De­spite Trump claim, Hezbol­lah op­er­a­tion boosts Le­banon role

Kuwait Times - - FRONT PAGE -

As US Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump re­cently stood be­side the Le­banese prime min­is­ter prais­ing his gov­ern­ment for stand­ing up to Hezbol­lah, the Ira­nian-backed fight­ers were busy demon­strat­ing just how wrong he was. They were clear­ing the coun­try’s eastern fron­tier from Al-Qaeda mil­i­tants in a sweep­ing of­fen­sive and ne­go­ti­at­ing a com­plex pris­oner deal with the group. Far from be­ing an ally in the fight against Hezbol­lah, the Le­banese gov­ern­ment headed by Saad Hariri is based on a part­ner­ship with the Shi­ite group, whose clout and dom­i­nance in the tiny coun­try is on the rise.

“Le­banon is on the front lines in the fight against (the Is­lamic State group), Al-Qaeda and Hezbol­lah,” Trump said at the press con­fer­ence in Wash­ing­ton, light­ing up so­cial me­dia with com­ments from Le­banese who ridiculed his per­ceived ig­no­rance of Le­banese pol­i­tics.

The Le­banese gov­ern­ment headed by Hariri was formed in De­cem­ber fol­low­ing an ex­tended paral­y­sis and a pres­i­den­tial vac­uum that lasted nearly three years. Hariri, a Sunni politi­cian squarely op­posed to Hezbol­lah and As­sad, was made prime min­is­ter only after an over­all bar­gain was reached with Hezbol­lah that in­cluded the elec­tion of Michel Aoun, a Chris­tian and Hezbol­lah ally, as pres­i­dent. Aoun has re­peat­edly said that Hezbol­lah’s arms com­ple­ment those of the Le­banese mil­i­tary.

Trump aside, there is much about Hezbol­lah’s role in Le­banon that is some­times dif­fi­cult for out­siders to un­der­stand. The Ira­nian proxy is the sin­gle most po­tent mil­i­tary and po­lit­i­cal force in Le­banon, with an ar­se­nal sur­pass­ing that of the coun­try’s army. By many ac­counts, Hezbol­lah has brought dis­as­ter to the coun­try by en­gag­ing in de­struc­tive wars with Is­rael, and, as Trump him­self noted, it has fu­eled the hu­man­i­tar­ian catas­tro­phe in Syria where it has sent thou­sands of its fight­ers to shore up Pres­i­dent Bashar Al-As­sad’s forces.

Sta­bi­liz­ing force

But to its many sup­port­ers, the group is a sta­bi­liz­ing force in a frag­ile coun­try with a his­tor­i­cally weak cen­tral gov­ern­ment that has been re­peat­edly bat­tered by Is­rael and strug­gled against Sunni mil­i­tancy, par­tic­u­larly since the erup­tion of the Syr­ian civil war. The party, founded in the early 80s to fight Is­raeli oc­cu­pa­tion of parts of Le­banon, en­joys a sup­port base that ex­tends well be­yond its Shi­ite con­stituency. It has been a main­stay of Le­banese pol­i­tics for the past few decades, tak­ing part in gov­ern­ments and of­fer­ing state-within-a-state ser­vices to fol­low­ers in its strongholds with­out try­ing to im­pose its re­li­gious views on the coun­try’s plu­ral­ist so­ci­ety.

The group has its own se­cure telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions net­work and a reach that ex­tends across vi­tal Le­banese in­stal­la­tions and in­fra­struc­ture, as well as veto power in the Le­banese cab­i­net. Its de­ci­sion to send fight­ers to Syria in 2013 re­mains highly con­tro­ver­sial in Le­banon, but the group has to a large ex­tent suc­cess­fully por­trayed its pres­ence as a ne­ces­sity to pro­tect Le­banon from mil­i­tant groups in­clud­ing Is­lamic State and Al-Qaeda, which pro­lif­er­ated in Syria and over­ran the bor­der with Le­banon in 2014. This week, the group took credit for end­ing the pres­ence of Al-Qaeda el­e­ments in the bor­der area, fol­low­ing a week-long mil­i­tary of­fen­sive and then a ne­go­ti­ated set­tle­ment that saw hun­dreds of Al-Qaeda-linked mil­i­tants, their fam­i­lies and thou­sands of civil­ians, re­turn to Syria. The Le­banese mil­i­tary, which has re­ceived more than $1 bil­lion in US se­cu­rity as­sis­tance in the past decade, took a back seat in the op­er­a­tion.

