Surrendering to Hizballah

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Bryan Denton / New York Times / Redux

Shi'ite demonstrators during clashes between Hizballah opposition supporters and government backers in Beirut on May 7

There are no longer any Hizballah fighters surrounding the grand red sandstone Beirut town house belonging to Walid Jumblatt, a member of Parliament and one of the leaders of Lebanon's governing coalition. Still, Jumblatt, a top American ally, is under virtual house arrest. After the lightning speed with which opposition Hizballah fighters defeated government supporters in a six-hour battle on Thursday — only to vanish a few hours later — it became clear that it is pointless to resist the Iranian and Syrian-backed militia, which could return at any time. "I am a hostage now in my home in Beirut," he said over the telephone to his rival Nabih Berri, the speaker of parliament and a top opposition leader, while TIME waited nearby for an interview. "Tell [Hizballah leader] Sayeed Hassan Nasrallah I lost the battle and he wins. So let's sit and talk to reach a compromise. All that I ask is your protection."

As the hereditary chieftain of Lebanon's Druze Muslim minority, Jumblatt earned the nickname 'the weather vane" for being able to steer his followers through the ever changing winds of Middle East politics. A former princely vassal to the Syrian Assad regime, he switched his loyalties to the Bush administration after the invasion of Iraq, when it briefly seemed like American military power would transform the region. Yet, despite the fact that Hizballah is perhaps the world's most fearsome guerrilla organization, somehow Jumblatt misjudged the ease with which Hizballah could pull Lebanon back into the Syrian and Iranian orbit. "I must admit that the Iranians are smart and they knew how to play it in Lebanon," he said. "They chose a time when where the U.S. is weak in the Middle East and did it."

Hizballah began its campaign of protests against the Lebanese government some 17 months ago, when it accused the ruling party of siding with America in a plan to isolate and disarm the anti-Israeli militia. But until last week Hizballah, which was born as an Islamic resistance group during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, had said it would never use its weapons against fellow Lebanese. But when the Lebanese government moved to close a private Hizballah telecommunications network used for coordinating military operations, Nasrallah declared it an act of war. Hizballah fighters swung into action, shocking the nation, and practically guaranteeing the collapse of this government.

In doing so, Hizballah will have secured its existence as an armed state-within-a state, despite decades of American efforts to prevent Lebanon from being used as a staging ground for operations against Israel. But the U.S. appears unable to grasp that it no longer has any options or reliable partners left in Lebanon. American officials make statements about supporting the democratically elected Lebanese government, but essentially no such government exists. The Lebanese army, many of whose soldiers are Shi'a Muslims and support the opposition, would split apart if pressed into service against Hizballah. The American-trained security services value their lives more than the $300 million in U.S. aid they've received and haven't fired a shot at Hizballah. And like Jumblatt, government ministers are marked men. Meanwhile, the American warship USS Cole is heading to the Mediterranean, but if the U.S. staged any military action against Hizballah, the group could take American hostages in Lebanon just as they did in the 1980s.

Sitting in his garden terrace in Beirut, with just a few family members and loyal retainers, Jumblatt is quickly coming to grips with the new political landscape. "The U.S. has failed in Lebanon and they have to admit it," he said. "We have to wait and see the new rules which Hizbollah, Syria and Iran will set. They can do what they want."