Largely forgotten in the new conflict between Israel and Hezbollah and the accompanying media frenzy is the heart of the matter — the United Nations Commission investigating the February 2005 murder of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. In his June 2006 report to the U.N. Security Council, the Belgian head of the commission, Serge Brammertz, warned: “The focus of the investigation increases the probability of individuals or groups attempting to execute threats against the Commission . . . for the purpose of disrupting its mandate.” Brammertz could hardly have come closer to the most likely agenda behind the launching of the new war in Lebanon.
In brief, the unwavering focus of the inquiry through four reports has been the Syrian-Lebanese security machine that repressed Lebanon until the enforced withdrawal of the Syrian army from the country in April 2005. The most notable feature of Brammertz’s low-key June 2006 report was its stress on the central significance of “full and unconditional cooperation from Syria,” with no other state or organization named in this regard. The trajectory of the inquiry has been toward an international tribunal to try suspects, probably by early 2007. Four Lebanese security chiefs closely associated with the Syrian regime are already detained at the recommendation of the U.N. Commission.
The strategic implications have been obvious. It is difficult to see how the Syrian regime of President Bashar al-Assad could survive the summoning of senior Syrians to a U.N.-sponsored court as suspects, possibly to face many charges now that the U.N. inquiry is integrating 14 other bombing and murder incidents with the Hariri case. The collapse of Syria’s ruling clique would instantly remove Iran’s chief ally in the Arab world and isolate Hezbollah in Lebanon, cutting its main supply line from Iran through Damascus. The U.N. inquiry has therefore loomed as a clear, present, and growing danger to the Iran-Syria-Hezbollah alignment.
The means of escape was equally obvious — Israel. A direct physical attack on the U.N. Commission, as feared by Serge Brammertz, would simply produce more evidence and more murder charges. Therefore, the only way to derail the inquiry was to bait Israel into a military adventure that would change the political landscape in Lebanon in favor of Syria’s allies, principally President Emile Lahoud and Hezbollah. Here Syria and Iran had the precedents of the brutal 1993 and 1996 Israeli bombardments of southern Lebanon, which inflated Hezbollah and elevated Syria’s bargaining capability. When Hezbollah secretary general Hasan Nasrallah approved the cross-border kidnapping raid that sparked the current hostilities, he knew full well, as a very shrewd politician, that the result would be a conflagration. Whatever Hezbollah’s autonomy, it is infantile to suppose that he courted a regional explosion without the closest involvement of Damascus and Tehran, his partners. A senior Lebanese “ally of Syria,” quoted on July 18 in the leading Lebanese daily al-Nahar, gave a telling insight when he gloated that “the wrecking of the formation of the international tribunal” headed “the first results of the Israeli war on Lebanon.”
No doubt Nasrallah has his own agendas. Before the hostilities, Hezbollah’s stock was declining, with extensive Lebanese resentment of the party’s insistence on defying Lebanese state sovereignty by maintaining a private army in southern Lebanon. Even within the party’s Shia community, a Bekaa Valley religious personality called for a “defense strategy” against Syria. For the longer term, Hezbollah needed to fortify its power and popularity in anticipation of the possible loss of its Syrian strategic depth. By precipitating a conflagration, Nasrallah has taken over decision-making for war and peace, and life and death, in Lebanon. This is effectively a coup d’état against the Lebanese government of prime minister Fouad Sinyora. Hezbollah has representatives in the government, but the Party of God never gave its colleagues the slightest inkling that it intended to bring the sky down on their heads. Presumably such contempt reflects the slogan on a party billboard in southern Beirut: “We are always right” [daiman andna al-haqq]. It is hard to deal with people who are “always right.”
Hasan Nasrallah is gambling that if he goads Israel enough, the Israelis will cause such horrendous devastation that the Shia community will fully close ranks behind the party for its survival, and other Lebanese will not dare offer criticism. Hence he needs continued escalation, as reflected in his speech about the battle being only at its beginning and about “surprises” to come. He appears to exult in death and destruction, which may be Hezbollah’s undoing when the ceasefire comes and the Lebanese people want to move on. Nasrallah is airily unconcerned about infrastructural damage, observing: “There is no worry about reconstructing Lebanon, because we have friends who will help us with clean money.”
While Lebanon burns, the Syrian regime takes care to look as if it is on another planet. Nonetheless the government mouthpiece al-Thawra gave a hint of Syria’s intimate embroilment when it pronounced on July 14 that Israel “will have no choice but to fulfill the conditions of the resistance [Hezbollah], and gambling on any other options is entirely futile.” In a swipe at the U.N. inquiry, al-Thawra also termed the U.N. and its institutions an American “dummy.” President Bush is unwise to speak of asking Bashar al-Assad to restrain Hezbollah, because this confirms to Damascus that its room for maneuver is expanding and that it can expect a “deal.” Israel’s own indications that it prefers to preserve Bashar and his mafia apparatus are exceedingly unhelpful, and raise disturbing questions about Israel’s strategic concepts for the region. As for Iran, the latest statement by the regime’s supreme guide Ali Khamanaei that Hezbollah “will not put aside its weaponry” is an insult to the territorial sovereignty of the Lebanese state.
Plainly, without a ceasefire the Lebanese government and the international community cannot move toward implementation of U.N. Security Council resolution 1559 of September 2004, calling for assertion of Lebanese state sovereignty and disbandment of private armies, principally the military wing of Hezbollah. In the meantime, the rising civilian casualties from Israel’s firestorm increase the likelihood of it serving the goals of Syria and Iran. The anti-Syrian majority in the Lebanese government may founder under the pressures of bombardment and bloodshed. This would truncate Lebanon’s return to independence and democracy, and render the U.N. murder inquiry unviable. Israel risks such outcomes in its pursuit of Hezbollah. Syria’s Bashar al-Assad reportedly told Rafik al-Hariri that he would break Lebanon if he did not get his way. By indirect methodology, these are the alternatives presented by Syria and Iran.
– William Harris is a professor of political studies at the University of Otago in New Zealand. He is author of The New Face of Lebanon: History’s Revenge.