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Israel Bombs Syria, Syrians Blame Each Other

An extraordinary mushroom cloud appeared atop Mount Qasioun overlooking Damascus this weekend when the Israeli Air Force bombed munitions depots believed to be storing chemical weapons bound for Hezbollah in Lebanon. This is not the first time since Syria’s civil war broke out that Israel has intervened to prevent Hezbollah from acquiring weapons of mass destruction, and it probably won’t be the last.

Initially both Hezbollah and the Syrian government denied the attack even took place. That’s exactly what the regime did in 2007 when Israel bombed its nuclear reactor in Deir ez-Zor.

No one can know for sure why they decided to stop playing coy and pretend nothing happened, but I can guess. Take a look at this extraordinary video some Syrian rebels uploaded to YouTube. That was one hell of a strike. And if the Israelis didn’t do it, that means the Syrian rebels would take the credit.

The Syrian rebels, of course, don’t have the ability to do anything of the sort. Bashar al-Assad would be in deadly serious trouble if they did. Nor can Assad afford to let anyone think they have that kind of firepower unless he can absorb even more defections and a loss of morale on his own side, which he can’t.

Whether for that reason or another, he and Hezbollah realized they had to admit the Israelis hit them and hit them hard where it counted.

But that’s not all they said. No, that would simply not do. Assad is also accusing the Israelis of coordinating their air strikes with terrorists from the Al Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra. That’s how he rolls. It’s how much of the Middle East rolls and has for decades.

It’s a simple to understand formula: Always point the finger at Israel. If a different enemy deserves blame instead, accuse them of collaboration with Israel. When Israel is clearly responsible (as it was in this case), accuse your enemies of collaboration with Israel just because and for extra credit.

The Syrian rebels are doing it, too. They condemned the Israeli strike. I’m guessing they’re secretly grateful, but they did issue a formal condemnation for public consumption, most likely to inoculate themselves from the accusation from Assad they knew for certain was coming. They couldn’t leave the extra credit there on the table, so they’re saying the Assad regime was complicit in Israel’s strike.

It’s complete nonsense, of course, but that’s how it works over there.

Assad is especially adept at this game. Everyone, especially journalists who quote people for a living, needs to understand that. Yet they don’t. The BBC let Assad write their headline. Israeli strikes on Syria 'co-ordinated with terrorists' it says. That’s the actual headline. It was literally written by Assad’s foreign ministry.

Of course the words “co-ordinated with terrorists” are inside quotation marks, and the article makes it clear that this accusation comes from the Syrian government, but most people who see the headline won’t read the article. Casual readers of the BBC Web site won’t even notice the quote marks. Israel is coordinating with Al Qaeda in Syria? Really, BBC? You’re broadcasting that ludicrous accusation with a straight face?

Look. Nothing Assad says in public has a damn thing to do with reality except occasionally by sheer chance. Every single one of his speeches is part of a well-crafted disinformation campaign. Even his silences are part of a well-crafted disinformation campaign. His is a government that “leaks” its own fabrications to Western journalists, then quotes the articles to make its ridiculous narrative look almost plausible. Even the regime’s grudging acknowledgement that Israel really did just bomb Damascus includes a lie in the very same sentence.

If there’s a more absurd place in the world than the Middle East, I’m not aware of it. Soviet propaganda was no less outlandish back in the day, but the Middle Eastern variety is somehow more transparently clownish and needs to be treated accordingly.

Has Fascism Landed in Hungary?

The UK’s New Statesman says Hungary, despite its location in the middle of Europe, is no longer a democracy.

I spent a few hours in Budapest once, interviewed no one, and only lingered long enough to get a sense of what the city looks like and how startlingly bizarre the language is, so I’m not even in the same time zone as an expert. But the internal goings-on there have been at the outer limits of my awareness for years, and the place really has been getting increasingly creepy.

The New Statesman can be a bit hysterical sometimes, and I wouldn’t yet call the government there a “regime,” but it’s not looking good.

President János Áder has just signed the implementation decrees for new constitutional reforms that wipe out what was left of opposition forces against the government.

More particularly, the Constitutional Court is no longer allowed to give its opinion about the content of laws and to refer to its own case-law – which results in the loss of almost all monitoring power on the legislature and the executive.

[…]

Only a few days ago, prime minister Viktor Orban officially decorated three extreme right-wing leading figures: journalist Ferenc Szaniszlo, known for his diatribes against the Jews and the Roma people, who he compares to "monkeys"; anti-Semitic archaeologist Kornel Bakav, who blames the Jews for having organized the slave trade in the Middle-Age; finally, "artist" Petras Janos, who proudly claims his proximity to the Jobbik and its paramilitary militia, responsible for several racist murders of Romani people and heiress of the pro-Nazi Arrow Cross Party, that organised the extermination of Jews and Gypsies during the Second World War.

Democracy has shorter and thinner roots in most parts of Europe than it does in America, and it has existed for a much shorter period in post-Soviet Europe than it has in the west. The European Union ought to be able to stop “regimes” from rising up on the continent, but it’s more of a centralized bureaucratic apparatus than a liberal democratic institution.

I wouldn’t lose any sleep over this yet, but what novelist Tom Wolfe said in the 1970s may still be true: that fascism is forever descending on the United States and landing in Europe.

Ron Paul's Dictator Fan Club

Ron Paul is back. Earlier this month, after retiring from Congress where he represented the 14th Congressional District in Texas as a Republican, he founded the Ron Paul Institute for Peace and Prosperity. It sounds like a nice little institute, but as James Kirchick shows in The Daily Beast, it's actually more like a dictator fan club.

Take a look at the advisory board. Some of Paul’s staff are respectable figures, but Flynt Leverett is there, too. So is his wife Hillary. This team has made careers as American shills for the theocratic Islamic Republic regime in Iran. Despite virtually all evidence to the contrary, both Leveretts claim Mahmoud Ahmadinejad fairly won Iran's fraudulent presidential election in 2008, a vote rigging which triggered the (so far) unsuccessful Green revolution. In June of 2009, they co-wrote a rude piece for Politico called “Ahmadinejad Won. Get Over It.”

They don’t just defend the odious Ahmadinejad. They defend the whole system. Iran, says Hillary, “is a country that actually delivers for women...We’re not saying that the Islamic Republic of Iran has built by any stretch a perfect system. And they don’t say that either. But what’s so important about what they are trying to do is that they’re not trying to build an Islamic state, like the Taliban or Saudi Arabia. They are trying to do something very different. They are trying to build an Islamic Republic.”

They collaborate even with those who outright stick up for repression. Flynt, for instance, has worked closely with Tehran University's Mohamed Marandi who defends the execution of political dissidents.

John Laughland is also on the advisory board. He is, as Kirchick notes, “a British writer who has never met a Central or Eastern European autocrat he didn’t like.” The man wrote a book called Travesty which lambastes the international war crimes tribunal that put Serbian tyrant Slobodan Milosevic on trial for crimes against humanity and genocide, a genocide which Laughland denies even happened. Ramsey Clark, who defended not only Milosevic but also Saddam Hussein and Rwandan mass murderers, wrote the book’s Foreword.

Mark Almond is another of Ron Paul's advisors. He's a fan of yet another dictator, the last one in Europe—Alexander Lukashenko in Belarus. “After the death of Slobodan Milosevic,” he wrote in The Guardian, “the west did not need to look far to find another bogeyman. Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus was on hand...Belarus is far from perfect, but it is a country where masses of ordinary people are getting on with life and getting a bit better off. That is why Lukashenko inspires fear and loathing in the thinktanks and foreign ministries of the west.”

This sort of nonsense is hardly any different from what useful idiots for communist slavery once peddled about the Soviet Union. No libertarian would ever have written such a thing about a creepjob like Lukashenko, but radical leftists have written variations on it thousands of times about despots all over the world.

Almond, of course, doesn't describe himself as a libertarian. Neither do Laughland or the Leveretts. But Ron Paul is supposedly libertarian, one of the best known in the country, and he hired them.

It’s one thing to be a provincial libertarian who doesn’t give a flying fork about the oppression of people outside America. It’s another thing entirely to defend foreign oppressors and genocidaires. This is not even in the same time zone as libertarianism, which principally concerns itself with human rights and individual liberty.

