While the U.S. brands Hizballah a terrorist organization, Tuesday's turnout signaled the depth of its roots in the Lebanese mainstream. The Iran-backed Islamist organization, which maintains a militia that would likely be more than a match for the Lebanese national army in the event of a showdown, currently holds more seats than any other single party in Lebanon's parliament. The party is the major voice in the Shiite community, which today may be around 40 percent of Lebanon's population.
Hizballah ostensibly rallied in solidarity with Syria, which faces overwhelming pressure from the international community to pull out its security forces. More importantly, perhaps, the event was a warning shot to anyone in the international community considering foreign intervention designed to remake Lebanon or to fill the vacuum that would result from a Syrian departure. Hizballah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah may be particularly concerned that the U.S. and France might try to send in an international stabilization force to implement UN Security Council Resolution 1559, which mandates not only Syrian withdrawal, but also the disarming of all militias an unmistakable reference to Hizballah.
Hizballah stakes its claim
Hizballah on Tuesday made clear that it will have a major say in ordering a post-Syrian Lebanon, even though right now Syria's departure is far from a done deal. Under overwhelming international pressure, Syria on Monday announced that it would withdraw its troops into the eastern Bekaa Valley, near the Syrian border, pending a full withdrawal at an unspecified later date. That's hardly sufficient to satisfy the demands of the Lebanese opposition groups, backed by the United States, for a complete withdrawal not only of Syria's 14,000 uniformed troops, but more importantly to remove the thousands of intelligence and security operatives who maintain Syria's iron grip on Lebanon's day-to-day political life.
The anti-Syrian opposition is pressing for full withdrawal ahead of parliamentary elections scheduled for May, and is using Syria's international isolation and its failure to install a new regime of its own making in Beirut to press the case. And their prospects have never been brighter, given the wave of international and domestic outrage that followed the Valentine's Day assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.
Hizballah's efforts to apply the brakes to a Syrian withdrawal signal a failure of initial opposition efforts to forge an anti-Syria consensus with Nasrallah's movement. It may be touted as non-sectarian, but in reality it represents an amalgam of traditional political forces from the Christian, Sunni Muslim and Druze communities. Hizballah speaks for the majority of Shiites. And its response to the opposition campaign betrays a measure of suspicion that its rivals may be engaging in the longstanding tradition of Lebanese factions drawing in foreign allies to reinforce their own positions.
Farewell to arms?
A Syrian withdrawal may be a major setback to Hizbollah, because Syria guarantees the air bridge from Iran that keeps Nasrallah's militias supplied with weapons. (For Damascus, enabling Hizballah in this manner was considered a strategic trump card in pressing Israel towards concluding a peace deal that would return the occupied Golan Heights to Syria. ) But the U.S. has made shutting down the movement's armed wing a priority, shared by Israel and, of course, legally mandated by Resolution 1559.
Tuesday's muscle-flexing may also be an attempt to ensure that Hizballah keeps its weapons in a post-Syria arrangement. The movement is adept at staying on-side with Lebanese public opinion, complementing its military activity, directed largely against Israel for the past decade, with a massive welfare operation among the Shiite poor and by contesting parliamentary elections Hizballah is currently the single largest party in Lebanon's patchwork parliament. Its share of parliamentary seats may even grow if the Syrians depart, since Hizballah advocates have long believed the Syrians actually cheated Nasrallah's movement out of a few seats in order to bolster the parliamentary presence of its own Shiite favorite, the Amal movement of Nabi Berri, the speaker of parliament.
Hizballah's short-term priority, however, may be ensuring that Syrian withdrawal takes place not on the basis of Resolution 1559, which it rejects, but on the basis of the Taif Agreement brokered by the Arab League in 1989 to end the Lebanese civil war which also mandates Syrian withdrawal, but does not require Hizballah's disarmament. Indeed, its success in fighting the 18-year Israeli occupation of Southern Lebanon, which ended in 2000, won Hizballah national acclaim across the political spectrum in Lebanon. (Today, it relies on a flimsier pretext for maintaining an army, claiming that it is fighting to "liberate" the Shebaa Farms, a sliver of territory occupied by Israel that Hizballah claims is part of Lebanon but which the UN regards as part of Syria. Still, Hizballah has been careful in recent years to avoid provoking Israeli retaliations so ruinous to Lebanon that they might provoke a Lebanese backlash against the militant group. They have also long been concerned to avoid being seen as a proxy of Iran or anyone else, and from a distance, Tuesday's crowds were indistinguishable from an anti-Syria rally because instead of the yellow banners of Hizballah, their supporters bore the Lebanese national flag, just as the anti-Syria protestors do.
Seeking a deal
Nasrallah may be hoping to convince the leaders of other factions to put the issue of Hizballah's militia on the back burner, arguing that it's a necessary hedge against any Israeli intervention. He may eventually even pursue the same option as have the Kurdish parties have in Iraq, maintaining their private militias on the basis that they'll be nominally integrated into the national army. Many in the Lebanese opposition may be inclined to accept this proposition, at least for now, not allowing the issue of Hizballah's arms to detract from the broad support for Syrian withdrawal. Tuesday's rally was a reminder of Hizballah's potential spoiler role if it perceives it is up against a wall.
At the same time, Hizballah's leader is signaling broad agreement with opposition objectives, even conceding that the time may now be ripe for a Syrian withdrawal. Most importantly, he shares absolute aversion of all the Lebanese factions towards any resumption of civil conflict. Violence against other Lebanese, he told his supporters on Tuesday, was a red line that dare not be crossed. Indeed, his performance led Lebanon's leading pro-Western liberal daily newspaper, the Daily Star, to enthuse in an editorial that "Hizballah is not a problem it is part of Lebanon's solution." The question, however, is whether the U.S. and other outside parties that have taken up the Lebanon issue will concur.
If Hizballah has a deep well of popular support to see it through the coming political storms, the same can't be said for its strategic ally in Damascus. The Lebanese crisis has simply highlighted the extent to which Bashar Assad finds himself caught between his own people and the security establishment on which his power depends. Assad last week concluded an exclusive interview with TIME by emphasizing, "I am not Saddam Hussein; I want to cooperate." Assad's words may be true in ways he never intended, however. He's nothing like Saddam, personally: An accident of history the car accident that killed his older brother, who had long been groomed as their autocratic father's heir thrust the then 38-year-old opthalmologist who had been living in genteel London into command of a regime grounded on a brutality that would be instantly recognizable to Saddam. Bashar's indecisive handling of the job has left the elite most involved in the regime deeply unhappy at his performance, while Syria's long-repressed citizenry sees their neighbors on both sides ridding themselves of despots. If Syria is forced to retreat from Lebanon, it's an open question whether Assad will ultimately survive the backlash both from Syria's security establishment and from its long-suffering people for whom it will be unmistakable evidence of the regime's weakness. But long after Assad departs the scene, Hizballah may continue to play a major role in Lebanon's political life.