Lebanon is a "Wild Place"

W. Thomas Smith, Jr

11/26/2007 12:59:22 PM - W. Thomas Smith, Jr

Lebanon is a “wild place,” so-said a counterterrorism expert in a personal conversation with me days before former Lebanese president Emile Lahoud stepped down and declared the army in charge of that troubled state, last week.

On the one hand, Lebanon is an amazing country with a marvelous history and culture, and a society that places a premium on high education. It’s also known for its stunning vistas, a unique sense of style and fashion paralleled only by the Parisians and the Milanese, a renowned nightlife, and its breathtakingly beautiful women.

On the other hand, Lebanon has no president. They’ve been unable to elect one in several attempts. And if the country’s parliamentarians – many of whom are heavily guarded and under threat of death – do not elect a chief executive by the end of this week, the power vacuum will continue to grow. The army leadership may feel compelled to tighten its authority over the country (perhaps declaring martial law). The old civil war militias may rise up. The parliament may splinter. And Hezbollah – a Shiia Muslim group and one of the world’s most formidable terrorist organizations – may decide the time is right to consolidate its forces in Lebanon and attempt to seize power.

Consolidating would be easy. According to independent analysis published by Strategic Forecasting (StratFor): “The Damascus highway links Hezbollah strongholds in the central and northern Bekaa Valley with Beirut's southern suburbs, while the coastal highway between Beirut and Sidon connects Hezbollah bases in the South with Beirut's southern suburbs.”

Hezbollah, described by former British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s senior terrorism advisor, Richard Kemp, “is probably the world’s most effective terrorist organization, and that includes Al Qaeda.” Worse: Hezbollah’s guerrilla-force strength – numbering in the thousands -- and position in Lebanon has never been stronger.

The group, supported by Syria and heavily financed and trained by the Islamic (Iranian) Revolutionary Guard Corps, has tremendous influence, nationwide (and a dangerous and growing footprint throughout the rest of the world): Their yellow and green fist-and-rifle flags fly all over the country. They have permeated the ranks of the armed forces at all levels. They control or influence many of Lebanon’s businesses, other commercial enterprises, and telecommunications. They have a very strong lobby in the Lebanese media. They even control some Lebanese-based international media. And they are armed to the teeth.

“Hezbollah has said it would take action if the Lebanese Parliament elects a new free president,” Dr. Walid Phares, director of the director of the Future Terrorism Project at the Washington-based Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, told me over the weekend. “The group would seize ministries, cut off main highways and paralyze the country. The question would be what would the Lebanese Army do and what would the international community do? Hezbollah has thousands of missiles and rockets. But would it really use them in a domestic conflict? It also has suicide bombers, but would it use them against neighbors and joint economic interests?”

What would stop them? The army? Doubtful. The military leadership under armed-forces commander-in-chief Gen. Michel Sleiman has so-far given Hezbollah a free pass despite the fact that United Nations Security Council Resolution 1559 calls for the disarming of all militias in Lebanon.

“Hezbollah is a resistance,” Sleiman told me in his office at the Ministry of Defense in Beirut (not far from a Hezbollah-controlled district and virtual weapons depot where the legitimate army and police do not enter). Practically all of the Lebanese generals I spoke with while I was in Lebanon in September and October told me the same thing. They say that, because they know by labeling Hezbollah a “resistance movement,” the terrorist organization avoids the label “militia.” Hezbollah and its parent companies Syria and Iran have deep roots in the army leadership. And a huge percentage of the rank-and-file are pro-Hezbollah Shiia.

Sleiman continued straight out of the Ahmadinejad playbook, “The resistance [Hezbollah] was formed before the unification of the army. They were here first. They fight Israel, and if any group fights Israel we should respect it.”

Hezbollah also blew up 220 U.S. Marines, 18 sailors, and three soldiers during the organization’s formative years nearly a quarter century ago. Today Hezbollah has global reach (cells in the United States, Europe, and elsewhere), lots of money, men, and arms (more so in fact than what they had prior to the Israeli-Hezbollah war in 2006). The centerpiece of this Syro-Iranian supported terrorist army is positioned in Lebanon (one of their largest strongholds, Al Dahiyeh, is located within minutes of the Lebanese parliament and government buildings in Beirut). Hezbollah is actively training in Lebanon, conducting exercises that sometimes aren’t reported, and transporting militiamen, which is rarely reported. They are manipulating the press. The army won’t do anything to stop them. Many of the parliamentarians are hiding behind layers of security in Beirut’s Phoenicia Hotel. They never venture outside without heavy military or paramilitary protection. They never open the curtains to their rooms for fear of snipers. And, again, the country is without a president.

Frankly, what’s next is anybody’s guess.