This is the third segment in the author’s backstory series – "Lebanon: Bellwether, Battleground, and Bastard Child" – in the wake of the August 4, 2020 Beirut port explosion. Check out part one and two, plus stay tuned for upcoming segments in Antiwar.com
"A Syrian military communiqué said two Syrian soldiers were killed and 10 wounded by the American bombing."
So reported that hawk’s hawk of the polite establishment, Thomas Friedman, in the New York Times – where he still has a regular column – on December 5, 1983.
Well, here we go again: Just this Monday, two U.S. helicopters reportedly fired on a Syrian Army checkpoint in northeastern Syria, killing one and wounding at least two soldiers. Syrian state media and US military spokesmen disagreed – no rarity there – on even the incident’s broad strokes.
Pentagon officials said a joint patrol of US troops and the mostly-Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) on a "routine" anti-ISIS security mission encountered a pro-Syrian regime checkpoint. Then, according to Colonel Myles B. Caggins III, spokesman for Operation Inherent Resolve (the ongoing US mission in Syria), "After receiving safe passage from the pro-regime forces, the patrol came under small arms fire from individuals in the vicinity of the checkpoint…Coalition troops returned fire in self-defense." However, he disputed the accounts of an air attack, emphasizing that “Coalition troops returned fire in self-defense. The Coalition did not conduct an airstrike. No Coalition casualties occurred."
The no less credible Syrian state media and Britain-based opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, reported that a helicopter attack did come after Syrian soldiers prevented a US convoy from passing through. The Observatory added that before the strike, an argument broke out between the Syrian and American troops. The truth likely lies somewhere between what logic dictates are two mutually exclusive positions.
Yet most mainstream media reported on these decidedly profound events absent almost any relevant context. In other words, why were US soldiers still patrolling Syria; why were Assad’s troops in such close proximity; and where do the ever-embattled Kurds of the SDF fit in?
Consider some confusing highlights: Northeastern Syria is mostly controlled by the U.S-backed SDF, but the Syrian army is deployed in certain locations per recent agreements with the local Kurds. Assad-allied Russian troops are stationed at an airport nearby. Last year, NATO-allied Turkish troops invaded the region – ostensibly to root out cross-border-raiding rebels affiliated with the Kurdish-core of SDF fighters.
In reality, Ankara opportunistically sought to carve out its own Syrian sphere of influence and snuff-out its own long-rebellious Kurdish-minority’s autonomy-aspirations. The Turks even threatened US troops fleeing from their invasion. Meanwhile, the Assad regime – aided by invited Russian, Iranian, and Lebanese Hezbollah forces – have all but won the nine-year-old civil war. Syrian government troops – with Russian air-support – are as we speak mopping up the largely Islamist Sunni rebels in their last Idlib stronghold. America’s paltry 500-soldier Syria-based vanguard of the world’s most powerful military couldn’t – and can’t – do much about any of it.
One of the last times that the USattacked and killed Syrian troops with some regularity amidst such a muddled mess, occurred back in the early 1980s during Lebanon’s Civil War. It didn’t end well. Yet at Washington’s behest, the US military is again taking sides in another, civil war in bordering-Syria. The US scantly understood either. Thirty-seven years ago, the entire chain from a marine ground commander to the joint chiefs and up to Defense Secretary Casper Weinberger opposed continuing a disturbingly similar operation across Syria’s western border.
Yet, it seems that once more, too few American troops have been given too large and ludicrous a Levantine portfolio. They’ve again morphed into just another militia with no discernible mission. And now US forces are killing Syrians inside Syria with no end game in sight – or even articulated. But, in a bit of historically-repetitive farce, when President Trump hinted at closing up shop last year, he was lambasted with Lebanon analogies. See, many interventionists clamored, America need stay the course in the current non-mission, because "cutting-and-running" from its ludicrous Lebanese precursor was precisely what necessitated the present deployment. How’s that for circuitous reasoning?
Well, it’s the sort now-deceased Defense Secretary Weinberger would take umbrage with. Nearly four decades ago, he described the Lebanon-version of such logic as: the "We can’t leave because we’re there" argument. When the Beirut blowback of 241 marine bodies flew home, he couldn’t forgive himself. Nearly 20 years later, he admitted that he "took it very personally and still feel responsible in not having been persuasive enough to overcome" the same arguments now being drummed up in Syria.
