Is Hezbollah on the verge of destroying Lebanon?

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Aug. 7 2006 2:58 PM

The Samson Option

Is Hezbollah on the verge of destroying Lebanon?

Nasrallah. Click image to expand.
Hassan Nasrallah

Later this week, the U.N. Security Council will probably vote on a draft resolution dealing with the war in Lebanon. The document is not likely to end the fighting, but it might prove a major step in that direction. But the more troublesome long-term question for many Lebanese is the future of Hezbollah if it insists on remaining armed. Their country lies precariously poised on a tightrope, and it's the party that holds the balancing pole.

Much has been made of what would constitute a Hezbollah victory in the current conflict. If the party survives as an effective military force, some have argued, it will claim victory and transform this into political gains once the fighting stops. The argument has validity, but its implications may be far worse given the proliferating problems that will overcome Hezbollah in a postwar Lebanon—not least the massive human catastrophe the party will have to address when it again puts on its bonnet as a distributor of social patronage to its Shiite brethren.

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By any measure, Hezbollah is facing a trial of tremendous seriousness. It may now be benefiting from Israeli indecision in the land war—the party can still fire rockets across the southern border—but it has also had to watch the dismantling of the painfully constructed edifice that once bolstered its domestic legitimacy. To play down this essentially political setback, Hezbollah has narrowly highlighted its tactical military successes. Down the road, however, it may try to regain the initiative through a full-fledged coup against the Lebanese system.

Take Hezbollah's missile capability. In May, Iranian Revolutionary Guards Rear Adm. Muhammad-Ebrahim Dehqani declared, "We have announced that wherever America does something evil, the first place that we target will be Israel." While he did not mention Hezbollah, it was plain that retaliation for an attack on Iranian nuclear facilities, for instance, would at least partly come from Lebanon. Last week, Iran's former interior minister, Ali Akbar Mohtashemi Pour, who helped create Hezbollah, told an Iranian newspaper that Tehran had supplied the party with long-range Zelzal-2 missiles. These were not intended to defend Lebanon but rather to place Iran's military deterrent at Israel's doorstep.

While Hezbollah still retains thousands of rockets, mostly shorter-range Katyushas, can it even consider using them in, let's say, the next decade? With nearly 1 million people estimated to be displaced, a majority of them Shiites, and with Lebanon facing an economic calamity from which it won't emerge for many years, could Hezbollah—or, more important, its base of followers—withstand the devastating impact of a new Israeli onslaught if the party were to assist its comrades in Tehran? That's doubtful.

And what of Hezbollah's anchors in Lebanese society? For over a decade, the armed group used its militancy against Israel, Syria's backing, intimidation, and Shiite support to protect its independence and prerogatives. This now lies in tatters. Much has been made of two polls recently released in Beirut, claiming that more than 80 percent of Lebanese citizens support Hezbollah's resistance against Israel. These results are simply not borne out by facts on the ground. Anecdotally, while there may be hostility to Israel in many quarters, there is no noticeable backing among Christians, Sunni Muslims, or Druze for what Hezbollah has done. If anything, hostility is being expressed with greater boldness.

More significant, in closed meetings, Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora has said his first priority—and fear—is to avoid the war's feeding sectarian strife. Officials won't express this openly, partly because Hezbollah is armed and mobilized, partly because the war continues. But such anxieties—and they permeate the political class—hardly speak to broad approval for the party. There has been solidarity with displaced Shiites, though aid workers tell me petty disputes between refugees of different sects are on the rise. Druze leader Walid Jumblatt has allowed Shiite refugees in his areas to put up Hezbollah flags and photographs of the party's leader, Hassan Nasrallah, mainly to reduce Shiite frustration and avoid clashes with the Druze. In other districts, particularly Christian ones, however, such flexibility is rarer.

Hezbollah's third test will be to rapidly alleviate the suffering in its own community and, therefore, avoid losing its base. The party still has substantial backing among its coreligionists, and it is not about to see this disappear. But soon the fate of the hundreds of thousands of Shiites now living in schools, tent cities, and even public parks will be an overriding concern for Nasrallah. Many have fled areas partly or wholly destroyed, to which they might not return for months or years. Once they do go back, Hezbollah will have to provide funding for reconstruction and rehabilitation that is likely to run into the billions of dollars. With the onset of winter, the party will have a monumental task to revive not only Shiite morale but confidence that Hezbollah can take care of its own.

The money will come. Iran and Hezbollah's Shiite finance networks in the Gulf will surely provide what is needed—they have to. But even the party's most optimistic interpretation of the current war—that it is a heroic achievement—will not spare it having to tiptoe very carefully through Shiite trauma.

And that is what is most potentially worrying. To detract attention away from its own responsibility for the war, Hezbollah may well choose to go on the offensive inside Lebanon, politically and even militarily. Instead of facing Shiite anger, it might opt to redirect it against those Lebanese who, many Shiites feel, failed to satisfactorily sustain the "resistance" in its existential struggle against Israel.

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