In stark contrast to Iraq, where violent conflict along religious and political lines is a relatively recent development, sectarianism is woven into the fabric of the Lebanese state. Lebanon’s government, political parties, and coalitions are all based on locked power distributions among different groups. Lebanon also has a long history of foreign intervention and entanglement, from the French and Ottomans to Israelis and Syrians to the current rivalry between the US and Iran. Oftentimes Lebanese domestic struggles are broadened into regional wars of dominance. The current situation in Lebanon divides the major sectarian groups into two opposing camps and their regional backers. Both sides are fighting over the future of Lebanon and whether it will look to the East or the West for its cultural influence.
Lebanon has split into two groups of a pro-Western majority coalition consisting of Sunnis, a majority of Maronites, and the major Druze party pitted against the pro-Iranian opposition of both Shia parties (Hezbollah and Amal), and Maronite general Michel Aoun. On the surface the groups are fighting over the presidency of Lebanon which is assured to a Maronite under the National Pact of 1943. Since pro-Syrian president Emile Lahoud stepped down at the end of his term in November, the pro-Western majority lead by Saad Hariri sought a pro-Western replacement. At the same time the opposition is trying to hedge its bets and get veto power in the new administration by controlling one third of the cabinet positions. In reality the next president will make vital decisions about Lebanon’s future, in particular its relationship with Hizballah and Syria.
In 2005 Lebanon underwent the Cedar Revolution where it expelled Syrian forces in wake of the assassination of former prime-minister Rafik Hariri. All Syrian soldiers and personnel left Lebanon, but their Lebanese contacts and intelligence agents remained in an attempt to maintain Syrian dominance in lieu of military occupation. This was the height of the pro-Western coalition’s popularity and power.
The Lebanese Sunnis make up the backbone of the coalition and their primary backer is Saudi Arabia. Currently Prime Minister Fouad Siniora leads the government and is largely in charge of Lebanon’s government in absence of a president. The crucial goals for the Sunnis are stability and closer ties to the Arab world. They want to disarm Hizballah or at least bring their militia under government control not out of affinity for Israel, but because they want a say in when Lebanon is dragged into war. The 2006 Lebanon-Israel War was fought between Hizballah and Israel, but the whole country suffered from it. There is also the fear that Hizballah’s militia, already stronger than any other militia, may be growing stronger than all the militias combined and could upset the fragile balance of power.
Recently Hizballah flexed its military muscle and took over West Beirut, the predominantly Sunni
Muslim sector of the city. After the government shut down a separate Hizballah communications network and fired the pro-Hizballah head of airport security, Hassan Nasrallah said it was an act of war by the government. Breaking his previous promise never to use Hizballah’s militia for internal strife, Nasrallah‘s brigades quickly overran the city and attacked sites of importance to the majority coalition.
The Christian Maronites have historically leaned West for international support. Their primary backers are France and the United States. They share many of the concerns of the Sunnis regarding the growing power of Hizballah, but not their vision for Lebanon. The two groups are in a coalition of convenience based out of common history of dominance in Lebanese politics. The Maronites are a shrinking minority in a Muslim country that growing more fervent in its ties to Islamism, both Sunni and Shia. They would ideally prefer a secular Westernized Lebanon in the mold of the 50’s and 60’s, where each sect can freely practice its religion. They also desire stability and the benefits of trade and development, but a volatile Hizballah is a threat to that.
The Druze are the fourth segment in a political society of three. They are not guaranteed any position by the National Pact, and must thus struggle and work for their representation. Although least invested in the Western/ Iranian struggle, the Druze have chosen to take a hard line in favor of the majority coalition. Their flamboyant leader Walid Jumblatt, who was previously on the Syrian payroll, switched sides to the majority in hopes of gaining out of their success. His is perhaps the most risky position since nothing is guaranteed to him by the National Pact, he is making a big gamble by being such a vocal member of the majority. When Hizballah attacked West Beirut in May, they also turned against Druze villages in their homeland of Shuf Mountains. This backfired against Hizballah as the previously divided Druze parties rallied together and successfully fought off the attack. This reveals the greatest strength of the Druze community which is highly cohesive and unified when under attack.
The Shia of Lebanon are divided into two main parties, Amal and Hizballah. Amal is the more moderate party and its constituencies hail from the wealthier Shia. Their leader, Nabih Berri, holds the highest Shia position of Speaker of the Parliament, and is the main power broker between the majority and the opposition camps. In this role he is more pragmatic and although pro-Syria he is flexible to a compromise.
Hizballah represents the hard line Islamist view and appeals to the poor dispossessed Shia of Lebanon. Due to its long history in training and funding by Iran, Hizballah sees Lebanon’s future as an Islamic state and ascribe to the Iranian theology of wilayat al-faqih—the Guardianship of the Jurists. Hizballah’s politics and rhetoric tend to mirror the Iranians. When Iran took a moderate rout in the late 90’s early 2000’s, Hizballah followed suit and participated in Lebanese politics. Since 2005, when Iran took a hard line stance, Hizballah has taken greater efforts to undermine Lebanese political status quo. To them maintaining the remaining Syrian presence and an open border are crucial for survival, since Syria is the main link and gateway to Iran.
Michel Aoun and his Maronite followers are in the opposition coalition for political gain. Since any pro-Iran government would need a Maronite president, Aoun hopes to be that man. He also has numerous enemies in the Maronite establishment and thus his maverick position is also in opposition to them.
This situation as a whole is rather tragic from the standpoint of the Maronite community. Although they were excluded from the violence against the Sunnis and Druze by Hizballah a few weeks ago, they have fallen far from their once dominant position in Lebanese politics. Once the key power brokers of Lebanon, after the Taif Agreement of 1989 realigned the Lebanese Confessional system; the Maronites’ power was strongly reduced, but they held onto the presidency as a concessionary prize. However, today the position is still empty and is being fought over primarily by Sunni and Shia Muslims, not the Maronites themselves.
In Lebanon, it is extremely difficult to predict the future and where things will end up. The immediate effect of the Hizballah rout was a shift in the balance of power in their favor as the Sunni militias melted in the oncoming presence of the Hizballah force. In the short term Hizballah may get a result in the presidency which it favors. However, the Hizballah juggernaut was stopped by the Druze and alienated their Druze support with Talal Arslan and his Lebanese Democratic Party. Similarly, Hizballah broke its promise not to use the militia in internal Lebanese politics and maybe have provided a rude awakening to the various other communities to arm and prepare themselves.
Lebanon has traditionally prided itself on being the bridge between the Middle East and the West, but as the bases of the bridge are being pulled father apart, the tension has increased.
Special thanks to Abbas Kadhim for his background contributions to this article.