‘Lebanon Equals Hizbullah, Hizbullah Equals Lebanon’
The West’s failure to grasp the geopolitical realities in Lebanon has blurred the line between terror and state
Lebanese President Michel Aoun raised eyebrows this week when he praised Hizbullah as the primary source of ongoing “resistance” to Israel and asserted that the group—listed by the U.S. State Department as a terrorist organization—should not be disarmed so long as Jerusalem “fails to respect” Lebanon’s sovereignty.
He likewise hailed Iran’s Shiite proxy for playing a “complimentary role to the Lebanese army,” seemingly validating the longstanding Israeli contention that the two bodies coordinate together and possibly, at times, against the Jewish state.
According to Prof. Eyal Zisser, the Vice Rector of Tel Aviv University and the holder of The Yona and Dina Ettinger Chair in Contemporary History of the Middle East, Aoun’s courtship of Hizbullah began in 2006. “The reason was simple,” he explained to The Media Line, “Aoun wanted to become president and was extremely unpopular with other members of his [Maronite Christian] community and also with the Sunnis because of his involvement in the [country’s 1975-1990 sectarian] civil war.
“Furthermore, he was born and raised in a mixed Christian-Shiite neighborhood so in many ways it was a comfortable and logical move.”
Aoun came to power last year only as a result of Hizbullah’s support, after political haggling had left the presidential office vacant for over two years. His ascendance was considered a victory for Shiite Iran over Sunni Saudi Arabia, whose preferred candidate was Suleiman Frangieh.
As political positions in Lebanon are allocated by religion—a compromise made following the civil war—the agreement gave the prime minister’s post to Saad Hariri, a Sunni Muslim whose father was assassinated in 2005, allegedly by Hizbullah operatives at the directive of the Iranian-backed Syrian government.
Given the circumstances, it is not difficult to determine which entity represents the major power broker in Lebanon.
Aoun’s recent statements follow his declaration earlier this year to Egyptian media that, “Hizbullah weapons are not contradictory to the nation, but are an essential part in defending the country;” thereby confirming the terror group is, in fact, in violation of UN Resolution 1701, which set the terms for the end of the 2006 war with Israel including the total disarmament of the Shiite force. At the time, the Lebanese president’s comments were condemned by the UN, which has since assumed a tougher position on Hizbullah due to American pressure. U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley has repeatedly slammed UNIFIL peacekeepers [the UN force established in 1978 and renewed yearly since] for essentially allowing terrorists to operate uninhibited in southern Lebanon, an area declared off limits to Hizbullah by Resolution 1701.
In this respect, according to Maj. Gen. (Res.) Amos Gilead, who serves as the Director of Policy and Political-Military Affairs at Israel’s Ministry of Defense, “Hizbullah is basically a ruling state within a state and financed by Iran—you will even find Revolutionary Guards forces in Lebanon. Who invited them? The country has no sovereignty independent of Hizbullah.”
In this respect, he elaborated to The Media Line, the Iranian proxy “is much more powerful than the Lebanese government, whose legitimacy it uses as cover to advance its own causes.”
This position, widely held within Israel’s political and military establishments, was perhaps best encapsulated by hawkish minister Naftali Bennett—a member of the security cabinet—who stated that, “Our new strategy is simple: Lebanon equals Hizbullah, Hizbullah equals Lebanon.”
Israeli memories are long and collective scars remain from the war just over a decade ago, in which the Lebanon-based terror organization paralyzed Israel’s entire north by firing some 4,000 rockets at civilian centers. Today, Hizbullah is believed to be aiming approximately 120,000 missiles southward, some with ranges capable of landing anywhere in Israel. Any future conflict will thus, in all probability, dwarf previous ones.
Accordingly, Israel’s continuous warning is that when—not if—hostilities again break out, the whole of Lebanon will be considered to be a legitimate target. To this end, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman last month put “the Lebanese government and the citizens of southern Lebanon” on notice that if threatened, Israel would respond “with very great force.”
While Hizbullah was created by Iran in 1982 to oppose Israel, Gilead—who is also Director of the Institute for Policy and Strategy at The Interdisciplinary Center, Herzliya— believes that the Shiite organization “is actually a threat to the entire region, as it is a product of Iran’s expansionary [Islamist] ideology which poses a danger not only to the [Jewish state] but also to many Sunni Arab nations.” As such, he stressed the need for preparations to be made in the event of a future conflict, which could erupt any time given the ever-changing and volatile conditions in the Middle East.
Despite its seemingly obvious power—Hizbullah is, in fact, the world’s most formidable non-state army—the international community for the most part continues to uphold the dangerous illusion that it is but one of many actors in Lebanon, rather than the primary player that dictates policy.
“Nothing can happen in Lebanon without the approval of Hizbullah,” Prof. Zisser affirmed to The Media Line, “the country has been taken over by the Shiite axis.”
As Hizbullah goes, so too does Lebanon.
The failure to internalize this admonition has effectively blurred the lines between terror and state, creating a kind of “Bizarro World” in which the U.S. president, for example, thanked the Lebanese government during his speech to the UN General Assembly for its commitment to housing Syrian refugees.
But given that Lebanon’s political arena is controlled by Hizbullah—which, adding to the irony, President Trump previously described as a “menace”—the leader of the free world essentially commended a terrorist organization for partially alleviating a problem it is largely responsible for creating.
This “march of folly” applies equally to the billions of dollars Washington has provided to the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF). When Trump hosted neutered Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri at the White House in July, the U.S. president affirmed that, “America’s assistance can help ensure that the Lebanese army is the only defender Lebanon needs.” But if the LAF is working hand-in-hand with Hizbullah, as established by Aoun, then any support for it is tantamount to backing the Shiite terror group. Moreover, the ostensible reason for the military aid is to bolster efforts to secure the border and prevent spillover from the war next door; however, Hizbullah is playing a leading role in the Syria conflict, thus the resulting threats are of its own making.
The reductio ad absurdum of this dynamic is that U.S. support for Lebanon effectively constitutes de facto recognition of Iran’s control over the country; this, at a time when Trump is considering pulling out of the nuclear accord signed with Tehran, which he referred to in the same UN speech as a “rogue” and “murderous” nation whose main exports are “violence [and] bloodshed.”
Until western nations grasp the geopolitical realities in Lebanon and acknowledge the firm grasp of the Iranian proxy, Mideast strategies will continue to be incomprehensive and misdirected by ill-defined threats.