February 14, 2007

Lebanonís Non-existent Center Somehow Holds

Valentine’s Day isn’t a romantic occasion in Lebanon. It’s the anniversary of the murder of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, who was assassinated February 14, 2005, with a 600 pound bomb in downtown Beirut. A large crater still exists in the middle of the street, which is blocked to traffic. Pedestrians are kept away by strips of yellow police tape. The St. George Hotel, which was refurbished after the civil war, stands ruined once more by the explosion.

Yesterday hundreds of thousands of Lebanese gathered in Martyr’s Square to memorialize Hariri and to demonstrate against his Syrian assassins and their Lebanese Hezbollah proxies – who have also been demonstrating downtown without letup since December 1 of last year. Sectarian and political tensions haven’t been higher in Lebanon since the civil war ended. Violent street clashes have already broken out. Yet activists from both the pro- and anti-Syrian camps co-existed in downtown Beirut peacefully and, apparently, without incident.

Very nearly no one in Lebanon wants civil war. Beirut is a tinderbox ready to blow. Lebanese might get war anyway. But it’s telling that the most militantly opposed factions in the country can still co-exist in the same physical space – albeit separated from each other by fencing, rows of razor wire, and the army – without fighting.

Separated by Army Beirut.JPG
Photo courtesy of Ya Libnan

A small group of violent fanatics from either side easily could have sparked a major conflagration if that’s what they wanted, even if the overwhelming majority of even the militant activists didn’t want conflict. It really wouldn’t take much. One guy with a machine gun could possibly do it. Weapons sales have tripled in Lebanon over the past couple of weeks. It looks, though, like everyone in the now-thriving gun market is thinking of defense rather than offsense.

The Syrian regime, however, does want civil war. Civil war in Lebanon has been a part of the Syrian strategy since the 70s. After 15 years of chaos and mayhem from 1975 to 1990, Lebanese were willing to surrender to Syrian overlordship as long as Damascus could bring some measure of peace, even if it was the cold-hearted and brutal peace of the soldier. People grow tired of fighting, especially in a place like Lebanon where no single faction is strong enough to dominate all the others and impose a local peace of their own.

Syria’s ruler Bashar Assad promised to break Lebanon if he were forced to withdraw from the country, and he has been trying to do it now for two years. If the civil war were to resume with a Syrian military departure – or so goes the theory – the Lebanese government might ask for Syria to come back.

Immediately after the March 14 movement demanded Syria’s ouster, car bombs began exploding at night on quiet side streets in Christian areas. These were small car bombs and they didn’t kill anyone. They seemed deliberately planted and timed in such a way to frighten people rather than kill them.

The Syrians hoped Christians would retaliate against Lebanese Muslims and re-spark the war. The Christians, though, knew what was up and refused to take the sinister bait. The car bombs stopped after that strategy was shown not to work. Only prominent anti-Syrian politicians and journalists were targeted after that.

All that changed two days ago, the day before Hariri’s memorial in downtown Beirut. Two bombs simultaneously exploded – Palestinian style – on public commuter busses in Beirut’s mountainous suburbs – once again in a Christian area. This time civilians were killed. The original civil war was sparked in 1975 in part because of a bus massacre. This was an ugly reminder of Beirut’s horrible past, and appears to be a stepped up version of the original, more timid, car bomb campaign to restart the war.

14leba_600.jpg
Photo copyright New York Times

It’s hard to say what, exactly, was the effect of this week’s bus massacre on Lebanon’s collective psyche. It could have been a disturbing enough warning of how high the stakes are that everyone was extra careful to avoid confrontation the following day. Either way, it failed to spark another round of sectarian and political clashes. Try as he might, Bashar Assad is having a hell of a time breaking Lebanon. The only thing that seems to work is using Hezbollah to provoke the Israelis, which is one reason among many to think he’ll do it again.

The Lebanese civil war is one of the most ridiculous wars I have ever studied. It was World War I writ small. Everyone lost. As a result, everyone is more restrained and mature since the end of the war, even Hezbollah.

Hezbollah no longer kidnaps anyone inside Lebanon (not Lebanese, and not foreigners either), and they have apparently given up – at least on paper – their dream of conquering all of Lebanon and imposing a Shia Islamist theocracy. They may yet topple the government, but they cannot replace that government with themselves. And they know it. Besides, Hezbollah is adored in much of the Arab world outside Lebanon where no one has to suffer the consequences of living with them. All that would be lost if Hezbollah were to become the Shia butcher of Sunnis.

What if they declared a war and nobody came? It’s a silly old hippie slogan from the 1960s. That’s how it’s playing out now, though, in the Middle East of all places. Bashar Assad has called a civil war, and no one is coming.

Shove Your Civil War.jpg

Anything can happen in Lebanon. I may have to eat crow tomorrow. But today, for now, even under extraordinary and malevolent pressure from the same foreign dictatorships stirring up hatred and strife in Baghdad, Lebanon isn’t Iraq.

I wrote the following during the war last July: “I spent a total of seven months in Lebanon recently, and I never could quite figure out what prevented the country from flying apart into pieces. It barely held together like unstable chemicals in a nitro glycerin vat.” There is no center to hold. But somehow, amazingly, and seemingly against the laws of political physics, it manages to hold all the same.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at February 14, 2007 6:49 PM
Winner, The 2007 Weblog Awards, Best Middle East or Africa Blog

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