Lebanon and the Art of Kabuki Theater

Al-Hayat correspondents are on a jag, dinging Syria for the opposition's hard ball in Lebanon. Syria has made it clear for months now that it wants the opposition to get a third of the Lebanese cabinet to enable the opposition to block bills that it doesn't like. But is this Syria's fault?

The opposition, led by both the Shiites and Aounist Christians, insists on a "blocking third" of the cabinet. Now seems the time to demand such cabinet guarantees because the presidency is in play.

A blocking third agreement would be bad for effective and decisive government in Lebanon. It would guarantee that decision making on important issues remains paralyzed.

The only alternative to accepting some form of blocking power from the opposition, however, is to revisit the Taif Accord, Lebanon's consitution and the white elephant in the room.

So long as Shiites remain severely under-represented in parliament because of the faulty constitution, aggrieved parties will be able to demand revision of the constitution. After all, a constitution is useless, if it is not seen to be fair and acceptable by the crushing majority. Of course, Hizbullah has not said that it contests Taif. On the contrary, it has explicitly said that it will not bring into question the iniquities of Taif out of concern for social peace. It does not want to further alienate Lebanon's other sects or risked renewed civil war. All the same, Hizbullah's false modesty and apparent self-sacrifice is more than made up for by Hizbullah's demand for a constitutional work-around. In fact, tinkering with the constitution rather than fixing it suits Hizbullah just fine.

It allows Hizbullah and the opposition to wink at the entire constitutional issue, including the question of "resistance." So long as Hizbullah has a militia, it will not want to have a constitution that people actually respect. Both Hizbullah and the parliamentary majority are pretending that they want a constitution that works and is democratic. They do not. For the first, it would mean disarming. For the second it would mean carrying out a proper national census to replace the dusty joke of the 1932 census and giving up the sectarian set-asides and guarantees which make a mockery of real democracy.

The entire political and constitutional process in Lebanon is built on so many layers of hypocrisy and artifice that it requires winking. When Hizbullah chieftain Nasrallah proclaims that the parliamentary majority does not actually reflect the national majority, no one knows for sure if he is correct or not. When he calls the Future Movement's bluff and asks for a national referendum based on one man, one vote to decide who the president should be, the parliamentary majority casts down its eyes, does a soft shuffle for a few moments, and pretends Nasrallah is just ranting. Everyone winks. The problem is that no one in Lebanon knows what a real democratic vote would mean for the country. Most don't want to find out. They prefer the artifice and hypocrisy that is called "consociational-democracy." Consociational democracy is like the other double barrelled democracies of the Middle East – "People's" democracy of the secular dictators and the "Islamic" Republic of Iran. All are sham democracies. Why should one have to qualify or limit democracy – even with a term as euphonious as "consociationalism"?

President Bush and the scolds of March 14th proclaim that Syria is behind the paralysis that has beset the Lebanese political process, but they are acting in a form of Kabuki theater. The tragedy is real enough, but nothing is as it seems.

The Game of Delegation and Recanting in Lebanon al-Hayat

Walid Choucair – Damascus, based on what it has informed King Abdullah II of Jordan, refuses to be questioned about its role in Lebanon by a foreign side, especially an Arab, because it considers Lebanon to be its vital sphere of influence in which no outsiders are allowed to interfere.

Sarkozy and The Diplomacy of Planes al-Hayat

Elias Harfouche – The French President is assuming that the Syrians will wake up anxious tomorrow should the presidential elections in Lebanon fail to take place. Nicolas Sarkozy “warned” that tomorrow Monday is the “last chance” to elect a president for the republic or else…Syria may lose the “honor” of hosting him in Damascus!

Who's Responsible for the International "Retreat" in Support for Lebanon's Path of Independence? al-Hayat

Raghida Dergham – US President George W Bush is politically and morally responsible toward a small country called Lebanon because he took the initiative to make statement after statement in which he pledged support for this country's path toward independence and democracy and its standing up to extremism and plans to turn it into a base for Syria or Iran. Bush then let this country down with his frightening silence, which told those who had relied on his commitments that he was now unable to do anything….

The silence of Ki-moon and the Security Council about the transgressions is tantamount to a blessing for Syria and its destructive role in Lebanon, as it is a blessing of Iran and its financing and arming of Hizbullah. The Bush administration, the government of Sarkozy, the Security Council and the secretary general of the UN are the losers because they caved in to the blackmail, fear-mongering and bribery and they are going to pay a steep price.

Ibrahim Hamidi writes that Iraq's Vice Prime Minister Ibrahim Salih told al-Hayat that he wants Iraq to be the starting point of shared regional interests rather than the battle ground for contending teams of neighboring states. Syrian officials told him that Iraq must not be a cat's paw for threatening neighbors. Here is the al-Hayat article in Arabic.

دمشق – ابراهيم حميدي – قال نائب رئيس الوزراء العراقي برهم صالح في حديث الى»الحياة» انه ابلغ المسؤولين السوريين ضرورة ان يصبح العراق «نقطة تلاقٍ للمصالح الاقليمية والدولية بدلاً من ان يكون ساحة للصراع بين الفرقاء»، في دول الجوار والعالم، في اشارة الى العلاقات بين سورية وايران وأميركا، مشيراً الى ان الجانب السوري أبلغه ضرورة ان لا يكون العراق «منطلقاً لأعمال تهدد دول الجوار».

Assassination jars us's Syria detente Asia Times Online -By Khody Akhavi

Assad last week rejected claims that Syria's alliance with Iran would be weakened as a result of Damascus's participation at Annapolis. "I confirm, on this occasion, that relations will not be shaken for any reason or under any circumstances," said Assad, according to the Syria's state-run SANA news agency.

