Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Lebanon and the Middle East: What Now?

My colleague Geoffrey Kemp over at The Nixon Center assembled a panel today to discuss the future of Lebanon and the Middle East. He noted that several years ago, in the run-up to the Iraq War, those who argued that the key to making good progress on solving the problems of the Middle East was to improve Israel's relations with its neighbors lost out to those who said that the road to peace to Jerusalem would run through Baghdad. Today, of course, people are now revisiting this argument, and what happens to Lebanon may prove to be a key indicator.

Fouad Makhzoumi of Lebanon's "National Dialogue Party" started off by noting that even before the war started in July, Lebanon was already facing political stalemate and a lack of progress. Lebanon is not a united country, he said, but a series of mini-states each run by sectarian leaders. Lebanon is $40 billion in debt, 900,000 Lebanese have been affected by the fighting, thousands of units of housing destroyed, the infrastructure crippled.

Many promises of aid have been made but delivery must be conditioned on political and judicial reform; post civil war aid was often diverted into the hands of the existing leaderships who used it not for the benefit of Lebanon but to further their own agendas, including personal enrichment.

He said that Arab governments must see Lebanon as a single unit and to move away from what has happened in the past where Egypt or Saudi Arabia have generally tended to support the Sunnis of Lebanon (the Shi'a by Iran, and so on); this means Arab Sunni governments should directly engage with Lebanese Shi'a. The United States also needs to directly engage Syria and Iran, at present the two most influential countries in Lebanon; he also recommended the appointment once again of a U.S. Middle East envoy to keep up momentum on the peace process.

David Ignatius of the Washington Post noted that when the war began in Lebanon there was an "unstated hope" that Israel could take out Hezbollah and in effect disarm it; after 30 days of war, israel failed. The silver lining is that the Hezbollah card has now been played and we have taken the measure of the disruption they can cause.

Fuad Siniora, prime minister of Lebanon, did succeed in negotiating a deal without having to involve the Syrians or call for their assistance; he now has an international force to assist him in restoring Lebanese sovereignty over the entire country.

Nasrallah will continue to take part in the Lebanese political process rather than take Hezbollah completely out of the framework of Lebanese politics.

He added his agreement to the point that the U.S. does need to engage with Syria; perhaps the foiling of the terrorist attack in Damascus against the U.S. Embassy could serve as a starting point.

Ignatius had just returned from Iran and noted that while there are banners of Nasrallah flying all over Teheran, not to overestimate Iran's interest in Lebanon; Iraq is much more of concern. Nevertheless there is a sense in Iran that Israel showed weakness in Lebanon and that America is failing in Iraq, and that Iran is the rising power, and the linchpin for bringing stability to the Middle East. Can the U.S. open a dialogue with Iran? Right now the only substitute appears to be via Iraqi intermediaries, as Prime Minister Maliki is now in Teheran.

Ignatius also added his own assessment of Iranian president Ahmadinejad, calling him a formidable, skillful politician who is working to increase his "footprint" in Iranian institutions.

Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Robert Danin also made some off-the-record comments.

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