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Few political actors in the Middle East have seen their environment as thoroughly affected by recent events in the region as Hizbollah, the Lebanese political-military organisation that first came on the scene in the mid-1980s. In U.S. political circles, calls for action against Hizbollah, which is accused of global terrorist activity, are heard increasingly. With the ouster of Saddam Hussein’s regime, the U.S. has upped its pressure on Syria and Iran – Hizbollah’s two most powerful patrons. Meanwhile, Israel has made clear it will not tolerate indefinitely the organisation’s armed presence on its northern border. Within Lebanon itself, weariness with Hizbollah and questions about its future role are being raised with surprising candour.
One after another, its local and regional cards appear to have been lost: Israel’s May 2000 withdrawal from southern Lebanon deprived Hizbollah of its principal raison d’être; America’s swift military success reduced the immediate prospect of it being drawn into a costly confrontation in Iraq; and renewed international efforts to restore calm in the Israeli-Palestinian theatre combined with intense pressure on radical Palestinian Islamist groups have diminished its ability to invoke the Palestinian struggle as a justification for armed action. Today perhaps more than ever since its establishment in 1984, the organisation’s purpose and fate hang in the balance.
Hizbollah is engaged in its own soul-searching. Pressured to undertake a strategic shift, it faces the decision whether its future is one among many Lebanese political parties or whether it will maintain the hybrid nature, half political party and half armed militia, part local organisation and part internationalist movement, that has defined it from the outset.
Fully penetrating Hizbollah’s decision-making process is almost impossible. The movement enjoys a highly effective regime of internal discipline and concealment. External influence, whether emanating from Iran or Syria, is extremely difficult to assess. Nevertheless, various sources – including ICG interviews with Hizbollah members and with informed Lebanese political observers as well as Hizbollah’s own public statements and commentaries in its weekly al-Intiqad (critique) – offer important insights into its dilemma and the directions in which its thinking is leading.
The picture pieced together by ICG on the basis of fieldwork between April and July 2003 is that of a movement perplexed by recent developments and still struggling to find its footing. Outward self-confidence conceals deeper doubt and uncertainty about its role and possible theatres of action. Uncomfortable in its current pose yet unwilling to change in fundamental ways, it has opted for a posture of wait-and-see, maintaining the rhetoric and armed capability of a militant organisation but few of its concrete manifestations.
In so doing, it is postponing an inevitably wrenching internal debate and banking on future developments in Iraq and on the Israeli-Palestinian front that, by radicalising the region, might renew either Hizbollah's purpose or its patrons’ strength. The U.S. could fail to establish a political authority viewed as legitimate by the Iraqi people, Iranian or Syrian influence might grow there, and that country might yet turn into a deadly quagmire for the occupying forces; violence between Israelis and Palestinians could rekindle. Under either of these scenarios – even more so under a combination of them – pressure on Hizbollah to disarm and normalise its status, it believes, would fade.
There is little doubt that international and principally U.S. pressure in the Middle East has helped lead Hizbollah to its present stance of relative passivity. But pressure alone – and, to date, it has essentially been pressure alone – can only move it so far. Indeed, Hizbollah believes that the strong U.S. rhetoric and aggressive approach toward Syria and Iran may already be producing a backlash. A highly tense and polarised atmosphere in which Washington appears to be asking regional players to choose sides is one in which even Lebanese actors inherently hostile to Hizbollah are reluctant to be seen as backing the U.S. Lebanese who in recent months had become more assertive in their denigration of both Hizbollah and Syrian policies toward and presence in their country have felt compelled to mute their criticism since Damascus has become an overt U.S. target.
Being tough-minded need not mean being single-minded. To be effective, a policy that pressures countries and organisations that sponsor or engage in armed attacks ought also to offer the prospect of genuine gain if they cease to do so. The U.S. should be much clearer in presenting these potential gains and in putting forward an overall, positive vision of the region's future. Members who aspire to see Hizbollah play a more restrained role ought to be encouraged. The U.S. ought to refrain from references to forcible regime change in Syria or Iran. It should put before Damascus its conception of a fair and lasting Israeli-Syrian peace, even if its implementation cannot be immediate and its realisation will depend on clear-cut Syrian steps designed to boost Israel’s confidence – particularly concerning support for radical, militant groups. And Iran ought to hear some acknowledgment of its security concerns and of the trade-offs that Washington is prepared to undertake.
Putting and maintaining pressure on Hizbollah, Syria and Iran undoubtedly will play an important part in determining the future of the region. But for the United States and its vision for the region, getting things right in Iraq and moving forcefully toward a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, seriously engaging Syria and Iran and encouraging Hizbollah's conversion into a purely civilian political actor are likely to have the greatest and most sustainable impact.
Amman/Brussels, 30 July 2003