A New Turn of the Wheel: Nasrallah’s Gain is Syria’s Loss
Ten days ago, when Hizballah was locked in combat with the pro-government Druze militia at Baissour (as DEBKA-Net-Weekly 349 reported last week: Its Relentless Advance Briefly Stalled by a Hidden Battle), Hizballah’s secretary-general Hassan Nasrallah was urged not to stop there but to go all the way by Syrian President Bashar Assad and Iranian al Qods commander, Gen. Qassam Soleimani.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s Middle East and intelligence sources reveal that Assad pushed Nasrallah to storm the offices of the pro-Western prime minister Fouad Siniora in Beirut and overthrow the government.
“Siniora must not be allowed to walk out of his office as prime minister,” Assad said.
Gen. Soleimani directed Nasrallah to carry the battle up to the Chouf mountains southeast of Beirut and wipe out the anti-Syrian Druze militia headed by Walid Jumblatt.
Although the Iranian general sensed Nasrallah’s evasiveness, he nevertheless instructed him not to stop there, but to continue south and liquidate the majority leader Saad Hariri’s Sunni militia in its Sidon stronghold.
Another Iranian figure informed Nasrallah of a remark dropped by Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to his confidants that Lebanon would now become the arena for Iran and its allies to strike the United States and render its presence in Iraq irrelevant.
But the Hizballah leader had other fish to fry, as DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Middle East sources can now reveal. He listened – and then went his own way.
Hizballah’s gunmen accordingly held back from attacking the prime minister’s office and kept their hands off their rivals’ bastions in the Chouf and Sidon.
And Siniora was still prime minister of Lebanon when he headed to the Qatari capital, Doha, for peace talks with the Hizballah-led opposition under the auspices of the Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani.
Nasrallah shrugs off Syrian, Iranian orders to fight on
As the talks advanced, the Iranians and Syrians continued to bombard the Hizballah leader with demands to torpedo the conference and revert to combat.
Nasrallah did not travel to Qatar; he preferred to stay in Beirut and make sure the situation did not get out of hand. His three emissaries to the Doha talks were deputy director of Hizballah’s political bureau Muhammad Riyad, former cabinet minister and lawmaker Muhammad Faneish and personal adviser Khalil Hajj Hassan.
Nasrallah stuck to his guns. Settling for his battlefield gains, he ordered his representatives to sign a peace accord with their opposite numbers Wednesday, May 21 – “in the national interests of Lebanon” rather than to the benefit of Tehran and Damascus. He made sure this sentiment was quoted at the conference table in Doha.
Had he taken the advice of Syria and Iran, Lebanon would have tipped over into full-blown civil war by now. He judged that five days of showing his combat mettle had been enough to frighten his rivals into giving him what he wanted – if only to settle the crisis. He therefore decided to pull back from the brink and end the bloodshed.
This decision made the terrorist leader the undisputed top gun in Lebanon and a force to be reckoned with in Middle East affairs.
Hassan Nasrallah’s new strength was written large in the details of the peace accord endorsed across Lebanon’s political board.
A new Lebanese government will be formed according to a 16-11-3 power-sharing formula – 16 ministers for the Sunni, Christian and Druze factions and 11 for the Shiites (compared with 4 hitherto). Hizballah has thus acquired veto power in the Lebanese government, winning a battle it has fought for years.
A pro-Hizballah president is assured
Selection of the last three ministers is a prerogative of the new president.
The single presidential contestant, chief of staff Gen. Michel Suleiman, is due for election by parliament any day now. The vote for president was postponed nineteen times by factional disputes and Syrian intervention, leaving Lebanon without a president since last November.
For the first time in its history, Lebanon will have a Hizballah sympathizer as head of state. Under the peace accord, the pro-Western prime minister Fouad Siniora is excluded from the new cabinet.
Gen. Suleiman won his spurs by defying Siniora’s orders to send the armed forces to intervene against Hizballah’s assault on pro-government positions two weeks ago and dismantle its independent telecommunications system. Indebted to the general for his success in gaining control of the capital, Nasrallah backs him for the presidency and will make sure he has a bigger role in governance than the prime minister.
The peace accord also provides for general elections to be held in the Beirut region, the trendsetter for the rest of the country.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s Middle East sources reveal that the most significant change in Lebanese affairs is Nasrallah’s new ability, emanating from his rise in the power stakes, to stand on his own feet independent of Syria. He has thus seriously undermined Damascus’ dominant influence in Beirut, an accomplishment which eluded the best efforts of theUnited States, France and key Arab governments for 30 years
While not ready for a complete rupture with Damascus or the loss of its military aid and protection, the Hizballah leader thinks he is firm enough in the saddle to dictate the conditions for Syrian intervention in Lebanon, and no longer defer to the Assad regime’s superior authority.
Assad holds peace talks with Israel over Nasrallah’s head
The Syrian president picked up on this point faster than his Middle East colleagues.
On the plus side, he saw the consummation of his long efforts to place Hizballah at the helm of Lebanon’s power structure, with leverage for determining the presidency and government in Beirut.
Assad always believed that Nasrallah would save him from the international tribunal fostered by Siniora to try those responsible for the 2005 murder of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri. He would still like to count on a government over which Hizballah has veto power refusing to surrender Lebanese or Syrian suspects living in Lebanon for trial. But he can no longer be sure that Nasrallah’s rise spells the end of the Hariri case, his greatest fear for the future of his regime. That is because the anti-West Shiites’ accession to power in Beirut has not empowered Assad but an overly independent Nasrallah.
The Hizballah leader has in fact now got Assad by the throat, DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s Middle East experts conclude. The Hariri court is not dead and buried. The Hizballah leader holds the option of activating it or withholding Lebanese government cooperation at will. At any moment, Nasrallah may find it expedient to cooperate with the court “in the national Lebanese interest” and throw Assad and his closest intimates to the wolves.
Nasrallah thus holds a stronger weapon over the Syrian ruler’s head than any of his enemies.
Within hours of the Doha accord’s release, Assad struck back:
Announcements were released in Damascus, Jerusalem and Ankara, that Syrian-Israel peace talks had begun. The Syrian ruler was telling Nasrallah that the game was not over. Bashar Assad had more arrows in his quiver.