Reading the tea leaves in Beirut

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There was Scott McClellan, the White House spokesman, arrogantly threatening to ‘hold Syria’s feet to the fire’ if they didn’t immediately withdraw from Lebanon. Condoleezza Rice was offering to dispatch American troops to Beirut. The American Ambassador in Beirut was making his weight felt and laying down the law for Syria.

By the next morning, Bush and his merry band of amateurs had toned down their message to “would the Syrians please leave Lebanon by the end of May to allow for free and fair elections” -” something Damascus had already agreed to do.

What happened in the span of twenty-four hours? Well, it seems that half a million Lebanese simply don’t like McClellan’s manners and were willing to take to the streets of Beirut to give him a lesson in etiquette. The demonstrators were waving the same Lebanese flags seen at the earlier ‘anti-Syrian’ demonstrations and they were singing the same Lebanese national anthem. Except that in the sea of red and white flags there were also signs denouncing American intervention. A few of them caught my eye. “All our disasters are made in America”, “No to 1559” and “No to foreign intervention”. But the one that McClellan should have noticed was a huge banner that simply read “SURPRISE”.

The distraught and befuddled American pundits played down the whole event as nothing more than a little afternoon picnic by the disaffected militants of Hezbollah. But The Druze of the Arsalan clan came down from the mountains and the Maronites of the Franjieh clan made their way down from Tripoli. It is hard to keep all the various Lebanese groups straight -” but some thirty different parties were represented in the march. The pan-Arab Nasserites stood shoulder to shoulder with Pan-Syrian and leftist groups. Tribal factions from virtually every corner of Lebanon sent their contingents to join the crowds gathered in Riad El Solh Square.

First came the national anthem and resistance songs. Then came the warm up slogans. “Beirut Horra Horra -” Amerika Etlaay Barra” which roughly translates into “Beirut is free and America should mind its own business”. It’s a pity they don’t teach colloquial Lebanese at the State Department. Because there was this ominous zinger addressed to the American ambassador “Ya safir el Amrikan -” ekhla eidak aan Lebnan” -” a clear warning to keep his hands out of Lebanese affairs.

All the speeches sounded pretty much the same. They demanded a quick and independent investigation to determine who murdered Rafiq Hariri. They too wanted independence and sovereignty -” but they were not willing to see American marines and French Legionnaires land on the shores of Beirut. Syria was applauded for accomplishing its mission to stabilize Lebanon. The speakers unanimously supported the Taif agreement, which calls for Syrian withdrawal and voiced their rejection of UN resolution 1559 -” which outlaws the Lebanese resistance and serves to strip the Palestinians of their ‘right to return’. All speakers called for national unity, civil peace and dialogue and vowed to never return to the old civil war barricades. They denounced Israeli interference in Lebanese affairs and pointed the finger at Washington for using the 1559 resolution to further Sharon’s old ambitions to turn Lebanon into a satellite state.

The highlight of the event was the speech by Hassan Nasrallah and it is worth paying attention to what he said. He pointedly reminded the crowd that they were standing in the middle of a city that had been bombed to rubble by Israeli planes and artillery in the summer of 1982. And he warned against those who would resurrect the “May 17th agreement” of 1984. That date might not mean anything to most Americans but it refers to a humiliating treaty designed by George Schultz and signed by President Amin Gemayel while Sharon’s tanks surrounded Beirut. It would have converted Lebanon into a servile Vichy state beholden to Tel Aviv. Subsequent events forced Gemayel to renounce the short-lived treaty. Nasrallah’s reference to that agreement was a direct challenge to the neo-cons in the Bush administration to abandon their Likudnik fantasies. It was also a clear warning to any members of the Lebanese opposition who might be inclined to collaborate with the Israelis and their operatives in Washington.

After trashing George Bush, Nasrallah addressed himself to France. “President Chirac, we know that you love Lebanon. We urge you to reevaluate your policies. You say that you support democracy in Lebanon. Will the Lebanese gathered here today be part of that democracy.” It should be noted that Chirac and the European Union have resisted considerable American pressure to defame the Lebanese resistance as ‘terrorists’.

Nasrallah then proceeded to lay down a challenge for the opposition. They could choose to have the Syrians withdraw in dignity under the Taif agreement or in humiliation under UN resolution 1559. If they insisted on the latter -” which would also mean disarming the Lebanese resistance -” then they should consider scraping all the other provisions of the Taif agreement, which was brokered by none other than Rafiq al Hariri.

Nasrallah might have sounded like a lawyer making a minor legalistic fine point. But he was making a threat.

This is what Nasrallah was saying to the opposition: “You want the Syrians out. So do we. But let’s not forget that – for all their errors – they should be credited with allowing Lebanon to emerge from the chaos of civil war. Even though they overstayed their welcome, before we bid them good bye -” we should send them a thank you note. This is no time to forget our Lebanese manners. We want the Syrians to leave with their dignity intact. Once they are gone, we want to maintain warm and fraternal relations with our Arab brothers in Damascus. Let no Israeli entertain the thought that we have sent them an invitation to devour Lebanon. In any case, It is now obvious to all that the Syrians are going to leave. But 1559 is another matter. It is not just targeted at the Syrians -” it is designed to foment civil war and sectarian strife. The American Likudniks have placed those Lebanese who resisted Israeli occupation on the same black list as Al Qaeda. That’s simply unacceptable. Fully implementing the Taif agreement is one thing. Fully implementing the 1559 agreement means scrapping the Taif agreement.”

