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Jul 14, 2006 | 23:35 GMT

8 mins read

Special Report: Hezbollah's Motives

Hezbollah's decision to increase operations against Israel was not taken lightly. The leadership of Hezbollah has not so much moderated over the years as it has aged. The group's leaders have also, with age, become comfortable and in many cases wealthy. They are at least part of the Lebanese political process, and in some real sense part of the Lebanese establishment. These are men with a radical past and of radical mind-set, but they are older, comfortable and less adventurous than 20 years ago. Therefore, the question is: Why are they increasing tensions with Israel and inviting an invasion that threatens their very lives? There are three things to look at: the situation among the Palestinians, the situation in Lebanon and the situation in the Islamic world. But first we must consider the situation in Hezbollah itself. There is a generation gap in Hezbollah. Hezbollah began as a Shiite radical group inspired by the Iranian Islamic Revolution. In that context, Hezbollah represented a militant, nonsecular alternative to the Nasserite Fatah, Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and other groups that took their bearing from Pan-Arabism rather than Islam. Hezbollah split the Shiite community in Lebanon — which was against Sunnis and Christians — but most of all, engaged the Israelis. It made a powerful claim that the Palestinian movement had no future while it remained fundamentally secular and while its religious alternatives derived from the conservative Arab monarchies. More than anyone, it was Hezbollah that introduced Islamist suicide bombings. Hezbollah had a split personality, however; it was supported by two very different states. Iran was radically Islamist. Syria, much closer and a major power in Lebanon, was secular and socialist. They shared an anti-Zionist ideology, but beyond that, not much. Moreover, the Syrians viewed the Palestinian claim for a state with a jaundiced eye. Palestine was, from their point of view, part of the Ottoman Empire's Syrian province, divided by the British and French. Syria wanted to destroy Israel, but not necessarily to create a Palestinian state. From Syria's point of view, the real issue was the future of Lebanon, which it wanted to reabsorb into Syria, or at the very least economically exploit. The Syrians intervened in Lebanon against the Palestine Liberation Organization and on the side of some Christian elements. Their goal was much less ideological than political and economic. They saw Hezbollah as a tool in their fight with Yasser Arafat and for domination of Syria. Hezbollah strategically was aligned with Iran. Tactically, it had to align itself with Syria, since the Syrians dominated Lebanon. That meant that when Syria wanted tension with Israel, Hezbollah provided it, and when Syria wanted things to quiet down, Hezbollah cooled it. Meanwhile the leadership of Hezbollah, aligned with the Syrians, was in a position to prosper, particular after the Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon. That withdrawal involved a basic, quiet agreement between Syria and Israel. Israel accepted Syrian domination of Lebanon. In return, Syria was expected to maintain a security regime that controlled Hezbollah. Attacks against Israel had to be kept within certain acceptable limits. Syria, having far less interest in Israel than in Lebanon, saw this as an opportunity to achieve its ends. Israel saw Syrian domination under these terms as a stabilizing force. Destabilization Two things converged to destabilize this situation. The emergence of Hamas as a major force among the Palestinians meant the Palestinian polity was being redefined. Even before the elections catapulted Hamas into a leadership role, it was clear that the Fatah-dominated government of Arafat was collapsing. Everything was up for grabs. That meant that either Hezbollah made a move or would be permanently a Lebanese organization. It had to show it was willing to take risks and be effective. In fact, it had to show that it was the most effective of all the groups. The leadership might have been reluctant, but the younger members saw this as their moment, and frankly, the old juices might have been running in the older leadership. They moved. The second part of this occurred in Lebanon itself. After the death of former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri, outside pressure, primarily from the United States, forced a Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon. Now, do not overestimate the extent of the withdrawal. Syrian influence in Lebanon is still enormous. But it did relieve Syria of the burden of controlling Hezbollah. Indeed, Israel was not overly enthusiastic about Syria's withdrawal from Lebanon for just that reason. Syria could now claim to have no influence or obligation concerning Hezbollah. Hezbollah's leadership lost the cover of being able to tell the young Turks that they would be more aggressive, but that the Syrians would not let them. As the Syrian withdrawal loosened up Lebanese politics, Hezbollah was neither restrained nor could it pretend to be restrained. Whatever the mixed feelings might have been, the mission was the mission, Syrian withdrawal opened the door and Hezbollah could not resist walking through it, and many members urgently wanted to walk through it. At the same time the Iranians were deeply involved in negotiations in Iraq and over Tehran's nuclear program. They wanted as many levers as they could find to use in negotiations against the United States. They already had the ability to destabilize Iraq. They had a nuclear program the United States wanted to get rid of. Reactivating a global network that directly threatened American interests was another chip on the bargaining table. Not attacking U.S. interests but attacking Israel demonstrated Hezbollah's vibrancy without directly threatening the United States. Moreover, activities around the world, not carefully shielded in some cases, gave Iran further leverage. In addition, it allowed Iran to reclaim its place as the leader of Islamic radical resurgence. Al Qaeda, a Sunni group, had supplanted Iran in the Islamic world. Indeed, Iran's collaboration with the West allowed Tehran to be pictured among the "hypocrites" Osama bin Laden condemned. Iran wants to become the dominant power in the Persian Gulf, and one part of that is to take away the mantle of Islamic radicalism from al Qaeda. Since al Qaeda is a damaged organization at best, and since Hezbollah pioneered Islamist terrorism on a global basis, reactivating Hezbollah made a great deal of sense to the Iranians. Hezbollah's Position Syria benefited by showing how badly it was needed in Lebanon. Iran picked up additional leverage against the United States. Hezbollah claimed a major place at the negotiations shaping the future of Palestinian politics. It all made a great deal of sense. Of course, it was also obvious that Israel would respond. From Syria's point of view, that was fine. Israel would bog down again. It would turn to Syria to relieve it of its burdens. Israel would not want an Islamic regime in Damascus. Syria gets regime preservation and the opportunity to reclaim Lebanon. Iran gets a war hundreds of miles away from it, letting others fight its battles. It can claim it is the real enemy of Israel in the Islamic world. The United States might bargain away interests in Iraq in order to control Hezbollah. An Israeli invasion opens up possibilities without creating much risk. It is Hezbollah that takes it on the chin. But Hezbollah, by its nature and its relationships, really did not have much choice. It had to act or become irrelevant. So now the question is: What does Hezbollah do when the Israelis come? They can resist. They have anti-tank weapons and other systems from Iran. They can inflict casualties. They can impose a counterinsurgency. Syria may think Israel will have to stay, but Israel plans to crush Hezbollah's infrastructure and leave, forcing Hezbollah to take years to recover. Everyone else in Lebanon is furious at Hezbollah for disrupting the recovery. What does Hezbollah do? In the 1980s, what Hezbollah did was take Western hostages. The United States is enormously sensitive to hostage situations. It led Ronald Reagan to Iran-Contra. Politically, the United States has trouble handling hostages. This is the one thing Hezbollah learned in the 1980s that the leaders remember. A portfolio of hostages is life insurance. Hezbollah could go back to its old habits. It makes sense to do so. It will not do this while there is a chance of averting an invasion. But once it is crystal clear it is coming, grabbing hostages makes sense. Assuming the invasion is going to occur early next week — or a political settlement is going to take place — Western powers now have no more than 72 hours to get their nationals out of Beirut or into places of safety. That probably cannot be done. There are thousands of Westerners in Beirut. But the next few days will focus on ascertaining Israeli intensions and timelines, and executing plans to withdraw citizens. The Israelis might well shift their timeline to facilitate this. But all things considered, if Hezbollah returns to its roots, it should return to its first operational model: hostages.

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