Thursday, May 29, 2008

Commentary: The Future of Hizbu'llah in Lebanon; PLUS A Breakdown of Lebanon's Political Power Players

Lebanon's political powerbrokers in happier days: (from left) AMAL leader Nabih Berri, Future Movement (Tayyar al-Mustaqbal)/Hariri Inc. leader Sa'd al-Hariri, and (in black turban) Hizbu'llah secretary general Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah.
Note: Below is an op-ed piece by veteran Lebanon reporter Nicholas Blanford which I think captures the current political situation in that country well and in an even-handed manner. I have added a few in-text comments in places where I agree or wish to highlight an issue.
Now We Move On to Hizbu'llah's Future
Commentary by Nicholas Blanford
May 27, 2008
The last-minute Qatar-mediated agreement among Lebanon's top leaders not only ended a debilitating 19-month political deadlock that brought Lebanon close to civil war, it has also demonstrated that Hizbullah holds both the political and military balance of power in the country.

The Hizbullah-led opposition won key concessions from the Lebanese government and its supporters in the March 14 parliamentary coalition, chiefly winning its long-standing demand to secure a one-third share of Cabinet seats in the next government, thus granting it veto power over unfavorable decisions.

The outcome would suggest a blow to the administration of US President George W. Bush that, throughout the months of crisis, has consistently encouraged its allies in the Lebanese government not to yield to Hizbullah's dictates. Indeed, the United States adopted a curiously ambivalent and muted stance during the recent street battles in Beirut, offering little other than verbal gestures of support for the beleaguered government. Whether this was an indication of the limitations of US influence in Lebanon or hid some broader ulterior agenda it is too soon to tell. Still, few in the Middle East will consider it a coincidence that on the same day the Doha agreement was born, Israel and Syria announced that they had been engaged in secret Turkish-brokered peace talks for over a year.

But Hizbullah's political gains have come at a price. The lightening seizure of western Beirut by Hizbullah fighters has created a potentially dangerous backlash among Lebanon's angry, frightened and humiliated Sunnis. It undermined the moderate Sunni leadership, particularly that of Saad Hariri, the head of the Future Movement, underscoring the military weakness of the community. [Note: The Future Movement, the political child of Hariri Inc., is far from moderate. It has reportedly financed Sunni Salafi militants in Lebanon in a bid to counterbalance the Shi'i parties of AMAL and Hizbu'llah] Sunni supporters of the Future Movement have been clamoring for weapons and training to confront the threat posed by the Shiite Hizbullah, but the leadership remains reluctant to embark on such a fraught course.

A period of stability engendered by the Doha agreement notwithstanding, aggrieved Lebanese Sunnis may shift away from a hesitant moderate leadership in favor of radicalism, finding in Al-Qaeda-inspired groups a source of communal empowerment and protection against Hizbullah.
Al-Qaeda itself may sense an opening in Lebanon, especially with the organization's declining options in Iraq. Recent statements by Osama bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri, have focused on Lebanon, Hizbullah and the "crusaders" of the United Nations peacekeeping force in South Lebanon. Already, there are indications in North Lebanon that militant Sunnis are stirring, having previously maintained a low profile. [Note: As I have noted in the recent past...]

Hizbullah has expended considerable political capital in the past two years to build alliances with Sunni leaders and groups that share its antipathy to Israel and Western designs on the Middle East. But in the wake of the Beirut battles and the threat posed by a potential mobilization of Al-Qaeda-style groups, Hizbullah will have to work hard to ensure that its existing Sunni allies do not drift away in deference to Sunni hostility toward the Shiite group, while simultaneously reaching out to moderate Sunnis.

Furthermore, Hizbullah's strong-arm tactics in Beirut have delivered a serious blow to the carefully nurtured image of nobility surrounding the "resistance" against Israel. Hizbullah's leaders have always maintained that its military wing was directed against Israel and that its weapons would never be used internally against domestic opponents. True, Hizbullah has also warned repeatedly of a tough response to any attempts to emasculate its military wing, but, for most Lebanese, the sanctity of resistance today rings hollow after watching Hizbullah men battling Sunnis in Beirut and Druze in the Aley district.

The Doha agreement calls for a dialogue on Hizbullah's weapons to be hosted by President Michel Suleiman, who was elected on Sunday. For the March 14 coalition, smarting from the blow inflicted by Hizbullah in Beirut, finding a means of hobbling the Shiite party's ability to employ its weapons tops the political agenda in the coming weeks. But the March 14 bloc has little margin for maneuver before a Hizbullah that resolutely refuses to disarm and has demonstrated in stunning fashion a willingness to use force to protect its resistance
priority. Hizbullah will continue to evoke its argument that its military wing remains a vital component in a national defense strategy against Israeli aggression, and that while it is willing to coordinate with the Lebanese Army it must retain its own chain of command.

Nonetheless, there is potential for compromises if both sides show a degree of flexibility. A useful first step would be to implement the agreement reached during the 2006 national dialogue sessions to regulate the arms held by Palestinian groups. That would mean shutting down the handful of military bases, mainly in the Bekaa Valley, manned by pro-Damascus groups such as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command and Fatah Intifada. Hizbullah would earn itself some valuable good will if it agreed not to block such a move.

Nicholas Blanford is a Beirut-based journalist and author of "Killing Mr. Lebanon: The Assassination of Rafik Hariri and Its Impact on the Middle East."
Lebanese prime minister and Hariri Inc. lackey Fuad Siniora shakes hands with the Neoconservative U.S. Secretary of State, Soviet specialist Condoleeza Rice.
Lebanon: The Major Political Parties
*2 Major factions:
(1) March 14 Movement. Pro-government and backed politically and financially by the U.S., Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, and other Sunni Arab autocracies.
(2) March 8 National Opposition coalition. Opposed to the current Lebanese government majority (the March 14 coalition). The three largest parties in the coalition are Hizbu'llah, AMAL, and the Free Patriotic Movement.
Tayyar al-Mustaqbal (Future Movement), the political party of Hariri Inc. Backbone party of the March 14 Movement (the U.S. and Saudi-backed pro-government faction.)
Hizbu'llah, the largest Shi'i party headed by Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah. One of the backbones, with AMAL, of the March 8 National Opposition movement.
Lebanese Forces, militant Maronite party headed by convicted war criminal Samir Ja'Ja; formerly a faction in the Phalange Party of the Gemayel family, who conspired with Israel to set up a pro-Israeli Maronite government in Lebanon. Member of the March 14 pro-government coalition.
AMAL (Afwaaj al-Muqawama al-Lubnaniyya), the Shi'i party founded under the auspices of Imam Musa al-Sadr in 1975 and currently headed by Lebanese Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri. Backbone, with Hizbu'llah, of the March 8 National Opposition coalition.

Free Patriotic Movement, headed by former General Michel Aoun, a powerful Maronite politician. Member of the March 8 National Opposition coalition.

Syrian Social Nationalist Party. Member of the March 8 National Opposition coalition.

Progressive Socialist Party, the largest and most powerful Druze political party headed by the Hobbit, Walid Jumblatt who is currently anti-Syria. In the past, he has been very much pro-Syrian. Jumblatt is an adept politician and switches alliances frequently. Member of the March 14 pro-government coalition.

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