The conventional wisdom is that every crisis in Lebanon has three dimensions: domestic, regional, and international. The current crisis in that country is a good example of this.
Domestically, the Shiite militia Hezbollah and a host of local allies and cronies of Syria have taken to the streets in a mass, overwhelmingly Shiite, rally, demanding that the Lebanese government, headed by Sunni Prime Minister Fouad Seniora, be toppled. Previous to this, Shiite ministers resigned from the government so as not to vote on the establishment of a special international tribunal to try the suspects in the recent series of assassinations of Lebanese figures, most prominently of the former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, also a Sunni, in February 2005.
In a country governed by intricate sectarian protocols and formulas of coexistence (e.g., “no victor, no vanquished”) these actions constitute a gross transgression. It is difficult not to conclude that this is a coup attempt by the Shiite militia, which after sparking a devastating war with Israel this summer, has turned its sights inwards. With a Syrian-installed puppet as president and a Shiite ally as speaker of parliament, this is a bid by Hezbollah to virtually control all branches of government in Lebanon. As such, it was hardly surprising to see Sunni-Shiite tensions rise dramatically these last few days, sometimes breaking out in bloody clashes that have already claimed one life.
Hezbollah’s move seems clearly to be governed by regional considerations. It is certain that the main purpose of toppling the Seniora government is to scuttle the establishment of the international tribunal. This is a primary objective of the Syrian regime, which is plain to see from recent statements by Syrian officials. Speaking before a select audience days ago, deputy Foreign Minister Faysal Mekdad declared that Syria would not submit any Syrian national before an international tribunal. This was followed by a letter to the U.N. stating that Syria does not agree to the establishment of the tribunal and does not consider itself concerned with any such tribunal.
It’s not a coincidence that Hezbollah staged a walkout a year ago when the Lebanese cabinet first requested the establishment of the tribunal after the assassination of MP Gebran Tueni. Hezbollah is keen on protecting its Syrian ally, its longtime backer and weapons supplier, as any weakening of Syria would be detrimental the group. Hezbollah also wants to make sure that Lebanon remains firmly in the Syrian-Iranian orbit. Toppling the government is part and parcel of that objective, as could be seen from various radical speeches by Syria’s Bashar Assad, especially on August 15, when he predicted that the fall of the anti-Syrian coalition was “looming.”
It is in this context that we should understand Hezbollah’s July cross-border operation that triggered the summer war; and before this, the Damascus-based Hamas’ kidnapping of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. These were part of a bid by Syria and Iran, and their allies Hezbollah and Hamas, not only to seize control of both the Lebanese and Palestinian scenes, but also to shift the regional balance of powers away from the Sunni Arab states — Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Jordan, all traditional allies of the U.S. — in favor of the Iranian-led axis. In other words, it was a bid to establish Iranian power, through Syria, in the heart of the Levant.
Consequently, it was hardly surprising to see the Saudis, Egyptians, and Jordanians openly side against Hezbollah and Syria. Assad’s lashing out against the leaders of these states in his August 15 speech showed the strategic choices he has made.
These lines are once again on display. Faced with a Hezbollah-led Shiite rally trying to topple a Sunni Prime Minister, the Sunni Arab states stepped in. King Abdallah of Saudi Arabia personally called Seniora expressing his support, as did King Abdallah of Jordan. Then, in a rebuke to Hezbollah, Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak explained things rather bluntly: “Iran could send (people to support) Hezbollah, then other countries will be obliged to send people to support Seniora. This will be a problem.” The analogy to Iraq in Mubarak’s comments is deliberate and the message is clear. The Sunni Arab states will not sit idly by and watch the Iranian axis expand its influence.
Mubarak’s comments follow an earlier statement last month by Iran’s supreme guide, Ali Khamenei, declaring Lebanon “will be the defeat point for Israel and America.” The Iranians, Syrians, and Hezbollah are framing the current coup attempt in Lebanon as a potential victory against the U.S. and its allies, and hope for a complete rout of the U.S. in the Middle East.
This alliance was dealt a blow in Lebanon this summer. For all its defects, U.N. Resolution 1701, which ended the war, has placed UNIFIL and the Lebanese Army on the border with Israel, depriving Hezbollah and its regional patrons of a long-held trump card: an anti-Israel base. Another aim behind the drive to topple the government is to turn UNR 1701 into a dead letter, and to reverse its effects entirely. Syrian officials have already threatened to unleash proxies and jihadists against UNIFIL, and a power and security vacuum in Lebanon would increase the likelihood of that happening.
The common wisdom about the multi-dimensional nature of conflicts in Lebanon is true of the current crisis. What is happening there is not a mere parochial tussle for power. This coup against a democratically elected government is part of the same regional battle in which the U.S. is involved. The enemies of the U.S. are determined to end U.S. influence in the region and to trounce its allies. They see Lebanon as one arena in this battle. The White House realizes this, as is evident from its statements on Lebanon. Now what is it prepared to do?
– Tony Badran is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He authors the weblog Across the Bay.