Friday, January 23, 2009

Nasrallah's Defeat in the 2006 War - Assessing Hezbollah's Influence Part I


by Eyal Zisser

1st part of 2

On the night of February 12, 2008, a car bomb in Damascus killed Imad Mughniyeh, the head of Hezbollah's military wing. The assassination shattered the legend of Hezbollah's invincibility. Intelligence services of at least forty countries had pursued Mughniyeh for decades, and he had succeeded in evading them all. His elusiveness substantiated Hezbollah's claim that its enemies had no hope of finding cracks in the group's network or in the ranks of its faithful. Mughniyeh's death destroyed that myth. Since that fateful Tuesday, every child in Lebanon knows that whoever got Mughniyeh will be able to get to Hasan Nasrallah, Hezbollah's secretary-general, as well.

At Mughniyeh's Beirut funeral, Nasrallah blamed Israel for the assassination and said the group's revenge would not be slow in coming.[1] His emotive response is understandable. Not only was Mughniyeh's death a severe blow to Hezbollah—he was the group's terror mastermind and chief military strategist—but the shattering of the legend of Mughniyeh also lowered Hezbollah's standing and morale.


Nasrallah in a Tight Spot

For years, it has been customary to view Nasrallah as one of the canniest players in the Middle East. Under his leadership, Hezbollah achieved major successes and established itself as the leader of the Lebanese Shi'i community and as the most capable terrorist group threatening Israel. Nasrallah became a respected leader not only to many Lebanese Shi'a but also to Arabs and Muslims far beyond Lebanon's borders.

Nasrallah built Hezbollah into an organization standing on two pillars. One pillar is its powerful, armed militia that focuses on the struggle with Israel, and the other is the organization's political and social activities, which aim to improve the lot of the Lebanese Shi'a and, eventually, challenge the existing order in the country on behalf of the Shi'i community. During the 1990s, Hezbollah became the leading power among the Lebanese Shi'a, eclipsing the Amal movement thanks to the social, economic, and political infrastructure Hezbollah had developed. Election results to the Lebanese parliament and the local municipalities demonstrate this superiority. Since 2000, many in Lebanon and abroad have begun to suspect that Nasrallah seeks to take power in Lebanon by democratic means, exploiting the fact that his Shi'i supporters constitute the largest community in the country, perhaps 35 to 45 percent of the total population.[2] Indeed, following the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, Nasrallah began calling for the implementation in Lebanon of a democratic system such as the Americans had brought to Iraq.[3]

Despite his shrewdness, Nasrallah has been a compulsive gambler for whom only one step separates success from catastrophe. For many years, he won, but in the summer of 2006, his winning streak was broken. First, he kidnapped two Israeli soldiers, Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser, sparking war with Israel; second, he chose after that war to challenge the Lebanese government of Fouad Siniora, plunging Lebanon into a long crisis and Hezbollah into the murky waters of Lebanese politics.

Nasrallah's gambles have transformed Hezbollah's identity and standing. The group gained the respect of many Lebanese, Arabs, and Muslims as it acquired the sheen of victory as a resistance movement. Now, however dominant Hezbollah is, it is developing into just another Lebanese political party, corrupted by its participation in day-to-day politics. Yet inside Lebanon, its record includes the terrible destruction it brought on the country through its unilateral actions. Worse, it is viewed increasingly as a narrowly-focused Shi'i force serving as a tool, if not a fifth column, of Iran with the aim of advancing a host of Iranian interests—inside Lebanon, against Israel, and across the Sunni divide.[4]

Two years after Hezbollah's war with Israel, Lebanon is a divided country teetering on the verge of a civil war that is largely a result of Hezbollah's bellicosity toward Israel and its refusal to submit itself to the domain of politics with the rest of Lebanon. Hezbollah itself is a battered and bruised organization struggling to regain its standing inside Lebanon.

