by Hanin Ghaddar
Addressing crowds in a ceremony marking the eleventh anniversary of the 2006 July War, Hezbollah’s Secretary General Nasrallah said the game is now over in Syria, and stressed on the importance of coordination between the governments of Lebanon and Syria. “The resistance’s power is growing every day and this is what both enemy and friend know and say,” he added.
This speech came after Hezbollah declared victory in Arsal against Al-Nusra and as the Lebanese army started an offensive against ISIS in the northern part of Arsal. But victory for Hezbollah never meant inclusion. After the year 2000 liberation, and the 2006 “divine victory,” Hezbollah has always used its victory to submit the state and its institutions to its control. Today, its small but significant victory in Arsal will set a new era of Hezbollah’s control over Lebanon, while it enjoys increased gains in Syria.
A NEW POLICY OF ASSOCIATION
Despite Hezbollah’s control over Lebanon’s state institutions and Hezbollah’s military involvement in the Syria crisis, Lebanon has managed since 2012 to maintain a dissociation policy regarding the events in Syria, and has kept itself out of the regional turmoil. Because of this policy, political groups and leaders who are considered anti-Hezbollah managed to coexist in the same government with Hezbollah and deal independently with the international community and Gulf states, thereby safekeeping Lebanon and its economy from major repercussions.
Hezbollah’s recent calls for coordination with the Syrian government, including on refugee returns and military operations on the Lebanon-Syria border, fall under Iran’s attempts to mend Assad’s reputation and international standing, and provide him with a political boost. However, it will have serious and grave repercussions on Lebanon and its economy.
This week, as part of Hezbollah’s attempt to associate Lebanon with Syria’s Assad, government ministers from Hezbollah and the Amal Movement are going to visit Damascus. The cabinet refused to give this delegation permission, but still, Hezbollah’s Industry Minister Hussein Hajj Hassan, insisted they will be in Damascus as government representatives.
In addition, although Prime Minister Saad Hariri has stated that Lebanon will only coordinate refugee returns with the United Nations, the Lebanese General Security still went ahead and held talks with the Syrian authorities to coordinate the return of several thousand Syrians into Syria following the Arsal offensive. And while the Lebanese Army insisted that it will lead the battle against ISIS alone, Hassan Nasrallah reassured us in his last speech that Hezbollah and the Syrian army will join the battle from the Syrian side of the border.
This direct and indirect cooperation between the Lebanese and Syrian governments – on refugees, military operations and official visits – despite the official Lebanese stance, only leads to one conclusion: Lebanon’s dissociation policy is finished. But there will be repercussions.
REPERCUSSIONS ON LEBANON
As Hezbollah moves on with its plan in Lebanon and Syria, declaring victory and forcing Lebanon’s institutions to join its support campaign for the Assad regime, they are not doing very well internationally or regionally. As Lebanon prepares to receive a wave of US sanctions against Hezbollah soon, reports of more sanctions from the Gulf, based on Iran’s interference in Gulf affairs and last but not least are the recent news of the Abdali cell in Kuwait, are going around.
In August 2015, Kuwait’s Interior Ministry announced that it had uncovered a terrorist cell which had stockpiled a large reserve of weapons, ammunitions and explosives in an underground bunker beneath a farm in Abdali. In September, Kuwait’s prosecutors announced that 26 defendants, including one Iranian, would stand trial for the possession of weapons and explosives, as well as espionage for the Iranian Regime and Hezbollah. However, in June 2017, this ruling was overturned and 14 Abdali Cell convicts fled to avoid terrorism charges. However, 13 of the fugitives were re-arrested.
Earlier in June, the Kuwaiti Cassation Court confirmed the involvement of Hezbollah in the Abdali plots to destroy the basic infrastructure of Kuwait. It found that Hezbollah has provided intelligence, funds, weapons, and training to the terror group, as well as helping to facilitate meetings.
As a result, Kuwait called upon the Lebanese government to take responsibility for the “irresponsible practices by Hezbollah, a component of the government.” Prime Minister Hariri rushed to Kuwait to try to defuse tensions between the two countries and confirmed that he will help to bring the perpetrators to justice. However, it doesn’t seem much has been accomplished, although the visit has been described by Hariri as successful.
Hariri’s visit was to try to contain any kind of damaging repercussions, or at least to buy time. But with Hezbollah’s recently declared “victory” – which usually comes with a strong feeling of arrogance – it is unlikely that the Lebanese government would be able to do anything to hold Hezbollah accountable. The Special Tribunal for Lebanon tried to go through the Lebanese government many times to reach members of Hezbollah indicted in the killing of former PM Rafiq Hariri, but to no avail.
This incident, in addition to Lebanon moving closer to Assad’s regime and Iran every day, means there’s a chance that Lebanon – and all of its institutions – will no longer be considered independent from Hezbollah or Iran. More sanctions will certainly hurt Lebanon, but there are other measures that will hurt Lebanon’s private sector and economy even more, such as pulling out investments, or sending the Lebanese who are working in the Gulf back to Lebanon.
The Lebanese economy is on the brink of collapse and there are serious concerns that the US sanctions could cause it to fall, and further sanctions or other measures by the Gulf could guarantee a fast downfall of Lebanon’s economy or whatever is left of private investments. Everybody is well aware of this risk, but the question is two folded: Can the Lebanese government do anything? And does Hezbollah really care?
Hezbollah knows that these measures to re-associate Lebanon with Assad’s regime and supporting terrorist cells in the Gulf are going to cause serious damage to Lebanon and its economy. However, it has become obvious that Hezbollah’s priority is Iran’s regional hegemony, not Lebanon or its economy. So if it had to sacrifice Lebanon’s fragile economic stability to destabilize the Gulf security, Hezbollah wouldn’t think twice.
Sooner or later, Lebanon will have to face the reality of accommodating Hezbollah and allowing it to use Lebanon for its regional operations. Sooner or later, the Gulf States will decide to “dissociate” themselves from Lebanon, and eventually, the Lebanese will know what it means to have Hezbollah as the decision makers in Lebanon. When Lebanon hits bottom, it could be too late to rise again against Hezbollah and Iran, but maybe the simple awareness of this grim scenario would push the Lebanese people and political leadership to act and refuse this disintegration of their state, before it’s too late.
*Hanin Ghaddar is the inaugural Friedmann Visiting Fellow at The Washington Institute.