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Lebanon In Crisis [Rush Transcript; Federal News Service]

Speaker: Mohamad Bazzi, Edward R. Murrow Press Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations
Presider: Steven A. Cook, Douglas Dillon Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations
February 12, 2008
Council on Foreign Relations

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Council on Foreign Relations, New York City, New York

STEVEN COOK:  Thank you very much.  And thank you all for joining us on this call this afternoon.  It's my great pleasure to introduce Mohamad Bazzi, who is the Council on Foreign Relations Edward R. Murrow fellow.  Mohamad just returned from a three-week trip to Lebanon doing research in support of a book that he's going to come out with on Hezbollah and Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah.

And I'll just hand it over to Mohamad, who will speak for anywhere between 10 and 15 minutes, and then we'll open it up to questions and answers.  Thanks so much.

So Mohamad, go ahead.

MOHAMAD BAZZI:  Thank you, Steven.

As many of you know, Lebanon has been without a president since November 23rd.  The latest scheduled parliamentary session to choose a president has been postponed once again, for the 14th time.  It was postponed from today until February 26th.  The latest mediation efforts, really led by the Arab League and France, have not made much progress.  The Arab League secretary general, Amr Moussa, was in Beirut over the weekend.  He met with the main factions, and there was very little progress, and the parliamentary session was postponed once again.

There is an agreement on General Michel Suleiman, who's the head of the army -- there's agreement by the two main factions, by the parliamentary majority, led by Saad Hariri, and by the opposition, led by Hezbollah, there's agreement on General Suleiman as the choice for president.

But the main stumbling block is now the opposition's demand to have an agreement before the president is in place on the makeup of the new cabinet.  The opposition wants one-third of the seats in this cabinet, and that one-third would guarantee it veto power within the cabinet.  And there has been very little progress on any other formula for dividing up the cabinet seats.  The majority has strenuously said that they will never accept that one-third for the opposition, and the opposition holds the same position.  So it's been a stalemate for several months now.

On the ground in Lebanon, it's a sad and depressing situation in many ways, because many Lebanese see that their entire political leadership has decided that it's okay to be without a president and that it's okay to be in this state of political paralysis for months on end.

When President Emile Lahud's term ended on November 23rd, there was concern about the void that this would create.  But as midnight on November 23rd came and went and there was no violence and no outbreak of hostilities between the factions, everyone breathed a sigh of relief.  And then this created a new kind of status quo where it seemed okay not to have a president.  And as people adjusted fairly quickly to living with that, the political factions took that up as the new status quo.  And even though agreement on General Suleiman emerged soon after that, the other issues were quickly put on the table, the makeup of the new government.

So -- and one of the things I saw in my weeks in Lebanon was how people have adjusted to not having a president and have adjusted to living with the political paralysis.  And in some ways, perhaps the Lebanese have adjusted too well to that, and they might need to demand from their political leadership some quicker resolution of this.

I think one of the important themes that emerged from my trip was that, for a very small country -- Lebanon is about 10,000 square kilometers in a country of about 4 million people -- for this small country, people really see their future livelihoods very differently.  And much of that has happened since the assassination of the former prime minister, Rafik Hariri, in February of 2005.  We're coming up on the third anniversary of that assassination.

And since that event, the country has become much more polarized.  And it's broken along sectarian lines, reminiscent somewhat of the civil war, but also different from the pattern set during the civil war.

During the civil war, from 1975 to 1990, you did not have as much Shi'a-Sunni tension in Lebanon as you do today, and that's potentially one of the most dangerous consequences of the events of the past few years.  You really have the Shi'a community almost entirely isolated from the rest of the communities in Lebanon.  Some of that is the aftermath of the Hariri assassination.  A lot of that is the aftermath of the summer war in 2006 between Hezbollah and Israel.

