The "Independent Shi'a" of Lebanon: What Wikileaks Tells Us about American Efforts to Find an Alternative to Hizballah

By Smyth, Phillip | Middle East Review of International Affairs (Online), December 2011 | Go to article overview

The "Independent Shi'a" of Lebanon: What Wikileaks Tells Us about American Efforts to Find an Alternative to Hizballah


Smyth, Phillip, Middle East Review of International Affairs (Online)


I sat in on a fascinating meeting yesterday with some independent Shia Muslims - that is to say, Shias who are trying to fight against Hezbollah's influence in Lebanon. They're an admirable group of people, really on the front lines of history in a pretty gripping way... To make a long story short, the March 14 coalition pretty much screwed them However: you know how everyone says Lebanon is so complicated? Well, it is, but once you understand a few basic particulars on why things are structured as they are, it's really not so different from other places. - Michael Tomasky, American journalist, March 13, 2009.1

INTRODUCTION

Leaked cables emanating from Wikileaks have provided a unique insight into a realm of U.S. policy unseen by many in the analytical community. As of this writing, almost 250,000 unclassified, confidential, and classified cables have been released. Of these, around 2,500 cables originated from the U.S. embassy in Lebanon.

The Lebanon cables span the years 1985- 2010, with the majority covering 2005 to 2010. The cables provide a multitude of firsthand information, lobbying ploys, potential disinformation, and brief assessments made of meetings with officials, common citizens, and NGO leaders. Demonstrating extreme American concern regarding the group, the Financial Times noted, "Every Lebanonrelated cable worth reading has something to do with" Hizballah.2 Throughout the released cables, American concern with Hizballah and finding ways to counter the group are prominently exposed.

In few countries did the leaked cables have a bigger political effect. One headline read, "WikiLeaks Threatens to Raise Lebanon Tensions."3 Anti-American forces in Lebanon welcomed the leaked cables. Pro-Hizballah newspaper al-Akhbar had special access to many previously unreleased Wikileaks cables and soon published them on its website.4 When the site was hacked and taken offline, Hizballah offered its support, calling the cyber-attacks, "an attack on freedom of opinion and expression."5 Although al- Akhbar most likely published the cables in the hopes it would embarrass the United States, Israel, and Hizballah's Lebanese opposition in the March 14th Alliance, the cables reveal a Hizballah campaign of violence, utilization of threats, and a continuing rift between Hizballah and its Shi'a pro-Syrian ally Amal. In addition to Hizballah's duplicitous methods, the leaked cables also showed American support for finding alternatives to Hizballah within the Shi'a community it dominates.

It was hoped that with full Lebanese sovereignty, the primarily Sunni, Christian, and Druze March 14th Alliance could democratically marginalize Hizballah. Around the same time, a number of leaked cables demonstrated an interest in Shi'a alternatives to Hizballah. Following Israel's failure to destroy Hizballah during the 2006 Hizballah- Israel War, Hizballah's power grew.6 A number of Shi'i-led NGOs and political groups were consulted and spoken to by the embassy in efforts to counter Hizballah politically. It was hoped these groups could erode Hizballah's membership and create new political feelings within the Shi'i community.

However, the anti-Hizballah Shi'a of Lebanon has been faced with many difficulties. Some of these problems arose from threats by Hizballah and the group's monumental resources. Other problems were blamed on the March 14th Alliance's failure to engage the Shi'i community as a whole. In other cases, the proliferation of small independent Shi'a parties and unwillingness by some of their leaders to work with other independent Shi'a parties led to one cable calling them "amorphous".7 American policy makers also had to deal with certain independent and more dominant mainstream Shi'a groups that had connections to terrorism, anti-American policy, corruption, and that may have actually been Hizballah fronts. Former U.S. Ambassador to Lebanon Jeffery Feltman summed up these problems in one cable, saying the "deck [was] stacked against independent Shia. …

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