Meanwhile, two other realities are indisputable: First, since the 2006 war, quiet has prevailed along the Israeli-Lebanese border such as has not been known there since the late 1960s, prior to the arrival of Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) forces in Lebanon. This quiet derives above all from Hezbollah's wariness of Israel. The organization is concerned that it and its supporters will not be able to withstand the strain of a new round of fighting. The second reality is Nasrallah's disappearance from public events. Prior to the 2006 war, it was customary for him to participate monthly in more than dozen meetings. For example, in October and November 2005, Al-Manar television and the Lebanese National News Agency reported twenty-eight public meetings, speeches, or media events. His need to remain hidden is a blow to someone who depends on frequent public exposure, and it reinforces the perception of Hezbollah's vulnerability to assassination and sabotage. Indeed, rumors are rife of Iranian dissatisfaction with Nasrallah. On the eve of Mughniyeh's assassination, reports circulated that Tehran had supplanted Nasrallah's leadership with his deputy leader Na'im Qasim.[5] While both Nasrallah and Qasim denied the reports,[6] Iranian disappointment with Nasrallah's conduct during and after the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war and its belief that Nasrallah endangered Iranian interests by his uncalculated behavior has been evident in many reports in both the Lebanese and Arab media.[7]


From Victory to Defeat

In May 2000, Hezbollah reached the highest peak of its existence. On the night of May 24, 2000, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) completed its retreat from the so-called security zone in southern Lebanon, a unilateral withdrawal undertaken without any agreements or commitments with the other side. For Hezbollah, this became both a great victory and a day of celebration.

The IDF retreat from southern Lebanon gave Hezbollah new prestige. The organization was now viewed as the vanguard of the Arab struggle against Israel and as a rising force with a promising future both inside Lebanon and abroad. It was assumed that Hezbollah was destined to play a significant regional role, especially in view of the political and even ideological vacuum that characterized inter-Arab relations. In Israel, there were even some people who expressed concern that Nasrallah had his sights set on becoming a pan-Arab leader of the stature of Gamal Abdul Nasser.[8]

In October 2000, months after the Israeli withdrawal, Hezbollah renewed its attacks on Israeli targets, mainly in the Shebaa Farms region at the foot of Mount Hermon. With Iranian and Syrian help, Hezbollah had developed an impressive military capability that included an arsenal of 12,000 missiles with ranges covering all of northern Israel to Hadera. Hezbollah soon began to encourage and assist terrorist activities carried out by Palestinian organizations against Israel.[9]

Nasrallah has headed the Hezbollah organization since February 1992. His achievements stem both from political astuteness and his deep understanding of the strategic realities of the region. However, Nasrallah's hubris leads him to mistakes. Whatever successes he achieves encourage him to take more gambles. And like any gambler, he eventually lost.

On the morning of July 12, 2006, Hezbollah fighters attacked an IDF patrol moving along the Israeli-Lebanese border. Nasrallah later admitted that he had thought at the time that the Israeli response would be minor, localized, and limited, like past Israeli reactions to similar Hezbollah provocations.[10] Instead, the government of Israel launched an all-out war against Hezbollah.

The war lasted thirty-three days and brought ruin and destruction not witnessed since the end of the Lebanese civil war (1975-90) on the Lebanese side of the border, from the towns and villages in the south to the Shi'i suburbs of Beirut. The fighting killed close to 1,300 Lebanese civilians, together with perhaps 600 Hezbollah fighters. Nearly a million Lebanese became refugees, including most of the Shi'i population of southern Lebanon.[11]

As the war ended, Nasrallah declared that Hezbollah had won a "divine victory."[12] After all, Hezbollah had survived the Israeli assault and had quite a few successes in the fighting such as striking Haifa for the first time since 1948,[13] as well as hitting the Israeli military vessel, Hanit, off the Beirut shore on the evening of July 14, 2006.[14] However, the gains did not outnumber the losses. Hezbollah suffered severe blows during the fighting, hence Nasrallah's admission that if he realized there was even a one percent chance of a sustained military response from Israel, he would not have given orders to kidnap the Israeli soldiers.[15]

In Israel as well as in the West, Nasrallah is too often perceived only as the leader of a terrorist militia with several thousand fighters and rockets that seeks confrontation with Israel. Those who look at Nasrallah through that narrow prism believe that, as Nasrallah continued firing rockets into Israel until the last day of the fighting, he could legitimately be seen as the victor in the confrontation.

