By Michael Young, year after the fall of Baghdad, I asked a senior U.S. official involved in planning the Iraq war whether the whole thing was a Shiite-centered project. He insisted it was not, and that Saddam Hussein had engaged in “equal opportunity repression” against both Sunnis and Shiites. No doubt he meant what he said, but today, among Iraq’s Arab communities, it is the Shiites (objectively at least) who are on the Americans’ side, and the Sunnis who are leading the insurgency. Though the Sunni-Shiite rivalry seems most acute in Iraq, it is being felt throughout the Middle East where the communities live together, most recently in Lebanon. Following the Syrian military withdrawal last April, Sunnis and Shiites have been locked in an understated, mostly peaceful, yet very real contest to fill the ensuing political vacuum and put their stamp on Lebanon’s future. Lebanon is unlikely to go the violent way of Iraq. However, what is taking place is not limited to domestic politics; it reflects concentric, overlapping circles of competition between various actors – not just Shiites and Sunnis – at the local and regional levels, motivated by sometimes different, sometimes parallel interests.Inside Lebanon, Syria’s recent departure (though Syrian intelligence agents continue to be active) effectively left two powerful political forces facing one another: the Sunni-dominated Hariri camp, led by Saad Hariri, the son of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, whose assassination set in motion the disintegration of the Syrian order in Lebanon; and the Shiite Hezbollah, which is close to Syria and which Damascus allowed to retain its weapons after the end of the war in 1990, in order to fight Israeli forces occupying south Lebanon.As far back as the early 1980s, but starting even sooner, the Syrians began a strategic relationship with Lebanon’s Shiites, partly because the minority Alawite regime in Damascus sought to contain its own majority Sunni community by developing a counterweight to Sunnis in next-door Lebanon. Hariri, who with Saudi backing became prime minister in 1992, always threatened this balance, while Syria also disliked his close relations with France and the United States. Lebanese politician Walid Jumblatt has argued that Hariri was killed precisely because the Syrians wanted to avoid facing “the project of a strong Sunni.”

Syria’s pullout, the sympathy engendered by Hariri’s murder, and Sunni animosity toward the Syrian regime, helped Saad Hariri score well in Lebanon’s recent parliamentary elections, so that he now leads the largest single bloc. Paradoxically, despite Sunni-Shiite differences, the Hariri camp and Hezbollah were electoral allies, as both saw an interest in divvying up the post-Syrian political cake between themselves and two other groups.

Where Hariri and Hezbollah will gradually part ways, however, is over the latter’s disarmament, demanded in U.N. Security Council Resolution 1559. It is on the basis of the resolution that Syria was forced out of Lebanon. The disarmament clause, however, is tricky: Hariri doesn’t want a full-scale confrontation with Hezbollah. However, he knows the party will use this to indefinitely delay disarming. He also knows its militancy will clash with his own desire to revive the commercially-oriented services economy his father helped establish after the war, one dominated by a mostly Sunni and Christian business class.


Hezbollah has many reasons to resist disarmament, but one of them is its reluctance to cede the most significant instrument of Shiite domestic power. The party wants a new Lebanon where political power reflects demographic reality – the Shiites are probably the largest single community. Shiites, many of whom are poor, see that Hariri’s vision offers them little that is advantageous. Even some Shiites who do not support Hezbollah fear that its disarmament would be the first step in an effort to return the community to its past secondary status. 


Saad Hariri was officially anointed his father’s successor by the Saudi regime in April. Saad had represented his father’s business interests in the kingdom, and the Saudis have considerable control over the Hariri family. While the Hariris were close to the late King Fahd and his offspring, the succession today of King Abdullah will probably not change Saudi short-term calculations in Lebanon. The Saudis’ elevation of Saad was an effort to ensure that Lebanon’s Sunnis would no longer be leaderless; but it was also a message to Syria that the “strong Sunni project” would be pursued. Hariri’s electoral triumph (in which the Saudis played an active role) underscored the seriousness of this ambition.


At a broader level, however, Saudi sponsorship of Saad Hariri has hit up against Iranian backing for Hezbollah. With Tehran and Riyadh eyeing each other warily in Iraq, Lebanon has become a new terrain for a struggle the Saudis are keen not to lose. The notion of a “Shiite crescent” extending from Iran to Lebanon, while it may be simplistic, has worried the Saudis. With Shiites inheriting Iraq and forming the largest Muslim sect in Lebanon, the Saudis will fight to defend their influence where they can. Lebanon is a key front in that campaign.


The Iranian-Saudi rivalry accompanies American-Iranian rivalry in Lebanon, where the Bush administration sees Hezbollah’s disarmament not only as a means of protecting Israel, but also of permitting the emergence of an open, stable Lebanese system with which the US feels comfortable – and which excludes Iran. Washington’s vision approximates that of the late Rafik Hariri. While the US has avoided playing sectarian politics in Lebanon, it hasn’t really succeeded: its most hostile critics are Shiites, encouraged by Syria.


As in Iraq, the US must consider how backing certain Lebanese political actors, while ignoring their sectarian affiliation, has produced a sectarian backlash. In Iraq, a non-sectarian strategy based on democratic majoritarianism enraged Sunnis by allowing Shiites to come out on top. But in Lebanon, Shiites fear that Washington, by backing the Hariri project, turning the heat up on Syria and supporting Hezbollah’s disarmament, aims, really, to marginalize them. Lebanese Shiites, meanwhile, have ignored the U.S. role in helping their Iraqi brethren.


Lebanon was founded on a basis of sectarian compromise, so tussles for power between religious communities are common. In the past, these occurred mainly between Christians and Muslims; today, with Christians numerically on the decline, the Sunni-Shiite divide has gained primacy. On its own that divide need not, and probably will not, lead to conflict. But Lebanon’s divisions have regional repercussions. And the fear is that that the country will suffer by proxy for the contending ambitions of those countries playing off its religious cleavages.  


Michael Young is opinion editor of the Daily Star newspaper in Lebanon and a contributing editor at Reason magazine in the United States.