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January 27, 2007

Another Dark Era Threatens Lebanon


by Antoun Issa

Three days of sectarian violence has once again brought this troubled country to breaking point.

A mini-civil war has played out throughout Lebanon this week as Government and Opposition factions push their power struggle to the brink.

The "peaceful" general strike called by Hezbollah and its Christian allies has turned into a three-day violent sprawl that has left 10 dead and over 100 wounded. The latest four casualties being students caught up in Sunni-Shi'ite clashes at the Beirut Arab University.

The overflow of violence comes amid two months of persistent Iranian and Syrian-backed Opposition attempts to depose the pro-American Siniora Government.

The clashes have reignited deep sectarian and factional divisions that have lingered since the previous civil war ended in 1990.

Much like the previous civil war, which destroyed the country between 1975 to 1990, the current fragile political landscape in Lebanon has its roots in regional quarrels.

Fractured Country

Created by France at the end of World War I, Lebanon is still struggling to find a balance between its various religious and ethnic communities. More often, the sects have sought closer links with regional and global powers in their struggle for a greater say in this tiny mountainous country.

Saudi Arabia has long been a prime backer of Lebanon's Sunni community, while the Shi'ites receive substantial support from Iran, with Hezbollah emerging in Lebanon greatly as a consequence of the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Lebanon's main Christian sect, the Maronite Catholics, have historically maintained close relations to France.

Today's political divisions in Lebanon mirror the present regional climate. Increasing tensions between Sunnis and Shi'ites in the Middle East are adding fuel to Lebanon's already tense sectarian makeup.

Regional Sectarianism

The Iraq War opened old sectarian wounds in the region as Iran seeks to empower Iraqi Shi'ites, while Saudi Arabia vigorously attempts to defend the Iraqi Sunnis. Fear in the Sunni Arab world of Iranian dominance has pushed states like Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan to closely cooperate with the US in its pursuit to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power.

The Sunni Arab world abruptly condemned Hezbollah during last summer's war with Israel, which was widely perceived as indirect support to Israel's campaign to destroy the Iranian-backed militant group.

Surprising the US and its the Sunni Arab allies, Hezbollah came out victorious from the conflict and is now politically stronger than ever. The Lebanese Shi'ite group's triumph has also been hailed as a victory in the regional context for its backers, Syria and Iran.

The result of the war has given both Syria and Iran the pretext to win back Lebanon into its sphere of influence after Syrian troops pulled out in 2005 following the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri.

Both states have wasted no time in applying maximum pressure to regain control of Lebanon. Hezbollah, which Israel accuses of being rearmed by Syria and Iran, has joined its main Christian ally, former General Michel Aoun, in a rigorous campaign to force the Siniora Government, and indeed the US, to relinquish the keys of power.

Hezbollah and Aoun's party, the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), have declared that Lebanese popular support is on their side. Hezbollah commands the greatest Shi'ite following in the country, while the FPM repeatedly insists that the majority of Christians support them.

The two parties together present a formidable Opposition force. They have crammed over 1 million people in Beirut on more than one occasion in the past two months in what were Lebanon’s largest ever protests.

Tug of War

For Syria and Iran, the signs that the US would concede Lebanon to them seemed ominous. Pressure was mounting domestically and externally on the Bush Administration to negotiate with Syria and Iran. The latter parties upped the ante on Lebanon to further twist the Bush Administration’s hand on any bargaining table.

But the bearings have not yet come to fruit for Syria and Iran. After two months of Opposition pressure, the US – with Saudi support – is not backing down, and the Siniora Government remains intact.

The impressive $7.6 billion aid and loan package given to Siniora at the Paris III conference is the latest sign demonstrating Western and Saudi determination to ensure its proxies remain in charge of Lebanon.

Lebanon is at a level of utter stagnation, and neither Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, nor the Lebanese Sunni Prime Minister Fouad Siniora seem able or willing to resolve the dispute without foreign approval.

The tiny country with little natural resources is the subject of a tug of war between the two axes in the region. Neither the Iranian-Syrian axis, nor the American-Saudi axis are willing to give up Lebanon. Until these two parties sit down and begin to compromise, this week's mini-civil war may be the beginning of worse to come.

 

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Antoun Issa is a Lebanese-Australian journalist. Visit his blog.

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