However, Nasrallah does not simply see himself as the leader of an army. In both his own eyes and those of his followers, he was a symbol for the entire Arab if not Muslim world.[16] As of July 11, 2006, he was the leader of a political and social movement—probably the largest in Lebanon—with deep roots in the Lebanese Shi'i community. Hezbollah had fourteen representatives in the parliament, more than four thousand representatives in local municipal councils, an education system with dozens of schools and about one hundred thousand students, a health system with dozens of hospitals and clinics caring for half a million people a year, a banking system, marketing chains, and even pension funds and insurance companies. Nasrallah has devoted much of his energy in the last decade to building up his movement, or domestic empire, as it were. He viewed the creation of such an empire as his life's work, which would take him far, possibly even to a contest over the control of Lebanon.[17]

But, Israel set back Nasrallah's efforts. Hezbollah suffered perhaps US$4 billion damage to its institutions and enterprises while the damage caused to Lebanon was perhaps five times more.[18] Despite such a result, Lebanese Shi'a had no choice but to rally around Nasrallah. There was no one else in Lebanon let alone at the U.N. or in the international community who cared about them. Communal Lebanese government leaders focused on the interests of the Sunni, Maronite, and Druze communities even though these communities barely suffered in the war. However, the damage inflicted on the Shi'a clearly reduced Nasrallah's room for maneuver, as evidenced by his admission at the end of the war.[19]

As the weeks and months passed, the degree of damage inflicted on the organization's military power also became clear. It was just as painful and significant as the damage done to the organization's political power. First, Israeli forces destroyed Hezbollah's stockpile of strategic missiles, primarily Zilzal unguided rockets from Iran, during the first moments of the Israeli attack on the night of July 12, 2007. Nasrallah had hoped to use these missiles against central Israel. This was a severe blow to the Hezbollah leader, who lost an important bargaining chip even before the campaign began. Indeed, the precision of Israeli intelligence, which enabled Jerusalem to strike at the organization's strategic stockpile, surprised Nasrallah.[20]

Second, Israeli assessments estimate that Hezbollah lost about a third of its elite fighting force. While Hezbollah has no difficulty attracting volunteers to its ranks, turning them into skilled military operators is a lengthy and complex process.[21] Third, despite the mistakes made by the IDF in conducting the military campaign, Israeli soldiers triumphed in every face-to-face battle with Hezbollah.[22]

Nasrallah concealed these facts from the Lebanese people and perhaps even from Iran. Hezbollah fed reports of successes and victories to both audiences.[23] Despite the false reports, however, Tehran likely realized the scope of disaster Hezbollah had suffered, and there is no doubt that Nasrallah himself grasped the extent of the damage that had been done to his organization and himself.

In the wake of the 2006 war, the following facts have become clear: First, Hezbollah, which represented itself as the "defender of Lebanon," turned out to be its destroyer, due to the extensive devastation it brought down on the heads of the Lebanese people in the course of the war. Second, Hezbollah's deterrent charm was dispelled. The war made it clear that the organization could no longer carry out military operations against Israel along the Lebanese-Israeli border and expect Israel to refrain from retaliating. Third, Hezbollah was perceived more and more as a Shi'i organization serving Iranian interests.

Thus, there is nothing surprising in the fact that since the war, Nasrallah has devoted himself to repairing and rebuilding his power while, at the same time, taking greater care than ever before to preserve the quiet along the Lebanese-Israeli border. He has no desire to rekindle the confrontation with Israel until his position in Lebanon has improved.

Indeed, Hezbollah used Israel's acquiescence to a prisoner swap in June 2008 to try to bolster its domestic position and to rebuild its reputation in Lebanon. However, critics in Lebanon pointed out the terrible price Lebanon paid for this deal during the 2006 war.[24] Moreover, the U.S. and European efforts to resume negotiations on the question of the Shebaa Farms raised Hezbollah's fears that any deal would make it difficult to use the conflict with Israel to reestablish itself in Lebanon and in the Arab Middle East. It is not surprising that Hezbollah spokesmen both expressed reservations over any new deal and promised to continue the struggle with Israel regardless of whether Jerusalem returned Shebaa Farms to Lebanon.[25]

Eyal Zisser                                                                                                        ./..

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