According to a fresh batch of diplomatic cables from Lebanon released by Wikileaks, the Hezbollah-led March 8 coalition that dominates Beiruts 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, Lebanons Speaker of Parliament and Hezbollahs supposedly most loyal and powerful local ally, reacted during Israels bombardment of South Lebanon during the 2006 war: Berri condemned the ferocity of Israels military response, the cable says, but admitted that a successful Israeli campaign against Hezbollah would be an excellent way to destroy Hezbollahs 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, Hezbollahs 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 Hezbollahs name in Arabic), he is no Islamist. Hes the leader of Amal, an avowedly secular party. Amal and Hezbollah fought pitched battles against each other during Lebanons long civil war, which ran from 1975 to 1990. They later patched things up, presumably because each thought the other useful, but also because Lebanons politics, like Iraqs, are inherently sectarian, making it logical for Shia parties to stick together and advance their communitys 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 hed 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 Syrias military occupation in 2005, is only the most notable.
Berri does what hes told, but apparently he isnt drinking anyones Kool-Aid. In 2006, he told then-U.S. ambassador to Lebanon Jeffrey Feltman that Assads speech boasting of Hezbollahs divine victory against Israel was stupid and unbelievable. And in 2007, he even went so far as to ask for American help against Lebanons former president Emile Lahoud, an Assad toady installed by Damascus during Syrias long occupation. Berri described him as a bastard. Berri, another cable says, sought Washingtons help in derailing what the speaker suspected is a diabolical Syrian-inspired plot Lahoud plans to implement to destroy Lebanons 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, Assads regime is overthrown or if Hezbollahs fighters get knocked back hard enough on their heels—Berri may well abandon his masters and take roughly half of Lebanons 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 Beiruts decadent nightclubs. They drink, they party, and they have sex before marriage. Their lifestyles are Western, even if their politics arent. They wouldnt take kindly to the reactionary, Iranian-style laws that Hezbollahs Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah would impose on them if he had the power.
Berri isnt the only supposed Hezbollah ally who doesnt 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 Syrias. While theres virtually no chance Assad would ever sign a peace treaty—he cant 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. Lebanons 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 Hezbollahs 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 cant tell you who said what—I dont 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 Beiruts 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 partys least reliable ally, Walid Jumblatt, the leader of Lebanons 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 hes under duress. Such cooperation is acutely painful to him since Assads 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 Berris 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 Syrias and Hezbollahs interests, but hes gearing up to switch yet again. While most of Hezbollahs 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 Lebanons 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, hes 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 isnt ready to disarm Hezbollah today, but will be eventually.