To a large extent, you have the Shi'a community that supports Hezbollah and that supports Hezbollah continuing to keep its weapons, whereas much of the other communities -- Sunnis, Maronites, to a large extent, Druze, other smaller communities -- don't want Hezbollah to have its weapons, and see the fact that Hezbollah continues to hold on to its weapons as something that instigates Israel and has the potential to spark yet one more war between Israel and Hezbollah.

You know, one important thing that Hezbollah has been able to achieve since the Hariri assassination is to create a political alliance with one of the main Maronite leaders.  That's General Michel Aoun, former head of the army.  So it's been able to expand on its Shi'a base to an extent by reaching out to this Maronite leader, and this has created this tension and division within the Maronite community in Lebanon.

To a large extent, on the main issues, really the Shi'a of Lebanon are left on their own and are feeling this sense of being targeted both internally, on the domestic political scene, and externally of being a target of Israel.

I think that covers most of my introduction, and I'm happy to take questions.

COOK:  I'm going to take the presider's prerogative and ask the first question, Mohamad, if you don't mind.  I'm wondering if you can talk a little bit more about external efforts to forge compromise and political stability in Lebanon.  The French have been involved.  The United States has been involved.  Amr Moussa, for all the good that the Arab League can potentially do, has been in and out of Beirut.

What are the prospects going forward for some sort of external mediation?  And is there a danger that this stalemate will continue on out into the foreseeable future?

BAZZI:  There have been very intensive external mediation efforts.  You mentioned the French have been very heavily involved.  And around the time of late November into December and even into early January, the French foreign minister and other officials were shuttling almost weekly to Beirut to have meetings with all the factions, and they were also shuttling to Damascus, hoping that Damascus would exert pressure on Hezbollah and the opposition to reach a compromise.

Much of that broke down by early to mid-January.  I mean, the French have really scaled back since then.  The Arab League has tried to take the lead, mostly on the basis of an initiative that was approved by all of the Arab League foreign ministers in early January at a meeting in Cairo.

The United States and Saudi Arabia have also played an important mediation role.  They've stepped back a little bit.  The U.S. and Saudi Arabia are two of the strongest supporters of the Siniora government and of Saad Hariri's political bloc, the ruling majority in Parliament, and then Syria and Iran being the two strongest external supporters of Hezbollah and the opposition bloc.

But really mediation, as far as I can tell, hasn't really moved the parameters very much, aside from getting an agreement on General Suleiman as the presidential candidate.  Now, as this drags out longer, there's been a lot of reports in the Lebanese press, and there's just been a lot of rumors swirling in Beirut that General Suleiman will be burned as the candidate.  The longer this drags out, the more likely his name might have to be withdrawn, and then we're really back to square zero.

And the danger of this paralysis dragging on and on for months is that a small or seemingly small incident, sectarian incident, riots, perhaps people getting shot, that might really degenerate and explode into something much wider.

We had an incident in late January, on the evening of January 27th, where there were some protests in the Dafi (sp), in the mostly Shi'a suburbs of Beirut.  There were some protests by members of the Amal Party, which is one of the -- the second-largest Shi'a political party -- where the people went out into the streets to protest electricity rationing and cuts.  And there was shooting.  There were eight people killed.  And there's been an investigation since then about whether the army fired on the protesters and/or if there were other sort of groups and parties involved.

The big danger of this incident was that it happened on the former green line that divided East and West Beirut, and it really brought back a lot of memories of the civil war for people, because this is an area where one of the very first incidents of the civil war took place in 1975.

So there's a great fear that an incident like this could just spin out of control and the political leadership, the various political leaderships of the country, can no longer control that.

COOK:  Great.  Thanks, Mohamad.

Well, why don't we throw the questions to the callers and continue the conversation that way?

OPERATOR:  Thank you.  At this point, if you'd like to ask a question, please press *1 on your telephone keypad now.  Questions will be taken in the order in which they are received.  Any time you would like to remove yourself from the questioning queue, please press *2.  Once again, if you have a question, please press *1.  We are currently holding for questions.

