Lebanon’s sovereignty – The military, social and political rise of Hezbollah

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Article by: Leonhardt van Efferink (December 2011)

Tags: Hezbollah military social political rise roles Shias Islamic Rule Iranian Revolution Syrian influence Israel AMAL Musa al Sadr Lebanon

Leonhardt van Efferink

Leonhardt van Efferink

Leonhardt van Efferink is Editor of ExploringGeopolitics, Founding Director of GeoMeans Analytical Skills Development and PhD student at Royal Holloway, University of London.

He holds Master’s degrees in Geopolitics, Territory and Security (King’s College London) and Financial Economics (Erasmus University Rotterdam).

Lebanon has known a history of weak governments, foreign interference and porous borders. Not surprisingly, many analysts have claimed that Lebanon’s sovereignty is structurally weak. This article discusses Hezbollah’s role in that regard by applying four sovereignty concepts of Stephen Krasner: domestic, interdependency, Vatellian and international legal sovereignty.

Part 1 briefly introduces a history of Lebanon’s territory, people and political system. Part 2 then addresses the emergence of Hezbollah, followed by an overview of its military, social and political roles in Lebanon. Finally, part 3 consists of the conclusion and the literature list.

This article is based on my conference paper “How Hezbollah affects Lebanon’s sovereignty”. A pdf file of the complete article will be available soon

here

Domestic, Vatellian (Westphalian), interdependence, international legal sovereignty

The sovereign state concept has gained a monopoly on virtually all of the world’s territories (Jackson 1990). Sovereignty has been subject to intellectual debate for centuries (Biersteker and Weber 1996). In this debate, sovereignty has experienced a transformation of its meaning in which two questions were critical. Where do we find the legal basis of sovereignty and what range of activities should it protect?

Although disagreements between and within sectarian groups have been commonplace in Lebanon for decades, virtually all Lebanese residents would agree with Salem (1998, p. 25) that “[Lebanon] is a country that is neither truly independent, nor sovereign.” This article seeks to provide a theoretically grounded analysis of Lebanon’s sovereignty. As a comprehensive, multi-actor analysis would be too ambitious for a paper of this length, the study looks into Hezbollah’s impact on sovereignty. This Shia organisation has gradually become more powerful in military, social and political terms since its creation in the 1980s.

This analysis applies the four sovereignty concepts that Krasner (2001) considers most popular nowadays. First, domestic sovereignty addresses the capability of the central government to control activities on national territory. Second, Vatellian sovereignty is based on the principle that foreign parties do not have any power whatsoever on the state’s territory. Third, interdependence sovereignty concerns the central government’s ability to monitor and influence cross-border activities. Fourth, international legal sovereignty is the mutual recognition of countries’ right to conclude agreements and means that each state is independent of and equal to other states.

These concepts offer an adequate framework to assess the sovereignty of Lebanon as they reflect traditional weaknesses of this country: weak governments, continued foreign interference, porous borders and the refusal of a neighbouring country to recognise Lebanon’s independence.

Roman-Byzantine rule, the Ottoman Empire and Mount Lebanon

Territory, population and authority (here we focus on political system) have an essential place in sovereignty concepts (Biersteker and Weber 1996). Starting with Lebanon’s territory, Muslim rulers took over control of the areas that constitute contemporary Lebanon in 636 AD, after centuries of Roman-Byzantine rule (Held 2006). Lebanon’s current territory belonged to the Ottoman Empire’s province of Syria between 1516 and 1861 (Pipes 1990). In 1861, six European powers forced the Ottoman Empire to create an autonomous region with a Christian governor in Mount Lebanon, creating the basis for Lebanon’s current territory (Bowman 1921).

Syria, including Mount Lebanon, became subject to French mandate area under the League of Nations in 1918 (Chauprade 2009). The French created the current borders of Lebanon in the 1920s to establish a special territory for Christian communities (Harris 2006). Next to Mount Lebanon, the French added surrounding, predominantly Muslim areas, including important coastal cities Beirut, Tripoli and Tyrus, the Bekaa Valley and the area between Mount Lebanon and the boundary with the British mandate area of Palestine (Harris 2006). After becoming independent in 1943, Lebanon has not experienced any territorial changes.

