The stakes in Saudi moves against Hezbollah
DUBAI - Hezbollah has come a long way since it was founded in 1985 on the back of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). It has come to dominate the Lebanese political system with a combination of political and paramilitary might to the extent that it is perceived as a state within a state today.
For its paramilitary strength, Hezbollah is considered more powerful than the Lebanese Army itself — it is actively engaged in the Syrian civil war where its role has been decisive in preventing the Assad regime from collapse until the Russians had to interfere to stop opposition advances.
Now the Yemeni government charges Hezbollah with supporting Houthi rebels. Hezbollah also remains active in the provision of social services, running schools and medical clinics and has its own widely watched television network.
While it remains firmly focused in the political sense in Lebanon, Hezbollah is nonetheless transforming into a regional force of sorts under the guidance of Iran. In 2006, Hezbollah fought a well-documented war against Israel, which has since been reluctant to re-engage Hezbollah in another conflict.
Hezbollah has demonstrated its power projection capabilities by deploying fighters far out of its traditional operating ground as it is doing in Syria where it has managed to sustain operations and, despite losses, has performed its mission largely successfully from a military point of view.
However, Saudi Arabia has run out of patience with Hezbollah, whose role in Syria, suspected part in Yemen and desire for total political dominance in Lebanon have provoked a recalibration of policy towards Lebanon as a whole. With the first deliveries of armaments just weeks away, Riyadh has cancelled $4 billion military aid package meant for much-needed modernisation of the Lebanese military and internal security forces.
Riyadh puts its reasons down to Hezbollah. The cancellation came after Lebanese Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil of the Free Patriotic Movement, an ally of Hezbollah, cast a non-vote in a near unanimous Arab League resolution condemning Iran for the burning of the Saudi embassy in Tehran and a consulate in Mashhad.
Saudi Arabia has been trying to rally Arab countries closer together politically — in part to counter the rising influence of Iran and especially its intervention in the Syrian civil war but also because the Islamic State (ISIS) poses a looming threat over the horizon, as do non-state militant groups in Yemen and Libya. Hezbollah has been blocking the appointment of a new president in Lebanon, and the Lebanese government remains hamstrung because of Hezbollah’s ability to paralyse it almost at will.
In sum, Hezbollah has developed the combination of political confidence and influence in Lebanon that has made it increasingly difficult to negotiate with for its opponents inside and outside Lebanon.
For some time, Hezbollah has been relying on a strategy that emphasises the weaknesses of its opponents to achieve advantage and often engineer a win-win situation for itself. However, Saudi Arabia will seek to remind Hezbollah of its weaknesses and mount a challenge that Riyadh believes will ultimately push Hezbollah into rethinking its political strategy at home and abroad. Newly issued advisories from the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Bahrain against travel to Lebanon, along with Gulf investors preparing a substantial liquidation of their assets in Lebanon while hundreds of thousands of Lebanese expatriates earning a living in the Gulf will hurt even more than the suspension of the military aid. Such moves coincided with the Hezbollah International Financing Prevention Act of 2015 — a US law that many in Lebanon fear will undermine its robust financial services industry.
As part of a new strategy, the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) has decided to raise the stakes and push back hard on Hezbollah. On March 2nd, the GCC declared Hezbollah a “terrorist” group, accusing it of recruiting youths in GCC countries to “carry out terrorist acts, smuggle weapons and explosives” and warning that its “terrorist acts and incitement” in Syria, Yemen and Iraq are threatening Arab security.
Saudi Arabia is forcing Hezbollah to bargain in Lebanon — if Hezbollah wants total domination in Lebanon and if it wants to project that domination to a regional level, then it will need to be prepared to pay a significant cost at home and broad. Hezbollah is a highly trained and well-armed paramilitary organisation but it has limited, if any, options to contend with the sort of challenge Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies look to be laying in place. Given its own financial restraints, even Iran is unlikely to consider stepping in to assist Hezbollah by making substantial financial pledges for Lebanon.
The politically sensible way forward for Hezbollah is to moderate its political positions in Lebanon in support of consensus-building and allow state institutions to return to functioning with normality.
That is the way to go forward even if used to pursuing and marketing only maximalist approaches as Hezbollah will be very weary of the perception that it is backing down.