Kieran sent me this letter account of his travels in the Levant some days ago and has today allowed me to post it. pl
"Recently I had the opportunity to travel as part of a student-organized delegation of 30 Harvard graduate students (mostly from the Kennedy School, though I'm at the Center for Middle East Studies) to Lebanon and Syria. We met with most of the major players, with whom we engaged in generally quite freewheeling debate. I imagine that the kind of discussions we had were quite rare simply because students have a certain freedom (and allow a certain freedom to the other party) that politicians, diplomats, journalists, and certainly citizens of the countries concerned do not. We were also there at a very historic time for Lebanon (May 19 - June 1), just after the Doha agreement. I thought you might be interested in hearing a few of my impressions.
Samir Geagea, the head of the Lebanese Forces and a key figure in the March 14th coalition, was the first person we met. The extent to which his discourse mirrored that of the most extreme elements in the Bush administration surprised me. His talk was full of references to the Global War on Terror, Good versus Evil, Light versus Darkness, and such. After about 20 minutes of somewhat unproductive Q&A (we had not yet learned the art of simply interrupting longwinded and off-topic answers) he veered off into a discussion of his spirituality, which seemed genuine if bizarre, talking about how he "lives in the second dimension". I suppose he did spend 11 years in solitary confinement. None of the LF people were happy about Doha and they seemed to be looking forward to the day it would fail. By chance I ran into Geagea's foreign policy advisor, Elie Khoury, in a cafe. I asked him whether the LF were not placing all their eggs in a very dubious looking basket. He responded that his consultations in Washington convinced him that the next administration would end up pursuing a similarly confrontational policy in the region, whether the president is Obama or McCain. Overall, I was impressed by the LF's PR machine and the way in which their 'youth movement' escorted us around touristic sites in Christian regions while subtly pushing the virtues of their leader and movement. Nonetheless, there was something a bit Lyndon Larouche about the whole setup.
Our next meeting was with Bahiya Hariri, the sister of Rafiq. She was her brother's favorite and apparently wields a great deal of behind-the-scenes clout in the Sunni community and with her nephew Saad. She was not very forthcoming about anything, but I found what she did not say more interesting than what she said. I prodded her with a question designed to unleash a tirade against Syria, but she responded that she felt the way was now open to restore normal ties. Perhaps this is a long shot, but in the context of the Doha agreement and the near-simultaneous announcement of Israeli-Syrian negotiations, I hypothesized that a broader short-term Saudi-Syrian-Israeli patchup was in the works to save the Levant from whatever transpires with Iran, tying Hezbollah into the Lebanese government and taking the heat off Syria.
The same day we went from Ms. Hariri's palace in Sidon to the Ain al-Helweh Palestinian refugee camp outside the city. The camp is outside the control of the Lebanese army and as soon as we entered through the gates we were surrounded by an escort of dozens of gunmen from various PLO factions - predominantly Fatah but also the DFLP and PFLP. The sense of danger was palpable - there were clashes a few days before we arrived and again days after we left, involving Islamist groups in the camp. Conditions in the camp were unsurprisingly bad, though children were running around smiling, laughing, and practicing their few words of English on us. There was a real sense of fragmentation, of one bit of the camp belonging to one faction and one bit to another, as we were handed off from one set of gunmen and officials to another as we passed from alley to alley. My conversations in Arabic with various people in the camp impressed on me just how much the return to Palestine is a cornerstone of their worldview.
A couple of days later we travelled to Damascus to meet Bashar al-Assad and his wife Asma in the visitors' palace on a mountain overlooking Damascus. Bashar spoke with us for three hours, all Q&A. He impressed the whole group with his willingness to actually answer the questions asked, his ability to provide logical defenses of his positions, his command of English, and his forward-looking mindset. A number of anti-Syrian Lebanese in the group walked away shaken by the experience. We were furthermore surprised that, in contrast to almost every other politician we met, we were not searched or put through any kind of physical screening. Only one (massive) bodyguard attended him and he seemed to be present more to pass the microphone around.
I asked him why he had not allowed the IAEA in to inspect the 'nuclear facility' in order to disprove US-Israeli allegations. He responded that there was no use - Saddam opened his sites up to inspectors but the US attacked anyway. He indicated that he does not believe in dignifying these kinds of allegations, or in setting the precedent of allowing weapons inspectors to run around his country. I told him I thought he underestimated the value of public relations - he was standing on a point of principle, but this would have real costs in terms of Syria's image in the media. He replied that he did not think so: the Western media would paint him as a bad guy in any case, and moreover in his view the key strategic decisions are taken without regard to public opinion (he again used the invasion of Iraq as an example).
Someone else asked him about his worst and best case scenarios for the region during the next 5 years. He said that the worst case scenario was a US or Israeli attack on Iran, which would have repercussions everywhere. The best case scenario was a US president committed to seeking peace accords with Syria and the Palestinians ("a genuine commitment, not like Annapolis"). I got the impression from this (and later from a sly 'yes we can' from his wife) that they saw a significant difference between Obama and McCain. Nonetheless, when explicitly asked about this, he replied that his country had learned to be skeptical of US campaign rhetoric.
