Executive summary:

Prime Minister Saad Hariri took his country by storm on Nov. 4 when he announced his resignation as head of the Lebanese government, blaming his decision on Iranian interference in his country’s affairs. Hariri’s statement, given from Saudi Arabia’s capital Riyadh, underlines the Saudi decision to ramp up confrontation with its regional nemesis Iran and possibly to introduce a new deal in Lebanon.

Hariri issued a strong condemnation of Iran and its Lebanese ally, Hezbollah: the Shiite militia and political party that is part of the 30-member national unity cabinet he previously led. Lebanon is governed by a sectarian political system, divided between a coalition aligned with Shiite Hezbollah and Iran, another siding with Saudi Arabia, and a third with Arab and Western countries.

Since 2016, Lebanon’s rival blocs have essentially agreed to put their disagreements aside and join forces in a unity government. Hezbollah, which fought the Israeli occupation of south Lebanon until the year 2000, is currently the strongest Lebanese faction because of its powerful militia, and has served since 2013 as an Iran’s expeditionary force in Syria.

“Wherever Iran settles, it sows discord, devastation and destruction, proven by its interference in the internal affairs of Arab countries,” Mr. Hariri said, adding that Iran’s “hands” in the region “will be cut off”.

Despite a more conciliatory approach upon his return to Beirut, where Hariri’ stated “our relations with our Arab brothers should be the basis and we must seek all the means to enable Lebanon to have a real disassociation policy, not just in words but also in deeds,” , the Lebanese PM clouds with uncertainty  the golden phase enjoyed by Hezbollah since the election in 2016 of its long-time political ally Michel Aoun as president. This golden period allowed Hezbollah to assuage its dominance over various sectors of the Lebanese state. This paper looks into Hezbollah’s assertion of power in Lebanon and the dilemma faced by the land of the cedars toward the militant group, one that in light of recent events could threaten the fabric of the country. 

Introduction

After a decade of tumultuous relations with the Lebanese state – namely since the 2005 killing of the Sunni Prime Minister Rafic Hariri which was attributed to four of its members – Lebanese Hezbollah appeared to be entering a golden phase within the Lebanese political system. This summer’s military operation launched by Hezbollah against militants of former al-Qaeda affiliate Heyat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) in the mountainous area of Arsal shows the undisputable monopoly developed by the organization in matters of Lebanese defense and security. The following August, an operation by the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) against the Islamic State (ISIS) in the Qaa-Ras Baalback area was dovetailed with a Hezbollah offensive on the Syrian side of the border, resulting in a controversial deal that allowed ISIS fighters to be transported to western Syria. Both military operations appear to have been suspended. The debate now revolves around Hezbollah’s military arsenal and the organization positioning itself as the prominent military and fighting counter-terrorism force in Lebanon. The ISIS deal was another attempt by Hezbollah to make use of its army–people–resistance triptych to minimize LAF achievements in the battle against ISIS.

Until 2000, Hezbollah, a Lebanese Shiite Islamist political party and militant group, spearheaded the Lebanese resistance against Israel, which ended its occupation that year. With support from Iran, Hezbollah has been able to develop and maintain an extensive security and social services network in Lebanon. Often labeled “a state within the state”, Hezbollah’s power and influence have grown even further both locally and regionally with its involvement in Syria, where it has backed Syrian President Bashar Assad against a largely Sunni opposition. Despite the militant’s group placement on international terror lists and the opposition of large Lebanese factions to its local and international behavior, Hezbollah has been able to consolidate its position in Lebanon, neutralize its enemies and co-opt political players by granting them more influence.

Hezbollah’s golden phase within the Lebanese political system was kick-started in October 2016 with the election of General Michel Aoun, Hezbollah’s staunch ally as president, followed by the formation of a Lebanese government under Hezbollah’s longtime foe Prime Minister Saad Hariri. These two events consecrated Hezbollah’s cooptation of the Lebanese system and its growing clout over various dimensions of the Lebanese political environment. Since then, the Lebanese government has attempted a difficult balancing act between a moderate foreign policy toward Gulf countries and the international community and a domestic policy accommodating to Hezbollah. This has proven to be an increasingly difficult task, given complex regional dynamics, regional powers accusing Hezbollah of being Iran’s foreign legion, as well as the enmity between the organization and its backer Iran towards the international community and Gulf countries. The tightening of U.S. sanctions on Hezbollah could also worsen already dire Lebanese economic conditions and increase pressure on the country’s vital banking sector. The Hariri resignation was combined with escalatory statements made by Saudi Gulf Affairs Minister Thamer al-Sabhan. According to an article published by Reuters, the minister threatened to deal with the Lebanese government “as a government declaring war on Saudi Arabia” because of what he described as aggression by Hezbollah. Faulting the Hariri-led administration for failing to take action against Hezbollah during his first year in office, Sabhan said “there are those who will stop [Hezbollah] and make it return to the caves of South Lebanon”, the heartland of the Shi‘ite community. In an interview with Al-Arabiya TV, he added, “the Lebanese must all know these risks and work to fix matters before they reach the point of no return.”

The Lebanese state is thus faced with a growing Hezbollah dilemma, one that, if not tackled both at the local and regional level, could end up breaking the system. This research paper attempts to draw a picture of Hezbollah’s relations with the Lebanese state and how they might evolve in the future by interviewing Hezbollah experts and politicians, some who are politically opposed to the organization and others who are close to the organization, in addition to a Lebanese army commander close to the militant group and a Hezbollah commander, a Lebanese banker and an economist. The latter sources preferred to speak on condition of anonymity due to the topic’s sensitivity.

The paper will first highlight Lebanon’s historical relations with Hezbollah in the post-civil war phase. It will then look at Hezbollah’s political role, its strategy in parliament and government, its influence over Lebanese security institutions, its use of a carefully balanced “threat and reward policy” aiming at increasing its clout over the political system, its foreign legions, and the resulting international pressure on Lebanon. It will conclude by looking at the sustainability of Lebanon’s schizophrenic approach to regional and international politics in the presence of such a powerful and controversial non-state actor.

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