Hezbollah’s foreign adventures could provoke regional backlash

November 19, 2017
Through Iranian lenses. Hezbollah fighters in Wadi al-Kheil on the Lebanese-Syrian border. (AP)

Tunis- Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s resignation speech left little doubt over who he said was to blame for his departure. Iran, he said, was guilty of planting “sedition, devastation and ruin” in Lebanon and the wider Arab world and Hezbollah was the “arm of Iran not only in Lebanon but also in oth­er Arab countries.”
Hezbollah has grown from its founding by Iran in the early 1980s. Established as a specifically Shia response to Israel’s occupation of southern Lebanon, the group is one of the most significant military forces in the region, projecting its power to devastating effect in Syria and extending its influence into war-torn Yemen and even Kuwait.
However, in seeking to extend its reach throughout the region and, in doing so, buttress Iranian influ­ence, the Army of God has incurred the ire of Saudi Arabia and risked inviting the wrath of some of the region’s most significant players.
The extent of Hezbollah’s reach was acknowledged by Hariri when, eight days after announcing his resignation, he suggested his deci­sion could be reversed if Lebanon, and by extension Hezbollah, would return to its policy of dissociation — observing conflicts unfold without involvement or favour.
His concerns are not without foundation. In Syria, Hezbollah’s support of the Assad regime an­tagonised both the West and Israel. In Yemen, Hezbollah’s backing of the Houthi rebels placed it in direct opposition to the country’s govern­ment. In Kuwait, alleged Hezbol­lah activity incurred the emir’s ire. In all those countries, Hezbollah has confronted and subsequently flouted Saudi Arabian ambitions; in effect, placing an Iranian proxy blade at the kingdom’s throat.
Cast in this light, Hariri’s resigna­tion, most likely taken at Riyadh’s behest, looks to be a turning point in the kingdom’s willingness to con­front Iran and its Lebanese proxies.
“The most important Iranian tool in the region is Hezbollah,” Hilal Khashan, a political science profes­sor at the American University of Beirut, told AFP.
That Hezbollah has played a vi­tal role in preserving the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad is beyond dispute. However, the ben­efits have not flown in just one di­rection. Six years of conflict in Syria transformed Hezbollah from an effective guerrilla group into a po­tentially devastating conventional military force, increasing the threat it poses to its opponents and dis­placing even more diplomatic and political water as a result.
Yemen and the threat of Saudi sanctions adding to the United States’ punitive economic meas­ures on Lebanon were the issues Hariri evoked, asking during his second speech after his resignation: “Did the kingdom have any posi­tion towards Hezbollah before the war in Yemen?” He suggested that a Hezbollah retreat from Yemen may be enough to spare Lebanon the worst of Saudi retaliation.
Certainly, an economic blockade of Lebanon of the type instituted against Qatar and the expulsion of thousands of Lebanese citizens employed in the Gulf would devas­tate the country’s fragile economy. There are thought to be 120,000- 299,000 Lebanese citizens residing in Saudi Arabia. Their return would likely place an intolerable strain on the Lebanese economy, already struggling to accommodate 1.3 mil­lion Syrian refugees.

However, it is the threat of re­newed conflict with Israel, a pros­pect Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah accused Saudi Arabia of orchestrating, that could pose the far more significant risk.
The possibility of renewed con­flict also sounded in Tel Aviv, with Eldad Shavit, a former Israeli mili­tary official, suggesting to the Times of Israel that Gulf Cooperation Council frustrations over Qatar’s re­sistance to its sanctions could push Saudi Arabia to demonstrate its re­gional influence remotely.
Shavit said the possibility of conflict was unlikely. He pointed to the absence of any mass call-up of Israeli reservists, as well as pre­viously bitter experience of Israel confronting Hezbollah.

It is becoming clear that Hezbol­lah, within a dramatically altered regional landscape, has exposed Lebanon to the unfriendly scrutiny of its donors and allies. Whether domestic or regional forces will cur­tail that ambition is unclear.