What’s Going On in Lebanon?
I’m jotting some rough notes down to help myself sketch out the Lebanese ‘situation.’ Hopefully, this will induce some debate and bring about a fuller understanding. I am having difficulty making a call on Lebanon.
To begin with, there’s a stand-off between two groups:
-The ‘Opposition’: Composed of a near-monolith Shi'a community, led by Hezbollah; Half the Maronites, led by Michal Aoun with a notable presence for the northern Franjieh clan; a sampling of Sunnis, led by rivals of the Hariri family; some Druze that follow the Arslan princely house; some Greek Orthodox bunched under the Syrian National Party. They control the office of the President—the most important Maronite power leaver—and the Speaker of the parliament, traditionally the highest Shi'a position. Politically, they are unified by an unwillingness to break with Syria, with some of them completely aligned with the Syrians. Hezbollah adds another regional element to this mix by bringing Iran’s long-term patronage of its organization into the picture too.
Local Goals Behind the Stand-off: At a minimum: they want control over cabinet decisions should they lose the Presidency next year (to be decided by parliament either by an ‘early vote’ in February, or a ‘full term’ vote in September). At a maximum: new elections under a new electoral law that would give them the parliament, the Presidency and the cabinet (…the PM would be a Hariri man, but not hostile to the ‘Opposition’). International Goals: At a minimum: to minimize the scope of an International Tribunal into the murder of Rafiq Hariri and keep the Syrian leadership out of a possible indictment. At a maximum: to scrap the tribunal altogether, or to have if focus on culprits that have nothing to do with Syria, such as Al-Qaeda-like jihadists.
-The ‘March 14’ Group: Composed of what is becoming a near-monolith Sunni community that is united by fear of a Shi'a hegemony and anger over the loss of a capable leader like Rafiq Hariri; the other half of the Maronites, led by Samir Gaegae, the Gemayel family, and the leading clergy of the Maronite church; the vast majority of the Druze under Walid Junbulatt; Most of the Greek Orthodox that usually ally with Beiruti Sunnis; Lebanon’s few liberal, secular democrats. This alliance is built upon shaky foundations: many of the leading personalities fought each other in the civil war, and seem to agree on little beyond an anti-Syrian agenda and a desire to break away from Syria’s decades-old chokehold. Many at one time or another would have counted themselves allies of Syria. They control the premiership of the Lebanese cabinet; the highest Sunni position within the state. The US role in Lebanon is micromanaged by the US embassy there under Ambassador Jeffrey Feltman who fully supports this group. The French and the Saudis—traditional players in Lebanon—are also in full support.
Local Goals from the stand-off: At a minimum: to keep the cabinet from falling even after the loss of Shi'a representation in it, which paints the government as unconstitutional (should the Speaker of Parliament wish to paint it so), and to delay elections. At a maximum: to control the Presidency.
International goals: At a minimum: To convene an International Tribunal that may end up indicting the Syrian leadership for killing Hariri and destabilizing Lebanon. At a maximum: to leverage external and internal factors in overthrowing the Syrian regime.
Why is there a stand-off? Because no one seems to know for certain what is going on in Serge Brammertz’s mind. Brammertz is the UN appointed investigator into the Hariri murder (and the 14 related acts of violence) and he has kept his cards to himself: it is unclear whether he will indict the Syrian leadership or not in his final report. Brammertz has been handing in ‘progress reports’ that are non-committal and politically sterile. He seems to have concluded (in his last report submitted a week ago) that a suicide bomber willfully killed Hariri. The speculation now revolves on who controlled the suicide bomber; the Opposition would like Brammertz to conclude that the plotters were a jihadist organization with no ties to the Syrians or whose ties to the Syrian regime can’t be established, the March 14 coalition would like Brammertz to conclude that the order to kill Hariri came from the very top of the Syrian leadership.
Even if Brammertz cannot establish any tangible evidence linking the Syrians to the Hariri murder, both the Opposition and the March 14 coalitions believe that Brammertz will focus on circumstantial evidence that may show that the Syrians meant Hariri harm. Once such circumstantial evidence is established, Brammertz would have to assign Syrian culpability as a matter stemming from a rogue group within the regime, or acting on the orders of the top guys. [One commentator I spoke to likened it to Libya’s involvement in the Lockerbie terrorist act]. The admissibility of such uncertainty into the proceedings of the court, and what punishment may ensue and at how far up the chain of command, are the parameters that will define the 'legal procedures' of the court. Both the Opposition and the March 14 coalition would like to have full control over deciding upon these procedures.
