Bloomberg: When David Welch, the U.S. State Department’s top Middle East envoy, wakes each morning, he asks himself, “Is everything OK over there?”
By Janine Zacharia
April 1 (Bloomberg) — When David Welch, the U.S. State Department’s top Middle East envoy, wakes each morning, he asks himself, “Is everything OK over there?”
“Over there” is Lebanon, caught in a political stalemate that is putting American officials and much of the Arab world on edge. During six months of paralysis in electing a Lebanese president, Iranian and Syrian support for the Shiite Muslim party, Hezbollah, has flourished while the U.S. has tried to keep its Sunni ally, Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, from being ousted.
In this contest is the danger that Lebanon may turn into a full-fledged battleground in the ongoing conflict between the U.S. and Iran, which is allied with Syria to derail Lebanon’s fragile democracy.
The possibility of bloodshed within Lebanon’s sensitive patchwork of Sunnis, Shiites and Christians recalls the civil war that savaged Beirut from 1975 to 1990, killing thousands of Lebanese and hundreds of Americans, too.
Syria and Hezbollah “are all Iranian cards in the cold war with the U.S.,” Mouafac Harb, a Beirut-based Lebanese- American political consultant, said in a Washington interview.
Iran is arming Hezbollah with long-range missiles that are being trucked across Syria’s border, according to U.S., British and Israeli officials. Iran has also funneled at least $50 million to Hezbollah-linked organizations “that support acts of violence,” Deputy Treasury Secretary Robert Kimmitt said in a Feb. 8 speech.
The Bush administration has been pushing unsuccessfully for Hezbollah to be disarmed in accordance with a United Nations resolution that ended the group’s 2006 war with Israel. It has positioned American warships off Lebanon’s coast and is delivering U.S. Humvees and ammunition to the Lebanese army.
“Lebanon is the battlefield” in a “fierce struggle,” says Fawaz Gerges, an expert on Islamic militancy at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, New York. “The country stands at the brink of another major conflict.”
The 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah illustrates how quickly one violent incident — a cross-border attack by Hezbollah on Israeli soldiers — might escalate. Hezbollah fired Iranian-made rockets into Israel during the conflict.
Oussama Safa, director of Beirut’s Lebanese Center for Policy Studies, says Iran’s influence in Lebanon “is part of a conflict with the U.S. across the region,” and in Lebanon, “Iran plays the role of spoiler without much cost.”
The dispatch of American warships was meant to signal to Syria and Iran that their interference in Lebanon won’t be tolerated, U.S. officials say. Syria dominated Lebanon during a 29-year occupation that ended in 2005 amid protests over the murder of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri.
To combat Iranian and Syrian influence in Lebanon, the U.S. has made some unusual allies. One is Samir Geagea, a Maronite Christian aligned with Siniora who was sentenced to death for crimes committed during Lebanon’s civil war and later pardoned. He now runs Lebanese Forces, a party with its roots in the militia he headed. Last month, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice welcomed Geagea in Washington.
U.S. assistance to the Lebanese military soared to more than $320 million last year from less than $1 million in 2005. The Bush administration pledged an additional $770 million at a Paris donors’ conference to rebuild Lebanon following the 2006 war.
`Score Political Points’
Still, the U.S. has made little headway in isolating Syria and Iran, Gerges says. “The opposition, led by Hezbollah, has used the deployment of U.S. warships to score political points against the pro-Western governing coalition,” he says.
Arab allies of the U.S. are also concerned. Saudi Arabia and Egypt sent lower-level officials rather than heads of state to the March 29 Arab League summit in Damascus to reflect their discontent with Syria for helping Iran grow its foothold in Lebanon. Syria invited Iran to the gathering.
To keep Lebanon in a state of political disarray, Syria is working with Hezbollah — Party of God in Arabic — to prevent a vote for president in Lebanon’s parliament, U.S. officials and analysts say. Balloting has been postponed 17 times and is now scheduled for April 22.
The Bush administration is concerned that if the presidential stalemate goes on, Lebanon will begin to fracture.
“We’re trying to organize it so everybody will be supportive of the current government, so there’s a new president and so that the political crisis” doesn’t escalate, Welch says. “It’s already grave enough as it is. We don’t want to see an economic or social crisis, and by social, what I mean is sectarian.”
In an echo of Lebanon’s past violence, an American embassy car was targeted in a January bombing that killed three Lebanese bystanders.
Whether Lebanon again descends into chaos might depend on whether Iran and Syria retaliate against U.S. and international sanctions imposed to thwart Iran’s nuclear program. “If the Iranians and the Syrians feel the heat, then the chances of a major confrontation in Lebanon are higher,” Harb says.
For Welch, the worry of Lebanon becoming a battlefield again is intertwined with personal experience. In 1983, as a young diplomat in Washington, he was in charge of monitoring the country.
There are still “two opposing forces in the region,” he says. The U.S. and its allies “would propose to resolve their conflicts” through negotiation, while Iran, Syria and Hezbollah favor resistance and believe “patience in combination with violence will win out.”