Even with all eyes turned toward Egypt and the increasingly violent rifts pulling that society apart, the region’s active civil war in Syria burns on. Last Thursday, the two-and-a half-year-long conflict touched neighboring Lebanon, again, when a bomb detonated in the Hezbollah-held southern suburbs of Beirut killing 27 people and wounding hundreds. Claiming responsibility for the attack, the second to strike the Dahiyeh in the last month, was a previously unknown group, the Brigade of Aisha, Mother of the Faithful, a Sunni Islamist organization that was almost certainly acting on behalf of Syrian rebel units. The message to Hezbollah is clear: If you fight alongside Bashar al-Assad’s forces in Syria, we will take the war to your homes in Lebanon.
The explosion targeted civilians, said Hezbollah general secretary Hassan Nasrallah, distinguishing the Shia community at large from Hezbollah members. “The assailant wanted to cause a big loss of life among the ranks of women, children and people,” Nasrallah explained. Here the Hezbollah chieftain is slightly off-message. As the party of God and its supporters typically argue, Hezbollah isn’t simply a militia with fighters, guns and money, or a political party representing Lebanon’s Shia community, it’s a way of life. As Amal Saad Ghorayeb, a Middle East scholar who reliably puts out Hezbollah’s line argues, “Hezbollah is a community, it’s a people based on a grassroots movement.” If that’s the case, then there are no civilians in the community and everyone, including “women, children and people,” is a legitimate target.
This of course isn’t exactly what Hezbollah intended by obscuring the lines between the party and the rest of the Shia community. As Tony Badran, research fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, recently wrote, “blurring all distinction between party and community was precisely what Hezbollah figured is the best way to shelter itself. The party has long been clear that integrating the Shiites—and also Lebanon more broadly—into the so-called ‘resistance’ project, is at the heart of Hezbollah’s strategy.”
The idea is that by using the Shiite community in particular, and all Lebanon more generally, as a human shield, Hezbollah is able to deter its adversaries, as Badran writes, “out of concern for the citizenry and the country as a whole.” It worked in 2006, when after Hezbollah took all the country to war with Israel, the Bush administration got a ceasefire at the UN in order to protect Lebanon from further devastation, and the government of U.S. ally Fouad Siniora from falling.
But what worked seven years ago is no longer feasible. As Badran explains, Israel effectively accepted “Hezbollah’s decision to turn Lebanese villages into military compounds” and countered with the Dahiyeh Doctrine, declaring that in any future round of hostilities with Hezbollah, all of Lebanon would be regarded as Hezbollah territory, and leveled. In yesterday’s operation, the attackers employed a version of the Dahiyeh Doctrine in treating the Shia community, civilians, as if they were indistinguishable from Hezbollah.
The question for the Shia community is whether it intends to continue serving as cannon fodder in order to protect Iran’s stake in Assad’s survival. So far it seems that the Shia are, as NOW Lebanon’s Maya Gebeilly reports from the bombing site, undaunted. “Only God knows if there will be more explosions,” said one local resident. “We’re not afraid.” How long the community stands unflinchingly with Hezbollah remains to be seen, for there will be other explosions. Yesterday’s bombing merely underscores the fact that in spite of its vaunted reputation for “organizational structure” and air-tight security, Hezbollah and the regions it nominally protects are very vulnerable. If the Islamist equivalent of a garage band can pull off an operation in the middle of Hezbollah central that kills dozens, then it is only a matter of time before the blood starts to spill by the bucket.
Yesterday’s bombing also raises a curious issue for the Obama administration and the American intelligence community. If, as a story by Mitchell Prothero reported last month, the CIA warned Hezbollah via Lebanese military intelligence of an impending Al Qaeda attack, what about the bombing yesterday? If you are part of Hezbollah’s leadership, you might be wondering—is it that the Americans didn’t know it was going down? Or they did know and they wanted it to happen. What’s our response?
If you are an American you are likely wondering what on earth is the CIA doing tipping off a designated foreign terrorist organization? Why, if the Obama administration has thrown its rhetorical, if not military, support behind the Syrian rebels, is the U.S. clandestine service lending succor to an outfit that has a lot of American blood on its hands, most recently thanks to the efforts of Ali Mussa Daqduq, who killed American troops in Iraq?
If the CIA really is helping out Hezbollah, it’s because the White House has no coherent Middle East strategy.
“When there is no real policy vis-à-vis a country, community, or crisis, we see that the role of the intelligence services becomes stronger,” says the Beirut-based independent Shia activist Lokman Slim. “The bankruptcy of the administration’s Syria and Lebanon policy,” says Slim, “leads to an increased role for the intelligence services, which makes the possibility of cooperation between whichever American services and Hezbollah more likely.”
In other words, without guidance from above, namely the president and his national security cabinet, the intelligence community is apt to pursue its own interests and target its own priorities. And for the CIA, according to outgoing deputy director, Michael Morell, that’s Al Qaeda.
In an interview with the Wall Street Journal two weeks ago, Morrell explained that Syria now poses the greatest threat to U.S. national security. “It's probably the most important issue in the world today," said Morrell "because of where it is currently heading." The risk, as he sees it, is that “the Syrian government, which possesses chemical and other advanced weapons, collapses and the country becomes al Qaeda's new haven, supplanting Pakistan.”
Seen from this perspective, the CIA would have no problem working with Hezbollah to thwart Sunni Islamist operations against Hezbollah targets because it sees Al Qaeda as the key issue, not Hezbollah—nor the nation-state marching toward a nuclear weapons program that sponsors the Party of God. According to Morrell, Iran is the number 2 threat.
In effect, the statements of the CIA’s former number two show that despite the administration’s rhetoric regarding Iran, that Obama has a policy of preventing not containing Tehran’s nuclear weapons program, there is in fact no White House strategy to deal with Iran’s regional project. Thus, taking its lead from a president who confuses drone strikes on Muslim extremists for a Middle East policy, the CIA has drafted its own priorities, and Iran is a second order concern. Al Qaeda is the big game. An Iranian bomb just isn’t as dangerous as a gang of Sunni fanatics with car bombs that blow up Iranian hamlets in the middle of Lebanon.