Lebanon: Sliding back to civil war?

A workers’ alternative is urgently needed!

Last Sunday, 21 October, ended with armed fighting breaking out across different areas of Lebanon. In Beirut, the Lebanese army clashed with armed groups using hand grenades. Heavy fire was exchanged streets of the capital. This took place two days after the assassination of the head of the Police’s Information Branch (Internal Security Forces) Brigadier General Wissam Al Hasan.

In the northern city of Tripoli, heavy fighting broke out in a renewal to the longstanding conflict between Sunni and Allawite militias. Passersby were killed and injured. Among those killed was a small girl who was fleeing, with her Allawite mother, to her Sunni father on the other side of the firing line.

Similar tragedies were reported in many other areas in the southern and western parts of the country, including in Sidon city and the Bekaa valley. The total number of dead and injured is yet unknown, but included militia youth, civilians caught in crossfire, and soldiers creating checkpoints to limit the fighting. At the time of writing, the total number killed is 11. The army heavily deployed and street clashes appear to have decreased, though sniping attacks are reported and the use of hand grenades.

Sunni-dominated opposition

On 21 October, police fired into the air and used teargas to disperse hundreds of protesters attempting to storm Lebanon’s government building, while leaders from the Hariri-led Sunni-dominated Future Movement urged demonstrators at the mass funeral of the assassinated Hasan, to vacate the streets. But this was too little too late. The 14th March alliance, which the Future Movement leads, called on their supporters to take action to bring down the Hezbollah-led 8th March alliance government. And despite the intensive mobilizations and speeches calling for people to take to the streets on Sunday, the demonstration was estimated to be only ten thousands strong.

Since the assassination of the former prime minister Rafik al-Hariri in 2005, which was followed by hundreds of thousands taking to the streets, speeches by the 14th March leaders have had a heightened sectarian tone against the Shiite-based Hezbollah. This was particularly stepped up when the Hezbollah-led 8th March alliance took a majority in the Lebanese government in 2011.

The 14th March’s loss of control over the sectarian Sunni militias was revealed again last weekend. Road blocks set up by Sunni armed groups were in place just hours after the Friday 19 October assassination of the Sunni head of the Police Information Branch. Hasan was killed by a massive car bomb that exploded in a Christian-dominated and densely-populated street in Beirut. In all 8 people were killed and 110 injured. Due to the huge damage caused by the explosion, it took hours to find traces of those killed in the blast and to confirm the assassination of Hasan.

Only hours after the blast, roads in Beirut, Bekaa, northern Tripoli, northern Akkar, and the southern city of Sidon were blocked by enraged armed men. All across the country, armed supporters of the Sunni-dominated, Hariri-led Future Movement, along with far right Salafist groups, still control different areas and block roads.

In north Lebanon, in addition to road closures and burning tires, Tripoli city has seen a renewal of the armed conflict between the Sunni-dominated Tebbene area and Allawite Jabal Mohsin. This part of the north has seen decades of tensions but clashes have escalated in recent months as a result of the events in Syria.

The bomb attack last Friday was Lebanon’s biggest explosion in four years. It has fueled fears of a return to the wave of political assassinations that polarized Lebanese society between 2005 and 2008. The Lebanese military has been deployed to prevent people from crossing checkpoints.

Since last Friday evening, 14th March politicians have called on the government to resign, blaming Assad’s regime in Syria and its main ally in Lebanon, Hezbollah, for the Hasan assassination.

The Information Branch is considered by 8th March supporters as a counterweight to the Lebanese military intelligence, which is regarded as having close relations with Damascus. The newly-formed Information Branch security apparatus was largely trained and supplied by US and pro-US Arab intelligence services, including Saudi Arabia.

Hasan was the head of Hariri’s personal security team before the latter’s assassination in 2005. A 2010 investigative piece published by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation reported that UN investigators scrutinized Hasan as a possible suspect in the Hariri assassination. Phone records showed that Hasan made 24 calls in the morning of the assassination, though he claimed he was studying. The UN’s commission’s management decided not to proceed with investigations.

