Hezbol­lah, crown jewel of Iran’s spread­ing in­flu­ence

Manila Times - - OPINION -

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 re

Hariri crit­i­cized the pow­er­ful Shi­ite move­ment for its med­dling across the Mid­dle East dur­ing a tele­vised in­ter­view from Saudi - dia ap­pear­ance since he stepped down on Novem­ber 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 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 mil­i­tary sup­port.

It is the only fac­tion to have re­tained its arse­nal of weapons af­ter the end of Le­banon’s 15

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.

‘ Most im­por­tant tool’

“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 al-Shaabi para­mil­i­tary forces, Khashan said, and even has “op­er­a­tives” in Ye­men’s war to back Shi­ite Huthi 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 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 Huthi

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 had drawn Saudi’s rage: “Did the kingdom have any po­si­tion to­wards Hezbol­lah be­fore the war in Ye­men?”

Con­flict ‘ flare- up’

Hariri, 47, ac­cused Iran and Hezbol­lah of tak­ing over his coun­try and desta­bi­liz­ing the broader re­gion when he stepped down on Novem­ber 4.

That an­nounce­ment sparked wor­ries that Le­banon would be sent ca­reen­ing back into po­lit­i­cal and eco­nomic tur­moil as Riyadh

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.

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.”

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