Commentary Magazine


Topic: Saad Hariri

Who Is Najib Miqati?

So Hezbollah did it. Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri has been replaced with Najib Miqati, a man billed as a “compromise” leader who is time zones away from being a Hezbollah member but who nevertheless agrees with Hezbollah on the few things — which ultimately add up to everything — that matter most.

Miqati says he’s an independent centrist who disagrees with Hezbollah as much as he disagrees with everyone else in Lebanon. I believe him, actually, so long as he’s referring to the number of things he disagrees with Hezbollah about. He’s a Sunni and therefore obviously not a cheerleader for the parochial Shia sectarian interests that Hezbollah champions. There’s no chance he endorses the Iranian government’s reigning ideology of Velayat-e faqih, the totalitarian theocratic system Hezbollah would love to impose on Lebanon if it had the strength — which it doesn’t. Miqati is a billionaire businessman and does not even remotely share Hezbollah’s cartoonish paranoia about global capitalism and how it’s supposedly a nefarious Jewish-American plot.

What Miqati will do, however, is safeguard “the resistance,” as he has promised — meaning he won’t ask Hezbollah to hand over its weapons to the authorities — which is one of only two things Hezbollah requires of him. The second is repudiate the United Nations Special Tribunal for Lebanon. Everyone now expects the tribunal to indict Hezbollah for the assassination of the Sunni former prime minister Rafik Hariri, an event that may severely damage Hezbollah’s standing in the majority-Sunni Arab world even if it does have a prominent Sunni willing to provide some cover.

Hezbollah also needs, and will get, the same from Lebanon’s Christian president Michel Suleiman. Anything else these two leaders do in their official capacities is irrelevant from Hezbollah’s perspective.

Lebanon won’t likely ever resemble Gaza, which is under the complete control of an Islamist terrorist army. Hamas rules that beleaguered territory as the virtual Taliban of the eastern Mediterranean, but the Lebanese will blow their country to hell and gone all over again before submitting to something like that. Hezbollah knows it, as do the Syrians and the Iranians. They also know, or at least think they know, that they can bully the rest of the country into surrendering on the two most crucial items on its agenda, the ones that give Hezbollah the latitude to do whatever it wants in the Shia-majority areas that it does control directly.

We’re about to find out if that’s actually true. We’ll also most likely find out how true it remains if Israel takes the gloves off the next time there’s war.

So Hezbollah did it. Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri has been replaced with Najib Miqati, a man billed as a “compromise” leader who is time zones away from being a Hezbollah member but who nevertheless agrees with Hezbollah on the few things — which ultimately add up to everything — that matter most.

Miqati says he’s an independent centrist who disagrees with Hezbollah as much as he disagrees with everyone else in Lebanon. I believe him, actually, so long as he’s referring to the number of things he disagrees with Hezbollah about. He’s a Sunni and therefore obviously not a cheerleader for the parochial Shia sectarian interests that Hezbollah champions. There’s no chance he endorses the Iranian government’s reigning ideology of Velayat-e faqih, the totalitarian theocratic system Hezbollah would love to impose on Lebanon if it had the strength — which it doesn’t. Miqati is a billionaire businessman and does not even remotely share Hezbollah’s cartoonish paranoia about global capitalism and how it’s supposedly a nefarious Jewish-American plot.

What Miqati will do, however, is safeguard “the resistance,” as he has promised — meaning he won’t ask Hezbollah to hand over its weapons to the authorities — which is one of only two things Hezbollah requires of him. The second is repudiate the United Nations Special Tribunal for Lebanon. Everyone now expects the tribunal to indict Hezbollah for the assassination of the Sunni former prime minister Rafik Hariri, an event that may severely damage Hezbollah’s standing in the majority-Sunni Arab world even if it does have a prominent Sunni willing to provide some cover.

Hezbollah also needs, and will get, the same from Lebanon’s Christian president Michel Suleiman. Anything else these two leaders do in their official capacities is irrelevant from Hezbollah’s perspective.

Lebanon won’t likely ever resemble Gaza, which is under the complete control of an Islamist terrorist army. Hamas rules that beleaguered territory as the virtual Taliban of the eastern Mediterranean, but the Lebanese will blow their country to hell and gone all over again before submitting to something like that. Hezbollah knows it, as do the Syrians and the Iranians. They also know, or at least think they know, that they can bully the rest of the country into surrendering on the two most crucial items on its agenda, the ones that give Hezbollah the latitude to do whatever it wants in the Shia-majority areas that it does control directly.

We’re about to find out if that’s actually true. We’ll also most likely find out how true it remains if Israel takes the gloves off the next time there’s war.

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Obama’s Moment to Redefine the Modern Middle East

Somehow it’s hard to get too worked up about the formalized rituals of the State of the Union when real news is happening half a world away. In the Middle East, revolutions, for good and for ill, are breaking out, while back in Washington, President Obama is touting the latest clean-energy boondoggles. All he had to say about the ongoing, exciting events was one line: “the United States of America stands with the people of Tunisia, and supports the democratic aspirations of the people.” What about the people of Lebanon? Or of Egypt? Don’t they deserve support too? And don’t the Tunisians battling for democracy against the security forces of the old regime deserve more than a throwaway line near the end of an hour-long address?

It is quite possible, even likely, that recent upheavals will amount to little. Many people, myself included, got our hopes up in 2005 when the Cedar Revolution overthrew Syrian domination in Lebanon and the people of Iraq turned out in droves to vote. Those hopes were swiftly dashed; indeed, this week the representative of the Cedar Revolution, Saad Hariri, ignominiously lost the prime minister’s job as Hezbollah and its patrons in Syria and Iran flexed their muscles. But it is also possible — not likely but possible — that the toppling of the Tunisian regime could have a ripple effect in this sclerotic region. This could be the most important moment for American diplomacy since the toppling of the Berlin Wall.

Certainly there is little precedent for the mass outpouring of protest in Egypt against the Mubarak regime, which is just as decrepit as was the Ben Ali regime in Tunisia. The stakes in Egypt, however, are much higher, given that it’s much bigger than Tunisia and has a much larger, active Muslim Brotherhood that could take advantage of chaos to seize power.

At a moment like this, it would be comforting to see in the Oval Office an old diplomatic hand like George H.W. Bush — and I say this as someone who was never a big fan of the elder Bush. I do think, however, that despite some missteps (google the Chicken Kiev speech if you’re under 40), he did a brilliant job of managing a volatile situation. I do not mean to slight the contributions of brave dissidents or even of Mikhail Gorbachev, but nevertheless, the creation of democracies across Eastern Europe is in substantial measure the legacy of Ronald Reagan and his predecessors going back to Truman, who confronted the “evil empire,” and of Bush the Elder, who skillfully managed its dissolution. Read More

Somehow it’s hard to get too worked up about the formalized rituals of the State of the Union when real news is happening half a world away. In the Middle East, revolutions, for good and for ill, are breaking out, while back in Washington, President Obama is touting the latest clean-energy boondoggles. All he had to say about the ongoing, exciting events was one line: “the United States of America stands with the people of Tunisia, and supports the democratic aspirations of the people.” What about the people of Lebanon? Or of Egypt? Don’t they deserve support too? And don’t the Tunisians battling for democracy against the security forces of the old regime deserve more than a throwaway line near the end of an hour-long address?

It is quite possible, even likely, that recent upheavals will amount to little. Many people, myself included, got our hopes up in 2005 when the Cedar Revolution overthrew Syrian domination in Lebanon and the people of Iraq turned out in droves to vote. Those hopes were swiftly dashed; indeed, this week the representative of the Cedar Revolution, Saad Hariri, ignominiously lost the prime minister’s job as Hezbollah and its patrons in Syria and Iran flexed their muscles. But it is also possible — not likely but possible — that the toppling of the Tunisian regime could have a ripple effect in this sclerotic region. This could be the most important moment for American diplomacy since the toppling of the Berlin Wall.

Certainly there is little precedent for the mass outpouring of protest in Egypt against the Mubarak regime, which is just as decrepit as was the Ben Ali regime in Tunisia. The stakes in Egypt, however, are much higher, given that it’s much bigger than Tunisia and has a much larger, active Muslim Brotherhood that could take advantage of chaos to seize power.

At a moment like this, it would be comforting to see in the Oval Office an old diplomatic hand like George H.W. Bush — and I say this as someone who was never a big fan of the elder Bush. I do think, however, that despite some missteps (google the Chicken Kiev speech if you’re under 40), he did a brilliant job of managing a volatile situation. I do not mean to slight the contributions of brave dissidents or even of Mikhail Gorbachev, but nevertheless, the creation of democracies across Eastern Europe is in substantial measure the legacy of Ronald Reagan and his predecessors going back to Truman, who confronted the “evil empire,” and of Bush the Elder, who skillfully managed its dissolution.

