With His Back Against the Wall, Nasrallah May Seek to Provoke a War With Israel

With Hezbollah's public standing in Lebanon on the decline, and its patron Bashar Assad poised to fall from power in Syria, the Shi'ite group may attempt to provoke the IDF into a confrontation.

On Friday, Hezbollah staged a procession near the Fatima Gate on the Israel-Lebanon border, in honor of al-Quds (Jerusalem) Day. The event and, later, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah's anti-Israel statements were not motivated simply by an abiding hatred for Israel.

Hezbollah is in trouble.

In Syria, the fall of its benefactor Bashar Assad could rob it of its channels for smuggling weapons from Iran, as well as access to military training camps throughout Syria and to Syrian intelligence organizations, in the framework of the shadow war vis a vis Israeli intelligence.  

As Assad's position in Syria grows more tenuous, Hezbollah's political clout in Lebanon diminishes. Even the wave of kidnappings sweeping Lebanon since Wednesday could not hide the larger story – the crumbling of the Lebanese state on the one hand, and the unusually blunt public criticism aimed at Hezbollah in recent days on the other. The stability that had characterized Hezbollah's relationship with the state has begun to crack, due to the expanding chaos, among other things.

The impending loss of its Syrian patron has made the Shi'ite group a marked organization. Things that were said in the past only in whispers are now said out loud in the media, in speeches by politicians and elsewhere.

"Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah asked only a few days ago 'Have we reached the point where we can give up on the 'resistance?'" someone wrote on an anti-Hezbollah website, employing the term used to refer to Hezbollah in Lebanon.

The writer noted that in Nasrallah's speech last week, the Hezbollah leader said that, were it not for the "resistance," Israel would attack Lebanon. "Is Israel really a threat," the writer asked, explaining that while in the past Israel operated in southern Lebanon against the PLO and Hezbollah, "There is no proof that Israel has territorial ambitions in Lebanon… and thus 'the resistance' has become a burden. As long as this group possesses and expands its arsenal of long-range missiles, which it deems a deterrent, Israel will continue to act nervously."

The writer adds that Hezbollah actually used its power to carry out a kind of attempted coup in May 2008, and even overthrew the government of Saad Hariri. "The group that brought a feeling of pride to many Lebanese in 2000 has become a national burden," he wrote. (In 2000, Israel withdrew from Lebanon after years of occupying the country's south.)

This article is only the tip of the iceberg. More and more politicians are expressing criticism of the group and demanding that it put down its weapons.

Former Prime Minister Fuad Siniora, one of the heads of the March 14 alliance, a coalition of Lebanese anti-Syria groups, said on Thursday, "The protection of the nation must be carried out by the state and its institutions, not by a political group." He added that his group intends to participate in the "national dialogue" – a kind of discussion between representatives of various political groups in the country - "but only if the central issue of arms not under state control is discussed."

A representative of the "Lebanese Forces," which is part of the March 14 alliance, announced that his organization would not be participating in the planned national dialogue, since in any case Hezbollah would not lay down its arms.  

Even current Prime Minister Najib Mikati, who is considered a Hezbollah appointee, is increasingly making moves that express his growing independence from the organization. He approved continued funding for the international investigation into the murder of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in February of 2005, and recently also allowed Lebanese intelligence organizations to release information about an attempted assassination of members of the March 14 alliance.

Even media outlets which were previously considered pro-Hezbollah are no longer uniformly inclined toward the group. The Al-Jadid (New TV) channel, no longer hesitates to criticize Syria and even al-Akhbar, which is close to Hezbollah, was forced to deal with the resignation of several key journalists, who opposed the newspaper's pro-Syria line.

It seems that the various political groups, especially March 14, smell Hezbollah's blood. This does not mean that the Shiite organization is weakening militarily or intends to give in to calls for it to disarm. Far from it. Hezbollah understands that the new reality in Syria creates an almost impossible situation for it in Lebanon, and thus is liable to change the rules of the game, either by creating a provocation vis a vis Israel or by striking against one of its political foes.

Don't be surprised if in the coming weeks Hezbollah attempts to launch an attack on Israeli targets and drag the IDF into responding in Lebanon.

In 1992, Hezbollah joined the political system in the country. Since then, Nasrallah has led a political line of taking control of Lebanon through minimal use of force. A breakup of the Syrian state is not inconceivable, nor is it out of the question that Lebanon could follow in such a scenario. The wave of kidnappings carried out by the al-Makdad clan in recent days even won the headline "Lebanon without a state" in the newspaper a-Nahar.

The war in Syria is overflowing into Lebanon on a daily basis, and the chaos is visible everywhere in the country. The government is helpless, and Hezbollah could soon find itself in a civil war, fighting against an array of armed groups, which are already arming themselves, across the country.

But this is probably not Nasrallah's preferred scenario. He would rather take over the country through the ballot box. However, even in the case of a renewed civil war in Lebanon, at the end of the day Hezbollah will emerge victorious. Aside from that, Nasrallah can always turn to his preferred option: a war with Israel.