|04BEIRUT3713||2004-07-30 17:06:00||CONFIDENTIAL||Embassy Beirut|
P 301706Z JUL 04 FM AMEMBASSY BEIRUT TO SECSTATE WASHDC PRIORITY 3579 INFO USCENTCOM MACDILL AFB FL//CINC/POLAD/J5 PRIORITY ISLAMIC CONFERENCE COLLECTIVE
1. (C) A number of Lebanese observers who favor the idea of
transforming Hizballah into a normal political party see
hopeful signs of this happening. Specifically, they point to
expressions from some Hizballah members of common interest
with Christian oppositionists and more recently the
supporters of the "Beirut Declaration". According to these
observers, with Hizballah's leadership feeling "cornered" by
regional and local developments, Hizballah's upcoming August
conference is a potential milestone in its "libanisation."
Skeptics hold that, party conference or no party conference,
Iran's Islamic revolutionaries, not the Hizballah
rank-and-file, still set the organization's direction. At
least one independent Shi'a politician would prefer to see
Hizballah go the way of another, now-defunct civil war-era
militia. End summary.
Signs of interest in the "Beirut Declaration"
2. (C) Several personalities involved in the "Beirut
Declaration" (Ref A), a call for genuine post-civil war
reconciliation and reassertion of Lebanese sovereignty, have
suggested that their agenda struck a sympathetic chord within
Hizballah, at least among many of the rank-and-file. For
example, Shi'ite political scientist Saoud el Mawla pointed
to the attendance of three members of Hizballah at a June 27
gathering organized by Member of Parliament Fares Souaid (who
belongs to the anti-Syrian Qornet Shehwan Gathering). The
event was a follow-on of sorts to the stillborn public
launching of the Declaration, cancelled after GOL
authorities, apparently nervous about any sign of
Christian-Muslim consensus regarding Syria, clumsily
3. (C) While the three were not official representatives of
Hizballah, Mawla said their attendance indicated growing
interest among Hizballah's rank-and-file in the Declaration's
message. They were clearly interested in engaging "Christian
opposition" elements (hence their attendance at Souaid's
event), but seemed less interested in "old leftist"
co-religionists like Mawla, whom they have known, and argued
with, for years.
4. (C) Although the rank-and-file was showing interest in
new directions, such as the "Beirut Declaration," Mawla
described a Hizballah leadership that is "on the defensive,"
particularly in the aftermath of the Hay es-Selloum riots
(Ref B). Feeling "cornered" by post-9/11 developments in the
Middle East, it is sticking to a doctrinaire position on Iraq
and lashing out at its sometime partners, such as the General
Confederation of Labor, as well as its chief political rival,
the Amal movement of Chamber of Deputies Speaker Nabih Berri.
Discontent in the ranks?
5. (C) Other observers have similarly described Hizballah as
feeling "cornered" by developments in the region. Nasir
al-Ass'ad, a political commentator with Beirut's
"al-Mustaqbal" newspaper, described the Hay es-Selloum
incident -- in which several people, all Shi'as from the
Biqa' Valley, were killed by Lebanese soldiers -- as a
watershed. Many Hizballah members, with hindsight, saw Hay
es-Selloum as a "trap" for Hizballah set by Syria's security
apparatus and its Lebanese allies, supposedly telegraphing
their readiness to clamp down on Hizballah as part of a
U.S.-Syrian grand bargain (Ref C).
6. (C) Despite insinuations of U.S. involvement made by
Nasrallah immediately afterward (Ref D), many in Hizballah's
rank-and-file had come to believe this could not possibly
have been the case, according to Ass'ad. Seeing their
longtime protector, Damascus, now seemingly ready to offer
them up, many Hizballah members were increasingly interested
in making Hizballah less of a Syrian "tool." This
rank-and-file discontent only grew after the June 11 meeting
in the town of Chtaura between Nasrallah and Berri, brokered
by Syrian military intelligence (Ref E), according to Ass'ad.
7. (C) Ass'ad said that, during Hizballah's planned party
conference in August, all issues were to be "on the table,"
including Hay el-Selloum, a definition of "resistance"
activities, dialogue with Lebanon's Christians, and relations
with Iran and Syria. He described the conference as a
potential milestone in the "libanisation" of Hizballah, that
is, the transformation of it into a normal political party.
