ישראל נאמן | Lectures, Articles, Tours: Israel | Mideast onTarget | Elliot Chodoff & Yisrael Ne'eman | Lebanese Dilemmas 7.3.05

Lebanese Dilemmas

7 March 2005

By Yisrael Ne'eman

Democracy is the people's will and its apparatus is free elections. Recently there have been the vestiges of democratic process in the Middle East by way of elections in Afghanistan, Iraq and now apparently Lebanon. After the assassination of opposition leader, former PM Rafik Hariri, the Lebanese took to the streets demanding an end to Syrian interference in their internal affairs, considering Damascus responsible for the murder. The US, Europe, Israel and just about everyone else is demanding Syria remove its remaining 14,000 occupation troops and let Beirut enjoy the fruits of its upcoming May elections without interference. It seems amazing that the popular will as expressed through massive demonstrations may force the Syrians out of Lebanon.

But not all are in favor of a Syrian departure. The Islamic Shi'ite fundamentalist, pro-Iranian Hizbollah led by Hassan Nasrallah is organizing a pro-Syrian demonstration. Heavily armed, extremely militant and steadfastly opposed to any peace agreement with Israel, the Hizbollah will be exposed as the only legally armed faction outside of the Lebanese security forces. The Syrian military presence is their best cover for occupying the Galilee border region since Israel refuses to countenance a Syrian presence in the area. But if Lebanon is undergoing a democratic process which includes the removal of Syrian troops, such a de-militarizing move will include eventual demands for Hizbollah disarmament. It appears international pressures will force the Syrians to depart even if in two stages.

Neither Iran, Syria nor Hizbollah intend to lose influence in Lebanon, but only the latter is a player on the Lebanese court. The Shi'ites are the largest single religio-ethnic group, and although not all are Hizbollah supporters they can be expected to make a strong showing in the parliamentary elections. A secular democratic Lebanon was never Nasrallah's dream but he will be forced to play the election game to test his strength.

Two scenarios exist. In an interesting democratic quirk, Hizbollah and other pro-Syrians might win the day and Damascus will find itself in Lebanon at the request of a freely elected government. As much as one might detest the Syrians, it must be recalled that Damascus gave Lebanon the stability so badly needed to rebuild the country after the fifteen year civil war ended in 1990.

Or the Hizbollah will be the backbome of the pro-Iranian, pro-Syrian opposition in the new parliament and face the dilemma of accepting the election results or undermining them through violence. Under pressure by moderates and secular Lebanese nationalists Nasrallah will need to present an outside villain as a threat to Lebanese sovereignty, and of course Israel can be expected to fill that role. By initiating border conflict and rocket attacks (while bringing the desired Israeli retaliations) the hope will be to radicalize his Shi'ite co-religionists, neutralize those who prefer peaceful dealings and draw Syria and Iran back into the Lebanese whirlpool. The alternative is to face disarmament and marginalization.

Both Tehran and Damascus will press Hizbollah to take increasingly radical steps, since they have nothing to lose and fear a pax-Americana engulfing the Middle East. Should Washington get its way, both regimes along with Hizbollah would cease to exist.

Lebanese democracy and the demands for Syrian withdrawal are certainly justified, but due to western fears of facing Tehran head on, the staunch Iranian support for Hizbollah activism may well begin a cycle of violence on a level not seen for a generation. Up to now extreme Shi'ite radicalism has been curtailed by Damascus. Paradoxically, Syria, when not pressured by western threats, could prove to be much more of a stabilizer when its military sits in Lebanon as opposed to when its forces are withdrawn.