Will Syria’s disarming of chemical weapons affect Hezbollah’s arms?
By Haytham Mouzahem
Remarkably, Hezbollah’s Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah recently denied any transfer of chemical weapons from Syria to his party, stating that acquiring such weapons is religiously forbidden and immoral from his group’s point of view.
A source close to Hezbollah, speaking on condition of anonymity, told The Atlantic Post that Hezbollah and Iran deny having weapons of mass destruction including chemical weapons, because they are destructive to humanity and are prohibited by Islam.
He said that the main rule for fighting in Islam is to defend against harm. War should be defensive, and when it is waged, Islam states the importance of organizing it so as not to affect the people or the natural environment. He noted that Israel used weapons of mass destruction in the July 2006 war against Hezbollah and Lebanon, in reference to allegations on Israel’s use of phosphorous bombs and bombs containing depleted uranium.
However, sources from Lebanon’s March 14 coalition believe that stripping Syria of its chemical weapons will weaken the so-called axis of resistance that stretches from Iran to Iraq, Syria and Hezbollah in Lebanon. These weapons are considered strategic and play a crucial role in the strategic balance with Israel and as a deterrence power for Syria.
A March 14 politician, who preferred to remain anonymous, told The Atlantic Post that the withdrawal of Syrian chemical weapons will have an impact on Hezbollah’s missile arsenal in Lebanon. Along with Iran’s nuclear program, the party’s arsenal will be next on the list of international pressures to prevent Iran from possessing nuclear weapons and disarm Hezbollah of its missiles.
The anti-Hezbollah politician’s optimism was inspired by the quick Syrian response to the U.S.-Russian understanding regarding Syria’s chemical weapons. In return, Washington and its allies backed down on their plan for a military strike that they were determined to launch against the Syrian regime due to accusations that the latter had used chemical weapons in Ghouta, in the Damascus suburbs on August 21.
The same source deduced, “Hezbollah relied, in its 2006 war with Israel, on the support of the Syrian regime with missiles, arms and facilitation of the passage of arms from Iran through Damascus. Moreover, a large number of Shi’a inhabitants of the southern suburbs of Beirut, southern Lebanon and the Bekaa Valley fled to Syria to escape the Israeli aggression.”
“Today, the Syrian regime is weak and relies on the support of Iran, Hezbollah and some Iraqi Shi’a in its battles. Any Israeli threat for Hezbollah will push it to fight two wars – one with Syria and another against Israel, which is publicly backed by the West and implicitly supported by most Arab countries this time.”
The same politician is banking on the possible overlap of regional and international circumstances to strip Hezbollah of its arms and implement United Nations Resolution 1559 issued in 2004, which sets forth the disarmament of militias in Lebanon, in a specific reference to Hezbollah.
Moreover, he believes that Russia is a pragmatic rather than an ideological ally that has its own interests at heart. When Russia’s interests intersect with those of the West and the Gulf countries, it might give up this alliance, just like it agreed to the international sanctions on Iran years earlier due to the latter’s enrichment of uranium.
Russia is an old strategic ally of Syria and has always supplied it with weapons, in addition to having used its veto several times to protect the regime from any U.N. Security Council decision condemning it.
In just one day, Russia agreed with the United States to strip the Syrian regime of its chemical arsenal. By doing this, stated the Lebanese politician, Russia ignored the strategic balance with Israel. Better yet, it might have done so to ensure Israel’s security facing the threat of these weapons. Why, then, would Russia have adopted a stricter position in favor of Hezbollah?
Not many strategic experts and political researchers agree with this analysis. Walid Sukaria, a Lebanese member of parliament from the Hezbollah-affiliated Loyalty to the Resistance bloc, told The Atlantic Post that the U.S.-Russian agreement regarding the withdrawal of Syrian chemical weapons has nothing to do with Hezbollah’s arms.
