Syria's Fight to the Death

My new essay in the print edition of World Affairs is now available online.

“We Arabs,” the late Lebanese historian Kamal Salibi once said to me in Beirut, “are not a warring people. We are a feuding people.” That’s generally true. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict looks far more like a Northern Ireland–style feud than a real war of the sort that tore apart the former Yugoslavia. The same goes for the chronic yet sporadic clashes in parts of Yemen, Libya, and Lebanon.

The civil war in Syria, though, is different. It is an existential fight to the death. It’s a real war with a real body count that already exceeds the butcher’s bill from the Bosnian war. What could have been a bloody but short Libyan-style revolution to oust the tyrant Bashar al-Assad has instead metastasized into a grotesque sectarian war between the Sunni Muslim majority and the ruling Alawite minority. And what could have been a major blow for the West in its cold war against Iran—Syria is Iran’s only state-sized ally in the Middle East—has instead morphed in part into a protracted red-on-red fight between an anti-American state sponsor of terrorism and the anti-American jihadists of Jabhat al-Nusra (the Nusra Front), the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda, which is fighting alongside the Free Syrian Army against Assad.

It’s not always true that the devil we know beats the devil we don’t. Last summer I wrote in these pages that the United States should back the Free Syrian Army against Assad’s government. What, I asked at the time, were we worried about? “That Syria will become a state sponsor of terrorism? That it will be hostile to the US and to Israel? That it will be a repressive dictatorship that jails and murders thousands of people? That it will be an ally of Iran, our principal enemy in the region? Syria is already all of those things.”

Jabhat al-Nusra, which the United States recently designated a terrorist organization, didn’t exist at the time. Then, the fight was between the Free Syrian Army and what was left of the regular Syrian army. The United States could have armed, funded, and trained the FSA and done its best to ensure that assistance flowed only to the opposition’s moderate and secular factions, thereby drastically increasing the odds that whatever order emerges after regime change would be friendly or at least not actively hostile to the West.

Instead, as we stood back and allowed a vacuum to occur, governments on the Arabian Peninsula got involved in Syria and backed their own proxies. And they’re giving money and guns to bearded jihadists instead of to secular and moderate forces. “In the absence of Western involvement,” says Eli Khoury, co-founder of the Lebanon Renaissance Foundation, “that’s how it works. Washington shouldn’t make the mistake of dropping its support for liberals, moderates, and minorities in the Middle East. Because what you’re going to get instead, if you do, is something you are really going to hate. You’ll have one, two, or even three additional Irans. Where is that going to take everybody?”

It’s not too late to arm politically and religiously moderate Syrians opposed to the government, but it’s getting close. Jabhat al-Nusra is not part of the Free Syrian Army. They’re separate organizations. But as they’ve long said in the Middle East, the enemy of my enemy is my friend. The FSA and Jabhat al-Nusra are currently fighting shoulder-to-shoulder, but the alliance is temporary. They’ll fight each other when Assad falls. Think of it like the United States teaming up with the Soviet Union to fight Nazi Germany, only to face each other in a cold war for the next four and a half decades.

But if FSA fighters had been armed, funded, trained, and politically backed by the United States from the very beginning, they would have had no need to work with al-Nusra. The war could have been finished by now. Al-Nusra would have had no time to grow. Syria would not have become a magnet attracting freelance jihadists from all over the region who are always on the lookout for times and places like this to show their stuff.

But that’s not what happened. We failed to clinch with the Free Syrian Army. Now we face a much greater likelihood that the new Syria will be ruled, or at the very least severely destabilized, by Islamist fanatics with guns. The Obama administration recently announced that it will increase aid to Syrian rebels, but it's still not clear if weapons and ammunition will be part of the package. At least for now, the US appears to remain more or less on the sidelines while prospects continue to dim.


Assad is doing everything he can to turn the revolution into a sectarian war between Sunnis and Alawites. He needs this war to be an existential fight to the death to keep his allies on his side. His family, his clan, and nearly all his loyalists in the army, the intelligence agencies, and on the streets are at least nominal Alawites, a heterodox religious minority that makes up only twelve or so percent of Syria’s population, who for a thousand years have been considered infidels by Sunnis.

