insights from lebanon

thoughts from my two months abroad and other personal reflections

Posts tagged opinion

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lebanon is trying so hard to suppress the tensions and the war that is already bubbling below the surface. 

i’ve been here for two weeks, and have already had a completely different experience than when i visited two years ago around this same time. in 2011, i felt progress, hope and momentum. i felt that lebanon was withstanding the uprisings that had taken over the region and that its people were proud, sensing that the country could maybe be a place people looked to for some form of coexistence and positive development in the region.

two years later, things are different. near my dad’s village, people are shutting down roads and shooting members of the army to protest a kidnapping and murder that occurred in a completely different town. young, bored boys are throwing rocks at cars and burning tires in anger. everyone is mad at someone.

in downtown beirut, people aren’t necessarily having sectarian clashes, but shouts and chants could be heard outside my office against the lebanese parliament’s self-mandated term extension. to some it’s a necessary move to continue a policy of disassociation from regional events and external influence. to others, it’s an undemocratic decision that sets lebanon on a backward trend. everyone knows how to twist the move to their advantage.

so while people in the villages are working above the government and its seeming ineptitude, people in the city are fighting its overreach. it’s an incredible dynamic - between the spaghetti-strapped gucci women protesting in beirut, the young, poorer guys in the village streets, and the syrian license plates that crowd the streets - all want something.

it all comes back to syria - the violence in the villages, the fear of the army to cause a spark that could lead to war, and the parliament extension that prevented an election that could be tinged by the syrian crisis. years after assad and syria’s withdrawal from lebanon, you still find its impact on domestic politics.

even with small demonstrations outside my window and being the first car on a street facing men throwing rocks (it felt like a movie), i don’t feel unsafe. you feel - maybe more in beirut than in the villages - that there is a day-to-day ease, that people are indifferent to the violence raging across the border and bleeding into their towns. an intern in our office manages to come from tripoli, a town known for fighting and more than an hour from beirut, just to work (for little pay).

i think it is more suppressed emotions than real calm. people are pushing the boundaries but somehow know the limits.

after all, the lebanese may not agree on much right now, but no one wants a war. 

Filed under lebanon opinion war syria middle east arab world protest beirut

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In Syria, is the enemy of an enemy a friend?

by Marc Sabbagh

Another piece written a few weeks ago that didn’t go anywhere.

Over the weekend, Israel allegedly struck what was believed to be a conventional weapons transfer from the Syrian government to the Hezbollah network in Lebanon as well as the Jamraya “research facility” which is close to the Lebanese border in Damascus, Syria’s capital.

While a previous strike by Israel within Syria happened in back in January, this recent attack occurred in what is arguably the nerve-center of the Bashar al-Assad regime, making it a significant turning point, a calculated risk, and a strong warning – especially in light of President Barack Obama’s wavering “red line” statements last week.

The strikes show that Israel is prioritizing the Hezbollah threat in Lebanon over a Syria without Assad. Most analysts predict a leadership vacuum post-Assad could make way for extremist groups like the al-Qaeda affiliated al-Nusra front to increase or even seize power.

Ironically, the strikes put Israel on the side of some of these extremist groups by default. They may not agree on much else other than the fact that the situation in Syria is unsustainable and that Assad’s time is up, but it begs the question: is the enemy of an enemy a friend?

Will these typically opposing forces in the region be able to unite under a common cause – ending the instability in Syria?

Nothing is ever black and white in the Middle East, and while we still do not have all the facts regarding Israel’s strikes and who was involved, the answer appears to be “no.”

The Syrian government and opposition have both condemned Israel’s attacks on Syria, as has the Lebanese President Michael Suleiman. Some may be providing praise under their breath, but the hard-fought, established alliances in the Arab world and domestic interests make budging on the stance of Israel a long shot.

In Lebanon, Suleiman is hoping to uphold a fragile stability domestically while preventing any excuse for Assad to turn his internal conflict to a regional battle. This makes any considerable change in the Lebanese government’s position impossible, especially if Israel used Lebanese air-space for their attacks.

Syria’s opposition, on the other hand, may benefit from Israel’s maneuver but is also likely worried of shifting the narrative from an internal uprising against a police state to a greater proxy war between competing regional interests (see Lebanese civil war).

Some Syrians have already complained that the Israeli strike is shifting attention away from gruesome human rights violations that occurred in Syria this past weekend in the coastal areas of Baniyas and Bayda. The Syrian government also is using the strikes to associate Islamic extremist groups to Israel and fault the Syrian opposition. Conspiracies abound.

The Obama administration may be happy to see the Israeli government, which undeniably has direct interests in the Syrian conflict, make a move. The fact is that Syrians and Arabs across the region were in an interesting position to defend an Israeli strike on Arab land – an unprecedented development, and if anything, a public relations move that the U.S. could have needed – but they chose not to.

