Lebanon is an incredibly complex society composed of groups that have often found it difficult to live together. After years of civil war, peace slowly came, but only as parts of the country and government were occupied by Israel and Syria. Hezbollah was the proxy used by both Syria and Iran to fight Israel in Lebanon. Israel and Syria have gone but Hezbollah remains.
Hezbollah attacked Beirut over the weekend. Some commentators think that this is the beginning of Lebanon’s Third Civil War. “The third civil war resembles both the first and the second. With Iranian money and weapons, Hezbollah has built its own state-within-a-state in South Lebanon and South Beirut which is used as a base to wage war against Israel. Hezbollah also wishes to violently yank Lebanon from its current pro-Western alignment into the Syrian-Iranian axis. Roughly one-fourth of the population supports this agenda.”
We hear about Hezbollah fairly often but its not hard to get all of these groups in the Middle East confused. Who are they? What do they want?
First, a little background on Lebanese society. No official census has been taken in Lebanon since 1932, but the population is approximately 4 million people. Religiously, the 2007 CIA World Fact Book gives the following distribution: Muslim 54%, Christian 42%, other 4%.
Given this sectarian breakdown, it isn’t surprising that civil war raged from 1975 to 1990. During the war, nearly every party had allied with and subsequently betrayed every other party at least once.
The current Lebanese government is a parliamentary, democratic republic, which implements a special system known as confessionalism. This system is designed to fairly represent the demographic distribution of religious sects in the governing body. As such, high-ranking offices in are reserved for members of specific religious groups. The President, for example, has to be a Maronite Catholic Christian, the Speaker of the Parliament a Shi’a Muslim, the Prime Minister a Sunni Muslim and the Deputy Prime Minister an Orthodox Christian.
Syria has dominated Lebanese politics for decades. As of 2005, they had 15,000 troops in Lebanon. Syrian intelligence and security forces also maintained widespread influence with the government. On February 14, 2005, former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was assassinated in a car bomb explosion in Beirut. Many Lebanese accused Syria of the attack, specifically because of Hariri’s opposition to a Syrian-backed constitutional amendment extending pro-Syrian President Lahoud’s term in office.
This incident triggered a series of demonstrations, known as Cedar Revolution, that demanded the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon. The United Nations Security Council unanimously adopted Resolution 1595 on April 7, 2005, which called for an investigation into the assassination of Rafik Hariri. Eventually, and under pressure from the international community, Syria began withdrawing its 15,000-strong army troops from Lebanon. By April 26, 2005, all uniformed Syrian soldiers had already crossed the border back to Syria.
The March 14 Alliance, named after the date of the Cedar Revolution is a coalition of anti-Syrian political parties and independents in Lebanon. The bloc primarily consists of:
- Future Movement (Officially secular; Mainly Sunni Muslim.) led by Saad Hariri, younger son of the assassinated former Prime Minister of Lebanon, Rafik Hariri.
- Progressive Socialist Party (Officially secular; Mainly Druze.) led by Walid Jumblatt. The Druze are a religious community found primarily in Lebanon, Israel, and Syria whose traditional religion began as an offshoot of the Ismaili sect of Islam, but but which also incorporates Gnostic, neo-Platonic and other philosophies. Because of such incorporation many Islamic scholars label the Druze as a non-Muslim sect. The Druze consider themselves “an Islamic Unist, reformatory sect”.
- Lebanese Forces, (Officially secular; Mainly Maronite Christian.)
- Qornet Shehwan Gathering, (Mainly Maronite Christian.)
And, of course, Hezbollah
Hezbollah emerged during the Second Civil War in the early 1980s. It is trained, organized and funded by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. Hezbollah’s main goals are the eradication of “Western colonialism” in Lebanon and the destruction of Israel, which they describe as an unlawful “entity”.
The United States, the United Kingdom, Israel, Canada, the Netherlands, and Australia , officially list Hezbollah as a terrorist organization. Most Arab’s and Muslims regard Hezbollah as a resistance movement.
Hezbollah has a level of popular support in Shi’a Lebanese society. Hezbollah has operated under Syrian protection since the end of the Civil War. Since 1992, the organization has been headed by Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, its Secretary-General.
Hezbollah is currently part of The March 8 Alliance, which forms the opposition against the government of the March 14 Alliance. The alliance is considered to be pro-Syrian.
Which leaves us where?
Hezbollah’s Endgame? Elie Fawaz, with the Lebanese Renaissance Foundation in Beirut: For years Hezbollah has tried to jump the sectarian divide by defending the causes of the umma. But when Israel withdrew from South Lebanon in 2000, Hezbollah’s armada lost its raison d’etre. Yet even after the Syrian occupation ended in 2005 following the assassination of Rafiq al-Hariri, the party refused to terminate its mission and give up its arms and the many privileges enjoyed under Damascus’ tutelage. To survive, Hezbollah needs its perpetual resistance, but the Party of God is today at odds with the rest of the Lebanese, and the survival of Lebanon as a state depends on the government bringing an end to this conflicted situation. There is no way one state can have two centers of decision-making, two policies, two armies, two economies, that are at odds with each others.
Heading toward a Lebanese divorce Hizbullah would not be able to justify retaining its weapons. But without its weapons, Hizbullah could not exist. Post-Syria Lebanon has posed existential problems for the party, problems that began when Israel withdrew from most of South Lebanon in 2000. The irony of this situation – that Hizbullah was always most comfortable when both Syria and Israel were present in Lebanon – the latter to fight against, the former to safeguard that fight – says a lot about the party’s future options.
Most Christians, not to mention vast majorities of Sunnis and Druze, see no possible coexistence between the idea of the Lebanese state and a Hizbullah that insists on demanding veto power over any decision that might limit its political and military margin of maneuver.