After Major Electoral Gains, Hizbullah Playing Politics In Lebanon
By keeping on Prime Minister Hariri, Shiite group may be trying to insulate itself from Western pressure
Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri will retain his post based on the recommendation of Maronite Christian President Michel Aoun, an ally of Hizbullah, the Shiite Iranian proxy that secured major gains in the recent elections. Lebanon’s sectarian political system reserves the premiership for a Sunni Muslim and the Western-backed Hariri was the clear front-runner despite his Future Movement having lost more than one third of its parliamentary seats in the May 6 vote.
The dynamic is a peculiar one given that Hizbullah is accused of orchestrating, at the behest of the Iranian-supported Syrian government, the 2005 assassination of Hariri’s father Rafiq, himself a former Lebanese premier. One could not be faulted, then, for assuming that the organization might leverage its growing political clout—having secured together with its allies 70 out of 128 total mandates—to remove Hariri from power and install a loyalist in his stead.
Such a decision appears to make even more sense when considering that Hariri is sponsored by Sunni Saudi Arabia, which is engaged in proxy wars against arch-foe Tehran in both Syria and Yemen. Notably, in what was construed by many as a bid to destabilize Lebanon—and, as a corollary, Hizbullah and its Iranian patron—Riyadh late last year seemingly forced Hariri to resign in an impromptu televised speech that sent shockwaves throughout the globe and set off rumors that the Lebanese prime minister was being held hostage in the Saudi capital.
But, as always, there is more than meets the eye, as Hizbullah’s move may, somewhat paradoxically, end up benefiting the group by insulating it from Western pressure. This is especially pressing now that U.S. President Donald Trump has gone on the offensive by blacklisting chief Hizbullah operatives, while vowing to impose the toughest-ever sanctions regime on Iran in the wake of Washington’s pull-out from the nuclear deal.
“In Lebanon, things are business as usual, which is typical of Iran’s modus operandi,” according to Professor Uzi Rabi, Director of Tel Aviv University’s Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies. “By keeping Hariri, Tehran can promote its real interests behind the scenes, including building up its military infrastructure in Lebanon and its broader goal of increasing its influence across the Middle East, especially in Syria, Iraq and Yemen,” he stressed to The Media Line.
“The West is adhering to the twentieth century map when Lebanon used to be a sovereign state. Today, the country is merely an Iranian satrapy,” Prof. Rabi asserted.
In fact, much of the international community has long marked a distinction between Hizbullah and the official Lebanese government and military, effectively minimizing (inadvertently or otherwise) the Shiite group’s dominance over the country. This is in stark contrast to the position of Israel, where many officials have adopted and eagerly employ the maxim, “Hizbullah is Lebanon, Lebanon is Hizbullah.”
In light of the latest developments, it will be very hard for the U.S., for example, which has designated Hizbullah a terrorist organization, to continue justifying engaging Beirut politically or providing the Lebanese Armed Forces with hundreds of millions of dollars of weapons and equipment.
Benjamin Weinthal, Research Fellow at the Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies, reinforced the notion that “Hizbullah is the true power in Lebanon no matter what type of cosmetics are used to cover this up. Essentially,” he elaborated to The Media Line, “a terrorist entity controls the country but many in the United States and Europe play along with the fiction that things are stable and that Hariri is responsible.
“One would hope that this myth would be debunked,” Weinthal concluded. “The only way to bring about some semblance of normalcy throughout the Middle East is to isolate, delegitimize and defund Hizbullah; after which, the organization must be disarmed in accordance with [United Nations Security Council Resolution 1701.]”
But propagating the status quo seems to suit most parties to varying degrees. As such, Hariri can be expected to continue camouflaging the true balance of power in Lebanon as he tours Western capitals, hands outstretched, pledging to act as a counter-weight to Hizbullah even as strings pull him in the opposite direction.
To this end, Hizbullah allies already occupy the positions of president, parliament speaker and deputy parliament speaker, with the Shiite group seeking control over numerous important ministries. Accordingly, while on the face of it Lebanon’s political arena may end up looking quite similar to governments of the past, the impression may only be skin-deep, purposely crafted with a view to masking reality.