Lebanon’s Choice: Dante’s Inferno or More’s Utopia? (ARI)

Lebanon’s Choice: Dante’s Inferno or More’s Utopia? (ARI)

Theme: Lebanon is part of an arc of instability that stretches all the way from Pakistan to Gaza.

Summary: Lebanon is faced with an internal political deadlock and the threat of being overwhelmed by salafi groups bent on destabilising it. The basic domestic political issues at this point are: the formation of a new national unity government, the election of a new President (the mandate of the current President Emile Lahoud expires this autumn), the creation of a new tribunal to investigate the killing of former Prime Minister Rafiq al Hariri and his escort, and the rising threat of al-Qaeda-inspired salafi groups such as Fatah al-Islam. The current instability in Lebanon is also due to the struggle for power and influence in the Middle East.

Analysis: Throughout its recent history and each time there has been a presidential election, Lebanon has faced internal turmoil. The confluence of local, regional and global factors makes an easy prey of the Land of Cedars. As a multiconfessional society, Lebanon is affected by all kinds of pressures reflecting regional and global interests. Also, this summer marks the anniversary of the July 2006 Israel-Hizbollah war, from the consequences of which both countries are still reeling. Even if Hizbollah has succeeded in standing up to the Israeli Army’s onslaught, it has totally misread the realities of internal Lebanese politics. Moreover, Israel achieved a major political victory by neutralising any military action by the Iranian-backed Lebanese Shia group. UN Resolution 1701 has internationalised Lebanon’s borders with Israel through the presence of 13,000 troops belonging to the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL).

The situation in Lebanon today is now far more complicated and dangerous. The country is faced with an internal political deadlock and the threat of being overwhelmed by salafi groups bent on destabilising it and imposing their own fundamentalist militant interpretation of Islam. Moreover, the struggle for influence in Lebanon and the Middle East between the US and France on the one hand and Syria and Iran on the other, does not bode well for a possible settlement of the crisis in Lebanon. Iran is involved in a major struggle for influence in the region and for the status of its nuclear weapons programme. Iraq is sliding slowly but surely into a rampant civil war, with the prospect of a US troop withdrawal looking more likely. In the Palestinian territories there are now two governments vying for control of what is left of the Occupied Territories. In sum, Lebanon is part of an arc of instability stretching all the way from Pakistan to Gaza.

Lebanon’s Domestic Politics[1]
Gridlock is the best word to describe Lebanon’s current domestic politics. The Lebanese Parliament has not convened since December 2006. Meanwhile, the government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora is paralysed and challenged by an opposition determined to force his resignation. Siniora enjoys the support of the slight majority in the Parliament and especially of the US and France: challenged at home, he remains a popular Prime Minister for Lebanon’s Western friends.

Since last December, members of the opposition (Hizbollah, General Michel Aoun and their allies) have been camping in protest in central Beirut paralysing commercial life and forcing Siniora to lock himself in the government’s seraglio.

Another challenge is posed by the constant assassinations of Lebanese politicians belonging to the majority. The main aim of Lebanon’s enemies is to eliminate the parliamentary majority and redraw the map of Lebanese politics. The basic domestic political issues are: the formation of a new national unity government, the election of a new president (the mandate of the current President Emile Lahoud expires this autumn), the creation of a new tribunal to investigate the killing of former Prime Minister Rafiq al Hariri and his escort, and the rising threat of al-Qaeda-inspired salafi groups such as Fatah al-Islam.

The current government has lost the members of the opposition and is operating without a popular consensus. Hizbollah and its allies have been calling for the formation of a new government in which they could have a vetoing power. Siniora and the majority have suggested a new cabinet based on the formula of 19 members for the majority, 11 for the opposition and 1 outsider, who would maintain a balance between the two groups. So far this formula has been rejected by the opposition amidst talks of a possible second government in Lebanon. This is a remote possibility for the time being but is used by the opposition as a way of exerting pressure.

