The Hezbollah Dilemma

On March 22, American Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Lebanon to convince countries in the region to join the United State with enacting harsh sanctions against Iran. The US believes that Iran is funding terrorist organizations around the world and believes it must be stopped.

Under the Trump administration, the US has been hard against Iran by increasing sanctions and pulling out of the Iran Nuclear Deal. Pompeo discussed Hezbollah with the Lebanese government. According to Pompeo, Hezbollah is a terrorist organization and will start wars, end democracy in Lebanon, and allow Iran to rule it.

Lebanon’s President Michel Aoun and Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri understand the United States’ perspective with the issue of Hezbollah, but they view Hezbollah as a legitimate party organization, not terrorists.

Hezbollah has 70 of the 128 seats in the Lebanese Parliament and has gained momentum in recent years. However, the US continues to sanction them and Iran. President Aoun has said that even though these sanctions target Hezbollah, Lebanon suffers as well. Pompeo says that if the Lebanese government helps him, the US will help Lebanon.

The issue Lebanon faces is quite difficult because Hezbollah is an important actor since the Lebanese Civil War. Their military power is also important because they help defend Lebanon against its enemies, such as Israel.

Lebanon does not want to cut ties with the US but they cannot afford to lose an important military and political actor. But Hezbollah is not just invested into Lebanon, they also have a presence in Syria and support Al-Assad militarily. This is also a conflict of interest for the United States.

In previous administrations, they have all condemned Hezbollah and deemed them to be a terrorist group, but no other president has been so severe against the group and Iran than Trump.

This dilemma has been shrugged off year after year by both the Americans and the Lebanese, but it could change today. The economy of Lebanon could suffer under the sanctions posed on Hezbollah; thus, forcing the Lebanese to change their political affiliations with the group.

The country has not been this stable in decades. Lebanon is open for commerce, tourism, and development. They do not want Hezbollah to be in the way of being more connected with the rest of the world.

Nick Webb is the Research Fellow at Rise to Peace.


The Lebanese Elections Are Over: What Next?

On May 6th, Lebanon held its first parliamentary elections in nine years. Hezbollah was a big winner. The Shi’ite political party won a small majority in parliament, which dealt a blow to Prime Minister Saad Hariri. Hariri is expected to form the next government despite the Future Movement losing a third of its seats. It remains the largest Sunni bloc in parliament.

Hezbollah – and its political allies, like the Amal Movement – winning a small majority of seats in parliament is seen by some as a victory for Iran. Hezbollah is the only Lebanese political party with an armed wing. Its electoral gains empower it further, politically. The general elections were a loss for Prime Minister Hariri as he no longer heads the largest bloc in the Chamber of Deputies. He still retains most seats allocated to Sunni Muslims. Hariri faced opposition from within his own community. For example, some of his citizens saw him as being too soft on Hezbollah – the latter of which is fighting in neighboring Syria. Despite these significant developments, jump-starting the Lebanese economy must remain Prime Minister Hariri’s priority. Hariri has indicated his willingness work with his political rivals, including Hezbollah.

In the 2009 election, it was Saad Hariri’s pro-western alliance that won the most parliamentary seats. Since then, Iran’s influence has continued to grow, not just in Lebanon but across the region. Saudi Arabia used to play a major role in Lebanese politics, but it has been distracted with its war in Yemen. Riyadh also realized its Lebanon allies were fracturing and they could not be forced to deal with Hezbollah. Suffice it to say, Saudi Arabia will not abandon its Lebanese equities to a vacuum in which Iran could benefit. There is little indication that Lebanon is careening towards political instability. Lebanese politicians are even putting their divisions aside and negotiating in the election’s wake.

For some background, The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) helped form Hezbollah during Lebanon’s Civil War in the 1980’s. The Shia political party published an open letter in 1985 in which it identified Israel and the United States as sworn enemies. The Taif Agreement of 1989, which ended the Lebanese Civil War called for the disarmament of all militias. That’s when Hezbollah rebranded itself as a resistance group, fighting Israeli occupation of course, and that’s how its fighters kept their arms. But Hezbollah refused to disarm after Israeli forces withdrew in 2000. Instead, continued to build its military capability. 1992 saw national elections that included Hezbollah for the first time. And that’s when it started to have an explicit hand in Lebanese politics. When Lebanese leaders moved to shut down its private telecommunications network in 2008 Hezbollah responded by seizing much of Beirut and doing combat with Sunni groups. Western states, Israel, and Gulf countries see Hezbollah as a terrorist organization. In a denouement, Hezbollah transmits fighters to Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad’s defense in Syria. So doing has provoked criticism and escalated intra-Lebanese sectarian tensions.

