Questions about Hezbollah’s role in Lebanese offensive
Beirut- The Lebanese Army has launched its much-delayed offensive against the last remaining pockets held by the Islamic State (ISIS) in the town of Ras Baalbek, near Lebanon’s north-eastern border with Syria. Reportedly 600 militants have been operating there since 2012.
The military move August 19 comes weeks after Hezbollah carried out a similar operation against Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (formerly known as al-Nusra Front, al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria) in Arsal in July, which aroused the ire of many in Lebanon, especially within the pro-Western March 14 coalition led by Prime Minister Saad Hariri. They argued that Hezbollah’s task was to liberate land occupied by the Israelis, not to support the regime in Damascus or eradicate Sunni jihadists at home.
Such attacks by an all-Shia militia backed blatantly by Iran would only inflame Sunni nationalism across the region, endangering the fragile sectarian balance in Lebanon. Sources close to Hariri swore this latest operation had nothing to do with Hezbollah, claiming that it was planned and executed by officers in the Lebanese Army but Iran-backed media insist that it was fully coordinated with Hezbollah Secretary- General Hassan Nasrallah.
The minute the offensive started, Hezbollah and the Syrian Army launched a joint attack on the other side of the border, targeting ISIS positions in the western Qalamoun region of Syria. A Hezbollah statement said its troops were fighting “side by side” with the Syrian Army but made no mention of the Lebanese offensive or of any coordinated effort in Ras Baalbek.
This was probably not to further embarrass Hariri, who badly needed this war on ISIS. It had to look professional, it had to look governmental and it had to look 100% independent from Hezbollah. This was crucial to shrug off accusations among Lebanese Sunnis and Christians that Hezbollah had become a state within a state, capable of waging war and peace without waiting for approval from the Lebanese government.
Two of Hariri’s cabinet ministers ignored his advice and headed to Syria on August 17 to take part in the Damascus International Fair, defying the official stance of the Lebanese government, which formally supports neutrality in the Syrian crisis. The ministers were from Hezbollah and its ally the Amal Movement, and both were given red-carpet treatment in Damascus, making Hariri look weak and increasingly disobeyed within his own cabinet. The slightest hint of Hezbollah involvement in the Lebanese Army’s offensive would have subjected him to a massive character onslaught.
Hariri is walking a tightrope at home, accommodating Hezbollah’s political ambitions while abiding by Lebanon’s Western alliances, especially with the United States, which he visited last July. During a news conference at the White House, US President Donald Trump compared Hezbollah to ISIS and Hariri did not speak out in its defence, causing backlash at home among the group’s constituency.
Hariri doesn’t hide the fact that he has very little affection for the party for a multitude of reasons, starting with his conviction that it was involved in the assassination of his father in 2005 onto its involvement in the Syria war and finally to its fiery rhetoric against Saudi Arabia, a traditional patron of the Lebanese prime minister. Hariri’s silence on Trump’s remarks earned him $140 million in military aide for the Lebanese Army.
The first batch of American weapons arrived August 21 at Beirut-Rafik Hariri International Airport and included eight M2A2 Bradley fighting vehicles and ten armoured field artillery ammunition supply vehicles. Another 24 Bradleys are to be delivered within the next few months, making Lebanon the second Arab country after Saudi Arabia to receive such sophisticated military equipment.
The elephant in the room at the airport was Hezbollah, whose officers command the premises and operate a telecommunications network that Hariri’s allies tried to dismantle ten years ago, sparking off a mini-civil war on the streets of Beirut. They made sure to distance themselves from the Lebanese Army’s operation in Ras Baalbek ahead of the weapons delivery, wanting the vehicles to reach army headquarters.
Over the past ten years, Lebanon has received more than $1 billion in US military aid and Israel claims that some of it found its way into the hands of Hezbollah, citing US-made armoured vehicles that showed up at a Hezbollah parade in the Syrian city of Qusayr, which the Lebanese group recaptured in 2013. The Pentagon claims that the M113 armoured personnel carriers had been captured from the South Lebanon Army, a proxy of the Israelis during the civil war that was disbanded by Hezbollah in 2000.
If the Americans had any serious doubt that their weapons were ending up with Hezbollah they would have certainly thought twice before receiving Hariri at the White House in July and refrained from sending weapons to the Lebanese Army. Officially those arms will not be used in the battles in Ras Baalbek and, officially as well, Hezbollah is not part of the present offensive on ISIS.
Realities get blurred in Lebanon, however, just like elsewhere in the Arab world. Hezbollah is officially part of the Lebanese government that is waging war on ISIS and it controls a parliamentary bloc that signed off on the operation and did not object to the arrival of US arms in Beirut.
By working with the Lebanese government, the United States is giving de facto recognition to Hezbollah and its proportionate representation in Lebanese politics, although technically the party ranks high on the US terrorism list.
Inasmuch as it would have loved to see Hariri’s demise, after bringing down his cabinet in 2011, Hezbollah was forced to deal with him yet again in 2016, agreeing to his return to the premiership if its ally, Michel Aoun, made it to the presidency.
To let its operation pass on Fateh al-Sham in Arsal, it had to allow his operation to materialise against ISIS in Ras Baalbek — silently and discretely, however, to avoid embarrassing him and its own top leadership among a rivalling constituency that has been at daggers drawn against each other since 2005.