Lebanon Inches Toward the Precipice

In what is being referred to by pro-government forces as an attempted coup, Hezb'allah and their allies in the opposition took to the streets on Tuesday in what was billed as a "General Strike" in order to force the government of Lebanon's Prime Minister Fouad Siniora to capitulate to opposition demands for a "National Unity Government."

Protestors blocked roads with burning tires in what appeared to be an extraordinarily well organized effort to shut down the country. The roadblocks effectively kept tens of thousands of people from commuting to work and many of Lebanon's businesses were closed for the day. Also, the road to the airport was blocked when dump trucks appeared and piled dirt and garbage at strategic locations along the route.

Pro government forces clashed with the opposition at many locations throughout the country, but especially in the north in Tripoli where violence continued Wednesday. All told, at least three deaths were reported and 133 injured. Most of the injuries were from gunshot wounds.

As swiftly as the violence broke out, it appears today that the opposition has called off the protests. Hezb'allah leader Hassan Nasrallah may have been taken aback by the intensity of the clashes between his supporters and those of the government and decided to take a step back. Or, he may have planned the strike as a one day demonstration of his ability to shut the country down any time he wishes. In either case, it is clear that Nasrallah has begun to ratchet up the pressure on the government and force them to accede to his demands.

But in so doing, Nasrallah has energized the Sunnis and forced them to confront the Shias. The act of blocking the roads in southern and western Beirut hemmed the Sunnis into their own enclave and was seen as something of a blockade. Not only that, the roadblocks and the shutting down of the road to the airport were all too reminiscent of what transpired during the years of civil war. Many of the same areas that were battlegrounds during that horrible period once again saw blood running in the streets. The significance was not lost on Nasrallah nor on the Sunnis, which may be the main reason that the Hezb'allah leader called off the general strike. Nasrallah and his masters in Iran do not want a civil war in Lebanon. He would just as soon swallow Lebanon whole without a messy sectarian conflict on his hands.

This doesn't take into account what Nasrallah's Christian ally Michel Aoun would like to see happen. Aoun and Nasrallah appear to be getting farther apart in what each wants to accomplish with these opposition demonstrations that have been going on since early December. Where Nasrallah wants a sufficient number of ministers in the cabinet so that he would have veto power over the government, Aoun's Presidential ambitions seem to have taken a backseat in Nasrallah's planning.

And Aoun's machinations have split the Christian community to the point that some of those clashes yesterday were between Christian factions loyal to Aoun's Free Patriotic Movement and the pro-government Lebanese Forces headed up by Aoun's longtime rival Samir Geaegea. The Maronite Patriarch Nasrallah Boutros Sfeir has condemned both sides in the conflict but so far has done little to try and heal the split among his people. This schism among Christians is another reminder of what happened during the civil war when the anti-Syrian faction headed up ironically by Aoun fought pitched battles with Geagea's Lebanese Forces in East Beirut. It is indicative of the tragedy that is Lebanese history and politics that 17 years later, the same forces are fighting again only this time it is Aoun allied with pro-Syrian forces and Geagea in opposition.

Where was the army during these clashes? Early in the day, the army commander Michel Suleiman ordered his troops not to fire on protestors but to try and keep the roads open. This order was honored in the breech as there is ample evidence the army not only assisted the opposition by preventing people from going to work but also stood by and allowed small numbers of protestors to blockade the roads. It is clear that the army failed to do its job. Troops did move in when violence erupted to scatter combatants with tear gas and by firing their guns into the air. But the damage is done. Prime Minister Siniora may not be able to trust the army when Nasrallah makes his next move.

The timing of the protest is interesting in that Siniora was headed to Paris to conclude talks that would bring billions of dollars in aid to the Lebanese economy, devastated by Hezb'allah's war with Israel last summer. The US has pledged more than $750 million while the French have promised another $500 million to help rebuild much of the infrastructure destroyed in the war as well as help with Lebanon's crushing debt burden. By any measure, the Paris III Conference, involving dozens of countries in the reconstruction effort, is a triumph for Siniora's government - something that Nasrallah couldn't abide. In effect, Siniora is demonstrating that the government doesn't need Hezb'allah or its allies to govern effectively.

At present, Nasrallah appears to be running out of "peaceful" options in his quest to overthrow the government. Everything he has tried in order to bring down Siniora has failed. He has been stymied not only by the support of the Lebanese people for the government but he has been checked by Lebanon's friends and neighbors who have worked diligently to help Siniora and his government survive, now holed up in the Grand Serail for nearly two months in order to prevent Hezb'allah from achieving their aims through assassination.

