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December 16, 2008
Lebanon is a religiously diverse, democratic state transitioning toward independence after a ruinous civil war and the Syrian and Israeli occupations that followed. The United States and Lebanon have historically enjoyed a good relationship due in part to cultural and religious ties; the democratic character of the state; a large, Lebanese-American community in the United States; and the pro-western orientation of Lebanon, particularly during the Cold War. Current U.S. concerns in Lebanon include strengthening the weak democratic institutions of the state, limiting the influence of Iran and Syria in Lebanon's political process, and disarming Hezbollah and other militant groups in Lebanon.
Following Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon in 2005 and the war between Israel and Hezbollah in the summer of 2006, the Bush Administration requested and Congress appropriated a significant increase in U.S. assistance to Lebanon. Since 2006, U.S. assistance to Lebanon has topped $750 million over three years, including for the first time over $410 million in U.S. security assistance for the Lebanese Armed Forces and Internal Security Forces of Lebanon. Several key issues in U.S.-Lebanon relations could potentially affect future U.S. assistance to Lebanon.
A political agreement among Lebanese parties in May 2008, brokered by the Qatari government and the Arab League in Doha, ended 18 months of political stalemate. The period was marked by cabinet resignations, political assassinations, labor strikes, a war between Hezbollah and Israel, an insurrection by foreign and Palestinian militants, and the worst sectarian fighting since Lebanon's 15-year civil war.
Since then, sectarian violence has continued in the northern city of Tripoli where Sunni factions supported by Saudi Arabia and Alawite groups supported by Syria have clashed and three bombings have targeted the Lebanese Armed Forces, raising concerns about a potential regional proxy war in Lebanon. Fighting has subsided somewhat since a reconciliation, brokered by Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, took effect on September 8, 2008.
In addition, the international community has continued to call for the disarming of all of Lebanon's militia groups. In particular, these demands have focused on Hezbollah's militia, which claimed victory in a 2006 war with Israel, improving its popular image in Lebanon. Efforts to enforce United Nations Security Council Resolution 1701, which calls for the groups' disarmament, are further complicated by the more prominent role that Hezbollah gained in the unity government following the Doha agreement.
The next Administration and the Members of the 111th Congress will be faced with upcoming parliamentary elections in Lebanon, scheduled for 2009. The outcome of the elections could further complicate U.S.-Lebanon relations, particularly if they result in political paralysis or a more substantial role for Hezbollah in the government. In addition, the ongoing sectarian violence in Tripoli demonstrates the regional and international struggle over Iranian influence in the Levant, the growing threat of radical Sunni movements, and Syria's efforts to move out of isolation, all of which weigh heavily on the Lebanese government and U.S.-Lebanon relations.
This report provides an overview of Lebanese politics, recent events in Lebanon, and current issues in U.S.-Lebanon relations and will be updated to reflect major developments.
Contents Recent Events Violence in Tripoli Syrian Border Deployment Aoun Visit to Syria U.S. Policy Toward Lebanon Background Recent U.S. Assistance to Lebanon Political Profile Demography Civil War, Occupation, and Taif Reform Syrian and Israeli Incursions Taif Agreement Syrian Withdrawal and Parliamentary Elections of 2005 Syrian Withdrawal Parliamentary Elections of 2005 U.N. Resolutions 1595, 1757, and the Tribunal Sectarianism and Stability Political Stalemate Renewed Sectarian Violence Doha Agreement Unity Government Current Issues in U.S.-Lebanon Relations Confronting Hezbollah Lebanon-Syria Relations The Shib'a Farms Extremist Groups in Lebanon The Lebanese Armed Forces U.S. Assistance to Lebanon Economic Assistance Security Assistance Unexploded Cluster Munitions in Lebanon Appendixes Appendix A. U.S. Assistance to Lebanon Appendix B. Map of Lebanon Contacts Author Contact Information
Violence in Tripoli
Despite the formation of a consensus government, sectarian tensions remain high in Lebanon. For much of 2008, sporadic fighting has continued in the northern city of Tripoli between Sunni residents of the Bab al Tebbaneh neighborhood and Alawites aligned with the opposition in Jabal Mohsen. In June, the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) were deployed to Tripoli to stop the fighting. The Tripoli conflict pits Sunnis against Alawites, a sect whose members include the leadership of Syria, and appears to be fueled by a slow-burning proxy war involving Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Syria. (1) Sunnis in Tripoli, many of whom espouse the principles of Salafism, may be supported financially and ideologically by Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia may be seeking to counter Syrian support of both the Alawite community and Hezbollah, along with Iranian financial, ideological, and military support for Hezbollah and other Shiite groups.
The violence has calmed since the signing of a reconciliation agreement brokered by Prime Minister Siniora on September 8, 2008, but two bombings since then have left 15 soldiers dead. Targeted attacks against the LAF, viewed by some as the "only national institution in Lebanon" are of particular concern to observers. Some express concerns that U.S. security assistance to the LAF has made it a target for extremist attacks. Others blame Syria or pro-Syrian agents, who might want to weaken the force ahead of a reoccupation of Lebanon. (2)
Syrian Border Deployment
On September 23, 2008, Syria deployed 10,000 Special Forces along Lebanon's northern border. Syrian officials state that the purpose of the deployment is to combat smuggling and to safeguard the border against terrorists attempting to enter Lebanon following twin bombings in Tripoli and Damascus earlier that month. Some observers, however, expressed concerns that the troop buildup could indicate that Syria is positioning to re-enter Lebanon. Those concerns were somewhat abated, at least temporarily, when, on October 14, 2008, following months of talks, the governments of Lebanon and Syria established formal diplomatic relations for the first time since the two countries gained independence. Reports indicate that the governments plan to exchange ambassadors and open embassies some time before the end of 2008.
Aoun Visit to Syria
In early December, Michel Aoun (3) visited Damascus in a reported attempt to present himself as the leader and spokesman of Christians in Lebanon and to garner Syrian support for his party ahead of parliamentary elections scheduled for 2009. With Sunnis and Shiites split almost evenly in Lebanese politics, many observers believe that the vote of the Christian community could play a pivotal role in deciding the outcome of the 2009 elections. (4)
U.S. Policy Toward Lebanon
The United States and Lebanon have historically enjoyed a good relationship due in part to cultural and religious ties; the democratic character of the state; a large, Lebanese-American community in the United States; and the pro-western orientation of Lebanon, particularly during the Cold War.
The American University of Beirut (AUB) was founded in 1866 by Americans in Lebanon and continues to receive the support of the United States Government and the Congress today, contributing to the long standing cultural ties between the two. In addition, the large Lebanese-American community further strengthens the cultural ties and has supported U.S. assistance to Lebanon in various forms.
Despite longstanding contact and interaction between the United States and Lebanon, some might argue that Lebanon is of limited strategic value to the United States. Unlike many American partners in the Middle East, Lebanon has no U.S. military bases, oil fields, international waterways, military or industrial strength, or major trading ties with the United States. Others would disagree, pointing to Lebanon's strategic location as a buffer between Israel and Syria, Lebanon's large Palestinian refugee population, and its historical role as an interlocutor for the United States with the Arab world.
During the 1975-1990 civil war, the United States expressed concern over the violence and destruction taking place in Lebanon and provided emergency economic aid, military training, and limited amounts of military equipment. In addition, the United States briefly deployed military forces to Lebanon in the early 1980's. The forces withdrew after a bombing at the U.S. Embassy in April 1983 and a bombing at the U.S. Marine barracks in October 1983 killed 272 civilians and members of the U.S. Armed Forces in Lebanon. The United States supported and participated in various efforts to bring about a cease-fire during the civil war and subsequent efforts to quiet unrest in southern Lebanon along the Lebanese-Israeli border.
The United States supported Lebanon in its reconstruction following the civil war with economic assistance aimed at rebuilding Lebanon's badly damaged infrastructure and political support for a democratic, independent Lebanon (see Appendix A). In 1996, the United States helped negotiate an agreement between Hezbollah and Israel to avoid targeting civilians and is a member of a five-party force monitoring this agreement. The United States also endorsed the U.N. Secretary General's findings in May 2000 that Israel had completed its withdrawal from southern Lebanon.
Since Israel's withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000, U.S. efforts have focused on countering terrorism and promoting democracy, two agendas that sometimes clash in Lebanon as Hezbollah maintains a political party, a militia wing, and an overseas terrorist capability. The United States also opposed the ongoing Syrian occupation of Lebanon as part of its policy to contain Syria as a state sponsor of terrorism.
The Bush Administration reacted strongly to the assassination of the former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri in February 2005, criticized the Syrian presence in Lebanon, and demanded the withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanon. The United States welcomed the formation of a new Lebanese government following the withdrawal of Syrian forces in April 2005. After a meeting with Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora on July 22, 2005, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said, "I think that you cannot find a partner more supportive of Lebanon than the United States." (5) The United States also supported the United Nations in establishing an independent tribunal to prosecute those responsible for Hariri's assassination.
Large-scale fighting between Israel and Hezbollah in mid-2006 complicated U.S. policy toward Lebanon. In a broader sense, the conflict jeopardized …