Regional realignment with Hezbollah, Assad & Iran?

Posted December 4th, 2013 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing

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Hassan Laqqis, assassination scene. Source: Al Manar

There’s been lots of talk about the regional consequences of the Iran nuclear deal, and of a realignment as the West realizes that it might prefer Assad in power to a jihadi-dominated rebel government or some version of the current punishing settlement. Ryan Crocker told The New York Times that the US should resume cooperating with Damascus against Salafi jihadis, and various analysts and diplomats have been speculating that Iran, Assad, Hezbollah, and the US share plenty of common interests. Saudi Arabia and Israel stand to lose if the US begins to behave like a mature superpower, collaborating where it sees fit rather than holding itself hostage to the agenda of small allies behave as peers rather than clients.

The latest trigger was yesterday’s assassination of a Hezbollah official in Beirut. (Hassan Lakkis, according to Hezbollah’s Al-Manar Television, played an important role in the fight against Israel; Reuters reports that Lakkis was fighting recently in Syria.) That killing once again raised the question of Hezbollah’s broader direction. Has it provoked a maelstrom of jihadi attacks, retaliation for Hezbollah’s role in the Syrian civil war? Or is the conflict in Syria playing out in the interests of Hezbollah, Assad and Iran?

I think there’s some evidence that three years after a non-violent popular revolt against Assad’s nasty dictatorship, Assad has finally managed the shape the conflict he wanted. He wiped out the non-violent resistance, the intellectuals and the pluralists, and continues to mass his firepower against the FSA rather than the jihadists. As a result, the conflict pits an authoritarian but non-sectarian dictatorship against a Sunni rebellion dominated by takfiri jihadists. Hezbollah entered the war supposedly to fight the sectarian jihadis over there before they made it over here, a la George W Bush. It sounded facile then, but now it sounds true; each time there’s a bomb of assassination in Lebanon, it adds credence to Hezbollah’s claim that it’s on the side of a Middle Eastern order that tolerates multiple faiths and power-sharing, while on the other side Saudi and other Gulf money is supporting extremists who want to recreate the 7th Century Caliphate. Self-serving, but perhaps, true.

 

We’ve seen hints of change:

  • An increase tempo of back-and-forth attacks in Lebanon.
  • Stronger desire by Lebanese national institutions to contain the crisis.
  • Reports that the US has shared intelligence with Lebanon in order to protect Hezbollah from attacks.
  • A real push – in Track 2 and perhaps Track 1 diplomacy – to make the January talks in Geneva really amount to a negotiation for a settlement in Syria.
  • The Iranian nuclear deal, which could calm anxieties about the regional Iran-Saudi cold/hot war, and allow for some tit-for-tat that could reduce global interest in the Syrian theater.

 

What should we look for as signals of a coming, substantive change?

  • Rhetoric from Hassan Nasrallah that opens the door to a frigid détente with the US on some issues.
  • Continuing restraint by Hezbollah in its response to attacks and assassinations.
  • Agreements or accords that result from the vigorous outreach by Iran’s foreign minister to the leaders of the Arab countries in the Gulf.
  • Offers, even totally rhetorical ones, from Assad to cooperate with the US against the jihadi groups in Syria.

 

The interim Iranian nuclear agreement could easily collapse (Marc Lynch writes here about the enormous potential but also the need to remember that it could all come to naught), but it’s a major opening. Iran has always been a more natural geopolitical ally for the US than the tiny oil-rich monarchies of the Arabian peninsula. It’s hard to imagine a full realignment without an internal shift in the governance of Iran, but perhaps, that could occur with a political shift short of regime change. The most likely outcome is incremental, with Iran and the US finding more avenues of cooperation but stopping short of an open embrace. But even the prospect of a cooling in the US relationship with absolute monarchs of the Gulf and the hawkish establishment of Israel, in favor of a more pragmatic policy that leaves room to cooperate with all the region’s heavyweights, has prompted a panic in Riyadh and Israel. That anxiety suggests it’s a very real prospect, and one that in the long-term would serve to cool down the region.

How much to worry in Lebanon, once more?

Posted November 19th, 2013 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing

 Soldiers, policemen and medical personnel gather at the site of explosions near the Iranian embassy in Beirut

REUTERS PHOTO

After today’s bombing at the Iranian embassy in Beirut, how much should we worry that the war in Syria will engulf Lebanon? First, the usual caveat: I live here, and I have a vested interest Lebanon remaining viable and stable, so discount my analysis accordingly.

Nonetheless, nothing so far has changed my fundamental view that the major players in Lebanon want to preserve the existing order here, as combustible as it is. The attackers presumably come from the jihadist strain of the Syrian opposition; they have little invested in the Lebanese status quo and are willing to upend it.  But the major actors with organizations in Lebanon, including the Sunnis who support the Syrian rebels, as well as the Hezbollah constituents who support the Syrian government, benefit from the truce in Lebanon. Beirut especially serves as a neutral area where all parties communicate with each other, raise funds, and do their political work.

Iran’s immediate accusation of Israel supports this view: if Iran wanted to raise tensions, it would point at jihadists or Lebanese factions allied with the Syrian opposition. Instead, it pointed at Israel (just like Hezbollah did after the Dahieh bombing in August), a convenient and unifying enemy. Blaming Israel is a calming gesture; even if Hezbollah and Iran suspect a local or Syrian Sunni network, it deflates tension to pin the attack on Israel. And if Iran genuinely has evidence or believes Israel is responsible, that’s all the better insofar as it minimizes the risk of hostilities taking root beyond Syria’s borders.

In coming weeks, we should watch the rhetoric of Hassan Nasrallah; if he repeats his previous positions on the Syrian war, as I expect, that will signify that Hezbollah maintains its interest in a calm Lebanon. We also should watch the retaliation; small attacks against centers of jihadist activity would remain with the limited framework that, again, minimizes the chance of escalation.

Today’s attack is certainly a worrisome development, since the apparent suicide bombers struck a diplomatic target. It will increase anxiety among all people in Lebanon, and will especially worry the civilians living in the Dahieh, who already suffered an indiscriminate attack in August that killed 20 people and wounded more than 100. These are not good things. But they don’t guarantee that war will engulf Lebanon either. For that to happen, the established parties here – in particular Hezbollah and the Future Movement – would have to radically change their cost-benefit analysis. So far, I don’t see that happening. Lebanon’s future holds more simmering violence, like the back and forth bombings, assassinations, and occasional skirmishes we’ve seen so far in the Bekaa, Tripoli and Beirut; but not, I expect, outright conflict.

The Secret History of Democratic Thought in the Middle East

Posted August 19th, 2013 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing

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Supporters of ousted President Mohammed Morsi protested at the Republican Guard building in Nasr City, Cairo. AP PHOTO/HASSAN AMMAR

[Published in The Boston Globe Ideas.]

IS DEMOCRACY POSSIBLE in the Middle East? When observers worry about the future of the region, it’s in part because of the dispiriting political narrative that has held sway for much of the last half century.

The conventional wisdom is that secular liberalism has been all but wiped out as a political idea in the Middle East. The strains of the 20th century—Western colonial interference, wars with Israel, windfall oil profits, impoverished populations—long ago extinguished any meaningful tradition of openness in its young nations. Totalitarian ideas won the day, whether in the form of repressive Islamic rule, capricious secular dictatorships, or hereditary oligarchs. As a result, the recent flowerings of democracy are planted in such thin soil they may be hopeless.

This understanding shapes policy not only in the West, but in the Middle East itself. The American government approaches “democracy promotion” in the Middle East as if it’s introducing some exotic foreign species. Reformists in the Arab world often repeat the canard that politicized Islam is incompatible with democracy to justify savage repression of religious activists. And even after the revolts that began in 2010, a majority of the power brokers in the wider Middle East govern as if popular forces were a nuisance to be placated rather than the source of sovereignty.

An alternative strain of thinking, however, is starting to turn those long-held assumptions on their head. Historians and activists are unearthing forgotten chapters of the region’s history, and reassessing well-known figures and incidents, to find a long, deep, indigenous history of democracy, justice, and constitutionalism. They see the recent uprisings in the Arab world as part of a thread that has run through its story for more than a century—and not, as often depicted, a historical fluke.

The case is most clearly and recently laid out in a new book called “Justice Interrupted: The Struggle for Constitutional Government in the Middle East” by Elizabeth F. Thompson, a historian at the University of Virginia, who tries to provide a scholarly historical foundation to a view gaining traction among activists, politicians, and scholars.

Thompson sees the thirst for justice and reform blossoming as long as 400 years ago, when the region was in the hands of the Ottoman Empire. In the generations since, bureaucrats, intellectuals, workers, and peasants have seized on the language of empire, law, and even Islam to agitate for rights and due process. Though Thompson is an academic historian, she sees her work as not just descriptive but useful, helping Arabs and Iranians revive stories that were deliberately suppressed by political and religious leaders. “A goal of this book is to give people a toolkit to take up strands of their own history that have been dropped,” Thompson said in an interview.

Not everyone agrees with her view: Canonical Middle Eastern history, exemplified by Albert Hourani’s 1962 study “Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age,” holds that liberalism did flourish briefly, but was extinguished as a meaningful force in the early years of the Cold War. Even today Hourani’s analysis is invoked to argue that there’s no authentic democratic current to fuel contemporary Arab politics.

But Thompson’s work resonates with a host of Middle Eastern academics, as well as activists, who are advocating new forms of government and who see their efforts as consistent with local culture and history. It may offer a way out of the pessimism gripping many Arab political activists today, finding connections between apparently disparate reformist forces in the region, and political ideas that are often seen as irreconcilably opposed. Most intriguing, she finds elements of this constitutional liberalism even within fundamentalist Islamist movements that democratizers most worry about. These threads suggest a possible way forward, a way to build a constitutional, democratic consensus on indigenous if often overlooked traditions. Islamists and secular Arabs, it turns out, have found common ground in the past, even written constitutions together. The same could happen again now.

***

NO ONE , including Thompson, would claim that democracy and individual freedom have been the main driver of Middle Eastern politics. Before World War I, almost the entire region lay under the dominion of absolute monarchs claiming a mandate from God—either the Ottoman Sultan, or the Shah of Iran. Later, Western colonial powers divided up the region in search of cheap resources and markets for their goods.

Yet lost in this history of despots and corrupt dealers is a long stream of democratizing ideas, sometimes percolating from common citizens and sometimes from among the ruling elite. In the 19th and 20th centuries, western countries were beginning to move away from authoritarian monarchies and toward the belief that more people deserved legal rights. During this same time period in the Middle East, a similar conversation about law, sovereignty, and democracy was taking place, encompassing everything from the role of religion in the state to the right of women to vote.

Although authoritarian governments largely won the day, Thompson argues that the story doesn’t end there: Instead, she weaves together a series of biographies to trace the persistence of more liberal notions of Middle Eastern society. She begins with an Ottoman civil servant named Mustafa Ali who, in 1599, wrote a passionate memo exhorting the Sultan to reform endemic corruption and judicial mismanagement, because injustices were causing subjects to revolt—thus making the empire less profitable.

From 1858 to 2011, a series of leaders—most of them politicians and also prolific writers—amassed substantial public followings and pushed, though usually without success, for constitutional reforms, transparent accountable governments, and the institutions key to a sustainable democracy. Thompson was surprised, she said, to find the case for liberal democracy and rights in the writings of Iranian clerics, Zionist Jews, Palestinian militants, and early Arab Islamists.

With support from the Maronite church, a group of Lebanese peasants formed a short-lived breakaway mountain republic in 1858, dedicated to egalitarian principles. The blacksmith who led the revolt, Tanyus Shahin, insisted on fair taxation and equal protection of the law. His followers took over the great estates and evicted the landlords, but their main demand was for legal equality between peasants and landowners.

An Egyptian colonel named Ahmed Urabi led a revolt against the Ottoman ruler in 1882, inaugurating a tradition of mass revolt that had its echo in Tahrir Square in 2011. Urabi in his memoir recounts that when the Ottoman monarch dismissed his demands for popular sovereignty in their final confrontation, Urabi replied: “We are God’s creation and free. He did not create us as your property.” Decades later, in 1951, Akram Hourani rallied 10,000 peasants to resist Western colonialism and local corruption in Syria. Eventually, he and his followers in the Baath Party were sidelined by generals who turned the party into a military vehicle.

Some of the stories that Thompson tells are less obscure, like those of the founders of modern Turkey—the one sizable Islamic democracy to emerge from the former Ottoman empire or the Iraqi Communist Party, which had its heyday in the decade after World War II, and whose constitutional traditions remain an important force today even if the party itself is almost completely irrelevant.

Perhaps most encouragingly, in a region known for clashes of absolutes, she finds an encouraging strain of compromise—in particular in the early 20th century, when secular nationalists negotiated with Islamists in Syria to hammer out a constitution they could both support. It was swept aside when France took over in 1923.

“The Middle East is going to see these crises in Tahrir and Taksim and Iran until it can get back to a moment of compromise, which existed a hundred years ago with Islamic liberalism, where you can have your religion and your democracy, too,” Thompson said.

Thompson said she was surprised to find support for constitutionalism and due process in the writings of Hassan El-Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, and even Sayyid Qutb, the ideologue whose writings inspired Al Qaeda. They believed that consensual constitutions could achieve even their religious aims, without disenfranchising citizens who opposed them.

Some of the characters in this tale have largely vanished to history. Others remain hotly contested symbols in today’s politics. The name of Halide Edib, a feminist and avatar of Turkish nationalism in the early 1900s, is still invoked by the governing Islamist party as well as its secular critics. In Egypt, which enjoyed a period of boisterous liberal parliamentary politics between the two world wars, activists today are trying to revive the writings of early Islamists who believed that an accountable constitutional state, with rights for all, would be better than theocracy.

***

IN THOMPSON’S VIEW , this world did not simply vanish: It lives on in contemporary Arab political thought, most interestingly in Islamist politics.

It’s easy to assume that religiously driven movements are all antidemocratic—and indeed, some have proven so in practice, like the ayatollahs in Iran or the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. But Thompson offers a more nuanced view, showing that many of these religious movements have internalized central elements of liberal discourse. The Muslim Brothers wanted to dominate Egypt, but they attempted to do so not by fiat but through a new constitution and a free-market economy.

Princeton historian Max Weiss says his own study of the Levant backs Thompson’s central argument that constitutionalism thrives in the Middle East: For more than a century, a powerful contingent of thinkers, activists, and politicians in the region have embraced rule of law, constitutional checks and balances, and liberal economics. Even when they’ve lost the political struggles of the day, they’ve remained active, shaped institutions like courts and universities, and provided an important pole within national debates.

For those in power, “constitutional” government can often be used as a fig leaf: Nathan Brown, an expert on Islamism and Arab legal systems at The George Washington University, observes that leaders like the monarchs in the Persian Gulf have often wielded constitutions as just another means of extending their absolute rule. And they’re not alone: Egyptian judges, Syrian rebels, and Gulf sheikhs often use law and constitution to “entrench and regularize authoritarianism, not to limit it,” he says.

