Monday, January 29, 2007

Proxy war in Lebanon

From Financial Times, 29.01.2007

Proxy war in Lebanon

A national entente and new elections may be only answer


For the umpteenth time in its history, Lebanon is becoming a preferred arena for proxy war in the Middle East. Lebanese fought on both sides of the Crusades and hedged their bets even when the Mamluks defeated the Mongols in the 13th century. They have provided almost the only Arab allies (Maronite Christians) Israel has had in the region, as well as the only force (Hizbollah) to match the Israelis at war. Still unable wholly to shake off the 1975-90 civil war in which the main of many faultlines was between Muslim and Christian, the Lebanese are in danger of sinking into a new sectarian cesspool, this time between Sunni and Shia. It must not happen.
Lebanon came out of the civil war with its politics (and some very remunerative rackets) in Syrian hands and its south under Israeli occupation. The Shia Islamist Hizbollah saw off the Israelis in 2000, while a civic uprising triggered by the assassination of Rafiq Hariri, the former prime minister and architect of postwar reconstruction, forced Syria to withdraw its forces.

Relief though all this was, it did not stop Israel trying again and again to destroy Hizbollah, especially as a way of bloodying the group’s Iranian sponsors, or stop Syria dreaming of its Anschluss in the Levant. Neither Hariri nor the inept Sunni leadership that succeeded him, moreover, ever really tried to forge the country’s 18 sects into a nation or – a linked problem – promote economic and social equity.

But last summer’s war, in which Israel, with Anglo-American support and the acquiescence of Sunni Arab leaders across the region, tried and failed to crush Hizbollah, has opened another front in the Sunni-Shia conflict haemorrhaging out of Iraq.
This is in part the fault of Hizbollah. Celebrated as heroes after resisting Israel’s onslaught, their fighters could again put off deciding whether they are a national party or the regional spearhead of Shia Islam. They instead chose to withdraw from and then confront the democratically elected government led by Fouad Siniora. The problem is that many Shia believe Mr Siniora and his allies were complicit in the attempt to destroy Hizbollah. They point out that he did not even visit southern Shia areas destroyed by Israel.

With such bad blood it is hardly surprising last week’s Hizbollah-led strike slid into violent confrontation. Saudi and Iranian diplomats helped calm the situation, acting for their Sunni and Shia proxies. As a stopgap, that is fine.
But it is the Lebanese who need to seize control of their future – unless they want their country again to become the address through which Syrians and Saudis, Iraqis and Libyans, Israelis and Iranians communicate with each other by car-bomb. A national dialogue leading to new elections and a new entente may be the only answer – with external support for this national process rather than sectarian surrogates or political clients.

1 Comments:

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