Lebanon Unsettled by U.S. Overtures to Iran, Syria
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
The Bush administration has made recent moves to have more contacts with the governments of Syria and Iran, and that has alarmed the government in Lebanon because the government in that country is locked in a confrontation with Hezbollah, a group leading an opposition alliance backed by Iran and Syria. NPR's Deborah Amos reports from Beirut.
DEBORAH AMOS: For more than six months now, demonstrators led by Hezbollah, the Shiite Muslim political and military movement, have occupied Beirut's downtown business district. Hezbollah supporter Hassan Nasser(ph) joins the sit-in once a week to keep up the pressure aimed at bringing down the government.
Mr. HASSAN NASSER (Hezbollah Supporter): Because we are strong, we're still here, and anybody who come to - against us, we will deal with him.
AMOS: The government still functions day to day, but crucial national decisions are on hold. The speaker of the parliament, a Hezbollah ally, refuses to convene the legislature - a stalemate that's divided the country. There's no resolution in sight, because the crisis is also part of a regional power struggle.
Iran and Syria back Hezbollah, while the Bush administration supports the government. So any potential U.S. opening with Iran or the recent talks with Syria are carefully monitored here to detect any change in U.S. policy.
Mr. PAUL SALEM (Director, Carnegie Middle East Center, Beirut): Yeah. A lot of people recognize it as a potentially important turning point in Lebanon's situation vis a vis the region.
AMOS: Paul Salem, an analyst with the Carnegie Foundation, says the government has reason to be wary. The Syrian army was forced out of Lebanon two years ago after the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafic Hariri. Lebanese government officials accused Syria of killing Hariri and other anti-Syrian politicians.
The U.S. supports and international tribunal for the Hariri case. The Bush administration had promised Lebanese allies there would be no talks with Syria, and then, two weeks ago, the U.S. Secretary of State sat down with her Syrian counterpart in a meeting in Baghdad.
Mr. KARIM MUKTASI (Political Science Professor): So, there's a reading here that this could be just talk for talk's sake, but people are keeping an eye and an ear on it to see if indeed it doesn't develop further.
AMOS: And keeping an eye on developments in Iraq, says political science professor Karim Muktasi(ph). He worries that when Washington talks to Syria about Iraq, Lebanon's interest could suffer.
Mr. MUKTASI: A lot of people realize that the U.S. is not very loyal to its allies in the area and in the region and certainly Lebanon. They would sacrifice it very quickly if that meant gaining something in Iraq with Syria.
AMOS: The embattled Lebanese government is dependent on the united States, says Martin Indyk of the Saban Center in Washington, and has staked its future on the Bush administration's unwavering support.
Mr. MARTIN INDYK (Saban Center, Washington): This movement really depends on American backing to survive a Syrian effort - determined effort, ruthless effort to regain its control of Lebanon. So they are prone to hear the buzz saw behind them. They're out on a branch, and they've naturally worried that it's going to get cut off.
AMOS: But any resolution to Lebanon's crisis has to involve neighboring Syria, says Rob Malley with the International Crisis Group. And that, he says, will require delicate diplomacy rather than confrontation.
Mr. ROB MALLEY (International Crisis Group): It's going to have to be compromised. That means that Syria has to be at the table, and their interest - at least to the extent of their interest - means they don't want a hostile government in Lebanon, a government that they perceive is trying to undermine them. That has to be part of the equation as well.
AMOS: Some Lebanese have learned to live with the political impasse, but many others are leaving the country, says Ronda Shaheen(ph), a government supporter.
Ms. RONDA SHAHEEN (Resident, Beirut): I have my family when - in Syria. On the house - my clothes and the - everything else that - the relatives there are all gone.
AMOS: Those who stay know Lebanon's future is tied to events in Washington, in Iran, Syria and Iraq.
Ms. SHAHEEN: But the future - we learn not to think of the future because every time we do think of the future, something happens. So we don't have a future anymore. That's the way it goes in Lebanon.
AMOS: Deborah Amos, NPR News, Beirut.