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Lebanon's Israel Syndrome

The Tower, an outstanding new magazine about the Middle East edited by David Hazony, has just published one of my long essays. Here’s the first half.

Lebanon has a serious problem with Israel.

The country has technically been at war with its southern neighbor since the Jewish state declared independence in 1948. Israeli citizens are banned. Even foreigners are banned if they have Israeli stamps in their passports. Lebanese citizens aren’t allowed to have any communication of any kind with Israelis anywhere in the world. If citizens of the two countries meet, say, on a beach in Cyprus or in a bar in New York, the Lebanese risks prison just for saying hello. Israel doesn’t even exist on Lebanese maps.

At the same time, with the possible exception of Morocco, Lebanon is in important ways the least anti-Israel country in the Arab world. Indeed, decades ago many Israelis assumed it would be among the first Arab countries to sign a peace treaty with the Jewish state. It made sense at the time. With its enormous one-third Christian minority (it used to have an outright Christian majority), it’s the least Muslim and most religiously diverse of all the Arab countries. And since a huge number of its Christians insist they aren’t even Arabs, Lebanon might be the least Arab of the Arabic-speaking countries. Its capital, Beirut, has more in common with Tel Aviv than with any Arab city, including those in Lebanon itself. Put simply, Lebanon is just about the only Arab country where Israel can find natural allies.

Yet today it is widely assumed that Lebanon will be the last Arab country to make peace with Israel.

To understand this paradox, you have to try to understand Lebanon. To say Lebanon is a nation of contradictions is a cliché, but it’s a cliché because it is true. It is simultaneously Western and Eastern, Christian and Muslim, modern and feudal, democratic and illiberal, secular and sectarian, cosmopolitan and parochial, progressive and reactionary, tolerant and aggressively hateful. This is because there is more than one Lebanon.

Lebanon is divided roughly into Christian, Sunni, and Shia thirds, with a ten percent Druze population, as well. The Christians have had ties with the West for centuries. Most of the Shiites look to Iran for leadership and support. The Sunnis are generally aligned with the more liberal and moderate forces in the Arab world, as well as with the Saudis. Thanks to all of this, as well as Lebanon’s location between Israel and Syria, Lebanon tends to get sucked into regional conflicts.

And because Lebanon was (and to some extent still is) a vassal state of Syria, even discussing peace and normal relations with Israel can get you imprisoned or killed. That’s been the case since the middle of Lebanon’s civil war when international peacekeepers withdrew from Beirut, and Syria’s ruling Assad family came to dominate Lebanese politics.

Lebanon is a more-or-less free country that protects freedom of speech, but on the Israeli question, it is effectively a police state. Lebanese are afraid to talk to each other about it. They’ll talk to me, though, because I’m an outsider. They’re extremely careful, of course, and much of what they say is strictly in confidence, but once in a while someone will talk to me on-the-record, knowing perfectly well that I’m going to publish what they have to say.

*

I’ve been working in Lebanon on and off for eight years, and I’ve noticed that things have changed since the Syrian revolution broke out in 2011.

The red line on Israel isn’t as bright as it used to be. Except for the usual warmongering rhetoric from Hezbollah, I sense more moderation and sanity than I used to. It doesn’t surprise me. Peace between Israel and Lebanon is still a long way off, but the possibility is now at least conceivable, mainly because the end of Syrian tyrant Bashar al-Assad will be the beginning of the end for Hezbollah. And they’re the ones who enforce the red line on Israel.

This became clear to me when I had lunch with Mosbah Ahdab, a Sunni politician and former member of parliament from Tripoli, Lebanon’s second largest city.

“The post-Assad transition is going to be tough,” he said as we shared a bottle of wine in his living room, “because we have Hezbollah still around. But Hezbollah will be cut down to a more realistic size. They will still have their weapons, but they can’t continue provoking the tens of millions of people who live around here that they’ve been aggressive to all these years.”

