Lebanon waits out the crisis in Syria

13 06 2011

Editor’s Note: this article originally appears on the Foreign Policy Association website.

As the current civil crisis rages in Syria, Lebanon and others await the outcome.  Coinciding with the so-called Arab Awakening throughout the Middle East, demonstrations that started earlier this year in Syria have continued to build. The protests have been met with force by the government.

The Tunisian and Egyptian governments fell quickly in the face of demonstrations, but subsequent revolts stagnated or flamed out completely. Battles still rage in Syria, Libya, and Yemen. However other countries, particularly the Gulf, saw uprisings squelched before they became a problem for the regimes.

Syria did its best to stomp out the flames of dissent before they could spread. The Bashar Assad regime broke up protests, arrested thousands of demonstrators, and allegedly recruited Iranian protest-breakers to put down the unrest. Today Syria is beset with conflict, both internally and externally.

It seems the more violence is used against the people of Syria, the less likely they are to submit. The United States and many European nations have condemned the use of state violence against peaceful protestors. Bank accounts of the Assad regime have been frozen, and resolutions criticizing Damascus have been drawn up. There may be an official charge brought by the ICC.

The Iranian regime, not exactly on firm footing itself, is watching and waiting. Tehran has been on the defensive since massive protest swept the nation after the disputed 2009 election. The protests were squashed, but the situation remains tense. Adding to trouble is the power struggle between Ayatollah Khamenei and President Ahmedinejad.

Syria is key to Iranian foreign policy. Syria gives Iran a foothold in the Arab world, a way to transfer weapons to Hizballah, and way to directly menace Israel. If the Alawite regime in Damascus is replaced with a Sunni regime, particularly one closer to Egypt and Saudi Arabia, it would be a huge blow to Tehran and could lead to a level of international isolation the regime has never seen.

Hizballah has been relatively quiet through this. Aside from the odd demonstration to show support, Hizballah’s leadership must be aware that exhibiting approval for Assad’s killing of his subjects, especially Sunnis, is bad for business. The Party will likely wait out the crisis like everyone else, while trying to maintain Syrian holdings in Lebanon in the process.

The crisis in Syria is also a large reason why Lebanon has been unable to form a cabinet just yet. Assad’s handpicked Prime Minister-elect Njiab Mikati has been unable to coerce and horse trade his way to a new government without the full strength and support of Damascus. Until the conflict in Syria is settled one way or another, it is understandable that Lebanese politicians are unwilling to make a deal based on political realities that may not be in place next month or next year.

Over all of this, the Hariri indictments loom. Hizballah members are expected to be named, with arrest warrants to follow. However, this is not guaranteed. The powers that be (the United States) are currently the biggest supporters of the Hariri tribunal (STL) and are the biggest reason it has not gone away. At the time it was set up, the STL was meant ostensibly to find Hariri’s killers, but also to punish Syria, who is the consensus prime suspect.

With the regime on the defensive it may not be necessary for the US to play the STL card. (It’s not clear just how much say in the matter the United States actually has, but it is likely enough to get it squashed or move it forward depending on the needs of Washington.) Whatever the case, it is strange that we have not seen an indictment yet, and if one is handed down in the near future, it could add a whole new dimension to the conflict.

Today, tanks, helicopters and soldiers approached the northern town of Jisr al-Shughour, and Assad’s forces began shelling. The situation is a grim reminder of Hafez Assad (Bashar’s father) razing of the town of Hama in 1982 after similar unrest. Thousand were killed and the unrest was put down; Hafez never faced another test to his power.

Today, 11 years into the rule of Bashar Assad, the world waits to see if he is capable of the same.

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Hizballah, Israel, and the Syrian Unrest

9 05 2011

Editor’s note: this article originally appears on the Foreign Policy Association website.

The protest movement in Syria continues to grow, with thousands of demonstrators taking to the street on Friday for a “day of rage”. We have seen similar days of rage in the other Arab countries that have undergone or are undergoing revolutions. The people of Syria, at first demanding reforms, are now openly calling for an end to Bashar Assad’s entire Baathist Alawite regime.

Syria is viewed by many as the linchpin of the Middle East. Damascus is involved in the Arab-Israeli conflict, the US-Iran conflict, and the Iraq War. When there is talk of regime change in Syria, many ears turn toward the conversation. On this topic there is no shortage of interested parties, but perhaps none more so that Israel and Hizballah.

Hizballah has counted on Syrian support for over 25 years. Syria’s previous leader, Hafez Assad, considered the group a tool to be used when necessary, but to be kept at bay and in check at all times. Under Assad Junior however, the Party of God has enjoyed much more influence and flexibility. Over the years Syria has used its formidable political power in Lebanon to ensure the interests of the group.

Iran also enjoys a close relationship with Hizballah. Hizballah Secretary General Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah has sworn allegiance to the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic. The group acts as Iran’s insurance policy against Israel and the West. In return, Hizballah is showered with weapons (light arms and medium-range rockets) and cash (reportedly in excess of $100 million per year). Cash is easy enough to move, but the weapons must come through Syria, so the whole arrangement is predicated on Syrian cooperation.

