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More on Lebanon…

May 14, 2008

Two Articles from the L.A. Times on Lebanon

1. Interview With Augustus Richard Norton (May 14, 2008)

2. L. A. Times May 12, 2008 article on the `Future Movement’ in Lebanon and its Militia (which was soundly defeated in the fighting that just transpired)

Brief Note: Although both the Norton Interview and the article on the Lebanese `Future Movement’ are quite imperfect – neither deals with who has armed and trained this and other militias – at least the subject of the militias is addressed and the fact that the recent military confrontation resulted in significant setbacks for both the United States and Israel. Norton’s vision for political solutions to the crisis is unusually rational for an American commentator as is his criticism of US policy toward Lebanon these past few years. The other country which was severely stung by these events was Saudi Arabia – which, is nothing short of howling in pain over the results. I will be writing much more on all this, but what is becoming crystal clear from my different goggle probes, is the degree to which the current crisis was planned and orchestrated in Washington DC with players like Ohud Barak, Waild Jumblatt and the Saudis huddling with Bush, Cheney, Rice, Gates and the folks at the Washington Institute of Near East Policy (an AIPAC spin off think tank). More on all this as I put the pieces – or try to – together.

What I can share with you now are the following insights: what happened this past week in Lebanon was Israel’s attempt (using proxies) to gain in influence in Lebanon what it lost in the 2006 summer war. It failed completely. Again. Having been twice politically embarrassed in three years, the vultures of war have to regroup and consider their next steps. They (the US, Israel and the Saudis) are quite upset, actually beside themselves. The usually demure Secretary of Defense Robert Gates talks of `giving the Iranians a lesson’ (and then had to back off from such bellicost rhetoric the next day). Equally stung is US columnist, Thomas Friedman, whom my friend Irving Greenbaum in Boulder refers to apty as `the perfect whore’. Irving has a point. Friedman is also beside himself `pissing in the wind’ – as my father so graphically used to say – and whining in anger at the Iranians and Hezbollah. The Saudi press – needless to say one of the least open and democratic presses in the region if not in the world – likewise stung by the defeat and humiliation of the Lebanese proxis it financed, armed and trained (the Future Movement and a few others Sunni militia groups) has descended to name calling, comparing Hizbollah leader Nasrallah to Ariel Sharon (needless to say – about the worst insult they can come up with) and former head of Israeli intelligence, Aharam Zeevi Farkesh is claiming that three years of his government preparing Lebanese militias have dissolved in 24 hours. After pushing the Syrians out of Lebanon and celebrating the fact, now the Saudi’s are angered that the Syrians refuse to re-enter Lebanon to help clean up the mess that the Saudis helped make. Bush’s trip to the Middle East – to drum up support for the next anti-Iranian campaign and for money to prop up the still ailing financial sector is already the joke of virtually the entire Middle East media, be it Israeli, Arab or Iranian.

Problem is the old `beware-the-wounded-beast syndrome’. I don’t know what is worse, that the US and Israel lost in Lebanon, or if they would have won. In the end they just might come to the same conclusion: that military action is necessary. That is the great danger, that they’ll follow up on their Lebanese set back with an even more foolish policy.

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1.

May 14, 2008

LEBANON: Dangerous times and encouraging signs
Scholar and Lebanon expert Augustus Richard Norton recently took time out for a lengthy e-mail interview with the Los Angeles Times about the confusing conflict in Lebanon.

Lebanon watchers have been worried for some time that the current political stalemate between the Western-leaning government and the Iranian-backed opposition could explode and plunge the country into civil war.

“While many Lebanese adults have a living memory of the 15-year civil war that ended in 1990, many shabaab or ‘young bloods’ on all sides have been rearing for a fight,” wrote Norton. “On several occasions dangerous clashes emerged and the country seems to have been close to the brink, and then wiser heads prevailed on all sides.”

Norton knows Lebanon well. He served as a peacekeeper in the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) during the 1980s and wrote the groundbreaking book “Amal and the Shi’a” in 1987.

