US Foreign Policy

Lebanon’s Summer of Fear

in Program

This commentary first appeared on on July 19, 2007

By Emile El-Hokayem – One has to wonder whether to admire the resiliency of Lebanese society or ridicule its ability to adapt so easily to potential doom. Assailed by speculation of another summer conflict, Lebanese displayed a mixture of hope and angst. Youth flocked to Facebook groups such as “Nobody’s ruining my f-ing vacation in Lebanon this summer”, perpetuating a much-derided if necessary schizophrenia; the private sector called for a 100-day truce; and summer festivals scheduled star musicians. Of course, such a mind-set could not survive the coming storm.

Since May, Lebanon has suffered through major security incidents. Government paralysis, a crisis of legitimacy regarding the country’s institutions and power-sharing system and a targeted campaign of violence, all against the backdrop of upcoming milestones, have left Lebanon economically struggling, politically fractured and flirting with state failure again.

The first blow came when Lebanese security forces clashed with Fateh al-Islam. This peculiar organization, whose alleged loyalties and patrons have inspired spurious theories, has operated from Palestinian camps north of Tripoli since late 2006 and is comprised of Arab and Lebanese fighters, some returning from Iraq. Some have depicted FAI as a carefully groomed Sunni instrument that turned rogue; rather, FAI thrived on the factional nature of Sunni Islam, the availability of frustrated foreign militants, the ability to siphon resources and men from other groups (and thus to invite manipulation) and the state’s structural incapacity to preempt such threats.

The Nahr al-Bared tragedy is approaching its end, but once again Lebanon’s weak institutions failed to deliver basic security. The fight left the camp in ruins, exacerbating tensions between displaced Palestinians and local Lebanese and, despite overwhelming Sunni condemnation of FAI, frustrated and further radicalized segments of the Sunni community. While violence is now territorially contained, FAI’s use of rockets against neighboring towns, the threat of sleeper cells and the real risk of Palestinian or Salafi-jihadi uprisings elsewhere are distressing prospects.

After a bruising start and disorderly political direction, the military’s performance gradually improved, boosting its image and morale. Almost everywhere there are signs of genuine if inflated pride in the Lebanese Armed Forces, seen by many as the one institution actually fulfilling its mission and not mired in sectarian and political bickering. Whatever good comes out of the LAF’s performance, however, will dissipate as the political crisis endures. Underlying this success is the reality of an overstretched force, poor managerial and strategic skills at the top, inadequate equipment and training and perennial concerns about force cohesion. Indeed, the illusion that the LAF is a solution to the country’s ills is fading. Unless comprehensive reform occurs, the security sector will remain vulnerable to political interference, misplaced ambitions and manipulation.

The other security front is South Lebanon, an over-militarized and volatile space. The predictable June 25 attack on the Spanish peacekeepers–probably by a jihadi group–and multiple violations of UNSC Resolution 1701 by Israel, Syria and Hizballah illustrate the resolution’s limitations. Torn between the requirements of force protection, which would call for intelligence sharing with Hizballah and security guarantees from Syria, and the need to fulfill their mission by containing both, nervous UNIFIL officials are adamant that attacks will not divert them from the latter. For its part, Hizballah seems genuinely disturbed by this attack at a time when it is still determined to win the political struggle in Beirut, not turn up the heat in the South.

The UN Security Council’s adoption of the Hariri tribunal was a watershed event but not a turning point–probably because some parties from all sides see the tribunal as an instrument of regime change instead of deterrence and leverage with Syria. Having secured the tribunal, the ruling coalition extended too timid a hand to the opposition, which in turn refused to soften its demand for a veto right within a national unity government. Nor did the tribunal prevent the assassination of parliamentarian Walid Eido, likely the doing of Damascus’ Lebanese henchmen.

A frustrated victor, Hizballah has failed to cash in politically on its victory against Israel and to deliver on its reconstruction promises. Having jeopardized its cross-sectarian appeal, it has taken a backseat as its allies lead the confrontation with the government. But these partners, strongly identified with Syrian rule (except Michel Aoun), undermine the opposition’s very claim to embody change and good governance. Nevertheless, the Hizballah-Aoun alliance of convenience and shared opposition to the Taef system continue to shape political dynamics, and the Party of God even scored an unprecedented diplomatic nod when invited to the French-sponsored meeting of Saint-Cloud.

The governing coalition has survived the opposition’s tremendous challenge so far. Yet, physically threatened and internally divided, it has failed to demonstrate either competence or creativity. By trying to internationalize every problem, it has given credence to the perception of a western and Arab trusteeship over Lebanon. Moreover, the tactics of de-legitimizing Hizballah as essentially un-Lebanese and refusing to rethink the governance structure have shown their limits. This is why anti-Syrian rhetoric is escalating again, not without justification, but at considerable risk.

Indeed, Syria’s direct contribution to Lebanon’s instability remains considerable, if murky and sometimes overstated. In Syrian eyes, instability validates the positive role Syria played until 2005, squarely putting the blame for recent tensions on Lebanon’s sectarian divisions and on the international community’s shortsightedness. It also contributes to international fatigue with the Lebanese mess–opening the door for Syria to return as a pivotal player with veto power over Lebanese politics and the capacity to deliver its Lebanese allies if properly courted and rewarded, as French diplomacy is presently doing.

Under such circumstances, there is no opening for serious debate about political reform, only for conflict mitigation. The best Lebanon can hope for is a consensual president, which would require a foreign-brokered compromise. So far, however, external initiatives to promote reconciliation have stalled. The various factions are busy strategizing for the September presidential elections in the hope that some improbable regional development will tip the balance their way, and gearing for potentially two parallel and equally illegitimate governments. At the street level, bombastic statements and meager achievements on all sides have sucked up whatever romance people still attached to either Hizballah’s muqawama or the majority’s Cedar Revolution, strengthening sectarian sentiments at the expense of both myths.


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