Elliott Abrams

Pressure Points

Abrams gives his take on U.S. foreign policy, with special focus on the Middle East and democracy and human rights issues.

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Can Lebanon Escape?

by Elliott Abrams
January 12, 2011

A supporter waves a Lebanese flag over thousands of anti-Syrian protesters during a rally in Beirut March 14, 2005. (Damir Sagolj/Courtesy Reuters)

Newspapers today are reporting that Hezbollah-backed members of parliament have withdrawn from the Lebanese government, effectively bringing down  the coalition led by Prime Minister Saad Hariri.

In 2005 the leading citizen of Lebanon, former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, was murdered by a gigantic car bomb that killed 22 other people as well. An international commission was established to investigate the murder, and is soon to report its findings. By all accounts it will accuse Hezbollah of being at least partly responsible. Hezbollah is demanding that the Government of Lebanon reject the findings, a particularly poignant demand for the current Prime Minister, Saad Hariri, as it was his father who was assassinated in 2005.

In any normal country this demand would be rejected easily, but Lebanon is not a normal country. Hezbollah’s power comes less from its popularity among Shia Lebanese than from its army, which is far stronger than the official Lebanese Armed Forces.

After Hariri’s killing, mass demonstrations on March 14, 2005 led to the expulsion of Syria’s occupation forces and to new elections. From then to the spring of 2008 Lebanon enjoyed a period of true democracy—but one embittered by the assassination of many leading journalists and political figures (almost all of them Christian) who were enemies of Syria and its occupation. In this brief period France and the United States strongly supported Lebanon, verbally and financially, symbolized by Secretary of State Rice’s visits there and the visits to the White House of then-Prime Minister Siniora, the Maronite patriarch Cardinal Sfeir, and many other Lebanese leaders.

But Hezbollah called the bluff in May 2008, in essence telling their fellow Lebanese they were willing to fight and to kill to have their way (and scores were killed)—and daring them to fight back. Hezbollah showed that it was prepared to use its forces against the people of Lebanon, despite its claims that the purpose of the force is only to maintain a “Resistance” against Israel. Neither the Christians, the Druze, nor the Sunnis were prepared to fight, nor were France or the United States willing to send troops or countenance another Lebanese civil war.

Since then Hezbollah has been holding the entire country hostage while arming itself to the teeth with the help of Syria and Iran. Today’s Hezbollah resignation from the government, where it formally held minority status, is a threat to every Lebanese. If Hariri complies with Hezbollah’s demands, he is in my view finished as a national and as a Sunni leader, having compromised his own, his family’s, and his country’s honor. It appears that Hariri won’t do it, which is both a moral and a politically intelligent decision. Instead he and his country are left floating, trying to avoid violence that may only benefit Hezbollah and watching Saudi and Syrian mediation whose outcome for  Lebanese sovereignty is likely to be tragic.

Today Hezbollah, backed by Syria and Iran, keeps its hands around the throat of every Lebanese. “The situation surrounding the tribunal has effectively frozen all other aspects of political life,” Michael Young (opinion editor of the Beirut Daily Star and the best commentator on Lebanese affairs) said yesterday; “We are effectively in a political deadlock, and I think this will last.” The United States has been firm, verbally, in backing Hariri and the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, which is perhaps all we can do for now; in the long run, the greatest contribution we can make would be to reassert American influence in the region and diminish the sense that Iran and its ally Hezbollah are the rising powers. We should also make it very clear that sending an ambassador to Damascus—and I, like Young, believe that was an error—was not meant to symbolize a reduction in support for Lebanon or an agreement that Syria may increase its influence there.

But at bottom this is far less a test of the United States than of the Lebanese. No one will resist Hezbollah unless they do. The majority of Lebanese who oppose Hezbollah, and who are mostly Maronite Catholics, Druze, and Sunni, must demonstrate that they have the will to keep their country from complete domination by the Shia terrorist group. This is asking quite a bit, to be sure, but Lebanese should have learned from the impact of their March 14, 2005 demonstrations that world support can be rallied and their opponents can pushed back. But they must take the lead. There is good reason for skepticism, from the collaborationism of the Druze leader Walid Jumblatt (who would rather switch than fight, then switch again, and then again) to the way in which the entire political establishment of Lebanon lined up to cheer the return of the terrorist and child-murderer Samir Kuntar in 2008. Those who wish Lebanon well must also hope that its political leaders and its populace show the considerable courage that this crisis demands of them.

Post a Comment 7 Comments

  • Posted by Donna Robinson Divine

    The question is what options can the US exercise to support the Prime Minister and strengthen his resolve not to undermine the painfully slow operations of the Special Tribunal. Under the most optimistic of circumstances, the Tribunal can only issue a report that must be vetted before it becomes public. My guess is that the most the US can do in this circumstance is to try to leverage Syrian interests and ambitions against those of Iran. The US might be willing to back the Saudi Arabian disposition to broker more Syrian influence in Lebanon as a way to counter that of Iran. Syria might be willing to go along with this as long as it does not disrupt its alliance with Iran. Hizbullah may have acted now in order to prevent having to recognize both Syria and Iran as controlling its decisions and activities. Under any circumstances, it is very difficult to imagine the Lebanese as drawing together or the US with sufficient influence to be able to have a decisive impact on this crisis without using Syria.

  • Posted by gjs

    Lebanese should be careful not to end up as the people of Gaza

  • Posted by Maine's Michael

    The last paragraph says it all.

    The thin veneer of Lebanese civility’s going to peel pretty quickly, once again exposing the Baal worshipping savagery that still lies just beneath.

  • Posted by Lilian Shettle

    Great article very helpful. I do know most of these items but its good to have all of it specified by one place for reference.

  • Posted by Linda Ramadan

    Democracy is a lie in Lebanon. The March 14 Movement failed when Aoun pulled out. The Syrian Army left and the financially weak Christian politicians tied themselves to the Hariri empire. The tribunal seems to have been built on false witnesses and may no longer be valid. Hariri ibn loss of popularity due to poor governance and corruption charges gains support for Hizbollah, Aoun,Frangieh,Karame Coalition. New parliamentary elections are needed to establish stability and to find the power players in Lebanon who will have the popular strength to go for Middle East peace.These elections should be based on sound democratic principles such as limits to vote bribing and gerrymandering. Wars in the Levant (civil et.al) are no longer a solution but destabilizing for the economies of all the countries in the region including Israel. Lebanon in the 70s and 80s drank from the same waters as Nicaragua but the May 2008 fighting showed that they don’t want to go that way again. I think the Lebanese Army is patriotic enough to stick together to fight non-Lebanese terrorists.

  • Posted by Kerri Gerula

    Have you considered writing a book on this topic?

  • Posted by Roy Salte

    Along with every thing which appears to be building inside this subject material, a significant percentage of opinions tend to be rather exciting. However, I beg your pardon, because I do not give credence to your whole plan, all be it exhilarating none the less. It looks to everybody that your remarks are generally not totally justified and in actuality you are generally yourself not even entirely convinced of the argument. In any event I did take pleasure in reading through it.

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