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Lebanon Politics - Syria Seen Wanting To Cause Another Civil War.

*** Chaired By Pres. Chirac, A Paris Donor Meeting On Jan. 25 Gave Lebanon $7.66 Bn In Rebuilding Assistance - The Move By Rich Powers And Saudi Was A Sign Of Confidence In The Beirut Govt. Despite The Dangerous Unrest On Jan. 23 & 25; Hizbullah Chief Nasrallah Said He Could Topple Siniora Within One Day Or Two, But Would Not Do That To Prevent A Civil War

*** Now The Saudis Are In Charge Of The Sunni Status Quo In The ME, Dealing Directly With Tehran On Lebanese And Iraqi Political Developments; Ankara & Cairo Are Playing A Supporting Role For Riyadh, With Prince Bandar Ibn Sultan Being The Key Person For The Saudi Nat'l Security

BEIRUT - Saudi Arabia and Iran are engaged in a diplomacy aimed at averting civil war in Lebanon. The Ba'thist dictatorship in Syria wants to derail this diplomacy and see the Beirut government of Fou'ad Siniora toppled before a UN tribunal is established to try the killers of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. A UN commission probing the murder has implicated the Syrian regime.

The US Ambassador to Lebanon, Jeffrey Feltman, recently said in an interview with al-Hurra, the US government-funded Arabic-language satellite TV network which broadcasts to the Middle East: "Nobody should be surprised when things [in Lebanon] start to spin out of control". He said he suspected Syria was behind the current troubles in Lebanon.

The US, which backs Siniora's government, is just watching the way Saudi-Iranian diplomacy is trying to resolve problems in Lebanon despite tension between Washington and Tehran over Iran's nuclear programme and its "super-power" role in the Middle East - a role of which the Americans are increasingly being suspicious (see Iraq study in this week's rim2-IraqUSpressingIranFeb5-07).

Lebanon recently displayed a surreal picture to the world of a country showered with international financial aid to overcome the cost of a summer war with Israel yet dangerously moving towards civil strife rather than stability. As world foreign ministers met in Paris for an impressive show of support for the pro-West government on Jan. 25, delivering a $7.66 bn assistance package, Beirut was swept by chaos and street fighting, reviving the images which had terrorised it during the 1975-1991 sectarian conflict.

The Paris conference's objective was partly aimed at propping up the government of Siniora, who has faced a mounting challenge to resign from a collection of political groups led by the powerful Hizbullah, the Iran-sponsored Shi'ite militant organisation which fought the 34-day war with Israel to Aug. 14, 2006. But Siniora returned to a tense Beirut to deal with a deteriorating crisis. The Jan. 23 and 25 violence between government and opposition activists had long been in the making, but it looked like a sinister rehearsal for a full-blown civil war.

The troubles started on Jan. 23 when the opposition blocked roads to impose a general strike. With the army standing by and not following the government's orders to clear streets and avoid confrontation, clashes erupted across the country. They turned most bloody in Christian areas, where Hizbullah's allies, which include a Christian party, clashed with pro-government Christian groups.

The events of Jan. 25 were even more alarming, bringing back frightening practices of Lebanon's civil war. Four people died and 150 were wounded. A brawl between two students at a university in the mostly Muslim part of Beirut spread like fire, first outside the perimetre of the Arab University and then to other parts of the city, pitting the pro-government Sunni followers of the Future Movement against Hizbullah and the smaller Shi'ite party Amal.

The early fights involved clubs and stones but then better-armed youths appeared and snipers started shooting from rooftops. Buildings were burnt. Hooded men set up checkpoints on the road to the south demanding that motorists show their ID cards to verify their religious affiliation. The clashes lasted seven hours. The youths ignored pleas from political leaders.

The army, already stretched with the deployment of thousands of troops alongside international peacekeepers in the south to guard the border with Israel, struggled to contain the chaos.

It took a night curfew, as well as a fatwa from Hizbullah Secretary-General Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, and repeated calls for calm from Sa'd Hariri, the Sunni leader of the Future Movement, to restore order.

