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Video Interview: Mara Karlin – Part 2

Near East Report recently sat down with Lebanon expert Mara Karlin to ask her about the complicated political scene in Beirut. In part two of this two-part interview, Karlin discusses Hizballah in Lebanese society, the influence of Iran and Syria, and the danger on Israel’s northern border. (Click here to watch part one.)

Near East Report: Is it in the Lebanese military’s interest to demilitarize Hizballah?

Mara Karlin: The challenge, I think, with this question is it plays into this notion that demilitarizing Hizballah is taking the AK-47 from the jihadi, and that’s just not accurate. It’s sort of easy to think of Hizballah as just the terrorist group that was responsible for killing 241 American servicemen in October 23, 1983, or attacking the U.S. Embassy in April 18, 1983, and countless other actions—that’s very easy for us to focus on.

There’s a lot more to Hizballah, though. This is also an organization that has a lot of birth-to-death services, that provides a lot for Lebanese Shia in particular. So it’s got schools. It has social services. It has hospitals, you name it. And it fills a lot of gaps that the Lebanese government isn’t able to fill. So when one thinks of this idea of dealing with Hizballah, it’s much more holistic than simply the weaponry issue. And if you do just want to look at the weaponry issue, Hizballah is really by an order of magnitude more capable than the Lebanese military. The type of sophisticated material they get, the training they get from Iran, is absolutely in no way in comparison to what the U.S. or other Western nations have given the Lebanese military.

NER: What role does Iran play in Lebanon today?

MK: The role of Iran has actually been increasing. We saw this with Ahmadinejad’s visit, with him being feted left and right. Of course, it’s very easy for us to focus on the Iranian aid to Hizballah, which is estimated between 100 and 200 million [dollars] per year, the training, the equipment, you name it.

But Iran has also provided a lot of assistance to the Lebanese, particularly in the south after the war, in terms of reconstruction. And so some of it is support for Hizballah and what Iran has done for Hizballah. Some of it is support for Iranian assistance for rebuilding homes, etc. And some of it is simply this idea that Ahmadinejad, as you know, is really seen as one of the few Middle Eastern leaders who sort of stands up and says what a lot of the Middle Eastern populaces think but their leaders don’t say. And it’s fascinating. You know, he received a greater reception in Lebanon than he gets in most of Iran, which is just incredibly ironic.

NER: What is Iran’s strategic interest in Lebanon?

MK: Iran has pretty effectively and efficiently bought itself a border with Israel. That’s somewhat astonishing, if you think about it, that they’ve been able to place themselves there and to have a pretty decent presence. And it’s worked in their interest in a lot of ways, but it’s also a bit of a challenge for Hizballah. When you think about the idea of if there is an Israeli attack against the Iranian nuclear facilities and the Iranians seek to respond, what are their options?

We know, conventionally, Iran’s military is pretty weak and so the best option really for them besides, say, closing the Strait of Hormuz, would be to use rogue actors, to use Hizballah. Well, this will pose a really interesting dilemma for Hizballah because Hizballah has a domestic constituency to play to. And you hear on occasion commentary throughout the Lebanese populace that they don’t like Hizballah acting in Iran’s interest or acting in Syria’s interest.

So they’re going to be forced into a dilemma, which is: Are they willing to risk their domestic constituency or can they really say no to the hundreds of millions of dollars of assistance? In effect, the reason that the Iranians have supported them is so that some day, when necessary, they can act on the Iranian behalf in a very direct manner. That day could be coming soon, and within the Hizballah leadership, they’ve got a real dilemma to figure out.

NER: How much influence does Syria have in Lebanon today?

MK: If you remember in 2005, the Syrian military ended its overt presence in Lebanon, and this was much to the applause of the Lebanese and many in the West. But in no way should one assume that that ended the Syrian involvement in Lebanon. You still see it working through quite a few proxies. These are Lebanese politicians that really do the bidding of Syria, as Syrian stature has grown in the Arab world—and this I would argue in a lot of ways was because of the Israel-Syria peace talks coming out. Because of that, and also because of fear throughout the Arab world about Iran and an interest in trying to wedge apart the Syrians and the Iranians, Damascus has become a place to travel for a lot of Arab leaders. And so as you see countless Arab leaders traveling to Damascus, as you see Assad being feted throughout the Arab world, it’s become a lot harder for those Lebanese who spoke out against Syria to continue to do so.

One of the greatest examples here is if you look at the head of the Lebanese Druze community, Walid Jumblatt. Walid Jumblatt, a few years ago, was very publicly chastising Assad, calling him a snake, using some really strong language. And over the last year and a half he’s come to really publicly kowtow to the Syrian regime and to visit Damascus and step back on a lot of the commentary he’s made because I think he sees this as what’s best for his community. So the Syrian presence is rebounding. It’s growing, but this is, in my mind, much more of a regional issue than due to a domestic Lebanese issue.

NER: How can Israel tolerate a growing Hizballah on its northern border?

MK: The Israelis are in a tough position in that they need to figure out at what point is it too much. You see various weapon shipments going from Syria to Lebanon. At what point do the Israelis want to attack one of those shipments? That’s a possibility that they could do something very tactical, for instance, and in trying to eliminate one of those. Hizballah could try to goad the Israelis into an attack, like you saw in early August. But I think pretty prudently, the Israelis aren’t doing anything because they realize these sort of tactical efforts aren’t going to do much. BACK TO TOP