[Originally published in The Boston Globe Ideas section.]
BEIRUT — The medical students disappeared on a run to the Aleppo suburbs. It was 2011, the first year of the Syrian uprising, and they were taking bandages and medicine to communities that had rebelled against the brutal Assad regime. A few days later, the students’ bodies, bruised and broken, were dumped on their parents’ doorsteps.
Dr. Fouad M. Fouad, a surgeon and prominent figure in Syrian public health, knew some of the students who had been killed. And he knew what their deaths meant. The laws of war—in which medical personnel are allowed to treat everybody equally, combatants and civilians from any side—no longer applied in Syria.
“The message was clear: Even taking medicine to civilians in opposition areas was a crime,” he recalled.
As the war accelerated, Syria’s medical system was dragged further into the conflict. Government officials ordered Fouad and his colleagues to withhold treatment from people who supported the opposition, even if they weren’t combatants. The regime canceled polio vaccinations in opposition areas, allowing a preventable disease to take hold. And it wasn’t just the regime: Opposition fighters found doctors and their families a soft target for kidnapping; doctors always had some cash and tended not to have special protection like other wealthy Syrians.
Doctors began to flee Syria, Fouad among them. He left for Beirut in 2012. By last year, according to a United Nations working group, the number of doctors in Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, had plummeted from more than 5,000 to just 36.
Since then, Fouad has joined a small but growing group of doctors trying to persuade global policy makers—starting with the world’s public health community—to pay more urgent attention to how profoundly new types of war are transforming medicine and public health. In a recent article in the medical journal The Lancet, Fouad and a team of researchers looked closely at the conflicts in Iraq and Syria and found that the impact of what they call the “militarization of health care” in modern wars goes far beyond the safety of combat zone doctors, ensnaring even uninvolved civilians, with effects that can persist for years.
Other groups have begun focusing on the change as well. The International Committee of the Red Cross and Doctors Without Borders have documented and condemned disruptions of medical care by combatants. The entirety of the most recent issue of the journal Public Health is dedicated to a critical assessment of the failure of the World Health Organization to adapt to the new realities of conflict.
Fouad and his Lancet coauthors say—reasonably—that any new global policy norms for wartime health care ultimately need to be hashed out in the security and political realms, not by doctors. But doctors, especially public-health specialists, have a crucial role to play: They gather the data and define the issues that drive much of global health policy. And as war has become a free-for-all, dissolving the rules that long protected medical care, Fouad and his coauthors suggest that their own field has been slow to awaken to the importance of that change.
“To be honest, we are stuck in this problem, and we don’t know what to do,” said Omar Al-Dewachi, a physician and anthropologist at the American University of Beirut, and the lead author of the Lancet paper. “The first thing is to start a conversation, and come up with new tools.”
What will replace the current system is far from clear, they say, but it’s time to start figuring it out: Right now, war has a quarter-century headstart.
UNTIL RECENTLY, medical care was something of a bright spot in the history of conflict. Major European powers, shocked by the suffering and grisly deaths of their soldiers in the Crimean War, agreed in 1864 to the First Geneva Convention. It granted medical workers a special neutral status on the battlefield, and upheld the right of all wounded to medical care regardless of nationality.
It was the first article of international humanitarian law and became the cornerstone of all subsequent Geneva Conventions. When we talk about “crimes against humanity” and “war crimes,” we’re usually referring to the body of law that arose over the next century and half, built on the narrow foundation of neutral, universal medical care for combatants in the battle zone. There were always breakdowns and violations, but the laws of war were remarkably effective at limiting abuse, establishing taboos, and shaming the worst offenders.
That relative comity disappeared with the end of the Cold War. When the rival superpowers were locked in combat, they had an incentive to promote the laws of war; they didn’t want their own fighters mistreated if there were another world war. But with the United States and Soviet Union no longer in direct armed confrontation, small wars across the globe flared with new ferocity and fewer scruples.
The wars of the 1990s spread in shocking new ways, with widespread torture, starvation, and genocidal murder campaigns. Rather than fighting other soldiers, armed groups often concentrated on battling civilians. The Geneva Conventions barely figured for the combatants in the former Yugoslavia, Somalia, Rwanda, the Congo, and Afghanistan. The United States contributed to that decline after 9/11 when it suspended Geneva Convention protections for prisoners in the “war on terror,” and normalized drone strikes against targets in civilian areas.
The protections around medical care started to collapse as well. Dr. Jennifer Leaning, director of Harvard University’s FXB Center for Health and Human Rights, has worked in conflict zones for decades and has surveyed the eroding conditions of medical care. Increasingly, she found, the biggest victims in armed conflicts weren’t the combatants but the civilian populations suffering in scorched-earth or ethnic cleansing campaigns in which doctors and hospitals became explicit, rather than incidental, targets.
The final strike against medical neutrality, Leaning says, came in the last decade during America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Insurgents targeted anyone connected to the “Western” side of the conflict, even local health care workers treating patients in public hospitals. The CIA used a polio inoculation campaign to gather information in its hunt for Osama bin Laden; ever since, Pakistani mullahs have condemned vaccination workers. By the time civil war broke out in Syria, the equal right to medical care in combat zones existed only on paper.
“What is now happening is the violation of deeply held legal norms that have taken 150 years of work,” Leaning said in an interview. “That is what is appalling.”
It’s been commonplace in the last decade in Iraq and Syria for militias to enter hospitals with guns drawn, and order doctors to treat their comrades instead of civilians. In the early 1990s in Mogadishu, such behavior was an oddity. In Baghdad in 2006, Shia death squads took over entire hospitals and infiltrated the health ministry, denying health care to Sunnis and even hunting down rivals in their sickbeds.
Doctors are also starting to document how a war-torn region’s health problems can continue even when dramatic violence subsides. Once a functioning health care system is destroyed, it can take years or decades to rebuild. Al-Dewachi worked as a physician in Iraq after the 1991 Gulf War, and has had a close view of how a war’s medical impact can persist and spread. With Iraq’s hospital system in shambles and doctors constantly emigrating to safer places, patients have flowed over borders, often seeking medical treatment at great cost in the relatively stable hospitals of Beirut. Even when Iraq is supposedly calm, the stream of patients never abates, he said. “It’s an invisible story of the war,” Al-Dewachi said. “The long-term effects continue even when the fighting stops.”
WITH THE OLD SYSTEM broken, what should replace it? This is where it gets hard. Stateless rebels and insurgent groups, by definition, aren’t signatories to any international agreements. And the entire shape of modern warfare looks nothing like the formal battlefields that gave rise to the Geneva Conventions.
“We have to build new tools, new concepts, new institutions, that adapt to this concept of conflict,” Fouad said.
On the ground, under fire, health workers have improvised solutions. One common response has been to withdraw completely, only returning if combatants agree to respect the neutrality of clinics. At various times, groups as tough as Doctors Without Borders and the Red Cross have temporarily shut down operations when they were targeted in vicious conflict zone. Some aid groups have used private diplomacy to negotiate protected, equal access to government and rebel areas.
Leaning notes that some medical-aid groups have resorted to armed guards for clinics and vaccine workers, while other health care workers have evolved to function like military medics, embedded with combat forces and providing care on the run.
As for the longer-term effects, the recent Lancet paper suggests some ways for the public health community to rethink its approach to medical care in war zones—starting with its definition of what counts as a war zone.
