Renewed Israeli claims that Syria continues to rearm Hezbollah in defiance of UN Resolution 1701 come at a time when there are fears in Israel that Arab groups in Gaza and the Golan Heights may be planning to emulate Hezbollah’s tactics in last summer’s fighting. Since the August cease-fire, Israel has claimed several times that Syrian arms supplies continue to flow to Hezbollah through the numerous smugglers’ trails on the Syrian-Lebanese border, a region now under the supervision of the Lebanese Army (the writ of the UN peacekeeping force, UNIFIL, extends only to South Lebanon, between the border with Israel and the Litani River).
Syrian President Bashar Assad describes efforts to stop arms shipments through Syria to Lebanon as “a waste of time,” stating in an interview that “neither UN resolutions nor military deployment” will stop the flow of contraband arms (El Pais, October 1). Assad does not admit Syrian government involvement in the arms shipments, although Israeli intelligence has informed their government of official Syrian involvement (Gulf Daily News, October 16). The Israeli government of Ehud Olmert is resolute in rejecting the possibility of negotiations with Assad, whom they accuse of harboring terrorists, particularly the Damascus-based leader of Hamas, Khaled Meshaal.
Israeli Defense Minister Amir Peretz has warned that Israel will take “independent action” if necessary to combat arms smuggling into Lebanon, but the commander of the French contingent of the UNIFIL forces has alerted Israel that new rules of engagement being considered by the UNIFIL command might allow French troops to use their anti-aircraft missiles to fire on Israeli warplanes that continue to fly over Lebanon in violation of Resolution 1701 (Haaretz, October 17).
When meeting in Moscow last week with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is believed to have discussed the problem of Russian arms exports to Syria finding their way into Hezbollah’s arsenal (RIA Novosti, October 19). Israel discovered numerous examples of sophisticated Russian-made weapons in captured Hezbollah bunkers, with the missiles and other weaponry still bearing Russian serial numbers and bills of lading.
Hezbollah continues to agitate for a “government of national unity” to replace the present Fouad Siniora-led cabinet, dominated by members of the anti-Syrian March 14 movement. The Shiite movement has some curious partners in their call for a new government, including Maronite Christian General Michel Aoun, leader of the Free Patriotic Movement. Once a violent opponent of Hezbollah and Syrian influence in Lebanon, Aoun is now a close ally of Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah and a leading member of the pro-Syrian camp (Ya Libnan, October 8).
Hezbollah’s commander in South Lebanon, Sheikh Nabil Qawuq, describes attempts to disarm Hezbollah’s armed wing as “a thing of the past,” adding that “we are living with a [Lebanese] government that enjoys the trust of America, but does not enjoy the trust of the [Islamic] resistance” (al-Manar, October 18). Syrian President Assad is intent on renewing Syrian dominance in Lebanese politics, stating that the only solution to the disarmament question is “if all the interested parties have confidence in Syria” (El Pais, October 1). The Syrian state does not recognize Lebanon’s independence.
The massive destruction caused by Israeli bombing has opened some rifts in Shiite solidarity. ‘Ali al-Amin, the Shiite mufti of Tyre, is very vocal in his criticism of Hezbollah, claiming that the national unity government issue is designed to distract attention from the ruination of much of the country. The mufti has reservations about the Hezbollah “victory.” He asked, “What good is it to have a rocket that reaches 100 kilometers inside Israel when Israel can reach every meter of our country?” (Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation, October 15).
Nabih Berri, parliamentary speaker and leader of the Shiite party Amal, has embarked on a tour of Riyadh, Damascus and Tehran as the unofficial spokesman for the Hezbollah movement (Ya Libnan, October 8). Berri has lately put some distance between himself and Hezbollah’s aggressive approach to government reform, warning of a political vacuum that could arise if there is no consensus on the composition of a new cabinet before overthrowing Siniora’s government (al-Nahar, October 19).
The political and military fallout from the short summer war in Lebanon continues. The Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) believe that Hamas is receiving Katyusha rockets and preparing defensive positions in emulation of Hezbollah (Haaretz, October 16). IDF sources maintain that more than 20 tons of explosives, anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles have been smuggled into Gaza from Iran and other sources since the beginning of the year. In light of the lethal effectiveness with which Hezbollah guerrillas used anti-tank missiles in the Lebanon war, their arrival in Gaza is particularly alarming to Israeli authorities. According to Defense Minister Peretz, “If terror elements have succeeded in smuggling dozens of anti-tank missiles in the Strip, we will not wait for them to smuggle hundreds or thousands more” (Ynet News, October 18). For now, the Israeli Air Force has been forced to reevaluate the safety of its air missions over the territory.
The provocative statements by President Assad reflect a belief in Damascus that the IDF has been critically weakened, for the moment at least, by its incursion into Lebanon. Assad’s description of his fellow Arab leaders as “half-men” for their failure to support Hezbollah has not endeared him to his counterparts in the Arab world, despite his recent adoption of pan-Arab rhetoric. Thus far, the threat of guerrilla activities in the Golan Heights remains a remote threat, despite various threats from previously unknown groups such as the Front for the Liberation of the Golan, which claims to be ready to use “Hezbollah-style tactics” to “liberate” the Israeli-held territory. In a sign of the continuing tension between Jerusalem and Damascus, Syrian troops have not stood down from the defensive positions that they adopted while on alert in this summer’s Lebanon war.