Indeed, Hezbollah will be surrounded by enemies. With the Assad family out of power in Syria, Hezbollah will be left exposed as a Shia minority in a Sunni majority region. Their immediate neighbors are Jews, Christians, and Druze, none of whom have the time, patience, or tolerance for an Iranian proxy militia in the eastern Mediterranean.

“There will be the real possibility of development,” Ahdab said. “We could have train service all the way down to Cairo. It could be fantastic.”

Michael Young, the opinion page editor of Beirut’s Daily Star newspaper, once said that Lebanon is a place where what isn’t said matters just as much as what is. This was one of those times.

Look at a map: The only way a train can travel from Beirut to Cairo is by passing through Israel. Lebanon and Israel will need an open border and normal relations before something like that could even get started. Yet a former member of parliament—not a Christian, but a Sunni Muslim—is openly, if a little obliquely, discussing it.

But he can’t discuss it with the Israelis. He can’t talk about anything with Israelis or he’ll go to jail. And he isn’t happy about that at all.

“I was once invited to a European Union conference,” he told me. “There was an Israeli guy from the Web site bitterlemons.net sitting near me and trying to talk to me. There was a camera around and I couldn’t respond. When the session started he said to the president that he didn’t know why he was invited to a place where people from Arab countries are present and refuse to speak with him. When it was my turn to speak, I addressed the president. I said, the previous gentleman is totally right. It’s ridiculous to be unable to communicate, but the laws in my country forbid me from speaking to him. I’ll go to jail.”

I’ve heard lots of stories like this over the years from Lebanese and Israelis. Israelis are offended when they run into Lebanese people who refuse to acknowledge them, but Ahdab isn’t kidding when he says he’ll go to prison. He used to be part of the government, but he’s afraid of his own government’s laws. And if he had tried to change the law when he was in the parliament, he almost certainly would have been killed by Hezbollah or another of Syria’s allies.

I told Ahdab I think that law is insane.

“Absolutely,” he said.

But what if there’s a new regime in Damascus? What if, as he said, Hezbollah gets cut down to size?

*

Samy Gemayel, in a long-standing family tradition, serves as a member of the Lebanese parliament. He’s the son of former President Amine Gemayel and the nephew of Bashir Gemayel, who was Lebanon’s president-elect in 1982 before he was assassinated. Samy’s brother Pierre was an MP in 2006 when men wielding automatic pistols shot him to death through the windshield of his car.

The Gemayels founded the Kataeb Party, which had a militia best known as the Phalangists during the civil war of the 1970s and 1980s. It was a hard-right party back then, but like most parties in Lebanon (except for Hezbollah) it has mellowed with age. Today, the Kataeb has more in common with European social democratic parties than with its militant and ruthless old self.

I met Samy Gemayel in his office in the mountains above Beirut and asked what he thinks might change in Lebanon without the Assad regime next door, especially if it also means a chastened and weakened Hezbollah. And, I added, “will there be any possibility that people might at least start discussing a Lebanese-Israeli peace track with a new government in Syria? Nobody even talks about it now even though Israel and Syria have negotiated repeatedly.”

“It’s a syndrome of the Lebanese people,” he said. “For twenty years anyone who even opened his mouth and said we should think about having a peace treaty with Israel went to prison or was killed.”

That was because of the Syrians and Hezbollah.

“People are afraid,” he said. “It’s like someone who has been in prison for thirty years. When he gets out of prison, he’s afraid to walk on the street and talk to people. It’s the same for the Lebanese people. They haven’t gotten over this syndrome. Especially since Hezbollah is here to remind them.”

A peace treaty is a long way off, of course, and will certainly require the destruction or transformation of Hezbollah before it can happen. But the first step will be getting over this syndrome and dissolving the red line. And there may be a relatively simple way to accomplish it.

“What if,” I said to Gemayel, “people from Washington came here and said, ‘Hey, you need to talk to your neighbors.’ Would things change?”

