Is It Time To Treat Lebanon Like the Enemy It Is?
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
Lebanon is on the verge of civil war — or is it? That poser is on the minds of those Americans and Israelis who fear a relaunch in the land of cedars of the kind of orgy of bloodletting that beset Lebanon during the final quarter of the last century.
Last week, armed clashes left seven dead in the streets of Beirut. On one side were followers of Samir Geagea, a leader of a Christian militia known as the Lebanese Forces. On the other, loyalists of the Iranian-based terror group Hezbollah, headed by Hassan Nasrallah.
Leaders from both sides, naturally, blamed their rival. How much control, though, do either of them have over their own minions?
“Neither Geagea nor Nasrallah are interested in a full scale civil war,” says Sarit Zehavi, founder of Alma, a northern Israel-based research center that closely follows Lebanon. However, Ms. Zehavi adds, young Hezbollah and LF hotheads may well not heed their leaders’ calls for restraint.
Violence among men of a generation that has no memory of the 1975-1990 civil war could mushroom into a full scale war. Since last week Israelis have been arguing over that scenario, and the debate is yet to be settled even inside Ms. Zhavi’s own think tank.
According to the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies’ Lebanon watcher, Tony Badran, there is a difference between sporadic violence, as in last week’s Beirut clashes, and an all-out civil war.
Unlike the last century’s Lebanese wars, Mr. Badran says, leaders of today’s sectarian militias don’t have enough military equipment, outside backing, or troops to face the country’s the well-equipped militia that Iran created in Hezbollah.
In Maronite Christian villages, Mr. Badran reports, locals have moved their valuables out of homes bordering Shiite areas, fearing confiscation by Hezbollah. Christians are leaving Lebanon in droves, creating a population imbalance that did not exist during the civil war days.
Lebanon’s other powers also have given up on confrontation with the Shiite forces, Hezbollah and Amal. In the early part of last decade the veteran Druze leader Walid Jumbalat admitted his forces would lose any confrontation and practically bowed to Hezbollah’s hegemony.
Also, if violence does get out of hand, outside powers like Russia and France would intervene on Hezbollah’s side, to preserve Lebanon’s “stability,” says Mr. Badran. The national Lebanese army, which America finances and equips, also in the name of stability, answers to Hezbollah.
That said, Lebanon is unpredictable. “The lines between parochial nonsense and geopolitical reality are often blurred,” Mr. Badran says.
Mr. Geagea, who led the militia that committed in 1982 the infamous 1982 massacres at Sabra and Shatila, could lose his sense of proportion and launch further attacks on Hezbollah. ISIS-type Sunni extremists could decide to challenge Lebanon’s current Shiite-dominance.
If violence gets out of control, Israel may have some new opportunities. For now, the Israeli and Hezbollah leaderships have largely agreed on a tacit, uneasy ceasefire. Israel doesn’t harm the Iranian-backed interests inside Lebanon, and Hezbollah refrains from attacking the Galilee and beyond.
That doesn’t mean an all-out invasion or interference in Lebanon’s political affairs, as in the past. But if the country’s internal violence deteriorates and leads to chaos, says Ms. Zehavi, the Israeli Air Force should start a “campaign between wars,” as it does in Syria. Such a campaign could include unpublicized, pinpoint strikes against Hezbollah military assets, including its missile factories.
The downside is that such clashes could quickly deteriorate into a sustained Hezbollah campaign, in which northern Israeli towns are subjected to attacks similar to the low-intensity war Hamas conducts from Gaza.
While America tries to diminish our Mideast presence, some Lebanese scenarios could drag us right back into the thick of the region’s power struggles.
For the time being, President Biden must rethink moves like last month’s approval of $47 million in military aid to Lebanon. Jerusalem, meanwhile, has its hands full resisting American initiatives like delineating its maritime border with Lebanon, which started in the waning days of Donald Trump’s presidency. They could harm Israelimilitary and economic interests.
Lebanon’s complexities have somewhat simplified in recent decades. Rather than multiple points of power that endlessly clash with one another, Lebanon is for now under the thumb of Hezbollah and its Iranian patron.
That new reality must guide the thinking of decision makers in Washington and Jerusalem: treat Lebanon like the enemy that it is, rather than the ally we’d like it to be.