Does Hizbullah get to stay "special"?

The withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanon depends to a great degree on the future of Hizbullah.

Is Syria likely to completely withdraw its armed forces from Lebanon in the near future?

Syria is definitely feeling pressure from the popular uprising that started to stir after the murder of former prime minister Rafik Hariri. But Syria's departure is only part of Lebanon's complicated political liberation process. There is another looming question: What will happen to Hizbullah's (Shiite) armed forces, a paramilitary movement of resistance to Israel?

So far, the growing opposition to Syria's occupation of Lebanon includes most Sunnites, as well as virtually all Christians and Druzes. The Shiite community is still hesitant about joining the opposition.

The Shiites are the largest religious sect in Lebanon and the most organized politically. They have two quasi- political parties, Amal and Hizbullah; the latter is the stronger and more militant. Hizbullah is a "state within a state" in Lebanon. It is represented in the parliament; it has a wide infrastructure of social services; and above all, it has a militia that has refused to demilitarize after the end of the civil war in 1989. All other militias have disbanded in compliance with the Ta'if peace accord.

In the 1990s , Hizbullah, gained popularity through its effective resistance to the Israeli occupation of south Lebanon. After Israel withdrew from Lebanon in 2000, Hizbullah was expected to integrate its forces into the Lebanese army and focus on political and social services. But Hizbullah refused to do so, calling itself a force of resistance not only for Lebanon, but for the region.

Hizbullah's unusual freedom of military action in Lebanon is surprising, given the disarming of all other militia after civil war ended and Israel withdrew from south Lebanon. So is there a relationship between the Syrian occupation and the unique "militia permit" that Hizbullahenjoys? Some Lebanese speculate that Syria has supported the Hizbullah militia because Syria's occupation of Lebanon can be justified as long as there is a "security alert" in the country.

Iran also supports Hizbullah's militia, both financially and ideologically. Hizbullah has served Syria and Iran as a Lebanese front of resistance against Israel. Both Syria and Iran have legitimate claims against Israel's occupation of Palestinian land and Syria's Golan Heights . However, Hizbullah's defense of the Palestinians, and the Golan has been at the expense of Lebanese unity and sovereignty. Syria has indirectly fueled sectarian politics in Lebanon by keeping the Hizbullah militia alive.

Many Lebanese would argue that both Syria and Hizbullah protected Lebanon at critical moments in the recent past. But they would hasten to add that the new political realities require the Lebanese state to assume the full responsibility of running the country and to resume a monopoly on the use of force.

The Syrian army was invited by the Lebanese government to maintain security in Lebanon in 1976. But Syria has considered this an open invitation. It has overstayed its protective mission for 13 years now.

The question remains, will Syria's departure convey spontaneous recovery to the Lebanese?

Not by a long shot. The Lebanese will have to work hard to rebuild unity and democracy after a long phase of civil war, and years of multiple occupations. Realizing the importance of total unity, the growing opposition movement is actively seeking dialogue with Hizbullahand Amal . The goal is to unite the nation in order to negotiate an honorable and face-saving withdrawal for the Syrian army. Most Lebanese want to maintain a friendly relationship with the Syrian people and a reformed Syrian regime.

If Hizbullah were to join the opposition movement, I believe Syria would leave Lebanon immediately.

Hizbullah retains tremendous power and prestige in . In a bloody and long civil war, Hezbollah did not participate in any Lebanese sectarian massacre. Despite its religious name, Party of God, its record in the Lebanese civil war was the least sectarian of the militias. For example, when the Israeli army withdrew from south Lebanon, Hezbollah was prudent in its treatment of the Christian minority there.

A civic transformation of Hizbullah - re-integrate the militia into the Lebanesearmy -- would be a positive development for this Shiite political party and a victory for Lebanese unity. The withdrawal of Syria from Lebanon will automatically lead to increased pressure on Hizbullah to disband its armed forces.

But regrettably, for Hizbullah such a transformation likely would be considered a submission to external, "imperialistic" designs on the future of Lebanon. Early signs are that Hizbullah may not choose to re-integrate its military force without some prodding from Iran, the country most responsible for its creation and development. A culturally sensitive approach from the US to Hezbollah and to Iran may help the face-saving adaptation process of this movement. The US should deal gently with Hizbullah, as this organization has earned respect in Lebanon and the region.

It is interesting to observe that the key to influencing Hezbollah's future in Lebanon has now shifted from Syria to Iran. Syria is exhausted economically, morally and politically, while Iran is gaining political strength from Iraq's new Shiite power.

Iran might be willing to trade Hezbollah's unruliness in Lebanon for a more tolerant international response to its nuclear development program. With much hesitation and after consultation with European leaders, the US is trying a new approach with Iran on the nuclear issue. This positive, international approach may help the Lebanese better negotiate peace domestically and allow Syria to exit Lebanon with some grace.

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