President Michel Sleiman’s proposal for a national defense strategy, which includes placing Hezbollah’s arsenal of weapons under the command of the Lebanese army, is an attempt to fine tune an idea that was first aired around a decade ago.
The Sleiman proposal was unveiled at a meeting on September 21 that grouped most of the country’s top leaders for yet another of the seemingly interminable national dialogue sessions. Although the national dialogue began in early 2006 with the fate of Hezbollah’s arms as its chief raison d’être, the participants have only agreed on one item: closing the bases manned by Syrian-backed Palestinian factions in the Bekaa Valley and in Naameh south of Beirut.
However, despite unanimity on that decision it has yet to be put into effect and the Palestinian military bases continue to operate unmolested.
Sleiman’s proposal is unlikely to meet the approval of all participants to the national dialogue, let alone reach the stage of implementation. The bottom line is that Hezbollah will not voluntarily disarm nor hand over control of its weapons or decision-making capabilities to an external force. Ali Ammar, a Hezbollah Member of Parliament, was quite clear about this when he stated in June 2006 — a month before the war with Israel — that “the resistance will go on; the extent of the resistance is not the Shebaa Farms… nor the return of prisoners [from Israel], but its extent is when it becomes impossible for Israel to violate Lebanon’s sovereignty even with a paper kite.” In other words, the lifespan of the resistance is potentially infinite.
The late former MP Nassib Lahoud was an early proponent of blending Hezbollah into the army. With the onset of a debate on the fate of Hezbollah’s arms in the wake of the Israeli troop withdrawal from South Lebanon in 2000, Lahoud suggested that the resistance be turned into a paramilitary border defense force deployed along the southern frontier but placed under the command of the Lebanese army. His proposal was an attempt to find middle ground between the maximalist positions of Hezbollah, which wanted to keep the resistance intact, and the party’s critics, who wanted to see the resistance entirely disarmed.
Hezbollah argued that the success of the resistance in confronting Israel is that it has its own chain of command and is not part of the fabric of the army and therefore the state. The absence of a formal military chain of command and the relative degree of autonomy given to unit commanders (rare among Arab armies) allows the resistance to react more quickly to developments, ran Hezbollah’s argument. Furthermore, Hezbollah did not operate from open military barracks and bases such as those manned by the Lebanese army because of their vulnerability to attack. Instead it was a guerrilla force — fluid, mobile, stealthy — all the better to confront Israel’s conventional army.
Even as Hezbollah was advancing this argument a decade ago, its fighters were busy building secret underground fortresses in the hills of South Lebanon, a development that only became apparent with the advent of the 2006 war.
Before Syria’s political disengagement from Lebanon in April 2005, the future of the resistance was a largely academic debate: Hezbollah had no intention of disarming and the Syrians provided political cover. The national dialogue sessions first convened in 2006 when the debate over Hezbollah’s arms intensified and the party was compelled to at least accept the establishment of a forum to discuss the issue.
The key question, however, is who decides whether Lebanon goes to war or not — the state or the secretary-general of Hezbollah.
In 2006, the state was powerless to make such a decision as events on the ground moved too quickly. But if Israel was to launch a pre-emptive attack on Hezbollah in an attempt to degrade its military capabilities, would Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah look to the government for the green light to retaliate? Of course not. And he has implicitly stated that Hezbollah reserves the right to decide the manner of response to an attack by Israel in a series of “deterrence” speeches he has made in the past five years.
Sleiman’s proposal will continue to be discussed for many more months at future sessions of the national dialogue. But Hezbollah can probably rest assured that it will never proceed any further than the table in Baabda presidential palace.
Nicholas Blanford is the Beirut-based correspondent for The Christian Science Monitor and The Times of London