Only today it’s less clear American troops there have any advocate at all in Pentagon chief Mark Esper – who’s rarely played rabbi for anyone besides the corporate defense industry from whence he sprung. Pity our soldiers in Syria, and the suffering people they kill and maim by their very pointless presence.
Then, as now, much of the madness rested on myths about Lebanon and its Syrian-linkage.
So, what better time to roll-out my last five related targets for delusion-deflation:
#6: Iran (and Syria) were/are Hezbollah’s real puppet masters.
Iran was involved in the 1983 Beirut bombing, and Syria offered an assist, but Hezbollah was neither fully foreign, nor formed out of thin air. Absent U.S.-facilitated Israeli aggression, there’d likely never have been a Party of God. Don’t take my word for it: in 2006, former Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak admitted, “When we entered Lebanon … there was no Hezbollah. We were accepted with perfumed rice and flowers by the Shia in the south. It was our presence there that created Hezbollah." Sequence, like grievances, matter.
Though views of Hezbollah have always been mixed – exceptionally positive among Shia, mixed with Christians, invariably negative with Sunnis – recent polls suggest only 10 percent of Lebanese see the group’s alleged Iranian master as the greatest threat to their country (exceeded by Israel: 49 percent, and Syria:11 percent). That’s partly because Hezbollah’s membership has always been near-exclusively Lebanese. So have the vast majority of its concerns, priorities, and operations.
There’s no denying the group’s partly Iranian origins (or Syrian facilitation) and its Palestinian-freedom orientation – but for many Lebanese, the former isn’t necessarily disqualifying, and the latter widely endearing. In fact, Hezbollah’s image was greatly bolstered by its strong showing and moral – if not strictly tactical – victory in the 2006 Israeli War. Remarkably, two years later, Secretary General Nasrallah – the epitome of Shiadom – was rated as by far the most popular world leader among – vastly Sunni (86-89 percent) – regional Arabs.
That popularity has since waned after Hezbollah decisively committed itself to a lengthy and costly defense of the Syrian regime in the post-2011 civil war. The group’s loyalty to President Assad and his vaguely-Shia Alawite minority alienated many regional Sunnis. Hezbollah fighters have paid dearly – with more than 1500 killed in Syria – though their ranks, arsenal and combat-experience also swelled.
Nevertheless, while Assad is a Russian and Iranian ally, Hezbollah’s interventions was motivated by more than blind-proxy loyalty. Proof of that danger manifested in the significant portion of ISIS spill-over of attacks inside Lebanon that mostly targeted the Shia community, and Hezbollah specifically. Then there’s the US regime change regional track record in Iraq, Libya, and (almost) Syria – which illustrated the frightful severity of Hezbollah’s local transnational dilemma. The group’s war aims converged with – not simply crafted by – Tehran and Moscow. And lest we forget: they won.
The Iran-Hezbollah connection has long been more complex and less unidirectional than Washington’s "experts" loudly insist. In fact, especially after the IRGC first left Lebanon in 1998, Hezbollah has had significant autonomy – making most day-to-day decisions without consulting Tehran or Damascus. The same nuance applies to Hezbollah’s Syrian links. While Damascus may certainly have been the senior partner in the 1980s, these days it’s less clear who leads and needs who.
In 2002, when Syria hoped to get off Washington’s state-sponsors of terror list, Syria’s military intelligence chief reportedly hinted that President Assad was willing to discuss imposing restrictions on the Hezbollah’s military and political activities. A Syrian foreign ministry official said this back channel was necessary because it would be impossible for Assad publicly oppose Hezbollah. "He can’t do it," the official said, since Hassan Nasrallah was enormously popular in Syria. What’s more, when things looked grim for Assad early in the civil war, Hezbollah came to his aid – on a massive and costly scale – before the more widely-reported Russian and Iranian contingents.
