Monday, November 10, 2008

Has Hezbollah's Rise Come at Syria's Expense? Part III


by Robert G. Rabil


3rd part of 3

Patterns and Expectations

While Hezbollah may appear to be operating in Lebanon to safeguard the interests of the Syrian regime, deeper analysis suggests that Hezbollah's actions go beyond either protecting the Syrian regime or forcing the collapse of the Beirut government. Hezbollah has escalated its political brinkmanship far beyond what is needed to counteract the government's policies.

Hezbollah has, for example, changed its position on several sensitive national matters. Hezbollah denied that it ever supported Siniora's seven-point plan to end hostilities between it and Jerusalem in August 2006. It has tried to preempt the Lebanese government from placing the Shebaa Farms under U.N. jurisdiction in the event that Israel withdraws from the territory. After failing on January 23, 2007, to grind transportation to a halt in its attempt to extend authority over the entire country, Hezbollah dropped its demand that the pro-Syrian opposition should possess eleven ministries, giving it an effective veto. This is not a good sign: Rather than compromise with the Siniora government, Hezbollah is staking out a more maximalist position to eschew cooperation and instead dominate the country and transform its political character into an Iranian-style fundamentalist state. Nasrallah's speech of April 8, 2007, in which he sarcastically questioned whether or not to give the majority forces of the current government one-third of the cabinet seats in the forthcoming legislative elections, attests to his ambition to dominate Lebanon.[42]

To accomplish this, Hezbollah and its allies have called for more "democratic" measures, which they believe would advance the group's power: early national elections, direct presidential elections, and policy by referendum.[43] As the Shi‘a claim a plurality, Hezbollah believes that such measures could translate into irreversible power. At the same time, the group couples its quest for such reforms with its traditional reliance on military measures. Naim Qassem, Hezbollah's deputy secretary-general, brags that Hezbollah has "rebuilt its defenses in a way to respond to any new Israeli attack."[44] By keeping Lebanon in constant sociopolitical and military flux, Hezbollah believes it can whittle away at the power of the majority.

Against this backdrop, it becomes difficult to conceive that Damascus is behind Hezbollah's political challenge. This is not to deny that Damascus could use its agents in Lebanon to wreak havoc. But the reality is that Damascus—in contrast to the 1980s and 1990s—can no longer match its ability to inflict damage on Lebanon with an ability to force the major parties in the country (particularly Hezbollah) to reconcile as it did in 1989 when it helped broker the Ta'if accord. Syria's role in Lebanon today is far less powerful than it was then.

Rather, it is Tehran that is orchestrating and backing both Hezbollah and Assad's moves. The Iranian government is confident that the Bush administration is in deep crisis in the Middle East and will not be able to regain its capacity to "manage" the region before its term ends in January 2009. It also feels secure in its new influence in Lebanon where Tehran's agents have consolidated a state within a state. Here, the Islamic Republic has adopted Damascus's former role in the country and is sending a message to Washington as well as to Arab capitals that there can be no resolution to the crisis in Lebanon without Iranian involvement.

Robert G. Rabil is director of graduate studies and an assistant professor of political science at Florida Atlantic University. His most recent book is Syria, the United States, and the War on Terror in the Middle East (Praeger, 2006).

Copyright - Original materials copyright (c) by the authors.



