OpinionMiddle East

Lebanon must be freed from Hezbollah and Iran

The U.S. should leverage the considerable domestic opposition to Hezbollah to break the terror group’s stranglehold over Lebanon.

A view of damaged buildings the day after a massive explosion in Beirut, Lebanon, Aug. 5, 2020. Photo by Zaatari Lebanon/Flash90.
A view of damaged buildings the day after a massive explosion in Beirut, Lebanon, Aug. 5, 2020. Photo by Zaatari Lebanon/Flash90.
Gregg Roman (Credit: Middle East Forum)
Gregg Roman
Gregg Roman is director of the Middle East Forum. He previously served as an official in the Israeli Ministries of Foreign Affairs and Defense.

Lebanon is being held hostage by Hezbollah and Iran. The country’s plight is stark. It’s trapped in the clutches of Hezbollah, a pawn in Iran’s regional power play. As Hezbollah’s dominance metastasizes, Lebanon now finds itself at a crossroads. The time has come for decisive action to extricate the country from the grip of extremism.

Lebanon is under the control of Hezbollah, an Iranian proxy that obstructs Lebanese politics and is more powerful than the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF). Thanks to Iran and Hezbollah, Lebanon has become a failed state.

In a recent speech in Beirut, Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah reiterated his commitment to attacking Israel until the conflict in Gaza is resolved. He rejected international efforts to prevent further escalation and dismissed Israeli threats of large-scale war. Nasrallah also claimed that Hezbollah’s actions have stabilized the balance of deterrence in the region. Contrary to his lofty rhetoric, these statements provide evidence of Lebanon’s continued downward spiral.

Hezbollah’s stranglehold over Lebanon is a threat to the security of the entire Middle East. The terror group has been firing rockets into Israel on a near-daily basis since Oct. 8. More than 150,000 people both in northern Israel and in Southern Lebanon have been displaced. After Hamas deputy leader Saleh al-Arouri was assassinated in Beirut, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah pledged that “Hezbollah cannot allow [it] to pass without a response and punishment.”

It is in American interests to counter and isolate Hezbollah as much as possible so as to weaken Iran’s position in the Levant and remove Iran’s hand from the Lebanese people’s collective throat.

Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps established Hezbollah in 1982. The group is loyal not to Lebanon but to Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei. Since 1987, it has been listed on the U.S. State Department’s list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations.

Hezbollah made its mark in the 1980s with a series of terrorist attacks, including bombing the U.S. embassy in Lebanon; the U.S. and French embassies in Kuwait; and the barracks of U.S. Marines and French soldiers in Beirut; as well as torturing the CIA’s Beirut station chief William Buckley to death.

In 1992, with the blessing of Khamenei, Hezbollah entered Lebanese politics, serving in parliament and various governments. While Hezbollah is in the Lebanese government, it does not act according to Lebanese government policy. Instead, Hezbollah uses its position inside the government to block anything or anyone it does not like.

In 2006, Hezbollah abducted Israeli soldiers without consulting the Lebanese government, dragging Lebanon into war with Israel. That war was devastating. More than 1,100 Lebanese and 165 Israelis were killed. Much of southern Beirut was destroyed. When Hezbollah faced criticism for the war and the resulting destruction, it walked out of the government, paralyzing Lebanese politics.

Hezbollah forced the collapse of the Lebanese government in 2011 in protest of imminent indictments related to the 2005 assassination of Lebanon’s former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, in which Hezbollah was implicated. A new government was formed by Hezbollah and its allies, led by Hezbollah-backed Najib Mikati.

Most recently, Lebanon’s foreign minister said his country’s government is trying to prevent a war between Hezbollah and Israel, but “it is not like we can order them”—meaning Hezbollah.

Hezbollah can act independently of the Lebanese government because of its military superiority over the LAF. The Center for Strategic and International Studies states that Hezbollah is “the world’s most heavily armed non-state actor.” It has an estimated 150,000 rockets in its military arsenal, some of which are precision-guided and capable of hitting anywhere inside Israel.

According to U.N. Security Council Resolution 1701 (2006), the Lebanese government must have a monopoly on the use of force inside Lebanon. Only LAF and U.N. personnel are permitted to be stationed south of the Litani River, which is some 18 miles north of the border.

Hezbollah has made a mockery of this resolution. It controls Southern Lebanon right up to the Israeli border. Last year, the group set up tents inside Israel.

In 2018, Israel discovered Hezbollah tunnels inside Israeli territory. An Israeli expert has stated that Hezbollah’s tunnel system, hundreds of miles long, is more sophisticated than Hamas’s tunnel system.

The United States must act to weaken Hezbollah’s position inside Lebanon. It is important to note that the group is not universally beloved in Lebanon. According to a 2020 poll, only 16% of Christians, 8% of Sunnis and 14% of Druze had a favorable view of Hezbollah.

This is not surprising, considering that Hezbollah beat anti-government protesters in 2019 and 2020. Many Lebanese believe that Hezbollah improperly stored ammonium nitrate at the port of Beirut, causing a massive explosion in August 2020 that killed more than 200 people and destroyed much of eastern Beirut. Hezbollah did not help its image when it intimidated the judge investigating the explosion.

Lebanon’s economy has been in freefall since 2019, unleashing a torrent of anger and frustration towards Hezbollah.

America should leverage the considerable opposition to Hezbollah through diplomatic engagement and financial aid. The U.S. Treasury should apply targeted sanctions against Hezbollah leaders and financial networks. The U.S. government must work with international partners to isolate Hezbollah politically and economically. The European Union should designate all of Hezbollah, not just its “military wing,” as a terrorist organization.

If Hezbollah is weakened and its rivals concomitantly strengthened, Lebanon can work towards implementing Resolution 1701.

Hezbollah and Iran’s chokehold on Lebanon must be removed. Peace and stability in the Middle East depend on it.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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