Deadly miscalculation in Lebanon
- A deadly miscalculation in Lebanon
DAMASCUS - The Lebanese government made a fatal underestimation of
how far leaders of the Shi'ite group Hezbollah would go to preserve
what they believe are their rights, such as an intelligence network
and the freedom to carry weapons.
The result is at least 81 people dead in clashes across the country
since violence erupted on May 6; a political and military victory
for Hezbollah and Iran and a stinging setback for the government and
The crises was sparked last week in Beirut when the government of
Prime Minister Fouad al-Siniora ordered the communication and
surveillance network at Runway 17 of Beirut Airport be dismantled,
claiming it was "illegal and unconstitutional".
The decision was taken at a cabinet meeting on May 6 that lasted
until 4 am, lobbied for by Telecommunications Minister Marwan
Hamadeh. The network is one of the primary espionage tools used by
Hezbollah in its war against Israel, keeping tabs on comings and
goings at Beirut Airport.
Adding insult to injury, the Lebanese government dismissed Wafiq
Shuqayr, the Shi'ite security commander of the airport, for planting
the system in accordance with Hezbollah's wishes, supposedly behind
the back of Siniora.
Hezbollah cried foul, claiming the network had been in place for
years, adding that dismantling it was a red line because otherwise
Beirut Airport would be "transformed into a base for the the CIA,
the FBI and Mossad, referring to American and Israeli intelligence.
Hezbollah secretary general Hasan Nasrallah spoke just hours after
the crisis started, saying the communication system and Shuqyar
were "red lines" that could not be crossed. He reminded his audience
that when Siniora became prime minister in 2005, one of the main
points of his political program was "supporting the resistance" and
giving it (Hezbollah) a free hand to wage its "war of liberation"
against Israel in any way it saw fit.
Veteran Shi'ite cleric Abdul-Amir Qabalan, deputy chairman of the
Higher Shi'ite Council, contacted the Lebanese government and
advised it to back down, warning that Nasrallah must not be provoked
and that he would not stand by and watch his security system being
torn down. Qabalan said, "Touching this communication system affects
our nationalism, integrity and loyalty to the nation."
The government refused to change course, arguing that security must
be monopolized by the state and that it was inconceivable that a non-
state party like Hezbollah could run a parallel security system at
In this stubbornness, the government failed to anticipate the value
Hezbollah places on what it believed its key rights. Worse, Defense
Minister Elias al-Murr, Interior Minister Hasan al-Sabe and Public
Persecutor Said Mirza were tasked to create a team to look into
other security violations committed by Hezbollah.
Engineering the escalation was Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, a one-
time Nasrallah friend now turned enemy, who knew that within 48
hours the United Nations Security Council was due to discuss
resolution 1559, regarding the disarmament of Hezbollah, which has
yet to be fully implemented.
Nasrallah angrily replied that "we will cut the arm" of whoever
tries to dismantle the arms of Hezbollah, claiming that security
networks were weapons, just like missiles and guns. He then reminded
that in the past, he would always say that "our weapons will never
be used internally", but this time he warned that "weapons will be
used to guard weapons".
He was not understating the situation. By the evening of May 7, all
hell had broken lose in Beirut.
Hezbollah troops took to the streets of the capital and were
confronted by armed men loyal to parliamentary majority leader Saad
al-Hariri and Druze leader Jumblatt. Road blocks were set up all
over the city, bringing back haunting memories of the 17-year civil
war that ended in 1990, and snipers showed up on rooftops.
The Hariri-led March 14 Coalition cried foul, claiming that
Hezbollah had launched a coup and taken over the (in the lightening
speed of six hours). Parallels were drawn between Hezbollah's
behavior in Beirut and the Hamas takeover of Gaza in 2007.
Nasrallah denied a coup was in the making, saying, "Had we wanted a
coup, they government leaders would have woken up to find themselves
in jail, or [thrown) in the sea."
Hezbollah fighters did storm entire neighborhoods of Beirut loyal to
Hariri, aided by Amal militiamen loyal to the Shi'ite speaker of
parliament, Nabih Berri, an ally of Nasrallah. The poor training and
weaponry of the Hariri team was no match for the sophisticated war
machine of Hezbollah, which managed to ward off a massive Israeli
attack in 2006.
So amateurish were Hariri's men that it almost seemed as if they had
no arms at all. They were round up in hours, disarmed and handed
over to the Lebanese army. Rather than take control of the
districts - to prove that this was not a coup - Hezbollah fighters
called up the army, a third party, asking it to take control.
Vandalism did take place, and so did an ugly exchange of words
between Hezbollah's team, who are all Shi'ite, and Hariri's men, who
are all Sunnis. One of the most telling acts was shutting down all
of Hariri's media outlets, which were very active in spreading anti-
Hezbollah propaganda, including Future TV, Future News, Orient Radio
and Future Newspaper. All of these were taken over by Hezbollah and
then handed to the army, yet hoodlums did manage to break into
Future TV and set one floor ablaze.
