Leave Lebanon to the Lebanese

Lebanon breathed a heartfelt sigh of relief last week with the long-awaited election to the presidential office of army Chief of Staff General Michel Suleiman. After a rapid series of diplomatic toing and froing in the Qatari capital of Doha, a number of commentators opined the Levant was saved from relapsing into the clutches of another devastating civil war by a meager hair’s breadth. In hindsight it doesn’t appear that another civil war was on the cards, the domestic balance of power stood overwhelmingly in Hizbullah’s favor, and therefore allowed the vast majority of conflict zones to be quickly subdued and handed back to the army; in stark contrast to the prevailing situation during the Lebanese Civil War whereby a panoply of armed militias engaged in a protracted war of attrition, too weak to convincingly defeat one another and seize control of the country, yet strong enough to inflict serious damage and irreparable scars upon the Lebanese polity, many of which are still to mend.

The election by Lebanese MPs of a president after a stalemate of more than 5 months has been welcomed begrudgingly by some, and with rose-tinted spectacles by others, as the final outcome of

Lebanon ’s political future continues to marauder in murky and nebulous territory. Though the current modus vivendi may certainly only be a band-aid solution, until the relevant parties have regrouped and sharpened their knifes till the next spate of hostilities, it also evinces the very real possibility of settling internal Lebanese disputes by diplomatic rather than military means. Michel Suleiman on more than one occasion has demonstrated his political acumen and suave ability to navigate the perilous and labyrinthine maze of Lebanese politics – his decision to not embroil the army in ethnic and sectarian struggles undoubtedly being chief amongst them – as the fragmentation of the army would surely have spelt disaster and undercut the painstaking efforts in recent years which have been made to depict the army as beyond the fray of partisan politics and as a symbol of national unity.

The turmoil witnessed throughout the course of May has now subsided, but with over eighty dead and more than 200 wounded this recent bout of strife marks the most significant case of intra-Lebanese conflict since the cessation of hostilities and the end of the Civil War which wracked the aggrieved Mediterranean state from 1975 to 1990; and which was finally put to bed as a result of the Taif Agreement of 1989. The Taif Agreement itself largely became feasible because of the collective exhaustion of the numerous competing factions and arguably had very little to do with the goodwill harbored by the respective parties – since that time, which can at one and the same time be considered a nadir and apogee in the history of modern Lebanon, the vast majority of Lebanese have assiduously sought to eschew a return to any such dire state of affairs. Only those on the fringe are yet to realize that no single party or group can single-handedly rule

Lebanon and that the only viable future is one of coexistence and mutual respect.

This most recent episode in the fractious relations of Lebanon’s Christian, Sunni and Shi’a communities[1] was initially sparked by two recent Cabinet decisions announced on the 7th of May in which the government removed the security chief of Beirut airport who is believed to have ties to Hizbullah, and decreed the Shi’a party’s communications network illegal, and which Hizbullah contends is integral to its ‘resistance activities’ to liberate Lebanese territory, namely the Sheeba Farms and Kfarshuba Heights, which continue to be occupied by Israeli forces. Even though few doubt that these actions were the immediate cause of Hizbullah overrunning

West Beirut , it’s patently obvious that the origin of the clashes resides in Lebanon ’s tumultuous history, confessional politics and the plethora of unresolved issues therein.

The grueling civil war that claimed as many as 150,000 lives, where neighbor turned against neighbor and much like the catastrophic situation that has befallen Iraq today, people were arbitrarily executed at roadside checkpoints for having the ‘wrong’ name and belonging to the ‘wrong’ faith. Soon after the inception of the civil war the Syrian military with tacit American approval entered

Lebanon . Israeli forces first invaded in 1978 and went all the way to Beirut in 1982 in a bid to once and for all obliterate the Palestinian Liberation Organization led by the late Yasser Arafat, and who at that time used Southern Lebanon as a base of operations. The PLO was accused, as it had been years earlier in Jordan of creating ‘a state within a state’; a similar charge that has since been leveled against Hizbullah by its opponents.

