America and Iran

28 05 2010

Last week Iran announced an arrangement, brokered by Brazil, where the Islamic Republic would ship out uranium to have it enriched in Turkey. The deal, similar to one offered by the United States last year, was denounced by Washington as a means to delay United Nations Security Council (UNSC) sanctions against Iran.

Iran was offering to have a large portion of its uranium enriched abroad to levels that are consistent with nuclear energy and not nuclear weapons. Once the uranium is turned into rods for nuclear reactors, it cannot be further enriched to be used for nuclear weapons.

The problem that Washington had with the deal is that Iran would still be holding onto a significant portion of its uranium that could be used some day to make a nuclear warhead, and Tehran has stated that it has no intention of halting its current enrichment program.

The Prospect of Sanctions

Russia and China

The battle over Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons program has been slowly escalating over the last year or so, encompassing Obama’s entire presidency. To date, the Obama administration has opted to take a confusing, passive-aggressive, diplomatic course in dealing with the Iran: make offers and talk about diplomacy while arranging sanctions and preparing the Gulf for war.  This strategy only seems to be “diplomatic” in the absence of a battle.But, as mentioned, one battle has been raging for months: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s political wrangling to arrange sanctions on Iran in the UNSC.

If you don’t know how the UNSC works, it has fifteen members, five of which are permanent and have veto power (the P-5: USA, UK, France, Russia, China) and ten members selected on a rotating basis for a period of two years. Usually, the United States can impose its will on the majority of the non-permanent members of the council, but the P-5 members sometimes must be aggressively courted to produce a “yes” vote. In the current situation with Iran, the UK and France were not hard to win over, but Russia and China have been.

Generally speaking, Russia loves to exploit any situation where the United States needs Russian assistance, but at the end of the day it is unlikely that they would veto something that is obviously so important to Washington. In return for their support (if tepid), however, America had to scrap a missile defense system that it was planning on installing in Russia’s sphere of influence in Poland and the Czech Republic.

And just recently, it seems that China has come aboard the USS Sanctions. Traditionally, China will do business with anyone as long as it benefits China and as long as the other country doesn’t criticize the government in Beijing. Iran fits nicely into this mold: China buys millions of barrels of oil without facing any condemnations from Iran regarding communism or human rights (the same goes for Burma and Sudan). The oil goes on to fuel economic growth that China needs to stave of domestic instability. (I guess the theory is that as long as people are being productive, they will not demand freedom of the press or the right to vote.)

China

This is why it has been so hard for America to convince China to go the sanctions route: one, China needs the cheap oil; two, China thinks its domestic policies are no business of foreigners; and three, if Iran did acquire a nuclear weapon, they would not be using it against China anyway. So why should they care enough to upset such a crucial trading partner?  This is the question that Hillary Clinton has been trying to answer since she took office.

China can’t be threatened with force; it has a very large army and scores of nuclear missiles. China can’t be bullied economically; it is the United States’ largest trading partner and holds over a trillion dollars in US currency and debt.  So figuring out the right mixture of carrots and sticks has been understandably difficult for the Obama administration. But it appears something has worked, because just after Iran announced its plans with Turkey and Brazil (both of which are emerging powers that are starting to assert themselves in the diplomatic arena), the United States announced that it had reached an agreement on sanctions with both Russia and China.

Why did China change its mind? While Beijing’s first impulse might be to do the opposite of what the West wants it to do, it doesn’t change the fact that China’s relationship to Europe and the U.S. is very important as it represents two massive markets that buy Chinese goods, which in turn fuels the economic growth that fosters domestic stability. And once Russia was aboard, it was that much more difficult for China to stand alone.

As for the sanctions themselves, it is difficult to say whether they will have any real impact on Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons program. Historically, the effects of sanctions in guiding rogue nations to the right course have been spotty at best, as sanctions usually only serve to strengthen the position and resolve of the regime while only the citizens of the sanctioned nation suffer.

