Monday, July 24, 2006

Hezbollah's Iranian War in Lebanon

Dr. Walid Phares,
When Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, secretary general of Hezbollah held his press conference to declare his new victory over his enemy, Israel, he was triggering –probably without knowing- a new era in the history of Lebanon and the region. “We will continue in faithfulness to our line,” he declared, in legitimizing his cross border attack on an Israeli patrol, killing soldiers and kidnapping two. But the real “fidelity” Nasrallah was referring to wasn’t to his captured men in Israeli jails, but to the regimes decision-makers in Tehran and Damascus.

The “operation of July” came as a tipping point in a larger conflict, which superseded Hezbollah’s detainee, the Shebaa farms, borders skirmishes and Israeli tactical responses. Beyond and above the events of that day, Hezbollah was triggering the first Iranian war on Lebanon’s soil: A Syrian-supported offensive, even at the height of the Assad II regime. Bringing fire and smoke to the Lebanese-Israeli borders, and week before to the Gaza-Israel demarcation lines, is not simply two local disputes, one over unilateral Israeli withdrawal in Gaza and the other over real estate on the western slopes of Mount Hermon. Nasrallah (as well as his counterpart of Hamas) has calculated perfectly how to conduct a hit and run with the Israelis ordered by regional regime who have miscalculated their strategies. Pressured by the new regional realities and world concerns about nuclear threats and Terrorism, Iran and Syria wanted to throw their allies into the greatest uncertainties of survival. READ MORE

But as Israel’s Air Force began to pound Nasrallah’s organization and Lebanon’s transportation and communications infrastructure, and the media reported the war in progress with its horrific images, world opinion and decision-centers commenced to swing in all directions, seeking a name to the War and a projection of its ending, with great difficulties. Attempts are still ongoing to frame it from the most simplistic to the most conspiratorial: Lebanon is a beautiful country, it doesn’t deserve violence and victimization, says the less informed. Indeed such lamentation should have been expressed since 1975, when this country was thrown to the lions. Between the PLO attacks since the beginning of the War, the Syrian occupation as of June 1976, the Israeli invasion of 1982 and the Iranian penetration of the 1980s, in addition to the civil war between all communities, more than 180,000 people were massacred and killed, with very little compassion under the Cold War and despite its end in 1990. While most militias disarmed in 1991, only one camp dodged that duty: Iranian-backed Syrian-protected Hezbollah and its allies. Co-ruling the country with Syria’s security services, the militia presented itself as a “resistance” for a whole decade, building its networks, and consolidating power inside the country while claiming liberation against Israel’s occupation of the south. The “Khumeinist resistance” endorsed the Syrian “occupation” of Lebanon and never struggled to free its compatriots in Damascus’ jails. In May 2000 it achieved victory over Israel and its local allies, by occupying the so-called “security zone” in southern Lebanon after the latter being evacuated by the Israeli Government. Since then, Hezbollah reached its golden age: Control of about 70 km of international borders with the “Zionist entity,” warranting hundreds of millions of dollars and other military support from Iran’s Pasdarans; but also appropriation of enormous Government assets and resources under the auspices of Syrian control.

Between 2000 and 2005, Hezbollah increased its influence in Lebanese politics, becoming the dominant force, and remaining the principal ally of Syrian occupation. In this half decade, Tehran supplied the organization with weapons capable of reaching remote areas inside Israel. In those years as well, Hezbollah extended and grew its cells around the world including in South America, North America, West Africa and Western Europe. But the surge to high power, both in Lebanon and worldwide began to face challenges as of September 11, 2001.

