The Syrianization of Lebanon

In the past I’ve used the term Lebanonization to describe what’s happening in Syria, referring, of course, to the internationalized sectarian bloodfest of the Lebanese civil war. The term Lebanonization, though, is becoming outdated. Lebanon’s civil war killed more than 100,000 people, but it ended in 1990. Syrianization works better now, not only because it’s more current, but because it describes a phenomenon that’s spilling beyond the borders of Syria.

Two years ago, Syria became Lebanonized. Today, Lebanon is becoming Syrianized.

This isn’t a word game. Armed clashes have been breaking out in Lebanon for the last two years, and they’re all directly related to, and indirectly caused by, the Syrian civil war raging next door. Sunni and Alawite militias have been battling it out in the northern city Tripoli, mirroring the war between Sunni militias and the Alawite-dominated government and army in Syria. And the fighting heated up drastically in late May.

In the last week alone, more than 1200 mortar rounds and rockets exploded in Lebanon’s second-largest city, killing dozens. It’s rather extraordinary that so “few” could be killed in a densely populated urban environment by such a large number of explosions, but the fighting is concentrated in a relatively small area where Sunnis and Alawites live in adjacent neighborhoods, neighborhoods which civilians can and will quickly flee when explosives start falling out of the sky.

The fighting was so intense that the Lebanese army, which normally (and absurdly) steps out of the way of such confrontations, rushed in and assaulted the combatants with heavy machine gun fire.

Tripoli looks and feels large when you’re in the middle of it because it’s dense and it’s because it’s built vertically, but only a half million people live there. It’s smaller than the Boise metropolitan area. Imagine how much physical and emotional shattering would occur after so many explosions in Idaho’s capital and you’ll have an idea how traumatized Tripoli is right about now.

I don’t know how much armed conflict needs to take place before we stop referring to it as a series of clashes and start calling it war, but I’ll say two things. First, if I was in Tripoli when 1,200 explosions went off, I’d certainly feel like I was in a war zone. Second, I spent around six non-consecutive months in Iraq—one of them in Baghdad and another in Fallujah—and I never heard more than a thousand explosions over a weekend. I didn’t hear a thousand explosions in all my six months combined, nor did I hear that many on the Lebanese-Israeli border in 2006 when Israel and Hezbollah threw ordnance at each other. And no one hesitated to describe those conflicts as war.

If what’s happening in northern Lebanon isn’t war, it sure as hell looks a lot like it.

Another incident occurred over the weekend. Somebody fired rockets from Mount Lebanon into the dahiyeh, the Hezbollah-controlled suburbs south of Beirut. 

The perpetrators are almost certainly Sunni, but beyond that, who knows? Maybe they belong to or sympathize with the Free Syrian Army. Maybe they belong to or sympathize with Jabhat al-Nusra. Maybe they’re local Salafist whackjobs. They might even be secular Sunnis enraged by Hezbollah’s intervention in Syria on behalf of Bashar al-Assad.

It happened right after Hezbollah’s secretary general Hassan Nasrallah publicly threw his support behind the Syrian regime.

Hezbollah has always been a tool of the Assad family, of course. Hezbollah wouldn’t even exist as a militia if it were not for Damascus. The Syrian army promised to disarm every militia in Lebanon at the end of the civil war in 1990, but the Assads left Hezbollah in place. Iran’s Party of God was the perfect proxy that would allow Damascus to wage war against Israel from a safe distance (Lebanon absorbed all the Israeli counter attacks)  and it was the perfect proxy to keep Beirut in check, too. Hezbollah is a creature of the Syrian regime as much as it’s a product of the Iranian Revolution.

Everyone in the region understands this perfectly well. It’s Middle East 101. But Hezbollah, for whatever reason, has been coy about its armed intervention in Syria on behalf of Assad. Until recently, anyway. Its secretary general Hassan Nasrallah just boasted about it on television and the rocket attacks in his “capital” followed shortly thereafter.

It will almost certainly take more than one rocket attack in Hezbollah territory to ignite a full-blown Sunni-Shia war in Lebanon, but more than a thousand rockets and mortars just rained down on Tripoli, and there’s no reason in the world to believe something similar can’t happen south of Beirut.

Washington has been understandably reluctant to get involved in the Syrian war, partly because the White House rightly fears such involvement could turn a local war into a regional war. But it looks like that just might happen regardless.

Interviewed on Ricochet

Judith Levy and Damien Counsell interviewed me about Syria and Lebanon for their podcast on Ricochet, and you can listen to it right here.

How to Become a Dictator

“If you decide you want to leave journalism,” Nadim Shehadi said to me over coffee at a café on Beirut’s old waterfront, “if you feel like you've been there and done that and would like to become a dictator, you should hire me as an advisor. I'm expensive, but I'm worth it.”

Shehadi, a Lebanese-born scholar at Chatham House in the UK, has dedicated enough of his life to Middle Eastern dictatorology that he probably would make a solid advisor. He’d never actually do it, but one can be a decent human being and still figure out how it works.

“What you should do,” he said, “is establish the idea that you're indispensable, that you’re irreplaceable, that beyond you is the abyss of sectarian civil war, terrorism, ethnic cleansing, and the breakup of the state. Create problems that only you can resolve. That's the mind game Bashar al-Assad is playing with you. As long as you can't see beyond him, he's safe.”

That is, indeed, exactly what Syria’s Bashar al-Assad has been up to. His family’s regime has been using that formula to outstanding effect for 43 years.

But let’s just look at recent events.

Remember the halcyon days when the Arab Spring hadn’t yet turned into winter? What was Assad facing then? Nothing. He boasted that unlike the crooked Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak, there was so little space between him and the people that hardly anyone could bear to see him go. But when Moammar Qaddafi faced an insurrection in Libya, disgruntled Syrians realized that even the Middle East’s worst totalitarian could be brought to their knees.

Initially, though, Assad faced nothing but non-violent Gandhi-like protests for reform. He responded by maiming and murdering thousands of men, women, and teenagers in the streets like the butchers at Tiananmen Square. He even tortured children to death.

What did he have to say for himself? He said that he was fighting Al-Qaeda. This was but a few short years after he facilitated Al-Qaeda’s bloodthirsty rampage in Iraq. He’s responsible for more American deaths than most in the region, but he told us he was acting as our proxy and fighting Al-Qaeda for us in Damascus. The word for this, I believe, is chutzpah.

The Syrian opposition remained non-violent for months even while being shot to death in the streets. Imagine watching your friends, neighbors, and family members murdered by your own government. Imagine. I would have picked up a rifle a long long time before they did. Most Americans would have. We should take a moment to acknowledge that their restraint was extraordinary. That moment in history has passed, but it happened, and should not be forgotten. Assad doesn’t get to write history. His lies were like something hatched in the old Soviet Union, which is perhaps fitting since his government was a Soviet client state and today it’s one of Vladimir Putin’s.

But since then, Syria’s opposition has picked up rifles and Al Qaeda in the form of Jabhat al-Nusra is part of the mix. Minorities, especially the Alawites, but also the Christians, are in terrible danger, as are the Kurds, Druze, and moderate Sunnis if the worst factions ever take over.

“There is a risk for the Alawites,” Shehadi said, “for everybody, but the person who is causing that risk is Assad himself. When Assad is gone, the key difference between post-Assad Syria and post-Saddam Iraq is that the whole region was against the fall of Saddam and the whole region favors the fall of Assad. The whole region contributed to the mess in Iraq, while the whole region will collaborate to stabilize Syria. The situation is completely different.”

He’s not entirely right that every state in the region will collaborate to stabilize Syria. Iran won’t. Neither will Hezbollah. The rest, however, very well may. The Sunni Arab states in the Middle East—and the Arab world is overwhelmingly Sunni—certainly will want a stable Sunni-led order in Syria. That really is the opposite of what occurred in Iraq, where the overwhelming majority of the Arab world stood against the American-backed pluralist yet Shia-led order that had replaced Saddam Hussein’s totalitarian Sunni-dominated regime.

And let’s not forget that Assad’s Syria was one of Iraq’s two most mischievous neighbors after the fall of Saddam. If Syria had been neutral and stable back then, the Iraqi insurgency would have been milder. Iran would have still done its thing and sponsored Shia militias, but the Sunni militias that Assad implicitly helped, especially Al-Qaeda, would have been weaker.

“What you have in Syria is not a civil war,” Shehadi said. “It's a revolution.”

It’s actually both. What’s left of the Syrian army is little more than an Alawite militia. The Sunni officers are long gone. Even some of the Alawite generals are defecting. All that's left is a rotted Alawite core. Meanwhile, the Free Syrian Army is almost entirely Sunni. The Syrian war is simultaneously revolutionary and a sectarian blood feud.

“It's a revolution that the regime is doing its best to turn into a sectarian war,” Shehadi said, “in order to position itself as the stabilizer. It's exactly the same thing the Syrian regime did in Lebanon. In the 1980s there wasn't a civil war here. There was instability created mainly by Syria and Iran. The Syrians and Iranians held Lebanon and the United States hostage. They killed hundreds of your Marines here in Beirut. They kidnapped journalists in Lebanon and released them in Damascus, and Assad forced the Reagan administration to say thank you every time.”

That was during the time of Hafez al-Assad, Bashar’s ruthless late father. He’s the one who came up with the brilliant idea to sell himself as the fireman who puts out his own fires, though the elder Assad didn’t deliver any more water than his son does.

