With political polarization reaching alarming levels in Lebanon, one of the most pressing questions is whether or not the country will return to the gruesome chapters of its past and degenerate into civil war. It is difficult to predict when or how Lebanon will emerge from its present mess. The impression I got when I recently visited the country and met with leaders from the two opposing camps, was that while a solution to the deadlock was unreachable in the near term, a civil war was unlikely, if not out of the question. Given the interconnectedness of the domestic and foreign roots of the crisis, making this case means considering developments from the local, regional, and international angles. The forces working at the local and regional levels against communal violence help explain why a war is unlikely. International calculations offer insights into how and when the deadlock might be broken. At the local level, the nature of communal relations is the most potent antidote to a new civil war. Despite its sizable base of support and large military arsenal, Hezbollah has no interest in venturing into such a risky and suicidal venture as a domestic conflict. The party s leadership knows that one its arms are used against fellow Lebanese, that would signal Hezbollah s demise. As a member of Hezbollah s Shura Council told me: It s like shooting yourself in the leg. Why would you want to do that? Indeed, this logic is convincing to all sides. Unlike April 1975, when the warring parties firmly believed that a clash would produce a victor and a vanquished, today, leaders of the March 14 and March 8 coalitions are conscious that a war would lead to nothing but a lose-lose situation. Furthermore, the present political crisis has yet to give rise to the nationwide and systematic militarization of society. Cynics would argue that it is only a matter of time before such scenario unfolds, as it is relatively easy to smuggle weapons into Lebanon. But again, if regional actors agree on keeping the country united, it follows that they would thwart, or at least contain, any attempt by foreign actors to militarize Lebanese society. At the same time, one cannot discount the Lebanese Army s neutrality in the crisis, which so far has helped guarantee domestic tranquility and deter outbreaks of violence. At the regional level, had there been no war in Iraq, Middle Eastern actors perhaps would have not been so adamant in their efforts to avert another conflict in Lebanon. In fact, some states might have had a hand in starting and sustaining it. Syria, for example, would have welcomed an opportunity to return to Lebanon as supposed peacemaker, to re-impose its control. Arguably, Iran might not have been unhappy either, as the balance of military power tends to favor its ally Hezbollah. Israel might also have benefited, as a war would compel Hezbollah to direct its military resources internally, away from the Israeli border. The states of the region fear two things in a Lebanese conflict: its spillover effects and terrorism. Civil wars are rarely local. In the Middle East, particularly, they have a tendency to spread across borders. Regional states are well aware that two such wars in the region (with Iraq already descending into one) would be almost impossible to contain and could provoke inter-sectarian, particularly Sunni-Shia, bloodshed elsewhere. At the same time, the breakdown of central authority in Lebanon would very likely offer Al-Qaeda a new base of operations in the Middle East. Arab, Iranian, and Israeli officials have repeatedly expressed their grave concerns about such a dangerous eventuality. Indeed, no state in the region will or can tolerate a terrorist state in Lebanon. Internationally, the United States has made it clear that it cannot afford to lose in Iraq for strategic reasons – most importantly maintaining access to energy resources and preserving its dominant position in the Middle East. That is why Washington is going to have to develop a comprehensive strategy for the region, whose details will largely determine when and how an internal Lebanese compromise will materialize. If this US strategy continues call for the isolation of Iran and Syria, we can expect more political tension and violence in Lebanon, and a hardening of Hezbollah s resolve and determination to topple the pro-American Siniora government. If, on the other hand, Washington decides to creatively engage Tehran and Damascus, or perhaps only one of them, and include them in any new regional security architecture, then this will have positive repercussions on the Lebanese scene and open the door for compromise. The challenge for the US will be to balance its goals of winning the cooperation of Iran and Syria (or Iran or Syria) – necessary for stabilizing Iraq and reaching a compromise in Lebanon – with its general commitment to supporting Lebanese aspirations of sovereignty and independence. In other words, any understanding must avoid undermining the Hariri tribunal, which Syria is anxious about, or turning a blind eye to Iranian hegemonic ambitions in the Middle East. Meanwhile, Lebanon will continue to be buffeted by forces it cannot control. Civil war may not be forthcoming, but that hardly means the country is in for a smooth time in the months ahead.
Bilal Y. Saab is a research assistant in Washington at the Brookings Institution s Saban Center for Middle East Policy. His specialty is Middle Easter security and terrorism issues. He wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR.