Lebanon, Always Lebanon

Blend may be one of the few bands still rocking in Beirut. Since the Second Lebanon War, most of Lebanon's rock groups have dispersed. The best "emigrated" to Dubai and the others still try to scrape up gigs in Beirut's remaining bars and clubs. But judging by the report in the Lebanese paper Daily Star, most musicians are tired of sweating blood for $40 for a two-hour show, not including the roughly three hours' time spent preparing.

Shuttered bars and clubs are just the most obvious symptom of the war's effect on Lebanon's people. Summer tourism this year is a little better than it was in 2006, the year of the war, but not much. As the summer season nears its close, occupancy rates at Lebanon's hotels are about 50 percent -- but compared with the years before the war, that's pretty thin.

The class of tourists has changed, too. This year, wealthy residents of the Gulf opted for other destinations and Lebanon found itself plied by tourists from Iraq with much less to spend. These visitors prefer two- or three-star hotels, where they can get away with paying about $17 a night. Actually, the term "tourist" may be a misnomer in their case: Most are Iraqis who found sanctuary in Syria, which forces them to periodically leave the country for a while, so as to avoid giving them permanent resident status. So they cross the border, hang out in Lebanon for a few days, then return to Syria.

On Hamra Street, Beirut's equivalent of Fifth Avenue, the stores are closed and so are most of the restaurants. There are no customers, and no less importantly, the electricity supply has become unreliable. In some cases, private generators take the place of the government power service, but they're expensive to run and Lebanese sources say that the cost of maintaining one air conditioner in a store can run to $200 a month.

Domestic tourism, within Lebanon, has been hurt by the security and political situation. Residents of the Christian neighborhoods avoid Muslim areas, and Shi'ites shun the luxurious Christian areas of Beirut. The city's better streets are darker than ever and few cultural events are held, even during what should have been the peak season for cultural creativity.

All this is the result of the explosive political situation, but this time it isn't a purely internal Lebanese matter. How did it come about that little, insignificant Lebanon, a country irrelevant to peace in the Middle East, has become the focus of interest among world leaders, from George Bush to Nicolas Sarkozy, and King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia to Bashar Assad and Iran's Ahmadinejad?

It seems that Lebanon has become a sort of political-prestige capsule that every leader wants to swallow -- but it's also a poison pill capable of igniting enough rancor to spoil established international relationships, including inter-Arab ones. This week, for example, the Saudi ambassador to Lebanon, Dr. Abd al-Aziz Khujah, was forced to scurry from Beirut after there threats on his life. The ambassador, who holds a Ph.D. in organic chemistry from Birmingham University, and a poet as well, denied that was the reason for his sudden departure and added that he'd be back within days. But he didn't deny that he'd been threatened.

Al-Khujah represents Saudi Arabia, which has been working since the murder of Rafik Hariri, in 2005, to have the assassins or their mentors -- suspected to be high officials in the Syrian government -- brought to justice. The spat between Saudi Arabia and Syria reached its shrillest tones last week, when Syrian vice-president Farouk Shara declared, "Saudi Arabia's political functioning in the Middle East is functionally semi-paralyzed." He accused Syria of splitting the Palestinian camp and claimed that the so-called Mecca Accord signed by Fatah and Hamas in February "was born in Damascus." Syria was the one that pressed Khaled Meshal into cooperating with the principles of that pact, Shara claimed.

Granted, mutual loathing between Saudi Arabia and Syria is nothing new, but last August as well, it was Lebanon that soured their relations anew. Speaking in support of Hezbollah in a speech delivered after the Second Lebanon War, Assad annoyed King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia by calling the Arab leaders "half-men" for failing to back the Shi'ite militia. Since then the relations appear to have been mended and Assad was welcomed with all due respect at the Riyadh summit in March. But their mutual mistrust has not abated.

