Lebanon’s red lines, bared

By Sharmine Narwani

What a difference a week can make in the Middle East.

On October 19, when a car bomb tore through the upscale Christian neighborhood of Achrafiyeh in Beirut killing a major security official, Lebanon shuddered in fear that the era of political assassinations was back.

Politicians and commentators didn’t miss a beat. The murder of Internal Security Forces (ISF) Information Branch head Wissam al-Hassan was compared to the killing of his former boss, ex-prime minister Rafiq Hariri in 2005. And the Hariri-allied pro-West, anti-Syria, pro-Saudi “March 14” political coalition lined up to deliver a visceral blow to their opponents, just as they had in 2005 when they ejected Syrian troops from Lebanon.

Hassan’s body was not yet cold before his political allies started pointing their fingers at Syria and whipping up fury in the anti-Syrian Sunni enclaves of Lebanon. Young men spilled onto the streets with weapons brandished; some with RPGs and even combat uniforms. Clashes ensued, people died, but still their March 14 leaders did not call for calm.
In a replay of 2005 when hundreds of thousands of Lebanese rose up in the State Department-dubbed “Cedar Revolution” to oust the Syrians, March 14 groups on Sunday called for the masses to rally against Syria and its Lebanese government allies.

Except that not a single Syrian was ever charged by the international UN-backed tribunal that investigated Hariri’s death. And last week there was no evidence that Syria was implicated in Hassan’s assassination either.

But that didn’t stop the political theater at Hassan’s funeral service last Sunday when just a few thousand showed up to participate in what some hoped would be a replay of 2005.

There was no comparison whatsoever.

Instead of the sea of Lebanese flags, unifying slogans like “Freedom, Sovereignty, Independence” and the dazzling marketing and color-revolution choreography of, respectively, Saatchi & Saatchi and Serbia’s Otpor that marked the 2005 event … the scene at Martyr’s Square in downtown Beirut on Sunday resembled a wake for the March 14 coalition.

There was barely a Lebanese flag to be seen. Instead, the throngs held up flags of the Future Movement headed by Hariri’s son Saad, right-wing Lebanese Forces Christian militia flags, Saudi flags, the colonial flag of the Syrian opposition and Islamist flags in black. Radical Muslims rallied alongside radical Christians, their one commonality, revulsion for the Syrian government and its allies Iran and Hezbollah.

The visible awkwardness of these March 14 alliances was impossible to ignore on Lebanese TV that day. Who failed to note the incongruity of a right-wing Christian Samir Geagea supporter standing next to a Sunni youth sporting an al-Qaeda headband? How can there be a future for a Future Movement so fundamentally at odds within itself, one wondered.

The crowds had little in common, their disparate leaders were smug, the mood was nationally divisive – little wonder then that the event ended with sticks and stones and tear gas. Not to mention a pitiful attempt to storm the Grand Serail and eject the Lebanese government headed by Hezbollah ally and billionaire Sunni, Prime Minister Najib Mikati.

Those few hours on Sunday produced the first post-bombing revelation: March 14 has nothing to offer Lebanon – they are morally bankrupt, out of ideas, yesterday’s leaders clawing for relevance as the region changes rapidly around them. Their supporters too are just treading water – this grouping exists only in opposition to something; it stands for nothing.

While the bombing had March 14 licking their opportunistic lips, it was their own Western allies France, the UK and US (FUKUS) that crushed their political hopes. Without any apparent tactical coordination, FUKUS overrode March 14 publicly, and declared that PM Mikati and his government must stay.

What is surprising is March 14’s utter cluelessness about the way those winds were blowing. Not just FUKUS, but all five UN Security Council permanent members and Ban-Ki Moon’s personal representative in Lebanon weighed in on the side of Mikati’s government.

Not only was the UNSC speaking with one voice, but the speed and decisiveness of their message also undermined a key March 14-FUKUS refrain. In effect, the global powers were recognizing that the Iran and Hezbollah-backed Lebanese government was integral to guaranteeing the country’s stability at a vulnerable time. No longer could this duo claim that these regional players were acting to destabilize Lebanon.

And so another red line is bared. The three main Western backers of the Syrian and Lebanese opposition have shown their limits: It is perfectly okay to sow sectarian strife in Lebanon, Syria and elsewhere, but not if it means destabilization on several of Israel’s borders. One conflict-struck country is manageable in the Levant, but more than that and things can spread like wildfire. Controlled chaos is fine, but certainly not concurrent with a power vacuum. A powerless Lebanese state will mean loss of control over the critical southern territories along the Israeli border and along the eastern border with Syria – both are hard limits for FUKUS.

The FUKUS states have of course realized that at this critical juncture in Syria, they need levers in neighboring Lebanon. They care not a whit about their allies being in power – a compliant government is far less valuable than one with “access.” The governing March 8 coalition is led by a weak and malleable Mikati, but importantly, he is a route to Iran, Syria and Hezbollah – which counts when regional stakes are this high.

No matter that Hezbollah has just flown a drone over FUKUS-ally Israel in an embarrassing breach of security for the Jewish state. No matter that Israel has been demanding military strikes against Iran just before a US presidential election. No matter that March 14 have been staunch FUKUS allies in both a local and regional geopolitical context against mutual foes Syria, Iran and Hezbollah.

The only thing that counts now is that FUKUS isn’t confident about the outcome in Syria. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has outlasted all their predictions and opposition forces supported by the west are radicalizing in a direction that makes their mentors uncomfortable. If Islamist militants spin out of control in Syria, FUKUS will need to tame that chaos fast, before it spills into allied Jordan and Israel and further disrupts the Turkish and Lebanese borders.

The red lines hurriedly drawn in Lebanon last week have shown regional antagonists some new and unexpected cards. March 14’s diffuse political identity resonates little with the Lebanese, and its interests are diverging from traditional external allies. FUKUS and the UNSC views the Iran, Hezbollah and Syria-backed Lebanese government as a force for stability in the Levant. Western leaders fear loss of control in the Syrian crisis they helped fan. Iran and Hezbollah hold valuable levers for the international community.

We may never discover who killed Wissam al-Hassan, but Lebanon last week was full of revelations nonetheless.

Sharmine Narwani is a commentary writer and political analyst covering the Middle East, and a Senior Associate at St Antony’s College, Oxford University.

Originally posted at Asia Times

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