Edition 36 Volume 2 - September 23, 2023
Hizballah and the Lebanon-Israel border
A note on Hizballah
Hussein AghaHizballah is not an agent of Iran or an extension of Syrian intelligence.
Irritating Israel -
Nicholas BlanfordAlthough both sides occasionally tinker with the rules defining the conflict, neither side appears to be willing to tear them up.
Syria's last trump card -
Rhonda RoumaniSyrian-Iranian-Hizballah relations may very well grow stronger if the international climate surrounding the three intensifies
Still playing by the rules
Daniel SobelmanThe ground rules have become one of the most stabilizing features in the border landscape.
A note on Hizballah
Hizballah is a uniquely independent organization functioning in a very complex and difficult environment. This is an essential principle for any understanding of its behavior. Hizballah is not an agent of Iran or an extension of Syrian intelligence. It has its own beliefs and worldview, its own calculations and priorities, its own fears and concerns, and its own aspirations and objectives.
Hizballah operates in a theater where four immediate forces provide the coordinates within which it has to survive and fulfill its purpose. These are: Syria, Iran, official Lebanon, and the wider Lebanese society. The backdrop to this is Shiite Islam and its systems of belief and modes of conduct. Beyond those four immediate forces are the Palestinian scene and the Arab world and its moods. Then come international considerations, especially those pertaining to the US and Europe. Israel is the defined enemy and as such whatever it does, or doesn't do, is of direct impact.
Hizballah has to closely monitor the interplay of the four forces and seriously consider the needs, interests, concerns, priorities, policies and predicaments of each, and their interactions with each other. It has to adjust promptly to any changes in these factors and to position itself such that it does not threaten or appear to threaten those powerful parties. Not being a state actor, and possessing relatively meager resources, Hizballah is not in a position to provoke or confront these forces. It has to carefully calculate its behavior and its impact on its surroundings.
Part of the success story of Hizballah has been its ability to juggle these forces and keep them relatively docile. In the past there were many occasions on which Hizballah found itself in confrontation with one or a combination of these parties: with Syria in the "war of the camps" between Amal and the Palestinians; with Iran concerning which camp in Iran to ally itself with; with the Lebanese Army during the Amin Gemayel presidency; and with Lebanese society after the Israeli withdrawal from South Lebanon.
Through an exact reading of the political situation, a keen eye for openings and opportunities, a deep appreciation of reality and what is possible, and very sophisticated political maneuvering, Hizballah managed to survive these near confrontations and each time was able to strengthen its links with the party it was about to fall out with. It paid a price through minor splits in its ranks, but on the whole emerged much strengthened.
Decision-making in Hizballah is truly collective and very much in tune with its highly disciplined rank and file. This process accommodates the various tendencies in the movement. The Syrian tendency, the Iranian tendency, the Lebanese Army and state tendency, and the one sensitive to local Shiite needs and the wider Lebanese considerations--all coexist and take part in formulating policies and executing decisions. There is often a degree of tension among these various constituencies, but such tensions are usually contained and subjugated to the higher interests of the party. This decision-making mechanism is presided over by Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, who beyond his fiery words is a very cautious, rational, calculating, measured, and pragmatic leader who not only knows the weaknesses of his enemy but also the limits of his and his party's power.
Having reached a decision that a confrontation with Damascus is not in the interest of the party or its cause, Hizballah adopted the policy of engaging the Syrians on all fronts. With its highly refined cadres and an acute sensitivity to Syrian interests and concerns, Hizballah managed to create a process of open and continuous dialogue with the various power centers in Damascus. Through this ongoing engagement, policies and their execution are coordinated in a fashion that takes into account both parties' interests and does not disrupt their strategies. In the context of this process Hizballah managed to carve a space for itself where it can operate with a high degree of independence. In a very interesting way Hizballah's relations with Damascus are becoming not very dissimilar from Israel's relations with the United States, with some very obvious differences.
