Lebanon: The Dangerous Effects of US Interference
Gilbert Achcar interviewed by Phil Butland (December 2005)
What is the situation in Lebanon after the assassination of [former Prime Minister Rafik] Hariri?
The assassination resulted in the intensification of the campaign by the USA and France against the Syrian presence and influence in Lebanon. This pressure was able to base itself on the mass mobilisation inside Lebanon, which forced the withdrawal of Syrian troops. The main focus now is on a UN investigation led by Detlef Mehlis. Mehlis is targeting the Syrian regime and the Syrian-backed Lebanese president, Emile Lahoud.
The US and France became more involved in Lebanon after Syria pushed for a change in the Lebanese constitution to extend Lahoud’s presidential mandate. Washington and Paris passed UN Security Council Resolution 1559, calling for the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon and the disarmament of all militias. This last demand is mainly targeted at Hezbollah – the Shia militia that played a key role in driving Israel out of Lebanon and that is allied to Syria.
The situation is very tense presently. The Lebanese political scene is divided between forces allied to Syria and hostile to the US and those mainly backed by the US, France, and the Saudi Kingdom. The main leader of the US-backed coalition is Hariri’s son. After the recent election, Lahoud lost his majority in parliament to this coalition.
What are Syria’s interests in Lebanon?
Syria entered Lebanon in 1976 with a green light from Washington. In the Lebanese civil war, which started in 1975, Washington backed reactionary right-wing Christian militias, which were in danger of being defeated by the alliance of Palestinian forces and the Lebanese left. If Lebanon were to fall under the control of this alliance, this would have been a nightmare for Washington. So, they supported the Syrian intervention which clashed violently with the Palestinian-Lebanese forces.
Syria went in to restore “order” in the country – and to use this role as a bargaining chip with the international community, particularly with the US. Parts of the Syrian military bureaucracy also had an economic interest in Lebanon, which played a similar role for Syria as Hong Kong did for China before the liberalization of the Chinese economy. Moreover, Syrian bureaucrats could organize all sorts of trafficking and use Lebanese banks for money laundering or to transfer to foreign accounts the fortunes they had accumulated through their plunder of Lebanon and Syria.
The political role of the Syrian presence in Lebanon changed with the regional situation. In the late 1970s, Israel invaded Southern Lebanon and signed a peace treaty with Egypt. Syria felt isolated by the US and fought back, clashing with the Lebanese Christian allies of the US and Israel. This situation culminated in the Israeli invasion of most of Lebanon in 1982. After 1990, the situation changed again. The USSR – until then the main sponsor of Syria – was collapsing. Damascus made a U-turn and joined the US-led coalition to fight Iraq, after Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. 1990 also saw the end of the Lebanese civil war, through the implementation of a 1989 Saudi-sponsored agreement. Syrian forces played a key role in stabilizing the situation thereafter.
In 2003, however, the Syrian regime refused to support Bush junior’s war with Iraq. In 1991, many Arab countries – including the Saudi Kingdom, Egypt and Syria – had joined the war coalition. In 2003 however, it was not just Western allies like France and Germany who had reservations against the war. No Arab country sent troops. Moreover Damascus was vocal in opposing the war. In retaliation, Washington used Lebanon to exert pressure on Syria and to try to win direct collaboration from Damascus in controlling occupied Iraq and in taming the Lebanese Hezbollah.
The Bush administration regularly accused the Syrian regime of allowing Iraqi insurgent forces to operate from Syrian territory. They called on Syria to hermetically seal the Iraq border. Damascus did its best, but pointed out that the task is impossible to fulfil completely and that the USA itself cannot hermetically seal its border with Mexico. The Syrian rulers believe that the US is actually trying to precipitate the collapse of their regime from within. They know that because of the quagmire in Iraq, the US is not envisaging an invasion of Syria. Furthermore, as there is no significant oil wealth in Syria, the US has little interest in occupying the country. But control of the Syrian government is important for the US-dominated regional order.
Who are the main political players in Lebanon?
There is a complex range of forces operating in Lebanon. But we can talk of 4 major forces.
Firstly, there is the anti-Syrian Lebanese opposition to president Lahoud. This is a very broad coalition from Walid Jumblatt – the Druze leader who used to head the left-wing alliance – to far-right Christian forces, who were responsible for the massacres in Sabra and Shatila. This coalition also includes Hariri’s Sunni supporters and even some so-called Leftists. These forces organized a joint slate in the recent Parliamentary elections on the basis of opposition to Syria and to Lahoud.
Secondly, there is Lahoud and his pro-Syrian supporters, who are drawn from various regional and religious communities. Although Lahoud holds the presidency, his direct supporters and allies are now in a small minority. He relies on the two remaining forces to stick to the presidency.
The third force is the movement around Michel Aoun. Aoun was the commander of the Lebanese army in the 80s, and tried to govern Lebanon after 1988, before being removed by Syria in 1990 and forced into exile. Aoun – nicknamed “Napolaoun” by Jumblatt – returned to Lebanon earlier this year before the elections. Although he had been the representative of the most violent anti-Syrian position, and as such commands an important constituency especially among Lebanese Christians, he refused to join the anti-Syrian alliance considering them as rivals. He sees it in his interest to maintain the current presidency until he gains enough support for his own presidential bid.
The fourth force, second in popular strength in the country, is the Shia alliance backed by Iran and Syria. This includes the fundamentalist Hezbollah and the communalist Amal.
What is the role of the anti-globalisation and anti-war movements in Lebanon?
There is no significant anti-globalisation movement to speak of. There are some NGOs, but they are rather marginal. This is partly due to the weakened state of the left in Lebanon. The 1982 Israeli invasion dealt a heavy blow to the Lebanese left by disarming it and expelling Palestinian armed organisations, thus fostering a communal degeneration of the Lebanese conflict, which contributed to the marginalisation of the left.
