Ann Somerset, Lebanon Desk Officer, writes about her experiences...
Working on Lebanon breaks my heart some days.
I took on the role of Lebanon desk officer here at State one week after the start of the conflict between Hizballah and Israel last summer. Watching this vibrant, fledgling democracy devastated by the unilateral actions of a terrorist group within its borders was awful.
Days like Thursday, September 19, just a few weeks ago, are the worst. I was on the phone with a colleague at the National Security Council when we started to get reports of a massive explosion in Beirut. In just a few minutes, we identified the target of the attack to have been anti-Syrian Lebanese Parliamentarian Antoine Ghanem. At least 6 others have also died as a result of the attack, including a pregnant woman who just died (Oct. 2). At least 30 were injured.
Ghanem was the sixth Lebanese Parliamentarian to be assassinated since 2005, and the tenth anti-Syrian Lebanese leader to be attacked in the same time frame. None of these crimes have been solved.
The Lebanese government has been under siege by Hizballah and the pro-Syrian opposition since November of last year when all of the Shia members of the Cabinet resigned. The Parliament was scheduled to meet on September 25 for the first time this year to begin negotiations to identify a new Lebanese president, but less than the required quorum showed up, so the session was rescheduled for October 23. Parliament must identify a new president before the expiration of current pro-Syrian President Lahoud’s term on November 24.
It is easy to look at the tragic events in Lebanon and be overwhelmed. But when I take a step back, I can’t help but be struck by the amazing progress Lebanon has made over the last two years.
After almost 40 years of occupation, massive popular demonstrations in Beirut led Syria to withdraw its military presence in 2005. Shortly thereafter, the Lebanese people elected a new parliament – the first “made in Lebanon” parliament in decades. Last fall, the Lebanese Army deployed to Southern Lebanon, again for the first time in decades, replacing Hizballah’s control of the area with that of the Lebanese Government. Despite the ongoing political stalemate, the Lebanese Government is implementing an ambitious economic reform plan that will help secure Lebanon’s economic future. This summer, the Lebanese Army successfully routed the terrorist group, Fatah al Islam, which had been operating in a Palestinian refugee camp in northern Lebanon. The UN has appointed an International Independent Investigation Commission to assist the Lebanese in investigating the assassinations and attempted assassinations of Lebanese Leaders like former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri and now Antoine Ghanem. The Lebanese are also working with the UN to establish a Special Tribunal that will try those accused of assassinating Hariri and others.
The Lebanese now have the ability to elect a new Lebanese President, one who will be beholden neither to foreign powers nor terrorist groups. One who will be able to focus on the issues that are important for Lebanon’s future, like ensuring the disarmament of militias.
The U.S. has increased its assistance to Lebanon. U.S. assistance to Lebanon before 2005 averaged below $50 million a year; we’ve announced over $1 billion in new humanitarian, economic, and security assistance for Lebanon since August 2006. We are also working with the UN Security Council and with international partners to ensure the assistance necessary for Lebanon to become fully sovereign, democratic, and prosperous.
Sa’ad Hariri, the head of the Future block in the Lebanese parliament and the son of Rafiq Hariri, is in Washington this week with a number of parliamentarians. I attended an Iftar with them last night at the Lebanese Ambassador’s residence. The Parliamentarians were talking about the way their lives have turned upside down in response to the threats during the election season. They can’t stay at home with their families but are forced to either remain outside of the country or to stay all together in one hotel in Beirut where extra security can be offered. They travel in extreme secrecy. Their businesses are failing because they can’t go to work. One’s wife had suggested he give her power of attorney “in case something happened to him.” I asked if they ever considered just resigning – “Never,” they responded, “How could we?”
The family of 28-year old Charles Shikhan, one of the victims of the September 19 attack, organized a candle procession in Beirut last night (Oct 3) to protest the wave of attacks targeting anti-Syrian figures in Lebanon. It’s that continued determination in the face of danger that makes Lebanon such an exciting country to work with. I can’t help but be optimistic about its future.
Lebanon does break my heart some days, but most days it simply inspires me.