Should We Be Worried About Hezbollah?

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Dr. Rabil served with the Red Cross in Lebanon, taught at Suffolk University, and currently is the project manager of Iraq Research and Documentation Project at the Iraq Foundation, Washington, DC. He is the author of the fothcoming book, Embattled Neighbors: Syria, Israel, and Lebanon (Lynne Rienner Publishers).

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Concerns have been raised to the effect that the Islamist party Hezbollah, with the blessing of Syria and Iran, might provoke a conflagration along the Israel-Lebanon border; yet a socio-political framework of reference in which to situate the activities of these actors has been dreadfully missing. This reflects negatively on our understanding of their behavior and by extension on our approach to dealing effectively with them, especially Hezbollah.

Since its inception in 1982, Hezbollah planned to “Islamize” Lebanon and force Israel then the U.S. out of the country. Iran and Syria found in Hezbollah an instrument by which to pursue indirectly their own policies. Iran was happy to see its revolution exported to Lebanon and to inject itself in the heart of the Middle East; Syria appreciated Hezbollah’s dedication to drive Israel and the U.S. out of Lebanon and sever the alliance between the Lebanese Christians (Phalangists) and Tel Aviv.

With Iran’s support and Syria’s connivance, members of Hezbollah committed acts of terror that caused the death of over 300 Americans and led Washington to end its direct involvement in Lebanon’s muddy and gory politics. Though it forced the PLO out of Lebanon, Israel was compelled to dramatically readjust its policy following the massacre of Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps. Israel’s re-deployment from the Shouf Mountains in 1983 and to the Awali River by 1984, marked the end of Israel’s ambitions in Lebanon. However, Israel confined its presence to a security zone, an area along its border in southern Lebanon.

Importantly, Israel acceded to Syria’s hegemony over Lebanon in 1990 when it allowed, in contravention to the Red Line agreement, the Syrian air force to bombard the presidential palace and consequently defeat the last bastion of Christian resistance to Syria. Significantly enough, Arab-Israeli peace talks were launched and in 1993 Israel signed the Oslo accords with the Palestinians. But Israel remained in south Lebanon. This was Israel’s strategic mistake at the time, which Syria and Hezbollah exploited to the hilt.

Syria used Hezbollah as a means of indirect pressure on Israel during peace negotiations, and Hezbollah transformed itself into a significant political movement by capitalizing on its resistance to Israel’s occupation of south Lebanon. Even the U.S. legitimized Hezbollah as a resistance movement when it brokered the April Understanding of 1996, which served to limit Hezbollah’s and Israel’s military actions to the security zone.

Hezbollah’s preeminence spread like wildfire in the Middle East when Israel withdrew from Lebanon in 2000 and the Islamist party was credited with dealing Tel Aviv the first defeat ever. At the same time, Israel’s withdrawal sparked calls for Syrian redeployment in preparation for its withdrawal from Lebanon. Standing at the vanguard of opposition to Syrian presence were the Christians. Out of this fluid situation a new one emerged where Lebanon, apparently at the behest of Syria, claimed that Israel’s withdrawal was incomplete since Tel Aviv still occupied Lebanese villages such as Shebaa Farms. Hezbollah asserted that it would continue its resistance efforts until all Lebanese territory was liberated. This assertion had in large measure its provenance in the party’s utility to Syria. Damascus would keep using Hezbollah as a means of indirect pressure on Israel until Syria retrieved its Golan Heights. Damascus would use Hezbollah to fend off Christian opposition.

At this point, it is important to note that despite its vaunted victory, Hezbollah failed on a national scale to Islamize Lebanon and on a confessional scale to make Muslims embrace its social norms. Equally significant, opposition to Hezbollah’s attacks on Shebaa was not only confined to Christians. Along others, the Sunni Prime Minister, Rafiq Harriri, frequently criticized Hezbollah’s actions.

America’s war on terrorism cast a scrutinizing light on Hezbollah and by implication on Syria. Washington did not include Syria in the countries making up the “axis of evil” but put it on notice to take a side in the war against terrorism. Although Syria joined the war, it called for a distinction between fighting occupation and terrorism. The U.S. classified Hezbollah as a terrorist organization with global reach when it tried to help smuggle weapons to Palestinians (Karine-A affair). Of great concern were the statements by Hezbollah’s Secretary General, Hasan Nasrallah, to the effect that “Israel has no civilian but military population,” which implied that attacks beyond Shebaa may take place.