Both the Democratic and Republican parties have libertarian factions within them, but at the same time libertarians face hostility from their liberal and conservative wings. Paul's new institute perfectly encapsulates why. What we're seeing here, though, has nothing whatever to do with libertarianism. What we're seeing instead is yet more tired and worn-out anti-Americanism. Some on Paul’s board limit their opposition to the American government and its foreign policy rather than extending their hostility to the American people and culture, but if your opposition to Washington is so over-the-top that you prefer police states overseas to Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama, what, exactly, differentiates you from the likes of Noam Chomsky?

“The sorts of things that horrify decent people,” writes Kirchick in his Daily Beast exposé, “do not horrify Ron Paul.”

That's for damn sure.

Libertarians have always had a public relations problem. The Big-L Libertarian Party looks as goofy as a Star Trek convention to average Americans. (I say this, by the way, as someone with libertarian instincts myself.) But not once since the word libertarian was coined has anyone so twisted its meaning or warped it beyond recognition.

The Beginning of the End for Hezbollah

The Middle East taught me pessimism. Much of the region goes in circles instead of progressing, and I’ve seen one country after another circle the drain.

Optimism is very American. It’s not exclusively American, and of course we have our own setbacks and failures, but things have generally trended toward the better in American life since the nation was founded.

The Middle East, though, teaches another way of looking at history’s trajectory. My own naïve optimism was dashed on the rocks in Lebanon and Iraq and hasn’t recovered. I never even bothered with optimism in Egypt. There’s nothing there to be optimistic about.

And I rarely meet anybody who actually lives over there who isn’t a pessimist. Expecting the best while everyone around you is expecting the worst is a difficult thing to pull off. It probably isn’t advisable even to try.

But I’m finding a bit of homegrown optimism in some quarters of Lebanon now, despite the fact that the economy is on its back and the Syrian war threatens to blow the country to pieces again, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t report it. The place has a serious case of the jitters and everyone knows this summer will be the third bad one in a row, but the medium and long term might be a little bit better, at least for some.

Though not for Hezbollah. No, the medium and long term for Hezbollah looks bleaker than ever. That crowd still refuses to speak to me, but I did sit down and talk to three dissident members of Lebanon’s Shia community from which Hezbollah draws its support. They all think the so-called Party of God has begun its long journey downward.

“I’m optimistic,” said Nadim Koteich, whose political talk show on Future TV is one of the top-rated in the country.

“Really?” I said. “Can you explain that? Because I don’t meet many like you over here.”

“We’re approaching a turning point,” he said. “The problem for an organization like Hezbollah is that when it reaches the height of its power, it has no future. It’s all downhill from the top.”

The height of Hezbollah’s power—or its support, anyway—came on May 25 in the year 2000 when Israel withdrew its armed forces from South Lebanon, which it had occupied since the middle of Lebanon’s civil war in 1982. The Israelis invaded to demolish Yasser Arafat’s state-within-a-state along the border, which the Palestine Liberation Organization used to stage terrorist attacks against Israel, and the Israelis stayed there to ensure another group didn’t rise up in the PLO’s place.

It didn’t work out. Drunk on ambition and power, the revolutionary Islamic Republic regime in Iran, still fresh and new at the time, exported itself to Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley and the Israeli border area where a historically disenfranchised people had long been awaiting a savior.

Lebanon’s Shia population initially hailed the invading Israelis as liberators from Palestinian (Sunni) perfidy, but the Israelis were no match for the Shia’s co-religionists in Iran, who exported not only guns, money, and power, but also ideology. Anti-Sunnism was replaced—or, supplemented—with anti-Zionism. Iran’s new guerrilla and terrorist proxy Hezbollah used the increasingly hated Israeli occupation to rally the locals around them, and the Israelis fought Hezbollah in a slow-motion counterinsurgency for eighteen long years.

“In the late 1990s,” Koteich said, “Hezbollah actually said they were worried about what would happen if the Israelis left Lebanon. Because then what would they do?”

The Israelis did finally leave in 2000. Even Lebanese citizens who were not Shias—indeed, some of whom were not even Muslims—said Hezbollah’s resistance was justified and even heroic. But most Lebanese expected and wanted the militia to disarm since the war was over. It didn’t.  

“Let me tell you a joke about Yemen,” Koteich said. “The country, as you know, is backward and poor, so the advisor to the president comes up with the idea to declare war on the United States. The president tells the advisor he’s nuts. The advisor says Japan declared war on the United States and was rebuilt from scratch. The president says, okay, so your idea is we declare war on America, we lose, and then the U.S. rebuilds the country? The advisor says, yes, Mr. President, that’s it exactly. The president says, okay, but what if we win?

That’s the position Hezbollah found itself in after the Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon. What was the Party of God supposed to do now? What’s a “resistance” for if there’s nothing left to resist?

“Winning is losing,” Koteich said and smiled. “Hezbollah belongs to the past. They insist their future is based on their past, which is their resistance and weapons. They need to reinvent themselves. They aren’t fighting Israel anymore, so instead they’re going head to head with this Salafist Sheikh Assir in Sidon over two or three apartments. It’s ridiculous.”

Sheikh Assir is a championship lunatic in the predominantly Sunni city of Sidon south of Beirut. He looks like Osama bin Laden and more or less shares the dead terrorist’s worldview. (Al Qaeda is the terrorist wing of the Salafist movement.) But the number of Lebanese Sunnis who share Assir’s and bin Laden’s view of the world is microscopic. Salafists are less relevant in Lebanese politics than even the communists. I don’t worry about them at all when I go there. In Egypt, yes, and in Tunisia to a much lesser extent, but not in Lebanon. I don’t think I’ve even seen three of them in the eight years I’ve been working there on and off. I certainly didn’t see any when I lived there, and my apartment was in a Sunni neighborhood. But Hezbollah needs someone to fight, and now they have this guy. Hezbollah, though, isn’t “resisting” the Salafists. They’re just making noise.

“Hezbollah can’t imagine a role for the Shia aside from being the ‘resistance’ of Lebanon,” Koteich said, “but it’s over. There’s nothing left to resist. They’re like communist parties in the former Soviet Union. They have their prisons, they have their bread, they have their hospitals, and that’s it.”

They’re under extraordinary pressure now and afraid of getting into another internal conflict. “Their invasion of Beirut in May of 2008 cost them so much,” he said. “They lost credibility. They’re not fighting Israel anymore. They’re just a militia that shoves the country around like bullies in high school. Sure, they can hit people and push them, but nobody likes them. If you’re a bully you can date the most beautiful girl on the campus, but you’re a sonofabitch and she’s a bitch, so who cares?”

The Shia have been in Lebanon for a thousand years, but Hezbollah has only existed since 1982. It wouldn’t exist at all if it weren’t for the Islamic Republic regime in Iran, for Hezbollah is little more than the overseas branch of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps.

Hezbollah also wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for the Assad regime next door in Syria. Damascus brokered the Taif Agreement that ended Lebanon’s civil war, and part of that agreement required the disarmament of all militias in Lebanon, including Hezbollah. Syria oversaw that disarmament. Hezbollah, however, didn’t hand over its weapons. The Syrian regime wanted Hezbollah to stick around because it’s useful against Israel and Beirut. If the Assad family had wanted Hezbollah gone in 1990, Hezbollah would have been gone.

So if Assad falls in Syria, how will it affect Hezbollah?

“It will be huge,” Koteich said. “For decades they’ve had this powerful state behind them, along with a corridor for weapons coming out of Iran. They’ve had this enormous machine and all its tools at their back, and it will be a tremendous blow when they lose it.”

The mood in the Shia community now is a mixture of fear and righteousness. Hezbollah is better than anyone in Lebanon at ginning up paranoia and fear, partly because Hezbollah itself is by far the most paranoid party in Lebanon. “They’re saying the Salafists and the Muslim Brotherhood are going to take over. Extremists Sunnis in Lebanon are like two or three percent, but the Shia here are afraid. They’re afraid that when Assad falls, the Nusra front will take over Syria.”

That’s an actual possibility, even if it’s remote. The only reason the Nusra front (which is the Syrian branch of Al Qaeda) has any support right now is because it’s fighting Assad. Everyone knows the secular movements in Syria (not to mention the Alawites, the Christians, the Druze, and the Kurds) will all resist Nusra once the regime is toppled. But it’s nevertheless a possibility. The most ruthless often prevail after regime-change. The Muslim Brotherhood took over Egypt, and it did so there with the consent of the governed.

But the Salafists are not going to take over Lebanon. Ninety percent of Lebanon’s Sunnis support Saad Hariri’s Future Movement party, which is liberal and capitalist.

