Deprived of Hamas’s political cover, Hezbollah has been accused of sectarian hatred, and has been its target as well. Syrian rebels have burned the Hezbollah flag, claimed that its snipers are killing civilians in Syria, and named their brigades after historic warriors who defeated Shiites in Islam’s early schismatic battles. Early on, some analysts thought that if a Sunni government would arise in Damascus it might support Hezbollah against Israel. But now, says Michael Wahid Hanna of the Century Foundation, Hezbollah may have missed a chance to hedge its bets. ...
Hezbollah seems in no danger of losing its most hard-core supporters. But some of its loyalists have questions.
In the Sidon cafe, the health worker declared that Syrians, with free education and medical care, had no reason to rebel. Her friend, a Shiite from Hezbollah’s heartland in southern Lebanon, disagreed. “They have things,” she said, “but they are fighting for their rights.” ...
A Hezbollah party member said that government shelling had killed many civilians, but it was justified because the victims had let the rebels use their houses “as bunkers.” Israel used a similar argument, which Hezbollah condemned, to defend its bombing of Hezbollah neighborhoods in 2006.
In addition to this article, those with access to scholarly journals will want to read Bilal Saab's review of Nick Blanford's excellent book in this issue of Studies in Conflict & Terrorism. (No link, alas.)
Reuters reports that the U.S. intelligence community is worked up about the potential that Hizballah could attack U.S. civilians in the United States in the event of an attack on Iran:
There is a big difference between capability and intent, obviously. It would not be in the interests of Hizballah to attack U.S. civilian targets on the U.S. mainland. That would be incredibly dumb, actually, and would carry with it potentially catastrophic consequences for Hizballah's constituency. I write more about Hizballah's calculations regarding an attack on Iran here in case anyone is interested, and I think my analysis from last week remains sound.
That having been said, let's get real for a moment: there is an argument to be made, of course, that Iran might underestimate what a U.S. response to an attack would be. After all, Iran played a big role in killing at least 1,000 U.S. servicemen in Iraq, continues to support the insurgency in Afghanistan, and has carried out failed attacks on Israeli targets elsewhere. The response by both the Obama Administration and the Bush Administration before that has been to ... well, not do a hell of a lot.
That's just one interpretation of Iranian thinking, though. Another interpretation would be to look at stuff like Stuxnet, the assassination of scientists, and crippling sanctions as an aggressive U.S.-led campaign against the people of Iran.
And that's the trouble with perception and misperception in international politics. It's tough to know how the other guy sees the same things you do. Someone should write a book about this ...
What does Hizballah have in common with the United States aside from a love of paintball?
Hizballah, like the United States, would be caught up in a conflict between Iran and Israel. And like the United States, it has a lot of reasons for wanting to avoid a conflict right now.
That's the subject of my column in this week's World Politics Review, which you can read here.
There are three kinds of potential employers in Washington, DC:
I am so glad I work for #3. Please read Mitch Prothero's epic tale of the time four journalists and one think tank researcher challenged Hizballah to a game of paintball. And won.
This is probably the only time I will ever be featured in Vice, unless I am someday a Don't, so I am enjoying my brief moment of cool. I apologize in advance for my language.
One of the biggest compliments I have received as a researcher came in the summer of 2010, when Nick Blanford, who was finishing a military history of Hezbollah, asked me to read and comment on his thousand-page manuscript. Even though Nick and I had been friends for several years, it takes a lot of trust to give someone working on a very similar subject to your own full access to your unedited work and all your sources. (I was finishing up a doctoral dissertation on Hezbollah at the time.) Now that the manuscript has been pared down to just 544 pages and published, I can tell you that if you only buy and read one book this holiday season, it should be Nick's Warriors of God: Inside Hezbollah's Thirty-Year Struggle Against Israel. Nick was in town last week, and I convinced him to participate in a question-and-answer session for the blog. I respect Nick so much that I even changed the way I transliterate Hizballah Hezbollah in his honor -- something I have only done once before, for Thomas Hegghammer.
Nick, first off, thank you so much for allowing me to read this book when it was still in its unedited early drafts. It was incredibly useful to me as I finished my dissertation, and it was a rip-roaring yarn. What a fantastic story you have written. This is truly the work of a lifetime, and I have been telling people for 12 months now, when they ask me about the one book they should read on Hezbollah, that they should read your magnum opus. Tell us: how relieved are you to have this work finally published?
Thanks, Ex, for those kind words. I guess I have mixed feelings about finishing the book. It's a project that was over a decade in the making. I first began mulling a book on Hezbollah's military evolution around 1999 as the Israeli occupation was drawing to an end and the prospects of peace between Israel and Syria were looking good. If peace had been achieved, it would have led to Hezbollah's disarming. Of course, there was no peace deal and Hezbollah has only grown stronger since then. One writes to one's strengths and my intention always was to write a book telling Hezbollah's military story which has been the focus of most of my reporting from Lebanon over the past decade and a half. There are plenty of good books on Hizbullah looking at its ideology and structure, but nothing comprehensive on the "resistance" which after all is the most important component of the party. I have been lucky enough to be in a unique position for a foreign journalist to watch in microscopic detail Hizbullah's military evolution unfold in real time since the mid 1990s. I wanted to produce a book of record that had sufficient weight to interest scholars and academics in the field who hopefully will continue to find it useful 10 or 20 years down the road, but also to provide enough color, reportage and anecdote to make it accessible to a more lay audience. When I began the writing process, I assumed I would need Hezbollah's help to fill gaps in my research, but as it turned out, my problem was not finding more information but choosing what to exclude from a rapidly expanding manuscript. You, Ex, had the misfortune of being the only person who read the much longer original manuscript, which was nudging a quarter of a million words before I started cutting. Very often, a book is improved when it is trimmed down and the MS becomes tighter. I think that's the case with Warriors, but there were some elements and stories that I was sorry to leave on the cutting room floor. In particular, the family and friends of Mohammed Saad, this incredibly resourceful and interesting Amal leader in south Lebanon in the early 1980s, provided me with boxes of information, but I could only use a fraction of it in the book.
Hezbollah goes from just another crappy Lebanese militia in the early 1980s to the most feared non-state actor in the world. Briefly tell us how.
Hezbollah emerged in the early 1980s and was initially very much guided by the Iranians. It owes its creation to the Israeli invasion and occupation of Lebanon in 1982, although its leadership had been mulling establishing some form of anti-Israel resistance that followed the teachings of Ayatollah Khomeini since the Islamic revolution in Iran in 1979. Hezbollah's military exploits began slowly but by the latter half of the 1990s they had come to dominate the resistance against the Israeli occupation in the south. In those days, it was fairly ramshackle, and tactics - such as human wave assaults against Israel outposts - cost them a lot of casualties. Hezbollah's "Golden Years" were in the 1990s - the second phase of the party's evolution - when with the civil war over and under the protection of Syria, Hezbollah was able to focus its activities on resistance. The Islamic Resistance was adaptive and a quick learner and it was fascinating in those days to watch them improve year-on-year. The Israeli withdrawal in 2000 marked the beginning of Hezbollah's third phase. This is where they evolved from a resourceful guerrilla group employing classic hit-and-run tactics into something that folks like you describe as a "hybrid force" - a group that employs a blend of guerrilla and conventional weapons and tactics. Hezbollah today is probably the most formidable non-state military actor in the world. Although we concentrate on Hezbollah's ever expanding arsenal of weapons, for me the most telling aspect of its evolution is its highly complex and advanced electronic warfare and communications systems.
This book focuses primarily on Hezbollah's military activities, but as you know, I always argue the non-kinetic lines of operations -- the information operations, the social services -- are as important to Hezbollah as their military operations. Do you agree?