Many saw this as a proxy war between the Saudi Arabia-backed March
14 Coalition and the Iran-backed Hezbollah. Telecommunications
Minister Hamadeh said the entire crisis was the doing of Tehran. His
boss, Jumblatt, went even further, asking for the expulsion of the
Iranian ambassador from Beirut.
Jumblatt's tone changed, however, 48 hours into the confrontation,
when the fighting ended in Beirut and shifted to Druze villages
overlooking the Lebanese capital. Hezbollah fighters surrounded his
palace in Beirut, near the American University of Beirut, but did
not invade. It was clear for Jumblatt, one of the United States'
main and newfound allies in Lebanon, that it was pointless to resist
Jumblatt got on the phone with Nabih Berri, the Nasrallah-allied
speaker of parliament, and said, "I am a hostage now in my home in
Beirut. Tell Sayed Hasan Nasrallah I lost the battle and he wins. So
let's sit and talk to reach a compromise. All that I ask is your
Nasrallah and Jumblatt had been good friends and strong allies
during the heyday of the Syrian presence in Lebanon. The Druze
leader had positioned himself as one of the main protectors of
Hezbollah arms throughout the 1990s. A political animal, however, he
changed sides when it was clear the Syrians had fallen out with
Washington after the Iraq war and he transformed himself into one of
the loudest critics of Syrian power in Beirut.
He put his full bet on the Americans, patched up with the George W
Bush White House (which he had once accused of staging the September
11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington) and became an
aggressive critic of Nasrallah. In his speech on the eve of
hostilities, Nasrallah said that the plan to transform Beirut
Airport into a base for the US Central Intelligence Agency, the
Federal Bureau of Investigation and Mossad was the brainchild
of "the government of Walid Jumblatt".
Intense fighting between Druze forces and Shi'ite militiamen raged
on in the villages of Shouf, the towns of Aley and Shuwayfat,
raising red sirens throughout Lebanon. This is where heavy fighting
had taken place in the civil war - and although the war ended nearly
20 years ago - the wounds have not healed.
Two Hezbollah members were killed in the Druze districts, and
another disappeared, prompting Jumblatt to give an urgent press
conference, accepting blame for the entire ordeal and calling on his
troops to lay down their arms, avoid a sectarian outburst, and
transfer order of the districts to the Lebanese army.
Jumblatt added, "I must admit that the Iranians are smart and they
knew how to play it in Lebanon. They chose a time when the US is
weak in the Middle East and did it."
Calm was restored to Beirut when the government, with as much face-
saving as possible, revoked its earlier decisions by transferring
the issue of the communication system, and the security commander of
Beirut Airport, to the army. Instead of executing the orders Army
Commander Michel Suleiman, a neutral third party, declared both
null. It is still unclear if the Siniora cabinet will issue a formal
apology for its actions, as the Hezbollah-led opposition is
Regardless, it was a political and military victory for Hezbollah.
The March 14 claims it was a moral victory for itself as well,
saying that they had helped prevent a civil war by backing down on
their earlier legislation. To date, while fighting continues in the
Druze mountains, and has even reached as far north as Tripoli, the
government has not resigned. Not even has Interior Minister Hassan
al-Sabe, who is a member of March 14.
Rumors circulated in Beirut that Siniora wanted to step down when
the fighting was at its peek, but was prevented from doing so by
Saudi Arabia. The Saudis, enraged by what was happened in Beirut,
realized that Iran - and the Syrians - had taken the upper hand in
True, Hezbollah has restored all "occupied" districts to the army,
but it is clear they were far superior in power, training, arms and
logistics to Saudi Arabia's proxies in Lebanon. Additionally, they
have done it once. Nothing prevents them from doing it again at any
time the Saudi-backed government tries to dismantle, crush or curb
When a coup is not a coup
Speaking at the southern village of Bint Jbeil in 2005, Nasrallah
once said, "There is talk of disarming the resistance. Any thought
of disarming the resistance is pure madness. We do not want to
attack anyone. We have never done so. And we will never allow anyone
to attack Lebanon. But if anyone, no matter who, even thinks about
disarming the resistance, we will fight him like the martyr-seekers
That sums it up. Nasrallah will not allow anybody to touch the arms
of Hezbollah and is willing to fight to maintain his status, and
that of his party, in the Arab-Israeli conflict. His supporters
argue that as a pragmatic leader, and a cunning statesman who excels
in psychological warfare, he does not want to rule Beirut.
He is neither interested nor politically able (although it would be
easy, in military terms). He realizes that the confessional system
of Lebanon is too complicated for such a task, and said it bluntly
last Wednesday, "If they told us to come take over, we would say 'no
Had he wanted a real coup, he would not have transferred control to
the Lebanese army, nor would he have laid down his arms in Beirut.
He would have invaded and stormed the homes of Jumblatt and Hariri
and arrested both of them, along with Siniora, and set up a new
government, to his liking, and to that of Iran. But that is an
illogical scenario that would never pass.
What he did last week in Beirut was show his power - flex his
muscles - and tell the world, "I am still here. Still in control and
still powerful - or as some would say, king - in Lebanese politics."
It was a rude wake-up call to all those who imagined he would never
go this far to bring his message to the region and the international
Sami Moubayed is a Syrian political analyst.
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