It also bears mentioning that the US and the supposedly ironclad axis of Iran-Syria-Hezbollah aren’t always on opposing sides in key regional battles. All four powers opposed and fought ISIS on one level or another these past six years. Each of them also abhors Al Qaeda – though, paradoxically it’s the US that tacitly bolstered the group’s Syrian-branch during the civil war. For example, few Americans now remember that after the 9/11 attacks, Assad’s intelligence apparatus was initially quite supportive and cooperated with the CIA’s war on Osama’s old outfit.
By the way, when soothing Syria suited Washington’s interests, President George H.W. Bush abandoned the very prime minister who, as a general, back in 1983, led the U.S.-coordinated defense of East Beirut – during which, Druze militiamen came within seven miles of the ambassador’s residence. The price of Damascus’s support for the 1990-91 Persian Gulf War was a freer hand in Lebanon. Thus, in an epic volte face, Washington turned a blind eye when Assad’s army spoiled the former general’s "War of Liberation," encircling his compound, and forcing him into 15-years of exile. That man’s name was Michel Aoun – the current president of Lebanon, turned ally of Hezbollah.
#7: On Tehran’s and Damascus’s behalf, Hezbollah hijacked and runs the Lebanese state.
In 2017, Imad Harb of the Arab Center in Washington, DC, pronounced that “Hezbollah has been in control of the Lebanese state for quite a while and now it’s a supposed victory in Syria on the side of the Syrian regime.”
That’s certainly one way to look at it. Yet, from another – more Levantine-grounded – point of view, Hezbollah (sometime-partnered with Amal) legitimately represents the interests of marginalized Lebanese Shia: now constituting the country’s largest single community. As a young lieutenant in Baghdad (2006-07), I immediately recognized, and was drawn to, the Shia community’s fatalistic victim-culture. It nostalgically recalled my maternal Irish Catholic upbringing: with its own cavalcade of "terroristic" hunger-striking martyrs in the Irish Republican Army (IRA) – 10 of whom willfully perished just a year before Hezbollah coalesced. Fitting, then, that the two groups would eventually collaborate in later years.
Then and still, Lebanon’s Shia volunteers were beset by twin enemies: government neglect and Israeli invasion-cum-oppression (1982-2000). Their suffering and struggle were real. Few Shia families in South Lebanon or Beirut’s "Belt of Misery" urban environs weren’t touched – their leaders included. Hezbollah Secretary General Nasrallah’s is a classically Lebanese story. Born the son of a grocer in East Beirut, his, own son, Hadi, was just eighteen when killed fighting Israeli soldiers in 1998.
Still, more than a decade ago, Daniel Byman, a counterterrorism "expert" at the establishment-interventionist Brookings Institution asserted that Hezbollah was "the most powerful single political movement in Lebanon." Incidentally, that year, Brookings’ top-tier donors included:
- Tel Aviv’s "tireless cheerleader," the Israeli-American media mogul – and namesake of its Mideast Policy Center – Haim Saban;
- Former Goldman Sachs co-president – of Brookings’ eponymous China Center – John L. Thornton;
- The Qatari Embassy. [Full stop]
The Institute’s International Advisory Council then included:
- A CEO of the Saudi conglomerate Olayan Group (and American University of Beirut board-member),
- A former Israeli ambassador to the US (and chief negotiator with Syrian the 1990s);
- Qatar’s prime minister;
- And Nathaniel Rothschild – corporate billionaire and sometime-adviser to Russia oligarchs.
Needless to say, Brookings is hardly a neutral Lebanon-observer.
Anyway, given Hezbollah’s respectable, but ever-limited, electoral fortunes, Mr. Byman presumably lent considerable weight to its fighters, weapons, and social services. After all, in the six parliamentary elections it’s contested since 1992, the party has never won more than 14 of 128 seats. Even combined with its frequent Shia Amal Party partners – or episodically violent civil war contenders – Hezbollah’s coalition never won more than 30, or just under a quarter of, legislative seats.
Still, even on the martial front there are forces balancing Hezbollah’s power. Since 2006, the U.S. has invested $2 billion in military assistance to the Lebanese Armed Forces in an effort to strengthen one of the few multi-sect state institutions and – not so subtly – craft a counterweight to Hezbollah’s militia. U.S. military aid for Lebanon is way down since peaking in 2017, but some $70 million is still allotted for 2021 – nearly six times the amount for vital (especially post-port-blast) health-sector. In fact, Beirut receives the seventh largest security-sector aid package in the Mideast / North Africa (MENA) region – but that’s barely two percent of what its aggressive rival (and four-time invader since 178) Israel receives.
