Hezbollah's Armory Up for Debate


Jun 12, 2008

This commentary originally appeared in United Press International and the Middle East Times on June 12, 2008.

Hezbollah's recent flexing of its muscles in Lebanon may well lead to an unintended effect -- the long-overdue disarming of the militant group.

A new dynamic is certainly at work. Hezbollah suggested for the first time that its weapons might now be used not only against outsiders -- namely, Israel -- but also against Lebanese. The Lebanese people replied in effect, for the first time, that they were well and truly fed up.

Now, after the Qatar talks, Lebanon finally has a new president, army Chief Gen. Michel Sleiman. The Lebanese opposition and majority also agreed on the establishment of a government that gives veto power to the opposition, and committed not to resort to violence.

Most importantly, it was agreed that the question of Hezbollah's arsenal will be discussed.

Lebanon had been suffering from an 18-month political deadlock that started with the resignation of six pro-Syrian ministers. The question of Hezbollah's weaponry and intentions are now, more than ever, on the table -- and can only be resolved by an internal Lebanese dialogue.

Until these recent events, Hezbollah could hang onto its arms by invoking the Israeli threat and the unresolved "four bleeding wounds" -- the disputed Sheba'a Farms on the Lebanese-Syrian-Israeli borders, the Israeli air force "buzzing" over Lebanon, the return of Lebanese detainees from Israel, and the map of land mines Israel planted in southern Lebanon before 2000, along with the coordinates of cluster bombs dropped during the 2006 war with Hezbollah. Hezbollah may well try to postpone dialogue by finding new excuses. Its secretary general, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, has been arguing that Hezbollah will not disarm until all Lebanese "build a strong and just state that is capable of protecting the nation and the citizens."

Even so, this new dynamic presents an opportunity for the United States. It could work with the international community -- including Arab states that see Hezbollah's actions as a national security threat -- and push Israel to resolve these four wounds. There is no guarantee that Hezbollah will disarm when these wounds are healed. But, over time, they are additional tools the Lebanese people can use to force Hezbollah to lay down its weapons. As for prisoners and remains in both countries, Israel and Hezbollah could, as they did in the past, work closely with the International Committee of the Red Cross to find a way to exchange prisoners.

Once the four wounds are healed -- and prisoners/remains are exchanged -- Hezbollah will face increasing internal Lebanese pressure to disarm. The Lebanese people will not so willingly accept rhetoric about where weapons are pointed. The 2006 war seemed to show that it is all but impossible to disarm Hezbollah. Yet Hezbollah's recent "coup" was miscalculated. In a search for legitimacy, they may now, in coordination with Syria and Iran, try to devise a trap that forces Israel to engage in a third war with Lebanon.

The United States and the international community will have to be alert for any such trigger and encourage Israel to resist action that could erupt into regional war. Indeed, since the February killing of Hezbollah's commander Imad Mughniyah in Damascus, Hezbollah has been carefully studying and preparing revenge as it has accused Israel, and possibly Saudi Arabia, of being responsible and in doing so may be seeking a way to avoid disarming. Although the bulk of Hezbollah's military might is in missiles aimed toward Israel, a more salient part of its power is its weapons cache. However, with the revelation of indirect peace negotiations between Syria and Israel under Turkish sponsorship -- officially announced on the same day of the Doha settlement -- Hezbollah might find itself with less leverage.

A trigger might be pulled sooner than later. As a famous Arab saying goes: "I against my brother; I and my brother against my cousin; I and my brother and my cousin against the world." Israel should avoid reunifying the Lebanese behind Hezbollah's weaponry through a military intervention. At the same time, the United States and the international community will have to work hard to prevent other groups in Lebanon from rearming. And the United States should continue its efforts to train and equip the Lebanese army and the internal security force.

Momentum is on the side of diplomacy. With the Lebanese people fed up, and international pressure building, it might just have a shot at positive unintended consequences.

© 2008 United Press International

Theodore Karasik is a senior political scientist and Ghassan Schbley is a research assistant at the RAND Corp., a non-profit institution that helps improve policy and decision-making through research and analysis.

This op-ed appeared almost identically in both the United Press International and the Middle East Times. The version above is taken directly from United Press International, and The Middle East Times version can be found at www.metimes.com/Opinion/2008/06/06/lebanon_pulling_the_trigger_on_weapons/5997.

More About This Commentary

Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.