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February 3, 2007

The Lebanese Dilemma: A Primer


by Antoun Issa

The political vacuum caused by Syria’s abrupt departure from Lebanon in 2005 has prompted a tense power struggle for control in this tiny Middle Eastern state.

The fight for power in Lebanon has rekindled old sectarian and tribal divisions that were tamed under Syrian domination.

Numerous assassinations, bombings, mass demonstrations, a war with Israel and internal clashes are leading this country along a dangerous path. As the various Lebanese factions wrestle for hegemony, regional and world powers are placing high stakes in the Beirut power play.

Who are the key players inside and outside of Lebanon?

Internal Factions

The March 14 Coalition (The Governing Coalition):

A coalition of Sunni, Druze and Christian parties formed during the tide of anti-Syrian fever that swept the country following the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri in 2005.

The March 14 Forces won a parliamentary majority in the elections that followed Syria’s troop withdrawal in April 2005, and gave them the key veto-yielding majority in the Government.

The anti-Syrian coalition is made up of a number of key political factions:

Future Movement:

The political party of the late Rafik al-Hariri, it is now currently led by his son Saad al-Hariri, who leads the parliamentary majority. It currently enjoys the support of the majority of Sunni Muslims in the country, and is also the faction of Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora.

The Future Movement maintains exceptionally close ties to the Sunni kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and is backed by the United States and France.

Progressive Socialist Party:

Led by Druze warlord Walid Jumblatt, the Progressive Socialist Party (PSP) draws its support largely from Lebanon’s main Druze tribes that are loyal to the Jumblatt clan.

The party was created in 1949 by Jumblatt’s father, Kamal Jumblatt, who was assassinated in 1977. Jumblatt Jr. accuses Syria of his father’s death, although the Ba'ath regime rejects the claims.

Despite the accusation, the PSP remained a close ally of Syria throughout Lebanon’s notorious civil war and subsequent domination up until the assassination of Hariri in 2005.

A close friend of Rafik al-Hariri, Jumblatt and the PSP turned sharply against Syria and now forms a key member of the anti-Syrian coalition, which enjoys American and French support.

Lebanese Forces:

A right-wing Christian militia that fought under the banner of the late President-elect Bashir Gemayel during the previous civil war, the Lebanese Forces (LF) has forever been an anti-Syrian force. Gemayel was assassinated by a member of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP) in 1982 before he made it to office.

The faction is currently led by Samir Geagea, who allied with Israel once they had invaded Lebanon in 1982.

Samir Geagea had been imprisoned in 1994 on charges of murdering former Prime Minister Rashid al-Karami and bombing a Maronite Catholic Church. His followers accuse Syria of masterminding a conspiracy to imprison their leader. Geagea was pardoned and released in 2005 following the Syrian withdrawal.

The militant group fought devastating battles against Jumblatt’s PSP during the Civil War, but have now found them a useful ally against Syria.

Lebanese Phalangist Party:

Once the largest Christian political party in Lebanon, the right-wing Phalangists have their roots in the Gemayel family.

Founded by Pierre Gemayel in 1936, the Phalangists were the main political force in Lebanon up until the outbreak of war in 1975. Gemayel named the party after Franco’s fascists in Spain.

Traditionally backed by France, the Phalangists welcomed the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 and fought alongside them to maintain their power in Lebanon.

Although much of its prowess has been lost due to internal Christian divisions, it still remains a considerable element of the March 14 Forces.

Its leading member of parliament, Pierre Gemayel (the grandson of the founder and son of former Lebanese President Amine Gemayel), was assassinated in November 2006.

The Opposition:

The Opposition is a coalition of pro-Syrian parties and factions disenchanted by the leadership of the March 14 Forces, formed largely as a result of a pact signed between the Shi'ite Hezbollah movement and the mainly Christian Free Patriotic Movement.

It accuses the Government of being riddled with corruption, exacerbating Lebanon’s economic woes, and serving American interests.

Hezbollah:

Commanding the largest Shi'ite following in Lebanon, Hezbollah is currently considered the most powerful political party in Lebanon.

It rose from the rubble of Shi'ite suburbs and villages destroyed during Israel’s invasion in 1982. Inspired by the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran, the Islamist group has received substantial support from Iran and Syria since its beginnings.

