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What's Happening in Lebanon

An Interview with Fadi K. Agha, Foreign Policy Advisor to President Emil Lahoud

by GARY LEUPP

Mr. Fadi K. Agha is a foreign policy adviser to Lebanese President Emile Lahoud. I conducted the following interview with him via email following the assassination of former prime minister Rafik Hariri and the resignation of his successor, Omar Karami. The capitalizations/emphases are his, and this is completely unedited.

Q: Lebanon is a complex society, about 40% Christian, 40% Shiite Muslim, the rest Sunni Muslim, Druze, etc. For those unfamiliar with the country, could you say something about the historical relationships between these communities and their ties with the former colonial power, France, and with Israel, the Palestinians, Syria and so on?

A: Let me just say that, regardless of what a Lebanese would think of Lebanon as a Nation, whether it was "carved out," "gerrymandered" by the French mandating power, or "rightfully" bequeathed on the deserving Maronites, they came to agree on a Lebanon’s "final status" as an Arab country well within its actual boundaries. It took2 major civil conflagrations (1958 and 1975) and many civil skirmishes for the Lebanese to finally come to terms at Taef in 1989. The relationship between the sects of Lebanon remains that between the "dominant," the "newly assertive" and the "intolerably assertive." This relationship will remain precarious as long as Lebanon remains a purely sectarian domain. Cohesion in Lebanon will remain oh so elusive, as long as the opportunistic, highly corrupt and self serving communities’ leaders perpetrate this system of sectarian spoils. I would add that many of the leaders of the so called "Cedar Revolution" (a term coined in Washington) are those who took Lebanon to 17 years of civil strife.

Q: The point driven home relentlessly by the Bush administration, and echoed in the U.S. press, is that Syria must get out of Lebanon. Why are 14 or 15,000 Syrian troops in Lebanon, and what do Lebanese in various communities think about their presence?

A: The remaining Syrian troops in Lebanon (out of a 45,000 contingent) were part of a peace keeping force that entered Lebanon at the REQUEST OF THE LEBANESE GOVERNMENT, and ended the civil war in Lebanon. They have since 1990 been gradually diminished by a series of withdrawals. These withdrawals were determined and conducted by joint Lebanese and Syrian authorities, as they fit the needs of both countries. A vociferous minority has always opposed the presence of Syrian forces (making much less of a deal when ISRAEL OCCUPIED parts of Lebanon.) Today, this minority has seen its ranks swell by the joining of a few opportunists who were until YESTERDAY the beneficiaries of Syrian "largesse." They have seen the wagons are circling, and are hoping to live for another day. These are the same warlords, sectarian barons and opportunists who lead us once before to ruin. They have aligned themselves with the sincere "boy scouts," exploiting their grief and concerns. Since day one of his presidency, President Assad has committed himself to withdrawing the troops from Lebanon, and we have since seen a series of withdrawals. The remaining contingent’s withdrawal was very much on the table, but it’s timing is determined by the leaderships in Beirut and Damascus.

Q: Why do you suppose that France, at loggerheads with the U.S. over the Iraq invasion, cosponsored UN Security Council resolution 1559, implicitly demanding withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon?

A: For France, it was obviously an opportunity to "manage" the crisis with the United States, while recapturing some of the lost luster of their Middle East presence. This comes against a background of lost dominions in Africa, and amid a growing American unilateralism. The US, on the other hand, gained a much needed support, a sort of fence mending, when only yesterday the UN declared the War in Iraq "illegal" and France spearheaded a world opposition to the US adventure in Iraq. However, if one wants to play Devil’s advocate, we have to remind ourselves that France’s "laundry list" includes only one item: Lebanon, while the US’s is wide, complex and subject to "variance."

Q: To some of us, it looks like the U.S. is looking for excuses to produce "regime change" in Damascus, and the presence of Syrian troops in Lebanon is just one such excuse. What do you think?

A: I hate to agree here, but the inexplicable and ever increasing animosity towards Syria, is leading many to believe that the "decision to harm" has been taken in the US Administration. It is the US that has suspended ALL SECURITY cooperation as it pertains to the Iraqi theater, even against the advice of the top American brass, preferring to up the tempo on Hezballah (also) to do Israel’s bidding. I recall that ONLY TWO YEARS ago, President Chirac of France (from the pulpit of the Lebanese Parliament) lauded the Syrian presence a very positive element, and said that Syrian troops should withdraw only when a comprehensive peace settlement is reached in the area. Basically, you are right, Syrian troops in Lebanon are a multi pronged excuse.

Q: There’ve been some large demonstrations in Lebanon, well-reported in the U.S. press, demanding a Syrian pullout and a new government. We know that U.S. NGOs and official bodies have been deeply involved in what are depicted as "democratic" upheavals in Georgia, Ukraine and elsewhere. Do you see any foreign hand in these demonstrations?

