Analysis |

Nasrallah Is Running a Country in Crisis With No Solutions in Sight

The Trump administration appears determined to get the Hezbollah leader’s movement removed from the Lebanese government, but if that happens, Hassan Nasrallah won’t be the only casualty

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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A poster in the Lebanese town of Sidon with a picture of Hezbollah leader Nasrallah.
A poster in the Lebanese town of Sidon with a picture of Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah.Credit: Ali Hashisho/Reuters
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

The head of the engineering department at Lebanese University issued a directive over the past week to all department faculty: From now on, they can only print their exams on a single sheet of paper, due to a shortage of standard size paper. Anyone giving an exam on more than one sheet of paper will have to print the exams at their own expense. On a campus in Sidon, in the south of the country, they came up with a different solution: Professors are using paper retrieved from the trash to print their exams on.

The Syndicate of Hospitals in Lebanon, which represents more than 150 private hospitals, informed the government over the past week that within three weeks, they will be unable to accept patients other than those whose lives are in immediate danger or who require dialysis or chemotherapy. “We’re facing mass suicide,” the head of the syndicate wrote in his letter to the government.

Debt liability in Lebanon has lost more than half its value due to the plummeting value of the Lebanese pound against the U.S. dollar. Although the greenback has long been pegged at 1,507 Lebanese pounds to the dollar, the American currency has now been fetching more than 9,000 pounds on the black market.

A man wearing a face mask takes Lebanese pound banknotes at a currency exchange shop in Beirut, Lebanon, April 24, 2020.Credit: REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir

As a result of the collapse of the pound, the government is offering to sell the hospitals dollars at the preferential official rate, but only to cover 15 to 20 percent of their needs. The hospitals will have to make up the difference on their own. At Rafik Hariri University Hospital, a major facility that treats coronavirus patients, there are frequent power outages and the hospital director has ordered air-conditioning to be kept off in the hospital’s administrative offices.

On Facebook, there are hundreds of daily posts from people offering to barter services for food. Seamstresses, house cleaners, carpenters and plumbers among others list the jobs that they can perform and the goods that they are seeking in return.

Pressure on Hezbollah

As the economic crisis worsens, public anger is also growing against the Shi’ite Hezbollah political and militia movement, which has the health portfolio in the government and is perceived as having failed to manage the coronavirus epidemic. Hezbollah is also seen as harming Lebanon’s chances of securing the economic aid and loans that it is seeking from the International Monetary Fund.

Lebanon is asking for a $20 billion loan in addition to the release of $11 billion in funds pledged by donor countries at a 2018 funding conference. The most recent discussions with the IMF ran aground and ended in a shouting match when it became clear that, under American pressure, the IMF was demanding tough terms on the loan. The conditions include not only major economic reforms but also the removal of Hezbollah from the government.

The aid issue is a point of conflict between European countries that are prepared to find ways to prevent Lebanon’s total collapse and the Trump administration, which has apparently decided to neutralize Hezbollah as part of its policy of halting Iranian influence, even at the cost of destroying Lebanon. Last month, mandatory American sanctions on Syria went into effect under U.S. legislation called the Caesar Act, which is named after a Syrian police officer who took tens of thousands of photos showing torture and abuse of Syrian civilians by forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad.

The law bars cooperation of any kind with the Syrian regime. Lebanon, which provides a transit point for goods coming in and out of Syria, could be hard hit by the sanctions and has already filed a request an exemption from them. For its part, the U.S. administration has insisted that no exemptions will be given to any country, including friendly ones. The Americans are also examining ways to prevent forces from the United Nations peacekeeping force in Lebanon, UNIFIL, from making purchases in southern Lebanese cities under Hezbollah’s control – to cut the Shi’ite group off from another source of funding.

Nasrallah vs. sanctions

The pressure on Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah was readily apparent in a speech that he gave on Tuesday in which he said, “We are not an obstacle to American aid to Lebanon.”

“There are those who say that the West is an oxygen tank for us. We aren’t demanding [that Lebanon] steer clear of the West, but if they cut off assistance to us, what are we supposed to do?”

Nasrallah was referring his prior stance in which he vehemently opposed requesting aid from the IMF because he knew that such a loan would mean additional moves to choke off his movement. Later he shifted his position and agreed to have Lebanon request IMF assistance as long as there were no political conditions attached.

A barber listens to a speech by Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah being broadcast on Hezbollah's al-Manar TV channel, Beirut, Lebanon, May 22, 2020.Credit: AP Photo/Hassan Ammar

Now he is suggesting alternatives, such as China, and has said, “If China wants to invest in Lebanon, that doesn’t mean we want to turn Lebanon into a Communist country.” Nor does he want to rule out aid from Iran.

“That doesn’t mean we want to apply an Iranian model in Lebanon,” he said, “nor could we imitate it, because Iran is a country that has the capacity to supply most of its own agricultural and industrial needs and has therefore been able to withstand sanctions and wars for 40 years.” But purchasing oil from Iran and giving Iranian oil tankers access to Lebanese ports, just as Iran sells oil to Venezuela, is a possibility that the Hezbollah leader says should be considered. In fact, Nasrallah has said his organization is already negotiating with Iran to sell Lebanon oil in Lebanese pounds rather than dollars.

