June 14, 2010


The Hezbollah Problem: To defang Iran, and help Lebanon and Israel, we must demilitarize Hezbollah. Which means we'll have to talk to them. (Steven Simon and Jonathan Stevenson, Summer 2010, Democracy)

Hezbollah evolved as a state-sponsored, distinctly anti-Israeli organization—first as a military instrument of Syria, and then as Iran’s strategic asset. When the Palestine Liberation Organization (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 the resulting instability to take military control of Lebanon—which Syria considered its territory—in the hope of threatening Israel on its northern border and retaking 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. Shortly thereafter, Israel withdrew. After four more years of cross-border hostilities, Israel invaded again, this time with some 80,000 troops. Israel quickly routed the PLO and Syrian troops in the southern part of the country, and maintained its presence to deter further PLO and Syrian attacks. In 1983, Hezbollah arose as an anti-Israeli splinter group of Amal, an existing Shi’ite organization. Unable to confront Israel militarily, Syria nurtured Hezbollah, which became the most effective military force against Israel in Lebanon.

Simultaneously, the Shi’ite population was growing. According to estimates—hotly disputed among non-Shi’ite Lebanese parties—Shi’ites constituted 40 percent of Lebanon’s population by the late 1990s. Hezbollah increasingly drew the support of Iran, Syria’s ally, which enlisted the group as its militant Shi’ite and anti-Israeli proxy in the Arab world. Hezbollah’s military effectiveness in drawing Israeli blood eventually afforded it political domination of South Beirut and south Lebanon. Hezbollah enhanced its appeal by refraining from fighting other Lebanese factions during the civil war, by its incorruptibility, and through charity and community involvement. The organization became the leading proponent of an Islamic republic in Lebanon. As a consequence, despite growing domestic opposition to Hezbollah’s armed status, some members of Hezbollah still consider armed hostility toward a common foe—Israel—the linchpin of Lebanon’s security, if not its raison d’être. Hezbollah characterizes Israel’s 2000 strategic withdrawal from south Lebanon as a defeat at Hezbollah’s hands. Last January, spurning international diplomacy, Hezbollah Deputy Secretary General Naim Qassem proclaimed: “We do not need reassurances from anyone on behalf of Israel. What reassures us are our arms, our preparedness, and our readiness, and if Israel is planning any action, it knows the level of the response. This is what reassures us and nothing else.”

Hezbollah’s core comprises several thousand activists, but, as evidenced by its political success, its broader popular support is orders of magnitude higher. Its highest governing body is the 17-member Majlis al-Shura, or Consultative Council, which since 1992 has been led by Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah. Nasrallah made his revolutionary bones as a Hezbollah guerrilla commander in the 1980s; his religious education and personal charisma elevated him to overall leadership. Nasrallah is also chairman of the Jihad Council, the organization’s military decision-making body, which is one step below the Consultative Council in the organizational hierarchy. Hezbollah’s organizational structure is essentially top-down, and its political and military dimensions are unified both structurally and in the person of Nasrallah. Accordingly, Hezbollah is not especially susceptible to deep splits along strategic or tactical lines. The Consultative Council also has formal links to Iran’s Supreme Leader (currently Ayatollah Ali Khamenei) and informal ties to the elite Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).

Hezbollah’s domestic political legitimacy, however, rests not only on its Iranian and Syrian connections and its coercive power in the region, but also on its benevolent presence in Lebanon. While generally corrupt and dysfunctional Lebanese governments have been ineffectual welfare providers for decades, an efficient, incorruptible Hezbollah has furnished schools, medical assistance, and food for Lebanese people—mainly Shi’ites—in need. Although Iran initially subsidized Hezbollah’s welfare operations, since the 1990s it has consolidated a domestic support base, placing Hezbollah-flagged charity boxes, depicting cupped hands, in public areas throughout southern Lebanon. If the United States is to launch an effective initiative for demilitarization, it will need to make a compelling case to Hezbollah’s constituency as well as the more pragmatic members of its leadership. Even for such improbable efforts, there is hopeful precedent.

