The February 14 assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri has precipitated a rapid and dramatic transformation of Lebanon’s political landscape. In the six weeks following the assassination, the Lebanese government collapsed and Syria began the process of withdrawing its soldiers and intelligence officers from Lebanon, almost 30 years after they first arrived during Lebanon’s 1975-1990 civil war. The government’s collapse and the Syrian plans for departure were each compelled by an unprecedented wave of anti-Syrian street protests, as well as unrelenting international pressure.

The future of Lebanon’s political transformation remains uncertain, however. Although the vast majority of Lebanese will not be unhappy to see the complete evacuation of Syrian troops, and the pervasive Syrian military intelligence service in particular, there are no guarantees of a stable transition from Pax Syriana to an independent political order. Indeed, despite the ongoing withdrawal of Syrian forces, it is by no means clear that Syria intends to relinquish its grip on Lebanese politics. Syria’s allies remain mostly in place. Lebanese President Emile Lahoud, considered by most Lebanese to be a puppet of Damascus, shows no sign of voluntarily stepping down. Syrian intervention to extend Lahoud’s tenure, through an unpopular September 2004 amendment to the Lebanese constitution, was what pushed Hariri to resign the premiership and commence serious contacts with the Lebanese opposition.

The euphoria that attended the telegenic anti-Syrian protests is likewise diminishing, as the opposition forces reassess their attitude toward Lahoud’s government. Opposition politicians also are watching the maneuvers of Hizballah, the vocal representative of Lebanon’s Shiite community that has largely stayed out of the rallies to unseat Lahoud and show Syria the back door out of Lebanon.

Intense Pressure

Nearly every day, Damascus hears another call from the international community to fulfill the terms of UN Security Council Resolution 1559, which calls for a Syrian troop withdrawal and an end to its meddling in Lebanese affairs. Syria has agreed to a two-stage withdrawal. The first stage saw the removal of some 6,000 soldiers from the mountains above Beirut and from the north to east of the Hammana-Mdeirej-Ain Dara line, which cuts across the top of the mountain chain separating the coast from the Bekaa Valley close to the Syrian border. The fate of the remaining 9,000-10,000 soldiers in the Bekaa will be decided at a meeting of top Syrian and Lebanese army chiefs on April 7. The UN, the US and France are insisting that a full withdrawal occur before Lebanese parliamentary elections scheduled to be held by the end of May. On March 23, a European Union summit reiterated this demand. Although various Syrian sources have said that a full withdrawal is in the cards, no time frame has been specified. UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan said on March 22 that Syrian President Bashar al-Asad has promised to produce a timetable by April.

The Lebanese opposition is calculating that it will triumph in the parliamentary elections, overturning the pro-Syrian majority in Parliament. Such an outcome would undermine Syria’s ability to dictate events in Lebanon and would almost certainly end the presidency of Lahoud. Buoyed by a massive anti-Syrian rally on March 14 which drew as many as one million flag-waving protesters to central Beirut’s Martyrs’ Square, the opposition is pressing ahead with its seven-point list of demands. The chief demands include an international investigation into Hariri’s murder, which the opposition blames on Syria and its Lebanese allies, a full withdrawal of all Syrian forces, including military intelligence personnel, and the resignation of the state prosecutor and the heads of six Lebanese intelligence and security services. Until mid-March, the opposition ruled out entering consultations over the formation of a new government unless the authorities accept these demands.

On February 28, Omar Karami resigned from the premiership in the face of a wave of mass street protests, but Lahoud reappointed him a week later when no other candidate was forthcoming. Karami has made clear that he will resign again if he is unable to forge a government of national unity. The new government needs to be in place by the end of March to allow time for passage of a new electoral law before the polls are held over several weekends in different districts of the country. With the impasse threatening to delay the elections, on March 21 Walid Jumblatt, leader of Lebanon‚s Druze community and the most outspoken opposition figure, appeared to relent on the opposition‚s boycott of Karami, saying that a government must be formed quickly to ensure that elections are held on time.

If the opposition succeeds in dominating Parliament after the elections, it will be a bitter irony that it took Hariri’s death to help terminate Lahoud’s presidency. The mass demonstrations in which tens of thousands of Lebanese from all backgrounds spontaneously took to the streets was a measure of the high regard in which Hariri was held—as well as anger at the reappearance of the car bombs that plagued the country during its long years of civil strife.