Absolutely. Hezbollah understood the importance of hearts-and-minds very early on. In fact, it was the Iranians that introduced the concept back in 1982 when among the first things they did on arriving in the Bekaa in the summer of that year was to begin building clinics and providing basic social services along with the lectures and religious educational programs. Jihad al-Binna, Hezbollah's flagship social welfare organization, began operating in 1985. I write about this in the book and how Hezbollah has expanded the social welfare activities to create what they call a "culture of resistance". This makes it much more than simply patching up war-damaged homes, providing free education and medical aid. The community becomes part of the "resistance". Youngsters now grow up in an atmosphere of resistance, jihad, martyrdom and hostility toward Israel. Hezbollah does not accept combatants below the age of 18, but by the time a new recruit has reached the age to join the Islamic Resistance, the chances are he will have been immersed since childhood in Hezbollah's "culture of resistance", reading anti-Israeli cartoon books when he was a kid, attending religious classes and Islamic scouting camps in the school holidays. Maybe even getting some basic weapons training when a young teenager. This culture, or society, of resistance testifies to Hezbollah's long-term strategic vision. Obviously the social welfare programs, the creation of a culture of resistance and even the parliamentary presence from 1992 was intended to build up and sustain Hezbollah's base of support. However, the byproduct of this massive emotional and financial investment is that Hezbollah today has a large constituency towards which it is answerable. When you win over a sizeable percentage of the population to your side, you have to respect and satisfy their needs. That adds another layer of complexity to an organization that is ideologically tied to a country 650 miles to the east the interests of which may not always coincide with the interests of Hezbollah's Lebanese constituency.
How does a researcher like yourself even write such a book? How did you gain the incredible access you gained, and are you worried about how the book will be received among your sources?
I have access to a number of Hezbollah people who are willing to talk to me either because they have come to know me over the years or on the assurances of mutual acquaintances. These guys are not supposed to talk to me at all, of course, so I am very careful to protect their identity. Mind you, what they tell me is a fraction of what they know, but it's more than other people get. I didn't ask for Hezbollah's formal help for my research. I have a huge database of information which I have built up over the past 16 years and I have interviewed just about all Hezbollah's leadership at some time or other. Will Hezbollah like the book? I think they will like some things and won't like others. It's a controversial subject and I think there's something in there for everyone to love and hate.
This is a two part question: a) why, in your professional reason, did I kill Rafik Hariri, and b) is it true that when Hezbollah speaks of the most gifted military commander they have ever faced, they speak of me on the paintball court?
I have always felt that the Special Tribunal for Lebanon has been wasting its time examining the alleged roles of Syria and Hezbollah in Hariri's assassination. When I was researching my previous book - Killing Mr. Lebanon: The Assassination of Rafik Hariri and its Impact on the Middle East - I quickly discovered the intense rivalry and hostility between you and Hariri: the financial dealings that went sour, how he thwarted your political ambitions in Lebanon, how you stole his girlfriends. You may recall that I was planning to expose the entire plot before your lawyers threated legal action. The truth will out one day, my friend. Seriously though, the guy who spread this rumor was acting extremely irresponsibly and really should be held accountable for spreading such malicious and potentially dangerous falsehoods. As for the paintball competition, all I recall of that was you curled up on the floor pleading for mercy as the Hezbollah guys splattered you with paint pellets. Or was that me?
It was probably me. A certain H.P. Flashman has always been my role model when the bullets -- or paintball pellets -- start flying. Anyway, I always end these interviews with a few questions about food and drink. You, my friend, are a past master of the Beirut bar scene, but now that you are a family man with a beautiful wife and kids, where do you like to go in Lebanon for a nice meal?