The creation by the United Nations of a Special Tribunal to investigate Hariri’s assassination was also part of the push and pull between Siniora’s government and the opposition. Initially, the UN and the Western powers had given a chance to the Lebanese Parliament to approve the tribunal, but Nabih Berri, the parliament’s Shia Speaker, refused to convene the legislators for this purpose. A UN representative visited Lebanon and met with all the parties but was unable to convince the opposition to budge from its stand to amend the document setting up the tribunal. The pro Syrian opposition fears that the tribunal could become a weapon in the hands of the majority and its Western backers to harass and humiliate the Syrian regime.

In late May the UN Security Council met and voted in favour of setting up the Special Tribunal for Lebanon under Chapter VII of the UN charter (Resolution 1757). Five countries (Russia, China, Qatar, Indonesia and South Africa) opposed or abstained from voting. This issue is no longer a major concern for Lebanon’s political players. It is, however, a major development for the country and the region akin to the creation of the Nuremberg Tribunal following World War II. The main difference is that it is the first time in recent history that a tribunal is established not for investigating war crimes or crimes against humanity but to end the era of impunity that has marred Lebanese and regional politics following the spate of assassinations.

The Salafi Threat[2]
Another domestic threat with regional implications is the openly aggressive stance adopted by radical Sunni salafi groups. A small organisation called Fatah al-Islam –headed by Shaker al-Absi, a Palestinian who fled Jordan, went to Syria then came to Northern Lebanon to set up shop with support from Syrian intelligence–[3] claims that it wants to refocus Palestinian politics back to Islamic sharia law and act as an alternative to Fatah and Hamas, the two major Palestinian organisations. Tripoli, the Sunni-dominated city in northern Lebanon, and the Palestinian refugee camp of Nahr al-Bared became the headquarters for this obscure organisation.

In late May, Fatah al-Islam attacked a Lebanese army position and killed several soldiers. This was the beginning of fighting between the Lebanese Army and the salafi group. It was a stand the army had to take to nip in the bud the emerging and growing threat of al-Qaeda-inspired terrorist groups. In fact, al-Qaeda leaders decided that Lebanon would be the favoured base for undermining the country’s stability and extending the group’s influence in the Levant.

At first the Lebanese Army was taken aback. Then General Michel Suleiman, the Army commander, decided with regional and international support to hit back at Fatah al-Islam, whose base was in a Palestinian refugee camp. The Army allowed the refugees (30,000) to leave the camp in order to avoid civilian casualties. So far, most of those killed are members of the Lebanese Army and armed terrorists from various Arab and non Arab countries, including Bangladesh and Chechnya. As of the time of writing, battles are still raging between the Lebanese Army and what is left of Fatah al-Islam in the Palestinian refugee camp of Nahr al-Bared.

Some government members and majority leaders openly claimed that the Syrian regime was a major sponsor of Fatah al-Islam. Their argument was that the Syrian government is scared of the UN-created Special Tribunal and is bent on destabilising Lebanon. Since the forced withdrawal of its troops from Lebanon in 2005, Syria has been desperately trying to regain its direct control over the Land of Cedars.

The Lebanese Army’s performance elicited praise from various quarters. Internally, public opinion rallied behind its armed forces with an unprecedented show of support. Even Hizbollah and General Michel Aoun –the two main pillars of the opposition– expressed their qualified support for the army performance. Fears were also expressed that after the Nahr al-Bared confrontation battles would start in other refugee camps, mainly that of Ain al-Hilwe close to Sidon.

In a sense, this latest confrontation between the Army and the jihadi group reopened the sensitive and controversial issue of the Palestinian presence in Lebanon (the latest figures speak of 150,000 to 200,000 Palestinians living in 12 refugee camps throughout Lebanon).

While the battle was raging between the Lebanese Army and the salafi group there were bomb explosions in various parts of Lebanon. Then an important political assassination occurred, putting in question the Special Tribunal’s effectiveness as a deterrent. Walid Eido, a Lebanese member of parliament belonging to the Future Movement (created by the late Prime Minister Rafiq al Hariri and now headed by his son Saad), was blown up with his son and bodyguards on his way out of a beach resort in West Beirut. This latest assassination sent shock waves throughout the country. The parliamentary majority accused Syria and its allies of being behind this latest criminal act, which aimed to undermine the parliamentary group linked to the government (which had a majority of three).