Health care is normally a massive undertaking that operates through fixed channels—governments, national budgets, and clinics, with clear borders and supply chains. The paper suggests it’s time to scrap this notion when it comes to war zones: One facet of modern conflict is that it obeys no geographical limits. The researchers suggest that the global health community adopt a notion of shifting “therapeutic geographies” that acknowledges people caught in modern conflicts may change where they live—and where they get health care—from day to day, week to week.
That concept, abstract as it sounds, would mark a significant departure in global public health. The World Health Organization, the single most important international body dealing with health matters, still operates almost entirely through diplomatic channels, dealing only with the sovereign government even in complex, multisided conflicts like Syria’s. That means that when the regime wants to isolate a rebel province, WHO can’t vaccinate people there and other UN agencies might not be allowed to deliver emergency food aid. Health organizations and other humanitarian agencies will have to work with nonstate actors and militias, as well as governments, if they want to be able to operate throughout a war-affected area.
Public health research can also put more energy into measuring the human toll of war beyond the battlefield. Part of the recent Lancet paper is a strong call for doctors to start quantifying the effects of modern war on health, looking broadly at its full impact. “At this point, we need to just pay attention and describe what’s going on,” said Al-Dewachi.
The effects of better data could be political as well as medical, the authors suggest: A clear picture of the full health impact of war might well change the justification for future “humanitarian interventions.”
Today, Fouad’s former home of Aleppo is largely a ghost town, its population displaced to safer parts of Syria or across the border to Turkey and Lebanon. The city’s former residents carry the medical consequences of war to their new homes, Fouad said—not just injuries, but effects as varied as smoking rates, untreated cancer, and scabies. Wars like those in Syria and Iraq don’t follow the old rules, and their effects don’t stop at the border.
The researchers are energized by their quest to reorient the public health field, but they betray a certain world weariness when asked what might replace the current order, and provide better care for the millions harmed by today’s boundary-less wars.
“If I knew,” Al-Dewachi said, “I would be involved with it.”
Steve Wakeem, as Sheikh Qassim, the Mufti, delivers a religious decree. Photo: ALEXY FRANGIEH
[Originally published in The Boston Globe Ideas section.]
Citizens in Damascus were up in arms. An autocrat’s impetuous power grabs and flagrant infidelity had split the city’s ruling clans, while fundamentalist clerics issued blanket fatwas against “immoral behavior.”
The year was 1880. The contretemps quickly subsided, a footnote in Ottoman history. But in December it formed the backbone of a gripping play that delivered a stark critique of power and conservative social mores in the Arab world.
Staged for the first time in English by the American University of Beirut, “Rituals of Signs and Transformations,” a 1994 play by the late Syrian playwright Saadallah Wannous, made a splash even in a city known for its relatively freewheeling culture. In literary circles, Wannous has long been considered a giant of Arab literature, but his work has rarely been performed in the region where he lived and worked.
Before his death in 1997, Wannous achieved renown not just as a Syrian dissident writer, but as a playwright on a par with Bertolt Brecht and Wole Soyinka. Politically, his plays in Arabic were akin to Vaclav Havel’s in Iron Curtain Czechoslovakia: They used the thin fictions of the theater to offer social criticism that would be otherwise unthinkable.
Like Havel, Wannous always saw himself as more than a playwright: He spent his life articulating a critique of authoritarianism, religious hypocrisy, and social repression. Up until his death, he was convinced that his plays were laying the groundwork for a complete reinvention of Arab society.
Syrian playwright Saadallah Wannous reads a message at UNESCO’s World Theatre Day.
Today, something of a rediscovery of Wannous’s work is underway: “Rituals” has been performed recently in Cairo and Paris, and a collection of his plays has just been published by the City University of New York. Despite it being in English translation, every performance of the play “Rituals” this month played to a full house of people eager to see Wannous’s ribald skewering of official sanctimony and social rigidity.
But the social revolution the playwright hoped for is still far off—and the eager audience for his rarely performed work is evidence of the immense hunger for an honest intellectual dialogue about the crisis in Arab society. Today, even in the arts, dissent like Wannous’s remains unusual here. And that work like his is so compelling, and yet hard to find, is a testament to just how narrow the scope of the region’s political dialogue has become.
WANNOUS WAS BORN in a poor rural village in 1941, a member of the Alawite minority whose members would come to control the Syrian government, and came of age during the 1960s, the peak years of both the Cold War and Arab nationalism. Syria tried to solve its domestic problems by uniting with Egypt, part of a doomed project to create single “pan-Arab” government for the Middle East and North Africa. It failed, leaving Syria and the rest of the Arab world to seek protection as clients of the Cold War powers. Damascus fell squarely in the Soviet camp, and the authoritarian state it created was modeled directly on those of its Eastern bloc counterparts.
In an irony that many in those Communist states would have recognized, Wannous drew a paycheck for much of his life from the very regime that he excoriated in his plays. After studying journalism in Cairo, he held jobs as a critic and a government bureaucrat, while writing plays on his own time. He edited cultural coverage for government newspapers, and established his own journals when his critical views made that impossible. During a stint in Paris as a cultural journalist, he met key writers of his time, including Jean Genet and Eugène Ionesco. Wannous ended up in charge of the Syrian government’s theater administration, which followed a Soviet model, generously supporting an arts scene that buttressed the regime’s values.
By the 1970s, the Assad regime had consolidated power and was fomenting anti-Israel militants around the region while avoiding direct conflict on its own border. Wannous rejected wholesale the primacy of the ruling Alawite minority, and his moral stances, presented in unusually vital dialogue and characters drawn as human beings rather than archetypes, established him as a major Arab writer of his generation.
Wannous’s work shares themes with other global dissident literature: In his play “The King is the King,” for example, a beggar successfully takes the place of the monarch, putting the lie to the claim that there’s anything unique about a divine ruler—or the dictator of Syria, for that matter. Every night at curtain call during its Damascus run, the director placed the stage-prop crown on Wannous’s head, to thundering applause.
“To this day, I don’t understand why it was allowed,” his daughter Dima said in an interview.
During his lifetime, Wannous himself said that he was allowed to write and live in Syria only so that the regime could pretend to the world that it tolerated free speech. He took full advantage of that liberty, savaging the failures of Arab nationalism and the autocrats who spawned it. He broke several taboos in “The Rape,” which as an epilogue featured a character named Wannous discussing the prospects for healing with an Israeli psychiatrist—a conversation that in real life would have been illegal.
As a body of work, his plays amounted to an argument that Arab society needed to break out of the political and social constraints that kept it locked in place. Confronted by his region’s stagnation and powerlessness, Wannous preserved a kind of optimism: The solution, he believed, lay within the Arab world and its citizens. He chafed at the convention of writing in classical Arabic, and wished writers felt free to reach more people by addressing their audience in colloquial language. He himself wrote his first drafts in the colloquial and then translated them into classical Arabic.
He bucked convention in other ways, too. In “Rape,” he depicts an Israeli soldier whose crimes against Palestinians distort his own psyche. But, crucially, he portrays other Israeli characters with empathy—not everyone is a villain—and he suggests there is value in engagement between Arabs and their Israeli enemies.
