Across the Bay

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Can Hezbollah Go Straight?

Michael Young again comments on Hizbullah in an op-ed in the NYT today:

Now, by supporting Syria, Hezbollah can no longer claim to be above the fray. Its desire to pursue resistance will almost certainly hit up against the reluctance of other communities, and indeed many Shiites, to see Lebanon suffer the backlash of Israeli and perhaps American retaliation.

In short, Hezbollah faces a dilemma: to defend its regional ambitions, it must preserve a Syrian-dominated Lebanese order (and Syria is working to impose one before its troops depart), even if doing so alienates the clear majority of Lebanese who believe Syria must go; or it can side with that majority, which means abandoning Syria and its own regional objectives.

The party can undeniably bring out many supporters, as it did yesterday, but it has also discredited itself by so effectively defending Syrian hegemony over Lebanon. Now Hezbollah can straddle the fence no longer. It must decide whether to take its chances as a national party in a Lebanon free of Syrian domination, or risk losing all that it has built up by becoming Syria's unwelcome enforcer.

Belmont Club, citing my quotes of Michael and Ammar, also weighs in on Hizbullah, rightly pointing out that all the posturing and flexing of muscles does not mean a break-out of civil war, as many have speculated:

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?

All those who talk about civil war have to keep in mind that it's one thing if Hizbullah threatens violence (which is hasn't), and it's a whole other thing if Syrian pitbulls threaten it (i.e. the Baath, the SSNP, the Nasserites, etc.). The latter are totally inconsequential. That's more like vandalism. Even a Syrian campaign of bombs and assassinations won't necessarily escalate beyond that (as Tueni told the NYT). Those are exposed. The only one that would escalate is one where Hizbullah is involved in violence, as that would pit a whole bunch of Shiites against other Lebanese communities. But everyone has been careful not to go down that route, and all the violence has come from Syria and its petty cronies.

One thing that Michael said, and which dovetails with what Wretchard said, is that it's really Hizbullah (and a practically homogenous Shi'a following) vs. the majority of Lebanon's groups: Christians, Druze, Sunnis. So everyone knows where the true consensus lies. All Hizbullah is doing is bargaining, only not too brightly. This has cost it credibility and prestige, rendering Nasrallah nothing more than a Nasser Qandil or Asem Qansoh, the pro-Syrian pitbulls that Nasrallah thought he was so above and beyond. Now, just like them and all those small pro-Syrian parties, Hizbullah is risking defining itself as a Syrian enforcer. Knowing that they have no future outside Lebanon, and there is no way they can go on antagonizing the rest of the Lebanese, that might turn out to be the dumbest move they've made yet.

In that sense, they have sounded more like the Sunnis of Iraq. That's not the wise move of a confident party. That's the move of a vulnerable party that wants to get guarantees that consolidate its gains. The mixed behavior also suggests internal division (and probably a Syrian threat, as Michael hinted). So underneath all those numbers lies a much more anxious and confused party, uncertain how to proceed.