“Who do Lebanon’s Shia fear most?” I asked Koteich. “The Sunnis or the Israelis?”

He ought to know. He’s a Shia himself. He’s not a Hezbollah supporter—not by a long shot—but he’s a Shia and he knows what moves them for better or worse.

“The Sunnis, of course,” he said. “They have always feared Sunnis more than Israelis.”

*

So what does Hezbollah want in the year 2013, aside from preserving its interests in Syria? I asked Hanin Ghaddar, managing editor of the online magazine NOW Lebanon. She grew up in South Lebanon, her family is Shia, but today she lives in Beirut.

“The question,” she said, “is not what Hezbollah wants. The question is what Iran wants. Iran wants Hezbollah to stay strong in Lebanon because they can use it for some regional influence and control. Without Hezbollah, they’ll lose a lot. They’re losing the Syrian regime. They’re doing everything they can, but they know Assad is going to fall eventually. So Hezbollah is in Syria to make sure that when the government falls they will have an enclave in Syria protected by the Alawites and the Iranians so they can maintain the logistical routes for their weapons. They need to keep the city of Homs because without it they’ll lose the link. So they aren’t over there helping Assad survive, they’re over there preserving their rat line.”

She insists Hezbollah does not want an Islamic state in Lebanon. “They don’t care about that,” she said. “They couldn’t get it even if they wanted it.”

I find that hard to believe, but I should point out a few things. The parts of Lebanon controlled by Hezbollah aren’t ruled by Islamic law even today. Unlike in Iran, for instance, women can wear whatever they want. Bloodletting during Ashura is banned because it’s “barbaric.” Alcohol consumption and pre-marital sex are rampant. The Hezbollah regions function like a total surveillance security state in some ways, but they don’t function like a theocracy. The security regime they’ve installed has nothing to do with the mosque and everything to do with preserving their own power and weapons.

Deep down I’m sure they would prefer a Shia theocracy like they have in Iran. I know they do, actually. This isn’t a guess. But it’s impossible in Lebanon. The Shia are a minority. So are the Sunnis. So are the Christians. Everybody in Lebanon is a minority. Theocratic Shias are a minority within their own community, even among “resistance” supporters.

And it’s impossible for even the strongest factions to rule over others, which is why not even Hezbollah attempts it. This is obvious when you’re in Lebanon. Take a drive from East Beirut up to the southern fringes of Tripoli.

You’ll pass through an enormous skyscrapering Christian entity that looks a little like Hong Kong at night. Then drive up into the mountains. That area is also almost entirely Christian, and thanks to the terrain it’s all but unconquerable.

It has been this way for two thousand years. Everybody is armed, and everybody will fight to the death to preserve their freedom to live as they please. These are the reasons why Lebanon, unlike other Middle East countries, still has so many Christians—until very recently an outright Christian majority.

Forcing those people to live in a Shia theocracy would be as difficult, if not more difficult, than pulling the same job in Texas. Theoretically the Sunnis of Lebanon would be easier to conquer, but they have the entire rest of the Arab world at their back.

“What they want,” Ghaddar said, “is political control over state institutions. And the reason they want control over state institutions is so they can control Lebanon’s foreign policy. They can use the state institutions to make sure no one gets close to their arms. They’d rather do this through elections, but they had to use their weapons to turn the election results around because they didn’t win. What they did in 2008 was a coup, basically.”

But what do the people of South Lebanon want? Most of them support Hezbollah to an extent, but they didn’t create Hezbollah, nor does it answer to them. The party takes its orders from Tehran.

“Let me put it to you this way,” she said. “The highest consumption of alcohol in Lebanon outside Beirut is in the south. This image that they’re really conservative and religious is nonsense. The amount of alcohol consumed in the dahiyeh is unbelievable. They drink huge amounts of whiskey, arak, and wine.”

Young people, she says, want to leave the country. Pretty much all of them. She didn’t leave Lebanon, but she did leave the south and moved to Beirut. There’s nothing for her in the south.

“They want a better lifestyle,” she said, “and they want security. The better lifestyle is not there, and neither is security. They think Hezbollah provides them with security, but recently they’ve started to question that. Because what Hezbollah is doing now is no longer resistance. They had their ‘divine victory’ in 2006, but the truth is they didn’t survive that. They won morally insofar as they were perceived as the heroes, but they suffered terrible losses. It’s finished. And that’s why they called it a ‘divine victory.’ They can’t have a super divine victory next, following by a super-duper divine victory. That was it.”

Now they’re fighting in Syria. I seriously doubt Hezbollah’s Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah ever thought he’d be fighting in Syria, but that’s what he’s doing. And Ghaddar says many Lebanese Shia are furious at him because of it.

“Hezbollah is dragging Lebanon into the sectarian war in Syria and dragging the Shia into another war they don’t want. Resisting Israel is one thing, but fighting the region’s Sunnis is something else.”

It’s a fight they can’t win. There are fewer than two million Sunnis in Lebanon, but there are twenty million people in Syria. And most of those people are Sunnis. Hezbollah has a fighting force of only five thousand.

Tripoli, Lebanon -- Sunni area

“I talked to someone last week who is close to Hezbollah officials,” she said. “This guy has been pro-resistance for sure, but he’s not happy with what’s going on now. He told me that a lot of Hezbollah officers are refusing to follow orders when they’re told to go to Syria. This never happened before. Ever. For them, this isn’t resistance. It doesn’t make sense. It’s not what they signed up for. There’s nothing left for Hezbollah to resist. Israel isn’t here. Now they’re doing operations in Bulgaria and Cyprus. That’s also not resistance. So what are they doing? Money laundering. Drug trafficking. Corruption like crazy everywhere. People in the south see it more than we do.”

Part of Hezbollah’s support used to come from the fact that they were perceived as not being corrupt, but that’s over now, too.

“Even my family members who are big Hezbollah supporters are talking about the corruption,” she said. “One of my relatives told me she hates them now. And she has always been a huge resistance supporter.”

A large number of Lebanon’s Shia may not like Hezbollah so much anymore, but the support is still there because they feel like they don’t have any choice. They are afraid. Every sect felt this way during the civil war, when even people who are natural cosmopolitan pacifists supported one of “their own” sectarian militias because they were afraid of the others. It would happen to you, too, if you lived in an environment with a weak and dysfunctional state that can’t provide security while your neighbors are trying to kill you.

“They don’t think Hezbollah is the answer anymore,” she said, “but what they see everywhere in Lebanon outside the south are people who want to eat them alive.”

*

What’s the United States supposed to do about this? There’s hardly anything the United States can or should do in Lebanon aside from back our friends diplomatically and sit back and watch, but Lokman Slim, Lebanon’s most famous liberal Shia activist, has a suggestion. He’s not at all likely to get his wish any time soon, but he has a suggestion.

“Washington needs a Shia policy,” he said.

A Shia policy? What does that mean?

“You can either neglect us,” he said, “which promotes the most radical among us, or you can take us seriously. And you have to realize that within the Arab world, whether you like it or not, the agents of change are Shias. In Bahrain, they are Shias. In Lebanon, for better or for worse, they are Shias. In Syria, you have to realize that the Alawites represent diversity. I hate Bashar al-Assad, but I’ll defend the Alawites. In Syria, the Alawites are part of what I’m describing as the Shia.”

The Alawites—Bashar al-Assad’s minority sect—are not actually Shias, not really. Washington thinks they are, but that’s because back in the 1970s the Lebanese cleric Musa Sadr issued a fatwa declaring them Shias. For a thousand years before that, no one thought of the Alawites as Shias or even Muslims. What they are is a secretive and closed heterodox minority that fuses Christianity, Gnosticism, and Twelver Shia Islam together into something else entirely. Muslims have always considered them infidels.

“I’m expanding the term Shia to include anyone who isn’t an orthodox Sunni,” Slim said. “What I’m referring to here are the minorities. And this is a condition for the survival of a Jewish state. Israel can’t survive on its own if it isn’t integrated into a big diverse colorful picture. This doesn’t mean I want to see Shia states. I want to see diversity become the rule of the game. First we are human beings. Only then do we have these complicated layers of identities. We need to promote a patchwork of identities.”

For all of the 20th century, and to a lesser extent so far in the 21st, Washington has thought of and treated the Middle East as a monolithic bloc of conservative Sunni Arabs. That’s because the U.S. discovered the Middle East in the Persian Gulf region thanks to the oil, and because Washington formed its most stable (though dubious) alliances there. It’s also where the American military is based in the region.

