Shifting Sands- Hezbollah and Lebanon

From the news last Friday:

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah on Friday vowed to avenge Israel for the killing of a senior Hezbollah commander in Beirut earlier this month. Hassan al-Laqqis, who fought in Syria’s civil war for the Lebanese Shi’ite militia, was shot dead outside his home on December 4.

Israel never comments on assassinations, especially when they’re involved, so why did they go out of their way to deny any responsibility in this killing?

I cite this story because it provides an excellent example of the complexity of the relationships of the various actors in the Middle East and how nothing is ever as it seems.

To really understand what’s going on here, lets examine the big picture and the bigger context of events.

Quick primer on Lebanese politics. Lebanon is a country of factions divided across religious lines. The Lebanese constitution for example, dictates that the President of the country has to be a Marionite Christian, the Prime Minister a Sunni and the Speaker of the Parliament a Shiite. Also present in the county: Druze, a secret sect of Shia Islam who were a major faction in the Lebanese Civil War.

Hezbollah is a Shiite faction and is at the moment, the most powerful militia in Lebanon, even stronger than the Lebanese Military. At the moment it’s estimated that they have at their disposal around 50,000 medium and long range missiles, a horrific amount of armaments, and around 30,000 trained militia fighters. These armaments have arrived in Lebanon and into the Hezbollah bunkers since 2006, courtesy of Iran. Hezbollah in turn serves Iranian interests by being their proxy in wars against Israel. Wars in which Lebanese civilians pay the ultimate price. For their part Hezbollah tries to portray themselves as the only real Lebanese resistance against Israeli aggression. When Israel was occupying Lebanon this argument had some merit. Today, not so much and Hezbollah as an entity has morphed into another Lebanese powerbroker funded by Iran and, with the demise of the Iranian economy, drug trafficking and illegal activates.

 In 2008 a large Hezbollah drug smuggling and money laundering operation was dismantled in Columbia. The US Treasury Department considers the organization a major international counterfeiter of US Currency.

At the moment Nasrallah is in a particularly precarious situation in Lebanon. The country is on the verge of another civil war, the level of sectarian violence is rising, and there is open criticism of Hezbollah in the Lebanese media and from the factions in the Lebanese Government. This includes, for the first time, president Michel Suleiman. For the Lebanese government it’s getting to be a real problem to have a military force with the strength of Hezbollah’s operating inside the country with no governmental control.

From a public relations standpoint, the Lebanese, specifically the non-Shia Lebanese are very sympathetic to the Syrian opposition, they know first hand of the atrocities of the Assad regime having endured years of Syrian virtual occupation after the Civil War. Hezbollah’s support for Assad doesn’t play well in Lebanon and has led too much of the current criticism of the organization.

In just the last few months Lebanon has seen fighting between Sunni Salafist militias and Hezbollah in the northern city of Tripoli, a battle in which Lebanese Army personal were killed after being caught in the crossfire, car bombings against Hezbollah targets in their southern Beirut strongholds, attacks against Lebanese army personal at checkpoints in Bekka Valley and now the assassination of a senior Hezbollah commander outside his home. This pressure at home is coming at a time when up to 1/3 of Hezbollah’s fighting force is deployed in Syria defending the Assad regime. I would argue that Hezbollah has made the difference in the war of late, turning the tide back in favor of the regime and prolonging the misery of the Syrian people.

A misery not lost on most of the Lebanese people, particularly the Christian and Sunni factions. Also, not lost on the Saudi’s who in November told Lebanese President Michel Suleiman that if Lebanon wished to continue to enjoy the financial support of the Kingdom and get their blessings on the Marionite controlled status quo in Lebanese politics he must deploy the Lebanese army to stop Hezbollah from infiltrating into Syria, a request that would mean civil war for the Lebanese.

Given Hezbollah’s commitment to Syria they can ill afford a brutal civil war. So, when a Sunni faction in Beirut assassinated one of their commanders last month, Nasrallah was quick to blame Israel.  If there’s one-thing Arab leaders like to do when they’re having trouble in their own regimes, its blame the Jews, it’s worked since days of the Romans.

However, Nasrallah is also walking a fine line with Israelis. For the last 6 years or so the border between Israel and Lebanon has been quiet, the quietist it’s been in years. For Hezbollah this calm has given them the time they needed to rebuild their forces after the 2006 war. Now détente with Israel is even more important for Nasrallah. On the one hand he wants the Lebanese people to believe that Israel is behind every terrorist act in the country, mostly to try to suppress any thoughts that Lebanese people might have that maybe the Lebanese are killing Lebanese. He would also like to not provoke his own militia by giving them an excuse to strike at the Sunni or Christian factions.

He is also keenly aware that a war with Israel would be even more devastating for Hezbollah than a civil war, and there’s a very good chance that starting that war could ultimately lead to both, which could in fact destroy Hezbollah all together. He only needs to look back to 1982 when Israel fought a war with the PLO in Lebanon, a war where Israel essentially destroyed the PLO in southern Lebanon which creating the very power vacuum that allowed Hezbollah to come to power.

The Lebanese would be very upset at the thought of another devastating war with Israel due to Hezbollah provocations. The 2006 war was started after Hezbollah kidnapped two Israeli soldiers in order to facilitate a prisoner swap; the fighting displaced over a million Lebanese. As part of his recent PR campaign to show his concern for Lebanon Nasrallah has backed off from claiming victory in that war with quotes that had he known what the Israeli response would have been, Hezbollah would have never engaged in the operation. Clearly he sees how anti Hezbollah sentiment has been growing in Lebanon.

Where is this going?

Hezbollah’s top priority at the moment is the preservation of their ability to receive weapons and material from Iran. For this to happen Assad has to remain in power. I believe that recent Israeli raids on Syria to destroy weapons convoys from Syria to Lebanon were in fact stopping “payments” from the Assad regime to Hezbollah’s for their support in the war. The Syrians after all have some of the latest in Russian hardware; their anti-air craft systems in particular would be of great interest to Hezbollah if and when the next Iranian-Israeli proxy war breaks out.

Israel for their part will continue to monitor the movement of weapons and will strike to prevent these weapons from falling into Nasrallah’s hands. The Israeli calculus is that Assad will not retaliate against them because he can’t afford to be distracted from his top priority, surviving another day. They’re also gambling that Hezbollah is not interested in opening a second front with Israel, so far a gamble that has paid off.

Hezbollah calculus- the threat of 50,000 rockets will keep the Israelis from engaging in a significant offensive. Hezbollah will continue to poke at them rhetorically, with the occasional sniper attack across the border or rogue rocket, actions meant to maintain their position in Lebanon as the official resistance against Israel. They will continue to poke away just enough to let everyone know they’re still there, but not enough to actually provoke a real Israeli response.

As I said, nothing happens that part of world that’s not intimately tied to everything else.

Which makes me wonder why the United States has completely backed away.

That’s the next piece- The American Power Vacuum in the Middle East.


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