Threat to Syrian Hegemony

The White House was quick to pick up on the significance of the demonstrations, dubbing the protests the “Cedar Revolution” and tacitly claiming them as validation of President George W. Bush’s stated intention to usher in democracy throughout the Arab world. Indeed, some administration supporters have suggested a connection between the January 30 elections in Iraq and the anti-Syrian rallies in Beirut.

“The assassination of former prime minister Rafik Hariri, coming so soon after Arabic satellite television beamed astonishing pictures of Iraqis risking their lives to vote, ignited long-simmering, anti-Syrian animosity among the Lebanese Christian and Sunni communities,” wrote Reuel Marc Gerecht of the American Enterprise Institute in the Weekly Standard. Jumblatt, once a fiery critic of Bush administration policy, appeared to have a change of heart when he said that the Iraqi elections were the Arab equivalent of the toppling of the Berlin Wall. He has also opened up a dialogue with Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz. Just 18 months ago, the State Department stripped Jumblatt of his diplomatic visa after he publicly called Wolfowitz a “virus” and lamented the fact that the US official had escaped injury in a rocket attack on his hotel during a visit to Baghdad. The Lebanese opposition has been encouraged by international pressure against Syria, particularly from the US and France.

But the catalyst for the demonstrations in Beirut had nothing to do with the elections in Iraq or the more general goal of imposing democracy in the Arab world. Rather, it was a direct reaction to the assassination of Hariri. Although Hariri never formally announced he was siding with the Lebanese opposition, he was regarded as its most powerful champion and was expected to lead the campaign to oust the pro-Syrian majority in the parliamentary elections. Long a useful ally of Damascus, Hariri split with the Syrians when Lahoud’s presidential mandate was extended for an extra three years. According to sources close to Hariri, the ex-prime minister had received assurances in early summer 2004 from France, Egypt and Saudi Arabia that Lahoud’s mandate would not be renewed when it expired in October. The failed assassination attempt in October against Marwan Hamadeh, a former minister and close ally of Jumblatt, strengthened Hariri’s resolve to make a behind-the-scenes bid to end Syrian influence in Lebanon.

From 1990, the principal opponents of Syrian tutelage in Lebanon were the Maronite Christians. In 2001, the Maronites held a formal reconciliation with their traditional Druze foes, heralding a significant anti-Syrian alliance between the two main sects in Mount Lebanon. Hariri’s tacit association with the opposition promised to bring the previously quiescent but seething Sunni community on board. The opposition may not have been able to capture a majority in Parliament, but it represented the most serious threat to Syrian hegemony in Lebanon since the end of the civil war.

If Syria assassinated Hariri in the expectation that his death would decapitate the opposition, as the Lebanese opposition assumes, it was a serious miscalculation. Hariri’s murder has brought the Christian, Druze and Sunni communities into the streets in open defiance of Syrian hegemony. Though various sectarian party banners have appeared in the crowds, for the most part, the anti-Syrian demonstrations have emphasized the rhetoric of national unity and waved the Lebanese flag. Nevertheless, two unclaimed car bomb explosions, on March 19 and March 23, in Christian suburbs of Beirut reinforced concerns that agents provocateurs could exploit the tense climate to sow sectarian unrest. Many actors, including anti-Syrian ones, might think they would gain from such unrest. Whatever the provenance of the bombs, it is clear which of Lebanon’s political players has the most to lose from the ongoing political transformation of the country.

Acute Dilemma

The Shiites are the only community that remains publicly ambiguous in its stance toward Syria, as reflected in the positions of Hizballah and the Amal movement, the two main bodies representing the Shiites in Lebanon. Few Shiites will shed any tears at seeing the Syrians decamp. The impoverished Shiites regard the estimated one million Syrian laborers living in Lebanon as direct competition for jobs. Shiite farmers in the rural south and the Bekaa Valley deeply resent having been forced to compete with cheaper produce imported from Syria. Hizballah and Amal are continuing to back Lahoud, but for how much longer remains a key question. Nabih Berri, the leader of Amal, is a political survivor and will likely take the necessary measures to ensure he survives the transition, even if it means losing his role as parliamentary speaker.

