Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Lebanon on the cusp

The political stalemate in Lebanon shows little sign of ending anytime soon. President Emile Lahoud’s undistinguished nine-year term in office sputtered to an end last November. His extension in office, imposed by Syria in 2004, precipitated a process of dissent, political resistance and retaliatory violence, including the assassination of Rafiq al-Hariri in February 2005. With Lahoud poised to leave office, many Lebanese and outside observers worried that an unoccupied presidential palace in Ba’abda would be an invitation to danger. My own concern, as I expressed it in a recent article, was that Lebanon could not “totter endlessly on the cusp of the maelstrom.” External powers have since accustomed themselves to the vacancy, and it is now possible that nothing will happen until after the 2009 parliamentary elections. This is a dangerous experiment in delay, one that may well have disastrous consequences for Lebanon.

Government and opposition forces have stiffened their positions, with significant encouragement from external sponsors, especially the U.S. , France, Saudi Arabia, on the pro-government side, and Iran and Syria on the opposition side. The result is that bargains that may have been possible months ago, witness the candidacy of General Michel Suleiman, may no longer be on the table. While an Arab League summit is scheduled for late March, in Damascus, it is probably a good bet that the summit will be delayed, if not canceled, especially after much celebrated assassination of Imad Mughniyah.

There is good reason to worry that the stalemate may erupt rather than collapse. While many adult Lebanese have direct experience of the civil war (1975-1989), there are many shabaab—young bloods—who have no living memory of the civil war and are ready to fight. It is distressing to listen to well-to-do teen-agers declare their readiness to pick up arms and fight, despite their parents’ attempts to dissuade them. Clashes that end in deaths are thankfully still relatively uncommon, but the incidence of inter-sectarian clashes in urban neighborhoods is on the increase, and in some places skirmishes are now nightly events.

Will the time will come when even wise leaders will no longer be able to rein in the hot tempers? The army, in particular, has done a reasonably effective job of keep the violence in check, but there are limits to its self-control as we have already witnessed.

Last week’s assassination of Mughniyah has certainly increased the political polarization. Mughniyah--one of a cohort of young militants who imbibed the ideology of Iran’s revolution and then were radicalized by the Israeli invasion of 1982--had plenty of blood on his hands. Celebrations of his violent end have painted him as a mastermind of all manner of bloodshed and chaos over the course of the past quarter century or so. His role in some cases, such as the infamous hijacking of TWA 847 in 1985 or the kidnapping and despicable treatment of hostages in 1980s, is well-documented. His role in the early 1990s in the Buenos Aries bombings has been substantiated by Argentinean investigators.

I am not convinced that he deserves all the credit for terrible deeds that has fallen on his corpse. For instance, was he a 21 year old Svengali who directed the bombing of the U.S. embassy in Beirut in April 2003 and the horrendously effective truck bombing of the marine barracks in the autumn of the same year? Perhaps not. Mind you, Mughniyah had plenty of blood to answer for, but hearing the litany of deeds attributed to Mughniyah one has to be a bit skeptical. The Long Commission, aptly in my view, characterized the attack on the marines in 1983 as an act of war by Iran. Mughniyah would have been a player, but not the mastermind.

In recent years, little was ever said about Mughniyah in Lebanon. Lebanese close to Hezbollah usually noted that he was most likely in Iran, and he had been close to Pasdaran figures since at least the early 1980s. A variety of commenters, including Israeli officials, have alluded to his operational role in the 2006 war. My own hunch is that the great service that he performed in the July war of 2006 was to maintain the supply conduit between Hezbollah and Iran, as well as being the Pasdaran’s nexus with Hezbollah.

End of part I.

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