Lebanon divided

Robert G Rabil
7 August 2007

Lebanon's politics remain highly charged as the anniversary of the end of the war of July-August 2006 approaches and the campaign for the presidential election on 25 September 2007 gets underway. The conduct and outcome of the by-elections which took place on 5 August - one of which, in the majority-Christian Metn region, saw the narrow victory of the pro-Syrian Camille Khoury (an ally of opposition leader and presidential candidate Michel Aoun) over the anti-Damascus former president Amin Gemayel - is an example of the way that widespread tensions over the country's political direction and even its identity are dominating Lebanon's body-politic.

Robert G Rabil is associate professor of middle-east politics and director of graduate studies in the political-science department at Florida Atlantic University. He is the author of Embattled Neighbors: Syria, Israel and Lebanon (Lynne Rienner, 2003) and Syria, United States and the War on Terror in the Middle East (Praeger, 2006)

Also by Robert G Rabil in openDemocracy: "Lebanon, Syria, Iran: lessons of Sharm el-Sheikh" (11 May 2007)
In this environment, there are fears that the presidential election could result in a constitutional crisis where the country could descend into civil strife or face two governments each claiming legitimacy. The realisation of either scenario would mean that Lebanon would effectively forfeit its status as a unitary state. This in turn would confound the work of the United Nations (including the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon [Unifil] peacekeeping force) in consolidating the peace agreement that concluded the 2006 war and helping restore Lebanon's total sovereignty.

In this light, the withdrawal of six opposition ministers from the Fouad Siniora government in November 2006 marked the beginning of a calculated, concerted attempt to force the government's collapse, as a prelude to controlling Lebanon's politics as a whole. In response, the government (and especially the army) have been obliged to operate in emergency mode.

The stream of political and military challenges have included an open-ended sit-in in front of the Grand Serail in Beirut; the effort to paralyse the country by closing major transport arteries in and around the capital; Fatah al-Islam's armed onslaught on the Lebanese army in Nahr el-Bared, followed by operations in other Palestinian camps; and the continuing assassination of anti-Syrian deputies from the March 14 bloc. These connected incidents have had a dual impact on the government: battering it, yet stiffening its will to remain in power. But another vital institution of the Lebanese state, the army, has seen its status enhanced across almost all Lebanese regardless of their individual communal affiliation. in front of the

The baptism of sacrifice the army has gone through - in relation both to its work in the south and its fight against Fatah al-Islam - has imprinted the institution with an aura of patriotism. This has made any attack on the army by Lebanese movements entertaining the idea of taking over the country by force extremely costly. However, the country's principal vulnerability is exposed in relation to non-Lebanese movements and radical Islamist groups with no allegiance to the country.

More specifically, the pro-Syrian Palestinian Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC) and Fatah-Intifada, as well as radical Islamist groups in the Palestinian refugee camps, could (if the Syrian regime decides to instigate their rebellion against the Lebanese government) pose a significant threat to Lebanon's stability. The protracted and bloody battle between the army and Fatah al-Islam in the Palestinian refugee camp of Nahr el-Bared - three Lebanese soldiers were killed there on 1 August, on the day the army celebrated its sixty-second birthday - is an indication that any battle with the pro-Syrian Palestinian groups could be humanly and politically prohibitive for the Lebanese government and the army alike.

openDemocracy's many articles on Lebanon, Syria, and the region include:

Alex Klaushofer,"Lebanon: unity within diversity" (17 July 2006)

Fred Halliday,
"A Lebanese fragment: two days with Hizbollah" (20 July 2006)

Jihad N Fakhreddine, "The Lebanese enigma: strength in weakness" (16 August 2006)

Nadim Shehadi, "Riviera vs Citadel: the battle for Lebanon" (22 August 2006)

Paul Rogers, "Lebanon: the war after the war" (12 October 2006)

Mai Ghoussoub, "Lebanon: slices of life" (31 October 2006)

Carsten Wieland,"Syria's quagmire, al-Assad's tunnel" (9 November 2006)

Hazem Saghieh, "Lebanon's internal struggle: two logics in combat" (19 December 2006)

Zaid Al-Ali, "Lebanon's Palestinian shame" (19 June 2007)

Fred Halliday, "Lebanon, Gaza, Iraq: three crises" (22 June 2007)

Amal-Saad Ghorayeb, "Washington in Lebanon and Palestine: fatal manipulation" (6 August 2007)

In such circumstances, it is plausible that Syria may provoke an escalation of conflict between the armed groups it sponsors and the army in Lebanon so as to force the government to enter into a national-unity government with the Hizbollah-led opposition. At the same time, Hizbollah would try to claim the high political ground by offering its readiness to support the army and deal with the Palestinian rebellion.

