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Video Interview: Mara Karlin

Near East Report recently sat down with Lebanon expert Mara Karlin to ask her about the complicated political scene in Beirut. In part one of this two-part interview, Karlin discusses the future of pro-Western factions, the strength of Hizballah and the thinking behind U.S. policy.

Near East Report: Can you explain politics in Lebanon today?

Mara Karlin: This is not an easy question particularly because the answer changes pretty much every few months it seems. If we had had this conversation a few years ago, the political dynamics would be very different. In effect, there were two camps, those who were leaning towards the West, towards freedom and sovereignty in Lebanon, known as the March 14th Coalition, and those who were more allied with Hizballah, with Iran, with Syria, who had supported the Syrian occupation and everything that it included.

These dynamics have since changed a bit over the years for various reasons, not least the many assassinations that have occurred in Beirut over the last five years, increasing Syrian pressure throughout Lebanon and an increasing pressure on the Lebanese government in various ways.

I would argue that May 2008 was actually the critical moment that showed the path of Lebanon and got us to where we are today because May 2008 was the first time that Hizballah used its weapons against Lebanese citizens. It had used them superficially during the civil war, but this was to a much greater degree, and it forced a lot of Lebanese who had allied against the Iran and Syrian-supported coalition to step back and question what were they really willing to do.

NER: What happened to pro-Western forces in Lebanon during the country’s 2009 election?

MK: The challenge with looking at elections—and I would argue this was one of the difficulties in U.S. policy—is that in Lebanon elections are important, but cabinet formation is really the critical moment because that’s when those who are in power are decided. And I think that that goes against kind of what we’re used to in the U.S. government and in the United States.

We’re used to the election really being the critical moment. So because of this, you saw a lot of U.S. and Western effort running up to the election. When the election turned out to be more in favor of the March 14th Coalition, then there was really a stall in assistance and support because everyone thought, in effect, the game was over, the game had been won—but that really wasn’t the case.

It was cabinet formation that was critical, and I would argue that parties like Hizballah or Christian leader Michel Aoun, they understood that and that’s where they really played their tough cards.

NER: Where are the pro-Western forces today?

MK: The pro-Western forces are still around. This is Lebanon. This is a diverse country. The challenge is they’re forced to deal with the tactical situation. And tactically right now, they’re pretty nervous and they have reason to be. You’ve seen a lot of assassinations in Lebanon. You see a growing Syrian presence, growing Iranian presence, and more importantly, you don’t see a substantial Western presence any more. I mean, the number of senior Westerners visiting Lebanon has gone down dramatically. U.S. assistance to the Lebanese military is currently on hold due to members of Congress. [Ed. note: Rep. Howard Berman recently lifted his hold on aid.] The idea that the United States and other members of the Western alliance who support democracy, freedom and the Lebanese government—the idea that they’re going to be there assisting on a regular basis is called into question. And so one really has to sympathize, I think, with those who are seen as perhaps more Western-looking.

NER: What is the biggest domestic issue facing Lebanon today?

MK: Right now, the big discussion in Lebanon is about the special tribunal for Lebanon. The special tribunal is looking at the assassination of Hariri’s father and countless others who have been assassinated in the five years since February 14, 2005. And… this debate on the tribunal… I think to us in the United States should seem clear cut. Of course you would want justice, right? Well, remember this is a country that’s never had any justice for any assassinations that have occurred against political and military leaders in decades and decades. And furthermore, Hizballah and Syria have decided to play a very tough game on the tribunal, and really they’re encouraging, in more ways than one, as you can imagine, they’re encouraging Prime Minister Hariri to step away from the tribunal, and all signs are point to the possibility that he probably will.

NER: How strong is Hizballah today?

MK: Hizballah’s military capabilities have grown rather significantly over the last few years. You see estimates of their number of rockets and missiles they have more than doubling. The most recent figure I’ve heard is 80,000. Even if half of that is accurate, those are some pretty significant numbers. The sophisticated nature qualitatively, quantitatively of the material they’ve gotten is really quite different than what they used to have. You’re probably aware that a few months ago there was talk that they had received Scud missiles from the Syrians. That’s entirely plausible. We have not seen any evidence that Hizballah has turned down aid from Iran or from Syria in the past. And as these countries have grown more willing to give additional assistance, so Hizballah’s capabilities have increased in line.

One sort of astonishing thing to consider is that the Syrian political leadership has been willing to sacrifice the Syrian military’s stocks to help Hizballah, and this is not something you saw under the previous Syrian leadership. For instance, in the 2006 Israel-Hizballah war, we saw that Hizballah had these Kornet anti-tank guided missiles which were responsible for the destruction of quite a few Israeli tanks. These had come from the stockpiles of the Syrian military. That’s really different. Once you start, you know, in Assad’s eyes, in effect, once you start to see Hizballah as part of your offensive and defensive posture, that’s a different dynamic.

NER: Can one differentiate between the Lebanese Armed Forces and Hizballah today?

MK: You absolutely can. They’re two distinct forces. I would not make the argument that there’s not some spill over, that for instance there’s not a large, not a noticeable presence of Hizballah within the Lebanese military. This occurs. This is also the nature of a tiny country with a lot of diversity. That’s going to happen. But I still think it’s in the U.S. interest to help the Lebanese military.

First of all the Lebanese military is the most respected national institution in Lebanon. And so, you know, you’re feeding into this institution, and ideally, to the extent you can help professionalize it, make it more Western oriented, and use it to help extend the Lebanese government’s sovereignty, you’ll help strengthen the Lebanese government and its presence throughout Lebanese territory will increase. This only helps to diminish the operating space of actors like Hizballah, al-Qaeda, you name it.

So I think it’s in our interest to help this military, even though there’s going to be going some diceyness here. You know, one great parallel is if you look at Afghanistan and the U.S. efforts to build the Afghan national army or the same thing in Iraq. You’re not going to get a 100 percent military that’s going to be supportive of the types of things we want, that’s not going to have some sort of infiltration by rogue actors. That’s inevitable. The question is, is it worth providing some assistance and getting yourself a seat at the table, a way to help influence their military and maybe their politics? I would argue that it’s worth it.

[End part 1]