Aoun’s pro-Hezbollah stance increases risks for Lebanon

Sunday 22/10/2017

There is growing specu­lation in Lebanon as to how regional develop­ments might unfold and what this could mean for the country. As tensions ratcheted up between Washington and Teh­ran, many in Lebanon wondered if it would be Beirut that again pays the price.

This is hardly paranoia. The se­verity of the measures imposed by the Trump administration on Hez­bollah, a Lebanese political party and Iran’s strongest regional ally, provided ample cause for concern. There is no real indication US sanc­tions on Hezbollah will stop there or will grow to include the bank­ing sector, one of Lebanon’s few success stories, and other citizen-owned enterprises in Lebanon.

Tehran has been a vigorous supporter of Hezbollah’s growth in Lebanon since 1982, supplying it with arms and nurturing it until its military and political influ­ence stretched beyond Lebanon’s borders. Any doubts over this line were emphatically dispelled in 2011 when Hezbollah stepped away from its traditional role as a counter to Israel and threw itself into the Syrian civil war.

The so-called resistance axis (in­cluding Tehran, the Syrian regime and Hezbollah) that emerged from that bloody conflict has repeatedly championed its astounding victo­ries in the Syrian theatre and called for other parties within the region to base their foreign policy assump­tions on them and act accordingly.

Of course, the very concept of those astounding victories likely needs to be revisited and perhaps some time given to a death toll that stretches to half a million Syrian citizens and the displacement of more than 7 million within and beyond Syria.

Every day that Hezbollah oper­ates outside of Lebanon’s borders the danger grows. Sticking assidu­ously to an agenda written for it in Tehran, Hezbollah has been fierce in its condemnation of Saudi Arabia and its policies throughout the Mid­dle East. However, this localised rebellion looks soon to be checked, with every indication pointing towards a Saudi return to the Leba­nese political scene.

Riyadh recently invited senior Lebanese officials to visit, prob­ably to try to return to it a political balance that has been gradually shifting away from the kingdom for the last few years.

Within Lebanon, the country’s independent relations with regional powers that have been a bulwark against external aggression also look to be ending. As Hezbollah becomes more enmeshed in the Syrian war, so too do the assump­tions of the resistance axis that see the normalisation of relations with Damascus as Lebanon’s natural next step.

Once Beirut has aligned with Syr­ian President Bashar Assad, there will be few chances to retreat to the safer ground of past neutrality.

Pressure on Lebanon comes from within as much as from without. Lebanese President Michel Aoun, a strong ally of Hezbollah, has been defending the possession of the party’s weapons as a necessary as­pect of Lebanon’s defence, a policy that starkly contradicts Lebanon’s strategy of rebuilding the state apparatus as a means of confront­ing external threats. As a policy, it threatens to establish Lebanon as a legitimate military target and brings Beirut one step closer to the brink.

With that said, Israel never re­ally waited for a pretext to attack Lebanon during previous invasions (1978, 1982, 2003 and 2006). Still, the government’s support for Hez­bollah dovetails neatly with Israeli preconceptions of the country’s attitude towards it. Consequently, during any future invasion, there would be no need for Israel to differentiate between targeting Hezbollah or the various aspects of the Lebanese state not previously destroyed in past wars.

Until recently, Hezbollah’s pres­ervation of its second-strike ability against an Israeli incursion has appeared to work as more of deter­rent than a necessity. However, as US President Donald Trump em­barks on an aggressive new policy direction regarding both Iran and Israel, the risk to Lebanon and its people increases.

The circumstances are new; the situation is not. Lebanon remains at a crossroads. Will developments again reduce it to the condition of a battlefield or will some turn of fate allow it to continue upon its precarious, occasionally troubled, but still peaceful path?