Monday, May 05, 2003

Lebanon can and must act now

Lebanon is at an historic crossroads. Beirut is in a position to shape the future of the middle east. She can become the catylist for Palestinian statehood, and rid herself of Syria, and restore her economy and dignity, all in one fell swoop. But alas, she is not.

Yesterday, it was reported that Lebanon refused to listen to Colin Powell's request that Lebanon remove Hizbollah from her country. This is a grave mistake. It is a grave mistake for a number of reasons. First, by definition, a government, in this case the government of Lebanon, is defined as the institution with a monopoly on force in some country. Lebanon is claiming that Hizbollah also ought to have an army in Lebanon. This is preposterous. Lebanon is the only country in the world that willingly allows another institution to maintain a militia, probably one capable of defeating her own army, in her borders, on the excuse that it is a legitimate political party who was responsible for kicking Israel out of the south in under 25 years. In the US, the democrats cannot maintain an army, nor does any opposition party. Nor does any political party. That is not the way governments work anywhere else in the world. Lebanon's track record does not suggest that it is somehow wiser about these sort of things.

Second, we should be a little less naive, and look at the real reason that Lebanon is not kicking out Hizbollah. The reason is that Syria does not want her too. Syria plans on continuing its proxy war against Israel completely via Lebanon. This is the Shebaa Farms extension strategy. When you realize that you cannot fight Israel for your own territory because it will be too costly as it may mean real war, let Lebanon do the fighting for you. This way the war will still go on, Syria will still be in control and Lebanon will do all the suffering.

However Lebanon must realize what is going on now. The US is making demands on Syria right and left. "Return Iraqis who fled to your country." "Kick out terrorist groups." "Do everything we say." And Syria is saying "yessir" to each and every one. Syria is so weak that Israel is dismissing them and even some Lebanese are feeling freer to suggest that Syria get the hell out. Of course the US will not invade Syria, but Syria does not know that. Lebanon need not fear standing up to Syria. The US will back any initiative that weakens Syria, including Syria's divestment of control of Lebanon. (I of course understand Lebanon's scepticism about real American involvement, after all we fled after the first suicide bombing in 1982, but I am sure we can do better this time.)

But the Syrians are wise to this. They know that they are losing power at home, but they can still hold on to Lebanon. Some Lebanese, no doubt fostered by Syria, are scared that without Syria civil war will break out again. No doubt they are right. While Syria had absolutely no role in ending the civil war, they probably are what is preventing Hizbullah and whatever is growing in places like Ein el-Hilweh from causing a new civil war.

That is why Lebanon should abandon Syria and appeal to the west, or even the EU, or NATO, if she feel more comfortable with them, to get rid of Hizbullah. If she does so, and the US tells Syria to get out of Lebanon then the rewards to Lebanon will be endless. Beirut can once again be the paradise it once was. With tourists not having to worry about accidentally ending up kidnaped in a basement of Dahe, and with real trading partners, and genuine free economic and academic enterprise, Lebanon can resume its pre-civil war glory as the Rivera of the Middle East.

Moreover if Lebanon kicks out Hizbullah there is a true chance for the Palestinians. How? Hizbullah is seen as the one bright light for Palestinian radicalism. (Palestinian moderates have seen no bright lights unfortunately.) Hizbullah managed to kick Israel out of South Lebanon. So there is hope for the Hamas, Islamic Jihad, the Tanzim factions, and the Militant Fatah brigades. However if Hizbullah is removed or otherwise delegitimized then all else will fall. Radicals will lose their only beacon of light. This great loss of morale will allow a new stronger Palestinian leadership to take control of the West Bank and Gaza Palestinians and at the same time negotiate a settlement with Israel. This can only be done if the Palestinian leader, who right now looks like Abu Mazen, to wrest control from and eliminate other armed factions who are right now the biggest obstacle to a peaceful settlement. Without their arms Israel will be forced to concede that it has no security issues that Mazen cannot handle.

Lebanon must not let itself be fooled in to thinking that she is so clever that she is outsmarting the Syrians, the Americans, and the Israelis. I am sorry to reveal this to them, but she is not. The clever ploy to reintroduce the Falange party back in to the government WILL NOT fool the US in to thinking that there is now a semblance of normalcy and stability in the country. The Falange was reintroduced in to the government so they won't complain to the US that they are being prosecuted, arrested, and routinely tortured by the Syrians and Lebanese. With their silence Lebanon is hoping to pass herself off as a real democracy who is in control of the whole country. But this is a sham. The calm is a facade. The conditions are similar to what they were before the civil war. Only this time everyone thinks they have power. How long will it be before they all realize they are puppets of the Syrians? How long will it be before they all want a share of real power? If they start a genuine program of power sharing, such as exists in a true democracy, then there is hope. If not, it will be years, and probably many more dead bodies in to the future before this opportunity is available again.