It waged a successful 18 year guerrilla war to remove Israeli forces from Lebanese territory under the banner of the Islamic Resistance.

The Iranian-backed party also acts as a social service for Lebanon’s under-privileged Shi'ites, erecting schools and hospitals, running its own television network, and offering free services to its community.

Hezbollah is the only Lebanese faction to have retained its heavy weaponry since the Civil War, claiming that part of Lebanese territory is still occupied by Israel, the disputed Shebaa Farms.

This small strip of land has been the main source of lingering tension between Hezbollah and Israel since the latter’s withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000. Israel and the UN have said that the land belongs to Syria, while Hezbollah and Syria claim it's Lebanese.

Tensions reached breaking point in the summer of 2006 when Israel launched a war to obliterate Hezbollah after the militant group captured two Israeli soldiers. The mission failed, and Hezbollah has emerged more politically powerful than ever despite Lebanon suffering heavy casualties and extensive damage to its infrastructure.

Since its proclaimed victory in the summer war with Israel, Hezbollah has turned its focus on the pro-American Lebanese government and has launched a vigorous campaign with its allies to remove the regime.

Free Patriotic Movement:

A secular, but mainly Christian, political party of former General Michel Aoun – one of the very few major parties to not have a militant wing, as it advocates peaceful change in the country.

Aoun made his name during his infamous and unsuccessful war of liberation against Syria in 1990, and remained a vociferous opponent of the Syrian presence in Lebanon.

He campaigned against Syria while spending 15 years in exile in France following his failed war.

In the wake of Syria’s withdrawal in 2005, the former General returned to Lebanon to form his political party, the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM).

An old rival of the LF leader Samir Geagea, Aoun’s FPM surprised the Lebanese political scene by winning the majority of Christian support in the last elections, even now remaining the most potent political voice for Christians in Lebanon despite its secular constitution.

Accusing the March 14 Forces of corruption, the FPM turned to Hezbollah to form an alliance on the platform of reforming the country.

The two parties form the main component of the Opposition as Hezbollah commands the largest Shi'ite following, while the FPM claims to represent the majority of the Christian street.

The FPM rejects Syrian interference in Lebanon’s affairs, but admits that Lebanon needs to retain its special relationship with Syria. Aoun’s opponents accuse him of receiving Syrian support, which he denies.

Amal Movement:

A more moderate Shi'ite movement, Amal was founded by cleric Moussa al-Sadr in 1974 to give a greater say for Lebanon’s long neglected Shi'ites.

It took a key part in the Lebanese Civil War as one of the main pro-Syrian factions.

Led by Lebanese Parliament Speaker, Nabih Berri, it remains a strong supporter of Syria, and opposed Syria’s withdrawal in 2005.

Today, Amal cooperates closely with fellow Shi'ite party Hezbollah and participated in its recent war with Israel.

It favors closer ties with Syria, and is a principal member of Lebanon’s Opposition.

Marada Brigade:

A Maronite Christian faction of the Frangiyeh clan, it receives wide support among Lebanese Christians in the Frangiyeh's native northern Lebanon.

Currently run by former Interior Minister Sleiman Frangiyeh, the Marada Brigade has often had tense ties with fellow Christian faction, the Lebanese Forces.

Frangiyeh accuses the Forces' Geagea of killing his father, Tony Frangiyeh, during a Phalangist raid on the Marada Brigade, known as the Ehden massacre, in 1978.

Since the murder, Frangiyeh has maintained close ties to Syria, and remains a personal friend of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Syrian Social Nationalist Party:

The oldest political party in Lebanon, the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP) was founded by the intellectual Antoun Saadeh in 1932.

The secular movement advocates a Greater Syria encompassing Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Palestine/Israel, Iraq, Kuwait and Cyprus.

The party has a brutal history with Syria’s Ba'ath regime, who fought the group for control of Syria in the 1950s and 1960s.

The SSNP and the ruling Ba'ath Party later put differences aside and allied in Lebanon’s Civil War, with the SSNP receiving support from Syria.

The two have since maintained a close relationship, with the SSNP one of the few parties allowed to operate freely in Syria.

In return, the SSNP has given Syria unwavering support in Lebanon and enjoys links to other pro-Syrian parties such as Hezbollah and Amal.

