Although the Bush administration has put unprecedented diplomatic and economic pressure on the Lebanese government to counteract Hezbollah [see Has American Pressure Sidelined Hezbollah?, December 2001], US officials have long recognized that Lebanon is powerless to act without approval from Syria, which maintains an estimated 20,000-25,000 troops in the country and tightly controls its foreign policy and security decisions.
However, successive American administrations have been reluctant to openly push for an end to Syrian protection of Hezbollah. In fact, the United States has been unwilling even to publicly request that the Syrians end this protection. While this stems in part from the long-standing American policy of avoiding public statements which mention or suggest that Syria controls Lebanese policy decisions, it may also reflect a tendency to underestimate the degree of control that Damascus has established over Hezbollah, which is usually regarded as an Iranian proxy.
While Iran undoubtedly remains the group's supreme ideological mentor and an important source of funding, it is evident that Syria has increasingly established control over virtually every aspect of Hezbollah activities in Lebanon, ranging from its choice of political allies in the electoral process to the timing of its periodic attacks against Israeli forces.
The Origins of Hezbollah
The origins of Hezbollah date back to June 1982, when Syria decided to permit the Shi'ite Islamist revolutionary government in Iran to dispatch around 1,000 Pasdaran (members of the Revolutionary Guards) to the Beqaa Valley of eastern Lebanon, an area occupied by Syrian forces. Syria had previously refused to permit the clerical regime in Tehran to directly involve itself in Lebanese affairs, but the Israeli invasion of Lebanon earlier that month and the cordial reception accorded to the Israelis by Shi'ites in the South convinced Syrian leaders that Iranian involvement could serve to block Israeli influence in the country. An added factor was Iran's supply of oil to the Syrians at greatly reduced prices.
The Iranian delegation, consisting of both military and religious instructors, recruited a number of young, militant Lebanese clerics affiliated with the Lebanese branch of Al-Da'wa, a radical Iraqi Shi'ite fundamentalist group, and Islamic Amal, a breakaway faction of the Amal movement, which had become more secularized under the leadership of Nabih Berri. Most of the radical clerics who formed the nucleus of Hezbollah's leadership had been educated in the Shi'ite seminaries of southern Iraq, particularly Najaf, where Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini and other ideologues in Iran spent many years in exile. As a result of these ties, they embraced Khomeini's concept of the just jurisconsult (al-wali al-faqih), the ideological basis for clerical rule, enshrined in Iran's 1979 constitution. In a 1985 manifesto, the leadership of Hezbollah pledged loyalty to Khomeini and to the goal of establishing an Islamic state in Lebanon.1
Iranian funds and training led to the rapid growth of Hezbollah's military wing, which devoted itself primarily to the expulsion of the American and European multi-national force (MNF) in Beirut and the defeat of occupying Israeli forces - objectives which corresponded with both Iranian and Syrian interests. After a series of deadly Hezbollah operations against MNF forces, most notably the October 1983 twin suicide bombings which killed around 300 American and French servicemen, MNF forces withdrew in 1984. Israel, facing pressure from Hezbollah and other groups in Lebanon, withdrew from central Lebanon in 1985.
The End of the Honeymoon
Relations between Damascus and Hezbollah began to deteriorate after the MNF and Israeli withdrawals, which greatly strengthened Syria's position in Lebanon. Lebanese President Amine Gemayel abandoned the May 1983 non-belligerancy agreement with Israel, stopped pressing for a Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon, and committed himself to negotiating with Damascus and its militia allies. Since Syria was now capable of dealing with challenges to its authority either directly or through its leftist militia proxies, the presence of a revolutionary religious movement on Lebanese soil, pledging allegiance to another government and advocating the overthrow of the entire Lebanese political system, was increasingly seen as a potential threat.
While Syria was more than happy to see Hezbollah attack Israeli forces in south Lebanon, the group's campaign of kidnappings against Westerners in Lebanon served the aims of Iran, which used the hostages to negotiate concessions from their respective governments, not Syria, which now wished to demonstrate to the West that it could tame the Lebanese jungle. Although Hezbollah's abduction of foreigners was advantageous to Damascus insofar as it fueled the Western need for its services in Lebanon, the Syrians no longer wished to give the group carte blanche to act independently. Shi'ite fundamentalists were beginning to attack non-Western leftist institutions, such as the offices of the Lebanese Communist Party and the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP), and even went so far as to briefly kidnap four Soviet diplomats.
