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Sunday, April 13, 2014

Business As Usual in the Middle East?


We have an age-old Arab ritual come spring. Carpets dangle for dear life from balconies as women folk flog the dust before packing them off to the attic. A cleansing of a sort that announces the summer’s sun.

That’s what many thought Arabs were doing back in 2011. “Spring!” The status quo hanging on for dear life, a bit of a good whipping, a cleansing of a sort. Therein the biggest delusion began: that a hard beating would be more than enough to dust off an epoch of abuse and failure. Worse! That it would all be done to the euphoric crescendo of Beethoven’s Ninth.

Now we mourn, lamenting the sameness of it all, because, we are told, it’s that damned stubborn status quo. “Told you so!” This has become the mantra of the strangest of bedfellows. For Bashar Assad? “Told you so.” Against him? “Told you so.” Sissi, yes? “Told you so.” Sissi, no? Ditto that.

Judging by the surface collisions erupting across the region, the complaint is not entirely wrong. The battle today as before seems to be between the same old foes: the postcolonial state and Islamism. To each country its own circumstance and flavor, of course, but the standard line is that as much weakened systems gave way, the organized Islamists moved to share the chair if not altogether usurp it, while the so-called liberals, played by this side and that, aided and abetted, and now are content to revert to their time-honored habit of looking on.

The point being: a historical opportunity has been missed and here we are in the throes of a counter-revolution with regional and international forces taking up position as the status quo in one guise or another reimposes itself.

The very seasoned Patrick Cockburn goes further in a recent piece in The Independent. He argues that perhaps the single most instructive lesson from the Libyan experience is that “demands for civil, political and economic rights – which were at the centre of the Arab Spring uprisings – mean nothing without a nation state to guarantee them; otherwise national loyalties are submerged by sectarian, regional and ethnic hatreds.” Pretty much the case now in five different archetypes of collapse: Lebanon, Iraq, Libya, Yemen and Syria, the last three courtesy of the recent upheavals.

But if, indeed, this has been the grievous error of Arab oppositions, the tragic reality is that it is but a continuum of the regimes’ own original sin. Dare we forget how much cruelty they inflicted in the nation state’s name and how many worthy causes were subverted under its banner? Or the success with which they made themselves synonymous with the nation state as they went about reducing entire national entities into family fiefdoms? In the end, this collapse of which Cockburn speaks is as much the precursor as it is the epilogue to the revolts.

And still, at least in the case of Syria, you could not help but marvel, during the very early stages of the unrest, at how resilient civil society proved in the face of Assad’s efforts to splinter a heaving nation along sectarian identities, swiftly deploying violence to fracture civic solidarities. Just as you could not but flinch as the Middle East’s most reactionary powers very quickly mimicked the worst of Assad’s bloodletting.

It’s a grotesque irony that, for both Assad and his external enemies, popular “demands for civil, political and economic rights” have been equally unnerving, and for both, counter-revolution has been the actual rallying cry. No less hideous is the fact that even the most radical early calls for change by Syria’s first wave of rebels did not envision, let alone plan, a regime change this bloody and this devastating to the very meaning of Syria.

How, then, the status quo might triumphantly hold forth against this blatantly infernal backdrop is one of those questions very few of us are interested in poking lest it interfere with the understandably simpler line of: “Told you so! Bashar is staying.”
  
So it goes for Egypt. You can almost hear history desperately dialing back in many people’s wishful thinking at the mere mention of Sissi. But how can it? Not only because too much has been broken to be put back together as it once was. But because neither the state nor the Islamists have the skills, let alone the will and the imagination, to tackle the profuse crises that finally unleashed the uprising. Regimes tumbled, in the final analysis, because the states over which they presided had long been slowly crumbling under them.

This is a region that is literally limping every which way in the face of wholesale failure of staggering proportions. By every quantifiable measure the state has been progressively recusing itself and the people simply can no longer make do with band-aids and bread crumbs. Every assumption has been turned on its head and every problem begs for an urgent and serious solution, from the disastrous effects of climate change on food security; to the technological disruptions that are undecipherable to our governments; to the growing chasm between countryside and city; to the ruling elites that simply cannot fathom the insistence of the times on more open polities; to the grinding poverty and unemployment that lock themselves tight, much like tree vines, around our political economies. Add to these the deep ruptures that portend, where ever they have occurred, the end of imperious centralized authority.

