United States never realized that there can be no such thing as peacekeepers in a country where there is no peace to keep. The Marines equated peacekeeping with supporting President Amin Gemayel, himself one of the major sectarian players in the civil war. But the more that the United States propped up Gemayel, the more they were pushed into conflict with Lebanese Druze and Muslim groups. To this day, the Marine barracks bombing remains a reminder of the dangers of getting involved in other people's wars, even with the best of intentions.
The repercussions of the attack continue to this day, both for the United States and Lebanon. The Marines did not step on Lebanese soil again for more than two decades, when they returned to help Americans evacuate during the 2006 Hezbollah-Israel war.
For the Lebanese, the truck bombing marked the birth of a new form of assymetrical warfare, where small insurgency groups began to discover the weapons that would allow them to take on a militarily advanced superpower like the United States. The Marine barracks bombing was the mother of future terrorist attacks, from the World Trade Center attacks to suicide bombings in Iraq and Afghanistan, that have shaped warfare for the past generation.
Take this with a grain of, um, arsenic, but the Iraqi Web site al-Malaf reported today that Hassan Nasrallah was poisoned last week, prompting a team of Iranian doctors to rush to Lebanon in order to save his life. The Hezbollah leader was reportedly in critical condition for a number of days before pulling through. The article quotes "diplomatic sources in Beirut" as confirming this report. But Hezbollah MP Hussein al-Hajj Hassan denounced the rumor as "a lie and a fabrication," though he admitted he had not seen Nasrallah during the past week.
Last week, the Iranian newspaper Khoursid reported that the Hezbollah leadership had chosen the head of the party's executive council, Hachem Safieddine, as Nasrallah's successor. While Hezbollah denied this story as well, some people will no doubt draw a connection between the succession chatter and rumors of Nasrallah being gravely ill. There aren't any verifiable facts in either of these pieces to draw definite conclusions. But, given Hezbollah's opaque organizational politics, those of us on the outside are often forced to sift through rumors and innuendo.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad issued a decree on Tuesday that will pave
the way for full diplomatic relations between
But rather than a sign of their success, some Lebanese
commentators view the planned Syrian embassy as a threat. A Syrian embassy “would
be an axis point for Syria’s allies in the country, a very useful means of
allowing the Assad regime to exert its political influence in Beirut on a
day-to-day basis in a way it cannot do so today,” writes
Michael Young in Beirut’s Daily Star. While
diplomatic recognition is a step in the right direction, it still does not mean
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