All politics are local - except in Lebanon
'internal' skirmishes have increasing Regional and international reverberations
Friday, March 03, 2006
The Lebanese arena continues to be the center of attention for many regional and international players as Lebanese factions struggle to retain an influential role in the country while at the same time dissociate themselves, if possible, from outside powers that have played a significant role in establishing them and in ensuring their survival over the years. In short, Lebanese politicians are learning for the first time in so many years how to rule themselves without outside influence. But so far, little progress has been achieved in exercising political independence. This is largely due to the continued presence of armed factions, Lebanese and non-Lebanese, that has allowed some outside parties to force themselves on the Lebanese scene in an attempt to secure their current and future interests inside Lebanon and the region. However, this policy of "security blackmail" is a double-edged sword that could have adverse consequences for the parties using it. The Lebanese situation continues to be influenced by regional developments, which in turn impact on the region as a whole.
The Shiite Dilemma
The reaction of the Shiite parties, Amal and Hizbullah, to the decision of the majority forces in government to call for an international tribunal into the investigation of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri's assassination took many people by surprise. The five Shiite ministers boycotted government sessions for nearly six weeks, but refused to resign, and Amal and Hizbullah leaders placed tough conditions on their return to the Cabinet. These conditions aimed at achieving two main objectives: to allow Hizbullah and Palestinian factions to retain their arms indefinitely, without internal or external pressure, until they themselves decide to give them up; and to replace the democratic process in governing Lebanon with one based on sectarian reconciliation, which some Lebanese politicians have compared to "federalism." Both demands, which faced strong opposition from other Lebanese parties, highlighted the Shiites' fear over their future status and exposed the underlying regional dimension, especially with regard to Iran and Syria, in Lebanese internal politics.
Shiite Fears: Ever since the formation of Lebanon as a governorate within the Ottoman Empire, sectarian groups have benefited from the support of external powers. While the Sunnis relied on the Ottomans, the Christians and Druze enjoyed support from Europe and Russia. Even after Lebanon took its current shape in 1920, Lebanese sects have, at one time or another during the 20th century, enjoyed external support from countries such as France, the United States, Russia, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. The Shiites, on the other hand, never had a true foreign ally able to use its influence to secure more power and rights for them inside Lebanon. The situation, however, started to change after the Islamic revolution in Iran in 1979. Exporting the Islamic Revolution and empowering Shiite communities in countries worldwide were among the main foreign policy objectives of the ruling mullahs in Tehran. While Iran failed in most cases to carry out these objectives and empower Shiite minorities in many countries, it did, however, succeed in Lebanon, largely due to the civil war that was raging in that country at the time.
Before Hizbullah appeared in 1982, Amal was the main Shiite faction in Lebanon. Although Amal was established as a grass-roots movement led by Imam Moussa Sadr, it transformed during the war and became more associated with the Syrian regime. Most of the founders of Hizbullah, including the current secretary-general of the party, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, used to be members of Amal and broke away for ideological reasons. Shortly afterwards bloody battles erupted between Amal and Hizbullah in a fight for political dominance. The Syrian regime at that time was not willing to share the Lebanese arena with any other external power, including Iran. But things changed following the end of the Cold War, the 1990-91 Gulf war, and the start of the Middle East peace process in late 1991. The international community gave the Syrian regime the mandate to disarm Lebanese militias and supervise the implementation of the Taif national reconciliation pact inside Lebanon. At the same time, Damascus found itself engaged in tough negotiations with the Israelis with no real leverage to convince them to surrender the whole of the Golan Heights. Meanwhile, Iran found itself isolated regionally and internationally as a result of Washington's dual containment policy that targeted both Tehran and Baghdad in the 1990s. Tehran therefore sought regional allies, as well as the means to force itself into any settlement reached at the Middle East peace talks. The Shiites of Lebanon were the common link between Tehran and Damascus.
After the 1992 parliamentary elections in Lebanon, the roles of Hizbullah and Amal were clearly defined by their foreign mentors: Tehran and Damascus. According to a senior Hizbullah official who asked not to be named, Hizbullah was given the military task of fighting Israel in south Lebanon, while Amal was given the lead political role. Amal, through its leader Nabih Berri, who is currently the speaker of Parliament, provided the main political cover to Hizbullah's military presence. But Lebanon's political system after Taif, which divided power between three main figures - the president, the speaker of Parliament and the prime minister - made it necessary for Syria and Hizbullah to have control over either the presidency or the premiership. The president's post seemed more vulnerable with the weakened role of the Christians in Lebanon after the Civil War, and thus became the second political pillar that gave support to Hizbullah. The Shiites of Lebanon therefore ensured their political power in the country through the coordinated support of their regional allies, Syria and Iran.
