By James M. Dorsey
World Politics Review
A covert Israeli-Lebanese intelligence war, combined with tension along the two countries' border and fears of renewed Lebanese civil strife, has created policy dilemmas for the United States and France as they seek to strengthen the Lebanese government while isolating Hezbollah. The Shiite militia-cum-political party, which the U.S. and France have both designated as a terrorist organization, occupies two cabinet posts in Lebanon's constitutionally mandated power-sharing arrangement.
The intelligence war as well as a recent Lebanese-Israeli border clash in which five people were killed have persuaded Lebanese President Michael Sulaiman and Prime Minister Saad Hariri to increase coordination between Lebanon's national armed forces and intelligence services and Hezbollah, which maintains its own armed militia. The goal is to thwart Israel's apparently extensive infiltration of Lebanon, to expand the presence of Lebanese regular forces along the largely Hezbollah-controlled Lebanese side of the border with Israel, and to prevent Lebanon from sliding into civil war. Expectations that a United Nations inquiry will implicate Hezbollah operatives in the 2005 assassination of Hariri's father, former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, have fueled fears of renewed Lebanese civil strife.
Lebanon has compiled a list of 150 cases of Israeli espionage, which it intends to submit to the U.N. Security Council. Scores of alleged Israeli spies -- including government and army officials, phone company executives and a car dealer who allegedly sold Hezbollah SUVs equipped with tracking devices that allowed Israel to follow their movements -- have been arrested in the last two years. The Lebanese government has also helped Hezbollah bust alleged Israeli spy cells by granting it access to tools and tradecraft acquired from its U.S. and European allies. Just in the last month, Lebanese courts have charged an army colonel and telecom executive with spying for Israel and sentenced two men to death, bringing to five the number of people handed the death penalty in the past year for spying for Israel. Lebanese authorities also arrested a prominent politician and a retired general who had headed the army's counterterrorism and espionage unit.
The spy war and clash with the Israelis have left Hezbollah little choice but to welcome the closer intelligence and military cooperation, which is to some degree likely to curtail its freedom to operate independently. The militia is smaller than the Lebanese army in terms of men, but better-equipped and more battle-hardened. The stepped-up cooperation would reverse Lebanon's past policy of keeping its army away from the southern border due to concerns that it lacked firepower and could spark renewed sectarian fighting. The move also breaks with fears that the army -- which split during Lebanon's 15-year-long civil war and was reunited in 1990 to include Christians and Muslims -- could be torn apart again were it to be fully deployed along the Israeli border.
Closer cooperation between the army and Hezbollah could have potential benefits for Western nations as well as for Israel, by limiting Hezbollah's ability to retaliate for a U.S. or Israeli attack on Iran's nuclear facilities. Nonetheless, members of the U.S. Congress have forced the Obama administration to put a hold on $100 million in military aid for Humvees, small arms, and maintenance support to Lebanon -- the second-largest recipient of American military aid per capita after Israel -- pending a review of the Lebanese military's relationship with Hezbollah.
Lurking in the background of the review are concerns that Hezbollah is increasing its influence within the Lebanese military by inducting into the army Shiite fighters who have first served for two years in the militia. Israeli intelligence also asserts that Iranian intelligence and commando officers were allowed to tour the border area where Lebanese and Israeli forces had clashed, escorted by commanders of the Lebanese army unit involved in the incident. The Lebanese government called the U.S. hold on aid unwarranted. Iran, supported by Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, has offered to step in with military assistance.
Closer military and intelligence ties with Hezbollah also threaten to scuttle plans for a defense cooperation treaty with France that would increase French-Lebanese cooperation in combating organized crime, drug trafficking and money laundering, because of French fears that Hezbollah would benefit from the agreement. Those fears were fueled by Lebanese demands that the treaty adopt the Arab distinction between terrorism and resistance, which would have allowed Hezbollah to be classified as a legitimate movement. Hezbollah supporters in southern Lebanon have clashed in recent weeks with French members of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL), after Hezbollah accused the peacekeeping force of gathering intelligence on Israel's behalf. French animosity to Hezbollah dates back to 1983, when Shiite suicide bombings in Beirut killed 242 U.S. and 58 French soldiers.
Parallel to its offer of increased cooperation, the Lebanese government last week reaffirmed its new resolve by announcing that it had formed a commission to tackle arms possession in a country where ethno-sectarian militias remain prevalent. "From now on, the military and security forces, the army and internal security forces, will assume the responsibility of controlling security, and will track down anyone who may provoke problems in this country," Hariri said in a statement. The decision followed clashes in a Beirut neighborhood between Hezbollah and the pro-Syrian Sunni group, Al-Ahbash, killing at least three people. Rocket-propelled grenades and heavy machine guns were used in the skirmish, the worst since sectarian fighting in May 2008 that killed at least 80 people.
Too weak to intervene in the 2008 fighting, the Lebanese army watched from its Western-made armored vehicles as Hezbollah and pro-Syrian forces humiliated the more Western-leaning militias loyal to Hariri. Now, with Hariri moderating his positions toward Hezbollah as well as Syria, the refusal by the U.S. and France to give the Lebanese military what it needs to position itself as a symbol of national unity could wind up undermining Western interests in Lebanon more than Hariri's unavoidable cooperation with Hezbollah.