Page last updated at 05:28 GMT, Friday, 16 May 2008 06:28 UK

Hezbollah in dangerous territory

By Jim Muir
BBC News, Beirut

Hezbollah's lightning offensive against West Beirut and the Druze mountains brought home violently what everybody already knew: that it is far stronger than any other force in the land, including the Lebanese Army.

Hezbollah supporters pass a jeep laden with replica missiles on their way north to Beirut
The issue of Hezbollah's weapons is now centre-stage

Its advances on the ground, and the Western-backed government's humiliating capitulation over its two rescinded decisions, were hailed in the Shia areas as glorious victories, and celebrated with jubilation.

In one way, the Hezbollah escalation and the ensuing crisis has helped to unblock the deadlock that has paralysed Lebanese politics for the past 18 months.

It triggered an Arab League initiative, led by Qatar, to defuse the crisis. The initiative provided the vehicle for an agreement on the immediate start of a political dialogue, something that has been absent for quite some time.

But the full consequences of the worst violence since the civil war in the 1970s and 1980s have yet to be gauged.

So too has the extent to which Hezbollah's undoubted supremacy on the ground can translate into political gains.

Opposition crushed

The onslaught unleashed by the Hezbollah leader, Sayed Hassan Nasrallah, just minutes after his televised address on 8 May, saw his movement plunge along a bloody and dangerous course he always vowed it would never follow.

Nasrallah memorabilia in a shop in southern Beirut
Nasrallah said Hezbollah would never turn its guns on fellow Lebanese

Hezbollah crushed all opposition in West Beirut from Sunni supporters of the government in a matter of hours on that Thursday night.

On 11 May, it pounded the hills south-east of Beirut until the Druze leader, Walid Jumblatt, agreed to lay down arms and hand over to the Lebanese Army.

But Hezbollah had turned its guns against fellow-Lebanese, something Hassan Nasrallah said would never happen.

It also stirred up a hornets' nest of sectarian hatreds and very real fears of another outbreak of uncontainable civil strife. Hassan Nasrallah always reassured those anxious about Hezbollah's growing power that he would never allow that to happen.

During the brief period when his fighters and a motley array of allied Syrian-backed militias left over from the civil war erupted into the streets of West Beirut, they burned a television station and a newspaper office, and ransacked and closed down other media outlets owned by their adversaries, especially the Sunni leader Saad Hariri.

That led to fears among many Lebanese that what was under threat was not just the political balance, but a way of life - the strong Lebanese tradition of media freedom and social liberalism that somehow survived all previous upheavals, and made Lebanon for decades a haven for the region's political exiles.

Weapons issue

So Hezbollah and its allies now enter the political contest hoping that the message of their military "victories" against vastly inferior forces will mean a greater chance of getting what they want - at least veto power in a new national unity government, an issue that has snagged all previous efforts to reach agreement.

Hezbollah won two elements in the current package agreement mediated by the Arab delegation:

  • The western-backed government formally retracted the two decisions it had taken on 6 May, outlawing Hizbollah's private communications network and reassigning the chief of security at Beirut airport over the alleged deployment of Hezbollah spy cameras overlooking the main runway
  • The government side also agreed to an immediate dialogue, as insisted on by Hassan Nasrallah

But those immediate gains for Hezbollah and its allies were balanced by two elements in the Arab-mediated agreement positive for the government side, possibly implying that Hezbollah's political position has been damaged by its use of "resistance" arms in the domestic arena and the Pandora's box that swung open as a result.

These were:

  • A pledge to refrain from resorting or returning to violence in pursuit of political gains - a clear reference to Hezbollah's behaviour over the previous week
  • Agreement on a parallel dialogue on spreading state sovereignty throughout the country, and defining the state's relationship with "all organisations" - a reference to Hezbollah and its armed presence

So the issue of Hezbollah's weaponry, which it - unlike all other militias - was allowed to keep at the end of the civil war on the grounds that it was a resistance movement against Israeli occupation, is now centre-stage, as a result of its being turned against fellow-Lebanese.

After the bloodshed, hatred and sectarian tensions of the past week, many Lebanese are fearful that a breakdown of the dialogue now starting could see Hezbollah and its allies back on the warpath in search of a clean political sweep.

The consequences, already foreshadowed by the convulsions which triggered the Arab initiative, could be disastrous.

Bloodbath avoided

While the opposition's move may have been politically motivated, Shia militants could not attack Sunni communities in West Beirut without fanning the flames of sectarian strife.

