- An attempt by the Lebanese government last week to rein in Hezbollah triggered the worst sectarian violence on the streets of Beirut since the 1975-1990 civil war. At least 27 people were killed in four days of fighting, after which the government backed down. (Subsequent reports indicate 44 have been killed and 128 wounded in Beirut and other areas since last Wednesday.) The Iranian-led regional bloc, in which Hezbollah is a key player, scored a significant victory.
- Events highlighted the limits of Hezbollah’s present ambitions as much as the extent of its military capacity. For the time being, Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah has no appetite to oust the western-backed regime headed by Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, as long as it does not make further attempts to interfere with Hezbollah’s military infrastructure.
- As well as being a terror group, it is important to recall that Hezbollah is the authentic representative of Lebanese Shiites, which form the largest ethnic community in Lebanon. As such, Nasrallah has calculated that his interests are best served by exploiting the weak democratic institutions of a Lebanon that is mired in political and social discord, in order to act independently as ‘a state within a state’.
- Hezbollah’s undermining of Lebanese sovereignty, growing military and operational capacity, and determination to spread radical Iranian ideology is deeply troubling for moderate Arab states in the region. Iranian domination of the Levant would take those fears to unprecedented levels.
Aside from the tragic loss of innocent life resulting from the sectarian fighting which broke out, the events in Beirut last week highlight the nature of Hezbollah’s grip on power in Lebanon. Lebanon has been characterised by political stagnation since November 2006 (when six pro-Syrian ministers quit the cabinet) and the presidential crisis persists.[i] The violence embroiled Beirut in the worst hostility since the civil war and waned after four days only because the Lebanese army rescinded two government resolutions intended to weaken Hezbollah’s military infrastructure. Hezbollah made clear that it would not accept having its autonomy diminished. Its actions represented a victory for the Iran-led regional bloc and are a source of consternation for moderate Sunni Arab states.[ii] Short term ramifications may prove to be low key, but Hezbollah’s growing confidence presents a long term regional threat. This briefing examines the context in which events erupted in bloodshed last week, and stresses Lebanon’s strategic importance in light of current developments.
The context of factional fighting
The fresh outbreak of violence which began on 7 May took Lebanon one step closer to the widely predicted return to civil war. According to security sources, 44 people were killed and 128 wounded since last Wednesday.[iii] Following a government attempt to rein in Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah’s terror organisation, Hezbollah militants used machine guns, RPGs, mortars and sniper fire to seize rival strongholds in mixed Sunni-Shiite neighbourhoods of Beirut.[iv] Druse leader Walid Jumblatt and other pro-western coalition leaders, including Saad al-Hariri, son of the assassinated former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri and present leader of the Sunni faction’s Future Movement, and incumbent Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, required heavy personal protection as militants closed in on West Beirut. Hezbollah’s military supremacy in Lebanon, well-documented even prior to these events, was conclusively reaffirmed.
