Lebanon may be beginning one of the most turbulent periods in its all-too-tumultuous history. As the world looks on with apparent indifference, Islamist and Iran-led forces may be on the verge of a new victory over Arab nationalists and just about everyone else.
With what can only be called astounding courage, most Lebanese Christian, Druze, and Sunni Muslim politicians have stood up to the Shia Muslim group Hizballah as well as its Iranian and Syrian backers. Hizballah is well-financed from Tehran and Damascus; the government—and even less its constituent elements—receive relatively little international help.
Arms pour across the border to Hizballah, as a UN-dispatched force supposed to help stop this flow stands by inactive. True, there is some foreign aid to Lebanon’s armed forces, but that army is led by a man, Michael Suleiman, who might be the Syrian-Iranian candidate for president, and many of its soldiers are pro-Hizballah, too.
The Syrians buy some politicians, like the former Christian patriot Michel Aoun, and kill others who resist, as happened to former prime minister Rafik Hariri in 2005.
The UN has sponsored an investigation into Hariri’s killing that points to high-level Syrian involvement. But after two years of inquiry there is no end in sight and many Western politicians along with several governments are eager to “engage” Syria in dialogue.
Thus, the Syrians have engaged in systematic terrorism in Lebanon and pretty much gotten away with it so far. When a Syrian-backed Palestinian Islamist group, Fatah al-Islam, raised a revolt against the Lebanese government, the world was sympathetic to Lebanon but was largely content to blame it on shadowy al-Qaida forces acting independently. The same happened regarding terror attacks on the UN forces in Lebanon. Meanwhile, of course, no Hizballah or pro-Syrian politician has been assaulted by the moderates.
But even all this is not the most fitting symbol of the “international community’s” dereliction of duty in Lebanon. Here’s what is:
If you stand near the Israel-Lebanon border you will see the blue flag of the UN flying in Lebanese territory. Nearby flutters Hizballah’s yellow flag. A number of people have remarked on this fact, yet none seem to have drawn the logical conclusion from it.
During the summer 2006 war between Israel and Hizballah, most countries, held back for some days by the United States eagerly demanded that there be a ceasefire. Finally, they got their way. The ceasefire drawn up at the UN mandated a large international armed force in southern Lebanon.
Its mission was to keep Hizballah out of the area, ensure control by Lebanon’s government, if possible assist in the disarming of Hizballah by government forces, help stop arms smuggling, and prevent fighting between the two countries that share the border.
It has failed in all these tasks but the last one, and on even that point who knows how long that will last.
What is remarkable is not just the failure itself but the fact that the world does not seem to notice. Delegations are still asking the Syrians, pretty please, if they might act to stop the arms’ smuggling they are carrying out. And this is so even when Hizballah flaunts its triumph by sticking its flag right in the UN’s face.
So here’s what those two flags mean: almost 200 countries for once went up against Iran and its allies and guess who won? What does this mean for Western credibility? Will it encourage more moderation or more aggression from the radical Islamist side? The answer, unlike those flags, is not blowing in the wind.
Being willing to kill people and cause trouble is a weapon so powerful for Hizballah and its friends that the West quails in fear. Or, to put it another way, the more terrorism and extremism work so effectively the more they will flourish throughout the region.
Now starts the Lebanese battle’s next round: the presidential election which begins September 25. The ostensible Syrian-Iranian candidate is Aoun, whose ambition to become president, or at least mistaken hope he can outmaneuver his allies, has blinded him to the consequences of his dangerous bargain.
A possible alternative would be Suleiman, who is already being presented by the Syrians as a “compromise” choice to gullible Europeans. The government side will soon have to present its candidate.
If the two sides fail to reach agreement Lebanon could soon have two governments and perhaps even one civil war. Or it could have a regime dominated by Hizballah, Iran, and Syria. Why should Lebanese moderates fight a hopeless battle? How many hundreds of thousands would leave the country? How long would it be before a radical regime in Beirut brought on another war with Israel?
And what about the consequences elsewhere? Wouldn’t Hizballah’s triumph inspire a vast increase in radical Islamist forces in every Arab country and a total victory for Hamas—also backed by Tehran and Damascus—over Fatah in the Palestinian civil war? If Syria concludes it can violently strike at Lebanon, Iraq, and Israel with no costs won’t this increase its aggressiveness?
How about Iran, whose claims that the West is weak and in retreat would be thus confirmed?
Those aware of history should be reminded of something by events in Lebanon.
In 1936, at an early stage of a different international conflict, a fascist uprising in Spain took place against the elected government there. Western democracies and the League of Nations (the equivalent of the UN today) stayed neutral as Germany and Italy poured in help to the rebels.
After three years, the Spanish republic was defeated and dictators in Berlin and Rome took note. The battle that European democrats tried to forestall by passivity was made all the more inevitable.
Today, Lebanon is the main battlefront involving radical Islamist forces, Iranian ambitions proof that terrorism works and Western determination doesn’t. As such, it is the epicenter of today’s most vital issue. Attention—and a lot more than that—must be paid.
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center http://gloria.idc.ac.il and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (GLORIA) Center http://meria.idc.ac.il.
His latest books are The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan) and The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley).