Yesterday, a rocket fired from southern Lebanon missed its target in Israel. Instead it wounded a Lebanese woman, hinting at a possible pattern of things to come. While Hezbollah contends that its weapons are to protect Lebanon from Israel, the reality is that the arms used to defend the resistance’s patrons Iran and Syria are likely to cause Lebanon yet more suffering.
Israeli security officials explain that the trajectory of the rocket shows it was aimed at Kiryat Shmona, a small Israeli city close to the border that was under heavy rocket fire during the 2006 war. Jerusalem holds Hezbollah responsible for this latest attack and warns that the militia’s “continuous playing with fire may lead to a security deterioration.”
It’s worth noting that Israel, most likely to avoid escalation, often chooses to pretend that Hezbollah is not involved in incidents originating from the regions that it controls. For instance, three rockets were fired two weeks ago across the border at Israel, but after the IDF responded with artillery rounds, the Israelis seemed willing, publicly anyway, to play along with the idea that the guilty party was a little-known Palestinian faction allegedly affiliated with al Qaeda—the Abdullah Azzam Brigades, named after Osama bin Laden’s Palestinian mentor.
Even before the organization announced that it had nothing to do with the rockets, it was clear why Hezbollah and its allies might want to frame the incident as a Sunni operation. The point was to show that if Syrian president Bashar al-Assad falls, Sunni jihadists will cause lots of trouble for Israel and the West.
In other instances, the façade is less elaborate. On Friday, a roadside explosion wounded five French UNIFIL troops in southern Lebanon. French foreign minister Alain Juppé blamed Damascus for giving the orders and Hezbollah for carrying them out. Both denied responsibility for the bombing and chastised Paris. “We condemn such statements,” Hezbollah said, “which do not befit the foreign minister of an important country such as France.”
While France and others apparently see the recent violence in Lebanon as a sign that the troubles in Syria might be spilling over the border, there is another equally or even more dangerous possibility—it’s about Iran. The secret war that Tehran’s adversaries, largely the United States and Israel, are waging against the Islamic Republic is driving the regime to distraction. In return, the Iranians are testing redlines; the problem is that the regime may well wind up leading itself, Lebanon, Israel, and perhaps even the United States to an open war. All it takes is one rocket hitting the right target at the wrong time and Israel will no longer be able to afford the luxury of looking the other way.
Obviously the Syria and Iran scenarios are not mutually exclusive. The preservation of Bashar al-Assad’s regime is a vital Iranian interest. And now, after holding off the opposition for nine months by killing 5,000 people, Assad may finally be facing an existential crisis. The international community, while united against the regime in Damascus, has held off from pushing too hard for fear of a vacuum in the wake of Assad’s fall. But the opposition has been consolidated under the umbrella of the Syrian National Council, led by Burhan Ghalioun, now working in tandem with the Free Syrian Army. The Obama administration no longer has any excuses for failing to throw its weight behind the opposition.
Maybe more important than potential movement on the international front is Assad’s domestic situation: Syria is going broke. As small as Syria’s oil production is (390,000 barrels per day), it still represents a major part of the economy and now three companies have stopped operations due to the latest round of EU sanctions. There are stories of cab drivers robbed and killed after crossing back into Syria with much sought after dollars withdrawn from Lebanese banks. The shortage of dollars suggests that businessmen are already betting against the regime’s survival by holding on to hard currency. Worse yet for Assad is that he is running out of money to pay the army and paramilitary forces that now have to contend with armed defectors from the military and not just peaceful protestors.
Maybe Assad intends to raise money from the Gulf Arab states by threatening to release sex tapes of Gulf rulers, as the Syrian ruler’s adviser Buthaina Shaaban recently warned. In the meantime, stiff sanctions directed at the Central Bank of Iran and Tehran’s oil industry will not only hurt the Islamic Republic but also choke their ally in Damascus. Hezbollah also will pay the price—assuming that it survives the fate Iran has apparently designed for it.
Syria represents Hezbollah’s strategic depth, where, until the uprising began in February, the Islamic resistance kept its weapons supply. But Iran is Hezbollah’s master. Two weeks ago, writes Tony Badran, the “former commander of the Revolutionary Guards and military adviser to Iran’s Supreme Guide, Ali Khamenei, declared that in case of an Israeli attack on Iran, the Iranian retaliation will come from Lebanon.” “All the Zionist cities,” said Yahya Rahim Safavi, “are within the range of our ally Hezbollah's Katyushas.”
Accordingly, Hezbollah’s general secretary Hassan Nasrallah is readying the Shia community for what’s in store. During Ashoura, the festival commemorating the martyrdom of the prophet Muhammad’s grandson Hussein, Nasrallah reminded his audience of an episode many among them would prefer to forget, the 2006 war with Israel. “We, the men, women and children who held steadfast in the July war, are not frightened by their war or their weapons … In these hard times, facing all the challenges, dangers and slander, and facing the excessive strength and cunning of the enemy and the scarcity of supporters and defenders, we say to Hussein, we will not abandon you, or your religion, or your banner, or your Karbala, or your goals, even if we were to be cut, sawed, and our women and children banished.”
The faithful, said Nasrallah, citing a story from Shia tradition, jumped into a pit of fire rather than renounce their religious leader. The same it seems is expected of Hezbollah, Iran’s garrison on the Eastern Mediterranean, as well as all of Lebanon’s Shia and other communities as well.