Lebanon on the Brink

May 15, 2008 | AIJAC staff

Update from AIJAC

May 15, 2008
Number 05/08 #07

This Update brings together some analysis of the crisis in Lebanon over the last week, which saw Hezbollah gunmen temporarily take over much of Beirut in fighting that left scores of people there and in the North, including one Australian, dead. This crisis looks like it has ended with a clear victory for Hezbollah over the pro-Western government.

First up is former senior Israeli intelligence officer Dr. Eran Lerman, who now heads the American Jewish Committee office in Israel. Lerman looks at the history of the Lebanese civil war and the sectarian constitutional arrangements in Lebanon that provide a background to the Hezbollah-Government confrontation. Lerman explains the government back-down, the role of the Lebanese Army in ending the crisis, and the now freer hand Hezbollah has established for itself in Lebanon for its main goal – preparing for a future war with Israel at a time of its own choosing. For all Lerman’s pertinent background and analysis, CLICK HERE

Next, the British-Israel Communications and Research Centre (BICOM) has another excellent analysis paper on this crisis, looking at the red lines Hezbollah established vis a vis the government – basically it is not allowed to do anything which interferes with Hezbollah’s military preparations. The piece also has some important observations about how this is affecting the wider regional Iranian push for hegemony, and how the Arab states, as well as Israel, are reacting to this. For the full discussion, CLICK HERE. Additional regional background comes from Washington Institute scholar David Schenker, who also discusses what the US can do.

Finally, more on the Arab reactions to events in Lebanon comes from the highly useful Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), which does excellent work translating and interpreting the regional media. Two MEMRI experts here explain successful Syrian and Qatari efforts to thwart Arab League efforts to intervene against Hezbollah in the crisis, and also give examples of strong public condemnation of Hezbollah’s action by Egypt and Saudi Arabia. For this key exploration of the Arab reaction to events in Lebanon, CLICK HERE.

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Lebanon on the brink (or over the cliff)

What are the implications?

Dr. Eran Lerman
Director Israel/Middle East Office, The American Jewish Committee

American Jewish Committee Special Report
May 12, 2008

What makes the recent events in Lebanon so poignant is that for the Lebanese, a Civil War is not a shadow of the distant past – any more so than it is for some folks south of the Mason-Dixon Line…  It is a painful, living memory, even if much of the physical ruin caused in 1975-1976 (during the war’s most intensive phase), and in the smouldering conflict which continued well into the early 90’s, has been plastered over by Rafiq Hariri’s grandiose reconstruction projects in Beirut.  It was a time of raw, extensive and murderous violence, which tore apart the veneer of French-induced civility, and the refined pleasures of life on the Mediterranean shore, or on the wooded slopes east of the city, and turned a lovely country into a scene of carnage.  Soon enough, the neighbors were drawn in – first Syria, in 1976, then Israel in 1982 – and as the tradition goes, anyone who ever stirred the Lebanese pot became part of the stew.

It took a tremendous effort (and the end of the Cold War: the Lebanese conflicts which erupted in 1958 and 1975 were very much along the lines of pro- or anti-Western allegiance, despite the strange twist of Hafez al-Asad’s Syria coming in in 1976 in support of the pro-western Maronite Christians) to turn the bloody omelet back into fragile eggs again:  but now the intensity of violence threatens to bring back the bad old days.  The lines of division have changed, however:

On one side, a new “legitimist”, pro-Western alliance which includes, paradoxically, the middle-class Sunni elite – Hariri’s son, Sa’d, leader of the al-Mustaqbal (“Future”) Party, Prime Minister Fu’ad Siniora – as well Walid Junblatt’s fierce Druze forces  (both of which, by the way, were radicalized and pro-Palestinian, i.e., anti-Western, back in the previous Civil War) as well as some of the key Christian clans, all under the umbrella of the “March 14 Movement”, which joined together to protest the murder of Rafiq Hariri (apparently by Syrian agents) and to demand the removal of Syrian troops.

On the (well-armed) other side – Hizbullah (“Party of God”), the one militia in Lebanon which the Syrians did not disarm when they moved in, and which claims to draw its right to bear arms from its role in “throwing out” (as the legend goes) the foul Israeli invaders in two wars:  one which lasted 18 years, another, in 2006 – a few weeks.  It is joined by its much weaker rival in the Shi’a community, the Amal (“Hope”) Movement; and surprisingly, by Maronite renegades such as General Michel Aoun.