Population: Maronites, Greek Orthodox, Catholics, Druzes, Shias, Sunnis and others

A key feature of Lebanon’s population is the enormous sectarian diversity, which East and Moodie (1956, p. 714) attribute to its “[g]eographical position [that] makes the country pre-eminently a region of intercourse and contact.” According to a 1911 census, nearly 80% of the population comprised of Christians in the Sanjak of Mount Lebanon (‘Mutasarrifiyya’, Harris 2006). The Druze community, an offshoot of Islam, accounted for 11% of the population, while the Shias (6%) and Sunnis (4%) were rather insignificant minorities.

The extension of Lebanon’s territory in 1920 meant that the Christian communities only formed a small majority in Lebanon (Brogan 1998). Nevertheless, most Christian leaders welcomed the territorial adjustment for economic reasons (Harris 2006), while Muslim leaders generally disapproved Lebanon’s creation (Brogan 1998).

Lebanon has been a relatively wealthy country since independence thanks to its commercial and financial sectors (Alexander 1957 and IMF 2009). While the Christians and Sunnis have dominated the Lebanese economy since independence, the Shias have remained relatively poor (Brogan 1998). Main reasons for this position were a lack of fertile land (Owen 2004), bad education standards and poor access to clientele networks (Brogan 1998).

Reliable population data are unavailable as the last census took place in 1932 (Drysdale and Blake 1985). The Shias are probably the largest sectarian group, possibly accounting for one half of Lebanon’s population (Chauprade 2009). Structurally high birth rates and low emigration rates make it very likely that the Shia community eventually becomes a majority in Lebanon (Hamzeh 2004). With 18 recognised sects (Norton 2007), Lebanon is the most religiously diverse country in the region (Drysdale and Blake 1985).

A confessional political system, a strong President and the National Pact

The political system, used here as the third factor that is closely related to sovereignty (as a proxy for authority), has been critical to Hezbollah’s emergence. Between 1861 and its dissolution, Mount Lebanon had a confessional political system, where each major sectarian group (Maronites, Greek Orthodox, Catholics, Druzes, Shias and Sunnis) had two seats in the administrative council (Hamzeh 2001). When Mount Lebanon was integrated within Lebanon, the political system remained based upon sectarianism, meaning that “…religious communities must be represented as political communities” (Makdisi 2008, p. 24).

At independence, the Shia community lacked a well-educated and effective leadership (Harris 2006 and Mackey 2008). As a result, the Maronites and Sunnis concluded the National Pact in 1943 without consulting the Shias (Norton 2007). The Pact stated that a Maronite should be President, with a Sunni Prime-Minister and a Shia parliamentary chairperson. Furthermore, parliamentary seats were divided between Christians and Muslims according to a 6:5 ratio (Brogan 1998). The 1926 constitution remained in place, giving the President far-reaching powers (Salem 1998).

The Lebanese Civil War, Palestinian refugees and the Taif agreement

Frustration about the Christian dominance in politics was a main cause of the civil war that started in 1975 (Salem 1998). Many experts consider the influx of hundreds of thousands Palestinians between 1967 and 1973 –posing a threat to the Christians domination- as the decisive trigger. The Shia community was hardly involved in the outbreak of the civil war, being militarily unprepared and lacking external support (Zisser 1997). During the civil war, militias divided Lebanon in semi-autonomous regions with different political, social and economic systems (Hamzeh 2001).

The Taif agreement in 1989, which ended the civil war, hardly changed the political system. The ratio of Christians and Muslims in parliament was adjusted to 1-1 (Feki and De Ficquelmont 2008). Another change was the transfer of executive power from president to the council of ministers (Salem 1998). The rigid division of the three key political positions among the main sectarian groups remained in place (Glassner 1996).

