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Lebanon 101: Behind the headlines
An Israeli mobile artillery unit fires a shell toward Hezbollah targets in southern Lebanon.
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ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- The events unfolding in Lebanon and the Middle East have been shaped by factors including ancient hatreds, European colonialism, and nations and groups jostling for power in light of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Lebanon was created by the French in 1920 and was made up of several groups who were divided by their religious ties. Some of the larger groups include Maronite Christians, Sunni Muslims, Shia Muslims, and Druze.
"The Lebanese do not have a common sense of identity, and they have never been able to develop a central government that is strong and is able to represent all the people," said Sandra Mackey, an expert who has written extensively about the Middle East.
A Civil War broke out in 1975 among the different factions. The initial reason for the war was the imbalance of power among some of the groups, but soon became "a proxy war for interests of the Syrians, Israel, the United States and Iraq," Mackey said.
"In so many ways, we are reproducing today what we had in the Civil War that began in 1975 and ended in 1990," she said.
Mackey, the author of several books including "Lebanon: A House Divided" and "The Reckoning," which correctly predicted the events that followed the U.S. invasion of Iraq, spoke to CNN recently about Lebanon's past and the dynamics shaping the current conflict.
Here are some excerpts from that conversation:
CNN: Why is Hezbollah so powerful in Lebanon?
Mackey: In 1982, when Israel invaded Lebanon and really destroyed southern Lebanon and Beirut, Hezbollah really took off and became popular among the Shia.
Hezbollah was the group that was behind a lot of attacks against the American presence in Lebanon, including the Marine barracks incident when 241 American soldiers were killed. The Americans left in 1984.
Israel, when it retreated from Beirut in 1983, established what it called a 'southern security zone' that ran along Israel's northern border and extended 18 miles into Lebanon, and they stayed there. By the time the Civil War ended, Hezbollah, with its militia, refused to disarm in fighting the Israeli presence in the security zone, which it said it was doing in the name of the Lebanese state.
In 1990, [Hezbollah wasn't] that good. In 1991, they're doing a little better. In 1992, they're doing even better. They're getting arms and equipment from Iran, and it's coming via Syria. By 1999, Hezbollah is really making Israel pay a price for its occupation of southern Lebanon. In 2000, Israel made a unilateral withdrawal and Hezbollah became a hero to most Lebanese. They are seen as liberating the Lebanese from Israeli occupation.
Now, that's not the only thing that's making Hezbollah very popular. Shia population in Lebanon continued to grow and grow, and they were in the south where most of the damage from Israeli counterattacks was occurring and consequently were very poor.
Hezbollah had a whole social network that they really started during the war and was mostly financed by Iran. They were building clinics, hospitals and schools. They had a construction company called Jihad Construction that rebuilt houses damaged by Israeli attacks or had been damaged by bombing by the Lebanese. Many Shia were not looking at what Hezbollah's ideology was. They were looking at what they were delivering.
CNN: Syria is Sunni and Hezbollah is Shia. Why is Syria backing Hezbollah?
Mackey: What Syria was up to originally and still is today is that it was interested in Hezbollah because of strategic interests. They were interested in keeping Israel in southern Lebanon and keeping them from moving northward. Syria has a morbid fear that they're going to be invaded, especially by Israel. They have no natural borders. The only natural borders Syria has are the mountains in Lebanon, and that's why Syria got involved in the Civil War to start with. They wanted to control Lebanon in order to protect their borders against Israel.
What the Syrians were really afraid of was that the Israelis could come up through the Bekaa Valley, and once they got to the border of Syria, they'd be 20 miles away from Damascus.
CNN: Can Syria stop Hezbollah?
Mackey: Syria is secular and Baathist. Baath ideology is based on the idea that most of the problems in the Arab world are rooted in Islam and that there needs to be a separation between church and state.
Syria can't stop Hezbollah from the standpoint that Hezbollah, theologically and politically, belongs in the Iranian camp. But what Syria can do is that it can shut off access to Lebanon. To get the money and funds from Iran to Hezbollah, they have to go through Syria.
When Syria was in Lebanon, they kept their foot on Hezbollah because they didn't want to agitate Israel to the point where Israel invades Lebanon and threatens Syria. But when Syria was forced out in 2005, Hezbollah basically had carte blanche to do what it does now. That's why there's talk about getting Syria into the mix somehow because they have an interest in controlling Hezbollah.
CNN: Why is Iran helping Hezbollah?
Mackey: When he was alive, [Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah] Khomeini said the interests of the Iranian nation were not as important as the interests of Islam. He wanted to promote Islam over Iran.
However, there was a ring of people around Khomeini [including then-President Hashemi Rafsanjani] who said we've got to make peace with Iraq because it's destroying the Iranian nation. [Iran and Iraq were at war from 1980-88.]
That's where Iran has been up until this last presidential election. What Iran is doing now - not just in Lebanon but everything -- needs to be looked at in [that light]. All the noise that [Iran's current supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali] Khamenei and [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad are making about destroying Israel [and] talking about nuclear weapons has its domestic political component because they have returned to the promotion of Islam over the protection of the interests of Iran.
CNN: What are the ties between the Lebanese Shia and Iran?
Mackey: Traditionally in Shia Islam, the religious and the pious are not supposed to get involved in politics other than as a sort of moral guide of society.
In the 1960s, [Khomeini introduced] a whole new theology and he basically said, "Religion is politics, and politics is religion."
This was really a revolutionary theological movement. What he was really talking about was that you had government by the clerics who would ensure society was justly ruled.
When Khomeini died in 1989, the leadership of Hezbollah [which is popular among the Shia] split over the issue of who would be the rightful successor to Khomeini and the Faqih.
The original voice of Hezbollah, who was Ayatollah Fadlallah, would not support the election of Ali Khamenei, who is currently the spiritual leader of Iran. He said he did not have the qualifications to hold that position.
[Instead, Hassan Nasrallah backed Khamenei and became Hezbollah's leader.]
The thing we don't know is how committed Hezbollah is to Iran's political agenda, and how willing Nasrallah is to bow to Iran and how much influence Iran has over Hezbollah to follow its directions.
CNN: The Iranians are Persian. Groups like Hezbollah and Hamas, and countries like Syria and Lebanon are Arabs. Arabs and Persians don't usually get along, do they?
Mackey: This question of the Arab-Persian identity is really, really crucial. I think the question is how far does the average Iranian go in getting involved in the Arab world, because frankly, the Iranians really look down their nose at Arabs, and the Arabs regard Iranians as horribly arrogant. If you are talking about Arab Sunnis, they really regard the Shia as heretics.
The common thread [among] Arabs is opposition to Israel, but that just isn't as powerful in Iran because Iranians, again, they're geographically removed. Obviously there is the issue of Jerusalem because they are Muslims, but they are just not invested in the Israeli issue to the point as the Arabs are.
CNN: What are the effects of the Iraq war on the situation in Lebanon?
Mackey: One of the faults of Iraq is that as bad as [Hussein's Iraqi regime] was, it put a check on the Iranians. He hated Iran and Iran hated him. Leaving everything aside, knocking Saddam Hussein out was a real gift to the Iranians.
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