In an unusual collaboration that could complicate American policy in the region, Iran and Saudi Arabia have been mediating an agreement to end Lebanon's violent crisis. Leaders of Hizbullah have recently visited the Saudi king in Riyadh. And Prince Bandar ibn Sultan, the Saudi national security minister, has met with his Iranian counterpart, Ali Larijani, in Riyadh and Tehran to try to stop Lebanon's slide into civil war.

The New York Times on Jan. 29 quoted Radwan Sayyed, an adviser to PM Siniora, as saying: "The only hope is for the Iranians and Saudis to go further in easing the situation and bringing people back to the negotiating table". The paper said the Saudi-Iranian efforts had "put Washington in an awkward position, since it is trying to reduce Iran's regional influence". But since a stable Lebanon is an American priority, US officials have watched the efforts without interfering.

There is a belief in Lebanon that if the Saudi-Iranian effort succeeds, the result will be short-term. There remains fear that Syria, which retains influence with Hizbullah and within Lebanon's security services, will work to scuttle any deal. But Iran seems to be working in earnest.

Members of Lebanon's governing party say the dynamics inside Iran, where firebrand President Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad is losing strength (see news5-IranAhmadi-N'sDeclineJan29-07), have led Tehran to lean on Hizbullah. One question is whether Hizbullah will do what Iran wants or will bend to the Syrians. Hizbullah leader Nasrallah said in a recent speech an agreement "between two countries or two governments does not bind the Lebanese, because the Lebanese must seek their own interests and not the interests of Saudi Arabia and Iran".

It has been nearly three months since Hizbullah began leading street protests aimed at bringing down the Beirut government, and Lebanese political leaders have failed even to agree on the framework for talks. There have been no direct meetings between the main political leaders in months. Many say they fear even more bloodshed if a deal is not struck by Feb. 14, the second anniversary of the assassination of Rafiq Hariri.

The governing coalition plans to mark the anniversary with large street rallies at Hariri's grave site in the centre of Beirut. Those demonstrators would be separated by a few feet from the hundreds of opposition supporters who have camped out for nearly three months in their effort to bring down the government.

Allies of Syria in the opposition have scolded the government for backing creation of an international tribunal to hear evidence in the assassination of Hariri and other political killings. Syria has been implicated in the killing by a UN investigation, and one of Syria's allies in the opposition says if the government backs down on the tribunal, the crisis would ease. But the fight is also over who will be the next president, whether Hizbullah will be allowed to keep its weapons, how to rewrite Lebanon's electoral laws, whether UN troops will remain on the southern border with Israel and, more fundamentally, whether Lebanon will lean towards the US and Europe or towards Iran and Syria.

There have been proposals each side has presented as compromises only to be rejected by the other as insufficient. "It is true, whoever governs will decide Lebanon's political direction", said Muhammad Fniesh, a senior member of Hizbullah who recently attended a meeting with King Abdullah in Saudi Arabia.

Iran and Saudi Arabia have been involved in Lebanese affairs for decades. Saudi Arabia has close ties with the Hariri family and has invested large sums of money rebuilding Beirut. Recently as Iran-backed parties have taken over in Iraq and as Iran has tried to establish itself as the regional superpower, Saudi Arabia has begun, at American urging, to press back.

Seeking to fill the vacuum left by Egypt, whose regional influence has diminished, Saudi Arabia has tried to position itself as an Arab counterpoint to Iran. But in Lebanon both see a common interest in calming sectarian tensions, at least for now.

The fight has effectively divided the country between the predominantly Shi'ite opposition and the predominantly Sunni governing alliance. Lebanon's Christian community is divided between the two.

The eagerness to look beyond Beirut for a solution comes as Western diplomats in Beirut say they fear that local leaders have abrogated their responsibility to foreign powers. Even Lebanese leaders say internal talks are going nowhere. Ali Hamdan, an adviser to Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, the leader of Amal was on Jan. 29 quoted as saying: "Nothing much is moving. It is as if we are moving backwards".

Most agree that if there has been any major movement in resolving - or defusing - Lebanon's political crisis, it has more to do with the changing political dynamics elsewhere.

Toufic Sultan, a former leader in the main government-aligned Druze party who has maintained close ties to Saudi officials, said: "Saudi Arabia and Iran are near an agreement".

