Stoking the Fires in Lebanon

Beirut isn't burning just yet, but if the U.S. continues to cross a red line by pushing for a politically charged trial that Syria won't stand for, a full-scale blaze will surely erupt.

Beirut is boiling, as a Lebanese friend called to tell me. Over the weekend, Hizballah announced it would defy a government ban and hold mass, open-ended demonstrations until the government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora resigns — a slow-rolling coup d'etat, if you like. Then on Tuesday, the anti-Syrian minister Pierre Gemayel was assassinated. His father, Amin Gemayel, is the pro-American former president, his grandfather was the founder of the Christian Phalange party, and you can count on his assassination having momentous political consequences for Lebanon. I asked my friend what happens if the government doesn't give into Hizballah and resign. It's simple — Beirut burns, he said.

We're a lot closer to a civil war in Lebanon than we were last week. But I think a couple of things have to happen first before the Lebanese start filling sandbags. One likely trigger could be Lebanon's going ahead with an international tribunal to try the suspects accused of assassinating former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri in 2005. Neither Syria nor Hizballah will stand for a tribunal, believing it would be little more than a U.S. and French show trial intended to isolate them. And that's not to mention that several Syrian officials are actually implicated in Hariri's murder.

The tribunal aside, the real problem is with Hizballah, which does not consider itself just another Lebanese political party. Hizballah is firmly convinced it won its thirty three-day war with Israel this summer — if only by holding off the Israeli army and not returning the soldiers it kidnapped. The war turned Hizballah Secretary General Hasan Nasrallah into an icon of resistance across the Islamic world. One Lebanese Shi'a told me Nasrallah's standing now is higher than that of Iranian spiritual leader Ayatollah Khameini — which if true would be an earthshaking shift in the Middle East. Finally, considering that Hizballah's military forces are stronger and more disciplined than the Lebanese army's, why would Nasrallah defer to Lebanon's government on the tribunal, disarming, or anything else?

As for Syria, its interests in Lebanon may not be identical to Hizballah's, but they're just as vital. You have to go back to 1982 to understand what's at stake for Syria. On February 2 the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood seized Hama, one of the country's largest cities. Then Syrian President Hafiz al-Asad (the current president's father), convinced his regime was about to fall to the Islamic opposition, ordered his Special Forces to level Hama. Some 35,000 people were killed, most of them hostages. In the aftermath, what surprised and shook Asad was his discovery that Yasir Arafat and the PLO, then based in Lebanon, were behind the arming and training of Hama's Muslim Brothers. Asad promised himself one thing: He would never allow Lebanon to fall into hostile foreign hands. It is what the Syrians call a "red line," and I would imagine it's a red line for Bashar al-Asad too.

You can't count on much in Lebanon, but my experience has been that if you keep on poking at the red lines, like pushing the Lebanese into holding a politically charged trial when the country is teetering on a precipice, you'd better brace yourself for civil war. With the way Iraq is going, you would think that would be the last thing the White House would want. But apparently not. On Tuesday Bush insisted the tribunal go forward, which means he'll soon have to deal with finding a way to put out Beirut's latest fires.

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