Outwardly, as Lebanon sinks deeper into crisis, Hizballah's Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah projects a strong façade and nerves of steel to show his following and his foes that he is in full control and undeterred from action to undo the Special Lebanon Tribunal's indictment of his top officials for the 2005 Hariri assassination.
If he can't overthrow the caretaker Prime Minister Saad Hariri and install a Hizballah-led government for declaring the SLT's indictments null and void, he will seize control of Beirut.
But the pugnacious Hizballah leader's repeated shows of strength are beginning to be countered by setbacks. Cracks are showing in his mask of self-confidence and his hand has been held back from further moves by two fresh blows, which are first revealed here by DEBKA-Net-Weekly's intelligence sources:
Assad pulls the rug from Hizballah
1. In the small hours of Tuesday night, Jan. 18, at 3:00 a.m., Syrian President Bashar Assad abruptly summoned the Lebanese Chief of Staff Gen. Jean Qahwaji to Damascus for an extremely urgent nocturnal interview.
When he arrived, the Lebanese general was surprised to find Assad flanked by Syrian defense minister Ali Habib and Syrian chief of staff Gen. Dawoud Rahja, indicating the supreme importance the Syrian ruler attached to the interview.
Our sources can disclose here the two key guidelines Assad handed the Lebanese chief of staff:
"We have no interest in abandoning Saad Hariri and yourself or any desire to see Hizballah victorious and in control of Lebanon" – was one, and: "'This very night I am sending a message to Michel Aoun (Hassan Nasrallah's Christian ally) not to overdo his backing and momentum for Nasrallah's moves so as not to help him gather himself to seize power in Beirut by force."
This sudden withdrawal of Bashar Assad's longtime patronage and protection bit deep into Nasrallah's self-esteem.
Hizballah successfully practices Beirut's takeover
2. Nasrallah had begun to pick up rumblings in Intelligence quarters suggesting that Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei would have no compunctions about having him assassinated if he failed to counteract the investigative work of the International Lebanon Tribunal, the STL.
The prosecution is believed to have concluded that the high Hizballah security and intelligence officials complicit in the murder of the former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri were acting on orders coming down directly from Ayatollah Khamenei.
When he received word of Assad's betrayal and sudden switch in favor of his arch foe Hariri, Nasrallah aborted his ultimate power move, which was on the point of going forward Wednesday in Beirut. The crumbling of his normally authoritative manner stunned the Hizballah fighting units standing ready to undertake Step Two of his master-plan for capturing the capital.
Step One had just been successfully accomplished, as described by our military sources:
Early Tuesday, January 18, the Hizballah leader proved that together with Lebanon's second Shiite movement, Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri's Amal, he commanded the strength to seize control of the capital. He did this by placing thousands of militiamen, unarmed but clad in black uniforms, in positions in seven Beirut districts. By the time the first Lebanese army units reached the streets, the city's traffic was gridlocked and several schools and government institutions unable to open their doors.
That night, the Shiite loyalists were ordered to withdraw to barracks as high-ranking Hizballah sources declared confidently: "The time for talking is over, it is time for action now. The other camp wants confrontation, so be it."
Another official boasted how Hizballah and Amal personnel were able to capture several Beirut neighborhoods without weapons. "This action told foreign interests (the US and Israel) as well as the country that the Shiites were about to raise the stakes in Beirut," he said.
Hizballah took one step too many
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's military sources report that this exercise was a practice run-through for units trained in recent months to take over central Beirut, its main traffic hubs and government offices and to demonstrate its feasibility. They showed that Shiite forces could move at lightening speed to take over government installations before being stopped by the Lebanese military.
Events 48 hours later showed that the last word may not have been with the Hizballah leader.
But, building on the success of Step One, Nasrallah was meanwhile approaching Step Two, which was timed for Wednesday night, January 19. Hizballah's militiamen were to lay siege to all the UN offices in Beirut and their 1,000 UN workers, including the UN Economic and Social Commissioner for Western Asia –ESCWA; the UN Special Envoy to Lebanon Michael Williams; the UN Commissioner for Refugees in Lebanon – UNRWA and the logistical facilities of UNIFIL peacekeepers.
In the south, Hizballah forces were instructed to surround UNIFIL patrols with armed fighters and pin them down.
The object of Nasrallah's Step Two was to show UN Secretary-General Ban ki-Moon who runs the show for the world body in Beirut and blackmail him into negotiating with Hizballah changes in the international Lebanon Tribunal's procedures and powers.
