Hezbollah scouts on Jerusalem Day - Reuters - August 25 2011
Lebanon's Hezbollah al-Mahdi scouts carry Hezbollah flags as they parade on a Star of David symbol, during a rally on "Al-Quds (Jerusalem) Day'' in Nabatieh town, southern Lebanon, August 25, 2011. Photo by Reuters
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Lebanon's President Michel Suleiman Photo by Reuters

Carefully and quietly, the Lebanese authorities are trying to take advantage of turmoil in Syria and distance themselves from the Iranian-Syrian axis. The latest sign of this was a speech given by Lebanese President Michel Suleiman on Tuesday, in Peru of all places.

Suleiman, the Maronite Christian ex-general has always been one of the most careful Lebanese politicians, treading a fine line between the various factions and doing nothing to anger the Syrians or Hezbollah. At a conference of Lebanese expatriates living in Latin America, he said yesterday that the National Dialogue Committee that he chairs is planning a defense strategy "that places the arms of the resistance under the Army’s command in case of an Israeli aggression on Lebanese soil only, and not for any other domestic or foreign reason.”

"The resistance" in Lebanese political-talk means Hezbollah and "the arms" are not just any machine guns but the tens of thousands of Iranian and Syrian-supplied missiles that Hezbollah has targeted towards Israel. What Suleiman was saying in his veiled and cautious way, is that should a regional conflict break out between Israel and Iran and its proxies, the Lebanese government would try and prevent the Hezbollah missiles based on its soil from being used against Israel, hopefully preventing the ensuing destruction of Israeli retaliation.

How realistic is it that in case of war, Lebanon's fractious political structure and weak army could prevent Iran and Hezbollah firing from Lebanese territory? At present not very, as Hezbollah is still much more powerful and essentially controls large parts of the Lebanese Army. Suleiman's "national defense strategy" does not go very far as it is – he is not backing the demand of the "March 14" opposition to disarm Hezbollah.

So Suleiman, with the backing of some of the other parties, is not willing to face Hezbollah head-on but is trying to mark out a clear position whereby Lebanon is not to be used once again as Iran's launching-pad.

He tried to emphasize that two weeks ago when he summoned Iran's ambassador to Lebanon to demand an explanation for comments made by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard commander, Mohammad Ali Jaafari , that his officers were active in both Syria and Lebanon.  The ambassador naturally denied this.

Of course, this is all a farce. Both men know perfectly well, as does Israeli intelligence, that officers of the Revolutionary Guard's Qods Force are fully integrated in Hezbollah's command structure and have been for years, but the urge to maintain an appearance of independence could be a preliminary to more concrete acts of separation.

As President Bashar Assad's grip on power in Syria weakens, Iran and Hezbollah will be ever more determined to make sure Lebanon does not also escape from their grasp. The visit of Iranian National Security Council Secretary, Saeed Jalili to Beirut two months ago, where he pointedly said that Iran “respect[s[ Lebanon because of its resistance and the prominent role it plays with regards to the region’s security and stability" underlined that determination.

Suleiman, in his understated way also signaled in his speech that the regional balance may be changing, and that Hezbollah's predominance is no longer guaranteed.