The emergence of al-Qaeda-inspired terrorist salafi groups comes at a time when Lebanon is facing a state of total paralysis and internal divisions. The Christian community is wracked by internal dissent highlighted by the number of candidates to the presidency (the president in Lebanon is always a member of the Maronite community). The Maronites are divided between their allegiance to General Michel Aoun, who does not hide his presidential ambitions, and Dr. Samir Geagea leader of the Lebanese Forces. Cardinal Nasrallah Boutros Sfeir, the Maronite Patriarch, enjoys overall esteem and respect and plays an important role in balancing the divisions within his community.

The Sunni community stands mostly behind Saad Hariri, the son of the assassinated Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. The main challenge facing this community is the ever increasing power of the Shia, as reflected by Hizbollah’s pervasive presence in the country. Speculation has it that the Hariris –with initial Saudi and US support– gave funding to small Sunni jihadi groups to keep them at bay (especially in the Palestinian refugee camps) and act as a deterrent to Hizbollah. There is no proof to corroborate this, but what is certain is that the Sunni of Lebanon feel orphaned since the killing of Rafiq Hariri. In sum, the Sunnis of Lebanon still enjoy a lot of political leverage given the support the community gets from major Sunni-dominated Arab players such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Iran is considered an ally of Syria and a major backer of Hizbollah.

The Regional and Global Conundrum
The current instability in Lebanon is also due to the struggle for power and influence in the Middle East. From a regional perspective, there is an ongoing battle for influence between pro-Western Arab regimes such as Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. These countries are afraid of the change in the balance of power in the region since the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. One fundamental concern is the bloody and fragile situation in Iraq. Mesopotamia today is virtually a divided country. The Shias in southern Iraq have created their own governance system with heavy financial and military support from Iran. The Kurds in northern Iraq have established some kind of autonomy, but they face the constant threat of a Turkish invasion to get evict the PKK’s Turkish members. The Sunnis in central Iraq are leaderless and fear that the country’s partition would deprive them of access to its oil wealth, among other issues.

The other concern is the weakening of the Bush Administration due to last November’s legislative elections in the US, which brought a Democratic majority to Congress. Americans are divided on what to do in Iraq, but the overall consensus is that it is high time for the Bush Administration to cut its losses and withdraw. Such an eventuality scares many Iraqis, but mostly the US’s major allies and friends in the region. Finally, Iraq is also perceived by its neighbours as a safe haven for all kind of jihadi terrorist groups inspired by al-Qaeda. In fact, it is from Iraq that the jihadi and salafi terrorists found in Lebanon came. These groups could constitute a major destabilising force for US-backed Arab regimes. Al-Qaeda’s aim is to undermine the central authority of these regimes and install an Islamist Caliphate that would be inspired by the early days of the Prophet of Islam, Muhammad.

Iran is a major player in Lebanon and the region. Since the inception of the Iranian Revolution the Iranian regime has exerted most of its efforts in extending Ayatollah Khomeini’s model of governance to the region. Lebanon, with its large Shia community, was an ideal location for this mission and the creation of Hizbollah a major instrument. Iran took also advantage of US mistakes in Iraq and the failure of the Bush Administration’s policy to bring stability and democracy to Iraq and the region. The Iranian leadership is well conscious of the vital role it is –and will be– playing in any future settlement in both Iraq and Lebanon. The Iranian nuclear option has now become a significant bargaining chip with the US. In a sense the Iranians are telling the Americans (most recently at an international meeting in Baghdad): let us have our nuclear bomb and we will help you pacify Iraq and, to a lesser extent, Lebanon. US policy towards Iran is still unclear and marred by the divisions within the US Administration. The Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, would like to engage Iran in a dialogue in light of the recommendations contained in the Hamilton-Baker Report. However, according to some US analysts, Vice President Dick Cheney and his neocon friends want to confront Iran in a possible war.[4] The main drawback they face is that time is running out and that presidential primary elections begin in the US in early 2008. Last but not least, public opinion in the US is in no mood for supporting another military adventure that could be very costly in US troops.

