Update from AIJAC
February 28, 2007
Number 02/07 #12
This Update contains three articles assessing the ongoing crisis in Lebanon, with Hezbollah and its backers still trying to overthrow the government of Fouad Siniora.
The first entry comes from two Lebanese democracy advocates, Lokman Slim and Inga Schei, who write that Hezbollah is consolidating power in various ways. It points out that the organisation is successfully making the crisis about power sharing rather than its original focus, efforts to scuttle the UN tribunal into the murder of former PM Rafiq Hariri which is expected to implicate the Syrian government. Moreover, it is consolidating its authority over the Shi’ite community, and is building up a whole new territorial empire in southern Beirut and rapidly rebuilding its arsenal. For this inside analysis of the reality of the Lebanese power struggle, CLICK HERE.
Out next entry is an editorial from the London Times, which focuses especially on one element of Hezbollah’s power play, an effort to buy up a whole swathe of land across southern Lebanon and create a new “Hezbollah-stan” just to the north of the UNIFIL forces in the south. The Times points out that this swathe, being termed a new “Maginot line”, is probably intended to be the base from which Hezbollah launches its next war against Israel at such time as the Iranian sponsors of Hezbollah find it convenient. For the paper’s warning about this renewed Hezbollah threat, CLICK HERE.
Finally, David Schenker, the expert on Syria and Lebanon from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, looks at the efforts by outside parties, especially Saudi Arabia and Iran, to mediate an end to the Lebanese political standoff. He says that one possible scenario seems to be a deal to smooth things over at Syria’s expense – Hezbollah being given a role in government in exchange for the Hariri tribunal going ahead. For this knowledgeable analysis of the international political manoeuvrings, CLICK HERE.
By Lokman Slim & Inga Schei
National Review, February 26, 2007, 7:00 a.m.
While last summer’s hostilities between Israel and Hezbollah ended on August 14 with U.N. Security Council Resolution 1701, the struggle for Lebanon did not. In the five months since the ceasefire’s implementation, the pro-Iranian Islamist organization has launched a furious offensive to harness its postwar gains.
Though the Israeli army’s 34-day operation ravaged Lebanon’s landscape and put a dent in Hezbollah’s arsenal, the group’s mobilization efforts and propaganda machine never missed a beat. No sooner had the fighting ended did Hezbollah begin dispensing cash to bolster its constituency and rebuild damaged infrastructure.
On September 21, three days after the Winograd Commission began investigating the Israeli leadership’s war effort, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah declared a “divine and strategic victory” over the Jewish state. Speaking in bombed-out south Beirut, an emboldened Nasrallah proclaimed his opposition to be “stronger than ever.”
With one enemy down, Hezbollah set its sights on another: the anti-Syrian March 14th forces and the U.S.-backed government of Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora. As Israeli forces evacuated southern Lebanon on October 1, Hezbollah grew more brazen. Determined to prevent Lebanon’s return to the status-quo ante, the Party of God demanded a number of political concessions: veto power in the cabinet, the resignation of Siniora’s government, the adoption of a new electoral law, and early elections.
When a national dialogue failed to address its demands, Hezbollah’s campaign escalated. On November 11, six pro-Syrian ministers, among them five Shia, resigned from the cabinet and left the government on the brink of collapse. On December 1, the group’s efforts intensified with an open-ended sit-in in downtown Beirut. On January 23, 2007, the crisis reached a crescendo when a Hezbollah-led strike paralyzed the country and resulted in deadly clashes. In his own words, Nasrallah has depicted this clash with the government as nothing less than a continuation of July war.
But no matter how this crisis plays out, Hezbollah can already claim success. First, Nasrallah has diverted attention away from two key international demands: the creation of a U.N.-mandated tribunal to try the murderers of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri; and the disarmament of Hezbollah as called for by UNSCR 1701 and previous resolutions. Hezbollah need only stonewall these initiatives until it can achieve greater representation and torpedo them indefinitely.
