Lebanon held elections for its parliament on Sunday for the first time since 2009. Not unexpectedly, Hezbollah was the big winner.
Hezbollah’s representatives and allies now control a majority of the seats in Lebanon’s parliament. Sunni candidates allied with – or rather controlled by – Hezbollah won seats that had been controlled by Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s Future Movement.
Lebanese President Michel Aoun’s party lost several seats, making Aoun more beholden than ever to Hezbollah dictates.
Foreign policy experts will no doubt argue that the election results change nothing on the ground in Lebanon. The Lebanese constitution’s division of power along confessional lines, which reserves the premiership to a Sunni, the presidency to a Christian, and the speakership of Parliament to a Shiite, will force Hezbollah to cooperate with Hariri and Aoun, who are expected to remain in their positions.
This “business as usual” argument bears consideration.
The assumption behind it is that Hezbollah is just a domestic political force. True, it has a relationship with Iran. True, it has its own army. But, the thinking goes, Lebanon is full of sectarian militias, so it makes sense that the Shiites would have one — even one that has an arsenal of 150,000 rockets missiles and constitutes one of the largest, best armed, most powerful, and battle-hardened armies in the region.
In March, Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah gave a speech in Persian to an audience of Iranian Revolutionary Guards in Beirut where he explained Hezbollah’s actual relationship to the Lebanese state.
Amir Toumaj from the Long War Journal translated the speech on May 3. Among other things, Nasrallah said that Hezbollah views Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as “infallible.”
As for his group’s relationship with Lebanon, Nasrallah said, “We believe in him [Khamenei] more than the [Lebanese] constitution….We consider this view a legal obligation, and necessary.”
He then declared, “We are the soldiers of his Excellency [Khamenei] and the soldiers of the Islamic Republic of Iran.”
As Toumaj noted, Nasrallah’s speech showed that the “conventional wisdom of describing Hezbollah as a ‘proxy’ of the Islamic Republic is insufficient to describe the relationship – Hezbollah is an arm of the Iranian government and the Lebanese branch of the [Iranian Revolutionary] Guard Corps.”
So, contrary to the popular belief that Hezbollah is a Lebanese entity, two months before Hezbollah won control of Lebanon’s parliament, Nasrallah admitted that his organization is Iranian.
Bearing this in mind, let us return to Sunday’s elections.
More than Hezbollah was the winner, the commentators say, Hariri was the loser. As Emile Hoyayem from London’s International Institute for Security Studies explained in a long Twitter thread, Hariri simply couldn’t mobilize his supporters to vote. He support levels in Beirut, Tripoli and Saida were down by half over the 2005 and 2009 elections.
Hariri’s voters’ decision to sit out the election was entirely rational. They believed him in 2005 and 2009 when he presented himself as the leader who could and would cut Hezbollah down to size. But after 13 years in power, voters have come to realize that Hariri is an empty suit. He didn’t curb Hezbollah’s power. He kissed Nasrallah’s ring.
He supported the new election law passed last year that helped Hezbollah in two key ways. First, it permits independent candidates to stand for office, making it easier for Hezbollah to field Sunni puppets to vote against Hariri’s party members. Second, the election law contains a state vehicle for Hezbollah to bypass U.S. sanctions barring its members from opening or holding bank accounts at dollar-linked banking institutions. Under the law, candidates who have no bank account – that is, Hezbollah candidates – are able to direct campaign funds — and presumably, later on, their salaries and other funds – to government accounts set up for their benefit.
In other words, Hariri, who supported the new law, agreed to designate his government as Hezbollah’s banker in order to cheat on U.S. sanctions.
Hariri’s fecklessness in the face of Hezbollah’s effective control over the country comes through in all areas of Lebanese public life.
For instance, last December, Iranian-controlled Iraqi militia commander Qais al-Khazaali was filmed in uniform touring the southern border (i.e. across from Israel) accompanied by Hezbollah forces. Khazali,who was imprisoned by U.S. forces in Iraq for killing five American soldiers in Karbala in 2007, was released by the Obama administration in 2010 in exchange for a British hostage.
Hariri responded to Khazali’s appearance by pledging to ban him from Lebanon. No action followed, and two weeks later, Hezbollah brought Asaib Ahl al-Haq, a Syrian based Iranian-controlled militia leader, to Lebanon’s border with Israel to reenact Khazali’s stunt.
It was owing to Hariri’s failure to serve as a counterweight to Iran that the Saudi regime decided to pull the plug on its support for Hariri last November. In early November, as part of Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s consolidation of power in the kingdom, and his accelerated operations against Iran, the regime summoned Hariri to Riyadh and apparently coerced him into announcing his resignation from office.
Among other things, Hariri said in his resignation announcement that through Hezbollah, Iran was working to forcibly impose facts on Lebanon. “Iran bypasses the Lebanese regime in an attempt to impose a reality on the ground.”
