Stability or Civil War in 2007?

By George E. Irani

George E. Irani explains why Lebanon finds itself at a crossroads between stability and civil war. Despite these clear and distinct choices, the world is left wondering which path the Land of the Cedars will take. Irani writes that the actual tensions in Lebanon are provoked by the clash of visions between the government and opposition parties, submerged in a region full of international actors such as Israel, Syria, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United States and France. To deconstruct the present and future of Lebanon, George E. Irani analyzes each of the major plotlines in the Middle East and predicts their paths in coming years.

George Emile Irani is the Lebanese-born director of the Africa and Middle East Program of the Toledo International Center for Peace in Madrid. He is the author of “The Papacy and the Middle East: The Role of the Holy See in the Arab-Israeli Conflict”.

TOGETHER WITH OTHER PRO SYRIAN PARTIES, Hizballah has withdrawn its members from the Lebanese government. With its allies in the opposition it is now asking to have a major say in government affairs in light of the outcome of the summer 2006 war. The Hizballah leadership believes it has won the war against Israel and the time is mature to play a major role in Lebanese politics. This has led to a situation of paralysis of government institutions in Lebanon; Emile Lahoud, the pro Syrian President of Lebanon is isolated by the majority parties and by the international community; the Lebanese parliament has not met for months and its Speaker, Nabih Berri, is part of the opposition to the current government of Fuad Siniora; and the Lebanese government has lost six of its members.

Another factor to keep in mind is Hizballah’s basic ideological perspective as a political movement receiving its orders from Iran and bent on creating an Islamic regime in Lebanon. This raises the fundamental issue of Lebanon’s role in international relations. Are Lebanon’s borders defined by international agreements or determined by the regime in Teheran?

Another irritant in the relationship between government and opposition forces is highlighted by the sit-in promoted by Hizballah and its allies since early December 2006 to force the current government of Siniora out of power. This is perceived by the majority parties (the March 14 forces that include Hariri’s Future Movement) as an attempt by Hizballah to provoke a coup d’etat and take power by force. The fundamental issues include the expansion of the current government to increase the number of opposition members so that Hizballah and its main ally, General Michel Awn, could have a veto power on basic government policies. Another irritant is the decision to create an international tribunal to try the killers of the former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. The Syrian regime, which is the main target of current UN-sponsored investigations, is fearful that it will have to pay the price for the destabilisation provoked in Lebanon by the assassinations of Hariri and other prominent Lebanese (Jibran Tueini, Pierre Gemayel and Samir Kassir among others). Through its proxies in Lebanon, the Assad regime in Damascus is desperately trying to take back the initiative since it was ousted from Lebanon in 2005.

Current tensions in Lebanon highlighted by the ongoing anti government sit-in in downtown Beirut and the dangerous clashes that occurred in early 2007 are a harbinger of what Lebanon could expect if there is no solution to the current crisis. Moreover and more worrying are the rising tensions between Lebanon’s major confessional communities, such as between the Shias on the one hand and Sunnis and Druzes on the other. Sectarian clashes in January this year, such as those that occurred at the Arab University in Beirut between Hizballah’s followers and those of Hariri’s Future Movement, are a painful reminder of current tensions between Shias and Sunnis, reflecting also similar clashes between the two communities in Iraq.

From a negative perspective, current tensions in Lebanon are caused by the clash of visions between the majority and the opposition. There is also the fear that clashes that occurred between the two sides could get out of control and bring the country back to civil war. The opposition is also bent on increasing its membership in the government and calls for early parliamentary elections. Members of the majority are calling for early presidential elections while letting President Emile Lahoud complete his mandate in September 2007. Lastly, current tensions in Lebanon reflect the absence of any dialogue between Saudi Arabia and the Syrian regime. This is a major shift in regional policy because Syria, Egypt and Saudi Arabia used to form a solid partnership before the summer 2006 war in Lebanon and the civil war in Iraq.

