Tuesday, May 13, 2008

European who lives in Beirut about what happened in the past week…

Below is an account by a European who lives in Beirut of what happened in the past week…

for those who like details.


Dear friends,

I suppose you have all heard about the things going on here over thepast days. Maybe you are interested in my semi-personal account of howwe lived thru these times, interspersed with some attempts tounderstand what actually happened, and why.

Heiko Wimmen


Dear everybody,

So the civil war has started, or maybe it is over already.

Thursday night was fighting almost non-stop. In the afternoon and evening, salvoes of fire from automatic weapons into the air during and afterthe speeches of the two main opponents, Nasrallah for Hizbullah and Hariri for the pro-American Future Movement, as has become fashion fora couple of months now. Then the rhythm changes, the firing movescloser, becomes fire and counter fire. Names of places in the news aremore familiar now, are finally only two blocks away, where Jumblatlives, the one opponent singled out by the Hizbollah chief as the image of evil collaboration with the American and the Israeli enemy. But it might as well be in the alleyway under our bedroom window, punctuated by the dull pounding of missiles from a kilometer's distance. Small fry compared to what the Israelis administered on the suburbs two years ago, but much, much closer to us. Our three year oldson dismisses our stories about firecrackers and decides it's thunder. We deliberate where to sleep – civil war lore has it that you are supposed to sleep in the bathroom, but it's too small there. The corridor, the hallway – anything with no outside windows. In the end, we stay in the bedroom – anybody who takes up position in that alleyway, we tell ourselves, must be plain mad – it's a trap, if thereever was one. Finally, the thunder really comes: a furious and unseasonal thunderstorm hits the city, pounding the streets and our windows with relentless rain, drowning out the sounds of the explosions for nearly an hour. For a night of long knifes, this is terrific choreography.

Shooting continues until the morning, when Jumbat's house is finally surrounded by Hizbollah fighters. Somehow, the wave just rolled over us and our alleyway. Across the hallway, the door of an abandoned house – the owner, an old Armenian woman, lives in Spain, and hasn't been seen since the last war – has been kicked in. Apparently they came to check if the owner of the building, a 150 % Hariri man and possibly training in the militia, was using it as a weapon's cache. Carefully, we venture in: nothing but stale air, dust, covered furniture. Not a drawer has been opened, not a sheet crumpled. They walked in, checked the place, and walked out. As it turns out, that pretty much sums up the style of the whole operation. One by one, the quarters and positions held by government supporters fall. By all accounts, it is a rout. Within less than eight hours –fighting only really started in earnest after the speech of Saad Hariri in the evening – it is all over. Hizbollah and Amal, their rather low-brow and thuggish auxiliaries, have taken over most of West Beirut, flushed out most strongholds of the "Future"-movement and took their media off the air. The Army, after standing by throughout the fight, has deployed to secure sensitive spots, in particular wherepro-government officials live. Around 10, army vehicles take up positions in our area. On Friday, all quiet and deserted streets, intermittent gunfire – some last pockets of resistance, or maybe just militia shooting in the air in celebration. On Saturday, a semblance of normality seems to return, but everybody remains on edge. We cross to the East, where nothing has happened (yet) – the old demarcation lines have been reinstated, and as was the case during the 1980ies, fighting only occurs in the Muslim areas, despite the bitter animosity that also divides the Christians in government and opposition supporters – yes, there are Christians, possibly the majority, who support Hizbollah. We spend the day on the seaside, feasting on fish and Arak and giving our bored kid some dearly needed entertainment, after being locked into the house for three days. In the afternoon, two thuggish guys in their mid-thirties enter the place, and the head waiter turns all jittery and flustered, lavishing attention on those unsmiling characters – if our radars are good for anything, those must be men of Dr Geagea (aka Dr Death), the shadowy pro-American henchman – turned politician who vies for leadership of the Christians, patrolling their turf. We prefer to leave.

