January 25, 2007

Tough Times Ahead for Nasrallah

When Hugh Hewitt interviewed me three weeks ago we discussed the possibility of Hezbollah seizing the road to the airport, a threat that appeared, at the time, to be empty. Here is what he and I said then:

HH: Okay, put on your seeing, your swami hat, your Kreskin hat, what’s going to happen in Lebanon?

MT: Oh, God. Literally, Hugh, anything could happen at this point, although I do think that the threat of civil war is lower than it was a month ago.

HH: Why?

MT: Here’s why. Because after two days, when these protests and sit-ins started, if you would have asked me what the odds of a civil war in Lebanon, I would have said probably 60%. And the reason is because Hezbollah tried to take the prime minister’s office.

HH: Right.

MT: Tried to physically seize it on the day of their rally. And they backed off, because the prime minister said, and I mentioned this in the article I wrote that you linked to, the prime minister said that if you take my office, I cannot control my street, which means basically that the Sunnis of Lebanon were going to go out in the streets, and forcibly take the prime minister’s office back. And it would be war, and it would be very ugly, because there’s really only so far Hezbollah can take this, because like I explained before, every group in the country is a minority, and no minority group is allowed to rule over the others. And the prime minister’s office is Sunni. And if the Shia tried to physically take it, it’s over. There’s going to be definitely more fighting in Lebanon. And so, Nasrallah backed off, because he knew that that was taking things too far. But then he kept threatening to escalate the situation, and he was saying well, okay, we’re not going to be able to take the prime minister’s office, but we’ll take the airport and shut the whole country down. And for a week, he was threatening to take the airport. And I thought well, God, if he takes the airport again, there’s going to be blood in the streets. And then, somebody who advises Nasrallah, must have taken him aside and talked him out of it, because that would be a bridge too far. And there was no way the rest of the country was going to put up with actually seizing the country like this. And so then Nasrallah, instead of threatening to take the airport, he threatened to escalate, but he was vague about how he was going to escalate.

HH: Well, you’re describing a tinderbox, though.

MT: Basically, yeah.

HH: Any day, something could go wrong, Sarajevo, 1914, sort of thing.

MT: Yup. And then when Nasrallah finally did escalate, all he did was have another rally, because he knew he’d taken the country to the absolute limit, and that if he went any further, it was going to be war.
But Hezbollah went further, after all. Blockading the country for one day triggered three days (so far) of violence. Hezbollah can’t keep this up without provoking a serious murderous backlash. But Hassan Nasrallah still says he will escalate even now. If he does, my prediction for another round of war in Lebanon is well above 50 percent. It could be a short one (we're not talking fifteen more years of hell here) but it would be war all the same.

These things change, though, like volatile weather. A compromise is still possible. And Nasrallah may yet back down. Hezbollah can likely win a defensive war if Lebanese try to disarm them. But they can’t conquer the country. No one is strong enough to do that. If Nasrallah starts that kind of war he’ll lose everything.

The Sunni Arab “street” outside Lebanon rallied behind him as a hero in July and August for his “resistance” against the Israelis. If Nasrallah becomes, instead, the butcher of Sunnis, he will become one of the most detested Arab figures alive.

The Syrian regime wants civil war in Lebanon. Bashar Assad’s late father Hafez helped foment the last one and kept it boiling for fifteen years until Lebanon all but surrendered to Syrian domination. The younger Assad has been trying to re-ignite it ever since March 14 two years ago. He hoped to demonstrate that only Syria can keep order in Lebanon, that Syrian withdrawal means mayhem and blood in the streets.

But Nasrallah and the Iranians (not to mention most Lebanese) don’t want more civil war. It works to Iran’s advantage if their proxy guerilla is a hero in the Arab world. But if the mullahs are seen as the sponsor of Shia killers of Sunnis in Lebanon they’ll be even more staunchly opposed in the Arab world than they already are.

Interesting, and difficult, times lie ahead for Hassan Nasrallah.

UPDATE: Charles Malik at the Lebanese Political Journal notes that Hassan Nasrallah has lost control of his followers. Indeed, he has, which makes things even worse for him and for Lebanon. Hezbollah, and Hezbollah's fans, do not know when to stop. Their delusions of supremacy, strength, and popularity may be their undoing. They made that mistake with the Israelis and learned nothing at all from the experience.

UPDATE: Two snipers, one Syrian and the other Palestinian, have been arrested by the army. Not only has Nasrallah lost control of his fans, he never had control of his masters who have plans of their own. He is riding three tigers at once.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at January 25, 2007 5:42 PM
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