But the Gulf is the Gulf. The Eastern Mediterranean and North African parts of the Arab world are radically, drastically, different. The three disparate regions may as well be on different planets. The Levant—the Eastern Mediterranean—is mind-bogglingly diverse. It is much more culturally modern. And it’s a lot more fractious and prone to armed conflict.

The Shia are a minority in Lebanon, making up only a third or so of the population. They’re an even smaller minority region-wide, and a smaller minority still in the wider world of Islam. The overwhelming majority of Muslims on earth are Sunnis. The Shia have been historically disenfranchised pretty much everywhere in the world outside Iran. The only people on earth reaching out to the Shia of Lebanon are the Iranians. That’s what Lokman Slim wants to change. Before, they were neglected by Lebanon’s Sunnis, Christians, and Druze. They were neglected by the West and by the Israelis. They were neglected even by the Shah’s regime in Iran. Nobody paid them the slightest bit of respect or attention until the Iranian Revolution installed Ayatollah Khomeini.

The Shia of Iraq have a similar complex. “You discovered Iraq in 2003,” Slim said, “so you don’t know that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki used to serve tea here at Sayyed Fadlallah’s mansion. He has had only two ties in his whole life and he used to serve tea to Fadlallah in Lebanon. Now he’s prime minister, but you should ask him where he spent his dark years. I don’t like him, but you should understand where he comes from and what he fears.”

Like all the world’s Shia, Maliki fears the Sunnis, the ancient oppressor and foe.

“The Saudis,” Slim said, “are the biggest idiots, but the West never made an effort to get to know the others, the Shia, the Kurds, the Alawites. Re-read the speech Condoleezza Rice made in Cairo in 2006. She said that for sixty years the U.S. relied on allies to provide security in the region, but the region didn’t get security and didn’t get democracy. John Kerry and Barack Obama need to understand that this region is fed up, but Obama can do whatever he wants. He’ll only stay for a couple of years. Our civil wars will remain.”

He mentioned a hypothetical Shia woman in South Lebanon who runs a shop and would like to expand her business. She isn’t interested in theocracy or “resistance.” She wants to expand her business and live something that at least approximates normal life.

“What does she think about Bashar al-Assad?” I said. Assad takes Lebanon’s Shia seriously, or pretends to, at any rate. He provides joint support with Iran for Hezbollah, at least.

“She hates Sunnis,” he said. “She doesn’t think anything about Bashar. She hates and fears the guys of Al Qaeda and Jabhat al-Nusra.”

“As well she should,” I said.

“As well she should,” he said. “She sells whiskey and arak. And the guys from al-Nusra and Al Qaeda are suicide bombers. You can’t do politics with them. You can’t start a project with suicidal people if it won’t be finished until 2015. The rest of us don’t want to go to heaven. We want to create heaven on earth.”

I have no idea, really, how many people he’s speaking for here. The Shia of Lebanon did not elect him as their spokesman. He’s a dissident within the community, an ideological minority. But he’s also a part of that community. He shares their culture and frames of reference if not their politics.

“If you don’t talk to us,” he said, “we will become more stubborn, but if you open up we can finally become who we really are.”

Saifi, Central Beirut

“Hezbollah won’t talk to us,” I said.

It’s actually against the law for anyone in the United States government to talk to Hezbollah, but even if that weren’t the case, Hezbollah still wouldn’t talk to us. I don’t work for the government and never have, but Hezbollah won’t talk to me either.

“Forget Hezbollah,” he said. “It is just a component of Iran’s imperial system. Hezbollah can go to hell.”

“So who in Lebanon’s Shia community are we supposed to talk to?” I said.

“Washington knows everybody,” he said, “but there is no policy. When there is a decision to call a carrot a carrot, Washington will get everything it needs from our community.”

“That could take a while,” I said.

“That’s okay,” he said and comfortably leaned back in his chair. “We will still be sitting here drinking our arak and will be ready when they are.”

Slim doesn’t only oppose Hezbollah’s’ ideology of “resistance.” He also opposes its radical Islam, root and branch, as do most Lebanese and even a sizeable percentage of “resistance” supporters. But other parts of the Middle East swoon to radical Islam. An outright majority of Egyptians do to one extent or another. Even a sizeable minority in Tunisia voted for the allegedly “moderate” (but not really) Islamist Ennahda. The region may have to pass through a turbulent era of Islamist ascendancy before crashing and burning and getting it out of its system. Even Lebanon, where radical Islam enjoys less support, has suffered greatly because of it.

“We need to live through this difficult period,” Slim said, “and we need you to help us get through it as quickly as possible. The camel passes, but the desert remains. Help Islam fade. Help Islam become just an identity. Help Islam rest in peace calmly.”

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A Primer on Chechnya from Thomas Goltz

I met Caucasus expert Thomas Goltz in Tbilisi during Russia's invasion of Georgia. He and I took a nail-biting taxi ride behind Russian lines before furious soldiers at the third checkpoint on the road to Gori turned us back. I wrote about this in my book, Where the West Ends, and will never forget our encounter with terrifying Chechen irregulars on our way back to the capital.

Goltz is back now with a primer on Chechnya for Americans in the wake of the Boston bombing. He's the man to write it. He's the only American author I know who actually lived in Chechnya during the conflict with Russia. He knows the place better than just about anyone who isn't from there.

To start with what is not obvious to many Americans, the Chechens are not Russians but a distinct national and lingual group indigenous to the north slope of the Caucasus mountain range, where they have lived since before recorded history. Rather like Native American peoples known by names given them by the white man and whose sad history in the 18th and 19th centuries is a strange and cruel mirror of the experience of the Chechens at the hands of Russian imperialism, the very name "Chechen" is not what the Chechens call themselves. They are the "Noxchi," which translates more or less as "The People."

During the so-called on-again-off-again Murid wars of the 19th century, the Chechens were the backbone of Muslim tribal resistance to the Czarist expansion south, and earned the reputation of being fanatical, fearless Sufism-inspired warriors. After the resistance collapsed with the capture of Imam Shamil (an event somewhat akin to the surrender of Souix/Lakota Chief Sitting Bull), many of those fearless warriors brought their skills into exile in the Ottoman Empire, where they were stationed in problematic border areas, such as the Balkans and the Arab lands of the Levant, where they became known under the generic name of "Circassians," a term that also includes other related North Caucasus mountaineers such as the Ingush, Abkhaz and Adagei who were also driven into Ottoman exile by the czars.

To this day, the palace guard of the king of Jordan are all Circassians; in Syria, they are (or were) concentrated in the Golan heights, but are now attempting a reverse migration to their ancestral lands in Russia, even while undetermined numbers of their "cousins" from Chechnya-in-Russia take up arms along side Jihadists against the secular regime of Bashar al Assad in Damascus.

In the 1920s and 1930s, the Chechens (like many of the 150-odd new "nations" in the USSR, many manufactured from whole cloth) maintained a low-boil resistance to Soviet rule and collectivization. But it was also thanks to Joseph Stalin and his commissars that a Chechnya was first defined as an "Autonomous Republic," a territorial entity replete with borders, a Soviet-style official "culture" and other attributes of (Soviet-style) national "statehood."

Many other marginal peoples in the USSR did not fare so well, and were thus absorbed into larger non-Slavic nutshells whenever Stalin sneezed.

For the Chechens, that sneeze came on February 23-24 1944, when Stalin and his fellow Georgian henchman Lavrentii Beria accused the Chechens of collaborating with the Nazi Wehrmacht, dissolved their Autonomous Republic and sent the new non-people sent into exile in Siberia and Soviet Central Asia. Transportation was provided aboard boxcars chillingly similar to those that brought European Jews to Hitler's death camps.

In the case of the Chechens, an estimated half of the 478,479 people sent into exile died in route.

Be sure to read the whole thing.

One Suspect Down, Massive Manhunt Underway for a Second

One suspect in the Boston Marathon bombing is dead, and a second is running.

Suspected bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev was killed in a shootout with police officers. He was treated at Beth Israel Medical Center where he was later pronounced dead from gunshot wounds.

Suspected criminals (and terrorists) are supposed to be presumed innocent until proven guilty in this country, but it doesn’t look good when a suspect gets in a firefight with police officers.

Tsarnaev’s brother is currently on the run. The biggest manhunt in the country is being mounted against him right now.

