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Hezbollah, Lebanese allies are building a case for war

Hezbollah and its allies are building a case for war and Lebanon’s media and other officials are fueling the tensions with assertions that drones that crashed in Beirut carried bombs. Whether or not the drones carried C4 explosives or that their aim was to carry out a bombing or target an individual is not particularly important because what matters is the calculations going on beneath the surface in Lebanon.

Lebanon’s President Michel Aoun by inferring that the incident marks a kind of “declaration of war” ups the rhetoric and the chances that a green light has been given to Hezbollah to retaliate. The main issue Hezbollah has faced in the past, since Israel’s withdrawal in 2000, is to try to create a legitimate reason for maintaining a massive armed group within a functioning state. It has been able to keep its arsenal, not only because no one can disarm it, but also through claiming it is part of a “resistance” that “defends” Lebanon. As such it claimed after 2000 that it must recover the “Sheba farms” or “Mount Dov” area on the border, a disputed territory with Israel and Syria. Suddenly, a tiny area became the reason for Hezbollah’s existence. This was all a veneer for the real reason of Hezbollah’s existence, which is that as an Iranian proxy and ally which wants the group to continue stockpiling its weapons and building up its infrastructure along Israel’s border to threaten Israel.
Hezbollah doesn’t keep secret its regional ambitions. It fought in the Syrian civil war, it has contact with Shi’ite militias in Iraq, it talks about the Houthis in Yemen as if they are a part of its strategy. It shows images of Al-Aqsa as if it is the main champion of the Palestinian case against US President Donald Trump’s Deal of the Century. At every juncture its role is regional and global. Two small drones, one of which apparently caught on video was far from clandestine, sounding more like a flying washing machine on spin cycle, are merely Hezbollah’s icing on the cake justifying its “right” to respond. This is lip service because Israel uncovered Hezbollah tunnels in December 2018 which showed Hezbollah as having violated the 2006 UN Resolution 1701. So, Aoun says that the drone incident also violates the resolution. This is to create a legal pretext and cover should hostilities begin. Hezbollah and its allies in Lebanon, including President Aoun, are thus already creating the context for the post-war scenario.

Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri, whose father Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was murdered in an assassination likely carried out with Hezbollah’s aid, has seemingly forgotten about the 2005 tragedy. He, too, has condemned Israel but hedged his bets by arguing that it is not in the interest of Lebanon to spiral into a dangerous escalation. He hopes that friends in Washington, or Riyadh, can calm things down. The Lebanese Parliament speaker Nabih Berri, has also spoken with the Kuwaitis and condemned the “Israeli aggression.” Berri is a Shi’ite from the Amal movement.

Is this just a lot of posturing designed by Hezbollah to test the Israeli alertness? Hassan Nasralla recalls the last war and he knows what Hezbollah will face. He also knows his forces lost many casualties in Syria but, they also gained experience there. Unsurprisingly, rhetoric leads the way with talk of “opening the gates of hell” now that the “investigation” has found that the drones were allegedly armed.

Nasrallah has a problematic calculation to make. His allies in Iran are not entirely clear on what the best response is and Hassan Rouhani is discussing a possible meeting with the US under some conditions. Meanwhile, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) commander Qasem Soleimani and Iran’s allies in Iraq have also appeared to green light a kind of “declaration of war.” Yet none of them seem to want to fight the war they have declared, despite their assertions that Israel and the US are behind attacks across the region. Nasrallah’s movement is not the movement of 2006, it is more closely linked to issues in Syria and Iraq today than in the past. It understands this linkage and has to weigh it against its desire to react with a response in the wake of the drone incident.