Iraq’s descent into civil war and Iran’s growing influence in the Middle East have dominated discussions throughout Washington’s foreign policy community. Many have viewed and interpreted these developments from the prism of a growing divide between Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims. In fact, this notion of a factional rift within the Middle East—bolstered by the sectarian bloodletting in Iraq; the lack of support by Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia for Hizb’allah in its fight with Israel last summer; and the perception among Sunni Arab leaders that an Iran-led “Shi’ite Crescent” has descended across the region—has been so prevalent in Washington that many have looked at events in Lebanon through that same prism.
The crisis in Lebanon is perceived from the outside to be a sectarian clash pitting a Sunni-led governing coalition under the direction of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora and backed by the United States and France, against a Shi’ite-led oppositionist alliance under the command of Hizb’allah and supported by Iran and Syria. To see the Lebanese crisis as that between Sunnis and Shi’ites is to misunderstand a Lebanese conflict that is rooted in historical trends of great complexity. Knowing the multiconfessional nature of inter-communal relations and political alliances Lebanon has enjoyed throughout its history, a basic breakdown of the two competing coalitions unsurprisingly reveals that they not only include supporters from all sects and political walks of life but also essentially rely on their communal heterogeneity to survive and pursue their end goals.
In Lebanon, no actor has challenged and actively undermined the notion of a Sunni-Shi’ite schism more than Hizb’allah. It primarily does so by seeking to portray itself as the leader of a broad based Muslim resistance movement against the United States and its allies not only in Lebanon but throughout the Middle East. Hizb’allah’s successes in last summer’s war with Israel have fed both its ambitions and its image as the preeminent source of defiance to the United States and Israel.
To effectively deal with the challenge posed by Hizb’allah, the United States will need to recognize that the “Party of God” is more than a Shi’ite socio-political organization with considerable military and terrorist potential. Indeed, Washington needs to craft a new policy designed to undermine Hizb’allah’s projected image and counter, using diplomatic tools, its project of “leading the resistance in the Middle East to both the United States and Israel.”