November 5, 2006

Darkness Everywhere

“This is the new Middle East. Not the new Middle East of Ms [Condoleezza] Rice. Darkness everywhere.” – Lebanese Druze chief Walid Jumblatt, August 2006

Syrian soldiers occupied Lebanon the first time I went to Beirut. They left before I did, as I figured they would. The Lebanese project was the best thing going in the Middle East at the time. Baghdad was burning. But look at Beirut! Modern. Prosperous. Liberal. Arab. And free.

Bashar Assad threatened to “break Lebanon” if his troops were forced out the country. A wave of car bombs, assassinations, terrorism, and sectarian incitement began immediately.

But there was a lull there for a while. Only one person, An Nahar newspaper editor Gebran Tueni, was assassinated during my six month stay. Assad’s terror campaign didn’t work. Little did most of us know that a terrible war hatched in Tehran and Damascus was gearing up at that time. It looked like Israel was the target, but make no mistake: Lebanon was targeted, too. The Syrian-Iranian-Hezbollah war against Israel isn’t over. And the Syrian-Iranian-Hezbollah war against Lebanon is not over either.
BEIRUT: Washington warned of “mounting evidence” Wednesday that Iran, Syria and Hizbullah are “preparing plans to topple” the Lebanese government. White House spokesman Tony Snow said in a statement that “support for a sovereign, democratic and prosperous Lebanon is a key element of US policy in the Middle East.”

“We are therefore increasingly concerned by mounting evidence that the Syrian and Iranian governments, Hizbullah and their Lebanese allies are preparing plans to topple Lebanon's democratically elected government, led by Prime Minister [Fouad] Siniora,” Snow added.

“Any attempt to destabilize Lebanon's democratically elected government through such tactics as manufactured demonstrations and violence, or by physically threatening its leaders, would, at the very least, be a clear violation of Lebanon's sovereignty” and UN resolutions, he said.

Hizbullah's leader, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, warned late Tuesday that Hizbullah and its allies will take to the streets “for as long as it takes … to either topple the government or hold early and new parliamentary elections,” if consultations to form a national unity government should fail.
The Syrian ambassador to the US said this is “ridiculous.” Pay him no mind. He also said “We, in Syria, respect the sovereignty of Lebanon.” Syria won’t open an embassy in Lebanon. That would force the Baathists to admit that Lebanon does not belong to them.

Street demonstrations by Hezbollah may not sound like that big a deal. Street demonstrations are a part of the democratic process, after all. They certainly are preferable to a coup or a violent insurgency.

Hezbollah, though, is a terrorist army as well as a political party. We’re not talking about a Free Mumia rally or a Million Mom March here.

Nasrallah is threatening “street demonstrations” because the state won’t reward his minority Hezbollah bloc with more power in a “national unity” government. They lost the election, but Nasrallah thinks that shouldn’t count. They “won” against Israel. That’s what he thinks should count.

Most Lebanese fear and loathe Hezbollah precisely because they fear Nasrallah points his guns at Beirut and Tel Aviv at the same time. Nasrallah’s current belligerence proves they’re correct.

Lebanon’s Defense Minister Elias Murr – who luckily survived an assassination attempt last year – takes seriously Nasrallah’s threat to flood downtown with angry Hezbollah supporters from the dahiyeh and the south. He deployed 20,000 troops of his own into the streets of Beirut. Beirut is less than three miles wide. You can walk across downtown in five minutes. Imagine 20,000 troops in that small an area.

Lebanese Forces political party leader Samir Geagea says if protests degenerate into riots “we will be there to back up the security forces anywhere and we put ourselves under their command.”

They are right to be worried. Recent “street demonstrators” in Beirut burned the Danish embassy and violently tore apart the U.N. building downtown. Shortly afterward someone fired rockets at a nightclub across the street from the U.N., most likely to demonstrate that even the most “secure” part of the city built and all but owned by the Hariri clan can be assaulted with impunity by shadowy forces. During the war against Israel Nasrallah threatened his political opponents with violence. Defense Minister Murr would be derelict in his duty if he did not send in the army. Even Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri, Nasrallah’s closest Lebanese ally, is worried now about what Hezbollah will do.

The Israelis may have temporarily depleted Hezbollah’s arsenal stock, but it makes little difference. Syria and Iran are arming them all over again. (For God’s sake, didn’t the Israelis know that would happen?)

Someone most likely from the Syrian-Iranian-Hezbollah axis attacked an army barracks with hand grenades twice in the last three weeks. Charles Malik says sectarian clashes are a routine occurrence and are rarely mentioned in local or international media. I’ve received anecdotal messages by email that suggest this may be the case.

If Israel is almost back to Square One – they’re at Square Two at best — Lebanon is at Square Negative Three.

British military historian John Keegan says another war in Lebanon is inevitable. I fear he must be right. The last one, in hindsight, was inevitable. I should have known that at the time when I went to the Hezbollah dahiyeh south of Beirut. Their state-within-a-state reeks of fascism, terrorism, and war. The next round is just as inevitable as the last one. Hezbollah was finally thrown off the fence, but none of the war’s principle causes have been resolved.

There’s a case to be made that Lebanon is at war even now, not only with Israel and Syria but with itself. As Bart Hall put it at Winds of Change: “Peace is the absence of threat not the absence of conflict.”

Posted by Michael J. Totten at November 5, 2006 7:24 PM
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