By Franklin Lamb in Lebanon
Part II: Why the Bush administration wants to negotiate now with Hezbollah
"These fools do not learn from their past mistakes. When they withdrew from Lebanon, they continued to occupy the Shebaa Farms and kept our brothers in custody. Had they released them when they left Lebanon, there would not now be a ‘prisoner issue’ between Lebanon and the enemy. They opened the door for us." – Hassan Nasrallah, January 2004, during a welcome home ceremony for Lebanese and Arab detainees as a result of a Hezbollah-Israel swap.
Creating the Proper Atmosphere to Do ‘Business’
As discussed below, and contrary to conventional wisdom, the Bush administration is prepared to concede that Hezbollah keep its weapons. Even though it encourages its marionettes to foment this issue, and does so itself publicly, the Bush Administration knows that Hezbollah is not going to disarm until the Question of Palestine is settled to the satisfaction of the Palestinians. Yet it feels that focusing on Hezbollah’s militia is still a good pre-negotiation bargaining chip.
The word ‘militia’ with respect to Hezbollah requires a brief clarification.
The term Hezbollah ‘militia’ is used by the Bush administration as a substitute for the internationally (except in Israel) accepted term Lebanese Resistance. In private or in front of Zionist groups the Bush administration simply refers to ‘Hezbollah terrorists’ to describe the Lebanese Resistance. The Bush administration has not been able to bring itself to utter the R-word in public. Indeed, the noun Resistance is banned from even the US Embassy Press office here in Beirut ever since former US Ambassador Jeffrey Feltman exclaimed in frustration at last year’s Embassy Staff Christmas party (reportedly after a couple of glasses of holiday ‘punch’): “even hearing that word gives me gas! … F—k the Resistance!!”, he repeated twice as the Ambassador moved center stage in front of the staff decorated Christmas tree to lead the guests, with his arms raised and keeping time to the music, in the singing of his favorite Carol: “Old Little Town of Bethlehem”.
Those in Lebanon who miss the former US Ambassador may be relieved to know that while Jeffrey did not get the Gulf posting some at the State Department thought he was angling for, he is evidently content to be back in Washington.
As a reward for his three years service in Beirut, Elliot Abrams got him named #2 in the Welch Club, serving directly under David Welch with the new crisp title: Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for the Near Eastern Affairs.
This post puts Feltman on the front line regarding Hezbollah and in close contact with his long time soul mate, Assistant Secretary of State for International Organization Affairs Kristen Silverberg. Silverberg came out this week with more threats for those who may be indicted and brought before the Hariri Tribunal, a cause long championed by Feltman. Kristen emphasized that Secretary of State Rice had pledged that “The court will try the suspects in Hariri’s assassination and related crimes.” The “related crimes” language was chosen to signal Hezbollah that its suspected activities in the 1980s and 1990s may be fair game for the Tribunal and its leadership could theoretically be indicted and arrest warrants issued. This is a squeeze presumably calculated to make Hezbollah more receptive to ‘offers’.
To reinforce this latter point, Samir Geagea carried the identical threat when he briefed the media on his return from Washington on April Fools Day. The tribunal, according to Geagea, “wouldn’t just deal with the Hariri assassination, but would also shed light on what has happened in Lebanon in the past 30 years.” (Beirut media wags have suggested Geagea may know something about that subject).
Geagea advised the media that he also raised the issue of Lebanese detainees in Israeli jails and “we were surprised by the answer from the State Department that Hezbollah is negotiating with Israel on this issue!” Geagea may not have been aware that Washington was using him in the role of ‘good cop’ on this issue. The point regarding Hezbollah ‘handling that issue’ was emphasized to Geagea, according to a Congressional source who attended an Israeli lobby reception for Geagea, in order to signal Hezbollah. The message Geagea unwittingly carried was that the US realizes that on certain issues vital to Lebanon, Hezbollah is best suited to carry the file and that the US respects Hezbollah’s competence and, indeed right, to get Lebanon’s prisoners released since no one else can do the job. The same source opined “that the US is increasingly inclined to use Hezbollah against Israel and vice versa”.