Iran is playing a role in Lebanon and its main objectives are to maintain, consolidate and shore up its leading allies in the Shia community: Hizballah and Amal. The Iranian leadership is well aware that a possible Sunni-Shia confrontation in Lebanon could lead to the weakening of these allies. In coordination with the Saudis, Iran tried its hand at convincing its allies in Lebanon to accept the Hariri tribunal and the formation of a new government, but to no avail. It is clear, though, that Iran and its Syrian ally are not too happy with the presence of Western military units (from Belgium, France, Germany, Italy and Spain) within the UNIFIL peacekeeping forces in South Lebanon. Nonetheless, the Iranians have given substantial leeway to their Syrian allies to oversee and manage the internal situation in Lebanon.

Two years after the Syrian withdrawal, the 14 March movement failed to harness the popular support it then enjoyed. Hizbollah, a leading Syrian ally in Lebanon, is still a major player in the country. The Syrian regime never accepted its forced withdrawal from Lebanon and is attempting with all its means to regain that control.

First, the Assad regime instructed its allies in Lebanon to do whatever they could to undermine the creation of the Hariri tribunal.[5] These efforts failed as the tribunal is now a reality. The creation of the Special Tribunal is an important answer to the calls for ‘policing the past’ and seeking the ‘Truth’ in Lebanon. Seventeen years after the war ended in 1990 real reconciliation has yet to take place in the country. The Special Tribunal is an important signal by the international community that the search for justice and accountability in Lebanon are important stepping stones towards stability. There has always been a debate in Lebanon whether to ‘forgive and forget’ what happened during the Lebanese civil war or to seek truth and reconciliation following the South African and other models.[6]

Syria is also exerting pressure on its allies in Lebanon to turn down any compromise solution on what should come first: the election of a new president –as demanded by the majority– or a national unity government –as demanded by the opposition–. The difficulties in finding a solution were exemplified by the recent mission in June of Amr Moussa, the Arab League’s Secretary General. Amr Moussa was very close to obtaining an agreement from the various Lebanese factions to form a new government. At the last moment before Moussa’s departure, Syria’s allies in Lebanon (Hizballah, Amal and General Michel Aoun) turned down the proposal that had been agreed the day before.[7]

The Syrian regime is desperately trying to escape the isolation imposed on it by the US, France and their regional allies. At the end of March and after Egypt’s intervention, President Assad was invited to the Arab League’s summit in Saudi Arabia, where he met with the Saudi King. Hopes for a thawing of relations between the two countries were dispelled given the Syrian regime’s intention to dominate Lebanese politics and to destabilise the Palestinian Authority through its support of Hamas.[8]

President Assad wants to make sure that the next Lebanese President will be friendly and malleable. The Syrians were used to manipulating and imposing pro-Syrian presidential candidates during the long years of occupation in Lebanon. Ironically, this was done with the tacit support of the US, France and the Vatican, the main Western players on the Lebanese scene.

The Bush Administration and France’s new President, Nicolas Sarkozy, are still opposed to any return of Syrian influence in Lebanon. Italy and Spain, on the other hand, have opted to engage the Syrian regime. The rationale behind Italian and Spanish thinking is that Syria is an important player in Lebanon and in the region and that it cannot be ignored. According to both Spanish and Italian diplomats, Spain and Italy are engaging Syria because they believe this will enhance the position of Bashar Assad against those surrounding him who wish to pursue a more radical policy, especially in light of the Special Tribunal on Lebanon. Closer to home, Syrian support is needed for the safety of European troops operating within UNIFIL in South Lebanon. This policy, however, did not prevent the terrorist attack against Spanish troops on 24 June, which killed six soldiers. In sum, there is no split between US, French, Spanish and Italian policies. They all agree on the need to bolster the Siniora government and avoid a further destabilisation of Lebanon similar to what is occurring in Iraq.

