Filed under: Middle East | Tags: Amal, Beirut, Fuad Siniora, Future Movement, Hizbullah, Iran, Israel, Kateeb Party, Lebanon, March 14th, Sectarian, Syria, United States
To be sure, the Economist’s reporting is of the highest quality, but I am a bit turned off by the free-market bend. However, this does not mean that I do not occasionally come across very good articles that are as objective and clear as anything else. The Economist’s recent article on the crisis plaguing Lebanon is one of the few things I have read that does not take a partisan perspective and looks at the conflict for what it is. Other articles either hail the Lebanese government for their struggle against Iran’s proxy Hizbullah or glorify Hizbullah, which many see as fighting against an American puppet regime. The Economist takes both perspectives and appropriately diagnosis the crisis as one in which Iran’s tool is fighting America’s stooge.
IT LOOKED disturbingly like a sequel to Lebanon’s bloody civil war of 1975-90: gun battles in city streets, kidnappings, execution-style slayings and tearful vows of vengeance. With at least 81 people killed so far, the violence of past days represents the most serious internal strife since those years. And it is unclear who can stop it.
The most striking scene was the invasion of the capital, Beirut, mounted by opponents of the government. This was not exactly a conquest of the city, but rather the takeover of one part, Sunni-dominated West Beirut, by another, the dense, gritty and largely Shia-populated southern suburbs. This act quickly rippled across the mountainous country’s sectarian patchwork, setting off clashes to the north and south. Because of Lebanon’s position as a cockpit for regional power struggles, it also reverberated further afield, from Washington to the Iranian capital, Tehran.
It was natural that this latest turmoil should carry echoes of the civil war. That contest was only fudgingly resolved, and the country has struggled to recover. Small triumphs have been notched up here and there. One was the physical revival of Beirut from a bomb-scarred wreck to a gleaming magnet for tourism; another the brave popular uprising of 2005, which forced neighbouring Syria to pull out its long-overstayed “peacekeeping” troops. For many Lebanese, too, the hounding of Israel by the guerrillas of Hizbullah, the Shia party-cum-militia, leading to the Israeli army’s withdrawal in 2000 after 22 years occupying the southern borderlands, and its humiliation in the 33-day war of 2006, were epic victories.
Yet none of those achievements was solidly shared by all. Reconstruction generated corruption and a giant pile of debt. Syria’s removal alienated its many allies inside Lebanon and prompted it to sponsor what looks like a campaign of sabotage, including assassinations. The Sunni-led, anti-Syrian factions that gained power through the 2005 uprising failed to accommodate dangerous rivals, and suffered by close association with America.
Meanwhile, Hizbullah’s lock-step allegiance to Shia Iran frightened not just Lebanese nationalists, but also the predominantly Sunni Arab world and Western powers. The UN Security Council resolved in 2004 that all Lebanon’s militias must be disarmed, but Hizbullah insisted its noble cause was resistance to Israel, despite the Jewish state’s abandonment of all but a tiny corner of Lebanon. The party continued to receive a supply of heavy weapons from Syria and Iran. In the end, the fight with Israel that Hizbullah provoked in 2006 brought massive and needless ruin.
Such strains would have tested any country, let alone a small one with a violent history, a population made up of 18 jealous religious minorities and a weak central state built on power-sharing between them. The wonder may be that Lebanon has held together at all, and even maintained a veneer of democracy. But this veneer has grown steadily thinner since the end of the 2006 war, which, aside from leaving 1,200 Lebanese dead and 100,000 homeless, also widened the central fissure in Lebanese politics.
This division is often defined, for simplicity’s sake, as a split between Hizbullah, backed by Syria and Iran in the interest of confronting Israel and blocking American influence, against the Western-backed, democratically elected government of Fuad Siniora, the Sunni prime minister. The reality is more complicated.
Mr Siniora’s coalition of Sunni Muslims, right-wing Christian parties, liberals, and the main Druze faction led by Walid Jumblatt, did indeed win 72 of the Lebanese parliament’s 128 seats in the spring of 2005, riding on sympathy generated by the assassination of Mr Siniora’s patron Rafik Hariri, a billionaire and five-term prime minister. But the election was run under rules drafted during Syrian control, before Mr Hariri’s fatal falling-out with the Syrian regime. Many Lebanese Christians, who had been the core of opposition to Syria, felt these rules diluted their influence.
Moreover, the winning coalition, which adopted the name of “March 14th” after the date of a large anti-Syrian rally, secured some districts through an electoral alliance with Hizbullah. The Shia party was rewarded with seats in Mr Siniora’s cabinet, but also believed there was tacit agreement to provide political cover for its massive rocket arsenal-perhaps, at some distant point, by incorporating its guerrilla force into the Lebanese army.
This alliance quickly unravelled, as Mr Siniora’s Western backers pushed him to contain what they regarded as a terrorist group, and Hizbullah responded by forging a growing opposition coalition. This came to include not only its rival Shia party Amal, but also some pro-Syrian Christian, Sunni and Druze factions that had flourished, many with vigorous armed wings, under Syrian tutelage. Surprisingly, it was also joined by the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), the Christian party of Michel Aoun, a maverick former general who had led a rising against Syria at the close of the civil war.