I like the Greedy Goose because they serve locally brewed 961 beer and I meet some journo friends there once a week. I am out of touch with most bars in Beirut these days. I preferred the good old days when there were perhaps three bars in Beirut, the best of which was the Lord Kitchener which was at the back of an abandoned shopping center in Hamra and had a very laid-back speakeasy-type atmosphere and a wicked oud player. As for food, still love Le Chef, an institution. Best cafe is Cafe Younes in Hamra. I used to live above the cafe in 1995-96 when it was just a place to buy freshly ground coffee and knock back a double espresso in the morning. Otherwise, it's local cafes and restaurants dotted around the country. Eat foul in the Tyre souq. There's a brilliant sandwich place in Dar al-Wassah in the Bekaa - best labneh sandwiches in Lebanon. I also stop at Abu Rashed next to the army barracks in Marjayoun. They make terrific shish taouq. Corny though it may sound, the best meal is the one with a couple of spit roast chickens, olives, bread and with the family on a picnic somewhere high up in the mountains.
That doesn't sound corny in the least. Thanks, Nick. As for the rest of you, you know what to do: buy Nick's book here.
The following is the unedited, full text of Hizballah's statement condemning the Syrian Navy's shelling of the Palestinian refugee camp at ar-Ramel:
Two things to start your week:
1. Nick Blanford and Bilal Saab have a great article in Foreign Policy about the next war between Israel and Lebanon. I have read the paper from which this article was adapted and will be moderating a public discussion of the paper in early September at the Brookings Institution. For now, read the shorter article.
2. Nick Schmidle, the son and brother of steely-eyed Marines, has a must-read article in the New Yorker on the raid that killed Osama bin Laden. This is excellent long-form journalism. I only ding Nick twice: First, for using the cliche "an eerie calm" in the first page of the article. (Are we sure it wasn't a "preternatural calm"? Or maybe it was just quiet and there was nothing "eerie" about it?) Second, Nick is a first-class analyst of Pakistani politics, and I would have loved to have seen more of his analytical reporting than what I read at the end. Overall, though, brilliant stuff.
I do not know Sharmine Narwani, but she has written one of the more bizarre pieces on Hizballah and Lebanon I have read in quite some time -- and took some unfair shots at a few accomplished journalists in the process. (Read the whole post here.) Two of those journalists, Nick Blanford and Sheera Frenkel, are friends of mine from the region, and Nick responded in an email to a few close Lebanon watchers. He has allowed me to reproduce his response here. Let me just add that when you accuse a journalist in the Middle East of fabulism and then go on to cite the testimony of Robert Fisk (!!!) in support of your argument, you're not off to a good start.
First, my contribution to the Times article was limited to the Hizbullah sources. I have no idea about the veracity of the Scud/Jabal Taqsis claims. Rupert Murdoch's political inclinations do not interest me.
Second, I will not discuss nor elaborate upon my contacts within Hizbullah. They have learned to trust me sufficiently over the years to meet and talk (many of them have become friends) and protecting their identity is my paramount concern. That said, these are not "moles" slipping secret information to a foreign reporter. They are dedicated and proud members of Hizbullah and the Islamic Resistance and (frustratingly) guarded in their comments. Hizbullah cadres are not automatons; they are human beings and feel the tug of human emotion like anyone else. It is not extraordinary that they might be willing to meet and chat with a foreigner whom they like and have grown over the years to trust, the "veil of secrecy" notwithstanding.
If I am a peddler of pro-Israel propaganda, then why would Hizbullah's Al Manar TV interview me for a documentary on the 2006 war, part one of which was aired this evening? (I think part two is tomorrow (Tuesday) night).