The fighting was triggered by two Lebanese cabinet resolutions with which Hezbollah was at odds. The first was to close down Hezbollah’s military telecommunications network, which was deemed a threat to state security. Notably, the pro-government al-Mustaqbal newspaper and other local press reported a link-up with Syria’s communications systems, enabling Syrian intelligence to operate freely in Lebanon.[v] The second was to dismiss the security chief of Beirut international airport, Major General Wafiq Shukeir, who has close ties to Hezbollah. He was accused of spying for them and assisting with weapons transfers.[vi] Whilst scenes on the ground of fighters destroying cars and buildings may have seemed anarchic, Michael Young of the Lebanese Daily Star asserted that blocking the airport road was a calculated plan by Hezbollah to reverse the Shiite security chief’s expulsion.[vii] Aggression diminished only after Prime Minister Siniora handed over the decision on both matters to the army, which refrained from involving itself directly in the fighting, and abruptly revoked the rulings in order to restore relative calm.[viii]
Hezbollah’s red lines revealed
On the surface, it may seem puzzling that Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah risked further alienating himself through the actions he ordered. Hezbollah was accused by the March 14 coalition leadership,[ix] the religious head of the Sunni community Grand Mufti Mohammed Rashid Qabbani, Lebanese media and major Arab states, of staging a coup d’état.[x] Yet whilst Nasrallah has been committed to undermining the pro-western Siniora administration since its inception, last week’s events highlight the limits of his present ambitions as much as the extent of Hezbollah’s military capacity. For the time being, Nasrallah has no appetite to usher Hezbollah into power by force. He is content to allow a relatively weak leadership, being propped up by the west, to manage the affairs of state, on the proviso that it does not interfere with his organisation.[xi]
The flipside of Hezbollah’s power is the relative stranglehold in which the Lebanese government is situated vis-à-vis this terror organisation. The March 14 coalition’s decision to act against Hezbollah at this juncture was all but required of it due to concerns that Hezbollah is planning attacks – to be launched imminently against Israeli targets – as retribution for the assassination in February of their deputy commander, Imad Mughniyeh.[xii] It is of little significance that no evidence has been presented which links Israel with the killing; the Lebanese government is keen to avoid another round of conflict between Israel and Hezbollah on its soil, as occurred in the July 2006 Second Lebanon War. This scenario would almost inevitably follow renewed Hezbollah belligerence against Israel.
Hezbollah, on the other hand, is unwilling to accept a subservient role in Lebanon in which its military infrastructure is constrained. It reserves the right to go to war with Israel at a moment of its choosing, as per the model of ‘resistance’ in which it was conceived, and for this it seeks to maintain utmost flexibility, strong intelligence, and intact military communications. As such, the Lebanese government’s resolutions, which may have appeared relatively innocuous to a casual observer, crossed red lines for the Hezbollah chief.[xiii] They instigated him to make a rare press statement from a secret location, despatched by videolink, in which he castigated the Siniora government for “declaring war” on his group on the behalf of Israel and the US.[xiv]
Hezbollah’s security chief Wafiq Safa and the party’s international relations official Nawaf Moussawi reportedly stated that “anyone who touches the [communications] network would be treated the same way we treat the Zionist enemy.”[xv] Nasrallah proclaimed, “Those who try to arrest us, we will arrest them. Those who shoot at us, we will shoot at them. The hand raised against us, we will cut it off.”[xvi] As subsequent aggression showed, Nasrallah was willing to enter into a civil war in order to protect Hezbollah’s autonomy as ‘a state within a state’.[xvii]
Strategic fallout: a victory for the Iran-led bloc
Although the situation still remains very fluid, it is unlikely that the short term fallout will be all that far-reaching. For its part, Israel has been observing developments in Lebanon very closely since the war almost two years ago. Its defence establishment is acutely aware of Iran’s increasing influence along its southern and northern borders, through Hamas and Hezbollah respectively, and the reality of prospective conflict on both fronts at some point in the future. Israeli intelligence shows that Hezbollah’s rocket supply has tripled and that arms have flowed in continuously across the Syrian border since the 2006 war.[xviii] Contrasted against just light weapons supplied by the US to the Lebanese government (largely because of Israeli concerns that military hardware would fall into Hezbollah’s arsenal), last week’s show of strength was of no real surprise. Aside from some precautionary IDF realignments in northern Israel in the face of a volatile situation across the border, Israel is unlikely to take further action at present. However, briefly looking at Hezbollah’s position within Lebanese society, and its broader Iranian- and Syrian-sponsored agenda, reflects more complex long run concerns for Israel, moderate Arab states, and the international community, for which there are no straightforward solutions.
