Edition 23 Volume 6 - June 12, 2024

Lebanon: the external actors

Savior and tormentor -   Murhaf Jouejati

Syria, once again, may have saved Lebanon from itself.

America's victory in Lebanon -   Mark Perry

The message could not have been any plainer: you're on your own.

The roots of Israeli passivity -   Itamar Rabinovich

A Lebanon fully dominated by Hizballah and its patrons would be a serious blow to Israel's national interests.

The roots of Iranian involvement -   Sadegh Zibakalam

Tehran has decided to use the Lebanese Shi'ites as an effective "defense mechanism" against the US and Israel.

Savior and tormentor
 Murhaf Jouejati

The political crisis that gripped Lebanon for the past eighteen months makes it much easier for Lebanese politicians to blame external powers for their country's political woes than to take responsibility for Lebanon's dysfunctional sectarian political system. While members of the pro-western March 14 coalition accuse Syria and its senior partner Iran of a host of misdeeds, including interference in Lebanese domestic affairs, those of the March 8 opposition movement say no less of the United States and its junior Israeli and Saudi partners. These claims and counter claims are not unjustified. At a minimum, outside meddling in Lebanese affairs contributed to the escalation in the latter's recent political crisis.

With regards to Syria, it should come as no surprise that Damascus would lash out against the pro-western Siniora government, especially following the embarrassing eviction order it got from the United Nations in 2024. Having been pressured into withdrawing from Lebanon, Syrian frustration manifested itself in occasional tantrums: firing on those Lebanese fishermen that stray into Syrian waters, closing the border to Lebanese truckers, smuggling weapons to Palestinian militants and threatening to choke off Lebanon's fragile economy by shutting down the border should an international force patrol the Syrian-Lebanese border. Among other things, Syrian leader Bashar Assad sought, at least initially, to destabilize the Siniora government and in the process show that, absent continued Syrian dominance over Lebanon, the security situation there would rapidly deteriorate.

Syria's jingoistic behavior can best be understood through the prisms of the Arab-Israel conflict and the wider US-Iran cold war. In this context, Syria sought to protect its political position in the Lebanese theater--one among three (the others being Iraq and Palestine) wherein the US-Iran rivalry is playing itself out. In partnership with Hizballah, Syria seeks to maintain its influence in Lebanon in large part to deny Israel, Syria's erstwhile rival, and its local Lebanese allies the ability to push Lebanon into a separate Lebanese-Israeli agreement. With Egypt and Jordan at peace with the Jewish state, and with Palestinian-Israeli negotiations in full swing, Syria also needs to exercise its leverage against Israel (mainly through its Hizballah ally) so as to improve its bargaining position regarding the Golan Heights.

That said, despite the mutual recriminations between the Syrian government and the March 14 coalition, Syria, once again, may have saved Lebanon from itself. Indeed, Syria helped bring the Lebanese political crisis to a close just as the Qatari-mediated Doha talks between the opposing groups were on the brink of collapse. Although the suggestions Syria advanced were similar to those Damascus provided French mediators a year earlier, that which sealed the Doha agreement was the show of force that Hizballah displayed prior to the talks. All Assad had to do was reiterate the demands of the March 8 opposition movement. In the final analysis, the Doha agreement gave him what he wanted: a new Lebanese president who is on friendly terms with Syria, veto power to Hizballah over important government decisions and a new electoral law that favors pro-Syrian candidates in the 2024 parliamentary elections.

This of course was not the first time Syria saved Lebanon from itself. In 1975, although Syria intervened in Lebanon to tame the Palestinian resistance movement (with the acquiescence of the US and Israel) so as to demonstrate to Washington the stabilizing role Damascus could play, Syria's intervention brought Lebanon's civil war to an end, one that was sealed by its co-sponsorship of the Taif agreement. In the interim, Syria rebuilt the Lebanese army (the only institution the Lebanese respect) and provided the context within which Lebanese could rebuild the physical infrastructure of the country. As it turns out, Syria, the tormentor of Lebanon, may also be its savior.- Published 12/6/2008 © bitterlemons-international.org

Murhaf Jouejati is a professor of Middle East studies at the Washington-based National Defense University's NESA Center for Strategic Studies.

