Posted by Alex on Sunday, May 18th, 2008
Here is a fascinating personal account of recent events in Lebanon from Heiko Wimmen, a German journalist and political analyst who resided in Beirut for the better part of the past fourteen years. He would like to share it with readers of Syria Comment.
So the civil war has started, or maybe it is over already. Thursday night was fighting almost non-stop. In the afternoon and evening, salvoes of fire from automatic weapons into the air during and after the speeches of the two main opponents, Nasrallah for Hezbollah and Hariri for the pro-American Future Movement, as has become fashion for a couple of months now. Then the rhythm changes, the firing moves closer, becomes fire and counter fire. Names of places in the news are more familiar now, are finally only two blocks away, where Jumblat lives, the one opponent singled out by the Hezbollah chief as the image of evil collaboration with the American and the Israeli enemy. But it might as well be in the alleyway under our bedroom window, punctuated by the dull pounding of missiles from a kilometer’s distance. Small fry compared to what the Israelis administered on the suburbs two years ago, but much, much closer to us. Our three year old son dismisses our stories about firecrackers and decides it’s thunder. We deliberate where to sleep – civil war lore has it that you are supposed to sleep in the bathroom, but it’s too small there. The corridor, the hallway – anything with no outside windows. In the end, we stay in the bedroom – anybody who takes up position in that alleyway, we tell ourselves, must be plain mad – it’s a trap, if there ever was one. Finally, the thunder really comes: a furious and unseasonal thunderstorm hits the city, pounding the streets and our windows with relentless rain, drowning out the sounds of the explosions for nearly an hour. For a night of long knifes, this is terrific choreography.
Shooting continues until the morning, when Jumblat’s house is finally surrounded. Somehow, the wave just rolled over us and our alleyway. Across the hallway, the door of an abandoned house – the owner, an old Armenian woman, lives in Spain, and hasn’t been seen since the last war – has been kicked in. Apparently they came to check if the owner of the building, a 150 % Hariri man and possibly training in the Future militia, was using it as a weapon’s cache. Carefully, we venture in: nothing but stale air, dust, covered furniture. Not a drawer has been opened, not a sheet crumpled. They walked in, checked the place, and walked out. As it turns out, that pretty much sums up the style of the whole operation.
One by one, the quarters and positions held by government supporters fall. By all accounts, it is a rout. Within less than eight hours – fighting only really started in earnest after the speech of Saad Hariri in the evening – it is all over. Hezbollah and Amal, their rather low-brow and thuggish auxiliaries, have taken over most of West Beirut, flushed out most strongholds of the “Future”-movement and forced their media to shut down (some of the offices were also trashed). The Army, after standing by throughout the fight, has deployed to secure sensitive spots, in particular where pro-government officials live. Around 10, army vehicles take up positions in our area. On Friday, all quiet and deserted streets, intermittent gunfire – some last pockets of resistance, or maybe just militia shooting in the air in celebration.
On Saturday, a semblance of normality seems to return, but everybody remains on edge. We cross to the East, where nothing has happened (yet) – the old demarcation lines have been reinstated, and as was the case during the 1980ies, fighting only occurs in the Muslim areas, despite the bitter animosity that also divides the Christians in government and opposition supporters – yes, there are Christians, possibly the majority, who support Hezbollah. We spend the day on the seaside, feasting on fish and Arrack and giving our bored kid some dearly needed entertainment, after being locked into the house for three days. In the afternoon, two thuggish guys in their mid-thirties enter the place, and the head waiter turns all jittery and flustered, lavishing attention on those unsmiling characters – if our radars are good for anything, those must be men of Geagea, the shadowy and staunchly pro-American former henchman of the Lebanese Forces who vies for leadership of the Christians, patrolling their turf. We prefer to leave.
Areas like Tarik El-Jadide where lower middle class Sunnis – the power base of the Hariris – concentrate are tense with wounded pride and barely contained rage. Six are shot dead during a funeral procession for one of the victims of the day before, the pro-opposition shooter claims self-defense. Saturday night, fighting between pro- and anti-government Druze, vicious antagonists divided by clan rivalries, erupts in the hills to the South-East of the capital. In their strongholds around Tripoli, the Hariri supporters battle the Alawis of Jabl Muhsin, who have the bad luck to adhere to the same religion as the rioters’ favorite but unreachable enemy, the Syrian regime, on top of old wounds from the civil war. After a long night with several dead and hundreds displaced, again the army moves in. In a nearby town, a dozen supporters of the Syrian National Socialist Party, a particularly despicable formation of rabid Jew-haters following a wacko Arab/Levantine nationalist ideology are killed – allegedly, they were executed after a negotiated surrender. Soon enough, a gory video with bodies showing head wounds circulates. Jumblat’s men kidnap three Hezbollah fighters and execute them, mutilating the bodies. Clashes keep flaring up on and around the two main roads leading to Syria.
On Sunday, Hezbollah and its Druze auxiliaries fight it out with Jumblat, the strategic mastermind of the government camp, in the mountains above the capital. A friend receives a hysterical call from the sister of a Druze friend, an engineer with a master’s degree and a career ahead of him, who just called in wearing fatigues, determined to fight Hezbollah (he didn’t reach in time to put himself in harms way). Ominous growling of missiles all afternoon, but even the result of this battle is sealed from the start, despite the heavy armor that the Druze are rumored to have – it appears that Jumblat has neglected his home base for too long, and that his formerly fearsome fighters are no longer what they used to be. In the afternoon, he orders them to stand down and hand over their arsenal to the army, all under the oversight of his Druze arch nemesis, the Hezbollah ally, ending a very long weekend (nobody has been to work since Wednesday). The Airport remains closed, as are the roads to Syria and the port. Soon, the fuel oil for the power plants will run out, and the Lebanese electricity grid, already strained by three postwar decades of corruption and mismanagement, will falter again.
The good news (so far): while the conflict does have a sectarian dimension – the fighters are mostly Shiites on one side, Sunnis and Druze on the other – it is still first and foremost a struggle between two irreconcilable political agendas, and has not (yet) turned sectarian, despite the best effort of pundits in the pay of the government and its Saudi masters (who control much of the Arab media) to discredit Hezbollah as hell-bent on turning Lebanon and the Levant into an Shiite-Arab foothold of a new Persian Empire. People are fleeing the fighting, but no ethnic cleansing is occurring. Likewise, news of plundering or rampage, or deliberate bombing of residential buildings not home or very close to armed positions. Hezbollah and Amal have uprooted their armed opponents from their positions in neighborhoods that are often Sunni-dominated but mostly mixed or intertwined with Shiite neighborhoods. Those captured in the fighting are handed over to the army. In some areas, they have forced known Future-activists out of their neighborhoods. Uninvolved civilian residents, regardless of religion and sect, are largely left alone. Some thuggery does occur, inevitably, and in particular Sunnis feel intimidated by the sight of the gunmen and their symbols. But apart from those unlucky enough to be living in the vicinity of actual clashes, most people living in Beirut were not under immediate threat. The prime minister decries “massacres” and “people being attacked in their houses”, but it remains unclear where those actually occurred.
How it all started: a few days ago, the government or what is left of it took a twin decision to fire the chief of airport security, and to dismantle Hezbollah’s private telephone network – a “declaration of war” according to the party’s secretary general. And war it was. Why were these decisions a casus belli? According to Hezbollah’s secretary general, replacing the chief of airport security was part of a plan to convert the airport into “a base for the CIA and the Israeli Mossad” – a rather outlandish accusation (since it would constitute criminal high treason and be nearly impossible to conceal within a complex structure like an airport), if well in line with the party’s rhetoric, expressed constantly since the aftermath of the 2006 war, of casting the government as a tool in the hand of those forces.
The communication network appears to be quite a different matter: Nasrallah’s assertion whereby this system was of crucial importance for Hezbollah’s operations during the 2006 war (directing their fighters and orchestrating the missile attacks on Northern Israel) and would be of equal importance in any future confrontation, seems to make immediate sense – it does not require a degree from a military academy to realize that in any armed confrontation, to be able to maintain secure communication between headquarters and the troops in the field is critical, and that having your communications penetrated or disrupted can very easily be the beginning of the end (for a good article on this, click here).
So why were these decisions taken in the first place, and why now? The Airport Security Chief, who has served in this position for years, stood accused of not moving decisively enough against “surveillance equipment” which Hezbollah allegedly installed close to the Airport – but the areas around the Airport have been Hezbollah strongholds for more than two decades, and hundreds of residential buildings overlook the runways, where people will happily welcome Hezbollah to install just about anything. The phone network has been in place for years, and even if were true that illicit profits are reaped from it – which Hezbollah categorically denies -, that hardly seems sufficient reason to risk civil war – illegitimate telephone services are available all over Lebanon.
