Apologies to Khulood Fahim, who prepared this piece in a timely way. It got stuck in my queue:
On November 20, Michael Doran of the Hudson Institute, Mohammed Alyahya of the Atlantic Council, and Tony Badran of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies attempted with moderator Lee Smith of the Hudson Institute to answer the question, “Is Lebanon Saudi Arabia’s New Zone of Confrontation with Iran?” The event took place at the Hudson Institute and was live-streamed online, which is how I accessed the discussion. The question, timely in light of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s recent resignation announcement from Saudi Arabia, was answered from a Saudi perspective (Alyahya), a Lebanese perspective (Badran), and an American perspective (Doran), all three of whom agreed with each other on several issues.
That the media has falsely portrayed recent events and Saudi Arabia’s intentions was a common theme presented by the speakers. Alyahya stated that there were two important issues at hand. First, Prime Minister Hariri cited several reasons for his resignation, including the dysfunctional nature of the Lebanese government and Hezbollah’s political control. The media’s narrative, however, has assumed that Hariri had been detained and placed under house arrest by Saudi Arabia, and has disregarded the reasons that Hariri himself put forth for his resignation. The second issue is the fear mongering efforts about strikes against Hezbollah by Saudi Arabia, the US, and Israel, when no such intentions are present in any of those countries. These tactics, Alyahya maintained, are efforts to distract from “real problems” in Lebanon. The image of Saudi Arabia as an aggressor is one that the US media has been perpetuating as well, Doran added. The popularity of this image is due to two factors: persisting Obama foreign policy views that support Iran’s influence in Lebanon, and efforts to contradict President Trump, who is close to Saudi Arabia.
Badran also offered American policies from the Obama administration as reasons for the negative light in which Saudi Arabia is portrayed. In 2013, when Hezbollah began its military involvement in Syria, causing retaliation in the form of attacks in Beirut, Obama’s policy was to share intelligence with the Lebanese Armed Forces and to work with Hezbollah to limit such threats. The American goal of preserving Lebanon’s stability actually served to maintain Hezbollah’s power, Badran commented. In 2015, the basis upon which the US was supporting the Lebanese Armed Forces changed from UN Resolution 1701 to the portrayal of the Armed Forces as partners in counterterrorism efforts directed primarily at “Sunni jihadism,” a category in which the Obama administration also included Saudi Arabia. Such a narrative, then, made of Saudi Arabia an enemy, and further allowed for a “pro-Iran policy” in Lebanon.
Continuing to present an alternate picture, the speakers discussed the true extent of the power possessed by Prime Minister Hariri and Hezbollah. The initial idea that Hariri’s return to power in 2016 could limit Hezbollah’s power was erroneous, Alyahya began, and Saudi Arabia had opposed it from the beginning. Badran agreed, saying that the lesson learned in the last few weeks is that there are no strong Lebanese actors opposing Hezbollah, and that the government can be considered an “accomplice” to the organization. Echoing the Saudi stance, Badran opined that their original mistake was to allow Hariri to return to power in the first place, and that their recent push for his resignation was needed, albeit a “year too late.” Hezbollah’s power can be best imagined when seen in a regional context, as the organization is not merely a Lebanese problem. Hezbollah’s influence can be seen in multiple countries and on many levels, including in logistical planning on the behalf of Houthi rebels in Yemen, and in military involvement in Syria and elsewhere as Iranian proxies.
Saudi policy, Doran contended, is a message to Washington that there is no Lebanese alternative to Hezbollah’s power, and that, like Iran and Russia in Syria, Hezbollah has been building its power in Lebanon through the establishment of “red lines”- boundaries that it forces everyone to respect. Despite this, Doran explained that American policy so far has adopted an indirect approach, avoiding confrontation with Iranian proxies and instead supporting its own proxies, such as the Abadi regime in Iraq and the Lebanese Armed Forces. This approach has not been effective, as American proxies “never win” in clashes.
