Distressed Lebanon has experienced in recent months might destabilize even a sturdy country, let alone one polarized along political and sectarian lines. That it has held together is in large part due to memories of the recent civil war. But Lebanon has a history of serving as an arena for proxy struggles, and communal divisions are deepening dangerously. The international community should continue to deal cautiously with Lebanese and related Syrian affairs, strengthening the government and preserving stability, while putting aside more ambitious agendas for Hizbollah’s disarmament or system change in Damascus.
The governmental elections held immediately after Syria’s withdrawal showed the scale of the domestic test. The opposition, united in desire to force the Syrians out, fragmented once left on its own. Opportunistic new alliances were formed, with so-called pro- and anti-Syrians making common electoral cause to defend unshakable interests. Elections meant as a starting point for reform were a reminder of the power of sectarianism and the status quo, while assassinations and car bombs took more lives.
Decisions have been mired by a power struggle between the Western-backed alliance of the prime minister and the son of the ex-prime minister, Rafiq Al-Hariri, whose assassination started the chain of events, and the Syrian-backed president and his allies. Unsure whose orders to follow, security and civil officials sit on the fence. Fearful for their lives, many leaders have scattered, waiting in exile for the dust to settle.
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Even after publication of the UN-sponsored Mehlis report on the Hariri assassination, politics remains in virtual deferral. The report offered a glimpse of an detailed plan, allegedly involving senior Lebanese and Syrian officials, to murder the former prime minister, but in mid-December of 2006 it was followed by a more detailed account that intensify the tensions further. All this reminds us that Lebanon’s predicaments predated, contributed to, and will outlive Syria’s occupation.
Sectarian rivalries bear much of the blame but international actors should recognize that their policies are liable to worsen the situation. Communal divisions offer rich opportunity for intervention, which in turn awakens the worst fears and instincts of rival groups. There is a potentially explosive combination of renewed sectarian anxiety born of the collapse of the Syrian-sponsored system, intense regional competition, and almost unprecedented foreign involvement – Security Council Resolution 1559 mandating Syrian withdrawal and disarmament of militias; the UN-sponsored Mehlis investigation; Western aid; and Iranian and Syrian support for Hizbollah and Palestinian organizations. Groups are lining up behind competing visions for Lebanon and the region’s confessional and ideological future. Domestic politics is being dragged into wider contests while foreign actors are pulled into Lebanon’s domestic struggles.
To endure the coming storms, the country needs sustained calm to design and implement reforms of the economy, judiciary, public administration, and security agencies as well as electoral law. For that, it desperately needs both economic and institutional support from the outside world and protection from the struggles in which that world is engaged. This is no easy task, as Iraq’s sectarian conflict spills over, the UN turns to Resolution 1559’s provisions on disarming Hizbollah and Palestinian militias, and Mehlis’s report of more Lebanese and Syrian complicity.
The U.S. and France have shown surprising unity, and have worked within a purposely multilateral, UN-centered outline. It is a good formula to retain, which means focusing on supporting reforms, considering the course of the Mehlis investigation and letting Lebanon deal with Hizbollah’s without undue pressure.
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With Syria’s withdrawal, Lebanon has turned an important page. But so many of the fundamentals that promoted Damascus’s intervention in the first place remain: deep sectarian divisions, widespread corruption, political gridlock, and a tense regional situation. Syria’s troops have left, but a stable, democratic transition has yet to commence.
To the Lebanese Government:
1. Work with the UN to organize a third-country assessment under Lebanese law of in the Hariri assassination, with the addition of non-Lebanese judges if nationals from another country are prosecuted.
2. Accelerate economic reform by drafting a comprehensive and detailed national development plan and focusing on reconstruction and development for the South in coordination with donors.
3. Hold broad discussions on unimplemented aspects of the Taef Accord and UNSCR 1559, based on the following principles:
(a) gradual deconfessionalisation, initially focusing on a merit-based appointments system in accordance with formal recruitment procedures conducted by the Civil Service Board, and an electoral law that ensures genuine minority representation, promotes intra-sect pluralism, and minimizes the ability of broad coalitions to dominate the field;
(b) respect for the Blue Line in accordance with UN resolutions, commitment not to attack Israel, including in the Shab’a Farms, and army deployment to the border; and
(c) gradual integration of Hizbollah’s military wing possibly as an autonomous National Guard unit under army control and full Hizbollah disarmament in the context of progress toward Israeli-Lebanese and Israeli-Syrian peace.
4. Wrestle corruption in public administration by empowering state watchdog institutions to take corrective action, updating public procurement regulations, and enforcing conflict-of-interest regulations against senior office holders.
5. Reform the security services by prosecuting officers suspected of human rights violations, streamlining and clearly defining their mandates, and ensuring supervision by the Council of Ministers in accordance with the government’s July 2005 policy statement.
6. Reform the judicial system by transforming the Supreme Judicial Council into an independent oversight body, empowering the judicial inspection unit to investigate allegations of corruption, discipline offenders, and publicize findings, and restricting military court jurisdiction to military personnel and security forces.
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To the Syrian Government:
7. Cooperate with the UN investigation into the Hariri case and halt any undue interference in Lebanese affairs, such as arming and using loyalist groups to threaten political foes.
8. Establish normal diplomatic relations with Lebanon, including exchange of embassies, release Lebanese prisoners and cooperate with Lebanese government and human rights groups to identify all Lebanese missing persons.
9. Ensure smooth passage at borders with Lebanon, tighten curbs on smuggling and conclude talks on border limit.
To the United Nations:
10. Continue to support the Mehlis analysis and, if requested, assist in a possible trial by a Lebanese court located in a third-country.
11. Approach the militia disarmament provision of UNSCR 1559 carefully, underscoring the Lebanese responsibility to agree internally on the status of Hizbollah.
12. Provide assistance to Lebanese governance reform.
To the Israeli Government:
13. Avoid intervention in Lebanese affairs, including through statements, and cease meddling violations of airspace and territorial waters in accordance with UNSCR 425.
To the United States Government and the European Union (EU):
14. Refrain from disproportionate pressure on the Lebanese government to disarm Hizbollah, maintaining the position that the movement’s status is to be resolved by the Lebanese.
15. Wield pressure, particularly through the Lebanese government and warnings to Syria and Iran, to end Hizbollah attacks and Israeli violations of Lebanese airspace and territorial waters pursuant to UNSCR 425, and in the case of the EU, use contacts with Hizbollah to encourage its full integration into the political system.
To Donors, including the EU and its Member States, the U.S., the World Bank and UN Agencies:
16. Encourage and assist the reform process by making aid disbursement gradual and conditioned upon clear implementation of a reform package, and by periodically assessing the implementation of reforms, identifying bottlenecks, and publicizing findings.
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