Monday, March 14, 2005

Hizbollah factor

March 13 2005

The Hizbollah factor
pv vivekanand

In a show of strength Hizbollah organised a massive demonstration in Beirut on Tuesday. Its leader, Sheikh Hussein Nasrallah, is reportedly planning repeat rallies on Friday in Sidon in the south and in Tripoli in the north and on Monday in the Christian town of Dakhla on March 18. Obviously, the group is putting up a show of strength in a signal that although Syria is withdrawing its military forces from Beirut and its environs to the eastern Bekaa Valley -- and eventually across the border -- there is no scaling down of the Syrian influence in Lebanese politics. And that is worrying the Lebanese and people in the rest of the region.

No doubt, Hizbollah, which has proved itself to be pragmatic, does not want to rekindle the civil war by violently challenging the opposition grouping of a certain segment of the Sunni community led by Hariri's heirs, the Druze led by Walid Junblatt and the Maronite Christians led by Archbishop Nasrallah Sfeir.

Obviously, Hizbollah knows that it would have to take on the combined strength of the US, Israel and the Lebanese opposition if it were to start off a violent confrontation. At the same time, it cannot afford to let the opposition project an image that the Sunni-Druze-Maronite alliance represents the majority of Lebanese population.

No doubt, Iran, a close ally of Syria, played a key role in influencing the Hizbollah leadership to adopt a clear pro-Syrian political position in the crisis triggered by the Hariri assassination, where the opposition, backed by the US and France, is accusing Damascus of orchestrating the killing.

At the same time, Hizbollah cannot but be aware that if it allows the pro-American camp to assume the upper hand in Lebanese affairs, then it is inevitable that it would be one of the first targets for crackdown. Hizbollah would be asked to disarm its fighters and also face immense pressure to dilute its influence in the daily life of the Shiites in the country. That could come through state intervention in the affairs of the schools, hospitals and other organisations it runs for the Shiite community. If Hizbollah allows that to happen, its leaders believe, then it is the end of the group as a strong political force in Lebanon. Therefore, it has to stick with Syria.

Stepping up pressure

For good measure in their effort to keep the pressure mounting, the US and Israel have also accused Syria of harbouring the Palestinian group Islamic Jihad, which has claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing in Tel Aviv.

Damascus has rejected the allegations as unfounded, but it could not resist the American and UN pressure on it to withdraw from Lebanon, and hence the redeployment to the Bekaa Valley.

Syrian President Bashar Al Assad is trying to find a face-saving formula by showing that he is not succumbing to pressure. Hence there is only the redeployment and not a clear announcement of withdrawal of the forces to Syrian territory across the border. He is also trying to remove any justification for a possible isolation of his country through UN sanctions that could lead to external military intervention. Such action would not stop at nothing but "regime change" in Damascus -- an avowed objective of the pro-Israeli neo-conservative camp in Washington.

Obviously, Assad knows that his immediate move in Lebanon would be adjudged as "half measure" and would be rejected by the US and the Lebanese opposition. That is the reason for his comment during the announcement in parliament this week that "I know that the minute I finish this speech, they will say it is not enough. So I say it now: It is not enough."

Indeed, these are polemics. The reality on the ground is fraught with dangers.

It is very difficult for the Syrians to accept that they have to end their domination of Lebanon or face serious consequences. At the same time, Damascus has realised that the Bush administration would not let it off the hook. Even a complete Syrian departure from Lebanon would not lead to any easing of the American pressure. Assad is fully aware that Washington would not give him peace unless of course he sacrifices whatever Syria holds dear and near to itself as a staunch Arab nationalist and leader of the Arab struggle against Israel. Once that happens, then Syria would be forced into a corner and asked to sign on the dotted line of a peace accord with Israel where it would have to make major compromises over the Golan Heights.

Assad was hoping for Arab support in his stand-off with the US, but he found that Saudi Arabia and Egypt, the two Arab giants, urging him to withdraw his forces from Syria as the best option. Syria's neighbour Jordan also joined the call; so did his staunchest ally, Russia.

Dignified withdrawal

The Arab summit, scheduled to be held in Algiers on March 22 and 23, could come up with a formula that allows Syria to withdraw with some semblance of dignity. After all, it was under an Arab League mandate that Syria sent soldiers to Lebanon which was then in the throes of a civil war.

