Alan Bock gave a doom and gloom overview of the situation in Lebanon yesterday in his piece Lebanon: The Next Civil War?
Indeed, Lebanon's political crisis is giving many people cause for grave concern. Next week's presidential election is vital to ensuring Lebanon does not resort to a two-government situation, or worse, a civil war.
Despite all the talk of possible internal conflict in this tiny Middle Eastern entity, Bock's doomsday assessment seems rather stretched from the geopolitical and strategic realities. Much of Bock's article is valid and accurate in summarising Lebanon's current climate, bar for one crucial sentence that throws his overall contention out of balance:
"It is doubtful that the United States can do much beyond urging all factions not to resort to violence and urging Syria not to interfere too violently, as U.S. and European diplomats and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon have been doing, probably to little effect."
Bock gravely understates the importance of the United States in Lebanon's internal politics. The US is so entrenched in Beirut that if it were possibly not for its intense backing of the Siniora Government, the Opposition would have overthrown the March 14 leadership last December during its mass popular protests and strikes.
Following the collapse of Syrian authority in Lebanon in 2005, the Americans have sifted through the country, expanded its intelligence operations, and assisted to form the current March 14 alliance, which encompasses once sworn enemies from Sunni, Christian and Druze corners. If neocon US policy in the Middle East has revealed anything post 9/11, it's that Lebanon is high on their agenda.
Lebanon has long been considered of strategic importance in the Israeli-Syrian equation. It has long suffered the role of being the proxy front between these two rivals. The control of Lebanon is crucial to the survival of both Israel and Syria. The Lebanese Civil War of 1975 - 1990 was as much about domination of Lebanon as it was about internal, sectarian rivalries. The scene has changed little since. Syria not only views Lebanon as historically part of its territory, ripped away from it by European colonialists, but it is also aware that the key road to Damascus starts in Beirut.
The Syrians will not allow a Lebanon hostile to its regime, for fear it would be used against it, something it fears the US will do if Lebanon completely falls into its orbit. The Americans and Israelis fought the Syrians between 1975- 1990 to turn Lebanon into that hostile, anti-Syrian state, and failed. Bush Snr's attention turned to Saddam Hussein in 1990, and abandoned the battle for Lebanon. Clinton continued this policy, but it appears the neocon hopefuls have revived the ambition to strike at Syria through its gateway ... Lebanon.
Syria withdrew from Lebanon, partly due to the mass demonstrations following the assassination of Rafik Hariri, but mostly due to the great pressure exerted on Damascus by Washington and its allies. It was when the US deemed Syria's presence in Lebanon unstable and unnecessary that the Syrian occupation of its smaller neighbour ended.
The Bush administration's engagement in Lebanon and support for the Siniora Government is pivotal to the survival of the March 14 grouping. An alliance that enlists Samir Geagea of the right-wing Maronite faction, the Lebanese Forces (LF), and Walid Jumblatt of the Druze left-wing Progressive Socialist Party (PSP) - and has survived intact for more than two years - could not have been achieved without magic from an external source. These two factions fought a bloody conflict in the 1980s that saw both sides commit ethnic cleansing and other unspeakable atrocities against each other. Today, they walk hand-in-hand, not as a result of a genuine forgiveness, but as a consequence of the interests of the United States.
The US is the cornerstone of the March 14 alliance. Without the backing of Washington, March 14, and indeed the Siniora Government, would have little raison d'etre. Much of the same can be said of Syria's proxies. It was the magic of Syria and Iran that pushed the two rival Shia factions, Amal and Hezballah, to put their differences aside and form a united front. Damascus has simply added to the Shia mix its other allies in Lebanon, including the Christian Marada faction of Sleiman Franjiyeh, the secular Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP), and a variety of Palestinian, Druze and Sunni factions that profess loyalty to Syria. The only extra addition to the Syrian-backed Opposition is Lebanon's main Christian faction, the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) led by Michel Aoun, who entered into an alliance with Hizballah after his relations with March 14 fell through following Syria's withdrawal.
Essentially, it very much comes down to the wishes and interests of the United States, as well as Israel and Syria. Lebanon's rivalries are intense, and irrational errors can cause a spark to explode, but an internal war will not last if the patron regional power brokers are not willing to play ball. It's quite clear that Hezballah is the most organised and sophisticated military organisation in Lebanon. March 14 acknowledge the obvious fact that they wouldn't stand a chance against Hezballah alone. The Shi'ite group has a strict policy of not attacking fellow Lebanese, thus any war would have to be instigated either by another Syrian proxy, such as the Palestinians or the SSNP, or by one of the March 14 factions, perhaps the LF or a Saudi-backed Salafist movement.
For March 14 to sustain an armed conflict against Hezballah - let alone the entire Opposition - it would require massive training, funding, recruiting and weapons supplies, which could only be sourced from the US, Israel or Saudi Arabia. Considering the US is the prime backer of March 14, no arms, no training, no funding, and no war will take place without the consent of Washington. Indeed, reports have consistently emerged over the past year of military training camps of March 14 militias, but a lot more than discreet training on a mountain top is required to confront Hezballah. Any war with the Iranian-backed guerrillas will require the military intervention of Israel. Only with the support of the Israeli air force, navy, and perhaps land forces, will March 14 have a possibility of defeating the Opposition. Therefore, consent from Tel Aviv is another prerequisite for a civil war in Lebanon.
Whether Israel is prepared to commit to another Lebanon war remains unknown. The Israelis have been giving mixed messages as to what its future plans are for its northern border. It launched a mysterious air strike against Syria in September, and recently conducted military manoeuvres on the Lebanon border. At the same time, it has confessed to have resumed secret negotiations with Damascus and has publicly expressed its willingness to engage in peace talks with Assad. It must also be factored in that the Olmert government is still struggling in local popularity as a result of last year's disastrous Lebanon War. It appears highly unlikely that the Israeli public would stomach another major offensive into Lebanon in the near future, particularly one that could drag on for years.
Negotiation and compromise persists as the only possibility to breaking the impasse in Lebanon's political crisis. The US, as the prime supporter of the March 14 alliance, has the power to decide whether compromise or war will prevail in Lebanon. If Israel's unprepared to participate in any internal Lebanese conflict, then all the odds will point to a Hezballah victory if war were to breakout. That is a possibility the US won't risk to take.