[Marxism] "Syrian exit may mean more power for Hezbollah in Lebanon

Fred Feldman ffeldman at bellatlantic.net
Wed Mar 9 22:18:17 MST 2005


Posted on Wed, Mar. 09, 2005  
 


Syria's exit may mean more power for Hezbollah in Lebanon

By Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson
Knight Ridder Newspapers


BAALBEK, Lebanon - If Syrian forces leave Lebanon in the face of growing
international and Lebanese pressure, the Islamic militant group
Hezbollah - entrenched in this Bekaa Valley hamlet and across much of
eastern and southern Lebanon - is ready to fill the military and
political vacuum. 


Should it succeed, the anti-Syrian democratic protests that have
attracted so much international attention since opposition leader Rafik
Hariri was assassinated Feb. 14 could prove stillborn. Instead of
clearing the way for pro-Western democrats, Syria's withdrawal could
bring to the fore a virulently anti-Western political force believed to
be responsible for attacks on U.S. Marines and the American Embassy in
Beirut and for kidnapping dozens of foreigners. 


Uncertainty may rule the streets of Beirut after dueling protests for
and against Syrian involvement in Lebanon's affairs, but loyalties are
crystal-clear in this town built around Roman ruins 6 miles east of the
Syrian border. 


Hezbollah's green and yellow flags flutter along its streets. Taped to
nearly every shop window and plastered across intervening concrete
walls, the face of Hezbollah leader Seyyed Hassan Nasrallah broods at
passers-by, as it does throughout Lebanon's predominantly Shiite Muslim
east and south. 


Syria, whose forces have dominated Lebanon for the last three decades,
is closely aligned with Nasrallah's movement and has readied it to take
Syria's place as Lebanon's dominant power. 


"The Syrians are trying to leave behind a system they can control. A
pillar of that will be Hezbollah," said Michael Young, the opinion
editor of Lebanon's English-language newspaper Daily Star. 


The price could be further divisions in Lebanon. Young and others said
that Syria, through its many agents and supporters in Lebanon, would
move to lift the political restrictions that distribute power to
religiously based factions according to an unwritten 1943 agreement that
today leaves Lebanon's Shiite plurality underrepresented. That would net
Hezbollah more parliamentary seats in May elections. 


It's also likely to make Hezbollah a newly partisan player in a nation
still smarting from 15 years of civil war that ended in1990. 


"For 10 to 15 years no one has dared to say much against Hezbollah,"
Young said. "That is changing because now they (Hezbollah) are using
their muscle; they want to be Syria's enforcers." 


If the Syrians make good on their promises to withdraw to or beyond
their border, Baalbek residents are confident that Hezbollah can take
charge. 


"Disarming Hezbollah" - as the West has called for - "is not an option,
especially when we have Israel, our enemy, on our border," said Naji
Awada, 28, who owns a cellular-phone store in Baalbek. "The weapons of
the resistance are for the security of our country, to hold a knife to
Israel's side. The army doesn't have the necessary knowledge to do
that." 


Backed by Syria and by the Shiite-run government of Iran, Hezbollah is
under fire from the United States and its Western allies for periodic
attacks on northern Israel and its support for Palestinian militant
groups. 


During Lebanon's civil war, Hezbollah was blamed for attacking and
kidnapping Westerners, including the truck bombing of the U.S. Marine
barracks in Beirut in 1983, which killed 241 Marines, and the murders of
CIA Lebanon chief of station William Buckley, U.S. Navy diver Robert
Stethem and U.S. Army Col. William Higgins. 


Hezbollah's ties to Iran are visible on its office walls, which feature
framed photographs of the Islamic Republic's founder, Grand Ayatollah
Ruhollah Khomeini, and the current supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali
Khamenei. 


Iranian arms are still delivered to Hezbollah via Syria, even as the
group has become more self-sufficient in a Shiite population whose faith
demands that they give part of their income to clerics. In the Bekaa
Valley this week, for example, a half-dozen Hezbollah activists set up a
donation stop along the Beirut-Damascus highway, collecting money from
drivers. 


Hezbollah has matured from a guerrilla group during the civil war to a
military and political powerhouse, patrolling the southern Lebanese
skies with robot aircraft and representing the country's largest
religious group, with 12 seats in the Parliament. 


Community involvement may be the secret to Hezbollah's popular appeal.
Hezbollah-funded hospitals and schools serve thousands of poor and
underemployed Lebanese in the Shiite-dominated south and east. 


In Baalbek, Mohammed Yezbek, 47, shrugged when he was asked why he had
pictures of Nasrallah in his fabric shop and not slain former Prime
Minister Hariri, whose posters have adorned buildings across Beirut
since his assassination. "He never came to Baalbek in 12 years," during
his terms as prime minister, Yezbek said. 


Hezbollah, on the other hand, is active every day in Baalbek. Residents
say the Islamic group holds a 70 percent share of power in town,
including the mayor's seat. Few here appear to want a clerical
government, and despite its power Hezbollah hasn't imposed one,
residents said. 


In fact, Hezbollah activists help run Baalbek's annual classical music
festival, which draws thousand of Lebanese and foreign tourists to the
world-famous Roman ruins here each year. The hotels serve alcohol -
taboo for Muslims - and many women walk the streets without the Islamic
veil. 




Hezbollah also provides security by patrolling the country's southern
border with Israel. Lebanon's army mans a few checkpoints and little
else. 


Hezbollah forces attained legendary status on the border after Israeli
Prime Minister Ehud Barak withdrew his soldiers from southern Lebanon
under fire in May 2000. Hezbollah's anti-Israeli stance resonates where
the memory of 22 years of Israeli occupation is still fresh. 


Israel's fighter jets still crack the sound barrier over Lebanese
airspace and Israeli forces attack Hezbollah and Syrian outposts from
time to time when the militant group fires Katyusha rockets or
antiaircraft guns at Israeli targets. 


Many Lebanese think that Hezbollah, commonly known as "the resistance,"
and its guerrilla tactics - rather than the army - are better suited to
fighting their southern neighbor. 


Hezbollah also has captured anti-American sentiment brought on by the
U.S. presence in Lebanon during its civil war and more recent Bush
administration policies in the Middle East. 


Now the group has its eye on the general elections in May. 


"We are not with the opposition and we're not part of the government,"
said Hezbollah Parliament member Mohammad Raad, 49. 


Its policies include preserving Syrian-Lebanese ties, keeping Hezbollah
armed and rejecting the assimilation of Palestinian refugees, which
might lessen their claims to a right to return to their homes in what's
now Israel. 


"Otherwise, Lebanon could become part of a greater American project for
the Middle East," Raad said. 


Nasrallah used Tuesday's rally to put the opposition on notice that it
can't win the popular battle for change without Hezbollah. One in eight
Lebanese turned out for the rally, according to some crowd estimates,
seven times as many people as even the biggest of the highly publicized
anti-Syrian demonstrations that have captured world attention drew
during the past three weeks. 


Lebanon's opposition leaders are worried about Hezbollah's power and
have been careful not to lash out at the group, even after Nasrallah
lashed out at them. Some opposition leaders openly object to the idea of
disarming Hezbollah. 


Hezbollah rallies planned for Friday in the northern city of Tripoli and
the southern city of Nabatiya probably will only heighten the fear of
the group's ascent. 

 


 


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