From when the American public mobilized against Terrorism in general to the first US-led intervention in Afghanistan, Tehran’s leaders got extremely nervous about the changes hitting their neighborhood. Any democracy anywhere around them is a bad omen. When the Taliban regime was removed from Kabul in 2001, Tehran’s Khumenists witnessed the rise of women in the electoral process and within the Afghani Government. Iranian leaders understood the future implications at home. When Saddam’s regime was removed from Baghdad, Khamenei’s elite wasn’t unhappy with the removal, but with the multi party process that followed, even though they succeeded in inserting their influence in it. And when UNSCR 1559 was voted calling on Syria’s withdrawal from Lebanon and Hizbollah’s disarming, both Tehran and Damascus felt the heat pressuring their joint influence on the Eastern Mediterranean. The Syrian Baathist reaction to the new era was quick with the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri on February 14, 2005. Assad paid a dear price for this fast drawing and shooting against his opponents in Lebanon. In March of that year, and despite an attempt by Hezbollah to shore up popular support to the Syrian President inside Lebanon, one million and a half citizens marched in the street of Beirut, shattering the myth of both Syrian “brotherly” occupation and Hizbollah’s untouched position in the country. With the political weakening of its allied organization by the public and the pulling out of Damascus’ regular troops from Lebanon, Iran’s regime mobilized for the counter regional attack. Hezbollah readied for its role in the general Jihadi offensive.

The Jihadi Syro-Iranian offensive started simultaneously in early 2005, with the Hariri assassination in Lebanon and the selecting of Mahmoud Ahmedinijad as head of the Islamic Republic in Tehran. In Lebanon and as the pro-Syrian Government collapsed, new elections were held and an anti-Syria majority was established, Hezbollah executed a sophisticated one year plan in preparation for the war launched in July 2006. It began with Nasrallah imposing on the Seniora Government a strange offer: taking three members of the Party into his cabinet, while Hezbollah maintains a strategic relation with Syria’s regime. That success brought other moves forward. For six months, political leaders and journalists of the Cedars Revolution were assassinated with car bombs: Samir Qassir, George Hawi and Gebran Tueni. This sufficed to convince the anti-Syrian politicians that any serious obstruction of the Iranian-Syrian axis and opposition to Hezbollah will be “punished.” The terror treatment seemed to have worked, as the Government was forced to abandon the implementation of UNSCR 1559 and have its components sit down with Hezbollah to “discuss” the future of its weapons. In short, it took Nasrallah and his allies less than a year to contain and weaken the Cedars Revolution and the Government it has produced. Twelve months passed after Syria’s withdrawal from the country, and yet the Lebanese army was not allowed by Hezbollah’s veto power inside the Seniora cabinet to deploy along the borders or even inside the sensitive area of south Lebanon. Strategically, Hezbollah absorbed the consequences of the Syrian withdrawal, penetrated the Government and along with pro-Syrian politicians created further divisions within Lebanon’s religious communities, including within Sunni, Druze and Christian political establishments.

During 2006, several factors pushed Iran and Syria to press their allies in Lebanon and in Palestine for havoc. The nuclear crisis with Tehran was the principal factor for convincing the Mullahs that a major crumbling of the region’s new democracies and peace processes is vital to deflect the crisis away from Tehran. In fact the international determination to remove the Iranian nuclear threat was breaking Ahmedinijad’s ambitions for increasing international power. The several elections in Iraq, despite terrorism, indicated the rise of the political process in that country, with future impact on Iran itself. Syria’s isolation as a result of the UN investigation in the Hariri assassination further convinced the Assad regime that inflaming the Gaza and the Israeli-Lebanese borders is the recipe to overshadow the UN report. Hamas also had developed interest in the clash with the “Zionist enemy,” as the financial credibility of their newly formed Government in the Palestinian areas was sinking down and a civil war with Fatah looming on the horizon. And finally Hezbollah: the militia-turned party and still listed as a Terrorist organization on the US list of terrorist group, used extreme patience since 2000 in building its hyper-arsenal across the country, infiltrated the Army and avoided major escalation against Israel. But on Bastille Day Sayyed Nasrallah ended the previous era of preparedness: Now is the time for a qualitative Jihad, he seemed to imply.