Hizballah, however, faces an acute dilemma because the withdrawal of Syrian political cover will mean an end to its autonomy in south Lebanon, where it has enjoyed wide latitude to pursue its anti-Israel agenda. Indeed, Hizballah is facing its greatest challenge since the end of the civil war in 1990.

The 1989 Taif accord which helped end that conflict was initially opposed by Hizballah because of its stipulation that all militias must be dismantled. But Iran and Syria reached a deal whereby Hizballah would be allowed to retain its arms to spearhead the resistance campaign against Israel’s occupation of south Lebanon. In return, the Shiite party was obliged to set aside its misgivings about Syria and accept the new Damascus-enforced post-war arrangement. Hizballah leader Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah’s recent fulsome praise of Syria notwithstanding, the party’s relations with Damascus have not always been cordial. Syria backed Hizballah’s Shiite rival Amal when the two groups fought each other in 1988 and Syrian troops were ruthless in their suppression of Hizballah’s influence in the southern suburbs of Beirut a year earlier.

In 1992, Hizballah fielded candidates for the parliamentary elections, reversing its ideological rejection of the Lebanese confessionalist political system in order to guarantee continued relevance. The confessionalist system, which dates to the 1943 National Pact and which was endorsed by the Taif agreement, allocates top government slots by a sectarian calculus: the president is a Maronite, the prime minister is a Sunni Muslim and the speaker of Parliament is a Shiite. Hizballah believes, as it always has, that Lebanon is a majority-Muslim state that should be governed by Islamic law. Since 1992, however, the party leadership has been willing to pursue that goal within the existing confessional order. That decision was not taken lightly, and caused a deep and bitter split within party ranks. Sheikh Subhi Tufayli, Hizballah‚s first secretary-general and a true ideologue who rejected any compromise, was gradually marginalized and finally expelled from the party in 1997. Some critics have dismissed Hizballah’s “Lebanonization” as insincere and a mere cover for its continued Islamist ideological underpinnings. But such criticism misses the point. It is a fact that Hizballah has entered mainstream parliamentary politics. The organization has a transparent structure and is dependent on the continued good will of its grassroots Shiite constituency. Hizballah accepted that to achieve its goals it had to replace revolution with evolution. Although Hizballah’s ideology has not changed, the way it conducts business has—and that is relevant to the ongoing speculation over Hizballah’s moves in the coming weeks and months.

Hizballah largely sees the crisis as a struggle for the future of Lebanon, but one in which it holds few cards. For the Shiite party, adhering to Resolution 1559 and giving up its weapons means leaving the anti-Israel axis formed by Lebanon, Syria and Iran and falling under the political influence of the West. The Taif accord is the Arab alternative, allowing for close ties with Syria, and leaving the option open for Hizballah to retain its military wing, the Islamic Resistance.

“Resolution 1559 contradicts the main principles of the Lebanese,” says Mahmoud Hajj Ali, a member of Hizballah’s Political Council. “The need now is to hold onto Taif and reject 1559 because 1559 wants Lebanon to move from one bank of the river [anti-Israel, anti-America] to another bank [pro-America, pro-Israel].” Hizballah has accepted the inevitability of the Syrian troop withdrawal, but feels it is imperative to retain sufficient Syrian influence in Lebanon to safeguard the Islamic Resistance.

“Hizballah believes that the whole purpose of 1559 is to impose a US order in Lebanon, part of which would be the resettlement of the Palestinians [in Lebanon] and peace with Israel, and I think this is something the party takes extremely seriously,” adds Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, professor of politics at the Lebanese American University in Beirut and author of a book on the party.

Bartering by Demonstration

In the wake of Hariri’s assassination, Hizballah adopted a low profile, calling for dialogue between the loyalist and opposition camps. On March 5, Hizballah took a stronger stand, holding a rally that drew as many as 500,000 party supporters as well as followers of other pro-Syrian groups, bolstered by busloads of Syrians ferried across the border. Some observers believe that the demonstration proved that the Shiite party has made a decision to remain within the loyalist camp, supporting Lahoud and a continued Syrian role in Lebanon. However, it is too early to state with any conviction which way Hizballah will turn. The rally, also held under the fluttering Lebanese flag, was only the group‚s opening bid in what could be a lengthy process of bartering with the government and the opposition. It was a means of reminding the ebullient opposition forces that, if antipathy for Syria cuts across sectarian boundaries, not all Lebanese communities share the same vision for the future of their country.

