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    Middle East
     May 11, 2011


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).

(Copyright 2011 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)


Arab revolts hand it to Hezbollah
(Apr 5, '11)

Hezbollah: Craving war, not wanting it
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