Lebanon loses its buffer

Power and Interest News Report (PINR)
Feb 18 2005

Lebanon loses its buffer

Having lost its buffer and pivot, Lebanon is now faced with the
prospect of descending into another cycle of inter-communal conflict.

By Dr Michael A. Weinstein for PINR (18/02/05)

The assassination of former long-time Lebanese prime minister Rafiq
al-Hariri on 14 February opens a new chapter in Lebanon’s slide
towards instability that began on 20 October 2004 when Hariri
unexpectedly resigned over a Syrian-inspired move to extend the term
of President Emile Lahoud. Since then, Lebanon has been in the throes
of what observers call a “political crisis”, as the country’s
political class has become polarized over the presence of 15’000
Syrian troops in the country and the scheduling of parliamentary
elections that are supposed to take place in the coming spring.
Lebanon’s current phase of political history begins with the signing
of the Ta’if Accord in 1989 that ended the country’s 15-year civil
war and ushered in a period of reconstruction, economic renewal and
relative political stability. The war resulted from the breakdown of
Lebanon’s delicately balanced and religiously diverse society under
the pressure of an influx of Palestinian refugees and an ensuing
military conflict between the country’s neighbor Israel and the
Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), which had headquartered in
Lebanon after being expelled from Jordan in 1967. Created after World
War I, when the League of Nations mandated the five provinces of the
Ottoman Empire that compose the country to France, Lebanon has a
preponderantly Arab population that is split into a dizzying array of
religious communities, including Shi’ite Muslims (40 per cent), Sunni
Muslims (20 per cent), Maronite Christians (16 per cent), Druzes (6
per cent), and smaller proportions of Alawite Muslims and Greek and
Armenian Christians. During the colonial period, which lasted into
World War II, France favored the Christians, who at that time
composed slightly more than half of the country’s population, and set
up a system of communal representation, in which the president was a
Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim, and the
speaker of the National Assembly a Shi’ite Muslim. The legislature
and state bureaucracy were also staffed proportionally according to
religious confession. The confessional system of representation,
which was intended to be temporary, persisted after independence and
was restored in a modified form by the Ta’if Accord. Estimates put
Lebanon’s population at 3.8 million; there are no reliable figures
since there has been no national census since 1932, preserving the
fiction of Christian-Muslim parity.

Transcending communalism
Traditionally the most cosmopolitan country in the Arab world,
Lebanon has reclaimed its role as a regional financial and trading
center through its post-war reconstruction, yet its social cohesion
remains fragile. The civil war, which was ultimately tamped down by
Syrian military occupation, revealed deep communal conflict between
Christians seeking to maintain their power in the face of an
unfavorable population balance and Muslims eager to institutionalize
their majority status. The tendency towards polarization is blunted
by the diversity within each side of the great religious divide, but
that has resulted in severe fragmentation during periods of
instability. Given the constraints imposed by confessional
representation, Lebanese politics are not articulated through
Western-style political parties, but through shifting blocs composed
of local notables based in religious communities. The system
functions effectively when competing blocs organize representatives
from each of the major religious groups so that political competition
takes place over trans-communal issues rather than spiraling downward
into communal conflict, as occurred during the civil war. In order to
avoid breakdown into hostile fragmentation, Lebanon’s political
system requires bridging figures who transcend communalism and have
the negotiating skills and credibility necessary to make and maintain
the deals that allow the country’s major confessional groups to
coexist in peace. Al-Hariri was the major bridging figure in Lebanese
politics throughout the post-civil war period and his assassination
portends the possible collapse of the country’s tenuous social