Saudi Arabia, which has itself entered into an agreement with Iran, is angry about the Syrian-Iranian axis and dislikes Syria's close relations with the Shi'ite leadership in Iraq, and the government headed by Nouri al-Maliki. Saudi Arabia views al-Maliki as an Iranian stooge who's turning Iraq into a direct threat to Saudi Arabia.

Syria, on the other hand, received al-Maliki with fanfare last week. Damascus also opened an embassy in Baghdad, something Saudi Arabia so far hasn't done, and is seeking to reopen the Iraqi oil pipeline passing through Syria. In Saudi Arabia's opinion, with these moves Syria is making itself into an integral member of the Shi'ite circle in the Middle East, and is thus acting against the interests of most of the Arab countries.

Saudi Arabia is no paragon of virtue either. It is suspected of aiding Sunni organizations that are undermining the government in Baghdad, and of frustrating the establishment of a unity government in Iraq. Terrorists apparently operating alongside extremist Sunni organizations pass undisturbed into Iraq from Saudi Arabia. But unlike Syria, which is suspected of much the same, Saudi Arabia is a dear friend of Washington.

Now Syria is trying to take revenge on Saudi Arabia through Lebanon. It isn't just a question of any personal umbrage Assad may harbor over Saudi Arabia heading the political group that caused Syria's expulsion from Lebanon in 2005, nor is it just because Saudi Arabia vigorously advocated convening an international court to judge Hariri's killers.

Saudi Arabia has ousted it from every possible body in the Middle East, Syria thinks, and even sabotaged the possibility of its renewing negotiations with Israel. Now Saudi Arabia is supporting the international conference that President George Bush is promoting, to which Syria isn't even invited. Syria, which threw its support behind the Saudi Arabian initiative at the last moment -- and is now using that support as leverage to negotiate for the return of the Golan Heights -- is discovering that the international conference won't be addressing it as an issue at all. The conference mandate is confined to the Palestinians. Lebanon is the only arena left where Syria can flex its muscles.

The U.S. and France were also swept into this maelstrom, the U.S. because of its support for the Saudi stance and France because of its tight ties with the late Rafik Hariri and now with his son Saad, and with his political group, which commands a majority in the Lebanese government.

Lebanon has thus created the first Franco-American alliance since the two countries squabbled over the war in Iraq. In 2004, at France's initiative and with American support, Resolution 1559 (which called for the departure of "foreign forces" from Lebanon) passed, badly upsetting Syria and, says a UN special inquiry, leading to the assassination of Hariri. Sniping at Syria by way Lebanon has not only become policy for some of the political groups in Lebanon since then; it's also become policy of the U.S. and France, which lined up behind the government of Fouad Siniora.

No wonder that if Hezbollah is perceived as Iran's envoy, the Siniora government is considered to be the agent of the U.S. Some people in Lebanon even consider it to be traitorous. The upshot has been the creation of new political and diplomatic axes in Lebanon: the U.S., France and Saudi Arabia on the one hand, versus Syria and Iran on the other, and on yet another front the Arab League is left wringing its hands, dismayed by its own demonstrable impotence at resolving yet another Arab feud.

The latest battle on this heated front is presidential elections, which are supposed to be held in Lebanon in late September or early October. And again, this is not a purely internal Lebanese issue. The poll marks the end of term for Emile Lahoud, an ally of Syia. Washington wants a president who will promote its agenda or at least be anti-Syrian. France, for its part, is willing to compromise if Siniora's government agrees. The Maronite Christians, supported by France, are afraid that Hezbollah will dictate the choice of president: They'd prefer the army commander Michel Suleiman over General Michel Aoun, who's allied with Sheikh Nasrallah, leader of Hezbollah. Syria wants Aoun, Saudi Arabia will naturally oppose him, and meanwhile, the opposition and coalition have yet to resolve their disagreement over which should come first: establishing a national unity government or electing a president. And throughout all of this, Lebanon isn't even functioning as a country: Hezbollah pulls the strings, and it seems that what matters most to the growling parties is their battle over influence, instead of restoring Lebanon to a semblance of life.