Areas where lower middle class Sunnis - the power base of the Hariris– concentrate, and which have been hemmed in rather than taken over, are tense with wounded pride and barely contained rage. Six die when a funeral procession for one of the victims of the day before reaches the shop of an opposition sympathizer, who fires, allegedly in self-defense. Saturday night, fighting between pro- and anti-government Druze, vicious antagonists divided by clan rivalries, erupts in the hills to the South-East of the capital. In their strongholds around Tripoli, the Hariroids ignore their leader's call for quiet and mete out retribution to the Alawis of Jabl Muhsin, who have the bad luck to adhere to the same religion as the rioters' favorite but unreachable enemy, the Syrian regime. After a long night with several dead and thousands displaced, again the army moves in. In a nearby town, eleven cadres of the Syrian Socialist Party, a particularly despicable formation of rabid Jew-haters following awacko Arab/Levantine nationalist ideology, are massacred, possibly in retribution for their torching of Hariri's TV station in Beirut. Jumblats men kidnap three Hizbollah fighters and execute two of them, mutilating the bodies. Clashes keep flaring up on and around the two main roads leading to Syria. On Sunday, Hizbollah and its Druze auxiliaries fight it out with Jumblat, the strategic mastermind of the government camp, in the mountains above the capital. A friend receives a hysterical call from the sister of a Druze friend, an engineer with a master's degree and a career ahead of him, who just called in wearing fatigues, determined to fight Hizbollah (he didn't reach in time to put himself in harms way). Ominous growling of missiles all afternoon, but even the result of this battle is sealed from the start, despite the heavy armor that the Druze are rumored to have – it appears that Jumblat has neglected his home base for too long, and that his formerly fearsome fightersare no longer what they used to be. In the afternoon, he orders them to stand down and hand over their arsenal to the army, all under the oversight of his Druze arch nemesis, the Hizbollah ally, ending a very long weekend (nobody has been to work since Wednesday).

The Airport remains closed, as are the roads to Syria and the port. Soon, the fuel oil for the power plants will run out, and the Lebanese electricity grid, already strained by three postwar decades of corruption and mismanagement, will falter again. The good news (so far): while the conflict does have a sectarian dimension – the fighters are mostly Shiites on one side, Sunnis and Druze on the other - it is still first and foremost a struggle between two irreconcilable political agendas, and has not (yet) turned sectarian, despite the best effort of pundits in the pay of the government and its Saudi masters (who control much of the Arab media) to discredit Hizbollah as hell-bent on turning Lebanon and the Levantinto an Shiite-Arab foothold of a new Persian Empire.

No ethnic cleansing is occurring. Hizbollah's and Amal's fighters have uprooted their opponents from their positions in neighborhoods that are often Sunni-dominated but mostly mixed, or intertwined with Shiite neighborhoods, but so far have left civilian residents alone, regardless of religion and sect, and have not apprehended known supporters of the other side who did not take part in the fighting. Those captured in the fighting are handed over to the army. Likewise, no plundering or rampage, or deliberate bombing of residential buildings that are not home to armed positions. Apart from those unlucky enough to be living in the vicinity of actual clashes, people living in Beirut were not under immediate threat. The prime minister decries "massacres" and "people being attacked in their houses", but it remains his secret where this actually occurred (apart from Tripoli, where it appears that the attackers came from his own party).

How it all started: a few days ago, the government or what is left of it took a twin decision to fire the chief of airport security, and to dismantle Hizbollah's private telephone network – a "declaration of war" according to the party's secretary general. And war it was. Why were these decisions a casus belli? According to Hizbollah's secretary general, replacing the chief of airport security was part of a plan to convert the airport into "a base for the CIA and the Israeli Mossad" -a rather outlandish accusation (since it would constitute criminal high treason and be nearly impossible to conceal within a complex structure like an airport), if well in line with the party's rhetoric, expressed constantly since the aftermath of the 2006 war, of casting the government as a tool in the hand of those forces.

The communication network appears to be quite a different matter: Nasrallah's assertion whereby this system was of crucial importance for Hizbollah's operations during the 2006 war (directing their fighters and orchestrating the missile attacks on Northern Israel) and would be of equal importance in any future confrontation, seems to make immediate sense – it does not require a degree from a military academy to realize that in any armed confrontation, to be able to maintain secure communication between headquarters and the troops in the field is critical, and that having your communications penetratedor disrupted can very easily be the beginning of the end (for a good article on this, see http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1738255,00.html?xid=site-cnn-partner).

