This week, things turned for the worse in Lebanon, with violence erupting in Beirut. But both the government and the opposition seem to be showing maturity by calling for unity in Lebanon to prevent an outbreak of civil war.

This situation is very indicative of what is going on in Lebanon: the protests of recent months are not opportunistic, but realistic. There is a significant segment of the Lebanese population that dislikes the way the current government is handling the country. And instead doing things un-democratically, through terror, the disenchanted are taking peaceful means to voice their concerns and demands. No one can doubt that Hezbollah, a key player in the protests, is capable of acts of terror (and ones of magnitude). After all, it was Hezbollah that seriously challenged the reputation of the IDF this summer. However, Hezbollah has not been violent. There is no indication that the assassination of Pierre Gemayel, which occurred before the protests began, has been linked to the politically active group.

Nevertheless, some pro-government officials in Lebanon are saying the violence is the responsibility of protesters. Samir Geagea has accused the opposition of trying to take force by “force” and has said that the continuation of protests would lead to “civil war.”

Gaegea has a point, in that if the government continues to dispute protesters’ demands, violence will eventually break out. But it won’t be the fault of the protesters, but Lebanon’s government. Now is not the time to be stubborn. The opposition — and a large number of the Lebanese population — have shown this movement to be more than the Orange revolution, so widely publicized as a triumph for democracy, so it’s time for Prime Minister Siniora to listen and stop demanding.

The PM has refused to negotiate with the opposition until protests cease.

The Iraq Study Group will deliver its report to US President Bush this morning. It is expected that the report will advocate a change of policy in Iraq, which can include troops reduction as well as looking to Iraq’s neighbors for assistance.

In the wake of the forthcoming report, President Bush has suggested that his policy in Iraq will be one of perseverance. Different reports have surfaced suggesting that the US President is unlikely to accept big changes in Iraq. However, it remains to be seen what the recommendations actually are and what the President’s reaction will be.

At the same time, Bush’s new man, Secretary of Defense nominee Robert Gates has made statements about the US not winning the war in Iraq. In a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, Gates suggested training more Iraqi forces. This seems to be part of the US’ new strategy in Iraq; President Bush has said in a meeting with Iraqi PM Maliki that he is unsatisfied with Iraq tackling sectarian violence. This means that the US is expecting Iraqis to take on more responsibilities in providing security within the country. It is also a policy that is very much aligned with the US’ ally in Iraq, Britain.

For several weeks, Britain has advocated gradual troops withdrawals from Iraq, even suggesting that its troops may be out of Basra province by next spring with Iraqi security forces assuming responsibilities for safety in the area. Also, Britain has looked to significant troops reductions within the next year. If this policy is advanced, the US will be put into a stranglehold position because it simply cannot sustain its current Iraq policy without British participation.

In that sense, President Bush may accept the idea of eventual troops withdrawals, even if he’s not ready to commit to set deadlines.

But President Bush is unlikely to welcome the prospect of working with Iraq’s neighbors, Iran and Syria. The US and other UN Security Council members once again did not agree on the types of sanctions Iran should receive for its nuclear activity. Syria has been in the spotlight, because of the assassination of Pierre Gemayel, with some accusing Syria of involvement in the murder.

A Regional Role for Syria

December 4, 2006

Only a few weeks ago, the West had been criticizing Syria over its alleged meddling in Lebanon’s internal affairs. The accusations were raised over the murder of Industry Minister Pierre Gemayel. With Lebanon’s current political crisis — which has Hezbollah challenging Prime Minister Siniora’s government — the West is now turning to Syria to help alleviate tensions, fearing an all-out civil war in the country.

It is German Foreign Minister Steinmeler who has taken the lead. In a meeting with Syria’s President Assad today, Steinmeler applauded Syria’s recent move to restore diplomatic relations with Iraq, an event which went largely unnoticed nearly two weeks ago. The Foreign Minister urged that Syria act in similar fashion in regards to Lebanon.

The reason for Steinmeler’s appeal is the political standoff between Hezbollah and Prime Minister Siniora, whose government has lost popularity over its handling of the 34-day war with Israel. Hezbollah supporters have assembled in the thousands in Lebanon’s capital to demand that Siniora give Hezbollah more access to the government. While Hezbollah has political seats in Lebanon’s parliament, it is also listed as a terrorist organization by the US government. This makes it difficult for Western states to engage in direct negotiations with the organization. Syria has been linked to Hezbollah and is believed to have influence on the organization.

With its restoration of diplomatic relations with Iraq after a twenty-five year standoff following Syria’s support of Iran in the Iran-Iraq war, Syria looks to gain more influence in the region. It has already been reported that a three-way summit between Iran, Syria and Iraq may happen and the Iraq Study Group may also suggest the US work with Syria. If Syria participates in stabilizing the current situation in Lebanon, it may become a regional player.

Syria has already played a stabilizing role in Lebanon — that’s how Syrian troops ended up in Lebanon, where they were initially welcome both by Lebanon and the US. This time, Syria will have to go the diplomatic route, as any troops activity will spur speculation of malicious intent, as Syrian troops retreated from Lebanon last year.

Earlier today, I conducted a phone interview with Ghassan Makarem, who is with the Samidoun organization in Beirut. The interview aired on today’s edition of Off the Hour on CKUT.

Listen to the interview by pressing the play button below:

[odeo=http://odeo.com/audio/3150993/view]

For more information on Samidoun, the organization that Makarem is involved with, visit www.samidoun.org.

The murder of Pierre Gemayel has the United States pointing fingers at Syria, even Iran, for jeopardizing the country’s independence.

Syria’s withdrawal from Lebanon and the elections which took place last year was seen as a positive step in the middle east. It was also hailed as a regional success of US Foreign Policy. The assassination of one of the winners of that election, Industry Minister Pierre Gemayel, has put the country on the brink of a political crisis. Hezbollah, the influential political organization in Lebanon, has been criticizing the government for weeks and the government has now been truly weakened. The question is whether the government can survive this crisis or whether Hezbollah will step in: it is no secret that the organization has aspirations to govern the country due to what it deems as the government’s inability to do so. Hezbollah has a lot of support and influence, which was strengthened this summer after its successful standoff with Israel.

The reason that Syria being accused is because Hezbollah and Syria have been linked, especially financially. However, it is not clear who murdered Gemayel and if Hezbollah or Syria had anything to do with it. In fact, it simply is not in Syria’s interest to contract an assasination, because it does not need this finger-pointing, especially with the recent publication of the results of the probe into the murder of Rafik Hariri.

Iran has been an ally of Syria since the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s and the two countries have found ways to cooperate, despite their differing religious views.

While Hezbollah, Syria or Iran may have been involved in the murder, there is no evidence to say that they were. After all, Lebanon’s domestic scene has been less-than-stable and a rival faction in the Lebanese government could have been involved, without outside influence.

It is not in the interests of Iran or Syria to have an unstable Lebanon. Syria has spent years bringing stability back to the country — its presence there was initially a welcome one both by Lebanon and the US — and after withdrawing its troops last year, it has no interest in going back to avert a civil war. Furthermore, Iran and Syria now have an opportunity to play key regional roles in Iraq. Tony Blair of Britain has talked of bringing in the two states to bring stability back to Iraq, a plan which may be supported by the Iraq Study Group, commissioned by President Bush. Iran has, in fact, already taken the lead in playing a role in Iraq by proposing a three-way summit between Iraq, Syria and Iran.