Hezbollah generates a natural experiment
As change continues to roil parts of the Middle East, media focus is increasing on Lebanon. The Syrian government is getting more specific in its plans for a partial pullout of its troops. However, the really interesting development is within Lebanon’s domestic political scene. Scott Wilson explains in the Washington Post about Hezbollah’s decision to ...
As change continues to roil parts of the Middle East, media focus is increasing on Lebanon. The Syrian government is getting more specific in its plans for a partial pullout of its troops. However, the really interesting development is within Lebanon's domestic political scene. Scott Wilson explains in the Washington Post about Hezbollah's decision to maintain its support for Syria:
As change continues to roil parts of the Middle East, media focus is increasing on Lebanon. The Syrian government is getting more specific in its plans for a partial pullout of its troops. However, the really interesting development is within Lebanon’s domestic political scene. Scott Wilson explains in the Washington Post about Hezbollah’s decision to maintain its support for Syria:
The leader of Hezbollah, the militant Shiite Muslim movement that for weeks has stood on the sidelines of Lebanon’s political upheaval, called Sunday for national demonstrations against what he characterized as foreign influences seeking to expel Syria, a key sponsor of the party, from the country. Hassan Nasrallah, a Shiite cleric who serves as Hezbollah’s secretary general, was critical in particular of the United States and France. His announcement dashed the hopes of Lebanese opposition leaders that the large, disciplined movement would join their cause to drive Syrian troops and intelligence services from Lebanon. The first demonstration is scheduled for Tuesday in Beirut, along an avenue near the central square where Lebanon’s anti-Syrian opposition movement has staged round-the-clock protests since the Feb. 14 assassination of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri. Nasrallah appeared after what he called an “emergency meeting” of more than 30 political parties aligned with the Syrian government, which is facing international pressure and a popular uprising here to end its 30-year presence in Lebanon…. “Freedom means that we decide for ourselves the best way to address what we see today as clear intervention of the United States and France in Lebanese internal affairs,” Nasrallah said at a news conference in the Shiite suburbs of south Beirut. “The opposition must give us explanations regarding the foreign intervention. We must convince each other that only true sovereignty means independence.” Nasrallah’s defiant position comes as an emerging Lebanese alliance of Christian, Druze and Sunni Muslim parties has turned its attention to winning parliamentary elections scheduled for this spring in the hopes of forming a government free of Syrian influence. Nasrallah appeared to serve notice that Hezbollah and a variety of smaller pro-Syrian parties intended to mount a unified campaign to prevent a government hostile to Syrian interests from emerging after the elections…. With an extensive social services network and an armed wing celebrated here for helping end the Israeli occupation of south Lebanon in 2000, Hezbollah is perhaps the most formidable player in the power-sharing system among religious-based parties. Linked to the 1983 bombings of the U.S. Embassy and Marine barracks in Beirut, Hezbollah is now recognized as a legal political party in Lebanon and controls a 12-seat bloc in parliament. The United States has placed Hezbollah and its satellite television channel on its list of terrorist organizations, and the European Union is considering adopting a similar designation. Nasrallah’s ability to mobilize perhaps hundreds of thousands of Hezbollah followers for demonstrations, in addition to other large Shiite, Sunni and pan-Arab parties that will likely take part, threatens to expose a deep gulf in Lebanese society that Syrian officials have warned could widen into the kind of sectarian strife that fueled Lebanon’s 15-year civil war. Assad, in a speech to parliament Saturday, said: “We should not remain in Lebanon one day after there is a Lebanese consensus over our presence,” something Hezbollah’s counter-demonstrations are likely to show does not exist…. Nasrallah said the international pressure against Syria and Hezbollah, which increased sharply after the assassination of Hariri, was designed to further Israel’s political goals, and he has called on several important Arab governments that have aligned themselves with the U.S. position to change course. Some Lebanese opposition leaders have called openly for Lebanon to recognize the 1949 armistice with Israel signed after the first Arab-Israeli war, a position Hariri was believed to have supported at the time of his assassination.
This will be interesting. There is no denying Hebollah’s political strength in Lebanon — however, there is also no denying that the group has been very slow to react to recent political developments. Many commentators question whether democratization in Lebanon necessarily advance U.S. interests in the region if all it does is empower groups in Hezbollah. I’ve maintained in the past that even if that short-run effect takes place, democratization remains the proper long-term strategy. However, Tuesday will provide fresh evidence of whether even the short-run costs are as great as many people fear. If Hezbollah musters fewer people than expected in counter-demonstrations, then it suggests the fear of radicalism in a democratizing Middle East might be misplaced. [And if there are huge counter-demonstrations?–ed. Hey, then I’m wrong. But the social scientist in me is more excited about the prospect that there will soon be data to examine the hypothesis than worried about being wrong.] UPDATE: The Council on Foreign Relations has an informative interview with Stephen A. Cook on the Syria-Lebanon dynamic from late February. Two useful tidbits:
Q: How much does it cost Syria to keep thousands of troops in Lebanon? Do the Lebanese pay for their expenses? A: No. The Lebanese don’t pay for them per se, but Lebanon has become an economic lifeboat for Syria. There are thousands of Syrian workers, along with Syrian soldiers, in Lebanon who send money back to Syria. There is a certain amount of smuggling that goes on through Lebanon. And so Syria, which is facing a dire economic situation right now, sees Lebanon as very important economically…. Q: Talk about the street demonstrations we’re seeing now in Lebanon. There was another one yesterday demanding that Syria get out. What are we seeing here? A: Yesterday’s demonstration was the largest yet and, according to press reports, there were tens of thousands of people in the streets screaming, “Syria out!” And like what happened in the Ukrainian situation, people are now draping themselves, not in orange, but in [the Lebanese national colors of] red and white, expressing their opposition to the Syrian presence and their opposition to the Syrian government. But there was also a rather sizeable demonstration that was held under the auspices of Hezbollah over the weekend that was a counter-demonstration, saying people should not trifle with the government, should not trifle with the Syrians, and that Hezbollah supported the current arrangements. And Hezbollah is the largest and most powerful militia–the only remaining militia–in Lebanon. So there seems to be a groundswell of average people–Muslims, Christians, and Druze–who are opposed to the Syrian occupation of Lebanon. But at the same time, Hezbollah is also able to mobilize a significant percentage of the population in support of this continued Syrian presence.
ANOTHER UPDATE: Lee Smith will be posting daily dispatches for Slate this week from Beirut. His first posting contains this amusing paragraph:
[D]uring Eid al-Adha, a major Muslim holiday commemorating Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son, Saudi tourists have just about taken over downtown, especially the restaurants where the Saudi women seem less interested in the various food choices—French, Lebanese, Moroccan, Italian, TGIF, Dunkin’ Donuts—than in smoking water pipes underneath see-through plastic tents set up in the middle of the cobblestone streets. Some of the women are fully veiled in black, but most seem to be availing themselves of the opportunity to show off their latest purchases. After a little time checking out their dresses, jewelry, hair, and make-up, it dawns on me that underneath every Saudi veil, there’s a Jersey girl dying to break free.
Smith also links to two expert blogs on what’s happening in the Fertile Crscent — Across the Bay and Syria Comment. Go check them out.
Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and co-host of the Space the Nation podcast. Twitter: @dandrezner
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