Elijah J. Magnier: @ejmalrai
“I discussed with Secretary Pompeo three main topics: Iran, Iran and Iran”, said PM Benyamin Netanyahu in Lisbon last week.
“We stand with the people of Lebanon to fight against corruption and terrorism. Today we designated two prominent Lebanese businessmen whose illicit financial activity supports Hizballah. We will continue to use all the tools at our disposal to counter the threat Hizballah poses”. Secretary Pompeo on the 13th of December 2019.
Pompeo and Netanyahu speak of Iran, Corruption and Terrorism and Hezbollah’s supposed relation to terrorism. Hezbollah, an ally of Iran, is indeed the US’s main target in Lebanon. Corruption, and/or Democracy are just examples of the usual shop-worn US rhetoric. President Trump’s recent invocation of his “favourite dictator” (the Egyptian President Sisi), and his statement that “Saudi Arabia’s non-democratic monarchy is our best ally” attest to the USA’s apparent concern for democracy.
This presentation will necessarily address the causes that seem to portend a chaotic future for Lebanon. But first, a review of what is happening:
Two months ago, people occupied the streets of Lebanon in a common cause, free from sectarianism and independent of the parties and organisations they belonged to. Hunger and unemployment united the Lebanese, exasperated by the long-standing corruption and rule of elite politicians and their offspring. Neither the US nor any other foreign power were visibly involved in the spontaneous reaction of the inhabitants of Lebanon.
Such a “righteous” movement caused panic among the political leaders, without exception.
Hezbollah said over a year ago that its primary objective in the new cabinet would be to fight corruption, a very ambitious goal that elicited broad criticism from both Hezbollah’s allies and enemies.
Such a goal seemed unrealistic in a society ruled by corruption for decades. Moreover, the known corrupted political leaders are among Hezbollah’s political enemies, friends and strategic allies. Thus, Hezbollah’s goal proved to be both unmanageable and unachievable in both the short and medium-term.
When people went onto the streets during those first days, Hezbollah was just about to start organising a street-presence to call for the end of corruption. This is why, in the early days, it was widely believed that Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah, the Secretary-General of Hezbollah, was behind it.
Soon, this interpretation was no longer sustainable: people from all walks of life were asking for real reforms; all politicians were subject to harsh criticism.
Leading politicians panicked and the President and his son-in-law, the current Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, were about to take essential but painful (for their party the ‘Free Nationalistic Movement’) decisions relating to their future. That would have been the case had they not been stopped at the last moment by their main ally, the Hezbollah Leader.
Weeks went by and things in the street took another turn. The Lebanese Army commander General Joseph Aoun refused to intervene and informed whomsoever it might concern that the army was under pressure from the US Embassy which was asking to keep the Army away and to avoid intervening at all costs. One of the General’s closest aides-de-camp told me that a US official called General Aoun “Mr President”, tickling the Chief of the Army’s ambition to become the future President: a dream of every Christian Maronite in power in Lebanon.
The lack of intervention by the Army brought to the street other interventionists with their agendas, incompatible with each others’: the pro-US and pro-Saudi “Lebanese Forces” led by Samir Geagea and the men of Prime Minister Saad Hariri. Geagea was the first to offer the resignation of his Ministers in the Cabinet and pushed his men onto the streets, effectively contributing to the chaos. Hariri was aiming to improve his provocative political demands. The caretaker Prime Minister Saad Hariri wants to exclude the will of the majority of the Parliament – which retains 73 MPs – and form a technocrat cabinet of his own choosing, he who leads only 21 out of 128 Members of the Parliament.
A few weeks ago, Hezbollah informed the President that its men would intervene only to break the blockade of all streets and areas inhabited by the Shia if thugs continue to surround it. The main road from Beirut to southern Lebanon, around the suburbs of Beirut and to the Bekaa Valley were all blocked by pro-Hariri and pro-Jumblat supporters.
This decision alarmed the Lebanese responsible because It threatened a split in the armed forces and could trigger a reaction between the two Muslim schools. The potential for domestic confrontation was increasing. Overnight, the decision was taken for the Army to open all main roads and protect protestors, a common point agreed upon by most of the political leaders.
Lebanon is exceptionally fragile: even the civil war (1975-1989) was not sufficient to eradicate sectarianism. It remains fertile ground for another episode of civil war, mainly between the two main Muslim schools, the Sunni and Shia. This is not the case in neighbouring Syria and Iraq.
