Taming Hizbullah

Posted in Broader Middle East | 05-Jul-05

Prospects for normalisation in Lebanon

In the wake of Yasser Arafat’s death and the tentative revival of the Israeli–Palestinian peace process, Syria’s withdrawal of its military and intelligence assets from Lebanon at the end of April, after three decades of dominating its politics and security, presents an opportunity for advancing the pacification of the Middle East. Saad Hariri – a Sunni Muslim and the son of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri, whose murder in February precipitated Syria’s departure – now leads Lebanon’s strongest political coalition and has vowed to eradicate all vestiges of Syrian influence from government. The assassinations of two vehemently anti-Syrian journalists in June illuminated the need for doing so if Lebanon is to become the peaceful, pluralistic country that it was before its devastating civil war that formally ended with the Arab League-sponsored Taif Accord in 1989. With Egypt and Jordan having signed formal peace accords with Israel, coupled with the nascent Palestinian state that now is at least in sight, a truly free and democratic Lebanon would provide Israel with a kind of strategic depth, being flanked by states with which it enjoyed at least a cold peace. This situation would open up political space for Israel to normalise relations with other Arab states – including Syria itself. A substantial change for the better in the political status quo of the Middle East could thus emerge.

But there are a number of obstacles that still stand in the way of this irenic outcome. Perhaps the most immediate is posed by the militant Lebanese Shi’ite Muslim group Hizbullah – the only effectively-armed militia left from the Lebanese civil war. Politically supported by Syria and financed by Iran, Hizbullah comprises about 500 military-trained activists, along with about 2,000 additional support members. Despite the requirement of its disarmament by the American- and French-sponsored UN Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1559, passed in September 2004, and repeated calls from the UN and European capitals as well as the US for it to disarm, Hizbullah remains one of the world’s best armed and most capable militant groups.

Hizbullah’s history…

Hizbullah evolved as a military instrument of Syria. When the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) was expelled from Jordan in 1975, it moved into Lebanon and spurred the growing Muslim majority to challenge the Maronite Christian government. The Muslim–Christian civil war ensued. Damascus exploited this instability to take military control of Lebanon – which Syria considered its territory – in the hope of threatening Israel on its northern border and recapturing the Golan Heights. Supporting the Christian government, Israel intervened with air attacks in 1976 and in March 1978 invaded Lebanon to provide a more effective deterrent, but shortly thereafter withdrew pursuant to UNSCR 425, which established the UN Interim Force in Lebanon. After four more years of cross-border hostilities, Israel again invaded Lebanon in 1982 and, with some 35,000 troops, quickly routed PLO and Syrian forces in the southern part of the country, and maintained its presence to deter further PLO and Syrian attacks. Hizbullah arose in 1983 as an anti-Israeli splinter group of Amal, an existing Shi’ite organisation. Unable to confront Israel militarily, Syria nurtured Hizbullah, which became the most effective military force against Israel in Lebanon. The group also bruised the United States to considerable effect. Most notably, a Hizbullah suicide truck-bomb attack on a US Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983 killed 241 Marines and hastened the withdrawal of American peacekeeping troops from Lebanon.

Wording: "Thus, the Hizbullah - the party of Allah - is victorious"
Wording: "Thus, the Hizbullah - the party of Allah - is victorious"
Hizbullah’s manifesto, published in 1985, enshrined the aims of transforming Lebanon into an Islamic republic and destroying the state of Israel. The group’s military effectiveness in drawing Israeli blood eventually afforded it political domination of the Shi’ites, which constitute at least 40% of Lebanon’s population. Hizbullah increased its appeal by refraining from fighting other Lebanese factions during the civil war, by its incorruptibility, and through charity and community involvement. Israel withdrew from south Lebanon in May 2000. In the national elections in summer 2000, Hizbullah had substantial electoral success, increasing its number of seats in Lebanon’s 128-member parliament from nine to 12. More broadly, the coalition ticket that Hizbullah formed with the Amal party (known as ‘Resistance and Development’) swept all 23 seats allotted to south Lebanon, and won all nine seats in the Baalbek-Hermel district of the Bekaa Valley. Nevertheless, some members of Hizbullah still consider armed hostility towards a common foe – Israel – the most effective means of maintaining a privileged position in Lebanese politics. Katyusha rockets, surface-to-air missiles, large-bore mortars and crew-served weapons such as anti-tank guns, bazookas and anti-aircraft artillery remain in Hizbullah’s possession.