Badran stated that there is a desire in Lebanon to maintain the status quo, encouraging Saudi Arabia to deal with the Hezbollah by confronting Iran elsewhere and not Lebanon. Badran criticized this by saying that Lebanon is critical to Hezbollah’s activities, as it is a training ground and a base for its actors. “Lebanon,” he maintained, “is an exporter of destabilization to the region.”
Most pertinent in the discussion was what the panelists considered widespread misrepresentation of the situation, which has resulted in harmful misinterpretations, but Badran thought conflict or a “proxy war” in Lebanon unlikely.
Stefano De Mistura, the UN’s negotiator for Syria, has been assiduously building “12 points” of commonality at his Geneva-based proximity negotiations with the Syrian government and opposition. A version of these got tweeted around late last week (apologies, I’ve forgotten by whom). I’ve been contemplating them over the weekend.
The 12 points are good. Titled “living intra-Syrian essential principles,” they project an end-state that includes a sovereign, democratic Syria including all its national territory, a non-sectarian state of citizens with equal rights and the usual array of freedoms, good governance and a unified army, rejection of terrorism, preservation of national heritage…. In other words, motherhood and apple pie.
Like many other diplomatic documents, the most significant part is what is missing: any transition in governing authority away from Bashar al Assad and any accountability for acts committed during the almost seven years of war. The Syrian opposition is no doubt insisting on that. The Syrian government representatives walked out over the weekend, presumably because they are unwilling to move in that direction.
The military situation inside Syria gives Assad the license to refuse. He does not control the entire country: Turkish troops control part of the northern border as well as part of Idlib province, Syrian opposition forces control part of the south along the Israeli and Jordanian borders while US-supported, and Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces control much of the northeast. Islamic State still has some presence in the south and east. But Assad is increasingly secure in Damascus, protected by Iran and Russia and raining bombs on remaining pockets of resistance east of the capital and in other parts of the country.
With the US headed for the exit, the denouement in Syria depends heavily on what Iran and Russia are prepared to do. Iran will back Assad to the hilt: they own him much more now than they did seven years ago and stand close to gaining the much ballyhooed Shia “land bridge” through Iraq and Syria to Lebanon. Some see strains between Iran and Russia, which has less interest in Assad and more interest in ensuring that any possible successor is friendly to Moscow’s continued presence. Hence the Russian interest in at least parts of the less resistant parts of the Syrian opposition.
The Syrian opposition correctly understands that the UN’s motherhood and apple pie principles cannot be implemented with Assad still in place. Neither Iran nor Russia will be interested in a seriously democratic Syria, whose Sunni majority has manned most of the opposition. That is why Moscow and Tehran continue, with Ankara’s cooperation, to convene meetings in Astana and Sochi that are now clearly intended to displace the UN’s “Geneva process” in the search for a political solution.
The US has only a few cards left to play:
- it owns, with its SDF allies, a good part of Syria’s northeast, including the main Syrian oil producing facilities;
- it controls, with European allies, IMF and World Bank funding for reconstruction;
- it wields a veto over any new resolution on Syria in the UN Security Council.
Somehow the US needs to use these cards to encourage a political evolution that would enable the 12 principles to be realized, eventually, in practice. That’s not going to be easy. You might even need a fully functional State Department to make it happen.
He said he didn’t meddle. He said he didn’t meddle. I asked him again. You can only ask so many times….Every time he sees me, he says, ‘I didn’t do that…And I believe, I really believe, that when he tells me that, he means it.
The Russian Ambassador to Serbia, in an interview with Sputnik News, notes that my family name, Serwer, is “strange.”
Indeed it is. Though a name in Kurdistan and Pakistan (it means the leader or the man in front, I am told), my “Serwer” was likely invented at immigration, as all my immediate relatives and their descendants in the US bear that name except for those few who later changed it to “Server.” Apart from Kurds and Pakistanis, I know of no Serwers in the US to whom I am not related.