Unfortunately, instead of someone like Bush, who had served as an ambassador, CIA director, and vice president, we have in the Oval Office a president with no foreign-policy credentials. This president seems to think that the entire region revolves around the moribund Israeli-Palestinian “peace process.” Already Obama missed a crucial opportunity in the summer of 2009 to encourage the Green Revolution in Iran. Let us hope that will be a learning experience. This time around, we need a president fully engaged in the moment — a president who will speak for the aspirations of the people of the Middle East (more than one line, please), while also working to provide a soft landing for longtime dictators and to ensure that radicals don’t seize power.

For all his lack of experience, Obama is no newcomer to the job. He is a fast learner, and he has a gift for rhetoric the likes of which always eluded George H.W. Bush. This may very well be his moment: the moment for redefining the modern Middle East. He should seize it — if he’s not too distracted with the domestic priorities that as usual dominated the State of the Union.

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Lebanon: An Inflection Point for the Status Quo

The stakes are as high as they could possibly be in Lebanon: Hezbollah, the terrorist group backed by Iran, has obtained coalition approval to nominate its own candidate for prime minister as a replacement for Saad Hariri. (Hezbollah’s first choice, Omar Karami, declined to accept the nomination, so the group has moved on to another “consensus” candidate, Najib Mikati.) If this nomination goes forward and the installation of a new government can be enforced, the Hezbollah-led coalition will rule Lebanon.

Hezbollah is overlaying the process — in effect, an unfolding coup — with a veneer of parliamentary order. This isn’t fooling the Lebanese, who were out in force Monday protesting the move. But has it muted the Obama administration? We may well wonder. On Thursday, the brief comment on Lebanon by State Department spokesman Philip Crowley featured this disingenuous assessment: “There’s a constitutional process underway.” On Monday, the U.S. issued a narrow ––and pointless — warning about American support being “difficult” to continue if Hezbollah assumes a dominant role in the government.

The crucial element in Lebanon’s current crisis will be what the U.S. and the West do about Hezbollah’s power move. This hinge point is crucial not merely because it affects the future of Lebanon and the stability of the Levant, but because its outcome, one way or another, will be a signal to everyone around the globe who has plans to challenge the status quo. Analogies between the Cold War and today’s confrontation with organized Islamism are notoriously inexact, but Hezbollah’s move this month has many features in common with the political subversion campaigns that were the hallmark of Soviet-backed Marxist factions from the 1940s to the 1970s.

In this context, there is a poignant rumor being reported in Arab press that highlights one particular aspect of the West’s current posture. According to this blogger’s quote of a Kuwaiti daily, two “Western” aircraft carriers have been urgently dispatched from the Persian Gulf to the waters off Lebanon. Citing an EU official, the referenced news report offers completely unrealistic numbers (including “210 fighter jets”) for the force supposedly converging on the Eastern Mediterranean. The only realistic aspect of the report is that there have been, in fact, two Western carriers in the Gulf region: USS Abraham Lincoln and the French carrier Charles de Gaulle. Read More

The stakes are as high as they could possibly be in Lebanon: Hezbollah, the terrorist group backed by Iran, has obtained coalition approval to nominate its own candidate for prime minister as a replacement for Saad Hariri. (Hezbollah’s first choice, Omar Karami, declined to accept the nomination, so the group has moved on to another “consensus” candidate, Najib Mikati.) If this nomination goes forward and the installation of a new government can be enforced, the Hezbollah-led coalition will rule Lebanon.

Hezbollah is overlaying the process — in effect, an unfolding coup — with a veneer of parliamentary order. This isn’t fooling the Lebanese, who were out in force Monday protesting the move. But has it muted the Obama administration? We may well wonder. On Thursday, the brief comment on Lebanon by State Department spokesman Philip Crowley featured this disingenuous assessment: “There’s a constitutional process underway.” On Monday, the U.S. issued a narrow ––and pointless — warning about American support being “difficult” to continue if Hezbollah assumes a dominant role in the government.

The crucial element in Lebanon’s current crisis will be what the U.S. and the West do about Hezbollah’s power move. This hinge point is crucial not merely because it affects the future of Lebanon and the stability of the Levant, but because its outcome, one way or another, will be a signal to everyone around the globe who has plans to challenge the status quo. Analogies between the Cold War and today’s confrontation with organized Islamism are notoriously inexact, but Hezbollah’s move this month has many features in common with the political subversion campaigns that were the hallmark of Soviet-backed Marxist factions from the 1940s to the 1970s.

In this context, there is a poignant rumor being reported in Arab press that highlights one particular aspect of the West’s current posture. According to this blogger’s quote of a Kuwaiti daily, two “Western” aircraft carriers have been urgently dispatched from the Persian Gulf to the waters off Lebanon. Citing an EU official, the referenced news report offers completely unrealistic numbers (including “210 fighter jets”) for the force supposedly converging on the Eastern Mediterranean. The only realistic aspect of the report is that there have been, in fact, two Western carriers in the Gulf region: USS Abraham Lincoln and the French carrier Charles de Gaulle.

But the days when the Western navies had plenty of carriers to move around from crisis to crisis are behind us. Two carriers may be in the Mediterranean shortly, but not because they were urgently dispatched. Abraham Lincoln is tethered to our requirements in Southwest Asia; USS Enterprise, on the way to relieve Lincoln on-station, is transiting through the Mediterranean. Charles de Gaulle, France’s only aircraft carrier, has been scheduled since her deployment in October to return home in February.

NATO’s non-U.S. carrier force is razor thin. Charles de Gaulle’s departure from France last fall was marred by a breakdown that delayed this very rare deployment by several weeks. Britain, once a reliable dispatcher of aircraft carriers, is in worse shape: just this weekend, the Royal Navy sent its last fighter-jet carrier, HMS Ark Royal, to be decommissioned. Britain won’t have a carrier that can deploy fighter jets again until 2020. In this capability, Italy now outstrips Britain: the Italians have two carriers that can each transport eight Harrier jump-jets. Spain has one.

For the U.S., as for France, putting a carrier off Lebanon entails rigorously prioritizing crises: either leaving some unattended or accepting schedule gaps down the road. With enough effort, the U.S. and France could still seek to affect the outcome in Lebanon with an offshore show of force. But the regional expectation implied by the Arab press rumor — the sense that Western navies can easily bring overwhelming force to a crisis — is outdated today.

Margin and latitude in our force options are casualties of the extended post–Cold War drawdown. At a juncture evocative of previous dilemmas for U.S. presidents, Obama would do better to take his cue from Harry Truman in the late 1940s than from Jimmy Carter in the late 1970s. One way or another, this crisis in Lebanon will have a disproportionate impact on the future.

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The Fall of Beirut

Lebanon’s Druze leader Walid Jumblatt now says he “supports” Hezbollah and the ghastly regime in Syria that murdered his father and his friend Rafik Hariri. Hezbollah’s fan boys should not kid themselves here. Jumblatt is under duress and is only saying what he must to ensure his own survival and that of his people.

Saad Hariri remains defiant, but Michael Young — the best analyst of Lebanon’s internal politics — thinks he probably won’t return as prime minister. If that’s the case, Lebanon’s Cedar Revolution is well and truly cooked. Beirut is being cleverly reconquered by Damascus and Tehran, and is rejoining, against its will, the Iran-led Resistance Bloc.

Everybody in Lebanon needs to understand something: Israel is more likely than ever to target the entire country during the next round of conflict. Not since 1948 has Israel fought a war against the Lebanese government; its wars in Lebanon have always been waged against terrorist organizations that were beyond the control of the state.

But if Hezbollah leads the government, the government will be a legitimate target. That’s how it works. Regime-change in Lebanon would have been an insane policy with Hariri’s March 14 coalition in charge, but it won’t be if Hezbollah is calling the shots.

The next war will almost certainly be bloodier than the last.

Lebanon’s Druze leader Walid Jumblatt now says he “supports” Hezbollah and the ghastly regime in Syria that murdered his father and his friend Rafik Hariri. Hezbollah’s fan boys should not kid themselves here. Jumblatt is under duress and is only saying what he must to ensure his own survival and that of his people.

Saad Hariri remains defiant, but Michael Young — the best analyst of Lebanon’s internal politics — thinks he probably won’t return as prime minister. If that’s the case, Lebanon’s Cedar Revolution is well and truly cooked. Beirut is being cleverly reconquered by Damascus and Tehran, and is rejoining, against its will, the Iran-led Resistance Bloc.

Everybody in Lebanon needs to understand something: Israel is more likely than ever to target the entire country during the next round of conflict. Not since 1948 has Israel fought a war against the Lebanese government; its wars in Lebanon have always been waged against terrorist organizations that were beyond the control of the state.

But if Hezbollah leads the government, the government will be a legitimate target. That’s how it works. Regime-change in Lebanon would have been an insane policy with Hariri’s March 14 coalition in charge, but it won’t be if Hezbollah is calling the shots.

The next war will almost certainly be bloodier than the last.