Again, the US might not want to allow Syria to retain any dignity if only because the American-Israeli gameplan is to strip Damascus of whatever "strategic assets" it might think it has. This includes the country's status as the last hold-out against Israel's expansionist ambitions in the region.

Indeed, Syria could, to a large extent, count on Iran as an ally, but the Iranians themselves are under immense US-led international pressure over their alleged plans to develop nuclear weapons.

Israeli intelligence reports -- "leaked" to the public domain -- allege that Syria has created joint units with Iranians and they are deployed in key points of Lebanon. The reports also allege that Iran has set up several radar stations in Lebanese territory in order to give the Syrians advance warning of any external military incursion.

According to a website (, which claims to carry Israeli "intelligence" findings, Iranian forces were airlifted to Syria on Feb.20, the same day that US President George W. Bush flew to meetings with European leaders.

"They were the tail end of the biggest military airlift Iran has launched in the Middle East to date. Its objective was to set up shared Iranian-Syrian safeguards against attacks on the Islamic Republic's nuclear installations and/or Syrian strategic targets," says the website.

"The fleet of Iranian military transports secretly off loaded complete elite units for operating, maintaining and guarding a sophisticated system of Iranian electronic warning stations, radar networks and anti-aircraft missiles to be deployed in Syria and Lebanon," it says. "More than 1,000 Iranian soldiers and technicians and 600 Revolutionary Guards commandos took up positions on the South Lebanese border with Israel, along the Syrian-Israeli Golan frontier to the south and up Syria's Mediterranean coastline to the west. They also spread out along Syria's northeastern frontier with Iraqi Kurdistan and its southern border with Iraq's Al Qaim and Al Anbar provinces."

Syria is purportedly hoping that the pressure would shift to Tehran and Hizbollah when the US seeks to evict the Iranian forces allegedly present in Lebanon and this would allow Damascus some breathing space.

However, Washington is moving fast ahead with efforts for Syria's total international isolation. Reports say that US National Security Council head Stephen Hadley has notified European Washington-based envoys of moves to cut off Damascus' international banking ties and the flow of international funds to and from Syria through Lebanese banks. The volume of these transfers is such that it could bankrupt Syria, according to the reports.

UN Middle East envoy Terje Roed-Larsen is visiting Europe, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and other Arab countries to finalise the US-Arab-European consensus on international sanctions against Syria, say reports.

Larsen will also visit Damascus next week to give the Syrian government a "last chance" to implement Security Council Resolution 1559 of September 2004 in full, or else face up to UN sanctions. French President Jacques Chirac has already ordered French ties with Damascus severed at all government levels.

Fears among opposition

The Lebanese opposition is also aware of the emerging dangers. All it might need is a carefully executed bomb attack to trigger off violent confrontation between Hizbollah and the opposition and it is not a secret that Israel has often resorted to such actions while arranging pointing fingers at the Lebanese themselves.

Junblatt, the Druze leader, is seeking to strengthen the international pressure on Syria by inviting more involvement by the European Union as well as Moscow.

At the same time, clearly keeping the risk factors in mind, he is also seeking a dialogue with Hizbollah.

"We are a democratic country. They have demonstrated their stand, they are part of the Lebanese. Hizbollah is part of the Lebanon," he said after talks with EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana.

"I do thank them because they have raised the Lebanese flag. So we have something in common. And this is why we should engage in dialogue."

Junblatt is hoping to get rid of the Syrians before general elections in May where he hopes that the opposition will put up a showing strong enough to form a government.

How far Hizbollah is willing to go in making a compromise in its position will be crucial to determining the course of events in Lebanon. If the Iranians and Syrians are determined to prevent, directly or indirectly, a dilution of their influences in Lebanese affairs, then Hizbollah would reflect that, but then it would become obvious that Damascus is not willing to let go of Lebanon. What happens next is anyone's guess, but the people of Lebanon, perfectly aware of the pitfalls of a violent confrontation, are smarter now than they were during the years of the civil war.

A compromise has to be found among the Lebanese themselves, but will the US and Israel step back from the kill that they have been waiting for long?