Thursday, May 30, 2013

Hizbollah's foreign loyalties push Lebanon to the brink

The rocket attack against a predominantly Shia district in Beirut on Sunday remains a question mark. No one has claimed responsibility - even as many interpretations have been advanced to explain what happened. The attack heightened worries that Hizbollah's participation in the Syrian conflict will destabilise Lebanon.

The most conventional explanation for the attack on Shiyah was that it was retaliation by Syrian rebels, or their allies, for Hizbollah's role in helping the regime of Bashar Al Assad to recapture the strategic area of Qusayr, just across the Lebanese border. However, the Free Syrian Army (FSA) denied it was behind the attack.

Anti-regime groups that are not affiliated with the FSA, such as Jabhat Al Nusra, have said nothing, though such an operation is one they would have probably claimed as their own. Some speculated that a small group in Lebanon, perhaps even a Palestinian group with access to the Grad rockets that were fired, may have done this. Others offered conspiracy theories, including that Hizbollah had organised the attack to rally Shia support and discredit the rebels. All agreed the main victim was civil peace in Lebanon.

Adding to the confusion was that a rocket was fired at Israel on Sunday evening. Little goes on in southern Lebanon without Hizbollah knowing about it, which is why so many saw the incident as the party's way of reaffirming, despite Qusayr, that the main enemy remained Israel. It underlined - as did Hizbollah's secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah in a speech on Saturday - that Hizbollah's engagement in Syria sought to prevent Israel and the United States from exploiting the potential downfall of the Assad regime.

Was there a link between the morning attack in Shiyah and the evening attack in Israel? It's difficult to say. But Hizbollah's agenda and foreign loyalties are pushing Lebanon to the brink, with many worrying that violence in Syria may spread to Lebanon.

Indeed, fighting in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli between Sunni and Alawite neighbourhoods has gone on for over a week, and appears to be linked to the offensive in Qusayr. The skirmishing could have been provoked in an attempt to distract Lebanese Islamist groups from reinforcing the FSA fighters in Qusayr.

Mr Nasrallah's speech heightened tension in Lebanon as he linked what was happening in Syria to Hizbollah's well-being and survival. He also laid the groundwork for the party's continued involvement in Syria. "If Syria falls into the hands of the Takfiris and the United States, the resistance will be under siege and Israel will enter Lebanon. If Syria falls, the Palestinian cause will be lost," he said.

Many Lebanese politicians, including Hizbollah allies, are unhappy with the party's escalation in Syria. It has undermined the so-called Baabda Declaration between Lebanese parties to stay out of the war in Syria. Even Russia, which has sided with Mr Al Assad, is uneasy with Hizbollah's move, as it realises the implications for Lebanon.

Hizbollah feels that it can contain the consequences, and in this it may be right. The Sunni mainstream is not preparing for war. The danger comes from smaller, more radical groups, but even these need financing, and for now the likely financiers in the Gulf do not appear to want a sectarian conflict in Lebanon. Moreover, the Lebanese army has been able to control such groups, even if one can never be too reassured.

In the longer term, Hizbollah believes Mr Al Assad will prevail. The international community has been unable to dislodge him, and the Obama administration in particular has shown that its priority is to avoid being drawn into the Syrian conflict. When pressure built to reverse this stance after the Syrian regime apparently used chemical weapons, US president Barack Obama sent his secretary of state, John Kerry, to Moscow to find a way out.

Mr Kerry and the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, agreed to hold the so-called Geneva II conference on Syria, fulfilling a long-standing Russian demand for the opposition to negotiate with Mr Al Assad. This allowed Mr Obama to avoid American intervention to uphold his "red lines" against chemical weapons use, and it gave him an excuse to delay arming Syria's rebels, which some in Washington have urged.

Mr Al Assad's regime and Hizbollah read American indecisiveness as an opportunity to attack in the area of Qusayr and in the suburbs of Damascus, regaining lost territory. In that way they gained leverage and favourably prepared the context for potential negotiations with the opposition. They also sensed that if the opposition refused to go to Geneva, this would alienate the western countries.

Nor have Syrian opposition groups convinced anybody of their effectiveness. They remain divided and their stance toward Geneva has yet to be announced. If they manage the conference and its outcomes poorly, this could cost them western backing, at a time when Washington worries far more about Al Qaeda filling the Syrian vacuum than about Mr Al Assad's staying in office.

If he can gain control over Qusayr, and eventually southern Syria, Mr Al Assad would hold land from Damascus to the coast and southward towards the border with Jordan. For Hizbollah, this would push the front line further away from Lebanon, possibly calming the mood in the country and allowing the party to secure its back at home.

The real dangers to Lebanon notwithstanding, Hizbollah is as clear about the risks in its actions as anybody else is. The party does not want a Sunni-Shia war in Lebanon as this could decisively weaken it. But Mr Al Assad is a red line for Iran and Hizbollah (along with Russia), and unlike the red line of Mr Obama, it is one they mean to impose.

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