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Friend or Foe? The Complex Country of Lebanon

November 13, 2017

by: Joshua Spurlock, The Mideast Update

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There’s complicated, and then there’s Lebanon. The country’s government is effectively controlled by Hezbollah, a terrorist organization. That same group murdered current Prime Minister Sa’ad Hariri’s father, but now he is something of a figurehead for the government mastered by Hezbollah. Meanwhile, the Lebanese army is tasked by the United Nations with keeping Hezbollah’s arms buildup under control, but Lebanese President Michel Aoun has recently called Hezbollah part of their national defense. Hezbollah itself is an archenemy of Israel, but fighting against ISIS, another enemy of Israel. Confused yet? This is Lebanon.

Israeli Brigadier General (Res.) Assaf Orion summarized Lebanon this way: “Prepare yourself to accept a contradiction-rich reality, in which opposites are not mutually exclusive, parallel lines meet whenever convenient, and either/or questions are answered with ‘both.’” But what does that make Lebanon really, and what does this mean for Israel where lives are very much at stake?

Lebanese Complexity

The self-contradiction that is Lebanon starts with the country’s ethnic diversity. Shiite and Sunni Muslims and Christian Arabs were all included when the country’s boundaries were pieced together in colonial days, and to make that work the government is intentionally divided to give each group a share.

The problem is that egalitarian-style government hasn’t worked, and since power abhors an empty space, a new leadership supplanted the weak and divided government: raw power. Orion, formerly in charge of communication between the IDF and the Lebanese army and now an expert at the Institute for National Security Studies, told The Mideast Update in an email interview that “much of the country’s politics cannot be found in the official structure, but in the combination of extra-governmental activity, including business, politics and violence.” Hence, since the most powerful group in Lebanon is the Iranian-backed Hezbollah, they effectively control the country.

Much as Orion said that “lip service” covers up inconvenient facts inside of Lebanon, the international response to Hezbollah’s power also prefers to rely on an outdated understanding in which the Lebanese government was a counterbalance to the terror group and not under their sway. The United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) peacekeepers have worked with the Lebanese military to supposedly try to prevent Hezbollah from illegally having weapons in the south of the country near the border with Israel. Yet, Israel revealed in September that a senior Lebanese military official is actually a Hezbollah spy who provides the terror group with information, according to a report by Ynet News.

Despite that, the leader of UNIFIL, Commander Maj. Gen. Michael Beary, met in late September with Lebanese military commander Gen. Joseph Aoun and was still highlighting the importance of coordination with the army, per a report from Asharq Al-Awsat. Brig. Gen. Orion said that while many understand Hezbollah’s role in Lebanon’s government, they “choose to keep the diplomatic game going, as the seemingly easiest and cheapest policy options.”

Lebanese Conflict

Another complicating element to Lebanon is that while Hezbollah is a danger to Western interests, they also are battling the supposed arch-villain of the free world—ISIS—who has been trying to take over neighboring Syria. This has resulted in two of Israel’s enemies fighting each other, but Israel doesn’t consider either one to be a friend. “My enemy’s enemy is just a useful enemy, and Israel never had any illusions in this context,” said Orion, who noted that Hezbollah and their Iranian sponsors are actually a “worse threat to Israel’s security than ISIS.”

He said that while some in the West think of Iran and Hezbollah as “stabilizers” in the face of ISIS’ violent chaos, Israel and their like-minded Arab neighbors “have no doubt about their toxic role in spreading terror, subversion, religious strife and Shiite radicalism.” The IDF spokesperson posted to Twitter in August that Hezbollah has more than 120,000 missiles, and news reports have repeatedly indicated that Israel has destroyed weapons in Syria that were bound for Hezbollah in order to prevent them from acquiring advanced armaments.

Hezbollah’s fight to support the Syrian regime, their ally against ISIS, has cost blood and money. Still, Orion noted that this fight also gave Hezbollah valuable battle experience, helped them acquire an “important foothold of influence” in Syria, and could earn them a new friend in Russia. The Russians have also been defending the Syrian regime, and Orion noted a Russian action to politically shield Hezbollah at the UN as evidence they could lend political support to the terror group as well.

(Photo credit: Cpl Eden Briand/IDF Spokespersons Unit)

The good news for Israel is that the Second Lebanon War has scared Hezbollah from confronting Israel again—so far. Ironically, Hezbollah’s power in Lebanon makes it more vulnerable to a new conflict because of the risk that the citizens of Lebanon will revolt against Hezbollah if things get tough. Even with Israel being careful to not harm civilians in a conflict, infrastructure such as roads and power grids are normal collateral damage in any conflict. Brig. Gen. Orion notes that Israel’s ability to engage in a prolonged conflict and their considerable military power is a risk to Hezbollah, the Lebanese economy and Hezbollah’s “general power.”

“While deterrence is mutual, as Israel prefers to avoid the costs of fighting Hezbollah, this is far from even thinking about [mutually-assured destruction] equations, since as Israel might suffer substantial damage in war, the destruction in Lebanon would be devastating and unprecedented,” said Orion.

So Lebanon, one of the greatest threats to Israel, is also afraid of fighting Israel for now—although Orion warned Hezbollah is ultimately subservient to Iran and might attack Israel anyway. It may sound confusing, but again, this is Lebanon. The sooner the West accepts that reality, the better for everyone.

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