The Sunnis, by contrast—along with the substantial Syrian Christian, Kurdish, and Druze minorities—have been ruled by the Assad family’s totalitarian Soviet-style regime for decades. There isn’t room enough in the country for everyone anymore. Members and supporters of the Free Syrian Army will be jailed, murdered, and tortured to death if they lose. And the Alawites—even the powerless innocents who have nothing to do with the government—fear being driven from the country or at least persecuted should the Sunnis seize power and go on a bloody revenge binge.

Transforming a revolution into a sectarian war is Assad’s internal strategy. His external strategy from the very beginning was to make the rest of the world think he’s fighting an anti-terrorist war.

Ever since former US President George W. Bush pulled the trigger on Iraq, Assad has feared that he’s next. (That’s why he did his worst to destabilize post–Saddam Hussein Iraq by sending al-Qaeda terrorists over the border to blow up Americans and murder Iraqis.) And since current US President Barack Obama helped topple Muammar el-Qaddafi in Libya, Assad had every reason to believe that he’s still next once the uprising against him began. So he tried to frame the Syrian revolution as a war between a secular reformist government and al-Qaeda before the Free Syrian Army—let alone Jabhat al-Nusra—even existed, before the opposition had fired even one single shot, when Assad’s own armed forces massacred peaceful protesters who asked for nothing more than reform. He even staged scenes on television to look like terrorist attacks because that’s what he needed.

“It’s exactly the same thing the Syrian regime did in Lebanon,” says Chatham House scholar Nadim Shehadi. “It’s a mind game. If you want to beat Assad, you have to disassociate yourself from his make-believe reality just as he has disassociated himself from everyone else’s. Listen to his speeches. They have no bearing on the real world. None at all. But people believe him. That’s the mind game. The Washington Post wrote that he’s strong because they listened to his speech and he sounded strong. 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 they’ll put it in a headline.”

The trouble, of course, is that jihadists really are active in Syria now. This conflict has gone on for so long that Assad’s mind game about making a stand against terror groups has actually become part of reality. It’s not the whole story, but it’s part of it.

I spent much of February and March in Beirut. Almost every single person I interviewed thinks Assad won the mind game and that the White House is allied with Damascus. “The United States has more soft power in the region than before,” Shehadi says, “but you’re going to lose it in Syria because Barack Obama is seen as a supporter of Bashar al-Assad.”

Mosbah Ahdab, a former member of Parliament from Lebanon’s second largest city, Tripoli, put it to me this way when I met him for lunch: “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.”


The truth is that Washington is just cautious. The Obama administration is horrified by the prospect of another war such as the one in Iraq and only joined the war in Libya because Europe led from in front and Qaddafi didn’t have any friends. Assad has powerful friends in Lebanon and Iran. Widening the war could set the whole region ablaze, especially if Iran and Hezbollah decide to drag in the Israelis, which could be accomplished in all of ten minutes. The US is also afraid of the Syrian aftermath and seems to have no idea what it should do.

'Samy Gemayel, son of Lebanon’s former President Amine Gemayel and a current member of Parliament, senses Washington’s confusion. “Before you can know what to do,” he told me in his office in Lebanon’s mountains above Beirut, “you have to know what you want.”

The way he sees it, the US has three strategic options in the region.

First, support the status quo regimes.

Second, support change. “Put your money on the democratic process that could evolve after a period of instability,” he says. “It’s risky. After decades of dictatorship, things can’t evolve rapidly into stable democracy after just one or two years. It takes time to build a real democratic system that puts moderate people in charge. Extremists always take the lead after dictators fall. So this is a long-term option.”

The third strategy, he says, “is to look at the social tissue of these countries and determine if they’re even viable. And if they are not, you partition the region.”

The first option isn’t really an option, at least not in Syria. The US can’t back Assad. He’s a sworn enemy of Americans and a state sponsor of terrorism.

The third option isn’t realistic either. The United States is not going to redraw the map of the Middle East the way the British and French did in the early twentieth century.

Doing nothing likewise isn’t an option. Superpowers can’t do nothing at all when their interests are at stake, not even superpowers with instinctive non-interventionists as president.

