October 12, 2010

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Middle East

     Oct 13, 2010

Ahmadinejad steps into a cauldron

By Victor Kotsev

Many observers have little respect for Israeli website Debka File, known for publishing intelligence leaks as well as occasional wild rumors. When I mentioned it to an Israeli analyst recently, he sneered at me. "This is where you go if you want to get your yellow pages," he said. Thus, when Debka cautioned a week ago that Iran was planning a military response to a recent cyber-attack [1] and that Hezbollah was setting to overthrow the Beirut government by force following the visit of Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad to the country [2], the reports did not immediately attract attention.

However, it is now clear that something serious is afoot in Lebanon. There are rumors that Hezbollah will respond violently - even preemptively - to a widely expected indictment of some of its members by the United Nations-backed tribunal into the 2005 murder of ex-premier Rafik Hariri. These have become so widespread that even Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah felt the need to address them on Saturday. He did this in a way that caused further alarm as it could be interpreted as a veiled threat. "If we wanted to [stage a coup], we would've done that in 2005," he said, adding: "We would've taken over the country on August 15, 2006 [after the Israel-Hezbollah summer war that year] if we wanted to, so these claims are unfounded."

Amid reports that Lebanese civilians are arming themselves (according to an interview with a Lebanese arms dealer published on the website Now Lebanon, sales of light arms have gone up 60% in recent months) or leaving the country, news outlets have picked up the scent. "Ahmadinejad's plan to visit Lebanon in the coming weeks should be seen in the context of Hezbollah's plot to take over the country", writes Arab-Israeli journalist Khaled Abu Toameh for the Jerusalem Post [3]. Another Ha'aretz report describes the mood in the country as "gloomy".

"Iran, through its association with groups like Hezbollah, is actively undermining Lebanon's sovereignty," Reuters quotes US State Department Philip Crowley as commenting on the Iranian president's trip.

While it is not clear that a Hezbollah coup d'etat is imminent, the Debka report is partially corroborated by a consensus among most analysts that a Sunni-Shi'ite confrontation is shaping up. The political realities in Lebanon bode poorly as well. In the last year, two of the country's most powerful anti-Syrian leaders, Druze leader Walid Jumblatt and Sunni Prime Minister Saad Hariri, felt forced to reconcile with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and to offer elaborate apologies for blaming Syria for their fathers' murders. In the Middle East, such humiliation is usually a sign of a grave predicament.

It is hard to overlook that preparations for the Ahmadinejad visit have taken on mythical proportions. "We call on [the masses] to welcome President Mahmud Ahmadinejad on Wednesday all along the airport road," said Nasrallah in a televised address. Not only the road to the airport, but also much of Beirut and Lebanon is reportedly decorated with Iranian flags. This is particularly visible in the south near the border with Israel, where a specially built replica of the Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem will be inaugurated by Iran's president. According to reports, he also plans to throw a "symbolic stone" at Israel while touring the border, and thus to assume his much-more-than-symbolic place at the helm of Hezbollah ("the resistance").

It is important to watch the behavior of Syria, which has a decisive influence in Lebanon. On the one hand, Assad has tried to put on a moderate appearance: a few weeks ago, he publicly asked the Iranian president to cancel his visit to South Lebanon. He also offered to enter peace talks with Israel and reshuffled his security agencies, a sign that he does not expect a war to be imminent. When, in August, he visited Lebanon with Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz, there were indications that he was trying to curb Hezbollah, perhaps per a secret understanding with the Saudis.

On the other hand, however, the Assad administration has repeatedly voiced support for Hezbollah. Recently, it issued arrest warrants for a number of Lebanese public figures implicated with the Hariri investigation - a bold move and a blow against the Western- and Saudi-supported Lebanese government. Regarding the security services reform, in some ways Syria gravitated closer to Iran. Stratfor notes: "The most intriguing reshuffle concerns replacing [Major General] Mamluk with Major General Hamad to become the head of state security. Hamad, Stratfor has been told, is close to the Iranians, and Tehran had made clear it wanted Hamad to replace Mamluk upon the latter's retirement."

According to Debka, the senior US diplomat, Frederic Hof, on Friday delivered an ultimatum to Syria not to allow Hezbollah to use any violence in Lebanon [4]. Such a move makes a lot of sense, and it even falls short of what some analysts feel US President Barack Obama needs to do. "Obama must, at a minimum, publicly state that he will hold Syria accountable for any bid to topple the Lebanese government, whether by the Syrians or their proxies in Hezbollah," stated James Traub in Foreign Policy.

It is unclear how successful the Americans will be in averting a showdown in Lebanon. One circumstance will likely play in their favor: it is not in Syria's interest to see any single internal power consolidate control over the country. This is because Syria wants to maintain its own grip on Lebanon, and it includes even Hezbollah. Thus, at the minimum we could expect Syria to seek to preserve the status quo in some form, whether by preventing Hezbollah from using violence or through subsequent moves.

Moreover, according to some reports, Assad is growing wary of the Iranian attempts to subject him to a bear hug. In these circumstances, and should a good opportunity emerge, he might be tempted to jump ship completely. Such an opportunity, for example, could present itself if Iran is weakened additionally - either by internal strife [5] or by a successful foreign intervention - or else if Assad perceives that he can get a particularly good bargain.

Obama is hard-pressed for some foreign-policy achievements, and according to Stratfor this will likely be even more true after the November congressional elections in the United States. Given the gloomy news coming from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq, and the poor progress of the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations - going by Monday's developments [6] - the US administration might be prepared to reward Syria generously for a peace agreement with Israel. Such a move would have a precedent in president Jimmy Carter's decision, over three decades ago, to give up on a comprehensive settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict and to push for a separate treaty between Egypt and Israel.

For now, nevertheless, a Syrian defection from Iran is still in the realm of speculation, and Assad appears set on vacillating. What that means for Lebanon remains to be seen - perhaps very shortly.

Notes
1. http://www.debka.com/article/9058/, Debka.com, October 1, 2010.
2. http://www.debka.com/article/9062/, Debka.com, October 4, 2010.
3. http://www.jpost.com/MiddleEast/Article.aspx?id=190578, Jerusalem Post, October 7, 2010.
4. Obama makes Assad responsible for Hizballah violence in Lebanon, Debka.com, October 9, 2010.
5. Ahmadinejad Under Fire in Iran, The Daily Beast, September 28, 2010.
6. US after Netanyahu settlement freeze proposal: Our position on this is well known, Ha'retz, October 11, 2010.

Victor Kotsev is a freelance journalist and political analyst with expertise in the Middle East.