Hezbollah’s electoral ascendancy risks pulling Lebanon further into Syria’s morass

Hezbollah looks to build on a foreign policy that has it enmeshed in the Syrian conflict.
Sunday 13/05/2018
A supporter of Lebanon’s Hezbollah gestures as he holds a Hezbollah flag in Marjayoun, on May 7. (Reuters)
Hubris aloft. A supporter of Lebanon’s Hezbollah gestures as he holds a Hezbollah flag in Marjayoun, on May 7. (Reuters)

TUNIS - The victory of the Hezbollah-aligned political bloc in the Lebanese elections, along with the US withdrawal from the Iranian nuclear deal, opened a potentially volatile chapter in Lebanese history.

Despite the lacklustre turnout of 49% following a 9-year gap between elections in which the parliament twice extended its mandate, Hezbollah only made fractional gains in the vote. However, both the Christian Lebanese Forces and the nominally Hezbollah aligned Free Patriotic Movement made dramatic advances, dividing the parliament sharply along pro and anti Hezbollah lines. 

Emboldened domestically, Hezbollah looks to build on a foreign policy that has it enmeshed in the Syrian conflict. After years of flouting Lebanon’s public policy of disassociation from the Syrian civil war, Hezbollah, through its partnership with Iran, has placed Lebanon in danger of being subsumed in the war and has positioned the country at the forefront of a potentially greater regional conflict.

The only check on Hezbollah’s ambitions lies with the right-wing Christian Lebanese Forces, whose dramatic gains were only eclipsed by the reversals suffered by Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s Sunni Future Movement.

With Hezbollah and its aligned groups in the ascendant, Lebanon’s relations with Israel assume a more ominous tone, a situation made more perilous by the exchange of strikes between Tel Aviv and Hezbollah’s allies in Tehran during the early hours of May 10.

“Hezbollah is feeling empowered as a result of the Lebanese elections and Iran is standing defiant in light of the US withdrawal from the nuclear deal,” said Lina Khatib, the head of the Middle East and North Africa Programme at Chatham House. “This means continued activity for both in Syria as long as the United States does not create a comprehensive strategy for ending the conflict there.”

Following the strikes of May 10, Hezbollah’s alliance with Iran stands the country at risk of being drawn into a wider war with its Jewish neighbour. “Israel is increasingly viewing Lebanon as a Hezbollah-dominated state and the election results will further encourage this perspective,” Khatib said.

Israeli Education Minister Naftali Bennett issued a statement May 7 stating: “The results of the Lebanese elections strengthen what has been our approach for a while: Hezbollah = Lebanon.”

“The state of Israel will not distinguish between the sovereign state of Lebanon and Hezbollah and will view Lebanon as responsible for any action from within its territory,” he said.

As Hezbollah’s star rises, so does the likelihood of Lebanon’s dissociation from Syria and its conflict wane. Since 2011, when Syria’s violence first threatened to engulf Lebanon, the country has pursued a policy independent of Damascus. However, pressure from Hezbollah to normalise relations with Syria will now prove harder to resist.

“With the Lebanese parliament dominated by figures close to the Assad regime, it is expected that Lebanon will restore relations with Syria to their pre-2011 status,” Khatib said.

Standing in opposition to such a move is Hariri, whose father, Rafik Hariri, is suspected of being assassinated on Damascus’s orders. However, “Hariri has emerged as the leader of the party that lost the most seats in this election, which signals weakened support among his constituents,” Khatib added.

With Western influence over Iran diminishing since the United States withdrew from the nuclear deal, the threat of escalation between Tehran and Tel Aviv has proven real. With Hezbollah, and by extension Lebanon, standing on the front lines of that conflict, how this could end for the country is unclear.