Levantine Labyrinths

Levantine Labyrinths

Mini Teaser: Sectarian infighting and foreign intervention breed intrigue on the Lebanese political scene. Last summer’s war had a devastating effect—but factional power politics and Hizballah’s rising popularity threaten to make matters worse.

by Author(s): Antony T. Sullivan

LEBANON IS caught in a vortex of sectarian storms, fomented largely by outside players (within and beyond the region) that are now, in turn, impacted by the country's upheaval. The question remains: What will this maelstrom mean for the greater Middle East in the coming years? As one Lebanese observer put it, "Lebanon has entered the tunnel of political uncertainty for years to come." It would hardly be surprising if the contest within and for Lebanon ends as badly as it potentially could for all involved. But the prospect of those dire possibilities in the Levant could also create the impetus for resolution-if a more adaptive Washington recognizes and acts upon it. Barring such realism from Washington and others, the panoply of consequences includes: civil war in Lebanon and even violent infighting within the groups themselves; the strengthening of Al-Qaeda close to Israel's border; another Israeli invasion of Lebanon (in Hizballah's view) and, of course, a general escalation of foreign involvement in Lebanon, particularly by Iran.

According to numerous reports, since the end of the Israeli-Hizballah war of July and August 2006, thousands of Sunni Muslims have converted to Shi‘i Islam out of adulation for Hizballah head Hassan Nasrallah and his resistance to Israel's invasion. However, there is also an economic factor at play, since Iran subsidizes the $200 doled out to each poor and converted Syrian-Sunni household across the border. The Syrian-Alawite regime appears to tolerate this financially subsidized conversion.

The primary challenge for Hizballah may now be resisting the temptation to capitalize on its popularity by attempting to cross bridges that simply should not be crossed. Such a temptation may be hard for Hizballah to resist, driven as it is by a fervent sense of religious righteousness.

Still, Hizballah's strategy in Lebanon is sophisticated and well-organized. Financially, Hizballah is said to pay full-time demonstrators in Beirut's central Martyr's Square $100 daily, in addition to offering them meals and soft drinks. This food comes from international and Arab aid given to Lebanon during last summer's war, which has been "taken over" by Hizballah. Part-time demonstrators receive $37 a day. That is a very good value for Lebanese who otherwise struggle to make ends meet.

Veiled women who participate in Hizballah demonstrations receive $15 per demonstration, while non-veiled women get $37. The reason for this discrepancy, Lebanese report, is that Hizballah wishes to remind all Lebanese that the protestors represent sectors of the Christian community, as well as the overwhelming majority of Lebanese Shi‘a. Lebanese observers also state that students at Beirut's Lebanese University who have been participating in sit-ins have received reassurances from the university that they will suffer no reprisals. Indeed, some may even be getting exam questions in advance. Hizballah has become its own industry in Lebanon, economically provident as well as militarily feared and respected.

Recently, reports have been circulating in Beirut that Hizballah has opened two camps to train suicide bombers in the Beka Valley, which now boast over 120 graduates. With these recent recruits, Hizballah is now said to have an army of over 1,000 suicide bombers, most trained by officers from the Iranian "Jerusalem forces." Among these potential bombers, interestingly, are a number of females. Given the fact that it has now become extremely difficult to target leaders of the pro-American March 14 coalition for assassination because of heavy security, Iran may have opted to use women in such operations. One observer comments: "In Lebanon, it is easy for pretty women to enter the social circles of politicians and to ‘befriend' their intended targets before killing them with poison, or guns with silencers." Potential female suicide bombers are reported to be circulating in the Monot Street bars and nightclubs in Ashrafieh, near downtown Beirut. These locations are very popular with diplomats and Western journalists. Lebanese politicians have been advised to stay away from this area. All of this might remind one of the memorable hotel-bar seduction scene in the movie Munich.

BUT ALL of this does not reflect the whole picture. Cadres within Hizballah are not of one mind. In fact, most Lebanese factions have their own internal divisions, upon which regional and international forces prey. This is as true of the Maronite community as it is of Hizballah. What most informed observers in the region do agree on is that Hizballah does not wish to push Lebanon back into civil war.

In Hizballah's case, there are two separate factions. The "moderate" one wishes to take power through a political showdown. This is Nasrallah's position. The Hizballah extremists, on the other hand, advocate a putsch. However dubious Hizballah's capacity to succeed in any such sudden seizure of power might be, especially in light of the determination of French troops in the un Interim Force in Lebanon to prevent such an attempt from working, proponents of this policy clearly believe that Hizballah can do it successfully.

