Tuesday, February 7, 2012
Small Potatoes Rule The Day In Lebanon
By David Kenner
Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati answered questions on Twitter on Sunday afternoon, one day after Russia and China vetoed a U.N. Security Council resolution on Syria - a step that seems virtually guaranteed to plunge Lebanon's eastern neighbor into further violence. So what did the premier want to talk about? Spoiled spuds.
"I realize that some of you are being kept busy with a story on expired potato chips which clearly changes the usual focus of the discussion," Mikati wrote. "Let me reassure you that instructions have been given to investigate expired potato chips story, perform related Lab tests & take measures."
Mikati was referring to a dastardly plot to alter the expiration date of 35 tons of potato chips at a warehouse owned by his brother-in-law. Whatever the facts of the case, it is something less than the great struggles against dictatorship seizing the rest of the Middle East. It also says volumes about the issue Mikati doesn't want to talk about: The slow-motion collapse of President Bashar al-Assad's regime.
Mikati's line is that Lebanon will "disassociate" itself from events in Syria, remaining neutral in order to avoid the blowback from the incipient civil war. But all the major political actors in Beirut are doing precisely the opposite -- even those within Mikati's own government. Lebanese Ambassador to the U.N. Nawaf Salam, for example, was talking with U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice on the floor of the Security Council just before the key vote on Syria. Salam reports to Lebanon's Foreign Ministry, which is run by a representative of the Amal party, a close ally of Hezbollah. It's difficult to see how inserting himself into the proceedings serves the purpose of "disassociating" Lebanon from events to the east.
The examples are piling up. As Hezbollah stages raids on towns in search of Syrian dissidents, arms smugglers carry weapons across the border to Syrian militiamen. Hassan Nasrallah promises to stand by Assad to the end, and Sunni leader Saad Hariri says that "change is imminent" in Damascus.
Violence is also piling up. Eight Lebanese have reportedly been killed in Syrian incursions across the border since the uprising began, and the Lebanese Army is now using helicopters in the north to search for "terrorist groups" at the request of the Syrian regime. And twice in the past three months, Lebanese parliamentarians have gotten into fistfights on live television.
There is little point in criticizing Lebanon's prime minister, who is picking from a series of bad options, of being disingenuous. But from the rise of Gamal Abdel Nasser to the civil war, Lebanon has a sad history of being destabilized by regional forces beyond its control. If Syria is poised to become 1980s Lebanon on steroids, as my colleague Marc Lynch writes, Beirut will get pulled down into the tragedy sooner or later.
This commentary was published in Foreign Policy on 06/02/2012