Marina Ottaway, Director, Middle East Program, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace: “Lebanon. A War Without Winners.”

Volker Perthes, Director, German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP): “The Political Consequences for Syria and Iran, and Implications for Security Policy in the Region.”

Amr Hamzawy, Senior Associate, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace: “The Consequences for the Islamist Movements in the Region.”

Hisham Melhem, An-Nahar & Al-Arabiya TV

Hisham Melhem stressed the unconventional nature of the war between Israel and Hizbollah, a war which he argued pitted the strongest army in the region against the strongest non-state actor in the region, and possibly in the world, namely Hizbollah. Although no clear winner emerged from the conflict, the fact that Hizbollah fought Israel for thirty days made it easier for it to claim a clear victory. Given the mistakes committed by both sides, however, it was no surprise to see Lebanese and Israeli societies go through a round of bitter recrimination. This recrimination was seen in Lebanon even before the conflict came to an end. Leaders of the other Lebanese communities, and most recently, voices within the Shiite community itself, have started to criticize Hizbollah’s ideology of resistance and even its leader Hassan Nasrallah. In Israel, the government of Ehud Olmert has come under intense scrutiny and the whole country is experiencing a new sense of uncertainty.

Melhem concluded by discussing the implications of the Lebanon war on the image of the United States in the Arab world. He explained that there was a belief in Washington that Israel’s military campaign on Lebanon could degrade Hizbollah. This did not happen and instead U.S. support for Israel during the war only exacerbated anti-Americanism in the region.

Marina Ottaway echoed Melhem’s assertion that the Lebanon war was a war without winners. As a result, not much has changed in the Middle East. Trends indicate that if anything, the changes that are taking place are going in the wrong direction. This was a conflict where none of the participants achieved their objectives.

By resisting the idea of a cease-fire for a much longer than in similar situations before, the United States hoped to build a new Middle East, one with a much weakened—if not absent—Hizbollah, a much weakened Iranian influence, and without Syria as a major player in Lebanon. None of these players were weakened. Additionally, the United States hoped to rally around it moderate Arab regimes, which are justifiably concerned about Iran’s regional ascendancy. If anything, however, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s recent trip to the Middle East made it clear that those regimes are in fact more fearful of U.S. policy toward Iran than they are of Iran itself. Rather than discussing Iran’s nuclear ambitions, moderate Arab regimes tried to engage the United States in reviving the stalled Middle East peace process. Given the current circumstances, however, there is no reason to believe that the Bush administration is any more interested in taking a proactive role in the peace process than it has been in the past. This diverging interests of the United States and its traditional allies in the region make clear that Washington’s objectives are not being realized.

For its part, the Lebanese government has not achieved all of its objectives either. Although it is now in position to move its troops to the Southern border under the umbrella of international forces, this does not mean that it will to be able to reassert its full sovereignty over Southern Lebanon. It is quite evident that Hizbollah does not intend to disarm and that the international force has any intention to disarm it by force. At best, what might emerge is a situation of shared sovereignty among the Lebanese government, Hizbollah, and the international force.

Hizbollah itself has suffered losses as a result of the war. Its military capacity has been somewhat degraded, and the rate at which it will be rearmed remains uncertain. Although it will be very difficult for Hizbollah to revert to its pre-war military capacity, the movement has won on other fronts, namely in terms of its image. Beyond its boosted image, however, Hizbollah—much like other players in the conflict—has not achieved all of its objectives. It will have to give up the monopoly that it once had over Southern Lebanon.

Finally, Israel finds itself in a very difficult situation after the war. This is the first time that it has lost the image of invincibility. This has led to a great deal of rethinking and finger pointing inside Israel and by extension has meant that there is now a great deal of fluidity in the Israeli domestic political scene.

Volker Perthes highlighted three features that have come to greater relief after the Lebanon war. The first is the failure of unilateralism. Perthes pointed out that despite continued reference in the media to the Middle East peace process, this process had been non-existent since the withdrawal of Israeli troops from Southern Lebanon in 2000. At best, there had been a series of unilateral steps by Israel, based on the assumption rthat there was no partner with whom to negotiate on the Palestinian side. The Lebanon war was further evidence of the failure of unilateralism.

The second feature is the weakening of state institutions and the strengthening of non-state actors. Hizbollah, a non-state actor, declared war on a state, Israel, leaving another state, Lebanon, crippled. In Palestine, we have an isolated government that is unable to pay its civil servants. State institutions are crumbling. This leads citizens to take refuge in non-state actors, which can provide their basic needs. Perthes emphasized that this threat is not absent from states that are traditionally considered stable, such as Egypt or Syria.

The third and most encouraging feature according to Perthes is that regional security is now being discussed much more sub-regionally. There is a move away from a comprehensive approach to regional security. This leads Syria, a close ally of Iran, to argue that if there is a prospect for peace, it does not want Iran at the negotiating table.           