“Assad armed Hezbollah and then promised to control Hezbollah,” Shehadi said. “He sent Al-Qaeda into Iraq, then promised to control Al-Qaeda. He agitated the Kurds against the Turks and promised to keep them quiet. He blocked the Hamas-Fatah agreements, then promised to facilitate them. That's the formula. It's not rocket science. It's a mind game. And he's still doing it. He let all the Al-Qaeda people out of jail that he had in his prisons.”

All this is true, but here’s the thing: blowback is not just for Americans. Assad let slip Al-Qaeda against the United States in Iraq, and also against Lebanon in the Palestinian camp of Nahr al-Bared, and now it’s coming back, Frankstein-like, to tear him apart. His ludicrous narrative has actually become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

“But he's still in power,” Shehadi said. “He can remain in power like this. He's making deals with al-Nusra. The mukhabarat, the secret police, have penetrated everybody. That's what they do. He's playing a mind game. Listen to his speeches. They have no bearing on reality. Yet people believe him. The Washington Post wrote that he's strong because they listened to his speech and he sounded strong. There are idiots in the West who will buy that. There are idiot journalists in the West who will go to Aleppo, meet a guy with a beard who says he's going to start an emirate, and then put that in a headline. If you want to beat Assad, you have to disassociate yourself from his make-believe reality just as he has disassociated himself from the actual reality.”

Before the Baath Party and Hafez al-Assad took control of the country, Syria was one of the least stable countries on earth. Military coup after military coup toppled government after government before the current iron-fisted regime figured out how to hold it together. It did this internally with brute force and internationally by following Shehadi’s formula about how to become and remain a Middle East dictator.

But Shehadi bristled when I reminded him what pre-Assad Syria was like. “That was 47 years ago,” he said. “You're telling me that 47 years ago there were coups in Syria and Assad came and stabilized it. That's his mind game.”

“Sure,” I said, “but it’s also true. Instability is Syria's normal condition. It's not a coherent nation-state.”

What the Assads have done is effectively export Syria’s own violence and sectarian contradictions to the rest of the region, and they have done so with both their conventional army and through terrorist proxies. And make no mistake: Damascus under the Assads has exported terrorism and violence to every single one of its neighbors—to Lebanon, to Iraq, to Turkey, to Jordan, and to Israel. With behavior like that, and as a client state of an Iran that is about to go nuclear, Assad’s government, one could argue, is the most dangerous and destabilizing regime that Damascus could possibly have, worse even than a Sunni Islamist regime.

There are certainly better possible options. I’m not entirely convinced Syria will survive post-Assad, but Shehadi thinks that’s because even I am caught up in Assad’s devious mind game andthat my definition of a coherent nation-state is off. We’ll have to wait and see what happens, but in the meantime we argued about it a bit.

“What's a coherent nation-state?” he said. “A homogeneous nation-state doesn't exist.”

“It doesn't have to be homogeneous,” I said.

“It only existed in the mind of Hitler,” he said.

“I'm not saying it has to be homogeneous,” I said. “It can be diverse, but it still has to be somewhat unified. Syria isn’t unified. Nor is Lebanon, for that matter.”

“Lebanon is the most coherent place in the region,” he said.

“If you go to Christian, Sunni, and Druze areas,” I said, “you see the Lebanese flag. In Shia areas, you see the Iranian flag. That's not coherent.”

“That’s because we have an Iranian-backed state-within-a-state.”

“When I see Shia towns flying the Lebanese flag,” I said, “I'll say Lebanon is a coherent nation-state made up of diverse constituent parts.”

But I eventually saw where he was going with this, and he makes an interesting point.

“The entire world is changing,” he said. “Not just Syria. The model where a strong state controls everything is collapsing globally. The twentieth century saw the strongest states ever. In the history of humanity, what happened between the Second World War and the late 1980s never existed before. The total control of the state was a freak of history. It’s finished. The model of a homogenizing ideology is also finished. Even in Turkey, Kemalism is on the decline. Arab Nationalism is on the decline. People are emerging from the nightmare of the twentieth century. Even in England it's being done by stealth. The welfare state is being dismantled. The politicians are lying. They say they're reinforcing it and making it more efficient, but in reality they are dismantling it. Scotland is pushing for independence. In Spain, Catalonia is pushing for independence.”

Lebanon is an interesting case and could be held up as a partial example for post-Assad Syria. It has never been unified. It never had a homegrown dictatorship. It never went through a socialist phase. Lebanon never wanted those things, never tried. It has a weak central state by design. That way, no one group can seize power and rule over the others. If anyone does seize power like Hezbollah recently did, it hardly makes any difference because the state’s teeth are so few and so small. Aside from Lebanon’s foreign policy shift, hardly anything changed after Hezbollah took over the government. Lebanon is still just as freewheeling and decadent as it was before.