At least to some extent, the present crisis is rooted in a legitimate grievance: the existing balance of internal power and authority in Lebanon, and arcane left over from 1943 and fixed occasionally at times of crisis, gives the Sh’ia a tertiary role in the system:  the President must be Maronite, the Prime Minster Sunni, the Speaker of Parliament – Shi’i.   By the end of last year, it was clear that this can no longer work (no president was elected for six months now, not least because a series of well-timed Syrian-backed murders of Lebanese parliamentarians made sure that the necessary two-thirds will never be there to elect a man of the Hariri clan’s likings).  Still, when Hasan Nasrallah argues that the new demographic s mean that this defunct system should be abolished, his call resonates well beyond his own partisans.

The real story, however, is no longer about the Sh’ia being disenfranchised; it is, much as it was in the 1970’s, about external allegiances.  The Soviets are gone. Syria seemed for a while to have been left to its own devices, and in the 1990’s found refuge in a short-lived alliance with the U.S. against Iraq, and (as it tries to do again now) in an ongoing “Peace Process”.  But by the end of the decade, a new paradigm emerged in the region:  Iran was making a bid for regional hegemony, a bid which her leaders expect would soon be supported by the possession of a military nuclear capacity.  Where once there was a destabilizing role by Moscow, it is now filled by Teheran.  The present outbreak, like the Hamas takeover in Gaza and the escalating violence it has generated (two civilians, one of them a visitor from the U.S., were killed in the Northern Negev by mortar and rockets attacks from Gaza in the last two days), is very much an integral part of this Iranian ascendancy.

It is interesting to note, however, that this particular crisis – with all its attendant dangers – was triggered not by a Hizbullah take-over bid, but rather by two deliberate steps by the Siniora cabinet to “cut Hizbullah down to size”.  Thus, the assumption needs to be that they were encouraged to do so by the Arab anti-Iranian camp: possibly by Egypt, and even more so by the fervently anti-Syrian position taken by Saudi Arabia.  They may have been backed also by the U.S. and French administrations, which take an equally adamant line in support of the March 14 Camp.  The Lebanese government, thus “strangely” believing that this was within its sovereign rights, indicated that it intends to:-

  • Disallow the nation-wide control and communication (C4I, in military terms) network built by Hizbullah – the most blatant manifestation of the “Party” actually acting as a “state within a state”, much as the Palestinian “Republic of Fakahani” did in the 1970’s, when it ran large parts of the country from its headquarters in that suburb of Beirut.
  • Remove from his post the head of security at the Rafiq Hariri International Airport in Beirut, Wafiq Shuqair, who turned out to be a Hizbullah agent and a gun runner: again, a procedure very much within the right of normal governments.  But Lebanon’s isn’t.

Hizbullah, at this point, erupted in violent action, openly defying the government’s right to challenge their power in this fashion.  They easily sliced through governmental defenses in Beirut itself, cutting off access to the Airport, harbor and other crucial areas.  They ran into much stiffer resistance in Junblatt’s Shouf Mountains, where most of last week’s 61 fatalities occurred: the Druze had no intention of giving ground, despite Hizbullah’s undisputed military superiority.

At this point, the Lebanese military – acting as a separate political entity, another peculiarity of the Lebanese condition (“Lebanon is not a state, it is a state of mind”) –  moved in.  They are the only force which can match Hizbullah, which is certainly as well equipped for battle as any regular military (when it comes to the explicit injunction against the provision of arms, UNSCR 1701 is a dead letter); but they clearly have no wish to do so.

Instead, the Lebanese Armed Forces (under general Michel Suleiman, who seeks to become the next President with a mandate agreed upon by all factions, Hizbullah and their rivals alike) chose to act as intermediaries and conciliators, and in effect, convey Hizbullah’s demands to the government (which caved in) in return for an arrangement under which the militias withdrew and the military took over their positions.  This is a fragile outcome – in any given place, one exchange of fire at an unguarded location could set off a chain reaction of inter-communal violence.  None of the underlying problems have been solved. In essence:-

  1. Hizbullah had the upper hand on the ground.  This is already being picked up by the present leadership in Iran as proof that the existing power structure in the region, supported and sustained by the U.S., will soon be swept away by Iranian-backed forces:  echoes here of Nasser’s (premature) gloating in 1956-1958, when his influence became the tool of a region-wide anti-American campaign.
  2. Still, they did not want to take over the country as a whole (and perhaps felt that they could not do so), Hamas-style: and chose to settle for a return to the status quo ante, having proved that it was up to them, not to what they call “the Party of Government”, to determine the red lines that may not be crossed.
  3. In any case, what they retain is the main mission which matters to them – their military capacity to engage Israel in large scale combat, at the time and manner of their choosing:  in this respect, little is left of the hopes which attended  UNSCR 1701 in August 2006 (and the general notion, popularized by some in the present Israeli government as well as intellectuals outside it, that we can benefit form multilateral and international interventions, faces a grave challenge).

