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Flashpoint / Global

Lebanon

I. Why it Matters

Lebanon has remained stable despite the bloody civil war in Syria that sent millions of refugees into the small multi-ethnic, multi-sectarian fragile country. More broadly, it has been spared, so far, from the regional impact of the cold war between Iran and Saudi Arabia and between Iran and Israel. But tensions are rising, and Lebanon could become a new battleground for regional rivalries.

II. Recent Developments

  • 9 May 2019
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    Israel Foreign Ministry Twitter 
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    ISRAELI DEFENCE MINISTER'S Twitter
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Background

Lebanon is deeply fractured along clan, family, confessional, regional and social lines. It still bears the scars of a long and bloody civil war, and its politics still live by the rhythm of the Taef Accord brokered in Saudi Arabia in November 1989.

Hizbollah, created with Iranian help in the turmoil of Israel’s 1982 Lebanon invasion and occupation, for many years owed its popularity and growth to its championing of Lebanese Shiites’ cause without presenting itself as a sectarian actor, and to its adopting a nationalist and anti-imperialist rhetoric focused on Israel and the U.S. Since the 1990 end of the civil war, it has played a dual role of political party within the Lebanese system and armed resistance movement confronting Israel outside state structures. The 2011 Syrian uprising and subsequent civil war led it to shed its predominantly Lebanese profile by projecting its power across the border and thrusting itself into a sectarian-coloured regional power struggle.

Hizbollah’s Syria intervention thus changed the way other regional actors see the organisation. It has gone from a nuisance to Saudi interests and a threat to Israel, to a significant regional player in its own right, acting as one of Tehran’s levers. In October 2016, after two years of political stalemate, and with Riyadh’s implicit blessing, Michel Aoun – a Christian politician close to Hizbollah – was elected president, while Saad Hariri, Saudi Arabia’s principal ally, took up the post of prime minister in a government that included Hizbollah.

In announcing his surprise resignation on 4 November 2017, Hariri was unequivocal in condemning Hizbollah and Iran’s influence in Lebanon. From Riyadh, Hariri declared that “wherever Iran settles, it sows discord, devastation, and destruction, proven by its interference in the internal affairs of Arab countries”. In a measured reaction, Hizbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, called for calm, while contending that Saudi Arabia was behind the move. Hariri suspended his resignation on 22 November, and withdrew it on 5 December. 

The view from Washington is that Hizbollah is a terrorist organisation and an agent of Iranian influence across the Levant. In October, Congress passed a series of new sanctions against the group as part of a wider effort to confront Iran’s regional influence. Yet, the Trump administration is also concerned not to rock the boat in one of the region’s few islands of relative stability. Washington and its regional allies are also concerned about what they suspect is an Iranian attempt to forge a land corridor from Iran to Iraq to Syria to Lebanon that would enhance Tehran’s ability to ship arms to Hizbollah and its proxies in Syria.

The view from Tehran is that Hariri did not resign but was pushed out by Saudi Arabia, in order to draw Israel into conflict with Hizbollah. Iran has little interest in seeing Lebanon slip into turmoil or Hizbollah engaged in another front, particularly as it remains preoccupied with assuring the Assad regime’s survival.

The view from Jerusalem is that it must highlight the threat it faces from Hizbollah to rally outside support toward adopting a tougher line against Iran. In an interview with a Saudi-owned website, Israel’s chief of staff, Gadi Eisenkot, stated that Israel was “ready to exchange experiences with moderate Arab countries and to exchange intelligence to confront Iran”. Israel has drawn at least three red lines regarding Hizbollah: over Iran’s transfer of sophisticated weapons to Hizbollah, Hizbollah massing fighters in southern Syria and Hizbollah’s attempt to build an indigenous manufacturing capability for precision-guided missiles

Lebanon's prime minister Saad al-Hariri walks down the steps of an airplane at Beirut's international airport, 21 November 2017 REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir

III. Analysis

Poll Position? Lebanon's 6 May elections readjusted the political balance but brought no fundamental change. Hizbollah and its partner Amal once again monopolised the Shiite vote to win 28 seats, and they can count on the support of about a dozen MPs from smaller parties, but this does not amount to a sweeping victory or coherent parliamentary bloc. Prime Minister Saad Hariri's Future Movement saw its parliamentary bloc dwindle by a third, and he lacks the numbers to form a government without Hizbollah's support. For its part, Hizbollah has expressed its intention to cooperate with Hariri. Thus the new parliament, and the new government, will likely resemble the old.   

