With a new set of priorities established by the Biden administration in Washington, less attention is being given to the Middle East, and especially to Lebanon. And while the French President Emmanuel Macron reconsiders the terms of his French Initiative for Lebanon, Hezbollah sees an opportunity to exert more control over Lebanon, its institutions, and its people – using both political alliances and physical violence.
The Political Game
Although Macron is struggling with Iran’s and Hezbollah’s hostility and unwillingness to cooperate, he is still trying to find a compromise through soft diplomacy. In Lebanon, Hezbollah is hiding behind its ally President Michel Aoun, who has so far rejected every government formation presented by prime minister designate Saad Hariri, knowing that Hariri vets every formation with the French president.
Via Aoun, Hezbollah is trying to achieve more gains and push Macron to make more compromises. The group wants a better representation in the next government, by guaranteeing the obstructing third for itself and its allies. They also want to make sure they manage and control the ministry of finance – through a friendly Shia minister, and dictate the government mission before it’s even formed. Hezbollah knows that this is the perfect window of opportunity to force these compromises, before the broader regional dynamics shift, and while the world is distracted by the US new priorities.
On the other hand, Hariri also knows that if he drops any of the Arab, French and American conditions for forming the government, his cabinet will fail as the previous one did in 2019 – after the protests forced him to resign. Without the international and Arab support – political and financial – Hariri will not be able to receive the bail out needed for Lebanon’s economy and financial sectors. Accordingly, his cabinet will be responsible for Lebanon’s final collapse and his name will forever be marked with it.
Therefore, Hariri cannot offer any compromises on his own and needs to go back to at least France, UAE, and Egypt - the three countries he recently visited to ask for help. Despite the fact that Hariri received the regional and international support he needed, he still couldn’t convince Aoun of his formation, mainly because Hezbollah is not ready, and is waiting for the international context to become more mature. If anything, Hezbollah and Iran prefer to make deals directly with the US – without having to go through France and the UAE.
In this context, it is going to be almost impossible to form a government in Lebanon anytime soon. And as we all wait and get distracted by the news of Hariri’s regional and European visits, and his meetings with Aoun in Baabda, Hezbollah is not wasting time. They started killing and thereby enforcing their command and authority from outside the political scene and government formation tactics.
The Killing Machine
The assassination of Lokman Slim earlier in February took everyone by surprise. Although we expected Hezbollah to kill its opponents – as it has always done – we were too distracted with Hezbollah’s rhetoric on government formation and the general political scene. We almost forgot that at their core, Hezbollah is a killing machine. They kill when someone like Lokman Slim threatens them with ideas, logical arguments, and his determination to live and regain what Hezbollah has stolen over the years.
Hezbollah’s killing machine was not really turned on now. It actually hasn’t stopped since the eighties. Right after Hezbollah was established – allegedly as a Shiite resistance movement – their main concern was to get rid of the leftist Shia leaders, who were back then the leaders of the National Resistance Front. Assassinations against these figures, such Hussein Mroueh and Mahdi Amel – intensified and picked pace until Hezbollah and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) felt comfortable to take over the Shia scene and leadership.
After the 2005 Cedar Revolution and the withdrawal of the Syrian troops from Lebanon, Hezbollah’s killing machine picked pace and moved against the March 14 camp political leadership, when a series of assassinations of political leaders and public figures took place until they felt comfortable again and ready to take over the Lebanese political scene. This happened in 2008 with the Doha Accord, ending the May 7 events when Hezbollah used their arms for the first time against the Lebanese people.
Since 2008, they kept killing but with a slower pace and with a more targeted approach, such as the assassination of head of ISF Information Branch Wissam al-Hassan in 2011. Yet, slowly but surely, the stronger Hezbollah’s grip over Lebanon became, the less killing they had to do. The more comfortable they felt with their authority and power, the less urgent it became to turn on the killing machine.
So why restart it now? Why kill Slim at this point and what do we expect moving forward?
Slim might be the first in this new wave of assassinations, but not necessarily the last. Hezbollah seems to have felt the urge to kill again because they are feeling less comfortable, and certainly less in control of the Lebanese street. By assassinating Lokma, Hezbollah would be going back to the eighties where targeting Shia leaders was the objectives.
Hezbollah feels that they no longer in control of the Shia community, which has bravely showed signs of discontent, despite the threats and intimidation against Shia activists. The resistance rhetoric no longer works, as they turned their weapons against Lebanese and other Arabs in the region, from Lebanon to Syria, Iraq and Yemen.
Hezbollah’s protection of corrupt politicians no longer works, as the Lebanese have finally realized the repercussions of this approach on their personal lives – that is when they can no longer access their bank accounts, lost their jobs, and are waiting for the final financial collapse. Hezbollah’s justifications no longer work as well. The Lebanese people, including the majority of the Shia, do not prioritize Hezbollah’s rhetoric anymore. All they want is to live.
With many Shia showing restlessness and frustration, Hezbollah felt threatened. Without the necessary funds to cater for the people’s needs, the group cannot satisfy their fears and concerns. Therefore, it was time to impose fear, and they turned on their killing machine against one of the main and most influential Shia leaders and intellectuals in Lebanon: Lokman Slim.
However, Slim’s assassination might very well be the first in a series of anti-Hezbollah activists, mainly those who have a certain influence over the Shia community. There are many who are working behind the scenes, and many who continue to be vocal and determined. But fear might eventually slip through the layers of threats and public shaming. Hezbollah’s media have already started the public shaming campaign and their threats increased in a shameless manner.
In any case, Hezbollah cannot easily turn down the Shia discontent by means of assassination. And it is not something they can walk back from without seriously addressing its roots and depths. But as they fail to do so, they do what they usually do – they kill. Meanwhile, the Shia discontent will only grow. It might not get loud because of the fear instilled by the killing machine, but it will not go away. Slim’s assassination will make sure of that.
As the world watches the US diplomatic efforts towards Iran and the development of the nuclear program negotiations, Hezbollah resorts to killing. It might be an opportunity for the world to alsoremember that like Hezbollah, the regime in Iran also has its own killing machine, which is still killing across the region, despite all efforts and soft diplomacy.
Hanin Ghaddar is the Friedmann Fellow at The Washington Institute’s Geduld Program on Arab Politics, where she focuses on Shia politics throughout the Levant.