In a new report, the International Crisis Group warns that the situation in the Levant, four years after the last war between Israel and Hezbollah, is exceptionally quiet and uniquely dangerous.
Of all the explanations why calm has prevailed in the Israeli-Lebanese arena since the end of the 2006 war, the principal one also should be cause for greatest concern: fear among the parties that the next confrontation would be far more devastating and broader in scope. None of the most directly relevant actors — Israel, Hizbollah, Syria and Iran — relishes this prospect, so all, for now, are intent on keeping their powder dry. But the political roots of the crisis remain unaddressed, the underlying dynamics are still explosive, and miscalculations cannot be ruled out. The only truly effective approach is one that would seek to resume — and conclude — meaningful Israeli-Syrian and Israeli-Lebanese peace talks. There is no other answer to the Hizbollah dilemma and, for now, few better ways to affect Tehran’s calculations. Short of such an initiative, deeper political involvement by the international community is needed to enhance communications between the parties, defuse tensions and avoid costly missteps.
Four years after the last war, the situation in the Levant is paradoxical. It is exceptionally quiet and uniquely dangerous, both for the same reason. The build-up in military forces and threats of an all-out war that would spare neither civilians nor civilian infrastructure, together with the worrisome prospect of its regionalisation, are effectively deterring all sides. Today, none of the parties can soberly contemplate the prospect of a conflict that would be uncontrolled, unprecedented and unscripted.
Should hostilities break out, Israel will want to hit hard and fast to avoid duplicating the 2006 scenario. It will be less likely than in the past to distinguish between Hizbollah and a Lebanese government of which the Shiite movement is an integral part and more likely to take aim at Syria — both because it is the more vulnerable target and because it is Hizbollah’s principal supplier of military and logistical support. Meanwhile, as tensions have risen, the so-called “axis of resistance” — Iran, Syria, Hamas and Hizbollah — has been busy intensifying security ties. Involvement by one in the event of attack against another no longer can be dismissed as idle speculation.
Reporting from Beirut, Borzou Daragahi adds:
a clandestine intelligence war between the Jewish state and the Iranian-backed militant group continues unabated, officials and security experts say.
Now, a strengthening Lebanese government is helping Hezbollah bust alleged spy cells, sometimes using tools and tradecraft acquired from Western nations eager to build up Lebanon’s security forces as a counterweight to the Shiite group, which since a 2008 power-sharing agreement has been a member of the governing coalition.
Although security officials here say they’re using newfound tools to ferret out spies watching Hezbollah, just like they would against anyone attempting to infiltrate the country, Western observers express concern.
“There are deep Israeli worries that anything the West gives the Lebanese armed forces and the Internal Security Forces could be used against them,” said Mara Karlin, a former Lebanon specialist at the U.S. Defense Department, now a researcher at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.
The United States and its Western allies play a delicate balancing game in Lebanon. Since 2006, Washington has given nearly $500 million in military aid to Lebanese security forces and has allocated $100 million for 2011, making Lebanon the second-largest recipient of American military aid per capita after Israel.
U.S. Assistant Secretary of Defense Alexander Vershbow met officials in Lebanon on Monday, emphasizing that continuing U.S. aid and training would allow the army to “prevent militias and other nongovernment organizations” from undermining the government.
King Abdallah bin Abdulaziz’s four-nation tour this week must be seen as a bold attempt to defuse a dangerous regional situation and assert the autonomy of Arab decision-making free from external interference.
According to Arab and Western diplomatic sources, the Saudi monarch’s visits to Egypt, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan have had several ambitious aims: to head off the threat of renewed civil war in Lebanon; to consolidate Syrian-Lebanese relations; to encourage Fatah-Hamas reconciliation at a decisive moment in Palestinian fortunes; and to signal to Washington the Arabs’ disillusion with President Barack Obama’s Middle East policy, still grossly biased towards Israel.
The volatile Lebanese situation seems to have been the immediate trigger for the King’s wide-ranging diplomatic initiative. Hezbollah and its local opponents, notably diehard Christians and hard-line Sunni members of Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s Forward Movement, have engaged in a war of words — which seemed in imminent danger of degenerating into violence. At issue were their different attitudes towards the UN Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL).
According to some alarmist reports, the STL is preparing to indict a number of Hezbollah members for the murder of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri on 14 February 2005. Pointing to the recent uncovering of several Israeli spy rings in Lebanon — notably in the sensitive communications sector — Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s secretary-general, denounced the STL as an Israeli plot and vowed pugnaciously never to surrender any of his members to its jurisdiction. Hezbollah’s opponents, on the other hand, claim that unless the STL brings Rafik Hariri’s murderers to justice — whoever they may be — there can be no internal peace.
The issue extends far beyond Lebanon because Hezbollah clearly sees the reports as a sinister bid to blacken the resistance movement, spark internal fighting, and provide Israel with an opportunity to attack Lebanon, as it did in 2006, in a further attempt to destroy Hezbollah.
A tripartite summit in Beirut of King Abdallah, Syria’s President Bashar al-Asad and Lebanon’s President Michel Suleiman — together with numerous side meetings — has somewhat reduced tensions and calmed fears of war. Among the implicit consequences of these contacts are Saudi Arabia’s recognition of the legitimacy of Syria’s involvement in Lebanon, as well as a warning to Israel that any further aggression would face a united Arab front.