Al-Hariri as a political pivot and buffer
Since the end of the civil war, Lebanon has been in great part a de
facto protectorate of the Ba’athist regime in Damascus, whose
military presence in the country has prevented a renewal of violent
conflict, but has also guaranteed Damascus’ decisive influence in
Lebanese politics. Throughout the time in which Syria has functioned
as Lebanon’s power broker, making sure that Beirut’s leadership
acquiesced in Damascus’ interests, al-Hariri was the only politician
with sufficient stature to allow Beirut to achieve a considerable
degree of autonomy in domestic policy by maintaining a high level of
popularity across confessional groups, skillfully negotiating winning
coalitions among blocs and placating Damascus just enough to keep it
at bay. Al-Hariri was able to accomplish his difficult balancing act
through the combination of his immense wealth, which made him
independent of any sectoral interest, and his commitment to
functioning as a bridge builder, which enabled him to serve as a
buffer between communities, and between the Lebanese political system
and Damascus, as he pivoted among blocs. The son of a poor Sunni
family from the southern city of Sidon, al-Hariri left Lebanon after
dropping out of college for financial reasons and migrated to Saudi
Arabia, where, after holding several jobs, he entered the
construction business, became a personal friend of King Fahd,
received dual Saudi Arabian citizenship and made billions of dollars
through varied enterprises. One of the richest men in the Arab world,
al-Hariri used his wealth to enter Lebanese politics, providing all
of the funds for the 1989 conference in Ta’if, Saudi Arabia that
ended the civil war. Afterwards, he volunteered equipment from his
construction company to clear out the rubble left from the war and
was elected to serve in the National Assembly. In 1992, al-Hariri
assumed the post of prime minister, holding that position five times
as he maneuvered through the maze of Lebanese politics, using
resignation as a tactic and then re-emerging as a coalition builder
with wide popular backing. As prime minister, al-Hariri reinforced
his stature by engineering Lebanon’s reconstruction through the
private company Solidere, of which he was the major shareholder, and
by using his international business and political connections to
attract foreign investment and revive the tourist industry. Although
he was criticized by opponents for profiting from reconstruction
through Solidere and for driving Lebanon into debt, he was widely
credited for playing an indispensable role in renewing the country’s
economy and preserving social peace.

Syrian presence
With the country’s economy reviving and sectarian militia disbanded –
except for the Syrian and Iranian supported Shi’ite Hizbollah, which
has continued its confrontation with Israel in the south – the major
issue in Lebanese politics became the Syrian military presence in the
country and Damascus’ role as its power broker. Although the division
over whether Syria should remain or withdraw cuts across confessional
boundaries, opposition to Damascus is concentrated in the Christian
and Druze communities, and pro-Damascus sentiment in the Shi’ite and,
until recently, Sunni communities. In negotiating the domestic
conflict over the Syrian presence, al-Hariri managed to be an
effective buffer, pivoting towards Damascus and away from it, until
the autumn of 2004, when Damascus engineered a constitutional
amendment granting al-Hariri’s arch political rival Lahoud a
three-year extension of his presidential term, in order to head off
presidential elections that might have resulted in a presidency less
favorable to the Syrian presence. As the constitutional crisis
loomed, Paris and Washington moved in the UN Security Council to push
through Resolution 1559, which called upon Damascus to withdraw its
troops from Lebanon, and for Beirut to disband non-state militia and
permit free elections. Washington had already imposed economic
sanctions on Damascus in 2003, was pressuring Damascus to police its
border with Iraq and withdraw its support of Hizbollah, and
ultimately desired regime change in Syria. Paris’ support for the
resolution seemed to be based on a desire to mend fences with
Washington after their dispute over the US intervention in Iraq. The
result of the pressure exerted by Paris and Washington for Lebanese
politics was to strengthen the resolve of the anti-Syrian opposition.
After the Lebanese National Assembly approved the constitutional
amendment on 3 September – a day after the passage of Resolution 1559
in the Security Council – al-Hariri attempted to form a new
government, but was unable to do so and resigned as prime minister on
20 October, saying that he would stay on the sidelines and wait and
see if Damascus could retain its control over Lebanon in the face of
international pressure and domestic conflict. A pro-Syrian government
led by Omar Karami was installed under the conditions of an
opposition boycott and the abstention of al-Hariri’s bloc, setting
the stage for unbuffered polarization.

