With little choice, Lebanon gambles on Hizballah

5 12 2009

Hizballah Logo

By Patrick Vibert

Editors note: this article originally appeared on the Foreign Policy Association website.

This week, Lebanon’s new cabinet issued its policy statement regarding Hizballah. With some strong reservations from a handful of Christian leaders, the cabinet came out in support of Hizballah’s continued military presence in Lebanon as a resistance to Israel.

There are at least two reasons for this. First, Hizballah is the force most capable of repelling and Israeli assault; and second the Lebanese government was given little choice in the matter.

As far as repelling an Israeli assault, Hizballah’s military wing is highly trained and has nearly thirty years experience in this department. Many agree that Hizballah would be far more effective than the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) in this situation because while the LAF might have more modern and powerful weapons, they do not have the experience needed to fight a guerrilla war.

The LAF may have some tanks and a few fighters, but in a war with Israel weapons like this quickly turn into liabilities. It wouldn’t take long for Israeli bombers to find and destroy these types of weapons due to their size and difficulty of concealment. Contrast that with Hizballah’s weapons of choice, which must be small and highly mobile for easy concealment. That is why the Katyusha rockets are favored by the group, as they can be setup, fired, dismantled, and hidden within a matter of minutes. This makes such an attack very difficult to defend against.

The Israeli Defense Force (IDF) is one of the most modern and deadly fighting forces in the world, and if Lebanon is going to defend itself, it can’t hope to win with superiority of firepower. To win a war against the IDF you need cobras, not elephants.

So the new Lebanese government has chosen to recognize Hizballah as a legitimate resistance because they are the only force capable of defending Lebanon against Israel at the moment. But the other reason for this is because there simply wasn’t a another viable alternative.

Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s pro-Western March 14 coalition, composed mostly of Christian and Sunni MPs, won a slim majority in the June 8 parliamentary elections. And while March 14 may have the slight upper hand in the new government, they certainly don’t have a clear mandate to abandon the consensus-based political system that seems to be the only way to govern this deeply sectarian country.

March 14 may be in the majority, but only slightly.  And the bottom line is that the government just isn’t strong enough to take on the issue of Hizballah’s arms right now. If they did, the best case political scenario would be that Hizballah would stymie any and all government activity to the best of its ability, and the worst case scenario would be that they’d withdraw from the government all together to see it collapse. So for now, for the Hariri government, it is better to work with Hizballah instead of against it.

Also, it’s not like the government has a choice in the matter because it is doubtful that the LAF is even capable of disarming Hizballah in the first place. This was attempted before in May 2008, when the government attempted to dismantle Hizballah’s communications system*.

(*Hizballah operates a complex communications system that many credit with the group’s effectiveness in the 2006 war with Israel. Israel could never knock it out, and it’s believed that Hizballah generals never lost contact with the front lines during the conflict. )

Hizballah, abandoning its pledge to never turn its weapons on their fellow Lebanese, stormed West Beirut, overpowered the security forces there, and demanded the government to stop. With no choice, the government quickly acquiesced. This scenario vividly illustrated what was already painfully obvious:  one, that the Lebanese are not as far away from their civil war days as they thought; and two, Beirut functions at Hizballah’s discretion. If Hizballah abandons the government it will collapse, and if the government turns on Hizballah, they will react and overpower.

While the reality may be uncomfortable to the Lebanese, it shouldn’t be surprising. This is why it is understandable that the cabinet issued the statement that it did: because they had little choice. But what is surprising is that they would so publicly back Hizballah just days after Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak issued his grim warning that Israel would hold all of Lebanon accountable for the actions of Hizballah.

Israel actually did the same in 2006, but they weren’t as public with that information. After two Israeli soldiers were captured by Hizballah in a cross-border raid, the IDF invaded Lebanon and launched a fierce bombing campaign throughout the country, destroying neighborhoods, roads, bridges, and an oil refinery. In the waning days of the 34-day war, Israel peppered southern Lebanon with cluster bombs, which are still exploding to this day causing hundreds of casualties and fatalities each year. For Lebanon, it was a catastrophe.

After the war, Hizballah Secretary General Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah stated that if he had known what Israel’s reaction would be to the  raid, then he never would have ordered it. That sentiment must have been heard loud and clear by Israeli policymakers, because for the last few months, Israeli officials, primarily Defense Minister Ehud Barak, have been announcing openly that they would hold all of Lebanon accountable for the actions of Hizballah.

This is not a coincidence; it is a direct warning to the new government that Israel will not tolerate any Hizballah mischief, no matter how integrated the group becomes in the government.

So with little choice, the Lebanese government has decided to back Hizballah and hope that they can avoid a conflict with Israel.  Today they have no chance of disarming Hizballah or operating an effective government without their cooperation. It’s unfortunate that the group is holding the country hostage, and for now their fates are tied together.

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One response

6 12 2009
Phil Santoro

very nice article, thank you.

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