But among the people themselves, there is a longstanding hope for the rule of law rather than the rule of generals, or of imams. Knowing this history is important, Thompson argues, because it establishes that democracy is a local tradition, with roots among secular as well as religious Middle Easterners. Reformers, liberals, even otherwise conservative advocates for transparency and human rights are often tainted as “foreign” or “Western agents,” imposing alien ideas on Middle Eastern culture. This slur is especially potent given the West’s checkered history in the region, which more often than not involved intervention on behalf of despots rather than reformers.

Even if democracy is far from winning the race, its supporters can take courage from how many Middle Easterners have demanded it in their own vernacular. As Thompson’s book demonstrates, it’s very much a local legacy to claim.

Why the Hezbollah Blacklisting Is Pointless

Posted July 22nd, 2013 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing

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[Originally published in The Atlantic.]

Today, the European Union designated Hezbollah’s “military wing” a terrorist group.

Aside from the fact that the very notion of a separate military wing is an absurd fiction, and that the designation has almost no chance of influencing Hezbollah’s behavior, is there any reason to care?

I would argue that yes, there is; terror designations carry real consequences — if not the ones their authors intend. On balance, I believe that when Western countries blacklist groups they define as terrorist, it harms their own policy aims much more than it does the targeted group. Talking to “terrorists” is political unpopular, but also necessary. It’s one of many tools required to deal with violent non-state actors, along with intelligence work, policing, force, and economic levers.

In the case of Hezbollah, the European Union will now join the U.S. and member governments like Britain in making it all the more difficult to find political solutions to the imbroglios of the Levant. Hezbollah is a major combatant in Syria, while at home in Lebanon it’s the largest and most influential elected political movement.

Hezbollah’s behavior is often frustrating (to its Lebanese rivals as well as to Western governments), and it has been credibly linked to violent plots, political assassinations, and pedestrian organized crime like drug dealing and money laundering.

Naturally, the European Union would like to find ways to curtail Hezbollah’s reach, especially after the group was found responsible for a deadly bombing in Bulgaria and a foiled attack in Cyprus.

But what does a terrorist designation achieve, and at what cost?

First, it eliminates communication with Hezbollah, putting even further out of reach meaningful diplomacy on the Syrian conflict and on Lebanon. It also necessitates foolish gymnastics for states that continue their relationship with the Lebanese government as if Hezbollah weren’t the primary power within that government. Effectively, it amounts to a blanket ban on dealings with Hezbollah, since the Party of God does not make any distinction between its military, political and social work; the organization is seamlessly unified, its fighters as distinct from the supreme leadership as America’s Pentagon is from the White House.

Second, it ties the EU’s hands in acting as a regional broker. How can the EU leverage its power across the Levant’s many conflicts if it won’t talk to one major player, and in fact has taken the step of branding it a terrorist group while leaving alone other factions who engage in similar violence?

In a reality where Hezbollah is a key central player, it makes little to no sense to erect a cone of silence around them (already some governments, like Britain, don’t talk to Hezbollah officials, following the U.S. lead). Any significant political accord in Lebanon must include Hezbollah, just as any political resolution of the Syrian conflict will have to include Iran and Hezbollah, along with the other states that sponsor the rebels and the government. Any other approach is simply a denial of reality and doomed to fail.

Third, the designation will hardly dent Hezbollah. Already Hezbollah operatives linked to violence or terror plots in the West are subject to prosecution in Western courts. Already, Hezbollah’s operations in the West are underground. If agents of Hezbollah are raising money for the group by trafficking narcotics in South America, or are training sleeper cells in Germany, how will the designation stop them? These already are secret, illicit operations; law enforcement and intelligence work might thwart them, but not blacklists.

Logic and experience both teach us that politics requires buy-in from the major stakeholders; that’s even more true in conflict resolution. You don’t make peace with your friends. You can’t influence a war — or an unstable polity like Lebanon — without points of entry to all the major players. It simply doesn’t work.

Historically, blacklists have never worked. Studies have shown that in a small proportion of “terrorist” groups are eliminated by force, but in the vast majority of cases when they give up violence, it is because of a political settlement.

In the case of Hezbollah (like Hamas and a plethora of Iranian institution before it), the blacklisting Western governments are setting themselves up at best for embarrassment and hypocrisy, and at worst for failure.

Ultimately, they will either let conflicts simmer on and do nothing about them (as they largely have in Syria), in which case blacklisting is just one element of a general diplomatic withdrawal. Or else they will get involved with political negotiations, talks, and maybe an agreement that will require them to make deals with the very groups that they earlier designated as beyond-the-pale terrorists with whom any parley whatsoever is unacceptable. When reality prevails, the Western governments end up in tortuous talks through intermediaries, or else they simply ignore their entire directive.

There is almost nothing gained from a terror designation other than the public relations bounce and perhaps some domestic political credit with the tough-on-terror crowd.

But only politics and long-term strategy stand a chance at limiting Hezbollah violence and shifting Hezbollah’s political priorities. It’s unlikely that a smart Western policy would result in a behavior change from Hezbollah, but it’s guaranteed that a terror designation won’t do the trick — and in fact, will only further limit the West’s poor options.

Iran’s Vietnam?

Posted May 14th, 2013 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing

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[Published in Foreign Policy.]

ARSAL, Lebanon — For more than a year, leaders in Lebanon have anxiously eyed the murderous civil war in Syria, wondering whether it would leap across the border and engulf the small, fractious country. And yet, it is Lebanon that now has jumped decisively into the fray, with Hezbollah’s help apparently crucial to the Syrian regime’s strategy and survival.

Uniformed Hezbollah fighters openly patrol the northern reaches of Lebanon’s Beqaa Valley, fighting on either side of the increasingly porous border with Syria. Rocket and mortar teams target Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighters a few miles away, and Lebanese Hezbollah infantry fighters crisscross the “Shiite villages” surrounding the city of Qusayr just across the border in Syria, which now forms one of the pivot points of the conflict.

The fighting around Qusayr has brought into the open the parlor game over whether Iran and Hezbollah are active combatants in Syria’s war. In an April 30 speech, Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah hinted at greater involvement from the Lebanese paramilitary group in Syria, warning that the regime had “real friends” who would prevent Syria from “fall[ing] into the hands” of the United States and Israel.

The thunder of artillery fire in the mountains flanking the Beqaa Valley, like the spate of no-longer-hidden Hezbollah funerals, make clear that Hezbollah and its Iranian sponsors have crossed a Rubicon. They are now fully vested factions in the Syrian civil war, and they’re committed to an open and escalating fight.

Not 20 miles from Hezbollah’s position as the crow flies, FSA fighters flee across the border to the Sunni village of Arsal, nestled north in the Beqaa Valley in the mountains separating Lebanon and Syria. They make no distinction between the Syrian army, Hezbollah, and Iran — because, they say, they get shot at by all three.

“We could have common interests with Hezbollah, but they’re attacking us. Now there are grudges, which we will have to settle after the war,” said Shehadeh Ahmed Sheikh, 24, a self-described mortar man in the FSA. He was sitting cross-legged on the floor of an unfinished home in Arsal. Sheikh had brought with him 16 members of his extended family after their house in Qusayr had been destroyed earlier that week; as we talked, they squatted around him in the dwelling, which they had been assigned to by Arsal’s mayor.

Like many Sunnis in the area, he referred to Hezbollah, whose name means “the Party of God” in Arabic, as Hezb al-Shaitan — “the Party of Satan.”

By supporting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to the hilt, Hezbollah and Iran are risking their hard-won reputation as stewards of an anti-Israel and anti-U.S. alliance that transcends sect and nationality. Syrian combatants increasingly understand the war in sectarian terms: On one side there is the Sunni majority; on the other side, other sects and a small group of Sunnis that have made common cause with the Alawite regime.