Hariri rec­og­nized Hezbol­lah’s role - crit­i­cized by its op­po­nents in Le­banon - say­ing that the end re­sult was what mat­tered and call­ing it “a big achieve­ment”. “We have our opin­ion and Hezbol­lah has its opin­ion, but in the end, we met on a con­sen­sus that con­cerns the Le­banese peo­ple for the (good of) the Le­banese econ­omy, se­cu­rity and sta­bil­ity,”he said.

In a clear dis­tri­bu­tion of roles, the army is now ex­pected to spear­head an up­com­ing fight in an­other sec­tion of the bor­der, this time against Is­lamic State group mil­i­tants. Declar­ing vic­tory Fri­day night, Hezbol­lah leader Has­san Nas­ral­lah said the army was per­fectly ca­pa­ble of win­ning that fight but of­fered his sup­port should it be needed. “We are at the ser­vice of the Le­banese army and un­der its com­mand ... if they ask for any help we will help,” he said in a tele­vised speech.

Com­plex re­la­tion­ship

It is this com­plex re­la­tion­ship be­tween Le­banese gov­ern­ments and Hezbol­lah that for­eign­ers of­ten find so baf­fling. “Both Le­banon and Hezbol­lah oc­cupy a grey area: Le­banon isn’t re­ally a state, and Hezbol­lah isn’t a ter­ror­ist group - or isn’t only a ter­ror­ist group, de­pend­ing on your view,” said Faysal Itani, a se­nior fel­low with the At­lantic Coun­cil’s Rafik Hariri Cen­ter for the Mid­dle East, ex­plain­ing the mis­per­cep­tions. “So the Amer­i­can ten­dency is ei­ther to treat Hezbol­lah as con­trol­ling the state of Le­banon, or to see Le­banon as a sov­er­eign en­tity fight­ing a ter­ror­ist group. Both are false.”

Hariri, whose fa­ther, for­mer Premier Rafik Hariri was as­sas­si­nated with a ton of ex­plo­sives in 2005 in a bomb­ing some blamed on Hezbol­lah, has a tough balancing act to main­tain. Hezbol­lah and its al­lies brought down a pre­vi­ous gov­ern­ment headed by Hariri in 2011 by re­sign­ing while he was in Wash­ing­ton meet­ing the US pres­i­dent. Dur­ing his visit to Wash­ing­ton, Hariri re­sponded to ques­tions about his un­easy coali­tion with Hezbol­lah, de­scrib­ing it as ne­ces­sity to shield Le­banon from slip­ping into re­newed civil war.

Fol­low­ing Trump’s press con­fer­ence, dur­ing which he de­scribed Hezbol­lah as a “men­ace to the Le­banese state” and the en­tire re­gion, Nas­ral­lah said he would not com­ment so as not to em­bar­rass the Le­banese del­e­ga­tion headed by Hariri while it was still in Wash­ing­ton. Hezbol­lah dis­played its clout when it in­vited jour­nal­ists on a bor­der tour after oust­ing Al-Qaeda mil­i­tants from the area, parad­ing its fight­ers, ar­mored per­son­nel car­ri­ers and mis­siles on the bar­ren moun­tains in sur­real dis­plays of con­fi­dence that stressed that Hezbol­lah, and not the US, was fight­ing ter­ror­ism.

— AP

Hezbol­lah fight­ers sit on their army ve­hi­cle at the site where clashes erupted be­tween Hezbol­lah and Al-Qaedalinked fight­ers in Wadi al-Kheil or al-Kheil Val­ley on the Le­banon-Syria bor­der.

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