As to the Syria-Israeli talks Assad said that the intention was genuine but that he doubted Olmert's ability to actually reach an agreement.
On Lebanon he was reluctant to discuss the details of Lebanese politics, though he was clearly pleased by the Doha agreement. He was ready to establish normal ties in principle (embassies and border demarcation) but sounded reluctant to do so with the government of Fuad al-Siniora. We (especially the Lebanese among us) pushed him hard on this issue, but it was not clear whether or not he appreciated the importance of Syria making a symbolic gesture of reconciliation. He considers Walid Jumblatt an enemy of the state.
The only point at which he became emotional was in discussing the regime's fight against Islamists during the early 80s, responding to a question about Hama. He talked about the various atrocities committed by the Islamists, then saying "what would you do with these people?"
When asked about Alawi dominance of key levers of power and the impact of that on political reform, he responded obliquely, talking about the new party law designed to end the Ba'ath Party's dominance of political life. When we pointed out that the problem was not just in the Party but in the military-security apparatus, his response became vaguer still. It was clear we were not getting anywhere on this issue.
Overall, Assad performed extremely well. Still, he could get off easy as the darker side of Syrian involvement in Lebanon is (somewhat) plausibly deniable. It struck me that one reason he may have consented to such an extended discussion in such a freewheeling format is practice for him in the hope of eventually making the transition to a more conventional or at least Western-style politician, giving press conferences and such.
After three hours his wife Asma showed up. If they were not in love it was a hell of a good act. After chatting informally for a bit and taking photos he left, and she sat in his place. She is beautiful, charming, and thoroughly English. She is also extremely intelligent and had a remarkable grasp of the minutiae of domestic social and economic policy that he himself did not exhibit. It occurred to me that a woman in her position may be in effect a second president. She discussed the importance of education as the key strategic domestic issue. She also mentioned that she was personally key in shaping the new companies law, which aims to shift the emphasis from the development of existing large enterprises to small and medium businesses, including startups.
After our return to Lebanon we met with Walid Jumblatt, who frankly appeared to be somewhat in pieces. In addition to a generally stoned demeanor, he gave answers which ranged from completely inscrutable to impolitically frank to obviously evasive. I tried hard to pin him down on the issue of the impact of US domestic politics on his 'bets' in Lebanon. After interrupting him about four times, steering him back to the issue from long lectures about nothing in particular, I asked him "do you think the US will trade Lebanon? [to Iran and Syria]" and got what I think was an honest "I don't know." He pushed what I find an implausible conspiracy theory of Syrian involvement in the death of Mughniyeh. His old dog lay loyally -or listlessly- at his feet the whole time. He said that Nasrallah and Hezbollah are fascist organizations and drew tired comparisons to 1930s Germany. His position towards the opposition was uncompromising, though I personally wouldn't be surprised to see him back as a Hezbollah ally in a few years if the US does not continue its strategy of confrontation in the Middle East. He was very pessimistic overall, though it was not clear if this was due to the broader strategic situation or the very humiliating defeat he had recently been handed by Hezbollah.
We met for two hours with Siniora, who seemed to be genuinely excited to see us but unfortunately proved to be very boring, lacking charisma or a sense of interactivity and choosing to lecture us about Lebanese history despite our protestations that we were familiar with it. He confirmed his technocrat image. In contrast to other March 14th figures he seemed quite optimistic and full of energy. He admitted that he personally had been against the two decisions that precipitated the crisis of the last few weeks, confirming reports that it had been Jumblatt behind them. Of all the orange juice served to us by the various figures we met, his was of the lowest quality.
We later met Saad Hariri at his Qoreitem palace, who, when I asked why he did not take the premiership, replied that he could do much more outside the government. He somewhat gauchely added, "Siniora is me!" When asked, he said that he did not believe the US would strike Iran, but that there would be a war perhaps 5 years hence, much bloodier than that which could be had now. Another question centered on his role in SecurePlus, a private security company that effectively constituted a militia, which was routed a few weeks ago. Saad admitted his connection to the company but denied that it was a militia. Saad had the demeanor of the playboy, lacking in finesse and genuine charisma, but full of confidence regardless. His orange juice was the highest quality. The security surrounding his palace was incredible, consisting of multiple checkpoints, barricades, and armed men everywhere. Pictures of Rafiq Hariri were displayed in abundance, including, as usual, in the central chair during the meeting.
Amin Gemayel was not particularly forthcoming, and seemed badly out of touch. When pressed for details on a number of points he was completely at a loss. He seemed to resort to stock politician phrases even in personal conversation. My impression was of a man losing vitality. I tried to push him on the question of what a real 'national defense strategy' would be, seeking some common ground between him and Hezbollah. He replied that he envisaged a 'Swiss model' of every citizen owning a gun. Incredulous, I asked him if that would really deter Israeli or Syrian aggression. He responded evasively, citing the importance of various UN resolutions. When I cornered him privately after the session, he said that in the 1970s they had tried to acquire Crotale air defense systems but were thwarted by Israeli pressure, indicating that similar factors were at play today.
