Avoiding Punishing Lebanon Because of Hezbollah

Lebanon represents a political quandary to policy-makers and political scientists. Among its national challenges, none has been more perplexing to the international community than the question of Hezbollah. While Lebanon formed a new government after nine months of political stalemate, the party continues to maintain a sizable influence in national politics despite sanctions by the United States and its designation as a terrorist organization.

The party’s role in the Middle East poses an interesting question regarding how the Trump Administration will continue to treat Lebanon. It is evident that Washington’s sanctions are not having the effect of halting the party’s growth. At the same time, because of Lebanon’s strategic importance, the United States will not simply ignore the party. In response to Washington’s recent condemnation of Hezbollah’s expanding role in Lebanon, the party’s representatives claimed that the United States had violated Lebanon’s “national sovereignty” and “the right to self-defense.” It is clear that as the party grows, it has created a narrative that conflates its own operations with those of the nation itself. While the United States does not recognize Hezbollah as a political party, it would behoove US government policies, at the very least, to recognize Hezbollah as a political reality. In addition, neglecting that reality and isolating Hezbollah will likely continue to contribute to the party’s growth and influence, as opposed to stifling it.

Lebanon’s Domestic Conditions

Established in the 1980s during the heat of the Lebanese Civil War, Hezbollah is recognized as the most “capable armed group” in the country by the US Central Intelligence Agency. The party has a separate command structure and doctrine from the Lebanese Armed Forces, thus creating a power imbalance within the Lebanese government. Due to Hezbollah’s political and military clout, Lebanon’s political struggle has been met with arbitrary and irregular timelines. For years President Michel Aoun seemed to oppose Hezbollah; however, events have called for a mutually beneficial alliance between Aoun and Hezbollah. Due to his alliance with Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah, Aoun has defended the need for Hezbollah to operate in Lebanon, stressing that more than a third of the country supports the movement. This has worried opponents of the party who see it as a state-within-a-state that exercises too much undue influence.

The party has a separate command structure and doctrine from the Lebanese Armed Forces, thus creating a power imbalance within the Lebanese government.

Until Aoun’s election as head of state in October 2016, Lebanon faced several military and economic challenges during its presidential hiatus. The power vacuum allowed Hezbollah to expand its political and military affairs unchecked. In May 2018, parliamentary elections showed Hezbollah’s growing role in Lebanese politics as the party and its allies secured a majority. Nasrallah claimed that the results were a “great political and moral victory for the resistance option that protects the sovereignty of the country.” Furthermore, when Prime Minister Saad Hariri finally formed his government last January, Hezbollah’s influence was more apparent as the number of its allies in government increased. This is primarily because of the cooperation between Nasrallah and Aoun’s respective corners.

Lebanon’s minister of foreign affairs and Aoun’s son-in-law, Gebran Bassil, recently held tours alongside dignitaries tied to Hezbollah in an effort to challenge Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s claim that Lebanon has been complicit in allowing Hezbollah to build missile sites near Rafic Hariri International Airport. Netanyahu was discredited when no evidence was found regarding the alleged sites, giving the party official cover by the Lebanese government.

Indeed, with Netanyahu’s claims unproven, the Hezbollah-Aoun alliance fostered an indirect extension for the party’s reach into Lebanese politics. Aoun is more than willing to cooperate with Hezbollah considering Lebanon’s large Shia population and sizeable support for the party. More recently, the United States expressed its concerns about the appointment of Jamil Jabak as health minister in the new government. Jabak, an alleged ally to Nasrallah, will likely contribute to Hezbollah’s already deep reach within mainstream politics. While Prime Minister Hariri claims that cabinet appointments are not for the independent parties but for all the Lebanese, the reality for Hezbollah is that favorable appointments do in fact strengthen its presence in the government and the region at large.

While Prime Minister Hariri claims that cabinet appointments are not for the independent parties but for all the Lebanese, the reality for Hezbollah is that favorable appointments do in fact strengthen its presence in the government and the region at large.

What is important to understand is that Hezbollah is not merely a terrorist militia acting outside the parameters of the Lebanese government. While its military arm is considered a major threat by the United States and its allies, it is the party’s political wing that has the most room for growth. Indeed, Hezbollah has political clout in Lebanese politics and among a large number of Lebanese citizens. While this scenario is not ideal for Washington, it is a political reality in Lebanon. Thus, the United States’ current modus operandi will be to continue to be ineffectual or worse, to further alienate a country with a growing involvement in important regional politics.

