(Pictured: Colonel Wissam Hassan, head of Lebanese intelligence.)
Viewed through the prism of the American mainstream media, Lebanon always appears a place that best defines the term Byzantine: a bewildering mélange of different religions, rival militias, cagey politicians, and shadowy regional proxies taking orders from Teheran, Tel Aviv, Damascus, Riyadh, and Ankara.
Lebanon is a complex place indeed, but it is not quite the labyrinth it is made out to be, and, if France, the United States, and Israel would stop putting their irons in the fire, the country’s difficulties are wholly resolvable. But solutions will require some understanding of the pressures that have forged the current crisis, forces that lie deep in Lebanon’s colonial past. While history is not the American media’s strong suit, to ignore it in Lebanon is to misunderstand the motivations of the key players.
Lebanon, like a number of other countries in the region—Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Israel, to name a few—is a child of colonialism, created from the wreckage of the World War I and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. The colonial power in Lebanon was France, although Paris’ interest in the area goes back to 1861. In that year the French helped Maronite Christians establish a “sanjack,” or separate administrative region around Mt. Lebanon within the Ottoman Empire.
Christian Maronites and French Catholics were natural allies, and the French saw the potential of controlling traffic going from the Mediterranean coast to inland Mesopotamia. For their part, the Maronites had picked up a powerful ally for their dreams of creating a “Greater Lebanon” that would take in not only the mountains they lived in, but the fertile Bakaa Valley to the east and the rich coastline to the west.
Lebanon’s mountains are mostly Christian dominated, though not all Christians are Maronites. There are also Greek and Syrian Orthodox, Armenians, Copts, and Roman Catholics. But the Bakaa—the northern extension of Africa’s Great Rift Valley—is mostly Muslim, as is much of the coastal plain. The Muslims themselves are divided between Shiites and Sunnis. As in much of the Middle East, Shiites have been marginalized politically and economically.
Those divisions were set in stone when the great imperial powers carved up the corpse of the Ottoman Empire at San Remo in 1920. France got “Greater Lebanon,” while the British seized oil-rich Mesopotamia—modern Iraq, Kuwait, Jordan and Israel. Since Britain already had Egypt, it now dominated the Persian Gulf, and hence Iran’s oil, as well as the Red Sea. While Lebanon may have seemed small potatoes in that exchange, it was the gateway to Damascus and the easiest land route for land-based goods going east and west. It also became the banking capital of the Middle East, with the French skimming off the cream. Manufactured goods flowed east, raw materials and gold flowed west.
“Greater Lebanon,” however, was formed by slicing off a big hunk of western Syria. Indeed, many Syrians still think of Lebanon as “occupied.” Since the Maronites were France’s allies, they got to run the place, and the Sunnis and Shiites—particularly the Shiites—took the hindmost. The latter became day laborers and peasants, squeezed by absentee landlords and taxed and exploited by the colonial government.
In many ways, Lebanon resembled Ireland, where religion was used to drive a wedge between landless Catholics and privileged Protestants. In reality, Protestants were also exploited, but the fact that they also had rights and privileges denied the Catholics—including the right to own land— kept the two communities divided and easily manipulated by the British.
And so it was in Lebanon. There the religious mix was more complex—it also included a sizable minority of Druze—but the strategy of divide and conquer through the use of religious and ethnic divisions was much the same. Those divisions pretty much defined the country until two great catastrophes befell Lebanon: the 1975-1990 civil war and the 1982 Israeli invasion and occupation.
It was the Israeli invasion that ignited the Shiite community and led to the creation of Hezbollah. And it was Hezbollah that finally drove Israel out of southern Lebanon, though it took 18 years of ambushes and roadside bombs to make the price of occupation unacceptable. And, for the first time in Lebanese history the Shiite community had a voice. It is the sound of that voice we are hearing these days.
Shiites are not a majority in Lebanon, but they may be a plurality. Christian communities likely make up about 32 percent of the population, and the Druze 5 percent, although no one actually knows how large each community is. There has not been a census since 1932, because the Christians, in particular, are nervous about what it would show. Political power in Lebanon is divided up on the basis of ethnicity.
