Another US Quagmire? Lebanon Government Falls

Ironically, while Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri was meeting with President Obama on Wednesday, his government fell. As one Arab commentator observed, he went into the meeting a prime minister and came back out a civilian.

It is a joke of course. Al-Hariri will be caretaker prime minister until a new government is formed, which could take some time.

The danger is that it won’t take much time, and that the new government could be from the “March 8″ coalition that includes Hizbullah. A Hizbullah-dominated government in Beirut is a different proposition from the recent government of national unity, in which Hizbullah’s power was watered down among 30 cabinet ministers. It is not impossible that such a development, i.e.Hizbullah dominance, could lead to US and Israeli action against the new government, whether a covert action or a military attack.

Al-Hariri, a Sunni Arab backed by Saudi Arabia, is the son of former prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri, who was assassinated in 2005. An international tribunal is still trying to affix blame in that killing, and last summer the Shiite Hizbullah leader Hasan Nasrallah announced that the Tribunal was leaning toward fingering members of his party-militia as the perpetrators. I was in Beirut in August, when Nasrallah attempted to put the blame on the Israelis, but even he admitted that he could make only a circumstantial case, and aside from his die-hard followers it is unlikely that very many people accepted his suggestion.

Rafiq al-Hariri had stood up to Syrian control of Lebanese politics, and Hizbullah is closely allied with Syria. If his had been a unique case, then a whole range of possible assassins might have suggested themselves (at the time I thought that a radical Sunni al-Qaeda affiliate might have done it.) But then a whole string of Lebanese figures who spoke out against then Syrian troop presence in Lebanon were assassinated or attacked. In the end, it seemed obvious that some pro-Syrian cell was behind all this, whether in the Syrian secret police or in some pro-Syrian organization.

On March 8, 2005, Hizbullah and its allies demonstrated in favor of Syria. On March 14, 2005, there were big anti-Syrian demonstrations, mainly Christian and Sunni. The latter convinced the Syrians to leave. “March 8″ (led by Christian Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement and including Hizbullah) and “March 14″ (led by al-Hariri’s Sunni Future Party) became political coalitions. In the elections of 2009, the March 14 group gained 71 seats in a parliament of 130, while the March 8 group gained 57, though the latter won the popular vote. In the end the two formed a government of national unity, which collapsed on Wednesday.

March 8 members of parliament are saying that they now have a majority in parliament (66), though it is unclear where the new 9 seats came from (or even whether the allegation is even true). Presumably it is being alleged that some deputies are defecting from March 14 to March 8. If the allegation is true, President Sulaiman may ask a March 8 leader to attempt to form a new government.

Lebanon is a fragile, divided country with Shiites, Sunni Arabs, Maronite Christians, and Eastern Orthodox Christians, along with Druze and other, smaller sectarian groups. Politics is mostly conducted on the basis of religious ethnicity. Thus, if the Tribunal does point to Hizbullah, it could well provoke Sunni-Shiite violence.

Since last summer Hizbullah has used its presence in the national unity government to press PM Saad al-Hariri to pledge to ignore the tribunal. Al-Hariri declined. Last week Saudi Arabia (patron of al-Hariri) and Syria (patron of Hizbullah) met to attempt to work out a compromise, but they failed.

Saad al-Hariri’s government may have been listening to the Obama administration in being so inflexible. If so, Washington may have hoisted itself by its own petard, since the last thing it wanted was a March 8 government in Beirut.

It is unclear if whatever new government emerges will be acceptable to key Lebanese factions, or to powerful regional neighbors. That is, Lebanon has entered a period of profound instability that could affect the fortunes of the entire Levant.

16 Responses

  1. March 8 members of parliament are saying that they now have a majority in parliament (66), though it is unclear where the new 9 seats came from (or even whether the allegation is even true). Presumably it is being alleged that some deputies are defecting from March 14 to March 8. If the allegation is true, President Sulaiman may ask a March 8 leader to attempt to form a new government.

    The Druzes and Walid Joumblatt with his Progressive Socialist Party ?

  2. RE: “Another US Quagmire? Lebanon Government Falls” – Juan Cole
    SEE: “How the US and Israel Hope to Destroy Hezbollah” ~ by Franklin Lamb, Counterpunch, 11/19/10
    (excerpts)”I’ve got these [expletive deleted] just where we want them Maura! Watch the 1000 slow cuts as we shred Hezbollah…And we’ll do it by using 1757 and this time we’re going all the way. I told Israel to stay out of Lebanon…I will handle this and it will be my Christmas present to Lebanon.”
    So, reportedly, said Jeffrey Feltman in conversation with his former office staffer, now US Ambassador to Lebanon, Maura Connelly during a October 17, 2010 visit with MP Walid Jumblatt at his Clemenceau residence…
    ENTIRE ARTICLE – link to counterpunch.org

  3. OK, I can see profound instability and a vacuum Hizbullah will inevitably fill. The US and its 51rst state will get anxious, clearly. And understandably, since this is part of wave of fate moving against there influence in the region. But do the circumstances exist to take any sort of action that could even plausibly make any difference?

    Israel doesn’t need much more that a dirty look to feel an existential threat, but who is there is assassinate (which seems to be all either is able to do?) And this assumes the bad judgement (which I suppose should be presumed), to do that or anything else. Even putting yourself inside the reactionary head of a neocon, just what can they do that wouldn’t be utterly insane?