In August, this year, Hasan was named by the Free Syrian Army (FSA) as a possible negotiating partner, after armed opponents to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad kidnapped 11 Lebanese Shia pilgrims. The FSA also named former Future MP, Sakr, who is considered by some in the 8 March alliance to be facilitating arms imports to Syrian rebels from Turkey.

During a meeting of Lebanon’s Cabinet, following the Hasan assassination, the Sunni Prime Minister Najib Mikati Mikati (who was backed and appointed by Hezbollah) was advised not to resign in order not to plunge the country into a state of chaos and paralysis. Mikati only commented that the country was going through a major crisis. This reflected his total incapacity, and that of the ruling 8th March, to take the country out of the sectarian deadlock that they have helped create, together with the 14th March opposition.

Hezbollah-led government

Hezbollah leaders and their allies from the Christian populist Free Patriotic Movement, while limiting their comments to condolences and condemnation of the bombing, have not answered the sectarian rhetoric by some leading opponents. Instead they have consciously kept a low profile in the midst of road closures and clashes between armed groups and the army and police.

Having seen the inability of 14th March to mobilize as they did in the past, and leading the ruling bloc in government this time, Hezbollah leaders are not prepared to get bogged down in small-scale street fighting and to be associated with a sectarian war with Salafist and Al-Qaeda-type groups, which are small relatively to Hezbollah’s mass base of support in Lebanon.

However, with their Shiite ideological foundation and ties to their Iranian backers and the Assad regime in Syria, Hezbollah are becoming less and less capable of appealing to the masses beyond the Shiite communities. Indeed, Hezbollah is regarded by many as partially responsible for the deteriorating situation in Lebanon. If the sectarian conflict breaks out at the national level, Hezbollah, as explained the CWI has commented, will be forced into a sectarian trap. The movement would lean on Shiite supporters and get drawn into a Sunni-Shite conflict that could spread across the region.

There are more and more reports of Hezbollah fighters being killed in Syria’s conflict, alongside Assad’s widely-hated and feared forces. This is factoring into Lebanon’s sectarian politics. Hezbollah can no longer credibly portray itself as primarily a mass resistance movement against Israeli occupation, but is increasingly pigeon-holed, even by some of its former supporters, as a Shiite militia.

Need for a united workers’ movement

Most importantly, on the economic issues, the 8th March government has continued with almost the same policies as the 14th March before them. Hezbollah has shown to workers and the poor that it is incapable of solving their basic daily problems like power cuts and water shortages. What is left of the public sector is under invested. Living costs rocketed while salary increases have been minimal and, in many cases, not implemented by employers.

Only one day before last week’s appalling bomb attack in a crowded residential area, taking the lives of working people, a general strike in the public sector shook the ruling class. Led by the teachers’ union, and coordinated by a committee of independent unions, a militant radical strike was almost 100% strong in the public sector and even spread to the private sector (namely private Christian schools where directors had been reported to have made threats to teachers joining the strike).

The bomb attack, although taking the lives of mostly Christian residents, has been perceived by a section of the Sunni masses in Lebanon as if their community and their leaders are being targeted. This is why Mikati finds himself in a double deadlock and said to the press: “I am going through a very critical phase because my sect feels that it is being targeted”.

But Hasan’s assassination has also raised many questions about who could be behind the horrific terrorist act and who would benefit most from his death. Hasan was appointed soon after the assassination of Hariri in 2006. He played a role in uncovering several Israeli spy networks, as well as bomb plots in north Lebanon allegedly planned by former pro-Syria Minister Samaha, who is now facing charges of collaborating with members of the Syrian regime to plot terror attacks in Lebanon.

The pro-Assad 8th March alliance has repeatedly questioned the legality of the Information Branch and its personnel, which was appointed by the Hariri bloc. It has been accused of gathering information which could be used the Israeli Mossad agency against Hezbollah.

The assassination of Hariri polarized society along the two political camps of the Western-backed 14th March and the Syrian and Iranian-backed 8th March movement. Politicians in both blocs played a role in raising sectarian tensions as a result of their struggle for power and control of wealth. Both alliances have been intensively rallying communities against one another over the last six years, which has led to the current crisis. These events reminds the older generations of the 1975-1990 Lebanese civil war.