The postwar period has also shored up Hezbollah’s role as the sole representative of Lebanon’s Shiite community. While an embattled Siniora government would encounter difficulty in replacing the resigned ministers with independent Shiites, its failure to attempt or even suggest such a move confirms Hezbollah’s distinction as the community’s lone representative, even in the eyes of its adversaries. Naturally, Hezbollah’s consolidation of control over the Shiite community undermines the position of moderate Shiites who opposed the organization’s ideology and agenda — even before the 2006 war. As it coopts its critics and intimidates others, Hezbollah’s strong-arm tactics will continue to stifle Shiite dissent.
Huge gains have been made during the course of the reconstruction efforts as well. Amid the rubble of Beirut’s southern suburbs, Hezbollah has seized a golden opportunity to purchase real estate through questionable transactions in which it has coerced residents to sell their property and negotiate exclusively with the its representatives. These large tracts of land, which are already under construction, will be developed into parks, mosques, and community centers owned and operated by Hezbollah’s social-welfare machine. Throughout this process of rebuilding and expanding its unofficial capital neither the government nor the local community was able to exert any influence.
In terms of rehabilitating its military apparatus, the group wasted no time. Despite the postwar deployment of 12,000 UNIFIL and 15,000 Lebanese soldiers to southern Lebanon, Hezbollah has replenished its rocket supply and continues to receive weapons shipments through the porous Syrian border and the speech of February 16 was also the occasion to boast of this achievement. Though Hezbollah forces now operate underground, its personal fiefdom remains intact. In terms of actual sovereignty, the group still retains final say. UNIFIL seems to concur. When asked what action he would take in the event of renewed fighting between Hezbollah and Israel, former UNIFIL chief Alain Pellegrini said he would “beg” the parties to stop. Thus, if Hezbollah reignites the conflict with Israel, it is clear that neither UNIFIL nor the Lebanese Armed Forces will stand in its way.
The relative calm on the Israeli-Lebanese border is an illusion; Hezbollah remains alive and well. As the international community continues to pledge diplomatic, financial, and military support for Lebanon, it is imperative that the U.S. and its European allies counter Hezbollah’s power play which threatens to plunge the country back into the days of Syrian hegemony and inter-communal violence.
— Lokman Slim and Inga Schei are director and research consultant, respectively, at Hayya Bina, a Lebanese pro-democracy initiative based in Beirut’s southern suburbs.
Hezbollah is already planning to draw Israel into another conflict
The Times (London), February 26, 2007
For the past six months the border area between Israel and Lebanon has been relatively peaceful. Israel withdrew its troops, as it had pledged to do, sizeable reinforcements representing the United Nations moved in and Hezbollah drew back and stopped launching its rocket attacks into northern Israel. The whereabouts of the two captured members of the Israel Defence Force whose seizure triggered the clash last summer remains unknown, but they are such a valuable prize for the terrorists who captured them that is can be assumed that they are still alive. Meanwhile, though, the internal politics of Lebanon has not improved in the slightest, with a brave administration seeking to remain in office despite the intrigue against it being orchestrated by Syrian interests and supported by local political parties which are explicitly linked to Hezbollah.
What might occur if the Lebanese Cabinet falls is becoming apparent. As we report today, Hezbollah and its sympathisers have been buying up villages (often for lavish sums) in territory which was previously owned either by Christians or members of the Druze community. The sums of money involved are substantial and often paid in cash packed into suitcases. This is not idle property speculation. The pattern of this acquisition is not accidental either. These purchases will create a continuous Shia zone running from the edge of the long-disputed Shebaa Farms area all the way across to the coastline. Lebanon is in effect being physically divided by this initiative. This is terrain in which Hezbollah will soon be able to function much as it wishes. It is beyond the reach of the UN and its soldiers. It is already being described in the region as a “new Maginot Line”.