Western diplomats estimate that a few thousand Hezbollah fighters are involved in the Syrian fighting. Close observers of the group, which carefully guards its operational structure, say that they mistrust any precise numbers. But if Hezbollah has sent hundreds, or even a few thousand, of its best-trained fighters to Syria, that deployment certainly represents a significant percentage of its fighting force. During its 2006 war with Israel, the highest estimate of Hezbollah fighters killed was about 700, with the group’s own official death toll closer to 300.

Sunnis are increasingly framing the conflict as a sectarian jihad. The influential Lebanese Salafi cleric Ahmad Al-Assir has set up his own militia, suggesting his fighters would be just as willing to confront Hezbollah in Lebanon as they already are to travel to Syria to fight alongside the rebels there. Supporters of the regime and Hezbollah point out that the rebellion tolerates Sunni fundamentalist extremists whereas Assad and Hezbollah rely on a time-tested alliance of minorities, including Alawites, Christians, Druze, and Shiite Muslims. The propaganda of both sides has sharpened a narrative of the Syrian conflict as a struggle between Sunni extremists and old-style authoritarians, who at least protect the minorities they exploit. Deadly identity politics have taken root, and people on both sides of the conflict see it more and more as a matter of survival. Sheikh, the young Sunni fighter, planned to return to battle as soon as he settled his family: “We cannot go back to the way things were before.”

* * *

On the eve of the uprisings just three short years ago, many Arab analysts observed half-jokingly that the most influential state in the Arab world wasn’t Arab at all — it was Iran, awash in oil revenues and ready to lavish cash on a region in the throes of an increasingly hot Sunni-Shiite cold war. Sunni monarchs and dictators fretted about a “Shiite Crescent” linking Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Hezbollah. Tehran, for its part, strutted triumphantly across the Arab stage, bragging about an unstoppable “Axis of Resistance” oiled with ideological fervor and the supreme leader’s bank account.

What a difference a few uprisings can make. Today, Iran’s involvement in Syria has all the makings of a quagmire, and certainly represents the Islamic Republic’s biggest strategic setback in the region since its war with Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein ended in 1988. Syria’s conflict has begun to attract so much attention and resources that it threatens to end the era when Iran could nimbly outmaneuver the slow-moving American behemoth in the Middle East.

Iran — already reeling from sanctions — is spending hundreds of millions of dollars propping up Bashar al-Assad’s regime. In the murky arena of sub rosa foreign intervention, it’s impossible to keep a detailed count of the dollars, guns, and operatives the Islamic Republic has dispatched to Syria. Westerners and Arab officials who have met in recent months with Syrian government ministers say that Iranian advisers are retooling key ministries to provide copious military training, including to the newly established citizen militias in regime-controlled areas of Syria. “We back Syria,” Iranian General Ahmad Reza Pourdastan reiterated on May 5. “If there is need for training we will provide them with the training.”

In private meetings, Iranian diplomats in the region project insouciance, suggesting that the Islamic Republic can indefinitely sustain its military and financial aid to the Assad regime. To be sure, its burden today is probably bearable. But as sanctions squeeze Iran and it comes under increasing pressure over its nuclear program, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) might find the investment harder to sustain. The conflict shows no signs of ending, and as foreign aid to the rebels escalates, Iran will have to pour in more and more resources simply to maintain a stalemate. If this is Iran’s Vietnam, we’re only beginning year three.

The cost of Tehran’s support of Assad can’t entirely be measured in dollars. Iran has had to sacrifice most of its other Arab allies on the Syrian altar. As the violence worsened, Hamas gave up its home in Damascus and its warm relationship with Tehran. Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood-dominated government has also adopted a scolding tone toward Iran on Syria. On Egyptian President Mohamed Morsy’s first visit to Tehran, he took the opportunity to blast the “oppressive regime” in Damascus, saying it was an “ethical duty” to support the opposition.

Gone are the days when Iran held the mantle of popular resistance. Popular Arab movements, including Syria’s own rebels, now have the momentum and air of authenticity. Iran’s mullahs finally look to the Arab near-abroad as they long have appeared at home — repressive, authoritarian, and fierce defenders of the status quo.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Iran’s commitment to Assad has put the crown jewel of its assets in the Arab world, Hezbollah, in danger. Just a few years ago, a survey found that Nasrallah was the most popular leader in the Arab world. Along with other members of the “resistance axis,” Hezbollah mocked the rest of the Arab world’s political movements as toadies and collaborators, happy to submit to American-Israeli hegemony. Today, however, it has sacrificed this popular support and enraged Sunnis across the Arab world by siding with a merciless dictator.

Hezbollah used to try to cultivate allies from all sects, so that it wouldn’t seem to be pursuing a purely Shiite agenda, but it now appears in the eyes of the Arab world to have cast its lot — hook, line, and sinker — with a brutal minority regime in Syria over a popular, largely Islamist movement. A Pew survey last year found that the group’s popularity was declining in predominantly Sunni countries such as Egypt and Jordan, while Lebanese Sunnis and Christians also increasingly soured on the party.

In the border town of Hermel, usually secretive Hezbollah fighters have openly mobilized. They fight on both sides of the border, protecting a ring of Shiite villages in Syria that connect Damascus to the Alawite heartland. An untold number of Hezbollah fighters have been killed in Syria — so many that the movement has stopped keeping the funerals secret and has even released videos of some of the martyrs. “We bury our martyrs in the open,” Nasrallah said in his recent speech. “We are not ashamed of them.”

Hezbollah positions in Hermel were shelled on May 12, and the Sunni jihadist Nusra Front reportedly claimed responsibility. In their rhetoric, Lebanese politicians have sought to downplay the sectarian nature of the fight in Syria, and there are plenty of individuals who say they have chosen sides out of interest or ideology, rather than sect. Yet to most of its participants, the conflict has taken on an undeniably sectarian hue: an almost entirely Sunni rebellion, against a regime supported by the majority of Syria’s other sects.

“There’s no difference between Hezbollah, the army, and the Syrian regime,” scoffed Mustafa Ezzedine, a driver in Arsal who was recently dragged into the conflict as a literal hostage, kidnapped because he was a Sunni Muslim by a Shiite clan that wanted one of its own kidnapped members released. It doesn’t matter that among his guests at a recent, lazy hashish-fueled afternoon tea was a member of that same rival clan: sectarian politics have little regard for personal views. For residents of the Beqaa Valley, the war in Syria has already drifted across the border, and they fear it could get worse quickly.

The regional stakes are high as well. On at least one occasion, the Syrian conflict has cost an Iranian military commander his life. In mid-February, a shadowy IRGC officer responsible for overseeing Iranian reconstruction projects in Lebanon who went by the names Hessam Khoshnevis and Hassan Shateri was killed on the road from Damascus to Beirut. Iran put out the story that Israel assassinated their man, but Western and Arab officials told me they had seen reliable intelligence reports that it was a Syrian rebel ambush.

A who’s who of Lebanese politicians paid condolences at the Iranian embassy, and Hezbollah’s number two, Naim Qassem, delivered a long tribute to the fallen IRGC offer at a memorial service in an underground theater in Beirut’s Hezbollah-controlled southern suburbs. It was the latest sign that Hezbollah is willing to risk everything in supporting the Syrian dictator — and that Iran just may ask its Lebanese ally to fight to the end, or go down with the ship.

“We would be nothing without Iran!” Qassem thundered in his tribute. “Others hide the foreign funds they receive. We proudly open our hands to Iran’s gifts. What the resistance needs, they provide.”

The Middle East’s Fight for Civil Marriage

Posted March 11th, 2013 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing

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Kholoud and Nidal, from Kholoud’s Facebook page.

[Originally published in The Boston Globe Ideas.]

