A Qatar-mediated agreement between the pro-U.S. government and the opposition Hizbollah ends an 18-month-old stalemate in Lebanon.
In the third week of May, responding to a series of uncalled for provocations from the pro-American rump government led by Fouad Siniora, Hizbollah militias swept through the capital Beirut and inflicted a comprehensive defeat on rival Sunni and Druze militias. The Lebanese Army stood aside and watched as Hizbollah militias, aided in many areas by fighters owing allegiance to Amal, the second biggest Shia-dominated party, sent the government-backed militias packing.
The Siniora government was at the mercy of the Hizbollah after three days of fighting. The Sunni- and Druze-controlled parts of Beirut and surrounding areas were captured by the Hizbollah militia. The Christian militias largely stayed out of the confrontation. The fighting, which spread to cities such as Tripoli, claimed the lives of 81 people.
Western commentators, with inputs from Israeli experts, were quick to proclaim that Lebanon had once again descended into full-scale civil war of the kind that had gripped the country from 1975 to 1990. But the Hizbollah, under the leadership of Sheikh Hassan Nasrullah, was only interested in breaking the political stalemate that had paralysed the country for the past 18 months. It promptly handed over control of the areas it had captured to the non-sectarian Lebanese Army. The message the Hizbollah sent was loud and clear: that it can control most of Lebanon very quickly if it really wants to and that it is the most potent fighting force in the country.
The Siniora government saw the writing on the wall and heeded its Arab neighbours calls for emergency peace talks. High-level talks, involving all the political factions in Lebanon, began in Doha as soon as the fighting ended. On May 20, a deal mediated under the auspices of the Qatari government was reached to end a year and a half of civil strife. Almost all the long-standing demands of the Hizbollah were met. The opposition, led by the Hizbollah, was given veto powers in the Cabinet. It was also allotted 11 seats in the Cabinet, with the 16 remaining in the hands of the ruling bloc. Previously, the opposition had only six seats.
The deal also included the election of the Army chief, Michel Suleman, as the new President of the country. Suleman, who is widely accepted, is known to be an independent-minded personality. He was sworn in soon after being elected on May 25. Lebanon was without a President and a fully functioning government after the Hizbollah and its allies, which include the leading Christian Party led by Michel Aoun, had walked out of the government a year and a half ago.
It was also announced in Qatar that a new government of national unity will be formed. The Lebanese Constitution mandates that all the major sects should be represented in the Cabinet.
After the opposition boycott, Shias, who constitute more than 40 per cent of the population, were unrepresented in the Cabinet. In protest, Nabil Berri, the Speaker of the Legislature, refused to convene the Assembly. Berri is the leader of Amal. Under the Constitution, the Speaker has to be a Shia.
The opposition won another of its long-standing demands a revision of the countrys outdated electoral laws. The new law being envisaged will reflect the reality of todays Lebanon, with all the sects getting adequate representation.
The chief negotiator for the Hizbollah at the talks, Mohammad Raad, was quite self-effacing about the outcome. He said neither side got all it demanded, but the agreement is a good balance between the demands of all the parties.
An 18-month sit-in by the opposition in the centre of Beirut, which had paralysed commercial activities, was lifted as soon as the Qatar agreement was announced. The deal was a belated recognition of the fact that Lebanon can survive as a united country only if all the groups representing the multi-religious and multi-ethnic character of the state are allowed to share power.
Under pressure from the Bush administration and the governments of neighbouring countries such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt, the Siniora government had tried to sideline the Hizbollah. The United States had declared the largest party in the country a terrorist organisation. The Siniora government had acquiesced with the Bush administration and demanded that the Hizbollah militia be disarmed.
These moves came just after the Hizbollah inflicted a military defeat on Israel in 2006. Before that, in 2000, because of Hizbollahs guerilla war, Israel had to withdraw from most of the areas in southern Lebanon it had occupied since the 1967 Arab-Israel war.
By the middle of May, the Hizbollah had no option but to take the military path. Despite Nasrullah emphasising on several occasions that his party did not want an Islamic republic in Lebanon and that its primary aim was to have a fair share in decision-making, the Siniora government continued to adopt a tough posture. The Hizbollah was vilified as Irans cats paw in the region despite its record as a time-tested fighter for Lebanons sovereignty. The partys self-restraint was taken as weakness in many quarters. Encouraged by Washington, Saudi Arabia poured in money and arms to strengthen the militias and the parties opposed to the Hizbollah.
The pleas of opposition parties for a national unity government were being continuously rebuffed. There was persistent talk in Washington and Tel Aviv of another Israeli attack on Lebanon to avenge the 2006 defeat and also to bolster the pro-Western Siniora government. The Western media were full of stories of an emerging Israel-Lebanon axis that would jointly combat the scourge of terrorism in West Asia.
Ominously, from the Hizbollah perspective, the Siniora government in early May ordered the disbanding of the fixed-line telecommunications network controlled by the party. The government also ordered the immediate transfer of the senior military officer in charge of airport security at the Beirut international airport. Israeli and Western intelligence agencies can monitor all telecommunications in the region. The Hizbollah network is one of the few exceptions.
The network was crucial to the victory it had won against the Israeli army in 2006. The Israeli army is the most powerful fighting force in the region. Washington has given high priority to the disabling of the Hizbollah communications network before it thinks of launching attacks on either Syria or Iran. There were also credible reports that Israel planned to use the Beirut airport as a major landing point in its next military offensive against the Hizbollah with the tacit approval of the Siniora government.
Critics of the government say that the transfer of the airport security chief was part of this exercise. The officer in charge of security was known to be sympathetic to the Hizbollah. Nasrullah called the action a declaration of war against the resistance.
The Druze leader, Walid Jumblatt, who these days is competing with Saad Hariri (son of the late Rafiq Hariri) to be Americas favourite in Lebanon, had in a press conference, alleged that the Hizbollah was spying on the Lebanese state. Mohammad Bazzi, an expert on Lebanese affairs, told reporters that the interpretation on the streets of Beirut was that the Siniora government wanted to provoke the Hizbollah before the end of the Bush administrations term in office. Unfortunately for Siniora and his allies, Washington refused to lend a helping hand. USS Cole has been off the coast of Lebanon for some time now. However, President Bush did make a strong statement supporting the beleaguered Siniora government.
In a sense, the Hizbollah action was a pre-emptive move against the forces, both local and international, that were intent on neutralising it politically and militarily. In a televised speech on May 8, Nasrullah described the Siniora governments recent moves as treachery and said that the time had come to defend the arms of the resistance.
The Hizbollahs victory has dealt another severe blow to American credibility in the region. Along with Hamas, the Hizbollah was being demonised by the Bush administration. Bush had made Lebanon the centrepiece of his policy on West Asia. Lebanese commentator Rami Khoury said that the recent events could be interpreted as a huge defeat for the United States and its failed diplomatic approach that seeks to confront, battle and crush the Islamist-nationalists throughout the region.
Israeli military intelligence chief Major General Amos Yadlin told the Israeli newspaper Haaretz that the Hizbollah had proved that it was the strongest power in Lebanon. Reports appearing in the Israeli media also suggest that a planned Israeli military attack on Lebanon was aborted because American and French intelligence had reported that Tel Aviv would be subjected to a barrage of 600 rockets in the first 24 hours in retaliation. There were also reports that Israel was planning an attack on May 11 to help the Sunni and Druze militias led by Saad Hariri and Walid Jumblatt, who were battling the resistance forces led by the Hizbollah.