Lebanon�s sleeping giant
By Linda S. Heard
Online Journal Contributing Writer
May 14, 2008, 00:18
Over the last few days, the world has discovered the hand
that rocks the cradle in Lebanon. Whether Hezbollah is designated by the US and
its allies as a terrorist organization or not, it has shown, without a shadow
of a doubt, that it�s in charge.
The various pro-government militias that attempted to thwart
its taking over of West Beirut and nearby mountain regions quickly dissolved
when faced with disciplined and ideologically committed Hezbollah fighters
equipped with sophisticated weaponry.
And much to the chagrin of Lebanon�s prime minister, Fouad
Siniora, the army adopted a hands-off observer stance; although in some cases
it liaised with Hezbollah leaders, who after forcibly seizing certain areas
handed them over to the military.
When the pro-Western Siniora government decided last week
that Hezbollah should be stripped of its private underground telecommunications
system -- pivotal to its command and control operations during the war with
Israel in 2006 -- the decision was interpreted by Hezbollah as a declaration of
The cabinet further ruled that the head of Beirut Airport�s
security, a Shiite army general, should be fired for being sympathetic to
Hezbollah and for allowing the group to fix its own surveillance cameras near
the airport to monitor the comings and goings of anti-Hezbollah Lebanese
officials and foreign dignitaries.
Hezbollah�s secretary-general, Sayeed Hassan Nasrallah went
on television to say the cabinet had been following orders from Washington that
as far as he was concerned crossed all lines. He went to great lengths to
explain why Hezbollah�s telecommunication system was important to Lebanon�s
national security and was not meant to commercially rival other licensed
systems or deprive the government of revenue.
He was also insistent that his group�s takeover of West
Beirut did not amount to a coup as he has no interest in ruling Lebanon, which
must be governed by people representing all religions and factions, he said. If
Hezbollah wanted to launch a coup then everyone would wake up to find its
leader either incarcerated or thrown in the sea, Nasrallah warned.
Although he was right in that his intention was not to turn
Lebanon into a Hezbollah-run state, his organization�s forced control of the
capital, the gagging of reporters and the setting on fire of Saad Hariri�s
Future TV station had all the hallmarks of a coup. In other words, he showcased
his group�s prowess and sent a clear message: Lebanon is ours for the taking
any time we want.
Hezbollah�s military successes leave the government in a
precarious position. Its leaders talk with confidence as though they�re still
in control whereas deep down they have to come to terms with their exposed
For instance, Hariri�s Future movement�s fighters, many of
whom are attached to private security firms, backed down when confronted by
Hezbollah�s, saying they were unprepared in terms of training and weaponry.
Pro-government, pro-Western Druze leader Walid Jumblatt,
known for his anti-Syrian/anti-Hezbollah invective, has been similarly
embarrassed. For decades his militia has controlled his mountain fortress but
now, he says, he is a virtual hostage in his own home.
�The US has failed in Lebanon and they have to admit it,� he
told Time magazine�s Beirut correspondent. �We have to wait and see the new
rules which Hezbollah, Syria and Iran will set. They can do what they want,� he
is quoted as saying.
As for Siniora, he kept a low profile during the conflict�s
early days avoiding reporters and declining to appear on television or radio.
In effect, just as the Israelis were taken by surprise in
the summer of 2006 when the myth of its military�s invincibility was shattered,
the Lebanese government now has to face up to an unpalatable reality --
Hezbollah allows it to function at its pleasure.
Washington has asked Syria and Iran to quit backing
Hezbollah and wants the world and the Lebanese people to support the
Siniora-led government. But these words will surely ring hollow when the
government is not being backed up by its own army. A government that does not
have the civil or military means to enforce its own dictates or protect its
people has to be considered ineffectual.
For its part, the army was right not to step in as this
would have amounted to an act of suicide for many; it would also split the
military -- composed of Sunnis, Shiites and Christians -- right down the
middle. If the army had got involved, civil war would have without doubt
As things stand, it looks as though the country has been
able to step back from the brink due to a face-saving ploy whereby both the
government and Hezbollah appointed army chief Gen. Michel Suleiman, who is also
a presidential contender, as arbitrator. Gen. Suleiman responded by freezing
the cabinet decisions concerning Hezbollah�s private telephone network and the
firing of the head of airport security.
Ostensibly, this means everybody�s happy. Hezbollah keeps
its network and its friend at Beirut Airport (needed in case its ally Syria
ever does a deal with the Israelis when Hezbollah�s funds and supplies would be
cut off); the government doesn�t have to make a U-turn and the army, paid its
due respect, is able to bask in an inflated sense of its own importance.
In reality, the only winner is Hezbollah, which has bared
its teeth, managing to frighten its detractors without chewing them up and
spitting them out. With renewed clout it is now perfectly positioned to rejoin
a unity government and may now agree to Gen. Suleiman being appointed president
since he has shown such deference to its core concerns. Usually, during
negotiations, if one partner if overwhelmingly stronger than the other, an
agreement can be effected as the weaker side has little choice other than to be
open to compromise.
On Sunday, Arab League foreign ministers met in Cairo to
discuss the emergency. Implicitly criticizing Hezbollah, they called for an
immediate end to the fighting and are planning to send a high-level delegation
to Beirut in an attempt to mediate between Hezbollah and the government.
In fact, the only opinions that matter are those of the
government and Hezbollah with sounds coming out of the US, Syria, the UN and
the Arab League being little more than background noise.
In the end, the government needs to accept that Hezbollah�s
military wing is powerful and it can�t be wished away. Any attempt to bring it
down will result in the streets of Lebanon being turned into rivers of blood or
being once again invaded, which no Lebanese wants.
In this case, the two sides need to work together and stop
listening to self-interested foreign governments who care not one jot if the
cedars of Lebanon whither and die. Siniora, Hariri, Jumblatt, Suleiman,
Nasrallah, Nabih Berri and Michel Aoun all have something deep and abiding in
common. They are all Lebanese and they all love their country. Those who lost
their lives or were injured during five days of fighting were Lebanese, too.
They need to remember that!
S. Heard is a British specialist writer on Middle East affairs. She welcomes
feedback and can be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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