BEIRUT — Kholoud Sukkarieh and Nidal Darwish weren’t interested in making legal history when they got engaged last year. She’s a Sunni Muslim and he is Shia, and like many interfaith couples in this part of the world who don’t want to convert, they planned to get married outside their home country. Then, at a photography workshop, Sukkarieh met a lawyer with a cause and an intriguing proposal: Would she and her fiancé be interested in using their wedding to do something radical?

Last November, they tied the knot before a willing notary, becoming the first couple in the history of Lebanon to marry in a nonreligious ceremony. In January they embarked on what promises to be a long, fraught challenge to the legal status quo, using an obscure provision of old colonial law to demand that the Lebanese government officially recognize their marriage.

What sounds like a simple thing in the West—a civil marriage with a judge or a notary presiding, and no religious contract—is a near-impossibility in the Middle East. Their marriage, and the controversy it has triggered here, shines a light on a crucial but unappreciated way in which this region differs from much of the rest of the world. Lebanon, like almost all the Arab states, most Islamic countries, and Israel, simply doesn’t have civil laws for matters of personal status.

The effects of this difference percolate deeply through society. In the West and Asia, marriage and family law have evolved to reflect broader changes in society, even when religious authorities don’t agree. Civil codes have adapted to the rise of divorce, developed custody standards that are fairer to women, and are now starting to recognize the rights of same-sex couples and their children.

In the Middle East, on the other hand, the laws governing marriage, inheritance, and sometimes even citizenship move only when religious authorities allow, which means they’ve remained almost entirely static during the last century. They stifle identity and cause countless problems for families whose members might include different faiths or different nationalities; for couples that want to divorce; for women, who often have far fewer rights than men under religious codes; and for people who want to equitably share their inheritance with their daughters.

Sukkarieh and Darwish, and the civil-law advocates who support them, see their marriage only as a beginning. By forcing the state of Lebanon to recognize their union, they hope to catalyze a broader movement to grant people a legally recognized personal life outside the umbrella of religion—and establish a clear civil sphere outside the influence of clerics. In doing so, they are flying straight into the teeth of a countervailing trend: the rise of political Islam.

“We want political life to be 100 percent secular,” Sukkarieh explained one recent evening in the garden at Fitness Zone, the gym where her husband works as a receptionist. “I’m not afraid to question a sheikh. It’s time for the politicians to stop being afraid of clerics.”

***

MIDDLE EASTERN MARRIAGE and family law is, ironically, the legacy of what was once a very progressive idea. Over the centuries that the Ottoman Empire ruled the region, it presided over an astonishing patchwork of minorities, including sizable populations of Jews and Christians. The Ottoman Sultans, cosmopolitan Muslims based in Istanbul, took the open-minded approach of granting Jews, Christians, and other minority sects the right to govern their own personal affairs. Separate religious courts governed the private lives of different religious communities.

Ottoman rule crumbled in the 19th century, replaced by European colonial powers, and finally by independent states in the 20th century. As these emerged, new ideas jostled to replace the old balance of cleric and state. Islamist philosophers argued for a more rigid system governed entirely by Islam, while secular nationalists argued for new modern civil governments. Most of the Arab states ultimately moved toward more religious legal codes, though some, like Iraq and Syria, were resolutely secular for a time. Lebanon inherited some secular legal precepts from the French mandate period, which ended in 1943. But most of the former empire fell back on the Ottoman notion that, where personal life is concerned, each religion should govern its own.

For at least two generations, the laws of religious sects have controlled personal status matters almost everywhere. (One exception was Tunisia, where a secular dictator in 1956 implemented a progressive secular code that gave women equal rights.) Even in states that have some civil rules, Islamic law trumps them for Muslims. In Christian communities, clerics hold sway over family life with such strict and antiquated codes that many of the dwindling number of Christians in the Arab world have converted to Islam, which has comparatively simple procedures for divorce. Israel offers more of the same, with the most conservative ultra-Orthodox sect in charge of sanctioning marriages—and even of certifying who counts as a Jew. This has created some strange scenarios: One of the few ways that Israelis and Lebanese cross paths with each other, as citizens of two nations that have technically been at war nonstop since 1948, is in Cyprus, where package tour operators fly couples from both countries who must leave home to hold a civil marriage ceremony.

The result is a patchwork of laws where neighbors may have entirely different marriage rights and interfaith couples face myriad complications. For many communities it blocks any attempt to secure equal rights for women, and curtails the rights of people who consider themselves secular or nonbelievers. Ultimately, it creates a vast zone of activity that’s solely the province of clerics and off limits to the state.

There have been occasional bursts of reform, including a brief period during the 1950s and 1960s when secular regimes in Egypt and Syria appeared to have momentum on their side. In the years before recent the Arab uprisings, civil law advocates made some headway. Egypt reformed divorce laws to fix some of the most imbalanced practices, including custody rulings that almost universally favored fathers over mothers. Algeria gave women substantial rights to pass citizenship to their children. Saudi Arabia reluctantly began to consider giving children born to a Saudi mother and a foreign father—previously treated as complete foreigners—a chance to win legal residency in the kingdom.

Today, though, even those small steps are imperiled, as Islamists all over the region press for political power. In Egypt they are seeking to roll back the limited rights to divorce that women earned in the last decade. Some have also asked to lower the age of marriage from its current minimum of 18 and to limit the rights of religious minorities and women to run for high political office.

Though such extreme propositions appear unlikely to become law right away, Islamists have successfully shifted the political dialogue in most of the region. In Iraq, a new constitution written after the US invasion raised the status of Islam in the legal code, and sectarian officials have gained vast new powers over both the personal and the political. Libya’s new leader in his first speech legalized polygamy, which had been banned by Khadafy. Tunisia’s progressive personal status code, which gave women equal rights and cut clerics out of personal status matters, is under ­attack.

Perhaps surprisingly, given the history, when civil-law advocates look for a model legal regime they turn to Turkey. What was once the heart of the Ottoman Empire is now the only country to have completely scrapped its religious rules for a civil code that applies equally to all citizens—­although there, too, Islamists are gradually chipping away at the state’s secular bedrock.

***

LEBANON, WHERE SUKKARIEH and Darwish live, has been an especially fertile ground for secular challenges to clerical control. This small country is notorious for the entrenched factionalism of its 18 sects—Muslims, Christians, Druze, and other smaller offshoots—whose animosity was inflamed during the civil war from 1975 to 1990. But it also has a deep tradition of interfaith cooperation, a powerful secular civil society built on the region’s best universities, and the Arab world’s most thriving independent nonprofit sector.

Even so, it remains bound by the region’s assumptions about the role of religion in civic life. In Lebanon, candidates run for office based on their sect. Public sector jobs are handed out by sect. Voting is regulated by sect. And naturally, marriage, divorce, and inheritance are controlled by religious codes.

Today, a small but vociferous group of activists is pushing against this. They include lawyers from prominent political dynasties, feminists, activists for political reform, frustrated youth, and working-class believers like Sukkarieh. Parallel movements exist all over the Middle East among urban elites and occasionally in rural villages.

Like Sukkarieh and Darwish, these advocates see civil marriage as a proxy for something bigger: a truly secular state.

“Only a secular regime guarantees freedom, even freedom of religion,” says Lina Abou-Habib, who runs a Beirut-based NGO that pushes for women’s rights around the region. One of their many campaigns hopes to force Arab governments to allow women to pass citizenship to their children—a right currently reserved, in most places, for men alone. Abou-Habib says the hegemony of clerics has led to absurdity. She’s a Greek Orthodox Christian married to a Sunni Muslim; under the prevailing legal code, since she hasn’t converted, if she were to die now her daughter wouldn’t even be able to inherit her car.

