Daniel R. DePetris: The Political Docket

Hezbollah Ready to Lock and Load

Posted in U.S. Foreign and Defense Policy by Dan on March 1, 2010

I always find it fascinating when realistic scholars write articles in major publications, particularly when the article is based on a long-running problem of regional (or international) concern.  Equally fascinating is the tendency of some realists to water-down the significance and complexity of the problem, thereby making their judgments more reliable and their conclusions more logical and accepting to the public.

This isn’t a new phenomenon.  If you want to experience this trend in person, all you have to do is pick up a national newspaper- such as the New York Times or the Washington Post- and you will most-likely find such an article on the first page of the editorial section.  Or you could simply log on to the internet, do a simple Google search, and glance through a few news websites.

I mention this because I did the same exact thing a few days ago, eventually finding my way to a prominent source in the IR business today: foreignaffairs.com.

The topic that I was most drawn to was nothing other than a piece about the Hezbollah Movement in Lebanon, written by Steven Simon (a Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations) and Jonathan Stevenson (a Professor of Strategic Studies at the U.S. Naval War College).

Without going into specifics (and by the way, if you want the specifics, just click this link), Simon and Stevenson’s argument is a perfect example of the type of watered-down jargon that all too often categorizes the nation’s editorials.  The thesis went something like this; the U.S. should open dialogue with Hezbollah because they are 1) increasingly demonstrating their independence by distancing themselves from Iran and Syria, and 2) willing to trade their powerful guns for electoral support from the Lebanese population.

In other words, an American-led diplomatic campaign to demilitarize (or decommission) Hezbollah is easier than most people in the U.S. Government think.

Now down to the nitty-gritty.

There is no question that a decommissioning process would be beneficial for every party involved. For the United States, a peaceful Hezbollah would provide Washington with some more leverage over the Iranian nuclear issue; for Israel, security in its immediate neighborhood would be enhanced; and for Lebanon, the lingering cloud of armed conflict or civil war would evaporate rather quickly. Hezbollah would also have much to gain from successful negotiations.  By trading their weapons for ballots, Hezbollah would undoubtedly improve their national image both in Lebanon and throughout the Middle East.

But despite all of these positive scenarios, we have to consider what Hezbollah would lose as a result. From the standpoint of cost-benefit analysis, demilitarization appears to have more immediate consequences for the Hezbollah movement than long-term gains.

Currently, Hezbollah has overwhelming control of Southern Lebanon. This is not only important from a geographical perspective, but from a strategic outlook as well. By residing so close to Israel’s northern border, Hezbollah possesses a sturdy check on Israeli power. Hezbollah rockets are relatively close to major Israeli cities, a reality that forces Israel to think twice before it engages in aggressive behavior.  Destroying or handing over these weapons would quickly eliminate the power of deterrence that Hezbollah wishes to portray to the Israelis.  In fact, passively giving weapons away could threaten Hezbollah’s entire existence.  Who is to say that the Israeli Government would not use the opportunity to deal a fatal blow to the Islamic organization?

Taking the past year into account, there is no evidence to my knowledge that supports the view that Hezbollah is willing to sacrifice guns for votes. Reality on the ground debunks the decommissioning argument. Weapons shipments from Iran and Syria continue to arm Hezbollah to the teeth, despite Simon and Stevenson’s claim that Hezbollah militants are distancing themselves from both states.  Some sources estimate that Hezbollah now has 3X as many rockets and missiles (with longer distances and smoother flight paths) than before the 2006 war with Israel.

And what about Israel’s recent assertion that Hezbollah is planting Syrian and Iranian-made bombs around the Israeli border (yes, this is a story…http://www.newmediajournal.us/terrorism/01122010.htm)?

Now just because Hezbollah is rearming does not necessarily mean it wants to strike Israel in the near future. Rockets, guns, and ammunition also provides Hezbollah with a significant political deterrent against rivals in the Lebanese Government. Without a viable weapons stockpile, I highly doubt that Hezbollah would have much of a say in Lebanon’s current parliament. We have to remember that it was Hezbollah’s overwhelming military superiority that gave them political opportunity in the first place (a.k.a. the takeover of Beirut).

