Within two hours of an indictment by the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) against members of Hezbollah, the party will implement a non-violent scheme to “hold a security and military grip on large areas of Lebanon,” Lebanese daily Al-Akhbar reported Monday.
Two security analysts NOW Lebanon interviewed, however, said they believed the report was more of a political message than a clear blueprint for how Hezbollah would react if party members are indeed indicted as such a move would likely turn quite violent, regardless of the party’s intentions.
Shortly before Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah gave an October 28 speech in which he called on Lebanese officials to boycott the STL, according to the report, the party conducted a simulation that would involve its political and security forces holding “a grip on major cities in Lebanon, from the capital and the suburbs to the Kesrouan highlands and North Lebanon, as well as holding a grip on seaports and border crossings to prevent the escape of personalities.” The plan would be launched if party members are indicted, something expected in Lebanon that the court has neither confirmed nor denied.
Al-Akhbar said Hezbollah operatives would also arrest Lebanese officials wanted by a Syrian court for allegedly misleading the UN investigation into the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and look for “those who tried to stir sectarian strife.” The simulation also included a siege of both the Grand Serail – the seat of government – and Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s downtown residence.
“If such a thing happens, it would mean the collapse of the state and start of civil war,” Riad Kahwaji, CEO of the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis, told NOW Lebanon in an email message. “Taking over government buildings and seizing houses and offices of officials is a violent act even if gunmen doing this don’t fire a bullet in the process.”
Retired Lebanese army General Elias Hanna, who now teaches political science at several universities, agreed that even if Hezbollah attempted to non-violently exert control over wide swaths of the country, “they cannot control the reaction.”
“How can they know in advance what will be the reaction from the other people, like the Sunnis, the Lebanese Forces, and all the forces in March 14?” Hanna told NOW Lebanon.
The last time Hezbollah and its allies took to the streets to pressure the government, they used weapons and easily routed mostly Sunni forces in West Beirut in early May 2008. The army and police (Lebanon’s Internal Security Forces) did not react to stop the violence, and indeed only stepped in once the fighting had more or less ended. This time, both Kahwaji and Hanna said, would likely be different, particularly if Hezbollah members were not armed during the operation.
Such an intervention, however, could be disastrous for the army, Hanna noted.
“Now if something is done by Hezbollah, it will be directly targeting the other communities, especially the Sunnis,” Hanna said. “Remember the 7th of May, there was the rumor that Sunni officers were resigning. Maybe the unity of these security forces will be in danger.”
Internal strife in the event of such a move by Hezbollah could be followed by something worse, Kahwaji said, especially if the government collapses in the wake of a takeover.
“Israel would find it extremely easy to wage its anticipated war on Lebanon with no internationally recognized government in place, and Hezbollah would face an Israeli aggression on its own with Sunnis and large portions of Druze and Christians against it,” he said.
Both men agreed that Hezbollah would lose face locally and in the wider Arab world and that the international community would be outraged. Hanna also pointed out that Iran, Syria and Saudi Arabia probably do not want to see such a serious escalation.
Kahwaji, in fact, dismissed it outright as “sensational journalism mixed with some wishful thinking on the part of those who would like to see Lebanon slide into chaos and civil war.”
For his part, Hanna agreed the article probably reflects something between a “political message” and “psychological warfare,” however, he said he thinks it is a clear indication of Hezbollah’s desire to see the government completely disavow the STL.
“Hezbollah is doing what he can do to cancel the indictment,” Hanna said. And, “if not, [Hezbollah is trying] to create an internal ambiance favorable to its situation … where everybody is ok, including the Sunnis, to say that this tribunal is politicized and is targeting the Resistance and Hezbollah and the Syrians.”