By Barry Rubin
There is a struggle for power in Lebanon of the greatest importance. Yet it is a battle that the West, for all practical purposes, has already ceded the country to the Iran-Syria bloc.
Lebanon has a unique political system. It is what might be called a communal democracy, with the top jobs and parliamentary seats parceled out on the basis of the country’s main groupings defined by religion. The three largest are the Maronite Christian (Catholic), Sunni Muslim, and Shia Muslim, followed by the Druze. Each has its complex history of leading trends, oppositions, alliance, and warfare.
Basically, the situation in recent years has been the creation of an alliance between the Christians, Sunni Muslims, and Druze, called the March 14 alliance, to wrest the country’s independence from Syrian control. The non-violent revolt began in 2005 after Syria and local allies assassinated the Sunni leader, Rafiq Hariri. Massive demonstrations demanded the withdrawal of Syria’s army and, to everyone’s surprise, won.
With the March 14 alliance in power, led by Said Hariri, son of the fallen leader, Lebanon tried to steer clear of Iranian-Syrian control and restrain the radical Islamist group Hizballah. But with Hizballah having the country’s strongest militia, and enjoying full support (including funding and arms) from its Iranian and Syrian patrons, the moderates could not hold out. A wave of assassinations began against the government’s supporters. The United States and Europeans did nothing.
Equally, in 2006 after Hizballah provoked a war with Israel through cross-border raids and kidnapping Israel soldiers, Israeli attacks did tremendous damage to Lebanon’s infrastructure. While glad to see Hizballah defeated, the moderates once again did not receive Western help.
The United States and UN, in the agreement ending the war, pledged to send in a large UN force to keep Hizballah from returning to rule southern Lebanon, block Syrian-Iranian weapons’ smuggling to Hizballah, and even help Lebanon’s government to disarm Hizballah. None of these promises were kept. Indeed, Hizballah became better armed than ever and rebuilt its fortifications in the south with no international interference whatsoever.
In the face of such a powerful enemy and such indifferent friends, the moderates were forced to retreat. The Druze leader changed sides. Even though they won the 2010 election, the moderates had to bring Hizballah into the government and give up any attempt to disarm Hizballah’s militia.
Ironically, the greatest foe of Iran-Syrian-Hizballah control over Lebanon has been Saudi Arabia, which sees the spreading of this radical Islamist alliance as a direct threat to itself. While financing the moderates, however, the Saudis could not stand alone without Western support on the issue. They still oppose Tehran and Damascus but can do little. Given the situation, Israel also has scant influence within Lebanon.
The recent triumphal trip of Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Lebanon, where Iran’s clients received him as a hero, was intended to symbolize this new hegemony. Lebanese moderates could only make small gestures to undermine the visit’s success. The addition of Lebanon to the Iran-Syria bloc is a major defeat for the West and for relatively moderate Arabs.
Aside from direct results, this event sends a signal throughout the region that the radicals are on the march and that moderates cannot depend on Western support to stop them. Like some of their counterparts within Lebanon, many Arab leaders are considering appeasement of Tehran or, in some cases, even switching sides.
Recently, this consolidation of power has been threatened by hints of an impending report by the UN-backed international tribunal that has been investigating the Hariri assassination. Leaks suggest that it would point the finger at Syria and possibly Hizballah for carrying out the crime. News stories have claimed that if this happens the result in Lebanon could be violence or even civil war as the moderates support the verdict.
This, however, is unlikely. A deal has already been cut between Said Hariri and the March 14 alliance and the Syrians to refuse any official backing for the verdict. Imagine the pressures, and humiliation, forcing Hariri not only to refuse any attempt to bring to justice his own father’s murderers but—involuntarily--to embrace the murderers as his patrons!
Recently, there have also been rumors of a Hizballah attempt to takeover Lebanon completely. But this is ridiculous. Their current strategy is working very well and even if it wanted to do so its Iranian and Syrian patrons restrain Hizballah. The fact is that the Iranians, Syrians, and Hizballah can do whatever they want within Lebanon and control the country’s foreign policy. Given the complexity of the situation in Lebanon—where each community controls its own territory—why set off a civil war when you are getting everything you want?
Similarly, Hizballah and Iran have no incentive at present to set off a new war with Israel. They are holding their forces in reserve believing that the threat of an attack might deter Israel from hitting Iran’s nuclear facilities. An Israeli attack is unlikely, and certainly would not be deterred by fear of Hizballah’s rockets, but Iran’s government doesn’t know that.
The erosion of Western influence, combined with the expansion of radical Islamist and Iranian power in the region, is also revealed by another major development. In Turkey, an Islamist regime has allied with Iran and Syria, totally reversing the country’s traditional pro-Western orientation.
Once Iran has nuclear weapons, this trend is likely to become a tidal wave in which the strategic picture in the region is altered decisively.
All of these factors combined signal massive setbacks for Western interests. Yet not only are Western governments not combating this threat, they are not even acknowledging its existence. Unless Western policies change the prospect of a Middle East largely under Iranian leadership along with radical Islamist revolutions in more Arab countries will be a very imminent possibility.