Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite movement, is building training facilities in the eastern Bekaa Valley within close proximity of the Syrian border, reported a local Beirut newspaper earlier this week. The facility, according to the report, is clearly visible to Israeli spy drones that conduct daily reconnaissance flights over Lebanon. And the site can also be seen using a simple computer with Google Earth software, if, as the report mentions, one knows where to look and what to look for.
The site comprises what is described as a suspected driving training course, along with a 100-meter firing range and other facilities that includes an urban terrain assault course. Western intelligence officials and imagery analysts seem to confirm the report. The imagery dates back to 2008, just two years after the last major confrontation between Hezbollah and Israel.
Why is Hezbollah actively building training facilities and continuing to arm itself, if indeed that is truly the case? Is Hezbollah preparing for the next confrontation and if so, whom do they expect to fight? Hezbollah, accused of conducting terrorist acts against U.S. interests, among others, is considered a resistance movement in Lebanon and many other Arab countries, and has every right to defend itself and its territory from foreign intervention. The movement has played a major role in defending southern Lebanon in the absence of a strong central authority.
However some Lebanese observers worry that Hezbollah may be planning a sort of coup, if they fail to win a majority in the next parliamentary elections. Others fear they may start another round of fighting with Israel. Either way the results would be horrendous for the country overall and particularly for Lebanon's economy just as the tourist season is gearing up. With summer around the corner, tourists and Lebanese living abroad are expected to start arriving within the next few weeks. Tens of thousands of expatriated Lebanese visit yearly, pumping much needed foreign currency into the system.
Practicing and fine-tuning their marksmanship is understandable, but the unanswered question in the article remains as to why Hezbollah is practicing driving skills and urban warfare unless they intend to drive and fight in Israeli cities and towns, a highly unlikely scenario. Are they planning for other eventualities? Or, are they simply preparing for the unexpected in case Israel is foolhardy enough to launch (another) ground invasion into Lebanon? But with Bibi Natanyahu at the helm in Israel, anything is possible.
Logic would lead one to conclude that the last thing Hezbollah would wish for at this juncture is another confrontation given that they are still recovering and rebuilding from the 2006 war with Israel. Additionally they lost support among many Lebanese as a result of the movement's siding and supporting the Syrian president in putting down anti-government protests in Syria. Analysts say that Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has lost much of the popularity he previously enjoyed.
But who ever said that logic need apply in the Middle East?
Indeed, it is this very lack of logic in the region that makes predicting what's in store for the Middle East difficult at the best of times. The political upheaval of the past 18 months, the continuing violence in Syria, the threats from Israel regarding Iran's suspected nuclear sites, and the just as serious warnings from the Islamic republic -- and its Lebanese ally, Hezbollah -- to Israel if the Jewish state follows up on its threats are all contributing factors in sustaining this uncertainty.
If, indeed, Israel were to attack Iran, what role would Hezbollah play in this conflict? Will the powerful Shiite militia poised on Israel's northern border, trained, financed and armed by the Islamic Republic of Iran remain on the sidelines or will they jump into the fight, if and when there is one? The Party of God is the most powerful force in Lebanon today. But will they be willing to take on another fight under the current circumstances?
Another unanswered question is who would benefit most from a renewal of violence in the region? Certainly not Lebanon, who would suffer much, certainly not Hezbollah, who would come out weakened by another fight with Israel, no matter how perfected their marksmanship and driving skills may be.
An outbreak of a generalized confrontation in the tri-border area between Lebanon, Israel and Syria might temporarily douse the flames at home for President Bashar Assad but it would not put out the fires. Rather, it would most likely serve to feed them even more.
Claude Salhani is a journalist and political analyst focusing on Middle East Issues and terrorism. He is the author of several books, including Islam Without a Veil.
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