Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Hezbollah's dangerous gamble.

by Dr Tony Badran*

This past May saw Hezbollah's second coup attempt in as many years. The first was after the 2006 war, when Hezbollah took to the streets with the goal of bringing down the Siniora government. Although this second attempt was an outright military operation, neither attempts has been successful.

Contrary to the prevailing view, this episode was not a complete military rout by Hezbollah nor was the ensuing accord in Doha a political capitulation by the March 14 parliamentary majority in the face of military defeat. In reality, the limitations of both parties were highlighted, arguably at greater cost for Hezbollah than the government. The Doha Agreement allowed both camps to cut their losses and establish a truce until the next parliamentary elections in 2009 and until the core issue of Hezbollah's weapons and its state-beyond-the-state is tackled again. It's another, perhaps final, chance for the concept of a Lebanese state.

The pretext for Hezbollah's armed assault against Beirut neighborhoods and the Shouf mountains were the decisions taken by the government targeting the party's autonomous armed status. One decision called for the removal of the head of airport security, Brig. Gen. Wafiq Shouqeir, who is close to Hezbollah. The reason was Shouqeir's handling of the installation of a surveillance camera by Hezbollah overlooking runway 17 -- used by leaders and dignitaries. The second issue was the decision to dismantle Hezbollah's independent landline network. Hezbollah had been expanding this network through non-Shiite areas, especially in Mount Lebanon, in order to link Hezbollah-dominated, though non-contiguous, predominantly Shiite areas in the northeast, in Beirut's southern suburbs, and in the south.

Both these elements meant a direct threat to the security of the already-hunted parliamentary majority's leaders. A telling leak came from the Egyptians who told the press that information uncovered a plot to assassinate Druze leader Walid Jumblatt during an upcoming planned visit to Cairo. This may well have been a central issue in the episode that unfolded.

The timing of these decisions, and the debate over the government's ability to implement them, as well as the subsequent Hezbollah response, have been cause for some speculation.

One view held that the government decision was meant as a trap for Hezbollah that would fully expose it and discredit its claim to being a "resistance" movement. This would also be done preemptively at a timing of the government's choosing, forcing back to the table the contentious issue of Hezbollah's arsenal. Since the government realistically wasn't able to implement its decisions, it had potentially far less to lose than Hezbollah.

One thing of note in Hezbollah's action, was that the earlier assumed Iranian reservation against Sunni-Shiite clashes had been dropped. This may have been a result of the losses Iran was incurring in Iraq, especially with the move against Muqtada Sadr's Mahdi Army.

If indeed this was a trap, then why did Hezbollah walk into it so enthusiastically? It may have been that Nasrallah believed he would use it and turn it to his advantage by humiliating the Sunni and Druze leaderships, force Siniora to resign, and impose a transitional government on his terms. In other words, it was the same rationale used in July 2006 and its aftermath: when Hezbollah's armed autonomy is politically challenged, try and turn the table through military action.

If this was Hezbollah's thinking, then it was a miscalculation. While Hezbollah did quickly take over West Beirut, the picture was very different elsewhere in the country.

The Military Assault
Hezbollah's assault against Beirut's neighborhoods was completed rather swiftly, especially since there was no organized resistance to it – contrary to earlier claims by some commentators that Saad Hariri's Future Movement (FM) was arming and training its own militia with Saudi and US support. Any resistance to Hezbollah's encroachment came from non-militia inhabitants of the (predominantly Sunni) neighborhoods under attack.

Hezbollah militiamen were joined by fighters from the Shiite Amal militia and the pro-Syrian militia, the Syrian Socialist Nationalist Party (SSNP). According to one report in the pro-Hezbollah paper, al-Akhbar, the plan of attack had been drawn in advance by the recently assassinated Hezbollah commander, Imad Mughniyeh.

Hezbollah mirrored the Syrian regime's priority of targeting the free media, as its militiamen and their allies proceeded to storm, ransack and torch pro-March 14 media outlets in Beirut.

The militias proceeded to surround and attack Hariri's headquarters in Qoreitem, as well as the Beirut residence of Druze leader Walid Jumblat and the offices of his Progressive Socialist Party (PSP). They also surrounded the government Serail, amidst calls by pro-Syrian tools to run it down and forcefully remove Prime Minister Fouad Siniora. Both Hariri and Jumblatt issued direct orders to their guards not to fire back at the attackers.

At this stage, Hezbollah made the fateful decision to expand its operation to the Druze Shouf mountains. This proved a decisive mistake, as Hezbollah was unable to take a single village, even though it attacked on multiple fronts from the west, east and south. It was repelled on all fronts. Hezbollah then had to introduce mechanized units (trucks mounted with recoilless rifles and heavy machine guns) as well as mortars and rockets – all indicators that the infantry units were not capable of penetrating the villages. PSP reports cited at least three-dozen dead Hezbollah fighters.