“Yes, it can change,” he said.

And why shouldn’t it? The syndrome is simple. It’s based on fear, silence, and punishment. If the United States pressures Lebanon to negotiate with Israel, the Lebanese will at least be able to discuss the fact that they’re being pressured by the United States to negotiate with Israel. And those who think it’s a fine idea will be given international cover. Just as the red line was imposed from the outside, it can be erased from the outside.

Indeed, powerful Lebanese people are walking right up to the red line right now without pressure from outside.

“Remember,” Gemayel said, “when Hezbollah had indirect talks with Israel through the Germans? I went on TV. It was the first time someone talked about this. I said, ‘how come Hezbollah is allowed to talk to the Israelis indirectly through the Germans to get their prisoners back while the Lebanese state is not allowed to do indirect talks like Hezbollah to get back Shebaa Farms?’”

Hezbollah didn’t respond to that challenge. What could they possibly say?

The Gemayels and their party were allied with Israel during Lebanon’s civil war. Samy Gemayel’s uncle, Bashir, swore to vanquish Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian state-within-a-state in southern Lebanon, to throw out the Syrian army, and to sign a peace treaty with Jerusalem. Naturally the Israelis backed him to the hilt in 1982 when they invaded and he was elected president.

According to Thomas Friedman’s account in his book, From Beirut to Jerusalem, one of the last things Bashir Gemayel ever said was, “To all those who don’t like the idea of me as president, I say, they will get used to it.” A few moments later, he was blown to pieces by terrorists from the Syrian Social Nationalist Party.

Bashir’s brother Amine replaced him as president. Lebanon’s civil war raged on—it was only half-way through at that point. And the Kataeb’s alliance with Israel began to wane. Jerusalem’s peace partner was dead and replaced with his more cautious brother. Hezbollah was on the rise in the south—from which Arafat’s PLO had been evicted—and in the northern Bekaa Valley. The Assad regime’s military forces weren’t planning to leave Lebanon anytime soon. The Israeli dream of a friendly and terrorist-free Lebanon was premature and would have to be deferred for a generation at least.

I asked Samy Gemayel about his party’s former alliance with Israel, and I did it carefully. “You can answer me twice,” I said, “on the record and off the record. I can turn off my voice recorder because I want to know what you really think, but I also want to know what you would say publicly.”

“Let me be very clear,” he said, “and this is my answer publicly and non-publicly. We believe we had no choice back then but to have an alliance with Israel. I’ve said it on TV. And if we find ourselves in the same position today, we would do it again. I also said that on TV. We couldn’t do anything else. The Syrians were against us. The Palestinians were against us. The Lebanese Muslims were against us. The entire Arab world was against us. What were we supposed to do? Say, please kill us? We would take support from anywhere, and the only country that supported us at that time was Israel. We really don’t have anything to hide on this matter. And we believe that there should come a day when we negotiate with Israel on all pending and disputed issues in order to have permanent peace on our southern borders. We should end this. We should have stability.”

He went on. I thought he might be careful and cautious, that he’d rather discuss something else, but no, he walked right up to the red line and told me I could print all of it.

“There is no excuse,” he continued, “why Egypt is allowed to have a peace treaty with Israel while we cannot negotiate for an armistice. Why can Jordan have a peace treaty while we also cannot negotiate for an armistice? Even Syria, without a peace treaty, has had peaceful relations with Israel since 1974. Why can’t we? More, why can Hezbollah, a paramilitary group, negotiate with Israel twice through German mediators in 2004 and 2009 to release its prisoners, and the official Lebanese state is not allowed to?”

How many Lebanese people agree with Gemayel? Who knows? They aren’t really allowed to discuss it. There certainly aren’t any polls on this question, and they wouldn’t be reliable if there were.