There is, though, a crucial difference. The original Maginot Line was defensive in its character. This one is not. Hezbollah is in effect preparing for the next war, which is one that it would initiate. There is already evidence that this organisation has been seeking to restock its arsenal with more sophisticated missiles than the relatively primitive rockets which it directed towards villages inside Israel last year but often missed their targets. It is widely suspected that Iran is the principal supplier of this hardware and that Syria is actively allowing these weapons to be transported across its borders. Hezbollah could, therefore, be in a position by this summer in which it could fire missiles over the land south of the Litani river, which is controlled by the UN force, and strike at Israeli civilians. The domestic pressure on Israel to respond by bombing would be huge.
The international tension which a fresh round of conflict here would provoke may suit the Iranian leadership. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad declared yesterday that Iran’s nuclear programme involved “no reverse gear” just as representatives of the permanent five members of the UN Security Council prepare to meet in London to discuss additional sanctions against Tehran. If past form is any indication, Iran will try to play for time by exploiting its capacity to cause trouble in Iraq, Lebanon and the Palestinian Authority. It is likely to engage in those tactics yet again.
The absence of overt activity in the vicinity of the Israel-Lebanon boundary has led some commentators to suggest that Hezbollah might want to act in a less confrontational fashion. The clear implication of these land deals across southern Lebanon is that it has no such benign intentions.
By David Schenker
PolicyWatch #1204, February 26, 2007
On February 20, the Lebanese cabinet—with a Hizballah-led opposition boycott—extended the term of the UN commission investigating the February 2005 assassination of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri. While the commission’s work can now continue for as long as one more year, any future decision about organizing an international tribunal to try those indicted for the murder remains hostage to a vote—requiring the opposition’s assent—in the paralyzed Lebanese parliament. Meanwhile, Hizballah continues to press its demand for increased political power within a “national unity” government, threatening civil disobedience should its demands not be met.
Amid such rising tensions, many are focusing on the latest mediation efforts of Saudi Arabia and Iran. A recent flurry of diplomatic activity has heightened speculation that a crisis-ending deal may be in the works. The general framework of the potential bargain—more political power for Hizballah in exchange for the opposition’s parliamentary approval of the international tribunal—has been under discussion for weeks, but the details remain contentious. Should a deal eventually be reached along these lines—and it is far from certain that this will occur—the big loser would be Iran’s strategic ally, Syria, the leading suspect in the Hariri assassination.
The Hizballah-led opposition left the Lebanese government in November 2006, protesting a lack of power sharing. Specifically, the faction demanded a “blocking third”—one-third plus one of all cabinet seats—that would give it the ability to veto government initiatives. The opposition also articulated reservations about the establishment of an international tribunal to try Hariri’s killers. For the Lebanese government, led by Prime Minister Fouad Siniora and the anti-Syrian “March 14” forces, the tribunal is a top priority. However, Siniora is equally adamant that he will not provide Hizballah with a blocking third.
The resulting standoff culminated in a January strike in which the opposition closed key roads in Lebanon, temporarily crippling the state. Despite such pressures, the opposition has not yet been able to force Siniora to meet its demands. Indeed, during the January strike, Siniora traveled to Paris and won unprecedented international aid commitments for Lebanon. Hizballah is now deciding whether to press ahead with a new round of so-called civil disobedience actions, once again placing Lebanon on the verge of civil war.
Since last year, Arab League secretary-general Amr Mousa has been trying to mediate a solution to the impasse. More recently, Saudi Arabia and Iran have begun to mediate on behalf of their Lebanese allies (the March 14 forces and Hizballah, respectively) out of concern for the country’s rising Sunni-Shiite tensions. From late January through mid-February, Saudi National Security Council chief Prince Bandar met several times with his Iranian counterpart, Ali Larijani, to discuss the crisis. Top Hizballah officials—including Deputy Secretary-General Naim Qassem—as well as March 14 leader Saad Hariri and Amal Speaker of the Parliament Nabih Berri also traveled to Saudi Arabia for meetings with senior officials.