From a positive perspective, the current balance of fear that exists in Lebanon and the potential for sectarian violence between Shias and Sunnis has led political leaders to tone down the tense atmosphere. Statements for calm and dialogue issued by Saad Hariri, head of the Future Movement, and Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah, Secretary General of Hizballah, have created a feeling that a resolution to the current stalemate is possible with Iranian and Saudi efforts.
Regarding the Arab-Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Lebanon’s predicament has always been whether to wait for the solution of the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis and a possible peace accord between Syria and Israel to achieve its own peace agreement. Since 1948 and the first war between Israeli and Arab military forces, Lebanon has been the preferred ground for a proxy war between Syria and Israel. The fact that Lebanon hosts more than 350,000 Palestinian refugees does not help the Lebanese government in its quest for stability on its borders. Since the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, Iran has also become an important player on the Lebanese scene.

As of today the major international players in the country include Israel, Syria, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the US and France. The question is whether to link or de-link Lebanon from the outcome of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Government consensus is to de-link Lebanon and base its relations with Israel on the 1949 Armistice Agreement. Related to this is UN Resolution 1701 that calls for the sovereignty of Lebanon, the withdrawal of all non-Lebanese forces from the country and the disarming of all militias including Hizballah. This last issue is the most contentious and on it depends in part the future of stability in Lebanon.
From an economic standpoint, Lebanon has always been considered to have a liberal economic policy based on free trade, banking, services and tourism. With the emergence of Hizballah as a state within a state in Lebanon, this economic policy is now being challenged by the war economy advocated by Hizballah. This economy is based on a constant mobilisation for war and providing compensation for the victims of Hizballah’s war. A major example is the money that was disbursed by the Islamist group to those who lost their homes following the 2006 Israel-Hizballah war. The source of this funding comes from Iran and is perceived as a major challenge to the government in Beirut.

To counter the Iranian influence, the international community with active French support organised a meeting in Paris at the end of January (Paris III conference) and decided to loan Lebanon more than US$8 billion in economic aid. In addition to obtaining financial aid, Lebanon has also been the focus of unique attention by the international community. Since the assassination of Rafiq Hariri several UN resolutions have been adopted (1559, 1595, 1614, 1636, 1644, 1664, 1680 and 1701). All these resolutions are based on helping the Lebanese government regain its sovereignty throughout Lebanese territory, dismantling all militias, calling for the withdrawal of foreign troops from the country and creating a special international tribunal to try those responsible for various assassinations in Lebanon. So far, this international support has not translated yet on the ground in terms of stability and peace in the country. Lebanon is still being shaken by regional and global tensions (US and France on one side, Iran and Syria on the other).

Twenty-eight years after the Iranian Revolution, Iran has become a major player not only in its immediate vicinity (in Iraq for instance) but in the entire region. Its major objective is to impose its paramount role as a major regional power based on a more assertive policy. Iran has in its possession several cards in Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine in addition to its military and oil resources. Despite being surrounded today by a large US military presence, the regime in Teheran is a major player in Iraq.

The recently issued Baker-Hamilton report advocated a dialogue between the Bush Administration and the regimes in Teheran and Damascus. This appeal was totally ignored by the Bush Administration. The US strategy is to tighten the noose on the Iranian regime, especially when it comes to the Iranian nuclear effort. The Iranian leadership is convinced that the US and Europe lack the necessary deterrent force (political, military, diplomatic and economic) to stop Iran from possessing nuclear weapons. The Bush Administration is perceived in Teheran to be weak and some of America’s major allies have left the political scene (Aznar in Spain and Berlusconi in Italy) while Tony Blair in the UK and Jacques Chirac in France have only a few months left in office. The Iranian leadership is convinced that any major US or Israeli attack against Iran will lead to a regional conflagration of unforeseeable consequences.

