A truck last week overturned in the Lebanese town of Kahale. The vehicle was loaded with weapons. Residents of the area gathered around the truck, which Hezbollah gunmen tried to defend. This resulted in a clash, in which one Christian resident and one Hezbollah member were killed.
The incident had a snowball effect. The death of a Christian led to increased anti-Hezbollah sentiment. Some people have asked to be armed so that they can confront Hezbollah, while others are asking for the country to be partitioned. The civil war is still in the collective consciousness of the Lebanese people and no one wants to repeat it. However, the situation is so dire that voices are now raising accepting that risk, as they perceive that there is no other way to regain the country from Hezbollah’s dominance.
Until now, Hezbollah has had legitimacy due to its alliance with the Christian Free Patriotic Movement. But this alliance became strained earlier this year, when Hezbollah nominated Suleiman Frangieh for president, while the Free Patriotic Movement totally rejected him. The group is now in discussions with the Christian party in an effort to mend their relations. However, this task is now far more difficult as a result of last week’s incident.
Hezbollah is being blamed for the situation in Lebanon. Though the cause of the country’s financial crisis is the corruption, Hezbollah is being accused of being the main protector of the corrupt regime. Incidents like the one at Kahale, which portray Hezbollah’s prowess, make it very difficult for Free Patriotic Movement leader Gebran Bassil to justify any deal with the group.
Incidents like the one at Kahale make it very difficult for Bassil to justify any deal with the group
Dr. Dania Koleilat Khatib
The day after Kahale, a convoy transporting the minister of defense, who is from Bassil’s party, was shot at. Some described the incident as a warning from Hezbollah to its former ally to toe the line. Others explained it as a message to the army to release the truck that it had confiscated. However, the incident only increased the popular animosity toward the group.
Lebanon is unraveling. It has no president and no functioning government. The central bank governor’s mandate expired with no solid replacement in place. The General Security Directorate has no head and the head of the army will retire early next year. However, Hezbollah is still not showing any flexibility. It still has not announced that it is ready to negotiate with anyone other than Frangieh. Regionally, it is still not willing to discuss any withdrawal from Syria.
Hezbollah is hoping that, if it reaches an agreement with Bassil, they will have a comprehensive new settlement. However, a situation where Hezbollah strikes an agreement with the Free Patriotic Movement and everyone tags along is not realistic anymore. The anti-Hezbollah sentiment is very strong and the situation is different from 2014, when the end of the mandate of Michel Suleiman eventually led to the election of Michel Aoun two and a half years later. While Hezbollah is calling for dialogue, in reality the group still thinks it has the upper hand.
The group is also trying to dissociate its regional presence from its position internally. Hence, it is hoping that, due to the Saudi-Iranian reconciliation, its presence will be accepted. However, Hezbollah is guided by wishful thinking. It is hoping that its dominance will be accepted domestically and its presence will be tolerated regionally. It is playing the waiting game it has always played.
Hezbollah is also playing roles with the Iranians as part of its evasion strategy. The Iranians are very good at this. When Tehran is asked about its position on Lebanon and the presidential dossier, it throws it all on Hezbollah. The Iranians’ answer is: We are fine with whatever Hezbollah decides. When Hezbollah is asked about its presence in Syria, its response is that the decision rests with the Assad regime. However, those answers are not convincing to anyone — not to the Lebanese factions and not to the Arab states.
While Hezbollah is calling for dialogue, in reality the group still thinks it has the upper hand
Dr. Dania Koleilat Khatib
The party wants to preserve its internal interests and the security of its borders. It wants to achieve local stability and not get carried away by regional complications. However, this is currently hard to achieve. The Lebanese know that Hezbollah’s agenda is tightly linked to Iran and the group’s military presence in Lebanon is Tehran’s first line of defense against Israel. This has pushed the factions that are against Hezbollah to describe its armed presence as an Iranian occupation of Lebanon. Arabs know that Hezbollah has a lot of influence in Syria and has leverage over Bashar Assad.
Hezbollah continues to train Quwat Al-Ridha and the Islamic Resistance Forces in Syria. The party also has control over the movement of people and goods. It is mainly positioned in the areas bordering Lebanon, from the Arida crossing in the north that links Tartous to Tripoli, all the way round to Al-Jayusieh, which links Al-Qusayr to the Bekaa Valley. The party has also recently sought to expand its areas of influence in the Syrian coastal governorates. And it is active in the Iranian oil trade in Lebanon and Syria.
Hence, Hezbollah has economic and military influence and can have leverage over the Assad regime. However, it still has the same tagline: We were invited by the Syrian state and we will leave when the state asks us to do so. So, the group is not willing to make concessions regionally or domestically, yet it is still hoping for national and regional acceptance.
But the situation is difficult and time is not on its side. There are several points of pressure on the group: The 2020 Beirut explosion; the refugee dossier, which is directly linked to its presence in Syria; UN Security Council Resolution 1559 that requires the disarmament of all militias and Resolution 1701 that prohibits armed groups from operating anywhere in Lebanon; and sanctions. More importantly, there is the increased tension inside Lebanon and the calls for the partitioning of the country.
In short, Hezbollah is facing internal and external pressures and, unless it is willing to compromise, the situation is going to explode. Unfortunately, the group does not seem to realize that the situation is not sustainable.