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July 20, 2006

Behind Hezbollah's Self-Destruction
Posted by Shadi Hamid

Ok, I’m gonna have to backtrack a little bit. I’m still having trouble understanding what Hezbollah’s strategic calculations were as they launched their initial attack on Israel last week. I’ve heard a number of explanations so far, none of which I find particularly compelling. Well, yes, Iran and Syria may have played a hand in pushing Hezbollah toward the current confrontation but this does not explain why Hezbollah, with its considerable autonomy, would choose to go along with it.

Hezbollah knew that any attack on Israel would elicit a forceful response, particularly in light of Israel’s sustained efforts to recover abducted soldier Gilad Shalit the previous week. Any intelligent person could have predicted that Israel would do everything in its power to destroy Hezbullah infrastructure if provoked along the border. Sure, there are short-term strategic gains which may yet accrue to Hezbollah, but in the long run, the group’s organizational capacity has been severely hit and, now, its continued existence as the second strongest political force in Lebanon (along with coalition partners Amal) is a big question-mark. If Hezbollah's goal was, in fact, to force Israel into a prisoner exhange, then killing eight soldiers makes absolutely no sense. Nasrallah might very well be a raging megalomaniac but I'm not sure that, by itself, explains Hezbollah's strategic self-immolation.

Some Egyptians I have spoken to here, in between tiresome praises of Nasrallah, claim to understand it quite well – that Hezbollah did this for karamah, to reclaim Arab world’s dignity (the destruction of one’s country would seem a rather exorbitant price to pay for regaining one's “dignity”).  Or, as someone else suggested – it's every militant Islamist group's dream to drag the world into some kind or regional conflagration, where Arabs will be forced to get up or sit down (although the vast majority of Arabs have been sitting down rather consistently for the last five decades). Read Michael Doran’s “Somebody Else’s Civil War” for a sense of how this set-up might work. (Interestingly, Doran is now the point-person for the Middle East on the National Security Council).

Ultimately, it’s hard to know for sure what goes on in the minds of Hezbollah leaders, since very few American scholars are Hezbollah specialists. There are probably only a handful of them and even the few who do know something are likely at a loss to understand the internal dynamics and the decision-making process within Hezbollah. Same goes for Hamas. It would have been nice to have a few Hamas experts on hand who could have shed some light on things after the group unexpectedly rose to power in January. Instead, the State Department (as always?) was caught by surprise, leading Condi to get a bit miffed at her underlings. I can’t think of many Hamas specialists in academia either. So, anyway, there’s been a pretty serious internal struggle going on between Khaled Meshaal and PA Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh the last few months, but it has been tough to go beyond superficial analyses, since very few American scholars or policymakers have a good grasp of how Hamas's internal organization actually works.


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I'd never claim to be some kind of oracle myself, unless I thought it would get a cheap laugh. But in lieu of deep exeprtise that is lacking at the moment I suggest we not base our thinking on the assumption that people like Nasrallah and other Hezbollah leaders are master geostrategists.

This is not a comment on their cause, or causes, but on their likely ability to think several moves ahead on a regional political chessboard while remaining uninfluenced by the passions of the moment. Talent for this kind of thing is rare anywhere, and talent normally needs to be honed by experience. The experience of most Nasrallah and his associates has mostly been confined to Lebanon's internal politics, and relations with Hezbollah's Syrian and Iranian sponsors.

How likely is it that the raid across Israel's northern border that caused the current crisis was planned as a one-off, perhaps in response to local Hezbollah commanders having observed a weakness in Israeli positions and/or laxness in Israeli patrol procedures? How likely is it that the timing of the raid was influenced by the conflict in Gaza, Hezbollah's emotional response to an opportunity to show solidarity to the embattled Palestinians (and demonstrate why it needed to keep its arsenal of weapons after other Lebanese factions had given up most of theirs)? How likely is it that other motivations -- like the desire to drag Israel into an enervating guerrilla war in Lebanon or distract world attention from Iran's nuclear program -- may have crossed the minds of some Hezbollah leaders at some point in the past but cannot be said to have been planned for?

Pretty damned likely in all three cases, I would say. There has lately been some wild talk going around about a Hezbollah-Syrian-Iranian "grand strategy" that America and the West need to counter, if need be by "going to the source" in Damascus, Tehran or both. Again, leaving aside for the moment what Hezbollah or its patrons might like to see happen, we err if we assume in our adversaries strategic skill out of all proportion to what the evidence suggests is actually there.

Back track a little further to 1982 when Hezbollah was formed out of a group of trained Pasdaran regulars and you'll see that Hezbollah has never been that autonomous. Hell, the Hezbollah flag is a take-off on the Islamic Revolutionary Guard flag right down to the fist of God clutching a kalash.

What we're witnessing from Hezbollah is not the work of a pariah group but rather that of a legitimate, militarized, religiously oriented party. Imagine the 700 Club and the NRA teaming up to take over a quarter of Congress. Now imagine said party chaired by Pat Robertson and Charlton Heston from a bunker deep in the heart of Virginia setting up shop in the parliaments Britain, Australia, New Zealand and Canada with the goal of pulling the governments of those places into a tight federation of militant Christian states under the guidance of America.

Hezbollah, with backing from Iran and Syria, and cooperation from Hamas are executing the first real coordinated effort against Israel since 1967.

