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Will the US Ignite the Lebanese Tinderbox?


For months now, the media has been reporting that the UN-mandated Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) is expected to indict Hezbollah members for the killing of Rafiq Hariri in February 2005. Up until about 2008, when Syria was Washington’s official evildoer, the STL targeted Syria. When the US sought to improve relations with Syria and draw it away from Iran, it was Hezbollah’s turn to assume the role and the STL put Hezbollah in its crosshairs. As with other shifting designations of who the official evildoers are, it is not too conspiratorial to suppose that the STL’s re-adjusted focus is more than mere coincidence and serves a political purpose.

On January 11, 2011, after months of squabbling with their internal opponents on how to react to the STL’s forthcoming indictments, Hezbollah’s two ministers and nine allied ministers withdrew from Lebanon’s unity government, forcing its collapse. This happened on the day the Lebanese prime minister Saad Hariri (Rafiq’s son) was scheduled to meet President Obama in Washington. American officials deemed the act a “bid for impunity” by Hezbollah, a conclusion duly repeated by major newspapers. [1]

What is at play, however, is a far bigger game than the assassination of a former prime minister six years ago.  There are many possible actors, near and far, in this sordid tale. So, let’s leave aside for a moment the question of who committed the crime and consider the following facts instead.

No party has been more adamant than the US about preserving the STL mandate. From Barack Obama, to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs Jeffrey Feltman — and on down to other US officials expressing any opinion on the matter — they all mouth the same line:  “The work of the special tribunal must go forward, so justice can be served and impunity ended.” [2] “Impunity” and “justice” are obsessively repeated, a leitmotif in nearly all their statements about Lebanon since the 2005 assassination and their determination to bring the perpetrators to justice.

Naturally enough, such pronouncements are invariably coupled with virtuous declarations about respect for “Lebanon’s independence” and “Lebanon’s sovereignty.”  In recent months, top US officials have placed telephone calls to or met with Lebanon’s president Michel Suleiman, prime minister Saad Hariri, and allied cabinet members and parliamentarians, repeatedly insisting that the US has Lebanon’s security and stability at heart — except that no one should interfere with the STL’s work.

After a visit to Beirut in October, where he was sent to “reassure Lebanon’s president of President Obama’s support,” Jeffrey Feltman said that “there are people inside Lebanon who are arguing that it faces a choice of justice versus stability. That’s an artificial choice.” [3] The intended “justice,” and the punishment to follow, is of course the one to be meted out by the STL, with the UN Security Council and the US behind it.

The unnamed “people inside Lebanon” that Feltman alluded to almost certainly included Walid Jumblatt. Jumblatt is a veteran Lebanese parliamentarian and Druze chieftain, formerly allied with Saad Hariri and a one-time favorite of the neo-cons in Washington (in the years 2005-2008). In interviews with the Lebanese press, Jumblatt recounted his meeting with Feltman, but was far less circumspect than the latter. According to Jumblatt, Feltman tried to flatter him and he wisely demurred.  “[Feltman] told me I’m a national leader and should back the tribunal. I said, no, I prefer to be a tribal leader, I’m downgrading! And I asked what the use of tribunal justice is if it leads to slaughter? It’s better to drop justice for stability.” [4]

Jumblatt has tried to maintain contact with all sides since he defected from the Hariri camp and insists on being separate from the two contending parliamentary blocs. One of the more current ideas espoused by Jumblatt is to establish a separate or additional tribunal, entirely under Lebanese jurisdiction, to pursue the investigation into the Hariri killing. Needless to say, this is something totally anathema to the US, and therefore rejected by Feltman as reported by Jumblatt, because it would undermine the STL’s sole authority on the matter — and that of the US behind it. [5]  

In fact, virtually all sides inside Lebanon — establishment parties, extra-parliamentary groups, public commentators — share Jumblatt’s fears. They sensibly agree that an indictment of Hezbollah members will be a jump into the unknown, likely to destabilize the country and provoke tensions across Shia-Sunni lines. This has been reflected in the enormous outpouring of commentary on the STL’s undertakings in the Lebanese press in recent months — for and against, some hard-nosed and some fanciful and conspiratorial, from the right and from the left, including from pro-Hariri commentators.  Saad Hariri himself seemed to have recognized that the STL has become a political chess game among external powers, with the local parties serving as mere pawns. [6]

