Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Why Hezbollah will not be disarmed, and why Israel will arm other Lebanese groups

Short answers: because nobody wants to do it badly enough, and to keep Hizbollah from again attacking.

The longer analysis is found in this dispiriting Times article and my comments at the end:
I think you can forget about Hezbollah being disarmed. It is just not going to happen. Hezbollah doesn't want to be disarmed and there is nobody else willing to do it. In that simple fact lies the potential for future trouble.

The UN Security Council resolution 1559 certainly calls for all the militias operating in Lebanon to be disarmed, but the Lebanese Government has side-stepped the whole issue since that resolution was passed two years ago. People here accept that it is a very difficult thing to disarm Hezbollah against its will.

Even if the Lebanese Government had been crazy enough to try to force the army to do it, I think the army would have refused. A lot of its senior officers are loyal to President Emile Lahoud, the last leading ally of Syria to remain in office in Lebanon.

Many people regard the army as almost a proxy of Hezbollah. The Shia contingent in the army, which represents about 60 per cent of all soldiers, would have refused to take on their Shia brothers in Hezbollah.

If they had accepted the job, they would have been annihilated in a face-to-face confrontation. Hezbollah has just fought the most powerful army in the Middle East to a standstill - the Lebanese army is weak, lightly armed and used to performing more of a policing than a military role.

The alternative option is to send international troops to disarm Hezbollah, when the United Nations mission in South Lebanon is given a new mandate and beefed up with an extra 13,000 peacekeepers.

But that is not going to happen either. It is clearly understood that the last thing that foreign countries sending troops to maintain the ceasefire want to do is to get involved in disarming Hezbollah - or even in preventing Hezbollah from reaching the border and attacking Israel. There is no way they want to be caught in the middle, or seen as Israel's extra line of defence against Hezbollah.

This is what is behind the delay in agreeing the new UN mission. That is why the countries willing to offer troops for the new UN mission are still talking, why the French Foreign Minister is in Beirut today, still asking searching questions about what the mission's mandate means, what the situation is on the ground, and who else is going to be there.

Countries like France and Australia are willing in principle to commit soldiers, but they worry that if their forces suddenly find themselves surrounded by potentially less reliable troops from other countries and acting as the front line of defence for Israel, then they don't want to be involved.

They want a level of political understanding to be in place at the start, that Hezbollah won't attack Israel and that when they arrive in south Lebanon they will not find Hezbollah guerillas still deployed in their bunkers along the border.

In effect, they want the UN force to be mainly a PR stunt to reassure the international community that the situation in Lebanon is under control.

Naturally they are not going to get explicit reassurances sent direct to their foreign ministries, but I think the countries contributing troops can safely assume that Hezbollah is not interested in exacerbating the situation on the ground just now. It has its own internal worries.

I think Hezbollah realises that they made a big mistake by kidnapping those Israeli soldiers on July 12. They have already admitted that they thought it would cause nothing more than a mini flare up, they didn't expect the powerful military reaction they got from the Israelis.

To the rest of the world, at the moment Hezbollah is basking in success. The perception among Muslims throughout the world is that they won the war, and can rest on their laurels.

But Hezbollah has hard political work to do at home in reassuring and maintaining their support among the Shia community, whose homes and livelihoods have been utterly destroyed by Israeli bombs.
This is made far easier by Iran's bankrolling Hizbollah's reconstruction and succoring of the population. Nevertheless, it's a good point. Rebuilding homes is easier than rebuilding an economy.
The Shia ideology is long-suffering, and you won't often find a Shia ready to admit that Hezbollah fouled up. They are very stoical. Yesterday I was talking to an old guy in a southern village where 80 per cent of the buildings were lying in rubble, and he shrugged philosophically and said that the Israelis bombed his house in 1996 and 1999 and now again in 2006, so he would just build it again.

But I think it is clear that the reason why Hezbollah is now promising to pay a year's rent for homeless Shia families and compensate them for damaged property is because they have a lot of work to do to bring their supporters back on board.

What is more, I think the recriminations are about to start in earnest from the other sectarian communities in Lebanon, who stayed quiet during the war out of loyalty to the country. Shias only represent 35 per cent of Lebanon - the rest is divided between Sunnis, Christians and Druze. Overall, the conflict has made an already polarised society even more polarised.

The long term danger is that if Hezbollah does not disarm, then the other communities may decide that if they cannot beat them they may as well join them, and will start rearming in their turn. And that could be the start of the slippery slope back towards civil war.
Hizbollah will be loath to give up its gains. Only by keeping its weapons can it stay on top in Lebanon; as soon as it disarms, others will seek to take its place.

The possibility of renewed civil war is high. Israel will almost certainly begin arming either Sunni, Druze, or Christian groups in Lebanon to act as a counter to Hizbollah. A distracted Hizbollah is less dangerous, and if a civil war begins in Lebanon, Hizbollah will be seen as a wrecker, rather than as a protector. Thus, a win-win for Israel, but another tragedy for Lebanon.