The name before immigration was Servianski. My ancestors were Jews, as I am, once upon a time from Russia. They left there sometime in the 19th century for the Russian partition of Poland, where they lived near Lake Servi, whence the name. Now a resort spot for middle class Poles near the northeastern town of Sejny, Lake Servi must have hosted a Jewish shtetl once upon a time. Fully half the population of Sejny was Jewish at one point, and there is still a synagogue building there, but no Jewish community. Russian czars, World War I, Stalin, Hitler, and World War II took care of that.
We don’t know whether my antecedents were political refugees or economic migrants, but the family was not unique: many Jews left unwelcoming Russia and Poland in the nineteenth century, then moved on to the United States in the 1890s. Mine arrived not at Ellis Island, which only opened in 1892, but shortly before that at Castle Garden, the facility at the Battery where immigrants were processed earlier.
A colleague has suggested to me that the Russian ambassador’s remark was a thinly veiled anti-Semitic one. I suppose that might be right. But I don’t really care: my views on the Balkans and Russia are shaped mainly by my commitment to liberal democracy and its virtues, not least of which is correct treatment of Jews and other minorities. That virtue holds today, despite the current fashion for ethnic nationalism in both the US and Russia, not to mention the Balkans and other places. I was pleased to see that yesterday’s elections in the US (especially Virginia, New Jersey, and New York) amounted to a massive repudiation of Trumpism and, by implication, Putinism.
Russia’s and Poland’s loss of Jews like my family was America’s gain. The Balkans would do well to remember that when hearing Moscow’s attacks on Americans, Jewish or not. We are the people Russia and other countries drove out, cast off, and enslaved, to their lasting detriment. I am proud of my strange name, which is preferable to one derived from a pretty lake in Russian-occupied Poland that my grandparents fled.
President Trump said Saturday en route to Asia that
the reason our stock market is so successful is because of me. I’ve always been great with money, I’ve always been great with jobs, that’s what I do.
None of the these claims are true. Job and economic growth under Trump has been a bit slower than they were s under Obama, not faster. The previous presidency is a major factor in any first 6-10 months of any subsequent presidency, so you can blame that on Obama if you like, but there is no credit due to Trump on both grounds. The stock market is up sharply since Trump’s election, but I’ll only give him credit for that if he takes responsibility for when it falls. The factors determining stock prices are obviously unknown. Trump’s aggressive efforts to eliminate Obamacare and environmental regulations may be part of the story, but the inevitable fall may well erase current gains. Then Trump will no doubt stay silent, or blame Congress and the Democrats.
A president who thinks he determines stock prices is a president unaware of the limits on his power. But we knew that. His tweets this week suggested that the sentence handed down to a soldier who pleaded guilty to desertion was inadequate and that the perpetrator of the terrorist attack in New York City should get the death penalty. The judge in the soldier’s case made clear that it was a previous over-reaching presidential tweet that got the soldier off without prison time. No doubt the courts handling the terrorism case will eliminate consideration of the death penalty for the same reason.
Trump has likewise managed to be counterproductive in other areas as well. The failure to repeal and replace Obamacare is his biggest legislative debacle. The failure to pass his proposed tax cut for business and the rich will be the next. It is likely he will head into the second year of his presidency with no serious legislative accomplishments. His executive actions eliminating environmental and other regulations will be his main achievements, dubious as they may be. They certainly will not bring back coal, as he has repeatedly promised both as candidate and president, but they will still dirty the air Americans breath and the water in the nation’s streams and rivers, not to mention hasten the impact of global warming.