Now a professor of international relations and anthropology at Boston University, he recently published the timely “Hezbollah: A Short History,” described by Publisher’s Weekly as a “remarkably thorough, articulate portrait” and by the Washington Post as a “lucid primer” on the group.

He’s a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and was an advisor to the Iraq Study Group in 2006.

Below is the interview.

Los Angeles Times: In your opinion, what is happening now in Lebanon?

Augustus Richard Norton: Lebanon has been trapped in a dangerous stalemate for nearly a year and a half. The stalemate was provoked by Hezbollah in league with its opposition allies — Amal, retired Gen. Michel Aoun and his Free Patriotic Movement, the Syrian Socialist National Party and a variety of other groups, including some Sunni Islamists.

From the standpoint of the opposition, the political motives vary. Some opposition supporters call for an ending to corruption, improving governance and other prosaic political goals, but for Hezbollah, the leading opposition power, the agenda includes stifling the French and U.S. goal of supporting and consolidating a friendly government in Beirut that will disarm Hezbollah.

From Hezbollah’s perspective, and particularly its many supporters in the Shiite community, Hezbollah’s arms provide security for a community that has suffered disproportionately from more than three decades of internal war and foreign invasion. Indeed, Hezbollah’s security narrative has actually garnered more support in the Shiite community since the summer war of 2006. The Iraqi civil war has also had a spillover effect in Lebanon, further encouraging Sunni-Shiite animosities.

Obviously, Hezbollah’s adversaries who support the Siniora government understandably see the party’s military wing as a threat to their own security. External powers, including the U.S., France, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Syria, have imposed their own agendas on Lebanon with the result that a political compromise has actually become harder to reach. In effect, the internal political struggle in Lebanon is hostage to the geopolitical struggle that is underway between the U.S. and it allies on the one side, and Iran and its supporters on the other.

LAT: What has changed in Lebanon?

NORTON: The events of the past week or so have dramatically changed the terms of reference for the political struggle in Lebanon. Hezbollah and its allies have handily defeated their prime adversaries, yet done so in a way that signals what we might call “restrained aggression.”

The opposition forces did not seize any government offices in Beirut to my knowledge, but primarily targeted the organizational offices of the Future Movement led by Saad Hariri, the son of assassinated former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri who is the effective leader of the pro-government forces.

Rather than holding on to the offices they captured, the opposition turned over these positions to the Lebanese army. In effect, they signaled a respect for the army as a legitimate agency of the state, while demonstrating that not even the army can contain their might when they choose to unleash it.

While the political stalemate may continue in form, in substance the weakness of the U.S.-supported government is now on full display. In short, what has happened is a decisive setback for the U.S. agenda in Lebanon.

LAT: Is this the end of the democratic experiment in Lebanon?

NORTON: Lebanon’s democratic institutions have had to weather some violent political storms, but however tattered and battered, they have survived. Despite the harsh words that have been exchanged recently in Lebanon, and the frustrating inability of the parliament to actually convene to elect a president, most Lebanese understand quite well that, despite many imperfections, their democratic institutions are essential to Lebanon’s survival. It is noteworthy that one of the key elements of debate between pro-government and opposition forces is over the rules for the parliamentary elections in May 2009. I take that to be an encouraging sign.

LAT: Where is this going? What does Hezbollah’s latest move mean for Lebanon?

NORTON: My view is that Hezbollah has demonstrated that the dangerous stalemate will not end without compromise on all sides. Historically speaking, Lebanese politics has been marked by consensus, compromise and accommodation. No side can dominate the system by itself, at least for very long.

LAT: What does it mean internationally? What are some potential regional consequences?

NORTON: There are a number of mostly negative (and linked) consequences, including:

The risk that Sunni-Shiite tensions will be further excited in places like Bahrain, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and certainly Iraq.
The risk that the U.S.-Iran contest for position and influence will lend ammunition to those who advocate attacking Iran.
The risk that the slowly developing U.S.-Iranian dialogue in Iraq will be jeopardized.
On the other hand, prudent decision-makers may take the Lebanese events as an illustration of why it is important promote non-zero-sum solutions, including a thoroughgoing security dialogue with Iran.

