January 7, 2017
Lebanon: No Land for Beginning Politicians
by Avi Melamed
On October 31st 2016, 81-year-old, General Michele ‘Aoun, former Chief of Staff of the Lebanese Armed Forces was nominated by the Lebanese Parliament as the new President of Lebanon.
In December 2016, a new government was formed in Lebanon under the leadership of the Prime Minister of Lebanon, Sa’ad Uddin Al-Hariri.
The term of the previous President of Lebanon, General Michele Suleiman, ended in May 2014. Since then, Lebanese politicians had failed to agree on a new President.
Lebanon has a very complicated political system, reflecting the multi-ethnic and religious dimensions of Lebanese society, which is composed of Christians, Sunni Muslims, Shi’ite Muslims, Druze, and other groups. The population of Lebanon is estimated to be between four-and-a-half and six million people. Christians account for about 22 percent of the population, yet they are not homogeneous—Christians are divided between sects – Maronite, Greek Orthodox and others. Shi’ites are 27 percent of the population, Sunnis are 25 percent, and Druze are more than 5 percent.
According to the Lebanese Constitution the Prime Minister must be a Sunni Muslim, the Chair of the Parliament must be a Shi’ite Muslim, and the President of Lebanon – the highest Executive position in the country – must be a Maronite Christian. The Parliament (which has 128 members) chooses the President. The President appoints the leader of the largest party to be Prime Minister and empowers him to form a government.
General ‘Aoun is a Maronite Christian. He is the leader of a major political party known as “The Free Patriotic Movement” al-Tayyar al-Watani al-Hurr which has 20 members in the Parliament.
‘Aoun is a political ally of the Lebanese Shi’ite organization known as Tammam Salam(“The Party of God”).
Hezbollah, a Lebanese organization massively supported by Iran, has 13 seats in the Lebanese Parliament. Hezbollah (thus Iran) support ‘Aoun’s candidacy for President.
The allies of Hezbollah in Lebanon cooperate within a framework known as “The March 8th Alliance” named after a demonstration in support of Assad which took place in Lebanon on March 8, 2005.
The March 8th Alliance is a coalition of various political parties in Lebanon, all of whom support the Assad regime in Syria.
The leading entities of the March 8th Alliance are ‘Aoun’s party, al-Tayyar al-Watani al-Hurr, and Hezbollah.
Al-Tayyar al-Watani al-Hurr and Hezbollah combined hold 33 of 128 seats in Parliament making them a significant power.
Under the government headed by Prime Minister Najib Mikati, who resigned in 2013, the March 8th Alliance was the ruling coalition in Lebanon (June 2011 – March 2013). In February 2014, the succeeding government, formed by Prime Minister, Tammam Salam, was primarily comprised of technocrats and was a mixed government without a clear ruling coalition.
Sa’ad Uddin Al-Hariri is a Sunni Muslim. He is the son of the assassinated Lebanese Prime Minister, Rafiq Al-Hariri, and was himself the Lebanese Prime Minister from 2009-2011. He is the leader of the largest single party in Parliament, with 35 members called “The Future Party” – Al-Mustakbal.
Al-Mustakbal is the major factor within another significant entity in Lebanon called The March 14th Alliance.
The March 14th Alliance is named after a mass demonstration which took place in Lebanon on March 14, 2005 following the assassination of then Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Al-Hariri in Beirut in February 2005. Participants in that demonstration blamed Assad for the assassination of Al-Hariri.
The March 14 protests resulted in the withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanon.
The parties and individuals that are affiliated with the March 14th Alliance are united in their Anti-Assad sentiments and in their opposition to the March 8th Alliance.
Al-Hariri, supported by Saudi Arabia, objected to ‘Aoun’s candidacy for President.
Since the previous President, General Michele Suleiman, stepped down in May 2014, Lebanese politicians – or more to the point, parties backed and supported by Iran and Saudi Arabia – have failed to agree on a new President.
However, in October 2016, Al-Hariri (supported by Saudi Arabia) announced that an agreement was achieved according to which ‘Aoun (supported by Iran) will become the President, and Al-Hariri will be the Prime Minister.
Al-Hariri’s announcement surprised many people in Lebanon and elsewhere.
What prompted the surprising and unexpected agreement?
The agreement in Lebanon over the choice of the President and Prime Minister first and foremost reflects an Iranian-Saudi understanding and the ability of both powers to compromise when it is in their interest.
Lebanon is today one of eight stages of the growing Iranian-Saudi power struggle.
The others are: Bahrain, the Gaza Strip, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, Yemen, three islands in the Gulf – Abu Musa, Greater Tunb, and Lesser Tunb occupied by Iran, and the last, but not least – Iran’s nuclear project.
In Lebanon, in the beginning of the 1980s, the Iranians, through their Al-Quds elite force, established their most powerful proxy: The Shi’ite Lebanese militant Islam organization – Hezbollah.
