Hezbollah Threatens an 'Explosion' in Beirut Over Tribunal

5 MINS READNov 2, 2010 | 21:12 GMT
Fears are escalating in Lebanon over Hezbollah threats to lay siege to Beirut should its members be indicted in the Special Tribunal for Lebanon investigating the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri. But Hezbollah would face many obstacles, including the United States and Saudi Arabia, which are trying to keep the tribunal from fracturing, and resistance from Syrian and Saudi-backed groups. Furthermore, Hezbollah, Saudi Arabia, the United States and Iran all have an interest in avoiding the kind of chaos that would give Syria an excuse to intervene militarily in Lebanon.
Lebanese daily Al Akhbar, described as close to Hezbollah, published a report Nov. 1 citing its sources in Hezbollah that described in detail drills conducted recently by the Shiite militant group to simulate a takeover of the Lebanese capital. According to the report, should its members face indictments from the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) on the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri, Hezbollah would seize Beirut within 24 hours. The group would hold its ground for three days or a week at the most while pressuring the Lebanese government and the STL to scrap the tribunal altogether on the grounds that Israel (according to Hezbollah) was behind the al-Hariri murder. Should Hezbollah run into trouble, according to the plan, it would be able to call on the Amal Movement and Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP) for help. Though there is little doubt that Hezbollah is rehearsing such plans, the organization's intensified threats of a Beirut takeover are more likely posturing tactics than a sign of an imminent Hezbollah coup. The "explosion" in Beirut that Hezbollah deputy chief Sheikh Naim Qassem and others have described should Hezbollah become entangled in the al-Hariri indictments involves a wide range of threats. Besides taking over government buildings and security installations, Hezbollah intends to organize mass protests in which its civilian supporters will storm downtown Beirut and destroy assets owned by Solidere, a firm dominated by the al-Hariri family that built most of the restaurants, cafes and upscale shops in the downtown area during Lebanon's post-civil war reconstruction. Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri has asked Lebanese army commander Lt. Gen. Jean Qahwaji to deploy forces to protect downtown Beirut, but according to a Lebanese military source, Qahwaji denied the request, saying that the protection of public property is a job assigned to Lebanon's internal security forces, not the army. As expected, the army is extremely unwilling to get caught up in a domestic brawl with Hezbollah. Hezbollah's plan also calls for all opposition Cabinet members to resign, causing the government to collapse while Hezbollah sows chaos in the streets. The organization would then negotiate with the prime minister, telling him that if he does not denounce the STL then Hezbollah will form a parallel government. To capture the attention of the tribunal's foreign backers, including the United States and France, Hezbollah has also strongly hinted that hostage-takings targeting Westerners will resume. Though this would be a high-risk operation for Hezbollah and likely is primarily being mentioned for posturing purposes, it is one that hits close to home for those who lived through Hezbollah's kidnapping rampages in the 1980s. Meanwhile, Hezbollah activists continue to harass STL investigators. For example, when two STL investigators as part of their investigation visited a gynecology clinic in Beirut's southern suburbs to obtain the mobile phone numbers of 13 patients who visited the clinic in 2003, Hezbollah reportedly bused in 150 female activists to attack the investigators and steal the files from the clinic. A nearby army patrol reportedly stood idly by. Though the Hezbollah sources cited in the Al Akhbar report describe a swift, surgical strike by Hezbollah, the group is likely to face considerable resistance should it attempt to take over Beirut. STRATFOR has been tracking Syrian moves to bolster Lebanese groups, including the Amal Movement, SSNP, al-Ahbash, the Nasserites, the Baath Party and the Mirada of Suleiman Franjiyye, to restrict Hezbollah's actions inside Lebanon. The SSNP and Amal Movement, for example, have conveyed to Hezbollah that they do not want to get involved in Hezbollah's plans. A STRATFOR source has indicated that Syria would quietly assist armed Palestinians in Beirut refugee camps and Sunni militiamen in West Beirut to hold their ground and sever Hezbollah's supply lines running from their strongholds in Beirut's southern suburbs. Additionally, a STRATFOR source in Fatah claims that Fatah, the main military force in the Ain al-Hilwa Palestinian refugee camp outside of Sidon, has informed Hezbollah that the group will resist a Hezbollah takeover in Sidon and has 1,200 armed men ready to defend the city. Fatah has also warned that a Hezbollah attempt to attack Sidon could unleash more jihadist-minded Sunni militants in the area and could prompt rocket attacks against Israel to draw Hezbollah into a much bigger conflict than it bargained for. Moreover, Hezbollah, along with Iran, Saudi Arabia, the United States and anyone else with a stake in this conflict, do not want Syria to exploit an "explosion" in Beirut. In its efforts to reassert its dominance in Lebanon, Syria has a strategic interest in confusing the security situation in Lebanon so it can have an excuse to step in militarily. Hezbollah and Iran, already distrustful of Syrian intentions, would not want to give Damascus that opportunity unless sufficiently provoked. So far, no one appears willing to provoke Hezbollah into action, though Washington and Riyadh are also not ready to cave in just yet on the STL. According to a STRATFOR source, Lebanon's prime minister recently received a message from the Saudi ambassador in Washington to hold his ground and buy time on the STL proceedings in order to avoid a crisis, while maintaining some leverage over Hezbollah and Iran. While the Americans and Saudis continue to buy time, Hezbollah will continue to escalate its threats. For now, though, a Hezbollah coup in Beirut is neither inevitable nor imminent.

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