Sami Moubayed has a piece in Asia Times this week (“Syria plays hardball with the Saudis”), in which he compares the litany of victories registered by Syria to the string of Saudi defeats.
I usually like Sami Moubayed’s analyses, and I found much of what he said in this article to be true, apart from his account of the events of May 2008. He says:
…the Saudi-trained and funded March 14 forces were defeated on the streets of Beirut in May, when they tried to confront Hezbollah. Within hours, Hezbollah rounded up all militiamen on the payroll of Saudi Arabia and forced the cabinet of Prime Minister Fouad al-Siniora to back down on legislation taken earlier against Hezbollah. It was clear: the US and Saudi Arabia lost the war for Beirut, and Syria and Iran won.
I find it dismaying that someone who is generally good about dispensing with jingoism and delivering nuanced analysis is so incapable of doing so when it comes to the issue of Syria and Saudi Arabia’s struggle over Lebanon.
What happened in May 2008 was nothing so neat and tidy as a “war for Beirut”, fought between two sides, with a winner and a loser. Bandar may have had some wacko salafists on the payroll in Tripoli but this does not mean that March 14th was building up a huge militia with the goal of confronting Hizbullah in the streets of Beirut in a fight to the death. This is what propagandists would like people to believe. Journalists should be far more skeptical of such outlandish notions.
The propagandists want to be able to say: “March 14th wanted a war, but Hizbullah didn’t. However, when we couldn’t hold them off anymore, we gave it to them. We gave it to them, and we were victorious. But we were magnanimous in victory. We didn’t storm the Serail and assassinate Saniora. Others might have done that, you know.”
(Cue feelings of gratitude.)
It is not clear to me how historians will explain the events of May 7, 2008. However, they will certainly describe the backdrop: a country brought to an eighteen-month halt, economic paralysis, no president, a string of political assassinations, and immense social and sectarian tensions. They will talk about the labor strikes co-opted by Hizbullah in order to force the government into revoking its ill-fated decisions to dismantle the Hizb’s telephone network and to fire Wafiq Shouqeir. They will describe how the “peaceful demonstration” quickly got out of hand — as everyone knew it would — thereby providing an ideal pretext to take Beirut in a show of force and all but necessitate an international invention that would bring about the Doha Accord.
Did al-Mustaqbal have gun-wielding shabab on its payroll? Undoubtedly. Did they fight in the streets of Beirut? Yes. But was this a scene of Saudi-funded and Jordanian-trained commandoes leaping out from behind overturned cars to surprise the Hizbullah fighters who had so stupidly walked into their ambush? Hardly. More like a scene of glorified security guards with fancy toys being caught off guard by a disciplined, highly-coordinated, Iranian-trained, elite corps of battle-hardened soldiers who knew exactly what they were doing.
Syria “won” in Lebanon because it was willing to push the envelope as far as necessary. It was willing to play dirtier than the Saudis, the Americans, the French, and March 14th. Now, according to Moubayed, the Saudis are playing dirty with Syria. As usual, he doesn’t explain why this is ok in Syria’s case but not in Saudi Arabia’s. Furthermore, why is it acceptable for one radical fundamentalist regime (Iran) to sponsor a militia on Lebanese soil but it’s not acceptable for another radical fundamentalist regime (KSA) to do so, even though al-Mustaqbal’s shabab hardly constituted a full-blown militia, much less an army? Why is it that Moubayed protests when the Saudis inflame Sunni-Shiite tensions through their support for takfiri salafists, but it’s acceptable for Syria and Iran to build up a Shiite militia whose leader has on several occasions ridiculed various companions of the Prophet, thereby inflaming the Sunni street?
I am of the school who wants to forget about May 2008 as quickly as possible, and leave it to the historians to decide “what really happened.” In the meantime, however, let’s at least try to put the propagandists out of business.