Moreover, there is within Hizballah a small but rising minority that wants the party to fully integrate within Lebanese national life, and specifically, to sever its ideological orientation toward Iran and its geostrategic alliance with Syria. This group argues that all the Shi‘a in Lebanon have gotten from Iran and Syria are weapons and destruction. This minority believes that the Syrian regime will work against Hizballah if it believes that it may get a new or better deal from the United States. This subgroup wishes to merge Hizballah with the Lebanese army.

The Maronites, for their part, are the most divided of all Lebanese sects. There is strong disagreement over the name of the next (Maronite) president of Lebanon. Still, support does seem to be rising among Maronites for Riad Salamah, an accomplished technocrat and governor of Lebanon's central bank, as the replacement for outgoing Lebanese President Emile Lahoud. Lahoud's term is approaching its end, and he is currently under intense pressure from his children to quit office and retire in Yerevan, the capital of Armenia. Pro-Lahoud and pro-Syrian Maronites are of course totally opposed to the March 14 coalition and its current leader, Saad Hariri, son of the late Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. These divisions are likely to continue.

The one Lebanese community that is united is the Sunni bloc. Sunnis, strongly backed by France and Saudi Arabia, are determined that the current Lebanese government must survive all pressures from Hizballah, Syria and Iran. Hizballah is reportedly shocked by the almost unanimous support of Lebanese Sunnis for Prime Minister Fouad Siniora. The more pressure that is exerted on the Lebanese government, the more powerful Sunni solidarity is likely to become.

BUT IN Lebanon, as elsewhere in the Arab world, cooperation on specific issues by otherwise antipathetic players is frequent. This occurs especially in cases involving foreigners. For example, Nasrallah may have survived last summer's war by sleeping at the Hariri mansion in the heart of West Beirut. Nasrallah is said to have made the mansion his headquarters while Israel bombed Beirut's southern suburbs and cut off roads throughout the country. If true, Nasrallah's actions (and the Hariri family's cooperation) resulted from an understanding by both parties that for diplomatic reasons, Israel could not strike the Hariri building. In particular, the Hariris understood that it was also politically impossible to abandon the leader of the one Lebanese force resisting Israel, while the nation was under attack.

Elsewhere, there can be no doubt that Al-Qaeda and other Sunni fundamentalists continue to infiltrate Lebanon. Lebanese commentators report that some fundamentalists have taken up residence in the Ain al-Hilwe Palestinian refugee camp in south Lebanon, as well as camps in the Beirut area. Not surprisingly, Shi‘a Hizballah is distressed about this, as is most of the Maronite community. Moreover, Subhi al-Tufaili, the first (until 1991) secretary-general of Hizballah-and a terrorist deeply involved in the kidnappings of Americans and others during the 1980s-is said to be reorganizing himself politically in the eastern Beka Valley. Al-Tufaili is reported to be trying to create a new political movement to compete with Hizballah, which he apparently believes has grown all too soft over the years. Today, Al-Tufaili is persona non grata to Hizballah and the Lebanese government. Here again, there is a possibility for Maronite-Hizballah cooperation and a potential opening for the United States.

Many in the region believe it unlikely that any definitive political agreement, disarmament of Hizballah, settlement of the disputed Shebaa Farms area (a small scrap of territory claimed by Israel, Syria and Lebanon) or an exit from the country's deep economic depression will be achieved. Lebanese economic growth in 2006 decreased by 2 percent, despite earlier predictions of a 6 percent increase. During the past seven months, some 2,000 Lebanese between the ages of 28 and fifty (including at least 400 physicians and surgeons, and perhaps 600 engineers) have emigrated from Lebanon. Entrepreneurs and industrialists are reported to be among the émigrés. Assuming no further major political or military surprises, it will probably take Lebanon three years to economically recover from the ravages of last summer's war.

DANIEL BYMAN and Steven Simon's article, "The No-Win Zone", makes it clear that last summer's war resulted in winners and losers. Most obviously, Israel, which failed to destroy or even seriously cripple Hizballah, and the United States, which (according to Byman and Simon) emerged from its lethargy during the conflict "looking both cruel and ineffective in Muslim eyes", were among the big losers. Iran, and to a lesser degree Syria, were the principal winners. Nasrallah was a spectacular winner, gaining both for himself and his party unprecedented popularity among Shi‘a and Sunnis alike, both inside and outside of Lebanon-at least temporarily.

Essay Types: Essay