Edition 20 Volume 6 - May 22, 2024

The Lebanon crisis

May 2024, birthday of Lebanon's latest civil war? -   Joseph Bahout

Hizballah had ironically gone both too far and not far enough.

Hizballah emerges the clear winner in a murky picture -   Ferry Biederman

Hizballah would likely survive in a diminished form if it gave up its arms.

Political gains come at a price -   Nicholas Blanford

Hizballah will have to work hard to ensure that its existing Sunni allies do not drift away.

At stake, the state of Lebanon -   Nizar Abdel-Kader

The future role of Syria will be reduced to serving as a conduit for Iranian logistical support to Hizballah.

May 2024, birthday of Lebanon's latest civil war?
 Joseph Bahout

Who would be naive enough to sincerely believe that behind the very sudden, rapid and savage outburst of violence in Beirut and the rest of Lebanon some ten days ago were the two famous decisions lightly taken by the Lebanese government? Of course, the government's resolve to dismantle the communication network Hizballah had put in place all over the capital and its suburbs and to void previous inter-sectarian agreements in order to remove and question the party's army officer in charge of Beirut Airport's security was seen by the entire opposition as the crossing of a red line and a casus belli. But it requires a deeper and more rational explanation to understand the enormity of what then happened and to integrate the tremendous consequences it produced and the new reality it has created.

Several retrospective analyses are possible. A global and remote approach would place all the events in line with the great cleavage that was opened by Rafiq Hariri's assassination and its outcome: the retreat of Damascus' armies from Lebanon, the skewed elections of spring 2024 and the hypocrite coalition that gave shape to this same government whose survival is today at stake.

A more direct focus would read all this as a logical consequence of the summer 2024 war that only apparently opposed Israel to Hizballah but that really exploded what remained of the thin layer of false confidence between the majority and the opposition. Recall that this episode opened the way to an endless litany of accusations of treason by the latter against the former, charging that it had plotted with the enemy to get rid of an entire sector of the Lebanese polity standing behind the "resistance".

But it is perhaps the most recent of incidents that in fact sheds light on Hizballah's extreme and disproportionate reaction. It would appear to many very surprising that what informed the party's decision to react the way it did to the government decision was the assassination some months ago in Damascus of Hajj Radwan, alias Imad Mughniyeh. It is an understatement to assert that the Damascus operation, whoever led and executed it, strongly aggravated the party's reflexes of paranoia and suspicion. In Hizballah's mindset, if it was possible to penetrate its Syrian backyard and if its legendary security and intelligence leader could be hit, this only meant that the 2024 offensive was on again and that it was now finding allies on the inside. Thus the party had to show no mercy toward anything that could be perceived as a plot against its direct and vital security, even if that meant crossing certain internal Lebanese red lines.

And those red lines were crossed energetically. However, once the dust of Beirut's "operation" had settled and soon after sporadic fighting spread throughout Lebanese territory, it quickly appeared that at the political level at least, Hizballah had ironically gone both too far and not far enough. Too far, compared to a measure taken by the government that could have been reversed or cancelled by a higher level of civil unrest accompanied by a serious closure of Beirut's airport. Not far enough, if the aim was really to mount a coup and irreversibly alter the political equilibriums in the country.

In that sense, and if the party's swift operation was aimed to give it an edge in the process of negotiation as it was previously set, the game could one remote day turn against it. Had it not been for the capitulation by the majority camp in Doha, Hizballah would have been faced with the very heavy obligation to go on, at the risk of "invading" the entirety of the country. It would have unveiled a "totalitarian" project for Lebanon it had so far vehemently denied and would have entered into open conflict with almost all the components of Lebanese society.