“Americans need to decide which strategy they want,” Gemayel says. “Maybe Washington wants a different strategy in each country. But in order to know what you should do, you need to know what you want. If you don’t know what you want, you won’t know what to do. But if you have a strategy and you know where you want to be in twenty years, you’ll know exactly how to deal with someone like Assad.”

Read the whole thing.

Iran's New President is Lipstick on a Pig

Bigoted buffoon Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has finally been fired as the president of Iran and replaced by the supposed moderate reformer Hassan Rowhani, who just won a landslide victory with more than fifty percent of the vote in a crowded field of eight candidates.

“The sun of my moderation has risen,” announced Arman, a reformist newspaper. The election, according to another reformist newspaper called Shargh, signifies “the return of hope and victory for reformers and moderates.”

Some journalists in the West are swooning, as well. Rowhani’s election, writes Karl Vick at Time magazine, “may bring the country out of the severe economic and diplomatic isolation imposed by world powers intent on Iran’s nuclear program.” “Hassan Rouhani's victory in the Iranian election is truly stunning,” writes Jonathan Steele at The Guardian. “It opens a window of hope for an easing of tension between Iran and the west on the strained nuclear file but also on the more urgent issue – the self-destructive clash between Shia and Sunni Islam that is killing thousands in Syria and Iraq and threatens the entire Middle East region.”

Well, maybe, but probably not. It’s way too early to get carried away.

First of all, Rowhani is not the head of state. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is. Rowhani is basically a powerless figurehead. So there’s that.

Second, Iran’s election only looks democratic and meaningful if you squint hard enough at it. So stop squinting and look at it squarely. Khamenei, Iran’s actual tyrannical ruler, wasn’t elected. He was hand-picked by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. And Khamenei and his claque of appointed jurists hand-picked all the presidential candidates who just stood for election. Those they didn’t approve of (and they were legion) did not get to run.

How would you feel about the next American election if Barack Obama or Dick Cheney were to select all the candidates you could choose from? Iranian elections are a little like Henry Ford’s first line of Model-T cars. His customers, he famously said, could have their cars painted any color they like as long as it’s black.

Iranian expat Sohrab Ahmari put it bluntly, and aptly, in The Wall Street Journal. “This is what democracy looks like in a theocratic dictatorship. Iran's presidential campaign season kicked off last month when an unelected body of 12 Islamic jurists disqualified more than 600 candidates. Women were automatically out; so were Iranian Christians, Jews and even Sunni Muslims. The rest, including a former president, were purged for possessing insufficient revolutionary zeal. Eight regime loyalists made it onto the ballots. One emerged victorious on Saturday.”

But let’s pretend, for the sake of argument and analysis, that none of those things are true or that none of them matter. However he got the job, Rowhani is being billed as a moderate and a reformer. But the problem with the word “moderate” is that its meaning is entirely relative. The Muslim Brotherhood is moderate compared with Al Qaeda. Bashar al-Assad is moderate compared with Saddam Hussein. Fidel Castro is moderate compared with Josef Stalin. General Franco was moderate compared with Adolf Hitler.

But are the Muslim Brothers, Bashar al-Assad, Fidel Castro, and Francisco Franco moderates compared with Western political figures who are labeled as moderates? No, no, no, and no.

It’s not even clear that Rowhani is a moderate compared with Ali Khamenei, the only comparison that actually matters.

“Hassan Rouhani is a regime pillar,” notes Lee Smith. “As an early follower of the founder of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Rouhani joined him in exile in Paris, and over the last 34 years, the 64-year-old Qom-educated cleric has held key positions in the regime’s political echelons, and served in top military jobs during Iran’s decade-long war with Iraq. As Iran’s chief interlocutor with the West on the regime’s nuclear portfolio, Rouhani boasted of deceiving his negotiating partners. Domestically, he has threatened to crush protestors “mercilessly and monumentally,” and likely participated in the campaign of assassinations of the regime’s Iranian enemies at home and abroad, especially in Europe. Currently, Rouhani serves as Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s representative on the supreme national security council.”

Even if Rowhani was a genuine reformer, it’s not at all clear that he’d be able to change anything. Remember Mohammad Khatami? He was Iran’s moderate reformist president from 1997 to 2005. He racked up a grand total of zero reforms in eight years.

