Commentary Magazine


Topic: Walid Jumblatt

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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Lebanon: Too Quiet?

As the situation goes from bad to worse in Lebanon, there are odd little signs. Chief among them are the comments made by Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal when he quit the Saudis’ mediation effort in Beirut on Wednesday. Saying the situation was dangerous, he told Al-Arabiya: “If the situation reaches full separation and (regional) partition, this means the end of Lebanon as a state that has this model of peaceful cohabitation between religions and ethnicities.”

These words have meaning. It’s arresting enough that the Saudis have pulled out; they have been particularly assiduous about diplomacy in Lebanon, overlaying repeated bromides about unity and cohabitation on their campaign to retain Sunni Arab influence there. Pulling out of the mediation effort with bridge-burning rhetoric is uncharacteristic of the Saudis to an even greater degree. Meanwhile, envoys from Turkey and Qatar also suspended their mediation efforts on Thursday, announcing that they needed to consult with their governments. All things being equal, these pullouts don’t make sense. The parties in question have a history of intensive prior engagement in Lebanon, particularly in the 2006 and 2008 crises. Nothing suggests they are suddenly content to leave Lebanon’s fate to Syria and Hezbollah.

But all things may not be equal. It’s quite possible that the regional nations are not losing their interest in Lebanon: they are losing their interest in the mediation process with the unity government. The Turks and the Sunni Arabs may not agree on all their strategic objectives, but they can see what is obvious: that the unity government of Lebanon has become, in key ways, a convenience for Hezbollah and Iran. Its perpetual weakness gives Hezbollah latitude, while at the same time making the commitment of other governments to it a net disadvantage for their long-term goals.

Nothing in Lebanon changes quickly. There is a prospect for a new unity government, with Druze leader Walid Jumblatt joining Hezbollah in backing perennial prime-minister-of-convenience Omar Karami. Karami’s stints as a figurehead have lasted only a few months each time, but the fiction of business as usual in Lebanon could persist for a while; it may even involve some passing interest in Nicolas Sarkozy’s proposal for a multi-party contact group.

The words of Saud al-Faisal, however, are the most striking feature of the current crisis. Set next to the news that the chief of the Lebanese armed forces has been in Syria this week, consulting directly with Bashar al-Assad on military cooperation, they have an ominous ring. Any alternative to the status quo in Lebanon will involve foreign arms taking on Hezbollah. With regional nations abandoning the mediation effort, and the Saudi statement implying that something other than the unity-government construct is in prospect, the commitment to the status quo is looking weak.

The U.S. government might still play a decisive role, but the conditions are not propitious. The timing of Ambassador Robert Ford’s arrival in Syria — this week — makes it more likely that the U.S. will simply be seen as endorsing a Syrian-backed deal to install Omar Karami as prime minister. That move — a convenience to buy time — would merely put the status quo on life support. With no U.S. plan to prevent Hezbollah and Iran from exploiting the status quo in Lebanon, the other nations of the region are planning for a future beyond it.

As the situation goes from bad to worse in Lebanon, there are odd little signs. Chief among them are the comments made by Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal when he quit the Saudis’ mediation effort in Beirut on Wednesday. Saying the situation was dangerous, he told Al-Arabiya: “If the situation reaches full separation and (regional) partition, this means the end of Lebanon as a state that has this model of peaceful cohabitation between religions and ethnicities.”

These words have meaning. It’s arresting enough that the Saudis have pulled out; they have been particularly assiduous about diplomacy in Lebanon, overlaying repeated bromides about unity and cohabitation on their campaign to retain Sunni Arab influence there. Pulling out of the mediation effort with bridge-burning rhetoric is uncharacteristic of the Saudis to an even greater degree. Meanwhile, envoys from Turkey and Qatar also suspended their mediation efforts on Thursday, announcing that they needed to consult with their governments. All things being equal, these pullouts don’t make sense. The parties in question have a history of intensive prior engagement in Lebanon, particularly in the 2006 and 2008 crises. Nothing suggests they are suddenly content to leave Lebanon’s fate to Syria and Hezbollah.

But all things may not be equal. It’s quite possible that the regional nations are not losing their interest in Lebanon: they are losing their interest in the mediation process with the unity government. The Turks and the Sunni Arabs may not agree on all their strategic objectives, but they can see what is obvious: that the unity government of Lebanon has become, in key ways, a convenience for Hezbollah and Iran. Its perpetual weakness gives Hezbollah latitude, while at the same time making the commitment of other governments to it a net disadvantage for their long-term goals.