In order to make sanctions work, you need to make the regime suffer. In this case most analysts agree that, while imposing certain banking and trading restrictions on Iran might be at most an inconvenience, they will likely not achieve the desired result.

For Iran, the key weakness is in its gasoline imports. Iran may have a lot of oil, but years of sanctions have crippled its ability to refine oil into gasoline (score one for sanctions). As a result, Iran must import a large portion of its gasoline, mostly from Russia. This is where Russia could have played a key role: if Russia agreed to halt gasoline exports to Iran, the Iranian economy would have ground to a halt and would have easily inflamed the anger of a public that is already visibly discontented with the regime in Tehran.

But the current UNSC resolution makes no mention of gasoline imports, and it looks like the price of having Russia and China on board was that the resulting resolution would be devoid of teeth. Perhaps the Obama administration thinks that it is more valuable to have their support to give the resolution the appearance of a multilateral consensus than it was to have a resolution that could actually have a direct effect.

Iran Gets Nukes: So What?

Enriched Uranium

With all this talk about what’s to be done with Iran, it is easy to get lost in the rhetoric. When such a big deal is made about a particular issue, and everyone has strong opinions on all sides, but they don’t really disagree, the question must be asked: why do we care?

(My personal policy is this: there should be no nuclear weapons anywhere in the world, and the international community should work hard towards that goal. But if Russia is to have one, the United States is to have two.)

The list of countries with (known) nuclear weapons is long: US, UK, France, Russia, China (the P-5), India, Pakistan, Israel, and North Korea. Really, aside from being counter non-proliferation, what is one more country?  The problem isn’t so much of “what” as it is “who”.The country in question has been hostile to the United States for over 30 years, continuously referring to the America as “the Great Satan” (with Israel being the “Little Satan”).  But that’s not really it either, as the United States was not nearly as aggressive towards North Korea’s nuclear weapons program (a rogue regime if there ever was one, one that actually fought a war with the U.S. in the 1950’s). Perhaps it was because Pyongyang’s possession of nuclear weapons came as a surprise and by the time the world knew about it, it was too late: because they had nuclear weapons.

No, America’s interest in Iran is different and its concerns are two-fold: the first is Iranian hostility towards Israel; the second is Iran’s direct challenge to American hegemony in the Middle East.

Tehran makes no bones about its dislike of Israel. The regime’s leaders constantly denounce Israel to gain support from the masses. For any nation, it helps to have an adversary for which to rally domestic support. North Korea has South Korea, Israel has Iran (they have each other), America had Communism, and now it has Terrorism. The question is whether this hostile rhetoric goes beyond mere speeches.

For Iran and Israel, it certainly does. Iran has been funding and training Hamas for years, and in 2006, Israel fought a 34-day war with Hizballah, an Iranian proxy. But what came first, the chicken or the egg? It’s difficult to say. On the surface, it would appear that Israel would have no problem with Iran if Iran had no problem with Israel. However, the Iranian revolution of 1979 was Islamic in nature, and one of the claims of the new regime in Tehran was that Zionism was evil, as it oppressed Muslims. Whatever you believe, one thing that’s true is that Israel worked closely with the hated former leader of Iran: the Shah. As it turns out, something that Iran’s three greatest enemies (US, UK, Israel) have in common is their ties to Reza Shah Pahlavi, the former King of Iran.

Since the Islamic Republic came in to being, it has been hostile towards Israel. And while Israel might have one of the most advanced militaries in the world, it is still a very small country in relation, and is understandably afraid of one of its greatest enemies acquiring weapons of mass destruction, particularly nukes. However, this doesn’t explain why the United States is so concerned. Or does it?

It is extremely unlikely that Iran would make a nuclear weapon, attach it to a missile, and launch it at the United States, because America would respond in kind and that would the end of the regime in Tehran. (The same goes for Iran attacking Israel for that matter.)  While not usually on the same page with the international community, it is safe to say that Iran is led by rational actors in that they value regime survival beyond anything else.

