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May 13, 2008

Is Beirut Belfast or Baghdad?
Posted by Ilan Goldenberg

I attended a fascinating discussion this morning at the New America Foundation on the current crisis in Lebanon.  The speakers included Rami Khouri and Nir Rosen who were both on the phone from Beirut.  There is no clear consensus on what is going on and what exactly it all means, but here is the basic gist of what I was able to take away.

For more than six months Lebanon has been stuck in political gridlock, unable to elect a new President.  The clash is between the western back government (Primarily the “March 14 Coalition” which came together in the Cedar Revolution of  2005) and the political opposition led by Hezbollah.  Hezbollah has boycotted Parliament and by doing so has stopped the election of a new President.  The struggle is about the political leverage and veto power that Hezbollah will have in the new government.  Last week the Lebanese Government ordered Hezbollah to shut down its independent phone networks across Lebanon, which led to violence in the street and Hezbollah essentially seizing Beirut. 

A few observations from today’s event:

  1. Nobody seems to know why the government decided to take the provocative step of demanding that Hezbollah’s phone networks be shut down.  Although, it appears likely that the government simply miscalculated and did not expect this type of reaction.
  2. Hezbollah had been planning this operation for a while.  It was too well executed to have been spontaneous.  The phone networks issue was simply the provocation.
  3. Hezbollah’s target was not the Lebanese army, but instead militias that were being cultivated by a number of Hezbollah’s pro-Western opponents.  In fact the army stood down, allowed Hezbollah to essentially eliminate its opponents (most of whom simply fled in the face of conflict) and then disappeared allowing the Lebanese Army to reassert control.
  4. This was most likely a limited power play by Hezbollah to gain leverage and signal to its opponents that it has the capability to take Beirut in half a day, if it so chooses.  But because of the contained level of violence and the absence of more drastic steps such as ethnic cleansing or the assassination of key political figures, it doesn’t appear to be a wholesale attempt to take over the country.

There were three scenarios that most of the experts believed were likely to result from the events of the past week:

  1. The Lebanese see the potential abyss of all out civil war, and decide that it is not something they wish to repeat.  They all reevaluate their positions and rather then continuing in the current stalemate there is an accommodation over the next two or three months, which results in a new government.  This would have to be a government that is acceptable to Hezbollah as well as its Iranian sponsors and to the March 14 movement as well as its Western supporters, most notably the United States.  So, in that respect there are some interesting analogies to the type of settlement that will be necessary in Iraq if there is ever to be a stable government.
  2. The increased tensions lead to a Samarra mosque type event in Lebanon, which results in the outbreak of all out civil war.
  3. Nothing dramatically changes.  The political stalemate continues.  All the groups continue to muddle along with periodic sectarian strife and Hezbollah holding significantly more leverage then it did a week ago.

Needless to say, the likely scenario, as is always the case, is the status quo.

For more see Abu Muqawama who has been covering Lebanon all week.


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