On Tuesday, November 21, Maj.-Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the head of the Quds Force of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), congratulated Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Iranian leader. Soleimani was thanking him for inspiring Shi’a groups and allies from all over the region in the war on Islamic State. Among the groups listed was Lebanon’s Hezbollah. It had a “powerful presence” and played a “pivotal role” in the battles.
From an organization that 10 years ago was still recovering from the 2006 Lebanon war and rebuilding Dahieh and southern Lebanon, Hezbollah has come a long way.
On November 20 its secretary-general, Hassan Nasrallah, gave a speech about the victory over ISIS on the Syrian-Iraqi border at Abu Kamal, the last major town held by ISIS in Syria.
He said it was a “great irony” that while Hezbollah forces were doing the “major part” of the fighting and “expelling Daesh, a terrorist organization the whole world agrees on,” the Arab foreign ministers were meeting in Cairo condemning Hezbollah. He mocked Saudi Arabia and its allies for accusing Iran of supporting terrorism.
“What did you contribute to the war against Daesh? The funny thing, a few days ago a Saudi official said Saudi [forces] participated. Please brother, point me to one battle.... Where are your generals, your officers?” he asked.
Nasrallah is putting on a good act. In the past few years he has increasingly taken to positioning himself as a central participant in the Middle East’s affairs, beyond little Lebanon.
In April 2015 he gave an interview on Al-Manar, his own TV channel, about Saudi Arabia’s actions in Yemen against Houthi rebels. He said Saudi Arabia had been unable to accomplish anything, despite its military superiority in weaponry. He compared it to the difficulty Israel faced in 2006.
“It’s a humiliating defeat for the Saudi-American aggression against Yemen,” he said.
Saudi Arabia has accused Hezbollah of sending men and weapons to aid the Houthis and threatened to go to war. In his November 20 speech Nasrallah denied sending weapons to Yemen.
Now that Hezbollah is concluding four years of major involvement in the Syrian civil war, Nasrallah increasingly faces a problem. Because he can no longer hide behind being a minor player in Lebanon, shifting blame to the state when it is convenient and operating independently, he must portray himself as responsible and make it seem his enemies, such as Saudi Arabia, are reckless warmongers.
The Saad Hariri saga has catered to Nasrallah’s new look.
On November 4 Hariri resigned his prime ministership in Saudi Arabia. It was a shocking move that jolted Lebanon and the Middle East and led to soapopera- like speculations as to his motives and whether he was being held hostage.
A week later he emerged for an interview on television, looking tired and stressed. He had stopped his usual tweeting, and did not seem himself. On November 18 he met French President Emmanuel Macron, and then on November 21 he went to Egypt for a meeting with Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. Then it was a brief stop in Cyprus, and back to Lebanon, where he was greeted on the tarmac in the rain and put his resignation on hold.
Lebanon’s President Michel Aoun is concerned that his country is being pushed to the brink.
Aoun is a veteran of the Lebanese civil war and is opposed the Taif Agreement, which helped end the conflict in 1989. That accord was supported by Rafik Hariri, Saad’s father. Aoun went into exile and returned in 2005. In 2006 he made an alliance with Hezbollah. Although Hezbollah has only 11 seats out of 128 in parliament, it plays a key role in the March 8 Alliance that governs the country.
Under an agreement with Saad Hariri’s Future Movement in December, Hariri became prime minister and Aoun, president. Under the system in Lebanon, a Christian must hold the presidential office, a Sunni must be prime minister and a Shi’ite must be speaker of parliament. The current speaker is Nabih Berri, head of the Shi’ite Amal movement that is allied with Hezbollah.
Lebanon slouched toward its Independence Day on November 22 in a state of uncertainty. The foreign minister, Gebran Bassil, threatened Israel in an interview with Russia Today, claiming Lebanon could win a war with Jerusalem. Bassil’s father-in-law is Aoun.
The Lebanese Army is also ready for war with Israel.
Its order of the day for the 74th Independence Day noted that it should be “fully prepared at the southern border in order to confront the Israeli enemy’s threats and violations as [well as] its hostile schemes against Lebanon.”
David Daoud, a research analyst on Hezbollah and Lebanon at United Against a Nuclear Iran, said it’s important to look at the last three speeches Nasrallah has given since the Hariri crisis began on November 4.
“My takeaway is that he is nervous about Hariri’s moves and wants to deflect [criticism of Hezbollah’s hold on Lebanon] from the substance to the form,” he said.
Because Hariri’s actions appear shadowy and unclear, Nasrallah can shift the focus to the actions of the Saudis. In Saudi Arabia, Hariri claimed his life was in danger in Lebanon, and Riyadh attacked Hezbollah for threatening Lebanon and the region.
“In the first [Nasrallah] speech he wanted to be responsible,” said Daoud. “He wants to be Mr. Lebanon, Mr. Sovereignty, and he wants to distract from the content [of Hariri’s critique]. If he screams and yells, he confirms what Hariri says, so he says we must follow a political process.”
Hariri’s resignation has sought to create clarity in the region, to pull the mask off of Lebanon and make it appear a Hezbollah state. Nasrallah wants to deflect, so he emphasizes the Saudi threat, but he is cautious, not wanting to sound warlike, Daoud said.
“Hezbollah needs an enemy,” Daoud noted, arguing that it has faced an existential crisis each time it could not justify its existence as an armed group.
When Israel withdrew in 2000, Hezbollah sought to reposition itself as a “resistance” group, using terrorism to push Israel to end its “occupation” of Mount Dov (aka Shebaa Farms) on the Lebanese border.
After the 2006 war, it waited until the opportunity to fight in Syria and against ISIS presented itself.
“They [Hezbollah] are always planning for the day after,” according to Daoud. “So that’s the same with ISIS. They want to ride the wave of credit [for victory].”
Hezbollah also tries to position itself as protecting Lebanon’s diversity. Even though Nasrallah is a religious figure, Hezbollah feigns support for secular culture in the country.
However, Hezbollah has suffered heavy losses fighting in Syria and is drained financially. The Hariri crisis has given it another chance to portray itself as working on behalf of Lebanon, as a sectarian Shi’ite group ostensibly saving Lebanon from the machinations of the Saudis. This is the act that Nasrallah hopes will woo the Lebanese.
Daoud sees one vulnerability. If there were a regional effort to counter the group, Nasrallah would face a problem. Hariri’s jet-setting around the region – from the Saudis, who are the guarantors of the Taif Agreement, to the French, the former colonial power, to Egypt, where the Arab League sits in Cairo – is intended to drum up support.
It is 41 years since the Arab League sent its Arab Deterrent Force to Lebanon when the civil war broke out. Perhaps old memories of that are being conjured up. Hariri can’t recall that time though; he was only five years old. Nasrallah was a teenager, so his worldview may be impacted more by memories of the civil war.