Regarding Hezbollah, Hariri said, “The organization has managed to impose a reality by the force of weapons. We oppose the existence of weapons outside the hands of Lebanon’s legitimate governing authorities.”
He went on to accuse Hezbollah of trying to assassinate him as it had assassinated his father, former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri, in 2005.
Hariri’s resignation and treatment in Saudi Arabia sparked a storm of protest. Nasrallah insisted that the statement had been coerced. Led by France, the Europeans insisted that Hariri be permitted to leave Saudi Arabia and return to Lebanon. Lebanese President Michel Aoun said that his resignation would not be respected as long as he didn’t present it in Beirut in person.
And so the Saudis let him leave. Hariri returned to Lebanon through France, rescinded his resignation, and bowed to Hezbollah’s power.
Saudi Arabia, for its part, was more or less done. Although Hariri returned to Riyadh in March and the Saudis appeared interested in going through the motions of supporting him, they did not go out of their way to bankroll his campaign or support him in the campaign that preceded Sunday’s poll. And they were right. Hariri has no ability to deliver any benefit to Riyadh or anyone else.
Perhaps the main point of the elections was that Hezbollah no longer feels the need to pretend it is just a faction in Lebanon’s body politic anymore. In his speech to the IRGC, Nasrallah said, “Today, Hezbollah is a global power.”
As such, it has no reason to be deferential to Hariri. In a sign of its contempt for Hariri, Hezbollah ran Lebanon’s former intelligence chief Jamil al-Sayyed, a Sunni, as an independent candidate in eastern Lebanon’s Baalbek-Hermel district. Sayyed, who once led Lebanon’s intelligence service, was jailed for four years for his role in orchestrating the assassination of Hariri’s father Rafiq Hariri in March 2005.
According to Hoyayem, as the votes were being counted, Hezbollah supporters in Beirut decked a statue of the slain Hariri with Hezbollah flags and chanted, “Lebanon is Shiite!”
Hezbollah’s decision to come out of the shadows and be recognized as both an Iranian entity and as the supreme ruler of Lebanon places the U.S. in a critical position. While most public debate regarding U.S. policy towards Iran has focused on its nuclear program, left nearly undiscussed is the fact that since 2007, the U.S. has lavished the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) with a one and a half billion dollars worth of advanced weapons systems.
The U.S. has also trained 32,000 LAF forces. In August 2017, U.S. special forces fought alongside LAF forces in a Hezbollah-commanded operation against ISIS forces along the Syrian-Lebanon border. This even as UN forces serving along the border between Israel and Lebanon openly acknowledge that the LAF serves as a Hezbollah proxy force.
Even as President Donald Trump has spoken of his desire to remove U.S. forces from Syria, where they block Iran’s consolidation of its control over the Syrian-Iraqi border, the U.S. has insisted on maintaining its support for the Iranian-controlled LAF.
According to the U.S. Embassy in Beirut, in 2017, the U.S. provided the LAF with 32 M1A2 Bradley Fighting Vehicles; 50 armored Humvees; an Armed Cessna aircraft with hellfire missiles; 55 mortar systems; 50 Mark-19 automatic grenade launchers; 1100 machine guns (including eight hundred 50 caliber machine guns); 4,000 M4 rifles; over half a million rounds of ammunition; 320 night vision devices and thermal sights; and 360 secure communication radios.
In March, then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson indicated that the U.S. views Hezbollah as a legitimate Lebanese political force that simply needs to get rid of its weapons when he said, “We … have to acknowledge the reality that they [Hezbollah] also are part of the political process in Lebanon.”
Some commentators argue that the U.S. must continue to support the LAF lest the Russians supplant the U.S. position in Lebanon. It is hard to understand this argument.
Currently, the fact is that given Hezbollah’s control over the LAF, U.S. forces operating with the LAF in Lebanon are effectively at Hezbollah’s mercy. Moreover, Russia just signed a deal with the Hariri government to sell Lebanon $1 billion in advanced arms. In other words, the Russians are already operating in Lebanon in support of the LAF, which is controlled by Iran and the IRGC’s Lebanese division (Hezbollah). Both Iran and Hezbollah are allied with Russia. In other words, Russia already holds far more sway over the LAF than the U.S. due to its alliance with Iran, which controls the LAF through Hezbollah.
Following Hezbollah’s – again, that is, Iran’s — electoral victory in Lebanon, the U.S. really only has one significant, long overdue move to make. Namely, the Trump administration should cut off all military and civilian aid to the Hezbollah-controlled Lebanese government.
Further, the U.S. should designate Iranian-controlled Lebanon a state sponsor of terrorism. And it should announce that in the event of war between Iran’s Lebanese division Hezbollah and Israel, the U.S. will make its best efforts to provide Israel with all assistance it requires to defeat Hezbollah and its allied forces completely.
In the face of Hezbollah’s victory, and its open contempt for its U.S. supported fig leaf Hariri, anything less will signal weakness and raise the prospects of war.