2006 July 15 Saturday
Has Hezbollah Overplayed Hand In Lebanon?

Lebanon's non-Shia elites see Hezbollah as a threat to their economic interests and domestic tranquility because Hezbollah provokes Israel to attack Lebanon.

But in the wake of Syria's withdrawal of its troops from Lebanon in 2005, the disarmament of Hezbollah has emerged as one of the foremost issues in Lebanese politics. Since the fighting with Israel started Wednesday, calls for Hezbollah to relinquish its weapons have gathered urgency. The violence began when Hezbollah fighters captured two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border incursion, followed by an Israeli attack on roads, bridges, power stations and airports.

Israel's attacks on Lebanon are having salutary effects on Lebanon's rulers.

Lebanese critics as well as allies of Hezbollah insist that the Israeli response was disproportionate. But at the same time, in meetings Thursday, Lebanese officials began to lay the groundwork for an extension of government control to southern Lebanon. Hezbollah largely controls southern Lebanon, where it has built up a network of schools, hospitals and charities.

"To declare war and to make military action must be a decision made by the state and not by a party," said Nabil de Freige, a parliament member. He belongs to the bloc headed by Saad Hariri, whose father, Rafiq, a former prime minister and wealthy businessman, was assassinated in 2005, setting off a sequence of events that forced the Syrian withdrawal. "It's a very simple equation: You have to be a state."

Are the non-Shias in the Lebanese government really serious about taking on Hezbollah? An attempt to suppress Hezbollah runs the risk of starting a civil war in Lebanon. Plus, the Shias in Lebanon are a big voting block and even many non-Shia Lebanese Muslims sympathize with any group that would attack Israel. My guess is the lower classes are not as supportive of a crackdown on Hezbollah as the upper class business interests. The Lebanese government would have a much stronger hand against Hezbollah if a dictatorship ran Lebanon. You do not see the authoritarian regimes in Egypt, Jordan, or Syria letting groups shoot rockets from their territory into Israel. The governments of those countries have the means to maintain control of their factions and their borders.

Lebanon has been bouncing back from their civil war and has reached a per capita GDP of $6200 which compares very favorably with Syria at $3900 per capita GDP and Jordan at $4700 and Lebanon has achieved this in spite of the physical damage and heavy debt burden due to the civil war. The Christian Lebanese (39% of the population) and some of the other factions would like the good times to continue and see the Hezbollah as an obstacle in the way of letting the good times roll.

But can all the non-Shia factions unite to extend sovereignty over the south of Lebanon? They have economic incentive. They do not want the Israelis bombing the Beirut airport and blowing up bridges and other infrastructure. That is bad for business. But the Israeli threat has to be balanced against the problems posed by trying to take on Hezbollah and its Syrian and Iranian backers. Hezbollah could wage an insurgency fight and start attacking into neighborhoods and business districts of Druze, Sunni, and Christian Lebanese. You can bet the Lebanese elites are weighing their options.

The US government seems focused on Syria's and Iran's roles as backers of Hezbollah.

Analysts here say Iranian influence has become ascendant following the Syrian pullout, though foreign policy in the two countries has so far largely overlapped. The United States renewed its call Thursday for those countries to intervene to get the two Israeli soldiers released.

"It's really time for everybody to acknowledge that these two states do have some measure of control over Hezbollah," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack told reporters in Washington. "And the international community has called upon them to exercise that control, to have these two individuals released."

Neoconservatives fantasize about extending the US invasion of Iraq into invasions of Syria and Iran. But an invasion of Syria would collapse a regime which both fears Israel and which very effectively prevents dissident groups from shooting rockets or doing cross-border attacks into Israel. An overthrow of the Assad family dynasty would put an end to a regime which both prevents attacks on Israel from its territory and which also provides one of the safest and friendliest living environments for Christians in the Middle East. An invasion of Syria would ruin the lives of Christian Syrians as thoroughly as the overthrow of Saddam put Christian Iraqis into the line of fire of Muslim insurgent groups. Such an invasion would also destabilize Israel's border with Syria.