This stand-off can have three outcomes:
-A political settlement: The ‘Opposition’ gets to control the cabinet through veto power (triggered when over 1/3 of the 30 cabinet members voting ‘nay’) and the ‘March 14’ crowd gets to go ahead with plan to set up a joint International Tribunal under UN auspices—the ‘legal procedures’ get decided upon by a joint committee of legal experts from both the Opposition and the March 14 coalitions. The head of the Arab League, ‘Amr Mousa, has been saying recently that a tentative deal was struck. But there are complications: Lebanese PM Fouad Siniora (M-14) traveled to Moscow to meet Putin ahead of the latter’s scheduled tête-à-tête with Syrian President Bashar Asad on December 19. Siniora wanted to gauge how serious the Russians were about blocking, through the UN, any international mandate that would give the tribunal teeth (…the ‘legal procedures’ again) in going after the Syrians. Siniora, along with his Saudi allies, hope that the Russians can be bought off. If the Russians remove this obstacle, then M-14 can use the tribunal as a credible threat to the survival of the Syrian regime and thus fortify their bargaining position. This allows them to forego the need of conceding to any of the Opposition’s demands. However, this is less likely given that the Russians can see the Bush administration taking a firmer stance against Syria (see Bush’s and Rice’s most recent statements about "talking" to the Syrians): the Russians want to get back into the game in the Middle East, and right now, the only moving parts they can influence in the picture are those that function contrary to the wishes of the Bush administration. I predict that the Russians will opt to stand behind the survival of the Syrian regime.
-Violence: If the ‘Opposition’ doesn’t get any of its minimal demands met then they are going to continue with the stand-off, and will probably get egged-on by the Syrians to threaten opting for extra-constitutional measures such as forming their own cabinet and inviting the Lebanese to follow its orders. This is a very dangerous split and all parties seem reluctant to travel down that road. Yet the M-14 leaders have calculated that if the other side blinks then their adversaries have more to lose. Hezbollah cannot and will not use its military machine to take down the regime; the M-14 crowd seems comforted by that. Cynically, they know that Hezbollah is terrified by outright success through the military means at its disposal; the Shi'as cannot ‘anoint’ a leader for the Sunni community without being exposed to a fierce sectarian backlash.
None of the main players wants violence or a trudge back to civil war dynamics. However, should a jihadist organization conclude, as Al-Qaeda has done in Iraq, that a Sunni-Shi'a clash and the ensuing chaos is in its best interest, then igniting this volatile situation is not such a tall order. All it would take is the assassination of a carefully selected high-profile Shi'a target and/or a series of anti-Shi'a bombings. Up to a point, Hezbollah and Seyyid Fadhlallah can check any desires for a reprisal against Sunnis, but neither holds Sistani’s stature as in Iraq, and the meltdown can come about faster in Lebanon that in Iraq. The outcomes beyond that are unknown but one can bet that they won’t be pretty.
-Reform: The sectarian system itself must be reformed, or it must be scrapped altogether. The sectarian system is not codified in law rather it is exercised by political consensus—once among feudal lords and over time (and wars) by newer sectarian actors. But birthrates and immigration are changing Lebanon’s demographics and ‘sectarian instability’ is mirrored in by the shake-up of the demographic balance. There are more Muslims than Christians in Lebanon and this trend is set to increase drastically since most young Lebanese are Muslim and most of the elderly in Lebanon are Christian. But the sectarian system (last modified by the Ta’if Accords, for what should have been a temporary and transitional period) tries to divide power evenly among Muslims and Christians. The reality of numbers on the ground and a flawed electoral law (put in by the Syrians in the year 2000 and gave the M-14 their parliamentary majority) began to mean that it was the numerous Muslims who were increasingly deciding on who would end-up representing the Christians. The Maronites seek to remedy this by a new electoral law that breaks down the electoral district into smaller units and gives voting privileges to expatriates (this was the main point of the December 6, 2006 declaration by the Maronite Synod). The leading advocate for such a reform is Michel Aoun.
At the heart of this debate over reform is a numbers game: How many Muslims? How many Christians? How many Shi'as? How many Sunnis? How many support the ‘Opposition’? How many support ‘March 14’?
In most rational societies, this would be determined either by a census (Lebanon hasn’t had one since 1932) or a non-denominational election. In lieu of rational means, the Lebanese have resorted to demonstrations and counter-demonstration over the last year and a half. More recently, numbers (i.e. mobilization) have become less important than the perception of a particular community’s staying power and discipline: who can outlast the other by picketing or by remaining holed up in the Grand Serrail. It is an allegory for militarism.