The two are from the Islamic Russian region of Chechnya. There is not much radical Islam in the former Soviet Union. The post-communist Muslim countries I’ve been to are thoroughly secular, even more so than France, though of course not even Albania is 100 percent atheist. Gulf Arabs are using their oil wealth to (re)export their ideology to these parts of the world.

Chechnya, though, has a serious problem with radical Islam thanks to the two wars fought for seccession from Russia. Like Syria, the place became a magnet for freelance jihadists from all over the world. And while the war there is over (the Chechens lost) it’s still unstable enough that I wouldn’t personally be comfortable traveling there. It’s kinda sorta “okay” these days, but there are still some very dangerous people running around, and not all of them are from somewhere else.

But these two may have been radicalized here at home. They moved here when they were children. Their uncle thinks they were radicalized in Cambridge, where they lived. He gave a press conference today. Watch it. Watch all of it. The man is on fire. He says his family has nothing to do with his brother’s family, that the kids, the suspected bombers, were “losers” who weren’t able to assimilate in America and hated everybody who did. He is absolutely enraged and disgusted and obviously he is not faking it.

And, hey, you want to see something else really interesting? Take a look at Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s Amazon wish list.

UPDATE: They got him.

The Boston Massacre

Obviously the twin explosions near the Boston marathon’s finish line yesterday was a terrorist attack.

I’m not saying anything else yet, though, because two-thirds of the interesting details I’ve seen in the news have been walked back already. The fog of war isn’t only a problem in war zones.

I've read a lot of dumb things about this incident on the Internet in the last couple of hours, and it's probably best that I not add to that pile.

What if North Korea is Serious?

North Korea appears to be acting crazy again. This week we’re waiting to see if Pyongyang will carry out its promise to fire a Musadan missile which is theoretically capable of flying 2,180 miles before detonation.

I say North Korea appears to be acting crazy because making scary-sounding noises and threats like an out of control adolescent in desperate need of attention has been its modus operandi for as long as I can remember.

It’s a well-established method of international blackmail. Step one: yell like a belligerent lunatic and make the world tremble. Step two: sit at the table for some cool-down talks with the United States government. Step three: get fistfuls of concessions and aid.

Surely North Korea’s young new god-king Kim Jong Un learned this from his late father Kim Jong Il. He learned everything about internal and external politics from his dad.

Only he’s acting a little bit crazier than his dad. His government is warning foreigners to leave South Korea. He recently threatened to scrap the 1953 armistice that turned the hot Korean War into a cold one. Then he said he’s going to abandon the joint declaration on the de-nuclearization of the region.

The Norks even released a new video depicting missile strikes on the White House and the capital building in Washington DC. You can watch that video here. I don’t speak Korean, but to say the narrator has a hysterical warmongering voice is putting things lightly. Never mind the ludicrous and cartoonish music. Watch and listen to that and imagine how freaked out the planet would have been had the Bush administration produced anything like it.

I’m speculating here—no one can possibly know the mind of this man—but mini Kim most likely thinks he has to appear more dangerous than his dad or the rest of the world won’t take him seriously. He’s young, green, and untested. Every foreign policy professional who deals with East Asia for a living knew well in advance to expect this. Predictable staged outbursts are neither scary nor dangerous. How easy it would be for Washington and Seoul to just blow him off.

So he’s ramping things up, yelling a little bit louder, behaving in a way that appears erratic and delusional and possibly even insane. It’s still theater, but like a junkie who must continually increase the dose, his government needs to look freakier than it used to just to achieve the same result. That’s what’s happening.

Probably.

Kim almost certainly isn’t serious, but what if he is? How would we know? His attention-seeking theatrics are identical to the behavior of a lunatic hell-bent on blowing the region apart. If war breaks out next month, everyone who has been paying even the slightest bit of attention to the Korean Peninsula will slap their forehead and see, with the clarity of hindsight, that every warning we could possibly need, want, and expect was right there in front of us.

The North Korean military is nothing like Saddam Hussein’s or Moammar Qaddafi’s. Pyongyang has such an enormous array of artillery batteries targeting South Korea (the capital, Seoul, is only 30 or so miles away from the border) that hundreds of thousands of people could be killed over the weekend. North Korea would eventually lose at the hands of South Korea and the United States. It would be finished forever as a state. But the cost in lives would be unspeakable.

The regime is like a honeybee. It can sting only once, then it dies. But it’s like a honeybee the size of a grizzly bear.

It’s a little bit hard to take the threat seriously, not only because North Korean threats have been empty for decades, but because it’s hard to imagine total war involving the United States happening anywhere. The U.S. hasn’t been involved in a catastrophic conventional war with a “near peer” even once since I’ve been alive.

All the world’s recent wars have had on at least one side a belligerent that is not yet integrated into the modern international system. Slobodan Milosevic, Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden, Moammar Qaddafi, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi…these guys were not part of the club that meets in Brussels, New York, and Tokyo. They were either holdovers from the violent mid-20th century, or throwbacks to the 13th or even the 7th. Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, young though he is, is also a dinosaur.

But so is Kim Jong Un. It’s hard for us to imagine a huge war actually happening, but is it for him? He runs the most over-controlled militarized state in the world. Pyongyang is still Stalinist. It hasn’t reformed an iota since the time of Joe Stalin when horrifically destructive conventional wars were as common as breakfast. North Korea is a remnant of the totalitarian side of the violent mid-20th century. Its rulers are still stuck in the mindset that killed millions and millions of people. A hideous conflict is far less unthinkable to them than to us. Which makes it slightly more likely to happen.

Even so, it probably won’t. I’m not worried about it. I’m certainly not losing sleep. Easy for me to say, I suppose, since I’m not stationed on the DMZ tripwire, but I’m pretty sure if I were that I still wouldn’t lose sleep. I slept just fine in Baghdad in 2007.

But those who live there and are stationed there are surely gazing at the northern horizon and up at the sky a little more often.

Postscript: Don’t forget. I have books. Four of them now that my novel, Taken, has been released. I get a royalty check every month that includes money from every single copy that sells, so please, help me pay my mortgage, fatten your bookshelf, and order some for your friends!

My New Book is Now Available

You can now purchase my new book, Taken--A Novel , at Amazon.com. It is available in trade paperback and Kindle editions.

 

It’s live at Amazon a little sooner than I expected. Barnes and Noble, Powell’s, Kobo, etc will have it shortly, but Amazon has it early.

Your Books Have Shipped

To those of you who pre-ordered autographed copies of my first novel, I have now signed and shipped all of them. The last batch was taken to the post office today.

They went out Priority Mail, so you should receive them right away if you live in the United States. Those of you who live overseas will have to wait a little bit longer.

The book will be officially released in a couple of days, so those of you who didn’t buy one from me can soon get one from Amazon.com, Barnes and Noble, etc.

The Looming Battle of Damascus

The Syrian capital of Damascus, one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities on earth, may be largely destroyed in the coming months. The terrific Michael Weiss, who has been covering the Syria war like few others and was actually brave/foolish enough to go there as a witness himself, writes a chilling analysis for NOW Lebanon.

The new, dramatic claims of Bashar’s overdue demise aren’t mere fantasy telegraphing, however. They reflect a new stage of relentless psychological warfare by the Syrian rebels who have lately encircled Damascus in an attempt not to take the city (which they can’t yet do) but to lay the groundwork for its eventual taking. The aim is to deplete what remains of regime’s morale, sow panic and paranoia in the ranks of the mukhabarat and conventional military, and put Assad on the propagandistic back foot. If the Lion of Damascus is now forced to roar just to offer proof of life, then he has all but lost control of the country. And this fact emphasizes another: namely, that the battle of all battles will be unlike any that has come before. What we’re seeing now is a coming attraction for an apocalyptic film. 

[…]

All of the regime installations cited above are in elevated positions meaning that, as rebels advance into downtown Damascus, a steady barrage of rockets and artillery can rain down on the capital until there aren’t any buildings left standing. As grim as it may sound, this may actually constitute the rebels’ end-game in the absence of foreign intervention. 

How does a guerrilla insurgency make up for its lack of firepower or an air component? By using the other side’s to do its bidding. Typically what has happened in other fought-over swaths of Syria is that the rebels have laid siege to regime installations with their own rockets and artillery for the purpose of infiltrating them and confiscating whatever materiel they can carry or drive off with. (This ranges from Kalashnikovs to surface-to-air missiles). The regime inevitably responds to the loss of its own strategic terrain, and the prospect of better-equipped enemies, by bombarding these sites and rendering them inoperable even when the rebels are flushed out. 

