Why Lebanon?

29. April 2011, von Thomas von der Osten-Sacken

Michael Totten, einer der klarsichtigsten US-Nahostanalysten, in einem einem unbedingt lesenswerten Interview ueber den Libanon, die Proteste in Syrien, die Zukunft des Iran, die Rolle von Al Qaida in Libyen und warum Tunesien die besten Chancen fuer eine bessere Zukunft hat:

Why does Lebanon matter so much – for both the Middle East and the greater Arab world – beyond its borders?

MT: Lebanon is divided roughly into thirds between Christians, Sunnis and Shias. Lebanese Muslims don’t necessarily think of themselves as Muslims. They think of themselves first and foremost as Sunnis or Shias, even if they’re atheist Sunnis or atheist Shias.

The Sunnis are aligned with the Arab world and the West, the Shias with the Syrian-Iranian axis and the Christian house is divided against itself. Every faction is perfectly willing to act as a proxy for outside powers as long as it boosts their relative strength against their rivals, so foreign powers are often drawn in, sometimes willingly and other times kicking and screaming. The country has become the Middle East’s swing state. Whoever is winning in the Middle East wins in Lebanon, and whoever wins in Lebanon is winning in the Middle East. The country is also, as a consequence, one of the places where the Middle East fights its wars, and has been since 1975.

RCW: “The solution is not in Lebanon. The solution is in Tehran.” These were the words of Lebanese Druze leader Walid Jumblatt. What did he mean?

MT: Hezbollah is far more powerful than the Lebanese army, which is weak and divided internally along political-sectarian lines. The chances that the Lebanese army will ever disarm Hezbollah are effectively nil, at least while Hezbollah has as much power as it has now. And since there’s no chance the current Iranian government will give up its most prized foreign asset, Hezbollah is not going anywhere until there is either regime change or serious reform in Iran.

I don’t expect the regime to reform itself, but I suppose it’s remotely possible. The Chinese Communist Party dramatically de-radicalized itself after Mao died, and Egypt’s Free Officer’s regime did something similar after the passing of Gamal Abdel Nasser, so you never know. An internal power struggle after Khamenei’s death might produce interesting results. I’d bet against that personally, but the Middle East is always surprising.

RCW: What about the recent Arab uprisings? Can they offer a viable alternative to the kind of political Islamism championed by Iran and Hezbollah?

MT: I’m not optimistic about how this will turn out, partly because of what happened in Lebanon.

The Beirut Spring in 2005 was an extraordinary thing to behold. More than a million people in a country of just over four million took to the streets at the same time and demanded the immediate evacuation of Syria’s occupation forces and the banishment of its mukhabarat intelligence agents. They protested peacefully, and they prevailed – at least for a while. But Syria and Iran effectively reconquered the country by using Hezbollah as their proxy militia.

Countries like Libya and Egypt aren’t likely to be messed around with internally by foreign powers the way Lebanon and Iraq have been, so they’re lucky in that sense, but these countries also have fewer democratic-minded citizens than Lebanon has. And the radical Islamists that make up Hezbollah have their counterparts in countries all over the region.

The one country I’m a bit optimistic about is Tunisia. It’s a place where democratic-minded citizens really are thick on the ground, as they are in Lebanon, but radical Islamists, though they exist, are much scarcer – and none of them have guns, at least not at the moment. Tunisia is all but guaranteed to be left alone by the Syrians and the Iranians. It’s too far away for Damascus and Tehran to cause much, if any trouble, and hardly anyone there would be willing to work as their proxy anyway.

RCW: Does Lebanon offer any lessons for Libya?

MT: Regime change in Libya is only slightly in our national interest, but I vehemently detest Muammar Gaddafi and I have to admit that I’m biased. I’ve been to Libya and have seen what he’s done to the place. He runs a terrifying totalitarian police state and, as far as I’m concerned, deserves to be terminated at once with extreme prejudice. A long protracted stalemate, though, could turn into a disaster for Libya and for the West.

Al-Qaeda fighters from all over the Islamic world may well flood the zone if this is not wrapped up quickly. It happened in Afghanistan, Chechnya, Bosnia and Iraq, and I see no reason why it couldn’t happen in Libya. The longer this drags on, the greater the possibility something like that will happen.

We know that at least a few of the rebel commanders are affiliated with Al-Qaeda already, though I think some people are blowing it out of proportion. Benghazi, the “capital” of the rebel city, is not governed by Al-Qaeda. I have colleagues there, and they would have been hauled off and executed long ago if the likes of Osama bin Laden or Abu Musab al-Zarqawi were running it.

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