Lebanon: the missing perspective

Roger Scruton
19 July 2006

Alex Klaushofer, in her openDemocracy article, is right to emphasise the Lebanese tradition of inter-communal cooperation, and its attempts to form a national loyalty above religious faction: it is what made the old Lebanon, the self-consciously Phoenician mediator between east and west, such a beacon of light in a region of darkness (see "Lebanon: unity within diversity", 17 July 2006).

It is also what made Lebanon offensive not only to Syria, where the Alawi minority clings precariously to power, but also to Iran, which looks to Lebanon as the proving-ground for its foreign policy. Lebanon is the only country with a Shi'a minority large enough to form a government, and the purpose of Hizbollah (founded by Sheikh Fadlallah in 1982, and funded first by Iran and subsequently by Syria) was to radicalise the Lebanese Shi'a and prepare the way for an Islamist coup d'état.

Roger Scruton is responding to earlier openDemocracy articles on the war between Hizbollah and Israel:

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

Paul Rogers, "Israel, Lebanon, and beyond: the danger of escalation" (17 July 2006)

Paul Rogers, "War defeats diplomacy"
(18 July 2006)

However, Klaushofer is surely wrong to imply that the old Lebanese project, of a multi-confessional democracy, can be readily revived, or that Hizbollah can be marginalised or disarmed by the Lebanese themselves. In his openDemocracy columns, Paul Rogers criticises Israel for its over-violent and destabilising reaction to Hizbollah's incursions. But he too seems not to have taken note of the real nature of Hizbollah, and writes as though the cause of the current war (and war it is) is simply Israeli aggression, combined with American partiality towards the Israeli cause. The fact is that Hizbollah is a force operating in Lebanon, but supported from outside the country, depending on both Syria and Iran for its arms and logistical support, and maintained in a state of hysterical belligerence by its own high command.

Under Lebanon's national pact of 1943 that Klaushofer rightly extols, the army was to be recruited from all the sects, in numbers proportional to the populations, as they were at the last legal census. The purpose was to ensure that no sect could use the army as a means of overthrowing the constitution. The minister of defence was to be a Greek Orthodox – in other words, a member of a minority sect that had the confidence of both Sunni and Maronites yet was itself too small to attempt a seizure of power. The hope was to build up a "patriot army" that would defend the secular settlement against religious madness, and also secure the territory of Lebanon as the territory of an independent nation-state – the first goal being deeply offensive to Muslim radicals, the second deeply offensive to Syria.

At present, because of the long-sustained breakdown in the old confessional constitution, the minister of defence is a Shi'a, and 75% of the Lebanese army is Shi'a. This preponderance is owed less to confessional bias (though that exists) than to the fact that young, unemployed Shi'a from rural districts are by far the easiest recruits – a demographic trend not foreseen when the confessional state was set up. Not surprisingly, the Lebanese army, confronted with the task of disarming Hizbollah, refused to enter into conflict with its co-religionists, and has relinquished the southern border to this heavily armed, and insanely belligerent Islamist faction. Hizbollah's leader, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, has declared war on Israel on behalf of his "party", knowing that the costs of the war will be borne by the Lebanese people, and not by his own militia, which will melt into the countryside when the going gets tough.

No doubt there are many indigenous Shi'a who sympathise with Hizbollah, and maybe even endorse its pro-Syrian policies. However, it should be remembered that the current situation, in which Hizbollah has effectively entered into war with Israel in partnership with Hamas, is not one that corresponds to the rooted sympathies of Lebanese Shi'a. Not only is Hamas a Sunni organisation; it is also the Lebanese Shi'a from the south who have suffered most from the lawless exploitation of their country by the armed gangs of Palestinian refugees. It is bound to go against the grain, for most Lebanese Shi'a, to be allied with the Palestinians in a war that cannot in any case be won.

Although none of that justifies the Israeli incursions, it is surely relevant to point out that peace cannot come to the region except through negotiation between sovereign states, and that this negotiation can be effective only if all military forces in the region are controlled by sovereign states. This control of military forces within its territory has not been achieved by the Palestinian authorities; nor is it now exemplified by the Lebanese government, as the current prime minister Fouad Siniora openly acknowledges.

Israel's current assaults can be seen as attempts to disarm those factions that impede negotiation, rather than an attempt to replace negotiation with force. So it seems to me, at any rate. And as for Hizbollah, it is now abundantly clear that only Israel can disarm it – though whether the cost of doing so will be acceptable is quite another question.

Roger Scruton is a writer, philosopher and farmer. Among his many books is A Land Held Hostage: Lebanon and the West (Claridge, 1987)

Also by Roger Scruton in openDemocracy on the politics of Lebanon:

"The first step following withdrawal of foreign forces would have to be an attempt to bring the sects together once again, so as to negotiate a new national pact that does justice to the demographic realities, and which imposes on the Shi'a a duty to respect the idea of secular government in which Christians, Druze and Sunni have an equal role. Can this be done? And would the result be a model for other middle-eastern countries – Iraq in particular – or merely confirmation of Lebanon's exceptional status?"

See "Lebanon before and after Syria" (9 March 2005)

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