In “Rituals of Signs and Transformations,” which many critics consider his masterpiece, Wannous took aim at all the Arab world’s sacred cows in one shot. In the play, the mufti of Damascus—the city’s top religious official—feuds with a local rival, the naqib, leader of the nobility. But then the naqib is arrested cavorting with a prostitute, threatening the authority of all the religious leaders. The mufti sets aside his religious principles and schemes to save his erstwhile enemy. The only completely honorable characters are the naqib’s wife, who divorces him and chooses to work as a prostitute herself, and a local tough who’s dumped by his male lover when he decides he wants to be open about his love. A policeman who tries to enforce the law and tell the truth is thrown in jail and branded insane.
The play was never performed in Syria during Wannous’s lifetime. The official excuse was that the sets were too bulky to import from Beirut, where a truncated version had been staged, but it couldn’t have helped that the real-life mufti of Aleppo issued a fatwa against the play. Even in Beirut, the director avoided state censorship by calling the mufti by another name.
That might sound like an evasion from another era, but little has changed. The director of last month’s production also changed the title of the mufti, using the less-religious “sheikh.” Lebanon’s censor regularly shuts down plays, concerts, and other performances; to reduce the likelihood of censorship, the AUB producers didn’t charge for tickets. During the final performance, emboldened by the show’s success, some of the actors reverted to Wannous’ original language, calling the character “mufti.”
“I told them that if we got fined, they would have to pay it,” said the director, Sahar Assaf.
SEEN TODAY, “Rituals” still falls afoul of numerous taboos in the Middle East, from its attack on authority and religious hypocrisy to its unvarnished portrayal of child abuse, rape, and the persecution of gay people and women who seek equal rights. The audiences squirmed as much during the tender love scene between two men as during the soliloquies that reveal the mufti as a power-hungry schemer and another vaunted religious scholar as a serial child molester.
The continued power of Wannous’s work illustrates both his success as an artist and his failure, at least so far, to unleash the societal transformation for which he yearned. He aspired for a society where individuals could live free from tyranny, including the tyranny of his own Alawite sect. These are still not opinions that establishment Syrians are expected to discuss aloud. His daughter Dima, a journalist and fiction writer, last summer wrote approvingly about the spread of the war to Alawite areas. “Now they too will know what it means to be Syrian,” she said. She drew death threats from her father’s relatives.
“He thought his plays would transform Arab society, and all his life he was disappointed that they did not,” said Robert Myers, the playwright and AUB professor who cotranslated “Rituals.” “He thought his plays would ignite a revolution in thinking.”
One of the Wannous’s best-known lines comes not from a play but from the speech he delivered for UNESCO’s World Theater Day in 1996. It was the first time an Arab had been granted the honor, and it’s fair to assume Wannous knew he was speaking for posterity. “We are condemned to hope,” he said, “and what is taking place today cannot be the end of history.” At the time, he was speaking of the decrepit state of theater in the Arab world, but the phrase has lived on as a wider slogan.
Today the tradition Wannous embodied—the high-profile artist-intellectual driving a national conversation—is almost vanished itself. Throughout the Arab world, the publishing business has long been in decline. Millions watch high-end Arabic television serials, but only a few thousand attend theater productions. Most of the great dissident intellectuals are dead, and none in the new generation have achieved political influence. “Today’s intellectuals didn’t start the revolutions. That’s why they have to follow the people instead of leading them,” said Dima Wannous. She finds it particularly galling that sectarian religious fundamentalists have come to dominate the uprising in Syria, which she has been forced to flee because of threats.
Yet it’s also possible to see in Syria a testament to the staying power of Wannous’s ideas. The dream of a secular democratic state, the local initiatives to deliver food and health care, and especially, the early days of the revolt that pitted nonviolent citizens against a pitiless regime, all hark back to the ideals of Wannous—namely, his rejection of received authority and belief that if something better happens, it will arise from within. In 2011, when demonstrators first marched demanding the resignation of Bashar Assad, the signs some brandished read: “We are condemned to hope.”
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.
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.
[Originally published in The Boston Globe Ideas section.]
BEIRUT — Alex, a Swiss bicyclist and Internet geek, thought he’d get a welcome break from his work as a computer engineer and a teacher when he moved to Damascus for a year to study Arabic. It was January 2011, a few months before the Arab uprisings spread to Syria.
But once he was there, Alex noticed with irritation that he couldn’t access Facebook and a seemingly random assortment of websites. Some Google search results were blocked, especially if they turned up pages containing forbidden terms like “Israel.”
He developed tricks to navigate the Internet freely, and sharpened his online evasion skills. If the government was so heavily monitoring and censoring Web surfing, he reasoned, it was surely spying on Internet users in other ways as well. He beefed up ways to encrypt his e-mail and Skype, and learned how to scour his own computer for remote eavesdropping software.
These skills ended up being more than just a personal hobby. When Syrians began to demonstrate against the regime of Bashar Assad, Alex found that his techniques were of urgent use to the friends he had made in the cafes of Damascus. Syrians were turning to activism, and they needed help.
“What was before a nuisance for me was now a danger to my friends,” said Alex, who didn’t want his last name published so as not to endanger any of his Syrian contacts.
Alex ended up spending two years in Beirut training Syrian antiregime activists on how to encrypt their data and protect their phones and laptops from the secret police, in what turned into a full-time job. Alex had become one of a small and secretive group of Internet security experts who work not with governments or companies but with individuals, teaching dissidents the skills they need to evade regime surveillance. Internet activists estimate there are about a hundred technical experts worldwide who work directly with dissidents.
As surveillance steps up and activists get more wired, the practical challenges for these digital security experts offer a unique glimpse of the frontline struggle between free speech and government control, or, as many of them put it, between freedom and authoritarianism. And with surveillance more than ever a concern for Americans at home, the knowledge of these security activists casts a revealing light on the peculiar role of the United States, home of both a powerful tech sector that has generated some of the most skillful evaders of surveillance and a government with an unparalleled ability to peer into our activities.
Indeed, even the people who know how to keep e-mail secret from the Syrians or Iranians say that it would be difficult to make sure the American government cannot eavesdrop on you. “It’s hard to find a service that it isn’t vulnerable to the CIA or NSA,” Alex said in an interview in Beirut. “It’s easier if you’re here, or in Syria.”
ACTIVISTS IN AUTHORITARIAN states face a range of basic problems when they sit down at a computer. They need to communicate privately in an environment where the regime likely runs the local Internet service. They may want to send news about domestic problems to international audiences; they may want to mobilize their fellow citizens for a cause the regime is trying to suppress. Whatever they do, they need to keep themselves out of trouble, and also avoid endangering their collaborators by unwittingly revealing their identities to the government
Tech experts like Alex offer them a mix of standard security protocols and tools designed specifically with lone activists in mind. The first step is “threat modeling.” Where does the danger come from and what are you trying to hide? A well-known dissident might not be worried about revealing her identity, but might want to protect the content of her phone conversations or e-mails. A relatively unknown activist might be more concerned with hiding her online identity, so that the government won’t connect her real-life identity to her blog posts.
Users new to the world of surveillance and evasion must master a new set of tools. There are proxy servers that allow access to blocked websites without tracking users’ browsing history or revealing their IP address. Security trainers teach activists how to encrypt all their data and communications. And because circumstances change, Web security advocates emphasize the importance of multiple, redundant channels—different e-mails, messaging programs and social media platforms—so that when one is compromised, there are other alternatives.
