The stakes in Saudi moves against Hezbollah

Friday 04/03/2016
More powerful than Lebanese Army itself

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.