Elections and sanctions augur difficult new era for Lebanese politics

Critics say that the Lebanese Army has done nothing to disarm Hezbollah.
Sunday 27/05/2018
Hezbollah supporters hold pictures of the group’s secretary-general Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah and Hezbollah commander Mustafa Badreddine, who was killed in an attack in Syria. (Reuters)
The fly in the soup. Hezbollah supporters hold pictures of the group’s secretary-general Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah and Hezbollah commander Mustafa Badreddine, who was killed in an attack in Syria. (Reuters)

WASHINGTON - On May 6, Lebanon had its first elections in nine years with Hezbollah and its allies faring well and securing a small majority in the 128-seat parliament. Two days later, US President Donald Trump announced that Washington was withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal and would reimpose sanctions against Tehran as well as introduce new penalties.

The convergence of these developments could spell difficulties for Lebanon. Hezbollah, which has emerged as Iran’s greatest enabler in projecting power across the Middle East, is firmly in the sights of the Trump administration’s tough new stance towards Tehran. That could lead to a widening of sanctions against individuals and entities connected to Hezbollah, raise questions over the continuation of the US military assistance programme to the Lebanese Army and pressure the Lebanese banking sector.

Congressional sources in Washington said that anti-Hezbollah legislation, known as HIFPA II, which tightens the Hezbollah International Financing Prevention Act of 2015, looks to be adopted in early July. The act expands the list of people and entities that could be sanctioned for providing support to Hezbollah and seeks increased reporting on the party’s financial activities.

Since Trump’s decision to walk away from the Iran deal, the US Treasury has slapped a raft of sanctions on top Hezbollah leaders and Iranian officials and organisations. On May 23, Mike Pompeo, in his first official appearance before Congress as secretary of state, called for a reconsideration of US military assistance to Lebanon.

“We need a review… to make sure that we’re using American tax dollars right in supporting the groups that can most likely achieve our outcome there [in Lebanon],” he said.

The United States has handed more than $1.7 billion in military aid to Lebanon since 2006, making the tiny Mediterranean country the world’s fifth largest per capita recipient of US military assistance. The provision of new equipment and training has greatly boosted the capabilities of the Lebanese Army and turned it into a valued partner force for the US military, analysts said.

Last August, the Lebanese Army used US-supplied precision munitions and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets in a brief and successful campaign to oust several hundred Islamic State militants from their mountainous redoubt in north-eastern Lebanon.

However, critics say the Lebanese Army has done nothing to disarm Hezbollah and some maintain that the military and the Iran-backed party are in collusion. Israeli officials have maintained that, in the event of another war with Hezbollah, Israel will treat the Lebanese state, including its army, as the enemy, not just Hezbollah.

However, a substantial drawdown of the military assistance programme or its cancellation will backfire on US interests in the Levant, analysts said.

“Not having a military relationship in Lebanon is the equivalent of the US relegating itself to non-player status in Lebanon at a time when the geopolitics of the Levant is in a rapid state of flux,” said Aram Nerguizian, CEO of the Mortons Group, a strategic consultancy in Washington.

“Continued access and influence with the LAF (Lebanese armed forces) means that the US remains critical to the balance of power in Lebanon, while also denying geopolitical space to countries like Russia that would be more than happy to see the US-LAF relationship disrupted.”

The US Department of Defence supports a continuation of the programme but recent changes in the Trump administration, which saw the arrival of hawks John Bolton as national security adviser and Pompeo at the State Department, could leave Defence Secretary James Mattis, well known for his support for the Lebanese Army, in a weakened position.

Sources close to the White House said there was an attempt to build a more homogeneous team in the administration of people with shared robust views on Iran as a precursor to implementing tough new policy on Tehran and its regional allies, such as Hezbollah and Hamas.

Saad Hariri has been reappointed as prime minister-designate of Lebanon after receiving the support of 111 MPs. He will now begin the usually fractious task of assembling a new government.

In the past, government formation has sometimes taken months, particularly during the height of the political divide in Lebanon between two rival parliamentary coalitions. That schism has largely subsided in the past 18 months, which should ease the process of establishing a new government.

Nevertheless, there will be the usual horse-trading, which could last weeks, over who wins what cabinet portfolio. Hezbollah and its allies are expected to receive a lion’s share of the cabinet in a reflection of their electoral gains.

The successful outcome for Hezbollah and its allies at the elections was something of a double-edged sword. While Hezbollah and allied parties increased their share in parliament, that also helped create the impression internationally that Lebanon had taken another step deeper into the embrace of Iran and that Hezbollah was more secure domestically than ever.

That is why, even though Hezbollah did not nominate Hariri for prime minister (Hezbollah chose not to recommend anyone for the post), the party is satisfied to have Hariri return as prime minister because he can provide a degree of cover given his good standing with the West.

Nevertheless, as Hariri grapples with promised economic and fiscal reforms, which will unlock around $11 billion of donor aid promised in Paris for infrastructure development, he will have to work hard to reassure the Trump administration that Lebanon is not a lost cause and to spare the country from whatever punitive measures Washington takes in its broader campaign against Iran.