May 14, 2008
A deadly miscalculation in Lebanon
By Sami Moubayed
DAMASCUS – The Lebanese government made a fatal underestimation of how far leaders of the Shi’ite group Hezbollah would go to preserve what they believe are their rights, such as an intelligence network and the freedom to carry weapons.
The result is at least 81 people dead in clashes across the country since violence erupted on May 6; a political and military victory for Hezbollah and Iran and a stinging setback for the government and Saudi Arabia.
The crises was sparked last week in Beirut when the government of Prime Minister Fouad al-Siniora ordered the communication and surveillance network at Runway 17 of Beirut Airport be dismantled, claiming it was “illegal and unconstitutional”.
The decision was taken at a cabinet meeting on May 6 that lasted until 4 am, lobbied for by Telecommunications Minister Marwan Hamadeh. The network is one of the primary espionage tools used by Hezbollah in its war against Israel, keeping tabs on comings and goings at Beirut Airport.
Adding insult to injury, the Lebanese government dismissed Wafiq Shuqayr, the Shi’ite security commander of the airport, for planting the system in accordance with Hezbollah’s wishes, supposedly behind the back of Siniora.
Hezbollah cried foul, claiming the network had been in place for years, adding that dismantling it was a red line because otherwise Beirut Airport would be “transformed into a base for the the CIA, the FBI and Mossad, referring to American and Israeli intelligence.
Hezbollah secretary general Hasan Nasrallah spoke just hours after the crisis started, saying the communication system and Shuqyar were “red lines” that could not be crossed. He reminded his audience that when Siniora became prime minister in 2005, one of the main points of his political program was “supporting the resistance” and giving it (Hezbollah) a free hand to wage its “war of liberation” against Israel in any way it saw fit.
Veteran Shi’ite cleric Abdul-Amir Qabalan, deputy chairman of the Higher Shi’ite Council, contacted the Lebanese government and advised it to back down, warning that Nasrallah must not be provoked and that he would not stand by and watch his security system being torn down. Qabalan said, “Touching this [communication] system affects our nationalism, integrity and loyalty to the nation.”
The government refused to change course, arguing that security must be monopolized by the state and that it was inconceivable that a non-state party like Hezbollah could run a parallel security system at Beirut Airport.
In this stubbornness, the government failed to anticipate the value Hezbollah places on what it believed its key rights. Worse, Defense Minister Elias al-Murr, Interior Minister Hasan al-Sabe and Public Persecutor Said Mirza were tasked to create a team to look into other security violations committed by Hezbollah.
Engineering the escalation was Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, a one-time Nasrallah friend now turned enemy, who knew that within 48 hours the United Nations Security Council was due to discuss resolution 1559, regarding the disarmament of Hezbollah, which has yet to be fully implemented.
Nasrallah angrily replied that “we will cut the arm” of whoever tries to dismantle the arms of Hezbollah, claiming that security networks were weapons, just like missiles and guns. He then reminded that in the past, he would always say that “our weapons will never be used internally”, but this time he warned that “weapons will be used to guard weapons”.
He was not understating the situation. By the evening of May 7, all hell had broken lose in Beirut.
Hezbollah troops took to the streets of the capital and were confronted by armed men loyal to parliamentary majority leader Saad al-Hariri and Druze leader Jumblatt. Road blocks were set up all over the city, bringing back haunting memories of the 17-year civil war that ended in 1990, and snipers showed up on rooftops.
The Hariri-led March 14 Coalition cried foul, claiming that Hezbollah had launched a coup and taken over the (in the lightening speed of six hours). Parallels were drawn between Hezbollah’s behavior in Beirut and the Hamas takeover of Gaza in 2007.
Nasrallah denied a coup was in the making, saying, “Had we wanted a coup, they [government leaders] would have woken up to find themselves in jail, or [thrown) in the sea.”
Hezbollah fighters did storm entire neighborhoods of Beirut loyal to Hariri, aided by Amal militiamen loyal to the Shi’ite speaker of parliament, Nabih Berri, an ally of Nasrallah. The poor training and weaponry of the Hariri team was no match for the sophisticated war machine of Hezbollah, which managed to ward off a massive Israeli attack in 2006.
So amateurish were Hariri’s men that it almost seemed as if they had no arms at all. They were round up in hours, disarmed and handed over to the Lebanese army. Rather than take control of the districts – to prove that this was not a coup – Hezbollah fighters called up the army, a third party, asking it to take control.
Vandalism did take place, and so did an ugly exchange of words between Hezbollah’s team, who are all Shi’ite, and Hariri’s men, who are all Sunnis. One of the most telling acts was shutting down all of Hariri’s media outlets, which were very active in spreading anti-Hezbollah propaganda, including Future TV, Future News, Orient Radio and Future Newspaper. All of these were taken over by Hezbollah and then handed to the army, yet hoodlums did manage to break into Future TV and set one floor ablaze.