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Lebanese Must Do More to Help Themselves

So Hezbollah fears the United Nations tribunal investigating the murder of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri in 2005. That is the obvious implication of its decision to withdraw its ministers from the Lebanese government in protest of what are said to be upcoming indictments that could link the Party of God to the murder of the most acclaimed  and successful political leader in Lebanon’s recent history. All the more reason for the U.S. and our allies to support the tribunal and the embattled prime minister of Lebanon, Rafki’s son, Saad Hariri, in their commitment to see justice done.

Not that Hariri has much of a choice. As my colleague Elliott Abrams notes on his terrific new blog: “If Hariri complies with Hizballah’s demands, he is in my view finished as a national and as a Sunni leader, having compromised his own, his family’s, and his country’s honor.” Actually, it’s not even clear that he could comply with Hezbollah’s demands, since he does not control the UN tribunal.

In any case, Lebanon is now in the midst of its umpteenth political crisis, and we have little choice but to hang tough even if there is little we can do to affect the outcome. Hezbollah is well-armed by Syria and Iran. It is undoubtedly the strongest military force in the entire country — stronger than the Lebanese armed forces. It could perhaps be defeated by a Sunni-Druze-Christian coalition with American-French-Israeli support, but the result would be to propel the country back into the throes of civil war — something no one wants.

But the desire to avert civil war can also work against Hezbollah because it constrains its ability to use force against its internal opponents. Its supporters were willing to go on a rampage in Beirut in 2008, but it is not clear how much further they will decide to go. Moreover, Hezbollah obviously feels vulnerable if it is so concerned about the rumored indictments from the UN. That can give leverage to the many Lebanese who do not want to be dominated indefinitely by this Iranian-backed terrorist organization. But to effectively resist Hezbollah will first of all require a united front from the opposition, something that has been hard to come by in Lebanon’s fractious politics, where Hezbollah has even succeeded in forging an unlikely alliance with the Christian general Michel Aoun. It is hard for outsiders to help the Lebanese unless they do more to help themselves.

So Hezbollah fears the United Nations tribunal investigating the murder of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri in 2005. That is the obvious implication of its decision to withdraw its ministers from the Lebanese government in protest of what are said to be upcoming indictments that could link the Party of God to the murder of the most acclaimed  and successful political leader in Lebanon’s recent history. All the more reason for the U.S. and our allies to support the tribunal and the embattled prime minister of Lebanon, Rafki’s son, Saad Hariri, in their commitment to see justice done.

Not that Hariri has much of a choice. As my colleague Elliott Abrams notes on his terrific new blog: “If Hariri complies with Hizballah’s demands, he is in my view finished as a national and as a Sunni leader, having compromised his own, his family’s, and his country’s honor.” Actually, it’s not even clear that he could comply with Hezbollah’s demands, since he does not control the UN tribunal.

In any case, Lebanon is now in the midst of its umpteenth political crisis, and we have little choice but to hang tough even if there is little we can do to affect the outcome. Hezbollah is well-armed by Syria and Iran. It is undoubtedly the strongest military force in the entire country — stronger than the Lebanese armed forces. It could perhaps be defeated by a Sunni-Druze-Christian coalition with American-French-Israeli support, but the result would be to propel the country back into the throes of civil war — something no one wants.

But the desire to avert civil war can also work against Hezbollah because it constrains its ability to use force against its internal opponents. Its supporters were willing to go on a rampage in Beirut in 2008, but it is not clear how much further they will decide to go. Moreover, Hezbollah obviously feels vulnerable if it is so concerned about the rumored indictments from the UN. That can give leverage to the many Lebanese who do not want to be dominated indefinitely by this Iranian-backed terrorist organization. But to effectively resist Hezbollah will first of all require a united front from the opposition, something that has been hard to come by in Lebanon’s fractious politics, where Hezbollah has even succeeded in forging an unlikely alliance with the Christian general Michel Aoun. It is hard for outsiders to help the Lebanese unless they do more to help themselves.

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Why Mahmoud Abbas Cannot Make Peace

Once in a while, I “meet” someone online, on blogs and in comment sections, who thinks the current round of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks might end the conflict, but I don’t think I know anyone in person who lives in the Middle East who believes this. Palestinian journalist Khaled Abu Toameh summed up the consensus view a few days ago. “The peace process is going nowhere,” he wrote, “and everyone is just pretending.”

Nations make peace with their enemies, and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas — also known as Abu Mazen — is not really Israel’s enemy. He’s hardly a friend or an ally, but the Israeli army and Abbas’s security forces have a better and more professional working relationship with each other right now than they ever have. Even Israel’s hard-line foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, doesn’t think of Abbas as the leader of the enemy camp. “I repeat,” he said a few weeks ago, “Abu Mazen will not fight us.”

Israel’s enemy is the Resistance Bloc consisting of Syria, Iran, Hamas, and Hezbollah. No one from that bloc is participating in peace talks. Even if Abbas signed a treaty with Israel — a most unlikely event while Hamas holds a gun to his head and even he refuses to recognize Israel as a Jewish state — it would only mean the war between Israel and Abbas was over. But that war is effectively, though perhaps just temporarily, over already. Not much would actually change. The Arab-Israeli conflict would rage on, as would the Islamist-Israeli conflict. Not even the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would end if Abbas signed a treaty. He couldn’t enforce it.

“By being forced out of the Gaza Strip,” Toameh wrote, “Abbas lost direct control over some 1.5 million Palestinians, roughly half the Palestinians living in the Palestinian territories. … So if Abbas cannot go to the Gaza Strip and has limited control over the West Bank, where is he supposed to implement a peace agreement? In downtown Ramallah? In Tel Aviv?”

The only reason he retains even limited authority is because he extended his expired term in office and is propped up by Israel. He has no authority whatsoever in Gaza and lacks even influence in Lebanon, Syria, and Iran.

If the Iran-led Resistance Bloc was wounded or crumbling, if it was under irresistible pressure from within and without to reform or die, a deal might be possible and would be worth exploring. But that’s not what’s happening. None of the bloc’s leaders will even start peace talks, let alone finish them, while they’re rising in power and have no need to change.

Just a few years ago, Hamas was but one force among several in Gaza, but today it rules with a totalitarian fist. Syria and Hezbollah have seized de facto control over Lebanon, despite Hezbollah’s poor performance in the recent election, while Iran is nearing the threshold of becoming a nuclear-armed regional superpower.

If Abbas had the authority of the Jordanian and Egyptian governments, he might be able to force a cold peace on his people, but he doesn’t. The Resistance Bloc has successfully embedded itself in the Palestinian population and rules roughly half of it. Hamas would simply ignore any treaty Abbas might sign and continue its war against Israel, just as Hezbollah does whatever it wants up north in Lebanon. Abbas can’t put a stop even to his own part of this region-wide conflict any more than Saad Hariri in Beirut can end his.

Once in a while, I “meet” someone online, on blogs and in comment sections, who thinks the current round of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks might end the conflict, but I don’t think I know anyone in person who lives in the Middle East who believes this. Palestinian journalist Khaled Abu Toameh summed up the consensus view a few days ago. “The peace process is going nowhere,” he wrote, “and everyone is just pretending.”

Nations make peace with their enemies, and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas — also known as Abu Mazen — is not really Israel’s enemy. He’s hardly a friend or an ally, but the Israeli army and Abbas’s security forces have a better and more professional working relationship with each other right now than they ever have. Even Israel’s hard-line foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, doesn’t think of Abbas as the leader of the enemy camp. “I repeat,” he said a few weeks ago, “Abu Mazen will not fight us.”

Israel’s enemy is the Resistance Bloc consisting of Syria, Iran, Hamas, and Hezbollah. No one from that bloc is participating in peace talks. Even if Abbas signed a treaty with Israel — a most unlikely event while Hamas holds a gun to his head and even he refuses to recognize Israel as a Jewish state — it would only mean the war between Israel and Abbas was over. But that war is effectively, though perhaps just temporarily, over already. Not much would actually change. The Arab-Israeli conflict would rage on, as would the Islamist-Israeli conflict. Not even the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would end if Abbas signed a treaty. He couldn’t enforce it.

“By being forced out of the Gaza Strip,” Toameh wrote, “Abbas lost direct control over some 1.5 million Palestinians, roughly half the Palestinians living in the Palestinian territories. … So if Abbas cannot go to the Gaza Strip and has limited control over the West Bank, where is he supposed to implement a peace agreement? In downtown Ramallah? In Tel Aviv?”

The only reason he retains even limited authority is because he extended his expired term in office and is propped up by Israel. He has no authority whatsoever in Gaza and lacks even influence in Lebanon, Syria, and Iran.

If the Iran-led Resistance Bloc was wounded or crumbling, if it was under irresistible pressure from within and without to reform or die, a deal might be possible and would be worth exploring. But that’s not what’s happening. None of the bloc’s leaders will even start peace talks, let alone finish them, while they’re rising in power and have no need to change.

Just a few years ago, Hamas was but one force among several in Gaza, but today it rules with a totalitarian fist. Syria and Hezbollah have seized de facto control over Lebanon, despite Hezbollah’s poor performance in the recent election, while Iran is nearing the threshold of becoming a nuclear-armed regional superpower.

