Tough times for Hezbollah in fast changing region

AP News
Posted: Feb 06, 2013 3:16 PM
Tough times for Hezbollah in fast changing region

BEIRUT (AP) — These are tough times for Hezbollah. The Shiite militant group's uncompromising support for Syrian President Bashar Assad and allegations that it attacked Israeli tourists in Bulgaria are both unpopular in Lebanon, where it is increasingly accused of putting the interests of longtime patrons Iran and Syria over those of its home country.

For many in the deeply polarized and war-weary nation, Hezbollah's involvement in last year's bus attack that killed five Israelis, if confirmed, constitutes further proof that the group is willing to compromise the country's security for external agendas.

"Hezbollah uses the Lebanese people like sandbags, they don't care about the people," complained Michel Zeidan, echoing the views of others who called in to a talk radio show Wednesday.

"These are very serious accusations which would demonstrate once again that Hezbollah is completely driven by foreign agendas," Ahmad Fatfat, a Lebanese lawmaker in the pro-Western camp opposed to Hezbollah, told The Associated Press.

Hezbollah has denied involvement in the Bulgaria attack and has not made any direct comments since the findings of an investigation were announced Tuesday.

Asked to comment at a cabinet meeting Wednesday, Hezbollah minister Mohammed Fneish said: "Israel has been pointing fingers at Hezbollah from the first moment of the explosion took place."

The group's deputy chief, Sheik Naim Kassem, said Israel is conducting an international terror campaign against Hezbollah because it failed to defeat it militarily.

"All these accusations against Hezbollah will have no effect, and do not change the facts or realities on the ground," Kassem told supporters Wednesday, without referring to the Bulgarian charges directly.

Bulgarian officials said Tuesday that the Lebanese group has been linked to the sophisticated bombing carried out by a terrorist cell that included Canadian and Australian citizens. They said the two living suspects have been identified and are in Lebanon.

The announcement put pressure on European countries such as France and Germany, which haven't designated Hezbollah a terrorist organization despite the urgings of Israel and the U.S.

"If the evidence proves to be true, that Hezbollah is indeed responsible for this despicable attack, then consequences will have to follow," said Steffen Seibert, a spokesman for German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

He didn't say what those consequences could be. But a ban on Hezbollah's activities in Germany, where authorities believe it has almost 1,000 members, could limit its ability to collect funds for the group's main branch in Lebanon.

In Lebanon, there were calls for Hezbollah to come out with a clear statement outlining and responding to the accusations.

"We are waiting for Hezbollah's response," said Fatfat, the lawmaker.

The Bulgaria accusations come less than a week after an Israeli airstrike in Syria that U.S. officials said targeted a convoy of sophisticated weapons bound for Hezbollah.

A Lebanese radio talk show host on Wednesday morning fielded calls from people commenting on the fallout for the country from the airstrike in Syria and the Bulgarian findings.

"The economic repercussions on Lebanon will be disastrous," said Zeidan.

Issam, a tour operator, said he was worried it would become harder for Lebanese to get visas to Europe if the group is declared a terrorist organization there.

"We don't want to be involved in any proxy wars anymore," he told the AP, declining to give his full name. His words reflected a view shared by many Lebanese who are not interested in further warfare with Israel. Even among supporters of the group who have seen their homes and villages destroyed too many times, there is reluctance to endorse anything that may be seen as provoking a war.

Fawaz A. Gerges, director of the Middle East Center at the London School of Economics, said there remained big question marks about whether Hezbollah was really involved in the Bulgaria attacks. He argued that the group was "too skilled and too intelligent" to carry out an operation in Europe that would play so bluntly into the hands of Israel and the U.S.

"By traveling this road, Hezbollah risks becoming a pariah organization, in particular given the importance of Europe to Lebanon and to the Hezbollah community," he said.

Like others, he said Hezbollah must come out with a very clear statement outlining and responding to the Bulgarian claims and assertions about its role in the attack against tourists.

"Hezbollah doesn't have the luxury to remain silent," Gerges said.

Despite its formidable weapons arsenal and political clout in Lebanon, the group's credibility and maneuvering space has been significantly reduced in the past few years.

The civil war in Syria, the main transit point of weapons brought from Iran to Hezbollah, presents the group with its toughest challenge since its inception in 1982.

Once lauded on the Arab street as a heroic resistance movement that stood up to Israel, it has seen its reputation and popularity plummet in the Arab world because of its staunch support for Assad.

The group has faced repeated accusations that its members were helping the Assad regime's military crackdown against rebels in Damascus — a claim the group denies.

Officials and analysts say there is real anxiety within Hezbollah that if Assad falls, it might lose not only a crucial supply route for weapons but also political clout inside Lebanon, where it currently dominates the government, along with its allies.

Hezbollah still suffers from the fallout of the 2006 war, which many in Lebanon accused it of provoking by kidnapping soldiers from the border area. Since then, the group has come under increasing pressure at home to disarm. Sectarian tensions between its Shiite supporters and Sunnis from the opposing camp have often spilled over into deadly street fighting.

Furthermore, four Hezbollah members have been named suspects by a U.N.-backed tribunal in the 2005 Beirut truck bombing that killed former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, who was then Lebanon's top Sunni politician. Hezbollah denies the charges and has refused to hand over the suspects.

As the Assad regime in Damascus becomes weaker, analysts expect Hezbollah to come under more pressure and Israel to take advantage of the group's perceived vulnerability at home, particularly ahead of parliament elections scheduled for this summer.

"Hezbollah remains preoccupied with domestic stability in Lebanon and will not want to shoot itself in the foot by launching an offensive against Israel prior to the 2013 general elections," said Anthony Skinner, an analyst at Maplecroft, a British risk analysis company .

"Hezbollah may also want to keep its powder dry for an offensive against Israel if the Israelis launch airstrikes against Iranian nuclear facilities," he said.