U.S. Push Could End Hezbollah’s Domination of Lebanon

By Evelyn Gordon
JINSA Fellow

By Evelyn Gordon
JINSA Fellow

When massive protests forced Syria to withdraw its forces from Lebanon in 2005, it seemed that Lebanon had finally been liberated from foreign domination. But the liberation proved illusory: The country remained in thrall to Hezbollah, which took its orders from Iran and Syria. Hezbollah’s dominance was dramatically demonstrated in 2008, when it staged an armed takeover of Beirut to keep the government from dismantling its telecommunications network and ending its control of airport security. The resulting “reconciliation” agreement granted it veto power over all government decisions.

Now, an opportunity has finally arisen to finish what the Cedar Revolution began – and also to seriously weaken an organization that some U.S. officials have dubbed “the greatest threat to American national security.” Hezbollah’s dominance depends on a constant supply of arms and money. But the collapse of Syria’s Assad regime could significantly reduce the first, while European Union (EU) designation of Hezbollah as a terrorist organization – now a real possibility thanks to both Bulgaria’s recent announcement that Hezbollah was behind last July’s terror attack in Burgas and the trial of a self-confessed Hezbollah operative in Cyprus – could significantly reduce the second.

Yet without American help, both developments may fail to materialize.

Granted, most of Syria looks likely to fall to the Sunni rebels even without American aid. And the rebels are highly unlikely to continue Assad’s role as the main conduit of Iranian arms to Hezbollah: They loathe the Lebanese Shi’ite organization, which has been fighting alongside Assad’s troops. Thus in theory, this development would shut off Hezbollah’s main source of arms.

But, as the Washington Post reported this month, Iran has made contingency plans for this possibility by building a Syrian version of Hezbollah – a well-armed, well-trained, well-funded militia with as many as 50,000 members. For now, these militiamen are supporting Assad. But Plan B is for them to withdraw to an enclave along the coast where most of Syria’s Shi’ites and Alawites live. Such an enclave would be far easier to defend than Syria as a whole: Being smaller, it would have shorter defensive lines; its Shi’ite-Alawite population would be largely supportive, unlike Syria’s hostile Sunni majority; it would “still have the most powerful [armed] unit inside Syria,” as Paul Salem, director of the Beirut-based Middle East Center of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told the Post; and it could be constantly resupplied with Iranian arms via its seaports, and perhaps also an airport.

In short, given the rebels’ current capabilities, such an enclave could well survive even if they take the rest of Syria. And if so, Hezbollah’s arms conduit would also survive: The coastal enclave would border Lebanon, enabling Iranian arms to continue flowing into that country.

Thus if Washington wants to prevent this, it, too, must begin contingency planning.

Admittedly, the issue is not simple: For instance, while giving the rebels more sophisticated arms could alter the balance of power, such arms could also be used to massacre Shi’ites and Alawites. Moreover, America is not interested in helping Syria fall into the lap of radical Sunnis, who could well prove as destabilizing to Lebanon as the Assad regime was – and even more so to Jordan, Iraq and Israel.

Yet, by specifically arming more moderate rebel forces, Washington could alter the Sunni-Shi’ite balance of power while also marginally improving the odds against a radical Sunni takeover. Radical Sunnis are in the ascendant now mainly because they are far better armed than the moderates. Such aid might also improve relations a bit with Syria’s Sunnis, who currently resent America bitterly for having done nothing but “stand by and watch” as Assad’s forces slaughtered them.

This policy would have been far more effective a year ago. But even today, it could slightly improve the chances of a better outcome in Syria while also helping to bring down Hezbollah. In contrast, doing nothing will likely result in both Hezbollah’s survival and a radical Sunni regime in Syria.

But if the military issue is complex, the financial one is a no-brainer. Hezbollah raises substantial sums of money in Europe, which the EU could halt by designating it as a terrorist organization. Indeed, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah himself said such a designation “would dry up the sources of finance” and “end moral, political and material support” for Hezbollah. And with Hezbollah operatives having been incriminated for a deadly terror attack on EU soil, and now on trial for plotting another in Cyprus, the time would seem ripe.

Nevertheless, several key EU countries strongly oppose designation. France and Germany reportedly tried to keep the issue from even arising by lobbying Bulgaria to refrain from blaming Hezbollah; France also warned that EU designation could endanger French peacekeepers in Lebanon. The attitude was epitomized by the EU’s top counterterrorism official, Gilles de Kerchove. Even if Hezbollah perpetrated the Burgas bombing, he said, “you need to ask yourself: ‘Is this [designation] the right thing to do?’ … Given the situation in Lebanon, which is a highly fragile, highly fragmented country, is listing it going to help you achieve what you want? … There is no automatic listing just because you have been behind a terrorist attack. It’s not only the legal requirement that you have to take into consideration, it’s also a political assessment of the context and the timing.”

Thus to obtain EU action, Washington may need to engage in massive diplomatic arm-twisting. Fortunately, it currently has exceptional leverage over Paris, the leading opponent of designation, because France still needs American help (intelligence, transport, midair refueling aircraft, etc.) for its ongoing military operation in Mali. Washington should not hesitate to exploit this leverage.

It should also consider assuaging French concerns over its peacekeepers in Lebanon by moving to end UNIFIL’s mandate. The UN peacekeeping force neither prevented Hezbollah’s 2006 war with Israel nor kept it from rearming afterward; thus if a trade-off is needed, UNIFIL does far less to keep the peace than would an EU designation that could substantially weaken Hezbollah – which, after all, is Lebanon’s main source of both internal instability and tension with Israel.

The current confluence of events provides a unique opportunity to finally end Hezbollah’s grip on Lebanon. But Washington must seize the moment. If it misses this opportunity, the next one may be a long time coming.

Evelyn Gordon, JINSA Fellow, is a journalist and commentator writing in The Jerusalem Post and Commentary. For more information on the JINSA Fellowship program, click here.