Since then, Hezbollah, massively armed and financed by Iran, dictates Iran’s agenda on Lebanon. The clearest example of how Hezbollah acts in the service of Iran is the war in Syria.
The Lebanese government formally announced a neutrality policy regarding the war in Syria. Yet, Hezbollah—regardless of the fact that it has seats in Parliament, is a full-fledged member of the Lebanese government and wields much control over it —is, under the Iranian rule instructions, massively involved in the war in Syria.
Hezbollah actually dragged Lebanon into the war in Syria – the central stage of the Iranian-Saudi power struggle – against the will of the Lebanese and the Lebanese government of which Hezbollah itself is a part of.
Hezbollah’s involvement in the war in Syria has deep, serious and negative ramifications on Lebanon:
- As an outcome of the war, 1.5 million Syrians have fled from Syria into Lebanon. The Syrian refugees are a substantial burden on the fragile Lebanese economy.
- Lebanon’s struggling economy is deeply dependent upon the Arab Gulf States.
- Seventy-five percent Lebanon’s agricultural products and fifty-three percent of all products made in Lebanon are exported to the Gulf.
- Arab Gulf states and companies invest billions of dollars in infrastructure development and infrastructure projects in Lebanon.
- Hundreds of thousands Lebanese – many of whom are Shi’ites – make their living in the Gulf States and through this money, support their families back in in Lebanon.
- The Arab Gulf States are very displeased with the fact that the Lebanese government (though against its will) cooperates with Hezbollah, thus supporting the Iranian agenda in Syria. Therefore, the Arab Gulf states expressed their discontent through painful economic sanctions, for example:
- Lebanese Shi’ite workers in the Gulf were ordered to leave. This severely damaged Hezbollah because Lebanese Shi’ites are Hezbollah’s base of support and are its core constituency.
- Arab Gulf banks and Gulf investment companies reduced their activity and investments in Lebanon which resulted in in the inflation of the Lebanese Pound. As a result, Lebanon needed to then borrow 2.5 billion dollars in order to save the complete collapse of the Pound and the economy.
- Saudi Arabia froze 3 billion dollars it had designated to financing an arms deal for the Lebanese army.
The Lebanese government understands the critical importance of the support of the Gulf States.
Increasing domestic tensions:
Hezbollah’s involvement in the war in Syria has deepened the existing tensions within the country, and has also resulted in growing sectarian violence throughout Lebanon.
- As an outcome of the war, and Hezbollah’s involvement, the Lebanese army has been forced to fight Sunni Militant Islamist groups like ISIS and Al-Qaeda which are present and operate along the Lebanese-Syrian border. During these clashes dozens of Lebanese soldiers have been killed and dozens have been taken captive.
- Lebanese Sunnis identify with the suffering of their fellow Syrian Sunni Muslims – for which Hezbollah bears – directly and indirectly – great responsibility.
- In Tripoli, the largest city in northern Lebanon and the second-largest city in the country (approximately 450,000 people), violent clashes have periodically erupted between Sunnis and the ‘Alawite minority (a distant branch of the Shi’ites; Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad is Alawite).
- The continuation of the war in Syria increases the anger of the Palestinians in Lebanon (according to the United Nations Relief and Welfare Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), there are five hundred and sixty-thousand Palestinians in Lebanon). Palestinians are being butchered in Syria; according to recent reports, as of the end of 2016 more than 3500 Palestinians killed in the war in Syria.
- The flow of dozen of thousands of Palestinians from Syria to Palestinian refugee camps is exacerbating an already intolerable living situation in the camps; the tensions are rising between the different Palestinian organizations; and tensions are intensifying between armed Salafi-Jihadist* Palestinians groups and Hezbollah.
- Dozens of Shi’ites have been killed by Sunnis – mostly Palestinians (Palestinians are Sunnis) – who, as a retaliation for Hezbollah’s slaughter of Palestinians in Syria, have launched attacks on Hezbollah’s strongholds in Beirut as well as other Shi’ite communities in Eastern Lebanon. In a possibly related event, it is reported that the Lebanese government is in the midst of building a wall around the largest Palestinian Refugee camp ‘Ein Al-Hilweh, located in southern Lebanon. The wall is allegedly aimed to “shield the camp from terror threats.” However, it is more likely that the wall aims to further limit the flow of weapons and Palestinian Islamist militants to and from the camp, known as a major strong hold of the Palestinians Salafi-Jihadist* groups.
Thus, towards the end of 2016, with the crisis in Lebanon deepening and the country seemingly on the verge of a massive eruption both Iran and Saudi Arabia, wanting to avoid a situation where violence in Lebanon spins out of control, decided to compromise.
