The outcome of the Lebanese political crisis may have been inevitable. On Friday Hizballahthe only force ever to defeat the Israeli army defeated forces loyal to the American-backed Lebanese government. Still, few expected that the Iranian-backed militia would triumph so quickly and so easily.
After just three days of clashes and just six hours of full-on fighting, Hizballah militants were openly in control of pro-government areas of West Beirut, making for some incongruous scenes. Bearded men with rifles and rocket launchers secured lingerie shops and a Starbucks in the commercial Hamra district, surrounded the houses of ministers and members of parliament, and watched buses evacuate students from the American University of Beirut. "It was like a field trip for us," said one Hizballah fighter standing on the Corniche, the city's seaside promenade. "Some of them were begging us not to kill them. They were literally pissing in their pants."
Indeed, the job was so easy for Hizballah that it left much of the wet work to others. On Thursday, after Hizballah leader Hassan Nasrallah denounced the government's attempt to shut down a private Hizballah telecom network used to coordinate military activity, opposition street gangs backed by a few trained fighters flushed out pro-government gangs from their positions. Hizballah regulars emerged only to close things out and make lightning incursions into West Beirut on Friday. By Saturday morning, most of them had vanished.
The Lebanese political landscape has now been transformed. For all its supposed superpower support, the ruling coalition turned out to be built on sand. The Saudi-funded street gangs were amateurs. The pro-government Internal Security Forces, equipped and trained by the United States, stayed out of the fight. And the the Lebanese army stayed neutral rather than risk splitting apart. Though prime minister Fouad Siniora made a defiant speech Saturday saying that the government would not fall into the hands of an Iranian coup, he has little choice other than to resign.
In its place, Hizballah wants a so-called national unity government with a large enough Hizballah contingent to give them veto power over all decisions. This was the group's original demand when, after the 2006 war with Israel, it launched a street campaign to topple the government, which Hizballah accused of carrying out an American plan to disarm the militia. With a new national unity government in place, Hizballah will have secured its existence as an armed state-within-the-state.
Which means that American policy in Lebanon is now in tatters. The U.S. has tried almost everything in its efforts to de-fang Hizballah: designating it a terrorist organization; securing a UN Security Council resolution calling for it to disarm; encouraging Israel to invade Lebanon in 2006; and finally, pushing the Lebanese government into unsustainable game of brinkmanship with the Shia Muslim militant group.
But now Hizballah has almost an entire country in which it can securely headquarter operations and train for war with Israel. And unlike the easily isolated Hamas-controlled Gaza strip, Lebanon is a mountainous country with a long coast, porous borders, anti-Israeli neighbors, an excellent banking system and an international airport. No doubt flights from Tehran will be among the first to resume when Hizbballah re-opens the airport.
Unable to isolate the entire country, the U.S. and Israel will begin thinking about their military options. There aren't many. The last time the US sent troops here the expedition ended badly, with the bombing of the Marine Corps barracks in 1982. But the Israeli army, which has been re-training furiously since its Lebanon debacle in 2006, may want feel less restraint from going to war with a country now dominated by its adversaries.
If there is any consolation for Israel and America from the Hizballah takeover, it is that Lebanon is famously ungovernable. With 17 different sects and a constitution that divides power among religious groups, bold power grabs by any one group are usually ephemeral and followed by chaos. It as if those whom the gods would destroy, first they put in charge of Lebanon.