Apocalypse now? Maybe not


Hezbollah has been spreading word that it may soon implement an apocalyptic scenario to prevent Lebanese collaboration with the Special Tribunal for Lebanon. Will the party carry through on that threat? Everything is possible, but this would be no easy task.

The scenario, in its multiple variations, involves Hezbollah’s militarily taking over predominantly Muslim areas of Beirut or Lebanon (the different versions don’t define precisely which), place its adversaries under house arrest, then accuse them of collaborating with Israel for supporting the Special Tribunal, which Hezbollah’s secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah, has labeled an “Israeli project.” Hezbollah would also ask the Lebanese army to control mainly Christian areas and detain politicians there backing the tribunal. The end result would be a coup of sorts, followed by the formation of a pliable government.

Some point to comments by Hezbollah’s Nawwaf al-Moussawi as rationalizing such a coup. Moussawi recently declared, “[T]he period that will follow the [tribunal]indictment will not be the same as the one before, and any group in Lebanon that might endorse this indictment will be treated as one of the tools of the US-Israeli invasion, and will suffer the same fate as the invader.”

Nothing can be ruled out with Hezbollah, but there are serious problems with this scheme, if the party indeed intends to carry it out. Would such a strike come before or after indictments are issued by the tribunal? There is a big difference. If the party acts before, it would have a hard time justifying and sustaining an operation based on an as-yet-nonexistent accusation. Hezbollah would only further incriminate itself, while the army might refuse to go along.

The essential question that Hezbollah would have to answer is where Syria stands on a military putsch. The party mistrusts the Syrians, and for good reason. The priority of President Bashar al-Assad today is to reassert Syrian domination over Lebanon. While he has no desire to enter into a confrontation with Hezbollah or Iran, Assad wants Lebanon once again to be primarily a Syrian card, therefore less of an Iranian one. Assad’s alleged advice to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad that he postpone his visit to South Lebanon in October, if true, might indicate the Syrian president is delineating his territory.

Syria has made a habit of double-dealing in Lebanon. However, it seems unlikely that it would welcome a debilitating assault against Saad Hariri and the Sunni community. The Syrians have spent years bringing Hariri and the Sunnis back to their door after the assassination of Rafik Hariri. The Sunnis, in their fear and loathing of Hezbollah, have been willing to forget the past with Damascus. This has allowed Assad to play the Sunnis off against the Shia to Syria’s greater advantage. In this context it would make no sense for Assad to sign off on a Hezbollah operation that would deny Syria the valuable Sunni relationship it has carefully fostered.

There is also the fact that this time around, any military move by Hezbollah is almost certain to lead to a Sunni-Shia civil war. The Bourj Abi Haidar clash was a foreshadowing of what might happen, and there it was pro-Syrian Sunnis who were involved. The Syrians doubtless benefit from Sunni-Shia tension, and Lebanese politicians close to Damascus, most recently Walid Jumblatt, have declared that a Syrian military return to Lebanon would be welcome if sectarian conflict breaks out. However, for Syria to provoke such a conflict to bring its troops back is risky. Sunni-Shia fighting could quickly become uncontrollable, offers no guarantees that Syria will be given a green light to dispatch its soldiers, and might well spread to Syria.

Assad probably prefers, at least initially, less violent means of reasserting his authority in Lebanon. An indictment against Hezbollah offers this. Despite Damascus’ public hostility to the tribunal, once an accusation comes out, it would permit Assad to position himself between Hariri and Hezbollah, and take from each side. He would have leverage to obtain from Hezbollah key posts in the military-security apparatus the party controls and Syria seeks – command of the army, of military intelligence, of General Security, of airport security, and so forth. And once Assad gets what he wants, he can force concessions from Hariri for having saved him from Hezbollah, while pushing the prime minister (with Saudi backing) to end, or more likely hinder, Lebanese assistance to the tribunal.

Hezbollah knows that that any sectarian conflict it precipitates would only hasten a Syrian military comeback and rally the party’s domestic foes to Syria’s side. Which makes one wonder whether Jumblatt, in welcoming a new Syrian deployment in Lebanon, was not implicitly warning Hezbollah against engaging in reckless action.

If Hezbollah were to ignore these obstacles and pursue a military option against Syrian wishes, this could harm Syrian-Iranian relations. The party does not have such leeway. In the end it would be up to Iran to decide whether Hezbollah negotiates with Damascus or not. And that is why the timing of any Hezbollah move is essential. Once an indictment is out, talks would begin over how to save Hezbollah. The party’s ability to go for its guns might evaporate as its fate swiftly falls into the hands of Damascus and Tehran.

If Tehran were to receive guarantees from Syria that Hezbollah’s weapons arsenal would be preserved, and that Tehran’s deterrent power in southern Lebanon would remain intact (guarantees that Assad would gladly offer), the Iranians could perhaps approve a package deal obliging Hezbollah to surrender some power to Damascus. That is what Nasrallah fears the most, but he may be the prisoner of a trap he cannot escape – a trap the Syrians helped set.

Michael Young’s columns

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