Hezbollah’s nuclear option

In bringing about the fall of Lebanon’s government, Hezbollah has deployed its "nuclear option." The move underscores Hezbollah’s ruthlessness and determination in its campaign to force Prime Minister Saad Hariri to reject the results of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) — which is expected to issue its long-delayed indictments soon and identify Hezbollah as ...

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

In bringing about the fall of Lebanon's government, Hezbollah has deployed its "nuclear option." The move underscores Hezbollah's ruthlessness and determination in its campaign to force Prime Minister Saad Hariri to reject the results of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) -- which is expected to issue its long-delayed indictments soon and identify Hezbollah as complicit in the assassination of Saad's father, former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, in February 2005. The government's collapse followed the breakdown of attempts by Syria and Saudi Arabia to broker a deal between Hariri's forces and Hezbollah's that would permit the prime minister to avoid the politically untenable and personally repugnant option of denouncing the tribunal's indictments and thus lend his support to his father's killers. Syrian sources, predictably, blame the collapse of negotiations on Hariri's refusal to accept what they characterize as joint Saudi-Syrian demands for concessions. What this latest twist tells us about Syrian intentions and the limits of Saudi influence over both Syria and Saad Hariri may be no less telling.

Hezbollah is playing a high stakes game, confident that its military dominance gives it a decisive upper hand should politics move from parliament into the streets. The tea leaves are still settling and will no doubt be further stirred up in coming days. Yet whether Hezbollah's withdrawal from the Hariri government will have the effects it desires is far from clear.

In 2009, when the current government was formed, Lebanon had been without a government for five months while Hariri's March 14 movement and Hezbollah's March 8 allies negotiated arrangements that would give Hezbollah a veto over government policy. Lebanese barely seemed to notice, as the economy continued to grow and the interregnum had little effect on an already dysfunctional political system. In this instance, as well, the extended absence of a government may fail to induce a sense of urgency among political actors or the general public.

In bringing about the fall of Lebanon’s government, Hezbollah has deployed its "nuclear option." The move underscores Hezbollah’s ruthlessness and determination in its campaign to force Prime Minister Saad Hariri to reject the results of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) — which is expected to issue its long-delayed indictments soon and identify Hezbollah as complicit in the assassination of Saad’s father, former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, in February 2005. The government’s collapse followed the breakdown of attempts by Syria and Saudi Arabia to broker a deal between Hariri’s forces and Hezbollah’s that would permit the prime minister to avoid the politically untenable and personally repugnant option of denouncing the tribunal’s indictments and thus lend his support to his father’s killers. Syrian sources, predictably, blame the collapse of negotiations on Hariri’s refusal to accept what they characterize as joint Saudi-Syrian demands for concessions. What this latest twist tells us about Syrian intentions and the limits of Saudi influence over both Syria and Saad Hariri may be no less telling.

Hezbollah is playing a high stakes game, confident that its military dominance gives it a decisive upper hand should politics move from parliament into the streets. The tea leaves are still settling and will no doubt be further stirred up in coming days. Yet whether Hezbollah’s withdrawal from the Hariri government will have the effects it desires is far from clear.

In 2009, when the current government was formed, Lebanon had been without a government for five months while Hariri’s March 14 movement and Hezbollah’s March 8 allies negotiated arrangements that would give Hezbollah a veto over government policy. Lebanese barely seemed to notice, as the economy continued to grow and the interregnum had little effect on an already dysfunctional political system. In this instance, as well, the extended absence of a government may fail to induce a sense of urgency among political actors or the general public.

Should Hezbollah act on its threats of violence, the reputational consequences would be no less damaging than the tribunal’s indictments, and the potential consequences far more dire. There is little local or regional appetite for the resumption of civil war in Lebanon, despite Hezbollah’s aggressive rhetoric, and Hezbollah leaders certainly understand that the price of imposing their will by force of arms would be unacceptably high.

Hezbollah’s concerted efforts to delegitimize and politicize the Special Tribunal are inherently limited in what they can achieve. Hezbollah cannot affect the issuing of indictments. It can refuse cooperation with the tribunal, which it will certainly do, and may well succeed in engineering a rejection of the indictments by remnants of the Lebanese government. To be sure, Hezbollah has sown doubt about the legitimacy of the tribunal, especially in the Arab world, and, to an extent, pushed the tribunal into a defensive position. Yet its ham-fisted attempts to discredit the STL are taken most seriously by those who already share Hezbollah’s views. For many, including the U.S., France, and other Western governments, it remains credible. As a result, the STL’s work will continue for some period of time with international backing whether Lebanon wishes it to or not, and no matter what Hezbollah does, it will stand accused in the international arena as a participant in the most high-profile political assassination in Lebanon’s modern history, even if its weapons insulate it from the consequences of the indictments at home.

Negotiations may have broken down temporarily, but there can be little doubt that Saudi Arabia and Syria, and potentially other external players as well, will resume efforts to find an acceptable compromise between Hezbollah and Hariri’s forces. In the end, and this may well have been Hezbollah’s intention, the collapse of the government could pave the way for an exit from the current stalemate. Should Hariri be unable to form a new government and President Suleiman turn to someone else in his place, the stage will be set for a scenario in which a new Lebanese prime minister — with Saudi and Syrian backing — concedes to Hezbollah’s demands and rejects the findings of the Special Tribunal, while a neutered Hariri and his supporters rail against the injustice from the back benches of Lebanese parliament. Such an outcome would avoid outright bloodshed, but would be no less blatant a show of Hezbollah coercion than the more violent alternatives. It leaves continued support for the tribunal largely in American hands, which would reinforce its already politicized image in the Arab world. More importantly, it would decisively consolidate Hezbollah’s standing as Lebanon’s dominant political force and signal with a whimper rather than a bang, the final demise of Lebanon’s Cedar Revolution.

Steven Heydemann is special advisor to the Muslim World Initiative at the United States Institute of Peace.

Steven Heydemann is the Janet W. Ketcham 1953 chair in Middle East studies at Smith College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

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