In reaction to the deadly attack against the Spanish contingent serving with UNIFIL in South Lebanon, some Lebanese officials pointed at the Syrian regime. To justify their argument they quote the Syrian President Bashar Assad, who recently warned that if the Hariri tribunal is approved the ‘area extending between the Caspian Sea and the Mediterranean will go up in flames’.[9] The official Syrian reaction was that the attack against the Spanish troops –Spain maintains friendly relations with Damascus– is part of a larger US-Israeli plan to destroy Hizbollah and its leader, Sayyid Hasan Nasrallah.[10] The attackagainst UNIFIL troops would strengthen the hands of those calling for extending UN troops to the borders between Lebanon and Syria. Moreover, from a Syrian standpoint the attack would place Hizbollah in a spot and undermine its credibility with UN peacekeepers, which is a major aim of the Israeli government.

Conclusion: Since the beginning of the Bush Administration, the consolidation of democracy in the Middle East has been a major linchpin of US foreign policy in the Middle East. Three countries –Iraq, Palestine and Lebanon– were supposed to be the testing ground for this quest. Four years after the US invasion, Iraq is in a shambles and the Maliki government in Baghdad is ineffective and weak. In Palestine, democratic elections were held in 2006 and brought the Islamist group Hamas to power. Today, the Palestinian body politic is divided in two: Hamas rules in Gaza and the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank. The only card left for the Bush Administration to prove its support for democracy in the Middle East is Lebanon. This explains the staunch US support for the embattled Siniora government and the American pressure on the Lebanese to elect a new President before the end of November. If this attempt succeeds then the Bush Administration could use Lebanon as a major victory in its Utopian quest in the Middle East. Barring that, Lebanon will again relive a descent to civil war similar to Dante’s Inferno.

Whatever the causes or motivations, UNIFIL troops in South Lebanon have now become part of the overall struggle for influence to determine the future of Lebanon and the Middle East. This struggle between France, the US and the UK on the one hand, and Iran and Syria on the other will have either positive or negative consequences on Lebanon’s future.

George Emile Irani
Director for the Africa and Middle East Programme at the Toledo International Centre for Peace (CITpax)

[1] For further readings on Hizballah and the July 2006 war, see Augustus Richard Norton, Hezbollah, Princeton University Press, Princeton and Oxford, 2007. See also Franck Mermier & Elizabeth Picard, Liban: Une Guerre de 33 Jours, Editions La Decouverte, Paris, 2007.

[2] For an excellent assessment of jihadi Islamist groups in Lebanon see the book by Bernard Rougier, Le Jihad au Quotidien, Presses Universitaires de France, Paris, 2004.

[3] The role of Syrian intelligence in supporting Fatah al-Islam is documented by the taped confessions of captured members of the salafi group in Tripoli. These confessions have been used by the Siniora government as further proof of Syrian involvement in destabilising Lebanon. See Jim Quilty, ‘The Collateral Damage of Lebanese Sovereignty’, Middle East Report Online, 18/VI/2007.

[4] For further details see Seymour M. Hersh, ‘The Redirection: Is the Administration’s New Policy Benefiting our Enemies in the War on Terrorism?’, The New Yorker, March 2007. See also an excellent analysis by Dan Froomkin, ‘Cheney, by Proxy’, The Washington Post, 4/VI/2007.

[5] For an excellent analysis on the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, see Nadim Shehadi & Elizabeth Wilmshurst, The Special Tribunal for Lebanon: The UN on Trial?, Chatham House Middle East/International Law Briefing Paper, MEP/IL BP 07/01, July 2007.

[6] See George Emile Irani, ‘Acknowledgment, Forgiveness and Reconciliation in Conflict Resolution: Perspectives from Lebanon’, CHRONOS, nr 5, University of Balamand, Lebanon, 2002. See also George Emile Irani & Laurie King-Irani (Eds), al Itiraaf bil Akhaar al Ghoufran wal Musaalaha (Acknowledgment, Forgiveness and Reconciliation), Lebanese American University, Beirut, 1996.

[7] For further details see Al-Nashra, 21/VI/2007, and An-Nahar, 21/VI/2007.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Statement reported in Al-Nashra, 26/VI/2007; see also As-Safir, 26/VI/2007.

[10] An example is the accusation by the Syrian Minister of Information, Mohsen Bilal, that the attack was carried out by elements linked to Antoine Lahd’s South Lebanon Army (SLA), which was supported by Israel before it collapsed in 2000. See Al-Hayat, 27/VI/2007.