There's talk about how Israel's battles with Hezbollah and Hamas could escalate into a regional conflagration. Well, how exactly? Assad in Syria and his top people know that a direct attack on Israel would be suicidal folly. Ditto the Mubarak family dynasty in Egypt.

The Israelis would benefit if Lebanon became more like Egypt, Syria, and Jordan and less like West Bank and Gaza. I do not know if that is possible. However, a US invasion of Syria is not the way to bring this about.

The US lacks leverage over most of the actors.

The Bush administration has few ways of directly pressuring Iran on any of the three fronts. "They have sanctioned themselves out of leverage on Iran," Malley said. "They have cornered themselves out of a lack of influence on any of the parties that are driving this -- Hezbollah, Hamas, Syria and Iran. Counseling restraint or condemning actions is pretty meager when you think of the influence the United States should be wielding."

The United States reached out to Arab allies -- Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia -- to weigh in with Syria and, through Damascus, to Iran. In Paris for talks on Iran's nuclear program, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called on all sides to "act with restraint." She also talked to Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Siniora and U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan.

Lebanon's problem for Israel and Washington is that it is not united under a single government. Maybe Israel could make some gains here by convincing Syria (e.g. by bombing Syria rather than the Beirut airport) that attacks by Hezbollah will be treated as attacks by Syria. That'd give Syria some incentive to turn against Hezbollah. Not sure if that would work. But the Israelis ought to tell Jewish supporters in Washington DC that a US overthrow of Assad's regime and replacement by a democratically elected Sunni fundamentalist regime would not improve Israel's security in the long run.

Update: The Jerusalem Post reports that Israel's chief goal in its attacks on Lebanon is to force the Lebanese government to take responsibility and assert control over south Lebanon.

Lebanon can be "shut down for years, as long as necessary" a senior military official said over the weekend. He added that the goals of the Israeli blockade of Lebanon were, on a tactical level, to make sure that no rockets could be supplied to Hizbullah, and strategically, to make the government in Beirut take responsibility for its southern border.


The feeling within the IDF General Staff is that the Lebanese government will eventually succumb and deploy its army in the south, but that this decision will be made at the political level, under international pressure.

The senior military official said the current clash with Hizbullah was inevitable, that the "writing had been on the wall." Hizbullah miscalculated Israel's response to the kidnapping of two soldiers on Wednesday, he said.

Update II: Israel is trying to apply enough pressure to get the Lebanese government to take over south Lebanon while trying not to bring down the Lebanese government.

"Prodi told me that Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert informed him of two demands for a cease-fire - handing over the two captive Israeli soldiers and a Hizbullah pullback to behind the Litani River," a government statement quoted Siniora as telling the cabinet.

Most analysts here says that the strong support for Hizbullah from Lebanon's 40 percent Shiite population makes total destruction of the group impossible. Mindful of repercussions, Israel says it is trying to avoid causing irreparable damage to Lebanon.

"We didn't remove the gloves completely," a high ranking military official told reporters over the weekend. "We need to be very careful that we only put enough pressure on the Lebanese government to change the situation but not enough to make it fall."

It is hard to tell whether the outcome the Israelis want is within the realm of possibility.

The United States is not doing much to stop the attacks between Hezbollah and Israel.

The reasons the US is watching this crisis from the sidelines are many: The Bush administration has been preoccupied with Iraq, it does not have diplomatic ties with the Middle Eastern countries that matter in this escalation, and it has been unwilling to pressure Israel to avoid military response when Tel Aviv's security is threatened. The US position represents a change from earlier days - such as the administration of the first President Bush, who enlisted diplomats like James Baker and Brent Skowcroft to ease tensions - when America brought pressure to bear on all parties, including Israel, to slam the Pandora's box back shut.

"The US has very little leverage over the situation, and all that does is underline that the US is weak and has lost the kind of influence it once had in the region," says Arthur Hughes, former director general of the Israel-Egypt multinational force and now a scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington. "It's frightening to our partners, like Japan and Europe because, as they see it, the only thing worse than a US that is too strong is a US that is too weak."

