Lebanon – a Return to Civil War?

Jerusalem Post- 02/02/2008

The recent killing of Captain Wissam Eid of the Lebanese Internal Security Force, and the shooting deaths of eight Shi’ite rioters – including four Hizbullah supporters – at the Mar Mikhael intersection in southern Beirut last week offered the latest evidence of the potential of the political stalemate in Lebanon to spill over into renewed civil conflict. Substantive compromise on the issues dividing the country seems impossible. The overriding cause of the crisis is Syria’s determination to prevent political stability in its smaller neighbor on any but its own terms. The key issues lying behind the Lebanese political crisis are inseparable from the larger regional balance of power, and above all, the emergence of a new regional Cold War which places the United States and its allies against Iran and its clients – including Syria and the Lebanese Shi’ite Hizbullah.

The latest manifestation of the crisis concerns the issue of the successor to president Emil Lahoud, who stepped down last November. Since then, a deadlock has emerged over the succession. There is agreement that the successor should be General Michel Suleiman, chief of staff of the Lebanese army. But the precise terms of the succession remain under dispute. In January, 2008, the Arab League in Cairo claimed to have produced a compromise acceptable to both sides. At the conference, Syria declared its acceptance of a formula devised by Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa, heralding a breakthrough. According to this proposal, Suleiman would be appointed president, and a new national unity government would be formed, giving equal weight to the ruling March 14 Party and opposition ministers. Neither side would have veto power, and the balance was to be made up of minister appointed by the new president. It is now apparent, however, that the pro-Syrian opposition will not accept this arrangement.

Syria is expressing its opposition through the activation of client organizations within Lebanon. Hizbullah has threatened to escalate street protests in the next few weeks if the opposition’s demand for a blocking capability in a new cabinet is not accepted. Many analysts consider that the spate of recent terror attacks, one of which killed Eid, are part of Hizbullah’s effort to inflame tensions in the interest of its Syrian patron. The January 15 bombing at the US embassy in Beirut – in which four people died, and the violent, tire-burning Shi’ite protests of the last days all fit into this pattern. It is worth noting that during the protests on January 27, an RPG 7 shell was fired by unknown persons in the Mar Mikhael area. Lebanon has been struck by an ongoing series of assassinations of anti-Syrian political figures in Lebanon over the last two years. Eid’s killing was the latest of these, following on from the murder of Deputy Chief of Staff Francois al-Haj in December. Eid was involved in the investigation into the murder of former prime minister Rafik al-Hariri in April, 2005. He was also responsible for monitoring Hizballah activity in the southern suburbs of Beirut. The force of which he was a member, the Internal Security Force, has been seen as staunchly loyal to the Saniora government, and its commander, Ashraf Rifi, is a known critic of the Damascus regime.

The Syrian regime is trying, above all else, to prevent the formation of a proposed international tribunal into the Hariri’s murder. Preliminary UN investigations centered on possible Syrian involvement in the killing. The nightmare scenario for Damascus would be for the tribunal to request the transfer of senior regime figures for trial in the Hague. Syria is determined to prevent this at all costs. This fact, above all others, appears to be driving the current Hizballah escalation of violence. Iran, the other international backer of the Lebanese opposition, is understood to be playing a longer game in the Lebanese context. Iran’s key asset in Lebanon is Hizballah, which it helped found and which it finances and trains.

The Iranians have no direct interest in an immediate political escalation in Lebanon. Rather, they need time for Hizballah to recoup the losses and damage it suffered in Second Lebanon War. Teheran’s key concern is that Hizballah rebuild its strength as an Iranian regional military asset – a process which is now proceeding apace. Iran is also understood to wish to avoid open sectarian conflict between Shi’ites and Sunnis, since such a conflict would undermine its desire to project its power throughout the region, and to claim the mantle of the key anti-Western force in the Middle East. However, it appears to be Syria’s more urgent agenda that is now dictating events, and which may yet take Lebanon to the abyss and beyond it. A new Arab League attempt to resolve the situation is under way, and Moussa is on his way back to Beirut. Given the underlying realities of the situation described above, this attempt will almost certainly be added to the list of failures.

The current signs indicate that this failure may herald increased destabilizing activity by opposition forces – in the main Hizbullah, which remains by far the best-organized and most capable political-military force among the opposition. Thus, more attacks of the type that took place on January 15 may be expected, along with increased street activities similar to those witnessed early last year, and in recent days at Mar Mikhael. The government, meanwhile, shows no sign of backing down, and has proved able to marshal forces of its own. The prospect is one of increased strife, with the specter of civil war perhaps closer than at any time in recent memory.

About jonathanspyer

Jonathan Spyer is a Middle East analyst, author and journalist specializing in the areas of Israel, Syria and broader issues of regional strategy. He is the director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and analysis (MECRA), a research fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for strategy and Security (JISS) and a Fellow at the Middle East Forum.
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