But power cuts, corruption, a garbage crisis, the economy, and the influx of 1.5 million Syrian refugees are Lebanon’s main problems now. And while Prime Minister Hariri did lose a third of the seats in parliament, Lebanese politics is built on consensus. Considering the deficit and corruption, the political process could find a way to return him to the Prime Ministership with support for economic development. If you think about it, Hariri lost influence in Lebanon after the new election law was enacted. But the law was unpopular with the people, as evidenced by low voter turnout. Hariri has dashed Sunni’s confidence in his choices by maintaining his Free Patriotic Movement alliance and shunning cooperation with President Michel Aoun. Voters were reluctant to go to the polls to elect The Future Movement. Meanwhile though, Hariri’s camp lacks good options. That too elicits low voter turnout.

Not only domestic factors will be impacted by Lebanon’s election. It has regional implications. In his latest crisis involving the kingdom, Hariri resigned from Saudi soil. He then withdrew his resignation as French President Macron mediated his escape, err, exit. This undermined Hariri significantly and raised questions about his ability to be Lebanon’s Sunni leader. Hariri lost five seats in Tripoli to Sunni rivals. Former Prime Minister Najib Mikati won four of them in the north, significantly undercutting Hariri’s leadership.

Given Lebanon’s consensus-based power-sharing system, election tea-leaf reading notwithstanding, Lebanese leaders must sit down and plan their country’s future. The clock is ticking for officials to stop politicking. Any delay in the new government’s formation will distract policymakers from meeting the people’s needs. Lebanon’s debt is “estimated at $80 billion by the Lebanese banking system.” It is one of the most indebted countries in the world. Yet, investment alone will not fix Lebanon’s economy.

Iran continues to consolidate its influence in Lebanon. Even Hezbollah supporters openly say they get their support from Iran. The formation of a U.S-Israel-Saudi axis designed to confront Iran in Syria among other places has backfired rather than trigger progress. But even cohesive containment strategies see Iran exacerbating regional tensions on the ground, as we’re seeing in Syria a la Iran and Israel. Israeli officials have said they see no distinction between Hezbollah and Lebanon. These elections reinforce such a view. But Lebanon cannot be a battlefield for another Israeli/Iranian war. Iran and Israel remain satisfied at present with UN Resolution 1701, adopted after the 2006 Israel-Lebanon conflagration which, “called for a full cessation of hostilities in the month-long war between Israel and Hezbollah.” The absence of reports of malicious activity generating from Southern Lebanon and Hezbollah’s satisfaction with exerting its influence internally in Lebanon following these elections bodes well. While a confrontation between Israel and Lebanon seems unlikely at this moment, we are seeing hostilities between Iran and Israel in the Golan Heights. WIth Syria now taking the position of proxy battlefield that Lebanon used to serve for the two combatants, the likelihood is greater that an Iranian Israeli confrontation could break out there, and it could generate a wider confrontation between Iran and the United States. Both parties should review UN Resolution 1701 for options on de-escalating Israeli Lebanese tensions. No one benefits from another war.

Nothing will change, however with regard to Hezbollah’s link to  Lebanese security. And there is growing concern in the Lebanese populace about Hezbollah’s smuggling of weapons from Syria. Many have slammed Hariri for deploying too few Lebanese Armed Forces to the Syrian border to prevent such weapons running.

So far, all Trump Administration indications suggest patience until the new Lebanese government is formed. We’ll have to see if Saad Hariri will keep his promises to Presidents Macron and Trump. If called upon to form a new government, Hariri will have to add that to his slew of challenges including protecting the resistance and moving the economy forward. But Hariri’s real focus should be engaging youth within his own citizenry to build trust between the population and the government structure. A huge drive to get the youth out to vote for independent lists and candidates failed to materialize. Conspicuous government corruption, and Lebanon’s unimproved waste management problems ought to make accountability priority number one. Voting turnout dropped from 54% in 2009 to 49%. Lebanon, following its recent elections, still has a long way to go.