But in the wake of Syria's withdrawal of its troops from Lebanon in 2005, the disarmament of Hezbollah has emerged as one of the foremost issues in Lebanese politics. Since the fighting with Israel started Wednesday, calls for Hezbollah to relinquish its weapons have gathered urgency. The violence began when Hezbollah fighters captured two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border incursion, followed by an Israeli attack on roads, bridges, power stations and airports.
Israel's attacks on Lebanon are having salutary effects on Lebanon's rulers.
Lebanese critics as well as allies of Hezbollah insist that the Israeli response was disproportionate. But at the same time, in meetings Thursday, Lebanese officials began to lay the groundwork for an extension of government control to southern Lebanon. Hezbollah largely controls southern Lebanon, where it has built up a network of schools, hospitals and charities.
"To declare war and to make military action must be a decision made by the state and not by a party," said Nabil de Freige, a parliament member. He belongs to the bloc headed by Saad Hariri, whose father, Rafiq, a former prime minister and wealthy businessman, was assassinated in 2005, setting off a sequence of events that forced the Syrian withdrawal. "It's a very simple equation: You have to be a state."
Are the non-Shias in the Lebanese government really serious about taking on Hezbollah? An attempt to suppress Hezbollah runs the risk of starting a civil war in Lebanon. Plus, the Shias in Lebanon are a big voting block and even many non-Shia Lebanese Muslims sympathize with any group that would attack Israel. My guess is the lower classes are not as supportive of a crackdown on Hezbollah as the upper class business interests. The Lebanese government would have a much stronger hand against Hezbollah if a dictatorship ran Lebanon. You do not see the authoritarian regimes in Egypt, Jordan, or Syria letting groups shoot rockets from their territory into Israel. The governments of those countries have the means to maintain control of their factions and their borders.
Lebanon has been bouncing back from their civil war and has reached a per capita GDP of $6200 which compares very favorably with Syria at $3900 per capita GDP and Jordan at $4700 and Lebanon has achieved this in spite of the physical damage and heavy debt burden due to the civil war. The Christian Lebanese (39% of the population) and some of the other factions would like the good times to continue and see the Hezbollah as an obstacle in the way of letting the good times roll.
But can all the non-Shia factions unite to extend sovereignty over the south of Lebanon? They have economic incentive. They do not want the Israelis bombing the Beirut airport and blowing up bridges and other infrastructure. That is bad for business. But the Israeli threat has to be balanced against the problems posed by trying to take on Hezbollah and its Syrian and Iranian backers. Hezbollah could wage an insurgency fight and start attacking into neighborhoods and business districts of Druze, Sunni, and Christian Lebanese. You can bet the Lebanese elites are weighing their options.
The US government seems focused on Syria's and Iran's roles as backers of Hezbollah.
Analysts here say Iranian influence has become ascendant following the Syrian pullout, though foreign policy in the two countries has so far largely overlapped. The United States renewed its call Thursday for those countries to intervene to get the two Israeli soldiers released.
"It's really time for everybody to acknowledge that these two states do have some measure of control over Hezbollah," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack told reporters in Washington. "And the international community has called upon them to exercise that control, to have these two individuals released."
Neoconservatives fantasize about extending the US invasion of Iraq into invasions of Syria and Iran. But an invasion of Syria would collapse a regime which both fears Israel and which very effectively prevents dissident groups from shooting rockets or doing cross-border attacks into Israel. An overthrow of the Assad family dynasty would put an end to a regime which both prevents attacks on Israel from its territory and which also provides one of the safest and friendliest living environments for Christians in the Middle East. An invasion of Syria would ruin the lives of Christian Syrians as thoroughly as the overthrow of Saddam put Christian Iraqis into the line of fire of Muslim insurgent groups. Such an invasion would also destabilize Israel's border with Syria.
There's talk about how Israel's battles with Hezbollah and Hamas could escalate into a regional conflagration. Well, how exactly? Assad in Syria and his top people know that a direct attack on Israel would be suicidal folly. Ditto the Mubarak family dynasty in Egypt.
The Israelis would benefit if Lebanon became more like Egypt, Syria, and Jordan and less like West Bank and Gaza. I do not know if that is possible. However, a US invasion of Syria is not the way to bring this about.
The Bush administration has few ways of directly pressuring Iran on any of the three fronts. "They have sanctioned themselves out of leverage on Iran," Malley said. "They have cornered themselves out of a lack of influence on any of the parties that are driving this -- Hezbollah, Hamas, Syria and Iran. Counseling restraint or condemning actions is pretty meager when you think of the influence the United States should be wielding."
The United States reached out to Arab allies -- Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia -- to weigh in with Syria and, through Damascus, to Iran. In Paris for talks on Iran's nuclear program, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called on all sides to "act with restraint." She also talked to Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Siniora and U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan.
Lebanon's problem for Israel and Washington is that it is not united under a single government. Maybe Israel could make some gains here by convincing Syria (e.g. by bombing Syria rather than the Beirut airport) that attacks by Hezbollah will be treated as attacks by Syria. That'd give Syria some incentive to turn against Hezbollah. Not sure if that would work. But the Israelis ought to tell Jewish supporters in Washington DC that a US overthrow of Assad's regime and replacement by a democratically elected Sunni fundamentalist regime would not improve Israel's security in the long run.
Update: The Jerusalem Post reports that Israel's chief goal in its attacks on Lebanon is to force the Lebanese government to take responsibility and assert control over south Lebanon.
Lebanon can be "shut down for years, as long as necessary" a senior military official said over the weekend. He added that the goals of the Israeli blockade of Lebanon were, on a tactical level, to make sure that no rockets could be supplied to Hizbullah, and strategically, to make the government in Beirut take responsibility for its southern border.
The feeling within the IDF General Staff is that the Lebanese government will eventually succumb and deploy its army in the south, but that this decision will be made at the political level, under international pressure.
The senior military official said the current clash with Hizbullah was inevitable, that the "writing had been on the wall." Hizbullah miscalculated Israel's response to the kidnapping of two soldiers on Wednesday, he said.
"Prodi told me that Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert informed him of two demands for a cease-fire - handing over the two captive Israeli soldiers and a Hizbullah pullback to behind the Litani River," a government statement quoted Siniora as telling the cabinet.
Most analysts here says that the strong support for Hizbullah from Lebanon's 40 percent Shiite population makes total destruction of the group impossible. Mindful of repercussions, Israel says it is trying to avoid causing irreparable damage to Lebanon.
"We didn't remove the gloves completely," a high ranking military official told reporters over the weekend. "We need to be very careful that we only put enough pressure on the Lebanese government to change the situation but not enough to make it fall."
It is hard to tell whether the outcome the Israelis want is within the realm of possibility.
The reasons the US is watching this crisis from the sidelines are many: The Bush administration has been preoccupied with Iraq, it does not have diplomatic ties with the Middle Eastern countries that matter in this escalation, and it has been unwilling to pressure Israel to avoid military response when Tel Aviv's security is threatened. The US position represents a change from earlier days - such as the administration of the first President Bush, who enlisted diplomats like James Baker and Brent Skowcroft to ease tensions - when America brought pressure to bear on all parties, including Israel, to slam the Pandora's box back shut.
"The US has very little leverage over the situation, and all that does is underline that the US is weak and has lost the kind of influence it once had in the region," says Arthur Hughes, former director general of the Israel-Egypt multinational force and now a scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington. "It's frightening to our partners, like Japan and Europe because, as they see it, the only thing worse than a US that is too strong is a US that is too weak."
The United States was eager to get Syrian troops out of Lebanon. But imagine that the Syrians had not pulled out. In that case Hezbollah would have been less able to launch attacks on Israel because the Syrian backing of Hezbollah would have been more overt and Israel would have been in a stronger position to retaliate by attacking Syria. So Syria would have been motivated to restrain Hezbollah to an extent that Syria is not currently motivated to do so.
|Share |||By Randall Parker at 2006 July 15 10:14 PM MidEast Arabs Versus Israelis|