The recent alleged Hezbollah attack in Bulgaria against Israeli tourists and the capture of a Hezbollah operative in Cyprus are both very significant events. If the former is proved to be true, as Israel claims their evidence suggests, then Hezbollah's strategy in support of Iran against Israel is unfortunately still very much alive and active. If true, Hezbollah's actions go counter to the views of some Lebanese and Western analysts who suggest that since 2006 Hezbollah has been trying to wean itself off the role of being Iran's agent in the Levant. Analysts thought and maybe hoped that Hezbollah was separating from Iran due to a range of domestic factors, and most recently the prospect of a future Sunni-led regime in Damascus which would most likely cut off the Iran-Hezbollah supply chain. Some suggested, therefore, that Hezbollah was looking for a soft landing as it transitioned from violence into politics. This may now not be the case. These recent and significant developments need careful analysis if they are to be placed in context to be better understood.
At a strategic level, Hezbollah may be ready to disarm as a hedge against losing support from Syria. Hezbollah understands that being armed is an obstacle to its political longevity, particularly as the Lebanese Armed Forces gain greater lethal capabilities. Yet, there was a recent spat between two key Hezbollah political allies, the Christian Michel Aoun's Free Patriotic Movement and Shiite Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri’s Amal Movement, over contract workers at a state-run electricity company. This has brought into question Hezbollah's ability to hold a cross-sectarian government. Member of Parliament Walid Jumblatt, head of the Progressive Socialist Party and also member of Hezbollah’s government coalition, suggested recently that while he does not plan to withdraw from the government, the relationship with Hezbollah is tenuous.
While Hezbollah might consider disarming as a strategic objective, at the tactical level they are clearly not. Why is this? There could possibly be unseen disagreements within Hezbollah about its future. Or perhaps this Shiite militia needs violence tactically to make their political-strategic activities more effective to maintain their domestic and regional relevance. However, if Hezbollah continues to act violently it runs the risk of an Israeli strike into southern Lebanon. Arguably the worst thing that could happen in the region right now is an Israeli strike against Hezbollah. It is bad not only for Israel, who has wisely stood back and watched developments during the so-called Arab Spring as a non-participant, but also bad for Hezbollah who would be weakened militarily at a time their future arms supplies from Iran via Syria are in question. It would also be bad for the Lebanese Armed Forces who would be significantly embarrassed by their inability to defend Lebanon from an Israeli strike which would, in turn, strengthen the case of the resistance. Getting Israel involved in the Arab Spring, using force to disarm Hezbollah and embarrassing the Lebanese Armed Forces would significantly destabilize the region further.
Most likely, though, Hezbollah's tactical actions in Bulgaria are in response to Iranian strategic pressure. Iran wants Israel involved in cross-border skirmishes with Hezbollah as a strategic distraction to the attention currently focused on its nuclear program and its fate in Syria. Either way, it appears Hezbollah is hedging. They are continuing to use violence and politics to create the conditions of a better choice when decision time comes. Like many entities that influence events in the region, Hezbollah is trying to think through the second and third order consequences of their actions. Their high risk strategy demonstrates a mature way of thinking and a strong appreciation for the regional and global context within which they operate. Yet it also shows they are not yet willing to completely give up terrorism.
If Syria collapses more precipitously and violently than expected, Hezbollah's arms may become their sole raison d'etre in order to protect the Shiite population in Southern Lebanon. Moreover, if Israel attacks Lebanon or Syria, Hezbollah will justify its resistance role and the net effect is at least a long-term delay to any talks of disarming.
Moving forward, therefore, the region is analogous to the British kids' game Grandmother's Footsteps. In the game someone is “Grandmother” and the others try to creep up and touch her without being detected. They can move when she is not looking but must freeze when she looks their way. In the region all parties watch one another and inch forward toward their goals hoping to avoid detection. But who is Grandmother? Maybe not Israel, maybe not Iran or Saudi Arabia, but most likely the U.S. Parties keep their eyes wide open observing competing entities who strive to out-maneuver one another. In the spirit of this analogy, the U.S. is unlikely to act decisively as Grandmother at least until after the Presidential election in November 2012, which means entities can ease forward assuming nothing will likely happen even if detected. But shortly after the election, the U.S. may be more assertive in calling out Hezbollah and Iran for raising the stakes, notwithstanding the Iranian nuclear issue. In the meantime, the U.S. may see the logic of continuing to increase its lethal support to the Lebanese Armed Forces and ensuring that Hezbollah does not hold Lebanon hostage to fears of an Israeli attack. Those lethal capabilities are a determining factor for disarming Hezbollah in the long-term. High stakes for all and for the poker players, not necessarily a winner-take-all pot on the table either.