Sunday, May 18, 2008

Lebanon's Layers (With A Side of Crow)

Operating under the quaint notion that anyone might actually be reading this (besides you, Mr Hengist, bless yer heart), I thought it rather important to point out that my last couple of posts on the situation in Lebanon appear to have been based on a rather muddled understanding of some key points, and that it has caused my analysis to go somewhat-to-badly askew in places. Embarrassing, but a good opportunity to share my learning curve (still on-going!) on this very complex nation.

One key premise from previous posts was that Iran and Syria were renewing their efforts to weaken the Lebanese government through Hezbollah power plays. Not much question there. I further tied the timing of this to the recent worsening of Iran's fortunes in Iraq with Maliki's government successfully pushing back against Mahdi Army, and the growing impatience of Iraqis with the meddling of Tehran in their affairs. Given the compelling evidence of Hezbollah's influence with the Shiite portions of the Iraqi 'insurgency,' it doesn't seem to be an unwarranted leap to suggest that Iran and Syria may be trying to reestablish the initiative on another front. Where I think I really jumped the rails on this point was in my overly simplistic depiction of the political landscape of Lebanon, in particular the short shrift I gave to the Druze and Christians in their ability to fend off the aggression of forces like Hezbollah, if sufficiently provoked, as Michael Totten summarizes in an article for Commentary Magazine:

Far less attention has been paid to Hezbollah's military and strategic failure in the Chouf mountains southeast of Beirut where Lebanon's Druze community lives. Hezbollah picked a major fight there and lost. After three days of pitched battles, its gunmen were unable to conquer a single village--even when they brought out mortars and heavy artillery.

The Druze are among the fiercest of warriors, and everyone in Lebanon knows it. They are well-known in Israel, too, where they often serve in elite units of the Israel Defense Forces and suffer lower-than-average casualty rates in battles with Hezbollah and Palestinian terrorist groups. Most of Israel's Sunni Arabs abstain from military service, but Druze Arabs are as loyal to the Israeli state, and are as willing and able to fight for it, as their Lebanese counterparts are in their own country. There's a reason two of the Middle East's religious minorities--Maronite Christians and Druze--live in Lebanon's mountains in significant numbers: attempts to invade and subjugate them are ill-advised, very likely to fail, and therefore rarely attempted by even large armies.
This would appear to argue pretty forcefully that Hezbollah would be unwise to overplay its hand in Lebanon, especially after having demonstrated with very little room for ambiguity that its claims to be a Lebanese resistance force and social movement are little more than window dressing for its true ambitions. I think the impression I mistakenly gleaned, and embedded in my posts, was that the resistance within Lebanon to what will likely be seen (accurately) as a blatant Syrian/Iranian stratagem would be weak and scattered. I have no idea if such resistance would be strong enough to galvanize the various factions in defense of Lebanese sovereignty, but I think I was overly pessimistic in projecting that such resistance would almost surely be inadequate to the task.

Another point on which I believe I erred was in projecting too confidently that al Qaeda would find fertile ground for injecting itself into the Lebanese theater on behalf of the Sunnis. While it was evident as long ago as 2003 that Salafist Jihadi factions were developing disturbingly unmolested footholds in parts of Lebanon, especially in the lawless Palestinian refugee camps, it has also been shown that the landscape in which they might function is more complex and treacherous than they would like:

Al-Qaeda operatives in Iraq have alienated some of their most natural supporters through their unusually brutal tactics. Although it is too early to predict whether they will repeat this pattern in Lebanon, the Palestinians have shown a preliminary willingness to act against al-Qaeda operatives. In April 2004, Fatah forces in Lebanon arrested a Saudi al-Qaeda affiliate who had come to Ein el-Hilweh from Syria. Fatah has also skirmished with members of Asbat al-Ansar and Jund al-Sham (a splinter of Asbat) in Ein el-Hilweh, most recently at the beginning of January 2006. The January al-Qaeda warning for Palestinians to "return to Islam" and threats to "eliminate" Palestinian leaders will only escalate hostilities.
Now, if there is one thing that al Qaeda operatives have demonstrated again and again, it is their chronic inability to rein in their most brutal tactics in their quest for domination. It is entirely possible that the indigenous Palestinian and other groups will not take kindly to foreign-backed Jihadists' ravening appetite to usurp the authority of any groups they deem less pure (basically, anyone).

Make no mistake, though: al Qaeda has Lebanon squarely in its cross-hairs. This post from the Counterterrorism Blog, resolves some of the apparent contradictions in the volatile coexistence of Sunni and Shiite terror groups within Lebanon:

The [directly al Qaeda-linked Palstinian splinter group] Fatah al Islam is the latest marriage of convenience between a group of committed Jihadists, rotating in the al Qaeda’s constellation but gravitating around Damascus influence. The group accepts Bashar’s support and the Syrian regime tolerates the organization’s “Sunni” outlook: Both have a common enemy, even though they may come at each other’s throats in the future. The men of Bin Laden anywhere in the world, including in Lebanon, have the same standing order: Bringing down the moderate Arab and Muslim Governments (even in multiethnic societies) and replace them with Emirates. The men of Bashar Assad and Mahmoud Ahmedinijad have converging goals, bring down the democratically elected Government in Lebanon and replace it with a Hizbollah-Syrian dominated regime, as was the case before 2005. Thus each “axis” has one objective in Lebanon: crush the Seniora Government. They will take all their time to fight each other after.