So why were these decisions taken in the first place, and why now? The Airport Security Chief, who has served in this position for years, stood accused of not moving decisively enough against "surveillance equipment" which Hizbollah allegedly installed close to the Airport –but the areas around the Airport have been Hizbollah strongholds for more than two decades, and hundreds of residential buildings overlook the runways, where people will happily welcome Hizbollah to install just about anything. The phone network has been in place for years,and even if were true that illicit profits are reaped from it – which Hizbollah categorically denies -, that hardly seems sufficient reason to risk civil war. Moreover, it appears mysterious how the decision was meant to be physically implemented. Surely, Hizbollah knows where the wires are, has means to know about any attempts to dig them up, and would have not stood by and watched.

So that leaves us with several possible explanations:

(1) Bazaar – the decision was taken without any real intention to see it through, but rather, to score a political point and create a political asset, first by seeing Hizbollah obstruct it – voila, here you have the state within the state –, and then to trade it against concessions in the ongoing haggling about the formation of the new government, electoral law, etc. etc.

(2) Posturing - a move to please their Western benefactors, and deliver a show of strength and determination to boost morale among the follower base, after a grinding 18 months of political stalemate. To be sure, a purely rhetorical show of strength – since no army or police commander in his right mind would have exposed his troops to such an adventure.

(3) Hubris & Underestimating the adversary – after three years of receiving military, financial and moral support and restructuring the Internal Security Forces to become government loyalists (now here to be seen during the event), the government may have felt strong enough to risk a confrontation. Former flare-ups, both politically and in the streets, may have helped create the impression that once seriously squeezed, Hizbollah would always back down, fearing the stigma of illegitimacy and the potential for uncontrollable sectarian (Sunni-Shiite) strife (which both Hariri and the religious head of the Lebanese Sunnis evoked heavily on the eve of the fighting).

(4) Conspiracy – all of this was a bait and a trap to draw Hizbollah out into the open, discredit their nationalist credentials and expose them as sectarian warmongers staging a coup, thus preparing for some sort of international intervention to take them out. A variety of scenarios circulate that center on the highly publicized Turkish-mediated initiative for a peace deal between Israel and Syria, starring a variety of actors (determined by the position of he who presents the scenario) who may want to use the Lebanese crisis to shoot such a deal down (American neo-cons, Israeli and Syrian hawks, Iran). And even the long standing argument about Iran being ready to fight the Americans until the last Lebanese and Arab, and being ready to sell its allies out once the US are offering the right terms, is being rehashed by pundits of the Egyptian and other regimes, who are known for their own close ties with the Americans, and despised by their people for that.

As it were, Hizbollah decided to not take chances and linger long wondering about the government's intentions. Or maybe they decided that, blunder or brinkmanship, rhetoric or conspiracy, the time had come to bite rather than bark. Exploiting or rather hijacking a general strike that the labor federation had called over purely economic demands, they sent their youth to the street, who quickly blocked all roads to the airport. By touching the airport – the one lifeline out of the country for anybody opposed to Syria, named after the late Rafik El-Hariri and iconic for his project of turning Lebanon into a leisure hub for petrodollar Arabs - a response from the other side was virtually assured. And surely it came: hails of stones exchanged between youth supporting either side, who live side by side on the southern edges of the city – a stone-throw from each other, quite literally. First gunshots (as always, we will never know who fired first), then the fighters were deployed. When we saw the first footage of those guys, we knew that a whole new game had just started. Those were not some angry youth or neighborhood thugs who just picked up some old Kalashnikovs: these guys were well trained and equipped for urban warfare, advancing slowly and well-coordinated down the alleys, seeking cover and securing positions. As it were, the Hariri militia – a lot of them young guys recruited from dirt-poor areas in the North, with a few yalla-rounds of basic military training - were no match, and it appears that some of their commanders abandoned ship and ran even before the fight had started. So devastating was the defeat that the government felt compelled to deny that a battle ever took place – only a few "unprotected citizen defended their houses" – with automatic weapons, and rocket-propelled grenades, stuffs we all store under our beds. (see http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/world/la-fg-security12-2008may12,0,6458359.story).

