Hariri and Hizballah

17 03 2011

Editor’s note: this article originally appears on the Foreign Policy Association website.

Last Sunday, Saad Hariri’s March 14 coalition held a rally in Beirut to commemorate the six-year anniversary of the group’s founding. In front of a crowd of thousands, Hariri questioned the usefulness of heavily armed non-state actors in Lebanon, and said that the Lebanese state should have a monopoly on the use of force. Hariri was referring to Hizballah, the only Lebanese group to retain its weapons after the Civil War ended in 1990.

The issue of Hizballah’s arms is highly controversial in Lebanon. Lebanon has a sizable population of Shia Muslims (estimated around 40% of the country’s total population), a historically disenfranchised lot who credit their recent political ascension in large part to Hizballah, its strategies, and its weapons. Lebanese Shia might agree that no other group should be allowed to have weapons in competition with the state, but when it comes to the Party of God, they find the concept acceptable.

Lebanon’s Shia did not get where they are today by the goodwill of the Christians and the Sunnis; they got there by Hizballah’s use of force, cunning, and ruthlessness. However, the amount of MP’s allocated to the various sects is still skewed in favor of the Christian parties and, all things considered, the Shia still have a long way to go to achieve an equitable share of seats in parliament in relation to their numbers.

Lebanon’s whole political system, from the National Pact (1943) to the Taif Accords (1989) to the Doha Agreement (2008) is based upon harmony between the sects. As time has gone by, it has become clear that these are only band-aids to Lebanon’s real political problem: the system does not reflect the demographic reality. The Christians (and to some extent the Sunnis) know their numbers have dwindled (due to emigration and lower birthrates), yet they are reluctant to change the Lebanese government to reflect this shift because they will be the ones to lose out.

The Daily Star’s Michael Young recently wrote an interesting article on this topic, proposing that March 14 should offer the Shia additional political powers in exchange for Hizballah relinquishing their weapons. Young stopped short of calling for a one-man-one-vote system, where each sect would have an accurate representation in the government, but the move could force Hizballah to choose between its weapons and its people.

Young calls Hizballah’s weapons “the elephant in the room”, but in Lebanon elephants abound*. The outdated and unfair political allocations are the deeper problem, because as long as there is a disparity between population and power, there will always be insecurity in the form of weapons to make up the difference.  This mis-allocation will continue to haunt Lebanon until a more representative system takes its place.

*The STL is one, Syrian influence is another.

Saad Hariri’s call for Hizballah to disarm occurs when March 14’s power and influence is at a low point. Hizballah, fearing some of its members would be fingered by the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (the hybrid UN-Lebanese body tasked with investigating the assassination of Rafik Hariri), wanted Hariri to withdraw his support for the Tribunal. When Hariri refused, Hizballah and its allies maneuvered to oust him as Prime Minister. Ironically, up until the time he was pushed out of office, Hariri’s government publicly supported Hizballah’s weapons as an integral part of Lebanon defenses.

The time to call for Hizballah to disarm was when March 14 was in power, when dealing from a position of relative strength. However, March 14 had only won by a slim majority in the June 2009 parliamentary elections, and without a clear mandate from the people, they needed the help of the opposition to form a government. Hariri knew he needed Hizballah’s help and it would have been political suicide to make enemies with them straight away after taking power.

Throughout his term in office however, that reality never changed. Now Hariri is fighting for his political life and calling for Hizballah to lay down their arms will likely sit well with his constituents as he tries to re-energize his base.

In light of the unrest sweeping the region, it is interesting to ponder what the current state of Lebanon’s Shiites would be today had Hizballah never existed (if Israel and the PLO had never invaded). It is not hard to imagine this marginalized group taking to the streets and to demand reform, similar to the Bahraini Shia today. Would then Lebanon be in a more stable position in which to reform, or would the powers that be use force to maintain the status quo? As with current day Bahrain, the answer is probably closer to the latter than the former, with the reason being that any political advancement by the Shia is seen by Sunnis and the West as a win for Iran, a preconception that has led to disaster in the region for the United States.

Speaking of which, no discussion of Hizballah’s arms is complete without mentioning Iran. Hizballah is part of Iran’s national security strategy. The group’s stronghold of South Lebanon abuts with Israel and represents the “tip of the spear” for Iran should Israel attempt military action on Persian soil. The reality is, whether true or not, Israel and Iran represent existential threats to each other and their foreign policies reflect this. As a result, Iran has supported Hizballah with hundreds of millions of dollars in cash and arms since helping to form the group in the early 1980’s.

If Hizballah were to disarm, it would be effectively abandoning its duty to keep Israel in check, thereby increasing the likelihood of Israeli military operations against Iran. For Tehran, losing Hizballah would be a nightmare. For Hizballah’s part, the group would be hard pressed to replace the financial support of Iran, nor does it want to. One of Hizballah’s stated “pillars” of existence is to resist Israel, and the group has many times pledged its allegiance to the Ayatollahs of Iran.

Right now, Hariri is trying to rally his political base by calling for Hizballah to disarm. He knows this is what a large portion of the people want to hear. But what good is having a huge rally for your cause when Hizballah could do the same the very next day. We already know Lebanon is divided and that each side can produce large crowds at their rallies. If Hariri really wants to disarm the group, he would have to create to space between Hizballah (the Party of God) and the Shiites themselves.

Michael Young’s aforementioned strategy is closer to this: offer Hizballah weapons for power and let the Shia watch The Party make their choice. If Hizballah chooses to disarm, great. If they choose to keep their weapons at the expense of increased political power for their people, then their hand will be played for the world to see.

The problem is that both the Christians and the Sunni will have to give up power in order the achieve it. Unfortunately, no one in March 14 seems to be thinking about what makes Lebanon more stable in the long run and every day that goes by sees Hizballah increase its power.

In the past, Lebanese politicians have called for Hizballah’s arms to be folded into the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF). If major political concessions and adjustments aren’t made in the near future,  one day we could be hearing Hassan Nasrallah calling for the LAF to be folded into Hizballah.

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