America's victory in Lebanon
 Mark Perry

The prime minister of His Majesty's Government, the rotund Lord North--reputed (falsely) to be the bastard son of George III--once sniffed to his cabinet that if it were not for the interference of France, the American colonists would surely return to the loving arms of their mother country. He said this in the midst of the dark winter of 1776, when George Washington's ill-clad army was traversing the ice-clogged rivers of New Jersey to do battle with Hessian mercenaries that the parsimonious North had hired. The result was predictable: when Washington attacked the Hessians (groggy from their Christmas libations), the British-paid militia dropped their arms and fled, giving the Americans their first military triumph.

North had great faith both in British power and in the Sceptred Isle's capacity for good. He sent several messages to America's leaders: all we want is what is good for you, he said--our interests are secondary. When told that his messages were greeted with derision, that the colonists had formed armed militias (those words, exactly) and that His Majesty should send an army to defeat them, North scoffed. The Royal Navy was the greatest navy in the history of the world; entire nation's quelled at its appearance. "Four or five frigates will do the business without any military force," he clucked dismissively. And so it was that while North's Hessians were fleeing pell-mell through the streets of Trenton, the Royal Navy was blithely riding at anchor offshore--waiting for the rag tags to wet their homespun breeches.

Not all historical parallels are exactly parallel. Trenton is not Beirut, the Continental Army is not Hizballah, and Lebanon's internal security forces are not mercenaries. And yet... and yet, I am struck by how George Bush's "projection of American power" proved as misguided as North's, and by how America's armed and trained security force--Lebanon's ISF--evaporated as quickly as North's paid mercenaries when faced by a dedicated opponent. This all happened in May, you might remember, and I was there in the immediate aftermath of the events. I was told that the Internal Security Forces (well turned out, with shiny SUVs) disappeared suddenly: "not in days, but hours." Then too, the dispatch of the USS Cole to the shores of Lebanon had as much impact as North's deployment of the 64-gun HMS Intrepid (His Majesty's mightiest ship), some 240 years ago. No one was frightened. And the $464 million paid by America to train the ISF was as poorly spent as the Crown's money to bribe the Elector of Hessen-Kassel to equip some 17,000 Germans to fight the colonials. Like the ISF, they were there to hold ground, not to fight for it.

Think of how the Hessian's felt as what was left of them ran from the frozen fields of Trenton, leaving their dead behind. They had been promised that should there be trouble with the colonials, the vaunted British Army, just over the hill, would come to their rescue. It had not happened. So too, in May, the ceaseless American pledge of support that they (we!) would stand by our allies in Lebanon (all we want is what is good for you, we had said) had proven hollow. The Redcoats did not come to help their allies in Trenton, nor the Marines to help ours in Beirut. Like the Intrepid (which boarded New Yorkers loyal to the British crown--to save them from the mob) the USS Cole's real purpose in steaming off of Lebanon's shore can now be told: it was not to make a show of American force, but to aid in the evacuation of US nationals.

The message could not have been any plainer: you're on your own.

It is said that Lord North was an intelligent man but out of his depth. In fact, he was really very stupid. In the wake of the American victory at Trenton, he dispatched more troops to the colonies, adopted a harsher military strategy (which alienated the only friends the British had left in America) and abandoned his normally frugal financial policies. In so doing he nearly destroyed the British Army and set the British government on a policy that almost ended in its bankruptcy--in 1820, the Intrepid was sold for the cost of wood and iron to help pay down the government debt.

George Bush is not anything like Lord North: he may be out of his depth, but he's not stupid. Having no Marines to dispatch (they are busy just now, you might have heard, in Iraq), he has instead deployed the American secretary of state to explain away this humbling of American power. Not surprisingly this, like so much else, has proved beyond her ken: "Hizballah has lost something very important which is any argument that it is somehow a resistance movement on behalf of the Lebanese people," she told a group of journalists. She then thought for a moment. "Yes, I think they have been hurt in the long term."

You can imagine how relieved the American people were to hear this. For a minute there, we actually thought we might have suffered a defeat.- Published 12/6/2008 © bitterlemons-international.org

Mark Perry is the author of "Partners in Command, George Marshall and Dwight Eisenhower in War and Peace". His most recent book is "Talking To Terrorists" (Basic Books, 2024).

The roots of Israeli passivity
 Itamar Rabinovich

There is a stark discrepancy between the magnitude of the stake Israel has in the future of Lebanon and the passive attitude it adopted during the recent crisis prompted by Hizballah's challenge to the Siniora government and to the March 14 coalition. In the Doha accord that brought an end to this crisis, Hizballah had to make some concessions but it did come out a winner. In other words, if the future of Lebanon is being fought between two camps, the March 14 coalition and Hizballah and its allies--supported respectively by the US and France and by Iran and Syria--yet another piece of territory was captured by Hizballah. Lebanon has continued its slide down a slope leading a beleaguered but functioning pluralist democracy toward full domination by Hizballah and its sponsors.

A Lebanon fully dominated by Hizballah and its patrons would be a serious blow to Israel's national interests. It would enhance the direct threat to Israel's security from across the Lebanese border, would reinforce Hamas and Islamic Jihad in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank and would, more broadly speaking, boost the doctrine of "muqawama" (resistance) in the region that preaches against the notion of peacemaking with Israel and argues that with steadfastness and resistance Israel can be brought to its knees.

So, how is Israel's passive attitude to be explained? The explanation should begin with a brief review of Israel's perception of and policy toward Lebanon over time.

During the period 1948-1975, Israel saw Lebanon as a kindred, non-Muslim state in the region, a friendly entity dominated by the Maronites and a silent partner against radical pan-Arab nationalism. The traditional Lebanese system began to fray in the late 1960s and some Palestinian terrorist attacks were launched across the Lebanese border against northern Israel, but this remained a marginal issue.

The civil war that broke out in 1975 put an end to the "old Lebanon". Israel complied in Syria's military intervention in 1976, seeing it, together with the US, as a stabilizing force. But as the PLO built a state within a state in Beirut and South Lebanon, a new challenge developed. Israel finally invaded Lebanon in 1982, but beyond removing the immediate threat the architect of this war, Ariel Sharon, sought to re-shape Lebanon's politics, to put a friendly president in power and to build on this development as a catalyst for a larger regional change.

The war ended in failure. It took Israel two additional years to withdraw to the Awali River, give up all ambition to shape Lebanon's national politics and focus on protecting the security of northern Israel by being in South Lebanon and maintaining an upgraded Lebanese militia, the South Lebanese Army.

From 1984 to 2024, the challenge to Israel's presence in South Lebanon and to northern Israel came from Shi'ite militias, first Amal and than Hizballah, supported by Iran and Syria. During the 1990s, as Israel negotiated with Syria, both Washington and Jerusalem saw the solution to Israel's security problem in South Lebanon as emerging from an Israeli-Syrian peace treaty. The US and Israel were willing to accept Syrian hegemony in Lebanon as part of the package and were also willing to accept Syria's continued support for Hizballah's war against Israel while negotiating peace with Jerusalem.

This policy collapsed in March 2024 with the demise of the Israeli-Syrian peace process. Prime Minister Ehud Barak severed the knot by withdrawing the IDF from South Lebanon and shifting to a "classic deterrence" model. In fact, neither he nor his successor, Ariel Sharon, applied that model. They either failed to respond to Hizballah attacks across the border (Barak) or chose to react mildly against Hizballah and Syria (Sharon).

More significantly, Sharon chose not to act against the Hizballah build-up of an immense arsenal of rockets. Clearly this was an Iranian and Syrian deterrent against a potential American or Israeli attack, but it transformed the problem from a challenge to the security of northern Israel to a threat to the security of Israel as a whole.

