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Since the Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon in March 2005, the U.S. Administration has played an increasingly imperious role in Lebanon, exacerbating divisions in an already fiercely sectarian country.
Against a backdrop of bombings and assassinations which have filled the security vacuum left by Damascus, Lebanon is now sharply polarized into two camps: one resolutely opposed to the growing American presence in their country; the other united through its opposition to Syria.
Hizbullah, Lebanon’s largest political party, allied with the other main Shiite group Amal and a collection of Leftists/Arabists are rejecting the U.S. embrace. This group’s less than outraged response to allegations that Damascus was behind a string of attacks on anti-Syrian figures has created tremendous animosity toward Lebanon’s large Shiite community, who are now known to number between 40 and 50 per cent of the population.
America’s major Lebanese allies: the mostly Sunni entourage of the murdered former Prime Minister Hariri allied with Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, leftists funded by the Hariri camp and the remnants of Lebanon’s Christian far right are spearheading the anti Syrian camp.
George W. Bush’s meeting last Friday with Hariri’s son, Saad, who heads the parliamentary majority but is technically a mere member of Parliament, is unprecedented in the history of White House protocol and indicated the extent to which he and his father’s empire are critical to America’s embrace of Lebanon.
While few Lebanese were sad to see the Syrians and their murderous security regime leave, many are unwilling to watch Washington replace Damascus.
As Bush rhapsodised about the "Cedar Revolution’s" victory over Syria, many Lebanese felt it absurd to talk of a struggle for Lebanon’s sovereignty while cosying up to the invaders of Iraq and Afghanistan, not to mention the prime sponsors of Israel’s invasion of Beirut and 25-year occupation of the South.
On March 8 last year the largely Shiite anti-US camp, starkly underrepresented in the international and Hariri-dominated local media, took to the streets in record numbers in a rejection of foreign interference and a show of solidarity with Syria as it prepared to pull out under international pressure. In what was then considered one of the largest mobilizations in Lebanese history, around 600,000 mostly Shiite demonstrators voiced their rejection of the US-inspired resolution 1559 which had called for the Syrian withdrawal but also demands the disarmament of Hizbullah.
The response of the million-dollar anti-Syrian PR media machine driving what has been described as the most well branded popular movement in history was to declare the hundreds of thousands of demonstrators not Lebanese; they were all Syrians, and if not Syrians, cattle. Four days later what became known as the Forces of March 14 marched on Beirut’s Martyrs Square, numbering around a million people, to reiterate calls for the Syrian withdrawal.
Some analysts have since described the massive gathering as an anti Shiite demonstration, an attempt to undermine the new significance and distinct unity of Lebanon’s historically less assertive plurality.
The anti-Syrian camp, which took on real momentum in the outpouring of popular grief that followed Hariri’s murder, has been represented in western media as a truly nationalist, united, cross-sectarian phenomenon. In fact it’s very much divided, united largely by the attacks on anti Syrian figures and alarm at growing Shiite dominance in Lebanon and its links with an increasingly significant Iran.
Tensions in the March 14 camp are frequent, with sectarian party flags prominent at each of their rallies, and in recent weeks many Christians have protested the subservience of their Sunni and Druze allies to Saudi Arabia.
In reality, the much-lauded Lebanese nationalism seems only to manifest itself in a narrow hatred of Syrians. There have now been over 40 unsolved killings of Syrian workers since Hariri’s assassination.
Meanwhile, the U.S., who knows a hostile Hizbullah, legitimised by its role in Cabinet, will significantly impede effective control over the country, is now explicitly dictating to the government how it should operate.
U.S. Assistant Undersecretary of State David Welch recently appeared on Lebanese television telling viewers Hizbullah, which is supported by a significant portion of the country, is neither a militia, nor a resistance group, but a terrorist organization that should not be part of the Cabinet.
The remarks followed from an ongoing cabinet crisis which began on December 12 when Shiite ministers walked out of a cabinet session in protest of not being consulted over an international tribunal into the recent killings and to what they saw as the cabinet majority’s increasing subservience to America.
Several successful attempts by Saudi and Egyptian mediators – the Hariri clan’s strongest Arab backers – to reconcile the division and bring the ministers back into the cabinet were reportedly scuppered by Lebanon’s U.S. Ambassador Jeffrey Feltman, who has been pressuring the prime minister to keep Hizbullah outside the Cabinet.
Hizbullah’s participation in the government makes it difficult for opponents to classify it as a militia, effectively circumventing attempts through Resolution 1559 to disarm it. Hizbullah analysts say this is the main reason the group joined the government, and to ensure the Cabinet doesn’t get Lebanon too embroiled in American or Israeli designs for the region.
Fears that Lebanon’s new intimacy with the U.S. will bring Israel closer to regaining a hold in Lebanon were reinforced last week when Jumblatt told a TV interviewer "Israel is not my enemy today, Syria is my enemy."
As the schism deepens, each side vies for the key support of recently returned former Army commander General Michel Aoun who remains outside the anti-Syrian camp and frequently criticizes the inconsistency of its positions.
Aoun, who enjoys the support of the majority of Lebanon’s increasingly marginalized Christian community, has his sights fixed squarely on the presidency. Despite campaigning on a cross-confessional ticket, he is being very much tagged as a Christian leader.
Though an advocate of Hizbullah’s disarmament, Aoun believes there is a continued threat from Israel and shares the group’s political stands on corruption and political reform.
As the demonstrations and counter demonstrations continue, the rallying cry of the anti-Syrian camp: "freedom, sovereignty and independence" grows increasingly redundant, with Lebanese interpreting these concepts in two radically different ways.
One camp welcomes American and French meddling but considers relations with Syria and Iran a violation of sovereignty. The other sees the U.S. engagement in the context of a pro-Israeli onslaught against the Palestinian cause and its last remaining allies Syria and Iran.
As the U.S. entrenches itself further in Lebanese politics, its plans to disarm Hizbullah and possibly destabilize the regime in Damascus are only likely to deepen division and push the country further into chaos.
CLANCY CHASSAY lives in Beirut. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org