The battle is quietly being lost for the commanding heights overlooking Mt. Lebanon. The affiliation of the masked gunmen taking up residence in various strategic locations throughout the mountain range is not hard to imagine. Hezbollah’s encroachments into non-Shia areas is an alarming new development in a Lebanese situation that becomes more alarming by the day. The last we checked, there weren’t many Israeli outposts in the Metn, Jbeil or the Kesrouan, let alone in the Barouq, Niha and Aley.
Hezbollah has been placing a premium on being able to deploy its forces outside predominantly Shia areas of Lebanon. Last September, NOW Lebanon reported on the party’s land purchases and construction projects in Jbeil and Jezzine, and in March on its establishment of an effective “security perimeter” in the Abu Samra neighborhood of Tripoli. Much like its private communications network, Hezbollah’s military network has expanded throughout Lebanon in recent years.
The logic is clear: These are preparations for war, or rather preparations to ensure that if there is a war, Hezbollah’s adversaries won’t be able to fight one. The party knows better than to enter Christian, Druze or Sunni areas. So it has opted for control of the high ground – high ground overlooking the territories of its foes but also controlling lines of communication between mainly Shia areas in the northern Bekaa Valley, the southern Bekaa, South Lebanon, and Beirut’s southern suburbs.
In that context we can better understand what happened in western Beirut last May. The military operation was a warning, namely that anyone who dared challenge Hezbollah would face armed attack. The strategy only partly worked, however. Hezbollah’s efforts to take over Hill 888 in Aley, which controls access to the entire area overlooking Beirut’s southern suburbs, and its efforts to take the Niha and Barouq high ground, which would have placed Walid Jumblatt and Mukhtara under its guns, failed. In Choueifat, as in the Chouf and Aley, the Druze united against Hezbollah. But that hardly means the party will not try again. If anything, Hezbollah is now familiar with how the Druze might react in the future.
Hezbollah knows that the Shia are geographically vulnerable, but its actions are only ensuring that the community will be viewed as a menace by most other Lebanese. No one doubts that Hezbollah has the weapons and training to fight a hard fight, even win in many places. But what is taking place today has so transgressed the red lines of all communities that what we will almost certainly see in the near future is a dangerous logic of communal self-defense taking over. Just as the Druze united against Hezbollah, so too will the Christians and Sunnis. For the party’s strategy to be effective in the long term, it needs to have the capacity to occupy territory and hold it, not just control access routes.
But does it have such a capacity? Plainly no. If an all-out war breaks out, God forbid, Hezbollah will be on its own. Israel would be delighted, and may even show its delight by drawing a hard red line preventing Syria from deploying into Lebanon in support of Hezbollah. There would be a fine massacre, Hezbollah would see its power eaten up in a new Lebanese civil war, and the Lebanon we know could be lost for good as a Pandora’s Box of myriad evils is opened up. If that’s Hezbollah’s plan, then it’s a wonderful one: a wonderful formula for collective suicide.
We know Hezbollah doesn’t care. All other alternatives, the party realizes, would require it to eventually surrender its weapons, which would leave Hezbollah without a reason to exist. However, Hezbollah’s insistence on keeping its weapons will only prompt everyone else to arm, too. But if everybody is armed, then Hezbollah’s military advantage will slowly dissipate. So the party is pushing everybody into a strategy that is both suicidal and that is guaranteed to wipe away its military superiority.
It’s in moments like these that we wonder why Hezbollah is so often viewed as invincible. We’re pretty normal people, but we can already see a train wreck in the making, and whoever comes out of a train wreck in better shape? Hezbollah just can’t see the forest for the trees. Worse, it thinks it can destroy the forest and still proceed as if nothing happened.