My contacts within Hizbullah - both at a grassroots level and at a leadership level - are borne of nearly 16 years following the affairs of the organization from within Lebanon. Sharmine is perfectly within her rights to question my sourcing. All I can say is that after 16 years one develops good contacts. That said no Hizbullah figure - fighter or leader - has ever specified to me any particular weapons system that the organization has acquired or seeks to acquire prior to its use on the battlefield. Believe me, I have tried since my early interviews with Sheikh Nabil Qaouq in the mid '90s to obtain details and my requests are invariably met with a polite smile and a raised hand. No Hizbullah member has ever confirmed to me that the organization has acquired or seeks Scud missiles. When the Scud story broke last year, I wrote several articles that questioned the veracity of the claims. My doubts were not based on whether Hizbullah would like to include Scuds within its arsenal but centered on the logistical complexities of maintaining and launching them. (Without wishing to belabor the point, Scuds are liquid fueled not solid fuelled, like other rockets believed to be in Hizbullah's arsenal, which means that the launch cycle is much lengthier and more complicated. They also require dedicated transporter-erector-launchers which is another hassle to bring into Lebanon and hide. There's more, but I'm sure you get the point.)
As for the increase of weapons into Hizbullah's arsenal, I have been hearing this since late March, shortly after the uprising began in Syria and long before the Israeli and US press began reporting such things. It's common knowledge within Hizbullah circles. Where the weapons go and what they are, I have no idea.
To some specifics:
Sharmine writes: I have been looking for weapons in Lebanon since Israeli President Shimon Peres told us in April 2010 that Syria was sending long-range Scud missiles to Hezbollah. Problem is that I can’t find them anywhere and neither can anyone else.
Blanford says: Me too. And not since 2006 but since 1996. I like to think I know south Lebanon like the back of my hand, but I couldn't find any weapons down there in the 2000-2006 period even though I was sure they were there. (I did stumble across one of their 57mm anti-aircraft guns in 2002 which made for an entertaining afternoon but that's another story.)
Sharmine writes: While Peres’ claims were reported widely in the international media, Syria rejected all charges and Hezbollah played the Israeli game of refusing to confirm or deny anything. Then came a slow but steady stream of denials from an array of international observers – albeit, quietly.First up was UN Interim Forces in Lebanon (UNIFIL) Commander General Alberto Asarta Cuevas: “We have around 12,000 soldiers and three Lebanese army brigades in a small area. We haven’t seen a thing,” said Asarta Cuevas. “Scud missiles are big. I’m sure there are no Scuds because it is very difficult to hide them,” he added.
Blanford says: If Hizbullah has acquired Scuds, they are not going to bring 40-foot missiles and even larger TELs south of the Litani. The whole point of acquiring a Scud (probably the only point) is that you can launch them from northern Lebanon and still hit Eilat. Come to think of it, didn't Mohammed Raad last week say "If Israel launches an attack, rockets of the resistance will cover all of Israel. Even the city of Eilat won’t be spared".
Sharmine writes: The Jewish state has even provided maps – down to the exact house – that indicate where Lebanese women-and-children-commandos have stashed these weapons. Kudos go to the IDF too for creating user-friendly video games – or, as they like to call it, “3D animated clips” – that “illustrate how Hezbollah has turned over 100 villages in South Lebanon into military bases.”
Blanford says: I'm assuming that Sharmine is referring to the widely disseminated map published by The Washington Post in March showing a rash of red, blue and yellow dots across south Lebanon pointing out Hizbullah bunkers and positions. At the time, out of curiosity, I overlaid the WaPo map over a Google Earth image of south Lebanon and zoomed in to try and guage the accuracy of these multiple dots (I know it's a bit nerdy and obsessive but what can I say). Unlike Sharmine, who discerned that the map was accurate to the "exact house", I found that each dot covered around half a village. Come on, the WaPo map was nothing more than a psy-ops ploy by Israel and had no bearing on reality. If the Israelis really had such sensitive information, do you think they would pass it on to the media? The same applies to the 3D graphics video of Khiam released last year. I tried to relate the video to Khiam itself but failed. Maybe I'm not sufficiently tech-savvy to translate 3D graphics into reality, but this too was just another case of Israeli psy-ops.
