Michael Totten

Where the Middle East Fights Its Wars

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The Middle East is riven with fault lines. Conflicts between Israelis and Arabs, Persians and Israelis, Arabs and Persians, Sunnis and Shias, Islamists and liberals, and democrats and Khomeinists are all stuck in a holding pattern that isn’t sustainable. The region is in a deadlock and will likely remain so until something big and probably violent unjams it.
Because of its extraordinary diversity, almost every major political current in the Middle East echoes in Lebanon. In the past, Arab Nationalism and Palestinian “resistance” blew through the place and left swaths of wreckage before passions cooled. Thanks to Hezbollah, the country is still a front line in the Arab-Israeli conflict — and that’s because the Iranian-backed militia is the tip of the spear in the Persian-Israeli conflict. Lebanon is also where mutually antagonistic Sunnis and Shias are more or less numerically matched and where the Syrian-Iranian axis directly confronts its resilient political opposites. Beirut, like Tehran, is where some of the Middle East’s most liberal modernizers face off against committed radicals in thrall to Ayatollah Khomeini’s totalitarian vision of Velayat-e Faqih.
A divided country with a weak central government can’t indefinitely withstand this kind of pressure any more than geological faults can forever keep still while continental plates slowly but relentlessly collide with each other. And so Lebanon is a place where the Middle East fights itself. It is also where the East meets the West and, at times, where the East fights the West. Everyone with a dog in a Middle East fight has a dog in Lebanon’s fights.
Beirut may be the best place of all to observe that part of the world. It has its own local problems, of course, but its most serious local problems are regional problems. The Syrians are there, the Iranians are there, and the Saudis are there. France and the United States sent soldiers there more than once. United Nations peacekeepers have been there since the 1970s. The Israelis barge in and out. Yasser Arafat and the PLO used the country as a terrorist base and set up their own parallel state after their violent eviction from Jordan. When Ariel Sharon drove Arafat and his gang to Tunisia, Hezbollah set up an Iranian-sponsored parallel state in the PLO’s place.
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Gemmayze, East Beirut
I visited Lebanon after wrapping up my last trip to Iraq, and was pleasantly surprised all over again by how much nicer Beirut is than Baghdad despite all its troubles. It’s still a mess, of course, but that’s because the region it reflects is a mess.
Salim al-Sayegh, the Kataeb (Phalangist) Party’s vice president, agreed to sit down with me and discuss Lebanon’s — and therefore the region’s — endlessly dysfunctional and occasionally explosive political problems. Like most parties in Lebanon, the Kataeb has a dark past, had a militia that “behaved terribly”:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sabra_and_Shatila_massacre during the long civil war, and has since mellowed and turned mainstream. It’s a part of the anti-Syrian “March 14” coalition, and one of its members of parliament — “Pierre Gemayel”:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pierre_Amine_Gemayel, son of former Lebanese President Amin Gemayel — was assassinated by gunmen in 2006. Tens of thousands of Christians, Sunnis, and Druze attended his funeral in downtown Beirut.
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Pierre Gemayel, assassinated Kataeb Party Member of Parliament and son of former President Amin Gemayel
The party’s vice president and I spoke before the election this summer when “March 14” beat Hezbollah. He started off by telling me just how important he thought that election was, not just for Lebanon, but for the whole Middle East.