    • 4,000 US nuclear weapons, from about 10 kilotons to a couple of megatons. Lots of options there.

  4. Juan you say ‘An international tribunal is still trying to affix blame in that killing’. Implicit in your tone is that it is a free and fair international tribunal. Are you so sure?

  5. Dear Professor Cole,

    Thank you for your timely reminder of the dangerous situation in Lebanon, which might provide an excuse for another regional war.

    When former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was assassinated on Feb. 14 2005, the West and particularly the Bush Administration directly blamed Syria for that murder, and the United States withdrew its ambassador from Damascus. The West orchestrated a massive media campaign and organized and funded the so-called Cedar Revolution that forced Syria to pull out all her forces from Lebanon by April 2005. Ironically, Syrian forces had been invited by Lebanon’s Christian-led government to protect the Christians during the bloody Lebanese Civil War of 1975-76.

    Hariri of course had many domestic and foreign enemies besides Syria, including among rival Lebanese groups, the Israeli government, Islamic extremists, and powerful financiers with interests in his multi-billion dollar reconstruction efforts backed by Saudi Arabia. After Hariri’s assassination, a previously unknown group calling itself “Victory and Jihad in Syria and Lebanon” claimed responsibility for the attack, citing Hariri’s close ties to the Saudi monarchy.

    It is difficult to be certain whether some elements within the Hizbullah were responsible for Hariri’s death, but after all the accusations initially levelled against Syria, the cynics might be forgiven for wondering whether this time the charges are backed by evidence or whether they are once again politically motivated. If it is now established that the Hizbullah, rather than Syria, was responsible for the murder, are US officials going to publicly apologize for falsely accusing Syria of the crime?

    It is possible that after engineering Syria’s isolation and withdrawal from Lebanon, it is now time to move to the next phase of the plan to put an end to Syrian and Iranian influence in that country, especially as the devastating July-August 2006 invasion of Lebanon failed to achieve that goal. After all, as well as offering a strategic rationale for deposing Saddam Hussein, “A Clean Break” famously laid out a blueprint for “securing the northern border”:
    “Syria challenges Israel on Lebanese soil. An effective approach, and one with which Americans can sympathize, would be if Israel seized the strategic initiative along its northern borders by engaging Hizballah, Syria, and Iran, as the principal agents of aggression in Lebanon, including by: [1] paralleling Syria’s behavior by establishing the precedent that Syrian territory is not immune to attacks emanating from Lebanon by Israeli proxy forces, [2] striking Syrian military targets in Lebanon, and should that prove insufficient, striking at select targets in Syria proper.” (link to iasps.org)

    It is often stated by various political pundits that the first stages of a conflict with Iran will be fought as a proxy war in Lebanon against Hezbollah and Syria. It’s high time for the Lebanese to start nurturing a collective possessiveness and a unified solidarity towards a single Lebanon, instead of being divided on sectarian lines and also providing a recipe for foreign interference and war.

  6. I agree with what Mark D. stated, there is too much at stake for the West to allow any outcome other than, our enemy Hizbullah is the guilty party, to say anything else would be “supportive of the terrorists”! Wouldn’t it?

  7. Hello Dr. Cole

    What on earth is “religious ethnicity”? Does one’s ethnicty change if one changes religions?

  8. “aside from his die-hard followers it is unlikely that very many people accepted his suggestion.”

    Then I guess I’m a die-hard follower of Nasrallah, because I put great credence in his suggestion that Israel was behind it. False-flag operations are a trademark of Israel intelligence, and arranging to pin the blame on Hizballah is almost certainly their number one objective whether it is correct or not.

    There is plenty of evidence in the history of the tribunal that it is politically motivated and uses tainted evidence. Nasrallah has listed some, other observers have listed more.

  9. Professor Cole, I wish you would have gone into more detail about the so-called ‘circumstantial evidence.’ As I understand, it involves the Israeli spy ring that had infiltrated Lebanon’s cell network at the technical level, allowing them to both monitor all network traffic, but also ‘spoof’ it by adding false data, such as call records.

    This is important because the tribunal is supposedly relying on phone records to make its charges. This may indeed not be provable in a court, but the possibility should be acknowledged.

    Also, as was alluded in earlier comments, the tribunal is anything but impartial; Wikileaks has a document that details who the supporters of the tribunal are, which suggests that the tribunal is a useful axe to grind against ‘the usual suspects.’

  10. The Tribunal is a sad joke. It’s already on its third chief prosecutor. Hariri Jr. has already publicly cleared Syria of any involvement in his father’s assassination–contradicting all of his earlier claims.

  11. “It is not impossible that such a development, i.e.Hizbullah dominance, could lead to US and Israeli action against the new government, whether a covert action or a military attack.”

    “I’d prefer “might well be used by USA and/or Israel as a pretext to make an unprovoked attack” rather than what you said, “could lead”. Somehow, the colorless language of “could lead” camouflages the nature of the agency involved. Would the USA or Israel be “forced” to attack? No. Justified in law? No.

    Language matters. There is a world of difference between “John died of a gunshot would to the head:” and “I shot John, without provocation, and he died of his wounds.”

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