According to analysts I’ve spoken to, there is simply no way that the rebels can penetrate the Rif Dimashq military installations given their current capability, even with Croatian rocket launchers and recoilless guns. Since they don't have a no-fly zone or close air support, or heavier caliber weapons the West has been reluctant to supply them, they will likely resort to the kind of pinprick measures – suicide and car bombings – we’ve seen used against NATO and coalition forces in Afghanistan and Iraq. 

Rebels will thus act as both moving targets and guidance systems for the regime’s own war machine, raiding one base in the hopes that it will be cannibalistically powdered by the adjoining. Jahbat al-Nusra is well-poised to be the vanguard fighting force in Damascus since its militants have the fewest reservations about sacrificing themselves. Idriss’ Supreme Military Command, although it disclaims Nusra membership in its ranks, is not above partnering with the caliphate-minded jihadists for precisely this reason.

The World's Most Dangerous Places

The CBC created an interactive map from the Canadian government’s travel warnings for tourists that gives every country in the world (aside from Canada itself) one of five scores, ranging from “take normal security precautions” for the safe countries to “avoid all travel” for the most dangerous.

I’m rarely a tourist when I travel, but I nevertheless have a keen interest in travel warnings for tourists. Not a single country I have ever reported from is listed here in the safe column. Some of them are in the most dangerous category.

And with only a handful of exceptions (including Botswana in Africa and South Korea in Asia) the safest countries are the Western democracies.

Olga Khazan analyzed this map for The Atlantic, and she provides a second map (scroll down) that’s also quite interesting because it places every country in the world in only one of two categories—those with travel warnings of some kind and those without.

With the exception of North Korea, every single country tagged with a travel warning is in the hot tropical/subtropical part of the world. Every single one of them. I seriously doubt this is just random chance. I’m not exactly sure why the hot parts of the world are more dangerous and less stable while the temperate and cold regions are relatively safe and sedate, but it somehow feels natural that this is so.

Egypt's Lurch Toward Autocracy

Eric Trager at the Washington Institute has a new piece about Egypt’s lurch toward autocracy. I know Eric. He’s a smart guy. And he knows Egypt, better than I do and better than most. He has been clear-eyed about the revolution there from the very beginning.

Egypt's prosecution of comedian Bassem Youssef for allegedly insulting President Muhammad Morsi and denigrating Islam is the latest indication of the Muslim Brotherhood-dominated government's undemocratic disposition. The move will likely deepen the non-Islamist opposition's mistrust of the country's political and judicial institutions, encouraging groups to continue seeking change through increasingly violent demonstrations rather than official political channels. Given Washington's interest in promoting democratic governance and stability in Egypt, the Obama administration should urge Morsi to pardon Youssef and end the crackdown on critics of the Brotherhood.

Youssef's case is not unique. According to the Egypt-based Arabic Network for Human Rights Information, four times as many lawsuits for "insulting the president" were filed during Morsi's first 100 days in office than during Hosni Mubarak's thirty-year reign. Although private citizens filed many of these suits, the Brotherhood has encouraged them by frequently depicting its media critics as remnants of the old regime. The group has also made politicized prosecutions even more likely in the future by pushing a new draft electoral law through parliament allowing the use of religious slogans in campaigns. Article 44 of the new constitution, ratified in December, prohibits "the insult or abuse of all religious messengers and prophets," and this can be broadly interpreted to insulate Islamist religious political slogans from non-Islamist attacks.

Morsi and the parliament have also worked to stifle media criticism by appointing a Muslim Brother as minister of information, using their control over state-run media to fire writers and editors who question the new government's policies, and hiring new editors sympathetic to the group's ideology. Meanwhile, the government has begun prosecuting wealthy anti-Brotherhood businessmen, potentially denying opposition media outlets and political parties vital sources of funding.

Can we call Morsi a dictator yet, or do we still have to wait a little bit longer?

Northern Lebanon Burning

Northern Lebanon is currently suffering the kind of violent absurdity that occurs nowhere in the world but the Middle East.

The Syrian civil war is spilling into the city of Tripoli, the second largest in Lebanon. Sunni Muslims in the poor neighborhood of Bab al-Tabbaneh are at war with an Alawite militia in the adjacent hilltop neighborhood of Jebel Mohsen that supports Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Last week there was even a shootout at a hospital, of all places.

So far this is hardly original. What makes this conflict absurdly unusual is that segments of the Lebanese army are protecting both militias, and they’re doing so on behalf of a foreign government—Syria’s.

I drove up there from Beirut to meet with Mosbah Ahdab, a political liberal who was a member of the anti-Syrian “March 14” bloc of Lebanon’s parliament until a deal was struck to get rid of him after Hezbollah’s invasion of Beirut in 2008.

His name was on a kill list before he was booted. He hardly left his house for months at a time.

“We are hunted one after the other,” he told a Guardian reporter not long after five gunmen shot MP Pierre Gemayel through the windshield of his car with silenced machine pistols.

Ahdab belongs to an old and prominent family and the liberal wing of Tripoli’s Sunni Muslim community. He serves wine in his house. I met his wife. She looks like a model. She doesn’t wear a veil or a headscarf, nor does she have to stay in the back of the house when men come to visit as is customarily the case in the more-conservative Gulf countries.

I also met his daughter, a little girl, when she came home from school. She arrived with a friend and they sat at a table and worked on an art project. Ahdab and his wife spoke French to each other. His daughter spoke English to me. Clearly theirs is a well-educated household.

He hosted me in his living room.

“The fighting between Sunnis and Alawites looks pretty gruesome,” I said. “Is this city as dangerous as it appears from a distance?”

“It's very dangerous,” he said. “This morning some shop owners came here and screamed that no one comes to Tripoli anymore. We have no security. The security institutions are protecting the fighters on both sides. They're not protecting civilians. This is a fact.”

It sounds ridiculous, but it’s true. Factions within the Lebanese army really are protecting both the Sunni and Alawite militias. Partly this is because the army is just as divided along sectarian lines as the country is, but mostly it’s because many of the army officers are still loyal to Assad and to Hezbollah. That still hasn’t changed since Syria’s occupation of Lebanon when the Assad family and their henchmen sabotaged the Lebanese army and bent it to their will. When Hezbollah invaded Beirut in 2008, maintaining control over pieces of Lebanon’s army was on its list of demands.

Even so, it still sounds ridiculous. Why on earth would Assad’s people protect an anti-Syrian, anti-Alawite, and anti-Hezbollah Sunni militia?

It’s all about propaganda, for which the Assad regime is peerless in the Middle East. Not even Hamas is as practiced or competent.

“The security services are creating a narrative,” Ahdab said, “saying there's no such thing as revolution in Syria, that what we have is Al Qaeda fighting the government. They’re asking the international community which they prefer. They point at the same thing happening in Lebanon. Assad says Lebanon is sending terrorists across the border from the so-called ‘emirate of Tripoli.’ Syria’s ambassador actually said this at the United Nations.”

Assad and his Lebanese and Iranian allies have been framing the fight in Syria as a war against Al Qaeda from the very beginning, long before Jabhat al-Nusra—which the United States has designated a terrorist organization—even existed. Indeed, Assad framed the fight in Syria as a war against Al Qaeda even before the Free Syrian Army existed, when his soldiers were firing on unarmed demonstrators in the streets and calling them terrorists.

Now that the jihadist al-Nusra front does exist, though, Assad’s claims look a little more credible. But al-Nusra—which is a separate entity from the Free Syrian Army—isn’t coming from Lebanon. Its funding comes from the Gulf. And some of its leaders are the very same individuals Assad himself dispatched to Iraq to kill Americans.

“Nobody goes to the funerals,” Ahdab said, “but security guys show up and shoot their guns in the air. They film it and people say, my gosh, look at that, it's Al Qaeda grieving its members who are fighting Bashar al-Assad. I saw them. I know those guys personally. I know exactly who sent them.”

This is one of the reasons conspiracy theories are popular in the Middle East. Bizarre conspiracies actually happen in this part of the world. It’s “normal.” The Syrian regime has been pulling stunts like that one for decades.

