Thursday, June 07, 2007

Palm Beach Gardens, June 5, 2007

Lebanese Consensus or Civil war?


The US has contrasting relations with Syria and Lebanon. For the US, Syria is on the devil’s track, but Lebanon is a darling. This is a scenario for much drama. Syria considers itself Lebanon’s elder sister (Arabic: al shakika al kubra) and it views Beirut’s intimacy with America as anti-Syrian. Lebanon may have to pay a heavy toll for being too close to Uncle Sam.

As a small country, Lebanon can not stand firm against strong political opposition-from inside or outside the country. The international community, particularly the US and France, has cajoled the Lebanese government to discipline a defiant and militarized resistance movement, Hezbollah. To demilitarize Hezbollah, the US led the Security Council last summer to agree to a UN Resolution (1701) that ended the war with Israel and called for liquidation of all militias in Lebanon. Hezbollah has refused to disarm arguing that the Lebanese national defense system is too weak, the Israel military remains belligerent, and the Palestinian camps are not passive.

The US took another bold and controversial diplomatic move last week. Washington successfully lobbied for UN Resolution 1757: formation of a tribunal to investigate the murder of former Prime Minister Harriri. The US has put immense pressure on Lebanon to try to expose Syria legally through a UN sponsored court.

These two US-led diplomatic maneuvers have strengthened the already exiting relations among Hezbollah, Syria and Iran. This trio is a formidable formation of rejection and populism in the region. The failure of the US in Iraq has weakened its influence in the rest of the region.

Nevertheless, America continues to assume the role of the chief foreign architect in the Middle East political landscape. When the US can not fix a country it breaks it. Iraq and Palestine are clear examples of messy US intervention. Within Iraq and the Palestinian communities the US has consistently played one rival side against the other.

Similarly, in Lebanon, the US has supported the government and encouraged it to remain distant from the demands of the opposition. The opposition, led by Hezbollah’s political arm, is not ready to participate in the September presidential elections. The opposition has been demanding political reform and better representation in a “national unity” government.

Domestic tension makes the Lebanon of today resemble Lebanon of 1975, a pre-civil war period. If a smooth election of a new president does not take place in September ‘07 the country may split into two rival entities. This split might easily lead into a new civil outbreak.

Will the Lebanese be smart enough to avoid being the victims of cold war dynamics between two political fronts: Iran/Syria on one side and US/Israel on the other?

When the Lebanese pressured Syria to leave their country in 2005, they achieved unity and experienced liberation. At times, Syria has been helpful to its little-sister state; but more often than not the Syrian regime has exploited Lebanon. While the Lebanese should strive to be politically independent from Syria, they can never afford to treat their immediate Arab neighbor as a stranger, much less as an enemy. Syria and Lebanon are too close, demographically, historically and socially, to function without coordination and civility. Given the realities of the region, has not Syria already paid for its sins by withdrawing from Lebanon? This is the question that divides public opinion sharply.

To Syria, the Lebanese international search for justice for the killing of Harriri appears to be a US political ploy to hurt the Damascus regime. Is it political overkill for Lebanon to try to expose Syria globally through “Western” channels of justice?

Lebanon is appealing to a weak international system to deal with Syria’s hegemony.
The United Nations has already lost much credibility for its incompetence to apply the rule of international law in the Palestinian question. A major regional injustice has been neglected by the international community for 40 years: the 1967 Israeli occupation of Palestinian and Syrian land. Now, when Chapter Seven of the Security Council is invoked to enforce retribution for the Harriri case a double standard stands out.

Even if the UN were consistent and effective in enforcing international law the Harriri tribunal will still face the problem of partnering with a divided and a relatively shady government. The Harriri related regime has dominated the country since the end of the civil war in 1990. It is associated with a national debt that has ransomed the economic future of the country. The Lebanese opposition considers the national debt an “economic assassination”.

The physical security of the Lebanese state is another embarrassment to the current government. The Lebanese national army has never managed to protect the national borders against Israeli intervention. Currently, the Lebanese forces are even having much trouble in handling a few hundred rebels in a Palestinian camp; rebels without a cause, rebels that boast of nauseating heroism. A very weak national army provides room and reason for the formation of ethnic paramilitary groups.

Finally, the Lebanese cabinet’s embrace of the Bush administration is too provocative for a large section of Lebanese society. Critics of the US point out that last summer America partnered with Israel in a devastating war that showed little respect for Lebanese life, ecology or infrastructure.

Neither the Lebanese opposition nor the Lebanese government can win, or should win, the dangerous battle of wills that has been raging since November 2006. Both sides should compromise to avoid dragging the country into a new civil war. To survive, Lebanon should neither embrace the West nor walk in the shadow of any Arab country.

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