Over the past few decades a rapacious predator has been consuming the political, military and administrative organs of the once proud state of Lebanon, until only the outer shell of an independent sovereign country now remains. At one time it seemed that Hezbollah, a body deemed a terrorist organization by large parts of the world, had created a “state within a state” inside Lebanon. Many now believe that the Lebanese state and Hezbollah are in effect indistinguishable.
In theory Lebanon should be a template for a future peaceful Middle East. It is the only Middle East country which, by its very constitution, shares power equally between Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims and Christians. Theory, however, has had to bow to practical reality. Lebanon has been highly unstable for much of its existence, and its unique constitution has tended to exacerbate, rather than eliminate, sectarian conflict.
Around 1980 Iran’s first Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khomenei, still basking in the glory of his 1979 Islamic Revolution, decided to strengthen his grip on Shia Islam by consolidating a number of Lebanon’s militant Shi’ite Muslim groups. He formed and funded a body calling itself Hezbollah, or “the Party of God”.
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Hezbollah declared that its purpose, in line with Khomeini’s, was to oppose Western influences in general and Israel’s existence in particular. Soon Hezbollah was acting as Iran’s proxy in perpetrating a campaign of terror against their two perceived enemies. A wave of kidnappings, bombings, and assassinations were carried out across the world.
It is no surprise, therefore, that Hezbollah in its entirety has been designated a terrorist body by the Arab League, as well as by a batch of other nations including Canada, the Netherlands, the USA, all the Gulf states that form the Gulf Cooperation Council and, of course, Israel. They were joined in March 2019 by the UK, which finally proscribed the whole of the Hezbollah organization, rather than only its supposed “military wing”.
A few days later a British foreign office minister, Alistair Burt, visited Beirut and met Lebanon’s President Michel Aoun, a known supporter of Hezbollah. During the course of conversation, Aoun declared that Hezbollah’s allegiances in the region did not affect internal Lebanese politics. The president was, in effect, giving his stamp of approval to the terrorist body controlled by a foreign state. Iran, that has sucked much of the independence out of his country.
Prime minister Saad Hariri on the other hand, could never be reconciled to the increasingly dominant position that Hezbollah has been assuming within the Lebanese body politic. Regardless of his political objections, his personal reasons are overwhelming.
On February 14, 2005, Hariri’s father Rafik, one-time prime minister and a powerful opponent of Syrian and Hezbollah’s increasing influence in Lebanon, was assassinated. The subsequent judicial proceedings, still ongoing after 14 years, have pretty well established that the murder was ordered by Bashar al Assad, Syria’s president, and carried out by Hezbollah operatives.
How complete is Hezbollah’s takeover of the state of Lebanon?
The country went to the polls in May 2018. The elections saw the Hezbollah-led political alliance win just over half of the parliamentary seats. A major factor in Hezbollah’s popularity is the vast network of social services, funded by Iran, that it runs, providing healthcare, education, finance, welfare, and communications. Initially set up to augment the pitifully poor services provided by the state, it has virtually taken over the state’s function in many areas.
The government that was eventually formed some nine months after the poll reflected the dominant position attained by Hezbollah and its allies. The organization was allocated three ministries including, for the first time, the Ministry of Health which controls one of the country’s largest budgets. In addition the Finance Ministry went to a Hezbollah ally.
As regards the military, there are two fully equipped fighting bodies in Lebanon – the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) and Hezbollah. The LAF may seem on paper the larger organization, with 72,000 personnel as against a Hezbollah maximum of 55,000, but it is a far less cohesive and unified force. Hezbollah has been equipped by Iran with a large rocket arsenal, thousands of anti-tank, anti-aircraft and anti-ship missiles, as well as tanks and other military vehicles stationed in Syria. The LAF has been well funded by the US over the years, and has air and naval capacity, but the unpalatable fact is that it is no longer the independent instrument of the state. Hezbollah has infiltrated the LAF, and there is evidence of cooperation between them.
It is particularly concerning that the LAF has compromised its role as the nation’s defence force by collaborating with the Hezbollah military. As a result, in any future conflict Israel would be unable to restrict its military action to Hezbollah. Indeed in May 2018 Israel’s then education minister, Naftali Bennett, said that “the State of Israel will not differentiate between the sovereign state of Lebanon and Hezbollah, and will view Lebanon as responsible for any action from within its territory.”
The distinguished commentator on Middle East affairs, Jonathan Spyer, recently analyzed the extent to which Hezbollah, acting as a proxy for Iran, has swallowed up the Lebanese state. The shell of the state has been left intact, he pointed out, both to serve as a protective camouflage and to carry out those aspects of administration in which Hezbollah and Iran have no interest. As a result, he concludes, it is impossible today in key areas of Lebanese life to determine exactly where the official state begins and Hezbollah’s shadow state ends. Lebanon is indeed in a sorry state.