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Pressure Points: Can Lebanon Escape

Council on Foreign Relations Blog: Pressure Points
Can Lebanon Escape?
By Elliott Abrams
Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Newspapers today are reporting that Hizbollah-backed members of parliament have withdrawn from the Lebanese government, effectively bringing down  the coalition led by Prime Minister Saad Hariri.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 Hizballah of being at least partly responsible. Hizballah 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. Hizballah’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 Hizballah 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. Hizballah 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 Hizballah has been holding the entire country hostage while arming itself to the teeth with the help of Syria and Iran. Today’s Hizballah resignation from the government, where it formally held minority status, is a threat to every Lebanese. If Hariri complies with Hizballah’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 Hizballah and watching Saudi and Syrian mediation whose outcome for  Lebanese sovereignty is likely to be tragic.

Today Hizballah, 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 Hizballah 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 Hizballah unless they do. The majority of Lebanese who oppose Hizballah, 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.

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