If Abbas had the authority of the Jordanian and Egyptian governments, he might be able to force a cold peace on his people, but he doesn’t. The Resistance Bloc has successfully embedded itself in the Palestinian population and rules roughly half of it. Hamas would simply ignore any treaty Abbas might sign and continue its war against Israel, just as Hezbollah does whatever it wants up north in Lebanon. Abbas can’t put a stop even to his own part of this region-wide conflict any more than Saad Hariri in Beirut can end his.

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No U.S. Cash for Hezbollah’s Lebanese Army Allies

Last week, the Lebanese army, apparently acting in concert with Hezbollah terrorists, launched a sneak attack on Israeli soldiers who were clearing away a tree on their own side of the border. One Israeli officer was killed in cold blood, and another was wounded. Israel’s response to this provocation was restrained; it merely returned fire on the Lebanese army, killing two soldiers and one Hezbollah-affiliated “journalist” who had come to the border specifically to observe the hit on the Israelis. But while even the anti-Israel United Nations peacekeeping force Unifil agreed that the Lebanese fired first and attacked Israelis on Israeli soil, the international community had little to say about this incident. Western nations, including the United States, are worried that speaking up about this will undermine the government of Prime Minister Saad Hariri.

Syrian agents murdered Hariri’s father in 2005, and protests against this act led to the Cedar Revolution, in which the Syrians were chucked out of the country. But since that signal victory for the West, the Syrians and their Hezbollah allies have won back control over the country. Hariri is now forced to accept a role that his father rejected: a vassal of Damascus and an ally of Hezbollah, which now has a place in his cabinet. As last week’s incident proved, the Lebanese army, once thought to be the lever by which the country could be pried from the grip of Syria, is now in cahoots with Hezbollah. Yet it is still in line to be the recipient of U.S. aid, approved in the days when Lebanon and its army were thought to be allies of the West against Islamist terrorism.

The State Department says it is still trying to investigate the incident and whether it is true that the Lebanese used weapons sent by the United States to shoot at Israel. But at least some members of Congress are paying attention.

Rep. Nita Lowey, the New York Democrat who chairs the House appropriations subcommittee on foreign aid, announced today that she is putting a hold on the $100 million allocated to be sent to the Lebanese army in 2010 but which has not yet been disbursed. Lowey says she wants to see how Lebanon and the Hariri government respond to the incident before this money or the $100 million Lebanon is supposed to get in 2011 is sent to Beirut. House Republican Whip Rep. Eric Cantor called for the aid pipeline to the Lebanese army to be stopped altogether, noting rightly that the line between that army and the Hezbollah terrorists had become blurred.

Instead of pretending as if the Cedar Revolution had not been annulled while both the Bush and Obama governments slept, the administration should be following the lead of Lowey and Cantor. As Evelyn noted, not only did Hariri falsely claim that Israel fired first but his government is also now not even recognizing the international border with Israel. Rather than playing along with the fiction that U.S. aid to Lebanon would fund an army that would be a check on Hezbollah, under the current arrangement Washington is helping to pay for the terrorist group’s fellow killers. That must end, and Lebanon — and Hariri — must be put on notice that there is a price to be paid for carrying out cross-border murders at Hezbollah’s behest.

Last week, the Lebanese army, apparently acting in concert with Hezbollah terrorists, launched a sneak attack on Israeli soldiers who were clearing away a tree on their own side of the border. One Israeli officer was killed in cold blood, and another was wounded. Israel’s response to this provocation was restrained; it merely returned fire on the Lebanese army, killing two soldiers and one Hezbollah-affiliated “journalist” who had come to the border specifically to observe the hit on the Israelis. But while even the anti-Israel United Nations peacekeeping force Unifil agreed that the Lebanese fired first and attacked Israelis on Israeli soil, the international community had little to say about this incident. Western nations, including the United States, are worried that speaking up about this will undermine the government of Prime Minister Saad Hariri.

Syrian agents murdered Hariri’s father in 2005, and protests against this act led to the Cedar Revolution, in which the Syrians were chucked out of the country. But since that signal victory for the West, the Syrians and their Hezbollah allies have won back control over the country. Hariri is now forced to accept a role that his father rejected: a vassal of Damascus and an ally of Hezbollah, which now has a place in his cabinet. As last week’s incident proved, the Lebanese army, once thought to be the lever by which the country could be pried from the grip of Syria, is now in cahoots with Hezbollah. Yet it is still in line to be the recipient of U.S. aid, approved in the days when Lebanon and its army were thought to be allies of the West against Islamist terrorism.

The State Department says it is still trying to investigate the incident and whether it is true that the Lebanese used weapons sent by the United States to shoot at Israel. But at least some members of Congress are paying attention.

Rep. Nita Lowey, the New York Democrat who chairs the House appropriations subcommittee on foreign aid, announced today that she is putting a hold on the $100 million allocated to be sent to the Lebanese army in 2010 but which has not yet been disbursed. Lowey says she wants to see how Lebanon and the Hariri government respond to the incident before this money or the $100 million Lebanon is supposed to get in 2011 is sent to Beirut. House Republican Whip Rep. Eric Cantor called for the aid pipeline to the Lebanese army to be stopped altogether, noting rightly that the line between that army and the Hezbollah terrorists had become blurred.

Instead of pretending as if the Cedar Revolution had not been annulled while both the Bush and Obama governments slept, the administration should be following the lead of Lowey and Cantor. As Evelyn noted, not only did Hariri falsely claim that Israel fired first but his government is also now not even recognizing the international border with Israel. Rather than playing along with the fiction that U.S. aid to Lebanon would fund an army that would be a check on Hezbollah, under the current arrangement Washington is helping to pay for the terrorist group’s fellow killers. That must end, and Lebanon — and Hariri — must be put on notice that there is a price to be paid for carrying out cross-border murders at Hezbollah’s behest.

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Let Them Meet Steel

As Noah pointed out yesterday, Syria is now being credibly accused of shipping Scud missiles with a range of more than 430 miles to Hezbollah, placing Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and the Dimona nuclear power plant inside the kill zone. Lebanon’s Prime Minister Saad Hariri has been forced under duress to visit Damascus and make amends with his father’s assassins, as has Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, effectively terminating whatever independence Lebanon scratched out for itself in 2005. At the same time, Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad contemptuously taunts the president of the United States, whom he clearly perceives as a pushover. “American officials bigger than you,” he said of President Obama’s attempts to talk him out of developing nuclear weapons, “more bullying than you, couldn’t do a damn thing, let alone you.”

Yet the Obama administration still seems to think engagement with Syria and the suggestion of possible sanctions against Iran may keep the Middle East from boiling over.

President George W. Bush lost a lot of credibility when the civil war and insurgency in Iraq made a hash of his policy there. It was eventually obvious to just about everyone that something different needed to happen, and fast. Replacing the top brass in the field with General David Petraeus and his like-minded war critics just barely saved Iraq and American interests from total disaster. The president himself never fully recovered.

If Obama’s squishy policies are misguided, as I think they are, it’s less obvious. The Middle East isn’t on fire as it was circa 2005. But it should be apparent that, at some point, all the pressure that’s building up will have to go somewhere. When and how is anyone’s guess, but there’s little chance it’s just going to dissipate or be slowly released during peace talks.

The Iranian-led resistance bloc is becoming better armed and more belligerent by the month. And the next round of conflict could tear up as many as six regions at the same time if everyone pulls out the stops. A missile war sparked between Hezbollah and Israel, for instance, could easily spread to Gaza, Syria, Iran, and even Iraq.

Even if it’s only half as bad as all that, we should still brace ourselves for more mayhem and bloodshed than we saw during the recent wars in Gaza and Lebanon. Israelis may show a lot less restraint if skyscrapers in Tel Aviv are exploding. Iran might even fire off some of its own if the leadership thinks Israel lacks the resources or strength to fight on too many fronts. The United States could be drawn in kicking and screaming, but resistance-bloc leaders have every reason to believe it won’t happen, that the U.S. is more likely to zip flex cuffs on Jerusalem.

I’m speculating, of course. The future is forever unknowable, and none of this is inevitable. An unexpected event — such as the overthrow of Ali Khamenei in Tehran — could change everything. A real-world conflict would take on a life of its own anyway that no one could predict or control.

What is clear, however, is that Syria, Iran, and Hezbollah are hurtling ever closer to the brink. They’re acting as though they’re figuratively following Vladimir Lenin’s advice: “Probe with a bayonet. If you meet steel, stop. If you meet mush, then push.”

I doubt most residents of South Lebanon believe in their bones that they won the war against Israel in 2006. I’ve been down there several times since. Entire neighborhoods were utterly pulverized. Hezbollah’s Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah, though, has touted his own “divine victory” so many times he may have convinced himself. Even if he knows he lost the last round, he has dug in with a much more formidable arsenal for the next one. As scholar Jonathan Spyer wrote not long ago, Hezbollah is “in a state of rude health. It is brushing aside local foes, marching through the institutions, as tactically agile as it is strategically deluded.”