A New Cold War Front? Hariri's move shows that Lebanon is no longer insulated from the Tehran-Riyadh rivalry. Saudi Arabia sees an ascendant Iran in the region and is seeking, along with the U.S. and Israel, to reverse its adversary’s gains. They may see making Iran bleed in Lebanon, or at minimum curbing Hizbollah’s political strength, as one way of achieving that goal. Iranian media, implausibly, cited Tehran’s rejection of Saudi terms regarding Iran’s policies in Yemen, relayed by Hariri before resigning, as part of the circumstances surrounding his departure.

A Chimera: The notion that the Saudi leadership could have used Hariri, as prime minister, to rein in Hizbollah in Lebanon is fanciful if one considers the group’s relationship to previous Lebanese governments since 2005, which it either dominated, defied or toppled at will. Nor is it plausible that Hariri’s resignation would reduce Hizbollah’s political dominance. With the party and its allies effectively monopolising the vote of the Shiite community – roughly a third of the population – no government can be formed without its consent. If the idea was to expose Hizbollah and trigger an Israel-Hizbollah confrontation, Israel neither needed the exposure nor appears to have the appetite for a war with Hizbollah at this stage.

Storm in a Teacup? Hariri’s resignation was put on hold after he returned to Lebanon, then rescinded. If it is revived, the most likely near-term scenario is that Lebanon will once again be stuck without a functional government, a situation that arguably serves Hizbollah more than it harms it. Rather than as the source of the problem, Hizbollah’s secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah, can cast his party as a proponent of “safety and stability for Lebanon” whose partner has walked out on.

Neither Imminent, Nor Inevitable? The very reason Israel wishes to forcefully strike Hizbollah is the reason it is inhibited from doing so — namely the prospect of a barrage of missiles on its urban centres. Israel possesses far greater ability to inflict pain, but Hizbollah possesses far greater capacity to absorb it, which means that any large-scale Israeli operation runs the risk of being open-ended.

Ali Akbar Velayati, a senior adviser to Iran’s supreme leader meets with Hassan Nasrallah, 3 November 2017 IRNA

IV. Scenarios and Recommendations

Red Lines on Fault Lines: Actions by Iran and/or Hizbollah that challenge the Israeli red lines regarding weapons transfers to, and weapons production by Hizbollah can lead to a military response in Lebanon, inside Syria or both. The third red line over Hizbollah’s presence in south-east Syria further heightens tensions, and Israeli kinetic action against Iran-backed forces there could draw Hizbollah into a conflict as well. While neither Israel nor Hizbollah is eager for a fight, they might both push to the brink, calculating – or miscalculating – that the other loathes a confrontation more than they do. 

David and Goliath? There is no Lebanese actor able to mount a credible military challenge to Hizbollah. In the region, Israel is the only force that could seriously decimate, or perhaps even destroy, the party’s military capability, but this would occur with devastating effect for the civilian population in Lebanon but also, to a lesser extent, in Israel. It appears unlikely that Prime Minister Netanyahu is ready to go to war at this time. Even with U.S. and Saudi support, Israel would carry the burden of military action and bear the brunt of Hizbollah’s retaliation via its considerable missile capacity, reckoned by Israel to number around 120,000.

No Provocation = No War: Israel and Hizbollah should refrain from testing the other sides’ limits. Hizbollah should halt development of more potent pression guided missiles that it knows would provoke an Israeli response. Israel can enforce the red lines that it has established, as it has done so in Syria; but should refrain from pushing the envelope, targeting Hizbollah on Lebanon’s soil, and enticing the party to take retaliatory measures of its own.