Hezbol­lah crown jewel of Iran’s ris­ing in­flu­ence

Kuwait Times - - Front Page -

BEIRUT: Le­banon’s Hezbol­lah, blamed by Saad Hariri for his shock res­ig­na­tion as pre­mier, has grown over the three decades since its found­ing into a mighty army used by Iran to project re­gional in­flu­ence. Hariri crit­i­cized the pow­er­ful Shi­ite move­ment for its med­dling across the Mid­dle East dur­ing a tele­vised in­ter­view from Saudi Ara­bia on Sun­day, his first me­dia ap­pear­ance since he stepped down on Nov 4. Hezbol­lah has par­tic­i­pated in Hariri’s gov­ern­ment for al­most a year.

From Le­banon to Syria, Ye­men, and

Iraq, Hezbol­lah has ma­tured into Iran’s most use­ful “tool” - draw­ing the ire of Tehran’s re­gional ri­val Riyadh, an­a­lysts say. Hariri’s sur­prise res­ig­na­tion sparked wor­ries that Le­banon would be caught in the cross­fire of the bloody, decades-long power strug­gle be­tween Saudi Ara­bia and Iran. “This res­ig­na­tion in­di­cates Saudi’s will to put a stop to Iran’s ex­pan­sion,” said in­ter­na­tional re­la­tions ex­pert Karim Bi­tar. Hezbol­lah had be­come Iran’s “trump card” in the Mid­dle East, added Bi­tar, of the Paris-based In­sti­tute of In­ter­na­tional and Strate­gic Af­fairs.

Since its found­ing in the 1980s dur­ing Le­banon’s grind­ing war, Hezbol­lah has re­lied heav­ily on Iran for fi­nan­cial, po­lit­i­cal and mil­i­tary sup­port. It is the only fac­tion to have re­tained its arse­nal of weapons af­ter the end of Le­banon’s 15year civil con­flict in 1990. De­spite be­ing branded a “ter­ror­ist” or­ga­ni­za­tion by the United States and Gulf coun­tries and tar­geted with eco­nomic sanc­tions, Hezbol­lah has risen to play a de­ci­sive role in re­gional con­flicts. “The most im­por­tant Ira­nian tool in the re­gion is Hezbol­lah,” said Hi­lal Khashan, po­lit­i­cal sci­ence pro­fes­sor at the Amer­i­can Univer­sity of Beirut.

Hezbol­lah has trained Iraq’s pow­er­ful Hashed AlShaabi para­mil­i­tary forces, Khashan said, and even has “op­er­a­tives” in Ye­men’s war to back Shi­ite Houthi rebels tar­geted by Riyadh. Closer to home, Hezbol­lah has fought fe­ro­ciously in Syria to de­fend the gov­ern­ment of Pres­i­dent Bashar Al-As­sad, also an ally of Iran.

The group’s in­ter­ven­tion in Syria’s six-year con­flict was a ma­jor turn­ing point that helped As­sad’s troops re­take swathes of ter­ri­tory. It also helped hone Hezbol­lah’s own com­bat ex­pe­ri­ence, trans­form­ing it from a guer­rilla move­ment to a pow­er­ful fight­ing force with of­fen­sive ca­pa­bil­i­ties. Com­bin­ing its mil­i­tary ex­per­tise and po­lit­i­cal savvy, Hezbol­lah has ma­tured into Iran’s “crown jewel” in the Mid­dle East, said Joseph Ba­hout at the Carnegie Foun­da­tion think tank. It now serves as a “model” for all Iran-al­lied groups in the re­gion, from Syria’s pro-regime mili­tias to Iraq’s Hashed Al-Shaabi and the Iran-backed Houthi fighters, Ba­hout said.

These mil­i­tary ven­tures formed the crux of Hariri’s crit­i­cism of Hezbol­lah dur­ing his land­mark in­ter­view on Sun­day from Riyadh. Break­ing his si­lence more than a week af­ter his res­ig­na­tion, Hariri called on Hezbol­lah to com­mit to Le­banon’s pol­icy to “dis­as­so­ci­ate” from re­gional con­flicts. “I tell Hezbol­lah: it is in your in­ter­est, if we want to pro­tect Le­banon... to leave some of the ar­eas that you have en­tered,” Hariri said. He zoned in on Ye­men, say­ing Hezbol­lah’s in­volve­ment in the pro­tracted con­flict there had drawn Saudi’s rage: “Did the kingdom have any po­si­tion to­wards Hezbol­lah be­fore the war in Ye­men?”

Hariri, 47, ac­cused Iran and Hezbol­lah of tak­ing over his coun­try and desta­bi­liz­ing the broader re­gion when he stepped down on Nov 4. That an­nounce­ment sparked wor­ries that Le­banon would be sent ca­reen­ing back into po­lit­i­cal and eco­nomic tur­moil as Riyadh and Tehran vie for in­flu­ence. There were even fears of a new war with Is­rael, af­ter Hezbol­lah chief Has­san Nas­ral­lah ac­cused Saudi Ara­bia last week of ask­ing Tel Aviv to bomb Le­banon.

Is­rael and Hezbol­lah have clashed sev­eral times, in­clud­ing in a month-long war in 2006 that killed 1,200 Le­banese - mostly civil­ians - and 160 Is­raelis, mostly sol­diers. But any new con­flict be­tween Le­banon and its south­ern neigh­bor risked spilling over into the broader re­gion, ex­perts have said. “This time,” said Ba­hout, “be­cause of the ex­ten­sion in Syria and Iraq, it won’t be a war on Hezbol­lah only. It will very quickly flare up.”

Nas­ral­lah’s forces could re­spond to Is­raeli pres­sure by strik­ing else­where, in­clud­ing the United Arab Emi­rates or even Saudi Ara­bia. For Bi­tar, a con­ver­gence of fac­tors, in­clud­ing “an im­pul­sive Saudi Ara­bia, backed by an equally, ex­tremely im­pul­sive Amer­i­can pres­i­dent, and ris­ing rhetoric in Is­rael”, could in­di­cate a war was near. “But at this stage, we are still in a sys­tem where there is mu­tual de­ter­rence, a bal­ance of ter­ror,” he said. “The two par­ties know that an even­tual war would be dev­as­tat­ing for both sides.” — AFP

— AFP

NABATIEH, Le­banon: This photo taken on Nov 08, 2017 shows mem­bers of Hezbol­lah salut­ing be­hind the coffins of three com­rades killed in com­bat in Syria dur­ing their funeral.

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