x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

The US looks the other way as Lebanon slides towards chaos

Lebanon was tense last week, as Hizbollah continued to try to intimidate Prime Minister Saad Hariri into ending all Lebanese co-operation with the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, which must judge those responsible for assassinating Rafiq Hariri, his father.

Lebanon was tense last week, as Hizbollah continued to try to intimidate Prime Minister Saad Hariri into ending all Lebanese co-operation with the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, which must judge those responsible for assassinating Rafiq Hariri, his father. So it was no surprise that many missed the visit to Beirut of the American special envoy for Middle East peace negotiations, George Mitchell. This was a fitting sign of Washington's limitations in Lebanon.

The Obama administration has just appointed a new ambassador, Maura Connelly, one well experienced in regional affairs. Ms Connelly replaces a colleague never considered a powerhouse on the Lebanese scene, with some seeing in her a return to more assertive diplomacy. Not surprisingly, perhaps, the new ambassador served as a deputy to Jeffrey Feltman, the assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, himself the most assertive of ambassadors in Beirut when he served there around the time of the Hariri killing and afterward.

However, it will take more than a strong personality to reverse American difficulties in Lebanon. The country is hardly an administration priority, even less so when Barack Obama's major preoccupations are domestic. Ms Connelly will struggle to place Lebanon higher up in Washington's attentions. The task was made no easier when the Lebanese told Mr Mitchell that they would not now participate in direct peace talks with Israel.

Lebanon may not be important to Mr Obama, but to quote the title of a recent book on the country by journalist David Hirst, one should beware of small states (a phrase borrowed from Mikhail Bakunin, the Russian anarchist). Lebanon is the most likely venue for an Arab-Israeli war; it is a frontline in the conflict between the Arab world and Iran; the Lebanese state, over which Hizbollah has widespread control, is close to becoming the mere husk of a state, its sovereignty and independence fictitious; and, most worryingly, relations between Sunnis and Shiites in the country are worse than ever before, with chilling ramifications for the Middle East if they turn violent.

American policy towards Lebanon is handicapped by several failings. The US has no commanding presence on the ground in the country, with most senior political, security and intelligence posts controlled by Hizbollah or Syria. There are also fresh policy divergences in Washington specifically over military aid to the Lebanese army, especially after the exchange of fire along the Lebanese-Israeli border last month, which led to the death of three Lebanese, including two soldiers, and an Israeli officer. Several members of the US House of Representatives have put a hold on military assistance, arguing that Hizbollah has undue authority over the army.

The Obama administration, quite rightly, intends to carry on supplying the army, but the decision is a case of selecting the least-bad option. Hizbollah indeed has considerable sway over the military establishment, but for Washington to cut off all aid would only play in the party's favour by delegitimising an institutional counterweight. In other words, it's better to uphold a flawed Lebanese army that yet symbolises legality and state authority, than to isolate it and cede the terrain on matters of national defence entirely to Hizbollah.

Ongoing Lebanese friction over the Hariri tribunal also highlights American deficiencies. In 2004 and 2005, the Bush administration, along with French president Jacques Chirac, played a key role in shaping the political context for a Syrian military pullout from Lebanon. When Mr Hariri was murdered, Washington was essential in establishing a United Nations commission to investigate the crime, and subsequently provided impetus for the setting up of a mixed Lebanese-international tribunal to punish the guilty.

Today much has changed. Lebanon is deeply divided over the tribunal, with both Hizbollah and Syria pushing for the Lebanese government to torpedo its work by discrediting future indictments, which will reportedly target Hizbollah. It's fair to say that Lebanese collaboration with the prosecutor, Daniel Bellemare, is under serious threat. Beirut is unlikely to implement his requests, especially the arrest of Hizbollah suspects. There is not much that outside countries can do to reverse the breakdown, since Mr Bellemare's investigation is independent. However, this collapse is a major setback for those who ardently supported the legal process in the first place. It also imposes tough choices on the Obama administration.

Syria would apparently like to leverage its willingness to calm the antagonism in Beirut and enter regional peace talks in exchange for guarantees that the tribunal will not eventually turn its attention in Damascus' direction. The US is unlikely to endorse such a quid pro quo, but the growing instability in Lebanon, Sunni-Shiite hostility, and Hizbollah's domination of the political space are things the Americans have to factor into their calculations. The Syrians are hinting that if the tribunal one day weakens them, there will be no one to contain Hizbollah. It's the most disingenuous of arguments, but it may gain resonance if Washington is looking for easy solutions in the region, not least in a place seen as being of secondary importance.

American officials would strongly deny any intention of approving a Syrian return to Lebanon, political and military, under the guise of controlling Hizbollah. However, the US has neither the means nor a well-defined policy to offer serious alternatives if Syria manoeuvres to have its way. Instead, the US is destined to remain reactive, with the initiative in the hands of forces in Lebanon and around it - Syria, Iran, Hizbollah, Saudi Arabia, and, indirectly, Israel. Small states can slip through big fingers, which is precisely why the US should beware.

Michael Young is the opinion editor of the Daily Star newspaper in Beirut and the author of The Ghosts of Martyrs Square: An Eyewitness Account of Lebanon's Life Struggle