Hezbollah Seeks Influence Beyond Lebanon
JOHN YDSTIE, host:
The Arab street may side with Hezbollah for now, but a prolonged conflict with Israel is not without risk. Mounting civilian casualties in Lebanon could erode popular support for the group. For more on Hezbollah's motivations, we turn now to Daniel Byman, director of Georgetown University's Center for Peace and Security Studies.
Dr. Byman, welcome to the program.
Dr. DANIEL BYMAN (Director, Center for Peace and Security Studies, Georgetown University): Thank you for having me.
YDSTIE: What do you think was Hezbollah's goal in provoking this current conflict?
Dr. BYMAN: Hezbollah is probably motivated by a combination of three factors. First, it has a genuine ideological commitment to fighting Israel. Second, it's trying to latch on to the Palestinian issue. And there was, of course, tremendous attention to Israel's attacks on Palestinians in Gaza, and Hezbollah was trying to say that it is a regional revolutionary organization that is strongly capable of fighting the Israelis.
And the third is domestic. Hezbollah is trying to weaken the government, which is very anti-Syrian and trying to strengthen pro-Syrian elements, and show that it is better for the people to be on Hezbollah's side and on Syria side, than backing an anti-Syrian regime.
YDSTIE: President Bush has suggested that Iran and Syria are behind this provocation by Hezbollah. Do you think they knew what Hezbollah was up to directly?
Dr. BYMAN: In the past, Hezbollah has not done significant operations without checking in with both Tehran and Damascus. It would be unlikely that Hezbollah would do something, like kidnapping the Israeli soldiers, without coordinating closely with its patrons. They might not have approved the specifics of the timing, or of the target, but the general nature of the operation was probably well known in both capitals.
YDSTIE: How do you think Hezbollah will fair in this conflict?
Dr. BYMAN: The attacks are risky for Hezbollah. What it's done is risk alienating many Lebanese who were not exactly the group's partisans, but who admired it for its anti-Israel stance, and its provision of social services. It is also possible that escalation could heat up on its sponsors - in particular Syria - and that might prove to the group's detriment.
YDSTIE: It may also be useful for us to remind ourselves that Hezbollah goes back a long way, and has attacked U.S. interests directly in the past.
Dr. BYMAN: Until, September 11, 2001, Hezbollah was the group that had killed more Americans than any other terrorist group. In the 1980s in particular, it had done devastating attacks on U.S. military and diplomatic forces. And Hezbollah is the only Arab military organization that has defeated the Israelis on the battlefield. And this is something that has given them tremendous prestige, not only among Shiia Muslims, but also among Muslims and Arabs around the world.
YDSTIE: To what extent is Hezbollah a Lebanese group? And to what extent is it a regional group?
Dr. BYMAN: Hezbollah has ambitions of being more than a Lebanese group. It always had a Lebanese agenda. It has seats in the Lebanese parliament. But it has done operations on behalf of Iran, internationally. It also has an agenda that goes beyond Lebanon, in Israel in particular, and to a lesser degree in Iraq.
YDSTIE: Daniel Byman is director of Georgetown University's Center for Peace and Security Studies, and the author of Deadly Connections: States that Sponsor Terrorism.
Thanks very much for joining us.
Dr. BYMAN: Thank you for having me.
YDSTIE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.