The basic deal seems to be more power for Hizballah in return for ending the possibility of a renewed Syrian role in Lebanon through a tribunal exposing Syria’s involvement in the Hariri assassination. Still, based on press accounts, an agreement remains uncertain. According to the pan-Arab daily al-Hayat, as of February 21, Riyadh and Tehran had crafted a proposal that was being vetted with Damascus. Meanwhile, Nabih Berri had delivered the opposition’s notes on required modifications to international tribunal law for Saudi review. Cabinet composition is still under discussion, according to al-Hayat, with the opposition sticking to its demand for a blocking third.
Just how far apart the sides remain was highlighted by Naim Qassem’s glib remarks of February 20, when he stated, “There is no tribunal without a government of national unity.” In other words, the Hizballah position essentially remains that the opposition must first be granted veto power, and only then can a discussion of an international tribunal proceed. Of course, once in power, Hizballah would be able to scuttle any tribunal.
Even so, the remote possibility that a compromise deal may yet emerge between Tehran and Riyadh has Syria concerned. At present, the key obstacle to achieving a deal involves the tribunal, an issue of primary if not existential import to the Syrian government. Should tensions increase—and the February 23 discovery of nineteen sticks of dynamite in the Beirut neighborhood of Ashrafiyeh suggests they are rising—many fear that Tehran will decide to prioritize a de-escalation in civil strife and an increase in Hizballah’s political influence over Syrian concerns about a tribunal.
Syrian Concerns Allayed?
Ubiquitous reports on the Saudi-Iranian mediation efforts in the Lebanese and pan-Arab press have been a source of concern to Syrian president Bashar al-Asad. On February 17, Asad traveled to Tehran for two days of meetings with Supreme Leader Ali Hossein Khamenei and President Mahmoud Ahmadinezhad. Although official press announcements do not provide much insight into what actually transpired at the meeting, the timing suggests that Asad was looking for reassurance that Tehran would protect Syrian interests.
Aside from routine public attestations of the bilateral relationship’s strength, the only substantive development during the trip was the report (published in the Arabic electronic daily Elaph) of a Russian arms deal with Syria, to be financed by Iran. Then, a day after Asad returned to Syria, Iranian foreign minister Manusheir Mutaki told the Lebanese daily al-Nahar that “there are no differences of opinion between Tehran and Damascus” on Lebanon.
Can Saudi Arabia Sweeten the Deal?
It is not clear that the Saudis will be able to convince Iran or Hizballah to back down from demands for a blocking third or opposition to the tribunal. Unlike the Fatah-Hamas national unity government deal brokered by Riyadh earlier this month, $1 billion in funding may not do the trick. Moreover, it seems implausible that Iran and Hizballah will be lured into a deal merely by the carrot of avoiding civil war. If money and fears of Sunni-Shiite violence are not enough to convince Iran to allow the tribunal to proceed, this round will likely fail, just as the Arab League mediation did.
It is also worth considering whether Riyadh’s interests coincide with those of Washington on this issue—particularly in light of the Saudi role in mediating the Palestinian national unity government. While that accord was in Saudi (and Palestinian) interests, it undermined U.S. policy because the resulting national unity government legitimized Hamas and did not meet the Quartet requirements that it abandon violence and recognize Israel.
For the time being, it appears that Iran and Hizballah will not sacrifice Syria for a Lebanon deal. Ultimately, however, if a deal is to be reached and Lebanon is to avoid civil war, Hizballah will have to consent—even if only temporarily—to approve the tribunal in parliament. The framework of the deal, as currently structured, essentially forces Hizballah to choose between securing its local interests (more political power in Lebanon) and protecting its Syrian ally (by opposing the tribunal). While Hizballah and Iran would like both, it seems likely that, at the end of the day, they will choose to prioritize political power. And this is what troubles Damascus.
David Schenker is a senior fellow in Arab politics at The Washington Institute.