De-escalation was made possible at a high and perhaps humiliating price for the majority: its acceptance of almost everything it had so far refused. It complied with the deal presented by the Arab League (formation of a national unity government, adoption of a unanimously accepted electoral law, election of the so-far consensual Michel Suleiman), in terms by far favorable to the opposition. And the result as we have it after Doha is that of a more or less long ceasefire, a truce that may last until next legislative elections and the opening of a roadmap full of potential landmines. If the Doha agreement is to be short lived, as was the Mecca agreement for the Palestinians, Lebanon's month of May will have been the starting date for a highly volatile situation. Today's landscape is clear enough to give some indications of what may lie ahead.

In a prelude to future battles between the camps, the first days of fighting very quickly delineated the vague contours of a newly "cantonized" Lebanon. Beirut discretely controlled by Hizballah but at the same time barely concealing an incredible wound in Sunni sensitivities and setting the backdrop for the emergence of a mood of "resistance" against Hizballah's "resistance". The North, Akkar, Denniyyeh and western Beqaa almost completely controlled by Sunni Salafi fighters who everyone discovered are in fact the real reserve army of Hariri's clan. In the Shuf area, seeds of an intra-Druze feud were planted and a drive for revenge for the humiliation to which Walid Jumblatt was submitted is well in place.

As for the Christian parts of Mount Lebanon, one can easily bet that it is merely a matter of time before a coming to blows between Samir Geagea's followers and the partisans of Michel Aoun, especially if they both need a card in hand before sitting at a table of future settlements between their Sunni and Shi'ite counterparts. Completing this picture is the ultimate exhaustion of an already "neutralized" and thus, for many, discredited Lebanese army, and its inescapable polarization among the feuding parties.

In such a situation, and once losses are thus limited and gains contained, once the chessboard is completely put in place, the "grand game" can begin. Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia, the US and others will have found the appropriate proxies for their power play; Israel will have made sure that Hizballah is now effectively an internal Lebanese problem and its fighters stuck in the mud of the latest civil war in Lebanon. And Lebanon, once gain, will have renewed its "sacred" and morbid mission of being a willful playground for all.- Published 22/5/2008 © bitterlemons-international.org

Joseph Bahout is a professor at Sciences-Po Paris, and researcher at Academie Diplomatique Internationale.

Hizballah emerges the clear winner in a murky picture
 Ferry Biederman

Hizballah emerged the clear winner earlier this month in the violent confrontation with Lebanon's western-backed government and later at the negotiating table in Doha. The Shi'ite movement pulled back from delivering a knockout military punch and says that it does not want to rule the country. But if it literally sticks to its guns, it may have no other choice.

The agreement reached in Doha may calm things for a while but core problems have not been solved. Lacking a more comprehensive political settlement, the country has now returned to that twilight zone in which everybody knows that Hizballah's military might cannot be challenged but where there are sufficient pockets of resistance left among its opponents for its hegemony not yet to be total.

Hizballah's brief military campaign is likely to have caused more problems than it solved. Some of the group's supporters described it as a "warning shot". But often such shots create more resentment than real willingness to compromise, assuming there is room for compromise. After seeing that Hizballah's promise not to turn its arms on other Lebanese was empty, other groups in Lebanon are even less likely to accept the continued threat of those arms. If there was scant evidence of a pro-government militia in Beirut before, chances are that work on it will now seriously start.

The flare-up ended in Hizballah victories over the pro-government Sunnis in Beirut and, largely, over the Druze. But the Christian areas were left alone, possibly because Hizballah values its alliance with Michel Aoun, the Christian opposition leader. That means that Samir Geagea's pro-government Lebanese Forces can, and do, for a while longer entertain the illusion of counting in military terms. In the north of the country, Sunni government supporters exacted horrible revenge from the opposition and held their ground. Add to this continued international support for anti-Hizballah groups and the stage is set for more confrontation if Hizballah continues on its present course.

