Bringing the Shia into the Fold?

Yesterday both Blackstar  and Abu_Muqawama  posted on the UK’s attempt to open up lines of communication with Hezbollah. I don’t think its signifigant and I participated in a long 91 comment discussion at Mr. Muqawama’s site which was quite good until about the last 40 when the whackjobism of a few individuals……

Anyway, speaking of Hezbollah, I recommend this  article on Lebanese Shias at Islam Online, which seems to have recently expanded its coverage of Shias.  Readers might be wondering why this is significant?  It’s because Islam Online is affiliated with Sunni cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi so its pretty much an exclusive Sunni organization.  It’s office is in Cairo, all the employees there are Sunni, and Sheikh Al-Qaradawi caused a controversy when he made some_negative_comments about the Shia last September.   One thing that has always stuck out (at least to me) is that the section on Islamist movements totally ignores Shia groups.  But during the last week I’ve noticed two articles on the Shia ( also see here)  whereas I can’t remember reading any before.   Is this some kind of attempt by Sheikh Al-Qaradawi to repair relations with the Shia? Or am I reading way too much into it? If anyone knows, I’d be interested in hearing.

Talking to Hezbollah

The Obama administration seems to have ushered in a welcome wind of change (well, for now).  The British government this week has announced that it is opening up talks with low-level officials from Hezbollah’s political wing. The UK had cut off all ties with both the military and political wings of the party in 2005, and had added the military wing to its list of “banned organizations” in July 2008.

While the US has officially distanced itself from this policy change (see this article from Hezbollah’s Al Manar), it seems to have very subtly opened the door for it to take place. President Obama after all has very recently started calling for reconciliation talks between the Taliban and the US. An anonymous State Department source quoted in the Al Manar article also states that the US might find the UK-Hezbollah talks beneficial.

There’s a great Op-ed today in the New York Times by Roger Cohen which discusses these policy reversals:

“Like Hamas in Gaza, Hezbollah has long been treated by the United States as a proscribed terrorist group. This narrow view has ignored the fact that both organizations are now entrenched political and social movements without whose involvement regional peace is impossible.

Britain aligned itself with the U.S. position on Hezbollah, but has now seen its error. Bill Marston, a Foreign Office spokesman, told Al Jazeera: “Hezbollah is a political phenomenon and part and parcel of the national fabric in Lebanon. We have to admit this.””

The Cohen piece is highly recommended reading.

Hezbollah all talk?

Without a doubt Hamas and their fans throughout the region are  a little disappointed with Hezbollah, a fellow member of the Resistance.  Remember back in 2006 – the Party of God picks a fight with Israel, and what does Hamas do?  They open up a Southern front, kidnapping the IDF oldier Galad Shalit, theoretically relieving pressure on Hezbollah up North.   I don’t have any specific quotes but I am sure Hamas is wondering where’s the payback?  “There is none” taunts Tariq Al-Homayed, editor of fiercely anti-Hamas and HB Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper in this  article: 

Hamas rushed to Hezbollah’s rescue in 2006 [Israel-Hezbollah summer war] following the abduction of two Israeli soldiers at the hands of Hezbollah, and even opened up another battlefront by abducting Gilad Shalit themselves, so why has Nasrallah not come to Hamas’s rescue today, especially considering that Khalid Meshal said that Hamas was awaiting action, not words, from Hezbollah?

Hezbollah is not likely to provide anything more than words or supports- it’s not in their interest to do more than that.  Still, Hassan Nasrallah’s 28 December speech did give some pretty strong moral support to their comrades in Gaza and came   close to calling for the people of Egypt to rise up against their regime, highly inflammatory rhetoric.  Read Egyptian Chronicles comments on the speech.

Catering to Carter

Granted I’m a little late, but I’ve finally gotten around to writing about something that was in the news last week and which I thought was important and interesting. Jimmy Carter, whose Carter Center enjoys considerable respect for its professionalism in election monitoring, visited Lebanon for four days last week. His main purpose was to meet with various party representatives as groundwork for election monitors to be sent in spring 2009 to observe the parliamentary elections.

Carter’s offer to send monitors was made of his own volition. This has incited some criticism in the blogging world about Carter’s offer being unsolicited, and of Carter himself being a useless and powerless actor in the Middle East drama. I don’t really agree with this. Elections in Lebanon, and in most if not all countries in the world, regularly suffer from sporadic irregularities to outright fraud (and I’m not just talking about places like Zimbabwe…hanging chads anyone?). Why should third parties observing elections be bad? If they’re not there, irregularities might take place. If they are there, their mere presence might dissuade some of these practices from taking place. How can it hurt the Lebanese state from coming out of the elections with a “clean” report card from the Carter Center? It could be a useful tool to encourage anything from more aid to foreign investment.

