Beirut—When President Trump hosted Lebanon’s Prime Minister Saad Hariri at the White House Tuesday he pointedly described the Lebanese Shiite militia Hezbollah, which operates its own foreign and defense policies apart from Lebanon’s government, as a “menace.”
Hariri neither concurred with nor disputed Trump’s assessment. In his own remarks, he never referenced Hezbollah all.
What gives? Is official Lebanon, as represented by Hariri, for or against Hezbollah, the autonomous Shiite militia and political movement that the US calls terrorist?
Hariri is no fan of Hezbollah—the group, along with Syrian operatives—are implicated in the 2005 car bombing assassination of his father, Rafiq Hariri, a two time prime minister who tried to distance Lebanon from regional conflicts and out from under Syrian influence.
But Hariri, who heads a Sunni Muslim political movement, and is backed by Christian allies, has been unable to marginalize Hezbollah. Nor have outsiders, especially Hezbollah’s arch-foe Israel.
For reasons of military inferiority and the peculiarities of Lebanese politics, Hariri and his government are toothless. Hezbollah’s militia is more powerful than the Lebanese army. The army would split in any move against Hezbollah because numerous of its recruits are Shiite.
Politically, Hezbollah and its allies can block cabinet decisions, especially any that would curb its independence of action. In effect, Hezbollah operates a state-within-a- state immune from government pressure.
As such, it has intervened in Syria’s civil war at the behest of Iran and in favor of its longtime ally, Syrian president Bashar al-Assad without government authorization. It has accumulated a missile hoard capable of hitting all parts of Israel and built up its own logistical and communications system in preparation for war.
A recapitulation of failures to sideline Hezbollah suggests that for now, getting rid of the militia would be a futile task:
• In 2008, a Hariri-led government tried to curb Hezbollah. It attempted to dismantle an underground communications network Hezbollah operates in the south of the country. Hariri also moved to expel a Hezbollah security chief from Beirut airport whose job was to facilitate the transfer of arms from abroad to the militia.
Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah called the effort “an act of war” and sent armed allies into central Beirut. They occupied the district, which Sunnis regard as their traditional business and political center. Street fighting left 11 people dead. The government reversed its decision to curb Hezbollah activity.
Since then, no attempts to weaken the organization’s autonomy have gotten off the ground.
• Israel has a long running conflict with Hezbollah. Ironically, Israel’s periodic invasions of Lebanon helped stimulate Hezbollah’s creation as a response to damage wrought to largely Shiite southern Lebanon during the various wars.
In 1978, Israeli troops invaded south Lebanon to rout guerrillas from the Palestine Liberation Organization. At war’s end, Israel established a zone along its border occupied by a client Lebanese Christian militia. The invasion created the first of several waves of destitute Shiite refugees that flooded north and into southern Beirut suburbs.
Israel invaded again in 1982. This wider war succeeded in ousting the PLO from Lebanon, and also devastated parts of the south as well as Beirut. Hezbollah debuted shortly after war’s end, recruiting from dislocated Shiites and followers in the south.
In 1993, Israel launched a week-long invasion to deter Hezbollah, whose attacks inside Lebanon on occupying Israeli soldiers and their Christian allies took a chronic toll. The Israelis explicitly announced they would flood Beirut with refugees until the government put a halt to Hezbollah activities. But the Lebanese government, just coming off a 15 year civil war, in which Israel got involved, was unwilling to take the side of the occupiers.
Rather than weaken Hezbollah, the dislocations and damage to south Lebanon strengthened Shiite resolve.
In the year 2000, persistent Hezbollah guerrilla warfare prompted the Israelis to withdraw from the south and take some of their Christian allies with them. Six years later, Israel invaded the south again, after Hezbollah captured two of its soldiers by Hezbollah. Pitched village-to-village battles stymied Israel’s advance. Israel also bombed highways and a power plant inside Lebanon.
The invasion ended with Israel falling short of its aim of destroying Hezbollah, by then more battle-hardened and better supplied than ever by Iran. Supposedly, Hezbollah’s collection of missiles now numbers 120,000.
• The United Nations is supposed to somehow keep the Israel-Lebanon border peaceful. The United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) was created in the wake of the 1978 Israeli invasion and over the years grew in troop strength and mission. Presently, 15,000 UNIFIL and units of the Lebanon Army and not Hezbollah are allowed between the Litani River and the border. Israel complains that UNIFIL turns a blind eye to Hezbollah military activity in its zone.
Although the 2006 UN resolution authorizing UNIFIL’s current presence calls for the disarmament of Hezbollah, no one—neither the UN nor the government--has taken up the chore. UNIFIL officials say it is not their duty to uncover hidden arms caches. The few times peacekeepers tried to ferret out weapons, violence ensued.
The Lebanese army does no weapons searches, either.
• The United States, along with the European Union, has declared Hezbollah a terrorist organization. The US has imposed economic sanctions on Hezbollah to hinder its ability to move money around; Congress is considering stronger ones. Over the years, Washington also backed Israel’s various bombing campaigns and invasions directed at Hezbollah. None of that has impeded Hezbollah.
President Trump is probably going to continue US aid to the Lebanese Army, though it shows no sign of dismantling Hezbollah.
There you have it. Neither weary Lebanese, unhappy Israel nor pro-Israel Western countries can find a way to stymie Hezbollah. Instead, the group has become a mini-regional power. Allied with Iran, its front against Israel stretches into Syria.
For some, another war is the imagined solution. Israeli officials make noise about destroying Lebanon’s entire infrastructure. Nasrallah says he can hit Israel’s atomic plant with his missiles. In short, things can get worse. Much worse.