Its Relentless Advance Briefly Stalled by a Hidden Battle

Monday, May 12, a savage hand-to-hand battle raged over the strategic town of Baissour

in the foothills of central Lebanon’s Chouf Mountains. The Druze defenders finally fought off the Hizballah attackers to their only defeat in the current round of warfare.

But the cost was heavy – an estimated 60 dead on both sides.

Tiny Bassour, southeast of Beirut, is important as the key to the 22km long coastal strip running south from the capital to Damour; it is also the gateway to the Chouf hills which run parallel to the coast. Without control of the Chouf, Hizballah cannot reach the mountain passes and main roads connecting Lebanon to Syria; neither can it command the coastal highway running south from the Shiite district of southern Beirut to the Hizballah strongholds in the southern port town of Tyre.

The anti-Syrian Druze leader, Walid Jumblatt and his Progressive Socialist Party, proved to be the only Lebanese force willing and able to halt Hizballah’s relentless onward march.

But although the battle of Baissour was the fiercest fought in the new civil war, both sides using artillery, mortars, anti-tank rockets and heavy machine guns, it was not reported in any media in Lebanon or outside.

DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military sources report that the secrecy shrouding the encounter mutely testifies to how frightened Lebanese Sunni Muslims, Christian – and even Druze – communities are of Iran’s Lebanese proxy. They all hoped that by keeping the Hizballah debacle quiet, its leaders would not feel compelled to seek bloody revenge against Jumblatt’s loyalists and his allies in the ruling coalition. After a week of being mowed down by the Shiite militia, no Lebanese force dared to stand up to Hizballah; even the Druzes who won their single encounter are still licking their wounds and prefer to stay out of the fray for the time being.

By common consent, therefore, the Battle of Baissour was never brought to the media’s attention.


Hizballah acquires Christian allies


The climate of fear pervading Lebanon’s delicately balanced sectarian society derives from Hizballah’s five achievements in six days of combat:

1. The Lebanese national army and its commanders, in whom the US had invested $250 million in the past year, demonstrated that it not only had no stomach to fight Hizballah but, owing to its composition of 60 percent Shiites, its officers were readier to swing behind its fraternal militia than to obey Fouad Siniora’s pro-Western administration.

This left the government bereft of a loyal armed force; its authority and leverage stripped down overnight. Hizballah is now preparing to march into the ensuing vacuum and, sooner or later, reach out to become the dominant power in the land.

2. Commander-in-chief Gen. Michel Suleiman, a Christian, went through the motions of ordering gunmen off the streets and maintaining the peace – purportedly in the government’s name. But his every move was first cleared with Hizballah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah.

DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s counter-terror sources note: This is the first time in 21st century history that an Arab national army (of 30,000 men), complete with arms and bases, has switched its allegiance to a terrorist organization.

The two military assets Hizballah stands to gain are 10-15,000 well-trained soldiers of different ranks and a fleet of tanks and armored personnel carriers. If the Iran-backed group goes all the way to its objective, it will be in a position to emulate the Iranian model of two parallel military forces: Hizballah will be the Lebanese counterpart of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and at the same time retain a small regular army.

Most Western and Israeli military intelligence experts agree that collaboration of the last ten days between the Hizballah command headed by Hassan Nasrallah and the high command of Gen. Suleiman inaugurated a long-term relationship. In time, Hizballah will swallow the army up to the point that in its next war against Israel, regular military units will fight side by side with the Shiite terrorists.


Sunni Hariri had no soldiers to fight for him


Gen. Suleiman’s personal ambition is a strong contributing factor.

For months, until the end of April, he was the sole candidate for president in Lebanese politics. His bid started out fully endorsed by the United States, France, Saudi Arabia and Egypt when the presidential palace was vacated last November. But as the months wore on, and parliament failed to vote him in, Suleiman saw his backers were powerless to push him all the way to the winning post through the thickets of factional rivalries and Syrian machinations; whereas, Iran, Syria and Hizballah, by comparison, held stronger cards. He needed only to persuade them he had ditched his Western connections and was their man. This led him to take the opportunity of the current showdown to place the Lebanese army at the Hizballah’s disposal.

3. Lebanon’s second Shiite party, Amal, which is headed by the Lebanese parliamentary speaker Nabih Berri, changed its spots overnight.

From posing as a member of the political mainstream on good enough terms with all Lebanon’s factions to act as a bridge between Hizballah and all the rest, and also with the Arab world, Saudi Arabia in particular, Amal jumped aboard the Hizballah wagon.

It was soon obvious, as his 10,000 armed men fought shoulder to shoulder with their Shiite fellows, that this was not an overnight switch; the two Shiite groups had started planning their offensive together some time ago.

4. Once battle was joined, Hizballah emerged as the only fully competent military force in Lebanon, while the Christians, Sunnis and even the Druzes were below par. The majority Sunni leader, Saad Hariri, purportedly the Siniora government’s mainstay, had no one to fight with but for a handful of loyal units in the northern town of Tripoli.

Hariri was widely reported in 2007 and early 2008 to have recruited loyal militias in the different Lebanese locales and laid out hundreds of millions of dollars to arm them.

Those reports turned out to be unfounded. The current confrontation forced upon the Sunni multi-billionaire caught him without warning or troops. Enormously wealthy from the financial empire inherited from his tycoon father, Rafiq Hariri, the son has turned out to be a weak character with not much strategic judgment.


Christian fragmentation whittles down their national role


Washington and Paris had gambled on Hariri and gave him political and intelligence support, only to see him come out of the conflict with even less political weight than prime minister Siniora. This crushing comedown has caused dismay in both capitals

5. Prospects are also pretty grim for Lebanon’s Christians, who account for 36 percent of the population of four million and by tradition held the key lever in Beirut’s power-sharing government.

In the civil war of the 1970s, the Christians, then 45 percent of the population, could take on the Sunni Muslims and their Palestinian allies.

Hizballah, the parvenu, did not exist before 1982 and Lebanon’s Shiites had no military force.

Thirty-three years later, Lebanon’s changed demographics and the rise of Islamic Revolutionary Iran has transformed its power structure and the division of military strength. The Christian community has shrunk by 9 percent, largely as a result of emigration; it is has also split between pro-Western and pro-Tehran factions.

After living in exile in France for years, the Christian leader Gen. Michel Aoun returned home three years ago. In his pocket were American and French guarantees of the presidency when it fell vacant in November, 2007.

But then, in early 2006, warned that the general was unstable and unreliable, Washington and Paris withdrew their support.

Gen. Aoun and his following lost no time in switching masters; he threw in his lot with the pro-Syrian Hizballah, placing himself in the same camp as the large pro-Syrian Christian faction of northern Lebanon.

This process of fragmentation has robbed the pro-Western Christians of Lebanon of their once dominant national role – to the point that it is highly doubtful that Samir Geagea and his Maronite Christian Phalange forces will be able to defend the Christian communities living in and around Beirut from being swamped by the Shiite majority.

The latest Hizballah onslaught bypassed the Christian districts and their leaders were at pains to stay out of the conflict. In consequence, the current Lebanese sectarian conflict is running along the Muslim Sunni-Shiite divide – much like the factional war in Iraq.

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