Meet the Lebanese Press: Strategic defense or strategic shift?

Civil strife usually ends when there is truth and reconciliation. In Lebanon, it subsides when a truce poses as reconciliation. Top Lebanese leaders are doting over each other, calling for a new pact of political rivalry that is confined to the arena of democratic and peaceful confrontation. Meetings between top March 14 and March 8 officials have calmed fears of further clashes on the streets. With the notable exception of Christian leaders, all sectarian heads are trying to unite their ranks in the run up to next year’s parliamentary elections. The combination of the Bush Administration’s exit from the White House and an incoming United States president unlikely to take aggressive measures on the foreign front in the first few months, has forced the pro-US parties to reconsider their options in terms of relations with Syria. It is too early to say whether Lebanon is entering yet another stage of a stronger alliance with Syria but that is the direction in which things have been going lately. Pre-election developments in Lebanon, an upset of Syrian relations with the West or another Arab-Israeli war could tip the balance back. For the time being, questions of border security with Syria, dealing with Salafi groups in Lebanon, and devising a strategic defense policy as an entry point to disarming Hizballah are the hot topics of the press.

Khaled Saghieh of Al-Akhbar tries to sum up the two projects of a new Lebanon that were developing following Rafiq Hariri’s assassination and what is to become of them. The same newspaper published the draft of a defense strategy as envisioned by Free Patriotic Movement’s leader Michel Aoun. Aoun sums up the dangers facing Lebanon as those coming from “terrorist” elements inside Lebanon, presence of armed Lebanese and Palestinian militias, and Israel. The excerpt below presents his view on how to combat the external Israeli threat. Aoun’s paper elicited several responses in the press. Meanwhile, Emile Khoury of An-Nahar offers a cynical take and ties such a strategy with the future of Syria’s approach to the Arab Israeli conflict.

Al-Akhbar, 6 November 2008, Khaled Saghiyyeh, “Impeded Birth”:

Following the assassination of Prime Minister Hariri, and the exit of the Syrian army form Lebanon, it seemed that a new Lebanon was emerging in the horizon. A Lebanon that is free of Syrian control, and ready to perform the perfect role required for the American project in the region: Lebanon would forfeit its resistance, and the axis of opposition to this American project. The attempt for such a transformation failed. The birth of new Lebanon was foiled. Crossing from one camp to the other was neither easy in practical terms nor legitimate in public terms.

After the 2006 July war, and the failure of the Israeli invasion in destroying Hizballah’s apparatus, it seemed that yet another Lebanon was emerging. A Lebanon triumphant over foreign interventions. Lebanon the “great power” in the region as Hizballah’s secretary general said in the victory rally. Lebanon in which the resistance and her allies possess the upper hand and the ability to affect the course of local events. The attempt also failed. The birth of this new Lebanon fumbled. It became clear that defeating Israel does not neutralize the effect of the intifada of independence [the popular movement that led to the withdrawal of Syrian forces] and does not overcome the sectarian balance of power.

Both parties did not acknowledge the failure of the birth of their new Lebanon. The first party [the Hariri camp] overestimated foreign support, while the second party over-flexed its muscle. The Doha accord kicked in to declare the suspension of political life until parliamentary elections are held. But the provisions of the accord itself and the electoral law it endorsed has in effect suspended political life indefinitely. And polls have begun to indicate that the outcome of these elections will not lead to anything more than a slim victory to one of the camps, which means the continuation of the current polarization and the status quo.

Al-Akhbar, 7 November 2008, Aoun’s vision of a defense strategy:

There is no doubt that any military force in the world has its weak and strong points. And Israel, given the type of its weaponry and firepower, possesses an immense destructive power. And the state of its air force allows her to reach deep into the territory of surrounding states. Her weakness though resides in the limited numbers of her land forces and the readiness of these forces. As such, she is unable to fight a resisting community. And if she succeeds in some limited operations, she remains incapable of control and maintaining an occupation.

The other weak point is the big fallout in Israeli society in the face of human loss in war, and her trials in Lebanon were never successful. It follows that deterrence is based on forming two forces, a conventional army and a resistance force. Both forces need to be capable of inflicting loss that the enemy is unable to sustain through:

a) Fighting with small units capable of hiding and protecting themselves and that do not constitute an easy target for air strikes and
b) Creating a modern air force.

This type of combat requires new training for the army’s fighting units that would enable it to perform security operations under ordinary formations but to disperse during fighting and resort to guerilla style fighting.

As for resistance forces, it is composed from the population. As such, these forces need to deploy across Lebanon, for the enemy can conduct an airdrop in any part of the country. And we cannot speculate on what will happen in a future war based on what happened in July, for our coastline is accessible and our airspace is exposed and so we need to plan for all possibilities.

And it is natural that the conditions and qualifications for someone to join these two forces be determined by a specialized committee. Members of these forces must possess certain physical, mental, disciplinary, and technical characteristics allowing them to endure hardship.

An-Nahar, 14 November 2008, Emile Khoury, “To avoid disagreement over a defense strategy: Does Syria support a military confrontation or peace negotiations?”:

The nature of security cooperation between Lebanon and Syria needs to be outlined and its goals explained. Do the security measures at the border include intercepting smuggling of men and goods only or weapons and elements described as terrorist to both countries in accordance with UN Security Council Resolution 1701? And are these measures taken so as to eventually implement the truce agreed upon in the past between Lebanon and Israel pending a just and lasting peace? For if [Syrian] President Asad is bent on implementing Resolution 1701 … then the issue of a defense strategy becomes subject to a bilateral cooperation between the two countries if not an Arab-based one.

If Syria is inclined to face Israel militarily to liberate still-occupied territory, Lebanon will back it in this confrontation and then one can speak of laying down a common defense strategy. But if Syria was opposed to such a confrontation and preferred to conduct indirect peace negotiations with Israel sponsored by Turkey, Lebanon has to join such talk once negotiations become direct. Then, there will be no need for a strategic defense strategy. For if these negotiations culminate in a peace agreement, adopting a defense strategy will violate UN Resolution 1701 and lead to further confrontation with Israel and the continued flow of weapons from Iran and elsewhere through Syria to Hizballah in Lebanon.

Meet the Lebanese Press is The Electronic Intifada’s regular review of what is making the rounds in the Lebanese press and the pundits’ take on it. Hicham Safieddine is a Lebanese Canadian journalist.