On arms, Hizbullah accepts nonnegotiable dialogue

By Amal Saad-Ghorayeb

Following the withdrawal of Syria’s military and intelligence services from Lebanon, attention was riveted on the fate of Hizbullah’s armed wing, the Islamic resistance. Bereft of the political cover its military activity received from the Assad regime, the party now finds itself in the position of having to persuade its compatriots of the advantages of what it calls the “unique formula of resistance and army” that Lebanon has at its disposal to combat Israel.

While Hizbullah can count on domestic support for its resistance in the short to medium term, it may not be able to do so it in the long term, once Israel evacuates the Shebaa Farms and a regional settlement is reached. In post-Syria Lebanon, where sectarianism has resurfaced with a vengeance, the question is no longer one of “Why do we need a resistance?” but “Why do the Shiites get to keep their arms?” International pressure from the United Nations, the European Union and the United States in particular could feed on such sensitivities, obliging the Lebanese government to work toward disarming the party.

Hizbullah may find itself cornered domestically, having to choose between backing down at the last minute and giving up its weapons or fighting a losing battle to retain its arms. If it chooses the first option, it will become an emasculated shadow of its former self, operating in a political space demarcated by the very forces which brought about its demise. If it goes for the second, it will find itself isolated domestically and delegitimized.

Hizbullah is attempting to avert the likelihood of such a dilemma by rationalizing its resistance role and underscoring the need for strategic defense. It has been both constrained and galvanized by the U.S.-led campaign to disband its armed resistance. It regards this and the wider U.S. regional goal to militarily constrain Iran, Syria and Palestinian Islamists as part of a “neoimperialist strategy.” It also considers the “democratizing” thrust of the Bush administration a flimsy pretext to shape the Middle East to its own benefit, and that of Israel.

By continuing to pose a threat to Israel, Hizbullah believes its resistance is a direct challenge to U.S. ambitions in the region. Accordingly, the party considers its disarmament as tantamount to surrendering an invaluable source of strategic strength for Lebanon and the region, and hence a form of political suicide on the part of the Lebanese state. Seen from Hizbullah’s perspective, the security of Lebanon remains inextricably tied to the Arab-Israeli conflict, irrespective of Israel’s fulfillment of specific Lebanese demands.

As Hizbullah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah has spelled out on several occasions, the party will remain armed for “as long as Israel remains a threat to the country,” even if this lasts “one million years.” Asked to elaborate on what the party regards as an Israeli threat, Sheikh Naim Qassem, Hizbullah’s deputy secretary general, told me that “the very existence of Israel beside Lebanon is a real threat and we, therefore, regard it as our right to remain in a defensive and prepared state.” The state of war with Israel is thereby viewed as something existential and, hence, perpetual.

However, the dictates of political survival have compelled Hizbullah to search for a way to reconcile its strategic vision with its national agenda. Accordingly, it has repeatedly declared its intention to engage other groups in a national dialogue where alternative “credible” formulas to protect Lebanon can be proposed. But Hizbullah has already tightly circumscribed the parameters of this dialogue by adamantly rejecting the notion of placing the resistance under the command of the Lebanese Army, for logistical, operational and security-related reasons. Moreover, only those who believe in the need for resistance, in other words those who continue to view Israel as a threat, are considered acceptable interlocutors.

The one concession Hizbullah is willing to make is to transform its resistance into an “reserve army,” which would coordinate with the Lebanese Army on matters of strategy but not tactics. However, this amounts to little more than “calling resistance by another name,” to use Qassem’s terminology. Its military activity would remain under the party’s command. According to this logic, Hizbullah is willing to dialogue over its disarmament, but its conditions are effectively nonnegotiable. Dialogue is therefore seen essentially as a means of persuading others to accept the “resistance formula” the party envisages.

Hizbullah appears to be wagering on a post-election Lebanese government that will support the party, and on mass popular support for the resistance-reserve scheme. The electoral alliance between Hizbullah, Amal and the Hariri and Jumblatt blocs lends some credence to this optimism. Given the close relationship between Saudi Arabia and the Hariri family, as well as the emergent Saudi role in Lebanese affairs, Hizbullah may also be able to count on Riyadh’s backing for the reserve option. Why? Because the Saudis, for domestic and foreign policy reasons, have a stake in forging a regional peace agreement. They could use Hizbullah as a strategic bargaining card in this effort. Aside from potential Saudi backing and the traditional support it enjoys from Iran, Hizbullah is also heartened by the fact that no regional power has yet called for its disarmament.

Similarly, no one in Lebanon has publicly called for Hizbullah to be disarmed against its will. The party derives much of its leverage from this fact, and from considerable Shiite support for the resistance – over 90 percent according to a recent Zogby poll and another survey conducted by the Beirut Center for Research and Information. Beyond the Shiites, a sizeable majority of Sunnis are also reported to back the resistance, pending a comprehensive peace in the region.

The U.S. will find it increasingly difficult to realize its aim of demilitarizing Hizbullah. It cannot, for obvious reasons, tackle the party head on. On the other hand, if it chooses to challenge it indirectly by bringing pressure to bear on the Lebanese government by way of a threat of sanctions, this would undermine American state-building intentions in Lebanon.

Be that as it may, U.S. and international pressure will continue irrespective of such considerations. Ultimately, however, the principal determinant of Hizbullah’s armed status will be Lebanese public opinion. Will the Lebanese be prepared to insulate Hizbullah from its adversaries outside? No one can say, but Hizbullah must bear in mind that, whatever the declared support it enjoys, it still faces the formidable task of allaying the fears of Lebanon’s Christians. Without their approval, the consensus around the party’s arms is incomplete.