Moreover, it appears mysterious how the decision was meant to be physically implemented. Surely, Hezbollah knows where the wires are, has means to know about any attempts to dig them up, and would have not stood by and watched.
So that leaves us with several possible explanations:
- Bazaar – the decision was taken without any real intention to see it through, but rather, to score a political point and create a political asset, first by seeing Hezbollah obstruct it – voila, here you have the state within the state –, and then to trade it against concessions in the ongoing haggling about the formation of the new government, electoral law, etc. etc.
- Posturing – a move to please their Western benefactors, and deliver a show of strength and determination to boost morale among the follower base, after a grinding 18 months of political stalemate. To be sure, a purely rhetorical show of strength – since no army or police commander in his right mind would have exposed his troops to such an adventure.
- Hubris & Underestimating the adversary – after three years of receiving military, financial and moral support and restructuring the Internal Security Forces to become government loyalists (nowhere to be seen during the event), the government may have felt strong enough to risk a confrontation. Former flare-ups, both politically and in the streets, may have helped create the impression that once seriously squeezed, Hezbollah would always back down, fearing the stigma of illegitimacy and the potential for uncontrollable sectarian (Sunni-Shiite) strife (which both Hariri and the religious head of the Lebanese Sunnis evoked heavily on the eve of the fighting).
- Conspiracy – all of this was a bait and a trap to draw Hezbollah out into the open, discredit their nationalist credentials and expose them as sectarian warmongers staging a coup, thus preparing for some sort of international intervention to take them out. A variety of scenarios circulate that center on the highly publicized Turkish-mediated initiative for a peace deal between Israel and Syria, starring a variety of actors (determined by the position of he who presents the scenario) who may want to use the Lebanese crisis to shoot such a deal down (American neo-cons, Israeli and Syrian hawks, Iran). And even the long standing argument about Iran being ready to fight the Americans until the last Lebanese and Arab, and being ready to sell its allies out once the US are offering the right terms, is being rehashed by pundits of the Egyptian and other regimes, who are known for their own close ties with the Americans, and despised by their people for that.
As it were, Hezbollah decided to not take chances and linger long wondering about the government’s intentions. Or maybe they decided that, blunder or brinkmanship, rhetoric or conspiracy, the time had come to bite rather than bark and draw a very clear red line, preempting additional demands and more pressure. They may have also thought it high time to crack down on the proto-militias the government was building, before they could turn into something like a real fighting force, and they may have finally lost patience with stalemate that has been going on for 18 months now.
Exploiting or rather hijacking a general strike that the labor federation had called over purely economic demands, they sent their youth to the street, who quickly blocked all roads to the airport. By touching the airport – the one lifeline out of the country for anybody opposed to Syria, named after the late Rafik El-Hariri and iconic for his project of turning Lebanon into a leisure hub for petrodollar Arabs – a response from the other side was virtually assured. And surely it came: hails of stones exchanged between youth supporting either side, who live side by side on the southern edges of the city – a stone-throw from each other, quite literally. First gunshots (as always, we will never know who fired first), then the fighters were deployed.
When we saw the first footage of those guys, we knew that a whole new game had just started. Those were not some angry youth or neighborhood thugs who just picked up some old Kalashnikovs: these guys were well trained and equipped for urban warfare, advancing slowly and well-coordinated down the alleys, seeking cover and securing positions. As it were, the Hariri militia – a lot of them young guys recruited from dirt-poor areas in the North, with a few yalla-rounds of basic military training – were no match, and it appears that some of their commanders abandoned ship and ran even before the fight had started. So devastating was the defeat that the government felt compelled to deny that a battle ever took place – only a few “unprotected citizen defended their houses” – with automatic weapons, and rocket-propelled grenades, stuffs we all store under our beds. (click here).
