Syrian Factions Fight Proxy War in Neighboring Lebanon

If one needed any evidence that the violence engulfing Syria was seriously affecting its neighbors, Wednesday’s double suicide attack in the Lebanese capital, Beirut, would be enough to support the theory.

The small country meshed between Israel, Syria and the Mediterranean has seen its fair share of turbulence over the past several decades, including a civil war among Lebanon’s multiple religious communities that lasted for fifteen years. Yet as bad as that violence was, Lebanese from all religious denominations are increasingly concerned that their country is once again on the cusp of another bloody conflict — this time emanating from the war next door.

In addition to the tens of thousands of Syrian refugees who have fled their homeland for Lebanon’s border towns, the violence that is tearing Syria apart is having a more deadly affect for thousands of Lebanese. The war is slowly seeping into Lebanon’s own neighborhoods. Read more “Syrian Factions Fight Proxy War in Neighboring Lebanon”

Saudi King “Deeply Concerned” About Lebanon Violence

Saudi king Abdullah said that he was “deeply concerned” about the situation in Lebanon, state media reported on Tuesday. The small country on the Mediterranean Sea has seen an upsurge in sectarian violence as a result of the civil war in neighboring Syria.

Lebanese soldiers on Sunday shot dead a prominent Sunni cleric in the northern city of Tripoli. Saudi Arabia, a prominent Sunni power and leading antagonist of the Syrian regime, has long supported Lebanon’s Sunni Muslims.

Reports surfaced last year that the Saudi kingdom was supplying aid, including weapons, to the Sunni opposition in Syria. The opposition movement against President Bashar al-Assad has been active there for more than a year but experienced brutal suppression. Read more “Saudi King “Deeply Concerned” About Lebanon Violence”

A Week of Turmoil in the Middle East

There is so much happening in the Middle East right now that it’s difficult to know where to start. The entire Arab world seems to be on the verge of a calamitous path toward confrontation, evident in Tunisia’s struggle to form an interim government. Protests continue in Algeria over economic conditions and the rise of food prices, while Jordan — one of the most stable countries in the region — is experiencing its own demonstrations.

But these are all marginal events compared to what is happening right now elsewhere in the region. Here is a brief summary what has happened over the past week in the Middle East and which of these events are likely to continue in full force in the month ahead.

Hezbollah takes over Lebanon

To the dismay of Europe and the United States, Hezbollah has been able to muster enough support in the Lebanese parliament to appoint the next prime minister, effectively kicking the American backed Saad Hariri out of power.

The new prime minister is a man named Najib Miqati, a billionaire businessman and former prime minister who served immediately after Rafiq Hariri was killed by a massive car bomb in 2005. This whole story began when Hezbollah pulled out of the government over Saad Hariri’s refusal to stop cooperating with a United Nations tribunal investigating his father’s death.

In addition to ending the reign of a coalition that was supported in the West, Hezbollah’s takeover signals what analysts in the region have long suspected: that the Shia militant group is Lebanon’s most powerful military and political force.

Washington hasn’t responded significantly yet other than expressing concern with Hezbollah’s rise. But there really isn’t anything the United States can do about it. As Hezbollah gains in strength, American-Lebanese ties are likely to be weakened.

Protests in Egypt

Egyptians who are tired with the iron fisted rule of Hosni Mubarak have taken the time to mimic their Tunisian counterparts by demonstrating against their government. Blake Hounshell of Foreign Policy puts the number of protesters at 100,000, a small number compared to Egypt’s total population of eighty million. And evidently, Al Jazeera television is not concentrating as much on the Egyptian protests as those in Tunisia. But they are protests nonetheless and how the Egyptian security forces decide to fend them off will determine whether the ranks of the opposition grow or fade.

Iran talks collapse

The P5+1 decided to give talks with Iran another chance last weekend. Unfortunately, the discussions didn’t even start. Iranian nuclear negotiators demanded that the UN stop all economic sanctions against their country before the nuclear program could be addressed. Of course, the permanent members of the Security Council refused (as they should have), and the meetings collapsed after two days. An enrichment-for-inspection deal may be the only diplomatic option left to the United States to solve the problem short of war.

Hezbollah Withdraws from Lebanese Government

There was once a time in Lebanon’s history when every major faction in its political system (the Hariri family, the Lebanese Armed Forces, Hezbollah, and the Maronite Catholic community) decided to throw down their weapons in order to forge a national unity government. Hezbollah and the Sunni community led by Prime Minister Saad Hariri, bitter enemies in the past, were able to cast aside many of their differences in the pursuit of this goal. In fact, the national unity government that would result from this cooperation boded relatively well for Lebanon. Differences over ideology and policy were still prevalent, but those differences were being played out in the cabinet, not on the streets.

Unfortunately, this era in Lebanon’s history has now eroded. On January 12, Hezbollah lawmakers and Hezbollah sympathizers in Saad Hariri’s administration decided to pull out of the government altogether, giving Lebanon watchers another bout of worry that the entire country may be quickly coming apart at the seams.

The issue that prompted the pullout is one that has hovered over Lebanon like a dark cloud for the past five years: the International tribunal tasked with investigating the killing of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri.

