Levantine Clarity

Pierre Habshi offers a spirited critique of Antony Sullivan’s Reporter-at-Large, " Levantine Labyrinths ", from the May/June issue.

At a time when the need for solid analysis of developments in the Middle East has become crucial, it has paradoxically become easier to publish far-fetched and puzzling reports masqueraded as thoughtful insights generously shared with the American public by the "experts." Antony Sullivan's "Levantine Labyrinths" is a prime example of such a trend.

Sullivan's reporting, which likely relies on informal conversations in Beirut's cafes and salons, is based on repeated references to mysterious "numerous reports", or "many in the region believe", or "it is reported that", or "commentators in the Middle East." For example, one would think that Sullivan could have provided a reference to one of the mentioned "numerous reports" of thousands of Sunnis converting to Shi‘i Islam. A quick internet search found little to support such a sweeping statement. Worse, Sullivan provides no evidence that this trend is taking place in Lebanon, which is the subject of his essay.

On a more serious note, Sullivan reports, but provides no evidence, that Hizballah is paying "full-time demonstrators in Beirut's central Martyr's Square $100 daily, in addition to offering them meals and soft drinks." This amounts to over $2,000 a month, assuming a five-day work week. This is in a country experiencing "economic depression", as he writes in later paragraphs. What he does not report is that the numbers of demonstrators has dwindled to a trickle, even though unemployment is high, and the Lebanese per-capita income figures, according to the World Bank, amount to $3,990 a year, or $332 a month.1 If Hizballah really is offering so much money, why have so few remained?

Sullivan proceeds to report on Hizballah's suicide bombers-one thousand of them-and adds: "Among these potential bombers, interestingly, are a number of females." His source: "reports have been circulating in Beirut . . ." Sullivan fails to mention the fact that the last time Hizballah used suicide bombers was in the 1980s, and they were used against the Israeli military in south Lebanon, not Lebanese civilians.

Sullivan then implicates Iran in targeting the "pro-American March 14 coalition for assassination", something that even the United Nations and its team of experts, which have been in Lebanon since 2005 to investigate the assassination of Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, have yet to do. In a further display of analytical muddle, Sullivan presents the following facts: Iran and Hizballah are recruiting and training suicide bombers, including women. He then references "one observer" and his insight that "In Lebanon, it is easy for pretty women to enter the social circles of politicians and to ‘befriend' their intended targets before killing them with poison, or guns with silencers." Sullivan helpfully warns us that these "Potential female suicide bombers are reported to be circulating" in Beirut's trendy clubs, and that Lebanese politicians have been advised to stay clear of such areas, what with their habit of befriending strange women at bars and nightclubs. But Sullivan never explains why trained female suicide bombers are being sent on what really amounts to targeted assassination missions that require the use of poison and guns, not the willingness to strap explosives around one's body to detonate in a crowded area.

Sullivan concludes his paragraph on female suicide bombers turned femmes fatales by gushing that, "All of this might remind one of the memorable hotel-bar seduction scene in the movie Munich." No, this reminds me of the general poverty of political analysis when it relates to the Arab world.

Sullivan's other gaffes are too many to fully examine, but I will address the following:

First, according to Sullivan, Hizballah and the Maronites are both "distressed" by the growing presence of Sunni fundamentalist groups in Lebanon. Sullivan sees in this "a possibility for Maronite-Hizballah cooperation and a potential opening for the United States." Recent events in Lebanon have shown otherwise: In response to attacks by the fundamentalist Fatah al-Islam, the United States chose to support the Sunni prime minister, who is backed by the Maronite-led, but multi-sectarian, Lebanese military. Hizballah, meanwhile, has been sidelined and left to utter unheeded warnings to the Lebanese government not to enter Palestinian camps to root out Fatah al-Islam. Hizballah's principal Maronite ally, Michel Aoun, leader of the Free Patriotic Movement, the largest Christian party in the Lebanese parliament, has fully supported the Lebanese army.

Second, Sullivan claims that Syria has become "emboldened, having returned as a Lebanese kingmaker." He adds that for this and other reasons, "it is surely in the U.S. national interest to open a direct dialogue with Syria, as recommended in the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group Report." But if Syria is kingmaker in Lebanon, what evidence does he have to prove it? The anti-Syrian Lebanese prime minister is still in office and has proven more tenacious than many believed. The pro-Syrian Lebanese president, Emile Lahoud, even according to Sullivan's implausible sources, "is currently under intense pressure from his children to quit office and retire in Yerevan, the capital of Armenia." Regardless, Lahoud's term ends in September. Finally, the last major pro-Syrian politician holding office is Nabih Berry, the speaker of parliament. But he has been reduced to refusing to call parliament to session for fear that its anti-Syrian majority would ratify the UN tribunal on Hariri's assassination. So much for Syrian kingmakers.