When I asked how many people he sensed agreed with him, he put it this way: “We have to take into consideration that a lot of people were killed here by Israel. We have to be very careful when we talk about it because people died. But it’s the same for Syria. Syria also killed a significant number of Lebanese from 1976 onward; more than what Israel killed, it may be argued. So if you want to have this attitude toward Israel, why not have the same toward Syria? Syria has done more harm to Lebanon than Israel.”

There are two reasons it’s considered acceptable to be a Lebanese ally of Syria but not of Israel. First of all, Syria is a “brother” Arab country. And second, Syria conquered Lebanon, transformed its political system, and still has agents and proxies inside.

“We just want peace in this country,” Gemayel said. “We want to build this country that has been destroyed for the last forty years. And we can’t build this country as long as it is at war. We don’t want to be at war anymore. It’s as simple as that.”

Read the rest in The Tower magazine.


Luxor in Revolt

Egyptian President Mohamad Morsi is destroying the country with a toxic mix of ideology and incompetence, and the city of Luxor is now in open revolt after he appointed a terrorist as the governor.

MEDINAT HABU, Egypt — Muhammed Hassan vividly remembers the November day in 1997 when six Gama'a Islamiyya gunmen charged a 3,400-year-old mortuary temple in Luxor.

“My cousin was a guard and was sitting in the police kiosk, and they took their guns out of their jackets and killed him,” he recounts.

A temple custodian, Hassan hid as the Islamists slaughtered 58 foreign tourists and four Egyptians. He crept out 45 minutes later to find “a bloodbath … puddles of blood everywhere.”

Helping to remove the bodies, he saw “one woman holding her child … when they died, they were stuck together. That was the most difficult thing for me to see.”

[…]

In Luxor, protests erupted last week when Morsy named Adel Al Khayat, a leading Gama'a Islamiyya figure, as the local governor; Al Khayat withdrew when residents barred his office door and burned tires in the street.

Many here resented his connection to the group behind the 1997 massacre. Many believe his selection reflected an Islamist assault on tourism, near collapse since Egypt's 2011 revolution.

In the past, Hassan says, 20,000 tourists visited Luxor daily. “Now we are lucky to get 400, 500.” Only five of the normal 320 tourist cruise ships sail the Nile, according to guides.

Hassan calls out to a fellow guide, Adel Asad, to ask his opinion about the state of things. “Luxor is dead,” Asad yells back, and the ousted governor “is an idiot, like the president.”

That's a sentiment heard often here.

Within living memory, Egyptians have tried monarchy, Arab Nationalism, socialism, and military dictatorship. None of those government models worked, so now they’re trying Islamism.

It won’t work either. It will fail more spectacularly than even the others.

Egyptians might eventually see the virtues in political liberalism—a small minority of Egyptians already do—but it won’t likely become the dominant philosophy until it’s pushed by people who haven’t been born yet.

Hezbollah's Disneyland

Hezbollah now has a theme park.

The Tourist Landmark of the Resistance promises a fun-filled day for the entire family celebrating the holy Islamic “resistance” against the perfidious Zionist Entity. The Syrian- and Iranian-backed Party of God built it on top of a mountain overlooking South Lebanon and the Israeli border area, and they bus in school kids from all over the country to look at it.

Anti-American propagandist Noam Chomsky attended the inauguration.

It’s open to visitors from everywhere in the world except Israel, so I had to see it. My friend and occasional traveling companion Sean LaFreniere joined me, and we set out in a rental car from Beirut.

Getting there was a bit tricky. The museum-park was built on an old Hezbollah combat base that sits 3,400 feet above the rolling hills of South Lebanon. The nearby village of Mleeta is nowhere near a main road, nor is it on any maps, not even the huge and otherwise comprehensive map I bought for twelve dollars. But Google Earth knows where it is, and I could see online that it’s just four miles south of the Christian town of Jezzine at the southern tip of the Mount Lebanon range.