The year 1982 saw the creation of the militant Shi’a group, the Hizbullah, with training, funding and ample materiel provided by

Iran ’s Revolutionary Guard in direct response to the invasion of Israeli forces that had besieged the Lebanese capital. Hizbullah quickly surpassed its Shi’a ally and sometime rival Amal as the foremost representative of the largely disenfranchised and impoverished Shi’a, who populate Southern Lebanon and poorer districts of Southern Beirut . Ever since then, the ideological and material links between Iran and the Shi’a organization have been strong and pictures of the Ayatollah Khomeini and the present Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Khamanei, can be found peppered throughout Southern Beirut. Syria has long been integral to this relationship, as all materiel to Hizbullah must go via Syria before reaching Lebanon . The essential though functional role played by Syria in this arrangement has been vital to sustain Hizbullah; a fact that has been recognized by the Israeli government, which has recently re-opened the hitherto beleaguered Sryian-track along with Turkish mediation. By doing so the Israelis hope to pry Syria from Iran, not only to further isolate the latter, but to also stymie the Iranian succor to which the paramilitary group cum political party and sworn enemy of Israel has become accustomed.

In the advent of the first Gulf War, and in exchange for their support of the US-led venture, Syria was given the nod by the American administration of Bush Snr to wage an offensive in Lebanon in the name of keeping the peace between warring factions,[2] and there they remained until 2005; until the assassination of Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri lit a fire beneath the Syrian forces and provoked nationwide protests against the Syrian presence in Lebanon, which over the years had come to be increasingly resented.

The watershed Israeli withdrawal took place in 2000, and was greeted by the vast majority of Lebanese as a great victory and farewell to a much-hated foreign occupation that had lasted 18 years. In the more recent conflict between Hizbullah and

Israel in the summer of 2006, many Lebanese were angered by what they saw as an unnecessary provocation that resulted in 1000 civilian deaths and massive casualties throughout the country. But as Israel’s response to the kidnapping of two of its soldiers unfolded and proved to be evermore brutal and disproportionate to the initial provocation, the Lebanese steadily began to rally together and coalesce against what they perceived as a common enemy.

In the aftermath of the 2006 war which the US and Britain intentionally prolonged through their willful obstruction of a UN declared ceasefire, in the hope that something like what Israel had accomplished vis-à-vis the PLO could be effected with regards to Hizbullah, the Israeli strategy of ‘shock and awe’ in the aftermath of the conflict proved to be an abject failure, while Hizbullah proclaimed a stunning ‘victory’, thereby valorizing its self-depiction as the strong arm of the Lebanese ‘resistance’.

An important corollary of Hizbullah’s ‘Pyrrhic victory’, of which Western policy makers should take note, is that the party’s Secretary-General Seyyed Hassan Nasrallah rapidly emerged as one of the most popular political figures in the Arab world,[3] transcending the much exaggerated sectarian divide. Domestic attitudes toward Hizbullah, however, were ambivalent to say the least. As far as many Lebanese were concerned Hizbullah’s proclamation of victory was in bad taste and left a sour taste in the mouth. Hizbullah’s wary competitors for power, but also ordinary Lebanese increasingly began to question whether Hizbullah’s raison d’etre had in fact become obsolete since the major Israeli withdrawal of 2000. Meanwhile, the Lebanese army’s complete failure to protect key strategic sites and Lebanese civilians from barrage after barrage of Israeli attacks only confirmed in the minds of Hizbullah sympathizers that the ‘resistance’ was as necessary as it ever had been. There was also a fair amount of unease amongst the Druze, Sunni and Christian populations about the continued existence in their midst of a powerful Shi’a militarized force who many believe are beholden to Iranian leaders.

Though such reactions are understandable, it’s dangerous to the point of verging on a gross misconception to frame Hizbullah as a mere scion of

Iran . Such an attitude was at one time held by Saddam Hussein toward Iraq’s Shi’a majority and American politicians and military personnel have since perpetuated this same error with respect to Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army; ignoring the aspirations for representation and power of the Shi’a majorities in both Lebanon and Iraq. Much like Muqtada al-Sadr, whose ideological outlook is laced with a fervent brand of Iraqi-Arab nationalism, Hizbullah have repeatedly asserted their Lebanese-Arab identity and that Lebanon ’s national interests take precedence over its obligations to external patrons. This may ring hollow for some, but such professions can’t be peremptorily dismissed without succumbing to arrogance.

