x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Hizbollah's actions threaten to deepen Lebanon's isolation

Hizbollah has greatly harmed Lebanon and will continue to do so as it safeguards an Iranian outpost in the Levant

The abduction of two Turkish pilots last week near Beirut's airport has alarmed many Lebanese, who fear their country will once again become a target of international opprobrium. The incident brings back memories of the civil war years, as the consequences of isolation at a time of political and economic crises could be devastating.

An unknown group, which identified itself as the Visitors of Imam Ali Al Reda, claimed to have kidnapped the Turks and demanded the release of Lebanese Shias held by Syrian rebels in northern Syria since May 2012. The families of the kidnapped Lebanese feel that Turkey has influence over the Syrian rebel group and can secure their release.

However, it remains unclear whether the purpose of the kidnappers was really to free the Lebanese Shia or whether this is a mere pretext for something else.

The Lebanese Internal Security Forces have been searching for one Ali Jamil Saleh, the son of one of the Lebanese hostages, suspecting him of being the mastermind behind the Turks' kidnapping. Mr Saleh may be guilty, but two things suggest this was more than just a family member looking for bargaining chips. The pilots were almost certainly watched from the moment they arrived at Beirut airport, which is effectively controlled by Hizbollah. And they were stopped on the airport road in an area that is a Hizbollah stronghold. It is hard to imagine that the abduction was carried out without the party's blessing - that is if Hizbollah itself was not directly responsible.

Hizbollah's Lebanese adversaries remember well that two political figures close to the March 14 coalition, the prominent Ennahar journalist and publisher Jubran Tueni and the head of the security forces' intelligence branch, Wissam Al Hassan, were both assassinated shortly after returning from abroad. This suggests that the party keeps tabs on whoever arrives at the airport.

To some Lebanese observers, given the nationality of the pilots, it is conceivable that the Turks were the victims of a regional power play, perhaps involving Iran and Turkey, over Syria. While this is entirely speculative, Lebanon has become a mailbox for regional messages and it is not difficult to imagine that the pilots will serve another purpose than to release Shia hostages held in Syria.

It is remarkable how Hizbollah denied Lebanon any normality after the assassination of the former prime minister, Rafik Hariri, in 2005, which led to the pullout of the Syrian army. In 2006, the party started a war with Israel, followed by a tense 18-month effort to oust Prime Minister Fouad Al Siniora. This culminated in the military takeover of western Beirut and humiliation of the Sunni community.

In the 2009 parliamentary elections, Hizbollah and its allies failed to win a majority. That did not prevent them in 2011, while in the government, from overthrowing the then prime minister, Saad Hariri. This year, Hizbollah has sent combatants to Syria, further damaging Lebanese communal coexistence. And it is suspected of involvement in numerous assassinations, including that of Rafik Hariri, for which party members have been indicted, and those of many other figures.

Recently, the party's military wing was placed on the European Union's list of terrorist organisations. This disturbed the Lebanese who don't want to become pariahs again as they were during the war years. The kidnapping of the Turkish pilots little helped matters in that regard.

In domestic politics, Hizbollah has delayed the formation of a new government for weeks. With its allies, it has demanded veto power and has threatened that if a government is formed ignoring its conditions, the party might respond violently. It has linked events in Lebanon to Syria and does not want decisive changes to take place on the local scene before the outcome in Syria is clear.

What is surprising is how, despite such destructive behaviour and the fact that Hizbollah is today openly serving as a branch of Iran's security and intelligence apparatus, many people continue to regard it as a revolutionary force and a refreshing contrast to the corrupt ways of the Lebanese political system. This is based on the view, which is not inaccurate, that Hizbollah reversed Shia marginalisation.

But this narrative is also naive and dated. Hizbollah is as involved as anybody else in illicit networks. Many Shia have indeed been incorporated into and have benefited from state institutions but not in ways that are not to Lebanon's benefit. Through political patronage, thousands of Shia (but hardly the Shia alone) have entered the public service, a process that the heavily indebted Lebanese state simply cannot sustain financially.

Hizbollah's military power means that the army and security organs of the state are unable to do much when the party disagrees with them. The state does not have a monopoly over the use of violence as in other countries. At the same time, Hizbollah has substantial leverage within the army, its officer corps and key administrative military departments. This has allowed it to neutralise a potential counterweight in Lebanon's system.

Being in the state is different than being of the state. Hizbollah has always seen its gradual embrace of the state, and its placing of Shia in the state bureaucracy, as a means of protecting the party's autonomy and political agenda. This has often been ignored by optimists who insist that Hizbollah has accepted integration into Lebanon. It has, but only into a Lebanon that it can bend to its will.

Because of the conflict in Syria, Hizbollah feels vulnerable. When the party finds itself in such situations, it tends not to backtrack, but to push even harder ahead. Too strong to be ignored, too obstinate to compromise, Hizbollah has greatly harmed Lebanon and will continue to do so as it safeguards an Iranian outpost in the Levant.


Michael Young is opinion editor of The Daily Star newspaper in Beirut

On Twitter: @BeirutCalling