U.S. move to support anti-Assad allies jeopardizes Lebanon’s stability

Hassan Nasrallah

The United States doesn’t typically like to hand gifts to Hassan Nasrallah, the longtime leader of Hezbollah, the Shi’a militia that remains a key player not only in the domestic politics of Lebanon, but throughout the Middle East. freesyriaUSflagSyria Flag IconLebanon

But when news broke last Friday that U.S. president Barack Obama was preparing U.S. assistance to arm Syrian rebels in their fight against Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad, that’s in effect what the United States has done by broadening the two-year civil war in Syria, a conflict that neighboring, vulnerable Lebanon has largely managed to avoid in the past two years.

Hezbollah’s recent military mobilization against the mostly Sunni rebels, however, in support of Assad, was already rupturing the national Lebanese determination to stay out of the conflict.  The U.S. announcement of support for the rebels, however tentative, gives Hezbollah a belated justification for having expanded its own military support to Assad, and risks further internationalizing what began as an internal Syrian revolt against the Assad regime.

The U.S. decision to support anti-Assad rebels

The United States is signaling that it will provide small arms and ammunition to only the most ‘moderate’ of Syria’s rebels, though not the heavier anti-aircraft and anti-tank weaponry that rebel leaders have said would make a difference.  But even if the Obama administration changed its mind tomorrow, the damage will have already been done in the decision to back the largely Sunni rebels.  No matter what happens, Hezbollah will now be able to posture that it’s fighting on behalf of the entire Muslim world against Western intruders rather than taking sides in a violent sectarian conflagration between two branches of Islam.

Supporters of U.S. intervention credibly argue that Hezbollah’s decisive intervention earlier in May and in June in Qusayr, a town in western Syria, led to an Assad victory that will inevitably make Syria’s civil war longer and deadlier.  Hezbollah’s decision to intervene on behalf of Assad was a key turning point that marked a switch from indirect and clandestine support to becoming an outright pro-Assad belligerent in Syria, which brings tensions ever closer to exploding in Lebanon.  Furthermore, Russian support for Assad, Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s increasingly strident opposition to Assad, as well as implicit Iranian support for Hezbollah, means that Syria is already a proxy for geopolitical positioning, whether U.S. policymakers like it or not.

But that doesn’t mean that the active support of the United States will suddenly make things better in Syria — after all, the United States has a controversial track record over the past decade in the Middle East.  It’s winding down a 12-year war in Afghanistan that, though it pushed the Taliban from power within weeks in 2001, has done little to establish lasting security or foster a truly national government.  Its 2003 invasion of Iraq, which toppled one of the two Ba’athist regimes in the Middle East in removing Saddam Hussein from power, and the subsequent U.S. occupation still failed to prevent vicious Shi’a-Sunni sectarian fighting that approached the level of civil war between 2006 and 2008 and that still simmers today.

It’s the same familiar kind of bloody sectarian violence that now features in Syria, the remaining Ba’athist regime in the Middle East.

Moreover, the risks to Lebanon are now even more staggering.  Lebanon, which had been set to hold national elections last weekend on June 16, has instead postponed those elections indefinitely, because negotiations among Lebanon’s various religious confessional groups to draft a new election law have taken a backseat to the more pressing task of keeping the country together.

The U.S. came to its decision in light of a determination that Assad had used chemical weapons against at least a small segment of the rebels, thereby crossing a ‘red line’ that Obama established in August 2012 in the heat of the U.S. presidential campaign last year.  But as The Washington Post‘s Ernesto Londoño reported last week, U.S. advisers had already been working quietly with Jordanian officials for months in order to reduce the chances that Syria’s stockpiles of chemical weapons will fall into misuse by either the Assad regime or by the opposition.

It still remains unclear just what the Obama administration believes is the overwhelming U.S. national interest in regard of Syria — though the Assad regime is brutal, repressive and now likely guilty of war crimes, there’s not necessarily any guarantee that a Sunni-dominated Syria would be any better.  Last Friday, U.N. secretary-general Ban Ki-moon indicated that he opposes the U.S. intervention in Syria because it risks doing more harm than good.

As Andrew Sullivan wrote in a scathing commentary last week, the forces that oppose Assad are a mixed bunch, and there’s no way to know who exactly the United States is proposing to arm:

More staggeringly, [Obama] is planning to put arms into the hands of forces that are increasingly indistinguishable from hardcore Jihadists and al Qaeda – another brutal betrayal of this country’s interests, and his core campaign promise not to start dumb wars. Yep: he is intending to provide arms to elements close to al Qaeda. This isn’t just unwise; it’s close to insane….

Do we really want to hand over Syria’s chemical arsenal to al Qaeda? Do we really want to pour fuel on the brushfire in the sectarian bloodbath in the larger Middle East? And can you imagine the anger and bitterness against the US that this will entail regardless? We are not just in danger of arming al Qaeda, we are painting a bulls-eye on every city in this country, for some party in that religious struggle to target.

I understand why the Saudis and Jordanians, Sunni bigots and theocrats, want to leverage us into their own sectarian warfare against the Shiites and Alawites. But why should America take sides in such an ancient sectarian conflict? What interest do we possibly have in who wins a Sunni-Shiite war in Arabia?

The ‘rebels’ are, of course, a far from monolithic unit — the anti-Assad forces include all stripes of characters, including the Free Syria Army, a front of former Syrian army commanders dismayed at Assad’s willingness to commit such widespread violence against the Syrian people, but also including more radical Islamist groups such as the Syria Islamic Front, the Syria Liberation Front and even groups with non-Syrian leaders with global links to al-Qaeda, such as Jabhat al-Nusra, which is comprised of radical Salafists who want to transform Syria into an Islamist state.

Liberal interventionism strikes again

When Obama announced earlier this month that he was promoting Susan Rice as his new national security adviser and Samantha Power as his nominee to be the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, I argued that it was a victory for liberal interventionists within Obama’s administration and that it could mean that the United States takes a stronger humanitarian interest in Syria.  Many other commentators, such as Wonkblog‘s Max Fisher, downplayed that possibility, arguing that their promotions meant ‘not much’ for U.S. policy on Syria, and that ‘there is good reason to believe that Power and Rice are not about to change U.S. policy in Syria.’

That, of course, turned out to be a miscalculation.  Less than 10 days after the Rice/Power announcement, the Obama administration is now ratcheting up its involvement in the Levant on a largely humanitarian, liberal interventionist basis, with the plausible possibility that a U.S.-supported no-fly-zone could soon follow.

The key fear is that the Obama administration’s ‘humanitarian’ response may result in an even more destabilizing effect on Lebanon.

The small country has largely avoided blowback from Syria’s civil war, despite skirmishes in Tripoli, the Sunni-dominated northern Lebanese city, its second-largest, close to the Syrian border, and despite a high-profile blast last October that killed the country’s top intelligence official, Wissam Hasan.

Already this week, however, there have been clashes between Salafist supporters and Hezbollah supporters in Sidon, Lebanon’s third-most populous city just south of Beirut.  The skirmishes came after relatively hardline Sunni clerics in the city called for jihad in Syria to support the anti-Assad rebels.

Even if you ascribe the best of intentions to the Obama administration, there should be no confidence in the ability of the Central Intelligence Agency or the U.S. government more generally to know enough about the intricacies of Lebanon’s precarious balancing act to know that fresh U.S. support for anti-Assad rebels won’t adversely affect Lebanon.  The intersection of politics, culture, religion and governance is so complex in Lebanon that you should be wary of anyone who claims that they know how U.S. intervention in Syria could affect it.  But if Hezbollah’s active support has brought Lebanon closer to implosion, it doesn’t mean that U.S. intervention won’t also do the same.  Sometimes it really is as simple as ‘two wrongs don’t make a right.’

