Historical equilibriums keeping region in a broken loop

Historical equilibriums keeping region in a broken loop

Historical equilibriums keeping region in a broken loop
US envoy Amos Hochstein after meeting with Speaker of the Parliament of Lebanon Nabih Berri, Beirut, Jan. 11, 2024. (Reuters)
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There have been reports that US envoy Amos Hochstein is expected to visit Lebanon soon and put forward a proposal to prevent any further escalations between Hezbollah and Israel, inspired by the April Understanding of 1996 that ended the Grapes of Wrath war. The reality is that this understanding is still alive and is exactly what is keeping the conflict in south Lebanon contained. In fact, one could even say, if it is not broken, why fix it?
Lebanon as a country is broken and even torn apart, just like the current situation. But the April Understanding and the rules of engagement of 1996 between Hezbollah and Israel, initiated during Rafik Hariri’s first tenure as prime minister, are still in effect. Today, this understanding also influences the way the skirmishes are taking place on Syrian territories. So, one might ask, is there a risk of this war moving toward a regional one, exploding from the Lebanon-Israel border to a full-blown conflict like the 2006 war, for example?
In short, the answer is that what is happening at the border will not be the cause of this escalation. The only way this could happen is if the rules that have been put in place are broken, which Hezbollah will only do if it is ordered to by Tehran. As a reminder, in 2006, Hassan Nasrallah did not adhere to the arrangements and Lebanon as a whole paid a heavy price. His recent speeches, which may be deceptive, seem to indicate complete adherence to the rules this time.
And so, if we look back at the April Understanding, which aimed to establish a framework to prevent the escalation of hostilities between Israel and Lebanon by creating rules of engagement, we can easily notice that it is still in place. It included provisions for a cessation of hostilities, measures to enhance the security situation along the Israel-Lebanon border and an agreement on the deployment of international observers from the UN Interim Force in Lebanon. Needless to say, this empowered Hezbollah and increased its grasp on the border, as well as on Lebanese politics.
And so, any new proposal in the same spirit is what one might call a Band-Aid on a bullet wound and a waste of diplomatic time, resources and effort. Any decision to escalate will not be taken at the border. It will be taken in Tehran. However, it is undeniable that the ongoing clashes at the Lebanese-Israeli border since the Hamas-Israel war started have led to casualties, displacements and tensions. But the real solution for peace and stability in the region is elsewhere — and everyone knows it very well.
It is a whole different topic and not on the global diplomatic table today, but what would actually fix Lebanon and bring long-term stability to the border is one of the scenarios that would lead to an all-out war. Indeed, while the 1996 understanding still stands, UN Security Council Resolution 1701 was never implemented. This resolution, which ended the 2006 war, calls for the UN secretary-general to develop proposals to implement the relevant provisions of the Taif Accords, as well as UNSC Resolutions 1559 (2004) and 1680 (2006). In short, it calls for the disarmament of all armed militias in Lebanon, including Hezbollah.
And one clearly understands the unfortunate situation of Lebanon, as this resolution’s implementation is exactly what could cause the border skirmishes to become a full-blown conflict. So, foreign diplomats are wasting their time on modifying the existing and working rules of engagement, while condemning Lebanon to misery and remaining broken under the control of Hezbollah.
While we notice other areas of conflict intensifying between the US and Iran across the Middle East, they are all, for now, operating in separate silos. In other words, each zone or point of conflict is abiding by and obeying its own rules of engagement, whether involving sea, land or air. However, there is a scenario whereby escalating tensions in one of these areas might prompt Tehran to respond through Hezbollah.
This is currently unexpected but it cannot be ruled out, especially when we know and understand that this is the main and sole purpose of Hezbollah: being both Iran’s first and last lines of defense. It is also clear that, because we are in an election year in the US, there is a red line that no one will cross simply because everyone believes that this election might bring better results than a full-blown conflict. Nevertheless, mistakes — sometimes voluntary — happen and can cause the situation to escalate.

The border conflict will only expand if the rules are broken, which Hezbollah will only do if it is ordered to by Tehran.

Khaled Abou Zahr

And so, we clearly understand that the least plausible cause for the conflict escalating into a regional war is actually the place where the conflict is taking place. This underlines once again how Lebanon has become entrenched and entangled in the broken system that maintains stability, or a semblance of it at least. It is these historical equilibriums that have stripped the country of its own decision-making capability and kept the region in a broken loop.
Yet, there is a twist in the proposed new arrangements that reveals that foreign diplomats, while playing for time, have determined that the regime in Syria is no longer a main actor in this border game with Israel. Their actions and proposals for bringing an end to the conflict indicate this clearly. Yet, thinking they can strip Damascus of its hand in the Lebanese poker game is a big gamble. The regime is weakened and no longer has the same power it did in 1996 or 2006, yet it will not give up all its cards easily. Not being ready for it could be the final reason for a conflict explosion.

  • Khaled Abou Zahr is the founder of SpaceQuest Ventures, a space-focused investment platform. He is chief executive of EurabiaMedia and editor of Al-Watan Al-Arabi.
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