Reflecting on ten years in Lebanon, and the incredibly dangerous, awful scene that is unfolding here and in Syria, I am more convinced than ever that the period from april 2005 with the syrian withdrawal until the July 2006 War was a unique and fruitful moment for a real peace building strategy. Sadly the bush admin, and Jeffrey Feltmen, took the strategy in the complete opposite direction – bloodying themselves and their allies in the process, severely undercutting US interests and power and eventually helping to set the stage for the mess everyone is in now.
From my 2008 paper on the subject here in full.
Six months after experiencing the worst internal violence since the 1975–1990 Civil War, Lebanon finds itself at the head of a unique opportunity for domestic peace-building—one that, if properly cultivated by the United States, would significantly serve the national interests of both countries.1 The most compel- ling roadmap for realizing this promise, however, lies within Lebanon itself, and not, as many in Washington and now increasingly in Beirut argue, in either Damascus or Tehran.2 For while it is certainly true that for Lebanon a “grand peace” or a terrible war with one or both of these states would likely overtake any internal peace-building dynamic, the prospect of either scenario coming to fruition remains distant, to say the least.
Rather than again deferring3 efforts toward a peaceful settlement in Lebanon—until the menu of more complex regional issues are hopefully resolved—the United States should move quickly in the coming months to implement a robust, multifaceted approach that breaks with the anemic and oftentimes counterproductive policies of the past three years. Crucially, this does not mean having to choose between the false choice of sacrificing Lebanon’s sovereignty to Syria or the hitherto politically unpalatable option of engaging Hizbullah. Nor would it preclude movement on the various other tracks toward peace in the region, since progress in Lebanon (available at a far lower cost than elsewhere) would actually enhance these efforts by steadily diminishing one critical locus of instability and potential violence.
The more promising and politically feasible U.S. strategy, then, would continue to view Hizbullah’s independent weaponry as the primary threat to U.S. interests in the country, but also would seek to broadly undermine the party’s rationale (and therefore ability) for holding onto these weapons4—in sharp contrast to the Bush administration’s practice of bringing direct counter-pressure and sometimes counter-force to bear on Hizbullah itself, as well as on its key “partners”5 in Syria and Iran.
As a first concern, such a policy would address those areas where a renewed conflict between Israel and Hizbullah might emerge. After recent declarations by Hizbullah secretary general Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah fol- lowing the midsummer prisoner exchange, the three “bleeding wounds” (Nasrallah’s term) that remain open as likely flashpoints are: (1) disputed and occupied territory in the Shebaa Farms, Kfar Shouba, and Northern Ghajar; (2) Israeli overflights in contravention of international law and United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1701;6 and, finally, (3) the coordinates for Israeli cluster bombs fired in the July 2006 war.
Of course, as Nasrallah and other Hizbullah leaders have stressed for some time, simply removing the bleeding wounds will not be enough either for Hizbullah to willingly give up its arms or for there to be enough internal political pressure to sensibly force the issue. The United States therefore must move in tandem with its efforts to close the bleeding wounds file—efforts that the United States would have to lead, given its close relationship with Israel—to make good finally on its rhetoric supporting the creation of a strong national army. This, however, requires accepting two premises that U.S. officials have publicly and privately rejected since the withdrawal of Syrian troops in April 2005 following the assassination of Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri: first, that the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) be bolstered, but not in order to forcefully disarm Hizbullah; and, second, that the LAF credibly arrays itself in a defensive posture against Israel.
Syria said to be conducting population census in bid to turn 1m refugees in Jordan into permanent problem for Jordan
From our Mideastwire.com Daily Briefing today.
