by: Joshua Spurlock, The Mideast Update
Hezbollah terrorists have been the primary power in Lebanon for years, and that force has been for anything but good. The terror group has used the Lebanese towns and countryside as their own human shield-laden missile array for a future war against Israel. Hezbollah has also wielded disruptive, if not controlling, political power in Lebanon’s parliament. And the terror group has turned this once West-friendly country into an Iranian puppet. But 2020 was not kind to Hezbollah or Lebanon, as both the terror group and the country faced crisis after crisis. What does that mean for Hezbollah’s domination of Lebanon and threat to Israel?
Last August, a massive explosion ripped through the port in Lebanon’s capital, Beirut. There were allegations that the explosion was due to Hezbollah storing explosives at the port. Even if those claims are unfounded, the blast gave the Lebanese public an excuse to vent their anger against Hezbollah. In a dramatic display, protestors hung a noose around a cardboard cutout image of Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah. That image of anti-Hezbollah criticism was something that former Israeli Deputy National Security Adviser for Foreign Policy Orna Mizrahi said she hadn’t seen in decades, or perhaps ever. According to retired Lt. Col. Mizrahi—now a senior research fellow with the Israeli Institute for National Security Studies—more of the Lebanese people have “come to understand the devastating factor of Hezbollah being a state inside a state.”
The aftermath of the blast and subsequent protests certainly hurt Hezbollah. The government of Lebanon at the time—which was reportedly backed by Hezbollah—resigned in response to the public outrage. For a movement that has been a major political force for well over a decade, the government resignation represented an unusual setback. However, the damage the Beirut explosion did to Lebanon, and indirectly to Hezbollah, was more than just political.
According to a Christian Science Monitor report, the Beirut port explosion caused damages amounting to billions of dollars, a devastating blow to an already struggling economy. While the West offered to help, Mizrahi pointed out that the offers came with conditions for reform. “I think that now after the blast and the pressure that the United States and the West are putting on the Lebanese system, they understand they have to change something, and there is more pressure on Hezbollah to agree to some of the reforms,” she said.
Part of that process was trading out the Hezbollah-backed government for a government led by someone considered more West-friendly, like former Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri.
Meanwhile, the International Monetary Fund’s (IMF’s) DataMapper shows that Lebanon’s gross domestic product (GDP)—a common measurement for national economic performance—was down 25% in 2020. While the global economic disruption caused by COVID-19 has been dramatic in a number of countries this year, the IMF already showed a 6.9% decline in Lebanon’s GDP in 2019. Furthermore, inflation in the country has spiked over 85% in 2020.
In other words, the economy is much worse, and expenses are much higher—and Hezbollah is definitely feeling the effect. The Christian Science Monitor interviewed a fighter for the terror group who saw his salary sliced in half. Besides national economics, sanctions on Iran have also dealt another blow to Hezbollah’s finances.
While the Lebanese economic struggles have cast a shadow over the financial benefits Hezbollah might reap at home, the terror group’s best foreign fundraiser also took a dramatic fall in recent years. Iran has taken repeated blows from US sanctions and coronavirus-related economic troubles. As a result, its ability to back terror proxies like Hezbollah has been significantly harmed.
The Office of the Spokesperson for the US State Department reported in a mid-November edition of “This Week in Iran Policy” that as of November 18, sanctions had resulted in Iran reducing its military budget by “nearly 25% in 2019.”
2020 hasn’t been better for Iran economically. According to the State Department report, Iran’s hamstrung financial state has resulted in “the regime’s terrorist proxies and partners beg[ging] for cash, and have been forced to take austerity measures, even furloughing some terrorist fighters.”
Mizrahi noted that the US has also started sanctioning Hezbollah’s political allies in Lebanon, further hurting the group.
At the time of going to print, the impact of all this on Hezbollah has been limited, but there is potential for bigger change. In 2020, the Lebanese government—including Hezbollah—agreed to negotiate a maritime border with Israel, with US mediation, which could help unlock the economic potential of gas reserves found in the Mediterranean Sea. According to Mizrahi, “It’s evidence of the fact that [Hezbollah] was under pressure and they thought that they have to do something…that will help Lebanon, even though it was against their ideology.”
Mizrahi notes that Hezbollah still holds powerful sway in Lebanon and wields its own army. She believes their short-term pragmatism doesn’t betray long-term extremist goals. “They are not going to neglect their aspirations now in Lebanon or against Israel or the West,” she said, noting Hezbollah was already spoiling the maritime talks.
For now, however, a bad year for Hezbollah can only mean one thing: good news for Israel, the West and those hoping for real change in Lebanon.
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