Hizbollah has redrawn the Middle East

By Olivier Roy

Financial Times

Published: August 19 2006

The perceived victory of Hizbollah in Lebanon may be short term but has highlighted some new and important developments. For the first time, the Israel Defence Forces were unable to prevail in an all-out war. More significantly, the winner this time is a Shia Muslim, non-state, armed movement supported by Syria and Iran. In Israel's previous wars, from 1948 to 1982, the challengers were Sunni Arabs.

In fact, Israel's effort this time to eradicate Hizbollah was no remake of past Israeli-Arab wars. It signified several complex - and seemingly contradictory - trends in the Middle East: First is the revival of a radical Islamic front that rejects the Arab-Israeli peace process. Second is the growing divide between Shia and Sunni Muslims in the Gulf region. Finally is the changed political dynamic after the recent entry by radical Islamist movements - such as Hizbollah and Hamas - to mainstream electoral politics.

The alignment between Hizbollah, Syria and Iran in a radical front against a peace settlement with Israel promotes anti-US and Arab nationalist mottos more than any Islamic ideology could do. The Sunni "Arab street" has embraced Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, Hizbollah's leader, as the new Arab hero, the "Nasser of our time". But Mr Nasrallah's elevation also works partly to lessen the appeal of Osama Bin Laden in the Arab Middle East.

That this radical front is led by Shia or secular Shia (as in Syria) is also significant. Since the US military intervention in Iraq in 2003, Sunni Arab conservative regimes in the Gulf and Jordan have been concerned not with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but what they saw as a growing Shia "crescent", bringing under Iranian patronage oil fields north of the Gulf (Iraq, Bahrain and the Saudi north-east). Saudi Wahabi clerics had issued fatwa, or religious edicts, condemning the Shia as heretics. But they and the Sunni clerics were forced to retreat after Hizbollah's perceived victory. The same clerics who earlier condemned the Shia have issued new fatwa supporting Hizbollah in its fight with Israel. On the government level, the deafening silence from Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia after the Lebanon ceasefire is a clear sign of embarrassment after their earlier hostility to Hizbollah's actions.

On the other hand, Iran and Syria have been quick to claim victory for themselves, too. Syria wants to regain its influence in Lebanon and is quite happy to see Israel destroying an already weak central state - as long as Israel does not retaliate inside Syria. But, paradoxically, Damascus is protected by its own weakness: a collapse of the regime would sooner or later put the Muslim Brotherhood radical Islamist movement in charge and, even if it is more moderate than its Egyptian or Jordanian cousins, neither Israel nor the west wish to give any more opportunities to Islamist parties.

The Iranians are taking revenge for their defeat at Iraq's hands back in 1988, when Arab Sunni nationalist and Islamist movements supported Iraq against Iran, and only part of the Shia population supported Iran (hence Tehran's desire to help create Hizbollah as a client party from the Shia movement in Lebanon). Iran has never been able to unite the Shia under its patronage on a religious basis nor a purely political one. Now Tehran is playing the "Arab street" and undermining the legitimacy of the ruling Arab regimes by leading this new alliance of Islamism and Arab nationalism in the near east. In Iraq, however, the same alliance works against Iran. Hence Iran's leadership of the new radical front will not necessarily help bridge the Shia-Sunni gap in Iraq.

Besides settling their account with Arab regimes, the Iranians are managing a conflict by proxies against the west. Tehran wants to avoid a possible military strike on its nuclear facilities and in this respect welcomes western anxiety about the high costs of military intervention. Cleverly, Iran has adopted a low profile on its borders with Iraq and Afghanistan, knowing that time is working in its favour, while fuelling the crisis in the near east. To have European troops stuck in southern Lebanon, hostage to any escalation of tensions between Tehran and the United Nations Security Council on sanctions, suits Tehran well.

Clearly the Iranians were the real winners of the Lebanon conflict and will maintain their upper hand as long as Hizbollah is seen as a legitimate champion of the Arab cause, and not as part of the Shia crescent.

The key issue now is Hizbollah, which is positioning itself on three levels: first, it is signalling Shia solidarity with Iran. Second, it is appealing to Lebanese nationalism by presenting itself as a pivotal element in Lebanese domestic politics. Third, it is fomenting Arab militancy against Israel and the US. Hizbollah triggered the conflict with Israel as an internationalist movement eager to relieve pressure on Hamas. But Mr Nasrallah's recent "victory speech" portrayed the organisation as the champion of Lebanese interests and nationalism. Hizbollah will not be disarmed or marginalised; the only way to deal with it is to push for a new Lebanese polity in which it plays a central role, as a Lebanese party.

If the west wishes to counter the synergy between Arab nationalism, Sunni militancy and the Shia crescent, which will link battlefields from Afghanistan to Lebanon, it must draw Islamist movements such as Hamas and Hizbollah further into the mainstream. This means encouraging a proper settlement in Lebanon involving all Lebanese actors without interference from Syria or Iran; supporting democratisation of Syria and negotiating with Hamas. It also means Israel must renounce its policy of "bunkerisation", withdrawing behind a fortified border and hammering at any perceived threat.

The writer, a professor at Ecoles des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, is author of Globalised Islam (Hurst 2004)