The Arab League has been especially supportive and their appears to be a tentative agreement to end the cabinet standoff that has been negotiated by Saudi Arabia and Iran. Few details are available but the agreement apparently addresses both cabinet representation for the opposition as well as coming to an understanding regarding the International Tribunal that will try the assassins of ex-Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. This is crucial as it is thought that the Tribunal will almost certainly implicate high level Syrian government officials in the death of Hariri as well as other bombings and assassinations in Lebanon over the past 2 years. It is doubtful that the Saudis would have agreed to any measures that would dilute the power of the Tribunal which makes Hezb'allah's acceptance of this agreement problematic. It is equally doubtful that Nasrallah will be handed veto power over cabinet decisions.

This means that either Nasrallah accepts this face saving retreat (he will probably get a near majority of ministers) or he continues his quixotic protests in the hopes that eventually he can wear down the March 14th Forces in government. But it is becoming more apparent as time passes that the only way that Nasrallah will get what he wants is through violence. Siniora and his government aren't going anywhere. There is no chance that early parliamentary elections will be held that would give him an opportunity to muscle his way into power through voter intimidation and fraud. And his alliance with Michel Aoun may begin to become more of a burden as time goes on. Losing the vain Aoun would doom his faction to a permanent minority as well as taking away any fig leaf of legitimacy he held in his claim that he represented all Lebanese and not just the Shias.

What will he do? A hard man to read, Hassan Nasrallah. He seems unwilling to take the final plunge into civil war (something opposed by his paymasters in Tehran) but will lose credibility if he simply gives in and goes home. His calculations must include the fact that rule by the Shias or a Shia dominated government will be unacceptable to the Sunnis and most Christians. For this reason, I believe that if the agreement ironed out between Iran and the Saudis gives him enough of what he wanted, he may fold and go home, hoping that the next round of elections will give him more leverage in his next confrontation with the government.

Nasrallah knows that no one will dare disarm his militia, something called for in 2 separate UN resolutions and the Taif Accords under which the Lebanese government operates. And as long as his bully boys have the guns, they will have the ultimate veto power over the Lebanese government and society. For this reason, Nasrallah will be able to bide his time and wait for the next opportunity to take Lebanon to the brink.

Rick Moran is a frequent contributor to American Thinker and is proprietor of the blog Right Wing Nuthouse
In what is being referred to by pro-government forces as an attempted coup, Hezb'allah and their allies in the opposition took to the streets on Tuesday in what was billed as a "General Strike" in order to force the government of Lebanon's Prime Minister Fouad Siniora to capitulate to opposition demands for a "National Unity Government."

Protestors blocked roads with burning tires in what appeared to be an extraordinarily well organized effort to shut down the country. The roadblocks effectively kept tens of thousands of people from commuting to work and many of Lebanon's businesses were closed for the day. Also, the road to the airport was blocked when dump trucks appeared and piled dirt and garbage at strategic locations along the route.

Pro government forces clashed with the opposition at many locations throughout the country, but especially in the north in Tripoli where violence continued Wednesday. All told, at least three deaths were reported and 133 injured. Most of the injuries were from gunshot wounds.

As swiftly as the violence broke out, it appears today that the opposition has called off the protests. Hezb'allah leader Hassan Nasrallah may have been taken aback by the intensity of the clashes between his supporters and those of the government and decided to take a step back. Or, he may have planned the strike as a one day demonstration of his ability to shut the country down any time he wishes. In either case, it is clear that Nasrallah has begun to ratchet up the pressure on the government and force them to accede to his demands.

But in so doing, Nasrallah has energized the Sunnis and forced them to confront the Shias. The act of blocking the roads in southern and western Beirut hemmed the Sunnis into their own enclave and was seen as something of a blockade. Not only that, the roadblocks and the shutting down of the road to the airport were all too reminiscent of what transpired during the years of civil war. Many of the same areas that were battlegrounds during that horrible period once again saw blood running in the streets. The significance was not lost on Nasrallah nor on the Sunnis, which may be the main reason that the Hezb'allah leader called off the general strike. Nasrallah and his masters in Iran do not want a civil war in Lebanon. He would just as soon swallow Lebanon whole without a messy sectarian conflict on his hands.

This doesn't take into account what Nasrallah's Christian ally Michel Aoun would like to see happen. Aoun and Nasrallah appear to be getting farther apart in what each wants to accomplish with these opposition demonstrations that have been going on since early December. Where Nasrallah wants a sufficient number of ministers in the cabinet so that he would have veto power over the government, Aoun's Presidential ambitions seem to have taken a backseat in Nasrallah's planning.

