Like I said, this wasn’t supposed to happen. It’s part of a pattern that isn’t supposed to be happening all across the Middle East: the Shia militias are kicking serious ass. In the past few weeks we’ve seen weirdly identical moves by weak central governments in Iraq and Lebanon to push back against Shia militias: in Iraq, al-Maliki’s government, acting as a front for al-Hakimi and the Badr Brigades, tried to "assert itself" against Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army in Basra and in Sadr City; and now the weak interfaith committee trying to run Lebanon moved against Hezbollah, firing their security chief at the airport and cracking down on Hezbollah’s private communication network, which apparently has 100,000 private telephone lines running.
Nasrallah, the mullah who runs Hezbollah, called that crackdown a "declaration of war" against his boys and sent them out onto the streets of West Beirut, where the rich Sunni Muslims live.
Militarily, it was over pretty fast. There’s no armed Sunni group in Lebanon that can stand against Hezbollah. The BBC is now calling Hezbollah "by far the strongest force in Lebanon," which may seem pretty obvious now but is a huge surprise to all the so-called experts. You see, the Shia aren’t supposed to count at all in Lebanon. The Lebanese constitution lays down that the President has to be a Maronite Christian, because they were the big players in 1943 when the thing was written. The Prime Minister has to be a Sunni Muslim, because they were next. Nobody else counted for much, except maybe the Druze. But the Shia weren’t consulted at all, because they were nothing—a bunch of hicks down in the southern and eastern boonies.
Since then a lot of those hicks have moved into Beirut, and the ones who stayed home made a name for themselves by having a lot of babies who grew up to be the best guerrilla fighters in the country. They forced Israel out of Southern Lebanon in 2000 and took on the Israeli armed forces one-on-one in 2006, and came out of it looking like heroes.
Since then, the Hezbollah leader, Nasrallah, who’s pretty obviously a smart dude, has parlayed his victory into national popularity. He didn’t let his people gloat too openly--instead of the yellow Hezbollah flag, he told them to wave the Lebanese red-white-and-green (the one with the tree, even though there ain’t hardly any of those trees left in the place any more, just like the California Grizzly on our flag).
What really pisses off the "government" in both Iraq and Lebanon is that the Shia leaders—Nasrallah in Lebanon and Sadr in Iraq—are starting to break into the crossover market: after Hezbollah scored the first respectable showing against Israel by any Arab guerrilla army, you’d see Druze and Sunni and even a few Maronite kids saying "Go Hezzies!"—usually in a safe quiet voice, where nobody’d hear, but they were saying it. And that spelled death for the old godfathers who run these places, especially Lebanon. Lebanon is like NYC without the money: it’s all sleazy politicos and gangs profiting from ethnic grandstanding politics. They call the system "zuama," godfather-ism. And the key there is, you’ve got to be able to control your ethnic group, your gang. So guys like Walid Jumblatt, the chieftan of the Druze, go psycho when they see rival Druze politicos deserting to Hezbollah. Jumblatt’s business is using his people as a bargaining chip; if they’re going to start shopping around for better deals, he’s as doomed as a smalltown hardware store watching the new WalMart go up.
Don’t start thinking these godfathers are the good guys. You can think of Hezbollah as the bad guys if you want, even though I admire the hell out of them, but just don’t think those old-school godfathers are the good guys here. Jumblatt, for example, is on record saying he cheers when US troops are killed in Iraq and it can’t happen often enough for him. He backed the Syrians when they occupied Lebanon, then broke with them over his cut; he massacred thousands of Christian villagers in Central Lebanon in the 1980s. When he comes into a room you can hear blood sloshing around his ankles, and that goes for every big player in Lebanon.