Foreign Policy Blogs

Backward Into the Pit

Lebanon's stagnant and maddening political quagmire is quickly becoming a hot war that threatens to send this beautiful and violence-racked country reeling back into the dark days of the civil war.

Days of Hezbollah protests and roadblocks are leading to increased confrontation.  Here is the New York Times’ lead.

The decision by the Lebanese government to shut down a private telephone network operated by the Iranian-backed group Hezbollahwas an act of war and Hezbollah would defend itself, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah's leader, said on Thursday.

When this becomes a casus belli, one has the impression that war was already in the sheik's mind.    Michael Young, writing in the Daily Star, backs up this assumption with some analysis. 

Once we accept that this week's alleged labor unrest was only the latest phase in Hizbullah's war against the Lebanese state, will we understand what actually took place yesterday. And once we realize that cutting the airport road was a calculated effort by Hizbullah to reverse the Siniora government's transfer of the airport security chief, Wafiq Shouqair, will we understand what may take place in the coming days.

Since last January, when Hizbullah and Amal used the pretense of social dissatisfaction to obstruct roads in and around Beirut, the opposition has, quite openly, shown itself to be limited to Hizbullah. Michel Aoun, once a useful fig leaf to lend cross-communal diversity to the opposition, has since become an afterthought with hardly any pull in Christian streets.

Long ago we learned that Hizbullah could not, in any real sense, allow the emergence of a Lebanese state free from Syrian control. Soon after the assassination of Rafik Hariri, the party tried to suffocate the 2005 “independence intifada” in the egg, realizing that Hizbullah had no future as an autonomous armed group in a state that would seek to reimpose its writ after decades of subservience to Damascus. That effort failed on March 14, 2005 – mostly useful as an event in showing that a majority of people would not be intimidated by Hizbullah's rally of March 8.

What I think these actions suggest is that, while Syria and especially Iran are deeply involved with the Party of God, Nasrallah is far from a puppet.  Instability and influence in Lebanon are good for these larger countries, but an all-out civil war is bad.  An easy lesson is that, as much as transnational politics matter, local concerns will generally trump them.   Download this CTC report (which also has Greg's brilliant Yemen article) and read about Al-Qaeda in the Maghreb's trouble balancing an international movement with more prosaic local concerns.

 These abstract lessons are scant comfort when looking at the stomach-punching horror toward which Lebanon seems to be sliding. 



Abu Muqawama (whose blog is a must-read) has looked over Nasrallah's statement and came up with this analysis.

Update: Abu Muqawama has just skimmed the text, and a few things jumped out. One, Nasrallah called Hizbollah's secure command and control system its greatest weapon during the 2006 war, which Abu Muqawama found interesting. Second, he qualified the whole “declaration of war” bit by calling the government's decision a “declaration of war” by “the government of (Druze leader) Walid Jumblatt.” Smart, picking on the leader of Lebanon's tiny Druze community, but it doesn't appear as if the Sunni have considered themselves exempted from the declaration. Although if Abu Muqawama is correct, (Jumblatt's Druze ally) Marwan Hamadi remains the minister for telecommunications, true?

*edit 2*

Tony Bey at Beirut2Bayside has a cursory post comparing the tactics and methods used today in Lebanon to those used at the beginning of, and throughout, the 1975-1990 war.  It is interesting, and he promises more later, so I would keep going back there.



Brian O'Neill

Brian O'Neill is a freelance writer currently based out of Chicago. He has lived in Egypt and in Yemen, and worked as a writer and editor for the Yemen Observer publishing company. He currently is an analyst with the Jamestown Foundation.