Samy Gemayel, a member of parliament and the son of former president Amine Gemayel, had interesting things to say about all this. I asked him if Syria will still be viable as a state in the future. He blew out his breath in a loud exhale and paused several moments before answering. “It’s only viable if the Sunnis rule,” he said. “But I don’t believe they’ll accept the Alawites and Kurds as partners unless they have a federal state or a confederation. Otherwise they’ll need a partition.”

We shouldn’t forget that Syria’s borders were drawn not by Syrians, but by French imperialists. The Alawites wanted a state of their own north of Lebanon and south of Turkey in the green part of Syria between the Mediterranean and the an-Nusayriyah Mountains. They actually had a semi-autonomous Free Alawite State, complete with their own flag, before the French forced them back into a merger with the inland Sunni Arab region. The Kurds in the north and northeast likewise never wanted to be part of Syria. They wanted, and still want, an independent Kurdistan of their own. If the people of Syria had drawn their own borders, the country would be smaller and more cohesive than it currently is. It has only been held together thus far because it has been ruled by a totalitarian terrorist state.

“Look,” Gemayel said, “you have to understand something. There is no multicultural country in the world that can survive without some kind of a composite state. All multicultural nations are federal states. Belgium, Switzerland, Canada are all federal states. Spain doesn’t like to be called a federal state, but it is in fact a federal state. Multicultural states that don’t go to federalism go to partition like Yugoslavia. It’s very difficult without federalism. You’re asking people who are very different, who have different attachments to the region around them, to rule the country together. It’s impossible.”

Gemayel went on: "Neutrality and federalism are pillars of stability in multicultural states. Federalism gives tranquility to people inside the country, and neutrality gives them stability in international affairs. That’s why Switzerland is a neutral federal state. Because historically the French Swiss used to side with France and the German Swiss with Germany. So when France and Germany fought with each other, the French Swiss and German Swiss fought each other until Switzerland became neutral."

Iraq has something like a federal state. The Kurds in the north are sovereign in all but name. If Syria’s various pockets are given a similar autonomy in the future, it might hold together. But if the Alawites continue to rule with brute force, or if extremist Sunnis seize power in the smoldering aftermath and take revenge on the Alawites or impose another iron regime on minorities, Syria could very well break apart or remain an unstable war zone indefinitely. Mind game or not, all that is true. Après moi le déluge, as France’s Louis XV famously said. Assad is doing his worst to make sure that’s exactly what happens, not just because he’s a bastard (although he is) but because he and the Alawites fear they otherwise might not survive.

But a federation is a possibility once everything settles down, and if it’s implemented more or less correctly, Syria may finally cease being a menace to its neighbors as well as to itself.

Lebanon isn’t a federal state, nor is it neutral. The Syrian and Iranian regimes have used Hezbollah to seize pieces of the state for their own ends—namely, foreign policy and internal security. But Lebanon is almost a de-facto federal state, thanks in part to the pact the Lebanese made for themselves, but also thanks to geography. The mountains have been a refuge for the country’s Christians and Druze for a thousand years, and together they make up almost half of the country. No Muslim rulers, either Sunni or Shia, have ever been able do to that region what the Assads have done to Damascus or what Egypt’s pharaohs and military dictators so easily manage in the wide and flat Nile delta.

So while Lebanon isn’t exactly a model for Syria, it’s halfway to being a model.

“Lebanon skipped the 20th century,” Shehadi said. “We are now ahead of the game.”

In 2005, Peter Grimsditch, the British-born publisher of Beirut’s Daily Star newspaper, described Beirut as a city that thrives on “civilized anarchy” and added there’s nowhere he’d rather live. “I haven’t been anywhere in the world where I feel the power of the state bearing down on me less,” he said. “Europe is absolutely intolerable.”


You can live like a free human being there. I know, because I’ve done it, and I was doing it when I met Grimsditch. I have libertarian sympathies myself, but Lebanon is a great teacher of libertarian limits. The state is so weak that laws might as well not even exist. The state is so weak that foreign-backed militias can take over big chunks of the country.

Even so, it’s clearly better than living in a country with far too much government, which is what Syria has had the entire time I’ve been alive. It’s what a huge swath of the planet suffocated beneath in the twentieth century just as Nadim Shehadi said. If Syria is going to survive in one piece after the fall of Assad, it will need to be less like the Soviet Union and more like Lebanon. That’s what Shehadi says anyway, and I think he’s right.

His advice about how to become and remain a Middle Eastern dictator works very well indeed in a fractious country with a powerful centralized state, but it’s much harder to pull off in a place where dispersed communities contentedly govern themselves.

“If Syria is to become like Lebanon, though,” I said, “it will have to be like Lebanon without its militias.”

“Lebanon,” he said, “will be a very different place without the Assad regime next to it.”

