Saturday, February 11, 2012

What Exactly is Going on in Syria?

The Missing Narrative

It was bound to happen. A standoff over Syria! One big prize, two clashing camps, two contrived narratives and a singularly cynical game that has shoved out of the arena anyone and anything remotely moral or principled or ethical or halfway decent about Syria.

Bashar, as they like to say in gringo land, is one lucky S.O.B. Syria simmered while the rest of us got to watch the Egyptian, Tunisian, Libyan, Bahraini and Yemeni scenarios—and each is indeed a scenario unto itself—unfold, leaving along the way a trail of instructive lessons, and not only for the Chinese and Russians.

No one, least of all us Arabs, plunged into this uproarious year expecting only the best of intentions or outcomes. Opportunities here, even a sentiment as ridiculously novel as hope, come with warning signs stamped all over them. Only this raw fact could be relied upon as a constant from the moment the people began to openly demand something different, better.

The push for change in this region was always going to be messy, complicated and morally taxing, forcing good souls into terrible choices. Do you remember that scene in Sophie’s Choice, when the Nazi officer at the train station, with the trains waiting to depart for his killing fields, asks Meryl Streep to pick between her son and daughter? “Take the girl! Take the girl!” she finally cries out, when the officer was about to take both.

Only the matter of an unbearably hard existence that finally prompted rage to dare rise against variously vicious Arab systems can be romanticized in the current mayhem. The rest of the story is all about the unavoidably distasteful and hardnosed haggling between the shapers of our future destiny. What the uprisings have so far achieved for the people is a possible seat at the table. And that for some of our patrons is already offensive enough.

Long before the blatantly opportunistic Syrian Muslim Brothers or comically inept Syrian National Council (SNC) or the “fictional” Free Syrian Army (FSA) pretended to believe in the righteousness of Western intervention, the genuinely Syrian and unarmed uprising was racing towards that most God awful question: What will we do, who could we turn to when the going gets really tough with a monstrously tough regime?

And imagine, just imagine, a possibly “revolutionary” mood in the Arab world, with regional and international forces happy to cheer on or tusk-tusk from the sidelines. Imagine something even more extraordinary: Qatar and Saudi Arabia wanting and seeking change in Syria because they’re just appalled by Assad’s brutality and are so very keen on a “democratic” Syria. But imagine something even more extraordinary still: that the people’s battle could actually be won without foreign powers squeezing and isolating, through sanctions and other such non-military means, Assad Inc.

I am not asking you to suspend your disbelief just to score a rhetorical point. I am calling on those making the arguments for each side to actually make them. Because those who warn against foreign intervention, as a matter of principle, and those demanding it, as a matter of life and death, have conveniently elected to sidestep the context that makes the Syrian case the ugly dilemma that it is. 

The very sad truth for the Syrians--for all of us Arabs--is that there is no easy or honorable answer. That’s why practically every single article is so rich with why or why not and conspicuously poor on the practical options left to a people approaching midnight.

The sorriest irony about Syria is that the chatter is all about foreign intervention, or what is referred to as the next best thing—arming the opposition--when, from the outset, neither was ever an option for the powers that be. Because Syria is not Libya, as numerous experts continue to point out, foreign military intervention is just not feasible, while militarizing the rebellion would be tantamount to lighting up Syria, the one scenario everybody wants to avoid at all costs. If Bashar understood one thing, he understood this, and then cleverly proceeded to turn the uprising into a military conflict, inflaming sectarian divisions, egging on vengeance, radicalizing Islamist insurgents, mining minorities’ fears, and pushing regional and international forces to confront the one eventuality they were least keen on for the country.

Astonishingly, the so-called anti-imperialist camp is obsessing about foreign military intervention as if that is the only door open to foreign meddlers. The fact is the West already has quit a bit of what it wants, as I wrote back in May. For them, a weak Bashar is almost as good as a gone Bashar, because the Assads’ regional weight was always an extension of their internal strength. Undercut the latter and you will have contained the former. And that is where Bashar is today: isolated, embattled, trapped and economically enfeebled, with time and energy only for saving his and his family’s neck.

True, the Qataris and Saudis gradually became keen on regaining Syria for the Sunnis, but that, for the West, is hardly a prerequisite to stealing Iran’s (and Hezbollah’s) thunder.

As for Russia, the US, Qatar, the Arab League, the UN and that great piece of theater, regrettably, of all the impertinences we’ve been hearing about, the only one that counts is that of the West insisting that Russia cede its cards in Syria as well, because, you see, it’s all a matter of principle. 


Syrians are dying and will continue to die in greater numbers as Assad stacks up for himself enough chips for that ultimate bargain. And bargain he will. Russia came in to help him do precisely that. Of course, it is all high stakes and very risky, but then that’s what Syria has always been about.

Meanwhile, bizarrely, seasoned observers continue to busy themselves in heated discussions about the pros and cons of foreign intervention, when Syria, whatever it was, is already lost. Soon, brace yourself for the horse-trading, out of which we will begin to see the shape of the new Syria—hopefully still intact.

Friday, February 3, 2012

One Arab's Post-it on the Arab Revolt

Caution: this is not an update.

It’s come to this for the Arab revolt. To be gawked at, poked, bullied, pushed this way and that, pitied by some, feared by many and truly befriended only by die-hards.

It’s not just strangers who gape in wonderment. The locals as well are at once riveted and unnerved by the beast. It’s been, what? 12 months--an ant’s scream out there in the wilderness, but never mind that--a roaring millennium in web years and this creature still won’t reveal its actual colors.   

