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Lebanon: Hizbollah’s Weapons Turn Inward
Lebanon: Hizbollah’s Weapons Turn Inward
Table of Contents
  1. Overview
Keep the Calm in Lebanon
Keep the Calm in Lebanon

Lebanon: Hizbollah’s Weapons Turn Inward

Hizbollah’s takeover of much of West Beirut began as a cost-of-living strike on 7 May 2008. Yet the course of events, their speed and ultimately violent turn exposed the true stakes.

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I. Overview

I.overview

Hizbollah’s takeover of much of West Beirut began as a cost-of-living strike on 7 May 2008. Yet the course of events, their speed and ultimately violent turn exposed the true stakes. For almost four years, Lebanon has been in a crisis alternatively revolving around the government’s composition, its program, the international tribunal investigating Rafiq al-Hariri’s assassination, the choice of a new president and the electoral law. All attempts at peaceful resolution having failed, it has reverted, more dangerously than ever, to its origins: an existential struggle over Hizbollah’s arms. The government’s 14 May decision to reverse the measures – removal of the airport security chief and questioning Hizbollah’s parallel telephone system, a key part of its military apparatus, precipitated the crisis – is welcome as is the Arab League-mediated solu­tion. The onus is now on all Lebanese parties to agree a package deal that breaks the political logjam and restricts how Hizbollah can use its military strength without disarming it for now.

No party can truly win in this increasingly volatile lose-lose confrontation. Hizbollah clearly prevailed in the military showdown, demonstrating its ability to overrun any opponent. Politically, however, the balance sheet is far different. Outside its own constituency, it is seen more than ever as a Shiite militia brutally defending its parochial interests rather than those of a self-proclaimed national resistance. The blatantly confessional aspect of the struggle has deepened the sectarian divide, something the Shiite movement long sought to avoid. Hizbollah’s principal Christian ally, General Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement, appears deeply embarrassed. Although Lebanon’s intense polarisation might enable him to retain most of his followers in the short term, over time his alliance with Hizbollah will become ever more difficult to justify. The government has remained in place and will be able to continue rallying domestic and international support.

But the principal Sunni party, Saad al-Hariri’s Future Movement, has equal reason to worry. The March 14 coalition was forced to back down and revoke its controversial measures. The Sunni community is bewildered, stunned by its inability to resist Hizbollah’s three-day takeover and angry at a leadership accused of letting it down. Pressure on the heads of the Future Movement to bolster its military capacity will grow; simultaneously, some militants will be drawn to more radical, possibly jihadi movements. Its other allies, notably Walid Jumblatt, the Druze leader, appear demoralised and defeated. The army, too, has been dam­aged, unable to restrain the opposition and harshly criticised by the ruling March 14 coalition as well as many ordinary Sunnis. The risks of an escalating sectarian conflict are real and dangerous.

By withdrawing its decisions, the government has helped calm the situation. But a threshold has been crossed, and it will be very hard to turn back the clock. To minimise the risks of a more dangerous conflagration, renewed efforts pursuant to the Arab League agreement are needed to settle on a new president and national unity government that accepts for now Hizbollah’s armed status while strictly constraining the ways in which its weapons can be used. In the longer term, stability will require that third parties cease using Lebanon as the arena for their fierce regional and international competition and, just as importantly, that Lebanese political leaders cease enabling such costly interference.

Beirut/Brussels, 15 May 2008

Keep the Calm in Lebanon

Originally published in The American Prospect

The Israel-Lebanon border has been relatively quiet for the past 13 years. The latest tit-for-tat threatens the balance.

The Middle East has yet another flashpoint: On Sunday, the Lebanese Hezbollah and Israel traded fire over what had been a mostly quiet border since the 2006 war between them. The clashes came exactly a week after a drone attack in Beirut, which was widely attributed to Israel. The two incidents have brought the two sides closer to the brink of an open conflict. While neither Hezbollah nor Israel appear to want war right now, they may be only one miscalculation or technical error away from an escalatory spiral spinning out of control.

