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French Version

Lebanon's fundamental need for political compromise

First person by Marco Vicenzino

The recent clashes between government supporters and Hizbullah, which claimed at least 65 lives, marked the most serious escalation in Lebanon's internal divisions since the end of the 1975-1990 Civil War and demonstrates how the impending threat of a new civil war is constantly present. The decision by the government of Fouad Siniora to ban Hizbullah's phone network, which is critical to its military operations, and dismiss a Shia army officer responsible for security at Beirut's airport, was taken as a "declaration of war" by Hizbullah, which briefly took control of western Beirut. The government's decision to withdraw the measures marked a significant victory for Hizbullah, at least for the short term.

Over the past three years, the continuous game of political brinksmanship between the government and Hizbullah, triggered by the assassination of Rafik Hariri in 2005, has been marked by gridlock in the Lebanese Parliament, as demonstrated by its inability to meet over the past 18 months, and the absence of a president for the past six months. Furthermore, the assassination of numerous members of Parliament and high-profile public officials reflects the wider political animosity and divisions that have now spilled over into violence in the streets of Beirut and scattered areas throughout Lebanon.

The violence in Lebanon also marks another significant setback for the Bush administration and its regional allies in attempting to curb Iranian influence in the Middle East, particularly in Iraq and the Palestinian territories. President George W. Bush's support for the current Lebanese government and the implications of Lebanon's internal developments are simply inseparable from Bush's broader Middle East policy. The president's immediate reaction was to place more diplomatic pressure on Syria and speed up assistance to the Lebanese Army to support the Siniora government. In doing so, Bush must take into account (a) the status of relations among Hizbullah, Iran and Syria after the recent assassination of a Hizbullah commander in Damascus, and (b) even with more weapons, the Lebanese Army still lacks the experience and determination of Hizbullah's fighters. They are operationally incompatible. The Lebanese Army's performance against Al-Qaeda-inspired cells in 2007 paled in comparison to Hizbullah's actions against Israeli forces in 2006. In addition, any confrontation with Hizbullah is likely to result in the army's dissolution along sectarian lines, particularly when considering the army's large number of Shias.

Despite these obstacles, the Lebanese Army remains the nation's last credible institution that represents a semblance of national unity. Just as United Nations peacekeeping forces in South Lebanon serve as a buffer between Israel and Hizbullah, the Lebanese Army is reduced to the role of domestic peacekeeper and intermediary between Hizbullah and its followers and the Siniora government and its supporters.

With Lebanon's Sunnis and Shias generally divided between support for the government and Hizbullah, its Christians have become bystanders on the political periphery. Once the nation's chief powerbrokers, they themselves remain divided between backing the current government and passive acquiescence to Hizbullah's growing power.

The recent crisis simply confirmed in fact what has been known for a very long time, that Hizbullah is Lebanon's most powerful faction. Its long-held status as a state-within-a-state has been a reality for many years. In theory, the government's actions were designed to fulfill its legal and constitutional obligations in preserving national unity, while Hizbullah's reaction amounted to a coup or quasi-coup. However, in practice, the government miscalculated and overplayed its hand by underestimating Hizbullah's willingness to react. Hizbullah has now made it clear that it will use force not only against Israel but internally when it deems necessary. Despite the government's claim to constitutional authority, Hizbullah is more than willing to exercise its extra-constitutional power.

Basically, the government threw down the gauntlet, Hizbullah called its bluff, moved beyond the brink, made its statement clear by using force and then withdrew behind the brink once the government abandoned its measures against Hizbullah. The Siniora government will now have to deal with the consequences of its decision to confront Hizbullah directly. In the background, the threat of a return to violence looms large. After the bloody 1975-90 Civil War, most Lebanese remain averse to violence, which has been skillfully exploited by Hizbullah.

The perception of the threat of violence and use of force is a powerful source of leverage and influence for Hizbullah in Lebanese politics and beyond, which could yield significant dividends and concessions. However, one must distinguish between the reality of using limited force to make a statement and exercising overwhelming force to take full control. The Siniora government may have correctly calculated that Hizbullah would not use overwhelming force but miscalculated and underestimated Hizbullah's willingness to use limited but decisive force to demonstrate its willingness to take proportionate action when deemed necessary or provoked.

The use of overwhelming force by Hizbullah in Lebanon would result in political suicide. It would completely undermine its already eroding image among many ordinary Lebanese as Lebanon's defenders responsible for Israel's withdrawal from southern Lebanon in 2000 and its resistance to the Israeli offensive in 2006.

Hizbullah's strategy is to create and instill the necessary fear to extract political concessions so that the government will be reluctant to take decisive constitutional/legal action in future. Although the government will still have considerable flexibility with words, it may have lesser flexibility in its actions. However, it would be a serious error for Hizbullah to assume that it can resolve political issues simply by blatant coercion. Although most Lebanese fear a return to civil war, they may also be unwilling to buckle down to intimidation and threats. The political gridlock and wave of assassinations of public figures by clandestine forces over the past three years has considerably silenced many politicians, activists and journalists and subdued the spirit of public defiance which was fiercely displayed through the wave of protests after Hariri's assassination. Although muted, it would be na•ve to assume that this sentiment has completely disappeared.

The recent crisis has exposed the fragility of Lebanon and underscored the fundamental need for political compromise in the form of a negotiated settlement to several outstanding issues, principally forming a government of national unity, the election of a new president and the reform of the electoral law. Hizbullah comes to the table in a much stronger position to extract concessions which the government previously refused. However, it would be unwise for Hizbullah to negotiate with the expectation that the government will simply comply with all its demands. It would be in Hizbullah's long-term interests to exercise restraint for the sake of national unity and not miscalculate and overplay its own hand. All are aware that they are Lebanon's most powerful force and able to act when necessary, however, it need not be expressly provided in a political compromise.

However difficult it may be to reach a political compromise, the alternative is simply not a viable option, particularly when considering the potentially catastrophic implications for domestic, regional and international stability. Scenarios can range from endless political gridlock resulting in Lebanon's economic collapse to national fragmentation into a series of enclaves largely divided along sectarian lines with each dependent upon competing external influences and interests, which could potentially materialize within the context of a wider proxy war or more direct regional conflagration. By playing with fire, Lebanon's factions risk burning not only Lebanon but the broader Middle East.

Marco Vicenzino is a political analyst and a member of the Global Strategy Project.

Beirut 20-05-2008
The Daily Star

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