It’s not even clear that he was a moderate or a reformer.

In July 1999 thousands of university students demanded the hard-liners in the regime resign from the government. They didn’t, of course. And Khatami and Rowhani—the old and new “moderate reformers” respectively—brazenly sided with the hard-liners. You can read all about it Countdown to Crisis by Kenneth R. Timmerman, but here’s the relevant passage quoting Rowhani, the new president.

“Addressing the crowd [of regime loyalists], Hassan Rouhani, one of Khatami’s vice presidents, promised to arrest pro-democracy protesters and execute them. ‘Two nights ago we received decisive instruction to deal with these elements,’ he announced. ‘And at dusk yesterday we received a decisive revolutionary order to crush mercilessly and monumentally any move of these opportunistic elements wherever it may occur. From today our people shall witness how our law-enforcement force and our heroic Bassij [militia] shall deal with these opportunists and riotous elements, if they simply dare to show their faces.’”

Rowhani has a track record of thuggishness abroad as well as at home. John-Paul Pagano dug up some old reports from Iranian state media detailing Rowhani’s support for the region’s terrorist organizations and his opposition to a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

IRNA news agency (Tehran, in English 1910 gmt 4 Apr 94) reported that Rohani, who is also the secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, reiterated “Iran's firm support for Islamic resistance in southern Lebanon”.

According to an IRNA news agency report (2036 gmt 4 Apr 94), Rohani told the leaders of the 10 Palestinian factions that “what Yasir Arafat has signed with the Zionist regime as an agreement is ‘self humiliating’ and will not realize any of the goals and rights of the Palestinian nation”.

If Rowhani goes on record right now as president retracting his support for Hezbollah in Lebanon and proclaiming his support for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, that would be interesting. It would be even more interesting if Ali Khamenei did these things instead since he’s the one with the power. Neither are likely to happen, nor would we be wise to trust the sincerity of such statements until we see them backed up with action because Rowhani as well as Khamenei has a track record of deception in foreign affairs.

Abbas Milani, the director of Iranian Studies at Stanford University and of the outstanding book The Shah, read Rowhani’s recent memoir and had some interesting things to say about it a few months ago in The New Republic. “The recent memoir by Hassan Rouhani,” he wrote, “who was for several years Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, and is now a possible compromise candidate in the upcoming presidential election, offers a more objective account of Iran’s nuclear strategy and what happened during the negotiations. More than once Rouhani admits that Iran’s strategy was to buy time and thereby to create a new reality on the ground. More than once he reiterates the view that Iran was willing to make concessions—such as the temporary suspension of enrichment activities—only if it would not delay their overall goal of achieving a full fuel cycle and of advancing the other relevant technologies (such as building more sophisticated centrifuges).”

So what do we have here in Iran? A man who barely won fifty percent of the vote in a rigged electoral system, who supports vicious repression of Iranian democracy activists as well as international terrorist organizations, who opposes Middle East peace, and who freely admits to deceiving Western diplomats about his country’s nuclear program to buy time.

There is nothing encouraging here whatsoever, so don’t be a sucker.

Is Obama Arming the Syrian Rebels or Not?

If you’re confused about whether or not the White House has decided to arm the Syrian rebels, don’t feel bad. I’m confused too. So is everyone else. Even the government seems confused about what it is or isn’t doing.

A few days ago The New York Times reported that President Barack Obama has decided “to begin supplying the rebels for the first time with small arms and ammunition, according to American officials.” But The Daily Beast reported another administration official saying that “lethal arms are not part of the new items Obama has now authorized.”

I took my wife out of town for a few days for her birthday so I haven’t been able to track this very closely, but I’m not sure I’d have been able to work out the contradiction even if I could have stayed on it full time.

Here is Lee Smith in The Weekly Standard:

So is the White House arming the rebels or not? There’s been confusion since Thursday afternoon when Sen. John McCain said on the Senate floor that Obama “will announce that we will be assisting the Syrian rebels by providing them with weapons and other assistance. I applaud the president’s decision.” Shortly after, McCain retracted his remarks, explaining that “the president has not made the final decision on arming.” Afterward, McCain’s spokesman, Josh Rogin reported, said the senator had been told by reliable sources that Obama was planning to arm the rebels.


