Given events next door in bloody Syria and concerns in Israel, what is Hezbollah’s position in Lebanon?
Yesterday’s Wall Street Journal had commentary by Ms. Fhanaz Fassihi, award-winning American Iranian staff writer covering the Middle East from Beirut, “An Ally Holsters Its Weapons”. Her thesis lent the impression that Hezbollah was keeping its powder dry, not wanting to perpetrate another disatrous conflict like the brief Second Lebanon war in 2006. Hezbollah may not become involved in the bloody conflict of its ally Syria,unless pressured by Iran’s Supreme Ruler Khamanei to intervene. Fassihi noted:
Hezbollah, one of the Mideast's most powerful and polarizing Islamic movements has a dilemma. The group has long enjoyed military and financial support from the governments of Iran and Syria. But as fighting rages in Syria, and the international community intensifies its standoff with Iran, Hezbollah may be approaching a moment of truth: Will it fight for these backers?
One of the best-trained fighting groups in the Middle East, Hezbollah was created to oppose Israel's long occupation of Lebanon, and says its militant wing is necessary as long as Lebanon and Israel are officially at war. It has historically received arms shipments and political support from Syria and Iran.
So far, Hezbollah has feared that springing to Syria's aid could ignite a sectarian war within Lebanon or drag Lebanon into another war with Israel, say people close to the group.
Since its founding, Hezbollah has leaned heavily on money from Iran. And it has rearmed, working closely with Syria. In a recent speech, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah said the group now possesses missiles that "could reach any location" in Israel.
Tensions flared between Israel and Hezbollah in July when a bomb targeted Israeli tourists in Bulgaria, killing five Israelis and injuring dozens of vacationers. Israel accused Hezbollah of carrying out the attack, but Bulgarian investigators continue to investigate.
"Hezbollah doesn't want to answer the question of whether to fight or not. It's not within our interest to say," said a high-level Hezbollah official. "We are not proxies. We are not tools. We know our domestic interests, and Iran and Syria respect that."
Actively fighting for the Syrian regime could jeopardize the political clout Hezbollah has gained in the past two years in Lebanon, where its political wing now effectively controls the government. Hezbollah officials say they are now focused on parliamentary elections in spring of 2013.
"Hezbollah knows if it gets involved in a regional war it will pay a very heavy price and so will its constituents," said Timor Goksel, a professor at the American University of Beirut. "It just can't be responsible for such a disaster for its own people."
"They will not fight for Syria. But for Iran, they will go to the end," said Nohad Mashnouq, a parliamentarian with the March 14 faction, the dominant Sunni political group, which is opposed to Hezbollah.
That assessment from Fassihi in Beirut came before Yisroel Hayom and other Israeli news media reported disclosure today of a Shin Bet and National Police raid on a network of Israeli Arab Drug smugglers caught bringing in explosives from Hezbollah in Lebanon. Yisroel Hayom headlined that “Israeli Intelligence Cracked Massive Hezbollah Bomb Plot”:
In "Operation Time Bomb," police and Israel Security Agency arrest 14 Israeli Arab members of terrorist cell that smuggled weapons and explosives from Lebanon into Israel • Security services disrupt plot before bombs get to their handler, foiling plans to carry out huge wave of terrorist attacks against Israeli targets.
Clearly this raises questions about how porous the northern Israeli border is for Hezbollah infiltration and the continuing security problem of Israeli Arab loyalty.
We asked two American experts for their views on Hezbollah’s strategy.
Shoshana Bryen, Senior Director of the Washington, DC, Jewish Policy Center commented:
In this case, I think Hezbollah is keeping its powder dry because it is the last powder it will get – resupply is heavily dependent on the land bridge from Syria, so having Tehran's favor is worth much less when the planes can't land in Damascus and ship materiel on trucks. Sea delivery is nearly impossible as Israel, the US and Cyprus (among others) have been intercepting weapons ships for some time now. The Russians haven't been helpful to Hezbollah on this count.
As for Syrian weapons going to Lebanon, the Syrian army needs what it has of its conventional arsenal. Iit is possible that Assad is moving arms in anticipation of a long-term guerrilla war back home. So he might move them to Lebanese soil that is friendly to him, i.e., Hezbollahland, but there is no indication that the arms movements are designed to help someone else win a different war.
Serious movement of non-conventional arms to Hezbollah would likely trigger an Israeli (or American) response.
Hezbollah is on shaky ground inside Lebanon. Even Lebanese Shiites don't want another war with Israel. Amos Yadlin's last comment on the rocket/missile threat to Israel was 1,000 serious missiles (nothing to sneeze at) and 9,000 other potential problems from Lebanon and Gaza combined. His point was that it is a far cry from the 40-80,000 rockets and missiles Hezbollah/Hamas claims, and it is a threat Israel can manage.
Clare Lopez, ex-CIA analyst and Senior Fellow at the Washington, DC –based Center for Security Policy had this view:
I think "Holstering its Weapons" is the wrong image...."Keeping its Powder Dry" is more like it.
Yes, the loss of Assad in Damascus will deal a serious setback to Hezbollah. However, as long as Hezbollah has Tehran behind it, they'll find a way to continue.
In any case, Nasrallah is on YouTube video vowing to carry out retaliation should Israel and/or the US attack Iran, whether or not Hezbollah gets direct orders from Khamanei to whom he's pledged bayat (loyalty) publicly, more than once.
And as reporting would have it, the truck convoys south out of Syria into Hizballahland never stop rolling, do they? I'm sure they're just moving the family art collection to safe keeping. I also suspect much of the material in those Syrian truck convoys (just as it was with Saddam) is WMD-related. Probably mostly Chemical Warfare agents and precursors, but also the nuclear stuff...centrifuge parts, etc . Who knows where the Biological Warfare agents go....scientists' home fridges? Nobody ever thought to check Saddam's prisons, so Assad probably feels safe keeping biological warfare agents there, nice and close to the test populations.