At this point, the STL has very little to do with an unresolved murder six years ago. It is the last card in a terrible game conducted from Washington to re-assert its power in an increasingly volatile region. However odious, however wrong-headed, and however wrapped in pious statements of respect for justice — whether acknowledged or not — the goal is to marginalize Hezbollah, soften the Lebanese target, and then unleash the Israeli military for the kill. It will be a repeat that will make the 2006 devastation of Lebanon a child play by comparison. [7]

These apprehensions now extend to parties and governments outside Lebanon, including US allies such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey. In recent months, Saudi Arabia and Syria worked together to find a way out of the Lebanese crisis. According to an editorial in the Saudi daily al-Watan, they had agreed on the broad lines of a settlement that “would save Lebanon from the clutches of chaos and instability. But apparently, international and regional sides did not favor the terms of the proposed settlement and succeeded in sabotaging the Saudi-Syrian initiative.” The Saudi paper then quoted in sympathy the Speaker of the Lebanese parliament, Nabih Birri, who lamented that “the game of the great powers exceeds the good will of King Abdallah and President al-Assad.” [8]

Other pro-Western Arab officials have publicly expressed frustration at American intransigence on Lebanon. In a meeting in Qatar on January 11, between the American Secretary of State and high officials of allied Arab governments, Secretary Clinton insisted that the STL “must go forward,” not to give in to those responsible for toppling the Lebanese government, which was “a transparent effort by [Hezbollah and its allies] to subvert justice and undermine Lebanon’s stability and progress.” The Qatari prime minister could only respond by pleading that “we have enough problems in the region that this problem we have to take care of it, in a way to solve it, not to complicate it.” [9]

Israeli officials and commentators are not blind to the unfolding scenario. The politicians and the generals recognize the consequences of the moves in Washington, and the commentators do not justify them with sanctimonious statements about justice and impunity. Commenting on the failed Saudi-Syrian attempt to defuse the Lebanese time bomb, a long-time Israeli observer of Middle Eastern affairs wrote perceptively:  “Saudi Arabia and Syria, recently mortal enemies, joined forces in an effort to avert a catastrophe that could easily spread throughout the region. They offered a compromise — but the US instructed its client, Hariri, to reject it. The Americans resemble — and even upstage — the Israelis in their arrogance and ignorance, which border on fatal irresponsibility.” [10]

What now?

In the immediate future, Turkey offers a glimmer of hope.  Under Prime Minister Recep Tyyip Erdogan, Turkey has played an increasingly assertive role in Middle Eastern politics. Often at odds with US policies, it has charted an independent course in its relations with neighboring countries, in many ways reminiscent of Brazil’s role under President Lula in Latin America. [11]

In Lebanon, Turkey has emerged as an influential middleman that both sides, the Hariri camp and the Hezbollah-allied opposition, seek to consult. On his return from Washington as a caretaker prime minister on January 13, Saad Hariri made a one-day stopover in Turkey for consultation with Erdogan. Within hours, Erdogan announced a meeting to include Turkey, Syria and Qatar to help solve the Lebanese crisis. For their part, both the US and France are active in trying to form a larger meeting. [12]

Erdogan’s counsel to Hariri is to engage Hezbollah and find ways to resolve the conflict in negotiations — in effect, to go back to the Saudi-Syrian compromise agreement that Hariri reneged on during his US visit. If the larger meeting with the US and France takes place, American diplomats can be counted on to play spoilers, and the more so, if the ever-imperious and sanctimonious Hillary Clinton is part of the American delegation. It remains to be seen if the Turkish diplomats can withstand American pressure and rally their Arab neighbors to their side. [13]

In the long run, Lebanon’s salvation will only come from discarding its confessional (sectarian-based) form of government, which is unlikely to happen without a fundamental change in the wider Arab order. The confessional system makes Lebanon easy prey to nearby forces all too ready to exploit its internal sectarian divisions. The wider Arab status quo, populated with anti-democratic despots and potentates that only survive by serving imperial interests, adds to Lebanon’s ills by using it as a place to play out external conflicts through local proxies. In this lies the importance of Tunisia’s momentous recent events for Lebanon: Beyond the inspiration that common citizens do not have to submit to their contemptible rulers’ venalities, the Tunisian uprising challenges this wider order and gives hope for the emergence of a regional environment where Lebanon can finally take steps to exorcise its sectarian demons.   

Notes

1.  The most telling, as often is the case, is a New York Times editorial on January 15, 2011, under the title “Bid for Impunity,” which excoriates Hezbollah and its allies for their opposition to the STL. It considers the STL as part of a “multiyear effort to strengthen Lebanese institutions and re-establish the rule of law.”

