Lebanon turmoil sign of growing peril in region

Former Lebanese Prime Minister Mikati (Photo: AP)

Former Lebanese Prime Minister Mikati (Photo: AP)

The resignation of Lebanese prime minister Najib Mikati late last month has not only plunged the country once again into political turmoil, but is also a sign that Hizbollah is seeking to tighten its control of Lebanon and parts of Syria.

Ostensibly, the resignation of Mr Mikati’s cabinet last Saturday was due to the deadlock in talks over the formation of an oversight committee for the Lebanese elections, due to be held in June. The Sunni prime minister served for less than two years as the nominee of the March 8 Alliance, a loose coalition of pro-Syria parties which includes Hizbollah. The Alliance had trouble keeping his majority together as some members changed their positions in the wake of the deepening civil war in Syria. Hizbollah had been demanding changes in the electoral laws that would boost its prospects, and had been trying to pressure Mr Mikati to appoint a new security chief who would be amenable to its military wing, which is already much more powerful than the Lebanese army.

The resignation, however, is a result of an even deeper battle for the future of the region. As Syria continues to implode, the resolve of the Iranian regime and its ally Hizbollah not to relinquish control of the Shia axis — connecting Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon — hardens.

The Syrian army units loyal to President Bashar al-Assad have lost control of large parts of the country and are relying, to an increasing degree, on a foreign legion, estimated by Israeli intelligence to be as large as 50,000 men. It is largely made up of Hizbollah and Iranian fighters.

But as Syria’s power wanes and the mainly Sunni elements in Lebanon that support the rebels believe they have a chance to regain control, Hizbollah must also shore up its support at home.

Hizbollah still has Iranian backing, and officials from Tehran visit Beirut constantly. However, without the support of Syria, the conduit for most of its weapons, it is significantly weakened. To ensure its control, the movement may be tempted to carry out a coup or even provoke a war with Israel in order to prevent elections in what it sees as disadvantageous conditions.

Israel has long seen Hizbollah, with its 50,000 missiles directed at targets all the way to Tel Aviv, as a more potent threat than Syria, which kept the Golan border quiet for nearly four decades.

The Syrian forces in the Golan, until recently comprising two entire divisions, have now all but disintegrated, leaving chaos. Israel retaliated to fire on Sunday with a missile that wounded two Syrian soldiers, and the IDF now has to prepare itself for fighting on two northern fronts while monitoring weapons smuggling by Hizbollah.

So far, Israel has tried to maintain its distance from the Syrian war and Lebanese politics, although last week it opened a field hospital in the Golan to treat wounded Syrians. The danger of Israel being sucked in to the conflagration grows daily.

Last updated: 9:45pm, April 4 2013