Plus, with self-serving Saudis’ callous 2016 canceling of $4 billion in largely military aid – amidst the still raging spill-over threat from ISIS – over politico-sectarian disputes with the Lebanese government, it’s hard to deny Hezbollah’s necessary security role. The Lebanese Army’s gets it, as demonstrated by its willingness to tacitly coordinate counter-ISIS operations with the Party of God’s fighters.
Contra Washington’s remarkably evidence-resistant claims that it already has, or soon will impose an ISIS-style state in Lebanon, Hezbollah’s leaders ditched any such ambitions long ago. By and large, Hezbollah’s parliamentarians and local mayors avoid purely religious appeals – focusing far more on Shia-kitchen-table issues like raising living standards. Nor would Hezbollah-honcho Hassan Nasrallah allow revenge killings of Christians after his godly-soldiers finally ejected Israel from its 22-year occupation of South Lebanon in 2000. Four years later, asked about the efficacy and desirability of an Islamic state, the secretary general replied:
We believe the requirement for an Islamic state is to have an overwhelming popular desire, and we’re not talking about fifty percent plus one, but a large majority. And this is not available in Lebanon and probably never will be.
One needn’t fancy Burkini-beachfronts to recognize that Hezbollah works within the world as it is. It’d be difficult to do otherwise in a country where it’s not uncommon for Shia families to decorate their houses with Christmas trees. In recent years, Hezbollah imported a Santa to South Beirut to deliver gifts. Even assuming such stunts are only devised to broaden the party’s political appeal, they illustrate Lebanese society’s ingrained tolerance despite the scars of civil war. And they’re still hardly the actions of a movement dead-set on imposing an Islamic state.
Nor, even, are most of the group’s supporters the staunch Islamists or terror-enthusiasts of Washington’s imagination. According to a 1996 study by a political science professor at the American University of Beirut – conducted amidst active resistance to Israel’s then occupation of Southern Lebanon – "deep religiosity and strong support of Islamic goals were not significant as a determinant of popular support for Hezbollah."
#8: By way of Iran/Syria, there are hidden Russian/Chinese hands at work in Lebanon.
Mr. Reagan fell for this very ploy back in the early 1980s, which got him in the Levantine morass in the first place. Never one for details in general – and near criminally-uninformed about the Mideast particularly – Reagan was inclined to view the Lebanese Civil War (like Central America and Southern Africa) through the prism of his reinvigorated Cold War.
Key leaders in his hawkish early administration – led by the crusading Secretary of State Alexander Haig – presented the president a skewed Lebanese picture, whereby Syria and the Palestinian Liberation Organization (P.L.O.) were mere pawns of Moscow. They, and Iran’s ostensible Shia militia proxies were thus ripe for a Reaganesque "rollback" of communism.
Now, forty years on – and just five months before Beirut’s port blast – supposedly serious think tanks (though its top donors be Saudi-Kuwaiti-Emirati) posit such headlines as: "The US must remain engaged in Lebanon or risk Russian and Chinese gains." It is, in fact, true – and cause for real reflection – that Putin/Russian policies are more popular than Trump/American actions among Shia, Sunnis, and even Christians. Still, it scarcely suggests Moscow runs the joint.
There’s also an American pot-meet-kettle aspect to all of Washington’s Russo-China hysteria in Lebanon. After all, the US along with its Israeli and Saudi allies, have long pursued a concerted policy of Hezbollah/Shia destabilization, or what might be dubbed a Lebanese-mini theater of the anti-Iranian "maximum pressure" campaign. Specifically, Team Trump has escalated America’s existing economic warfare policies in Lebanon, and also indirectly exacerbated the effects with tightened regional sanctions. The fact is, the Iranian and Syrian economies are inextricably linked with Lebanon’s financial destiny. And like the broader tough-on-Tehran tactics, the Beirut-brand has proved counterproductive and likely to drive both client and patron further into Russo-Chinese arms.
