The Arab World's Dictators Cling On, But For How Long?
Ever a weathervane of passing fortunes, Walid Jumblatt has begun to make some very pessimistic comments about Syria.
Druze leader, head of the Lebanese Progressive Socialist Party, "warlord", he it was who suggested that the international UN tribunal into the 2005 assassination of ex-prime minister Rafiq Hariri might be set aside in the interests of "stability before justice". Howls of rage from Saad Hariri, the ex-premier's son, currently perambulating around the world to stay out of Lebanon – understandably, because of his own fears of being murdered – while Sister Syria sits silently to the east. Now Jumblatt is saying that some in Syria are impeding reform.
It seems that "some" in the Baath party regime do not want to translate President Bashar al-Assad's promises of reform into action. Soldiers shouldn't shoot at civilians. Jumblatt says that the lesson of Norway is also a lesson for the Syrian regime; it has not escaped the Arab world that Anders Breivik's internet ramblings also called for all Arabs to leave the West Bank and Gaza.
There are no promises from your Middle East correspondent, but this might just be – and how I hate this cliché – the "tipping point" in Syria. A hundred thousand (minimum) on the streets of Homs, soldiers from the Syrian military academy in the city reportedly defecting. An entire passenger train derailed – by "saboteurs", according to the Syrian authorities, by the government itself, according to the protesters demanding an end to Baath party rule – and gunfire at night in Damascus. Is Assad still hoping that sectarian fears will keep the minority Alawis and Christians and Druze behind him? Protesters say that their leaders are being assassinated by government gunmen, that hundreds, perhaps thousands have been arrested. True?
Syria's long arm, of course, can reach far. In Sidon, five Italian soldiers of the UN are wounded after Berlusconi joined the EU in condemning Syria. Then Sarkozy joined the condemnation and – bang – five French soldiers were wounded in the same city this week. A sophisticated bomb. Everyone suspects Syria. No one knows. Syria has supporters among the Palestinians from the Ein el-Helweh camp in Sidon. The Hezbollah chairman Hassan Nasrallah then announces his movement will protect Lebanon's unprospected maritime oil reserves from the Israelis – there's a disputed 550 square miles of Mediterranean off Tyre, which may or may not belong to Lebanon – so there's another cause for war.
And then, down in Egypt, the ancient ex-president is to go on trial with his sons Gamal and Alaa Mubarak on Wednesday, along with others of Hosni Mubarak's favourites. The ministers for justice and intelligence, old Mubarak aides, however, remain in the government. What does this mean? Are the old Mubarakites still clinging on? The Saudis have offered millions to the Egyptian army not to put Mubarak on trial – many want him to receive the death penalty, the army would like him to die today – just as the Saudis are giving their all for Bahrain and all the other potentates of the Middle East. They are prepared to let Gaddafi get chucked out – he has tried to assassinate the king too many times. The Saudis haven't quite decided which way Obama is blowing over Syria – neither, I suspect, has Obama – but the US President must be immensely glad that he doesn't have US peacekeeping troops in Lebanon. We all know what happened to the last lot (1983, the marine base, 241 dead, a suicide bomb, the largest explosion since Nagasaki).
"They've got to put Mubarak on trial," an Egyptian journalist told me last week. "The streets will be white hot with anger if we don't." It promises to be Egypt's trial of the century (The Independent will be there). Which brings me to our old friend Gaddafi, the Arab dictator who doesn't quite fall in with all the other regional despots. Right now, the Libyan political world seems to be swarming with Kerenskys – indeed, the Allied failure to win the war for the White Russians against the Bolsheviks after the 1914-18 conflict might also provide some unhappy ghosts for the equally unhappy but much bemedalled Nato commanders. (Churchill's involvement might be looked up in the Nato library.)
In fact, the failure of the rebels in Libya is probably more akin to Sharif Hussain's exhaustion after his capture of Mecca in 1916; it took Lawrence and British guns (and money and boots on the ground) to get the old boy back on his feet again to fight the Turks. Alas, there is no Sharif Hussain in Libya. So why did we involve ourselves in this nonsense? (I am disregarding the murderous shenanigans in Benghazi over the past 48 hours.) For the civilians of Benghazi? Perhaps. But why did Sarkozy make the first attack? Professor Peter Dale Scott of University of California at Berkeley has his own ideas. Gaddafi was trying to create an "African Union" backed by the Libyan Central Bank's currency and gold reserves, and France would lose extraordinary financial influence in its former central African colonies. The publicised bit of Obama's sanctions against Libya – "Colonel Gaddafi, his children and family, and senior members of the Libyan government" – helped to obscure the bit about "all property and interests ... of the Government of Libya ... and the Central Bank of Libya". In the basement of the central bank in Tripoli, in gold and currency, is £20bn which was to be used to set up three projects of the central African federation.
And while we are on the subject, let's subject the Afghan war to some scrutiny. Here's the words of a committee inquiring into our war (and near-defeat) there. "The object ... is to help our countrymen to understand by what steps they have been involved in war with the Afghan nation, and what grounds are assigned for that war by its authors. The war was sprung on us with great suddenness. Not only was there no consultation of parliament by our government, no communication to that body of any change of policy tending to involve us in a quarrel, but, when questions were asked on the subject the answers given were calculated to mislead, and did mislead the most sceptical officials and experts, and through them the whole nation." The quotation comes from the parliamentary inquiry into the Second Afghan War. Date: 1879.