With leaders like these, who needs enemies? by Sami Moubayed

Gary C. Gambill*  

The Israel-Hizballah War

…The 33-day American-backed Israeli military campaign that followed was largely designed to prevent this from happening. While the Israelis presumably recognized the futility of trying to change Lebanese Shi'a public opinion by force of arms (they had been down that road before), there was clearly an expectation that targeting Lebanon's economic infrastructure would turn Sunnis (and Christians) against Hizballah. However, despite the immense destruction visited upon Lebanon, the war failed to diminish significantly support for Hizballah among Lebanese Sunnis and greatly increased support for Hizballah among Arab Sunnis outside of Lebanon.

Nevertheless, the scale of destruction rendered Hizballah provocations against Israel politically unthinkable for the foreseeable future and the subsequent deployment of an expanded UNIFIL (United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon) force sealed off its access to the border. Deprived of an outlet for confronting Israel, Hizballah turned its attention to domestic affairs after the war, forging a united opposition front with the FPM and leading a Shi'a boycott of the government. This reorientation alienated many Sunni political Islamists who had been staunch supporters of the "resistance" during the war, for Hizballah was now committing the double sin of mobilizing Shi'as against a Sunni prime minister in league with secular Christians. Al-Jama'a quickly splintered, as Mawlawi and most of its senior leadership lined up behind the government, while Yakan and a substantial minority of its rank and file joined the opposition, under the umbrella group Jabhat al-Amal al-Islami (Islamic Action Front). Although the two rival factions of Tawhid (led by Minqara and Bilal Sha'ban) both reaffirmed their support for Hizballah and joined the IAF, a few former Tawhid "emirs" (e.g. Kana'an Naji) came out in support of March 14. On the other hand, Shahal and the vast majority of Salafi preachers now backed the government more firmly than ever.

The Rise of Fatah al-Islam

The March 14 coalition's struggle to preserve Sunni unity amid Lebanon's escalating postwar political crisis widened the latitude enjoyed by Salafi-jihadists, as Hariri was understandably reluctant to enter into a confrontation with fellow Sunnis. The Siniora government therefore did nothing to reverse Jund al-Sham's pre-war seizure of the neighborhood of Ta'mir adjacent to Ayn al-Hilwah or to prevent it from terrorizing the inhabitants. The militants finally allowed the army to deploy in Ta'mir only after Bahiya Hariri (Sa'd's aunt) paid them off in early 2007.

The Syrians exploited this weakness by allowing Arab jihadists to cross into Lebanon, most notably Shakir al-Absi, a Jordanian-Palestinian associate of Zarqawi best known for organizing the 2002 assassination of U.S. diplomat Lawrence Foley in Amman. During the summer and fall of 2006, Absi quietly recruited a small force of several dozen militant Sunni Islamists and trained them at facilities made available by pro-Syrian Palestinian organizations. After operating underground for several months, however, his men apparently "went native" in late November 2006, seizing control of three Fatah al-Intifada compounds in the Nahr al-Barid refugee camp near Tripoli and issuing a statement denouncing the "corruption and deviation" of the sclerotic Syrian proxy and the "intelligence agencies" it serves. Calling themselves a "Palestinian national liberation movement" and adopting the moniker Fatah al-Islam, they declared a holy war to liberate Palestine.

While Absi presented Fatah al-Islam as an all-Palestinian movement, most of the hundreds of volunteers who answered his call over the next six months were Lebanese and a substantial minority  were Saudis, Syrians, and nationals of various other Arab and Islamic countries. Astonishingly, this massive expansion took place with little interference from the government. Despite having been convicted in absentia for the Foley murder, Absi operated in the open, even playing host to journalists from the New York Times (which noted obliquely that "because of Lebanese politics" he was "largely shielded from the government").

While there is little evidence to support claims by investigative journalist Seymour Hersh and others that March 14 leaders encouraged the growth of Fatah al-Islam and other armed Islamist groups as counterweights to Hizballah, the coalition was clearly reluctant to pay the hefty political premium of confronting a well-financed and provisioned Sunni jihadist group operating within the protection of a Palestinian refugee camp. It was not until Fatah al-Islam robbed its third bank in the Tripoli area and U.S. Assistant Secretary of State David Welch visited Beirut to press the issue in May 2007 that Siniora finally sent the ISF into action with a pre-dawn raid on a Fatah al-Islam safehouse.

Siniora's failure to inform the army beforehand left Lebanese soldiers stationed outside Nahr al-Barid vulnerable to a withering reprisal hours later while most were asleep in their barracks (nine were found with their throats slit). Ironically, however, the deaths of 22 soldiers that day diminished the political expense of taking the group down by collectively horrifying the vast majority of Lebanese. Although a number of terror attacks outside the camp were carried out by sleeper cells established by Fatah al-Islam or under the direction of outsiders (culminating in the June 24 bomb attack in South Lebanon that killed six UNIFIL peacekeepers) as the army methodically isolated and destroyed Fatah al-Islam over the next three months, few Lebanese voiced objections. Even Asbat al-Ansar distanced itself from Fatah al-Islam and extinguished an abortive attempt to join the revolt by Jund al-Sham (which appears to have since disbanded and returned to the fold). Al-Qa'ida leaders abroad wisely chose not to endorse the ill-fated rebellion.

