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French Version

Lebanon's mortal crisis is even more complicated than it seems

The Israeli government says its offensive in Lebanon is aimed at ending the threat posed by Hizbullah to the Jewish state and its citizens, and at retrieving the two soldiers whose capture on July 12 ignited the conflict.

On its face, this approach seems sound, even if the dispensing of so much ordnance in so many parts of the country stands an excellent chance of killing the very men who are supposedly being rescued, and even if past attempts to bury Arab grievances in high explosives have only sparked further resistance: As Israeli officials have repeatedly asserted, every country has a right to defend itself. The nature and scope of Israel's campaign have engendered widespread suspicion, though, that a far broader agenda is being pursued.

For its part, Hizbullah says it snatched the Israeli troops to press its demand that Lebanese and Palestinian detainees be released from Israeli custody. Outwardly, this line of reasoning is logical, even if only internally so, and even if the timing of the operation was indescribably poor: Very few armed forces happily accept the prospect of leaving their own to languish in captivity. Since the Jewish state was already embroiled in a similarly frustrating crisis in the Gaza Strip, however, the fact that Hizbullah chose to go ahead with such a risky move has intensified accusations that in its worldview, Lebanon's welfare ranks far beneath the priorities of other regional actors.

Cynicism - the attitude, not the word - might have been invented in the Middle East. Conspiracy theories abound, and with good reason: Many an observer has summarily dismissed an intricately sensational explanation for one regional travail or another, only to subsequently discover that it was entirely accurate. The truth in this part of the world is frequently stranger than fiction, so no theory can be discounted without careful consideration.

History tells us that Israeli agents used violence against American interests in Egypt to damage that country's relations with the United States; that the Jewish state helped get Hamas off the ground in an effort to undermine the influence of secular Palestinian nationalists like Yasser Arafat; and that the Israeli military deliberately attacked a US Navy intelligence ship for reasons that no one has ever definitively explained. History tells us far less about political intriguing by Hizbullah, which is one of the reasons the organization has been so successful at both carrying out armed resistance and preventing penetration by hostile intelligence services. The record is far clearer, however, when it comes to the activities of previous Lebanese actors that have hitched their carts to foreign benefactors: Local feudal lords who threw in their lots with their Ottoman sponsors or their opponents (both internal and external) were almost inevitably sacrificed to the wider regional interests of their erstwhile allies, a trend whose most famous recent incarnation came when Washington sold out the Lebanese independence movement in 1990 in exchange for Syria's joining the coalition against Saddam Hussein.

All this is to say that there are plenty of precedents to justify suspicions about the motives of all sides in the current conflict. And what might those be?

For Israel especially, the possibilities are numerous, and many of them could be complementary. Foremost among the givens in this blurry formula is the fact that the Jewish state has always been happy to help reduce the strategic standing and/or influence of other regional powers, especially if the resources expended in the process are not its own (e.g. Israel was an enthusiastic supplier of intelligence and propaganda that helped make the cases for US-led wars against Iraq in both 1991 and 2003). Israel's two most problematic rivals are now Iran and Syria. It only stands to reason, therefore, that the capture of the two soldiers provided precisely the sort of pretext for which Israel was waiting to launch an assault so fierce that it might prompt one or both of these countries to intervene militarily, and so draw the United States into the melee. Thus far, both Damascus and Tehran have studiously avoided anything that looks like military action. The former patently lacks the punch to take on the Israelis alone, so the reasons for the limiting of "support" to rhetoric are more likely to be found in the calculations of the latter.

The Syrian regime has searched stumblingly for new ideological purchase since the passing of President Hafez Assad in June 2000, a process that has seemed even clumsier since the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in February 2005 and the subsequent withdrawal of Syrian military and intelligence assets from Lebanon. The Iranian regime is far more coherent, but its situation is at once complicated and precarious. Most of its neighbors host US air, ground and/or naval forces, and the Islamic Republic is locked in a standoff with the West over its nuclear program. Its interests are threatened in a variety of ways, so while it might actually welcome the crisis in Lebanon as one that might distract its enemies for a time, it must also consider the possibility that a trap is waiting to be sprung.

All in all, the sheer weight of the Israeli offensive and the relatively limp Iranian response to the devastation of a country in which it has so much at stake combine for a puzzle that is still missing several pieces. The mere passage of time may reveal the shape and appearance of those pieces. Of more telling important for the present is the lesson to be learned, one that has been taught harshly but unsuccessfully to generations of Lebanese: The interactions among greater powers are not a field in which a tiny country can expect to be entangled without suffering dire consequences.

Marc J. Sirois is the managing editor of The Daily Star.

Beirut 21-07-2006
Marc J. Sirois
The Daily Star

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