On March 21, the Qatari-owned Al-Quds al-Arabi daily carried the following report by its Amman office Chief Bassam Bdareen: “The announcement by the Jordanian Arab Army yesterday on Thursday of its implementation of the rules of military engagement with the vehicles of smugglers on the Syrian border and the destruction of one of the vehicles in full, sets the foundations once again for the field discourse adopted by the Jordanian military institution, as it is trying to protect the border with Syria both ways, due to the absence of the Syrian regular army on the other side. According to the statement of an official military source, the two cars that tried to infiltrate the Jordanian border did not abide by the order to stop. A fire exchange occurred and the Jordanian army used the appropriate force and implemented the rules of engagement, thus destroying one car and seizing the other.
“Hundreds of weapons and drugs were found in the two cars, and the border guard did what it had to do and transferred the entire case to the authorities responsible for handling smuggling cases. At the same time, the interior minister was announcing before the Commissioner for Refugee Affairs that the Syrian border had become a heavy burden on the Jordanians, and was affecting their infrastructure, along with the water, health and education sectors… All these incidents and developments are reproducing the crisis on the Jordanian-Syrian border, while it is believed that the game of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime succeeded in distancing it from the border posts with Jordan and in rendering the border incidents a purely “Jordanian problem,” a thing to which Al-Assad had hinted while receiving Palestinian leader Abbas Zaki.
“According to Jordanian analysts and followers, Al-Assad has decided to “punish” Jordan for its cooperative political position with the Saudi program upon the eruption of the Syrian revolution, by completely abandoning the border area near Daraa, thus allowing the escalation of the developments in it to become a problem either threatening Jordan, or keeping it busy. Jordanian Communications Minister Muhammad Moumani said to Al-Quds al-Arabi on many occasions that his country’s main concern was to keep the Syrian crisis within its border, while reminding that the Jordanian army was protecting the border in both directions, thus preventing any infiltrations into Syria and struggling – according to Minister Majali – to prevent any infiltration from the Syrian side. This Jordanian involvement in the border details is a strategy by the Syrian regime to keep Jordan on the edge…
“But the Jordanian government does not wish to recognize this plan’s success in confusing the Jordanian security and administrative bodies, knowing that the plan became complete when the regime in Damascus suddenly decided to conduct a population count a few weeks ago. This step, and the calls on the Syrians to update their civil status data – in the presence of no less than a million Syrians in Jordan – paves the way before the stay of hundreds of thousands of Syrians in the neighboring states. This was said by a Jordanian official who criticized his country because it did not argue with such an administrative decision that was maliciously taken by Bashar al-Assad, especially since governments do not conduct a population count and update their citizens’ civil status documents in times of war…”
Can it now be said that the S. syrian and s. lebanon fronts are one.. and a new strategic picture for Israel emerges?
I would generally agree with this part from Ibrahim’s piece translated in akhbar english:
“…Based on this logic, it is better for the enemy, and those who might be concerned, to start acting on the basis that Israel will be facing, day-by-day, a bigger problem on its northern border. While it is true that Syria and the Resistance are not interested in war, it would be wrong to assume that they do not have the strength to fight.
The huge mistake that was made by Israel’s allies in the West and the region led to the removal of all obstacles facing the unity of the Syrian and Lebanese fronts confronting it.”
– This is a major development, a long time in the coming, and one which adds a particularly valuable sphere of action for Hizbullah. For it can no longer be said with great certainty that an operation in the golan or adjacent areas is Hizbullah’s work. The limited rocket strike from the south were generally taken as such, but now Hizbullah FINALLY has a deep and advantageous space to inflict pain on Israel with a degree of plausible deniability/confusion etc which matters for multiple constituencies.
– And yes Ibrahim is correct that – just like Israel in many ways birthed Hizbullah itself with its 1982 invasion – so to has it birthed a new, open front which adds multiple complexities and contingencies to its strategic picture. That said, still, go back one step further, and it could be said equally that Hizbullah caused the Israelis to move into this position because of the likely transfer of weapons, whose rate has likely been growing exponentially since 2012.
