Lebanon at a Tripwire
Middle East Briefing N°20
21 December 2006
Lebanon has badly lost its balance and is at risk of new collapse, moving ever closer to explosive Sunni-Shiite polarisation with a divided, debilitated Christian community in between. The fragile political and sectarian equilibrium established since the end of its bloody civil war in 1990 was never a panacea and came at heavy cost. It depended on Western and Israeli acquiescence in Syria’s tutelage and a domestic system that hindered urgently needed internal reforms, and change was long overdue. But the upsetting of the old equilibrium, due in no small part to a tug-of-war by outsiders over its future, has been chaotic and deeply divisive, pitting one half of the country against the other. Both Lebanon’s own politicians and outside players need to recognise the enormous risks of a zero-sum struggle and seek compromises before it is too late.
There is domestic responsibility for the crisis. Profound confessional rifts were never fully healed after the civil war; society is hopelessly fragmented along clan, family, regional, social and ideological lines; there are no genuinely sovereign, credible and strong state institutions; and above all, a corrupt patronage system has created vested interests in perpetuating both sectarianism and a weak central state.
But the principal contributors to today’s conflict are foreign. Lebanon is vital to the Bush administration’s regional strategy, Israel’s security, Tehran’s ambitions and the Syrian regime’s core interests. As the July war reminded everyone, it is also a surrogate for regional and international conflicts: Syria against Israel; the U.S. administration against the Syrian regime; pro-Western Sunni Arab regimes led by Saudi Arabia against ascendant Iran and Shiite militancy; and, hovering above it all, Washington against Tehran.
Domestic and foreign roots of the crisis are closely intertwined. Lebanon’s sectarian fabric, feeble state institutions, reliance on patronage and enmeshment in corruption enable and encourage the outside interference on which so many of its leaders depend. At one end of the political spectrum, a coalition of opposition forces relies on Damascus for political and material assistance and, in Hizbollah’s case, military supplies. Read more