Thursday, May 29, 2008

Hassan Nasrallah is trapping himself

Hassan Nasrallah is trapping himself
By Michael Young
Daily Star staff
Thursday, May 29, 2008

Listening to the speeches of President Michel Suleiman and Hizbullah's Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah earlier this week, it is becoming apparent that there are really only two projects in Lebanon today: There is the project of the state, which Suleiman and the parliamentary majority embody, assuming the president abides by his public statements; and there is the project of a non-state, supported by Hizbullah and its allies.

If that wasn't plain enough, then consider what happened on Monday night, after Suleiman had spent his first day at the Baabda Palace. Hizbullah and Amal partisans, as has become their habit lately, fired in the air to celebrate Nasrallah's speech, then took to the streets and began firing at their political adversaries. In the Bekaa Valley much the same thing happened. There was a message there, perhaps more a Syrian than an Iranian one this time around, and it was that the new president should not imagine he will be able to build up a state against Hizbullah.

Thanks to the Israelis, who may soon hand a grand prisoner exchange to Hizbullah, Nasrallah may earn a brief reprieve for his "resistance." It's funny how Hizbullah and Syria, always the loudest in accusing others of being Israeli agents, are the ones who, when under pressure, look toward negotiations with Israel for an exit. Hizbullah has again done so to show that its "defense strategy" works and to deflect growing domestic insistence that the party place its weapons at the disposal of the state.

Nasrallah has started peddling what he thinks Lebanon's defense strategy should be. Hizbullah's model is the summer 2006 war, he explained this week. But if the defense strategy Hizbullah wants us to adopt is one that hands Israel an excuse to kill over 1,200 people, turn almost 1 million civilians out into the streets for weeks on end while their villages are bombed and their fields are saturated with fragmentation bomblets; if Nasrallah's strategy is one that will lead to the destruction of Lebanon's infrastructure, the ruin of its economy, the emigration of its youths, the isolation of the Shiites in a society infuriated with Hizbullah's pursuit of lasting conflict; if that's his defense strategy, then Nasrallah needs to get out of his bunker more and see what is really going on in Lebanon.

The only good thing that came out of the 2006 war, the only thing that both a majority of Lebanese and the Shiite community together approved of, was the deployment of the Lebanese Army to the South, the strengthening of UNIFIL, and the pacification of the border area. The Lebanese approved of this because it made less likely a return to Nasrallah's inane defense strategy. Unless of course the Hizbullah leader is now telling us that the neutralization of Hizbullah's military activities along the frontier with Israel was also a part of that strategy, because in practical terms it too was a result of the 2006 war.

Nasrallah's speech only reaffirmed that Hizbullah cannot find an exit to its existential dilemma, other than to coerce its hostile countrymen into accepting its armed mini-state. Very simply, the days of the national resistance are over. The liberation of the Shebaa Farms does not justify Hizbullah's existence as a parallel force to the army, and it does not justify initiating a new war with Israel. After all, the Syrians have a much larger territory under occupation and have preferred negotiations to conflict in order to win it back. As Suleiman implied, the best thing that can happen now is for Hizbullah to share with the state its resistance expertise, which was a gentle way of saying that the party must integrate into the state.

Nasrallah's defensiveness also revealed something else, almost as worrying as his untenable position on Hizbullah's defense strategy. It revealed that the party views Doha as a setback. Nasrallah is right in that respect. The agreement negotiated by the Qataris was several things. It was, above all, a line drawn in the sand by the Sunni Arab world against Iran and Syria, telling them that Lebanon would not fall into their lap. In this the Qataris were part of an Arab consensus, and the Iranians, always pragmatic, backtracked when seeing how resolute the Arabs were.

But the Doha agreement was mainly a failure for Syria. Damascus had planned to use the open-ended political vacuum in Beirut as leverage to bring in a new president and government on its conditions, to negotiate Syria's return to the Arab fold from a position of strength, to torpedo the Hariri tribunal, and to prepare an eventual Syrian military return to Lebanon. The Qataris thwarted this, and in a conversation between Syrian President Bashar Assad and Qatar's Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani, Assad was pushed into approving Suleiman's election. As a last measure he tried to prevent the granting of 16 ministerial portfolios to the March 14 coalition - a simple majority in the 30-minister government allowing the coalition to have a quorum for regular Cabinet sessions. Sheikh Hamad rejected this and Assad had no choice but to relent, before instructing Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri to accept the Qatari plan.

Hizbullah's plan was little different than that of the Syrians, so the Qataris substantially complicated Nasrallah's calculations as well. Suleiman is still an unknown quantity, but if he sticks to the principles highlighted in his inauguration speech, Hizbullah will be squeezed. Unlike the time when Emile Lahoud was still around and formed, with Berri, an alliance against Siniora, if the next prime minister and Suleiman can craft a joint strategy to strengthen the authority of the state, it is Berri, as the senior opposition figure and Shiite in office, who may find himself out on a limb.

Speaking of Berri, Hizbullah's bloc may have made a grave mistake in choosing yesterday to name no favorite as prime minister. That means that the bloc is ignoring the wishes of the Sunni community to bring back Siniora. Recall that when Berri was elected as Parliament speaker in 2005, those parliamentarians voting for him defended the choice on the grounds that "the Shiites want him." By inference, in not naming Siniora yesterday, mainly because the Syrians oppose him, the opposition has given the future majority in Parliament, if it happens to be a majority opposed to Hizbullah and Amal, an opening to reject Berri's re-election as speaker in 2009, regardless of whether the Shiites want him.

The ink on the Doha agreement is barely dry, but already Hizbullah and Syria are trying to water down its terms. Nasrallah's speech showed that he has no intention of entering into a substantive discussion on his party's weaponry. His promise not to use his guns in the pursuit of domestic political goals was meaningless, as he has already done so. In fact, his reading of what he can do with his weapons is much more advantageous to Hizbullah than what the Doha agreement stipulates. But Nasrallah has a problem. Most Lebanese want a real state and most Shiites don't want another war with Israel. Hizbullah, in contrast, doesn't want a real state but needs permanent war to remain relevant. That's Nasrallah's trap.

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