Across the Bay

Saturday, May 21, 2005

Hizbullah and Hariri

Michael Young noted a bombshell article in the Kuwaiti As-Siyasah suggesting the involvement of a "significant Lebanese party" in the assasssination of Hariri. Michael points out that this "significant Lebanese party" is none other than Hizbullah:

While the newspaper did not come out and say it, what it clearly was referring to as "the grouping" was Hezbollah. It went on to suggest that the group played a role in Hariri's assassination at the operational level, presumably in preparing and triggering the bomb, on behalf of the Syrians.

Al-Siyassa is notoriously hostile to the Syrian regime, so that any such accusation must be treated with caution. However, I know for a fact that the paper was on the money in a number of reports following the Hariri assassination (while others were unverifiable). I also know that suspicion of Hezbollah involvement has been circulating in the political class here in Beirut since the killing. One very senior politician told me a few weeks after Hariri's death that "I do not discount Hezbollah involvement", and pointed to the fact that Hariri's regular meetings with the party's secretary-general, Hassan Nasrallah, may have been used to lull him into a false sense of security. I also know that other politicians have privately mentioned their concern about Hezbollah's involvement.

What would the party's rationale be? Much the same as the Syrian one--to get rid of a man who threatened to undermine the Syrian order in Lebanon because he was on the verge of winning a major election victory. As a "strong Sunni", Hariri certainly disturbed Damascus, but he was also seen by the Syrians and probably Hezbollah as a supporter, if not more than that, of Resolution 1559.

Needless to say, if this is true, the consequences will be quite dramatic. Michael writes:

If the news is true, and for the moment nothing confirms it, it would be the accusation most people dare not mention. As Al-Siyassa makes clear, this could embarrass a lot of people, but more significantly it could lead to significant tension between Lebanese Sunnis and Shiites. Indeed, as elections approach, Hezbollah candidates are on slates either directly sponsored by or allied with the Hariris. The news item may never be confirmed simply because no one wants it to be.

A note should be made about Hizbullah's posture lately. Contrary to all the predictions of the cheerleading groupies (first among which is the useless Helena Cobban), Hizbullah is nowhere near "running away with the elections." In fact, Hizbullah didn't do what many said it would, take a bite of Amal's piece of the Shiite pie. In the past, Syria pressured the two to run together, thereby, the argument went, limiting Hizbullah's representation, as it was clearly more popular than Amal. But what these people failed to understand is that after the Syrian withdrawal and with UNSCR 1559 hanging over its head, Hizbullah became one of the most vulnerable groups in Lebanon. Isolated after the Christian-Druze-Sunni alliance in March, and alienating many through its overtly pro-Syrian posturing, including mug shots with the notorious Rustum Ghazaleh, and facing the rise of a rival Shiite group, Hizbullah couldn't run away with anything. Not only didn't it break away from Nabih Berri, it needed him to maintain some sort of a Lebanese safety net. While some of the internal pressure has eased due to electoral politics, the issue of the arms is still the elephant in the room, no matter what Hizbullah says to awe-struck journalists and interviewers.

Here's an example. Prof. Amal Saad-Ghroayeb wrote a commentary on Hizbullah in yesterday's DS. The article is off on so many points. For one, it overestimates Hizbullah's ties with Jumblat and Hariri. While they will cooperate in the elections, mutual distrust reigns between them (i.e. Hizbullah vs. Jumblat/Hariri). For one, Jumblat very recently floated the proposition of integrating Hizbullah's militia into the army, a position that Hizbullah has outright rejected. Second, Saad-Ghorayeb does not ponder the Sunni-Shiite divide, and how that played out especially after Hizbullah's pro-Syrian march. Saad-Ghorayeb then puts forth a bizarre and incomplete theory about a possible Saudi sponsorship of Hizbullah. The theory has more holes in it than a showerhead. For one, the Saudi role has been enhanced in Lebanon via Hariri. It was a move at the expense of Syria, but it was also a move that threatens Syria through the possible empowerment of Syrian Sunnis (Syrian-Saudi ties are quite cold at the moment, with the Saudis convinced of Syrian culpability in the death of "their" guy in Lebanon). The Saudi role came with international support as well. Domestically, Hariri has become the voice of the Sunnis especially after the withdrawal of Omar Karami from the upcoming elections (and the withdrawal also of fundamentalist Sunni Islamists) which also strikes a blow to Syrian influence in Lebanon. But what that means is that the Sunni voice is one of moderation and consensus (keeping in mind the alliance with the Druze and the Christian opposition). This center would obviously get the backing of the US and the EU. They can't appear to be backing "Christians," (can you imagine the kind of Cobban and Seale articles that we would have to suffer?) nor can they back a minoritarian Druze. They clearly won't back the Shiites either. They back consensus.

