Across the Bay

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Offensive Charm

I must apologize for the long absence, but it's the end of the semester and I have been drowning in student papers, and tomorrow I get their final exams. So please bear with me and I will be back real soon with a bunch of stuff (that may be old news by then!!).

Anyway, remember that Hizbullah "charm offensive" aimed at France? Well, apparently Mr. Mojo is not rising because the French are circulating a draft resolution calling for the disarmament of Hizbullah:

According to the sources, the draft is being circulated by France to representatives of the council's member states. It deplores the Lebanese government's failure to exert full control over its entire territory following the Syrian military withdrawal last week, in addition to its failure to disarm militias operating on Lebanese soil.
[B]oth UN Secretary General Kofi Annan and France have complained separately that Lebanon has failed to make any headway in disarming the country's militias - as is called for in Security Council Resolution 1559 - a reference to Hizbullah and Syrian-backed Palestinian factions operating in Palestinian refugee camps throughout the country.

Hizbullah's response was predictable, as evident from this statement by MP Mohammad Raad: "To those who are counting on the implementation of UN Resolution 1559, I say: 'Hizbullah's weapons are not for internal use. It is there for all the Lebanese to defend their country and land."

It also remains to be seen what the Syrians are up to retaining a military base on the Lebanese side of the border in the town of Deir el-Asheyir. Naharnet wondered whether another "Shebaa Farms" situation is in the works. Moreoever, the UN team is already set to verify the Syrian withdrawal.

But back to Hizbullah. Lee Smith wrote a very nice piece in The Weekly Standard that touched on several points raised on this blog as well, including Nasrallah's posing with Rustum Ghazaleh and warming up to Jamil as-Sayyed, two people that may very well be directly involved in the assassination of Hariri, let alone deeply implicated in the torture and disappearence of many Lebanese (see this piece in An-Nahar by Syrian writer Hakam al-Baba, expressing disgust with Nasrallah on this very issue. Hat tip: Mohammad.) I'll have more to say on the prisoners soon.

Lee wrote:

DAMASCUS WITHDREW ITS REMAINING TROOPS from Lebanon last week, ending a 29-year-long occupation and a week's worth of festivities. While senior officers from both countries pinned medals on each others' chests and shared one last warriors' banquet, dozens of Lebanese mothers demonstrated in front of the parliament to know the fate of their sons, many from the Lebanese army, long held in Syrian jails. Hezbollah's general secretary, Hassan Nasrallah, presented the chief of Syrian intelligence in Lebanon, Rustom Ghazaleh, a figure largely responsible for imprisoning those young men, with a farewell gift, a captured Israeli rifle.

That Hezbollah feted Ghazaleh, a man deeply implicated in the murder of former prime minister Rafik Hariri, suggests that of all the nation's political groups, the armed Islamist Shiite militia may have the hardest time adjusting to post-occupation Lebanon.

But Lee put his finger on a larger, regional issue: the Sunni-Shiite conflict (see also Lee's NYT piece which explored this further). This may be seen in the resurgence of the Saudi influence through the person of Hariri's son, Saadeddine:

"The Saudis essentially invented him," says Michael Young, opinion page editor of Lebanon's English-language Daily Star. "It's the Saudis' way of reimposing influence in Lebanon, and protecting their considerable financial interests here. And it's also Riyadh issuing a very strong warning to the Syrians. They're saying, 'You thought you were killing our Sunni, but this is our guy even more than his father was.'"

Cheney's granting an audience to Hariri, a man with no political credentials besides his birth certificate, can be read both as encouragement to the Saudis and as a warning to Hezbollah and Syria. If anything, Riyadh's hostility to Damascus is even greater than Washington's. "Definitely the Saudis would like to have that [Syrian] regime changed," Lebanese analyst Elie Fawaz told me. "They see the Shiites in power in Iraq, and they want that balanced out with the Sunni majority coming to power in Syria, but the U.S. isn't going to do it for them."

Thus, while it might seem that the Syrian withdrawal would leave Hezbollah in an enviable position in Lebanon, the balance of power in the region is shifting against it in subtle ways. Hezbollah is still obsessed with its historic role "resisting" Israel, but that credential may be a wasting asset.

As many Western journalists and researchers have noted, and a recent Zogby poll seems to verify, Hezbollah enjoys wide cross-sectarian support for its role in forcing Israel to withdraw from south Lebanon in 2000. What these same observers typically fail to explain is how dangerous it has been for Lebanon's politicians to withhold praise from the country's only armed political party, never mind criticize it. Hezbollah often claims that it would never turn its weapons against the Lebanese, but that is precisely what it did during the civil war, killing and kidnapping Christians. Since the Israeli retreat five years ago, Hezbollah's popularity has been on the wane, and not just in the Christian communities. Indeed, many here credit Nasrallah's pro-Syrian rally with galvanizing the opposition to Damascus; only after that demonstration were Sunnis angry enough to take to the streets in force alongside Christians and Druze.

