Hezbollah Steams Ahead

Hezbollah Steams Ahead

The fighting may be over, but conflict in Lebanon is still going strong. Two experts discuss proxy wars and regional ramifications of the crisis.

Three weeks ago Lebanese political factions came to an agreement in Doha that ended a week of Hezbollah-driven violence, bringing the country back from what many saw as the brink of civil war. On Wednesday at the Nixon Center, Geneive Abdo, a fellow at the Century Foundation, and Mona Yacoubian, Special Advisor to the Muslim World Initiative at USIP, reflected on the situation in the aftermath of the crisis. They looked at what factors led to Hezbollah's turn to violence and what we can expect to happen in Lebanon over the summer. Though violence may be quelled, the ever-complex situation within the country is certainly still in flux.

The phrase proxy war is often used when describing happenings in Lebanon. And this time around, Ms. Abdo argued the impact of regional forces on Hezbollah's actions is not to be underestimated. Iran plays a particularly important role. On this point, though, the panelists differed.

Hezbollah may not be acting as a direct arm of the Tehrani government, but Abdo maintained that the organizations' actions were certainly influenced indirectly by changing dynamics and new forces in the region-and that Iran provides more direct monetary support to the organization. The vocal rise of players like Iran, particularly those that challenge the United States' influence in the region, have encouraged movements like Hezbollah to make themselves heard even more loudly. "The growing strength of Iran in the region has given these movements a sense of confidence that didn't exist before," Abdo argued.

Yacoubian, though acknowledging that external forces certainly played a role, said domestic factors were a greater influence on Hezbollah's actions in early May. The crisis was "internally driven" and not a "result of external meddling"; the organization is not an Iranian proxy and it was a miscalculation by the Lebanese government pushed Hezbollah to violence, she argued. Two state actions-declaring Hezbollah's telephone network threatening to the state's sovereignty control of its own territory and trying to fire a Hezbollah ally in government-she stated, directly provoked the organization.

The results of the violence are also open to discussion. Commentators have labeled the agreement reached in Doha a win for Hezbollah. Geoffrey Kemp, the moderator of the event and Director of Regional Strategic Programs at The Nixon Center, questioned whether the deal represented a regional sellout and Hezbollah victory when offering his introduction. Both panelists, though, believed that the organization made a miscalculation.

It is difficult to underestimate, Ms. Yacoubian put forward, the adverse impact turning arms on the Lebanese population will have on Hezbollah's standing. She said the price Hezbollah will have to pay to make up for the violence and repair its reputation will be high. Driving this home, Abdo reminded the audience that Hezbollah's leader, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, once stated that Hezbollah would only use its arms externally, specifically against Israel, and never on the Lebanese people. The organization lost much legitimacy when it took up arms this time around.

Yacoubian believes Hezbollah understands this, though, and has attempted to remedy the situation. The organization knows that no one party can control Lebanon and recognizes that to succeed politically in the country, factions need to build consensus. This is evidenced in part, she said, by the steps the organization has taken to quell the anti-Hezbollah "sectarian furor" in the country since the crisis.

The panelists differed with some attendees on this issue of Hezbollah's miscalculation. One audience member argued that this was not a misstep, but a deliberate response provoked by the Lebanese government's actions. With communications networks threatened, the organization had little choice but to strike back. Plus, Hezbollah's actions successfully demonstrated, another argued, that the organization can do what it wants and is a force to be reckoned with. Hezbollah succeeded in gaining control of west Beirut and showing their superiority over the Lebanese army, among other things. This is key because, as yet another attendee added, the organization seeks to be feared, not adored.

After the Doha agreement, the Lebanese people felt "collective sigh of relief," Yacoubian said. The agreement provided a respite-if only brief-from violence and political infighting. But she firmly believes that this is a "fluid time" in Lebanese politics and that many issues are yet to be ironed out. "It's hard to know what Hezbollah will do," Yacoubian noted.

The organization began as a resistance force but has increased its political clout over time, now gaining veto power in the cabinet as part of the Doha agreement. But Yacoubian argued that Hezbollah was not looking to gain control of the government by its actions in early May. It just wanted a bigger piece of the political pie, and in Lebanon, power-sharing arrangements are usually changed by violence. Either way, the organization and other factions will have to iron out the precise arrangement of the new parliament, particularly the ministerial positions.

How Hezbollah proceeds will depend on many factors. The direct and indirect support from foreign governments like Tehran and particularly President Ahmadinejad, who has achieved de facto folk hero status in the region according to Abdo, could stir up the pot. Israel's interactions with Iran and Syria could have spillover effects on Lebanon, with different factions taking different sides in these conflicts. Domestically, increasingly angry Salafist extremists carrying out suicide bombings could further destabilize the new government and spark conflict with Hezbollah.

The panelists and attendees continually returned to the point, though, that the country has long been characterized by complex and often violent interactions between political factions, confessions, foreign actors and other forces. With all this in the mix, Abdo said, Lebanon is an interesting test of how the myriad forces across the broader Middle East may find some sort of agreement. Food for thought for the current and coming U.S. administrations.


Rebecca N. White is an apprentice editor at The National Interest.