Hizbullah: still strong, getting weaker


As the permanent members of the UN Security Council, along with Germany, prepare for a dialogue with Iran in October over its nuclear program, Hizbullah is closely watching what happens. The party will almost certainly be at the vanguard of Iranian retaliation for an attack against its nuclear facilities, but it must also be ambivalent, because the political and social environment in Lebanon today does not favor Hizbullah’s entering into a new border conflict.

At three levels – the tactical military level in southern Lebanon, that of the Shiite community at large, and Hizbullah’s relationship with the rest of Lebanese society – genuine difficulties are looming for the party, even if it is stronger than ever militarily and its popularity among Shiites is intact.

One needn’t be a military expert to grasp that the next war against Israel will be very different for Hizbullah than the last one. By most accounts the party’s arsenal has been upgraded. It may well have anti-aircraft missiles today, some are suggesting the SAM-24 (Igla-S), and the secretary general, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, has warned that if Beirut’s southern suburbs are bombed, Hizbullah will respond by firing missiles at Tel Aviv. Israel, in turn, is training units to enter Lebanon, displaying a greater willingness to engage in a ground war than in 2006. The Israelis are also likely to devastate Lebanese infrastructure, particularly the electricity network, so that what they did three years ago may seem tame in comparison.

What would this mean for Hizbullah’s ability to fire rockets at Israel? The party is setting up its main defensive line north of the Litani, near Jezzine. However, some observers point to the fact that Hizbullah relies considerably on short-range rockets for its deterrence capability, rockets it can fire from primitive launching pads south of the Litani. They argue that the party’s military infrastructure in the area has, of necessity, been thinned out since 2006 after the deployment of the Lebanese Army and UNIFIL, so that even once-closed military zones such as Wadi Hujayr are now open to traffic. That’s why, these observers believe, Hizbullah will not have the same capability of firing rockets that it did three years ago, let alone to defend against Israeli incursions to prevent the launches.

As for the longer-range missiles, there remains some question of how extensively Hizbullah can rely on them. Given Nasrallah’s threats, these would effectively become strategic weapons, targeting Israeli cities and infrastructure, so their use would introduce frightening military realities that Hizbullah would have to withstand and defend domestically. For example, we can assume that if Tel Aviv is bombed, so too will be central Beirut, and it’s not at all clear that Hizbullah could sustain such an escalation politically and militarily for very long. On top of that, who would be launching these missiles, Lebanese or Iranians? If it’s the latter, Lebanon would be the front line in a regional battle, which neither the Shiite community nor other Lebanese would welcome.

Which takes us to the second obstacle Hizbullah must face: that put up by its own community. The party still dominates the Shiites, but as a visit to southern Lebanon will show, Hizbullah must address a more subtle challenge to its priorities, that provided by normalcy. Nasrallah dodged a bullet in summer 2006 by containing Shiite discontent following a month when hundreds of thousands of his coreligionists were turned into internal refugees. The secretary general showed psychological flair by declaring that shipwreck a “divine victory,” a notion the Shiites embraced because it lent meaning to their suffering. But Nasrallah can only play that game once.

We are almost a decade into the Shiite return to the South after Israel’s military withdrawal, a decade in which its inhabitants have been leading a more or less normal life, or aspiring to do so. Yet the destruction from 2006 is everywhere visible – the market of Bint Jbeil, for example, is still being rebuilt. Hizbullah has placed posters of its martyrs in every village, but even that perennial reminder of the debt owed by the community to the party cannot forever displace a Shiite yearning for a life without fear.

There is an assumption that the way Hizbullah “packages” a war with Israel will determine how Shiites react to it. In other words if Israel is perceived as the clear culprit, the community will remain loyal to Hizbullah, whatever the consequences. Perhaps, but it will not be easy for the party to disguise retaliation in defense of Iran with another pretext. Nor will Hizbullah readily dispel a disquieting feeling among Shiites that the party, for all the advantages it brings to the community, every few years demands a prohibitive blood tax in exchange.

Then there is Hizbullah’s relation with Lebanon in general. The party has perfected a persona of indifference to Lebanese preferences disputing the imperatives of resistance, but it also knows that its countrymen will virulently oppose any new conflict, particularly one on behalf of the regime in Tehran, which could undermine Hizbullah’s status. That was one message from the March 14 victory in the June elections, in many respects a vote against Michel Aoun for his alliance with Hizbullah. But the party is also paying for May 2008, when it overran western Beirut and tried doing so in the mountains. That enterprise may have won Hizbullah a temporary victory against unarmed civilians, but what it really did was sweep away any national consensus in support of its armed struggle.

A postwar Lebanon would be nothing like the one that emerged in August 2006, which nonetheless defied Hizbullah for over 18 months. This new Lebanon, battered, impoverished, bitter, could well demand a final showdown with the project of a party that cannot possibly coexist with the project of a sovereign state. This begs the question: Might Israel precipitate a pre-emptive strike to take advantage of the Lebanese contradictions? It’s possible, and we’re not doing the slightest thing to prevent this.

Michael Young is opinion editor of THE DAILY STAR.

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14 years ago

Hizbullah: still strong, getting weaker Michael Young has got a lot of ideas correct this time. A lot of his analysis is properly thought out. However, I would caution against the idea that permeates the article insinuating that Hizb Allah would lose the support of Lebanon if a war occurs. As anyone familiar with history understands, military wars are won by the political explanation of the war to the people in the immediate post-war period. As a simple example that the Lebanese can understand, in the 70s Syria destroyed Ashrafiyyeh and did not lose anything. However, at the end of… Read more »


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