WASHINGTON – Iran-backed Hezbollah’s seizure Friday of large swaths of Muslim Beirut in a blow against the U.S.-backed Lebanese government is the latest in a string of setbacks to U.S. allies in the Middle East and the latest bad news for President Bush from a region that he set out to remake five years ago.
Less than two years ago, in the summer of 2006, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice bet that an Israeli attack on Hezbollah in Lebanon would weaken Hezbollah and its foreign patrons and described the resulting war as “the birth pangs of a new Middle East.”
Three years ago, when Beirut erupted in pro-democracy demonstrations dubbed the “Cedar Revolution,” Bush and Rice made it a showcase in their drive for democracy in the Arab world.
Instead, analysts said, Hezbollah’s new power play may permanently alter Lebanon’s precarious power balance and weaken the Washington-supported government of Prime Minister Fuad Siniora.
“In a test of strength against the government, Hezbollah came out swiftly on top,” said Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East program at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. “It is a balance of power that is much less favorable to the allies of the United States.”
A senior State Department official acknowledged that “Hezbollah has made advances in terms of control of territory on the ground.”
But he said Hezbollah, which has portrayed itself as a national resistance movement, might face a backlash for attacking fellow Lebanese. “Politically, they’ve bitten off a bit much,” said the official, briefing reporters Friday on condition of anonymity.
The renewed fighting in Lebanon could provide fresh ammunition to Bush administration officials and their allies who’re arguing for military strikes on targets in Iran.
For months the administration has accused the elite Quds Force of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps – a group that supports Hezbollah – of arming and training anti-U.S. Shiite Muslim groups in Iraq.
The White House and the State Department on Friday were quick to blame the violence in Lebanon on Iran and Syria, Hezbollah’s principal patrons.
“Backed by Syria and Iran, Hezbollah and its allies are killing and injuring fellow citizens, undermining the legitimate authority of the Lebanese government and the institutions of the Lebanese state,” Rice said in a statement.
Other U.S. officials, however, said they had no evidence that either Iran or Syria was behind this week’s events.
What remains unclear is whether Lebanon will remain on the precipice of a wider civil war, or slip over.
For now, the struggle is primarily political, officials and analysts said.
“It is a civil war. Who am I kidding?” said Emile El-Hokayem, of the Washington-based Henry L. Stimson Center. But, he predicted, that war would remain “controlled” and “restricted.”