It is of serious consequence for Israel whether or not Iran moves a significant step closer towards undermining the American position, region-wide, and establishing a fully controlled enclave on the shores of the Mediterranean and on our northern border.  But for the time being the IDF, and Ehud Olmert’s troubled government, are unlikely to take action in Lebanon.  To begin with, there is little that can be do to rescue Siniora and his camp when they have been so inept in defending themselves.  More significantly, the more likely arena in which Iran’s probing challenges will be met – and hopefully, reversed – is not Lebanon but Gaza, where the cost (in life, limb and human suffering) of the present stalemate is steadily rising.  Unless terms for a ceasefire are agreed soon – a delicate exercise, under the circumstances, since it would further enhance the fortunes of an Iranian ally – a large-scale operation in Gaza is only a matter of proper timing.

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BICOM ANALYSIS, 12/05/2008

Executive Summary

  •  An attempt by the Lebanese government last week to rein in Hezbollah triggered the worst sectarian violence on the streets of Beirut since the 1975-1990 civil war. At least 27 people were killed in four days of fighting, after which the government backed down. (Subsequent reports indicate 44 have been killed and 128 wounded in Beirut and other areas since last Wednesday.) The Iranian-led regional bloc, in which Hezbollah is a key player, scored a significant victory.
  • Events highlighted the limits of Hezbollah’s present ambitions as much as the extent of its military capacity. For the time being, Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah has no appetite to oust the western-backed regime headed by Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, as long as it does not make further attempts to interfere with Hezbollah’s military infrastructure.
  • As well as being a terror group, it is important to recall that Hezbollah is the authentic representative of Lebanese Shiites, which form the largest ethnic community in Lebanon. As such, Nasrallah has calculated that his interests are best served by exploiting the weak democratic institutions of a Lebanon that is mired in political and social discord, in order to act independently as ‘a state within a state’.
  • -Hezbollah’s undermining of Lebanese sovereignty, growing military and operational capacity, and determination to spread radical Iranian ideology is deeply troubling for moderate Arab states in the region. Iranian domination of the Levant would take those fears to unprecedented levels.


Aside from the tragic loss of innocent life resulting from the sectarian fighting which broke out, the events in Beirut last week highlight the nature of Hezbollah’s grip on power in Lebanon.  Lebanon has been characterised by political stagnation since November 2006 (when six pro-Syrian ministers quit the cabinet) and the presidential crisis persists.[i] The violence embroiled Beirut in the worst hostility since the civil war and waned after four days only because the Lebanese army rescinded two government resolutions intended to weaken Hezbollah’s military infrastructure.  Hezbollah made clear that it would not accept having its autonomy diminished.  Its actions represented a victory for the Iran-led regional bloc and are a source of consternation for moderate Sunni Arab states.[ii]  Short term ramifications may prove to be low key, but Hezbollah’s growing confidence presents a long term regional threat.  This briefing examines the context in which events erupted in bloodshed last week, and stresses Lebanon’s strategic importance in light of current developments.

The context of factional fighting

The fresh outbreak of violence which began on 7 May took Lebanon one step closer to the widely predicted return to civil war.  According to security sources, 44 people were killed and 128 wounded since last Wednesday.[iii] Following a government attempt to rein in Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah’s terror organisation, Hezbollah militants used machine guns, RPGs, mortars and sniper fire to seize rival strongholds in mixed Sunni-Shiite neighbourhoods of Beirut.[iv] Druse leader Walid Jumblatt and other pro-western coalition leaders, including Saad al-Hariri, son of the assassinated former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri and present leader of the Sunni faction’s Future Movement, and incumbent Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, required heavy personal protection as militants closed in on West Beirut.  Hezbollah’s military supremacy in Lebanon, well-documented even prior to these events, was conclusively reaffirmed.

The fighting was triggered by two Lebanese cabinet resolutions with which Hezbollah was at odds.  The first was to close down Hezbollah’s military telecommunications network, which was deemed a threat to state security.  Notably, the pro-government al-Mustaqbal newspaper and other local press reported a link-up with Syria’s communications systems, enabling Syrian intelligence to operate freely in Lebanon.[v] The second was to dismiss the security chief of Beirut international airport, Major General Wafiq Shukeir, who has close ties to Hezbollah.  He was accused of spying for them and assisting with weapons transfers.[vi]  Whilst scenes on the ground of fighters destroying cars and buildings may have seemed anarchic, Michael Young of the Lebanese Daily Star asserted that blocking the airport road was a calculated plan by Hezbollah to reverse the Shiite security chief’s expulsion.[vii]  Aggression diminished only after Prime Minister Siniora handed over the decision on both matters to the army, which refrained from involving itself directly in the fighting, and abruptly revoked the rulings in order to restore relative calm.[viii]