It is also utterly unhinged ideologically. Let’s not forget what Christopher Hitchens saw at a rally last year in the suburbs south of Beirut commemorating its slain commander Imad Mugniyeh. “A huge poster of a nuclear mushroom cloud surmounts the scene,” he wrote, “with the inscription OH ZIONISTS, IF YOU WANT THIS TYPE OF WAR THEN SO BE IT!”

The Israelis may well decide they’d rather fight a bad war now than a worse one later. Their enemies can afford to lose wars because Israel isn’t out to destroy their countries. No Israeli believes Syria or Iran shouldn’t exist. Israel, meanwhile, can barely afford to lose small wars. And the resistance bloc is boldly threatening and preparing for one of the most ambitious and destructive wars yet.

There’s only so much President Obama can do about this, but he’s lucky, even so, in a small way. The Middle East isn’t burning right now as it was during the Bush years. He can change course without having to pay a butcher’s bill first if he starts thinking seriously about deterrence as well as engagement. Let the resistance bloc see glints of steel once in a while instead of just mush — and not only for the sake of the people who live there. Our own national interests are at stake, and so is his political hide. Iran’s leaders would savor few things more than a second Democratic president’s scalp.

As Noah pointed out yesterday, Syria is now being credibly accused of shipping Scud missiles with a range of more than 430 miles to Hezbollah, placing Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and the Dimona nuclear power plant inside the kill zone. Lebanon’s Prime Minister Saad Hariri has been forced under duress to visit Damascus and make amends with his father’s assassins, as has Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, effectively terminating whatever independence Lebanon scratched out for itself in 2005. At the same time, Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad contemptuously taunts the president of the United States, whom he clearly perceives as a pushover. “American officials bigger than you,” he said of President Obama’s attempts to talk him out of developing nuclear weapons, “more bullying than you, couldn’t do a damn thing, let alone you.”

Yet the Obama administration still seems to think engagement with Syria and the suggestion of possible sanctions against Iran may keep the Middle East from boiling over.

President George W. Bush lost a lot of credibility when the civil war and insurgency in Iraq made a hash of his policy there. It was eventually obvious to just about everyone that something different needed to happen, and fast. Replacing the top brass in the field with General David Petraeus and his like-minded war critics just barely saved Iraq and American interests from total disaster. The president himself never fully recovered.

If Obama’s squishy policies are misguided, as I think they are, it’s less obvious. The Middle East isn’t on fire as it was circa 2005. But it should be apparent that, at some point, all the pressure that’s building up will have to go somewhere. When and how is anyone’s guess, but there’s little chance it’s just going to dissipate or be slowly released during peace talks.

The Iranian-led resistance bloc is becoming better armed and more belligerent by the month. And the next round of conflict could tear up as many as six regions at the same time if everyone pulls out the stops. A missile war sparked between Hezbollah and Israel, for instance, could easily spread to Gaza, Syria, Iran, and even Iraq.

Even if it’s only half as bad as all that, we should still brace ourselves for more mayhem and bloodshed than we saw during the recent wars in Gaza and Lebanon. Israelis may show a lot less restraint if skyscrapers in Tel Aviv are exploding. Iran might even fire off some of its own if the leadership thinks Israel lacks the resources or strength to fight on too many fronts. The United States could be drawn in kicking and screaming, but resistance-bloc leaders have every reason to believe it won’t happen, that the U.S. is more likely to zip flex cuffs on Jerusalem.

I’m speculating, of course. The future is forever unknowable, and none of this is inevitable. An unexpected event — such as the overthrow of Ali Khamenei in Tehran — could change everything. A real-world conflict would take on a life of its own anyway that no one could predict or control.

What is clear, however, is that Syria, Iran, and Hezbollah are hurtling ever closer to the brink. They’re acting as though they’re figuratively following Vladimir Lenin’s advice: “Probe with a bayonet. If you meet steel, stop. If you meet mush, then push.”

I doubt most residents of South Lebanon believe in their bones that they won the war against Israel in 2006. I’ve been down there several times since. Entire neighborhoods were utterly pulverized. Hezbollah’s Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah, though, has touted his own “divine victory” so many times he may have convinced himself. Even if he knows he lost the last round, he has dug in with a much more formidable arsenal for the next one. As scholar Jonathan Spyer wrote not long ago, Hezbollah is “in a state of rude health. It is brushing aside local foes, marching through the institutions, as tactically agile as it is strategically deluded.”

It is also utterly unhinged ideologically. Let’s not forget what Christopher Hitchens saw at a rally last year in the suburbs south of Beirut commemorating its slain commander Imad Mugniyeh. “A huge poster of a nuclear mushroom cloud surmounts the scene,” he wrote, “with the inscription OH ZIONISTS, IF YOU WANT THIS TYPE OF WAR THEN SO BE IT!”

The Israelis may well decide they’d rather fight a bad war now than a worse one later. Their enemies can afford to lose wars because Israel isn’t out to destroy their countries. No Israeli believes Syria or Iran shouldn’t exist. Israel, meanwhile, can barely afford to lose small wars. And the resistance bloc is boldly threatening and preparing for one of the most ambitious and destructive wars yet.

There’s only so much President Obama can do about this, but he’s lucky, even so, in a small way. The Middle East isn’t burning right now as it was during the Bush years. He can change course without having to pay a butcher’s bill first if he starts thinking seriously about deterrence as well as engagement. Let the resistance bloc see glints of steel once in a while instead of just mush — and not only for the sake of the people who live there. Our own national interests are at stake, and so is his political hide. Iran’s leaders would savor few things more than a second Democratic president’s scalp.

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Assad Returns as the Strong Horse

As Jonathan noted yesterday, Lebanese Prime Minster Saad Hariri just spent two days with Syrian strongman Bashar Assad in Damascus, and you’d think from reading the wire reports that Lebanon and Syria had re-established normal relations after a rough patch. That’s how it’s being reported, but it’s nonsense. Hariri went to Damascus with Hezbollah’s bayonet in his back.

Assad’s regime assassinated Saad Hariri’s father, Rafik, in 2005 for just gingerly opposing Syria’s occupation of Lebanon. There is no alternate universe where Saad Hariri is OK with this or where his generically “positive” statements at a press conference were anything other than forced.

I was invited to dinner at Hariri’s house earlier this year and had a long and frank discussion about politics with him and some colleagues. I can’t quote him because the meeting was off the record, but trust me: the man is no friend of the Syrian government or Hezbollah, and it’s not just because someone in that crowd killed his father. His political party, the Future Movement, champions liberalism and capitalism, the very antithesis of what is imposed in Syria by Assad’s Arab Socialist Baath party regime and the totalitarian Velayat-e Faqih ideology enforced by the Khomeinists in Iran and in the Hezbollah-occupied regions of Lebanon.

Hezbollah and its sponsors in Tehran and Damascus have forced Hariri to do a number of things lately — to give it veto power in his government’s cabinet and to surrender to its continuing existence as a warmongering militia that threatens to blow up the country again by picking fights with the Israelis. Read More

As Jonathan noted yesterday, Lebanese Prime Minster Saad Hariri just spent two days with Syrian strongman Bashar Assad in Damascus, and you’d think from reading the wire reports that Lebanon and Syria had re-established normal relations after a rough patch. That’s how it’s being reported, but it’s nonsense. Hariri went to Damascus with Hezbollah’s bayonet in his back.

Assad’s regime assassinated Saad Hariri’s father, Rafik, in 2005 for just gingerly opposing Syria’s occupation of Lebanon. There is no alternate universe where Saad Hariri is OK with this or where his generically “positive” statements at a press conference were anything other than forced.

I was invited to dinner at Hariri’s house earlier this year and had a long and frank discussion about politics with him and some colleagues. I can’t quote him because the meeting was off the record, but trust me: the man is no friend of the Syrian government or Hezbollah, and it’s not just because someone in that crowd killed his father. His political party, the Future Movement, champions liberalism and capitalism, the very antithesis of what is imposed in Syria by Assad’s Arab Socialist Baath party regime and the totalitarian Velayat-e Faqih ideology enforced by the Khomeinists in Iran and in the Hezbollah-occupied regions of Lebanon.

Hezbollah and its sponsors in Tehran and Damascus have forced Hariri to do a number of things lately — to give it veto power in his government’s cabinet and to surrender to its continuing existence as a warmongering militia that threatens to blow up the country again by picking fights with the Israelis.

Hariri and his allies in parliament resisted an extraordinary amount of pressure on these points for months before caving in, but cave in they did. They didn’t have much choice. The national army isn’t strong enough to disarm Hezbollah, and unlike Iran’s tyrant Ali Khamenei, Hariri doesn’t have his own private army. Hezbollah militiamen surrounded his house last year and firebombed his TV station when the government shut down its illegal surveillance system at the airport. At the end of the day, Hariri has to do what Hezbollah and its friends say unless someone with a bigger stick covers his back when push comes to shove.