Many saw this as a proxy war between the Saudi Arabia-backed March 14 Coalition and the Iran-backed Hezbollah. Telecommunications Minister Hamadeh said the entire crisis was the doing of Tehran. His boss, Jumblatt, went even further, asking for the expulsion of the Iranian ambassador from Beirut.
Jumblatt’s tone changed, however, 48 hours into the confrontation, when the fighting ended in Beirut and shifted to Druze villages overlooking the Lebanese capital. Hezbollah fighters surrounded his palace in Beirut, near the American University of Beirut, but did not invade. It was clear for Jumblatt, one of the United States’ main and newfound allies in Lebanon, that it was pointless to resist Hezbollah.
Jumblatt got on the phone with Nabih Berri, the Nasrallah-allied speaker of parliament, and said, “I am a hostage now in my home in Beirut. Tell Sayed Hasan Nasrallah I lost the battle and he wins. So let’s sit and talk to reach a compromise. All that I ask is your protection.”
Nasrallah and Jumblatt had been good friends and strong allies during the heyday of the Syrian presence in Lebanon. The Druze leader had positioned himself as one of the main protectors of Hezbollah arms throughout the 1990s. A political animal, however, he changed sides when it was clear the Syrians had fallen out with Washington after the Iraq war and he transformed himself into one of the loudest critics of Syrian power in Beirut.
He put his full bet on the Americans, patched up with the George W Bush White House (which he had once accused of staging the September 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington) and became an aggressive critic of Nasrallah. In his speech on the eve of hostilities, Nasrallah said that the plan to transform Beirut Airport into a base for the US Central Intelligence Agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Mossad was the brainchild of “the government of Walid Jumblatt”.
Intense fighting between Druze forces and Shi’ite militiamen raged on in the villages of Shouf, the towns of Aley and Shuwayfat, raising red sirens throughout Lebanon. This is where heavy fighting had taken place in the civil war – and although the war ended nearly 20 years ago – the wounds have not healed.
Two Hezbollah members were killed in the Druze districts, and another disappeared, prompting Jumblatt to give an urgent press conference, accepting blame for the entire ordeal and calling on his troops to lay down their arms, avoid a sectarian outburst, and transfer order of the districts to the Lebanese army.
Jumblatt added, “I must admit that the Iranians are smart and they knew how to play it in Lebanon. They chose a time when the US is weak in the Middle East and did it.”
Calm was restored to Beirut when the government, with as much face-saving as possible, revoked its earlier decisions by transferring the issue of the communication system, and the security commander of Beirut Airport, to the army. Instead of executing the orders Army Commander Michel Suleiman, a neutral third party, declared both null. It is still unclear if the Siniora cabinet will issue a formal apology for its actions, as the Hezbollah-led opposition is requesting.
Regardless, it was a political and military victory for Hezbollah.
The March 14 claims it was a moral victory for itself as well, saying that they had helped prevent a civil war by backing down on their earlier legislation. To date, while fighting continues in the Druze mountains, and has even reached as far north as Tripoli, the government has not resigned. Not even has Interior Minister Hassan al-Sabe, who is a member of March 14.
Rumors circulated in Beirut that Siniora wanted to step down when the fighting was at its peek, but was prevented from doing so by Saudi Arabia. The Saudis, enraged by what was happened in Beirut, realized that Iran – and the Syrians – had taken the upper hand in Beirut.
True, Hezbollah has restored all “occupied” districts to the army, but it is clear they were far superior in power, training, arms and logistics to Saudi Arabia’s proxies in Lebanon. Additionally, they have done it once. Nothing prevents them from doing it again at any time the Saudi-backed government tries to dismantle, crush or curb Hezbollah’s influence.
When a coup is not a coup
Speaking at the southern village of Bint Jbeil in 2005, Nasrallah once said, “There is talk of disarming the resistance. Any thought of disarming the resistance is pure madness. We do not want to attack anyone. We have never done so. And we will never allow anyone to attack Lebanon. But if anyone, no matter who, even thinks about disarming the resistance, we will fight him like the martyr-seekers in Karbala.”
That sums it up. Nasrallah will not allow anybody to touch the arms of Hezbollah and is willing to fight to maintain his status, and that of his party, in the Arab-Israeli conflict. His supporters argue that as a pragmatic leader, and a cunning statesman who excels in psychological warfare, he does not want to rule Beirut.
He is neither interested nor politically able (although it would be easy, in military terms). He realizes that the confessional system of Lebanon is too complicated for such a task, and said it bluntly last Wednesday, “If they told us to come take over, we would say ‘no thank you’.”
Had he wanted a real coup, he would not have transferred control to the Lebanese army, nor would he have laid down his arms in Beirut. He would have invaded and stormed the homes of Jumblatt and Hariri and arrested both of them, along with Siniora, and set up a new government, to his liking, and to that of Iran. But that is an illogical scenario that would never pass.
What he did last week in Beirut was show his power – flex his muscles – and tell the world, “I am still here. Still in control and still powerful – or as some would say, king – in Lebanese politics.”
It was a rude wake-up call to all those who imagined he would never go this far to bring his message to the region and the international community