As tensions rise in Syria between Israel and Iran, it is taken for granted that if fighting breaks out there between the two sides, it will spread to neighbouring Lebanon. The argument is that Tehran will mobilise its Shia proxies, above all Hezbollah, which would then begin bombarding Israel on a front stretching from the Golan Heights to southern Lebanon.
That may indeed be true. The idea that Hezbollah has a margin of manoeuvre to take decisions that challenge Iranian priorities often seems unreasonable. However, as both Iran and Hezbollah think about a confrontation in Lebanon, they need to consider an important reality: the domestic Lebanese scene is different today to how it was in 2006, when Israel and Hezbollah fought their last war against each other, and the situation today is not in Hezbollah's favour.
In 2006, in the months preceding the war, Hezbollah had concluded an alliance with the main Maronite Christian political party, the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) of Michel Aoun. That is why when the war began, the party still had a significant share of a major Lebanese religious community on its side, so that it did not find itself isolated domestically once the conflict ended.
Indeed, Hezbollah’s relationship with the Maronites followed on from the Syrian withdrawal in 2005. Having lost its Syrian ally, the party was worried that pressure would build up inside Lebanon for it to disarm. That’s why Hezbollah sought to ensure that two of Lebanon’s major communities, the Maronites and Sunnis, and their representatives, would remain divided politically, so as not to challenge the Shia Hezbollah’s independent military status in the state.
That approach worked for more than a decade, even leading to the election of Mr Aoun as president in October 2016, with Hezbollah support. Yet the alliance with Hezbollah was primarily driven by Mr Aoun’s calculation that it would facilitate his being elected. However, his victory was also a result of Saad Hariri’s decision to back Mr Aoun, and since that time the ties between Mr Hariri’s Future Movement and Mr Aoun’s FPM have greatly improved.
As elections approach in May, Mr Aoun is in a very different position than he was more than a decade ago. His candidates are expected to form joint lists with Mr Hariri’s candidates in several constituencies. As president, Mr Aoun has achieved the ambition he was pursuing so relentlessly in 2006 and that mandated he remain on good terms with Hezbollah then, whatever the cost. At the same time, he is now responsible for the state and its wellbeing, and he shares the same concerns as Mr Hariri, who is prime minister.
This cannot please Hezbollah. The reason is easy to grasp. The next war with Israel will be much more devastating for Lebanon than that of 2006. The country's infrastructure will be destroyed, and the cost of reconstruction will be immense, at a time when neither the international community nor the Arab states have any money to spare for Lebanon. Worse, the Lebanese economy is in a highly precarious state, and a war would undoubtedly push it over the edge, creating a perfect storm of widespread destruction and national bankruptcy.
In such a climate, the popular backlash against Hezbollah would likely be very strong, even among Lebanon’s Shia, who would bear the brunt of Israeli bombings. Hezbollah would still have its guns, but its ability to engage in any new war with Israel would be severely, perhaps permanently, impaired afterwards.
That’s especially true because much would change on the communal level. Mr Aoun and Mr Hariri, both opposed to Hezbollah’s embarking on a suicidal war against Israel on Iran’s behalf, could potentially join forces to put Hezbollah on the defensive. The party’s unpopular intervention in Syria has already painted it as a profoundly sectarian force, not an organisation fighting for Arab rights against Israel. Consequently, Hezbollah could find itself cornered inside Lebanon, something the party has worked strenuously to avert since 2005.
It’s easy to say that Hezbollah would not care. The party has used force in the past to impose it’s will and may do so again. Perhaps, but Hezbollah is always careful not to take Lebanon’s sectarianism for granted. The idea that it could intimidate Maronites and Sunnis if they were united is laughable. Hezbollah looks at the balance of forces, and the last thing it wants is to be dragged into a sectarian confrontation in Lebanon that would find the Shia arrayed against all the rest.
This hardly means that Lebanon is safe. Hezbollah may yet go to war if Iran demands it, just as Israel may strike Lebanon, seeing an opportunity to neutralise the party. Yet this complex reality stands against a crude reading of Lebanon as a country controlled by Hezbollah. In fact, a majority of Lebanese oppose a war with Israel today, realising what ruin it would bring. Hezbollah cannot ignore this, knowing that Lebanon’s sectarian politics has undone stronger parties than it.