Hizballah in the Firing Line

by Nicholas Blanford | published April 28, 2003

The overthrow of Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq and Washington's recent pressure on Syria have placed Lebanon's Hizballah organization firmly in the firing line in the next phase of George W. Bush's war on terrorism. But Hizballah is confident that its strategic alliance with Damascus will remain unbroken and it hopes that a backlash against US forces in Iraq in the coming weeks and months will reduce Washington's incentive to pursue Syria, Iran and Hizballah. Nonetheless, Hizballah potentially faces the greatest challenge of its 18-year history, with the US viewing the organization as a possible threat to its position in Iraq, a continuing menace to its ally Israel and an impediment to the successful implementation of a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.

Keen Not to Intervene

The war in Iraq posed a dilemma for Hizballah. On the one hand, it had little sympathy for Saddam Hussein and his regime, which had oppressed the group's fellow Shiites in numerous ways. On the other hand, Hizballah strongly opposed US military intervention in the heartland of the Arab world, which it viewed as Washington's first step toward a radical alteration of the strategic map of the Middle East to suit Israel's purposes.

During the buildup to the US-led invasion of Iraq, Hizballah's secretary-general, Sayyid Hasan Nasrallah, proposed a reconciliation initiative whereby Saddam Hussein would have mended fences with elements of the Iraqi opposition to create a new government in Baghdad, thus obviating the need for external military intervention. Nasrallah's plan, based on the Taif Accord which ended Lebanon's 1975-1990 civil war, stood little chance of success and was generally ignored by the relevant parties. Other than that failed initiative, Hizballah has remained on the sidelines of developments in Iraq, confining itself to dire predictions of Iraqi and Arab uprisings against the US military. "We tell them, do not expect that the people of this region will receive you with flowers, rice and rose water. The region's people will receive you with rifles, blood, weapons, martyrdom and martyrdom operations," Nasrallah said in a March 2003 speech marking the tenth day of Ashura—the Shiite commemoration of the death of the venerated imam Hussein on the plain of Karbala in the seventh century.

During the fighting in Iraq, there were persistent, though unconfirmed, reports that Hizballah fighters had entered the country, along with hundreds of other Arab volunteers, to fight US and British forces. Although Hizballah has close relations with the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), an Iranian-backed opposition Shiite group headed by Sheikh Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim, the party says it will not intercede in Iraq. "We talked about our point of view on the American invasion, our experience in Lebanon and our vision of the region," said Sheikh Naim Qasim, Hizballah's deputy secretary-general, "but we were keen on not intervening in the choices that the [Iraqi] opposition makes, even if we had contradictory opinions."

Hizballah anticipates and hopes that Washington's "military administration" will founder in Iraq, but the party is not expected to play a direct role in fomenting anti-US activities. The Iraqis have the capabilities to launch an armed uprising or guerrilla war without Hizballah's support. The Badr Brigades, SCIRI's armed wing, number some 15,000 fighters—about three times the size of Hizballah's paramilitary force. If some form of Iraqi resistance against US and British forces does emerge in the coming months, Hizballah will limit itself to moral support in the form of enthusiastic and unstinting propaganda on its al-Manar satellite channel. Hizballah's geopolitical priority is still to defeat Israel, and it will not allow other crises in the region to deflect the organization's efforts from that central goal. Furthermore, there are more pressing matters closer to home that require Hizballah's attention: Washington's relationship with Syria and its consequences for Hizballah, and the lingering possibility of an Israeli attack on the party in south Lebanon. To that extent, and despite Hizballah's pan-Arab and pan-Islamic agenda, the party knows that direct intervention in Iraq will needlessly incur the further wrath of Washington, and risk upsetting relations with some Iraqi Shiites who could resent what they perceive as unwanted outside interference from an Iranian proxy.

Hizballah and Syria

As the relationship between Hizballah and Syria has grown closer since Bashar al-Asad replaced his father, Hafiz, as president in July 2000, the Shiite party has become convinced that no amount of US pressure will break the mutually beneficial strategic alliance. Syria still views Hizballah as a card to play in any future negotiations with Israel, perhaps its only real card given the debilitated Syrian military. Hizballah regards Syrian support as vital for it to maintain an overt and sanctioned military stance in Lebanon, despite the withdrawal in May 2000 of Israeli forces from south Lebanon, an event which threatened to undermine the party's rhetoric of resistance. Hizballah does not expect an imminent US attack on Syria, but in a speech on April 22, Nasrallah called on Arabs and Muslims to defend Syria should the need arise. "In case of a military aggression [against Syria] from any side, Arabs and Muslims everywhere should be ready to fight," he declared.