So I figured Sean and I could go there via Jezzine, which is on every map and is not at all hard to find. Jezzine isn’t exactly a hot spot for tourists, but Westerners do wind up there once in a while to soak in the mountainous scenery, to admire the Ottoman architecture of the old downtown area, and to escape the heat and humidity down at sea level.

But I knew in advance that driving south from Jezzine might be tricky and potentially…interesting. Hezbollah has been snapping up property there for years and using it for some secretive purpose that still isn’t entirely clear. Whatever they’re doing, it’s almost certainly part of their battlefield preparation for the next round of armed conflict with Israel.

Reporter Nicholas Blanford visited the area south of Jezzine in 2010 and was stopped by a Hezbollah fighter with an AK-47. “What are you doing here?” the gunman said. “This is a military zone. You should not be here.”

Jezzine is not along the low-lying Israeli border where most of the fighting between Israel and Hezbollah has taken place. It’s a Christian town thousands of feet up. Immediately to the south of it, though, is one of the highest elevation Shia regions in all of Lebanon. It’s somewhat protected by geography from ground invasions, and because it’s at a high elevation, it’s an excellent and rather obvious place to dig in and launch surface-to-surface missiles.

So I felt a bit of trepidation about driving through there, but it’s the easiest route to Mleeta and Hezbollah’s theme park, and the journalist in me was curious if I’d see anything.

Sean and I had coffee in one of Jezzine’s cafes. An oblivious person would have no idea they were a mere handful of miles from either a closed terrorist military zone or a terrorist Disneyland. Jezzine is a mountain town that wouldn’t have looked out of place in Eastern Europe, but it’s in Lebanon where quasi-Western outposts in the East co-exist very uneasily next to Iran’s state-within-a-state on the Mediterranean.

Only one road leads south out of town, so there was no question which way Sean and I were supposed to go.

Lebanon’s mountains are overwhelmingly Christian and Druze and have been for a thousand years, but almost immediately outside Jezzine we passed Hezbollah billboards and flags. I tensed up a bit and scanned the countryside for signs military activity even though I doubted I’d see much. Hezbollah expertly hides its rocket launchers and bunkers. Its engineers built vast underground tunnels right under the noses of the Israelis by smuggling unearthed rocks out of the ground one or two at a time and by smuggling cement into caves one teaspoon at a time. It took years, but that’s how they did it. So while I was pretty sure I wouldn’t see anything Hezbollah wanted to hide, I couldn’t help looking.

And Hezbollah can’t help being paranoid.

A Lebanese army soldier stopped me and Sean on the road. He was a kid, hardly a day older than twenty, and he seemed affable enough like nearly all soldiers at Lebanese checkpoints, but a man in his fifties in a nearby building barked an order at him, and the kid told us to get out of the car.

We stepped out of the car.

“You need to go inside,” the kid said, “and answer some questions.”

This checkpoint was ostensibly staffed by the Lebanese army, but I later found out Hezbollah took control of it a couple of years ago. It was one of their demands during negotiations after they invaded Beirut in 2008. But I didn’t have to be told that. It was obvious. The man Sean and I were ordered to see was clearly not an officer in the army.

He wore blue jeans and a black leather jacket. He had a beard that looked like mine would if I didn’t trim it or shave for three weeks. (No one in the military wears beards.) If I showed you a picture of him, you’d think he was American or European with his white skin and blue eyes and his casual Western attire. His attitude, though, and his general bearing, reeked of authority and of Hezbollah.

“Where are you going!” he barked as if it was a command instead of a question.

“Nabatieh,” I said, referring a Shia city down off the mountain that is not in the hands of Hezbollah.

“No!” he said and wagged his finger in my face like I was a naughty child about to be punished. “Nabatieh, no!”

The Lebanese army command in Sidon told me and Sean we could go anywhere we liked north of Nabatieh, that only the Israeli border region was closed, but that turned out not to be true.

