Gary Gambill, current editor of Mideast Monitor and former editor of the Middle East Intelligence Bulletin, is one of the sharpest commentators on Lebanese affairs. His analysis is always meticulously well researched and well written, and I’ve enjoyed reading him for years. This interview was conducted over email. Please feel free to respond with your own questions, and perhaps Gary will take some time to engage the readership in the comment section.
In other news, I’ll be giving a talk about Lebanese electoral reform at Stanford University’s Center for Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law, this Thursday at 12:00 PM. Feel free to stop by if you’re in the area. And finally, check out Jesse Aizenstat’s iPad ebook about surfing and politics in the Middle East.
QN: In your recent article, Dreaming of Damascus, you argued that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad could not sign a peace deal with Israel because this would undermine the legitimacy of his Alawite regime in a Sunni-majority country.
GG: Well, I argued that the unique sectarian composition of Syria’s regime makes it less politically capable than a representative government of making peace with Israel. One of the problems with writing op-eds is that one doesn’t have the space to clarify everything, so let me underscore a few points:
First, I’m not saying Assad doesn’t want a peace treaty with Israel – I suspect he would sign one if the expected gains outweighed the political risks. But what what are the political risks of accepting the terms currently demanded by Israel (breaking with Iran, an end to all direct and indirect support for anti-Zionist movements, trade relations, an occasional bouquet of flowers, etc.) for an Alawite-dominated regime in a majority Sunni country?
Second, my hypothesis is essentially structuralist. The constraint on foreign policy I’m postulating is generated primarily not by the preferences of either the Alawite minority or the Sunni majority (neither of which strikes me as more averse to peace than Egyptians, Jordanians, or Palestinians), but by the fact that a regime dominated by the former is governing the latter. The Assad regime has long managed Sunni resentment at being ruled by an Alawite-led regime (which we all know is common, particularly among the religious) by advancing regional causes that resonate with Sunnis (particularly anti-Zionism). This is why Al-Qaeda and non-Syrian branches of the Muslim Brotherhood have been friendly to Assad, and it is partly why Syria has been so stable. A strategic realignment away from the rejectionist axis would make the regime more vulnerable to internal and external subversion.
Third, my substantiation of the argument is essentially deductive. There haven’t been any other cases of heterodox Islamic minorities governing Sunnis in the modern era, so we have only the Syrian case to look at. The empirical data from this one clinical trial is consistent with my hypothesis (the Assad regime has, justifiably or not, repeatedly declined whatever terms happen to be acceptable to Israel at any given time), but it’s also consistent with other explanations of Syrian behavior. Although I lead the article with the claim that Assad “can neither be bribed nor intimidated into making a ‘strategic realignment’ until he first reconciles with the Syrian people,” I’m not saying that the sectarian power imbalance in Syria is the only determining factor.
QN: How would you explain Assad’s repeated attempts to get Israel to negotiate on the Golan, as well as the assessment of many of Israel’s top military advisors that Assad is serious about pursuing peace? Is he just playing the process and fooling even the most hard-nosed of his enemies?
Well, clearly Assad derives enormous benefits from the process of negotiating with Israel, irrespective of the outcome, so his desire to negotiate does not itself reveal much about ultimate intentions. Even if we take him at his word that he wants a settlement, he has said little publicly to suggest that he would be willing to make the kind of strategic realignment demanded by Israel even if it is willing to withdraw completely from the Golan.
Of course, Assad has every right to insist that normalization of diplomatic relations with Israel not automatically entail full-blown friendship (a demand that is certainly not typical of most peace settlements). I just don’t think he’s going to get his way. He doesn’t have his father’s international credibility, and he played a far deadlier role in sponsoring terrorism against Israelis. He’s going to have to show them the money to get the Golan back, and I don’t see him doing that anytime soon.
QN: In Syria’s Triumph in Lebanon: Au Revoir les Ententes, you argued that Syria has returned to dominance in Lebanon. How is the present state of affairs different from the conditions that obtained in the 1990s and early 2000s?