Reasonable Israel-based Analysis from Benedetta Berti , Yoram Schweitzer on the emerging “new” balance
“…Yet on this point Hizbollah has recently found itself in an uneasy predicament, as while the organization has been able to look the other way following alleged Israeli operations against Hizbollah-bound transfers of weapons on Syria territory, the cost of taking the same stance with respect to the alleged February 24, 2014 Israeli attack against Hizbollah on Lebanese soil would, in the long term, be much higher. For an organization built around “resistance” to Israel, repeatedly ignoring Israeli operations in Lebanon could further jeopardize the group’s credibility, thus creating a dangerous and highly inflammable situation.
With the last three strikes against Israel it is now fairly clear that Hizbullah has and is using a “reasonable” avenue for calibrating the balance of terror with its main enemy. Look at how below, with the golan front and the mess/contingency in syria, hezbollah has a decent means now to hurt israel when it engages in limited attacks on Hezbollah and still maintain a degree of plausible deniability.
This tool has only recently matured. It is of course something like good news for preventing the next hizbullah-israel war.
But again, too much contingency, too much of a desire to finish the other off on both sides, too much hubris and too many opportunities for things getting out of hand … or having another Shlomo Argov, in my view, to last.
Analysts linked the escalation in border tensions to a February 24 air strike on a Hizbullah position in Lebanon, close to the Syrian border, which a security source said had targeted “weapons sent from Syria to Hizbullah”.
Hizbullah openly blamed Israel and vowed to respond.
“Hizbullah is the first name that comes to mind when trying to figure out who masterminded (Tuesday’s) roadside attack,” a Jerusalem Post editorial said, while admitting that nothing was certain in war-torn Syria.
“The country has deteriorated into a free-for-all fire zone the likes of which even this erratic region has never known. It has become an arena for every terrorist group.”
Writing in Yediot Aharonot, Middle East expert Guy Bechor said that responsibility for the Golan attack was far from clear, and may not rest with either Hizbullah or the Damascus regime.
“Assad controls approximately a fifth of his country and most of our border is no longer under his control but under that of the various rebels, mostly Sunni jihadists,” he wrote.
“Hizbullah, like the Syrian regime, is up to its ears in fighting deep inside Syria. The Israeli border isn’t an area that is controlled by Hizbullah, but by Salafist rebels,” he said.
From May 2011…. I just remembered this piece I wrote as I attempt to write a “new” one….
One thing that certainly changed from May 2011 and the closing paras – after realizing how deep the Syrian revolt went, hizbullah apparently doubled down by 2012 or so (one guesses) on trying to increase its share of the qualitative military edge (QME) with israel…. this has apparently also accelerated rapidly in the previous few months.
What does this mean – I believe hizbullah’s planning window for taking strategic risks is shortening and the broader QME-based, but of course ideologically rooted conflict with Israel is getting closer – just witness the last few weeks…
The analysts who have argued since the 2006 war that there is a rough balance of terror that can hold are running out of time… Although I for one thought that they were going to run out of time earlier than has been the case.
In defense, lets all remember that in september 2013 the great war between the remainder of the resistance axis and the status quo axis almost almost came to pass. That said, it was evidently deferred for another day.
Can we really imagine that day will not likely come? Its a long stretch to maintain this – especially from the vantage point of beirut March 2014 – and one that is evidently getting harder to hold up in the near term.
Hezbollah caught in vortex of chance
By Nicholas Noe
BEIRUT – With unrest and violence growing daily in Syria, the Shi’ite movement Hezbollah now confronts a strategic challenge whose negative effects have been magnified by the sheer suddenness of it all.
Just three months ago, Hezbollah confidently precipitated the collapse of the Lebanese government led by prime minister Saad Hariri and rejoiced over the fall of president Hosni Mubarak’s regime in Egypt. Together with its “Resistance Axis” allies Iran, Syria and Hamas, Hezbollah openly touted the climax of several years of hard-fought victories that had successfully cut into the preponderance of power held by the United States, Israel and most of the Sunni Arab regimes.
But that trajectory, on course since at least the start of the insurgency in Iraq and accelerated by Israel’s disastrous July 2006 war that was vigorously encouraged by the George W Bush administration, has now suddenly come to a dead halt.