For Sukkarieh and Darwish, getting their marriage registered with the state has become a consuming second career. So far the government has withheld legal recognition of their marriage contract, but courts have recognized it—which, in Lebanon’s complicated bureaucracy, is looking like a victory for the couple. And the larger argument appears just to be beginning. Lebanon’s president came out on Twitter in favor of civil marriage; the billionaire prime minister opposed it. At the end of January, the top Sunni cleric threatened to excommunicate anyone who supported civil marriage, but the richest and most powerful Sunni politician said he supported civil marriage and opposed the mufti.

Meanwhile, other couples say they intend to follow their lead as soon as the issue is resolved. A Lebanese journalist has tentatively scheduled a group civil wedding for more couples in April, assuming the pathbreaking marriage successfully wins formal recognition this month.

It’s been 70 years since some Lebanese started talking about civil marriage, and no couple has gotten as far as Sukkarieh and Darwish. At a time when the future of the Arab state is being vigorously contested by empowered citizens around the region, secular activists have been buoyed by the unexpected landmark in Lebanon. It’s premature to read too much into it; after all, Islamists are sweeping to power in elections all over, and it could take decades for their own internal schisms and inconsistencies to create openings for a strong secular alternative. But the civil marriage faction hopes to build that, one family at a time. “We didn’t expect it,” Sukkarieh said, “but we’ve rejuvenated civil society.”

Hezbollah Is In Trouble

Posted July 2nd, 2011 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing

During the six turbulent years since Rafik Hariri was blown up on the Beirut waterfront, supporters of the outspoken billionaire former prime minister longed for the day that his killers would face justice.

But the indictments submitted this week by the UN-mandated Special Tribunal for Lebanon hit with more splutter than splash. In the short term, Hezbollah will face minimal fallout from the charges against two of its officials, which the Tribunal named as ringleaders in the assassination.

The more serious threats to Hezbollah’s primacy in the long run lie elsewhere. The first comes from the Tribunal, which will exert leverage over Lebanon not by the suspects it indicts but by the strength of the case it presents. The second and perhaps more important challenge to Hezbollah stems from the radical political changes sweeping the Arab world, which threaten its Syrian government sponsors in Damascus, and have put Hezbollah in the position of siding with authoritarian dictators in the era of the Arab spring.

Read the rest in The Atlantic.

Lebanon talk on WBUR

Posted January 15th, 2011 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in A Privilege to Die,Writing

Robin Young had me on her show Thursday to discuss my oped in The New York Times. At the end she asked me what would change if the United States changed its policy and started engaging Hezbollah. In this case, I guessed, nothing; dialogue might give the U.S. more information that it currently has, and more insight into Hezbollah than it currently possesses, but little else.
Click here for our conversation.

Justice deferred, or deterred?

Posted January 13th, 2011 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing

In Lebanon, crises unfold in unbearably slow motion until a sudden, usually deadly, climax. Everyone tunes out except for the participants and the hardened, usually professional, Lebanon-watchers; it’s all tedious process until somebody gets hurt.

That’s what happened on Tuesday when Hezbollah forced a government collapse. It sounds dramatic, and it’s a critical point in the slow boiling showdown that’s simmered for years over the International Special Tribunal on the Lebanon assassinations. Hezbollah toppling the government is just an incremental step, although a major one, in the process by which Hezbollah will try to fatally cripple the Tribunal and render Hariri incapable of governing.

Saad Hariri inherited the premiership five years after his father was murdered. In a measure of the molasses pace of Lebanese politics, it took Hariri five months to negotiate a coalition cabinet; that government barely lasted 14 months.

There are only a few viable ways for this to turn out.

1. Hariri could fully repudiate the Tribunal, withdraw Lebanese support for it, and let it die on the vine. Even if Hezbollah members are indicted, nothing will come of it. This outcome, I think, is unlikely, only because it leaves Hariri with nothing – no actual power, and no legitimacy.

2. Hariri could insist on supporting the Tribunal. Hezbollah would be forced to escalate, and might eventually use violence as it did in May 2008, when it briefly conquered West Beirut. In this case, the Tribunal would be scuttled as well, but Hariri would preserve integrity and therefore political legitimacy. In an op-ed in today’s New York Times, I argue that Hariri is most likely to pursue this course.

3. Lebanon could limp on under a caretaker government for a year or two (like it did for long stretches in 2007 and 2008), unable to cooperate with the Tribunal, scuttle it, or make any controversial decisions. This is also a very likely scenario, as David Kenner writes at Foreign Policy.

4. Hezbollah could manage to form a government with a pro-Resistance prime minister, a scenario that would probably quickly spark a war with Israel, as Juan Cole points out today.

5. Hezbollah could decide to throw some bones to the Tribunal, under pressure from Syria and/or Iran. This outcome is the least likely; there doesn’t seem to be any pressure coming from Hezbollah’s patrons to moderate in the showdown over the assassinations, in all likelihood because neither state would benefit from a full accounting of the string of murders in Lebanon that began with the Hariri killing. The entire Axis of Resistance benefits from a confrontation that strengthens Hezbollah, weakens a government allied to Saudi Arabia and the United States, and which blames Israel for all the killings in Lebanon in a scenario that stretches credulity for all audiences except the partisans of Hezbollah.

The only scenario we’re unlikely to see is one is the “full justice option”: the International Tribunal releases compelling evidence about the assassinations of Rafik Hariri and all the other anti-Syrian figures murdered since 2005; the most important suspects are arrested and put on  trial; and the powerful entities with stakes in Lebanon honor the judicial process and accept its outcome. That scenario is only a dream.

The Next War

Posted October 8th, 2010 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing

How eager is Hezbollah for another conflict with Israel? On my last trip to Lebanon in September, I found both Hezbollah’s officials and the party’s rank and file feeling ready — bristling for a rematch, confident if not precisely eager. Hezbollah officials said they had doubled their fighting ranks (one said the number had tripled) since 2006. Supporters living in the border regions, like Aita al Shaab, said they had finally fully recovered from the last war and felt ready to fight again.

Hezbollah supporters who time and again have lost their homes and livelihoods seem to embrace continued confrontation. What’s more, based on what they told me, they believe they’ll emerge at least as strong — politically and strategically — from another war as they did in 2006, even though nearly all of the people I interviewed thought the next conflict would be apocalyptic in its ferocity.

Lebanon has become even more polarized than it was in the years immediately after the 2006 war. Then the split worsened between those who support Hezbollah’s approach to Islamic Resistance and those who espouse a less confrontational course (and hold a majority in the government). There used to be a substantial pool of Lebanese in the middle; they wanted non-sectarian, non-confrontational politics for their country but who also sympathized with Hezbollah’s resistance project. By now, though, it seems that the soft middle has largely vanished. Most of the people I talked to were quite emphatic, either in their absolute loyalty to Hezbollah or in their absolute conviction that Hezbollah was ruining Lebanon.

I wrote about Hezbollah’s view of the coming conflict in today’s Times.

AITA AL SHAAB, Lebanon — It was from this shrub-ringed border town that Hezbollah instigated its war withIsrael in 2006, and supporters of the militant Shiite movement sound almost disappointed that they have not fought since.

“I was expecting the war this summer,” said Faris Jamil, a municipal official and small-business owner. “It’s late.” He has yet to finish rebuilding his three-story house, destroyed by an Israeli bomb that year.

In 2006, Hezbollah guerrillas crossed the border a few hundred yards from the town center, ambushed an Israeli patrol and retreated through Aita al Shaab with the bodies of two Israeli soldiers.

Hezbollah officials and supporters said they were now sending a pointed message to Israel through their efforts to rebuild, repopulate and rearm the south.

“We are not sleeping,” said Ali Fayyad, a Hezbollah official and member of Parliament. “We are working.” He receives visitors every weekend in a family home in Taibe, the site of a deadly tank battle in 2006.