I’ve been to Nabatieh plenty of times. It is not controlled or administered by Hezbollah. Going there is not a big deal. There’s nothing sensitive in Nabatieh, nor is it dangerous or really even unfriendly. This man in the black leather jacket had no reason to care if Sean and I ended up in Nabatieh. What he didn’t want was for us to drive to Nabatieh from there.

“Turn around and go back!” the man said. “Back to Jezzine!”

“Okay,” I said.

If I defied him, he’d lay hands on me. That came across. He wasn’t carrying a weapon that I could see, but the young man on the road was. And it was obvious that the man in the black leather jacket was the king of that inch. Sean and I were not getting past him.

So we returned to the car.

“Back to Jezzine!” he yelled again, his face flushed with anger at our existence.

I don’t know what he wanted to hide, but whatever it was, it’s roughly two miles south of Jezzine and two miles north of Hezbollah’s Disneyland.

*

Sean and I had to drive all the way back down to Sidon and up to Mleeta from the coast. The distance to Mleeta from Sidon is only twenty miles or so, but the route passes through an intricate web of unmarked and mostly unmapped back roads over rolling terrain. Once in a while I saw a sign pointing us in the right direction, but only one turn in five was marked, so we made a ridiculous number of wrong turns.

We drove through village after village, often turning at random, having no idea if we were going to the right way or not, constantly doubling back and second-guessing ourselves. I asked for directions a couple of times, but no one had the first clue how to get there or how to explain it. Everyone told us something different, which is what happens throughout the country no matter where I’m trying to go. There’s hardly any point in asking, really. Some people, if they don’t know the way, will just guess.

But we finally found the right road up the mountain and climbed through unlabeled and unmapped Shia villages until eventually we reached the top and had a commanding airplane view of South Lebanon. Israel was off to the left through the haze. The azure Mediterranean shimmered like an ocean before us.

And then we were at the Tourist Landmark of the Resistance. Two hours earlier we were but a handful of miles away at the checkpoint.

Hezbollah’s museum-park was practically empty.

It’s not on the list of sites promoted or managed by the Ministry of Tourism. No. This is, I believe, the only tourist attraction in the world built and managed by a terrorist organization.

Admission is thankfully free. I don’t know for certain, but I suspect it’s against the law for me to conduct economic business of any kind with Hezbollah. It’s against the law for diplomats at the American Embassy in Lebanon to even speak to anyone from Hezbollah. Either way, I don’t want to give them my money.

Sean and I picked up our free tickets at the gate and walked in.

I didn’t want to poke around in Hezbollahland with my big and obvious journalist camera, but Sean brought his tiny one and took some pictures. All the photos you see here are his.

“How weird is this?” I said as we approached. “Nothing like this will ever be built by Al-Qaeda.”

A slightly scruffy young man in a baseball cap saw us and approached. He appeared to be in his mid-twenties. Apparently, he was our guide. 

How was this going to go? Would he think we were useful idiots who ran off to Lebanon to cheerlead the resistance? A miniscule percentage of Americans think Hezbollah is awesome, but a lot of them wash up in Lebanon. The place is a magnet for such people. I’ve met some. They have issues.

Or did our guide-to-be suspect Sean and I were as hostile to Hezbollah as they are to us? Would he think we were spies or Israelis who sneaked in on dual passports?

Turns out he was suspicious. He didn’t actually say “ugh” when he figured out who we are, but I could read it all over his face.

“Welcome,” he said stiffly.

I made eye contact with him for only the briefest of moments. “Thank you,” I said, and I said it coldly.

And so we made it clear what we thought of each other.

“Do you…know where you are?” he said, as if we were dolts who just happened upon the place randomly.

Of course I knew where we were. It took a lot of effort and most of the day to get there. But I pretended like I had only a vague knowledge of even which country I was in, let alone which part of it.

“I sort of know where we are,” I lied, “but not really, so why don’t you tell us what this place is.”