Regarding Lebanon, Iran is now playing an important role in calming the internal tensions. This policy has led to an interesting dialogue between Teheran and Riyadh (respectively the Shia and Sunni powers in the region). This rapprochement has also provoked the anger of the Syrian regime because it has been marginalised by the current Saudi-Iranian dialogue.
This dialogue is being undertaken by Prince Bandar Bin Sultan, former Saudi ambassador in Washington and current Secretary-General of the Saudi National Security Council. The talks can be considered as a rapprochement between two regional powers that could stop any possibility of sectarian clashes between Shias and Sunnis in Iraq and Lebanon to spill over into the region at large. The Saudis see in this dialogue a deterrent to any instability in the region, especially a Sunni-Shia confrontation that could destabilise the Middle East. The Iranians also perceive a potential sectarian clash as a major setback to their ambitions to extend their power and influence in the region and maintain Iran’s prominent role in Lebanon.
These bilateral talks have led to a preliminary agreement regarding Lebanon:

Support for the creation of an international tribunal, taking into consideration Hizballah’s reservations (the tribunal should not be used as a tool to seek revenge against the party and its members and against its Syrian sponsors).

Formation of a national unity government in Lebanon based on the formula of 19 members for the majority, 10 members for the opposition and one independent outsider to act as a balance between the two groups when it comes to voting.

Adopting new electoral laws for parliamentary elections and early presidential elections.

The current Iranian-Saudi rapprochement has demonstrated for the first time that Syria is not a major player when it comes to Lebanese politics. Syria’s isolation due to Saudi discontent with its negative meddling in the Iraqi, Palestinian and Lebanese scenes, does not mean that the Iran-Syria axis is finished. On the contrary, the alliance between the Syrian and Iranian regimes is very strong because more than any time before Damascus is in need of its Iranian ally. Despite possible differences regarding Iran’s relationship with Hizballah and Syria’s concern to regain its lost direct influence in Lebanon, the two countries are closer than ever in coordinating their policies and achieving their aims in Lebanon and the region.

Major obstacles facing the Saudi-Iranian initiative regarding Lebanon include the Bush Administration’s policy of isolating Iran, as well as Saudi Arabia’s decision to shut out Syria from any involvement in finding a solution for Lebanon. There is also Iran’s call to create a regional alliance that would include Saudi Arabia and possibly Turkey and Egypt to find lasting solutions to regional conflicts (Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine) while taking into consideration the interests of the respective Iranian and Saudi allies in Lebanon.

Another dimension of Syria’s reduced role and isolation is due to international efforts to revamp the peace process in the Middle East. One of the basic ideas of this new initiative is to neutralise Iranian and Syrian meddling in Palestinian affairs (through their allies Hamas and Islamic Jihad). The European and US consensus is to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict first and then to follow up by a peace treaty between Israel and Lebanon. This latter approach would require a flexible Israeli policy based on the withdrawal of Israeli occupation forces from the Shebaa Farms and placing this small area in South Lebanon under UN supervision. The final status of the Shebaa Farms will have to await an agreement between the Syrians and the Lebanese. This new Western approach to peace in the region is based on keeping the Syrians out of the picture until the time Damascus is willing to stop meddling in Palestinian, Iraqi and Lebanese affairs.

From Israel’s perspective any involvement in the peace process will have to wait for a stronger government. The Israeli Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, recently stated to the Israeli commission investigating military failures last summer in Lebanon that the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) had strongly weakened Hizballah’s civilian and military infrastructures and had strongly undermined Hizballah’s capabilities of launching long-range rockets.

Olmert also stated that Israeli military action had led to the adoption of UN Security Council Resolution 1701 that forced Hizballah to stay away from the border area with Israel and established an enlarged multinational force known as UNIFIL II. The full impact of the investigation on the summer 2006 Israeli war in Lebanon is not yet known. But one important consequence has been the resignation of Israeli General Dan Halutz and his replacement at the head of the Israeli army command. Political leaders such as Olmert himself, the Defence Minister Amir Peretz and other members of the Israeli government could also be forced out of power as a result of various illegal actions.

Regarding the peace process, the US is encouraging the creation of a coalition of moderate Arab Sunni regimes (the GCC countries, Egypt and Jordan) that would confront the hegemonic policies of Iran as a Shia power in the Middle East. The chances for this coalition to work are slim as long as Iran and Syria are the main targets.