At the last minute, the Hizballah leader called this desperate venture off. He had received word that the night before, Assad had pulled the rug from under his feet and he no longer enjoyed Syrian protection.
The next day, Thursday, Jan. 20, he found the Lebanese army suddenly willing to stand up to Hizballah's superior strength. That afternoon, special military measures were set in place for guarding Prime Minister Saad Hariri and warding off Hizballah's takeover of Beirut's centers of government and traffic hubs. Military units accompanied by tanks placed concrete blocks at the main city intersections and moved in to man them.
A Lebanese military official commented that these measures were prompted by "concerns over movements on the ground by some parties."
Clearly, the Lebanese chief of staff Gen. Qahwaji had taken aboard the guidelines he had received from Assad at their nocturnal meeting in Damascus. This gave Hizballah's leader pause.
The STL: Hizballah cannot impede the course of justice
The international tribunal was not standing idle either, having been kept abreast of the turbulent events in Beirut through UN and Western intelligence informants. Its action aimed to deter Hizballah from its bid to deepen the crisis in Beirut by demonstrating that nothing Nasrallah did could impede the course of international justice.
Tuesday, the STL registrar Herman von Hebel confirmed DEBKA-Net-Weekly's forecast on Dec. 24, 2010 that Hizballah officials refusing to appear before court faced trial in abstentia.
Von Hebel said that "September/October, if things go well, we may see the start of the trial… with or without an accused." He said the pre-trial judge was keen to expedite proceedings now that the chief prosecutor had submitted his findings.
Directing a barbed warning at Hizballah, Von Hebel added: "The tribunal's budget of 65.7 million dollars (49.4 million euros) for 2011 should not be affected by the collapse of the Lebanese government… The obligation is for the state, not a government."
This comment told Hizballah that even if it overthrows the government in Beirut, the court will hold the state of Lebanon responsible for obeying its decrees. What this means is that flouting the tribunal would lay Lebanon open to UN Security Council sanctions.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's intelligence and Iranian sources report that even that warning concerned Hassan Nasrallah less than anxiety for his personal security that had increased after it dawned on him that Iranian intelligence assassins might be gunning for him.
Assassination is in the air again in Beirut
On the day the Hizballah leader made his moves on the Lebanese chess board and was countered by the STL, a voice from Paris confirmed his worst fears.
In certain circumstances, Ayatollah Khamenei may well order the Hizballah leader's assassination, said Abol-Hassan Bani-Sadr, the first president of Shiite revolutionary Iran (1980-1981), and its founder Ruhollah Khomeini's right-hand man.
The veteran revolutionary, who lives in a villa in the Paris suburbs under close guard by French security, wrote those ominous words Tuesday in the journal Jomhuri-e Eslami .
If in the course of the STL proceedings, supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei's involvement in the Hariri murder comes to light, he is capable of having Nasrallah liquidated, according to Bani-Sadr, who appears to have good access to the French intelligence sources monitoring the ties between Tehran and Hizballah.
That estimate was backed up on the same day by US intelligence sources, who reported the suspicion that Rafiq Hariri was indeed murdered on the personal orders of Ayatollah Khamenei.
This report made waves in all the Arab media, especially in the Persian Gulf, and caused a major upset in Tehran.
If the prosecution proves that Iran's supreme leader ordered Hizballah security chiefs headed by his close confidant, the late Imad Moughniyeh, to murder Rafiq Hariri, Khamenei could find himself convicted of murder by an international court. (Moughniyeh, a professional assassin among his other talents, was murdered in Damascus in February 2008.)
Bani-Sadr is of the opinion that Khamenei may be moved to liquidate Nasrallah in order to snap the chain of evidence against him, bring the international investigation to a dead end without culprits and save the Islamic Republic of Iran from becoming embroiled in an outrage that the world would not tolerate.
Although Khamenei has issued many assassination orders, this one would be to save his own skin.
Conscious of his peril, Hizballah's leader is reported by DEBKA-Net-Weekly's intelligence and counterterrorism sources to have instructed his intelligence and security experts to look into the possibility of knocking off the President of the Special Lebanon Tribunal, the Italian jurist Prof. Antonio Cassese (the first President of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia), and the Canadian Chief Prosecutor Daniel Bellemare who is responsible for the indictments.
This option is also under still-friendly discussion between Hizballah's "wet operations" pros and their counterparts in Tehran.