Lebanon has always been like a jovial man who is, nonetheless, subject to occasional fits of madness leading to serious self-harm. Even before it was put on the map as a nation, Lebanon had a chequered history in which periods of prolonged calm alternated with outbursts of violence.
There are signs that Lebanon may be heading for another round of self-harm exactly at a time that everyone expected it to enter a long period of peace and reconstruction. What are the causes of this periodical Lebanese madness? Can it be attributed to Lebanon’s religious diversity and sectarian differences? Is it, as many Lebanese assert somewhat jokingly, the ancient Phoenician genes that make periodical comebacks to drive their descendants crazy? Or is it something in the water that goads the Lebanese towards self-harm?
There is no doubt that the sectarian divide plays a crucial role in Lebanese politics. For one thing it prevents class-based politics, thus pushing secular ideologies into the sidelines. The Shi’ite and Druze peasants, for example, would rather side with their respective feudal chiefs than unite together against a real or imagined class enemy.
Because of the sectarian divide, every political dispute has the potential to be perceived as an existential threat to this or that community. If one community achieves greater power, the others feel their very foundations threatened.
The Lebanese system has another problem written in its very genes. It makes it possible for a coalition of just two sects to secure a potentially unshakable hold on power. In other words, unlike normal democracies where the minority always has the hope and the chance of one day becoming the majority, a ruling coalition in Lebanon could, theoretically at least, keep its opponents out in the cold for as long as it wants.
Having said all that, history also shows that almost all of Lebanon’s internecine feuds have been due to foreign intervention. In other words there can be no major and prolonged infighting in Lebanon without the involvement of outside powers on rival sides. As the history of the last civil war in Lebanon is pieced together, it becomes increasingly clear that the tiny country on the edge of the Mediterranean had been nothing but a battleground in a broader regional conflict.
The last civil war was marked by the fact that the major Western powers, notably the United States, Great Britain and France, were mostly content to watch from the sidelines while the Soviet Union, a key player in the region at the time, also tried to avoid direct involvement. That left Israel, Syria, and, to a lesser extent Iraq under Saddam Hussein, Libya, and Khomeinist Iran as the principal protagonists. The presence of a Palestinian state-within-the-state in Lebanon complicated matters further.
A brief involvement by France and the US, under the flag of the United Nations, failed to tip the balance one war or the other.
Once it had become clear that neither camps in the Cold War was poised to win a deceive advantage in Lebanon, Washington and Moscow were content to sit back and watch as the Lebanese killed one another on behalf of rival regional powers.
No matter how costly in terms of human life and how disturbing in terms of television images, the last Lebanese civil war could be allowed to continue for 15 years because it had little impact on the bigger balance of power in the region.
What about now? Of the war clouds that hang over the Middle East at this moment the thickest and the most menacing is stuck over Lebanon. It is no secret that some factions have resumed arming themselves if only in response to the massive arsenal created by Hezbollah with the help of Iran. In a recent interview Iran’s Defence Minister Muhammad Pour-Najjar described the Lebanese branch of Hezbollah as “the most powerful Arab army today.” This is no exaggeration. Despite its heavy losses in last summer’s mini-war with Israel, the Lebanese branch of Hezbollah has maintained almost all of the weapons that it could use against its domestic foes. It also has unlimited access to sources of arms and funds thanks to the Islamic Republic in Tehran.
Until last summer’s mini-war Hezbollah pretended that it was not interested in domestic political power. Presenting itself as a selfless force solely dedicated to liberating Lebanese territory from “occupation by the Zionist enemy”, Hezbollah allowed Nabih Berri and his Amal Group to do much of the political running on behalf of the Shi’ites who now represent the singe largest community in Lebanon.
Two events have forced Hezbollah to abandon that posture. The first was the summer war that flushed Hezbollah out of southern Lebanon, thus depriving it of its principal base for operations against Israel. If Hezbollah wants to fight Israel now it would have to use Beirut and the Bekaa Valley as operational bases. To that it would have to control the government so that no one will trouble it with United Nations’ resolutions and their demand that Hezbollah be disarmed.
The second reason why Hezbollah is making a direct bid for power lies in Iran’s new regional defence doctrine. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is convinced that, somewhere down the road, a military clash with the United States, and probably involving Israel as well, has become inevitable. This is why he needs both Syria and Lebanon as part of Iran’s glacis while using Iraq, and to some extent even Afghanistan, as means of exerting political and military pressure on the US.
Last summer’s war in Lebanon had nothing to do with Lebanon. It was a dress rehearsal for a bigger war between the Islamic Republic and the US.
Lebanon’s best interest, of course, is to stay out of a conflict that has nothing to do with it and that could bring it nothing but grief, regardless of which side wins in the end.
The reason is that if there is a new war with Lebanon as one of its first theatres, it is not going to be limited to essentially small operations as was the case last time. This is going to be a big but short war, with the possibility of instantly expanding to include first Syria, then Israel and eventually Iran.
The un-natural alliance between ex-General Aoun, once a protégé of Saddam Hussein, and Hassan Nasrallah, Iran’s standard-bearer in Lebanon, is unlikely to remain solid enough to offer the country an alternative government. However, it could prove reckless enough to plunge Lebanon into a new war that has nothing to do with it and could lead it into destruction of the kind it did not experience even in its last civil war.
Unless, as many argue, Lebanon has been at war since Rafiq Hariri was murdered in February 2005. The murder of Industry Minister Pierre Gemayel is thus seen as a new pahse in that war.