But this status quo has entered the 21st century with all the battered tools and used up tricks of the old one, and the dire consequences are literarily too painful to bear.

A vacuum is not a state of affairs that calls for celebration, but it is one that demands much more than the bowing of the head, arms up resignation offered by many an analyst, as if what we are witness to is little more than a cynical power grab. Indeed, even in Syria, from such melancholic conditions there may yet emerge an opening. In a sober take, Yazid Sayigh wisely sees in a much-diminished Assad clique hanging on for dear life a possibility.

Ironically, that survival may be the only thing capable of paving the way for serious dissent to openly emerge from the regime’s own social constituencies and institutional base. 

To date, the National Coalition has failed signally to generate a critical political opening of this kind. And it becomes more unlikely with each passing day that the coalition will be able to seize the opportunity presented by such an opening should it arise and draw a critical mass of rebel groups behind it. But in that vacuum, a more effective kind of Syrian opposition may just arise. 

There is a nexus of vacuums everywhere you tread in the area. Small mercies, I call them, borne out of the old order’s very inability to hold itself together against overwhelming trends and pressures. Underwriting these is a remarkably dynamic geopolitical map that is not likely to settle anytime soon. Neither Turkey and its Erdogan, nor Iran and its Khameini, nor the US and its allies and adversaries, nor Israel and its colonized Palestinians, nor Jordan and its Hashemites, nor the Gulf and its fractious sheikdoms are today what they were but three years back—inside and out.

Pray tell, where does “told you so! It’s that damn stubborn status quo” belong in this picture?

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Reversals

By Joye Vailes Shepperd

I was embarrassed when I heard the word "selfie" was to be elevated to the New Oxford American Dictionary. The new it word goes hand in hand with the human predilection for onanism. We humans like to play with ourselves...

And clearly, we seem to be hard wired for “the new.” In the recently published book, We Are Our Brains, D.F. Schwaab says "the brain stops producing old information once it receives fresh input again, and it makes no difference whether the input is meaningful..." This doesn't bode well for us if we're not careful. When seasoned and erudite arbiters select a word like selfie, they are not aspiring so much as trolling through the shallows. They aren't thinking, they're playing with popularity. The supposed leader is now following the crowd, and I don't know about you but I have always been afraid of the crowd's destination.  

A better alternative would be to take some words of long issue, words we've always known, and elevate them to new function and purpose. Peace ought to be a verb and maybe if we use it enough the practice would hardwire us to its service. Altruism might be a requirement for anyone who wishes to speak loud enough for anyone else to hear. After all, it is the one evolutionary “given” that is almost wholly responsible for human survival. If the good of all supersedes the desires of one, and this were taken into account before we uttered or even wrote one word, mostly, we'd be quiet. 

Make no mistake, this is no advocation for silence, this is a plea for eliminating blather, insult, and bullshit. This is a plea for the omission of “late breaking news” that declares you need to know what your smart phone says about you, that Justin Bieber got drunk and of any pundit voicing his or her opinion outside his/her area of expertise and often, within it, too. How much nonsense can one brain take in? Will there be any room to store intelligence for the long haul?  The average human seems to believe that the more, dare I call it, “information” is available, the better off we’ll be. We think we multitask but the truth is, according to brain scientists, there’s no such thing. The brain doesn’t work that way and when one area is active, the other is not. It’s why we can’t talk, drive, listen to the radio and think. Unfortunately, it’s easier to leave off the thinking and without using our brains, we will be incapable of discernment. Dulled creatures we will and have become, not born that way, but nevertheless, evolving, and at this juncture, without some of the essential components that brought us this far.

