Friday, July 30, 2010

Flashpoint Lebanon

Ah, Lebanon. Since the Beirut disaster of 1983, when 220 US Marines, (and 79 others), were killed in a truck bomb attack on the French and US barracks there, most Americans have thought of Lebanon seldom or not at all.

This is understandable, but unfortunate, since Lebanon is arguably one of the keys to Middle East Peace, if such a mythical beast actually exists.

To quickly summarize, Lebanon is the nation on the north border of Israel, and Beirut is its capital city. Tyre and Sidon are smaller Lebanese cities, and both of these were Phoenician cities in the ancient world.

Two important differences set Lebanon apart from the other Arab nations of the region.

First, Lebanon has a sizable Christian population, roughly 40% of the population, as compared to a single-digit percentage in other Arab countries. While 95% of the people are ethnically classified as Arabs, "many Christian Lebanese do not identify themselves as Arab but rather as descendents of the ancient Canaanites and prefer to be called Phoenicians" (quoted from the CIA World Factbook). Furthermore, there are 17 officially recognized sects; 5 Muslim and 12 Christian.

[booga]Second, the colonial history of Lebanon is different. All Arab nations were part of the Ottoman Turkish Empire until the Arab Revolt of 1915, which was led in part by T.E. Lawrence, aka Lawrence of Arabia. At war's end, however, the British attacked and colonized most of the Arab kingdoms, while Lebanon was allocated to the French.

Passing by this example of European perfidy with no further comment, (glass houses and all that), let us simply note that the cultural difference is significant.

Lebanon is a cosmopolitan nation, and the literacy rate is high for a Middle eastern country, 87% overall. Lebanese women are significantly closer to equality than their sisters in many other Arab nations.

But Lebanon has a history. In the late 1970's and into the middle 1980's, the Lebanese Civil War devastated Beirut and much of the rest of the country. Israel invaded Lebanon repeatedly, and worked to stop all efforts at peace between factions. (The long, sad story of the SLA we will not address here). There was a division called the Green Line through Beirut in those days, with Christians on one side and Muslims on the other, and they hammered each other with artillery until their capital city was reduced to rubble.

That war is long over now, and Lebanon has risen from the ashes like the legendary phoenix. Lebanese government is carefully managed, with certain posts reserved for Muslims and certain posts reserved for Christians in a delicate balance. This has actually worked fairly well for the Lebanese, and if it works for them, why need they care what others think?

The problems have been Israel and Syria. Israel works to promote instability in all her neighbors, and Syria thought it had a historical claim to Lebanon, though Syria has since renounced this claim.

And yet, in 2005, somebody murdered Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in a spectacularly bloody bombing. The assassins detonated a device equivalent to a metric ton of TNT as his motorcade drove past the St George Hotel in Beirut.

At the time, his son Saad Hariri accused Syria of being behind the bombing, though he has since retracted that accusation. In the last two years, Lebanon and Syria have resolved their territorial differences, and normalized their relations. Saad Hariri has travelled to Syria for a state visit and publicly stated that he was mistaken to blame Syria for his father's murder.

Understand, dear reader, I have in fact simplified things to an extent likely to annoy many Lebanese. And I have not yet even attempted to explain Hezbollah.

The US State department classifies Hezbollah as a terrorist organization. Then again, Boy Who Cried Wolf syndrome is a strong factor in that classification; when you call everyone a terrorist, people stop taking the designation very seriously. The part everyone can agree on is that Hezbollah is a militant Shiite organization. Allegedly, Hezbollah is funded by Iran. Who knows the truth?

Back in the present day, the Commission appointed to look into the assassination of Rafik Hariri approaches its conclusion, (five years later), and there have been ominous signs of possible trouble. The leader of Hezbollah has said publicly that the commission will blame his organization, and that the US and Israel have conspired to bend the commission to that conclusion. Again, who knows? Where is the average person supposed to look for insight into the doing of a closed commission, or the process behind the appointment of the members of that commission? Barring revelation by Wikileaks, we will never know.

Whatever is brewing in Lebanon, the leaders of the Arab world are visibly worried. In token of this, President Bashar al-Asad of Syria and King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia visited Lebanon together. Now, you should understand that Saudi Arabia and Syria represent opposite ends of the socio-political spectrum in the Arab world. Saudis are very conservative, while Syria is the most secular and modernistic among Arab nations. When Syria and Saudi Arabia speak with one voice, on any issue, they have the ears of virtually the entire Arab world.

Map and 1919 pencil sketch of T.E. Lawrence courtesy of Wikimedia, both are in the public domain.

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