x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Hizbollah’s message to all its opponents: stay out of the way

Hizbollah is not one to shy away from obstacles as it fulfils its contract with Iran

The assassination last Friday of Mohammad Chatah, an adviser to former prime ministers Saad Hariri and Fouad Siniora, provoked consternation in Lebanon. Why, many wondered, was Chatah, a low-key, scholarly economist, targeted? For his political allies, the killing was a sign of more violence ahead.

After the crime both Mr Hariri and Mr Siniora strongly implied that Hizbollah was responsible. In his last tweet, Chatah himself may have hinted at the killers and their motive. “Hizbollah is pressing hard to be granted similar powers in security [and] foreign policy matters that Syria exercised in Lebanon for 15 [years],” he wrote.

The location of Chatah’s assassination was probably not coincidental. He was killed near the place where former prime minister Rafik Hariri was killed in 2005. To many, this was a message before the trial that starts in January of four suspects, all Hizbollah members, indicted in Hariri’s assassination: Do not think the trial will weaken Hizbollah. To observers and his political comrades, Chatah’s relative unobtrusiveness, as well as his sect – he was Sunni – were precisely what explained his elimination. For them, Hizbollah has embarked on a concerted effort to strengthen its control over Lebanon, after losing ground during the Syrian conflict, and the main obstacle it faces is Sunni resistance to this project.

The party feels it can contain the more extreme Sunni groups. However, only coercion of the moderates, men such as Chatah, who stood at the nexus between Mr Hariri, Mr Siniora, the Saudis and the Americans, can allow Hizbollah to tighten its hold over state institutions and protect itself and its arms from demands that it dissolves its militia and accept the authority of the state.

Some will argue that until those culpable are definitely identified, it is unfair to blame Hizbollah. Maybe, but targets are usually lucid about who is trying to kill them. March 14 politicians believe Hizbollah was behind Chatah’s assassination, which recalled what happened in 2005-2008, when several March 14 figures were also killed. In Chatah’s killing, his comrades see a new campaign against them.

Whatever the truth, Hizbollah feels it has an opportunity in 2014 to consolidate its hold over the Lebanese political system, and impose a hegemony similar to what Syria had, as Chatah noted. There are two reasons for this: President Bashar Al Assad has regained ground against a fragmenting opposition, undermined by its association with Al Qaeda groups; and the United States and Iran have initiated a dialogue, in the context of talks over Iran’s nuclear programme.

At the same time, Hizbollah’s foes are off balance. Saad Hariri, once March 14’s leader, has been out of Lebanon for almost three years, fearing assassination. And Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, whose parliamentary bloc can give a majority in parliament either to March 14 or to the Hizbollah-led March 8 coalition, will have read Chatah’s killing as a stark warning not to oppose Hizbollah.

A presidential election is to be held in May, and Hizbollah seeks to replace President Michel Suleiman, who has taken positions contrary to the party’s. Hizbollah at some point seemed to favour Jean Qahwaji, the army commander, but it will be difficult to get him elected, as he enjoys little consensus among the different political alignments.

As a result, many now believe that the favourite is Riad Salameh, the central bank governor, who can secure broader approval, especially at a time of economic crisis. Mr Salameh presents another plus to Hizbollah in that he is politically weak, and may be easier to influence than General Qahwaji or even Michel Aoun, Hizbollah’s ally who has an independent base of Christian support.

But Hizbollah will need more than a friendly president to control Lebanon. A parliamentary election is scheduled for November, and the party would like to see an election law that can win it a majority, with its allies. This would allow it to name the parliament speaker and a new government, effectively allowing Hizbollah to control the three governing institutions in the state.

But agreeing to an election law will not be easy. Hizbollah may bully to push its agenda forward. Yet this will only complicate matters for the party, as it will only increase the resistance of its enemies.

In a sign that the Saudis and the French are helping them fight back, last week Mr Suleiman announced that Saudi Arabia had granted the Lebanese Army $3 billion (Dh11 billion) to purchase French weapons. The assistance was provided to undermine Hizbollah’s claim that the army is too weak to fight Israel, requiring the party to remain armed.

It was also directed against the United States, which has been the main weapons supplier to the army, but has done so selectively. The Saudis have been angry with the Obama administration’s opening to Iran, and sought to reward France, which has sided with the Saudis in Syria and has been more sceptical of Iran than Washington.

Lebanon represents a political minefield for Hizbollah, despite the party’s military capacities. Hizbollah is locked in a civil war in Syria, is opposed by a substantial portion of the Lebanese population and Sunni regimes in the region, and has a limited window in which to make a move inside Lebanon before Iran may be asked to make concessions regionally to facilitate dialogue with the Americans.

Hizbollah is not one to shy away from obstacles as it fulfils its contract with Iran. This could mean months of tension ahead, as the party tries to bend the Lebanese system its way. But others have tried and failed. Lebanon’s realities can be unforgiving to the over-confident.

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

On Twitter: @BeirutCalling