By Ariel Ben Solomon/JNS.org
The Iranian-backed terror group Hezbollah, which makes up part of Lebanon’s government and has a strong military force that threatens neighboring Israel, is seemingly unaffected by the status of embattled Prime Minister Saad Hariri.
Amid Beirut’s political squabbling, Hezbollah retains de facto control over much of the Lebanese state.
Hariri, a Sunni political leader, announced his resignation in early November while he was visiting Saudi Arabia, his main backer. The Saudis are in an escalating regional struggle with the Shi’a axis of Iran, Hezbollah and Syria. This puts the strange bedfellows of Saudi Arabia and Israel on the same side when it comes to opposing the regional influence of Iran and Hezbollah.
Upon returning to Lebanon last week, Hariri reversed course and left open the possibility that he would remain in his position. But in an interview with the French broadcaster CNews, he warned Hezbollah, “I don’t want a political party in my government that interferes in Arab countries against other Arab countries.”
Iran and Hezbollah are involved in supporting insurgents in various other countries, including Yemen, Syria, Iraq and the Gulf states.
“The Hariri episode changes absolutely nothing in terms of the balance of power and Hezbollah’s absolute dominance of the Lebanese state,” Tony Badran, a Lebanon expert and research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies think tank, told JNS.org.
Badran said nothing about the events surrounding Hariri changes the outlook for Israel, which “sees no distinction between Lebanon and Hezbollah.”
“The one thing of note in the whole affair is that Saudi Arabia now shares this assessment, that Hezbollah is the state,” he said.
An anti-Hezbollah coalition in Lebanon?
According to Badran, there is no meaningful anti-Hezbollah coalition in Lebanon, with Hariri illustrating that point.
“Hariri’s return to the premiership a year ago was the result of a complete capitulation to Hezbollah—a surrender evidenced by the list of concessions on virtually everything, from the presidential election to the cabinet formation to judicial, security and administrative appointments, to the parliamentary election law and so on,” said Badran.
“That Hariri is walking back his resignation is only evidence that his position in Lebanon is entirely dependent on Hezbollah,” he said.
Hariri’s return to Lebanon followed weeks of speculation over his whereabouts. It was unclear whether or not the Saudis had forced Hariri to resign and were holding him under house arrest.
Badran said Hariri’s vacillation on his resignation decision underscores his effective break with Saudi Arabia.
“However, Hezbollah will not have failed to notice that Europe and the U.S. appear invested in maintaining Hariri as the fig leaf for a pro-Iran order in Beirut,” he said.
Joel Parker, a researcher on Syria at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University, told JNS.org that Hariri’s heightened anti-Hezbollah rhetoric since his return to Lebanon marked the prime minister’s strongest comments on the issue in recent memory.
Hariri tends to be more cautious about vocalizing his stance against Hezbollah and Iran when he is in Lebanon, but more open about criticizing them when he is abroad, said Parker, adding that in this case Hariri appears to be “throwing caution to the wind.”
“Hariri is gambling a bit and if Hezbollah is smart they will just ignore Hariri and keep doing what they are doing,” Parker said, adding that the Shi’a terror group knows that Hariri’s Saudi backers have limited options.
Increased odds of a war with Israel?
Asked about the likelihood of a fresh conflict between Hezbollah and Israel, Parker responded, “Israel is not going to go out of its way to hit Beirut while the Saudis’ man is in Beirut trying to counter Hezbollah.”
But he speculated that if Hariri resigns or is killed, “it makes a conflict with Israel more likely.”
Badran, on the other hand, said the Hariri issue has no direct bearing on the dynamics that could lead to a war with Israel.
US policy on Lebanon
Badran criticized America’s Lebanon policy, which is premised on strengthening state institutions. The U.S. argument “is that doing so, over time, somehow undermines Hezbollah,” explained Badran.
“The policy makes no sense, since Hezbollah controls the state and its institutions—strengthening them strengthens Hezbollah,” he said.
The U.S. “should reconfigure its approach entirely,” Badran argued. American support for Lebanon, he said, “should be conditioned on the Lebanese Armed Forces taking action against Hezbollah and the militias in its orbit.”