Lebanon: A new crisis in the Middle East?

Lebanon: A new crisis in the Middle East?

ONCE AGAIN the Middle East is in turmoil. As ROBERT BECHERT explains, the
14 February assassination of the former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri
has plunged Lebanon into crisis and given an opportunity to President Bush to
implement more of the US neo-conservatives’ agenda in the Middle East.

LEBANON’S GOVERNMENT has resigned ahead of elections previously scheduled
for May and, under increasing international pressure, Syria’s President Assad
announced a re-deployment of troops to the Bekaa valley.

This move was in line with the 1989 Taif Accord, signed towards the end of
Lebanon’s 1975-1990 civil war. But it is over 13 years later than originally
scheduled and not in accordance with last September’s UN resolution 1559
demanding the complete withdrawal of all foreign troops.

Within Lebanon a polarisation is taking place with up to 100,000
demonstrating in Beirut on 7 March against the Syrian supported President
Lahoud and over 500,000 attending a Hezbollah demonstration to "thank Syria"
and to reject US demands that it dissolve its armed wing. This development
poses the outbreak of renewed sectarian conflict.

The US has taken the opportunity to try to re-establish Western dominance
over Lebanon, weaken opposition to the deal it is trying to broker between the
Israeli government and the new Palestinian leadership and, possibly, take
steps to remove the current Syrian regime.

Now the US government is demanding the implementation of UN resolution
1559, a joint US and French effort. The US state department effectively
dismissed Assad’s re-deployment statement, saying: "As President Bush said
(on) Friday, when the United States and France say withdraw, we mean complete
withdrawal – no half-hearted measures."

US hypocrisy

Of course this is hypocrisy. Like all UN member countries, the US
government simply picks and chooses which UN resolutions it acts upon and
which it ignores.

The Bush administration while loudly supporting resolution 1559 does not
even mention UN resolution 242 from 1967 that demanded the withdrawal of
Israeli forces from areas occupied in Six Day War; likewise with resolution
446 from 1979 that declared that Israeli settlements in the occupied areas are
illegal. Moreover, nothing is heard from Washington about 1981’s resolution
497 that declared legally "null and void" Israel’s annexation of Syria’s Golan
Heights, territory also occupied in 1967.

The Syrian regime was widely blamed, both in Lebanon and internationally,
for Hariri’s assassination. But it cannot be certain who killed Hariri, a
former supporter of the Damascus regime. Hariri, who resigned as prime
minister last October, was planning a comeback as head of a united opposition
in the parliamentary elections scheduled for May.

However, there is also the suspicion that Hariri was killed by elements
that wanted to galvanise opposition to the Syrian regime in Lebanon and
internationally, thereby providing the US and other imperialist powers with an
excuse to intervene.

Hariri’s killing shocked many Lebanese. Over 200,000 of Lebanon’s 3.7
million population attended Hariri’s funeral, a crowd representing many
classes and religious and ethnic groupings within Lebanon. An important reason
for the massive reaction to Hariri’s killing was fear that it could re-ignite
the 15-year civil war that ended in 1990 after killing around 150,000 people,
about 4% of the country’s total population.

But Hariri’s funeral and especially the protests that developed afterwards
reflected Lebanon’s historic divisions. Many media reports do not comment on
the make-up of the protesters, an important question in a country so deeply
religiously and ethnically divided. What is clear is that the Shia Muslim
population, generally poor and about 40% of the total, was hardly at all
involved in the protests that led to the government’s resignation. The
Financial Times said that they are "still on the side of the pro-Syrian

A BBC reporter wrote of "how Lebanon’s middle and upper classes have been
woken from their usual lethargy by the assassination of Hariri," and that
"Some people here are jokingly calling the phenomenon ‘the Gucci
revolution’…" Behind these protests is the fear that the assassination will
both bring a stop to the country’s reconstruction and limit tourism that has
been a very important economic factor.

These later protests were initially far smaller than those who came out for
Hariri’s funeral. A former US diplomat spoke of 25,000 protesting on 28
February. Many of the recent Western media reports did not give numbers who
were on the streets.

