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Lebanon: Torn between War & Peace!
by Newropeans-Magazine
2008-10-17 09:31:31
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It was not so very long ago that the majority of the Lebanese people celebrated joyfully the brokering of the Doha Agreement that promised to put an end to the interminable chapters of political and physical violence.

One of the more unusual ways in which they tasted this hopeful sense of coming together was the introduction by Häagen Daz of the ‘Doha Agreement Ice Cream Cone’. For just LL 10,400, the Lebanese could buy a cone that was the result of a joint venture between the American ice cream giant in Lebanon and Qatar Airways. The promotion was expected to last so long as the mood in the country remained one of reconciliation - or at least until the politicians “started fighting again.”

However, I did not see those cones being sold at any of the outlets when I visited Beirut recently. Did I not look hard enough, or was it likely due to the fact that reconciliation had weakened as a marketable currency in the country?

Over the past three months, much has happened in Lebanon. The Lebanese got a new president at long last, and a national unity cabinet was put together that also amended the previous electoral law of 1960. Mind you, it did not grant Lebanese expatriates the right to vote in the next parliamentary elections, nor did it lower the voting age from 21 to 18 although the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child defines anyone over 18 as an adult. Moreover, Presidents Assad and Suleiman also importantly agreed - at least in principle - to establish formal diplomatic relations, with Damascus and Beirut opening embassies in their respective countries for the first time in 64 years since independence from French mandate.

But in addition to those developments relating to the Doha Agreement, and even though ice cream cones are not easy to find in the market, there are a few hopeful efforts at reconciliation underway, all the way from the national all-factions dialogue under the aegis of the president, to the parallel efforts aimed at bridging the yawning gaps between bickering Christian political parties to the one-on-one meetings of bellicose political leaders such as those of Al-Mustaqbal and Hizbullah.

Yet, whilst all those sanguine efforts are trying to contribute toward the stabilisation of the country, tensions remain quite dangerously high. There are murderous attacks and inter-confessional spurts of violence occurring for instance across the northern town of Tripoli that is largely a Sunni bastion. An oft-quoted example is the recurrent violence between the Baal Mohsen district (that is pro-opposition) and Bab al Tabbaneh neighbourhood (that is pro-majority). There have also been bloody attacks against Lebanese soldiers as well as civilians on buses or in streets. Those examples exacerbate the fears of many Lebanese that darker clouds could easily re-appear on the horizon again After all, Tripoli is geographically close to Syria, and some pundits harbour the suspicion that an unsettled Tripoli could be used by Syria as justification to extend its influence over Lebanon or even send its army back into the country. Indeed, it is no mere detail that the highest-ranking Salafi Authority in Lebanon, Dai al-Islam Shahhal, warned against an incursion by the Syrian Army into north Lebanon saying it would open "the gates of hell and lead to what is similar to Iraq and its misery."

Meanwhile, in the midst of this ominous rumble of developments, the issue of the arms in possession of Hizbullah is also casting a dark shadow over any genuine reconciliation. Given that one man’s meat is another’s poison, literally half the Lebanese population consider that Hizbullah should disarm with its weapons coming under the control of the Lebanese army. The other half believes that they should stay with Hizbullah and its Shi’i Amal allies since they would be used in resisting Israeli aggression and occupation. And the major - though not exclusive - justification for resistance by those factions insisting on keeping their arms is that Israel detains the Shaba’a Farms as well as the Lebanese part of the village of Ghajar (with recent reports that Israel might return it to Lebanon next month) and Kfar Shouba hills that were meant to be returned to Lebanon - either directly or through an initial UN trusteeship - also in accordance with UNSC Resolution 1701.

But what are those Shaba’a Farms anyway?

The tiny sliver of lush land 25 square kilometres across is located at the junction of southeast Lebanon, southwest Syria and northern Israel. Israel seized those Farms from Syria in 1967 when it occupied the nearby Golan Heights. Ever since then, those Farms have been caught in a tug-of-war over ownership. Lebanon claims them, with the backing of Damascus, while Israel insists they are part of Syria.

The confusion over the borders actually dates back to 1923 when Britain and France, who held the mandates of the League of Nations over the territories now comprising Israel, Lebanon and Syria, failed to outline their borders clearly. Lebanon has accused Israel of refusing to return the Farms in order to benefit from the bountiful natural resources of the region, particularly its water resources. According to officials, the Farms hold 23 natural water sources and also strategic or military importance due to their altitude.

When UNSC Resolution 1701 brought an end to the 33-day war between Israel and Hizbullah in the summer of 2006, it called upon the UN secretary-general to propose a border demarcation for those Farms. The UN ruled that the withdrawal from Lebanon was complete and that the Farms were Syrian.

Nevertheless, in March 2008, the Lebanese geographer Issam Khalifeh published a book full of documents claiming the Farms were indeed Lebanese, including a 1946 deal in which Damascus recognised Lebanon's sovereignty over the territory. Attached to the report was a map with 48 border markers, but Syria has refused to let this paperwork be sent to the UN, perhaps because it did not wish to go down road of recognition and delineation of an international border.

All these are issues that are clearly weighing upon the Lebanese mindset, and in the process retarding any progress from a state of brittle uncertainty to one of relative stability. However, what is also clear to me is that the major objective of all the parties above all else are the parliamentary elections of spring of 2009 that might well decide which parties enjoy the majority of votes - and therefore of seats and of power. So whilst there is a government in place for running day-to-day affairs, everyone understands that the political focus today revolves truly around those elections.

But here is another hitch! In some sense, it is almost predictable what percentages, districts and seats the Sunni, Shi’i and Druze candidates would get in the parliamentary elections next year. The real guesstimate is the future number of Christian seats that will be obtained by the different Christian coalitions since their future is very much in play now - particularly given their divisions in an almost irredeemable - roughly 50:50 - ratio. Only last week, the Maronite patriarch, HE Cardinal Nasrallah Sfeir, expressed the hope that Christians would respond to the initiatives of the Maronite League and “would sit together because other sects have achieved reconciliation”, adding that “agreement among all the Lebanese is impossible.”

A straw poll conducted by Now Lebanon explored the reason hampering inter-Christian reconciliation. The results revealed that 38% thought it was due to electoral interests and the requirements of electoral mobilisation, whilst 14% thought that it was due to a lack of serious efforts to respond favourably to reconciliation endeavours, and a large percentage of 49% attributed it to lingering personal feuds among Christian leaders.

Those polls notwithstanding, I am convinced that the Lebanese Christians could play a central role in the forthcoming elections and that in the process would also hold the balance of power between the other political parties so they could then perhaps advance those community demands that have been ignored for long. Broadly put, there are now two competing Christian camps. On one side, Samir Geagea’s Lebanese Forces and Amin Gemayel’s Phalanges are still struggling for an end of Syrian influence and attempting to mobilise support for the need to restore a fully sovereign Lebanese state. They would claim to pursue this strategic choice by pressing Hizbullah to disarm and also by setting up an international tribunal charged with investigating Rafiq Hariri’s murder. On the other side of the Christian political divide, General Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement has challenged the inert political system as a whole and broken its isolation by forging a controversial “understanding” with Hizbullah and by allying himself indirectly with the Marada leader Suleiman Franjieh.

The divisions between the two Christian camps are fundamental and stretch back decades in some instances. Today, the leadership of this community is at stake. General Michel Aoun wants to be that undisputed leader, which is why he is attacking the other leaders relentlessly, undermining the role of the Maronite patriarch and even sniping at the president. However, his position is becoming increasingly untenable. He is gradually losing the support of key allies in the form of the Metn leader Michel Murr and of the Armenian Tashnaq party, and as a consequence is trying to compensate his losses in Mount Lebanon by winning over some areas in the South (that he visited recently), as well as in Ba’albek and Hermel.

A third option to this bipolar configuration still remains unclear. What are President Michel Suleiman’s own plans? In his inaugural speech, he emphasised demands and concerns that are significant to the Christian community in Lebanon. Other than rejecting the naturalisation of the Palestinians and facilitating the return of the displaced, he highlighted administrative reform, decentralisation, empowering the presidency and ensuring better Christian representation in high-ranking civil positions. If he were to field his own parliamentary list, or support such a list, it would weaken Aoun considerably and lead toward the re-formation of the Christian camp. In fact, with his stewardship of intra-Christian reconciliation, the President holds a few cards and his influence could grow considerably and make significant differences in the forthcoming elections.

