Sunday, May 11, 2008

Hezbollah appears the winner in the ongoing test of strength in Lebanon. The Lebanese government turned over to the army the decisions on shutting down Hezbollah's private telelphone network and the firing of the airport security chief, who had allowed Hezbollah to install its own security cameras. The army, still headed by the Michel Suleiman, the compromise candidate for Lebanese president, then revoked the government's decisions. Hezbollah, in return, withdrew its fighters from West Beirut, but continues to demand a government in which Shiites will have one third of the cabinet seats and hence veto power. Its fighter will also continue to carry weapons openly.

These moves have quieted Beirut, but fighting between government supporters and the opposition broke out on Saturday in Tripoli and on Sunday in mountain villages southeast of Beirut, a mainly Druze area. Druze leader and government supporter Walid Jumblatt called on his rival and opposition supporter Talal Arslan to stop the fighting and submit to army control. As this fighting demonstrates, the alignment of forces is not entirely along communal lines. While the Shiite parties, viz., Hezbollah and Amal, are in the opposition and the Sunni generally support the government, the Druze and Christians are split, mainly as a consequence of factions within these communities trying to increase their respective power and resources through opportunistic alliances. The fragmentation is far from that during the civil war, when militias were ubiquitous and rivalries played down to the street and family level. But it might be heading there.

The Arab League has dispatched an emergency mediation team to Beirut. It will meet with Hezbollah chairman Nasrallah and Sunni leader Sa'ad Hariri, in the hopes of getting their agreement to the long-delayed appointment of a new Lebanese president, a principal part of any exit strategy from the crisis. Lebanese PM Fuad Siniora in the meantime, according to the Israel press, bitterly criticized Hezbollah, saying "not even the enemy Israel dared do to Beirut what Hezbollah has done" [armed occupation and shutting access to the airport]. The rhetoric is especially provocative, because the rationalization in Lebanon for Hezbollah maintaining a heavily armed militia is its being the de facto resistance to any Israel incursions.

Hezbollah's convincing show of strength moves the regional balance of power toward its partron Iran. Iran also scored a symbolic success in Iraq this week, when it again brokered a face-saving truce for the Al-Maliki government in its indecisive struggle against the Mehdi army in Sadr city. These gains increase the unlikely prospects for diplomatic-political efforts to reduce Iranian influence, say, detaching Syria from its alliance with Iran or promoting a tacit alliance between Israel and Sunni Arab states . So Israel leaders will see little purpose in discussing peace with Syria at this time or speeding up peace negotiations with the Palestinians. Instead, feeling bracketed by Iranian clients, they are more likely to seek coordination with the Bush administration on some intervention in Lebanon or even confrontation with Iran.

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