If evolution is about survival of the fittest, let’s ponder a moment about today. What's fit?  Our sensibility is almost nonexistent, capacity for hardship ennobling but useless, endurance for pain-–clearly legion or we couldn’t kill ourselves or others, no matter the cause; our understanding – obviously limited; and tolerance—haphazard--swhich may be exactly why we’re concentrating on selfies in the first place. It’s easier to play with our images than introspect.  

So let’s say that we continue to evolve without altruism. Let’s sum up today's ingredients for the continuing stew of evolution: an inordinate amount of frenzied input, a giant dollop of confusion, an inability to judge, greed, bias, and an almost absolute lack of honesty.  As we grow fatter, and our environment less forgiving, (primarily due to our unconscionable damage), do you ever wonder about the future? Perhaps our path isn't toward enlightenment or ultimate design but to play a small and temporary part in the cycle and disappear. Maybe evolution is cyclical.


Consider human behavior, for those of us swaying under the weight of thought, wondering about-- our purpose. Can it really be to kill ourselves over rocks and religion? Over things that we believe, not because they're true but because we're used to the act of believing, a kind of default mutation in the human condition. Maybe it's time to go back to the beginning and restart.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

On a Very Foggy Day You Can See Forever


The dreaded “I see you’re not writing anymore…” From an acquaintance this time.

I protested, of course: what I wrote a century ago (a month and 20 days to be precise) still holds. I mean, how many different ways can one argue, err…it could be this and it could be that, and, by all means, any stop you’d like to take in between?

It’s a slate wiped clean on which you can scribble even the most errant scenario and make of it a half-way decent argument. And, frankly, it’s become too crowded a space. With bloggers and pundits and analysts, yes, but worse still, with those posts from deep in the dugouts. Tell the truth!--if not accounts of the ”absurdly painful,” (coined by a friend) how tweetable are the musings about the ho-humness of the days this close to the battlefield? In full view of these mega tragedies and their casualties, where does, oh, say, that entrepreneurship weekend about to be held in Damascus belong?

Which is it: resilience or breathtaking cluelessness that keeps us kicking as it props us up for even more pounding? And how many interesting juxtapositions can the curious endure? You know, those about the made-for-CNN violence that grips the surface of Arabhood and the stubborn vibrancy of life barely a layer underneath that mocks it. Or does it?

So, like it or not, we’re crouching for cover, again, in the Middle East (God help me, it’s the umpteenth time, I am sure, I’ve written this exact same sentence). Trenches, and its dark and ugly. The last time you looked up it was a storm of predictions and crises. Tears and chatter.

If you’re seeing straight, you’re cross-eyed. That used to be a Lebanese motto. Not anymore.

The squatting gets to you every once in a while…the dimness as well. For a bit of steadiness as you reach for the keyboard, you begin to search for perspective in the distance—what hints the mist can throw your way. But then your field vision is akin to a blindfold. You discover history’s your crutch, because--see!--it’s too dusty out there, and what do you know anyway? That’s why the experts--an army of them, local varieties mingling with foreign types—are here, at the ready, binoculars and tarot cards.

We Arabs are often accused of being suckers for the traps of the past. Turns out outsiders as well can do marvelous laps backward, and quite far. Late Antiquity is apparently upon us (courtesy of Robert Kaplan). You want more recent flashbacks, then via Jashua Landis, ethnic cleansing (read wholesale population transfers) much like that which caught the tails of World War II. You realize where that puts Palestine, not to mention the rest of us, don’t you? Where George Will and friends always wanted it: on the shelf under “stuff happens,” right next to that German-Polish catharsis that tidied up messy identities. True, Kurds aside, some hard work, making them apples pair with our oranges. Dunno, though? Let’s say we pull it off: Does that mean we will be Europe after all that sifting? Or do we get to mimic only the shitty parts of other people’s histories?

It’s not all such silly putty, thankfully. Sykes-Picot teetering on the edge: now, this I get! It helps that it’s been the topic of Arab conversation every other afternoon since 1921. But that other one about just you wait and see! Bashar is actually staying--on offer lately by indigenous diehards and foreigners who fancy themselves of the beard scratching kind--misses the point, pretty much like Bashar himself. A hint for you by way of a gem of a Southern Lebanese adage: Like a rooster perching over his heap of garbage.