The United States was eager to get Syrian troops out of Lebanon. But imagine that the Syrians had not pulled out. In that case Hezbollah would have been less able to launch attacks on Israel because the Syrian backing of Hezbollah would have been more overt and Israel would have been in a stronger position to retaliate by attacking Syria. So Syria would have been motivated to restrain Hezbollah to an extent that Syria is not currently motivated to do so.

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2006 July 15 10:14 PM  MidEast Arabs Versus Israelis

razib said at July 16, 2006 12:03 AM:

That'd give Syria some incentive to turn against Hezbollah. Not sure if that would work. But the Israelis ought to tell Jewish supporters in Washington DC that a US overthrow of Assad's regime and replacement by a democratically elected Sunni fundamentalist regime would not improve Israel's security in the long run.

bingo. what are they thinking? or are they?

anyway, israel's long term problem is that it lives in an uncivilized region. one can not be a civilized man if one lives in a village of cannibals.

Stephen said at July 16, 2006 1:00 AM:

Israel's long term problem is that it lives in an uncivilized region

Nonsense, Israel's long term problem is that the country was drawn on a map of other people's land, and the former owners want their land back. Many (but not all) of the problems in the middle east come back to the Palestinian's fight to reclaim what is rightfully theirs.

Bob Badour said at July 16, 2006 7:40 AM:


Are you suggesting we should return North America to the indians?

Israel's problem is a plurality of citizens who lack the will to win the war against the palestinians. Oslo made that problem much, much worse.

Kenelm Digby said at July 16, 2006 8:17 AM:

The truth is that in the medium to long term Israel is doomed due purely to demographic factors as the Palestinians continue to heavily outbreed Jews.No other interpretation can be put on to this analysis, and whethe by fire, sword or simple displacement, the Jewish state simply does not have a future.
- The moral here which applies to the White western nations and their pursuit of unlimited open-borders non-White immigration is ovrwhelming and must not be ignored by all intelligent free-thinking persons.

Stephen said at July 16, 2006 7:08 PM:

Bob, I'm merely pointing out the source of the emnity that is fueling the fire.

That said, your analogy does work, but not in the way you think. Rather, view it as Jews = indians, and Palestinians = US citizens. Imagine that 50 yrs ago, the UN had declared that the indians can take a large slice of the eastern seaboard of the USA to set up a homeland, and the current US citizens in that region don't have a say in that decision. Imagine further that the displaced US citizens (terrorist scum that they are) decide to fight to get the land back.

[I know - stretching an already stretched analogy]

Bob Badour said at July 17, 2006 7:01 PM:


I am merely pointing out what will put out the fire and why it continues to burn. Talk of proportionality is bullshit. The Israelis need to win the war. They need to defeat the Palestinians to convince them once and for all that they have no hope whatsoever of destroying Israel.

Stephen said at July 17, 2006 8:33 PM:

They need to defeat the Palestinians to convince them once and for all that they have no hope whatsoever of destroying Israel.

The Palestinians are a community of eight million, in that context, how do you propose Israel 'convince them once and for all'?? How do you manage to simultaneously stop eight million people who want to move out of their refugee camps, head back into Israel and reclaim their family's bit of land? I'd love to hear your strategy.

Randall Parker said at July 17, 2006 9:24 PM:


My take: You have to keep in mind there's no satisfactory solution. This goes against the liberal impulse that reasonable people can come to reasonable compromises. Nope, not possible.

I think we have to give up trying to make peace between the Palestinians and the Israelis.

Bob Badour said at July 18, 2006 1:47 PM:


I suggest by firm resolve and overwhelming response to any provocation.

Stephen said at July 18, 2006 6:23 PM:

overwhelming response

But Bob, 'overwhelming' against whom? In a guerilla war, the 'overwhelming response' by the state traditionally creates more recruits for the guerillas. That's the fundamental quandry. In fact, when Israel invaded Lebanon in 82, the operation was an 'overwhelming response' to PLO attacks into Israel from palestinian camps in Lebanon. The PLO was pushed out, however the invasion caused the formation of a Lebanese resistance cell named Hezbollah. In case you missed it, Hezbollah (created in the fires of the 82 'overwhelming response') are allegedly the targets of Israel's 2006 'overwhelming response'.