The civil war had left the Shia the largest sectarian group and the most powerful in military terms (Zisser 1997). However, the agreement did not relate demographic changes to political power (Norton 2007). As a result, the Taif agreement did not change the general perception among the Shia population that the Shia population had disproportionally little power (Milton-Edwards 2006).

A structurally weak Lebanese State, community loyalty and clientelism

The Lebanese State has always been weak, which Owen (2004) relates to two factors. First, the economic elite have always been able to minimise state interference in the economy. Second, politicians have generally sought to serve interests of their constituencies instead of the national interest. According to Brogan (1998), the latter factor has its roots in the National Pact that limited the authority of the state to maximise the autonomy of sectarian groups. As a result, Lebanese citizens feel loyalty towards their community instead of towards the country (Hafez 2008).

Hamzeh (2001) argues that Lebanon’s political system erodes the authority of the state by fuelling clientelism. Hafez (2008) adds that foreign protection of or influence on each community further undermines this authority. Moreover, Hafez (2008, p. 193) argues that Lebanon’s political system “…makes the [state] vulnerable to any stifled sense of frustration or injustice or dispossession felt by any community…” Although the Taif agreement aimed at the introduction of a non-confessional democracy (Glassner 1996), the government refused to do so. Consequently, families that ruled over Lebanon before the civil war dominated the 1990 cabinet and patronage networks swiftly re-emerged (Mackey 2008).

In all, Lebanon’s political system is based upon the principle that the State should interfere in society as little as possible. The resulting weakness of state institutions has made Lebanon vulnerable to infringements of its domestic, interdependence and Vatellian sovereignty. The rise of Hezbollah has made this perfectly clear.

Emergence of Hezbollah and the role of Iran

Before putting the Hezbollah’s military, social and political roles into perspective, the foundation and aims of the organisation need explanation. Already before Hezbollah existed, the emancipation of the Shia community in Lebanon had been set in motion. In the 1960s, Musa al Sadr, an Iranian born Shia cleric, sought to develop religious autonomy and a political platform for the Shias (Mackey 2008). Subsequently, the outbreak of the civil war in 1975 led to the establishment of the Shia militia AMAL (Owen 2004).

Following the Iranian revolution (1979) and Israel’s occupation of South Lebanon, Islamist Shia clerics became increasingly influential in AMAL circles (Mackey 2008). This influence would eventually lead to the foundation of Hezbollah. Although officially founded in 1982, Hezbollah only became properly organised by the mid-1980s (Norton 2007).

Hezbollah’s primary aim is the establishment of Islamic rule in Lebanon (Saab 2008), as soon as the majority of the Lebanese citizens support this idea (Hamzeh 2004). Given Hezbollah’s past behaviour towards its opponents, Norton (1997) doubts whether the organisation will always abstain from using violence to reach its aims.

Another aim is the complete annihilation of Israel (Zisser 1997) as this country is deemed illegitimate. Furthermore, Hezbollah considers fighting against Israel a religious duty because Shias have been hardest hit by Israel’s aggression (Flanigan and Abdel-Samad 2009) and Israel’s presumed threat to an Islamic order (Saab 2008).

The Shia community in areas that currently form Lebanon had already established ties with the Safavid Empire in Iran in the sixteenth century (Harris 2006). This partially explains Iran’s leading role in the creation of Hezbollah (Norton 2007). Harik (2005) argues that Iran’s generous financial support has been instrumental in all of Hezbollah’s achievements. Furthermore, Iran has a strong religious influence as Hezbollah recognises Imam Ali Khamenei as official leader of the Shia faith (Saab 2008).

Hezbollah’s military role 1: hostile relationship with Israel

Four geopolitical agents are instrumental in Hezbollah’s military role: Israel, Iran, Syria and the Lebanese army. Starting with Israel, this country became militarily active in Southern Lebanon in 1968 in response to Palestinian guerrilla activity aimed at Israel. In 1978, Israel attempted to defeat the Palestinian troops in South Lebanon by using massive firepower (Mackey 2008).In 1982 followed a full military invasion where Israel’s army occupied a large area and eventually reached Beirut (Stoessinger 2008). The invasion aimed at defeating the Palestinian guerrillas and limiting Syria’s influence (Stoessinger 2008). Israel’s distrust of Shias (Mackey 2008) and its cooperation with the Maronites (Zisser 1997) swiftly made the Shias become hostile towards Israel’s presence. Israel withdrew its troops from most Lebanese territory in 1985, but created a self-declared security zone in South Lebanon (Norton 1998).

