THE HEZBOLLAH WILD CARD IN THE CONFLICT IN GAZA
The ongoing Israeli military operations in Gaza have benefitted from the knowledge that Israel’s northern border with Lebanon is not being threatened by the Shi’a Hezbollah movement of Lebanon, the senior partner in the anti-Israel “Resistance” movement. With Hezbollah occupied with its own military operations in Syria and Lebanon’s Beka’a Valley (and possibly now in Iraq), the frontier has remained largely quiet throughout Israel’s “Operation Protective Edge” in Gaza, with the Lebanese Army and UN peacekeepers working to prevent rockets from being fired into Israel from southern Lebanon. In late July, Hamas’ political bureau deputy chief, Musa Abu Marzuk, appealed to Hezbollah to intervene in the Gaza conflict: “We hope the Lebanese front will open and together we will fight against this formation [Israel]… There’s no arguing that Lebanese resistance could mean a lot” (RIA Novosti, July 30).
Hezbollah was once able to present itself as the defender of Lebanon and the champion of the anti-Israeli Resistance, but circumstances prevent Hezbollah leader Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah and the rest of the Hezbollah leadership from resuming these roles. Lebanon is now experiencing severe economic problems while hosting over a million refugees from the Syrian conflict. Hezbollah fighters are deeply engaged in the Syrian conflict and have assumed an important role in preventing Sunni jihadists from Syria from operating in the hills surrounding the Beka’a Valley in northeastern Lebanon (al-Arabiya, July 26; for Hezbollah attempts to reposition itself as an anti-terrorism force, see Terrorism Monitor, April 18). Other factors working against Hezbollah support for Hamas include local suspicion and resentment arising from Hezbollah’s Syrian intervention and the current strained relations between the two groups. There are also perceptions within Lebanon that Hezbollah has a controlling influence over the Lebanese military and security forces. These forces are currently overstretched and awaiting the supply of $1 billion worth of new French weapons in a deal financed by the Saudis (Daily Star [Beirut], August 5).
Nasrallah’s first public remarks on the current Gaza conflict were not made until July 25, when the Hezbollah leader warned Israel against going to the level of “suicide and collapse” by continuing its campaign in Gaza, while assuring “our brothers in Gaza” that “we will do everything we can to support you” (AP, July 25). Nasrallah elaborated on his remarks in an interview a few days later:
We in Hezbollah will be unstinting in all forms of support, assistance and aid that we are able to provide. We feel we are true partners with this resistance, a partnership of jihad, brotherhood, hope, pain, sacrifice and fate because their victory is our victory and their defeat is our defeat… As far as the situation on the battlefield goes, we are winning. Yes, the correlation of forces is beyond comparison, but we have men who are capable of stopping and vanquishing the aggressor (RIA Novosti, July 30).
Nasrallah had earlier made calls to both Hamas chief Khalid Mesha’al and Palestinian Islamic Jihad leader Ramadan Abdullah Shalah to express his support for their struggle against Israel (Daily Star [Beirut], July 22). Despite an increasing political distance between the Sunni Hamas movement and the Shi’a Hezbollah movement due to growing sectarian tensions throughout the Middle East (particularly in Syria) and Hamas’ ties to the now-deposed Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, there are claims that the military arms of the two movements continue to cooperate (Al-Monitor, July 24).
The northeastern Lebanese border town of Arsal has been the scene of bitter fighting in recent days as Lebanese troops of the mechanized 5th and 6th Brigades and the light 8th Brigade move into the region to combat an estimated 4,000 Sunni gunmen of the Nusra Front, most of whom arrived from Syria (al-Manar [Beirut], August 4). Also operating in the Qalamoun region are Islamic State forces under the command of local amir Abu Hassan al-Filastini (al-Akhbar [Beirut], August4). Hezbollah is working alongside Lebanese Army troops around Arsal while also working with the Syrian Army to destroy Islamist forces (particularly the Nusra Front) operating in Syria’s Qalamoun region. Hezbollah is reported to be aided in the region by a group of advisors from the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps who arrived there in mid-July (Daily Star [Beirut], July 22).
The anti-jihadist operations are intended in part to pre-empt a planned Islamist offensive (Laylat al-Qadr – “Night of Power”) against Lebanese border villages intended to abduct hundreds of Lebanese citizens to give the jihadists a bargaining chip in obtaining the release of dozens of their comrades from Lebanon’s Roumieh Prison. Other residents of the region were to be slaughtered in order to provoke a sectarian conflict within Lebanon (Daily Star [Beirut], July 22; July 26; July 27). The planned operation came after an earlier scheme to enable a jailbreak by blasting the Roumieh Prison gates open with a car bomb was foiled by Lebanese intelligence (al-Sharq al-Awsat, July 5). Lebanon’s Sunni Prime Minister, Tammam Salam, has ruled out any kind of political deal with the Sunni gunmen on the frontier (Reuters, August 4).
Fighting in the area began following the arrest of Imad Juma’a (a.k.a. Abu Ahmad Juma’a), leader of the Sunni militant Fajr al-Islam Brigade (allied to the Islamist Nusra Front). Juma’a recently declared his allegiance to the Iraqi-Syrian Islamic State and its leader, the self-declared “Caliph,” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (al-Akhbar [Beirut], August 4).