For that to happen without Lebanon being accused of violating the sanctions on Iran, the tankers would have to anchor at Syrian ports and unload their cargo there, which would be transported by land to Lebanon. But there is an additional problem in that transporting Iranian oil over the Syrian border into Lebanon could be considered a violation of the sanctions on Syria – also putting Lebanon on a collision course with Washington.

Ostensibly Hezbollah could overcome this hurdle if it were to decide to import the Syrian oil on its own – seizing control of the border crossings between Lebanon and Syria, amassing a fleet of tankers and becoming an oil importer. But that’s just a theoretical option for now, because it would constitute a blatant violation of Lebanon’s sovereignty, officially turning the country into a Hezbollah state. But if Lebanon cannot obtain dollar loans soon, the government itself may have to violate the sanctions law to supply the oil the country requires for its most vital needs.

Hezbollah supporters and communist groups during a protest against U.S. interference in Lebanon's affairs, near the U.S. embassy in Aukar, Beirut, Lebanon, July 10, 2020. Credit: AP Photo/Hussein Malla

The American problem

The question is what Washington would be able to do in the face of such a move. President Trump’s policy aimed at ousting Hezbollah from the Lebanese government is entirely clear. In a recent interview with Saudi-owned Al-Hadath television, the American ambassador to Lebanon, Dorothy Shea, accused Hezbollah of destabilizing the country and endangering its economic recovery. Her comments caused a major uproar in Lebanon, and a court in Tyre subsequently banned all Lebanese media outlets from interviewing the ambassador or covering her comments, subject to a $200,000 fine for violations of the ban.

The judge himself resigned after the verdict was handed down and the Lebanese foreign minister summoned the ambassador for a meeting to iron things out. What particularly riled Nasrallah was the ambassador’s statement that Washington would support any reformist government not controlled by Hezbollah. Shea added that such a government should be comprised of experts and said that so far Prime Minister Hassan Diab’s government has not yet achieved the promised reforms.

There could be no clearer expression of Washington’s goals in Lebanon. The irony is that despite this hard-line position, on Wednesday the commander of the U.S. Central Command, Gen. Kenneth McKensie Jr., met with the Lebanese leadership to discuss continued military cooperation, and that same day, Kassem Tajeddine, a major financier of Hezbollah, returned to Lebanon after serving three years of a five-year sentence in the United States for violating sanctions and aiding the Shi’ite militia movement.

Lebanon's president, Michel Aoun, right, meets with the head of U.S Central Command, Gen. Kenneth McKensie Jr., center, July 8, 2020.Credit: Dalati Nohra/Reuters

According to rumors in Lebanon, Tajeddine’s early release was part of a prisoner exchange deal with Iran. If that is the case, it appears that, like Israel, Washington is willing to negotiate with Iran via Hezbollah when it suits its interest.

Despite his harsh criticism of the American ambassador, Nasrallah’s somewhat conciliatory stance in not opposing Western aid could be an indication of the dire straits in which his organization finds itself. The distress has also prompted Nasrallah to put forth an original proposal in the form of an agricultural and industrial “jihad.”

“We have to be present in this new arena,” Nasrallah said. “We all have to go back to being farmers to save Lebanon as a whole. We have to sow on every suitable plot of land, including in the cities. When we eat what we sow and wear clothes that we make, then we will become a sovereign people.”

This new demagoguery isn’t convincing the Lebanese, who have already begun making fun of the Hezbollah leader’s new agricultural ideology. Lebanese farmers are incapable of exporting their produce and Lebanon’s small industrial sector doesn’t have enough fuel or electricity to sustain itself, and the government has no money to supply farmers with seed and saplings or the dollars needed to buy the raw materials or machinery necessary to produce the clothing that the country’s population wears.

A recent anti-government demonstration in Beirut. The government is accused of failing to properly handle the coronavirus pandemic. Credit: Hassan Ammar/AP

Hezbollah isn’t the only one feeling the pressure. Washington is putting on the pressure with the sanctions, but cannot control its consequences. The protests in the streets, the growing anger, the calls to dismiss the government and the poverty that is strangling nearly half of the population are all threatening to wreak civil havoc that will be nearly impossible to contain.

There is no political figure capable of ousting Hezbollah from the government, and the result is that the country will continue to be run by the same government, or its clone, should it decide to resign, and will find itself in the middle of a bloody military campaign to disperse the protests, impose curfews and detain those disturbing the peace.

Unless there is a massive infusion of funds in the near future, Lebanon will become a failed state, like Libya and Yemen. The United States, which has ceased demanding the ouster of the regime in Iran as a condition for lifting the sanctions, will apparently have to go on living with Hezbollah as part of Lebanon’s government – or permit Lebanon to be lost completely.

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