Overall, none of the March 14th figures seemed to think there was any realistic prospect for Hezbollah's peaceful disarmament in the short to medium term. Geagea seemed to be the furthest from admitting this fact, while Jumblatt, Siniora, and Hariri were closest. Only Siniora and to some extent Hariri seemed upbeat about the Doha agreement, which struck me as odd considering that the agreement effectively redistributed seats from Sunnis to Shiites and Christians. This reinforced my feeling that the Doha agreement represented some kind of Saudi-Syrian reconciliation, considering Hariri's (and by extension Siniora's) very close ties to the Saudis.
The March 14th people unanimously condemned the actions of Hezbollah and its allies, and the phrase 'attempted coup' popped up repeatedly. Nonetheless, the general mood amongst the population was upbeat. There was broad satisfaction at the election of Michel Suleiman as President and the formation of a unity government. There was happiness too at the return of normal life to downtown Beirut, with the removal of the opposition protest camps. I had the feeling that Hezbollah and its allies could translate these developments into major political gains if they take the initiative to sustain political movement after a year and a half of paralysis. The upcoming elections in summer 2009 are the major political event towards which all the parties are working.
We spent two days with Hezbollah. The first day involved being shown around the south by various low-level Hezbollah people. We were shown various scenes of Israeli atrocities (Qana, Khiyam) and presented with the families of martyrs at Bint Jbeil. The quality of the PR was exceptionally low and the propaganda exceedingly unsubtle, although our guide was a very lively and interesting woman with a show on Al-Manar. The reaction of our group was overwhelmingly negative, many feeling that the various tragedies and massacres were being very callously exploited.
The second day began with a tour of the Wa'ad rebuilding projects in the Dahiye. We were shocked by the speed and scale of the project - dozens of large residential buildings at various stages of construction, where last summer I saw only rubble. More than one person in our group contrasted the Hezbollah program with the US government's response to Katrina. People passing in cars and minibuses honked and cheered when they saw our group checking out the construction sites. [An aside to show just how out of touch the diplomatic community is: at a diplomatic party the night before a number of embassy people from various countries were assuring me that Hezbollah was not doing much construction.] Seeing the "Hezbollah stronghold" in person dispelled for many in the group the images the phrase conjures. There were no gunmen in the streets and many women walked around in tight jeans and revealing shirts. We met for several hours with Nawaf Musawi, Hezbollah's 'foreign minister' and a member of the politburo. He was very impressive - fiercely intelligent, an excellent debater, and a flexible thinker. While speaking formal Arabic, he understood our questions in English and frequently corrected his translator (as did those of us in the group who speak Arabic), who endured so much abuse from both sides that he eventually cried, "give me a break!" The event started badly, with a number of the Lebanese in our group attacking Musawi, and him clamming up in response, but we soon 'warmed up' to each other in the sense of frankly exchanging views. He thought that a US/Israeli attack on Iran was probable in the short term, partly in order to install McCain as a war leader (rather interestingly indicating that he saw genuine differences between McCain and Obama). He promised that such an attack would mean "Hell" for the region. However, he indicated (though not in so many words) that Hezbollah would not initiate hostilities with Israel even in the event of a US/Israeli strike on Iran. He did however believe that an Israeli strike on Hezbollah would be virtually inevitable in the event of a strike on Iran, as Israel could do what it wished while the world's attention was on the Gulf. On the question of peace with Israel, he was relatively uncompromising, but indicated that Hezbollah would accept an agreement ratified in a referendum by all the Palestinian people - inside and outside the occupied territories. On domestic issues he was very hostile to the March 14th people, calling them traitors and singling out Jumblatt as "a liar! a big, big liar!" Disarmament would be impossible with the present government, which represents US and Israeli interests in Lebanon, but would be possible in the context of a government seriously committed to a strong national defense. When pressed on Syria, he criticized Ghazi Kanaan and Abdel Halim Khaddam - not exactly controversial targets nowadays - for their misdeeds in Lebanon.
I came away from the trip with a heightened expectation of a US/Israeli strike on Iran or other associated step to increase tension in the region. People on both sides seem to be openly placing their bets on that basis (Geagea) and fearing it as a serious possibility (Hezbollah and Syria). Jumblatt and Hariri were more cagey on the issue but my impression was that they are hoping for it, possibly expecting it, but politically smart enough not to openly indicate as such. My assessment of the broader situation is that hard-line elements in the West have only a few months to change the domestic and international political map by escalating US involvement in the Middle East. Otherwise there is a strong, and I believe for them unacceptable, danger of an Obama presidency that could reduce US involvement in the Middle East. This in turn could precipitate a collapse of the imperial system they are working so hard to implement, based around networks of individuals and interests binding the US, Britain, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and their more minor pawns in the region. They will surely do everything in their power to avoid this scenario. " Kieran Wanduragala