Your Guide to Lebanon's Messy Politics and Impending Civil War

In Lebanon, the main players are:

1. Hezbollah and the Muslim Shiites represent close to quarter of the population. Historically, the majority of the Shiites were peasants, but their fortunes changed with a boom in their population and the outbreak of the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979. Since then, Tehran has furnished the community with enormous funds and supervised -- in 1982 -- the creation of Hezbollah, a radical armed group whose original mission was to turn Lebanon into an Islamic state and liberate Jerusalem by wiping Israel off the map.

In 1990, Lebanon's 15-year civil war ended. The victors, Syria's cronies, redistributed power, leaving Lebanon's former dominant group, the Christians, out. Hezbollah did not subscribe to the post-war formula and built instead its own state. It restricted its activity to fighting the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon. Meanwhile, Hezbollah's now junior partner, Speaker Nabih Berri, safeguarded the Shiite share in the state.

But after the Israeli withdrawal in 2000, Hezbollah became unemployed. It picked random fights with the Israelis until 2005, when the Independence Uprising and international pressure forced 29 years of Syrian occupation to an end. In post-Syria Lebanon, Hezbollah had to step up to maintain whatever system the Syrians had erected in Lebanon, which had favored Hezbollah and the ongoing existence of its armed militia.

2. The Hariri family and the Muslim Sunnis is the biggest group in Lebanon with quarter of the population. Historically, the Sunnis were city dwellers who found it unnecessary to organize politically. However, with Lebanon's independence from the French in 1943, the Sunni merchants entered into partnership with the Christian elite to maintain the Lebanese entity as was drawn by the French.

The Sunni political establishment proved inadequate in a region governed by violent revolutionary politics. The Sunni power was eclipsed throughout the civil war until 1992, when billionaire Rafik Hariri returned from Diaspora in Saudi Arabia and emerged as a national leader, which did not sit well with Lebanon's Syrian masters -- who spent the 1990s trying to curtail his power.

In 2003, America invaded Iraq and the regional balance of power changed. Hariri silently revolted against the Syrian mandate. It is widely believed that the Syrian regime of Bashar Assad killed Hariri in retribution. Hezbollah is also thought to have been involved in the crime.

Hariri's assassination in 2005 ignited the Independence Uprising. In 2007, the UN Security Council created a tribunal to try the assassins of Hariri and a dozen journalists, politicians and military officers. Hariri's son Saad was elected Prime Minister in 2009.

The Hariris' regional sponsor is Sunni Saudi Arabia, which in 2009 decided to offset Hezbollah (read Iran and Shiite) growing power in the region and Lebanon. Therefore, the Saudis calculated that Syria could come to the rescue. Through restoring Syria's influence over Lebanon, Saudi hoped Syria would curb Iran's strength in Lebanon and Iraq. The Saudi plan has proven disastrous as Syria failed to deliver in both countries. Now Syria wants Hariri to denounce the UN Tribunal, and threatens civil war in case Hariri does not do so.

3. The Christians of all dominions (Catholic, Orthodox, Copts, Syriac, Protestant, etc) form one third of the population. Through a series of errors since the 1950s, the Christians lost power as their numbers dwindled and their economic power declined. In 2005, the last two standing Christian leaders Michel Aoun and Samir Geagea joined the Independence Uprising. Upon its success, Aoun returned from exile in France and Geagea's 11 years of political arrest ended.

Aoun, however, flipped shortly after and became an ally of Hezbollah.
Geagea stayed the course and -- until the writing of these lines - has proven to be more of a statesman than a politician, an honor reserved for a few in Lebanon, such as Rafik Hariri and former Prime Minister Fouad Siniora.

4. Walid Jumblatt and the Druze form less than 10 percent of the population. Jumblatt defines opportunism. Since Syria killed his father in 1977, he has been a warlord, a Syrian crony, an Independence Uprising leader and now back to being a Syrian puppet.

Between 2005 and 2008, Jumblatt exemplified courage and led the charge against the Syrian autocracy and Hezbollah's unconstitutional militia. In May 2008, Hezbollah fighters stormed Southern Mount Lebanon, a predominantly Druze area. Despite all the Druze bravado, Jumblatt surrendered. He dropped his fiery nationalistic rhetoric of 2005, 2006 and 2007 and endorsed statements in support of Hezbollah's armament and against the UN Special Tribunal.
Jumblatt believes that his flip-flop politics can salvage the shrinking minority that follows him blindly. However, the past days of glory seem to have become a distant past for the Druze, the rulers of Lebanon centuries ago.

On March 14, 2005, the Sunnis of Hariri, the Christians of Aoun and Geagea and the Druze of Jumblatt -- with international support -- joined forces to end Syrian occupation. They also demanded that Hezbollah be disarmed, that state sovereignty be restored, that democracy and freedom be safeguarded and that justice be served on the cases of Hariri and later political crimes.
Since then the Independence Uprising has suffered a series of setbacks. Hezbollah bought off Aoun and later used its militia to punish Jumblatt and Hariri. French President Jacques Chirac was succeeded by Nicholas Sarkozy, an amateur who believed he could change Syrian behavior and make an ally out of Damascus. Democracy-supporting (even if in Lebanon only) US President George Bush was succeeded by Barack Obama, a novice in foreign policy. Also, fearing Iranian power in Iraq and Lebanon, Saudi erroneously believed it could boost Syria to counter Iran.

With all the losses, Jumblatt was the first to abandon the March 14 ship, even after that coalition had defeated Hezbollah, and Aoun, in the 2009 parliamentary elections. Saudi impressed on Hariri to make nice with Syria and concede on several issues. Meanwhile, Geagea -- once shunned as a civil war criminal -- became the heart of the Independence Uprising and defended its principles, often serving as the only consolation for the demoralized March 14 supporters.

Hezbollah and Damascus have tried their sticks, by invading Beirut and Mount Lebanon, and carrots, through the formation of a cabinet under Hariri. Yet they remain desperate to see Hariri, the leader of the biggest religion group and son of the assassinated figure, denounce the tribunal. If Hariri gives up on tribunal, he would leave Geagea alone and possibly politically irrelevant.
Hezbollah fails to see, however, that ending the tribunal will not prevent civil war. It will only delay it. In the absence of justice, the Sunnis will come back asking for revenge sooner or later. When they do so, they will be perpetuating an ongoing vicious cycle of civil wars in Lebanon.