Will the raging fire in Syria reach the cedars of Lebanon?—Obama’s Debacle in Syira — Update #77 (August 24)

If you’ve ever attended a conference at the Commodore Hotel or walked near the American University in West Beirut, or had a drink at a lively bar or eaten lunch in Ashrafiieh, in East Beirut, you may have some sense of the charms of Lebanon and its capital city. If you’ve driven around Beirut and seen the way the center of the city near the Green Line has been rebuilt following the long civil war (1975-1990), or witnessed the variety of religious beliefs represented in the dress of women at one of the busy shopping malls, and seen how despite their differences Lebanese seem to manage getting along with each other, you may have some idea of their achievement in building a country with a working democracy and a strong civil society, after a devastating civil war, in a place where the tectonic plates of Islamic and Christian civilizations come together.

And if you’ve ever studied a little bit of Lebanon’s history, from the development of the alphabet at Byblos and the Phoenicians to the Romans and the Crusaders to the present, and particularly since the landing of U.S. marines in 1958 to stabilize the existing order and the sudden withdrawal of U.S. marines on a separate mission, following the deaths of 241 American marines and 58 French servicemen from a truck bombing at their headquarters in Beirut in 1983, you may have some sense of the delicate balance of forces at play in Lebanon, and the careful efforts of the Lebanese themselves to avoid a return to civil war. Nor do they wish to return to the enforced peace which existed under Syrian occupation until the Syrians were forced to withdraw following the assassination of Rafiq Hariri in 2005. The Syrian withdrawal resulted from what came to be known as “the Cedar Revolution”, led by forces now known as “the March 14 Alliance” (not to be confused with their opponents, the “the March 8 Alliance”).

The government, representing a finely-balanced equilibrium between opposing alliances, seems perennially on the verge of collapse. Before the Arab Spring reached Syria and exploded into civil war as a result of Bashar al-Assad’s use of terror in attempting to suppress it, a huge issue which threatened political stability in the country was whether the government would pay its share of the expenses of the international Special Tribunal for Lebanon set up by the United Nations to investigate and prosecute those responsible for the Hariri assassination. This became a burning issue when it became known that the Tribunal was planning to issue, and then issued, indictments against members of Hezbollah for their involvement in the Hariri assassination. Somehow, through a number of crises, the Lebanese were able to work out a solution to this problem. Lebanon paid its share of the Tribunal’s budget without Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s leader, bringing down the government or even seizing control of Beirut’s southern suburbs (and other parts of the city) and the southern part of the country, in addition to the Bekaa Valley, which through his actions he had threatened to do in the past. Somehow, Lebanon muddled through.

Culturally, Lebanon has played a very special role in the Arab imagination, a fact reflected in many Egyptian films, as a romantic and holiday destination. It is also known as a place of personal and intellectual freedom where individuals of different nationalities and political, religious and ethnic backgrounds can come together, in order to meet, exchange ideas, negotiate, and enjoy the vibrant music and cultural scene. Lebanon’s cultural life is now broadcast through the Arab world by satellite television channels including LBC.

The love songs and melodies of Farouz, perhaps the best known singer in the Middle East in the last 50 years, are known throughout the Arab world and beyond.

Yet the toll of the Lebanese Civil War on the people of Lebanon was horrendous.

Now, the carefully constructed peace and political balance in Lebanon, built on the ruins of that war, is in great danger of being rendered by the raging forces of the civil war in Syria, which has recently spilled over into Tripoli and northern Lebanon. Moreover, the former Lebanese Minister of Information, Michel Samaha, has been arrested with explosives on charges he brought explosives into Lebanon with the intent of bombing crowds and assassinating Sunni leaders supportive of the Free Syrian Army, in coordination with Syrian intelligence officials.


Misbah al-Ali and Antoine Amrieh, “Tripoli trapped in Syria quagmire,” The Daily Star, August 25, 2012 (12:48 a.m.).

“Syria spillover clashes escalate in Lebanon; Killing of Sunni leader by sniper fire reignites violence that has left 17 people dead in Tripoli over last five days,” Al Jazeera, August 24, 2012.

Damien Cave, “Syrian War Plays Out Along a Street in Lebanon,” New York Times, August 23, 2012.

Damian Cave, “Syria Seen as Trying to Roil Lebanon,” New York Times, August 21, 2012.

Victor Kotsev, “Assad opens regional Pandora’s box,” Asia Times (online), August 25, 2012.

Donna Abu-Nasr, “Foiled Lebanon Bomb Plot Raises Concern of Spread
from Syria,” Bloomberg, August 20, 2012.

This spill-over has been largely due to the passivity of the West and the Arab countries and the civilized nations of the world, in the face of Russian and Chinese blocking actions in the U.N. Security Council.  The West and their allies have shown an appalling lack of resolve in standing up to the terror in Syria orchestrated by Bashar al-Assad, with material and political support from Russia, Iran and China.

If the West and the Arab countries and Turkey had intervened early with the calibrated use of military force to halt al-Assad’s atrocities, would the civil war have reached its current dimensions or intensity?

Revealingly, Dimitri Simes, a well-known Russian expert, stated on the PBS Newshour on June 13, 2012, that he had just had a number of conversations in Moscow with key officials, and had come away with the clear impression that if the West and the Arab countries were to intervene with military force, the Russians would not be happy and would complain loudly, but in the end would be prepared to accept the fact of the intervention.


Let me say, however, again something Michele Dunne said which I find quite interesting, and I don’t know whether she had it in mind, but perhaps she did, namely, that nobody said we’re not entitled to act without U.N. Security Council blessing. And as one official in Moscow put it to me, well, look, if the United States feels very strongly that force has to be used and is determined to act, let the United States and NATO do it without U.N. Security Council blessing, the way it has happened in the case of Kosovo, the way it has happened in Iraq.

The Russians obviously would criticize that. They wouldn’t want a decision which doesn’t give a role to the U.N. Security Council. But if that is the only way to resolve the situation, I think they would be prepared to live with that.

–PBS Newshour, June 13, 2012.

Even if Simes’ assessment was accurate at the time, the Russian position has since evolved sharply to one of direct confrontation with the West.

The civil war in Syria is like a large and growing forest fire which outsiders have decided to allow to grow in intensity and extension, hoping that it will burn itself out before it consumes their homes and livestock and other precious goods.

But the fire has shown no signs of burning itself out. On the contrary, every day it seems to find new and endless supplies of dry underbrush and dry wood to feed its fury.

This fire could spread to Lebanon very easily. Some of its flames have already lapped across the borders. The only questions are whether the fire marshals, who have up till now been steadily explaining why they cannot intervene without knowing which way the fire will go and ultimately who will dominate the ruins it leaves behind, will call in the fire brigades to halt its advance, and if so when.

The Trenchant Observer



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