March 06, 2005

Hizballah Curve-Ball

A question on spellings, since I'm not sure of this. "Hizbullah" seems the correct way to spell it if you're transliterating from the Arabic, no? ("Hizb" = "party of," "allah" = "god"). Whereas "Hezbollah" seems to be the Farsi way of doing things. No? Yes? Well, whatever, the Lebanese militant group seems to be backing Syria now, which you would think puts a cramp on the Lebanese opposition, since Hizbullah has the guns and a good deal of support among Lebanese Shi'ites, who make up 40-50 percent or so of the country. (Hizbullah's leader, Hassan Nasrallah (pictured), seems to be far, far more popular among Shi'ites than the other big Shi'ite leader, Nabi Berri of Amal. Mostly because he rather wisely took credit for Israel's unilateral withdrawal from South Lebanon in 2000.)

But what the deuce is going on? It seems like the anti-Syrian opposition was talking with Hizbullah for a good long while, and it doesn't seem like the two groups had all that much to disagree on. As I wrote a while back, it seems like the Lebanese opposition could rather easily agree not to enforce UN Resolution 1559—which entails both Syrian withdrawal and the disarmament of Hizbullah—and strike a suitable side deal instead. So perhaps Nasrallah's done the calculations and thinks that Syria's going to come out on top here when all is said and done, mainly because the U.S. doesn't have all that much leverage over Damascus and Europe won't stand up to Syrian president Bashar As'ad. Or something.

By the by, I'm really not an expert on this, but these fears that Hizbullah would dominate in a free and fair "one man one vote" Lebanese election seem overblown. The group's powerful but it doesn't appear to be that powerful. (Not all Shi'ites would vote for Hizbullah, many would vote for Amal or someone else, though some Christians, etc. would (and do) vote for Hizbullah.) Nevertheless, the Shi'ites have a lot to gain by getting Syria out of the country and making Lebanon more democratic, so I do wonder what Nasrallah's thinking here. Why would he want to keep things the way they are? (Maybe Tehran ordered him to back Syria? Unlikely—it seems that most of Hizballah's funding these days comes from expatriate Lebanese, not Iran. But Iranian Supreme Leader Khamene'i still has a lot of sway.) From what I've read, Hizbullah has never had any special love for the Syrian presence in Lebanon, and has criticized the widespread corruption of the Damascus-backed government, though that's been tempered greatly over the last few years. I don't know why.

Anyway, that's my puny analysis. Per David Adesnik's gripes, sure, it would be nice if liberal bloggers wrote about Lebanon more, but crikey, it's the most complicated country ever, and there's no way I personally can devote my life to becoming an expert. Presumably others feel the same. So sparse commentary, little analysis, and very hedged predictions will be the name of the game. Needless to say, I genuinely hope Syria withdraws, Lebanon holds free elections, all the ethnic/sectarian groups learn to play nice and share, and then they all vote in a new government that favors universal health care (and living wages!). But for now, the only thing I can be absolutely sure of is that Lebanese protestors tend to be extremely good-looking. So there.

UPDATE: Ah, on a whim I decided to check out the conservative bloggers to see what rousing insights they're providing on Syria/Lebanon. This guy seems to be pretty sure of himself, so I'll assume he knows what he's talking about, but I guess that's often a dangerous assumption. Powerline pipes up with complaints about how Reuters won't label Hizballah a "terrorist" group. Also, they're shocked that politicians say ingenuous things! Okay... And Michael Totten compares Lebanon to "Hong Kong under Chinese authoritarian rule." Wha—? Also, a quick quibble, but I'm not sure I'd call Syria "totalitarian," as Totten does. Bashar's is one of the worst regimes on earth, but it does offer things like freedom of religion, etc. In general, most of Syria's abuses are aimed at the political opposition, rather than at trying to manage every aspect of its citizens' lives (as in, say, North Korea). So call it "authoritarian." I know, a nitpick, but we can't just let words mean whatever we feel like making them mean.
-- Brad Plumer 11:19 PM || ||