Signs point to trouble ahead for Hezbollah

Could this be the beginning of the end of Hezbollah?

For the first time since its official emergence in 1985, Lebanon's powerful Shiite "Party of God" is feeling nervous about its future as an autonomous and untouchable politico-military organization.

It is not a potential war with Israel that is making Hezbollah anxious, though it is doing everything it can to prevent one from happening. Instead, what deeply worries Hezbollah is a string of events that could unfold at home following an expected indictment of the group — or at least rogue elements within it — by the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL). The tribunal is charged with prosecuting those responsible for the killing of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri on Feb. 14, 2005.

Assuming the prosecution is not derailed and no deals are made, Hezbollah has two options if it is indicted. It can accept the charge and try to limit the costs; or it can react violently and suffer the consequences of such action. Neither bodes well.

Based on recent statements of Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah, Option 1 is most likely off the table.

Mr. Nasrallah has emphatically denied any involvement of Hezbollah in the murder. He has categorically refused to hand over any member of his party to any international body, calling the tribunal nothing but "an Israeli project" that seeks to smear and target "the resistance." Last week, in a 21/2 -hour press conference, he accused Israel of Mr. Hariri's assassination, presenting "evidence" that included footage from Israeli spy planes of routes used by Mr. Hariri.

He has also rejected talk of any deal that would accuse some "undisciplined" elements inside his organization but leave the leadership untouched. Sensing that there is an international conspiracy against Lebanon and his party, Mr. Nasrallah is in no mood to compromise.

This leaves Option 2, an angry reaction by Hezbollah that could turn ugly and cause widespread violence in the country.

Imagine the scenario: Mr. Nasrallah would hold another press conference saying that the government of Prime Minister Saad Hariri (Rafik's son) has an ultimatum: Either disregard the tribunal's charge or face Hezbollah's wrath.

Mr. Hariri would either stall indefinitely or refuse to comply, arguing that he can't interfere with an independent tribunal. Hezbollah's ministers would immediately leave or suspend participation in the cabinet. (They could also bring down the cabinet in order to annul its responsibilities toward the STL). The party's base would hold large demonstrations and sit-ins, causing political deadlock in Beirut and possibly sectarian tensions throughout the country — a situation not unlike the political crisis that exploded into violence in May 2008.

Sunni-Shiite polarization would reach its climax, possibly though not necessarily manifesting itself in several armed confrontations across multiple regions. Not known for armed combat, the Future Movement, the largest Lebanese Sunni grouping, which is headed by Mr. Hariri, would choose nonviolent confrontation. That would allow more extremist and uncontrollable Salafi jihadi elements sympathetic to al-Qaida to emerge and fight the "infidel" Shiites.

Lebanese state institutions would gradually collapse and the Lebanese Army would remain neutral. The result would be a return to a state of anarchy, in ways similar to the bleak civil war of 1975-90.

Hezbollah fears this nightmare for three main reasons: 1) a civil conflict distracts it from its main enemy, Israel, and makes it vulnerable in the event of an Israeli attack; 2) a deadly and prolonged Sunni-Shiite confrontation in Lebanon destroys the image of Hezbollah as an Islamist movement that speaks and fights for both branches of Islam; and 3) a large-scale civil conflict would most likely invite Syrian military intervention.

Seeing that its strategic interests and national security are at risk, Syria would send its troops back to Lebanon to restore stability and prevent the disintegration of its neighbor while re-imposing its hegemony over it, just like it did in 1976. (Syrian troops didn't leave until the 2005 "Cedar Revolution", which was sparked by Rafik Hariri's killing).

Hezbollah is in no way comfortable with a Syrian military return to Lebanon because the Syrians would restrain its military activities, check its political ambitions, and ultimately replace it under their strategic orbit, instead of Iran's.

Moreover, Syria's potential military comeback to Lebanon could cause new Lebanese domestic realities that could harm Hezbollah's interests.

Damascus could resort to playing its traditional game of divide and rule and change the balance of power in the country, tilting it more in favor of its new allies, Saad Hariri and his coalition (though this does not mean that Syria will break relations with Hezbollah or abandon it). After all, Mr. Hariri has indeed made peace with the Syrian regime.

Whether the Lebanese leader truly believes that Syrian President Bashar Assad did not order the killing of his father or he simply decided to let bygones be bygones is unclear.

Regardless, the reality is that Mr. Hariri has effectively turned a new page with the Syrians, as evidenced by his four state visits to Damascus, his regular consultations with Mr. Assad, and his signing of more than 17 bilateral agreements with Syria.

With the consequences of violent response in mind, Hezbollah, if indicted, will be very careful not to over-react and stir the sectarian pot. (Right now it is focusing its efforts on mounting a legal challenge.)

Meanwhile, political tensions are growing in Lebanon. While the recent visits to Beirut by Saudi King Abdullah, Syria's Assad, and Qatari Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani calmed the waters in Lebanon, they did not offer any practical solutions. All three countries seek to prevent sectarian conflict in Lebanon and spillover, but each also has its own agenda and interest in competing for regional influence.

Nasrallah does not like his two options, so for the time being he will continue to challenge the tribunal and undermine its legitimacy and legal authority. But that may not be enough. Feeling cornered, he might have to be creative and find another way out, one that is less costly than what he currently has. Could he deliberately start a diversionary war with Israel? I highly doubt it given the tremendous costs of such a military adventure. But the Hezbollah chief, with Iran's consultation, will definitely weigh his options. If he finds his options intolerable and Iran starts to feel that an American or Israeli attack is just around the corner, brace yourself for another war in the Middle East.

Bilal Y. Saab is a PhD candidate and teaching assistant at the department of government and politics at the University of Maryland, College Park. This article originally appeared in The Christian Science Monitor.