Israel’s veteran international affairs correspondent and author, Pinhas Inbari, argues that Lebanon can be considered to encapsulate perhaps the most significant existential threat facing the Arab world today: ‘resistance’ (muqawama) to the foundations of normal statehood, in which Lebanon essentially serves as a tool for achieving Hezbollah’s radical Islamist ends.[xix] Nasrallah’s disinclination to oust the coalition government last week should not be interpreted as any less of a desire on his part to acquire more political power in the long run. It is important to recall that, in parallel to providing consent for terror activities, Nasrallah leads a political opposition party with deep roots in the Shiite community. As Professor Eyal Zisser, a Lebanon expert at Tel Aviv University, explains, Shiites comprise almost half of Lebanon’s population and depend heavily on Hezbollah for welfare services, from schooling to pension funds. Hezbollah is the public face of many Shiites who feel discriminated against by the political establishment, an anti-Syrian alliance of Maronites, Sunnis and Druze, who coalesced in the spring 2005 Cedar Revolution (or ‘Independence Uprising’) in order to stave off Shiite domination following Syria’s formal retreat from the country. In short, Hezbollah is the authentic representative of the largest ethnic community in Lebanon.[xx] As such, Nasrallah has calculated that he can best serve his own (as well as Iran’s and, to a lesser extent, Syria’s) interests by exploiting the brittle democratic institutions of a weak Lebanon to achieve power encroachingly and as the country’s demographic balance continues to drift in his favour. This is the context in which he has repeatedly called for early parliamentary elections.[xxi]
In the broadest analysis, Hezbollah’s victory in Beirut represented a milestone for Iran in its active pursuit of regional hegemony and defiance of western demands. Whilst Syria is keen for the constitutional gridlock preventing the appointment of a new president to continue, Iran is providing weapons and investing heavily in bolstering Hezbollah as part of a game plan which is not intended to further destabilise Lebanon at this time. Furthermore, it is often overlooked that Iran does not monopolise radical influence in Lebanon: it is increasingly being exploited by various jihadist groups of both Shi’a and Sunni descent, not least because the government has western backing, UNIFIL troops are stationed in the south and, as defence experts point out, from a jihadist perspective, it is a handy “staging ground to the Palestinian and European theatres.”[xxii] Leading Arab states, most importantly Egypt and Saudi Arabia, used an emergency meeting of the Arab League in Cairo on Sunday to express concern about the growth of Iranian and other radical influences in Lebanon. The bottom line is that Hezbollah’s growing capacity, manoeuvrability, and confidence to spread Iranian ideology within the weak shell of an Arab state is deeply troubling for them. Iranian domination in Lebanon would take such fears to unprecedented levels.
[i] The country has been unable to appoint a new president since Emile Lahoud’s term expired almost six months ago. There is agreement in principle on the appointment of army commander Michel Suleiman to replace him, though his appointment has been repeatedly postponed for nearly 18 months. As of March, speaker Nabih Berri had cancelled more than a dozen parliamentary sessions to elect a new president. See, for instance, ‘Shaping Lebanon’s Future’, Bilal Y. Saab, Saban Center for Middle East Policy, Brookings Institution, 19 March 2008. www.brookings.edu ; ‘Gloves off in Lebanon’, Economist Intelligence Unit, 9 May 2008. www.economist.com; ‘Lebanese gov’t bends to Hezbollah demands’, Yoav Stern and Barak Ravid, Haaretz, 11 May 2008.
[ii] Israel’s President Shimon Peres observed, “It is a new chapter of the battle led by Iran to control all of the Middle East.” ‘Israel accuses Iran of igniting violence in Lebanon’, Now Lebanon, 9 May 2008. www.nowlebanon.com
[iii] Lebanese clashes shift to mountains’, Nada Bakri, International Herald Tribune, 12 May 2008.