A repressive regime like Bashar Assad’s can effectively stymie dissent with crude old-fashioned ruses. On one occasion, the government arrested a rebel doctor while he was logged in to his Skype account. Agents posed as the doctor, sending all his contacts a file that supposedly contained a list of field hospitals. Instead, it installed program called a keylogger that allowed the Syrians to monitor everything the doctor’s contacts did on their computers.
Alex warns all the activists he trains that all their encryption measures could come to naught if they are caught, like the doctor was, while their computer is running—or if they give up their encryption password under interrogation. “They can always torture you for your password, and then all your data is compromised,” he said. There’s no foolproof protection against that.
Though these security measures can go a long way, consultants also find themselves needing to balance the effort it takes with the unique urgency of some of the dissidents’ lives. In the heat of violent conflict, encryption doesn’t always take priority. “Many of them are just too busy to care, to follow all the disciplined procedures,” Alex said. “It got to the point where it felt useless to teach them how to encrypt Skype when thousands of tons of TNT were falling from the sky.”
AS ACTIVISTS have tapped online resources in their struggles, a range of security specialists have sprung up to assist them. Some, like Alex, are independent operators; many of them arose loosely around a single crisis and then expanded their efforts.
In response to Tehran’s Web censorship in 2009, a group of Iranian-Americans established an organization called Access Now to train human rights groups and other organizations on more secure communications. In the four years since it has expanded worldwide and now sends technical specialists to work with activists in the former Soviet Union, the Middle East, and Africa. It also acts as a lobbying group, pressing for uncensored access to the Internet. “Access to an unfiltered and unsurveilled Internet is a human right,” says Katherine Maher, the group’s spokeswoman. “We should have the rights to free speech and assembly online as we have offline in the real world.”
A few years later, when the Arab uprisings began, activists again faced crucial concerns about technology and surveillance. Activists throughout the Arab world planned demonstrations online, and used social media as a major artery of communication. In Egypt, the government was so desperate to thwart the protest movement that in January 2011 it briefly cut off the entire nation’s Internet. Telecomix, a freewheeling collective that began in response to privacy concerns in Europe, was one of many groups that helped build workarounds so that Egyptians could communicate with one another and with the outside world in the early days of the uprising.
In Egypt, Alix Dunn cofounded a sort of nerd-wonk research group called The Engine Room in early 2011 to study and improve the ways that activists get tech support from the small community of available experts. “There are people who got really excited because all of a sudden IT infrastructure suddenly became part of something so political,” Dunn said. “They could be geeky and politically supportive at the same time.”
The advice is not always technical. For instance, in Egypt, Alaa Abdel Fattah, one of the country’s first bloggers and later a strategist for the 2011 uprising, championed a strategy of complete “radical openness.” He convinced other activists that they should assume that any meetings or communications could probably be monitored by the secret police, so activists should assume they’re always being overheard. Secret planning for protests should take place person to person, off the grid; in all other matters, activists should be completely open and swamp the secret police with more information than they could process. In the early stages of Egypt’s revolution, that strategy arguably worked; activists were able to outwit the authorities, starting marches in out-of-the-way locations before police could get there.
GIVEN THE RECENTrevelations about the US government’s online surveillance programs, it’s striking to note that much of the effort to improve international digital security for dissidents has been spurred by aid from the US government. The month after the Arab uprisings began, the US Department of State pledged $30 million in “Internet Freedom” grants; most of them have gone, directly or indirectly, to the sort of activist training that Alex was doing in Damascus.
In some ways, the latest American surveillance revelations haven’t changed the calculus for activists on the ground. Maher notes that almost all the State Department-funded training instructs activists around the world to assume that their communications are being intercepted. (Her organization doesn’t take any US government funding.)
“It’s broadly known that almost every third-party tool that you can take is fundamentally compromised, or could be compromised with enough time and computing power,” Maher said.
But there are new wrinkles. Some of the safest channels for dissidents have been Skype and Gmail—two services to which the US government has apparently unfettered access. It’s virtually impossible for a government like Iran’s to break the powerful encryption used by these companies. Alex, the trainer who worked with Syrians, says that a doctor in Aleppo doesn’t need to worry about the NSA listening to Skype calls, but an activist doing battle with a US corporation might.
Officially, American policy promotes a surveillance-free Internet around the world, although Washington’s actual practices have undercut the credibility of the US government on this issue. How will Washington continue to insist, for example, that Iranian activists should be able to plan protests and have political discussions online without government surveillance, when Americans cannot be sure that they are free to do the same?
For activists grappling with real-time emergencies in places like Syria or long-term repression in China, Russia, and elsewhere, the latest news doesn’t change their basic strategy—but it may make the outlook for Internet freedom darker.
“These revelations set a terrible precedent that could be used to justify pervasive surveillance elsewhere,” Maher said. “Americans can go to the courts or their legislators to try and challenge these programs, but individuals in authoritarian states won’t have these options.”
Kelly McEvers did this piece on Monday for NPR, in which she asked me about Hezbollah’s long-term chances here. The World followed up with questions about how Hezbollah’s involvement affects the risk of a regional war. There’s a lot of talk in Lebanon about whether Hezbollah’s all-in gambit on Syria will hurt the Party of God long-term. One side holds that killing fellow Arab Islamists rather than Israelis will prove a harder sell to the constituency over the long haul, while the polarizing sectarian fight will make Hezbollah more insecure, and therefore weaker and less predictable, once the regime in Syria falls or conclusively loses control of half the country. The other side sees a Hezbollah constituency fully on board for the fight in Syria, a constituency that understands the Takfiri Sunni fundamentalists to be a major threat not only to Hezbollah and the Shia but to the flawed model of mutual if grudging toleration under which Hezbollah, Assad and many other groups, including minorities and many Sunnis, have thrived.
I’m leaning toward the second interpretation. Sure, there’s a danger of wider war, and sure, there’s now a slightly greater possibility that it all backfires for Hezbollah. On the other hand, consider that the group has continued an uninterrupted expansion of power and intense popular support from its loyalists through the war of the camps in the 1980s, when Hezbollah battled its fellow Lebanese Shia Amal Movement; the hyperbolic years of Sobhi Tufayli’s leadership; its entry into politics; the expulsion of Israel from South Lebanon and thereby the removal of one key factor motivating Hezbollah’s support; the withdrawal of its patron, Syria, from Lebanon in 2005; the 2006 war with Israel; and the May 2008 battle with March 14. So let’s consider that Hezbollah has unchallenged dominion internally in Lebanon (it can’t rule alone, but no one can contest its hegemony either), and that it more or less alone writes the rules — so it might well emerge from this gambit in Syria still in control of Lebanon. The contours of its role would change, especially if the Assad regime falls, or Syria is de facto partitioned. But Hezbollah is unlikely to find itself disarmed, or dislodged from the center of Lebanese power, or bereft of supporters.
How much of a watershed were Hassan Nasrallah’s comments on Saturday night? I’ll elaborate on these thoughts in a full piece soon, but my take-away is this: Hezbollah’s open embrace of the war in Syria doesn’t change everything, but it’s a big deal, and it makes the regional situation more combustible. Nasrallah welcomed Lebanese to fight on either side of the Syrian conflict, so long as they don’t extend the battled back into Lebanon. And he said that the war was entering a critical new phase, in which Hezbollah’s ability to fight Israel — the group’s core mission — was threatened by the insecurity of Assad regime in Syria. Hezbollah will heretofore treat the threat to Assad with the same priority that it treats Israeli aggressions. These are major commitments, but they don’t actually mark a change in behavior; Hezbollah has been acting on these principles since the conflict in Syria accelerated. And Nasrallah has the freedom to speak as intensely as he did in part because he knows there’s no direct Western military intervention in Syria in the offing, and because he knows that Israel shares with Hezbollah an interest in avoiding a direct confrontation over the Israel-Lebanon border.