Worse still for Hezbollah, the Party of God, reasonably predicting the future course that the balance of power in the region is likely to take has become a far more complicated, perhaps impossible, task.
Indeed, for all the commentary and analyses of Hezbollah as a thoroughly radical and (obtusely) totalitarian project, the reality is that the one thing Hezbollah hates perhaps as much as Zionism is the prospect of chaos – the unpredictable, the unintended consequences lying in wait – with the leadership usually preferring to pre-empt such scenarios via pragmatic concessions and the broadening of alliances that together can stabilize their understanding of the future.
This predilection means that the current situation the party faces all around it – but especially vis-a-vis its only open land border, ie Syria – is likely the main subject consuming the time of its secretary general, Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah.
You wouldn’t guess this by Nasrallah’s public speeches of late.
Just as Hezbollah avoided almost any public discussion of the post-election crisis in Iran – its leading patron and ultimate guide (on some occasions) when push comes to shove – Nasrallah has almost completely avoided talking about the deepening instability and brutal government crackdown in Syria.
Though a pragmatic choice not to interfere in its vital allies’ internal business, Nasrallah’s unwillingness to publicly explain the party’s stance – to explain the apparent contradictions between his vocal criticism of the Tunisian, Libyan, Bahraini, Egyptian and Yemeni governments and his different (non-)positions on Syria and Iran – is helping to effectively undermine one of Nasrallah and Hezbollah’s most important and effective weapons to date: their appeal to reason, especially when it comes to regional matters.
Although the party’s many critics have long fought this notion – preferring instead to argue that it only dissimulates (it does, in part) and only bases its power on fear (it does, in part) – Hezbollah has in fact gone to great lengths to reason with a wide range of constituencies around the world that its cause, its case and its methods are essentially rational and in the interests of Lebanese, Arabs and indeed all Muslims (and perhaps even the United States!). In this Nasrallah has been a gifted narrator able to inject self-criticism into his discourse.
This effort has been capped over the last few years by Nasrallah’s argument that the strengthening of the Resistance Axis actually makes sense for both those who would like to see a negotiated regional settlement (two-staters) and those who would like to see the outright end of the Jewish state of Israel (one-staters).
After all, he asserts, Israel will only negotiate minimally reasonable terms for peace if it is compelled to by the balance of power around it. Without that kind of credible, sustained pressure, Israel will simply never give up on the expansionist vision of Zionism – at least, that’s what the post-Oslo period of declining Arab power has taught the region, he says.
On the other hand, as Nasrallah emphasized only last year, those who would like to peacefully promulgate a single democratic state of Palestine (which Hezbollah claims it supports, although it is vague on the idea of possibly expelling Jewish “settlers”), also rationally benefit from the growing power of the Resistance Axis since its own members’ internal contradictions tick down at a far slower rate than Israel’s many “existential” flaws.
“Syria is getting stronger with time,” Nasrallah claimed last May. “Iran is getting stronger with time, Hezbollah is getting stronger with time. The Palestinian resistance factions are getting stronger with time. “The arc of history is on the side of a Resistance Axis”, he said, which will steadily surround Israel and, with its military power (possibly with nuclear weapons) growing, thereby exacerbate Israel’s vulnerabilities to a breaking point.
Over time, Nasrallah assured, demographic factors would intervene, the Israeli economy would decline, the Israel Defense Forces’ (IDF’s) ability to strike its enemies hard, and at will, would be voided by mutually assured destruction and enough Jews would leave Israel out of pure self-interest and fear – or agree to democratic power sharing – that a new, unified state of Palestine would come into being.
In such conditions of de-hegemonization, de-legitimization and perpetual suffocation, Zionism would be effectively finished, Nasrallah argued, with ample reference to a long litany of Israeli thinkers, leaders and intellectuals (not to mention US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s own warning last year to the annual American Israel Public Affairs Committee conference).
