NEW YORK—Lebanon’s southern frontier with Israel is the most volatile border in the Middle East today, and it could easily spiral out of control. At a White House meeting last week, President Barack Obama asked Lebanese President Michel Suleiman to stop the flow of weapons being smuggled into south Lebanon.
But Obama knows that the most powerful military force in Lebanon does not answer to the president or any other Lebanese politician. The Shiite militant group Hezbollah is far more accountable to its main patron, Iran, than to any internal Lebanese constituency. And so Lebanon—a small country wedged between Syria, Israel and the Mediterranean Sea—once again finds itself at the mercy of battles beyond its borders.
In November, after five months of political bickering, the new U.S.-backed Prime Minister Saad Hariri agreed to share power with Hezbollah and its allies. But Hariri’s government will have no influence over the militia and its weapons buildup along the border. As long as the Lebanese army remains weak, Hezbollah can argue that its fighters are needed to defend the country against Israel.
When Lebanon’s 15-year civil war ended in 1990, all of the country’s militias disarmed. But the government allowed Hezbollah to keep its weapons as “national resistance” against the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon, which continued until May 2000. After the Israelis withdrew, many Lebanese asked why the group did not disarm and become a strictly political movement. Hezbollah insisted that its mission of resistance was not over because Israel was still occupying a strip of land— called Shebaa Farms—at the murky intersection of Israel, Syria and Lebanon.