by Hanin Ghaddar*
A few days after the ceasefire agreement in South Syria was signed between the US, Russia, and Jordan, Hezbollah moved its troops to the mountains of Arsal, at the northern border between Lebanon and Syria, and launched an offensive against the militants that have been there for years. And in less than a week, the Nusra Front agreed to evacuate the town and move to Idlib along with 9000 militants and their families. While Hezbollah dictated the time and context of this offensive, one cannot but wonder about the Lebanese government’s role in this process, including both the war and the deal that was reached between Hezbollah and Abu Malek Al Talli, the leader of the Nusra Front in Arsal.
According to the Washington Post, whose reporter participated in a tour that Hezbollah organized for journalists in the mountains of Arsal after the agreement was reached, there was no sign of the Lebanese State, in the sense that the Lebanese army was not present and that the Lebanese government was not involved in both the battle or the deal proceedings. This, of course, was no surprise for those who understood the level of control Hezbollah has gained in Lebanon. But it also raises the question to the place and value of Lebanon to Iran’s regional plan that includes all of Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, and also stretches to Yemen and other parts of the region where there is a Shiite population.
The most significant thing with this offensive and its aftermath is that despite all the victorious rhetoric by Hezbollah’s media and public, most of the political leaders in Lebanon – including those who are considered anti-Hezbollah – did not really object to the fact that Hezbollah started a war in Lebanon. Even non-Hezbollah mainstream media fell into the game of cheering for Hezbollah for “defending Lebanon against the terrorists.” No one seems to have bothered to look at the bigger picture or realize the political price that Lebanon has to pay for Hezbollah’s so-called victory. It was as if Hezbollah’s involvement in crimes in the region were forgiven.
So how did this happen?
Hezbollah has been losing its legitimacy among the Lebanese and mainly among its Shiite constituency since it decided to go to Syria and support the regime of Bashar al Assad. Its involvement in the long Syria war, and the loss of many young fighters and commanders over the five years, have cost Hezbollah the public support it used to enjoy within the Shiite community. In addition, the military budget has increased, forcing the Party of God to decrease its social services budget, something which increased the complaints – albeit discreet – among the Shiite community. The Lebanese, although divided on Hezbollah, could not do anything regarding its fight in Syria, but many political leaders and journalists expressed disagreement and often objected to Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria and the region.
Hezbollah has always been good at playing with the fear factor, and as it did in Syria, it has used the “Sunni terrorist threat” to cause fear among both the Shiite and the Christian communities in Lebanon. They have also managed – through a very meticulous strategic media and propaganda campaign – to make the Lebanese associate terrorism with the Syrian refugees. And when the Lebanese army raided the town of Arsal a few days before Hezbollah launched the offensive, arresting 350 Refugees and torturing to death four of them – a massive campaign was launched on social and traditional media to support the Lebanese army’s acts against the Refugees.
Hezbollah has succeeded in regaining a good part of its lost legitimacy by playing on both the Lebanese army and the refugees factors, while spreading the fear of terrorism among the Lebanese. In a way, many in Lebanon today see the Arsal battle as Hezbollah defending Lebanon against the refugees, and that the alternative would have been terrorists attacks in Lebanon. Again, Hezbollah played the terrorism card in order to show that despite its shortcomings, it is still defending Lebanon against the terrorists, and in that sense, it is the better alternative.
THE COMPLETE ABSENCE OF THE STATE
Hezbollah declared victory; however, the reality seems to be more complicated than a devastating defeat of the militants. Hezbollah lost thirty two fighters and three prisoners, an element that lead Al Nusra leaders to start negotiating and imposing its conditions to withdraw from Arsal. Usually, a defeated party does not impose conditions, and a victorious one would not go into negotiations with those who suffered defeat.
The truth is always more complicated than the rhetoric. Suddenly, the Lebanese government accepted to release a number of detained Islamists (estimated at ten) from Roumieh prison, in exchange for Hezbollah’s prisoners held by Al Nusra, and not in exchange for the Lebanese army soldiers that are still being held by ISIS in Arsal. Of course, Hezbollah values its prisoners, but the problem here is that the Lebanese government and state institutions did not even try to demand its own prisoners during the negotiations of the exchange. If anything, this indicates the extent of Hezbollah’s control.
While the Lebanese army stayed the only taboo that cannot be touched or criticized in this process, despite the fact that it did not really do anything, the rest of the State institutions looked weaker, while Hezbollah’s formula of “The Army-the Resistance-the People” has become a solid reality.
A HIGH PRICE
Slowly but surely, Hezbollah has largely won in Lebanon in the past year. It has imposed the new electoral law that will guarantee unprecedented control over the government, it further marginalized State institutions, and now has created a monster in Arsal to gain legitimacy by defeating it. Whoever dares to criticize the “sacred” resistance and its decisions is immediately labeled as a traitor and threatened with persecution and death, while the institutions that are supposed to protect citizens and their freedoms are turning a blind eye to all of Hezbollah’s threats and crimes.
This is not new, however, the recent public rhetoric in Lebanon that followed Arsal tells a new reality; one that shows that Lebanon’s public opinion, its media institutions, and the people who stood up to the Syrian regime in 2005, all decided to give Hezbollah back the legitimacy it desperately needs as it continues to absorb Lebanon. The price for this will be too big to contain once Iran wins the region and establishes its Persian empire. By then, Lebanon will be completely dissolved, and then the Lebanese will only have themselves to blame.
*Hanin Ghaddar is the inaugural Friedmann Visiting Fellow at The Washington Institute.