Thursday, January 20, 2011

Hezbollah’s Gambit in Lebanon

The Shi’ite Lebanese “Party of God” Hezbollah, may be threading on the most fateful path in its thirty year history. On the face of the present situation, it may seem that Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah is calling all the shots in Lebanon, but events may turn out quite different as he planned. At the moment, with Hezbollah seemingly at the heights of its greatest power, the future facing it could also unveil its most glaring weaknesses.

And it already happened five years ago, when on his orders, in July 2006 Hezbollah triggered what turned out to be a disaster for Lebanon and the Shi’ite “hybrid’ guerilla army. The Mullah’s in Tehran were visibly unhappy, with all their huge investments in arming, what they planned to be their forward defense against Israel, went up in flames within hours.
No wonder, that Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad delivered Nasrallah a public slap in the face, when during his high-profile visit to Beirut he intentionally ignored meeting the Hezbollah leader in his subterranean bunker hideout.

Nasrallan meeting with Iran's president Ahmedinijad in Tehran

All this does not diminish the dangers lurking for Lebanon and the entire region, emerging from Nasrallah’s present gambit. Few dispute Hezbollah’s prowess in the dangerous standoff, which he created. The Lebanese in Beirut only remember too vividly how, in just a few days of fighting in May 2008, Hezbollah armed militias seized part of the capital and were then on the verge to take over most of the nation’s power sites.

The present situation holds tremendous challenges for all involved – not only in Lebanon itself. Should heightened tension escalate into a civil war, between Shi’ite, Sunnies and Christians, it might engulf the region into a much wider conflict, perhaps another war with Israel, from which the Lebanese people and foremost the Shi’ites – Nasrallah’s main supporters – will suffer. There are fears that Hezbollah may try to divert the Lebanese public’s attention from the international tribunal’s Hariri assassination findings, by prompting a flare-up on the northern border. Experience shows that such tensions may lead to an all-out conformation, even if the sides are not interested in one. At this stage, however, Hezbollah seems to avoid such confrontation, but this may change – if coming under internal pressure in Lebanon, or even within its own ranks, Hezbollah will feel threatened.

It is little known, that not all Lebanese Shi’ites actually do support Hezbollah. The poorest segment of the four million Lebanese people, have always bore the brunt of Hezbollah’s wars with Israel: Hundreds of thousands of South Lebanese are still displaced, close to 900 died in the last war, and scores more remain crippled and homeless. No wonder then, that these miserable have little to gain from another war with Israel. Moreover, among the Arab Shi’ites in Lebanon, as in Iraq, there is significant religious dislike against the growing extension of Iran’s foreign policy, using the Lebanese Arab Shia as an instrument of its foreign policy, in Persia’s quest for its Shi’ite regional dominance. Thus, while Lebanese Shi’ites support for Hezbollah is firstly in local interest, it does not necessarily translate into its allegiance to, or unequivocal support for a Persian shia Iran.

As for the immediate developments, Nasrallah’s strategic skills prove, no doubt, quite remarkable. As the political arena inside Lebanon indicates, Hezbollah has distinct chance to gain a majority in coalition with Christian Free Patriotic Movement led by former President Michel Aoun’s and Druze Progressive Socialist Party (led by Walid Jumbalatt) and, perhaps some smaller parties jumping on the bandwagon.

If this happens there could be a following potential development: Hezbollah will form a government and become involved, becoming a politically, local-oriented Lebanese patriot. This could bring about a similar development like the one already creating in Shia-ruled, post-US Iraq. It might even work in Lebanon, if Nasrallah will keep a low profile – avoiding a religious clash with the various sectarian groups.

But such a move would also become a serious backlash to Tehran’s investments, forwarding its ‘Shi’ite Crescent’ strategy, as both Iraq and Lebanon Shi’ites are Arabs and not Persian Shia. Hezbollah’s shift, from being Tehran’s loyal vassal, enhancing local political interest, against Tehran’s, will no doubt anger the Persian Mullahs, who may fear losing their strategic forward base, no longer under their full control. It might also encourage a policy shift in Damascus, towards the Sunni supporting west. With Iran’s waning power in Lebanon, Bashar Assad could hope to regain some influence in Lebanese politics, in the “new” administration.

However, the big question remains – how Saudi Arabia, the guardian of the Sunni Muslims, including Hashemite Jordan and Egypt, the Gulf States and perhaps even Sunni Turkey will handle the new situation. The extent of the Sunni concern over an Iran-sponsored political take-over by Hezbollah was already evident in 2008. WikiLeaks mentions a Riyadh meeting in May 2008 between US ambassador David Satterfield and Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal, saying that a “security response” was needed to the “military challenge”, then posed to Beirut by the Iran-backed militants. The Saudi prince feared a Hezbollah victory against the Lebanese government, led by then-Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, would eventually lead to Tehran’s takeover of Lebanon.

A high ranking Iranian visit in Damascus, 2008.

An interesting segment in any new developments in the Levant, might center in Damascus’ reorientation – with a possible move towards the Sunni leadership in Riyhadh. First signs of such a move became public through secret documents revealed by WikiLeaks, published in December 2009. The U.S. Embassy in Damascus then wrote a cable summing up the visits to Damascus, that month, of Iranian National Security Adviser Sae’ed Jalili, Vice President and Environmental Department chief Mahammed-Javad Mahamadzideh, and Defense Minister Ahmad Ali Vahidi. Being confronted with the demand to support any move against Israel, should the “Northern Front” escalate again, Damascus told the Iranians in response, not to expect Syria, or Hamas to take part in this war. In a moment of understatement, Iran’s reaction was reported as: “The Iranians, on their part, were not so pleased with the response”. It looks like Israel’s alleged attack on Syria’s nuclear facility in 2007 sent a strong message – one that was actually clearly received.

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