Today Gaza, Tomorrow Lebanon?
By Barry Rubin
The world is shocked by Hamas's violent takeover of the Gaza
Strip and the damage done to any hope for peace or regional stability is
generally recognized. But a second, even more serious, extremist takeover is
in the works for which Western inaction would bear far more responsibility.
This time the victim would be Lebanon, and the perpetrator is
Hizballah backed by Syria and Iran.
Today, Lebanon is ruled by a Christian-Sunni Muslim-Druze
coalition determined to maintain a moderate and independent Lebanon. This
partnership arose after Syria assassinated former Prime Minister Rafiq
Hariri in February 2005, coming out of a mass movement which successfully
demanded the Syrian withdrawal after two decades in which Lebanon was looted
as a satellite state by its next-door neighbor.
Syria is determined to end this period of freedom and in doing
so it is aided by its client Hizballah and many smaller groups including
Fatah al-Islam along with pro-Syrian politicians. Fifteen major terrorist
attacks, mostly assassination attempts, and many smaller ones have taken
place in the last two years by Syrian agents. Notably, two of these have
killed coalition members of parliament, the first Christian, the most recent
a Sunni Muslim.
These attacks are not just blind efforts at revenge or mayhem.
Syria is literally murdering the Lebanese government out of existence. A few
more successes and the coalition will lose its majority. Also, however, the
term of pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud, extended by Syrian demand, ends
in November, making Damascus eager to get control of parliament before then
to ensure its own choice will triumph.
While the violence falls well short of all-out fighting, Lebanon
is engaged in a type of civil war. Hizballah walked out of the government
and Syrian clients have paralyzed parliament in a so-far failed attempt to
keep Lebanon from endorsing an international tribunal to investigate Hariri's
death. Everyone knows that the evidence points to the Syrian government at
the highest levels for responsibility. Blocking this tribunal is priority
one on the Syrian regime's list.
As a result, coalition supporters are showing exemplary courage.
Any politician or journalist who stands against Syria, Iran, and Hizballah
daily threat of assassination. In contrast, of course, the extremists endure
no such risk since the coalition does not use terrorism against them.
In comparison with Fatah on the Palestinian scene-an incompetently led,
deeply corrupt, extremist and terrorist group on its own right-or an Iraqi
regime that wants American soldiers to fight for it, the Lebanese majority
is a well-organized, reliable ally ready to defend itself.
The situation in Lebanon, then, is one of stark choice: a
moderate, multi-communal majority is trying to protect the country's
independence against a coalition of radical foreign states and extremist
Islamist domestic groups. Can one imagine a clearer case of the current
conflict that shakes the world today? Is there anyone more on the front line
against the forces of terrorism?
Lebanon today is the equivalent of Czechoslovakia in the late
1930s, a small democratic country which must not be sacrificed to
totalitarian forces, both due to Western interests and to moral values.
What is the Western record on this issue? There are certainly
signs of hope. The United States, with indispensable support from France and
others, has pushed forward on the tribunal plan. Military aid was provided
to Lebanon to defeat the Fatah al-Islam revolt in Palestinian refugee camps.
The UN expanded its UNIFIL force supposedly to stop arms smuggling from
Syria and Hizballah's return to dominate southern Lebanon.
Yet to a serious extent, these efforts have been subverted by
Western governments. UNIFIL is a joke, uninterested and unable to stop
weapons' smuggling; standing by and pretending all is well as Hizballah has
rebuilt its fortifications and refurbished its arsenals. Western governments
may issue condemnations of terror and intimidation within Lebanon but they
do nothing about it.
And thus a confident Hizballah knows it can depend on Syria and
Iran; the Lebanese coalition does not have the same assurance of help from
those who should be supporting it. The impression is being given-and don't
think it escapes Syria and Hizballah-that the West is afraid of them. They
kill people, they blow up things. And just as the Islamists claim, these
tactics often-should one say, usually?-work at intimidating the West.
A stream of high-level visitors, most recently Italy's foreign
minister, make the pilgrimage to Damascus, where they proclaim Syria to be
reasonable and genuinely desirous of rapprochement. They beg Syria's help
to stop the smuggling and believe false Syrian assurances that it is trying
to do so. Too
many journalists echo Syrian disinformation about Lebanon, for example
blaming Fatah al-Islam on the Lebanese coalition rather than Syria.
There is a great danger either that Lebanon will be betrayed or
that Western timidity will inspire an aggressive over-confidence on the
extremists' part. Don't be surprised if some time next year Hizballah
becomes a full partner, with veto power, in the Lebanese government, as
Hamas did in the Palestinian Authority in 2006. Or even that Hizballah
seized control of Lebanon altogether, as Hamas did to the Gaza Strip.
The foundation for this radical victory is being laid now, not
only by Syria, Hizballah and Iran, but also by spineless Europeans and
indifferent, or otherwise preoccupied, Americans. Have no doubt about it, a
failure to act will bring an inevitable, terrible result. Nobody can say
that they weren't warned.
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Relations
(GLORIA) Center, Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) and editor of the Middle
East Review of International Relations (MERIA) Journal. His latest book is
The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan).