Lines of the Game: One Civil War in Lebanon and Syria

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A man runs in front of a curtain bearing text reading in Arabic: "Danger of sniper" in a street in Zahriyeh, a neighbourhood at the southern entrance of Tripoli's Bab al-Tabbaneh area. (Photo: AFP - Joseph Eid).

By: Sami Kleib

Published Friday, December 6, 2013

The policy of disengagement has collapsed. Lebanon and Syria are back together like never before. But this time with blood. Nothing indicates the possibility of containing the fire in North Lebanon. There is no plan that could stop the bombs in Beirut or elsewhere. A new government is not on the horizon, neither are the presidential elections. Whatever is said to the contrary would be like someone using aspirin to treat cancer.

Information being exchanged between Lebanese, Syrian, and Western security agencies is frightful. Hundreds of armed takfiris have been deployed onto Lebanese soil; the cells are not linked, meaning that arresting one cell does not necessarily mean catching the others. Some of these takfiris came to Lebanon on their way to Syria, but opted to stay for security reasons. The others went to Syria, and some trained in the camps and other parts of Lebanon.

The general context in the region is paving the way for the spread of war and, more than ever before, toward confrontation between Hezbollah and Salafi currents. The issue has switched from verbal attacks to car bombs and assassinations.

All the information obtained by Hezbollah indicates that Israel was behind the assassination of the Resistance commander Hassan al-Laqqis. Israel denied its involvement. However, Hezbollah quickly blamed the Israeli authorities and did not wait for an investigation.

Throughout its long experience, Hezbollah probably knows Israel's fingerprints by now. But, most probably, Hezbollah also wants to nip strife in the bud, since the tense situation could turn anything into confessional war.

Politically, the confrontation is worrisome. Lebanese President Michel Suleiman was up to the task only a few hours after Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah pointed the blame directly at the Saudis. However, the president's statements deepened the trench. His speech was followed by a series of statements by Hezbollah leaders and Syria's allies in Lebanon, which put an end to all hope to renew the president's term.

The last few months of a presidential mandate in Lebanon usually open the floodgates of the bazaar. In this bazaar, Walid Jumblatt's displeasure became clear a while ago, concerning former Prime Minister Saad Hariri. The head of the Future Movement insisted on nominating Lebanese Forces commander Samir Geagea for president. Some felt that this is what the Saudis wanted also. All indicators point to Geagea acting in light of this possibility. He said, clearly, that a strong president is needed. He probably sees himself as the only strongman. However, maybe Suleiman was promised otherwise by the Saudis. Nothing is certain.

The situation between the Lebanese president and his adversaries is a clear indication of the worsening conflict between the Saudis and their adversaries. In this fight, Iran is not shy to distinguish itself from Nasrallah's position – which puts all the blame for everything, from Iraq to Lebanon, on Saudi Arabia – with a position calling for openness toward the kingdom.

The Russia-Iran-Syria axis is seeking a diplomatic siege to put pressure on Riyadh. Russian President Vladimir Putin meets Saudi Prince Bandar bin Sultan. They had agreed to continue meeting in the past. Moscow realizes that the “prince of the fronts” could become the “prince of settlements.”

Bandar is pragmatic to the extreme, according to some of his associates, which include Russians. He can negotiate everything and is willing to do anything. He does not mind if Russia helps out with the US, even inside the kingdom, where the struggle over power rages on.

Putin is also pragmatic. Nothing impels him to meet Bandar, the enemy of his allies Syria and Iran, except the wish to change the direction of the wind. Bandar is also a military threat, but less so than other princes calling for the overthrow of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and attacking Iran, pulling them, along with Hezbollah, into a sectarian war at any price.

This siege involves almost daily coordination between Russia and Iran. It is enough to look at the active diplomacy of Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif toward the Gulf states, visiting or receiving the leaders of most.

At the same time, Iran is also laying the red carpet for its Iraqi ally, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. New information has leaked from Gulf states of being unhappy about Saudi's role, similar to what was being said about Qatar a while ago.

Gulf officials are not hesitant to say that Iran should be treated in the same manner as before the Iranian-Western deal, as if nothing has changed. There is talk of advanced mediations from Oman to Kuwait to the UAE. All of them want the Saudis to meet the Iranians, despite pressures from Riyadh.

Moscow is also not far from the mediation option. Bandar might have heard from Putin about the need to reach an agreement with Iran. The Saudis might lose if they do not do so today, as the train of international understandings is going in the other direction. Putin has been saying so for a while.

Also in the siege, Syria announced through its Information Minister Omran al-Zoebi on al-Mayadeen that Assad will be leading the transitional phase – a message to all those saying they won't go to Geneva unless Assad steps down. Damascus would not have said this if its delegation to Moscow a while ago had not returned with assurances.

Meanwhile, the fighting in Syria intensifies. Nothing points to a change in the balance. This is still subject to precise calculations. Thus, there needs to be a more useful fire pit in the meantime. Lebanon is an excellent candidate. Its politicians are experts in turning the country into fuel for the game of the strong. It is the game of nations, par excellence, and once again it sets ablaze a homeland that never knew how to disengage, except in words.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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