Lebanese Hizballah seized an opportunity to reassert itself on the international stage on July 12 with its seizure of two Israeli soldiers along the Israel-Lebanon border.
The militant group's actions could serve as much to satisfy the policies of its Iranian and Syrian patrons as they do to challenge internal Lebanese politics. UN Resolution 1559 called for the disarmament of all militias in Lebanon, but at present Hizballah and a few Palestinian groups remain as armed entities in addition to the Lebanese Army. Moreover, the Lebanese cabinet has declared that Hizballah is the "resistance," rather than a militia. Some Lebanese politicians have decried Hizballah's influence in the country's affairs, and they also have spoken out against their country serving as a battleground for Iran and Syria against the United States.
Hizballah's Role In Lebanon's Government
Nevertheless, Hizballah, which has two ministers in government and 12 representatives in parliament, is confident of its power vis-a-vis the Lebanese government, despite the government's ability to force a redeployment of Syrian troops from Lebanon last year. Hizballah Secretary-General Hasan Nasrallah warned the government in a July 12 press briefing to choose its position on the current crisis carefully.
Nasrallah said he was not asking for the government's support, but warned "officials and non-officials" from "acting in a way that would encourage the enemy against Lebanon or speaking or acting in a way that would provide cover for the Israeli aggression against Lebanon." He added that it is time for solidarity and cooperation to carry out what he called a "national obligation."
An Israeli warplane takes off on July 12 from a base in northern Israeli for a mission in Lebanon (epa)
Following a closed cabinet meeting, the government issued a statement saying it had no prior knowledge of the operation and would not take responsibility or credit for what happened along the international borders.
Nasrallah's apparent power vis-a-vis the Lebanese government makes Hizballah an authority unto itself. The Hizballah leader justified the July 12 attack by reasoning that his organization was in a stronger position vis-a-vis Israel than the Hamas-led Palestinian government and hence it should aid Hamas in its struggle.
Confident Of Negotiations
Nasrallah appealed to the Palestinian people to be patient, saying he believed the Hizballah attack would help Gazans out of their current crisis. "Israel usually negotiates with us," Nasrallah said. "At first they say 'no,' but then they accept. This might take place after a week, month, or year, but finally they will say, 'Let's negotiate.'" Israel on July 10 refused a demand by Hamas to negotiate a prisoner swap for the Israeli soldiers seized in Gaza on June 25.
The timing of the attack may also be linked to Hizballah's perception that some parties in Lebanon are aligning too closely with the United States. Just days ago, it was revealed that Lebanese intelligence agents cooperated with the FBI in an investigation that led to the arrest of eight alleged terrorists purportedly plotting to blow up a tunnel connecting New Jersey and Manhattan. Such cooperation between the United States and Lebanon is sure to draw the ire of Hizballah.
Broader Regional Tensions
The decision to strike at Israel also reflects the broader regional conflict, which has pitted Iran and its allies against the United States and its allies in the region. Iraq has been the focal point of the struggle for the past three years, with Iran's influence now extending from Al-Basrah to Baghdad through its support of Shi'ite militias.
The Hizballah operation provides another opportunity for Iran to flex its muscles in the region – and the timing couldn't be better with international pressure mounting on Iran to accept a proposal of incentives to halt its uranium-enrichment program or face sanctions.
Nasrallah told reporters on July 12 that he believed Iran and Syria would continue to support "Lebanon and Palestine" despite international pressure.
A Beirut family stocks up on groceries in anticipation of a long crisis (epa)
"I believe that their stand is strong and firm," he said.
Nasrallah stopped short of acknowledging any direct support for his group's actions. "At the end of the day, it is our land that is occupied, and I will not wait to see who supports me and who opens their front -- everyone is free to make whatever decision they want," he said.
Ali Larijani, secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, met in Damascus on July 12 with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Mu'allim, where both lent their support to regional resistance to foreign occupying forces, IRNA reported. Both men reportedly agreed that continuation of the resistance in Palestine and the resistance of Iran and Syria to foreign pressures have been fruitful, the news agency reported, and that resistance is the only route to success and victory.
Syrian President Speaks
For his part, Syrian President Bashar al-Asad has already said he does not feel his country is in a weak position vis-a-vis the United States.
"Currently, Syria appears to be isolated in form, but in content, nothing at all has changed," he told London-based "Al-Hayat" in an interview published on June 29. "We continue to have the same role, and in fact, the Syrian role has now become much better than it has been in years."
Asked if he feared a U.S.-Iran rapprochement that could ultimately weaken Syria's hand in the region, al-Asad replied: "No, particularly with regard to Syria. I don't want to speak about the rest of the Arabs. Syria has a role in various matters, particularly regarding Iraq, and it will have a positive role, for the benefit of Iraqis, of whom we have received many. One cannot ignore the role of Syria, as an Arab state, and a neighboring state."
Al-Asad was asked if he feared for regional security should Hamas and Hizballah launch attacks on Israel, prompting a U.S. response on Iranian nuclear facilities.
"Certainly," he answered.
The daily also asked about Syria's role in any Iranian response to a U.S. strike. "We are not a part of it," al-Asad responded. "However, with all certainty, when the region becomes so chaotic, it is unreasonable to think that things will be stable with you. Perhaps events will push you toward becoming part of this chaos, when the issue is a huge and very dangerous one. But there is a more important question, in isolation from the military scenarios. When you carry out such an operation, where do the radioactive materials go? What will happen? If you think about striking a state with a nuclear capacity, imagine the chaos in a nuclear state - what does it mean? The issue is much more dangerous than a mere case of a military response here, and the launch of a missile there."
Need For International Involvement
Meanwhile, Arab leaders are nervously watching the escalation. Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Salih called for the convening of an emergency Arab summit on the deteriorating situation in Iraq, Palestine, and Lebanon on July 12, MENA reported the same day. The Arab League responded, calling for an emergency meeting in Cairo on July 15.
Jordan's cabinet convened an emergency session on July 13, Petra reported. While noting that King Abdullah was exerting efforts to calm the situation, the cabinet called on the United Nations and the international community to intervene.
In Cairo, Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmad Abu al-Ghayt warned on July 13 that the situation could spiral out of control. "The rhetorical escalation by all parties threatens to provoke an explosion of the situation and to herald a dangerous phase for the region," he told reporters.
The minister's comments came one day after Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood applauded the Hizballah operation.
"These men pulled off this great act to champion our brothers in Palestine, whom the Arab and Islamic governments failed to help in any way," said Muhammad Mahdi Akif, general guide of the Muslim Brotherhood in an interview with Hizballah's Al-Manar television.
Arab League member states are virtually helpless in confronting the threat of further regional instability. Regional players have little leverage against groups like Hamas and Hizballah. Likewise, both the Palestinian Authority and the Lebanese government are puppets in the hands of both groups. Thus international intervention will likely be crucial to calming the situation.
The UN announced on July 13 that it would send two envoys to the region immediately, first to Cairo, then Israel, Lebanon, and Syria.