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Lebanon's paths to war

The investigation into the assassination of President Rafiq Hariri is just one trigger among many that could lead Lebanon and the wider region to war.
Filippo Dionigi
29 July 2010

History is a garden of forking paths, wrote Jorge Luis Borges. It seems that the Lebanese garden, packed with tourists in this season, has plenty of dangerous turns.

In the last few months Lebanon has been the scene of a number of events signalling the escalating tension in the region and the possibility of the eruption of a conflict has been widely covered in the media.

Tension became evident in South Lebanon where the UNIFIL peacekeeping mission working in collaboration with the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) has recently clashed with the local population sympathetic to the Shiite Islamist Hizbullah. The South Lebanese region was already the object of speculation when Israeli officials accused Syria of providing the paramilitary and political Shiite group with ballistic weaponry. The accusation has been dismissed by Arab governmental sources as well UNIFIL at a later stage, but the recent clashes signalled Hizbullah’s degree of alert. Between Israel and Lebanon there is an ongoing war of words, declarations and provocative violations of UNSC resolution 1701 (pdf), including Israeli violations of Lebanese airspace. A minor casus belli, of which there is no short supply - the voyage of a Lebanese-sponsored ship that aims to deliver humanitarian aid to Gaza, for example - could be enough to ignite a regional conflict.

In the meantime, Israel is finalizing its “iron dome”, a military system guaranteeing higher standards of protection against ballistic attacks. Its completion, due in the next few months, has been interpreted by commentators as the sign that all is ready for a conflict.

Hezbollah_0.jpg

EITS/Demotix. All rights reserved

Lebanese-Syrian relations are another aspect of the intricate picture. Saudi Arabia, the patron of the present Prime Minister, Rafiq Hariri, has successfully (so far) enacted a policy of rapprochement with Damascus after the serious divergence following the assassination of Rafiq Hariri, former prime minister and father of Saad. Lebanon and Syria seem to have established a newly consolidated relationship, in evidence in the frequent visits of Hariri to Damascus but also by some slow, though positive, steps towards a more robust recognition of Lebanese sovereignty in Syria. The opening of a Syrian embassy in Beirut and the beginning of talks to draw a border line between the two countries, testify to some of the precarious advances in this direction.

This week, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia is engaged in a round of talks in the region, of which the central event is his visit to Lebanon where he will be joined by Bashar Al Asad. The king, with the sympathy of the US administration, will try to defuse the increasing tension in the region. As Fawaz Gerges from the London School of Economics says, Adbullah’s mission: “is bringing Syria into the equation” to ease the tension and slow things down. Syria is fundamental as regards the Arab/Israeli conflict, Iraq, and its strategic liaison with Iran; its collaboration might be the last option available to ease things, or at least delay a conflict.

But in the last few days, another dangerous path to war has revealed itself. The Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL), at this point, seems ready to emit its first indictments. Initially Syria and its local Lebanese emissaries were the main suspects, but it is almost certain (though nothing is official yet) that the tribunal will indict members of Hizbullah as involved in Hariri’s murder. The political parties, including the Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, tried to alleviate the heavy political situation but the efforts do not bring fruit. Hariri’s national unity government might be the victim of the tribunal that he himself wanted to establish to prosecute his father’s assassins.

Hizbullah is accusing the STL of being an instrument of Israel. Both Syria and Hizbullah believe in a conspiracy aimed at delegitimizing the resistance in Lebanon. All will depend on the evidences that are attached to the STL indictment, either telecom tabulates or testimonies from witnesses. None of the two, for what we know, seem to be the smoking gun they were looking for.

Hariri.jpg

Zaher Bizri/Demotix. All rights reserved.

Hizbullah has already done more than enough to discredit the work of investigators and its accusations against the STL have been coupled by charges of espionage and false testimony against Lebanese employees in the telecom industry of the country. The task of the tribunal was difficult from the beginning. To investigate and persecute the heinous murder of Hariri and the other 21 victims in 2005 in a country whose history is punctuated by a myriad of political assassinations, mass murders and crimes of war is a selective focus that raised, perhaps reasonably, serious concerns on its actual impartiality.

According to informed sources, Asad will give to Adbullah of Saudi Arabia a power point presentation dismantling the accusations against Hizbullah. But the process seems already at an advanced stage, and while this may take some time, is hard to believe in the possibility of a sudden change of direction. The tension with Israel, the heated regional situation, and the pending stalagmite of the STL over the head of Lebanon is more than Lebanon can take.

History is a garden of forking paths but Lebanon, sadly, seems to be heading in one direction.

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