Given the strength of the relationship—cemented by personal friendship between Asad and Nasrallah—it is unlikely that Syria will yield to US diplomatic pressure to end its support for Hizballah. This is particularly true if Washington is unwilling to provide some carrots along with the sticks, and there is little evidence that the Bush administration, ebullient about its military success in Iraq, is in a mood to bargain with Damascus. Visiting Damascus on April 26, Rep. Tom Lantos (D-CA) publicly demanded that Syria cease backing Hizballah, withdraw its forces from Lebanon and commence internal reforms, indicating that the White House will continue to face Congressional pressure to get tough with Syria. Meanwhile, the April 18 change in government in Lebanon to include even more pro-Syrian cabinet ministers has tightened the already firm grip of Damascus on its tiny neighbor, a fact that will strengthen Hizballah's sense of security.

Asad's long-term view of Hizballah and Palestinian groups classified as terrorist organizations by Washington was indicated in a remark he made to another visiting Congressional delegation on April 20. According to one of the Congressmen, Darrell Issa (R-CA), Asad said that Hizballah and the Palestinian groups would "by definition fade away" once a regional peace settlement had been achieved. Asad's comment echoed another he made in an interview with the London-based al-Wasat weekly in August 1999, a year before he became president, in which he said that Hizballah's fighters would return to civilian life "when the causes that led to the resistance are gone."

As long as the Syrian-Israeli track of the peace process remains stalled, Hizballah will be permitted to maintain its military footing in Lebanon. However, if a full peace deal were to be concluded between Syria and Israel, followed by Lebanon and Israel, which included open borders and diplomatic exchanges, Hizballah would have no choice but to dismantle its military wing, the Islamic Resistance, and channel its anti-Israel energies in non-violent directions. While this eventuality is not to its liking, Hizballah will adapt accordingly in order to survive.

State of Alert

Days before the war began in Iraq, Hizballah deployed several additional anti-aircraft batteries along the Lebanon-Israel border and placed its fighters on a maximum state of alert. For months the Lebanese have feared the possibility of Israel launching a military assault against Hizballah in south Lebanon using the conflict in Iraq as cover. The Lebanon-Israel border has remained a locus of tension ever since Hizballah launched its campaign in October 2000 to liberate the Shebaa Farms, a 15-square mile mountainside running along Lebanon's southeastern border with the Syrian Golan Heights occupied by Israel since 1967. The Shebaa Farms was initially regarded as a potential spark that could ignite a war between Syria and Israel. But Hizballah's sporadic mortar bombardments of heavily fortified Israeli army outposts in the farms has become routine and, if anything, a useful safety valve. Operations in the remote and unpopulated Shebaa Farms allow Hizballah to maintain the pretense of resistance against occupation without risking Israeli civilian casualties which could provoke a powerful backlash from Israel.

Hizballah possesses a formidable arsenal, much of which has been stashed away in secret locations in south Lebanon. Fighters man around 25 border observation posts and have constructed a series of underground bunkers. Hizballah is open about its preparations; the leadership's constant refrain is that it is "ready for all eventualities." "Since May 2000, the resistance has been preparing for war, because Israel wants to avenge its defeat in Lebanon," Nasrallah warned on April 24. "We are ready to confront any Israeli or US aggression." Israel says that among Hizballah's arsenal are long-range Iranian rockets capable of striking targets deep inside Israeli territory. Peacekeepers serving with the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) say they have seen no evidence of these weapons, and there has been no other independent verification of the Israeli charge. UNIFIL has confirmed, however, that the party has amassed a substantial number of its traditional armaments, including 122 mm and 107mm Katyusha rockets, 120 mm mortars, 57 mm anti-aircraft guns, Sagger and TOW anti-tank missiles.

Hizballah has achieved what may be termed a "balance of terror" through its military buildup along the border. Should Israel attack Lebanon, Hizballah would unleash its weaponry against Israel. That strategic parity has deterred Israel from launching heavy reprisals for Hizballah's Shebaa Farms attacks and other incidents along the border. Israeli defense officials have repeatedly stated they cannot tolerate indefinitely the threat posed by Hizballah's well-armed and highly motivated forces along Israel's northern border. But a major military assault against Hizballah would be costly for Israel in terms of Hizballah's retaliation and the possible loss of diplomatic capital if the campaign in Lebanon became too bloody and destructive.

Nasrallah certainly views the situation this way. "We may not be able to prevent them from entering our territory and cities," he said. "But their entry will be extremely costly and they will not be able to stay in this land. We have the will and determination to fight, backed by a public that has 20 years of experience in resistance and a youth ready for sacrifice, like in Palestine." Furthermore, while Hizballah enjoys the backing of Syria, Israel cannot guarantee that such an assault would succeed in neutralizing the party's military capabilities.

With a military solution an unrealistic option, Washington is seeking to undermine the all-important strategic relationship between Syria and Hizballah by applying diplomatic pressure on Damascus. That initiative takes on additional relevance with the imminent release of the road map charting the path to Palestinian statehood. Israel, which is known to have reservations over the road map, may be more amenable to accepting it if Washington is able to remove Hizballah from Israel's northern border.

