Sunday, January 23, 2011

Turning up the heat on the Western frog
21 January '11

This just about says it all about prospects for Lebanon:

BEIRUT — A potential kingmaker in Lebanese politics threw his support Friday behind Hizbullah, a major boost to the Shi’ite militant group that brought down the country’s Western-backed government last week.

Walid Jumblatt, the influential leader of the Druse sect, refused to say exactly how many lawmakers are with him, but his support is key for any candidate trying to form a government…

“The party will stand firm in support of Syria and the resistance,” Jumblatt told reporters, referring to Hizbullah by the popular term.

On Thursday, Jumblatt said he was under great pressure not to name Hariri as the government’s next premier despite earlier statements throwing his support behind him, Lebanese paper an-Nahar reported.

He told members of his party that insisting on Hariri as the country’s new prime minister would lead to “catastrophic consequences” for the security of the Druse party, himself, and the Druse population in Hizbullah-controlled areas. He added that things “have become greater than him and his ability to maintain the middle ground in a harsh battle in which Hariri’s regional and international backers only resort to statements, while his opponents (Hizbullah) turn to all manners of military and popular pressure,” according to the report. — Jerusalem Post [my emphasis]

This reminds me of the possibly apocryphal story that when Churchill asked Stalin to consider the position of the Vatican about Polish autonomy, Stalin replied by asking “How many divisions does the Pope of Rome have?”

The West isn’t short on ‘divisions’ or other means of persuasion, but as Jumblatt suggests, is not prepared to take any real action to oppose Hizballah.

Earlier this week, Hizballah operatives fanned out to strategic locations throughout Beirut, unarmed, but uniformed and carrying radios. The idea seems to have been to demonstrate that a coup was not beyond their capabilities.

In the recent past Hizballah has been content to exercise control over the government without actually taking over. They’ve avoided overt actions that might trigger another bloody civil war, and have maintained the fiction that Lebanon is independent and democratic.

Now they have apparently decided that it is absolutely necessary to prevent the independent tribunal investigating the 2005 murder of former PM Rafik Hariri from announcing indictments of Hizballah members.

One wonders why this is sufficiently important to justify threats of a takeover, which could easily become violent. After all, indictments would not diminish Hizballah’s reputation among its supporters, nor could it get worse among its enemies.

One possibility is that they think such an announcement by the tribunal would spark a confrontation, and they don’t want one. I doubt this, since Hizballah is regarded by all parties as the most powerful military force in Lebanon — as Jumblatt’s surrender illustrates. Christian elements do not have the capability to oppose Hizballah alone. If the tribunal announces its indictments, very little is likely to occur.

Another possibility is that it is a pretext — that they have now decided that they want to take full control of the country. The focus on the tribunal is just indirection. But I doubt this, too, because an ‘official’ takeover would certainly make waves in the West and Israel — imagine if they declared Lebanon an Islamic republic! — and they don’t need this to achieve their main objective, which is to project Iran’s military power and threaten Israel.

Or — and I think this is most likely — perhaps they simply want to force the West to back down on the tribunal, and believe they can do it just by making threats. At the same time, when the government is reconstituted, Hizballah will end up with even more power and opponents will be weakened. They get what they want without firing a shot.

This is another so-far successful gambit in the chess game being played by Iran in which, little by little, Western influence in the Middle East is being squeezed out.

Or to use another metaphor, they are turning up the heat on the pot in which the West’s frog is being cooked, and the frog hasn’t noticed yet.

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