Growing Pressure on Hezbollah and Hamas

Aug 22, 2013 | 16:21 GMT

Growing Pressure on Hezbollah and Hamas
A Lebanese man fires a gun during a funeral procession for a victim of the Aug. 15 car bombing in Beirut.

(ANWAR AMRO/AFP/Getty Images)


While Iran is making a concerted effort to sustain its network of militant proxies in the Levant, mounting pressure on the two primary groups in this network, Hezbollah and Hamas, will force each to make difficult decisions in the coming weeks and months about where to apply their militant focus. Hezbollah is on high alert following an Aug. 15 car bombing on the highway between Roueiss and Bir el-Abd neighborhoods in Beirut's southern suburb of Dahiyeh, an area dominated by Hezbollah. Less than five weeks earlier, another car bomb exploded in the same area. The attacks in Hezbollah's Beirut stronghold have exposed the degree of fatigue and distraction Hezbollah fighters have experienced since the group's leadership decided to substantially escalate their involvement in the Syrian regime's battle against Sunni rebels.

In the southern Levant, Hamas is facing a strategic dilemma of its own. The group is under siege in Gaza, hemmed in by an emboldened Egyptian military and Israel. At the same time, Hamas is sidelined from Fatah's negotiations with Israel. Iran is trying to exploit Hamas' growing vulnerabilities to strengthen its relationship with the group after a period of strain.

Hezbollah: Stretched Thin and Tested at Home

When the Syrian regime — heavily reinforced by Hezbollah fighters — regained control of the strategic area of Qusair near the Homs crossroads in Syria in the spring, Syria's Sunni rebels decided that their best hope of a comeback would be to find a way to draw Hezbollah's attention back to Lebanon, thereby diluting the Syrian regime's fighting capabilities. As Stratfor forecast, Sunni militant provocations against Hezbollah in Lebanon have escalated this summer, with the intent of provoking retaliatory strikes and forcing Hezbollah's leadership to refocus its militant priorities back home.

So far, the Sunni attacks against Hezbollah have not significantly detracted from the group's focus on Syria, and Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah has vowed to continue sending fighters to aid the Syrian regime, knowing that any major setbacks would only embolden Sunni militants in Lebanon to challenge Hezbollah's position in the country. However, Hezbollah also has an imperative to pursue Sunni militant cells in Lebanon. Though it has made formal requests to the highly fragmented and ineffective Lebanese army to track down some 200 suspects on Hezbollah's target list, Hezbollah is the only militant organization with the will and capability to pursue these suspects. Hezbollah will risk further provocations as it tries to hunt down these Sunni militant cells, and sporadic shootouts between Hezbollah members and Sunni militants have been gradually increasing throughout Lebanon. What Hezbollah wants to avoid, and what Sunni militants are trying to provoke, is widespread sectarian clashes in Lebanon that would require Hezbollah to draw down from Syria and defend its base back home.

For now, Hezbollah is trying to balance between its strategic imperatives to continue reinforcing the Syrian regime and to maintain a dominant position in Lebanon. This balance will become more difficult to maintain as Saudi-backed Sunni militants in Lebanon attempt to step up their activities against Hezbollah. Hezbollah will try to deflect attention from these attacks to the southern Lebanese border with Israel, as it did recently in claiming responsibility for an Aug. 7 ambush on Israeli soldiers. An Aug. 22 spate of rocket attacks from southern Lebanon into northern Israel is also raising suspicion that Hezbollah is trying to ramp up operations on the Israeli-Lebanese border to reassert its credentials as a resistance movement and take attention away from its more controversial role in Syria.

However, Hezbollah cannot afford to go too far in its attacks on Israel while its operational focus is already stretched between its battles against sectarian rivals in Syria and Lebanon. As Saudi Arabia continues its efforts to reinforce Sunni militants in Lebanon, Hezbollah may have little choice but to reassess its priorities and focus more attention back home.

Hamas and Sinai Attacks

Meanwhile, Hamas is facing challenges from all sides. Stratfor has received indications that Iran is leaning on Hamas to attack the Egyptian military in Sinai to improve its bargaining position with Israel. Hamas has been more cautious with Sinai operations, both to avoid greater wrath from the Egyptian military and to contain jihadists who could create competition for Hamas in Gaza.

Though it would mark a clear break with Hamas' strategy to remain distinct from Salafist-jihadists operating in the area, speculation in the region has been growing over Hamas' involvement in Sinai militant attacks. With such allegations already widespread and with the Egyptian military already bearing down on the group's supply lines, there is a possibility that Hamas could try to compensate for its recent setbacks by embracing the allegations. Hamas could appear more threatening to the Egyptian military and Israel through such attacks in hopes of forcing a negotiation, but it would be risking even heavier blowback if it associates too closely with Sinai jihadists.

Hamas will also try to use its relationship with Iran as leverage with the Egyptian military and Israel, drawing attention to Iranian support for Hamas operations from Sinai to the West Bank. Meanwhile, Iran will strengthen its role as a key patron for Hamas, using weapons resupplies as its main enticement. Hamas is estimated to have some 8,000 rockets in its possession in Gaza. Another 2,000, including longer-range Iranian-made Fajr-5 rockets, are believed to be under Palestinian Islamic Jihad's control, underscoring the close relationship Iran has maintained with Palestinian Islamic Jihad while trying to keep close to Hamas. The Egyptian blockade has made it difficult for Hamas to replenish its stockpiles, forcing Hamas to focus instead on trying to improve on its existing rockets by reducing the size of warheads to give them longer range.

Iranian weapons factories in Sudan have been a significant source of weaponry for Hamas in the past, and any Hamas interactions with Sudan will warrant close monitoring. According to a state-owned Sudanese newspaper, Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal will soon visit Sudan for the funeral of an Islamist leader. Whether the visit also entails negotiations over weapons sales remains to be seen. The Egyptian blockade on the Rafah border crossing with Gaza and Egyptian military operations to destroy underground tunnels will make it difficult for Hamas to smuggle in weapons at this time, but there is still the potential for weapons coming from Sudan to reach Sinai, where attacks are now occurring regularly.

The two militant proxies will need to make difficult decisions about their priorities in the next few months....

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