Christian politician and FPM founder Michel Aoun talks during a news conference in Beirut, Lebanon October 20, 2016.
It took nearly two years, but Lebanon finally has a new President: Hezbollah-friendly Michel Aoun.
A prominent but divisive figure with shifting alliances, the election of the 81-year old retired general is seen by many as a clear victory for the pro-Iranian axis in the Middle East.
One of the first congratulatory phone calls Aoun received after his election was from Iranian President Hassan Rouhani who said that Aoun has been elected at “a time that the region faces the two threats of the growth of Takfiri [apostate] movements and terrorist groups as well as the indulgence of the Zionist regime of Israel,” adding that Iran is “confident” that “Lebanon’s resistance front will be strengthened.”
Aoun has not forgotten about his southerly neighbor, Israel, vowing to “release what is left of our lands from the Israeli occupation,” words directed towards the Shi’ite terror group with whom he entered into an alliance with in 2006 and has backed ever since.
But, according to Michael Horowitz, director of Intelligence at Prime Source, a Middle East based geopolitical consultancy, while Aoun’s win “is clearly in Hezbollah’s favor, Aoun is definitely not Nasrallah’s puppet” as he “is a relatively independent figure” whose base of support comes from Lebanese Christians.
And while Aoun had ties to senior members in Israel’s security community in the 1990s, current government officials have greeted Aoun’s win with caution. Israeli opposition leader and Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid said that Israel “should worry when Lebanon elects a president backed by Hezbollah.”
Hezbollah is entangled in Syria, with thousands of their soldiers fighting and dying for the regime of Bashar Assad; some estimates put the number of dead at 1,500 with more than 5,000 others injured.
While the IDF thinks the group is unlikely to attack Israel in the near future, the border remains explosive due in large part to the ongoing military buildup by Hezbollah. According to a senior Israeli intelligence official, Hezbollah has over 100,000 short-range rockets and several thousand more missiles that can reach central Israel, including Tel Aviv.
Those missiles, Horowitz told The Jerusalem Post
, “could keep Israel under pressure and economic distress for months, while waging a defensive war in Lebanon that requires a lower number of fighters than the one [Hezbollah] is fighting in Syria.”
In addition to the massive arsenal of rockets and missiles, Hezbollah is able to mobilize close to 30,000 fighters and has flouted its tunnel system, complete with ventilation, electricity, and rocket launchers. Some 200 villages in south Lebanon have also been turned in “military strongholds” where Hezbollah fighters are able to watch Israeli soldiers at any moment.
Another area where Hezbollah has a presence is the Israel- Syria border. And while they have not devoted as much to this border, Aymenn Tamimi, a fellow at the Middle East Forum and researcher at the IDC Herzliya, told the Post
that if and when Hezbollah “secures the northern front in Syria, specifically around Aleppo, they could then focus more time and energy” to building up their forces in the Golan using “in particular native Syrian Shi’ite fighters who they have recruited.”
A statement echoed by Horowitz, who said that Hezbollah has “gained significant military experience in Syria and therefore Israel would be faced with a force that is capable of waging both guerrilla and asymmetric warfare, as well as more conventional offensives.”
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