Let’s just say that Iran manages to build a nuclear weapon and launches it Israel the next day. Israel would likely reciprocate and the regime in Tehran would be toast. But even if they weren’t, Khamenei and Ahmedinejad would likely face a level of international isolation that they had never dreamed existed. Not only would they have been responsible for the Holocaust Part II, thousands of fellow Muslims would have been killed in the process. Adding another layer is that those Muslims would be Arabs, which would further widen the chasm between Arabs and Persians. The average (surviving) Persian, thoughtful and literate, would likely be appalled and ashamed of their government’s course of action. And not only would Tehran be destroyed, but likely Qom, the Shiite Vatican, along with it. Without exaggeration, it could very well mean the end of Persian civilization.

So while Israel would likely not ever face an Iranian nuclear assault, when you combine Iran’s hostility to Israel, as well as the two nations’ proximity, Israel’s concern is understandable.

And when Israel is concerned, America is concerned. This is a factor of the Zionist lobby’s power in Washington, especially as the U.S. heads into midterm election season. Congressmen from both sides of the isle draw support from pro-Israel advocates, and therefore we see Israel’s needs being quickly addressed. (Witness the recent Scuds to Hizballah scenario; a week later President Obama is clamoring for a $200 million missile defense system for Israel.) So if our “close ally” is threatened because it “lives in a tough neighborhood”, then the U.S. will  respond, as it has been for the past 43 years.

Of course, there is the other reason why Washington is taking such a firm stance with Iran: the continued defiance of Iran threatens American hegemony in the Gulf and symbolizes America’s deterioration as a superpower.

After WWII, the United States and Russia emerged as the only two superpowers (closely related to their own nuclear arsenals). The two engaged in the Cold War for nearly fifty years until the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. After that, America was the last man standing and for the next 20 years or so, what America said, went. But now, with the ascents of Russia, India, Brazil and especially China (referred to as the BRIC countries); America is losing in terms of relative power. In this zero sum game of power politics, the gains for the BRIC countries represent loses for the United States. This means that these countries will be competing more than ever for natural resources to either ensure their position in the world (in the case of the United States) or to ensure their continued growth.

The International Relations landscape is shifting to a multi-polar world where there is no clear superpower. In fifty years, we could see America, China, India, Brazil, and Europe (if there is such a unified body at the time) exerting similar levels of influence in the world (Russia is left off because of its declining population and its inability to reform economically). This transition could be rough or smooth. Intuitively, such an adjustment would create conflict and war, but the end of the Soviet Union came so swiftly and gently that it caught everyone by surprise. The point is that we as a nation should do whatever it takes to ensure a smooth transition.

BRIC Leaders

But right now we are going through the birth pangs of our transition to the new multi-polar world order, and Iran is at the center of that transition. The United States has chosen to make Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons program a priority. Washington has burnt a lot of calories and invested a lot of political capital in making sure Iran does not continue to enrich uranium, so much so that the whole situation has become symbolic of declining American power. This is why the U.S. is trying so hard to get it’s way: Iran’s position on the matter is the ultimate defiance of the West and if America can’t get Iran to change its ways after investing so much time and energy into it, it projects to the world that America’s time as captain of the ship is over, and its decline may be happening in a more precipitous manner than was once thought.

America’s (and Israel’s) interest in Iran’s nuclear capability is boldly hypocritical. The biggest behind-the-scenes cheerleader for sanctions has been Israel, who has an ambiguous nuclear arsenal of its own and refuses to sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), but you would never hear Washington criticize this. Also on the list of those with nuclear weapons is India, where the U.S. actually encourages proliferation. Then we have Pakistan, an incredibly unstable country with an active al-Qaeda presence, which should be ten times more alarming than the prospect of Iran acquiring “the bomb”. Rounding out the list is North Korea, at best an enigmatic nation (at worst, insane) which actually withdrew from the NPT in 2003, and soon after declared that it had nuclear weapons. Popular opinion characterizes Pyongyang as a rational regime, in that it values regime survival, but in reality we have no idea what Kim Jong Il is capable of.

