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When a dilettante takes on Hezbollah

We can thank the US speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, for having informed Syrian President Bashar Assad, from Beirut, that “the road to solving Lebanon’s problems passes through Damascus. Now, of course, all we need to do is remind Pelosi that the spirit and letter of successive United Nations Security Council resolutions, as well …


We can thank the US speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, for having informed Syrian President Bashar Assad, from Beirut, that “the road to solving Lebanon’s problems passes through Damascus. Now, of course, all we need to do is remind Pelosi that the spirit and letter of successive United Nations Security Council resolutions, as well as Saudi and Egyptian efforts in recent weeks, have been destined to ensure precisely the opposite: that Syria end its meddling in Lebanese affairs. Pelosi embarked on a fool’s errand to Damascus this week, and among the issues she said she would raise with Assad – when she wasn’t on the bazaar circuit in the capital of imprisoned dissidents Aref Dalila, Michel Kilo, and Anwar Bunni – is “the role of Syria in supporting Hamas and Hezbollah. What the speaker doesn’t seem to have realized is that if Syria is made an obligatory passage in American efforts to address the Lebanese crisis, then Hezbollah will only gain. Once Assad is re-anointed gatekeeper in Lebanon, he will have no incentive to concede anything, least of all to dilettantes like Pelosi, on an organization that would be Syria’s enforcer in Beirut if it could re-impose its hegemony over its smaller neighbor. Inasmuch as it is possible to evoke sympathy in such cases, one can sympathize with Hezbollah. In 2000, the party lost much of its reason to exist as a military force when the Israelis withdrew from Southern Lebanon. The manufacturing of the Shebaa Farms pretext, thanks to the diligent efforts of Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, bought Hezbollah an extension, a handy fig leaf allowing it to keep its weapons. Last summer, however, the party’s initiation of a war devastating to Lebanon, followed by its efforts to lead a coup against the majority, demolished any lingering cross-sectarian support that Hezbollah had enjoyed. Hezbollah’s weapons are no longer regarded as weapons of resistance by most Lebanese, but as weapons of sectarian discord. The party’s effort to torpedo the Hariri tribunal has created a perception that it is siding with Rafik Hariri’s murderers – little helped by Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah’s public statements of solidarity with the Syrian regime. But perhaps most worrying for Hezbollah’s leadership is its knowledge that the party cannot return to where it was before July 12, 2006, when the war with Israel began – at least without pushing the Lebanese political system perilously closer to war. For one thing is absolutely clear: Without some sort of Syrian return to Lebanon, and even then, Hezbollah has no future as simultaneously a political and military party. For years, pundits and analysts have spoken of Hezbollah’s “integration into Lebanese society. Their underlying premise was that the party somehow desired this. Optimists pointed to Hezbollah’s participation in successive parliamentary elections as an example of its willingness to “assimilate. The naïveté deployed was remarkable. It rarely occurred to the experts that Hezbollah did not start as, nor truly is, a social services organization. It is as an Iranian-financed military and security enterprise overseeing a vast and competent patronage system designed to win Shiite backing, allowing Hezbollah to retain its weapons. It never occurred to the experts that Hezbollah’s objective in participating in the political system was not to jettison its military identity, but rather to safeguard it within the confines of Lebanese institutions it could thereafter influence. And it never occurred to the experts that Hezbollah was not interested in integration at all, at least on terms that would require surrendering its autonomy, even if it did exploit its stake in the state as an additional means of patronage, much like other Lebanese political actors. These conditions no longer apply in Lebanon. With the society divided as it is, Hezbollah cannot impose its conditions as it once did. This Nasrallah knows. At the same time, the party’s officials are too astute not to recognize that a return of Syrian domination, while it may buy Hezbollah a new lease on life, is more likely to lead to a Sunni-Shiite war, its end result, in all probability, being the collapse of Assad’s regime, which would not be able to limit sectarian discord to Lebanon. That leaves a third option: Hezbollah’s embrace of the Lebanese system through an agreement to disarm and transform itself from a Leninist political-military party into solely a political one deferring to democratic rules. None of these choices appeals to Hezbollah. This is why it is trying to avoid a decision by taking over effective control of the government, to better determine who will be elect president once Emile Lahoud’s term ends. Hezbollah’s demand for 11 ministers out of 30 must be understood in this context, as an instrument to bring the government down, or threaten to, and use this as leverage to choose a friendly president. If the party and Syria can influence the presidency, and given the fact that they already rule over Parliament through Berri, this would allow them to hold Lebanon hostage in the coming years and rebuild the political and military infrastructure that was the foundation of their intimidation. That’s why both Syria and Hezbollah were especially alarmed with statements from UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon’s entourage last week, that the UN was working on defining the Shebaa Farms border, whether Syria agreed with this or not. If the international organization sets final boundaries and persuades Israel to withdraw, Hezbollah will have even less of an excuse to hold on to its arms. More worrying for the Syrians, this would sever any remaining linkage between a resolution of Lebanon’s territorial dispute with Israel and Syria’s. Syria could no longer link the military neutralization of the Lebanese-Syrian border area to an Israeli withdrawal from the occupied Golan Heights. Perhaps Pelosi and other foreign officials will understand this simple equation one day, after again failing to persuade Assad to sell Hezbollah out. Unfortunately, foreign bigwigs come to town, their domestic calculations in hand; then they leave, and we’re left picking up the pieces. ……….. Michael Young is opinion editor of THE DAILY STAR.

Topics: Wael Ghonim

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