Friday, March 4, 2011

Hezbollah’s weapons of mass disputation

In the wake of Saad Hariri’s speech on Monday in which he described Hezbollah’s arsenal as a national problem, it is apparent that March 14 has decided to pick a fight over the party’s weapons and indeed make this a cornerstone of its future political strategy.

There is deliberate ambiguity within March 14’s ranks. In his speech on the sixth anniversary of Rafik al-Hariri’s assassination, Samir Geagea, the head of the Lebanese Forces, reiterated his support for the implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 1559. The resolution does not differentiate between so-called weapons of resistance and other weapons outside the control of the state.

Saad Hariri and the Future Movement have been more ambiguous. While not disagreeing with Geagea, they have continued to declare the resistance “sacred,” focusing their criticism on how Hezbollah has turned its arms against other Lebanese. But this ambiguity conceals another: For as long as Hezbollah holds any weapons at all, Hariri and his acolytes have implied, the party will be tempted to deploy them against all those holding contrary political positions.

That’s unless agreement can be reached on preventing this, which is the essence of the approach now embraced by March 14. It appears that when Saad Hariri realized that the Special Tribunal for Lebanon was likely to accuse Hezbollah members, he saw an opening to use the opportunity as leverage to bolster the sovereignty of the Lebanese state, especially to give it a monopoly over the exercise of violence.

Last summer, Hezbollah’s secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah, disclosed that Hariri had approached him with an offer ahead of the tribunal’s probable indictment of Hezbollah members. Hariri and Nasrallah could together agree to blame supposed Hezbollah rogue elements of involvement in Rafik al-Hariri’s killing, the prime minister purportedly proposed, and in that way shield the party’s leadership. When Nasrallah asked just who might be identified as a rogue element, Hariri is said to have replied Imad Mugniyah.

This was Nasrallah’s version, so it must be taken with some question marks. However, there is a fundamental truth in that Hariri had an incentive to seek a quid pro quo. Interestingly, Nasrallah never revealed what its components would be. What might the prime minister have demanded in exchange for endorsing a narrative that Hezbollah’s leadership was innocent in the murder of his own father?

No one in the Future Movement has ever said so plainly, but it was always evident that in Hariri’s mind, as well as in that of the former prime minister, Fouad al-Siniora, who heads the prime minister’s parliamentary bloc, a deal would have to address weapons. And while neither Hariri nor Siniora appeared prepared to insist on the total disarmament of Hezbollah, it was a different matter when it came to the party’s domestic employment of arms. Had Nasrallah been willing to bargain with Hariri, we can guess that one of the prime minister’s principal stipulations would have been that Hezbollah present tangible guarantees not to turn its guns on other Lebanese.

We got an inkling of this last summer, following the fighting between Hezbollah and Ahbash gunmen in the Bourj Abi Haidar quarter of western Beirut. At the time, Hariri had floated the idea of demilitarizing the capital. In a meeting with Bashar al-Assad a few days later, however, the prime minister heard the Syrian president declare that while it was important to maintain calm in Lebanon, it was also necessary to protect the resistance. This was Assad’s way of telling Hariri that he should stay away from Hezbollah’s weapons.

Today, Hariri has no such constraints. Sources close to the March 14 leadership have indicated that the coalition will take a much firmer stance on weapons at their Martyrs’ Square gathering in just under two weeks, one that may involve asking for United Nations assistance. If this information is confirmed, it would mean that the former majority is preparing to internationalize the controversy over Hezbollah’s arms – or rather, is preparing to set up a domestic pole to echo and reinforce international requests that the party disarm.

The venture is risky, but it also goes to the core of Lebanon’s malaise in the six years since the Hariri assassination. A truly sovereign state cannot coexist with an independent armed militia that is, in many respects, stronger militarily than the state. Either the state must prevail or Hezbollah must. But it is an illusion to imagine that the logic of a state and the logic of a political-military organization whose very nature is that of an anti-state can be made compatible.

Saad Hariri’s decision to admit this is significant, after he had approved of formulas for the previous three governments that effectively sanctioned Hezbollah’s weapons. This transformation, like a possible tribunal indictment of party members, means we should brace for messy quarrels ahead in the divided Lebanese household.

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