Our guest blogger is Brian Katulis, a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.
Armed gunmen from the Shi’a Lebanese Hezbollah movement have seized control of the streets in the Lebanese capital city today, surrounding the homes and offices of Sunni and Druze leaders in Western Beirut. This week’s clashes represented the worst violence since Lebanon’s civil war and demonstrated how far the situation has deteriorated in the three years since the Cedar Revolution brought much hope for change in this divided country.
Coming in advance of President Bush’s trip to the Middle East next week, the instability in Lebanon is a reminder of the dangers that can emerge from neglect and inattention and an approach to the Middle East too heavily focused on Iraq. Less than a year after the violent takeover of the Gaza Strip by Hamas, another Middle Eastern civil war in bubbling over – this time with a group that some have called the “A team” of global terrorists which has used violence to seize control of the capital city – hardly the result President Bush was hoping for when he prematurely declared that freedom was on the march in Lebanon and elsewhere in 2005. Ironically, the global trends in freedom have stalled and retrenched on President Bush’s watch, according to Freedom House.
How did the situation in Lebanon deteriorate so rapidly? The immediate cause: the Lebanese government confronted Hezbollah, a group that receives backing from Syria and Iran, by declaring the group’s private communications network illegal and replacing the airport security chief because of his alleged ties to militant groups. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah proclaimed that this amounted to a “declaration of war,” and his movement’s fighters took the fight to the streets against Lebanese government security forces.
But there were numerous and early warning signs that Lebanon was a tinderbox. A year and a half ago, Jordan’s King Abdullah came to Washington and warned of the possibility of three civil wars – between Iraqis, Palestinians, and Lebanese. In the afterglow of the Cedar Revolution, long-standing Lebanese internal divisions endured, and assassinations and political murders, including the November 2006 killing of Christian political leader Pierre Gemayal, continued. In the past year, a deadlock over power-sharing between Lebanese political factions has left the country without a new president.
As the Center’s Middle East Bulletin has highlighted on numerous occasions, the internal divisions in Lebanon has created a dangerous vacuum. Addressing it requires a comprehensive approach with engagement by the United States, countries in the region, and other global powers. Last March’s poorly-attended Arab League summit in Damascus did not result in any concrete plan for addressing the deadlock; no way forward was developed to help Lebanese factions bridge internal divides.
The violence in Lebanon demonstrates more than ever the need for sustained and continued U.S. engagement to stabilize the Middle East. The bipartisan Iraq Study Group headed by James Baker and Lee Hamilton outlined a strategy for a comprehensive regional diplomacy aimed at managing and resolving conflicts in the Middle East – pragmatically recognizing that the challenges in Iraq could not be dealt with in isolation of what happens in places like Lebanon.