Michael Young, a veteran political observer in Lebanon, says polls showing wide support for Hezbollah in the month-long conflict with Israel are not accurate. "Absolutely nothing I saw suggested these polls were accurate," says Young, opinion editor for Lebanon’s English-language Daily Star. He says Christians, Sunnis, and Druze all were in varying degrees unhappy with the surprise Hezbollah attack on Israel.
Young says the Lebanese army, which is supposed to help police southern Lebanon, is heavily reliant on Hezbollah and Syria, and is not really an independent force. Only the international force due to be sent there will be able to crack down. He says an agreement taking shape among local parties is that Hezbollah’s weapons would remain in place, hidden away, and that such a deal would harm the prestige of Prime Minister Fouad Seniora.
This is the second day of the cease-fire, and many Lebanese are traveling south to go back to their homes—or what is left of them. How would you describe the general mood in Beirut?
Obviously, there is a sense of relief that the fighting has stopped. There is a general sense of moderate optimism. Obviously people are still waiting to see where all this leads. But certainly there is no visible relaxation amongst many people after a month of fighting.
You are living in Beirut. Was your part of the city damaged much?
No. From the beginning of this round of violence, there has been a certain red line around Beirut proper, the notion being that Israelis would bomb around Beirut, but they would not hit the capital itself. They would not hit infrastructure—major infrastructure. I am not talking about roads and so forth, but I am talking about electricity, water, and things like that. That was more or less respected in the Beirut area. Beirut proper—including where I live—was not hit in a substantial way.
There were elective Israeli attacks in certain parts of Beirut. Soon after the fighting started just down the road from where I live, the Israelis did hit what looked like missile launchers but were in fact water pumps mounted on trucks. Now, I think what the Israelis were trying to do was send a message that nowhere was potentially safe. But the ammunition they used to hit these trucks and the ammunition that was used to hit a number of other targets inside Beirut was not designed to cause major destruction. By and large, the violence in Beirut was limited to the southern suburbs of Beirut where there was massive damage, and that was sort of Hezbollah’s headquarters.
Now that the fighting has halted, what is the reaction of the other parts of Lebanese society—that is the Christians, the Sunnis, the Druze—toward Hezbollah now? Does Hezbollah have great support? Or are people blaming Hezbollah for their problems?
Two polls were published soon after the outbreak of violence suggesting Hezbollah had 80 percent support amongst the Lebanese population. Absolutely nothing I saw suggested these polls were accurate. Of course I can only offer anecdotal evidence, but when the anecdotal evidence is virtually 100 percent against the claim of massive support for Hezbollah, I think that is quite significant. By and large, my feeling is that the Christians, in general, were very negative towards this. The Sunni community, by and large, was quite negative: they did see the Lebanon that [former Prime Minister]Rafik Hariri [who was assassinated in 2005] built being systematically destroyed, or at least parts of it. There is a fear in the community of too strong a Shiite Hezbollah.
That said, of course, there were Sunnis who supported the party in their anti-Israeli operations. Israel was not popular. But whether that necessarily transformed itself into support for Hezbollah is a different issue. I know the Druze were not very happy with what was going on. Perhaps the most significant indication there was not blanket support for Hezbollah was the fact that the main preoccupation of the political leaders in the Sunni community, the Christian community, or in the Druze community was to avoid sectarian clashes between their own supporters and Shiites: Shiite refugees had basically sought refuge in their areas. Now if that is the case, we cannot really speak about blanket support for Hezbollah. I think there was much criticism of Hezbollah. There is also quite a bit of fear that Hezbollah, because it is the only organization in the country other than a weak army that processes weapons, can in some way strike back against its foes.
What about the Lebanese army, and what about Prime Minister Fouad Siniora? They are committed now to sending 15,000 troops into the southern part of Lebanon starting very soon. Can they do the job?
The Lebanese army—like much else in Lebanon—will not function effectively in a divisive atmosphere. The Lebanese army is there to essentially hold up the banner of the state, but it will always have to deploy in an environment where there is some kind of political arrangement between the different political actors. The Lebanese army in the south will not be an effective force to disarm or search out Hezbollah weapons caches. That burden is going to fall on the international force, which is supposed to be deployed in the south. There is a great deal of Hezbollah influence in the Lebanese army. There is obviously influence from the pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud, who is a former army commander, who has managed to put his people in key posts. There is influence in the army from the Christian General Michel Aoun, who was also, at one time, the army commander, and who today is allied with Hezbollah. So you have a very bizarre situation where a majority of the army officers, in some fashion or another, [are] close to Hezbollah. So we should not expect the Lebanese army to act as an independent force against Hezbollah. That is not going to happen.