GG: Regional and international toleration has always been a critical enabler of Syria’s domination of Lebanon, and the attitudes of all the major external players are gradually reverting back to form. The fact that Western and Arab governments have stopped criticizing Syria’s conduct in Lebanon (apart from its transshipment of weapons to Hezbollah) and embraced the contrived fiction that Assad is “mediating” between Saad Hariri and Hezbollah is eerily reminiscent of the days when they pretended there wasn’t an occupation (the word itself was literally absent from American official statements on Lebanon until 2003). Continuing American antagonism toward Hezbollah suits the Syrians just fine – their value as a “mediator” is enhanced if Hezbollah isn’t getting along with the international community.
Internally, most Lebanese political elites are seeking amicable relations with Syria (even as many denounce Hezbollah). The lack of uproar over the recent disappearance of four Syrian political dissidents in Lebanon is really sad.
Syrian troops haven’t returned, but that’s the beauty of it for Assad. Domination without (or nearly without) occupation is exactly what Assad was trying to achieve in 2001-2004 with the drawdown of Syrian forces and the elevation of President Emile Lahoud over Hariri.
QN: Are there any opportunities for Lebanon to gain a credible measure of sovereignty over its affairs?
What is “sovereignty” in a country as divided as Lebanon? If you mean a government that asserts its prerogatives in accordance with the “will of the people,” Lebanon has the most sovereign state in the Arab world – it performs exactly as the country’s democratically elected leaders intend it to. The problem is that the “will of the people” is fractured and contradictory.
The Lebanese people will have to take it upon themselves to strive for something higher. The demonstration against sectarianism in Beirut earlier this month was a hopeful sign, but a few thousand people is a far cry from the kind of popular mobilization needed for the Lebanese to follow in the footsteps of Egypt and Tunisia.
QN: Who killed Rafiq al-Hariri?
GG: I’ve been very careful not to play into the Syria-bashing that has been in vogue in Washington, and I have serious doubts as to whether Syria was involved in some of the subsequent assassinations frequently attributed to it (especially Pierre Gemayel and Brig.-Gen. François al-Hajj). But in my view the Assad regime was almost certainly responsible for the Hariri killing. I’ll explain my reasoning step by step:
1. It would have been virtually impossible for anyone outside of Syria’s extended network of clients and proxies to cleanly pull off such a complex operation in the heart of Syrian-occupied Beirut. There certainly was no precedent of uninvited guests operating at anywhere near this level of sophistication under the nose of the Syrians. Israel probably could have pulled off the hit, but not cleanly (hundreds of former Israeli agents rotting in Lebanese prisons today testify to its sloppy covert ops). If the Israelis did it, there would have to have been a conspiracy on the part of both the UN investigative commission and at least some Lebanese security officials to bury evidence pointing in that direction. That seems wildly implausible to me.
2. It’s virtually inconceivable that elements inside this network would have taken it upon themselves to kill a leading Lebanese political figure without say so from Syrian intelligence officials in Lebanon, and virtually inconceivable that the latter would have given the order without authorization from Assad. There is no precedent of either, and it’s difficult to plausibly reconstruct what factional interests might have been served by “rogue” operators killing Hariri.
3. The behavior of Jamil al-Sayyid and other top Syrian appointed Lebanese security officials after the killing simply isn’t consistent with the frenzy of activity one would expect in the wake of an unapproved killing of such a major figure. These are the same guys who once sent tanks through the streets of Beirut because of a false rumor that Aoun was returning from exile.
4. The telecommunications evidence that Hezbollah members were conducting surveillance of Hariri before and during the assassination is pretty damning once you closely examine the methodology (e.g. “collocation” of cell-phone signals). Hezbollah would not have gotten involved without Syrian collaboration.