Hezbollah’s military actions in the 1980s involved a guerrilla war against Israel, participating in the civil war (including occasional clashes with AMAL) and terrorist activities aimed at Western targets (Mackey 2008). The 1989 Taif Accord recognised Hezbollah as the legitimate organisation to fight against the Israeli occupation and allowed Hezbollah to keep its arms (Salem 1998). Hezbollah continued its guerrilla activities against Israel (Owen 2004), despite Israeli bombing raids and ground offensives in 1993 and 1996 (Mackey 2008). Mackey (2008, p. 176) relates Hezbollah’s resilience to “…the same advantageous conditions shared by all guerrilla organizations: a geographic base, local support, a decentralized military structure, mobility and tactics that included ambushed and hit-and-run attacks.”

Israel ended its occupation of South Lebanon in 2000 under pressure from domestic public opinion. However, the Israeli army entered Lebanon’s territory again in 2006 to attack Hezbollah fighters and bomb Lebanese infrastructure and housing. Israel failed to stop the rocket attacks on Israel and defeat Hezbollah militarily. Its military activity in Lebanon in 2006 confirmed that Israel does not respect Lebanon’s sovereignty. If deemed necessary, Israel uses its military strength to control parts of Lebanon’s territory, air space and territorial waters, thereby eroding Lebanon’s Vatellian sovereignty. Israel’s continuous violations of Lebanon’s airspace in 2009, to gather intelligence (Daily Star 2009b), mean that Israel also limits Lebanon’s interdependence sovereignty.

Hezbollah’s military role 2: influence of Syria and Iran

The influence of Syria, whose army was present in Lebanon from 1976 until 2005 (Bennafla et al. 2007), has fluctuated over the years (Mansfield 2003). Syria has provided Hezbollah with arms and functioned as a conduit for Iran’s military equipment (Saab 2008), not being hindered by the porous border between Lebanon and Syria (United Nations Security Council 2009). Furthermore, Hezbollah’s control over Beirut’s international airport makes it very likely that Iranian planes have brought weapons to Lebanon (Saab 2008). Moreover, in November 2009, close to Cyprus, Israel seized a ship, travelling from Iran to Syria and carrying weapons for Hezbollah (Norell 2009). Iran also supports Hezbollah militarily through a small presence of its Revolutionary Guards in Lebanon (Stoessinger 2008). Iran’s and Syria’s military support to Hezbollah are an infringement of Lebanon’s interdependence sovereignty, because of illegal cross-border activities. Both countries also erode Vatellian sovereignty through their influence on Hezbollah’s military activity on Lebanon’s territory.

Hezbollah’s military role 3: Lebanese army, UNIFIL and Taif Agreement

Lebanon’s army has never been capable of protecting the country as it was unable to define an enemy. Moreover, the business elite have always been able to prevent a comprehensive tax system that would enable the purchase of sophisticated military equipment (Hafez 2008). These factors support Hezbollah’s claim that its military force essential to Lebanon’s defence strategy, particularly since the organisation’s military power is stronger than that of the national army (Saab 2008). Hezbollah’s supremacy over the national army also follows from the army’s approval of the its strategy towards Israel (Hafez 2008) and the recent statement of its leader Hassan Nasrallah that the Lebanese army should cooperate with Hezbollah in its battle against Israel (BBC News 2009b).

Events in 2008 made clear that Hezbollah is willing to use its military power against other Lebanese communities for political gains. Hezbollah fighters showed their strength by temporary occupying West Beirut and a couple of other areas (Saab 2008). The violence was a protest against government plans to close down the central part of Hezbollah’s communication network and to dismiss the security manager of Beirut’s international airport, presumably a Hezbollah supporter. The government plans were not carried out (Saab 2008).