Iran is keenly aware that a massive eruption in Lebanon could jeopardize Iran’s most valuable proxy – Hezbollah – who is already sinking in the Syrian blood bath helping Iran to keep Assad in power.
Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah is under the growing criticism not only of the majority of Lebanese, but also of the Lebanese Shi’ites due to the issues outlined above including the economic impact of Lebanon’s involvement in the war, the growing sectarian violence, and the number of Lebanese Hezbollah militants who have been killed and maimed in the war Syria. It is estimated that some 1,800 Lebanese Shi’ite Hezbollah militants have been killed in Syria and more than 7,000 wounded.
An eruption of violence inside Lebanon spinning out of control would pose a serious threat to Hezbollah at home in the form of a massive front consisting of Sunni Lebanese, Salafi-Jihadi* Palestinian groups, and no less important – hundreds of thousands of Sunni Syrian refugees in Lebanon who – as previous soldiers in the Syrian Army – have advanced military training, all eager to take their revenge on Hezbollah.
In a scenario like this Hezbollah could find itself engaged in battle of life and death in both arenas – the Syrian and the Lebanese – at the same time.
Such a development would severely harm Iran’s interest in two ways:
First, the odds of Assad enduring without Hezbollah’s military support are slim.
Second, a war in Lebanon would substantially erode Hezbollah’s military might, thus diminishing its power and therefore diminishing Iran’s influence in Lebanon.
Because of these two reasons, Iran wants to avoid Lebanon spinning out of control which would diminish the power, might and influence of Hezbollah (Iran) in both Lebanon as well as in Syria.
Saudi Arabia is the leader of the Sunni Arab camp’s efforts to block and thwart Iran’s aggressive takeover of Arab states.
To that end, Saudi Arabia is currently proactively engaged in, and financing, two wars – one in Syria and one in Yemen.
The expenses involved in financing these wars are taking a toll on Saudi Arabia, a country struggling with domestic economic challenges exacerbated by decreased oil revenues stemming from reduced oil prices.
Therefore, for the Saudis, a war in Lebanon will increase the already heavy economic burden Saudi Arabia is carrying.
Furthermore, a war in Lebanon will also substantially damage substantial Saudi investments in Lebanon – primarily in infrastructure and development projects.
For the above reasons, Saudi Arabia wants to avoid a war in Lebanon.
Therefore, not surprisingly, with the nomination of a new President and new Prime Minister, both Saudi Arabia as well as Iran, prefer to look at the cup as half full.
Iran can view the nomination of ‘Aoun as President as an achievement.
‘Aoun has been the favorite candidate of Hezbollah (Iran). The President is the highest executive position in Lebanon – though not unlimited in power. ‘Aoun is likely to pursue a policy which will support the endurance of Assad’s rule in Syria – which is a major strategic interest of Iran.
As a foreshadowing of that policy, ‘Aoun in a recent interview argued that the Assad regime is “fighting terror.” That statement of course echoes Assad’s main argument that he is confronting terror and protecting the Syrian people from terrorist entities.
Saudi Arabia can view the nomination of Al-Hariri as Prime Minister as an achievement.
The Prime Minister is the head of the government, charged with forming the government and creating the country’s policy guidelines. This provides Al-Hariri with the power to assemble a government which is somewhat more tuned to the Saudi voice in comparison to the current government, which is subdued to Hezbollah’s influence. Such a government is more likely to limit Hezbollah’s influence – thus restraining Iranian influence in Lebanon. (Note: In my book Inside the Middle East: Making Sense of the Most Dangerous and Complicated Region on Earth (published in March 2016 and now available as an audio book) I had predicted the formation of an Iranian-Saudi power balance which would be based on the concept of “You Win Some / You Lose Some.” The nomination of ‘Aoun is a clear manifestation of that concept.)
Some argue that Iran and Hezbollah are the winners of this round since their candidate is President, and that while Al-Hariri and Saudi Arabia have lost this round.
However, that may not necessarily be the case.
First, as Prime Minister, Al-Hariri can now combine his executive authority and his political power. His party, The Future Party” – Al-Mustakbal, is the largest party in Parliament and Al-Hariri has natural partners within the Lebanese political system – including some within the Druze and Christian community, which increases his power to limit ‘Aoun, and Hezbollah’s power.
Second, Al-Hariri scores political credit among the Lebanese, as he is viewed as the hero of the hour who made a brave move for the sake of Lebanon by overcoming sectarian political interests for the good of the nation. Al-Hariri’s surprising agreement with ‘Aoun, that was done in coordination with Saudi Arabia, has been criticized by some senior members in his party who view the arrangement as a victory for Hezbollah and Iran. However, it seems as if that criticism has evaporated and Al-Hariri has been able to fortify his authority.
