Commentary

Lebanon Continues to be Rocked by Instability

Middle East In Focus

Middle East In Focus

Nearly a year since the fall of the Hariri government, the situation in Lebanon continues to remain tense. Despite staying above the fray of the Arab Spring, it has been difficult to avoid the consequences of the political changes that are taking place in the region. More recently, developments in Syria have caused many to reflect on the day after Assad and how Lebanon’s relationship with its neighbor might change. With increasing rocket attacks against Israel across Lebanon’s southern border as well as the most recent attack on the UN peacekeeping forces on that border, it is clear the perceived losers in the reshuffle have no intention to go away quietly.

Especially the attacks on UNIFIL forces drew a sharp rebuke from the country’s prominent newspaper Lebanon Daily Star editorial: “Last week’s roadside bomb attack targeting UNIFIL was the latest in a series of incidents that have jolted the peacekeeping force’s operations in the south. The attack comes as the United Nations is assessing the potential for handing over more responsibility to the Lebanese Army and drawing down UNIFIL’s numbers, as part of a strategic review of the U.N. force’s operations in the wake of the renewal this year of its mandate....So far authorities and Hezbollah have only proven they are not serious about putting their money where their mouth is, merely verbally condemning the acts while making no difference to the reality on the ground. Not only do we see no help given, as more empty statements are issued in the absence of concrete action, but Hezbollah has often made the work of UNIFIL significantly more difficult via its supporters in the south.”

In an article for Al Hayat, Walid Chacour points out the hypocrisy and inconsistency of those responsible for what happens on the southern border: “The principal countries concerned with the south are hearing Lebanese officials condemn what their units are being subjected to, and some of them even complain that they are responsible for treating the matter, before UNIFIL. Each time the international peacekeepers suffer a given incident, or the security of the south is shaken by the launching of rockets, the Lebanese Army suffices by taking certain measures for a period of time. Then, the army and security forces return to a state of laxity, as the commanders of UNIFIL units complain that their troops have merely become “doormen,” unable to play an effective role.”

With Syria the clear winner from any such instability, it was not too long before fingers were pointed to Lebanon’s neighbor. For their part, according to the Syrian news site Cham Press “The Foreign Affairs and Expatriates Ministry on Monday strongly denied having any relation with the bombing that targeted the UNIFIL forces in Southern Lebanon last Friday. This came in a statement made by Ministry Spokesman Dr. Jihad Makdessi in response to a statement made on Sunday by French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe who accused Syria of being responsible for the explosive device that targeted UNIFIL forces in southern Lebanon without possessing evidence to back his claims. Makdessi said that the Ministry strongly denies that Syria had anything to do with this reprehensible act, affirming that such remarks made by Juppe and other lack any evidence and are part of the French prejudiced accusations that falsify facts.”

Whether Syria was directly responsible for the attacks on UNIFIL it might ultimately be difficult to prove, but the current instability in the country has led some analysts to wonder what Hezbollah would do should the Assad regime collapse. Paul Salem, the director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, in an op-ed for The National argues “With the United States pulling its troops out of Iraq and Syria’s Bashar Al Assad losing his grip on power, the Middle East may soon be in for its biggest power shift since the 2003 American-led invasion of Iraq....Under new leadership, Syria would also want to find a way to weaken Hezbollah. This might create an opportunity for a revival of Syrian-Israeli peace talks that were frozen in 2008. If Syria and Israel move toward peace, Lebanon would have to follow suit. And Hezbollah would be faced with the choice of defying Syria, or finding a way to accept the new realities: this would include gradually disarming or integrating its weapons within a national defense framework, in exchange for a return of the Shebaa Farms, Ghajar and other parts of occupied Lebanese territory.”

Yedioth Ahronoth’s Guy Bechor believes the recent shift in the regional balance of power at the cost of Hezbollah was responsible for Hezbollah’s Hassan Nasrallah’s recent public appearance: “For a split-second Hezbollah Chief Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah dared show himself this week, for his first public speech in years – and immediately went back into hiding. Nasrallah’s timing was not a coincidence. He too knows that the Shiite's golden era in the Middle East is nearing its end....Without Iran and Syria, Hezbollah will shrink back to its true size – no more generous funding, no more weapons and no more political backing. Worse: Nasrallah insists on voicing public support for Assad and his bloody regime, for which the Sunni world condemns him. Nasrallah, the ‘star’ who only five years ago fought Israel, is now perceived as part of the old Arab world.”

To add fuel to the fire, according to Iranian newspaper Tehran Times, just a few days ago Lebanese “Prime Minister Najib Mikati on Saturday denied that Syria played a role in his decision to pay Lebanon’s share of funds to the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL)....He also voiced hope that the tribunal, which was established “to reveal the truth” behind the murder of Hariri, is not politicized, adding that his decision to pay the funds to the tribunal was coordinated with Speaker Nabih Berri and President Michel Sleiman. “I cannot overlook any crime, especially if it is committed against a former premier. I will not be an obstacle in the face of justice, but at the same time, I am against politicizing the tribunal.”

Yet, there is no mistaking Hezbollah’s staying power in Lebanon, especially given the organization’s well-armed militia. The Hezbollah-backed Almoqawama Alislamia website posted results of a recent poll where “68 percent of Lebanese say Hezbollah should keep its arms.” Moreover “[a]ccording to the poll which was conducted by the Beirut Center for Research and Information, 78 percent of the respondents also agreed with the proposal to launch an investigation into the ‘false witnesses’ by the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) which probes the 2005 assassination of former prime minister Rafik Hariri....The poll also suggests that 70 percent of the Lebanese people favor the triangular formula comprising the army, nation and the resistance movement to protect the country against the Zionist regime’s invasions.”

While the reliance on such polls might be difficult, some believe Hezbollah’s weapons are important to defend against a potential Israeli attack. In a statement posted on the Lebanese Al Manar: “Progressive Socialist Party chief Walid Jumblatt stated that STL could become minor issue in case of civil war, saying all parties should instead avert a possible Lebanese civil war over the crisis in Syria. ‘What’s happening in Lebanon, around us and in Syria could turn the tribunal into a minor issue if there was strife in Lebanon,’ Jumblatt said as he laid a wreath on the grave of his slain father Kamal Jumblatt on the occasion of his birthday. ‘I don’t think that Hezbollah would interfere in internal struggles in Syria,’ Jumblatt added, stressing that its arms are only aimed at defending Lebanon from the Zionist entity.”