Tehran, Damascus ascendant
Make no mistake about it, the quick, brutal display of raw military power by Hezbollah in the past six days is a window into the grim future of Lebanon and the broader Middle East: a future in which Iran and Syria are ascendant and have lost much of their fear of the United States and Israel. It sends a message to President Bush, who arrives in Israel Wednesday to commemorate that nation’s 60th birthday: that Tehran and Damascus can project power whenever they want in places like Lebanon, and the United States and it‘s allies can’t do anything about it.
At least 44 people were killed and another 128 wounded in the fighting — the worst outbreak of sectarian violence inside Lebanon since the 1975-1990 civil war. Although domestic Lebanese issues played a role in the violence, they are in- separable from the larger geopolitical issues. Ever since the Feb. 14, 2005, assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, which eventually forced Damas- cus to remove its occupation troops, Syrian President Bashar Assad has wanted to reclaim power in Lebanon. So, on May 9, after several days of street clashes between pro-government forces and opposi- tion forces, all-out warfare broke out between street gangs loyal to Hezbollah and gangs funded by Saudi Arabia and loyal to Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, a Sunni Muslim. In less than seven hours of fighting, Hezbollah forces routed the pro-government side, occupied much of Western Beirut, and plastered walls with pictures of the Syrian dictator. Government secu- rity forces, equipped and trained by the United States but paralyzed by sectarian differences, stayed out of the fighting.
Lebanese newspapers are filled with pictures of bound, blindfolded members of the defeated loyalist forces who were captured by the Hezbollah side and masked Hezbollah gunmen swaggering through Beirut, boasting how they had forced members of the losing side to beg for their lives. After capturing West Beirut, Hezbollah relinquished the area to the Lebanese Army — for now. Hezbollah (and by extension, its backers in Tehran and Damascus) have demonstrated that they and not the Lebanese government control Lebanon. Do not be surprised if very soon, an emboldened Hezbollah steps up its harassment of the United Nations peacekeepers in Southern Lebanon, laying the groundwork for another battle with Israel.