The Lebanese army's victory over Fatah al-Islam undoubtedly strengthened the coalition's leverage vis-à-vis other Salafi-jihadist groups. However, so long as the coalition relies primarily on support from the Sunni community, there will be political impediments to constraining their growth. It is telling that Dai al-Islam al-Shahal can beam with praise for Hariri even as he acknowledges having met twice with Absi prior to his apocalyptic confrontation with the state. There is a code of understanding among Salafists in Lebanon that accepts the formation of underground armed networks so long as they do not antagonize the authorities. Persuading them otherwise will be virtually impossible so long as Hizballah remains armed, which clearly will be the case for the foreseeable future.

* Gary C. Gambill, the editor of Mideast Monitor, has written extensively on Lebanese and Syrian politics.

Lebanon charges al Qaeda cell in church bomb plot

Lebanese judicial authorities charged 31 al Qaeda-linked individuals on Tuesday for plotting to attack a church and other religious sites in the Christian town of Zahleh in the eastern Bekaa Valley…

T_desco writes; "If the reports are all true, al-Boubou would link the Dinniyeh group, Fatah al-Islam, al-Qa’ida, the Danish consulate riots and (at least indirectly) even the German train bombs."

Comments (19)

MSK said:

Dear Josh,

Gary Gambill’s article is interesting, mostly for the spin he puts on developments.

As you respect him a lot, I take it that you are now supporting the view that Syria deliberately let Shaker al-Absi go to Lebanon after only a few years in prison, that the Syrian regime knew about all those foreign Islamists infiltrating into Lebanon, etc.?

His take on the Lebanese gov’t/Seniora/Hariri ‘inactions’ towards Fatah al-Islam is a bit laughable.

“Astonishingly, this massive expansion took place with little interference from the government.” — Hello, Cairo Accord? Can you imagine what the reaction from many Lebanese factions and Arab states would’ve been, had the Lebanese ISF or Army moved into a Palestinian camp before Summer 2007? All other camps, especially Ain al-Hilweh, would’ve exploded, Hizbullah would’ve massively objected and maybe taken action, etc.pp. If you look at the history of Palestinian camps in Lebanon in the post-Civil War period, it quickly becomes clear just how much of a hot potato the issue is.

“It was not until Fatah al-Islam robbed its third bank in the Tripoli area and U.S. Assistant Secretary of State David Welch visited Beirut to press the issue in May 2007 that Siniora finally sent the ISF into action with a pre-dawn raid on a Fatah al-Islam safehouse.” — There were bank robberies, and on one the police had a lead. They sent in police (ISF & Police are virtually the same) to apprehend bank robbers and found themselves in a firefight with well-armed militants.

As for “Siniora’s failure to inform the army beforehand left Lebanese soldiers stationed outside Nahr al-Barid vulnerable to a withering reprisal hours later” — Why would the ISF in Tripoli, who is checking out a lead on a bank robbery, inform the army about this? ‘Hey, we’re doing some police work in Tripoli, but just in case it is connected to something you may in the future be involved with, we’re just letting you know.’ Nobody knew or had an inkling that the bank robbery was connected to an Islamist group in Nahr al-Barid.

And Josh, I am again glad to see that you can be outraged and emotional about the politics in a Middle Eastern country. One day that might even be Syria. 😉


December 19th, 2007, 7:30 am


Honest Patriot said:


Excellent post. I fully appreciate and agree with your observations. I too noticed this latest post from Josh as indicative of a positive evolution towards true objectivity. Finally! Josh is way too smart and erudite to go on being biased towards the Syrian regime.



December 19th, 2007, 8:30 am


Gary Gambill said:

I think my characterization of the government’s handling of Fatah al-Islam is accurate. The raid was most definitely conducted with the knowledge that these were Salafi-jihadists. Exactly why the army was not informed is not clear. The head of the ISF later said he tried calling the army commander in north Lebanon four times, which (however unlikely an explanation) does concede that the army should have been notified. The Cairo Accord does not explain how AT LEAST 300 (assuming they all died) militants entered the camp after Absi declared his revolt (he only had a few score in November).

I feel that I’ve based my account on a set of undeniable facts (e.g. Absi’s undeniable coordination with Syrian-backed Palestinian factions before November 2006, scale and speed of Fatah al-Islam growth afterwards), while admittedly skipping over some difficult questions (like the degree to which Syrian intelligence re-established ties with Absi after November) that cannot be definitively settled.

So there are political impediments to tackling Salafi-jihadist groups . . . is that really so controversial a conclusion? If anything, the implication of my analysis is that the West should be understanding of the coalition’s inability to fully rein in Salafi-jihadists and should assist the coalition in easing the socio-economic conditions that fuel this radicalism. So no, I don’t think I’m spinning things unfairly against M14.

December 19th, 2007, 9:30 am


Alex said:

With leaders like these, who needs enemies?

Sami Moubayed

For many years, Lebanon meant different things to different Syrians. It was synonymous with college and university life to thousands of Syrians who flocked there, at a time when private universities were lacking in Syria. To Syrian businessmen, Lebanon meant a free banking system. To shoppers, Lebanon was the malls of Verdun and the boutiques of Hamra Street. To intellectuals, it was a place for them to publish articles in a vibrant press. To young lovers, Lebanon was a safe haven from the scrutiny of Syrian society. To the aged and ailing, Lebanon was the American University Hospital. To those seeking a ‘wild’ weekend, it was the beaches, mountain resorts, and nightclubs of Beirut. To the government, it was an additional bargaining card in regional politics, and a symbol of Syrian power, pride, and strength—and an extension of Syria’s regional influence. That is why the Syrians loved Beirut, and that is why they are happy today, hoping that if Michel Suleiman gets elected president, they would feel secure enough to go there—having been absent in large numbers, since 2005. That is why he Syrians will not tolerate an anti-Syrian president in Beirut.

