September 10, 2007


Lebanon's Agony (Max Rodenbeck, 6/28/07, NY Review of Books)

Take the assassination of Riad Solh. Lebanese schoolbooks describe the Sunni leader at the time of Lebanon's independence from France in 1943 as a national hero. It is true that the National Pact of that year, a founding document of the new nation, owed much to a practical meeting of minds between Solh, by inclination a pan-Arab nationalist, and Bishara Khoury, a Maronite Catholic leader who advocated a more Mediterranean-oriented, Christian-flavored Lebanese republic. Their alliance was institutionalized by the fixing of a 6–5 Christian–Muslim ratio of parliamentary seats, and a division of key powers between a Maronite president (Khoury was the first) and a Sunni prime minister. Other sects, it was understood, would have their share at every rank in government, including the cabinet, under a system known as muhasasa, or apportionment.

That deal brought three decades of uneasy calm and rapidly rising prosperity as Lebanon—an island of relative democratic liberty amid a sea of coup-prone dictatorships—attracted capital and talent from across the region. Yet the ideological seam of Arabism versus Lebanese particularism eventually pulled apart. From the beginning, too, the distribution of powers among Sunnis and Christians chafed what was then the country's third-largest confessional group, the largely rural and marginalized Shia, for whom the topmost allotted post was speaker of parliament. It also annoyed the fourth-largest sect, the Greek Orthodox. Many were attracted to the quixotic vision of Antoun Saadeh, who founded a radically secular and socialist party that sought to incorporate Lebanon within a Greater Syria, along with Jordan, Palestine, Iraq, and Kuwait. [...]

But the hardest crack to repair, and the easiest for Syria to exploit, grew out of Hezbollah, and particularly the party's adamant insistence on retaining its growing stock of arms. The Security Council demanded disarmament of all "militias," and most Lebanese would have liked to see Hezbollah tamed. But in a speech in May 2005 the party's soft-spoken and charismatic leader, Hassan Nasrallah, ominously declared that he would "cut off any hand that reaches out to our weapons."

The Shia party's fierce attachment to the notion of perpetual "resistance" sprang partly from its origins in the darkest years of the civil war, when the impoverished Shia suffered more than other sects both because they had no militia, at first, to protect them, and also because they happened to lie in the path of Israel's frequent forays into South Lebanon. There was a strong ideological element, too, as Sheikh Naim Qassem, Hezbollah's icy second-in-command and chief intellectual, makes clear in Hizbullah: The Story from Within, his own history of the group.

Qassem exalts the culture of martyrdom in almost fetishistic terms, citing a willingness to die as the ultimate weapon of the weak against the strong. Resistance to Israeli and Western plots to control the region, he declares, should be consecrated as "the foundation block for a society of forbearance that prides itself on its achievements and sacrifices, strengthening such resistance further and responding to it."

This is, in fact, the kind of Spartan society that Hezbollah has created in the zones under its control, which include large swathes of southern Lebanon, the eastern Bekaa Valley, and Beirut's densely populated southern suburbs. Built around a tight network of party-provided services, including television and radio, schools, hospitals, orphanages, and other charities, it is an almost exclusively Shia world. The only element that provides wider appeal, for fellow Arabs and Muslims, is Hezbollah's determination to fight Israel to the bitter end. Hence, again, the attachment to arms, and the impetus to continue attacking Israel even after its abandonment of Lebanese territory.

It is for this reason, too, that Iran remains so closely linked to the protégé that it helped create in the 1980s. As a revolutionary regime that seeks to universalize its ideology, Shia Iran has used Hezbollah's appeal as a successful fighting force to enhance its own legitimacy among Sunnis, who make up 85 percent of the world's Muslims. With the government in Tehran apparently captured by hard-line ideologues following the election victory of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in August 2005, and with Iran facing growing hostility from the West, the usefulness of Hezbollah has only grown.

The facts that Iran and Syria have been allies since the early 1980s and that both supply Hezbollah with arms are obvious reasons for the group to align itself, in local Lebanese politics, with pro-Syrian forces. But there is a broader rationale, as Qassem argues. Lebanon can never be neutral, he asserts. Its geography and politics impose two alternatives, allegiance either to Syria or to Israel. "It is natural of us to choose the former," he concludes.

Once you topple the Ba'ath in Syria and recognize South Lebanon as a separate state, they'll be loyal to themselves.

Posted by Orrin Judd at September 10, 2007 12:00 AM

Once the Ba'ath in Syria are gone, there is no reason for an independent Lebanon.

Posted by: Brandon at September 10, 2007 10:47 AM

Any people which thinks of themselves as a nation is one. Which is why there is a South Lebanon. There probably isn't a North Lebanon.

Posted by: oj at September 10, 2007 12:10 PM