Revolution and Counter-revolution

Today whole region is witnessing conflicts and upheavals. In Syria, the monstrous Assad regime has drawn an initial mass uprising into a prolonged and increasingly bitter and bloody conflict with sectarian sides to it. Opponents of Assad, in the absence of a strong class alternative, are either detained (there are an estimated 100,000 in Syria’s prisons) or increasingly pulled into the (divided) Free Syrian Army and sectarian-based armed rebel groups. With no independent workers’ organizations or movements leading the struggle, it has increasingly taken on a sectarian character, with different elements fighting to defend what is seen as “their” communities. At the same time, local, regional and international backers on both sides of the Syrian conflict have used the sectarian divisions across the Middle East to derail a revolution from developing in Syria and from eventually being imitated by the masses throughout the region. Working people in Syria and throughout the region have nothing to gain from Western military interventions, which as Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya shows only brings more death, destruction and division and imperialist exploitation.

Having being part of, or at least inspired by, the so-called Arab Spring, working people in the region now watch horrified the continuous vicious bombardment of whole neighbourhoods in Syrian cities by the brutal Assad regime, as well as violent retaliation, sometimes including massacres, by the armed Syrian opposition.

The bloodbath is prolonged; particularly as each side’s international backing makes it more likely there will be fight to the finish. The French foreign ministry recently stated “the time has not arrived yet for a cease-fire in Syria”.

The Information Branch, formerly headed by Hasan, was promoted as a separate and powerful intelligence apparatus by the Hariri family, which, in turn, is backed by the Saudi regime. Hasan, like most if not all mainstream politicians in Lebanon, was a player in the Syria war. His assassination was less likely a shock, in and of itself to the masses in Lebanon, but the brutal character of the mass terrorist attack was a deep shock.

Socialist alternative

As long as the masses of workers and poor have no mass political organisation of their own – and this is the case today as a result of decades of local dictatorships backed by the West and previously the former Stalinist Soviet Union – they cannot firmly confront and end the machinations, intrigues and interference of local and international ruling classes. Today we see the various ruling classes in a power-struggle in the region, on all fronts. This is a conflict between the world powers and their stooge governments for natural resources and wealth and prestige and influence in this vital geo-strategic region.

The working class in Lebanon, across the religious, confessional, national and ethnic divides, faces mass unemployment, low pay, high living costs, poor public social and health services, shortages of water and power, and an unbearable housing crisis, while the same corrupt greedy war lords whip up sectarian divisions to try to stay in power.

The ruling classes of the whole region, while struggling for their power and wealth, are prepared to take whole societies to sectarian conflicts and barbarism to pursue their reactionary economic and social policies. If their big business policies are threatened by a united workers’ movement, like in Lebanon only days ago, or as in Syria, in 2011, when the opposition started initially as a popular uprising against Assad’s corrupt neo-liberal policies, the ruling elites or factions of the elite are quiet capable of using ‘divide and rule’ polices, which includes carrying out, directly or indirectly, bombings, assassinations and mass killings.

It is workers and the poor who mainly pay the price for such policies. And it is only workers and the poor, when united as a class, who are capable of stopping the pro-big business rulers from taking the masses into bloody conflicts and wars and showing a way out of sectarian conflict and bitterness. The building of a united workers’ movement that is independent from the corrupt class and the parties of capital is essential. This includes building militant unions that are independent from the corrupt GCLU leadership.

It is by a united workers’ movement struggling to change society, taking over the running of society and by bringing all the main large companies that dominate the economy into public ownership and under democratic workers’ control and management, that this brutal and savage ruling class can be stopped and removed.

A socialist society would mean the running of society by the majority, taking power out of the hands of the capitalists, to meet the needs of the vast majority. A society run by and for workers and based on the genuine socialist alternative is the only way to end barbaric wars, divisions, and to abolish poverty and corruption, once and for all.

  • Down with the warlords and greedy politicians!
  • A mass united struggle of workers and youth against sectarianism, militia-based politics and the ruling class!
  • Building a workers’ alternative to capitalist barbarism!

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October 2012