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World Views: Nicholas Blanford on Syria, the Arab Spring, and Hariri Assassination (Feb 20, 2012)
Joshua Landis offers his latest update on the escalating violence and brutality in Syria, and Suzette Grillot joins the program from Arezzo, Italy to talk about Europe's record cold weather, and the stress it's placing on the continent's fragile economy.

Nicholas Blanford reports on the political issues in the Middle East from Beirut, Lebanon.  Warriors of God: Inside Hezbollah's Thirty-Year Struggle Against Israel. The foreign correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor and The Times of London has covered the Arab Spring, the ongoing tension in Syria, and the investigation into the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.


ZACH MESSITTE, HOST: Nicholas Blanford, thank you for joining us on World Views.

NICHOLAS BLANFORD: Sure, thank you for having me.

MESSITTE: You recently wrote in Foreign Policy Magazine, and I want to read you this quote because I think it nicely summarizes at least your general view of the region, you wrote, “As long as the underlying political issues between Lebanon, Syria and Israel are not addressed.  As long as Iran continues to enrich uranium and build an extensive military infrastructure in Lebanon, and as long as Hezbollah and Israel aggressively prepare for another war, the changes of another, more deadly and destructive conflict breaking out remains all too high.”  Is a major conflict in the Middle East inevitable?

BLANFORD: It’s not inevitable but my feeling has been since 2006 when Hezbollah and Israel fought each other for the last time, that this was a war that ended in a kind of impasse between the two, and I think that both sides have been preparing for war ever since then. And my feeling is that even though neither sides want a conflict given the fact the drivers that lead to war in 2006 have not been addressed; sadly, I think it’s almost inevitable.

MESSITTE: I know in your new book you talk about how there have been places of opportunity. In particular the year 2000, there was an opportunity to perhaps construct a new map in the Middle East. Is that idea, that there is a chance to bring people together again, is that just so far off in the distance between all these disparate groups - not just Israel and Hezbollah, but the Iranians, and what’s going on in Syria? Is it now beyond the post where things can be brought back together and some sort of order can be created?

BLANFORD: Well I think so. Yes, for the time being, we clearly have the dynamic between the Israelis, Iran, and Hezbollah. But thrown into all of this is the Arab Spring, so we are seeing major upheaval, probably the greatest upheaval in the region since the rise of Arab Nationalism in the 1950s, and we talk about the Arab Spring and there is a lot of hope maybe that democracy is going to break out in some of these countries; but we are going to have summer, we are going to have fall, and it could be a long cold winter before things begin to settle down. So, I think that we are a long way away from major regional settlement on multiple fronts, be it between the Palestinians and the Israelis, between the west and Iran.  You know any notion of peace talks between Syria and Israel of course is completely out of the window given the situation in Syria. So we are in a very difficult and unsettling time, and I really think we are unfortunately very far from some kind of breakthrough that could reach to regional settlement and peace.

JOSHUA LANDIS: Let me ask you about the fate of Syria in all of this, and what happens to Hezbollah down the road. The Syrian regime - Bashar al-Assad - is on the ropes now; a major opposition movement has sprung up. If Syria should fall, the opposition today is quite pro-American, it’s pro-Saudi Arabia, if they come to power it would mean a real reorientation of Syria in the region which would change balance of power, alliances and so forth, and would cut Hezbollah off from Iran - the main way of getting arms and resupplying Hezbollah through Syria. The Saudis, American think tanks, others have said Syria is the great prize. If we can change the regime in Syria we will have broken this “Shi’ite Crescent” that so many people talk about kind of linking Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah, Iraq. If that is broken, will Hezbollah die on the vine; will it be the end to Hezbollah?

BLANFORD: Well, it’s not going to be the end to Hezbollah. but it is definitely going to weaken them strategically. Clearly, what they call the “axis of resistance”, which groups Iran, Syria, Hezbollah, and the smaller groups like Hamas and other pro-Damascus, Palestinian groups; this has represented the main opposition towards Israel, towards Western ambitions in the Middle East, certainly over the last decade, and Syria has been the strategic lynchpin connecting specific Iran and Hezbollah, and if it goes and is especially replaced by a regime that is more reflective of the Sunni majority in Syria, perhaps alliances for Turkey or Saudi Arabia or both. This is going to pose a major, major difficulty for Hezbollah, and certainly for Iran as well, but it’s not going to necessarily spell the end to Hezbollah. Why? Because Hezbollah will remain the dominant political and military actor in Lebanon. It forms the back bone of the Lebanese government at the moment, and there is no other group inside Lebanon that is strong enough presently to undermine Hezbollah position. Hezbollah’s strategic position will be weakened but not necessarily its tactical domestic position. But also, I think we need to see that it is probably to premature to assume that if President Assad and his regime collapses, that we will see a new regime arise that is warm towards the West, that maybe is reflective indeed of the Sunni majority, and aligning itself with Saudi Arabia, and so on. We don’t know yet. It’s too soon to tell. When I talked to Hezbollah officials about this; the obvious question is ‘”hat you are going to do if president al-Assad succumbs to the uprising?” And they will not address that directly at the moment. Hezbollah is saying that they are confident that President Assad will prevail. They say that President Assad should be given a chance to implement reforms and they will not discuss what comes next; but certainly in the uppermost in their minds and we will have to see how it unfolds.