What we know then from the administration’s public and on the record statements is this: the White House is going to do more than what it was doing before. But we don’t know if that includes weapons or just more non-lethal aid and equipment because the White House’s point man for strategic communications won’t say—he can’t inventory—what’s being sent. All of the reporting asserting that the administration is sending arms was sourced not to Rhodes’s public remarks but to officials who because they are unnamed have no reason to fear that their credibility is on the line should their information prove inaccurate or false. 

In other words, we still don’t know whether the White House is going to arm the Syrian opposition, or if Obama just means to create the impression that he is indeed enforcing his red lines. In either case, it’s a mess.

I guess it’s possible that the administration wants its policy to be ambiguous, but either way, it won’t be ambiguous for long. If Washington is supplying weapons, we’ll know sooner or later.

Is Syria Iran's Stalingrad?

Gary Gambill at the Foreign Policy Research Institute argues that Syria is the Iranian Stalingrad.

I think he’s a little more confident than he should be, but he makes a good case and may turn out to be right.

The growing infusion of Iranian-backed Lebanese and Iraqi Shiite fighters into the Syrian civil war is causing some veteran pundits to panic. Vali Nasr, dean of the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, warns that “Iran is beating the U.S. in Syria.” Former Bush administration deputy national security adviser Elliot Abrams sees “a humiliating defeat of the United States at the hands of Iran.” 

Nothing could be further from the truth.  Setting aside the matter of how Washington can be losing a war it is not fighting, the claim that Iran is winning is dead wrong.  The Islamic Republic's headlong intervention in Syria is akin to Nazi Germany's surge of military forces into the Battle of Stalingrad in the fall of 1942 – an operationally competent, strategic blunder of epic proportions.

To be sure, the influx of thousands of foreign (mostly non-Iranian) Shiite fighters into Syria in recent months has enabled pro-regime forces to regain some ground in the Damascus suburbs and a belt of territory linking the capital to Homs and the coast.  The town of Qusayr, critical to both rebel and regime supply lines into Lebanon, fell on June 5.

That's a shame, but the Iranian surge won't prevent the overwhelmingly Sunni Arab rebels from eventually prevailing on the battlefield. Sunni Arabs have a 5-to-1 demographic edge over the minority Alawites who comprise most uniformed and paramilitary pro-regime combatants, and a 2-to-1 advantage over all of Syria's ethno-sectarian minorities combined.  The rebels are strongly supported by the overwhelming majority of Arabs and Muslims worldwide who are Sunnis, and their four principal sponsors – Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Jordan – have a GDP well over twice that of Iran. Russia continues to do business with the regime, but it won't intervene decisively enough to change the math.

Why the Turks are Turning on Erdoğan

I’ve been to Istanbul several times and once drove a thousand miles across Turkey (to Iraq) and back, but I’m hardly an expert on Turkish politics. I’ve only read a handful of books about the country and have never interviewed anyone there. Turkey, for me, has been a place I passed through to and from other parts of the greater Middle East. So I’m a bit reluctant to write much about the apparently massive resistance Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is facing right now, not just in Istanbul but throughout the country. I have no idea where it’s heading. I doubt anyone does.

But you should read what my colleague Claire Berlinski has to say because she has lived in Istanbul for years and has absorbed the kind of deep knowledge that can only be acquired through immersion. Her piece last week in City Journal is the best primer I’ve read so far on the biggest crisis the Turkish prime minister has had to face yet.

Of late, almost every sector of the electorate has felt unease about one part or another of Erdoğan’s agenda. Restrictive new alcohol legislation, rammed through parliament, as usual, with contempt for the minority opposition, has prompted outrage; the so-called peace process with the PKK, which no one understands, has caused great unease. Anxiety is growing as well, not only about press censorship, but also about the prosecution of those who insult government officials or “Islamic values” on social media. There is outrage about the bombing in Reyhanlı that left 52 Turks dead and which appears to have been attributable to a series of inexcusable police and intelligence blunders (but no one knows, and no one believes what the press writes); there is fear of war with Syria; there is concern about strange reports that al-Nusra, a Syrian militant group affiliated with al-Qaida, has been cooking up Sarin gas in Adana, five miles east of the United States’ Incirlik Air Base; and there is deep skepticism about Erdoğan’s plans for grandiose construction projects—such as a third airport, a second Bosphorus canal, and a gigantesque mega-mosque intended to exceed in size every mosque left behind by his Ottoman predecessors. The thing will dominate Istanbul’s already-martyred skyline, and replace yet another pleasant and leafy park.

