Containing Hezbollah a long-term process
Jeffrey Feltman, the former US ambassador to Lebanon and John C. Whitehead visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution, last week testified before the House Subcommittee on the Middle East, North Africa and International Terrorism on the prospects for Lebanon. He explicitly said that the current demonstrations coincide with the US interest, as the protests target the entire political configuration, including US archenemy Hezbollah.
Feltman’s testimony rendered Hezbollah nervous, especially when he compared the situation to 2005. Following the assassination of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, mass demonstrations erupted against the Syrian presence in Lebanon. Feltman said that, if it were not for the US and French position, then the Syrians would not have left Lebanon and they would have repressed the demonstrations brutally. Hence the US should take a firm stand and support the Lebanese protesters who are demanding “kellun yaani kellun” — meaning they want to get rid of the entire political elite, including Hezbollah. Of course, the US should support the Lebanese people; however, it should be realistic in its expectations. Feltman missed one difference in his comparison: Hezbollah is indigenous, Bashar Assad’s forces were not. Hezbollah will not disappear or leave like Assad’s forces did in 2005. At best, it can be contained.
However, in order to be contained, Hezbollah should be offered a proper exit. A graceful exit would minimize the “resistance’s” aversion to the organic changes the country is witnessing and prevent Lebanon from descending into violence. While Feltman rightly signaled that fewer and fewer Lebanese listen to Nasrallah and that he is losing his grip on the Shiite population, it is important to note that he still has an audience. There is no guarantee that the Shiite Lebanese will abandon Hezbollah if early elections are held. The US should not forget that Hezbollah has — for more than 30 years — been providing services to the Shiite population that the Lebanese state has not, from education to health care and job opportunities. Feltman said that Hezbollah’s resistance narrative is faltering and, if it attacks the protesters as it did in 2008, the pretext will totally “evaporate.”
However, a confrontation with Israel can revive the resistance narrative. Such a confrontation would definitely not be in Lebanon or the US’ interest. Hence Hezbollah should not get desperate to the point where it would venture into a war that would lead to the destruction of the country. This was the scenario in 2005, which led to Tel Aviv’s war on Lebanon in 2006. When fingers started to be pointed at Hezbollah following the murder of Hariri and the group felt cornered, war with Israel offered the proper distraction. It has been getting stronger ever since then.
In the absence of real, in-depth reforms, the country is going to crash and no one is going to bail out the current configuration.
Dr. Dania Koleilat Khatib
Today, Hezbollah is opposed to a government of technocrats. It is scared to lose the current understanding through which it is allowed to operate freely. Pro-Hezbollah Member of Parliament Jamil Al-Sayyed said in September: “You have your corruption and we have our arms. There is a quid pro quo in the current political system where Hezbollah accepts and gives cover for other factions’ corruption and they turn a blind eye to its arsenal. Every ministerial statement affirms an almost sacred trilogy: “Army, people, resistance.” A government of technocrats might not preserve this balance. This is why we see Nasrallah clinging on to people like Saad Hariri and Gebran Bassil. The devil you know is better than the one you don’t. But, in the absence of real, in-depth reforms, the country is going to crash and no one is going to bail out the current configuration, which has lost the trust of the Lebanese people and the international community. In this respect, Hezbollah might be willing to negotiate and accept a technocrat government if it is offered some face-saving measures.
Feltman has a deep understanding of the Lebanese case and said clearly that the calls in Washington to push the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) to confront Hezbollah are counterproductive. A confrontation between Hezbollah and the LAF would lead to civil war and the chaos created by such a conflict would favor Iran and Sunni extremists. However, Feltman did not elaborate further. Not pressuring the LAF to disarm Hezbollah by force is not enough to prevent an internal conflict in Lebanon. Hezbollah needs a face-saving exit, otherwise it might fight back — something it has done in the past.
The American ambassador has an overly optimistic view of the situation. He thinks that early electoral elections would strip Hezbollah of the political partners that give it a multiplier effect. However, if elections were held today, the results would not be substantially different for the simple reason that the protesters do not have a structure or enough maturity to present viable alternatives. Early elections might even “reaffirm” Hezbollah’s legitimacy. Containing Hezbollah is a long-term process.
In this respect, the US should be realistic and pragmatic. Washington’s objective should be to support the Lebanese people’s desire to have a clean government of technocrats that enjoys transparency, provides basic services and conducts reforms. In such an environment, Hezbollah’s narrative would not be popular, nor would its services be needed. As Feltman stated, the US should think long term.
• Dr. Dania Koleilat Khatib is a specialist in US-Arab relations with a focus on lobbying. She holds a PhD in politics from the University of Exeter and is an affiliated scholar with the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut.