As well as kidnapping and murdering coalition soldiers, Al-Khazali is also complicit in sectarian massacres against Baghdad’s Sunnis since 2005. His militia force, Asaib Ahl Al-Haq, has such an appalling reputation for war crimes that even fellow militants express disgust at its worst abuses and distance themselves from Al-Khazali’s anti-Sunni hate speech, including thinly veiled calls for sectarian cleansing. For example, in Mosul Al-Khazali urged “vengeance against the slayers of [the Shiite Imam] Hussain.”
It is thus clear why Al-Khazali’s Hezbollah-sponsored visit to southern Lebanon at a time of heightened tensions was blatantly provocative. Al-Khazali and his subordinates were treated to a VIP tour of a closed military zone without a permit and without official permission to enter Lebanon or clearance from UN peacekeepers. This flies in the face of Security Council Resolutions 1559 and 1701 on Lebanon, prohibiting “foreign fighters” and demanding demobilization of all militia entities — Hezbollah included.
Prime Minister Saad Hariri condemned Al-Khazali’s visit as “illegal,” but why no stronger measures in response to this subversive challenge to Hariri’s authority and Lebanon’s sovereignty? Hariri’s government recently declared an official policy of “disassociation” from regional confrontations. So how can Hezbollah, which sits in this same government, be offering sponsored visits to notorious foreign terrorists? Hariri also had to rebuke Hezbollah’s deputy leader, Naim Qassem, who hurled abuse at Saudi Arabia during a recent conference in Tehran.
If a Jordanian or Saudi general had strolled uninvited into Lebanon and declared his intention to use Lebanese territory as the frontline for a new war against Israel, there would rightly have been uproar. When Hezbollah’s allies engage in such behavior, everybody shrugs their shoulders.
This highlights how Hezbollah’s actions actively subvert the nation’s sovereignty, dragging Lebanon kicking and screaming toward becoming a mere protectorate of Iran, and a party to a war that nobody wants. So much for Hariri’s disassociation pledge.
Within Lebanon’s plural society — including Christians, Sunnis, Druze and others — there is a sub-segment of the Shiite community that is fiercely loyal to Hezbollah. This loyalty has been partially undermined after more than 2,000 of their sons returned from Syria in body bags; although large increases in aid from Tehran have made Hezbollah less dependent on grassroots support. Even among this pro-Hezbollah demographic, citizens are primarily loyal to Lebanon and feel intense disquiet at the prospect of Lebanese sovereignty being undermined by Iran or any other party. These same Shiite communities bore the brunt of the 2006 war and desperately don’t want, yet again, to lose their homes and loved ones in a futile conflict.
Israel is feverishly awaiting an opportunity to cut Hezbollah down to size. Hence Intelligence Minister Yisrael Katz’s recent promise to “return Lebanon to the stone age,” adding that “what happened in 2006 would be a picnic in nature compared to what we can do.” With good reason, most Lebanese fervently detest Israel for repeatedly destroying their country — but this gives them even greater reason to be repelled by the prospect of renewed conflict.
In a speech earlier this year, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah threatened to invite Shiite fighters from across the region to participate in an epic confrontation with Israel. Iraqi paramilitary leaders welcome such a transnational role that helps justify their continued existence following Daesh’s downfall. Iraqi militants affiliated to Al-Khazali have amassed close to the Israel-Syria border, while Al-Khazali’s former deputy, Akram Al-Kaabi, even established a Golan Liberation Brigade, whose name gives away their intended aim.
During an inflammatory video documenting his Lebanon visit, Al-Khazali pledges “our full preparedness to stand united... against the Israeli occupier.” Al-Khazali even grandiosely proclaimed his vision for a new sectarian “Islamic state” on Lebanese soil and under Iranian tutelage: “The whole country together with Hezbollah is ready to fight, as a prelude to the Islamic state, which is ruled by the awaited Mahdi.” Presumably, this “Islamic state” would come into being after Lebanon as we know it had ceased to exist.
Hezbollah’s actions actively subvert the nation’s sovereignty, dragging Lebanon kicking and screaming toward becoming a mere protectorate of Iran and a party to a war that nobody wants.
Nasrallah knows that, in the event of conflict, while his leadership hides deep underground, Hezbollah would lose hundreds of foot soldiers and see tens of thousands of Lebanese citizens slaughtered. Yet Ayatollah Ali Khamenei stands ready to replenish Hezbollah’s armories, and such a confrontation would fuel a radicalized climate in which thousands more young Shiites would swell Hezbollah’s ranks to replace those “martyrs.”
By expanding the conflict into the Golan and drawing in thousands of transnational Shiite fighters, Tehran hopes to regionalize the conflict. As Al-Khazali previously declared: “The Iranian Revolutionary Guards, Hezbollah in Lebanon, Asaib Ahl Al-Haq and the Houthis are working hard to make the ground fertile for the Imam Al-Mahdi… We’ll continue to work toward our project of a Shiite full moon, not a Shiite crescent as our enemies say.” The UN’s ongoing investigation into the Iranian rockets fired from Yemen into Riyadh illustrates the degree to which Tehran believes itself to be waging a regional conflict.
Israel and Iran are sworn enemies, yet both profit immensely from their symbiotic coexistence. Benjamin Netanyahu spent a decade blocking initiatives for peace with the Palestinians because “Iran is the priority threat.” Meanwhile, Iran dresses up its expansion across Arab lands within the rhetoric of confronting Israel. By fighting each other on Lebanese soil, using proxy fighters or long-range military technology, both sides indirectly engage in a virtual war and come out strengthened and emboldened over the smoking ruins of Arab lands.
Israel will do Iran’s work for it by blasting Lebanon and Syria “back to the stone age,” creating a blank slate upon which Iran can establish territories under its permanent hegemonic control.
Lebanese citizens often feel bullied into acting as if Hezbollah’s state-within-a-state is the only force which matters in the domestic political arena. This is untrue. When Hezbollah acts as a proxy for Iran and seeks to provoke an immensely destructive war, it will find few Lebanese willing to follow it down this futile path.
Few people disagreed when Hariri recently declared that the problem of Hezbollah’s attempts to “hijack” the Lebanese state and undermine its neighbors had become bigger than Lebanon. Following the debacle over Hariri’s canceled resignation, there must not be a humiliating retreat back to the failed policy of appeasing Hezbollah and hoping that Nasrallah will be satiated when given everything his voracious appetite demands.
Such an approach never worked during the years after Hezbollah murdered Saad’s father, Rafik Hariri. In the current climate, it is even less likely that such compromises to Lebanon’s sovereignty and statehood would prevent Hezbollah from ripping the nation limb from limb with Israel and Iran’s enthusiastic assistance.
Now is the moment to look the devil in the eye and take a tough stand against Hezbollah and Iran’s violations of Lebanese sovereignty. The government’s decision to dissociate itself from the conflicts buffeting the region is absolutely correct during these troubled times. However, the leadership must have the courage of their convictions in enforcing this aspiration.
If they do act rigorously and decisively, Lebanon’s leaders will find massive domestic support for this most noble of objectives: Putting Lebanese sovereignty first.
• Baria Alamuddin is an award-winning journalist and broadcaster in the Middle East and the UK. She is editor of the Media Services Syndicate and has interviewed numerous heads of state.