Analysis

With Syria Still Roiling, War With Israel Is the Last Thing Hezbollah Needs

While Hezbollah knows how to preserve its power in Lebanon, the Syrian theater is putting the organization in a state of uncertainty

File photo: Hezbollah and Syrian flags are seen fluttering in Fleita, Syria August 2, 2017.
\ Omar Sanadiki/ REUTERS

More than a million Syrian refugees in Lebanon are waiting impatiently to return home. Tens of thousands of them could already go back, and a few thousand have actually done so, but all the rest are stuck in their host country because of political power games in Beirut.

The refugees’ travails don’t much interest Lebanon’s caretaker government, which, two and a half months after the elections, still hasn’t managed to form a permanent government. Important now is who will blink first.

The fate of most of the refugees depends on whether the Lebanese government will hold direct talks with the Assad regime in Syria over their return, as both Hezbollah and President Michel Aoun want, or whether their return will be the United Nations’ responsibility with no direct contact between Lebanon and the Assad regime, as Prime Minister Saad Hariri and his supporters want.

The first option would imply Lebanese recognition of Syrian President Bashar Assad, thereby breaching the Arab states' boycott when they ousted Syria from the Arab League. Hariri’s position, in contrast, is that Lebanon shouldn’t grant diplomatic legitimacy to Assad until the Syrian civil war has ended and a new government acceptable to all sides is formed.

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The vehement positions adopted by the rival Lebanese factions have given Lebanon, which for decades was a Syrian protectorate, an important diplomatic role. Other countries are also taking sides. Saudi Arabia and the United States support Hariri’s position, while Qatar and Iran are pushing for the refugees to be returned through direct negotiations with Assad.

Syria has said it’s willing to take the refugees back anytime. The large swaths of territory over which the regime has reasserted control would enable many of the refugees to return. The absurdity is that they’re now trapped in the thicket of Lebanese politics, which includes a dispute over how many ministers each party should have, and which portfolios.

Hezbollah and Foreign Minister Gibran Bassil – who heads the Free Patriotic Movement, a Christian party founded by Aoun – decided not to wait for a political decision. They moved quickly to open registration offices for refugees wanting to return to Syria. Aoun is also holding direct talks with Syria via the head of Lebanon’s intelligence agency, while Foreign Ministry people have gone out to survey towns and villages where unregistered refugees are staying to start preparations for their return.

Ostensibly, there's no technical barrier to the refugees’ return except the border crossings controlled by the Lebanese government, which has the power to decide whether to let them through. Moreover, all the Lebanese parties have an interest in offloading the refugees, who have been an enormous financial and administrative burden on Lebanon.

By contrast, Jordan, which is in a similar situation, announced immediately after the Syrian army retook most of southern Syria and the border crossing with Jordan that it wants all Syrian refugees living on its side of the border to go back.

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah is seen speaking on television in the village of al-Ghaziyeh, southern Lebanon, June 29, 2018.
Ali Hashisho / Reuters

Nor is it only the refugees who have become hostages to the political fight. Lebanese merchants and farmers, who could already start exporting their wares to the Arab world through Syria and Jordan, are also being tied down by the political dispute.

Christian and Sunni infighting

To pressure the Lebanese government, Damascus decided to permit only Syrian farmers and merchants, not Lebanese ones, to export via Jordan. If Lebanon wants to arm-wrestle with Assad, it will discover that he, too, has power to impose the “right” decision on Beirut.

Aside from its pro-Syrian stance on the refugee issue, Hezbollah is trying to portray itself as a neutral party in the dispute over the government lineup. For now, it can afford to watch from the sidelines because this time the main disputes are internal in both the Christian and Sunni camps, and it’s those disputes that are thwarting Harari’s efforts to form a cabinet.

The political math dictated by the election results guarantees Hezbollah at least three ministers. One of them will be in charge of one of the social service portfolios, probably health, which will let this minister control a sizable budget. Even more importantly, some of the money promised by donor states will naturally go through him.

This poses a problem, since donor states are liable to freeze their donations if the money goes through Hezbollah ministers. But the government can get around this by rerouting the donations.

The more important goal, from Hezbollah’s standpoint, is to form a bloc that controls one-third of the cabinet seats plus one. Thus if the cabinet is made up of 30 ministers, Hezbollah will want to be part of a bloc that controls at least 11 of those seats.

