Conflicts Forum’s Weekly Comment 27 December 2013 – 3 January 2014

Conflicts Forum

Disquieting, and worrisome events in Lebanon: A President (Sleiman) anxiously in search of re-election (due in May); a warning by King Abdallah to President Sleiman that the Lebanese army must be targetted against Hizbullah (in retribution for its intervention in Syria); the ‘gift’ of $3 billion to France by the Saudi King to supply the Lebanese army with French weapons; and a President who signs off his public announcement of the gift, singing “long live the Army [of which he formerly was its commander], long live Saudi Arabia and long live Lebanon”.  And, on another track, warnings of a coming security deterioration by the leadership of Hizbullah (stemming most probably from its intelligence branch); the assassination of a moderate March 14th former finance minister; the attack on the (Sunni) Mufti of Lebanon seeking to pay his condolences at the funeral of a young victim from the bombing of the minister (outside the Sunni mosque) by March 14 members plus Sunni radicals who accused him of treachery (for supporting national dialogue); (unsubstantiated) accusations against Syria and Hizbullah of responsibility for the assassination by March 14 media and political figures;  demands that March 14th now must be handed power; and a Presidential statement that the latter intends to form a de-facto government without March 8th participation (the latter hold the majority in (a now defunct) parliament), as a precondition demanded by Saudi Arabia in return for the $3 billion donation — and, yet morecar bombs exploding.

The sectarian language is incendiary; the polarisation obvious: is Lebanon about to ignite as did Syria before it?  What meaning should we take from what is happening in Lebanon?  Are the embers of the Saudi–Shi’i proxy war suddenly about to burst the flames into a full-blown sectarian conflict across the region (as parts of Falluja and Anbar in Iraq fall to movements who espouse the al-Qaida ‘idea’, and 45 Sunni members quit the Iraqi parliament)?

There would be few in the region who would assert that the risk of outright sectarian conflict is overblown, but what is happening in Lebanon nonetheless needs to be put into context. When Hossein Mousavian (a former Iranian nuclear negotiator and head of the foreign relations committee of Iran’s National Security Council, nowProfessor at Princeton) in his debate with Saudi Prince Turki at the recent Manama Dialogue – flatly and starkly –  asserted that the Gulf attempt to strangle the Iranian “renaissance” had failed, he shocked many in the audience.  He implied that the turning point in the struggle to define the future of the region already is behind us. (Prince Turki, not surprisingly, did not accept this).

Yet, if we stand back from the region, it is clear that the Syrian government, over the last weeks, is rapidly consolidating its military situation. The circumstance of Damascus is far different today from even a few weeks ago (as recent visitors to the city confirm to us).  It is true that, at one level, sectarian animosities (particularly Saudi ones) have reached new heights across the region, but a new – and underrated – factor is being felt: Sunnis are far from united.  Many fear, and abhor, the Salafists and jihadists who have been rising across the region, on the back of Gulf official and private support. It is quite striking that President Assad in a meeting with Sunni leaders in Syria is rallying them successfully for a war explicitly against Wahabbism and Salafism, saying that this represents a distortion of Islam! This would have been unthinkable a year ago. There would have been uproar in the Sunni world. But the tide is shifting, and the silent Sunni majority has had enough of extremists and ideologues (of all hues), and just wants some return to ‘normality’ and some basic human security. This is true of Lebanon, as it is true of Iraq, where Sunnis too are deeply divided, fearing the advent of ‘kangaroo’ sharia courts, the arbitrary whimsicality of local jihadi imams, and the mutilations and beheadings meted out by those largely ignorant of Islamic law.  People are tired of all this. The Shi’i understand that some in Saudi Arabia want to raise the specter of a general Sunni-Shi’I conflict, but simply do not believe that Saudi Arabia has either the capacity or possesses the necessary steeliness for such an enterprise.

But it is not just Proefssor Mousavian saying that the struggle has passed its crux: In a recent briefing to US law-makers and officials, the recently retired deputy head of CIA, Michael Mullen, said effectively that the Saudis had seriously mis-read the American position when they presumed upon US support “for a war which it could never win”.  A long serving American diplomat in the region said that “for now, it seems that Messrs Assad, Nasrallah and Solimani had won”.  In the paradoxical ways of wars, Hizbullah, Syria and Iran now are mobilizing ordinary Sunnis around an anti-Wahabbist platform, and find themselves tacitly sharing a common interest with western states — in combatting jihadism. This turnaround is a source of considerable confusion and consternation both in the US and Europe.  For so long accustomed and conditioned to praising Saudi Arabia, and to disregarding the latter’s ambiguous relations with radical Sunni movements and its part in the evolution of this ideology, Americans and Europeans are shocked suddenly to find themselves waking up in bed with Iran and Syria in terms of the ‘great issue’ of the Middle East (the rise of jihadism) – and it is a source of great consternation.

