April 28, 2008
A 'Long Hot Summer' in Lebanon?By Rick Moran
The talk is of guns in some quarters in Lebanon and of how expensive firearms have gotten. An AK-47 that cost $75-$100 a year ago now goes for between $700-$1000. The government is fully aware of the gun market but can do nothing. After all, they can't disarm Palestinians in the refugee camps nor take Hezb'allah's guns away from them. How can they stop people from arming themselves for protection against... what?
Indeed, that is the question in Lebanon today as the political stalemate between the western backed March 14 government and Syrian/Iranian backed Hezb'allah continues. Plans to end the stalemate come and go but the political life of Lebanon is at a standstill. Hezb'allah ally Speaker of the Parliament Nabih Berri continues to schedule a vote for President in Parliament -- 17 times since December. But Berri and the Hezb'allah led opposition (which includes the largest Christian party led by Michel Aoun) do not recognize the "legitimacy" of the government led by Prime Minister Foaud Siniora, and hence are agitating for a new one -- this time with Hezb'allah dominant. They refuse to show up at these scheduled parliamentary sessions thus denying the majority a quorum to get the business of electing a president over with.
The question "Can they do that?" is irrelevant. This is Lebanon. And in a nation so tied up in political knots, so on edge as the result of the murderous Syrian gangster regime next door that assassinates ministers and Members of Parliament who oppose them, all sides recognize the peril of taking the wrong step or making the wrong move or even of saying the wrong word.
The immediate problem facing the factions is a replacement for Syrian puppet President Emile Lahoud. He stepped down last November and the two sides have been at it hammer and tongs since. Every candidate put forward by the March 14th Forces has been summarily rejected by Hezb'allah. This was true even when the government swallowed its pride somewhat and agreed to nominate General Michel Suleiman, head of the Lebanese army and a nominally pro-Syrian figure.
At first, it appeared that Suleiman would breeze through and solve the presidential problem. But like a gambler who just can't take his winnings and leave the table. President Assad in Syria nixed the idea until the make up of a new government had been agreed to. Since then, Hezb'allah has added the stipulation that there will be no president until the current electoral law -- which favors Christians at the expense of Muslims -- is reformed.
Back to square one -- or before square one if you wish. Since early in the year, Sunnis and Shias have been buying guns while the old militias -- who never gave their firearms up in the first place -- have reportedly begun to drill. There have been some clashes in the streets between the factions, mostly riots over some perceived insult by one side or the other. The overall mood in the country is tense.
And now that they have completely bollixed up the political situation in Lebanon, Hezb'allah has felt free to get back to the business of destroying Israel. In recent months, a gigantic recruiting campaign has been underway as they have emptied towns and villages in the south of young men and sent them off to training camps in the Bekaa Valley, and in special cases, Syria and Iran:
The significance of this latest recruitment drive is that Hezb'allah is apparently seeking to not only replace losses suffered in the war but also expand its military capabilities. And many analysts believe there is only one reason for Hezb'allah to make this move: they plan to incite another war with Israel sometime soon -- perhaps as early as this summer.
The Israelis are still reeling from their perceived failure in the war with Hezb'allah. The Winograd Commission Report exposed several deficiencies in leadership, training, and tactics that are just now being addressed by the IDF. But the army can hardly be expected to have reformed itself in a few months. And with a looming conflict with an expanded Hezb'allah on the horizon, the Israeli government is watching political developments in Lebanon very closely.
Indeed, one reason for the expansion of the militia could be to have more fighters available if the clashes in the streets get serious -- something Hezb'allah is perfectly capable of manipulating if they choose. At the moment, it appears unnecessary because the paralyzed government of Prime Minister Siniora continues an inexorable process of moving toward meeting opposition demands on changing the electoral law and forming a new "Government of National Unity" that would give the opposition veto power over cabinet decisions.
What choice do they have? The canny old Druze warlord Walid Jumblatt has come to the conclusion that the majority must talk with the opposition and that the basis of those talks must be meeting opposition demands:
The majority could, in fact, call a special session of parliament and elect a president by majority vote any time they wish. But Hezb'allah has hinted that if they do that, the opposition will form their own government thus all but precipitating a civil war.
It comes down to this: the majority is seeking to act responsibly, bending over backward to accommodate the opposition's demands while trying to maintain its position as the legally elected government. The opposition, backed by Syria, is simply sitting back and throwing monkey wrench after monkey wrench into the process. For in the end, chaos in Lebanon benefits only one man and one regime: Bashar Assad's Syria.
There is little the US can do to prevent Syrian influence in Lebanon from causing an eruption of violence. In fact, it is an open question whether the next president -- be he McCain or Obama -- can resist the temptation to abandon Lebanon in favor of jump starting the Middle East peace process or getting Syria to assist us in Iraq.
Michael Young points out the perils of engaging Syria in dialogue:
And that, gentle reader, is the bottom line. Obama can talk about meeting with Assad all he wants and it won't advance the cause of peace with Israel one damn bit unless he's willing to betray Lebanon.
Lebanon is not only the key to Syrian influence in the region it is also the key to Assad's survival. Some may be unfamiliar with Syria's role in the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri and the formation of a tribunal (now under UN auspices due to Lebanon's political paralysis) to try and convict the perpetrators.
The ongoing UN investigation has shown that 4 Lebanese army generals (now in custody) in cahoots with Syrian intelligence, carried out the car bombing that killed Hariri. The prosecutors have also uncovered evidence that the subsequent political assassinations of several leading government parliamentarians, journalists, and other anti-Syrian figures was also masterminded by Syrian intelligence as well as leading members of Assad's regime -- including Assad's own brother in law Assef Shawkat who became head of intelligence 30 minutes after Hariri was killed.
The Tribunal, if allowed to function fully and properly, will no doubt indict people very close to Bashar Assad himself. This would spell catastrophe for Assad and Syria which would come under severe sanctions by the US and the United Nations. Since Syria's forced withdrawal from Lebanon in 2005, the economy has taken a nosedive thanks to the drying up of "protection money" and other means by which Syria milked the Lebanese economy to benefit the regime. The pressure to get rid of Assad would be intense. There would probably also be calls for regime change from both Arab and western governments.
In short, most analysts agree that the number one priority of the Syrian regime is to get back into Lebanon and try and derail the Tribunal. No deal with the Arabs or the west about Iraq, about WMD, about the Golan, or about their relationship with Iran will take place without a quid pro quo involving Lebanon.
There is no apparent timetable to Hezb'allah's plans. They don't have to war with Israel anytime soon nor do they appear in any hurry to force the political situation in Lebanon to any kind of dénouement. But it is equally clear that they now feel they have the upper hand in Lebanon. The explosion may not occur this summer. But it appears that the Syrians and Hezb'allah will get everything they want unless the government is prepared to stop them.
Rick Moran is associate editor of American Thinker, and proprietor of the website Rightwing Nuthouse.