The Hezbollah conundrum

by Claude Salhani

A French ambassador to Lebanon once told a visiting journalist that if he thought he understood the Lebanese political problem and its complexities it meant the situation was badly explained to him.

Indeed, Lebanese politics can be compared to the hectic traffic situation in Beirut, where a red light is only a suggestion to stop. No one quite knows how the traffic, despite monstrous congestion, continues to move. Some compare it to the Energizer bunny that, as the advertisement claims, just “keeps going and going.”

Consider the following: Lebanon, a country of approximately 6.2 million people, is host to close to 2 million Syrian refugees who have fled violence next door. Additionally, there are about 450,000 registered Palestinian refugees. No one really knows the exact numbers because there are many not registered with the UN refugee agency.

Lebanon has not had a proper electric system in place since the outbreak of the Lebanese civil war in April 1975. The war stopped but electricity continues to be rationed with many areas getting no more than a few hours a day. Individuals make up the deficit by purchasing generators and the required fuel. Garbage remains uncollected for months at a time, attracting vermin and causing disease.

The Lebanese like to pride themselves as being distinctively different from the rest of the region and in many instances they truly are.

Let’s start with the unusual fact that Lebanon is the only country where the president speaks on behalf of an armed militia that often acts outside the regulations of the country’s national interests but blatantly and shamelessly promotes and fights for the interests of a foreign power, Iran.

Why?

There is obviously Iran’s expansionism and muscle flexing that find in Lebanon a weak and vulnerable link exploiting the country’s deeply fractured religious and political landscape. A very large percentage of the Lebanese population identifies first and foremost with the religious denomination they were born into. Tiny Lebanon has 18 officially recognised religions.

When referring to Hezbollah, it is important to remember that, in the case of Lebanon, it is much more than a militia in the usual sense of a small armed group, often a fringe one.

North Americans unfamiliar with the complexities of the region might imagine something along the lines of American white supremacists, among whom the more fanatic fringe dress in ridiculous white robes and play soldier on the weekends.

Hezbollah, however, is more akin to a regular army with tens of thousands troops armed, equipped and trained by Iran. Hezbollah’s arsenal includes artillery, armour and sophisticated missile systems allowing it to strike at large population centres well beyond Lebanon’s borders.

The United States considers Hezbollah a terrorist organisation and has been increasing financial sanctions against it as part of efforts to counter Iran.

Hezbollah helped Syrian President Bashar Assad in his 8-year war against rebels but it is also a political party in Lebanon with seats in the parliament and cabinet. The group services basic needs for the Lebanese Shia community, for which the state often fails to fulfil its obligations. Hezbollah benefits from Lebanon’s corruption system in which the interests and welfare of the citizenry are lost on politicians and government institutions.

Lebanon, long a US client, has received billions of dollars in US aid. Its military is equipped by the United States and other NATO members. The Lebanese president, speaking on behalf of the Hezbollah militia organisation, says the sanctions imposed by the United States on the pro-Iranian group are harming Lebanon as a whole.

Lebanese President Michel Aoun spoke ahead of a visit to the country by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

“Lebanon is within the siege that has been imposed on others, particularly on Iran, and it is passing, as a result of that, through a big crisis,” Aoun told Russian media in Lebanon, the Lebanese presidency office said.

Sanctions against Hezbollah introduced since 2016 raised fears among Lebanese that US banks might deem Lebanese banks too risky to do business with, harming a major part of Lebanon’s economy. With accusations of money laundering levelled at Hezbollah, US sanctions affect the entire Lebanese banking sector.

However, Lebanon’s Central Bank has repeatedly said the banking sector is fully compliant with sanctions and that foreign institutions are satisfied with how it implements regulation.

Aoun said the “negative effect of the siege on Hezbollah afflicts all Lebanese, as it does the Lebanese banks.”

“Every Lebanese bank has uncertainty about dealing with a depositor, fearing that he has a link with Hezbollah… This mutual fear does not build an economy and sound trade relations,” he added.

Aoun, however, does not raise the core issue of Hezbollah’s Iranian allegiance that drove it to send thousands to fight and die in Syria and might push it to fight other Iranian wars, even in Lebanon itself. Long known as the Switzerland of the Middle East, Lebanon could find itself thrust in the middle of wars its population does not need.

Pompeo, who visited Lebanon after trips to Kuwait and Israel, described Hezbollah as a risk to the Lebanese.

However, it is not clear what US pressures on Hezbollah will produce. It might drive Lebanon to seek the Russian umbrella. Aoun has been invited to Russia by President Vladimir Putin.

Russia has been on a charm offensive in the Middle East targeting countries like Turkey, Egypt and Lebanon.

That will come on top of the Iranian umbrella that Hezbollah has imposed on Lebanon. Never have foreign umbrellas effectively protected Lebanon; rather the opposite. The problem of the country has always been that of multiple umbrellas claiming to protect it but only deepening its quandary.

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