To understand Hezbollah, it is important to begin with this point: Almost all Muslim Arabs opposed the creation of the state of Israel. Not all of them supported, or support today, the creation of an independent Palestinian state or recognize the Palestinian people as a distinct nation. This is a vital and usually overlooked distinction that is the starting point in our thinking.
When Israel was founded, three distinct views emerged among Arabs. The first was that Israel was a part of the British mandate created after World War II and therefore should have been understood as part of an entity stretching from the Mediterranean to the other side of Jordan, from the border of the Sinai, north to Mount Hermon. Therefore, after 1948, the West Bank became part of the other part of the mandate, Jordan.
There was a second view that argued that there was a single province of the Ottoman Empire called Syria and that all of this province — what today is Israel, Jordan, Lebanon and the country of Syria — is legitimately part of it. This obviously was the view of Syria, whose policy was and in some ways continues to be that Syria province, divided by Britain and France after World War I, should be reunited under the rule of Damascus.
A third view emerged after the establishment of Israel, pioneered by Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt. This view was that there is a single Arab nation that should be gathered together in a United Arab Republic. This republic would be socialist, more secular than religious and, above all, modernizing, joining the rest of the world in industrialization and development.
All of these three views rejected the existence of Israel, but each had very different ideas of what ought to succeed it. The many different Palestinian groups that existed after the founding of Israel and until 1980 were not simply random entities. They were, in various ways, groups that straddled these three opinions, with a fourth added after 1967 and pioneered by Yasser Arafat. This view was that there should be an independent Palestinian state, that it should be in the territories occupied by Israel in 1967, extend to the original state of Israel and ultimately occupy Jordan as well. That is why, in September 1970, Arafat tried to overthrow King Hussein in Jordan. For Arafat, Amman, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv were all part of the Palestinian homeland.
After the Iranian revolution, a fifth strain emerged. This strain made a general argument that the real issue in the Islamic world was to restore religious-based government. This view opposed the pan-Arab vision of Nasser with the pan-Islamic vision of Khomeini. It regarded the particular nation-states as less important than the type of regime they had. This primarily Shiite view was later complemented by what was its Sunni counterpart. Rooted partly in Wahhabi Sunni religiosity and partly in the revolutionary spirit of Iran, its view was that the Islamic nation-states were the problem and that the only way to solve it was a transnational Islamic regime — the caliphate — that would restore the power of the Islamic world.
That pedantic lesson complete, we can now locate Hezbollah’s ideology and intentions more carefully. Hezbollah is a Shiite radical group that grew out of the Iranian revolution. However, there is a tension in its views, because it also is close to Syria. As such, it is close to a much more secular partner, more in the Nasserite tradition domestically. But it also is close to a country that views Lebanon, Jordan and Israel as part of greater Syria, the Syria torn apart by the British and French.
There are deep contradictions ideologically between Iran and Syria, though they share a common interest. First, they both oppose the Sunnis. Remember that when Lebanon first underwent invasion in 1975, it was by Syria intervening on behalf of Christian friends and against the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). Syria hated Arafat because Arafat insisted on an independent Palestinian state and Syria opposed it. This was apart from the fact that Syria had business interests in Lebanon that the PLO was interfering with. Iran also opposed the PLO because of its religious/ethnic orientation; moreso because it was secular and socialist.
Hezbollah emerged as a group representing Syrian and Iranian interests. These were:
* Opposition to the state of Israel
* An ambiguous position on an independent Palestine
* Hostility to the United States for supporting Israel and later championing Yasser Arafat
Hezbollah had to straddle the deep division between Syrian secularity and Iranian religiosity. However the other three interests allowed them to postpone the issue.
This brings us to the current action. Three things happened to energize Hezbollah:
First, the withdrawal of Syria from Lebanon under pressure from the United States undermined an understanding between Israel and Syria. Israel would cede Lebanon to Syria. Syria would control Hezbollah. When Syria lost out in Lebanon, its motive for controlling Hezbollah disappeared. Syria, in fact, wanted the world to see what would happen if Syria left Lebanon. Chaos was exactly what Syria wanted.
Second, the election of a Hamas-controlled government in the Palestinian territories created massive fluidity in Palestinian politics. The Nasserite Fatah was in decline and a religious Sunni movement was on the rise. Both accepted the principle of Palestinian independence. None made room for either Syrian or Iranian interests. It was essential that Hezbollah, representing itself and the two nations, have a seat at the table that would define Palestinian politics for a generation. But Hezbollah was more a group of businessmen making money in Beirut than a revolutionary organization. It had to demonstrate its commitment to the destruction of Israel even if it was ambiguous on the nature of the follow-on regime. It had to do something.
Third, the Sunni-Shiite fault line had become venomous. Tensions not only in Iraq, but also in Afghanistan and Pakistan were creating a transnational civil war between these two movements. Iran was positioning itself to replace al Qaeda as the revolutionary force in the Islamic world and was again challenging Saudi Arabia as the center of gravity of Islamic religiosity. Israel was a burning issue. It had to be there. Moreover, in its dealings with the United States over Iraq, Iran needed as many levers as possible, and a front in Lebanon confronting Israel, particularly if it bogged down the Israelis, would do just that.