LAT: What role does Iran play in this whole equation? Syria? Saudi Arabia? The U.S.?

NORTON: Iran and the U.S. are in a gladiatorial contest and that does not augur well for regional serenity. Syria would like to insinuate itself yet again into a dominant role in Lebanon, and the success of its ally Hezbollah lends it encouragement (sadly).

As for Saudi Arabia, the kingdom has worked hard to challenge the Shiite-Iranian threat in Lebanon, including pouring in more than a billion dollars. Saudi Arabia may now redouble its efforts, which would risk stoking the internecine flames once again.

There is a non-trivial risk that unless wiser heads prevail, Lebanon could descend once again into civil war, even though many Lebanese understand that what a great disaster that would likely be.

LAT: How does the latest news in Lebanon help or hurt the Bush administration’s vision for the Middle East?

NORTON: I take no joy in saying it, but the Bush administration has continued to blunder badly in Lebanon. In 2006, the U.S. stiff-armed attempts to reach a ceasefire early in the war between Hezbollah and Israel with the result that Hezbollah was seen in many quarters as the victor. Since the war ended in August 2006, the US has thrown spanners in the works to prevent a compromise that would be seen as benefiting Hezbollah or its allies.

There is also credible reporting … that the U.S. has attempted to build up anti-Hezbollah militias (much as it did in Gaza vis-a-vis Hamas) and those efforts have come up short this past week.

The latest statements by President Bush reveal that he has learned little from what has been happening in Lebanon, and he seems to be drawing battle lines for a confrontation in Lebanon, which would be unfortunate, in my view.

LAT: If you were advising the Bush administration right now, what course of action would you recommend?

NORTON: I would tell the president that the notion that “our side” can impose its will on the “bad guys” is a bad bet. If the U.S. wishes to constrain Hezbollah, it stands a better chance of doing so politically than militarily. As for the reality of Hezbollah’s military power and despite clear Security Council resolutions demanding that the group be disarmed, I see little prospect that that will soon happen.

LAT: What do Syria and Iran want from Lebanon?

NORTON: I believe there is a significant difference between Syrian and Iranian goals in Lebanon. Syria would like to return to something that looks like the status quo ante, which is completely unacceptable in my view, and most importantly for many Lebanese as well.

However, I think Iran’s goals are more nuanced, which is to say that while Iran is certainly intent on seeing Hezbollah prosper, Iran has a compelling interest in a viable Lebanon that leans neither too far toward Washington or Tehran. In that sort of neutral Lebanon, the Islamic Republic, which maintains a large embassy in Beirut, would enjoy an important Arab redoubt.

Would the U.S. be willing to accept that outcome as part of a grand bargain, which included stability in Iraq, controlling Iranian nuclear weapons development, and tempered support for Palestinian groups such as Islamic Jihad and Hamas? I doubt the Bush White House could embrace that sort of outcome, but perhaps the next president should.

—Borzou Daragahi in Beirut

Photo: Augustus Richard Norton.

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2. Lebanon’s Sunni bloc built militia, officials say
The Future movement used a security firm to assemble a private force, officials say. But the fighters were no match for the Shiite group Hezbollah.By Borzou Daragahi and Raed Rafei
Special to The Times May 12, 2008

BEIRUT — For a year, the main Lebanese political faction backed by the United States built a Sunni Muslim militia here under the guise of private security companies, Lebanese security experts and officials said.

The fighters, aligned with Saad Hariri’s Future movement, were trained and armed to counter the heavily armed Shiite Muslim militant group Hezbollah and protect their turf in a potential military confrontation.

But in a single night late last week, the curious experiment in private-sector warfare crumbled.

Attacked by Hezbollah, the Future movement fighters quickly fled Beirut or gave up their weapons. Afterward, some of the fighters said they felt betrayed by their political patrons, who failed to give them the means to protect themselves while official security forces stood aside and let Hezbollah destroy them.