MJT: Tell me about the upcoming election.
Salim al-Sayegh: We are fighting to preserve human rights in this country and the state of freedom despite all the terror that has been organized against us. The project of “March 14” is very simple. It is the building up of a modern democratic humanistic society in this country. An attack against “March 14” is not an attack from a loyal opposition. The state has to be sovereign, has to be independent. On the other side we have the negation of the state.
Of course we did not achieve all our objectives even though we still have a majority in parliament. Despite this majority, with the use of weapons of terror, and of the ideological opposition to the West and to Israel, Hezbollah is impeding the majority from exerting its strength. But still we are here. We are not letting Hezbollah impose its will on the country. We have succeeded in putting the international tribunal [to indict the assassins of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri] where it is. Sooner or later, it will come to a conclusion and justice will be made.
If we do not win the elections, it is not a collapse of a party. It is the collapse of a sovereign, free, independent Lebanon. This is the problem. And this is why I consider these elections essential. The international community, the United Nations, have so far tried everything possible to preserve Lebanon. If the majority fails, it means Hezbollah will be in power in Lebanon. It would mean another Gaza.
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Kataeb Vice President Salim al-Sayegh
We have pluralism in Lebanon. The Christians will still be here, but the Christians have no weapons, no funding, no backing. The only party with foreign backing, Syria’s backing, is Hezbollah. Hezbollah has Iranian and Syrian backing. It’s the strongest force within the country. The build-up in this country for the last 20 years has enabled Hezbollah to take over the state. To take over the state.
This is an ideological party. For Hezbollah, anti-Americanism is ideological. Anti-Westernism is ideological. But our identity in Lebanon is a complex identity. We all speak foreign languages. We are all inheritors not only of the Persian Empire and the Arab world. We are also children of the Roman Empire, of the Western tradition. All of this mixes in Lebanon. And therefore we will never accept an identity change. We do not accept any community that is saying it’s anti-Western, that it’s against Western values, that it’s against the Western way of life. For them, democracy is relative. Human rights are something that is a Western concept, an imported concept.
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Shia mosque, Baalbek, Bekaa Valley
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Roman Empire city of Baalbek, Bekaa Valley
So all of this will be threatened in Lebanon regardless of the constitution. These guys do not respect the constitution. They do not respect the institutions.
For all your readers who think democracy is only letting the population vote, that it means majority rule: Democracy is voting, but it’s something else, as well. It’s a respect of human rights. Let’s not forget that Hitler came to power after elections. Fascism rose at the same time in Italy. Hamas took over Palestine after elections, okay, but what about respect for human rights? Those people do not have any track record of respecting human rights. They bluntly and publicly reject human rights values. They think there are other values they want to promote, and this is something I’m not going to accept here.
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Le Rouge, Gemmayze, East Beirut
If we rule, if we reach power, we’ll be preserving these values, not imposing them. Preserving them. Because these are constitutional. If the others reach power, there will be nobody guaranteeing the respect of these values.
Lebanon provides a real chance for dialogue between civilizations and cultures. If there is a collapse of “March 14” in the next elections, this collapse will inevitably lead to a clash of cultures in Lebanon. This will not be between Islam and Christians. It will be between communities.
It means — and this is a threat — not only the collapse of our formula for co-existence, which should be preserved for the sake of humanity. It will mean a threat to stability and security in the whole Middle East. Again. And this will be the last time we will ever dare speak about democracy and human rights in the Middle East. It will be finished. It will mean the American model, the Western model — which has become a universal model now which people aspire to all over the world — all of this will be pushed aside for another model, which was exported by the Ayatollahs in Iran.
Hezbollah rejects all of this. They say “no, we know our limitations in Lebanon, that there is diversity in Lebanon, and we cannot go beyond that diversity.” This is what they say. The practice is something different. When they faced powerful political forces, “they used their weapons”:http://www.commentarymagazine.com/viewarticle.cfm/lebanon-s-future-11376. They are programmed for resistance, to impose their will over others.
This means civil war. Do we want to go back to that? The solution is the disarmament of Hezbollah. For Hezbollah, no defense strategy can be discussed if, as an end result, Hezbollah is asked to hand in its weapons.
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Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea (left) and Future Movement leader Saad Hariri (right) comfort former Lebanese President Amin Gemayel at his son Pierre’s funeral
MJT: Do you think it will ever be possible to convince Hezbollah to give up its weapons? I don’t see any way of talking them into it.
Salim al-Sayegh: The problem of Hezbollah is the same as the problem of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon. It is the same impossible question. You’re asking Lebanese: “How are you going to handle the Palestinian refugees?” Palestinians are about ten percent of