Analysis:Was Burj Abi Haidar a battle by proxy?

The Burj Abi Haidar battle was, perhaps, the first armed confrontation between Iran and Syria in Lebanon, through proxies
Members of the Al-Ahbash group carry the coffin of Ahmad Jamal Omeirat, who died in Tuesday night's clash, during his funeral procession in Beirut's residential area of Burj Abi Haidar, Lebanon, Wednesday, Aug. 25, 2010. AP

By Michael Young

You had to agree with the pro-Hizbullah daily Al-Akhbar when it observed in its Wednesday edition that one could only “naively” assume that the Burj Abi Haidar fighting the previous evening was the result of a personal dispute between supporters of Hizbullah and the Society of Islamic Philanthropic Projects, known as the Ahbash.

We can only speculate about precisely what did happen. However, most media outlets agreed that tension had been brewing in the neighborhood for some time. The Ahbash are close to Syria, not to say the Syrian intelligence services, which has long employed the group as a counterweight to Sunni militant groups the Syrian regime considers threatening, above all the Muslim Brotherhood. In the postwar period, the Syrians used the Ahbash against the Hariri family – indeed Ahbash members were suspected of involvement in the assassination of the former prime minister, Rafik Hariri – and to undercut the authority of the mufti and the Sunni religious establishment.

Hezbollah supporters carry the coffin of Hezbollah official Ali al-Jawad, who died in clashes on Tuesday night, during his funeral procession, in the southern village of Kfar Fila, Lebanon, Wednesday, Aug. 25, 2010. AP

To interpret what happened as a Sunni-Shiite clash may be understandable, but there was really much more to it than that. Here was, perhaps, the first armed confrontation between Iran and Syria in Lebanon, through proxies, to determine who will dominate the country in the future. More specifically, the Syrians, in endeavoring to revive their hegemony, have entered into a struggle for power with the only force that can stand up to them locally, Hizbullah, on which Damascus seeks to impose its priorities. Not surprisingly, Hizbullah has refused to surrender the political gains it accumulated during the past five years – gains, above all, in the service of Iran.

The heart of the problem is the Special Tribunal for Lebanon. A decision is expected from the institution in the coming months – whether indictments or the identification of suspects. Hizbullah feels it will be targeted by such a step and has raised the heat on the government of Prime Minister Saad Hariri to immediately end Lebanon’s cooperation with the tribunal. Hariri has refused, and can afford to buy time. That’s because Hariri knows that Syria intends to use any tribunal decision as leverage over Hizbullah, to push the party to surrender to Damascus key posts it controls in the public administration and the security and military apparatus.

In light of this, Syria, like Hariri, is waiting for the tribunal to come out with something first, before opening negotiations with Hizbullah; while Hizbullah’s secretary general, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, keen to avoid any such bargaining, is out to create an intolerable situation on the ground so that Hariri is left with no choice but to scuttle the tribunal before its findings push the party into a corner.

Initially, Hizbullah felt that it had a range of options to intimidate Hariri. Party spokesmen ominously mentioned a return to May 2008, when Hizbullah and Amal overran western Beirut militarily and forced the government of Fouad Siniora to annul two decisions that the party regarded as threatening. Hizbullah officials also raised the possibility of bringing down the current government. However, at a summit in Beirut several weeks ago, President Michel Sleiman, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, and President Bashar Assad of Syria signed on to a statement that effectively ruled out both measures.

Consequently, it could be that Hizbullah’s fight against the Ahbash, even if the incident that prompted it was not premeditated, was a message to Damascus that Hizbullah would not readily bend. And this on a night when Nasrallah made a speech virtually calling for the “Iranization” of Lebanon. Hizbullah had no interest in assaulting Hariri’s Future Movement, as this would have transgressed all red lines, leading to a major breakout of Sunni-Shiite hostility. But by going after the Ahbash, Hizbullah was able to send a subtle warning to Hariri, but also a more pointed one to Damascus.

Conversely, some observers have suggested that what happened was a Syrian warning to Hizbullah. Yet there are problems with this theory, not least that time is on Syria’s side when it comes to the tribunal, and Damascus gained little by provoking the party. Either way, both Hizbullah and the Ahbash were armed and ready for one another.

What will be interesting to watch in the coming weeks is what happens on the margins of the Syrian-Iranian struggle over Lebanon. The Parliament speaker, Nabih Berri, whose allegiances are with Syria, must yet be very careful of how he manages his relationship with Hizbullah. It was indicative of Berri’s dilemma that during the Burj Abi Haidar incident Amal issued a statement saying it was not involved, even as some of its men fought on Hizbullah’s side.

Walid Jumblatt is another politician who must play the Syria-Hizbullah rivalry very carefully. He has been especially vocal recently in calling for the tribunal to be abandoned. That’s because it only exacerbates the tensions between Damascus and Hizbullah, and Jumblatt and his community happen to be caught in the middle. The Druze leader has been the target of repeated condemnation in Al-Akhbar lately, principally because Hizbullah views him as particularly vulnerable (which Jumblatt is), and wants to keep him in line.

Baabda summit July 30, 2010 . Shown from left : President Bashar Assad of Syria , King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, President Michel Suleiman, Speaker Nabih Berri, Prime Minister Saad Hariri

Was the Burj Abi Haidar skirmish the first in a series of similar occurrences? It’s difficult to say, but for now nothing indicates that the Syrians and Hizbullah are near to reaching middle ground by tempering their ambitions. What divides Syria and Iran is power, which is something neither is presently inclined to share in Beirut. Even if Hizbullah and Syria avoid episodes like the one on Tuesday, there will be other outbursts of violence or political altercations as the tribunal nears the time when it takes some sort of action.

Particularly revealing is the extent to which Hizbullah feels confident that it can out-maneuver Syria in Lebanon. Damascus was never very good at anchoring itself among the Lebanese without its army and intelligence services around to enforce its dictates. Ironically, Hizbullah has become the principle bulwark resisting a Syrian comeback, because the party wants to preserve Lebanon for Iran. What abysmal choices we Lebanese are left with. DS