Winter of our Discontent

BEIRUT — Anyone paying any attention to al-wada (the situation) in Lebanon knows things ain’t good. The weather is affecting everything, from food deliveries to electricity. Skiing’s good up in Faraya, I hear, though.
Last weekend’s unrest was extremely unsettling. Seven people were killed and now Hezbollah and Amal are calling for revenge against the Army. March 8 — the Hezbollah-led opposition — is looking more and more intransigent, and unwilling to come to any solution other than a complete caving of the government to their demands: veto power in the cabinet, picking the president and a lock-in to the Syrian orbit.

Of course, the pro-Western government of Fuad Siniora is unwilling to do that, creating a situation that is ripe for explosion. The atmosphere is tense, and Lebanese are jumpy. Already there are small daily clashes and assaults on Army positions. Lebanese media are rife with reports that Syria now opposes Army Chief Michel Sleiman for president (not sure why, really; perhaps he’s not so in their camp as they thought he was?) and prefers former Foreign Minister Fares Boueiz for the post.

Mrs. Back to Iraq, a better observer of Lebanese politics than I am, doesn’t think last week’s protest-turned-street-battle was spontaneous. The dahiyeh, she said, is like Syria. Not much happens there without Hezbollah’s notice and approval. They’re trying to discredit the proto-presidency of Sleiman before it even happens. I agree with her, but I wonder if the protests really did start spontaneously and Hezbollah, recognizing an opportunity, allowed them to balloon into a confrontation with the state. At any rate, “Black Sunday” has led to a predictable amount of finger-pointing and blame-shifting.

My friend, Mitch Prothero, has a good piece in Slate on last weekend’s violence.

Most people I talk to think the al-wada will go on until 2009, when there are parliamentary elections. Then Hezbollah and the rest of the March 8 folks will likely win these and that will be the end of the so-called Cedar Revolution. Lebanon will return to the Syrian fold and politicians like Walid Jumblatt and Saad Hariri will be spending a lot of time in Paris and Riyadh.

That’s Hezbollah’s real goals, I think. Not to take over the country and install an Islamic state. Hezbollah is at heart a revolutionary movement and they’re smart enough to know that their popularity comes from that mystique as well as their social services that operate separately from the woefully inefficient Lebanese services.

If they “took over” and became the government, they would lose the revolutionary aura. From Hezbollah’s point of view, It’s much better to be a network of guerilla commanders in southern Lebanon fighting Zionist occupiers than to be in charge of fixing potholes and making sure the electricity is on. Because they don’t get blamed for the screw-ups then. (And Lebanon is nothing but one big screw-up when it comes to basic infrastructure.)

It works like this: If Hezbollah gives up its weapons — as every other militia in Lebanon did at the end of the 1975-1990 Civil War — they lose their value to Iran and Syria as a force on the northern flank of Israel. They would be just another political party in Lebanon. Without that firepower, what reason is there for Syria and Iran to continue funneling money and matériel to the group? And without the money, those much-admired social services will come to an end. Lebanese are easily bought, frankly, and their loyalties are not usually so ideological. They follow leaders who deliver on patronage, jobs and services. Without the loyalty of the Shi’ites, primarily bought and paid for with those services — not, as is claimed, because of an inborn revolutionary mindset — Hezbollah would quickly fall apart.

That’s what’s at stake here. That’s why Hezbollah must have veto power and control the presidency — to prevent any decision regarding its weapons; to remove UNIFIL as an irritant in the south; to prevent the Lebanese government from extending authority to south Beirut and other areas of Hezbollahstan.

Samir Geagea, a March 14 leader, said the goal is to so paralyze Lebanon that Syria will be asked to intervene again, as it did in 1975, but he inflates the issue, I think. I think Syria very much wants a return to preeminence in its tiny neighbor, but troops are not in the cards. The plan is to return to the 2004 status quo ante, as Condoleezza Rice intoned so often during the Israel-Hezbollah war. They want to get back to a protected status in the south, being a free-range guerilla movement. They want to preserve their weapons, which is their real constituency.

Hezbollah’s plan, when it comes to Syria and its weapons, is to paralyze and protect.

Bombing in Beirut Caps Day of Violence in Lebanon

BEIRUT — Lebanon was rocked by violence today with dozens killed in fighting in the country’s north and a car bomb in a predominantly Christian neighborhood of Beirut that killed one person and wounded up to a dozen.

The day started with clashes in the northern city of Tripoli between the Lebanese Army and the Palestinian militant group, Fatah al-Islam, which the Lebanese government says is backed by Syria and shares an ideology with al Qaida. At least 22 soldiers and 17 militants were killed in fighting that lasted through much of the day.

But by the time calm had been imposed up north, a car bomb shattered windows and collapsed a building in the east Beirut neighborhood of Acrafiyeh. Reports say a woman was killed and about a dozen wounded.

The bomb was placed in a car lot next to the popular ABC Achrafiyeh mall, and the timing of the blast — at 11:40 p.m. — suggested that its intent was to cause panic and fear among the crowd exiting the movie theaters at the mall.

“It was just to scare people,” said a man in the car lot who declined to be identified. “If they really wanted to cause damage, they would have put it in the parking garage.”

As the AP reports:

The bomb left a crater about 4 feet deep and 9 feet wide, and police said the explosives were estimated to weigh 22 pounds. The blast — heard across the city — gutted cars, set vehicles ablaze and shattered store and apartment windows.

Hamid and Claudine Saliba, both 39, live across the street from the parking lot where the car exploded.

“In Lebanon, you expect anything,” said Claudine, and after today’s violence up north, she and her husband were on guard. “But not in Achrafiyeh!”

They spoke from Hamid’s mother’s home, which is two doors down from their own, and the devastation in the house was near total. Graceful Ottoman windows jambs were ripped from the walls and heavy doors torn from their hinges. Luckily for Hamid, his mother had left the house on vacation two days previously, so there were no injuries.

This is the latest in a string of car bombs that many in Lebanon suspect is aimed at destabilizing the country so that Syria can re-impose its hegemony it enjoyed for 29 years.

Initially welcomed as protectors during Lebanon’s 15-year-long civil war, Syrian maintained an iron control over Lebanon after the war ended, effectively occupying it from 1990-2005, when it withdrew its troops. The withdrawal was forced upon Damascus following massive popular protests, which the Lebanese call the “independence uprising,” in the wake of the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Many in Lebanon blame Syria for that killing and the waves of violence that have followed.

Lebanon has been on a knife’s edge since December of last year when Hezbollah and its allies, who support Syria, pulled out of the government in protest over legislation forming an international tribunal that would handle the Hariri case. Syria and its supporters vehemently oppose the tribunal, forcing the Lebanese government to petition the United Nations to impose the tribunal under Chapter 7 of the UN Charter, meaning it does not require Lebanese parliamentary approval. The tribunal is widely expected to indict high-level members of the Syrian regime, including the brother-in-law of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Tonight’s bombing — which may or may not be tied to the fighting in the north — could be seen as a message that Syria’s agents in Lebanon are prepared to unleash more violence if the tribunal is imposed on Lebanon.