He correctly explained that Israel occupied South Lebanon from 1982 to 2000 and that Hezbollah resisted and expelled the occupation. He did not say that Hezbollah is a creature of the Syrian and Iranian governments. Nor did he say it’s a sectarian militia in a state of cold war with the rest of the country and in a state of hot war with the bulk of the people in Syria. He certainly didn’t say Hezbollah is a terrorist organization that operates on six continents. No, in his version, Hezbollah is the Lebanese branch of the French Resistance.

But of course he would put it that way. He was talking to an American.

Sean wandered off while the Hezbollah guy spoke. I know why Sean did it without having to ask. He was giving me an excuse to break away later without being rude or looking suspicious. But I did not want to break away yet. I wanted to hear how Hezbollah explained itself to Americans.

The way the guy told Hezbollah’s story, the period of resistance was all in the past. He did not say the Party of God is still active. He certainly didn’t tell me Hezbollah is guarding something secret just up the road. He didn’t know that Sean and I had tried to approach from that direction, but he had to know it was possible. I thought about asking him what the checkpoint was for, but he was wary enough already and I didn’t drive all the way to Mleeta just to get kicked out or interrogated right at the gate.

“Thanks for the welcome,” I said, “but I need to go find my friend.”

He nodded, relieved. He was no more interested in spending time with me than I wanted to hang out with him. “I’ll be here if you have any questions,” he said coldly.

We didn’t shake hands.

I wandered off in Sean’s direction. The man who would have been our guide didn’t follow.

“They’ve got a theater in that building,” I said and gestured with my thumb when I caught up with Sean. “They’re showing propaganda in there. We should go watch it.”

We went inside. The film was not long. It was all about Hezbollah’s insurgency from the mid-1980s through the year 2000. It ended with a wild boast from the now-dead Hezbollah leader Abbas al-Musawi. He claimed, “Israel has fallen.”

Um, no. Israel has not fallen.

Saddam Hussein’s regime fell in Iraq, as did Moammar Qaddafi’s in Libya. Hosni Mubarak fell in Egypt. Bashar al-Assad may yet fall in Syria. But Israel hasn’t gone anywhere.

On the outskirts of Cairo is a monument to the Yom Kippur War of 1973 where, after launching initially successful sneak attacks, Egypt and Syria got their asses kicked by the Israelis.

According to Cairo’s ludicrous narrative, Egypt emerged as the victor.

The monument was built by the North Koreans. An architecturally identical propaganda installation exists in Pyongyang.

I have no idea, really, if such hysterical claims of victory against all evidence and reality are taken seriously by those who make them. It’s no secret that failed leaders conceal the truth from their subjects, but at the same time the human mind is capable of extraordinary self-deception.

Hezbollah’s museum-park, though, is better than Egypt’s. It’s more creative and interesting to look at, the propaganda less obvious.

An extraordinary diverse array of Israeli and Hezbollah ordnance is on display to satisfy every war nerd’s curiosity. Some of it is set up in labeled orderly rows and some if it is used in post-modern set pieces.

Take the pit, for instance, described on a sign as “structural scenic art.” Blown-up Israeli tanks and helmets are “artistically” scattered about in a giant hole in the ground. It’s supposed to symbolize Israel’s defeat when Israeli troops left in 2000.

Beyond the pit are tunnels and bunkers. I couldn’t tell how much of what I was looking at was real and how much was built for the park. After all, the Tourist Monument of the Resistance was erected atop one of Hezbollah’s old military bases. Some of what I was looking at was probably real.

And since I couldn’t always tell where the real ended and the fake began, it was worth a visit and a look regardless of what I think about Hezbollah’s politics. It’s worth seeing. And per Dr. Johnson, it’s worth going to see.

I was able to momentarily divorce myself from the politics and recognize that, aside from the subject matter, it’s the kind of museum-park I’d expect to see in Europe or the United States. The experience could have been—should have been—creepier than it was. The fact that I wasn’t creeped out left me feeling uneasy. Why wasn’t it much more disturbing?

