A long-time cyber-friend, Phillip Smyth, has a very good article for the Middle East Review of International Affairs, THE “INDEPENDENT SHI’A” OF LEBANON: WHAT WIKILEAKS TELLS US ABOUT AMERICAN EFFORTS TO FIND AN ALTERNATIVE TO HIZBALLAH
Smyth, relying on cables made available through Wikileaks, shows the efforts of American diplomats to foster an alternative to Hezbollah among Lebanon’s Shia. There are important indicators that Hezbollah, even at the height of its power had certain vulnerabiliities.
A model of Hezbollah’s behavior, built at the University of Maryland’s Laboratory for Computational Cultural Dynamics (my day job) highlighted that Hezbollah does not like to go to war in Lebanese election years. One obvious interpretation of this finding is that Hezbollah values its role in the Lebanese political system, even though it has demonstrated that it could take over the country easily. Hezbollah may not be vulnerable militarily. If the Israelis were unwilling to exert the effort needed to destroy Hezbollah, it is unlikely that anyone else will even try. But this sensitivity to Lebanese politics could indicate a political vulnerability. It suggests, among other things, that Lebanon’s Shia are not in lock-step support for Hezbollah’s militancy. Many Lebanese are proud that their country defeated Israel, but, with Israel removed from Lebanon the expense of further fighting is too great. If the rest of the Arab world wants to continue the conflict they are welcome to do so, but – in the views of the Lebanese – why must Lebanon be at the forefront.
Seeing that perhaps Lebanon was being dragged into a confrontation against its will by Hezbollah and its patrons, I had speculated that perhaps a Shia alternative (and in particular the AMAL party which still has strong support among Lebanese Shia) could reduce Hezbollah’s influence and power. With this in mind, I mentioned to Phillip that I’d like to know more about AMAL. Phillip heard my request and went far further, writing his fine article.
The first finding in Smyth’s article was that American diplomats attempted to do just that. The WikiLeaks (and other leaked cables) showed strenuous efforts by the US Embassy in Beirut to support Shia alternatives. Unfortunately, this did not prove so easy to do. AMAL is seen as decaying, corrupt, and without a generation of leaders after its long-time chief Nabih Berri departs the scene (as he inevitably must.)
But State also worked with a number of Shia dissidents, including those allied with Saad Harriri, moderate clerics, traditional Shia leaders – and even radical Shia clerics who had fallen out with Hezbollah. Unfortunately these efforts have not amounted to much. Hezbollah doesn’t hesitate to intimidate its opponents, and the Shia opposition was riven with internal feuds and ineffectiveness. But most significantly, Hezbollah could fund a massive social services network that provided grants and charity to a huge percentage of Lebanon’s Shia. The resources for this came, in great part, from Iran which was believed to provide Hezbollah with tens of millions of dollars a month. The entire population of Lebanon’s Shia is only a few million.
However, therein lies the opportunity. Although seemingly powerful, Hezbollah has undergone a number of reverses. Its behavior in Lebanon has rankled many within that country and Iranian patronage has declined dramatically. Hezbollah’s other patron, Syria, is also having some difficulties which could leave Hezbollah isolated. The time was not opportune for an anti-Shia front, but the efforts described in Smyth’s article could lay a groundwork for when circumstances change. That could occur sooner than anyone expects.
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