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How Lebanon’s Leaders Became Powerless to Stop Hezbollah

A Hezbollah flag hangs in a mountain village in Lebanon.

On the eve of the resumption of US sanctions against Iran before the US midterm elections, Israel’s deputy national security adviser Eitan Ben-David relayed a grim message to Lebanon’s Prime Minister Saad Hariri: Take care of Hezbollah’s missile factories, or we’ll do it for you. This message, relayed through a French official, was the most threatening warning Israel has sent Lebanon yet on the issue of Hezbollah’s ballooning arsenal. Unlike past skirmishes along Lebanon’s borders, the military operation Ben-David was suggesting would require a strike on densely-populated areas in the country’s capital.

But this is just the tip of the iceberg for Hariri’s Hezbollah problems. The United States isn’t happy either, and according to the Lebanese newspaper Al-Joumhouria, its Deputy Assistant Secretary for Levant Affairs Joel Rayburn recently suggested to the Prime Minister that the newly passed American sanctions bill against Hezbollah might also be applied to the group’s political allies in Lebanon’s parliament. Sanctions fears are also likely to encourage international banks to stop working with Lebanon’s Health Ministry if, as promised, Hezbollah takes over the post in the country’s next cabinet, which would do Lebanon’s health sector and its rapidly spiraling financial situation no favors.

Any reasonable observer would conclude that Hezbollah’s influence in Lebanon is the country’s largest liability. Complying with Israel and America’s wishes and doing anything at all to diminish Hezbollah’s political and military reach seems very obviously to be the most rational course of action available to Lebanese politicians like Hariri, especially in light of Israel’s new military threats and the arrival of two-pronged US sanctions.

But the problem is that the window of opportunity for such a move has long passed. Today, Hezbollah’s supporters and operatives dominate broad swathes of the country, and in some places wield as much on-the-ground power as the Lebanese Armed Forces, if not more. This was demonstrated in 2017 when, after a long campaign fought mainly by the Lebanese Army, it was the group’s militiamen who ultimately got ISIS to retreat from Lebanon’s frontiers.

Beyond that, the group dominates Lebanon’s intelligence services, and as of May of this year, Hezbollah and its allies form the largest single bloc in parliament. By no means is the entire government under its control as Israeli MP Naftali Bennet claimed after the election, but enough of it is for Lebanon’s leaders to have no choice but to accommodate the group.

“We are doing [compromises] with Hezbollah because we want to protect the institutions,” a senior official in Lebanon’s administration told me. “We want to protect the security forces, all of them. We want to protect the economy and the monetary situation in Lebanon. But these compromises are now reaching another crisis.”

Hezbollah’s confidence in this environment has been demonstrated in recent weeks when the group, after already securing substantial representation and the vital Health Ministry post in Lebanon’s next government, continued to hold up a final cabinet agreement by insisting on appointments that would weaken their main Sunni rivals. Although Hariri and other leaders are holding their ground for now, history shows that it is likely they will soon realize that they have to give in.

Lebanese Armed Forces on a Beirut street during partisan battles between Hezbollah and other militias in 2008

Lebanon’s politicians have learned this lesson the hard way. After all, they have already tried to counter Hezbollah’s expansion before — and failed miserably. During the Lebanese Civil War, Hezbollah arose out of a loose amalgamation of Shi’a groups in Lebanon’s Beqaa Valley, but it was ultimately Iranian encouragement and the cover provided by the Syrian army’s presence in the area that led to the creation of a single cohesive fighting force. When the civil war finally ended, Syria continued to exert significant influence over Lebanese politics after it signed a treaty of cooperation with the fragile new Lebanese government in 1991. While all other sectarian militias that had fought in the war put down their weapons or joined the Armed Forces, Hezbollah, with Syria’s help, was allowed to remain armed. The group soon leveraged its autonomy and close ties to Syria to create a state within a state that infiltrated nearly all aspects of Lebanese society, from its business sector to its parliament.

Since then, several prominent officials in Lebanon who have tried to stand up to Hezbollah have wound up dead, including anti-Syrian former Prime Minister Rafic Hariri, who was killed by a bomb in 2005. In 2012 Major General Wissam al-Hassan, who had investigated Hezbollah’s role in the assassination, was killed in a car bomb himself. Lebanon’s anti-Hezbollah former finance minister, Mohamad Chatah, met the same fate in 2013.

But things only truly came to a head in 2008, when a lengthy political crisis between Hezbollah and Lebanon’s parliamentary majority convinced the Lebanese government itself to tamp down on the group’s growing influence. What followed nearly caused another civil war.

On May 7, the government moved to shut down Hezbollah’s communication network and tried to unseat the Hezbollah-affiliated head of security at the Beirut International Airport. Minutes later, Hezbollah’s Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah called this a declaration of war, and deployed fighters into the streets of the capital. Over the next three days, Hezbollah took over all of Sunni West Beirut, shut down all pro-government media, and eventually got pro-government forces to surrender. In the end, an agreement was reached in Doha, Qatar, that gave in to all of Hezbollah’s political demands.

Facing failure after failure, Lebanese politicians accepted that compromise with Hezbollah was their only option if they wanted to preserve peace in the fragile country. Hariri, the son of the late-Rafic Hariri, was a vehement critic of Hezbollah and Syria, and left Lebanon in 2011 after a brief stint as Prime Minister out of fear for his life. When he returned in 2014, he was singing a much different tune, and in 2016 accepted the presidential bid of Hezbollah-ally Michel Aoun in exchange for a second term as Prime Minister.

Yet despite being bullied into a conciliatory posture towards Hezbollah, the Lebanese state is anything but united behind the militant group. On the contrary — although Hezbollah and its allies were the biggest winners in the May elections, the group itself was not actually as successful in the elections as western and Israeli media had reported — they only gained one seat overall. One of the group’s most fervent opponents, the Christian-majority Lebanese Forces party, also garnered key victories in Lebanon’s May elections and will almost certainly be part of the next cabinet. Hariri, and even the Hezbollah-allied Lebanese President Michel Aoun, have both stood up to the group’s most recent demands in the cabinet formation process.

But Hezbollah’s opponents can only do so much, and these exceptions prove the rule. Lebanon’s politicians have learned the hard way what they can and cannot do with regard to Hezbollah, and touching its arsenal or limiting its ability to participate in politics is unfortunately not on the negotiating table. To expect Lebanese politicians today to buck the trend and to change course based on America and Israel’s insistence is wishful thinking — it was unlikely in 2008, and in 2018 it has become impossible.