Hizbullah has overplayed its hand
By Michael Young -Daily Star staff
Thursday, December 07, 2006
In the broad details, there are striking similarities between the communist takeover in Czechoslovakia in 1948 and what is occurring in Lebanon today; between the "coup of Prague" and the "coup of Beirut," which Hizbullah and its comrades are presently sweating to implement.

As in Lebanon, the Czechoslovak communists benefited from a Cabinet crisis to kick off massive street protests. They controlled the government and the security ministries, and chose to act because they were expecting to lose ground in upcoming parliamentary elections. The communists had to strike quickly at a time when their external patron, the Soviet Union, was entering into a confrontation with the West. Indeed, Moscow had forced the Czech government to reverse its initial acceptance of Western aid under the Marshall Plan, fearing this would take Prague out of its orbit and offer more legitimacy to non-communist forces.

In Lebanon, too, Hizbullah is being pressed by its external patrons, Iran and Syria, to overthrow a system they fear losing. Syria seeks to reimpose its hegemony over Lebanon, and its priority is to undermine the tribunal dealing with the Hariri assassination. Iran, for its part, doesn't like the fact that United Nations Security Council 1701 is stifling Hizbullah along the Israeli border. Hizbullah may not control security ministries as the communists did in Czechoslovakia, but it has influential allies in the military, and its militia is more powerful than the army. It may not fear losing elections, but its setbacks in the July-August war, particularly the destruction visited on Shiites, obliged it to mobilize its supporters against the government so they would not turn their anger against the party. Like the Czech communists, Hizbullah is using both institutions and the street to seize power. It has also succeeded, like the communists did with the socialists in Czechoslovakia, in neutralizing a key actor whose opposition could have decisively damaged their ambitions: the Aounist movement.

Hizbullah's strategy is now clear, its repercussions dangerous. The party is pushing Lebanon into a protracted vacuum, in which low-level violence and economic debilitation become the norm. Hizbullah is calculating that its adversaries will crack first, because they have more at stake than do poor Shiites when it comes to the country's financial and commercial health. Its leaders know the powerful symbolism associated with dispatching thousands of destitute people into the plush downtown area, which best symbolizes that financial and commercial health - the jewel in late Prime Minister Rafik Hariri's reconstruction crown.

Hizbullah's reckoning is profoundly cynical. Its manipulation of the alleged Shiite ability to withstand more hardship than other Lebanese shows disdain for Shiite aspirations. The fact that everyone will lose out after an economic meltdown, which is coming, seems obvious. But that Hizbullah should take it as a sign of strength that Shiites would lose relatively less because of their poverty is abhorrent. The party has nonetheless made clear to its interlocutors that it will not give up on Syria and Iran. Hence the perilous path it is pursuing, along with Syria's satellites and the futile Michel Aoun as water carriers.

The ideal Syrian and Iranian scheme looks like this. Syria's condition to allow a return to stability is that the March 14 majority agree to give up on the Hariri tribunal. Once that happens, Emile Lahoud's presence would no longer be as essential, so there might be room for a presidential election. The winning candidate would be neither from March 8 nor March 14. And it would not be Michel Aoun, whom Syria and Hizbullah don't trust, even as they ransack his vanity. The likely victor could be someone like Riyad Salameh, the Central Bank governor, or the army commander, General Michel Suleiman, who can play both sides. At the same time, a new government would be formed in such a way as to grant the opposition veto power, if not more. The Iranian and Syrian goal would be to have in hand the means to block any Lebanese effort to consolidate Resolution 1701 through further normalization of the situation in South Lebanon. This would be the culmination of a downward spiral for anti-Syrian forces, and with Hizbullah as their enforcer, Syria and Iran could systematically dismantle the remaining outposts of Lebanese autonomy.

Things won't be so simple, however. Hizbullah is straight-jacketed by two Syrian demands - no Hariri tribunal and no bargaining on Lahoud's removal - and Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah cannot indefinitely bat away package deals to resolve the government crisis, particularly if this heightens Sunni-Shiite animosity. Besides, Syrian haste on the tribunal is pushing the party into a very damaging altercation with the rest of Lebanese society, and potentially the Sunni Arab world, which Iran cannot be happy with. The party knows it will soon have to prove that it backs the tribunal. It can also see that the situation in South Lebanon is improving, following Israel's agreement in principle to pull out of the Lebanese side of Ghajar. Stability is returning to the border area under the eyes of the international community, thanks to a plan the Siniora government helped shape. That is why Hizbullah, Syria and Iran regard the government and the expanded United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon as threats. It is perhaps no coincidence that the tension in Beirut is forcing the army to redeploy units away from areas where they had moved under Resolution 1701.

The Syrian and Iranian project can be derailed by a combination of other scenarios as well: Sectarian tension increases to the extent that President Bashar Assad's regime is threatened by a violent Sunni backlash from Lebanon, and perhaps Iraq; the international community, notably Israel, decides it cannot accept a return to the status quo ante in South Lebanon; and Lebanese leaders in danger of physical or political elimination because of a Syrian return - principally Walid Jumblatt, Saad Hariri, and Samir Geagea - pursue a bitter, existential fight, preventing Hizbullah from controlling the situation on behalf of Damascus and Tehran. The implacable theorems of Lebanon's formula of national coexistence have demolished far more powerful forces than Hizbullah.

Another flaw in Syrian and Iranian reasoning is hubris. Despite the tactical parallels in the staging of a coup, Lebanon is no Czechoslovakia. Tehran, Damascus, and Hizbullah imagine the country can be conquered, with Hizbullah somehow emerging on top. Only the fundamentally intolerant can fall for such a tidy, straightforward conceit. But that's not really how things work in Lebanon's confessional disorder. We may be in the throes of a faltering coup, but the ultimate challenge is to avoid being inadvertently manhandled by Hizbullah into a war nobody wants.

***Michael Young is opinion editor of THE DAILY STAR.