Pakistan and North Korea are far more threatening nations that have nuclear weapons; the problem is that they already possess them. But Iran does not, not yet anyway, and many think that it only a matter of time before they do. Then what? Iran should not possess nuclear weapons for many reasons, but there are worse scenarios for the United States. One of which is  the prospect of going to war with Iran to forcibly prevent (delay) Tehran from attaining them, as the result could be catastrophic for the world: war, oil shortages, economic collapse, domestic instability, war, repeat.

The fear of proliferation resulting from Iran acquiring nuclear weapons is probably overblown.  America actually still has sufficient clout to make sure others in the region – Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Gulf States – do not follow suit. There will be a certain level of anxiety added to the region with a Persian nation having such a defensive leg up, but that will likely only push those countries closer to the United States for protection, with the bonus of significant additional arms sales. Also, if Iran becomes nuclear capable, the regime in Tehran might be more secure not having to face the prospect of an Israeli or American attack, which could make Tehran less reliant on the destabilizing use of proxies such as Hizballah and Hamas.

Long Term Strategy

One way or another, the United States needs to reconcile with Iran. It would be better if it happened before Iran acquired nuclear weapons, but it should surely happen afterward (though reconciling immediately after could set a bad example). A friendly relationship with Iran could be highly beneficial to the United States. Just think how useful they could be right now in Iraq and Afghanistan, not to mention America’s war with al-Qaeda. Also, if America had Iran, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia as allies, it could really make our nation’s transition to post-oil that much smoother. Like it or not, the U.S. faces heavy competition for resources from the emerging giants of Brazil, India, and China, and having the aforementioned Middle Eastern countries locked down as allies would secure America’s access to petroleum in the days after peak oil.

Another beneficial move would be to increase America’s ties with Turkey. Turkey is a large Muslim nation situated in a key geographic region between East and West. Turkey, a long time member of NATO, has always had a foot in both camps, but lately it seems to be shifting to the East as a way to assert itself. Turkey has proven itself over the years to be an honest broker of sorts when it comes to diplomacy, as it has facilitated negotiations between Syria and Israel, as well as brokering the current deal (with the help of Brazil) to enrich uranium for Iran. Turkey would be a strategic ally in ensuring Europe’s access to natural gas. This natural gas would come from Iran, which in turn would provide Europe with an alternative to Russian natural gas. This would weaken Russia’s hand strategically, which is always nice.

Today, Washington’s key ally in the Middle East is Israel, but that relationship is becoming more trouble than it is worth. This is not to say that Israel is not a friend of the U.S. or that we should not support the Jewish State as we would any ally, it’s just that the benefits that America gets for its special relationship with Israel need to be closely evaluated against other possibilities as we enter a critical juncture in American history. A closer relationship with Turkey and reconciliation with Iran would have many long term strategic benefits for the United States, and this needs to be weighed honestly against what Israel brings to the table. Also, closer ties with Turkey and Iran do not necessarily have to come at the expense of Israel. Obviously Israel loses by not having its American big brother take its side in every conflict, but prudent U.S. foreign policy should be guided by national interests and not by guilt or sentimentality.

The decisions that the United States will make over the next ten years will have a direct effect on the next hundred years in terms of America’s place in the world. The too-brief period when America was the lone world superpower is coming to an end and Washington needs to carefully evaluate how it proceeds from here. Who are our true friends? Who do we want to be our new friends? What do we have to gain by being hostile to certain states and not hostile enough to others?

It is easy to beat the drum of America being too dependent on oil, but it is. However, this is not the problem. The problem is that the rest of the world is too, and state competition for resources causes conflict. Sometime over the next fifty years or so we will likely start running out of oil, and America’s access to cheap, readily available energy is absolutely critical to United States national security. From here on out, it behooves us to proceed with great caution.