2.  From Hillary Clinton’s speech in Qatar to an audience of ministers and other top officials from US-allied Arab governments, quoted by Mark Landler and Robert Worth, “Lacking Leverage, U.S. Grasps for a Solution in Lebanon,” New York Times, January 12, 2011.

3.  Mark Landler, “In Mideast House of Cards, U.S. Views Lebanon as Shaky,” New York Times, October 26, 2010.

4.  This statement by Jumblatt was reproduced in a column by Roger Cohen, “U.S. Illusions in Lebanon,” New York Times (on line only), December 13, 2010.

5.  Accounts were in various Beirut papers during the last week of October 2010. Portions are reproduced in English in “Jumblat Meets Assad: Together with Damascus We Will Achieve Victory“, an-Nahar (on line only), October 24, 2010.

6. This is something that very few commentators in the West have acknowledged. Roger Cohen, to his credit, is one of the very few. In a recent column, he concludes “Saad Hariri has been talking less and less about ‘truth’ and meeting more and more with the Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad.”

7.  Juan Cole, “Wikileaks: Israel Plans Total War on Lebanon, Gaza,” Informed Comment, January 2, 2011. Cole discusses how Israeli generals are preparing for “total war” that will spare no civilians and accept no “restrictions on warfare in urban areas.”  This is based on leaked cables from 2009 and what they predicted did not happen — yet at least. But they reflect the Israeli military’s truly horrific mindset on how they view their Arab neighbors and intend to dispose of them.

8.  Editorial, “Lebanon in the face of a new crisis,” al-Watan, January 14, 2011 (in Arabic).

9.  Landler and Worth, op. cit. In typical NY Times style, Landler and Worth depict the US as a neutral broker whose “role has largely been confined to advising Mr. Hariri to stand firm in his support for the tribunal.” The “advising” is a euphemism for “instructing” — instructing Hariri not to accept a compromise agreement which his Saudi patrons had worked out with Syria and which Hezbollah had accepted. This corroborates various reports in the Arab press and also what Hassan Nasrallah said in a televised speech on January 16, 2011: The broad lines of a compromise agreement had indeed been reached by early January 2011, but Hariri reneged on it during his trip to New York and Washington on January 5-12. See “The opposition is unified against nominating Hariri to head a new cabinet,” al-Hayat (in Arabic), January 16, 2011. In a revealing comment, Landler and Worth write that “the Saudis had grown frustrated and decided to cut off the talks.” The talks in question involved Secretary Clinton, French President Sarkozy, Saudi King Abdallah, and Saad Hariri, and took place in New York in the days preceding January 10, 2011. Evidently, the Saudi King was not able to prevail on  Clinton, nor perhaps on Sarkozy either, to let Hariri abide by the Saudi-Syrian compromise agreement.

10.  Uri Avnery, “The Crown and the Coals,” Gush Shalom, January 15, 2011.  For all his judicious conclusions about current American policies in the Middle East, Avnery offers a highly skewed history of the emergence of borders and states in the Levant. Perhaps this is suitable for the purpose of criticizing present-day Israeli expansionists, by drawing some sort of parallel with the founders of the Lebanese state in the 1920’s, but it also upends the actual historical record of these Lebanese founders with the then-colonial power France and competing sections of the ruling classes under French and British mandates in the Levant during the first half of the 20th Century. 

11.  Over the past decade, Turkey has engaged all of its Arab neighbors and Iran, sought to defuse regional tensions, and developed a wide range of economic ties that had been nearly absent since the fall of the Ottoman Empire. A striking example is Iraq, where Turkey is building a vast network of economic ties throughout the country. The Turkish government is the only foreign government on equally good terms with all major political factions in Iraq, as reported by Anthony Shadid, “Resurgent Turkey Flexes Its Muscles Around Iraq,” New York Times, January 4, 2011. Turkey is pursuing similar policies towards Syria, Lebanon and Jordan.

12.  From wire dispatches, “Turkey to join Lebanon contact group to help solve political crisis,” Hurriyet, January 17, 2011.

13.  Anthony Shadid, “Lebanon Shows Shift of Influence in Mideast,” New York Times, January 18, 2011.

Assaf Kfoury is Professor of Computer Science at Boston University. He is an Arab American who grew up in Beirut and Cairo, and returns frequently to the Middle East.





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