Middle East


Proxy War

Since Israel’s withdrawal from southern Lebanon in 2000, the mainly Christian opposition to Syria’s ongoing military presence in Lebanon has become increasingly bold in its calls for a Syrian pullout. The rhetoric heated up significantly after Lebanon’s Maronite Christian Patriarch, Cardinal Nasrallah Sfeir, issued a number of calls for a Syrian withdrawal during his tour of the United States in March. Sfeir repeatedly stated that the Lebanese were able to manage their own affairs “without outside influence,” reported Lebanese journalist Zeina Abu Rizk in Cairo’s semi-official Al-Ahram Weekly (March 22-28). Upon his return home, Sfeir was greeted by thousands supporting his outspoken stand.

Sfeir’s criticisms sparked a chorus of counterattacks from pro-Syrian politicians and others who faulted his comments as unhelpful and a “threat to national unity.”

Speaking to a crowd of 300,000 supporters on April 4, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, leader of the radical Shiite Muslim Hezbollah militia, said that the Lebanese “need Syria today even more than in the past,” especially since Israel’s election of hard-line Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, reported Beirut’s independent, English-language Daily Star (April 5).

Ahmed Rabai of the Saudi-owned Al-Sharq al-Awsat of London (April 8) wrote that there are “legitimate fears of an explosion of the Lebanese situation after the war of dangerous statements that have poisoned the atmosphere.”

Nicolas Naseef, writing in Beirut’s independent Al-Nahar (April 5), observed that Hezbollah’s entry into the fray reveals that the issue is increasingly taking on sectarian dimensions and has moved to the streets. Naseef said that such religious polarization did not exist even at the height of the civil war. Lebanon looks like it is “sitting on the mouth of a sectarian volcano,” he wrote.

Despite politicians’ warnings of possible strife, Maronite church officials have downplayed the predictions of impending conflict. Nonetheless, an apparently nervous Ministry of Interior banned demonstrations in advance of the anniversary of the start of the civil war in early April, the pro-Syrian Al-Safir reported (April 9).

Tarek Musarwa, writing in Amman’s pro-government Al-Ra’i (April 8), said, “These divisions show that [political] parties are dead in Lebanon and that their politics have failed in their mission....We have returned to an era of internal religious hatred under the guise of nationhood.” He concluded, “Lebanon has entered a cold, dark tunnel.”

In an editorial, Beirut’s English-language Daily Star (April 9) condemned the current war of words: “Once again, participants in a blame game are raking each other over the coals, all the while refusing to accept their own responsibility for Lebanon’s ills.” Lebanese commentator Emile Khoury, writing in Al-Nahar (April 6), said that “the state should not remain a spectator and should either call for a wide-ranging dialogue in order to remove the issue from the pressures of the street or act decisively and end the debate so as to remove the fire from under the ashes.”