Background: What is Behind the Latest Crisis in Lebanon?

By Alexander Jenniches

Two conflicting theories are circulating these days about the renewed violence in Lebanon. One says, Syria is behind the group that clashes with the Lebanese Army, trying to stir again turmoil in Lebanon to either make a forced comeback in a possible civil war or trying to send messages concerning the UN Hariri tribunal. The second theory is, that the US and Saudi Arabia stopped funding anti-Shiite groups in Lebanon which they wanted to use as a tool against a Shiite rise in common and Hezbollah´s influence in Lebanon especially.

The Syrian Connection

While Syria for sure will not let go Lebanon easily – as every big neighboring country does with smaller ones – there is no need these days for Syria to destabilize Lebanon as forcefully as has been the case last week.

Syria together with Iran is in a very good negotiating position with the US over Iraq. In addition to that, the international community, Israel and the US do need Syria as a stabilizing factor. Syrian President Bashar Assad is a well known target. Replacing him by force could lead to unforeseeable eruptions in the region.

Syria plays a major role to suppress the region’s most feared groups, al-Qaeda and al-Qaeda affiliated organizations, whose ideology could easily spill over to other countries if not contained by force. Syria since long is struggling with that problem internally and not only cracks down on somehow democratic groups in the country but more so on any kind of Sunni Muslim movements who have a highly mobilizing potential in Syria and of course consider the ruling Alawite class as heretics. Both are natural enemies.

Hence, there is no need for Syria at this moment to stir a major turmoil in Lebanon, as has been witnessed recently during the battle for the Nahr el-Bared refugee camp.

Furthermore, there is strong indication that Russia may not go along with the western states in the UN Security Council concerning the Hariri tribunal. It may block it as long as major pressure is not taken off Syria’s shoulders. Russia is re-emerging slowly as a strong player in the Middle East, having a traditional good stance among Arab nationalists who reject US influence and Israel’s hegemony in the region.

The US Agenda for Lebanon

But the latest conflict shows that something is going on behind the scenes between the two most influential powers in Lebanon: the US and Iran.

Shiite Iran is a staunch ally of Shiite Hezbollah. The western countries with financing of Sunnite Saudi Arabia – put simply – are supporting the Sunnite-Christian Lebanese government.

With the situation getting worse almost daily for the US in Iraq, the Bush government has more or less secretly been involved in talks with Iran, which is the major power broker in Iraq and most likely funding and training anti-US Shiite groups in the country. Behind the curtains, US-Iran talks about Iraq have been taking place for months now.

The results surfacing are hinting in the direction, that Iran wants to see solid proof of US goodwill in Iran’s – and Hezbollah’s – sphere of influence, Lebanon, before calming down the situation in Iraq. This sign of goodwill might be stopping cold the Fatah al-Islam group together with possibly others which the US and Saudi-Arabia were funding as tools against Hezbollah in case the latter would gain to much influence in Lebanon.

It is very telling that the Hezbollah-led protest camp in downtown Beirut is still in place but almost deserted and Hezbollah is not pressing the Lebanese government on the streets for political change and in the case of the Hariri tribunal. The Shiite group is staying put and just blocking parliament by its ally president of parliament Nabih Berri who refuses to convene sessions.

What probably directly led to the current clashes between the Lebanese Army and the Fatah al-Islam group is that funds for the group were stopped and some of the group’s members just raised their own funds by robbing a bank, which belongs at least partly to the Hariri family who assumingly is also behind the financing of the group. Then, while the robbers where hiding in Tripoli and the Nahr al-Bared camp, security forces went after them, and the fight began.

The Lebanese government meanwhile is in a very difficult position. First, it tolerated and secretly backed the US and Saudi-supported al-Qaeda-affiliated Sunnite Fatah al-Islam militia on its soil to have a tool against Hezbollah – in case the situation gets more violent and to prevent a Shiite rise in Lebanon.

Now, the US – most likely – asks to dismantle that militia by force due to talks with Iran, which is demanding a trust before acting in Iraq to calm down the situation. Recent comments by US president George Bush – this summer would be a decisive period in the war – indicate that he already does expect an improvement of the situation.

The US president might not have said this – facing the non-deniable chaos in Iraq – if he was not expecting promising support – from Iran. This must be a warning sign for the Lebanese government. History could repeat itself in Lebanon where the US has often shown a short-sighted use-and-drop strategy regarding its allies.


If Iran is that strong concerning Iraq as assumed by many, the Fatah al-Islam case could only be the first step in a US policy shift to leave Lebanon to its fate. In consideration of the sufficiently equipped, rivaling fractions within the country, this could lead to more violence sooner or later.

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