Wednesday, March 09, 2005

High Noon

Hezbollah's leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah came out openly in support for the Syrian-Lebanese special relationship -- a code word for the occupation of Lebanon -- at a well organized mass rally designed to counter the "Cedar Revolution" protests against Syrian occupation. He attempted to redefine the current Middle Eastern crisis, not as a contest between democratic aspirations and autocratic "Black Arabism" but as a struggle against 'US-Zionist' neocolonialism.

Banners held aloft read: "No to American-Zionist intervention. Yes to Lebanese-Syrian brotherhood." "Forget about your dreams of Lebanon," Sheik Nasrallah, the Hezbollah leader, said at Tuesday's rally, speaking to Israel's leaders. ... "What you did not win in war, I swear, you will not win with politics." Speaking to the Bush administration, he said: "You are wrong in your calculations in Lebanon. Lebanon will not be divided. Lebanon is not Somalia; Lebanon is not Ukraine; Lebanon is not Georgia."

ABC News implies that Nasrallah's decision represents a failure by anti-Syrian politicians to keep Hezbollah neutral.

Hezbollah, an anti-Israeli party representing Shiite Muslims, organized the rally as a way of demonstrating that it will remain a powerful force in Lebanon even if Syria leaves. The Lebanese opposition, which opposes Syria's presence, has been trying to persuade Hezbollah to remain neutral in the country's political crisis.

Austin Bay wonders if Syria -- via Hezbollah -- is willing to precipitate a new civil war if that will prevent its expulsion from Lebanon. "Will it become a shooting civil war? It already has, if those reports of “pro-Syrian gunfire” in East Beirut are true." On the other hand, there are those who don't think Syria is ready to mix it up. The New York Times quoted opposition politicians who felt that Hezbollah's support for Syria represented weakness rather than genuine strength.

"This is a goodbye party, not a show of support for Syria," said the opposition leader Jibran Tuweini, editor of the Lebanese daily An Nahar. "If they wanted this to be a challenge to us, they would have brought their party's yellow flags. But Hezbollah doesn't want to burn its bridges with anyone because ultimately they will have to return to the Lebanese people once everything is over."

The Lebanese-watching blog Across the Bay also sees the Hezbollah demonstration as a sign of weakness. Here is their reasoning.

There is little doubt that a majority of Lebanese--Christians, Druze, Sunni Muslims (particularly after the assassination of Rafik Hariri), and not a few Shiites (how I recall that the most violent postwar confrontations with Syria occurred between Syrian soldiers and Shiite soccer fans after matches in which Syrian and Lebanese teams competed)--want an end to Syrian domination. Today, the truth is clear: Hezbollah seeks to become the Praetorian Guard of a Syrian-dominated order in Lebanon for after Syrian soldiers withdraw. In that context, the killing of Hariri also becomes clearer: it was preparation for what Damascus understood would be an inevitable Syrian pullout, ensuring that a strong Sunni, with a national project for Lebanon (who could also have threatened the stability of the Alawite regime in Damascus), would be eliminated. The flip side of that strategy is giving Hezbollah ever more power in a post-Syrian-withdrawal Lebanese state. (Italics mine)

Can such a plan work? I rather doubt it, given the anger of Syria's Lebanese adversaries and international wariness, but unless Hezbollah refuses to get further sucked into such a project, it will both lose its national credibility and might carry Lebanon into a period of prolonged crisis as the party tries to protect its gains. On top of this, fears in Riyadh, Amman and Cairo of a so-called "Shiite crescent" stretching from Iran and Iraq to Lebanon (via Syria and its support for Shiite Lebanese power), will make the Sunni Arab states redouble their efforts to undermine the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad. If that happens, where will Hezbollah be? Ultimately, the party's destiny is within Lebanon, not forever tied to the interests of Iran or Syria.

My own nonspecialist thinking on the matter is as follows. On the one hand, Syria would be anxious to shift the ground away from 'Cedar Revolution' events back toward "Hama rules", an area in which they excel. Across the Bay suggests that despite the huge numbers of persons attending the Hezbollah rally it had the air of contrivance and coercion. The democracy is one game Damascus does not play well, in contrast to car bombing, at which they are virtuosos.

Tomorrow, and on the eve of the “glorious” event that brought the Baath Party to power in 1963, more such recruits will gather in al-Jalaa Stadium to perform another sycophant song and dance about national honor and pride (a similar demonstration organized by Hizbollah will take place in Beirut). But the truth is, and the people know it, Baath rule brought nothing but shame and humiliation. It destroyed the very moral and civil fabric of our fledgling republic.

And the people know it. And the people know it. That’s exactly the problem. The people know it. This is not the time of ignorance anymore. We know. We are informed. We may not the whole truth about what is happening all around in us, but we really don’t need to. We just know enough not to be fooled by empty promises and gestures. We know enough to distinguish between victory and defeat, between a show of principles and a freak show.

So why not steer Lebanon back into civil war? I strongly suspect that while Hezbollah is prepared to threaten civil war, they are far less anxious to actually start it. It is true that the resurgence of sectarian fighting is widely feared and Hezbollah will play to that apprehension. As the New York Times writes:

Fears that the growing political tension will lead to a resurgence of violence have grown in recent days as Lebanon's political and sectarian fault lines have re-emerged. Lebanon's rival groups fought a vicious civil war from 1975 to 1990, leaving parts of the country in ruins.  "This is a delicate situation but not a dangerous one," Mr. Tuweini, the opposition leader, insisted as he watched the demonstration on television from his office overlooking Martyrs' Square. "I'm not worried about the unity of the Lebanese, but I am worried that car bombs and assassinations will happen as we try to defend it."

Yet the fear of a civil war must extend to Hezbollah and Syria themselves because they are objectively far weaker in 2005 than they were in 1975. There is no guarantee that Syria and Hezbollah would emerge victorious from a full-scale civil war and every probability they would lose it, so why start something in which you are bound to be beaten? To use a cinematic metaphor, although Nasrallah has strolled all the way down Main Street and struck a pose, he hasn't made a move for his gun. Time was he would have cleared leather; what's different is this time is he's not so sure he's the fastest draw in town. My own instinct is that unless a series of unfortunate incidents throws things out of control, no one will be particularly anxious to start fighting. Syria may have made a fundamental miscalculation in playing the Hezbollah card because it puts Damascus' future in Lebanon in Nasrallah's hands. One wonders if the older Assad would have done this. If -- and I have no idea how -- Hezbollah can be convinced to double-cross Syria by showing them that direction has no future, Boy Assad will be up the creek without a paddle. What do you mean we kemo sabe?