Regards from Beirut! A bit of background – I frequent Blogging the Casbah, and seeing that Abu G was in my hometown of Santa Barbara, decided to drop him a line. I’m spending a summer at the American University of Beirut, fresh off from graduating from UC Davis in June with an International Relations degree with an emphasis on peace and security issues in the Middle East. Abu G suggested that I take my vantage to write up a dispatch from Beirut while I could, and while it’s a bit longer than the usual Casbah post, I hope it gives a sense of the forces at work in Lebanon right now.
No one here seems to doubt that there will be another war, and certainly not among the academia at AUB. The peace here is tenuous at best, and the factionalism of the confessional democracy only barely latent. Lebanon remains a powder keg, with live powder, as so many of the factions have taken advantage in the lull in hostilities to rearm themselves – none more than Hezbollah. The summer’s escalating rhetoric between Israel and Iran has led to speculation about the immediacy of renewed conflict. The sense here is that all it will take is the right spark at the right time to ignite not just a conflict, but a series of inexorable but plainly foreseeable clashes that will spiral out of control until Lebanon is left much where it was twenty years ago.
A timeline is beginning to emerge. Rumor in Beirut is that the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL), which has spent years investigating the 2005 assassination of Lebanese prime minister Rafic Hariri, is finally preparing to issue indictments in September – indictments that will implicate “rogue” or “unruly” members of Hezbollah. Qualifying the assassins as outside the formal purview of the Hezbollah leadership is curious, given the rigid structure of the Hezbollah organization. In essence, it’s a cop-out, and a bid to keep tensions between the Lebanese state and Hezbollah from becoming inflamed. The Lebanese government got a taste of this in 2008 when they tried to shut down Hezbollah’s communications network and sacked the Hezbollah-affiliated security chief at Rafic Hariri Airport. Hezbollah responded by shutting down the road from the airport to Beirut proper and small arms skirmishes in the capital; the situation settled quickly, within a couple weeks, and the tenuous peace returned. The lesson to the Lebanese government was clear, though: they cannot afford to provoke Hezbollah in earnest. Still, the pending indictments have Hezbollah antsy. Hasan Nasrallah is doing his best to get in front of things, appearing on television Thursday evening; in his press conference he was ambiguous about specific implications, faulted the Special Tribunal for not investigating Israel, and “firmly rejected” any indictment of Hezbollah members (in an amusing appropriation of American politics, al-Manar, Hezbollah’s media arm, has taken to referring to referring to the situation as “STL Gate”). It’s hard to say at this point whether tempering the indictments will be sufficient to prevent a Hezbollah response.
Israel, for its part, is betting on the war horse. Gabi Ashkenazi, Chief of the General Staff for the IDF, has said that he expects tensions, within Lebanon and between the two countries, to escalate in September. Israel is taking the prerequisite steps to intervene – they’ve ramped up rhetoric, expressed concerns about UNIFIL’s effectiveness, and issued satellite images of weapons caches in military neighborhoods, a not-so-coded way of saying, “if we strike, we’re going to strike here, civilians or no, and don’t say we didn’t warn you.” The timing couldn’t be better. If given the political opportunity – and all it will take is a little instability in Lebanon – Israel will be able to strike Hezbollah, deplete its weapons caches before they can attain the S-300 SAMs that Israel is really concerned about, and neutralize them as an immediate threat before striking Iran. And that’s what Israel’s interest really comes down to, paving the way for a strike against Iranian nuclear facilities. So long as the long arm of Iran is still a troubling force in South Lebanon, Israel’s hands are tied. Without Hezbollah as an immediate threat, though, Israel will feel much more secure initiating strike plans that seem to just be waiting for the go order.
Israel isn’t interested in getting bogged down in another occupation of Lebanon, nor does it serve their interests to destroy Hezbollah completely – they’re too valuable in keeping the state weak and fragmented. What they’d like is Hezbollah without the teeth, but whether or not Israel can achieve that without being mired is hard to say. The IDF has prepared new, unproven tactics designed for asymmetric warfare, and Hezbollah is in possession of a more sophisticated arsenal. If it happens, it will be the renewal of the 2006 war; if it doesn’t happen, it still will, just not this year.
From there, the consequences are more vague. If Hezbollah tries to assert itself vis-à-vis the Lebanese state in lieu of the indictments, the tenuous peace between the factions of the state might fracture, and though a civil war on the scale of the 1975-1990 conflict is unlikely, there could be open, violent hostilities. I’ve even heard speculation about a Syrian intervention – if the state seems unstable, particularly after Israel has achieved its interests in the south, it might be the opportunity the Syrians have spent the past five years waiting for to return to a territory they still feel is theirs. Nevermind that Damascus only just reopened their embassy in Beirut two years ago and it still looks like it’s under construction. The Syrians were forced out by the tension after Hariri’s assassination, and they, like so many others, are biding their time, waiting for an opportunity to reenter Lebanon.
Where would this leave Lebanon? Even more fractured than before, the state even less functional, perhaps under Syrian patronage and influence again and all that it entails. This, of course, is worst-case scenario speculation and it’s preventable at every stage, if the situation can be deescalated. It just doesn’t seem that anyone is interested in deescalation. Much is made of the “Arab street.” For my part, I can only vouch for Hamra Street here in Beirut, but Beiruti opinion is curiously lacking. It’s a mixture of expectation and casual disinterest. I’m surrounded by college students too young to remember what the professors here refer to from time to time as “the war years,” as in, “…but that was during the war years, halas.” Everyone expects war, if not this summer, than the next, or the next, but that doesn’t seem to change anything for them. They don’t change their routines – they go to the same bars in Gemmayze, drive the same expensive cars, wear the same designer jeans. They don’t seem terribly involved politically, though it’s not that they’re uninformed. It was one of my professors who suggested that Syria might reenter Lebanon. After class I asked him if the Lebanese people would tolerate a Syrian presence after 2005. He laughed and said, “Of course they would. You need to understand, the Lebanese people think of themselves as spectators, not as participants in all of this.”