Nothing in Lebanon changes quickly. There is a prospect for a new unity government, with Druze leader Walid Jumblatt joining Hezbollah in backing perennial prime-minister-of-convenience Omar Karami. Karami’s stints as a figurehead have lasted only a few months each time, but the fiction of business as usual in Lebanon could persist for a while; it may even involve some passing interest in Nicolas Sarkozy’s proposal for a multi-party contact group.

The words of Saud al-Faisal, however, are the most striking feature of the current crisis. Set next to the news that the chief of the Lebanese armed forces has been in Syria this week, consulting directly with Bashar al-Assad on military cooperation, they have an ominous ring. Any alternative to the status quo in Lebanon will involve foreign arms taking on Hezbollah. With regional nations abandoning the mediation effort, and the Saudi statement implying that something other than the unity-government construct is in prospect, the commitment to the status quo is looking weak.

The U.S. government might still play a decisive role, but the conditions are not propitious. The timing of Ambassador Robert Ford’s arrival in Syria — this week — makes it more likely that the U.S. will simply be seen as endorsing a Syrian-backed deal to install Omar Karami as prime minister. That move — a convenience to buy time — would merely put the status quo on life support. With no U.S. plan to prevent Hezbollah and Iran from exploiting the status quo in Lebanon, the other nations of the region are planning for a future beyond it.

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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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A Weather Vane Shifts in Lebanon

Walid Jumblatt is one of the wiliest and least predictable politicians in the Middle East. A canny survivor, he has led the tiny Druze community in Lebanon since the late 1970s. He is usually described as a warlord, but he is also the leader of his own political party, the Progressive Socialists. Over the years, he has been aligned both with and against Syria and has taken aid from both the Soviet Union and the United States. He is a charming host and raconteur who, as I discovered during a visit to his Beirut home last year with a group of American journalists, is not afraid of offering outspoken opinions on most subjects under the sun.

In 2007, for example, he publicly referred to Bashar al-Assad — the Syrian dictator and son of the previous Syrian dictator, Hafez al-Assad, who was most likely responsible for the assassination of Walid’s father, Kamal, in 1977 — as a “monkey, snake and a butcher.” Now Jumblatt is saying, in effect, oops, I didn’t mean it:

“In a moment of anger I said inappropriate and illogical comments against him (Assad). Can Syria overcome this page and open a new page? I don’t know,” he told al-Jazeera television.

This is one of the more notable attempts at a retraction in recent history, but, aside from its comic value, it does have some geopolitical significance. Jumblatt, as I mentioned, is known above all for being a survivor, and if he now feels compelled to distance himself from the March 14 coalition (something he has been doing to some degree since 2008) and to propitiate Bashar al-Assad, it is an indication that the balance of power in the Levant is shifting in Assad’s favor. That is bad news, indeed. Assad has shown no willingness to give up his support of terrorist groups (notably Hezbollah and Hamas) or to sever links with Iran. And why should he, when the Obama administration is trying to court him despite his unwillingness to change his ways?

Jumblatt knows which way the wind is blowing. This most sensitive of weather vanes indicates that American interests in the region are suffering serious setbacks. But the administration is probably too busy beating up on our most reliable ally in the area to notice.

Walid Jumblatt is one of the wiliest and least predictable politicians in the Middle East. A canny survivor, he has led the tiny Druze community in Lebanon since the late 1970s. He is usually described as a warlord, but he is also the leader of his own political party, the Progressive Socialists. Over the years, he has been aligned both with and against Syria and has taken aid from both the Soviet Union and the United States. He is a charming host and raconteur who, as I discovered during a visit to his Beirut home last year with a group of American journalists, is not afraid of offering outspoken opinions on most subjects under the sun.

In 2007, for example, he publicly referred to Bashar al-Assad — the Syrian dictator and son of the previous Syrian dictator, Hafez al-Assad, who was most likely responsible for the assassination of Walid’s father, Kamal, in 1977 — as a “monkey, snake and a butcher.” Now Jumblatt is saying, in effect, oops, I didn’t mean it:

“In a moment of anger I said inappropriate and illogical comments against him (Assad). Can Syria overcome this page and open a new page? I don’t know,” he told al-Jazeera television.

This is one of the more notable attempts at a retraction in recent history, but, aside from its comic value, it does have some geopolitical significance. Jumblatt, as I mentioned, is known above all for being a survivor, and if he now feels compelled to distance himself from the March 14 coalition (something he has been doing to some degree since 2008) and to propitiate Bashar al-Assad, it is an indication that the balance of power in the Levant is shifting in Assad’s favor. That is bad news, indeed. Assad has shown no willingness to give up his support of terrorist groups (notably Hezbollah and Hamas) or to sever links with Iran. And why should he, when the Obama administration is trying to court him despite his unwillingness to change his ways?