Perthes argued that the three features he highlighted build a logical case for starting a new internationally-sponsored conference process bringing together Israel with the countries with which it does not have peace agreements, namely Lebanon, Palestine, and Syria. Focusing on Syria, Perthes asserted that it will undoubtedly accept a new state-to-state process because its regime and its national interests are at stake. Syrians are not in a winner position; they did not ask Hizbollah to trigger the Lebanon war. They must be uneasy about the rise of those non-state actors. It does not bode well for Syria’s authoritarian regime to have domestic support for the leader of a non-state actor such as Hassan Nasrallah. The Syrian regime also has a problem with jihadis within its borders. Finally, the regime’s poor performance over the past few years, in terms of delivering to its own population needs redress. Contrary to conventional wisdom, the Syrian regime’s ability to deliver on talks with Israel and regaining the Golan Heights would boost its popularity. Perthes concluded by arguing that Syria could be turned into a constructive player if it is presented with a real chance to regain its territorial integrity.

Amr Hamzawy refuted Melhem and Ottaway’s assertion that the Lebanon was a war without winners. He conceded that there were no clear winners among the direct actors involved in the conflict, but argued that taken within the broader regional picture, the clear winners were the Islamist movements. To explain this victory, Hamzawy highlighted a serious shift that took place in the Arab world as a result of the Lebanon war. The shift involves the reemergence of the resistance narrative at the expense of the domestic political reform agenda that had started to dominate Arab public debates since 2003.  Notwithstanding the developments in Iraq, classified as “exceptional” in the Arab world, and those in Palestine, which has continued to be a news item, Hamzawy explained that between 2003 and 2006 state and non-state actors alike focused predominantly on domestic reform. The revival of the resistance narrative refocuses the debate away from domestic issues and indicates that the major beneficiaries of the Lebanon war are the  Islamist movements.

Hamzawy emphasized that there is evidence that ruling regimes in the Arab world are also using the resistance narrative to advance their agendas, even domestically. This means that those who are on the side of the resistance project—namely Islamist movements—cannot be ignored.The Lebanon war reversed the trend of the last three years; democracy and domestic reform are no longer seen as the primary issues. Political actors of all colors, argued Hamzawy, feel the urge to address regional issues.

The reaction of Islamist movements to the Lebanon war varied depending on the geographical promxity of those movements to the conflicts zones in Lebanon and Palestine, and their respective historical ties to the Arab-Israeli conflict. The most sustained reaction among Islamist movements came form the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, the Jordanian Islamic Action Front, and the Palestinian Hamas. The reaction of these movements was characterized by five features. First, they downplayed Sunni-Shiite tensions, thereby refuting the argument put forth by Sunni Arab regimes about the threat of Shiite resistance. Sunni Islamist movements in Egypt, Jordan, and Palestine, consciously characterized Hizbollah as a legitimate resistance movement. Second, they succeeded in portraying the Arab-Israeli conflict in religious terms. Third, Islamist movements denounced the submissive approach of moderate Arab regimes, using their critique as a platform to voice domestic grievances. Fourth, in some cases, primarily in that of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, Islamist movements intensified their anti-American and anti-Israeli rhetoric. Finally, these movements put forth a vision for a new Middle East, one which would be divided into pro- and anti-American actors.

Looking at the case of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, Hamzawy observed that the movement won—in popularity—as a result of its rhetoric during the war. Islamist movements also gained by publicly reasserting their core ideological beliefs regarding the Arab-Israeli conflict. Despite these immediate popular gains, however, in the case of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, the movement’s rhetoric during the war did represent a regression from more tolerant, more pragmatic positions it had reached over the past three years. Domestically, the Brotherhood moved away from the consensus that it had previously reached with the Egyptian regime over foreign policy issues. For the first time in six years, the Brotherhood declared Mubarak an American agent. The movement’s anti-Israeli rhetoric during the war also signaled a departure from more nuanced positions on Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel, including coming close to a rhetorical acceptance of the treaty. The same regression characterizes the movement’s position on the United States.

The major outcome of this regression is that the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood is now operating under a more politically restrained environment. This applies to the Islamic Action Front and Hamas in different ways. In the cases of Egypt and Jordan, the very foundation of the movements’ traditionally non-militant activism is now being questioned. Inviting criticism from the regime and other opposition forces, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, for instance, expressed its readiness to send volunteers to Lebanon to defend what they called the “honor of the Muslim umma.” It is clear, Hamzawy stressed, that the reaction of Islamist movements to the Lebanon war has—despite resulting in immediate popular gains—placed further restrictions on their operation in their respective political context.

Perthes and Ottaway challenged Hamzawy’s contention that Islamist movements are the clear winners of the Lebanon war but agreed with his analysis of the radicalization of their rhetoric and the reemergence of the resistance narrative. A general discussion followed.

Synopsis prepared by Dina Bishara, research assistant for the Middle East Program.