Its that simple.

Whether the Lebanese like it or not, they are situated in a troubled region, with two ambitious—and stronger—neighbors, being Syria and Israel. One is an enemy, although some in Lebanon want to see it as a friend. That of course is Israel. The other is a friend, although some in Lebanon insist on saying that it is the enemy. Due to the weakness of Lebanon, and the power of its two neighbors, there is no such thing as a president who is “Made in Lebanon.” There never has been. That is a sad reality perhaps—but a reality, nevertheless. Presidents in Lebanon have been ‘made’ in Paris, Washington, Damascus, Cairo, and Tel Aviv. Back in 1943, the Syrians supported President Bshara al-Khury because he was allied to the statesmen in Damascus, particularly, President Shukri al-Quwatli. When Quwatli was toppled in 1949, his successor General Husni al-Za’im tried to break the Khury regime in Beirut, and even funded and armed (then backed out on) a revolt in Beirut. A few years later, Khury’s opponents were given political and financial assistance by the Syrian regime of General Adib al-Shishakli.

Then came a joint Syrian-Egyptian effort to oust President Camille Shamoun—and overt Syrian funding for what came to be known as “the first civil war of 1958.” Members of the Lebanese opposition—statesmen like Kamal Jumblatt and Saeb Salam–came to lead their ‘revolt’ from Damascus. Frantic, Shamoun turned to the United States, seeking protection. His successor Fouad Shihab came to power with the direct blessing of Gamal Abdul Nasser (then ruling both Damascus and Cairo). In his memoirs, the veteran statesman Raymond Edde, running for the presidency in August 1958, recalls how then-US Ambassador to Lebanon Robert McClintock visited him to congratulate him on being elected president—only to be stopped short by a US diplomat—who advised him to ‘wait’ because Egyptian President Gamal Abdul-Nasser had decided—with the State Department—to name Fouad Shihab for Lebanon. The saga continued with the civil war, with Israeli support for Bashir and Amin Gemayel in the 1980s. Then came the last two ‘Made in Damascus’ presidents, Elias Hrawi and Emille Lahhoud.

This all leads us up to Michel Suleiman, the president-elect of Lebanon. One thing is clear—the selection process has been anything but democratic. It certainly is not the kind we would wish for a great country like Lebanon. Was Michel Suleiman ‘made in France?’ Or was he ‘made in the United States’ or ‘made in Syria?’ Or was he ‘all of the above?’ The Syrians wanted him because he was close to Hizbullah and sees Israel—rather than Syria—as the enemy. If elected to power, he would hamper UN resolutions 1559 and 1701, which target Hizbullah power in Lebanon, and certainly, grant more political room for the Shiite community. The proposed government formation would be 14 ministers for March 14, 12 for the Hizbullah-led opposition, and 4 ministers, to be named by the President. If Suleiman becomes president, these four ministers would certainly be pro-Hizbullah or loyal to the opposition, making the collective number of seats controlled by Hizbullah a total of 14—equal to that of March 14. Suleiman also cozied up to Damascus earlier last summer, claiming that Fateh al-Islam, the terrorist group that rocked northern Lebanon, was the brainchild of al-Qaeda and not the Syrians. The Syrians pretended to support Aoun (without saying it), and this discredited Aoun in the Lebanese Street. Deep inside, they did not trust Aoun. They wanted Suleiman. The General was suddenly supported by the Americans, the French, and the Saudis. They sent King Abdullah of Jordan to meet with the Syrians and tell them: “We are all cooperating on Lebanon for a president that pleases decision-makers in Damascus. We except reciprocal cooperation!”

One can understand the ambitions of strong regional countries and the vulnerability of small, weaker ones. We in Syria suffered during the union years with Egypt because we were the smaller, weaker country, dominated by ‘big sister’ Egypt. But we had the luxury of geography separating us from the Egyptians in 1961. Lebanon does not have that luxury with Syria. It has to cope with Syrian ‘interests.’

Let us pretend that we had a different Lebanon—a Lebanon with no Arab surrounding, no Palestinians, no Syrians, and no Israelis. Let us pretend that we had a Lebanon with no confessional rivalries, where everybody loves everybody else.

Simply…I couldn’t see it. The Lebanon I see was one of 19th-century feudalism and sectarianism. In 1940, the Muslims of Lebanon complained that president Emile Edde was treating them as second-class citizens. Reportedly, he replied sarcastically to the complaint, saying: “Lebanon is a Christian country. Let the Muslims go live in Mecca.”

Less than 10 years later, in 1946, King Abdullah I of Jordan toyed with the idea of uniting Syria and Jordan under his Hashemite crown in a scheme he called “Greater Syria”. He went on a regional tour to drum up support for his plan, and in Lebanon met with the Maronite patriarch Antune Arida. The patriarch gave Maronite support for the plan, but only if Abdullah would annex the Muslim territories of Lebanon to Greater Syria. In 1976, tension between both parties escalated tremendously, encouraging President Sulayman Franjiyyieh to issue a constitutional document giving the Muslims some key concessions: equal representation in parliament, more power for the Sunni prime minister, who should be chosen by parliament, and not by the Maronite president, equal access to top civil-service jobs, and reference to Lebanon as an “Arab country”. The proposal was flatly turned down by the Muslims themselves, considering the reforms too little and too late. When Hafez al-Assad met with Kamal Jumblatt for 12 stormy hours on March 27, 1976, he asked: “Why are you escalating the fighting? The constitutional document gives you 95% of what you want. What else are you after?” Jumblatt angrily replied that he wanted to get rid of the Christians “who have been on top of us for 140 years!”