So where do we go from here? The victors, Hizbollah and Amal, have infact largely withdrawn, leaving the army to control the streets. Agency reports whereby "Beirut is in the grip of fear and chaos" as bearded fundamentalist militias are roaming the streets are absolute rubbish, poor and simple. Even the one day they WERE roaming the streets of the city, what reigned was relief – that the fighting was over, and that those guys, scary as they may have looked to some, by and large acted with discipline, even the Amal-guys, who do not have a reputation for such behaviour. Bringing in the army so far is the smartest move in a game they have played with perfect planning, timing and tactics – staying within the framework of a legal institution, denying as it does its opponents the opportunity to portray what hashappened as a coup, absolving the party of the effort to maintain security, and leaving it in the hands of a legal institution that is neutral, if not sympathetic to them. Almost a game of bad cop – good cop. But withdrawing does not wipe away the past days. The shadows of war linger. Invisible, the fighters are there as a ghostly presence. We know that they can be there any second. We know that nothing will stand between them and simply wiping the state out of existence. The army, the last institution potentially functioning as an arbiter, has lost that ability, if it ever had it. Over the past days, they have largely acted as an auxiliary or second-tier force shadowing Hizbollah, doing things that could have tied down or compromised the party – controlling masses prone to riot, moving in and securing the areas that were "cleared", leaving the fighters with their hands and backs free to knock out their opponents. Yes, weapons that are illegitimate and positions that should not have existed in the first place, in particular for parties who have been singing the hymn of state sovereignty for the past three years, are handed over to the army – but it's only weapons and positions of the pro-government parties who are handed over, and while Hizbollah and Amal voluntarily withdrew from the streets, the others had to surrender. The balance has been changed – and the prime minister, now more than ever, has been reduced to little more than a janitor of the Saray, the Ottoman barracks-turned government palace overlooking a city that is now in the hand of his enemies. In any other place, a government with even a token residue of self-respect would have resigned, or exiled itself. But they are hanging on, propped up by foreign backing. Yet, pretending that nothing has happened is simply not going to work. Already, the government has backpedalled on the disputed issues as far as it possible can without officially renouncing them, proposing a permanent postponement, and Hizbollah is having nothing of it. Some pro-government media have already been silenced, and there may be others to follow. It appears highly unlikely that things can return to the status quo ante of political attrition that has lasted for 18 months – we don't know yet what the new balance of power will be, what the rules of the next phase will look like, but one thing is sure: they will be different. Soon, not much will be left of the political institutions, some of which have already been reduced to mere ciphers. The army, touted now by everyone as the one institution with untainted national credentials, seems to be set to perform a much bigger role (already, the army chief has been pre-selected to become president, if there is ever going to be an election). The next government, if there will be one, will certainly have a very different color.

So is it over? Militarily speaking, and barring outside intervention, the answer is probably yes, as the defeat of the government camp has been so complete that there is hardly anything left to fight with. The question remains what the Americans want, and if they know what they want, and whether they are even free to think about it. No doubt, the demise of the Seniora government, praised right left and centre by anybody in the Bush administration who ever said a word about the Middle East, is another black spot on the Middle Eastern report card of this administration, and not exactly reassuring for those Arab regimes who rely on American support for their own survival. Are they going to do anything about it? Can they do anything about it? Is this still part of a "grand plan"? Really a plot to sabotage Israeli-Syrian peace (as if Olmert has any authority or credibility to see such athing thru)? Or just another addition to a long book of blunders, a list of assorted self-inflicted messes that Mr. Bush will happily bequeath to a democratic successor, or which a republican successor will happily convert into an occasion for a new show of force (though I am not sure a democratic successor will deal any different). Most likely, however, the fading Bush administration will have just enough momentum or rather inertia left to continue supporting Seniora, and pressure its Arab allies to do the same, thus keeping the living corpse that his government is propped up in the Saray, and prompting the other side to push even further.

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