Hezbollah exercises enormous influence in Lebanon, and by seeking a ministry, the group and Lebanon as whole could face Donald Trump's wrath.
Lebanon’s elite are walking a tightrope at the moment. Despite not being pulled into the neighbouring war in Syria, since the beginning of its eruption in 2011, Lebanon’s economy has plummeted to an all time new crisis level today. There's record debt, growth at almost nothing, rising unemployment and much talk of a possibility at some point of the central bank devaluing the local currency.
Lebanon’s politicians are in a quandary. Despite encouraging signs from donors in Paris earlier in the year—a pledge of $11 billion in grants and soft loans but tied to reform—the country’s leaders cannot agree on the make up of a new cabinet.
For many countries in the Middle East, this is often a formality which takes a day. Or two. In Lebanon’s case it could take months or years. Why?
Simply because Lebanon only has the auspices of a democratic apparatus—a parliament with deputies—but in reality the real power does not lie in who wins the most seats and can call itself the ‘government’.
In Lebanon, of the two polarised coalitions (pro Hezbollah, or pro West), which really wins is the one that gets its own apaches to run the chosen government ministries it desires. Previously the coveted ministries were defence, interior and finance.
Hezbollah know that if it tries to get those ministries, it will cause too many problems which can lead to a genuine political crisis. Instead, it trades those big guns with the others and seeks ‘alternative’ forays into power – opting instead for agriculture, parliamentary affairs and health.
Currently, months of wrangling have held up the government forming here as Hezbollah has insisted that it wants the health ministry. This is due to many factors, chiefly that Iran’s payments to the group have dwindled so it needs to compensate it with a subsidy from the Lebanese state; but also because its fighters in Syria need medical assistance. And who knows, perhaps its fighters in Lebanon in the future, during a war with Israel, will also need it?
Also, it’s worth noting that if Hezbollah did control the hospitals, they would no doubt use this as a tool to woe new supporters from other groups. Sunnis, Druze and Christians who in the past claimed to hate the Shia group and its ideologies, might adhere to them in a country with an economic meltdown and spiralling health care costs.
The problem for Saad Hariri, the deal breaker at the centre of this row, is that even if he can resolve the ongoing row about ministry posts for Christians and Druze, the health ministry post for Hezbollah will come at a very high price
Washington has made it clear to him that this would not be a smart move and has hinted that it would cut both its regular and military aid which not only causes a further financial bind in a country haemorrhaging $5 billion a year, but pushes tiny Lebanon over a line.
It’s feared that if Trump were to cut off Lebanon, then the tiny country could veer even closer into Iran’s sphere of influence and become a fully fledged Iranian proxy.
Analysts fret that Lebanon could become a convenient, bite-sized target for the West and that Israel could be unwittingly forced into attacking it, once it falls into what the West sees as an abyss.
Much depends on Trump and whether he is feeling bullish or threatened by recent developments in the region. His own policies are failing – Palestinian refugees are getting new funding from Europe, Japan, Norway and his nonsensical campaign against Iran looks to be floundering.
Even India is defying Trump’s calls for ‘secondary sanctions’ against Iran and the EU is preparing to make a mechanism allowing EU governments to buy Iranian oil.
And then there’s the Khashoggi matter which is making Trump's own personal relations with the Saudis—the word ‘murky’ seems to be appropriate—come under more scrutiny.
It’s getting hard to sell to the ill-informed American public that Iran are the terrorists and that the Saudis are the good guys when the latter sends a 15-man assassination squad, allegedly complete with meat cutting tools, to Istanbul, to have a word with the Saudi journalist.
He’s beginning to look like he has been misinformed and has backed the wrong partner in the region as the Khashoggi matter gains a momentum all of its own and makes arm sales to this Gulf Arab nation look unjustified.
The Khashoggi matter has made millions of people who didn’t understand anything about the Middle East now ask questions about the appalling attacks on Yemen—the Saudis recently bombed a school bus with children in it, for example—and question what exactly the US is doing with Saudi Arabia.
And so given this failure, Lebanon trembles. Its leaders know that giving Hezbollah the health ministry will be risky, but the crisis is at a point now where tough decisions have to be taken.
The hard bit will be lobbying in DC and trying to convince Washington that the Hezbollah deal is a bargain, compared to what the group could have held out for – other more high profile ministries which certainly would have blown a fuse in the Pentagon, if handed to them.
For Trump though it’s more likely he will show his prowess in Lebanon because he is a sore loser.
Lebanon has veered towards Russia in recent years, geopolitically and its allies; recently Houthi and Iraqi Shia politicians were invited to Lebanon by Hezbollah much to the dismay of US advisers who looked on in aghast at the government in Beirut.
Trump is likely to make a stand in Lebanon as he has already pulled funding of UNRWA (the Palestinian UN refugee organisation) and to Pakistan. Lebanon is the sixth largest recipient of US military aid—around 120 million dollars a year in hardware—and he might start here, goaded by Israeli leader Netanyahu who will argue that it is preposterous for Lebanon to have such equipment when its Hezbollah friendly president has said the Lebanese army will engage with Israel if it invades.
On its own, it won’t be too big a deal, as Russia will no doubt help plug the gap (and has offered in the past to do so). The timing though couldn’t be worse as senators in DC recently approved tougher economic sanctions against Hezbollah and anyone supporting it in any way. But we shouldn’t be too pessimistic.
The Khashoggi affair is making Trump nervous as he can see the media momentum it is encompassing and how all his messages on the Middle East have been misunderstood by media and the public. He may well let sleeping dogs lie in Lebanon as he can at least sign off in the next few days the Hezbollah bill and tick the box. Most likely is that he will pull US aid to Lebanon’s hospitals leaving them looking to the EU to help.
Of course, if the Saudis go ahead with their retaliation plan against countries which might boycott their oil sales, this could even play into Lebanon's hands as this might dehumanise Riyadh and make US media question the Iran game more.
It’s going to be really hard for Trump to move on his anti Iran agenda with the Saudi debacle taking all the news bandwidth though and his own judgement being drawn into question more and more.
After the mid-terms in early November, Trump might even consider just getting out of the Middle East altogether, when he learns that it will only be a rod for his own back.
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