by Neville Teller

 A much-trumpeted speech on November 3 by Lebanon’s Hezbollah leader, Hassan Nasrallah, was, in the event, rather less than overwhelming. 

For starters there was no sign of Nasrallah himself.  Thousands of Hezbollah fighters and supporters packed a square in the southern suburbs of Beirut to greet their leader, but their leader  wasn’t prepared to greet them.  Instead they faced a monster TV screen.  They viewed, and cheered, a videoed speech recorded in some secret location –  perhaps a bomb-proof bunker.  According to one media commentator Nasrallah himself has not been seen in public for a decade.  This address to supporters was his first since the beginning of the Israel-Hamas war, and expectations were high in some parts of the media that he was about to announce the opening of a second front against Israel.

However he made clear in his opening remarks that Hamas’s October 7 invasion of Israel, the subsequent massacre of 1400 civilians and the abduction of over 240 hostages – an operation which, predictably, he praised –  was a purely Palestinian enterprise.  And, he implied later in his remarks, Palestinian he wanted the subsequent conflict to remain.  He made it clear that Iran and Hezbollah had had no part in its planning or execution, and neither found it expedient in present circumstances to support Hamas by opening full-scale hostilities against Israel.  Although he made no reference to Washington’s clear warning that such a move would bring dire consequences, there is little doubt that the message had been received and understood.

So hostilities would be confined to the recent artillery and rocket exchanges across the Lebanese-Israeli border and the Iranian drone strikes against US stations in Syria and Iraq.  A second front, open warfare with Israel, was demoted to a final resort, triggered by vague, unspecified circumstances.  The speech no doubt came as a disappointment to Hamas leaders who have been pushing, covertly and openly. for active Hezbollah support.

The Lebanese people are in the midst of a familiar emotional dilemma – on the one hand sympathy with Hezbollah’s support of the Palestinian cause; on the other, intense suspicion of Hezbollah and its baggage-train of Iranian requirements in the regime’s self-interest.  For example, public opinion questioned from the start why thousands of Lebanese youth were sent off to fight in Syria under Hezbollah and Iran’s IRGC (Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps), in support of the ambitions of the Iranian regime to dominate the region.  The Lebanese public, which has little love for Syria’s president Bashar al-Assad, failed to see how its own interests were being served by fighting to sustain him in power.

Hezbollah has entrenched itself deeply into Lebanese society.  It has a dominating position in the financial, economic and political fields, and itself operates a range of social support services.  It has truly become a state within a state, sustained by its own armed militia which is independent of the official Lebanese armed forces (under the presidency of Michel Aoun, a Hezbollah supporter, they did cooperate).  Indeed Hezbollah has acquired so much military power and political influence that it is very nearly ruling Lebanon on its own, especially since the country has lacked a president and an effective government for more than al year.  Moreover it serves Hezbollah’s and Iran’s interest for the stalemate to continue, and every attempt to beak the political deadlock has been thwarted by Hezbollah and its allies.

Just a few months ago the respected Washington Institute published a devastatingly frank assessment by its counterterrorism and intelligence academic expert, Matthew Levitt, concerning the deep-rooted troubles that are paralyzing Lebanon.

“Let’s be clear,” he writes, “corruption is at the heart of Lebanon’s economic and political crises. This economic and political rot is deeply entrenched and is protected by powerful political bosses across the spectrum… yet no Lebanese party presents a greater security threat to Lebanon domestically, and to its neighbors in the region, than Hezbollah – in part because Hezbollah is the de facto militant enforcer of the corrupt political system from which it and other sectarian political parties benefit.”

Levitt explained in a recent media interview that while Hezbollah can prevent government decisions that are against its interests, “it’s not held accountable for what the government does or does not do, and it’s independently able to make decisions of war and peace, life and death, for the entirely of Lebanon – without consulting either the people or the government.”  In short, it has power without responsibility, operating its own mini-administration across the nation with a great degree of impunity. 

Hezbollah is therefore little concerned with the worst economic crisis to grip the country for decades. The value of the country’s currency has dropped by over 90 percent since 2019, with essential goods and services increasingly difficult to access. In addition, hours-long power outages are routine in Beirut and other cities.  Lebanon’s declining economic, political, and security conditions are rarely referred to by Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, nor does he mention the resultant demonstrations and labor strikes that are plaguing the country.  In fact demonstrations in reaction to deteriorating socio-economic conditions and perceived government mismanagement have been a regular occurrence in Lebanon since 2019.

Major economic and political reforms will be required to help reverse the crisis, unlock international financial assistance, and address protesters’ demands. However, Lebanon is locked in a political stalemate which makes reform, or indeed remedial action of any significant sort, impossible. 

          Nasrallah, clearly with Iran’s concurrence, has wisely decided to hold back on any full-scale conflict with Israel, since he would need support from a people mired in economic, social and political unrest and struggling with a cost of living crisis.  The last thing they need is to be  dragged into a war on top of their other woes.  if Nasrallah tried to involve them, he might find himself facing a popular revolt.

By Neville Teller

Neville Teller’s latest book is “"Trump and the Holy Land: 2016-2020". He has written about the Middle East for more than 30 years, has published five books on the subject, and blogs at Born in London and a graduate of Oxford University, he is also a long-time dramatist, writer and abridger for BBC radio and for the UK audiobook industry. He was made an MBE in the Queen's Birthday Honours, 2006 "for services to broadcasting and to drama."