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Revival for Lebanon or the Beginning of the Shia Crescent?

June 4, 2008
INSS Insight No. 58,
Kulick, Amir

The recent events in Lebanon are like a play in three acts. In the first act, the pro-Western government chooses to take steps challenging Hizbollah's independent security activity (placing cameras at the airport and planting an internal communications network). In response, on May 7, Hizbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah dispatches his fighters to take control of western Beirut and various areas in the northern and eastern parts of the country.

Approximately 80 Lebanese citizens are killed in clashes that hint at Lebanon's return to civil war. For the second act, a plot twist: The sides agree to an initiative brokered by Qatar’s ruler, and following several days of intensive discussions attended by Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia, and other regional players, the parties arrive at a series of understandings that end the crisis. The region and the world breathe a sigh of relief. A civil war is averted and the political crisis in Lebanon is seemingly resolved. A new president is elected and the country ostensibly sets out on a new path. The third act has yet to be written. In other words, what actually happened and what lies ahead?

Various commentators and political figures depict the Doha agreement as a compromise between Lebanon’s competing power elements. In fact, however, the agreement represents a forced division of political power and compliance with the demands of the Hizbollah-led opposition, following a demonstration of power by the organization’s fighters along with determined action by its leadership. To recall: in November 2006, Shiite ministers in Lebanon’s government tendered their resignations in protest over the continuing opposition by the Christian-Sunni-Druze majority to increase opposition representation to one third of all government ministers. The political crisis included a delay in electing a new president once Emile Lahoud's presidency ended in November 2007.

What then was achieved by the Doha agreement? Most important, opposition representation in the government was increased: out of 30 ministers, 11 Shiite and other ministers will be appointed (another 16 will represent the pro-Western camp and three will be appointed by the president). In addition, the sides are prohibited from using weapons in internal conflicts, the Shiite protest camp set up in the heart of Beirut in November 2006 will be dismantled, and changes were made in Lebanon’s division into electoral districts. The political compromise also made possible the election of Lebanese Army Commander Michel Suleiman as president.

From a political aspect, the Doha agreement grants the Shiite-headed opposition the possibility of constituting an opposing bloc that can veto government decisions. Thus Hizbollah and its allies will be able to remove from the agenda resolutions not compatible with the interests of its sponsors, Syria and Iran. For example, there is the issue of cooperation with the International Court of Justice in trying the suspects in the murder of former prime minister Hariri (UN Resolution 1757). Since senior Syrian officials are suspected of involvement in the assassination, the Court ignites fierce opposition in Syria. Also effectively removed from the agenda are the questions of disarming Hizbollah, a future accommodation with Israel, cooperation with the US, and many other issues. The redistribution of Lebanon’s electoral districts primarily serves the camp of Michel Aoun, Nasrallah’s principal ally in the Christian community. In the next parliamentary elections, scheduled for 2009, the opposition will presumably gain increased representation.

The agreement’s remaining clauses are gestures largely intended to cast it as a compromise rather than a surrender. The dismantling of the Hizbollah protest camp is a purely symbolic act; practically speaking, following the attainment of the organization’s demands, the camp is no longer necessary. The agreement’s decision against the use of force in internal conflicts is meaningless, because as proven by recent events in which the Lebanese army avoided intervention, there is currently no force to prevent Hizbollah from exercising its military strength in the future. Thus at the close of the play's second act, the anti-Syrian or pro-Western camp and its allies – Europe and the US – are returned to reality. If since the Cedar Revolution (which led to the withdrawal of the Syrian army from Lebanon in April 2005) it seemed that Lebanon was a Western style democracy in the making, recent events have underscored that at best there is a very long way to go.

What are the long term implications of the events of May 2008 and the Doha agreement? From an historical aspect, it appears we are in the process of power redistribution. The Shiites, who have endured discrimination since the founding of the country in the 1920s, are gradually gaining a larger share of authority in accordance with their demographic weight. As such, Shiite dominancy in the country is apparently only a matter of time. Therefore, in the third act, the Shiites may translate their military and political strength into a fundamental change in the nature of the Lebanese state.

From a regional aspect, recent events signify a strengthening of Iran and Syria and the weakening of the regional status of the US. For years Iran and Syria have armed Hizbollah; it appears that the investment has paid off. Their Hizbollah prot̩g̩ has become the dominant force in Lebanon. All that remains is for the pro-Western camp to reach a compromise with them in an attempt to prevent its own destruction in a renewed civil war. At the same time, Iran Рone of the patrons of the Doha agreement Рhas received added confirmation of the political maneuvering ability it demonstrated with the West in recent years: "determination pays." This has implications not only for the Lebanese issue, but for the Iranian nuclear issue as well.

Finally there is the Israel angle. The recent events have closed the door on the possibility of seeing Hizbollah disarmed by some sort of Lebanese force. If there were some in Israel who hoped to see this aspect of UN resolution 1701 realized, then this expectation has for the moment proven false. Hizbollah, with Syrian and Iranian backing, will continue to constitute the dominant force in the country; and following the organization’s demonstration of its military capabilities in May, this is also clear to the other communities in Lebanon. The positive aspect in the recent developments is that the political deadlock has been broken, and now perhaps Lebanon may be able to function somewhat better. Still, it is not certain whether the new direction Lebanon will take is what Israel and the West had hoped for.
SOURCE:The Institute for National Security Studies • 40 Haim Levanon St. • Tel Aviv 61398 • Israel • 03-640-0400 • e-mail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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