Belmont Club

Never Smile at a Crocodile

Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea argues that if Hezbollah takes over Lebanon it will become another Gaza, at war with Israel and isolated from the Arab and Western worlds. That takeover is being openly practiced by black-shirted Hezbullah groups who gathered in groups of 30 at strategic points of entry into the city, including points near the capitol. Hezbollah spokesmen denied the gatherings had any significance.

Meanwhile, a member of the Israeli Knesset said that Walid Jumblatt had been threatened with an attack on his stronghold in the Chouf unless he sided with Syria. The Druze leader earlier announced his decision to switch from the Hariri camp to Hezbollah in order to avert the threat of fighting.

Two days ago Hillary Clinton said that “it is ultimately up to Beirut to resolve the crisis” — a view that may not be shared in Damascus. The Boston Globe thinks Syria may be calling the shots, or at least some of them. It praised President Obama’s decision to send an ambassador to Syria, contrasting it with the Bush administration’s decision to withdraw its ambassador in 2005. “Washington has only hobbled itself by going without an ambassador in Damascus since 2005, when the Bush administration sought to punish Syria by pulling its envoy.” Now it has someone to plead  its case with Assad.

The year 2005 was when Rafik Hariri was assassinated, the Cedar Revolution took place, booting out much of Syrian influence and the Arab world still believed the campaign on Saddam Hussein might finish in Damascus.  It marked the high tide of the policy of pushing Syria back by a combination of military and diplomatic intimidation. Now the adults are back in charge and things are back to the green baize table and cocktail party.  Inexplicably, Lebanon has gone from becoming one of the freest places in the Arab world to contemplating its future as the new Gaza.

But the Globe believes it is still possible to drive a wedge between Syria and Iran, with whom talks on the subject of their nuclear weapons program have just ended in ignominious failure. VOA says the European Union was completely completely stonewalled and that the talks ‘collapsed’. Nevertheless, why give up now? The Globe wrote:

The United States and its partners in the Mideast share an overriding interest in prying Syria from its alliance with Iran, fostering an Israeli-Syrian peace accord, and enabling Lebanon to solve its domestic conflicts free of Syrian dominance. To achieve these goals, Washington needs an ambassador reporting back from Damascus on the strengths, weaknesses, and ulterior motives of the Assad regime.

Let Me Try Again, Just Let Me Try Again

But without the will to apply the stick to Syria, Washington is left only with carrots to influence the regime in Damascus. What can it feed Assad? The carrot Syria hungers after the most is Lebanon, whose independence was only recognized by Syria in August, 2008.  But it has never stopped hungering for the Levant. And while diplomats clinked their glasses in a toast,  the Iranian client Hezbollah has progressively built up its missile strength beyond its inventories in 2006.

Iran has helped the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah rearm itself to levels beyond those in 2006, when the group waged a 33-day war with Israel, according to a Pentagon report.

The unclassified report, the first to outline Iran’s military power under legislation passed last year, cites the Persian Gulf nation’s ”long-standing relationship” with Hezbollah, along with other terrorist groups. …

The Pentagon study release coincides with Washington summoning a senior Syrian diplomat over his country’s ”provocative” possible arms transfer to Hezbollah, with the State Department calling any such move an impediment to peace.

”The most senior Syrian diplomat present in Washington today, deputy chief of mission Zouheir Jabbour, was summoned to the Department of State to review Syria’s provocative behaviour concerning the potential transfer of arms to Hezbollah,” department deputy spokesman Gordon Duguid said. ”The United States condemns in the strongest terms the transfer of any arms, and especially ballistic missile systems such as the Scud, from Syria to Hezbollah.”

Hezbollah now has upwards of 50,000 rockets some of which can reach Tel Aviv with a warning time of less than 90 seconds. The Israeli Iron Dome system is meant to defend key Israeli military and strategic targets. “The residents of Israel shouldn’t be under the illusion that someone will open an umbrella over their heads,” said Northern Command Chief Major-General Gadi Eizenkot.

Iran wants Lebanon as a launching pad against Israel, and as Shia proto-state; Syria wants Lebanon for its own historical reasons. Both want Lebanon.  The diplomats maybe calculating that if Syria is going to be bought off or Iran appeased, the only price worth offering is Lebanon itself.

The stakes in the Middle East are far higher than the worth of poor, expandable Lebanon. Lebanon by itself is a small, picturesque country with good food and engaging people. But its value in a chip in the vast regional game in which the administration hopes to negotiate away an Iranian nuclear program is unsurpassed. If the diplomats could get a guarantee that the Syrians will keep it from being used to attack Israel, well why not let them have it?  After all, an Iranian nuclear program or another war with Israel would unleash consequences far greater than the loss of Beirut to the West.

Samir Geagea is right. A Hezbollah takeover would transform Lebanon into a gigantic Gaza. But the prospect of a Lebanese Gaza under guarantees provided by Syria and Iran might prove more attractive, in the end, than a Western effort to confront either. “An appeaser,” Winston Churchill once wrote, “is one who feeds a crocodile – hoping it will eat him last”. It is at any rate the last refuge of politicians who will no account take the risk of angering the croc. Kick the can down the road and kick it until it disappears into the foamy margins of the Mediterranean sea. Always smile at a crocodile at least until you absolutely, positively have your back to the wall.

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