Lebanese Christians mull Damascene conversion – Asia Times



BEIRUT – Renewed fighting last weekend in Tripoli, in the northern Sunni-dominated region, demonstrates Lebanon’s precarious peace, and a potential rise of Salafist-jihadi influence, in response to the seemingly irresistible will to power emanating from Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah’s southern Beirut lair.

St George's Cathedral, Beirut (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

Ahmad Moussali is professor of political science and Islamic studies at the American University of Beirut. He told Asia Times Online, “A lot of Saudi money has been put into the north to cultivate Wahhabi/Salafist ideology, to counter Hezbollah,” reflecting wider Sunni-Shi’ite regional rivalries.

“These radicals see the Lebanese army as weak, and [ruling coalition] March 14 Sunnis cannot stop them confronting Shi’ites or Alawites [a sect of Shi’ites].”

One north Lebanese jihadi group called Fatah-al-Islam is regarded as a Syrian creation, and Alawites comprise the ruling vanguard in Syria, raising suspicions that the Tripoli fighting is being orchestrated by Damascus, irrespective of Saudi bankrolling.

A deal reached in Doha, Qatar, in May gave Hezbollah its sought-after blocking vote in government, after it overran west Beirut in a show of force that the US-funded Lebanese army declined to confront.

Syria-affiliated Hezbollah may now be able to curtail government discussion of its arsenal, deemed necessary for “resistance” to Israel, in contravention of recent United Nations Security Council resolutions on Lebanon.

In Tripoli, one could see dozens of bullet-marked, shelled-out buildings on either side of the Sunni-Alawite divide between the warring neighborhoods.

Jamal al-Rai owned a garage right on the interface. He believes the now-charred remnants were targeted because “I had a banner of Saad Hariri [Sunni head of the March 14-aligned Future Movement] outside”.

Saad is Rafik Hariri’s son. His father’s assassination on March 14, 2005, sparked Lebanon’s Cedar Revolution, when almost one-third of the population took to Beirut’s streets in protest at what they regarded as a Syrian hit on Lebanon’s pro-West prime minister.

The pro-West March 14 coalition in government takes its name from the Hariri assassination date, and comprises mostly Sunni, Christian and Druze parties.

A UN tribunal established to investigate the Hariri killing may now be jeopardized by the Hezbollah veto, as well as Israel-Syria peace negotiations.

Meanwhile, French President Nicolas Sarkozy feted Syrian President Bashar al-Assad at the recent Paris Euro-Med summit.

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Mouallem visited Beirut last week, after pledging to recognize the neighbor it occupied from 1975-2005, and hitherto regarded as a part of Syria illegally detached by the French between the two world wars.

Sunni politician Bassam Khodar Agha is president of the Free Lebanese Movement, which supports March 14, but is not a formal member. He said in Tripoli that “we hope the international community will not allow Syria back here. Syria is causing unrest to facilitate Hezbollah. But we trust that the US will support a democratic and free Lebanon”.

Fears abound, however, that Lebanon’s pro-Western government majority will be sacrificed for gains elsewhere: for Israel with Syria, and for the US and Europe with regard to Iran.

Regional diplomacy and macro-level geopolitics loom large over little Lebanon’s multi-confessional political tapestry. Moussali explained, “We are awaiting the Iranian response to the American and European incentives on the nuclear issue, if Iran plays along, hotspots may cool off.”

Hezbollah’s rise was seen again in the effusive homecoming given to prisoners released from Israeli jails, a swap for two dead Israeli soldiers, whose capture during a Hezbollah attack in northern Israel in 2006 sparked an Israeli counter-attack that resulted in the deaths of an estimated 1,200 Lebanese.

Driving through Beirut’s southern suburbs, known as the dahiyeh, once can see dozens of large-scale building projects, likely funded by an Iran flush with revenue from high energy prices, replacing the craters left by Israel’s two-year-old aerial bombardment.

