Damascus Plays Puppet Master

How Syria looks indispensable thanks to Hezbollah.

BEIRUT—It’s an odd day indeed when officials in Washington trouble themselves with municipal elections in Lebanon. However, the country’s most recent elections, which ended on Sunday, may be different. Why? Because the militant Islamist group Hezbollah came out of the contest considerably strengthened, in part because Syria wanted to send a message to the Bush administration.

In three localities—Beirut’s predominantly Shiite southern suburbs, in the Bekaa Valley, and in the South—Hezbollah did remarkably well, winning (either alone or in alliance with others) control over a large number of local councils. Among its more notable triumphs was a victory in the Bekaa Valley town of Baalbek, known for its spectacular Roman ruins and international summer cultural festival but also as a place where Western hostages were held during the 1980s.

In South Lebanon, Hezbollah also did well, winning an estimated 61 percent of local councils. A principal cause of Hezbollah’s success was that Syria created the political conditions that made it possible: In the Bekaa Valley it put pressure on potential rivals to make sure they would either support Hezbollah or not stand against it. In the South, the Syrians, for the first time, consented to let the party stand alone in the elections, not in a Syrian-imposed alliance with the rival Amal Movement—a Shiite party that Damascus also favors. This meant that Hezbollah was not obliged to compromise with Amal on candidates, allowing it to mobilize its base of supporters for a knockdown contest with the movement, which many Hezbollah supporters dislike and consider corrupt. Because Hezbollah’s base of support in the South is larger than Amal’s, the Syrian concession virtually guaranteed that Hezbollah would come out of the elections ahead.

Damascus saw an opportunity to raise the ante on the United States, which recently imposed sanctions on Syria under congressional legislation known as the Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act. One of the act’s stipulations is that Syria give up support for Hezbollah, which U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage referred to last year as “the A-team of terrorists.” So Syria, by allowing the party to score well in the elections, effectively told the Bush administration, “Don’t ask us to suppress Hezbollah; the party has strong support and legitimacy in Lebanon.”

Hezbollah is indeed popular, particularly among those benefiting from its expansive social welfare network. It is also led by a charismatic leader, Hassan Nasrallah, who could be forgiven for considering Hezbollah’s latest performance as another defining moment in his own illustrious career (two others being his controversial, and winning, decision to participate in Lebanon’s 1992 parliamentary election, integrating Hezbollah into the country’s post-civil war political system, and the loss of his son in an anti-Israeli military operation in 1997).

However, Syria, by playing up Hezbollah’s popularity, has done itself and Lebanon little good. The election results will not convince the Bush administration and the U.S. Congress of the party’s “acceptability,” but it will make Lebanon a more likely American target, while also persuading U.S. officials that Hezbollah is flourishing under Syria’s tender eye.

So why is Syria doing it, other than to emphasize that attacking Hezbollah may prove a chore? The Syrians have long believed that a strong Hezbollah makes them appear indispensable in Lebanon, because it allows them to convince the United States that if Syrian forces were required to withdraw from the country (another demand of the Syria Accountability Act), Hezbollah would fill the vacuum.

This rationale goes to the heart of Syria’s dilemma with respect to the United States: Hezbollah is only of use to Damascus for as long as the party remains active and alarms the Americans and their allies. If the Syrians get rid of Hezbollah, Washington will have far less incentive to regard the Syrians as useful. Conversely, if Syria fails to subdue Hezbollah, American hostility will only increase. What is frustrating Syria is that it wants to use Hezbollah as one means of leverage to improve its relationship with Washington. However, the Bush administration has no inclination to bargain. Indeed, if Iraq becomes more of a problem, a vulnerable Syria may emerge as an increasingly tempting U.S. target to prove the war on terrorism is alive and well.

The Lebanese, meanwhile, are hoping they won’t be caught in the crossfire. But given the way the Syrians have promoted Hezbollah, they may soon find themselves in the direct line of fire.