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An Arab Cold War | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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The situation in Lebanon continues to escalate with no signs of a resolution. What is happening today is larger than Lebanon; it is an Arab cold war not unlike the one that took place in the 1950s and 1960s. But this war is not simply between two Arab axis; the moderate states and the others that advocate war so as to distract their people while they exert efforts to negotiate with the US and with Israel.

A quick review of history with emphasis on the ’50s and ’60s would reveal that the Shah’s Iran was a key player in the Baghdad Pact – and today; Iran is playing a larger role than before.

According to Dr. Fawaz Gerges, professor of Middle East and international affairs at Sarah Lawrence College, Washington, “The Arab-Iranian cold war is unfolding in three Arab arenas: the Lebanese, Iraqi and Palestinian. However, Lebanon is the primary and most critical stage. Besides, the danger of this war lies in the fact that it is an extension of an international regional conflict, which places Lebanon in the eye of the storm.”

After the Damascus summit, Lebanese ‘figures’ hastened to condemn the state’s act of boycotting the summit while others applauded the action. Simply put, the summit failed. It did not propose a solution to the Lebanese crisis – isn’t Lebanon a ‘sister’ Arab state? In fact; the summit has complicated the Lebanese crisis even further because the Arab-Arab conflicts have become deeper and increased in number as a result of it. Moreover, the Arab states have now become embroiled in the internal Lebanese conflict. One side has Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan, and the other has Syria and Iran.

Presently, owing to the gravity of the crisis; anything is possible – particularly since the US’s position in Iraq is an extremely difficult one.

“The United States believes that Iran has become an arena [in which it can] vanquish the Iranian-Syrian axis and Hezbollah,” said Dr. Gerges, “That is why the combination of Arab-Arab conflicts coupled with the Iranian ones, in addition to the international factor, complicates the Lebanese situation even further.”

It is as though some of the regional players regard Lebanon to be the equivalent of ‘putty’ and it is not yet known how much more it can stretch before it tears. It also appears that the group of hawks in the American administration is unaware of the fragility of the situation and the gravity of the crisis. Likewise, the same may be said of Iran and of Syria’s view of Lebanon. The hawks believe that they can defeat Iran and Syria in Lebanon by stretching it too far while Iran and Syria believe that they are capable of impeding the US project from dominating over the Lebanese scene.

When asked about the nature of the American project, Dr. Gerges said, “It revolves around the disarmament of Hezbollah, which plays a key role in exacerbating the Arab-Israeli conflict. The prevalent belief in the US administration is that Hezbollah is a terrorist organization and thus its defeat would represent a defeat to terrorist organizations and part of the victory on the war on terror. The US administration believes Syria and Iran to be two principle players in the war on terrorism.”

“The United States wants to marginalize Hezbollah in the Arab-Israeli conflict, neutralize Lebanon and weaken and defeat the Syrian-Iranian axis in Lebanon.”

Can Lebanon be neutralized? “Of course,” the professor said, “Hezbollah’s disarmament would neutralize Lebanon and thrust it away from the Arab-Israeli conflict and [it will also] change the strategic map.”

According to the American administration and the Israeli military leadership, Hezbollah is considered a tough player and it is critical to disarm it, neutralize it and defeat it – if possible.

However, Dr Gerges does not believe that this is possible because those who gamble on this game could risk igniting a Lebanese civil war. He added, “Irrespective of the real reason behind the disputes between the Lebanese forces and Hezbollah, taking risks in this strategy would plunge the situation into the abyss. This is because the American outlook is a stereotypical one that does not take into consideration the complications of the Lebanese condition or Hezbollah’s capacity to retaliate or absorb the blows it is dealt in the short run.”

Lebanon’s problem is bigger than Lebanon itself and it’s deeper than the issue of re-electing a new president; this matter is related to the essence of Lebanon. There is no common ground on which the Lebanese could meet; conflicts are deeply rooted over the meaning and identity of Lebanon and over its political future.

Such issues should not be simplified as some politicians try to do when they speak about the opposition or the electoral law or the national unity government. Lebanese institutions are incapable of dealing with- or becoming aware of- the radical changes that have taken place in the Lebanese social and cultural structure over the past 30 years. That is, since the Syrian ‘occupation’ of Lebanon and after the success of the Islamic revolution in Iran. Even if a Lebanese president were named, which is a matter of time, elections will not lead to a radical solution to the Lebanese crisis – unless the ‘honorable politicians’ start to speak frankly and explicitly about the meaning and future of politics in Lebanon.