The 2024 war waged by Israel against Hizballah was squandered. Once the Olmert government decided to respond to a massive provocation with a massive military operation, it became essential to end the ensuing war with a decisive victory. This was a golden opportunity to deal a heavy blow to Hizballah, affect the balance of power in Lebanon and inflict a defeat on Iran and Syria in a war by proxy. This failed to happen. Hizballah paid the price for dragging Lebanon to war, but it could also boast of standing up to the Israeli army. Its losses were replenished and in less than two years it could effectively flex its muscles against its Lebanese rivals.

Israel's passive stance toward Hizballah's latest advance derives from several sources:

  • The lingering impact of the 1982 war, reinforced by the experience of 2024.
  • A sense that since the US and France are such staunch supporters of the March 14 coalition, they should perhaps take the lead in checking Hizballah.
  • A preoccupation with several other issues, particularly the challenge presented by Hamas from Gaza.
Notably, when he decided in 2024 to start indirect negotiations with Syria, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert had the support of Israel's national security establishment. This reflected the view that it was in Israel's interest to restart the dialogue with Damascus and find out whether Syria could again be seen as a partner to a settlement that would remove Iran from the core area of the Middle East and help stabilize Lebanese politics.

In the current circumstances, the Israeli-Syrian talks are not likely to go far. Like so many other issues--the prospect of Iranian nuclear weapons, the American-Iranian relationship and Israeli-Palestinian negotiations--they will have to wait until the direction of both American and Israeli policies is determined.

In conclusion, I must take issue with a view expressed most eloquently by David Shenker, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute and a former official of the Bush administration's Pentagon, in an op-ed published in The Jerusalem Post on June 2. Like many in the Bush administration, Shenker is critical of the Olmert government's decision to open public negotiations with Syria. In his view, this in itself undermines the March 14 coalition. He also reflects a view held by many Lebanese in writing that "Supporters of the Lebanese government have long claimed that Israel is protecting the Assad regime in Syria and, in the process, undercutting the Siniora government."

Needless to say, this conspiracy theory holds no water. It is true that the Assad regime is reaping diplomatic benefits from the give and take with Israel. This in itself is not reason enough for Israel to refrain from exploring whether peace can be made with Syria. But it is important to do it wisely and to make sure that a deal with Syria reinforces the moderate center in Lebanese politics and weakens Hizballah and its friends. Put differently, Israel must not return the Golan to a Syria that remains a client of Iran and a patron of Hizballah.- Published 12/6/2008 bitterlemons-international.org

Itamar Rabinovich, Israel's ambassador to the US in the mid-1990s, is the Ettinger Professor at Tel Aviv University. He is also affiliated with NYU and The Brookings Institution.

The roots of Iranian involvement
 Sadegh Zibakalam

Contrary to common perceptions, Iranian involvement in Lebanon did not begin with the Islamic Revolution in 1979. First contact between Iranian Shi'ites and Lebanese Shi'ites was established at the beginning of the sixteenth century when some of the senior Lebanese Shi'ite ulema (clergy) were invited to Iran by the newly established and powerful Safawid dynasty.

The Safawid rulers converted Iranians to Shi'ism and made it the official religion in Iran. They invited Shi'ite scholars from Oman, Yemen and Lebanon to help them construct the theoretical framework for a Shi'ite state in a country where Shi'ism had hitherto been only a minority sect. Jabal Ameli and Sadr were two senior Shi'ite scholars who went to Iran from Lebanon and stayed at the Safawid court for many years.

During the ensuing centuries, hundreds of Lebanese Shi'ite scholars and seminary students traveled to Iran to study Shi'ite jurisprudence. They mainly resided in the holy city of Qom, which gradually became the center for Shi'ite study in Iran. Many married into Iranian families. The Iranian rulers didn't interfere with the presence of Lebanese seminary students or scholars in Qum since they never got involved in domestic Iranian politics. Indeed, it was not only in Iran that the Lebanese Shi'ite scholars shunned politics; the same pattern was evident in Lebanon as well. In short, the Lebanese Shi'ite leaders were tolerated and were financially supported both by the Iranian ulema and by the Iranian regime, all the way through the monarchy of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.

