Saturday, January 27, 2007

Lebanon on the brink? (Michael Young)

(Or, as Norman Geras put it, on the edge?)

The Lebanese journalist and political analyst Michael Young, whose response to that question has so far been a guarded "no," is beginning to wonder. In his recent commentaries, the basic pattern that Young has identified in the struggle between the coalition of anti-Syrian forces controlling the government and the pro-Syrian coalition centered on Hizbullah is that the latter have repeatedly pushed confrontation to the point where the alternatives were de-escalation or the outbreak of inter-communal civil war, and at that point have pulled back from the brink. But now the dynamics of this confrontation might be getting out of control, especially since external forces play such a significant role.
For the third time in almost a year Lebanon has averted a civil war, but we're nearing the end of the rope. If the Danish Embassy demonstrations and Hizbullah's mobilization in early December were, ultimately, manageable when it came to Christian-Sunni or Sunni-Shiite antagonism, what happened on Tuesday was, in its permutations, pretty much war. And if anything induced Hizbullah to suspend the protests, it was an awareness that if these continued for even a day, war was inevitable.
In this wide-ranging and characteristically illuminating overview of the current situation, Young doesn't offer many firm predictions--in fact, he sees the immediate prospects as quite uncertain--but he does make a number of interesting and thought-provoking observations. I was especially struck by two of them.

The first is a unfashionable suggestion that in some key respects Hizbullah's position has been getting weaker since last summer, not stronger.
The last six months have been a period of meltdown for Hizbullah. The party has been neutralized in the South, at least for the moment; its reputation in the Arab world lies in tatters because it is seen as an extension of Iran; domestically, Hizbullah is viewed more than ever as a menace to national coexistence and civil peace; few Lebanese, other than Hizbullah's own, believe that its insistence on participating in the political process means respect for the latter's rules, free from foreign interests; and none of Nasrallah's political rivals trust him anymore.

At the same time, Hizbullah has shown that under all that weaponry lie weak knees. The party's threshold has been surprisingly low in moments of internal crises. It took only three and a half weeks during the 2006 summer war with Israel for Nasrallah to announce that he was amenable to a cease-fire under any conditions. This was an acknowledgment that his Shiite community could not long endure living in public facilities, streets, and parks. Six days after the start of the December protests, Nasrallah retreated before a wall of Sunni opposition. He did organize a massive rally a few days later, but only to cover for the fact that the government had beaten Hizbullah to a draw in the Downtown. And on Tuesday evening, Hizbullah's decision to "suspend" the protests proved that the party could not transgress certain limits in bullying the majority. This may have exhibited good judgment, but it also exposed Hizbullah's vulnerabilities.
However, it's also possible that these very vulnerabilities, combined with the frantic desire of Hizbullah's Syrian patron to block further inquiry into Syria's role in the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, might lead Hizbullah and its allies to go too far.
Not surprisingly, the truth of the moment had to be found outside Lebanon's borders. Government sources are going with this version: Saudi Arabia and Iran are currently engaged in trying to find a solution to the crisis in Lebanon. A few days ago, the Iranian official Ali Larijani traveled to Damascus to get Syria's views on a draft proposal for an agreement. The Syrians set several conditions: that the tribunal in the Hariri assassination be established only after the United Nations investigation is completed, by which time the opposition will have gained veto power in the government; and that the new government go through the process of endorsing the tribunal once again - effectively allowing Syria's allies to either block the institution or empty it of its content. The Saudis said no, and Hizbullah's secretary general, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, responded by ordering his people into the streets.

But by late Tuesday evening the tables were turned. At that point Hizbullah had cut off most roads between the eastern and western sectors of Beirut, as well as the airport road. The irresponsibility of those steps was staggering. Not only did the party take Lebanon back to the symbolism of the war years, but Beirut's Sunnis saw the move as trapping them in their half of the capital. The word "blockade" started being used, prompting the mufti to heatedly muster his community. Wael Abu Faour of the March 14 coalition warned that if the army did not reopen the roads, supporters of the majority would. Hizbullah backed down, aware, let's not forget, that a Sunni-Shiite confrontation is a red line for Iran.

