Is Hezbollah overplaying its hand inside Lebanon?

The role of Lebanese Hezbollah as Iranian proxy and its providing significant assistance to its allies in Syria, Yemen and Iraq has been an area of ​​justified interest to policymakers in many capitals, but the organization’s evolving role in Lebanon deserves equal attention. While it is customary to characterize Hezbollah as a “state within a state”, it is now more accurate to define it as a “state within a non-state”, given the sheer inability of the Lebanese government to to provide even the most basic services to a desperate population plunged into its worst economic crisis in over a century.

In the past, Hezbollah has been able to distinguish itself from Lebanon’s ruling circles, capitalizing on its non-state status and its role of “resistance” to Israel. However, in recent years, Hezbollah has become increasingly intermingled with the country’s kleptocratic ruling elites and defenders of the status quo, an association that has alienated many of their compatriots. It is this shift in Hezbollah’s role that presents risks to the organization and opportunities to support efforts to strengthen institution building and state return as well as the injection into Lebanese politics of individuals. more independent and technocratic through national elections organized for the spring of next year.

Iran’s investment in Hezbollah proved successful for many years after Tehran, with help from Damascus, oversaw the establishment of the organization in 1982. It was exempted from the Taif accords in 1989 who forced the demobilization of other sectarian militias in Lebanon and thus greatly benefited from this status of “last man standing”. Hezbollah served a useful purpose as the tip of the Iranian spear in the Levant against Israel, its most famous achievement being the Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon in 2000, for which Hezbollah fully commended. Lebanese citizens and many members of the Arab world rallied behind Hezbollah in its destructive 2006 war with Israel. From that time until today, the south has remained relatively calm, with a precarious unofficial truce established between Israel and Hezbollah.

It is also in the post-Ta’if landscape that Hezbollah officially entered politics with the election of 8 deputies in 1992, then with the appointment of Hezbollah ministers in successive Lebanese cabinets – they generally have two ministers – from of 2005, after the assassination of Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri in February of the same year. In the 15 years since the 2006 war, Hezbollah consolidated its influence over Lebanese politics, despite being designated as a terrorist organization by the United States, United Kingdom, Germany, Israel and the League. Arab. Many of those terrorized by Hezbollah cadres are their Lebanese compatriots. Formally involved in the gruesome murder of Hariri in 2005, Hezbollah evaded responsibility for other high-profile murders in which it is suspected they played a role.

Hezbollah’s growing involvement in Lebanon’s internal affairs occurred during a period in which the Lebanese state imploded, as the beneficiary of Taif – the so-called “company of five,” the zuama (the leaders) of the country’s main sectarian movements, plus Hezbollah – have used the government to share the booty and stay in power. Hezbollah has forged tactical alliances with several of these leaders, including President Michel Aoun and Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri. The government has struggled to provide even the most basic services to the public, including electricity, as the value of the Lebanese pound has plunged, pushing people further into poverty and causing waves of Lebanese, especially Christians. , to leave the country in search of a better life.

In contrast, Hezbollah has its own army, its own schools and hospitals, has created numerous charities, and even founded its own version of the Boy Scouts. He usually places his acolytes in service ministries where they can extract the rent from the state and uses its access to official institutions to ensure the cover-up of its criminal networks, money laundering and collecting money from the large Shiite diaspora. Taking advantage of its hybrid status, Hezbollah is able to maintain an autonomous existence, free from any responsibility or even visibility over its own actions while simultaneously insisting on the exercise of a veto over everything the Lebanese government does.

But ironically, it could be Hezbollah’s over-involvement and shift from its status as a foreigner (and allegedly reformist) to that of a defender of the corrupt Lebanese political class that poses the most risk to the organization’s future. . While its unilateral decision to send its forces to Syria to defend the Assad regime has not necessarily been appreciated by all Lebanese politics, it is Hezbollah’s response to the October interfaith protest movement. 2019 which has perhaps affected his position in Lebanon the most. When Hezbollah drew red lines and intervened on behalf of the ruling kleptocrats during the protests, his popularity in the country declined. Hezbollah’s position took another serious blow after the devastating explosion in the Beirut port in August 2020. After all, the Lebanese were well aware of the organization’s control over the port (and the Syrian border). Today, Hezbollah opposed the investigation into the port blast, creating deep new divisions in the country given popular demand for accountability and justice for the victims.

What is clear is that it is the Lebanese people themselves who are paying a terrible price caused by their country’s dysfunctional policies. The current anger display by Saudi Arabia and several other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) (United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Kuwait) – including the withdrawal of ambassadors, the recall of their citizens, the closure of visa sections in their embassies respective countries, and especially the ban on Lebanese imports – further harms the well-being of the average Lebanese while strengthening the hand of Hezbollah and its political allies. This setback is the last chapter in the use of Lebanon as a theater for settling scores, especially between Saudi Arabia and Iran; an earlier version witnessed Riyadh forced detention Prime Minister of the time Saad Hariri in November 2017. Several weeks ago, an Arab League envoy was sent to explore a way out of the crisis but left empty-handed after Hezbollah vetoed a solution which would have led to the exit from the Lebanese government of the awkward Minister of Information George Kordahi, who angered its former Saudi payers by criticizing their intervention in Yemen. So it seems that this particular rupture may be more difficult to mend as the Gulf states seem to have simply abandoned Lebanon after years of unsuccessfully trying to support their allies in Beirut, especially the main Sunni leaders, in the face of hegemony. of Iran in the country.

As Lebanon prepares for much-needed national elections next year, there is hope that independent candidates representing the interfaith movement that emerged in October 2019 could help shift the balance in parliament. Hezbollah will continue to enjoy substantial support within its Shiite base, given the organization’s historic role as protector of this once marginalized community, but as their co-religionists recently demonstrated in the Iraqi elections, there are growing complaints of over-reliance on Iran to the detriment of the community’s Arab roots.

How the international community, led by the United States and France, manages Lebanon, with the aim of containing the collapse of the country and supporting the desire of the Lebanese people to fully regain their institutions, will be of importance. crucial. There should be strong and continued financial and material support for the Lebanese Armed Forces, as the military remains the backbone of the vestigial state. Equally important is the need for unwavering support for the independence of the Lebanese judiciary and a plea for the physical protection of the judges themselves. This last point is essential given the frightening threats against judge Tarek Bitar, who valiantly investigates the explosion in the Port of Beirut.

Major Western countries are also to provide determined advice to the government of Prime Minister Najib Mikati in formulating a financial and banking strategy that will strengthen Mikati’s efforts to work with the government. International Monetary Fund and the World Bank and help Lebanon avoid the looming specter of total state bankruptcy. In their discussions with GCC leaders, the United States and other major Western nations should advise against punishing the Lebanese public wholesale for the sins of Hezbollah. They should encourage promising contacts with Iran by major Gulf states, such as the planned visit of the Emirati national security adviser in Tehran next week for discussions on the de-escalation of regional tensions, in which the Lebanon dossier may appear. Washington’s support for maritime border negotiations between Israel and Lebanon, as well as efforts to import gas from Egypt, are also promising. Last but not least, the international community must firmly support the organization of free and fair parliamentary elections in the spring and presidential elections in the fall, including the rejection of any attempt to illegally postpone these polls.

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