The recent announcement that a new bridge over the Bosphorus was to be named after Sultan Selim the Grim, slayer of the Alevis—a substantial and beleaguered Turkish religious minority—didn’t help matters. Nor did it soothe fears when a minor AKP official from the sticks wrote on Twitter that “My blood boils when spineless psychopaths pretending to be atheists swear at my religion. These people, who have been raped, should be annihilated.” Two weeks ago in Ankara, a disembodied voice on the subway, having apparently espied them by means of a security camera, denounced a couple for kissing. The voice demanded that they “act in accordance with moral rules.” In return, incensed Ankara lovers staged kissing protests: as the couples shyly smooched outside the subway station, a group of young men confronted them, chanting “Allahu Akbar!” It was reported but not confirmed that one of the kissers was stabbed; but given the mood of hysteria here right now, it would be unwise to believe every rumor one hears.

Erdoğan, it seems, severely underestimated the degree of his subjects’ displeasure, confident that God, a strong economy, and a weak opposition were all he needed to ensure his hegemony. He brusquely dismissed the tree protesters’ concerns: “We’ve made our decision, and we will do as we have decided.” An AKP parliamentarian then unwisely announced that some young people “are in need of gas.”

So the Robocops once again used pepper spray and water cannon against the protesters. A photographer captured them spraying tear gas directly into the face of a vulnerable, middle-aged woman in a pretty red dress. The photo went viral and enraged the public: she was clearly no hooligan. As one conservative journalist noted, she looked “decent.”

Read the whole thing.

Does Al Qaeda Have Missiles?

This doesn’t look good.

The photocopies of the manual lay in heaps on the floor, in stacks that scaled one wall, like Xeroxed, stapled handouts for a class.

Except that the students in this case were al Qaeda fighters in Mali. And the manual was a detailed guide, with diagrams and photographs, on how to use a weapon that particularly concerns the United States: A surface-to-air missile capable of taking down a commercial airplane.

The 26-page document in Arabic, recovered by The Associated Press in a building that had been occupied by al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb in Timbuktu, strongly suggests the group now possesses the SA-7 surface-to-air missile, known to the Pentagon as the Grail, according to terrorism specialists. And it confirms that the al Qaeda cell is actively training its fighters to use these weapons, also called man-portable air-defense systems, or MANPADS, which likely came from the arms depots of ex-Libyan strongman Col. Moammar Gadhafi.

"The existence of what apparently constitutes a `Dummies Guide to MANPADS' is strong circumstantial evidence of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb having the missiles," said Atlantic Council analyst Peter Pham, a former adviser to the United States' military command in Africa and an instructor to U.S. Special Forces. "Why else bother to write the guide if you don't have the weapons? ... If AQIM not only has the MANPADS, but also fighters who know how to use them effectively," he added, "then the impact is significant, not only on the current conflict, but on security throughout North and West Africa, and possibly beyond."

Supposedly Libya had thousands of these things stashed away. The article says “many” have been looted. I’ve no idea how many “many” is supposed to be. Twelve? A hundred? A thousand?

Years ago, Israeli intelligence officials warned me missile war was going to replace terrorist war. And that’s exactly what happened. Since the last suicide-bombing, Hamas and Hezbollah have fired thousands and thousands of rockets and missiles at Israel.

But what if missile war replaces terrorist war worldwide? If Al Qaeda looted hundreds or even thousands of surface-to-air missiles, and it only takes one to blow a commercial jet out of the sky, the implications are staggering.

Hezbollah's Vietnam

Michael Young has a smart new piece in NOW Lebanon arguing that the Syrian war may end up being Hezbollah’s Vietnam, a grinding and debilitating quagmire for the so-called Party of God from which there is no exit.  