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Why the Syrian War Could Last Ten Years

I wouldn’t be surprised if Bashar al-Assad falls sometime soon, but I also will not be surprised if the year 2020 rolls around and Syria has all but ceased to exist as a nation state and he’s still ruling fragments of the ex-country like a Somali-style warlord. Lebanon’s Levantine sectarian war lasted fifteen long years. That doesn’t mean Syria’s Levantine sectarian war will last as long, but it could.

Take a look at the new piece by Gary Brecher (the self-described War Nerd). His use of the Northern Ireland analogy is apt. I’ve used it myself to describe Lebanon’s war, and due to Lebanon’s lack of a sectarian majority, it’s the reason no one, not even Hezbollah, can ever win an offensive war in that country.

When you look at this war strictly as a military struggle, you notice something weird: over two years of fighting, the lines are almost totally static. The Alawites, Assad’s Shi’ia-ish people, have withdrawn from most of inland Syria — the flat, dry country where the Sunni dominate. But Assad’s troops and militias are still fighting for Aleppo, the biggest city in the Sunni inland region, and they’re holding on strong in their coastal home region. The Kurds have assumed control of their enclaves in the north and northeast with some help from their PKK friends in Turkey. Roughly speaking, the Alawites, who always looked like sure losers, have held their own and even pushed back, despite being only about 10% of the population, and having a tradition of being considered weird hicks by other Syrians.

If you look at a map of sectarian demographics in Syria, and superimpose it on a map showing areas of Assad control and rebel-held regions, you’ll see that the two maps are almost identical. And the front lines haven’t changed much since the Sunni grabbed control of their neighborhoods two years ago. Syria makes the Western Front of WWI look like the Paris-Dakar Rally by comparison. The lines held by the Sunni, Shi’ia and Kurds barely move.

And by the way, I’m going to talk about Sunni, Alawite, Shi’ia, and Kurds, because that’s what matters in Syria. This is a sectarian war, and pretending it isn’t is just pious nonsense. As long as you keep in mind that in the Levant, "sect" means an ethnic group as much as a religion. And if that seems weird, try thinking of a classic Levantine sectarian outpost you may have heard of, the one called "Israel." Are Israeli Jews a religion or an ethnic group, a people? Both, more or less -- a very sloppy, leaky Venn diagram. Religion works as an ethnic marker for most groups in the Levant, not just the Israelis. And the fact that there are always outliers, people too noble or crazy or sophisticated to be defined by their sect, doesn’t change the fact that for most people, the sect is what defines you.

Once you see how deeply this sectarian identity works, you can start to understand why this war is so static. In urban sectarian warfare, most fights are about the neighborhood, keeping the neighborhood in your sect’s hands, away from the heretics two streets over. You grow up fighting the kids from over there, first with words, then with rocks, then with whatever firearms you can borrow from your cousins. For Anglos, the paradigm for this kind of war is Belfast and Derry. The war there started with neighborhood defenders in places like the Short Strand trying to hold their little block of row houses against the other sect.

Americans have a hard time imagining how tiny this kind of war can be. In this country you can drive for 14 hours and pull over to the same intersection, with exactly the same McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Denny’s, Day’s Inn, Starbucks, Super 8 and Motel 6. The accents’d be the same, the burgers’d be the same, the price of gas’d might change by a penny or two.

In a place like Aleppo (or Belfast), every street takes a side. The name of the street tells you which side it’s on (which is why those whiny choir boys, U2, came up with the song about a wonderful place "where the streets have no name"). It’s not just the streets, either; the birds in Beirut or Belfast chirp "Death to heretics!" Blindfold somebody from a city like that, walk them around a few times, and when you let them look, they could tell you in a second which (sectarian) side of town they’re on.

This encourages people to "think local." Which means they’re very good when they fight to hold their neighborhoods, but useless in big offensives. Even raw irregulars can do very well fighting on their own turf. But they’re useless when you try to get them to organize into an offensive army. Why risk the neighborhood’s crop of young men on somebody else’s neighborhood? Not only could you lose half your cousins, but while you and the cuzzies are out there grandstanding, somebody could be invading your neighborhood. You just don’t leave your neighborhood unmanned in a sectarian war, ever. Not if you have living female relatives. In ugly wars like this, you’re not afraid of what the enemy will do to you but to your kin —the really sick people are encouraged to get creative in horrible ways; merely murdering your neighbor gets old fast.

The Muslim Brotherhood's Empty Chair

So the Washington Institute for Near East Policy invited senior Muslim Brotherhood official Helmy el-Gazzar to its annual conference in the US, booked him on a business class flight from Cairo, and put him up in the luxurious Ritz Carlton. El-Gazzar made it to Washington and checked into his room, but he refused to show up at the conference.

Why? Because Israelis—or “Zionists” as he called them—were also going to be there.

“We have just seen the most famous empty chair since Clint Eastwood at the Republican National Convention,” Robert Satloff, the institute’s director, told the Washington Free Beacon.

That’s how it goes when you engage with the Muslim Brotherhood.

I’m tempted to say engaging these people is pointless, but it’s not. You learn things by doing it. I’ve had the pleasure three times myself and learned all sorts of things that innoculated me against the tsunami of nonsense written about the Brothers in the naïve heyday of the Arab Spring.

The first time was in Cairo in 2005 when Hosni Mubarak was still doing his thing. I spoke to Esam El-Erian who was a senior spokesman at the time. I wanted to know how the Brotherhood would govern if they ever managed to unseat Mubarak.

He refused to answer even the simplest questions.

“If the Muslim Brotherhood were in power in Egypt,” I said, “would you cooperate with the West against Al-Qaeda?”

“From the first moment we are against Al-Qaeda,” he said. “We condemn all violent activities. We condemned it then. But he have doubts about the way the West fights terrorism. This way of fighting is the wrong way. We need a concrete definition of terrorism before we can cooperate.”

“What’s your definition of terrorism?” I said.

“We need an international meeting and conference to decide on a definition.”

“Good idea,” I said. “So if you attended an international conference, what definition of terrorism would you suggest?”

“I am not going to give you a definition,” he said. “We need dialogue and consensus. It is not only for the Muslim Brotherhood to decide.”

“But what would you say to Western governments if they agreed to a dialogue with you? What is your definition of terrorism? Nevermind what anyone else thinks.”

“I cannot give you an answer now,” he said.

I also asked if the Brotherhood would ban alcohol. I asked if the Brotherhood would ban books. I asked if the Brotherhood would force women to wear headscarves in public like the Iranian government does.

He wouldn’t answer any of those questions either.

“You must understand,” he said. “We are outlawed. We can clarify these points after we are free.”

“Why don’t you clarify now?” I said.

“We need fresh air,” he said. “We need fresh air before we can clarify this.”

You don’t have to be a political Einstein to figure out what he was doing. 

I knew a lot less about the Muslim Brotherhood in 2005 than I know now, but that little discussion answered all kinds of questions I had about the organization despite the fact that El-Erian refused to answer my questions.

A few years later I met some Muslim Brotherhood officials in Lebanon. They’re an irrelevant fringe party there. Even among Sunni Muslims they are no more popular than the Green Party is in the United States, but I had the chance to meet with them, so I figured, why not?

They were a little more reasonable than El-Erian. They answered my questions, at least. But some of their answers were barking mad, frankly, and they hinted at what was to come with my third encounter with the Brotherhood in Cairo in 2011.

For instance, when I asked about the possibility of the United States preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, this was the answer I got: “It’s quite a shame that the United States gave the Israeli military 3000 tons of ammunition, chemical and biological, to experiment on the innocent civilians in Gaza.”

How many things are wrong with that sentence? The United States doesn’t give Israel ammunition. If the United States did give Israel ammunition, we would not give the Israelis chemical or biological munitions. Neither the United States nor Israel uses chemical or biological weapons on anybody.  Neither the United States nor Israel kills anybody anywhere in the world with any sort of weapon in experiments that would constitute serious war crimes were they carried out. 

This guy doesn’t have the first clue about what in the hell’s going on in the world. Not the first clue. His universe is an ideological paranoid fantasy realm hatched in his own mind and the minds of others just like him. He’s harmless because he’s powerless, but his Egyptian counterparts are currently ruling the biggest Arab state in the world. And they’re no less crazy than he is. They’re crazier, actually. And by crazy I mean bug-eyed and wild-of-hair as well as of mind.

The most bizarre interview I have ever conducted in my life was with the Muslim Brotherhood in Cairo two summers ago, again with Esam El-Erian. My colleague Armin Rosen and I met him in his office.

Maybe he had gastric distress. Perhaps his boss yelled at him five minutes before Armin and I walked in there. I don’t know. But for whatever reason, this time he was completely undisciplined. He was raw and uncorked and he told me exactly how he really felt about things.

I’m going to quote him at length so you’ll get an idea of what engagement with these people is actually like.

Esam El-Erian: Look, sir. It’s a big game. You cannot convince me that the American administration is sticking to American values. Qaddafi is your man.

MJT: He’s our man?

Esam El-Erian: Yes.

MJT: Now, wait a minute.

Esam El-Erian: Yes.

Armin Rosen: He bombed a disco full of Americans.

MJT: He has been an anti-American dictator since the day he took power.

Esam El-Erian: French people are now having secret talks with Qaddafi and his son. [Laughs.]

MJT: We are not French.

Esam El-Erian: You neglected everything about Qaddafi when he declared that he’d get rid of so-called nuclear weapons. You neglected to think about him killing people and destroying his country. Your administration neglected everything. So how can I understand that Qaddafi was behind the attack over Lockerbie, Scotland? El Megrahi [the supposed mastermind of the attack] is still living in Libya and is a very big symbol of the hypocrisy of the West. All the West.

MJT: I want to back up for a second. You said that Qaddafi is our man because we restored relations with Libya. Is that all it takes for a dictator to be “our man”? That we have diplomatic relations?

Esam El-Erian: Sir. Who protected Qaddafi’s military coup d’etat? Who protected him? You had all this military power. You could have stopped him.


MJT: What would you like American foreign policy to look like?

Esam El-Erian: Of course, that is up to Americans. You should advise them. I cannot advise them. You in the media play a very important role.

MJT: A little role.

Esam El-Erian: The media and think tanks play a very important role. You created a ghost, a monster, this terrorism. You magnify terrorism, and we face its vengeance. You in the media link every Arab, every Muslim, to terrorists. We were pushed to take off our shoes in your airports.

MJT: I have to take off my shoes, too.

Esam El-Erian: Why?

MJT: I don’t like it either.

Esam El-Erian: You make people live in terror.

MJT: Who does?

Esam El-Erian: You do. The media.

MJT: Who is living in terror?

Esam El-Erian: Your politicians. Your media. Your media.

MJT: We don’t live in terror. I don’t know a single person in the media who lives in terror.

Esam El-Erian: Can you answer one question? Why don’t we hear about trials for September 11?

MJT: Because the people who did it are dead. They killed themselves in the towers.

Armin Rosen: There was a civilian trial.

Esam El-Erian: Four thousand innocent people were killed, and there has been no trial.

MJT: That’s because the people who did it are dead.

Esam El-Erian: Nobody was put in a cage to face a trial.

MJT: They were on the planes. They blew themselves up in the towers.

Esam El-Erian: No. Who was behind it?

MJT: Osama bin Laden. And we just killed him, too.

Esam El-Erian: We know you have about 600 people in Guantanamo Bay. None of them have faced trials. Why? This is a very big mystery.

MJT: Well, what do you think happened? What’s your theory?

Esam El-Erian: And another 4,000 Americans were killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. You have almost 10,000 innocent Americans killed. Never mind the millions killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. You never put anyone on trial. Who is behind all this? Who made the conspiracy? Is Osama bin Laden alone? Who is behind Osama bin Laden?

Armin Rosen: Who do you think is behind Osama bin Laden?

Esam El-Erian: I want to know!

MJT: What’s your theory?

Esam El-Erian: You have the documents now that Osama bin Laden is dead.

MJT: What’s your theory?

Esam El-Erian: I don’t know.

MJT: You have a theory.

Esam El-Erian: I want to know. That is the question.

MJT: Everybody has a theory. What’s yours?

Esam El-Erian: Why 10,000 Americans killed? Why? Without any investigation.

MJT: Why does it have to be a conspiracy? It really isn’t that complicated.

Esam El-Erian: Is Osama bin Laden alone, or is somebody with him?

MJT: Why does anyone have to be behind Osama bin Laden?

Esam El-Erian: This must be investigated in America! There is this case in the U.K. about hacked telephones. 160 news people were fired.

MJT: [Laughs.] That has nothing to do with Osama bin Laden.

Esam El-Erian: A very old newspaper was closed. There was no drop of blood. If 10,000 Americans don’t expect to have a full investigation about the killings in New York, Iraq, and Afghanistan, we want to know.

MJT: Look, it really isn’t that complicated. Osama bin Laden had some support in Saudi Arabia and from Pakistan’s ISI.

Esam El-Erian: Look, sir. It is not enough that Osama bin Laden admitted in public that he did it. Osama bin Laden can’t do it alone.

MJT: He had some support in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.

Esam El-Erian: If you’re saying Saddam Hussein supported him, it’s a lie. Colin Powell said Saddam Hussein had biological weapons, but this was a lie. Colin Powell now regrets this.

We want to know.

MJT: What is it that you don’t know?

Esam El-Erian: You tell me.

MJT: This isn’t complicated.

Esam El-Erian: Yes, it’s complicated. I agree!

MJT: No. It’s not complicated.

Esam El-Erian: I am a physician. If a lady comes to me and suffers from any complaint, I will investigate. A complicated case must be fully investigated.

It has been ten years. When will Americans will know the truth about who killed 10,000 people?

MJT: The American people are satisfied that we know who did it.

Esam El-Erian: No.

MJT: Yes, we are.

Esam El-Erian: No.

MJT: You aren’t, but we are.

Esam El-Erian: The people cannot forget. The victims and their families will face everyone who keeps silent and protects the real people who were behind this and have drawn a curtain over the truth.

MJT: Who do you think did it? You think the United States government did it?

Esam El-Erian: The American people faced Joe McCarthy. And there were the Chinese people after the Cultural Revolution.

MJT: Are you suggesting the United States government was behind 9/11?

