Meet the Lebanese Press: A cold civil war

Saad Hariri, son of the assassinated Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, addresses a crowd of March 14 coalition supporters on the third anniversary of his father’s death, 14 February 2008. (Matthew Cassel)


If civil wars are born equal, they don’t all progress or die the same. Lebanon is no stranger to civil wars, which usually erupt from a single or a series of violent clashes that snowball into all-out confrontation. But it remains to be seen whether this latest round of civil strife will follow the same path as previous ones. After three years of political disagreements, assassinations, and war with Israel, the stage seems ripe for internal conflict, and violent street clashes in Beirut this past week confirmed in the minds of many that the war has begun in all but name. Yet, the rules of the game this time around could point to a Cold War-style conflict rather than full-blown confrontation, unless regional factors come intractably into play. So far, one can reasonably conclude that the different Lebanese factions remain either incapable or unwilling to unleash a full-fledged war with each other in isolation of their surroundings.

On one hand, the government-controlling March 14 movement may have the will for a violent confrontation but not yet the means. Their fractured political makeup and lack of military preparedness makes them a weak force unless they receive full backing from the internal security forces or army units, a possible scenario but improbable as long as no one is willing to shoulder the blame for starting a civil war. The opposition, on the other hand, seems to have the means (Hizballah is well armed and its members are trained to fight, though not for street fighting) but not the will given the negative impact such a fight would have on the group’s declared objective of aiming its weapons at Israeli targets. This means that save a regional outbreak of conflict, a kind of cold, low-intensity civil war is in the making, with street fights and confrontations unclaimed by the political leadership.

In such a regional setting, though, both parties could be emboldened to cross the red line. And last week’s assassination of Hizballah top security commander Imad Mughniyeh in Damascus is one step in that direction. The following three excerpts affirm that the regional dimension has become more important following the assassination of Mughniyeh, which could translate into a change in the rules of engagement of all parties. And in this new framework, the international tribunal’s inquiry into the 2005 assassination of Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri will become more significant as a tool of international pressure and as a stage on which Syria is battling its Arab rivals, namely Saudi Arabia, as well as the US, Israel and their Western allies. The next flashpoint for all these developments will be the Arab summit in Damascus scheduled for the end of March. That may be a few weeks away, but in political terms, it may mean the salvation or the destruction of an entire Lebanese generation’s future.

Al-Akhbar, 16 February 2008, Nicolas Nassif, “The majority and the opposition readjust the priorities of confrontation: Syria and Israel”:

On 17 February 2008, March 14 and the opposition closed the doors of understanding and agreement. Both parties also identified their external enemies as their sole problem. March 14 said its true enemy is Syria and decided to continue its battle against it till the end. Hizballah also ushered in its next battle with Israel after accusing the latter of assassinating its top security man, Imad Mughniyeh. With these two positions, both conflicting parties drew the contours of the next stage of the conflict, namely that it is going to take place on the enemy’s territory, with full prior knowledge that the fallout of such a battle will explode in Lebanon. As such, both parties have agreed on one thing: eliminating any possibility of resuming domestic dialogue and reaching a minimum level of consensus.

In fact, March 14 forces have become more aware than ever of their inability to defeat Syria through defeating her allies in Lebanon without things blowing completely out of control in Lebanon. The series of announcements [about the Hariri tribunal] by several international authorities including the United Nations, powers like Russia and France, Arab countries and the dose of American financial assistance to fund the tribunal is a clear signal that the next stage of pressure on the Bashar al-Assad’s regime will come via the international community and not via Lebanon.

As-Safir, 16 February 2008, Suleiman Takkiyyedeen, “Wars in multiple directions: Do any of the roads lead to salvation?”

The [assassination of Mughniyeh] has opened the door for the resistance to free itself from any rules of the game in terms of geography and targets. The world of Israel and its sponsor, the American administration, will not be better from now on. Both needed some moral gain on this level, partly to compensate for the low morale in the military establishment and among the public in Israel. But this will not change the results of the July 2006 war. For if Israel were ready to launch another war, it would have done so by now. And this new war will not be possible unless Israel and the US succeed in outmaneuvering the resistance through various ways, including this assassination and more menacingly by undermining the supportive environment of this resistance.

[In that regard], the political discourse of both conflicting parties in Lebanon has become extremely worrisome. Have we entered the stage of Arab wars on Lebanese soil in which some have come to accept Israel a partner in these wars? Do the Arabs fail to realize that chaos will remove a lot of hurdles in the face of the original Zionist project of meddling with the stability and integrity of the states of the region?

Whatever the disagreements among the Lebanese, a political solution is the only viable one since the alternative is an endless war … and despite the fact that time is running out and the stage is overflowing with blood and martyrs from all sides and hatred and anger are growing, searching for a way out of civil strife and conflict remains everyone’s duty.

An-Nahar, 17 February 2008, Hiyam Kossayfi, “A French-Arab axis backs the international tribunal: Fear that isolating Damascus backfires in Lebanon”:

In the past few days, questions were raised about fast-tracking the launch of the international tribunal. Reference to the tribunal has occupied center stage in the calls of the March 14 leadership for their supporters to participate in the commemoration of the assassination of Prime Minister Hariri and his friends [on 14 February].

The tribunal’s course began to change when French President Nicolas Sarkozy declared from Egypt “the failure of negotiations [is] with Damascus,” and that “the international tribunal is not a joke, and France is ready to fund it.”

And there is evidence that the money needed to finance the tribunal in its first year of operation has materialized following the contributions of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Pakistan, France and the US which means that the tribunal has been seriously put on track and hence cannot be separated from the continuing political pressure on Syria. The fact that Saudi Arabia fast-tracked its payment for financing the tribunal at this particular point in time means that dialogue with Damascus has reached a dead end … And this naturally impacts the situation in Lebanon that is expected to be a reflection of this Saudi-Syrian arm-wrestling with the tribunal as the background. Syria will not look favorably on Saudi’s deep involvement with the tribunal, nor will Riyadh will stand with its hands tied in the face of Syrian intransigence in terms of resolving the Lebanese crisis, and the United States will not change its policy of pressuring Syria given that the Arab summit did not constitute a bargaining chip that Syria can use to negotiate such a change.

Meet the Lebanese Press is EI’s twice-monthly review of what is making the rounds in the Lebanese press and the pundits’ take on it.

Hicham Safieddine is a Lebanese Canadian journalist.

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