Saturday, October 13, 2012

To Shield Lebanon or to Use it as a Shield…

I was pleased, in a way, to hear what Mr. Nasrallah had to say in his prime time television appearance two days ago. Not that I agreed with his him on much of anything. But in my view he has served everyone well by blowing away the illusions and fog surrounding the lines of demarcation on crucial issues that divide Lebanon today.

As backdrop, let us start with three undisputed facts:

• The most acute international faceoff since the fall of the Soviet Union between Iran  and its many enemies and adversaries inside and outside the regioncontinues to simmer dangerously, as the nuclear enrichment clock keeps ticking  with no solution in sight.

• The revolution in Syria has taken an exceptionally violent turn, with the regime using all the weapons it has against a popular rebellion, which is equally determined to end the 42-year Assad dynasty. Both sides are being aided by their regional allies. The areas in Syria bordering Lebanon have become virtual war zones.

• Lebanon’s precarious fault lines have always made it vulnerable to regional conflicts and instability. This vulnerability is much greater when the Lebanese are sharply divided and when the domestic and regional fault lines have sectarian dimensions, as is the case today.

It would seem logical for those entrusted with Lebanon’s domestic and external security to try to shield the country from these obvious and serious dangers. Indeed, President Suleiman has attempted to develop in recent months a set of policies and principles that would, in his judgement, provide a protective shield even if doesn’t totally resolve all the differences among the parties. In effect, the President’s approach rested on the following elements:

1. Lebanon as a state should affirm and declare  a neutral position on the conflict in Syria. The Lebanese parties are free to take sides, politically and ideologically, but will commit to refrain from military involvement across Lebanon’s border or territory.

2. The Lebanese Army and other security forces should be given a full mandate to seal the border against any infringement by any party, Syrian or Lebanese.

3. Hizbollah will have to disengage from any strategic military alliance with Iran, as part of a national declaration neutralizing Lebanon away from any regional or international alliance. As a matter of principle, this of course applies to all Lebanese parties.

4. Until the Lebanese army becomes able to defend Lebanon on its own, a mechanism should be agreed whereby the deterrent capability that Hizbollah (a.k.a the Resistance) currently has, and its actual use, will be confined to the defense of Lebanese territory as decided by the state.

5. All parties, including Hizbollah, will agree on a plan to surrender all their other weapons to the state. This, of course, includes the weapons of Palestinian militias and organizations.

The first three elements of the President’s approach were actually implied by  in the Baabda Declaration, which was issued at the end of last June’s round of the National Dialogue. The last two were included in the Defense Strategy proposals submitted by the president last month.

Hizbollah’s actions and statements in the last few weeks, and most importantly, Mr. Nasrallah televised speech last Thursday - in which he admitted dispatching an Iranian drone from Lebanon into southern Israel and asserted Hizbollah’s right to an armed presence across the border in Syria - have dispelled any hope or illusion about Hizbollah’s position.

Hizbollah has effectively rejected all five elements of the Presidents vision of how to protect Lebanon from the serious dangers facing it. In the process, Hizbollah has even strengthened the prevailing perceptions about its perceived role as an integral part of Iran’s defense strategy and its readiness to take part in the Syrian civil war across the border, if and when it sees fit.

March 14 has not given a formal response to the President’s defense-strategy proposals. Undoubtedly there will be some  reservations. Among other things, March 14 strongly believes that there is a need for a clear timeline and concrete steps in the transiion to complete and exclusive control by the Lebanon Army of all defense responsibilities. The President’s proposal seem to leave the transition open ended. This can and should be addressed in any serious discussion by the parties of the President’s proposals.

Unfortunately, such an exercise seems rather academic, now that the President’s vision for shielding Lebanon has been shot down by Hizbollah's leadership in favor of using Lebanon as a shield for others.

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