By Elijah J. Magnier – @ejmalrai
US sanctions on Hezbollah and its allies have limited effect; thus, the US is meddling in internal Lebanese politics, hoping to disrupt Hezbollah’s alliance with the Christians of Lebanon.
Hezbollah considers the US administration’s sanctions on the group to be an ineffective power play. Hezbollah and its commanders don’t have accounts in foreign banks or other overseas institutions and they are not dependent on western financial support. Moreover, Hezbollah has placed internal restrictions on the travel of its commanders; they will not suffer from any visa rejections or limitations. The US is attacking the society where Hezbollah operates and lives. It has attacked the wealthy Shias who are close to Hezbollah by closing their businesses, imprisoning others, and disrupting their overseas business outside Lebanon. The US administration is even putting pressure on the Lebanese Central Bank, the core of the Lebanese economy. Lebanon has felt the weight of this and is worried, particularly now that its deficit is reaching $80bn.
Hezbollah is an organisation composed mainly of poor families. Its members believe in its ideology and objectives, and are convinced that the party is their only source of protection in this stratified multi-ethnic society. They also feel the need for protection from Israeli aggression. But Hezbollah considers that the wealthy individuals affected by the US sanctions have actually benefitted from being close to Hezbollah. In some cases, accused individuals not related to the group may be able to demonstrate to the international court that they are independent businessmen and defend themselves through legal procedures. Some of the collateral damage to the Shia community results from its success – Hezbollah is integrated within the Shia community – and the community’s emerging role in Lebanon.
Therefore, the US is now taking its third step: to hit or tame Hezbollah’s allies in Lebanon. With this goal in mind, Prime Minister Saad Hariri has decided to unify all private universities under the control of the government. This step could have ruined Abdel Rahim Diab, a Sunni ally of Hezbollah. Hariri expected a reaction from Mrad and he got it. This was Hariri’s way of telling him that he needs the pro-Saudi camp and that support for the Hezbollah camp can only be counterproductive.
Mrad then visited the interior minister Nuhad Mashnouq – a Hariri ally – who took him by the hand to see Hariri, to find a way for Mrad to remain in business and thus position himself half way between Hezbollah and Saudi Arabia.
This move against Hezbollah was minor in comparison to that taken by another Hezbollah ally: the “Free Patriotic Movement” (FPM) led by Jubran Bassil, the interim Foreign Minister. In 2006, ex-General Michel Aoun, founder of the FPM and father-in-law of Bassil, stood firmly with Hezbollah and signed an agreement in support of the group’s strategy. In 2011 Aoun supported Hezbollah, defying those who called on Lebanon (and Hezbollah) to avoid involvement in the war imposed on Syria.
The FPM had two essential objectives: to defend the existence of the Christian community in Lebanon and to take the presidency. The danger to Christians in Lebanon was real: al-Qaeda and the “Islamic state” (ISIS) Takfiri groups considered Mesopotamia in 2003 and the Levant in 2011 as “Lands of Jihad” while they considered Lebanon a “land of Nusra” (support). The Takfiri attacked Shia, Christians, Yezidi, Druze, and all minorities, including Sunni who disagreed with their objectives. ISIS attacked al-Qaeda, who share the same ideology, and the Taliban, who fight the US in Afghanistan.
The Lebanese Christians – who today live as a minority among Muslims (Shia and Sunni) – believe they are the main target of the Takfiri and that their existence is thus threatened. This is one of the main reasons why the FPM supported Hezbollah during its presence in Syria.
The Christians believed at first that the West would support them and protect their presence in Lebanon. Thus they sent envoys to western leaders such as French President Sarkozy to ask for protection and help. To their great surprise, they were told that they should leave Lebanon: the West would be happy to give them residence permits on the condition that they abandon their wealth and the land of their ancestors!