Opposition’s ‘silent leader’
Since the constitutional crisis, Lebanese politics have been taken up
with arranging elections for the National Assembly in spring 2005 (no
date has yet been set). During this time, al-Hariri pivoted towards
the opposition and was accused by pro-Syrian forces of having
engineered Resolution 1559. Now a divisive figure, no longer able to
play the role of buffer, al-Hariri was widely deemed the “silent
leader” of the opposition – the strains within and the pressures from
without the Lebanese political system had become too great for him to
manage, although it was widely assumed that he would make yet another
bid for the prime minister’s office if results of the parliamentary
elections were favorable. The significance of al-Hariri’s pivot
towards the opposition was the possibility that it could decisively
shift the balance of power in Lebanese politics towards the
anti-Damascus opposition by allying his Sunni base with it and
isolating the Shi’ite. Were that to happen, Damascus’ influence in
Lebanon would be diminished, perhaps to the point that it would have
to pull out, and the Franco-American combination would gain leverage
and have the possibility of prying Beirut into the Western sphere of
influence, weakening and further isolating Syria’s Ba’athist regime.
As it presently stands, al-Hariri’s assassination has already
provoked attacks on Syrian workers and businesses in Sidon,
indicating that his death might only hasten the process of
realignment. Even more serious for Damascus, a mass march of hundreds
of thousands of Lebanese mourners around al-Hariri’s funeral on 17
February attracted participants from all of the country’s
confessional groups and took on an anti-Syrian tone with banners
reading “Syria Out”.

Reaction to Hariri’s assassination
Although an Islamic revolutionary group – Victory and Jihad in
Greater Syria – claimed to have carried out al-Hariri’s assassination
on account of his Saudi ties, its claim was not deemed credible by
interested parties, which used his death as an opportunity to press
their own agendas – all of them deplored the deed, expressed fears of
a return to civil war and urged the Lebanese people to show
solidarity, but there the similarities ended. The government declared
a three-day mourning period and placed the army on high alert,
promising to hunt down the perpetrators and bring them to justice. In
contrast, the opposition, meeting at al-Hariri’s Beirut residence,
blamed Damascus for the crime – if not for actually committing it,
which they implied it had, then for allowing it to happen. The
opposition called for Damascus to withdraw its forces from Lebanon,
for an international investigation of the assassination to be held,
and for a three-day general strike to be mounted. Some even suggested
that Lebanon be placed under “international receivership”. Maronite
Christian leader Michel Aoun, who had fled into exile in Paris after
he refused to accept the Ta’if Accord and who still retains support
in his community, promised to return to Lebanon for the parliamentary
elections and expressed hope that the assassination would spur the
exit of Syrian forces from the country: “If they are capable of
eliminating political leaders, they are capable of influencing
election results. The Syrians must be reined in.” Druze leader Walid
Jumblatt was even more blunt, accusing the Lebanese government of
being “a regime of terrorists”. Washington and Paris joined the
opposition in placing their focus on Damascus, but were more
restrained. Endorsing one of the opposition’s demands, Paris urged an
international investigation into the assassination. Washington did
not directly accuse Damascus of the crime, but said through White
House press secretary Scott McClellan that it was “a terrible
reminder that the Lebanese people must be able to pursue their
aspirations and determine their own political future free from
violence and intimidation and free from Syrian occupation”.
Washington followed up on its statement by recalling US ambassador to
Syria Margaret Scobey for “consultations”. The responses of Paris and
Washington reflected their continuing cooperation on trying to
eliminate the Syrian presence in Lebanon – during her visit to Europe
in February, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had conferred
with French President Jacques Chirac on further action against
Damascus in the UN. As would be expected, Damascus took an opposite
line to that of its adversaries, blaming them indirectly for the
assassination. Syrian Foreign Minister Faruq al-Shara urged Lebanese
to “reject foreign interference”, and Information Minister Mahdi
Dakhlallah said the crime was perpetrated by the “enemies of Lebanon”
and had occurred at a time when pressure was being exerted on
“Lebanon and Syria aimed at achieving the aggressive goals of
Israel”. Rejecting calls for an international investigation, al-Shara
stated that “Lebanese authorities will carry out an investigation to
determine which party was behind this act”. That position was quickly
affirmed by Beirut, which rejected an international investigation on
the grounds that it would be a violation of Lebanon’s sovereignty.