Moreover, by the mid-1980s, Hezbollah's military and socio-economic presence had begun to expand from the Beqaa to areas of south Lebanon and the Shi'ite southern suburbs of Beirut - directly threatening the rival Shi'ite Amal militia, Syria's closest and strongest proxy. Hezbollah's Iranian financing allowed it to pay its fighters much more than the going "militia wages" and offer much-needed social services to the local population. Amal, on the other hand, had no significant source of external financing and therefore had to raise taxes from the population in areas it controlled. As rank and file Shi'ites gravitated toward what Amal leaders dubbed the "Petro party," a growing number of the group's military commanders did the same.
A third factor fueling tensions with Hezbollah following the MNF and Israeli withdrawals was Syria's drive to defeat its principle remaining enemy in Lebanon - the PLO - during the mid-1980s. In May 1985, Syria's closest and strongest militia proxy, Amal, attacked the Shatilla refugee camp in Beirut, sparking the so-called "war of the camps" that lasted from 1985-1987 and claimed an estimated 2,500 lives. Although Amal had its own reasons for the attack (the camp stood in the way of its domination of West Beirut), the assault was widely seen as a move by Damascus "intended to prevent the re-emergence of the Palestinians as an independent force in Lebanon."2 Hezbollah, which advocated the liquidation of Israel and the "liberation" of Jerusalem, condemned Amal's assault on the Palestinians as an "international conspiracy." The group not only provided humanitarian support to the camps, but even intervened on the Palestinian side at times. Syria's move to liquidate Sunni Islamist groups in Tripoli also exacerbated tensions with Hezbollah, as both Iran and Hezbollah had developed ties with them.
In early 1987, Amal launched a disastrous campaign against rival Druze and Palestinian forces in west Beirut, prompting Syrian forces to enter the area on February 22. During the operation to secure control of the Basta quarter, Syrian troops killed 23 Hezbollah members who allegedly attacked them. However, Hezbollah's Voice of Islam radio station called the killings a "massacre in cold blood" and claimed that the hands of the victims, including four women and four children, tied behind their backs before they received gun shots to the head at close range. An estimated 50,000 people attended the victims' funeral, chanting "death to Ghazi Kanaan," the head of Syrian military intelligence in Lebanon.3 Ayatollah Hussein Ali Montazeri, then the designated successor to Ayatollah Khomeini, angrily denounced the killings as "the Karbala of the twentieth century" (a reference to the martyrdom of Hussein in 680 AD, commemorated each year in the Shi'ite festival Ashoura.
Emboldened by Syrian intervention, Amal launched an all-out assault on Hezbollah positions in south Lebanon and the southern suburbs of Beirut in April 1988. Although Hezbollah lost ground in the South, its forces seized 80% of the Shi'ite suburbs in early May through a combination of well-timed assaults and Iranian-financed bribes to local Amal commanders. Syrian forces again intervened to enforce a cease-fire, but clashes, along with reciprocal kidnappings and assassinations, between the two militias continued intermittently for two years.
As the Lebanese civil war drew to a close, a number of factors promoted accommodation between Syria and Hezbollah. Iran's ideological domination of the movement was weakened by the death of Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989. While the spiritual leader of Hezbollah, Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah, had obediently deferred to the Supreme Leader's edicts, Fadlallah felt no subservience to Khomeini's successor, Ayatollah Khameini, who lacked the former's religious credentials. Fadlallah and the movement's political leadership abandoned the establishment of an Islamic state (at least temporarily) and instead looked to maximize their influence in post-war Lebanon.
