Why did the proxy war in Lebanon happen and whose interests did it serve? What is Hizbullah, and how independent is it from its sponsors in Damascus and Tehran? And what is life like for the Shia population of Hizbullahstan?by Amir Taheri / September 24, 2006 / Leave a comment
“The summer of all hopes!” This was how Sa’ad Hariri, leader of the majority bloc in the Lebanese parliament, described the new tourist season in July. He reflected the views of many of his fellow citizens. The 15-year-long civil war that ended in 1990 is a distant memory to most Lebanese, half of whom are under 30. For the first time in more than 50 summers, there were no foreign troops occupying Lebanese soil; the last of them, 14,000 Syrians, having returned home a year earlier. The cedar revolution of 2005, which had forced Syria to end its occupation, had also produced a surge of democratic energy leading to the nation’s first free elections in three decades. Those elections had produced a coalition government that represented almost all of the country’s 18 religious communities, and that was not beholden to any foreign power.
The Lebanese were also beginning to develop a new sense of security. The series of political assassinations, blamed on the Syrian secret services, that had started with the murder of former prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri, seemed to have come to a halt, allowing threatened politicians, intellectuals and media people who had lived half underground for months to return to more or less normal life.
So confident were the various communities that the bad old days of sectarian feud and foreign meddling were over that they had begun a national discussion on modernising Lebanese democracy by downplaying its communitarian features, injecting a dose of federalism and disbanding the various security services, most of them infiltrated by Syria.
There was also good news on the economic front. For the first time in four years, Lebanon was experiencing growth, with foreign investment reaching record levels. The government of prime minister Fuad Siniora, a former banker, was talking of cutting the budget deficit and reducing foreign debt. Western tourists, returning to Lebanon’s holiday resorts in large numbers for the first time since the 1960s, endorsed the nation’s happier mood. This was taqarun al-saadayn, the coincidence of felicitous factors that gives men a glimpse of paradise. As always, however, kismet—fate—was writing a different script. Events outside Lebanon were conspiring to transform the “summer of all hopes” into a season of death.
The first of those events was shaped around the confrontation between Iran and the international community over Tehran’s alleged nuclear weapons programme. The EU, backed by the US, had offered…