And when it comes to financing, the US can do very little to rescue Lebanon’s $86 billion deficit. Certainly, protestors will hardly be able to achieve their demands and remove the entire Government, Parliament and President. An active government is needed to propose new anti-corruption laws, empower the justice body and suggest a new electoral law to Parliament.
The Parliament, which is composed of the same politicians who are rejected and attacked by protestors, will have to approve or amend the government’s suggestions of new laws. Basically, the same representatives of the people -who are part of the political elite accused of corruption – are the ones in charge of adopting reforms. So, back to square one.
Saad Hariri – whose late father led the corrupt system in Lebanon from 1992 and for 10 non-consecutive years before his assassination in 2005 – led the country for five years as a Prime Minister. He is offering himself today as the only candidate with the full support of his followers behind him. He is considered by protestors as part of the corrupt system, as is the Shia Speaker Nabih Berri who ruled – and is still ruling – for 27 years, the Druse leader Walid Jumblatt, and many other leading politicians.
This week, President Aoun was expected to nominate Saad Hariri as Prime Minister. This despite the refusal of the Foreign Minister Basile to participate, and the position of Hezbollah to accept Hariri as the future Prime Minister even without nominating him during the obligatory consultations prior to the nomination. Hariri was about to become the new PM when he was surprised by a supposed ally, Samir Geagea, who de-nominated him. This meant another candidate had to be found from the Sunni community. In any case, even a miracle cannot extricate Lebanon from its serious financial crisis, whoever takes the lead of the country
It is not surprising that the local currency has lost value. Investors and depositors in foreign currency – mainly US dollars – are the victims of over 20 years’ spending by the central bank to prevent the rise of the local currency against the dollar. Lebanese Lira holders find themselves losing a large chunk of their savings, adding more sourness to this unhappy population. This is not going to work in the long-term and the situation can never return to how it was before the protests. The currency may recover some of its value but the level will never be the same.
This new situation will affect most of the population, Christians and Muslims of all religious schools. Although Hezbollah militants are paid in US dollars due to Iran’s consistent financial support, the society that protects it is at the top of the list of those who will suffer dearly from the economic crisis.
But let us return to the main issue mentioned at the outset. Is Hezbollah weak: weaker than ever? Is there a plan to destabilise Lebanon or destabilise Iran’s allies in Lebanon? Who could be behind such a plan, if it exists? Is Lebanon on the verge of chaos? Is Lebanon’s chaos useful for the West and Israel?
Articles in mainstream media went viral with the titles: “Terrorists, terrorists, Hezbollah are terrorists”. Other articles wrote on their front page: “Here is Lebanon, not Iran” protestors chanted it too. And analysts wrote: “Protestors in Lebanon have broken a taboo in the Shia community”. These slogans are meant to demonstrate to the world that Iran’s influence in the Levant is in decline and that its allies are in trouble in Lebanon as well as in Syria and Iraq. Quite inaccurate.
In fact, the entire Lebanese Muslim Shia schools in Lebanon have never been all united around Hezbollah. Among the Lebanese Shia, there are the anti-Hezbollah, the pro-Amal, those who are neutral, those who belong to different political (but small) groups, the communists, and the pro-Hezbollah.
But what is the close-to-reality percentage of those anti-Hezbollah today as the mainstream media might portray it? According to a recent ‘Washington Institute’ report – a US think tank hosting the bitterest anti-Hezbollah and anti-Iran neocon analysts with quite unexceptional skills – reports that 75% of the Lebanese Shia “hold a very positive attitude toward Hezbollah”.
Hezbollah’s military experience in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq against the Sunni Takfiri, in Yemen against the Saudi-UAE led coalition and against the Israeli Army for so many decades has developed an unparalleled level of skill in guerrilla warfare. Also, Hezbollah’s combat with classical armies (Israel and Saudi Arabia) and alongside other conventional armies (Syria and Russia) gave precious experience to this non-regular but highly organised quasi-state actor.
Moreover, the armed drones, precision and cruise missiles provided by Russia through Syria and by Iran elevated Hezbollah to yet another level of military capability. That said, the electronic competence in mobile tapping and electronic hardware in the hands of Hezbollah should indeed not be overlooked.
