The clock is ticking on a surprising UN Security Council resolution, passed on September 2, calling on Syria to cease its various forms of interference in Lebanon. France and the United States co-sponsored the call on “all remaining foreign forces to withdraw from Lebanon,” which charged the UN secretary-general to report on progress toward implementation within 30 days of the resolution’s passage. While the final text of the resolution omitted a direct reference to the Syrian forces in Lebanon and passed with the minimum required number of votes, Resolution 1559 was the first in over 20 years to spotlight Syria’s “presence” on the territory and in the politics of its smaller neighbor to the west. In a less noted clause, the final text also called for the “disbanding and disarmament of all Lebanese and non-Lebanese militias,” a reference principally to Hizballah, the Shiite Islamist group that is perhaps Syria’s last remaining bargaining chip in its unresolved conflict with Israel.

A day after Resolution 1559 passed, the Lebanese parliament amended the country’s constitution to grant President Emile Lahoud a three-year extension of his term in office. The Syrian-ordained decision to give Lahoud an additional three years signaled that Damascus has no intention of changing its stance toward Hizballah.

Lahoud has proved a dedicated guardian of Hizballah since taking office in 1998. He has rebuffed international efforts to defang the organization as part of the “war on terrorism.” He has also rejected domestic criticism of Hizballah’s potentially hazardous anti-Israel policies, particularly its de facto control of the volatile Lebanon-Israel border.

Using the Blue Line

Dismantling Hizballah is a red line that Damascus will not even consider while there is no tangible quid pro quo offered in exchange. The armed group’s usefulness to Damascus is most evident along the Blue Line, the UN’s name for Lebanon’s 70-mile frontier with Israel and Israeli-occupied Syria. The Blue Line is the locus of direct military confrontation between Hizballah fighters and the Israeli army.

Hizballah justifies its military actions along the Blue Line as legitimate defense of Lebanese sovereignty or resistance to Israeli occupation of Lebanese territory. The latter includes the group’s periodic mortar and rocket barrages targeting Israeli outposts in the Shebaa Farms, a 15-square mile strip of mountainside running along Lebanon’s southeast border with the Golan Heights, which is Syrian territory occupied by Israel in 1967. (Israel and the UN claim that the farms are part of Syria.) The occasional bursts of cross-border fire from its 57mm anti-aircraft guns are a direct retaliation to Israel’s repeated overflights in Lebanese airspace. Hizballah also uses the Blue Line to settle scores. On three occasions since December 2002, Hizballah has exacted revenge, although not always claiming responsibility, upon Israeli troops on the border for assassinations of its personnel presumably ordered by Israel.

Significant developments in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict also have echoes along the Blue Line. The most recent incident was on March 22 when Hizballah dedicated a mortar and rocket barrage of Israeli outposts in the Shebaa Farms to Hamas spiritual leader Sheikh Ahmad Yassin, who was assassinated the same day in an Israeli helicopter attack. Such responses help burnish Hizballah’s pan-Arab and pan-Islamic resistance credentials while demonstrating to Israel that its policies toward the Palestinians cannot be isolated from the region as a whole.

Strategic Parity

Hizballah’s latest tactic appears to involve enticing Israeli troops to cross the Blue Line and then attacking them. The breach of the Blue Line by Israeli forces is important for Hizballah to be able publicly to present its action as legitimate defense of Lebanese sovereignty, even though it may have manipulated the troops into entering Lebanese territory in the first place. In January, the Israeli operator of a military bulldozer was killed by a TOW anti-tank missile when his vehicle strayed across the line while removing a roadside bomb previously planted on the border by Hizballah. The second, more elaborate trap involved a patrol of Egoz commandos being lured across the Blue Line in the Shebaa Farms and then ambushed with roadside bombs, anti-tank missiles and mortar rounds. One soldier was killed and five others wounded. “The battle is open with Israel,” said Sheikh Naim Qasim, Hizballah’s deputy secretary-general, in justifying the action. “We are not supposed to make them comfortable. It is a basic rule of combat to make the enemy nervous. And we try to achieve this with whatever tool we have at our disposal, be it political or military.”

In July, Maj. Gen. Aharon Zeevi Farkash, the head of Israeli military intelligence, leveled the most detailed allegations yet about an arsenal of rockets said to belong to the Lebanese Shiite militia. He said that Hizballah possesses around 13,000 short-range rockets, some 500 of medium range and a few dozen long-range rockets capable of traveling 70 to 134 miles. Hizballah sticks to a policy of neither confirming nor denying such statements, believing ambiguity to be a psychological weapon in itself. There is no independent confirmation of Farkash’s claims; officers serving with the UN peacekeeping force in south Lebanon say they have seen no rockets. But the Israeli allegations do tally with the group’s overall stance.

The rockets appear to have granted Hizballah a strategic parity with Israel along the Blue Line, deterring the Israeli army from launching a large-scale military operation against the group for fear of strikes against northern Israel. That “balance of terror” continues to hold despite both sides occasionally testing its limits. Israel can live with the periodic flareups along its northern border. So long as there are no major civilian casualties from a Hizballah action—Israel’s red line—the status quo is likely to remain in place for the foreseeable future.

Assisting the Intifada?

Of more immediate concern to Israel is Hizballah’s supposed penetration of the West Bank and Gaza. According to Israeli officials, Hizballah plays a significant role in perpetuating the Palestinian intifada, providing funds, guidance and training to Palestinian militants. In August, Israel’s Yediot Aharonot daily quoted an unidentified senior army officer as saying that Hizballah was behind 75 percent of Palestinian military operations in the West Bank. “The involvement of Hizballah in Palestinian operations is no longer a secret matter, but is common knowledge and it is increasing and expanding,” the officer said.

Hizballah has paid for several suicide attacks, Israel says, including the attack on the port of Ashdod in March, which probably aimed to kill more people than the ten who died. In the wake of the Ashdod bombing, Israeli Chief of Staff Moshe Yaalon averred that “much of the terror in the Palestinian arena today comes from Lebanon and Damascus… In Lebanon, Hizballah has constructed an infrastructure that conducts terror in the Palestinian sphere with Iranian backing.” In July, Shin Bet director Avi Dichter added to this list of accusations, saying that Hizballah was behind most of the weapon smuggling into the West Bank and, in particular, Gaza. He also warned that Hizballah was seeking to turn the Arab community in Israel into a “Trojan horse.”

Hizballah has coopted some of the drug dealers based in south Lebanon and exploited their smuggling connections across the Lebanon-Israel border to establish a number of spy rings among Arab communities in northern Israel. The recruits typically provide information on Israeli military bases and troop movements in northern Israel in exchange for drugs and cash. The Israeli authorities have cracked several spy rings in the past three years; the most infamous was led by a lieutenant colonel in the Israeli army, a Bedouin Arab who ironically lost an eye in a Hizballah roadside bomb attack in south Lebanon in 1996.

Hizballah has usually responded to allegations of involvement in Israel and the Occupied Territories with an awkward mix of ambiguity, semi-denials and vague confessions. But in March 2002, Sayyid Hasan Nasrallah, recently reelected to a fifth term as Hizballah’s secretary-general, admitted for the first time that his organization was offering direct assistance to the Palestinians after two Hizballah militants were arrested by the Jordanian authorities for attempting to smuggle Katyusha rockets into the West Bank. Far from temporizing, Nasrallah said that “it is a duty to send arms to Palestinians from any possible place.”

