Hezbollah, which is supported by Iran, has gained a majority of seats in Lebanon’s new cabinet. The move has led to much concern both in the West and Israel about what this development could mean.
The U.S. State Department released the following terse statement when the news of Hezbollah’s emergence came out: “We’ll judge [the new government in Lebanon] by its actions. What’s important in our mind is that the new Lebanese government abides by the Lebanese Constitution, that it renounces violence, including efforts to exact retribution against former government officials, and lives up to all its international obligations.”
International Business Times spoke with Dilshod Achilov, a professor of political science at East Tennessee State University, in Johnson City, Tenn., about the rise of Hezbollah in Lebanon and the possible repercussions,
IBTIMES: Hezbollah and its allies will own a majority of Lebanon’s new cabinet (16 out of 30 seats). Does this ratio reflect the popularity of Hezbollah among the Lebanese people?
ACHILOV: Even though Lebanon is ethnically an Arab nation, it is highly divided along religious identities.
Being a highly fractionalized country, Lebanon’s political platform is vigorously contested by three main political forces represented by Sunnis, Shi’ites and Maronite Christians. Hezbollah represents the Shi’ites who are backed by Iran and Syria.
Over the past few decades, Hezbollah’s political leverage has been increasing in Lebanon. However, Hezbollah does not enjoy dominant popular support in Lebanon; in fact, it is seen as a destabilizing force within the country by many.
In this context, it is premature to link the rise of new Hezbollah- led government to a large-scale popularity. It is important to highlight, nonetheless, that the Lebanese grew frustrated at not having a functional government for more than five months after the government of Saad Hariri’s government collapsed last January.
Overall, having a government at last, after long five months, was welcomed but yet to prove stable.
IBTIMES: Hezbollah toppled the coalition government of former Prime Minister Saad Hariri (and is believed to have murdered his father Rafiq). If Lebanon is a democratic, secular nation, doesn’t Hezbollah pose a dire threat?
ACHILOV: Despite political instabilities, Lebanon, for many years, has been a relatively strong democratic Arab state. Hezbollah is not just a paramilitary organization. Rather, it emerged as a major political, social, economic and highly sophisticated network within Lebanon.
Being a paramilitary organization, Hezbollah could conceivably pose a threat to a religiously diverse, politically divided Lebanon. However, it is hard to imagine a consolidated democracy with Hezbollah in power that takes orders from Iran and Syria – both of which are authoritarian states.
It is ironic that Hezbollah often criticizes Sunni- and Christian- led governments and claims that they allow foreign meddling (mainly the U.S.) in internal affairs while Hezbollah itself represents a clear foreign intervention (mainly from Iran, Syria) in Lebanese politics.
Hezbollah uses its military capability to withstand against Israel to appeal to the public for support.
In any case, if coalitions are built with a consensus (among competing factions), and if elections are fair, frequent and free, the choice of the Lebanese (regardless of winning party’s ideology) must be respected as should be for any democracy.
IBTIMES: What factions in Lebanon support Hezbollah? Who opposes them?
ACHILOV: Lebanon has fought several wars with Israel. The factions that view Hezbollah as the only security option against Israel, apart from the Lebanese army, mainly support Hezbollah. Predominantly, the Lebanese Shi’ites make up the core of Hezbollah.
Especially after the 2006 Israel-Lebanon conflict, Hezbollah’s popularity as a strong deterring paramilitary force against Israel rose to a new high. In this context, the core of Hezbollah’s political power stems from its strong military capability and the large network of social services it provides in the south.
IBTIMES: Why do Iran and Syria support Hezbollah?
ACHILOV: Iranian and Syrian support for Hezbollah is three-dimensional: religious, ideological and strategic.
Hezbollah has religious kinship and ideological alliance with Ayatollah of Iran and Alawite (a Shi’a sect) rule in Syria. Strategically, both Iran and Syria view Hezbollah as their proxy power player in Lebanon. Both use Hezbollah to exert control over Lebanese politics and counterweight against Israel.
IBTIMES: The U.S. supported Saad Hariri, but why did the Saudis endorse him, too?
ACHILOV: Najib Mikati, a billionaire and an experienced Sunni politician, managed to form a government with Hezbollah’s support (which still needs to pass a confidence vote in the parliament).
The Saudi stance against Hezbollah has always been mixed. Historically, the Saudis silently supported Hezbollah against Israel, but actively refuted its ideology and argued that Hezbollah represents an “arm” (extension) of Iran in Lebanon.
Most likely, Saudi elites realize that it is hard to imagine a stable government without Hezbollah and that a programmatic-utilitarian approach is necessary. In the end, Saudi Arabia remains committed to pursue efforts to curb Iran’s influence on Hezbollah and the Arab world in general.
IBTIMES: Does Hezbollah dominate the Lebanese military?
ACHILOV: Hezbollah acts separately and independently from the Lebanese army. It views itself as a separate paramilitary, popular movement dedicated to protect Lebanon.
The Lebanese army has no power or capacity to control or confront Hezbollah. But the fact is, Lebanon virtually never had a strong military; the military arsenal (air, sea and ground firepower) was, and still is, very poor.
Also, the Lebanese military has suffered from divisions stemming from religious identities. While Lebanon is now trying to modernize its military, Hezbollah still remains the most powerful, viable and independent military unit (with relatively sophisticated weapons transferred from Iran via Syria) in Lebanon.
IBTIMES: Given Syria’s own internal troubles, does the rise of Hezbollah in Lebanon mean much to them at this point?
