Tony Badran

Hook, line, and sinker

The US appears to support including Hezbollah in a government in the name of "fighting terrorism"

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah meeting with then-Prime Minister Saad Hariri in 2008

The Obama administration finally got what it wanted as the Geneva II conference kicked off yesterday with the stated purpose of joining together the Assad regime and the opposition in a transitional government. At the same time, another farcical production is underway in Beirut, as efforts continue to form a unity government including Hezbollah and the March 14 bloc. As with its Syrian iteration, the formation of such a Lebanese government appears to have US backing. Sensing a convergence with American preferences, Hezbollah is playing up to Washington, seeking to leverage the US position to its advantage.


Renewed talk of a national unity government took many in Beirut by surprise, especially when former Prime Minister Saad Hariri appeared open to the idea. So far it remains unclear what motivated Hariri's decision, but what is curious is that a potential partnership with Hezbollah in government looks to be receiving approval from Washington. 


Over the past several weeks, the pro-Hezbollah media has published alleged quotes by David Hale, US ambassador to Lebanon, as well as by another unnamed US official weighing in on the question of forming a unity government. Last December, as there was talk of President Suleiman forming a neutral government, the pro-Hezbollah Al-Akhbar newspaper published what it claimed was Ambassador Hale's counsel on the matter to Suleiman's advisor. According to Al-Akhbar, Hale allegedly expressed "America's understanding of Saudi Arabia's rejection of Hezbollah's participation in any government. However, America fears the reaction of Hezbollah, Syria, and Iran to such a step. For these reactions could lead to a total loss of stability, and maybe worse, to total Hezbollah and Syrian control over Lebanon." Hale, Al-Akhbar proceeded to say, then counseled Suleiman's advisor to support the efforts of Walid Jumblatt, who was working for a unity government with Hezbollah.


Then earlier this month, the pro-Hezbollah newspaper As-Safir quoted another unnamed US official making that point more explicitly. "If the obligatory gateway to forming a new government in Lebanon is partnership with Hezbollah, then the US does not object, especially since the reality and composition of Lebanon attest without a doubt that there is no possibility to form a government without Hezbollah."


It's tempting to dismiss these quotes as the pro-Hezbollah media's self-serving propaganda, even if the US embassy has not yet publicly denied them. At the same time, however, they reveal how US policy in the region is allowing Iran and its assets to leverage Washington's posture to press their advantage. The US considers Sunni Islamist groups to be the principal threat to stability in the region. The White House approach is to work with functioning governments to prevent extremists from emerging or growing. Accordingly, Tehran and its allies from Baghdad to Beirut have zeroed in on a single message, which they understand resonates well in Washington: fighting terrorism. Iran's regional assets understand that this brings the US onside to undercut their domestic, Sunni, adversaries.


Perhaps the best example is the Nouri al-Maliki government in Iraq, which, regardless of its flagrant sectarianism and fealty to Tehran, is still getting assistance from the Obama administration. The Assad regime is doing its best to sell a similar arrangement – if not right away in Geneva, perhaps further down the road in what is being billed as a “long process.” And while it may not work out for Assad anytime soon, or at all, there’s no question that the US is looking for the transitional government to confront extremist groups in Syria, which is one reason it’s eager to preserve so-called “regime institutions.”


But Hezbollah knows that its case is somewhat different. After all, it is a US-designated terrorist organization. Therefore, it has to operate indirectly. Its option is to hide behind the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) and a unity government, which would provide it with political cover. It was little surprise then to hear Hezbollah commander Nabil Qaouk declare that the purpose and priority of the unity government was to put forward a “national strategy to confront takfiri terrorists.”


For Hezbollah, the main issue is to get official sanction for the LAF to go after sensitive Sunni areas that they deem necessary targets in their war in Syria, which is quickly becoming a war in Lebanon as well. They attempted such an operation against Arsal through the LAF last year in the run-up to their assault on the Syrian town of Qusayr. As the Syrian rebels once again move on Qusayr and reclaim villages in its countryside, and retake positions in the Qalamoun region, Arsal, which lies between both areas across the border in Lebanon, is again a major problem that must be dealt with. Hezbollah also sees Arsal, along with areas surrounding some of the Palestinian refugee camps it targeted last year, as a critical gap in its internal security. Hezbollah’s frustration is such that it recently fired rockets from nearby villages on Arsal.


With the US firmly behind the LAF and openly backing efforts to go after “violent extremists” in Lebanon, it would be politically awkward for Hariri not to support the LAF in such an effort. Washington has made it clear that its priority is to confront Sunni extremists and to avoid any conflict with Tehran and its assets. Hezbollah knows it and is capitalizing on it.


Tony Badran is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He tweets @AcrossTheBay.

Unity in the making? (AFP Photo/HO/Dalati and Nohra)

"Tehran and its allies from Baghdad to Beirut have zeroed in on a single message, which they understand resonates well in Washington: fighting terrorism."

  • Hanibaal-Atheos

    Are you surprised at Hariri's volte-face? "...remain(s) unclear what motivated Hariri's decision" to reverse his oft-stated position not to join Hezbollah in the government? You must be kidding, Mr. Badran, for posturing yourself like the virgin who is told about the birds and the bees for the first time. Let me help you: Hariri does exactly what Riyadh and Washington DC tell him to do. He and his father before him have always been lackeys to the Saudi-American odd and incompatible bedfellows. Hariri's initial reactions to the Chatah assassination were genuine, but were quickly tempered by the marching orders he received from Washington via Riyadh. Hariri is the prototypical Lebanese politician. Just like all the others, without exception, his bidding is NOT the national interest, his bidding is to represent foreign powers on the Lebanese stage. No wonder Lebanon has been in the swamps for five decades. Anyone who believed March 14 was really about sovereignty, independence and freedom is a moron, just as anyone who really believed that Nasrallah and Aoun are all about resistance and liberation is an imbecile. Now please tell me you did not now any of this.

    January 23, 2014