5. The Syrians had by far the strongest motive of anyone for wanting Hariri dead. Hariri was quietly coordinating with the emerging Christian and Druze opposition with the intention of crushing pro-Syrian loyalists in the 2005 elections, as well as with French and American efforts to pressure Syria to disengage from Lebanon. Hariri got killed right at the moment when everyone was wondering what in the hell the Syrians were going to do about Hariri.
Am I ABSOLUTELY certain that the Syrians killed Hariri? No. Am I absolutely certain that the Libyans killed Musa Sadr or that Geagea’s Lebanese Forces killed Prime Minister Rashid Karami? Or for that matter that Lee Harvey Oswald killed JFK? No. But let’s not kid ourselves. Let’s also not pretend that every other government in the Arab world wouldn’t resort to murder in fending off serious political challenges. Recently leaked Egyptian State Security files indicate (if authentic) that the Mubarak regime carried out the Alexandria church bombing in a clumsy attempt to strengthen its pretext for tyrannical rule.
QN: You’ve argued that the STL (and the UNIIIC before it) was compromised by the blunders of Detlev Mehlis.
GG: Yes. Mehlis either was duped into staking the credibility of the UNIIIC on dubious witness testimonies in his first interim report to the Security Council or knowingly attempted to pass off unreliable witness testimonies as solid evidence. So he was either incompetent or unethical. All hope of a judicial process that would be broadly perceived by the Lebanese people as impartial and just was lost on his watch, which is a shame because his successors seemed to have pulled it together. The upcoming indictments are, according to all indications, based on compelling evidence that has in no way been tainted by the missteps of Mehlis, but they won’t be perceived as such by a great many Lebanese of all sects. Don’t be surprised if Hezbollah one day erects a statue of the German prosecutor.
QN: What kind of effect, if any, will the published indictments have upon the political arena in Lebanon, particularly if they do name members of Hezbollah?
GG: It’s difficult to say. On the one hand, incontrovertible evidence of Hezbollah’s involvement is a glaring violation of its long-standing pledge not to use violence to settle domestic political disputes. This is a much more serious violation of its so-called “purity of arms” than its route of Sunni and Druze militias in May 2008 (which at least was in defense of a fiber optic telecommunications system unquestionably vital to its military struggle against Israel). The late Hariri made no secret of his desire for peace with Israel and unquestionably encouraged his foreign allies to intercede on his behalf with Syria, but he cannot be said to have posed a clear and present danger to the “resistance” – killing him was out and out murder even under Hezbollah’s own moral code. I myself was VERY skeptical of the allegation when Der Speigel first broke the story of Hezbollah’s involvement in May 2009, but the evidence now appears indisputable.
However, Hezbollah’s saving grace is the fact that large numbers of Lebanese (85% of Shiites, 54% of Christians, and 21% of Sunnis, according to one recent poll) don’t accept the legitimacy of the tribunal. Moreover, there has been a long lead time between confirmation of Hezbollah’s rumored indictment last summer and the indictments themselves. People have had a long time to adjust to the news and draw their own conclusions, so unless the indictments contain a surprise we don’t know about, the worst may already be over for Hezbollah.
QN: How do you assess the current position and identity of the Free Patriotic Movement? How durable is the alliance between the Aounists and the “Resistance camp”?
GG: I haven’t been paying close attention to the inner workings of the FPM as of late, but I expect its alliance with Hezbollah to endure for quite some time. Aoun’s decision-making, from his choice of election partners in 2005 to his alliance with Hezbollah the following year and subsequent reconciliation with Syria, has been largely driven by the constraints and opportunities afforded by the positions of other players. The refusal of March 14 to accept his presidential candidacy (despite the fact that his party won over two-thirds of the Christian vote in the 2005 elections) made this alignment an inevitability. Any other Lebanese politician in his situation would have done the same thing (indeed, Hariri and Jumblatt DID do essentially the same thing when they allied with the Shiite bloc against Aoun in the 2005 elections). That’s how the game is played in Lebanon, and Aoun has proven to be a quick learner since returning from exile. The presidency is his if he can live long enough to claim it in 2014.