Hezbollah’s red lines revealed

On the surface, it may seem puzzling that Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah risked further alienating himself through the actions he ordered.  Hezbollah was accused by the March 14 coalition leadership,[ix] the religious head of the Sunni community Grand Mufti Mohammed Rashid Qabbani, Lebanese media and major Arab states, of staging a coup d’état.[x] Yet whilst Nasrallah has been committed to undermining the pro-western Siniora administration since its inception, last week’s events highlight the limits of his present ambitions as much as the extent of Hezbollah’s military capacity.  For the time being, Nasrallah has no appetite to usher Hezbollah into power by force.  He is content to allow a relatively weak leadership, being propped up by the west, to manage the affairs of state, on the proviso that it does not interfere with his organisation.[xi]

The flipside of Hezbollah’s power is the relative stranglehold in which the Lebanese government is situated vis-à-vis this terror organisation.  The March 14 coalition’s decision to act against Hezbollah at this juncture was all but required of it due to concerns that Hezbollah is planning attacks – to be launched imminently against Israeli targets – as retribution for the assassination in February of their deputy commander, Imad Mughniyeh.[xii] It is of little significance that no evidence has been presented which links Israel with the killing; the Lebanese government is keen to avoid another round of conflict between Israel and Hezbollah on its soil, as occurred in the July 2006 Second Lebanon War.  This scenario would almost inevitably follow renewed Hezbollah belligerence against Israel.

Hezbollah, on the other hand, is unwilling to accept a subservient role in Lebanon in which its military infrastructure is constrained.  It reserves the right to go to war with Israel at a moment of its choosing, as per the model of ‘resistance’ in which it was conceived, and for this it seeks to maintain utmost flexibility, strong intelligence, and intact military communications.  As such, the Lebanese government’s resolutions, which may have appeared relatively innocuous to a casual observer, crossed red lines for the Hezbollah chief.[xiii]  They instigated him to make a rare press statement from a secret location, despatched by videolink, in which he castigated the Siniora government for “declaring war” on his group on the behalf of Israel and the US.[xiv]

Hezbollah’s security chief Wafiq Safa and the party’s international relations official Nawaf Moussawi reportedly stated that “anyone who touches the [communications] network would be treated the same way we treat the Zionist enemy.”[xv] Nasrallah proclaimed, “Those who try to arrest us, we will arrest them.  Those who shoot at us, we will shoot at them.  The hand raised against us, we will cut it off.”[xvi] As subsequent aggression showed, Nasrallah was willing to enter into a civil war in order to protect Hezbollah’s autonomy as ‘a state within a state’.[xvii]

Strategic fallout: a victory for the Iran-led bloc

Although the situation still remains very fluid, it is unlikely that the short term fallout will be all that far-reaching.  For its part, Israel has been observing developments in Lebanon very closely since the war almost two years ago.  Its defence establishment is acutely aware of Iran’s increasing influence along its southern and northern borders, through Hamas and Hezbollah respectively, and the reality of prospective conflict on both fronts at some point in the future.  Israeli intelligence shows that Hezbollah’s rocket supply has tripled and that arms have flowed in continuously across the Syrian border since the 2006 war.[xviii] Contrasted against just light weapons supplied by the US to the Lebanese government (largely because of Israeli concerns that military hardware would fall into Hezbollah’s arsenal), last week’s show of strength was of no real surprise.  Aside from some precautionary IDF realignments in northern Israel in the face of a volatile situation across the border, Israel is unlikely to take further action at present.  However, briefly looking at Hezbollah’s position within Lebanese society, and its broader Iranian- and Syrian-sponsored agenda, reflects more complex long run concerns for Israel, moderate Arab states, and the international community, for which there are no straightforward solutions.

Israel’s veteran international affairs correspondent and author, Pinhas Inbari, argues that Lebanon can be considered to encapsulate perhaps the most significant existential threat facing the Arab world today: ‘resistance’ (muqawama) to the foundations of normal statehood, in which Lebanon essentially serves as a tool for achieving Hezbollah’s radical Islamist ends.[xix]  Nasrallah’s disinclination to oust the coalition government last week should not be interpreted as any less of a desire on his part to acquire more political power in the long run.  It is important to recall that, in parallel to providing consent for terror activities, Nasrallah leads a political opposition party with deep roots in the Shiite community.  As Professor Eyal Zisser, a Lebanon expert at Tel Aviv University, explains, Shiites comprise almost half of Lebanon’s population and depend heavily on Hezbollah for welfare services, from schooling to pension funds.  Hezbollah is the public face of many Shiites who feel discriminated against by the political establishment, an anti-Syrian alliance of Maronites, Sunnis and Druze, who coalesced in the spring 2005 Cedar Revolution (or ‘Independence Uprising’) in order to stave off Shiite domination following Syria’s formal retreat from the country.  In short, Hezbollah is the authentic representative of the largest ethnic community in Lebanon.[xx] As such, Nasrallah has calculated that he can best serve his own (as well as Iran’s and, to a lesser extent, Syria’s) interests by exploiting the brittle democratic institutions of a weak Lebanon to achieve power encroachingly and as the country’s demographic balance continues to drift in his favour.  This is the context in which he has repeatedly called for early parliamentary elections.[xxi]


In the broadest analysis, Hezbollah’s victory in Beirut represented a milestone for Iran in its active pursuit of regional hegemony and defiance of western demands.  Whilst Syria is keen for the constitutional gridlock preventing the appointment of a new president to continue, Iran is providing weapons and investing heavily in bolstering Hezbollah as part of a game plan which is not intended to further destabilise Lebanon at this time.  Furthermore, it is often overlooked that Iran does not monopolise radical influence in Lebanon: it is increasingly being exploited by various jihadist groups of both Shi’a and Sunni descent, not least because the government has western backing, UNIFIL troops are stationed in the south and, as defence experts point out, from a jihadist perspective, it is a handy “staging ground to the Palestinian and European theatres.”[xxii] Leading Arab states, most importantly Egypt and Saudi Arabia, used an emergency meeting of the Arab League in Cairo on Sunday to express concern about the growth of Iranian and other radical influences in Lebanon.  The bottom line is that Hezbollah’s growing capacity, manoeuvrability, and confidence to spread Iranian ideology within the weak shell of an Arab state is deeply troubling for them.  Iranian domination in Lebanon would take such fears to unprecedented levels.

[i] The country has been unable to appoint a new president since Emile Lahoud’s term expired almost six months ago.  There is agreement in principle on the appointment of army commander Michel Suleiman to replace him, though his appointment has been repeatedly postponed for nearly 18 months.  As of March, speaker Nabih Berri had cancelled more than a dozen parliamentary sessions to elect a new president.  See, for instance, ‘Shaping Lebanon’s Future’, Bilal Y. Saab, Saban Center for Middle East Policy, Brookings Institution, 19 March 2008. www.brookings.edu; ‘Gloves off in Lebanon’, Economist Intelligence Unit, 9 May 2008. www.economist.com; ‘Lebanese gov’t bends to Hezbollah demands’, Yoav Stern and Barak Ravid, Haaretz, 11 May 2008.
[ii] Israel’s President Shimon Peres observed, “It is a new chapter of the battle led by Iran to control all of the Middle East.” ‘Israel accuses Iran of igniting violence in Lebanon’, Now Lebanon, 9 May 2008. www.nowlebanon.com
[iii] Lebanese clashes shift to mountains’, Nada Bakri, International Herald Tribune, 12 May 2008.
[iv] ‘Lebanese gov’t bends to Hezbollah demands’, Yoav Stern and Barak Ravid, Haaretz, 11 May 2008; ‘With 18 dead thus far, leaders call for unlikely dialogue’, Now Lebanon, 10 May 2008. www.nowlebanon.com
[v] ‘Syria’s Intelligence Operates Through Hizbullah Lebanon Communications’, Naharnet, 6 May 2008. www.naharnet.com
[vi] Walid Jumblatt accused Shukeir of providing sensitive information about pro-government politicians and foreign dignitaries to terrorists and collaborating with Iran’s supply of weapons to Hezbollah via the terminal. ‘Lebanon tensions rise in clash with Hezbollah’, Yoav Stern and Avi Issacharoff, Haaretz, 9 May 2008.
[vii] ‘Heading toward a Lebanese divorce’, Michael Young, Lebanon Daily Star, 8 May 2008. www.dailystar.com
[viii] Further violence has since spread to the Chouf Mountains and the northern city of Tripoli. ‘Lebanese clashes shift to mountains’, Nada Bakri, International Herald Tribune, 12 May 2008.
[ix] The March 14 movement is named after the date of the Cedar Revolution marking demonstrations – the largest in Lebanese history – which followed former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri’s assassination on 14 February 2005.  Its membership consists of anti-Syrian members of the Lebanese majority coalition.
[x] As an online Lebanese editorial put it in the aftermath, “Let us be under no illusions: this is a coup d’état, and Hezbollah has shown its true colors.” ‘The new rules of the game’, Now Lebanon, 9 May 2008. www.nowlebanon.com; ‘Mufti Qabbani fears civil disobedience’, Lebanon Now, 10 May 2008. www.nowlebanon.com; ‘Lebanon prime minister accuses Hezbollah of staging coup’, Haaretz, 10 May 2008. www.haaretz.com; ‘Arabs hold crisis talks on Hezbollah ‘coup’ in Beirut’, Uzi Mahnaimi, The Sunday Times, 11 May 2008. www.timesonline.co.uk
[xi] ‘Analysis: The question of power’, Jonathan Spyer, The Jerusalem Post, 10 May 2008. www.jpost.com
[xii] ‘Gloves off in Lebanon’, Economist Intelligence Unit, 9 May 2008. www.economist.com
[xiii] ‘Analysis: The question of power’, Jonathan Spyer, The Jerusalem Post, 10 May 2008. www.jpost.com
[xiv] ‘Hizbollah ‘ready for war’ in Lebanon’, Damien McElroy, Daily Telegraph, 9 May 2008. www.telegraph.co.uk
[xv] Syria’s Intelligence Operates Through Hizbullah Lebanon Communications’, Naharnet, 6 May 2008. www.naharnet.com
[xvi] ‘Lebanon tensions rise in clash with Hezbollah’, Yoav Stern and Avi Issacharoff, Haaretz, 9 May 2008.
[xvii] Hezbollah’s is politically, militarily and economically disaggregated from the rest of Lebanon.  It participates in the democratic process to the extent that it can further its own power ambitions, but executes separate policies and makes independent decisions which undermine Lebanese sovereignty.  See ‘Hezbollah’s Endgame?’, Lee Smith, Middle East Journal, 8 May 2008. www.michaeltotten.com
[xviii] ‘Not only Lebanon’s problem’, Amos Harel and Avi Issacharoff, Haaretz, 11 May 2008.
[xix] ‘The Arab World’s Political Dilemma: Between Islamic “Resistance” and the Western State System’, Pinhas Inbari, Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, Vol. 6., No. 17, 17-18 January 2007. www.jcpa.org
[xx] Eyal Zisser (2007, ‘The Battle for Lebanon: Lebanon and Syria in the Wake of the War’, in S. Brom and M. Elran (eds), The Second Lebanon War: Strategic Perspectives (Tel Aviv: Institute for National Security Studies).
[xxi] See, for instance, Arab Election Watch www.intekhabat.org
[xxii] For current analysis, see ‘What Ayman al-Zawahri’s Words Really Mean for Lebanon and the ‘War on Terror”, Bilal Y. Saab and Magnus Ranstorp, Saban Center for Middle East Policy, Brookings Institution, 5 May 2008. www.brookings.edu  