The ex-General and present Head of internal security, Abbas Ibrahim – a Shia – went to the Vatican to explain why it was important to protect the Christians and their existence in the East–in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq–where they have lived for millennia in harmony with all other religions. Ibrahim explained to Vatican official counterparts that the solution was not to force an exodus of the Christians, but rather to stop the Takfiri fanatics.
Hezbollah holds enough military power to protect not only the Shia of southern Lebanon, the Bekaa and the suburb of Beirut, but also to protect the Christians and other minorities in Lebanon. At the time when the Hezbollah Shia were defending the Christian, Sunni, Druze and other minorities (and themselves), the world was attacking Hezbollah. The West and the Arab countries aligned themselves with the Takfiri exclusively in Syria. The supposedly “free world” considered its main objective was to remove President Bashar al-Assad from power regardless of who would rule Syria after the collapse of the government and the system. A Takfiri dominance and a “failed state” were apparently two acceptable choices.
The US did not learn the lessons of Afghanistan, where the Taliban control 52 provinces today despite the US presence. Nor did the Libyan disaster convince the world to stop its war on the Middle East, despite its catastrophic results and consequences for both the Middle East and Europe.
The media, think-tanks, and academic intelligentsia, who themselves have little to no real experience of war, were incessantly promoting warfare in the Middle East together with regime change. They apparently hoped for rivers of blood and they supported Israel’s objective to have ISIS and AQ on its borders – as their Defence minister Moshe’ Ya’alon clearly said – rather than Iran or Hezbollah or even one of Assad’s soldiers–who actually hadn’t fired a shot across the border since 1973!
Assad’s government was called unacceptable, on the grounds that he was a dictator—as though the US’s strategic and fanatical allies in the region were democratic states allowing their citizens to enjoy democracy, freedom of expression, and even the right to visit their own consulate safely without the risk of being dismembered.
Hezbollah’s goal was to stop the Takfiri at any cost and to keep the battle outside the gates of Lebanon. The organisation achieved this goal, with the help of its Iranian and Russian battlefield allies. The “new Middle East” project that wanted the Takfiri to rule this part of the Middle East (Iraq, Syria and Lebanon) has failed. The Lebanese Christians achieved their first objective of assuring their own survival in Lebanon.
The second objective was for Michel Aoun to reach the Presidency. Indeed, Hezbollah had to use all its political weight to secure the election of Aoun as president in the face of domestic and international pressure. Hezbollah’s Secretary General promised Aoun he would support him to the end and stand by the Christian leader even as he, Aoun, had stood with the Shia who became internally displaced refugees (and refugees in Syria) during the second Israeli war in 2006.
This was an unconditional promise because Aoun believed in the triple alliance responsible for the protection of Lebanon: the People, the Army and the Resistance. This alliance legitimises the right of the Resistance to fight Israeli aggression in the event of future war, or violation of Lebanese territory, whether by sea, land or air.
In October 2016, Aoun reached the Presidency and brought with him to power his son-in-law Jibran Bassil, the shadow president, and appointed him as foreign minister. Bassil had been an ally of Hezbollah before the arrival of Aoun to power and received different kinds of support from Hezbollah, as all Hezbollah allies do.
Now that he is leader of the FPM, Bassil has changed his position. He says what no one in Lebanon dares to say and is forming alliances against the interests of Hezbollah. Bassil began a surprising new path while in power. The new leader of the FPM rightly took a stand close to the west without giving up his strategic stand in the trio-equation, in order to keep the official protection of the resistance.
Sources in Lebanon said “Bassil’s aim for the Presidency is to bring his party closer to the West for fear of being included as a group (Hezbollah) on the US and Arab terrorist list. Bassil didn’t mind being indicated as Hezbollah’s main ally and was ok with Hezbollah being on the terrorist list- until the two main objectives were achieved”.
Bassil came forward with his new political position during the parliamentary elections by forming an alliance with the “Lebanese Forces” of Samir Geagea, wrongly thinking he could lead all or at least the majority of Christians in Lebanon. He made promises to Geagea he didn’t keep after the elections, so as to prevent Geagea from getting important ministries he could use to increase his popularity.
