The situation this morning in Lebanon is very tense. In response to actions taken by the government of Prime Minister Siniora, Hezb’allah supporters have rampaged through neighborhoods, initiated gun battles with Sunnis, and most threateningly, closed the only road to the international airport by setting up roadblocks using dirt to block the highway, and erecting a tent city similar to the one they have set up in downtown Beirut that has paralyzed the city for more than a year.
The war of words between Lebanon’s political leaders has translated into actual battles on the streets, as Wednesday’s opposition-supported labor strike quickly devolved into violent clashes and rioting. With the labor issue apparently pushed off the agenda, unrest has been stripped down to a contest between the government and Hezbollah, which the government has accused of trying to stage a coup.
In recent weeks, Hezbollah’s intractability has become the subject of increased government focus, culminating with the cabinet’s removal of Hezbollah-linked Brigadier General Wafiq Shqeir from his position as airport security chief, and the declaration that Hezbollah’s private communications network is “illegal and unconstitutional,” after a marathon cabinet session ending early Tuesday.
Hezbollah has given the Siniora government a 48-hour ultimatum to revoke the decisions. However, the government remains adamant that any retreat is out of the question.
Today, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah will deliver a “historic” address, at his first press conference in two years. It is possible Nasrallah will use the podium to attempt a face-saving exit before the situation fully detonates. However, with so much at stake, it seems far more likely that Nasrallah’s words will veer in the opposite direction.
It is a virtual certainty that Hezb’allah’s “private” communications network – an extensive set up that handles wireless phone and other telecommunications protocols – is a spy network for Syria and may be used in the future to plan violence and assassinations against the March 14th government forces. Siniora and his government – standing up to Hezb’allah for the first time – has not only shut down that network and fired the pro-Syrian officer who ran it from the airport, but has all but declared Hezb’allah a “state within a state.”
A detailed look at the Hezzies “communications network:”
Hizbullah has linked its private telephone networks to the Syrian Army’s communications System as well as to Syria’s Mobile telephone network allowing Syrian Intelligence to operate freely in Lebanon and avoid Lebanese controls, al-Mustaqbal’s Faris Khashan wrote.
Internal Security Forces Commander Gen. Ashraf Rifi and Director of Military intelligence Brig. George Khoury were assigned by the government more than a month ago to discuss the issue with Hizbullah, Khashan added. However, Hizbullah’s Security chief Wafiq Safa and the party’s International relations official Nawaf Moussawi informed Rifi and Khoury that “anyone who touches the network would be treated the same way we treat the Zionist enemy,” he wrote.
Khashan labeled Hizbullah a “militia,” noting that Hizbullah is not registered with the interior ministry as a political organization operating in Lebanon. Khashan said Police Counter-terrorism expert, Maj. Wissam Eid, has been assassinated because he managed to detect the serial assassinations committed against March 14 figures to the Hizbullah telephone network.
He reported that Hizbullah sped up work on extending the network after Eid’s assassination, “which means that the killing was aimed at destroying evidence on previous assassinations, including one that appears linked to Hizbullah.” The crime also aimed at creating “safe communications criteria for further assassinations,” he added.
Today, Hezb’allah chief Hassan Nasrallah gave his first press conference in two years and threw down the gauntlet to the government, daring them to challenge Hezb’allah’s status as the “resistance” to Israeli aggression and their privileged position within the state:
I said, before Jumblatt, that any hand that reaches for the resistance and its arms will be cut off. Israel tried that in the July War, and we cut its hand off.
We do not advise you to try us.
Whoever is going to target us will be targeted by us. Whoever is going to shoot at us will be shot by us.
Let’s look into who is really harming the people and stealing their money. Unfortunately, this is the government. Jumblatt acknowledges this openly on TV.
Jumblatt is a liar and a killer. He sits up there and draws red lines, and the martyrs and people who defended Lebanon will be handed over to the courts. This is not a government, this is a gang.
Herein lies the real reason Hezb’allah has taken to the streets; Nasrallah’s complaint that “people who defended Lebanon” will be put on trial. He is referring to the Hariri Tribunal that may start as early as next month under the auspices of the United Nations. It is a dead certainty that Hezb’allah’s role in some of the political assassinations that have rocked Lebanon over the past 3 years will be revealed. Nasrallah, and his patron in Syria Bashar Assad, will do everything in their power to prevent the tribunal from sitting. If it means taking the country to the brink of a civil war, so be it.
Indeed, less than a half an hour following Nasrallah’s bombastic speech, gun battles broke out all over Beirut:
Nasrallah delivered his message in hiding via a closed circuit press conference, where he accused “Jumblatt’s government” of launching a war against Hezbollah, stressing that “this is a new era in which all red lines have collapsed.”
“We are in war and they wouldn’t be able to predict our reaction,” Nasrallah said.
Nasrallah’s hate filled press conference inspired new clashes between his followers and government supporters in Beirut districts of Msaitbeh, Ras Nabaa, Mazraa and Basta. Soon after, clashes spread to Verdun, Karakon Al-Druze, Al-Zarif, Al-Mulla and around Ain Al-Teeni.
There were also reports of Hezbollah gunmen in Hamra.
The crackle of gunfire echoed across the streets of Beirut’s western sector along with the thuds of exploding RPGs.
Nasrallah said his wire communications network is a “weapon” vital for Hizbullah’s resistance and security of the party’s leaders.
In the end, none of the parties want a civil war which makes Nasrallah’s gambit of closing the airport a risky undertaking. He is banking on the fact that all sects will do whatever is necessary to prevent the country from sliding into chaos – a good bet to make except it may get to the point where the political leaders will lose control of their followers at which point all hell will break loose.
Instead of trying to calm the situation, Nasrallah’s words have thrown gasoline on the fire. Meanwhile, citizens are cleaning and oiling their weapons and preparing for the worst.
Note: Some of this post originally appeared at The American Thinker
Three sites to watch for Lebanon updates:
My friend Jim Hoft has extensive coverage and photos of the fighting.
Noah Pollak at Commentary has some prescient analysis of Nasrallah’s defiant speech.
Abu Kais is watching the developing situation at From Beirut to the Beltway. Just keep scrolling.
Lebanese governing coalition leader Saad al-Hariri proposed a deal to end the crisis under which government decisions that infuriated Hezbollah would be considered a “misunderstanding”.
The decisions would then be referred to the Lebanese army, which has been neutral in the confrontations, giving army commander General Michel Suleiman the option to suspend their implementation.
The threat of civil war is a weapon Nasrallah will trot out again and again until Hezbullah has everything they want and Hariri and the government are either in jail or dead.