Stepping into the fray

As Damascus plans its troop withdrawal, Hezbollah calls for pro-Syrian protests in Lebanon.

By Brian Whitaker
Published March 7, 2005 2:44PM (EST)

Hezbollah stepped dramatically into the Lebanese-Syrian crisis Sunday by calling for a demonstration in support of Syria and raising the fear that a withdrawal of Syrian troops might not go smoothly. The militant Lebanese Shiite organization, which is backed by Syria and Iran, said it planned to hold a mass demonstration Monday near the square where anti-Syrian protesters have been camped since the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri last month.

Until now, Lebanon's Shiite minority and their political organizations have stayed on the sidelines of arguments about the presence of 14,000 Syrian troops and intelligence officers. Some observers had argued that Hezbollah's political interests would be best served by keeping quiet because of the widespread unpopularity of Syrian influence in the country, but Sunday its leader, Hassan Nasrallah, joined the fray. He called on all Lebanese to attend a "peaceful popular gathering" in support of Syria and against "foreign intervention that is contrary to our independence, sovereignty and freedom." He rejected any move to disband Hezbollah's militia. "The resistance will not give up its arms ... because Lebanon needs the resistance to defend it," he said.

The anti-Syrian demonstrators in Beirut are due to march Monday from the scene of Hariri's assassination to Martyrs' Square, where protesters are maintaining an around-the-clock vigil and sleeping in a cluster of about 50 tents. An estimated 25,000 people crammed into the square on Feb. 28, helping to bring down the Syrian-backed government of Omar Karami, the prematurely declared beginning of a "Cedar Revolution."

Hundreds of Lebanese still visit the square every day to show solidarity or write anti-Syrian messages on specially prepared boards, but a rally on Saturday night attracted a relatively small crowd of probably no more than 2,000 people. How many supporters of Hezbollah will muster for its rival demonstration remains to be seen, but a Western diplomat in Beirut said some of its previous marches had failed to draw huge crowds.

So far Lebanon's emerging street politics have been almost entirely peaceful, but late on Saturday night a convoy of cars carrying pictures of Syrian President Bashar Assad entered the mainly Christian -- and anti-Syrian -- district of Ashrafieh. Shots were fired from the cars, witnesses said, but there seem to have been no casualties.

Syria still says its presence in Lebanon helps maintain security, and some Lebanese fear that pro-Syrian elements may try to prove the point by causing trouble as the Syrian forces leave. One well-connected Lebanese, who asked not to be identified, said: "There will be car bombs and more assassinations before it's over."

Hezbollah's immediate concern is that U.N. Security Council Resolution 1559, adopted last year, calls not only for "all remaining foreign forces to withdraw from Lebanon" but also for "the disbanding and disarmament of all Lebanese and non-Lebanese militias." Hezbollah is the only armed group allowed to continue operating in Lebanon since the civil war and is regarded by Israel and the United States as a terrorist organization. It waged a long guerrilla campaign against the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon and won huge popularity when Israel eventually withdrew in 2000.

Hezbollah's dilemma is that it also operates as a legal party, holding 12 of the 128 seats in the Lebanese Parliament, and is being urged to abandon its anti-Israeli activities in favor of mainstream politics.

Referring to the promised Syrian withdrawal, U.S. acting Assistant Secretary of State David Satterfield said last week: "In view of potential developments on the ground which open the scope for true, free and fair elections, the possibility does exist that Hezbollah will be able to obtain more parliamentary seats than it otherwise would." He attributed its "significant strength" in southern Lebanon and the Bekaa Valley to the perception that it was "less corrupt and more effective in providing basic services than the all-too-absent Lebanese government."

Hezbollah justifies its continued armed struggle on the grounds that Israeli forces still occupy the tiny Shebaa Farms area, in the triangle where Lebanon, Syria and Israel meet, and that its warplanes make frequent incursions into Lebanon. Lebanon and Syria say Shebaa Farms belongs to Lebanon, while the U.N. says it is Syrian territory.

Iran, Hezbollah's source of ideological inspiration, is also ambivalent about Resolution 1559. Its Foreign Ministry spokesman said Sunday that it would respect any joint Syrian-Lebanese decision about a withdrawal of troops, but added: "The pressure on the Syrian government, with the withdrawal from Lebanon as an excuse, seems to be a predesigned plan by the Zionist lobbies to safeguard Israel's survival and its expansionist policies."

Brian Whitaker

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