That is the Lebanon I see, and with statesmen like these (they have not really changed), it would be difficult to expect a leader who had been ‘made in Lebanon.’


Sami Moubayed is a Syrian political analyst. This article appeared, with slight modification, in Gulf News on December December 11, 2007.

December 19th, 2007, 1:10 pm


norman said:

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Syria spurned atom smuggler approach in 2001: Assad
Wed Dec 19, 2007 6:50am EST
VIENNA (Reuters) – Syria rebuffed a possible approach in 2001 from Pakistani-led traffickers in nuclear arms technology, President Bashar al-Assad said.

In an interview with Austrian daily Die Presse, Assad said an unnamed person delivered to Syria a letter purportedly from A.Q. Khan, the now-disgraced father of Pakistan’s atom bomb who supplied Iran, Libya and North Korea with nuclear parts and know-how.

“At the beginning of 2001 someone brought us a letter from a certain Khan. We did not know if the letter was genuine or a forgery by Israel to lure us into a trap,” Assad was quoted by Die Presse on Wednesday as saying.

“In any case, we rejected (the approach). We were not interested in having nuclear weapons or a nuclear reactor. We never met Khan.”

In September, Israel bombed a Syrian site that Western analysts said might have been a covert nuclear reactor under construction. Damascus said it was a minor military building.

Western analysts who examined satellite imagery of the Syrian site targeted by Israeli warplanes on September 6 said it may have contained a nuclear reactor under construction similar to North Korean design. They found it suspicious that the structure appeared to have been razed by Syria after the air attack.

“This was a military facility under construction. Since it was a military facility, I can’t give details. But that does not mean that this was a nuclear facility…,” Assad said.

Syria has said it is hiding nothing from International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors.

The IAEA has also studied before-and-after commercial aerial photos of the site and asked Syria for explanations. Diplomats close to the IAEA said Syria has not replied and the pictures alone were unlikely to yield conclusions.

(Reporting by Mark Heinrich; editing by Robert Woodward)

© Reuters 2007. All rights reserved. Republication or redistribution of Reuters content, including by caching, framing or similar means, is expressly prohibited without the prior written consent of Reuters. Reuters and the Reuters sphere logo are registered trademarks and trademarks of the Reuters group of companies around the world.

Reuters journalists are subject to the Reuters Editorial Handbook which requires fair presentation and disclosure of relevant interests.

December 19th, 2007, 2:46 pm


Shual said:

The interview http://diepresse.com/home/politik/aussenpolitik/349740/index.do?_vl_backlink=/home/index.do has more intresting things.

“It can be that our laws are underdeveloped. But it takes preparation to change them. We have to lift the society onto a higher stage.”

Underdeveloped laws for underdeveloped syrians. The world can be so simple.

December 19th, 2007, 3:53 pm


Qifa Nabki said:

Excellent post, Dr. Landis.

December 19th, 2007, 4:03 pm


Qifa Nabki said:

… Sami Moubayed for prez…

December 19th, 2007, 4:14 pm


Joshua said:

Dear MSK,

You write: “[Gambill’s] take on the Lebanese gov’t/Seniora/Hariri ‘inactions’ towards Fatah al-Islam is a bit laughable.” Why? You argue because the 1969 Cairo Agreement tied the government’s hands, making it impossible to arrest Absi or other jihadists.

This is bunkum pure and simple. Absi entered Lebanon and travelled around despite being on a most wanted list in Jordan and the US. The Lebanese government had every right and obligation to arrest him.

The Cairo accord does not require the Lebanese government to allow convicts to roam freely in Lebanon. A large proportion of the Jihadists were Saudis. The Lebanese government has the legal authority to crack down on these elements? Some were Syrians, Jordanians, Libyans, etc. All could have been apprehended and kicked out of the country as soon the government had an inkling that they were criminals.

You make excuses for the impotence and inaction of the Lebanese government and yet inexplicably invest superpowers in the Syrian government. This is silly.

Because the Syrian government released Absi after he spent three years, from 2002-2005, in a Syrian prison does not make him a proxy.

One can just as easily — actually more easily — argue that he is a Lebanese government proxy because the Lebanese government allowed him into Lebanon, cleared him for and issued him a residence permit (one has to presume) — and this was all after Syrian troops had evacuated the country. The government did not arrest him after he broke away from Fatah al-Intifada to create Fatah al-Islam at the end of 2006. It did not act when he took over the Naher al-Bared camp by force of arms. Nor did it move against the group when it robbed its first banks. The New York Times was able to happily interview Absi and report on his Jihadist ambition in March 2006 without causing the Lebanese government to raise a finger against them. Why? You argue because the government was respecting the Cairo Agreement. This is laughable.

There is no proof that Fatah al-Islam was a proxy for either government. Gambill does not claim that Fatah al-Islam was a Lebanese proxy, he simply points to the obvious fact that the Lebanese government did nothing to stop him. It had to be aware of who he was and what he was doing and yet refused to act against him. Some reporters, such as Seymour Hersh, made the argument that Fatah al-Islam was a Hariri proxy. I never bought this. neither does Gambill. There is no evidence for it; just as there is no evidence for Syrian control over the group. What must be explained is why the Saniora government did nothing to crack down on Jihadists organizing in Lebanon. These groups were not Hizbullah. They could have been nipped in the bud when they were small and weak.

Siniora’s government believes that Fatah al-Islam is a Syrian proxy that stirred up trouble in order to sabotage efforts to set up a U.N. tribunal in the Hariri assassination and to help Syrian eventually reassert hegemony in Lebanon.

