Tomorrow, the House of Commons will debate the proscription of Hezbollah in its entirety. Abandoning the false distinction between the organisation’s ‘political’ and ‘terrorist’ wings would go a long way toward assuring our national interest and help avert a major new conflagration in the Middle East.
Hezbollah’s own long-standing insistence that its organisational setup is indivisible is self-evident; nobody seriously believes that anyone other than Hassan Nasrallah has the final word in its chain of command, be it on politics or terrorism. This diplomatic fiction may have been partly believable when the Lebanese state was still conceivably comprised of Western-oriented elements versus Iran-aligned Hezbollah, but today that is sadly a fiction. Hezbollah has now completed the process of state capture, a goal it has pursued relentlessly since the 2006 ceasefire that ended the Second Lebanon War with Israel.
A few months ago, I completed a study of Hezbollah’s military capabilities with a number of senior colleagues drawn from across Western militaries. Our findings were stark and the potential for a new conflagration is very high. Primarily, the terrorist group has gone to great lengths to expand and enhance its offensive capabilities, most notably through the acquisition of advanced rockets. For years these were supplied through covert Iranian shipments. Yet with Iranian-backed Shia militias rampaging across Iraq, and the Assad regime consolidating control of Syria, the group’s creator and patron can now afford to be much more brazen. Overground shipments initiated by Tehran have now become routine, and there are strong suspicions that Lebanon will soon play host to the construction of designated munitions factories.
Worse, in the south of the country, village after village has been turned into a permanent military compound, complete with tunnels, munitions holdings, and armed personnel. This amounts to a classic terrorist tactic deployed by groups like Hezbollah of making military strategy on the basis of war crimes. UNIFIL, the international peacekeeping force designed to prevent this outcome, is thoroughly outmatched – something my study group witnessed first hand during a trip to the Israeli-Lebanese border.
Hezbollah’s advanced capabilities have fundamentally altered the military and political calculus in the region and forced a capitulation in Beirut. It is hard to overstate the extent to which Hezbollah has now become Lebanon’s de facto government. The incumbent president has conceded that Hezbollah fighters represent a fundamental part of the country’s defence posture. That statement, while lamentable, simply reflects reality. The independence of the Lebanese Armed Forces, regarded by many as non-sectarian force capable of providing the country with unity, has been eroded through infiltration by and co-operation with Hezbollah.
It is now a matter of time before the group’s raison d’etre – the destruction of Israel – takes centre stage. The threat of renewed conflict, initiated by Hezbollah, is now higher than it was when war last broke out just over a decade ago. On that occasion, Hezbollah blundered its way into a confrontation, misjudging Israel’s likely reaction when it kidnapped two of its soldiers. Now, the group openly courts conflict, egged on by an Iran that has been emboldened by years of strategic advances.
While Al-Qaeda and Isis have been the subject of well-deserved scorn amongst the British people, Hezbollah still cuts something of a more tolerable figure. Many on the left seem to regard the group as a reputable component of some anti-globalisation coalition. At a recent pro-Palestinian march, participants had to be reminded not to fly the group’s flag. Any effort to afford the group such sympathy is shameful. Hezbollah has become the world’s premier terrorist entity – the only group of its kind capable of starting a major conventional war.
If the UK wishes to be taken seriously as a major player on the world stage, it should move quickly to reverse the advances it has made, as part of a full-throated effort to prevent renewed conflict in the region. Placing much more severe conditions on the dispatch of international aid to Lebanon – much of which winds up in the group’s hands – would be a useful start.
However, things are far too advanced for a ‘softly, softly’ approach to carry with it hope of success. The only logical next step can and must be the proscription of Hezbollah in its entirety as a terrorist group. Taking that step would not only give much needed momentum to the efforts being considered by Britain’s international partners in curtailing Iran’s regional expansion and Hezbollah’s takeover of Lebanon, but would also give the group pause for thought before using its newfound strength to initiate hostilities. This could potentially avert a conflict that would be both a disaster for an already reeling region and gravely detrimental to our own interest in a stable Middle East.
Lord Dannatt is a former Chief of the General Staff and a member of the High Level Military Group