Arab World: Hizbullah’s deterrence

Does Nasrallah really feel threatened by the UN Special Tribunal?; He is acting to preemptively deter its indictments.

Nasrallah on Screen 311 (photo credit: Associated Press)
Nasrallah on Screen 311
(photo credit: Associated Press)
Speculation is currently rife concerning the likely response of Hizbullah in the event of indictments being issued against its members by the Special Tribunal investigating the murder of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri. In good Lebanese style, rumors are running rampant. One of these, which was echoed in a comment this week by Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi, is that Hizbullah may use the issuing of indictments to “take over” Lebanon in its entirety.
It is impossible, of course, to know precisely what Hizbullah plans to do in the event of indictments being issued against its members. The movement is being deliberately ambiguous. But there is good reason to think that the rumors of an allout putsch are wide of the mark.
The central reason for this is quite straightforward. Hizbullah and its Iranian patrons already have a situation with which they are quite satisfied. Their current tactics, therefore, are probably designed to defend the present arrangement in Lebanon, rather than to prepare for a radical shake-up or shift in the balance of power.
Hizbullah is the product of a long-term investment by the Iranian regime, supervised by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps. Since the departure of Syrian forces from Lebanon in 2005, it has constituted a key instrument in rebuilding and consolidating the domination of Iran and its Syrian ally.
In a series of moves, Hizbullah has clearly established the “ground rules” in its relations with the supposed authorities: In 2006, the movement established that it has the sovereign power to use its independent military capacity to take Lebanon to war at a time of its choosing.
In 2008, when the government of Lebanon attempted to interfere with Hizbullah’s military capabilities, it struck back hard and placed its military infrastructure henceforth clearly “out of bounds” for the elected government. It also secured the power to veto government decisions.
In 2009, Hizbullah and its allies paralyzed the political system after an electoral setback, until once more they secured their ability to veto cabinet decisions.
In the period 2006-2010, Hizbullah has, with Iranian backing and direct Syrian involvement, rebuilt and increased its military infrastructure both south and north of the Litani River. In so doing, it has demonstrated that the provisions of international law, most importantly UN Security Council Resolution 1701, present no effective barrier to its activities.
As a result of all this, Hizbullah’s position in Lebanon is currently unassailable.
It has freedom of maneuver in all areas of importance to it. At the same time, it does not need to take responsibility for governance on matters of no interest to it. It can leave non-Shi’ite communities largely to their own devices as long as they do not interfere with its activities.
The indicting of Hizbullah officials for the murder of Hariri would represent an attempt to breach the barriers of the sealed Hizbullah kingdom. The Special Tribunal would in effect be asserting a sovereignty superior to that of Hizbullah – namely, that of international law.
The movement is currently posturing and issuing threats, by way of response.
Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah last week threatened that the movement would “cut off the hand” which attempted the “arrest or detention” of its “jihadists.” It has also leaked details of its supposed plans for deploying rapidly throughout the country if indictments are issued. All this is almost certainly intended to act as a sort of preemptive deterrent to any such move by the Special Tribunal.
The message it is intending to convey is “don’t even think about it.” Yet Hizbullah has no desire for confrontation with the tribunal, just as it has no desire to clash with UNIFIL or with the March 14 movement – as long as they stay well out of its way.
Hizbullah is ultimately an instrument for the quarrel that the Iranian regime wants to have with Israel. Its actions over the last decade have been about preserving a space for that conflict to take place from Lebanon. Neither Hizbullah nor Iran has anything to gain from widening the circle of Hizbullah’s control in Lebanon at the present time. It is likely, therefore, that the movement will, if faced with indictments, simply ignore them. It is likely to make clear that any attempt to apprehend Hizbullah members will be met with violence.
It will be prepared to undertake a show of force on the model of May 2008, if deemed necessary. And there, as a result of its capacity for violence and intimidatory tactics, the movement will hope that the matter will rest.
This hope may be well-founded. There are already reports of a Saudi-Syrian brokered deal whereby Prime Minister Saad Hariri may proclaim Hizbullah’s “innocence” if indictments are issued. The Lebanese authorities have neither the will nor the ability to act against Hizbullah.
The “international community” almost certainly does not, either.
Hizbullah has surely noted that a precedent already exists attesting to the relative impotence of the International Criminal Court in the Arab world. In 2009, an arrest warrant was issued for Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity because of the mass slaughter in Darfur. He ignored the indictment and continues to live a free and untroubled existence.
In other words, if one were to define “power” as the ability to carry out one’s will without the need to defer to the wishes of others in a given area, then Hizbullah has no need to “seize” power in Lebanon, for the simple reason that it already, to all intents and purposes, possesses it. This fact is likely to be sufficient to render any indictments against movement members meaningless, making further action unnecessary.