COOK:  Mohamad, while we're waiting for questions, just one quick point on this incident that happened in which eight people were killed.  I understand that the prosecutors are going to bring charges against a number of army officers for this incident.  I think there is -- and there's been lots of talk about the military being this unified force, and so on and so forth.

Do you think this could have any kind of effect on that, on the fact that the army has served as a kind of unifying, nonsectarian institution?  But should this prosecution go forward, what do you think the effects of that might be?

BAZZI:  That's another very real danger, you know, as this entire political paralysis drags out.  The army has traditionally -- since the end of the civil war, the army rebuilt itself as this unifying force and as this nonsectarian institution in the state, one of the few nonsectarian institutions that's been able to emerge out of this modern Lebanese state after the civil war.

And there's definitely a danger that as this -- if this goes to trial, that the different -- that it might put a strain on the army that it really hasn't been subjected to since the civil war, and that it might also get different forces within the army to begin thinking in a more sectarian way.

And the dangers for Lebanon are profound if that happens, because the army is really right now the one entity that hasn't taken sides with either faction.  And if it's perceived that either the army as a whole or some elements of the army are taking sides or are responding with too much force to certain protests, then that's one more danger that could spiral out of control.

COOK:  Thanks, Mohamad.  Why don't we go back to the callers?

OPERATOR:  Thank you.  Our first question comes from Jim Higman (sp) with INN World Report.

QUESTIONER:  Yeah, hi.  I'd be curious to know what Mohamad thinks would be the likely outcome of a civil war if it does break out.  Does it seem that Hezbollah would win?  What does he think?

COOK:  That's a loaded question for you.

BAZZI:  Yes.

Well, I mean, from everything we can see on the ground, Hezbollah has the -- certainly by far has military superiority over any other potential group on the ground right now.  Of course, Hezbollah has never really fought a civil war within Lebanon.  During periods of the civil war, Hezbollah fought with other Shi'a militias, at some points with Amal, and Hezbollah at different points fought with -- (inaudible) -- Palestinian camps.  But Hezbollah doesn't have the experience of fighting a full-fledged civil war.  And Hezbollah leaders insist -- any Hezbollah leader you talk to, whenever -- say, Hassan Nasrallah goes on TV or grants an interview or gives a speech, he goes to great lengths to say that Hezbollah would never use its weapons against fellow Lebanese.  And they basically pledged that they won't do that.

Now, if the situation deteriorates to an extent where there are attacks on Shi'a areas and things like that, it's difficult to imagine that there won't be some sort of response from Hezbollah.  I think a lot of Hezbollah officials feel that they do have this military superiority and that in some ways that, in and of itself, is a deterrent to other groups from trying to engage in a civil war.  Now, that might be a miscalculation on their part.  And ultimately, if Hezbollah does use its weapons and arms in a domestic Lebanese context, then the calls for it to disarm would likely increase exponentially.

So even if it can -- even if we can picture a civil war scenario where Hezbollah is able to actually win militarily, I mean, politically it would lose so much that it really wouldn't be worth it for them.  And it's not entirely clear that they would be able to win -- I mean, how do you win a civil war militarily?  Ultimately you would need some kind of political agreement at the end of the civil war.  You'd need to work out a political agreement, and then the entire equation would be different.

QUESTIONER:  So what you describe, it seems more likely, then, that instead of opting for an all-out military confrontation, Hezbollah and its allies essentially will use the fact that they have military strength as a sort of stick to gain political power completely.  Then what, if that happens, would be Israel's response?

BAZZI:  Well, Hezbollah -- I think you're reading my response correctly to the extent of Hezbollah viewing its military superiority as a deterrent.  But Hezbollah isn't trying to gain complete political power in Lebanon.  I think they realize that that's impossible.  And every other faction realizes that they're not going to be the sole political power.

Lebanon has always been built on these very complicated power-sharing agreements among the different sects and the different factions, and no one -- I think everyone realistically realizes that they're not going to be able to completely cancel out another force.

