Losing Lebanon

The time, according to Hilal Khashan, was 10 minutes past the ceasefire. That was another way of saying 10 minutes after another Hezbollah victory, Khashan explained. I phoned Khashan -- head of the political science department at Beirut's American University -- several days into Lebanon's latest armed upheaval. He spoke in a strangely dispassionate tone I've heard before in Jerusalem and Ramallah, the voice of a man taking refuge from chaos in careful analysis.

So far, Khashan said on Sunday night, the crisis that erupted last week has yielded "a major achievement" for Hezbollah. Iran, Hezbollah's patron, has extended its influence in Lebanon. The obvious loser is the pro-Western government of Lebanon's prime minister Fouad Siniora. From Beirut, U.S. support appears to be a phantom; Bush unwilling or incapable of supporting its Lebanese allies.

From the slightly greater distance of Jerusalem, I'd add, there's another implication of the fire burning anew in Lebanon: The Bush administration's Middle East policy of confrontation, of trying to isolate opponents, is in tatters. In particular, the administration's resistance to peace talks between Israel and Syria has only served to strengthen Iran. And time is working in Tehran's favor.

The war with Israel in the summer of 2006 consolidated Hezbollah's domination of Lebanon's Shi'ite community, said Khashan. But Hezbollah realizes "that the Lebanese government would love to see them disappear. Two years ago, the government was hoping for an Israeli victory." The Shi'ite organization also "seems to be convinced that Israel wants a rematch." To prepare for the next round, Hezbollah seeks to gain control domestically. Now functioning as both a military force and the main opposition party, it demands a unity government in which it effectively has veto power.

In broad terms, the Sunni community backs the government. The Christians and Druse are split, with factions that favor Siniora and factions allied with Hezbollah and Syria.

The current crisis was set off last week by Cabinet decisions aimed at dismantling Hezbollah's private telephone network -- critical for its military communications -- and at removing Beirut airport's security chief, who has links to the Shi'ite group. If the Siniora government expected quiet acquiescence, it was wildly overconfident. Hezbollah quickly defeated pro-government Sunni fighters and took control of West Beirut. When Siniora let the army act as arbiter, the military took Hezbollah's side on both issues.

Fighting died down in Beirut but flared up first in northern Lebanon, then in the Chouf Mountains east of the capital. Pro-government Druse leader Walid Jumblatt had to turn to his opponents in the Druse community to gain a ceasefire in the mountains between his men and Hezbollah. That ceasefire unevenly went into effect a few minutes before I spoke with Khashan on Sunday evening.

The pro-government side, Khashan said, had counted on the United States coming to its aid -- either militarily or, at a minimum, by turning to the U.N. Security Council to "internationalize" the crisis. Even the threat that the U.N. might send a new contingent of peacekeeping forces to Lebanon, Khashan said, would "empower the government and encourage Hezbollah to be very careful." The expectation of American help, as Khashan understatedly puts it, was "naïve." It's hard to imagine the overextended U.S. military entering another Middle Eastern quagmire. As of this writing, U.S. diplomatic efforts have been close to invisible. "There's a sense of resignation among pro-government forces," Khashan said.

In passing, Khashan pointed to another critical aspect of the Lebanese tangle: Hezbollah depends on Syria as well as Iran. But the alliance with Damascus is purely a matter of convenience. Syria serves as a conduit for Iranian aid. "Hezbollah people don't have high regard for Syria.… They don't trust Syria," Khashan said. They fear that Damascus could "sell them" in a peace deal with Israel.

That fear has a realistic basis. Yet according to insiders in Israel, opposition from the Bush administration is a key reason that Israel-Syrian talks haven't moved further.

According to Alon Liel, the former director-general of the Israeli Foreign Ministry, who has conducted back channel negotiations with Syria, "what frightens the Syrian [political] aristocracy" is falling more deeply under Iranian hegemony and losing their own independence. "That's an even stronger motivation than getting back the Golan Heights" for Syria's desire to reach a deal with Israel.

For both Israel and Syria, Liel explains, an essential piece of any agreement would be Syria switching camps, realigning with the West, and dropping its connection to Hezbollah. Unless Syria makes that switch, Israel would regard the security risks of an agreement and withdrawal from the Golan buffer as too great. For Damascus, says Liel, the appeal is getting off America's list of countries supporting terror and gaining a new, safer patron. So there's no option of a "small deal" involving only Syria and Israel. A "large deal" involving the United States is the only option.

Ironically, notes Liel, one reason that the United States has avoided such a deal is that the Siniora government has lobbied against it. The pro-Western forces in Lebanon fear Syrian domination and want the U.S. to take a hard line against Damascus. It would hardly be the first time that a Lebanese faction expected an outside power to do its fighting for it.

But on this count, Siniora has also been preaching to the choir. The Bush administration, Liel says, is "emotionally opposed" to dealing with Syria, because "you don't talk with terror." Yet the administration has also left Siniora in the lurch facing Hezbollah. Arguably, the Lebanese government would be much better off if the U.S. had ignored Lebanese advice and pursued a deal ending Syrian support for Hezbollah.

In the meantime, Turkey has stepped in and is assiduously promoting a deal between Syria and Israel. As Israeli analyst Eyal Zisser recently wrote (PDF), the clearest sign of progress on that track is Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's comment to a Qatari paper that Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has made a commitment to return the entire Golan for peace.

If President Bush is ready to change course and back a peace process, the critical question is whether he has waited too long. Olmert is now under investigation, yet again, on corruption allegations. The scandal could cost him the minimum domestic backing needed for a diplomatic initiative. (Liel, I should note, optimistically makes the opposite argument: Olmert could best protect himself domestically with a dramatic diplomatic initiative.)

Even if Olmert weathers the storm, Hezbollah is closer to its goal of dominating Lebanon. That would make it much more difficult for Syria to cast the group off, says Liel, because it would mean cutting ties with Lebanon. The end result of the U.S. policy of isolating Syria would be that Iran would extend its sphere of influence even further.

In the best case, there's still a narrow window of opportunity, if the Bush administration can only reverse course. On the Middle East clock, the time is 10 minutes before another Iranian victory.

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