While the work of the tribunal has proceeded at a slow pace, analysts monitoring Lebanon expect indictments to come out soon. Western and Arab officials are bracing for the ruling, which will probably charge members of Hezbollah with at least partial responsibility for Hariri’s death. Yet the cost of issuing the indictments may in fact come at the expense of Lebanon’s national security: something that ordinary Lebanese are all too accustomed with.

It was quite clear at the beginning of the investigation that Hezbollah would not, under any circumstances, respect the international tribunal. Hezbollah has launched verbal attacks against the tribunal in the past, describing it as an Israeli plot to destroy its movement. Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, has vowed to “cut off the hand” of anyone who attempts to arrest a member of Hezbollah for Hariri’s murder.

The departure of Hezbollah from the Lebanese government is already being viewed by American officials as a provocation meant to plunge Lebanon into another round of sectarian violence.

But in reality, this move may simply be Hezbollah’s way of demonstrating to the United States and its moderate Arab allies in the region that it has both the power and the influence to rewrite a chapter in Lebanon’s tense political history. Washington may not like what Hezbollah’s political wing is doing, but the fact remains that the White House doesn’t possess any leverage to stop Hezbollah from doing what it wants to do.

How the prime minister and his political allies respond is now the next stage in the game.  Hariri has already been asked by the Lebanese president to remain in a caretaker role, at least keeping some semblance of governance in place — even if the Lebanese government is usually gridlocked on a good day.

Qatar, a tiny Gulf Emirate that negotiated an agreement between rival Lebanese politicians only two years ago, may feel tempted to renew its role as a power broker. Demonstrations in support of Hezbollah and demonstrations in support of Hariri will ensue on the streets of Beirut, which could quickly turn sectarian if the situation is not kept under a modicum of control. (Hezbollah is the main representative of Lebanon’s Shia, while Hariri is often regarded as the de facto leader of Lebanon’s Sunni community.)

Meanwhile, the most the United States can do is sit back, make some telephone calls and hope for the best.

An Unlikely Alliance in the Levant

If ever there was a time in Lebanon’s history when the entire country walks day by day on eggshells, it’s in the closing weeks of the year 2010.

The most immediate concern to anyone who has a stake in Lebanon is the final ruling of the United Nations backed tribunal on the murder of Rafiq Hariri.

Yet however important this story is to Lebanon’s fragile political situation, it has been overshadowed by a brand new headline this week — one that will only add fuel to a fire that is Lebanese politics.

According to Lebanese government sources and international media, two “Israeli spying devices” were discovered in the mountains surrounding Beirut.

Ordinarily, this wouldn’t be that significant a story. The Israelis have been spying on the Lebanese, Syrians and Hezbollah for years now. And it’s entirely reasonable for the Israelis to do so. All three, in one way or another, have had trouble with Israel in the past. And as is obvious thanks to WikiLeaks, espionage is not unique to the Israelis either. Indeed, every country does their fair share of spying. Washington, for one, continues to spy on the Russians, decades after the Soviet Union faded into irrelevance.

What distinguishes this story from other instances of espionage is the extremely high level of cooperation that occurred between Hezbollah and the Lebanese government, two power centers that usually view one another with the utmost suspicion. The BBC, and the Lebanese army itself, confirm that the Israeli devices were first discovered by Hezbollah, who then alerted the formal authorities about the cameras.

Perhaps I’m reading into this story a little too deeply, but the fact that Hezbollah and the Lebanese government worked together relatively well during this entire episode demonstrates how questionable (if inaccurate) American and Israeli calculations are toward Lebanon’s domestic political environment. The traditional view held by both Democrats and Republicans in Washington DC is that Hezbollah and the government of Saad Hariri (the son of the slain Rafiq Hariri) are mutually exclusive antagonists. In other words, what is good for Hezbollah is bad for Hariri and vice versa.

It is this narrative that has inspired most American policy toward Lebanon over the past four years. Hundreds of millions of dollars in American aid have poured into Lebanon’s armed forces based on exactly that premise, with another $100 million to go in the current fiscal year. So the reasoning goes, if Lebanon’s military is stronger and more effective, Hezbollah will lose a valuable amount of its military deterrence.

In reality however, it at least appears from this single event that the Hezbollah-Beirut relationship may be more complicated and multifaceted than what Washington has been assuming all along.

And yet in a strange way, this Israeli spy fiasco could be interpreted with a sigh of relief. Hezbollah and the Hariri government could be starting a long process of rapprochement, a development that the United States should and must applaud if it is sincerely interested in promoting Lebanese stability. Granted, this is only one example of the Lebanese government and the Iranian backed militia helping each other out. People who have been studying Lebanon a lot more than I have are more inclined to categorize this event as a mere exception, especially considering Hezbollah’s overarching objective: an Islamic government in Lebanon.

But let’s not lose hope yet. Sometimes the first move in mending a relationship, be it personal or strategic, is a grudging acceptance by both sides that it’s time the feud run its course. Is the Lebanese government and Hezbollah willing to let go of their feud? And if so, are the United States and their partners willing to accept it?

