Protesters force Nasrallah to shift course amid economic, health crises

Faced with mounting US sanctions, Hezbollah leader in troubled waters, experts say

Supporters of Lebanon's Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah ride in a vehicle decorated with Hezbollah and Lebanese flags and a picture of him, as part of a convoy in the southern village of Kfar Kila, Lebanon October 25, 2019 (photo credit: AZIZ TAHER/REUTERS)
Supporters of Lebanon's Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah ride in a vehicle decorated with Hezbollah and Lebanese flags and a picture of him, as part of a convoy in the southern village of Kfar Kila, Lebanon October 25, 2019
(photo credit: AZIZ TAHER/REUTERS)
As it confronts its most acute economic crisis in recent memory, Lebanon seems headed for disaster, with no easy out in sight. Faced with US demands to jettison Hezbollah, the US-designated terrorist organization and most powerful political group in the country, the Lebanese government – and Hezbollah itself – find themselves in a desperate bind.
US-imposed sanctions on Iran and its proxies, the recent sharp rebuke of Hezbollah  by US Ambassador to Lebanon Dorothy Shea and growing unrest from an outraged public demanding financial relief, have forced Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah to rethink his political strategy, as he attempts to retain power. 
The Media Line spoke with two leading Israeli experts about US aspirations in Lebanon and the problems confronting the country’s leadership.
“Hezbollah is facing one of its most significant challenges,” says Yoram Schweitzer, a retired lieutenant colonel in Israeli military intelligence and a former senior adviser to Israel’s prime minister. “Going by Nasrallah’s recent speeches, the [people’s unrest] is what worries him most.”
Schweitzer says he believes Hezbollah's role as the face of the government is a problem for the group. “Hezbollah has had veto power in past governments. Nothing has really changed, but ever since [former prime minister] Saad al-Hariri was run out of office [in October 2019], the organization has had no one to hide behind. It’s the most dominant body in power, and the people know that.”
“[Nasrallah’s] most pressing challenge is to obscure Hezbollah's hegemony in the country so that the protesters’ wrath won’t be directed squarely at it. He’s trying to shirk the blame for the economic and health crises. He’s pointing at the US and saying there’s an elaborate Israeli-US plot to bring Lebanon to its knees.”
The US policy of pressuring Lebanese banks to force the government to part ways with Hezbollah is taking its toll on the country’s already devastated economy. The hopes of driving a wedge between Lebanon’s most powerful group and the rest of the governing parties, Schweitzer says, have never been higher.
“Obviously, there is an opportunity for the Americans here. The US has chosen a strategy of maximum financial pressure combined with sanctions and isolation against both Hezbollah and Iran. It’s the centerpiece of their approach. Hezbollah's dire situation is, in [US] eyes, the result of their policy. They’ll try to press the advantage and offer ‘treats’ to others in Lebanon in order to pressure Hezbollah.”
Indeed, following mounting public uproar, Nasrallah in recent weeks has had to carefully reverse course on his stance regarding foreign aid. After initially vowing to refuse all loans and grants offered through the International Monetary Fund, the Hezbollah leader walked those statements back in a speech last week, claiming Lebanon would not spurn Western offers of assistance.
“That’s probably a result of the pressure he felt from the streets,” Schweitzer says. “He de facto blinked first and sounded a more pragmatic tone. He’s changed his tune. That doesn’t mean America is not still the ‘big enemy’ for him, but the situation forced him to shift a bit.”
Still, Schweitzer doesn’t see anything resembling a collapse or an ousting of Lebanon’s strongest party.
“[Nasrallah] is still somehow managing to hold the coalition together – Christians, Shi’ites, Sunnis. They all understand that they must depend on each other, what with the mass protests.”
Shimon Shapira, a retired brigadier general who served as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s military secretary, urges caution as well.
“Hezbollah is in bad shape, but not critical,” he says. “They’ve been through internal crises in the past, financial and otherwise. The coronavirus has definitely posed a significant challenge, but with its 150,000 volunteers and operators, the organization has responded better than the official government has.”
Over the weekend, Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, commander of the US Central Command, visited Beirut and met with President Michel Aoun before holding a memorial service for the 241 US soldiers killed in Beirut in a 1983 bombing attributed to Hezbollah. A statement released by the US Embassy said McKenzie reaffirmed the US commitment to Lebanon’s “security, stability and sovereignty.”
According to a US State Department fact sheet published in May 2020, the US provided $218 million in combined State Department and Defense Department military grant assistance to Lebanon in 2019. Analysts say that a large chunk, if not most, of these funds have found their way into Hezbollah's war chests. Simultaneously, however, American sanctions aimed at crippling Hezbollah have been increased. None have been more damaging than the Caesar Act passed in June that punishes anyone conducting business with the neighboring Syrian regime, with which Iranian proxy Hezbollah is fully allied.
“The sanctions imposed by the US test Hezbollah's ability to withstand pressure,” Shapira says. “Now is definitely a good opportunity [for weakening Hezbollah]. The only thing that can threaten Hezbollah's control of the street is rioting over money. Not enough money is being transferred from Iran, salaries have been substantially cut. Sure, Nasrallah is in a bind.”
“Still, at the end of the day, there is no force right now that can really threaten [Hezbollah's] hold on the public,” he concludes.