Lebanon will not become the next Gaza.
Commenters both inside and outside the country compared Hezbollah’s invasion of West Beirut last week to the Hamas takeover of Gaza last year, which is perhaps understandable: that’s what it looked like. If Lebanon‘s mainstream Sunni-dominated party–Saad Hariri’s Future Movement–has a militia that is able and willing to fight, it didn’t make much of an appearance. Hezbollah seized the western half of the city in a walk. Most journalists focused on this portion of the conflict because West Beirut is where almost every journalist in Lebanon lives and where almost every hotel for visiting journalists is located.
Far less attention has been paid to Hezbollah’s military and strategic failure in the Chouf mountains southeast of Beirut where Lebanon‘s Druze community lives. Hezbollah picked a major fight there and lost. After three days of pitched battles, its gunmen were unable to conquer a single village–even when they brought out mortars and heavy artillery.
The Druze are among the fiercest of warriors, and everyone in Lebanon knows it. They are well-known in Israel, too, where they often serve in elite units of the Israel Defense Forces and suffer lower-than-average casualty rates in battles with Hezbollah and Palestinian terrorist groups. Most of Israel‘s Sunni Arabs abstain from military service, but Druze Arabs are as loyal to the Israeli state, and are as willing and able to fight for it, as their Lebanese counterparts are in their own country. There’s a reason two of the Middle East’s religious minorities–Maronite Christians and Druze–live in Lebanon‘s mountains in significant numbers: attempts to invade and subjugate them are ill-advised, very likely to fail, and therefore rarely attempted by even large armies.
It’s debatable whether or not Lebanon‘s Sunnis are organized and well-armed or not. Certainly they are not compared to Hezbollah. No one in Lebanon is. But Druze chief Walid Jumblatt’s Progressive Socialist Party proved they have no shortage of weapons, and they fought off Hezbollah’s invasion even though he told them not to. A tiny percentage of Druze are partially loyal to Talal Arslan, Hezbollah’s only Druze ally, but they defected in large numbers when Hezbollah launched its attack. They fought on the same side as the rest of their community. Political alliances have their limits, and Arslan’s people and Hezbollah discovered theirs. It is now almost safe to say that Hezbollah has no friends at all in the mountains overlooking the dahiyeh, their “capital” and command and control center in the suburbs south of Beirut.
Lebanon‘s mainstream Sunnis in relatively liberal and cosmopolitan West Beirut basically threw up their hands and let Hezbollah take over, in part because they were ill-prepared to do much about it, and in part to make their Hezbollah enemies look like the aggressors and thugs that they are. Don’t expect that dynamic to last very long if the violence resumes, however. The Sunnis, as a community, are likely to follow the Druze example even if their leaders–Prime Minister Fouad Seniora and Future Movement MP Saad Hariri–instruct them not to. Former Prime Minister Omar Karami is one of Hezbollah’s few Sunni allies. But as Lee Smith pointed out, he “told Hezbollah that if this becomes a sectarian fight, then we have two choices: to either stay home, or fight with our sect.”
Former Lebanese MP Khaled Al-Dhaher went even further. “Since the army and the security forces are incapable of defending our sons, our religion, our faith, and our liberty,” he said, “we in the Islamic Gathering have decided to launch a national-Islamic resistance, in order to protect Lebanon and defend its people, and in order to prevent the Persian enterprise from getting its clutches on an Arab capital, because the people who have occupied Beirut belong to the Persian-Iranian army.”
That sounds ominous, and it is. Most Lebanese Sunnis are willing to support liberal leaders like Siniora and Hariri only if they are not in danger. The notorious terrorist group Fatah Al Islam–or whatever is left of it after its drubbing last year by the Lebanese Army –just issued a statement and said they will stand by Lebanon‘s Sunnis if they are attacked. The last thing Lebanon needs are Sunni and Shia terrorists slugging it out in the streets, but that’s where the country is headed.
Lebanon‘s Christians have so far sat out the fighting. They might continue to do so for a short while if they are not attacked, but they also might not. Most are aligned with the Sunni and Druze parties against Hezbollah. Free Patriotic Movement leader Michel Aoun has been hemorrhaging Maronite Christian supporters thanks to his unpopular and cynical alliance with Hezbollah, and he will likely lose almost all of them if Christian cities or neighborhoods are invaded. Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah knows this very well, which is so far why all Christian areas have been spared from fighting.
Nasrallah has far more enemies than friends in Lebanon, but that doesn’t mean he can be defeated. The Israel Defense Force is the toughest and most sophisticated military force in the region, yet its soldiers were not able to crush Hezbollah in the July War of 2006, nor during their occupation of South Lebanon that lasted throughout the 1990’s. Hezbollah’s Lebanese enemies are the weakest in the region. No one should expect them to fare better than the Israelis.
Still, Hezbollah is a guerrilla army, not an occupation force. Counterinsurgency is not in its toolbox. Hassan Nasrallah will have a rude awakening if he tries to emulate Hamas in Gaza and seize the whole country. “No victor, no vanquished” is the rule Lebanese live by in both politics and war, and every faction that has ever tried to dominate Lebanon has learned it the hard way. Whether Nasrallah has learned this near-iron law from the mistakes of others isn’t yet clear, but the stiff resistance his men faced in the Chouf, and the recent ominous threats from radical Sunnis, should give him pause at the least. Fifteen years of civil war (1975 to 1990) proved that no one in Lebanon is strong enough to hold the country together or utterly defeat their enemies.
Nasrallah can bully the Lebanese government and render it effectively obsolete, at least on foreign policy questions, but he cannot conquer and administer the entire country himself. Unless the Syrian military returns in full force, Lebanon‘s future will not be one of dictatorship. Its future most likely will resemble its past–a grim stalemate of schism and internal war.