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Lebanon in Limbo

Prepared by: Eben Kaplan
February 5, 2007

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For the last two months, Lebanon’s embattled government has barely managed to stay afloat in the face of massive street protests demanding the formation of a “unity government” in which the opposition would have a stronger voice. That opposition, made up of the Shiite Muslim group Hezbollah and its political allies, says a desire to avoid civil strife (al-Jazeera) is all that keeps them from toppling Lebanon’s leadership. But recent clashes among rival factions in Beirut have raised fears (Al-Ahram) of another Lebanese civil war.

An International Herald Tribune editorial says at the crux of the country’s unrest lies an “archaic and unfair political system that divides the country’s top offices among rival religious communities.” But all along the front lines of Lebanon’s power struggle, broader regional forces are testing their hands (USNews). The region’s widening Shiite-Sunni rift (Economist) has become particularly contentious in Lebanon, where the recent uprising was only diffused after the region’s major Shiite and Sunni powers—Iran and Saudi Arabia, respectively—intervened (AP). Iran bears substantial responsibility for the current state of affairs in Lebanon. Last week, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah matter-of-factly acknowledged what has long been asserted by regional analysts—that his group receives money and weapons from Iran (Haaretz) by way of Syria.

Syria, too, has much at stake in Lebanon. Near the heart of Beirut’s political power struggle is a proposed hybrid court that would try suspects in the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. The subject of an ongoing UN investigation, Syria’s involvement in the assassination is widely presumed. CFR Mideast expert Steven A. Cook says in this podcast that Syrian agents continue to operate throughout Lebanon. 

With Lebanon “too brittle to survive (Daily Star) another day of street battles,” international actors are scrambling for a solution. One widely offered proposal involves U.S. diplomacy with Syria. Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL), just returned from a trip to Damascus, told a CFR audience that he and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad clashed over Syrian involvement in Lebanon. But Nelson said there were previous cases in which U.S.-Syrian dialogue produced limited cooperation on securing the Iraqi border. The Foundation for Middle East Peace’s Geoffrey Aronson, who has participated in informal Israeli-Syrian negotiations, told CFR.org’s Bernard Gwertzman there is also value in talks between those longtime antagonists. Representatives of the Mideast Quartet—the United States, the European Union, Russia, and the United Nations—clashed (BosGlobe) at a recent meeting over U.S. isolation of Syria.

International donors recently pledged $7.6 billion to help rebuild Lebanon, $770 million of which was promised by the United States. But some analysts, including CFR President Richard N. Haass, see U.S. leverage dwindling in the Middle East (Newsweek) . Mideast expert Milton Viorst calls for greater involvement by the Arab League (NYT), which is preparing for another round (Reuters) of Lebanese mediation after a similar effort failed in December.

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