Bush Policy Pushes Lebanon to the Brink of Civil War


Richard Moore

Original source URL:

July 26, 2007
Destabilization and Disintegration
Bush Policy Pushes Lebanon to the Brink of Civil War

A year on from last summer's bloody conflict between Israel and 
Hizbullah, Lebanon's fragile society, paralyzed by a tense standoff 
between the U.S.-backed government and the Hizbullah-led opposition, 
teeters on the brink of calamity.

The dangerous polarisation began in the wake of the withdrawal of 
Syrian forces in 2005, as Washington attempted to replace Damascus as 
the country's chief patron, but the situation has worsened since the 
war, leading to violent street clashes and the abandonment of the 
national coalition government by key ministers.

U.S. policy in Lebanon- focused largely on efforts to disarm 
Hizbullah and pressure Syria to cooperate on Iraq - has encouraged 
the division, and propelled the tiny country into the forefront of 
the Bush administration's campaign to counter the growing regional 
influence of Iran--which stands as Syria's strongest ally in the 
Middle East and Hizbullah's primary benefactor.

Intent on diminishing the Shiite militants' powerful role in Lebanese 
politics, the Whitehouse has authorised a covert CIA fund to support 
anti-Hizbullah groups through the depleted Lebanese government while 
seeking to reconfigure the army and security services to more 
effectively serve American interests: Shiites now constitute less 
than 10 per cent of new recruits to the Interior Ministry-run police 

The Lebanese cabinet, for its part, welcomes the increased U.S. 
involvement as the only sure way to rid itself of Syria's unpopular 
and often murderous interference. Many of the Assad regime's most 
vocal Lebanese critics have been killed in what is believed to be a 
Syrian attempt to convince the international community that 
interfering in Lebanon will induce more violence and instability and 
could push the country toward disintegration. The Siniora government 
also needs Washington to convey legitimacy on a cabinet with ailing 
public support and with only a slim parliamentary majority. The 
absence of Shiite ministers following their walk out from cabinet 
last year has led opposition leaders to declare it unconstitutional. 
The Lebanese constitution demands that Shiites be represented in 
government for it to be quorum.

The anti-Syrian camp's dependence on Washington has exposed Lebanon 
to the contradiction of being simultaneously in open confrontation 
with Israel, and yet supported by America. This is reflected in a 
divided society and last July's war revealed the extent of the gulf 
between those in Lebanon who are willing to make discreet but 
unconditional peace with Israel in exchange for western aid and 
protection from Syria, and those who are compelled to remain in 
confrontation with Israel and the Bush administration's project for a 
"New Middle East."

Hizbullah, which relies on Syria as a transit route for Iranian 
military aid, benefited as much as anyone from the Syrian withdrawal, 
but sees an alliance with Damascus as essential in the face of 
America's aggressive campaign to subjugate the region to its vision 
of the world. Proponents of the 'War on Terror' have branded 
Hizbullah "the A Team of terror" - sometimes presenting it as a 
threat equal to Al Qaeda--and the group has faced repeated Israeli 
threats to assassinate its leaders.

Lebanon's competing dangers reflect a wider regional schism, which 
pits the Western backed regimes of Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan, 
against Iran, Syria, Hizbullah and Hamas--an alliance sometimes 
referred to in the Arab world as the Jabhaa al Momana'a or 'the 
rejection front,' but more commonly known to the American public as 
the "Axis of Terror". The U.S. and its client states, nervous about 
an ascendant Iran, have worked hard to push the theory of a sinister 
Shiite Crescent, encompassing Iran Hizbullah and the Alawi regime in 
Syria, seeking Shiite cultural domination. In reality, the divide is 
based not along sectarian lines, but on competing ideological 
positions concerning the Palestinian cause and America's role in the 

A recent poll by Telhamy-Zogby showed 80 per cent of respondents in 
Arab states closest to Washington see Israel and the U.S. as posing 
the greatest threats to their security. The poll suggested only 6 per 
cent of the region consider Iran a threat, and Shiite Hizbullah's 
leader Hassan Nasrallah remains the largely Sunni region's most 
popular leader. In Lebanon, the regional rift sets Hizbullah, a core 
element of the 'front', and a collection of cross confessional allies 
against the U.S.-Saudi backed strongly Sunni government, a majority 
of the small Druze community, and the remnants of the country's 
Christian far right. Despite being traditionally close to the west, 
the majority of Lebanon's Christians, led by former army commander 
Michel Aoun, have allied with Hizbullah, opting for the Islamist 
group's tough stance on corruption and promises of reform to benefit 
the country's Shiites and Christians, who together make up two thirds 
of the country and suffered worst under Syria's reign.

Aoun's Christians vigorously opposed the Syrians while they were in 
Lebanon and played a key long-term role in bringing about their 
withdrawal. He returned to Lebanon after 15 years in exile with 
pledges to try those Lebanese politicians most deeply involved in 
profiteering under the Syrian occupation. Many of the leaders who 
served under the Syrian regime remain in power today and refuse to 
endorse Aoun as president despite his clear majority support.

Hizbullah's alliance with secular Christian liberals and pledges of 
reform have not deterred Bush White House efforts to criminalize the 
group, pushing the EU to put Hizbullah on its terrorist list and 
making every possible effort to find a link between Hizbullah and 
attacks on U.S forces in Iraq.

