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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 18 December 2018

Targeting Lebanon's economy would only threaten Hezbollah's opposition

Some have suggested US sanctions on Lebanon would curtail Hezbollah – but weakening the state would only fortify the group, writes Michael Young

Hezbollah supporters wave flags as they listen to the speech of leader Hassan Nasrallah via a giant screen in Beirut, Lebanon, to mark the 12th anniversary of the end of the 2006 war between Hezbollah and Israel. Nabil Mounzer / EPA
Hezbollah supporters wave flags as they listen to the speech of leader Hassan Nasrallah via a giant screen in Beirut, Lebanon, to mark the 12th anniversary of the end of the 2006 war between Hezbollah and Israel. Nabil Mounzer / EPA

Last week former Israeli Mossad chief Tamir Pardo proposed an idea that, he said, would “defeat” Hezbollah. Mr Pardo recommended that the US impose sanctions on Lebanon. These would be much more effective than a war against the party, he said, if "there was a clear message that sanctions would only be removed if Hezbollah gave up its arms or was absorbed entirely into the Lebanese army and Iran [withdrew] its tentacles completely from Lebanon”.

In making such a suggestion, the former Mossad official adopted an increasingly familiar line of those who are desperately searching for a way to be rid of Hezbollah. Amid signs of the party’s predominance in Lebanon – a model that has evidently appealed to its allies throughout the Middle East, including the Houthis – an increasing number of voices have suggested targeting Lebanese national institutions as a way of curbing Hezbollah's power.

Proponents of this approach reject the warning that destroying the institutions of the Lebanese state (and sanctions would certainly push the fragile economy over the edge) can only favour Hezbollah. They argue that because the party controls many of these institutions, undermining them would harm the party. So they blithely suggest that attacking the state, its economy and army, would lead to the magical end to which they aspire, namely Hezbollah’s downfall.

The problem with this idea, apart from the folly of creating another failed state in the region, is that it offers a superficial understanding of how Lebanon functions. It is undeniable that Hezbollah has major influence over the country but it is also true that the institutions of the state and Lebanese society respond to a much broader array of interests that in many cases are antithetical to Hezbollah’s, even if the group’s weapons make effective opposition difficult.

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If one is expecting easy solutions with regard to Hezbollah, that won’t happen. Harming the state only risks undermining latent poles of opposition to the party. And Mr Pardo’s “solution” is unlikely to be more successful than other efforts to make Lebanon pay a price for Hezbollah.

For starters, the Iranian regime couldn’t care less about Lebanon’s economy. Moreover, Mr Pardo’s proposal is built on a false premise. He believes that economic pain would push the Lebanese to act against the party. But for many of them, turning against Hezbollah would entail provoking civil conflict, because the party will not voluntarily dissolve itself or cut ties with Tehran. In fact, it will resist doing so. Between economic pain and the pain of civil war, the Lebanese will choose the former.

Then there is the fact that the Lebanese have already paid a heavy price for Hezbollah and there was little they could do about this. In 2006, the party provoked a war with Israel that destroyed Lebanon’s infrastructure and led to almost two years of instability as the parliamentary majority and Hezbollah confronted each other.

The impact of this on Hezbollah’s fortunes was limited. But destroying the Lebanese economy and impoverishing much of society will only erode the power of a state that represents an alternative model to Hezbollah’s. What governments have realised is that this notion of an alternative model is essential. In certain situations where its power has slipped, the party has had to rely on the state, which the state exploited to cross previous red lines imposed by Hezbollah.

By embodying an alternative to the party, the state might be able one day to tilt the balance to its advantage. In the late 1980s, popular exasperation with wartime militias made many people support the Lebanese army with greater vigour. The army commander at the time benefited from this mood and happens to be Lebanon’s president today.

Certainly, such a process will be slow but undermining the state and economy would only play into Hezbollah’s hands. Hezbollah has always sought to discredit the state because what the state gains, the party loses. Systematically, Hezbollah has striven to undercut the state’s and army’s credibility to cover up for its own shortcomings. So pushing foreign countries to add to this by targeting the Lebanese state would only allow Hezbollah to pursue its agenda without credible state institutions left in place to act as rallying points for its opponents.

Recommending collective punishment is a familiar arrow in the quiver of Israeli officials. But rarely does it seem to work. If anything, it heightens polarisation that only benefits those advocating for the strongest line, in this case Hezbollah, which has the guns to make its arguments prevail. Mr Pardo is like all the others who believe they have found the silver bullet that will resolve the Hezbollah problem. He imagines that more ruin will advance things.

But the Israelis have bombed Lebanon on countless occasions, just as they have Gaza. Yet none of this has changed much, except to strengthen the argument of Hezbollah and Hamas that the military option against Israel is the only valid one. Israel or the US can severely damage Lebanon’s state and society with little effort. However, in the end, there is a very high probability that Hezbollah will be left standing alone, with no one in a position to question its actions.

Michael Young is editor of Diwan, the blog of the Carnegie Middle East programme, in Beirut