To maintain pressure on Hezbollah, each month US Ambassador to the UN, Zalmay Khalilzad repeats his ‘bad cop’ tirade against Hezbollah at Turtle Bay. His skit is to demand from the 15-member Security Council, during its monthly meeting on the Middle East that: “Hezbollah must immediately disarm! I would like to underscore our deep concern about the illegal arms transfers across the Syrian-Lebanese border, and in particular claims by Hezbollah that it has replenished its military capacity since the summer 2006 war. Hezbollah must disarm, and it must do so now, in accordance with resolutions 1559 and 1701.”
This month Khalilzad was joined with a nearly identical and simultaneous statement by Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barack and, perhaps out of politeness, none of the Security Council members mentioned Israeli violations of UNSC 1701. Not to be eclipsed by Silverberg, Khalilzad then urged member states to “generously support” the Special Tribunal for Lebanon to try suspects in the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.
The irony of his strident call to implement all of UNSC Resolutions 1559 and 1701 (which Israel has failed to do) was not lost on the Security Council members given recollections that in 1978 the Israeli army invaded south Lebanon and the Security Council issued Resolution 425 demanding Israel’s immediate and unconditional withdrawal form Lebanese territory. Under US pressure the Security Council was paralyzed and for 30 years did nothing to implement the resolution. Nor did the Security Council invoke Chapter Seven of the UN Charter which would have allowed the UN to take military action to enforce 425.
While nothing effective was done to implement SCR 425 for 30 years or for 41 years concerning UNSCR 242 and more than a dozen others, the Bush administration supports the Israeli claim that the matter is now closed. Of course it is not closed and according to 174 countries out of 193 members of the UN whose delegates were polled by students from Columbia University, UNSCR 425 is not fully implemented since Israel still occupies the Lebanese territory of Shebaa Farms and Ghajar village (for survey data please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Some UN members point out that it took only seven months for the key provision of UNSC 1559 regarding the withdrawal of Syrian troops and the “disarming of militias” to be implemented under threat of Chapter 7 military action (the next and seventh UNSC monitoring and progress report which will focus on Syria and Hezbollah will be issued on April 28): seven months to implement 1559 in contrast to 30 years for 425 or 41 for 242 both still not implemented. Why? A delegate from China surprised some by providing the short answer: Because 425 and 242 targeted Israel and 1559 favored Israel.
President Bush also does not pass up many opportunities to keep political pressure on the Lebanese Resistance. On the 25th anniversary of the bombing at the US Embassy in Beirut last week he told the world: “The people of Lebanon have spent the better part of three decades living under the threat of violence, assassinations, and other forms of intimidation. Since the Beirut attack, we and citizens of many countries have suffered more attacks at the hands of Hezbollah and other terrorists.”
One week before, the strong Zionist supporter of Israel and Islamophobe, MEP Jana Ken of the Liberal Group urged the European Parliament on April 9, 2008 to put “it [Hezbollah] in the list of terrorist organizations in order to contain Hezbollah’s influence and its activities and in order to curb its power over the Islamic world.” Within hours, US inspired charges were leveled by Bulgaria that Hezbollah has benefited from drug smuggling revenue across from its territories.
Hezbollah’s parliamentary bloc, in a memo to the Bulgarian Embassy in Beirut, said the charge made by the Bulgarian parliament’s security committee is “totally denied by us.” The memo added: “We hope that it is not motivated by Zionist agitation with the aim of hurting the image of resistance movements.” It called on “Bulgarian parliamentarians to be more accurate in this respect.”
Another “let’s squeeze Hezbollah” tactic of the the Bush administration is to periodically issue Anti- Hezbollah Warnings for U.S. Citizens. On an average of every seven months, David Welch, the Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs will try to pressure Hezbollah with yet another Lebanon Travel Warning for U.S. Citizens designed to lead the World to believe that Hezbollah is dangerous for Americans.
The latest is dated April 22 2008 and is directed: “(t)o US citizens in Lebanon as a result of the ongoing political tensions and the threat of attacks against Western interests. This Travel Warning informs U.S. citizens of current safety and security concerns”. The US government “continues to strongly urge that Americans defer travel to Lebanon and that American citizens in Lebanon consider leaving immediately or consider carefully the risks of remaining.”
The statement says that “Hezbollah has threatened retaliatory actions for the assassination of top Hezbollah commander Imad Mughniyeh who was killed in Syria Feb. 12, 2008.” Finally, it warns that “Prominent members of Hezbollah have intimated that they hold the United States partially responsible for Mughniyeh’s death, and it is possible that someone may lash out against U.S. interests or persons.”
No sooner had he tried to frighten Americans in Lebanon than Welch warned the general public here on 22 April that “Another hot summer awaits the Lebanese after political efforts to settle the Lebanon crisis reached a deadlock, including the Arab League initiative.” Welch was quoted at a news conference in Abu Dhabi on Monday, further warning that “Tourism (in Lebanon) is expected to drop due to tensions in the country”.
Against this pressure background, what is the Bush offer and why now?
Three reasons for the growing interest in the White House to engage in discussions with Hezbollah.
1. US allies are urging the Bush administration to open dialogue with Hezbollah and efforts to isolate Hezbollah have failed.
British Defense Secretary Des Browne in a newspaper interview published in the March 30 2008 UK Daily Telegraph agreed with Jonathan Powell, formerly Tony Blair’s top adviser, that Hezbollah should be engaged in discussions. The efforts to politically isolate Hezbollah along with Hamas have failed. Just last week the French Embassy in Beirut invited Hezbollah’s foreign affairs representative to lunch. President Carter’s meetings with Hamas will accelerate the process.
In addition, pro-Hezbollah sentiment is growing in Jordan and Egypt as reflected in legislation introduced in the Jordanian Parliament this week to abrogate the Oct. 26, 1994 Treaty with Israel. While the proposal will not pass this year, the Bush administration is being advised that both Jordan and Egypt will likely abrogate their treaties with Israel following anticipated rebellions against the Abdullah and Mubarak regimes.
Nearly two-thirds of the 27 Countries that make up the European Union are said to believe that it is doubtful whether there really is a viable military option – American, Israeli or combined – for destroying Hezbollah. The Party is too integrated and has support all over Lebanon and the region. Even if there were, the war in Iraq has effectively eliminated it. The American military’s strength has been exhausted in Iraq and Afghanistan and it has inadequate force to devote to a particularly dangerous third front. This is perhaps the greatest damage done by the neocon adventure in Iraq, where after five years there is no end in sight. The United States may be stuck in Iraq for years to come, regardless of who the next president is or how many casualties it takes. Israel may end up as the main victim of the Iraq adventure it instigated.
2. ‘Essential’ Bush administration/Israeli projects have failed in Lebanon.
Neither the Sunni-Shia conflict, the Kleiaat airbase, the Al Qaeda affiliates, a civil war nor the planned and supported July 2006 destruction of Hezbollah has been realized.
A brief comment on one of its projects. The Bush Administration and their Welch Club allies brought al Qaeda elements from Iraq to Lebanon and Syria, starting in 2005, for two purposes. One was to fight Hezbollah and thus weaken Iranian influence in the region and the second was to ignite another Muslim Brotherhood uprising in Syria like the April 1981 attack on the Alawite village of Hama or overthrow the Bashar Assad government.
When Al Qaeda arrived in Lebanon they did what all motivated al Qaeda types do when they arrive in a staging country to organize jihad. They frequented mosques, prayed more than the required five times a day, held late night study and planning sessions, and went shopping. The women shopped at BHV, Spinneys, local shops and the Beirut Mall for baby needs and school supplies and the men went shopping for weapons and fighters.
