Lebanon resumes defense talks on Hezbollah's military wing

The most powerful politicians in Lebanon resumed discussions on national defense, with questions of how to rein in Shiite political party Hezbollah's powerful military wing on the table.

Mohammed Zaatari/AP
In this Feb. 25 photo a UN vessel passes billboard with a Hezbollah flag showing a photo of an Israeli warship that was hit during the July 2006 war between Israel and the militant group, in the coastal town of Naqoura, Lebanon.

Lebanon’s top politicians have resumed a series of round-table discussions to devise a national defense strategy, at the heart of which is finding a compromise over the militant Shiite Hezbollah’s powerful military wing.

Although Lebanon is enjoying a taste of political stability and a buoyant economy after several years of internal violence and a war with Israel in 2006, the rival political factions of this tiny Mediterranean country are still divided over Hezbollah’s continued armed status.

The dispute is underlined by persistent fears here that another devastating war is brewing between Hezbollah and Israel, possibly as an outcome of intensifying efforts to forge an international consensus to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Given the rising tensions and recent strengthening of an Iran-led alliance in the Mideast, a war between Hezbollah and Israel could expand to become a regional conflagration involving Iran and Syria, both of which support the Lebanese Shiite party.

“We have managed to put ourselves on the frontline of the main critical issue that will dominate the international agenda for the next three or four years,” says Paul Salem, director of the Carnegie Endowment’s Middle East Center in Beirut.

In this strained regional atmosphere the national dialogue session, grouping Lebanon’s top 18 political leaders, met Tuesday under the auspices of President Michel Suleiman for the first time since before the parliamentary elections last June.

But the meeting only lasted two hours and mainly affirmed what was previously agreed at earlier sessions. A final statement said that a military committee formed during an earlier session in December 2008 would continue to examine proposals “in an effort to find common ground among the different parties and eventually reach a unified national defense strategy”.

Will Hezbollah disarm?

Skeptics of the national dialogue process – and there are many in Lebanon – say that the debate over crafting a policy of national defense is simply a smokescreen to avoid having to deal with the intractable problem of Hezbollah’s weapons. But, analysts say, in a country of myriad political persuasions where compromise usually is key to maintaining stability, the national dialogue does serve a purpose.

“It does seem a bit farcical,” says Elias Muhanna, a political analyst and author of the influential Lebanese affairs blog Qifa Nabki, in an email exchange. “On the one hand, it’s easy to deride it as little more than a glorified back-room for deal-making. On the other hand, given the problems of political representation within the Lebanese system, the talks give everyone something to take home to their constituents.”

Hezbollah’s critics “get to show that they are putting pressure on Hezbollah while the latter demonstrates that it is open to a process of nationalizing its [military wing],” Mr. Muhanna added.

Few expect an imminent advance in the national dialogue, which first convened in March 2006, but workable solutions could be drawn up over time, some analysts say.

“There is a team of experts working on this and that is where the credibility of the dialogue will rest,” says Ousama Safa, director of the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies. “It will become a thinking machine that could offer solutions. But we are navigating in troubled waters at this point and there is no climate for a breakthrough.”

Hezbollah says it needs its weapons

Hezbollah argues that its mode of guerrilla-style warfare, in coordination with the Lebanese army, is the best means of deterring future Israeli aggression against Lebanon.

Sheikh Naim Qassem, Hezbollah’s deputy secretary-general, on Sunday pointed to the party’s role in ending Israel’s occupation of southern Lebanon in 2000 and its robust challenge to the Israeli army during the month-long war in July 2006.

“How would the situation be without the resistance?” he asked, referring to Hezbollah’s military wing. “Without the resistance, [southern Lebanon] would not have been liberated and Israel would not have been defeated in 2006... Today, tourism is doing well, the security situation is stable and political stability is available.”

But Hezbollah’s opponents insist that national defense is the responsibility of the Lebanese state, not a political party even if it does coordinate with the Lebanese army. Critics fear that Hezbollah’s ideological and material links to Iran, which supplies much of the party’s funds and weaponry, make it beholden to the policies of Tehran rather than the interests of the Lebanese state.

Such views hardened following a summit in Damascus on February 25 when Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad were joined by Sheikh Nasrallah. The summit was seen as a strengthening of the “axis of resistance” against Israel and a snub to US efforts to encourage Damascus to break its three-decade alliance with Tehran.

The Phalange Party, a Christian group opposed to Hezbollah, complained that Lebanon had been represented at the summit by “the head of a [political] party” and that it “forces Lebanon to stand at the forefront of the military Arab-Israeli conflict in absence of any official Lebanese decision in this regard."

The next national dialogue session is scheduled for April 15. But many Lebanese worry that the protracted negotiations between Lebanon’s bickering politicians may become overshadowed by mounting tensions in the region.

“We are dealing with an issue that is linked more to the region than to just Lebanon,” says Mr Safa of the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies. “There is an escalation in the region in terms of the arms race, rhetoric and the psychological war which will not bring positive dividends to the national dialogue.”

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