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History in the making for Hezbollah
By Sami Moubayed
May 23, 2008


DAMASCUS - British statesman Sir Winston Churchill once said, 'History will be kind to me for I intend to write it.' On another occasion, he said, 'Although prepared for martyrdom, I preferred that it be postponed.'

These two quotes came to my mind, as I imagined Hasan Nasrallah, the secretary general of Hezbollah, seated somewhere in Beirut, watching his allies and opponents hammer out a deal in Doha - to his favor - on Wednesday.

He must have been a very happy man because all of the Doha resolutions were almost tailor-made to Nasrallah's liking. Nasrallah finally got what he had been asking for, mainly a greater say for the opposition in the Lebanese government, and the ability to veto any resolution that runs against the interests of Hezbollah.
True, no early parliamentary elections are going to happen (as Hezbollah had requested) to oust the parliamentary majority of Saad al-Hariri, but the entire issue of Hezbollah and its arms was glossed over at the Doha meeting.

A fighter who often said that he seeks martyrdom in his war with Israel, Nasrallah, like Churchill, would certainly prefer that it be postponed. He needs time to enjoy the fruits of victory taken by Hezbollah in Qatar. He might be idolized by millions of Arabs, seen as a war hero and a charismatic, honest and inspiring leader. He might be hated beyond imagination by his opponents, seen as a terrorist and an Iranian stooge. But setting emotions aside - they don't really count in politics - the man has in every sense of the word proven his intention, and succeeded, in writing history; his way.

When Israel withdrew from South Lebanon in 2000, his opponents argued Nasrallah was finished. The young leader had legitimized himself for nearly 10 years as a freedom fighter, someone who was needed to combat the Israeli occupation. Now that Lebanon was free, theoretically, what was the use for Nasrallah or the arms of Hezbollah? He could not continue to hold arms, fight the Israelis, and appeal to his constituency now that the Israelis had left Lebanon.

Yet, he survived. When Syrian president Hafez al-Assad died in June 2000, the same argument resurfaced, saying that an emerging Syria might be unable to fulfill its promises to Hezbollah. He also survived. In 2004, the United Nations passed Resolution 1559, calling for the disarmament of Hezbollah. One year later, voices echoed throughout the international community, calling on Nasrallah to lay down his arms.

The young Lebanese leader, people reckoned, would be unable to stand up to the United States, France and the UN. Four years down the road, Resolution 1559 is history when it comes to implementing the part about the arms of Hezbollah. The same fire was used against him in 2005, when former premier Rafik al-Hariri was killed and then again in 2006, when Israel launched its major war on Lebanon, with the intention of crushing Hezbollah. The war ended, and Resolution 1701 was passed, pushing Hezbollah away from its battlefield on the Israeli border. Even then, Nasrallah survived.

Eighteen months ago, Nasrallah ordered his supporters into downtown Beirut, in an open-ended demonstration aimed at bringing down the cabinet of the Saudi-backed Prime Minister Fouad al-Siniora. The Hezbollah leader had engaged in a war of words with the pro-Western Lebanese government of Beirut, accusing them of conspiring with the Americans and the Israelis, during the summer war of 2006.

Among other things he blamed them for Resolution 1559, and said that they had called on Israel to extend its war, so that it could rid them of Hezbollah. Later in November 2006, the Shi'ite ministers representing Hezbollah and its sister party Amal, resigned from the Siniora cabinet. Nasrallah argued that this cabinet was unconstitutional because the Shi'ites were no longer in it.

The Saudi and American backed March 14 Coalition, however, refused to bend under pressure and held on to Siniora. This was a proxy war between the US and Saudi Arabia on one side, and Iran and Syria on the other. The Americans would simply not let Iran get the upper hand. Observers claimed that this time, Nasrallah had bit off more than he could chew.

Eighteen months passed, and no solution came about. Nasrallah still refused to back down - insisting that Siniora was no longer the prime minister of Lebanon - and blocked any negotiations regarding the arms of Hezbollah. The party would only disarm, he argued, once the Israeli-occupied Sheeba Farms were liberated.

Last week the confrontation turned violent, as armed Hezbollah fighters clashed with those funded by and loyal to parliamentary majority leader Hariri. The violence erupted after the Lebanese government tried to dismantle Hezbollah's security network, claiming that it was illegal, and dismissed the commander of security at Beirut airport, who is loyal to Hezbollah. This was an attack on the arms of Hezbollah, Nasrallah claimed, adding that in resistance, communication and security systems are no less valuable than bombs and missiles. 'We will cut the arm of whomever tries to disarm Hezbollah,' were the words of an angry Nasrallah. 'Arms will be used to protect arms,' he added, discarding an earlier promise he had made never to use Hezbollah weapons internally.

His men took their queue from there, stormed entire neighborhoods loyal to Hariri, and disarmed the Hariri bloc. Once in full control (within the short period of six hours) they called on the Lebanese Army to march in and take over. The Hariri-led March 14 Coalition cried foul play, and so did Saudi Arabia, claiming that Hezbollah had launched a coup and occupied Beirut. Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal drew parallels between Israel's invasion of the Lebanese capital in 1982 and the 2008 offensive of Hezbollah, claiming that Nasrallah was another Ariel Sharon.
Everybody thought that by using his arms internally, Nasrallah had fired his last bullet. Some wrote of an upcoming civil war between Sunnis and Shi'ites. Others speculated that it would be now easier for the international community and the Lebanese state to push through with an argument against Hezbollah arms, now that they had been used internally. This was the mistake of a lifetime, many said, for Nasrallah.