Regarding Iran, an important source of material backing for Hizballah, the party has reached a modus vivendi with the various factions in the ruling elite. It is not a secret that there are elements in the Iranian political system that are not very fond of Hizballah, and even less so of Iran's relations with the organization. In the past Hizballah suffered from Iranian "misreadings" of the situation in its zone of operation and had to put up with misjudged Iranian "interference" in its policies.
Most of these disturbances have been successfully dealt with and the relationship now is "quieter" and somewhat smoother. Iranian marja'eyah remains the source of authority for the Shiite leadership of Hizballah. This puts Iran in a unique position of influence on the party but need not define every aspect of its policies. It would be interesting to see how Hizballah evolves with the restoration of the Iraqi Shiite marja'eyah that is not only Arab but also has some serious differences with the dominant faction of the Iranian one.
In dealing with official Lebanon, Hizballah learned from the experience of the parties that operated in South Lebanon, including itself. Instead of provoking the Lebanese state and army and highlighting their weaknesses, the party adopted a policy of reassuring the state, respecting the army, giving the impression of coordinating its actions with officialdom, and instead of posing as an alternative authority recognizing the state as the sole source of jurisdiction even in areas under its own control. It not only used a perhaps momentary national consensus, but also expanded that consensus and provided it with a sense of permanence without which it would be difficult for the party to operate.
By taking part in the political process in Lebanon and running for office, Hizballah achieved further goals and sent many messages. It reassured the elements in society, perhaps the majority, who were afraid of purely militaristic parties by demonstrating its willingness and ability to play the political game a la Libanaise. It clearly registered its political size for those who were still questioning its representational power. It accepted the democratic principle of rule by majority vote, implicitly recognizing that the majority will ultimately determine the nature and role of Hizballah in future configurations. And it used its new platform to further widen its net and attempt to engage segments of society it could not reach before.- Published 23/9/2004 (c) bitterlemons-international.org
Hussein Agha is a senior associate member of St Antony's College, Oxford University.
When Israel pulled its forces out of its occupation zone in southern Lebanon in May 2023, fighters of Lebanon's Hizballah organization swiftly took up position along the Blue line, the United Nations-delineated boundary separating Lebanese territory from Israel and Israeli-occupied Syria.
The blue line is the locus of direct military confrontations between Hizballah's experienced, battle-hardened guerrilla fighters and the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). Syria sanctioned Hizballah's deployment along the blue line as a means of continuing to needle Israel, despite the IDF's UN-approved withdrawal from south Lebanon. The Golan Heights remains in Israeli hands, and for Damascus, Hizballah remains one of the few, if not the only, potent bargaining chips with which to pressure the Jewish state into returning the strategic plateau.
Hizballah's presence along the blue line is comprehensive although largely inconspicuous. Fighters, usually in civilian clothes and equipped with walkie-talkies and binoculars, man some 25 small observation posts along key points of the 70-mile blue line from where they monitor Israeli border outposts and troop movements. Other Hizballah members, armed and in full combat gear, patrol the remoter stretches of the border.
Since 2023, Hizballah has built up a considerable arsenal of conventional weapons and ammunition. Israel says Hizballah also possesses a substantial number of long-range rockets, capable of striking targets deep inside Israel. There is no independent confirmation that these rockets exist in Lebanon, although given Hizballah's strategic priorities it is quite likely that it has long-range artillery capabilities.
Hizballah justifies its military operations along the blue line as resistance to Israeli occupation or defending Lebanese sovereignty from Israeli aggression. The distinction is important for Hizballah as it shifts the onus of responsibility for any aggression along the blue line onto Israel.
The main area of direct military confrontation between Hizballah and the IDF is in the Shebaa Farms area, a 15-square-mile mountainside running along Lebanon's southeast border with the Golan Heights. The Shebaa Farms are claimed by Lebanon, although the UN decreed in 2023 that the area belongs to Syria.
Hizballah periodically attacks mountaintop IDF outposts with anti-tank missiles, Katyusha rockets and mortar rounds.
