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Hezbollah: Most Powerful Political Movement in Lebanon

Interviewee: Daniel L. Byman, Professor at Georgetown University and Research Director of the Saban Center at Brookings Institution
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
May 29, 2008

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Counterterrorism expert Daniel L. Byman, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution's Saban Center for Middle East Policy, describes Hezbollah as a "cogent mix of different facets of power" and calls it "the most powerful single political movement in Lebanon." Byman, a former CIA political analyst, estimates Iran gives Hezbollah in excess of $100 million in aid yearly, including anti-ship cruise missiles and rockets that can be used against Israel. And he says in the event of any peace agreement arising from Syria-Israel talks, Syria would be less capable of reigning in Hezbollah than it would have been in the past.

Hezbollah was formed in the early 1980s with the active assistance of Iran. How would you describe Hezbollah today?

Hezbollah today is a very, very cogent mix of different facets of power. It's a very skilled terrorist group, it's a very formidable guerilla organization, it's the most powerful single political movement in Lebanon, and it's a large social provider. They all coexist. This is not schizophrenia. This is one big organization that is able to do multiple things quite effectively.

In this latest crisis they had in Lebanon where the government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora tried to crack down on Hezbollah's internal communications system, it came to the point where people feared another civil war. What was Hezbollah's strategy?

Hezbollah has always tried to portray itself, especially in the last ten to fifteen years, as a Lebanese organization as well as a broader revolutionary kind of one. As a result they have always claimed that they've never taken up arms against fellow Lebanese. I would quibble with that, but nevertheless that's been a very strong propaganda theme. So, while Hezbollah wanted people to recognize its tremendous power, it didn't want to actually have to use force to exercise it. This time, in the crisis over the government's efforts to break up Hezbollah's internal communications system, it felt that the government was pushing it too far, so it fought back. The result was a very quick Hezbollah victory. It has more street power than other rival organizations. The only group comparable is the Lebanese army, but the army is held together tenuously and it's certainly not going to go after Hezbollah. My view is that the army would lose if it did. But in any event, going after Hezbollah would be unpopular among many of the soldiers.

Hezbollah is a Shiite organization. What is the percentage of Shiites in Lebanon now?

No one really knows. Usually we say Shiites make up a "plurality" so there's a guess about slightly over 40 percent. But that figure is not something I can back up. There is a reason for that uncertainty. Lebanon's political system is based on distribution of power by community, with each community getting a slice. It was done based on a census in 1932 that said that Christians are a slight majority of the country and in the Muslim community Sunni Muslims are the majority and so on. We know that census is, to put it mildly, out of date. Christians are not even close to a majority in the country anymore and the Shiite are certainly more numerous than Sunnis. It was debatable then and is certainly false now. But if you had a new census it would ensure that so there is a tremendous interest by powerful groups in not having a new census.

How strong a military is Hezbollah actually? They fought Israel to a standstill in the summer of 2006. Do they have a modern army?

They have a very formidable guerrilla force and are able to use irregular warfare quite effectively. Could they conquer another country? If they tried to invade say Jordan or Syria, they would not be able to carry out modern, conventional operations effectively. But that's not what they are trying to do. They do what they do extremely well; they are a very potent guerrilla organization.

Since the 2006 war, there has been a United Nations operation charged with trying to prevent infiltration of additional arms from Syria and Iran, but everyone says that this has not succeeded. How much support does Iran supply to Hezbollah?

It gives Hezbollah an extremely wide array of support, including significant financial help. The figure generally talked about is $100 million a year, but my guess is that is probably higher than that. Recently it gave more because after the 2006 war Hezbollah needed more support. Iran has also provided massive training. There is an Iranian military presence in Lebanon and also weapons that were shipped through Syria. Weapons range from machine guns all the way to anti-ship cruise missiles.

Israelis mostly concerned about the missiles I take it?

They are mostly concerned about not just anti-ship cruise missiles but the longer-range rockets that can strike its cities.

You were recently in Israel. What is their sense of the situation vis-a-vis Hezbollah? Do they expect new hostilities soon?

Yes and no. There is no immediate expectation of hostility but I would say that they wouldn't be surprised if it happened tomorrow. So there is no precipitating event that they are expecting, but there is a sense that Hezbollah is not done with Israel.

If Israel and Syria actually get far along in their peace negotiations how will this affect Hezbollah?

That's a huge question. If we were having this conversation ten years ago the logic was that Syria would crack down on Hezbollah in Lebanon as part of the deal. But since then Syrian troops have left Lebanon. Syria still has a lot of influence there, but I refer to Syria as the landlord of Lebanon. Syria needs Hezbollah to protect its interests in Lebanon because Syria wants to be the dominant power and Hezbollah has street power.

To go even further, Syrian President Bashar Assad has relatively weak political legitimacy and the most popular man in the Arab world, according to polls, is [Hezbollah leader] Hassan Nasrallah. Bashar leans on Nasrallah for popular support. When you're politically weak do you really want to irritate the most popular person in the Arab world? So there is a question as to what Syria would do as part of a deal. To me, I'm not sure that Syria could shut down Hezbollah.

What should the United States be doing about Lebanon and also with Iran and Syria? The United States virtually has no dialogue with Syria or Iran right now.

To me a dialogue is logical even if it's as likely as not to produce much. You want to be able to talk to them, to put pressure on them diplomatically as well. The issue of Lebanon has been a painful one for the Syrians in particular. If there is stability in Lebanon, that may be in the U.S. interest because that might clear some of the debris away that will enable progress in places like Iraq and perhaps even the peace process with Israel. This has been an irritant in the relationship. While it's not good news that Hezbollah is doing well, if the United States recognizes it that will remove a problem.

If the United States recognizes what, that Hezbollah has a role in governance?

Right, and a significant role, and also recognizes that Syria is going to be a major power in Lebanon. That will make Syria more likely to make concessions on other areas.

The Clinton administration dealt with Syria very often. In fact President Clinton met with Hafez al-Assad, the former president of Syria. Why did the Bush administration decide not to deal with Syria? Was this because of the infiltration of jihadists from Syria into Iraq?

That was part of it, but also, there was a sense that Syria was still supporting terrorism against Israel, which it is. The Bush administration has a very strong view, which is "Don't support terrorists."

Hamas has its top leaders in exile living in safety in Syria right now. I suppose again that in any Syria-Israel agreement, the Israelis would be very adamant on that question, insisting that they be evicted.

That's correct. There's no question about that. From the Israeli point of view, why have an agreement if you're not gaining at least that?

A new U.S. administration is going to come into office in January. In the Syria-Iran-Lebanon areas, what should they give priority to?

For Iran, I would say there are two priorities, the nuclear program and Iraq. I would put terrorism on the list but I would put it definitely third. To me, stabilizing Iraq is tremendously important. For Syria, encourage the peace process with Israel and you want to do that in a way that will actually help and that might result in doing it behind the scenes.

I thought it was very interesting that the Turks have stepped in here as the mediators between Syria and Israel. It reminds me of when the Norwegians got involved with the Palestinians and the Israelis in 1993, leading to the Oslo agreement.

And that was very successful.

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