The "Loveless Marriage" (1990-2000)
The relationship between Hezbollah and the Syrian regime during the last decade was described by one Beirut commentator as a "loveless marriage that endures because their common interests demand it."4 Hezbollah had initially rejected the Ta'if Accord, negotiated under American, Saudi and Syrian auspices in 1989, because it apportioned an equal number of parliamentary seats to Christian and Muslim sects and barred Shi'ites from the offices of president and prime minister, precluding the possibility of Hezbollah gaining control over the Lebanese government. After Syria invaded east Beirut and ousted interim Prime Minister Michel Aoun in October 1990, eliminating the last remnants of opposition to Syrian authority, however, Hezbollah agreed to abide by the new rules of the game.
The Iranians were also forced to recognize the new political realities in Lebanon and, by 1992, the number of Pasdaran stationed in Lebanon had been scaled down from 2,500 to around 200-300. However, despite quite pressure from Tehran, Syria refused to withdraw its forces from Hezbollah strongholds in Beirut. For the next ten years, Syria would combat Hezbollah's autonomy tooth and nail.
While Syria had a clear interest in continuing to sponsor paramilitary attacks against Israel so long as it refused to withdraw from the Golan Heights, it permitted Hezbollah alone to carry out the war due to several important considerations. First, Iran reportdly agreed to assist Syria in the event of war with Israel in exchange for Hezbollah's virtually exclusive right to remain armed and continue fighting the Israelis.5 Although other groups were permitted to launch token attacks from time to time, only Hezbollah was allowed to systematically recruit, train and deploy a highly structured military apparatus. Second, Hezbollah's military prowess was unparalleled in Lebanon. According to one informed estimate, between 1984 and 1993, Hezbollah was responsible for around 90% of all armed attacks against Israeli forces in Lebanon.6 Finally, the fact that Hezbollah is an Islamic fundamentalist movement gave a veneer of plausibility to the secular Syrian regime's denials of complicity in the attacks. In fact, Syria achieved some success in portraying itself to the West as a force of moderation vis-à-vis Hezbollah.
However, in return for granting Hezbollah a virtual monopoly on war against Israel, an important source of the movement's support within Lebanon and Iran's prestige in the region, Syria placed strict military and political constraints on its autonomy.
In order for violence to be an effective tool of diplomacy, it must be strictly controlled and tailored to the intended objectives and negotiating position of the enemy. During the last decade, Syria has maintained firm control at the strategic level of Hezbollah operations against Israeli forces in south Lebanon and of all indirect mediation between Hezbollah and the Israelis This was vividly evident during the Israeli Grapes of Wrath campaign in April 1996, when then-US Secretary of State Warren Christopher repeatedly shuttled to and from Damascus to negotiate the terms of the April Understanding between Israel and Hezbollah.
Another vivid example was the German-mediated exchange of the bodies of two Israeli soldiers held by Hezbollah for 45 Lebanese prisoners in July 1996. The Israeli-Hezbollah negotiations bore fruit only after German intelligence envoy Berndt Schmidbauer met with Maj. Gen. Ghazi Kanaan, the head of Syrian military intelligence in Lebanon, on May 12, and after Germany released Hafez Kasem Dalkamoni, a member of the Damascus-based PFLP, from prison on June 27 and deported him to Syria.
At the operational level, Hezbollah was required to closely coordinate its operations with Syrian and (Syrian-appointed) Lebanese military and intelligence personnel.
Syria has also strictly monitored arms shipments to Hezbollah from Iran, which is not permitted to airlift arms directly to Lebanon, but must ship them first to Damascus, where they are unloaded and transferred overland to Hezbollah bases in the Beqaa.
The Syrians also established clear constraints on Hezbollah's political influence. The group's representation in parliament is explicitly set by Damascus, roughly on par with Amal, but hardly commensurate with its support among Lebanese Shi'ites. This discrepancy has been a source of considerable tension between Syria and Hezbollah.
Prior to the 1992 parliamentary "elections" in Lebanon, Hezbollah joined a Syrian-brokered electoral coalition with Amal in which it was allotted eight Shi'ite seats (four in the district of Baalbeck-Hermel, two in south Lebanon, one in Beirut and one in Baabda) and four seats held by non-Shi'ites selected by the Hezbollah leadership. In the aftermath of Israel's Grapes of Wrath campaign in April 1996, however, public support for Hezbollah was at an all-time high. During the run-up to parliamentary elections that fall, the group conducted surveys in the South and concluded that it could significantly expand its parliamentary representation without forming an electoral coalition with Berri's Amal movement.