If the regime in Damascus is replaced by a Sunni group, the country is simply less likely to continue its close relationship with Iran, and this has to be troubling for Hizballah. A Sunni-led Syria, particularly with a moderate Islamist tone, would likely turn southwest towards Egypt in terms of regional associations. The two countries were actually united into one for a brief period of time in the late 1950’s under the banner of Pan-Arabism (the country was named the “United Arab Republic”).

When protests began to take their toll on Tunis and Cairo, Hizballah came out in favor of the protesters. After all, those movements were attempting to remove key US allies from power. The Party never anticipated that the Arab Intifada would spread to Syria, where Bashar Assad had touted his resistance to Israel and the West as the reason his people loved him and would never revolt.

Hizballah’s support for those movements is proving uncharacteristically short-sighted. Hizballah’s roots are in helping the oppressed and disenfranchised of Lebanon (historically, the position of the Shiites) and supporting Bashar Assad in his bid to oppress and disenfranchise the people of Syria seems incredibly transparent and self-serving.

After Hizballah successfully expelled Israel from Lebanon in 2000 (with help), the group was shown a rare degree of respect from Sunnis, who had been worn down by years of failure to do the  same from their own lands. That support spiked when Hizballah repelled the IDF for 34 days in 2006.  As the first Arab group to enjoy such success, it didn’t really matter that they were Shia.

But over the years, that glow has worn off. Now Hizballah is seen by many as a tool of the Iranians, who are both Persian and Shiite. Today, the Arab world is undergoing a major awakening of sorts, and Hizballah has chosen to fight against the tide of revolution. This is what Barak Obama refers to as “being on the wrong side of history”.

Hizballah risks looking hypocritical by supporting the Assad regime, yet it must consider what it would mean for the Shia of Lebanon to have Sunnis take over in Damascus. Israel is in the same boat: Assad might not be the optimal choice, but he is probably better than the alternative.

Israel has been at war with Syria since the Jewish State declared independence in 1948. In 1967, Syria lost Lake Tiberius and the Golan Heights to Israel, and the bulk of Syrian foreign policy over the years has been dedicated to getting it back. It’s the primary reason Syria supports Hizballah: to use the group as a tool against Israel. Land for Peace.

Syria is one of the few supporters of Iran, which has also been hostile to Israel over the years. Tehran refers to Israel as “the Little Satan” and supports groups like Hamas and Hizballah. Since 1979, the Ayatollah and Company have been under intense pressure from the West, and during that time Syria has been the only country standing between Iran and total global isolation.

It seems Israel would be on board with a change in leadership in Damascus: Syrian support is critical to Hizballah and Iran, Israel’s two greatest threats. However, the Israelis are understandably nervous about all of this.

Israel is already concerned with the intentions of the new leaders of Egypt, where the Muslim Brotherhood seems to be making solid gains. Will Eqypt’s peace treaty with Israel be reconsidered? It’s doubtful, but when combined with the potential blossoming of relations between Syria and Egypt, two historic foes, it’s unclear whether it is better to see Assad stay or go.

Israel can’t really support the protesters publicly, as doing so could paint the revolt as an Israeli invention, but it should not do anything to stand in their way. This includes closed-door meetings in Washington. Their fear of the unknown is understandable, but in the long run the spread of democracy in the Middle East should be good for Israel.

For now, Israel and Hizballah can only wait and see how far the revolution in Syria will go.





The Arab Revolt

3 02 2011

Last month in Tunis, a young man set himself on fire in front of a government building. This act of desperation set in motion the current unrest we are witnessing throughout the Arab world today.  An already tumultuous region has exploded in an expression of frustration with government oppression, indifference, and inability to provide a reasonable quality of life for the people.

While not all revolts are created equal and the situation is different for each country, one thing that binds them together is that the taboo of modern Arabs protesting and overthrowing their government has been shattered, possibly forever. But why are people so angry? What are the implications for the future? And what does it mean for the United States? Egypt, Jordan, Yemen, and Lebanon…a closer look reveals that while each case has its own personality, there are many similarities.

Egypt

Egypt is the most populous and influential country in the Arab world. Before the events in Tunisia, it was unthinkable that the politically apathetic Egyptians would rise up against their government in this manner. Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak has ruled the country since his predecessor, Anwar Sadat, was assassinated 1981. He immediately instated emergency law, which is still in place to this day. Mubarak has used “emergency law” to maintain order and suppress the opposition, while maintaining an iron grip on the country and stifling all manner of protest.

From 1981 to 2011, the frustration of the powerless Egyptians usually gave way to a kind of Arab fatalism that it was their lot in life to live under a dictatorship. Then, as history’s curious meandering has demonstrated on countless occasions, something happened. Fed-up Tunisians took to the streets, demanded change, and most importantly, they got it.

