The Lebanese novelist Elias Khoury once said that “The most tragic thing about the Lebanese civil war is that it is not a tragedy in the consciousness of the Lebanese.” The sectarian tensions that have repeatedly threatened to drag the country back to the days of its brutal Civil War (1975-1990) resurfaced last week, as though to emphasis Khoury’s implied observation that a tragic past does not necessarily immunise a country from a tragic future.
On January 12 the precariously balanced national unity government of Prime Minister Saad Hariri collapsed when 11 ministers representing Hezbollah and its allies handed in their resignations. This recent move was precipitated by the divisions over the UN Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL), the investigating committee responsible for prosecuting those behind the 2005 killing of Rafik Hariri – Saad’s father. The resignations have left the country at an impasse.
It is understood that the tribunal intends to indict members of Hezbollah who it believes were behind the murder. Hezbollah claims that the STL has been compromised by “false witnesses” – behind which there may be an element of truth – and is really just part of a Zionist-American conspiracy to undermine Lebanese resistance against Israel.
In response the militant Shia organisation has demanded that Hariri cut Lebanon’s funding to the STL and disavow any such indictments, a demand Hariri rejected. Despite the mediation efforts of Saudi Arabia and Syria, the two parties could not reach a compromise and so, in what appears to have been a rather desperate move, Hezbollah toppled the government.
The (now caretaker) Prime Minister Saad Hariri has stressed that dialogue is the only way for the rival factions to find “logical solutions” to the country’s political problems and has promised to work with President Michel Sleiman to form a new cabinet.
However, even if this Sisyphean task was managed, what next? The STL is still going to announce its verdict, which in all likelihood is going to indict some Hezbollah members and perhaps even their backers in Damascus. It seems unlikely that Hariri is then going to denounce the STL and it is even more unlikely that Hezbollah will accept its verdict.
The best possible outcome of the present impasse would be: in the event of the STL connecting Hezbollah to Rafik Hariri’s murder, Saad Hariri could help to deflect blame from the Hezbollah leadership by publicly accepting the narrative that it was “rogue elements” in the organisation that were responsible for his father’s death. While this may exonerate those really responsible for Hariri’s death, it could help to avoid the worst case scenario, which would be renewed violence and, possibly, even civil war.
Lebanon’s internal difficulties are rarely just the result of internal difficulties. While it is a cliché, it is also true that Lebanon is a stage where regional and international powers often settle their differences. While Hezbollah’s denunciation of the STL as a Zionist-American conspiracy is predictable, they are not entirely wrong to claim that the US’s support for the tribunal is largely political.
The Middle East is divided along many different regularly-shifting lines, but the most fraught is probably the division between the US and its allies (in particular Israel and Saudi Arabia) and the so-called “Resistance”, a very loose coalition between Iran, Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas.
While all of these alliances are far from set in stone, currently they are particularly important. The US is hoping that Hezbollah is indicted and would no doubt be happy to see Syria implicated as well. This would undermine the “Resistance” and strengthen the hand of the US and its allies in the region. Crucially, it would weaken Hezbollah’s most important patron – Iran, help secure Israel’s northern border, and would be a blow to an important ally of Hamas.
It would also knock the emboldened Shia who have seen their political fortunes improve considerably, particularly since the Iraq war. The Sunni regime of Saudi Arabia would be happy to see Hariri, their Lebanese ally, strengthened by an STL verdict against Hezbollah, and even happier to see Iran’s regional power curtailed.
In Elias Khoury’s novel Gate of the Sun, Dr Khaleel, an aging member of the fedayeen, tells his comatose mentor, Yunis, that during the Civil War,
“[w]e changed political discourse and alliances from one day to the next, from support for the Left to support for the Muslims, from the Muslims to the Christians, and from the Shatila massacre, carried out by Israelis and Phalangists in ’82, to the siege-massacre of ’85, carried out by Amal with support from Syria.”
The complexities of Lebanon’s political life described by Dr Khaleel, the shifting nature of its sectarian boundaries, and their positions within a volatile international setting, make solving this present crisis very difficult to say the least.
The best I think we can hope for is that some sort of compromise can be reached even if this means that justice for Rafik Hariri and the many anti-Syrian activists and writers who have been assassinated since 2005 is deferred, so as to prevent the slide towards another civil war.