Lebanese leader defies Hezbollah, but is it enough?

BEHIND THE LINES: Neither the Lebanese Forces nor the protest movement has anything to put up against Hezbollah’s independent military capacity.

 A BANNER depicting Samir Geagea, leader of Lebanon’s Christian Lebanese Forces party, is seen on a building in a Christian neighborhood in Beirut last week. (photo credit: MOHAMED AZAKIR/REUTERS)
A BANNER depicting Samir Geagea, leader of Lebanon’s Christian Lebanese Forces party, is seen on a building in a Christian neighborhood in Beirut last week.
(photo credit: MOHAMED AZAKIR/REUTERS)

Lebanese Forces (LF) leader Samir Geagea, in an interview this week in Beirut, called for the full restoration of Lebanese sovereignty, in a series of remarks directed at Hezbollah. Speaking to AFP from his home in the Maarab area, Geagea demanded that “All strategic decision-making should return to the Lebanese state... and security and military matters should be handled exclusively by the Lebanese army.”

The veteran LF leader referred directly to Hezbollah’s independent military capacity, asserting that “No one... should be able to transport missiles from one place to another without the permission and knowledge of the military… This is no longer acceptable.” 

"No one should be allowed to use their weapons inside the country."

Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea

Geagea’s remarks come after an impressive showing by his party in the Lebanese elections on May 15. The Lebanese Forces replaced the Hezbollah-aligned Free Patriotic Movement of President Michel Aoun and Gebran Bassil as the leading Christian party. LF won 19 seats to the FPM’s 17, in a poll that was notable for gains made by elements opposed to the status quo. LF is now the largest party in the parliament. Thirteen deputies representing organizations associated with the 2019 protest movement also entered the legislature. 

The Lebanese Forces, as its name suggests, is a party that emerged from the militias of the civil war period. It was established under the leadership of Bashir Gemayel, in 1976, uniting a number of Christian fighting groups. ​It was this force that partnered with Israel in the context of Operation Peace for Galilee in 1982, a partnership that unraveled after the assassination of Gemayel, almost certainly under Syrian auspices, in 1983.

Samir Geagea, a physician by training, assumed the leadership of the movement in 1986. 

 People stand in line at a polling station, on the day of the Lebanese parliamentary election, in Beirut, Lebanon May 15, 2022. (credit: MOHAMED AZAKIR/REUTERS) People stand in line at a polling station, on the day of the Lebanese parliamentary election, in Beirut, Lebanon May 15, 2022. (credit: MOHAMED AZAKIR/REUTERS)

The LF officially ceded its weaponry with the arrival of the Syrians to Lebanon in 1991. The movement still possesses some arms, however. Last October, six Hezbollah supporters were killed when a protest called by the movement passed through the Christian Beirut neighborhood of Ain el-Remmaneh. Hezbollah accused the Lebanese Forces of the killings. Geagea dismissed the charges, claiming that the violence resulted from residents responding to acts of vandalism by Hezbollah supporters. 

The May election was a clear indication of rejection of the status quo by a broad section of the Christian and Sunni public. The background to the discontent is clear too. Lebanon is currently in the midst of the worst crisis to hit the country since the civil war of 1975-90. 

The country defaulted on its national debt for the first time in 2020. Its currency has subsequently devalued by about 90%. Inflation stands at 239%. Four out of every five Lebanese now live below the poverty line, according to UN figures. The port explosion in Beirut in August 2020, in which 218 people died, devastated the city. 

An IMF deal to provide $3 billion to Lebanon was reached in April. But this funding is dependent on significant reforms, including cabinet approval for a debt restructuring plan, the passing of a new bank secrecy law, and the approval of a new budget. 

The causes of Lebanon’s unprecedented decline are multiple. ​The causes of Lebanon’s unprecedented decline are multiple. Long-term mismanagement, corruption, and an entrenched political class that rejected necessary reforms as threatening its own privileges, are all elements.

Pro-Iranian interest

​THE CENTRAL underlying component, however, has been the rise to dominance of the pro-Iran interest, as represented by Hezbollah and its allies. Hezbollah’s clear ascendancy following the events of May 2008 has led to the near-total withdrawal of support and investment from the Gulf countries. 

Lebanon was the first country to be subjected to the Iranian model for the hollowing out and takeover of Arab countries. This model is only available for application to countries already in crisis and fragmentation. 

Lebanon was the first Arab country to undergo fragmentation along sectarian lines, beginning in 1975. The Iranian Hezbollah project there dates from 1982, when 1,500 Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps operatives arrived in the country to begin the process of establishing Tehran’s proxy/client militia. 

A generation later, a comparable fragmentation in Syria, Iraq and to a lesser degree Yemen has enabled the insertion of similar projects into those countries. Hence Lebanon, as the base for the oldest and most successful of Iran’s takeover bids, also offers indications what would happen to a country being the subject of such an effort. 

Lebanon shows that the long-term result of the application by the IRGC of its methods to a country will be the distortion, contraction and possible eventual collapse of the economy and society in question. The reason for this is that Iran has no model for economic development, is itself poor, and will through its ambitions and its mismanagement drive away other elements whose presence is essential to success and growth.

THE GAINS made by the Lebanese Forces and by independents associated with the 2019 protest movement should not be dismissed. They represent the mobilizing of those elements most affected by, and most militantly opposed to the Iranian project. The LF has close relations with Saudi Arabia, and as such should be seen as analogous to other domestic forces in various parts of the region whose efforts against Iranian clients are assisted or made possible by the assistance of the wealthy Gulf states. 

But will Geagea’s opposition to the Iranian project have an effect? Immediate and major changes are unlikely. Rather, in a manner similar to the current situation in Iraq, what is most likely to follow now is months of stagnation, as the various parties fail to agree on the formation of a new government, with the current “caretaker” administration of Najib Mikati continuing to rule. 

A new speaker is set to be appointed in the months ahead. By the end of the year, parliament is set to choose the next president (who must be a Christian). The gains made by the Lebanese Forces are likely to complicate the process. Current President Aoun and his supporters had expected an easy selection for his son-in-law, Gebran Bassil. The election results cast doubt on this. 

Ultimately, however, the electoral advances made by anti-Hezbollah and civil society forces in Lebanon are likely to run up against the immovable fact of Iran/Hezbollah’s military supremacy, and its demonstrated willingness to use force when and where it deems necessary. 

As showcased in Lebanon, the Iranian model has nothing to offer the peoples of the countries it colonizes but dysfunction and poverty. It remains, however, without a current regional peer in the development of proxy political/military organizations.

A few shots in Ain el-Remmaneh notwithstanding, neither the Lebanese Forces nor the protest movement have anything to put up against Hezbollah’s independent military capacity. This means that despite Geagea’s words, the LF and independent electoral gains look set to form a (notable but limited) irritant to the Iranian project in Lebanon, rather than a serious threat to it.