Meanwhile, in northern Lebanon, Sunnis attacked SSNP positions in Akkar and inflicted casualties in their ranks. Rumors are that Michel Aoun's Free Patriotic Movement in the north (where it is penetrated by SSNP and Suleiman Frangieh elements) tried to create pretexts for the expansion of operations – in the hope of dragging in the Lebanese Forces – but were quickly shut down by local notables.

The Doha Agreement and its Aftermath
It was against this background that the parties went to Doha. March 14 had two options: giving a chance – perhaps a final one – to the concept of the state or acceding to the breakdown of the state and its descent into war, something it calculated was Syria's desire.

March 14 estimated that it was best to absorb Hezbollah's military assault – especially after the Druze managed to send an unambiguous message by bloodying Hezbollah's nose in the Shouf – and opted to confront Hezbollah on a much more favorable terrain: state institutions which Hezbollah had been gutting out for almost two years. By so doing, they would also deprive Syria of the ability to use a prolonged vacuum to impose more favorable conditions, and would set the Lebanese constitutional wheels in motion.

The parliamentary majority had to concede veto power in the cabinet, something it had resisted thus far. However, as its leaders made clear, they had held long enough to get the International Tribunal for the Hariri assassination up and running, making a veto for Hezbollah and its allies at this stage practically meaningless on that most important front. Furthermore, with less than a year before the 2009 elections, it's likely that this cabinet would be focused primarily on that. Indeed, focus on the upcoming elections is one reason why Saad Hariri opted not to assume the premiership of the new cabinet.

The Syrians tried to interfere in order to deprive March 14 of its majority status in the cabinet – thereby preventing it from passing basic decisions – but they were rebuffed, notably, by Qatar.

Aside from its total dependency on Hezbollah for any semblance of political influence, Syria's limitation was also evident in Fouad Siniora's return as Prime Minister, to the clear and explicit ire of the opposition. In the end, the Doha Agreement enforced a sequential constitutional process contrary to Syria's long-held position, with the election of the president (and the evacuation of the siege in downtown Beirut) coming before the cabinet formation, depriving Syria of the ability to force a Premier of its choosing. The Iranian Fars news agency even published a direct threat against Siniora's life on May 29th.

Yet the biggest issue that will determine the viability of any long-term agreement is how Hezbollah's weapons will be tackled. The Doha Agreement included two noteworthy elements: 1- it did not reference the so-called "resistance" – which could be used by both parties to advance their interpretations. 2- it did however state that weapons could not be used domestically under any circumstance no matter what the reason. Furthermore, it called for the exclusive security and military authority of the state over Lebanon.

Similarly, President Michel Suleiman used very similar language to the Doha Agreement, referring to the "resistance" in the past tense talking instead about a "defensive strategy" and initiating a dialogue over Hezbollah's arms, all while affirming commitment to UN Security Council resolutions.

This did not please Hezbollah, whose secretary general was very clearly trying to alter the very text of the Doha Agreement in his speech on the day after the presidential election.

However, the parliamentary majority has signaled that it will push to adopt Suleiman's speech and the text of the Doha Agreement as the basis of the new cabinet statement. If so, it would remove all explicit legal cover for an independent "resistance" which now finds itself, with Nasrallah's admission in his May 26 speech, without any real support outside Hezbollah's core supporters. This would add another political constraint on Hezbollah, whose military adventure has also undermined its cover allies in the other communities.

Hezbollah's weapons and its military misadventure have created a deep schism in the Lebanese social fabric, taking the country into the first round of a civil war.

For there to be any possibility to move forward and safeguard the unitary state and the social contract, a resolution to the outstanding issue of Hezbollah's weapons has to be found. If immediate disarmament is not realistic, then the restoration of the decision of war and peace to the government, and its exclusive authority over all Lebanese territory (as per UNSCR 1701 and the Doha Agreement), is a must. Along with that central issue, the dialogue over a "defensive strategy" should entail a plan for the future integration of Hezbollah's arsenal into the army as well as the reinstating of the Armistice Agreement with Israel, as dictated by the Taef Accord.

As the historical precedent of the 1969 Cairo Agreement and the Palestinian Resistance Movement shows, the duality of a state and an autonomous armed trans-state actor is unsustainable and will lead to war. If that lesson is not heeded with the Doha Agreement, war is likely to break out again. Judging from Hezbollah's post-Doha statements and continuous military provocations, the prospects are not encouraging. If so, then the interim period would be best spent preparing contingency plans.

Tony Badran is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington, DC, focusing on Lebanon and Syria. This paper is based on a briefing he recently gave on the Lebanese crisis.

- Original materials copyright (c) by the authors.


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