By kidnapping Israeli soldiers, keeping them in observance of the Geneva Convention and pushing for a prisoner exchange, Hammas and Hezbollah are attempting to get recognized as official state actors by the international community.

There is a plan on both sides of the table. Israel intends to destroy Lebanon's infrastructure and military so that the only group that can help the Lebanese will be Hezbollah (just as Hammas was the only group capable of securing parts of the West Bank and Gaza strip and providing vital services). Once Hezbollah floods into Lebanon to secure the country and its people, Israel intends to annihilate the Party.

Hezbollah wants to drag Israel into a long drawn out ground struggle in southern Lebanon where Hezbollah militia know the lay of the land and have been re-equipped with updated technology from Iran. As in '67, the US military is mired down in a protracted ground struggle which it is losing and the US populace is war weary. If Hezbollah can hold Israel in Lebanon, Iran can march up through Iraq driving US forces to the Syrian border. The US can then pull a Saigon and retreat. We'll call it Suleimaniya this time, and instead of watching Hueys getting pushed off of aircraft carriers, it will be Apaches off building tops.

We're all in for a much longer war. Israel and Hezbollah are playing for keeps.


Keeping them (the Israeli soldiers) in accordance with the Geneva Conventions?

Are you sure?

Can the Red Cross or any other agency visit them?

Do they have mail priviledges?

Legal rights? Representation? Can they challenge their status?

(and if so, how do you know?)

What are their housing conditions like? Medical care? Food? Do they have the right to religious observances? If so, how is this verified by neutral parties?

Are they ever degraded or humiliated? Again, how is this verified?

Was Hezbollah entitled to take prisoners? Under what theory? Is Hezbollah a nation at war with Israel? Did a state of war exist at the time? If not, doesn't this make the act illegal, and if so, are not the Israelis entitled to try and win the war?

Consider these things- they cast doubt on any claim that the prisoners are kept in accordance with the Geneva Conventions.

Reynolds. I know not what I speak but I can see clearly if the window is washed.

Iran driving across Iraq to help Hizballah? There must be alot of taxis sitting around Iraq. You seem to have forgotten that Iran couldn't defeat Saddam's Iraq, or drive across Iraqi occupied Iran during their 10 year war. They haven't gotten any better.

Pushing Apaches off the roof... it is an attack helicopter and can only cary 2 or 4 people if the extra 2 hold on really tight.

Hizballah floods into Lebanon?? I thought the Beka was in Lebanon. Did the Syrians re-occupy?

Lebanon is weak, so what if Israel bombs them backwards 20 years, it's their problem for letting Hizballah set up shop so take some pain. SARCASM< "Oh you are a democratically elected governement, sure launch more missiles, it's ok. Maybe in the next election you will elect a government that won't launch as many. Thumbs up."

Syria has a choice, back Hizballah and Israel destroys their armed forces, or Syria can sit back doing nothing and look bad in front of other Arab governments doing nothing. Boy Assad does not look too macho so expect Syria to sit around. BUT if Syria gets macho all of a sudden, don't expect their light switches to function. Once Boy Assad looses his tanks, just remember Assads BATH party is a minority suppressing a majority (Iraq 2 anyone).

Iran, "I have A BOMB, I do, yes I do"
Really getting tired of people over reacting about A NUCLEAR bomb or bombs... How many does the US, Russia, China posses? Thousands I think. Having 20 nuclear weapons really scares the crap out of your neighbors but the human race can affored to lose some people. Japan lost two cities, they make great cars. In the scheme of things losing a city from some mad mullah isn't too bad since Iran will become glass, end of game, next.

I believe the Isrealis strategy is to force a Hizballah retreat into Syria. Lebanon, although devastated structurally, can recover. Also, Syria would never allow Hizballah to launch missiles from Syrian territory.


This would also create a large Shia refugee problem in the Sunni Syria and do you really think they'd get housing set up like the US tried for the Katrina victims. Iran gets pissed.


Biggity Ben,
I should have put the bit about holding Israeli soldiers in accordance with the Geneva Convention in quotes. Allow me to correct that mistake...

By kidnapping Israeli soldiers, keeping them "in observance of the Geneva Convention" and pushing for a prisoner exchange, Hammas and Hezbollah are attempting to get recognized as official state actors by the international community.

I by no means side with Hizbollah, what I'm saying is that they are grasping for legitimacy and recognition from the international community.


The Apache is a smaller helicopter and therefore easier to push off of elevated platforms.

The real issue if the viability of the the arab givernments like Jordan,Saudi and Egypt.
Knowing something of their internal politics ,I would say that all those US-supporting states,have governments that have no popular support,and the mass of their people admire Hezbollah and Hamas,and want to see Israel destroyed and their own leaders swept away.This is where US-Israeli policies have led to.

Now the test is,can an outraged public in those states generate "people" power, and sweep them away,in favour of islamists parties.
In the case of Saudi,the consequences of the regime=change
would be catastrophic for the US economy,and send oil prives to the skies...anyone for gas at $10 a gallon...thanks Israeli,will hardly be a phrase on the motorists lips in the USA..

It's scary to me that Michal Doran is the point person for the NSC on the Middle East. I remember him from his days at Princeton. I really don't mean to get personal, but I don't think he has the experience or the wisdom to run US policy in the Middle East, which explains some things.

In the Middle East everyone knows you don't get ahead without "wasta", i.e. connections. Seems the US works a lot this way too, because as smart as he may be, he is just not even close to the most qualified person to be doing this job.

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