Syria puts Hezbollah in charge

BEIRUT, Lebanon, April 14 (UPI) -- Hezbollah's power in Lebanon is growing, largely because Syria is firmly back in charge five years after it was forced to withdraw its military forces following the assassination of former Lebanese premier Rafik Hariri.

Hezbollah is part of the new coalition government headed by Saad Hariri, the slain prime minister's son and political heir, who in December had to bend the knee to Syrian President Bashar Assad, whose regime he long held responsible for his father's death Feb. 14, 2005.


Now Hariri is under growing pressure from Damascus to ditch his Christian allies in the Western-backed March 14 movement -- named after a massive anti-Syrian rally in Beirut by the Hariri family's allies a month after the assassination -- and embrace Hezbollah.

Syria's restoration of its domination of Lebanon followed a rapprochement -- of sorts -- between Damascus and Washington.

U.S. President George W. Bush broke with Damascus, part of his infamous "axis of evil" with its ally Iran, after the Hariri assassination. His administration accused Syria of aiding insurgents in Iraq and arming Hezbollah and hinted strongly that it was behind the Hariri killing, something Assad has repeatedly denied.


President Barack Obama has taken a different course and sought to engage Damascus in hopes of luring it away from Iran.

There is little sign Assad is prepared to do that. But whether he does or not, it's clear the Syrians are back in charge in Lebanon, historically part of Greater Syria and widely seen as its "economic lung."

One likely result is that a U.N. tribunal investigating Hariri's death won't publicly hold Syria accountable. That dismays many Lebanese, particularly Saad Hariri, who see it as a U.S. betrayal in the interest of geopolitical expediency amid the region's ever-shifting political landscape.

Hariri's acknowledgment of Syrian tutelage followed a 2009 reconciliation between Saudi Arabia, a staunch supporter of his father and opposed to Syria's alliance with Iran.

Hariri had no choice but to follow where his patron went. But he's not the only one to have had to come to terms with the Levant's harsh political realities.

Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, a one-time pillar of March 14, also had to make the pilgrimage to Damascus to make peace with Assad.

Jumblatt and Hariri shared a common bond: Both blamed Syria for the demise of their fathers. Jumblatt's parent, the leftist Kamel Jumblatt, was assassinated March 17, 1977, after he broke with Damascus.


But Jumblatt has a history of changing sides, adjusting his political position to the prevailing political winds.

He had moved toward the Americans before Hariri's death but with the debacles in Iraq and Afghanistan and Iran's resurgence, he concluded he was backing the wrong horse.

His defection from Hariri's camp followed an invasion of Sunni-dominated West Beirut and Jumblatt's mountain stronghold by Hezbollah's Shiite warriors May 7, 2008. More than 100 people died in a week of fighting that almost ignited a new civil war.

Hezbollah acted in response to a move by Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, Rafik Hariri's right-hand man, to dismantle its private telecommunications system, a key component of its military machine.

Jumblatt's 180-degree turn and reconciliation with Assad was particularly revealing because it was engineered by Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah, with whom Jumblatt had feuded for years.

As the March 14 movement disintegrated under remorseless Syrian intrigue and subterfuge, so has the so-called Cedar Revolution it had spawned that sought sweeping reforms in Lebanon's sect-driven politics.

Both Hariri and Jumblatt have had to publicly acknowledge Hezbollah's status and its right to possess a large arsenal of weapons, which makes it militarily stronger than the Lebanese army.

This has been a major source of friction within Lebanon, where all other militias were disarmed after the civil war. Hezbollah claimed it needed its arms to resist Israeli occupation, which effectively ended in May 2000.


Now Hezbollah holds Lebanon's future in its hands, with Damascus and Tehran pulling the strings.

While Hezbollah's political weight swells, it doesn't appear to be in any rush to engage Israel in a repeat of their 2006 war.

But if Iran's confrontation with the United States and Israel over its nuclear project reaches ignition point, conflict is inevitable and this time, because Hezbollah is in the government, Israeli leaders have threatened to flatten all of Lebanon, not just Hezbollah's bastions.

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