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Hizballah vs Israel, Part II

5 02 2010

 

 

Katyusha Rocket

by Patrick Vibert

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

These are good days for Lebanon. The country is relatively stable, stocks are up, and the tourists are back. The government is semi-functional, business is booming, and construction is everywhere. The people of Lebanon are showing the world what they are capable of when their country is not at war. But many Lebanese are fearful that this peace will not last; that it is only a matter of time before Israeli bombs rain down on Lebanon once again.

In for a penny, in for a pound

Recently, all sides have upped the ante. Israel proclaimed that it will hold all of Lebanon accountable for the actions of Hizballah. In return, the Lebanese government declared that Hizballah was a legitimate defender of Lebanon. Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, seeing no way out of these trouble waters, decided to wade into them chest deep. And with that, Hariri put the safety and stability of all Lebanon in the hands of Hizballah.

Many believe that one of the major factors that led to the 2006 War was that Hizballah was eager to prove its usefulness in the wake of Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000 and the end of Syrian occupation in 2005. There were UN resolutions calling for the disarmement of Hizballah, and suddenly they had no cover from Syria and no one to “resist” against.

You would think that two occupiers leaving your country would be a good thing, but counter-intuitively this was highly destabilizing for Lebanon.  It caused an internal rift between Hizballah and the government over the disarmament issue, and created the need for Hizballah to prove its “usefulness” to Lebanon. Officially declaring Hizballah’s weapons to be part of Lebanon’s defense negated both those issues.

This was a shrewd move for the young Prime Minister, who is quickly proving his ability to negotiate the complex political landscapes of Lebanon and the Middle East. By accepting the reality of Hizballah’s arms, he pulled the group deeper into the political establishment thereby increasing their responsibility for the safety of Lebanon, and conversely, their culpability for its destruction.

The new Cold War

The way things stand today, Israel is unlikely to attack unless provoked, and Hizballah is unlikely to provide that provocation. This tense and tenuous state of affairs has held so far, but if it fails, the result would likely leave Lebanon in complete ruin, even more so than the 2006 conflict.

On the surface, Israel and Hizballah seem like two scorpions in a glass jar, but this may not be the case. Some analysts speculate that the least spark could set the situation ablaze. However, recent events have shown that it will take more than a tiny spark to reignite this fire.

Periodically, over the last year, rockets were launched into Israel from Lebanon, likely originating from militant Lebanese Palestinians. If Israel wanted to, it could have used these rocket attacks as a pretext for another war, but it didn’t. No one was killed, Hizballah said they didn’t do it, and that was that. It will likely take an offense on the level of what set everything off in 2006 (when Hizballah killed a handful of Israeli soldiers and took two of them into Lebanon) to start another war.

Again, the way things stand today, a repeat of that scenario is unlikely.

Syria gets involved

A wild card in this scenario is Syria. Just last week, Israeli analysts were recommending that any strike against Hizballah be widened to include Syria. This is because almost everything that Hizballah has in terms of weapons and cash either comes either from Syria, or from Iran through Syria.

While cutting off an opposing army’s ability to rearm itself has historically been of strategic importance,  it might not apply in this case. Hizballah has already completely restocked its itself with everything that it will need for another conflict with Israel. If the IDF gets involved with Hizballah again, and Hizballah exhausts its weapons supplies, that will mean that the conflict had probably drawn itself out to a duration the Israel is likely to be very uncomfortable with. It is unclear whether Israel is even capable of sustaining Hizballah long enough for the Resistance to necessitate reaming itself.

The whole makeup of the IDF is geared towards quick and devastating preemptive strikes, not intense, long and drawn out conflicts. Some may point to the thirty-year occupation of Lebanon as proof that the IDF can sustain itself in hostile territory for long periods of time, but that was an entirely different case. Israel originially invaded Lebanon because the PLO was using it as a base of attack. Israel invaded June 1982 and the PLO was expelled September of that same year. In just four months, the IDF had reached its primary objective.