Hezbollah officials informed the Syrians that they would not coordinate with Amal unless they were awarded six seats in Baalbeck-Hermel and six seats of the thirteen Shi'ite seats in the South, allowed to maintain their two seats in Beirut and Baabda, and have a say in the choice of Christian legislators in the South. Syrian officials, reportedly under pressure from the United States to reduce the number of Islamist deputies in the Lebanese parliament,7 refused and offered Hezbollah only six seats. When Hezbollah officials angrily rejected the offer and began openly denouncing Amal, the Syrians hastily arranged electoral coalitions against the group. Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, whose supporters opposed Hezbollah candidates in Beirut, called the elections a "battle between moderation and extremism." For good measure, Damascus informed Hezbollah that it was not permitted to form coalitions with traditional Shi'ite politicians opposed to the Syrian occupation, such as former Parliament Speaker Kamel al-Asaad, the Communist Party, or with Southern MP Habib Sadek, who was attempting to forge a coalition against Berri.
Hamstrung by these restrictions and unwilling to cross Syrian red lines, Hezbollah suffered defeat in the first two rounds of the elections, losing its seats in Baabda and Beirut, where afterwards Hezbollah's candidate held a press conference displaying fake ballots and other evidence of electoral fraud allegedly designed to ensure his defeat. At the last minute, Hezbollah conceded to Syria and joined an electoral alliance with Amal prior to the round of elections in south Lebanon, emerging from the 1996 elections with a net loss of only two seats.
Significantly, the 1998 municipal elections in the Shi'ite suburbs of Beirut witnessed unmediated electoral competition between the two rivals and resulted in a landslide Hezbollah victory. Afterwards, the Beirut weekly Monday Morning crowned Hezbollah "the spokesman of the majority of Lebanon's Shi'ite community."8 Nevertheless, Hezbollah conceded to a Syrian-brokered alliance with Amal in the 2000 parliamentary elections and was rewarded by gaining two additional seats in the legislature.
That many rank and file members of Hezbollah resent the political parity with Amal is evident from the frequency of clashes between partisans of the two groups (most recently, a fight erupted on February 1 between Amal and Hezbollah members who had arrived to use a soccer field at the same time - four of the participants and five Lebanese soldiers who intervened were injured in the confrontation).
It is not difficult to fathom why Damascus imposed such strict limits on Hezbollah's political representation. Syrian control over Lebanon is rooted in the pervasive corruption that infects Lebanese politics at all levels, and Hezbollah has been the most vocal critic of this corruption. Moreover, the readily observable asceticism of its leaders and efficiency of its social-welfare network contrast sharply with the pervasive corruption and ineptitude that has infected the Second Republic. Even Hezbollah's soccer team, Al-Ahd, has managed to maintain an impeccable image in a country where the sport is not associated with good sportsmanship. Astonishingly, during the 1997 season, the team did not receive a single red or yellow penalty card.
Hezbollah's stance on corruption is particularly resonant among Lebanese Shi'ites because the Amal movement arose in the 1970s primarily to challenge the corrupt patronage networks of the traditional feudal lords (zu'ama) who reigned supreme within the community. After the death of the movement's founder, Musa al-Sadr, however, Amal soon adopted the same practices as the zu'ama it sought to supplant. In the post-Ta'if era, Berri has rivaled Rafiq Hariri as the most skilled and corrupt of Lebanon's neo-zu'ama, and the Council of the South, a government institution controlled by Berri, is perhaps more ridden with patronage than any agency that existed in the First Republic. As a result, many among the Shi'ite professional middle class - once the core base of Amal's support - have deserted the group and now support Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah, whose austerity and dedication to the fight against Israel (his own son was sent into battle and died) contrast sharply with Berri's corruption and cowardice (during the civil war he fled Lebanon and spent the better part of a year in Damascus because he feared for his life).