The events of Tunisia may have shown Egyptians what was possible when people take to the streets, but the fuel for the blaze had been accumulating daily over the last thirty years, and was sparked by the June 2010 beating of 28 year-old Khalid Said at the hands of police. Mr. Said, an alleged suspected drug dealer, was sitting in a cafe in Alexandria when police pulled him into a building and beat him to death in front of stunned onlookers. Two outcomes of this event were the surprising outbreak of large public protests, and the fact that the protests were led by the bespectacled, milquetoast revolutionary, Noble Prize-winner Muhammad El-Baradei.

El Baradei, a respected former IAEA chief, was encouraged by the nation’s youth to run for president against Mr. Mubarak, but the mood of the opposition at the time was so acidic that Mr. Baradei refused to participate on the grounds that it would give the elections a hint of legitimacy. Today in Egypt change seems possible, and it will be interesting to see what role El-Baradei will play if the government does indeed crumble under the weight of the protests.

Egypt is now at a turning point. The protests may ultimately fail, but for the Mubarak regime there is no going back to the way things were. While Egypt does not have a major organized opposition party waiting to take power, the country does have regular (if crooked) elections, a responsible military, a strong civil society, and an independent judiciary. These factors will help a fledgling democracy stay the course.

Another factor in the opposition’s favor is that the movement is not Islamist in nature; it is firmly rooted in students and the middle class. While the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) is a major force in the country, their ideology is not as radical as their name suggests, and as someone smarter and better informed than this author put it,” they are neither a marginal nor mainstream organization”. The MB is not leading this revolt, but it is sure to have some say in any new representative government. This is a good thing, as by most accounts the MB is moderate in its aims, yet it will give more conservative (or radical) constituents a voice in the new government.

Right now, all eyes are on Egypt to see what changes the civil unrest of the last few weeks will bring, but other countries are also in play and it will be interesting to see what courses they take.

Yemen

Simply put, Yemen is in deep trouble.  The Yemeni people have no shortage of reasons to be upset with the government: Yemen is by far the poorest country in the Middle East; in 6 years Yemen will run out of oil, from which the government depends heavily for revenues; in 15 years, Yemen will run out of drinking water; and in 20 years its population is expected to double. The government has little control outside of the capital of Sana’a, and it faces challenges from rebels in the north and separatists in the south. Add to this list the fact that the Yemeni people are heavily armed on average and the situation is ripe for violence.

Indeed, there is little to be optimistic about in Yemen. Unemployment and illiteracy are high, as is religious extremism. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has a firm foothold in Yemen, where the group’s anti-West/anti-government stance is popular with the locals. Poverty, illiteracy, unemployment, weak central government, religious extremism, endemic tribalism, arid mountainous terrain, the presence of Al-Qaeda, the source of attacks on the United States. All of this is reminiscent of Afghanistan, which is a worrisome comparison.

It would be nice to end this summary on a high note for Yemen, but there is not much to be optimistic about. Even if the current regime falls and a democratic government emerges (which is unlikely), Yemen still faces monumental challenges. Just repeat this mantra to yourself: “running out of oil, running out of water, population to double.” Without unprecedented help from the international community, it’s tough to see how Yemen averts a historic humanitarian crisis.

Jordan

Following the lead of Egypt and Tunisia, Jordan is also seeing its share of protests. Protesters are upsets high unemployment, high cost of living, and high commodities prices, as well as austerity measures enacted by the government in the wake of the global economic downturn. The situation is complicated by Jordan’s political structure, which is based upon tribal hierarchies and the nation’s constitutional monarchy.

Jordanian’s already have a functioning democracy, but are unhappy with the country’s system of the King appointing cabinet ministers to run the country. As a result of the protests, King Abdullah II sacked the cabinet and appointed a new Prime Minister. While Jordanians may have been inspired by Egypt and Tunisia, they are reportedly not pursuing regime change, only political reforms. So the King is safe for now.

Lebanon

Compared with Egypt and Tunisia, Lebanon seems to be a bird of a different color. But a closer look reveals that the three have more in common than meets the eye.

In Lebanon, Hizballah and its coalition (composed mostly of Shia and Maronite Christians) pulled their ministers and collapsed the pro-Western March 14 government led by Prime Minister Saad Hariri. Hizballah then appointed its own candidate (billionaire Najib Mikati, a Sunni Muslim as Lebanon constitution mandates) who won the support of a majority in Lebanon’s parliament.

The fall of Hariri as Prime Minister was swift and was based on his resistance to drop his support for the UN-led tribunal investigating the 2005 death of his father, Rafik Hariri. The Tribunal is expected to indict members of Hizballah, and the group wanted Hariri to distance himself from an investigation which they believed was biased at best, and an Israeli conspiracy at worst.

The rapid transformation from a government led by a Saudi and Western-backed Saad  Hariri, to a government led by a Syria and Hizballah-backed Nijab Mikati brought thousands of Lebanese Sunnis to the streets for a “Day of Rage”, where Sunni protesters expressed their anger at such a swift loss of power. The maneuvers by Hizballah complete the group’s transformation from a fringe resistance group formed in the 1980’s during the Civil War, to a powerful political machine dominating the government.

