CAN LEBANON SURVIVE HEZBOLLAH: IRAN'S “BLACKWATER" MERCENARY ARMY?

Saad Al Hariri – the peripatetic “may be no longer” Prime Minister of Lebanon is on the lamb again, or, more geographically correct: “sur l’agneu.”

Currently under the protective custody o French President Macron, Hariri was provided a hall pass by the Saudis to depart his gilded cage for Paris on a journey into the unknown. With rumors swirling in Saudi Arabia that ailing King Salman may transfer the throne to Crown Prince Mohammed as early as this week, the stakes for the Saudi monarchy could not be greater if Lebanon descends into an catastrophic tug-of-war between between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Judging from his mysterious exile and sudden resignation while in Riyad, Hariri is no longer his own man (if he ever was), and Lebanon’s fate is no longer in his hands. War weary Lebanese have good reason to worry. So, too, for that matter do Israel, Jordan, and the United States. If Lebanon follows the fate of Syria and Yemen and spirals into another proxy civil war no one wins except Iran.

Did the cowed Hariri rush to Riyadh because Saudi intelligence got wind of an assassination plot by Hezbollah against him – a 2005 fate suffered by his father, Rafic Hariri, who was Lebanon’s most popular prime minister? Plausible given the intrigue surrounding his sudden departure. But it is just as likely that the Saudis – benefactors of Hariri’s family — are attempting to orchestrate a palace coup against Hezbollah’s creeping annexation of Lebanon. Their goal being to “shock” Lebanon’s political balance of power inside Lebanon against Hezbollah. A goal that is a day late and a dime short. Hariri finally broke his silence the other day pledging to return to Beirut on Wednesday for Lebanon’s Independence Day (which increasingly sounds like an oxymoron).

No one, neither Hariri, the Saudis, or President Macron, have come clean what is really going on, but the Mideast mint leaves portend the end of the line for Hariri’s fragile coalition which has become a fig leaf for Hezbollah’s growing dominance over Lebanon.

Whether Hariri carries through with his resignation or not, reining in Hezbollah will require more than Saudi payoffs – it will require the growing menace of Hezbollah’s militias to submit to greater Lebanese Army control – and that is as unlikely as magic carpets bearing camels over Beirut. Hezbollah is already a state within the Lebanese state.

Iran’s dirty hands are all over this latest threat to Lebanese neutrality in Iran’s deadly proxy war against Saudi Arabia and Israel. With an Assad victory in sight in next door Syria, courtesy of Iran and Hezbollah (lest we forget Russia, as well), Hezbollah is growing in strength and power. Along with Shiite militias under Iranian control from Iraq, Hezbollah has amassed an arsenal of weaponry and missiles which poses a direct, existential threat to Israel.

One need not waste guessing what Hezbollah is up to. It’s fiery leader – Secretary General Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah – is heard boasting nearly nightly on Hezbollah’s powerful Al Menara TV of his intent to turn the Golan Heights abutting Syria and Israel the extension of a seamless northern front against Israel. And this is not an idle threat. Nasrallah is not going to abide by the Saudis or Hariri’s government curtailing Hezbollah’s freedom of maneuver – politically or militarily. Shades of Yassir Arafat and the PLO becoming a state within the Lebanese state, which led to the bloody 15-year Lebanese civil war of 1975-1990 that brought the U.S. and Israel into the conflict.

Hezbollah has amassed an impressive arsenal of weapons, seasoned fighters, and absolute territorial control off limits to the prying eyes of the Lebanese army and the United Nations buffer force (UNIFIL) which has failed miserably to defang Hezbollah – it’s mandate. Hezbollah has acquired over 100,000 rockets and long-range missiles, including Russian-made SA-17 “Buk” medium range air defense missiles capable of intercepting Israeli warplanes. Hezbollah has also built deep missile silos inside Syria to store missiles – including the Iranian-built Shahab-1, Shahab-2, and the Fateh-110 missiles, which can easily evade Israeli medium-range missile interceptors. Its battle-hardened terrorists have become Iran’s mercenaries throughout the Middle East – leading the New York Times to dub it “the Blackwater of Iran” after the infamous U.S. mercenary firm.

Moreover, Hezbollah is no longer operating in its Syrian and Lebanese neighborhoods. It is backing the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen (and likely were behind the recent missile attack on Riyadh airport from Yemen). Hezbollah has trained Houthis in their base camps in Lebanon. It is also operating in Iraq teaming up with Shiite militias under Iranian control.

Those in Washington who downplay or conveniently ignore Iran’s encroachments and intentions under the cover of tripling down on the “success” of the Iran nuclear deal have their collective heads buried deep in their think tank cubbies. Iran is positioning Hezbollah fighters in Iraq and in Syria to launch deadly attacks against American Special Forces and support units supporting Kurdish fighters in the beginnings of a campaign to drive the Americans completely out of Iraq and Syria, and ultimately pave the way for Iran’s ambitions to destabilize Lebanon, Jordan, and confront Israel. The Trump Administration has a strategic decision to make about its Syrian policy in the face of this growing threat.

