November 21, 2007

Beirut is Not Tehran

Abu Muqawama has not posted much on Lebanon recently, but that's not because that troubled little country isn't on his mind. Much of his time in the library these days, in fact, is spent reading about Lebanon's last civil war. For those of you following the political events that have been taking place in the country these past few weeks, you'll know that if Lebanon doesn't elect a new president within the next few days, we could all be heading toward a new civil war.

From a U.S. policy perspective, part of the problem boils down to three things:

1. The U.S. doesn't seem to realize -- publicly, at least -- that the Lebanese populace is really quite evenly divided between the two warring camps. We would prefer to think that our allies in the pro-West March 14th alliance command a solid majority of all Lebanese, but recent polling data indicate that isn't the case.

30 percent identify themselves with the opposition and 28.4 percent identify with the March 14 coalition, yet the greatest percentage of respondents, 37.2 percent, gave no answer regarding their allegiance. When asked who would win the next elections, 37 percent of respondents indicated the opposition and 34 percent indicated the March 14 coalition.

2. You get the feeling the U.S. would rather "wish away" the 35%+ of the population that is Shia and for whom Hizbollah is the sole political representative. From a U.S. policy perspective, it would be a lot easier if those people just didn't exist, or there was a political alternative to Hizbollah (no, Amal is not an alternative), or they didn't have the support of a large part of Lebanon's Christian community.

3. The U.S. insists on seeing the conflict in Lebanon through the prism of its greater clash with Iran. That is the subject of an op-ed in today's, in which Abu Muqawama's friend Steve McInerney and some other guy argue this is a huge mistake. While we're viewing Hizbollah as a conflict with Iran, some of our allies in Lebanon and the greater Middle East are funding and manipulating some nasty transnational Sunni terror groups -- the kind of guys who were not only responsible for the recent fighting in Nahr al-Bared but also the worst terror attacks in Iraq. (Oh, and that whole 9/11 thing.) We said post-9/11 that we would not allow another terrorist safe haven after Afghanistan, but that's exactly what the Palestinian refugee camps have become -- often with the support of U.S. allies.

These groups don't have the popular support in Lebanon that Hezbollah boasts. But that also means they have no "red lines" of violence they will not cross. And, while Hezbollah wants to play an expanded political role in the Lebanese state, the Sunni extremist groups would like nothing more than to see the collapse of the state into anarchy and civil war -- truly a worst-case scenario both for Lebanon's fragile democracy and for regional security.

Earlier this year, one such group, Fatah al-Islam, incited three months of clashes with Lebanese security forces around the Palestinian refugee camp Nahr el-Bared. During a recent congressional hearing, the assistant secretary of state for near eastern affairs, David Welch, characterized the fighting as "extraordinary, unexpected." He also emphasized that the threat had been dealt with. "Today, the only armed militia in Lebanon is Hezbollah," he said.

In fact, many analysts had predicted violence involving emerging Sunni radical groups "in northern Lebanon, the Bekaa Valley, and around Palestinian refugee camps in the south." While promoting their own interests in the power vacuum created by the Syrian military withdrawal in 2005, some of America's closest allies in the Lebanese government and nearby Saudi Arabia and Jordan are believed to have supported the growth of the Sunni extremist groups. Moreover, thanks to a steady stream of Sunni militants from Iraq -- the types responsible for the most horrific attacks there -- continued growth is expected for the foreseeable future. At least, as long as the U.S. continues to look the other way, and as long as U.S. efforts to help the Lebanese military confront such groups are viewed with suspicion.

For the lighter side of the Lebanon crisis, meanwhile, read this article. (Thanks, Seth.)