Now, you know, if the Israeli response -- it's difficult to judge what the Israeli response would be to an actual Lebanese civil war.  You know, would Israel try to secretly arm or not so secretly arm some faction against another?  I mean, probably, but then so would all sorts of other regional players get involved, as they did in the first civil war, and try to arm one faction against another, you know, if we're talking about a full-scale war. 

But it's important to keep in mind that no one here -- no one on the stage right now is trying to completely cancel out the other force. 

COOK:  Great.  Additional questions?

OPERATOR:  Thank you.  Once again, if you'd like to ask a question, it's star-one.  And the next comes from Frankie Indizen (sp) with the New York Post.

QUESTIONER:  Hey.  Hi, Mohamad, how are you?  Thanks so much for the presentation.

I had a quick question about what you think about the feeling on the ground about the United States government and its attention, or lack thereof, to the Lebanese people over the last year?

BAZZI:  Thank you.  That's a good question.

I think that the Lebanese had an interesting experience with the United States over the past two years, first in going back to the Hariri assassination and where international opinion very strongly turned against Syria and its military presence in Lebanon.  And sort of international opinion and Lebanese domestic opinion together forcing Syria to withdraw from Lebanon, and the U.S. -- it was (both ?) sort of a key player in that by recalling its ambassador from Damascus after the Hariri assassination and by working to isolate Syria diplomatically and politically after the Hariri assassination.

And the Bush administration got engaged very heavily in Lebanon in 2005 and into 2006.  I'm sure many in the Bush administration began to see Lebanon as maybe the one salvageable case example of democracy promotion in the Middle East.

But then during the summer war in 2006, a lot of Lebanese really turned against the U.S., and even Lebanese who had viewed the U.S. as an ally and who had viewed the U.S. as playing an important role in forcing the Syrians out, they saw the U.S. not rushing to -- and in some cases delaying a U.N. cease-fire resolution on that war, and trying to give Israel more time to wipe out Hezbollah, which did not work at all.  And that turned a lot of Lebanese public opinion really against the U.S.

Now, since then, people who might have swayed -- and we're talking about non-Shi'a here, who might have shifted towards Hezbollah, have now gone back against Hezbollah with the political paralysis and the protests and everything that's ensued since then.

But I don't think they trust the U.S. as much as they might have trusted the U.S. right after the events of 2005.  And really the situation is reaching the stage right now where the U.S. seems to have stepped back and left this to the French, to the Saudis, to an extent, and really is not as engaged in Lebanon as it was just two years ago.

QUESTIONER:  Thank you.

OPERATOR:  Thank you.  Once again, if you'd like to ask a question, it's star-one. 

And the next is from Cody Atapi (ph) with IPS.

QUESTIONER:  Hi, Mohamad, how are you?  This question focuses on the -- (pause).  Yes, hello.

BAZZI:  Yes.

QUESTIONER:  This question focuses on the state of Palestinians in the Nahr al-Bared camp in Tarablos.  I wanted to know how the pace of reconstruction was proceeding and what type of future the residents can expect.  And under the current conditions, could the camp or others like it emerge as a breeding ground for the likes of groups like Fatah al-Islam?  And can you put this in the context of the broader political crisis and what the government itself is perhaps concerned about.

Thank you.

BAZZI:  Yes, thank you.

Well, there've been pledges from several Gulf countries, and Saudi Arabia is the lead one, to rebuild Nahr al-Bared.  There's been some -- some work has started, but some of this has also gotten some of the actual reconstruction has also gotten caught up in the political crisis, as has the reconstruction in the south of Lebanon and in southern Beirut, after the war of 2006.  And a big part of that is just -- it's difficult to operate the government under these conditions.

Some -- quite a few people have returned to the outskirts of Nahr al-Bared, the parts of Nahr al-Bared that were not completely destroyed.  But a lot of residents are still living in the Baddawi camp a few kilometers away, and the conditions there are still fairly dismal in Baddawi.