No one has Hariri’s or Lebanon’s back, not anymore. He and his allies in the “March 14″ coalition have sensed this for some time, which is why Druze leader Walid Jumblatt has grudgingly softened his opposition to Assad and Hezbollah lately. When Hariri went to Damascus, everyone in the country, aside from useless newswire reporters, understood it meant Syria has re-emerged as the strong horse in Lebanon.

Walid Jumblatt is another member of what David Schenker calls the Murdered Fathers Club. Assad’s ruthless late father, Hafez Assad, put Jumblatt through a similarly gruesome experience back in the 70s during the civil war. First Assad murdered Walid’s father, Kamal, then summoned the surviving Jumblatt to Damascus and forced him to shake hands and pledge his allegiance. Who can even imagine what that must have felt like? Hariri knows now, and Jumblatt still tells everyone he meets all about it.

Hariri generally doesn’t like having long conversations with journalists on the record because he doesn’t want to calculate how everything he says will be simultaneously interpreted in Lebanon, Syria, Iran, Israel, the United States, France, and Saudi Arabia. I can’t say I blame him. He lives under virtual house arrest as it is, with barely more freedom of movement than Hassan Nasrallah. Here is something he said, though, back when it was safer for him to do so: “Action must be taken against Syria, like isolation, to make the Syrians understand that killing members of [Lebanon’s] parliament will have consequences.”

The U.S. and France did effectively isolate Assad with Saudi assistance when George W. Bush and Jacques Chirac were in charge, but presidents Barack Obama and Nicolas Sarkozy think they can save the Middle East by “engaging” its most toxic leaders. Syria, therefore, is no longer isolated. Lebanon’s little anti-Syrian government doesn’t stand a chance under these circumstances, especially not when Hezbollah is the dominant military power in the country.

“It’s a dangerous game these people are playing,” Lebanese activist and political analyst Eli Khoury said last time I spoke with him in Beirut, “but I think it’s only a matter of time until the newcomers burn their fingers with the same realities that we’ve seen over and over again. I’ve seen every strategy: Kissinger’s step-by-step approach, full engagement — which means sleeping with the enemy, basically — and the solid stand as with the Bush Administration. I’ve seen them all. The only one that works so far in my opinion, aside from some real stupid and dumb mistakes, is the severing of relationships. It made the Syrians behave.”

It did make the Syrians behave a bit for a while, but now the U.S., France, and Saudi Arabia are bringing Assad in from the cold and giving him cocoa. His influence, naturally, is rising again, in Lebanon and everywhere else. That’s good news for Hezbollah, of course, which means it’s also good news for Iran. It’s bad news for the Lebanese, the Americans, the French, the Saudis, and the Israelis. None of this was inevitable, but — in Lebanon, at least — it was predictable.

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Lebanon’s Third Civil War

The third civil war has begun in Lebanon.

The first war was a short one. Sunni Arab Nationalists in thrall to Egyptian dictator Gamal Abdel Nasser wanted to attach Lebanon to the United Arab Republic – a brief union of Egypt and Syria. An even larger bloc of Maronite Christians resisted. A nation cannot hold itself together when a large percentage of its population – roughly a third – wish to be annexed by foreign powers.

The second war was a long one. This time, Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian Liberation Organization formed a state-within-a-state in West Beirut and South Lebanon and used it as a launching pad for terrorist attacks against Israel. Again, Lebanon’s Christians resisted, as did Lebanon’s Shias. The second civil war was actually a series of wars that were merely triggered by that first fatal schism.

The third civil war resembles both the first and the second. With Iranian money and weapons, Hezbollah has built its own state-within-a-state in South Lebanon and South Beirut which is used as a base to wage war against Israel. Hezbollah also wishes to violently yank Lebanon from its current pro-Western alignment into the Syrian-Iranian axis. Roughly one-fourth of the population supports this agenda. No country on earth can withstand that kind of geopolitical tectonic pressure. For more than a year members of Hezbollah have tried unsuccessfully to topple the elected government with a minimal use of force, but their patience is at an end and they have turned to war.

My old liberal Sunni neighborhood of Hamra near the American University of Beirut – the best in the Middle East – is now occupied by the private army of a foreign police state. Masked gunmen take up positions in a neighborhood of five star hotels, restaurants, and cafes (including a Starbucks) where students like to hang out while reading books by authors like Jean Paul Sartre and Albert Camus. They burned down Prime Minister Fouad Seniora’s Future Movement headquarters building. They stormed the offices of TV and radio stations and threatened to dynamite the buildings if the reporters refused to stop broadcasting. They seized the property of Saad Hariri – son of the assassinated former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri – and they control all the exits. Member of Parliament Ammar Houry’s house is now occupied. Al Arabiya says they attacked the Ottoman-era Grand Serail, the current prime minister’s office.

Hezbollah used automatic weapons, mortars, rocket-propelled grenades, and sniper rifles to seize all, if not most, of West Beirut. The only weapons its gunmen haven’t deployed are its Katyusha rockets, which are useless in urban warfare, and car bombs, which aren’t.

“Hezbollah is not mounting a coup,” Charles Malik writes from Beirut at the Lebanese Political Journal. “They do not want to control ALL of Lebanon. They have no interest in controlling state institutions.”

This is mostly right. As long as Hezbollah gets what it wants, taking over all of Lebanon is unnecessary, as well as most likely impossible. But this is still a coup d’etat of a sort. What happened is, literally, a blow against the state. Until this week, Hezbollah existed both inside and beside the state. Hezbollah now exists above the state, the parliament, the police, and the army. No member of Hezbollah will be arrested or prosecuted as they would in a normal and properly sovereign country.

The army is too weak and divided along sectarian lines to protect Lebanon from internal or external threats. It was sabotaged for more than a decade during Syria’s military occupation and was staffed at the highest levels with Damascus loyalists who have yet to be purged. It is a make-believe army at best, and a part-time tool of the Syrian state at its worst.

The erstwhile prevailing mentality of fragile coexistence and anti-war has all but evaporated. The restrained rhetoric Lebanese people are accustomed to hearing from their leaders is gone. “We are in war and they wouldn’t be able to predict our reaction,” Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah said. “Hezbollah has gained control over Beirut,” said Member of Parliament Ahmad Fatfat, “and has caused a Sunni-Shia conflict that will be extended for years.” “If no compromise is reached, we will be facing a long internal war,” said Suleiman Franjieh, Jr., a former member of parliament and leader of the small Marada militia in North Lebanon aligned with Hezbollah and the Syrians.

Lebanon is a country based on consensus between its more or less demographically balanced Christians, Sunnis, and Shias, and its smaller population of Druze. No sect is allowed by law or social contract to rule over the others. The system, when it works, provides checks and balances. Hezbollah has overthrown all of it. And when the system is overthrown, as it has been in the past, Lebanese have demonstrated that they can and will fight as viciously as Iraqi militias in Baghdad. Lebanon has no shortage of people from every sect and most political movements who will fight dirty urban warfare with little regard for unarmed civilian noncombatants.

Though Hezbollah still occupies West Beirut, the city is reportedly calm at the moment – but don’t expect that to last long. Hezbollah is a Shia army in league with the Islamic Republic of Iran, while West Beirut is mostly made up of hostile Sunnis aligned with Saudi Arabia, France, and the United States. Lebanese blogger Mustafa at Beirut Spring put it plainly: “Expect the fight for Beirut to begin in earnest later with the distinct trademark of an occupied population: Hit and run.”

Even if Hezbollah does withdraw and real calm prevails in the near term, Lebanon has crossed a threshold from which there likely will be no recovery. Quiet may resume, but it will be the quiet of cold war rather than peace.

Hezbollah has always said its weapons were pointed only at Israel, though many knew better. Hezbollah even brags (although it’s not true) that they did not turn their weapons against Lebanese during the last civil war. Both of these lies have now been exposed before the whole world.

There may be lulls in the violence, but there will be no real peace in Lebanon until Hezbollah is disarmed or destroyed.

The third civil war has begun in Lebanon.

The first war was a short one. Sunni Arab Nationalists in thrall to Egyptian dictator Gamal Abdel Nasser wanted to attach Lebanon to the United Arab Republic – a brief union of Egypt and Syria. An even larger bloc of Maronite Christians resisted. A nation cannot hold itself together when a large percentage of its population – roughly a third – wish to be annexed by foreign powers.

The second war was a long one. This time, Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian Liberation Organization formed a state-within-a-state in West Beirut and South Lebanon and used it as a launching pad for terrorist attacks against Israel. Again, Lebanon’s Christians resisted, as did Lebanon’s Shias. The second civil war was actually a series of wars that were merely triggered by that first fatal schism.

The third civil war resembles both the first and the second. With Iranian money and weapons, Hezbollah has built its own state-within-a-state in South Lebanon and South Beirut which is used as a base to wage war against Israel. Hezbollah also wishes to violently yank Lebanon from its current pro-Western alignment into the Syrian-Iranian axis. Roughly one-fourth of the population supports this agenda. No country on earth can withstand that kind of geopolitical tectonic pressure. For more than a year members of Hezbollah have tried unsuccessfully to topple the elected government with a minimal use of force, but their patience is at an end and they have turned to war.

