Although the government of Lebanon agreed this week to a renewed commitment to dissociation, Hezbollah’s representatives said that it was nothing different in content from the previous Cabinet agreement and reserved the right to issue its own position. Importantly, the restatement enabled Prime Minister Saad Hariri to withdraw his resignation and take up his position in the government, which has a full agenda in advance of the May 2018 Parliamentary elections.
As a recent article by an analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy put it, “Now that Hariri has returned to Lebanon and suspended his resignation, the question is no longer about him. Rather, it is how Iran will move beyond this hurdle to consolidate its achievements in Lebanon and the region.”
This is the obvious conundrum. Will Hezbollah continue to act as Iran’s proxy across the region and continue ramping up its military presence in Lebanon threatening Israel, or will it resume its Lebanese character and limit its ambitions to its home country? As the article points out, “When Hizballah decided to join Iran’s regional foreign legion, it was only a matter of time before Lebanon would be dragged with Hizballah to the regional confrontation. Now, any dialogue among the Lebanese people or possible resolution to nation’s crisis is going to be tied to regional negotiations over the conflicts in Syria, Iraq and Yemen.”
To successfully navigate between its commitments, to Iran and Lebanon, Hezbollah will have to choose between continuing its involvement in Yemen and Iraq while advancing towards a more nuanced and evolving posture in Syria. In fact, Hezbollah could be helpful in working with the Lebanese government to reduce threats along the border as hostilities wind down, and provide pathways for solving the refugee presence in Lebanon and well as its participation in Syria’s reconstruction.
Analysts are offering two contradictory scenarios: the entire episode has strengthened Hariri’s hand and weakened Saudi Arabia, or weakened Hariri and strengthened Hezbollah. What is even murkier is how public opinion will morph from now until the 2018 Parliamentary elections.
And what are the Lebanese saying about this?
Implications of the Hariri crisis on the election results are very hard to predict. According to NDI, despite some naysayers, the new election law does not of itself favor Hezbollah. It puts more districts up for grabs, and Hezbollah may benefit because of its better organization. If enough young voters are mobilized in these competitive districts around capable candidates, the results may not reflect the usual sectarian patterns.
According to a Washington Institute article on political affiliations among Lebanese, it points out that “a reasonable estimate is this: around 40 percent are Shia Muslim; 30 percent Sunni Muslim; 25 percent Christians (Maronite, Greek Orthodox, Greek Catholic, Armenian, Protestant, and other); and the remaining 5 percent mostly Druze, plus a few other small minorities.”
“Asked about their attitude toward Hezbollah, the extent of Lebanese sectarian polarization is sharply evident. Among Sunnis, 85 percent express a negative view and just 14 percent a positive one. But among Shia, the proportions are almost exactly the reverse: 88 percent voice a positive opinion of Hezbollah (including a striking 83 percent “very positive”); while a mere 11 percent say they have a negative opinion.”
What is critical about these numbers is that they are no longer the only indicator of voting outcomes in the Parliamentary elections. Political affiliations in the abstract do not always coincide with voter behavior. “For example, in the 2016 local elections, 45 percent voted against Hezbollah and affiliated Amal candidates, even in their supposed stronghold of Baalbek.”
The Christian voters are likewise is flux. “Lebanon’s substantial Christian minority remains split almost down the middle on Hezbollah: 45 percent in favor, 55 percent opposed. Yet almost half of Lebanese Christians still apparently adhere to the view of the country’s Maronite president, Michel Aoun, that Hezbollah represents a positive player in the Lebanese arena. How his position evolves, if at all, in the coming months will be telling.
Despite disagreements about Iran and Syria evident among the respondents, there was a high degree of agreement regarding support for coexistence between Sunnis and Shias and the overriding importance of domestic reforms compared to foreign policy.
The international pushback that reversed Hariri’s sojourn in Riyadh demonstrated that Lebanon has an intrinsic value to Western countries that value its role as a buffer state that strives to preserve it tolerant, multi-confessional character in a very tough neighborhood, made more dangerous by Iran’s aggressive policies in the region. The zero sum game between Saudi Arabia and Iran can have no winners without dangerous and unprecedented instability throughout the region.
Even President Trump’s official recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel will only for a moment be a common cause among Sunnis and Shias. It only opens the door for Hezbollah to reassert its presence in the south and make menacing noises that may, though misjudgment and miscalculation by either party, lead to a catastrophe for Lebanon.
So the tension around the resignation and restoration, coupled with the US announcement on Jerusalem may only result in more instability in the near term, hopefully dissipating before the election season begins.
As the European Council on Foreign Relations noted in an article, “The collective memory of Lebanon’s own civil war and the buy-in of key political leaders to the current order still hold firm. But renewed political paralysis and associated economic shock – which could be made considerably worse if Riyadh tightens the financial noose – will feed intensified instability and the further hollowing out of the state.”
It further states that “These are precisely the conditions which will help Hezbollah reinforce its parallel, non-state ascendancy,” which may be worsened if the war of words about Jerusalem turns violent.
Lebanon’s hope in the run-up to the election is that “A broad-based government and legitimate parliament, even if it includes Hezbollah, still likely represent a better means of establishing some political counter-weight to the group’s dominance. It is also key to providing the governance services needed to maintain the semblance of a functioning state able to act as a legitimate alternative to Hezbollah.”
The Hariri episode is but one in the continuing and challenging efforts to rebuild Lebanon’s role in the region as a hub for intellectual, cultural, and economic progress.