NATIONAL

A BIG STUMBLE BY HEZBOLLAH

MICHAEL PETROU July 21 2008
NATIONAL

A BIG STUMBLE BY HEZBOLLAH

MICHAEL PETROU July 21 2008

A BIG STUMBLE BY HEZBOLLAH

NATIONAL

By attacking fellow Lebanese, the militia lost some legitimacy

MICHAEL PETROU

The last time I visited the 1975 bar in Beirut’s trendy Ashrafieh neighbourhood, the beer was overpriced and the music—loud and throbbing—got on my nerves. It was, nevertheless, a cheerful and captivating place. The bar, located on the street that formed the “Green Line” dividing the Christian and Muslim quarters of Beirut during Lebanon’s civil war, took its name from the year that conflict began. Inside, the decor was wall-to-wall wartime kitsch, from the sandbag cushions, to the fake bulletscarred walls, to the spray-painted political slogans, and the pièce de résistance, an armed, balaclava-clad mannequin climbing a tower near the window.

It should have felt tasteless. The war, after all, had killed tens of thousands of people and ended less than a generation ago. Bombdamaged buildings were still visible from the street outside. But this was late 2005. Syrian troops had just been evicted, following mass protests. Cafés were packed with stylish diners. And while political assassinations sporadically shook the country, and deep, unreconciled tensions between Lebanon’s many sects persisted, it still felt like a hopeful time. The

1975 bar epitomized this. Any country where it was possible to so irreverently poke fun at the worst and bloodiest results of sectarian strife must have been ready to put these divisions behind it.

Today, some 2Y2 years later, this illusion has been shattered, and Lebanon’s wartime ghosts are once again stalking the country. In May, fighters loyal to Hezbollah and Amal —Shia Muslim militias and political movements—briefly took over West Beirut after the government tried to shut down Hezbollah’s communications network. The fighting killed at least 80 people and exposed the Lebanese government as too weak to stand up to Hezbollah. A deal to end the bloodshed was brokered by the Arab League and led to the formation of a “unity” government in which the Hezbollah-led opposition controls 11 out of 30 cabinet seats.

In other words, Hezbollah, which already holds sway over much of southern Lebanon, which fought Israel to a standstill two summers ago, and which is a close ally—if not pawn—of Iran, used its military might to secure a veto over Lebanese government decisions. What does this mean for Lebanon—a country whose fragmented patchwork of religious denominations has always made its success both unlikely and immensely important—and its neighbours in the Middle East?

At first blush, it appears to be an unequivocal victory for Hezbollah and its Iranian and Syrian sponsors. Lebanon’s Western-backed government described Hezbollah’s temporary occupation of West Beirut as a “coup,” and it is likely true that the militia, had it not held back, could have toppled the govern-

ment. But its limited insurrection violated a long-standing pledge not to attack other Lebanese. Even Hezbollah’s opponents could tolerate the organization when it cast itself as a resistance group defending Lebanon from Israel. A sectarian militia prepared to kill its compatriots is not nearly as palatable. Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s leader, recognizes this and immediately tried to calm Lebanese resentment. Hezbollah, he said last month, does not want “to have control over Lebanon, or to have governance over Lebanon, or to impose our ideas over the people of Lebanon.” These are reassuring words, but they count little against the reality of armed men shooting up downtown Beirut.

“While the military operation demonstrated Hizballah’s planning and operational experience, the militia’s reputation was also severely diminished,” writes David Schenker, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and a former adviser for Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and the Palestinian territories in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, in a recent essay. “By turning the arms of‘the resistance’ against its fellow countrymen— something the militia swore it would never do-Hizballah effectively undercut its regional and local legitimacy. It also ended the longstanding fiction that the Shiite party was committed to Lebanese democracy.”

Hezbollah may also soon be losing one of its two major international backers, Syria. Israel and Syria have both confirmed that peace negotiations are underway. Any deal

HEZBOLLAH

MAY ALSO LOSE A BACKER: SYRIA

will require Syria to muzzle Hezbollah. “Damascus is preparing for a Syrian return to Lebanon,” reports Strategic Forecasting, a private intelligence agency, “only this time around, Hezbollah’s Syrian patron is more likely to end up as the Shiite group’s jail keeper.”

It is still much, much too early to predict Hezbollah’s demise, or even a sharp reversal of its recent ascendancy. A loss of Syrian support would hurt but not disable the militia, especially given Syria’s decreased influence in Lebanon since 2005. Hezbollah remains the most powerful military force in Lebanon. It combines armed strength with popular social programs that earn it grassroots support. Its work rebuilding homes destroyed during the 2006 war with Israelbankrolled by Iran—was more effective than government efforts to do the same, for example.

But for the first time since the war with Israel two years ago, Hezbollah has stumbled. This is a positive development; Lebanon will never thrive as a democracy as long as Hezbollah functions as a parallel state within its borders. Meanwhile, Lebanon’s violent and divisive past no longer seems as ironic or humorous as it once did. Clashes last month between Sunnis and Alawites in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli killed at least four people and drove hundreds from their homes. A bomb blast later exploded an apartment block in the city, killing at least one and wounding dozens. The 1975 bar in Beirut has closed. M