How ironic that when Hezbollah insists that the new government’s policy statement include a mention of the privileged role of the resistance, that role was imperceptible when Israeli aircraft attacked earlier this week near Nabi Sheet.
It’s still not clear what the Israelis bombed Monday night, though news outlets suggested Wednesday that it was a shipment of missiles from Syria. Hezbollah downplayed the incident, which Information Minister Ramzi Joreige admitted had taken place inside Lebanon. Party officials did not comment.
Israel’s Channel 10 TV station reported the raid followed warnings from Israel to Hezbollah, transmitted through European governments, that the party’s deployment along the border with Syria had strategic implications, therefore Israel would attack if Hezbollah maintained its positions. Border control is still seen as the duty of the Lebanese Army, with which Hezbollah is so keen to be equivalent in the people-Army-resistance triad advocated by the party.
Hezbollah has sought for years to position itself as a protector of the Lebanese state – hence its insistence on retaining its weapons. How funny, then, that the border has never been so porous, with officials telling us that the car bombs in Lebanon are being rigged in the Syrian town of Yabroud، before passing through Hezbollah areas on their way to Beirut.
Not only has Hezbollah been incapable of defending the borders, it has been utterly incapable of defending its own community. The bombings directed against the party and the Shiite community have only rarely occurred in faraway places where security is patchy. It has, clearly, been the intent of the attackers to strike at the very heart of Hezbollah’s quarters, regardless of the security measures, and destroy any sense of confidence that the party can protect its own.
What was the Israeli message Monday? In recent years, before the party was drawn into the Syrian quagmire, Hezbollah and its mouthpieces voiced great ambitions. Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah, the party’s secretary-general, spoke of a new weapon that would surprise the Israelis. He promised that in a future war, Hezbollah would seize territory in northern Galilee. And there were some who suggested that the time was ripe for the imposition of new rules of the game between the party and Israel, along the lines of the 1996 April Understanding.
Such hubris was not surprising from those who considered the 2006 summer war a Hezbollah victory. But today such puffery is more difficult to justify. The party has imported the Syrian war into Lebanon and has become a hostage to the grinding, open-ended battle on behalf of a Syrian regime delighted to have fresh, non-Syrian bodies to feed into the battle.
But the air raid this week suggested something else. That if anyone is seeking to impose new rules, it is the Israelis. If Channel 10 is correct, then we can wonder whether Israel’s intention is not to increase the cost of Hezbollah’s deployment along the border with Syria in the future.
Indeed, as the Syrian regime increases its control over areas adjoining those under Hezbollah’s sway in the northern Bekaa Valley, Israeli anxieties can only rise. With the battle for Syria’s Qalamoun district in high gear, Israel is worried that a secure Lebanese-Syrian border will facilitate the transfer to Hezbollah of advanced weaponry that can hit Israeli cities.
Hezbollah, with thousands of combatants in Syria, has a very narrow latitude to respond to the Israelis if the air attacks escalate. Israel sees a golden opportunity to impose red lines of its own on the party, and Hezbollah cannot do much about it.
All this was predictable months ago, when Hezbollah’s recklessness in Syria promised to bring Lebanon nothing but strife. One can only stare in disbelief as the party continues to insist on the people-Army-resistance formula, when none of its Lebanese partners view it with any conviction.
What is most flagrant is that Hezbollah, even as it seeks to impose a form of hegemony inside Lebanon, has been shown to be no better than an auxiliary force regionally for both the Iranian and Syrian regimes. The party cannot be happy to see its men in the vanguard of the Syrian regime’s actions, even as the Syrian army’s effectiveness remains suspect. And though the Iranians and the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council are negotiating a final nuclear deal, the party is in no position to act as a deterrent to Israel if these talks break down.
In other words, Hezbollah is struggling, at no small cost to Lebanon’s interests and its own, to defend Syria and Iran, but it simultaneously seeks to force this priority on the Lebanese through a formula that would allow it to retain its weapons. Needless to say, this cannot conceivably go together with Hezbollah’s efforts to reduce sectarian and political tensions at home. There are too many contradictions in the party’s multiple ambitions, which the Israeli attack only further damaged.
For now, March 14 and the centrists should reject the people-Army-resistance formula. Hezbollah is the one that needs cover for its participation in the Syrian conflict, so let it make the concessions. The party cannot even secure its core areas against the jihadists and Israel, so it should stop trying to convince us that it merits a special role as protector of Lebanon.
Michael Young is opinion editor of THE DAILY STAR. He tweets @BeirutCalling.