While his argument has indeed seemed reasonable to a great many Middle Easterners who have witnessed the steady collapse of the “Peace Process”, a key problem with it is now sharply evident: the internal contradictions of the Resistance Axis, even at home in Lebanon, are stark and they are ticking down to a defining moment at a far faster rate than Israel’s own bevy of contradictions.
Hezbollah therefore stands today with the potential of losing its strategic depth, it’s on the wrong side of reason when it comes to the domestic turmoil in Syria and Iran and its worst nightmare of chaos surrounding it (and possibly bleeding over into Lebanon itself) is becoming more likely by the day.
Suffice it to say then, the Party of God finds itself suddenly at a very down-to-earth fork in the road.
Will Nasrallah and Hezbollah make the same mistakes now that the US, Israel and their local allies made at critical moments during the 2006-2010 period when their real power was actually in decline, but they nevertheless pushed aggressively as if their overall strategic position was actually improving – a move that produced extended violence and an eventual reversal of fortunes?
In attempting to answer this, one must first acknowledge that Hezbollah as a Lebanese party cum army does have a degree of choice.
Although Hezbollah’s most important relationship with Iran constrains (and may even at certain junctures determine) its actions, Nasrallah has evidently helped move the party towards a degree of independence from both Syria and Iran that would have been unthinkable a decade ago (a view mostly buttressed by statements from top US officials in the recent past).
More to the point, the “red lines” – the junctures – that may prompt Iranian direction or outright control appeared to have been moved farther and farther out.
Indeed, just two weeks ago, Nasrallah asserted:
If someone is angry with us because we toppled his government, Iran has nothing to do with it. I am sincere in saying this. The Iranians knew from the media; we did not ask them or tell them or anything like this. The whole world has seen on television screens the news conference on the resignation of the ministers. The Iranians were just like everyone else. Nobody should hold Iran accountable just because our ministers left the government. Leave this accountability aside.
Whether Nasrallah is being truthful or not here – or in his more expansive assertions over the past few years regarding Iran’s declining influence over the party – is of less importance that what his approach, his rhetoric, says about the party’s willingness, in fact its evident need, to regularly proclaim its relative independence (and in slightly insulting terms no less) – a move generally reflective of the thinking of its vital constituencies without which the party simply could not operate in Lebanon.
Still, even though Hezbollah may have a wider degree of independent action than in the past when it comes to its parent/partner in Tehran, it has nevertheless helped to construct a thick wall of suspicion, resentment and outright hatred (including of a sectarian nature) with many of its adversaries, all of which greatly limits its maneuverability in this next stage.
That it would take an almost “Jumblattian” effort against Syria (exceptional even in Lebanon) to reverse course with actors like Saad Hariri, many Sunnis and others in the country, is no longer really in doubt.
But could the party, in part out of perceived necessity, take this task on effectively and in a timely manner to truly stabilize the country for a sustained period of time as its far larger neighbor descends into extended unrest? Probably not.
Though Nasrallah on one occasion denied it, the party has on several occasions before called its rivals “traitors” and “agents”, only to later join hands in a national unity government, But the chasm dividing the two sides in Lebanon now has never been wider and more bitter – certainly not during the post civil war period, but also not even during worst days of the “Cedar” revolution when Hezbollah and its allies literally fought with the armed supporters of Hariri and his March 14 movement.
Adding to the difficulty in reaching a sustained national accord, Hezbollah faces the prospect of increased intervention and sectarian subterfuge by an angry and wounded Saudi Arabia; perhaps in Syria, certainly in Lebanon via Hariri and evidently in the Gulf and North Africa, all of which makes any bridge building by Hezbollah, even if it wanted to, vastly more challenging, costly and potentially dangerous.
And alongside the re-emergence of this wealthy Islamic enemy that doctrinally hates Shi’ites (and non-Wahhabis in general), there has also been the renewed public push by Israel to pave the way towards a much-anticipated, final destruction of Hezbollah and their supporters.
In fact, with the release three weeks ago of outdated and misleading IDF “maps” of Hezbollah “positions” in civilian areas (as but one example, some of the coordinates are actually bunkers that were abandoned and/or destroyed by Israel during and after the July 2006 war), the clear message to Hezbollah is not, “We have good intelligence on you so don’t get into a fight with us” (ie a message of pure deterrence), but instead came across here as, “We don’t really care where you are or what you think of our intentions since we are preparing the international ground for a broad strike across Lebanon that will revenge the 2006 defeat and knock you out of the military balance … for good. We’re just waiting for your optimal moment of weakness.”
Given this increasingly hostile environment then, the response by Hezbollah in the near term will likely be to split the difference between a grand rapprochement (impossible at home) or a grand war (not now with its strategic depth in question) and move towards a prolonged period of digging in deeper. This could come with limited tactical moderation (facilitating the formation of a mildly pro-Syrian government able to deal with rising complaints from Damascus, entreaties to dwindling centrist constituencies and further aid and concessions for its allies) and, quite possibly, a partial deceleration in its longstanding efforts to radically challenge Israel’s qualitative military edge (perhaps forestalling the “justified” military campaign which so many Israeli leaders seem to want).
In the end, it may be this last point that proves the most important for the future of Lebanon and the region.
Nasrallah well knows that he can lure the Israelis into launching a wide, pre-emptive war (which would bolster the party’s domestic and regional standing) by crossing various “red lines” of military capacity. He has said that he actually “craves” this option because he thinks the Israelis won’t be able to win – and that a defeat or even another occupation quagmire in Lebanon would swiftly collapse the core of Zionism’s strength.
But with Syria (and the predictability of his supply lines) increasingly on fire, the sustainability of this preferred route is also now in grave doubt – just at the point when Nasrallah had most raised and radicalized the expectations of his base over the Resistance Axis’s long-term internal strength, the brittleness of the Israeli socio-military apparatus and the closeness by which one could almost taste total victory-revenge (“in the next few years,” he promised in 2008).
Perhaps then, the only thing that is relatively easy to discern in this next period is that Hezbollah will have to forge its course, one way or another, amid an array of different, competing hands stirring the pot, a massive quantity of arms floating around on all sides, more wide open and radicalized constituencies, less certain alliances and, crucially, none of the underlying, longstanding drivers of violence and underdevelopment engaged in any sort of meaningful mitigation process.
In this vortex of chance, impulse, choice and contradiction, Nasrallah may indeed revert to a “lite” version of his (more often than not) pragmatic approach that served the party so well since he became head of Hezbollah in 1992. But like so many involved in this next, defining stage of the post-modern Middle East, he must find particular discomfort – especially for a man dedicated to several radical goals – in one gnawing question: will it be enough?
Nicholas Noe is the co-founder of the Beirut-based media monitoring service Mideastwire.com and the Editor of Voice of Hezbollah: The Statements of Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah (Verso:2007).
Amazing -US ally Jordan is hosting….. Iraqi Sunnis who are fighting the “democratically elected,” “US-Backed” Iraqi government…. and especially fighting them in Fallujah.
Add this to the incredible set of contradictions in US policy and the sheer obtuseness at several points.
“…Neighboring Jordan, long a haven for dissident Iraqi Sunnis, has quietly emerged in the past two years as a base for tribal leaders who say they have launched a new battle to topple Iraq’s Shiite prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, and to roll back Iranian influence in the region.
…The new command, the General Military Council for Iraqi Revolutionaries, emerged as a unified leadership of what it calls regional military councils coordinating attacks against Iraqi security forces and officials. The councils include tribal leaders and former insurgent leaders but are headed by former senior army officers — among the thousands of Sunni generals cast aside when the United States disbanded the Iraqi army after the toppling of Saddam Hussein in 2003.
The Muslim scholars association said it is not a wing of the military council. But it says it coordinates closely with the council, and some of its officials acknowledge that they are in a temporary alliance with al-Qaeda, which disowned ISIS in February…”