How three decades of ill-conceived Middle East diplomacy have put Hezbollah in power

Iran is the driving force behind Lebanon's militant party, but Israel and the West have done plenty to give it strength

The Shiite militant party Hezbollah is the most powerful political force in Lebanon. AFP
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Last week, Israel’s Defence Minister, Benny Gantz, accused Iran of trying to “buy” Lebanon by supplying it with fuel for its power stations. “Iran, through Hezbollah, is trying to buy Lebanon by supplying fuel, repairing the electricity system and building power plants,” Mr Gantz stated, warning against Tehran’s considerable influence over the country.

Mr Gantz was not wrong, but nor was he accurate. He failed to mention how Israel itself had played a major role in reinforcing Hezbollah’s and Iran’s sway in Lebanon. And Israel was hardly alone. During Lebanon’s post-war period, several Arab and western countries were instrumental in protecting a political order that favoured Iran, principally by defending the hegemony of Tehran’s chief ally Syria over the Lebanese political scene.

From the outset, Syrian intentions were very clear. When the civil war ended in 1990, Damascus was the uncontested power broker in Lebanon and was tasked with implementing the conditions of the Taif Accord of 1989. The agreement was, effectively, a Syrian-Saudi understanding over Lebanon that had the blessing of the US. One of its major components was the disbanding and disarming of Lebanese wartime militias.

However, Syria imposed an exception to this condition. It decided that Hezbollah and several other groups close to Damascus would not be disarmed since they were part of the resistance against Israel, which then still occupied parts of southern Lebanon. For the Syrian leader at the time, Hafez Al Assad, the decision allowed him to retain a means of military pressure against Israel while Syria and Israel were negotiating peace in the context of the Madrid process and its aftermath.

What this meant is that Iran and Syria continued to arm, train and protect Hezbollah’s autonomy at a time when the Lebanese government was seeking to reassert its monopoly on violence in the country. This ambition proved illusory, however, as from the outset there were red lines for how the authorities could deal with Hezbollah.

Israel itself played a major role in reinforcing Hezbollah’s and Iran’s sway in Lebanon, and it was hardly alone

In 1996, Hezbollah reinforced its power significantly when Israel launched a military operation against Lebanon after Hezbollah had fired rockets on northern Israel. The party did so in retaliation for an Israeli attack that had killed two Lebanese. The short conflict, which Israel dubbed the Grapes of Wrath operation, led to a crucial outcome.

The agreement that ended the fighting was negotiated in Damascus by the US secretary of state at the time, Warren Christopher. Seeing that the real decision-maker in Lebanese affairs was Hafez Al Assad, Mr Christopher did not talk with Lebanese officials in Beirut. Instead, the Lebanese had to travel to Syria to meet with him. Mr Christopher’s conduct represented nothing less than explicit recognition of Syrian rule over Lebanon.

The major consequence of the conflict, however, was the fact that it ended through an informal agreement between Israel and Hezbollah, known as the April Understanding. This accord established “rules of the game” between the two parties in their continuing war in southern Lebanon. This implicitly elevated Hezbollah to the level of a political actor on par with Israel – one separate from the Lebanese state, the big loser in the war.

Mr Gantz would do well to remember that period, since it was among the first tangible signs that Hezbollah was taking on a national security role more important than that of the army and government in Beirut. By agreeing to the April Understanding, Israel accepted this reality and showed it had no problems reaching a modus vivendi with Iran’s local ally.

Little changed afterward, particularly in the run-up to the Syrian military withdrawal from Lebanon in 2005, following the assassination of former prime minister Rafik Al Hariri. It was not until 2004 that Washington, with France, supported a UN resolution calling for a Syrian pull-out. Before then, the country was largely an adjunct to American and French dealings with Damascus.

For example, in April 1996, France’s then president Jacques Chirac, in a speech before the Lebanese parliament, tied a Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon with peace deals that Lebanon and Syria would conclude with Israel. This was a diplomatic way of saying that until such agreements were reached, France would accept a Syrian presence in Lebanon.

During the years when Syria's army was no longer deployed in Lebanon, the Lebanese would contribute greatly to fortifying Iranian influence over their country. The current president, Michel Aoun, after opposing Hezbollah during his exile, allied himself with the party in 2006, believing, rightly, that this would win him the presidency. Opportunism by unprincipled politicians has been the bane of those seeking a truly sovereign Lebanon.

Yet it was as early as 1990 that Iran and Hezbollah, supported by Syria, put in place the military infrastructure that allowed Hezbollah to dominate Lebanon after the Syrians left. This was a time when a host of regional and international powers looked the other way as Syria and Iran bolstered Hezbollah at the expense of the Lebanese state. Those targeting Lebanon today for being an Iranian outpost should remember this.

Published: September 28, 2022, 4:00 AM