Earlier this month, while Arab League foreign ministers gathered in Cairo for an emergency meeting called by Saudi Arabia to declare Hizballah a “terrorist organization,” Qassem Soleimani, leader of the Iranian Quds Force, was declaring victory in Syria. In a video released immediately after the Cairo meeting, Soleimani is seen crossing the Iraqi-Syrian border into Bou Kamal in Deir al-Zour province, marking a milestone for Iran’s power in the Middle East.
The two events highlight the geopolitical context in which Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s recent resignation took place. The unfolding political crisis in Lebanon will be part of this new era of dominance by Iran and its proxy, Hizballah. Now that Hariri has returned to Lebanon and suspended his resignation, the question is no longer about him. Rather, it is how Iran will move beyond this hurdle to consolidate its achievements in Lebanon and the region. While Hariri’s ouster — likely engineered by Saudi Arabia — was a temporary setback for Iran and Hizballah, their foothold in Lebanon and the wider Middle East is strong enough to withstand Saudi pressure for the foreseeable future. At this point, countering Iran’s and Hizballah’s influences in the region will require a concerted international effort beyond simply removing an adversarial head of state. To meaningfully pressure Hizballah and its Iranian sponsors, the United States and its allies must draw a clear line in the sand regarding the group’s regional military operations.
Hariri resigned while in Riyadh, inserting Lebanon into the regional competition between Saudi Arabia and Iran. The timing was significant given that Hariri had just hosted Ali Akbar Velayati, the Iranian Supreme Leader’s advisor for international affairs, one day prior. This meeting confirmed Saudi’s diminished leverage and Iran’s growing power in Lebanon. Alarmed by this, and by the growing role of Hizballah in the region (specifically in Yemen), Saudis tried to push back via Hariri.
When Hizballah decided to join Iran’s regional foreign legion, it was only a matter of time before Lebanon would be dragged with Hizballah to the regional confrontation. Now, any dialogue among the Lebanese people or possible resolution to nation’s crisis are going to be tied to regional negotiations over the conflicts in Syria, Iraq and Yemen.
Hizballah’s Domestic Concerns
Hariri’s resignation has created a real dilemma for the “party of God.” Hizballah can no longer hide behind Hariri’s “power-sharing” government, which gave the group good cover for its regional operations — in addition to a Sunni cover that provided political legitimacy. Hariri came back as prime minister a year ago as part of a consensus that also brought in Michel Aoun — Hizballah’s Christian ally — as president. The idea was to have a national unity government to keep Lebanon safe from regional turmoil and protect state institutions. Hizballah first introduced the concept of a unity government in 2008 to counter the results of the parliamentary elections several years earlier that brought the pro-Western March 14 political camp to power. Under threat of arms, and after a number of political assassinations of March 14 figures, the coalition accepted Hizballah’s proposition and formed a unity government that allowed the group to infiltrate state institutions.
However, Hizballah eventually used this arrangement to consolidate its power in Lebanon and increase its military operations in the region. This situation was unsustainable for Saudi Arabia and for the Sunni community in Lebanon.
Hizballah now feels more exposed without a “power-sharing” government to give its domestic and regional activities the stamp of legitimacy, and without a substantial Sunni partner to replace Hariri. Whether Hizballah decides to replace Hariri with a “friendly” prime minister or keeps the post open until parliamentary elections next May, the group’s position in Lebanon and its state institutions will be exposed to the international community and regional escalations. But given Hizballah’s parallel institutions and economy in Lebanon, and its regional influence and access, it is most likely ensconced enough to deal with the repercussions of Hariri’s government falling apart. Given Iran’s ongoing financial support for Hizballah, Saudi economic pressures on Lebanon will not destroy the party of God.
The Regional Context: A Rising Iran
The most recent round of Saudi-Iranian escalation in Lebanon seems to have started when Saudi Arabia accused Hizballah and Iran of being behind the ballistic missile fired at Riyadh’s International Airport by the Iranian-supported Houthi rebels in Yemen in early November. But the real tension — subtly shown in Soleimani’s video in Bou Kamal — has to do with Iran’s ongoing buildup of broader influence in the region. While all eyes were on Hariri, Iran’s Shia militias managed to link the Syrian-Iraqi borders, establishing the land bridge connecting Tehran to Beirut and the Mediterranean. Hizballah and other Shia militias tried to establish this bridge via the Tanf region in southeast Syria, where a U.S. military base is present. As they approached Tanf in May 2017, a U.S. jet attacked a Hizballah convoy, forcing Iran to change its plan for the borders and move toward Deir al-Zour. The subsiding battles in the south and along the borders of Lebanon allowed Hizballah to move more troops to Deir al-Zour and to do so faster.
Fifteen years ago, King Abdullah II of Jordan warned of the emergence of a “Shiite crescent,” dominated by Tehran and arching across the northern Middle East. Since then, the idea has become a serious concern of many Arab states and Israel, as well as the West. The main aspiration of this Iranian-dominated entity is a land bridge linking Tehran to Beirut and the Mediterranean. This would give Iran direct and full control of a military corridor to its key proxy, Hizballah, and to Lebanon more broadly. While the bridge has existed in some form for some time now, this month was the first time Iran was able to exert complete control over this crucial passageway, thanks to its influence in a fractured Syria.
For the Iranian regime and the Shia communities in the region, the bridge symbolizes an ideological victory and a unified Shia front. It strengthens the sectarian identity of the Shia at the expense of national identities in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, and, to a certain extent, Yemen, thereby boosting Iranian influence in the region.
Iran’s “divine victory” will erode recent discontent against Hizballah within the Shia community. The Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) will be able to use it to boost its political power within Iran as well. It will also enable Iran to establish a long-term presence in Syria and Iraq, while Iran’s proxies — including the Houthis — will be emboldened. Soleimani’s video told the world that Iran is there to stay. Iran has no reason to submit to Saudi pressure.
What’s Next? Challenges and Opportunities for Iran and Hizballah
Saudi Arabia was probably hoping that the recent anti-Iran rhetoric by the Trump administration and Israeli threats against Hizballah would translate into action that would tilt the status quo in its favor. Some had hoped that the ant-ISIL coalition would — now that the caliphate is defeated on the ground —transform into an anti-Iran coalition that would target Iranian proxies like Hizballah and the Houthis. However, countering Iran in the region will require a much more complex strategy. The various Shia militias operating in the region are part of the Quds Force — a special forces unit of the IRGC responsible for its extraterritorial operations — and function as an army. A war with one could lead to a war with the Quds Force and the IRGC, and a war in Lebanon, or Syria, could mean a war in the whole region.
Although the war scenario doesn’t seem to be as imminent anymore, that doesn’t mean all will be back to normal. Hariri might yet resign if Aoun doesn’t come back with a satisfying response from Hizballah — namely, a guarantee that it will change its regional behavior, mainly in Yemen. And even if Hizballah wanted to compromise, it will be a very long time until regional resolutions are ready. Therefore, domestically, the next phase of the crisis will probably be a long back-and-forth until the parliamentary elections. Given the electoral laws that Hariri’s government passed, Hizballah will probably manage to bring its allies to the parliament and thereby consolidate its power democratically. And if Hizballah manages to win the elections, it will be able to determine the next prime minister and even change Lebanon’s constitutions the way it sees fit. Without serious support for anti-Hizballah candidates in all communities, including the Shia community, Hizballah will withstand this crisis and strengthen its influence in Lebanon.
Regionally, Hizballah and Iran will take advantage of their current presence to consolidate their power by infiltrating state institutions — whether through elections in Lebanon and Iraq or political settlements in Syria. The upcoming elections in Iraq and Lebanon will could give Iran major access to state institutions in both countries, and the Syria talks that Russia is leading could guarantee Iranian influence over the future of that country as well.
In this context, Saudi Arabia’s step to remove Hariri will not suffice to blunt Iran’s and Hizballah’s influence. The move may actually backfire if it is not followed up with a plan, a regional strategy, and international cooperation. The Arab League designated Hizballah as a terrorist organization, but without a follow-up by the international community it will not mean much.
There is already an international resolution in place, though it is not being implemented. U.N. Security Council Resolution 1701, adopted in August 2006 to end the war between Hizballah and Israel, calls for the disarmament of all armed groups in Lebanon. According to the resolution, which Hizballah has agreed to, there should be no weapons or authority in Lebanon other than that of the Lebanese state.
Some in Lebanon believe now is the right time to ensure the implementation of Resolution 1701. This will require an enormous and comprehensive international effort, but more importantly, it will require taking Hizballah’s new role into consideration. Hizballah no longer abides by Lebanon’s international resolutions or domestic agreements, and its weapons are no longer confined to Lebanon. Therefore, without a serious regional strategy that incorporates Hizballah’s regional role and Iran’s regional hegemony, Saudi Arabia’s escalation in Lebanon will not constitute a major challenge for either entity in the long run. The United States still has a military presence in Syria that could be used as leverage over Iran and its allies. Communicating clear red lines and going after specific and limited targets, as Israel has been doing against Hizballah in Syria for several years now, could help draw this boundary. As long as Hizballah and Iran don’t feel the pressure, they won’t feel the need to compromise.
Hanin Ghaddar is the inaugural Friedmann Visiting Fellow at The Washington Institute. She focuses her research on Shi’ite politics throughout the Levant, the evolution of Hizballah inside Lebanon’s political system, and Iran’s influence throughout the Middle East.
Image: Paul Saad/Flickr