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Post Lebanese Elections Update: Aoun Bares His Teeth

Bilal El-Amine
Date Published: 
August 29, 2005

I. Syria Strikes Back The first order of business of Lebanon's new prime minister within 24 hours of getting parliament's vote of confidence was a visit to Damascus. Fouad Siniora was a lifelong friend and confidant of the former prime minister Rafiq Harriri who most believe was assassinated by the Syrian military, thus prompting their hasty withdrawal from Lebanon. For weeks, Syria was subjected to a storm of criticism (much of it unfortunately true) in the Lebanese and international media. Some 30 Syrian workers were lynched, many more were attacked and abused, and tens of thousands fled home in fear. Just as Siniora was forming his government and drawing up its manifesto, Syria decided it was time to hit back. First, by virtually shutting down its border with Lebanon, the only land routes for what turned out to be a substantial transit trade from the Beirut port through Syria to places like Iraq, Jordan, and the Gulf. Before long Lebanon was losing, according to some estimates, $300,000 a day with no easy alternatives-going through Israel was not an option. Then, in an unprecedented move, the Syrian authorities also detained several Lebanese fishermen who crossed into Syrian waters and publicly demanded compensation for the families of Syrian workers murdered in Lebanon. This had a sobering effect right across Lebanon's political establishment-in a few deft moves, the Baath regime reminded them of Syria's strategic importance to their economic, if not political, wellbeing. The new government in Beirut got the point fast. Its manifesto made mending Lebanon's "unique" relations with Syria its top priority. Crucially, the ministers declared that they would not allow the country to be used as a conduit for anyone intending to harm Syria (ie, the United States). And before long, Siniora was boarding a plane to Damascus. Few could have predicted Syria's lightening comeback-just as many were writing it off, it boldly reasserts itself as a regional player to be reckoned with. The Arab nationalist Baath regime in Damascus-now passed from father (Hafez) to son (Bashar)-was determined not to be cornered and given the Iraq treatment by the US. Syria's rulers carefully managed the loss of Lebanon and seem to have absorbed the ensuing aftershocks with minimal damage to the regime's standing at home. Ordinary Syrians, far from rebelling, have largely stood by their government throughout the crisis. (Interestingly, one Syrian dissident attributes this popular support to the wave of racism against Syrian workers in Lebanon after the Harriri assassination.) But this is not the end of the story, undoubtedly Washington will respond in kind. The first opportunity will present itself when the United Nations committee investigating the assassination of Rafiq Harriri files its final report in the coming weeks. If it points the finger at elements in the Syrian government as has been rumored, the US campaign against Syria will get hot again very quickly, particularly on the Lebanese front. And even though many Lebanese want to know who killed Harriri, they are getting jittery as the deadline approaches, fearing the outcome may tear the country apart or spark a confrontation with Syria that Lebanon would probably lose. On another front, the Bush administration has been gradually raising its stake in the new Lebanon: politically through its very busy ambassador and Rice's recent visit, economically by offering all forms of aid and assistance to ease the country's gigantic debt, and now militarily by working closely with the Lebanese armed forces. There are already plans afoot to move the US embassy (now outside Beirut) closer in to Yarzeh, not coincidently perhaps the same town as the Lebanese ministry of defense. And the Pentagon is already conducting joint exercises with their Lebanese counterparts, offering the army further training in the US and an infusion of new weapons to boot. Given all this, it understandable why an increasing number of Lebanese are becoming pessimistic about the future. Many rightly fear that continued foreign meddling in a divided and conflict-prone country like Lebanon could usher in another great cataclysm like the 15-year civil war. Washington's performance in Iraq certainly does not reassure anyone here that the ever-deepening US involvement in our affairs will stave off such a disaster. II. Aoun Bares his Teeth After going back and forth several times, with Michel Aoun at one point saying that he is in 95% agreement with the Harriri coalition, his Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) finally decided to stay out of the government and give playing opposition a try. In the run up to the elections, Aoun emphasized the need to end religious sectarianism and political corruption. He stressed repeatedly that he wanted to build a multi-sectarian party, even making some overtures to Hizbullah. (Notably, he has always been consistent in his hostility to the Palestinians and their struggle-he wants nothing more