My old liberal Sunni neighborhood of Hamra near the American University of Beirut – the best in the Middle East – is now occupied by the private army of a foreign police state. Masked gunmen take up positions in a neighborhood of five star hotels, restaurants, and cafes (including a Starbucks) where students like to hang out while reading books by authors like Jean Paul Sartre and Albert Camus. They burned down Prime Minister Fouad Seniora’s Future Movement headquarters building. They stormed the offices of TV and radio stations and threatened to dynamite the buildings if the reporters refused to stop broadcasting. They seized the property of Saad Hariri – son of the assassinated former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri – and they control all the exits. Member of Parliament Ammar Houry’s house is now occupied. Al Arabiya says they attacked the Ottoman-era Grand Serail, the current prime minister’s office.

Hezbollah used automatic weapons, mortars, rocket-propelled grenades, and sniper rifles to seize all, if not most, of West Beirut. The only weapons its gunmen haven’t deployed are its Katyusha rockets, which are useless in urban warfare, and car bombs, which aren’t.

“Hezbollah is not mounting a coup,” Charles Malik writes from Beirut at the Lebanese Political Journal. “They do not want to control ALL of Lebanon. They have no interest in controlling state institutions.”

This is mostly right. As long as Hezbollah gets what it wants, taking over all of Lebanon is unnecessary, as well as most likely impossible. But this is still a coup d’etat of a sort. What happened is, literally, a blow against the state. Until this week, Hezbollah existed both inside and beside the state. Hezbollah now exists above the state, the parliament, the police, and the army. No member of Hezbollah will be arrested or prosecuted as they would in a normal and properly sovereign country.

The army is too weak and divided along sectarian lines to protect Lebanon from internal or external threats. It was sabotaged for more than a decade during Syria’s military occupation and was staffed at the highest levels with Damascus loyalists who have yet to be purged. It is a make-believe army at best, and a part-time tool of the Syrian state at its worst.

The erstwhile prevailing mentality of fragile coexistence and anti-war has all but evaporated. The restrained rhetoric Lebanese people are accustomed to hearing from their leaders is gone. “We are in war and they wouldn’t be able to predict our reaction,” Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah said. “Hezbollah has gained control over Beirut,” said Member of Parliament Ahmad Fatfat, “and has caused a Sunni-Shia conflict that will be extended for years.” “If no compromise is reached, we will be facing a long internal war,” said Suleiman Franjieh, Jr., a former member of parliament and leader of the small Marada militia in North Lebanon aligned with Hezbollah and the Syrians.

Lebanon is a country based on consensus between its more or less demographically balanced Christians, Sunnis, and Shias, and its smaller population of Druze. No sect is allowed by law or social contract to rule over the others. The system, when it works, provides checks and balances. Hezbollah has overthrown all of it. And when the system is overthrown, as it has been in the past, Lebanese have demonstrated that they can and will fight as viciously as Iraqi militias in Baghdad. Lebanon has no shortage of people from every sect and most political movements who will fight dirty urban warfare with little regard for unarmed civilian noncombatants.

Though Hezbollah still occupies West Beirut, the city is reportedly calm at the moment – but don’t expect that to last long. Hezbollah is a Shia army in league with the Islamic Republic of Iran, while West Beirut is mostly made up of hostile Sunnis aligned with Saudi Arabia, France, and the United States. Lebanese blogger Mustafa at Beirut Spring put it plainly: “Expect the fight for Beirut to begin in earnest later with the distinct trademark of an occupied population: Hit and run.”

Even if Hezbollah does withdraw and real calm prevails in the near term, Lebanon has crossed a threshold from which there likely will be no recovery. Quiet may resume, but it will be the quiet of cold war rather than peace.

Hezbollah has always said its weapons were pointed only at Israel, though many knew better. Hezbollah even brags (although it’s not true) that they did not turn their weapons against Lebanese during the last civil war. Both of these lies have now been exposed before the whole world.

There may be lulls in the violence, but there will be no real peace in Lebanon until Hezbollah is disarmed or destroyed.

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Things Get Worse in Lebanon

Things continue to heat up in Lebanon. This week Hezbollah gunmen seized control of large parts of Beirut, and today shut down the “Future News” television station , run by Saad Hariri, leader of the government-supporting majority party in parliament. Clashes have erupted between the Shi’ite terror group and militia forces loyal to the government, with Israel radio reporting at least 10 dead. As Noah Pollak reported below, the current battle began with the government’s decision to shut down Hezbollah’s private telephone network, which it set up with Iran; and to fire the head of security at Beirut’s airport, who is loyal to Hezbollah. The group’s head, Hassan Nasrallah, declared the government’s steps to be

a declaration of war and the launching of war by the government against the resistance and its weapons for the benefit of America and Israel.

Let’s hope he’s right. This high-stakes game may be Lebanon’s only hope for regaining its sovereignty, ending tension with Israel once and for all, rolling back Iran’s advances in the region, and building some form of coherent democratic life in the country. For decades, the country has acted as a staging ground for first Palestinian then Iranian-backed Shiite terror, with the south being transformed into a terror-state within a state. After the 2006 Lebanon war, the UN Security Council resolution 1701 called for “the disarmament of all armed groups in Lebanon, so that . . . there will be no weapons or authority in Lebanon other than that of the Lebanese State.” For Hezbollah, however, to disarm is to commit ideological suicide, so the only long-term solution is that they be disarmed by force.

Of course, if the government loses such a war, Lebanon as a whole turns into an Iranian satellite. This is not something the West can sit back and watch. With the U.S. distracted by an election, eyes will be turning to France, the former colonial power which still has deep ties in Lebanon. Let’s see what Sarkozy can come up with.

Things continue to heat up in Lebanon. This week Hezbollah gunmen seized control of large parts of Beirut, and today shut down the “Future News” television station , run by Saad Hariri, leader of the government-supporting majority party in parliament. Clashes have erupted between the Shi’ite terror group and militia forces loyal to the government, with Israel radio reporting at least 10 dead. As Noah Pollak reported below, the current battle began with the government’s decision to shut down Hezbollah’s private telephone network, which it set up with Iran; and to fire the head of security at Beirut’s airport, who is loyal to Hezbollah. The group’s head, Hassan Nasrallah, declared the government’s steps to be

a declaration of war and the launching of war by the government against the resistance and its weapons for the benefit of America and Israel.

Let’s hope he’s right. This high-stakes game may be Lebanon’s only hope for regaining its sovereignty, ending tension with Israel once and for all, rolling back Iran’s advances in the region, and building some form of coherent democratic life in the country. For decades, the country has acted as a staging ground for first Palestinian then Iranian-backed Shiite terror, with the south being transformed into a terror-state within a state. After the 2006 Lebanon war, the UN Security Council resolution 1701 called for “the disarmament of all armed groups in Lebanon, so that . . . there will be no weapons or authority in Lebanon other than that of the Lebanese State.” For Hezbollah, however, to disarm is to commit ideological suicide, so the only long-term solution is that they be disarmed by force.

Of course, if the government loses such a war, Lebanon as a whole turns into an Iranian satellite. This is not something the West can sit back and watch. With the U.S. distracted by an election, eyes will be turning to France, the former colonial power which still has deep ties in Lebanon. Let’s see what Sarkozy can come up with.

Read Less

Hezbollah and Mughniyeh

Hezbollah’s very public display of affection for assassinated terrorist Imad Mughniyeh represents a stunning about-face. As Martin Kramer notes on the Middle East Strategy at Harvard blog, Hezbollah has broken from previous denials regarding its connections to Mughniyeh, with Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah eulogizing him and a Hezbollah flag draping his coffin—clear symbols that Mughniyeh ranked highly in the Hezbollah chain. Indeed, its ties to Mughniyeh were so profound that Hezbollah appears prepared to fight Israel in response to his killing, hinting that it will attack Israeli interests abroad.

But Hezbollah isn’t the only Levantine player willing to engage Israel over Mughniyeh’s death. Yesterday, at a joint press conference with Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem declared, “Whoever assassinated Imad Mughniyeh has assassinated any peace efforts”—a statement clearly aimed at Israel. Critically, al-Moallem seemingly echoed Mottaki, who had proclaimed at Mughniyeh’s funeral earlier in the day, “The freedom-seeking nations … have millions of such fighters, who are ready to join the fight against the terrorists who perpetrate such the unmanly crimes.” Following the funeral, Mottaki had arrived in Damascus for “brotherly talks,” meeting with al-Moallem and Syrian President Bashar al-Asad to discuss the developing situation in Lebanon.

In the days and weeks ahead, it will be important to monitor whether Hezbollah-Syrian cooperation is strengthened as a result of their unified defiance in the wake of Mughniyeh’s assassination. Of course, sustained Iranian involvement makes this quite likely.