Jumblatt knows which way the wind is blowing. This most sensitive of weather vanes indicates that American interests in the region are suffering serious setbacks. But the administration is probably too busy beating up on our most reliable ally in the area to notice.

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The Middle East Has Always Been Hard

As Jennifer pointed out yesterday, President Barack Obama admitted in an interview with Joe Klein at Time magazine that he had been “too optimistic” about his ability to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, that it’s “just really hard.” Those of us with experience in the region are thinking, “Well, duh,” right about now, but at the same time, I sympathize. In the first half of the last decade, I felt naively optimistic about the region myself.

Things were looking up after the demolition of Saddam Hussein’s Baath party regime in Iraq, the termination of the second Palestinian intifada, and the Beirut Spring that ousted the Syrian military occupation from Lebanon. I was hardly alone in getting carried away. Middle Easterners felt it too — or at least some did. “It’s strange for me to say it,” Lebanon’s Druze leader Walid Jumblatt said shortly after the uprising against Bashar Assad’s overlordship in his country began, “but this process of change has started because of the American invasion of Iraq. I was cynical about Iraq. But when I saw the Iraqi people voting three weeks ago, 8 million of them, it was the start of a new Arab world. The Syrian people, the Egyptian people, all say that something is changing. The Berlin Wall has fallen. We can see it.”

The Middle East’s “Berlin Wall,” so to speak, may have cracked, but it didn’t fall.

To read the rest of this COMMENTARY Web Exclusive, click here.

As Jennifer pointed out yesterday, President Barack Obama admitted in an interview with Joe Klein at Time magazine that he had been “too optimistic” about his ability to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, that it’s “just really hard.” Those of us with experience in the region are thinking, “Well, duh,” right about now, but at the same time, I sympathize. In the first half of the last decade, I felt naively optimistic about the region myself.

Things were looking up after the demolition of Saddam Hussein’s Baath party regime in Iraq, the termination of the second Palestinian intifada, and the Beirut Spring that ousted the Syrian military occupation from Lebanon. I was hardly alone in getting carried away. Middle Easterners felt it too — or at least some did. “It’s strange for me to say it,” Lebanon’s Druze leader Walid Jumblatt said shortly after the uprising against Bashar Assad’s overlordship in his country began, “but this process of change has started because of the American invasion of Iraq. I was cynical about Iraq. But when I saw the Iraqi people voting three weeks ago, 8 million of them, it was the start of a new Arab world. The Syrian people, the Egyptian people, all say that something is changing. The Berlin Wall has fallen. We can see it.”

The Middle East’s “Berlin Wall,” so to speak, may have cracked, but it didn’t fall.

To read the rest of this COMMENTARY Web Exclusive, click here.

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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 III?

Today Israeli radio reported a massive effort underway to contact IDF reserve soldiers and verify their contact information. Yesterday, Israel deployed Patriot missiles next to the northern city of Haifa, for the first time since the 2006 Lebanon war. Inside Lebanon, anti-Hizbullah rhetoric is heating up, with Prime Minister Fouad Seniora blaming Hizbullah for bringing war upon Lebanon, and Druze leader Walid Jumblatt warning of a possible civil war against the Iranian-backed organization. And today’s Jerusalem Post reports that Israel is deeply concerned about the possible collapse of UNIFIL, the 15,000-man strong UN force which has been in southern Lebanon since the end of hostilities in 2006. Things have not looked so unstable along the Israel-Lebanon border since the war ended.

Hizbullah, having taken a massive blow with the killing of its top military commander and terror architect, Imad Mughniyeh, is not likely to take its humiliation lying down. Hassan Nasrallah has declared an “open war” against Israel and Israeli targets around the world. The pundits are busily speculating how Hizbullah might respond — with an assassination attempt against an Israeli leader, with a massive terror attack on a Jewish or Israeli target somewhere in the world, or possibly with the launching of chemical missiles or unmanned aircraft at Israeli population centers. But we should assume Israel will not sit back and wait for the response, either. The next move may be Israel’s.

Neither Hizbullah nor Israel really wants full-scale war right now, however. Israel is unlikely to get the kind of diplomatic air cover from Washington the way it did in 2006, if for no other reason than because of the instability it might bring to John McCain’s campaign. Hizbullah, too, stands to lose a great deal, not just from defeat, but even from another stand-off, which would likely hurt its public image in Lebanon even further, and possibly bring on civil war. So the most likely outcome is saber-rattling, and possible surgical strikes.

