On Saturday, Lebanese prime minister Saad Hariri announced his resignation in a televised speech from Saudi Arabia. In the speech, Hariri cited Iran’s control of Lebanon through Hezbollah as the reason for stepping down. Hezbollah, Hariri said, “has come to control the seams of the state and has the final and decisive say in the affairs of Lebanon and the Lebanese.”
Hariri went on to list how Hezbollah has turned Lebanon into a launching pad for military interventions and terrorist activities against fellow Arab states, for which Lebanon has paid a price in “international condemnation and economic sanctions.”
Of course, Hariri knew all this when he made a deal to return to the premiership last year. Under Hariri’s tenure, Hezbollah only consolidated its existing domination of the country by tightening its grip on the edifice of the state, winning key appointments in the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF), the intelligence and security agencies, the judiciary and state administrative offices. Hariri’s function was simply to provide Hezbollah with cover. He often ran interference abroad, lobbying Washington for softer sanctions and for increased assistance to an LAF working hand-in-glove with Hezbollah and Iran.
Contrary to conventional wisdom, the Saudis never supported Hariri’s deal with the devil. Instead, the Saudis cut him loose. They withdrew their grant to the LAF, which they had come to view, rightly, as an auxiliary force to Hezbollah. And they did not return their ambassador to Beirut during Hariri’s tenure. Although they would have done better to block Hariri’s stunt from the start, the Saudis have finally pulled the plug on a disastrous arrangement before it got even worse.
Hariri’s acknowledgement that Lebanon is an Iranian satrapy run by Hezbollah obviously vindicates Israel’s view of the country. Last month, Israel’s defense minister Avigdor Lieberman explained that in a future conflict with Lebanon, “we’re no longer talking solely about Hezbollah. We’re talking about Hezbollah and about the Lebanese military.” The Lebanese army, Lieberman added, “has become an integral part of Hezbollah’s campaign under its command… [It] has become inextricably linked to Hezbollah.”
Lebanon is already an Iranian province. Jerusalem’s concern now is that Iran and Hezbollah are well on their way to achieving the same working arrangements inside Syria, while the US continues to facilitate the dominance of Iranian-led forces. And so, in his statement on the development in Lebanon, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu described Hariri’s resignation speech as a “wake-up call,” and warned that Iran was trying to replicate in Syria the model through which it has come to dominate Lebanon.
The Saudis are also driven by the desire to confront Iran in the region, and, with this move, they have integrated Lebanon into their effort to push back against Tehran. Saudi Arabia’s minister of state for Gulf affairs, Thamer al-Sabhan, ratcheted up the rhetoric this week, and stated that Saudi Arabia will treat the Lebanese government as a hostile government which has “declared war,” because of Hezbollah’s involvement in military operations in Yemen and elsewhere targeting Saudi troops and the Saudi homeland itself.
Rhetoric aside, it is in fact hard to see how Lebanon cannot be held responsible for attacks facilitated and conducted by the entity that controls the country’s government and armed forces – which is why few nations with any choice in the matter would choose to be run by a terrorist organization, especially one that is controlled by a foreign country. As of yet, however, it’s unclear what Saudi Arabia’s new rhetoric means in practice. For all the talk about the possibility of a return to instability in Lebanon, the reality remains that Riyadh’s tools and options in Lebanon are limited.
To be sure, the Saudis can, and likely will, impose painful punitive financial and economic measures, like expelling Lebanese working in the Gulf or sanctions against Lebanese businessmen allied with Hezbollah. Another option available to the Saudis might be to revive an anti-Hezbollah political coalition, perhaps even raising the defunct “March 14” coalition from the dead, and to launch a political and media campaign against Hezbollah ahead of next year’s parliamentary elections in the hope of peacefully wresting control of Lebanon back from Iran and its local proxy army.
Yet there are several obvious problems with this approach. First, and most obvious, is that Hariri and his allies, or whatever remains of them, are extremely weak and pose no threat whatsoever to Hezbollah, even if they were to fare well in elections — which is less likely under the new electoral law that Hariri agreed to. After all, in its heyday, the “March 14” coalition twice won elections in 2005 and 2009, and in both instances that meant absolutely nothing. In 2008, Hezbollah sent its fighters to the streets and imposed a cabinet formation in which it could veto all decisions. In January 2011, Hezbollah collapsed Hariri’s government and forced him into prolonged exile. He was allowed to return only when he capitulated in full.
A Lebanese political confrontation with Hezbollah, therefore, is meaningless — even assuming that it could be won at this point, which seems unlikely. In addition to having the president, the speaker of parliament, the LAF and its own militia, Hezbollah must give its assent before any new cabinet can be formed – and can easily topple that cabinet if it doesn’t like the result. In other words, the most that could be obtained in Lebanon is precisely what we had up to this point: a coalition government that Hezbollah will control. As for a media campaign against Hezbollah, it will amount to little more than noise and high-pitched poetry. Its impact on the balance of power and Hezbollah’s total control inside the country, will be nil.
This reality carries implications for US policy, which has been anchored around supporting the LAF – a conceit that can only make sense around seminar room tables populated by people who imagine Lebanon to be a version of an American-style procedural democracy with stable, independent institutions, which it utterly lacks. By building up the LAF, this abstracted logic went, America would be strengthening “the state,” and thereby weakening Hezbollah. When the anti-Hezbollah prime minister resigns citing the group’s total domination of the state, then perhaps a review of the underlying premise of the policy is in order.
Strengthening a state controlled by Hezbollah strengthens Hezbollah. It’s that simple. At the very least, the continuation of a Hezbollah-aligned government without the Hariri fig leaf should warrant a suspension of US aid to the LAF, at least until the dust settles.
A renewed political and media circus in Beirut should not be confused with a real, serious strategy to roll back Iran and break its long arm, Hezbollah. Reviving a dead political coalition to compete in elections and serving up a supercharged dose of anti-Hezbollah poetry and political rhetoric in the Lebanese media is fine and well, but it does not alter the balance of power, let alone break Hezbollah. The Lebanese people have seen that movie twice before, and it ended badly both times. Hezbollah will not be defeated through politics, let alone through “narrative” and fancy TV ads.
Tony Badran is Tablet magazine’s Levant analyst and a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He tweets @AcrossTheBay.