Moreover, Bassil was behind the loss of the Shia seat promoted by Hezbollah in Jbeil (Hussein z’aayter) at the cost of the loss of his own candidates (Rabei’ Awwad) in Jbeil to Geagea’s candidate (Mustafa al-Husseini).
Bassil began leading Christian society on the path of extremism, adopting the language used by Bashir Gemayel, a close ally of Israel before his assassination in September 1982. He speaks about confederacies and about the “absence of ideological differences with Israel”. He also suggested constructing a sculpture to commemorate “withdrawal of the Syrian occupation in Lebanon”. He seems to have forgotten that it was Christian leaders (Pierre Gemayel, Kamil Chamoun and Suleiman Franjiyeh) who first supported the idea of the Syrian intervention in Lebanon on their side against the Palestinian PLO in 1976 in the first place.
According to well-informed sources, Bassil is expected to “increase the distance between his party and Hezbollah using the excuse of “fear of US sanctions”. His animosity to the Shia Speaker Nabih Berri is well-known and he imagines himself in a position to push Hezbollah to take its distance from the Speaker (and leader of AMAL movement). He does not realize that Hezbollah will never accept any possible confrontation with Berri or with AMAL and will never go through another Shia-Shia confrontation as happened when Sheikh Subhi Tfeili wrongly ordered such a clash in 1988, a dark page in the history of the Shia of Lebanon.
Bassil’s attempt to reach the Presidency – after Aoun- by climbing over Hezbollah’s shoulders may still fail. The current bras-de-fer over the appointment of a Sunni minister is taking place mainly because Aoun and Bassil have together 11 ministers, equivalent to the necessary third plus one of the total cabinet of ministries. This means Bassil will be in a position, empowered by this extra minister, to freeze or suspend the cabinet, a hobby well practised by Bassil in past years whenever he dislikes a decision. It is not a question of Hezbollah standing against the PM Hariri and competing with him about the Sunni leadership. Hariri has the majority of the Sunni and an additional minister not to his liking will certainly not affect his popularity.
On the other hand, Hezbollah didn’t hesitate to give its blessing when his main Christian ally, Suleiman Franjiyeh, proposed a meeting with his old enemy Samir Geagea, accused of the assassination of his family members decades ago. Today Geagea is aware that Franjiyeh didn’t come alone and told Geagea that he would respect his word- referring to the promise rejected by Bassil after the parliamentary election results.
Hezbollah informed Franjiyeh that “he is trustworthy, honest and can pursue his objectives” (to reconcile with Geagea, an old enemy of Hezbollah due to his role in the 1975 civil war, his previous relationship with Israel and his present direct link to the US and Saudi Arabia).
The Franjiyeh-Geagea alliance is a source of worry to Bassil and may reshuffle the Christian street once again. Sayyed Nasrallah has fulfilled his promises to Aoun but has no similar obligation to Bassil. The decision as to who becomes president of Lebanon seems to belong to the 8thof March group in the future and Franjiyeh wants to earn the support of the Christians of Mount Lebanon. He joined forces with Geagea in order to push Bassil away, obviously with Hezbollah’s blessing.
As Hezbollah imposed Aoun on the Presidency, it imposes Franjyeh as a future minister of Labour and is expecting the President, Michel Aoun, to appoint a Sunni minister to this future cabinet so that he can rule for the rest of his term. Aoun and Bassil are far from losers in all these equations: in the forthcoming cabinet, they will hold the Defence, Energy, Justice, Industry and Foreign Ministries, together with the power to choose and appoint the Chief of Staff.
This is the gateway – formed by the differences between allies and the run-up to the Presidency – by which the US administration is planning to enter, in order to attack Hezbollah. All other means and attempts have failed.
Will it work? The Christians of Lebanon will decide.
Proofread by: Maurice Brasher and C.B.
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