Levantine Labyrinths

Levantine Labyrinths

Mini Teaser: Sectarian infighting and foreign intervention breed intrigue on the Lebanese political scene. Last summer’s war had a devastating effect—but factional power politics and Hizballah’s rising popularity threaten to make matters worse.

by Author(s): Antony T. Sullivan

As Byman and Simon predicted, Iran has moved vigorously to re-supply Hizballah militarily. Hizballah's armory is reportedly now fully replenished with a large number of new missiles and rocket launchers, and huge quantities of arms and equipment. Hizballah may be better supplied militarily than it was on the eve of the 2006 war. These arms evidently include weapons originally earmarked for the Syrian army. The Iranians are said to have sent Hizballah some 3,000 anti-tank missiles, which proved their lethality against Israel. There are unconfirmed reports that Iran may also have given Hizballah a new, Iranian-built imitation of the North Korean Nodong missile (the Shihab-3), which has a range of at least 1,000 kilometers and a payload of 750 kilograms. Prominent Shi‘a sources within the Lebanese government have facilitated this military re-supply.

Moreover, a prominent Hizballah commander in southern Lebanon insists that Hizballah's weapons are still deployed along the Lebanese-Israeli border, but are well-hidden. Israeli sources do not deny this claim. In addition, Hizballah is reported to have now fully reorganized itself south of the Litani river, under the noses of UNIFIL. Hizballah units there appear to be numerous and are divided at the cell level. It is reported that

there are usually several cells in each village. Each cell is self-reliant and is under instructions to rely on their available military stockpiles and not to expect to be re-supplied in case of hostilities. There is minimal contact between the Hizballah village cells and the central command (actually Hizballah does not have a central command in the proper sense of the term). In case of a military confrontation, each cell will receive brief and intermittent codes which designate a certain action on the basis of an already distributed and rehearsed list of possible courses of action.

Iranian weapons are being smuggled into Lebanon through twelve tunnels dug through the Anti-Lebanon mountain range that runs along the border between Lebanon and Syria. Reports are circulating that six of these tunnels are between one and three kilometers long, while the other six range from 400 to 800 meters. Hizballah is said to store most of its missiles, heavy hardware and many tons of explosives in these tunnels, which French reconnaissance flights are reportedly having difficulty locating.

In addition, Iranian intelligence agents have reportedly flooded into Lebanon and rented residential flats throughout the country. Iran is also said to have sent hundreds of revolutionary guards to Hizballah positions in Beirut's southern suburbs and in the Beka Valley. The Iranians man heavy-artillery positions and anti-armor missiles.

Also, hundreds of plain-clothed Syrian special forces are said to have entered Lebanon as returning laborers. These forces have been assigned to Hizballah positions in the Beka Valley. They are also reported to have entered areas controlled by Syria's close Maronite ally in northern Lebanon, Sulaiman Franjieh. However, former Lebanese Prime Minister Umar Karami has refused to allow Syrian troops to enter Tripoli, for fear of negative Sunni reaction, since Sunnis in north Lebanon have long been at odds with the Syrian regime.

Since the end of 2006, Iran is reported to have sent Hizballah hundreds of millions of dollars via diplomatic pouch. Hassan Nasrallah's brother-in-law, who co-owns several companies in the Beka Valley that generate revenues for the party, administers the funds. The main Iranian source of this money seems to be the Imam Rida Center in Mashad, Iran, while other Iranian religious institutions of lesser importance are also being used to send money. One Middle Easterner observes that the "Iranians are trying to give the impression that the money sent to Hizballah is not governmental money but comes from Shi‘a religious foundations using religious contributions (khums) money for philanthropic purposes." Such allocations are added to funds that Hizballah receives from wealthy Lebanese Shi‘a in West Africa and Latin America, which are channeled through two foundations in Beirut's southern suburbs: Bayt al-Mal (the Treasury) and Al-Yusr (Easy Loan).

Further, as Byman and Simon note, Syria has also become emboldened, having returned as a Lebanese kingmaker without bearing the incubus of 20,000 of its own troops on Lebanese soil. Most importantly, according to Byman and Simon, "Syria has emerged as the only credible guarantor of Hizballah's future good behavior [in Lebanon], and Israel has been reminded that it will not have peace with Hizballah unless it has peace with Syria." That being the case, it is surely in the U.S. national interest to open a direct dialogue with Syria, as recommended in the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group Report, to discuss these and other regional issues.

Commentators in the Middle East make it clear that the Syrian government is still hoping to constructively engage the United States. Indeed, it is reported that Syria is trying to persuade Khaled Mashal, the ultimate authority of Palestinian Hamas and longtime resident of Damascus, to issue a statement recognizing the "right of Israel to exist." Moreover, Syria is said to be "desperate" to get Israel to resume peace talks with it.

The other good news is that Hizballah is not the only Lebanese player that does not want revived civil war. Other factions are of a similar mind. Syria, for example, is well-aware that if any such civil war were to occur it would find itself flanked by two Sunni-Shi‘a civil wars, one feeding off the other. Both Syria and Hizballah wish to avoid that. A civil war in Lebanon might well lead to a civil war within Syria, pitting Alawites against the Sunni majority. The Syrian authorities are determined to avoid any such development at all costs. For its part, Hizballah certainly does not wish its resources to be drained by any major Lebanese internecine conflict, given its expectation that Israel will shortly renew last summer's war. And no one of significance in the Maronite community wants to go over the brink again.

All of this provides openings for Washington, which may prove much more conducive to the promotion of American national interests than the current explosive regional standoff.

Antony T. Sullivan is president of Near East Support Services, a consulting firm. He lived in the Middle East for many years and now travels frequently to the area.

Essay Types: Essay