It is hard to gauge what the movement's real intentions are but it is clearly determined to retain its weapons. In the long term, this is an untenable position that will lead to further instability and violence if the country is not thoroughly subdued, meaning Hizballah will have to achieve an even more comprehensive military victory. Conversely, if the group's attachment to its weapons is unshakeable, other Lebanese factions and the international community can only conclude that nothing short of force will be successful in disarming Hizballah.

It seems a classic case of the region's zero-sum politics and it is hard to see a way out of this deathly logic.

Many Lebanese tend to blame outside powers, Israel, the US, Iran, Syria or Saudi Arabia, for their troubles. But even if these countries do play a role, it is mostly Lebanon's internal circumstances that allow this to happen.

Hizballah is still redefining its role after three major events since 2024 foisted change upon it. First, the Israeli withdrawal from South Lebanon undermined Hizballah's argument for retaining its arms. Then, in 2024, the Syrian withdrawal and the electoral victory of the anti-Syrian bloc removed some of the cover that the Lebanese state had always provided. Finally came Hizballah's transformation into a regional power after it withstood the Israeli onslaught in 2024.

Hizballah has tried to counter or undo the effect of the first two events for years and has been using the effect of the third, its unchallengeable image since the 2024 war, to achieve this. It seems to be seeking a new status quo that will allow it to perpetuate its separate status in Lebanon.

The country's inherent instability goes back to its creation and the way power was divided in the country. In the tussle between Christians, Sunnis and even the much smaller Druze community, the Shi'ites were long ignored. But they have made up for that over the last couple of decades with money flowing in both from the outside--Iran and other supporters through Hizballah--and from the government, through the council for the south, dominated by Nabih Berri's Amal party.

In this, the Shi'ite parties, Hizballah and Amal, have adopted the established Lebanese factional practices of patronage, clientelism and enforcement in their own community. Just like the other factions, Hizballah is unwilling to let go of the most effective tool that it uses to maintain its role in the system, which in its case are its arms.

The difference between Hizballah's arms and the other group's sectarian, financial and ideological tools is that its weapons give Hizballah a decisive, albeit unofficial say in the running of the country and add a geo-strategic element.

Hizballah would likely survive in a diminished form if it gave up its arms. But there are no institutions or other guarantees that would safeguard its interests, nor is there any precedent of any group ceding power voluntarily--the Taif accords came about through mutual exhaustion after 15 years of civil war. Hizballah's military superiority may only mean that the reckoning will be mercifully shorter this time.- Published 22/5/2008 © bitterlemons-international.org

Ferry Biedermann is a Beirut-based journalist.

Political gains come at a price
 Nicholas Blanford

The last-minute Qatar-mediated agreement among Lebanon's top leaders not only ended a debilitating 19-month political deadlock that brought Lebanon close to civil war, it has also demonstrated that the militant Shi'ite Hizballah holds both the political and military balance of power in the country.

The Hizballah-led opposition won key concessions from the Lebanese government and its supporters in the March 14 parliamentary coalition, chiefly winning its long-standing demand to secure a one-third share of cabinet seats in the next government, thus granting it veto power over unfavorable decisions.

The outcome would suggest a blow to the administration of US President George W. Bush that, throughout the months of crisis, has consistently encouraged its allies in the Lebanese government not to yield to Hizballah's dictates. Indeed, the US adopted a curiously ambivalent and muted stance during the recent street battles in Beirut, offering little other than verbal gestures of support for the beleaguered government. Whether this was an indication of the limitations of US influence in Lebanon or hid some broader ulterior agenda it is too soon to tell. Still, few in the Middle East will consider it a coincidence that on the same day the Doha agreement was born, Israel and Syria announced that they had been engaged in secret Turkish-brokered peace talks for over a year.

But Hizballah's political gains have come at a price. The lightening seizure of West Beirut by Hizballah fighters has created a potentially dangerous backlash among Lebanon's angry, frightened and humiliated Sunnis. It undermined the moderate Sunni leadership, particularly that of Saad Hariri, the head of the Future Movement, underscoring the military weakness of the community. Sunni supporters of the Future Movement have been clamoring for weapons and training to confront the threat posed by the Shi'ite Hizballah, but the leadership remains reluctant to embark on such a fraught course.

A period of stability engendered by the Doha agreement notwithstanding, aggrieved Lebanese Sunnis may shift away from a hesitant moderate leadership in favor of radicalism, finding in al-Qaeda-inspired groups a source of communal empowerment and protection against Hizballah.

Al-Qaeda itself may sense an opening in Lebanon, especially with the organization's declining options in Iraq. Recent statements by Osama bin Laden and his deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri have focused on Lebanon, Hizballah and the "crusaders" of the United Nations peacekeeping force in South Lebanon. Already, there are indications in North Lebanon that militant Sunnis are stirring, having previously maintained a low profile.

Hizballah has expended considerable political capital in the past two years to build alliances with Sunni leaders and groups that share its antipathy to Israel and western designs on the Middle East. But in the wake of the Beirut battles and the threat posed by a potential mobilization of al-Qaeda-style groups, Hizballah will have to work hard to ensure that its existing Sunni allies do not drift away in deference to Sunni hostility toward the Shi'ite group, while simultaneously reaching out to moderate Sunnis.

Furthermore, Hizballah's strong-arm tactics in Beirut have delivered a serious blow to the carefully nurtured image of nobility surrounding the "resistance" against Israel. Hizballah's leaders have always maintained that its military wing was directed against Israel and that its weapons would never be used internally against domestic opponents. True, Hizballah has also warned repeatedly of a tough response to any attempts to emasculate its military wing, but, for most Lebanese, the sanctity of resistance today rings hollow after watching Hizballah men battling Sunnis in Beirut and Druze in the Chouf.

The Doha agreement calls for a dialogue on Hizballah's weapons to be hosted by General Michel Suleiman, the commander of the Lebanese army, after he is elected president. For the March 14 coalition, smarting from the blow inflicted by Hizballah in Beirut, finding a means of hobbling the Shi'ite party's ability to employ its weapons tops the political agenda in the coming weeks. But the March 14 bloc has little margin for maneuver before a Hizballah that resolutely refuses to disarm and has demonstrated in stunning fashion a willingness to use force to protect its resistance priority.

Hizballah will continue to evoke its argument that its military wing remains a vital component in a national defense strategy against Israeli aggression, and that while it is willing to coordinate with the Lebanese army it must retain its own chain of command.

Nonetheless, there is potential for compromises if both sides show a degree of flexibility. A useful first step would be to implement the agreement reached during the 2024 national dialogue sessions to regulate the arms held by Palestinian groups. That would mean shutting down the handful of military bases, mainly in the Bekaa Valley, manned by pro-Damascus groups such as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command and Fateh Intifada. Hizballah would earn itself some valuable good will if it agreed not to block such a move.- Published 22/5/2008 © bitterlemons-international.org

Nicholas Blanford is a Beirut-based correspondent for The Christian Science Monitor.

At stake, the state of Lebanon
 Nizar Abdel-Kader

The violence started in Beirut on May 7 following a press conference by Hizballah leader Hassan Nasrallah in which he urged his militia to use force "to protect Hizballah's weapons". Nasrallah added that the Lebanese government had "declared war by designating Hizballah's private telephone network as an illegal act [that] should be removed." He also decried the government decision to remove the Beirut International Airport chief security officer for failing to deal with Hizballah intelligence efforts to monitor the airport.

By over-running Beirut, Hizballah has demonstrated with force what many observers already knew--that it and its allies have the military power to devastate the city and to impose their control on the international airport and the sea port of Beirut. The military operation stopped short of attacking the Prime Minister's Office and the Beirut residences of Saad Hariri and Walid Jumblatt, the two principal leaders of the March 14 coalition.