Hizballah is contemplating a difficult choice. If Hizballah stands rigidly by Syria, and international pressure on Damascus eases, the party may be able to resume its on-again, off-again war of attrition against Israel along Lebanon’s southern frontier. But that stand would come at a price. Tolerance of Hizballah by other Lebanese, and even the party’s appeal to Shiites, would begin to fade if the party sides too clearly with Damascus. On the other hand, the Islamic Resistance remains the pulse of Hizballah, its core expression. Many of its Shiite constituents would regard disarmament as abandonment of a crucial tool for thwarting potential Israeli aggression and, maybe, for regaining the Shebaa Farms, a narrow strip of land that Israel and the UN consider part of the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights of Syria, but that Lebanon and Syria consider the last patch of Lebanese territory still occupied by Israel. The loss of its military wing would also check Hizballah’s broader ambitions as an organization of regional significance, an active player in the Arab-Israeli conflict brandishing its “model of resistance” to other dispossessed and occupied peoples.

Without its militia, Hizballah risks becoming just another group jostling for influence in Lebanon’s fractious political arena. Such a fate is anathema to Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah, but it is one that he may have little choice but to accept in the longer term. Hizballah conducts its business behind closed doors and it is difficult to assess where matters stand in the vehement debate over strategy that is proceeding within the party. But some Hizballah officials have tacitly acknowledged that the Islamic Resistance cannot continue to exist indefinitely and that there is a future for the party beyond an active military role. “The Islamic Resistance forms the most important part of Hizballah’s goals in the region—it extends the culture of resistance,” explains Hajj Ali. “But we should not forget that Hizballah has an Islamic ideology and Islam has other dimensions—societal, political and cultural. You can’t reduce it to just a military aspect. If the Resistance is Hizballah’s main feature, it doesn’t mean that it is the only feature.”

Face-Saving Compromise?

On March 15, Bush played to that duality, saying that while Washington still views Hizballah as a terrorist organization, “I would hope that Hizballah would prove that they’re not by laying down arms and not threatening peace.” His comments were remarkably conciliatory given that, in 2002, former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage described Hizballah as the “A-team of terrorists,” relegating al-Qaeda to the B-team. Hizballah’s reaction to Bush’s comment was mixed. Nawaf Mussawi, who handles foreign relations for Hizballah, was measured in his response, saying Bush was “trying to propose an approach different from the traditional American approach toward Hizballah.” But Nasrallah rejected dismantling the military wing, saying that it was required to defend Lebanon from Israeli aggression. “We are ready to remain a terrorist group in the eyes of George Bush to the end of time but we are not ready to stop protecting our country, our people, their blood and their honor,” he said.

However, Nasrallah has shown greater openness to the Lebanese opposition and indicated that he is amenable to some form of compromise. In an interview with Hizballah’s al-Manar television station on March 16, Nasrallah said, ”Disarming the resistance will be up for discussion, and we expect our partners [the opposition] to offer us alternatives to defend the country and people.” The opposition is divided on this key issue. Druze leader Jumblatt wants Hizballah to keep its weapons for the time being, but Maronite patriarch Nasrallah Sfeir has joined Bush and Annan in calling upon the party to lay down its arms in accordance with Resolution 1559, although Sfeir has ruled out the use of force to achieve that goal.

Although the Lebanese opposition does not speak with one voice on the status of the Islamic Resistance, most of them are prepared to strike a deal. Among the options under consideration is turning Hizballah into a border protection force under Lebanese Army command. Another option suggested by opposition MP Nassib Lahoud is to deploy Lebanese troops along Lebanon‚s southern border and retain the Islamic Resistance as a “strategic reserve” pending the conclusion of peace with Israel. These scenarios are not particularly palatable to Hizballah. But the Shiite party may find that such a face-saving compromise is the only way to continue existing as a viable Lebanese political party in what increasingly looks like a future with greatly reduced Syrian patronage.

How to cite this article:

Nicholas Blanford "Lebanon Catches Its Breath," Middle East Report Online, March 23, 2005.

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