Israel’s move is important because it erases any doubt that the conflict in Syria can remain an internal popular uprising. Syria is slowly shaping up to be a proxy war à la Lebanon between 1975 and 1990, where competing interests and blurred alliances developed under the banner of a “civil war” that ultimately left everyone a loser.

In Syria, Alawites and other minority populations, including Christians, are fearful of what will come after Assad given the oppression of similar minority groups in Iraq and Egypt, so they are hanging on to the Assad regime. Russia and the United States are reviving a Cold War redux within Syria’s borders, and Kerry’s trip to Russia this week likely won’t create advance positive change. Arab Gulf countries are backing Syrian rebels in hopes of financially draining and crumbling the Iran-Syria-Hezbollah axis, with little regard of the extremist forces that could take control after.

And now, Israel is prioritizing immediate domestic interests over long-term considerations, similar to decisions made by all parties involved during Lebanon’s fifteen-year struggle. They are taking a purely strategic approach to the conflict.

Meanwhile, the United States has dithered on determining whether it should take a humanitarian approach (which the red line on chemical weapons use really was about) versus a strategic approach, the path most of the international community is currently advancing.

Israel itself has decided. While the United States is trying to put an eraser to its “game-changing” red line of chemical weapons, Israel has defined theirs – preventing Hezbollah from acquiring weapon shipments. In fact, former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said nearly four years ago that Israel would not tolerate “game-changing” weapon transfers to Hezbollah.

This stalemate of the broader international community led Israel to make a move with little consideration of how it perceived by Syria, the region, or the rest of the world. Israel has always been a “frenemy,” vacillating between an unexpected friend and the convenient enemy. The region now has to determine what part of the word to stress with regard to Syria.

Filed under syria israel opinion politics international politics middle east arab world arab spring arab uprisings levant

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President Obama’s Secretary of Stasis

by Marc Sabbagh

I wrote this piece in February 2013, before Secretary of State John Kerry’s first international trip to the Middle East. It didn’t go anywhere, so I am publishing it here since it provides some relevant points for his current trip to the Middle East and Asia, where Kerry will likely focus efforts on Syria and North Korea.

Secretary of State John Kerry sets out this week to Europe and the Middle East on his first international trip, which the State Department characterized as a “listening tour.”

Sure, listening comes first. But based on President Obama’s use of Secretary Clinton during his first term, one hopes this time around, Secretary Kerry will be given a longer leash and the opportunity to reclaim American diplomacy abroad by owning foreign policy agenda. After all, engaging tends to produce greater outcomes than just lending an ear.

Maybe the American people want a Secretary of Stasis. Foreign policy ranked low among voter priorities this election and it is tempting to turn inward and hope nothing disastrous happens overseas while ensuring the United States isn’t the culprit of any international incidents. Secretary Kerry understands this temptation – which is why he stressed the domestic nature of foreign policy in his first public address at the University of Virginia.       

But domestic priorities are the President’s job. And these last four years, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton produced numerous fruitful outcomes but her attempts at engagement were counter-balanced by a President who wanted to maintain full control of U.S. foreign policy.

If the last term is a preview of the next, America will have the type of stasis on the international stage that runs completely counter to the words heard numerous times on Obama’s campaign trail: “change” and “forward.”

Given Secretary Clinton’s directive under President Obama – which seemed to focus more on rebuilding America’s image abroad than actively pursuing and solving tough diplomatic and foreign policy challenges – she did a phenomenal job. But the fact is: she could have done better.

We saw Clinton rack up the air miles and hold press conferences with diplomats and heads of state in countless countries instead of emerge from closed-door meetings and negotiations with diplomatic breakthroughs.

She ushered in 21st century statecraft to bring diplomacy to a technologically savvy generation, a remarkable achievement I had the opportunity to be a part of through the Virtual Student Foreign Service program. But for one reason or another, she was not empowered or encouraged by President Obama to directly engage or maneuver on tough foreign policy challenges.

There is much to question in President Obama’s handling of his closest advisors. Regarding his secretary of state, as former State Department official Aaron David Miller notes, the president tends to dominate, not delegate, on foreign policy. Maybe it was the politicized climate of Obama’s first term. The president’s appointment of Clinton was a post-election grace that turned his biggest political rival into his biggest advisor – and his most popular one, at that.

Further, the recent news that President Obama opposed several top advisors’ attempts to push for arming the rebels in Syria paints an image of a president who has at times surpassed political heavyweights in his administration to meet “tactical domestic political considerations,” as former administration official Vali Nasr notes in his upcoming book The Dispensable Nation.

