Saeed Jalili, the mild-mannered secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council and special adviser to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, undertook a whirlwind visit of Syria and Lebanon two weeks ago.
While the aim of his trip to Damascus was clear — to show Tehran’s continued support of embattled President Bashar al-Assad — the reasons for his meetings in Beirut with the leaders of the Lebanese government were more ambiguous.
“We respect Lebanon because of its resistance and the prominent role it plays with regards to the region’s security and stability,” he said on arrival in Beirut. But if anyone thought that this was a guarantee that the Land of the Cedars was not returning to the bad old days of civil war, shortly after Mr Jalili’s departure, a round of internecine kidnappings broke out which have led to an escalation of hostilities between a variety of local groups.
So far, Iran’s main proxy and the strongest armed force in Lebanon, Hizbollah, has remained officially above the fray, its leader, Hassan Nasrallah, paying lip-service to stability. But most of the kidnappings were carried out by Shia clans with strong Hizbollah ties who have acted in the past as subcontractors for the movement. More than 20 men, mainly Syrian nationals thought to be linked to the Syrian National Army fighting against the forces still loyal to Assad, have been kidnapped, as has one Turkish national.
The climate of lawlessness has spread across Lebanon as armed groups have taken control of roads to the Syrian border and to Beirut airport. Militias identified with the various ethnic communities have begun to re-arm after a decade of relative peace, and Arab governments have called upon their nationals to leave Lebanon at once.
Many analysts see the hand of Hizbollah behind events.
The movement derives much of its strength from Syrian and Iranian backing. Damascus International Airport is a crucial link for arms consignments from Iran and North Korea and, without Syrian and Iranian support, Hizbollah’s stranglehold on Lebanese politics is in danger.
The latest round of violence acted as a reminder to all parties that Hassan Nasrallah holds the key to continued stability and economic prosperity or, alternatively, a descent back into bloodshed.
Reasserting its military dominance in Lebanon is not the only way out for Hizbollah, of course: there is always the option to launch another strike on Israel.