Washington’s stunningly callous plan to impose new sanctions – announced barely a week after Beirut’s devastating explosion – meant to "weaken Hezbollah’s influence" surely won’t endear America to most Lebanese. By their very nature, sanctions have second and third-order effects and historically hurt the people they purport to help. Uncle Sam needs some serious PR-advice when – in the wake of up to $15 billion worth of blast damage leaving 300,000 homeless – top officials felt confident brashly declaring that they "don’t see how you can react to this kind of event with anything other than maximum pressure" to "turn the screws in Lebanon."
Sure, Russia and China may be in the Levantine game, but what of Washington’s and its Wahhabi Gulf monarchies-allies’ regionally destabilizing influence. Say, for starters: the billions of dollars poured into arming and training "moderate" Syrian rebels – who turned out to be mostly Salafi-jihadists – who accelerated a cross-border civil war that spawned ISIS and kicked off an Al Qaeda comeback tour. More grotesque still, Israel’s defense minister apparently agreed: stating that given the choice between Iran-proxy Hezbollah or the Islamic State on his borders, he’d “choose ISIS" every time. Funny, Israel’s ISIS-apologists never mention that whereas Daesh killed more than 30,000 innocents – whilst turning public execution into an art form and resurrecting mass-slavery – in 2014-18 alone, Hezbollah fought against the Islamic State (in Syria and Lebanon itself) have killed hardly any Israelis since the 2006 war.
Such obscenity prevailed on this side of the Atlantic as well. Some US Congressmen openly argued that it was a "good thing" that ISIS and other Sunni extremists were attacking "Hezbollah and the Shiite threat to us." That threat seems vague, indeed, since very few Shiites have pulled off a fatal terrorist attack on the homeland. What such alarmism has managed, is to ensure that Lebanese Shia see themselves as America’s enemies no matter what they do. This will surely only create sundry self-fulfilling prophecies and drive many more into an Iranian, Syrian, Russian, and/or Chinese embrace.
One can hardly blame such Shia as go that route, when a Western-backed NGO partnered with US government-funded entities – whose leader closely coordinates with the US embassy – runs a website, Shiawatch.org, which monitors the supposedly malign activities of Shia groups the US dislikes. Rania Khalek, of The Grayzone, nailed the inherent hypocrisy and vulgarity of it all: "It’s difficult to imagine Western support for a website called JewWatch, but anti-Shia bigotry has been normalized by Western governments as a tool against Iran."
One wonders whether to laugh or cry at American alarmism and affected piety in Lebanon. Washington has handed the narrative high ground to Putin and Xi – who needn’t bother correct exaggerated accounts of their nefarious influence with Beirut. They can just shrug, smirk, and counter: "I know you are, but what am I."
#9: The antidote to Lebanon’s ills was the assassinated ex-prime minister, Rafik Hariri; his son Said’s opposition-bloc is the country’s great [Western] hope.
In reality, two-time ex-prime minister Said Hariri is a complex man of complicated loyalties. So is the Future Movement – in many ways a relic of an also-dead past – the inherited from his assassinated father. Yet for years now, there’s been much hope and talk inside establishment Washington that Hariri or his successors will topple the ostensibly Hezbollah-hostage Lebanese government. According to the fantasy, Hariri and company would then usher in the paradise of rule by Western-friendly "technocrats.”
But neither he nor his movement’s elites are strictly Western or technocratic. Rather, Hariri heads ones of the six major crime families atop Lebanon’s major political factions (see my future column on this fascinating world). Like the other dons sitting on the "commission," he’s a corrupt chameleon consistent with the country’s bizarre byzantine politics. Hariri and his ilk are more mobster than messiah.
Young Said’s origins betray the mixed loyalties of a still divisive figure. He wasn’t even born in Lebanon, but rather – instructively – Saudi Arabia, home base for his father’s massive construction company. It was as the head of Saudi Oger, that Said made his estimated $1.5 billion fortune – making him 2018’s third richest man in Lebanon. Hariri only rose to political prominence after the assassination of his father in 2005. Outcry over the supposed role of Damascus (and Tehran via Hezbollah) catalyzed the popular but polarizing Cedar Revolution – which led to the withdrawal of Syrian troops from the country after 20+ years of occupation.
