Friday, July 6, 2012

Can Hezbollah give war a chance?

This week there were fresh strains in the relationship between the followers of Michel Aoun and Hezbollah, as Christian and Muslim parliamentarians split over a scheme to permanently hire Electricité du Liban contractual workers. The Aounists argue that the plan, devised by the parliament speaker, Nabih Berri, favors his Amal base, and accused Hezbollah of doing nothing to neutralize the dispute.

More interesting than that scrap over sectarian quotas was how the context affects Hezbollah. The party is already facing a Shia community in ebullition. Economic conditions are harder than ever; state services are in disarray; security in key Shia districts, including the southern suburbs and the Bekaa, has declined; and now, Hezbollah’s ties with its Christian partners are under stress, even if this is unlikely to turn into a full-fledged rift. Moreover, the party has failed to liberate Shia pilgrims abducted in Syria, despite early promises that they would be set free, and Shia have been expelled from Gulf states because they are associated with Hezbollah and Iran.

This is not necessarily the beginning of the end for Hezbollah. But it could be the end of the beginning—of that phase when Hezbollah’s supporters imagined the party was incapable of doing wrong. Hezbollah dominates the government and most of the security bodies, and has great sway over the army. It has chased its main rival, Saad Hariri, out of the country, replacing him with a prime minister of its choice. And yet what does Hezbollah have to show for all that authority? A Lebanese state that has never seemed so dysfunctional.

Meanwhile, the party’s principal Arab ally, Syria, is going through a savage conflict that will, in all likelihood, eventually lead to the overthrow of Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Hezbollah has not only morally supported Assad against his own people; it stands accused of actively participating in the repression. This poses problems for a party that claims to speak on behalf of the deprived, and whose legitimacy was built on what it described as resistance to Israeli oppression.

How does all this affect Hezbollah’s strategic objectives, above all its ability to act as Iran’s vanguard in the Levant? The party has continued to underline in one way or another that its fighting capacity, like its deterrence capability, is undiminished. No one doubts that Hezbollah has the weapons to retaliate against Israel if necessary—for instance if Tehran requests this of the party following an Israeli attack against Iranian nuclear facilities.

However, less clear is whether Hezbollah has both the political and logistical props in Lebanese society that would be needed to pursue a confrontation with Israel. War is not just about weaponry; it involves myriad intangibles that Hezbollah would need to secure before carrying Lebanon into what is bound to be a devastating altercation, one far worse than what we experienced in summer 2006.

And here, the picture is very hazy indeed. An Assad regime under duress might yet be able to send arms to Hezbollah in the midst of a battle with Israel. Indeed, it could be tempted to send what is most destructive in Syria’s arsenal, even chemical weapons, though what Hezbollah would choose to do with such material is a different matter.

But what of Shia morale and Lebanese national solidarity behind Hezbollah, essential ingredients in defining the latitude the party has to engage in a war, sustain it and even escalate if necessary? On both levels Hezbollah is facing serious problems. For a start, the party would have to ensure that a war looks like self-defense, which is no easy task. Lebanon’s Shia will back Hezbollah against patent Israeli aggression, but it is much more questionable whether they would do so on behalf of Iran, in defense of its nuclear program.

That said, the Shia community, given the uncertainty it is facing, does not relish the prospect of war under any circumstances. The Shia have too often suffered, too often served as cannon fodder, to readily allow Hezbollah to put them through the ringer once again. Nor will there be anywhere near the same amounts of money available for reconstruction after a forthcoming war (if one takes place) as there was six years ago. Unless destroyed Shia towns and villages are rebuilt quickly, Hezbollah’s standing could suffer in a decisive way.

As for national solidarity, Hezbollah can dream on. A majority of Sunnis, even those bitterly hostile to Israel, loathes the party. The Druze, who would absorb the first wave of Shia refugees, cannot forget how Hezbollah attacked their mountains in May 2008.

As for the Christians, the purported camaraderie between the Aounists and Hezbollah is not what it was, and the disagreement over the EDL contract workers highlighted this. Ironically, collaboration in the government has put a distance between the two sides, with the Aounists and Hezbollah pursuing incompatible objectives. Nor were the ties ever strong on the ground in the first place, despite efforts by naïve observers to read into the rapport something intense and novel.

Other than the bombing of the coastal highway and relay antennas, Christian areas were largely spared during the 2006 war. In any future conflagration, the Israelis are bound to hit a wider swathe of infrastructure targets, including the electricity grid, which will bring the war home for many Christians. Whether Hezbollah’s friends or foes, most Christians see no rationale for a war, would blame Hezbollah for doing Iran’s bidding, and would resent paying (as would everyone else) the hefty financial price that ensues.

Worrisome in all this is that Israel is watching closely. Will the Israelis be inclined, if they feel that Hezbollah is vulnerable, to initiate an assault themselves in order to do away with the party? That would be terribly foolish, but it cannot be discounted. All certitudes when it comes to Hezbollah are changing, slowly but surely.

No comments: