Monday, March 07, 2005

Beacon No. 26: The Militia Brought Soup


The "cedar revolution" in Lebanon, so-called for that nation's national tree, is about to get its first major test. Demonstrations against Syrian influence in the country have jammed Martyrs' Square in Beirut the past few weeks, triggered by the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri. The protesters blame Syria, as do most other non-Syrian observers, since al-Hariri was an ardent opponent of Damascus' influence over Lebanon.

International pressure has combined with crowd pressure to force Damascus to say it will gradually move its troops out of Lebanese cities to the Bekaa Valley, and eventually over the border into Syria.

But now comes the counter-revolution: Hizbullah is siding with Syria.

This terrorist group, whose name means "party of God," is a largely Shi'ite organization created and financed by Syria to wage proxy war against Israel from within Lebanon. Protected from having to disarm, it now fields a "well-armed" 25,000-man militia that may be the most powerful military force in Lebanon. Hizbullah also runs a wildly popular, extensive network of social services in Lebanon, including some of the country's best schools, hospitals and orphanages, and has won grudging admiration even from those who consider its attacks on Israel criminal.

On Sunday Hizbullah's leader, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, called for Lebanese to show how thankful they are for all the "help" Syria has given Lebanon by participating in a mass demonstration Tuesday. Hizbullah is highly motivated to keep a Syrian presence in the country, says the Christian Science Monitor, since Syria helps legitimize it. Without Syria, Hizbullah may move from being a kingmaker to being just one more Lebanese political party, albeit an exceptionally disciplined one.

Over a hundred thousand Hizbullah supporters may show up, which would be fine, if the demonstration were to be held in Beirut's southern suburbs, as most are. But the Hizbullah demonstration will be held near Martyrs' Square, where thousands of anti-Syria protesters are camped out.

I haven't seen anyone saying this rally may trigger a renewed civil war yet, but I'm looking for clashes at the fringes of both camps. I wouldn't be surprised if photographers are allowed to capture a few beatings being administered to anti-Syria protesters, who will be greatly outnumbered.

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