By Mohamad Bazzi

Interviewee: Mohamad Bazzi, Adjunct Senior Fellow for Middle East Studies, Council on Foreign Relations

Interviewer: Deborah Jerome, Deputy Editor,

Tensions are high in Lebanon, as a UN tribunal is reportedly due to hand down indictments in the 2005 assassination of Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri. Hezbollah leader Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah has said the tribunal will wrongfully finger several Hezbollah members and blames Israel for the assassination. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has said that "the possibility of war is increasing" in the region, a warning underscored by this week's deadly border clash between Israeli and Lebanon troops. Many Lebanese fear that if Hezbollah is implicated in Hariri's assassination, Lebanon could see a new wave of sectarian violence, says CFR Adjunct Senior Fellow Mohamad Bazzi, who is currently in Lebanon and responded to questions via email. The Obama administration can help avert a new conflict by supporting current Prime Minister Saad Hariri's government and helping to strengthen the Lebanese army, Bazzi says, but the United States must eventually reach out to Hezbollah.

Q. Why are there concerns that the Hariri indictments could lead to new sectarian violence in Lebanon? Do you agree with these concerns?

A. Nasrallah revealed in a speech last week that Hariri's son and the current Lebanese prime minister, Saad Hariri, told him that the tribunal is preparing to name several Hezbollah members when it hands down indictments, which could come in the next few months. Many Lebanese fear that if Hezbollah is implicated in Hariri's assassination, Sunnis will lash out at Shiites and we could see a new cycle of sectarian violence in Lebanon. Rafik Hariri was the most important Sunni leader in Lebanon, and that community is still grappling with his loss.

Such violence could also affect Lebanon's fragile political balance. In May 2008, Hezbollah ignited the worst internal fighting since the end of Lebanon's fifteen-year civil war in 1990. In response to the Lebanese government's orders outlawing Hezbollah's underground fiber-optic communication network and dismissing a Hezbollah-affiliated security chief at the Beirut airport, the militia dispatched hundreds of heavily armed fighters into the largely Sunni areas of West Beirut. They quickly routed Sunni militiamen, seized their political offices, and shut down media outlets owned by Saad Hariri.

Within days, the government rescinded its orders, Hezbollah pulled its fighters off the streets, and leaders of the two factions headed to Qatar to negotiate under the Arab League's auspices. That led to a deal for a national unity government, which remains in place today. There is a real possibility that a new round of sectarian fighting could destroy this political agreement. In the absence of a strong central state, Hezbollah remains the most powerful force in Lebanon -- and its weapons guarantee that dominance.

Q. Why is there tension between Syria and Saudi Arabia about the Hariri investigation? What was the purpose of the meeting between Saudi King Abdullah and Bashir al-Assad in Lebanon last week, and what did it accomplish?

A. The roots of the Saudi-Syrian conflict go back years. After the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the Bush administration turned its attention to Damascus as another candidate for "regime change." Syria meddled in Iraq, nurtured Palestinian militants opposed to peace with Israel, and dominated its smaller neighbor Lebanon. As Washington sought to isolate Damascus, some Arab powers -- especially Saudi Arabia -- became hostile to Bashar Assad and his growing reliance on Iran. The Bush administration imposed economic sanctions in 2004, accusing Syria of sheltering Iraqi Ba'athist leaders and allowing Islamic militants to cross into Iraq and fight U.S. forces. The U.S. policy of sanctions and isolation accelerated after the assassination of Rafik Hariri, which Washington blamed on Syria.

Hariri was close to the Saudi royal family, and his death further strained relations between Syria and the kingdom. Things reached a new low during the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah, when Assad called his fellow Arab leaders "half-men" for their criticism of the Shiite militia. In 2008, King Abdullah boycotted an Arab League summit in Damascus and withdrew his ambassador from the Syrian capital.

In response to the cold shoulder from the United States and its Arab allies, Assad became more dependent on Iran (a partnership that began in the early 1980s under Assad's father, Hafez). Iran helped shore up the Syrian economy with construction investments and cheap oil.

Assad and King Abdullah traveled together to Beirut last week to meet with Lebanese leaders and help calm fears that the country is once again headed toward civil strife. The visit was meant to show the Arab world that Saudi-Syrian reconciliation is on track. It was also a message from Assad to Washington: Lebanon cannot remain stable without Syria's tutelage.

Q. How do the Lebanese feel about this renewed Syrian effort to inject itself into Lebanese affairs? At the time of Hariri's murder, most Lebanese were furious with Syria.

