May 8, 2008

Hezbollah's Endgame?

By Lee Smith

Elie Fawaz, a friend and colleague with the Lebanese Renaissance Foundation in Beirut, provides on-the-ground analysis on the developing situation in Lebanon:

"Beirut witnessed another round of sectarian violence yesterday following decisions of the Lebanese government to sanction and remove Hezbollah's illegal private telecommunication lines, and to replace the head of the international airport security for his direct responsibility in allowing Hezbollah to install private spying cams on one of its runaways.

"Hezbollah closed down the roads leading to the airport, and a couple of others leading to its headquarters in Dahieh by unloading trucks of dirt and sand and by burning tires. They also clashed with Sunni groups in areas of Beirut.

"The Christian suburbs stayed calm, unwilling to participate in the demonstrations despite the calls of Free Patriotic Movement leader Michel Aoun to join in. This proves clearly that Aoun's popularity is seriously damaged, as it also shows that the majority of the Christians refuse to grant Hezbollah a cover for its attempted coup.

"More remarkably, the Grand Mufti of the Lebanese Republic Sheikh Mohammed Rashid Qabbani (the religious head of the Sunni community) accused Hezbollah of staging a coup, and warned that Sunnis of Lebanon are fed up with Hezbollah's ways and Iran's interference. He also called on all Arab and Muslim nations to help put an end for this crisis. These two developments, for the first time since the conflict between the opposition and the majority began, left Hezbollah, alone and uncovered.

"For years Hezbollah has tried to jump the sectarian divide by defending the causes of the umma. But when Israel withdrew from South Lebanon in 2000, Hezbollah's armada lost its raison d'etre. Yet even after the Syrian occupation ended in 2005 following the assassination of Rafiq al-Hariri, the party refused to terminate its mission and give up its arms and the many privileges enjoyed under Damascus' tutelage. To survive, Hezbollah needs its perpetual resistance, but the Party of God is today at odds with the rest of the Lebanese, and the survival of Lebanon as a state depends on the government bringing an end to this conflicted situation. There is no way one state can have two centers of decision-making, two policies, two armies, two economies, that are at odds with each others. The road to the airport must be re-opened at any cost, and Hezbollah must cease his state within a state either by negotiations or by force."

Tony Badran, also blogging here in Michael Totten's absence, weighs in as well:

"What this has done is lay bare all the charades of the last two years that Hezbollah's is a "national" opposition, etc. What we saw yesterday is that Christians didn't budge (Aounists that is), in any region. And so, what you have here is Hezbollah vs. the rest, and Hezbollah vs. the state. Politically this is very bad for them, and obviously for Aoun. In that sense it was a shrewd political move by March 14, because it hit them on a point that they can't get sympathizers for outside their thugs (i.e., they have no allies, and they're fighting the state!). Second, it puts them in a corner: they either force the government to capitulate, or they lose themselves. Nasrallah is against the wall."

In his press conference today, Nasrallah demanded that the government must back down from its decision. The government says no, that would mean the end of the state. Washington, along with the other international and regional actors like France, Saudi Arabia and the UN that have stood alongside the Lebanese government these last several years can only be pleased that the government has asserted its sovereignty in key respects; and it should be noted that Hezbollah's redline appears to consist of the government acting like a government. However, as Michael Young points out in The Daily Star, Hezbollah's security apparatus had penetrated the Rafiq al-Hariri international airport long before it installed cameras. Indeed, the assassinations of several March 14 figures a day after they had returned from abroad, especially Gebran Tueni and Antoine Ghanem, indicated that the airport was riddled with pro-Syrian assets. The question then is, why did the government act now?

In an email, Michael Young suggested it might be because of the debate today at the UN on Security Council 1559 that calls for the disarmament of all militias in Lebanon. "Suddenly the issue of Hizbullah's weapons is back on the table internationally, where the majority wants to put it," writes Michael.

There are two other possibilities Tony Badran and I have been entertaining today.

The first is that the government may believe that Hezbollah's preparations for another war with Israel have reached a critical point; given that Siniora and his cabinet have long understood that their actions would lead to a confrontation with Hezbollah, another war with Israel is a more daunting threat.

Second, as Tony conjectures, the Lebanese are watching closely a the US presidential campaign unfolds and are likely concerned what an Obama presidency represents for March 14, especially if Hezbollah starts a war with Israel: it means the pillar of the international alliance supporting a democratic Lebanon is apt to go hat in hand to Hezbollah's patrons in Tehran and Damascus looking to "engage." If there is another war, the US impulse will likely be to go over March 14's head and sue for peace with Iran and Syria, which is precisely what Bush resisted.

Finally, as Tony and Elie Fawaz and Michael Young are always careful to insist to Lebanon watchers, it is important to consider not just the local situation, but also the regional and international dimensions of the Lebanese arena. Assuming that the Syrians have no problem with sectarian strife in Lebanon, or anything to delay or obscure the international tribunal into the Hariri assassination, the foremost questions then concern Iran.

A Shia-Sunni conflict in Lebanon might well damage Iran's own efforts to jump the sectarian divide. What level of control does Tehran have over Hezbollah at this stage while the Party may well be in an existential fight over its role not just as an armed militia, but as a Lebanese party? Further, and perhaps most importantly to Washington, what will Hezbollah's actions, and Tehran's decisions, say about Iran's war against the US-backed order throughout the rest of the region – from Gaza (Hamas vs. Israel and Egypt), through the Arab Gulf states, and most especially Iraq? If the Iranians fear they are losing in Iraq, will they agree to heat up Lebanon, or do they understand that Hezbollah is inviting a civil war it cannot win, and thus risking Tehran's near 30-year, multi-billion dollar investment in exporting the Islamic Revolution?

Posted by Tony Badran at May 8, 2008 9:47 AM
Comments

This is a superior analysis and I would only add that on the horizon, as always, is the Tribunal - if the UN ever gets its act together.

They were shooting for a start next month but that date may have slipped - again.

Posted by: superhawk Author Profile Page at May 8, 2008 11:10 AM

Great post!

Posted by: Blacksmith Jade Author Profile Page at May 8, 2008 11:40 AM

I'll second that: Great post!

Posted by: Joe Author Profile Page at May 8, 2008 12:39 PM

I've been expecting that Hezbollah, once they realize that they have no more support among the Lebanese populace outside of their direct area of control, will start lobbing rockets at Israel again and appeal to Lebanese pride against any incursion in response.

Have things gone far enough that March 14th would let Israel stomp Hezbollah, or even coordinate efforts with them? Doubtful, especially if that becomes a tripwire to bring Syria back in and regionalize the war.

Posted by: Eric Akawie Author Profile Page at May 8, 2008 5:36 PM

How would March 14 be with Israel stomping both Hezbollah and Syria, simultaneously?

One can dream, can't one?

Posted by: Brian H Author Profile Page at May 9, 2008 9:53 PM
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