Sunday, May 27, 2012

Lebanon pays the price as Hizbollah shores up support

The continuing tension in Lebanon has raised fears that the country may be engulfed by what is fast nearing a civil war in Syria. That outcome may occur, but it is also at odds with the interests of Hizbollah, which played a key role - with Syria - in triggering the latest unrest. Next year, the party hopes to strengthen its hold over the commanding heights of the Lebanese political and security order.

The latest violence came after the killing last weekend of two Sunni Muslim sheikhs at an army checkpoint in the Akkar region of northern Lebanon. What happened remains unclear, but the opposition, in particular supporters of the Future Movement led by Saad Hariri, have held the government of Prime Minister Najib Mikati responsible, with some politicians even accusing elements in the military of deliberately murdering the clerics.

Relations between Lebanon's Sunni community (the Akkar, along with the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli, is predominantly Sunni) and the army have been abysmal in recent years. While a substantial number of soldiers are Sunni, reportedly 40 per cent, the perception in the community is that the institution is dominated by Hizbollah, with a significant number of Christian officers sympathetic to the party.

Sunnis still remember with bitterness what happened in western Beirut in May 2008. At the time, Hizbollah gunmen and their allies overran that part of the capital. For days armed gangs ruled the streets, and the army did little. In fact, certain units purportedly collaborated with Hizbollah.

The Sunnis' diminished respect for the army, or at least for the military command, is a worrying development. With Lebanon's centrifugal forces gaining ground, the army alone can avert a security void. Yet there are limits to what a multi-sectarian military, mirroring the profound contradictions within Lebanese society, can do. On many occasions the army's preference to stand by the wayside, although objectionable, succeeded in preserving unity in the ranks.

Equally disturbing this week was the spread of fighting to Beirut, for the first time since 2008. While the clashes were contained in the mainly Sunni quarter of Tariq Al Jadideh, and involved anti-Syrian groups attacking the offices of a pro-Hizbollah Sunni party, the potential for such confrontations to spread is considerable. Sunnis and Shiites live side by side in the area, and Tariq Al Jadideh is not far from the pro-Hizbollah, Shiite-majority southern suburbs of Beirut.

What lies ahead for Lebanon? It's easy to take the bleak view, and in fact little is reassuring in the country's dysfunctional political environment. Making matters worse, this week several Gulf states warned their citizens to stay away from Lebanon for security reasons. This promises another anaemic tourist season for an economy that has already taken a hard hit from the Syrian uprising.

What is going on is hardly coincidental. The episode that triggered the latest instability, namely the arrest in Tripoli on May 12 of an Islamist, Shadi Mawlawi, by the General Security directorate, appeared meant to provoke a furious Sunni counter-reaction.

General Security is close to Hizbollah, and the view among many is that Syria and Hizbollah knew that the Sunni Islamists would take to the streets in protest, making it appear that Tripoli was a Salafist stronghold. This would lend credence to the narrative in Damascus that the regime is fighting armed jihadists at home and in Lebanon.

Mr Mawlawi's detention came just before Syria's ambassador to the United Nations, Bashar Al Jaafari, sent a letter to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. Mr Jaafari claimed that arms were reaching Syrian rebels through bordering countries, including Lebanon. He accused Lebanese parties, particularly Mr Hariri's Future Movement, of harbouring members of Al Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood.

The Jaafari letter was a serious shot across Lebanon's bow. Mr Mikati rejected Mr Jaafari's contention, amid reports that the Syrian regime has put pressure on him to take a more forceful position against the Syrian opposition in Lebanese territory. The prime minister has resisted doing so because he doesn't want to alienate his own Sunni base in Tripoli, and knows that this approach would only widen the divisions within his own government.

Mr Hariri's followers have been particularly harsh on Mr Mikati lately. They still have not forgiven him for going along with Hizbollah's unceremonious removal of Mr Hariri in January 2011. That's understandable, and the prime minister's record has not helped. He has spent time managing crises, rather than pushing policy forward. However, after the killing of the two sheikhs, the assaults on Mr Mikati and demands that he resign, seemed risky brinkmanship.

If Mr Mikati were to step down, Lebanon would probably enter a prolonged vacuum. Hizbollah doesn't want such a situation, because the party is looking towards parliamentary elections next year to consolidate its position in the event President Bashar Al Assad falls. Hizbollah aims to win a majority in parliament with its political partners, name a president the following year when a presidential election is scheduled, and form a government it controls.

Expect Syria and Hizbollah to continue to manipulate the Sunni community. However, all-out sectarian conflict between Sunnis and Shia may not be as likely as many imagine. Otherwise, how could Hizbollah implement its plan? Perhaps that's why Mr Mawlawi was released on Tuesday, to let steam out of the pressure cooker.

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