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Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

Quo Vadis, Where Are You Going, Lebanon?

Filed under: Lebanon

Quo Vadis, Where Are You Going, Lebanon?
Hizbullah’s Nasrallah uses Lebanon’s cedar tree to fan Iran’s Supreme Leader Khamenei (Yaliban)

The specter of a renewed civil war in Lebanon was raised on October 14, 2021, following the bloody clashes between a so-called “peaceful protest” organized by the “Shiite twins,” the Amal and Hizbullah organizations, so nicknamed in Lebanon, and Christian combatants. The Christian militia is believed to be the radical fighters of the “Lebanese Forces” (a Christian militia founded by the late President Bashir Gemayel at the beginning of the 1980s). Today, the armed party carries the same name and is headed by one of the last brothers-in-arms of the ultra-nationalist Bashir Gemayel. Never a “peaceful protest,” the march was heavily armed with Kalashnikov machine guns and RPG rocket launchers. There is still no logical explanation why this protest entered Christian neighborhoods of Beirut and openly provoked and abused the residents. The Hizbullah/Amal protest could have reached their destination, the Palace of Justice, in a different, alternative, and shorter route avoiding the Christian areas.

Seven members of Amal and Hizbullah were killed during the gun battles, and more than 60 were wounded in a four-hour battle, enough to remind all political parties of the bloody civil war that lasted between 1975 and 1990 and cost the lives of almost 150,000 Lebanese of all confessions. However, the situation’s fragility and the acknowledgment that Lebanon could slide once more in a bloody civil war brought the Lebanese sectarian political leaders to declare that this was not their goal. They intended to avoid such a calamity in any possible way.

Still, the accusations flow from every side and concentrate on two political foes: the Christian extreme nationalist. Samir Geagea, and the Secretary-General of Hizbullah, Hassan Nasrallah, each accused his rival of fomenting a civil war. Nasrallah presented himself in his latest speech as the defender of the Christian presence in Lebanon, fighting ISIS in Syria and accusing Geagea of being the catalyst for the annihilation of the Christian political presence in Lebanon. Geagea continued his political discourse and rhetoric against Hizbullah, accusing the Shiite party of being an Iranian lackey, a mercenary army at the service of the Ayatollah in Tehran, whose aim is to erase the political system in Lebanon and establish in its place a province, part of the Iranian theocracy.

The gun battles in Ayn el-Rummaneh, Tayouneh, and Shiyyah neighborhoods eclipsed Lebanon’s economic nightmare momentarily in which the Lebanese have been living since October 2019. Lebanon’s price index ballooned 144% since last year, with the transportation index jumping by almost 360%. Fuel subsidies have ended, and filling today one’s car at the station equals the average salary, which stands at just $35 a week! Were it not for money transfers sent by the Lebanese diaspora (there are almost 15 million Lebanese abroad, compared to 3.5 million in Lebanon), the country would have collapsed with no electricity, no medicine, and no water supply. Forty percent of physicians and 30% of nurses have left the country, suffering from the uncertainties of Covid-19. A quarter of Lebanon’s population are refugees from Syria. Because of the energy shortage, the cities are drowning under rivers of garbage, opening wide the door for plagues and sickness.

However, with that disastrous environment, the potential for civil war explosion is still considered a catastrophic scenario that the enemy parties are trying to avoid at all costs. They are acutely aware that such a possibility could become a reality that could be ignited by an unintentional and accidental spark provoked by one of the contenders or by an external intervention by Syrian or Iranian sources. Alarmed by this eventuality, both Geagea and Nasrallah have chosen to chill their underlings’ passions.

The Threats

The Christian camp led by Geagea and by his Christian political foes recognizes correctly that it would take Hizbullah and its cohorts only two to three days to repeat the scenario of May 2008. At that time, its combatants stormed the predominantly Sunni strongholds in Beirut and Mount Lebanon as a reprisal to then-Prime Minister Fouad Siniora decision to dismantle Hizbullah’s independent, underground telecommunication network. However, Hizbullah’s reputation took a significant hit in public opinion after its participated in the Syrian conflict, siding with Bashar Assad against the Sunni rebels. Many Lebanese Shiites returned home in coffins.

All Christian political leaders have well noted the threat of Hizbullah launching an assault on the Christian enclave with the 100,000 fighters Nasrallah boasted he has under his command (even if the number is exaggerated). However, Samir Geagea apparently assessed that such a development was not likely. On the contrary, he must have seen an opportunity to promote himself and his party from an isolated fringe organization to the sole defender of Christian areas (as did Bashir Gemayel in 1980). Geagea sought to signal to the Christian majority that he is the chosen one to defend them and not the “renegade,” an appellation applied by the “traitor,” President Michel Aoun, the Christian ally of Hizbullah. He may have also thought that Hizbullah’s options were nonexistent at this point since attacking Christian areas would weaken its strategic Christian allies’ grip on its electorate on the eve of parliamentary and presidential elections – which, if not hindered by the current situation – are due in the first quarter of 2022. Michel Aoun’s son-in-law, Gebran Bassil, the leader of the Free Patriotic Movement, will likely be elected as the next President of Lebanon.

Gebran Bassil at a meeting of President Michel Aoun and French President Emmanuel Macron in 2018
Gebran Bassil (left) at a meeting of President Michel Aoun (center) and French President Emmanuel Macron in 2018 (Lebanese National News Agency)

Therefore, Geagea likely concluded that Hizbullah and his patrons in Tehran have no interest in a Christian-Shite war, especially since Hizbullah has been on a confrontation course with Lebanon’s Sunni Muslims and Druze, which would make the Shiite organization’s status in the country even more precarious. Geagea saw that by siding with Hizbullah and Amal, Aoun risked alienating many Christians, who want the investigation of the massive August 2020 Beirut Port explosion to continue to its logical end and consider the events of October 14 as unacceptable. On the other hand, if Aoun chose to condemn Hizbullah and Amal or even refrain from expressing his support, he might have been cornered into an unbearable position which could hurt Bassil’s chances to be elected President since it is an undisputed fact that Hizbullah is the kingmaker of Lebanese politics.

Moreover, one cannot dismiss the fact that Nasrallah’s threats reveal a degree of Hizbullah vulnerability. Like other Lebanese communities, Hizbullah’s Shiite base is part of the 78% of the population considered to be living under the line of poverty today. Hizbullah is under severe criticism from various sectors of the Lebanese society who think it to be part and parcel of the corrupt ruling class and responsible for driving Lebanon into bankruptcy and producing a failed state. Nasrallah could not help to have noticed that his posters hung in public squares with a rope around his neck on symbolic gallows. His political affiliation and loyalty to Lebanon have been questioned since he was presented as an Iranian minion and lackey. The dislike that some parts of the Lebanese feel towards Hizbullah explains the support they have pledged to Judge Bitar and their insistence that the investigation of the August 4 explosion at the Beirut Port continues and reaches its expected conclusion: pinning the blame on Hizbullah.

A likeness of Hizbullah’s Nasrallah hung in Lebanon.
A likeness of Hizbullah’s Nasrallah hung in Lebanon. The caption in Persian says, “Lebanese demonstrators ‘execute’ a paper effigy of Hassan Nasrallah.” (Twitter)

In other words, instructing Hizbullah fighters to attack rival Lebanese groups would be problematic for the party. Nasrallah has repeatedly said that he will not be pulled into a civil war – a restrained stance Samir Geagea and his “Lebanese Forces” might exploit ahead of the parliamentary and presidential elections expected next spring. Following instructions from Tehran, Nasrallah is not eager to engage his troops in a civil war in Lebanon, leaving his flanks in Syria and facing Israel wide open and vulnerable. In his assessment, Nasrallah sees such a scenario as a provocation by Israel and an opportunity to settle once and for all a rivalry that has lasted four decades. Moreover, the storming and controlling of swaths of Christian, Sunni, and Druze areas would probably become the countdown for Hizbullah’s demise, because its presence in Lebanon is that of a resistance movement and not a force to fight a civil war. Other communities made that mistake before: the Sunnis in 1975–1976 and the Maronites with the active assistance of Israel in 1982–1984. Historically, Lebanon has been impregnable to foreign conquerors; Palestinians, Syrians, multi-national forces, and Israelis have paid a heavy price for ignoring this fact.