The Hizballah leader was even more explicit in July at the funeral of Ghalib Awali, a veteran party official who was killed in a car bomb blast in southern Beirut. Nasrallah hailed Awali as a member of the “team that dedicated their lives in the last few years to support his brothers in occupied Palestine. We do not want to hide this truth but we announce it and are proud of it.” The prolongation of the intifada is of prime strategic importance to Hizballah, as it gives the organization continued relevance as a resistance force and places it in the vanguard of the struggle against Israel. “The central point is that Israel occupies Arab land and launches attacks against the region. That’s why we consider the problem is not only one of a few kilometers occupied by Israel [the Shebaa Farms],” Qasim said. “We believe we should stand by the side of the Palestinians because it is our cause too, for religious reasons&hellipand moral reasons. That’s why we support the intifada with all the means we can.”

If meaningful Israeli-Palestinian peace talks were to resume, Hizballah would find its theater of anti-Israel operations confined to the contours of the Blue Line, where rocket attacks and the like are more an irritant to Israel than the threat that Hizballah seeks to pose in the Occupied Territories. Nasrallah underscored the party’s main strategic aim when he rejected the terms of Resolution 1559. “The disarmament of militias means disarming the resistance,” he said. “All the world knows that the disarmament of the resistance Hizballah is an Israeli demand. Today, the Israeli demands are contained in a Security Council resolution.”

Ranking Hizballah

Aside from alleged mischief in the Occupied Territories, Hizballah’s detractors say that it is a terrorist organization with global reach, actively conspiring to attack US and Israeli targets. In 2002, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage famously described Hizballah as the “A-Team of terrorists,” proceeding to suggest that “maybe al-Qaeda is actually the B-Team.” The bipartisan 9/11 Commission’s report on the September 11, 2001 attacks in the US, released in July 2004, again raised questions about Hizballah’s links to international terrorism, including al-Qaeda. Hizballah, the report said, had provided training to al-Qaeda militants in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley and personnel from each organization had been in contact on several occasions. The report concluded that its inquiry “found no evidence that Iran or Hezbollah [sic] were aware of the planning for what later became the 9/11 attack.” However, the commissioners continued, “We believe this topic requires further investigation by the US government.”

Hizballah’s apologists, by contrast, claim that the organization has abandoned its anti-Western militancy of the 1980s, having evolved into a pragmatic mainstream Lebanese political party beholden to the interests of its Shiite constituency.

The truth probably lies somewhere in between. Hizballah has become an important player in the Lebanese political arena since the end of the 1975-1990 civil war. It boasts a political bloc of 12 MPs (nine Hizballah MPs and three allies), the fourth largest group in the Lebanese parliament. Hizballah’s extensive social welfare network has earned it respect from Muslims and Christians alike. Nonetheless, it does possess “global reach” in the form of sympathizers and supporters found among Lebanese Shiite communities around the world. For the most part these groups, or cells, generate funds for Hizballah through the collection of religious donations or from private businesses, some of them illegal as shown by the 2003 conviction of four Lebanese-Americans from North Carolina for interstate cigarette smuggling. The cells also conduct surveillance of US and Israeli embassies and facilities, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation and other US intelligence sources. FBI officials, however, told Congress in 2002 that the surveillance of US facilities was more a “vetting tool” for new recruits than evidence of intent to carry out attacks.

While there may have been some contacts, even cooperation, in the past, there are strong ideological differences between Hizballah and al-Qaeda that preclude a long-term partnership. Although Hizballah cooperates with some Sunni organizations, such as Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, the strict Salafi creed of al-Qaeda, which treats Shiites as apostates, is anathema to Hizballah and its other regional sponsor Iran. Nasrallah has publicly opposed the mass suicide bombings and videotaped executions of hostages perpetrated by extremist Sunni militants in Iraq. “Indiscriminate and arbitrary acts are not resistance activities,” he declared in a speech at the end of June. “The true resistance should protect its people and not kill them.” Moreover, the Hizballah leader has referred to al-Qaeda as a “prejudiced, radical group…one that lives in the Middle Ages and claims to belong to Islam.”

