Despite the understandable anxiety about the collapse of the Lebanese government—and the reaction of Hezbollah to the increasing likelihood that some of its operatives may be indicted by the Special Tribunal for Lebanon investigating the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri—the most probable scenario is that, for now, things in Lebanon will stay much as they have been.
For months Hezbollah leaders have been doing their best to muddy the waters, raise doubts and make sure that anyone who wants to be skeptical about whatever the tribunal ends up saying can present at least some arguments, however fatuous. However, the Lebanese situation boils down to an uneasy stability of unstable elements, and that’s not likely to change because of a tribunal report. The idea that any senior Hezbollah figure would be arrested by any forces presently on the ground anywhere in Lebanon is implausible to say the least.
Hezbollah’s withdrawal from, and collapsing of, the government because the cabinet would not repudiate the tribunal is an implicit admission that the likely contents of the report could be extremely problematic. If the accusations are as damning as anticipated, Hezbollah will probably suffer a similar set of challenges that Israel faced from the Goldstone Report into the Gaza war.
What Hezbollah can look forward to, then, is an extremely embarrassing set of accusations that are difficult to refute; potential legal difficulties for some of its operatives, especially when traveling abroad; a very powerful political cudgel with which it can be beaten and berated by its opponents; and a generalized embarrassment which will discredit and weaken it.
However, just as no senior Israeli has been arrested or indicted due to the Goldstone Report, it’s very difficult to imagine anyone significant to Hezbollah being brought before the tribunal in The Hague, a Lebanese court or to any other court. Similarly, the indictment of Sudanese President Omar Bachir, formally charged with war crimes, has proven to be embarrassing words on paper, but little more.
The Lebanese political equilibrium, which is largely based on a very weak centralized government and strong local control by regional and sectarian interests, is not going to be restructured by the Special Tribunal indictments, when they are confirmed. Whatever they say is likely to result in a good deal of shouting, but not much shooting.
The real question is the role of outside forces. It’s probably not an exaggeration to suggest that almost all major Lebanese political factions operate at two separate registers simultaneously. On the one hand, they serve their constituencies’ interests within the Lebanese power structure, and provide services, protection and other essential, quasi-governmental functions within their given areas. On the other hand, virtually all of them are allied with or beholden to foreign powers that have greater or lesser degrees of influence depending on the amount of political, material and financial support they provide.
Most recently, Lebanon has been the subject of a Saudi-Syrian rapprochement that was initially welcomed but has become increasingly uncomfortable for Iran and its Hezbollah clients. The demand that the Lebanese government cease all cooperation with the tribunal is, at least in part, a reaction to increasing unease with the way this rapprochement is functioning from Iran’s and Hezbollah’s perspective. Hezbollah may be calling the Syrian bluff to force it to choose between its alliance with Iran and its rapprochement over Lebanon with Saudi Arabia, since this new combined hegemony was doing nothing to stop the tribunal from going forward.
What all of this underscores is the extent to which it is foreign actors that really have both the ability and potential interest in disrupting Lebanon’s oddly stable equilibrium of volatile, incompatible and fundamentally unstable elements.
None of the major forces inside Lebanon, for their own purposes, would find it advantageous at present to launch a major conflict. Everyone has their fiefdoms, and the equilibrium of forces means that no one can be confident of ultimate success. Even Hezbollah must be aware that historically whenever any power, internal or external, attempts to assert its primacy throughout Lebanon, it tends to face a united front of all other actors and eventually finds itself forced to retreat to its natural base.
There also does not appear to be any obvious reason under present circumstances for foreign powers, including Iran or Israel, to seek to initiate another large-scale conflict in Lebanon, although either might at some future date seek to use it as the site of a proxy war, perhaps the prelude to a more direct confrontation.
For all their enmity, Israel and Hezbollah have shared some interestingly parallel experiences in recent years, including their mutually futile and damaging war in 2006 that was inconclusive, and from which neither has fully recovered. If the Special Tribunal report is as damaging to Hezbollah as many anticipate, they will share yet another similar experience, as its consequences are likely to bear more resemblance to Israel’s experience with the Goldstone Report than to anything else in recent memory.