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, on March 8, 2005, Hezbollah's Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah called hundreds of thousands of supporters to the streets to denounce U.S. and UN meddling in Lebanon while praising Syrian influence in the country. Yet although the rally clearly provided a shot in the arm for Damascus, Nasrallah remained pointedly silent on whether Syrian troops should remain in Lebanon, choosing instead to endorse the Taif Accord--which has a mechanism for a Syrian withdrawal, but only a vague one.

Although Hezbollah has benefited from Syria's patronage over the years, Syria has also worked to hinder the party's influence in Beirut. To prevent any individual Lebanese faction from growing too strong, Damascus has compelled Hezbollah to share its parliamentary seats with its weak and unpopular Shia rival, Amal. Without Amal, many predict, Hezbollah's parliamentary representation would double. Many Lebanese thus believe that Hezbollah can be persuaded to limit its support of Syria. Others, including perhaps Nasrallah himself, think Hezbollah could act as an intermediary between pro- and anti-Syrian forces.

Instead of trying to ostracize Hezbollah, Washington should focus on trying to get the organization to stop pursuing its goals through violence. So far, despite U.S. demands, Hezbollah's leaders have openly scorned the idea that the movement might disarm. The party enjoys considerable popularity; moreover, The Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) are currently too weak to take on Hezbollah's formidable militias, and no Lebanese government is likely to be in a position to force its will on Hezbollah any time soon. Therefore, U.S. attempts to compel an independent Lebanese government to crack down on the party would likely backfire. Hezbollah would remain largely unaffected while the government would lose credibility.

But the United States does have some options. Cutting off external support from Iran and Syria for Hezbollah's violence would be a vital first step in forcing the party to disarm. Iranian military advisors are still in Lebanon, helping train and radicalize Hezbollah. Their removal should be a top priority. Pressure on Syria must continue even after its troops depart. The United States must warn Damascus not to foment strife in Lebanon after its withdrawal or to encourage Hezbollah to attack Israel. In addition, Syria can no longer be a gateway for Iranian arms to flow into Lebanon.

Washington could improve its position by gaining the support of its allies in Europe and the Arab world. Syria and Hezbollah both want to avoid the impression they are caving in to U.S. pressure. Both, however, want to be seen as legitimate actors and thus would be wary of risking worldwide censure. Thus, although Hezbollah would almost certainly use its political clout to block any direct U.S. military assistance to Lebanon, the LAF can be strengthened by others--and the United States should see that it is.

For the "Cedar Revolution" to be truly successful, Syria must not only be pushed out of Lebanon, but its hegemony must also be followed by the emergence of a stable, peaceful democracy there. Hezbollah can scuttle this outcome or nurture it. The United States should do what it can to see that the party takes the latter path.

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  • Daniel Byman is an Assistant Professor in the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University and a nonresident Senior Fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. He is the author of the forthcoming book, Deadly Connections: States that Sponsor Terrorism.
  • More By Daniel Byman