In addition to the regional injunctions to strike Israel in order to focus the international heat on the Arab Israeli conflict, Hezbollah has also included a number of “Lebanese” factors in its decision to flare up the borders with its enemy. Back in March 2005, the leaders of the Iranian-backed organization saw in disbelief the enormous masses marching against Syria, and by ripple effect, against Hezbollah. Not only the largest democracy demonstration in the history of the Middle East, but also a multiethnic and multi-religious one: Christians, Druze, Sunnis and even some Shiites broke the taboo of Hezbollah’s “sacred” character in Lebanon. Second nightmare was with the actual withdrawal of the Syrian army from the country, opening the path for the implementation of the second item of the UNSCR 1559, i.e., disarming the fundamentalist militia. The third nightmare came when this anti-Syrian coalition brought a majority in Parliament during the May-June 2005 legislative elections in Lebanon. The threat to Hezbollah was not the formation of a cabinet opposing Syrian influence in as much as it was a signal that the people of Lebanon wasn’t endorsing the “resistance” story, or put it simply, wasn’t buying the party’s story period. The Cedars Revolution was the worse development the Khumeinist movement had to absorb since its inception. The sight of a million young men and women in colorful outfits marching in downtown Beirut was the beginning of a new era: liberal democracy, freedom and rejection of the dark ideology of Nasrallah. Hence, it became a must to eliminate that revolution at any price.

In a few months, a number of leading politicians and journalists were savagely murdered by the pro-Syrian camp: Syrian intelligence, Hezbollah and other groups were suspected as being behind the assassination campaign. In parallel, Hezbollah and its allies outmaneuvered the parliamentary majority, which was supposed to form an anti-Baathist Government, bring down the pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud and remove the pro-Syrian speaker of the House, Nabih Berri. A magic hand convinced the so-called politicians of the March 14 movement, that none of these measures is feasible. Hence Syria maintained its power in Lebanon, while U.S and French Presidents were singing the praise of the liberation of Lebanon. Furthermore, and in a suicidal move the Lebanese cabinet, headed by Fouad Seniora invited Hezbollah to join the Government, before the latter disarm. By the summer of last year, the Cedars Revolution was bleeding seriously. Not only entrenched in the legal Government of Lebanon, but Hezbollah succeeded in a penetration of the Christian community, the hardcore of the anti-Syrian resistance, by enlisting the former commander of the Lebanese Army who performed an about face after 10 years in exile, where he claimed opposition to Syria. Michel Aoun signed an agreement of “understanding” with Hassan Nasrallah during the spring of 2006. The “revolution” was beheaded and Hezbollah was waiting for the right time to operate its come back into the center of Lebanese politics, while executing the instructions of Tehran and Damascus.

By early July 2006, Hezbollah’s preparations for the bloody return to the top were fulfilled. The organization had already accomplished its Lebanese tasks:

1) Elimination (direct or in conjunction with Syrian intelligence or Syrian Social Nationalists) of visible symbols of anti-Syrian leadership: Tueni, Qassir and Hawi, and attempts against others such as May Chidiac, as an intimidation lesson to all others.

2) Paralysis of PM Seniora’s cabinet from the inside and in cooperation with President Lahoud networks on the outside.

3) Paralysis of the parliament in collaboration with speaker Berri and the Aoun bloc.

4) Dragging the political forces in the country in the so-called national dialogue on the weapons of Hezbollah, a major waste of time and marginalization of the 1559 stipulation

3) Intimidation of the Lebanese army command.

4) Attempts to divide the Lebanese diaspora by implanting agents linked to the axis.

5) Reactivation of the pro-Syrian and Jihadist networks in Lebanon and within the Palestinian camps.

6) Distribution of weapons among allied militias

7) Finally and most importantly, completing the final steps in the deployment of a system of rockets and long range artillery batteries aimed at Israel.