Assafir Newspaper ran some numbers on October 28, 2006 that were derived from a Congressional Research Service paper authored by Alfred Prados, a CRS staffer, who in turn relied on 1999 numbers cited by Levantine history scholar Colbert Held. The issue was the breakdown of the sectarian identity of those living in Lebanon (3.4 million) as opposed to all those who hold Lebanese nationality (4.8 million). Assafir cited the numbers as if it were an official US estimate, and in the parochial world-view from Beirut, it was convenient for some (the Opposition) to take these numbers as Gospel while for others (March 14) it was a nightmare:
Greek Orthodox 6%
March 14 rallied by releasing a study in their flagship newspaper Annahar on November 19, 2006 prepared by Yusuf Dweihi for the 4.8 million who hold Lebanese nationality:
Druze (approx.) 5%
Muslims (total): 64.3%
Christians (total): 35.3%
Therein lies the rub: Which numbers are more valid? Does the ‘Opposition’ hold the ‘real’ majority or does March 14? The Opposition’s claim to hold the majority would be greatly bolstered if the Shi'as are indeed 34% of the resident Lebanese population, and Aoun would have correctly chosen to ally the Maronites with the ascendant Islamic sect. However, if this number is much lower (26%) then the M-14 can claim the majority.
M-14 does not want to hold early elections to settle this once and for all. They would be needlessly gambling away their current parliamentary majority. They certainly don’t want to settle it under a new electoral system that would throw up more unknowns in their face.
But this M-14 position will erode its Maronite base over time: the political survival of Maronite authority in the long term is tied to formulating a new electoral law.
Now in a fantasy world, a liberal democrat such as myself would push for a total secular and non-denominational overhaul of the Lebanese system. This is an excerpt from what I wrote back in June 2005 (Democracy for Lebanon):
In Lebanon, the individual is beholden to the luggage of sectarian identity and history. Individual ambitions have no room for expression beyond the stringent and narrow categories of what god one prays to, and who's your grandfather. Even the grand equalizer of striking it big in the realm of finance translates into communal leadership rather than national leadership. This system was set in place by traditional power elites that milked the country - and its entrepreneurial spirit - for all it had. However, as long as you don't question the setup, you are free to do as you please.
The French colonial administration that drew up Lebanon as an enlargement of the Maronite enclave, and gave the Maronites the reins of power, created a very curious mistake. Those borders also included Sunnis, Shias, Greek and Catholic Orthodox Christians, Druze, and a smattering of other minorities. Lebanon became the incubator of a Middle Eastern contradiction: how to reconcile several thousand years of history and a multitude of identities that constitute the larger picture of the Middle East with modern, homogenizing ideologies. Not one single Middle Eastern country (all drawn up in one way or another by 20th-century colonial powers) can claim to have a homogenous ethnic or religious make-up. In such a country, and in such a region, can all the intricacies of history be dismissed in the face of a dominant, uniform Arab Islamic identity?
Lebanon paid a price tag of 150,000 dead in its 15-year civil war to come up with an answer: No. The tension leading up to the civil war, and still pervading the political atmosphere to this day, was how to reconcile on-the-ground diversity in the face of the pan-Arab nationalism sweeping the Middle East in the 20th century. In the wake of nationalism's decline, a new all encompassing ideology has emerged in the form of Islamic fundamentalism, increasingly led by Al Qaeda-type Salafi-Wahhabists and a sympathetic and well-funded religious establishment in Saudi Arabia. But would such an ideology succeed where nationalism failed, and where would that leave a country with the heterodox makeup of Lebanon?
The journey toward democracy involves moving away from disparate sectarian identities into a unifying Lebanese one. The language for that is oddly encapsulated in the Ta'if Accords of 1989 that brought an end to the civil war. It calls for the annulment of sectarian politics and power-sharing and provides the first step: a new electoral law that allows the Lebanese to vote on nonsectarian lines for the parliament. The signatories of the Ta'if Accords were the ossified icons of the old way of doing business, the traditional leaders, and they conveniently kept this clause on ice. Now is the time to bring it forth and use it to cajole the Lebanese into taking their first steps toward both freedom and democracy.
President Bush could help by appointing a special presidential envoy for democracy in Lebanon. He should pick someone of Lebanese descent (there are an estimated 1.5 million Americans who fill this category) and untainted by the past "status quo" policy of dealing with the Middle East. General John Abizaid of Centcom would be the ideal candidate, or otherwise the yardstick. The task of this envoy would be to sit down with the new parliament and get them to pass laws that facilitate the emergence of a new Lebanese identity. For example, there are about 150,000 households in Lebanon of mixed marriages between sects. In order to get a marriage license, a mixed-marriage couple needs to go to Cyprus or Europe. They are prevented from doing so in their own country. Legalizing same-citizenship marriages should not be such a hurdle and would find a supportive constituency.