than to untangle Lebanon completely from the Palestinian issue). But having won on the crest of an almost exclusively Christian electoral wave, Aoun became in effect the paramount leader of Lebanon's Christians and he seemed to relish playing the part. Soon he was unleashing sectarian attacks on the country's Muslims from the Druze to the Shia to the Palestinians, suggesting that they are either corrupt (as in the case of the Druze leader Walid Jumblatt) or a threat to Lebanon's security (read: the Palestinian camps and Hizbullah's arms). In its first major intervention in the new parliament, the FPM made a bold appeal to the supposedly beleaguered Christians of southern Lebanon by talking about how they had been "occupied" by the Palestinians and then politically dominated and marginalized by the majority Shia Muslims. Most controversial though was Aoun's call for the return of the remaining members of the Israeli-backed South Lebanon Army (SLA) and their families who fled to Israel when the south was liberated in 2000. Many Lebanese, particularly those who suffered their cruelty in the occupied south, consider these men nothing more than traitors who deserve the worst punishment the state can mete out. Initially up to 7,000 took flight, fearing retribution from Hizbullah for working on the frontlines of the 23-year Israeli occupation as soldiers, spies, prison guards, and assassins. It was the SLA who did the dirtiest work of torture and murder in places like the Khiam prison camp on behalf of the Israelis. Some eventually left Israel for other countries but many returned soon after and were generally given light sentences or pardoned altogether. The nearly 2,400 that remain today are most likely the hardcore and almost certainly include the top-tier leadership, who would probably not get off so easy if they return. (I came across an interesting report on the general situation of the Lebanese that remain in Israel. According to one of their representatives: "the situation of the Lebanese is good, but with some shortcomings...[the Israeli authorities] are only concerned with a small part of the high command." He said that there are approximately 750 families living throughout Israel, that many had applied for citizenship after the Israeli government permitted it last December but none have been granted it yet. Only 30 of the top officers receive benefits comparable to their Israeli counterparts, with another 70 receiving reasonable benefits. Most of the remaining families, some 550, only receive housing subsidies. In response to demands by Lebanese Christian leaders for an amnesty, he defiantly says, "we're not asking for an amnesty [from Lebanon], because we're not guilty of anything.") (Another recent report by Nicholas Blanford retraces the origins of the SLA among Christian army soldiers in Lebanon's deep south: "The SLA had its origins in a Lebanese Army unit based in the southern town of Marjayoun, with many of the soldiers drawn from surrounding Christian villages. In 1976, the army fragmented and the troops in Marjayoun dispersed to their home villages, which were surrounded and threatened by fighters of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and their Lebanese allies. The Israelis, eager to win the support of the anti-PLO Christians, offered military and humanitarian assistance, which was accepted by a small group of soldiers from the Maronite border village of Qlayaa, the nucleus of what was to become the SLA.") How and if the matter will be resolved remains uncertain. For Aoun, this is but a first step in a bid to become Lebanon's next president. His plan internally is to consolidate as many of Lebanon's Christians as he could under his leadership, making him the irrefutable candidate for the position (the presidency under Lebanon's sectarian political system is reserved for Christians). On the regional level, Aoun seems to have made his peace with the Syrian regime before he returned to Lebanon in May and since then has not once made any public criticism of his former nemesis-so he's probably already got Damascus' blessings for the job. Now he must win the support of Paris and Washington, both of which he is planning to visit soon. Rumors here are that Washington is warming up to him and surprisingly it is Paris-which hosted him for his entire 15 years in exile-that is having reservations. Aoun would certainly serve Washington's interests well-he like Bush desperately wants to disarm the Hizbullah resistance and impose military control over the Palestinian refugee camps. In the longer term, both more or less agree that Lebanon needs to start moving in the direction of normal relations with Israel, or at least be taken out of the Arab-Israeli conflict altogether (nearly impossible considering that Lebanon borders occupied Palestine and hosts hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees, not to mention the very recent experience of a long and painful Israeli occupation). Aoun and the Americans may be motivated by different factors but the coincidence of their immediate, even strategic, goals makes an alliance between the two irresistible.