News Notes: Druze Community Under Pressure; External Actors’ Rivalry Portends No Win for Lebanon; Sy
While government formation continues to sputter, calling up any number of conspiracy theories, PM Saad Hariri has given it his best shot, submitting a draft ministerial team makeup to President Michel Aoun this week. It has been reported that infighting among Christians and Druze is the core disagreement over the government’s composition. In the meantime, Lebanon faces yet another challenge in recalibrating its work with UNWRA after the withdrawal of US foreign assistance to Palestinian refugees, replaced by contributions from several Gulf countries. Although UNWRA schools started as scheduled, there is still a great deal to be done if the financing transition is to take place without further harm to Palestinians in camps and elsewhere.
As mentioned earlier this year, the Druze and the Future Movement of PM Hariri were most undone by the new electoral law, which diminished the Parliamentary presence of both. However, since the Taif agreement allocated all sects a share of power, the Druze retained their “right” to three government ministries, and the Druze community is at odds as to how to internally divide their share. This is literally the least of their problems. The new nation-state law in Israel has drawn fierce opposition from Israeli Druze who serve in the country’s military and until recently had full rights of citizenship.
In Syria, tens of thousands of Druze have been displaced and their once formidable political-military role has been diminished as the result of a joint Russian-Syrian effort to reshape the country. Mona Alami, in a recent post in the Fikra Forum provides a disheartening tally of the forces eroding the once-important influence of Druze in the region.
She wrote that, “The current state of affairs for Druze across the Levant is a clear break with the community’s recent past, where communities benefited from relatively significant political influence and autonomy.” In Syria, the Russians made it clear that the local Druze militias must disarm and over 54,000 young Druze must report for military duty. “These actions left the communities by and large defenseless to the attack as well as future attacks in the area.”
Alami concludes, “By refusing to revise traditions that hinder the survival of Druze identity, allowing inner divisions to supersede long-term interests, and failing to strengthen cross-regional ties, the Druze appear doomed to follow the path of continuous decline. With its leaders losing the influence that has so far protected the community, the Druze must take seriously the threat of disappearing altogether.”
With the Syria civil war contained to a few small pockets, what is Iran’s price tag for protecting the Assad regime? In an insightful piece written for the Independent, long time Middle East observer based in Beirut, Robert Fiske, noted the spiral of competing interests and maneuvers that are going on as the Syrian civil war winds down. He points to statements from Russian, Syrian, and other sources that claim that Lebanon cannot have normalcy without returning to Syria’s embrace, but Iran has a stake in Lebanon as a function of its support for Hezbollah on the northern flank of Israel.
His article concludes: “So if Lebanon needs Syria more than Syria needs Lebanon, I suppose that Lebanon needs America more than America needs Lebanon – but Iran needs Lebanon more than Lebanon needs Iran. And the Saudis need Lebanon, because they can use Hariri as the figurehead of Sunnism against the Shia Hezbollah/Syrian axis and thus damage Shia Iran.” Lebanon, given its enormous public debt, hopeful that highways to its Gulf markets will reopen, and also wanting to be part of the Syrian reconstruction effort, is not an independent actor. Fiske believes that the clear winner is the Russians, who, at little cost, have asserted their primacy in the region.
In an article calling for a more robust and consistent US strategy in post-civil war Syria, Frederic Hof argues that the Trump Administration, while an improvement over the Obama Administration’s lack of clarity and action, requires a well-reasoned and determined agenda. He writes, “This administration should decide what it wants of Syria and build a strategy to get it.” Hof goes on, “The view here is that the United States must sustain the long-term objective of full political transition within a united Syria independent of Iran.” Rather than rely on boots on the ground, he believes that, “A workable strategy would instead center on two things: permitting an alternative to the pro-Iranian Assad to grow in a protected northeastern Syria liberated from ISIS; and protecting Syrian civilians from Assad regime mass murder inflicted by chemicals and other instruments of state terror.”
Hof welcomes US opposition to Iran’s destabilizing role in the region, noting that, “This administration has drawn a line on Iran’s destabilization of the Middle East. Even as it opposes Islamist extremism of the Sunni variety—ISIS and al-Qaeda—it recognizes that the Shia variety—Iran and Hezbollah, supported by Assad—is just as destructive and has enjoyed far more success than its Sunni counterparts: there is, after all, overt state sponsorship and support.”
Trying to parse Russia’s strategy, Carl Bildt, a former prime minister of Sweden, wrote in The Strategist that we should not be misled by Russia’s sudden interest in the repatriation of Syrian refugees. It is a tactic, being broadcast far and wide, to attract funding for Syrian reconstruction without Syria footing the bill. “With the US stepping back,” he notes, “it is obvious why Putin suddenly wants to talk to the Europeans about the plight of Syrian refugees. He didn’t care about them when his bombs were falling on their neighborhoods and forcing them to flee. But now that he wants Europe to bail out Assad, he has found some compassion.”
Bildt further writes that, “No other country in the past half-century has suffered so heavy a toll in human lives and physical destruction. There can be no doubt that the responsibility for this tragedy rests with the Assad regime and its Russian and Iranian sponsors. It is clear from Putin’s European charm offensive that Russia has no intention of footing even a small part of the bill. Apparently, the Kremlin does not feel as though it has a duty to rebuild the cities and restore the livelihoods that its bombs destroyed.”
Ironically, Assad has made it clear that European companies are not welcome to support the reconstruction effort and that Russian firms will be first in line, although he doesn’t make clear how Russia will finance projects it can’t even deliver at home. As Bildt comments, “The last thing that Europeans should do is send money directly to Assad. A far better option is to offer direct financial support to individuals and families that are willing and able to return to their country.”
Without a viable political solution, adopted by the international community, that sees a transition in power to a more inclusive regime, he believes that Europe must insist on a “genuine political solution… After the destruction that the Assad regime has wrought, there is no other way forward.”