Lebanon Knows ‘Lose-Lose’ When It Sees It

Bilal Y. Saab
Bilal Y. Saab Senior Research Assistant, Saban Center for Middle East Policy

January 19, 2007

With political polarization reaching alarming levels in Lebanon, one of the most pressing questions is whether or not the country will return to the gruesome chapters of its past and degenerate into civil war. It is difficult to predict when or how Lebanon will emerge from its present mess. The impression I got when I recently visited the country and met with leaders from the two opposing camps was that while a solution to the deadlock was unreachable in the near term, a civil war was unlikely, if not out of the question.

Given the interconnectedness of the domestic and foreign roots of the crisis, making this case means considering developments from the local, regional, and international angles. The forces working at the local and regional levels against widespread communal violence help explain why a war is unlikely. International calculations offer insights into how and when the deadlock might be broken.

At the local level, the nature of communal relations is the most potent antidote to a new civil war. Despite its sizable base of support and large military arsenal, Hizb’allah has no interest in venturing into such a risky and suicidal venture as a domestic conflict. The party’s leadership knows that once its arms are used against fellow Lebanese, that would signal Hizb’allah’s demise. As one member of Hizb’allah’s Shura Council told me: “It’s like shooting yourself in the foot. Why would you want to do that?”

Indeed, this logic is convincing to all sides. Unlike April 1975, when the warring parties firmly believed that a clash would produce a victor and a vanquished, today, leaders of the March 14 and March 8 coalitions are conscious that a war would lead to nothing but a lose-lose situation.

Furthermore, the present political crisis has yet to give rise to a nationwide and systematic militarization of society. Cynics would argue that it is only a matter of time before such scenario unfolds, as it is relatively easy to smuggle weapons into Lebanon. But again, if regional actors agree on keeping the country in one piece (as I argue below), it follows that they would thwart, or at least contain, any attempt by foreign actors to militarize Lebanese society. At the same time, one cannot discount the Lebanese Army’s neutrality in the crisis, which so far has helped guarantee domestic tranquility and deter outbreaks of violence.

At the regional level, had there been no war in Iraq, Middle Eastern actors perhaps would have not been so adamant in their efforts to avert another conflict in Lebanon. In fact, some states might have had a hand in starting and sustaining it. Syria, for example, would have welcomed an opportunity to return to Lebanon as supposed peacemaker, to re-impose its control. Arguably, Iran might not have been unhappy either, as the balance of military power clearly favors its ally, Hizb’allah. Israel would also reap the fruits of such war, as it would compel Hizb’allah to direct its military resources internally, away from the Israeli border.

The states of the region fear two things in a Lebanese conflict: its spillover effects and terrorism. Civil wars are rarely local. In the Middle East, particularly, they have a tendency to spread across borders. Regional states are well aware that two such wars in the region (with Iraq already descending into one) would be almost impossible to contain and could provoke inter-sectarian, particularly Sunni-Shiite, bloodshed elsewhere.

At the same time, the breakdown of central authority in Lebanon would very likely offer Al-Qaeda a new base of operations in the Middle East, thereby enabling it to fulfill one of its strategic objectives: engaging the “infidel” states in the region in long wars of attrition and ultimately establishing Islamic rule in the Middle Eastern corridor. Arab, Iranian, and Israeli officials have repeatedly expressed their major concerns about such a dangerous eventuality. Indeed, no state in the region will or can tolerate a terrorist state in Lebanon.

Internationally, the United States has made it clear that it cannot afford to lose in Iraq, for strategic reasons – most importantly maintaining cost efficient access to energy resources and preserving its dominant position in the Middle East. To secure such interests knowing that it will most probably withdraw its troops from Iraq in the next couple of months, Washington is going to have to flesh out a comprehensive strategy for the region, whose details will largely determine when and how an internal Lebanese compromise will materialize.

If this U.S. strategy continues to call for the isolation of Iran and Syria, we can expect more political tension and violence in Lebanon, and a hardening of Hizb’allah’s resolve and determination to topple the pro-American government of Fouad Siniora. If, on the other hand, Washington decides to creatively engage Tehran and Damascus, or perhaps only one of them, and include them in the new regional security architecture which will emerge after the U.S. withdraws from Iraq, then this will have positive repercussions on the Lebanese scene and open the door to compromise.

The challenge for the U.S. will be to balance its goals of winning the cooperation of Iran and Syria – necessary for stabilizing Iraq and reaching a compromise in Lebanon – with its general commitment to supporting Lebanese aspirations of sovereignty and independence. In other words, any understanding must avoid undermining the Hariri tribunal, which Syria is anxious about, or turning a blind eye to Iranian hegemonic ambitions in the Middle East.

Meanwhile, Lebanon will continue to be buffeted by forces it cannot control. Civil war may not be forthcoming, but that hardly means the country is in for a smooth time in the months ahead.