Deep divisions resurface
Having lost its buffer and pivot, Lebanon is now faced with the
prospect of descending into another cycle of inter-communal conflict.
Despite the swell of popular support for al-Hariri at his burial
services, reaction to his assassination shows that the deep divisions
in Lebanese society that surfaced in the civil war had never healed
but had simply been held in check by war weariness, the process of
reconstruction, al-Hariri’s skillful deal making, and the Syrian
military presence. With reconstruction basically accomplished, the
bridge builder gone, and the Syrian presence a destabilizing factor,
all that prevents factional breakdown is general fear of a return to
violent conflict and a possible crystallization of public opinion
against Damascus. The major external players in the struggle over
Lebanon’s future – Washington and Damascus – face the problem of
pressing their conflicting interests without precipitating a Lebanese
civil war. Washington, which desires regime change in Damascus, is
not yet ready to pursue military action that would place Lebanon
under “international receivership” and drive Damascus out of the
country. Its past failures to stabilize Lebanon through direct
intervention will make it shy of repeating the process, as will its
commitments in Iraq and its need to attend to other world trouble
spots. Washington is likely, instead, to continue leaguing with
France through the Security Council, where its ambitions will
probably be compromised – as they were in September 2004 – by
opposition from Beijing and Moscow. Damascus, whose position in
Lebanon has been weakened by the defection of al-Hariri’s Sunni base
in the aftermath of its attempt to retrench by engineering the
extension of Lahoud’s term, is faced with the prospect of losing its
status as power broker and encountering active resistance to its
military presence.

Tough choices for Damascus
Were Damascus to attempt to crack down on a resurgent opposition, it
would risk growing support among major international players for
Washington’s agenda and might be drawn into a costly and uncertain
military quagmire. Yet if it concedes its influence, it will open up
a power vacuum in Lebanon that is likely to be filled by forces
hostile to its interests, and its Ba’athist regime will lose
credibility at home. The announcement on 17 February that Tehran and
Damascus would form a “united front” against Washington reflects a
desire by both capitals to circle their wagons. Syrian Prime Minister
Mohammad Naji Otari said, after meeting with Iranian First
Vice-President Mohammad Reza Aref, that “the challenges we face in
Syria and Iran require us to be in one front”. In its confrontation
with Damascus, Washington has the luxury of treading cautiously, as
it did when it downplayed the announcement of the Tehran Damascus
“united front”. Damascus, in contrast, has unwittingly pushed itself
into a corner – it appeared during the 2004 constitutional crisis
that Damascus would get away with its power play, but it did not
count on the consequences of a decisive pivot by al-Hariri towards
the opposition. Now it can only hope that parliamentary elections in
Lebanon – if they are held – will not swing the balance of power in
Lebanese politics firmly against it. Analysts in the Middle East
speculate that al-Hariri’s assassination might have been inspired by
Damascus itself, by rogue elements in its intelligence apparatus, or
by anti-al-Hariri forces from one of Lebanon’s confessional
communities. If the perpetrators are credibly identified, the present
tensions might be more sharply defined and shift the balance of power
towards one of the contending sides, but knowing who the culprits
were will not change the basic polarized situation. Lebanon had lost
its buffer and pivot before Hariri’s assassination; his death only
makes obvious Lebanon’s failure to heal.

Dr. Michael A. Weinstein is a professor of political science at
Purdue University and an analyst with the Power and Interest News
Report, at (). This article originally appeared in PINR,.
All comments should be directed to [email protected].

From: Emil Lazarian | Ararat NewsPress