Almost all of Lebanon’s main parties were represented at the prisoner exchange ceremony, including March 14 members. Toni Nissi, head of the Lebanese Committee for UNSCR 1559, which lobbies the Lebanese government to implement UN resolutions on Lebanon, said that “March 14 has compromised with terror”, referring to Samir Kuntar, a Druze jailed in Israel for his part in a 1978 attack in northern Israel that culminated in him crushing a four-year-old girl’s head against a rock with his rifle butt.

Nasrallah previously described Nissi’s non-governmental organization as “the Beirut branch of the Mossad”, referring to Israeli intelligence.

But the Druze political machine led by Walid Jumblatt is a core constituent of the March 14 coalition. With elections looming, the prospect of Kuntar being proposed as a pro-Hezbollah Druze candidate poses a dilemma for the pro-West alliance.

On this occasion, they chose to play political tag-along with ascendant Hezbollah, tracking the political footsteps being left in the wake of Kuntar’s momentous homecoming.

Such are the moral compromises that politics entail, but the danger for March 14 is that the Kuntar welcome home is seen in the West as evidence that the Cedar Revolution has failed, with March 14’s moral stature plummeting at a rate only exceeded by its squandering of political capital.

The Israeli reaction to Kuntar’s homecoming was predictably vitriolic, but the validity of such righteousness is undercut by the regional strategic maneuverings that are squeezing March 14, not least Israel’s rapprochement with Syria, in tandem with Sarkozy’s public rehabilitation given to Bashar al-Assad in Paris last month.

Elections slated for Spring 2009 could hang on the Christian swing vote, currently divided between March 14 groups and the pro-Hezbollah Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) led by General Michel Aoun.

It is thought that Sunni, Shi’ite and Druze votes will go along predictable lines.

David Schenker at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy told Asia Times Online that former president Michel Aoun was “regarded as politically dead, but has been revived by his alliance with Hezbollah”.

Aoun claims the support of 70% of Lebanon’s Christians, and Hezbollah is seeking to bolster the FPM in advance of 2009 elections, in the hope that Aoun can bring a majority of Christian votes with him, and thereby secure a pro-Hezbollah majority.

Alain Aoun, the FPM’s political affairs officer, told Asia Times Online that “Westerners misunderstand our MOU [understanding] with Hezbollah. The Shi’ites are a pillar of Lebanon, and they have chosen Hezbollah as their main representative. And we are working with Hezbollah on the basis that the reasons for Hezbollah bearing arms must be addressed, as part of a national dialogue, before any progress can be made on this issue.”

Christian politicians across the divide have a problem: how to halt the seemingly inevitable drift to Hezbollah, and the possible material carrots this may bring to Christians who lost their homes or saw family members imprisoned by Syria during the 1975-1990 civil war.

With Hezbollah help, from Tehran via Damascus, the FPM may be able deliver on these, a potential game-breaker come election time, scuttling the UN investigation into Rafik Hariri’s death, and sending the Cedar Revolution full-circle.

But the hurdles now faced by March 14 go beyond attracting the Christian vote.

“March 14 has made many mistakes, most notably failing to pursue a forceful implementation of UN Security Council resolutions,” according to Bassam, who split from Aoun after the FPM revised its anti-Syrian stance. “This has aided Hezbollah’s rise.”

But Hezbollah’s rise is not inevitable, or without compromise. By attacking west Beirut, Saad Hariri’s Future TV and the Druze-dominated Chouf in May, the “resistance” ditched its promise never to train a bead on fellow Lebanese.

The anti-Israeli halo now tainted, Hezbollah may find itself a much-less-electable option come next spring, irrespective of its Christian allies, and its aggression toward fellow Lebanese may stir the country’s freewheeling, party-going urbanites from their political slumber, fearing the prospect of an Iranian-style theocracy in their Levantine Riviera.

(Copyright 2008 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd.

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