By Arab News
By Dr. Dania Koleilat Khatib*
Assaf Orion, a retired Israel Defense Forces brigadier general, gave a talk last Thursday through the Jewish Policy Center in Washington, in which he discussed Israel’s border with Lebanon. Orion said that Israel might take a preventive step due to Hezbollah’s growing arsenal of precision missiles, signaling a possible strike if the Lebanese group does not behave. Hitting Lebanon might disrupt the group’s operations in the very short run, but in the medium and long term it would embolden Hezbollah and restore its legitimacy. Therefore, the US should deter its ally from any aggression on Lebanon.
To start with, a strike would not prevent Hezbollah from producing missiles and threatening Israel. Since the war on Lebanon in the summer of 2006, Hezbollah has grown in strength. In fact, before 2006, Hezbollah’s legitimacy was in question for two reasons: That there was no need for “mukawama” (the Arabic word for resistance) since Israel had withdrawn from south Lebanon; and its possible involvement in the assassination of Rafic Hariri.
The alliance with the much-loathed Bashar Assad regime in Syria had put Hezbollah in a bad position. However, the hit by Israel renewed its standing in terms of “mukawama.” It also renewed the perception among the Lebanese that Israel was an existential threat — hence the need for Hezbollah as a resistance group. Hezbollah’s alliance with its Christian partner, the Free Patriotic Movement, became stronger. Since last October, with the beginning of the popular protests and their demand for accountability, Hezbollah’s arms and illicit activities such as smuggling have been brought into question. Nevertheless, a hit on Lebanon would revive Hezbollah’s legitimacy and create the effect of rallying around the “mukawama.” Hezbollah’s recent act of damaging the border fence with Israel was aimed at reviving the narrative of resistance.
Better than hitting Lebanon and making the entire country pay the price of Hezbollah’s agency to Iran is to break the Lebanon-Syria connection. Assad has a very close relationship with Hezbollah. The group knows that, if it was not for Assad’s support in 2006, it could not have held out for as long as it did. The 2006 assault on Lebanon helped Hezbollah enforce its image of “mukawama” against Israel, not only in Lebanon but in much of the Arab and Islamic worlds. Whereas large armies were defeated in a matter of days, Hezbollah was able to endure for more than a month, inflicting substantial losses on Israel.
This is why, when the Syrian revolution erupted, Iran rushed to the aid of Assad, who was facing mass protests and army defections. The Iranians knew that, if Assad was overthrown, the link between Iran and Hezbollah would be broken. Hezbollah is the Islamic Republic’s prime success in exporting its revolution. It is the role model of all its militias in Arab countries. Tehran cannot afford to lose its connection with the jewel in the crown of the Islamic revolution. Hence, a better alternative to hitting Lebanon — which would not only result in carnage and a human disaster, but would also further destabilize the region — would be to cut Hezbollah’s supply lines. Controlling the Lebanese-Syrian border is key to that.
A big scandal was last week featured on the MTV Lebanon network. It showed how fuel and flour, which is paid for by the few reserves left in the Lebanese central bank, is being smuggled to Syria. Worse, fuel and flour are supposed to be subsidized items that the bankrupt government still supports in order to offer Lebanese citizens affordable energy and bread — two basic goods for their daily survival. Lebanese Forces party MP Georges Adwan wondered how Lebanon could ask for financial help from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) when subsidized goods are being smuggled out of the country.
Should UN Security Council resolution 1701, which states that UN peacekeeping forces should be deployed all along Lebanon’s borders, be enforced, it would be a step toward de-escalating and stabilizing a very volatile situation.
Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah, in a televised speech last Wednesday, said that deployment of the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) on the Lebanon-Syria border would achieve the goals that the 2006 Israeli assault failed to achieve. Nevertheless, the issue should be approached from an economic perspective and not a political one. A political approach to the issue would deepen Lebanon’s internal divisions, but if the move was proposed as a measure to fight smuggling and increase state revenues it would receive overall acceptance.
Two of the main conditions attached to any potential IMF bailout are fighting corruption and tax evasion. If the IMF was to ask for the deployment of UNIFIL on Lebanon’s borders to ensure the proper eradication of cross-border smuggling, then the Lebanese government could not refuse. Already, the government lacks legitimacy and is betting on its reform plan to garner the international support it needs in order to get some recognition domestically. It could not afford to block such a request. Additionally, controlling the borders, which would minimize the spillover from the Syrian war, serves the mainstream Lebanese policy of self-distancing from regional turbulences.
The US should pressure Israel and suppress Benjamin Netanyahu’s appetite for a full-blown war, which he would probably use to show his public the lengths he is willing to go to safeguard national security. It is better to take calculated steps and think long term. It is also important for the US to push for the scenarios that will reduce regional instability, and not those that will increase it.
- Dr. Dania Koleilat Khatib is a specialist in US-Arab relations with a focus on lobbying. She holds a PhD in politics from the University of Exeter and is an affiliated scholar with the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut.