A member of Lebanese militant party Hezbollah is seen at the Lebanese-Israeli borders, in Lebanon on April 20, 2017. Xinhua/SIPA USA/PA Images. All rights reserved.Hizbollah are defiant. They know that the regular Lebanese armed forces are weak and that most Lebanese, mindful of the horror show next door in Syria, think that the Shia militia is crucial to their national security.
However Hizbollah is under increasing US financial pressure, and US and allied forces could weaken Hizbollah’s position in Syria. At the same time Israel recently targeted its Damascus airport supply line and could restart the confrontation with Hizbollah in south Lebanon.
Hizbollah’s chief spokesman Mohammed Afif told the author in Beirut that fighting in Syria and Israel are two sides of the same coin: both are about enhancing Lebanese national security. Syria is strategic depth for Lebanon, he argues. However Hizbollah recently handed over four border crossing points with Syria in the Beqaa Valley to the Lebanese Army, and stated that it intends to transfer the rest.
While not itself meaning that Hizbollah is about to end its armed role in Syria, the move was accompanied by Hizbollah’s leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah declaring, in response to the Iranian-Russian-Turkish agreement on four de-escalation zones in Syria, that his movement would back any steps that brought peace to that country. If the zones consolidate existing territorial holdings in Syria, including those of the Assad regime in Damascus, Homs and Hama, then Hizbollah may have to accept that it is reaching the end of what it can do to keep Assad, or some version of his regime, in office.
This is not peace, and it may still include a role for Hizbollah in Syria. However it symbolises a consolidation of power in which Russia is the preeminent foreign actor in Syria, and Iran’s autonomy of action may come to depend on Russian-US agreement on a division of responsibilities for all external actors.
Such Russian and US collaboration could reduce Iran’s supply lines, including to Hizbollah. The Iraqi government is working closely with the US military and might play its part in the weapons squeeze, while a possible eastern Syrian security zone, alongside a US-backed southern one involving the Jordanians, could further constrain Iran.
None of this is cast in stone of course. President Trump’s domestic predicaments could complicate attempted strategic collaboration with an ostensible Russian adversary, while Syrian regime forces and their Iranian-backed Iraqi militia allies are seeking to control the eastern Syrian border with Iraq – a development that would presumably favour Hizbollah.
There is no doubt though that Hizbollah’s domestic Lebanese enemies sense an opportunity to reduce the power of what to them is an unwelcome foreign adjunct to the Lebanese state. In response to such a possible scenario, and already intensified US anti-Hizbollah sanctions and the arrest of some Hizbollah figures abroad, Mohammed Raad, the veteran head of Hizbollah’s parliamentary group, said, “Don’t worry about us….[w]e’re adapting.”
Despite a de facto national pact with Hizbollah, MPs loyal to Prime Minister Saad Hariri, the Saudi-allied Sunni Arab politician, do not bother to contain their hostility to the Shia Islamist group. They believe that President Aoun is only still rejecting US and Saudi attempts to side-line Hizbollah because his alliance with them is what brought him to power after a two year vacuum at the top of the Lebanese political system.
Sunni Arabs and non-Maronite Christians from Mr Hariri’s ’Future’ bloc are expecting that Lebanon will become a platform for a US-led initiative to contain Iran’s Lebanese ally. Thus far, however, Aoun and the rest of the Lebanese leadership are not embracing the apparent Trump strategy of deep alignment with Sunni Arab and wider Sunni Muslim regimes in a dual contest with Iran and all those judged to be terrorists: essentially Sunni Arab extremists ISIS and Al-Qaeda, the Palestinian Sunni Islamists Hamas, and the Iranian-backed Lebanese Hizbollah.
Aoun wasn’t invited to Riyadh for the founding of the de facto Sunni club, and the Lebanese delegation left before the final Trump-Saudi declaration on May 22. Lebanon’s energy minister Raed Khoury contemptuously observed that it contained nothing new as the US-Saudi position toward Hizbollah and Iran was already well-known.
Hizbollah argues that Iran, unlike Saudi Arabia, has limited economic, social and cultural links in Lebanon, in part because the Beirut government refuses some of the assistance it has been offered. Iran never demands a political price for its support, Afif argues, drawing a contrast with the demands the Saudis have made in order to fulfil the largely frozen US$ 3 billion in French arms supplies to the Lebanese Army and the balance of US$ 1 billion Saudi support for the security services.President Aoun’s visit to Saudi Arabia in January failed to secure the unfreezing of this arms package.
The Saudis want Lebanon to distance itself from both Iran and Hizbollah, and are still sore about Lebanon’s refusal to condemn Iran for the attacks on the Saudi embassy and consulate in Iran in January 2016. However Aoun isn’t budging.
If the Saudis decided to box clever, emboldened by the deepening US-Saudi relationship, they would supply the outstanding Lebanese security assistance without rhetorical strings. French or US officials could be invited to monitor the security of the Army’s arms storage, not that alleged Hizbollah stealing of kit supplied to the Lebanese Army has ever prevented Washington from providing military assistance.
Why should we steal their weapons, Raad asks rhetorically. There are plenty of Russian and other arms kicking around Syria, he observes. Of course Hizbollah could block any Lebanese-Saudi movement on the arms front, seeing it as a direct move against itself and Iran. After all, Hizbollah sees no separation between what Raad calls the “aggressive policies of Israel, Saudi Arabia and the USA against Hizbollah and Iran.”
An ongoing conflict in Syria will leave Hizbollah’s role in Lebanese national security unresolved, as it will the future of an estimated 1.5 million Syrians resident throughout a country of only 4.2 million Lebanese nationals. Refugees minister Moueen Merehbi is hopeful the proposed security zones will stabilise Syria and enable the return of many of the 1.5 million. Enhancing the Lebanese state’s security capacity and receiving much more generous foreign aid could, he says, help the desired process of giving them a temporary but official residency status and of improving the economic lot of people who otherwise lack a horizon.
If this is not done, the mostly Sunni Arabs could become tools for takfiris, replicating a domestic Sunni militant threat that both Hizbollah and the Lebanese state have played an important part in containing. A possible Hizbollah retrenchment in Syria may free its forces to offset such a perceived enemy within. The Shia militia would like the Lebanese Government to transfer these refugees to a zone just the other side of the Beqaa Valley border with Syria.
Contrary to any such Hizbollah-friendly domestic division of territory in Syria, the security zones being discussed by Russia, Turkey and Iran, if realised, would complicate Iran’s ability to transfer arms overland from Iraq. That, and Israel’s proven willingness to strike Hizbollah’s access to arms in Syria, might constrain the militia’s options. However, for the time being at least, Hizbollah’s close relationship to the Lebanese state will probably continue to facilitate other in-bound arms sources. Lebanon’s airports and docks can probably continue to provide Hizbollah with arms, even if at risk of Israeli attack.
Should the Lebanese government feel able to distance itself from Iran by reducing the Lebanese state’s dependence on Hizbollah, it is hard to see how this will weaken the movement’s domestic role. Returning Hizbollah fighters, if and when this occurs, would consolidate the movement’s Lebanese presence. A mutual interest that has made Aoun, Hariri and Hizbollah political bed-fellows could also mitigate against any domestic steps that Hizbollah would see as benefitting its regional adversaries.
Hariri faces growing opposition in the Lebanese Sunni Muslim camp, encouraged by Saudi Arabia betting on several horses as Hariri is in effect in alliance with Hizbollah; and Christian opinion is divided for and against Hizbollah. The latter dominates the Shia community’s politics, and prospective voting reform, projected in advance of a possible August election, is more likely to advantage its position than that of those whose base is in more divided communities.
With or without enhanced foreign aid to the Lebanese army and security forces, Israel and the US may consider that a Hizbollah that has redeployed, or is planning to redeploy, its forces from Syria, needs to be hit in Lebanon. It would argue that this is pre-emptive action. Hizbollah will know that it will be sorely testing the patience of many Lebanese should it be seen to have provoked such a conflict. However it may have little choice but to enter a resumed confrontation.
Hizbollah’s proven armed capability in Syria, Israel’s perceived political defeat in 2006, coupled with a possible US and Saudi green light, may make it inevitable. Once again though, unless Israel wins decisively, Hizbollah will be the victor. The danger of this recurring scenario might encourage Israeli caution.
The US’ re-found Sunni regional alliance will still make a rebalancing of Lebanon’s domestic and external alignments a likely American objective. In other words, while Hizbollah may face increased domestic and external pressure, it is unlikely to lose its centrality to the future of Lebanon.
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