Thursday, August 7, 2008

Flying high again with Hizbullah

Flying high again with Hizbullah
By Michael Young
Daily Star staff
Thursday, August 07, 2008

There is growing concern in Israel and the United States that Hizbullah intends to alter the status quo in Lebanon by deploying anti-aircraft missiles to end Israeli overflights. That may well happen, but the question is what such a development tells us about Hizbullah's latitude to fiddle with United Nations Security Council Resolution 1701.

On Tuesday, an Israeli Air Force officer told the daily Haaretz that if Hizbullah ever used anti-aircraft missiles, this could force Israel to "alter its overflights of Lebanon significantly." Last week, Hizbullah released a statement denouncing the overflights and demanding that "all concerned parties" collaborate in putting a speedy end to them. In case the meaning wasn't well grasped, this was followed by an article in the daily Al-Akhbar in which the paper's editor, Ibrahim Amin, who is often employed as a conduit for messages from Hizbullah, reaffirmed the statement's seriousness. On Tuesday Al-Akhbar published another article on the matter, suggesting that UNIFIL had a contingency plan to save Israeli pilots in the event they were shot down over Lebanon. UNIFIL denied the story, which seemed another effort to discredit the international force and show that Hizbullah alone has the means and will to defend Lebanese sovereignty.

It is entirely possible that Hizbullah, in order to keep the idea of "resistance" alive and justify retaining its weaponry, is preparing for a new type of confrontation with Israel. The party has chafed under Resolution 1701, which has closed the southern border off to attacks against Israeli soldiers. Military organizations need war and Hizbullah is no exception. Preventing Israeli overflights would offer the additional advantage of being seen by party supporters, and even perhaps by some in the international community, as bolstering the UN resolution.

Hizbullah has never truly accepted Resolution 1701, but it also knows that the Shiite community is dead set against a new war against Israel in which it would pay a heavy human price. That makes the party's efforts to undermine the resolution complicated, and is why it would like to push that burden onto the Israelis, by maneuvering them into over-reacting to anti-aircraft fire. If Hizbullah can impose a situation of deterrence on Israel, this would substantially strengthen its hand domestically in negotiating a national "defense strategy" in a dialogue President Michel Sleiman is scheduled to sponsor in the coming weeks or months.

Let's not forget what happened in 2006. The abduction of Israeli soldiers that led to the summer war was far less an effort to free Samir Kontar than Hizbullah's way of imposing its writ in the national dialogue sessions then taking place. The party's secretary general, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, calculated that a successful operation against Israel along the border would give Hizbullah the leeway to protect its weapons and negotiate a defense strategy to its advantage. In fact, Nasrallah grossly miscalculated, provoking a war whose end-result was over 1,200 dead and Resolution 1701. However, we should again view Hizbullah's use of anti-aircraft weapons in the same light, as having mainly a domestic purpose.

There are also potential complications. That Hizbullah has anti-aircraft weapons, ones it plainly did not have in 2006, would only disclose publicly that the party has also violated Resolution 1701. There is the risk that Hizbullah, if it were to justify its actions under the rubric of the UN resolution, might bring on a process that actually tightens the latter's implementation, which the party wants to avoid. It would also be difficult for Hizbullah, if a crisis with Israel quickly ensues, to turn the missiles into a running sore to be used as a bargaining chip over an extended period of time, thereby re-creating a situation similar to the April Understanding of 1996, which recognized new military "rules of the game" between Israel and Hizbullah. A devastating clash, followed by effective diplomacy, might only repeat what happened in 2006, with few gains for either side. Hizbullah could, of course, tell its electorate that Israel started it all, but if an escalation provokes death and destruction, with Shiites bearing the brunt, this would only narrow Hizbullah's actions in the future.

There is also another danger for Hizbullah. If attention is focused on Israeli air violations, won't this in many ways make the Shebaa Farms dispute more marginal? In defending the spirit of Resolution 1701 (or appearing to) by opposing Israeli violations of the UN decision, Nasrallah could find himself reinforcing the view that the calm in the Shebaa Farms area is how things really should be done under the resolution - an example of the partial success of Resolution 1701, where the Israeli overflights exemplify its shortcomings. That would irritate the Syrians to no end, as they continue to push for a reopening of the Shebaa Farms front before moving on to serious negotiations with Israel over the Golan Heights.

There may be an opportunity here for the Lebanese government, through the Lebanese Army, to use the overflights to take the lead in dealing with Israel. Hizbullah is wagering that nothing that anyone does will stop Israeli air violations. That's why the party might encourage the government to get involved, only for it to fail and show once more that Hizbullah's way is the only way. But if Sleiman is bold, he might ask the government to accept that the issue of overflights be dealt with in the context of the Armistice Commission, with UNIFIL sitting at the table too. The president might then ask that the UN and the international community stop the overflights, but also that they develop a system, with Lebanon, to apply Resolution 1701 along the border with Syria. In other words Suleiman can use Hizbullah's valid displeasure with Israeli overflights to propose ways to implement the resolution in its entirety.

Hizbullah will reject this outright, as will the Syrians, but the move would be a wedge to ensure that the Lebanese state becomes the sole legitimate interlocutor with Israel. (And to add to the state's credibility, the United States and the UN must impose Israel's withdrawal from the Lebanese half of Ghajar.) This would also take away from Hizbullah the authority it seeks as the lone valid "defender" of Resolution 1701. And it would place the onus on the UN and the international community to end Israeli air violations - or take responsibility for any new escalation in Lebanon.

But is Sleiman willing to push the envelope when it comes to Hizbullah and Syria, especially when he is preparing to discuss a wide range of issues in Damascus next week? Don't hold your breath.

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