And there's also in Nahr al-Bared now that there's one section of the camp that the army still hasn't cleared almost anyone to go into that, including NGOs and human rights groups and Palestinian groups, because there's fear of mines and sort of unexploded ordnance and other things.  And the clean-up of that has been rather slow.  So Nahr al-Bared might take longer to rebuild than the Lebanese government had anticipated and might have promised at an earlier stage.

Now, after the Palestinian situation as a whole -- (inaudible) -- is a very important issue to keep in mind, in the grander context in Lebanon.  You have 12 Palestinian refugee camps where something like 300 (thousand) or 320,000 people live under very difficult and miserable circumstances.  The situation of Palestinians in Lebanon is probably the worst of any of the Palestinian refugees in any of the Arab countries.

And that's the product of a long-standing policy by the Lebanese government that's not just -- it's not something that the Siniora government is solely responsible for.  That's been policies for the past three or four decades.

And there is a tremendous danger of some of these camps which are basically outside the reach of the Lebanese army and security forces, there's a tremendous danger of these camps becoming a breeding ground for extremism and jihadists, as Nahr al-Bared did. 

The Ein el-Hilweh camp in south Lebanon right outside the city of Sidon, is the largest camp.  It's also home to maybe 10 various Sunni extremist groups and jihadist groups, and the Lebanese army and security forces try to monitor them, but it's very difficult to do that under the circumstances.

There's been speculation that some of the bombings against the UNIFIL forces in south Lebanon -- there's been three so far -- that some of those bombings have been carried out by Sunni jihadist groups.  People might remember that Ayman al-Zawahiri, at one point in some audio tapes, criticized -- pretty strongly criticized the UNIFIL forces in south Lebanon, and essentially called for attacks on them.  And so there is this Sunni jihadist presence, both in the Palestinian camps and there's also some presence in northern Lebanon of Lebanese and potentially also of foreign fighters who have come into Lebanon.

You know, I've heard anecdotal reports of people helping -- recruiting foreign jihadists into Lebanon and saying to them you don't really need to go to Iraq to fight the infidel Shi'a.  You can come to Lebanon and fight the infidel Shi'a in the south, and you can also fight the crusader UNIFIL forces.

So all of that is just one more example of how a weak central state and a weak government, whose attention is pretty much entirely taken up by the political crisis, can't really handle these questions.

OPERATOR:  Thank you.  Once again, if you'd like to ask a question, it's star-one.  And the next is from Garrett Mitchell with the Mitchell Report.

QUESTIONER:  Thanks, Mohamad.  I -- (inaudible) -- listening to the conversation and I had a thought which I will now put in the form of a question.  And that is, suppose that instead of talking to this group of people today who pay a lot of attention to this subject matter, you're talking to an introductory class kind of college, on the politics of the Middle East.

I'm interested to know how you would answer three questions, the first of which is why is what happens in Lebanon important?  The second is what needs to happen in Lebanon?  And the third would be who has the credibility and the leverage to make it happen?

BAZZI:  Okay.  Well, three very good questions, also questions we can probably spend hours discussing and debating.  I'll try to answer them briefly.

And why is what happens in Lebanon important?  It's a very good question, and in a lot of ways the Lebanese have a -- an exaggerated self-importance of events in Lebanon.  I mean, there's a lot of rhetoric in Lebanon and when you read the Lebanese press, there's a lot of signals that oh, you know, sort of the entire world is absorbed with this political crisis in Lebanon.  But in reality, most people in the world can't really muddle through and understand what this is even about. 

So probably the most important -- the reasons why Lebanon is important is the regional context.  I mean, it's too -- it's in the middle, it's squeezed between two fairly powerful neighbors, Israel and Syria.  And both neighbors that have had a history of carrying out this proxy battle on Lebanese soil, and some of that is happening right now.

I'd actually like Steven to add some thoughts on this, when I finish this question, of the Syria -- his thoughts on sort of the Syria-Israel relationship right now and the potential for that relationship and how that relationship is going to affect Lebanon.

Now, what needs to happen in Lebanon is something that's beyond just the current two issues on the table, which is the presidency and the makeup of the next Cabinet.  Even if those things are resolved, Lebanon's -- there's still a potential for Lebanon to end up in a cycle of political paralysis, of crisis, of violence, of all of these things that repeat themselves.  Those realities will still be facing Lebanon in a year or two or three years, unless the Lebanese also begin sort of a national conversation about the future of their country and how to share power in a different way than they've been sharing power for the past 50, 60 years. 

And that involves having a real and open dialogue about the nature of the sectarian system, the nature of sharing power based on sectarianism; obviously, the question of Hezbollah's arms is going to be a critical one in this discussion; the future of Palestinian refugees and their treatment.  Those are all interrelated issues that need to be addressed at some point in Lebanon, and they're separate from the current -- the crisis.  I would say many of these issues are among the root causes of the current crisis.

And what was your third question again?

QUESTIONER:  Well, it's sort of who has the credibility or the leverage to make it happen?  In other -- (audio break) -- will this happen solely from within, or will -- (audio break) -- influences and assistance be imperative?

BAZZI:  A lot of this has to happen from within Lebanon, but also Lebanon has a history of being used and also dragging in larger powers to its problems.  I mean, a lot of Lebanese politicians and a lot of the players that are on the scene today have a history with most of these outside powers that are now on the scene.

And they've been used by these outside powers in the past, but probably more often than not, they've used the outside forces to their own advantage.  And anyone, any outside force getting involved in Lebanon needs to be mindful of that history. 

So in the end, I think it's going to take a combination of outside forces and a real internal soul-searching to get at these larger questions, beyond the current political crisis.

Steven, can you talk a little bit about what we were discussing yesterday on Syria-Israel?

COOK:  Sure, I'd be happy to. 

Just to give the caller some context, a number of us had gotten together to listen to what Mohamad had to say about his trip.  And the question was asked, what can the United States do on this question of Lebanon that will secure its broader interests in resolution to the conflict in the region, specifically Arab-Israeli conflict.

And my view was with regard to Lebanon it would mean for the United States the quickest and fastest way to achieving those goals would be essentially sacrificing Lebanese sovereignty to the Syrians.  The idea being that if the big enchilada is peace between -- some sort of agreement, a peace agreement between the Israelis and the Syrians, something which much of the Israeli foreign policy establishment is interested in and many of the military officers who now staff the senior commands of the IDF believe is possible, that what you'd do is you'd have a deal between the Israelis and the Syrians.  And then the price that would have to be paid would ultimately be Syrian -- accepting Syrian influence and control over Lebanon, something that it's clear to me that the Israelis don't have a problem with, and certain influential parts of the American foreign policy establishment would certainly see that as a benefit.

 If you're going to break -- in the process of establishing relations between Israel and Syria, you would break that alliance between Syria and Iran and necessarily cut Hezbollah down to size all at the same time.  Whether that's feasible or not, clearly there's strong sentiment within the Congress and the Bush administration to uphold the principle of Lebanese sovereignty and not to let the Syrians off the hook for the Hariri assassination.  But obviously, things are going to change in the coming months.

OPERATOR:  Are there further questions?  Thank you.  Once again, if you'd like to ask a question, please press star-one.  And we're currently holding for more questions.

There are no questions in the queue at this time.

COOK:  Okay.  Well, barring any additional questions, we've been on the line now for about 45 minutes, and we're scheduled for an hour.  But if there aren't any additional questions, I don't see any problem, Mohamad, with closely this right now.  I think it's been a great discussion.  So thank you very, very much.

BAZZI:  Yes.  Thank you all for participating.

COOK:  (Inaudible.)  Thank you.  Have a good day.

OPERATOR:  Thank you.  You may disconnect at this time.

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