But regionally, this is also significant. The US has effectively backed the Shiites in Iraq which has led to anxious remarks by the Sunni regional players (namely Jordan, but also Egypt, and Saudi Arabia). So backing the consensus in Lebanon (where Hizbullah has an uneasy place) with a Sunni leading figure (Hariri) works on several fronts: it fosters consensus in Lebanon, while not showing the US as backing Christians. It placates the Sunni regional players. It punishes and threatens the Syrians domestically, and it cuts the way on the hypothetical Iran-friendly "Shiite crescent."

So the notion of either Saudi Arabia backing Hizbullah in Lebanon, or Hizbullah itself putting its future in the hands of the Saudis sounds far fetched to me. Saad-Ghorayeb places it in the context of Saudi Arabian influence on the peace process between the Israelis and Palestinians. But the notion that Saudi Arabia wants to hold a military card over Israel just doesn't sound convincing. I think she totally misses the broader Shiite-Sunni tension that's blowing in the region. So the Hizbullah certainty of a Sunni backing that she's reporting sounds much more like Hizbullah "interview talk" (i.e. propaganda) than anything else. But that's the problem with all these guys ('n' gals) who do interviews with party officials. They end up buying into their logic and getting all mystified by their cool demeanure and cocky attitude that they let go of basic skepticism and broader realities.

Finally, on a related note, the UN might be preparing another suprise for Hizbullah (and Syria). This story in Naharnet reports that the UN won't authenticate Syria's withdrawal until the Lebanese-Syrian border is properly demarcated. This means that the status of the Shebaa Farms will once and for all be settled, cornering Hizbullah that much more. Add to that that according to a report in Al-Hayat a couple of days ago, a Palestinian delegation was to arrive in Lebanon to discuss the arms of the Palestinians. It's in the interest of both the Lebanese and the Abbas government to shut these guys down (and take yet another card away from Syria, which was used to interfere in both governments' affairs). When that demarcation happens, statements like the one quoted by Saad-Ghorayeb about Hizbulah keeping their weapons for "a million years," i.e., basically for as long as Israel exists will not fly with anyone in Lebanon outside some in the Shiite community. Readers are reminded that aside from the Christian opposition to Hizbullah's weapons, the late Hariri himself had tremendous problems with the ongoing militarization of the south: it was bad for business and investment. He had several clashes with Hizbullah on that point (including one time where he made a statement on the need for keeping the south calm which earned him two rockets fired at his TV station). In the current internationally and regionally (by Sunni states) fostered Lebanon, that stuff won't fly at all, domestically, regionally and internationally.

So if the As-Siyassa report is made known in Lebanon, I wonder what kind of reactions it may draw. It might be dismissed or played down officially, especially, as Michael noted, because of the elections. But the question is what happens after the elections? If such information indeed exists, then the Hariris will know about it. Then I'd like to see that fabled "consensus" around Hizbullah's arms.

Addendum: Upon reading this post, Michael Young wrote me the following comment "to buttress my argument," and as a further reminder of the limitations of Hizbullah and the fallacy of the views of cheerleading groupies like Cobban et al. It relates to the stuff I said above about the rise of other Shiite groups, etc.:

They [Hizbullah] specifically imposed the 2000 law, with Birri, to marginalize southern voters, particularly Shiite voters, who were not expected to vote for them. They had no confidence they would be able to win all Shiite seats, let alone non-Shiite seats, alongside Birri at the qada level, so they essentially imposed their electoral hegemony in the south, and found willing listeners in Jumblatt, Hariri and even Qornet Shehwan, themselves calculating what would be advantageous to them. Willing listeners, too, in people like Cobban, who never seem to look at how undemocratically Hizbullah behave in many southern villages, where in many cases they have even prevented people from listening to music. And that comes from the nephew of someone who was on the Hizbullah-Amal list in 2000.

What are the figures? Cobban would do well to recall that in 2000, when the south voted as one united district (another bit of Syrian-imposed, Hizbullah-Amal approved gerrymandering, to ensure the parties' electoral hegemony), in Marjayoun-Hasbayya Habib Sadeq won 44,000 votes and Kamel Asaad (the old feudal leader) 37,534, Elias Abu Rizq 42,000 votes and Nadim Salem 36,000 for the Greek Catholic seat. The top vote getters in the districts got 165,000-187,000, largely because they were on the officially sponsored Amal-Hizbullah list, and benefited from both parties' machinery. That may seem like a big difference, but it shows that candidates who ran as virtual independents, and many of whom were not allied with each other, could score relatively high scores in districts. I imagine that at the qada level, and without the Syrians there to enforce lists, Hizbullah would have had much more trouble imposing itself so widely.

These numbers fit well with Samir Qassir's recent reminder that the combined Amal-Hizbullah list only managed to get a little over 50% of the Shiite vote.

See also this post at the Lebanese Political Journal.