What does this have to do with Tunis and Egypt? On the surface, not much. But the case of Hizballah in Lebanon again shows what can happen when a group of people are oppressed for too long. For decades, Lebanon’s Shia were relegated to the bottom rungs of the socio-economic ladder, with Christians and Sunnis above. This was historically the case in Iraq, where a Sunni minority dominated the Shiite majority. Today, both nations have transitioned to democracies dominated by Shiite political parties.

In Iraq, it took a US-led invasion to initiate such a change, but for Lebanon, the change has been happening incrementally over the last fifty years.  Imam Musa Sadr began preaching equality for the Shia of Lebanon in the 1960’s, eventually founding the secular Amal Movement. Lebanon’s Shiite population has been making slow and steady gains over the years, building to what we are seeing today.

While Lebanon is a democracy, it is not representative of the country’s demographic makeup. Christian’s make up less than a third of the population, yet they control half the seats in parliament. The rest are allocated to the other sects. This allocation is based on the 1932 census, and many estimates have the Shia vastly outnumbering the other sects today, representing as much as 40% of the population. Lebanon’s Shia believe that this is unfair and they have worked over the years to reverse the situation.

In Egypt, Tunisia, and Lebanon, oppressed groups have taken matters into their own hands and demanded a change. The difference with Lebanon is that the change took place on a more incremental pace, and it should be noted that this latest “Hizballah coup” was done completely within the confines of the constitution.

Israel

The recent developments in the Middle East have to be troubling for Israel. Egypt and Jordan are Israel’s only neighbors to sign a peace treaty with the Jewish State. As a result of these treaties, Egypt and Jordan have been showered with military and development aid from the United States, a close ally of Israel. Israeli’s have to be wondering what will come out of the protests, and how it will affect them. Will a new Egyptian government honor the old agreements with Israel? How will Hezbollah’s ascension to power affect Lebanon’s relationship with Israel?

And will there be any protests from Israel’s own oppressed masses of Palestinians? It seems as though the Gaza War of 2008-2009 broke the backs of the violent Palestinian resistance, and that a third Intifada is highly unlikely, but a month ago it also seemed highly unlikely that Egypt’s government would be on the verge of collapse. For now, Gaza and West Bank are quiet, but for how long? Israeli official have publicly come out on the side Egypt’s Mubarak, but it’s unclear what good, if any, such a stance does for Cairo’s embattled despot.

United States

The United States is in a delicate position. Its old friends in Cairo (Mubarak), Amman (King Abdullah II), Beirut (Hariri), Sana’a (Saleh), and Tunis (Bin Ali) are under attack, and no one is sure what kind of political order will emerge from the chaos. What doesn’t change is the region’s high importance to the United States.  America’s oil supply is at stake, and there are troops in Iraq and Afghanistan to worry about. And then there is Israel, who is arguably of little strategic interest, but is very influential in Washington.

The Obama administration has taken a wait-and-see approach in Egypt, gradually and subtly shifting support from the regime to the opposition. Washington does not want to be on the wrong side of history on this one (see: Iran, 1953, 1979). After Obama took office, he traveled to Cairo to deliver an impassioned speech to the Muslim world. He told Muslims that America was not against them, and that he supported them in their struggle for democracy. Now Obama’s word will be directly tested. Will he come to the aid of the dictators and Israel, or will he support the Egyptian people in their demands for a truly representative elected government?  For the time being, Obama is more comfortable on the fence.

Finally, it is natural to look forward to see who could be next in line for a revolution. Other countries in the region and around the world have to be watching and wondering if it could happen to them. The more time goes by, the more time authoritarian regimes have to sure up support and consolidate power in expectation of a possible popular challenge. Or they could take proactive steps to ensure a peaceful transition to democracy. Saudi Arabia, Libya, Bahrain, Iran, and countries throughout Asia and Africa are all candidates for similar unrest. Time will tell how for this goes, but today revolution is in the air.

 





Lebanon enters “very serious phase” with STL

26 07 2010

Rafik Hariri

Editor’s note: This article originally appears on the Foreign Policy Association website.

Hizballah leader Hassan Nasrallah announced in a press conference Thursday that he expects Hizballah members to be charged in the investigation into the 2005 assassination of Rafik Hariri, and that as a result, Lebanon was now entering a “very serious phase”.

Depending on who is charged within the group, the indictments could be extremely damaging for the Party of God and could push Lebanon into instability.

Nasrallah dismissed the forthcoming charges as an Israeli plot, linking the United Nations Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) to a wave of Israeli espionage that has been continuously uncovered since 2009.

Charges that the STL investigation is a politically motivated Israeli plot are less believable in the wake of the UN’s Goldstone Report regarding Israeli’s Operation Cast Lead  in Gaza in 2009. The scathing report accused the IDF (as well as Hamas) of war crimes, exhibiting the UN’s capacity for carrying out a seemingly neutral investigation.

Saad Hariri

Current Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri (son of the aforementioned slain Rafik Hariri) has, as reported by Nasrallah, declared that he will make a public distinction between Hizballah as an organization and “undisciplined members” who might have been involved in the plot.