Although it recognises the corrupt political system and its costly consequences on the population, the Hezbollah leadership is convinced that the aim of the protests and the lack of intervention by the Lebanese Army in the first weeks to contain protestors in specific areas was intended at dragging Hezbollah militants onto the streets. That could have triggered a civil war even if the country were not prepared for it and if Hezbollah leadership had not been expecting such a move.
In fact, it is most likely that President Trump has a limited interest in Lebanon (Syria and Iraq). The only country that could play a role in Lebanon is Saudi Arabia, but apparently without a defined strategy. We saw the useless, destructive and “war-crime level” of attacks the Saudis have inflicted over that poorest country in the Middle East, Yemen, for the last few years.
The monarchy has its men in various key elite political positions and can keep Lebanon in limbo or push it into chaos with little investment. It would be enough to burn Hariri’s candidateship and whisper to the Sunni in Lebanon to avoid nominating a Prime Minister until further notice. That suits Hezbollah fine if that is the Saudi’s will. Waiting for the end of the Trump era to form a government in Lebanon may not be such a bad idea. However, any war needs substantial finance.
Indeed, it will require a large financial investment, a much longer period of stagnation and a long-term financial crisis to push the Lebanese to desperation. This means, in other words, taking up arms if and when circumstances become appropriate. This is why Hezbollah issued two directives to all its members with the same guidance: come off the streets regardless of provocation.
If Israel believes it can benefit from a chaotic Lebanon, it is undoubtedly off track. The Israeli domestic crisis is far from being over with the third election of a new Prime Minister already in place. Hezbollah and Israel understand one another and are aware of the messages exchanged, however “hot” these are.
The lack of readiness of the Israeli domestic front, the critical economic situation in Israel and the united front of the “Axis of the Resistance” (Gaza, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Iran) are far from readying Israel for another war against such a powerful Hezbollah.
There is little doubt that Lebanon will suffer economically in the short and medium-term, without necessarily falling into general chaos. War is most probably not imminent. Most Middle Eastern countries and those involved in this theatre are economically not in a position to take risks. Lessons are drawn from Afghanistan, Lebanon, Iraq, Libya and Syria should by now be sufficient for decision-makers to look for other less belligerent options. However, nothing can be excluded in this part of the world where, in recent decades, stability has been a conspicuously lacking luxury.
There are other significant issues not to omit when addressing the potential chaos in Lebanon and its root-causes:
. The “deal of the century” and its connection to the presence of the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon and the objective to prevent their right to return to Palestine.
. The US pressure to prevent the return of the Syrian refugees to their home, even if Damascus is now safer than Beirut.
. The maritime dispute between Israel and Lebanon over block 9 and the US political pressure in this regard, which strongly relates to the stability of Lebanon.
But these important points, I am afraid, will have to wait for another opportunity.
In the meantime, my conclusion is the following:
In 1982, Israel invaded Lebanon and strongly contributed to the birth of Hezbollah. In 2011, the world supported the Syrian uprising, the US-trained many jihadists in their (failed) objective to overthrow Bashar al-Assad and allowed al-Qaeda and ISIS to travel and later to grow in the Levant.
The result was the unimaginable presence of Iran on the border with Israel, a unique warfare experience for Hezbollah and the birth of dozens of Syrian groups mirroring Hezbollah in Syria and Iraq. No need to mention the hundreds of thousands killed and wounded, the hundreds of billions of dollars damages to the infrastructure in Syria and Iraq, and the millions of refugees.
In 2014, the US observed ISIS growing, allowing it to occupy a third of Iraq watching from afar and preventing the delivery of already paid-for weapons to the Iraqi government. The result was the intervention of Iran and the formation of Hashd al-Shaabi that the world describes today as “Iran’s proxy”.
What will happen if Lebanon is allowed to descend into total chaos? How will Iran and Hezbollah move to cement their position over the country, opening the road for Russia and China to move in? Would Lebanese Christians, Muslims, Palestinians and Syrian refugees join together in a mass exodus towards Europe?
There is little appetite in Europe and the rest of the world to see refugees flocking to their nearby continent. The Middle East and Europe will not then necessarily be a safer place, probably far from it.
Conference – Rome
Institute for Global Studies
“Lebanon on the verge of collapse?”
17 December 2019
Proofread by: Maurice Brasher and C.G.B
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