But if war does break out, Hizbullah should be prepared for a far more costly adventure: The IDF today is not the IDF of 2006. Not just the replacement of the labor union leader Amir Peretz (who heard of a “strike” against Hizbullah and took out his megaphone) with the former IDF chief-of-staff and Prime Minister Ehud Barak in the position of defense minister; and the replacement of Dan Halutz as IDF chief-of-staff with Gabi Ashkenazi; but a lot of money, training, and equipment has built up the IDF, which did not wait for the Winograd Commission’s report to start learning the lessons of Lebanon II. Rebuilding the IDF was Ehud Barak’s excuse for remaining in the government, despite promises to the contrary, after the report came out. The man wants to be Prime Minister. And Ehud Olmert, whose party is looking at a massive drubbing in the next election, needs to save his own political career. This is a war that neither of the Ehuds can afford to lose — and anything less than decisive victory, for these purposes, would be a loss.

For the people in charge on both sides, in other words, the stakes have never been higher.

Today Israeli radio reported a massive effort underway to contact IDF reserve soldiers and verify their contact information. Yesterday, Israel deployed Patriot missiles next to the northern city of Haifa, for the first time since the 2006 Lebanon war. Inside Lebanon, anti-Hizbullah rhetoric is heating up, with Prime Minister Fouad Seniora blaming Hizbullah for bringing war upon Lebanon, and Druze leader Walid Jumblatt warning of a possible civil war against the Iranian-backed organization. And today’s Jerusalem Post reports that Israel is deeply concerned about the possible collapse of UNIFIL, the 15,000-man strong UN force which has been in southern Lebanon since the end of hostilities in 2006. Things have not looked so unstable along the Israel-Lebanon border since the war ended.

Hizbullah, having taken a massive blow with the killing of its top military commander and terror architect, Imad Mughniyeh, is not likely to take its humiliation lying down. Hassan Nasrallah has declared an “open war” against Israel and Israeli targets around the world. The pundits are busily speculating how Hizbullah might respond — with an assassination attempt against an Israeli leader, with a massive terror attack on a Jewish or Israeli target somewhere in the world, or possibly with the launching of chemical missiles or unmanned aircraft at Israeli population centers. But we should assume Israel will not sit back and wait for the response, either. The next move may be Israel’s.

Neither Hizbullah nor Israel really wants full-scale war right now, however. Israel is unlikely to get the kind of diplomatic air cover from Washington the way it did in 2006, if for no other reason than because of the instability it might bring to John McCain’s campaign. Hizbullah, too, stands to lose a great deal, not just from defeat, but even from another stand-off, which would likely hurt its public image in Lebanon even further, and possibly bring on civil war. So the most likely outcome is saber-rattling, and possible surgical strikes.

But if war does break out, Hizbullah should be prepared for a far more costly adventure: The IDF today is not the IDF of 2006. Not just the replacement of the labor union leader Amir Peretz (who heard of a “strike” against Hizbullah and took out his megaphone) with the former IDF chief-of-staff and Prime Minister Ehud Barak in the position of defense minister; and the replacement of Dan Halutz as IDF chief-of-staff with Gabi Ashkenazi; but a lot of money, training, and equipment has built up the IDF, which did not wait for the Winograd Commission’s report to start learning the lessons of Lebanon II. Rebuilding the IDF was Ehud Barak’s excuse for remaining in the government, despite promises to the contrary, after the report came out. The man wants to be Prime Minister. And Ehud Olmert, whose party is looking at a massive drubbing in the next election, needs to save his own political career. This is a war that neither of the Ehuds can afford to lose — and anything less than decisive victory, for these purposes, would be a loss.

For the people in charge on both sides, in other words, the stakes have never been higher.

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Syria’s Useful Israeli Idiots

The Syrian state-run propaganda organ Cham Press published a fake story about Lebanese Member of Parliament Walid Jumblatt’s supposed plan to meet Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak in the United States last weekend to coordinate a regime-change in Syria. No Western media organization I know of took this non-story seriously. Israeli media, though, scooped it right up. Haaretz, the Jerusalem Post, and Infolive TV published their own articles about the imaginary meeting between Jumblatt and Barak. None had a source for their story other than the Syrian government’s website.

It goes without saying that Israeli journalists aren’t in cahoots with the Baath Party regime in Damascus. Many Israeli reporters and editors, however, are frankly clueless about Lebanese and Syrian politics.

First of all, it is illegal for a Lebanese citizen to speak to an Israeli citizen no matter where in the world their meeting takes place. Even quietly waving hello to an Israeli on the border is treason.

