The Lebanon Proxy

Buffeted by Its Surroundings

Over the past few weeks, Lebanese politicians from diverse groups have been meeting intermittently in what has been dubbed a "National Dialogue." But what their dialogue has exposed is how much Lebanese politics continues to be shaped by external forces. An analysis by Michael Young

Lebanese boys supporting opposition leader Saad Hariri, son of Lebanon's slain former Premier Rafik Hariri (photo: AP)
Last year's elections initiated the withdrawal of Syrian forces, but the country is still far from being politically autonomous

​​The Syrian regime of President Bashar Assad retains huge influence over key levers of the Lebanese state, including the security and intelligence apparatus, the army, and the judiciary – not to mention an alliance with the militarily powerful Hezbollah. Though Syrian soldiers may have withdrawn a year ago, Assad's regime never got over its departure from Lebanon, and it seeks to re-impose some form of hegemony over the country.

Syria's stance is complicated by an ongoing United Nations investigation that accuses it of involvement in the February 14, 2005, assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri.

While Syria's Lebanese allies have called for improved ties between the two countries, the Hariri murder makes this doubtful. For the moment, the Lebanese parties have agreed not to allow their territory to be used as a base for any presumed threats to the Syrian regime.

Lowering the heat on Syria

At the same time, Egypt and Saudi Arabia want desperately to avoid the downfall of Assad's regime. Publicly, they support the UN's investigation, but privately they have encouraged, even pressured, the Lebanese government to lower the heat on Syria.

Lebanese adversaries of Syria have resisted such demands, but the Egyptian and Saudi stance highlights how, for reasons of self-interest, Arab regimes rarely like to see fellow despots fall.

Indeed, the Egyptian and Saudi attitude contrasts starkly with that of two Western powers with extensive influence in Lebanon, the United States and France, which support the UN inquiry wherever it might go. Nevertheless, all four states agree that Syrian influence in Lebanon must be curbed, and all, in theory, approve of Hezbollah's disarmament – required by UN Security Council resolution 1559 – even if they differ over how to bring it about.

Sunnis and Shiites in Lebanon

Michael Young (photo: project-syndicate.org)
Michael Young is an analyst of Middle East affairs, based in Beirut

​​Another regional issue shaping Lebanese domestic politics is the ongoing violence between Sunnis and Shiites in Iraq. Lebanon's Sunnis and Shiites – the country's two most powerful communities, owing mostly to their demographic weight and the backing they enjoy from elsewhere in the region – are nowhere near the point of mutual violence, but there has been palpable political tension recently.

Hariri was the leading Sunni politician, and after his murder both communities found themselves in opposing corners with respect to Syria.

Within Lebanon, the Sunni-Shiite divide reflects broader regional frictions between the Sunni-majority Arab states, particularly Saudi Arabia, which backs Saad Hariri, the late prime minister's son, and Iran, which supports Hezbollah.

The Saudis fear that Sunni-Shiite discord, spreading from Iraq across the Arab world, might harm the kingdom, whose Shiites are concentrated in the oil-rich eastern part of the country. That is why Riyadh has encouraged Hariri to keep lines open to Hezbollah, the leading Shiite force.

The nuclear issue

Their sectarian anxieties aside, the Saudis and Egyptians fear that a nuclear Iran might secure Shiite dominance in the region. Grafted onto this is America-Iranian enmity, fed by the nuclear issue, but also by disagreement in Iraq. The Arab states have found themselves uncomfortably caught in the middle, as have the Lebanese, who are alarmed that they may pay the price for any American or Israeli attack against Iran's nuclear facilities, because in either case, Hezbollah may retaliate against Israel from South Lebanon.

Inside Lebanon, Hezbollah has interpreted UN demands for its disarmament as a plot by the Bush administration to weaken the party, and as a means of affirming American supremacy in the region. Hezbollah has refused to disarm in the face of what it has called the Israeli threat, although its definition of this threat has shifted frequently enough to cast doubt on whether it would ever be willing to surrender its weapons.

More recently, Hezbollah agreed to place the issue on the domestic negotiating agenda – perhaps because Iran doesn't want it to be a source of national dissension – but it is doubtful that genuine disarmament will ensue, at least for now.

The shoals of regional and international affairs

Finally, as they maneuver around the shoals of regional and international affairs, the Lebanese must also consider domestic American politics. Whatever one thinks about the war in Iraq, the US presence there has helped Lebanon to ward off Syrian efforts to reverse its withdrawal, as well as Arab efforts to compel the Lebanese to compromise with a regime that loathes Lebanese sovereignty.

A US administration in full withdrawal from Iraq would likely become indifferent to what happens in Lebanon. Who but Syria and Iran would benefit from that?

Such an outcome might satisfy some parts of Lebanese society, particularly Hezbollah. But most Lebanese remain committed to seeing their country living in peace, free from the isolation and militancy that are the hallmarks of Iran and Syria.

Unfortunately, Lebanon has always been buffeted by its surroundings, and the country could once again become an arena for destructive regional conflicts, regardless of what the Lebanese prefer.

Michael Young

© Project Syndicate 2006

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