[iv] ‘Lebanese gov’t bends to Hezbollah demands’, Yoav Stern and Barak Ravid, Haaretz, 11 May 2008; ‘With 18 dead thus far, leaders call for unlikely dialogue’, Now Lebanon, 10 May 2008. www.nowlebanon.com
[v] ‘Syria’s Intelligence Operates Through Hizbullah Lebanon Communications’, Naharnet, 6 May 2008. www.naharnet.com
[vi] Walid Jumblatt accused Shukeir of providing sensitive information about pro-government politicians and foreign dignitaries to terrorists and collaborating with Iran’s supply of weapons to Hezbollah via the terminal. ‘Lebanon tensions rise in clash with Hezbollah’, Yoav Stern and Avi Issacharoff, Haaretz, 9 May 2008.
[vii] ‘Heading toward a Lebanese divorce’, Michael Young, Lebanon Daily Star, 8 May 2008. www.dailystar.com
[viii] Further violence has since spread to the Chouf Mountains and the northern city of Tripoli. ‘Lebanese clashes shift to mountains’, Nada Bakri, International Herald Tribune, 12 May 2008.
[ix] The March 14 movement is named after the date of the Cedar Revolution marking demonstrations – the largest in Lebanese history – which followed former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri’s assassination on 14 February 2005. Its membership consists of anti-Syrian members of the Lebanese majority coalition.
[x] As an online Lebanese editorial put it in the aftermath, “Let us be under no illusions: this is a coup d’&eac
te;tat, and Hezbollah has shown its true colors.” ‘The new rules of the game’, Now Lebanon, 9 May 2008. www.nowlebanon.com; ‘Mufti Qabbani fears civil disobedience’, Lebanon Now, 10 May 2008. www.nowlebanon.com; ‘Lebanon prime minister accuses Hezbollah of staging coup’, Haaretz, 10 May 2008. www.haaretz.com; ‘Arabs hold crisis talks on Hezbollah ‘coup’ in Beirut’, Uzi Mahnaimi, The Sunday Times, 11 May 2008. www.timesonline.co.uk
[xi] ‘Analysis: The question of power’, Jonathan Spyer, The Jerusalem Post, 10 May 2008. www.jpost.com
[xii] ‘Gloves off in Lebanon’, Economist Intelligence Unit, 9 May 2008. www.economist.com
[xiii] ‘Analysis: The question of power’, Jonathan Spyer, The Jerusalem Post, 10 May 2008. www.jpost.com
[xiv] ‘Hizbollah ‘ready for war’ in Lebanon’, Damien McElroy, Daily Telegraph, 9 May 2008. www.telegraph.co.uk
[xv] Syria’s Intelligence Operates Through Hizbullah Lebanon Communications’, Naharnet, 6 May 2008. www.naharnet.com
[xvi] ‘Lebanon tensions rise in clash with Hezbollah’, Yoav Stern and Avi Issacharoff, Haaretz, 9 May 2008.
[xvii] Hezbollah’s is politically, militarily and economically disaggregated from the rest of Lebanon. It participates in the democratic process to the extent that it can further its own power ambitions, but executes separate policies and makes independent decisions which undermine Lebanese sovereignty. See ‘Hezbollah’s Endgame?’, Lee Smith, Middle East Journal, 8 May 2008. www.michaeltotten.com
[xviii] ‘Not only Lebanon’s problem’, Amos Harel and Avi Issacharoff, Haaretz, 11 May 2008.
[xix] ‘The Arab World’s Political Dilemma: Between Islamic “Resistance” and the Western State System’, Pinhas Inbari, Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, Vol. 6., No. 17, 17-18 January 2007. www.jcpa.org
[xx] Eyal Zisser (2007, ‘The Battle for Lebanon: Lebanon and Syria in the Wake of the War’, in S. Brom and M. Elran (eds), The Second Lebanon War: Strategic Perspectives (Tel Aviv: Institute for National Security Studies).
[xxi] See, for instance, Arab Election Watch www.intekhabat.org
[xxii] For current analysis, see ‘What Ayman al-Zawahri’s Words Really Mean for Lebanon and the ‘War on Terror”, Bilal Y. Saab and Magnus Ranstorp, Saban Center for Middle East Policy, Brookings Institution, 5 May 2008. www.brookings.edu