It fought actively against Israel’s 18 year occupation, and is a champion of Hezbollah’s right to retain its weapons.

Foreign Powers

United States

In line with the Bush Administration’s visions of American dominance in the Middle East, the US has sought Lebanon as one of the states to fall under its sphere of influence.

Contradicting previous US policies of giving Syria a free hand in Lebanon, Bush has launched a campaign to snatch the country from Syria’s grip.

The US applied intense diplomatic pressure on Syria, including economic sanctions and UN resolutions, to force the Syrians out of Lebanon. As it did with the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, the Americans backed the "Cedar Revolution" which brought a million people to Beirut’s streets to call for Syria’s withdrawal.

Syria obliged, withdrew, but did not give up.

The US now finds itself in a struggle with Syria and Iran over dominance in Lebanon. The struggle has deeply polarized the Lebanese people and brought the country to the brink of civil war.

It publicly backed Israel’s effort to destroy Hezbollah last summer, and expressed dissatisfaction when the Israelis failed.

The Americans are now attempting to boost the ruling March 14 coalition with financial, military and intelligence aid in order to combat Hezbollah, and hoping to use Lebanon to restrict Syria and Iran’s ability to influence events in the region.

Israel

A staunch supporter of US’ intentions to dominate the Middle East, the Israelis have high interests at limiting the regional power of Iran and restraining Syria.

Israel’s merciless invasion of Lebanon in 1982 intended to force the PLO out of the country and to establish a Lebanon favorable to Israel.

The latter task failed, and the country fell into Syria’s orbit.

The Israelis still retain a key interest in Lebanon. It greatly desires to destroy what it sees as a mini-Iran on its doorstep in Hezbollah. It indeed attempted to do so last summer, and failed.

Israel is particularly fearful of Iran’s nuclear ambitions, and perceives Hezbollah as a serious threat. A potential military offensive against Iran may be restrained by Hezbollah’s lingering presence along Israel’s northern border.

Its prime interest in Lebanon is to remove the Hezbollah threat, and weaken Iran’s other main ally, Syria, by turning Lebanon against it.

Israel has warned of a new Lebanon war if Hezbollah succeeds in toppling the American-backed Government. It fears a Hezbollah-led government may remove the 12,000-strong UN buffer force in Lebanon, which will allow the Islamic group to resume its activities.

Rumors have circulated regarding Israeli assistance to Lebanon’s March 14 coalition, but the Lebanese Government has denied the claims.

Saudi Arabia

A regional Arab power, a key US ally, and birthplace of Islam, Saudi Arabia views itself as the guardian of Sunni Islam.

While it publicly declares that it is strongly opposed to Israel’s oppression of mainly Sunni Palestine, the Saudis have instead turned its main focus on defending the power of Lebanon’s Sunni community.

Through the Sunnis, Saudi Arabia enjoys considerable influence in Lebanon.

A longtime rival of the Shi'ite Islamic regional power, Iran, the Saudis feel it is their duty to prevent the formation of a "Shi'ite crescent" from Tehran to Beirut.

The Saudi royal family has a personal relationship with the Hariri family, and has provided great support to the Future Movement in its struggle against Iranian-backed Hezbollah. They actually condemned Hezbollah in its summer war against Israel, which was widely perceived as tacit support for the Jewish State.

Saudi Arabia believes it is engaged in a regional struggle pitting Sunnis against Shi'ites. It is mainly a matter of faith as Sunni Muslims have long been Islam’s dominating sect.

As Iran seeks to empower Shi'ites throughout the Islamic world, Saudi Arabia has sought closer cooperation with other Sunni Arab states and the US to ensure Iran does not succeed.

Lebanon and Iraq currently pose as the two principal battlegrounds.

France

The founders of Lebanon, the French have traditionally and historically had a special relationship with Lebanon’s Maronite Christian community.

It still retains some degree of influence, but it has largely declined over the decades.

France generally views itself as providing an alternative to American policy in the Middle East.

French President Jacques Chirac had warm relations with Syria’s late President Hafez al-Assad, and Syria considered France one of its few Western allies.

