Hizballah’s Push for Power

The Guardian- 16/11/2006

Earlier this month, Hizballah General-Secretary Hassan Nasrallah issued an ultimatum to the Lebanese government of Fuad Siniora. Either, Nasrallah declared, his movement and its allies are granted a one-third blocking veto in the Lebanese Cabinet, or Hizballah supporters will be sent onto the streets to begin a campaign of public pressure. The Lebanese government understood the Hizballah threat as an attempt to prevent government approval of a proposal for an international tribunal to try those suspected of responsibility in the murder of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

The expiry date for the ultimatum has now passed. And five Shia ministers have resigned from the cabinet (along with one Christian associate of pro-Syrian President Emil Lahoud.)

Siniora, meanwhile, has called Hizballah’s bluff, mustering his depleted cabinet to approve the proposal for the establishment of the tribunal. And Lebanon is now nervously awaiting the next move from Hizballah, with the prospect of civil strife looming closer.

The Hizballah leader’s threat should not be seen as mere posturing. Rather, when taken together with the latest developments in Lebanon’s southern border area, it offers evidence that the Shi-ite movement is pursuing a joint military and political strategy which is now seriously threatening the shaky foundations of political order in Lebanon, and which may yet lead to renewed confrontation with Israel.

Southern Lebanon suffered very great damage in this summer’s war between Hizballah and Israel. Over 1,000 Lebanese were killed, and billions of dollars worth of losses incurred. But strategically, by surviving, Hizballah was able to cast the war as an achievement. And while discontent among non-Shia Lebanese is running high at having their country used as a launching-pad for the schemes of Hizballah and its regional backers, there are no indications that the movement has suffered any decline among its core constituency.

It was widely expected that the period following the conclusion of this summer’s war would see Hizballah holding back for a while, seeking to re-stock and replenish. But the latest developments suggest a greater urgency. Hizballah and its backers are currently riding a wave of adulation in much of the region for their perceived defiance of the west. Some have likened the current atmosphere to the fervent popular support for Saddam across the region after he invaded Kuwait in 1990. There have even been comparisons with the heyday of Arab nationalism in the 1950s and 1960s.

Hizballah and its patrons are men of calculation, as well as fervor. And the movement’s latest ratcheting up of the tension in Lebanon has its immediate roots in realpolitik. Destabilizing the Siniora government at the present time would serve to severely complicate the implementation of UN Resolution 1701 (rapidly becoming a dead letter thanks to the successful Syrian and Hizballah intimidation of international forces). And Syrian fears of the Hariri tribunal also undoubtedly play a key role in the timing of the latest provocations.

But these details should not obscure the larger picture. Hizballah’s latest agitation is evidence that the movement now considers itself a serious contender for power in Lebanon.

And, in the strategy being pursued by the movement, military activity goes hand in hand with political. Each strengthening the other.

Thus, reports indicate that Hizballah is stepping-up its campaign to re-build its damaged military infrastructure along the southern border area. This is taking place under the noses of the 12,000 strong UNIFIL force in the area. In open defiance of the calls for it to disarm in UN Security Council Resolutions 1559 and 1701, Hizballah is using reconstruction efforts as a cover for re-building the intricate system of tunnels and bunkers in Lebanon’s south which it used to telling effect in the summer war.

There is no evidence of serious effort by UNIFIL forces to interfere with this process. The UN forces have made clear that disarming Hizballah is not part of their mandate. The Lebanese army, meanwhile, as has been clear from the start, has neither the will nor the ability to act against Nasrallah’s men. The result is that the main role currently being played by UNIFIL is to act as a 12,000-strong armed audience to Hizballah’s rebuilding of its military capability in the south.

So – destabilization in the capital and rearmament in the south. Twin elements in a strategy designed to remove all obstacles to the ultimate objective of power. Power to be used in the pursuit of the radical Shia Islamist goals shared by Nasrallah and his patrons in the Teheran of the Ayatollahs.

The war between Hizballah and Israel in 2006 was inconclusive. It failed to settle the basic issue which lay behind its outbreak: An armed Islamist movement had succeeded in wresting partial sovereignty from the elected government in Beirut. It had acquired control over part of the sovereign territory of Lebanon, and the administration of that country’s southern border. And it was determined to use this capacity to pursue its own, unilaterally decided upon foreign policy. Hizballah was damaged but not destroyed in the war. Failure to insist on the permanent and total disarming of the movement has created an opening which Nasrallah is now aggressively seeking to widen.

Hizballah cannot be integrated into the peaceful, democratic political system desired by many Lebanese. The movement’s raison d’etre is the aggressive promotion of an absolutist idea. For as long as the advance of this movement remains unchecked, stability in Lebanon and between Lebanon and Israel will be an impossibility. The question now is whether Hizballah’s external and internal opponents will find the political will to act – decisively, and soon.

About jonathanspyer

Jonathan Spyer is a Middle East analyst, author and journalist specializing in the areas of Israel, Syria and broader issues of regional strategy. He is the director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and analysis (MECRA), a research fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for strategy and Security (JISS) and a Fellow at the Middle East Forum.
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