Already reeling from the chaos and sectarian strife in Iraq, governments around the region are worried that Lebanon, too, is on the brink of breaking apart along sectarian lines.

Lebanese Army soldiers reinforced patrols and checkpoints on Jan. 26 after a rare night-time curfew imposed by the authorities. The order to clear the streets, lifted just before dawn, came after rival groups turned a university campus into a battle zone with four people killed when mobs faced off with clubs and stones.

Snipers opened fire during the melee. One of the snipers caught was a Syrian national, and another was a Palestinian, but there was no clear indication whether the gunmen were acting on orders from any of the leaders locked in the deepening standoff or saboteurs seeking to inflame the situation. Talks between Hizbullah and the government broke down in November over Hizbullah's demands for greater power. On Jan. 23, roadblocks by Hizbullah and its allies brought most of Lebanon to a standstill.

All schools and universities were ordered closed on Jan. 26 by the education minister. Classes in most schools were resumed on Jan. 29. But the Arab University was to remain closed until Feb. 5.

In Paris on Jan. 25, Saniora pleaded to his countrymen to "distance themselves from tensions", saying: "No one can help a country if the people of this country don't want to help themselves. I call on your wisdom and reason". Nasrallah, who insists he does not want Lebanon to tumble into civil war, told followers it was a "religious duty" to get off the streets to allow security forces to keep order.

Hizbullah officials offered a different narrative of the violence, insisting it was the work of pro-government "militias" trying to exacerbate sectarian tensions. Officials portrayed their party as the wise, calming voice, and their military machine as a weapon against Israel, not other Lebanese.

With an eerie calm returning to Beirut on Jan. 26, there was hope the Jan. 23-25 shock, the worst violence since the end of the civil war, would lead to a compromise in a country split down the middle. Hizbullah and its allies will not easily give up their campaign to gain a blocking part of the cabinet. The government, which still has a parliamentary majority, has been as determined not to give the opposition a veto power, making a lasting compromise difficult to achieve.

With the Middle East polarised by the Shi'ite-Sunni conflict in Iraq and the standoff between Shi'ite Iran and pro-West Sunni states, all sides seemed to agree that a red line had been crossed in Lebanon. Hizbullah is the only heavily armed movement in the country and was allowed to maintain its weapons after the end of the civil war, on grounds that it was a resistance group confronting Israeli troops that were still occupying southern Lebanon. But the machine-guns brandished by all sides on Jan. 25 suggested that there was no shortage of arms in the hands of others as well.

The clashes highlighted the vulnerability of the Lebanese army to internal splits if it is forced to confront protesters. In 1975, it was an attack by a Christian militia on a bus filled with Palestinians which sparked the civil war, and soon led the army to disintegrate. The conflict evolved into a struggle between opponents and allies of the Palestinians, who in effect ran a state within a state in Lebanon and later degenerated into militia wars between various sects and within religious groups.

For government officials, the Jan. 23 and 25 events were part of a conspiracy orchestrated by Hizbullah and Syria, to topple the Siniora government and prevent the creation of a UN-backed tribunal to try the killers of Hariri. It was the Feb. 14, 2005, Hariri assassination which forced Damascus, the power broker in Lebanon since the civil war, to remove its troops from Lebanon.

French President Jacques Chirac, who organised and chaired the Paris conference, on Jan. 25 openly backed Siniora, stressing the legitimacy of his government, "put in place by democratic elections". Arab states, led by Saudi Arabia and including Kuwait, Qatar and other GCC members, pitched in with hundreds of millions of dollars each. Saudi Arabia gave $1.1 bn, apart from $1.5 bn it had given after the 34-day Hizbullah-Israel war in August 2006.

The donor conference was intended to aid the country's reconstruction after the war, as well as address its crippling debt of $40.5 bn, equivalent to 180% of GDP. Both Siniora and the French president emphasised that the international support was for "all the Lebanese". But given the increasing political divisions in the country, it is difficult to know how much of the money raised at the conference will be delivered or how the government will be able to implement the economic reforms much of the funding is predicated on. Big new commitments of support came from the IMF and the European Investment Bank (EIB) as well as the US and Europe.