MESSITTE: While we got both of you here, let’s actually talk about Syria for a moment. Assad is the master of playing for time. And so there’s this other scenario here - not the one that has him out of power, but has him in power. Play that forward, Joshua and Nicholas. How does that then affect the region that this is just a long continuing process?

BLANFORD: I think that what ever happens in Syria is going to take time. Unless there is some kind of sudden break that ends this quickly; and I don’t see that happening. I think that we are in for the long haul. The situation in Syria at the moment is such that the opposition, the activists on the ground, the protestors who have shown tremendous courage, they’re still coming out onto the street with their cell phones rather than rifles. The Assad regime has yet to crush this uprising, but the opposition has yet to gain sufficient momentum to topple president Assad, and there are key sectors of Syrian society, particular the business community and the small religious communities including the Christians and the Alawites and so on who are kind of sitting on the fence at the moment. There is a fear of what may arise if President Assad goes. It’s a case of “better the devil you know.”  So we have this situation where the two sides are at loggerheads and this could continue for a long time, and I think that the dynamics there we are seeing now are two-fold.  One is that elements of the opposition are beginning to arm them selves, and they seem to be acting unilaterally to a large extent; not really in coordination with the broader protest movement, and these are basically soldiers who have defected form the regular Syrian forces and they seem to be staging an ever-growing number of attacks. And the other dynamic is the growing isolation of the Assad regime. We’ve had had the Arab League, which is never really known for making bold moves, suspend Syria’s participation as membership in the league. This is a very significant move, this is the only third time the Arab League has actually suspended a member state. The first one was Egypt in 1979 for signing peace with Israel, and the second one was Libya when the revolution took off. So for them to turn on Syria, and suspend Syria’s membership now is a very significant move. I think it will probably embolden the international community towards making small assertive measures towards Syria. I mean we’re not going to see boots on the ground; we are not going to see a NATO intervention like in Libya any time soon. But it may hasten the process towards backing the Syrian opposition a little more so then they have been.

MESSITTE: You’re listening to World Views on KGOU and we’re talking with Nicholas Blanford, the Beirut correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor and author of Warriors of God: Inside Hezbollah’s Thirty-Year Struggle Against Israel.

LANDIS: Let me ask you question about Lebanon’s future. In many ways Lebanon has always had a separate history from the Middle East because it’s such a confessional “Noah’s Ark”, with two of everything.  On the other hand it’s always been a bellwether for the future of the Levant. Lebanon in many ways is much more democratic, it’s elite, it’s much more educated, it’s a much more diverse country; but it doesn’t have a functioning central government. It barely functions. In many ways it’s good for Lebanon because the Middle East has been populated with to many strong central governments. But in order to come through this Arab Spring, the Middle East has to devise a new form of government. And the sectarian groups have to learn to live with each other in a way with some sort of power sharing. Lebanon has gotten close to devising a system of power sharing. But ultimately it’s failed, and Hezbollah is an expression of that. It’s an armed sectarian group that plays by the political rules sometimes, but other times it doesn’t, it’s got guns. Do you see Lebanon putting away the guns and playing by democratic political rules any time in the near future?

BLANFORD: Well not by democratic rules that we understand in the West, of course. Lebanon has a kind of incoherent democracy; it’s a country of compromise which often means that nothing really gets done. It’s certainly true that the Lebanese don’t look to the government for anything, they are very self-reliant and they get on and run their businesses and then homes and so on without expecting anything from the government and very often those expectations, or lack of them, are fulfilled. But it’s also a great leveler; we have been through similar situations in the past in the sense that one community will begin to perhaps try to impose itself on other communities. Specifically, I would look back to the Maronite Christians; without getting into all this complicated sectarian power sharing system, the Maronites are minorities that have also had the lion share of position within the Lebanese state. And when that was beginning to come under threat in the late 60s and early 70s, they became a lot more assertive and certainly during the civil war years when we had the Maronite militias and so on. But the Maronites have since gone into a decline because what generally happens is that when one community starts becoming too assertive, the other communities all gang up against it. I think what we are having a similar situation with Hezbollah.  Hezbollah has grown more and more power over the years; but as it has grown more powerful and has remained determined to keep its weapons, it has alienated segments of the Lebanese population who once supported it for its resistance activities against the Israeli occupation in south Lebanon, but have come over the years to fear Hezbollah and worry that Hezbollah’s hostility towards Israel is going to drag the country into yet another conflict. So Hezbollah tried to shore up its position to defend its resistance priority, has had to encage in all these very complicated cross-sectarian alliances. But I think it’s a losing game and it may continue for a long, long time. But I think inevitably, it’s the Lebanese way, it’s the great leveler; there are certain points where Hezbollah will become unsustainable in its current form and will have to evolve into something more in keeping with the way Lebanon operates.