Third, Al-Hariri’s return to the Prime Minister’s office is a very bitter pill that Iran and Hezbollah have to swallow. Al-Hariri is the biggest and strongest opponent of Hezbollah and Iran in Lebanon. In 2011 Hezbollah was politically powerful enough to forced him to resign his position as Prime Minister. Not surprisingly, Hezbollah tried to avoid the formation of a new government under Al-Hariri’s leadership. Yet Hezbollah failed; Al-Hariri successfully assembled a new government. Had Hezbollah’s political power today been as strong as it was in 2011, Al-Hariri would never have become Prime Minister.
Hezbollah has yet other reason to be concerned. Though Hezbollah supported ‘Aoun for presidency, they are very aware of the fact that ‘Aoun is known as very opportunistic, cynical politician. In 2016 ‘Aoun was friendly to, and supportive of, Assad’s rule. However, in the 1980’s ‘Aoun was the most bitter Lebanese opponent of Hezbollah and Bashar al-Assad’s father, Hafez al-Assad. In fact, ‘Aoun had to live in exile in France because the Syrian (Assad) regime vowed to assassinate him.
Thus, Hezbollah (hence Iran) has good reasons to be disturbed with ‘Aoun’s changing loyalties. In fact, following his nomination as President, ‘Aoun has already sent out some signals that Hezbollah (and Iran) does not like to hear.
For example, in his Inaugural Speech, ‘Aoun declared that Lebanon should be neutral when it comes to the war in Syria, and that the country should comply with the Arab League and United Nations decisions. That is a message Hezbollah is not pleased with. Why? In March 2016, the Arab League formally defined and designated Hezbollah as a terror organization. The United Nations Special Tribunal (STL) empowered by UN Security Council Resolution 1757 – investigating the assassination of the former Prime Minster (and father of the designated Prime Minister), summoned five senior Hezbollah militants suspected to have been involved in the assassination for questioning. So far Hezbollah has refused to comply with STL’s demands.
On other occasions, ‘Aoun has also declared that he will defend and fortify Lebanon’s Independence and will thwart any external interference in Lebanese affairs. Hezbollah obviously does not like these messages either.
And most recently, Aoun positively responded to a Saudi invitation to visit Saudi Arabia. That is a clear signal from ‘Aoun to Hezbollah and Iran that ‘Aoun views Lebanon part of the Arab world. Again, Hezbollah does not like that signal.
To be clear, the nomination of President ‘Aoun and the nomination of Prime Minster Al-Hariri does not reflect the Lebanese political system’s ability to address Lebanon’s enormous challenges. Rather, it reflects – at this point – the basic interests of Iran and Saudi Arabia and primarily their desire to prevent Lebanon from sliding into a massive eruption.
The prevailing sentiment expressed by Arab analysts regarding the agreement is one of great skepticism which basically predicts that the new President and the government will neutralize each other, thus perpetuating and even deepening the paralysis of the Lebanese political system and preventing the new President and the government from being able to successfully address the challenges of Lebanese society which will bring a swift end to both of their terms.
The Lebanese political system is preparing for general elections scheduled for the summer 2017. It is likely that the new government during the time prior to the elections, will act at best, as an interim government and will not lead or initiate any dramatic changes. In fact, Al-Hariri himself described his government as an “election government” – an interim government until the elections. Therefore, it is likely that the during from now until the next elections, a fragile stability will be maintained in Lebanon. However, in my assessment, given the magnitude of Lebanon’s inner challenges as well as the ramifications of regional developments – and mostly the war in Syria – Lebanon will continue to experience constant political turbulence, reflected in continuing unrest.
Through its proxy, the Hezbollah, Iran has significant influence on Lebanon and has also fortified a stronghold in Lebanon, right on the shores the Mediterranean Sea. The Iranians are very clear and they say this loud and clear with no hesitation: They envision the creation of a corridor fully under Iranian control which stretches from Iran, through Iraq, through Syrian and through Lebanon to the Mediterranean Sea. Maintaining its influence in Lebanon is crucial for achieving that goal and realizing Iran’s vision. However, while Iran strives to take over Lebanon by weakening Lebanon as a State and an independent entity, the overwhelming majority of the Lebanese people see themselves as an integral part of the Arab world, and likewise, the Arab world sees Lebanon as an integral part of the Arab world. Therefore, the Arab world – with Saudi Arabia at the forefront – strives, and will continue to do whatever it can, to strengthen Lebanon and maintain Lebanon’s independence and to limit Iran’s ability to dictate Lebanon’s future.
Understanding the politics of Lebanon and the ability to calculate the future of the country requires the understanding that the fate of Lebanon is intertwined with the course and results of the Iranian-Saudi power struggle. The escalating Iranian-Arab power struggle – and primarily how it evolves in the war in Syria – will define Lebanon’s future.
*for more about Salaf-Jihadi ideology please read my book Inside the Middle East: Making Sense of the Most Dangerous and Complicated Region on Earth (published in March 2016 and now available as an audio book)