The story is similar in foreign policy, where a president in theory wields more unconstrained power, but Trump has managed to cripple himself by eviscerating the State Department and trying to do everything himself:
Trump’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) has undermined the American position in Asia, where the president will visit for the next 10 days. He is demanding that Russia and China help in stopping North Korea’s nuclear and missile ambitions, something he has given neither one much reason to do. His bravado talk of how strong America is in front of our troops in Japan contrasts sharply with his inability to counter North Korea in any meaningful way, including militarily. No doubt he will pronounce his meetings with Chinese President Xi and Russian President Putin great successes, but the fact remains that neither is willing to do much to restrain Pyongyang.
The President has talked a strong line against Iran but done little or nothing to limit its rise. His decertification of the Iran nuclear deal has so far had no consequences, because everyone understands that we are far better off with the deal than without it. The only serious concerns about it are its “sunset” (expiration) and access to Iranian military sites. To get fixed, both these issues will require major concessions from the US that Trump will be unwilling to make. Trump has done nothing against Iran’s surrogate, Hizbollah, in Syria. Lebanese Prime Minister Hariri’s resignation strengthens Hizbollah’s position there. Not to mention that the war against the Houthis in Yemen is not going well. Iran is far stronger regionally than it was when Trump took office.
The one country in which Trump seems to have a serious impact is Saudi Arabia. His appeal to the Saudis to stop terrorist financing led to Riyadh’s blockade of Qatar, driving it closer to Iran and splitting the Gulf Cooperation Council. That is not the Washington’s advantage. Now he seems to have greenlighted the Kingdom’s crackdown on corruption, leading to the arrest of princes uncomfortable with the meteoric rise of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The Kingdom knows how to turn every phone call from the President into an instrument of royal advantage.
The net effect is clear: the US is weak and getting weaker. This will no doubt continue so long as the president fails to understand the limits on his power.
Moscow has decided to convene a November 18 all-Syria (presumably opposition and government) dialogue in Sochi. Having shaped the military situation on the ground with its air intervention starting more than two years ago, the Russians are figuring they have the clout to shape the political landscape as well. While nominally still committed to the Geneva process and UN Security Council resolution 2254, Moscow wants to short-circuit that laborious effort and try for a quick solution. The Security Council can endorse it after they fact, they figure.
The Syrian government says it will dialogue. It no longer fears the t-word: transition. The Americans will likely not oppose the effort, as they have little interest in Syria once the Islamic State and Al Qaeda are routed. The Iranians and Turks may not be pleased to see the Russians take the lead, but they won’t object either. Turkey is getting what it wants most: a license to keep the Syrian Kurds from lining their entire southern border. Ditto Iran, which wants to keep Bashar al Assad in place as president, as he will allow Hizbollah free rein in much of Syria, including transferring arms from the Iraqi border by land to Lebanon.
The opposition doesn’t like the idea. But it is fragmented and parts will go along to get along, hoping that something decent will emerge from the process, or just hoping to snag some benefits for themselves. The harder-line Islamists and some devoted liberals will likely continue the insurgency against Assad, but they are unlikely to get far any time soon. Both Tehran and Moscow will try to ensure that no significant threat to the regime emerges.
If the more moderate opposition can get itself organized at least in some communities and convince the Russians that local elections should be held even before a new constitution is approved, then some genuine, organic voices of political dissent might emerge. Otherwise, the most organized political force in the country–the Ba’ath party–is likely to win the day, even if national elections are not fixed. Assad won’t get his usual >90%, but he will win and claim democratic legitimacy, no matter how few people vote.
The Russians are figuring they are entitled to determine the political outcome, but they are also trying to avoid responsibility for the reconstruction of Syria. That’s where American indifference needs to give way to determination. Beyond its modest contributions in Raqqa–demining and rubble clearance are all the Americans want to do there–Washington should refuse to foot the bill, or allow the IMF and World Bank to do so, for what is mostly Russian, regime, and Iranian damage to the country’s housing, commerce and infrastructure.
Beyond the political realm, there are no real spoils to speak of in Syria, only a big bill for destruction. As Colin Powell said, you broke it, you bought it. To the victor…