Analysis: Hizbullah will keep turning up the heat

As long as Hariri resists capitulation, it is likely that Hizbullah and its allies will engage in mass protests and a gradual escalation of violence.

Hizbullah Rockets 311 (photo credit: Associated Press)
Hizbullah Rockets 311
(photo credit: Associated Press)
The resignation of 11 ministers associated with Hizbullah from the cabinet of Prime Minister Saad Hariri raises the curtain on the next act in the permanent political drama that envelops Lebanon.
Wednesday’s action marked the first time in Lebanon’s turbulent history that a cabinet was brought down by the withdrawal of the required one-third-plus-one ministers from it. London-based Lebanese analyst Nadim Shehadi called the latest development a “leap into the unknown.”
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But while it is impossible to predict precisely what lies ahead, there are recent precedents that may serve as a useful guide.
It is worth remembering that the mini-civil war that Beirut witnessed in May 2008 was preceded by 18 months of roiling political tension following the resignation of Hizbullah ministers in November 2006.
It is likely that the next phase in Hizbullah’s efforts to destroy the Special Tribunal on Lebanon will also feature mass protests and a gradual escalation of violence by the movement and its allies.
While such protests are likely to be ostensibly based on economic and social demands, their real purpose will be to intensify an atmosphere of tension designed to intimidate Hariri and the March 14 movement. The hoped-for result of this will be renewed mediation, and a climb-down by Hariri from his current refusal to openly abandon the tribunal investigating the assassination of his father.
The likelihood of armed violence during this phase remains relatively low. Hizbullah is a long-term Iranian project designed to build the legitimacy of the Islamic Republic of Iran in the Arab world by engaging in conflict with Israel. In May 2008, Hizbullah and Iran witnessed the potentially disastrous consequences for the success of this project that might result from the movement’s turning its guns against its fellow Lebanese and Arabs.
Hariri and his allies have no “military option” of their own. Hence, Hizbullah is likely hoping that sustained civil pressure, plus the threat of a possible swift activation of armed force à la May 2008, will be sufficient to produce the desired results – namely, as Lebanese analyst Michael Young put it, a “certificate of innocence” for the movement from Hariri.
So while the resignation of the March 8 ministers (plus the supposed Shi’ite “independent” Adnan Hussein) is certainly a new development in Hizbullah’s war on the tribunal, it appears to represent a chapter in an ongoing and increasing process of pressure and brinkmanship, rather than a paradigm shift on the part of Hizbullah.
Should Hariri continue to refuse to withdraw Lebanese funding for and involvement in the tribunal, the possibility for more serious violence may come onto the agenda.
In this regard, it should not be forgotten that in recent weeks, Hizbullah has been seeking to present the tribunal as an “Israeli project” aimed against the “resistance.” The movement has suggested that Israel was responsible for the murder of former prime minister Rafik Hariri, and is seeking through its machinations to turn the Lebanese against one another.
Still, most analysts agree that the likelihood of Hizbullah opting to change the subject of the tribunal by indulging in an act of provocation against Israel is relatively small. The movement is aware of the very high price that would be paid by Lebanon as a whole and its Shi’ite support base in particular.
For the moment, Saad Hariri remains prime minister, while the remaining cabinet members look set to continue to function as a “caretaker” government. Hizbullah and March 8 have neither the desire nor, it seems, the ability to cobble together an alternative coalition of their own. The prospect is for more instability ahead.
Wednesday’s events also showcase the relative balance of power in the Iran-led regional bloc. The US, France and Saudi Arabia had evidently hoped that Syria would prove able to exert influence on both Hariri and Hizbullah to reach some form of compromise. The collapse of the Syria-Saudi negotiations indicate the frustration of these hopes.
Syria is a junior partner in the Iran-led regional bloc, with little leverage over Hizbullah. Hizbullah’s position is accurately represented by Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s recent statement that the tribunal is “null and void.”
At the same time, Hariri evidently also considered the balance of power and felt able to say “no” to a humiliating climbdown, which would represent political suicide for him. So the notion that the Lebanese crisis could be solved by reintroducing a greater role for Damascus has failed to produce results. Syria lacks the strength to play this role.
Hizbullah, as the strongest single player in Lebanon, chose this week to flex its muscles and raise the stakes in its campaign to induce Hariri to concede. Hariri, for whom surrender would mean disgrace, has so far refused to do so. Hizbullah now looks set to raise the stakes once more.
The results cannot be predicted. But the basic power equation in all this should not be forgotten. There is currently no force within Lebanon able to stand firmly against the physical power of Hizbullah.
This fact is known to all. For as long as it remains the case, it is likely to prove decisive in the eventual outcome of the crisis.
The writer is a senior research fellow at the Global Research in International Affairs Center in Herzliya.