Carter went around meeting a lot of people. In fact, he had stated that he wanted to meet as many as possible. Michel Aoun, the main Christian politician from the opposition March 8 camp, accepted the invite. His ally Hezbollah however, refused. The reason for this was weak, to put it mildly. Hezbollah has a policy of not meeting with present or past US presidents, or to be more accurately “anyone from a US administration which supports Zionist terrorism”. What’s funny about this, of course, is that Carter published a book in which he labels the Israeli policies in the Occupied Palestinian Territories as being equivalent to apartheid, and has met with the top Hamas official Khaled Meshaal in Damascus a while ago. If Hamas is meeting with Carter, then surely Hezbollah could have shown more flexibility. Regardless, the party still came out saying that they do not oppose election monitors, so long as the monitoring is approved by the Cabinet.

Arming The Lebanese Army

The status and condition of the Lebanese Armed Forces seem to be a hot topic not only in Lebanon, but also in Paris and Washington these days.  Here’s something that doesn’t happen too frequently: an article in an otherwise generally decent Lebanese_newspaper , supplanted in terms of context, accuracy (if only on use of quotation marks), and informative detail, by a US governmental (Department of Defense to be precise)  press_release .

The news item relates to the provision of weaponry by the US to the Lebanese army.   While both the article and the press release discuss nothing groundbreaking or novel, they are interesting to read in that they provide specific numbers on different kinds of equipment shipped and to be shipped by the US, and also background on training programs offered.  For example, we learn that:

  • Lebanese officers are attending several US military colleges, and the International Military Education and Training fund for Lebanon has grown from $1.4 million in fiscal 2008 to $2.1 million this year;
  • Since 2006, the US has funneled more than $400 million in foreign military sales money to Lebanon;
  • The US has sent 285 Humvees to Lebanon, and another 312 will arrive by March;
  • The US has also sent 200 trucks and 41 M-198 155 mm artillery pieces;
  • The Lebanese army will get night-vision equipment and some tactical unmanned aerial vehicles;
  • 12 million rounds of ammo, spare helicopter parts, shoulder-fired rockets will be supplied; and
  • The US is committed to getting Lebanon more modern tanks, and the U.S. military is working on delivering M-60A3 tanks.

These numbers are based on quotes from DoD senior official Chris Straub, who is the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Near East and South Asian affairs.  While up to this point everything seems nice and rosy, there are, as expected, very important caveats with regard to the quantity and the nature of equipment supplied to the Lebanese army. Indeed, Straub adds: “We don’t have a conversation on these matters without considering the concerns of Israel and Israel’s qualitative military edge. That’s a U.S. commitment that we take very seriously.” (my emphasis)   The DoD press release then adds that “for example, the Lebanese army M-60 tanks are no match for Israel’s Mekava 4 main battle tanks.” What is the reason for this mismatch you ask? Straub explains: “We’re not trying to build up some juggernaut that could be threatening to anyone in the region, but to make the Lebanese armed forces capable in their own country.” 

Here is what is fundamentally wrong with this policy:  if the US thinks that propping up the Lebanese army just enough for it to provide a viable counterweight to Hezbollah will cause the latter to disintegrate or disappear, it will be sending weapons for a very, very long time with nothing changing in the situation on the ground. The reason for this is that Hezbollah is not competing with the Lebanese army ; Hezbollah is competing with Israel.  So long as the Lebanese army’s weaponry is weaker than that of Israel (which the US is on record as saying will be the case), Hezbollah will still be able to argue that the army is not strong enough to defend the country against Israeli aggression, and that its effort are needed.  And, indeed, it will be a very potent and correct argument to make.  The US policy in Lebanon basically seems to center on ways of fighting Hezbollah by proxy, that is, through the Lebanese army. But if Israel’s F-16’s were not able to annihilate Hezbollah in 2006, will the Lebanese army’s 597 Humvees be able to in 2009?

The Seven Villages

Most of us following Middle East news or Lebanon news know a few things about Hezbollah: it emerged in the early 1980’s during the heyday of the Lebanese civil war; its external allies are Iran and Syria; it is likely the strongest and best-trained armed group in Lebanon right now, on par or surpassing the Lebanese army itself; and because of this, it claims to be Lebanon’s stalwart and necessary defender against Israeli aggressions. Many of us are also aware that Hezbollah has established several conditions in order for it to voluntarily disarm its military wing.   Briefly, until 2000, the main condition for its military existence was the occupation of southern Lebanon by Israel.   Following Israel’s redeployment outside of southern Lebanon, Hezbollah emphasized the fact that it had to maintain its military character as the Shebaa Farms, a fertile parcel of land of about 22 km² (8 sq mi) remained occupied by Israel.  (For the sake of a more complete picture, I should also add that Hezbollah cites the regular violations of Lebanon’s airspace by Israeli fighter jets as  another reason for it to keep its arms). 

In the past few months, Hezbollah officials have begun citing if not an entirely new demand, then certainly a less frequently-branded one.  I’m talking about the territorial claim over “The Seven Villages”.  Heard about it? I hadn’t.  It seems that there are seven villages and twenty farms lying just within Israel’s northern border, and which Lebanon has historically claimed as Lebanese, albeit with much less fanfare than its other grievances against Israel.   Nicholas Blanford, a Beirut-based journalist and author of a book on the Hariri assassination that I haven’t quite finished_reading_yet , has a 17-page  study posted on the Now Lebanon website in which he explains the “Seven Villages” demand.

The study is quite an intriguing historical review of the events, negotiations, communications and most crucially, cartography, done by the British and French in the early 1920’s, along with a description of the Zionists’ involvement in these interactions. I highly recommend reading Blanford’s paper, but for those who are eager for the punch line of the story, Blanford concludes that the Seven Villages should have been included in the Lebanese state created by the French.  However, he predicts that raising this issue of re-drawing the borders of northern Israel/southern Lebanon might open the door for Israel to make demands of its own regarding territory it thinks should be part of Israel.   Although Blanford does not expressly say it, his implicit suggestion here seems to be that Lebanon should drop any claims it might have on the Seven Villages because this would complicate any peace talks with Israel.  He specifies that because Lebanon’s past behaviour suggests that it has tacitly accepted its present borders, Israel is unlikely to concede the concerned territories. 

I might be incorrect in interpreting Blanford’s last paragraphs as I have, however, I cannot help but think of two of the most elementary rules of any negotiation:  1)  if you don’t ask for something, you’re no likely to get it; and 2) always ask for more than what you think you will or can get.  In this vein, although I recognize that the idea of incorporating the Seven Villages into Lebanon is quite illusory,  I would never recommend that a party relinquish some of its demands before negotiations even begin simply because it might complicate the bargaining, or because the other party might retaliate with its own demands.  Why not keep the Seven Villages on the list of items to be negotiated with Israel, and use them as bargaining chips for obtaining something that might be more of a priority to Lebanon, like the Shebaa Farms?   For the time being though, it’s safest to say that the Seven Villages are just an added element to what Blanford aptly calls the “psychological warfare” between Hezbollah and Israel.

France Trying to Get “Back in the Game”

Editor’s Note:  Taking over the Lebanon desk at MediaShack will be Blackstar, an international lawyer based in London. 

French Prime Minister François Fillon is presently in Lebanon for a two-day visit with a full program of diplomatic activities. While his own office has described_the_trip as one aimed at helping the re-launching of economic life of Lebanon (Fillon is accompanied by fifty French business leaders and will meet with local businessmen), it appears more logical to view it as part of Sarkozy’s foreign policy agenda of re-launching France as a power-broker in the region. Economics aside, Fillon’s visit is important for two things:

I.  He will be signing, on France’s behalf, a military cooperation agreement in virtue of which France will provide training to Lebanon’s army.

This first item is attached to the (attempted) consolidation of France’s political role within Lebanon.  If anything, there seems to be a sense that France should supplant the US as the go-to foreign power when tensions arise locally and an outside arbitrator is sought.   Couple this with Sarkozy’s pro-Mediterranean foreign policy, and France’s historic and cultural links with Lebanon, the political capital invested might actually convert into a much greater influence in Lebanon’s internal matters, and perhaps one less polarizing than that of the US.

Another thing to wonder about regarding this Franco-Lebanese military cooperation agreement is how it will be viewed by the US and, by extension, Israel.   As has been discussed  previously on Media Shack,  the US has provided and has promised to continue providing the Lebanese army with tactical support and equipment.  This support has largely been seen as insufficient to prop up the army enough to drive Hezbollah’s military arm out of business.  The question to ask, therefore, is whether the US will try to impede or put conditions on France’s promised support to the Lebanese army.   The information available so far is that France is providing “training”.  Perhaps this will be felt as less threatening to Israel from a security perspective than shipments of sophisticated weaponry and technology.

II.  What intrigues me more about Fillon’s visit, however, is a snipet  from Naharnet  which basically states that France supports Lebanon holding talks with Israel about the “normalization” of Hezbollah.

My scouring of Middle Eastern and French media headlines could not provide me with any more details on this point.   For one, it seems strange that France tells Lebanon to talk to Israel when the subjects of any negotiations between the two so intimately and directly concern Syria and cannot be settled without Syria’s involvement.  Also, what is meant exactly by  “normalization”? Both in theory and in practice, Hezbollah is “normalized” in Lebanon.  But how can a party within a state be normalized vis-à-vis another state? And what exactly can or should France to do to assist in this?  I think regardless of the angle from which you look at the word, the obvious definition in this context would be the demilitarization of Hezbollah, and perhaps we can accuse the editors at Naharnet of dodgy semantics. There might be more reporting on this tomorrow as Fillon’s trip unfolds. If any readers have found anything else on this subject, I’d be very interested in seeing it.