Which leads me to Hariri’s future and the Trump Administration’s nascent Middle East peace making ambitions. The two are interconnected.

Iran does not have to reinvent the wheel. Hezbollah was behind the terrorist attack against the U.S. embassy and marine barracks in 1983 killing 241 Americans. That was enough for President Reagan, who packed up and left Lebanon for good after the attack. Beirut 1983 is a stark reminder how Iran would tap Hezbollah to bloody the U.S. out of Syria in order to grease the skids for more Iranian military command operations inside Lebanon against Israel.

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It is from Beirut’s southern suburbs that Hezbollah operates its command structure – blocking any attempt by Lebanese authorities to neutralize its social, financial, and military operations. It also runs a sophisticated, pan-Arab digital and social media network which serves as Iran’s Arab-language propaganda machine throughout the Arab world.

Iran and Hezbollah have a stark agenda for Lebanon: they are determined to make it the western bookend of Iran’s regional territorial designs incorporating Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. They also intend to use Lebanon to trap the U.S. and Israel into a diversionary war of attrition on the eastern Golan Heights to sap Israeli interest in a Pax Americana between Israel, Saudi Arabia, and other Sunni Arab states technically at war with Israel. Iran has no intention to abide by any Trump Administration-midwifed Middle East peace; it will sabotage it every way to Sunday, and Lebanon prominently figures in Iran’s complicity to remind Israelis that without a peace treaty with Lebanon, a peace with Saudi Arabia is largely symbolic.

What to do?

First, the Trump Administration needs to buffer its Mideast diplomacy by coordinating closely with the militaries of Lebanon, Jordan, and Israel to “contaminate” Hezbollah’s territorial ambitions in south-west Syria by exposing its forces to intermittent military harassment. Wouldn’t it be helpful if we had a competent Secretary of State in office instead of Rex Tillerson – one of the most incompetent secretaries, if not the most incompetent, since World War II.

Second, the French have fortuitously assumed the diplomatic lead in Lebanon – France’s former protectorate. President Macron needs to back up his commitment to Lebanon’s independence and Prime Minister Hariri’s survivability with conviction. That translates into buttressing the depleted Lebanese military with adequate resources to pose a real rear-guard military threat to Hezbollah in southern Lebanon. France must also and declare Lebanon’s territorial and political independence is of vital French national interest and ensure it does not collapse should the Saudis impetuously yank its financial lifeline to Lebanon.

Third, after a nightmare of losses in Lebanon, the last thing Israel wants to be is lured by the Saudis (at the behest perhaps of neophyte Jared Kushner) into another Lebanese war. Israel’s military and political leaders – particularly Prime Minister Netanyahu — have much to account for as Hezbollah has grown into a major threat – many wondering why Israel has not done more against it since its 2006 stalemated conflict with Hezbollah.

This relative passivity has to end. Israel cannot afford to stand pat in the face of Hezbollah’s or Iran’s growing menace. Lebanon is in desperate need of a regional “keep out” warning sign and the joke that is UNIFIL must be erased and replaced by a trip-wire force of Franco-Arab military forces whose mission is to prevent any change in Lebanon’s territorial integrity and neutrality. That would, at least for the time being, enable Israel to maintain a wary focus on Hezbollah in Syria, rather than being lured into a new Lebanese quagmire by Iran.

Fourth, containing Iran’s growing influence over Hezbollah in Lebanon requires a double-dose of new economic sanctions against Hezbollah and Iran. Congress and the Trump Administration have already ratcheted up financial sanctions against Hezbollah, but the European Union remains an outlier; pretending that Hezbollah is a political and not a terrorist organization. That must change, and that means France must take the lead by compelling the EU to cease bowing to Hezbollah. Choking off Hezbollah’s international financial network is vital.

None of these proposals, however, will safeguard Lebanon’s stability. The die has been cast by Iran. Hezbollah is Lebanon’s dominant political and military force. There is simply insufficient Lebanese popular support to challenge it or to checkmate its militia. But it can be cut down a few pegs from its unchecked interference by a concerted U.S. – European, pan-Arab financial sanctions and covert campaign; denying Iran a force free to roam far from its own Lebanese hovels.

Whether Saad Hariri’s feeble “national unity” government can “shock” Lebanon’s fragile political structure to end its appeasement of Hezbollah will require a much more vigorous strategic economic and military encirclement of this most lethal terrorist organization and its patron saint, Iran, in Lebanon and Syria. After all, a Lebanon on fire spells doom for any Trump Mideast peace initiative.

Courage, Prime Minister Hariri.

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