And Aoun's machinations have split the Christian community to the point that some of those clashes yesterday were between Christian factions loyal to Aoun's Free Patriotic Movement and the pro-government Lebanese Forces headed up by Aoun's longtime rival Samir Geaegea. The Maronite Patriarch Nasrallah Boutros Sfeir has condemned both sides in the conflict but so far has done little to try and heal the split among his people. This schism among Christians is another reminder of what happened during the civil war when the anti-Syrian faction headed up ironically by Aoun fought pitched battles with Geagea's Lebanese Forces in East Beirut. It is indicative of the tragedy that is Lebanese history and politics that 17 years later, the same forces are fighting again only this time it is Aoun allied with pro-Syrian forces and Geagea in opposition.

Where was the army during these clashes? Early in the day, the army commander Michel Suleiman ordered his troops not to fire on protestors but to try and keep the roads open. This order was honored in the breech as there is ample evidence the army not only assisted the opposition by preventing people from going to work but also stood by and allowed small numbers of protestors to blockade the roads. It is clear that the army failed to do its job. Troops did move in when violence erupted to scatter combatants with tear gas and by firing their guns into the air. But the damage is done. Prime Minister Siniora may not be able to trust the army when Nasrallah makes his next move.

The timing of the protest is interesting in that Siniora was headed to Paris to conclude talks that would bring billions of dollars in aid to the Lebanese economy, devastated by Hezb'allah's war with Israel last summer. The US has pledged more than $750 million while the French have promised another $500 million to help rebuild much of the infrastructure destroyed in the war as well as help with Lebanon's crushing debt burden. By any measure, the Paris III Conference, involving dozens of countries in the reconstruction effort, is a triumph for Siniora's government - something that Nasrallah couldn't abide. In effect, Siniora is demonstrating that the government doesn't need Hezb'allah or its allies to govern effectively.

At present, Nasrallah appears to be running out of "peaceful" options in his quest to overthrow the government. Everything he has tried in order to bring down Siniora has failed. He has been stymied not only by the support of the Lebanese people for the government but he has been checked by Lebanon's friends and neighbors who have worked diligently to help Siniora and his government survive, now holed up in the Grand Serail for nearly two months in order to prevent Hezb'allah from achieving their aims through assassination.

The Arab League has been especially supportive and their appears to be a tentative agreement to end the cabinet standoff that has been negotiated by Saudi Arabia and Iran. Few details are available but the agreement apparently addresses both cabinet representation for the opposition as well as coming to an understanding regarding the International Tribunal that will try the assassins of ex-Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. This is crucial as it is thought that the Tribunal will almost certainly implicate high level Syrian government officials in the death of Hariri as well as other bombings and assassinations in Lebanon over the past 2 years. It is doubtful that the Saudis would have agreed to any measures that would dilute the power of the Tribunal which makes Hezb'allah's acceptance of this agreement problematic. It is equally doubtful that Nasrallah will be handed veto power over cabinet decisions.

This means that either Nasrallah accepts this face saving retreat (he will probably get a near majority of ministers) or he continues his quixotic protests in the hopes that eventually he can wear down the March 14th Forces in government. But it is becoming more apparent as time passes that the only way that Nasrallah will get what he wants is through violence. Siniora and his government aren't going anywhere. There is no chance that early parliamentary elections will be held that would give him an opportunity to muscle his way into power through voter intimidation and fraud. And his alliance with Michel Aoun may begin to become more of a burden as time goes on. Losing the vain Aoun would doom his faction to a permanent minority as well as taking away any fig leaf of legitimacy he held in his claim that he represented all Lebanese and not just the Shias.

What will he do? A hard man to read, Hassan Nasrallah. He seems unwilling to take the final plunge into civil war (something opposed by his paymasters in Tehran) but will lose credibility if he simply gives in and goes home. His calculations must include the fact that rule by the Shias or a Shia dominated government will be unacceptable to the Sunnis and most Christians. For this reason, I believe that if the agreement ironed out between Iran and the Saudis gives him enough of what he wanted, he may fold and go home, hoping that the next round of elections will give him more leverage in his next confrontation with the government.

Nasrallah knows that no one will dare disarm his militia, something called for in 2 separate UN resolutions and the Taif Accords under which the Lebanese government operates. And as long as his bully boys have the guns, they will have the ultimate veto power over the Lebanese government and society. For this reason, Nasrallah will be able to bide his time and wait for the next opportunity to take Lebanon to the brink.

Rick Moran is a frequent contributor to American Thinker and is proprietor of the blog Right Wing Nuthouse