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 war.

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 vulnerabilities.

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 ensued.

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!

Linda S. Heard is a British specialist writer on Middle East affairs. She welcomes feedback and can be contacted by email at

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