Still, domestic Lebanese politics could intervene and force Hezbollah to downplay its Damascus contacts. At a massive rally held to commemorate the third anniversary of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri’s assassination yesterday, Future Movement leader Saad Hariri castigated the Syrian regime as an “Israeli product.” Yet even as he lashed out against Syria—the regime that murdered his father—Hariri showed rare respect for Hezbollah, ending his rally at 2 PM so as to not interfere with Mughniyeh’s 2:30 funeral. Hariri further appealed to Hezbollah to negotiate a peaceful solution to the ongoing presidential crisis—a sharp break from his comments last week, when he accused the Hezbollah-led opposition of “destroying Lebanon.”

The big question is thus whether Hezbollah might see itself as having enough popular Lebanese support in the aftermath of Mughniyeh’s assassination to avoid relying on Damascus, a regime that is still reviled by a substantial portion of the population. Or, alternatively, Hezbollah could quickly return to Levantine politics as usual, taking its cues from Iran with Syria’s active consent.

Hezbollah’s very public display of affection for assassinated terrorist Imad Mughniyeh represents a stunning about-face. As Martin Kramer notes on the Middle East Strategy at Harvard blog, Hezbollah has broken from previous denials regarding its connections to Mughniyeh, with Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah eulogizing him and a Hezbollah flag draping his coffin—clear symbols that Mughniyeh ranked highly in the Hezbollah chain. Indeed, its ties to Mughniyeh were so profound that Hezbollah appears prepared to fight Israel in response to his killing, hinting that it will attack Israeli interests abroad.

But Hezbollah isn’t the only Levantine player willing to engage Israel over Mughniyeh’s death. Yesterday, at a joint press conference with Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem declared, “Whoever assassinated Imad Mughniyeh has assassinated any peace efforts”—a statement clearly aimed at Israel. Critically, al-Moallem seemingly echoed Mottaki, who had proclaimed at Mughniyeh’s funeral earlier in the day, “The freedom-seeking nations … have millions of such fighters, who are ready to join the fight against the terrorists who perpetrate such the unmanly crimes.” Following the funeral, Mottaki had arrived in Damascus for “brotherly talks,” meeting with al-Moallem and Syrian President Bashar al-Asad to discuss the developing situation in Lebanon.

In the days and weeks ahead, it will be important to monitor whether Hezbollah-Syrian cooperation is strengthened as a result of their unified defiance in the wake of Mughniyeh’s assassination. Of course, sustained Iranian involvement makes this quite likely.

Still, domestic Lebanese politics could intervene and force Hezbollah to downplay its Damascus contacts. At a massive rally held to commemorate the third anniversary of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri’s assassination yesterday, Future Movement leader Saad Hariri castigated the Syrian regime as an “Israeli product.” Yet even as he lashed out against Syria—the regime that murdered his father—Hariri showed rare respect for Hezbollah, ending his rally at 2 PM so as to not interfere with Mughniyeh’s 2:30 funeral. Hariri further appealed to Hezbollah to negotiate a peaceful solution to the ongoing presidential crisis—a sharp break from his comments last week, when he accused the Hezbollah-led opposition of “destroying Lebanon.”

The big question is thus whether Hezbollah might see itself as having enough popular Lebanese support in the aftermath of Mughniyeh’s assassination to avoid relying on Damascus, a regime that is still reviled by a substantial portion of the population. Or, alternatively, Hezbollah could quickly return to Levantine politics as usual, taking its cues from Iran with Syria’s active consent.

Read Less

Syria and Iran Gain in Lebanon

On Sunday, the Lebanese parliament postponed its election of a new president until February 11, marking the thirteenth time it has done so since Syrian puppet Emile Lahoud’s term officially ended on November 23. The ongoing political crisis has pitted the western-backed parliamentary majority, which has long supported the election of General Michel Suleiman, against the Hezbollah-led opposition, which has blocked a necessary two-thirds quorum from approving him; the opposition has further demanded a national unity government that would give it veto power. Officials fear that the continued standoff will erupt in political violence, and Hezbollah has threatened civil disobedience.

Thus far, western attempts to end the crisis have gone nowhere. Earlier this month, France boldly accused Syria of exacerbating the situation, punishing Damascus with a rare diplomatic boycott. At the time, I argued that this created an opening for the Bush administration, which could use the suddenly unified western front vis-à-vis Syria as leverage against the Assad regime, offering broad normalization in exchange for a serious Syrian-Israeli peace effort. The Bush administration, I reasoned, could thus avoid sacrificing the U.N.’s investigation into the Hariri assassination—in which Damascus has been implicated—which has long been seen as the price for Syrian-Israeli peace.

Yet on his recent tour of the Middle East, President Bush barely mentioned the crisis in Lebanon, instead emphasizing the pipedream of Israeli-Palestinian peace as the primary means for countering Iran. This approach was disastrous, opening the door for players far less committed to containing Iran to mediate—a boon for Iran and its allies.

Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa’s mediation attempt in Beirut last week is case-in-point. Moussa’s plan provided for Suleiman’s immediate election, further denying the ruling collation an absolute majority and the opposition a veto. These terms were largely favorable towards Syria, given that they blunted the power of the anti-Syrian majority while enhancing the role of Suleiman, who is seen as friendly towards Syria’s interests in Lebanon. When majority leader Saad Hariri endorsed the terms of the proposal earlier this month, it represented a victory for the pro-Syrian opposition.

But the opposition was hardly satisfied. After Moussa departed, Lebanese Speaker of the Parliament Nabih Berri of the Shiite Amal Party declared the initiative dead, insisting that Arab foreign ministers draw up new terms—ones much more favorable to the Hezbollah-led opposition. Shortly thereafter, Berri announced a new condition for resolving the crisis: reconciling Syria with Saudi Arabia. In this condition, Berri mortgaged Lebanese stability on Iranian geostrategy: Saudi-Syrian rapprochement would represent a breach of the U.S.-Saudi alliance and strengthen Iran’s regional position. Indeed, it is hardly coincidental that Berri’s statements included a profession of support for Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

As I have written previously, the fate of Lebanon is critical to countering Iranian ascendancy. The longer the Bush administration waits to address the current Lebanese presidential crisis seriously, the better the terms of a future political settlement will be for Iran and its local allies.

On Sunday, the Lebanese parliament postponed its election of a new president until February 11, marking the thirteenth time it has done so since Syrian puppet Emile Lahoud’s term officially ended on November 23. The ongoing political crisis has pitted the western-backed parliamentary majority, which has long supported the election of General Michel Suleiman, against the Hezbollah-led opposition, which has blocked a necessary two-thirds quorum from approving him; the opposition has further demanded a national unity government that would give it veto power. Officials fear that the continued standoff will erupt in political violence, and Hezbollah has threatened civil disobedience.

Thus far, western attempts to end the crisis have gone nowhere. Earlier this month, France boldly accused Syria of exacerbating the situation, punishing Damascus with a rare diplomatic boycott. At the time, I argued that this created an opening for the Bush administration, which could use the suddenly unified western front vis-à-vis Syria as leverage against the Assad regime, offering broad normalization in exchange for a serious Syrian-Israeli peace effort. The Bush administration, I reasoned, could thus avoid sacrificing the U.N.’s investigation into the Hariri assassination—in which Damascus has been implicated—which has long been seen as the price for Syrian-Israeli peace.

Yet on his recent tour of the Middle East, President Bush barely mentioned the crisis in Lebanon, instead emphasizing the pipedream of Israeli-Palestinian peace as the primary means for countering Iran. This approach was disastrous, opening the door for players far less committed to containing Iran to mediate—a boon for Iran and its allies.

Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa’s mediation attempt in Beirut last week is case-in-point. Moussa’s plan provided for Suleiman’s immediate election, further denying the ruling collation an absolute majority and the opposition a veto. These terms were largely favorable towards Syria, given that they blunted the power of the anti-Syrian majority while enhancing the role of Suleiman, who is seen as friendly towards Syria’s interests in Lebanon. When majority leader Saad Hariri endorsed the terms of the proposal earlier this month, it represented a victory for the pro-Syrian opposition.

But the opposition was hardly satisfied. After Moussa departed, Lebanese Speaker of the Parliament Nabih Berri of the Shiite Amal Party declared the initiative dead, insisting that Arab foreign ministers draw up new terms—ones much more favorable to the Hezbollah-led opposition. Shortly thereafter, Berri announced a new condition for resolving the crisis: reconciling Syria with Saudi Arabia. In this condition, Berri mortgaged Lebanese stability on Iranian geostrategy: Saudi-Syrian rapprochement would represent a breach of the U.S.-Saudi alliance and strengthen Iran’s regional position. Indeed, it is hardly coincidental that Berri’s statements included a profession of support for Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

As I have written previously, the fate of Lebanon is critical to countering Iranian ascendancy. The longer the Bush administration waits to address the current Lebanese presidential crisis seriously, the better the terms of a future political settlement will be for Iran and its local allies.

Read Less




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