May 13, 2008 | WebMemo on Middle East
As President Bush prepares to travel to the Middle East, Lebanon's survival as a multi-ethnic, multi-denominational state is at stake. Hezbollah, the Shi'ite terrorist army "made in Iran," demonstrated its force by occupying the capital, Beirut. Fierce fighting is reported in Tripoli in the north of the country, and in the mountain districts of Shouf and Alei east of Beirut. Forty-four people were killed and 128 wounded in fierce fire fights, yet the Lebanese Army refused to intervene. Iran and Syria are quickly changing the balance of power in the Eastern Mediterranean, while the West and moderate Arab states appear almost paralyzed.
The Struggle for Power
The crisis erupted last week when Prime Minister Fouad Siniora's regime demanded that Hezbollah shut down its fiber optic network, which the terrorist movement calls " the weapons of the revolution"--a reference to Ayatollah Khomeini's Shi'a Islamic revolution in Iran. The network is used by Hezbollah, outside of the Lebanese government's control, to run terrorist operations and a drug trade worldwide, and to maintain illicit communications with Tehran and Damascus.
Another issue that Hezbollah used to attack the government was its decisions to fire the pro-Hezbollah military officer in charge of the Beirut International Airport's security and shut down Hezbollah's video cameras at the airport. Hezbollah forced the government of Lebanon to back down on both issues, returning to status quo ante. The Lebanese Army, whose commander, General Michel Suleiman, is Syria's candidate to become the next Lebanese president, and has either supported Hezbollah or sat out the confrontation.
The violence in Lebanon demonstrates the impotence of its democratically elected government in the face of the powerful Hezbollah "state-within-a-state" bought, paid, trained, and armed by Iran's oil windfall profits.
Hezbollah's Real Targets
The U.S., European Union, Israel, and the Sunni Arab states are the real targets of the muscle-flexing by Hezbollah and its Syrian and Iranian sponsors. The leaders and the forces that really need to be dealt with to stop the violence and back off from the democratically elected government of Lebanon are not located in Beirut. They are in Tehran and Damascus.
This is not about Lebanon, but about the U.S. presence in the Middle East, its diplomacy, and its allies. The U.S.-backed order in the Middle East is at stake against relentless Iranian probing. Tehran wants to teach President Bush a lesson, or as President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said in April, "smash the U.S. in the nose." Iran is also trying to show the Saudis, Jordanians, Egyptians, and others in the region who is boss.
Presently, the U.S. attention is focused on Iran's training of Shi'a terrorists who attack our troops in Iraq and move against the Iraqi government. According to the London Times and U.S. News & World Report, Hezbollah provides trainers and security for their terrorist camps. Tehran is signaling to Washington that if the U.S. attacks guerrilla training camps in Iran, U.S. allies, such as Lebanon, will suffer. According to Western and Israeli military sources quoted by the Los Angeles Times, Hezbollah is also preparing a massive missile attack against Israel.
Syria is involved, too. The pro-Syrian Amal militia, a Hezbollah ally, also took part in the fighting. Furthermore, President Bashar Assad is under pressure from the United Nations, as his senior officials are the main suspects in the U.N. investigation of the murder of Lebanon's Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, father of the current coalition leader, Saad Hariri. This investigation has been dragging on for some time.
It is no accident that Hezbollah targeted and destroyed the offices of the Future TV channel. It is owned by Hariri and presents the views of the movement he heads, called The Future. Hezbollah fighters also shot rockets at Hariri's home and took positions nearby, as well as threatened the home of the anti-Syrian Druze leader Walid Jumblat.
Syria and Iran are attempting to topple the Siniora-Hariri government using Hezbollah as a battering ram. By doing so, they are quickly undermining President Bush's legacy of promoting democracy in the Middle East.
Lebanon, with its 2005 Cedar Revolution, was the democratization flagship. Syria and Iran have been behind a campaign of targeted assassinations of Lebanese democratic politicians ever since. And in places such as Egypt and the Palestinian territories, where the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, respectively, won elections, the democratization policy is already in shambles.
Hezbollah's freedom to arm and operate in Lebanon also demonstrates the failure and impotence of two multilateral organizations: the Arab League, which has attempted for months to mediate between the Siniora government and Hezbollah, and the U.N., which completely failed to prevent Iran and Syria from resupplying Hezbollah with 27,000 rockets and building a new network of bunkers and fiber optic communications. Nor has the U.N. tribunal been capable of bringing the Rafiq Hariri murder investigation to a much-needed end by indicting the true powers behind that bloody assassination.
U.S. Middle East Policy at Stake
The United States must recognize that America does still have allies in the Middle East, especially when it comes to containing Iran. Saudi Arabia, the Sunni Arab Gulf states, as well as our European allies all understand what is at stake. Yet, to pursue a policy of Iran containment, the United States must make it clear that it will stand by its allies.
Washington therefore should:
Tehran cannot be handed a victory that can destroy Lebanon's remaining cohesion, nor should Hezbollah take the civilian population of Lebanon hostage, transforming it into the human shields that Hezbollah will hide behind to rain rockets once again upon Israel.
Iran and Syria cannot be allowed to overthrow the government of Lebanon and establish a Hezbollah-controlled stronghold in the Eastern Mediterranean. This would intimidate moderate Sunni Arab states and will present a major setback for U.S. policy in the region. Lebanon has suffered enough. Too much is at stake for the West and the Arab states to allow the Iranian mullahs and their Hezbollah henchmen to unleash yet another Lebanese civil war and destabilize the region.
Ariel Cohen, Ph.D., is Senior Research Fellow in Russian and Eurasian Studies and International Energy Security in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies, a division of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies, at The Heritage Foundation.