© 2008 – BICOM

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The Lebanon Crisis (2): Hizbullah’s Victory and its Regional Implications

Y. Carmon and B. Chernitsky *

Middle East Media Research Insitute (MEMRI)
Inquiry and Analysis Series – No. 437
May 13, 2008


The immediate surrender of the Lebanese government and the March 14 Forces to Hizbullah’s demands, after they were taken by surprise by the force and determination of Hizbullah’s and Amal’s violent actions, has not alleviated the Lebanon crisis. On the contrary: The Hizbullah and Amal victory, which Iran is presenting as its own victory over the U.S. in the region, [1] will step up pressure for regime change in Lebanon. Such a change, when it comes, will have a critical impact on the security of the Arab regimes allied with the U.S. and on the security of Israel, which will then face Iranian forces on its northern border as well as the possibility of a unified front stretching from Iran through Iraq to Syria and Lebanon, all the way to the Mediterranean.

Hizbullah and Amal, which are continuing their violent attacks against the militias of Sa’d Al-Hariri and Walid Jumblatt in northern Lebanon and in the Lebanon Mountains while maintaining their control over most of Beirut, are focusing their political pressure on the Lebanese government in order to force it to resign. A former environment minister affiliated with the opposition, Wiyam Wahhab, called on the Lebanese Army to seize the government building, the Saraya, from Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Al-Siniora, whom he accused of rebelling against the constitution. [2] The Druze head of the opposition-affiliated Lebanese Democratic Party called on Jumblatt’s supporters to immediately surrender their weapons to the Lebanese Army in order to prevent renewed hostilities in the Lebanon Mountains. [3]

In an interview with the London daily Al-Quds Al-Arabi, Jumblatt said that Hizbullah and Iran had triumphed in the Beirut operation, and that “Hizbullah had made its move as soon as it detected a weakness in the U.S. position in the Middle East, thereby effecting a drastic change in the power balance in Lebanon.” He continued, “Now we are waiting for Hizbullah, Iran, and Syria to determine the rules of the game.” [4]

On May 12, 2008, an emergency meeting of Arab foreign ministers convened in Cairo. Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Al-Mu’allem did not attend, in line with a Syria-Qatar agreement to prevent Arab intervention against Hizbullah by terming events in Lebanon a “domestic issue” in which the Arab League should not interfere. At the meeting, Saudi Arabia and Egypt intended to condemn Hizbullah and to initiate the establishment of an inter-Arab force to be deployed in Lebanon. However, their plans were thwarted by Syria and Qatar.