However, that reality only reaffirmed how Hizbullah has been juggling contradictory agendas. The Iranians may not want sectarian discord, but what happened this week was fulfillment of the Syrian side of Hizbullah's agenda. The main obstacle remains the Hariri tribunal and Syria's refusal to permit its creation. How Tehran and Damascus will work out their clashing priorities is anybody's guess. You have to assume that with the Lebanese so close to doing battle, and given the dire implications of what this would mean for Hizbullah and its already dilapidated reputation in the Sunni Arab world, Iran will remind Nasrallah of who pays the checks. On the other hand, the Iranians realize that the tribunal might be fatal to the Syrian regime, depriving the Islamic Republic of a key asset in the Levant. [....]

Yet things are unlikely to improve soon. Nasrallah is confirming daily that his tactics are far more adept at damaging Lebanon than helping it, while Aoun is grasping at a presidency he will never get. If we're lucky, however, the Lebanese system of communal compromise will triumph over that brash pair, who in their own way can't seem to grasp its essential rules.
Or maybe not. Stay tuned.

--Jeff Weintraub

====================
Daily Star (Beirut, Lebanon)
Thursday, January 25, 2007
Next time around, Lebanon will be in a civil war
Michael Young

Michael Young is opinion editor of THE DAILY STAR.

For the third time in almost a year Lebanon has averted a civil war, but we're nearing the end of the rope. If the Danish Embassy demonstrations and Hizbullah's mobilization in early December were, ultimately, manageable when it came to Christian-Sunni or Sunni-Shiite antagonism, what happened on Tuesday was, in its permutations, pretty much war. And if anything induced Hizbullah to suspend the protests, it was an awareness that if these continued for even a day, war was inevitable.

Not surprisingly, the truth of the moment had to be found outside Lebanon's borders. Government sources are going with this version: Saudi Arabia and Iran are currently engaged in trying to find a solution to the crisis in Lebanon. A few days ago, the Iranian official Ali Larijani traveled to Damascus to get Syria's views on a draft proposal for an agreement. The Syrians set several conditions: that the tribunal in the Hariri assassination be established only after the United Nations investigation is completed, by which time the opposition will have gained veto power in the government; and that the new government go through the process of endorsing the tribunal once again - effectively allowing Syria's allies to either block the institution or empty it of its content. The Saudis said no, and Hizbullah's secretary general, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, responded by ordering his people into the streets.

But by late Tuesday evening the tables were turned. At that point Hizbullah had cut off most roads between the eastern and western sectors of Beirut, as well as the airport road. The irresponsibility of those steps was staggering. Not only did the party take Lebanon back to the symbolism of the war years, but Beirut's Sunnis saw the move as trapping them in their half of the capital. The word "blockade" started being used, prompting the mufti to heatedly muster his community. Wael Abu Faour of the March 14 coalition warned that if the army did not reopen the roads, supporters of the majority would. Hizbullah backed down, aware, let's not forget, that a Sunni-Shiite confrontation is a red line for Iran.

However, that reality only reaffirmed how Hizbullah has been juggling contradictory agendas. The Iranians may not want sectarian discord, but what happened this week was fulfillment of the Syrian side of Hizbullah's agenda. The main obstacle remains the Hariri tribunal and Syria's refusal to permit its creation. How Tehran and Damascus will work out their clashing priorities is anybody's guess. You have to assume that with the Lebanese so close to doing battle, and given the dire implications of what this would mean for Hizbullah and its already dilapidated reputation in the Sunni Arab world, Iran will remind Nasrallah of who pays the checks. On the other hand, the Iranians realize that the tribunal might be fatal to the Syrian regime, depriving the Islamic Republic of a key asset in the Levant.

At a more parochial level, the opposition's actions were self-defeating for being built on a lie. If the benchmark of success was Hizbullah's ability to close roads, then Tuesday was indeed successful. However, that weapon has now been used up, and the government remains in place. The next time the opposition threatens to do something similar, we might as well load the guns or head for the shelters. On the other hand, what kind of confidence can anyone have in a party, and its Christian appendages in the Aounist movement and the Marada, that promises to be peaceful, only to practice intimidation? There is such a thing as Lebanese civil society, one hardened by the 1975-1990 war, and it will unite against such abuse.

The last six months have been a period of meltdown for Hizbullah. The party has been neutralized in the South, at least for the moment; its reputation in the Arab world lies in tatters because it is seen as an extension of Iran; domestically, Hizbullah is viewed more than ever as a menace to national coexistence and civil peace; few Lebanese, other than Hizbullah's own, believe that its insistence on participating in the political process means respect for the latter's rules, free from foreign interests; and none of Nasrallah's political rivals trust him anymore.

