Lebanon: “civil war by any standard”

Lebanon’s polarized politicians appealed to Qatar May 17 to come up with a proposal on the question of Hezbollah’s weapons during Arab-brokered talks in Doha. 65 people were killed in nearly a week of fighting, in which Hezbollah and its allies temporarily took control of a large part of west Beirut. (AFP, May 17) BBC‘s Jim Muir reports from Beirut May 16 that the violence already reached the level of civil war:

Last Thursday, just minutes after the Hezbollah chief, Hassan Nasrallah, had finished delivering a fiery television address, his militant Shia fighters unleashed a devastating offensive in the Sunni areas of west Beirut…

There is something about civil war that brings out a viciousness rarely found in conventional combat. And it was not all one-sided.

The Druze leader, Walid Jumblatt, admitted his followers had mutilated the bodies of two captured Hezbollah fighters.

And Hezbollah TV showed some bloodcurdling footage, taken on a mobile phone, of Saad Hariri’s Sunni followers lynching about a dozen members of a Syrian-backed group allied to Hezbollah in the north of the country.

A Lebanese woman pours water on smouldering furniture at her apartment in the town of Shwayfat in the mountains south-east of Beirut (12 May 2008)
Shias, Sunnis, Alawites and Druze were all drawn into the violence

Make no mistake, this was, by any measure, civil war.

Not open-ended, not everywhere at the same time, but the flames of political and sectarian strife erupted in one place after another.

As tensions spread, Shias were pitted against Sunnis, Sunnis against Alawites, Druze against Shias, and so on, stirring ancient passions and vendettas, and creating new ones which will be hard to stifle.

The army commander, General Michel Suleiman, who everyone agrees should be the country’s next president, circulated a message to his officers, some of whom wanted to resign.

What’s happened, he said, is a real civil war that no national army in the world could confront without disintegrating. His army was under massive strain.

He only managed to hold the army together by the huge compromise of having it stand by and watch, as Hezbollah and an unruly collection of allied militias stormed the streets of west Beirut. Hezbollah, he knows, is far stronger than the army or any other faction in the land.

Had he confronted it, not only would he have lost but the army would probably have broken up on sectarian lines, as it did during the civil war of the 70s and 80s.

That is still a real possibility if this crisis goes much further. As well it might, if Hezbollah and its Syrian and Iranian backers do not get what they really want.

See our last post on Lebanon.