Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

Trump and everyone else need to understand – Hezbollah and the Lebanese Government are now working hand in hand

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Shmuel Levin

 

In late July, Lebanon's Prime Minister Saad Hariri visited US President Donald Trump at the White House. Speaking at the joint press conference, President Trump praised Lebanon for "standing up for humanity in a very troubled part of the world" and noted that "Lebanon is on the front lines in the fight against ISIS, Al Qaeda, and Hizballah".

But, as has been widely pointed out by the press, this was notably wrong in one key respect - Hezbollah is actually a political partner in Hariri's government, and Lebanon is embracing, not combatting, the terror group.

Per custom, Lebanon's political system requires the appointment of a Sunni prime minister, a Christian president, and a Shi'ite speaker of Parliament. In 2013, this led to a 29-month deadlock during which Lebanon had no president or head of state and a paralysed Parliament. Finally, in 2016, this vacuum was filled with the appointment of President Michel Aoun in a power-sharing deal with Prime Minister Hariri.

Aoun is "a staunch ally of Iran" and his appointment marked the culmination of a decade-long political alliance between Aoun and Hezbollah. Shortly after his election, Aoun described Hezbollah as "a significant part of the Lebanese people" and stated that "Hezbollah's weapons do not contradict the national project... and are, rather, a principal element of Lebanon's defence". More recently, following President Trump's visit to Saudi Arabia, Aoun rejected "both the U.S.-Saudi declaration and the final statement of the Arab Islamic American Summit which separately condemned Iran's regional subversion and its support for terrorism."

As reported by the Guardian, the new government "politically legitimises Hezbollah as a nationalist group with cross-sectarian support - a landmark moment for an organisation that had largely been defined by its sectarian origins".

UN Security Council Resolution 1701

The result of all this is that UN Resolution 1701, which had been the core of the international community's approach to managing the threat of another Israel-Hezbollah war, has now effectively been rendered moot.

In August 2006, the UN Security Council attempted to resolve the 2006 Lebanon war by unanimously approving Resolution 1701 and calling for "a full cessation of hostilities". The Resolution also called for "the disarmament of all armed groups in Lebanon, so that... there will be no weapons or authority in Lebanon other than that of the Lebanese State".

However, President Aoun has stated that Hezbollah should play "a complementary role to the Lebanese army". This appears to be a direct violation of the resolution, and these comments prompted a warning tweet from UN Coordinator Sigird Kaag.

In addition, Resolution 1701 also calls for the area south of the Litani River to be "free of any armed personnel, assets and weapons other than those of the Government of Lebanon and of UNIFIL." To help enforce these new provisions, the existing UN peacekeeping force, UNIFIL, was expanded.

But notwithstanding Resolution 1701, cooperation between the Lebanese government and Hezbollah appears to be taking place on a regular basis, including in the south of the country, despite the prohibition on their presence in 1701. Israeli officials say "Hezbollah operatives, sometimes in civilian clothing and sometimes in Lebanese army uniform, often join [the Lebanese Army] for vehicle patrols".

In addition, during the Trump-Hariri press conference, Trump criticised the "menace" of Hezbollah while praising the "impressive" accomplishments of the Lebanese Armed Forces. But even while Hariri was still in Washington, the Lebanese Armed Forces were engaged "in a joint military operation with Hezbollah in northeastern Lebanon, targeting a pocket of Syrian armed groups-including the group formerly known as the Nusra Front-on the Syrian border".

Moreover, as Tony Badran writes:

Hezbollah, of course, controls the Lebanese government and dictates the operations of its armed forces. Indeed, it was Hezbollah that laid out the battle plans for the current operation in northeastern Lebanon, including what role the LAF would play in it. And it was Hezbollah's chief, Hassan Nasrallah, who announced the impending start of the joint operation with the LAF during a televised appearance a couple of weeks ago.

For its part, Hezbollah has tried to use the Syrian conflict to its advantage, by presenting itself as a source of stability against al-Qaeda and ISIS. In response to Trump labelling Hezbollah a "menace", Hezbollah led "a convoy comprising over 40 journalists' four-wheel-drive vehicles" to areas captured by Hezbollah from Nusra fighters. But, as Israel's Intelligence Minister Yisrael Katz points out, "Hezbollah likes to portray itself as a defender of Lebanese interests, but it's very clear that its true interests are those of itself and its sponsor - Iran."

Deepened entrenchment of Hezbollah in Lebanon

Hezbollah has also increased its presence in Lebanon in other ways. Although Hezbollah lost significant numbers of fighters in Syria, it has used the Syrian conflict to replenish its rocket and missile stockpiles. Before 2006, Hezbollah had approximately 13,000 rockets in its arsenal, but it is now believed to have more than 100,000 rockets, including "strategic weapons such as anti-ship missiles". Ironically, Resolution 1701 not only calls for Hezbollah's disarmament, but also for "no sales or supply of arms and related materiel to Lebanon except as authorized by its Government".

Moreover, every village in southern Lebanon has "been transformed into a fortified bastion" by Hezbollah, according to Israeli press reports. According to some reports, "much of Hezbollah's arsenal is known to be nestled under or alongside Lebanon's schools, hospitals and apartment buildings", as are its command and control centres.

Given the intertwining of the Lebanese army and Hezbollah, "Israeli security officials now doubt whether any substantive difference exists between Lebanon and Hezbollah." In April, Hezbollah gave a "tour" of the Lebanese-Israel border to journalists, "chaperoned" by the Lebanese army, and in open defiance of Resolution 1701. In response, Hariri travelled to the border to "provide assurances that the Lebanese government - rather than Hezbollah - is in control of the territory." But Hariri's visit was also prompted by warnings from Israel that in the event of war, it would hold the Lebanese government accountable for Hezbollah's actions. Israel's army Chief of Staff Lt. Gen Gadi Eisenkot has also stated that "in the event of a future military confrontation with Hezbollah, the Israel Defense Forces will not hesitate to strike institutions affiliated with the Lebanese state itself and not only with Hezbollah."

According to Badran, former US President Barack Obama chose to turn a blind eye to Lebanon's cooperation with Hezbollah as part of his pivot towards Iran. Obama reinterpreted Resolution 1701 to apply only to "Syria-origin Sunni extremists" rather than Hezbollah, he says.

Trump's recent comments may indicate a move to a new US position and a desire to separate Hezbollah from Lebanon, but it may be too late. It is unclear that such a division exists in reality today.

 

Image: Lebanese President Michel Aoun shakes hands with Hassan Nasrallah, secretary of Hezbollah. Image source: Daily star

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