A pattern of encroachment

This scenario is becoming more likely by the day as the political crisis intensifies with the approaching presidential election and as the Syrian regime continues arming its favoured groups and entrenching itself inside Lebanon. Syria, far from withdrawing from Lebanon (even technically) has created new "facts on the ground"; these have made its compliance with a slew of United Nations Security Council resolutions - especially Resolution 1680 (May 2006) and Resolution 1559 (September 2004) - a mockery of the international system. The report by the fact-finding mission of the International Lebanese Committee (ILC) for UNSCR 1559 (which has consultative status with the UN) revealed that Syria still occupies approximately 458 square kilometres of Lebanese territory in different areas adjacent to the border, and that it has changed the topography of the land so as to facilitate smuggling of weapons and contraband into Lebanon.

The mission, which focused on the Lebanon-Syria border at its northeast and southeast points, found many villages and their outskirts occupied by Syria and its pro-Palestinian groups. These villages and environs have been turned into smuggling routes and fortresses equipped with tanks and missile launchers. In the northeast, villages such as al-Qaa, Maarboun-Yafouha, and Arssal-Ras Baalback have become virtually Syrian in all but name. In the southeast, villages such as Kfarzabad, Ain Kfarzabad, Kosaya, Hashmish, Deir al-Ghazal, Maysaloun, Deir al-Achaeir, Halwa and Yanta are occupied by Syria, and - a sign of even greater control - their outlying areas have been made inaccessible to villagers. It is significant here that Kosaya hosts the heavily armed camp of the PFLP-GC, while the outskirts of Halwa and Yanta host other Palestinian factions, including Fatah-Intifada.

Tom Harb (chair of the ILC) and Toni Nissi (the ILC's coordinator in Lebanon) are bewildered both by the international community's disregard of this blatant violation of UN resolutions, and by the reluctance of the Lebanese government to take up this crucial issue with the UN. The host of relevant incidents include a series of assassinations of leading Lebanese politicians (the two by-elections on 5 August were held to replace the slain anti-Syrian MPs, Walid Eido and Pierre Gemayel); the killing of six UN peacekeepers by a bomb in June 2006; the transfer of arms (destined for Hizbollah) and of Palestinian militants from Syria into Lebanon; and the firing of Katyusha rockets from southern Lebanon into Israel.

What makes the findings of this report (cited first by the Wall Street Journal) all the more important and credible is that they matched the findings of yet another report (released on 11 June 2007) on the implementation of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1559 by Terje Roed-Larsen, the UN's special envoy to the middle east. Roed-Larsen used findings gathered by the Lebanese authorities to detail the activities and reinforcements of Palestinian outposts in the region of Yanta, Kosaya, Wadi Hashmish, and Jabal al-Maysara, and reported the entrance of Palestinians from the Yarmouk and Suaida camps in Syria into the PFLP-GC outpost of Jabal al-Maysara. He asserted the "exceptional gravity of this information" which reveals "stark violation of UNSCR 1559."

These findings were reinforced by a UN Security Council statement of 3 August 2007 which expressed "grave concern at persistent reports of breaches of the arms embargo along the Lebanon-Syria border", and (in relation to the possible rearming of non-Lebanese and Lebanese militias inside the country) declared that "there should be no sale or supplies of arms and related materiel to Lebanon except as authorised by the government."

The bad neighbour

Lebanon is gripped by serious internal problems, from political division and mistrust to insecurity and violence. But there is a direct connection between the "internal" and the "external": in particular, Syrian violations of Lebanon's sovereignty and territorial integrity are inseparable from plans by the Hizbollah-led opposition to remove the Fouad Siniora government and control Lebanon's politics.

As the presidential election nears, it is imperative that the Lebanese government and the international community undertake immediate pre-emptive measures to prevent the country from falling prey to Syrian designs. These should include sealing the border between Lebanon and Syria, closing the smuggling points, and disarming Palestinian groups; all this could be the subject of a new UN resolution that would demarcate the border in the same way the UN did with regard to the "blue line" which verified Israel's withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000.

In the words of Tom Harb, the Syrian regime has not technically withdrawn from Lebanon and should be held responsible for its actions. Otherwise, it is realistic to expect that Syrian schemes could extinguish the hope of freedom and democracy for Lebanon.

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