Mr Aoun bore several grudges against March 14th. As a battle-hardened foe of Syria, he felt entitled to a leading role after Syria’s hasty withdrawal. He wanted to replace Emile Lahoud, the garishly pro-Syrian president whose term was due to expire in November 2007. (By custom, Lebanon’s president must be a Maronite Christian, its prime minister a Sunni Muslim, and the speaker of parliament a Shia.) The FPM far outpolled the Christian parties inside Mr Siniora’s coalition, reflecting wide distrust of the older, right-wing Christian parties who had gained a reputation for thuggery during the civil war.
In Hizbullah’s embrace
Mr Aoun’s abrasiveness, and March 14th’s unwillingness to give him the presidency, ensured that the FPM remained in opposition. It was widely assumed that with his anti-Syrian credentials and largely pro-Western Christian constituency, the general would avoid Hizbullah, yet the two parties made an alliance in February 2006. Mr Aoun lost some Christian support over this, but then came the war with Israel.
Most Christians blamed Hizbullah for the fighting. Yet many also credited the FPM, which mobilised aid for thousands of Shias displaced by the war, with healing a historic rift between the traditionally dominant but dwindling Christians and the long-disenfranchised but now formidable Shias. In Hizbullah’s view, the alliance with Mr Aoun allowed it to clothe its Iranian-tinted Islamist militancy in Lebanese nationalist colours.
Hizbullah emerged from the war with its prestige enhanced, and speedily boosted it further with a big and efficient Iranian-financed reconstruction programme. By contrast, Mr Siniora’s government, reduced during the war to issuing vain pleas to its Western friends to fend off the Israeli onslaught, looked vulnerable. It was given little credit for helping secure the eventual ceasefire, and even less for winning massive pledges of aid from Sunni Gulf countries. Privately, supporters of March 14th believed Hizbullah had recklessly exposed Lebanon to disaster. Yet the trauma of the war, and the sight of Israel, for the first time, being mauled by an Arab force, kept them quiet.
Soon after the war’s end, in November 2006, the opposition moved to cash in their political gains by demanding a national unity government, in which their members would have enough cabinet seats to block its decisions. Mr Siniora refused, suspecting a Syrian-inspired plot. The opposition responded by withdrawing the cabinet’s six Shia members. This, they said, rendered the government illegal, since it was constitutionally required to represent all the main sects. The Shia speaker of parliament, Nabih Berri, leader of Hizbullah’s sister party Amal, refused to convene the legislature. Over subsequent months the opposition increased its demands, including a revision of electoral laws to address Mr Aoun’s concerns that Christians were being cheated.
As the lame-duck presidency of Mr Lahoud came to an end in November last year, the opposition stalled talks over the successor to be elected by parliament. Agreeing at last on Michel Suleiman, who commands the non-sectarian army, it insisted that its other conditions be fulfilled before Mr Berri summoned parliament.
So, to the frustration of ordinary Lebanese, the factions have produced an 18-month stalemate. Hizbullah and its allies call the government an American stooge; March 14th blasts the opposition as a tool of Iran and a cat’s-paw for Syria. Mediators, including Amr Moussa, chief of the Arab League, have come and despaired.
The galvanising moment
March 14th has naturally tried to drive a wedge between Hizbullah and its Christian allies. Earlier this month, citing alleged evidence of suspicious traffic monitoring at Beirut airport, it reassigned the pro-Hizbullah head of airport security. It also declared illegal the party’s communications network. If this was intended to highlight to Christians and Western powers Hizbullah’s rogue status, it backfired. On May 8th Hizbullah’s carefully-spoken leader, Hassan Nasrallah, described the government’s moves as “treachery”, and said the time had come to defend the arms of the “resistance”.
Within minutes, a combined force of Hizbullah, Amal and allied fighters blasted their way into Beirut’s Sunni quarter, eventually surrounding the residences of Mr Hariri’s son and political heir, Saad, and of his Druze ally Mr Jumblatt. By May 10th fighting moved to outlying areas, affecting Mr Jumblatt’s stronghold in the Chouf mountains south-east of Beirut and the Sunni-dominated north, as Mr Hariri’s allies exacted revenge on pockets of opposition fighters. In other tit-for-tat action, Hizbullah blocked access to Beirut airport, while Sunni militiamen sealed the road to Syria’s capital, Damascus.
The opposition stopped short of overthrowing the government, though it probably could have done so. It also promptly handed over control of most areas it invaded to the Lebanese army, ushering in a nervous calm after five days of fighting. But the 70,000-man army, which is wary of being infected itself by sectarianism, is scarcely a match for Hizbollah’s trained and hardened guerrillas.
Government leaders have declared they will not be cowed by force of arms. Yet they have already backed down on the immediate issues that angered Hizbullah. Other concessions are likely to follow, if the Arab League, which has sent in a hurried diplomatic mission, can find a face-saving formula. This might include swift passage of electoral reform, the installation of Mr Suleiman as president and the formation of a “technocratic” transitional government before fresh elections.
This may all prove a tall order, however. The sense of injury among non-Shias is powerful, as is the urge for March 14th to exploit for political advantage Hizbullah’s breaking of a long-standing pledge never to use its arms in internal squabbles. Should the government refuse to bend, the chances are that its opponents will push back even harder. Such a result, tipping Lebanon back into full-scale conflict, would suit no one.
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