Hariri had been prime minister for 10 of the 15 years since the civil war
ended. He had sponsored the massive rebuilding programme but this had slowed
down. However, as this reconstruction had been financed largely by loans,
Lebanon now has a $35 billion state debt, over 185% of its GDP – a
"catastrophic financial position," reported The Times (15/2/05). This is the
background to International Monetary Fund demands for massive spending cuts,
privatisations and the holding down of living standards, in a situation where
unemployment is around 20%.


Hariri’s terms in office had been marked by regular workers’ protests
against his government’s policies. The main trade union federation, the CGT
(General Confederation of Labour), called one general strike in practically
every year Hariri was prime minister. Unfortunately, these were mostly token
actions, not part of a serious campaign to achieve the workers’ demands
including higher pay and an end to privatisation.

A general strike in October 2003 stopped Lebanon as workers demanded an end
to the freeze on the minimum wage in effect since 1996, opposed higher taxes
and job cuts and called for an increase in social spending. A central Beirut
demo of many young workers chanted, "stop the waste and the plundering, give
bread to the poor".

Then in May 2004, after spontaneous protests the previous month, the army
shot five workers in the very poor Shia Muslim Beirut suburb of Hay-al-Sellom
as they took part in a one-day CGT general strike, repression that led to
widespread protests in the following days. But, as before, the CGT leadership
gave no direction and, fearful of what more protests would mean, called off a
further general strike scheduled for the end of June.

As has been seen in many other countries, when the working-class movement
does not act as a unifying force then working people can be divided and other
forces set the pace. There is the possibility of renewed sectarian tensions
both between Lebanese and also against Syrians. Hundreds of thousands of
Syrians work in Lebanon and, after attacks on them since Hariri’s
assassination, many have fled.


The Syrian regime had its own reasons for remaining in Lebanon, reasons
that include finance and retaining a bargaining chip in relation to its
attempts to regain the Golan Heights that Israel captured during the 1967 war.
This was why the Syrian regime had ignored the parts of the 1989 Taif Accord,
the basis for ending the civil war, that called for all its troops to relocate
to the Beqaa Valley in eastern Lebanon prior to a total withdrawal.

This was one factor in the demands of some Lebanese for all Syrian troops
to leave. Additionally, with the prospect of support from the US and European
Union, there are those who hope of returning to the country’s previous western
backed position as the "Switzerland of the Middle East", trying to isolate
itself from developments in the rest of Arab world. Many Shias however were
prepared to tolerate the Syrian troops as a counter-weight to the threat of
new Israeli interventions.

Although Syria was not included in Bush’s "axis of evil" speech of 2003 it
has now jumped to the top of Bush’s foreign policy agenda. Of course the
"axis" speech was made in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq and Bush did not
want Syria to cause any difficulties for the attack on Iraq. Now the situation
has changed because the US and Israeli governments see Syria and especially
Hezbollah (the mainly Shia Muslim movement), as a threat to their attempt to
reach a deal with the new moderate Palestinian leadership.

Hezbollah is the only Arab force that can claim to have defeated the
Israeli military. After a first invasion in 1978 Israeli forces again invaded
Lebanon in 1982, during which time they laid siege to Beirut before pulling
back to southern Lebanon in 1985.

Hezbollah fighters attacked both the Israeli army and their Christian proxy
force, the South Lebanon Army, undermined the occupation and, in May 2000, was
able to force an earlier than expected withdrawal. On the basis of both this
record of resistance and the social and education work it did amongst the
Shias, one of the poorest parts of Lebanese society, Hezbollah was able to
build a powerful base. It now has a bloc of 12 deputies in the 124-seat

It is because Hezbollah stands out as a symbol of resistance that the US
linked in the UN 1559 resolution the question of its disarmament to the issue
of the withdrawal of Syrian troops and insists that Hezbollah is a terrorist

The tragedy in Lebanon is that the working class, despite its long history
of struggle, is not setting the pace at the present time. Different religious
and ethnic factions and leaders dominate and this weakens the resistance to
the capitalists’ demands as well as posing the renewed threat of sectarian

A programme that built upon the lessons of Lebanese workers’ recent
struggles, combined support for democratic rights with the socialist policies
necessary for a genuine reconstruction and development, could win widespread

Such a movement could cut across religious divisions as well as appealing
to the working masses in Syria and be an example to Israeli workers and youth
that there is a socialist alternative to the chaos and poverty that repeatedly
grips the entire region.