Sunday, January 28, 2007

Saving Lebanon

The New York Times
January 28, 2007

It is good that international donors have pledged $7.6 billion to help rebuild Lebanon after last summer’s devastating Israeli air strikes. The democratically elected government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora needs all the help it can get. Clashes between Shiite supporters of Hezbollah and the government’s mainly Sunni supporters threaten to overwhelm Mr. Siniora’s fragile coalition.

If not contained, they could even reignite Lebanon’s catastrophic civil war. Lebanon’s fundamental problem is the archaic and unfair political system that divides the country’s top offices among rival and distrustful religious communities. Lebanon’s large and impoverished Shiite minority, long a major loser in this system, has been increasingly radicalized — straight into the arms of Hezbollah.

Hezbollah has a political party in Parliament, political gangsters on Beirut’s streets and a heavily armed militia whose attacks on Israel provoked last summer’s destruction. Hezbollah also has close links to Iran, which supplies its weapons and cash, and Syria, which provides safe passage for those weapons and more. Any plan for stabilizing Lebanon has to face up to this dynamic. That’s why the Bush administration needs to drop its stubborn resistance to diplomacy with Syria — and try to coax Damascus away from both Iran and Hezbollah.

Washington must make clear that Lebanon’s sovereignty is not negotiable. Nor will there be any bargaining over the United Nations investigation into the 2005 assassination of the former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri — and Syria’s all but certain complicity. When treated as an important regional actor, Syria has at times responded constructively. It has always responded destructively to isolation. Engaging Syria may not work. But ignoring it all but guarantees that even $7.6 billion in aid will not be enough to stabilize Lebanon.


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