By Steven Martin Kensington
Lebanon borders with both Syria and Israel, which made it bound to become a participant in the Middle Eastern conflict. The official civil war in Lebanon ended in 1990, having lasted for over 15 years, and Syrian occupation of the country ended in 2005. Still, Lebanon seems to be in a heap of trouble, as it cannot geographically distance itself from either of its mortal enemies. As of August 2013, about 677.702 refugees from Syria were in Lebanon. Several of the country’s movements and parties fear Lebanon’s political system might be undermined.
Hezbollah joined with the Syrian and Lebanese army on 19th August 2017 to launch an offensive against an Islamic State enclave on the north-east border with Syria. Hezbollah is a Shi’a Islamist political party, which makes it fierce enemies with other extremist Islamic groups like Sunni Al-Qaeda and Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). It also has almost every Western country against itself, with both NATO and the European Union registered as state opponents of the party. Hezbollah supports the Syrian government, which has gotten them support from Russia, also a supporter of Bashar al-Assad and his administration. The United States, on the other hand, has been aiding rebel groups in Syria, and has “Hizballah” (another name for Hezbollah) registered as a foreign terrorist group on state.gov. More about the differences between the Russian and US strategies in the Middle East can be read here.
Several Sunni Arab countries have been putting pressure on Hezbollah for its ties to the Islamic Republic of Iran, a Shi’a theocracy. Hezbollah has still managed to hold power in Lebanon though, with 12 members in parliament and 2 in cabinet. Lebanon’s last election was in 2009, and the next one will be held next year. The country was supposed to have another election in 2014, but failed to elect a president and thus extended their own term, until 2018. But the newest cabinet was formed in December 2016, under Prime Minister Saad Hariri.
The Washington Post reports that the “Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) sees Hezbollah as Iran’s most potent proxy…,” referring to the proxy conflict between KSA and Iran since 2011, which has also been called the “Iran-Saudi Arabia Cold War.” As both Iran and the KSA aim for hegemony in the Middle East, there’s no doubt much at stake for the future of the region, and that’s why the whole world seems to have gotten involved, with the West on the Sunni side and the Communist and Arab bloc on the Shi’a side (In addition to Russia: Cuba, North Korea and Venezuela are state allies with Hezbollah).
Prime Minister Saad Hariri, a Sunni Muslim, resigned on 4th November, reportedly under pressure from the KSA. He stated in a televised statement citing Iran and Hezbollah’s “political over-extension” in the Middle East and that he feared he could be subjected to assassination attempts as he has long been an opponent of Hezbollah. This “shattered” Lebanon’s coalition government, including Hezbollah’s ministers. An unwritten understanding called the National pact, which was agreed on in 1943, made it a rule that the prime minister of Lebanon should always be a Sunni Muslim, though the country has had some Christian PMs since the agreement was held. It has not been agreed who would be the next Prime Minister after Saad Hariri, but on Wednesday he decided to suspend his resignation as he held talks with the Lebanese President Michel Aoun. The KSA hoped the resignation would undermine Iran and pave way for aggressive action against the Islamic extremist groups like Hezbollah, but seemingly it had the opposite effect, rallying Lebanon in support of its Prime Minister and hailing Hezbollah as the stabilizing force. Raphaël Lefèvre, a scholar at the Carnegie Middle East Center, proclaimed:
“The Saudis hoped that Hariri’s resignation would create an electroshock … that the cabinet would be immediately dissolved, and Hezbollah and its allies would have to step down from ministries and other important positions of power. Of course, this never happened. Hezbollah became stronger after the Syrian war began, when it joined forces with Syria’s Iranian-backed government to battle Sunni rebels. And its influence in the heart of Lebanon’s security institutions is certainly greater than ever before.”
Bilal Ballout, a credit collection agent from Southern Lebanon, opined about the Lebanese people’s thoughts on Hezbollah: “There are people with Hezbollah for ideological reasons and there are people with Hezbollah because they are protecting us. Lebanese forces are giving us as much as they can. But Hezbollah has an Army. When you get popular power, you get political power. And Hezbollah gets better and stronger every single day.”
Lebanon is split both politically and religiously, there’s no doubt about that. According to polls by Pew Research Center (PRC), approximately 58% of Lebanese citizens believed religious and ethnic hatred to pose the greatest threat to the world, a 19% increase since 2007. Amid its unfortunate position in the Middle Eastern conflict, it’s no wonder why there are so much support for Hezbollah as a political movement in the country. According to another poll by PRC, about 41% had a favorable view of Hezbollah in 2013 (almost identical to the Christian population’s view), but the Shi’a alone had up to 89% in favor of the party. There’s no doubt why the Sunni are against Hezbollah and the Shi’a in favor, and it’s also apparent why this disagreement would cause conflict religiously. The war in Syria seems to have no end, and the Arab-Israeli conflict even less so. The whole world is watching the conflict keep unfolding, wondering when it is going to end, and whether foreign involvement is actually going to help at all.