Thursday, April 25, 2013

Hezbollah’s mad gamble in Qusair

It’s still too early to tell whether Hezbollah will succeed in its bid to clear the area of Qusair of Syrian rebels, in that way assuring Syrian regime control over the passage between Damascus and the coast, via Homs, and between the coast and Lebanon’s Hermel region.

Hezbollah is perfectly aware of the great risk it has taken by intervening in Syria. The fact that it has done so regardless suggests that the decision was an Iranian one. Hezbollah’s risk is twofold: Its intervention has provoked domestic discontent, increasing Sunni-Shiite tensions, while undermining the policy of Lebanese non-intervention in the Syrian war; perhaps more dangerously for the party, it may be sucked into the Syrian conflict, unable to extirpate itself, taking ever greater losses in someone else’s fight.

Conceivably, Hezbollah may find itself in much the same situation as the Israelis in southern Lebanon until 2000: operating in a foreign land on unfamiliar terrain and engaged in guerrilla warfare against a determined foe defending his territory. There are reports that Hezbollah has taken significant losses. If so, the Shiite community will accept this for a time, but unless Hezbollah can achieve its objectives relatively quickly, discontent will rise if the war in Syria turns into a grinding campaign that provokes many more Lebanese casualties.

Nor can the sectarian aspect of the conflict be ignored. Lebanese Salafists have called for a jihad in Syria, which could seriously destabilize the situation in Lebanon. The fight against Hezbollah could become a magnet for jihadist groups keen to do battle with Shiites – whether Syrian, Lebanese or Iraqi. Already, the Nusra Front has threatened to strike against Beirut if Hezbollah is not prevented from participating in the Syrian conflict. Though the Nusra Front is hardly one to talk, this situation is precisely what everyone had sought to avert, and which Hezbollah, with Iranian encouragement, has suddenly and quite recklessly made more likely.

Hezbollah’s Syria strategy has also virtually ensured that Lebanon will not have an election this summer. Despite the calls for one, the reality is that the political climate is too tense for any kind of agreement over an election law, let alone for a voting process that may be divisive and volatile, particularly in mixed confessional districts.

Nor would most of the major political actors be unhappy. At a sensitive time for Hezbollah, the party prefers to avoid the uncertainty of an election that may alter the balance in Lebanon. The Future Movement as well would not oppose postponement, with its leader out of the country, its patronage power much reduced, and its majority (albeit an unstable one) in parliament. Walid Jumblatt, too, has no interest in surrendering his balancing role, especially if elections are held on the basis of legislation different than the 1960 law, which guarantees him a leading role in Aley and the Chouf.

Among the Christians, Michel Aoun, similarly, prefers to delay elections, to safeguard his status as the dominant Christian in parliament. Only Samir Geagea seems eager to go ahead with the voting, in large part because the Lebanese Forces have a relatively small parliamentary stake to defend by embracing the status quo, and feel that they would gain if elections went ahead.

More urgent than elections is the formation of a new government. Hezbollah, keen to protect its rear, seeks a government of national unity that can stabilize the situation in Lebanon, and that would once again endorse the formula of “the Army, the people, and the resistance.” Yet achieving this is tricky, since the Future Movement will not join a government that legitimizes Hezbollah at a time when the party is engaged in Syria. Nor is it realistic to seek a reaffirmation of the Army-people-resistance triad when Lebanon is so divided, and when no Sunni leader, least of all the prime minister-designate, Tammam Salam, can afford politically to reaffirm it.

Despite claims that Hezbollah controls Lebanon, the party has overreached, inviting a potentially dangerous Sunni counter-reaction. If it’s true, as some have claimed, that the party has committed crack troops in Syria, that means it has depleted its vanguard units facing Israel. How revealing that like Bashar Assad’s troops redeployed from the Golan front toward Syria’s interior, Hezbollah will forget Israel when tasked with a project of repression.

If Hezbollah gets caught up in a Syrian quagmire, we can expect a far more perilous situation in Lebanon as the party finds itself simultaneously challenged internally and in Syria. Some may regard this as an opportunity to extract concessions from Hezbollah, but the greater likelihood is that it will only push the party to take harmful measures to protect itself, exacerbating the situation.

Hezbollah’s becoming cannon fodder for the Syrian regime, at Iran’s request, is not something the party must relish. It may be understandable for Hezbollah fight in Syria, since the downfall of Assad would represent a far-reaching defeat for Iran and the party. But there is a price to pay for Hezbollah’s pushing the boundaries of Lebanon’s sectarian system to its limits. And this price may be the party’s gradual destruction, or worse a Lebanese sectarian civil war.

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