Big Power Play in Lebanon Runs Aground
The assassination Wednesday, Dec. 12, of the Lebanese army’s operations chief Brig. Gen. Francois El Hajj, anointed future supreme commander when (if?) Gen. Michel Suleiman is elected president, ties in dangerously with quiet moves which bode ill for the big-power plans to stabilize Lebanon and free it from Syrian toils.
Last week, Washington called US ambassador Jeffrey Feltman home for consultations from Beirut, amid the conviction that the common US-French-European Union-UN strategy for Syria and Lebanon had broken down very shortly after its launch.
The last nail on the coffin, the assassination of Brig. El Hajj, highlighted the only stable element in Lebanon: Syrian military intelligence and Iran, through its proxy, the Hizballah militia, call the shots in Beirut and are not above any means to maintain their grip.
Defying every US effort to loosen its stranglehold since former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri was murdered in 2005, Damascus clings limpet-like to Lebanon and blocks every step to extricate the country from its perennial crises.
Washington tried taking a hand in two conflicts: The Israel-Hizballah war of 2006, and the Syrian-backed Fatah al Islam revolt against the Lebanese army from the Palestinian Nahar Al Bard camp in northern Lebanon in mid-2007.
The Bush administration tried working through the world body. UN Security Council resolution 1701 halted Israel-Hizballah hostilities but failed to disband the Shiite militia, while the deployment of 17,500 European land and naval troops failed to prevent its re-arming.
The US lavished arms on the Lebanese national army, backed the UN investigation of the Hariri murder and imposed sanctions on Syria.
Yet Syrian president Bashar Assad continues to treat his small neighbor as his fief, pumps arms to Hizballah and keeps an eagle eye on Beirut through Syrian military intelligence and its stooges.
Tuesday, Dec. 11, Syrian vice president Farouk a-Shara said Syrian connections to Lebanon “are as strong as ever.” He issued a stern warning to anyone in and outside Lebanon who threatens those ties.
The death next day Gen. Francois Al Hajj was murdered.
No Syrian tolerance for a pro-US Lebanese army commander
This atrocity told the Bush administration that it had not gone far enough by accepting supreme commander Gen. Michel Suleiman, a pro-Syrian Hizballah supporter, as the sole candidate for filing the vacuum left in the presidential palace with the departure of Emil Lahoud’s in November. Bush and French president Nicolas Sarkozy, prime mover on behalf of the West in Beirut and Damascus, had counted on a quiet understanding that the pro-Western Gen. Al Hajj would succeed Suleiamn as army chief.
But the squeeze was not over. Damascus, in its own inimitable fashion, vetoed the appointment of an army commander with a history of interfering with Syrian plans and working with the US military.
The murdered operations chief had sinned by leading the Lebanese army’s four-month siege against the Fatah al-Islam stronghold in the Palestinian Nahar al-Bard camp earlier this year. During that time, he was further compromised by developing good working ties and relations of trust with Adm. William Fallon, head of the US Central Command, which culminated in important American military assistance for defeating the Syrian-backed terrorist revolt.
Ironically, the day before his assassination, a large consignment of US and South Korean military equipment was delivered for the Lebanese army.
On top of Syria’s determination to foil Gen. El Hajj’s appointment to a position of power in Beirut, Hizballah’s Hassan Nasrallah tackled the issue in a three-hour meeting last week with presidential candidate Gen. Suleiman. The general’s assurance that El-Hajj would not succeed him as supreme commander of the Lebanese army was the price exacted for the Shiite militia (and Tehran’s) endorsement of his candidature for president.
He must also pledge never to act against Hizballah during his five years in office.
This proven friend of the Shiite group – he stood by them against Israel in the 2006 war – came away from his interview Nasrallah in low spirits, muttering he was not sure he wanted the job of president.