'Israelis," says Tony Badran, "think that Syria's withdrawal from Lebanon in 2005 strengthened Hizbullah. They're so wrong."
Hizbullah, explains the research fellow for the Washington-based Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, where he focuses on Lebanon and Syria, rose to prominence in large part through Syrian intervention. After first opposing Hizbullah in its fight with the Syrian-backed Amal, Damascus took up the cause of the victorious Shi'ite militia and helped it solidify its status as a significant threat to the Lebanese government.
Syria, Badran says, also imposed a comprehensive socio-political culture, based on intimidation, to support the Party of God. "This," he points out, "is now no more."
It was not that the vacuum created by the withdrawal of the Syrian army two years ago emboldened Hizbullah into instigating last summer's war with Israel, Badran believes. Rather, the pullout forced it to concoct a means through which it could maintain its role as a domestic challenger to the elected government.
"The war was more for domestic issues than anything else," he says. "[Hizbullah leader Sheikh Hassan] Nasrallah figured the Israeli response would be as it had been before - they would hit a few bunkers, and then the whole thing would be over in two days. He'd have a few Israeli soldiers in his hands and a military victory with which to embarrass [Prime Minister Fuad] Saniora's government. It would have been tremendous. But he took a huge beating."
Hizbullah's defeat last summer - and, to be sure, like most Lebanese who don't pay fealty to Nasrallah, Badran characterizes Hizbullah's performance as an unequivocal failure - combined with its inability thus far to topple Saniora's coalition and Syria's distress over the Rafik Hariri tribunal put Hizbullah in a difficult situation, he believes.
Could Nasrallah again try an attack on Israel to save his standing at home?
"The possibility exists in theory," Badran says. "I don't think, however, that they're in a position to create that kind of a mess for themselves - not domestically, not internationally and not militarily. They may have brought in more Katyushas, but who the hell cares? It's not really a strategic weapon. The bunkers south of the Litani River have all been compromised. Also, they lost 600-700 fighters in whom they had invested six-seven years of training. How are they going to bring them back?"
No, says Badran, "despite Nasrallah's bluster, they're not in a position to do anything." This is why it could be in Israel's best interests to wait things out, to see whether Lebanon's coalition of anti-Syrian and, increasingly, anti-Hizbullah forces can solidify its control of the country. And, to let the fallout of the Hariri tribunal expose the true colors of both Hizbullah and Syria's newly reelected dictator.
"You Israelis are busy discussing whether [Bashar] Assad's intentions are sincere," Badran continues. "The answer is that, yes, he really does want to talk. But why? Assad only intends to use talks with Israel to relieve pressure from the US.
"Now, since the Palestinian situation is so pathetically horrible, talking with Syria might seem attractive," he says. "But the chance of fruitfulness in talks with Syria is zero. So this is a case where doing something with Syria is actually worse than doing nothing." - S.S.