What Is at Stake Today in Lebanon?

The latest clash was provoked by the insistence of Hizbullah to remove Judge Tarek Bitar from office. The judge is in charge of the investigation of the Beirut Port explosion on August 4, 2020, which killed 215 citizens, injured more than 2,000 people, caused $15 billion damage, left an estimated 300,000 homeless, and destroyed a third of the capital in one of the biggest non-nuclear explosions recorded since World War Two. Bitar himself replaced another judge who preceded him in the investigation and decided to resign. Today, Bitar is challenging politicians who were subpoenaed and have used almost every trick in the book to avoid appearing before the judge. The Lebanese constitution allows their questioning and rejects all attempts to claim parliamentarian immunity. Adding insult to injury, Bitar sent a subpoena to two ministers linked to Hizbullah and Amal. Having received a refusal to appear before him, Bitar issued a “habeas corpus” coupled with an arrest warrant. This was much too much for the “Shiite twins” who have been implicated in importing the explosive nitrate ammonium and storing it in the Beirut Port. In a country where political murders are left unsolved, political assassins are set free, and politicians behave as if the law did not apply to them, Bitar was considered as violating his authority and, therefore, had to be removed in order to avoid “waking the demons!”

The aftermath of the massive bomb blast in Beirut’s port
The aftermath of the Beirut Port explosion (Wikipedia, Mehr News)

Hizbullah wanted the investigation to concentrate on peripheral aspects of the explosion (accusing “foreign forces” of igniting the warehouse) and refused to accept the establishment of an independent international investigation committee. In 2005, Hizbullah had accepted under duress the establishment of a tribunal for Lebanon in The Hague to investigate the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. However, after the announcement of the tribunal’s conclusions, Hizbullah flatly refused to transfer to the judicial authorities the assassins who perpetrated the assassination against Hariri and had been singled out by the international court.

Today, Hizbullah is contemptuous of the president’s authority granted in the 2006 Mar Mikhail Agreement signed by Michel Aoun and Nasrallah, which established their Shiite-Christian alliance.1 The agreement was meant to set Lebanon’s supreme and ultimate authority, but it ended with a president unable to withstand Hizbullah’s pressure. Hizbullah is pursuing its ideological course to change Lebanon into a new political entity in accordance with the instructions of the Supreme Leader in Tehran. In Lebanon’s sectarian and religious context, Hizbullah’s designs lead to a chaotic situation in which diverse communities are forced to demarcate their territory and fight anyone who tries to impose his hegemony.

Hizbullah and Amal have been actively obstructing the judge’s mission. The two movements played a crucial role in forming the government at the instruction of Tehran, and the Shiite tandem, in a concerted effort to stop Bitar, paralyzed the executive by threatening to provoke the government’s resignation. The two Shiite ministers have boycotted the government’s sessions and announced that they would not participate in any meeting if Bitar keeps carrying on his investigation. Indeed, the Lebanese government has not convened since the beginning of October 2021. Observers consider it as a government already on the way to resignation and a de facto caretaker just like the ones that preceded it. The implication of that move is obvious: this government’s life, which was limited from the very beginning since it had to resign before the next elections, will not be able to carry out any reforms, and the country will continue to drift economically, financially, and politically into the abyss.

In such a case, one could assess with a great deal of certainty that the next parliamentary and presidential elections might be postponed sine die! Hizbullah cannot afford to be accused of the explosion in Beirut and, accordingly, together with Amal, it will do all in its power to derail Bitar’s investigation. If this happens, then the Christian backlash could have a negative impact on Christian support for Aoun’s and Bassil’s electoral lists. However, the problem is that the sudden escalation in violence could provoke new developments in Lebanon that lead to a cancellation of elections and take the country into unknown territories that one cannot foresee now.

The logic of this present assessment is clear: Lebanon has reached another dead end and is heading towards a civil war. Of course, this does not mean that the civil war will blow up in the immediate future. But for sure, all camps are preparing themselves for a confrontation that will shape Lebanon’s future.

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1 Hizbullah would help Aoun secure the presidency and the FPM would go along with Hezbollah’s local and regional strategic choices and let it keep its militia.