Friday, June 24, 2011

Why Lebanon Matters

A briefing by Michael J. Totten

Michael J. Totten is a foreign policy analyst who has reported from the Middle East, the Balkans, and the Caucasus. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Jerusalem Post. Author of the book The Road to Fatima Gate: The Beirut Spring, the Rise of Hezbollah and the Iranian War against Israel," Mr. Totten addressed the Middle East Forum in New York on May 23, concerning the situation in Lebanon amid the Arab uprisings.
Mr. Totten began his talk by pointing out that even though Lebanon and Iraq have been the most unstable countries in the Middle East in recent years, there has been a conspicuous lack of protests and unrest in both nations during the "Arab Spring." Since the 1970s, Lebanon has been the place where the Middle East fights its wars, with a population split of around a third Shi'i, a third Sunni, and another third Christian. He provided context and described the situation in Lebanon as follows:

The civil war that began in the mid 1970s was sparked by the presence of the PLO, which set up a base in south Lebanon with the approval of the Sunnis to use as a launching pad against Israel. Seeing no government response to rein in the PLO, the Christians formed their own militias to fight the Palestinian militants.

Following the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 to remove the PLO and support the Christian militias, Iran helped create Hezbollah, with Syrian support, to fight Israel's forces in Lebanon and act as a check against the government in Beirut. An 18-year insurgency campaign ensued, with Israel withdrawing abruptly in 2000 hoping that the Lebanese Army would constrain Hezbollah.

However, a vacuum then emerged in the south, allowing Hezbollah to form a state within a state. The group now has twice as many rockets as it had in 2006, can easily defeat the Lebanese Army in a military confrontation, and is capable of targeting all of Israel.

Consequently, it is likely that an Israeli pre-emptive strike on Iran's nuclear facilities will trigger an attack on Israel by Hezbollah, and if the U.S. becomes involved, Iran may fire at American bases in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Persian Gulf, thus leading to a full-scale regional war. Lebanon would therefore be the epicenter of this war—hence the country's importance today despite its small size.

Asked about Hezbollah's agenda in Lebanon, Mr. Totten responded that the group would set up an Iranian-style regime if it could, but knows that in practice such a goal is not achievable because of the opposition it would arouse from Sunnis, Christians, and even Shi'a who support Hezbollah purely for sectarian reasons. Mr. Totten concluded that the U.S. must do everything it can, short of war, to oppose Iranian and Syrian interests in Lebanon and elsewhere in the Middle East.

Summary written by MEF intern Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi.

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