"Global Reach"

The Bush administration's chief complaint against Hizballah has less to do with its current military stance in south Lebanon than with its potential for international terrorism. Hizballah has ranked high on US lists of terrorist organizations ever since the mid-1980s, when Lebanese Shiites allegedly carried out a series of devastating attacks against Western targets in Beirut. These include the suicide bombing of the US embassy in April 1983 and the suicide truck bombing of the US Marine barracks beside Beirut's airport six months later. More than 300 people died in these attacks. Hizballah also has been linked to the hijacking of TWA Flight 847 in 1985, the kidnapping of Westerners in Beirut in the late 1980s and two bomb attacks against Israeli and Jewish targets in Buenos Aires in 1992 and 1994.

Yet it has never been proven categorically that Hizballah, as an institution, ordered these attacks and kidnappings. Even the State Department uses the phrase "known or suspected" as a qualifier in its rap sheet against Hizballah. The weight of evidence thus far collected has clearly implicated Iran as the initiator behind most incidents, though Lebanese individuals, such as the elusive Imad Mughnieh, were instructed to carry them out. The bombing of the US Marine barracks was conducted against a military target—other than the bomber, only American soldiers were killed—rendering debatable this event's classification as terrorism. Furthermore, after years of investigation, Robert Baer, a former CIA operative, concluded that the 1983 US embassy bombing was carried out by Palestinians, connected to the Fatah faction of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, acting on the instructions of Iran with Mughnieh as the link. A former Lebanese intelligence official has told the author that Baer's findings match his own investigation.

Mughnieh is often described as Hizballah's security chief. But no firm evidence has been produced that he takes his orders from Hizballah or has any established organizational link with the group. Mughnieh is generally believed by Western intelligence services to work directly under Iranian intelligence and to use a small circle of trusted Lebanese Shiites to carry out the instructions of hardliners in Tehran.

While Hizballah's ideological pillars remain unchanged since its formal founding in 1985, it has demonstrated pragmatism and a willingness to compromise to ensure its own survival. It is perhaps noteworthy that the last serious terrorist attack for which Hizballah has been directly blamed occurred almost a decade ago in Argentina. Even then, the findings of an Argentinian investigation into the 1994 bombing point to Iran as the instigator and organizer, with arrest warrants issued for four Iranian diplomats.

The only three countries that classify Hizballah as a terrorist organization are the US, Canada and Israel. Canada added the party to its list on December 11, 2002 amid intensive lobbying and a threatened lawsuit by pro-Israel groups. Britain and the European Union, which have both compiled lists of terrorist organizations, differentiate between Hizballah, the political party which has a presence in the Lebanese parliament, maintains a social network and has a military wing called the Islamic Resistance, and what they call the External Security Organization, an umbrella name under which all the terrorist acts associated with the group are lumped. Diplomatic missions in Beirut, including the British embassy but not the US embassy, regularly meet with leading Hizballah figures.

US officials often describe Hizballah as having a "global reach." Evidence of this fearsome capacity was cited in the US in 2003 when 11 people were convicted of channeling the profits from an inter-state cigarette smuggling operation to Hizballah. Law enforcement officials in North Carolina hailed the case, in which the ringleader was sentenced to 155 years, as an example of how to indict terrorists. Yet the profits declared in court as having been sent to Hizballah amounted to only $3,500. Hizballah does have wide international support, not only among Lebanese Shiite expatriates but among Arabs in general. Much of Hizballah's funding is generated by donations, often from middle-class Shiite businessmen who respect Hizballah's reputation for honesty, a rare attribute in Lebanese politics. These donations, in addition to funds from Iran and Hizballah's own business ventures, contribute to the maintenance of the group's extensive network of clinics, hospitals, construction activities, television and radio stations, all of which far outweigh its military expenditures.

Next Target?

The seeming eradication of al-Qaeda's stronghold in Afghanistan and the removal of Saddam Hussein in Iraq makes Hizballah the next logical target for the Bush administration in the war on terrorism, particularly given the expected focus on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process in the coming weeks. Hizballah is so closely associated with international terrorism in the perception of the West that the shaky evidence upon which these allegations are based will make no difference to Washington strategists and policy planners.

There is no question that Hizballah remains a threat to Israel. The party's "Open Letter" of 1985 calls for the destruction of the Jewish state, and its leadership remains committed to that goal. It has assisted the Palestinians in their intifada, openly through speeches and propaganda broadcasts on al-Manar and clandestinely through arms smuggling and specialized training of fighters. Hizballah believes that the continuation of the intifada is of vital strategic importance.

The party's penchant for strident anti-American rhetoric—which may intensify depending on developments in Iraq and Washington's policies toward Syria and Iran—will provide further ammunition to those who argue that it poses a significant terrorist threat to the US. Yet Hizballah's pragmatism and acute survival instincts will militate strongly against any sort of campaign against American targets. Even if the US should attack Syria or Hizballah in Lebanon, the party would almost certainly direct its retaliation at Israel.

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