The Middle East Channel

Reframing the debate about disarming Hizbullah

  During President Barack Obama’s meeting this week with Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, a prime topic of conversation was surely the threat of weapons transferring into Lebanon. The region has seen a rise in tension after last month’s Israeli allegation that Syria was supplying Hizbullah with long-range Scud missiles, which Syria has denied. Israel ...

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images


During President Barack Obama’s meeting this week with Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, a prime topic of conversation was surely the threat of weapons transferring into Lebanon. The region has seen a rise in tension after last month’s Israeli allegation that Syria was supplying Hizbullah with long-range Scud missiles, which Syria has denied. Israel has since warned that the Lebanese government — not just Hizbullah — would be held accountable for an attack on Israel. While Hizbullah’s military arsenal remains a thorn in American-Lebanese relations, talk about forced disarmament is futile. If the Lebanese army forced Hizbullah to disarm, it would lead to its disintegration and to another Lebanese civil war. Alternatively, if the Israelis moved in to disarm Hizbullah, it would result in heavy human casualties on all sides and have disastrous consequences for Lebanon and the region. These types of military interventions are not the answer.

The answer to Hizbullah’s successful disarmament is in an intra-Lebanese process of political dialogue. The international community is responsible for creating the political, security and economic incentives and atmosphere in Lebanon and in the region that help promote and support disarmament. It is time to reframe the debate about Hizbullah’s weapons by focusing on their Lebanese consumer — not on their Iranian supplier.

While Iran remains Hizbullah’s main arms supplier, young Lebanese Shi’a are its foot soldiers. Hizbullah is first and foremost a Lebanese party and its immediate political goals are Lebanon-centric. The June, 2009 legislative elections and the recent municipal elections proved Hizbullah is the unrivaled leader amongst Lebanon’s Shi’a, the largest of Lebanon’s numerous confessional groups and the fastest growing.

The majority of Lebanese, Shi’a and non-Shi’a alike, disagree with the U.S. government’s classification of Hizbullah as a terrorist organization. To most Lebanese Shi’a, Hizbullah is neither a proxy of Iran nor an illegal militia. They credit Hizbullah with the liberation of southern Lebanon from Israeli occupation in 2000, and for defending them against Israeli tanks and warplanes in 2006. Consequently, Hizbullah has been able to successfully create a narrative that they’ve resisted Israel’s military (a high-priority issue for Hizbullah) to meet their constituents’ need for physical security, political and economic empowerment (a high-priority issue for Lebanon’s Shi’a). As a result, Hizbullah will only disarm in response to pressure emanating from this constituency. Lebanon’s Shi’a, in turn, will demand the party’s disarmament only if they regard an open-ended military resistance to Israel as detrimental to their physical, political and economic interests and if Lebanon’s army can defend them.

How, then, to bring Lebanon’s Shi’a to these conclusions?

First, U.S. military support of the Lebanese army is critical. Lebanese citizens, including the Shi’a, must regard the Lebanese Armed Forces as a strong and capable institution that can protect them from internal and external aggression. Hizbullah senior officials have stated several times that they will disarm only after the Lebanese army becomes capable of defending Lebanese sovereignty and territory. To-date, the Lebanese army remains the only state institution that is respected and trusted by most Lebanese. In conversations I have held for the past two years with senior Hizbullah officials, they spoke of the professionalism and fair play which the army leadership and officers have displayed toward all parties in settling intra-Lebanese confrontations, as was the case in May, 2008.

Second, the National Dialogue led by Lebanon’s President Michel Suleiman, which includes Hizbullah and other political parties, must formulate and agree on a national defense strategy. This institutionalized dialogue process stands the best chance of crafting the elements of a long-term, sustainable, multi-phase disarmament strategy leading to Hizbullah’s handing over its weapons to the Lebanese state and integrating most of its fighters into public, civilian or military institutions. During the last session of the National Dialogue organized in April, Lebanese Speaker and Hizbullah’s close ally, Nabih Berri called for forming a joint commission between the Lebanese army and the Lebanese resistance to specify coordination procedures between the army and the resistance should there be an attack on Lebanon. General Michel Aoun, another Hizbullah ally, has been talking of another form of coordination: Hizbullah will defend against external threats and the Lebanese army will defend against internal ones. While neither of these proposals comes close to disarmament and/or integration, they may be interesting interim moves.

Third, the Lebanese state must address the Shi’a’s persistent feelings of economic marginalization by embarking on a job-creation program in parts of Lebanon where Hizbullah now rules. Lebanon’s Shi’a must feel fully integrated into state structures. The Shi’a’s distrust of the state stems from generations of Shi’a alienation from the major political and economic centers in the country. It is the Lebanese state, not Hizbullah, that must become the main job and social services provider for Lebanon’s Shi’a. In addition to military support, Lebanon needs broad-based development aid that would target the impoverished areas in the country — including the Shia-populated regions in the south and the Bekaa’ region.

Finally, and most important, visible progress in the Arab-Israeli peace process including the Syrian-Israeli track, would strengthen the position of Lebanese citizens, including Hizbullah’s supporters, who question a never-ending military confrontation with Israel. The Israeli government’s refusal to follow through on U.S. requests to freeze all settlements in the Palestinian occupied territories supports the arguments advanced by the regional "resistance camp" led by Iran, Syria, Hizbullah and Hamas: betting on liberating lands via diplomacy and negotiations is a sterile exercise. If Israel were to withdraw from the northern part of the Ghajar village on the Lebanese border as stipulated by U.N. Security Resolution 1701, the case for diplomacy would be strengthened. While this would not bring Hizbullah over into the peace camp and/or bring Lebanon into peace negotiations with Israel, it will strengthen the Lebanese government’s hand as it struggles to rebuild its institutions and exert control over its entire territory. 

Hizbullah is a rational and pragmatic political actor which conducts careful cost-benefit analyses of its policies. To-date, the benefits garnered from its military status both as the unrivaled leader of Lebanon’s Shi’a and as the successful Arab resistance movement par excellence, far outweigh its costs in terms of human and financial resources. When either its political leadership mantle and/or its regional status is threatened, Hizbullah’s cost-benefit analysis of its independent military structure will shift. The 2006 war with Israel showed that military force did not promote such a shift. On the contrary, it strengthened the Shia’ resolve in support of Hizbullah’s resistance movement. Instead, it highlighted their dependence on Hizbullah weapons to protect them against Israeli attacks thus cementing Hizbullah’s political leadership status. Only pressure from its Shi’a constituency will change Hizbullah’s cost-benefit calculations. This pressure will come only after Lebanon’s Shi’a believe that the Lebanese state institutions are the best guarantors of their economic and physical security.

Randa Slim is a political analyst and a long-term practitioner of Track II dialogues and peace-building processes in the Middle East and Central Asia. She is finishing a book about Hizbullah’s political evolution.

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