That this is very explicitly on the agenda of the senior-most al Qaeda leadership is beyond question, as this article from US News and World Report concludes:

The nearly perfect conditions for an al Qaeda-like outbreak of violence in Lebanon have not been missed by the group's senior leadership. On April 22, al Qaeda No. 2 Ayman al-Zawahiri suggested the Middle East's most liberal and diverse nation could play an important role in the ongoing conflict with the West. "Lebanon is a Muslim frontline fort," he said. "It will have a pivotal role, God willing, in future battles with the Crusaders and the Jews.

"I call upon the jihadist generation in Lebanon to prepare to reach Palestine and to banish the invading Crusader forces which are claimed to be peacekeeping forces in Lebanon," he said, in reference to the United Nations peacekeepers on Lebanon's southern border with Israel.

Having been so roundly humiliated in their play to subjugate Iraq, al Qaeda's leaders desperately need to re-establish some cred in another theater. I expect they are banking on the fractious nature of Lebanese populations and politics, coupled with the ever-popular effort to undermine Israel and target its maddeningly prosperous civilians, to bootstrap them back to something resembling the force they once were. If recent history is any reliable indication of how they fare against concerted resistance, however, they may be in for another rude Awakening.

I trust that my hypothetical readers will forebear my imperfect and evolving understanding of this dauntingly complicated front in this Long War. The more I have learned about Lebanon, the less inclined I have been to flagellate myself overmuch for getting much of it wrong. It is the solemn duty of armchair analysts such as myself, however, to consume as much information as possible, and to let go my ego as new data make dodos of even my most confident formulations. Let us hope that our foes are quite a bit less willing to abandon the narratives and methods which have failed them so satisfyingly so far.


Mr.Hengist said...

I held off on replying to this blogpost because, when it comes to Lebanon, I'm semi-clueless. There's enough political intrigue amongst multiple players over a long enough history that I've never believed I'd make much headway without making a serious effort at study. I'm not inclined to make this study at this time for a plethora of reasons, so I'm usually left in the unenviable position of shrugging my shoulders and saying, "Beats me - I dunno" when it comes to determining what's really going on there. Of course, as I'm not Barack Obama, I don't expect I'll receive applause for my admission of ignorance.
I read the Michael Totten article and came away undecided. When Michael Totten reports differ from those of the Liberal MSM, I generally give more credence to his reportage as he's doing so personally with his boots on the ground (that, and his impressive track record in terms of accuracy and head-screwed-on-rightness). However, in this case, he was essentially relaying what he'd been told by his contacts, and they may be trying to spin things for their own reasons - or they may just be misinformed. It's hard to tell.
Not that I take some perverse pleasure in your self-flagellation, but I thought I might toss you this article from the throughly-Liberal AP, which says, "Lebanon's feuding factions reached a breakthrough deal Wednesday that [...] gives the militant Hezbollah group and its allies veto over any government decision."
Interestingly, SecState Rice (who's tenure at the State Department has been a collosal disappointment to me) said of this deal, "We call upon all Lebanese leaders to implement this agreement in its entirety.", which leads me to think that there are conditions in this deal unfavorable to Hezballah which go unmentioned by the AP. On the other hand, Syria and Iran immediately endorsed the deal, which is in itself a good argument that it was as bad as the AP makes it out to be.
Beats me - I dunno.

Noocyte said...

[Mr Hengist] "so I'm usually left in the unenviable position of shrugging my shoulders and saying, "Beats me - I dunno" when it comes to determining what's really going on there."

As you can tell, this has been something of an on-going adventure for me as well. I think I'd made some headway during the 2006 Summer War, but then I let Lebanon fall off my radar. Always a dangerous thing to do when the situation is as fluid and complex as this one persists in being. I expect that around a year's worth of laborious study might give me a decent clue as to the positions of the various players...just in time to realize that the situation had undergone any number of fundamental shifts.

Still, since Lebanon is where many threads are currently coming together --particularly with respect to Iran's plans for Israel-- I feel obliged to at least have a stab at keeping tabs on how things progress (or rather degenerate) there.

[Mr. Hengist]"Of course, as I'm not Barack Obama, I don't expect I'll receive applause for my admission of ignorance."


[Mr. Hengist] "However, in this case, [Totten] was essentially relaying what he'd been told by his contacts, and they may be trying to spin things for their own reasons - or they may just be misinformed. It's hard to tell."

Indeed. Still, I have far more faith in Mike Totten to pick and vet his sources with appropriate care than I would grant to many of the other so-called "reporters" who cover the region. However, I sought and found corroborating accounts of Druze valor and competence, which support at least that part of his narrative. As with all things --and most especially with regard to Lebanon-- I await further developments...

[Mr. Hengist] "Not that I take some perverse pleasure in your self-flagellation..."

Aw, c'mon. Admit it...

Seriously, though, there may be some deeper gamesmanship afoot here. We might be looking at the prelude to some sort of "grand Bargain" with Syria to drive a wedge between Damascus and Tehran. Or this may be a move to allow Hezbollah to gather more rope for its own noose.

If so, however, it is a very dangerous and I daresay reckless game, indeed. The ties between Iran and Syria are quite well-established, and throwing the Lebanese people back into Assad's jaws promises more setbacks than potential gains...aside from being a morally repugnant bit of appeasement and a perilous precedent.

As for the hopes that the Lebanese electorate would eject Hezbollah from its duly extorted parliamentary seats...well, I don't think we need too much more evidence that Hezbollah is more than willing to subvert any political process through raw force than we've already had.

Meanwhile, the daggers pointed at Israel are sharpened...