The group that began as a militia fighting Israeli occupation is now embedded in Lebanon's government and security structure. Nothing happens in Lebanese governance without Hizbollah's say-so.
With Hariri gone, Lebanon is on a dangerous path
The prime minister of Lebanon, Saad Hariri, resigns suddenly. A senior Saudi Arabian official asserts that Hizbollah controls the Lebanese government. And so the speculation begins on how far Riyadh will go to counter Iranian influence in Lebanon, and whether it could plunge Lebanon into internal chaos.
In the past week, the Saudi government has clearly staked out Lebanon as a theatre of conflict in its ongoing fight against Iran’s growing regional influence. That influence is long-standing in Lebanon, where Iran has backed Hizbollah militarily and financially since the group was founded in the early 1980s.
In the intervening 30 years, Hizbollah has grown from a militia fighting Israeli occupation into a part of Lebanon’s government and security structure. In the Lebanese parliament and cabinet, nothing happens without Hizbollah's approval.
Mr Hariri himself was only able to form a government last year with Hizbollah’s support, and he was well aware that Hizbollah could end his term at any time. The first Lebanese parliamentary elections in a decade, planned for May, could further strengthen Hizbollah’s position.
Thamer Al Sabhan, Saudi’s minister of state for Arab Gulf affairs, has led the rhetorical charge against Hizbollah. "We will treat the government of Lebanon as a government declaring war on Saudi Arabia," he said last week.
In the US, President Donald Trump’s administration has also stepped up the rhetoric on Iran, which may have emboldened the Saudis.
The most pressing problem for Lebanon’s government is the economy, which depends on remittances from its citizens working abroad and foreign donations. Despite that, the country’s debt far exceeds its GDP.
After Mr Hariri announced he was resigning, Lebanese politicians were quick to claim the economy would weather the political instability. At the same time, the credit rating agency Moody’s said any prolonged period of political instability could result in Lebanon being downgraded.
The US and the Saudis have both threatened to tighten existing sanctions against Hizbollah and any individuals and institutions connected to it.
“Lebanon is already on the verge of a collapse,” said Hanin Ghaddar, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “The security situation is very fragile, but the economy is even more fragile.”
“Riyadh has the ability to tighten the noose economically around a state that is already at the breaking point,” said Julien Barnes-Dacey, a senior policy fellow for the European Committee on Foreign Relations Middle East and North Africa programme. “There’s huge structural and economic challenges immediately facing the country that should give Riyadh considerable leverage. A combination of restrictive Saudi measures with wider US sanctions to contain Hizbollah could be really debilitating.”
Lebanon’s economy has also suffered from the six-year civil war next door in Syria, with trade routes cut off and more than a million refugees taking up residence in Lebanon.
“The question is whether the resilience Lebanon has been touted for in the last four or five years will be sustained, especially on the economic front,” said Randa Slim, a fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington.
Some analysts have gone so far as to suggest that the Saudis are encouraging an Israeli action against Hizbollah.
“It is plausible that the Saudis are trying to create the context for a different means of contesting Iran in Lebanon: an Israeli-Hizbollah war,” wrote Daniel B. Shapiro, a former US ambassador to Israel, in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz this week.
Speculating about when the next war between Hizbollah and Israel might occur is common in Lebanon. Both sides have rattled their sabres in the last year, promising the other they will inflict losses greater than any past conflict. Hizbollah's secretary-general Hassan Nasrallah has said his forces now have longer-range rockets than before and could also press a ground invasion of Israel from Lebanon.
Whether or not that is bluster, it is true that the Syrian civil war has greatly expanded Hizbollah’s ranks. The war has also given its soldiers conventional battlefield experience, creating the possibility that Hizbollah could for the first time operate as an attacking force as well as a guerrilla one focused on defence.
Israeli officials have warned that in a future war, it will not just be Hizbollah that suffers, but all of Lebanon. The last time the two sides fought, in 2006, Israeli aircraft and missiles destroyed bridges and other infrastructure across Lebanon, but the most severe destruction was reserved for Hizbollah-controlled parts of the country.
But most analysts downplay the risks of another such conflict, at least right now.
“Short-term, I do not see a reason for Israel to [strike]. It is achieving its objective by attacking Hizbollah in Syria. This is likely to continue,” said Randa Slim. “It might be in Israel's interest to let this political crisis in Lebanon play itself out, betting on more fissures inside the Hizbollah-led camp [and] therefore isolating Hizbollah politically in Lebanon.”
In the last five years, Israel has launched strikes more than a dozen times against Hizbollah in Syria, targeting what it says were arms shipments to Lebanon from Iran and arms depots belonging to Hizbollah in Syria.
Mr Barnes-Dacey thinks a tacit tie-up between Riyadh and Tel Aviv for the latter to launch an attack is unlikely. However, “If current developments do lead down a path whereby political paralysis and deepening polarisation and a potentially entrenched or extended Hizbollah overreach into different areas of the state, that could be a moment Israel launches an attack that it has been planning for some time,” he said.
“Maybe the Saudis are pushing toward a war with Hizbollah and Iran, but the question is, who is going to fight this war?” asked Ms Ghaddar. “A war with Hizbollah this time means a war with Iran. I’m not sure Israel will go for a war against Iran in the region alone.”
It is also possible that Lebanon, which has often frequently functioned without a government in the last decade, could simply emerge from the current crisis much the same as before.
“One of the interesting things to watch is does this in fact blow over much more quickly than anticipated?” Mr Barnes-Dacey said. “Strangely enough, I think pressuring Hariri to resign is actually a sign of Saudi reengagement in Lebanon. Over the last year or so, Riyadh had taken a back seat, allowing for the creation of a consensus government. By re-entering the fray, it’s a sign the Saudis do want to contest Iranian hegemony in Lebanon. How far and what they will do remains to be seen.
“Despite Hizbollah’s clear ascendancy, you could hope to contain it and clip its wings, but I would argue that a confrontational military approach would have the opposite effect. Hizbollah is clearly the dominant actor by far in Lebanon, and there’s little to no possibility of shifting that balance of power today. The idea that you can shift that balance or even dream of uprooting Hizbollah seems to be rooted in a complete misreading of the group’s strength on the ground and what it represents.”