Four years later, Hezbollah appears to be, if not bristling for a fight with Israel, then coolly prepared for one. It seems to be calculating either that an aggressive military posture might deter another war, as its own officials and Lebanese analysts say, or that a conflict, should it come, would on balance fortify its domestic political standing.

Read the rest.

Iran on Israel’s border

Posted September 15th, 2010 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing

For as long as I’ve been covering this region, there have been some Israeli officials who describe Hezbollah as a crack division of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and conclude that Iran has literally surrounded Israel.

In the war of rhetoric and symbols, Iran appears only too happy to oblige.

This weekend I visited “Iran Park” in Maroun Al Ras, the Lebanese border village where one of the first and nastiest engagements of the 2006 war was fought. Israeli ground troops got bogged down for days on the ridge at Maroun, and Hezbollah fighters consider it one of their finer engagements of the war.

The Iranian government has funded and designed a lush park near the site of the battle, on the mountainside directly overlooking Israel. In the parking, visitors can stand at an observation point beside an Iranian flag fluttering in the wind, and look directly down at the Israeli hamlets of Avivim and Yir’on.

Through an arcade of ponsiana trees and an arch, past a commemorative plaque crediting President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad with gifting the park to the Lebanese, visitors find terraced playgrounds and picnic spots refreshed with the mountain breeze.

There’s soft-serve ice-cream trucks, grills, and replica of the Haram al-Sharif in Jerusalem – naturally, topped with an Iranian flag as well. Presumably, Israelis down in the valley can look up and see the Iranian flags and the replica Jerusalem mosque.

Along the path, detailed placards provided educational information about Iran – its population, its provinces, the neighborhoods of Tehran, and so on.

On Sunday mourning the park was already nearly full by 10 a.m. with families that had come to enjoy the cooler temperatures of Jabal Amal.

Three families from the humid coast had assembled under one of the palm-frond roof picnic stations, setting in for a long day grilling and eating.

“Coffee?” said Jihan Muselmani, 35.

“We come here for the clean air,” said Najua Khanafer, 52. “We thank all those who work for our land. Sayed Hassan, Iran, Qatar.”

“This will be the first place the Israelis destroy during the next war,” said Jihan.

“Even if they destroy it, we will build it up again,” said Rabab Haidar, 28.

“If you won’t have coffee, you must at least try these apples,” Jihan insisted, clutching a plastic tub of tiny green fruit. “They come from our own tree.”

Ayatollah Fadlallah’s Legacy II (Updated)

Posted July 9th, 2010 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing

David Kenner at foreignpolicy.com writes incisively about Fadlallah’s legacy as a religious leader who inspired Hezbollah and the Dawa Party but charted an independent course. As Kenner chronicles, the United States government misunderstood Fadlallah’s role, for years mistakenly considering him an operational leader of Hezbollah and trying to assassinate him in 1985.

There was an element of truth to the U.S. stance: Fadlallah was certainly no liberal, nor an ally to be recruited to advance U.S. security goals. However, even a quarter-century after that misguided assassination attempt, U.S. officials failed to appreciate the areas where their interests and Fadlallah’s overlapped, both in isolating Iran and reducing the appeal of fundamentalism within Lebanon. The United States always preferred blunt instruments and simple epithets — crude tools indeed for a complex man.

Unlike Hezbollah leaders, Fadlallah liked to meet with and debate those with whom he disagreed. A remarkable testament to this side of Fadlallah comes in this remembrance posted by the British Ambassador to Lebanon Frances Guy on her blog (where she regularly writes with surprising candor about things that other diplomats will hesitate to discuss as openly at background briefings).

When you visited him you could be sure of a real debate, a respectful argument and you knew you would leave his presence feeling a better person.  That for me is the real effect of a true man of religion; leaving an impact on everyone he meets, no matter what their faith. … The world needs more men like him willing to reach out across faiths, acknowledging the reality of the modern world and daring to confront old constraints.  May he rest in peace.

UPDATE

Fallout continues for public figures who praised Fadlallah after his death. First, CNN fired long-time Middle East editor Octavia Nasr after she posted a comment on Twitter expressing her sadness at the passing of a “Hezbollah giant” whom she “greatly respected.” (No matter that he wasn’t actually a Hezbollah figure, although he provided the religious justification for many of its tactics, include suicide bombings.) Now, the British Foreign Office has taken down Ambassador Guy’s blog post, “after mature consideration,” a spokesman told the Guardian newspaper.

Here’s the full text, of the post, as preserved by the Guardian.

One of the privileges of being a diplomat is the people you meet; great and small, passionate and furious. People in Lebanon like to ask me which politician I admire most. It is an unfair question, obviously, and many are seeking to make a political response of their own. I usually avoid answering by referring to those I enjoy meeting the most and those that impress me the most. Until yesterday my preferred answer was to refer to Sheikh Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, head of the Shia clergy in Lebanon and much admired leader of many Shia muslims throughout the world. When you visited him you could be sure of a real debate, a respectful argument and you knew you would leave his presence feeling a better person. That for me is the real effect of a true man of religion; leaving an impact on everyone he meets, no matter what their faith. Sheikh Fadlallah passed away yesterday. Lebanon is a lesser place the day after, but his absence will be felt well beyond Lebanon’s shores. I remember well when I was nominated ambassador to Beirut, a Muslim acquaintance sought me out to tell me how lucky I was because I would get a chance to meet Sheikh Fadlallah. Truly he was right. If I was sad to hear the news I know other peoples’ lives will be truly blighted. The world needs more men like him willing to reach out across faiths, acknowledging the reality of the modern world and daring to confront old constraints. May he rest in peace.

Ayatollah Fadlallah’s Legacy

Posted July 6th, 2010 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing

Lebanon’s Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah died on Sunday, snuffing out one of the most important voices for reform and restraint inside the milieu of Shia Islamism. As I wrote in Fadlallah’s obituary in The New York Times, the cleric had made his name as an advocate for the Shia awakening in the 1960s and 1970s, and then as a justifier of suicide bombings by Islamists.

But he also won droves of supporters all across the Islamic world, including the non-Arab nations, because of his work on family law. He found that women should have an easier time winning divorces under Islamic law, and that they have the right to defend themselves from domestic violence. He directed vast sums of money to hospitals and charity groups, even setting up for-profit businesses like hotels and gas stations in under-served Shia areas and then funneling the proceeds to his social services network. Most of the Shia women I know, even those who sympathize with Hezbollah, considered Fadlallah their religious reference.

In January 2009, I interviewed him at his official headquarters around the corner from the mosque where he preached. He railed against the infighting in the Islamic world between Shia and Sunni Muslims, and between Muslims and Christians. Eventually, he said, America and Iran would arrive at a rapprochement, and so too would Israel and its neighbors (this last statement surprised me the most).

To a Westerner, it might be hard to distinguish among the different marjas, or “sources of emulation,” that devout Shia Muslims follow. They all believe that religious jurists have the right to issue fatwas on everything from marital relations to geopolitics. Beyond this common point, however, leaders like Fadlallah – and to a lesser extent, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani in Najaf – have provided a very different model than some of their counterparts in Qom, who advocate the Iranian model of wilayat al faqih, or direct rule by the jurisprudent (that is, the ayatollahs govern directly.)

Fadlallah believed the authority of the clerics depended on their authority among the people (and not solely from their divine link to God). He also believed that Islamic resistance had to retain its “humanism,” and therefore he condemned acts and movements that considered terrorist – like the Sept. 11 attacks, and the ongoing efforts of Al Qaeda. “We are not at war with the American nation,” he told me.

There aren’t many religious leaders whose views carry such weight and yet are willing to criticize their own followers and the movements that they inspire. Now there’s one fewer.

