Hezbollah’s popular support jeopardises Lebanon’s alliances
Beirut - Lebanon enters 2018 enjoying a period of relative unaccustomed stability over the past year that has allowed the government to act normally, a parliament to function unhindered and long-awaited legislation to be passed.
The reason for this rare harmony among Lebanon’s traditionally fractious politicians is, paradoxically, down to Hezbollah and its allies having triumphed over a rival Sunni, Christian and Druze parliamentary bloc, known as the March 14 coalition. The Hezbollah victory ended a power struggle that politically and economically crippled the country for more than a decade and in 2008 came close to triggering a civil war.
The March 14 coalition has crumbled and its political leaders have cut unilateral deals to suit their respective interests, having accepted, reluctantly in most cases, that Hezbollah is too powerful a force to confront.
However, concerns are being aired in Lebanon that the stability of the past year is under threat as other countries, particularly the United States and Saudi Arabia, reassess their stance towards a Lebanon that is perceived to have succumbed to Hezbollah and its patron Iran.
“The storm clouds are on the horizon,” said a politician close to Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri. “Why should anyone have any sympathy for us now that we are all working with Hezbollah?”
The politician added that the United States has delivered more than $1.5 billion in military assistance to Lebanon since 2005, which helped the Lebanese Army drive out several hundred militants from north-eastern Lebanon last summer.
“Then we have our foreign minister [Gebran Bassil] calling on Arab countries to impose economic sanctions against the Americans,” he added referring to Bassil’s response to the US President Donald Trump’s decision to move the US Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem.
“Why should the Americans do us any favours when our politicians call for sanctions against them?” he asked.
Lebanon is to have elections in May, the first nationwide vote since 2009. Political parties are mulling potential electoral alliances with former political opponents. Lebanese media reports claimed that Hariri’s Future Movement was in talks with two Christian parties that are allied with Hezbollah.
Regardless of what alliances eventually emerge, there is a broad belief that the election will result in Hezbollah and its allies increasing their share in the 128-seat parliament. Such an outcome could erode any lingering hesitation in Washington and Riyadh about taking tougher measures against Lebanon.
The United States supported the March 14 coalition in its post-2005 struggle against the Hezbollah-led March 8 bloc and was reluctant to impose hard measures that could destabilise Lebanon and backfire on Washington’s Lebanese allies. Now that the former leaders of March 14 are cooperating with Hezbollah and its allies, Washington’s misgivings about pressuring Lebanon may decrease.
The US Congress is close to adopting new anti-Hezbollah legislation amid speculation that the administration of US President Donald Trump could begin squeezing some of the Iran-backed party’s Lebanese allies, particularly those that have had business dealings with Hezbollah. Any pressure by the US Treasury on Lebanon’s traditionally buoyant banking sector could have calamitous results, precipitating a flight of capital out of the country and a downturn in the flow of annual remittances from Lebanese living overseas that help maintain domestic financial stability.
Lebanon hopes to attract investment funds and further aid for the army and security forces at international donor conferences in Rome next month and in Paris in March. Hariri said he hoped to attract up to $2 billion to invest in Lebanon’s decrepit infrastructure. However, many countries, suffering from donor fatigue, may balk at promising funds to a country that is perceived as being under the grip of Hezbollah.
Saudi Arabia has demonstrated that it has little hesitation in adopting strong-arm tactics in Lebanon, albeit with less than impressive results. In November, Hariri was abruptly summoned to Riyadh and then reportedly ordered by the Saudi leadership to resign, blaming his decision on Hezbollah’s dominance of Lebanon and that he was the target of an alleged assassination plot.
The bold Saudi move was intended to rile Hariri’s Sunni supporters into protesting against Hezbollah. It backfired spectacularly when the Lebanese banded together to demand the release of their prime minister. The intervention of French President Emmanuel Macron saw Hariri return to Lebanon and rescind his resignation.
Hariri is still paying lip service to the Saudi leadership but the relationship between him and his Saudi sponsors has broken down. That has left Saudi Arabia with few Lebanese allies and little leverage in Lebanon and even less reason why it should not seek to make life as uncomfortable as possible for Hezbollah and its allies regardless of the consequences on the country.
Measures the Saudis might take include imposing sanctions, maintaining an existing travel ban on its citizens visiting Lebanon and expelling Lebanese workers from the kingdom. The latter measure could create difficulties for the Saudis, however, as many Lebanese expatriates in Saudi Arabia are white-collar middle managers in the private sector who would be difficult to replace if expelled. The overall effect on Lebanon could be even greater if Riyadh persuades its Gulf allies to join it in pressuring Lebanon.
Some fret that the Saudis may even seek to destabilise Lebanon by funding Sunni jihadist groups to attack Hezbollah and Shia areas of Lebanon.
“If the Saudis give money to the sheikhs, they will take it and recruit,” said Abu Hassan, who runs an NGO in the Ain al Hilweh Palestinian refugee camp on the outskirts of Sidon in southern Lebanon. The camp is home to a few hundred Sunni jihadists with ties to the Islamic State and other militant groups.
“The sheikhs are the keys to unlocking the jihadists,” Abu Hassan said.