Two things are needed to prevent the inadvertent breakout of all-out war: a return to the type of mutual deterrence that has kept the Israel-Lebanon border relatively calm for the past 13 years, and a lessening of tensions in the standoff between the U.S. and Iran.

The attack must also be seen in the context of recent attacks against Iran-aligned paramilitary groups in Iraq likewise attributed to Israel.

What exactly was attacked in the southern suburb of Beirut in the early hours of August 25 has yet to be officially established, but many reports identify the target as technical equipment related to Hezbollah's alleged precision-guided missile program, which Israel has vowed to abort. Yet the attack must also be seen in the context of recent attacks against Iran-aligned paramilitary groups in Iraq likewise attributed to Israel, the latest of which occurred on the same day as the Beirut blast, and Israel’s long-standing and increasingly open military campaign against the Iranian presence in Syria, where it attacked two days before. Immediately after the latest strike near Damascus, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared that “Iran has no immunity anywhere,” and that “our forces operate in every sector against the Iranian aggression.”

Until the drone attack on August 25, Lebanon was a place where Tehran appeared to enjoy just such immunity, thanks to the deterrence created by the missile arsenal and military capabilities of its most potent regional ally, Hezbollah. For its part, the Shia movement had responded to the increasingly threatening Israeli rhetoric directed at its precision-guided missile program by vowing proportional retaliation to any Israeli attack. Indeed, hours after the drone attack, Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah declared in a speech that the movement's response “may take place at any time on the border and beyond the border.”

Hezbollah was in a bind: Retaliation in kind carries the risk of provoking an even more substantial Israeli response, which in turn could set off an uncontrollable escalation leading to war. This would be devastating for Lebanon, even if the consequences for Israel may also be grave. But refraining from retaliation would reveal Hezbollah's deterrence posture to be a hollow threat, inviting further and more substantial Israeli attacks that may eventually force Hezbollah to choose between submission or war.

Hezbollah's attack on Sunday afternoon, which targeted Israeli military vehicles right across the border, may have been exactly the “calculated strike” that statements attributed to sources inside the movement predicted as the most likely response—one that stays below a threshold that would compel Israel to hit back, while still being substantial enough to reestablish deterrence.

This time round, it looks like the formula has worked. After initial reports of Israeli casualties, official statements asserted that there were none. Israeli media reported that what appeared as the evacuation of a wounded soldier in videos circulating on social media was indeed a staged rescue operation meant to trick Hezbollah into believing they had scored big, and pulling back their launching squad. Either way, neither Hezbollah nor Israel appeared keen on taking the skirmish any further.

Yet the problem with such calculations is that tit-for-tats with missiles and drones are not an exact science. They are far closer to a game of chicken in which he who blinks first loses face, and both find themselves in a war they claim not to seek if neither blinks. And even the best-calibrated operation may go awry through technical error. For instance, if a missile aimed at destroying a military installation were to veer off course and hit a school instead, all bets would be off, and a massive Israeli counterstrike almost certain.

A tacit understanding [...] whereby Hezbollah considers the case settled and Israel desists from further attacks, may allow both sides to return to the status quo, which has preserved the peace on the border for the past 13 years.

Ever since the 2006 war, Israel and Hezbollah have been watching each other closely and preparing for a next round they hope will never come, while carefully avoiding any move that could transform their limited altercations into outright armed conflict. That caution has now given way to brinkmanship, as both sides are engaging in dangerous acrobatics, framed as deterrence, which push them toward the precipice of war. Their respective external allies, the U.S. and Iran, need to step in to prevent a further escalation that would serve nobody. A tacit understanding, perhaps communicated by a third country with links to both sides (Russia comes to mind), whereby Hezbollah considers the case settled and Israel desists from further attacks, may allow both sides to return to the status quo, which has preserved the peace on the border for the past 13 years.

Yet while last weekend's skirmish may have been contained successfully, it is but the latest flare-up in the larger conflict between the U.S. and Iran. Rather than stoking fires in the Gulf, Yemen, Iraq and now Lebanon all at the same time, Washington and Tehran should return to the negotiating table to help calm an unstable region that is coming increasingly unstuck.