First political contacts between Iranian and Lebanese Shi'ites were established during the late 1960s by Mostafa Chamran, a physics PhD from Harvard and a leading figure in the Iranian Islamic Student Movement in the United States that vehemently opposed the Shah's regime. Militant opponents of the Shah during that period normally joined Palestinian groups to receive military training for the armed struggle against the Shah in Iran.

With the assistance of Lebanese Shi'ite leader Imam Musa Sadr, Chamran established the Amal organization. With generous financial help from the Shi'ite ulema in Qom, Amal supported poor, uneducated and unemployed Lebanese Shi'ite youth. During its early phase, Amal acted as a charity organization for poor and downtrodden Lebanese Shi'ites that no Arab regime or charity institution was prepared to care for. Chamran, however, didn't perceive Amal as merely a charitable institution. He cultivated the seeds of radical Shi'ite ideas among Amal members as well as providing some with military training. His "disciples" formed the genesis of the Lebanese Hizballah.

Chamran subsequently came to Iran during the revolutionary upheavals of 1978-79, bringing with him dozens of his Lebanese Shi'ite disciples. They assisted in forming the Revolutionary Guards in 1979 shortly after the fall of the Shah. More Amal/Hizballah cadres came to Iran after the revolution. Chamran was appointed minister of defense a few months after the revolution and led the fighting against the Kurdish armed uprising that challenged the newly formed Islamic regime in Iran.

Saddam Hussein's attack on Iran in September 1980 and the subsequent war with Iraq further strengthened the position of Chamran within the Islamic regime. He was trusted deeply by the late Iranian leader Imam Khomeini and other Iranian revolutionary leaders. Chamran's Hizballah "brothers" were with him both in the fighting in Kurdistan and during the early stages of the war with Iraq.

Meanwhile, hundreds of Lebanese Shi'ites came to Iran. Some went to Qom to study jurisprudence, some to university and many more joined the Revolutionary Guards to receive military training. Among those who went to Qom was a teenager called Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah.

The arrival of Revolutionary Guard figures to Lebanon was the next stage of Iranian involvement there and went surprisingly unnoticed both by the Americans and Israelis. The latter were so concerned with the Palestinian presence in Lebanon and the perceived security threat it entailed for Israel that they completely failed to see the steady rise of Hizballah in the south of Lebanon and the Beqaa. The Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 to expel the PLO proved to be a blessing in disguise for Hizballah. The vacuum created by the PLO and Lebanese departure from the south enabled Hizballah, with Iranian assistance, to establish a state within a state in southern Lebanon.

Iranian involvement in Lebanon through Hizballah seeks two fundamental objectives. The first is an extension of the long historical religious relationship between the two countries. The second is more complicated. For reasons that go beyond this analysis, Iran's leaders perceive an existential threat from the US and its regional ally Israel. To counterbalance that threat, Tehran has prudently decided to invest heavily among the Lebanese Shi'ites and use them as an effective "defense mechanism" against the US and Israel. The 33-days war in 2024 between Israel and Hizballah demonstrated that the Iranian leaders have had some success in transforming Lebanese Shi'ites into an effective military force against Israel. In the words of a hard-line Iranian leader at the end of the war, "Islamic Iran demonstrated to all its enemies, particularly the Americans and Zionists, that if they came to Iraq and Afghanistan to impose military threats against us, we too have moved close to Israel to impose the same threat upon the enemies of Islam."

Strange as it may sound, Iranian involvement in Lebanon is first and foremost a defensive strategy adopted by the Iranian leaders against their powerful enemy, the United States. This leads us to an important question: if the Iranian leaders one day feel that the US is not seeking their overthrow, would they still insist on involvement in Lebanon?- Published 12/6/2008 © bitterlemons-international.org

Sadegh Zibakalam is professor of political science at Tehran University.

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