So where do we go from here? The victors, Hezbollah and Amal, have in fact largely withdrawn, leaving the army to control the streets. Agency reports whereby "Beirut is in the grip of fear and chaos" as bearded fundamentalist militias are roaming the streets are absolute rubbish, poor and simple. Even the one day they WERE roaming the streets of the city, what reigned was relief – that the fighting was over, and that those guys, scary as they may have looked to some, by and large acted with discipline, even the Amal-guys, who do not have a reputation for such behaviour. Bringing in the army so far is the smartest move in a game they have played with perfect planning, timing and tactics – staying within the framework of a legal institution, denying as it does its opponents the opportunity to portray what has happened as a coup, absolving the party of the effort to maintain security, and leaving it in the hands of a legal institution that is neutral, if not sympathetic to them. Almost a game of bad cop – good cop.
But withdrawing does not wipe away the past days. The shadows of war linger. Invisible, the fighters are there as a ghostly presence. We know that they can be there any second. We know that nothing will stand between them and simply wiping the state out of existence. The army, the last institution potentially functioning as an arbiter, has lost that ability, if it ever had it. Over the past days, they have largely acted as an auxiliary or second-tier force shadowing Hezbollah, doing things that could have tied down or compromised the party – controlling masses prone to riot, moving in and securing the areas that were “cleared”, leaving the fighters with their hands and backs free to knock out their opponents elsewhere. Yes, weapons that are illegitimate and positions that should not have existed in the first place, in particular for parties who have been singing the hymn of state sovereignty for the past three years, are handed over to the army – but it’s only weapons and positions of the pro-government parties who are handed over, and while Hezbollah and Amal voluntarily withdrew from the streets, the others had to surrender. Amal-“offices” have sprung up all over the city, with bored thugs hanging out outside – and nobody comes to check what they store in their closets. In some areas, they even dress up as policemen but are given away by their beards, which police are not supposed to have. In Shiite quarters – in particular those located close to or surrounded by Sunnis – the party is on, and youths roam the streets with ostentatious swagger. In Sunni areas, all posters of Hariri father and son have disappeared, many shops are closed, people avoid being on the street. The balance has been changed – and the prime minister, now more than ever, has been reduced to little more than a janitor of the Saray, the Ottoman barracks-turned government palace overlooking a city that is now in the hand of his enemies.
In any other place, a government with even a token residue of self-respect would have resigned, or exiled itself. But they are hanging on, propped up by foreign backing. Yet, pretending that nothing has happened is simply not going to work. It appears highly unlikely that things can return to the status quo ante of political attrition that has lasted for 18 months – we don’t know yet what the new balance of power will be, what the rules of the next phase will look like, but one thing is sure: they will be different. Soon, not much will be left of the political institutions, some of which have already been reduced to mere ciphers. The army, touted now by everyone as the one institution with untainted national credentials, seems to be set to perform a much bigger role (already, the army chief has been pre-selected to become president, if there is ever going to be an election). The next government, if there will be one, will certainly have a very different colour.
So is it over? Militarily speaking, and barring outside intervention, the answer is probably yes, as the defeat of the government camp has been so complete that there is hardly anything left to fight with. The question remains what the Americans want, and if they know what they want, and whether they are even free to think about it. No doubt, the demise of the Seniora government, praised right left and centre by anybody in the Bush administration who ever said a word about the Middle East, is another black spot on the Middle Eastern report card of this administration, and not exactly reassuring for those Arab regimes who rely on American support for their own survival. Are they going to do anything about it? Can they do anything about it? Is this still part of a “grand plan”? Really a plot to sabotage Israeli-Syrian peace (as if Olmert has any authority or credibility to see such a thing thru)? Or just another addition to a long book of blunders, a list of assorted self-inflicted messes that Mr. Bush will happily bequeath to a democratic successor, or which a republican successor will happily convert into an occasion for a new show of force (though I am not sure a democratic successor will deal any different). Most likely, however, the fading Bush administration will have just enough momentum or rather inertia left to continue supporting Seniora, and pressure its Arab allies to do the same, thus keeping the living corpse that his government is propped up in the Saray, possibly prompting the other side to push even further.
Now the Arab foreign ministers are in town, and last night the offending decisions were formally withdrawn. Apparently, some in the government still wanted to play tactical games about the timing, but were told to shut up and not waste the time of the delegation. Maybe those guys mean business. Maybe Saad Hariri has re-inflated himself enough through his televised post-defeat rants (in a puzzling twist of logic almost to inane to repeat, he claimed that Hezbollah operated under the cover and with the implicit support of Israel – after all, the Israelis did NOT bomb the Hezbollah fighters when they approached Beirut, and they could have done that, so NOT BOMBING is indirect assistance…) to sit down and make the necessary compromises.