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OPINION

The Axis of Weakness

By DANIEL FREEDMAN
FROM TODAY'S WALL STREET JOURNAL EUROPE
June 2, 2008

In a Middle East full of dissenters and conspiracy theorists, there are usually at least ten interpretations of any noteworthy event. So perhaps most remarkable about Hezbollah's recent power play in Beirut is how uniform commentary has been. The conventional wisdom is that the deal to give Shiites more control in the central government is a victory for the Iran-Syria-Hezbollah axis and a defeat for Saudi Arabia, France and the United States, who support the Cedar Revolution.

[The Axis of Weakness]
AP Photo/Ahmad Omar
Tomorrow's politician? A Hezbollah militant in Beirut, May 2008.

But why, at the moment of Hezbollah's big military victory -- when it had taken parts of Beirut and proved the army would not stand in its way -- did it not finish its coup? The Lebanese government's attempt to shut down Hezbollah's telecoms network and remove a Hezbollah-friendly army commander from Beirut airport miserably failed. Why did Hezbollah only demand a new political settlement? Why wave the white flag when your opponents have laid down their arms? This doesn't add up.

Perhaps then Hezbollah's temporary seizure of Beirut wasn't so much a sign of the strength of the Iran-Syria-Hezbollah axis as of its weakness. The "Party of God" may realize the axis with Tehran and particularly Damascus is not quite as strong as it appears. Seen in this light, the decision to secure tangible political gains while it still has military strength makes sense.

Syria's ongoing negotiations with Israel must worry Hezbollah. Any peace agreement that nets Damascus the Golan Heights would have to include a promise to abandon Hezbollah. If these talks don't bring a deal immediately, the fact that Damascus entertains the idea of cutting ties with Hezbollah must concentrate minds in South Lebanon.

Another sore point is the February assassination of Imad Mughniyah in Damascus, a key Hezbollah leader. Most fingers pointed at Israel. But there is another theory that the Syrians may have killed Mughniyah as a sign to Jerusalem of their sincere intentions.

The pressure on Syria to abandon Hezbollah is rising and coming not just from the West. The March Arab League summit in Damascus was boycotted by half of the leaders. This snub was not only a blow to Syrian prestige. It also showed how isolated Damascus is in the Arab world -- a world it once hoped to lead. It was a signal that its gambit of creating a new regional alliance with Iran comes with a heavy price tag.

While Iran has no plans of making peace with Israel or abandoning Hezbollah, it would be difficult for Tehran to keep Hezbollah alive without Syrian help. If Damascus closed its border to Lebanon, it would cut off a key route for Iranian arms smuggling to Hezbollah. And Iran's financial support for the Shiite group is in the end no match for the kind of money Saudi Arabia can pour into Lebanon to counter Tehran's influence. Riyadh has indicated that it will increase its support for its Sunni allies in Lebanon.

Hezbollah may have also learned a lesson from recent events in Iraq, where the Iranian-backed militia headed by Muqtada al-Sadr has at least for now abandoned its fight and started negotiations with the government. Apparently, Iranian support was not enough to keep up al-Sadr's war.

Why should it be different in Lebanon? Although Hezbollah portrayed its recent war with Israel as a victory, it wasn't. The fight did serious damage to Hezbollah's military capabilities. And the Shiite group lost legitimacy among the Lebanese people for the way it acted, both in disregarding Lebanese lives and starting an unnecessary war.

The once dominant sentiment among all Lebanese that "everyone can get along because we are all Lebanese," is waning. Sunni citizens are increasingly wary of Hezbollah. The Shiite group therefore faces the prospect of a hostile Israel on one side, a Syria that is no longer its ally on another, and a third column of opponents within: Lebanon's Sunnis together with Druze and Christian populations who have their own problems with the Shiites.

Sensing the tide in Lebanon might be turning against it, it used the government's attempted crackdown as an excuse to take parts of Beirut to scare its opponents into accepting a new political reality. This new reality gives Shiites, and therefore Hezbollah, more power in the central government.

So perhaps what we are seeing is the beginning of the gradual transformation of Hezbollah into a predominately political actor. It won't be easy and it will take time. Just like Northern Ireland, where it took the IRA 10 years to decommission their arms.

Some people argue that given Hezbollah's ideological commitment to an Islamic Lebanon such a transformation could never happen. Well, in the Middle East, everyone promises never to negotiate with their enemies, but everyone has their price. The PLO promised to never recognize Israel. Israel promised never to recognize the PLO. And so on. While the PLO certainly didn't start off negotiating in good faith, the political process helped gradually changing their stated ideological aims. The same could potentially be true for Hezbollah.

If Hezbollah really is on the brink of what could turn out to be a seismic change, the U.S. should do everything to encourage this process. It should accept a greater role for Shiites in the Lebanese government as long as Hezbollah agrees to start, however gradually, decommissioning. Israel should also be allowed to negotiate seriously with Syria.

Much more is at stake than easing frictions at the Israeli-Lebanese and Israeli-Syrian borders. Iran is on the verge of becoming a nuclear power. Separating Tehran from Damascus and Hezbollah would isolate and weaken the Islamic Republic at this crucial time. If we fail to do this, the conventional wisdom -- that the recent Lebanese developments were a victory for the Iran-Syria-Hezbollah-axis -- may unfortunately turn out to be right.

Mr. Freedman was the foreign policy analyst for Rudy Giuliani's Presidential Committee.

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