While this may be just a way for Hariri to keep his ties with March 6 alive, the move may also be to keep Lebanon from tearing itself apart. If Hariri shows no public animosity towards Hizballah after the charges are released, it will be difficult for any other party to show it either.

Since Hariri took office, he has made it apparent that he values Lebanon’s stability over almost anything else. His reconciling with Bashar Assad, his seemingly endless trips abroad to garner support for his small nation in the face of Israeli aggression, and now his handling of the STL results…every move made is with one end in mind: stability.  Whether that quest for stability is out of love for his country or some personal interests is anyone’s guess, but his commitment is beyond question.

In his own effort to diffuse tensions, Sayyed Nasrallah has gotten way out in front of the issue. From political blogger Elias Muhanna, as reported by the AFP, “By the time that the STL gets around to indicting Hezbollah members a few months from now… the development will be old news, already dissected, analyzed and picked over by Beirut’s punditocracy…No one will be surprised and (if Nasrallah and others get their way), no one will really care.”

Sandwiched between “What happened to Imam Musa Sadr?” and “Who killed Imad Mugniyeh?”, “Who killed Rafik Hariri?” remains one of the Middle East’s most intriguing mysteries. Syria  had the most to gain from Hariri’s death, as well as the intelligence and technical capabilities to pull it off, but it is also unlikely that Damascus could have undertaken such sophisticated operation without getting the attention (an perhaps the approval) of Hizballah.

Hassan Nasrallah

It is hard to see where Israel would fit in to all of that. I suppose, in this land of smoke and mirrors and castles made of sand, that anything is possible. But when Hizballah takes to blaming everything on Israel, the charge kind of loses its effectiveness. Just like not everyone that criticizes Israel is an anti-Semite, not every problem in Lebanon is caused by the Jewish State. In this case, attempting to dismiss the STL investigation as an Israeli ploy sounds childish coming from a warrior like Nasrallah.

Nasrallah’s actions aside, the big question going forward will be how this news affects the stability of Lebanon and the greater Middle East. At first glance, this is an internal dispute- a Lebanese killed by Lebanese- but it is sure to have repercussions for the surrounding states and beyond.

Damascus has to be secretly smiling right now. As long as those charged do not start giving up names of Syrian intelligence operatives, President Bashar Assad has dodged a bullet for now. However, don’t be surprised of those charged “turn up missing” for good measure.

Israel must also be enjoying this moment, as there is little doubt that many there relish seeing Nasrallah in such a predicament. But it is likely that they are also wary that, with Hizballah in such a tight spot, the group may do something unexpected.

Iran cannot be happy with the news, as it could make the Islamic Republic seem to be a more active and nefarious meddler in Lebanon than ever before.

Indictments against Hizballah members could also have an effect on regional relations. Rafik Hariri was an immensely popular figure in the Sunni Arab world, and charges linking the Shiite organization to his death could be damaging within Lebanon and without. For example, Hariri’s assassination destroyed Saudi Arabia’s relationship with Syria, which took four years to rebuild to where it is today.

Bashar Assad

But are Hizballah’s dismissals entirely unfair? As no entity in the Middle East has a monopoly on the truth, Hizballah’s counter charges must be addressed. While it is most improbable that Israel was involved with Hariri’s assassination, it is far less improbable that both Israel and the United States did not at least try to influence the findings of the STL.

Obviously Israel, whose last 18 months seem to have been a never ending public relations nightmare, enjoys Hizballah’s implication in the plot. But as for the United States, the situation is more opaque. Washington has been courting Damascus’ assistance in both containing Iran and helping the stability of Iraq. It is conceivable that Washington used its influence to direct the STL away from a Syrian indictment. But just how likely or possible that scenario is remains to be seen.

Though the names of those charged have not been released, it’s hard to imagine the men named would be anything other than low level conspirators. If Hassan Nasrallah, Bashar Assad, or even former Syrian intelligence chief Rustom Ghazaleh were charged, that would be truly astounding.

In the mean time, Nasrallah’s tone in his press conference was threatening (in text). In his speech, the Secretary General stated, “There is a dangerous project that is targeting the resistance…We are not at all afraid, nor are we worried. We know how to defend ourselves.”

Such rhetoric has been an interpreted to be a not-so-subtle hint warning the STL that it should tread carefully in the coming months, as their actions could have a disastrous impact on the future of Lebanon. Such talk is a stark reminder of the chaos that ensued in May 2008, when government forces clashed with Hizballah and Lebanon nearly went back into the abyss.

It is an interesting theoretical exercise: is knowing the so-called truth about Hariri’s assassination worth all the harm it could do? Unfortunately for the people of Lebanon, it looks like we are going to find out.





Mr. Hariri goes to Washington

17 05 2010

Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri is scheduled to meet with President Obama in Washington on May 24th, and the two will have much to discuss.

Hariri and Obama

Lebanon’s and the United States have a long relationship loosely based on their common democracy and Christian influence. But the relationship between America and Lebanon is not solely based on cultural commonalities. There exists a history between the two that has not always been pleasant. And more often than not, this tiny country has factored greatly into US foreign policy in the Middle East.

