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Somehow, tiny Lebanon enduring violent crisis

Tiny Lebanon is enduring, despite snowballing violence and a persistent political crisis.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Tiny Lebanon is enduring, despite snowballing violence and a persistent political crisis.

The army is locked in battle with Islamic militants in the north, rockets were fired into Israel from the south, a car bomb in Beirut has killed a prominent politician and a political impasse threatens to produce two rival governments.

And it is still fixing the damage inflicted by Israeli bombers in last year’s war between the Jewish state and Hezbollah guerrillas based in Lebanon.

Faced with such monumental troubles, Lebanon would seem to be teetering. But somehow it always manages to pull back from the brink.

Of course, the dizzying events have shaken the country, keeping away tourists, driving out business and raising worries of a renewed civil war — similar to the 1975-90 conflict that killed 150,000 people and devastated the country.

“Everything that is happening in Lebanon is grave,” Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa said when he arrived Tuesday in Beirut as head of an Arab delegation trying mediate an end to the worst political crisis since the civil war.

“Negative winds are blowing in every direction. The Lebanese, and we all, must help to protect Lebanon from these dangerous winds,” Moussa said.

Lebanon has always been a battleground for competing regional and international powers, and this is particularly true now. The government is supported by Washington, Paris, Saudi Arabia and the nations that sent in peacekeepers last year to separate Israel and Hezbollah. The political opposition formed around Hezbollah is backed by Iran and Syria.

Part of an international confrontation
Lebanon’s troubles also are intertwined with the wider confrontation between America and Iran, although some analysts believe the international interest also makes a renewal of civil war unlikely.

“If left to their own means, the Lebanese would destroy Lebanon,” said Hilal Khashan, professor of political sciences at the American University of Beirut. But “There is an international decision that Lebanon be maintained.”

Political analyst Sahar Baasiri said a functioning Lebanon serves the interests of both the foreign powers and the various Lebanese factions.

For the Americans, she said, Lebanon “will be their only victory. The Palestinian situation has collapsed. They (the Americans) cannot convince us that Iraq is improving. This is the only place where they may be able to keep it on its feet.

“The Syrians will not allow the situation to completely collapse, in the hope that the Americans talk to them,” she said. “The same with the Iranians. And none of the Lebanese factions wants the country to go down, no matter how much they disagree.”

Crisis after crisis
Also, Baasiri said, the nation of 4 million has held together because it still has the machinery of state and army to cope with each new crisis.

And crises have come in a rush:

  • Street clashes in December and January between pro- and anti-government forces killed 11 people and took on a sectarian Sunni-Shiite overtone. Yet, the country pulled back and didn’t take the sectarian bait;
  • When the U.N. Security Council three weeks ago ordered a tribunal to probe the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, it polarized the country between Hariri’s political heirs and backers of Syria, who feared the investigation would point a finger at Damascus. But dire predictions of renewed battles never materialized;
  • The June 13 car bomb assassination of lawmaker Walid Eido, the seventh Syria foe to be killed in the last two years, did not provoke retaliation. It stoked fear but also invigorated the pro-government camp’s campaign to assert its power.
  • The army, which fell apart during the civil war, held together in fighting Palestinian militants in the Nahr el-Bared refugee camp for more than a month, even though 79 soldiers have been killed — including three on Saturday — and about 150 wounded. On Friday, the military announced it had largely destroyed the group’s base in the camp.

The group, Fatah Islam, had been largely isolated by other Palestinians and by the mainstream Sunni Muslim community, which diminished the militants’ hopes of spreading the rebellion to other Palestinian camps.

Even rockets fired a week ago from southern Lebanon, which often provoke Israeli retaliation, drew an unusually muted reaction. Perhaps because they caused no casualties and were claimed by a previously unknown group — possibly militant sympathizers with Fatah Islam — and not by Hezbollah.

Lifeline to Arab world
But there are new threats. Syria has closed three of four border crossings, and if the last one closes, Lebanon will be cut off from the Arab world.

Lebanon’s pro-Syrian president, Emile Lahoud, is struggling with Prime Minister Fuad Saniora and his anti-Syrian parliamentary majority. Lahoud supporters say he may appoint a second government, but even some of them oppose it, saying it would be too reminiscent of the civil war.

Khashan, the American University professor, said the Lebanese know the dangers of civil war but that the political system, which shares power on a religious basis, does not allow for real change, and the solution may have to await shifts in the wider Middle East.

“We have to see the end of the standoff between America and Iran,” he said.