Interestingly, Hezbollah's domestic political agenda has led many of the movement's activists to coordinate at the grassroots level with members of the anti-Syrian Free National Current (FNC) in opposing corruption and political patronage. For instance, when the Lebanese doctors' association held elections in March 2001 for a new chairman, Hezbollah and the FNC joined together in backing the losing candidate, Dr. Saad Bizri, over Dr. Mahmoud Shuqair, who enjoyed the firm backing of such political heavyweights as Hariri and Berri.
Tufaili's militia, swelled by the influx of disaffected Hezbollah militiamen, established control of a number of strategic positions in the Bekaa. In April 1999, Tufaili's forces overran a Hezbollah arms depot in the village of Nabichit, near Baalbeck, seizing large numbers of machine-guns, rocket-launchers and other military equipment. Tufaili now openly hosts gatherings at his residence in Douris near Baalbeck without fear of arrest. Early reports that Tufaili's supporters would run against Hezbollah in the 2000 elections were apparently intended to pressure Hezbollah into an electoral coalition with Amal.10
The Syrianization of Hezbollah?
After the withdrawal of Israeli forces from south Lebanon in May 2000, many observers expected Hezbollah to end its war against Israel and focus its energies on much-needed economic reconstruction in the South. However, after an initial lull of nearly five months, the group launched a new war, this time against Israeli soldiers stationed in the Shebaa Farms area of the Golan Heights, an area that Syrian and Lebanese officials claim is Lebanese. Meanwhile, Syria prevented the Lebanese government from sending troops to south Lebanon (although the Lebanese army maintains two token garrisons in the towns of Marjayoun and Bint Jabeil, it has made no attempt to approach the border).
While Hezbollah attacks against Israeli forces (and vice versa) have been far less frequent than during the Israeli occupation of south Lebanon, the resumption of hostilities has perpetuated the economic deprivation of both the South and the country as a whole by scaring away investors. As a result, Hezbollah's new war has not been popular in Lebanon, even within the Shi'ite community.
While Hezbollah may have been motivated to renew hostilities by the Palestinian revolt against Israel, the decision was clearly related to the growth of Lebanese opposition to the Syrian occupation throughout the Fall of 2000, beginning with the release of a September 20 statement by the Council of Maronite Archbishops calling upon Syria to "completely withdraw" its military forces from Lebanon.
After Syria's initial attempts to contain the spread of calls for a withdrawal failed, in early October Hezbollah guerrillas infiltrated the Shebaa Farms area and abducted three Israeli soldiers. In addition to momentarily distracting public attention away from Syria, the operation was widely regarded as having bolstered Syria's clout internationally. Shortly afterwards, the Lebanese daily Al-Diyar wrote that Hezbollah had succeeded in returning Syria to the "world equation" after it had become marginilazed following the Israeli withdrawal, noting that Damascus had become a "pilgrimage" for international envoys seeking their release.11
Subsequent Hezbollah operations over the next six months closely followed major outbursts of Lebanese opposition to the Syrian occupation:
By early 2001, the attacks had begun to severely alienate Prime Minister Hariri. Just one day before the February 16 attack, he had confidently informed a group of investors in France that there was "a clear agreement with our Syrian brothers" to end Hezbollah provocations in the security zone.13 However, after arriving in Damascus to complain that Hezbollah's war was obstructing his efforts to secure international aid and investment, Hariri was reportedly told by Assad that Hezbollah would be permitted to continue the attacks until Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon fell from power.
After the next attack, on April 14, Hariri's newspaper, Al-Mustaqbal, openly questioned whether Lebanon can "bear the consequences of such an operation and its political, economic and social impacts."14 Syrian President Bashar Assad was so outraged by the editorial that he canceled a scheduled meeting with the Lebanese premier in Damascus and refused to receive him for over a month (while openly welcoming his rival, former Prime Minister Omar Karami, to the Syrian capital).
Syria's role in determining the timing of Hezbollah attacks and strong-arming Lebanese politicians into accepting the new war had become so blatant that, following the April 14 operation, Israel abandoned its moratorium on retaliation against Syrian forces in Lebanon. On April 16, the Israeli air force bombed a Syrian radar station in the Dahr al-Baidar region [See Sharon Ends Moratorium on Striking Syrian Forces in Lebanon, April 2001]. On July 1, Israel launched a second air strike against a Syrian radar position in Lebanon, wounding two Syrian soldiers, two days after a Hezbollah missile attack injured an Israeli soldier.