That’s when it hit me.

Hezbollah completely and utterly sanitized itself on top of that mountain.

Nowhere on the grounds is any mention whatsoever of the airplanes Hezbollah hijacked. Hezbollah pioneered suicide-bombings in the Middle East. Such things were unheard of before the Lebanese civil war. That’s a crucial part of Hezbollah’s history, and of the modern Middle East generally, but you wouldn’t know it from their museum. No exhibit chronicled the invasion of Beirut in 2008. Hezbollah’s involvement in the Syrian war is ignored. Acts of mass murder carried out in Argentina, Saudi Arabia, and Bulgaria are conspicuous blanks.

Visitors are not told about the kidnapping, torture, and murder of Americans in the 1980s. An honest Hezbollah museum would have a wax figure of a journalist chained to a radiator. No history of Hezbollah is complete without noting that the Party of God kidnapped the CIA’s Beirut station chief William Buckley and tortured him to death, but Hezbollah wants everyone to forget about that. Hezbollah destroyed the American and French Embassies in Beirut and leveled the US Marine base near the airport, but they left that stuff out, too.

Don’t get the wrong idea. They did not leave it out because they’re ashamed of it. These people are terrorists, not guilt-ridden liberals. They left it out because they know other people hate them for what they have done, yet they yearn to be popular.

And here’s the interesting thing about that: I’m not the target audience. Neither are you. Hezbollah isn’t sanitizing its history for Western consumption. Hezbollah is sanitizing its history for internal consumption.

Lebanese citizens are the target. Westerners can hardly even find the damn place. It’s not advertised anywhere, not in Beirut and certainly not in travel agency brochures. The Ministry of Tourism, which is of course geared to foreigners, completely ignores it. You have to know it’s there. A low-information visitor from Europe or the United States would have no idea it exists.

Hezbollah is selling itself as a patriotic guerrilla army that fought a war for liberation on behalf of the entire country. It has to because it’s otherwise feared and loathed as a foreign-backed militia that a single sect uses to bully all others.

The Party of God knows perfectly well that’s how it’s perceived. Hezbollah defensively argues against that perception on its very own plaques.

Hezbollah has repeatedly dragged the country into armed conflicts that no one else wants. In 2008 it started an internal war that no one else wanted. And it’s threatening to do it again by bringing home the Syrian war. An exhaustive catalogue of Hezbollah’s behavior would make it look no less monstrous at home as it does abroad.

There’s something else, too. If you were to visit this place without knowing anything about the relentless war against Israel except what Hezbollah told you, you’d think the war was long over. But just a few miles up the unmarked road to the north, the checkpoint manned by a paranoid irregular officer denying access to a military zone is proof that it’s not.

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Iran's Rowhani Backed Terrorist Attack in Argentina

The Washington Free Beacon has a damning report about the new Iranian president that everyone's so excited about.

Iranian President-elect Hassan Rowhani was on the special Iranian government committee that plotted the 1994 bombing of a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires, according to an indictment by the Argentine government prosecutor investigating the case.

The AMIA bombing is considered the deadliest terrorist attack in Argentina’s history, killing 85 and wounding hundreds more. The Argentine government had accused the Iranian government of planning the attack and Iran’s terrorist proxy Hezbollah of carrying it out. Numerous former and current Iranian officials are wanted by Interpol in connection with the bombing.

Former Iranian intelligence official Abolghasem Mesbahi, who defected from Iran in the late 1990s, testified that the decision to launch the attack was made within a special operations committee connected to the powerful Supreme National Security Council in August 1993.

According to the 2006 indictment, Mesbahi testified that Rowhani, who was then serving as secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, was also a member of the special committee when it approved the AMIA bombing.

The idea that Rowhani is a moderate is just as delusional as the notion that Syria can be pried away from its alliance with Iran, that the Muslim Brotherhood stands for democracy, and that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the root cause of the Middle East's problems. Retire it already.

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.

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