In a dangerous constant, Washington has consistently vetoed attempts 
to form a desperately needed national unity government. In his policy 
speech last Monday, George Bush suggested this trend is set to 
continue, describing a struggle between extremists and moderates 
playing out in Lebanon--"where Hizbullah and Syria and Iran are 
trying to destabilize the popularly elected government."

This hopeless simplification ignores Hizbullah's significant popular 
mandate and the role it played in enabling the US-backed ministers to 
form the slim 56 per cent majority government that now clings to 
power. Also forgotten is the White House's insistence at the time of 
the 2005 elections to rush the polls through using a Syrian-era 
electoral law with a skewed sectarian distribution of parliamentary 
seats designed to marginalize the Christian vote, and give unfair 
advantage to America's Sunni allies.

But Bush's remarks on Lebanon haven't sat well with most Lebanese 
since Washington's savage encouragement of Israel's assault last July 
and its obstruction of repeated calls for a ceasefire.

It was hoped that Israel's punishment of Lebanon would be sufficient 
to turn public opinion against Hizbullah. In reality, the war, which 
cost the lives of over 1,100 Lebanese civilians, was a catastrophe 
for the government who later struggled to defend their inaction 
during the war and accusations that they had collaborated with the 
Israelis. A sharp rise in anti-Americanism further weakened the 
government, as the Lebanese people were left in no doubt that U.S. 
support for Lebanon would forever be subordinate to Israeli interests.

In addition, the war strengthened Hizbullah's conviction that 
remaining armed is the best way to ensure its security and 
independence in a region threatened by devastating U.S. and Israeli 
intervention, further forestalling serious talks on disarmament.

A year on, Hizbullah retains its exceptionally well trained and 
equipped guerrilla force and reports suggest its main focus is now on 
preparation for another major assault by Israeli forces. The group's 
authority in the south has been curbed somewhat by the deployment of 
more than 10,000 Lebanese army troops and 13,000 UN peacekeepers to 
their area of operations along the border, but the group remains 
firmly in charge of its constituency.

The war made Hizbullah a champion of Arab resistance and its 
popularity throughout the region soared, but at home the growing 
distrust between the country's Sunnis and Shiites deepened, 
culminating in raging street battles and inter sectarian shootings at 
the start of this year.

As happened in Iraq, opposing positions on American intervention 
formed along sectarian lines, threatening to drag Lebanon, with it 
ugly history of civil war, into renewed conflict.

For the moment the leaderships on both sides have been able to soothe 
hostilities and a recent poll suggested there is less anti-Shiism in 
Lebanon than in other parts of the region, with two-thirds of 
Lebanese Sunnis rejecting Sunni attacks against Shiites in Iraq.

Nonetheless, January's violent sectarian clashes underscore the 
desperate need to reform the country and evolve away from the 
corrosive sectarianism that pervades all aspects of its fragile 
state, and helps perpetuate crippling corruption.

Staggering under a national debt 180 times its gross domestic 
product, Lebanon remains one of the most corrupt countries in the 
world, In 2001 the United Nations estimated Lebanon loses over $1.5 
billion a year in crooked practises--nearly 10 percent of the 
country's GDP. It's a mistake to attribute this entirely to the 
Syrian occupation. Syrian officials took their share but so did most 
of Lebanon's political elite, many of whom remain in power today.

While White House officials have praised Lebanon's apparent economic 
development, there has been little real progress since Syria's 
departure. The reform plan promised by the government, which centers 
around greater gasoline and value-added taxes that would weigh heavy 
on poorer Lebanese, (many of them Shiite), while continuing with one 
of the world's most regressive income tax scales, has only 
strengthened fears that the profiteering carried out by Lebanese 
leaders during the occupation years will continue.

The opposition had initially campaigned fiercely for economic reforms 
but as the stand off has worsened, grand plans for socio-economic 
adjustment have been buried by the need for reconciliation and urgent 
security concerns.

In recent months, the tiny country has had to contend with a bombing 
campaign in Beirut, attacks on UN peacekeepers in the south, and a 
fierce battle with Al Qaeda affiliates in the Naher al Bared refugee 
camp in the north--now into its ninth week.

Growing Takfiri militancy among the country's Sunni Islamists, some 
of whom have received support from the government forces, has raised 
the danger of an operational Al Qaeda faction emerging in Lebanon. 
This grim prospect is matched by indications that government forces 
have been training militias under the guise of 'security companies,' 
ostensibly to counter Hizbullah's arms, suggesting Lebanon's security 
situation is now worse than at any point since the country's long 
civil war.

Talks between the two parties in France last week--the first in more 
than seven months - have offered a tiny ray of hope, but there is 
widespread fear amongst the opposition that Washington will once 
again veto any plans for a national unity government. If 
reconciliation is obstructed the opposition may make good on threats 
to form a parallel government operating in tandem with the Siniora 
cabinet, splitting the parliament and deepening the crisis further.

The more the daily horror in Iraq worsens, the more the Bush 
administration clings to the purported success of Lebanon, once the 
poster boy for its now redundant "democratization" campaign. But, by 
allowing the build up of armed groups by its allies, and obstructing 
compromise in a vain effort to empower an unpopular government, the 
White House is pushing Lebanon down a dangerous path toward civil 
conflict, and ultimately disintegration.

Clancy Chassay is the U.K. Guardian's Beirut correspondent. He can be 
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