Lebanon Braces for Judgment Day

Five years ago, a former Prime Minister of Lebanon and longtime American ally, named Rafiq Hariri, was assassinated by a car bomb in the heart of Beirut. The incident fueled a popular uprising of Lebanese civilians commonly referred to as the “Cedar Revolution,” which would quickly pressure Syrian forces out of Lebanon after decades of occupation.

Yet the removal of Syrian troops from Lebanese territory was not the only aftershock of the Hariri killing. The United States government under President George W. Bush would later blame Syrian authorities for orchestrating the attack on a moderate and Western Arab politician. Washington would sever all diplomatic ties with the Syrians until five years later, when President Barack Obama entered the Oval Office. The Shiite militant movement Hezbollah, which was already on the American security radar for past terrorist attacks, would bear the brunt of America’s attention.

Now in August 2010, after that intense and tumultuous time in Lebanese politics, a UN investigation will release its final judgment on the Hariri murder. Syria has been exonerated from any wrongdoing. That leaves Hezbollah operatives as the main instigators of the attack.

On the eve of the judgment, with everyone preparing to finger Hezbollah for the crime, Lebanon is once again bracing for a political firestorm that could quickly turn violent. The irony is that Rafiq Hariri’s son, Saad Hariri, is now the man who has to keep the lid on the simmering pot.

Unfortunately, this is going to be exceedingly difficult for the younger Hariri to accomplish. He is in a tough position regardless of who is blamed for his father’s murder.

Prime Minister Hariri can either put his firm weight and political support behind the commission’s ruling, making his position known to the world but hurt his appeal with the majority of the Lebanese population (who happen to be Shia and highly supportive of Hezbollah as a social organization). Or he could endorse Hezbollah’s position and denounce the results. He may also choose to order the creation of a new independent commission aiming to uncovering evidence that may have been previously overlooked by the original investigation. This move, however, would hurt him with the United States and Israel at a time when Lebanon is already experiencing a harsh rebuke over the Israeli border incident.

So what can Hariri do?

So far, he’s been trying to straddle both sides by largely keeping his mouth shut and letting the tribunal do its job. This is what Hariri is probably going to do until a verdict is reached.

If Hezbollah isn’t fingered, Hariri has dodged a bullet. But if Hezbollah is in fact implicated, then Hariri may choose to call another investigation in order to keep a potentially violent situation from getting out of control. The Lebanese government’s main concern is to limit a potential civil war between Sunnis and Shiites. The best way to do that is to divert pressure to an outside actor.

This is all speculation of course. In either event, Hariri Junior is going to strain some relationships.

Israel-Lebanon Border Skirmish Not All Bad

The last thing the Middle East needs right now is another shooting war. But when gunfire erupted between Israeli and Lebanese troops along the border this past Tuesday, that is exactly what the Levant experienced for a few brief moments.

The border between Israel and Lebanon has been relatively quiet ever since Israel and Hezbollah decided to stop fighting one another back in August 2006. A mutual ceasefire was signed to damper down hostilities, which called for the deployment of a sizable United Nations peacekeeping force along the green line in order to ensure that a violent incident wouldn’t spark out of control. As of that agreement, the Hezbollah militia has shown restraint along the frontier, even as its weapons supply has increased to an estimated 40,000 rockets. Knowing that another violent confrontation with Hezbollah would be a costly military campaign, Israel too is content with the status quo (although it worries about Hezbollah’s growing arsenal).

But all of that changed in a split second when Lebanese soldiers fired on Israeli commandos when they were trying to trim down a tree along their side of the border. One high level Israeli soldier was shot in the head and killed. Israel responded by firing mortars and machine guns toward the Lebanese, killing two of their soldiers and a journalist.

The incident was the most violent in four years, and many in the region are deeply worried that the situation could quickly spiral into another full fledged armed conflict.

Fighting over a cypress tree is certainly a tragedy for both sides, especially when casualties are involved. But the incident could have been much worse. Hezbollah, with its vast arsenal of missiles, could have used the opportunity to provoke violence toward Israel’s northern frontier in the name of “protecting Lebanese sovereignty.” Thankfully, Hassan Nasrallah chose to stay on the sidelines during the dispute. This shows that Hezbollah is indeed weary of another violent confrontation with Israel, despite its growing military capability in Southern Lebanon.

Both the Israeli and Lebanese governments are meeting with UNIFIL to resolve the incident and to make sure that nothing like it ever happens again. It’s only a start, but the move confirms that both sides would much rather hold a fragile peace together instead of resorting to another round of shooting.

Another point to consider: Given that the UN have now confirmed that Lebanon instigated the shootout, will this force the United States to reevaluate its partnership with the Lebanese Defense Forces? Last year, Washington donated $162 million to the Lebanese Army, hoping that the money would be used to counter Hezbollah’s own military gains. Now that a violent spat has occurred, President Barack Obama may have to consider whether this policy can be sustained without strong opposition from Congress. Thanks to Daniel Levy of the Middle East Task Force for bringing this up, because it would have sailed over my head had it not been for his piece at Foreign Policy.