The roots of the crisis of 2005 can be traced back to 9/11 and the resultant shift in US and Western interests and policy. After the invasion of Iraq in 2003 Syria felt increasingly encircled by American physical and political presence in the region. Washington exerted strong pressure on the Syrian leadership to disarm Hezbollah and cease all ties with Hamas – in other words, to break away from Iran’s orbit. UN Security Council Resolution 1559 (2004), sponsored by France and the US, demanded the withdrawal of foreign forces from Lebanon, disarmament of all militia, and free and fair elections.
Damascus’s decision to stick with the ‘axis of resistance’ eliminated any rapprochement between Syria and the West and the Arab Gulf powers. Hariri’s assassination was a culmination of mounting tension and removed the ambiguity over Hezbollah’s role as Lebanon’s remaining armed militia and its ostensible official legitimacy. Intense debate began over its weapons and Lebanon’s national defence strategy, leading to discussions on the ‘Lebanonisation’ of Hezbollah.
This debate occurs both outside Lebanon – in Iran, Israel, Syria and the international community – and within the new post-Hariri power structure. After 2005, Lebanese government majority lay in the hands of a coalition of pro-Western Sunnis and Christians, which faced a minority opposition of Christians and Shia dominated by Hezbollah. This new governing structure has been trying to build legitimacy based on state sovereignty and the ousting of Syrian forces. Therefore, part of the debate over Hezbollah and its weapons now takes place in a changed context, where the aim is to build an independent Lebanon with a state monopoly of force, and to which Hezbollah must surrender its weapons and become an integral part of the national defence strategy.
Hezbollah is naturally suspicious that this new discourse is designed to convince it to disarm and give the West and Israel a comparative advantage, primarily as a means to stop the resistance movement in the Middle East – in relation to Hamas, to the Palestinian issue more generally and to Iraq. It has persisted in its refusal to hand over its weapons. The 2006 July war dramatically revised this debate: Israel wanted to disarm Hezbollah aggressively, while Hezbollah was able to display its resistance credentials. The Syrian crisis provides yet another new dimension: will Hezbollah be forced to give up its weapons if the Assad regime in Damascus falls?
The outlook for Syria is the most urgent question for the future of both Hezbollah and Lebanon. Hezbollah needs to be prepared for three possible outcomes: 1) Syria is plunged into protracted civil war; 2) the regime survives but is severely weakened and constrained; or 3) the regime falls and is replaced by one that is more hostile to Hezbollah and Iran. Hezbollah is very aware that channelling weapons through Syria from Iran will be at best severely inhibited, or more likely will become impossible. It is not obvious how Hezbollah will cope with this situation militarily in the long term, but it already has enough arms stockpiled to endure protracted guerrilla warfare with Israel, for instance.
But Hezbollah is more than its military wing. Deprived of a regional alliance, Hezbollah still has some comparative domestic advantages over its Lebanese adversaries in terms of demography and its popular and cohesive support. It can also mobilise alliances with other Lebanese sects that fear Sunni supremacy in both Lebanon and Syria. While these advantages are changeable and are likely to erode over time, they give Hezbollah breathing space to find alternative strategies and to wait for more favourable regional conditions.