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Eye on the News

Michael J. Totten
The Swing State of the Levant
In kaleidoscopically shifting Lebanon, things are rarely what they seem.
13 October 2011

According to a fresh batch of diplomatic cables from Lebanon released by Wikileaks, the Hezbollah-led “March 8” coalition that dominates Beirut’s government could fatally rupture if Syrian president Bashar al-Assad is overthrown or if the Israel Defense Forces deliver a knock-out punch during a new round of war.

One cable describes how Nabih Berri, Lebanon’s Speaker of Parliament and Hezbollah’s supposedly most loyal and powerful local ally, reacted during Israel’s bombardment of South Lebanon during the 2006 war: “Berri condemned the ferocity of Israel’s military response,” the cable says, “but admitted that a successful Israeli campaign against Hezbollah would be an excellent way to destroy Hezbollah’s military aspirations and discredit their political ambitions. . . . We are certain that Berri hates Hezbollah as much, or even more, than the [Western-backed] March 14 politicians; after all, Hezbollah’s support . . . is drawn from the Shiites who might otherwise be with Berri.”

Like Hezbollah, Berri is Shia, but unlike the Party of God (the meaning of Hezbollah’s name in Arabic), he is no Islamist. He’s the leader of Amal, an avowedly secular party. Amal and Hezbollah fought pitched battles against each other during Lebanon’s long civil war, which ran from 1975 to 1990. They later patched things up, presumably because each thought the other useful, but also because Lebanon’s politics, like Iraq’s, are inherently sectarian, making it logical for Shia parties to stick together and advance their community’s interests against the Sunni, Christian, and Druze competition. Both explanations can be ruled out, though, if Berri really was pleased by the shellacking the Israelis dealt out. The most likely reason he acts as a yes-man for Hezbollah and its patron regime in Damascus is that otherwise he’d be assassinated. The Lebanese landscape is littered with memorials to murdered politicians, many of whom were killed recently. Former prime minister Rafik Hariri, whose assassination in central Beirut kicked off the Cedar Revolution against Syria’s military occupation in 2005, is only the most notable.

Berri does what he’s told, but apparently he isn’t drinking anyone’s Kool-Aid. In 2006, he told then-U.S. ambassador to Lebanon Jeffrey Feltman that Assad’s speech boasting of Hezbollah’s “divine victory” against Israel was “stupid” and “unbelievable.” And in 2007, he even went so far as to ask for American help against Lebanon’s former president Emile Lahoud, an Assad toady installed by Damascus during Syria’s long occupation. Berri described him as a “bastard.” “Berri,” another cable says, “sought Washington’s help in derailing what the speaker suspected is a diabolical Syrian-inspired plot Lahoud plans to implement to destroy Lebanon’s parliament. Berri outlined a scenario in which Lahoud, drawing on his insistence that the [then cabinet headed by Fouad] Siniora does not legally exist, will use a creative interpretation of the constitution to dissolve parliament unilaterally when it fails to meet in its ordinary session that expires May 31.”

It hardly matters why Berri seems privately to loathe the Syrian-Iranian-Hezbollah bloc to which he nominally belongs. All that matters is that he does, and that if the regional circumstances were different—if, say, Assad’s regime is overthrown or if Hezbollah’s fighters get knocked back hard enough on their heels—Berri may well abandon his masters and take roughly half of Lebanon’s Shias with him.

The alliance between Amal and Hezbollah has always been tense. Not only have they wrestled for dominance over the Shia community; their ideologies are also drastically different. Hezbollah is a theocratic terrorist army that takes its opinions and orders from the Islamic Republic regime in Iran. Amal members and officials are routinely spotted at Beirut’s decadent nightclubs. They drink, they party, and they have sex before marriage. Their lifestyles are Western, even if their politics aren’t. They wouldn’t take kindly to the reactionary, Iranian-style laws that Hezbollah’s Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah would impose on them if he had the power.

Berri isn’t the only supposed Hezbollah ally who doesn’t toe the line behind closed doors. Suleiman Franjieh, head of the small Christian Marada movement, told Ambassador Feltman that a negotiated settlement with Israel “would get rid of the Hezbollah problem.” He thought negotiations should proceed alongside Syria’s. While there’s virtually no chance Assad would ever sign a peace treaty—he can’t make peace with Syrians, let alone with Israelis—Hezbollah is doubtless disturbed to find that its on-paper ally thinks of the group as a “problem” that can be solved by an agreement with Israel.

Another cable published by Wikileaks earlier this year must have really infuriated Hezbollah. Lebanon’s current prime minister, Najib Mikati, reportedly described the party as “cancerous” and hoped one day to see its powerful state-within-a-state destroyed. This is the man who recently replaced the anti-Syrian prime minister, Saad Hariri, at Hezbollah’s insistence. The Syrian regime and its Lebanese proxy spent an enormous amount of time and effort getting him into power—and yet it turns out that he, too, opposes them.

Off the record, a number of Lebanese officials and political leaders have told me shocking things about Israel and Hezbollah—things that went way beyond what I or anyone else would expect them to say. I can’t tell you who said what—I don’t want to put anyone on a hit list—but it has been clear for some time, at least to those of us who know some of these people, that the real political views of Beirut’s elite are very different from what they say on the record. Almost all of them feel the point of a gun in their back when they speak publicly. The minute Hezbollah looks sufficiently weak, many of its “allies” are likely to bolt.

The party’s least reliable ally, Walid Jumblatt, the leader of Lebanon’s Druze minority, is already publicly turning. He has been compelled twice by serious threats of violence (against himself and his community) to submit to temporary “alliances” with Syria and Hezbollah. Everyone in Lebanon knows that he only works with Damascus when he’s under duress. Such cooperation is acutely painful to him since Assad’s ruthless late father, Hafez al-Assad, had his own father, Kamal Jumblatt, killed in 1977. The younger Jumblatt had to resubmit to Syrian power after Hezbollah, with help from thugs aligned with the Syrian Social Nationalist Party and Berri’s Amal militia, conquered West Beirut in May 2008. Jumblatt was left with no choice but to abandon his friends in the “March 14” bloc and work for Syria’s and Hezbollah’s interests, but he’s gearing up to switch yet again. While most of Hezbollah’s supposed friends in the Parliament are working to stymie the United Nations Special Tribunal for Lebanon—which recently issued arrest warrants for Hezbollah members wanted for the Hariri assassination—Jumblatt says Lebanon’s government must “abide by international resolutions” and cooperate with the U.N.

Jumblatt, like Druze leaders in Syria and Israel, sides with the strong horse. This makes him an excellent weathervane in a kaleidoscopically shifting swing state. If you want to know which way history is moving in Lebanon, you figure out whom Walid Jumblatt is siding with. As usual when transitioning from one side to another and hedging his bets, he’s splitting the political difference. Talk of disarming Hezbollah is “premature,” he says.

That should hardly give the Party of God much comfort. For his careful use of that word—and he chooses all of his words carefully—suggests that he thinks Lebanon isn’t ready to disarm Hezbollah today, but will be eventually.

Michael J. Totten is a contributing editor at City Journal and author of In the Wake of the Surge and The Road to Fatima Gate.

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