Hezbollah’s Position in External Affairs

After the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah , the country’s borders remained relatively quiet until about 2014, when Lebanon was faced with several major challenges, most significant among them the vacuum in the presidential palace. The Syrian Civil War led to the crisis of refugees in the region, which eventually exceeded the one million mark in Lebanon. The civil war next door also provided Hezbollah with the opportunity to enhance its operations in Syria without answering to anyone. During the Syrian Civil War, Nasrallah allied with Iran, which has supported Bashar al-Assad for years. Thus, thousands of Hezbollah fighters were sent to combat militant uprisings against Assad’s regime. At face value, Hezbollah is combatting militants in Syria primarily due to security interests; however, this is also part of the tug-of-war that exists between Iran, Saudi Arabia, Israel, and the United States. This does not mean that Hezbollah is a mere proxy; rather, it facilitates a strategic alliance with Iran and Syria. Considering that Saudi Arabia has been vying for control over Lebanon as well, it is not a coincidence that Iran continues to invest in the capabilities of Hezbollah.

At face value, Hezbollah is combatting militants in Syria primarily due to security interests; however, this is also part of the tug-of-war that exists between Iran, Saudi Arabia, Israel, and the United States.

In fact, the sectarian rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran has led to a split in the allegiances of the Lebanese parliament, making Lebanon more polarized than ever. Since the start of the civil war in Syria, Hezbollah has evolved from a force primarily seeking to end the Israeli occupation of South Lebanon to an Arab military ally to Iran in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. Nasrallah’s open support for the Houthi movement in Yemen is an example of the deepening sectarian divides that are perforating in the Middle East. Its military support in conflicts outside of Lebanon places Hezbollah almost directly against the coalitions led by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and the United States, which are traditional allies of the Lebanese government. Furthermore, by supporting Bashar al-Assad, the party shows its acceptance of the regime’s human rights violations against the Syrian people. It is clear, however, that Hezbollah is in a position to forge political alliances as a non-state actor and on behalf of Lebanon; indeed, the Lebanese government is in no position to completely cut off Hezbollah due to its power in external affairs. The United States, therefore, must acknowledge the reality that the party is an integral part of Lebanon’s political complex. The challenge of formulating effective policy based on this acceptance lies squarely in the historical hostility between Israel and Hezbollah.

The Enmity between Hezbollah and Israel

Hezbollah’s raison d’être lies in its resistance activities against Israel, a narrative that peaked in 2006. Its strong popularity in Lebanon at that time led to the party’s powerful position in Beirut. In December 2018, Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, Danny Danon, warned the international community about what he called “attack tunnels” discovered on the Lebanese-Israeli border. Prime Minister Netanyahu further described these as constituting war crimes. In fact, cross-border relations are governed by UN Security Council Resolution 1701 which calls for a so-called “blue line” to be used as a “buffer zone free of armed personnel other than UN, Lebanese forces.” Boasting of Hezbollah’s ability to enter Israel “for years,” Nasrallah also expressed fears about possible “rash” decisions by the Likud to get votes in the runup to the recent Israeli elections. In the same interview, Nasrallah warned against Israel’s involvement in Syria, implying an impending military confrontation between the two. Rightwing Israeli Education Minister Naftali Bennett ironically echoed Nasrallah’s narrative that Hezbollah’s authority represents the country rather than the group, by claiming that “The State of Israel will not differentiate between the sovereign State of Lebanon and Hezbollah, and will view Lebanon as responsible for any action from within its territory.”

Israeli officials, who have called for global action against Hezbollah’s “attack tunnels” on the Lebanese-Israeli border, continue to draw attention to the question of Hezbollah’s military capabilities and the necessity for Lebanon to bar the movement from gaining more power.

Israeli officials, who have called for global action against Hezbollah’s “attack tunnels” on the Lebanese-Israeli border, continue to draw attention to the question of Hezbollah’s military capabilities and the necessity for Lebanon to bar the movement from gaining more power. However, it may be inadvisable to consider the party merely as an armed proxy of Iran because that view minimizes Hezbollah’s diplomatic capabilities. At one point it may have been effective to vilify the entire organization, but Hezbollah has now evolved into a significant political player in Lebanon. Many allies to Israel have sanctioned the military wing of Hezbollah but not its political wing.

