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The Cedar Dissolution: Lebanon’s Civil Strife

Commentary, 15 May 2008
Middle East and North Africa
The latest stand-off between Hezbollah and the Lebanese government underlines the primacy of the Shia movement. They have now fundamentally challenged the terms of the grand bargain between Lebanon’s many different sects and confessions.

The latest stand-off between Hezbollah and the Lebanese government underlines the primacy of the Shia movement. They have now fundamentally challenged the terms of the grand bargain between Lebanon’s many different sects and confessions.

By Alistair Harris, Beirut, 15 May 2008 

A week has now passed since the tense stand-off between the two camps contesting the governance of Lebanon erupted in conflict on 7 May. In the worst violence since the 1975-1990 civil war and with over sixty dead and 200 wounded, Lebanon finds itself teetering dangerously close to the brink of civil war. The catalyst for the latest round of internecine blood-letting was decisions made by the government of Prime Minister Siniora interpreted by the main opposition player Hezbollah as a declaration of war against the capability of Hezbollah’s military wing, the Islamic Resistance. Whilst Hezbollah objected to the dismissal of Brigadier General Wafiq Shqeir, the head of airport security, it was the Government’s moves against Hezbollah’s dedicated telecommunications network that proved a red line. Whilst the Western and Sunni states-backed Government interpreted the network as a threat to state sovereignty, Hezbollah claimed that any move against that capability was an attempt to undermine the ability of the Islamic Resistance to defend Lebanon from the threat posed by Israel.

Lebanon has been paralysed by a lack of political consensus for eighteen months. The symptoms of this abound: the collapse of national dialogue, withdrawal of the opposition’s ministers from the Cabinet, civil disobedience, street violence and sit-in protests, economic stagnation, a six-month vacuum in the presidency and now violent conflict.

Moving rapidly to take over the Sunni-dominated West Beirut, Hezbollah demonstrated its military dominance. Increasingly sectarian clashes spread to the port city of Tripoli in the north and the mountains to the east of Beirut. Main arterial routes were cut and the Beirut port and airport shut down. The one remaining fully functioning multi-confessional organ of state, the Lebanese Armed Forces, adopted a neutral position, fearing that the cohesion of its forces would be threatened by direct intervention.

The rhetoric has mirrored the activities on the ground. The Government and its supporters, both domestic and external, have labelled the hostilities an Iranian and Syrian-sponsored attack on the democratic majority. In this narrative, Hezbollah has turned the vaunted weapons of the resistance against their fellow Lebanese. For the opposition, the government’s actions were part of a US-instigated plan to defang the resistance. With Israeli warplanes circling the skies above Lebanon and the USS Cole returning to the waters off Beirut, the Arab League appear incapable of de-escalating the situation, its own ranks as divided as the Lebanese on the question of Iranian and Syrian intent both in Lebanon and regionally.

Striving for Consensus: Politicking Lebanese-style

The consociational or confessional system that prevails in Lebanon has, since the state’s formation in 1943, been characterised by a grand bargain between the elites of the state’s eighteen sects or confessions. The vertical lines of clientist patronage that embodies Lebanon’s power-sharing formula have since the state’s creation militated against the creation of the horizontal bonds of societal cohesion. National unity and a coherent narrative of national identity have proved elusive. The Shia, from whom Hezbollah draw most of their support, have now fundamentally challenged the terms of the grand bargain. As the largest of Lebanon’s minorities, their political representation and therefore access to resources and services has not reflected their demographic primacy. As minorities have sought support from powerful external actors, internal attempts at conflict prevention have proved ineffective.

The Taif Agreement of 1989 that ended the last Lebanese civil war stipulated a change in the Muslim and Christian parliamentary representation and an increase in Sunni and to a lesser extent Shia political weight, at the expense of the traditionally powerful Christian presidency. The parties that make up Lebanon’s confessional mosaic must now renegotiate the grand bargain if further bloodshed is to be avoided. Evidence to date is not cause for optimism. The package deal of Army Commander General Michel Suleiman as a consensus presidential candidate, a national unity government and a reformed electoral law, despite months of effort, has not been adopted by the two opposing parties. The reason for this goes to the heart of whether the grand bargain can be renegotiated without violence. The increasingly powerless government, like its external sponsors, is unwilling to cede further power to what it sees as a foreign-inspired threat to dominate Lebanon through appointed proxies.

The vital ground in this context has become not the opposing parties in Lebanon, but their powerful sponsors, the US and Iran, with the Sunni states and Syria playing supporting roles. Following the war of 2006, the security concerns of Israel in the face of a resurgent Hezbollah also increase the likelihood of an external catalyst for future conflict. With Israel, the US and her allies agitating against the opposition forces in Lebanon, it is easy to forget the position of Lebanon’s Christian communities, divided as they are between support for the Shia-dominated opposition and the Sunni-dominated government.

In a highly significant move, the Lebanese Armed Forces de-escalated this week’s tension by telling the government to rescind its moves against Hezbollah in the interests of national unity. It is hard to interpret the week’s events as anything other than both a military and a political victory for Hezbollah. The speed and efficacy of Hezbollah’s military activities attest to what has been known for many years – no other confession in Lebanon can touch the Islamic Resistance. This week confirms that the Lebanese Armed Forces, despite the substantial support of the US, will not act against Hezbollah. Hezbollah’s primacy and the actions of the LAF are hugely significant. Neither the government, nor the non-Shia militias nor the Lebanese Armed Forces were both willing and able to stop Hezbollah.

Syrian and Iranian support for Hezbollah with their increasingly hostile stand-off with the US over support for Iraqi insurgents, their nuclear ambitions and their perceived malign influence in Lebanon and further afield, when juxtaposed with this week’s events in Lebanon, mean that the countdown to war may have already begun.

Alistair Harris is a former diplomat and specialist in post-conflict stabilisation and Security Sector Reform initiatives. He is based in Beirut.

See also

Bordering on the Impossible: Securing Lebanon's Borders with Syria
By Alistair Harris
This article analyses the nature of Lebanese and international attempts to stem the flow of weapons into the country by increasing Lebanon's capacity to manage its own borders.



The views expressed above are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.


Alistair Harris OBE
Associate Fellow

Alistair Harris OBE is a former diplomat and UN staff member.

He is an Associate Fellow at RUSI and at the South African... read more

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