According to Dr. Gerges, “The Lebanese must realize the danger and complexities inherent in the situation in Lebanon. It’s true that Lebanon is a battlefield of Arab- Arab vs. Iranian war. This war is greater and deeper than the Lebanese crisis, which plays an integral part in this Arab-Arab vs. Iranian war, in addition to various other conflicts. The Lebanese must show more modesty and deeper respect to the fragility of the political and social status in Lebanon and must moreover realize, on a mental, ideological and cultural level that there is no way out of this crisis except through a “social contract”. This contract would stipulate upon the fact that the Lebanese crisis can never be managed except through a Lebanese-Lebanese conciliation!”

However, a Lebanese-Lebanese conciliation is not an option due to the fragility of the Lebanese structure, which lacks the means to mature and the failure to respect other people’s opinion. Every group demands that all the Lebanese stick to its own opinion, with knowledge that the social, cultural and political structure in Lebanon is based on the agreement to be diverse. This is why politicians regard Lebanon as a football that is being tossed around by the regional players – into an unknown destination.

“Only the Lebanese can save Lebanon; political will is the principle factor. We, as Lebanese, have grown accustomed to throwing our problems on others and claiming that we are weak. The fact is that the chief Lebanese political powers are solely responsible for the persistence and exacerbation of the crisis. Of course, some parties are more responsible than others; however the truth is that the Lebanese political forces bear the moral, ethical and intellectual responsibility for pushing Lebanon towards the abyss. History will not spare these political powers that do not have the moral courage or the political will to make sacrifices for the sake of Lebanon,” said Gerges.

He added: “All the political forces are supposed to give and take and deal with Lebanese status quo considering that it is a grave situation. A little spark could develop into a full-fledged fire destroying everything in its wake.”

If that fire does flare up then the Lebanese people, structure and society will be the ones to lose – same as what happened and ended with the Syrian dominance over Lebanon. The current political powers must recognize the gravity of the situation as they continue to push the crisis to the edge.

If a new war were to break out; it will be more destructive than the first because it will not simply be between two parties, rather regional and international matters will become mixed up, and the intervention of these parties will be much more pronounced than the last war. In this scenario, Lebanon will witness a crisis that is infinitely graver than the Iraqi war and it cannot tolerate a war as dangerous as the one taking place in Iraq.

The Lebanese parties and some of the regional and international parties are betting on the upcoming change in the US administration. But if the next administration accepts Iran’s dominance in Iraq, will Iran settle for this or will it demand to dominate over Lebanon later – and what would Syria’s response be in that scenario?

“I do not believe that the present or future US administration is ready to bargain over the future of Lebanon. Democratic as well as Republican candidates reserve considerable concern for spreading democracy and respecting human rights in the world and there is concern for the Lebanese issue. This is why the new equation will not be at Lebanon’s expense, but resolving the regional crisis may end up solving the Lebanese crisis and finding a formula that could allow for more autonomy in Lebanon and reaching social agreement,” he said.

“I’m optimistic that the new US administration will play a positive role in resolving – not deepening – the Lebanese crisis,” stated Gerges.

What is quite remarkable is the fact that the crisis flared up following the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, which confirms that his assassination was one of the main factors responsible for aggravating the crisis and this second ‘cold war’. This is why the international tribunal is important.

Following his observations and conversations with politicians in the United States, Gerges asserts that the international tribunal will be held soon and added that, “When we speak of a new equation between Washington and Tehran, we are not referring to bargaining upon the future of Lebanon.”

In the end, Dr. Gerges bets on the regulations that will ‘freeze’ the internal Lebanese conflict. Moreover, he believes that Secretary-General of Hezbollah, Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah is one of the most important factors in preventing an internal explosion in Lebanon.

“If any attempts are made to assassinate Nasrallah; he will be the detonator. He is betting on what’s left of the conscience of the main political forces in Lebanon and that they will not take any big risks,” (regardless of our personal opinions of them).

So, I asked, “will we meet in Lebanon soon?”

“Yes,” he replied, “in a matter of months not a year or two!”