Under heavy lobbying from the Arab League, the US, France and Gulf heavyweights like Qatar, all parties boarded a plane and headed to Doha, leaving behind 82 dead civilians in Beirut. Residents of the Lebanese capital saw them off with big signs saying, 'If you don't agree, don't come back.'

The attendees of the Doha Conference included Christian leader Michel Aoun and parliament speaker Nabih Berri (two allies of Hezbollah), pro-US figures like Samir Gagegea and Walid Jumblatt, independents like the veteran journalist and member of parliament Ghassan Tweini, along with Hariri, and Siniora.

The only missing participant was Nasrallah, who could not make the trip to Qatar, for security reasons. For five days the assembled leaders met under Qatari auspices (at one point supervised directly by Sheikh Hamad, the emir of Qatar). They consulted around the clock with the Americans, the French, the Saudis, the Syrians and the Iranians. They finally came out with an agreement on May 21 that seemed to make everybody happy.

The Doha agreement states that:

· 1. All parties involved will meet by Sunday to elect a president for Lebanon. The presidential seat has been vacant since November 2007 and although all parties agreed on bringing current army commander Michel Suleiman to office, nobody seemed to know how to do that through parliament. General Suleiman, coined pro-Syrian and pro-Hezbollah, was never a favorite for March 14, nor for ex-army commander Michel Aoun, who also, had his eyes set on the vacant seat at Baabda Palace.

Last November 2007, Aoun was talked into a compromise; if he could not make it as king, then he would have to settle for the status of kingmaker. The Syrians backed Suleiman's election, since they were always suspicious of Aoun, who had been anti-Syrian during his long exile in Paris, during the heyday of Syrian hegemony in Lebanon.

· 2. A new 30-man cabinet will be created within the next week by someone from the March 14 Coalition. No early parliamentary elections will take place, and the Hariri bloc will continue to dominate parliament until 2009. Meaning they remain in control of the post of prime minister. Siniora, who described the deal as a 'great achievement in the history of the Arab nation', will step down and be replaced by one of two options, either Hariri himself, or the pro-Hariri member of parliament Mohammad al-Safadi.

But the new cabinet will have 16 seats for the Hariri majority, 11 for the Hezbollah-led opposition, and three seats to be appointed by the president. Since Suleiman is on good terms with Hezbollah, this means that the three seats appointed by him, will more or less, be allied to the 11 held by the Hezbollah-led opposition. That brings the total number of seats of the anti-Hariri team to 14. They can have veto power over any legislation passed by the Hariri team.

This will be used if the Hariri team tries to pass any decrees related to the International Tribunal, passed under Chapter Seven of the UN charter, related to the murder of Rafik Hariri. This new cabinet will place an immediate problem for the US, which supported Siniora and will extend unconditional support for whomever the new March 14 prime minister will be.

But how will they deal with 11 ministers in the new government, who are loyal to or members of Hezbollah? Will they ignore them - acting as if they do not exist - as they did with Hamas in Palestine? Or will they swallow their big words and see them as a stabilizing factor, as they did with the Sadrists who were cabinet ministers under Nuri al-Maliki in Iraq.  

· 3. All parties pledge not to resign from the government or hinder its work. This was made to secure that Hezbollah will not walk out on the government, as it did with Siniora in November 2006.

4. Lebanon will adopt a 1960 electoral law for the parliamentary elections of 2009, with amendments in the Beirut district.

· 5. All parties pledge to refrain from using arms in order to resolve political conflict.

· 6. Security remains strictly monopolized by the state, and there can be no state-within-a state in Lebanon.

· 7. To show their goodwill, the Hezbollah-led opposition will tear down the tents that they had set up in downtown Beirut (the heart of the Hariri kingdom) bringing life back to the commercial district of the Lebanese capital.

Who wins now in Beirut politics? By virtue of avoiding another civil war, all sides win, topped with the Lebanese people. Certainly, Hezbollah came out victorious. So did the Syrians and Iran. The Syrians in particular seemed to be on cloud nine, since shortly after the agreement was announced in Doha another declaration came out, this time from Damascus, Tel Aviv and Ankara, saying that indirect talks had started between Syria and Israel, under auspices of the Turks.

The only side that might not be too happy with what happened in Doha is Saudi Arabia. The deal was brokered by the Qataris and not them, although they had been the ones to supervise the deal at Taif, which led to en end to civil war in 1990.

The Syrians, whom they had tried to sideline in Beirut and empower March 14, certainly proved that they still had a lot of weight in Lebanon, although they had been out of Lebanon - militarily - since 2005. Saudi Arabia's proxies were defeated militarily in the street confrontations last week, and politically in Doha. After all, despite all the macho talk, they finally bent and accepted the demands of the Hezbollah-led opposition. Hezbollah and its friends were actually given the veto power they had long wanted, kept their arms, and secured a president for Lebanon who was not a member of the March 14 coalition. Nasrallah is writing history, just like Churchill but perhaps with a different pen and in a different handwriting.
Sami Moubayed is a Syrian political analyst. 

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