Playing With Fire: Lebanon and Syria

The pictures of the demonstrations in Lebanon are breathtaking, to be sure, and it’s probably fun to be there, whether you’re hoping to topple the government, or not. I saw guitars, tents, a beach ball, all set against the cool red and white of the Lebanese flag. The “red and white revolution” has a nice ring to it. Or is it the “cedar intifada?”

I ask because the folks at Condoleezza Rice’s State Department respond well to colors these days – they like orange (Ukraine), purple (Iraq), and rose (Georgia). Roula Khalaf, in yesterday’s Financial Times, noticed a swooning Pentagon official, too.

Speaking to Lebanese TV at the weekend, Paul Wolfowitz, U.S. deputy secretary of defence, hailed the opposition's courage, comparing the events to last year's peaceful change in Ukraine and in the Philippines in 1987.

The article continues.

"In Lebanon we see growing momentum for a cedar revolution unifying that nation to the cause of true democracy," said Paula Dobriansky, under-secretary of state for global affairs.

Fine, cedar. If you’re confused about what’s happening in Lebanon right now, you’re not alone. In the last two weeks, a former prime minister was assassinated, and the current prime minister yesterday became a former prime minister. A Lebanese opposition politician who just recently expressed sadness that an Iraqi mortar had not killed a senior U.S. defense official (Wolfowitz) had a pleasant meeting two days ago with a senior U.S. State Department official (David Satterfield). On Sunday, the Syrian government happened upon Saddam Hussein’s half brother, and handed him over to the Iraqis. And the Israelis are briefing international diplomats on why Syria is responsible for the bombing of a disco in Tel Aviv. Here is a timeline of events.

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Press accounts of all this upheaval have tended towards the shallow, so I’m recommending this piece from veteran journalist Patrick Seale. Pay attention to this line: “America’s motive in pressuring Syria lies in the situation in Iraq, where the U.S is battling a nationalist and Islamist insurgency…”

The message, from people who know Lebanon is, take care: The pictures you see of a united opposition belie a country much more divided about its future. The opposition still excludes Hezbollah, a growing political party that benefits from its reputation leading a war of national liberation against the Israelis. A Washington Post article leaves the impression they won’t be protesting soon.

Mohammed Afif, a Hezbollah spokesman, said the party had no intention of joining the opposition. If Hezbollah were to join, it would also be essentially agreeing to calls for it to give up arms under the terms of the U.N. resolution passed last year. Hezbollah officials say the arms are still needed as a defense against Israel.

"Whatever the nature of the American project in the Middle East, Lebanon will not be able to change its geography," Afif said. "As long as Israel is on the other side of the border, Lebanon and Syria will be in the same bunker. We share a bilateral destiny."

“This kind of unity is far more fragile than people assume,” Bassam Haddad, a visiting professor at Georgetown, told me. “It’s likely to fall apart in the absence of a compelling raison d'etre. I don’t think there will be a civil war. But the unity of the opposition derives from opposing the pressure from Syria.” As’ad AbuKhalil, a professor at Cal State University, and author of the crucial Angry Arab News Service, is more pessimistic.

“The Americans are playing with fire,” he told me on the phone. “The Lebanese never last in a multi-sectarian coalition.” He said he was surprised at yesterday’s resignation by Omar Karami, the Lebanese prime minister, who he called a stubborn politician, and not someone to respond to threats or the press. "The opposition is not being as careful as it should be. This is hard for the Lebanese, and easy for the Americans."

The Americans. No one denies the power of the protests, or the effect they seem to be having on the domestic political scene. There is a real fear, however, that the demonstrators are being used in a regional game that has little to do with their aspirations. Seale describes a pincer movement – the Americans pressing Syria on Iraq, the Israelis seizing the opportunity to move against Hezbollah. AbuKhalil said it more concisely, in a headline on his blog: "US is willing to sell Lebanon to buy Iraq, and Syria is willing to sell Iraq to buy Lebanon."

Bassam Haddad said it would be hard, from the outside, to divine the Syrian response.

“To make a long story short, there are hardliners, and harderliners. The hardline – the current Syrian regime – that claimed the Syrian presence in Lebanon should be scaled back – these people have been vindicated. But I don’t think the schism is really that deep,” he said. “They will all join forces. The Syrian regime is far less of a rogue state than people assume. Despite the authoritarian nature of the regime, it’s far more institutionalized. It won’t fall apart.”

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