A significant portion of the Lebanese people sided with Israel during the first Lebanon War in 1982, including Lebanon’s president-elect Bashir Gemayel before he was assassinated. The South Lebanese Army was Israel’s proxy militia in what is now Hizballah-controlled territory, until then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak withdrew Israeli occupation forces from their “security belt” in South Lebanon in 2000. The draconian law is in place precisely to prevent such sympathizers from working with Israelis against Lebanese.

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The Syrian state-run propaganda organ Cham Press published a fake story about Lebanese Member of Parliament Walid Jumblatt’s supposed plan to meet Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak in the United States last weekend to coordinate a regime-change in Syria. No Western media organization I know of took this non-story seriously. Israeli media, though, scooped it right up. Haaretz, the Jerusalem Post, and Infolive TV published their own articles about the imaginary meeting between Jumblatt and Barak. None had a source for their story other than the Syrian government’s website.

It goes without saying that Israeli journalists aren’t in cahoots with the Baath Party regime in Damascus. Many Israeli reporters and editors, however, are frankly clueless about Lebanese and Syrian politics.

First of all, it is illegal for a Lebanese citizen to speak to an Israeli citizen no matter where in the world their meeting takes place. Even quietly waving hello to an Israeli on the border is treason.

A significant portion of the Lebanese people sided with Israel during the first Lebanon War in 1982, including Lebanon’s president-elect Bashir Gemayel before he was assassinated. The South Lebanese Army was Israel’s proxy militia in what is now Hizballah-controlled territory, until then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak withdrew Israeli occupation forces from their “security belt” in South Lebanon in 2000. The draconian law is in place precisely to prevent such sympathizers from working with Israelis against Lebanese.

The law is absurd from the West’s point of view, and from the point of view of many Lebanese, too. Lebanon is “the least anti-Israel Arab country in the world,” as Lebanese political consultant and analyst Eli Khoury told me last year. But Lebanon, despite its moderation outside the Hizballah camp, is still under the shadow of the Syrian-Iranian axis, and remains threatened with de facto re-annexation. The reactionary law is still on the books, and even a leader as prominent as Walid Jumblatt dare not break it.

Jumblatt traveled to Washington this past weekend to give a speech at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, which you can read here. After Cham Press published its fabricated story, his office phoned the institute to make sure the Israeli Defense Minister would not be attending. He needed to be sure the two could not even run into each other by accident and make Syria’s bogus assertion look true.

Israeli journalists who “reported” this non-story should have noticed that they published a claim that Jumblatt and Barak will meet in the United States after the meeting was supposed to have already happened. Cham Press said the meeting would take place on Sunday, and Israeli media placed the alleged meeting in the future tense the following Monday.

Re-reporting Syrian lies in the Israeli press makes Cham Press look almost legitimate, its lies almost plausible. This should be obvious, but apparently it isn’t. The Damascus regime knows what it is doing and has been using gullible foreign journalists to its advantage for a while now.

“Regime flacks fed New Yorker reporter Seymour Hersh outrageous propaganda about how the United States supposedly supported the Fatah al-Islam terrorists in the Nahr al-Bared Palestinian camp in Lebanon,” said Tony Badran, a Lebanese research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “Then they quoted his New Yorker story to get themselves diplomatically off the hook for their own support of those terrorists in the camp.”

And here we go again. Cham Press now says Israel’s Omedia reported that Jumblatt met with Barak and U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney in Washington. Cham Press no longer quotes only itself; it quotes Israeli websites as backup. But the only reason Israeli media reported any of this in the first place is the initial false story appearing in Cham Press. Syrian media is still just quoting itself—only now it does so through Israel.

Jumblatt is near or at the top of Syria’s hit list. No Lebanese leader opposes Syrian terrorism and attempts at overlordship in Lebanon as staunchly as he. His pro-Western “March 14” bloc in parliament is already accused of being a “Zionist hand” by Hizballah and the Syrians. He was the second person Syrian ruler Bashar Assad threatened by name shortly before former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and 21 others were assassinated by a truck bomb in downtown Beirut. (“I will break Lebanon over your head and Walid Jumblatt’s,” Assad said to Hariri.) As Tony Badran pointed out to me, the Syrian regime has a habit of planting false stories about Lebanese leaders just before dispatching them with car bombs. The idea of Jumblatt meeting with Barak may seem innocent in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, but it marks him for death in Lebanon and in Syria.

Syria is at war with both Israel and Lebanon. Journalists who wish to write about a conspiracy between Israel and Lebanon to destroy the regime in Syria need a better source for that story than the manipulative and murderous Syrian state.

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