By William Tucker
Over the last few months tensions in Lebanon and the surrounding region have been running rather high. Of course this is the Middle East, but recent events such as the recent border skirmish between the Israelis and the Lebanese military are indicative of regional players waiting for the other shoe to drop. What made the recent border skirmish seem so out of the ordinary is that the Lebanese Army instigated the exchange of fire rather than Hezbollah. Further compounding is the IDF was operating within Israeli territory and had alerted the UN force in Lebanon that routine maintenance of the border fence was taking place. The UN has confirmed the Israeli statement leaving the motivation behind the action as the most pressing question.
Shortly after the incident on the border members of the US congress moved to block future military assistance to the Lebanese military valued at 100 million dollars. Congressman Howard Berman stated that, “Until we know more about this incident and the nature of Hezbollah influence on the LAF – and can assure that the LAF is a responsible actor – I cannot in good conscience allow the United States to continue sending weapons to Lebanon.” Of course Berman is not alone in his concern about the relationship between Hezbollah and the Lebanese military as several other members of Congress have signed on to blocking the funding. What is known about the relationship between Hezbollah and the LAF is Hezbollah has released some of its members after several years of service for the purpose of enlisting in the LAF as a means of exerting further control over state entities. It is entirely possible that the LAF soldier that instigated the firefight was acting at the behest of Hezbollah, but at this point that is merely speculation.
About one week prior to the border skirmish, Syrian President Assad along with Saudi King Abdullah paid a short visit to Lebanon with the ostensive purpose of heading off another political crisis should members of Hezbollah be indicted for the 2005 assassination for Rafik Hariri. Hezbollah has threatened to wreak havoc on Lebanon much as they did in Beirut in 2008 should such an indictment happen. As a result of the visit Hezbollah’s other patron in Tehran swiftly countered the unprecedented discussion between Assad and Abdullah by reminding the Syrian President that he had better play ball with Iran. The details of that conversation have been leaked to the press via anonymous sources making the reliability of the account suspect, but we can assume that the visit was less than cordial.
Ultimately the border skirmish between Israel and Lebanon is a periphery issue. What is really at stake is influence over Lebanon and the fears that another civil war could threaten the regional interests of Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Over the next few months we’ll be watching the situation in Lebanon very closely as well as the maneuvering by other regional powers. In its short history Lebanon has been the battlefield of many regional and global powers looking to expand their influence in the Middle East. From all outward appearances it looks as if a new contest is in the works and the many nations that rely on Lebanon as a means of furthering their regional power have a lot to lose.
Map: Lebanon 2002, CIA