The Israelis characterize Hezbollah as an Iranian proxy, and the Americans dismiss the organization as terrorist. Indeed, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently warned that the U.S. would cut off aid to Lebanon if a government friendly to Hezbollah emerges from the current crisis. The Americans are currently backing away from that threat.
But Hezbollah is not al-Qaeda, it is a homegrown organization that represents the long pent-up frustrations of the Shiite community, nor is it a cat’s paw for Iran, and any thought that the organization would go to war because Teheran ordered it to is just silly. For starters, Lebanese Shiites are very different than their Iranian counterparts. The latter come from a strain of Shiism that believes clerics and religious figures should govern directly. Lebanese Shiites think political power eventually corrupts religion, which is why they are backing Sunni Najib Mikati for the post of prime minister. Under Lebanon’s ethnic-driven system, that office must go to a Sunni.
As for the “terrorism” charge: That all depends on how you define the term. There is no question that Hezbollah has used assassinations and bombs to deal with its enemies, but then so have Israel and the U.S. In any case, Hezbollah is a major player in Lebanese politics, and any attempt to sideline it is the one thing that actually might touch off a civil war.
The current uproar was sparked by the refusal of former Prime Minister Saad Hariri to reject the findings of a United Nations-backed Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) investigating the death of Hariri’s father, Rafik al-Hariri, in a massive bomb attack in 2005. The bombing led to the so-called “Cedar Revolution” that pushed Syria out of Lebanon and brought Saad Hariri into power.
The STL investigation is apparently ready to pin the blame for the attack on Hezbollah, and when Hariri backed the Tribunal’s findings, Hezbollah withdrew its allies and the government collapsed.
Reading U.S. press accounts, one would assume that an unbiased investigation found Hezbollah the guilty party and that the Shiite organization ignited the crisis to avoid getting blamed. But a closer look suggests that the STL’s case is less than a slam-dunk. An investigation by the Canadian Broadcasting Company (CBC) late last year found several key witnesses had apparently lied to the Tribunal, including the man responsible for Hariri’s security that day, Lebanese Colonel Wissam Hassan.
The Tribunal started off blaming the Syrians, then jailed four Lebanese generals—after four years, the generals were released for lack of evidence—and finally settled on the Shiite organization. Hezbollah presented documents to the STL this past summer indicating that the Israelis were monitoring Hariri the day of the assassination and may have been behind the bombing. If so it would not be the first time that Tel Aviv has resorted to assassination in Lebanon. But the STL has not questioned any Israeli officials to date, nor has it examined Hassan’s alibi, one that the CBC called “flimsy, to put it mildly.”
Chief UN inspector Garry Loeppky considered Hassan a suspect in the murder, but the Tribunal refused to investigate his alibi because, according to the CBC investigation, he was considered “too valuable to alienate.” Hariri says Hassan’s loyalty is “beyond question.”
Hezbollah and its allies are also upset that the STL leaked its investigation to the Israeli Chief of Staff, General Gabi Ashkenazi, as well as the CBC, Der Spiegel, and the French newspaper Le Figaro.
It may be that Hezbollah—or a rogue element within the organization—is behind the bombing, but the STL’s consistent missteps have lost it a good deal of credibility, and many in the region view it as deeply politicized, and little more than a way for France and the U.S. to pressure Syria and Hezbollah.
In any case, the crisis in Lebanese politics is not over “terrorists” seizing a government. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah said in a speech Jan. 23 that his organization wanted a national unity government and that “We are not seeking authority.” A U.S. effort to influence who governs in Beirut has not been well received. “Mikati is not coming to power by force of a coup or by civil unrest,” said Hassan Khalil, publisher of the Lebanese daily Al-Akhbar. “Mikati is coming to power by the parliamentary system of Lebanon.”
Nor is this a proxy war between Iran and Israel. It is an attempt by Lebanese players to rebalance and reconfigure a political system that has long favored a rich and powerful minority at the expense of the majority. The U.S., France and others may want to turn this into an international crisis—Israeli Vice Prime Minister Silvan Shalom called it an “Iranian government” on Israel’s northern border— but its roots and solutions are local.
Certainly there is a role for regional powers, including Turkey, Syria, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia. But talk of proxy wars or a triumph for “terrorists” is the language of war and chaos, something the Lebanese are heartily sick of.
More of Conn Hallinan’s work can be found at Dispatches from the Edge.