Northern Ireland: A Rough Parallel

Like the United States, the United Kingdom has an interest in Middle Eastern stability. And the United Kingdom has enjoyed some success in dealing openly with the political representatives of a dangerous and effective terrorist group. Its favorable disposition toward talking with Sinn Fein, the Provisional Irish Republican Army’s political wing, ultimately persuaded the IRA to relinquish its weapons and end its armed struggle against British sovereignty in Northern Ireland. Hezbollah’s strategic circumstances, of course, are far more complicated than the IRA’s. In exchange for Iran and Syria’s vital and longstanding material and political support, Hezbollah has served as their geopolitical agent for confronting Israel. The IRA, by contrast, was not directly answerable to any outside sovereign backer (though much of its arsenal came from Libya). Furthermore, the IRA’s substantive argument that it needed weapons to defend Northern Irish Catholics from Protestant unionist and British abuses had largely dissolved by 1997, whereas the threat Israel poses to Hezbollah strongholds in Lebanon is arguably greater now, under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, than it was before. But as a comprehensive RAND study published this year noted: “Beyond Hezbollah’s own interest in achieving a certain degree of independence from Iran, a perception of independence is important for its own internal struggle for legitimacy.” Is it possible that this consideration trumps Hezbollah’s traditional imperative of armed confrontation with Israel?

The parallels between the Hezbollah and IRA cases are not trivial or incidental. Like Hezbollah, the IRA was popular with an oppressed ethnic minority, had valorized violent resistance and martyrdom, had real political ambitions for which violence and accommodation were both useful, and had a torturous relationship with the foreign power—in the IRA’s case, the United Kingdom, which defended the interests of its own client community in Northern Ireland by suppressing the IRA at great cost. Also similarly to Hezbollah, the IRA had ostensibly separate political and military wings that in reality were umbilically linked. Sinn Fein leaders insisted publicly that they had no control over the IRA, and the British government often chose not to challenge the charade of separation in order to encourage the IRA’s interest in non-violent politics and to allow Sinn Fein leaders a swaggering disingenuousness that appealed to their supporters. In fact, those leaders were also IRA men who continuously sat on the IRA Army Council—just as the membership of Hezbollah’s Consultative Council and Jihad Council substantially overlap.

Within the IRA too, individual viewpoints ranged from militantly hardline to guardedly conciliatory. And, as the IRA’s unilateral cease-fire in August 1994 and its backslide to violence with the February 1996 bombing of London’s Canary Wharf showed, the relative influence of the more militant faction versus the more political one shifted with circumstances. Contrary to the public understanding that Sinn Fein itself hoped to engender, then, there was never any Chinese Wall between the military and political wings of the Irish republican movement; instead, there was a spectrum of views as to what role Sinn Fein might play in Northern Irish governance, with some members of the movement very tentatively willing to entertain the possibility of participating in a demilitarization program if it would improve Sinn Fein’s political fortunes. (Those who disagreed radically with the movement’s overall shift toward the political simply left to join rejectionist splinter groups that have merged and remained marginalized.)

Decommissioning in Northern Ireland did, eventually, take place—due in considerable part to London’s willingness to seize the opportunity presented by the IRA’s initial cease-fire in 1994, which eventually gave those IRA members who did support a strategic shift toward non-violent politics sufficient cover and encouragement to gain decisive favor within the Irish republican movement. While the implementation of the disarmament provisions of the historic 1998 Good Friday Agreement has been agonizingly fraught, the UK ultimately advanced the IRA’s decommissioning through a delicate combination of dogged negotiation, inducements that reminded the IRA that its political gains were perishable, and careful pragmatism. By 2006, Sinn Fein had become the second most powerful party in Northern Ireland, convincing the IRA that the strategy of the ballot box was superior to that of the Armalite. The group did away with its weapons, and former IRA commander Martin McGuinness, improbably but apparently in earnest, became deputy first minister of the devolved government.

It's the dirty little secret that neither they nor we can acknowledge--Hezbollah and America are natural allies.

Posted by Orrin Judd at June 14, 2010 7:22 PM
blog comments powered by Disqus