They can invade our areas, but they will never get the signature of Saad Hariri or Walid Jumblatt or other leaders on a document of surrender to Syria and Iran
Saad Hariri

Sunni reaction in the north of the country produced some of the worst atrocities of this violent episode, when supporters of Saad Hariri took revenge on followers of a Syrian-backed party, the Syrian Social Nationalist Party.

Tensions were felt in all parts of the country with mixed communities. Sunni fundamentalists began to come out of the woodwork, feeling that their moment had come.

The pragmatic stance taken by Walid Jumblatt and his Druze community averted what could have been a ferocious bloodbath in the mountains - a spectre that could rise again if fighting resumes.

Hezbollah's onslaught put the Shias on a collision course with both the Sunni and Druze communities which would have been hard to reverse had it gone much further.

The Christian areas were largely spared trouble - mainly because Hezbollah's Christian allies, notably General Michel Aoun, kept out of the fray and did not attempt to block roads on the 7 May general strike, which acted as the vehicle for Hezbollah's move.

Their position has been further undermined by the Hezbollah attack, which stirred atavistic Christian fears of a militant Shia takeover.

Unity at a cost

Another major repercussion of the affair affected the Lebanese Army. Many observers believe that a further escalation in the same directions could lead it to disintegrate on sectarian lines, as it did in the civil war.

Lebanese soldiers on armoured personnel carrier on road to Beirut airport
Some elements in the army were ready to leave its ranks

The army managed to maintain its unity, but only at the cost of the huge, and for some humiliating, compromise involved in standing by and watching Hezbollah and its unruly allies storming Sunni streets and assets in central and west Beirut, and then attacking into the Druze mountains.

Many Sunni, Druze and Christian elements in the army were said to be deeply disturbed and on the verge of pulling out.

The army's inability to assert itself was one element in what was widely seen, in strategic terms, as a big setback to the US and other western and Arab powers which support the government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora. Mr Siniora was on the verge of resignation at the height of the onslaught but was dissuaded by Saad Hariri and Walid Jumblatt.

Both those leaders saw Hezbollah's move as primarily prompted by its Syrian and Iranian backers, to improve their strategic position against the US and its allies.

"They chose the right moment, with the Americans embroiled in elections, and their position in the region weak," said Mr Jumblatt.

"Quite simply, they want us to surrender, to smile at the return of the Syrian regime to Lebanon, or the handing of the Lebanese decision to Syria and Iran," said Saad Hariri.

"They can invade our areas, but they will never get the signature of Saad Hariri or Walid Jumblatt or other leaders on a document of surrender to Syria and Iran."

US disarray

Many analysts see what has happened as an attempt by Iran and Syria to redress the balance which tilted against them three years ago, when Syrian troops staged a humiliating withdrawal from Lebanon under western pressure at a time when the US star was in the ascendant regionally, following the invasion of Iraq.

Things have changed since then, and the American project is seen as being in disarray throughout the region.

Another complication caused by the crisis has been to aggravate further the relationships of both Iran and Syria with Saudi Arabia, which regards itself as the custodian of the region's Sunnis and especially those of Lebanon.

The Saudi embassy came under fire which, the ambassador said, was not random. Many of its Lebanese associates or proteges and their projects were targeted in the assault by Hezbollah and its allies.

There were sharp exchanges between Riyadh and Tehran - which had cooperated positively to defuse earlier periods of tension in Lebanon.

Another convulsion taking things further along the same line would aggravate relations even more bitterly, which could be a factor persuading Iran to restrain its Hezbollah allies.

Hezbollah 'squeeze'

Some Beirut analysts see what has happened as part of a relentless process by the Syrians of restoring their earlier stranglehold over Lebanese decision-making - spurred by the approach of the UN-backed international tribunal investigating the assassination of the former Prime Minister, Rafik Hariri, in 2005.

"If they don't get what they want now, they will squeeze some more," said one analyst. "This round has shown that they already have Michel Suleiman where they want him. Nobody can do anything against Syria and Iran."

Gen Suleiman is the Lebanese Army commander, who will be elected president if the current dialogue process produces the desired results.

It is impossible to know to what extent the Hezbollah offensive - which was obviously meticulously planned, and used the government's two ill-judged decisions as the pretext - was motivated locally or pushed by the movement's Syrian and Iranian backers and sponsors, and in what proportion.

There is even speculation that it might have been driven mainly by Iran, alarmed at the current flirtation between Syria and Israel under Turkish mediation and intent on maximising its position.

But local clients of the two countries were both involved alongside one another on the ground, making that seem unlikely.

However, if the outside powers are fuelling it, they, as well as Hezbollah, will have to ponder the dire consequences that could stem from pushing it any further should they not get all they want from the current dialogue.

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