Analyst: Situation in Lebanon looks very dangerous
August 20th, 2013
10:55 AM ET

Analyst: Situation in Lebanon looks very dangerous

By Gabrielle Chefitz

Editor’s note: GPS intern Gabrielle Chefitz speaks with RAND Corporation analyst Julie Taylor about Hezbollah, civil war in Syria and the dangerous uptick of violence in Lebanon.

What was behind the recent EU decision to designate Hezbollah a terrorist organization?

For a long time, the United States has had Hezbollah listed as a terrorist organization. The Europeans had not. And one of the reasons why is because the EU highly values having open diplomatic channels, and cutting-off relations with a group that plays an important role in the Lebanese government restricts the EU’s ability to influence events in Lebanon.

After the Hezbollah terrorist attack on Israelis in Bulgaria [last July], the EU was under pressure to change its position. It took a middle path and only listed Hezbollah’s military wing as a terrorist organization, not the party as a whole. There are fears that this will isolate Hezbollah. [But] what I think is most important about the announcement is that this is coming at a time when Hezbollah members and supporters are being assassinated and kidnapped by Sunni extremist groups and Free Syrian Army sympathizers, both in Lebanon and Syria. While the extremists and FSA-Sympathizers aren’t necessarily working in tandem, these aren’t simply retaliatory attacks due to events in Syria: they are a deliberate campaign to try and draw Shiite Hezbollah into a more direct sectarian confrontation with Lebanon’s Sunni population.

What would be the benefits of a direct confrontation?

That it would further isolate Hezbollah. Even some Shi’as were against Hezbollah becoming involved in Syria. And so they are hoping that provoking Hezbollah will at the very least make it pay a strong political price inside of Lebanon. It could become much more difficult for the party’s coalition partners to stay with Hezbollah. There might be strong pressure on them to break off.

So, what is Hezbollah involvement in the Syrian conflict?

Hezbollah fighters have been crossing over into Syria since the conflict began, but their formal entrance into the conflict in May has provided pro-Assad forces a surge of momentum. They played a pivotal role in helping the Syrian Army retake Qusayr, a town that rebels had controlled for a year.

Is Hezbollah tipping the balance? Can the rebels still win?

I think the rebels cannot win this at this time. I think they could have won, but that time has passed. And the most important reason why is because the outcome of the war is more critical to supporters of the al-Assad regime – Iran and Hezbollah – than it is to the backers of the FSA-Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, and the West. This isn’t an existential issue or the most important issue for any of the rebels’ external supporters. While Saudi Arabia and Qatar would like to contain Iranian influence in the region, it doesn’t imperil their regimes if al-Assad stays.

Why is Syria so important for Iran?

Syria’s real significance to Iran is that it’s the corridor through which they supply Hezbollah. Hezbollah forces, and the missiles Iran has inside of Lebanon, are Iran’s frontline defense against an Israeli attack. At least, that is how they see it. And so for them this is an existential issue because removal of the missiles makes them vulnerable. They might be open to having al-Assad step down as long as his regime is replaced by a government that is mindful of Iranian concerns, but they can’t have Hezbollah’s position in Lebanon threatened or the missiles put at risk. And so they will become much more actively involved. And if you have direct Iranian involvement in Lebanon, that just feeds the flames of this sectarian conflict.

Will Israel respond if Iran escalates its involvement?

It would be very difficult for Israel to not be involved. Right now, the Obama administration’s vacillation on the Syria issue makes it very unclear how they would get involved in a Lebanese conflict. So far, the Obama administration has strongly encouraged neutrality for all foreign parties who have an interest in Lebanon. But once Iran is directly involved I think it could be a very different picture for the United States.

How long could this fight last?

I don’t know, but the Lebanese civil war lasted for 15 years.

How much of the current sectarian struggle in Lebanon can be seen as an extension of that civil war?

It would open up all of the issues of the past, none of which were satisfactorily resolved by the Taif Agreement which ended the Lebanese civil war in 1990. But you have an additional destabilizing element that was not there before, which is the potential for rapid growth of jihadist groups inside Lebanon and for this to become a new front in the global jihad- and not just Lebanese jihadists, but for groups outside as well. If you had a front open up in which Iran and Hezbollah could be fought directly, that might be very attractive to Sunni jihadists.

Could this conflict continue to escalate? Is another civil war a possibility?

