Heaven knows there are plenty of troubles and potential crises in the Middle East, let alone the rest of the world. While many are understandably focused on Iraq, Iran, Pakistan or even Somalia, the tiny, beleaguered country of Lebanon is facing a crisis that could not only tear the country apart but invite intervention from some of its neighbors, not necessarily friendly ones.
It is especially sad to contemplate civil war and bloodshed in Lebanon, which within not-all-that-distant memory was an oasis of civilized cosmopolitanism in the Middle East; the capital, Beirut, was routinely called the "Paris of the Middle East." But the country contains enough ethnic enclaves to stymie many larger countries Sunni Muslim, Shi’ite Muslim, Sufi Muslim, Druze, Christian. The Lebanese came up with a complicated ruling mechanism that gave representation of some sort to almost all the sects the president, for example, has to be a Maronite Christian but he doesnt have a lot of power compared to presidents in some other countries that worked pretty well for a while. But eventually the difficulties of living together in a relatively small country bubbled over into a bloody civil war that lasted from 1975 to 1990. Even though it was effectively occupied by Syria, the country seemed to make a comeback during the 1990s. But the days of relative peace may be gone for now.
There are so many conflicts and potential conflicts bubbling in Lebanon that the prospect for another bloody civil war not to mention a conflict with Israel is real enough that militias are re-forming, and ordinary citizens are buying weapons to protect themselves. It is doubtful that the United States can do much beyond urging all factions not to resort to violence and urging Syria not to interfere too violently, as U.S. and European diplomats and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon have been doing, probably to little effect.
The most significant catalyst for potential violence is the effort to choose a new Lebanese president to replace pro-Syrian president Emile Lahoud, whose term expires Nov. 24, a job delegated to the Parliament. The ruling generally pro-Western and mostly Sunni coalition has 68 seats in the Parliament while the opposition, dominated by Shi’ite-oriented (and Syrian- and Iranian-backed) Hezbollah, has 59. The Parliament failed to agree on a candidate in August and September. They are trying again this week, with the French and Italian foreign ministers, the Arab League and U.N. boss Ban offering help, but the deadlock remains.
As Paul Salem, who heads the Carnegie Endowments Middle East Center in Beirut put it in a recent paper:
"The anti-Syrian ‘March 14’ coalition led by Saad Hariri, Walid Jumblat, and Samir Geagea wants to elect one of their own, or at least a candidate who will stand firm on the international tribunal related to the assassination of former prime Minister Rafik Hariri, the eradication of Syrian influence from the Lebanese army and security services, and the robust implementation of UN Resolutions 1559 and 1701, which call for extending government authority throughout the country, disarming all non-governmental militias, and preventing arms smuggling. The "March 8" coalition composed of Hezbollah and Amal, Shiite parties openly allied with Syria, and of the Free Patriotic Movement, a mainly Christian group headed by Michel Aoun, who claims more distance from Syria, want different things. Hezbollah wants a president who is not hostile to itself and Syria, accepts that Hezbollah will remain an armed movement, and does not take Lebanon into an alliance with the United States, but rather keeps it within the Syrian and Iranian alliance system. Michel Aouns main goal is to become president."
The situation is so tense, as Paul Salem mentioned, that about 40 Lebanese lawmakers from the ruling coalition have been holed up in the luxury Phoenicia Hotel under heavy guard, fearful that opposition gunmen will try to kill enough of them before a choice is made that its majority will be lost.
If no president is chosen, there could be two governments claiming legitimate authority, which could lead to a civil war between Sunni and Shi’ite factions. The prospect has caused many Christian and Druze families, who hope not to be drawn into fighting if it comes, to arm themselves and organize to try to protect themselves. Meanwhile both Sunni and Shi’ite militias, which had been virtually disbanded, have been reorganizing and arming themselves, and the sound of rifle fire resounds in nearby hills as groups and individuals take target practice.
In the last week or so French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner has visited Lebanon trying to mediate, leaving with not much progress but a couple of modestly hopeful comments. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has tried to be helpful as have a few Italian politicians. As of this writing everybody is waiting for the Maronite Christian Cardinal to present a list of six acceptable candidates. But most parliamentarians think presenting the list will be just the beginning of the process, and the deadline of November 24 is looming.
The United States has warned Syria not to interfere in the election process and has imposed economic sanctions on four leading Syrians it suspects of smuggling arms into Lebanon and organizing fighters.
Just to complicate matters, Hezbollah, the Shi’ite political/military organization that rules much of southern Lebanon, has been holding maneuvers in anticipation of what it expects will be a new war with Israel in the near future. The Israeli army has conducted maneuvers near the Syrian border, and Israeli jets are said to have conducted reconnaissance missions over southern Lebanese cities.
There is speculation in Lebanon that some neighboring countries might not be all that upset to see civil strife emerge, so long as it was not intense enough to spill across national borders. Israel, for example, might not be upset if civil strife in Lebanon drew Hezbollah into its maelstrom, thus sapping its strength, popularity, and ability to carry out a successful military campaign against Israel. Hezbollah might even become weakened enough that Israel could virtually eradicate it.
There is also suspicion that Syria is deliberately working to exacerbate conflicts in Lebanon so it would have a chance to take over, or at least become the dominant influence, as was the case following the previous civil war. The wave of assassinations and car bombing, which most Lebanese believe are directed or inspired by Syria, adds fuel to this suspicion.
The current situation is beyond tragedy. One can hope the presidential election will result in a compromise that doesn’t spark extensive violence. But it wouldn’t be wise to count on it.