As for the latest--part paranoid Arab conspiracy, part silly Israeli wishful thinking--making the rounds as I write, about Israel sitting back and counting its blessings: a little quick on the trigger there, compadre. I am not pissing on this rumor because I know what is coming, but because I don’t. And, all pretenses to the contrary, neither does anyone else.  

Details, by the way, in such sweeps of history, are for nags and nitpickers, or those who refuse to see the big picture. Trouble is, it’s in the small twists and turns that one experiences humanity’s wonders and miracles. Name one? Enough the face of a feisty Syrian child about to walk into his schoolyard.

Whatever! Above my pay grade all that, you sigh, as you flip through the scenarios the way you would Vogue’s September issue at the hair parlor’s.

For what it’s worth, my suspicion (and only a sneaking one) is that 2014 will bring with it what 2013  left us with: plenty of nifty little surprises and mammoth jolts, but, alas, no grand finales. My humble suggestion, therefore, is that you keep a body count, an inventory of the certainties that no one can flout. Think of them as buoys for the sailor in us.

First the dead, for clarity, and I’ll be quick about this because…well…just because:

·      Gone is the very notion that Islam and democracy can get along, aka the Turkish model. Check one. For this graciously fast breakup, you know whom to thank. And don’t salute only Erdogan, be kind and blow one at Mursi.

·      Gone as well is the very notion of the centralized postcolonial state, as Iraq, Syria, Sudan, Yemen and Libya, each in their own special way, become the nominal sum (or not) of their parts. Check two. Don’t fear the unknown packed into this one. Be bold! Ponder the opportunities.  

·      Gone, moreover, is the very notion of the Levant as we’ve known it since Independence Day (on loan for the duration of this blog post), with Lebanon already done for and Iraq and Syria disintegrating faster than we can say, ya Mohammad! (hope you get the meaning hidden in this last swipe). Point of caution here for our Jordanian friends: wipe that smug smile off your face. Way too early to phew! and thank your lucky stars.

To cap this section, I’d like to share a near-death experience. It looks like today we the people—peddlers, liars, hacks, alcoholics, heretics, heroes, traitors and thugs alike—are in full ideological disorientation mode. Pray that it stays strong and lives long.

Revolutionary enough for you all that, or would you still care to hazard a guess that it’s same ol same ol?

Next are the casualties that you want to keep your eyes fully fixed on if only because the squirming is so fascinating to watch:

·      You might think that Saudi Arabia, horror of all horrors, is acting like a mad woman, but, to be fair, whatever it is, it’s not hormonal. Fate, so kind for so long, has turned too mean and dirty. Oil, for the first time in a century, is no longer uppermost on the US’s mind. What’s more, thing is: all that money, those Looney madrassas, the pornographic fatwas, the Jihadis…more people are starting to suspect that wherever Saudi Arabia goes, life somehow goes south. Used to be that only we natives were clued in, but after, umm, the Twin Towers, Spain and London…catch my drift?

Besides, even in its own backyard, Saudi Arabia just can’t seem to get it right: Yemen is a goner, Qatar is unbearable, Oman is too ballsy and the UAE has always looked out for its own interest all rhetoric to the contrary. Nasty that handshake between the Emirati and Iranian foreign ministers over the Islands within a week of the interim P5+1-Iran deal.

Meanwhile, to the north, Iraq is too morbidly Shiite, Syria’s Islamists are not able to win one for the Sunnis and Egypt is turning out to be a real sourpuss. Which brings us back to the question that keeps buzzing like a mosquito in the head of the Wahhabi Kingdom: Now that Arab revolutions have been successfully derailed, why can’t everybody just behave?

No wonder the US and Iran could end 2014 as the Middle East’s newest hot couple. Turkey and Israel are already old sweethearts, so if it’s not these three countries—yes, yes, warts and all--managing between them the old region, who, for heaven’s sake, do you think it’s going to be?

·      In Egypt, the military and security apparatus, probably much later than sooner, will discover what the rest of us have known all along: guns kill, prisons too, but they’re terrible problem solvers. Meaning? The deep state, precisely because of the depth of its obtuseness, is in very deep trouble.