At the same time, Hizbullah has shown that under all that weaponry lie weak knees. The party's threshold has been surprisingly low in moments of internal crises. It took only three and a half weeks during the 2006 summer war with Israel for Nasrallah to announce that he was amenable to a cease-fire under any conditions. This was an acknowledgment that his Shiite community could not long endure living in public facilities, streets, and parks. Six days after the start of the December protests, Nasrallah retreated before a wall of Sunni opposition. He did organize a massive rally a few days later, but only to cover for the fact that the government had beaten Hizbullah to a draw in the Downtown. And on Tuesday evening, Hizbullah's decision to "suspend" the protests proved that the party could not transgress certain limits in bullying the majority. This may have exhibited good judgment, but it also exposed Hizbullah's vulnerabilities.

Then there is Michel Aoun, the big loser of the Tuesday protests. Until then, the general could count on support among the many floating Christians neither with March 8 nor March 14. His error was to so polarize the atmosphere by imposing a strike on all, that many of his coreligionists could only turn against him. The Aounists will not easily live down their siding with Shiite stone-throwers against Lebanese Forces youths at the Hazmiyeh roundabout, which many Christians, for better or worse, regard as "their" area. Nor would they have held the streets for very long without the army around to protect them. In Zahleh, Aoun's ally Elie Skaff was soundly humiliated by the refusal of even his own supporters to obey the strike order - an order that he sought to impose by force of arms early in the day. January 23 could be the beginning of Aoun's descent into terminal irrelevance, and even the cautious Maronite Patriarch Nasrallah Boutros Sfeir was said to be livid with the general.

The big winner, on the other hand, was Samir Geagea, who seemed to have a plan (along with Walid Jumblatt and his Progressive Socialist Party) to counter the opposition. Rather than focusing on volatile areas bordering Shiite quarters - for example Ain al-Remmaneh - he went after the Aounists and cleared roads within the Christian heartland. For example, it was a Lebanese Forces push against the Aounists in Nahr al-Kalb that compelled the army to open the northern highway. Something similar happened in Jbeil. Where Aoun managed to alienate hitherto ambivalent Christians, Geagea may have brought some of them over to his side. In the struggle for Christian hearts and minds - and it's unfortunate how the hard-liners win out in such cases - Aoun was defeated in the very districts that he and his parliamentary bloc represent.

It was also Geagea who first publicized the ambiguous role played by the army. By the end of the day there was palpable anger in many areas of Lebanon, both Christian and Muslim, that the armed forces had failed to implement their promise to maintain roads open. Geagea could notch up that perceptiveness to his advantage.

The great mystery was the army's performance, or rather non-performance. Maybe it was defensible early in the day for the military command to avoid confrontations that might split its ranks. But by the later hours there were too many signs of implicit collusion between the army and the opposition, or simple lethargy in units, for things not to smell fishy. Keeping the airport road closed was unjustifiable, as was the behavior of soldiers actively preventing people from reaching their jobs. And it was a scandal that the army let Hizbullah cut off roads between both sides of the capital in the late afternoon. In many cases the meagerly manned roadblocks could have been cleared within minutes by troops.

Between 1990 and 2005 who appointed senior military commanders? Basically, the Syrians, Hizbullah, President Emile Lahoud, and Michel Murr, when he was defense minister. Many remaining officers were Aounists. Is this a problem today? Unless Army Commander Michel Suleiman convinces the Lebanese that the army is truly neutral, this legacy will come back to haunt him. There has been talk of Suleiman's presidential ambitions. Based on yesterday's actions, the general must undo a hefty knot of mistrust - and that probably includes the mistrust of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora. Where there is mistrust of the armed forces, there is also a tendency for people to resort to communal self-defense.

Today in Paris, Lebanon will be given a much-needed boost by the international community. That's good news, despite the reprehensible efforts of those who seek to deny Siniora and the majority any credit. Yet things are unlikely to improve soon. Nasrallah is confirming daily that his tactics are far more adept at damaging Lebanon than helping it, while Aoun is grasping at a presidency he will never get. If we're lucky, however, the Lebanese system of communal compromise will triumph over that brash pair, who in their own way can't seem to grasp its essential rules.

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