Hizballah arms issue tabled for now

19 11 2009

by Patrick Vibert

The week-old Lebanese government has made it clear that it has no intention of taking up the subject of Hizballah’s arms until the distant future. For now, the matter has been relegated to the abstract and ambiguous category as  being part of the “national dialogue”. This is a polite way for the new Hariri government to say that they are not touching this explosive issue for a very long time.

The months after the parliamentary elections brought intense political wrangling from a number of external sources.  The reconciliation between Syria and Saudi Arabia was seen as a major milestone for the prospects of Lebanon, as the two nations are highly influential there. After the announcement of the successful formation of a cabinet to govern Lebanon, the plaudits came in from across the globe. Many hoped that the fledgling Hariri government would proceed on the issue of disarming Hizballah.

The United States in particular hoped that the Lebanon would finally get around to disarming the Shiite resistance in conjunction with United Nations Security Council resolution 1701,  which formally put an end to Hizballah’s 2006 war with Israel.

No government likes to have independent armies operating in their territory, but the issue is particularly sensitive in Lebanon. Hizballah is the only group that has remained fully armed after the end of the civil war. Hizballah justifies its continued military capabilities by portraying itself as the only force capable of defending Lebanon from Israel.

This argument is valid to many Lebanese who still have fresh in their minds memories of Israel’s invasions in 1982 and 2006. The first time ,Israel stayed for 18 years, the next time only 34 days. The Lebanese might say that if Hizballah wasn’t there, they would be occupied by Israel, at least up to the Litani River. Israelis would counter that if Hizballah wasn’t around, they would have no reason to invade. It’s tough to tell who is right.

But this argument misses the point. Even if Israel did not maintain a hostile posture towards Lebanon (I write “towards Lebanon” because Israeli officials have stated publicly that they will hold all of Lebanon accountable for the actions  of Hizballah), the issue would still present a difficult problem for the Lebanese government. The question is whether anyone is capable of disarming them and if so, at what cost?

Hizballah’s military wing is highly trained and heavily armed. In May 2008, the government made a move to disable their communications network. Hizballah responded by swarming West Beirut in a show of force that quickly convinced the government to reconsider. It was the largest case of sectarian violence since the civil war ended.

Hizballah encountered relatively little resistance from Beirut security forces and it’s unclear whether the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) would even take up arms against Hizballah on a large scale. It is likely that the LAF in such a situation would be routed and Lebanon would be plunged back in to the bad old days that everyone in the world had hoped it left behind.

So what do the Lebanse have to gain by the government taking on this extraordinarily risky task at this point? It took many weeks of intense political negotiations for Hariri to form a cabinet that was satisfactory to everyone. It is almost certain that the issue of Hizballah’s arms never came up during the talks.

For Hizballah, it’s a non-starter and for the Hariri-led majority it would have meant the end to any progress being made. This could be the reason that Hizballah officials stayed relatively quiet during the negotiations and didn’t fight for particular posts. From the beginning, they seemed to be on board with everything and the only hurdle to their accepting a cabinet list was that their March 8 Christian ally, Michael Aoun, was not getting his way with a particular cabinet post he wanted for his son-in-law. In the end, Hizballah came out with two relatively obscure cabinet assignments (agriculture ,and adminstrative development). It is certain that the situation would have evolved much differently for Hizballah had the issue of their arms come up in a meaningful way, and maybe all they wanted from the negotiations was to be left alone.

The government put the issue off indefinitely instead of risking, at best, endless political deadlock and, at worst, another civil war. For the Lebanese people, it is clear that this is a fight for another day, when Lebanon is far more stable, the LAF is far stronger, and Hariri has far more political capital to wield. Today however, Lebanon is making strides. Its banking and tourism sectors are flourishing, its economy seems to be weathering the global financial crisis nicely, and its government is finally functioning once again. While the United States and Israel may disagree, for now perhaps it’s best to let sleeping dogs lie.

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