The Crisis in Lebanon
In 2004, King Abdullah II of Jordan warned other Gulf leaders that a Shiite crescent was developing in the northern arc of the Middle East; no one took his warning seriously. On November 4, 2017, the Prime Minister of Lebanon, Saad Hariri, issued from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia a surprise announcement of his resignation, citing Hezbollah’s growing influence in the nation and his fear for his life. Hariri’s announcement triggered a geopolitical crisis that has implications for the entire Middle East. Lebanon is now another battleground between Saudi Arabia and Iran, as both powers vie for regional influence. Western leaders will now have to contemplate the next policy steps that will keep the Middle East stable, while still curbing Iranian influence. The warning King Abdullah II gave over a decade ago has now become a reality.
Iran is the foremost regional destabilizer in the Middle East and has been a thorn in the side of Saudi Arabia. In particular, Iran has been supporting various groups that threaten regional stability and who are directly opposed to Saudi Arabia. These groups include: Bashar al-Assad in Syria, the Houthi rebels in Yemen, and Hezbollah in Lebanon. In addition, Iran has sent advisors to aid the Iraqi government in defeating ISIS with the hopes of fostering a closer relationship with Baghdad while limiting Saudi influence throughout the country. In a recent video, one can see Qassem Soleimani, leader of the Iranian Quds Force, crossing the Iraqi-Syrian border, illustrating how far Iran’s influence is expanding in the region. Saudi Arabia has recently started to push back against Iran’s waxing regional influence by organizing a coalition of Arab states to impose a blockade on Qatar, which has been nursing a duplicitous relationship with Iran, supporting rebels in Syria and pursuing a punishing air campaign against the Houthis in Yemen. Along with regional and international allies, Saudi Arabia views Lebanon as an opportunity to curb Iran’s influence. Lebanon has become a huge priority because Hezbollah, backed financially and militarily by Iran, has its hand in nearly every conflict throughout the region. At the same time, Saudi Arabia, under the aggressive direction of newly crowned Prince Mohammad bin Salman, is undergoing major reform domestically and will need the assistance of its Gulf and international allies to ensure a successful outcome in Lebanon.
An understanding of Lebanon’s current condition is essential to recognize the difficulty inherent in this task. Tony Badran, a scholar on Lebanon at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, gave this insight into Lebanon’s current state: “In terms of the actual balance of power, the actual power on the ground, regardless of the politics, regardless of the cabinets, regardless of the parliamentary majorities: It’s Hezbollah.” Since 2008, when Hezbollah and the Lebanese government created a unity government, Hezbollah has entrenched itself in Lebanese institutions, including the Lebanese Free Army (LAF).
Since Hariri re-assumed his post of prime minister, Lebanon has been increasingly enveloped by Hezbollah, and Hariri’s pseudo-resignation has opened up the international community’s eyes to Hezbollah’s dominance in Lebanon and throughout the region. In the year leading up to his resignation, Hariri agreed to return as premier of Lebanon and, once reinstated, allowed Hezbollah to win key appointments not only to the LAF but also to intelligence, security, judicial, and administrative offices. As a result of Hezbollah’s entrenchment into the Lebanese state, Saudi Arabia cut off its aid to LAF and pulled its ambassador from Beirut. In addition, the Arab League assembled and declared Hezbollah a “terrorist organization.” These actions vindicate Israel’s strategic view of Lebanon, as Avigdor Lieberman, Israel’s defense minister, stated earlier this year: “We’re no longer talking solely about Hezbollah. We’re talking about Hezbollah and about the Lebanese military.”
What can the international community do to combat this troubling tide of events? The answer, as always, is complex. Regional stakeholders would be well served to keep the region stable; yet, at the same time, it must be recognized that Hezbollah will not relinquish concessions freely. Similarly, applying too much pressure or rushing into rash decisions might accelerate open confrontation. If Israel, who is increasingly aligned with Saudi Arabia in its desire to curb Iranian influence throughout the region, were to decide to take military action against Hezbollah, it would risk fomenting a region-wide conflagration while only hardening Hezbollah’s position in Lebanon.
The safest and most practical solution is to put greater economic and political pressure on Hezbollah, while gradually degrading the organization in the eyes of the Lebanese people. Saudi Arabia has the opportunity to withdraw $860 million from the Lebanese Central Bank, which anchors the Lebanese pound, and ban Lebanese nationals from working in the Gulf states, whose remittances make up around 15% of Lebanon’s GDP. These are just temporary fixes, however. The United States needs to become more involved in the Middle East and develop a regional strategy where curbing Iranian influence is its chief priority. The Shia community in Lebanon suffered tremendous losses in Syria, as many Hezbollah fighters joined the war on the side of the Syrian government. One Newsweek estimate totals Hezbollah’s fatalities in Syria at 2,500, with as many as 7,000 injured. This can prove crucial if Hezbollah's political base is not sufficiently prepared for more conflict. Hezbollah’s many losses affect numerous Lebanon Shia communities, ultimately leaving Hezbollah with less leverage. This opens up the opportunity to restart the “March 14th” political movement to counter Hezbollah politically in the upcoming elections. Saudi Arabia and other Gulf nations can flood Lebanese airwaves and televisions in the hope of gaining a foothold politically at Hezbollah’s expense.
Another strategy, which will demand political will from the international community, is UN Security Council Resolution 1701, which was adopted to end hostilities between Hezbollah and Israel in 2006. The resolution mandates that all weapons in Lebanon be held by the Lebanese government and that no other authority can legally possess them. Furthermore, the U.S. and European allies should review bilateral aid packages to Lebanon in light of the fact that this aid supports Hezbollah’s activities in the region.
Regardless of the strategic soundness of this approach, Saudi Arabia and Western allies must be highly cautious in how they manage the perceptions of the Lebanese people. Over the course of many years, Iran and Hezbollah have developed an expertise in using U.S. attempts to sow sectarian divides in their countries in order to reinforce their support bases. An article which ran in a 2016 Shia Lebanese newspaper, “The Plague of Sectarianism: Made in USA,” illustrates how Hezbollah has been able to galvanize grassroots support through a deceptive press. The article quotes the 2008 graduate thesis of Douglas Philippone, a U.S. based Lebanon analyst, on strategies for defeating Hezbollah. Philippone argued that the U.S. and its allies should not directly assault Hezbollah, but instead that the U.S. should disrupt Hezbollah’s ability to conduct global operations by: exacerbating internal Lebanese sectarian conflict. This article caused an uproar in Lebanon and deepened the view of many Lebanese citizens that the U.S. employs the same strategies that former imperial powers used to rule their respective colonies, even though there is no evidence that Philippone’s suggestions actually became official U.S. policy. Examples like these should serve as warning signs to all Western countries seeking to change the status quo in Lebanon and, equally important, should emphasize that any strategy put forward to counter Hezbollah should be executed through Gulf states, rather than Western countries.
The United States needs to develop a Middle East strategy focused on countering Iran. The Obama administration in many ways enabled Hezbollah to expand its operation in the region. Invoking United Nation Security Council Resolution 1701, applying financial pressure, and restarting the “March 14” political apparatus are effective tools in limiting Hezbollah’s regional status. The Lebanese people will soon realize that the cause of their troubles is not the U.S. or other foreign actors, but rather Hezbollah.