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 

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 force.

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 region.

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

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 

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 reached at

Posting archives: http://cyberjournal.org/show_archives/?lists=newslog
Escaping the Matrix website: http://escapingthematrix.org/
cyberjournal website: http://cyberjournal.org

Community Democracy Framework: 

Moderator: •••@••.•••  (comments welcome)