A. Many Lebanese are worried that Syria is once again trying to dominate Lebanon, as it did for fifteen years after the end of the civil war in 1990. The joint visit by Assad and King Abdullah was a signal that Saudi Arabia and other Arab powers are comfortable with Syrian domination over Lebanon, if it means that Damascus would maintain internal stability in its neighbor. The visit was also a signal that the Arab states are trying to prevent Iran from securing greater influence over Lebanon through its longstanding financial and military support of Hezbollah.

Since Hariri's assassination, each Lebanese faction has accused the other of serving external masters. Lebanon is indeed part of the proxy war in the region: Iran and Syria (which support Hezbollah and its allies) are pitted against the United States and Saudi Arabia (which back a coalition of Sunni and Christian parties).

While Syria is allied with Hezbollah and Iran, the Assad regime does not want to see Lebanon fall into Iran's growing sphere of influence in the region. Syria wants to reassert its own authority over Lebanon, and that means exerting some control over Hezbollah. On this issue, Syria's interests are aligned with those of Saudi Arabia and other Arab states that want to contain Iran.

At the same time, it is a mistake to assume that the latest diplomatic maneuvering means Syria is prepared to abandon Iran, or is ready to fall in line behind Washington. The Syrian-Iranian alliance has endured for nearly thirty years; it cannot be undone lightly. Yet Assad is also keen to reverse a period of intense isolation that began after the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Syria had not been shunned this deeply since the early 1980s, when Damascus broke with most of the Arab world to support Iran in its war with Iraq.

Q. Is this week's border incident likely to be the spark that ignites the violence many have been anticipating? Both a CFR Contingency Planning Memo by Daniel Kurzer and a recent ICG report talk about the fact that the deterrence regime has helped keep the peace but also perpetuated a process of mutually reinforcing military preparations. Do you agree?

A. Lebanon's southern frontier with Israel is the most volatile border in the Middle East today, and it could easily spiral out of control. The fighting that broke out on Tuesday between Lebanese and Israeli troops underscores the fragile situation along the border.

Last November, Saad Hariri became prime minister after he agreed to share power with Hezbollah and its allies. But Hariri's government has no influence over the militia and its weapons buildup along the border. As long as the Lebanese army remains weak, Hezbollah can argue that its fighters are needed to defend the country against Israel.

In July 2006, Hezbollah abducted two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid, setting off a thirty-four-day war that crippled Lebanon's infrastructure, displaced one million people, and killed more than 1,200 Lebanese, the majority of them civilians. Since that conflict ended, both sides have been preparing for a new round. Hezbollah leaders boast that the group now has an even larger and more potent cache of missiles than it did four years ago. Israeli officials, who have also escalated their war rhetoric in recent months, estimate Hezbollah's arsenal at between forty thousand and eighty thousand rockets.

The border has been flaring up over the past year: Two suspected Hezbollah weapons caches mysteriously exploded, and al-Qaeda-linked groups were blamed for two salvos of rocket fire into Israel from southern Lebanon. Under the Security Council resolution that ended the 2006 war, UN peacekeepers are supposed to intercept illegal weapons shipments and raid storage sites south of the Litani River. They have rarely done so. While Hezbollah continues its arms buildup, Israel has also violated the UN resolution with frequent overflights into Lebanese airspace and by planting surveillance devices on Lebanese territory.

Q. Is there any way to defuse these building tensions, both in terms of the Hariri investigation as well as the border military buildup?

A. The Obama administration can avert a new conflict by keeping its attention focused on Lebanon, continuing to support Hariri's government, and helping to strengthen state institutions like the Lebanese army. But U.S. officials must eventually reach out to Hezbollah, which the State Department designates as a terrorist organization. Washington could begin indirect outreach through France and other Western countries that maintain contact with Hezbollah. The administration must also press Israel not to overreact to future incidents along the Lebanese border, which could lead to war. And the United States can leverage its influence with Hezbollah's other major backer, Syria, which is trying to improve its relations with Washington.

Neither Israel nor Hezbollah has an immediate interest in starting a war. Israel is more concerned right now about Iran (although if Israel attacks Iran's nuclear facilities, the Shiite militia would likely be part of the Iranian retaliation). As part of Lebanon's new government, Hezbollah cannot afford to instigate another war with Israel. But the danger of heightened rhetoric and a military buildup is that small incidents along the border could spiral out of control.


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