Right, so where did the last few days get us?
On Thursday afternoon, Nasrallah gave his eagerly awaited press conference. Coming across even more smug and confident than his usual self, he opened with a lengthy introduction on the importance of Hizbullah’s ‘telecommunications network’ – which he described basically as ‘primitive telephone wires laid in dug-out trenches’, and ‘the best way to counter sophisticated wireless and satellite interception techniques which have cost the lives of many resistance martyrs in previous conflicts’. He explained how the government’s attacks on the network and its dismissal of the head of airport security couldn’t be ignored, how the ‘black government’ of ‘prime minister Walid Junblatt’ is just a gang, and how the resistance would answer this attack with weapons, ‘since war has been declared on us’. He then laughed and joked his way through a question and answer session. Basically, this and the action that followed his speech mean that Hizbullah renounced its old adagio that ‘the weapons of the resistance are only there to fight Israel and will never be used against the Lebanese people’ Instead he announced they would now be used to ‘cut off the hand that wants to take away the weapons of the resistance’. In the subsequent, amazingly quick sequence of events that lasted only some 12 to 16 hours, Hizbullah, Amal and SSNP militias basically took over all sunni and mixed sunni-shia areas of Beirut, including the prestigious Hamra and Verdun districts where many government buildings as well as the residences of such illuminaries as Junblatt and Hariri himself are located. In the process, they also shut down Future TV and the Future newspaper (sometimes described as ‘media outlets’ but more accurately called ‘Hariri party propaganda tools’ – they are about as unbiased and independent as al-Manar or OTV), and quickly conquered the well-armed but young and inexperienced Mustaqbal militias. The christian militias meanwhile carefully – and thankfully – stayed out of the fight, and christian neighbourhoods were studiously avoided by the opposition militias and remained entirely unaffected by the fighting (apart from a single spillover from Ras al-Nabah into Sodeco). Aoun’s forces didn’t come out to assist the opposition militias and, until yesterday night, Junblatt’s PSP didn’t raise a finger to help their Mustaqbal allies either – it was only when the druze area of Alay outside Beirut came under attack that they reacted (and promptly killed seven Hizbullah fighters). Junblatt himself, however, was forced to negotiate his escape out of Beirut from his own residence when it was surrounded by the HA/Amal militias. Hariri’s palace reportedly took an RPG hit too. Throughout all this, the official army, the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) were massively present, but did nothing to stop Hizbullah, in fact frequently negotiated the retreat of Mustaqbal forces for them and took over custody of the disarmed and surrendering Mustaqbal militia fighters and guarded the emptied offices of pro-government parties and militias. A quick physical survey of Hamra yesterday afternoon showed the area was under the full control of the militias (HA, Amal and SSNP) who had set up checkpoints on every street corner. No targeting of the civilian population seemed to be happening, and the army was massively present along Hamra main street, guarding the ministries and other official buildings after the militias had emptied them of government officials. The night of Thursday on Friday saw some of the fiercest battles – uninterrupted gunfire and RPG explosions only alleviated (most hallucinatingly) after midnight by a fierce thunderstorm that brought lightning flashes, heavy rain and even hailstones until five in the morning – but no more battles seem to be happening in Beirut since Friday afternoon (see here and here for eyewitness accounts of the night). The entire western part of Beirut – along the exact green line of civil war notoriety in fact – has fallen to Hizbullah and Amal.
So where does this leave us? And what will happen next? So HA has conquered West Beirut, defeated Mustaqbal and paralyzed the government – not to mention the economy – even more completely than it has been doing since January 2007 – now what’s the plan? And what has been achieved? From the point of view of Hizbullah, it seems this might have been a mistake as much as a victory – after all, it is now undisputedly clear that the resistance is willing to turn its weapons on their fellow Lebanese, which has lost them a lot of sympathy and goodwill among the general population already as we speak. Closing off the airport and fucking up everybdy’s plans – not to mention all economic prospects – for the summer hasn’t helped either. And what have they proved? That they’re the strongest, best-armed and most discipined militia in the country? That was obvious anyway. Are they trying to take over the government full stop, is this a coup? Will they finally democratize the Lebanese sectarian-based election system, which would enable them to reap a great majority of the vote (during Nasrallah’s press conference one journalist asked if he intended to become president, a post reserved for maronite christians under the sectarian system, and Nasrallah responded in a rather ambiguous way saying it was ‘up to the majority of Lebanese to change the electoral system if they wanted to’)? But they haven’t forced the government to back down on their anti-Hizbullah measures yet – it’s true that Hariri himself, in his speech hours after Nasrallah’s, was forced to make some very self-humiliating proposals ‘to refer the government’s decisions to the army command’, but the M14 gathering at Geagea’s house yesterday spoke very defiant lanuage. And if Jumblatt’s and Geagea’s rogues get involved in the fighting, HA won’t have it that easy anymore – these are seasoned fighting forces, not newly hired young kids like Mustaqbal’s. Which raises another delicate point: where did all these Mustaqbal militias come from all at once? And where did their guns and RPG’s all come from? This is a militia that didn’t exist three years ago and suddenly emerged fully-equipped and trained (granted, shoddily trained and unexperienced in real battle situations, but still: well-armed and highly organized). So who armed and trained these guys? Who financed these militias? And why is nobody asking these questions? The US, Israel, the UN are all talking endlessly about Syria and Iran arming HA, but who armed Mustaqbal?
THE BIGGER PICTURE
But as with anything ever happening in Lebanon, we have to look at the full picture and include the rest of the region and the world powers in the calculations. Last week saw a number of very clear and intentional government provocations of Hizbullah, which nobody with even the slightest understanding of the Lebanese situation had any doubt were going to elicit some serious response from the oppoition. Junblatt, who was the main instigator of these sudden measures against HA’s communications network (which was not exactly a new discovery), had only days before received the US undersecretary for middle eastern affairs David Welsh, who upon leaving had promised Lebanon ‘another hot summer’. Welsh is the man behind the disastrous US support for Fatah’s failed coup against Hamas, which resulted in Hamas taking control of the Gaza strip. It seems the same scenarion is playing out now in Lebanon. Rice has meanwhile promised the Siniora government ‘all the support they need and ask for’. Moreover, next week will see the 60th anniversary celebrations of Israel including a visit of Bush. I have a vague idea that they will not be very happy with this birthday present that sees HA basically taking over a serious part of Lebanon. At the same time, both Syria and Israel, who seem to be close to negotiating a Turkish-brokered peace treaty, are harmoniously stressing that the events of the past days are ‘an internal Lebanese affair’ and are refraining conspicuously from any interference – at least openly. Also at the same time, moves are welladvanced to remove Olmert from power, presumably to have him replaced by Netanyahu, who is probably the most hawkish Likud figure around – this might be intended to sabotage the Israeli-Syrian peace negotiations, which the US has sought to prevent for years and years now anyway. So is all this a US-provoked and instigated plan which would provide the Siniora government with an opportunity to ask for US intervention? Is it a ploy meant to occupy Hizbullah internally in preparation of an Israeli attack on Lebanon? Is it a plan gone wrong that assumed the Mustaqbal militias would be strong enough – and backed by the notoriously unreliable Junblatt’s forces – to actually take on Hizbullah? Or is the idea to just ‘Iraqicize’ Lebanon into a renewed state of continuous civil war?