Analysis: A success for Hizbullah - and its price

The events of the week do not resolve any of the issues of which they form a part.

hizbullah welcome 224 88 (photo credit: AP)
hizbullah welcome 224 88
(photo credit: AP)
The release of Samir Kuntar and his four colleagues, and the national jubilation that greeted their return to Lebanon, bring to a close a week of achievement for the regional bloc of which Hizbullah is a member. The events of the week, however, do not resolve any of the issues of which they form a part. Rather, they plant the seeds of further confrontation. After six weeks of disputation, the formation of a new government was announced in Beirut on July 11, with Hizbullah gaining veto power in the new cabinet. The pro-Western parliamentary majority holds 16 cabinet seats, against 11 for the opposition (including Hizbullah) and three named directly by President Michel Suleiman. This achievement represents success for Hizbullah's campaign of civil disobedience over the last 18 months. Veto power will enable Hizbullah to protect the independent military infrastructure that it has developed with Iranian and Syrian help - for use against Israel at some future date. In France, Syrian President Bashar Assad ended four years of isolation with a kingly welcome at the launch of President Nicolas Sarkozy's Mediterranean Forum. The simple act of receiving messages from an adjoining Israeli delegation in an Istanbul hotel appears to have been sufficient to wipe the slate clean, at least in the eyes of Paris. Assad, whose country is strongly suspected of involvement in the deaths of 59 French soldiers in Beirut in 1983, proudly reviewed the serried ranks of the French military assembled for July 14. Even as Bashar and his wife, Asma, enjoyed the Bastille Day ceremonies, weapons and other aid for Hizbullah continues to make its way across Syria's border with Lebanon, and southward to the movement's strongholds. The organization is thought to have assembled some 40,000 missiles north of the Litani River, unmolested by either the Lebanese army or UNIFIL. The latter, sources suggest, has reached its own uneasy modus vivendi with Hizbullah, rather than risk confronting it. The return of Kuntar and the prisoners will allow Hizbullah for a moment to present itself once again as the "shield" of Lebanon, achieving shared national goals through the use of its independent military capability. Yet the singing and dancing in the Druse village of Aabey, as the locals welcome home Samir Kuntar, the son of whom they are so proud, should not be allowed to obscure some notable ambiguities and potential dangers now opening up for Hizbullah. The movement's planners are thought to consider that another round of fighting with Israel is inevitable. Hizbullah expects that the next time will not be limited to southern Lebanon. Rather, it is likely to spread north and eastward, into Hizbullah's old heartland of the Bekaa. Hizbullah is training hard for the anticipated conflict. The movement is attempting to acquire antiaircraft missiles for use against helicopters. But the IDF, away from the headlines, is training too. Military sources depict an army much transformed from the cumbersome, ill-prepared force of summer 2006. The change has come not only in training hours for infantry and armored forces; no less important, the IDF has moved away from a concept of limited operations designed to imprint a message in the enemy's consciousness. The emphasis has returned to high-speed ground warfare, intended to conquer and clear territory. Despite Wednesday's fulsome praise of Hizbullah by the leaders of all factions in Lebanon, the scars left by May's sectarian fighting in west Beirut have not been forgotten. The damage that Lebanon would suffer in another war with Israel would be immense. The resentment of Hizbullah, currently simmering beneath the facade of unity, would be of corresponding magnitude. Away from the headlines and the slogans, the Shi'ite population of the South also suffered in the 2006 war, and is in no great hurry to repeat the experience. Rubble and ruins are still much in evidence in the border towns of Maroun a-Ras and Aita a-Sha'ab - sometimes not far from the posters lauding the 2006 victory. Hizbullah is not, of course, a movement dictated to by public sentiment. Still, the movement can ill afford to ignore the concerns of its core constituency. None of this is to detract from the very real successes of Hizbullah and its allies, only to note that they come with a price. The "formula" for Hizbullah's success was to create a mode of warfare that supposedly neutralized Israel's advantages in conventional warfare. Emphasis was placed on the willingness to sacrifice and the elusiveness of Hizbullah's small cadre of fighters. But as Hizbullah grows in political responsibilities and military strength, so it begins to look like something similar to a conventional power in its own right. Veteran Lebanon-watcher Paul Salem, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center, recently said Hizbullah "has entered the cycle of full wars with Israel." This, he considers, places the movement in a "terrible bind." With power comes visibility. And with visibility - potentially - comes vulnerability. So - will these underlying complexities and ambiguities serve eventually to stem the rise of a movement and bloc now rising to the zenith of its power? This, ultimately, will depend on whether Israel can (re-)acquire the focus, commitment, energy and imagination necessary to develop means to exploit these factors. Jonathan Spyer is a senior research fellow at the Global Research in International Affairs Center at the Interdisciplinary Center, Herzliya.