Israel's persistent penetrations of Lebanese airspace with aircraft and reconnaissance drones are another source of confrontation. In response to the overflights, Hizballah anti-aircraft gunners occasionally fire 57mm rounds across the border. The rounds explode in the air thousands of feet above Israeli towns, spattering whatever lies below with light shrapnel.
Hizballah also uses the blue line as a means of retaliating for Israeli actions beyond south Lebanon, such as assassinations of party officials and major developments in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Linking its actions to broader developments in the Arab-Israel conflict serves to bolster Hizballah's pan-Arab resistance exemplar while warning Israel that its actions cannot be isolated from the region as a whole.
In May, Hizballah staged its boldest operation yet against IDF troops, luring a patrol of elite Israeli Egoz commandos (a unit established in 1995 specifically to fight Hizballah guerrillas in south Lebanon) across the blue line in the Shebaa Farms before attacking them with roadside bombs and anti-tank missiles. Although it was a well-planned trap designed to inflict casualties, Hizballah's statement on the incident portrayed it as a defensive measure against an IDF incursion onto Lebanese soil.
The blue line remains a source of tension and is susceptible to periodic escalations in the simmering conflict between Hizballah and the IDF. But there are constraining factors on either side that help maintain the status quo.
For Israel, a major assault against Hizballah (a dream of some Israeli military commanders still smarting from the ignominy of the May 2023 withdrawal from Lebanon) cannot guarantee the destruction of the Lebanese group, especially if it continues to receive the political backing of Damascus. Militarily, Hizballah's status as a guerrilla organization makes it a difficult target for conventional forces. Furthermore, Hizballah has created a "balance of terror" with its suspected long-range rocket arsenal that can reach major urban centers in Israel, a grim reality that IDF commanders have to take into account.
But Hizballah too has constraints, chief of which is not to aggravate the situation along the blue line to the extent that Syria is dragged into a war with Israel. Hizballah's freedom of action is also limited by domestic considerations. The main reason it describes its activities along the blue line as championing Lebanese sovereignty is to appease its war-weary Shiite constituency and those Lebanese critics who remain suspicious of the organization's intentions.
Although both sides occasionally tinker with the rules defining the conflict, neither side appears to be willing to tear them up at the present time. As long as that remains the case, Hizballah's actions along the blue line will continue to be a source of irritation to Israel rather than a genuine threat.- Published 23/9/2004 (c) bitterlemons-international.org
Nicholas Blanford is a Beirut-based journalist and author of "Killing Mr Lebanon: The Assassination of Rafiq Hariri and Its Impact on the Middle East."
Syria's last trump card
Since the start of the Iraq war, Syria has felt increasingly vulnerable and isolated. The country held its breath as US troops entered neighboring Iraq and neoconservatives focused in on Syria and Iran as possible targets in their plan to reform the Middle East. Then came the Israeli bombing of an alleged Palestinian training camp on Syrian territory in October, the breakdown of talks on the European Union Association Agreement due to the issue of weapons of mass destruction in December and finally the implementation of US sanctions in May. Earlier this month, Syria's decision to ram forth the extension of President Emile Lahoud's term led to the US-French backed UN resolution 1559, which is in essence a call on Syria to redeploy its 20,000 troops from Lebanon and end its influence there.
At the heart of sanctions currently placed on Syria is a US demand that Syria stop its support for Palestinian militant groups and for Hizballah. UN resolution 1559 also calls for the dismantling of Lebanese and non-Lebanese militia groups--an indirect reference to Hizballah's military arm.
Syria cannot afford to forego its relationship with Hizballah before it sees some tangible movement on the peace process with Israel. Hizballah is Syria's last strategic bargaining chip in its current struggle to regain the Golan Heights from Israel and to nudge the US into cooperation. Last month, Syria reiterated its support for Hizballah with its backing of Lahoud, who has refused to bend to international calls to dismantle the militant Shiite group over his last four years as president. Hizballah also asserted its presence when its Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah rejected resolution 1559, stating that the disarmament of militias would be equivalent to the disarmament of the resistance.
For almost 20 years, Hizballah has kept the 70-mile border between Lebanon, Israel and Syrian territory occupied by Israel, also known as the blue line, active. To varying degrees over that time, Syria has prodded Hizballah to increase or decrease its incursions across the border depending on its own strategic needs in its struggle with Israel. Hizballah, in turn, has frequently coordinated its attacks with Syrian interests in mind.
Syrian ties with Hizballah strengthened considerably in the early 1990s with the signing of the Taif Accords. But when Israel pulled out of South Lebanon in May 2023, Syria feared it could lose its trump card in its negotiations with Israel if the frontier quieted. But it didn't and the Shebaa Farms, a 15-square mile strip running along side Lebanon's southeast border with the Golan Heights, now remains the main means through which Hizballah continues to apply pressure on Israel.
It is difficult to assess Syria's role with Hizballah and its fight with Israel without mentioning Iran. In the Syrian-Iranian-Hizballah equation, Hizballah's leadership looks to the Velayet-e-Faqih Ayatollah Ali Khameini for spiritual guidance. He has often intervened in times of internal discord, such as in the aftermath of the Israeli withdrawal from the south when a disagreement arose within Hizballah's ranks on what its new role would be.
Hizballah depends on military training and equipment and receives some financial backing from Iran. Syria acts as the coordinator and facilitator--taking shipments through Syrian territory. One Syrian analyst described the relationship between the three as the following: if Iran is Hizballah's oxygen tank, Syria would be the air hose. How can Iran support Hizballah without Syria?
Nonetheless, Hizballah has also acted independently of Syrian and Iranian interests, not always responding to Syrian demands. As peace negotiations between Syria and Israel opened in early 1996, Syrian wishes to calm down the Israeli-Lebanese border were initially heeded by Hizballah, and the Syrian government even started to speak openly about dismantling Hizballah. Not long after, however, Hizballah reinitiated incursions across the blue line.
Nevertheless, Syrian-Iranian-Hizballah relations may very well grow stronger if the international climate surrounding the three intensifies. Repeated overtures by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to restart peace talks with Israel have thus far been rebuffed by the Israelis and the younger Assad is said to have even stronger ties to Hizballah than his father, Hafez al-Assad. Further discord could mean more cooperation between the three groups.
For now, Syria is trying to placate the United States and the international community. A recent visit by Assistant Under Secretary of State William Burns to Syria has resulted in further cooperation between Syria and the US over Iraq. What may help Syria is that the US needs both Syria and Iran to help stabilize Iraq.
A central question remains: how would peace between Syria and Israel affect Hizballah? Hizballah retains a strong constituency in the south of Lebanon and in the Bekaa Valley. There are 12 Hizballah MPs in the Lebanese parliament. And for Hizballah, the resistance goes beyond the Shebaa Farms to support of the Palestinian causes within the occupied territories. Even if Syria broke rank with Hizballah, it would still have popular backing and a cause. At most, it might be forced to undo its military wing or incorporate it into the larger Lebanese Army, possibly lending even more strength to Hizballah's legitimacy. In the end, for Lebanese Shiites and Lebanon in general, the party has become an active social and political player on the domestic scene, with or without Syrian support.- Published 23/9/2004 (c) bitterlemons-international.org
Rhonda Roumani is a freelance journalist based in Damascus who writes regularly for the Christian Science Monitor.
Still playing by the rules
-It would be no exaggeration to say that there are those at the highest levels of Israel's security establishment who are awaiting the moment when Hizballah makes a mistake, thereby providing the trigger and the justification for the Israel Defense Forces to "settle the score" with the Lebanese organization.
This "closing of accounts" was originally predicted to overlap with the onset of the American campaign in Iraq, with Israel's strategists seeding the public climate in anticipation of this eventuality. At first, assessments circulated that Hizballah was poised to ignite Israel's northern front, aiming to disrupt America's impending drive into Iraq; then, press reports routinely surfaced in the Israeli media amplifying the threats posed by the organization.