Historically though, even four months is a long time for Israel. The Six Day War of 1967 comes to mind, but also the Yom Kippur War of 1973 lasted less than a month. Flash forward to Israel’s 2006 War with Hizballah, which itself lasted only34 days. If Syria gets involved, or more precisely, if Israel involves Syria, it could prolong the conflict to a duration that Israel just is not comfortable with. Hizballah already has its weapons, and the IDF will likely have its hands full with them without getting Syria into the mix.

One thing that must be considered, however, is the strength of the Syrian defenses. Syria uses less-than-state-of-the-art weapons and defense systems, some of it having come from the Soviet Union  back when there was such a thing. In 1967, a time when Israeli forces were not nearly as advanced as they are today, the IDF laid waste to the Syrian Air Force before it even left the ground.

More recently in 2007, the Israeli Air Force traveled deep into Syrian air space and destroyed suspected nuclear weapons sites. Syria was completely taken by surprise, its air defense system completely failed, and to this day Syria has not responded.

It is not that far of a stretch to imagine the IDF doing the exact same thing today, with the same result. In this scenario, there would be a simultaneous attack on Hizballah (or more accurately, Lebanon) and Syria, and when the smoke cleared, only Hizballah would be still fighting.

Hizballah vs Israel, Part II

Whether or not Syria “gets involved”, it is likely that another war between Hizballah and Israel would last longer than 34 days. First, the 2006 War only stopped because Israel withdrew, as Hizballah showed no signs of slowing down. That time, Hizballah was estimated to have about 16,000 rockets as well as a few anti-tank and anti-ship missiles. Today however, the group is believed to be much more prepared (as are the Israelis, no doubt). In addition to more than doubling its Katyusha rocket stash to over 40,000 strong, Hizballah has also likely acquired more sophisticated weapons, and higher quantities of them.

Katyusha rockets are highly inaccurate and only travel several kilometers. Still though, a barrage of several thousand was bound to do some damage. If reports are true, Hizballah now has more advanced rockets that can travel further and hit their targets.

In a situation where Tel Aviv and points south are taking direct rocket fire and suffering multiple casualties, how long can the IDF sustain an attack against Hizballah? Over 1,400 Israeli lives were lost in 2006. Is Israel ready to accept a death toll in that neighborhood again? Also in 2006, the IDF was never able to stop Hizballah’s rocket assault, and Hizballah generals are believed to have never lost communication with their front lines. What makes Israel think  that this time will be different, when Hizballah has had over three years to plan and prepare?

The result of another war between Hizballah and Israel would be terrifying for all involved. Lebanon would likely be destroyed beyond recognition, and Israel would likely suffer damages and casualties that it has not seen in generations, if ever. Just as the concept of Mutually Assured Destruction kept the USA and USSR out of a nuclear war, maybe it will also keep Hizballah and Israel from once again squaring off.





Disarming Lebanon’s Palestinian Militias

21 01 2010

Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri and Syrian President Bashar Assad

by Patrick Vibert

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

The Lebanese government recently issued a policy statement that declared Hizballah’s arms to be a legitimate part of the country’s defenses. In 2006, Hizballah managed to repel an attack from Israel, albeit one that the Party itself had incited. Still, many Lebanese view Israel as the biggest external threat to their safety and national security, and view Hizballah as their most capable defender.

Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s government did not have many options when it made its endorsement of Hizballah. The choices were between trying to disarm the group, tabling the issue for the future, and embracing the Party and its weapons. The first option was a not viable, because at this point Hizballah is not willing to disarm on its own, and the Lebanses Armed Forces (LAF) is incapable of disarming them by force. The second choice, procrastination, was also not feasible because the issue was sure to cause friction and controversy in the future, and would obstruct any government progress until it was settled. So Hariri did they only thing he could by legalizing Hizballah’s  weapons. This way, Hizballah will likely be more cooperative in the future because the groups insecurity has been assuaged. Or so the thinking goes.

