By Arab News
By Baria Alamuddin*
I increasingly hear diplomats and academics talking about the next Lebanon war as if it were simply a matter of time. Perhaps we require no more authoritative conformation of this than statements emerging from Hezbollah’s Hassan Nasrallah himself.
Nasrallah appears to relish the prospect of war; with fire-breathing speeches warning “the Jews” to leave Palestine to avoid being eliminated; and threatening to bring forth militias from Afghanistan, Yemen, Pakistan and God-knows-where else to join the conflict. There is some truth in Nasrallah’s boasts that Hezbollah is today better armed with long-range missiles; can operate on a front extending to the Golan; and now has domestic facilities for manufacturing its own arms and missiles — thanks to kind Uncle Khamenei!
Hezbollah in 2006 faced overwhelming military force, but because it survived and resupplied, propagandists claimed victory. However, there was a third protagonist in that conflict — the Lebanese people. Lebanon was the indisputable loser, with entire villages and urban districts bombed back to the stone age. Hundreds of civilians were killed by Israeli bombing while the world sat on its hands. Even now, hardly a day goes by without children in south Lebanon being maimed or killed by cluster-bomb fragments.
Let’s take Sayyid Nasrallah at his word and accept that Hezbollah today is 10 times better armed than before, with thousands of battle-hardened mercenaries at its disposal — the blood of Syrian citizens still dripping from their uniforms. Will Israel not be 100 times as ready, having spent every day since 2006 quietly preparing?
I’m sure it will be an impressive propaganda victory if rockets hit the outskirts of Tel Aviv. Does that make it worthwhile when Beirut gets pounded to dust? For every Israeli citizen killed, Israel never fails to avenge itself with 20 times the murderous fury against Arab non-combatants. When Nasrallah embarks on these adventures, knowing precisely how the enemy will respond, does he not also have Lebanese blood on his hands?
If the world in 2006 reacted to the conflict with embarrassed platitudes, in 2017 we can expect Trump to be Israel’s biggest cheerleader; opening the floodgates of US funding and military hardware with which to bring down Armageddon upon Lebanon. It was less obvious in 2006 that the UN and the international system were fundamentally broken. It was a psychological shock when the likes of Tony Blair proclaimed Israel’s right to defend itself and refused to call for a ceasefire. The international community’s lethargic response to renewed regional conflict in 2017 may leave us feeling nostalgic for Blair’s forked tongue.
Nasrallah is proud of having performed so well against disorganized bands of Syrian rebels and the women and children of Aleppo. Does he now believe himself to be invincible?
Awash with US funding, Israel is frequently rated as having the most technologically advanced military on earth, with an unrivalled air force. Iran’s annual funding to Hezbollah has risen to an estimated $800 million. How does this compare with Israel’s on-the-books annual military spending of around $20 billion? I mention this not to praise Israel, but so that, as Hezbollah drags us towards war, we aren’t deceived about what to expect. Israel has earned the undying enmity of us all, after waging so many bloody and futile incursions into Lebanon.
Tel Aviv has been remarkably quiet in the face of Nasrallah’s bluster. Does Nasrallah believe he’ll catch the Israeli army unawares? On the contrary, while Israel’s leadership recognizes it cannot emerge from such a conflict unscathed, Israel would obviously never sit back and allow armies of Iranian proxies to take up residence along its northern borders, without cutting them down to size at the right moment. When this conflict is triggered, it will be infinitely more bitter and destructive for Lebanon than 2006.
Tragic Lebanon is in no fit state to face even limited conflict. For decades Lebanon has hosted a vast refugee population from Palestine and beyond. And after 2011 this tiny state opened its borders to a substantial proportion of the displaced Syrian nation. Consequently, public services long since passed breaking point. Unemployment exceeds 30 percent, with a dangerously high debt-to-GDP ratio of 150 percent. The Lebanon I grew up in was a prosperous and flourishing nation; when I return I’m shocked by growing social hardship. Since 2011 alone, the population living below the poverty line has risen by a shocking 66 percent.
Hezbollah displays contempt for Lebanon, seeing themselves as mighty regional actors (a delusion shared by a disturbing number of Lebanese). Nasrallah somehow claims the right to decide issues of peace and war, life and death, on behalf of the Lebanese people. Many of us thought that the Syrian war would weaken Hezbollah, particularly when domestic criticism intensified after more than 2,000 Lebanese fighters perished in a foreign conflict. Hezbollah has displayed itself to be contemptuously independent of domestic support, as long as Iranian funding flows into its coffers.
Indeed, Hezbollah has intensified ideological control of Shiite districts. It meanwhile embarked on expansive construction projects in areas between the Shiite heartlands, such as south Beirut and Beqaa, to ensure territorial contiguity and sectarian hegemony. This is paralleled with massive sectarian engineering projects across Syria through to Iraq, to ensure a pliant population across which Iran’s pawns can move with impunity. For obvious reasons, the expansion of proxy paramilitaries in Golan has been a priority.
We have entered an era of raw power, when nobody even cares about the moral high ground. Putin, Nasrallah, Khamenei and Assad came out on top in Syria through unlimited brute force. The rulers of Lebanon’s political fiefdoms compete to ally themselves with these self-styled strongmen. A word from Bashar Assad no longer makes or breaks Lebanese governments — Assad’s Iranian and Russian powerbrokers today call the shots.
Hezbollah’s growing stranglehold over the Lebanese political system is manifested in actions against Sunni militants. Nobody disputes that many of those detained and executed are primarily a plague on their own communities. However, such campaigns begin to resemble sectarian purges; thus fueling sectarian militancy which had already been exacerbated by the export of the Syrian conflict on to Lebanese soil.
Much as we resented Western interference, we must acknowledge that in previous decades diplomats were active behind the scenes neutralizing Lebanese disputes and preventing the political system from blundering off a cliff. Today, Western diplomats have largely washed their hands of such a role, and GCC financial support has plunged.
Everybody seems to have forgotten the lesson that Lebanon is the Arab world in microcosm – managing crises in Beirut frequently prevents contagion to the rest of the region.
Israel and Hezbollah are like two ageing and punch-drunk street brawlers who relish their periodic sparring matches, while trampling Lebanon to shreds beneath their feet. Meanwhile their sponsors — Iran and America — sit back and spectate from a safe distance.
Are we content to also passively sit back and watch Israel and Hezbollah tear Lebanon to pieces, simply to prove who’s the biggest thug in the region?
• Baria Alamuddin is an award-winning journalist and broadcaster in the Middle East and the UK. She is editor of the Media Services Syndicate, a foreign editor at Al-Hayat, and has interviewed numerous heads of state.