ALC President Dr. Joseph Gebeily on Voice of America "On the Line"



Host: This "On the Line," and I'm Eric Felten. The radical Islamic terrorist group and political party Hezbollah continues to threaten Lebanon's democratically elected government. Iran-backed Hezbollah sent Shiite mobs into Sunni neighborhoods in Beirut, where they burned parked cars and fought with government troops. At the same time, Lebanese prime minister Fouad Siniora was in Paris at an international conference. The meeting was called to garner aid to help rebuild Lebanon, which is recovering from the conflict with Israel that Hezbollah provoked last summer. "I'm deeply disappointed by the recent violence and bloodshed on the streets of Lebanon," said President George W. Bush in a written statement. "It is all the more troubling that the violence occurred while Lebanon's legitimate leaders and friends were gathered in Paris to help secure a peaceful and prosperous future for the country." Mr. Bush said that all those who seek a peaceful, constitutional solution to the crisis in Lebanon deserve the support of the international community, but those responsible for creating chaos must be called to account.

How serious is the crisis in Lebanon? What effect is it having on the region as a whole? And what are the goals of U.S. policy? I'll ask my guests -- Salama Na'mat, Washington bureau chief of the Arab-language daily newspaper Al-Hayat and the Lebanon-based Arab satellite channel LBC; Dr. Joseph Gebeily, president of the Lebanese Information Center and the American Lebanese Coalition; David Schenker, a senior fellow in Arab politics at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Welcome. Thanks for joining us today.

Host: Salama Na'mat, an editorial in The Daily Star newspaper in Lebanon said that "Lebanon's political train is rapidly shifting away from a phase marked by mild tremors toward another era of civil-war-style earthquakes in which no government will be able to find firm footing." Is Lebanon on its way to a new round of civil war?

Na'mat: I think the key parties that can actually start a civil war have not taken a decision to start it. However, as we know in these situations when tensions are so high and the stakes are so big, things can deteriorate into civil war whether or not the leaders themselves urge their followers to attack. So in other words, the situation is very fragile and very, very tense, to the point where things can even go out of the hands of the leaders, who supposedly control their own followers, as it stands today.

Host: Joseph Gebeily, your sense on the situation?

Gebeily: Well, apparently, as Salama said, there is no will from the Lebanese political leadership at this point to create a civil war in Lebanon, but things could easily get out of control, and we have to look at this as part of the whole conflict. I mean, these incidents from last week are just one round of that continuous confrontation between Syria, Iran, and the local players and the forces of democracy and moderation in Lebanon. So, looking at this whole picture, again, this is only one round, and it could be worse. And, of course, there is a risk of significant clashes happening.

Host: What's your sense of the situation, David Schenker? How dangerous is it at this point?

Schenker: Well, we came very close to spiraling out of control. I think Hassan Nasrallah has, over a period of months, brought Lebanon closer and closer to the edge, that he understands, as do all the major political players in Lebanon, that this can very easily deteriorate to civil war if it's pushed too far.

Host: Now, Hassan Nasrallah is the leader of Hezbollah.

Schenker: That's right. So he's brought it to the brink any number of times, and I think the strikes that they called recently were an attempt to display to the government that they can bring everything to a halt. And when nobody showed up for their strike, essentially, they forced the strike on the country. They closed the airport. This hasn't happened since the Israelis closed it. This is a remarkable development that they'd even be willing to do that and risk their popularity in the Arab world. So they're pushing and pushing. They want to topple the government, but they don't want civil war, and I think it's going to be very difficult for them to do it without bringing the country to civil war.

Host: Salama Na'mat, Hezbollah want to topple the government in Lebanon?

Na'mat: Well, we need to also ask a question whether Hezbollah, which is backed by Iran, is acting on its own or whether it is basically following orders from the Iranians. And the bigger question is, in view of the bigger confrontation taking place between Iran and Hezbollah, terrorist organizations, and in some cases Al-Qaeda organization, whether their confrontation with the pro-democracy forces and the pro-American forces in the region serves the purpose -- it serves the purpose to start a war in Lebanon. I think that it is not in Iran's interest. However, as I said, the situation is so tense that another political assassination of a Lebanese leader could trigger a total breakdown. Al-Qaeda is certainly one side that would like to see chaos in Lebanon because Al-Qaeda can function best when in a chaotic situation such as in Iraq or Afghanistan. And the Syrians are also questionable in terms of where they stand on this. They would like to see Lebanon punished because the Lebanese ousted their forces out of Lebanon. So I think that we really need to look at Tehran a lot to see -- to understand whether they're going to push Hezbollah to escalate further or try to reach a deal in making the Saudi-Iranian mediation work in terms of easing the situation.

Host: Joseph Gebeily, we hear a lot about Iran and Syria with regard to Hezbollah. Who does Hezbollah answer to?

Gebeily: That's a good question, and there's a lot of theories about that -- how much Hezbollah is truly Lebanese, how much Syria has any control, and how much Iran is really the major decision player. Now, if you look at the facts, of course, most of the financing of Hezbollah and most of the military support comes from Iran. That's a fact. And without Iran, Hezbollah cannot sustain itself. Now, Syria is the conduit for all this help, so Syria is also needed. But the major decision maker in Hezbollah's action would be Iran.

Host: And, David Schenker, do Iran and Syria have the same interests? Do they want the same thing out of Hezbollah, or is there some conflict there?

Schenker: Well, I don't think there is a whole lot of space between the two, but there are, if you look at Hezbollah, Syria, and Iran, some minor differences of interest. For Hezbollah, it is increased political power in Lebanon, I think, purely and simply. They want to maintain their weapons, and they want to have more Cabinet seats, if not a blocking 1/3 of the Parliament. For Iran, it would like Hezbollah to have more power in Lebanon. It also does not want to see its Syrian ally damaged. And for Syria, of course -- and this is the wild card in this situation -- Syria is concerned about the International Tribunal and the investigation into the murder of former Lebanese prime minister Rafic Hariri. This investigation is ongoing, and it's likely to implicate Syria. If it's allowed to proceed to the bitter end, Syria and perhaps top regime officials -- perhaps the president himself -- will be indicted in this murder. And so Syria is taking all steps to try and end the Tribunal, end the investigation, and if that means toppling the government, fine. If that means causing civil war potentially, that might be fine, too. So there's some space, but it's very small between all the parties.

Host: Salama Na'mat, what's your sense of how far Syria is willing to go to block this investigation into the murder of Rafic Hariri?

Na'mat: I think that the Syrians can't do it on their own. They obviously need to either block the Lebanese government from going through with this and also watch what the Iranians are saying about it. To a large extent, the Syrians feel that the International Tribunal would be very dangerous because it could lead to the top leadership, and there are no guarantees as yet from any side that this would not take place. In other words, for the Syrians, allowing the trial to go through without any deal -- a bigger deal -- over a number of issues in here, things are, you know, multiplying. You've got a regional situation that spills over to Syria and Lebanon, the Syrian role in Iraq, the Syrian alliance with Iran, and here Syria is the weaker side in the alliance. Syria is described now as a sidekick to the Iranians. All these factors mean that if the Iranians, who are the regional superpower, if you like, if you exclude Israel from the formula -- Iran wants to dominate the Middle East and the Gulf region. They're the ones who are in big confrontation with the United States over influence over the Middle East. If the Iranians and the Americans reach a deal -- and this is a big "if," and it doesn't look likely -- over how to divide, you know, spheres of influence within the Middle East and the Gulf, then we could also find some kind of a deal for the Syrians, especially that -- The Israelis have indicated they do not seek any escalation with the Syrians despite their destructive role in Lebanon and despite their backing of Hezbollah and their destructive role in terms of the peace process, the Palestinian-Israeli peace process. So it really depends on how things play out as we go forward now with the surge taking place in Iraq and the ongoing confrontation in Lebanon.

Host: Joseph Gebeily, how do you see what's going on in Lebanon in the context of the broader region?