A new electoral law needs to be cobbled together that takes into mind the sensitivities of the traditionalists but charts the path forward. The Ta'if Accords suggest the formation of a House of Lords where all the sectarian chieftains can hold court and put on airs but not disrupt or corrupt the functions of government. New electoral districting can be drawn to map out enclaves of sectarian uniformity, thereby ensuring that those who get elected actually represent their sectarian communities, which is not the case under the current law. In order to get the ultra-insecure Maronites on board, the Lebanese Diaspora still holding on to Lebanese citizenship - overwhelmingly Christian - should be allowed to vote, and that costly logistical process could be underwritten by American financial aid. The Shias who are increasingly transforming themselves from a dispossessed and marginal sect into the comforts of the bourgeoisie, and who are closely watching the Shia-American alliance in Iraq, must be encouraged to give up their support for Hezbollah by allaying their fears of armed Palestinians, usually seen as the shock troops of the Sunnis. Saad Hariri, now leading the Sunnis, should be tasked with getting the U.N.-mandated disarmament of the Palestinian militias done as a prelude to disarming the Lebanese Hezbollah.
As much as I would hope that this suggestion is taken up, I am resigned to believing that Lebanon is stuck in its current sectarian set-up. There is no force—not even American intervention—that can get the leaders of the various communities to budge.
But as this stand-off enters its seventh week, one has to wonder how viable this particular Lebanese system is going to be over the next two decades as Lebanese demographics keep changing.
For the time being, we are all stuck watching this slow-mo train wreck (see my pessimistic September 2006 column, Lebanon’s Fuse) until Brammertz releases his final indictment in 6 months’ time.
What is Iran’s role in all of this?
Does Iran really want a “Tehran on the Mediterranean” as some commentators have put it? I don’t think so: although Iran gave birth to Hezbollah and continues to suckle it, I believe Syria is Hezbollah’s surrogate mother or nanny, if you will. Lebanon is not as strategically interesting to Iran as Syria is. Sure, it is useful to annoy the Israelis from time to time, but Syria is a serious penetration of the Sunni Arab order in the Middle East, one that is very useful for Iran. Plus, there is lingering Iranian gratitude towards the Alawite Syrian regime for standing by it against Sunni Arab consensus during the Iran-Iraq war. The fact that the Alawites are in power in Damascus is a fluke of history. It was once put to me as being equivalent in likelihood to the ‘Red Indians’ taking back America. The Iranians don’t want to lose that, and if the Syrian regime is in trouble (cornered by the Americans, Israelis and the Saudis) then Iran would gladly lend Hezbollah over to becoming an instrument of Syria’s policy in Lebanon.
Furthermore, Iran is rapidly realizing that the shelf-life of its anti-Israel actions and rhetoric in garnering Arab Sunni favor is short lived indeed. Times have changed, and Tehran needs to quickly disabuse itself of the notion that leadership of the Muslim world can come about through belligerence against Israel—certainly not for the Shi'as in the age of Zarqawi’s talking points and Wahhabi propaganda. Nasrallah finds himself facing a hostile Sunni Arab street in Lebanon. Isma’il Haniyyah, Hamas’ PM, didn’t want to get caught photographed while praying with Shi'as in Tehran, right after delivering the Friday sermon and receiving bushels of cash.
Iran is not calling the shots when it comes to Hezbollah, Syria is. (for more, see my column, Quietly Smiling).
Who Killed Pierre Gemayel?
Was Gemayel’s murder (Nov. 21) tied to all the others (Hamadeh, Hariri, Kassir, Hawi, Chidyac, Tueni)? If it was so, then why did the killers decide on a new modus operandi that is fraught with risk (they fired 49 bullets at him and a guard from 4 separate weapons in broad daylight and in a crowded Christian commercial neighborhood)? Such an operation (they didn’t even mask their faces) affords investigators many leads, certainly more than the other cases. Whoever did it was in a hurry for results. The Opposition could have benefited by bringing down the cabinet through attrition (when over one third of its voted-on members had resigned or died), and the M-14 could have benefited by mobilizing the masses over yet another martyr ahead of the Opposition’s demonstrations. What if the killers are discovered and they are not found to be linked to the Syrians, say such as a jihadist organization? Does that mean that all the previous murders, assuming that they’re all connected, are also not the Syrians’ doing?
There is an alleged rush among US, Israeli, Jordanian, Egyptian and Saudi intelligence services these days is to show that Syrian intelligence acts through jihadists in Iraq and Lebanon, even without the manipulated jihadists knowing it. There are two schools of thought on that: one says the Syrians are not that operationally capable and that the jihadists are not that gullible (…and after Zarqawi they don’t deal with state sponsors), and another says that if the Syrians are indeed that capable then it is unlikely that they would have left a trail that leads back to them.
Pull all the stops and find the killers. This may be the long-awaited break in the Lebanese impasse; a stalemate that’s been going on since Hariri’s murder approximately 700 days ago.
With Shi'a-Sunni and intra-Maronite tensions coming to a boil, can Lebanon afford to wait around for Brammertz to make his call? I don’t know. For the time being, all of us who wish Lebanon well are at the mercy of a fundamentalist suicide bomber who could ignite something ugly out of this loaded stand-off. All the guns are out, all the triggers are cocked, one false move and it’s bloodshed.