28th May 2022

Lebanon crisis raises risk of conflict on EU's southern fringe

  • Poster of Hezbollah leader Hassan Nazrallah, who has for years stayed in hiding out of fear of an Israeli strike (Photo: looking4poetry)

The threat of a fresh and potentially contagious Middle East conflict has sharply increased after the collapse of the Lebanese government. But EU structures can do little to influence the situation.

The crisis unfolded on Wednesday (12 January) when 10 ministers linked to the militant Shia Muslim group Hezbollah and another minister quit the coalition government, forcing its demise. Hezbollah took the step in protest that Prime Minister Saad Hariri, a pro-Western Sunni Muslim, is giving money to an international tribunal on the 2005 assassination of Rafik Hariri, his father.

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Saad Hariri will now take charge of a caretaker administration while President Michel Suleiman launches talks to form a new power-sharing deal.

The walkout is widely understood as an attempt to blackmail the tribunal, which Hezbollah has called an "Israeli project," to avoid naming the group as the culprits.

Hezbollah is the main military force in Lebanon and has in recent years tried to establish itself as a legitimate political authority. But an anti-Hezbollah ruling would undermine its position by depicting it as the agent of foreign powers Syria and Iran.

Commentators, such as former EU Middle East advisor Alastair Crooke, who now heads an NGO in Beirut, have said that the situation is highly volatile, but could still end peacefully.

Lebanon as recently as 2008 saw sectarian clashes between Shia and Sunni factions. Meanwhile, Israel fears that a conflict in Lebanon could see Hezbollah attack Israel in an attempt to shore up support by drawing in a foreign enemy. In 2006, Israel launched a ground invasion of Lebanon following Hezbollah rocket attacks on Israeli targets. It killed around 1,300 Lebanese citizens, but support for Hezbollah soared.

A nightmare scenario could see fellow Shia militants Hamas launch parallel strikes on Israel out of Gaza. One independent expert on Hezbollah, Avi Issacharoff, a journalist for the left-leaning Israeli daily Haaretz, believes that Hezbollah also has agents in Europe ready to attack Jewish and Israeli targets.

"Hezbollah is putting a gun to our heads to take this trial away," an Israeli contact told EUobserver on a visit to the region late last year. "If there is a conflict, it won't come from just one side - all hell will break loose."

The main EU player in Lebanon is its former colonial master, France. The late Mr Hariri had strong ties with the French establishment and was a personal friend of former French president Jacques Chirac.

Saad Hariri, who was on a trip to Washington when his government fell, is expected to arrive in Paris on Thursday.

A spokesman for the US State Department, Philip J. Crowley, said on Wednesday: "We're working with the Lebanese government and other partners who share our interest in stability and justice for Lebanon, including France, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Egypt, on next steps that will protect the work of the tribunal and help to achieve stability in Lebanon."

"Hezbollah is presenting a false choice for Lebanon of justice or stability. We think that Lebanon deserves both."

A senior EU diplomat stationed in the region told this website that there is little that EU structures can do to maintain the peace. "All we can do is to help strengthen the Hariri party economically and politically," the contact said.

Another Israeli source counselled the EU not to appease Hezbollah in the name of stability: "If the EU wants to be taken seriously when it talks about support for democracy and fundamental values, siding with Hezbollah for the sake of realpolitik is not an option."

EU countries Belgium, Cyprus, Denmark, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Portugal, Slovenia and Spain also have personnel in Unifil, the 13,000-man-and-woman-strong UN peacekeeping force in southern Lebanon.

The UN force has no credibility in Israel in terms of providing hard security, however. Unifil has in the recent past failed to stop Hezbollah fighters from launching small-scale strikes on Israeli patrols south of the Lebanese border.

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