The parties that are most upset about this are the United States and Israel, but this won’t really affect the former’s relationship with Lebanon, and the latter all but forced Hariri’s hand into this deal. In November, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak issued a statement that Israel would hold all of Lebanon accountable for the actions of Hizballah. So, with Hariri being unable to disarm the group, unable to accomplish anything without their cooperation, and faced with the prospect of Lebanon and Hizballah’s fate being one in the same in Israel’s eyes, Hariri decided that he couldn’t beat Hizballah and that he was going to join them, so to speak.

No country wants independent militias operating within its territory, and Hariri must have swallowed hard when he made his deal with Hizballah Secretary General Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah. That brings us to Lebanon’s Palestinians.

There are between 250,000 and 400,000 Palestinian refugees living  in Lebanon. Most of them live in camps, and there is agreement with the government that, for the most part, the LAF does not enter the camps and that security in the camps is provided by the Palestinians themselves.

It’s akin to the United States’ relationship with the Native Americans. They have special rules and polices for the reservations, and they are allowed a lot of leeway in terms of how how they operate.  For most crimes, if you get in trouble on the reservation, you have to answer to the tribe. However, crimes committed outside of the reservations are subject to normal US laws.

This seems acceptable as long as whatever arms the Palestinian’s maintain are for security purposes only, and that the armed groups  stay within the camps . The problem is that there are a number of militant groups operating in the camps who answer to  different people, who have far more weapons than they would need for mere security enforcement in the camps, and some of the groups even still operate openly outside of the camps.

Some groups represent only the Lebanese Palestinians or the camp that they are in, but others have different masters. Fatah al-Intifada and the PFLP-GC are backed by Syria, and other groups remain loyal to Hamas or Fatah in the Palestinian Occupied Territories.

Due to the history of Lebanon, particularly the last 30 years, people may think that it is natural and reasonable for assorted militias to still be operating in Lebanon. The PLO was there, the Syrians were there, Hizballah is there, and all these Palestinian militias are there. But what other stable and modern nation on Earth would allow not one, but possibly dozens of militias to operate  within its borders? And why is it acceptable for Lebanon?

In most countries, the government maintains a monopoly on the use of force. Due to the previously mentioned circumstances the Lebanese government had to hand part of the monopoly over Hizballah. Call it an “oligopoly of force”. In that case, Hariri didn’t have much of a choice, but with the Palestinian militants, he does.

The PLO wreaked havoc on Lebanon when it used the country as a battlefield in its war with Israel. The group had already worn out its welcome in Jordan, and in Lebanon the story was more of the same. Today, the Lebanese have  mixed feelings towards the Lebanese Palestinians. They sympathize with them in their plight, but they are still resentful from all the destruction that their leadership wrought upon Lebanon.

It is not in Lebanon’s interest to have independent militias operating within its borders, and disarming them should be seen as a measure to improve security and stability. The Palestinians that live in the camps are very poor and live in awful conditions, and there is a high unemployment rate among young men there. This is the recipe for breeding extremism and unrest.

One can’t help but to draw comparisons with Hizballah. Hizballah was formed by marginalized Lebanese who wanted to improve their situation and be a resistance to Israel. Although Hizballah is influenced by its patrons in Damascus and Tehran, the group maintains it independence, especially in relation to the Lebanese government. Some people claim that Hizballah, with its extra-governmental militia, makes Lebanon less secure, not more.

But there are many differences to be considered as well. To begin with, fair or unfair, the Palestinians are Palestinians and not Lebanese, and that makes the militias  foreign entities. And Hizballah represents a large portion of Lebanese voters, while the Palestinian organizations represent zero Lebanese voters.  Disarming Hizballah is politically untenable, while disarming the Palestinian militias has broad support. Hizballah is the most capable group in Lebanon to defend against an attack from Israel, while the Palestinian militias would likely offer little more than fearless yet token resistance.

