Collateral Damage – Lebanon

Wednesday, October 17, 2018
Opinion by Jean AbiNader

Summer is over; the UN has completed its 73rd annual opening session with the charges, countercharges, and conspiracies that we have come to expect in the speeches of various world leaders and regional luminaries. The US was one of the main accusers to take center stage along with China, North Korea, Iran, and Russia, each trading dark analyses of others’ intentions, motives, and end-games. Lebanon’s friends should be concerned that it was singled out far too often either directly or indirectly as the locus of much of what is wrong in the Middle East, due chiefly to the influence of Saudi Arabia and the US, or conversely, the machinations of Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah. Lebanon is on unsure ground for sure.

President Michel Aoun alluded to the many contradictions in the in the global system in his UN speech when he remarked about the selective enforcement of UN Security Council Resolutions as a fact of political life, which leaves small countries like Lebanon at the mercy of more powerful countries. Today, Lebanon’s status as an independent, multi-religious, multicultural entity is threatened by the interests of Israel, Syria, and Iran through its proxy Hezbollah, states and forces not concerned with human rights of the “other,” whether they be their own citizens or neighbors who have different interests and priorities.

Even those analysts who are predicting an inevitable conflict in the region, as a consequence of Israel’s threat perceptions and the likelihood of a clash with Iran and its proxies, tend to measure their assessments from an Israeli perspective, or how Russia will benefit, or any other scenario that avoids recognizing the horrendous existential damage that will be done to Lebanon as a consequence of Israel and Iran’s regional ambitions.

You could follow Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu’s viewpoint that Hezbollah and its “massive” missile inventory is poised at the heart of Israel and so Lebanon will pay an extraordinary price for not acquiescing in the logic for Israel’s incursions into the country over the past 40 years. As its supporters note, “The potential for yet another war—one of unprecedented scope and complexity—is an outcome of the Syrian civil war, which has enabled Iran to build a military infrastructure in Syria and to deploy its Shi’a ‘foreign legion’ to Israel’s borders.”

This has resulted in a nightmarish series of scenarios pitting Israel against Iran in various configurations. The challenge is clear. “Because of the size of its rocket and missile arsenal and its ground forces, keeping the bulk of Hezbollah’s forces out of a northern war and preventing such a war from spreading to Lebanon may greatly facilitate efforts to prevent a limited local war from becoming a much bigger war, and from perhaps sparking a regional conflagration.”

Scholar Daniel Byman provides another perspective on why Hezbollah and Israel will not go to war, at least not yet. He argues that due to the accuracy and number of Hezbollah missiles, Israel will be reluctant to mount a full-scale operation without extreme provocation. Hezbollah, he believes, has not endeared itself to the majority of the Lebanese people by its adventures in Syria and elsewhere. “Siding with the butcher Assad against the Sunni Muslim opposition, however, made Hezbollah look like an Iranian- and Syrian-controlled sectarian actor rather than an Islamic resistance force. For much of the Sunni Arab world, Hezbollah became the devil incarnate.”

Also, he argues that its recent electoral success counters more militaristic bravado. “In sum, because Hezbollah wants to wield power in Lebanon, it is less likely to use the country as a theater for the fight against Israel, especially if it can do so in Syria instead.” Unfortunately, Hezbollah’s role in the government gives Israel a rationale for demanding that the Lebanese government rein in Hezbollah, without recognizing its own culpability by working with past US administrations to ensure limits to Lebanon’s military capabilities and manipulations of its internal political regime.

The ambivalence in the Israel-US posture towards UNIFIL is another indication of how the lack of a strategic policy beyond Israel’s survival instinct may have unintended consequences. Recent claims at the UN by Netanyahu about Hezbollah missile batteries around Beirut proved to be unfounded charges when 73 foreign diplomats toured the areas three days later (prompting Israeli officials to claim that the facilities could have easily been moved in that time period).

If the US and Israel endorsed and supported UNIFIL’s role, which is much further to the south, there would be much better intelligence about threats on the ground and possibly a more robust surveillance regime that would enhance prospects for deterrence. When asked if Israel’s many aerial and ground violations of the armistice line were provocative acts, the UNIFIL spokesman responded: “UNIFIL continues to work closely with all the parties to help keep the area of operations stable. From the UNIFIL’s point of view, and in the context of our mandate, the most important consideration is the continued commitment of the parties to a cessation of hostilities and to full cooperation with the UNIFIL.” As we have argued elsewhere, it is time for the US to work with UNIFIL as a partner to both counter disinformation from Israel and clarify what UNIFIL could do more effectively to fulfill its mandate.

Overall, there is a pall over Lebanon’s future. Its government is still “in formation” some five months after the elections. Although the conflict in Syria is winding down, there is great uncertainty about the implications for Lebanon both externally, for example, re-opening of trade routes, refugee repatriation, and relations with Syria; and internally, like how Hezbollah’s new regional role will affect Lebanon’s internal dynamics, and if political alignments will attempt to change the constitution to disadvantage the Christians and Druze even further. A bell-weather will be the composition of the new government, the ministerial statement setting out its agenda, and whether the body politic becomes more splintered as a result. It may be a long time before summer comes again in Lebanon.