The Danger in Lebanon

Against the Current, No. 120, January/February 2006

Gilbert Achcar

[The following brief excerpt is from an interview with Gilbert Achcar, the author of The Clash of Barbarisms and Eastern Cauldon (Monthly Review Press), conducted in early December by Phil Butland for Achse des Friedens (Berlin). The full text is posted on ZNet. This discussion took place before the new crisis created by the car-bomb assassination of the prominent Lebanese journalist Gebran Tueni.]

THE ASSASSINATION [of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri] resulted in the intensification of the campaign by the USA and France against the Syrian presence and influence in Lebanon. This pressure was able to base itself on the mass mobilization inside Lebanon, which forced the withdrawal of Syrian troops.

The situation is very tense presently. The Lebanese political scene is divided between forces allied to Syria and hostile to the United States and those mainly backed by the Washington, France and the Saudi Kingdom. The main leader of the US-backed coalition is Hariri’s son. After the recent election, [the pro-Syrian Lebanese president Emile] Lahoud lost his majority in parliament to this coalition.

Syria entered Lebanon in 1976 with a green light from Washington. In the Lebanese civil war, which started in 1975, Washington backed reactionary right-wing Christian militias, which were in danger of being defeated by the alliance of Palestinian forces and the Lebanese left. If Lebanon were to fall under the control of this alliance, this would have been a nightmare for Washington. So, they supported the Syrian intervention which clashed violently with the Palestinian-Lebanese forces.

Syria went in to restore “order” in the country — and to use this role as a bargaining chip with the international community… Parts of the Syrian military bureaucracy also had an economic interest in Lebanon, which played a similar role for Syria as Hong Kong did for China before the liberalization of the Chinese economy.

Moreover, Syrian bureaucrats could organize all sorts of trafficking and use Lebanese banks for money laundering or to transfer to foreign accounts the fortunes they had accumulated through their plunder of Lebanon and Syria.

(After the Lebanese civil war ended in 1990) Syrian forces played a key role in stabilizing the situation thereafter. In 2003, however, the Syrian regime refused to support Bush junior’s war with Iraq. In 1991, many Arab countries — including the Saudi Kingdom, Egypt and Syria — had joined the war coalition. In 2003 however, it was not just Western allies like France and Germany who had reservations against the war. No Arab country sent troops. Moreover Damascus was vocal in opposing the war.

In retaliation, Washington used Lebanon to exert pressure on Syria and to try to win direct collaboration from Damascus in controlling occupied Iraq and in taming the Lebanese Hezbollah. The Bush administration regularly accused the Syrian regime of allowing Iraqi insurgent forces to operate from Syrian territory. They called on Syria to hermetically seal the Iraq border.

Damascus did its best, but pointed out that the task is impossible to fulfill completely and that the USA itself cannot hermetically seal its border with Mexico. The Syrian rulers believe that the US is actually trying to precipitate the collapse of their regime from within.

It is clear that the UN, and particularly the United States and France, are using the Mehlis report [on the Hariri assassination] as a tool for their intervention.

What will happen in Lebanon depends largely on decisions taken in Washington. The Lebanese opposition now has a majority in parliament. It has not yet tried to overthrow the president, as it is waiting for the overall political situation to get clearer and to see if Washington will cut some sort of deal with the Syrian regime. If there is no deal with Syria, it is likely that the opposition will try to force the resignation of the president and elect someone else.

Then there is the disarmament of Hezbollah. It is an important part of UN Resolution 1559, yet Hezbollah is unwilling to disarm, as they feel threatened by Israel, which has already assassinated many of their leaders. They know that if they disarm, they will not be protected by the Lebanese army. On the other hand, Hezbollah is too strong to be disarmed by violent means without a major civil war or foreign invasion. That is why Washington needs Syria to help it force a “peaceful” disarmament of Hezbollah.

In the long run, the future of Lebanon is tied to developments in Syria. If the regime in Syria is destabilized or collapses, this could affect Lebanon in very terrible ways. A resumption of the civil war cannot be excluded and would be terrible, as the country has been bleeding for many years.

All this shows how harmful Washington’s foreign policy is to the Middle East. Iraq is already threatened by full-fledged civil war. Washington is destabilizing Syria. This could lead to turmoil in Lebanon, and the pressure on Hezbollah could also lead to civil war. If they were left to themselves, Lebanese political forces would negotiate some kind of compromise and a peaceful resolution of local problems, including the issue of Hezbollah’s armament.

Washington claims that it is bringing freedom and democracy. But Lebanon has had relatively free elections for several decades, and the decisive factor in getting Syria out of Lebanon was the mass mobilization following the assassination of Hariri, not anything the United States did.

[Question: Do you see any hope in the region?]

Hope can only be built on local political forces. The problem is that most of them are very corrupt. There is no healthy social movement in Lebanon who could be a significant player. It remains to be built or rebuilt. The best hope that you could have in the meantime is that the worst does not happen and the country does not relapse into civil war.

ATC 120, January-February 2006