The message from Hizbollah: it's a new game and we set the rules

Iran is winning and the Arab world is losing. Baghdad, Damascus, and Beirut all suffer today from Iranian interference.

The secretary general of the Arab League, Amr Musa, could not have chosen a worse time to smile. Hundreds of thousands of Lebanese besieged by Hizbollah did not expect a "business-as-usual" attitude from Arab foreign ministers who convened in Cairo on Sunday to discuss Hizbollah's military take over of Beirut. But it seems Hizbollah did, or at least it knew that the Arabs would not be able to come up with any action that could counter its coup. The party made it clear it was going ahead with military operations against its political adversaries regardless of any decisions the Arab League would take. In what can only be seen as a direct message to ridicule its effort, Hizbollah made sure the statement ironed out in the meeting was read to the tunes of its artillery hammering Mount Lebanon while its militias were consolidating their hold on Sunni areas of Beirut.

It seems the Arab ministers, too, knew the limitations of their ability to influence the turn of events in Lebanon. The position they took after a six-hour long meeting was at best one of negative neutrality. It even fell short of condemning Hizbollah's use of force against supporters of the majority government. A committee formed by the meeting to lead reconciliation efforts arrives in Beirut today to face an uncompromising position by Hizbollah, which is trying to turn its military victory into political gains.

The almost complete paralysis of the Arab League in resolving the conflict in Lebanon is reflective of the irrelevance of the organisation, which has failed to have any impact on any major development in the Arab world for decades. The League's inability to act effectively is not solely linked to the complexity of the situation in Lebanon. The Arabs wielded no influence in handling the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990, or the crises in Somalia, Sudan and Iraq. This is a record of failure that reflects the deficiencies of the structure of the League and the marginality of Arab countries in addressing developments in their region.

But the position of the pan-Arab organisation in Lebanon is rendered more difficult by the contradicting views major Arab countries have on the crisis, its causes and the conditions for ending it. The differences between Saudi Arabia and Egypt, which support the majority government in Lebanon, and Syria, which is a benefactor of the Iranian-backed Hizbollah, have made it impossible for the League to play a fruitful role.

And given the new realities on the ground, it is not clear where Lebanon will be heading and what Arab countries supportive of the majority government could do. The Arabs have acted too late to stem the growing influence of Iran through Hizbollah in Lebanon. The party has changed the rules of the game by using the military arsenal it has built to fight Israel to subjugate its domestic opponents. It will maximise its demands and will utilise the new reality to assert its status as an untouchable state within a state in Lebanon and close any discussion about its weaponry.

The events of the last few days show that this was the objective of the coup Hizbollah has launched. The party claims it moved militarily against its adversaries in reaction to a cabinet decision demanding the dismantling of an illegal communication network it has built. But Hizbollah and the government itself know that the decision could not be implemented. Even traffic police cannot enter areas controlled by Hizbollah, and it is clear to all that the government would not have been able to take any action against the heavily-protected communication network.

Hizbollah launched its military action to tell the Lebanese people and the rest of the world that there is a new game in town. The rules of engagement are determined by the actual power on the ground. Hizbollah is the only heavily-armed militia in Lebanon. Those who took its word that it would never tarnish its reputation by directing its weapons against fellow Lebanese have been proven wrong. Painfully so.

The price will prove too heavy for the Lebanese and for the rest of the Arabs. The Arab countries, however, are significantly responsible for the loss of Lebanon to the radical agenda adopted by Hizbollah and Iran. Just as they abandoned Iraq after the US-led coalition brought down the regime of Saddam Hussein, leaving Iran to build a political and military presence there, the Arabs did very little to protect Lebanon from the penetration of Iran. While Iran armed, financed and supported Hizbollah, the Arabs limited their support to the legitimate government to political statements and meagre financial aid.

The conflict in Lebanon is part of the larger regional struggle between Arabs and Iran over influence in the region. Iran is winning. The Arabs have lost a battle in Lebanon. That is a major loss. Baghdad, Damascus and Beirut, the oldest three capitals in the Arab Mashreq, are now under Iranian influence or rotate in its sphere. This is a reality that the Arab world simply cannot face with negative neutrality. It is a defeat that Amr Musa certainly cannot smile at.

Ayman Safadi is a former editor of Alghad in Jordan, and is a commentator on Middle Eastern issues

Published: May 13, 2008 04:00 AM


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