Ranking Hizballah higher than al-Qaeda on the list of terrorist organizations reflects the deep antipathy for the Lebanese organization among many officials in the Bush administration, some of whom served under President Ronald Reagan in the 1980s and harbor bitter memories of the Marine barracks bombing in October 1983 in which 241 American personnel were killed. Yet the acts of international terrorism associated with Hizballah in the 1990s were relatively few and were mainly directed at Israeli targets. Al-Qaeda, on the other hand, has in the past six years alone blown up two American embassies, disabled a US Navy warship and carried out the catastrophic attacks of September 11, 2001, in all killing nearly 3,500 people.

Although Hizballah has a general ideological aversion to the cultural dominance of the Judeo-Christian West, its anti-American rhetoric is primarily a product of Washington’s consistent and long-standing support for Israel. “Hizballah confronts America politically. If America attacks us militarily, then we have the right to self-defense. But now we consider ourselves in a political fight with America,” Qasim said. “Our priority is to face Israel. This is our direction.”

Damascus Misjudges

Part of Syria’s goal in exerting pressure upon Lebanese parliamentarians to prolong Lahoud’s presidency was to retain its grip on a “Lebanese card” in its own confrontation with Israel. But Damascus appears to have misjudged the reaction of the international community and even fellow Arab nations to its strong-arm tactics, which came in the teeth of much Lebanese protest. Syria’s support for Lahoud had the rare distinction of uniting the US and France on a Middle East policy issue. France in the past has served as a counterpoint to US criticism of Syria and Lebanon, and Damascus can ill afford to alienate Paris when under growing diplomatic and political isolation. On September 13, the foreign ministers of the Gulf Cooperation Council issued a call upon Damascus to respect the terms of Resolution 1559. On the same day, Jordanian Foreign Minister Marwan Muasher also cautioned Syria and Lebanon not to reject the stipulations of the UN’s decision. “There is no room for opposing a Security Council resolution, regardless of how much we agree or disagree with it, so that we don’t open a door for others to oppose decisions that concern us,” he said.

Indeed, despite its defiant rhetoric, there are indications that Damascus is attempting to reengage with the US and appease international opinion. The pan-Arab al-Hayat newspaper reported in early September that Damascus played a role in helping end the fighting in the Iraqi holy city of Najaf in which the Mahdi Army of maverick Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr clashed with US and Iraqi forces. Damascus has also been making a greater effort to deter militants from crossing its 400-mile border with Iraq, a fact that has been acknowledged by the interim Iraqi government. Following a visit to Damascus on September 11, William Burns, assistant secretary of state for Near East affairs, confirmed that Washington and Damascus were seeking practical means of cooperation on securing the Syria-Iraq frontier.

Two days after the UN Security Council resolution was passed, Syrian President Bashar al-Asad told two former US diplomats that he was willing to resume unconditional peace talks with Israel, his third such declaration since December 2003. Furthermore, Damascus appears to be planning countermeasures prior to the planned convention of the Security Council at the close of September to consider its degree of compliance with Resolution 1559. One includes a limited redeployment of Syrian troops from Lebanon. Another, according to the September 3 edition of Lebanon’s al-Safir newspaper, is for the Lebanese government to formally incorporate Hizballah’s military wing into the national defense structure.

Nasrallah addressed this theme the same day. “Today, in Lebanon there is an official Lebanese institution called the Lebanese army and a popular resistance organization called the resistance,” he said in a speech aired on the party’s al-Manar television station. “Within one strategy, these two complement each other. They cooperate and share the roles in protecting and forming a fence around the homeland.” Establishing Hizballah formally, if not practically, as an adjunct of the Lebanese army would be an attempt to deflect the repeated calls of the US and UN Security Council for Beirut to deploy Lebanese troops along the border with Israel. It could also help to mollify Arab chanceries while allowing Syria and Hizballah to retain credibility as keepers of the Arabist flame in public opinion.

How to cite this article:

Nicholas Blanford "Hizballah and Syria’s “Lebanese Card”," Middle East Report Online, September 14, 2004.

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