So what would scrapping the Taif agreement entail for the Lebanese opposition? Like 1559, one of the provisions of the Taif agreement dealt with the eventual full withdrawal of Syrian forces. But the Taif agreement -” which ended fifteen years of sectarian strife -” had other provisions. Like the 1943 Accords, it put into place a confessional system that allowed Maronite Christians and Sunni Muslims to retain certain privileges -” including the powerful Presidency and the office of Prime Minister. No small concession in a country where Shiites are by far the largest ethnic group.

In effect, Nasrallah was giving the opposition a choice. They could go along with the neo-con inspired 1559 or they could retain the political dominance of the Maronite and Sunni elite. They couldn’t have both.

Of course, the Israelis and their slavish neo-con brigades in Washington would have no problem re-igniting civil strife in Lebanon. But for Lebanon, rehashing the wounds of the past and fighting over who gets what slice of the political pie would lead to complete chaos. To keep Lebanon whole, the Taif agreement must be kept whole.

In the unlikely event that irredentist tribal factions are tempted to scrap the Taif agreement, all bets are off. If another civil war breaks out, there will never be another Rafiq Hariri to put Beirut back together again.

Nasrallah’s threat is a warning sign of how quickly things can deteriorate if caution is not exercised. Before George Bush cashes in on some cheap domestic mileage from grandstanding in Beirut, he is well advised to pay a little serious attention. His administration and their mass media barkers insist on portraying the events in Lebanon as an early dividend resulting from the quagmire in Iraq. But the winds might very well blow in the opposite direction. If Lebanon starts disintegrating, the Shiites in Iraq -” who have long standing ties to Iran -” might very well react in unexpected ways. Bush needs to reconsider his crusade to criminalize Hezbollah -” a movement that is applauded by the vast majority of Lebanese and Arabs for leading the resistance against Israeli aggression. Nasrallah is not Bin Laden and Hezbollah is not the Taliban.

It is now certain that the Syrians are leaving. Once they go, the issue of disarming the Hezbollah becomes an internal Lebanese affair. Chirac needs to impress on the Americans that the shortest path to achieve that goal is to de-criminalize the Lebanese resistance, end the Israeli occupation of Sheba Farms and obtain iron-clad guarantees that Tel Aviv will never again invade Lebanon. It would also help if America reduced its profile and concentrated on cleaning up the Mess on Potamia before undertaking any new ventures to destabilize Lebanon and Syria.

The Lebanese need to keep the peace and tone down the rhetoric. The Syrian withdrawal looks like a done deal. It goes without saying that those who brutally murdered Rafiq al-Hariri must be tracked down and held accountable for their crimes and soon. Somebody out there has the answer. This was not a one-man plot. A substantial reward and an offer of clemency together with an internationally supervised investigation will go a long way to heal the wounds in a newly sovereign and independent Lebanon.

The differences between the Lebanese opposition and the crowds who gathered in Riad el Solh Square do not deserve this level of discord. In fact, many Lebanese probably marched in both demonstrations. The passions stirred by the brutal assassination of Hariri should not be harnessed to ignite civil strife. Were he alive today, Hariri would have spared no effort to reach common ground. Now that the Syrians are on their way out, the only major point of contention is the immediate resignation of certain individuals in the Lebanese security agencies who might or might not have been derelict in protecting Hariri and have shown no progress in their investigations. Why exactly are they waiting to be fired? Couldn’t they just resign and make room for more competent individuals.

If the neo-cons and Israelis are discounted, all parties -” including the Americans -” have everything to gain and nothing to lose by ushering the Lebanese to common grounds. The Syrians get to leave with their heads held high. The Lebanese get a chance to deliver on Hariri’s dream of building a cosmopolitan country in which the diverse sects of Lebanon can live in harmony. Chirac gets credit for safely navigating the treacherous ethnic divides in the Levant and brokering a lasting peace. As for Bush, he gets to avoid another quagmire that can only add to the substantial amount of quick sand he already claims in Iraq.

Reading the tea leaves in Beirut is not a task for amateurs. However, it does help if all parties are reading from the same cup. To defuse the current crisis, Nasrallah needs to withdraw his threat to scrap the Taif agreement and Walid Jumblatt needs to reconsider his call for foreign intervention. For the sake of peace, Aoun should consider extending his retirement in Paris and Amin Gemayel needs to publicly denounce the May 17th Accord and withdraw to the back benches. As for the foreign actors in this drama, the Syrians must complete the withdrawal of their army and intelligence units on schedule, France must impress a few reality checks on Washington and Bush needs to ignore his neo-con Praetorian guards and start paying attention to Chirac. In the meantime, Scott McClellan should mind his manners and get used to a few more Lebanese ‘surprises’.

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