Sharmine writes: Hebrew-language newspaper Maariv last summer reported that Israeli finance officials were using Hezbollah to justify exorbitant defense budget demands. Ben Caspit wrote on July 11, 2010: “It’s interesting how every time the military budget is on the table, they release from the stocks Hezbollah’s missile array and expose sensitive classified material.”
Blanford says: Totally right. I wrote such comments for The Daily Star back in the 1990s. Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose.
You think the United States has played its hand poorly during the Arab Spring?
Hizballah busied themselves airing claims I am some kind of spy over the weekend, but if I were them, I would be less worried about American researchers and more worried about how they handle a post-Asad Syria. It will almost certainly not be as friendly as the one that currently helps funnel Hizballah weapons and money.
Perhaps most pronounced is the anger at, the Shiite Muslim militant movement in Lebanon that has bluntly supported Mr. Assad’s government. Hezbollah was widely popular in Syria, where sentiments against Israel and longstanding American dominance of the region run deep. But Hezbollah’s backing for Mr. Assad has unleashed a sense of betrayal at a movement that celebrates the idea of resistance. At times, it has also given rise to chauvinism among Syrian Sunnis against Hezbollah’s Shiite constituency.
“We’ve started to hate them more than we hate Israel,” said Maher, a young father and protester in Hama, sitting with a friend who gave his name as Abu Mohammed.
Abu Mohammed said that in the 2006 war fought between Hezbollah and Israel, which forced hundreds of thousands to flee their homes, he sheltered 40 Shiite families for as long as a month. “Food, drink, and I accepted nothing in return,” he said. “Now they’re with the regime, but it wasn’t the regime who opened the doors of their homes to them.”
I had mentioned on the blog a few weeks back that I was looking forward to reading Dan Byman's A High Price: The Triumphs and Failures of Israeli Counterterrorism. I can safely recommend the book now after having read it. A few quick thoughts:
1. If you are a geek like me who has spent a lot of time studying a group like Hizballah and the Israeli attempts to counter such a group, you are probably not going to learn a lot in terms of new details from Byman's book. Most of Byman's research leans heavily on well-known secondary sources and periodicals, so if you have read books like Sayigh's Armed Struggle and the Search for State: The Palestinian National Movement, 1949-1993 or Harel & Issacharoff's 34 Days: Israel, Hezbollah, and the War in Lebanon in addition to all the Crisis Group reports that have been published on the region over the past 20-odd years, you're probably not going to learn a whole heck of a lot that you did not already know. But ...
2. ... The reason Byman spends so much time carefully constructing a narrative of Israel's struggles to build a coherent counter-terror strategy is so that he can draw the conclusions he does in the last chapter, where he notes what the world can learn from the Israeli experience and what Israel itself still needs to learn. The last chapter of this study is must-read stuff, and the evidence for Byman's conclusions is to be found in all the chapters that preceed it.
3. In particular, Byman makes a great point about thinking counterinsurgency while fighting terrorism. I have argued ad nauseum (and for several years now) that the dichotomy between counter-terrorism and counterinsurgency is a false one, and I have demonstrated how effective direct-action special operations (which we usually associate with counter-terrorism) fit into a counterinsurgency campaign. Byman makes the equally correct case that when you are executing what you consider to be a strict counter-terror campaign, the label "terrorist" doesn't do justice to a group like Hamas or Hizballah and that simply eroding the operational capabilities of such groups does not address the things like the social services and political representation those groups provide to their constituencies. You can't just have counter-terror operations, in other words: you also have to have a political strategy. The next point Byman makes, about countering terrorist groups in the information battle, goes part and parcel with this.
In sum, this was a good book, and unless you a serious geek like me about these issues, you will learn a lot. Byman relies a lot on Israeli sources, but as the Economist noted in their approving review, he does so in a very even-handed way. Don't let the fact that Byman repeatedly cites this blogger in Chapters 16 and 17 prevent you from buying this important and well-written new book.