Khaled Abou Zahr
Hezbollah on Sunday staged war games at the border with Israel and asserted its readiness to confront Tel Aviv. Tensions have indeed been building up, ranging from rockets fired by Hamas to Israeli strikes in northern Syria, as well as in Gaza. Yet, this time, the message of this military display was not only addressed to Israel, as many analysts claimed, but also to the Lebanese. Despite Hezbollah claiming it was in relation to the annual celebration of the May 25, 2000, withdrawal of Israel from Lebanon, it was as much, if not more so, a reminder of May 7, 2008, when Hezbollah invaded Beirut and threatened all its opponents.
This show of force constitutes the biggest risk to the unity and future of Lebanon. Looking at the images and the journalists covering the military display, I am not even sure the missiles were pointing south; instead they may have been facing to the north: Lebanon. And so, those who advocate a strong, centralized Lebanese state were looking the other way and pretending to care about the issue of bikinis or burkinis on Saida beach. Meanwhile, they condemn federalism as a threat to the unity of the country. So, how does Hezbollah’s violation of central sovereignty play out in their views? Where are the Lebanese Armed Forces? How is such a group allowed to decide unilaterally on war and peace? And if Hezbollah already has de facto autonomous decision-making powers, why not give the same privilege to all?
This display was an insult from Hezbollah to the entire Lebanese state. If proof were needed, this once again showed that Hezbollah’s agenda is not for Lebanon but clearly for the regime in Tehran. The timing of this message was also meant to make a statement that the political future of Lebanon is in its hands. The decision on who should be the next president, the next accused, the next everything, is their prerogative.
This comes as the Syrian regime is pushing for more influence in Lebanon. And incidentally, on this topic, we can notice a contradiction within the French foreign policy. While the French president’s team supports Suleiman Frangieh, a candidate with both the colors of Bashar Assad and Hezbollah, the French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna stated that Assad should be put on trial due to the “hundreds of thousands of deaths” and “chemical arms use” during the country’s civil war. Yet, Hezbollah’s troops collaborated in this massacre, they came to the rescue of Assad on the orders of Tehran, and they are still stationed in Syria with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. So, if Assad needs to be brought to justice, why engage with his allies on the political front in Lebanon? Should they not also be brought to justice for their crimes?
In reality, Hezbollah, just like Assad, has always been given international legitimacy, whether publicly or in the backstages of intelligence deal-making. Even Israel contributed to this recognition, especially after its withdrawal from Lebanon. The Israelis helped Hezbollah build up its international status. But, then again, this is a reflection of what is happening in Lebanon. If you want to talk to the real decision-maker, you will talk to Hezbollah. In the end, it controls and it decides. This week’s mini military display was also a reminder to everyone that the south is under Hezbollah’s control, not Hamas’ and not even the army’s.
Nevertheless, the broader recent synchronization between Hezbollah and Hamas is interesting. Hezbollah and hence Iran are working hard to add to the number of cards they hold in any deal that could come in the future. This reminded me of an interview given by a former intelligence officer at the beginning of the 2006 war. His analysis was that the ignition for the devastating attack by the Israelis was Hassan Nasrallah’s speech taking responsibility for the coordinated attacks and kidnappings in both Lebanon and Gaza. It was a red line or a message that Israel would not allow both of these files to be in the hands of Hezbollah and Iran.
Yet, since 2006, Israel has in fact contributed to the status Hezbollah holds. This is why Lebanon’s political future is linked to the regional deal-making. It is not only because minority political leadership cannot agree and invites interference. It is mainly because Hezbollah and Iran are putting Lebanon within the greater basket of deal-making currently taking place in the region. To escape this, Lebanon needs a different political system.
Sunday’s display was also a way for Hezbollah to preempt the remaining difficult question: What place can Hezbollah, in its current form, hold within the new Middle East that is beginning to shape up? This is a Middle East in which a series of reconciliations have come from within the region itself, not from international initiatives by Europe or the US. Whether between Turkiye and Egypt, Iran and Saudi Arabia or even Israel and the Abraham Accords signatory states, we are noticing the region taking action. This is a major shift within the region’s dynamics and will, without any doubt, impact the future of Hezbollah and Lebanon.
When asked about the future of Lebanon, I have always answered that nothing will change unless either the situation stabilizes in Syria or the Lebanese build a new political system, such as federalism. In the first scenario, it is about stakeholders understanding that investing in Lebanon before having stability in Syria is a zero-sum geopolitical game because the Lebanese do not have agency. The second option is about Lebanon achieving this agency, just like the rest of the region, with a new political system. Hezbollah is pushing for the wrong option. However, this time around, it will not play to its advantage.