The Saban Center for Middle East Policy held a policy luncheon with Judith Palmer Harik, President of Matn University in Lebanon, to discuss Hizballah (the “Party of God”) and its political assets and resources before and after the war during July-August 2006 with Israel. Daniel Byman, Saban Center Senior Fellow, responded to Harik’s presentation. Martin Indyk, Saban Center Director, chaired the event.
Harik began with an overview of Lebanon’s current political crisis in Lebanon. She described the agendas of the two opposing coalitions, the first led by Prime Minister Fouad Siniora and Parliamentary Majority leader Saad Hariri (the “March 14” forces, named after the date of the massive anti-Syrian demonstration of 2005). Hizballah leads the second. According to Harik, Hizballah’s capacity to foil all efforts to disarm it by the March 14 forces and their foreign allies, depends on the organization’s endurance.
Harik provided a general examination of the geo-political factors involved in Hizballah’s emergence and those shaping the present crisis. She then laid out the resources that Hizballah had generated and explained how the organization is using these assets to achieve its strategic goals in Lebanon and the Middle East. Finally, she described the dynamics of Lebanon’s upcoming presidential election and its implications for Hizballah’s ability to endure, viability of the Lebanese state and the policy of foreign powers in Lebanon.
According to Harik, Hizballah emerged fundamentally as a result of the active support of the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini of Iran and the late President Hafiz al-Asad of Syria. She argued that their shared objective in forming the Shi’i organization, despite the specific gains each separately derived, was to oppose U.S. hegemony in the Middle East and the end Israeli occupation of Arab lands. From this perspective, the present political stalemate in Beirut, between the March 14 forces and the Hizballah-led bloc backed by Syria and Iran, is a consequence of Damascus’s ongoing efforts to regain influence in Lebanon and Tehran’s desire to shape the Middle Eastern balance of power.
Hizballah’s “power resources”, according to Harik, consist mainly of its military capabilities, political capital, social services, political legitimacy, and foreign support. The 2006 war with Israel proved that Hizballah was a tough nut to crack. Hizballah was prepared for the war as it had fought the Israeli army and its surrogates in southern Lebanon for close to twenty years with classical guerilla warfare tactics and with Iranian and Syrian supplied weapons.
Harik argued that Hizballah cannot be disarmed. The Lebanese Army’s confessional structure, sixty percent of the troops are Shi’i according to Harik, prevents it from tackling Hizballah. It is also doubtful that Israel or any other foreign power, such as the Arab League, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the United States, would engage with Hizballah in another “battle of Beirut” that would probably be worse than that of the early 1980s.
Hizballah’s political assets have developed thanks to the culture of “resistance” that the organization has implanted within the Shi’i community (and a sizeable part of the non-Shi’i Lebanese public). The party’s public and social service delivery networks are key elements. They have grown substantially since 1984 and are centered around “Al-Qard al-Husn”, a Hizballah micro-credit program for the Shi’i community. The ties between Hizballah and its grass roots support are tight thanks to the party’s ideology, institutional outreach, and more than two decades of trustworthy performance, and charismatic leaders.
According to Harik, Hizballah’s domestic and foreign legitimacy stem from its military effectiveness combined with its social services delivery and its leadership’s transformation of the movement into a mainstream party in 1990. The willingness of Iran and Syria to continue political and military support for Hizballah is another vital factor in the organization’s endurance.
Next, Harik discussed the strategies employed by Hizballah and the opposition to confront their political adversaries. These range from political pressures and demonstrations to governmental resignations and threats of civil disobedience. An important part of the strategy of peaceful disobedience, argued Harik, was to make sure it stays non-violent and avoids any communal violence. As events in Lebanon for the past five months have showed, this strategy had mixed results.
Harik then discussed the potential confrontation over the presidential election scheduled for September-November 2007. The March 14 coalition and its Hizballah-led opponents disagree over the interpretation of Article 49, Section 2, of the constitution, which deals with the presidential election. There are three possible consequences of this acute difference of view. The first is that Emile Lahoud, the incumbent, will issue a presidential decree declaring that no legitimate government has existed since November 2006. Lahoud will then form a caretaker government, turning over the presidency to this government in line with Article 79 of the constitution. The second possibility is that the Hizballah-led bloc opposition could proceed to the election of a president without two third of the deputies present to start the process, a tactic that the March 14th coalition might also pursue. The third, which is the worst case scenario according to Harik, is that the opposition lets matters slide even while challenging the election result. In such a scenario, Lebanon’s regions will become separate cantons as they were during the civil war. The exception will be the south and the Biqa’a valley, which are already states within the state and that will continue to be governed and serviced by Hizballah and its Shi’i rival and ally, Amal. Large-scale violence is unlikely, aside from an intra-Christian struggle between Lebanese Forces chief Samir Ga’ga’ and Free Patriotic Party leader Michel ‘Aoun.
Harik concluded by arguing that Israel missed an opportunity to defeating Syria’s allies in Lebanon during the war with Hizballah in 2006. Instead, the outcome of the war all but guaranteed Hizballah’s staying power and consequently the continued weakness and possibly even failure of the Lebanese state.
Daniel Byman focused upon Hizballah’s influence outside of Lebanon. Byman believes that Hizballah is stronger abroad than at home, especially after the 2006 war with Israel. He argued that despite potential miscalculations by both sides, neither Israel nor Hizballah has any intention of provoking a massive crisis, making a renewal of the war unlikely. Nonetheless, there are two reasons why Hizballah might provoke a confrontation with Israel, however highly unlikely they might be: the first would be in response to an effort to disarm the organization, and the second in the event of the creation of a strong and openly anti-Syrian government in Lebanon.
Byman argued that Israel’s deterrence posture, contrary to what ordinary Israelis believe, is still credible in Lebanon and the Middle East. Most political actors in the region, including sub-state actors like Hizballah, recognize Israel’s continued military prowess, in particular on the conventional level.
Inter-sectarian bloodshed in Iraq, Byman said, is damaging Hizballah’s relations with Lebanese Sunnis. At the same time, Sunni jihadists in Lebanon view Hizballah as a rival in their fight against the Western powers and the United States.
Byman also argued that Hizballah’s relations with its state sponsors have changed significantly. Hizballah has gone from being a Syrian proxy to a partner. This shift has an important implication for U.S. foreign policy in that it demonstrates that Syria has become more vulnerable, making the need for U.S. and Israeli engagement less pressing.
Byman believes that the United States is in a weaker position today vis-à-vis Hizballah because of the organization’s influence in Iraq, where it can inflict damage on U.S. forces. Hizballah has ties to Iraqi insurgent groups and has been able to send a limited number of fighters to the Iraqi battlefield.
In conclusion, Byman argued that Hizballah’s popularity abroad allows it to influence the legitimacy of Arab governments. As a result of such popularity, Arab leaders are increasingly reluctant to pick a fight with Hizballah, with or without U.S. support, especially after the 2006 war during which they openly condemned the organization to little effect.