I discussed some of these points in a Sunday afternoon appearance on BBC Newshour, which will be available for a few days at this link.
[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.”
Ian Masters spoke with me about the deepening war in Syria and its implications for the outside powers investing in the conflict. Syria’s civil war is increasingly a reflection of power struggles between the Sunni-Monarchical alliance (Saudi Arabia, Qatar, UAE, Jordan, Turkey, Israel, the US, Lebanon’s March 14, the Syrian rebels) and the Shia-Resistance axis (Assad’s ruling coalition, Iran, Iraq, Hezbollah, Lebanon’s March 8, various Arab minority groups). Here we talk mostly about how the conflict affects Hezbollah and Iran, but the bigger picture is that — unfortunately for Syrians — the civil war is definitively deepening into a regional proxy fight as well.
[Orginally published at The Blog of the Century.]
Chemical weapons hold a special kind of horror. Ever since the widespread and horrifying use of chlorine and other poison gases in the trenches of the First World War, most nations have agreed not to use any of the increasingly sophisticated agents they have concocted.
It is because of this well documented taboo and the Chemical Weapons Convention that the United States government has said that it “will not tolerate” any deployment of chemical weapons in the Syrian conflict.
But beyond moral revulsion, what will it mean not to tolerate the use of chemical weapons? What if clear and convincing evidence is presented that Bashar al-Assad has used nerve gas or some other chemical weapon against his citizens? What is the White House to do differently—and why, ultimately, should this particular method of mass murder rise to a new level than the workaday means (mortar shells, bullets, rockets, bombs) employed until now to kill upwards of 70,000 people in Syria?
There’s an argument to be made that chemical weapons are potentially so lethal, and so easy to spread, that states must establish a strong deterrent to their use. But that thinking doesn’t really hold up. Iraq used chemical weapons against its own citizens in the 1980s with support from the US government, which tried to blame Iran for the battlefield use of toxins. In that case, chemical weapons were just one atrocity among many in an eight-year conflict, and the world didn’t see a spate of nerve gas attacks by stateless militants.
In Syria today, the White House must decide whether to invest more resources in the conflict. Already, the US is arming and funding the rebel factions that it finds most palatable. It has held back from doing more because of the plethora of Islamist extremists in the opposition and because of the uncertainty of what would follow in the event of a state collapse in Syria. If in fact the Syrian regime is using chemical weapons, there would be more urgency to resolving the question of whether the US should do more.
But the basic calculus won’t change.
The US wants to see a stable Syria, which is unlikely to happen any time soon, and unlikely to happen at all so long as Bashar al-Assad is in power. So far, there is no clear alternative. On one side, a bankrupt family regime; on the other, a splintered opposition with no unified leadership, no clear plan for after Assad, an Islamist flavor and a major streak of jihadi extremism.
The US and the other foreign sponsors of the opposition have funneled money and weapons to their preferred groups, hoping that incremental and indirect intervention will mould the opposition into a more coherent structure. This might or might not happen, but until a viable leadership actually controls a sizeable portion of the rebels, outside powers—including the US—are unlikely to escalate their involvement. This constraint holds whether or not the regime is using chemical weapons (and whether or not, as many allege, some factions of the opposition are also committing war crimes).
Confirmed chemical weapons use will surely create a public outcry and intensify the moral case for intervention, and the ensuing pressure will surely affect the White House calculus. But it’s unlikely on its own to make the US go to war in Syria, or propel a coalition like the one that intervened in Libya. That kind of game-changing development will require a real shift in the structure of the opposition.
Greater crimes by the regime—be it use of chemical weapons, or ever more prolific massacres—could galvanize such changes. But misbehavior or crimes committed by some rebel factions could well cancel out any momentum to get involved.
The latest evidence is worrisome indeed. But it doesn’t yet open the way for an international intervention.
Syrian rebel fighters posed for a photo after several days of intense clashes with the Syrian army in Aleppo, Syria, in October. (AP: NARCISO CONTRERAS)
[Originally published in The Boston Globe Ideas.]
THE NEWS FROM SYRIA keeps getting worse. As it enters its third year, the civil war between the ruthless Assad regime and groups of mostly Sunni rebels has taken nearly 100,000 lives and settled into a violent, deadly stalemate. Beyond the humanitarian costs, it threatens to engulf the entire region: Syria’s rival militias have set up camp beyond the nation’s borders, destabilizing Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan. Refugees have made frontier areas of those countries ungovernable.
United Nations peace talks have never really gotten off the ground, and as the conflict gets worse, voices in Europe and America, from both the left and right, have begun to press urgently for some kind of intervention. So far the Obama administration has largely stayed out, trying to identify moderate rebels to back, and officially hoping for a negotiated settlement—a peace deal between Assad’s regime and its collection of enemies.
Given the importance of what’s happening in Syria, it might seem puzzling that the United States is still so much on the sidelines, waiting for a resolution that seems more and more elusive with each passing week. But it is also becoming clear that for America, there’s another way to look at what’s happening. A handful of voices in the Western foreign policy world are quietly starting to acknowledge that a long, drawn-out conflict in Syria doesn’t threaten American interests; to put it coldly, it might even serve them. Assad might be a monster and a despot, they point out, but there is a good chance that whoever replaces him will be worse for the United States. And as long as the war continues, it has some clear benefits for America: It distracts Iran, Hezbollah, and Assad’s government, traditional American antagonists in the region. In the most purely pragmatic policy calculus, they point out, the best solution to Syria’s problems, as far as US interests go, might be no solution at all.
If it’s true that the Syrian war serves American interests, that unsettling insight leads to an even more unsettling question: what to do with that knowledge. No matter how the rest of the world sees the United States, Americans like to think of themselves as moral actors, not the kind of nation that would stand by as another country destroys itself through civil war. Yet as time goes on, it’s starting to look—especially to outsiders—as if America is enabling a massacre that it could do considerably more to end.
For now, the public debate over intervention in America has a whiff of hand-wringing theatricality. We could intervene to staunch the suffering but for circumstances beyond our control: the financial crisis, worries about Assad’s successor, the lingering consequences of the Iraq war. These might explain why America doesn’t stage a costly outright invasion. But they don’t explain why it isn’t sending vastly more assistance to the rebels.
The more Machiavellian analysis of Syria’s war helps clarify the disturbing set of choices before us. It’s unlikely that America would alter the balance in Syria unless the situation worsens and protracted civil war begins to threaten, rather than quietly advance, core US interests. And if we don’t want to wait for things to get that bad, then it is time for America’s policy leaders to start talking more concretely—and more honestly—about when humanitarian concerns should trump our more naked state interests.
MANY AMERICAN observers were heartened when the Arab uprisings spread to Syria in the spring of 2011, starting with peaceful demonstrations against Bashar al-Assad’s police state. Given Assad’s long and murderous reign, a democratic revolution seemed to offer hope. But the regime immediately responded with maximum lethality, arresting protesters and torturing some to death.