Based on interviews with some who associated with Fatah al Islam during the past 18 months, it appears that many in Lebanon today think they were the good guys in the conflict at Nahr al Bared. Many salafists thought they were coming to Lebanon to fight UNIFIL, perhaps bomb some western and Arab Embassies, try to ignite a war with Israel and generally do what they like to do best.
However, it soon became clear to Fatah al-Islam that they were expected by local pay-masters to fight Hezbollah instead. The salafists demurred because they understood for the first time that they were brought to Lebanon to be used against Syria and Iran. During discussions the main reason they refused to fight Hezbollah was made clear. Most al Qaeda partisans take seriously the Islamic injunction against fighting fellow Muslims unless in self-defense while others feel apostates are fair game. They also admire Hezbollah, who they report has been reaching out to Sunnis, and don’t want to fight them, because as one commented: “we are on the same side working in Lebanon to liberate Palestine, so we must not fight each other.”
Their analysis is nearly identical to the one just offered on 4/23/08, in an audio message posted on the Internet by Al Qaeda’s number two, Ayman al-Zawahiri. Dr. Zawahiri announced that:
“Lebanon will play a pivotal role in the Islamists’ fight against the “Crusaders and Jews. Lebanon is a Muslim frontline fort. It will have a pivotal role, God willing, in future battles with the Crusaders and the Jews. I call upon the jihadist generation in Lebanon to prepare to reach Palestine, and to banish the invading Crusader forces which are claimed to be peace keeping forces in Lebanon,” he said in reference to the U.N. forces deployed along the borders with Israel. From this observer’s impression, they are indeed organizing for that role.
These young people generally appear very modest, clean cut, polite, smart and serious; one imagines, rather like the image of Mohammad Atta to his neighbors in Hamburg. They are less interested in talking about what they say is ‘minor jihad’ i.e. violently fighting their enemies and prefer to discuss “greater jihad” which is an introspective concept of individual self improvement, becoming a better person by pure thoughts, good deeds, study, and following the teachings of the Koran. In some ways they remind one of Maoists during the Chinese Cultural Revolution period, sitting around discussing the concept of “the new Maoist man”, the guidance found in the little Red Book, engaging in self-criticism, inner struggle trying to follow the correct path in life, and the Islamic imperative of self improvement. This is different from the western perception of them as being religious fanatics in the Hagee Christian Zionists mold.
No Viable Civil War Option
Another reason the White House wants to put out ‘feelers’ to Hezbollah is that it has concluded that it is not likely to be able to ignite a Lebanese Civil war and what was thought by the Welch Club to be perhaps its most promising project, is not going to happen anytime soon.
Even foreign visitors based in Beirut who talk with exhausted and traumatized middle aged former militiamen who did the fighting and killing between 1975 and 1992 sense this. One is struck by how many of these former killers (one fellow confessed to this observer to killing more than 130 men, women and children just because they were Muslims) feel remorse, seek absolution, and speak out against renewed fighting. Many are warning Lebanon’s youth not to repeat their mistakes despite some heated galvanizing rhetoric from certain ‘leaders’. They want a better life for their children.
During the 15 year Lebanese civil war more than 150,000 were killed. In a civil war usually one side wins. There are social, political, economic, cultural changes as a result. This did not happen with the Lebanese civil war. Things ended after 17 years of fighting much where they began. There were no winners in Lebanon. Everyone lost. Those who following the Taif agreement first thought they won came to realize that they also lost. Much of Lebanon was destroyed, almost annihilated and it lost its regional position. All the militias committed massacres against other sects and some even against their own. The cliché that “Lebanon was used as a battleground for foreigners to fight their battles” is not accurate. The Lebanese used the willing outsiders to fight their internal battles. Lebanese militias were probably more violent and ruthless than those who gave them arms and money.