Key breakthroughs in U.S. foreign policy – whether opening up diplomatic relations with China or convening the Madrid Peace Conference – occurred when presidents placed their full confidence in their secretaries of state. President Obama has shown thus far that he does not want to encourage grand foreign policy initiatives or even provide opportunities for his team to chase after risky, but important, goals.

Obama’s reelection proves this decision politically savvy on the domestic front, but it will be a long-term mistake for U.S. policy. The world continues to turn even if the United States decides to stay away.

Recent cyber-attacks from China and provocations from North Korea and Iran require solutions that involve both defense and diplomacy.

In the Arab world, the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks are at a standstill, and President Obama is traveling to the region when it would appear more opportune for a new, fresh face to restart discussions – say, the new Secretary of State. Syria remains in turmoil and it is easy to see a post-Assad landscape unfavorable of the United States given the lack of involvement on the issue.

If left as an afterthought of U.S. policy, these monumental challenges will drastically reshape the international landscape in less than amenable ways for the United States.

John Kerry’s address shows that he wants to restore American diplomacy internationally and embolden U.S. foreign policy. As a 27-year veteran of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee whose father was a career Foreign Service officer, he has vast experience in this arena. He knows the players. His appointment comes with numerous opportunities to engage seriously, and not just listen.

What is needed now is a Secretary of State who is granted the opportunity to lead and own, not just sell, the U.S. foreign policy agenda. We can turn the stasis into a spark, if President Obama decides to let go of the leash.

Filed under john kerry obama secretary of state syria middle east us policy united states politics opinion foreign policy foreign affairs

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sectarian revival

the frightening thing about lebanon is that a death of a public servant divides instead of unites people within the country.

in many nations, a public servant’s death, no matter what affiliation or political leanings they had, is mourned and respected. in lebanon, any hope of nationalism and unity over someone who dedicated their time and energy to serving the people is lost in the midst of a blame game and sectarian strife.

maybe it’s because lebanon’s public servants can be corrupt and divisions are so embedded. but for any progress to be made within the country, unity, not divisiveness, must flourish in times of struggle.

Filed under lebanon my opinion opinion beirut politics

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The death of Lebanon's intelligence tsar

by Bilal Y. Saab

The February 14, 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri will always be remembered as a seminal event that changed the course of Lebanon’s history. It expelled Syrian troops from Lebanon after occupying the country for three decades and freed Beirut from the shackles of Damascus. While the killing of Lebanese intelligence chief Wissam al-Hassan last Friday is not likely to create the political tsunami that Hariri’s murder did seven years ago, it certainly has the potential to cause some powerful shocks to an already shaky Lebanese system. 


Filed under middle east lebanon politics international arab world beirut news opinion world news

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two paths, one flag

while the world’s attention is focused on recent developments in syria, two interesting events took place next door in lebanon on monday and tuesday, both on national television. these events provide valuable insight to where the next weeks and months could take the lebanese people, their government, and their country.

the first event was strictly political. two distinguished lebanese individuals got physical during a debate over syria’s role in lebanese politics. while the debate did not seem unusual to begin with, as both commentators were arguing the familiar topic of syrian influence in lebanese politics, the situation changed when the “pro-western” future movement official called bashar al-assad, the president of syria, a liar. let me first say that criticizing syrian’s president on national television is an advancement in itself, signifying that there is a change occurring in the lebanese population and that once stifled discontent is finally coming to the surface in the country. but what followed is more significant: a mini-brawl between the two debaters involving pens, paper, glass and chairs and ending in a commercial break before returning to “our regularly scheduled programming.” as tensions mount in syria and the effects of the uprisings on lebanon’s border spills over into the closely tied country of lebanon, this seems to be one path the lebanese people will take in debating the consequences of the uprisings and future of their country. this is especially true if the assad regime continues to face opposition and eventually collapses in the coming weeks or months. i do believe the regime is on a downward spiral, and it is now only a matter of when the syrian regime will fall.

the following day, on tuesday, lebanon “surprisingly” beat south korea in a world cup soccer qualifying match for asia. this stunning victory for the lebanese soccer team is important for several reasons. for the first time, lebanon has a chance to advance to the world cup, taking place in qatar in 2014. is “football (soccer) diplomacy” really significant? i’m sure the impact of sports in politics can be debated, but i can picture the lebanese people setting aside political and sectarian divisions to hold up the lebanese flag for their soccer team in the upcoming qualifying matches in hopes of their first-ever appearance in the world cup. if this does happen, the soccer matches would provide an amazing contrast between the “unsportsmanlike” brawl which took place between the two lebanese officials.

which path will the country take? will the events of syria provide violent division between opposing groups within lebanon represented by the brawling officials, or could the country find another way to unite and advance their nation’s politics, possibly through soccer? in the end, these two examples — a brawl and a soccer match — occurring only a day apart and both on national television, could be coupled to show a way forward for lebanon, a nation where syrian influence in politics have hindered the country’s progress and stifled the real discontent of some of the population. soccer, instead of potentially violent uprisings, could serve as the outlet for this anger and opposition to be channeled, uniting the nation’s two divisive possible paths (continued syrian influence or an independent, progressive lebanon) under one team, and one flag.