ACHILOV: The rise of Hezbollah is a strategic victory for Syria. But the president of Syria, Bashar Al-Assad, is highly concerned about his (regime’s) own fate at this time.
Overall, it is good for Syria since the new Hezbollah-dominated government may explicitly or implicitly support Assad politically. However, the foundations of Alawite-led regime of Syria is shaking as we speak. Hezbollah is also highly concerned by this. The incumbent Syrian regime is extremely important to Hezbollah for tactical, strategic and financial reasons since Syria is an important corridor to Iran.
If the Baathist regime in Syria fails, the corridor that connects Iran with Hezbollah will be in danger.
IBTIMES: What is Iran’s current role in Lebanon? Why do they even care about this tiny country?
ACHILOV: Iran is everything to Hezbollah; likewise, Hezbollah means the world to Iran. Iran views Hezbollah as a strategic and tactical weapon against Israel and the U.S.
And the fact that Iran does not have many allies in the region, Lebanon is an important regional gateway and a means for Iran’s increasing political leverage in the Middle East.
Had there been no (military, ideological and financial) support from Iran, Hezbollah would not be as strong as it is today. Lebanon is important for Iran since Hezbollah acts as its influential ambassador in the country.
IBTIMES: The US designates Hezbollah as a terrorist group – but are they are extreme as, say, al-Qaeda?
ACHILOV: Hezbollah started out as a small militia organization against the Israeli occupation of Lebanon in 1980s. Initially, the purpose of Hezbollah was to drive out Israeli forces from Lebanon; it was successful in accomplishing this, in fact. Hezbollah is also notoriously well-known for adapting and using terrorist tactics such as suicide bombings and kidnappings to reach its ends. These tactics, alleged/linked attacks and the strong rhetoric (e.g., destruction of Israel and the U.S. bases) caused Hezbollah to be listed as a terrorist organization.
But Hezbollah is not as extreme as Al-Qaida, for instance. But that does not mean that Hezbollah is not dangerous. While Al-Qaida views the West as a legitimate target as a whole, Hezbollah’s mission seems to be more narrow and regionally focused – primarily against Israel.
IBTIMES: Hezbollah was formed in 1982 with Iran’s support to fight Israel’s invasion of Lebanon. But what is Hezbollah’s long-term strategy – is it just to destroy Israel? Or do they want to turn Lebanon into a fundamentalist Islamic state?
ACHILOV: As claimed by its leadership, Hezbollah is a popular Shi’a movement committed to fighting Israel and liberate the parts of southern Lebanon (Shebaa farms) from Israel. Ideologically, Hezbollah would probably envision an Iranian-type of theocratic state for Lebanon; but this is almost impossible given the Lebanese demographics. Hezbollah knows it well, too.
In the long run, Hezbollah will be committed to maintaining its political leverage and influence to push its interests within Lebanese politics as much and as long as possible.
IBTIMES: Obviously, Hezbollah’s rise in Lebanon poses a greater danger to Israel, no?
ACHILOV: Yes, the rise of Hezbollah poses a serious threat to Israel.
Israel is, understandably and rightly, concerned about its existence and security. The most viable and more immediate security danger to Israel (in the whole region) is probably Hezbollah.
The summer of 2006 Israel-Lebanon war was a main learning moment for the Jewish state in which Israel failed to stop Hezbollah’s daily barrage of missiles for weeks. That war showed that Hezbollah is far more sophisticated, organized and dangerous than previously thought.
IBTIMES: Why does it seem that so many top Lebanese politicians (like Hariri and Mikati) are very wealthy men? Is Lebanon rife with corruption?
ACHILOV: Despite being a non-rentier state (not being an oil-rich state), Lebanon is a relatively wealthy and prosperous Arab country in comparison to other non-oil-rich states in the region. Lebanon is a capitalist economy with a strong service-driven industry, tourism and banking sector.
The level of skillful workforce is probably the highest in the Arab world. The economic climate and financial structure of Lebanon system allow citizens to engage in innovative entrepreneurship and get very wealthy as a result.
But corruption is also big and rife in the country. In 2010, The Transparency International ranked Lebanon 127th least corrupt state (with a score of 2.5 out of 10) in the world out of 178 countries. As a comparison, Saudi Arabia ranked 50th least corrupt with a score of 4.7, Afghanistan’s score was 1.4. (176th least corrupt) and the U.S. fared at 7.1 (20th least corrupt). Wealth and political power go hand-in-hand in the Middle East politics.
Lebanon is not an exception. It is hard to speculate, however, about the possible corruption among the top Lebanese elites without evidence or tangible prosecutions.
IBTIMES: What is your near-term outlook for Lebanon if Hezbollah gains power? Social unrest, more repression?
ACHILOV: Most likely, Lebanese citizens will carefully watch the current new government and scrupulously evaluate its efficiency and policy outcomes. If a Hezbollah-dominated government fails to deliver viable economic policies, reforms, security and stability for Lebanon, than we likely will see this government collapse or even political and social unrest.
Political repression by the incumbent government is very distant and unlikely. Looking ahead, social and/or political unrest is a high possibility if this government fails to deliver socio-economic goods, security and most importantly - stability.
If Hezbollah has more weight in government today, it is not warranted that it will always stay like this or that it will last long. The current government may collapse in the near future if Mikati fails to effectively channel all the competing voices of all government ministers.
The elite consensus of competing factions will be a key factor in months to come.