Friday, January 6, 2012

Is Hezbollah losing control?

The cacophony in the government this past week, while hardly surprising, tells us much about the nature of the Lebanese system. And the party best absorbing the lesson is Hezbollah.

Last month, the defense minister, Fayez Ghosn, declared that Al-Qaeda was present in Lebanon, in that way echoing accusations that Syrian officials have made. He was soon contradicted by Prime Minister Najib Mikati and Interior Minister Marwan Charbel. This prompted Ghosn’s political patron, Sleiman Franjieh, to publicly back the defense minister, even as Walid Jumblatt, the Druze leader, called on Russia and Iran to persuade President Bashar al-Assad that a change of regime in Damascus was necessary.

And this from the government “of one color” we’ve heard so much about. That such a government can continue to survive is less a miracle than a sign of Syria’s and Hezbollah’s desire not to allow a vacuum in Beirut that could turn to their disadvantage. But outside the boundaries of that general condition, anything goes. Franjieh does the bidding of the Syrian regime, Jumblatt recommends its departure, and Mikati tries to steer a middle course between the icebergs.

Hezbollah controls the commanding heights of the Lebanese state. It has considerable sway over the army and the intelligence apparatus, not to mention over Beirut airport and port. It has an independent telecommunications network, which it has been able to install throughout large parts of the country. And it has access to numerous ministries through its political partners and clients. The list goes on. But one thing Hezbollah cannot do is impose harmony on a litigious political environment to advance its interests. The ensuing pluralism poses the greatest threat to Hezbollah’s wellbeing.

It’s difficult to say how Hezbollah judges the situation in Syria. It continues to staunchly support the Assad regime, but the party is too lucid not to have a backup plan. And such a plan almost certainly involves a measure of self-protection through Hezbollah’s continued participation in and supremacy over the government and state. That’s why it doesn’t want a governmental void in the country, since this might hinder its ability to shape the political environment in its favor.

However, things may not be so clear-cut. The dispute over Al-Qaeda as well as Jumblatt’s remarks led in directions that Hezbollah would prefer to avoid. The party cannot be particularly comfortable with the implications of Ghosn’s declarations. If Lebanon has become an Al-Qaeda base, with members allegedly present in Aarsal, a Sunni town in the northeastern Bekaa Valley, near Hezbollah strongholds, this can only heighten hostility between Sunni and Shia. Hezbollah, which must know that the Al-Qaeda accusation is bogus, today prefers to sidestep sectarian antagonism, let alone confrontation, that would further isolate it if the Syrian leadership were to collapse. Syria’s priorities and Hezbollah’s are not invariably the same in Lebanon.

The same holds for Jumblatt’s bombshell. The party perhaps understands that the Druze leader must also plan ahead for the exit of the Assads, given that there are some 300,000 Druze in Syria. It cannot approve of Jumblatt’s call for regime change in Damascus, but nor can it intimidate him in quite the way that it previously could. Jumblatt makes the parliamentary majority a majority; and Hezbollah knows that in a world without the Assads, it will need to be on cordial terms with many of those whom it finds unsavory.

Things will not get easier for the party. Last October the inhabitants of Tarshish stopped excavation work which they warned was being carried out by Hezbollah to extend its telecommunications network. While the episode was relatively limited in scope, that kind of reaction can only increase in the future, as the perception spreads that the party is increasingly vulnerable because of the Syrian crisis.

What we have today is a Hezbollah whose constraints oblige it to be in league with a politician bluntly wagering on the end of Assad rule, as well as a prime minister who has pushed hard to finance an international tribunal that has indicted Hezbollah members. The party is finding it difficult to manage a dysfunctional cabinet to its advantage. Lebanon’s Sunnis feel emboldened because of events in Syria, at the very moment when Hezbollah is eager to avert sectarian animosities. And if Bashar al-Assad is ousted, the party will lose its strategic depth in case of war with Israel, greatly limiting its ability to engage in such a war and diluting its deterrence capability.

All this is the natural consequence of a complex, unruly Lebanese political order that no party can hope to dominate for long. Hezbollah has engaged in hubris by believing the contrary. Lebanon’s sectarian order sooner or later pushes back against attempts at hegemony by one party or a coalition of parties. The “politics of alleyways” that Hassan Nasrallah once dismissed in describing the conduct of Lebanese domestic affairs, is slowly overcoming Hezbollah.

But the party won’t disappear once the Assads do. For Lebanon to peacefully navigate a post-Assad era in Syria, negotiations between the Lebanese communities are necessary. Sunnis need to speak to Shia. Hezbollah will become more modest as the system grinds the party down. But nothing will have been gained if the party’s foes become overconfident. That would be a recipe for civil conflict.

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