Propelled to power by a vaguely Sunni (along with half of the ever-divided Christians) alliance, his first stint as prime minister began in 2009, but lasted only 19 months. The government collapsed after ministers aligned with Hezbollah – including some Christians – resigned while Hariri met with President Barack Obama in Washington, D.C. Then, as now, many Lebanese judged Said too tight with the ex-imperial French, neo-imperial Americans, and oil-extortionist Saudis.
Hariri and many Lebanese Sunnis – far from beholden to Western values and governments – know their bread is buttered in Wahhabi-central Riyadh. In an inversion of the Shia-Iran simpatico, some three-quarters have positive views of Saudi Arabia, whereas US favorability hovers around forty percent (and slightly lower among Christians). Their loyalty was clearly misplaced. When Lebanese political winds quit blowing Riyadh’s way in 2016, it pettily and vindictively canceled $4 billion in promised and desperately needed aid – abandoning its Lebanese allies and enemies alike. That was just a year before the Saudis essentially kidnapped Hariri during his second tenure as prime minister. In a backfiring power-play meant to undercut Hezbollah-Iranian influence they forced him to read a hostage-style video-resignation from Riyadh.
All in all, Hariri-the-younger, like his father before him, is a political pragmatist more befitting Lebanon’s realities than grandiose Western hopes for a modernist-technocratic salvation. In that second stint as prime minister, he served in a power-sharing government headed by President Aoun, an ally of Hezbollah – one of whose members the International Court of Justice just convicted of killing Hariri’s father. His third resignation (he’d rescinded Saudi-duress-driven departure) came in the wake of massive 2019 street protests against his government’s incompetence and cronyism. There was also the minor matter of revelations this married father-of-three had gifted $16 million to a 20-year old South African bikini model-escort-energy drink promoter.
Here’s the real-kicker: this last time, Hezbollah’s Hassan Nasrallah flat-out opposed Hariri’s resignation, preferring he stay-on as caretaker prime minister for the sake of national stability. Nasrallah advised Hariri against bowing to the protesters, saying “we are next to you, steel yourself." You can’t make this stuff up.
See, Hariri is no single thing – neither pure pro-West savior, Saudi-stooge, nor Hezbollah-hater. In that sense, he’s fundamentally Lebanese. The same goes for the Party of God.
So it should’ve been strange when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, expressing support for the anti-corruption protests, claimed the demonstrators simply "want Hezbollah and Iran out of their country." This was quite the simplification of complex forces, and a peculiar one at that. Hezbollah is Lebanese, so Pompeo apparently expects a mass expulsion of any Lebanese he and the other hawks don’t like.
#10: Lebanon’s system can be reformed if the U.S. backs the pro-Western good guys and opposes the Iranian-directed bad guys.
In 1958, President Dwight Eisenhower authorized America’s first modern military intervention in the Middle East. Lebanon was its destination. The mission there, then as now, was to prop up a presumably pro-Western government. President Camille Chamoun – his son Dany destined to be murdered (along with a wife and two small sons) in an intra-Christian feud in 1990 – was then seen as a bulwark against radical Arab nationalist forces and their ostensible Soviet handlers. But Ike was no dummy, and fretted over the precedent he’d set. During a phone call with Britain’s Prime Minister, Ike confessed: "I realize we are opening a Pandora’s Box here." If only he knew how right he’d been.
Various fantasies have informed US interventionism ever since: that of a Christian Lebanon, a pro-Western silent majority; a path to peace in Jerusalem running through Beirut. None have panned out; but Washington has hardly been deterred in its delusions.
The truth has long been, and remains, demonstrably clear: besides perhaps no-strings humanitarian aid, most Lebanese don’t want America’s help. In fact, asked by pollsters to select from preferred US policies in the region, the most popular response among all three major communities – yes, Christians included – was "stay out of our region altogether, or at least withdraw from most of it." As for America’s annexation-happy-ally, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, less than one percent of all Lebanese sects – even Israel’s erstwhile Christian allies – like the guy.
