STOP ME IF YOU'VE HEARD THIS before: armed members of the pro-Syrian opposition clashed with supporters of the Western-backed government on the streets of Beirut, as the political deadlock between the rival factions escalates once more into violence. As a journalist covering Lebanon's long-simmering conflict, one of the occupational difficulties is finding new words to describe an essentially cyclical situation of rhetorical escalation, limited skirmishing, and fruitless dialogue.
But the violence that has rocked Beirut this week is qualitatively different from the strife that kept the city on edge for much of the past two years. What began as a political struggle for power between two vaguely defined blocs has been transformed into a battle between competing visions for Lebanon's future. Simply put, it is becoming impossible to reconcile the aims of the ruling Parliamentary majority with the Iranian-backed forces of Hezbollah.
The immediate cause of the current crisis was the Lebanese government's decision to remove Brigadier General Wafiq Shqeir, who is close to Hezbollah, from his position as airport security chief. In the same ministerial meeting, the government also declared Hezbollah's private communication network that extends throughout Lebanon as "illegal and unconstitutional," and pledged to remove it in areas where the Lebanese government maintains control. After years of confining themselves to tepid statements of displeasure at Hezbollah's actions, the government was finally taking a substantive step to change the balance of power in Lebanon. And it provoked a quick and brutal reaction from Hezbollah's forces.
The first step taken by Hezbollah on Wednesday was the blocking of the road leading to airport, which passes through a neighborhood dominated by the Shiite militia. The Rafik Hariri International Airport is the sole functioning airport in Lebanon, and the country's primary link to the outside world. Normal life cannot continue, and businesses cannot operate, if access to it is prohibited. A day later, clashes broke out in mixed Sunni and Shiite neighborhoods across Beirut. At the beginning of any civil war, the first course of action is to determine the extent of the rival factions' areas of control, by forcibly drawing new lines of demarcation. This is what is currently occurring in Beirut.
Now for the bad news: what we have witnessed, in the span of barely more than 24 hours, is the routing of pro-government forces at the hands of Hezbollah and its allies. West Beirut, a mixed Sunni and Shia area of the city, is nearly completely under the control of Hezbollah and its allies. Primarily Sunni areas such as Hamra and Verdun, where virtually no Hezbollah supporters actually live, have nevertheless been invaded by militiamen loyal to the opposition. They are currently stationed at checkpoints throughout the area, stopping incoming cars and civilians. All reports indicate that they are better equipped and better trained than the Lebanese army. They have been careful not to antagonize the local population, and a fragile sense of order has been re-established. However, nobody doubts who is really in control of these large swathes of Beirut.
The Lebanese army seems to be employing a "see no evil, hear no evil" strategy. Soldiers have largely refrained from confronting the gangs of militiamen roving the city, though there have been scattered cases across the country of soldiers clearing obstacles set up to block major roads. They are clearly outgunned by Hezbollah, and probably by the other militias as well. Furthermore, using force against the supporters of one faction risks splitting the army, which is made up of soldiers loyal to both the government and the opposition.
Nevertheless, the impotence of the Lebanese Army--long considered the last functioning national institution in Lebanon--has been one of the most heartbreaking developments. The army continues to maintain a presence in West Beirut, though with little effect. Army tanks rumble through the neighborhood of Hamra--but only pause at the checkpoints of Hezbollah and its allies to chat, before continuing on their way.
The situation is grim, and while the government is still refusing to back down, this is largely a technicality if they cannot enforce their will on the street.
The political confrontation in Lebanon has been clarified: it is a struggle between those who want to build a democratic nation with control over all regions within its borders, and supporters of Hezbollah. Now more than ever, the Sunni, Druze and Christian communities are firmly aligned on the side of the central government. Lebanon was never going to be won in a single day. It will not be lost so quickly, either.
David Kenner, a former WEEKLY STANDARD intern, is a writer living in Beirut. He blogs at Opening Lines.