by Sterling Jensen and Robert Sharp
The assassination of an anti-Assad Sunni cleric in Tripoli and the Lebanese Armed Forces now acting in Tripoli has put the international community on high alert about the prospect of civil war in Lebanon as overspill from Syria. The Lebanese government, a patchwork of sectarian stitching that has kept the country together since independence in 1943, might look like it is beginning to unravel. The government is under pressure. Prime Minister Najib Makati, who has an important constituency in Sunni majority Tripoli, has tried hard to hold the government together while attempting to bridge growing tension and distrust between communities. There are many challenges facing Lebanon. Hezbollah’s recent statement that the resistance will never weaken adds to the complexity. The country is working to accommodate an increasing number of Syrian refugees, preventing overspill and regional attempts to leverage domestic divisions to either prop up or bring down the Assad regime, and riding out an economic crisis. But Lebanon will not fall. It will weather the storm. Here is why.
First, Lebanon has already experienced a civil war. Lebanon does not want to repeat that experience. The civil war from 1975 until 1990 was a mistake and clear lessons were learned. During this period the PLO thought terror would help them advance their agenda. They used Lebanon as a base and took sides in a civil conflict. Syria had a united military that stepped in to support the government in Beirut. The move ultimately exacerbated the problem. Israel thought it could resolve its problems with the PLO by invading Southern Lebanon and bombing Beirut. This made matters worse. Iran gave Lebanese Shiite militants false hopes of a religious revolution in their own country. This arguably created Hezbollah. While it might be true that as things change they stay the same, no one in Lebanon will gain from a new civil war and they know it. After hundreds of thousands were killed and displaced, no side won. They all lost. The wounds of civil war were and are still deeply felt in Lebanon. Lebanon can weather the current storm because the alternatives are simply – at this stage - unacceptable.
Second, the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) are legitimate, respected and independent. While Hezbollah is better equipped with lethal weapons than the LAF, lethal weapons are not the key to preventing civil war, legitimacy is. There is no state institution in Lebanon more apolitical and legitimate than the LAF. While greater lethal capabilities would certainly make it easier for the LAF to face internal and external threats with greater confidence, their unbiased cooperation with mixed communities will give them their most strength as a neutral arbitrator during civil strife. It is right for Prime Minister Makati to give the LAF a green light to confront the threats emanating from Tripoli. The LAF will remain professional and objective.
Third, the momentum toward democracy in the Middle East plays to Lebanon’s strengthens, not its weaknesses. The destabilizing factors in the region affecting Lebanon come from threatened dictatorships, not warring peoples. Certainly there is a sectarian nature to geo-political conflict raging in Syria, but the state actors affecting Lebanon are not democracies representing their people’s interests. These actors represent their own interest. Their interests are fundamentally about staying in power. Accountable governance will inevitably reach Syria, Iran and transitioning states. Until then, regimes will resist change. The resulting democracies will have legitimacy and longevity. Lebanon’s democracy, while in constant change, is ultimately accountable to its people. It has staying power.
Fourth, the free world is committed to allow Lebanon to choose its future. Not all of the international community, especially countries in the region, are happy about how Lebanon resolves its internal disputes. For example, Iran and Arab Gulf countries generally support Lebanon to the extent that it resolves internal disputes in a way befitting their interests. The government might have to forgo discussions about a hot regional issue such as disarming Hezbollah until the LAF have greater lethal capabilities and progress is made with Arab-Israeli peace. The government might also decide, to Iran’s chagrin, it is in Lebanon’s national interest to support a transitional government in Syria and thus withdraw support for Al-Assad. Whatever conclusions come from a process of Lebanese political dialogue, the free world will recognize that for the Lebanese, Lebanon takes precedence over regional interests. International support will strengthen the Lebanese Government more than regional pressure will weaken it.
When analyzing the Middle East, it is easier to be pessimistic than optimistic. A wrong optimist stands out more than a wrong pessimist. It is easier for analysts and political pundits to be pessimistic about Lebanon. That pessimistic view, expressed in the media, helps aggravate an already precarious situation as groups wrestle for influence. It is a form of self-fulfilled prophecy. We are not pessimistic about Lebanon because we believe Lebanon has a political system, security force and national memory to weather the current storm. It will be challenging, but Lebanon will not fall.