Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Update from Lebanon

The BBC reports this morning that the Lebanese Army has announced it is prepared to use force to disarm the gunmen that have been clashing across the country in recent days. Though such suppression would be ecumenical in theory, in practice it would mean the army going up against the armed wing of Hezbollah, which has been the principal force working to undermine the current Lebanese government (such as it is). The United States has gotten into the act, with President Bush saying that "the US would ensure the Lebanese military had 'the practical equipment' it needed to act against Hezbollah's armed wing." The American Navy has evidently also sent the missile destroyer USS Cole into the Eastern Mediterranean. According to the BBC, "[sources] have warned that any hint of American intervention would lead it to abandon the few red lines it has observed in its campaign to undermine the government."

I have a few thoughts. First off, as the article above notes, the fact that the army has remained neutral in the current political deadlock has been the major factor keeping Lebanon from spiraling into another round of full-blown civil war. If I were an American decision-maker, I would be very wary of encouraging or enabling any actions that could push Lebanon over the edge, because once full-blown fighting starts, stopping it will likely be wholly beyond our ability. Lebanese militias fought viciously for fifteen years without fundamentally changing the country's political balance, stopping only once the conflict's outside backers (Syria and Israel) deemed continued fighting to be no longer to their advantage. Any major fighting in Lebanon would surely draw in (at least through proxies) Iran, Syria, Israel, and likely the United States. This would give Iran yet another battleground on which to cause headaches for the U.S. at a time when it can ill afford them, and make cutting a deal on Iraq and nuclear development even more difficult. Likewise, it would further undermine what remains of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, and shelve any notion of serious Israeli-Syrian talks.

Oh, and of course there'd be mass death, displacement and destruction in Lebanon. There's that to think about too I suppose.

I of course understand that Hezbollah and the Lebanese government have now upped the ante to the point that cooling tensions will be difficult (the government moved to shut down Hezbollah's communications infrastructure, Hezbollah and its allies have barricaded much of Beirut and shut down the capital's airport, which has led to fighting between Sunni and Shia forces). There is also the issue, as Rayyan al-Shawaf argues in the Daily Star, that Lebanon will always be perched on the brink of conflict until both Hezbollah, its allies, and its Sunni and Christian tribal counterparts have their militias disarmed and the Lebanese army attains a reasonable monopoly of violence. Shawaf notes that one reason for the army's neutrality so far is a fear that, in the event of full-blown fighting, it may split along sectarian lines as it did during the last civil war, and the only institution capable of holding the state together will have disintegrated. I sympathize with Shawaf's desire for the army to be more assertive, but very much understand his and others' fears that escalating the conflict will only fragment things further.

I have no particularly sage advice for how to handle Lebanon at this point. Politics there are too complex for me to follow in the kind of detail necessary to map out a detailed solution that would be palatable to the key players involved (this is a problem, as best I can tell, that is shared by regional experts - witness this editorial in the Daily Star that, for all its attempts to seem wise, doesn't propose any kind of concrete way out of the current mess), but for now, were I in any kind of position of influence, I would counsel the army to remain a relatively neutral referee, because once the last bastion of Lebanese stability gets involved in the fighting, all bets will likely be off.

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