Hezbollah is willing to take heavy casualties in Syria, if this allows it to rescue the Assad regime. The real question is what time frame we are talking about, and how this affects the party’s vital interests elsewhere. For now, Hezbollah has entered Syria with no exit strategy. The way in which Hassan Nasrallah framed the intervention indicates that it is open-ended. This will prompt other parties to take actions and decisions they might otherwise have avoided for as long as the Syrian conflict was primarily one between Syrians. 

Hezbollah is already a magnet for individuals and groups in Syria keen to take the air out of the region’s leading Shiite political-military organization - or simply to protect their towns and villages. As Qusayr showed, the presence of Hezbollah only induces its enemies to fight twice as hard against the party. As a proxy of Iran, Hezbollah will prompt governments to do the same, and they will see an opportunity to wear down the party and trap it in a grinding, no-win situation.

Playing in the favor of Hezbollah’s enemies is that the party has little latitude to alter its strategy in Syria. It must go all the way, predisposing it to sink ever-deeper into the Syrian quagmire, or until the point where the Syrian regime and pro-regime militias can capture and control territory on their own. That is not easy in a guerrilla war in which rebels have often out-matched the army.

The irony here is two-fold. Hezbollah managed to turn Lebanon into Israel’s “Vietnam” in the 1980s and 1990. And “Vietnam” (the metaphor, not the country) is supposed to refer to conventional armies getting bogged down and bled dry by irregulars. As Young added, “In Syria, as in Lebanon previously, the outsider is at a disadvantage. Hezbollah should learn the lessons from its own experience.”

But hey, “Vietnam” is not just for Americans anymore. Neither is blowback, as the Assad regime has recently learned by sponsoring Al Qaeda in Iraq only to watch it change its name to Jabhat al Nusra and blow up the hand that once fed it.

When Dictators Were Young

I just found a fascinating photo gallery of the world’s most infamous dictators when they were children and young men. I think the reason these photographs are so captivating is because, in most cases, no one had a clue when these photos were taken that these kids would become such horrible people and scourges of history (though I have to say that Adolf Hitler looked pretty creepy even when he was small). And contrary to what some might believe, Fidel Castro did not, in fact, have a beard when he was three.

Journalist Meets Novelist

Jonathan Spyer reviewed my new novel for The Jerusalem Post.

The review is behind the paywall, but here are some excerpts.

This is his first foray into fiction.  It is a success.


‘Taken’ works on a number of levels.  From one point of view, it is a thriller. The author drives the plot with a determined hand. He shows a talent for describing scenes of action and intensity which has already been apparent from his reporting on Iraq and Lebanon.

But the book is also a novel of ideas, and a character study.  In terms of the former, Totten uses the framework of the novel to discuss the nature of journalism and war correspondence, as the kidnapped ‘Michael Totten’ ponders his fate from his incarceration.

He notes the nature of the war correspondent as a ‘tourist on the dark side’, observing that he has always been happy with a ‘certain amount of darkness in my life’, as long as its not ‘my own personal darkness.’  This, slipped into a scene in a thriller, is as insightful and honest a phrase on the typical foreign correspondent as any to be found.

Through the depiction of the kidnappers, the book also asks questions about the appeal of radical Islam for some western-raised Muslims, and the gap between the west and the Middle East.

The characters of three of the captors are finely drawn.  In particular, that of Ahmed, the leader of the group, is closely observed.  It is a portrait more subtle, and in a qualified and measured way sympathetic, than would generally be found in books dealing with the grim subject matter here.

This reviewer is generally skeptical regarding the postmodern tactic available to novelists of inserting themselves into their own novels.  However, here the device works well. This is because of Totten’s slightly tongue in cheek approach to it.

Thus at one point, the (fictive) Michael Totten casts doubt on his own fictional status. He declares that while a particular course of action might have worked all very well in a work of fiction, he had to remember that ‘I wasn’t a character in a novel,’ and so this could not be assumed to also apply to his situation.  Such acrobatics are slightly dizzying, but the (writer) Totten manages to pull it off.