After all, the U.S. decision to back rebels fighting against Libya’s longtime strongman Muammar Gaddafi by providing arms to anti-Gaddafi rebels and enforcing a no-fly-zone ultimately backfired when many of those arms ended up in the hands of Tuareg separatists (and other more radicalized fellow travelers) that resulted in a war that thrust Mali into war for a year and, despite French intervention to eject Islamic fundamentalists from power in northern Mali, still threaten to turn the entire Sahel region into a fertile battleground for Islamic jihadism.

If the Obama administration didn’t anticipate the adverse consequences of the Libyan decision, intervention that both Rice and Power enthusiastically urged, there should be little faith that the U.S. government understands the downside risks — in Lebanon and elsewhere — with respect to its intervention in Syria.

The situation in Lebanon — and Hezbollah’s key role in domestic Lebanese politics

Sadly, the risks to Lebanon are now paramount.

Geography alone indicates that Lebanon is most at risk of suffering from a wider regional conflagration:

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Although nearly three-quarters of Syria’s population is Sunni Muslim, only 13% of the population is Shi’a, and many of those are Alawites, who have dominated Syria’s government since 1971 when Hafez al-Assad, Bashar’s father, took control of Syria.  A significant minority (around 10%) of Christians also live in Syria, and have at times been key players in the Assad regime.  Much of the Alawite and Christian Syrian population inhabit Syria’s northern coast near the northern border with Lebanon.

As in Iraq, a significant minority of Kurds (around 9% of Syria’s population) have essentially formed their own autonomous zone far from the heart of the fighting in Syria’s civil war.  But many of the other ethnic and religious groups in Syria live in the western part of the country, and much of the fighting has likewise taken place close to the Lebanese border than to the Iraqi border.  Some of the worst fighting in Syria has taken place in its three largest cities — Aleppo, Damascus (Syria’s capital) and Homs — and two of those cities lie within an hour’s drive or less of the Lebanese border.

But the ties between Syria and Lebanon go perniciously deeper.

Syria’s army first occupied Lebanon in 1976 during the Lebanese civil war, and it continued to play an oversized military and political role in Lebanon, so much so that Assad essentially held veto power over major Lebanese policy decisions.  That ended rather abruptly in February 2005, when Syrian agents were implicated in the assassination of Rafiq HaririLebanon’s former prime minister.  The resulting outcry led to Syria’s prompt withdrawal from Lebanese territory.

Since 2005, Lebanon’s politics have been organized around the two movements that developed in response to the Hariri assassination — the relatively pro-Syrian ‘March 8′ bloc and a relatively anti-Syrian ‘March 14′ bloc, each named after competing demonstrations in March 2005.

The membership of each bloc is relatively complicated, and each bloc includes both Muslims and Christians, in light of the highly choreographed nature of Lebanon’s electoral process and its government.  Under Lebanon’s post-war constitution, half of the 128 seats in Lebanon’s national assembly (مجلس النواب) are allocated each for Muslims or for Christians, with established quotas to guarantee seats for each of Lebanon’s 22 confessional sects.  Moreover, its constitutional also requires that prime minister shall be Sunni Muslim, the president shall be Maronite Christian and the speaker of the national assembly shall be Shi’a Muslim.  But in general, the ‘March 14′ alliance includes most Maronite Christians and many Sunni Lebanese leaders, and the ‘March 8′ alliance includes Hezbollah and other Shi’a Lebanese groups, a handful of Maronites, many of Lebanon’s Greek Orthodox politicians, and competing Sunni Lebanese leaders.

In the immediate aftermath of the Hariri assassination, the ‘March 14′ bloc took power in Lebanon under prime minister Fouad Siniora.  The ‘March 14′ coalition also won Lebanon’s June 2009 parliamentary elections, and Hariri’s son, Saad Hariri, became prime minister shortly thereafter.

But Druze leader Walid Jumblatt switched the support of his parliamentary allies from the ‘March 14′ bloc to the ‘March 8′ bloc two years later in June 11, which resulted in the ‘March 8′ government and the appointment of Najib Mikati as prime minister.

