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Lebanon: US allies in disarray as Hizbollah strikes

This article is over 16 years, 2 months old
Simon Assaf reports from Beirut on last week’s clashes between the pro-US Lebanese government and the resistance forces led by Hizbollah
Issue 2101

It was a lightning war of short battles and quick victories. Hizbollah and its supporters in Lebanon’s opposition movement have swept Western-backed militias out of Muslim and mixed areas of Lebanon.

In doing so they have stalled a growing threat against the anti-US resistance in Lebanon and humiliated the Western powers that have staked their prestige on supporting Lebanon’s right wing government.

There is a lot at stake. The US’s imperial strategy across the Middle East is unravelling. The occupation of Iraq is descending into disaster. It has failed to overthrow the Hamas government in Gaza. Now growing popular discontent in Egypt is threatening the regime of Hosni Mubarak, the US’s key Arab ally.

So the US is desperate to shore up its political allies in Lebanon – and to destroy the resistance to its rule, as embodied by the Hizbollah movement.

Part of this strategy involved backing Israel’s war on Lebanon in the summer of 2006. But that war failed – instead of isolating Hizbollah, a mass outpouring of popular support carried the resistance to victory. So the Western powers have reverted to political manoeuvrings in an effort to force Hizbollah to disarm.

Under the agreement that ended Lebanon’s 15-year civil war, Hizbollah is the only group in Lebanon allowed to retain its arms as part of a shield against Israeli attacks. The resistance operates a network of bunkers and strongholds along the border with Israel and in its heartlands of south Beirut.


Part of this network is an internal communications system that coordinates military resistance to a possible Israeli invasion. The government wanted to dismantle this network – just as the threat of a new war with Israel looms.

Hizbollah refused to comply with this demand. It accused the government of acting against the interests of the country and of taking orders from the US – an accusation which the government did not deny.

The mounting threats against the resistance in Lebanon came against a background of rising discontent over rampant inflation and food price hikes.

Local union bodies and associations have held a series of mass meetings across the country in recent weeks to push for a national protest strike. Their demand culminated in a day of action on Wednesday of last week.

The more militant sections of workers were at the head of this strike call, including shoe makers, carpenters, construction workers and farmers. They are demanding a rise in the minimum wage to £400 a month.

On the day of the strike the unions were due to march through west Beirut. But the government launched its thugs at the protest as it attempted to gather. As people tried to join the demonstration they were warned that pro-government gunmen were threatening to fire on anyone who attended.

Ghassan Ghosn, head of Lebanon’s main trade union federation, made a short speech denouncing the intimidation. Government supporters then hurled rocks and grenades at the protesters. Groups of thugs chased after workers and beat them up.

Faced with this widescale intimidation, opposition neighbourhoods began to confront these gangs, leading to day-long clashes.

The next day Hizbollah, backed by opposition parties, launched an audacious takeover of west Beirut in response to the threats to its communications network.

First they knocked out Future TV and the Al-Mustaqbal newspaper, crippling the pro-government media. Then they swooped on the security agencies, informer networks, pro-government parties and the sectarian Sunni gangs used to intimidate Shia Muslims.

It took less than four hours. That night Sunni Muslim supporters of the resistance called on their neighbourhoods to back Hizbollah. They dismissed claims that this was the beginning of a sectarian civil war, saying it was a political struggle against imperialism.

This intervention proved critical. Key Sunni Muslim areas of the south that had been at the centre of the resistance to Israel came over to the opposition.

On Saturday Hizbollah fighters, supported by a local uprising, overran the mountain stronghold of government supporter Walid Jumblatt.

The army followed in the wake of the fighting, taking over positions captured by the opposition, arresting government security forces and seizing weapons.

In the northern city of Tripoli, however, government supporters rallied and attacked the mainly Christian neighbourhood of Al-Mina, and areas where the minority Allawi Muslim sect live.

A mob ransacked opposition party offices and burned Palestinian flags. They captured and killed a dozen opposition activists in the bloodiest incident so far. As it became clear that the government was attempting to ignite sectarian conflict, local leaders rushed to secure a ceasefire.


Facing defeat, the government deferred the question of Hizbollah’s communication network to the army. But the army announced that it would not move on the resistance, leaving the government humiliated and isolated.

The Lebanese government is run by the “March 14” coalition of Western-backed sectarian parties that emerged from the so called “Cedar revolution” of 2005. This coalition operates a network of militias and armed thugs dressed up as private security companies.

The government is headed by prime minister Fouad Siniora and backed by Saad Hariri, the billionaire who controls most of glitzy central Beirut.

The role of the army has been crucial in the fighting. Its head General Michel Suleiman is backed by the opposition in his bid to become president of Lebanon. The country currently has no president as the government is demanding that the new head of state must implement US plans to destroy the resistance.

Suleiman has refused to comply with these plans, warning that any such move would split the army and spark a new civil war. His forces, now heavily armed by the US and France, proved decisive in demobilising supporters of the government.

A pressing issue remains. If the opposition fails to dismantle the sectarian system that lurches the country into periodic crisis, its gains will be short lived.

The pressure to rebalance the relative power of different sects will create conditions for further instability, and with it the danger of this political struggle spilling over into sectarian fighting.

The question of the minimum wage is still left hanging. The opposition parties have accepted the so called “Paris agreements” – a series of neoliberal economic policies set by Western powers.

That means they can quickly lose the mass sympathy of a population that is struggling to cope with rampant inflation and crippling food price rises.

The resistance has won the first phase of this decisive confrontation. But there are many dangers looming.

For a blow-by-blow account of recent events in Lebanon go to

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