Saturday, July 15, 2006

What was Nasrallah thinking? Part Two

There has been a lot of commentary in the past few days on how to interpret the Hizbullah's decision to provoke Israel by launching its raid into Israeli territory. Nasrallah himself explained his decision as a bid to increase pressure on Israel to release the Palestinian, Lebanese and other Arab prisoners that it holds. Nasrallah also said that he wanted to help the Palestinian cause and that his attack came in solidarity with Hamas. We cannot dismiss these rationales as mere pretexts. Hizbullah is an organization with an ideology, and its followers may indeed view this operation as a way to "support" the Palestinians by coming to their need at a time of crisis. However, even if Nasrallah does not genuinely care about the Palestinians or other prisoners held in Israel and is using them only as a pretext to attack, he may have decided to carry out the raid in order to appeal to Lebanese Shi'a and to Arab public opinion as a whole.

Interpretations that ascribe this motive to Nasrallah tend to focus on the Lebanese domestic political context and regional public opinion to explain Hizbullah's attack. Lebanon's current Prime Minister, Fuad Siniora, is a member of the “Future Movement” – the anti-Syrian coalition led by Sa‘ad Hariri, the son of the assassinated former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. He’s perceived as pro-Western and pro-American. According to some commentators, Nasrallah’s aim was to embarrass Siniora and to expose him as a weakling. Hizbullah is making it very clear that it controls what will happen on the ground, while Lebanon’s Prime Minister is being forced to look on. The Lebanese army can’t intervene now, nor can the Prime Minister and other opponents afford to criticize Hizbullah directly, especially as Lebanon is under attack. Hizbullah supporters are probably gleefully pointing to the refusal of the United States to intervene and telling the Lebanese and all Arabs that Siniora and his American friends are useless. They’re trying to position themselves as fighters and heroes and the only ones who can uphold Arab honour. These claims are of course ludicrous – Hizbullah is the reason for the attacks and the reason why America is not standing by Lebanon. There’s not a chance that a terrorist group implicated in the death of 220 marines (killed by an attack on the American peacekeeping force stationed in Beirut in 1983) is going to get a break from the United States. A propos, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, both allies of the United States, have come out strongly attacking Hizbullah’s foolishness and brazenness.

On the other hand, Hizbullah is being backed by two states that are trying to send a message to America. It’s clear that Hizbullah is a proxy of Iran and Syria, although it is not clear whether instructions were issued for these attacks. Even in a Ha’aretz article by Yoav Stern published today (July 16), a senior Israeli military intelligence officer is quoted as saying that, although Syria has played a “negative role” in the recent events, it is not believed to be “directly involved in the escalation.” The Israelis are also denying that they intend to attack Syria. Instead, Israeli military commentators such as Ze’ev Shiff are saying that Iran is the country that is leading the way in supporting Hizbullah. Many of the rockets, including the advanced missile used to strike at the Israeli frigate, are of Iranian make, apparently. Iran’s Revolutionary Guards are also present on the ground in Lebanon and advising Hizbullah. This is obviously a very useful opportunity for Iran to get a look at Israeli capabilities and weaknesses. Hizbullah is indeed an incredibly useful proxy for Iran. However, there’s also a larger picture, one that is well-explained on, a blog run by Joshua Landis, an academic who knows Syria, but has been fiercely attacked by a number Lebanese-American academics for acting as a mouth-piece for the Syrian regime. According to Landis, Syria is mad that it has been sidelined by the US ever since 9-11. America has made it harder for Syria to get international financing, has accused Syria of assisting rebels in Iraq, locked Syria out of trade deals with Iraq, pressured it to withdraw from Lebanon and dissed Bashar al-Asad on numerous occasions. Syria wants the Americans to understand that it is a regional power to be reckoned with. In other words, Bashar al-Asad does not want to be considered irrelevant to stability in the Middle East. According to Shiff and others, Iran’s interest is to divert attention from the nuclear issue and to prevent it from being brought to the Security Council. I don’t fully understand how a momentary conflagration could have achieved that, but I do see how, if this turns into a big regional crisis, there might be less unity among Security Council members on the Iran issue. Maybe the Iranians are stirring up trouble between Lebanon, Israel and the Palestinians, to signal that Europe and the US cannot push Iran too far in the nuclear negotiations.

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