Terrorist Talkers

Posted June 30th, 2010 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing

It’s a banner day for the topic I’ve been researching all spring : What tools beyond direct force can Western government use to engage, modulate or otherwise shape the behavior of listed terrorist groups? I’ve been studying in particular the use of intelligence community contacts, diplomacy, creative government engagement through aid and trade, and Track Two diplomacy (which we might as well call secret negotiations, since almost all of the important initiatives take place with the full knowledge of the governments involved).

In the wake of last week’s Supreme Court ruling on the material support statute, which holds that political advice amounts to assistance for terrorist groups, several advocates of off-line diplomacy have reiterated their arguments for engagement.

First comes Mark Perry, author of the book Talking to Terrorists published earlier this year. He argues that the United States, Europe and Israel gain nothing by boycotting groups like Hamas and Hezbollah, because those groups are here to stay and represent large and growing constituencies. Perry broke the story in March that General David Petraeus had told the White House that America’s pro-Israel stance was harming core national interests in the Islamic world. Now, he’s gotten his hands on another CentCom document in which he reports that some military propose that Hamas should be integrated into the Palestinian Authority security forces and Hezbollah into the Lebanese Army. Both groups, the authors of the military memo argue, should receive American military training, even though they’re defined as foreign terrorist organizations by the U.S. government. (The officers were on a so-called “Red Team” tasked with challenging assumptions and considering alternative ideas.)

The CENTCOM team directly repudiates Israel’s publicly stated view — that the two movements [Hamas and Hezbollah] are incapable of change and must be confronted with force. The report says that “failing to recognize their separate grievances and objectives will result in continued failure in moderating their behavior.”

Meanwhile, on the op-ed page of The New York Times today, the academics Scott Atran and Robert Axelrod write that informal diplomacy has played a crucial role in convincing terrorist groups to renounce violence and enter politics. They cite historical Track Two negotiations begun by private citizens in the transformation of the Palestine Liberation Organization and the Real Irish Republican Army. They also cite their own back-channel conversations with Palestinian militant groups, including Hamas and Islamic Jihad, which they said have yielded important insights.

Private citizens can talk to leaders who are off limits to policy-makers, and can report their findings; in this instance, Atran and Axelrod write, Islamic Jihad reveals itself as recalcitrant and committed to fighting Israel, whereas a Hamas leader suggested he would consider not just a truce (hudna) but peace (salaam). Atran and Axelrod caution that off-line private diplomacy requires expertise and discretion: “Accuracy requires both skill in listening and exploring, some degree of cultural understanding and, wherever possible, the intellectual distance that scientific data and research afford.”

It’s an uncomfortable truth, but direct interaction with terrorist groups is sometimes indispensable. And even if it turns out that negotiation gets us nowhere with a particular group, talking and listening can help us to better understand why the group wants to fight us, so that we may better fight it. Congress should clarify its counterterrorism laws with an understanding that hindering all informed interaction with terrorist groups will harm both our national security and the prospects for peace in the world’s seemingly intractable conflicts.

Advocates of such talks usually take care not to oversell their potential, given that talking to terrorists rarely yields quick results and frequently yields none at all, except for political fallout when secret talks are leaked. All three of these authors have written publicly about their private conversations with leaders of listed terrorist groups. Their conversations were conceived as part of a concerted effort to convince the groups in question to renounce terrorism and violence and pursue their grievances in a legitimate political forum.

It’s unclear whether the Supreme Court ruling would affect these freelance diplomats, who tend to report their foreign terrorist contacts to the government and conduct their diplomatic experiments more or less with their government’s blessing. But for now American law – and grand strategy – have perhaps intentionally left in a fuzzily defined gray area the question of what kind of engagement best complements national counter-terrorism efforts.

Hezbollah’s Flotilla?

Posted June 24th, 2010 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing

Is Hezbollah outfitting blockade-busters to send to Gaza? It appears not, despite some breathless innuendo put forth by an Israeli think tank with close ties to Israel’s intelligence community.

The Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center in Israel put out a report on June 22 entitled “The aid flotilla planned to set sail from Lebanon is supported by Syria and Hezbollah.” The detailed analysis compiles lots of details about the organizers of two Lebanese boats that plan to sail to Gaza in defiance of Israel’s blockade. One of the organizers, Yasser Qashlak, appears in a clip on Hezbollah’s Al-Manar television network spewing racism:

A day will come when the ships will carry the remainder of the European garbage which came to my homeland [i.e., Israel] and return them to their homelands.

When it comes to the money point so boldly proclaimed in the headline, the Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center quite reasonably concedes (albeit far down, in paragraphs 15 and 16 of a 17-paragraph report) that it found no evidence to substantiate the claim that Hezbollah and Syria are behind the Nagi al-Ali and the all-woman-crewed Maryam.

Hezbollah is careful not to publicly affiliate itself with the Lebanese flotilla, out of fear of complications with Israel. Another reason is the understanding that it will harm their ability to represent the flotilla as reflecting a human rights effort. In response to many articles in the media, Hezbollah issued an explicit denial of its involvement. … The organizers of the ships repeatedly state in interviews with the media that they have no connections with Hezbollah.

That didn’t stop the Israel Defense Forces from trumpeting the report on its news page with the headline “Report: Hezbollah and Syria are organizing the Lebanese flotilla.”

Meanwhile the Lebanese flotilla organizers are finishing the process of getting clearance from the Lebanese government, which wants to stay as far away as it can from provoking Israel. The ships won’t fly the Lebanese flag, and they will sail first to Cyprus and only then to Gaza.

Lebanon and Israel officially remain in a state of war after signing a ceasefire in 1948. While Hezbollah – which is doctrinally committed to the destruction of Israel – dominates Lebanese politics, the government officially is under the leadership of Western-allied Prime Minister Saad Hariri, although one-third of its cabinet members come from Hezbollah and its coalition partners.

Hezbollah (like Hamas) has riled up its base about the Gaza blockade and the deaths of nine people aboard the Turkish ship that tried to bust it.  The deadly episode on May 31 fit neatly into Hezbollah’s narratives about Islamic Resistance about “the Zionist entity.” Not least, Hezbollah cashed in rhetorically on the fact that religious Islamists fought Israeli commandos, thereby provoking a policy revision a few weeks later – the first relaxing of the blockade, and in the worldview of Hezbollah and Hamas, an achievement for Islamists on an issue on which secular Palestinians had failed to force any change.

Israel Preparing for Flotillas Like on Eve of War” screamed a June 23 headline on Al-Manar. (Hezbollah also threatened this week to sue the United States for libel, claiming that Washington and its Arab allies had spent $500 million “to bribe people to criticize Hezbollah.”)

Challenging the Gaza blockade is a popular unifying cause in Lebanon, appealing to nearly every constituency, even those who oppose Hezbollah. Defending Palestinian rights in Gaza also provides a welcome distraction for Lebanese politicians currently struggling with the matter of the second-class status of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon.

For Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s supreme leader and a gifted orator, the affairs of the boats and the siege have created a ripe opportunity to make rhetorical hay, and – once again – to position Hezbollah as the beneficiary of an effort to which it contributed nothing tangible. (Not unlike Hamas, the main, and perhaps unintended, beneficiary of the last flotilla.)

From Nasrallah’s most recent speech (translation by Al-Manar):

This is a lesson for some of those who preach the policy of humiliation, delusion and wishful thinking that only result in disgrace. On the other hand a policy based on power can accomplish a lot. …

There is a good chance today to end the blockade imposed on Gaza and this requires more Freedom flotillas. … We have to benefit from the Freedom flotilla to remind the world of Israel’s massacres

Book Coming

Posted February 1st, 2010 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in A Privilege to Die

Free Press has settled on a title for my forthcoming book. It’ll be called A Privilege to Die: Inside Hezbollah’s Legions and Their Endless War Against Israel. It should be in bookstores this fall.