When it comes to Hezbollah – America’s Lebanese public enemy number one – even the supposed pro-Western "good guys" are somewhat circumspect. In 2017, amid congressional efforts to tighten sanctions on Hezbollah, a delegation of Lebanese politicians and bankers flew to Washington and lobbied for softening the legislation. At a press conference, none other than "Last Best Hope" Hariri – who’s convinced Hezbollah killed his father – expressed hopes that US Congressmen would "change" the bill to be less "harsh on Lebanon." A delegate aligned with the anti-Hariri Shia Amal Movement agreed with him, adding that the "sanctions are a recipe to destroy Lebanon."
Furthermore, that supposedly singular national pillar, the Lebanese Armed Forces – America’s multibillion dollar investment be damned – has fired on Israeli drones violating Lebanese airspace to strike Hezbollah targets. Last year, Lebanon’s Christian head of state said Israel’s unmanned aerial attacks were a “declaration of war” that warranted a military response. Sure, President Aoun has been friendly with Hezbollah for a decade plus, but not so Said Hariri – who added that “The new [Israeli] aggression…constitutes a threat to regional stability." The lines in Lebanon do blur.
But can you reform a refugee nation? In Washington there’s minimal meditation on its basic feasibility. There should be. Lebanon may soon be nearly one-fourth Syrian-fugitive – their 1.5 million migrants joining up to 500,000 existing, perhaps permanent, Palestinian refugees. Since both groups are mostly Sunni Muslims, around half of Lebanon’s school-children are now Syrian. All of which raises serious doubts about the viability of the country’s confessional quota system. Currently, Sunnis are allotted just 21 percent of Parliament’s seats, yet – since refugees are uncounted non-citizens – 40-45 percent of Lebanon’s actual residents may belong to the sect. That’s a lot of displaced and disenfranchised people, and that’s never a formula for security.
Perhaps Lebanon can’t even begin to remedy such problems until related and intractable regional conflicts reach a resolution: U.S.-Israeli intransigence on Palestine and Syria, for starters.
After all, such settlements could be sound strategy: the legitimacy of Hezbollah’s military-wing mostly stems from these cross-border conflicts. Two theaters in particular feed Hezbollah’s necessity-narrative: they’ll give up their guns only once "the resistance" is no longer required. In Syria, they point to the lingering presence and threat of ISIS/Al Qaeda jihadis, plus US and Turkish troops. In Palestine, to Israel’s off-the-[twin]-tracks apartheid-annexation policy.
Imagine if it were otherwise. In Syria, the U.S.-Israeli-Saudi triumvirate could get-on-with losing already, and accept as foregone conclusion Assad’s victory. O the other front, Congress could cut cash flows – and Trump’s diplomatic top-cover – until Israel assents to Palestinian autonomy and treats its "new" neighbors with dignity and decency.
After all, vast majorities of even underprivileged Lebanese Shia haven’t the stomach for endless apocalyptic battles. Most will accept reasonable compromises so long as they stipulate a stable and unoccupied Syria, and a secure, viable Palestinian state. Such settlement-sentiments may even extend to Hezbollah – a group whose raison d’etre was resistance to Israeli aggression. Hezbollah’s more militant hotheads won’t welcome this eventuality, but most of its leaders are realists who’ll ultimately read the regional room.
With some discomfort, Nasrallah admitted as much way back in 2003. Asked by the journalist Seymour Hersh about prospective peace talks, Nasrallah hesitated a moment, then acknowledged, "At the end, this is primarily a Palestinian matter…I may have a different assessment, but at the end of the road no one can go to war on behalf of the Palestinians, even if that one is not in agreement with what [they] agreed on."
Will Washington never learn that when it comes to nationalist and religious resistance groups alike, demonization and isolation induces extremism. To continue with four-decade-worth of failed policies is insanity incarnate. Endlessly ostracizing, threatening, and pressuring Hezbollah – whilst blindly backing its mortal Israeli enemy – is a formula for the forever war feedback-loop. On the hand, tempering some Lebanese grievances would do Hezbollah more damage than thousands of bombing sorties. Compromise, decency, and peaceful progression would attack Hezbollah’s very identity, undercut the very victim-vigilance narrative that breathed life into the resistance in the first place. Maybe it’s a long shot, but it might just work – until, slowly and reluctantly, Hezbollah becomes just another Shia political faction in Lebanon’s confessional cornucopia.
