It is not Bosnia at the turn of the 20th century and it will not trigger a global war, but Lebanon is threatening to sink the Middle East into yet another vicious cycle of violence as political divisions and ideological battles fuel regional tensions. On the surface, the Lebanese crisis appears to be a struggle between rival local groups vying for power. But it is, in reality, a reflection of growing ideological and political struggles among regional and international powers. The United States, Europe, Israel, Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Egypt — as well as al-Qa'eda — exercise influence in Lebanon. The country is a battlefield for the wars of others; wars that are unlikely to be resolved soon. Nor is the conflict in Lebanon.
The country is thus expected to sink into deeper chaos as sectarian tensions mount and economic hardships add to the burden of the people. A large-scale civil war is not likely because nobody wants it. But the stalemate will continue and will further strain relations among the key regional players vying for influence in Lebanon and suspicious of each other's agendas. The deadlock in Lebanon is partly a function of growing diversions between two regional camps. Saudi Arabia and Egypt are leading what is perceived as block of moderate Arab countries confronting an expansionist Iranian agenda being implemented with the help of Syria and non-state players like Hizbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza. Efforts to contain this confrontation have failed; so did an Arab League initiative to resolve the Lebanese crisis.
Syria and Iran wield the biggest influence in Lebanon through their affiliation with Hizbollah. They use Lebanon as a bargaining chip in conflicts with the international community over issues ranging from Iran's nuclear programme to the spoiling role Syria is playing in Palestine, Iraq and of course, in Lebanon. Neither country will allow a solution to the Lebanese debacle before these disputes are resolved to their satisfaction.
Iran is wary of a US attack to thwart the development of its nuclear programme. Unleashing the potent force of Hizbollah against Israel is one way it it can counter this possible attack. Hizbollah is thus serving as a strategic force in reserve for Iran. A solution to the Lebanese crisis will have to entail the empowering of state institutions and dismantling the state Hizbollah has built within the state. It will weaken the ability of Hizbollah to act in accordance with Iranian objectives. So Iran is blocking a resolution of the crisis.
Syria is concerned with the international tribunal that was established to try suspects in the assassination of the former Lebanese prime minister, Rafiq Hariri. It relies on its allies in Lebanon to guard against the possibility of the tribunal targeting its leadership. It also sees Lebanon as a backyard that it is unwilling to trust to the anti-Syrian alliance that was forged in the wake of the assassination of Hariri in 2005. While its policies towards Lebanon are partly driven by vindictiveness, they are also defined by a strategic outlook that wants Lebanon as part of its sphere of influence. That is why Syria also does not want a stable Lebanon.
What is complicating the situation further is the suspicion with which major Arab countries view the Syrian-Iranian alliance. Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, among others, fear a growing Iranian influence in their region, especially in Lebanon and in Gaza. Their bid to stem the growth of this influence is being challenged by Syria, which is becoming increasingly dependent on Iranian financial and military support. Syria views the situation in Lebanon within the broader regional rivalries and will not cede its influence in Lebanon to its adversaries in the Arab world.
That is why there is so much gloom for the future of Lebanon. Hopes for the election of a new president who could lead a process of national reconciliation have collapsed. Parliament remains closed to business and the government's legitimacy continues to be challenged by the opposition, rendering it unable to govern. The state in Lebanon is falling apart. But those who care are unable to save the country or the region from the implications of the anarchy that haunts its future. The Syrian-Iranian axis is coherent, effective, focused and has the easier job of feeding the anarchy through the potent force of Hizbollah and its allies who have taken the country hostage. They have the upper hand.
The "moderate" Arabs on the opposing side are a loose group with no institutional mechanism of coordinating and implementing policies and face the tougher job of reconstructing order. They are losing the battle. And unless these countries develop a more effective approach and apply meaningful pressure on Syria, Lebanon will be lost to the extremist agenda that is spreading across the region. That is a legitimate reason for alarm. The moderates in the Arab world have lost credibility due to their failure to deliver on almost all regional conflicts that have plagued the region. Failure in Lebanon will serve yet another blow to their credibility, and will empower hardliners who feed on popular frustration. And that will make the Middle East a more dangerous place.
Ayman Safadi is a former editor of Alghad and the Jordan Times newspapers in Jordan, and is a commentator on Middle Eastern issues.