Hezbollah is many things: a terrorist group, a guerrilla movement, a proxy for Iran and Syria to use against Israel, the champion of Lebanon's Shia Muslim community, a leading Lebanese political force, and even a builder of hospitals and schools. Through all these roles it exerts remarkable influence on Lebanon, but it is not clear which aspects of the organization would come to the fore if Syrian forces leave the country. If Lebanon is freed from Syrian domination, the United States should accept that Hezbollah's political wing would participate in the new Lebanese government. Washington should exploit this participation to push the Party of God away from Syria--and ultimately away from terrorism and anti-Israel activities as well. President George W. Bush's recent statement that Hezbollah could prove that it is not a terrorist organization "by laying down arms and not threatening peace" strikes just the right tone.
The Lebanese clamor for Syrian withdrawal has put Hezbollah in a difficult position. On the one hand, the party is naturally loath to cut ties to one of its chief patrons. On the other hand, to maintain its power in Lebanese politics following a Syrian withdrawal, Hezbollah will need the backing of the people, and siding completely with Syria could jeopardize that.
Most of Lebanon's ethnic and religious communities want Syria to leave, and even some Lebanese Shiites joined the recent anti-Syrian protests. Hezbollah has always tried to remain above Lebanon's communal fray, portraying itself as a resistance movement that transcends petty politics. But by opposing the cross-communal alliance against Syria, the Party of God has been undercutting its claims as a national organization. If it decides to forcibly intervene in domestic politics on Syria's behalf, Hezbollah risks losing the goodwill and respect of the many Lebanese who admire its social services and its past efforts against Israel. And because Israel withdrew its forces from southern Lebanon in 2000, Hezbollah can no longer use its anti-Israel campaign to win broad popular support.
Reflecting these tensions,
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