The success of Hizbullah in south Lebanon exceeded all expectations. Hizbullah leaders proved themselves sharp politicians, who also undertook successful guerrilla warfare in south Lebanon and gained the support and respect of the masses not only in Lebanon but also in the wider Arab and Muslim world. Moreover, Hizbullah leadership proved more capable than its regional mentors - Iran and Syria - in reading the global changes after September 11, 2001. According to the same Hizbullah official, the party leadership had advised Damascus against some of the "wrong moves" that led to the current situation, "especially the decision to extend the mandate of President Emile Lahoud, which triggered steps toward UN Security Council Resolution 1559." Since 1990 Hizbullah has managed to establish itself as a Lebanese national resistance movement, but this image and role has come under heavy scrutiny following Hariri's assassination on February 14, 2005, and Hizbullah has had to reconsider its strategy and alliances to meet the new challenges.
Hizbullah first moved to secure its internal political cover after the withdrawal of its Syrian allies. To do this, it allied with its arch foe, Amal, to form a united front, and this secured the post of the House speaker to Berri. Hizbullah then broadened its popular base by allying with leaders of other religious sects in Lebanon, especially those not on good terms with the government. Hizbullah therefore sealed a strategic alliance with Michel Aoun, leader of the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), under the banner of fighting corruption and improving socio-economic conditions. The third move for Hizbullah was to establish legitimacy to its armed wing by portraying the Islamic Resistance as a national requirement, aimed at liberating Shebaa Farms as well as deterring Israeli ill intentions against Lebanon.
However, Hizbullah's designs seem to have been undermined by the weak political foresight of their Syrian allies. The assassination of Gebran Tueini in December 2005 generated a shock-wave in Lebanon that made conditions harder for pro-Syrian factions, including Hizbullah. Moreover, sending the fighters of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine - General Command, a known proxy group to the Syrian intelligence - across the borders to set up bases outside the refugee camps in the Bekaa Valley and Naameh (south of Beirut) has complicated Hizbullah's attempt to legalize its armed wing. The question being raised by many Lebanese politicians in public today is: What is the real purpose of Hizbullah's arms? Are they to liberate Lebanese territories, or are they to liberate Palestine and the Golan and help the Iranians?
The Regional Dimension: Iran and Syria are regarded today as the only two regional players who have remained on the U.S. list of so-called rogue states. Both countries face the strong possibility of coming under UN sanctions in the near future. While Iran is on a collision course with the international community over its nuclear program, Syria, in turn, is facing an international probe into Hariri's assassination. The Syrian regime faces a further challenge from former Vice-President Abdel-Halim Khaddam, who broke away from the Baath Party and announced intentions to form a broadly based government-in-exile. Khaddam has accused Syrian President Bashar Assad of ordering the killing of Hariri and has described him as an incompetent leader who is driving his country toward disaster.
Khaddam's television interviews on Arab satellite channels seem to have affected the credibility of the Syrian regime in the eyes of the Arab masses, as well as weakened the regime from within by placing it in more trouble with the international investigation into Hariri's assassination. Most importantly, Khaddam's revelations on how the Syrian regime ruled Lebanon undermined the pro-Syrian camp and strengthened the arguments of the anti-Syria forces. This development necessitated a robust response from Damascus on three fronts: first, the Arab front - by involving the Arab League, Egypt and Saudi Arabia in mediations with Lebanon; second, the internal front - by releasing some leading political prisoners from jail and renewing promises about internal political reforms; and third, by consolidating its alliance with Iran as well as the Lebanese Shiite parties. For this purpose Damascus hosted on January 20, 2006, a summit meeting with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad along with the leaders of Amal and Hizbullah.
Syria's attempt to win Arab mediation and support quickly failed after the United States and France moved to prevent any deal that would weaken the Lebanese government and compromise the UN probe into Hariri's assassination. Arab countries seem to have realized that the Syrian-Lebanese conflict has taken on an international dimension through the involvement of outside factors such as Iran and Iraq, thereby increasing the challenge - and the risk. On the internal front, the Syrian regime is becoming more vulnerable due to opposition forces, both internal and external, becoming emboldened and radicalized in their demands for political change and reform in the country. The spate of interviews given by Khaddam to Arab and foreign media over the past weeks, plus the continued almost daily coverage of the Lebanese-Syrian conflict and the international investigation into Hariri's murder, have all been factors that have exposed the Syrian regime on many levels. It has caused it to lose control over the flow of information to its people, and hence weakened its grip on power.
It is worth mentioning here that an authoritarian government, such as the Syrian regime, typically relies on four main pillars for survival: full control over the security apparatus; control over the flow of information to the people; control of the national economy and the country's resources; and international legitimacy. The Syrian regime has lost control of information due to the "media revolution" in the Arab world. Its international legitimacy has been shaken by measures such as the withdrawal of the American ambassador from Damascus, plus the UN reports that have implicated some senior Syrian security officials in Hariri's assassination. Demands for political and economic reforms could subsequently loosen the regime's grip over the country's weak economy, while possible UN sanctions could further devastate Syria's economy, weakening the regime's control. As for control over the security apparatus, this was severely shaken by the unexpected and humiliating withdrawal from Lebanon in April 2005, and the ongoing internal turmoil.
Lebanon's Political Scene
The strong defensive approach by the Syrian regime and the frequent assassinations of anti-Syrian figures in Lebanon, together with the dilemma of Palestinian arms outside the refugee camps, have contributed to undermining Hizbullah and isolating it on the Lebanese scene. The so-called "majority forces" or the "March 14 Forces" that include the Future Parliamentary bloc of Saad Hariri (son of the late premier), the Druze leader Walid Jumblatt's bloc, and the main Christian blocs of the Lebanese Forces and the Phalange Party, put on a powerful display on the first anniversary of the assassination of Rafik Hariri on February 14. They drew a crowd of hundreds of thousands of people to Beirut's Martyrs' Square, proving once again their popular strength vis--vis the pro-Syrian factions. The boycott by Aoun's FPM of the public rally did not seem to have affected the show of force by the March 14th Forces, which appear to have agreed on a joint approach for dealing with Hizbullah based on the following:
1. To insist on the demarcation of the Lebanese-Syrian borders in order to prove that Shebaa Farms are Lebanese territory. The argument here is that in order for Lebanon to assert Hizbullah's role as a national resistance movement with the right to bear arms and fight the Israelis, it must be established legally and in accordance with international law that the Shebaa Farms are indeed Lebanese. If Lebanon fails to do so, Hizbullah would be viewed internationally as a militia.
2. To isolate the investigation into Hariri's assassination from any mediating attempts aimed at improving relations with Syria.
3. To insist on removing Palestinian bases outside refugee camps through the help of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) led by Fatah rather than the Palestinian Authority, especially after the outcome of the recent general elections that placed the Syrian- and Iranian-backed Hamas movement in power.
4. To increase the rhetoric on the grand axis involving Iran, Syria and Hizbullah, which would undermine the image of Hizbullah within its own popular base.
5. To search for neutral and independent Shiite figures that could establish a counterforce to Hizbullah within Lebanon's Shiite community.
Efforts to remove President Emile Lahoud from office seem to have become a priority for the March 14 Forces. This objective dominated speeches at the recent Hariri anniversary rally. Intensive consultations were reportedly underway behind closed doors to seek legal means to bring about a constitutional change that would lead either to deposing the president or to shortening his term of office, which in November 2004 had been extended under Syrian pressure for three more years. A constitutional amendment to shorten Lahoud's term in office would require an 85-vote majority inside the parliament. But the March 14 Forces only have a 71-vote majority and hence need the FPM's 22 votes to remove Lahoud. Therefore, if the March 14 Forces wish to shorten Lahoud's term they would have to either win over Aoun or convince members of his parliamentary bloc to break away and join them.
The Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between Hizbullah and the FPM has placed Aoun at a sensitive turning point that could "make him or break him." The MOU is a gamble based on Aoun's belief that he could give Hizbullah enough assurance to make it abandon its regional allies and focus more on national interests. In such a case, Aoun would hope to achieve two objectives. First, to establish himself internally and externally as a powerful player who can influence Hizbullah and the regional scene. Second, to work with Hizbullah and its allies to consolidate their alliance in order to force an early general election that could result in winning a bigger number of seats in Parliament, which in turn would improve his chances of becoming the next president of Lebanon. However, Aoun is taking a big chance in his bold move and risks alienating himself and losing a sizeable chunk of his Christian popular base.
Aoun still lacks a powerful media that could help him sell his case, while the ongoing campaigns by various powerful media outlets belonging to the March 14 Forces could undermine his public support. Aoun intends to open a radio station soon and has thus far shown strong faith in the unconditional loyalty of his supporters. But there are factors or events that could progressively diminish Aoun's popular base. For example, if more explosions take place in Christian areas or a prominent anti-Syrian figure is assassinated, fingers will likely be pointed at Damascus and its allies in Lebanon, Hizbullah included. Another damaging factor to Aoun is Hizbullah's continued operations in south Lebanon, which could spark a strong retaliation from Israel against Lebanese infrastructure in the northern and central parts of the country. The more people perceive Hizbullah as a proxy force to Syria and Iran, as is being announced by many Lebanese politicians and media outlets, the weaker Aoun will become. Thus, Aoun will be risking a lot if Hizbullah and regional developments do not come together to maximize the success of the MOU.
Al-Qaeda in Lebanon?
There has been increased talk within Lebanese circles over the actual existence of Al-Qaeda cells in Lebanon. While the Lebanese Army Command and the Judiciary, as well as pro-Syrian factions, have maintained that some armed foreigners arrested in Lebanon recently were members of Al-Qaeda sent to attack Western targets in the country and carry out cross border raids against Israel, politicians and leaders of the March 14 Forces have disputed this and maintained that the gunmen were part of cells hired by Syrian intelligence to undermine security conditions in the country and show the world what has happened since Syrian troops were forced out of Lebanon. Hariri said in a February 13 interview that Al-Qaeda in Lebanon was a Syrian fabrication aimed at showing the inability of the Lebanese authorities to control the situation in the country.
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