Hezbollah's willingness to relegate virtually complete authority over its military operations to Damascus over the last year has coincided with an unprecedented degree of political backing for the Syrian occupation. Until recently, Hezbollah officials had not distinguished themselves as enthusiastic spokesmen for the Syrian presence in Lebanon.
This changed in March 2001, after Maronite Christian Patriarch Nasrallah Boutros Sfeir returned from a trip abroad to rally diplomatic support for a Syrian pullout and received a tumultuous reception from tens of thousands of supporters. Anxious to organize a counter-demonstration in favor of the Syrian presence, the Syrians persuaded Nasrallah to speak out during an April 4 rally before 300,000 followers. The presence of Syrian forces in Lebanon is "a regional and internal necessity for Lebanon" and a "national obligation for Syria," declared Nasrallah. "Should the Syrian leadership take its army out of Lebanon, we as Lebanese will stand up and tell them they are wrong and are doing something which is not in Lebanon's interest."
Over the last year, Hezbollah's unqualified support for the Syrian occupation - at a time when opposition to Damascus has been growing among all sectarian communities in Lebanon - has elicited an unprecedented degree of support for the movement from President Assad, who is said to fawn over Nasrallah during his visits to the Syrian capital like a starstruck teenager. To the astonishment of many observers, Assad has even permitted Hezbollah to stage a paramilitary parade in his home province of Latakia.
Bashar's love affair with Hezbollah is attributed by some observers to naivete. "A Syria that can be manipulated by Hezbollah, which acts, in turn, under Iranian guidance, could well miss the crucial moment when Iran and Hezbollah attempt to spark a huge conflagration . . . on Israel's northern border," says Israeli commentator Ehud Ya'ari. "A weak and naive Syria acts as an accelerator for Hezbollah, not a brake."
Such interpretations are founded on the conventional wisdom that Hezbollah remains first and foremost an Iranian proxy. However, Iranian funding for Hezbollah was long ago surpassed both by contributions from expatriate Lebanese Shi'ites and by revenue from the movement's array of commercial businesses in Lebanon. Since Syria and its Lebanese satellite are capable of impeding these money transfers, Hezbollah's financial situation is ultimately more dependent on its relations with Damascus than with Tehran.
Hezbollah does, in fact, appear to be gearing up for a major conflagration with Israel. According to Israeli intelligence reports, Iranian arms shipments to Hezbollah have accelerated, and the group now has an estimated 7,000 Katyusha rockets capable of hitting Israeli territory throughout the Galilee and up to the outskirts of Haifa. Hezbollah is also nearing completion of an extensive defense line deep in the heart of south Lebanon, designed to obstruct the advance of invading Israeli tanks.
It is likely, though, that if Hezbollah is planning a dramatic escalation of hostilities with Israel, it will come at a time of Syria's choosing.
1 For an in-depth discussion of Hezbollah's origins, see Magnus Ranstorp, Hizb'allah in Lebanon: The Politics of the Western Hostage Crisis (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1997), pp. 25-38.
2 Rosemary Sayigh, Too Many Enemies: The Palestinian Experience in Lebanon (London: Zed Books, 1994), p. 143.
3 Al-Nahar (Beirut), 26 February 1987.
4 Al-Nahar (Beirut), 5 April 2001.
5 The Washington Times, 30 April 1991.
6 Nizar Hamzeh, "Lebanon's Hizballah: From Revolution to Parliamentary Accomodaton," Third World Quarterly, vol. 14, no. 2 (1993), p. 322.
7 Al-Wasat, 2 September 1996.
8 Monday Morning (Beirut), 6 July 1998.
9 See Tufaili Returns to Lebanese Political Scene, Middle East Intelligence Bulletin, December 1999.
10 Al-Watan al-Arabi, 3 December 1999.
11 Al-Diyar, 10 October 2000.
12 The Daily Star (Beirut), 18 November 2000.
13 Quoted in Nicholas Blanford, "Hizbullah Hoist by Its Own Petard," The Middle East, April 2001.
14 Al-Mustaqbal (Beirut), 15 April 2001.