Friday, February 10, 2006

Real test coming up

FEARS were running high in Lebanon in the latter half of January that the country was edging towards renewed civil strife after five Shiite ministers representing the pro-Syrian Hizbollah and Amal Movement stayed away from the cabinet insisting that Hizbollah be recognised as national resistance. The implication was that Hizbollah, if deemed as national resistance and not defined as a militia, need not be disarmed under a UN Security Council resolution. The problem was ended in early February when the anti-Syrian Lebanese government reaffirmed that Hizbollah was part of national resistance, and the Shiite ministers returned to work. However, the crisis brought out the real colours of the politics of Lebanon and sparked fears of armed confrontation between rival groups. Those fears were further fuelled when a mob attacked the Danish consulate in protest against cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed last week and also targeted a Christian church in the area. The situation was defused with the timely intervention of Muslim leaders.
Then came the bang, but of a peaceful nature, the next day. Christian leader and former army general Michel Aoun, an avowed anti-Syrian, and Hizbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah met and announced a de facto alliance that also signalled that Aoun was breaking away from the anti-Syrian camp. The Aoun-Hizbollah alliance is now deemed to have the potential to be more influential and powerful than the so-called March 14 anti-Syrian alliance that is now leading the government.
The question now raised by many is: Can the Aoun-Hizbollah alliance stand the test of time, particularly given that it has been forged just ahead of a by-election for a parliament seat?
A close reading between the lines of a 10-point joint statement Aoun and Nasrallah issued after their ground-breaking meeting and their subsequent comments clearly shows that the alliance would hold. After all, Aoun is aspiring to be the next president of Lebanon and Nasrallah has pledged him Hizbollah support in the bid, and the Shiite leader needs Aoun to defend and protect, among other things, the group's status as national resistance and its right to keep its arms by virtue of that definition.
In any event, fears of renewed civil strife are fading, and Lebanese politics have come out with a different hue. However, the real test will pose itself when the US steps up pressure as it pursues its effort to disarm Hizbollah in order to serve the broader American strategy in the Middle East and to remove the group as a source of potential threat to Israel, the staunchest American ally in the region.