Such a bloc has a name in Lebanese politics. It’s called a “preventive” or “neutralizing” bloc, because under the Lebanese constitution, any major decision like approving the budget or declaring war requires approval by two-thirds of the cabinet. Thus in a cabinet of 30 ministers, it’s enough for 11 to vote no, block a decision and stymie the government’s ability to govern.

For the moment, Hezbollah can rely on the Christian Free Patriotic Movement, which is likely to have seven ministers, plus the three ministers Aoun is allowed to appoint as president. Thus together with Hezbollah’s guaranteed three ministers, the bloc is assured enough power to dictate policy.

But Hezbollah could find itself in a situation in which the Free Patriotic Movement and the president’s ministers team up; they would then need just one more minister to form their own preventive bloc – which, in certain circumstances, could block legislation or policies that Hezbollah favors. Therefore, despite Hezbollah’s alliance with the Free Patriotic Movement, it aims to reduce the Christian party’s power in the cabinet.

The other party vying for the “Christian seats” in the cabinet is the Lebanese Forces, led by Samir Geagea, which is demanding the same number of ministers as the Free Patriotic Movement. Geagea’s demand is based on an agreement he signed with the Free Patriotic Movement more than two years ago in an effort to prevent a rift in the Christian camp.

Under this agreement, not only would ministerial portfolios be divided equally between the two major Christian parties, so would top positions like diplomatic posts and the leadership of state-owned companies. But now that the time has come to implement the deal, leaders of the Free Patriotic Movement are saying they deserve more.

Nasrallah actually prefers Hariri

Hezbollah has feigned indifference to this dispute. “What emerged from the election results should be implemented,” said Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah. “People must be flexible and not withdraw into tactical, sectarian thinking that will undermine the necessary national equilibrium.”

Suddenly, Nasrallah is posing as loyal to the national equilibrium, devoid of sectarian or organizational interests. He’s pure as the driven snow and doesn’t sully himself in the political mud.

But Nasrallah is no political innocent. Far from it. He’s simultaneously conducting talks with his political rivals, including Hariri, who was forced to resign as prime minister by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman precisely because of his cooperation with Hezbollah.

Saudi Arabia had hoped to thereby dismantle the Lebanese government and embroil the country in chaos that would force it to run into Riyadh’s arms and divest itself of Iranian influence. But this plan failed. Lebanese protests and international intervention, especially by France, freed Hariri from house arrest in Saudi Arabia and allowed him to remain prime minister.

Now Hariri knows he’ll need Nasrallah’s support if he wants to finish forming a government anytime soon. The question is what price he’ll have to pay Hezbollah in return.

Still, the dependency isn’t all on one side, because Nasrallah actually prefers Hariri to the other prime ministerial candidates. That’s because he understands that Hariri’s stature, in both the West and the Middle East, plays an important role in securing legitimacy and international support for Lebanon.

But while Hezbollah knows how to maneuver in the Lebanese arena so as to preserve its power, the Syrian theater is putting the organization in a state of uncertainty. During the first four years of the civil war, Iran was Syria’s ally and Hezbollah served as a vital auxiliary force in Assad’s war against the rebels. But Russia’s intervention in the war in late 2015 reshuffled the deck.

Hezbollah’s desire to establish an anti-Israel front in the southwest of the Golan Heights was thwarted by Israel with the help of Russian pressure. Its entrenchment in the Qalamoun Mountains in western Syria, and along the Syrian-Lebanese border, is being shaken by Russian displays of force, politicians’ demands that it return its troops from Syria and Yemen, and demands by the bereaved families of the organization’s slain fighters, hundreds of whom have been killed in Syria. All these factors are forcing Hezbollah to start withdrawing its troops.

Nasrallah, who realizes how much pressure Russia is putting on Iran to withdraw its forces from the border and even from Syria altogether, has no way of knowing what kind of Syria will arise after the war. Granted, Assad will still be president, but will Syria resume serving as Grand Central Station for arms and ammunition shipments to Lebanon? Or are Russian President Vladimir Putin, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Assad cooking up some diplomatic surprise that would greatly restrict Hezbollah’s activities and/or its arms pipeline?

These are loose ends in the political and diplomatic tangle, and they obligate Hezbollah to act with redoubled caution in order to guarantee its existence. It must maneuver among its political rivals, see to it that the government roster serves its interests, and make sure it remains an Iranian strategic asset. A war against Israel wouldn’t help it do any of this.