BY DOMHNALL O’SULLIVAN
The scales of confessional compromise in Lebanon – on edge at the best of times – are currently close to tipping point.
Spillover from the ongoing Syrian stalemate is increasingly apparent. The humanitarian and societal challenges of welcoming over half a million refugees are considerable, while hidden and not-so-hidden hands have fomented sporadic outbreaks of sectarian-driven violence across the country.
Politically, the situation in Beirut has deteriorated since the resignation of Prime Minister Najib Mikati in March, culminating in the recent postponement of much-needed legislative elections.
Hezbollah’s role in these events has come under increasingly tight scrutiny, particularly since the “Party of God” overtly and ferociously backed the efforts of Syrian forces in securing the strategic town of Qusayr last month.
Gone is the quietly pragmatic, status quo-seeking political machine which sought to legitimise, or at least entrench, its standing within Lebanon in the face of threatening regional upheaval.
Hezbollah no longer attempts to conceal its backing of the Syrian regime – various sabre-rattling speeches by leader Hassan Nasrallah confirm this – and it has come under severe fire as a consequence.
The car bomb detonated recently in the Hezbollah stronghold of southern Beirut shows that the stakes have moved well beyond the simply rhetorical to outright violence.
It is with this delicate situation in mind that EU foreign ministers are set to once again discuss, on Monday (22 July), the nature of Hezbollah.
Is the party a legitimate component of Lebanese political life or a terrorist organisation?
Brussels has up to this point taken a rather nuanced view of the Manichean dilemma, preferring not to ostracise an important, if difficult, component of the Lebanese social fabric.
The Arab spring has not yet changed this stance.
Despite increasingly hawkish calls by Israeli and US officials to blacklist the group, the EU has continued to view Hezbollah as a stabilising force on the precarious Lebanese scales, and various member states – France in particular – have dug their heels in and resisted British pressure to outlaw the group.
Noises emerging from EU capitals suggest that this time could be different, however.
Not only has the softly-softly approach of limited dialogue with Hezbollah clearly not been effective in keeping the group out of the Syrian conflict, but the bombing of a bus of Israeli tourists in Bulgaria last year, as well as criminal activity by a Hezbollah operative in Cyprus, has pointed a judicial finger at Hezbollah for the first time on European soil.
This could be a game-changer.
Several states, led by the United Kingdom, appear willing to overlook what was previously seen as an artificial distinction between the political and military wings of Hezbollah in order to blacklist the latter as a terrorist entity.
This will theoretically leave the door open for sanctions and financial strangulation, at least as regards any European funding.
At a time of regional chaos, however – events in Egypt rumble on and look set to upset the regional chessboard once again – such a step raises a range of difficult questions.
Has Hezbollah definitively ceased to be a force for stability in Lebanon?
Would a blacklisting be beneficial for peace and stability in Lebanon and the region?
How would Europe’s reputation in a rapidly-morphing Middle East be affected by such a strong, if primarily symbolic, move?
Although Hezbollah has entered gung-ho into the Syrian conflict in recent months – working against any progress towards regional calm – it has yet to overtly drag the conflict into Lebanon by stoking the sectarian embers of its all-too-recent civil war.
Maintaining the national status quo, which allows the party to maintain both its political and military clout, is still its priority.
Its relatively benign response to last week’s car bombing shows just how reluctant Hezbollah is to take the fight to internal enemies.
Indeed, it is perhaps the radicalisation of anti-Hezbollah Sunni and Salafi groups – often encouraged by western “allies” from the Gulf – which present the biggest security threat at present.
Hezbollah, for all its despicable actions and history, is firmly rooted in the Lebanese concept of the “house of many mansions.”
Any attempt to remove or weaken it through coercion can only cause damage to the entire state edifice.
A blacklisting could ostracise and re-radicalise Hezbollah – an important and legitimate representative of Lebanon’s sizeable Shia Muslim population – at a time when it already feels cornered by the shifting regional sands.
The Arab uprisings brought the party to a crossroads – fight a regional war to regain its moral and military presence, or follow the road towards peace and a moderate, but sustainable, presence in Lebanon.
By fighting alongside its ally in Damascus, it might be starting down the former path.
The highly-charged symbolism of a European terrorist listing would only compound this choice.
Engagement and dialogue is necessary to prevent further slippage.
A listing by Brussels could also exacerbate the growing trend of regional sectarian tension, seen not only in Syria but also increasingly bloodily in Iraq and in Egypt, where local targeting of minority Shia groups has taken a back seat to the momentous events in Tahrir Square.
Such Sunni-Shia rivalries are, in fact, mainly locally generated, and not – as many have hastily concluded – part of an imminent regional civil war based on religious-sectarian divisions.
However, Gulf sheiks and Iranian ayatollahs bent on instrumentalising the current situation to their benefit characterise it as such, and this is a trap that the EU must not be drawn into.
Being seen to take sides in a complicated region at this point would be dangerous for a Europe only just recovering from its pre-Arab spring, dictator-friendly reputation.
The writer is a fellow at the EU Institute for Security Studies in Brussels