There are those who attribute the recent devastation wreaked in Lebanon’s eastern sectors to a naked power rivalry between two ruthless Christian leaders. Both Samir Geagea and General Michel Aoun, they say, are warlords bent on exclusively reaping the benefits of the continued Maronite privilege and political dominance. While one commands a militia, the other illegally usurps the command of Christian army units. Left to their own devices, in this view, either leader would be as bad as the other in terms of a just settlement of Lebanon’s plight.
It is true that both men share certain common beliefs about the future of Lebanon. Each insists the Syrians must withdraw at some stage. And both vigorously oppose attempts to bring Lebanon’s Christian areas under Lebanese Muslim or Syrian control.
But the similarity stops there. Profound philosophical differences are the root cause of the battles we are currently witnessing.
General Aoun is intent on being recognized as the national leader endowed with the mission of leading all of Lebanon out of its present chaos and Syrian tutelage. In hisview, this can only be accomplished by the forceful reassertion of control by an independent Christian army leader-himself-over any element which opposes his authority — be it Muslim, Syrian or Christian.
After a brief flareup between Aoun’s and Geagea’s forces in February, 1989, Aoun’s philosophy led to the shelling of Druze and Muslim ports. This led to his declaration in mid-March 1989 of a war of liberation against Syria which disintegrated into the artillery free-for-all between Muslims, Christians and Syrians which lasted many months. Geagea’s Lebanese Forces joined the General in pursuing this so-called “liberation agenda”-albeit with deep reluctance.
Aoun’s campaign sputtered to a halt after causing devastation on both sides of the split country. Its failure lent credence to the observation that most fighting in Lebanon has traditionally occurred when one sectarian group attempts to impose its domination over others. Referring to Lebanon’s sectarian boundaries as “barriers,” social scientist Ron McLaurin observes: “The barriers, both the tangible and the intangible divisions, enhance feelings of security. The evidence is that when they have been removed or reduced … they have been recreated following still more bloodshed.”
Despite the failure of Aoun’s “liberation agenda,” he gained mass popularity in those areas utterly opposed to the Syrian presence in their country. This popularity stiffened his tenacity and will to oppose agreements which smacked of compromise over continued Syrian deployments in Lebanon, or a diminution of Maronite status. And this, in turn, led to attempts to eliminate would-be Christian compromisers-most prominently Geagea’s Lebanese Forces.
The “Taif Agreement,” a product of Arab, particularly Saudi, tenacity, calls for modest reform, to the benefit of its Muslim majority, of the Lebanese system, based on the country’s confessionally-based 1943 Covenant. While referring to the desirability of Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon, it does not include a binding timetable within which Syrian withdrawal is to occur. The agreement also stipulated the immediate election of a new President.
General Aoun refused to accept the agreement’s legitimacy, and the resultant election of the now assassinated Rene Muawad, and later Elias Hrawi, as President.
The Lebanese Forces neither rejected nor embraced the Taif agreement. Geagea did publicly oppose any return to the 1943 confessional formula, on which the Taif reforms were to be based. He also, however, explicitly acknowledged both Hrawi and Muawad as Presidents of the Republic.
Geagea and his organization espouse something profoundly different from Aoun’s imposed settlement, and from the outright partition which may result from continued warfare. Variously called decentralization, federalism, confederalism, or sometimes cantonization, this concept envisages a national government with specified powers, while substantial authority is diffused to various provinces to govern their own communities. Its supporters insist it is the only solution which will recreate a Lebanese nation, which has devolved into a state of de facto partition since 1976.
The concept of decentralization is often denounced as disguised partition, as utterly impractical given mixed populations in some areas, or as merely a ruse setting the stage for a resurgence of Maronite domination. Sunni Prime Minister Dr. Selim Hoss, for example, sees no difference between federalism and partition. US officials have tended to dismiss it as impractical or partitionist.
To Geagea, however, it is the only practical solution for Lebanon. Speaking on January 5, 1990, he described his thinking as follows:
“For the past 15 years there has been unannounced partition in effect. When we propose federalism, it is to move from partition to a more unifying step. I think other internal sides are now convinced that no one can dominate Lebanon.
“We all exist here … If we do not listen to each other, the internal side of the crisis will persist and might lead to solutions unacceptable to all, such as partition ormaybe worse … I urge all officials to recognize each other, for no one can cancel anyone.”
Decentralization requires an unsurpassed degree of compromise which does not come easily to parties which have warred since 1975. It meets with more acceptance in some communities- such as the Druze and Maronites, with defined area and population than in others. Numerically superior Shi’i prefer a unitary system based on popular vote and devoid of confessionalism-although the community’s radicals look forward to an Islamic Republic in all of Lebanon.
In addition to the philosophical dimension of recent battles in the eastern areas, the fact that control of identical tax, revenue and population bases are also at stake gives very tangible incentives to the participants in this violent struggle.
The Lebanese Forces have come close to endorsing the evolutionary approach to Lebanon’s problems envisaged at Taif. In doing so, they insist that serious consideration be given to the concept of decentralization.
The US government faces its own dilemmas. It disapproves of Lebanon’s militias, yet finds itself much closer philosophically to Geagea than Aoun. It has yet to come to grips with the intellectual plausibility of decentralization, and has long been ambiguous about Syria’s role in the country.
Only a minority of Lebanese find decentralization abhorrent-as long as national government exists and the various communal rights have equal protection. Nor would Syria or Israel find such a formula intolerable. The concept deserves an intellectual hearing as the Lebanese solution least likely to provoke further violence, and as that most likely to create the conditions under which the Taif reforms could be meaningfully implemented.
By Charles E. Waterman
Charles E. Waterman, it former US government official is currently a consultant to the Lebanese Forces.