Recently the United Kingdom proscribed the political wing of Hezbollah, along with its military. While this meshes with American foreign policy, leaders such as French President Emmanuel Macron did not follow suit, claiming that “It is not up to France or other outside powers to know which political force represented in Lebanon would be good or not, it is up to the Lebanese people to do so.” This is an example of a tactical policy direction that could serve Washington’s interests as well. Israel is a trusted ally to the United States, and it is unlikely that this alliance will change. However, rather than further isolating Hezbollah, Washington could continue fostering a relationship with Lebanon by working with the Lebanese government and helping strengthen its foundations. Such a policy could facilitate the Lebanese government’s expansion of its sovereign control over the country.

The US Position on Hezbollah

While current US foreign policy in Lebanon is focused on having a stronger position on Hezbollah, Washington continues to treat the party as a mere proxy militia of Iran. The United States and Israel have coordinated their policy pertaining to Lebanon, but they are underestimating the reach of its political wing. Since 2015, Washington has begun passing amendments to sanction Hezbollah under the “Hizballah International Financing Prevention Amendments Act of 2017.” This is the basis of the United States’ current mission to limit the military and economic growth of the organization. Furthermore, the Trump Administration’s anxieties are exemplified by the sanctions that target the future of Hezbollah’s role in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen, and namely Nasrallah’s son, Mohammad Jawad Nasrallah. However, these sanctions are symbolic at best and are undoubtedly related to the Trump Administration’s resurrected sanctions on Iran. While others suggest a continuation of condemning Hezbollah and the Lebanese government, one must ask: What practical contribution does that make to Washington’s policy interests? Neither the UN Security Council nor the United States has the practical ability to peacefully force Hezbollah’s disarmament. This would be not only dangerous to Lebanon’s fragile peace and security but it could also spark the fires of another civil war.

  Neither the UN Security Council nor the United States has the practical ability to peacefully force Hezbollah’s disarmament. This would be not only dangerous to Lebanon’s fragile peace and security but it could also spark the fires of another civil war.

However, these discussions on Lebanon are important as the small country has an important role in the regional rivalries of the Middle East. Furthermore, the United States’ engagement with Lebanon following sanctions has a direct impact on how other nations in the region interact with the country. Lebanon’s strategic importance among the regional powers is one of the major reasons why the United States cannot abandon the country. The recent delivery of American weapons to the Lebanese army is a case in point. However, if the United States is to continue strengthening its relationship with Lebanon, it should consider revising its rigid stance on Lebanese domestic politics, which could begin to contradict Washington’s interests.

It is difficult to provide clear policy answers to this issue. On the one hand, Hezbollah continues to prove that it is one of, if not the, most important political players in the country. On the other hand, it has violated international law as well as sided with others who have done the same. Thus, a reassessment of policy in Lebanon would prove useful to global interests in the Middle East. Contrary to recent claims by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the United States’ gung-ho approach to alienating Hezbollah is actually not weakening the party’s influence at all. This is evident in statements by Lebanese Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, who responded to Pompeo by asserting that “as far as we are concerned Hezbollah is a Lebanese party—not terrorist—with MPs elected by the Lebanese people and with a lot of popular support.” Evidently, Pompeo’s ultimatum for Lebanon—to “move forward as an independent and proud nation or allow the dark ambitions of Iran and Hezbollah” to control it—is not at all affecting the conduct and view of the institutions of the Lebanese government.

The United States would be wise to reevaluate how it approaches Hezbollah and it should do so in a pragmatic rather than symbolic way. Rather than proscribing the entire organization and smearing the efforts of the Lebanese government, the United States would do well to draw inspiration from countries like France that condemn the military arm of Hezbollah but do not isolate its political wing—which, after all, is part of the Lebanese government. As for Hezbollah, if it is, in fact, going to continue to work within the parameters of the Lebanese political apparatus, then it, too, must apply a realistic and sensible approach regarding future challenges within its own government and with allies in the Lebanese parliament.

Khaldon Roukie is a Research and Analysis intern at Arab Center Washington DC