The Good Soldier of Syria

The inhabitants of Bint Jbail and the surrounding villages already know the new clients' tastes. The French, for example, like to buy perfumes and discs, and they are also the ones who come to the local restaurants. Watches are also a popular gift among the Western soldiers. Those who come from the poorer countries make do with purchasing inexpensive souvenirs, but they, too, are contributing to the local economy when they buy new uniforms or mend the old ones.

The soldiers of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL), who arrived there under UN Security Council Resolution 1701, are not only a supervision and separation force but also a significant economic factor in southern Lebanon. Thus, for example, after a round of "appearances" by the commanders of the forces in the village and after making the acquaintance of mukhtars and the mayors of the towns, the headquarters also began to hire local workers for service jobs like driving, translating and maintenance.

Though this is not a huge economic boom, a gap is already developing between the owners of shops close to UNIFIL headquarters and those that are farther away. The extent of the sales at the nearby shops is now growing by a factor of three or four relative to their previous level, and the owners of these shops can up rents higher by tens of percentage points.

The ability of small villages or isolated shops to overcome the huge damages suffered during war cannot return the economy of Lebanon to its pre-war trajectory. To this end, all eyes are on the third Paris conference, the meeting of the donor countries, which began to help Lebanon after Israel's withdrawal in 2000, which is to be held in Paris in two weeks. This oxygen pipeline, the government hopes, will bring in $1 billion in direct donations, as well as guarantees and investments that will join donations Lebanon has received from Arab countries, and especially Saudi Arabia, totaling about $2.5 billion.

Though these are very large sums, as the direct damage from the war is estimated at more than $3 billion, and the national debt stands at about $41 billion, both the donor countries and the government know that Lebanon will find it hard to raise the funds without a demonstration of political stability and control of the country's systems. This, therefore, is the playing field of Hezbollah's power game, and indeed the game has started up again.

This week Nasrallah stopped "the sacred recess" that was aimed at giving the Lebanese a time-out from the political fracas in honor of the Muslim and Christian holidays. The mass demonstrations that had shrunk during the holiday period to a symbolic presence in the large city squares of Beirut expanded last week. Civil servants who are opposed to the economic reform that the prime minister is proposing in advance of the third Paris conference have gone out on strike. Predictably, Hezbollah has announced its support for the strikers and has called for an escalation of protest until "the government is brought down."

Ostensibly, Arab intermediaries have an opportunity to try to untangle the Lebanese knot. Thus, for example, Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa has twice done the rounds in Beirut, holding well-publicized meetings and even exuding "cautious optimism" that had no basis at all. The smiles he won from Nasrallah and the honor with which he was greeted at the bureaus of Prime Minister Fuad Siniora and Speaker of the Lebanese National Assembly Nabih Beri turned out to be nothing more than traditional hospitality.

The best proof of the Arab League's impotence in face of "the Lebanese problem," as this crisis is defined, was in Saudi Arabia's mustering to try and squeeze out a solution.

Last week King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia met with Na'im Kassem, Nasrallah's deputy (Nasrallah himself could not come because of clear security reasons) and with Mahmoud Fanish, the Hezbollah minister who resigned in November together with five other ministers. The Saudi king has a personal and royal interest in what is happening in Lebanon. His close friendship with Rafik Hariri and his commitment to help with respect to the investigation of his assassination have created a crisis between Saudi Arabia and Syria. Beyond that, Saudi Arabia is one of the most important donor countries for Lebanon; in addition to the $2 billion Saudi Arabia contributed to Lebanon during the war, it is preparing to continue its contributions in the framework of the Paris conference.

But even the "friendly conversation" that was held in Riyadh a short time before the pilgrimage to Mecca did not especially impress Hassan Nasrallah. Apparently the greater the pressure on his organization to reconcile with the government, the more Nasrallah realizes the power of the political lever he has in his hands. This was best described by his rival, Sa'ad Hariri, Rafik Hariri's son and the head of the Al Mustaqbal group, which constitutes a majority in the parliament. In a public statement issued in Beirut, Sa'ad Hariri said that "Lebanon is facing a new wave of political and ideological terror ... by means of a timed and financed campaign aimed at spreading chaos in public life, paralyzing the constitutional institutions and isolating areas in Lebanon from the rule of law, while exploiting some of the media to promulgate sectarian and ethnic policy and promote the killing of those whose names appear on the lists of traitors and plotters."

This aggregate of expressions has been formulated in recent weeks to counter Hezbollah's accusations that the government is guilty of treason and plotting against it. For the benefit of anyone who does not comprehend this lexicon, Hariri made it bluntly clear that "Hezbollah, with its leadership and the many means at its disposal, is the spearhead of an attack against the Paris conference."

However, Hariri, too, knows that the conference is only a means, and not Nasrallah's main target. The target is the Lebanese government, and the aim is to prevent the establishment of an international tribunal to judge those responsible for the assassination of Rafik Hariri, with "those responsible" standing for "the Syrians." This is Nasrallah's big debt to the Syrians. After he did not succeed in preventing their retreat from Lebanon, and on the backdrop of the large amount of aid he received from them throughout the years and is continuing to receive, Nasrallah feels a profound obligation to prevent embarrassment of Syria, of the sort that could be caused by an international trial. After all, no one is accusing Hezbollah of the assassination, and everyone knows about Rafik Hariri's close relations with the organization.

This is the crux of the collision between Nasrallah and Fuad Siniora. Bringing to trial those responsible for the murder of Hariri, his close friend and his boss for decades, is the main and perhaps the only impetus that is keeping Siniora in the high political position that can determine the judicial move.

Giving in to Nasrallah would mean, as far as Siniora is concerned, the collapse of the justification for his political existence.

This is the cause of the war that is going on now in Lebanon, into which Hezbollah wants to drag the important economic conference, as he feels its failure might result in the Siniora government's losing a significant share of its popularity and perhaps might thus fall.

Within this intra-Lebanese struggle, the name of Israel is not absent. Thus, for example, the pro-Hezbollah newspaper Al Diar has published that Russia is now asking to add another assassination to the international investigation. This is the assassination in Sidon last May of the brothers Nadal and Mahmoud Majzoub from Islamic Jihad. The Hezbollah and Palestinian elements in Lebanon claimed at the time that Israel was behind this assassination. Israel denied the charge.

This report, coming at this time, is aimed, in fact, at casting further doubt as to the identities of murderers who are moving around freely in Lebanon, since perhaps the Majzoubs' assassins are also the ones who assassinated Hariri, and what about the espionage cell that was "exposed" in Lebanon a month later? But the larger matter is that elements in Hezbollah are attributing specifically to Russia the intention to add this incident to the international investigation committee's wealth of investigations. It appears that in this publication there is even a suggestion to Russia, whose role until now in the investigations was an attempt to persuade Syrian President Bashar Assad to cooperate, to take a more active role and to try to create balance in the investigation committee: the investigation of Syrian elements alongside the investigation of Israeli elements. There has been no official confirmation from Russia this is indeed its intention, but in the Lebanese dynamic, in this matter, too, Israel is liable to find its name winding its way through the streets of Beirut.