The following is a summary of an interview with Michael Herzog on recent events in the region. To hear the interview in full click here.
What is the significance of the assassination in Lebanon of the country’s intelligence chief, Brig. Gen. Wissam al-Hassan andthe internal response to it?
The assassination is very significant. Al-Hassan was the head of internal security, a well-known figure in Lebanon and an open affiliate to anti-Syrian groups. He was close to the former-prime minister, Saad Hariri, and led part of the investigation behind the assassination of Saad Hariri’s father, Rafik. Al-Hassan also directed the indictment of Hezbollah activists involved in the assassination. More recently, he exposed a plot by a Lebanese pro-Syrian politician and former Information Minister Michel Samaha, who was detained at his summer residence in August, accused of having explosives and making plans to target Sunni leaders supporting the opposition in Syria. Many Lebanese believe the killing of al-Hassan’s is revenge for this, orchestrated by Syrians, possibly with the help of Hezbollah.
The attack is also part of the ‘spill over’ from the 18 month civil war in Syria. Lebanon is split along sectarian lines with most of Lebanon’s Sunni and Christian communities supporting anti-Assad force and Lebanon’s Shia community, led by Hezbollah, predominately supporting the Assad regime. Originally violence related to Syria in Lebanon was isolated to the northern city of Tripoli where a small Alawite community lives within a majority Sunni city. However, the recent assassination of al-Hassan was in Beirut and this is very significant.
How do you see the situation developing in Lebanon?
The situation could rapidly deteriorate. Lebanon went through a bloody civil war between 1975 and 1990 and the Lebanese people are deeply scarred and scared of the prospect of another upheaval. However, the events in Syria have stirred lingering tensions in Lebanon, which could lead to political paralyses, or worse, sectarian violence. Lebanon’s Prime Minister, Najib Mikati, offered to resign after the assassination of al-Hassan. He remains in office for now but the opposition are still calling for him to quit. Also, if Assad were to fall, which would be a serious blow to Hezbollah, anti-Hezbollah forces in Lebanon may put their heads above the parapet, increasing instability inside the country.
Israeli policy makers will also be looking carefully at the situation in both Syria and Lebanon, what do you think will be their main concerns?
Israeli policy-makers have decided on a ‘wait and see’ approach and are not getting directly involved in any way, and for good reason. However Israel is putting in place contingency measures for various scenarios. For example, if Assad’s chemical weapons fall into the hands of jihadists, or Hezbollah, Israel could intervene militarily to prevent the handover. Second, Israel is preparing for a scenario in which Assad might, if he knows he is about to lose power, provoke Israel in a Samson-like act. Third, Israel is preparing for the possibility that jihadist groups who are fighting Syrian regime forces in the Syrian controlled part of the Golan Heights, might provoke an incident with Israel along the border. Fourth, Israel is also preparing for Syrian refugees trying to cross the border into Israel. None have tried yet, but if the situation gets worst some may try to cross the Golan Heights.
As far as Lebanon is concerned, Hezbollah is not interesting in a major confrontation, as they are under pressure both externally and internally. Nevertheless the situation between Israel and Hezbollah could quickly escalate. For example, if there is an attack on Iran, from the US or Israel, Iran will probably activate Hezbollah to target Israel. The transfer of chemical weapons, as mentioned above, could also trigger a confrontation.
What are the most serious threats to wider regional stability from the conflict in Syria?
There is certainly ‘spill over’ from Syria into Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, Iraq (to some extent) and, in the future, potentially Israel. There are over 180,000 refugees in Jordan, 100,000 in Turkey and tens of thousands in each of Iraq and Lebanon and this sends waves of instability across the border.
The issue I would pay special attention to is Jordan, which is very fragile. Jordan has had its own share of unrest as part of the Arab Spring and due to an economic crisis, corruption and the slow pace of political reform. The conflict in Syria exacerbates the economic crisis in Jordan, first because of the number of refugees, and second because over 50 per cent of Jordan’s external trade before the uprising went through its northern neighbour Syria. Events in the Hashemite Kingdom should be followed very carefully, because if Jordan is destabilised this would pose a very serious problem for Israel and the West.
In your BICOM paper, Syria: How to advance transition to a post-Assad future, you talked about the need for a determined international effort to selectively arm rebel-groups, to help them in their fight against the Assad regime. Would your recommendation, four months on, be the same?
Yes. The situation in Syria is escalating into a civil war along sectarian lines. The longer it continues the more innocent civilians will be killed, and the more radicalised and Islamised the crisis will become. The conflict is attracting global jihadist forces like a magnet, and they are already playing an increasing role in the opposition. Without a resolution soon it will become increasingly difficult to fix the situation the day after Assad falls and maintain a unified Syria with liberal-minded elements in control. It is still not too late to change course, but the international community should be more proactive in providing military assistance and other types of equipment to selected rebel groups. The US and the West should help strengthen those elements they want to strengthen, before others step into the vacuum.
Turning to Israel’s southern border, rocket fire from armed extremists in Gaza seems to be happening more frequently. Are we seeing a decline of Israeli deterrence, and is there a risk of the situation getting worst?
There is some erosion of Israeli deterrence, but this is to be expected the further on we get from Operation Cast Lead (which ended in January 2009). That being said, it is important to understand what is causing the escalation. In Gaza today there are more Jihadi groups, who are not just a strategic headache for Israel but also for Hamas. Jihadi groups do not see themselves as being bound by the ceasefire with Israel. They co-operate with jihadi groups in Sinai and challenge Israel militarily wherever possible. When Israel responds, Hamas is caught in a dilemma. Hamas still advocates violent Jihad against Israel, but as the de-facto governing body in Gaza it has responsibilities of government and does not want to risk a major escalation. Hamas, therefore, tries to influence the jihadi groups not to escalate the situation, whilst not rigorously enforcing the ceasefire on them. In some instances Hamas has joined in the rocket fire and assumed public responsibility, to show that they are also part of the ‘resistance’ against Israel. This is an extremely dangerous situation, as no one controls these jihadi groups, and Israel is bound to respond to terror attacks. I don’t think Hamas seeks an escalation and Israel certainly does not, but these tit for tat exchanges can spiral unexpectedly, making the situation very dangerous.
To listen to the podcast click here.