So after the two men shake hands and comment on their counties’ shared democratic and economic values, the real topics will be brought to the surface.

Hizballah, Syria, Israel, Iran…Lebanon’s involvement with these four parties has taken what would likely be an otherwise successful, stable, and desirable country nestled nicely on the inner Mediterranean, and turned it into an unfortunate battlefield that the aforementioned powers use to settle their scores. If not for these four, Lebanon might be just some Middle Eastern banking and party haven; Switzerland with fun and sun, Dubia with a soul.

Alas, it is impossible for a country to change it’s neighbors and Lebanon must play with the hand that it has been dealt. This brings us to Hairi’s first official visit to Washington as Premier.

While there is likely no enmity between the leaders, that does not mean that the meeting will be pleasant, as there are some serious issues at hand.

First, there is this business about Syria transferring Scud missiles to Hizballah. Damascus has denied it, Beirut has denied it, and Hizballah maintained its policy of not commenting publicly on its weapons. However, whether or not Syria gave Hizballah the Scuds, one thing is clear: the group is armed to the teeth and those weapons (that they don’t comment about) more than likely came either from Syria or through Syria. Being the Prime Minister, Hariri will have to answer for this.

Ironically, the United States itself  is a big  reason that Hariri is in this predicament.

Syria: has a country ever done more with less?

For thirty years, Syria occupied Lebanon. Damascus had an army there, had an intelligence network there, and had its tentacles in all aspects of government and business. With the assassination of Rafik Hariri in 2005, Syria was forced to end the formal occupation, but much of their influence remained dormant.

Since then, the United States has changed its strategy in relation to Syria from one of  isolation to one of reconciliation. This is for two reasons. One, the US wanted to pry Syria out of its alliance with Iran, and two, Washington realized that it would need Syrian cooperation in order to achieve stability in Iraq. The former was a failure and the latter was arguably a success, but one thing didn’t change: Henry Kissinger’s adage about how there can be no peace without Syria.

Syria has a terrible economy, no natural resources, and a weak and outdated military. However, something that Syria is not short on is incredibly shrewd strategists that allow the country to do more with less*. This means strategic alliances, the use of proxies, and knowing when to make trouble and when to acquiesce.

*It is impressive that the regime in Damascus has survived this long. Its people (though extremely warm and friendly, from personal experience) are dirt poor and have been for a very long time. The majority of Syria is Sunni, but the country is ruled by the fifteen percent (or so) of Alawites, and offshoot of Shiism.  They make up the vast majority of the ruling class. Except for a brief stint in the early 1990’s, Syria has always been in America’s doghouse. How many other regimes could be enemies with a superpower, while ruling over vastly poor majority, and still stay in power for fifty-plus years? It’s remarkable.

In this case, the grand strategists of Damascus have leveraged their controversial relationship with Tehran and America’s weak position in Iraq to reenter Lebanon in a big way. Many analysts have noted that while Syria may not have the soldiers on the ground anymore in Lebanon, they are almost just as powerful there as when they did.

This is no accident. Damascus’ main long-term goals include regime survival, the return of the Golan Heights, and the constant expansion of influence in Lebanon. As far as the last goal goes, they are right on course. Aside from a few Christian holdouts, it is difficult to pick up nary a whisper of criticism of Syria in Beirut these days amongst the politicians.

A key moment came last September, after Lebanon’s parliamentary elections, when Syrian President Bashar Assad traveled to Saudi Arabia to meet with King Abdullah. The Saudis shared American concerns about Iraqi security, and were allegedly concerned themselves with the spread of Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). It is believed that the Saudi’s made a deal with Damascus: help America secure Iraq and stop the spread of Al Qaeda in exchange for Syria’s re-admittance into Lebanon.

Soon the hurdles fell, and two of Syria’s biggest critics changed their tune. Walid Jumblatt, out of concern for his vulnerable Druze population, defected from Hariri’s March 14th coalition and began the long and humbling process of making public apologies to Damascus. Then Hariri was summoned to Damascus to make nice with Assad, the man that he believed was responsible for the murder of his father. Today some Christian factions remain hostile, but two of Syria’s biggest opponents now trumpet the tune of Damascus.

Which brings us back to Hariri and Obama. When the United States let Syria back into Lebanon (whether actively or passively), Washington basically opened the gates for Syria to transfer weapons to Hizballah unfettered. America may have made some progress in Iraq as a result, but now Syria and Hizballah are much stronger in Lebanon. Once again, Lebanon’s sovereignty and democracy have been sold out,  and Syria continues to play chess while America plays checkers.

Hariri and the Security Council

The other big issue for Hariri and Obama will be the topic of Iran, and this is where the Prime Minister is in a tight spot. At least he can blame the “weapons to Hizballah” problem on circumstances that are beyond his control. But not with Iran. Lebanon currently heads the United Nations Security Council, which the United States has been desperately wrangling lately to produce sanctions against Iran for its nuclear energy program.

