Quo Vadis, Lebanon?

Even within the country’s current disastrous environment, the eruption of a new civil war is still considered a catastrophic scenario by all Lebanese factions.

Hezbollah head Hassan Nasrallah uses a Lebanese cedar tree to fan Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. Credit: Yaliban.
Hezbollah head Hassan Nasrallah uses a Lebanese cedar tree to fan Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. Credit: Yaliban.
Jacques Neriah. Credit: Twitter.
Jacques Neriah
Col. (ret.) Dr. Jacques Neriah, a special analyst for the Middle East at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, was formerly a foreign-policy adviser to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and the deputy head for assessment of Israeli Military Intelligence.

The specter of civil war raised its head in Lebanon on Oct. 14 following bloody clashes between Christian forces and “peaceful protesters” dispatched by the “Shi’ite twins”—the Amal and Hezbollah organizations. The Christian gunmen are believed to have been members of the Christian Lebanese Forces militia founded by the late President Bashir Gemayel in the early 1980s). The militia is currently headed by one of the last brothers-in-arms of the ultra-nationalist Gemayel.

Never a “peaceful protest,” the marchers were armed with Kalashnikovs and RPGs. No logical explanation has yet been offered for why they entered the Christian neighborhoods of Beirut and openly provoked and abused the residents. The Hezbollah/Amal protest could have reached its destination, the Palace of Justice, via a shorter alternative route, avoiding the Christian areas.

Seven members of Amal and Hezbollah were killed and more than 60 were wounded in the four-hour battle, enough to remind all political parties of the bloody civil war that lasted from 1975 to 1990 and cost the lives of almost 150,000 Lebanese. The situation’s fragility brought Lebanese sectarian political leaders to declare that another such conflict was not their goal and that they intended to avoid such a calamity in any possible way.

Still, the accusations are flying from every side, and focus on two political foes: the Christian extreme nationalist Samir Geagea, and Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah, each of whom accused the other of fomenting a civil war. Nasrallah presented himself in his latest speech as the defender of the Christian presence in Lebanon, fighting Islamic State in Syria, and accusing Geagea of being the catalyst for the annihilation of the Christian political presence in the country. Geagea continued his political discourse and rhetoric against Hezbollah, accusing the Shi’ite party of being an Iranian lackey, a mercenary army at the service of the ayatollah in Tehran, whose aim is to erase the political system in Lebanon and establish in its place an Iranian province.

The gun battles in the Ayn al-Rummaneh, Tayouneh and Shiyah neighborhoods momentarily eclipsed the economic nightmare in which the Lebanese have been living since October 2019. Lebanon’s price index has ballooned 144 percent since last year, with the transportation index jumping by almost 360 percent. Fuel subsidies have ended, and filling one’s car today costs an average salary (which stands at just $35 a week). Were it not for money transfers sent by the Lebanese diaspora (there are almost 15 million Lebanese abroad, compared to 3.5 million in Lebanon), the country would have collapsed, with no electricity, no medicine and no water supply.

Forty percent of physicians and 30 percent of nurses have left the country. A quarter of Lebanon’s population are refugees from Syria. Because of the energy shortage, the cities are drowning under rivers of garbage, opening the door for plague and sickness.

However, even within that disastrous environment, the eruption of a civil war is still considered a catastrophic scenario. The various hostile parties are trying to avoid such a conflict at all costs, though they are acutely aware that one could be ignited by an accidental spark. Alarmed by this eventuality, both Geagea and Nasrallah have chosen to chill their underlings’ passions.

The threats

The Christian camp led by Geagea and by his Christian political foes recognizes, correctly, that it would take Hezbollah and its cohorts only two to three days to repeat the scenario of May 2008. At that time, its combatants stormed the predominantly Sunni strongholds in Beirut and Mount Lebanon in reprisal for then-Prime Minister Fouad Siniora’s decision to dismantle Hezbollah’s independent, underground telecommunication network.

However, Hezbollah’s reputation took a significant hit in public opinion following its participation in the Syrian conflict, siding with Bashar Assad against the Sunni rebels. Many Lebanese Shi’ites returned home in coffins.

All Christian political leaders have well noted the threat of Hezbollah launching an assault on the Christian enclave with the 100,000 fighters Nasrallah boasted he has under his command (even if the number is exaggerated). However, Geagea apparently assessed that such a development was not likely. On the contrary, he must have seen an opportunity to promote himself and his party from an isolated fringe organization to the sole defender of Christian areas (as did Bashir Gemayel in 1980).

Geagea sought to signal to the Christian majority that he is the chosen one to defend them and not the “renegade,” an appellation applied by the “traitor,” President Michel Aoun, the Christian ally of Hezbollah. He may have also thought that Hezbollah’s options were nonexistent at this point since attacking Christian areas would weaken its strategic Christian allies’ grip on its electorate on the eve of parliamentary and presidential elections—which, if not hindered by the current situation—are due to take place in the first quarter of 2022. Aoun’s son-in-law, Gebran Bassil, the leader of the Free Patriotic Movement, will likely be elected the next president of Lebanon.

Therefore, Geagea likely concluded that Hezbollah and its patrons in Tehran have no interest in a Christian-Shi’ite war at this time, especially since Hezbollah has been on a collision course with Lebanon’s Sunni Muslims and Druze, which would make the Shi’ite organization’s status in the country even more precarious. Geagea saw that by siding with Hezbollah and Amal, Aoun risked alienating many Christians, who want the investigation of the massive August 2020 Beirut Port explosion to continue to its logical end and consider the events of Oct. 14 unacceptable. On the other hand, if Aoun chose to condemn Hezbollah and Amal or even just to refrain from expressing his support, he might have been cornered into an unbearable position, which could hurt Bassil’s chances to be elected president since it is an undisputed fact that Hezbollah is the kingmaker of Lebanese politics.

Moreover, one cannot dismiss the fact that Nasrallah’s threats reveal a degree of Hezbollah vulnerability. Like other Lebanese communities, Hezbollah’s Shi’ite base is part of the 78 percent of the population considered to be living under the poverty line. Hezbollah is under severe criticism from various sectors of Lebanese society, who think it to be part and parcel of the corrupt ruling class and responsible for driving Lebanon into bankruptcy and producing a failed state. Nasrallah could not help but notice posters of him hanged in effigy in public squares.

His political affiliation and loyalty to Lebanon have been questioned since he was presented as an Iranian minion and lackey. The dislike that some parts of the Lebanese feel towards Hezbollah explains the support they have pledged to Judge Bitar and their insistence that the investigation of the August 4 explosion at the Beirut Port continues and reaches its expected conclusion: pinning the blame on Hezbollah.

IDF Col. (ret.) Dr. Jacques Neriah, a special analyst for the Middle East at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, was formerly a foreign-policy adviser to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and the deputy head for assessment of Israeli Military Intelligence.

This article was first published by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.

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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