I wonder what seeds are being planted as a response to the 2006 'overwhelming response'?

Randall Parker said at July 18, 2006 7:48 PM:


I think the planted seeds of angry people wanting revenge do not matter so much. Israel needs for Lebanon to be firmly ruled. Israel's retaliation might or might not make that more likely. Hard to say.

Bob Badour said at July 19, 2006 5:53 AM:


Overwhelming responses do not create new recruits; they convince the enemy of the utter hopelessness of their cause.

An overwhelming response does not mean dropping a few bombs on arbitrary targets, nor does it mean minimally occupying an area.

CASpears said at July 19, 2006 10:56 AM:

Actually Stephen:

I think your analysis of Indians and America is not exactly correct.

When the Romans made the Jews disperse, only about 50% of the population did so, and most of them lived in and around Jerusalem, from which the Romans banned Jews from entering...

The remaining Jews who stayed in Israel, most of them converted to Christianity and especially Islam over the years, leaving only a few of the original religious population left in the region. Many of today's Palestinians are culturally Arab, but genetically unrelated to the Arabs on the Arabian Pennisula...their ancestors were in fact Hebrews...the original population who slightly intermixed with Arabs, PErsians, various Africans, Turks, etc.

The major genetic difference between Palestinians and the Jews who returned from Europe, where that Jews in Europe heavily married out on the maternal side with white Europeans, mostly Germanic and Slavic groups, whereas the Palestinians married out with Arabs, Berbers, Egyptians, subSaharan Africans, etc.

Stephen said at July 19, 2006 5:57 PM:

An overwhelming response does not mean dropping a few bombs on arbitrary targets, nor does it mean minimally occupying an area.

Bob, you keep saying what your proposed "overwhelming response" doesn't mean, but you never get around to saying what it does mean. Spit it out.

Bob Badour said at July 20, 2006 4:23 PM:

It means recognizing they are fighting a long drawn out war and their only option for survival is to win the war. Since 1993, Israel has lacked the will to win the war.

Right now, Israel needs to wipe Hezbollah off the map and to convince Lebanon that the Lebanese can never afford to allow any such group to operate from within their borders. This might mean that the Lebanese have to complete the civil war they never finished so that the southern Shiites recognize the futility and the stupidity of their goals. Otherwise, they will never accept the rules of behaviour needed to protect the rest of Lebanon.

It means using every tactic available to achieve victory. If Israel is going to occupy any area, it must be with the explicit goal to kill or to drive out their enemies rather than to police anarchy. If they occupy an area, they can only leave once the inhabitants have sued for peace on Israel's terms. Otherwise, they are better off taking the area killing their enemies, destroying their enemies' assets, and pulling out as quickly as possible. If they need to take land to establish a defensible perimeter, they first need to drive everyone there to the other side of the perimeter.

Israel needs to convince nearby communities that any tolerance by those communities for attacks against Israel will mean total destruction for the community. They need to return to the effective policy they had for decades of "Live and let live or fuck with us and die quickly."

Instead of looking at the last 15 years or so when opposition to Israel has blossomed, one needs to look at the prior 45 years. The last 15 years have been effeminate bullshit not overwhelming response. Israel needs tough, determined leaders, like Golda, who aren't afraid to do the masculine thing.

Randall Parker said at July 21, 2006 3:56 PM:


Has opposition to Israel blossomed in the last 15 years? Most Arab governments are opposed to what Hezbollah is doing. It is not clear to me whether their populaces have become any more anti-Israeli. Perhaps. Many watch Al Jazeera and probably see only Arabs killed and only interpretations of events that are anti-Israeli.

As for "total destruction of the community": Which community? They are thinking on a smaller scale than you are. The Lebanese Christians do not want to send Lebanese Christian troops into South Lebanon to try to rule Shiites. The Druze and Christians wish Shiites weren't supporting Hezbollah. But they had a long civil war already and have no stomach for another one.

Area occupation: Yes, they could force the Shiites out of south Lebanon. But my guess is that the US would not support such a move at this point. Israel acts within constraints. It is not clear to me that Israel can follow the course you suggest.

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