Following the war, rather than create a South African style Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the instigators of the civil war–many of whom are still ‘leaders’ today–gave themselves a blanket amnesty. Some continue to agitate on the same issues with the same self evident and self righteous ‘truths’ that festered 30 years ago. Few in their confessions have confidence anymore in these warlords and prefer that they just keep quiet.
“We fought for nothing and we lost everything. Lebanon went mad and we killed because others were not like us. Show me a family in Lebanon who did not lose a loved one! We have nothing but our sorrow and tears to show for it. We were betrayed and cheated by those we killed and died for. Our young people must not become the next lost generation or the next war generation!” a sandwich shop owner in Alay commented.
With these widespread sentiments in Lebanon today it is tough to ignite internal war, although ‘incidents’ require only a few thousand dollars. Moreover, a civil war would require Hezbollah’s involvement and that organization has repeatedly made it clear it will not fight fellow Lebanese. “Our weapons are for use against Israel and not for use against our countrymen”, is a commonly heard sentiment from Hezbollah members.
When Hezbollah took many casualties during fights with Amal in the late 1980s (”a very black page is Shia history” according to one Hezbollah source), rather than engage in all-out war against their fellow Lebanese today they will take casualties again without answering– ‘a thousand casualties’ Hasan Nasrallah stated– if necessary to keep the peace. (NB. Regarding clashes with Amal eighteen years ago, Hezbollah did finally lose patience and crushed Amal in south Beirut and the intra-Shia conflict ended with an agreement on November 9, 1990).
The Lebanese Association for Human Rights recently organized events for the April 13 anniversary of the 1975 Ain al-Rummaneh killing of 27 passengers on a Palestinian bus; a massacre that ignited, within hours, the Lebanese civil war. “We want those who lived the civil war to tell the younger ones of what awaits them if a new conflict erupts,” Association Member Ziad Khaled 32, stated. “We also want to forewarn our politicians that we won’t follow them into a new war.”
3. A Regional War is unlikely.
Despite the media hype these days, many Middle East analysts as well as the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee, chaired by former presidential candidate Joe Biden (D-Del), consider that the Bush administration and Israel are not likely to ignite a regional war, however tempting that may be, before Bush leaves office.
Someone on Capitol Hill put it bluntly: “If Barack Obama wins, no regional war. If John McCain (”bomb, bomb, bomb Iran!”) wins, move to Alaska ’cause all hell may break loose.”
The Committee Staff thinking mirrors that of Middle East specialists that the unpredictability factor and the potential very high cost create a strong deterrence. According to one Committee source, “It’s like the old MAD (Mutual Assured Destruction) Doctrine during the Cold War. MAD actually kept the peace. It worked because the parties knew they would lose too much. In this region it is the fear in Israel and Washington that will keep the peace for the foreseeable future. We do not see a war coming either inside Lebanon or in the Region. Of course I could be wrong!”
Another Committee source emailed:
"The Russians disagree with our analysis. Russian military intelligence services remind us that heightened U.S. military preparations for both an air and ground operation against Iran with our Naval presence in the Persian Gulf have reached the level that existed before the March 2003 invasion of Iraq and this suggests that Bush (Cheney) may act in the next few months and leave the mess for the next administration."
Indeed, General Leonid Ivashov, vice president of the Academy of Geopolitical Sciences did claim last week that the Pentagon is looking for a way to deliver a strike against Iran “that would enable the Americans to bring the country to its knees at minimal cost.” The USS John C. Stennis, with a crew of 3,200 and around 80 fixed-wing aircraft, including F/A-18 Hornet and Superhornet fighter-bombers, eight support ships and four nuclear submarines are being deployed in the Gulf, where a similar group led by the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower has been based since December 2006, and recently fitted with Patriot anti-missile systems.
-Dr. Franklin Lamb is doing research in Lebanon. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com. Contact him at: email@example.com