“We are prepared to fight for a few hours but not more,” said one of the Sunni fighters in the waning moments of the battle. “Where do we get ammunition and weapons from? We are blocked. The roads are blocked. Even Saad Hariri has left us to face our fate alone.”

The head of a conventional private security firm in Beirut, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said the Sunni force was “not really ready.”

“You can’t just spend millions of dollars to build an army in one year,” he said. “They have to be motivated and believe in something. They have to be willing to die.”

Lebanon’s U.S.-backed government and the Iranian-backed opposition led by Hezbollah have been mired in a political stalemate for more than a year. The country has been without a president since November.

Amid the political crisis that has sharpened differences among various religious communities, Lebanon’s army and Internal Security Forces had played a peacekeeping role, preventing clashes without confronting any of the different armed groups. They feared any robust intervention would break the unity of the armed forces and plunge the country into civil war.
But the crisis has created a power vacuum. Hariri’s deputies have denied his movement was building a militia, though ranking military officials, independent analysts and employees of the security firm, called Secure Plus, say it was doing just that.

Private security firms are the latest arrivals to a hodgepodge of armed groups that include Islamic militants inspired by Al Qaeda, Palestinian militias based in the country’s dozen refugee camps and Hezbollah.

With speed that surprised observers, Hezbolllah last week took over West Beirut and crushed the Future movement’s fighters.

Hezbollah said its move was aimed at stopping the government, which had outlawed the militant group’s private communication system, from hampering its ability to confront Israel. But it appears the Shiite militia’s main targets were the Future fighters, some of them operating under the guise of Secure Plus.

For months, Lebanese security officials in the army and the Internal Security Forces warily watched the growth of the Future-Secure Plus fighting force. Officials close to and inside Hezbollah said they were monitoring the growth of the potential threat.

Over the last year, Secure Plus went from a small security company to an organization with 3,000 employees and unofficial associates on the payroll, mostly poor Sunnis from the country’s north. Some were armed with pistols and assault rifles.

“We have . . . thousands of young people in plainclothes working with us all over the country,” a company official said before the clashes started.

Even those who feared the development hoped the Future movement’s growing military capacity would create a “balance of terror” with the more heavily armed Shiite fighters, government officials and members of the group say.

“On the one side, Hezbollah has trained military groups allied with it,” said a high-ranking official with the Internal Security Forces, which has received $60 million in training and equipment from the U.S.

“On the other side, the Future movement has created security firms to protect itself.”

Secure Plus declined multiple requests for interviews. It was the largest of dozens of security firms that have sprung up in recent years. Run by retired Lebanese army officers, it ostensibly provides security for banks, hotels and offices. Hariri’s media office denied there were any official links between Secure Plus and the Future movement.

“Future bloc has members of parliament, not fighters,” said Hani Hammoud, a spokesman for Hariri. It “believes in the rule of law, and that it is up to official security and military agencies to resolve any problem that might arise.”

Secure Plus employees, in beige pants and maroon shirts, were drilled for months in basic military training, including hand-to-hand combat. At least two dozen informal offices were opened in Beirut.

For a monthly salary of at least $350, they served eight hours a day guarding offices, patrolling neighborhoods on motorcycles, communicating via walkie-talkie and remaining on call to defend against threats to Sunni neighborhoods or offices of the Future bloc, employees of the company said. Though the group was officially barred from carrying weapons, many had them anyway. One said he bought guns from Hezbollah.

In the last few months, fighting regularly broke out between Sunni supporters of the Future bloc working formally or informally with Secure Plus and Shiites allied with Hezbollah and Amal, another militia. The clashes often took place in West Beirut, a patchwork of Sunni and Shiite areas.

The government became so worried about street battles that in February it convened an emergency meeting of military officials and government and opposition leaders. All agreed to stand by the army and the security forces if they intervened, even if it meant some of their own fighters would sustain casualties. But Lebanon’s weak government made little attempt to interdict the arming of such groups.

“We cannot ask the Christian Lebanese or Sunni Lebanese to give up their arms when others have arms,” said Ahmed Fatfat, a leader of the Future bloc and a Cabinet minister.

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