The Lebanese Communist Party used to have thousands of members, which is a lot in a country with only 3-4 million inhabitants. It grew consistently in the 1970s, and became the largest CP relative to population in the Arab world. However, the collapse of the USSR dealt it a huge ideological blow. There may still be a couple thousand people in Lebanon who identify themselves as communists, but they are fragmented and organisationally weak. The majority fraction is close to the position of the Shia coalition, while others are part of the anti-Syrian alliance.
As for the anti-war movement, the largest anti-US force is Hezbollah, which is able to mobilize hundreds of thousands of people. But Hezbollah had no sympathy for the Saddam regime, as Saddam had oppressed Iraqi Shias. This meant that there was no big mobilization against the invasion of Iraq, though some demonstrations were held.
Presently, people are focussed on Lebanon – on their own situation. Everyone follows what is happening in Iraq, but the major issue for them is what is happening in Syria – and to a lesser extent in Israel/Palestine.
How does Israel/Palestine fit into the picture?
After Syria and the US, Israel is the country that most affects the situation in Lebanon. There is a sizeable Palestinian population in Lebanon – which was massively involved in the civil war from 1975 onward. The Christian forces, backed by Israel, wanted to remove the Palestinian armed organizations and take control of the Palestinian camps. Nowadays the Palestinian presence is still an issue in Lebanon, but it is no longer the central issue.
The 1982 Israeli invasion and its aftermath significantly weakened the Palestinian forces in the country and the remnants are mainly considered as appendages of Syria. Israel is now more concerned with the Hezbollah. It has resumed bombing of Southern Lebanon and keeps up its pressure for the disarmament of the Shia organization, in alliance with the US.
What the Lebanese are really concerned about regarding Palestine is the general settlement of the Palestinian question. What would happen to the Palestinians in Lebanon? They are still considered as refugees, even though most of them either have been in Lebanon for longer than half a century, since 1948, or were born in Lebanon. Yet they are deprived of basic rights – as if they just arrived a few weeks ago. An immigrant worker in Europe has more rights than a Palestinian resident in Lebanon. Palestinian labor has been cheaply exploited by Lebanese capitalism.
The PLO leadership and the Lebanese left bear some responsibility for this situation. They have never fought for the rights of Palestinians as citizens and workers in Lebanon. They have always referred to the Palestinians as refugees waiting to return to their land, and accepted the consensus that they’re there only temporarily.
The proper response should have been – while supporting the Palestinian struggle for their legitimate rights, including the right to return – to demand that Palestinian residents be granted full equality in rights in Lebanon, as is the case formally in Syria and Jordan.
How will things develop in Lebanon?
In December 2005, the UN Security Council will publish the final Mehlis report. A provisional report has already been published, containing many accusations that were not founded on any tangible proof. It is clear that the UN, and particularly the US and France, are using the report as a tool for their intervention. With Resolution 1559, the UN Security Council has clearly violated the UN Charter, which forbids interference in the internal affairs of other states.
It is also clear that there are double standards at work here. Many political assassinations occurred in the world, yet only Hariri’s has led to a UN investigation. In November 1967 a UN Security Council Resolution called for Israel’s retreat from the territories it occupied in June of the same year, yet the SC has never tried to implement this resolution in the same way they are doing with Resolution 1559.
What will happen in Lebanon depends largely on decisions taken in Washington. The Lebanese opposition now has a majority in parliament. It has not yet tried to overthrow the president, as it is waiting for the overall political situation to get clearer and to see if Washington will cut some sort of deal with the Syrian regime. If there is no deal with Syria, it is likely that the opposition will try to force the resignation of the president and elect someone else.
Then there is the disarmament of Hezbollah. It is an important part of Resolution 1559, yet Hezbollah is unwilling to disarm, as they feel threatened by Israel, which has already assassinated many of their leaders. They know that if they disarm, they will not be protected by the Lebanese army. On the other hand, Hezbollah is too strong to be disarmed by violent means without a major civil war or foreign invasion. That is why Washington needs Syria to help it force a “peaceful” disarmament of Hezbollah.
In the long run, the future of Lebanon is tied to developments in Syria. If the regime in Syria is destabilized or collapses, this could affect Lebanon in very terrible ways. A resumption of the civil war cannot be excluded and would be terrible, as the country has already been bleeding for many years.
All this shows how harmful Washington’s foreign policy is to the Middle East. Iraq is already threatened by full-fledged civil war. Washington is destabilizing Syria. This could lead to turmoil in Lebanon, and the pressure on Hezbollah could also lead to civil war. If they were left to themselves, Lebanese political forces would negotiate some kind of compromise and a peaceful resolution of local problems, including the issue of Hezbollah’s armament. Washington claims that it is bringing freedom and democracy. But Lebanon has had relatively free elections for several decades, and the decisive factor in getting Syria out of Lebanon was the mass mobilization following the assassination of Hariri, not anything the US did.
Do you see any hope in the region?
Hope can only be built on local political forces. The problem is that most of them are very corrupt. There is no healthy social movement in Lebanon who could be a significant player. It remains to be built or rebuilt. The best hope that you could have in the meantime is that the worst does not happen and the country does not relapse into civil war.
Gilbert Achcar is from Lebanon, where he lived until 1983. He resides presently in Berlin and teaches politics and international relations at the University of Paris 8. A frequent contributor to Le Monde Diplomatique and ZNet, he authored several books on international politics and the Middle East, including “The Clash of Barbarisms” (second edition coming out in March 2006) and “Eastern Cauldron” (2004)
This interview was conducted by Phil Butland for the Achse des Friedens, Berlin.
- from ZNet (3 December 2005)