Hezbollah is enabled by both Syria and Iran. But precisely because of both national and ideological differences between those two countries, Hezbollah is not simply a tool for them. They each have influence over Hezbollah but this influence is sometimes contradictory. Syria’s interests and Iran’s are never quite the same. Nor are Hezbollah’s interests quite the same as those of its patrons. Hezbollah has business interests in legal and illegal businesses around the world. It has interests within Lebanese politics and it has interests in Palestinian politics. As a Syrian client, it looks at the region as one entity. As an Iranian client, it looks to create a theocratic state in the region. As an entity in its own right, it must keep itself going.
Given all these forces, Hezbollah was in a position in which it had to take some significant action in Lebanon, Israel and the Islamic world or be bypassed by other, more effective, groups. Hezbollah chose to act. The decision it made was to go to war with Israel. It did not think it could win the war but it did think it could survive it. And if it fought and survived, it would have a seat at the Palestinian and Lebanese tables, and maintain and reconcile the patronage of Syria and Iran. The reasons were complex, the action was clear.
Hezbollah had prepared for war with Israel for years. It had received weapons and training from Iran and Syria. It had prepared systematic fortifications using these weapons in southern Lebanon after Israel’s withdrawal, but also in the Bekaa Valley, where its main base of operations was and in the area south of Beirut, where its political center was. It had prepared for this war carefully, particularly studying the U.S. experience in Iraq.
In our view, Hezbollah has three military goals in this battle:
- Fight the most effective defensive battle ever fought against Israel by an Arab army, surpassing the performance of Egypt and Syria in 1973.
- Inflict direct and substantial damage on Israel proper using conventional weapons in order to demonstrate the limits of Israeli power.
- Draw Israel into an invasion of Lebanon and, following resistance, move to an insurgency that does to the Israelis what the Sunnis in Iraq have done to the Americans.
In doing this, the U.S.-Israeli bloc would be fighting simultaneously on two fronts. This would place Jordan in a difficult position. It would radicalize Syria (Syria is too secular to be considered radical in this context). It would establish Hezbollah as the claimant to Arab and Islamic primacy along the Levant. It also would establish Shiite radicalism as equal to Sunni radicalism.
The capture of two Israeli soldiers was the first provocation, triggering Israeli attacks. But neither the capture nor the retaliation represented a break point. That happened when Hezbollah rockets hit Haifa, several times, presenting Israel with a problem that forced it to take military steps — steps for which Hezbollah thought it was ready and which it thought it could survive, and exploit. Hezbollah had to have known that attacking the third largest city in Israel would force a response. That is exactly what it wanted.
Hezbollah’s strategy will be to tie down the Israelis as long as possible first in the area south of the Litani River and then north in the Bekaa. It can, and will, continue to rocket Haifa from further north. It will inflict casualties and draw the Israelis further north. At a certain point Hezbollah will do what the Taliban and Saddam Hussein did: It will suddenly abandon the conventional fight, going to ground, and then re-emerge as a guerrilla group, inflicting casualties on the Israelis as the Sunnis do on the Americans, wearing them down.
Israel’s strategy, as we have seen, will be to destroy Hezbollah’s infrastructure but not occupy any territory. In other words, invade, smash and leave, carrying out follow-on attacks as needed. Hezbollah’s goal will be to create military problems that force Israel to maintain a presence for an extended period of time, so that its follow-on strategy can be made to work. This will be what determines the outcome of the war. Hezbollah will try to keep Israel from disengaging. Israel will try to disengage.
Hezbollah sees the war in these stages:
- Rocket attacks to force and Israeli response.
- An extended period of conventional combat to impose substantial losses on the Israelis, and establish Hezbollah capabilities to both Israel and the Arab and Islamic worlds. This will involve using fairly sophisticated weaponry and will go on as long as Hezbollah can extend it.
- Hezbollah’s abandonment of conventional warfare for a prepared insurgency program.
What Hezbollah wants is political power in Lebanon and among the Palestinians, and freedom for action within the context of Syrian-Iranian relations. This war will cost it dearly, but it has been preparing for this for a generation. Some of the old guard may not have the stomach for this, but it was either this or be pushed aside by the younger bloods. Syria wanted to see this happen. Iran wanted to see this happen. Iran risks nothing. Syria risks little since Israel is terrified of the successor regime to the Assads. So long as Syria limits resupply and does not intervene, Israel must leave Damascus out.
Looked at from Hezbollah’s point of view, taking the fight to the Israelis is something that has not happened in quite a while. Hezbollah’s hitting of Haifa gives it the position it has sought for a generation. If it can avoid utter calamity, it will have won — if not by defeating Israel, then by putting itself first among the anti-Israeli forces. What Hezbollah wants in Israel is much less clear and important than what it opposes. It opposes Israel and is the most effective force fighting it.
Fatah and Hamas are now bystanders in the battle for Israel. They have no love for or trust in Hezbollah, but Hezbollah is doing what they have only talked about. Israel’s mission is to crush Hezbollah quickly. Hezbollah’s job is to survive and hurt Israel and the IDF as long as possible. That is what this war is about for Hezbollah.