Monday, March 19, 2007

US power games in the Middle East

As the West looks anxiously at Iraq and Afghanistan, dangerous cracks are opening up in Lebanon ­ and the White House is determined to prop up Fouad Siniora's government

By Robert Fisk

"......So it must have come as a shock to the good general when the Lebanese Interior Minister Hassan Sabeh last week announced that a Lebanese Internal Security Force unit had arrested four Syrian members of a Palestinian "terrorist group" linked to al-Qa'ida and working for the Syrian intelligence services who were said to be responsible for leaving bombs in two Lebanese minibuses on 13 February, killing three civilians and wounding another 20.

Now it has to be said that there's a lot of scepticism about this story. Not because Syria has, inevitably, denied any connection to Lebanese bombings but because in a country that has never in 30 years solved a political murder, it's pretty remarkable that the local Lebanese constabulary can solve this one - and very conveniently so since Mr Sabeh's pro-American government continues to accuse Syria of all things bestial in the state of Lebanon......

But Unifil, like it or not, is on only one side of the border, the Lebanese side, and despite their improving relations with the local Shia population -- the UN boys are going in for cash handouts to improve water supplies and roads, "quick impact projects" as they are called in the awful UN-speak of southern Lebanon - there are few Lebanese who do not see them as a buffer force to protect Israel. Last year's UN Resolution 1701 doesn't say this, but it does call for "the disarmament of all armed groups in Lebanon". This was a clause, of course, which met with the enthusiastic approval of the United States. For "armed groups", read Hizbollah.

The reality is that Washington is now much more deeply involved in Lebanon's affairs than most people, even the Lebanese, realise. Indeed there is a danger that - confronted by its disastrous "democratic" experiment in Iraq - the US government is now turning to Lebanon to prove its ability to spread democracy in the Middle East. Needless to say, the Americans and the British have been generous in supplying the Lebanese army with new equipment, jeeps and Humvees and anti-riot gear (to be used against who, I wonder?) and there was even a hastily denied report that Defence Minister Michel Murr would be picking up some missile-firing helicopters after his recent visit to Washington. Who, one also asks oneself, were these mythical missiles supposed to be fired at?......

Siniora, meanwhile, can now bask in the fact that after the US administration asked Congress to approve $770m for the Beirut government to meet its Paris III donor conference pledges, Lebanon will be the third largest recipient of US aid per capita of population. How much of this will have to be spent on the Lebanese military, we still don't know. Siniora, by the way, was also banned from the United States for giving a small sum to an Islamic charity during a visit several years ago to a Beirut gathering hosted by Sayed Hussein Fadlallah, whom the CIA tried to murder in 1985 for his supposed links to the Hizbollah. Now he is an American hero.

Which is all to Hizbollah's liking. However faithful its leader, Sayed Hassan Nasrallah, may be to Iran (or Syria), the more Siniora's majority government is seen to be propped up by America, the deeper the social and political divisions in Lebanon become. The "tink thank" lads, as I call them, can fantasise about America's opportunities. "International support for the Lebanese government will do a great deal for advancing the cause of democracy and helping avoid civil war," David Shenker of the "Washington Institute for Near East Policy" pronounced last week. "... the Bush administration has wisely determined not to abandon the Lebanese to the tender mercies of Iran and Syria, which represents an important development towards ensuring the government's success," he said.

I wouldn't be too sure about that. Wherever Washington has supported Middle East "democracy" recently - although it swiftly ditched Lebanon during its blood-soaked war last summer on the ridiculous assumption that by postponing a ceasefire the Israelis could crush the Hizbollah - its efforts have turned into a nightmare. Now we know that Israeli prime minister Olmert had already pre-planned a war with Lebanon if his soldiers were captured by the Hizbollah, Nasrallah is able to hold up his guerrilla army as defenders of Lebanon, rather than provokers of a conflict which cost at least 1,300 Lebanese civilian lives. And going all the way to Washington to save Lebanon is an odd way of behaving. The answers lie here, not in the United States. As a friend put it to me, "If I have a bad toothache, I don't book myself into a Boston clinic and fly across the Atlantic - I go to my Beirut dentist!" "

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