[1] Judith Palmer Harik, Hezbollah: The Changing Face of Terrorism (London: I.B. Tauris, 2004), p. 38.
[2] Robert Baer, "It's Not Syria's Problem Anymore," Newsweek International, Aug. 14, 2006.
[3] Ibid; Magnus Ranstorp, Hizb'allah in Lebanon: The Politics of the Western Hostage Crisis (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1997), pp. 99-100.
[4] For a Hezbollah account of the incident, see Naim Qassem, Hizbullah: The Story from Within (London: Saqi, 2005), p. 240.
[5] Robert G. Rabil, "The Evolution of Hizbollah-Syrian Relations," paper presented at the Center for Naval Analyses (CNA CORP), Oct. 27, 2006 and at the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, CNO Executive Panel, U.S. Department of Navy, Nov. 17, 2006.
[6] Harik, Hezbollah, pp. 43-52.
[7] Gary C. Gambill, "Syria and the Shebaa Farms Dispute," Middle East Intelligence Bulletin, May 2001.
[8] As-Safir (Beirut), Mar. 27, 2003.
[9] Alfred B. Prados, Syria: U.S. Relations and Bilateral Issues, Congressional Research Service (Washington: The Library of Congress, Oct. 10, 2003), p. 6.
[10] Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act of 2003, Public Law 108–175, Dec. 12, 2003.
[11] U.N. Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1559, Sept. 2, 2004.
[12] Daily Star (Beirut), Jan. 29, Feb. 3, 2006.
[13] Peter Fitzgerald, "Report of the Fact-finding Mission to Lebanon Inquiring into the Causes, Circumstances and Consequences of the Assassination of Former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri," United Nations, New York, Mar. 24, 2005; Detlev Mehlis, "Report of the International Independent Investigation Commission Established Pursuant to Security Council Resolution 1595 (2005)," United Nations, New York, Oct. 21, 2005 (hereafter "Mehlis Report.")
[14] Interviews by the author with a senior Lebanese army official and political activist, Beirut, June 30, July 10, 2006.
[15] Interview by the author with a senior Lebanese army official, Beirut, July 10, 2006; An-Nahar (Beirut), Mar. 3, 2005.
[16] Lahoud's statements on Lebanese Broadcasting Company International (LBCI) May 28, 29, 30, 2006.
[17] See U.N. Security Council S/Res/1636 (2005) and S/Res/1644 (2005); "Mehlis Report."
[18] Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA, Tehran), Feb. 29, 2004.
[19] Daily Star (Beirut), Jan. 20, 2006.
[20] An-Nahar, Mar. 13, 2007.
[21] Al-Mustaqbal (Beirut), June 5, 2006.
[22] Interview by the author with a senior Lebanese army official, Beirut, July 10, 2006.
[23] Emile El-Hokayem, "Hizballah and Syria: Outgrowing the Proxy Relationship," The Washington Quarterly, Spring 2007.
[24] Jihad al-Zein's letter, An-Nahar, July 26, 2006.
[25] An-Nahar, Aug. 7, 2006, in Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), Special Dispatch Series, no. 1258, Aug. 22, 2006.
[26] An-Nahar, Aug. 16, Sept. 25, Dec. 2, 2006; United Press International, Nov. 20, 2006.
[27] An-Nahar, Aug. 28, 2006.
[28] "Winograd Commission Interim Report," Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Apr. 30, 2007; Ha'artez (Tel Aviv), May 18, 2007.
[29] Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA, Damascus), Aug. 15, 2006.
[30] UNSCR 1559, Sept. 2, 2004; UNSCR 1701, Aug. 11, 2006.
[31] An-Nahar, Mar. 10, 2007.
[32] Al-Manar television (Beirut), Nov. 30, 2006.
[33] Al-Mustaqbal, Nov. 30, 2006.
[34] As-Safir, Jan. 24, 25, 2007; An-Nahar, Jan. 24, 25, 2007.
[35] An-Nahar, Feb. 9, 2007.
[36] As-Safir, July 26, 2005.
[37] As-Siyassa (Kuwait), Mar. 6, 2007.
[38] BBC News, May 21, 2007; Al-Jazeera (Riyadh), May 20, 2007.
[39] See Nasrallah speech, Al-Intiqad (Beirut), Apr. 11, 2007.
[40] Al-Intiqad, May 18, 2007.
[41] Al-Jazeera, May 30, 2007;, May 10, 2007.
[42] Al-Intiqad, Apr. 11, 2007.
[43] An-Nahar, Apr. 10, May 1, 2007.
[44] An-Nahar, May 6, 2007.


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