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Commentary Last Updated: Mar 6th, 2008 - 01:04:01

Harbingers of war?
By Linda S. Heard
Online Journal Contributing Writer

Mar 6, 2008, 01:02

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You've got to admire the Lebanese. They're rarely fazed by anything. Throughout three decades, they've been embroiled in a lengthy civil war; they've been occupied by foreign armies and attacked by a puissant and sophisticated military power. Today, the country hosts a United Nations force and is devoid of a functioning government.

It is also steeped in debt and trying to combat rampant inflation even as foreign investors are scrambling for the exit. Yet, the Lebanese -- at least, the ones I know -- remain calmly optimistic.

This unflappable character trait was in evidence when I lived in Beirut some years ago. While staying in a service apartment off Hamra Street, I was woken at 4 a.m. by a huge "boom" and choking black smoke billowing through the open window. Gripped by cold fear, I grabbed my passport, credit cards and the cat -- not necessarily in that order -- and hot-footed it downstairs.

"You look shaken," said the building's owner, impeccably attired in silk pyjamas and leather slippers, cigar in hand. "What are you doing running around bare footed?" he asked. "Don't worry about this old building. It's been shelled dozens of times and it's still standing."

He explained that the Lebanese have become inured to danger. Perhaps that explains why their papers rarely indulge in dramatic headlines.

Thus chastised, I hesitate to overdramatise current events. But just in case you hadn't noticed, US warships are heading towards Lebanon's coast, ostensibly in support of the Siniora-led, pro-Western government. Apparently the USS Cole, already in the vicinity, will shortly be joined by the Nassau battle group.

Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen claims this show of naval force is merely to demonstrate the importance of the eastern Mediterranean to US interests. "We're engaged" and "We're going to be in the vicinity," he told reporters.

Prime Minister Fouad Siniora says they weren't invited and, in any case, will not deploy in Lebanese waters.

Hezbollah parliamentarian Hassan Fadlallah believes Lebanon is facing an American threat but says such "intimidation will not affect us".

Commentators are divided over the significance of US ships patrolling the area. There are those who believe their presence is a ploy to divert people's minds from the carnage perpetrated by Israel in Gaza.

Others think this is little more than gunboat diplomacy, designed to force the Lebanese opposition and its foreign backers to quit putting obstacles in the way of a long overdue presidential appointment.

Syria's Foreign Minister Walid Al Mua'llem seems to have read it that way. "I say to those Lebanese who are betting on America's . . . muscle flexing off the coast of Lebanon that this is a losing bet. America cannot impose a solution in Lebanon as it sees it," he said.

Alternatively, the US presence could be in answer to the growing number of Russian intelligence-gathering vessels, aircraft carriers and missile cruisers allegedly frequenting the Syrian ports of Latakia and Tartous.

Remotely plausible

Another school of thought says the US ships are there to evacuate Americans from the region but that only sounds remotely plausible if one partners it with Saudi Arabia's SMS request to its citizens in Lebanon to leave ASAP, along with Germany's recent handover of its command of Unifil's naval arm to Italy. Germany would be loath to get into any battle involving Israelis.

This scenario -- hopefully the least likely -- is the most ominous. Could there really be another full-scale war in the offing with Israel the main protagonist, this time backed up by the US?

Many in Israel believe the 2006 war with Lebanon was ended prematurely and the country left with unfinished business. Israel's 500-page Winograd report was particularly scathing about the performance of Israel "Defence" Forces, while hawks worry that Israel's strategic usefulness to Washington has been eroded by the last military failure.

Hezbollah certainly thinks there's something in the wind. Its fighters are said to be on high alert in southern Lebanon. Indeed, Hezbollah's leader, Hassan Nasrallah, recently gave a speech warning Israel that his fighting force was 50,000 strong and battle ready.

Now that US plans to launch preemptive strikes on Iran have been thwarted due to lack of evidence that Tehran is pursuing nuclear weapons, it may have decided to tackle Hezbollah and Hamas -- groups funded by Tehran -- head on, albeit with Israel officially leading the charge.


Israel's war on Hamas-controlled Gaza -- or as one Israeli minister put it "a holocaust" -- has already begun as we see from hospitals and morgues crammed with the bodies of children. Will Israel extend this aggression to Lebanon with the aim of wiping out Hezbollah once and for all? It can't hope to fight on two fronts alone . . . but with America's help, who knows?

If I were to ask my old landlord in Hamra, he would probably smile and continue playing backgammon with his battle-scarred old friends. They've seen too much; they suffered too much. They deserve a break. All the Lebanese people deserve a break. God bless them and keep them safe!

Linda S. Heard is a British specialist writer on Middle East affairs. She welcomes feedback and can be contacted by email at

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