Friday, March 11, 2005

Forward or Back? 2

In Forward or Back? I wrote:

One wonders what the Syrians will do if the Lebanese opposition simply refuses to cooperate with a new Karami government. It would then fall to the Mukhabarat to break passive resistance.  ... One can imagine a scenario where the opposition calls a protest boycott; maybe people get money not to work.  ... To rule requires a lot more resources than to disrupt. Therein lies the Syrian strategic weakness.

Events are still unfolding, but the noncooperation strategy is already being laid down. Whether it will succeed or not remains to be seen. The Financial Times reports that although the 'Syrian-backed' Karami has made conciliatory gestures, the opposition has so far rejected them.

"The difficulties we all know about cannot be confronted without a government of national unity and salvation. We will extend our hand without conditions and wait for the other side," he said. "I will not form a cabinet of one colour (but if the situation deteriorates) I will hold the side that does not participate in a national unity government responsible."

But Lebanon's opposition has already rejected the call, saying it was a trap meant to neutralise it. Opposition figures say they will not participate in any cabinet until their demands are met - this includes the formation of a neutral government, the resignation of top security chiefs in Lebanon whom the opposition holds responsible for the assassination of Rafiq Hariri last month, and the full withdrawal of all Syrian troops and intelligence agents before the May parliamentary elections. The opposition has now called for another demonstration on Monday, to mark one month after Hariri's assassination.

This defiant talk, coming against the background of low-level thugsterism against opposition supporters amounts to a call ("to place an amount of chips in the pot equal to the previous bet") on Hezbollah's earlier implied threat of civil war. From published reports, it is unclear whether Syria will raise or fold in response. According to the New York Times:

While in some corners of the country, Syrian soldiers could now be seen moving, in other places there were few signs that troops were in a rush to pack up. In Bois de Boulogne, a resort on a strategic hilltop linking Beirut and the Bekaa region, Syrian soldiers could be seen peering from the balconies in most of the fancy villas that line the main street. Russian-made transport vehicles driving along the main Beirut-Damascus axis were empty. "No one is gone here, and no one will ever leave," said Gabriel Germani, a property developer from a nearby village.

In earlier posts, I advanced the nonspecialist opinion that Syria and Hezbollah would be loathe to embark on a full scale civil war because they could not forsee the consequences. That assessment was based on the appreciation that Syria and Hezbollah were objectively weaker today than in 1975. Powerline rightly asks whether this assumption is valid. "Several readers question Wretchard's statement that Hezbollah are far weaker now than in 1975. They note that Hezbollah succeeded against Israel not that long ago." Fair enough question. But it is worth noting that strength is always comparative. The increase in American regional strength and the destruction of Saddam's regime may not have weakened Syria and Hezbollah in absolute terms but it has reduced them in relative terms. The transformative effect of Operation Iraqi Freedom consists precisely in that it has upset the balance of power that kept things in stasis; in that it has made groups like Hezbollah comparatively weaker. It is in that change that democratic opportunities lie, and the Lebanese opposition senses their moment.

Yet have Hezbollah and Syria been so weakened they dare not risk Civil War?  While they might be reluctant to break the rack, they will do it in desperation. This is reflected in their tactics. Karami's conciliatory gestures and the ostensible pullback of Syrian troops show they would prefer it if people walked quietly back into line. But the low-level intimidation and veiled threats are meant to convey that if pressed, they can ultimately resort to brute force. 'Come along nicely or we'll turn Hezbollah loose' is the message of the past week. If the Lebanese opposition makes good on their threat of nonparticipation they will effectively be daring Syria to do its worst. And what would that be? Provided that conventional forces are kept out of Lebanon, it would amount to an attempt to maintain colonial rule via a militia and a secret service. I'll stop my train of speculation right here and simply repeat "the observation that no country has ever been able to maintain occupation over another using secret services alone."


Here's a correction from a reader. Told you I was a nonspecialist and my ignorance shows.

This has been driving me crazy since I read it earlier this afternoon.

Of course Hezbollah isn't weaker today. They didn't exist in '75. They started their organization in the 80s.

Also known as Lebanese Hizballah, this group was formed in 1982 in response to the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, this Lebanon-based radical Shi’a group takes its ideological inspiration from the Iranian revolution and the teachings of the late Ayatollah Khomeini.

The Times article mentions 1975 due to the long-standing civil war, not due to Hezbollah's presence since then.