Review of the year: The Middle East

Pray for little countries that believe in empty promises of a superpower
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The Independent Online

By this month, Lebanon's sectarian crisis, its attempted coups d'état (by the Iranians, by the Syrians, by the US, take your pick) had struck even the humble journalist. Each year at this time, I renew my residence card. To receive my card from the office of "General Security" at a whacking cost of around £1,300, I need a valid government-issued press card. To receive my press card, I need to present the Lebanese ministry of information with a valid work permit. And to receive a work permit, I have to ask the minister of labour for his signature on an insurance document. But - reader, you may have guessed - the Lebanese minister of labour is an elected member of the Hizbollah. And the Hizbollah - along with other Shia ministers - has resigned from the elected government of Fouad Siniora in an attempt to overthrow it, create a "national unity" government with more pro-Syrian ministers and, if you believe Siniora's supporters, prevent the UN tribunal into the murder of the ex-prime minister, Rafiq Hariri, last year from ever arresting the culprits.

So after 30 years of legal residency in Lebanon, I now have to apply for a humble tourist visa each time I arrive at the airport that is named after the man whose assassination changed the political face of the country in 2005 and produced elections that, for the first time in decades, freed the nation from Syrian hegemony and forced Damascus to withdraw its 22,000 soldiers. It didn't prevent the continued murder of Syrian opponents in Lebanon, but those of us who live there no longer had to look over our shoulders when we talked politics in Beirut's best restaurants - or, at least, we could glance over our shoulders more briefly than before. The US had promised to protect what the State Department called Lebanon's "Cedars Revolution". Well, maybe.

So when 2006 began, Lebanon felt like a safe home again - for its people as well as foreigners. There were "conciliation" talks in parliament between men with blood on their hands and men who have no blood on their hands (yet). General Michel Aoun, the crazed Christian ex-army officer who had returned from exile to found his own political party, the Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, Rafiq Hariri's son Saad, the Christian ex-militia murderer Samir Geagea, even the Hizbollah leader Sayed Hassan Nasrallah, gathered in central Beirut for coffee, croissants and manouches (a thick, toasted cheese sandwich) to discuss how they would work together in the new "Syrian-free" Lebanon (the quotation marks are a necessary precaution). The problem they had to confront - and preferred to avoid, especially Nasrallah - was that the same UN Security Council Resolution that successfully called for the Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon, also called for Syria's Hizbollah guerrilla allies, whose weapons come from Iran, to be disarmed.

Since it had been the Hizbollah that had largely driven the Israeli army out of Lebanon in 2000 (and since the resolution looked, even to Jumblatt and others, like a US attempt to "soften up" a powerless Lebanon for a peace treaty with Israel), it was agreed that the future of Nasrallah's earnest and ferocious young men would be regarded as a local, Lebanese issue rather than an international demand. But the US and France, who had sponsored the UN resolution, continued to ask when they could expect the Hizbollah to abide by the UN's instructions. Save for a few desultory incursions across the UN's blue line to attack an Israeli held-district called Shebaa Farms (which was Lebanese under the pre-Second World War French mandate but was regarded by the Israelis as occupied Syria), the Hizbollah was silent; Nasrallah even indicated to the Lebanese government, in which it had two ministers, to expect a quiet summer.

But on 12 July, it struck across the border and seized two Israeli soldiers, killing three others. Four other Israeli troops would be killed that same day when their tank was blown up by a mine. Israeli forces had many times captured or kidnapped Hizbollah men in Lebanon without eliciting a massive bombardment from the guerrillas, or any protest from the world. But Israel's response to its soldiers' capture was a bombardment of Lebanon that pulverised hundreds of villages, the Beirut suburbs, more than 40 road bridges, factories and civilian homes in the capital, along with the headquarters of the Hizbollah itself. The latter responded with thousands of new, long-range rockets into Israel, hitting Haifa and other northern cities.

The Israelis blamed Siniora's powerless government, and the US, hoping that Israel could fulfil its hopeless boast that it would destroy the Hizbollah (and thus intimidate Iran into abandoning its nuclear ambitions) postponed any talk of a ceasefire. George W Bush, along, of course, with Tony Blair, allowed the bombs to keep falling on Lebanon, killing a total of 1,300 civilians and a handful of guerrillas and causing billions of dollars' worth of damage. So much for Washington's support for Lebanon's democracy.

Hizbollah might not have won its "divine victory", but Israel certainly lost (Bush said the opposite, of course). Its soldiers fought to a standstill after one of its warships was set afire, its top-secret air-traffic control centre was hit by missiles, several of its major cities were struck by rockets and 40 Israeli troops were killed inside Lebanon in 36 hours. Fewer than 200 of its people were killed, more than half of them soldiers. The world, as usual, promised to rebuild Lebanon. The UN force in southern Lebanon was expanded to include thousands of Nato troops and the Lebanese acknowledged - at first - Hizbollah's courage. But as the scale of the destruction to the country and the millions of cluster bomblets with which the Israelis had soaked southern Lebanon was discovered, Hizbollah was held to account.

Which was when Nasrallah began to demand the overthrow of the "traitor" Siniora, whose government was "owned" by the US ambassador, whose ministers had supposedly urged the US to arrange an Israeli attack on Lebanon. The Hizbollah, in alliance with Aoun's Christians (he probably thought he might be made president) called for the overthrow of the non-Shiite Lebanese cabinet. Lebanon's Christians were now dangerously divided between two factions: those loyal to the messianic Aoun and those who followed Geagea's gangster politics. And, to place Lebanon even closer to the ghosts of the civil war, the Christian minister Pierre Gemayel was killed in east Beirut last month. The assassins were still at work.

If Lebanon survives into next year, it will be the only "democracy" in the Arab world to have done so. Afghanistan is crumbling, Iraq is already a mass grave. The Palestinians face their own inter-factional catastrophe. But desperate for the help of Syria and Iran to ease his trapped legions from Iraq, Bush is now urged to deal with Israel's Arab opponents. By year's end, the UN's tribunal investigator was no longer blaming Syria for Hariri's murder and the Lebanese awaited their second betrayal by the US: to be fed back to Damascus in return for salvation in Iraq. The world should watch what happens to little countries that believe in the promises of a superpower - and pray for their salvation.