The liberal Syrian dissident Ammar Abdulhamid recently highlighted similar shenanigans in NOW Lebanon: “The campaign by the Assad regime included releasing known jihadist and terrorist elements from state prisons at the same time nonviolent protest leaders were imprisoned. This tactic is sometimes called ‘tailoring your enemies.’ It is inherently a risky approach, but can serve to divide enemy ranks by creating a more radical camp in their midst, and in this case, undermining the advocates of nonviolence. This tactic had been repeatedly used by the Assad regime during the Lebanese civil war, allowing it to emerge as the main power broker there.”

Ahdab’s phone rang. He answered and switched to Arabic.

“Sorry,” he said to me after a couple of moments. “There is this little girl who has a problem I need to fix.”

Fixing citizens’ problems is part of his job now. He is no longer in the government, but he’s a community leader, a modern urban “sheikh” of sorts, and that’s what such people do in the Middle East. It’s one way they get their support, and it’s something that’s expected of them once they have power and influence.

His assistant served lunch. After we finished eating, Ahdab had to host a delegation of locals in a second room for a couple of minutes while they hashed out another of Tripoli’s problems.

“The fighters are very aware of what’s happening here,” Ahdab said, picking up where we left off. “Setting this place on fire was very successful in 1982 when Syria created the so-called ‘emirate’ in Tripoli. It gave the Syrians international cover to bomb the city. They came in here and massacred 800 people. Nobody dared to even identify the corpses. They used the port for executions and they rounded up people in Tripoli’s schools and deported them to Syrian prisons. We still haven’t heard about what happened to some who disappeared. But the emir, Sheikh Shaban, stayed at home and was protected by the Syrians while all this was happening.”

Don’t misunderstand. The fighting between Sunni and Alawite militias is real. It is not theater. The fighters are pawns in a larger game, but they’re deadly serious.

Each side deserves at least some measure of sympathy. The Alawite fighters feel threatened as detested minorities in league with a dying system while the Sunni fighters wish to see Assad and his local proxies destroyed.

But the idea that there is a general conflict between Sunni and Alawite citizens, Ahdab says, is ridiculous. “I know the Alawites. My bodyguard is an Alawite. He has been with me for sixteen years. But we have this Alawite militia that has been protected by the Syrian regime, and now they're protecting by the quote, unquote, resistance.”

The “resistance,” of course, is Hezbollah. That’s what they call themselves. They’re currently “resisting” the Zionist Entity by killing Sunni Muslims in Syria. 

“Recently,” Ahdab said, “some of the Alawite fighters were captured by civilians and beaten. They wouldn't hand them over to the army because the fighters would be freed in an hour. There's a dirty game going on here that has nothing to do with the population.”

The Alawites are backed by Syria and Hezbollah while the Sunni militia is funded and armed by Saudis, Qataris, Emiratis, and Kuwaitis. And while the Sunni militia is hostile to Syria and its interests, it can’t very well be shut down by the Syrian regime and its local allies because that would alter the narrative. It’s ludicrous, truly. But that’s the Middle East for you.

“Everybody knows what's happening,” Ahdab says. “It's not just me saying this. You can talk to people in the streets.”

I did confirm it with others, not just people on the street, but by professional political analysts in Beirut whose jobs and reputations demand they get this stuff right.

“It has become ridiculous,” Ahdab said. “Everyone is now talking about this so-called Islamic emirate in Tripoli.”

The so-called “emirate” is the Islamist state-within-a-state that’s supposed to exist in Tripoli but which does not actually exist outside the phantasmagoria of Syrian and Hezbollah propaganda. In Tripoli, alcohol is available. I saw plenty of uncovered woman walking around. I didn’t see a single man with a beard, a forehead bruised from prayer, or wearing any clothing which would mark him as an Islamist. Not one. Such people exist, but they vanish into the enormous population of regular people. This is Lebanon, not Gaza or Saudi Arabia.

He took me out into the city. “You’ll be safe with me,” he said.

I wouldn’t have felt in much danger without him, to be honest. The fighting between Sunnis and Alawites is concentrated on the front line between the two neighborhoods of Bab al-Tabbaneh and Jebel Mohsen. As long as I stayed clear of that particular area, I almost certainly would not have any problems.

But he drove me to that area so I could see it. Jebel Mohsen, the Alawite neighborhood, is perched upon a hill (Jebel means mountain in Arabic) over its enemy neighborhood of Bab al-Tabbaneh.

The Sunnis in Bab al-Tabbaneh feel threatened by this. How would you feel if people who wanted to kill you lived in the hills right over your house? But the Alawites feel threatened, too. They look down the hill and see that they are surrounded by hostiles in every direction.

We passed a Christian church in the car. There are Christians in Tripoli, too.

“It’s stressful enough living here as a Sunni,” Ahdab said. “Can you imagine what it’s like here for the Christians?”

We got out of the car and walked through an old part of the city near the waterfront.

“Here is the center of the Islamic emirate of Tripoli,” he said sarcastically.

It looked and felt no more Islamist than the Christian half of Beirut. The area could be a very nice place with a little fixing up, but there’s no money. The economy has collapsed. No one goes to Tripoli anymore. They’re afraid.

Everyone on the street recognized Ahdab. Everyone. They waved and smiled and ran up to him. Clearly he’s popular. Barack Obama would get a similar reception in Harlem or the Upper West Side. I could see how Ahdab easily won elections. The reaction of strangers on the street to his presence went a long way toward confirming that he, not the Salafists, represents the real social fabric of Tripoli.

Would a bearded Islamist with a rifle get the same sort of treatment while walking those streets? I highly doubt it. The overwhelming majority of Lebanon’s Sunnis back Saad Hariri’s Future Movement. Its ideology is one of liberal and capitalism and peace with the neighbors. Hariri even wants peace, or at the very least the cessation of hostilities, with the Israelis. The Muslim Brotherhood exists in Lebanon, but it’s microscopic in size and has no clout of influence. The only reason the Salafists have even the small amount of influence they do have is because they’re backed by Saudi and Qatari money. Their ideology isn’t indigenous. It’s implanted.

Back at his house, Ahdab opened a bottle of red wine from Lebanon’s Chateau Kefraya and refilled my glass when it got low. He drank, too. Why shouldn’t he? Lebanon is a nation of drinkers. The Lebanese—including Lebanese Muslims—consume copious amounts of beer, wine, and liquor, especially arak and Scotch.

“I'm staying in Tripoli,” he said, “because people like me are the real Tripoli residents. We cannot disappear. Even the bearded guys who receive millions from the Gulf have to deal with us.”

The Lebanese government could shut all this down instantly if it wanted. A war to disarm Hezbollah would blow the country to pieces, but disarming ragtag ideological crackpots with microscopic support bases would take no time at all and likely wouldn’t even cost lives as long as both sides were disarmed simultaneously.

The reason this isn’t happening is because Hezbollah and its allies control the government—or at least they did before Prime Minister Najib Mikati resigned over these very issues a couple of days ago. And the reason they controlled the government is because they seized power in 2008 when they invaded Beirut. So Northern Lebanon will have to keep simmering in ideological and sectarian conflict. Apparently, the road to Jerusalem passes through Tripoli.

But Assad and Hezbollah and their Lebanese allies are not protecting Sunni fighters in and around the town of Arsal in the Bekaa Valley on the other side of Mount Lebanon.

“The Syrian army has bombed it many times,” Ahdab said. “Everyone there wants the army to protect them, but the army will not. The same thing is happening on the northern coastal border. The Syrians are shelling the area and the people there get no protection. The Syrians are shooting continuously inside Lebanon. People are terrified. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs doesn’t say anything. The Ministry of Interior won’t send the army.”

Hezbollah’s main focus is in Syria. Its fighters never thought they end up waging a battle for their own survival in the Arab land to the east, but that’s what the “resistance” has become now that one of their patrons and armorers is in an existential fight for his life.

The war really is existential for the Assad regime, and it is seen as such by much of Syria’s Alawite community, too. They only make up twelve percent (roughly) of Syria’s population. And since the Alawite regime has been lording it over the Sunni majority with a totalitarian and terroristic police state for the last forty years, they’re deathly afraid of retribution and perhaps persecution should the Assad family and its local allies lose power. That’s why the regime opened fire on unarmed demonstrators before the conflict became militarized. Even a non-violent revolution threatens their lives as well as their power.

Washington has hardly done anything. Syria isn’t Iraq, but it’s similarly complex. It’s riven along sectarian lines, and there are no institutions aside from the repressive regime backed by one sect against the majority. Assad also has friends in Iran and in Lebanon. An intervention of any kind could destabilize the whole region even more than it already is. That’s the last thing the White House wants.

