After the collapse of the Lebanese government — what next?

Lebanon’s government collapsed on Wednesday while Prime Minister Saad Hariri was in Washington. It wasn’t until today that he returned to Beirut.

Robert Fisk writes:

There are many who believe that Lebanon will now descend into a civil war, similar to the fratricidal conflict which it endured from 1976 to 1980. I doubt it. A new generation of Lebanese, educated abroad – in Paris, in London, in America – have returned to their country and, I suspect, will not tolerate the bloodshed of their fathers and grandfathers.

In theory, Lebanon no longer has a government, and the elections which were fairly held and which gave Saad Hariri his cabinet are no more. President Michel Suleiman will begin formal talks on Monday to try to create a new government.

But what does Hezbollah want? Is it so fearful of the Hague tribunal that it needs to destroy this country? The problem with Lebanon is perfectly simple, even if the Western powers prefer to ignore it. It is a confessional state. It was created by the French, the French mandate after the First World War. The problem is that to become a modern state it must de-confessionalise. But Lebanon cannot do so. Its identity is sectarianism and that is its tragedy. And it has, President Sarkozy please note, a French beginning point.

The Shias of Lebanon, of which Hezbollah is the leading party, are perhaps 40 per cent of the population. The Christians are a minority. If Lebanon has a future, it will be in due course be a Shia Muslim country. We may not like this; the West may not like this. But that is the truth. Yet Hezbollah does not want to run Lebanon. Over and over again, it has said it does not want an Islamic republic. And most Lebanese accept this.

But Hezbollah has made many mistakes. Its leader, Hassan Nasrallah, talks on television as if he is the President. He would like another war with Israel, ending in the “divine victory” which he claims his last war, in 2006, ended in. I fear the Israelis would like another war too. The Lebanese would prefer not to have one. But they are being pushed further and further into another war which Lebanon’s supposed Western friends seem to want. The Americans and the British would like to hurt Iran. And that is why they would like Hezbollah to be blamed for Mr Hariri’s murder – and for the downfall of the Lebanese government.

Nicholas Noe sees the greatest threat of war emanating from Israel, which having downgraded the threat from Iran, sees Hezbollah as its most immediate military threat. If such a war is to be averted, Washington will need more courage and imagination than have thus far been in evidence.

The Obama administration seems to believe that in order to stave off the logic of approaching war, it should try to manoeuvre Hezbollah into a tough position, thereby restraining it from pushing at the military red line. According to this thinking, to have accepted a Saudi-Syrian sponsored agreement regarding the Hariri tribunal actually would have only emboldened Hezbollah.

This approach is clearly less triumphal than during the heady Bush years (reflecting the changed balance of power in the Middle East as well as a less violence-focused mindset) but the overall direction is similar: throw whatever short-term pressure tools you have against the problem, rhetorically back up your narrow set of “friends” and hope for a miracle, since productive negotiations are essentially unrealistic – this time less because of “evil” opponents than an immovable Israeli ally.

The problem, however, is that Hezbollah will not be substantially boxed in by an indictment from the tribunal, since its domestic enemies are so militarily weak. Moreover, the party is apparently betting that an Israeli “pre-emptive” strike would overwhelm any domestic opposition, especially given Israel’s long history of obtusely, and sometimes wantonly attacking Lebanon as a whole.

Finally, the scent of domestic turmoil and indigenous opposition to Hezbollah is likely to entice Israel further into believing that the time is ripe for a strike against it.

All of which means the Obama administration really only has one good option. The current political breakdown in Lebanon will not be solved without bold steps towards peace that will involve concessions, especially, and perhaps most importantly, via the Syrian track.

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One thought on “After the collapse of the Lebanese government — what next?

  1. Norman

    To early to tell, but the “O” & the other Western leaders should keep out of this one. Now with Tunisia going through change, the West has to sit on the side lines, regardless of what the Israeli’s, the think tanks, the pundits, the Governments think. The West has gotten so much wrong with their meddling in the affairs of the Middle East, that now is not the time to be posturing or backing either side. Of course, if history is any judge here, the short sightedness of the West will prevail, which will again produce results not to the liking. After all, the Politicians aren’t doing the fighting, but just the same old pissing contests that they are only capable of doing.

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