Hizbollah's quandary: most Lebanese don't want a war

You would have been forgiven for thinking that Hassan Nasrallah was Lebanon's head of state at that gathering with Bashar al Assad and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

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During the Syrian-Iranian summit in Damascus last week, Hassan Nasrallah, Hizbollah's secretary general, was invited to join the Syrian and Iranian presidents Bashar al Assad and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on the rostrum. You would have been forgiven for thinking that Mr Nasrallah was Lebanon's head of state at that gathering of worthies. Ultimately, though, Mr Ahmadinejad's statements told the real story. When he declared that the peoples of the Middle East, including the Lebanese, would stand up against Israel in the event of a war, it was clear that Mr Nasrallah had been invited as the honoured sacrificial lamb who would confirm that promise. Hizbollah will be in the front trenches of any conflict between Israel and Iran, and somehow in this scenario very little attention has been paid to the majority of Lebanese who have no desire to serve as cannon fodder on Tehran's behalf.

There has been much talk about a war in the Middle East. Where it would start and how it would end is a matter of debate, but the fears conceal a more complex reality about how a conflagration might affect Hizbollah. The party has turned on the bravado, with one parliamentarian declaring this week that "Lebanon has become more powerful now while the Israelis have become more vulnerable". Hizbollah has reportedly acquired anti-aircraft missiles from Syria, and Mr Nasrallah has vowed to bomb Tel Aviv if Israel bombs Beirut. However, there is more to victory than that.

The consensus is that Hizbollah does not relish a new war. As a military organisation it thrives on tension, yet Hizbollah also has a constituency whose qualms cannot be ignored. If one community was most frightened by Mr Ahmadinejad's comments, it was Lebanon's Shiites, who would bear the brunt of an Israeli attack. During the 2006 conflict, one million Shiites were displaced for a month and made to live in public facilities, schools, and parks. Hizbollah called that cataclysm a "divine victory", mainly to absorb any Shiite backlash ? a move facilitated by the rapid and massive injection of Iranian funds to compensate the victims.

That game, however, cannot be played every few years. Israel is aware that its strongest suit in a future war is devastation. Israeli officials have declared time and again that in its next clash with Lebanon it would target not just Hizbollah, but also the Lebanese state. This means that Lebanon's infrastructure (which Israel partially spared in 2006) would be fair game. The country's economy could be ravaged as the Israelis would almost certainly hit the electricity and water grids, road networks, ports, and much more - not to mention undermine the economic confidence that Lebanon relies upon to remain afloat financially.

Hizbollah's ability to deter Israel remains limited, although the party suggests that it has managed to impose a balance of terror. Its missiles and anti-aircraft weapons might have some impact on Israeli actions, but any full-scale escalation, because of its magnitude and unpredictability, would create outcomes with more political than strictly military consequences. An extended conflict would create pressures on Hizbollah domestically, both among Shiites and other Lebanese whose livelihoods would be a hostage to the party's whims. It might also risk a wider war with Syria, inviting urgent foreign mediation to find a solution.

Hizbollah and Israel have framed their mutual threats in terms of self-defence. Barring an error, both sides will avoid coming to blows today. Hizbollah knows that the violence of an Israeli response might weaken its standing at home while forcing it to waste a valuable military deterrent primarily serving Iran. The Israeli priority is to undermine the Iranian nuclear programme, so that a Lebanon war would only detract from this. But what happens if Israel bombs Iran because international efforts have failed to prevent Tehran from building a nuclear weapon?

Hizbollah would doubtless be called upon to retaliate against Israel, but things would not be quite as simple as that. The party, unable to persuade Shiites that they must suffer for Iran, would have to goad Israel into striking first, making its own response look like a defensive measure. This it could do, let's say, by allowing rockets to be fired across the border, perhaps by pro-Syrian Palestinian groups. Israel, seeing an opening to damage the party's political influence in Lebanon, might readily take the bait and engage in massive retaliation.

It's anyone's guess what the upshot of such an upheaval might be, as an infinite number of variables will intervene to frustrate everyone's calculations. However, less discussed is another situation in which Israel and Hizbollah might square off. If Iran succeeds in developing a nuclear weapon in the face of international opposition, Israel might decide that Lebanon takes default precedence and try to eliminate the Hizbollah irritant to its north. How such an operation would be provoked is another matter. The paradox is that a Lebanese conflict seems more probable once Israel determines it can do nothing against Iran.

In all cases, it is intangibles that will determine who wins and loses, or whether stalemate prevails. Hizbollah's strength is also its weakness: the party's popular support among Shiites is a weapon it cannot abuse. Hizbollah's ability to intimidate its Lebanese partners would also diminish in the shadow of a destructive Israeli war inflicted on all. The Israelis sense this, which is why the spectre of war will never be far away from Lebanon, even as Israel's leaders, too, must determine how their population will react if caught in an intense missile war.

What makes this so difficult to stomach is that the shots are being called thousands of miles away, by an Iranian regime that has surrounded itself with a bodyguard of crises to protect its interests. The Lebanese can, legitimately, lament the fact that they will have a front-row seat, courtesy of Mr Ahmadinejad and a pliant Mr Nasrallah. Michael Young is opinion editor of the Daily Star newspaper in Beirut