President Obama’s caution, however, looks like overt support for the Assad regime to Ahdab and many others I know in Lebanon.

“There was a peaceful revolution to start with in Syria,” Ahdab said. “but nobody talks about it. Assad and the Gulf have turned it into a confrontation between Al Qaeda and the government. Assad is receiving arms from Iran and Russia and the Nusra extremists are receiving arms from the Gulf. Why shouldn’t the Free Syrian Army receive weapons? Everybody here is wondering what’s going on. Why on earth does the international community think it’s okay for the Gulf to send money to extremist groups while the moderates in the Free Syrian Army get nothing?  Iran doesn’t want to lose Syria, but Iran will keep Syria if this thing gets stalled by the West. At least tell your friends in the Gulf to stop sending money to al Nusra. Then Al Qaeda will no longer be financed.”

He scoffed, clearly disgusted at the whole situation.

Keeping the Syrian and Iranian regimes in place is not a viable policy option for those who are at war with Al Qaeda, not only because Assad has been using Al Qaeda himself for years against his enemies—including the United States—but also because Iran can just as easily do so as well.

“People in the West,” he said, “are saying there is no possibility for an alliance between Sunnis and Shias, but Ayatollah Khomeini was very clear in his book when he talked about the alliance of the oppressed. I said this a long time ago and nobody wanted to believe me, but I think now it’s obvious. Half of Al Qaeda is in Iran. It’s financed and protected by Iran. Hizb ut-Tahrir has a mixed leadership of Sunnis and Shias. After 2008, Hezbollah sent a delegation to Tripoli to talk to the Salafists. Why would they talk to the Salafists? They aren’t part of the social fabric.”

Tripoli is hardly an Islamist environment. Some Tripolitans are Salafists, but I haven’t seen any there. And—believe me—Salafists are easy to spot. With their beards and their clothes they look like Osama bin Laden. I’m not sure I’ve laid eyes on even a dozen Salafists in the eight years I’ve been living in and visiting Lebanon.

“There is a different Islam from the Wahhabi and Salafist Islam,” he said. “It’s here and it can’t disappear. Half the imams in the mosques are Salafists because they’re paid by the Gulf, but half the population isn’t Salafist.”

“What percentage of the population here is Islamist?” I said. In my own gut-level and from-the-hip assessment I’d say the percentage of people in Tripoli who are Islamists have to be in the single digits at most.

“Just like you have Orthodox Christians and Orthodox Jews,” he said, “we have Orthodox Muslims. And we have Takfiris—extremists who say I am not a real Muslim—but they are a very small minority. They are at most one percent. They are not from here.”

That sounds about right to me. He ought to know. He’s from there. Perhaps he’s a little more liberal than the average Tripolipolitans, but it doesn’t stop him from winning elections. People like him are unelectable in Egypt, but they’re the majority of elected Sunni politicians in Lebanon. The only reason Ahdab isn’t still in the government is because he was forced out after Hezbollah’s coup d’etat in 2008.

“You can’t put everyone in one basket,” he said. “Some people put Sunnis, Salafists, Wahhabis, Takfiris, and Al Qaeda together. It’s nonsense.”

He sipped from his glass of red wine.

“I’m fought by all the money that has been coming here for the last twenty years,” he said, “but I am still here. Why? Because I represent the real social fabric of Tripoli. A Muslim like me would never survive here if Tripoli was Islamist.”

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Lebanon's Pro-Hezbollah Government Collapses

Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati—who was selected by Hezbollah as the country’s premier—has resigned, bringing his cabinet and the government with him.

Armed clashes between Sunnis and Alawites have since resumed in the city of Tripoli, the country’s second largest after Beirut. The Syrian government continues striking targets in the Bekaa Valley and in the north. Ransom kidnappers run wild. The threat of a serious internal war between Hezbollah and Sunni backers of the Free Syrian Army hangs heavily over the country.

It’s rather extraordinary that it hasn’t already started since Lebanese Shias and Lebanese Sunnis are currently killing each other just across the border in Syria.

And now Lebanon is without a government—again.

Is that a good thing or a bad thing? Since Hezbollah picked the prime minister, is it any great loss that he’s gone?

Actually, maybe it is. Najib Mikati is not a Hezbollah member. And if the leaders of the Iranian-sponsored terrorist group thought they could use him as a tool, they were wrong, at least for the most part. They’re the reason he got the job in the first place, but they’re also—at least according to Reuters—the reason he quit.

Mikati has been pressing for Lebanese neutrality in the Syrian war, but Hezbollah wants Lebanon to side with Bashar al-Assad. What's the point of seizing power in Lebanon if Beirut won’t back Hezbollah’s allies in Tehran and Damascus?

He looked like a Hezbollah ally on the surface, but only if you squinted hard and didn’t watch what he did or listen to the things that he said. He acted and sounded like an independent, and sometimes even like he was aligned with the anti-Syrian “March 14” bloc. Some of my Lebanese sources and friends said that’s exactly what he wants me to think, but others I trust and know just as well told me he is, in fact, quietly aligned with March 14 and is therefore “one of us.”

The man has not been easy to read, and it’s important not to get suckered when Middle Eastern politicians say things you want to hear just to get you on side. This sort of thing happens. Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood knows exactly what to say to Westerners to trick them into believing the organization is moderate and democratic. They’re completely and utterly full of it, but that hasn’t stopped an embarrassingly huge number of journalists, analysts, and diplomats from getting fooled by an organization that has always been theocratic and authoritarian.

Najib Mikati, though, is  a Sunni while Hezbollah is Shia. Mikati isn’t a Sunni Islamist, either. He’s a businessman, a tycoon. He’s the richest man in the country.

There are a couple of reasons Hezbollah picked Mikati for prime minister. Primarily because he is not Saad Hariri, son of the slain Rafik Hariri whose assassination in downtown Beirut kicked off the anti-Syrian Cedar Revolution in 2005.

Second, their pickings were slim. They couldn’t select one of their own. The Lebanese constitution mandates that the prime minister be from the Sunni community. (The president, meanwhile, must be a Christian while the speaker of parliament is reserved for the Shias.) And the number of competent Sunni politicians in Lebanon who sincerely support Hezbollah is zero. Syria has a small number of Sunni allies—and Mikati made his money in Syria—but Hezbollah doesn’t have any.

Mikati was the best they could get.

And he wasn’t that great from their point of view.

A Wikileaks cable published in 2011 quotes him describing Hezbollah as “cancerous” and saying he wishes to see their Syrian- and Iranian-backed terrorist statelet destroyed.

Hezbollah must have been furious when that came to light. The day that he would resign (or be otherwise removed or even killed) over a conflict with Hezbollah was all but inevitable.

I asked Ed Gabriel what he thinks of Mikati. He’s a former US ambassador to Morocco and the founder of the American Task Force for Lebanon. He’s from the United States, but his family is from Lebanon and he knows everyone over there. He has known Mikati for years. And I trust his judgment.

“He was elected to parliament in Tripoli as an independent allied with March 14,” he says. “He agreed to become prime minister in January 2011 because he wanted to avoid a clash over the issue of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon.”

The Special Tribunal for Lebanon, or STL, is the international court set up by the United Nations to investigate and prosecute Hariri’s assassins. The STL is fingering Hezbollah for the crime.

“It was presumed that Mikati had made a tacit agreement to withdraw Lebanese government support for the STL to become prime minister,” Gabriel says, “but Mikati used a clever mechanism to pay Lebanon’s STL obligations for 2011 and 2012. Although he previously had business interests in Syria, Mikati is smart enough to have avoided going to Syria since the outbreak of violence. March 14 seemed willing to accept a Mikati government until the assassination of Wissam El Hassan on October 19, 2012, when they accused the Mikati government of tolerating murderers. Meaningfully, and with the support of Mikati, a Lebanese military court charged Mahmoud Hayek, a Hezbollah security official, on February 1 with the attempted assassination of prominent March 14 politician Boutros Harb. In my opinion, Mikati has proven his skeptics wrong.”

He has indeed proved his skeptics wrong. He also proved Hezbollah wrong since they thought they could use him.

And they couldn’t.

Now the country is without a government. Mikati has called for a “caretaker government” to take over until the next elections are held. Maybe Lebanon will get one and maybe it won’t. Either way, the country is closer now to collapse than it has been at any time since the civil war ended.

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