And now that we’ve reached the end of our tour, here’s the one trend-hell, I’ll just call it a fact--that will help me wrap it up for this season. The most livable cities in the Arab world are, in order of livability, Dubai, Qatar and Abu Dhabi. Per que, you ask? It can’t be that they’re in the Gulf, or that they’re rich, or that they’re far from Levantine infernos—the mere mention of Saudi Arabia takes care of this one. Nope! The meanest irony jeering at us is that the good fortune of these city states is solely because of that one essential component that all three are missing: a local population big enough to spoil the fun.

Conclusion: the fewer Arabs in your neck of the woods, the happier you are.

I am not counting Bangladeshis and other some such nationalities keeling over in labor camps because they don’t count.

I’ll stop here. I’ve already hit page 4, and no blogger, especially an accidental one, should cross to 5.

I wish one and all a great and eventful 2014.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Is Civil War Coming to Lebanon?


Every Sunday morning, no later than eight and not earlier than seven, when the cars are taking a breather and Beirut is mute, I take an energetic sprint through the streets of my neighborhood. Depending on the route I choose for that day, I either start or end the walk by passing under the Fouad Chehab Bridge, otherwise famous as one of the civil war’s favorite sniper haunts. It could be the unusual silence of Sunday, but every time I walk that 20-meter stretch, it’s as if I am mingling with the dead.

It’s a peculiar feeling for a Lebanese who did not live the war and whose family was spared the worst of it. I can count a couple of distant relatives among the 150,000 lives lost. I can count a male friend as a casualty—beaten to a pulp by a militiaman at one of the city’s many roadblocks; a female friend who was “encouraged” at another checkpoint to give a lift to a Syrian man, Kalashnikov in hand, only to hysterically (and hilariously) plead her way out of a detour that was sure to end with a sexual assault.

For far too many Lebanese, this is kids stuff. And, frankly, as forbidding as my Sunday thoughts are, they are without roots. They drop in like casual visitors and soon enough drift away with the lazy tick tocks of the day. Ask those who survived our 17-year sectarian strife about the remnant scars and they begin to hurt afresh with the incessant pain of the deepest wounds. Watch them when a new round of violence is about to erupt: ire, blunt and furious, locks their faces in a permanent scowl.

You wouldn’t think that Lebanese have grown tired of internecine conflict, judging by the dangerous antics of the likes of Sidonese Sunni Sheikh Ahmad Assir, or the chest pounding of Hassan Nassrallah, or the shrill tone of March 8 and 14 (not a single Cicero, I am afraid, on these shores). And you certainly wouldn’t think that, judging by the latest car explosions in Sunni Tripoli and Shiite Southern Suburbs. After all, that’s how the bloodletting started in 1975.

And yet, 37 years on, it is clear to most of us that the war and the shape of the peace that ended it have pretty much pocketed their main goals, turning Lebanon into a rent-a-cause kiosk, a minor theater of a sort where the big boys get to vent every once in a while or register a point against the opposite side; and yes, why not, since this is Lebanon, a staging post for all manner of illicit transactions and trades. Ours has become too much of a zaroub (back alley) to be home to an event as grand as that of a civil war.   

However amnesiac the Lebanese may seem about their tragedies, this is an exhausted people. Perhaps one of the more intriguing outcomes of two decades of combat is a collective mood that can tolerate turbulence only if it comes in fits and starts, or, if you like, a chronic instability that releases itself every other year with a few hard slaps. Degradation of life continues apace, of course, people here and there die, each sect crawls deeper into its trench, but wholesale collapse is averted precisely because nothing remains, in fact, intact. Lebanon is a nation dismembered, a polity in shards.