But regardless of motivation, all of Hezbollah’s actions during the past year point more towards a path of confrontation than a period of enlightenment and rapprochement.

If we want to be purely optimistic, then I guess we can support the arguments of Simon and Stevenson (two highly intellectual people by the way). But if we want to remain practical, disarming Hezbollah is still a distant fantasy.

-Daniel R. DePetris

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**Comments courtesy of Steven Simon and Jonathan Stevenson at ForeignAffairs.com**

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  1. d_liebich said, on March 1, 2010 at 8:06 pm

    It seems to me that whether or not Hezbollah is disarmed is a Lebanese issue. The Brits need to stay out of it. They never seem to be able to get over their colonialist instincts.

  2. Abdulhamid D. said, on March 1, 2010 at 8:08 pm

    ‘’Taking the past year into account, there is no evidence to my knowledge that supports the view that Hezbollah is willing to sacrifice guns for votes. Reality on the ground debunks the decommissioning argument.’’

    Daniel, that’s because they have both the votes and the guns. How do you get someone with a strong hand to fold? Unfortunately, State dropped the ball in the ‘90s when it came to Hezbollah’s increase in organizational capacity and capability. So you play with the cards you have in your hand. And the cards that you have in hand points to a Syrian approach.

  3. Scott G said, on March 1, 2010 at 8:09 pm

    Abdulhamid, I concur with the preponderance of what you say. Hezbollah cannot be negotiated with directly because it would grant unneeded legitimacy to the terrorist group. Syria, despite being a state sponsor of terror, can (unlikely but somewhat plausibly) be incentivized out of Iran’s orbit. That being said, it is worth a shot, if not only to prove Assad’s lofty rhetoric is simply that; talking about negotiating with no intention of making any concessions. The US does not require a heavy-handed approach, as this would be a disaster for all actors involved. Back-door bilateral negotiations b.w the Brits/Hezbollah in which a VERY minor US official sits in to know what is going on and potentially aid in the effort, is the ideal scenario.

    The only thing I disagree with is your tact on Israel. Israel should definitely be kept in the loop, as from a geopolitical standpoint, she cannot be kept in the dark as its security concerns are relegated to the dustbin. Her qualitative military edge is largely unsustainable in the long-term without proficient diplomatic efforts. That being said, Obama’s popularity with Israel’s domestic populace is very low and would be easily exacerbated if the US was found negotiating with one of its bitter enemies. Moreover, any viable agreement would involve Israeli concessions (withdrawal from Ghajar/Sheeba Farms, potential diplomatic recognition of Hezbollah by the West and Israel) that would be impossible if Israel felt it was being left out in the cold by an already wavering and uncertain ally.

    By all means, lets fix the ME. However, this effort cannot involve any efforts that strengthen Iran vis-a-vis the west and by extension Hezbollah. Unfortunately, the Iranian axis is seemingly monolithic, and despite its internal turmoils, and is unlikely to budge. This is especially shown as Turkey pivots East. In sum, engaging Syria, even if the efforts flounder, is a much better strategy than confronting Hezbollah directly; even if that means low-level, back-door discussion. Nothing good can come to the ME from an empowered Hezbollah. Their group “demilitarized” wouldn’t be so, anyway, since Hezbollah is already more powerful than the LAF (Lebanese National Army) and would likely take over the national army and its weapons cache if granted credibility in the international arena.

    Please do not fall for this wishful thinking! Hezbollah is a terrorist group who kills innocent women and children for political gain and deserves no quarter, let alone international legitimacy!

