Following the massive pro-Syrian Hezbollah sponsored rally last week many in the Western media began to take a second look at the terror organization and its impish leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah. Robert Novak, appearing on CNN's Capital Gang on Saturday night quipped, "I'm glad we're [the U.S. is] dealing with them."
In Lebanon, the mainstream English daily, The Daily Star had an editorial on March 7, that stated, "Hezbollah is not a problem – it is part of Lebanon's solution." An editorial in Iran's Tehran Times declared, "extra-regional powers could no longer leave Hezbollah out of international political calculations… which is growing every day… and is able to influence all … international political developments."
Not everyone has fallen in love with Hezbollah. Last week the European Parliament labeled it a "terrorist" organization and called on EU members to restrict the groups' activity in a non-binding resolution. Also last week the House Committee on International Relations, marked up Resolution 101, noting Hezbollah's capabilities are "equal to … if not far more capable of" Al-Qa'ida. The Resolution also noted, "Whereas leaders of Hezbollah have made statements denouncing any distinction between its `political and military' operations, such as Hezbollah's representative in the Lebanese Parliament, Mohammad Raad, who stated in 2001 that 'Hezbollah is a military resistance party . . . . There is no separation between politics and resistance.'"
Many pro-Syrian Lebanese politicians have in fact discussed both support of Hezbollah as well as how the terror organization is an integral part of the government given that over 10% of the parliament is made up of its members. For example, the international affairs advisor for Lebanese President Lahoud, Dr. George Dib appeared on Al-Manar TV on January 9, and explained Hezbollah is "the only card Lebanon can play" and that the government needs to "keep the resistance safe."
Lebanon's Defense Minister Abdul-Rahim Murad gave an interview to Egypt's Dream TV on November 28 in which he discussed Hezbollah's freedom to attack Israel, and how the terror organization receives its weapons from "Iranian … Syrian and Lebanese aid." He also discussed relations between Lebanon's army and Hezbollah, "there is complete coordination."
The anti-Syrian rallies in Lebanon over the past few weeks was made up of anti-Hezbollah demonstrators. They included many Lebanese Christians, as its main newspaper Al-Nahar has been particularly vocal on this issue. As far back as August 14, 2003, its editor wrote, "Our controversy with Hezbollah centers on the fact that it has no right to exist as an armed movement within the state ... to carry out its own policies as if there were no government institutions." Another editorial on May 30, 2003 called on "disarming" Hezbollah and singled out Sheik Nasrallah, "Nasrallah is urging [people to launch] an Iraqi Intifada against the American presence in Iraq, to continue the Palestinian Intifada, and to continue the armed resistance in southern Lebanon … Who authorized Nasrallah to represent all the Lebanese, [and] to make decisions for them ... Did Nasrallah appoint himself secretary general of all the Lebanese and the whole Arab world?"
Nasarallah is known for his fiery speeches to crowds screaming "Death to America" and "Death to Israel." At last week's pro-Syrian rally, he declared, "To Syria we say long live Assad's Syria." He also made a direct threat to the U.S., "I address the following to America… I say to President Bush… And to Ms. Condoleezza Rice… You are wrong about Lebanon." He asked the crowed, "Are you Lebanese afraid of the American naval fleets? These naval fleets have come in the past, and were defeated, and if they come again, they will be defeated again."
Calling the U.S. "the Great Satan" last month during another rally, Nasrallah stated, "We consider the current administration an enemy of our [Islamic] nation … Because it is the greatest plunderer of our treasures, our oil, and our resources … This American administration is an enemy. Our motto, which we are not afraid to repeat year after year, is: 'Death to America.'"
As the events of the past few weeks took place, many pundits predicated the emergence of Hezbollah as the main power of Lebanon. This theory could turn out to be pre-mature as the massive Hezbollah sponsored rally was followed by an even larger anti-Syrian rally. The real message sent by those in attendance, including many Muslims, was directed not only to Syria but to Hezbollah.
The tipping point for which faction emerges in control of Lebanon will likely come down to how much pressure the West ends up placing on Syria.
Steven Stalinsky is the Executive Director of The Middle East Media Research Institute.