I presume this is what you believe as well. There is no proof of this. The great body of evidence suggests that Fatah al-Islam and Absi were not proxies, but rather, exactly what they said they were — an extremist, al-Qaida-inspired-group, that wanted to bring down the Lebanese government in order to spread their own authority in Lebanon and eventually take on Israel.

For some reason you and many other supporters of M14 find this difficult to believe and cling to the fantasy that because Absi spent 3time in n a Syrian jail, Fatah al_Islam was a proxy organization of Syria. This, despite it being funded by Saudi money, its members originating from all corners of the Middle East, and its profile fitting to a tee that of other al-Qaida inspired jihadists.

Syria was the only country to arrest Absi. Lebanon permitted him to enter the country and to wander around free – yet he is a Syrian proxy. This is laughable.

December 19th, 2007, 4:18 pm


norman said:

i think sarkosy is dreaming to think that Syria can force anything on Aoun,

ساركوزي يمهل سوريا حتى السبت لانتخاب رئيس للبنان

December 19th, 2007, 4:38 pm


AnotherIsraeliGuy said:

Well the facts on the ground are that the Syrians do not really trust Suleiman either since March 14 endorsed him. It seems that the Syrians are more interested in chaos than in getting their own man in.

December 19th, 2007, 5:22 pm


norman said:

this is cheerfull

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Foreigners Head to Syria to Learn Arabic

The Associated Press
Wednesday, December 19, 2007; 1:06 PM

DAMASCUS, Syria — It may seem like an unlikely place for students from the U.S. or Europe, but Syria has been rapidly gaining ground as a destination for foreigners who wish to learn Arabic.

Syrians point to the young foreigners in the capital as proof that their country _ which is under U.S. sanctions and on its list of state supporters of terrorism _ is not the closed, anti-American rogue nation often depicted in Western media.

The market for learning Arabic could flourish even more if ties between Syria and the U.S. warm after Syria attended last month’s Mideast peace conference in Annapolis, Md.

U.S.-Syrian political wrangling “doesn’t concern me, I’m here to learn Arabic and this is what I’m doing,” said Alexander Magidow, a 23-year-old student from Minnesota. “I like living here, it’s easy to meet people, the people in general are very friendly and helpful.”

Magidow arrived in June as part of the Center for Arabic Study Abroad program funded by the U.S. Department of Education. He has lived elsewhere in the Mideast and brushes off the stormy politics, though it once worried his family.

“After a year in Jordan, my mom sort of calmed down and wasn’t concerned about it anymore,” he grinned.

The Center for Arabic Study Abroad, which has long had a program in Cairo, Egypt, opened its first full-year program at Damascus University this year, with eight students _ joining a number of other institutes that draw in several thousand foreigners a year.

Arabic studies have generally increased along with the West’s interest in the Middle East since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States. The U.S. military and other institutions are seeking more Arabic speakers because of the war on terrorism. Muslim converts or Muslims from non-Arabic-speaking countries are also trying to learn the language of the Quran, Islam’s holy book.

Egypt, a U.S. ally that is more open to the West, remains the biggest draw for foreign students, with thousands studying at the American University in Cairo and smaller private centers. Tunisia and Morocco also have programs, and Lebanon’s American University in Beirut has a small Arabic language summer program for foreigners.

But Damascus is seeing a growing demand. Syria has gradually been opening up to foreign businesses, meaning an increase in foreign workers who want to know the local language.

But the main reason is simply the discovery that Syria is an option despite the tensions with the West. The U.S. has accused Damascus of supporting terror for its backing of Hezbollah, Hamas and other militant groups and of letting insurgents across its border into Iraq.

President Bashar Assad’s regime also has been accused of human rights abuses, but that has little direct effect on foreign visitors. Though nestled between violence-wracked Iraq and Lebanon, Syria sees very little turmoil or crime in part thanks to the heavy-handed security control.

“I often get letters from graduates who tell me how much their image of Syria changed after living here,” said Ahmad Haji Safar, director of the Arabic Teaching Institute for non-Arabic Speakers. “They become our ambassadors,” he said.

“One American told me honestly that he had expected to see streets packed with Kalashnikov-toting, bearded men in galabiyas,” he said, referring to the traditional Arab robe.

The institute, which receives some government funds, takes up to 1,200 students a year from up to 60 countries. Safar said the numbers of students are increasing and the school had to turn away 100 applicants this year for lack of room.

Ghassan al-Sayyed, deputy director of the state-funded Arabic Language Center at Damascus University, said Syria’s low cost of living and “well-preserved Arab character” are draws. “Plus, not many locals here speak English, which helps the foreign students make quicker progress,” he said.

The center, which opened in 1995, now has more than 1,000 foreign students a year.

Maqbool Ahmad, a Pakistani student at the Arabic Teaching Institute, said his goal is to learn the language of the Quran.

“Before coming here I was scared and worried because I’d heard from the media that it is unstable and there are a lot of political problems,” he said. “But when I came to Syria I found the exact opposite. It is a safe country.”

Safar said his school is secular, though it gets religious students. Those whose primary concern is religious, however, usually prefer the Abu Nour Islamic Foundation, a conservative theological school.

Syria keeps a tight lid on Islamic extremism. In 1994, Syria banned foreign students from studying Islam in private schools after terror-related arrests abroad of some Muslims found to have studied in Islamic schools in Syria. Authorities have relaxed the ban, but closely scrutinize students applying to Islamic schools.

For others, the draw is Damascus’ rich history, with a well-preserved Islamic center dating to the 8th century, along with older Roman and Christian sites. “It’s a great city,” said Maria Nomik, 32, an Estonian from the University of London who is learning Arabic here.