He saw the "Christian opposition" and Prime Minister Hariri
supporting this, but at the same time looking to see the US
8. (C) Ass'ad said that maximalist U.S. demands for the
disarmament and dissolution of Hizballah would jeopardize the
"libanisation" process, since the Hizballah leadership --
perhaps seeing "libanisation" as a slippery slope toward
Guantanamo -- might resist it. A political rather than
military solution was necessary to defuse the many "time
bombs" that make up Hizballah's paramilitary elements,
according to Ass'ad.
9. (C) Ziad Majed, a young independent political activist
and member of the Cultural Council of Southern Lebanon,
agreed that "libanisation" of Hizballah is the goal of
Lebanon's oppositionists, both Christian and Muslim. This
was the implication of the "Beirut Declaration," he added.
Limits to growth
10. (C) Majed doubted Hizballah had a clear vision of its
future, even though it appeared to be at a crossroads. While
it was the most popular political party in Lebanon, its
identity as an organization of, by, and for Shi'as put sharp
limits on its ability to gather support from other
confessional groups. Among Shi'as, it could bank on its past
record of fighting Israeli occupation, a patronage network in
the form of social welfare programs, and the "easy answers"
afforded by its brand of political Islam.
11. (C) While most ordinary Lebanese identify corruption as
a serious national problem, Majed doubted Hizballah would try
to rally broader national support through an aggressive
anti-corruption stance. Doing so would put Hizballah in an
uncomfortable position with its ally, Syria, whose officials
in Lebanon over the years have become deeply entangled in
A splash of cold water
12. (C) Nizar Hamzeh, an American University of Beirut
political scientist and expert on Hizballah, dismissed
predictions that Hizballah's upcoming party conference might
lead to fundamental changes. "Libanisation" has in fact been
going on since the late 1980s, he pointed out, when Hizballah
decided to accommodate (if not accept) Lebanon's confessional
system of government, eventually participating in the 1992
13. (C) Hizballah's Members of Parliament, far from
representing a "libanising" strain capable (as is sometimes
suggested) of transforming Hizballah from an armed movement
into a normal Lebanese political party, in fact serve mainly
to give Hizballah a moderate face that other Lebanese (and
many foreigners) are comfortable dealing with, Hamzeh said.
They have no power base within Hizballah. Instead, the real
power base for Hizballah's leadership is Iran's supreme
religious leader, Ayatollah Khameinei, and the Islamic
Revolutionary Guard Corps. Hizballah's leadership is
"appointed" by them, not elected from within the
organization, Hamzeh said.
14. (C) Hamzeh suggested that Hizballah was fairly modest in
its long-term aspirations. Its leadership pins its hopes on
demographic change in Lebanon, with Christian emigration and
Shi'a birth rates leading to a redistribution of power among
Lebanon's confessional groups, and Hizballah receiving a
share in a Shi'a-dominated government.
15. (C) Although some of his Qornet Shehwan colleagues are
intrigued by signs of Hizballah support for the "Beirut
Declaration," former Lebanese Ambassador to the U.S. Simon
Karam expressed skepticism to us. While Hizballah has made
helpful gestures before (such as on behalf of Christian
oppositionists detained by Lebanese authorities in 2001),
efforts to engage Hizballah on the issue of Lebanese
sovereignty always fall flat. "They're not interested," he
said. Rather, their helpful gestures tend to be little more
than political maneuvering aimed at getting other Lebanese
actors to make reciprocal gestures in support of "the
Going the way of the LF?
16. (C) Not everyone is holding out for "libanisation" of
Hizballah. One independent Shi'a politician trying to
compete against the Hizballah-Amal duopoly in the South,
Ahmad al-Ass'ad, told us he was convinced that, were Syria
ever to turn off the tap of Hizballah's Iranian financial and
material support, Hizballah would quickly become much less
formidable. It might well follow the path of another
political-military movement that emerged during the Lebanese
civil war, the Lebanese Forces (LF). While the LF once
challenged the army for dominance of Lebanon's civil war-era
"Christian enclave," it was quickly disarmed after 1990 and
now exists as a group of squabbling, politically
17. (C) At the same time that many Lebanese observers see
hope for "libanisation," others point to a contradictory
trend. Specifically, they see Hizballah becoming even more
of a militant, transnational movement, with a disturbing
resemblance to the Palestinian "state within a state" of the
1970s and early 1980s, and with the same potential to invite
Israeli military intervention and fuel civil strife. Part 2
of this series will examine this second face of Hizballah.