Lebanon on the Brink (Again)?

There has been a sinister edge to the news reports from Lebanon in recent weeks-and almost all have pointed in a similar direction. The Lebanese Army did manage, after long and bloody battles (if Israel had taken similar measures, it would have been torn to pieces by the world community long ago), to retrieve its long lost sovereign control over the Nahr al-Bared Camp in the north, defeating the Fatah al-Islam militia, with its alleged links to Al Qaeda. Soon enough, other "mysterious hands" (an elegant Lebanese expression, which normally means "Syrian agents") were actively brewing serious trouble elsewhere.

This should not have come as a surprise, as the UN Security Council was preparing to take on the next stage of the Rafik Hariri murder inquiry. Here-according to a well-placed leak recently published in the French daily Le Monde-is what Syrian President Bashar al-Assad told UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon when they met on April 24, 2007, to discuss the ongoing inquiry and the prospect of further UN actions against those who would be found guilty of the murder of the former prime minister:

This [instability] will worsen if the special tribunal is created, particularly if it is established under Chapter VII. This could easily unleash a conflict that would degenerate into civil war and provoke divisions between Sunnis and Shiites from the Mediterranean to the Caspian Sea. This will have grave consequences that will go beyond Lebanon.

It did not take long for some of these heavy hints to be translated into practice. The Nahr al-Bared crisis was soon followed by:

  • The brutal assassination, on June 13, of yet another Lebanese parliamentarian (the third to be assassinated since the Hariri murder), Walid Eido, a Sunni member of Hariri's Mustaqbal (Future) Party, who died, together with his son Khaled and two bodyguards, when a car bomb exploded near their car in Beirut. In essence, this act, like the previous deaths of Jibran Tuweini and Pierre Gemayel, not only silenced a firm anti-Syrian voice; it also brought the Syrians-one MP at a time-closer to the day when there will be no quorum in parliament for a vote to replace President Emile Lahoud. Their stooge might thus be replaced by a less obedient figure.
  • Then came the car bomb that killed six UNIFIL peacekeepers (three of them Colombians serving with the Spanish unit) on June 24. Fingers were pointed again at the shadowy Fatah al-Islam group; or at Hezbollah, which clashed with the Spaniards more than once this year, due to the serious manner in which the latter interpreted their mission; or more likely, at the familiar "others," who have an interest in destabilization and in sending a painful message to the so-called Fourteenth of March movement.
  • Now comes the most loaded act, a bloodless but potentially ominous message-namely, an instruction issued by Damascus to Syrian cheap laborers who had hoped to find work in Lebanon, as they do every summer, to stay away after July 15. This is the local version of the Jewish telegram: "Start worrying, details to follow."

What could be the next move? There is widespread speculation that Syria may use Lahoud's formal status to declare a parallel government. Supported openly by Hezbollah, this action could be done in a bid (drawing, ironically, upon an example set by Mahmoud Abbas in dismissing the Hamas cabinet) to overthrow the Fouad Siniora cabinet, and impose their will by proxy-a "parallel cabinet" device. This could quickly cross the threshold into widespread violence; the descent would be even quicker if the Syrians choose to support directly a repressive Hezbollah-backed coup against the present order. One rocket salvo across the border could quickly draw Israel in, perhaps giving Assad an opportunity to move in the Golan.

Thus, as Israel and Syria eye each other amid growing tensions, the prospect of war through miscalculation seemed real this week-and may seem even more so in weeks to come. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert did his best to clarify matters and send Bashar a calming signal, but the level of mistrust is so profound that no action is above suspicion as part of some deliberate deception. The struggle for Lebanon's future is on already. Yet to be seen is at what cost it will be won.

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