He believes that the eventual success of a U.S.-Russian agreement was not necessarily the foreign policy victory Washington hoped to achieve. The agreement, however, has saved face for Washington given that it set forth an initiative to destroy Syrian chemical weapons and dedicated the achievement to Israel.
Sukaria believes Russia and Syria are the victors, particularly Syria which has been freed from the crisis with the least possible amount of damage. If the military strike was conducted, great losses would have been inflicted on the Syrian army, tipping the power balance in favor of the opposition. As a result of the U.S.-Russian agreement, the Syrian regime has preserved its power in its ongoing battle against the armed opposition.
When asked about the effect on Israel of Syria losing its chemical weapons, Sukaria said that there was no strategic balance between Syria and Israel. Syria achieves this balance through its alliances with Iran, Iraq and Hezbollah.
However, the fact that Syria remained within the axis of resistance as a country confronting Israel is a victory by itself for this axis and for the power of Hezbollah. If the regime was changed and became an ally of the United States and the West, even if chemical weapons remained intact and even if Syria acquired nuclear weapons, the regime will have to get out of the confrontation with Israel.
Sukaria believes that the Syrian regime’s top priority is to defeat the conspiracy and rebuild its military power, noting that the conflict against Syria has not ended yet. The United States backed out on the military strike because its results and consequences were unknown especially since the allies of Syria – Iran, Hezbollah and Iraq – were ready to defend Syria.
The source close to Hezbollah told The Atlantic Post that the issue of Syria’s chemical weapons is not related to the rest of the issues. This is a specific crisis that requires concessions and must not be generalized to include other issues such as Hezbollah’s weapons.
Adham Saouli, lecturer of politics and international relations at the University of Edinburgh, considered that the U.S.-Russian agreement is still undergoing negotiations and will not have direct effect on Hezbollah’s weapons. Saouli told The Atlantic Post that some parties may raise allegations about Hezbollah having chemical weapons but the case will be too weak to be considered.
Saouli added, “In Syria, the Ghouta massacre was the reason behind the demands to dismantle Syria’s chemical weapons. As for Hezbollah, those who claim that the party possesses chemical weapons ought to provide strong evidence to this effect.”
Speaking to The Atlantic Post, Nadim Shehadi, an associate fellow at the Royal Institute for International Relations (Chatham House) in London, said he does not believe there is an association between the elimination of Syria’s chemical weapons and the disarming of Hezbollah.
Shehadi added that eliminating Syria’s chemical weapons is only a trick by Russia and the Syrian regime. The Americans walked into the trap of the absurd agreement in this regard, as U.S. President Barack Obama does not want a military intervention under any circumstances.
Moreover, Shehadi drew an analogy between the Syrian situation and the situation in Iraq when ousted President Saddam Hussein allowed the United Nations to destroy its chemical weapons following the second Gulf War in 1991 but continued to kill his people until 2003. He stressed that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad “has been buying more time to kill his own people as Saddam did in 1991.”
Resolution 1559 issued in 2004 called “upon all remaining foreign forces to withdraw from Lebanon” and “for the disbanding and disarmament of all Lebanese and non-Lebanese militias” in reference to the withdrawal of the Syrian army from Lebanon and for the disarming of Hezbollah. In the wake of the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri on February 14, 2005, Syria came under U.S. pressure and threats to compel it to withdraw from Lebanon.
However, the second objective has yet to be implemented despite political, international, regional and domestic pressure, not to mention the 33-day military offensive waged by Israel in July 2006 under U.S. cover. Ever since, Hezbollah has increased its missiles and as a result its regional weight grew considerably compared to its previous status.
The difference between the Syrian regime and Hezbollah is that the first is keen to preserve its rule, its army and its state. Thus, it fears external pressure, especially military intervention, which would eliminate or undermine it. Hezbollah, on the other hand, supported by a large popular segment, particularly Shi’a in Lebanon,claims that it will not be affected by any international or Arab pressure and does not fear military threats for both religious and military tactical reasons.
Haytham Mouzahem is an Atlantic Post contributor in Beirut, Lebanon.
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