A: Images of American and French Presidents, Ambassadors and envoys running the full gamut of the so called opposition leaders in Beirut and elsewhere, are pretty reminiscent of the days of China’s "privileges and concessions." Listen. Until today, Lebanon remain a country where the fate of the liberties and rights (so dear to the US) fares much BETTER than in any country in the Middle East, Israel included. Such "items" as open economy, women empowerment, freedom of the press … are leaps and bounds ahead of other Arab countries where cosmetic reforms are sources of praise in Washington. This leads us to one conclusion: The daily harassment is beyond the presence of Syrian troops, beyond civil liberties … It is the ulterior motives that disturb us.

Q: I believe that the initial Syrian deployment was requested by or welcomed by the Christian community. Is that right?

A: Absolutely. The Christians were on the verge of defeat. Guided by realpolitik and by a belief that any alteration in the fragile Lebanese fabric, would have dire consequences for Lebanon, Syria and the REGION AS A WHOLE, Syrian troops entered Lebanon to correct an aberration. What a few in Lebanon seem to ignore today is that, Syria is not a "waste management" service, and that Syria and its Lebanese allies are seeing and hearing sounds and images reminiscent of 1975.

Q: Why were the Syrians welcomed?

A: The Syrian initial intervention in 1976 was a blessed endeavor by all international and regional powers. It was an Arab and American recognition of Syria’s strategic interests As SYRIA PERCEIVES THEM, and later, an acceptance of a Syrian exclusive role when it comes to the safeguard of a cohesive and peaceful Lebanon. The Syrians tried very hard (and to a certain extent, were successful) in stabilizing the war torn country, by preventing the (imminent) military defeat of the so called Christian forces. The preservation of an equilibrium remains a top priority for Syria in Lebanon. However, there are those "opportunists" few who believe that an American Tsunami is overtaking the Region with a strong "neo-conservative anti-Syrian" bias, and who are seeing in this an occasion to turn back the clock.

Q: Can you tell us more about the Israeli involvement in Lebanon, and the current state of relations with your southern neighbor?

A: Israel on the other hand, has always mounted murderous, unprovoked campaigns against Lebanon, culminating in a full scale invasion in 1982. You have to remember that Lebanon still "hosts" over 350,000 Palestinian refugees, adding further tear to the Lebanese social fabric. Our current relations with Israel, is that between an aggressor and aggressed. Israel STILL occupies Lebanese territories in the Shebaa Farms, still performs all types of incursions into Lebanese territory, while its secret services are still hard at work in their attempts to undermine our stability.

Q: What is the general sentiment in Lebanon towards the U.S. at this point?

A: Borrowing from a brilliant Lebanese Journalist, Joseph Samaha who writes in the Lebanese daily As Safir, he likened the attempt to transfer Lebanon from its Camp A (rejecting American hegemony) to Camp B (affiliation with Pax Americana, with ALL ITS ULTERIOR MOTIVES) to "a fast moving river." It would be rather easy to imagine what the folks in Camp A feel towards the US, its disastrous involvement in Iraq and its endemic bias towards Israel in its continued occupation of Arab lands. However, Camp B includes a large majority of sincere (and exploited) "boy scouts," who are unfortunately lexpolited by a horde of highway robbers. Unfortunately, it is mostly in these opportunistic sectarian warlords, that America finds its springboard towards a "new Middle East." The Lebanese in general have never felt enmity towards the United States. However, "weary and distrustful" cannot begin to describe their feelings towards the US’s foreign policy. If this is how the US believes it will win "hearts and minds" in our Region, then it better num these minds because it will not find many takers. However, we are still hopeful (no harm here) that saner heads in the US Administration (and they DO EXIST) will prevail. One day.

Q: President Lahoud must be under considerable pressure, represented in the western press as a Syrian puppet at a time when Syria is labeled an "outpost of tyranny." Could you please explain how he himself sees his position?

A: President Lahoud has been a subject for political sniping since his election in 1998, and that for many reasons. Firstly, the President is a staunchly secular man in a country ruled by sectarian warlords. Secondly, the numerous tries to "coopt" the President (when he was Commander of the Armed Forces) have failed miserably. Thirdly, the President remains a most sincere Arab nationalist, at a time when the breed is under siege. Fourthly, the President has hedged his bets and gone out of his way to protect the "national resistance" against Israeli occupation. This culminated in an Israeli withdrawal in 2000′. It should be noted that this was the first time ever, that Israel withdrew from Arab territories "UNDER DURESS." Today, when the "whirling Dervishes" of hegemony have reached an unprecedented tempo, President Lahoud has become enemy number one. He remains a major obstacle to the hegemons designs, hardly a trait of puppets. However, I can say that the shadow puppets of the hegemons are precisely those figures who are calling for his resignation.

Q: The Lebanese Shiite organization Hizbollah is characterized by the U.S. government and corporate press as "terrorist," which is a way of associating it with al-Qaeda. How would you describe that organization, to Americans who don’t know much about the Middle East?

A: The US’s qualms with Hezbollah are purely a product of bias. This is a political party with the biggest constituency, part and parcel of the Lebanese polity. Characterizing it as "terrorist" is characterizing over 1.8 million Lebanese citizens as "supporters of terrorism." Hezbollah’s achieved what ALL OTHER Lebanese parties never tried. It refrained from entering the fray of Lebanon’s political stampede, and MOST IMPORTANTLY, it lead to the first Israeli withdrawal from occupied Arab lands UNDER DURESS. This, and the fact that Hezbollah has been emblematic of a "culture of resistance" in the Middle East, has never been forgiven.