An Arab source told the London daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat that a Syrian representative had bullied the countries supporting this initiative, saying: “Do you think your planes will be [allowed to] land in Beirut if you condemn Hizbullah?” [5] Instead, the Arab ministers decided to establish an inter-Arab committee, headed by Qatar’s prime minister and foreign minister, to hold talks with all sides in Lebanon. The fact that Qatar, which is an integral part of the Iran-Syria-Hizbullah axis, was appointed to head this committee attests to the helplessness of Saudi Arabia and Egypt, and points to increased inter-Arab pressure on the Lebanese government and the March 14 Forces.

At the same time, Saudi Arabia and Egypt have continued their media attacks on Hizbullah, Syria, and Iran. Following are excerpts from these attacks:

Criticism by Saudi Government Officials

During the Arab foreign ministers’ meeting, Saudi Foreign Minister Sa’ud Al-Faisal compared Hizbullah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah to former Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon, saying that “they both had agreed to invade Beirut.” He added: “The legitimate government in Lebanon is facing a large-scale war, [and] we cannot stand idly by.” He also said that “Iran has undertaken to run that war” and that “Hizbullah intended to forcibly [transform] Lebanon into a state with a ‘rule of the jurisprudent.'” He further stated: “We must do everything in our power to end this war and to save Lebanon, even if this would involve forming an Arab force to rapidly deploy throughout Lebanon, to restore its security and defend the current legitimate government.” [6]

Saudi MPs likewise harshly criticized Hizbullah, accusing Nasrallah of attempting to drag Lebanon towards civil war, in accordance with Iran’s agenda. MP Sa’ud Al-Shammari warned about the consequences of “Iranian expansion in Arab countries, which are evident in Yemen, Iraq, and Lebanon.” Another MP, Dr. Khalil Al-Khalil, said, “60 years after the Palestinian Nakba, we are now faced with another Nakba, in Beirut.” [7]

Criticism in the Saudi Press

Editor of the London daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat Tariq Al-Homayed wrote that as soon as Hizbullah turned its guns on Lebanon, the myth of Hizbullah came to an end. He added that when Hizbullah declared war on the Lebanese government, Nasrallah’s true nature was revealed, and when he captured Beirut, it became clear that all Hizbullah’s talk about “resistance” was nothing but crude lies and a cover-up. Al-Homayed further stated that the current situation in Lebanon proved that the disarming of Hizbullah was inevitable, as was the imposition of strict government rule across the country, to replace the rule of Hizbullah, Iran, and Syria. [8]

In another op-ed, Al-Homayed condemned Hizbullah and Amal, arguing that their actions were motivated by foreign interests. He referred to photos released by several news agencies showing Amal and Hizbullah fighters trampling and setting fire to posters of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Al-Hariri and putting up posters of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad in their stead. He said that these photos should be a warning to everyone in the Arab world who has not yet woken up to reality – since they symbolize the characteristics of an Iranian state, the representatives of which are toiling to sow them throughout the Arab world. [9]

In yet another op-ed, following the Arab foreign ministers’ meeting, [10] Al-Homayed severely criticized what he called “the cowardly Arabs,” i.e. the Arab countries which could not decide where to stand in the clash between the axis of the radical countries and the bloc of moderate countries. He wrote: “How long will these countries fear?… Now that Beirut has fallen into the hands of Iran, and Fuad Al-Siniora’s government is under siege… the Arabs have no choice but to confront Iran… because [they had better know] that that which they fear today will happen tomorrow. Iran’s [influence] is spreading throughout all the Arab countries, and it is imperative that the Arabs stand fast against the collapse of the Arab states and uphold them from being torn apart from within…”

Senior Al-Sharq Al-Awsat columnist Mamoun Fandy dubbed Beirut “Gaza No. 2” and asked: “Shall we wait for a third Arab city to turn into ‘Gaza No. 3’ – whether in Bahrain, Jordan or Egypt? If Iran traps another Arab country, this could very well precipitate the collapse of the entire Arab system. ‘Gaza No. 3’ will be the point where the scale tips, when we will be drawn not into a local but into a regional civil war, [i.e.] a war between Sunnis and Shi’ites…” [11]

In his column in the London daily Al-Hayat, Jamil Al-Dhiyabi claimed that there was no difference between the actions of the Taliban in Afghanistan in the 1990s and those of Hizbullah in Lebanon today. He wrote: “Hizbullah’s fig leaf fell when Nasrallah’s intentions and the Iranian agenda were exposed. Syria is laughing and showing its white teeth, because it has gained a new partner – Qatar. It declares that what is currently going on in Lebanon is a domestic issue, while Hizbullah is flying its banners and putting up posters on roofs and in [government] institutions… The time is ripe to think up a way to disarm Hizbullah, in accordance with U.N. resolutions No. 1559 and 1701 – especially since Hizbullah has aimed its weapons at Lebanon and organized a coup against its government and its people…

