by: Hanin Ghaddar
On November 4, 2017, Lebanese prime minister resigned from Riyadh. On November 22, Hariri came back to Lebanon and put off his resignation. Between Riyadh and Beirut, his journey was loaded with concerns about how the Saudi-Iran regional conflict will play out in Lebanon. As soon as he arrived in Beirut, Hariri made it clear that his resignation was only suspended to give Lebanese president Michel Aoun two weeks to negotiate a settlement with his allies, Hezbollah.
Hezbollah and Iran understand today that the ball is in their court. And all eyes are on their next move to contain the crisis. In his resignation speech, Hariri blamed Iran and Hezbollah for meddling in regional affairs, but Hezbollah ignored the new confrontational rhetoric and embraced Hariri as a victim, and demanded his return before discussing his resignation or any further steps. This sudden empathy with their alleged foe was shocking to many observers. Why would Hezbollah support a pro-Saudi figure who has been very critical of their conduct in Lebanon and the region? Not long time ago – specifically in January 2011 – Hezbollah had toppled Hariri’s government when their ministers resigned, after which Hariri stayed away from Lebanon for three years.
Much has changed since then. Hezbollah’s regional role grew due to their involvement in Syria’s war, and Hariri was appointed as prime minister for the second time as part of a deal that brought a “power-sharing” government that has Aoun as president. This deal worked for a while, in terms of ending void in state institutions, agreeing on a new electoral law, and appointing new security and military figures. The new electoral law is estimated to guarantee a pro-Hezbollah majority in the next parliament, which means that Hezbollah can chose Lebanon’s next prime minister government, and president. They’ll be able to consolidate their power in Lebanon, democratically.
Hariri’s government worked well for Hezbollah’s regional role as well. It gave Hezbollah a great cover for its regional operations. By giving the green light to this deal, Hezbollah made sure that the issue of its arms is removed from Lebanon’s public debate and official statements. Meanwhile, Hezbollah has been using Lebanon as a backyard for its wars in the region. The “dissociated policy” that Hariri’s government adopted failed as Hezbollah repeatedly violated it, forcing Lebanon and its military and security institutions to fight [http://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/view/arsal-the-last-hurdle-to-hezbollahs-safe-zone] its battles along the Lebanese-Syrian borders, and forcing the Lebanese government to re-establish [https://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-syria-lebanon/lebanese-syrian-ministers-vow-to-improve-economic-ties-idUSKCN1AW2EP] relations with the Assad regime.
As Hezbollah’s regional role grew, mainly in Yemen, Saudi Arabia grew more alarmed, while their supposedly Lebanese ally – Hariri – is heading a government that includes Hezbollah members, and sharing power with a president that proved more loyalty to Hezbollah than Lebanon’s state institutions. This was not sustainable. Hence, the resignation.
With France and the United States’ efforts to contain the situation, Hariri managed to come back from Riyadh to try to negotiate a new “deal” that satisfies all parties. This is going to be a much more complicated ordeal, as Saudi Arabia will no longer be satisfied with another deal that would provide a cover for Hezbollah. Today, any dialogue will have to address Hezbollah’s arms and its operations abroad, something that Lebanese politicians have tried to avoid for a very long time, knowing that they have no real say in it. Today, the question is, would Hezbollah compromise? And how?
The dialogue that Lebanese politicians are going to have is actually a dialogue between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Iran has already set the stage via a statement made last week by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards’ commander Mohammad Ali Jaafari, who said [https://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-iran-guards/iran-guards-ready-to-help-rebuild-syria-hezbollah-will-not-disarm-tv-idUSKBN1DN0S0] that disarming Hezbollah is out of the question.
From Lebanon to Iraq, via Syria, Hezbollah believes they have won. IRGC-Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani declared in a video [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5JHsl9D90oU] last week that Iran and its Shia militias have won the war on ISIS, whose defeat was marked by Soleimani crossing the Iraqi-Syrian border to the Bou-Kamal, in Deir Ezzour province in Syria. This victory also marks the establishment of the land bridge that connects Tehran to Beirut via Iraq and Syria. In addition, Assad is still the president of Syria, and despite the Russian diplomatic efforts for a settlement for Syria, Iran feels that it still owns the ground and has a leverage that can only be challenged in a war.
But war does not seem to be imminent. Iran and Hezbollah know that no one wants to fight this war, because it means a war against the Quds Force and Iran, and it requires boots on the ground and serious military spending and sacrifices. They know that as long as they don’t provoke the US or Israel, they’ll only have to deal with sanctions at the time being, and exploit these achievements to establish a long-term presence in the region. Despite the multiple Israeli attacks on Hezbollah’s arms convoys and depots in Syria, Hezbollah has never retaliated. As for the US-supported groups in Syria, Iran has managed to find a way to the Iraqi border away from their presence. This strategy has so far worked.
Looking ahead, Iran sees next parliamentary elections in Iraq and Lebanon as vital for their long-term presence and control in the region. None of their achievements in Iraq, Syria or Lebanon could be solidified unless Iran manages to infiltrate state institutions. Iran’s methodology in the region has been shaped after the Lebanese model. Hezbollah has proven to be a successful story in terms of creating a parallel entity that managed to infiltrate state institutions and consolidate power through the electoral process. The same model is being applied in Iraq through the Iran-backed Popular Mobilization Forces, who are gearing up for the May 2018 parliamentary elections, with the goal of removing Abadi and bringing in a Maliki-like figure. In Yemen, the Saudis fear the same model with the Houthis.
One thing remains an issue. Hezbollah still doesn’t want the issue of its arms back on the table – domestically and internationally – something that Hariri’s resignation had managed to achieve. To halt this debate, Iran could offer some cosmetic compromises. For example, on November 20, while Hariri was still in Paris, Nasrallah said they were close to achieving victory over the caliphate after its fighters lost control of Rawa – its last urban stronghold in the Iraq. He added that they would pull out once Baghdad confirms ISIS is defeated.
Leaving Iraq is not a major step for Hezbollah as the PMUs have already reached a leading role in Iraq and do not want or need Hezbollah any longer, especially that the war on ISIS is almost complete. Today the PMUs are going to elections, and Hezbollah’s military and logistical support is no longer necessary.
Hariri returned to Lebanon with this message, and an attempt to achieve a new deal that would distance Lebanon from regional conflicts. On the short term, Iran is not under enough pressure to compromise. But as the war in Syria winds down, and ISIS’ caliphate is defeated, international and regional focus could turn to Iran’s regional activities and destabilizing efforts. To avoid confrontation in the future, Iran needs to secure its presence and control in Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq. Its proxies’ next mission is to infiltrate state institutions, until Lebanon, Syria and Iraq lose whatever remains of their sovereignty. Therefore, containing Iran can no longer be delayed. In Lebanon and Iraq, fighting Iran through elections is vital, while in Syria, Iran should not be allowed to establish its presence. Some targeted attacks might be necessary in order to avoid a full-fledged war.
Hanin Ghaddar is the inaugural Friedmann Visiting Fellow at The Washington Institute.