Neither side planned it. Neither side wanted it. But in their darkest nightmares, both sides must have realized that the potential for the violence to get out of hand and acquire a life of its own must have been there all along.
Yesterday in Beirut, the brinkmanship that Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah has been practicing for almost two months bore unexpected fruit. Priding himself on making only carefully planned and tightly controlled moves in his dangerous chess match against Prime Minister Siniora’s government, his followers took matters into their own hands yesterday and in a burst of violence not seen in many years, battled pro government forces around the Beirut University campus. The significance of Thursday’s clashes is that it marks the first time that a confrontation occurred between the factions that didn’t have the overt blessing of the Hizbullah leader.
In the past two months, Nasrallah has staged two massive demonstrations, tried to shut down government offices using the time honored tactic of sit ins, and finally resorted on Tuesday to a general strike – shutting down roads and bringing the country to a virtual standstill. Violence associated with these carefully planned moves was both accidental and unwanted. Even Tuesday’s butcher’s bill of 3 dead and 130 injured came as shock to the opposition forces and may have caused them to back off in order to let things cool down.
But things didn’t cool down. Yesterday’s mayhem that has left 4 dead and 169 wounded was not planned. And it erupted between Sunni and Shia youths; the same people who would be facing off in any potential civil war:
Thursday’s clashes in Beirut showed just how quickly any spark can turn into a wildfire.
Students said it began with a scuffle in the cafeteria of Beirut Arab University between Sunni Muslims and supporters of the Shiite Hezbollah. As Sunnis in the surrounding Tarik el-Jadideh district moved in, Hezbollah activists called in reinforcements.
Hezbollah activists with walkie-talkies were seen coordinating as a ragtag convoy of hundreds of vigilantes raced to the campus. Gangs – many wearing blue and red construction hard hats and wielding clubs made from sticks and even chair legs – poured into the area and battled Sunni students and riot police and soldiers.
Hezbollah backers claimed Sunni gunmen fired from apartment balconies near the school, wounding several people. The claim could not be independently confirmed.
Thick black smoke rose over the campus and the neighborhood on the southern edge of Beirut as rioters set fire to vehicles, tires and trash. Bands of youths clashed with stones and clubs in running street battles as the army tried to close off streets with tanks and armored vehicles. Troops fired tear gas and warning shots into the air.
“We are afraid about the future of the country. We are afraid about civil war,” said Mohammed Abdul-Sater, a 21-year-old Shiite student.
The “Sunni gunmen” were arrested later. They were identified by security forces as a Syrian and a Lebanese.
It is not likely that Syrian President Bashir Assad planned the violence. But most analysts have little doubt that he is ready to take advantage of any clashes that erupt and attempt to widen the conflict into a full blown civil war. Would a civil war lead to a re-introduction of Syrian troops into Lebanon? Assad would dearly love it although the US, the French, and most of the Arab world might have something to say about it.
Note also the highly organized response by Hizbullah. Do they have some kind of “rapid reaction force” available for just such eventualities? It would seem so. Of course, the Sunnis don’t have anything comparable which would put them at a huge disadvantage if things begin to escalate. Also, the Sunnis who poured in from the nearby Tarik el-Jadideh district brought sticks and stones to a gunfight – not a good sign. Next time, the firepower will probably be more equal.
One hopeful sign was the performance of the army. During Tuesday’s violence, they appeared to stay on the periphery, even assisting the opposition in their efforts to shut down the country. But yesterday’s clashes took a heavy toll on the security forces as they suffered 17 wounded.
There are conflicting reports of a Saudi-Iranian initiative to end the crisis by changing the make up of the cabinet and giving the opposition a voice in discussions regarding the International Tribunal that will try the murderers of ex-Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. In fact, according to MEMRI, this appeared to be a done deal a week ago:
The March 14 Forces agreed to the draft agreement, as did Iran, as mentioned. However, Nasrallah delayed answering. Finally, on January 18, during an interview on Hizbullah’s Al-Manar TV channel, Nasrallah rejected the draft because it did not include General Michel Aoun’s demand for early parliamentary elections.
The next day, Saudi Arabia called Iran to find out what the holdup was over the agreement. The answer it received was that senior Iranian officials still viewed the draft agreement positively, and they intended to send Larijani to Syria on the coming Monday, January 21, in order to obtain Syria’s agreement. The Saudis were also told that Larijani was in touch with Hizbullah as well.
On January 22, 2007, Larijani went to Syria and met with Syrian officials and then with a Hizbullah delegation there. Sources following the contacts said that Larijani was heavily criticized during the talks in Damascus for accepting the inclusion of the international court in the Saudi draft agreement. The talks ended with Syria’s rejection of the draft agreement.
