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On Point

Lebanon a Battle of Crowds and Cameras for Now


by Austin Bay
March 15, 2005

For the moment, the struggle in Lebanon remains a battle of crowds and cameras -- and it's a battle pro-democracy demonstrators are winning.

But Western diplomats and their new allies in Free Iraq know a bloodless democratic victory is no certainty. Syria and Iran fear democracy and peace, and their Lebanese stalking horse, Hezbollah, has guns and loyal fighters.

Beirut's demonstrations and counter-demonstrations serve as genuine tests of local political strength and measure the competing factions' ability to sway a global audience. Hezbollah produces 500,000 robed pro-Syrian protesters. The democrats respond with 800,000 well-heeled placard carriers. Even if the crowd estimates are exaggerated (Lebanon has a population of right at 4 million), the jammed boulevards and squares are dramatic visual and vocal statements.

The pro-democracy demonstrators have the edge in numbers and media sizzle -- they dominate the camera war. Virtually every news magazine and Web site features a raven-haired Levantine beauty demanding democracy and a Syrian military pull-out. The pro-Syrian marches seem pitifully dated -- angry, mustachioed men, assault rifles, chants of "Death to America." Hezbollah's and Syria's media advisers don't realize that the Palestinian and Iraqi elections finally exposed the "myth of the Arab Street" as utter fascist pulp. After the Iraqi elections the chest-pounding thug act doesn't scare people anymore. We know the real Arab street would rather head for the Honda dealership.

The March 15 anti-U.S. demonstration at the American embassy in Beirut -- a desperate attempt by Syria to paint the United States as the occupier -- completely flopped. Everyone knows Syria has 14,000 troops in Lebanon. Everyone knows Damascus claims Lebanon as part of Greater Syria. A passel of folks know Syrian strategists also see their Lebanese occupation as a bargaining chip with Israel -- i.e., the Israelis pull back from the Golan Heights and Syria leaves Lebanon.

But what if massed tanks replace mass rallies or gunfire replaces rhetoric?

I don't think massed tanks are likely. U.S. and Iraqi forces on Syria's eastern border and Turkey's bitter dislike for Syria's Assad regime remind Damascus that overt military action invites overt military response.

Deterring Iranian meddling is the more complex trick. Saddled with a failed, repugnant revolution and disenchantment at home, Iran's theocrat dictators buy time with terror. Seeding regional turmoil and war via Lebanon's Hezbollah gives Iran leverage in Lebanon, Palestine and Syria. To lose Hezbollah reveals the mullahs' increasing weakness.

For this reason, gunfire between armed factions remains a very real possibility -- Iran and Syria benefit if the democratic surge is blunted and Lebanon spirals into factional war.

StrategyPage.com speculates that France is "indulging in stealthy peacekeeping" by stationing a navy supply ship off the Lebanese coast. The ship can support special operations forces (commandos) and is ostensibly there to evacuate French citizens if a shooting war erupts. However, the ship also serves as a reminder that if "stealth" doesn't deter violence, international forces could react.

That means the democrats' international supporters must have contingency plans to stop a bloodbath and ensure security -- a tough thought, but the plans exist. Operation Bluebat, the so-called "not war but like war" U.S. Lebanon intervention of 1958, has been critiqued for decades. It was hasty and poorly coordinated. To be successful, a Bluebat 2005 must swiftly place strong forces in crucial areas to reinforce Lebanese Army peacekeeping efforts. Special operations troops must be in contact with all factions. Iranian and Syrian intelligence nodes must be quickly eliminated.

Risky? Of course -- it's last resort. Better to deflate Hezbollah with diplomacy. The United States is pursuing a political strategy designed to drive a wedge between Hezbollah and its supporters in Damascus and Tehran. The United States argues that Lebanese Shias in Hezbollah have the chance to become Lebanese patriots instead of serve as Syrian puppets. The Lebanese Shias have relied on Shiite Iran for support, but a "Shia political alternative" now competes with theo-fascist Tehran: democratic Arab Shias in Iraq.

Iran and Syria only offer tyranny and war. The United States is betting Lebanon's Shias appreciate the Iraqi Shias' electoral boon and the economic benefits of peace. Iraq's "new Shia model" is another payoff in the War on Terror.

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