In 2006, the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) received a mandate to disarm Hezbollah. Nonetheless, Hezbollah has managed to rebuild its military power since then (Norell 2009). The UN (2009, p.2) recently noted that “…the existence and activities of Lebanese and non-Lebanese militias…challenge the need for the Government of Lebanon and the Lebanese Armed Forces to exercise the monopoly on the use of force throughout Lebanon.”

The decision to sanction the use of weapons by Hezbollah in the 1989 Taif Agreement makes it hard to assess the impact of Hezbollah’s army on domestic sovereignty. On the one hand, the State has used its authority to grant Hezbollah the right to maintain its military force, suggesting that sovereignty is not under threat. On the other hand, the national army has no authority whatsoever over Hezbollah’s military forces, pointing at an infringement by Hezbollah of domestic sovereignty. Hezbollah’s military showdown in 2008 that illegitimately interfered with democratic decision-making clearly eroded domestic sovereignty.

Hezbollah’s social role: public goods, health services and clientelism

A weak infrastructure, related to a combination of weak local administrations and high priority on Beirut’s development (Flanigan and Abdel-Samad 2009), provided Hezbollah with an opportunity to provide public goods in Shia areas (Harik 2005). Moreover, Hezbollah’s was not part of any clientelism network, forcing Hezbollah to supply social services to its supporters (Flanigan and Abdel-Samad 2009). The provision of public goods and charity work has always played a vital role in Hezbollah’s strategy to establish an Islamist state in Lebanon (Saab 2008).

Hezbollah’s provision of social and public services is extraordinary in both scope and efficiency (Harik 2005). Hezbollah services include hospitals, education, low-cost housing, education, social security and infrastructural works (Harik 2005 and Flanigan and Abdel-Samad 2009). Flanigan and Abdel-Samad (2009) argue that the health and social services capacity of Hezbollah is far larger than that of the Lebanese state. Access to these services is however largely restricted to Hezbollah supporters.

Hezbollah’s social activities raise questions about domestic sovereignty. Providing public goods and social services are activities that theoretically belong to a national state. Accordingly, Hezbollah seems to limit domestic sovereignty. Nevertheless, since the Lebanese State was actually absent in the concerned regions before Hezbollah became active, how could Hezbollah possibly have a negative effect on non-existing authority? In this case, it may be more appropriate to say that Hezbollah’s social role is a reflection of limited domestic sovereignty rather than its cause.

Hezbollah’s political role 1: establishment of political party

Hezbollah decided to found a political party in 1990 (Zisser 1997), showing that the organisation had adapted its strategy to Lebanon’s political culture (Norton 1998). Iran had a decisive share in this decision (Saab 2008).

On the national level, Hezbollah has occupied 10 seats in parliament, compared to 12 seats for AMAL since the June 2009 elections (Psephos – Adam Carr’s Election Archive 2009). Although the March 8 Alliance, comprising Hezbollah and its allies, held only 57 of the 128 parliamentary seats, it managed to obtain veto power over cabinet decisions. Moreover, the Alliance got hold of the Ministry of Telecommunications (Moubayed 2009) making it unlikely that the government will try to scale down Hezbollah’s immense communication network.

Hezbollah’s political role 2: influence of Syria and Iran

During its military presence in Lebanon (1976-2005), Syria had an enormous influence on Lebanese politics (Agnew 2005). The recent cabinet formation, where Syria supported the March 8 Alliance, illustrates Syria’s continued dominance in political affairs (BBC News 2009a). Syria and Saudi Arabia played a vital role in the eventual compromise between the March 8 Alliance and the March 14 Movement . These developments confirmed the view of Moubayed, (2009) who claims who claims that “[t]he complex world of Lebanese politics… has proven that regardless of parliamentary numbers, the country cannot be ruled without the consent of the Shias, who are overwhelmingly in favour of Hezbollah and its sister party, Amal.”