Hezbollah has cut the jihadists’ supply lines in the region between Qalamoun and Arsal while the Syrian Air Force conducts airstrikes against concentrations of gunmen in the mountains in anticipation of a major joint Hezbollah-Syrian Army-Lebanese Army operation to flush out the gunmen and eliminate their presence in the border region. While likely to be militarily effective, the prospect of Hezbollah operating closely with the officially secular Lebanese Army has alarmed many Sunni leaders within Lebanon. In addition, Arsal is predominantly Sunni and generally in sympathy with the Syrian jihadists, leading to the possibility of a joint operation as described sparking a sectarian confrontation within Lebanon (Daily Star [Beirut], July 31).
With most of its best fighting cohorts operating in Syria or northern Lebanon, Hezbollah is reluctant to renew hostilities with Israel at this time. A war on two fronts would not be sustainable and Hezbollah is well aware that the Israeli Defense Forces have been using their repeated ground offensives into Gaza to develop the new methods and tactics necessary to avoid a repetition of their failure to overcome Hezbollah forces in 2006.
Mali’s Peace Talks: Doomed to Failure?
Mali’s disaffected minority northerners are now at least equal in military power to the state. Outside of a few tribal units drawn from loyalist Tuareg and Arabs, Mali’s military (drawn largely from the nation’s southern population) finds itself severely outclassed when fighting in the unfamiliar terrain of northern Mali. Every Tuareg rebellion has seen a marked improvement in arms and tactics over the last and it was ironically only al-Qaeda’s intervention that prevented the utter defeat of the state military by encouraging foreign intervention. If this pattern continues, Bamako clearly cannot expect to survive another rebellion and continue to retain sovereignty over the north. This creates a certain urgency for the success of upcoming peace negotiations to be held in Algiers beginning August 17, a situation the armed opposition will attempt to use to its advantage.
Improved military training does not appear to provide an answer to this dilemma – indeed, it was American-trained troops that led the military coup in 2012 that overthrew Mali’s democratically elected government and then refused to fight in the north. Mali’s military remains badly divided and in dire need of reform before it can do more than pretend to be a stabilizing force in the north. Without an effective military presence, a Bamako-appointed civil administration will be reduced to giving suggestions rather than implementing policy. For now, however, the Tuareg and Arabs of the north do not trust the army, while the army does not trust its own tribal Tuareg and Arab militias. Until this situation changes, meaningful disarmament will be impossible and development initiatives unable to proceed regardless of what agreements might be made in Algiers.
The Mouvement National pour la Libération de l’Azawad (MNLA – National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad) claim to represent northern Mali’s Arab, Songhai and Peul/Fulani communities is open to challenge. While individuals from these groups may belong to the MNLA, most members of these groups view Tuareg intentions with suspicion. Even though the Mouvement Arabe de l’Azawad (MAA – Arab Movement of Azawad) sits side-by-side with the MNLA at the Algiers talks, recent clashes between the two groups in northern Mali suggest this unified front may not last long (Reuters, July 14; July 24). The Tuareg themselves are badly divided by class, clan and tribe, something reflected even within the senior ranks of the MNLA, with some leaders prepared to accept some form of autonomy, while others demand nothing less than complete independence (Inter-Press Service/Global Information Network, July 23; Xinhua, July 17).
France has complicated negotiations through its new redeployment of French military forces in Africa under the rubric Operation Barkhane, which establishes a series of French bases in sensitive areas of their former colonies in the Sahel (see Terrorism Monitor Brief, July 24). In Kidal, anger is growing in some quarters against the prolonged and now apparently permanent French military presence, while in the south, France is popularly perceived as a destabilizing element suspected of secretly backing Tuareg independence movements. The question is whether Bamako will now deal sincerely with the armed opposition in negotiations if it senses it now has French muscle behind it in the form of a permanent French counter-insurgency force. President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta came to power on a platform of dealing firmly with the north but must obviously shift from the status quo without alienating his southern supporters.
While the inclusion of the three Islamist groups (Ansar al-Din, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb [AQIM] and the Movement for Unity and Justice in West Africa [MUJWA] in the talks could not be expected, they have increased their activity in northern Mali as talks get underway in order to remind all parties of their continued presence in the region. Again, this inhibits the creation and implementation of development projects, particularly if foreign nationals continue to be a target of the Islamists.
Bamako has laid out “red lines” it insists it will not cross with relation to Mali’s territorial integrity and republican system of government, but will have difficulty taking a firm stance given its weakened state and the defeat of its forces in Kidal in May (Echourouk al-Youmi [Algiers], July 19; All Africa, July 16). While it may be possible to persuade the opposition to settle for a robust form of autonomy, Bamako must be prepared to retain authority for little more than defense issues and foreign affairs. The northern opposition must, in turn, keep in mind that greater local authority will mean little without a budget. Mali is one of the poorest states on earth, and the more autonomy the north gains, the less likely it will be for Bamako to devote limited resources to its success. If development promises continue to be ignored as soon as the ink dries on yet another Malian peace agreement, then we are likely in for another round of phony disarmament campaigns, failed military integration and local discontent leading to rebellion.