In fact, what is remarkable to me is that Christians and Muslims are seemingly reconciling more easily in Lebanon than the Christians themselves - a fact that not only underlines the virile tussle for power and control, but also that their continued bickering would run the risk of leading even further to their gradual erosion. After all, the political landscape keeps changing with the almost cyclical re-balancing of outside powers that are playing the Lebanese card of pitting the Lebanese against each other. In fact, the recent difficult hopes for conciliatory moves between the Lebanese Forces and Marada can only benefit the whole country politically even thought there is a lot of bloody history between both sides.

I am being cautiously optimistic that things will not change too dramatically in the country this side of the 2009 parliamentary spring elections. Barring any major eruptions of terror and mayhem, and with the parties using their networks to consolidate their own positions, I would argue that Syria is also waiting for the results of the 2009 parliamentary elections to see what leverage it will have internally. While internationally, it is also awaiting the results of the US presidential elections, as it knows that the US alone can determine Syria’s position as a regional player, its role in Lebanon, the advancement of its negotiations with Israel, and of course, its position vis-à-vis the international tribunal. I also suspect that Syria will probably make no concrete moves for now on diplomatic relations, and on most sensitive issues, including border demarcation, the Shaba’a Farms and Lebanese detainees. But one key concern for me is the fact that Iran might still prove to be the wild card that would interfere and upset the political applecart.

Ever since 11 November 2006, when a number of ministers resigned from the cabinet, Lebanon has witnessed assassinations, demonstrations, sit-ins, internal and external threats, a temporary military takeover of west Beirut, exacerbated tensions in the north of the country, attempts at re-enforcing the mechanisms of government and many internecine feuds that have been followed by attempts at dialogue and reconciliation.  So what is all this doing to the whole country?

Lebanon is simply being weakened in major dribs and minor drabs, cleaving parts of the country from each other whereby different politicians claim to work for the one nation but pledge their allegiances to their own factions. Confessionalism, always a Lebanese misfortune, is increasingly overwhelming the political apparatuses, and in the process widening the chasm between different politicians and the ordinary people and altering facts on the ground. My constant dread is that a combination of internal divergences and external threats would lead to new rounds of bloody fighting.

After all, has this not happened before? It often saddens me that Lebanese politicians are so gifted in splitting hair and believing in the absolute truths of their own arguments let alone those of their regional or international supporters that they act as clan leaders rather than global politicians and in so doing turn deaf ears to a vox populi that aspires for peace, coexistence and harmony in the country. A divisive blend of religious myopia, political self-interest and nefarious outside interferences from all sides are together rending the country apart and stymieing the creative gifts of a people that talks about the oneness of Lebanon but ends up shaking that oneness at the seams. Does anyone pause to think of the whole picture?

Last week, following an agreement between Al-Moustaqbal and Hizbullah parties, the Lebanese have taken down the provocative posters. This is a move in the right direction, but will it augment the chances for peace? Or is it simply that the Lebanese sagas will continue until such time as there is a comprehensive Middle East peace settlement? Has Lebanon lost all control over its own geopolitics and is now a fallible pawn on the chessboard of international politics? The Arab World (no matter how one defines this amorphous term) is too divided in its interests to buttress up Lebanon, and the West is too greedy to care much about it either. So this small country is paying the price of international politics and local power plays.

Given such realities on the ground, is it surprising that the song Khalas (Enough) by the Lebanese musician and singer Nicholas Sa'adeh Nakhleh has become a chart-topper? After all, ordinary people are saying khalas, and I suspect they will also rally round his next song Unity once it comes out since it too will speak volubly to the majority of Lebanese instincts.

Torn between war and peace for so long, will Lebanon finally find peace? More to the point, will it be allowed to find it?

Dr Harry Hagopian
International Lawyer & Political Analyst 
London - UK

© hbv-H October 2008

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