“Syrians are very friendly. They may keep a bit of a distance, but it’s natural for every country,” she said. “Even if I’m living in London as a foreigner it’s still the same _ you cannot just merge in society.”


December 19th, 2007, 6:35 pm


G said:

Well, no one can really expect Joshua Landis to say anything without him sprinkling a couple of conscious lies therein.

To pick but one such blatant lie. Landis writes:

It did not act when he took over the Naher al-Bared camp by force of arms.

This is, how did you put it, “bunkum.” Not a single shot was fired when Fateh al-Islam “splintered” from Fateh al-Intifada, took over their offices and weapons’ cache, in Nahr al-Bared.

Joshua Landis lying. Now there’s a surprise.

As for “laughable” statements, the notion that Syria arrested Absi for 2 years then released him despite being this super Jihadi, with ties to Zarqawi, and a hand in the murder of an American diplomat, and then, “lost track” of him, now, that’s laughable. You just don’t realize how laughable you are.

December 19th, 2007, 7:03 pm


Nour said:


There were indeed many armed incidents between Fateh el-Islam elemaents and other Palestinian factions inside Nahr el-Bared. In addition, Shaker el-Abssi and FeI were expelled from two other palestinian camps before ending up in Nahr el-Bared. So where was the Lebanese government then?

December 19th, 2007, 9:16 pm


Youssef Hanna said:

Dear Joshua,

The somehow irrational, or exacerbated view, that consociational democracy is a hypocrit and artificial form of double barrelled democracy à la Syrienne, lacks academical axiological neutrality, to say the least, and looks like an attempt at devaluing Lebanon’s political and social model to equate it to the unfortunate system that you defend in Washington circles.

I kindly refer you to Arendt Lijphart’s “Consociational democracy”, published in Jan.1969 in World Politics (1969, Vol.21, N°2) (p.207-225), analyzing the consociational systems of Switzerland, Austria, and Lebanon: fragmented States with strongly differentiated subcultures need a coalition system, as the risk of civil war and foreign intervention exceeds the disadvantage of immobilism.

Natural fragmentation owing to religious differing vision of the world was aggravated in Lebanon as the Syrian Regime developed a policy of divide and rule, since 1976: it skillfully managed to maintain and strengthen the Hizballah militia concomitantly with Sunni Palestinian camps militias; the latters in reaction to HA turned into Sunni jihadists nestles (see Gambill’s article), furthermore incensed by the support artfully provided by the Syrian Regime to its allied local militarocracy policy of inhumane pauperization of Palestinian camps implemented in the name of the “right of return”.

Instead of destroying the security net of consociational democracy, Lebanon shd cautiously keep it, provisionally, and work at restoring a significant trans-sectarian social westernized middle class, at which time only the social system will gain homogeneity, politically translating in a most natural and evolutionary way into a consensual ordinary democracy.

Obviously this requires a modicum of political stability; the dictatorial Syrian system however is full of internal unresolved and contained violence that must be exported.

December 19th, 2007, 11:31 pm


MSK said:

Dear Gary & Joshua,

First of all, I am very glad that finally we are having a real discussion here with Joshua. I hope this trend will continue.

Second, Joshua, your presumption that I believe Fatah al-Islam was a Syrian proxy is wrong. I believe that it may have been one, but – as my friends & colleagues here in Beirut know (many of whom are convinced that it was a Syrian proxy) – I refuse to speculate on these issues. A good number of people who know Syria well and are not rabidly anti-Assad/Ba’th/regime have told me that it is unthinkable for large numbers of Islamists (incl. Shaker al-Absi) to move from Syria into Lebanon without the Syrian gov’t knowing about it. Then there is the question of Shaker al-Absi to have been released from Syrian prison after a rather short period of time (you & I know how long Syria can keep people in prison if only it wants to) and not, for example, extradited to Jordan but left to roam free. Some would say that he was conveniently slipped into Lebanon …

Dear Gary, the way the Cairo Accord has been handled in Lebanon – by all forces in power since 1990 – is that the Palestinian camps are, for all intents and purposes, non-Lebanese territory. On the other hand, they are not exactly hermetically sealed off – the Lebanese state does not have the capacity to do so, nor the political power viz-a-viz forces opposed to such an act (domestic – Hizbullah – and foreign – Arab League). And btw, lest someone jumps to presumptions again, I am not for such a policy. However, that means that it is rather easy for anyone to move into such a camp as long as the factions running that specific camp are fine with it.

Or do you mean to say that at the beginning of the fighting in Summer 2007 there were only a few dozen Islamist fighters & then over 300 joined?

I think that overall you and I agree, actually. Of course there are political impediments towards facing the Salafist issue, and part of it is that M14 does not want to alienate potential Salafi allies in northern Lebanon. But what I meant to point out is that that was not necessarily the only, or main, reason why the government did not / could not move against Fatah al-Islam after he’d taken over Nahr al-Barid.

Your point of the bad communication between ISF and Army is well taken. Overall, the Lebanese Army needs serious training. Sadly, it needed a crisis like Nahr al-Barid, which cost the lives of over 120 soldiers, to turn the Army into an institution respected by the populace. And, of course, it would be nice if Hizbullah were to change its mind and decide that a nation should have a national armed force, and not a sectarian one. Oh well …

Dear Gary, you said “the implication of my analysis is that the West should be understanding of the coalition’s inability to fully rein in Salafi-jihadists and should assist the coalition in easing the socio-economic conditions that fuel this radicalism.” — I couldn’t agree more with your call, even if initially I did not see you make this implication clearly.

Dear Josh,

I did not say that “the 1969 Cairo Agreement tied the government’s hands, making it impossible to arrest Absi or other jihadists.” I said that the way the Cairo Accord and Palestinian Camps have been handled and were seen until Summer 2007 made it difficult for any post-1990 Lebanese gov’t to do much about it.

I do not invest superpowers in the Syrian government at all. You & I have crossed Syrian borders many, many times and you have lived in Damascus often and long. We both know how obsessed the Syrian regime is with control – just like any other dictatorship, btw, so it’s not specific to Syria (&, just for good measure, I shouldn’t forget to mention that post-9/11 the US and European governments are moving in that direction, but only when it comes to Arabs/Muslims). They had Shaker al-Absi and could’ve extradited him to Jordan … but they let him out of prison early & didn’t mind for him to go to Lebanon. Are you saying that the Lebanese government has a better handle on its domestic situation and penetration of radical/criminal networks than the Syrian one in Syria?

I do not make excuses for the Lebanese gov’t. Of course they are not doing enough on all sorts of fronts. And, as you & I had discussed just six months ago on your balcony in Abu Rumaneh, the main problem is that there is no “national government” in Lebanon, but a conglomeration of particular interests and factions who each is only out for its own profit. But that’s another discussion. I did, in my post above, point out that the argument “the Leb gov’t knew about it all & clearly deliberately didn’t act” is faulty as (1) they not necessarily did know and (2) there are powerful forces who were set against any Lebanese incursion into the Palestinian camps. (Remember Nasrallah’s “the camps are a red line” even AFTER the initial battle that left a score of Lebanese soldiers with their throats slit?)

To wrap it up – I do not hold that Shaker al-Absi / Fatah al-Islam was/is a Syrian proxy. However, it is both possible and plausible. One fine day, hopefully sooner than later, we will find out.

Looking forward to hear from both you and Gary.



December 20th, 2007, 9:52 am


Youssef Hanna said:

Adha moubaraak to all, Moslems & Christians alike.

Let it be a day for an act of faith: from the ashes of an obscurantist East European modelized dictatorship, Omeyyad glory will rise. Between Syria and Lebanon, as the Syrian Regime and its Lebanese lackeys used to say, there is a joint destiny and a common path: “wi7dat el massiir, wi7dat el massaar”: a day will come, when Syria & Lebanon unify under the banner of freedoms.

Thank you all for this forum, and best regards

December 20th, 2007, 12:13 pm


Honest Patriot said:

MSK said “Remember Nasrallah’s “the camps are a red line” even AFTER the initial battle that left a score of Lebanese soldiers with their throats slit?”

Why is it that Prof. Landis and others who argue in favor of Syrian behavior regardless of facts are consistent in their convenient omission of such facts as pointed out by MSK ? With due respect for their scholarship, erudition, and good intention, one can only assume that the subjective pre-determination of what the answer should be controls their thinking to the point of blocking out facts that prevent the conclusions they want to reach.

Josh, what say you ? Please answer MSK’s question. Address this point. (and, along the way, please take a principled position against assassinations in Lebanon without continuing to insinuate and allow others to conveniently ask “Where is the proof?”)

December 20th, 2007, 12:19 pm


Alex said:

Syria says working for end to Lebanon crisis

By Khaled Yacoub Oweis

DAMASCUS (Reuters) – Syria is working to help resolve Lebanon’s presidential crisis, the foreign minister said on Thursday, responding to reports that France’s patience was wearing thin with Damascus over a stalled presidential election.

In a rare session devoted to Lebanon with journalists, Walid al-Moualem said Syria wanted an election as soon as possible to fill the presidency, empty since November 23 when the term of pro-Syrian Emile Lahoud ended.

Mualem said the United States was obstructing a deal by ignoring the principle of consensus, not majority rule, as the main factor in Lebanon’s sectarian political system.

“The American role in Lebanon should be sidelined because it is not balanced. Syria is playing a constructive role. We are facilitating a solution, but at the end the solution is a Lebanese one,” Moualem said.

Foreign powers have historically had interests in Lebanon and the latest crisis has seen several countries intervening to reach a solution.

France has been leading efforts to mediate a settlement between the Western-backed governing coalition and the opposition, led by groups with close ties to Damascus. French officials have also intensified contacts with Syria.

Arab media on Wednesday quoted French President Nicolas Sarkozy as saying he expected action and not words from Damascus to allow the vote to succeed on Saturday.

Responding to questions about the reports, Moualem said: “We are keen to continue coordinating with France to reach a common goal of a consensus president in Lebanon and the formation of a national unity government.”

Moualem said he was due later on Thursday to discuss Lebanon in a phone call with Claude Gueant, Sarkozy’s chief of staff, who visited Damascus twice since November.

The election in parliament has been postponed nine times by differences between Lebanese leaders. The next parliamentary session has been scheduled for Saturday.

Acknowledging that Syria wields influence over its Lebanese allies, Moualem said Damascus was helping relay the demands of the Lebanese opposition on the composition of a new unity government to foreign mediators.

“Every day carries new opportunity to hold the presidential election, as long as consensus is achieved,” he said.

“Syria does not exert pressure. It encourages and urges (its Lebanese allies),” Moualem said. “The position of the opposition groups is legitimate. They don’t demand seats in the cabinet more than their share in parliament.”

The camps have been unable to conclude a political deal expected to make army chief General Michel Suleiman president as there are differences over how to share seats in a new cabinet to be formed once he takes office.

(Writing by Tom Perry and Khaled Yacoub Oweis; Editing by Janet Lawrence)

December 20th, 2007, 3:09 pm


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