Hezbollah May Hold the Key in Lebanon

BEIRUT – Ever since the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri earlier this month, the radical Shi’ite group Hezbollah has been much sought after by politicians opposed to the Syrian presence.

Hezbollah, a group that few took seriously when it was created with the help of Iran and Syria in early 1980s, is now one of the most powerful political groups in the country.

Lebanese politicians are courting the group’s charismatic leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah to openly join the opposition call for total Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon.

"Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah is one of the greatest leaders of Lebanon," says opposition front leader Walid Junblatt. "Hezbollah forced Israel to end its occupation of the south. We now call on Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah to join the forces that are struggling to end another occupation of Lebanon."

Hezbollah has been holding back, prompting many to speculate that it has joined ranks with another Shi’ite organization, Amal, led by parliament speaker Nabih Berri in supporting the government. Prime Minister Omar Karami and President Emil Lahoud are widely seen as little more than caretakers of Syria’s interests.

A Hezbollah leader denies charges of his group’s complicity with pro-Syrian forces. But he also blames the opposition front for "wrong" and "shortsighted" policies.

"Our alliance with the National Front and the pro-government faction does not mean that we are part of the government or that we are against the opposition," Ghalib Abu Zeinab, member of the Hezbollah politburo told IPS.

"What we have tried to do, using our position, is to bring people to a middle ground for the sake of the country," he said.

Reaching that middle ground is tough, given the diversity of the positions and demands of the two sides, and the divisions also within the opposition.

Soon after the assassination of Hariri several opposition members – backed by many Lebanese – said they would not settle for anything less than the full and immediate withdrawal of the Syrian military and intelligence machinery from Lebanon.

That demand is in line with United Nations Security Council resolution 1559 that was supported by the United States and many European countries. It calls on Syria to withdraw its troops from Lebanon and to stop assisting Hezbollah.

Washington considers Hezbollah a terrorist organization for its attacks on Israel. The group justifies the attacks saying the Jewish state is an enemy and has invaded Arab and Lebanese land.

But some members of the opposition seem willing to just accept implementation of the 1989 Taif accord which is more lenient on Syria. That accord allows Syria to withdraw to Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley and then fully withdraw in conjunction with implementation of other UN Security Council resolutions on the Middle East, some of which call on Israel to give Arab land back and allow Palestinians to return to their land.

Hezbollah says one reason it has not joined ranks with the opposition is that it sees the current crisis from a strategic point of view that the opposition is missing.

"The reason many of Israel’s attacks against Lebanon have been thwarted has been the presence of a real power in Lebanon, and that power has been the presence of the resistance force plus the strategic presence of Syria," Abu Zeinab says.

Without the Syrian shadow over Lebanon, he suggests, Israel would feel free to attack its small neighbor to the north and crush Hezbollah.

He also accuses some members of the opposition of serving U.S. interests in Lebanon. "I am certain that certain members of the opposition coordinate their policies and statements with the line taken by the United States," he said. "There is no doubt. That helps the United States spread its influence in Lebanon."

There can be no total winners and losers in Lebanon, he said. "Removal of Syria from Lebanon the way it is being pressured from the outside would create a political vacuum that will lead to an explosive atmosphere."

Many Lebanese would argue that the explosion that killed Hariri, which many blame on Syria, created the kind of vacuum that has allowed Syria’s ally Hezbollah to amass the kind of political capital it now enjoys.