The prime minister of Lebanon is obviously not allied with Hezbollah. Is he weakened by all this? How does he come out of this?
The agreement that is taking shape for the south is that Hezbollah’s weapons caches would remain in place, hidden away. Hezbollah would, of course, not really withdraw from the south because many of their combatants are from the south. And nothing in UN Security Council Resolution 1701 that has put an end to the violence in the south prevents people from the south from living in the south. Presumably what we allowed is a situation where Hezbollah will continue to be in the south. Their weapons caches will be in the south, they will not use their weapons perhaps because obviously there is this international force, there is this general agreement that the situation has changed, and most importantly, the Shiite community cannot be put through another traumatic experience soon.
Now, that is a roundabout way of answering your question about Prime Minister Siniora. To my mind, Siniora’s credibility has taken a beating because this kind of agreement—where Hezbollah would effectively remain in the south near its weapons—is in contradiction to the spirit at least and also the letter of Resolution 1701, which was passed by the UN Security Council. It is a typical Lebanese compromise where everyone is satisfied and nothing is resolved. Down the road, I think it is a temporary compromise. Siniora may feel today that he cannot get better from Hezbollah. But to my mind, personally, it shows his weakness vis-à-vis Hezbollah because Siniora is, after all, the guarantor of Lebanese implementation of Resolution 1701. Clearly, if Hezbollah is in the south and its weapons are in the south, this is not implementation of 1701.
Is the United States able to do anything to help out Lebanon in this situation?
The United States comes out of this looking in an uncertain position. [The Israeli strikes on Hezbollah] have certainly removed Hezbollah’s capacity to fire on Israel in the foreseeable future, as I have said, because Hezbollah itself cannot today put the Shiite community through a traumatic experience like the one it’s been through in the last month. So, effectively, it has been neutralized for the moment. On the other hand, the United States was hoping for a much stronger hit against Hezbollah. It was hoping that, at least in the south, the militia would be militarily weakened, and that the zone of south Lebanon would—in the words of Condoleezza Rice—be demilitarized. That is clearly not the case. So the United States, I think, looks at Lebanon and says, "Well, we won a little bit, and we lost a little bit."
So, when you say, "Can the United States help Lebanon?" Well, certainly it can help Lebanon. It can help Lebanon financially by urging economic assistance to Lebanon. But politically the United States finds itself in a rather confusing situation that is partly of its own creation. At the end of the day, I think that [the war with Hezbollah] had nothing to do with Lebanon. It was an effort to weaken Iran. The United States was hoping to weaken Hezbollah because Hezbollah is the main Iranian proxy in this part of the region. My feeling is that the Bush administration’s eye was on what we can do now in Lebanon to eventually produce something against Iran down the road.
The United States did not decisively weaken Hezbollah. In many respects, it may have destabilized its own allies in Lebanon: mainly the so-called March 14 movement [the name taken from the huge anti-Syrian demonstration in Beirut on March 14, 2005, following Hariri’s assassination], which pushed the Syrians out last year. Any effort to continue to help the March 14 movement—which by the way is represented by the majority in parliament and government—may actually end up backfiring. So I am not quite sure what the United States can do at this stage, other than help economically and in a sense try to manage the situation at the United Nations and with Israel to avoid a massive return of Hezbollah into the border area.
Do we have any better information on what prompted Hezbollah to launch that cross-border raid and the abduction of the soldiers, which touched off this whole thing?
My feeling is that we have to understand this in the context of domestic Lebanese politics. In the last many months, Syria’s allies in Lebanon have been effectively mounting a counterattack against the parliamentary majority and the government majority, which last year pushed the Syrians out of Lebanon. The Syrians have been counterattacking, trying to put the government and Prime Minister Siniora on the defensive. And to a certain extent they succeeded.
The idea on their part was to destabilize the current government so that a new government would be formed. That is one possibility. I feel Hezbollah’s attack on July 12 was specifically destined to further marginalize the parliamentary majority, to further marginalize Syria’s enemies in Lebanon. The idea being, we mount this attack and Israel will respond as Israel has always responded: It will bomb a bit here and there, but ultimately it will go to negotiations for a prisoner release, and the Lebanese government will be shown up, once again, as being utterly ineffective in facing Hezbollah. And in a sense the Lebanese government will be further and further marginalized.