    • Abdulhamid D. said, on March 1, 2010 at 8:10 pm

      the obvious: hezbollah is a proxy of syria and iran. iran’s regime is quite unstable and isolated in the international community. hezbollah is low on the list when it comes to the west negotiating with iran. which means the other puppeteer is syria. negiotating legitimizes. syria is the lesser of two evils.

      the solution: negotiate through syria. bring syria back into play with plenty of incentives, especially when the their open hand is already presented to the u.s. they’re still waiting for an ambassador. all the while the u.s. still has information gathered from the brits through their negiotations with hezbollah to bring to the table. at least this way, the u.s. doesnt harm its relationship with the pro-western groups in lebanon, let alone the backlash to be expected in the american media regarding negotiations with the group brehind the marine barracks attack in beirut. the goal should not be safeguarding israel’s defence. its obvious that israel is not lacking much militarily. their problem is with the approach. which means israel doesnt need to be in the loop, as this would diminish any ‘good will’, but rather ensuring a stable, demilitarized lebanon that is friendly to business and at peace with syria. that in itself provides a more stable region, increases american prestige in the region and by hitting several birds with one stone, ie lebanese political stability, enhancing bilateral relations with syria possibily through saudi incentives and eu or american economic co-op agreements (embargo lifted), creates an opening (dialogue and experience) with syria regarding a final peace agreement with israel and the golan issue.

      by the way, dont overestimate hezbollah’s political capital in the region, it may have gained some during its war with israel, but it lost almost all of it (amongst people not affiliated with the group) with its hostile manuvering within lebanese politics and its invasion of beirut and the fact that they are still considered as iran’s lackey in arab politics. hence the muted hezbollah of late. the only capital it has left is within lebanese politics. syria would sell them down the river in a heartbeat if the incentives were strong enough. on what grounds? on the grounds that the arabs have always been divided amongst themselves, ie egyptian, jordanian peace treaties, palestinians at oslo, gcc economic contacts, leaving the syrians holding the ‘banner of pan-arabism’ (with iran?).

      • Jan Z. V. said, on March 1, 2010 at 8:11 pm

        To keep “America’s eternal ally” – “out of the loop”- requires the gravity only present on a few distant planets! The American president who could achieve that has yet to be born. There will never be an American Alexander who can cut this “Gordian loop”… Only a now very slowly evolving global-re-constellation will in coming times offer a solution “outside of the loop”…

  4. Omar N. said, on March 1, 2010 at 8:11 pm

    I would not under estimate Iran’s committments to Hizb Allah since ultimately Iran’s final goal is a major regional role with partity to Israel’s.
    Hizb Allah was the best introduction Iran could hope for and except for Hizb Allah’s performance Iran’s standing in the Arab World would have been drastically diminished after its role in the Iraqi conquest and its aftermath.
    AS long as Iran is after that major regional role and standing, an ages long ambition irrespective of the regime in power, Iran will NOT abandon Hizb Allah!

  5. Juha said, on March 1, 2010 at 8:20 pm

    I don’t think the issue of disarming Hezbollah can be divorced from a) the need for electoral reform in Lebanon; and b) the sectarian divide throughout the wider Middle East.

    Clearly, Sunnis are holding on to power in Lebanon despite the demographics becoming ever more against them, very much so as the Maronites did before them. But the problem, this time too, is that an electoral reform would essentially remove the Sunnis from power handing it to the Shia, mainly represented by Hezbollah. I doubt this scenario would be acceptable to the Sunnis, not to mention Saudi Arabia.

    However, it is equally unlikely that Hezbollah would disarm while being effectively barred from becoming a legitimate political actor that demonstrates its calibre as a societal and insurgency movement and to an extent, proto-state within Lebanon. While Hezbollah is becoming integrated into the domestic politics of Lebanon, there is still miles to go before it is considered a legitimate domestic actor (which I fear, requires their dearmament, somewhat irononically).

    Hezbollah seems, at least to me, be in it for the long run. They become more integrated into domestic politics but simultaneously proceeding with their own parallel state-building process. Ultimately, it might be, that both ways lead to Lebanon becoming a Shia state. The difference is, if it cannot be done politically, it almost certainly can be done militarily. The question is, will it come to that?


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