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Hezbollah's Shadow War

Author: Greg Bruno
May 30, 2008

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If politics were its principle yardstick, Hezbollah's new ability to veto the decisions of the Lebanese government might seem conclusive. After clashes in west Beirut last month, some analysts declared Hezbollah the victor of the internecine crisis (NYT). Others, including Daily Star opinion editor Michael Young, see the resolution as more of a draw. Either way, Hezbollah's leaders want more. As Hassan Nasrallah said on May 26, the true measure of Hezbollah's worth remains its ability to wage armed resistance against Israel.

Measuring Hezbollah's capabilities on that count has long been a focus of Israeli military analysts, and the mass and sophistication of Hezbollah's missile arsenal in the 2006 summer war with Israel raised eyebrows beyond the region, too. The missile barrages that struck deep into Israeli territory, even in the final days of the three-week conflict (al-Jazeera), changed international perceptions of the group from an organization focused primarily on guerrilla and terrorist capabilities to one which can project power, perhaps on behalf of Iran, well beyond its Lebanese base.

Details on Hezbollah's current military capabilities remain sketchy (IHT), and disagreement reigns. For instance, an October 2007 UN report, drawing solely from Israeli intelligence, concludes Hezbollah "has rearmed itself to a level higher" than before the 2006 war. New long-range rocket supplies, including hundreds of Iranian-built Zilzal and Fajr rockets, enable them "to reach Tel Aviv and points further south." UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, in his February 2008 report to the Security Council (PDF) on the situation, noted that Hezbollah "has replenished its military capacity since the 2006 war" and expressed concern that the Syria-Lebanon border remains vulnerable to smuggling. But the secretary-general also noted that Israeli reports of renewed Hezbollah military activity in southern Lebanon have not been corroborated by UNIFIL peacekeepers.

Negotiating an end to Hezbollah's armed resistance appears unlikely as the group's leaders refuse to discuss disarmament (PressTV). International efforts to demilitarize the group date to the Taif Agreement, negotiated in 1989 to end the Lebanese civil war. More recently, UN Security Council resolutions 1701 and 1559 have attempted to halt the flow of arms to Hezbollah.

For their part, Hezbollah's leaders remain coy on specifics, but have not disputed the characterization that their capabilities are greater than prewar levels. In mid-2007, Nasrallah said his militia has missiles "able to hit every point in occupied Palestine." Still, finding independent sources on Hezbollah has proven difficult. Western military assessments tend to agree that Hezbollah has, in fact, been smuggling armaments into Lebanon by Iran and Syria (LAT) in violation of the UN arms embargo. The U.S. State Department accuses both countries of providing military, logistical, and financial support to Hezbollah, long listed as a terrorist group by the United States. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, the bulk of Hezbollah's arsenal of anti-tank and anti-ship missiles, surface-to-air missiles, and unmanned aerial vehicles originated in either Iran or Syria. Senior Israeli security officials have produced alleged evidence of Iranian-made weapons that have been found in Gaza and Lebanon (AP).

Other military experts believe Hezbollah has had less luck replacing its rank-and-file than in refilling its ammunition bunkers. The London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, for instance, estimates Hezbollah maintains about two thousand men under arms, only a slight increase from 2007. For now, Hezbollah's military capabilities have been overshadowed by political compromise. But counterterrorism expert Daniel Byman calls the group "the most powerful single political movement in Lebanon," and CFR Press Fellow Mohamad Bazzi warns that Hezbollah-inspired violence could erupt at any time (The National).

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