The scuttling of the agreement by Assad is to be expected. Simply put, once the International Tribunal sits and begins to present evidence of high level Syrian complicity – perhaps the highest – in the assassinations and bombings that have shaken Lebanon over the past two years, the Assad regime will become an international pariah and perhaps even fall to an internal coup. And as I mentioned before, Assad feels it is in his interest to foment civil war in Lebanon so that he can re-occupy and once again, milk what he considers the Syrian province for everything he can.
Would Nasrallah go ahead and take a deal without the backing of Syria? Iran is pushing the agreement because the last thing they want is for Nasrallah to be seen as the cause of Shia on Sunni bloodletting. It flies in the face of their larger strategic goal of uniting the Muslim world against the US and the west. In this instance, Syria and Iran have competing interests in Lebanon and Nasrallah is caught in the middle.
And Nasrallah has his own agenda as well. He has a fractious coalition to tend including the necessity of keeping the extremely troublesome Free Patriotic Movement leader Michel Aoun happy – something that is becoming more difficult as time passes. Aoun wants early parliamentary elections because he thinks it will give him a stronger base when he runs for President next year. He may be dreaming. The Christian community is badly split over his desertion to the opposition and his list will get precious few votes from Sunnis and Shias.
Talks between the Saudis and Iranians were renewed on Wednesday and picked up steam yesterday as a result of the violence. There are once again conflicting reports about whether a deal has been ironed out between the two regional powers:
The secretary general of the Saudi National Security Council, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, held talks with Iranian counterpart Ali Larijani in Tehran on “the critical situation in Lebanon,” the television said.
The two men, whose talks came a day after three people were killed in Lebanon in clashes between government and opposition supporters, “emphasized the necessity of finding a solution agreed to by all Lebanese groups.”
But the Saudi foreign minister said Thursday Saudi Arabia is not negotiating with Iran to try to broker an end to the political crisis in Lebanon, but the two countries have exchanged messages about Muslim cooperation.
Asked about the reports, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal said: “There is no initiative really.”
And Nasrallah has made it clear that he considers any initiative from outside Lebanon to be unwelcome:
In a speech yesterday, January 24, 2007, Hizbullah leader Nasrallah said, referring to the Iran-Saudi contacts: “Allah will bless all those who help Lebanon, but every agreement between two countries or two governments does not bind the Lebanese, because the Lebanese must seek their own interests and not the interests of Saudi Arabia and Iran.”
It seems to me that Nasrallah basically has two options at this point. He can embrace the horror and continue down the path he has chosen – a path that he must realize by now can only end in sectarian conflict. Or he can sit down with Siniora and hammer out a compromise that he can live with.
As for the latter, he is getting plenty of cover from his own allies. Speaker of the Parliament Nabih Berri of the Amal party, Hizbullah’s major partner in the anti-government coalition has called for all parties to negotiate. And Siniora has constantly issued pleas for Nasrallah to come to the table and find a way to untie the knot of civil war that seems to be tightening every day that Hizbullah is in the streets.
But after making grandiose claims about bringing down the government, can Nasrallah afford to back down? The answer to that question will determine if Lebanon sinks into the nightmare of civil war.
His options narrowing, his people perhaps getting beyond his control, resistance stiffening among the opposition parties, and his main benefactors in Iran and Syria split over what is the best course for the future, Nasrallah is in a bind of his own making. If he plays the statesmen, Lebanon will probably settle back into an uneasy peace. But if he decides to play the fiery revolutionary leader, it is very likely that in the not too distant future, the streets of Beirut and Tyre and Tripoli will once again run red with the blood of innocents and combatants alike and Lebanon will sink to its knees in agony.
Jim Hoft has some good photos and some troubling information:
Blacksmiths of Lebanon has news (Via Naharnet) that police… “defused a rocket that was directed at the Moustaqbal newspaper in Beirut, shortly before it was set to launch. “Luckily they discovered it. It would have resulted in a massacre. The newspaper is packed by journalists at this time of the evening,” Editor Nassir al-Assad told Naharnet by telephone.”
This sounds like meddling by Syria. I can’t believe that Nasrallah would be dumb enough to target the press. In fact, Syria has been behind a series of assassinations of Lebanese journalists over the last two years including the death of An Nahar’s Gebran Tueni, grandson of the founding publisher and an anti-Syrian member of Parliament.
Robert Mayer also points out that Nasrallah is in a bind. He also believes that Nasrallah is retreating as a result of Tuesday’s violence.