Armed rebel groups began to surface around the country, harassing Assad’s military and claiming control over a belt of provincial cities. Assad has pursued a scorched earth strategy, raining shells, missiles, and bombs on any neighborhood that rises up. Rebel areas have suffered for the better part of a year under constant strafing and sniper fire, without access to water, health care, or electricity. Iran and Russia have kept the military pipeline open, and Assad has a major storehouse of chemical weapons. While some rebel groups have been accused of crimes, the regime is disproportionately responsible for the killing, which earlier this year passed the 70,000 mark by a United Nations estimate that close observers consider an undercount.
As the civil war has hardened into a bloody, damaging standoff, many have called for a military intervention, pressing for the United States to side with one of the moderate rebel factions and do whatever it takes to propel it to victory. Liberal humanitarians focus on the dead and the millions driven from their homes by the fighting, and have urged the United States to join the rebel campaign. The right wants intervention on different grounds, arguing that the regional security implications of a failed Syria are too dangerous to ignore; the country occupies a significant strategic location, and the strongest rebel coalition, the Nusra Front, is an Al Qaeda affiliate. Given all those concerns, both sides suggest that it’s only a question of when, not if, the United States gets drawn in.
“Syria’s current trajectory is toward total state failure and a humanitarian catastrophe that will overwhelm at least two of its neighbors, to say nothing of 22 million Syrians,” said Fred Hof, an ambassador who ran Obama’s Syria policy at the State Department until last year, when he quit the administration and became a leading advocate for intervention. His feelings are widely shared in the foreign policy establishment: Liberals like Princeton’s Anne-Marie Slaughter and conservatives like Fouad Ajami have made the interventionist case, as have State Department officials behind the scenes.
Intervention is always risky, and in Syria it’s riskier than elsewhere. The regime has a powerful military at its disposal and major foreign backers in Russia and Iran. An intervention could dramatically escalate the loss of life and inflame a proxy struggle into a regional conflagration.
And yet there’s a flip side to the risks: The war is also becoming a sinkhole for America’s enemies. Iran and Hezbollah, the region’s most persistent irritants to the United States and Israel, have tied up considerable resources and manpower propping up Assad’s regime and establishing new militias. Russia remains a key guarantor of the government, costing Russia support throughout the rest of the Arab world. Gulf monarchies, which tend to be troublesome American allies, have invested small fortunes on the rebel side, sending weapons and establishing exile political organizations. The more the Syrian war sucks up the attention and resources of its entire neighborhood, the greater America’s relative influence in the Middle East.
If that makes Syria an unattractive target for intervention, so too do the politics and position of the combatants. For now, jihadist groups have established themselves as the most effective rebel fighters—and their distaste for Washington approaches their rage against Assad. Egos have fractured the rebellion, with new leaders emerging and falling every week, leaving no unified government-in-waiting for outsiders to support. The violent regime, meanwhile, is no friend to the West.
“I’ll come out and say it,” wrote the American historian and polemicist Daniel Pipes, in an e-mail. “Western powers should guide the conflict to stalemate by helping whichever side is losing. The danger of evil forces lessens when they make war on each other.”
Pipes is a polarizing figure, best known for his broadsides against Islamists and his critique of US policy toward the Middle East, which he usually says is naive. But in this case he’s voicing a sentiment that several diplomats, policy makers, and foreign policy thinkers have expressed to me in private. Some are career diplomats who follow the Syrian war closely. None wants to see the carnage continue, but one said to me with resignation: “For now, the war is helping America, so there’s no incentive to change policy.”
Analysts who follow the conflict up close almost universally want more involvement because they are maddened by the human toll—but many of them see national interests clearly standing in the way. “Russia gets to feel like it’s standing up to America, and America watches its enemies suffer,” one complained. “They don’t care that the Syrian state is hollowing itself out in ways that will come back to haunt everyone.”
IS IT EVER ACCEPTABLE to encourage a war to continue? In the policy world it’s seen as the grittiest kind of realpolitik, a throwback to the imperial age when competing powers often encouraged distant wars to weaken rivals, or to keep colonized nations compliant. During the Cold War the United States fanned proxy wars from Vietnam to Afghanistan to Angola to Nicaragua but invoked the higher principle of stopping the spread of communism, rather than admitting it was simply trying to wear out the Soviet Union.
In Syria it’s impossible to pretend that the prolonging of the civil war is serving a higher goal, and nobody, even Pipes, wants the United States to occupy the position of abetting a human-rights catastrophe. But the tradeoffs illustrate why Syria has become such a murky problem to solve. Even in an intervention that is humanitarian rather than primarily self-interested, a country needs to weigh the costs and risks of trying to help against the benefit we might realistically expect to bring—and it’s a difficult decision to get involved when those potential costs include threats to our own political interests.
So just what would be bad enough to induce the United States to intervene? An especially egregious massacre—a present-day Srebenica or Rwanda—could fan such outrage that the White House changes its position. So too would a large-scale violation of the Chemical Weapons Convention—signed by most states in the world, but not Syria. But far more likely is that the war simmers on, ever deadlier, until one side scores a military victory big enough to convince the outside powers to pick a winner. The White House hopes that with time, rebels more to its liking will gain influence and perhaps eclipse the alarming jihadists. That could take years. Many observers fear that Assad will fall and open the way to a five- or ten-year civil war between his successor and a well-armed coalition of Islamist militias, turning Syria into an Afghanistan on the Euphrates. The only thing that seems likely is that whatever comes next will be tragic for the people of Syria.
Because this chilly if practical logic is largely unspoken, the current hands-off policy continues to bewilder many American onlookers. It would be easier to navigate the conversation about intervention if the White House, and the policy community, admit what observers are starting to describe as the benefits of the war. Only then can we move forward to the real moral and political calculations at stake: for example, whether giving Iran a black eye is worth having a hand in the tally of Syria’s dead and displaced.
For those up close, it’s looking unhappily like a trip to a bygone era. Walid Jumblatt, the Lebanese Druze warlord, spent much of the last two years trying fruitlessly to persuade Washington and Moscow to midwife a political solution. Now he’s given up. Atop the pile of books on his coffee table sits “The Great Game,” a tale of how superpowers coldly schemed for centuries over Central Asia, heedless of the consequences for the region’s citizens. When he looks at Syria he sees a new incarnation of the same contest, where Russia and America both seek what they want at the expense of Syrians caught in the conflict.
“It’s cynical,” he said in a recent interview. “Now we are headed for a long civil war.”
The bus destroyed in the attack in Burgas, Bulgaria on July 19th, 2012. (Stoyan Nenov/Reuters)
Originally posted at The Atlantic.
The Lebanese Shi’ite militant group, now blamed for a July attack on a busload of Israeli tourists in a resort city in Bulgaria, is once again striking far beyond its home country’s borders.
Hezbollah, a growing body of evidence suggests, is back in the business of international operations after a long hiatus — striking out not only at military or official targets of its sworn enemies, but also, this time, at civilians. Bulgarian officials said on Tuesday that they could connect Hezbollah to the July 2012 bombing at a Black Sea resort that killed six civilians (five Israelis and their Bulgarian bus driver) along with one attacker. The results of Bulgaria’s investigation, if they bear out, add credence to a pattern that has slowly taken shape over the last seven years, ever since Hezbollah was first indicted for a political assassination in Lebanon and later accused of strikes on Israeli targets abroad. The Party of God, once eager to forswear tactics considered terrorist, appears to be tilting back into their embrace. The culmination of this transformation, or return to origins, could have serious consequences.