There are many times where it is acceptable to play the fence in International Relations, but this is not one of those times. If the issue of sanctions comes to a vote, Lebanon will be forced to make a decision. With Hizballah being such a powerful player, Lebanon can’t really vote for sanctions. But on the other hand, it would could be extremely damaging to vote against sanctions as it could badly tarnish US-Lebanon relations. The alternative is to abstain, but this would please no one and could turn out badly if the abstention still ends up effecting the verdict one way or another.

If the United States goes through all the trouble of corralling Russia and China and the motion fails due to a Lebanon ‘no’ vote or abstention there will be trouble. And if the motion for sanctions on Iran passes due to a Lebanese ‘yes’ vote or abstention, there will be trouble. This is a no-win situation for Mr. Hariri, and it is likely that these scenarios will be discussed at the May 24 meeting at length.


On a hopeful  note, the United States has pledged $20 million to help repair the Nahr al-Bared Palestinian refugee camp. The camp was leveled by the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) in 2007, after fighting broke out between the LAF and Fatah al-Islam. Perhaps this goodwill gesture foreshadows that some sort of progress will be made in the relationship between the USA and Lebanon in their upcoming summit. Whatever the case, the meeting will be interesting.

The United States has it’s hands full with Iran, Iraq, and Israel right now, and Lebanon figures prominently into all three.





Disarming Lebanon’s Palestinian Militias

21 01 2010

Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri and Syrian President Bashar Assad

by Patrick Vibert

Editors note: This article originally appears on the appeared on the Foreign Policy Association website.

The Lebanese government recently issued a policy statement that declared Hizballah’s arms to be a legitimate part of the country’s defenses. In 2006, Hizballah managed to repel an attack from Israel, albeit one that the Party itself had incited. Still, many Lebanese view Israel as the biggest external threat to their safety and national security, and view Hizballah as their most capable defender.

Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s government did not have many options when it made its endorsement of Hizballah. The choices were between trying to disarm the group, tabling the issue for the future, and embracing the Party and its weapons. The first option was a not viable, because at this point Hizballah is not willing to disarm on its own, and the Lebanses Armed Forces (LAF) is incapable of disarming them by force. The second choice, procrastination, was also not feasible because the issue was sure to cause friction and controversy in the future, and would obstruct any government progress until it was settled. So Hariri did they only thing he could by legalizing Hizballah’s  weapons. This way, Hizballah will likely be more cooperative in the future because the groups insecurity has been assuaged. Or so the thinking goes.

The parties that are most upset about this are the United States and Israel, but this won’t really affect the former’s relationship with Lebanon, and the latter all but forced Hariri’s hand into this deal. In November, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak issued a statement that Israel would hold all of Lebanon accountable for the actions of Hizballah. So, with Hariri being unable to disarm the group, unable to accomplish anything without their cooperation, and faced with the prospect of Lebanon and Hizballah’s fate being one in the same in Israel’s eyes, Hariri decided that he couldn’t beat Hizballah and that he was going to join them, so to speak.

No country wants independent militias operating within its territory, and Hariri must have swallowed hard when he made his deal with Hizballah Secretary General Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah. That brings us to Lebanon’s Palestinians.

There are between 250,000 and 400,000 Palestinian refugees living  in Lebanon. Most of them live in camps, and there is agreement with the government that, for the most part, the LAF does not enter the camps and that security in the camps is provided by the Palestinians themselves.

It’s akin to the United States’ relationship with the Native Americans. They have special rules and polices for the reservations, and they are allowed a lot of leeway in terms of how how they operate.  For most crimes, if you get in trouble on the reservation, you have to answer to the tribe. However, crimes committed outside of the reservations are subject to normal US laws.

This seems acceptable as long as whatever arms the Palestinian’s maintain are for security purposes only, and that the armed groups  stay within the camps . The problem is that there are a number of militant groups operating in the camps who answer to  different people, who have far more weapons than they would need for mere security enforcement in the camps, and some of the groups even still operate openly outside of the camps.

Some groups represent only the Lebanese Palestinians or the camp that they are in, but others have different masters. Fatah al-Intifada and the PFLP-GC are backed by Syria, and other groups remain loyal to Hamas or Fatah in the Palestinian Occupied Territories.

Due to the history of Lebanon, particularly the last 30 years, people may think that it is natural and reasonable for assorted militias to still be operating in Lebanon. The PLO was there, the Syrians were there, Hizballah is there, and all these Palestinian militias are there. But what other stable and modern nation on Earth would allow not one, but possibly dozens of militias to operate  within its borders? And why is it acceptable for Lebanon?

In most countries, the government maintains a monopoly on the use of force. Due to the previously mentioned circumstances the Lebanese government had to hand part of the monopoly over Hizballah. Call it an “oligopoly of force”. In that case, Hariri didn’t have much of a choice, but with the Palestinian militants, he does.

The PLO wreaked havoc on Lebanon when it used the country as a battlefield in its war with Israel. The group had already worn out its welcome in Jordan, and in Lebanon the story was more of the same. Today, the Lebanese have  mixed feelings towards the Lebanese Palestinians. They sympathize with them in their plight, but they are still resentful from all the destruction that their leadership wrought upon Lebanon.