The U.S. is rightly concerned that a conflagration in Shebaa could spread and plunge the whole region into war. At the same time, Syria and Iran are gravely concerned about a U.S. war against Iraq whose outcome and implications for the region in general and for them in particular are unpredictable. Are they going to be the next target or live in a Pax-Americana muscled by Israel and Turkey? Central to this dilemma is Saddam Hussein’s unpredictable behavior. Syria apparently feels that Hussein might link his survival to hers and to that of other Arab countries by forcing them into a situation where they should help him or face dire consequences including regional anarchy or war. This is exacerbated by the U.S. mixed messages to Syria (applauding its contribution to the war on terrorism while at the same time members in Congress are pushing the Syria Accountability Act).

Consequently, keeping to its pattern of safeguarding its regional standing, Syria is hedging its diplomacy by condoning a precarious situation along the Lebanon-Israel border. Seen through the prism of Syria, the deteriorating conditions in the West Bank and Gaza provided the pretext under which Damascus allowed Hezbollah to arm itself with Katyousha rockets that could reach deep into Israel. The underlining message is two-fold: Israel could no longer commit any regional aggression with impunity and Syria’s regional role is irreducible. Paradoxically, Syria and Lebanon confirmed their desire to contain the violence by arresting Palestinians firing rockets into Israel and making Hezbollah de-escalate its attacks on Shebaa.

It is against this complex configuration that the U.S. must assess and evaluate any action it might undertake against Hezbollah. Although one cannot rule out some contact between Hezbollah and al-Qaeda (as reported by the Washington Post on June 30, 2002), which Hezbollah’s leaders denied, the two so far have little, if any, to share in operational plans beyond their animus towards Israel. At this juncture, the U.S. must be vigilant in internalizing the potential danger of losing sight of politics by focusing solely on terror, the danger of making the alleged Hezbollah-al-Qaeda cooperation a self-fulfilling prophecy by pushing not only the two together but also the region into war. Sound intelligence must inform a sound policy to produce judicious results.

The U.S. must capitalize on the internal situation in Lebanon and approach Syria carrying a stick and a carrot. The U.S. must threaten Syria with severe actions while at the same time assuring it of safeguarding its regional interests and of retrieving its Golan Heights through a political process. Hezbollah’s military wing must be dismantled and the Lebanese army must extend its authority to Lebanon-Israel border. The fight against Hezbollah must be part of a strategy involving at first Syria and Lebanon. Otherwise, another strategic mistake is in the making.

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Gus Moner - 12/24/2002

My initial reaction to this article is wonder and amazement that a supposedly neutral Red Cross official would take a political position of this sort, jeopardising the institutions' vaunted neutrality. One has to wonder what his real purpose there was.

That being said, the author poses some legitimate concerns about an extra national army operating autonomously albeit under the tutelage of some regimes. Mr Rabil makes some inroads in the effort to explain their socio-political reasons for being.

Israel’s failed Lebanon adventure strengthened Hezbollah’s position within Lebanon and all the players in the area, including the USA have had to learn to live with this stealthy group. I was unaware that as all Israelis serve in the armed forces, Hezbollah recognises them as military not civilian occupiers of Palestine. This perspective is perhaps indicative of their philosophy.

One has to be concerned with what their role might be in a war where a Muslim nation was defeated and occupied. If used as a surrogate to Iran and Syrian participation, the damage would be limited. If other nations were compelled to act in defence of a Muslim nation, the general conflagration that would follow is hard to divine in advance. This in fact poses the biggest military-political problem for the planned US/coalition aggression. How can the conflict be contained?

Increasingly nations are feeling ever more squeezed out of options by belligerent US diplomacy. I agree with the author that the danger of internationalisation is serious and must be addressed. We are already seeing dangerous omens from N Korea. We may be witnessing the first movements of a concerted action plan based on some understanding between some of these nations.

Iran may well feel next in line and threatened as it is the third member of the so-called Evil Axis. Moreover, a Muslim defeat in Iraq may well fuel anti-Americanism in a number of nations, most importantly Iran. Iran’s leaders may feel obliged to let these feelings vent, endangering the decade-long moderation of the regime setting progress aback there and de-stabilising the region further. An engagement on the Lebanese front that coincided with these potential events may give the impression of an all-out attack on Muslim nations.

In this worst-case scenario, unquestioned military superiority may give the US field victories over organised armies that would be hard to translate into peace with a rebellious Muslim world feeling attacked on various fronts.