Levantine Speculation

Anyone who’s following my Twitter, which Twitter informs me is ‘nobody,’ will know that all summer Maya and I have been having brief cynical discussion about current events, and there’s an idea that’s come up a few times now: Lebanon, conflict in. Maya put together a tight piece on the refugee population in that country (about one-third of the entire population, combination Palestinian and Syrian) and how they’re treated natives somewhere between inhospitably and with outright hostility, and that, since the populations are going to be there awhile (the Palestinians have been since the 1940s), the only sane thing to do would be to bring them into the socioeconomic fold of the Lebnen proper.

Thanks, David Roberts

Which, as I understand, looks like this

Her suggestion makes even more sense when you consider that unassimilated Palestinian refugees played a not-insignificant role in the Israeli invasion and subsequent civil war in the 1970s. Radicalized refugees got involved with Lebanese internal conflicts and made war on the Maronite Phalange, which yadda yadda simplification helped bring the Syrians in to ‘restore order,’ different refugees began launching attacks across the border into Israel, Israel invaded up to Beirut, dabbled in genocide under Sharon at Sabra and Chatila, more simplification, boom Civil War.

All that happened when there was a considerably more stable situation in the region. Today, we’ve got some additional factors, the most pertinent being the shooting war across the border. Now, my Middle Eastern geography is pretty poor, along with the rest of the US, so I’ve drawn up a handy map for us.

All the resources of Georgetown in one map

Jordan’s northern border is all fucked up, but otherwise it’s pretty OK

What you might not realize about Lebanon is that it’s small. Like, really small. And its border with Syria is proportionally about as long as a border can be if you’re not Swaziland. While you can’t see it on my map, a huge portion of Syria is inhospitable desert, and most of its population is concentrated in and between the urban areas of the country. If you refer to the illustration above, you’ll find that two of Syria’s largest urban centers, Homs and Amman, lie along the border with Lebanon. To Lebanon’s south, you’ll find Israel, a state that, whatever its merits (and they are many), has shown exactly zero respect for Lebanese sovereignty, zero compunction about operating militarily across the border (including recently), and zero regard for the lives of either the ‘terrorists’ they claim to be hunting or the civilians they massacre along the way.


Some things to consider: Hezbollah, the Party of God, has more or less recently joined the Syrian fray on Assad’s side. It also holds a substantial portion of the seats in the Lebanese parliament and has historic and monetary ties to revolutionary Iran. Its part of Beirut has been attacked repeatedly in recent days, and while the identity of the last two car bombers is unclear, disgruntled anti-Assad refugees wouldn’t be the least likely folks around. In Egypt, the army’s picked a war with the Muslim Brotherhood, and if events in Cairo and the Sinai are indicative, they may have got one. Israel is publicly supporting the army, as its security interests may well dictate. Which means that the never-very-discriminate threat of Brotherhood and otherwise radicalized sectarian violence growing in the poorly-policed peninsula may soon be heading towards Tel-Aviv as well as Cairo.

Add to all this that half the countries in the Middle East feel (or have felt historically) ties to Lebanon and a right to become involved. Syria and Lebanon were part of the same Mandate until the French split Greater Lebanon in two in order to shear off a Maronite majority in the west and Syrian troops have spent more than their fair share of time occupying Lebanese territory; Iran contributed thousands of Revolutionary Guards to the civil war and sent cash along with a goodly portion of the Arab states.

Add deteriorating situations to the north and south, a failure of the Lebanese government to, well, be, a conservative Israeli cabinet under Bibi that’s itching for a fight in the best of times and seems now to be looking for any way to torpedo Kerry’s already-doomed-to-fail restart of the peace process, and that the Syrian war is already spilling over into Beirut. 


This place

What’s all this mean? Hell if I know. I’m no scholar of the region. But if we were to look at how fragile Lebanon’s situation has been generally since the area was carved up by the French, and especially since the establishment of the State of Israel and the expulsion of the Palestinians therefrom, along with the region’s eagerness to get involved in Quixotic expeditions in the shadow of the cedars, and I think you may have a formula for the situation of our resident journo to get a little more interesting.

In the third book of the Pelopponnesian War, Thucydides looks at the Corcyran Revolt and then at the development of mayhem and civil strife that grows ever worse as the war goes on. The longer intrastate conflicts run, the more entropic and balkanized they tend to get, with actors operating along lines that they would never have at the outset (the explosion of infighting among Syrian rebels is a case in point).

The received value of names imposed for signification of things was changed into arbitrary. For inconsiderate boldness was counted true-hearted manliness; provident deliberation, a handsome fear;modesty, the cloak of cowardice; to be wise in everything, to be lazy in everything. [4] A furious suddenness was reputed a point of valour. To re-advise for the better security was held for a fair pretext of tergiversation. He that was fierce was always trusty, and he that contraried such a one was suspected. He that did insidiate, if it took, was a wise man; but he that could smell out a trap laid, a more dangerous man than he. [5] But he that had been so provident as not to need to do the one or the other was said to be a dissolver of society and one that stood in fear of his adversary. In brief, he that could outstrip another in the doing of an evil act or that could persuade another thereto that never meant it was commended.

The longer conflicts go on, the more tempted neighbors are to get involved, whether to increase their own regional power or, as in the case of the Israelis in the 1970s, to shore up their perceived security. More, the longer they go on, the greater the temptation to abandon humanity and dip into the false narratives of realpolitik. The famous, Arsenault-inoculated quip from the Melian Dialogue, ‘the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must,’ didn’t take place at the outset of the war. Only as the Athenians found their regional suzerainty slipping did they feel it necessary to threaten and then destroy the residents of Melos. All of this is to say that the only thing I can see happening in the Levant is things getting much, much worse before they get better, and probably crossing borders before they’re done.

We’ve also got to remember that we’re not looking at a historically isolated situation. The multiple crises gripping the parties in question are the culmination of a century of Western meddling in the region, which is not to say that regional actors haven’t had their say as well. The division of Greater Lebanon, the formation of the State of Israel, the genesis of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Iranian Revolution, the birth of Hezbollah, the unstable pact in Lebanon, the very existence of the Mubarak and the Assad regimes, all our fault. At his treason trial after his CIA-assisted ouster, Mossadegh said

Yes, my sin — my greater sin and even my greatest sin is that I nationalized Iran’s oil industry and discarded the system of political and economic exploitation by the world’s greatest empire. This at the cost to myself, my family; and at the risk of losing my life, my honor and my property. With God’s blessing and the will of the people, I fought this savage and dreadful system of international espionage and colonialism …. I am well aware that my fate must serve as an example in the future throughout the Middle East in breaking the chains of slavery and servitude to colonial interests.

Our blind opposition to every positive development in the Middle East has been the source of virtually all of our problems with it (and a good portion of its problems en toto). We’re lucky enough that it’s the people of the region, and not us, that are continuing to reap what we’ve sown, although we may well shed a few tears over higher gas prices. It’s been said that Morsi’s ouster presented POTUS with only bad options. That’s true, but it was more than obliquely our fault, and it would be naive to expect that a half-century of poisonous meddling in the region will give rise to less than an equal period of situations leaving us, and them, with only bad options. Our sins are fertile, and as long as the Rich Cohens and Tom Friedmans of our world hold sway, they’ll keep coming and coming.

One thought on “Levantine Speculation

  1. Pingback: The Siege Paranoid | Another Peace Corps Blog

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