On the face of it, you might argue, this actually bodes trouble of the very loud, serious and prolonged kind. But ever since the official end of the fratricide in 1990, Lebanon has been lurching onward, from one blow to the other, with a chorus of observers warning of impending disaster, only for this slice of the Levant to lurch some more under a barrage of new blows. Count them! Israel’s assault in 1996; the assassination of Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri in 2005 and the targeted killings that ensued; the 2006 war between Hezbollah and Israel; the offensive against the Nahr al Bared Palestinian camp up north in 2007; the descent on West Beirut by Hezbollah et al in 2008…

The backdrop, it goes without saying, is the nonlethal confrontations that bespeak of an utterly broken political system: March 8‘s resignation from Fouad Saniora’s cabinet and the tent cities of Hezbollah and Michel Oun’s Tayyar downtown that followed in 2006-2007; the parliament that for months would not convene and the president that for months could not be elected; the joke that is the parliamentary elections, sullied by fraud and a flood of money to achieve nothing more than a balance of bad intentions; the Hariri Tribunal’s pursuit of Hezbollah as the party that pulled the trigger; the clandestine spy wars between the Shiite behemoth and Israel, the mounting public debt and the mismanagement of the economic file… And now the close to one million Syrian refugees, the Sunni-Shiite collisions along some of Lebanon’s demarcation lines, the ineffectual March 8 government…

By any measure, these should be signs of a people on the brink of another suicidal trajectory. But then, as I wrote above and countless times before, we are not a people and this is not a country. The tragicomedy is that which has killed us bit by bit saves us from all out bloodshed.

Before you feel the need to utter the name with indignant insistence. Imploding Syria matters, and it will overturn the entire picture, but only if it dissolves—state and borders. And should that happen, no doubt, we shall all be meeting up back at the proverbial drawing board.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Don’t Worry About Hezbollah, It’s Doing Just Fine


When Syria erupted in 2011, the potential damage to Hezbollah became immediately apparent. The downfall of President Bashar Assad and a tidy win for the region’s Sunni powers and their American patron would not only have denied the group geographic depth and logistical routes vital to its effectiveness as Iran’s projection in the area, but it would also have located it, Shiite force that it is, in a stretch of very hostile Sunni expanse.

At best, it was thought, Hezbollah, cut off and encircled, would pragmatically turn definitively Lebanese and exclusively political; at worst, it would resist, invite even further isolation and exposure and become existentially vulnerable against its Sunni Syrian and Israeli neighbors. The first scenario implied containment; the second, military defeat, possibly even elimination. Both betrayed a thirst for very neat outcomes from a hopelessly messy Syrian situation.

That was then. But although it is very clear by now that a clean victory in Syria—for any of the warring parties—borders on the fantastical, thanks in part to the artfulness and tenacity of Assad’s friends and dithering and incompetence of his enemies, most commentators have yet to abandon their habitual predictions of gloom and doom for the Shiite movement.

The argument that animates this prognosis is that Hezbollah’s recent boldfaced plunge into the Syrian morass has shorn it of its nationalist credentials, undermined its resistance against Israel and entangled it in a dangerous Sunni-Shiite conflagration that is depleting its resources and encouraging Jihadist wrath against its people. In short, the very raison d'être of the organization is now under threat, and with it, Iran’s own strategic interests.

But such conjecture imagines the Syrian crisis wreaking havoc only on Hezbollah’s plans, as if all holds still for its antagonists, when the reality is that the past two years have scuttled everybody’s idea of a narrative in the Levant. Pick through Hezbollah’s opponents one by one and you would be picking through one-time possibilities that lie now in shambles: March 14, hailed at birth as the “civil” coalition that engineered Syria’s ouster from Lebanon in 2005; Saad Hariri, Saudi Arabia’s man and Lebanese Sunni zaim (boss); the opposition in Syria…

You don’t have to be privy to members-only conversations or strain yours ears too close to the ground to hear March 14’s leaders complain about dire financial need, about Saudi chagrin with Hariri’s leadership and, extraordinarily, about Hezbollah’s offers of support (many taken with thanks) to cronies of a cash-strapped Hariri in critical cities like Tripoli.

Reliable whispers have it as well that Saudi fury with the fiascoes of Prince Bandar Bin Sultan, head of intelligence and the man with the Syrian and Lebanese files, has rendered Lebanon unmentionable in the presence of King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz. Among Bandar’s many bizarre tactics, none has been more unnerving--even to the Kingdom’s keenest Lebanese allies--than his insistence on anointing the very objectionable Samir Geagea (yes, that would be the war criminal) as President.