The political influence of Iran and Syria is a clear infringement of Lebanon’s Vatellian sovereignty. However, Hezbollah’s national political activities do not limit Lebanon’s domestic sovereignty as Hezbollah conducts these activities in line with national legislation. It is however important to acknowledge that Hezbollah’s political position benefits from its military and social roles that do affect Lebanon’s sovereignty.

Syria further limits Lebanon’s sovereignty by its refusal to formally recognise Lebanon’s independence. This position stems from Syria’s resentment against “…the separation of Transjordan, Palestine, and Lebanon from what had been the prewar Turkish province of Syria…” (Alexander, 1957, p. 296). Accordingly, Lebanon has formally never enjoyed full international legal sovereignty, although most UN members have recognised Lebanon’s independence (Daily Star, 2009a). The establishment of formal diplomatic relations between Lebanon and Syria in 2009 makes clear that Syria is softening its stance in this regard (United Nations Security Council, 2009). Relevant for this analysis is the observation that Hezbollah’s activities have neither had a significant impact on Lebanon’s international legal sovereignty, nor provoked other geopolitical agents to do so.

Hezbollah’s political role 3: local councils

On a local level, Hezbollah imposed Islamic rule in areas over which they ruled between 1982 and 1990 (Saab 2008). After becoming a political party, the results of municipal elections enabled Hezbollah to maintain an Islamic order in parts of Baalbek Valley, Beirut and South Lebanon. The 2004 local elections resulted in Hezbollah dominated local councils in 90% of all municipalities in the Bekaa Valley and 60% Southern Lebanon (Flanigan and Abdel-Samad 2009). Hamzeh (2004, p. 144) considers the municipalities with an Islamic order “autonomous enclaves”.

The impact of Hezbollah’s implementation of local legislation that conflicts with national legislation seems ambiguous. The basis of the decision, where the Hezbollah (dominated) administration bases its authority upon the outcome of a nation-wide democratic process, points at respect for the sovereignty of the Lebanese State. The outcome of the decision, however, does not.

Conclusion: domestic, Vatellian, interdependence, international legal sovereignty

One crucial finding of this analysis of the Lebanese State is that the historical preference among the ruling elite for little state interference has resulted in many ineffective national institutions. At least as important is the fact that the Shia still have disproportionally little political power, despite having become the largest sectarian group. Both factors account for Hezbollah’s gradual emergence since the 1980s.

The analysis also raises questions about sovereignty, in line with the observation of Biersteker and Weber (1996, p. 2) that “…sovereignty remains an ambiguous concept.” For example, casting light on the military, social and political roles of Hezbollah yields valuable insights into the question as to why the Shia organisation is instrumental in Iran, Syria and Israel’s infringements of Lebanon’s sovereignty.

Nonetheless, the ramifications of some activities of Hezbollah are hard to clarify. For example, how can its social programmes and military presence in certain areas have a negative effect on domestic sovereignty when the Lebanese State has never been present there? Would it in this respect not be more appropriate to view such activities as the reflection of limited domestic sovereignty rather than its cause? In addition, could we still argue that Hezbollah’s military branch erodes Lebanon’s domestic sovereignty when we know that the national government has officially approved the existence and strategy of this militia?

These findings can be translated in these key conclusions:

  • Hezbollah has skilfully used the limited authority of the state to perform tasks that traditionally belong to a state, such as providing social security and national security. However, its effect on domestic sovereignty is, as we just noted, hard to assess.
  • Hezbollah’s ties with Iran, Israel and Syria have had a negative effect on Lebanon’s Vatellian and interdependence sovereignty.
  • Hezbollah has not had an impact on Lebanon’s international legal sovereignty.

In all, the findings provide support for a rare angle on Hezbollah that perfectly illustrates the difficulty of assessing Hezbollah’s infringement of Lebanon’sovereignty. I am referring to the view of Hafez (2008) who does not consider Hezbollah “a state within a state” because Hezbollah has never attempted to replace the state in any capacity. Therefore, he (2008, p. 192) argues that “[i]t is in fact the absence of the state, dating back to several decades before the emergence of Hezbollah, that prompted the latter to fill the vacuum.”

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