I've written on this before and how Jordan and Saudi Arabia especially will not sit idly by. But it seems that the Saudis are more actively interested in regime change in Syria than the US, which is letting things take their course so to speak.

Zeina Abu Rizk also explored the Sunni-Shiite issue, in terms of Iranian and Saudi Arabian interests (remember, politics in Lebanon is often three-tiered: domestic, regional, international):

While Syrian influence is on the decrease in Lebanon, that of other regional powers is increasing, most notably that of Saudi Arabia.

Iran is also likely to gain a greater say, given its strong connection with the Shiites in general, and with Hizbullah in particular.

Jumblatt's recent visits to these two countries was perhaps the best indication of these new political leanings.

It's no surprise to see Jumblat as the middleman once again!

But how all this, including the recent repugnant public moves by Hizbullah, will reflect on the Party remains to be seen. Lee concludes:

If Shiite adherence to Hezbollah has till now been that community's only way of articulating its support for the political gains won over the last 30 years, the Syrian withdrawal has given rise to new possibilities. The Lebanese Shiite Gathering, a so-called "third way" free of Syrian tutelage, unlike Hezbollah, has emerged under the leadership of Muhammad Hassan al-Amin.

Lebanon's Shiites, says al-Amin, "should not be isolated from the national consensus." That is, Hezbollah does not represent all of the country's Shiites, which is very good news, since many Lebanese have no wish to negotiate their new political system with an armed party. "Nothing suggests to me that people are keen they keep their weapons," says Young. "It looks like the U.N. and the international community expect that the Lebanese parliament elected in May will be made up of people willing to turn to Hezbollah and say we have a problem and we need to resolve it. How [Hezbollah responds] is another question."

Political figures, including Saad Hariri, are quick to praise Hezbollah's past role. But many also recognize that they are faced with a very dangerous transition. President Bush has held out hope that Nasrallah might choose to lay down his arms in favor of joining the political process, but elsewhere across the region Islamist groups that have opted for moderation, like Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, have done so only after they were defeated and then repressed by the states they challenged. Hezbollah may be cornered, but they are also armed, influential, and dangerous. Most Lebanese say that disarming Hezbollah is an internal matter, but none have a persuasive explanation for how it can be accomplished.

Well, the UN and France are apparently thinking along those lines as well.

In terms of the election, the 2000 law that was adopted by default will ensure that Nabih Berri returns to his post, and it secures, in theory at least, that Hizbullah and Amal remain the two main conduits for the Shi'a (which is probably why Hizbullah agreed to back it and back the government). However, the absence of the Syrians will mean that there will be no constraints on how Amal and Hizbullah decide to run. It will be very interesting to see what the turnout will be for either one. I read in An-Nahar that rumours are flying that they will run separately, so it will be a show of strength for them both to see who's more popular. Samir Qassir of An-Nahar wrote that the opposition should run in the south even if it knows it won't win. Qassir's point is to show solidarity with the Lebanese Shiite Gathering and other "non-official" voices like the leftist parties, in an attempt to break the monopoly and the image of dominance of the two "official" parties: Amal and Hizbullah. Qassir reminds his readers that in 2000 and 1996 the two parties combined didn't get more than a little above 50% of the Shiite voters, while the other votes went to waste.

Jonathan Edelstein had similar thoughts: "[e]ven if the electoral map is the same, I expect some surprises at the end of May."

Let's see how it plays out.

Update: This is an update on the Syrian base in Deir el-Asheyir in the Bekaa (see above). I simply couldn't hold back my laughter upon reading this follow-up in Naharnet:

Lebanon and Syria have decided to form a commission to examine claims by premier Najib Mikati that Damascus still has troops in Lebanon, in an area where the border is poorly demarcated, Syria's official news agency reported Tuesday.
Mikati said in an interview published Monday that Syrian troops are located in Deir al-Ashaer, which is on the border, "but we are certain that the Syrian position falls within Lebanese territory."

A Syrian official said Tuesday that the Lebanese and Syrian army general commands decided to "form a joint military commission composed of officers and topographical experts to examine the question."

Mikati's interview they're talking about was given to the French Le Monde. Naharnet published the relevant excerpt in English.

You again have to wonder what on earth they're thinking, especially with the UN verification mission upon them!? Is this related to Shebaa in any way (just like this border ambiguity can be solved through the documents of residents, the same should be applied to Shebaa, without Syria having to officially hand them over)? Is this a half-witted attempt at giving room for Palestinian factions like the PFLP-GC and/or Hizbullah to maintain Syria's bankrupt regional pressure card on Israel? I mean, I really don't know what to make of this stupid move.