What appears to be a civil war is beginning in Lebanon, with Hezbollah — a radical Shiite group — trying either to mount a traditional coup in which the present somewhat pro-Western government will be replaced with a Hezbollah-dominated one, or simply to give their state-within-a-state de facto control of the country.
Probably it’s the latter, which can be accomplished without providing an excuse for embarrassing Security Council resolutions. One of the triggers for the current crisis was Hezbollah’s private telecommunications network, which the government rightly sees as a way for Hezbollah to coordinate and direct their forces without interruption or interception of communications. Another was the government’s attempt to remove a pro-Hezbollah airport security administrator.
Lebanon has parties (and militias) representing various factions of Sunni and Shiite Muslims, Christians, and Druze. It also has an ‘official’ army that supposedly takes orders from a government in which Hezbollah’s strength has increased significantly as opposition politicians are murdered (8 since 2005), probably by Hezbollah ally Syria. Hezbollah’s militia is well-trained and well-armed, and it also has many sympathizers in the Lebanese army. The army has already agreed to backtrack on some of the government’s demands regarding the communications network and airport manager.
Hezbollah is funded by Iran and supplied through Iran’s satellite, Syria. Syria also has her own interests in Lebanon, having colonized that nation for almost 30 years until being forced to remove her forces in 2005 after the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri (almost certainly by Syrian agents).
In 2006 the US and Iran fought a proxy war by way of Israel and Hezbollah. Results were inconclusive enough to encourage Iran to rearm Hezbollah and attempt to develop a similar army from Hamas in Gaza, although there is reason to believe that the IDF woke up and smelled the coffee, and will do better next time.
The next time may be coming soon if the present civil strife spills over into an attack on Israel, or if Israel gets nervous enough to intervene.
Noah Pollak sees similarities between the behavior of Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza, and sees Western observers making the same fundamental mistake in both cases:
What does the crisis in Lebanon teach us about Hezbollah? It teaches us the same lesson we learned from Hamas when it took Gaza: Islamic supremacist groups, despite their claims to the contrary, cannot be integrated into states or democratic political systems…
We have heard for many years from an array of journalists, scholars, and pundits that Hamas and Hezbollah are complicated social movements that employ violence in the service of their political goals, and that they are therefore susceptible to diplomatic engagement…
In the streets of Beirut, with Kalashnikovs and RPGs, Hezbollah is making it abundantly clear that its participation in Lebanese politics ends when Hezbollah is asked to submit to the state’s authority. How many more Middle East “experts” are going to proclaim that the answer to Islamic supremacism is dialogue and political integration?
No one knows exactly what Hezbollah intends. What is certain is that the Lebanese government does not have the strength or the will to resist, and that therefore another domino will shortly fall to the Iranian axis.
Update [11 May 2008 0713]: For an excellent analysis of Hezbollah’s recent actions, see Jonathan Speyer, “The Question of Power“.