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Lebanon in Limbo

Lee Smith

Beirut

The idea that George Bush might be stopping in Lebanon during the course of his 9-day tour of the Middle East is one of the more far-fetched rumors I’ve ever heard in a land rife with speculation and hearsay. A Bush visit here is unlikely, for obvious reasons.

“Syria’s allies threatened to block the airport road if Bush shows up in Beirut,” says Eli Khoury, a Lebanese democracy activist and founder of New Opinion Workshop (NOW) Lebanon. And what about the rest of Lebanon? “Considering Syria’s strong presence in Lebanon through these allies, and the security threat it poses, there is a big difference between what the democratic public in Lebanon would want to do to welcome Bush and what they would actually do. People might not mass up, out of fear for their lives or militant intimidation.”

Certainly a meeting between Bush and the million plus who took to the streets March 14, 2005 to demand their freedom, independence, and sovereignty would cheer the leader of the free world at a time when his administration’s Middle East policy has run off the tracks. If the invitation Secretary of State Rice extended Damascus for November’s Annapolis meeting rattled the Sunni-Druze-Christian coalition that makes up Lebanon’s March 14 movement, post-Annapolis events have concerned the rest of Washington’s regional friends.

Insofar as Annapolis was supposed to gather U.S. allies to remind them of their common front against Teheran, the National Intelligence Estimate discounting the dangers of the Iranian nuclear program rendered the exercise meaningless. Why would the Saudis or Egyptians stick their necks out for the White House if the president can’t even manage his own intelligence community? Now, the administration is stuck with what some pundits are unironically calling the “Annapolis process,” which is supposed to lead to a Palestinian state and usher in a new Middle East.

But to welcome the President to what is still the old Middle East, Damascus and Tehran have heated things up a bit—largely here in Lebanon. First, a sectarian clash in a Beirut Sunni neighborhood bordering on a Shia section threatened to get out of hand until the army was deployed and tensions cooled. Monday, two rockets were fired into Northern Israel, and Tuesday afternoon a UN convoy was targeted, injuring three UNIFIL troops.

As Lebanon’s Syrian and Iranian allies are willing to resort to such violence to send the message that the President of the United States cannot protect his allies in Lebanon, Israel, and Europe, what can the U.S. do to show its resolve?

Khoury believes a presidential trip would actually mean a lot. “It means that Lebanon has, for once, strong allies who are serious about supporting their cause,” Khoury says. “And that, despite the deadly circumstances, the new Syria-free regime will overcome and flourish.”

Right now, however, there is only political stasis. After March 14 cut a deal allowing army commander and presumed Syrian ally Michel Suleiman to become president, the Hezbollah-led opposition smelled blood in the water. What they wanted next was a re-jiggered cabinet that would give them veto power to quash the formation of the tribunal into the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minster Rafiq al-Hariri. Thus, Lebanon has entered a stalemate that has no obvious resolution—except for March 14 to cave in to the demands of Hezbollah and its Syrian assets, or for the tribunal to take shape and start naming members of the Asad family.

It is very difficult for observers to understand how a country can function in such a vacuum, without a president and a sidelined parliament, but life goes on in Beirut. Bars and restaurants were filled this holiday season with Lebanese expats; as one reveler explained New Year’s Eve, “the fun never stops”—even if the political process has.

And thus Lebanon has come down to a game of nerves, with regional and international actors waiting for the next move. Regardless of the president’s travel plans, in the wake of Annapolis the White House has redoubled its efforts to show, as Bush said recently, “the United States is strongly committed to Lebanese democracy.” And after France’s brief flirtation with Damascus, president Nicolas Sarkozy has suspended talks.

The Arab League has backed the Suleiman presidency, which given the reality on the ground is a non-starter. According to Tony Badran, a fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, “It seems increasingly like the Syrians simply avoided criticism in Cairo by appearing to back the Arab consensus while at the same time winking to their Lebanese allies to create old-new hurdles. It afforded Syria, in their view, a measure of deniability.”

Usually it is the Americans who are eager to wrap things up—to get some closure, as we like to say. But if Syria and Iran believe they are riding a wave with the NIE, the recent violence in Lebanon suggests that Damascus and Teheran are also capable of losing their cool.

First, the vacuum gives the tribunal more time to form. Second, in spite of all the vain talk about splitting Syria from Iran, there is only one obvious wedge issue between them. While Damascus will sacrifice any amount of Lebanese blood to protect the Syrian regime, Iran does not want a Sunni-Shia war in Lebanon that would affect its standing throughout the region. If Washington’s Sunni allies read the NIE as an index of the Bush administration’s weakness, sectarian conflict in Lebanon would remind them that cutting deals with the Islamic Republic of Iran is a very foolish idea.

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