Observers of Hezbollah have kept track of the organization’s enduring ability to strike beyond Lebanon’s borders and its deep connections in Western diaspora communities. Still, Bulgaria’s claim that two of the alleged Hezbollah operatives carried real Western passports, from Canada and Australia, provides hard evidence. US officials have always worried about Hezbollah operatives with Western passports, but have never made any credible claims about the number of cells with military training that are believed to reside outside Lebanon.
The deliberate investigation of the Bulgaria bombing could heighten alarm about Hezbollah. Last year Hezbollah was accused in plots against Israeli targets around the globe, some foiled ahead of time (Bangkok, Baku), some botched in execution (India, Georgia), and some lethal, like the one in Bulgaria. Perhaps Hezbollah is frustrated by its own weakness; since 2008, it has sworn to retaliate against Israel for the assassination of Hezbollah’s military mastermind, Imad Mughniyeh. Yet more than four years have passed, and Hezbollah has failed in any plots against high-profile Israeli targets. Hence, perhaps, the targeting of Israeli holidaymakers instead.
Now, evidence from these cases is emerging at a time when the Lebanese party-cum-militia is feeling more threatened – and perhaps more militarized – than at any point in more than a decade. Hezbollah fighters have been actively involved in the Syrian civil war, on the regime’s side, another departure for an organization that for two decades has styled itself a national resistance movement, and has portrayed all its fights as defensive stands against Israel. In Syria today, Hezbollah can make no such claim for its fighters. Furthermore, if Syria decided to retaliate directly at Israel for its recent strike, Hezbollah would be the most efficient vehicle through which to do so.
Western intelligence and security officials have longed worried about Hezbollah’s presence among the Lebanese diaspora, which numbers somewhere between 10 and 14 million. Plenty of Lebanese abroad support Hezbollah politically. Some are known to engage in fundraising and other types of nonmilitary support. What’s not clear is how many of these dual nationals have any time of military training, or any role as sleeper or sabotage cells. The Bulgarian revelations suggest that Hezbollah might have some real strategic assets sprinkled in the West.
Since the massive attacks on Jewish targets in Buenos Aires in 1992 and 1994 (which Hezbollah denied but to which it was tied with conclusive evidence in Argentine courts), Hezbollah for a long time avoided kidnappings and terrorist spectaculars. But there’s growing evidence that that policy changed in 2005 with the assassination of Rafik Hariri. Hezbollah has denied any blame for that murder, resorting to increasingly improbable evasions of responsibility. Still, it was a political assassination, and deplorable as it was it didn’t mark a return to attacks on random civilians. Last year’s plots, however, if they are conclusively laid at Hezbollah’s doorstep, do amount to a substantive pivot.
Hezbollah has argued since the mid-1990s that it should be treated as a liberation movement, accorded the status of a quasi-state. It has claimed to behave within the norms of nations, concentrating after 1994 on military targets in its fight with Israel and making a plausible claim to proportionality vis-à-vis Israel’s use of force against Lebanese civilians.
One benefit of this approach for Hezbollah has been Europe’s refusal to list it as a terrorist organization. Hezbollah remains the dominant player in Lebanon’s government and the single-most powerful political and militia organization in Lebanon. While American diplomats by law can’t even talk to Hezbollah members, most Europeans have maintained relations.
Terror-listing is an inherently symbolic exercise; despite the financial sanctions it carries, the designation does little to change behavior and it reduces the political maneuver room of all involved. To what extent has the US listing of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist organization altered its behavior? (For that matter, what difference does it make when foreign states brand the Pentagon “terrorist?”) But if Hezbollah is going rogue, or returning to its rogue roots of the 1980s, it will hurt the group over the long run, as it loses the access it has won in the Middle East and in Europe, and squanders what credibility it earned beyond its immediate following. Hezbollah will remain a quasi-state, but a rogue one.
Today, Hezbollah faces tremendous pressure as its patrons in Syria are on the verge of a state collapse. The Sunni resistance movement that might take over the embattled country detests Hezbollah nearly as much as it does Bashar Al-Assad. So Hezbollah faces the prospect of regional isolation and a strategic dismemberment, with the loss of the hinterland long afforded by Syria
The best-case scenario is that the machinations of outside players in Syria, including Hezbollah’s, don’t alter the wider status quo: that what happens in Syria stays in Syria. Increasingly, however, that seems like a fragile supposition. Already four outside forces have their own guns more or less in the game: Turkey and Israel against the regime, Iran and Hezbollah for it. Plenty more players are sending money or weapons in: the United States, Qatar, Kuwait, Russia, along with other wealthy figures and factions around the region.
Would this imbroglio ignite a regional conflagration? Iran’s threats, like Syria’s, ring hollow, but aren’t without cause for concern. With so many outsiders in the mix, and so many partisan groups already fighting inside Syria, all it takes is one miscalculation. If Hezbollah already has activated secret cells to foment international attacks, making what appears to be several attempts across the world to hit Israeli targets, that marks another destabilizing escalation. It’s a volatile mix, and the more threatened Hezbollah and the Assad regime feel, the more likely they are to make wild moves – attacks guaranteed to provoke international retaliation, or actions that they themselves will come to see as mistakes. There’s no guarantee that we’re headed for a regional war, or a spate of international attacks spawned by Syria’s conflicts – but there’s more cause today than ever before to worry.
David Alpern’s show this weekend wonders what on earth Morsi is thinking, and what really happened with Israel’s airstrikes on Syria. Listen to our conversation here.
[Published in The New Republic.]
Hassan Nasrallah has always been more sophisticated than the caricatured nightmare featured in the breathless propaganda of Hezbollah’s many enemies. Even at his most noxious he usually managed to present himself as a man of principle. That’s why it was almost sad to see Nasrallah this week pandering like an old-time Arab despot to public anger over the misbegotten Prophet Mohammed YouTube clip.
“America, which uses the pretext of freedom of expression needs to understand that putting out the whole film will have very grave consequences around the world,” Nasrallah said at a Hezbollah rally on September 17, one of the exceedingly rare occasions on which he appeared in public since he went into hiding during the 2006 war between Israel and Lebanon. “The world should know our anger will not be a passing outburst but the start of a serious movement that will continue on the level of the Muslim nation to defend the Prophet of God.” Though the message sounds militant, it was actually just a flailing attempt to catch up to developments elsewhere in the region. Hezbollah, which used to set the Arab world’s trends, now finds itself forced to opportunistically jump on the latest global Islamist bandwagon.
In fact, Hezbollah’s embrace of the controversy over the video marks a final stage of its speedy evolution from revolutionary militant resistance movement to Machiavellian establishment power center. Lebanon’s Party of God once literally threw bombs at those who stood in the way of its ideology, attacking powerful enemies like America and Israel as well as smaller rivals at home. Today, Hezbollah represents the very sort of power it used to oppose. It dominates Lebanese politics as the majority party, choosing the prime minister; it commands a formidable standing army; its complicity in domestic political assassinations no longer is credibly debated; and it remains comfortable with its deep, compromised embrace of Bashar Al-Assad’s criminal regime in Syria.
There’s no mystery here: Hezbollah has become essentially conservative, fearful of the status of its political interests and financial and military networks. The very fact that Nasrallah felt compelled to risk emerging from his underground safe haven suggests that he fears very seriously for his organization’s future. It’s a remarkable change for a movement that was once confident in its ideological rigor and in its ability to earn unparalleled popular support in the region.
IN THE FIRST two decades of Nasrallah’s stewardship, Lebanon’s Party of God transformed itself from a potent but small militant group, best known for spectacular terrorist attacks, into the driver of the Axis of Resistance, crafting a widely appealing message of nationalism and fearless self-reliance built on an uncompromising opposition to Israel and the United States. Just two years ago, Nasrallah was still crowing about an open war with Israel and was still reaping the political benefit of being seen as the sole Arab leader to stand up to the U.S. and Israel.
Today, of course, his critical patron in Syria is teetering, threatening to vastly curtail Hezbollah’s military power, and his source of money and weapons in Iran is distracted by sanctions, a feeble economy and its nuclear showdown with the West. More importantly, the Arab world is awash in genuine retail politics. Indeed, what ultimately broke Hezbollah’s monopoly on popular legitimacy—what ultimately put the Axis of Resistance to rest as a meaningful political or ideological bloc in the Middle East—were the Arab revolts.
Like any establishment power with too much to lose, Hezbollah has kept a distance from uprisings that empower competitors. Still, there is no denying that those rivals have risen throughout the region; fire-breathers and populists have taken position all along the political spectrum from the Islamist right to the secular-anarchist left.
In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood embraces many similar views to Hezbollah, without the call to violence and regional war. There are Salafi extremists running political parties, and there are secular nationalists who sound every bit as uncompromising as Hezbollah when it comes to Israel. To round out the picture, there are voices that oppose violence and endorse diplomacy and pluralistic electoral politics, again along all parts of the spectrum (although sadly, they form a minority). Even Hamas, one of the four pillars of the Axis, has quietly quit its alliance with Syria (and its reliance on Iranian money), gambling that a dignified and principled stand against Bashar Al-Assad will pay handsome long-term dividends in popularity and legitimacy.
Hezbollah, however, calculated that it had no such option. The Assad regime has long allowed Syria to serve as Hezbollah’s rear staging area. Weapons transit through the Damascus airport to Hezbollah training camps and depots. In times of war, trucks can ferry all manner of material into Lebanon from safe havens in Syria. Without Syria, Hezbollah could find itself isolated in the tiny confines of Lebanon, where about half the population detests Hezbollah and its project. For now, Hezbollah’s hard power is undiminished, but the future doesn’t look so secure for the Party of God.
And so, backed into a corner, Hezbollah has responded to the radical transformation of Arab politics much like American policy makers, improvising on an ad hoc basis. Hezbollah has doubled down on its anti-Israel and anti-American credentials, but has abandoned the more inclusive nationalistic part of its resistance credo that arguably propelled its meteoric rise and sustained power. Nasrallah used to unabashedly endorse any populist Arab movement that opposed dictatorship at home or Western ambitions abroad. Now, Hezbollah seems to pick and choose the occasions when justice matters: Yes for the Shia of Bahrain, less so for the citizens of Egypt, and not so much for the Sunnis of Syria. When Israel was occupying southern Lebanon or bombing its villages, and U.S.-backed tyrants were oppressing much of the region, the sense of a powerful, monolithic enemy united support behind Hezbollah. The new reality is patently more complex, with none of the old bugbears solely to blame for the Arab world’s woes. Without a villain, Hezbollah’s fundamental recipe for power and legitimacy loses its yeast.
Of course, Hezbollah has never become explicitly or exclusively sectarian. It has managed to maintain a tight, six-year alliance with Lebanon’s largest Christian party, Michael Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement. But this has never been an especially durable strategy. The contradictions are profound and irreconcilable. To some, Hezbollah is a pan-Arab guerilla front against Israel. To some it is a dogmatic Shia religious movement that sincerely embraces Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s theocratic theology. And to some, it is a shrewd and pragmatic political actor that knows how to make the trains run on time. Yet, it cannot be all of these things at once.
Hezbollah has never been free of such tensions and Nasrallah has always managed to masterfully hold the movement together despite them. As the disconnect has grown wider, however, the false narrative that Hezbollah uses to bridge the gap has grown ever more tenuous. It’s getting harder for even Hezbollah’s most committed supported to believe that Syria’s uprising is a foreign, American-backed plot to massacre innocents, create sectarian strife, and impose Israeli hegemony over the Levant. As the civil war next door spills ever more toxically across the border into Lebanon, claiming lives in Hezbollah’s neighborhoods, it has become impossible to maintain the charade of denial. As the nature of the Syrian regime’s brutality (and the cynicism with which Nasrallah has blessed it) begins to sink in, Hezbollah risks ending up looking more and more like a Shia sectarian movement, just another player in a polarized regional struggle.
If history is any guide, of course, Hezbollah will be nimble and adaptive, and use any circumstances possible to turn a bleak outlook to its advantage. Some holes, however, are too deep to climb out of. The fall of the House of Assad might be one of them. And, judging from his flailing, Nasrallah himself seems to know it.
Photo: Matthew Cassel, Al Jazeera
Sure, Hassan Nasrallah just made his second public appearance in five years, but I’d take that less as bravado and more as a sign that Hezbollah considers its situation especially grave. Syria is teetering, and with it much of Hezbollah’s strategic depth. To boot, Hezbollah has gone so far ahead of the curve defending Bashar Assad’s regime that it has lost much of its “resistance” luster with soft sympathizers — secular Arab nationalists, Christians, Sunni Muslims, and others in Lebanon and around the Arab world who hitherto have sided with Hezbollah even if they find some aspects of The Party of God distasteful.
Hezbollah supporters have long worried that their prospects would be dim in a post-Assad Syria. I suspect that Hezbollah’s full-throated backing of Assad, in contrast to its vocal derision of other Arab tyrants, has actually made those prospects far worse. Bringing that worry into the open is Syrian opposition leader Burhan Ghalioun, who has been telling lots of reporters that when the regime falls, so too will Syria’s special relationship with Iran and Hezbollah. He tells CNN:
“The Syrian people stood completely by Hezbollah once. But today, they are surprised that Hezbollah did not return the favor and support the Syrian’s people struggle for freedom.”
Hezbollah, I think, has good reason to worry. Their days of easy access to training areas and weapons resupply are numbered.
Just a year ago, Hezbollah was sitting pretty. Lebanon’s Party of God had consolidated its influence across the Arab world with a durable set of alliances. Its Axis of Resistance, formed with Iran, Syria and Hamas, had emerged as the most credible and authoritative force in Middle Eastern politics. Its central idea—to mobilize self-reliant communities around a frontal confrontation with Israel—seemed to be setting the region’s agenda.
But the Arab Spring changed the rules of the game that Hezbollah so masterfully played for the last two decades. Today, the party faces perhaps the biggest threats to the legitimacy it has worked so hard to cultivate among cadres, casual supporters and even the political opponents who have come to grudgingly respect the effectiveness of its leader, Hassan Nasrallah.
The first, and more short-term, challenge comes from Syria, where a tottering Assad regime could severely curtail Hezbollah’s military room for maneuver. The second, more enduring, issue is the Arab political renaissance underway, which could produce movements well positioned to steal Hezbollah’s anti-Israel thunder with a resistance program free from the party’s sectarian, militant baggage.
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.