It is not in Lebanon’s interest to have independent militias operating within its borders, and disarming them should be seen as a measure to improve security and stability. The Palestinians that live in the camps are very poor and live in awful conditions, and there is a high unemployment rate among young men there. This is the recipe for breeding extremism and unrest.

One can’t help but to draw comparisons with Hizballah. Hizballah was formed by marginalized Lebanese who wanted to improve their situation and be a resistance to Israel. Although Hizballah is influenced by its patrons in Damascus and Tehran, the group maintains it independence, especially in relation to the Lebanese government. Some people claim that Hizballah, with its extra-governmental militia, makes Lebanon less secure, not more.

But there are many differences to be considered as well. To begin with, fair or unfair, the Palestinians are Palestinians and not Lebanese, and that makes the militias  foreign entities. And Hizballah represents a large portion of Lebanese voters, while the Palestinian organizations represent zero Lebanese voters.  Disarming Hizballah is politically untenable, while disarming the Palestinian militias has broad support. Hizballah is the most capable group in Lebanon to defend against an attack from Israel, while the Palestinian militias would likely offer little more than fearless yet token resistance.

For Hariri, disarming the various Palestinian militant groups is a viable option, while disarming Hizballah is a practical impossibility. And while it might be acceptable to allow the Palestinian groups in the camps to keep their weapons, having Palestinian militias operating outside the camps throughout Lebanon is not. In 2007, Fatah al-Intafada was involved in a battle with government forces that left hundreds dead and destroyed the Nahr el-Bared refugee camp. This incident illustrates just how unstable the situation has become and how much the government needs to get things under control.

This is where Hariri needs help, and here he should cash in on his deal with Hizballah to get it. For the sake of national harmony, Hariri acquiesced to Hizballah by stating formally that Hizballah is Lebanon’s legitimate defender from Israel.  So if the LAF and the other government agencies are handling the remainder of Lebanese national security, where do the Palestinian militias fit in to the equation? Hizballah has pattern of respecting the legitimacy and the jurisdiction of the LAF, so it would be interesting to hear the group take a  stance on this issue that would be favorable to the government.

Complicating matters is that, as previously mentioned, Fatah al-Intafada and the PFLP-GC are Syrian creations, so there will be some resistance coming from Damascus. Lebanese leaders should be less affected by Syrian influence than in years previous,  however, even though the Syrian army was expelled from Lebanon in 2005,  Syrian President Bashar Assad has shown no signs of accepting a diminished role for his nation there. Recently, the Lebanese government has been talking up the notion of disarming the militias, but when Fatah al-Intafada stated that it was open to negotiations, the government responded grimly by telling the group that “Lebanon’s sovereignty cannot be negotiated”, to which the group responded that it would not disarm. This exchange should be seen in the context of the Syrian-Lebanese relationship, and is thoroughly examined here by the Daily Star’s Michael Young.

Indeed, Hariri just made his first trip to Damascus since becoming Prime Minister. His meeting with President Assad must have been sureal, as Hariri believes that the Syrian president is behind his father’s assassination. Hariri must have had to do a lot of tongue biting on his trip, and he did it for the good of Lebanon. But maybe this tough stance taken against the Palestinian militias, some of which are direct Syrian agents, is all just a stern-but-subtle diplomatic rebellion, a sign that Hariri may be willing to deal with Syria, but that he has not forgotten that they are behind his father’s death.

The Lebanese government made a deal with Hizballah allowing the group to keep its weapons and share the responsibility for Lebanon’s security with the LAF. This means that between Hizballah and the LAF, Lebanon’s safety is covered.  Where do the armed Palestinian groups fit in? And is it worth it for Lebanon to have these groups  operating within its borders? These groups don’t have the organization or the discipline that Hizballah has, and they do not represent any Lebanese. Indeed, two of the most prominent groups answer to Syria. So now, an expression of dissatisfaction with them becomes an expression of dissatisfaction with Syrian influence in Lebanon. And this is where things get interesting.

Will Hizballah go along with the Lebanese government, or will they do the bidding of Damascus? After the Lebanese government officially legitimized them as a defender of Lebanon, will Hizballah state that there is room for other militias in Lebanon too? Hizballah’s leaders are extremely wily, but are they heading for a point where they may have to declare there allegiance to Lebanon or risk being exposed as foreign agents? Does Lebanon have the independence and does Hariri have the political will to resist the power of Damascus? Which side will Hizballah come down on? Only time will tell. The old Hizballah, if there is such a thing, might have come out with a statement supporting the other militias as brothers in arms against the Zionist entity. But today Hizballah members make up a large part of the government, and they fought hard to have their armed forces declared legitimate.

As this situation plays itself out in Lebanon, we should keep in mind that Hariri’s rejection of the militias represents his rejection of Syrian influence. Perhaps the young Prime Minister is just using the militias as a bargaining chip for some other end, but it’s clear that their presence is a blow to Lebanese sovereignty and a threat to Lebanon’s stability.