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Tony Badran

Hiding behind the LAF

Hezbollah's means of testing the US and Israel betrays its own weakness

A Lebanese army soldier patrols a street with an armored vehicle in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli on October 29, 2013

Lebanon came close to instigating a conflict with Israel on Sunday when a member of the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) shot and killed an Israeli sergeant in his car near the border at Rosh Hanikra. The Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon held the Lebanese government and the LAF responsible, while the LAF command quickly declared that the shooting was an “individual behavior” by the Lebanese soldier.


Despite the LAF’s statement, however, the circumstances behind the shooting remain unclear. As it occurred a few days after the assassination of senior Hezbollah commander Hassan al-Laqis, observers in Beirut, including pro-Hezbollah journalists, suspected the attack was retaliation for the killing of the Hezbollah commander, which the group blamed on Israel. If indeed this was an operation on behalf of Hezbollah, then it was also likely the Party and Iran testing Washington’s ability and willingness, post-Geneva, to restrain Israel.

 

Using the LAF for that purpose is ideal. For one, Hezbollah understands that US policy in Lebanon, at this point, is essentially narrowed down to supporting the LAF as the representative institution of the state. What’s more, Hezbollah has carefully noted that the US government has implicitly endorsed, and at times explicitly praised, operations conducted by the LAF Directorate of Intelligence – which is closely aligned with Hezbollah – against Sunni areas. And when Hezbollah elements deployed alongside the LAF in the battle against the followers of Ahmad al-Assir in June, some US officials downplayed reports about Hezbollah’s participation in what was, in effect, a joint operation. All in all, what Hezbollah concluded was that the US regarded Sunni extremism as the primary, indeed only, issue, and therefore turned a blind eye to the synergy between the LAF and Hezbollah under the pretext that it preserved Lebanon’s stability.

 

With all that in mind, if the US was willing to overlook so much with the LAF, then, Hezbollah could well have reasoned, would it really back a forceful Israeli response to an incident such as Sunday’s? And all the more so if it can be said that the soldier went rogue. In addition, Hezbollah knew that a frightened Lebanese acting prime minister and the LAF command would plead desperately with the US to restrain Israel.


And indeed, after the shooting, when the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) mobilized along the border, Caretaker Prime Minister Najib Miqati, as reported in An-Nahar, called the US ambassador to ask that Washington pressure Israel not to launch a retaliatory attack, and to convince it that the Lebanese soldier acted alone. Tellingly, official Lebanese sources who spoke to the newspaper relayed their conviction that “any major Israeli confrontation with Hezbollah would require prior US approval, which is something President Barack Obama will not allow.” In other words, the prevalent thinking among Hezbollah and its allies in the acting government is that the US détente with Iran can be used as leverage against Israel.


For the moment, it could be said that Hezbollah achieved limited success in setting a precedent for this type of provocation: get the US to talk to the Israelis and rein them in. At the same time, however, if indeed this shooting was related to the Laqis assassination, it says much about Hezbollah’s severe constraints. The fact that the group's response to the killing of one of its very senior commanders was only a small-scale operation conducted while hiding behind the LAF reeks of weakness.


What’s more, it might be very difficult to replicate this precedent in the future. Although the Israelis agreed to calm the situation down, it is doubtful they will allow a pattern to emerge, regardless of what the US may think. This explains Ya’alon’s statement, which he pointedly directed at the LAF. In other words, the LAF has been warned. And to drive the point home, the IDF shot two LAF soldiers upon detecting “suspicious movement” near the border after the shooting.


This is a very dangerous moment for the LAF. As Hezbollah’s options narrow and its enemies multiply, the party has used its control of the state and its penetration of its institutions, including the LAF, to fight its wars by proxy. This collusion with Hezbollah has increased tensions between the LAF and local, as well as perhaps Syrian, Sunni Islamist groups, and now risks making it a target for the IDF, should this type of provocation reoccur. Hezbollah’s doctrine of making auxiliaries of “the people and the Army” merely paints a fat target on the backs of the people and the Army.


But the fact that Hezbollah is apparently reluctant at this stage to take direct action again Israel underscores how far its room to maneuver has shrunk, and, therefore, how much its value as a deterrent for Iran has dropped. Instead, Tehran now has to rely on the White House reining in Israel, and Hezbollah needs to hide behind the LAF.


Tony Badran is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He tweets @AcrossTheBay. 

Hunkering down. (AFP Photo/Ibrahim Chalhoub)

"The prevalent thinking among Hezbollah and its allies in the acting government is that the US détente with Iran can be used as leverage against Israel."

  • Hanibaal-Atheos

    We are headed at some point in the future to a fork in the road: Either Hezbollah lays down its arms because Iran tells it to (if the deal with the US persists) and walks the country back from the abyss, or a civil war is upcoming that will include such scenarios as a breakup of the army, a confrontation between the LAF and Hezbollah, and the resurfacing of other militias. The precarious equilibrium at which Lebanon has hanged for several years now is untenable on any long term basis, especially that Hezbollah has disturbed the Sunni fundamentalist hornets nest and has invited more actors to the melee.

    December 20, 2013

  • jrocks

    and you're right. there's little room for maneuverability, but so far, the hizb has found different ways. let's see what's up their sleeve next. exciting times indeed

    December 19, 2013

  • jrocks

    " And to drive the point home, the IDF shot two LAF soldiers upon detecting “suspicious movement” near the border after the shooting." you mean shot at two LAF soldiers. i don't think they hit any

    December 19, 2013