The two regimes are now playing the role of spoilers and Iran holds US troops in Iraq as potential hostages. This is what explains the current kidnappings of Iranian diplomats in Iraq as a sign of US unhappiness with Iranian meddling in Iraqi affairs. The Saudi decision to open a dialogue with Iran is an example of the lack of consensus around the Bush Administration’s idea of creating a new alliance in the Middle East to face Iran’s hegemonic designs in the region.

France is an important player on the Lebanese scene, given its historical ties with the Land of Cedars. Another factor of France’s close interest in Lebanon is the relationship and friendship between the Hariri family and the French President. The late Prime Minister, Rafiq Hariri, was a frequent visitor to the Elysée Palace to visit Jacques Chirac, his friend. Today Chirac welcomes Hariri’s son Saad and provides him with advice and support.

At the end of January and in a show of support for the Lebanese government of Fuad Siniora, Chirac with US and EU support organised a meeting of funders to help Lebanon rid itself of its financial burdens (Lebanon has one of the largest public debts in the world and has suffered losses of around US$4 billion from last summer’s Israeli war). At the end of the meeting, international pledges for financial assistance reached US$8 billion, an amount that surprised the Lebanese who were not expecting more than US$3-4 billion.

Until the end of his mandate next May, Jacques Chirac has decided to accomplish three major objectives in Lebanon: First, to support the Lebanese government by creating the necessary and favourable international political and financial environment. This objective was achieved with the successful outcome of the recently held Paris III conference. Secondly, Chirac is lobbying very hard to see that the special international tribunal to prosecute Hariri’s assassins will be created. This tribunal is facing challenges within the UN Security Council (mostly from the Russians who are trying to protect their Syrian friends) and from the divisions among the Lebanese themselves. Thirdly, given the personal animosity between the French President and his Lebanese counterpart, Emile Lahoud, Chirac would like to see Lahoud out of power before the end of the former’s mandate next May. The French would like to see early presidential elections take place in Lebanon before the formation of a national unity government. Moreover, when elected, the new Lebanese President will be the guarantor of any settlement that is reached in Lebanon including what to do with Hizballah’s weapons.

In his policies toward Lebanon, Chirac is supported by the Bush Administration, that has also provided Lebanon with financial and military aid. However, the US has a very bad image to contend with in Lebanon given Washington’s support for the Israeli military attack last summer and current statements by Bush targeting Hizballah as a terrorist organisation to be eliminated.

The relations between Spain and Lebanon are very old. Since its independence in 1943 Lebanon has had fruitful and peaceful economic and cultural relations with Spain. Many Lebanese have chosen Spain as their place of residence and have fully integrated in the country’s public life. In a recent document issued by the Spanish Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Cooperation it was stated that the Ministry ‘also supports Lebanon’s efforts to consolidate its independence and initiate a period of institutional and economic stability’.

In the aftermath of the summer 2006 war between Hizballah and the Israeli Defence Forces, Spain decided to send 1,100 troops as part of the enlarged United Nations Interim Forces in Lebanon (UNIFIL). Spanish forces are now based in the Southern Lebanese town of Marjayoun and are respected by the local population. Spain elicits much admiration among the Lebanese because it has no colonial legacy to contend with in the Land of Cedars. Additionally, at the Paris III conference Spain pledged a grant for the amount of €35 million for the period 2007-08 to help Lebanon recover from last year’s war.

The Lebanese still have to reach a final agreement on the following three basic issues:

– The viability of the Taef Accord and whether they are still applicable in the current situation, especially in light of the changes brought about by the 2006 Israeli war against Hizballah.
– The role Lebanon should play in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict
– Whether Lebanon should implement economic policies for war or peace.
Whether stability or civil war, the jury is still out for Lebanon. There is going to be a period of instability until a new President is elected next October. As a playground for regional and global tensions, Lebanon will have to await the outcome of the following factors:

The results of the current Iranian-Saudi talks.

Syria’s struggle to get out of its isolation and what kind of role Damascus will play as a spoiler in Lebanon, Iraq and Palestine.

A stronger Israeli leadership.

The results of the current debate in the US on what course to follow with the Iranian regime, ie, diplomacy or military action.

Safe Democracy Foundation wishes to thank George Emile Irani and the Real Instituto Elcano for their permission to reproduce this analysis.