It would be an exaggeration to say that Hizballah's move was designed solely to force the government to revoke its two decisions concerning the telephone network and the removal of Brigadier General Wafic Shoucair. There is a deep conviction among most Lebanese that the causes for this drastic military move can be traced back to August 2024, when Hizballah declared a "divine victory" in its war with Israel. It became clear then that Hizballah would be turning its weapons inward, trying to assume a greater role in internal power-sharing and to enhance its status as a "state within a state".

Surprisingly, the Lebanese army with its strong presence in West Beirut did not react to Hizballah and its allies' moves to occupy all the streets and to shut down all (and to burn a few) of the March 14 media institutions. The results were at least 81 dead and 200 wounded in clashes in Beirut and across the country, in addition to a political and military victory for Hizballah and Iran against the March 14 coalition and its backers in the United States and Saudi Arabia.

The neutral position of the army in the current crisis was understandable; it was based on army command concerns about preserving its unity. The army faced a double-edged risk: the possible desertion of both Shi'ite and Sunni officers and soldiers, depending on the respective perceptions of which side might, in the course of events, benefit from the army's involvement.

The true causes of this military showdown can be linked to the efforts made by Hizballah to bring down the Siniora government as a step toward dominating Lebanon and turning it into an Iranian protectorate. This struggle involves two conflicting plans: that of the March 14 coalition, focusing on implementation of the Taif agreement, establishment of the international tribunal and the rebuilding of an independent and sovereign state; and the Hizballah plan calling for the continued presence of Hizballah's weapons and the creation of its own state within a state.

Hizballah and its allies prevailed in the military showdown in West Beirut, but at the political level Hizballah realized it was not a clear victor in what has been a lose/lose confrontation. Sentiments against Hizballah among Sunnis, Christians and Druze have become stronger than ever before. The March 14 coalition has been politically humiliated and is ready to accept a compromise on matters such as the constitution of a national unity government and new electoral legislation. The army emerged with a tainted image and shaken morale, especially after Prime Minister Fuad Siniora declared disappointment: "I have called on the army to live up to its national responsibilities... and this has not happened." Moreover, the deepening of sectarian divides among Shi'ites, Sunnis and Druze could create more temptation toward militarization and jihadism.

To minimize the risks of a conflagration, the Arab League dispatched a delegation of eight foreign ministers headed by the prime minister of Qatar along with General Secretary Amr Moussa to diffuse the military situation and bring the parties to a conference in Doha. The breakthrough achieved in the Doha conference will facilitate the election of General Michel Suleiman as president and open the way to form a new government. This will not resolve the current deep political crisis, but may provide an effective mechanism to stop the slide toward civil strife. With such prospects, Iran seems to remain the ultimate winner of this game, while the future role of Syria will be reduced to serving as a conduit for Iranian logistical support to Hizballah.

The US lacks an effective policy toward Lebanon. In the aftermath of Hizballah's takeover of West Beirut, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice pledged US support for the Lebanese government. So far, the only option for the US remains to supply the Lebanese army with the necessary equipment to increase its firepower and mobility, but one should keep in mind that the Lebanese army won't confront Hizballah because of the high risk of shattering its unity and weakening its cohesiveness.

It is very doubtful that Israel will attempt another attack against Hizballah. Conceivably, the only way to contain Hizballah will be through a change of US policy toward Iran and Syria by adopting one of two options: either enlarge its present theater of operations to cover Iran and Syria or engage Iran in serious diplomatic negotiations. A decision, however, will wait on the next US administration.

Great uncertainties center on Iran's goal of having a forward military base on the eastern Mediterranean shore. This affair is sending shock waves through the entire region. Meanwhile, electing a new president and rebuilding government institutions will save Lebanon from becoming a fertile ground for al-Qaeda; this is in everyone's interest.- Published 22/5/2008 © bitterlemons-international.org

Nizar Abdel-Kader is a political analyst/columnist at Ad-Diyar newspaper, Beirut.

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