…and current options

Given the hazards to peace within Lebanon, such large weapons stocks outside the government’s control not only undermine its authority – which requires an effective monopoly on the use of force – but are a crisis waiting to happen. With Syria now out of Lebanon, smouldering rivalries among Christians, Druze, Sunnis, and Hizbullah and Amal Shi’ites could re-ignite and threaten another civil war. As Israel and the Palestinian Authority come closer to a modus vivendi, the 350,000 politically and socially marginalised Palestinian refugees in Lebanon will demand redress from the Lebanese government.

Furthermore, with Syria gone, Hizbullah will probably rely more on Iran to maintain its armed threat and posture of resistance. (In late June, Hizbullah showed that it is still active, when a mortar attack in the Shebaa Farms area killed an Israeli soldier – there were further incursions and Israeli responses following this incident.) Iran has not discarded its aspirations to turn Lebanon into an Islamic republic and to eliminate the state of Israel. An armed and dangerous Hizbullah – which still shares that goal – remains an indispensable tool for doing both. The election on 24 June 2005 of conservative Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as president of Iran reinforces the authority of the conservative religious establishment there, and is likely to result in stronger Iranian support for Hizbullah’s revolutionary vocation. In particular, Ahmadinejad’s uncompromising assertion of Iran’s right to pursue nuclear power could trigger heavier American diplomatic and military pressure on Iran, in turn prompting Tehran to encourage Hizbullah to disrupt US strategy in the Middle East. Israel’s continued occupation of the Golan Heights and the Shebaa Farms is also an ongoing antagonism to Syria and Lebanon, respectively, and both governments see the value of using Hizbullah as a proxy to force Israel to give up the land.

The International Institute for Strategic Studies in London is a "Partner of Worldsecuritynetwork" and periodically contributes its analyses to the…
The International Institute for Strategic Studies in London is a "Partner of Worldsecuritynetwork" and periodically contributes its analyses to the WSN Newsletter.
With access to its arsenal unchecked, Hizbullah might be unable to resist the temptation to dominate the potentially incendiary political scene through the threat of force. This is not a situation conducive to stable civil government. If Lebanon is to make the transition from a war-torn Syrian protectorate to something like the tolerant and workable polity it was before its civil war, the authority of its elected government will have to supplant Hizbullah as the prevailing source of order. Thus, there is a consensus among the US and European capitals that the substantial de-militarisation, if not the actual disarmament, of Hizbullah is required to transform Lebanon from a war-torn society and geopolitical pawn into a durable state, and to ensure the stability of the region.

Moving forward

The most vexing factor in normalising Lebanon after the Syrian withdrawal is the amenability of Hizbullah itself to being tamed. On 5 June, in the second round of the Lebanese national elections, the group reconsolidated the strong position in Lebanese politics that it had established in 2000. Hizbullah itself won five of the 23 seats in play for southern Lebanon, and the more moderate allied Shi’ite party Amal won the remaining 18. In all, the Hizbullah/Amal coalition emerged with a bloc of 35 members in the 128-member parliament. The margins of victory were generally very wide – ten-to-one in some constituencies. Furthermore, the primary winning issue was opposition to Hizbullah’s disarmament, making the election effectively a referendum on that question. Hizbullah foreign relations officer Nawaf Al-Musawi recently told the Egyptian daily Al-Ahram that Hizbullah would not disarm under any circumstances. On 28 June, Nabih Berri, leader of the Amal party and an MP, was re-elected as speaker of parliament by a large majority. Meanwhile, Hizbullah and Amal have struck up a post-election alliance with Saad Hariri’s Future Movement coalition, which includes Walid Jumblatt’s mainly Druze Socialist Progressive Party and the radical Christian Lebanese Forces party. While Musawi has stated that the bond is intended to strengthen Hizbullah’s case for maintaining an arsenal to resist Israeli aggression, the alliance could also arguably make it easier for the other parties to co-opt Hizbullah into moving towards disarmament.

