Most observers of the Middle East sensed that the U.S. invasion of Iraq, instead of bringing stability, would bring chaos to the region. The most recent signal of this unraveling was the assassination of Lebanon’s former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri, a Sunni billionaire with ties to Washington and Riyadh, who had been credited with much of Beirut’s reconstruction. Popular protests have now led to the resignation of the country’s pro-Syrian government.
Although Syria is being blamed for the killing—Hariri was a staunch opponent the Syrian presence in Lebanon—the crime is most likely the extension of the Sunni-Shiite conflict that is coming to a boil in Iraq.
The killing has been claimed by a previously unknown group calling itself “Victory and Jihad in Bilad as-Shan.” Bilad as-Shah could be translated as Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Palestine.
This should be enough to convince even the most skeptical observer that the demon of Shiite-Sunni tension has escaped the Iraqi Pandora’s Box. It is now spilling into neighboring countries, reviving a religious schism that dates back to the seventh century, to the death of the prophet Mohammed and the rise of his cousin and son-in-law Ali as one of Fourth Rightly Guided Caliphs.
That the fire of the Shiite-Sunni divide would take root so promptly in relatively calm Lebanon is an even more worrisome sign that the chaos may spread quickly to unexpected latitudes in the Middle East.
Lebanon is a pivotal element in the pacification of the Middle East for a number of reasons. First, its geopolitical position makes it a key factor in the unfolding Israeli-Palestinian saga. Second, its governmental instability is the weakest link in the U.S.-led effort to spread democracy in the whole region, its government unable to assert central control of its territory since 1958, making it the best avenue for foreign meddlers.
According to Clement Moore Henry, a professor of government at the University of Texas at Austin, who spent four years in the 1980s teaching at the American University of Beirut, Hariri’s killing should be read as part of an increasingly unstable Middle East.
“I’m not at all convinced that Syrians per se are behind this attack,” Henry explains. Hariri’s assassination was a sign that the power structure in Syria was weakening and that President Bashar was no longer totally in control.
“If a Syrian hand has to be found behind this attack it must be found with the separate faction that operates inside the country’s secret service, like those linked to Lebanon’s Amal and Hezbollah,” Henry says.
The two Shiite resistance organizations both enjoy Syria’s support but are often at each other’s throat. Amal, an indigenous Islamic group, operates mostly in southern Lebanon and some urban areas like Beirut. The Hezbollah is dominant in the Beqaa Valley and the southern districts of Beirut. It was formed in 1982 when Syria, in a horse-trade with Iran for its oil, allowed some 1,000 Pasdran-Iranian revolutionary guards to set up shop in the Syrian occupied eastern part of the country.
The anti-American and anti-Western European Hezbollah is active in southern Lebanon. Iran recruited hundreds of young members of Lebanon’s Al-Da’wa—a Shiite fundamentalist group—and members of Islamic Amal, an offshoot of Amal. In 1985 the leadership of Hezbollah pledged allegiance to Khomeini and to the ideal of an Islamic state in Lebanon. Hezbollah was also responsible for a series of bombings in Beirut, which killed hundreds of French and American Marines and led to the withdrawal of the U.S. and French peace contingents from that country.
The idea that Shiites are trying to muscle in on Lebanon is not new even to King Abdullah of Jordan. Talking to the Washington Post last December, the Hashemite ruler affirmed that Iran was attempting to “create a Shiite crescent from Iran to Syria, and Lebanon.” Although he immediately retracted his remarks following a firestorm unleashed by the Iranians, the monarch gave voice to an unspoken regional concern: Shiite control of Iraq could jump-start militant Shiite-based alliances in other countries in the Middle East.
Even as he tries to disprove King Abdullah’s theory, Mourhaf Jouejati, a Syrian foreign policy expert and director of the Middle East program at George Washington University, admits the king’s thesis isn’t far-fetched. Jouejati writes in an online periodical that Shiite dominance in Iraq could fill the divide—political and geographical —that runs between Iran and Syria, where the Allawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, still holds power and has been wary of the transition of power from Hafiz el-Assad to his son Bashar.
The extent of Iran’s Shiite reach could be bolstered by Lebanese Shiites and the Damascus-backed Hezbollahs. The specter of Iranian-Shiite influence is so credible, says Jouejati, that Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Kuwait—which all have a sizeable and repressed Shiite communities -- tried unsuccessfully to delay the Iraqi elections.
Lebanon, where Shiites are among the poorest of the poor, is a fertile ground for the “Shiite crescent.” In a country famous as an international tax haven, poor people are hit with an overbearing gasoline tax—40 percent of the consumer price.
Last May, reacting to a government announcement of a new tax hike on gasoline, Shiites of Beirut’s southern neighborhoods took to the streets, triggering a riot that led to the death of six people and left the neighborhood of Hay al-Soulom ablaze. The speed with which the riot spread, like that of burning oil on water, led many observers to believe a hidden hand was directing it. Then came the Hariri assassination.
Paolo Pontoniere is the San Francisco-based correspondent of Focus, Italy’s leading monthly magazine. e