Siniora Stands Fast

By David Ignatius (THE WASHINGTON POST, 12/12/06):

The Lebanese not so long ago liked to refer to their gaudy capital as "the Paris of the Orient." But on Sunday afternoon, with more than a half-million pro-Hezbollah demonstrators chanting "Death to America!" and "Death to Israel!" in the heart of downtown, the Lebanese capital seemed more like a vision of Tehran.

The very incongruity of this scene, in the most Westernized city in the Arab world, makes me wonder if Hezbollah is overplaying its hand in its campaign to oust the pro-American government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora. America isn't very popular here, after its ally Israel bombed the country's infrastructure last summer in reprisal for Hezbollah's kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers. But for all their anger at America and Israel, the Lebanese aren't likely to defect to the Iranian camp.

Watching the demonstrations with seeming serenity is Siniora himself, the man the Hezbollah protesters are targeting. When I visited him Monday, he had been holed up in his office for 10 days, surrounded by Lebanese soldiers and acres of barbed wire. During our discussion he was the picture of calm and confidence. That's been his tactic as the protests have mounted: The louder Hezbollah's leader, Hasan Nasrallah, has called for his head, the quieter has been Siniora's response.

Siniora hasn't yet found a way out of the impasse, and the crisis is giving the country a serious case of the jitters. But he did seem to strike a chord with many Lebanese when he said last Friday, after an especially feverish speech by Nasrallah: "You are not our lord. . . . Who made you a judge over us to decide who is a traitor or a nationalist?" He said Nasrallah's supporters were attempting a coup d'etat.

The Lebanese prime minister continued his measured tone in his conversation with me Monday. "I think Nasrallah has become very much tense," he said. "He is between a rock and a hard place. Everybody knows the influence being exercised on Hezbollah by Iran and Syria." He said at another point of Nasrallah, "He has lost the battle."

"We all have to realize we have Iran on our borders," Siniora explains. "But Iran has to understand it cannot impose things on the Arabs. This is not helpful to them." When I asked Siniora if he thought the Iranians had gotten this message, he answered: "Not yet."

Siniora said he is looking for a compromise -- he used the Arabic word taswiyah, which means an arrangement short of a final settlement -- that will defuse the crisis before it explodes into open sectarian conflict. He said there are various formulas, short of a paralyzing veto, for giving the opposition a stronger voice in the government. He used the phrase "the majority" to describe the pro-government coalition of Sunni Muslims, Druze and some Christians and "the minority" to describe Nasrallah's coalition of Shiite Muslims and Christians led by former general Michel Aoun.

The prime minister's apparent confidence isn't widely shared in the Lebanese capital, which is bracing for another escalation of Hezbollah's tactics. Beirut isn't on the edge of civil war, but there are some spooky precursors. A Shiite friend tells me he is beginning to feel unsafe living in a Sunni neighborhood. When you drive home at night, he says, "the watchers are out."

The hard edge of Siniora's strategy, hidden behind his lawyerly calm, is that he is prepared to play the sectarian game, too. An ominous sign of the dangers ahead was a huge counter-rally Sunday in support of the government by angry Sunnis in the northern city of Tripoli. "They don't have the numbers," Siniora said of the Hezbollah-Aoun alliance. "The majority can send to the street more than what the opposition can send."

The Sunni trump card is rarely discussed but universally understood: Syria, a crucial ally of Hezbollah, is an overwhelmingly Sunni country. If the Syrian-Iranian alliance squeezes the Sunnis in Lebanon too hard, there is likely to be a backlash inside Syria. Here's the way Siniora delicately phrased it to me: "The Syrian position is what it is. It has to be part of the Arab world, not the Iranian overall plans in the region."

And what of America, whose supposed mastery of Lebanon enrages the demonstrators outside Siniora's office? Its diplomacy unfortunately has been as feckless here as elsewhere in the region. Despite American promises to bolster Siniora by getting a map of Israeli land mines in southern Lebanon, or exploring Lebanese claims to a disputed, Israeli-occupied territory known as Shebaa Farms, the Bush administration has done little. "America gives us letters of support," says Siniora. "We get tons of paper, which can't be recycled."