Q: Some of us who’ve followed the neocons (top-ranking of whom is perhaps Paul Wolfowitz) think they have a plan to topple, one by one, the governments of Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Iran, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia—not necessarily in that order. Do you, and/or President Lahoud, share that assessment?

A: Incidentally, one of the leaders of the so called "opposition," namely Mr. Walid Jumblat, was not so long ago, if I recall, very vitriolic about Mr. Wolfowitz. With a strike of a magical wand, Mr. Jumblat (still persona non grata in the US) has become Washington’s long shot horse. The gods of neo-conservatism move in mysterious ways. But seriously, one does not have to go far back in time to get a glimpse of Washington Hawkish thinking. "Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm" dispels any notion that today’s US Foreign Policy is NOT guided by those who seek to "solve" Israel’s "problems." Basically, this would be achieved by "rolling back … destabilizing" Israel’s threatening neighbors. Closer to home, and after "doing Iraq," it spells the steps for Israel vis-a-vis Syria and Lebanon when it calls upon Israel to seize the "strategic initiative along its borders by engaging Syria Hizballah and Iran." With American presence on Syria’s borders in Iraq, Israel hopes that US blood and money would do the trick. As I recall, a great American journalist and patriot told me that when the US boots entered Baghdad, Israel’s foreign minister silvan Shalom called him to tell him this was "indeed a glorious day in Israel, because America was ALSO to the east of Israel."

Q: Most Americans don’t recall very clearly the Reagan-era intervention of U.S. troops in Lebanon, that led to disaster. Your thoughts on that episode?

A: It took us decades to revive, reunite and solidify our Armed Forces in Lebanon. But one has to remember that in 1984, a nucleic Lebanese Army took the bait of a highly unpopular (American blessed) adventure, and in order to subdue the "Shiites" forces in South Beirut, the Army shelled the suburbs, becoming the SOLE casualty of this American mis-adventure as it splinted along sectarian lines. In a nutshell, we need to remember that the last time "anyone" tried to shove a solution down the throat of the Lebanese, without reaching a National consensus, it lead to disaster. We are seeing such attempts today with the adoption of UN Security Council Resolution 1559, and its most DANGEROUS stipulation, namely the disarming of our National Resistance. Needless to say, that the Lebanese are also NOT entirely united on the mechanisms and schedules of a Syrian military withdrawal, as MANY in the so called "opposition" have selectively read the Taef Accords, when in reality it calls for withdrawals to coincide with reforms and the ABOLITION of political sectarianism.

Q: Could you characterize the present relationship between Lebanon, Syria and Iran? Both Lebanon and Syria are secular societies, while Iran is an Islamic republic. What interests do you have in common?

A: With Syria, Lebanon shares a plethora of historical, social, cultural, familial and geographic commonalities. It is certainly a unique relationship. Most Lebanese, few even in the opposition understand these factoids well. However, there are also those emboldened few who found commonalities with the American siege of Syria to implement shortsighted agendas. They believe that once the Tsunami (American) waves have receded, they will go back dividing the sectarian spoils, concluding (perhaps too well) that the US’s qualms with Syria have nothing to do with Democracy and Liberty.

Q: Why did Prime Minister Karami resign? Apparently he took even members of his own party by surprise.

A: PM Karami’s resignation came rather swiftly, when he was geared to prevail in the vote of Confidence. The PM acted on an impulse, having been subjected to a relentless campaign of vilification since Day 1. In a nutshell, PM Karami became "sensitive" to the fact that PM Hariri’s assassination happened during his watch. It was his way in trying to diffuse the volatile situation that arose after the assassination. What is striking here, is the speed of the US response to the PM’s resignation. He believes that by qualifying the resignation (within less than an hour) as a "positive" event, shows, without a shred of a doubt that the US is "once again" taking sides in Lebanon.

Q: Israel is attributing the recent suicide bombing in Tel Aviv to Islamic Jihad, and asserting (rightly or wrongly) that since Damascus supports Islamic Jihad, Syria is responsible. If Israel again attacks Syria, as it did in October 2003, how would the Lebanese government and people react?

A: Tel Aviv, will not miss an opportunity to blame any calamity that befalls it on Syria and Hezballah. The sad part is that Israel produces "evidences" that are always "bought" in Washington. Listen, Israel remains the only world occupying force who gets away with murder. Constantly blaming Syria, Hezbollah … is a sorry attempt by Tel Aviv to shift the blame for its unsuccessful policy of "security first." Basically, one need not be a wizard to determine that a despaired people, a humiliated people a people in CONSTANT MOURNING, will go to any length in extracting vengeance from those who dislocate , humiliate and murder his brethren.

GARY LEUPP is Professor of History at Tufts University, and Adjunct Professor of Comparative Religion. He is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa Japan; Male Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900. He is also a contributor to CounterPunch’s merciless chronicle of the wars on Iraq, Afghanistan and Yugoslavia, Imperial Crusades.

He can be reached at: gleupp@granite.tufts.edu