Lebanon is on the verge of a new civil war, something about hwich analysts have been in disbelief for months. Following 15 years of terrible civil war, it was thought unthinkable that Lebanese today would allow their country to again fall into sectarian disarray.
But yesterday’s protests have proven those ideals wrong. There is still a substantial contingent of people willing to fight for their political power. Six Lebanese died in clashes on 22 January and a shootout was sparked at a funeral for one of those killed. Pro and anti-government forcesclashed in the northern city of Tripoli, well outside the city limits of Beirut.
The main reason for this simmering war is not the Israel-Hizbullah war of this summer – that was merely a catalyst. The tensions between the government in Beirut and the Hizbullah-led opposition is over control of the country and territorial power. Hizbullah’s dominance resonates in Shiite areas, which take up almost half the country in the northeast and the southern region that borders Israel. The brunt of this summer’s war was fought there, where local residents who may support Hizbullah, and many do, would accommodate any Hizbullah war effort.
In the months leading up to the war, the Lebanese government had been asking the United States and Great Britain to request Israel leave the small niche territory called the Shebaa Farms, which Hizbullah claims is occupied Lebanese territory. While the United Nations recognizes it is not, Hizbullah has popularized this claim inside Lebanon. The logic behind Prime Minister of Lebanon Fouad Siniora’s request was that without the justification to maintain its militia – the reacquisition of “Lebanese” territory occupied by Israel – Hizbullah would have to disarm.
Hassan Nasrallah, Hizbullah’s secretary general, was facing domestic political pressure to disarm, plus international pressure thanks to the UN Resolution 1559. Thus, when Israel launched an operation in the Gaza Strip in June 2006 in response to a raid by Hamas on the Israeli-Gazan border, Nasrallah saw an opportunity to regain political capital by relegitimizing his militia. The result was Hizbullah’s exact mirroring of the Hamas operation, only on the Israeli-Lebanese border. The result was a similar, though larger, Israeli response. While its size may not have been expected, an Israeli counterattack would have been expected given Israel’s response the same type of raid only two weeks earlier. Hassan Nasrallah provoked a political war to regain domestic strength and political capital in Lebanon’s turbulent politics.
This continues to be the case, as large demonstrations organized by Hizbullah have attempted to gain more seats in the Lebanese cabinet for Hizbullah and its allies. With southern Lebanon in disarray following the war, the six-week long anti-government protests have only hurt the economy more. Yesterday’s strike, organized by Hizbullah, again crippled the Lebanese economy further, blocking roads in and out of the capital which is the main economic hub of the country.
Ironically, the strikes were motivated by the Lebanese government’s economic reform plans which are being drawn in order to win more financial aid from the international community and a donors’ conference Thursday, January 25 in Paris.
Given the contempt for the country’s declining economy and the willingness to get involved in political clashes with little hesitation or restraint from Sheikh Nasrallah, it is evident that this crisis is not a matter of leigitmate financial concern but one of a struggle for power motivated by outside factors – Syria & Iran for Hizbullah and Europe & the US for the Lebanese government. A recent report in the New York Times highlighted the plight of southern Lebanese towns which have seen more political wrangling over reconstruction than actual work. This is after an initial invasion of Hizbullah construction equipment into the area that seems to have attracted more media attention than actually gotten work done. Now, both the weak Beirut government and a politically motivated Hizbullah are blaming each other for the lack of progress.
Two parallel armed forces exist in Lebanon – the one controlled by the government in Beirut plus Hizbullah’s militia. Even the Lebanese Army is even made up of a large segment of Shiites, making a significant part of the Lebanese military potentially owing its allegiance to Hizbullah’s militia if their political and community ties lead them in that direction. Any strengthening of the Lebanese military needs to coincide with a greater diversification of the Lebanese Army, which would likely see a large influx of Shiite soldiers if Hizbullah’s militia were to integrate into it.
This is not just a problem from a geopolitical standpoint in being advantageous to Syria and Iran, but perhaps sewing the seeds of another civil war if Lebanese Shiites see their community doing the majority of the grunt work in the military while Christian and Sunni communities largely stay out of it.
This is just a small set of factors to consider when looking at the internal Lebanese situation, and this particularly piece of writing largely focuses on Hizbullah’s flaws, while Beirut is not itself without faults, though no balancing act of mutual flaws can negate the significant political maneuver it was for Hizbullah to provoke a war with Israel. Watch for Hizbullah to look for any opportunity to increase pressure on the government, including expanding protests and potentially grinding the economy to an absolute halt.