It was only a matter of time before the United States and France got sucked into the Lebanese political quagmire, a steamy mess of treachery, bed-hopping at a dizzying pace and ethnic animosities.
Less than two weeks ago, Maronite Catholic ex-general Michel Aoun, a key player in the changing political scene in the run-up to the May 29 general election, returned to Beirut from exile in Paris to a hero’s welcome from some 100,000 supporters.
But Aoun, a leading candidate to replace pro-Syrian Emil Lahoud as president, was soon complaining privately that the Americans and French – re-engaged in Lebanon after forcing a Syrian troop pullout – have abruptly dropped him and thrown him to the wolves.
His comments spread like wildfire. The conventional wisdom in Lebanon these days holds that Washington and Paris have not only dumped Aoun but the Maronite community as a whole.
The Maronites feel betrayed after spearheading the national resistance movement that helped the United States and France push the Syrians out of Lebanon. They did not wait to find out if their suspicions were correct but, with elections 10 days away, moved fast in diverse directions to grab the first allies that came to hand.
The result is a crazy Levantine quilt and four new political blocs in the Beirut power center. Although extremely volatile, Lebanese politicians are saying optimistically they could become the basic building blocks of The Third Lebanese Republic. At all events an entirely new – and improbable – constellation of parties will run in the coming national election.
In almost all cases, the various Maronite factions have anchored themselves to partners with solid backers and prospects.
Two Maronite strongwomen go in opposite directions
Solang Jemayel, widow of the Maronite president assassinated by Syrian agents in 1982, has thrown in her lot with the son of the assassinated Sunni leader Rafiq Hariri, for a guarantee of proper representation for her following in the new parliament.
She thereby acquired another partner. The Hariri list has made a secret deal with the Hizballah to run together in the Beirut district and southern Lebanon. The staunchly Catholic Jemayel thus veers into the same ambit as the largest armed Shiite militia in Lebanon.
The Maronites’ second strongwoman, Astride Geagea, wife of imprisoned Phalange commander Samir Geagea, headed for the Chouf mountains and the town of Deir al-Kamur, stronghold of her husband’s historic enemy, Druze leader Walild Jumblatt. They struck a deal there for Geagea to join the Druze list.
These turnabouts left the returning Maronite prodigal Aoun and his Free Patriotic Movement high and dry, with no support structure on the ground. After 15 years of Syrian-imposed exile in Paris, he too embraced the unthinkable, a deal with the Syrian stooge, President Emile Lahoud, whom he returned home to depose, and his pro-Syrian Maronite party.
Finally, Hizballah’s Hassan Nastrallah and his sworn Shiite foe, Nabil Berri‘s Amal have agreed to join forces for the poll.
Why did Americans dump Aoun?
The strange alliances aside, the main U.S. and French concern is to create a strong and independent Lebanese government that can withstand pressure Syria is certain to exert. The United States and France realize that Aoun and the Maronites cannot do so on their own and the two countries must also effect change within Lebanese political groups still under Syria’s thumb if Damascus’s influence in Lebanon is to be eradicated once and for all. The only real change in the US and French position concerns the disarming of Hezbollah. Our sources report the United States and France now want a new Lebanese government to disarm Palestinian militias before getting Hezbollah to lay down its weapons.
Neutralizing armed Palestinian groups in the refugee camps of southern Lebanon, the Americans and French believe, will weaken Hezbollah and its ties with terrorist elements within the Palestinian Authority.
Hezbollah can now compete in the election without US pressure to disarm, a development that led to the Katyusha attack on the northern Israeli town of Shlomi on Israel’s Independence Day, Thursday, May 12. Hezbollah gave Palestinian groups the go-ahead to launch the rocket and its own forces shelled an Israeli army post at Har Dov, or Shebaa Farms two days later, a signal it would not fall into the political-military trap that Washington and Paris have prepared and that it was standing united with the Palestinians in resisting disarmament.