Faced with conflicting pressures, Lebanon’s balancing act looks increasingly untenable
The explosive rift among the Arab League, Hezbollah and Lebanon following the former’s stinging criticism of the Iranian proxy on November 20 has once more highlighted the uncomfortable dichotomy at the heart of Lebanon’s multifaceted identity.
The Lebanese sense of self has always been a source of division. Generally, it could be said to fall between two competing factions: a pro-Western group calling for greater affiliation with Europe and a pro-Arabian group advocating for the country’s Arab identity. In an effort to reconcile these two groups came the historical compromise of 1943, generally known as the National Pact.
Despite the best intentions of all involved, the pact frustrated everyone and satisfied no one. As one of Lebanon’s better known academics phrased it, two negatives do not build one state. The doctrine of “no east, no west” has done little to stand the test of time. On the contrary, Lebanon has passed through its most turbulent times, typically during periods when regional tensions were on the rise. The revolution of 1958 is certainly one striking example; the eruption of the Lebanese civil war in 1975 an even more notable one.
The Taif accord of 1989 at least attempted to resolve the contradictions of its predecessor, clearly stipulating that Lebanon was an Arab state. Yet, with Iran rising in prominence as a regional power, helped not least by an American foreign policy intent on eliminating its checks — the Taliban, Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden — Tehran now seems to view Lebanon as little more than a forward location in its mission to reach the Mediterranean.
Since the early 1980s, Tehran’s enormous support of Hezbollah has moulded the group into a strong armoured militia capable of executing military operations well beyond Lebanon’s borders. Seen in hindsight, the liberation of the country’s south after 22 years of Israeli occupation in 2000 now appears more like the first step in a long journey towards Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Kuwait and Bahrain.
However, before the election of Hezbollah ally Michel Aoun as president in October 2016, the country was more than capable of separating the official Lebanese position from Hezbollah’s various regional adventures. Over the previous year, that demarcation has become more blurred with every transgression Hezbollah makes.
Thus far, the Lebanese president has proven himself far from reluctant in defending Hezbollah’s weapons, positing them as necessary until the various issues racking the Middle East have been resolved.
Traditionally, the kind of terminology employed by the president to justify Hezbollah’s retention of its arms is of the sort generally used to describe the group’s role in the longstanding Arab-Israeli conflict. However, when Aoun employs it, it tends to sound a little broader. With fires burning throughout the region, the issues he appears to be referring to seem to grow more intractable by the week, raising the prospect of Hezbollah as a permanently armed militia. Iran, the group’s sponsor, is unlikely to balk at the prospect.
However, after an Arab League ministerial meeting in Cairo on November 19, during which Hezbollah was labelled a terrorist organisation, Lebanon’s relations with many Arab countries look to have reached a breaking point.
Lebanon cannot boycott the Arab states, taking into consideration that almost half a million Lebanese make their living in the Gulf countries. Nor does it have the capacity to fight Hezbollah, which is by far stronger militarily than the Lebanese Armed Forces.
Neither does it look like Iran is ready to compromise, with the commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps stating unambiguously that Hezbollah’s weapons were not negotiable. Right now, it is abundantly clear that Tehran is not prepared to surrender one of its strongest negotiating cards in the region for free. A military apparatus that it has been supporting and building since 1983 to reach a stage where it serves as the executive arm is logically not negotiable.
Pressure upon the Lebanese state to confront Hezbollah can only be expected to mount. For many, further sanctions now seem unavoidable. However, in ratcheting up the economic pressure upon Lebanon to confront a wayward Hezbollah, the Arab League is gambling with the country’s very survival.