For Hariri, disarming the various Palestinian militant groups is a viable option, while disarming Hizballah is a practical impossibility. And while it might be acceptable to allow the Palestinian groups in the camps to keep their weapons, having Palestinian militias operating outside the camps throughout Lebanon is not. In 2007, Fatah al-Intafada was involved in a battle with government forces that left hundreds dead and destroyed the Nahr el-Bared refugee camp. This incident illustrates just how unstable the situation has become and how much the government needs to get things under control.

This is where Hariri needs help, and here he should cash in on his deal with Hizballah to get it. For the sake of national harmony, Hariri acquiesced to Hizballah by stating formally that Hizballah is Lebanon’s legitimate defender from Israel.  So if the LAF and the other government agencies are handling the remainder of Lebanese national security, where do the Palestinian militias fit in to the equation? Hizballah has pattern of respecting the legitimacy and the jurisdiction of the LAF, so it would be interesting to hear the group take a  stance on this issue that would be favorable to the government.

Complicating matters is that, as previously mentioned, Fatah al-Intafada and the PFLP-GC are Syrian creations, so there will be some resistance coming from Damascus. Lebanese leaders should be less affected by Syrian influence than in years previous,  however, even though the Syrian army was expelled from Lebanon in 2005,  Syrian President Bashar Assad has shown no signs of accepting a diminished role for his nation there. Recently, the Lebanese government has been talking up the notion of disarming the militias, but when Fatah al-Intafada stated that it was open to negotiations, the government responded grimly by telling the group that “Lebanon’s sovereignty cannot be negotiated”, to which the group responded that it would not disarm. This exchange should be seen in the context of the Syrian-Lebanese relationship, and is thoroughly examined here by the Daily Star’s Michael Young.

Indeed, Hariri just made his first trip to Damascus since becoming Prime Minister. His meeting with President Assad must have been sureal, as Hariri believes that the Syrian president is behind his father’s assassination. Hariri must have had to do a lot of tongue biting on his trip, and he did it for the good of Lebanon. But maybe this tough stance taken against the Palestinian militias, some of which are direct Syrian agents, is all just a stern-but-subtle diplomatic rebellion, a sign that Hariri may be willing to deal with Syria, but that he has not forgotten that they are behind his father’s death.

The Lebanese government made a deal with Hizballah allowing the group to keep its weapons and share the responsibility for Lebanon’s security with the LAF. This means that between Hizballah and the LAF, Lebanon’s safety is covered.  Where do the armed Palestinian groups fit in? And is it worth it for Lebanon to have these groups  operating within its borders? These groups don’t have the organization or the discipline that Hizballah has, and they do not represent any Lebanese. Indeed, two of the most prominent groups answer to Syria. So now, an expression of dissatisfaction with them becomes an expression of dissatisfaction with Syrian influence in Lebanon. And this is where things get interesting.

Will Hizballah go along with the Lebanese government, or will they do the bidding of Damascus? After the Lebanese government officially legitimized them as a defender of Lebanon, will Hizballah state that there is room for other militias in Lebanon too? Hizballah’s leaders are extremely wily, but are they heading for a point where they may have to declare there allegiance to Lebanon or risk being exposed as foreign agents? Does Lebanon have the independence and does Hariri have the political will to resist the power of Damascus? Which side will Hizballah come down on? Only time will tell. The old Hizballah, if there is such a thing, might have come out with a statement supporting the other militias as brothers in arms against the Zionist entity. But today Hizballah members make up a large part of the government, and they fought hard to have their armed forces declared legitimate.

As this situation plays itself out in Lebanon, we should keep in mind that Hariri’s rejection of the militias represents his rejection of Syrian influence. Perhaps the young Prime Minister is just using the militias as a bargaining chip for some other end, but it’s clear that their presence is a blow to Lebanese sovereignty and a threat to Lebanon’s stability.