Admittedly, the media’s Lebanon-watchers have cried collapse many times before:
- “Problem in Lebanon (1943)
- "Lebanon is Facing Civil War Threat” (1958)
- "Clashes in Lebanon Threaten Explosion” (1969)
- “Lebanese Cabinet of Military Men is Near Collapse” (1975)
- “Anarchy in Lebanon” (1976)
- “The Ordeal of Lebanon Goes On” (1983)
- "Beirut Regime Nears Collapse” (1988)
- "Beirut Government Seems Near Collapse” (1992)
- "Lebanese, Sunk in Crisis” (2000)
- "Lebanon on the Brink” (2006)
- “Why Is Lebanon on the Verge of Collapse?” (2011)
- "Lebanon: Shiny on the outside, rotting from the inside” (2015)
- And, just five days before Beirut’s big bang: "Lebanon as We Know It Is Dying” (2020)
That’s a sample from just one paper, the New York Times. Of course, there are two – not mutually exclusive – ways to read this:
1) The media’s Lebanon-alarmism is as old and American as apple pie;
2) Lebanon, conceived and birthed in instability, has lived out the same for its entire existence – ever on the verge of collapse.
Only this time – in its ironic centennial year – the country’s venal proxies and fickle foreign patrons may prove less resilient. The Lebanese state’s camel has too many destabilizing straws upon its breaking back. Sectarian strife, political corruption, obscene class-divisions, economic collapse, and coronavirus were bad enough. Then Beirut’s seaport exploded, exposing the extent of their elite’s misconduct. The combination may yet trigger systemic implosion.
As protest banners – reading "Resign or Hang!" – proliferate, and demonstrators carry nooses and strangle elite effigies in the streets, have they turned the collective clock back to 1789 in the onetime "Paris of the Middle East?" Whether Lebanon’s angry masses do or don’t storm the Bastilles of their archaic sectarian system, it’s best foreign "kings" eschew past monarchs’ then counter-evolutionary reflex – and let Lebanese decide for themselves.
None of Lebanon’s corrupt sectarian elites are all that popular in Beirut’s post-blast moment. Not the "Iran-directed" Hezbollah; not the cleaved Christian coalition; not the "technocratic" Sunni Future Movement of Washingtonian fantasies. Loads of Lebanese are for throwing all the bums out. And they hardly want or need an American "help" that always picks one of the tainted sides. It’s a formula that got 241 marines killed before this author could walk or talk.
Lebanon’s Phoenix-like protesters rise in the Beirut streets from a fed-up and put-upon people. It is with good reason they chant “All of them means all of them, and Nasrallah is one of them!" None are omitted from their indictments. The Lebanese could readily append their chant: "So too is Uncle Sam!"
History, as such, offers this clear caution: beware of foreign meddlers peddling their myths – they’ll augur only catastrophe. If we want what’s best for Lebanon, it’s best to start by telling the truth about it; about ourselves.
Just like Said Hariri and all oligarchs, President Michel Aoun is part of the problem. But that doesn’t mean he’s wrong about America.
It was forty years ago when he first ditched decorum: ”The United States does not care about Lebanon…It has sold Lebanon…When it says it is moved by our tragedies, it is lying.”
Sometimes the truth hurts.
Danny Sjursen is a retired U.S. Army officer, contributing editor at Antiwar.com, senior fellow at the Center for International Policy (CIP), and director of the soon-to-launch Eisenhower Media Network (EMN). His work has appeared in the NY Times, LA Times, The Nation, Huff Post, The Hill, Salon, The American Conservative, Mother Jones, ScheerPost and Tom Dispatch, among other publications. He served combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and later taught history at West Point. He is the author of a memoir and critical analysis of the Iraq War, Ghostriders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge. His forthcoming book, Patriotic Dissent: America in the Age of Endless War (Heyday Books) is available for pre-order. Follow him on Twitter @SkepticalVet and see his website for speaking/media requests and past publications.
Copyright 2020 Danny Sjursen