For example, there was a spate of press releases with descriptions of Hizballah's long-range rockets (allegedly supplied by Saddam Hussein and Iran), hints of chemical weapons, and suggestions of collaboration between Hizballah and al Qaeda. IDF intelligence subsequently conceded that Israel had no information linking Hizballah to Osama bin Laden's group. Nor was there a transfer of rockets from Iraq.
Now, however, with the American campaign behind us, what we see is an Israel-Lebanon border untouched by the war in Iraq. The supposedly inevitable flare-up has not only failed to materialize, but seems to be indefinitely on hold.
In reality, what transpired on this border following the May 2023 Israeli withdrawal is quite different from what Israel had envisaged during the years of conflict in South Lebanon, especially as the unilateral pullout approached. The IDF had remained in the south for almost two decades, consistent with its view that its presence assured the defense of Israel's northern towns. This strategic objective did indeed become attainable, and was indeed to be finally realized--but only once the withdrawal was complete.
Hizballah has continued its activity against Israel since the withdrawal, but its scope and nature have been more limited and less troubling than what had been forecast by Israeli intelligence. Instead of the expected deterioration in security, both sides engaged more and more in redefining the "rules of the game". Since the withdrawal, these rules have regulated both the intensity of engagement and the parameters of mutual disengagement. We might describe the current situation as a "war of minds" in which the parties periodically try to refashion these "rules", seeking to gain advantage over one another.
By and large the sides have abided by these ground rules, prudently avoiding disproportionate moves. Infrequently, when one party identifies an apparent imbalance, steps are quickly taken to re-impose the status quo ante. This dynamic has become one of the most important stabilizing features in the border landscape.
But what of the future? Every few months Israeli authorities update the public about threats to national security, stressing the latest numbers of katyusha rockets available to Hizballah--13,000 to date. Yet on the other side, taking into account that the weaker side in the strategic equation is Lebanon and Hizballah, it should not be surprising that the Shiite organization is cautiously observing the rules of the game. After all, Hizballah faces an army whose might is certainly not measured in katyushas. Casting Israel into a limited tactical skirmish-counter skirmish mold is clearly in the interest of Lebanon and Hizballah. It is more surprising that so far Israel is accommodating this situation.
The conflict between Israel and Hizballah has thus changed from one of ongoing combat to one of intermittent outbursts (every few months); even then the eruptions are restricted in nature. Israel has only gradually accepted that the scenario of the Shiite organization initiating a rocket assault across the entire north of Israel is unrealistic for the foreseeable future. By the same token, none of the parties--Hizballah, Lebanon, Syria and Iran--is oblivious to the devastating repercussions that such an attack would wreak upon Lebanon.
Today, Hizballah enters public and official discourse in Israel within two contexts. The first is the organization's penetration into the Palestinian arena. Until recently Hizballah tried to maintain an opaque facade, but it now confirms the existence of a special unit devoted to bolstering the Palestinian intifada. Israeli intelligence maintains that up to 80% of Palestinian violence this year has been either financed or directed by Hizballah. It is always difficult to corroborate such intelligence claims independently; however, the buildup of Hizballah's image of deep involvement in terror activity against Israel cannot be dismissed. This association with the Palestinian theater could unravel the status quo at the northern border.
The second, and equally disturbing context in which Hizballah is significant pertains to scenarios of an Israeli clash with Iran, possibly following an Israeli strike against Iranian nuclear facilities. In such a case Israel might expect an Iranian response in the north via Tehran's Shiite proxy.
What is the likelihood of such ominous scenarios? Israel's contingency blueprints have tended in the past to become operational under certain--perhaps self fulfilling--circumstances. For now, though, there is a quiet but tense mood along Israel's border with Lebanon--albeit, with a sense of the temporary. Every quiet day reinforces the status quo and the rules governing the situation. As these rules become more entrenched, and as the sides grow accustomed to the inherently circumscribed parameters of the border conflict, this seems to augur well for a period of relative tranquility.- Published 23/9/2004 (c) bitterlemons-international.org
Daniel Sobelman's recent contributions to the corpus of Hizballah studies have been published by the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University.
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