“The actions of Nasrallah’s militias will transform Lebanon into another Iraq. Security and stability will vanish from the streets of Beirut, and the gates will open for the allies of Al-Qaeda, Fath Al-Islam, and so on to become more powerful… Lebanon urgently needs an Arab or an international defense force… to restore the rule to the government so as to enable it to withstand Syria and Iran.” [12]

Criticism in the Egyptian Government Press

The Egyptian government dailies were also harshly critical of Hizbullah. For example, in an article in Al-Gumhouriyya, the paper’s editor and MP Muhammad Ali Ibrahim attacked Nasrallah, against the backdrop of Hizbullah’s takeover of Lebanon. [13] Ibrahim wrote that Nasrallah was a new example of “Islamic fascism”… whose other representatives are Hamas leader Khaled Mash’al in Gaza and Muslim Brotherhood General Guide Mahdi ‘Akef in Egypt, and added that this fascism’s main aims were to institute the political agenda of its funders, to topple the “secular” states, and to establish an Islamic Caliphate, even over the dead bodies of the citizens of Lebanon, Egypt, or any other “secular” state.

In another op-ed, [14] Ibrahim wrote that Hizbullah was no longer legitimate, and no longer had a right to exist. He stated that Hizbullah had enjoyed legitimacy in the past due to its resistance to Israel, but that its historic role had played out with the surrender of the Israeli occupation and its forcing of the Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon in 2000. From that moment, Ibrahim wrote, it would have been appropriate for the militias to become a political party – but instead Hizbullah became a state within a state and an ally of Syria and Iran against Lebanon’s interests. Ibrahim added that at the same time, Hassan Nasrallah had lost his legitimacy, and that by 2006, the hero of 2000 had become less heroic, and by 2008 he had become a murderer. [15]

*Y. Carmon is President of MEMRI; B. Chernitsky is a research fellow at MEMRI

[1] Iranian Ambassador to Syria Ahmad Moussavi, who is also advisor to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, said that the U.S. had finally realized that “their own and Israel’s plots in the Middle East are facing a succession of humiliating setbacks” (IRNA, Iran, May 13, 2005). For Iran’s position in the crisis, see MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 1924, “Iranian Papers on the Events in Lebanon: ‘In the Power Struggle in the Middle East, There Are Only Two Sides – Iran and the U.S.’; As a Result Of Hizbullah’s Victory, ‘The U.S.’s Influence in the [Middle East] Region Will Stop, and the Regimes Identified With It Will Be Replaced’,” May 12, 2008. http://memri.org/bin/articles.cgi?Page=archives&Area=sd&ID=SP192408.

[2] Al-Manar TV (Lebanon), May 12, 2008. See MEMRI TV Clip No. 1765, May 13, 2008, http://www.memritv.org/clip/en/1765.htm. Similarly, Radhwan Al-Sayyed, political advisor to Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Al-Siniora, harshly criticized the Lebanese Army, saying: “Since the [Lebanese Army] issued an announcement stating that it feared division if the street fighting were to continue, I said to myself: [How come] the commander of the army fears to confront these gunmen[?]… But the worry that encompassed me over the army’s negative neutrality… was replaced by a mighty rage when I heard that the army had accompanied the gunmen of Hizbullah and the Amal movement and the Syrian National Party in conquests and attacks… The army handed the buildings and facilities they were protecting over to its armed companions from Hizbullah.” Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, London, May 12, 2008.

[3] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), May 13, 2008.

[4] Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), May 13, 2008.

[5] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), May 13, 2008.

[6] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), May 12, 2008.

[7] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), May 12, 2008.

[8] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), May 9, 2008.

[9] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), May 11, 2008.

[10] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), May 12, 2008.

[11] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), May 12, 2008.

[12] Al-Hayat (London), May 12, 2008.

[13] Al-Gumhouriyya (Egypt), May 11, 2008.

[14] Al-Gumhouriyya (Egypt), May 13, 2008.

[15] In contrast to these articles, which attacked Hizbullah harshly, Al-Azhar’s position was the weakest. Senior Al-Azhar officials merely called on the adversarial sides in Lebanon to stop the fighting, because, they said, it was leading to anarchy and civil war. Al-Azhar Sheikh Muhammad Sayyed Tantawi called on the Lebanese to stop the internal struggles, because they helped only the enemies of the Shi’ite Muslim nation. Al-Masri Al-Yawm, Egypt, May 11, 2008.

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