Since the start of the Syrian civil war, most of Lebanon’s political elite — across both the ‘March 8′ and the ‘March 14′ blocs — have agreed that Lebanon’s top priority should be to keep out of Syria’s conflict at all costs.  When Mikati resigned as prime minister earlier this spring over tussles related to the failure of Lebanon to agree to a new election law, his successor Tammam Salam was acclaimed prime minister by both ‘March 8′ and ‘March 14′ supporters in Lebanon’s parliament.  Salam, a moderate formerly served as Siniora’s minister of culture, comes from an elite Sunni Lebanese family, and he’s cultivated close ties to both major political alliances (read some of his thoughts from 2006 in one of the leaked U.S. state department cables here).

The one glaring exception to Lebanon’s national unity vis-à-vis has been Hezbollah.

Though most Americans know Hezbollah chiefly in for role as an anti-Israeli militia that receives support from Iran’s Shi’a government, it plays a much more dynamic and important role in Lebanon’s domestic affairs.

Among the many catalysts of Lebanon’s civil war in the 1970s was the growing migration of Palestinians throughout the Levant into Lebanon, and Yasser Arafat’s decision to migrate the headquarters of the Palestinian Liberation Organization from Amman to Beirut after the Jordanian government determined to chase Arafat out of the country following the 1970-71 ‘Black September’ conflict that plunged Jordan into civil war for a brief nine months.  The increasingly Palestinian presence in Lebanon had several destabilizing effects, not least of which was drawing the ire of Israel, which first occupied south Lebanon in 1978.  Though it’s impossible to explain adequately the role that PLO and regional politics played in hastening the Lebanese civil war, the example should serve as a caution to anyone who doubts that today’s conflict in Syria could likewise plunge Lebanon back into sectarian violence.

Hezbollah itself emerged in the 1980s as a resistance force dedicated to ending Israel’s occupation of south Lebanon, a task that it finally accomplished nearly three decades later following the end of the 2006 war with Israel.  Hezbollah’s emergence personified the growing political relevance of Lebanon’s growing Shi’a population.  Disadvantaged politically and economically during the ‘golden era’ of Lebanon from the 1940s to the 1960s, when Sunni Muslim and Maronite Christians dominated Lebanese government and business, southern Lebanon had always been the poorest and least developed part of the country.  That disadvantage became even sharper during the Lebanese civil war and its aftermath while Israeli military forces continued to occupy it.  Accordingly, Hezbollah’s role in Lebanon throughout the past three decades has grown from a militia into something much more: both a civil society group and a vehicle for political representation, with Hezbollah serving as a vector of socioeconomic support in southern Lebanon and the Beka’a Valley and Nasrallah asserting the political will of Lebanon’s Shi’a population in the national government.

Although many were dismayed by its essentially unilateral decision to drag Lebanon into war against Israel in 2006, its success in forcing an end to Israel’s Lebanese occupation has generally served to strengthen Hezbollah as a political force ever since.  Though the 2006 war ended relatively quickly and with a result that boosted Hezbollah’s — and Nasrallah’s — political capital, Hezbollah’s military capability means that it rivals the secular Lebanese army in terms of its capability to project force, which also makes Hezbollah the entity with the greatest ability to undermine Lebanon’s always fragile national institutions.

It also means that its May decision to openly back Assad has been the single-most worrying turn of events in Lebanon since the Syrian civil war began, and ‘March 14′ alliance leaders (and no shortage of ‘March 8′ figures) are calling on Hezbollah to withdraw from Syria.

Now that the United States has announced it is standing with the anti-Assad rebels, the political costs of Hezbollah’s backing down are precipitously higher, which leaves Lebanon at even greater risk.  That means that it will fall not only on Salam and Lebanon’s caretaker government, but upon Mikati (whose political base is in Tripoli), Hariri (whose political base is in Sidon), and a united front among Lebanon’s Sunni political leadership to work to keep the most radical Sunni partisans from following Hezbollah’s lead by providing countervailing military support for the anti-Assad rebels or, worse, open clashes on Lebanese soil against Hezbollah.

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