Thursday, May 15, 2008

'Untouchable' Hezbollah emerges victorious

Analysts say Lebanese cabinet’s climbdown is coup for Hezbollah, slap in face of US policy in Mideast. By Jocelyne Zablit -Beirut-Middleast Online

The Lebanese cabinet's climbdown in its latest showdown with Hezbollah marks a major victory for the Shiite Muslim militant group and a slap in the face for US policy in the region, analysts said.
"This climbdown is a major retreat, not only for the government but the US agenda in Lebanon," Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, a political analyst and specialist on Hezbollah, said.
"It empowers the opposition... and basically shows that force is the only way of dealing with the government."
Osama Safa, head of the Lebanese Centre for Policy Studies, said the reversal for the government set a "dangerous precedent," adding: "This means that in the future the opposition could resort to the same violence or threaten to do so.
"The government has been weakened to irrelevance by actions on the street. It is fast becoming a lame duck."
Both Saad-Ghorayeb and Safa said it was likely the government, which is backed by the United States and regional powerhouse Saudi Arabia, would agree to proposals by Arab foreign ministers for continued negotiations in Qatar given their weakened position.
"This is probably a truce that might be prolonged until we go to meaningful negotiations in a country that plays more music to the ears of the opposition," Safa said, referring to Qatar, which unlike Saudi Arabia and Egypt, is considered close to the opposition.
Added Saad-Ghorayeb: "The fact that the Qataris will be heading those talks, and with Qatar favouring the opposition, this is a major blow to the US."
Last week's violence, which left at least 65 people dead and 200 wounded, was sparked by the government's decision to probe a telecommunication network set up by Hezbollah and to reassign the head of security at Beirut airport on suspicions he was close to the group.
Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah said the measures amounted to a declaration of war and within hours his fighters and Shiite allies had taken over Sunni areas of west Beirut, overrunning supporters of the government of Prime Minister Fuad Siniora.
The takeover of west Beirut was a dramatic display of Hezbollah's military might and sparked Lebanon's worst sectarian violence since the 1990 end of the civil war.
Although the opposition withdrew at the weekend after the army moved in, it refused to lift its blockade on Beirut airport and end a civil disobedience campaign until the government revoked its measures against Hezbollah and returned to the negotiating table.
The airport blockade was set to be lifted later on Thursday following the government's climbdown.
Patrick Haenni, of Brussels-based think-tank, the International Crisis Group, said that last week's events were important in that they marked the crossing of two red lines.
"The government for the first time took a concrete measure against Hezbollah's arms, which were untouchable," he said.
"And Hezbollah's response was very clear. It did not carry out a coup d'etat but delivered an extremely powerful political message."
Nadim Shehadi, a Lebanon specialist at London-based think-tank Chatham House, said all eyes will now be on how the two sides go about relaunching negotiations on an Arab League initiative to end their 18-month-old standoff which has left the country without a president since November.
The Arab initiative calls for the election of army chief General Michel Sleiman as a compromise candidate for president, the formation of a national unity government and the drawing up of a new electoral law for parliamentary polls due next year.
Although all parties agree on Sleiman's election, the opposition has insisted on a blocking minority in the new government. Both sides also disagree on the new electoral law.
"I think what matters now is how Hezbollah and the government translate the military gains and losses into political ones," Shehadi said . "It is possible that Hezbollah will lose alot politically from this military victory.
"They became an occupation, not a resistance," he added. "They turned their arms against the country."


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