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Aug 23, 2012 | 12:23 GMT

Hezbollah's Pragmatism and Lebanon's Tenuous Calm

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Summary

Clashes between Sunnis and Alawites resumed Aug. 22 in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli. Triggered by civil unrest in neighboring Syria, the clashes have left as many as 10 dead as tensions rise throughout Lebanon.

Several of Syria's neighbors will be affected by Syrian President Bashar al Assad's departure. Most important, al Assad's ouster could endanger Iran's geopolitical position in neighboring Iraq and Lebanon, especially with Tehran's Shiite ally, Hezbollah. 

Lebanon has remained relatively calm since the uprising in Syria began in March 2011. Hezbollah's pragmatic response to the unrest is part of the reason for this. But this pragmatism also makes Hezbollah look weak — or at least fearful and nervous — potentially alienating the group from its support base, which relies on Hezbollah's domestic political strength to protect impoverished Shia in Lebanon. Ultimately, the political transition in Syria could disrupt Lebanon's stability and eventually challenge Hezbollah.

A mosaic of religious sects and denominations, Lebanon has long been a battleground for proxy groups aligned with foreign players such as Syria and Iran. Iran's relationship with Hezbollah involves financial, logistical and political support, and Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps has provided weapons and training to the Lebanese group since its founding. Tehran views Hezbollah as a long-term investment and has encouraged its growth and eventual independence while retaining strong ideological and sectarian ties.

But the Syrian conflict has reduced Iran's influence in the country. The unrest has also affected Hezbollah, which is a major power broker in the Lebanese government and holds a majority of seats in the 30-member Cabinet. Hezbollah also holds a majority in Lebanon's parliament through its "March 8 coalition" with former Lebanese Prime Minister Michel Aoun's Christian Free Patriotic Movement, Parliamentary Speaker Nabih Berri's Shiite Amal Movement and other parties.

Hezbollah and Syrian Unrest

Hezbollah has mostly kept a low profile throughout the Syrian unrest; the Lebanese group believes that the al Assad regime has little hope for survival. Accordingly, the group has taken a cautious and calculated approach to its relationship with Damascus. Hezbollah's fighters have remained in Syria and along the Syria-Lebanon border, but the group has tempered its pro-al Assad rhetoric, especially in recent months.

Lebanon and Syria

Lebanon and Syria

On the domestic front, Hezbollah has repeatedly denied involvement in recent Shiite militant activity such as the kidnapping of Syrians and a Turkish national in Lebanon by the Meqdad clan, a Lebanese Shiite family. Hezbollah even showed restraint after 11 Shia were kidnapped and held hostage in Syria. Hezbollah also claimed that it could not prevent protesters from blocking the road to Beirut's airport even though the road runs through Dahiya, a southern part of the city controlled by the group's supporters.

Hezbollah's restraint will not necessarily hurt the group in the short term, depending on how the Shia who support Hezbollah view this approach. Hezbollah continues to wield one of the largest and well-armed militias in Lebanon and has a firm grip on vast tracts of Lebanese territory stretching from southern Beirut to the Israeli border, as well as east into the Bekaa Valley due to an alliance with the Amal Movement. In many ways, Hezbollah is stronger than the Lebanese state, and the institutions it has built will not simply wither away.

Still, Hezbollah's opponents will read the group's apparent docility as weakness. Already, the opposition March 14 movement — led by former Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri's Future Movement and backed externally by Iran's regional rival, Saudi Arabia — has grown bolder in challenging the Shiite party. The Aug. 9 arrest of pro-Syria lawmaker Michel Samaha by Lebanon's Internal Security Forces, which are aligned with the opposition, indicates that the March 14 coalition sees the al Assad regime's allies as vulnerable. Samaha's ongoing detention suggests that Lebanon's judiciary is not being pressured by the ruling coalition to secure his release, even to house arrest.

Nevertheless, the March 14 movement is divided and likely will avoid confronting Hezbollah directly. Indeed, all concerned parties in Lebanon are waiting to see exactly what will happen in Syria. How the Syrian turmoil unfolds will determine what happens in Lebanon and how much pressure Hezbollah (and Iran, by extension) will eventually face.

Reports indicate that Hezbollah is feeling vulnerable, as rifts have formed within its senior leadership. Disagreements within the group are not uncommon, but the context of the dissonance is a new paradigm.

Thus, Hezbollah's long-term dilemma is one of identity. The group has reconstituted itself primarily as a political movement rather than a militant Iranian proxy. But fractures within Hezbollah are forcing the group to decide whether it will remain an ideological resistance movement or let pragmatism guide its political decision-making. Hezbollah's choice will affect its relationship with foreign allies, including Syria, and with its domestic support base.

Iran and Saudi Arabia

In the interim, Lebanon will remain relatively calm. If excluded from Syrian transition talks, Iran would support an insurgency in the country. But Tehran does not want to support an insurgency in Lebanon and risk compromising Iran's position in the Levant or endangering Hezbollah.  

Saudi Arabia would like to counter Iran and Hezbollah, but Riyadh also has an incentive to keep Lebanon at least temporarily calm. The Saudis have worked closely with Ankara and with Syrian rebels to oust al Assad, and Riyadh will not risk that goal by engaging Iran and Hezbollah in Lebanon — at least for the moment.

While no side wants a conflagration in Lebanon, however, it is unclear how long the current detente can last, especially after al Assad falls. There also remains a possibility that rogue elements in Lebanon could trigger a broader conflict. The recent kidnappings by the Meqdad clan raised that possibility, especially as other clans have followed suit by taking their own hostages.

In the short term, the tenuous coalitions that constitute Lebanon's political landscape could fracture. For example, Aoun's Christian faction could end its support for Hezbollah. Other actors, such as Saudi-backed Sunni jihadists, may also push for more influential roles in the political process. No group will make too brazen a move until al Assad goes. But when the president finally falls, the fragile peace in Lebanon may go with him.

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