It is based on these domestic achievements in Lebanon and on strategic injunctions by its regional sponsors that Hezbollah decided to trigger its awaited Armageddon. What was the Hezbollah’s initial plan? The pro-Iranian militia had constructed a theory of invincibility based on the rationalization of a string of former successes against the United States and France in the 1980s, against Israel and the ex-South Lebanon Army in the 1990s, and its intimidation of the Cedars Revolution in 2005. In short, Nasrallah’s team was convinced of the following: A spectacular operation against Israeli military would:

1. Bring back the “struggle with Israel” to the forefront of Lebanese politics, thus cornering the Lebanese Government into capitulation on the Hariri and the disarmament matters.

2. Expect a harsh Israeli retaliation, good enough to attract world condemnation, but not strong enough to change realities in Lebanon.

3. The operation, dubbed al-Waad al sadeq” (Faithful Promise) would signal the beginning of a series of skirmishes with Israel and a generalized assault on the Seniora cabinet and the Cedars Revolution, to be accused on treason and collusion with the Zionists.

4. With the crumbling of the Lebanese Government under the strikes by Hizbollah-Lahoud-Aoun, the pro-Syrian President would dismiss the Seniora cabinet, and in cahoots with pro-Syrian Berri, would disband the Parliament. A massive campaign of assassinations, arrests and exile would target the March 14 movement, followed by Terror-backed legislative elections, brining back a pro-Syrian Hizbollahi assembly and a radical Government.

5. The “putsch” would reestablish a Pro-Syrian-Iranian regime in Lebanon, and reconstruct a third wing to the Tehran-Damascus axis, reanimating the Arab-Israeli conflict, rejuvenating the Syrian dominance, isolating Jordan, reaching out to Hamas, crumbling Iraq, and unleashing Iran’s nuclear programs unchecked. The domino effects of Hezbollah’s “Waad al sadeq” are far from being even imagined by Western and Arab policy planners.

Nasrallah seemed to be in control of his strategy when he appeared in his press conference of victory. His back was safe since he has terrorized the Cedars Revolution’s movement, enlisted Aoun’s support (breaking Christian community unity), and pushed Sunni and Druze breakaways to challenge Jumblat and Hariri (the son). To his south, he was applauding Haniya’s Hamas “cabinet” for having already engaged the Israelis. To his east, Syria was mobilizing and waiting. In Iran, the “masters” were extending their strategic umbrella; and in Iraq, the Terror sapping of sectarian relations was on. All the brothers in Khumeini Jihadism were awaiting Hezbollah to break the chain of events from the Galilee. Nasrallah was at the forefront of a plan aiming at wrecking the rising democracy and the fledgling stability of the region. The stakes were really high for the “axis.” But Hassan Nasrallah’s master plan failed. First the Lebanese Government, smelling the odors of conspiracy was quick to distance itself from the operation. “The Government was not informed by it nor does it endorse it,” stated the Seniora release. Second, Israel’s volte-face surprised Hezbollah and their allies. Why would the Olmert Government, declare a full war on an organization that classical armies cannot take out, thought the Tehran planners. Then came, the Arab position: Arabia, Egypt and Jordan, followed discretely by others didn’t extend their full support to the move. They certainly criticized Israel to the fullest of rhetoric, but didn’t praise the “Hizb.” On the international level, the Terror group “that-provide-services” didn’t fare better. The United States firmly extended its bipartisan support to UNSCR 1559; France and the rest of Europe stated the same –with their continental language- Russia wouldn’t side with Nasrallah against the world, and China has other priorities on its plate. Only Iran threatened to wage wars in the rescue of its most western army. Nasrallah fell into his own trap but decided to come up with a contingency plan.

Not so different from Plan A, the objectives of Plan B have been readjusted. If Israel bombards Hezbollah’s infrastructure to the ground, Iranian oil will rebuild it. If Israel invades by land, it will find itself against a more aggressive Hezbollah than the one of the 1990s. Besides, Hezbollah will attempt nevertheless to go after the Seniora Government anyway. Calling on the “reserves,” Hezbollah enlisted President Lahoud and his son in law Defense Minister Elias Murr to drag the Lebanese Army in the War against Israel’s forces. And in collaboration with Aounist cadres (while the majority of his partisans are still stunned by the events), Hezbollah has unleashed an international campaign against the “inhumane aggression.” If things go well, Nasrallah expect Plan B to become Plan A, and a land advance by Israel would unleash a total offensive against the Government of Lebanon by pro-Iranian and Syrian forces. If Israel moves north to create a safe area against Rockets, Hezbollah would move north to control the rest of Lebanon. The Syrian-Iranian axis will refuse UNSCR 1559, reject international initiatives for disarming the militias, and will make its stand in Lebanon, even if the Switzerland of the Middle East is to be reduced to rubbles. Assad wants to save his regime in Beirut, and Ahmedinijad wants to shield his bomb in the Bekaa: Alea Jacta Est, the dice are rolling.

Hezbollah’s plan for the Lebanese Army is to drag it to a fight with Israel, as a way to destroy it. For the past 16 years Syria and Hezbollah have penetrated the Lebanese Army and installed their followers at various positions. For example, the command of the southern command, the officers in charge of the southern suburb of Beirut, the Murabb’a al amni (security zone for Nasrallah) and many offices in the second bureau are in the hands of Shiite officers linked to Hezbollah. Syria’s allies including the Hezb and Amal can count on 20% influence within the institution. The commander in chief, General Michel Sleiman is neutral, with possibilities of shifts to either side. The head of the military intelligence, a Christian, follows Lahoud orders. The power map inside the Army keeps changing, but at the core of this institution, most officers are pro-Lebanese, close to the West. If Hezbollah pushes the regular troop into battle against Israel, the Army may split.

The United Nations is bound by a resolution it cannot but implement: UNSCR 1559. Having been among those who worked on introducing it in 2004, I have followed up till very recently the international efforts in this regards. There is a solid consensus that the resolution has to be implemented; it is inescapable. The question is who would implement it? Reality is that the Lebanese Government and its armed forces are too weak in front of the Hezbollah-Baath-Ahmedinijad axis. So if a regional bloc is obstructing a UN resolution, the international community should provide the balance of power. Hence, the US and France, along with the European Union, the moderate Arab states with the consent of the Security Council must provide the tools for the Lebanese Government to spread its sovereignty over its national soil, and the support for the Cedars Revolution to revive itself. The options are very limited: Either Hezbollah will dominate the Lebanese Republic, or the latter will disarm Hezbollah. Anything in between would be a waste of time. If Israel stops its operations short of an international intervention, Hezbollah will win the war. If Israel moves forward inside Lebanon after Hezbollah, an international intervention is inevitable. The days, weeks and months ahead will tell.

Meanwhile Hezbollah and its allies both in the region and in the West are and will be waging the mother of all propaganda wars. The task assigned to the propagandists is to stop military operations so that Hezbollah survives and fail international interventions so that the Lebanese Government collapses. A war of images, photos, mudding, internet, and media will explode in all directions. Operatives helping Hezbollah, including many with Christian names, will be waging an indiscriminate propaganda offensive against Lebanese, Arab, Western and obviously Israeli figures to spread confusion and psychological collapse in the international community. Objective: Obstruct the implementation of UNSCR 1559, trash the March 14 movement, criticize the Arab Government, and incite for Jihadi violence.

Hezbollah waged an Iranian war with Syrian backing. It knew how to start it, but it won’t know how it will end. The forces unleashed in this conflict have been unpredictable including Israel, Lebanon’s politics, the Arab Governments, and the international community. Hezbollah and its regional allies have spoken of “surprises” to come. In fact the latter are pretty much predictable: more rockets on and suicide attacks in Israel, coup d’Etat in Lebanon, and obviously international terrorism, including in the West. Butsurprises” could also happen to Hezbollah. The “Waad al sadeq” operation may not be the only miscalculation by Secretary Hassan Nasrallah. The future of Hezbollah’s war is as uncertain as the fate of the organization.

Dr Walid Phares is the author of the newly released book Future Jihad. He is also a senior fellow with the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies in Washington DC.