(Source: marcinlebanon)

Filed under arab spring arab uprisings lebanon middle east news opinion politics syria world cup world news soccer football

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beyrouth: une « ville-monde »

what follows is a recent summary i wrote about a metropolis, a world city, for my french class on the francophone world. excuse the errors. i’m still learning!

Beyrouth est une ville très vivante et diverse. La capitale du Liban représente le pays et la société. La majorité de la population est Libanaise, mais la plupart des Libanais appartient à une religion ou une secte. Les divisions entre les Chrétiens, les Musulmans et les Druses est un élément important dans la société d’aujourd’hui. Beyrouth est l’une des villes les plus religieusement diverses du Liban et de tous le Moyen-Orient avec une grande présence Chrétiennes et Musulmanes. Il y a neuf communautés religieuses considérables au Liban. Avec le temps, l’Est et l’Ouest de Beyrouth sont devenus séparés par la religion: La majorité de la population de l’Est est Chrétienne avec une petite minorité Musulmane Sunnite. L’Ouest de Beyrouth est dominé par une majorité Musulmane Sunnite et Chiite et une minorité de Chrétiens et Druses. Beyrouth a toujours été la ville religieusement la plus diverse.

Il y a aussi les associations avec le monde extérieur. Par exemple, l’influence américaine est importante après l’évangélisation de la région par des missionnaires américains et l’établissement de l’Université Américaine de Beyrouth. Il y a aussi des liens culturels étroits encore entre les Etats Unis et le gouvernement Libanais. L’influence Française est importante aussi. Au dix-neuvième siècle, les Français étaient les défendeurs des Maronites Chrétiens du Liban. Aujourd’hui, quarante pourcent de la population libanaise est considérée francophone, et la langue Française est la langue secondaire d’enseignement dans soixante-dix pourcent des écoles du Liban. Et bien-sur, l’influence Arabe est dominante aussi à cause de la location du pays et l’influence qui existe toujours du gouvernement Ottomans. L’Arabe est la langue principale et la culture, la musique et la nourriture est principalement arabe. La conjonction de toutes ces identités religieuses crée la possibilité de conflit mais aussi de coexistence.

Beyrouth est au milieu de cette diversité et de ces interactions de culture différentes. La capitale était un port important pour le commerce entre l’Europe et le Moyen-Orient. Beyrouth était considérée « Le Paris du Moyen Orient » pas pour la langue mais pour la culture moderne qui attirait les touristes. La littérature et la musique combinent bien l’Arabe et le Français, et aussi parfois l’Anglais.  Les femmes couvertes se promènent dans les rues à côté de femmes modernes. Les mosquées et les églises sont souvent côte à côte dans tous les villages Libanais. La ville représente la possibilité « de rencontre, de partage, de symbiose… [et] de coexistence »: une vraie « ville-monde » comme la définition d’Edouard Glissant et Patrick Chamoiseau.

(Source: marcinlebanon)

Filed under beirut beyrouth lebanon liban french francophone travel opinion

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it’s been one week

since i’ve returned. i’m starting the fall semester at rice tomorrow, so i’ve been busy getting ready for that, but i wanted to share a pretty simple post. on sunday my uncle, a busy man who doesn’t have too much time asked me to summarize my trip to lebanon with the three things i liked the most. i thought it was one of the hardest things to do. and of course, i didn’t get to say all the things because some other topic was brought up at family lunch, but here’s what i would have said:

1. the ability to do things beyond a certain time and not be limited by what was open and what wasn’t. everything was always open. it was so close and easy to get to. and it just made doing things with friends so easy and fun.

2. being able to discover a second home. seeing that there was still a part of my family and their stories in lebanon and that it can never be taken away. physical buildings. family lineages. memories, all there.

3. beautiful girls. kind of superficial, but let’s just say i know where my picky taste comes from now. and the lebanese people are beautiful people in general. their personalities, their attitude and behaviors. maybe i’m a bit biased.

and the bad?

1. smoking. i don’t miss the smoke-filled restaurants, the feeling that you couldn’t escape it and it would linger on your clothes and hair and everything. i like being able to breathe.

i can’t even continue. nothing really stands out besides the smoking. i really had an amazing time and the things thought were bad seem so unimportant and insignificant. but i can definitely say that still, even after a week, lebanon is still on my mind.  

(Source: marcinlebanon)

Filed under lebanon opinion