Hariri’s assassination prompted Chirac to change his views of Syria, as Hariri was a close friend of the president. French-Syrian relations have sharply deteriorated as a result, despite trials on the murder having yet to begin. France subsequently joined the US in its struggle for Lebanon, providing support to the March 14 coalition. However, the French sharply condemned Israel’s war on Lebanon last year, and has provided the bulk of the United Nations force (UNIFIL) sent to South Lebanon.

The French recently hosted a donor conference in Paris, and pledged 500 million euros in soft loans to the Lebanese Government.

Syria

Syria is arguably the most influential power in Lebanon.

Geographically, historically, ethnically, culturally, and economically, the roots between Lebanon and Syria are so deep that it can be considered as a natural bond.

Whether its forces are in or out of Lebanon, Syria will always influence its smaller neighbor – the mere fact that Lebanon is divided between anti- and pro-Syrian camps suggests how important Syria is in Lebanese affairs.

Following Syria’s withdrawal, Damascus imposed a blockade on the country by shutting down its borders. The measure was seen as a warning to Lebanon’s ruling anti-Syrian coalition that the Ba'ath regime still has the means to make or break the country.

The March 14 coalition has accused Syria of a string of assassinations and bombings over the last 18 months that have killed a score of anti-Syrian figures. Syria rejects the claims, instead placing blame on Israel.

Many Lebanese are skeptical of Syria’s real intentions regarding Lebanon. Syria has never established true diplomatic relations with Lebanon, has never exchanged ambassadors, and refuses to demarcate its borders. Many Syrians regard Lebanon as their own, taken away from them by European colonialists – and want it back.

Even as the natural bonds that exist between these two states aren't easily denied, Syria faces challenges as Lebanon is at the center of an international struggle that has led to Syria’s increased isolation. The Syrian response has been a deepening of their alliance with Iran, providing support to Palestinian factions Hamas and Islamic Jihad, and assisting national resistance groups in Iraq. However, Syria’s main interest lies in Lebanon.

Iran

Iran is the Shi'ite mirror of Saudi Arabia. It professes to be the guardian of the world’s Shi'ites, and is governed by an Islamic theocracy.

The Islamic Revolution of 1979 caused an awakening among Shi'ites throughout the region.

One of the countries that felt the immediate effects of the revolution was Lebanon. Long neglected and considered the Lebanese underclass, the Shi'ites were inspired by Iran to improve their status in Lebanon.

Hezbollah came into being with the help of the Iranian theocracy, with its militants receiving training from Iran’s Revolutionary Guard. The Lebanese Shi'ite group acts as Iran’s arm in Lebanon, as it provides services to the Shi'ite community using Iranian funds and technology.

Iran is responsible for the Shi'ite revival in Lebanon, and it is believed that Iran is now repeating this in Iraq.

Many Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia, have Shi'ite minorities of their own. They fear Iran’s regional influence may revive Shi'ite groups who have long been kept silent.

The Iranians' desire to liberate Palestine is a faith-driven cause to place Jerusalem back in Islamic hands. Many Lebanese accuse Hezbollah of harboring such ambitions, which is why it continues to retain its weapons.

Iran is accused by Israel of rearming Hezbollah following last summer’s conflict.

Russia

Russia has no direct interest in Lebanon, but its spite for the United States has seen it stick its nose in the region that matters most for the Americans.

The Russians have had a long alliance with Syria, and are currently building nuclear plants in Iran.

It is considered the world’s main backer of the two regimes the US have branded a part of its axis of evil.

Moscow received a sharp rebuke from the US and Israel when it sold sophisticated anti-air and anti-tank weaponry to Syria and Iran.

Israel charges that those weapons were used against it by Hezbollah in last summer’s war.

Russia has denied such claims, but its support for Syria and Iran is causing a headache for the Americans in Lebanon.

The Russians proved an obstacle on the Hariri investigation in the UN Security Council when it questioned the American-backed Lebanese Government’s legitimacy.

Although not directly involved, Moscow’s behavior is influencing outcomes in Lebanon.

* * *

Lebanon’s complex internal divisions are amplified by a region fractured by turmoil. Its two powerful neighbors, Syria and Israel, consider Lebanon crucial to their security. This regional battle has been compounded by the US intrusion into the Middle East and its looming showdown with Iran. The keys to Beirut open many doors in the region, and if last summer’s Israeli war on Lebanon was any indication, those keys come at a high price.

 

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

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