A Lebanese official said $800m of the $7.66 bn were expected to be in the form of grants and almost $2 bn were to be disbursed during 2007. Chirac praised the economic reform programme which Siniora presented to the conference, elements of which have been criticised by Hizbullah and other opposition groups. The French president and others linked long-term international aid to implementation of the reforms. The IMF and the EIB pledged over $2 bn. On Jan. 24 the EU committed an extra 400m ($520m) and France announced 500m in soft loans. US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice confirmed a US pledge announced a day earlier of $770m in new aid.

In an interview with Kuwaiti newspaper al-Seyassah carried on Jan. 29 by the FT, Saudi King Abdullah warned Iran it could endanger the whole Persian Gulf if it did not resolve the problems in its "international relations", a reference to Iran's increasingly tense standoff with the US over its nuclear programme and its role in Iraq. He said: "We have advised them not to expose the region to dangers. We do not interfere in anyone's affairs, [but] any state which resorts to unwise acts will have to bear the responsibility in front of the other countries in the region". King Abdullah even complained in the Kuwaiti newspaper that Iran was trying to convert Sunni Arabs to Shi'ism.

The king's remarks come amid increasingly vocal criticism of Iran by officials and the press in the Arab world. The FT quoted an Egyptian diplomat as saying: "We are extremely worried about the policies of Iran and the rhetoric coming out of Iran which adds to the tensions in the region. Their rhetoric confirms the worst fears the West has about Islam".

America's main allies in the Arab world - Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia - are deeply concerned about the influence Iran has come to wield in Iraq, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories. Iran, with its sponsorship of Hizbullah and support for the Palestinian Hamas and Islamic Jihad - three uncompromising opponents of Israel - is seen to be propelling the region in a direction counter to that where America's allies want to lead it. Tehran's backing of Hamas is said by some to be frustrating Egypt's efforts to mediate between the Palestinian factions to forge a national unity government which would, in theory, be more receptive to negotiation with Israel. But now there is a virtual civil war between Hamas and Fatah.

Osama Saraya, editor of the government-owned Egyptian daily al-Ahram on Jan. 26 wrote: "Iran's intentions are very clear. It is...sowing corruption in every direction". But even if the Arabs are alarmed by Iran's nuclear ambitions and its policies in the region, they do not want a US military strike against it. Saraya says it would have "dire consequences" for the region.

Abdul Moneim Sa'id, the head of the al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, says: "There is a kind of mobilisation of Arab public opinion. But Arab governments are wise enough to realise that an attack against Iran would be detrimental to them and would help their radical opponents".

In his State of the Union Address on Jan. 23, President Bush compared Hizbullah to al-Qaeda, speaking of an "epic battle between Shi'ite extremists backed by Iran and Sunni extremists aided by al-Qaeda". He accused what he called "Hizbullah terrorists" of "seeking to undermine Lebanon's legitimately elected government".

Much was said about the disarming of Hizbullah and the summer war of 2006. A popular theory was the one given by veteran US journalist Seymour Hersh of The New Yorker. He wrote that the war was a proxy war between the US and Iran, fought on Lebanese territory by the Israel Defence Forces and Hizbullah. That proxy war failed at eliminating Hizbullah although it was in the US interest, more so than Israel, to get rid of the Shi'ite guerrillas.

One reason for wanting to rid itself of Hizbullah was to prevent the creation of Hizbullah models in failed states, Iraq for example. After all, the ingredients for an Iraqi Hizbullah are there: in Jaysh al-Mahdi, where militiamen are young, oppressed, angry, and religiously driven. They have a leader in Muqtada al-Sadr, and in a chaotic scene such as Iraq, weapons are plenty. They only need the axis to Iran, and a new Hizbullah is created in the region.

The situation in Lebanon is likely to deteriorate further, since neither Siniora nor Nasrallah is seemingly willing to give in. Nasrallah bluntly says that by no means is he or the opposition backing down from their claims.
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Publication:APS Diplomat News Service
Date:Feb 5, 2007
Previous Article:Is Bush Planning War Against Iran?
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