Wednesday, January 19, 2011
Lebanon once again on the edge
The fragile government of Lebanon is again in a state of collapse as 2011 begins. The troubled country, historically divided along a number of sectarian lines as well as dominated by its neighbor Syria, has over the past decade faced the rise of another brutal faction - the Hezbollah. As a result of this group's influence and current stance, the country is now staring at either a return to civil war or partition.
History - very abbreviated, and very simplified
Lebanon is a small nation to the north of Israel, with varied climate and geography, and a bewildering array of religious and sectarian factions. The region was part of the Ottoman Empire for over 400 years.
Prince Bashir II "the Great" was Emir of Mt. Lebanon from 1788 until 1840. (Nice beard and red fez)
During WW1, the area became a part of the French Mandate, and in 1926, France formed the Lebanese Republic. At the time, Lebanon was a largely Christian (mainly Maronite) enclave but also included areas containing many Muslims (including Druze). Lebanon gained independence in 1943, while France was occupied by Germany. The United Kingdom sent its army into Syria and Lebanon to fill the power vacuum, however, and kept the region under control until the end of World War II.
Lebanon's unwritten understanding among its factions since independence provides that its president be Maronite Christian, its speaker of the parliament a Shiite Muslim, its prime minister a Sunni Muslim, and the deputy speaker of Parliament a Greek Orthodox. Lebanon's varied population has historically been represented in government with various posts distributed to each group.
Lebanon's history since independence has been marked by alternating periods of political stability and turmoil interspersed with prosperity built on Beirut's position as a regional center for finance and trade.
Beirut, Lebanon's capitol
Lebanon was on the side of other Arab nations fighting Israel when it became a nation in 1948. Palestinians fleeing the conflict were sent to Lebanese refugee camps, but when Israel successfully fought off Arab armies, they remained festering in the camps, growing in size (now 400,000+). A generation later, the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) working out of the camps, was one major factor in fanning a 15-year Lebanese civil war from 1975-1990.
Today (very abbreviated, very simplified).
The immediate crisis can be traced back to 2005, when a popular Prime Minister, Rafik Hariri, credited with providing significant leadership in ending the civil war, died when a massive blast ripped through his motorcade in central Beirut.
Popular Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, shown with Lebanese flag - Cedar tree in the middle of two red horizontal stripes - was assassinated in 2005.
In a UN-led investigation into his assassination, a tribunal sitting at The Hague, in its early stages implicated top-level Syrian security officials. But as its investigation moved on, the tribunal's conclusions led down another path, and is about to indict members of the powerful Lebanese Shia political and militant movement - Hezbollah.
The scene of the Hariri assassination by car bomb still reverberates in the region's outlook for peace and stability.
Hezbollah is legitimately based in its Lebanese Shia population, no question. But it has quickly grown into a major militant force due to its generous and focused support from Iran, the major Shia power in the region. Underscoring its militancy and power, Hezbollah instigated a brief conflict with Israel in 2006, then in May 2008 Hezbollah and its allies, sparked by a government declaration that Hezbollah's communications network was illegal, seized western Beirut in Lebanon's worst internal violence since the 1975-90 civil war. At least 62 people died in the resulting clashes between pro-government and opposition militias before all major parties signed an agreement which ended the fighting. The agreement was a victory for Hezbollah forces who received concessions regarding the composition of the cabinet, filling several positions with its hardliners.
Hezbollah denies any role in the 2005 Hariri assassination and has called on the current Lebanon leader Saad al Hariri (son of Rafik ...) to withdraw Lebanon's funding for the tribunal, stop all co-operation, and denounce the court's findings even before they are released - demands Hariri rejected. In January, 11 Hezbollah-affiliated ministers resigned, bringing down the hard-won coalition government.
The two major protagonists - Recognized coalition government Prime Minister Saad Hariri (right), and hardline Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah (left)
Hezbollah has its own flag, and appears intent on establishing its control over all of Lebanon.
The regional importance of Lebanese stability - now very much in question between a national sovereignty represented by the historical coalition government, and that of the Iranian backed militant Hezbollah - is underscored by very public attempts by other Arab nations to mediate the current crisis. Saudi Arabia - a Sunni Muslim nation - tried to mediate in the past few days, but failed. Now attempting to create an atmosphere for negotiations are two moderate countries, Qatar and Turkey.
Saudi Sunni negotiator (left) bows out, Turkish negotiator (right) with Qatari assistance steps in. None of these countries wants to see an Iranian proxy - Hezbollah - establishing itself as new Lebanese government.
It creates a headache to read and understand Lebanon's chaotic history of the past 6 decades, and it is even more of a headache to watch another dark and violent chapter apparently being written.
Hezbollah armed forces were recently being characterized as a state within a state, but a power play for full control may be underway.