A year on from last summer’s bloody conflict between Israel and Hizbullah, Lebanon’s fragile society, paralyzed by a tense standoff between the U.S.-backed government and the Hizbullah-led opposition, teeters on the brink of calamity.
The dangerous polarisation began in the wake of the withdrawal of Syrian forces in 2005, as Washington attempted to replace Damascus as the country’s chief patron, but the situation has worsened since the war, leading to violent street clashes and the abandonment of the national coalition government by key ministers.
U.S. policy in Lebanon- focused largely on efforts to disarm Hizbullah and pressure Syria to cooperate on Iraq – has encouraged the division, and propelled the tiny country into the forefront of the Bush administration’s campaign to counter the growing regional influence of Iran–which stands as Syria’s strongest ally in the Middle East and Hizbullah’s primary benefactor.
Intent on diminishing the Shiite militants’ powerful role in Lebanese politics, the Whitehouse has authorised a covert CIA fund to support anti-Hizbullah groups through the depleted Lebanese government while seeking to reconfigure the army and security services to more effectively serve American interests: Shiites now constitute less than 10 per cent of new recruits to the Interior Ministry-run police force.
The Lebanese cabinet, for its part, welcomes the increased U.S. involvement as the only sure way to rid itself of Syria’s unpopular and often murderous interference. Many of the Assad regime’s most vocal Lebanese critics have been killed in what is believed to be a Syrian attempt to convince the international community that interfering in Lebanon will induce more violence and instability and could push the country toward disintegration. The Siniora government also needs Washington to convey legitimacy on a cabinet with ailing public support and with only a slim parliamentary majority. The absence of Shiite ministers following their walk out from cabinet last year has led opposition leaders to declare it unconstitutional. The Lebanese constitution demands that Shiites be represented in government for it to be quorum.
The anti-Syrian camp’s dependence on Washington has exposed Lebanon to the contradiction of being simultaneously in open confrontation with Israel, and yet supported by America. This is reflected in a divided society and last July’s war revealed the extent of the gulf between those in Lebanon who are willing to make discreet but unconditional peace with Israel in exchange for western aid and protection from Syria, and those who are compelled to remain in confrontation with Israel and the Bush administration’s project for a “New Middle East.”
Hizbullah, which relies on Syria as a transit route for Iranian military aid, benefited as much as anyone from the Syrian withdrawal, but sees an alliance with Damascus as essential in the face of America’s aggressive campaign to subjugate the region to its vision of the world. Proponents of the ‘War on Terror’ have branded Hizbullah “the A Team of terror” – sometimes presenting it as a threat equal to Al Qaeda–and the group has faced repeated Israeli threats to assassinate its leaders.
Lebanon’s competing dangers reflect a wider regional schism, which pits the Western backed regimes of Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan, against Iran, Syria, Hizbullah and Hamas–an alliance sometimes referred to in the Arab world as the Jabhaa al Momana’a or ‘the rejection front,’ but more commonly known to the American public as the “Axis of Terror”. The U.S. and its client states, nervous about an ascendant Iran, have worked hard to push the theory of a sinister Shiite Crescent, encompassing Iran Hizbullah and the Alawi regime in Syria, seeking Shiite cultural domination. In reality, the divide is based not along sectarian lines, but on competing ideological positions concerning the Palestinian cause and America’s role in the region.
A recent poll by Telhamy-Zogby showed 80 per cent of respondents in Arab states closest to Washington see Israel and the U.S. as posing the greatest threats to their security. The poll suggested only 6 per cent of the region consider Iran a threat, and Shiite Hizbullah’s leader Hassan Nasrallah remains the largely Sunni region’s most popular leader. In Lebanon, the regional rift sets Hizbullah, a core element of the ‘front’, and a collection of cross confessional allies against the U.S.-Saudi backed strongly Sunni government, a majority of the small Druze community, and the remnants of the country’s Christian far right. Despite being traditionally close to the west, the majority of Lebanon’s Christians, led by former army commander Michel Aoun, have allied with Hizbullah, opting for the Islamist group’s tough stance on corruption and promises of reform to benefit the country’s Shiites and Christians, who together make up two thirds of the country and suffered worst under Syria’s reign.
Aoun’s Christians vigorously opposed the Syrians while they were in Lebanon and played a key long-term role in bringing about their withdrawal. He returned to Lebanon after 15 years in exile with pledges to try those Lebanese politicians most deeply involved in profiteering under the Syrian occupation. Many of the leaders who served under the Syrian regime remain in power today and refuse to endorse Aoun as president despite his clear majority support.
Hizbullah’s alliance with secular Christian liberals and pledges of reform have not deterred Bush White House efforts to criminalize the group, pushing the EU to put Hizbullah on its terrorist list and making every possible effort to find a link between Hizbullah and attacks on U.S forces in Iraq.
In a dangerous constant, Washington has consistently vetoed attempts to form a desperately needed national unity government. In his policy speech last Monday, George Bush suggested this trend is set to continue, describing a struggle between extremists and moderates playing out in Lebanon–“where Hizbullah and Syria and Iran are trying to destabilize the popularly elected government.”
This hopeless simplification ignores Hizbullah’s significant popular mandate and the role it played in enabling the US-backed ministers to form the slim 56 per cent majority government that now clings to power. Also forgotten is the White House’s insistence at the time of the 2005 elections to rush the polls through using a Syrian-era electoral law with a skewed sectarian distribution of parliamentary seats designed to marginalize the Christian vote, and give unfair advantage to America’s Sunni allies.
But Bush’s remarks on Lebanon haven’t sat well with most Lebanese since Washington’s savage encouragement of Israel’s assault last July and its obstruction of repeated calls for a ceasefire.
It was hoped that Israel’s punishment of Lebanon would be sufficient to turn public opinion against Hizbullah. In reality, the war, which cost the lives of over 1,100 Lebanese civilians, was a catastrophe for the government who later struggled to defend their inaction during the war and accusations that they had collaborated with the Israelis. A sharp rise in anti-Americanism further weakened the government, as the Lebanese people were left in no doubt that U.S. support for Lebanon would forever be subordinate to Israeli interests.
In addition, the war strengthened Hizbullah’s conviction that remaining armed is the best way to ensure its security and independence in a region threatened by devastating U.S. and Israeli intervention, further forestalling serious talks on disarmament.
A year on, Hizbullah retains its exceptionally well trained and equipped guerrilla force and reports suggest its main focus is now on preparation for another major assault by Israeli forces. The group’s authority in the south has been curbed somewhat by the deployment of more than 10,000 Lebanese army troops and 13,000 UN peacekeepers to their area of operations along the border, but the group remains firmly in charge of its constituency.
The war made Hizbullah a champion of Arab resistance and its popularity throughout the region soared, but at home the growing distrust between the country’s Sunnis and Shiites deepened, culminating in raging street battles and inter sectarian shootings at the start of this year.
As happened in Iraq, opposing positions on American intervention formed along sectarian lines, threatening to drag Lebanon, with it ugly history of civil war, into renewed conflict.
For the moment the leaderships on both sides have been able to soothe hostilities and a recent poll suggested there is less anti-Shiism in Lebanon than in other parts of the region, with two-thirds of Lebanese Sunnis rejecting Sunni attacks against Shiites in Iraq.
Nonetheless, January’s violent sectarian clashes underscore the desperate need to reform the country and evolve away from the corrosive sectarianism that pervades all aspects of its fragile state, and helps perpetuate crippling corruption.
Staggering under a national debt 180 times its gross domestic product, Lebanon remains one of the most corrupt countries in the world, In 2001 the United Nations estimated Lebanon loses over $1.5 billion a year in crooked practises–nearly 10 percent of the country’s GDP. It’s a mistake to attribute this entirely to the Syrian occupation. Syrian officials took their share but so did most of Lebanon’s political elite, many of whom remain in power today.
While White House officials have praised Lebanon’s apparent economic development, there has been little real progress since Syria’s departure. The reform plan promised by the government, which centers around greater gasoline and value-added taxes that would weigh heavy on poorer Lebanese, (many of them Shiite), while continuing with one of the world’s most regressive income tax scales, has only strengthened fears that the profiteering carried out by Lebanese leaders during the occupation years will continue.
The opposition had initially campaigned fiercely for economic reforms but as the stand off has worsened, grand plans for socio-economic adjustment have been buried by the need for reconciliation and urgent security concerns.
In recent months, the tiny country has had to contend with a bombing campaign in Beirut, attacks on UN peacekeepers in the south, and a fierce battle with Al Qaeda affiliates in the Naher al Bared refugee camp in the north–now into its ninth week.
Growing Takfiri militancy among the country’s Sunni Islamists, some of whom have received support from the government forces, has raised the danger of an operational Al Qaeda faction emerging in Lebanon. This grim prospect is matched by indications that government forces have been training militias under the guise of ‘security companies,’ ostensibly to counter Hizbullah’s arms, suggesting Lebanon’s security situation is now worse than at any point since the country’s long civil war.
Talks between the two parties in France last week–the first in more than seven months – have offered a tiny ray of hope, but there is widespread fear amongst the opposition that Washington will once again veto any plans for a national unity government. If reconciliation is obstructed the opposition may make good on threats to form a parallel government operating in tandem with the Siniora cabinet, splitting the parliament and deepening the crisis further.
The more the daily horror in Iraq worsens, the more the Bush administration clings to the purported success of Lebanon, once the poster boy for its now redundant “democratization” campaign. But, by allowing the build up of armed groups by its allies, and obstructing compromise in a vain effort to empower an unpopular government, the White House is pushing Lebanon down a dangerous path toward civil conflict, and ultimately disintegration.
CLANCY CHASSAY is the U.K. Guardian’s Beirut correspondent. He can be reached at Clancy.Chassay@guardian.co.uk