Lebanon’s unwelcome guests
As British rock star Sir Elton John played to a packed crowd at Byblos Stadium near Beirut, briefly reminding the weary Lebanese of a life beyond the current internal and regional squabbles, so, too, did the country play host to a less-celebrated visitor.
A few days earlier, 110km south of Beirut and on the Lebanese border crossing known as the Fatima Gate, Iraqi militia leader Qais al-Khazali paid his respects.
Khazali has been accused by British and US forces of establishing death squads across Iraq for more than a decade. Kicked out of the Mahdi Army in 2004, Khazali established a militia of his own, the Iran-backed Asaib Ahl al-Haq.
Video of Khazali’s visit was leaked through his militia’s TV station al-Ahed, showing him touring the border escorted by senior Hezbollah field commanders, who assured their Iraqi dignitary that their forces were ready for any confrontation with Israel.
Such a visit would not normally engender much controversy. After all, Hezbollah has resorted to similar publicity stunts with more reputable celebrities, such as the late Columbia University professor and polemicist Edward Said, who posed while throwing a stone across the fence into occupied Palestine.
Khazali’s visit, however, was unique in that its timing and its implicit message carry a stark warning that can hardly bode well.
While Khazali’s visit occurred a week before the video was posted, its transmission coincided almost precisely with the International Support Group for Lebanon’s meeting in Paris. Convened under the auspices of French President Emmanuel Macron, attending countries reiterated support for Lebanon and particularly for the Syrian refugees harbouring within its borders.
Attendees were sure to remind Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri of “the need to fully implement and respect all UN Security Council resolutions, especially 1701,” referring to the ceasefire agreement brokered in 2006 stating that no armed foreign forces could venture south of the Litani River.
Accordingly, Khazali’s theatrical appearance on the border stands as a provocative challenge to both the international community and the ceasefire agreement itself. More importantly, by milking the visit of an Iraqi militant such as Khazali, Hezbollah is essentially reminding Hariri that the dissociation he stressed as a precondition to rescinding his resignation essentially counts for naught.
Beyond the relatively trivial squabbles of Lebanon’s internal politics, both Iran and Hezbollah are under pressure to produce some meaningful counter to US President Donald Trump’s declaration on Jerusalem’s status.
While many expected the so-called champions of the Palestinian cause to declare all-out war against the United States and Israel, Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah’s muted speech boiled down to him essentially urging the public to rely on street protests and social media to object to Trump’s reckless and arrogant move.
Contrasting the paucity of Iran’s response were declarations from various generals of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) warning Israel and its American ally that “only 7 minutes is needed for the Iranian missile to hit Tel Aviv.”
In the absence of either missiles or regional apocalypse, Iran settled for Khazali, dispatching the militia leader to the frontier as a reminder to the legions of the multinational array of Shia forces that could potentially descend on the border at a moment’s notice.
It was not by mere chance that the broadcast of Khazali’s visit was followed by a similar video, in which Iraqi and Afghan Shia militants belonging to the Saraya al-Salam (“the Peace Brigades”) were shown in southern Lebanon smoking hookah and boasting of their presence a few kilometres from occupied Palestine and UN peacekeeping forces.
Beyond the immediate theatrics of Khazali’s visit is Iran’s message behind it. Within Khazali’s short statement at the border are clear clues of Iran’s overarching intent. That is, beyond liberating the Palestinian territories, the country remains focused on clearing the ground for the return of the Mahdi — whom followers believe will be the redeemer of the Islamic faith — and the establishment of justice on Earth, or at least their version of it.
By opting for such sectarian rhetoric, far removed from classical Shia thought, Khazali and his Iranian handlers are not so much threatening Israel but addressing the Arab and Sunni world and warning them of the consequence of using the West as a check on Iran’s expansionary plans.
Ultimately, while the Sunni-Shia regional showdown continues, Iran no longer feels the need to hide behind a facade of Pan-Islamism or nationalism. It’s a key fact and one that, in Lebanon, Hariri and his allies need to not only be alert to but act upon.