Through Lebanon’s confessional system, established upon the state’s independence from French colonial rule, political power came to be distributed along sectarian lines in an unwritten agreement which has never been easy to maintain; the semblance of a Shi’a ‘state within a state’ has not helped the unstable balancing act which to this day has preserved the National Pact, nor have fears been allayed by the fact that Lebanon’s largest community, some 40% of the population, have de facto control of the country. If there was any doubt of this before, it has now been irrefutably confirmed as Hizbullah deftly unmoored the Future coalition’s militant Salafist allies and privately funded paramilitary groups, leaving them gasping for air.[4]

The pro-war pundit Tom Friedman in an editorial last month for The New York Times argued the recent strife in Lebanon displays all the trappings of a ‘new cold war’, the only difference is that now it exists between an Iran-Syria-Hizbullah-Hamas axis on the one hand and a US-Israel-Saudi Arabia axis on the other.[5] Though a hyperbolic and fanciful reading of the present geopolitical dynamic, since Friedman very consciously omits the fact that Iran’s and Syria’s military budgets combined are a mere 1.3% of the US’s, and that Israel possesses the fourth most powerful military in the world with approximately 200 nuclear war heads, it’s never been a secret that Lebanon has throughout its modern history been graced with the unenviable ‘fate’ of being the battlefield in which regional states vie for power and endeavor to achieve one-upmanship vis-à-vis one another. This is not a problem however that is going to be solved by means of even more foreign interference in

Lebanon ’s internal affairs.

What has become clear is that throwing money at the problem isn’t going to solve a thing, irrespective of whether its origins be Saudi, American or Iranian. Since 2006 the US has provided some 1.4 billion in aid to prop up the ailing Siniora government, 400 million of which was earmarked for the Lebanese army.[6] Suleiman wisely refused to mire the army in a conflict which might have fragmented the one touchstone of national unity and thereby astutely avoided a fire from transforming into a conflagration that may have engulfed the country. With the Future Movement’s confidence flagging as a result of their militias swift defeat, it remains unclear whether the Movement will accept the new status quo as laid down in the Doha Accord or whether it’ll decide to nurse its wounds until its forces are able to challenge Hizbullah’s present military edge. If this proves to be the case, with Washington’s barely suppressed blessing, then this month’s fracas will inexorably descend into an all out battle for the heart of Lebanon, with extremists potentially on all sides.

Equally, as Hizbullah fighters turned their arms on their fellow Lebanese, the group’s stature as the national ‘resistance’ movement has been inescapably sullied. No feat of public relations is going to be able to mend the wound which has consequently been inflicted on its adversaries and will almost certainly continue to fester, the pledge in

Doha not to use its weapons in the course of internal disputes notwithstanding.

The government’s decrees of May 7th, made under considerable pressure from Washington and in coordination with UN Special Envoy Terje Roed Larsen violated the ‘rules of the game’ the pro-government forces had agreed with the opposition, in which all decisions regarding disarmament would be made the subject of a future national dialogue and consensus in lieu of unilateral decrees and foreign meddling.[7] The solution to Lebanon’s woes has been a long time in coming and yet there is only one feasible albeit obscured alternative: that all outside powers refrain from perpetuating Lebanon’s tragic history as the theatre where regional and even global struggles are waged. The US, Saudis, Israelis, Syrians and Iranians have all played a part in stoking the flames of

Lebanon ’s tragic ‘destiny’. Whether a politics often characterized by parochialism and sectarian sentiment can be surpassed is something, which is yet to be seen, nonetheless it’s high time that all outside forces left Lebanon to the Lebanese!

[1] It’s crucial to note that the recent conflict wasn’t purely along sectarian lines, as Hizbullah were supported by elements of Lebanon’s Druze community and Christian groups affiliated with Syria’s onetime nemesis, General Michel Aoun, who returned from exile in Paris after the Syrian military’s withdrawal of March 2005
[2] The 33-Day War: Israel’s War on Hezbollah in Lebanon and its Afermath, Gilbert Achcar with Michel Warschawski, Saqi Books, 2007, p16
[3] The ‘New Middle East’ Bush Is Resisting, Saad Eddin Ibrahim, The Washington Post, August 23 2006
[4] Lebanon’s Sunni bloc built militia, officials say, Borzou Daragahi and Raed Rafei, Los Angeles Times, May 12 2008
[5] The New Cold War, Thomas L. Freidman, The New York Times, May 14 2008; Saudis, US grapple with Iran challenge, M.K. Bhadrakumar, Asia Times Online, May 17, 2008
[6] This Time, Avoid the Lebanese Quagmire, Doug Bandow, Antiwar.com, May 16, 2008
[7] What Next in Lebanon? In the Wake of the
Doha Truce, Karim Makdisi, Counterpunch, May 17/18 2008 © Sadegh Kabeer

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