Such an interesting panorama, and we haven’t even touched on the tensions that have begun to creep into the longstanding US-Saudi alliance as the Obama and Rouhani administrations attempt a paradigm shift in American-Iranian relations. It’s been a while since we’ve heard Saudi Arabia rail publicly against the US the way it has over the super power’s recent reticence in Egypt and Syria. Moreover, I am not sure there is a word more accurate than panic to describe Saudi reaction to an Iranian-American detente.

Mainstream commentary here tends to obsess about how disappointed crucial allies, like Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, are in a fickle and retrenching America. But more consequential to the Middle East, frankly, is how unimpressed the US has been with the delivery of these countries, especially on Syria. And should an over burdened US be looking for regional stabilizers as it retreats, it would want, in this post-uprising climate, to look beyond the Arab Gulf and, say, Egypt for assistance. It is, of course too early in the day to declare a radical change in US policy—there are just too many unknown variables and caveats. Suffice to say, as Roger Cohen has helpfully offered, one is hard pressed in the current turmoil to point to a regime more in command of itself than the Iranian one.

The bottom line is that everybody’s in a sweat in the region. To posit that Hezbollah could have done without the distractions and risks borne out of its direct involvement in the Syrian debacle is to state the obvious. It cannot feel too good to be fighting Sunni insurgents as the “great Satan” and Israel look on with much gratitude. But in a  environment that has turned virulently more sectarian, Hezbollah’s Shiite constitution is actually more the boon than the drawback conventional wisdom paints it.

In times when Sunni extremists have become uncontrollably violent against minorities from Pakistan to Iraq, it is of considerable comfort to Lebanese Shiites--including those not particularly sold on Hezbollah’s agendas--that they have an army to protect them. The suggestion that this army’s operations in the war raging next door have needlessly drawn Jihadist vengeance against it and its followers is, well, not credible in full view of unprovoked Sunni slaughter of Shiites in places like Pakistan and Afghanistan. Hezbollah has therefore had very little trouble convincing its compatriots that Jihadists were sure to be heading for them even if the group had opted for   neutrality or non-interference in Syria.

The truth of the matter is that when the Syrian uprising collapsed as a civil and national project, so did Hezbollah’s own quandaries in having to side with brutality against revolution.

This is a very nervous sectarian moment in the Middle East. But as Toby Matthiesen pointed out in a recent piece in Foreign Policy, “vicious sectarian hate speech,” an enduring component of Arab politics, precedes Syria’s bloodshed. Insisting that Iran and Hezbollah should have wisely retired in silence to the sidelines of this Sunni-Shite conflict is to grossly underestimate the role their Shiism plays in shaping their rejectionist axis. And while it is indisputable that these two players have had to move Israel to the periphery of their vision as they deal with Syria, the shift comes, in fact, as the last in a series of adjustments.    

Ponder this: of the many conundrums that have beset Hezbollah since its inception in 1982, none has been more intriguing than the paradox of retreat in victory. With the stunning withdrawal of Israel in 2000 from Southern Lebanon came an avalanche of unrelenting questions about the purpose of an exclusively Shiite arsenal. With the robust performance against Israel in 2006 came devastation, the UNIFEL and the Lebanese army as buffers on the Southern border--to boot, Hassan Nassrallah’s famous had-I-Known apology. With the 2008 whipping of West Beirut came the rude transformation of a presumably noble resistance pointing its rifles outward into a militia thuggishly using them inward.

Long before it crossed the borders to do battle for Assad, Hezbollah had been contending with the burdens that came with too many identities to match too much ambition by a formidable political party-cum-social movement-cum-resistance-cum-army based in an embarrassingly silly state pretending to represent a flagrantly sectarian country.

Considering these herculean responsibilities and the lamentable state of its nemeses in this marvel of a Mediterranean enclave, I would hazard that the Party of God is fairing much better than most of us are willing to concede.

Happy Eid!