Lebanon's Jihad Tours

Last week the Daily Star reported how Hezbollah was organizing 'Jihadi Tours' to the south of the country. On the trip, Lebanese of all religions were taken to the sites of key battles, the rather surreal border crossing with Israel at Fatima's gate, before meeting some of the largely elusive Hezbollah fighters themselves. Tim Llewellyn commented at the launch of his new book about Lebanon, that parallel trips are being organized whereby Lebanese Shiites visit Christian areas of the north.

While regional interference in Lebanon is rife, the country's internal politics are often misunderstood and ignored. This is partly due to the large disagreement within the country about what it actually means to be Lebanese and whether the country is the Switzerland or the mini-Balkans of the Middle East.

This absence of an agreed common identity, enshrined by the 1943 National Pact that codified the politics of Lebanon's confessional system, could be challenged by a process of greater interaction between Lebanon's various communities.

In essence this means the Lebanese getting to know Lebanon, in contrast to the current state of affairs whereby confessional green zones -- ranging from the southern suburbs, Mount Lebanon, the Chouf and Palestinian refugee camps, are largely avoided by Lebanese from different backgrounds.

In particular this mixing of a young generation, not bloodied by the country's fifteen year civil war, could provide a source of stability that could ultimately make the country less permeable to the politics of more powerful regional states.

Such permeability makes Lebanon extremely attractive as a location for proxy warfare. Alliances crystallized on the departure of the Syrians in 2005 into a conflict between a Pro-Western alliance and a Pro-Iranian alliance. The current quiet in Lebanon is partially explained by the tortuous and bloody road to a national unity government in 2009, where despite the two alliances believing in substantially different things have managed to come together for the sake of the country (a bit like a more extreme form the British Lib Dem-Conservative coalition).

Such a fine balance is forever being challenged by the gradually raised stakes against Iran. Lebanese Prime Minister Hariri was in Washington on Monday where Obama brought up concerns over reports of Syrian Scuds being transferred to Hezbollah. It would seem that another story of intelligence concerning 'mysterious weapons' has placed a roadblock in the way of a US-Syrian rapprochement and therefore regional progress.

Lebanon's potential as a battlefield for the wars of others has been heightened by its position on the UN Security Council. As the net tightens on the Iranians, with the Russians and Chinese being seemingly brought round to sanctions, Lebanon's vote in any upcoming resolution will come into sharp focus.

A week before meeting Obama, Hariri was in Damascus consolidating his relationship with President Assad, whose country still casts a large shadow over Lebanon. Hariri's natural political stance would be to look West not East, yet with millions of dollars in US aid on the line he will likely tread carefully at the UN. Otherwise the latest attempts of the Lebanese to live in peace united, may quickly descend into the violent factionalism of regional conflict, a curse that has too often blighted the country's modern history.