MESSITTE: I want to stick with Lebanon’s past and its future. As a Beirut correspondent, a story that you have been deeply involved in is the assignation of the Rafic Hariri and then the investigation into the assignation of him, and I was taken by a quote that Walid Jumblatt said to you, a Druze politician in Lebanon. He said, “Justice for Hariri’s murder is the key to stability in Lebanon for the future.” Why is this so important? Why is figuring who killed President Hariri so important to understand both the future of Lebanon and its past?

BLANFORD: Well actually, Walid Jumblatt’s stance is the question of stability or justice. He has maintained that if you pursue justice that you find out who killed Hariri that that could actually end up destabilizing Lebanon. Where as if you quietly forget about; yes, he was a great guy and we all loved him, but at the end of the day he died several years ago. He is one of many Lebanese politicians that have died; let’s move on and preserve Lebanon’s stability which is more important than finding out who killed one person.

MESSITTE: Do you agree with that concept? That it’s a question of justice or stability?

BLANFORD: I can’t really answer that. I mean there is a truism in what Jumblatt says. My feeling on the whole judicial process for Rafic Hariri is it was flawed from the beginning, and it was flawed from the beginning because the UN investigation, which has morphed now into this international tribunal based in Netherlands owes its creation to the political interests of France and the United States at the time of Hariri’s assassination; Syria was immediately fingers as prime suspect for Hariri’s truck bomb killing, and at that time of course, Syria was very much in the crosshairs of then-President Jacques Chirac and then-President George W. Bush. So, when you have a large segment of the Lebanese who are outraged by Hariri’s assassination, blaming Syria, demanding some kind of judicial process was very easy for Americans, and the French to back it in the UN Security Council. But from that alone means that the establishment of the tribunal is politically tainted. For instance, if Israel had been the prime suspect of the Hariri assassination, we never would have never had seen an international tribunal. So from that premise alone, critics of the tribunal have got ammunition that this is a political tool of the West to put pressure on Syria. And now, of course, since the investigation has unfolded since 2005, Hezbollah has also been incorporated into the circle of guilt, which again, adds to the skeptics saying, “Well, of course now they have moved from Syria to Hezbollah, and Hezbollah is a target of the West.  How convenient to corner both of them.”  So this is a problem. A lot of people say “Where was the tribunal for Benazir Bhutto?”   So when you have a political rationale behind the formation of a body, actually unique international judicial body, something like this has never happened before. I think that in an ideal world everyone should have justice, but this is selective justice, and I think it undermines the integrity of the whole process.

LANDIS: Did the Arab Spring fill you with confidence about the future of the Middle East? I know spending time in Lebanon, one is always filled anxiety whenever there’s political upheaval because you have seen how things can go wrong and how much suffering is incorporated. On the other hand, this is a new phenomenon in many ways. How do you look at the Arab Spring? Do you look at is has something that is going to bring democracy in a new Middle East?

BLANFORD: Well, let’s hope so, but I don’t think I see an outcome any time soon. I think that for me the most significant thing of the Arab Spring so far, is that there has always been this prevailing belief ,and you hear this very much from Israeli leaders ,that in the Arab World or in the Middle East, you need to be strong because if you any sign of weakness, your enemies will bring you down. And many people have said this is the reason why the Arabs have always been cowed, that they haven’t rebelled, and that they remain subject to totalitarian states. Ben Ali of Tunisia wasn’t weak when they rose up and threw him out of power. Mubarak of Egypt wasn’t weak when the Egyptians rose up and threw him out of power, and the same with Gaddafi and now with President Assad with Syria. So for me the most significant thing that we see in this stage, and it really is an early stage, the tremendous courage and will of the Arab people to take to the streets and to oust these rather decrepit ossified dictatorships and I think at that dynamic is the most interesting thing I have seen.

MESSITTE: Nicholas Blanford, the Beirut correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor and author of Warriors of God: Inside Hezbollah’s Thirty Year Struggle Against Israel, thank you for joining us on World Views.

BLANFORD: Thank you, I have enjoyed it immensely.

Copyright © 2012 KGOU Radio. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to KGOU Radio. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only. Any other use requires KGOU's prior permission.

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