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Beirut Dispatch; Militias' Intent

is a Beirut-based writer.

There was a time in Lebanon when guys like Bashir Asfour called theshots. A strapping, tattooed, 22-year-old Maronite Christian,Asfour stood in downtown Beirut last Thursday waving a black flagemblazoned with a leering skull, a sword, and a hand grenade--amemento from the Lebanese civil war, when commandos would prowl thestreets of Beirut, setting up impromptu checkpoints andslaughtering young men from rival militias. Asfour had brought theflag out for the funeral of Lebanon's latest assassinationvictim--Pierre Gemayel, a young Maronite Cabinet minister from thePhalange Party, gunned down, mafia- style, in the streets ofBeirut.

"We're going to Baabda to unseat the president!" shouts Asfour,waving his fist in the air. The presidential palace at Baabda isoccupied by pro-Syrian politician Emile Lahoud, whose term inoffice was forcibly extended by Damascus two years ago. "Inshallahbekhair," his friend Roger Janah adds quickly, which roughlytranslates to, "God willing, it will be good." In Lebanon, it'swhat you say when you suspect that God may not, in fact, bewilling.

What happens next--or, rather, what doesn't happen--says a lot aboutthe current state of Lebanese politics: Asfour and Janah don't goto Lahoud's palace. No one does. Instead, funeral organizers orderthe demonstrators to go home, which is exactly what they do.

Lebanon is locked in a battle over its political future, and it'sclear which faction has the upper hand and which is demoralized. Onone side is a powerful alliance of Shia and Christians, includingthe Shia militia Hezbollah, backed by Syria and Iran. On the otheris the fragile government of Prime Minister FouadSiniora--representing Sunnis, Christians, and Druze--backed by theUnited States and Saudi Arabia. Emboldened by this summer's war withIsrael, Hezbollah is demanding a bigger share of Lebanon's Cabinetposts, which would effectively hand it control of the government.Disheartened by rumors out of Washington that the Baker Commissionwill recommend detente with Damascus to fix Iraq and by Hezbollah'sswelling postwar prestige, anti-Syrian partisans like Asfour aredivided, defensive, and terrified of being sold out by theirprotector--the United States. Which is why, despite their bluster,Asfour and his fellow protesters don't march to Baabda in the end.They may talk tough, but these guys know who's calling the shots inLebanon these days, and it isn't them.

At the condolences for Gemayel, I stand in line with my friendEliane, from the Maronite stronghold of Bikfaya. Our taxi driver,John, had gallantly offered to accompany us, but, after a fewminutes in the sea of glowering, black-leather-jacketed men, hestarts shaking and begs to go wait in the car. "I think he's withAoun," hisses Eliane after he leaves. She's referring to GeneralMichel Aoun, a Maronite politician who has split from theanti-Syrian coalition and formed an alliance with Hezbollah. "Ihate Aoun," she says. "He divided the Christians." Later, Johnconfides that he hates Aoun, too; he likes Samir Geagea, anotherMaronite warlord. During the 1975-1990 civil war, Geagea teamed upwith Gemayel's uncle, Bashir, to butcher the Maronite leader TonyFranjieh before forming his own rival militia--thus further dividingLebanon's already considerably divided Christians.

Today, the alliances shift as dizzyingly and expediently as they didback then. That, along with the recent war, explains how Syria hasgone--in less than two years--from being chased out of Lebanon inhumiliating fashion to a new position of strength in Lebanesepolitics. Consider the trajectory of Aoun: In 1989, the generaldefied Syria and declared himself president. Syria was a U. S. allyback then, so, when Aoun refused to resign, Syrian President HafezAssad and the United States joined forces against him. Syria bombedhim out of Baabda, Secretary of State James Baker sued to kick hisambassadors out of the Lebanese embassy in Washington, and Aounfled the country in 1991. For the next 14 years, Aoun's followers,mostly young Maronites, fought Syrian hegemony in Lebanon. When anexplosion killed former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in the springof 2005, Lebanon's postwar generation staged an uprising against the29- year Syrian occupation. Hundreds of thousands of people,including young Aounists, turned out for peaceful protests thattoppled the pro-Syrian prime minister and ultimately led Syria towithdraw its troops from Lebanon. A few months later, electionsgave the anti-Syrian opposition a parliamentary majority, making itthe ruling coalition. With Christians and Sunnis united, and onlythe Shia against them, the anti-Syrian movement seemed ascendant.

But, when the other members of the anti-Syrian coalition cut Aounout of their election plans, he started aligning himself withpro-Syrian power brokers- -including Hezbollah. "Michel Aoun was asymbol of the fight against the Syrians at one point in time," saysSerge Abou Halaka, a cousin of Pierre Gemayel and a onetime Aounadmirer. "No one believes how this guy has turned around 180degrees and is now a close ally of the Syrians." Without Aoun, whostill commands a large following among Christians, the antiSyrianforces have lost a chunk of their street base--hurting theirability to turn out demonstrators, which is how Lebanese factionssignal political strength. On November 19, Hezbollah leader HassanNasrallah threatened to call out massive street protests to provehis side's numerical superiority. When Gemayel was killed two dayslater, the Siniora government joined the numbers war, pledging amega-demonstration of its own.

Depending on which side you believe, the turnout at Gemayel'sfuneral ranged from 10,000 to one million. But, by all accounts,the crowds were much smaller than the massive protests during lastyear's anti-Syrian uprising. Protesters burned pictures of Lahoudand carried signs asking a pointed question of Aoun: Are you hereor there? Meant as an accusation, it seemed almost like a plea.

In the gang war of Lebanese politics, the key to survival isfiguring out who is about to betray you--and then betraying himfirst. And so the anti- Syrian forces have been eyeing the UnitedStates uneasily as of late. It's no secret that the United Statesis looking for a way out of Iraq; Syria, with its deep ties to theSunni insurgency, might be willing to help--for a price. "Peopleare worried," says Lebanese legal scholar Chibli Mallat, "becausethe price that Syria wants to extract is precisely Lebanon."

Mallat doesn't think the United States will sacrifice his country.But others aren't so sure, especially with the Iraq Study Groupheaded by Baker-- the architect of Syrian hegemony over Lebanon.After the midterm elections, U.S. public opinion seems clear:fragile nation-building projects, out; cold-eyed realpolitik, in.And Syria could help the United States in the wider war onterrorism while serving as an invaluable counterweight to Iran."Syria has the upper hand, not just in Lebanon, but regionally,"says Nadim Shehadi, a fellow at Chatham House, a London-based thinktank. "Syria has a very strong position in relation to all theconflicts in the region that concern the United States."

When Hariri was killed, the Lebanese looked to the United States forprotection from Syria. After the recent war, however, lost considerable luster. As Israel pounded Lebanon withU.S.-made bombs, and the Bush administration initially resisted aU.N. cease-fire proposal, the fragile U.S.-backed government lookedincreasingly impotent. "After this summer, you cannot argue withHezbollah. ... So that's why Hezbollah is very openly laying downits agenda," says Shehadi.

Lebanon's anti-Syrian forces--especially its Christians--arepainfully aware that Hezbollah is armed and that they are not. Andpro-Syrian forces, including Aoun and his followers, are beginningto think they may have picked the right horse after all. "Theythink the Iranians are winning and the United States is steppingback in Iraq," says Halaka. "With the new situation in theU.S.--with Bush losing in the Congress and Senate--they think,`They're losing and we're winning.'" And maybe they're right.

By annia ciezadlo