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.