Lebanon up in the air as Hezbollah flexes muscle

The Syrian conflict has exposed like never before Hezbollah’s true identity, the nature of its allegiances and priorities

Eyad Abu Shakra

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One of the few mentionable merits of Lebanese politics—compared to the situation in neighboring Arab countries—is that everything is exposed. The Lebanese people have now grown accustomed to believing in conspiracy theories, even when there are no conspiracies. The advances made by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in western and northern Iraq, leading to the occupation of Mosul, the displacement of the Christian population in the area and the declaration of a caliphate, have had remarkable consequences on the political scene in Lebanon.

To begin with, Lebanon has found itself embroiled, against its will, in the conflict Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, is using to serve his project in Syria, which in turn is part of a more dangerous and larger-scale regional project.

As the larger project is imposed from above, allowing no room for hesitation or objections, if any exist, a key Lebanese side—Hezbollah—has also become involved in the Syrian conflict. Its public involvement came, as we all remember, under a varied range of pretexts. The first pretext was that it was “defending villages inhabited by Lebanese nationals” on the Syrian side of the northern and northeastern border. When that task was accomplished, the second pretext emerged. This time it was “defending holy Shiite shrines,” and with it the scope of intervention widened to cover towns in Aleppo and Idlib provinces.

‘Holy war’ turns defensive

Next, the “holy” war morphed into a defensive, preemptive and necessary war based on the premise of pushing back against “takfirist” groups that posed a threat to Lebanon’s national security. The scope of operations expanded to include the Qalamoun Mountains in Rif Dimashq province. On the ground, this resulted in what was practically a siege of the Sunni Lebanese town of Arsal and of a few other towns and villages in the northern Beqaa, home to tens of thousands of mainly Sunni Syrian refugees.

The Syrian conflict has exposed like never before Hezbollah’s true identity, the nature of its allegiances and priorities

Eyad Abu Shakra

Lebanon’s written constitution enshrines religious and sectarian diversity. The Lebanese, therefore, cannot be content with polite but empty and unreliable slogans regarding “self-distancing” from the Syrian crisis when Hezbollah is publicly fighting alongside Syrian government troops. In my view, the sectarian Assad regime has long claimed, to the point of exhaustion, to be secularist. However, had the Syrian regime really been secular, no popular uprising would have erupted against its injustices in the first place. This is, of course, before the uprising was indeed hijacked by sectarian-minded forces and taken off track. In the process, the entire situation has become a prelude for a long episode of strife that was awaiting the region.

Confronting Hezbollah

Today, the Lebanese authorities are too weak to confront Hezbollah with the truth, at least by means of citing the constitution and international law. Even if we were to accept that Hezbollah’s slogans of “resistance” had noble purposes, many in Lebanon no longer deem the militia to be a legitimate political entity. Regardless of whether the term “resistance” is still valid or not, the Lebanese state has become the weaker partner in an imbalanced domestic equation since Hezbollah’s decision to fight the 2006 war with Israel without the sanction of the government. Moreover, Hezbollah has directed its weapons towards Lebanon with the aim of settling political scores, and is still insisting on keeping its weapons based on a national consensus that no longer exists.

Thus, while Syria is being torn apart, Iraq is bleeding and Israel is keen on destroying and delegitimizing the Palestinian Authority through its new war on Gaza, Lebanon fears that the worst is yet to come. The Syrian conflict has exposed like never before Hezbollah’s true identity, the nature of its allegiances and priorities and the role it was founded to perform—namely, furthering the interests of a project much larger than Lebanon.

Meanwhile, the suspicious pace at which ISIS managed to spread across Iraq and eastern Syria, and then its eviction of Iraqi Christians—a step unprecedented in the Middle East’s modern history—under the guise of bogus Islamic slogans, suggests that the condition of Christians in the region requires further contemplation and analysis.

Today, we are also witnessing a new tragedy unfolding in Gaza, which I presume is not a matter of coincidence. Wars are not fought pointlessly without political purpose. Indeed, the current Israeli leadership has been publicly opposed to the settlement between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas. Thus, undermining the Palestinian Authority is at the crux of Israeli interests. Any long-term truce agreement between Israel and Hamas, which, in turn, would declare a glorious “victory” like the one announced by Hezbollah in 2006, may prove to be a fatal blow to the Palestinian Authority.

Lebanon’s Palestinian refugees

The possible collapse of the Palestinian Authority, along with Hamas’s declaration of “victory,” will also probably be echoed in Lebanon’s Palestinian refugee camps, particularly the Ain Al-Hilweh refugee camp in Sidon, the largest predominantly Sunni city in the Shiite-majority south. The sparks of what happened in Mosul and the surrounding Christian towns in Iraq after the attacks on the Christian towns of Syria, such as Maaloula, will also have a negative impact on the political scene in Lebanon. On top of that, the state of polarization between Sunnis and Shiites in the region has already done its damage as far as the Lebanese scene is concerned, producing radical militancy in the country. This includes the emergence of Sheikh Ahmad Al-Assir in Sidon, the multiple militant groups in Tripoli, the capital of the north, and the possibility of Beirut turning into an Islamist breeding ground.

Ignoring the problem will not solve it, and the time for polite, kind words has long passed. Sunni moderation as represented by the Future Movement, despite its political indecision, needs to be met halfway by the Shiite side. This is particularly important, since I believe some of the Christians who are affiliated with the Tehran–Damascus axis are pressing ahead with their suicidal march into the abyss.

The leader of the Future Movement, Saad al-Hariri, last week launched a road map in which he suggested immunizing Lebanon by electing the President of the Republic. With Hezbollah’s known position, it was its Christian lackeys who rushed to reject the initiative, which they interpreted in accordance with their deep commitment to the anti-Sunni “alliance of minorities.” All the signs indicate that the situation in Lebanon is, once again, up in the air.

This article was first published in Asharq al-Awsat on July 24, 2014.

Eyad Abu Shakra (also written as Ayad Abou-Chakra) began his media career in 1973 with Annahar newspaper in Lebanon. He joined Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper in the UK in 1979, occupying several positions including: Senior Editor, Managing Editor, and Head of Research Unit, as well as being a regular columnist. He has several published works, including books, chapters in edited books, and specialized articles, in addition to frequent regular TV and radio appearances.

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