An international conference was held in Paris yesterday to help prop up the Lebanese economy. Participating in the bash, hosted by French President Jacques Chirac, was U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, with the United States having said it would pledge over $700 million. Even at the height of the so-called "Cedar Revolution" in 2005, the U.S. was tightfisted on aid money to Lebanon. Today, however, the country is seen as a frontline in the broader containment of Iran.
On Tuesday, in his State of the Union address, Bush had this to say about Lebanon: "In the last two years, we've seen the desire for liberty in the broader Middle East, and we have been sobered by the enemy's fierce reaction. In 2005, the world watched as the citizens of Lebanon raised the banner of the Cedar Revolution and they drove out the Syrian occupiers and chose new leaders in free elections … A thinking enemy watched [and] adjusted their tactics, and in 2006 they struck back. In Lebanon, assassins took the life of Pierre Gemayel, a prominent participant in the Cedar Revolution. Hezbollah terrorists, with support from Syria and Iran, sowed conflict in the region and are seeking to undermine Lebanon's legitimately elected government."
How things have changed in less than two years. During the 1980s, Lebanon became a byword for the kind of foreign intervention the U.S. should stay away from. American forces deployed to Lebanon in 1982, following the Israeli invasion, but quickly got caught up in a domestic Lebanese power struggle, which dovetailed with Syrian and Iranian intentions to drive the U.S. out of the country. By the time a massive suicide bomb attack killed 241 servicemen at their barracks near Beirut airport in October 1983, the Reagan administration was near to concluding that it had no strategic stakes in Lebanon. Following a February 1984 militia uprising against the pro-American administration of President Amine Gemayel, American forces, in the felicitous words of the military bureaucracy at the time, "redeployed to ships offshore."
Throughout the 1990s, Lebanon retained a choice spot in the U.S. apathy column. The decade began with the administration of George H.W. Bush effectively ceding Lebanon to Syria, as a down payment to ensure Syrian participation in the coalition against Saddam Hussein, whose forces had just invaded Kuwait. After the start of Arab-Israeli peace negotiations in October 1991, Washington was more than happy to address the Lebanese-Israeli negotiating track entirely through the Syrian regime. Whenever an American official, most notably Bill Clinton's secretary of state, Warren Christopher, had something to say on Lebanon, he would make his way to Damascus to meet with Syria's dictator, Hafez al-Assad.
By 2004, the mood slowly began changing. With France, the Bush administration began pushing for a Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon, after the U.S. House and Senate passed versions of what became known as the Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act. This was a binding congressional resolution that aimed, among other things, to "halt Syrian support for terrorism, end its occupation of Lebanon, [and] stop its development of weapons of mass destruction." It imposed sanctions against Damascus for failing to comply. In August 2004, the Syrians responded to the pressure by forcibly extending the mandate of their peon, Lebanese President Emile Lahoud. This set off a prolonged domestic Lebanese crisis in which many of Syria's allies turned against it--culminating in the February 14, 2005, assassination of the former prime minister, Rafiq Hariri, whom the Syrians believed was leading the challenge against them. The killing triggered the Cedar Revolution.
Despite the success of elections in Iraq in early 2005, the situation there continued to deteriorate. In a grim way, America's Iraqi difficulties provided the Lebanese with an opportunity to become relevant in Washington. Hariri's murder brought out hundreds of thousands of people protesting against the Syrian presence (Damascus was and remains the main suspect in the crime). The peaceful mass rallies lasted for two months, allowing U.S. officials to hold Lebanon up as an example of Middle Eastern democracy on the march, and proof that Bush's regional democratization project was working. The Syrians pulled their soldiers out, and U.S. attention, even if Lebanon remained important, began shifting elsewhere.
Then 2006 came around, and something fundamentally new happened. In an apparent effort to improve its chances for regional hegemony, Iran asserted its power in the Arab world--through its Shiite allies in Iraq, Hamas in the Palestinian areas, and Hezbollah in Lebanon--and it bolstered its military relationship with Syria. One of the first to sense the significance of the moment was the Lebanese Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, who told Reason just over a year ago: "In two weeks' time, [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad is going to Damascus to sign a defense cooperation agreement. Neocons are no longer in power in Washington, but you can find them in Tehran." Jumblatt's dates were off--the Syrian-Iranian agreement was signed in June--but he had discerned the emergence of a new Syrian-Iranian axis before most did, and today the Bush administration is making opposition to it a cornerstone of its regional policy, as the president's State of the Union address indicated.
According to a Western diplomat in Beirut familiar with developments in Syria, Iranian influence there has risen considerably. The Iranians are now manning electronic listening stations in the country. More interesting is that they are reportedly not allowing Russian experts, who have long operated stations in Syria, into Iranian facilities. The diplomat also said that Iranian intelligence officers were regularly sitting in on Syrian intelligence interrogations that involved Iranians.
This kind of collaboration has also worried the Sunni-majority Arab states, who fear a resurgent Iran, particularly in the Persian Gulf--one reason why Syria and Saudi Arabia are on such bad terms. A main focal point of their rivalry happens to be Lebanon, where Hezbollah, supported by Iran and Syria, has been trying to force out a government backed by the Arab countries and the international community. Since everything Lebanese ends up in one way or another being sectarian, the government is most robustly defended by the Sunni community (which names the prime minister, according to the nation's sectarian compromise agreement). For many Sunnis, Hezbollah's attempt to topple the cabinet of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora is, partly, an extension of an Iranian and Syrian scheme to stage a coup in Lebanon and bring the country into the Iranian-Syrian camp. Events earlier this week, when Hezbollah and its allies blocked roads for a final push against Siniora, have been interpreted by some observers in Beirut as precisely such an endeavor. Whether it was or it wasn't, Siniora came under serious threat though he remains in office. This can only harden the will of the U.S. and Arab states to continue to wrestle with Iran in Lebanon and elsewhere.
Which brings us back to Paris III. Those who complain that the conference is designed to help the Siniora government are stating the obvious. With a debt of over $40 billion and a GDP near $20 billion, Lebanon is in dire financial straits. An economic meltdown would surely sweep Siniora away far more rapidly than Hezbollah can hope to. So Lebanon, for the moment, will continue to bask in international attention. However, whether the Lebanese are pleased to be so graced, so that their country now stands as a battleground in an American and Arab undertaking to push back Iran, is a different matter entirely.
Reason contributing editor Michael Young (firstname.lastname@example.org) is opinion editor of the Daily Star newspaper in Lebanon.