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Looking for Answers in Lebanon

Author: Lee Hudson Teslik
Updated: May 21, 2008

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Whether Lebanon veered close to "civil war" this month—a question broached by many newspapers—seems purely academic at this point, and perhaps irrelevant. Beirut settled into a tenuous calm after Lebanon's cabinet conceded (CNN) the immediate demands of Hezbollah. Then, after several days of negotiations, government officials and Hezbollah leaders forged a deal (BBC) aiming toward parliamentary reconciliation. Lebanese politicians cheered the deal—though some experts interpreted it as a second victory for Hezbollah. But beyond the immediate attempt at stabilization, several problems loom, including the country's electoral system and the broad influence of Hezbollah, which many say is backed by Iran's government (Economist).

The apparent breakthrough came following five days of talks in Qatar, brokered by the Arab League, which broke down at least once. On May 20, the Qatari prime minister announced a deal making way for the immediate installation (al-Jazeera) of Lebanon's army leader Michel Suleiman as president, the formation of a unity government, and a ban on the use of weapons in domestic conflict.

In the effort to bring about lasting peace, however, experts don't expect a quick fix. CFR's Mohamad Bazzi, writing in the UAE paper The National, says the arms issue and the question of parliamentary reconciliation fit into a "Gordian Knot" of problems including Lebanon's future relationship with Syria and tensions with various factions at Palestinian refugee camps scattered throughout Lebanon.

Other analysts wonder what it will mean for international affairs if Hezbollah assumes increased authority. A commentary in one Lebanese paper lamented the rise of "Hezbollahstan" (Ya Libnan). Even if the group gains only some power, it remains to be seen how effectively Hezbollah and its longtime enemies will be able to legislate together. Should the political situation break down again, some analysts worry the country may emerge as a place nobody can decisively govern.

For the United States, these issues pose a significant dilemma. Proponents of President Bush's democratization efforts repeatedly cited Lebanon's pro-Western government as a case study of progress and hope. Now the country presents a darker specter. Washington fears a boost for Hezbollah will constitute a victory for Iran, which is widely thought to support the group. Countries like France, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia share U.S. concerns about creeping Iranian regional hegemony.

But U.S. policymakers balance these pressures with a desire not to provoke large-scale unrest in Lebanon, a country many see as a proxy for some of the Middle East's most volatile conflicts. Washington may be hesitant to force its hand on Damascus at a time when Israel and Syria seem to be edging toward a possible peace (FT), a compromise that could provide a way forward in the long-standing efforts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Nor can Washington necessarily afford an escalation of tensions with Tehran, which holds the capacity to play a major destabilizing role in Iraq. Michael Young, a political analyst based in Beirut, tells CFR.org that Lebanon's conflict reflects a disquieting new "cold war," adding that "things could get a lot worse before they get better."

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