I think it could. I’m concerned about these tit-for-tat attacks: the assassinations, car bombings and kidnappings. Eventually, something will tip the balance and Hezbollah will feel its needs to react violently.

Why isn’t this getting more attention?

The situation in Syria has grown very ugly, so for good reason, it’s receiving most of the attention. The situation in Lebanon is very complicated, so I think that's another factor that keeps people from really understanding what’s going on. Plus, in Lebanon there’s always been a bit of instability. There’s always been periodic bombings and assassinations, so people may not realize that this is a very dangerous uptick.

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Topics: Middle East

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soundoff (12 Responses)
  1. jgwpu

    Reblogged this on InternationalScope.

    August 20, 2013 at 5:37 pm | Reply
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    August 20, 2013 at 8:30 pm | Reply
  3. Eddie Fonseca

    Being a European American I have traveled to different parts of the Middle East from the Egpyt, Israel and Beriut Lebanon during 1995 on tour groups which was a great culture experince. While traveling on the river Nile in Egypt our tour guide was talking about the different relgions in the Middle East from Musilms to Christans as well. These groups do have different way's of veiwing god and poltical viewpoints, but both groups still live together in peace and harmony. When I was in Beriut Leabon the people were open minded and you could sit in a cafe with a cup of tea or soft drink, and talk about poltical viewpoints without it being one side conversation about making fun of Isalm. The people of Leabon do speak about a three different launguages from Arabic, Spainsh and French also English they also said Beriut is the Paris of the Middle East from it's fashion to great culture events. I suggest people not just Americans should do more traveling to places across the world,to learn about different cultures and to expand their travel horzions it will make us better open culture minded citzens not just in America but across the world.

    August 20, 2013 at 10:40 pm | Reply
  4. j. von hettlingen

    Due to its borders with Israel, Lebanon is of strategic interest to Iran, while Syria serves as a conduit. Bush II said that Iran, the Hezbollah in Lebanon and Syria made the "Axis of Evil".
    Lebanon's uniquely complex ethnic and communal make-up makes it vulnerable to ideological polarisation and sectarian violence. The civil war ended in 1990 but Lebanon was embroiled in war with Israel in 2006 over Hezbollah and feels the spill-over effect of the Syrian civil war. The Governments remain fragile, often drawn into domestic affairs in Syria.

    August 21, 2013 at 7:54 am | Reply
  5. Rick McDaniel

    Eventually, Lebanon will become entirely Islamic, and a bastion of terrorism.

    August 21, 2013 at 3:12 pm | Reply
  6. Richard Pearce

    Yes, the situation in Lebanon is indeed looking like it will also fall apart as the US allied dictatorships and oppressive regimes continue to fight against the democracy movement. The win they seem to be achieving in Egypt, that they have managed to derail the movement towards democracy that the Syrian government was doing, may encourage them to try the same thing (turning back the clock on the slow movement towards actual democracy) in Lebanon. Especially since the system that the French designed to keep Lebanon a government which responded to the minority of the population cracked in the last election, If the efforts of the Saud family, and the other 'Royal' families of the Gulf Dictatorship Council to snuff out the democracy movements in their country (I know, if you watch CNN, you probably think that when the Sauds etc. sent their military to give the democracy protest camps in Bahrain the Tianenmen treatment, it was the end of the protests there, and are not aware of the demonstrations for democracy, or accept the regimes lines that they are actually Iranian sponsored terrorism, but the protests continue, along with the brutal oppression by the regimes to stop them) continue to be ineffectual, they are likely to back the restarting of the Lebanon 'Civil' War to keep the majority of Lebanese from having the government of their choosing.

    August 21, 2013 at 5:52 pm | Reply
  7. Phelix Unger

    These guys are really on the ball, thanks for the update.

    August 22, 2013 at 7:10 pm | Reply
  8. glennrobert

    No one has explained to me why Iran cannot have the bomb when Israel and Pakistan are allowed to with out safe guards or controls. The bomb is a great defensive weapon but worthless as an offensive device. The one truly unstable country in the area is Pakistan not Iran.

    August 23, 2013 at 2:06 am | Reply
  9. Baz Shakespeare

    Verily the Levant doth suffer from a surfeit of 'Plestinian Diplomats'.

    January 2, 2014 at 11:19 am | Reply
  10. fuscator

    This piece does not even make it as "Lebanon for Dummies".
    Very little new information, and no attempt at analysis, not to mention daring a prediction of events to come.

    January 2, 2014 at 11:24 am | Reply

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