On balance, Hizbullah’s motives for remaining armed have not disappeared, but they have shrunk. Iran has provided ideological, spiritual and material support to Hizbullah, but – with Hamas and other Palestinian terrorist groups observing a truce and tilting in a non-violent political direction – has less of a pretext for encouraging Hizbullah to attack Israel now. At the same time, Hizbullah’s leaders appear to be reading their strong electoral showing in south Lebanon as a mandate to keep their weapons, and the ascendancy of Ahmadinejad to the presidency of Iran has probably made Iran more agitated and likely to provoke the US and Israel. Given these adverse influences and Hizbullah’s proven political resilience against pressure to disarm, Hizbullah’s pacification has to be addressed in the wider context of Lebanon’s democratisation.

Fouad Siniora - the newly elected Prime Minister of Lebanon.
Fouad Siniora - the newly elected Prime Minister of Lebanon.

Outside powers have a role

While some Syrian intelligence operatives probably remain in Lebanon, and Syria will retain considerable political influence in Lebanese affairs, Hizbullah has less direct backing for its role as an armed anti-Israeli revolutionary group and is under increasing pressure to perform well as a non-violent opposition party. Lebanon’s most profound problems now involve its fractious governance and a stagnant, debt-ridden economy. If Hizbullah cannot help ameliorate these problems – which are not responsive to armed force – it is likely to lose political support in Lebanon no matter how many Israeli soldiers its guerrillas have killed or how strongly it supports restive Palestinian terrorist groups. Outside powers therefore need to make it more difficult for Hizbullah to maintain both its armed revolutionary status and its political bona fides. The US, France and the United Kingdom have mooted economic assistance conditioned on political reforms, including Hizbullah’s disarmament. The US has also proposed training and modernising the Lebanese army, forging it into a professional, non-sectarian force that could replace Hizbullah as the defender of southern Lebanon – thereby depriving it of a pretext for retaining arms. And pressure on Syria and Iran to stop arms shipments and military assistance to Hizbullah could be stepped up.

Certainly, economic, defence and coercive diplomacy make good sense. But bolder diplomatic steps may also be required, and Saudi Arabia could be enlisted to initiate them. Among regional powers, Saudi Arabia exhorted Syria to quit Lebanon. With Israeli–Palestinian reconciliation under way and the emergence of a viable Shi’ite-dominated pro-American Iraqi state at least haltingly in progress, Riyadh has considerable motivation for consolidating broader peace with Israel and strengthening its relationship with the US. And it was Crown Prince Abdullah who mooted the prospect of full normalisation of Arab–Israeli relations in early 2002. The US and its European partners could, for instance, suggest that Riyadh reconvene the parties to the Taif Accord to support Lebanon’s reform. In 1989, the Accord provided for the disarmament of all Lebanese militias in exchange for greater representation in the Lebanese government. Political violence and resulting instability short-circuited the application of the disarmament requirement to Hizbullah, as well as the institutionalisation of a non-sectarian system of government under a proper constitution. Hizbullah’s political awakening and the Syrian withdrawal give those goals new life.

Hizbullah's leader, Sheikh Hassan Nasrollah, meets with Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi in Hizbullah's Beirut headquarters, May 26, 2005.
Hizbullah's leader, Sheikh Hassan Nasrollah, meets with Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi in Hizbullah's Beirut headquarters, May 26, 2005.
More broadly, reviving the Taif process would give Syria the opportunity to shine as a conciliatory force in an international arena and the ability to retain some degree of political control over Lebanese affairs. In turn, the engagement of the US (and potentially Israel) with Syria might promote the eventual revival of Syrian–Israeli peace talks, in which Syrian President Bashar al-Assad expressed an interest in late 2003. In any event, after decades of stasis and dysfunction, the Lebanese political system – though freed from Syria’s oppressive grip – is unlikely to be able to heal itself without the close and sustained attention of major powers. Their focal point will inevitably be Hizbullah.

This article is taken from the latest issue of Strategic Comments and appears by permission of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, which retains the copyright. Strategic Comments, published by the International Institute for Strategic Studies, provides fact-based analysis on issues of strategic significance. It responds to breaking developments in international affairs and anticipates policy questions that are likely to loom large in the calculations of governments, analysts and businesses. Ten issues, each containing five 1,700-word illustrated articles, are published each year. If you would like to subscribe to Strategic Comments, please email James Hackett at [email protected] or click here

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