Gebeily: What I would like, also, to add, Eric, is that if you look at how things were heading with the implementation of United Nations Security Council resolution 1701, which basically put international forces in Southern Lebanon and removed Hezbollah's authority over that area, control over that area, the International Tribunal, which was going forward towards possibly indicting Syrian figures, and the presidential elections in Lebanon, that post which is still held by a pro-Syrian president, Emile Lahoud. Things were heading towards a defeat for the pro-Syrians, pro-Iranian forces in Lebanon, and that's why, I think, we saw -- and we are going to see -- more violent reactions from the pro-Syrian Iranian forces in Lebanon to stop all these steps from going forward. As far as the regional dimension, of course there is. I mean, the Hezbollah-Israeli confrontation is a part of it, and as I said before, now the South is being stabilized, so that's a major issue. The Syrian guards in Lebanon are lost now. The Lebanese guard was very important for Syria in negotiations in the regions, and now Syria has no control over Lebanon. And all these factors are important in what we are seeing now and what we are going to see in the future.

Host: David Schenker, your sense on that question?

Schenker: I think that you're seeing really, in a sense, a proxy war. You're seeing the United States and the Europeans looking after what is probably the most moderate, pro-Western Middle Eastern government aside from Israel and maybe Jordan. This is the government of the March 14th forces and Prime Minister Siniora against a really militant vision of Lebanon, which is Hezbollah and General Aoun backed by Iran and Syria. And so these forces are playing out in Lebanon right now, and you see outside the region -- or, actually, in the region and in the United States and in Europe -- the Saudis and other Gulfies saying, "Hey, we're really concerned about Iranian influence in the region, and we're gonna have to do something about it, and we're gonna take a stand by really getting behind the Siniora government," whether that means funding or pressuring Syria or taking other steps to try and save the government and bolster it. So this is really a war that is region-wide, and it's being played out in Lebanon.

Host: Salama Na'mat, what's your sense of U.S. policy in the context of the whole region and how it's playing out in Lebanon?

Na'mat: Well, I think that as we cannot separate the developments in Lebanon from what's happening elsewhere in the region, particularly in Iraq and in the Palestinian territories, that we cannot -- we will not be able to answer this question unless we see what happens after the surge in American troops in Iraq. In other words, is the U.S. really committed to finishing the job in Iraq, standing Iraqi forces that are capable of stabilizing the country and preventing it from becoming a playground for all kinds of extremist, militant, and terrorist organizations? If the Americans stick it out in Iraq, and they do show the determination to achieve the strategic goals that America went for to begin with -- toppling the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein and establishing a democratic government that can function, that can defend itself, defend its own people. If not, then I think it'll be a collapse across the board. In other words, U.S. policy, if it fails in Iraq, it means it will fail, also, in Lebanon because Americans will be cutting their losses maybe and leaving, and they will no longer be able to play that leverage that they can play now with 140,000 troops in the region and a commitment to allies and friends in the region that are now standing with the Lebanese government against Iran and Syria and Hezbollah. So I don't think that it is a matter of a U.S. commitment to Lebanon in isolation of a commitment to the entire region, which means that what the U.S. decides to do in the next two years in Iraq is going to determine what happens in terms of U.S. influence in the region, in terms of U.S. alliances in the region, and in terms of U.S. strategic and vital interests in that part of the world.

Host: David Schenker, what should U.S. policy be if in Lebanon, instead of going into violent clash, there's a new government formed or you have political changes, and you end up with some sort of government that might be led by or have a significant membership of ministers from Hezbollah? Is the U.S. going to continue to support Lebanon and pour money into Lebanon if you have a group that is -- Secretary of State Rice repeated at the Donors' Conference -- if you have a group that the U.S. considers to be a terrorist organization in significant power?

Schenker: Well, as we stand before November of this year, Hezbollah was a not-insignificant part of this government. They had 5, maybe 6 Cabinet ministers our of 24. It was the 1/3 or a blocking 1/3, but it was substantial. They had government ministers. Now, it created a problem for the U.S. government because we do deal -- We have an A.I.D. -- Agency for International Development -- station in Lebanon. We give money for development. We work with the Ministry of Water and Electric, which is headed by a Hezbollah member. We don't deal with that particular Cabinet minister, but we deal certainly with his Ministry in helping give clean water to the people of the South, et cetera. It creates complications for us, but I think what we want to see, and ultimately U.S. policy may change, but right now it is if Hezbollah becomes truly a political party, we will deal with them. Now, you can argue about the merits of that and say it's bad, they're a terrorist organization. But if they give up their weapons, and they let the government function, and it's a country of rule of law, then I think the U.S. government would be fine and continue to support what they consider to be a government of moderation. If this is not the case, if Hezbollah gets more power, maintains its weapons, continues to be a disruptive force in the South, and periodically does not abide by the rules of the game of Lebanon, then we're going to have a problem, and we may change our policy toward Lebanon.

Host: Joseph Gebeily, what are the prospects that Hezbollah could, at this point, change course and pursue a role in the democratic structure in Lebanon?

Gebeily: Very interesting question. Very few at this point. The power that Hezbollah has now, controlling areas of the country, a state within a state, the power of carrying weapons -- the only non-state group in Lebanon carrying weapons -- and the power that it has to implement also Iranian and Syrian policies in Lebanon will all vanish if the weapons are taken from Hezbollah. So the prospect of Hezbollah laying down their arms is very -- very little. And, of course, we go back to the question, Well, who makes those decisions? And if Iran is making that decision, they're not going to let Hezbollah give up their weapons.

Host: Salama Na'mat, what are the prospects for disarming Hezbollah?

Na'mat: I think that the big question in Lebanon is whether, first, this government will survive and consolidate its power towards establishing rule of law. And if it does, then the Lebanese government is under obligation by Security Council -- Security Council resolutions -- to disarm Hezbollah, to bring Hezbollah troops into the Lebanese army, into the national army, and national forces. It's a big if because we are at a state of -- neither side has won. The Lebanese government is withstanding the pressure to try to bring it down. But I think as we go further, as we have showed at least so far, at least for the next nine months to one year, a commitment to Iraq, we can see that the Lebanese government can only get stronger. The farther away we are from the war, the Israel-Lebanon war of July last year, the weaker Hezbollah gets simply because I believe that Hezbollah and the Iranians and the pro-Syrian forces tried to topple the Lebanese government basically on the back of the confrontation with Israel, which Hezbollah considers it won, and thought that it can capitalize on this popularity towards bringing down the government. The further away we are from the war, Hezbollah is losing more and more popularity. And as such, I think their chances of succeeding are diminishing.

Host: David Schenker, President George Bush, as we heard in the intro, has said that those responsible for creating chaos in Lebanon must be called to account. What options does the U.S. have at this point to have any say in that?

Schenker: Well, you know, I think we have what is our desire, and we also understand what the reality is, and the reality is that the LAF -- the Lebanese Armed Forces -- is an untested organization. It is comprised of the demographic that is Lebanon. It has Christians, it has Sunni, it has Shia, has Druze. They have not been put to the test really to this point of being tasked with a difficult mission, a politically difficult mission, whether that be collecting Hezbollah arms, going after Palestinians -- anything that requires some sort of confrontation with one ethnic or sectarian organization group or another. And so the question is, Will the Lebanese Armed Forces be able to remain a cohesive organization and an effective organization in the event of clashes with any particular group. My guess at this point is, no, the army is not ready for this. Despite the fact that people say they're professional, they're a respected institution, they can show up at roadblocks, they can help the traffic move, but we've not seen them get into a shooting battle yet, so it's really an open question.

Host: I'm afraid that's going to have to be the last word for today. We're out of time. But I'd like to thank my guests -- Salama Na'mat of the Arab-language daily newspaper Al-Hayat and the Lebanon-based Arab satellite channel LBC, Dr. Joseph Gebeily of the Lebanese Information Center and the American Lebanese Coalition, and David Schenker of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Before we go, I'd like to invite you to send us your questions or comments. You can reach us through our website For "On the Line," I'm Eric Felten.


> back <