On the most fundamental level, the question that needs to be asked about a work of fiction is; does the writer succeed in creating an imaginative world in which the reader is able to immerse himself for the duration of the story? Is the fictional world presented with sufficient depth and power to make this mysterious process possible?  Here, the answer is yes. 

The book is available at Amazon.com, Barnes and Noble, Powell’s Books, etc.

WHERE THE WEST ENDS Now Available as an Audio Book

My book Where the West Ends is now available as an audio book from Amazon.com, Audible, and iTunes.

Steven Roy Grimsley did a fantastic job with the narration. Dozens of professional readers auditioned for the job, and my wife and I both thought Steve was the best.

You can listen to a sample for free on the Audible Web site.

The Friend of My Enemy is My Enemy

My latest City Journal column is up. Here's the first part.

Syria’s blood-soaked tyrant, Bashar al-Assad, is finally right about something. He recently told an Argentine newspaper that he doubts the joint Russian-American peace initiative will stop the bloodshed in his country. Of course it won’t. Syria’s civil war is an existential fight to the death between the Alawite minority that dominates the regime and the revolutionary Sunni Muslim majority that will be smashed if it loses. The peace initiative would merely be a naive waste of time, then, but circumstances might conspire to make it something worse than that: from the proverbial Arab Street’s point of view, by cooperating with Moscow and refusing to back the rebels, Washington appears to support the Assad dictatorship.

I recently returned from Beirut, where I once lived, and was dismayed to discover that, with few exceptions, just about everyone in Lebanon’s otherwise pro-Western camp thinks the Obama administration is backing Assad, and by extension Iran and Hezbollah. Sometimes they make this point through insinuation. “The international community thinks it’s okay for the Syrian regime to receive weapons and money from outside while the Free Syrian Army gets nothing,” said Mosbah Ahdab, a former member of parliament. “Everybody here is wondering what’s going on.”

Samy Gemayel, a current member of parliament and son of former Lebanese president Amine Gemayel, was more blunt. “The current government in the United States is friends with Bashar al-Assad,” he said. When I challenged him, he only backed down a little. “Not a friend,” he said, “but the people in the administration aren’t aggressive against Assad. Some of them have good relations with Assad, people like John Kerry.” Nadim Shehadi, a Lebanese-born scholar at Chatham House in the United Kingdom, added: “When you support the dictator who’s oppressing people, you’re also the enemy. The United States has more soft power in the region than before, but you’re going to lose it in Syria.” I heard variations on this complaint every day for almost a month.

They’re wrong, of course. Washington doesn’t support Bashar al-Assad. But it’s not hard to figure why it looks that way from Beirut. The United States has demolished three murderous governments in the greater Middle East and South Asia in the last ten years—the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party state in Iraq, and Muammar el-Qaddafi’s lunacracy in Libya. One of these regime changes took place on President Barack Obama’s watch, so everyone knows he’s just as capable of terminating a despot as was President George W. Bush. They think that since President Obama can quickly get rid of Assad, the fact that he won’t means that the White House likes him right where he is. It doesn’t help that Washington is sponsoring a joint initiative with Vladimir Putin, who really does want Assad to remain in the saddle, and at a time when Russia is gearing up to send advanced Yakhont missiles to Syria.

The reasons Washington isn’t moving aggressively against the Syrian regime are straightforward. Americans are weary of war and especially unwilling to insert themselves into Iraqi- and Lebanese-style sectarian blood feuds. And unlike Qaddafi, Assad has powerful friends. If the United States widens the conflict, Iran and Hezbollah might widen it further. They might even drag in the Israelis, igniting the worst conflagration east of the Mediterranean since the Iran-Iraq war. Washington is also concerned that Jabhat al-Nusra, the Syrian branch of al-Qaida, might become over time no less a menace than Assad has been all these years. So the Obama administration is cautious, and for good reason.

But that isn’t coming across. We went through the same thing in Iran when the inspiring but ill-fated Green Revolution broke out in 2009. Obama was so determined to pursue a grand bargain with the Islamic Republic that he could hardly bring himself to utter a word of encouragement to the most potent homegrown anti-regime movement since Ayatollah Khomeini came to power in 1979.

Read the rest in City Journal.

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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