And so, the guessing game must proceed, because, well…because it simply must proceed. I am not being ironic here. People, decent people, make a serious living off of it. For all I know, the whole world ticks because of it. And, as is our wont, the more uncertain the moment, the more incessant our need to pound it to death and render it benign and reassuringly familiar.  

I suppose, if only for effort, the professionals—journalists, hacks, pundits, anthropologists…--should be thanked. Except that they’re flailing as they hold all ten fingers to the wind, and left with very little to fall back on, they’ve begun to hang on, for dear life, to the same themes.

For a while now, I’ve been feeling like a beggar in these revolts. I go from site to site, rag to rag, pundit to pundit, mind in hand, looking for the rare informed opinion in the piles of junk. There is something distinctly unusual about this upheaval (as Egypt’s SCAF keep discovering after every bold decision turned gaffe), and yet, remarkably, most of the literature divides between déjà vu (been there, done that) and something wicked this way comes.

Often, friends call me as they sit stunned, not from living the revolts but from reading about them. While the Aluf Benn’s of this world can’t quite keep a lid on their overzealous imagination and predict--for sure--a total breakup of the postcolonial Middle East (except for Israel, of course), the Robert Kaplan’s see little more than a “crisis of centralized authority.” Sort of like, “Oh, Jesus, shit, you’re dying;” vs. “Take these! And get a grip on yourself, will you, woman!” after which comes the knowing look back and,” I’ll call ya in the morning,” before the door slams shot.

But these are the ones singing at the door of the echo chamber. The hum inside is all about Islamist upsurge and the equally revelatory it’s one thing to remove a dictator, it’s another to change a regime, which swells into a rapturous crescendo with, we really don’t know what will happen, but, since this is the Arab world, this may well turn out to be a tempest in a Turkish coffee cup. Which actually works out just fine, because the Turkish Model is the best of the available wannabes and the Arab Muslim Brothers are happy to do business even if they look so damn hairy. Win, win, when you think about it—for the West, at least.

Then, inevitably, comes the mind-numbing repeat of the same question: Will they or will they not play nice? After which come the tricky answers to it: yes, no, yes and no, with the same, exact reasons reappearing in different paragraphs in different articles.

Just like that, a year of revolts and we already have a body of consensus, which, soon enough, will solidify into groupthink and then finally cement as conventional wisdom.

Too bad, because—I don’t know? I could be wrong—it seems like the surface has barely been scratched and already vital questions are being left by the wayside for societies in genuine flux. For example, silly as it may sound, what exactly does an Islamist upsurge mean? Would, say, less than 40% of eligible voters qualify as an upsurge, or might it suggest an intriguing twist in the electoral system that lands you with a much bigger slice of parliament than of life? I wonder if it would not make sense to look into who voted for whom and why? (Here are a few hints from Gallup). And where, dare we ask, might these interesting factoids fit in this stimulating discourse?

In the Middle East and North Africa, SMEs [small and medium sized companies] comprise the most substantive part of the economy: there are 12 million SMEs, which make up 95 percent of the private sector… In Egypt, these enterprises account for about 75 percent of total employment and 80 percent of the gross domestic product.

Nothing major, a few questions for more nuance and added insight, so that when the brave types leap into judgments and fall flat on their faces they have something soft to cushion the crash.

Truth be told, there are the rare wise voices reduced, alas, in this din of mad harmony, to whispers. I do need to name names, just because I am so grateful: Peter Harling of the International Crisis Group, Nicholas Pelham of MERIP and the New York Review of Books, Mona el-Ghobashi of Barnard, Khalil Anani of Durham University, along with a few merciful others. (By all means, feel free to click on the links).

Then there is the tempo of these dizzying times which we Arabs get from those, like us, who are living them day in, day out. Raw footage, I call it; or, to borrow from the Economist’s review of Ahdaf Soeif’s new book, Cairo: My City, My Revolution, those “well-observed details [that] have an unmistakable ring of truth…revisionist historians ignore…at their peril.”

But, really, when it comes down to it, what makes these revolts especially intriguing for us Arabs is the utter disarray into which our own clairvoyants have fallen. Once upon a time, we were not meant to tell the difference between conspiracy and conviction, between high principle and base interest, between rhetoric and action. Now, once immovable ideologues are jumping all over the place, ostensible democrats are offended, Islamists are having to discover the meaning of victory (although the West seems to have figured it all out) and brothers in arms are parting company.

The rules are a changing and, for a people who have been stuck for so long in the trenches, that alone is liberating enough. 

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Rest in Peace, Nassib Lahoud!

Two years ago, over dinner with a couple of this town’s star journalists, a friend asked me, ”Who is the one Lebanese politician you would miss when gone?” I didn’t skip a beat: “Nassib Lahoud.”

My friend’s devastating comeback was equally swift. “But poor Nassib is already dead.”  

That has always been the tragedy of Lebanon. Decency here is a certain kind of death. And much of what made Nassib Lahoud so magnificent in life and yet so unpromising in politics was his decency.  Remarkably, it was only one of his many handicaps as a politician.  His incorruptibility, his non-sectarianism, his visceral distaste for violence, his peculiar deference to principle made him universally admired but rendered him fundamentally peripheral when it came to the hard politics of this hard place.

I often yearned for Nassib to be more passionate, feistier, wilier, louder. But I was wrong. His was the quiet method, and he loved Lebanon enough not to succumb to her ugly ways.

Of this country’s countless failings, perhaps the most ruinous is her cruel indifference towards her children. And how cruel she has always been to the likes of Nassib, and how kind and generous he was in return.

I knew Nassib and loved him. I know Lebanon, and I am so desperate to love her.

I mourn him today. But I mourn Lebanon even more for her loss.