And what of Lebanon? Against this wider backdrop, the events of Lebanon point more to desperation, rather than effective politics or strategy. Firstly, the mooted one-colour government on the ‘winner takes all’ western model, is both unconstitutionaland largely impractical in terms of Lebanon.  Lebanon never has had such an arrangement.  The constitution, for better or worse, requires sectarian power-sharing – of all the major sects, and by convention and law, the exclusion of any major sect de facto renders that government illegal.  It will be difficult for President Sleiman to take this initiative forward, and it is already clear that were he to do so, on a ‘caretaker government basis’, he will run into fierce resistance. The President may have to let the idea drop.

Secondly, parliament – whose term has expired, but which has extended itself beyond its mandate – is not likely to give a vote of confidence for such a one-sided arrangement (and whether ‘technocrat’ or ‘neutral’, its purport plainly is to be anti-Hizbullah).  Even fresh elections – were it possible to reach some modicum of general agreement on how these should be held – are unlikely to offer a better route to securing a vote of confidence  – without which, the government would have no legitimacy (March 14th electoral support has waned in its core constituencies of Sidon and Tripoli and may be unable to secure a parliamentary majority).

Thirdly, the Lebanese army is a national institution. It had to be carefully re-built after disintegrating during the Lebanese civil war, under the stresses of sectarian differences. To direct the national army towards targeting one particular sect would be to invite its fragmentation and destruction anew. Furthermore, Lebanese politicians are adept at reading the direction in which the wind blows: and with Americans themselves saying President Assad may be here to stay for the long term, they will tend to tack with the easterly Assad wind (witness Jumblatt), rather than fill their sails with a sudden Bandar gust. In short, they will continue to wait upon the outcome in Syria and the regional struggle, before closing any options.

In sum, it is doubtful that the Lebanese people (beyond a few) have any appetite for real civil strife – nor do the Sunni middle classes have the stomach for it. The return of car bombings is truly frightening people, and harks back to earlier grisly episodes in Lebanese history, but the precise responsibility for this new outbreak is murky (see here for reports of possible Saudi involvement in the Iranian embassy bomb attack), and is likely – on past precedent – to remain that way.

Saudi intelligence chief Prince Bandar’s ‘strategy’ however seems clear: he and some in March 14th may hope that by instigating an atmosphere of imminent sectarian conflict arising out of the assassinations; by promoting a March 14th power-grab; and by promising a re-alignment of the army towards ‘a contain Hizbullah’ posture, they will corner Hizbullah into mounting a second defensive May 7th 2008 takeover of Beirut that would both discredit the movement, and force its withdrawal from Syria (in order to recall manpower sufficient to manage the resulting Lebanese crisis). It is however improbable that Hizbullah will take the bait: their commitment in Syria is relatively small, and the movement has been careful always to retain their main fighting force in reserve – against a possible Israeli attack.  Also Hizbullah have been preparing for some time against such a domestic crisis that would require them to be active on two fronts simultaneously.

This Bandar tactic, if it were to succeed (which is unlikely), might give Bandar a small advantage in the war in Syria (Hizbullah’s withdrawal and Lebanese official support for the SNC). But he would err in overestimating the importance of the Hizbullah military contribution in Syria: the forced withdrawal of Hizbullah, were it to happen, in itself, would not alter the course of the war in Syria, whose thrust and direction is not flowing in Prince Bandar’s favour. What is more likely to be the outcome of this intervention is that Lebanon will slip further from any prospect of acquiring effective governance for the foreseeable future, and the already gossamer fabric of the state will become a strand strained to snapping point. The security situation will deteriorate (Lebanon hosts at least 1.2 million Syrian refugees, many (up to 40%) of whom are armed – and desperate); but yet, Lebanon most likely will avoid civil strife. Even if the President has no successor in May leaving a complete void of governance, the army has been preparing against this possibility, and believes it has sufficient legal basis to prevent a total breakdown.  It is not a happy prospect for Lebanon, but responsibility however must rest with the party that has the undoubted potential to disrupt, but confuses this ability with that of having a workable strategy. Events in Lebanon are a signal of desperation, rather thanclever realpolitik, and reinforces the sense that Saudi Arabia subconsciously knows that it is losing its campaign.


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