Esam El-Erian: Nobody knows! I don’t know.

Armin Rosen: Let me suggest…

Esam El-Erian: You are very naïve people.

MJT: I’m not naïve. I do this for a living.

Esam El-Erian: So Osama bin Laden admits he’s the murderer. You gave him 25 million dollars, then you killed him, so fine, now the file is closed. For me, it is not closed.

Most dictators who look crazy actually aren’t. Moammar Qaddafi looked crazier than just about anyone, but I don’t think he was. For him it was all just theatrics.

But these Muslim Brotherhood people are unhinged for real. I can tell. I can tell by their body language, their facial expressions, and their tones of voice when they speak to me. They’re not at all like cynical politicians who lie for a living and don’t believe what they say. No, these Muslim Brotherhood people look and sound exactly like the crazy man at the bus stop.

They’re in power in Egypt at a time when the economy, an emergency room case to begin with, is experiencing a catastrophic collapse, but they have no idea what in the hell’s going on. The way they see it, everything—everything—is the fault of a diabolical Jewish and American conspiracy. If you can’t correctly diagnose the source of a problem, you won’t be able to fix it. You’ll lash out at ghosts until the floor collapses and the roof caves in on your head.

One of two things is going to happen. Either the Muslim Brotherhood is going to change (a spectacularly unlikely event any time soon) or, just as the communists did, they’ll ruin every country foolish enough to put them in power. I guarantee it.

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!

Media Criticism Gets Results

Earlier this week I criticized the BBC for the following headline: Israeli strikes 'co-ordinated with terrorists.'

It was an absolutely ludicrous headline. Israel did not coordinate its air strikes against Syrian military installations with Al Qaeda. Neither the Israelis nor Al Qaeda would ever do such a thing.

I was hardly the only person who gave the BBC a hard time, and a few days later they finally changed it. It now reads: Syria says Israeli strikes 'co-ordinated with terrorists'

The second version is accurate. The first was literally written by Bashar al-Assad’s foreign ministry.

A late correction is better than no correction, but the BBC ought to realize that this sort of behavior is the reason Web sites like BBC Watch have a place on the Internet.

The New Black Hole of the Eastern Mediterranean

Until awfully recently, Lebanon was the country in the Eastern Mediterranean that acted as a gravitational black hole that sucked in the neighbors. The Israelis, the Syrians, the PLO, the Iranians, and even the non-neighboring French and Americans have been involved militarily there during my lifetime.

That gravitational black hole has now moved from Beirut to Damascus. It’s fascinating to watch. And few are covering the Syrian war better than Michael Weiss at NOW Lebanon.

It’s been edifying to see how quickly the international press has discovered that Syrian air defense systems are not quite so “formidable” as they were once described by senior Pentagon officials. It apparently takes a heavily-subsidized American client state to demonstrate via mushroom clouds the flaws in American strategic thinking now that leading from behind has become a happy conceptual partner to being led by the nose by forty years of Ba’athist propaganda about Syria’s military might. But then, the Israelis have openly mocked Washington’s failure to uphold its own “red lines” and they never tire of reminding their American patrons that when it comes to human intelligence and dealing with state actors in the Middle East, the heavy lifting is really best left to them.

In the hours between Thursday and Friday last week, the Israeli Air Force (IAF) struck a convoy of Iranian-made Fateh-110 missiles destined for Hezbollah that being warehoused near Damascus International Airport, as well as Russian-made Yakhont shore-to-sea cruise missiles. Then, between Saturday and Sunday, the IAF waged nine more air strikes on the Syrian capital, including on the Jamraya chemical research facility in north Damascus (a target it already struck in a similar raid last January), the Fourth Armored Division Headquarters in Mezzeh, southwest Damascus, and the Republican Guard’s 104th Brigade in the Qasioun mountain region, which was engulfed in flames. Syria claims that more than 100 of its soldiers were killed by these attacks, and many more injured. (The Fourth Armored Division and Republican Guard are Assad’s praetorian divisions, without which his conventional military would virtually cease to exist.) 


Michael Ross, an ex-Mossad officer, told me that the key to Israel’s in-and-out operations is its advanced electronic warfare system, which was constructed by Unit 8200 (“Israel’s NSA”) and is an advanced form of the “Suter” network that blinded Syrian radars during the IAF’s 2007 attack on Syria’s nuclear facility at al-Kibar. “The software identifies emitters and entry into enemy communications networks,” Ross said. “Then it shuts down some or all enemy emitters or injects misleading information or even malware. To control the skies, you must first control the electromagnetic spectrum. This is now IAF doctrine.”  Ross also said that the Fateh-110 missiles had been delivered by Iran no more than a week before they were destroyed, which indicates that either the Islamic Republic is remarkably lax with its shipping manifests or that Israeli assets come and go in Syria like I do my own living room.

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.


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