Thursday, June 27, 2013

Lebanon’s Sunnis must not be hijacked

The Lebanese would do well to think of Prince Saud al-Faisal’s description of Syria as “occupied territory” in the joint news conference he held Tuesday with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. For if Syria is regarded as “occupied” because of the presence of Iran and Hezbollah there, then what of Lebanon, where both have a decisive say over the country’s affairs?

As a Lebanese parliamentarian astutely put it recently, the deployment of American soldiers, aircraft, and Patriot missiles to Jordan was an American line drawn in the sand at the Hashemite kingdom. But no line is being drawn in Lebanon, except one placing the country on the dark side, as a territory effectively controlled by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and its local partners.

Both the Lebanese and Saudis have to inject nuance into this view. Hezbollah is powerful, but as a house of many mansions Lebanon is not a place where anyone can take domination for granted. Hezbollah won a round against Sheikh Ahmad Assir, profiting from his foolish attack on the Army, but the party cannot be reassured when its Sunni foes are bolder and when the Saudis are portraying Iranian influence as equivalent to the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories.

There is some question as to whether the Gulf states seek to confront Hezbollah in Lebanon. Until now, their actions have been relatively restricted in nature, even if they have employed a big hammer against a fragile Lebanese economy.

Lebanese working in the Gulf who are considered close to Hezbollah, or who have given money to the party, are being expelled. The decision of Gulf governments to advise their nationals not to travel to Lebanon has more to do with these states’ fear of seeing citizens kidnapped and used as bargaining chips, than with a desire to undermine the tourism industry.

More worrisome is that the Saudis may consider Lebanon so far gone into the Hezbollah camp, that they will increase their backing of armed Sunni adversaries of the party. The Assir phenomenon shows the dangers of such a strategy. That’s not to say that Riyadh financed the sheikh. But when the Saudis intervene in a situation, they tend to act through Islamist networks, and in the highly charged sectarian context present today, this can lead to a Sunni-Shiite explosion.

Assir’s reference to the Lebanese Army as an “Iranian army,” like his call on Sunnis to desert the armed forces, erased any middle ground filled by the Lebanese state. In Assir’s view there are only Sunnis and Shiites, and the state is an instrument largely in the hands of the Shiites, inviting legitimate Sunni antagonism.

This is not a majority view among Sunnis. After initial hesitation among Sunni politicians to condemn Assir Sunday, for fear of alienating the Sunni street, Saad Hariri clarified matters Monday when he reproached Assir for having formed an armed group. “The Army made major sacrifices and we must all embrace it,” Hariri unambiguously told Future television. “We in the Future movement will remain with the Army, no matter what they are saying ... and our project will remain the state.”

This is a message the Saudis and other Gulf states must take to heart. A civil war in Lebanon will not advance their interests in Syria. On the contrary, it will give Bashar Assad room to pursue his repression at home, allowing him to better argue that efforts to oust him from power are only destabilizing the region. Worse, it will empower militant Islamists, who will go back home to challenge their governments.

What is needed today is a consensual, coordinated course of action that the Lebanese Sunni community can adopt to avert a civil war. If the Sunnis feel more reassured with guidance from their traditional allies such as Saudi Arabia, then so be it. The Saudis are in a good position today to impose their views on the other Gulf states, including Qatar, particularly if they have American backing.

This course of action should do two things: aim to seize the initiative in the Sunni community from the small, radicalized Islamist groups, who have imposed their agenda on mainstream Sunni politicians, especially in places such as Sidon and Tripoli. This can be done in several ways. More funding can be assured so these politicians can help alleviate the difficult economic situation in poorer Sunni neighborhoods, where Islamist groups recruit members. The Gulf states also have to cut off funding to extremists, whose proliferation will only frighten other communities and isolate the Lebanese Sunnis.

The second aim must be to exploit Hezbollah’s willingness to be drawn into the Syrian conflict. This has been reckless and may cost the party dearly. For those Lebanese opposed to Hezbollah, now is the time to begin preparing for the aftermath, if Hezbollah emerges weakened by its Syrian campaign. There is, of course, a possibility that the party will come out strengthened if Assad’s regime ultimately triumphs. But that is not very likely and a war in Lebanon will anyway not make this outcome more palatable. The Sunnis have to be patient and defend their stakes in the Lebanese system, while avoiding brinkmanship that would be a catastrophe for everyone.

Being patient may not excite many people. But even victorious, Assad will face domestic volatility for a long time, and Hezbollah will be affected. The priority in Lebanon has to be civil peace. Maintaining it will allow Hezbollah’s opponents to fight, politically, another day.

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