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Robert Springborg

Washington's Lebanese dilemma

Lebanese Hizballah supporters express their opposition to Trump's Jerusalem embassy move [AFP]

Date of publication: 6 August, 2018

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Comment: Washington could decide to pull the rug out from under Lebanon's economy, leaving Hizballah with an empty shell, writes Robert Springborg.
The key question facing Washington is whether continuing its support for Lebanon, primarily in the form of military assistance, will be tantamount to throwing good money after bad, given what has been called a Hizballah victory in the May parliamentary elections. Combined with its allies and independents, it won 70 of 128 seats.

Indeed, it is Washington's, as well as Riyadh's anticipated negative reactions to the formation of a new government in which Hizballah would expand its direct and indirect representation, that have delayed that government's creation.

Hizballah is seeking three cabinet portfolios as compared to the two it had in the previous government and for those posts to have substantially more direct control over delivery of public services than was previously the case.

Presumably Hizballah assesses that popular dissatisfaction with the ever-deteriorating quality of virtually all those services provides it with an opportunity to improve them, so further expand and consolidate its popularity.

For Washington a Hizballah dominated government could not come at a worse time. The vital question of what is to happen to the one million Syrian refugees currently in Lebanon is already in the process of being decided.

Hizballah is seeking to "coordinate" their return with Bashar al-Assad's regime, hoping thereby to strengthen it and by implication, itself. Most of Hizballah's opponents also want the refugees to return to Syria, but like the western powers they want that process to be supervised by the UN or other neutral body both to protect the returnees from a vengeful Damascus government and to ensure that it, working with Iran and Russia, not use the return to bolster their collective strength within Syria and vis-a-vis Lebanon.

At the regional level the timing is equally non-propitious. The Trump administration is ratcheting up its pressure on Iran. It would be displeased were the mullahs to bolster their position in Lebanon by the further expansion of Hizballah's role within the cabinet, even one headed by Saad al-Hariri.

For Washington a Hizballah dominated government could not come at a worse time

A third factor that might cause the US to diminish or even stop its aid to Lebanon is the near demise of the Islamic State's (IS) forces there and throughout the Levant more generally. Most of the assistance over the past several years has been devoted to upgrading the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) out of the primary calculation that it would be a useful partner in the region-wide fight against IS.

The secondary calculation was that an upgraded LAF would serve as the popular national institution around which Lebanese would gather, hence serve as a counterbalance to Hizballah. The heavy fighting around Arsal in 2017 that saw the defeat of IS forces - a victory which Hizballah claimed as its own but which in reality was the LAF's - appears to have bolstered both rather than the LAF exclusively.

So from Washington's perspective the virtual demise of IS renders the LAF upgrading less important to US national security, while the strategy to displace Hizballah with the LAF has achieved only mixed results. The conclusion that Washington might draw, therefore, is that a new government, even more heavily influenced by Hizballah, would render yet more problematic the task of building up the LAF as a counterbalance to Hizballah.

This raises the question of Hizballah's and Iran's calculations. Do they have an agreed strategy or might they disagree?

Presumably the outcome most attractive to Tehran is for the US to walk away from Lebanon, leaving it to once again be dominated by the Assad government, in turn backed by Iran. This would ensure the continued flow of arms to Hizballah and bolster its capacities to strike Israel if indeed the US were to take military steps against Iran.

As for Hizballah, while it no doubt shares Iran's desire to retain its flow of arms and leverage vis-a-vis Israel, it has the additional desire to bolster its military position with domestic political popularity in Lebanon.

The recent election saw it gain ground against Prime Minister designate Hariri's coalition, which lost more than a third of its seats, mainly to independent Sunnis seeking protection under Hizballah's umbrella.

But the Lebanese Forces, now Hizballah's most vigorous opponent, doubled its seats, eating into the support of Hizballah allied President Aoun's Free Patriotic Movement. This in turn renders the Lebanese Forces a more attractive ally for the principal Druze leader, Walid Jumblatt, who is not surprisingly under political attack by the Hizballah supported Druze leader, Talal Arslan.

Even more important to Hizballah than securing its domestic political base is that it be seen to be rescuing the economy from its steepening downward spiral.

With Lebanon's foreign debt among the highest in the world proportionately at some 150 percent of GDP, and with donors who pledged to provide $11 billion at the April Paris Club meeting reluctant to reach into their pockets before the political situation is clarified, Lebanon and therefore Hizballah are extremely vulnerable economically.

Presumably the outcome most attractive to Tehran is for the US to walk away from Lebanon

Iran cannot be counted upon to provide substantial support. Saudi Arabia, Lebanon's perennial but increasingly reluctant financier, has been holding back, waiting at a minimum to see the outcome of the struggle to form the government.

The US thus has something approaching veto power over Hizballah's effort to build an unassailable political power base. If Washington decides to pull the rug out from under Lebanon's economy, Hizballah would be taking over an empty shell.

Read more: New batch of 500 Syria refugees to return from Lebanon

This then, is a classic game of political chicken, with each side hoping the other will blink first. So far neither has. But given President Trump's track record of impulsiveness, it is possible he will order his administration to simply walk away from Lebanon.

More likely, however, is that some sort of a deal will be struck whereby US assistance to the LAF and directly and indirectly to the Lebanese economy will continue to flow, in return for the formation of a reasonably balanced cabinet that like its predecessors has limited capacities to address the country's deep-seated problems, further magnified by Assad's continuing consolidation of power in Damascus.

But if tensions between the US and Iran escalate dramatically, presumably Washington would do everything possible to isolate and even subdue Hizballah.

The US thus has something approaching veto power over Hizballah

As in 1982 when it sought the same against the PLO, it might seek to crush Hizballah between the hammer of Israel and the anvil of Hizballah's domestic opponents, presumably those being constituted of an alliance between the Lebanese Forces and moderate Sunnis. But as in 1982, this strategy would be fraught with peril for all sides.

One should thus hope that Washington chooses to resolve its Lebanese dilemma by choosing the soft, rather than the hard option and that Lebanon therefore continues to stagger on, not really addressing its problems, but also not being destroyed by them.

Robert Springborg is the Kuwait Foundation Visiting Scholar at Harvard University's Middle East Initiative, Belfer Center. He is also Visiting Professor in the Department of War Studies, King's College, London, and non-resident Research Fellow of the Italian Institute of International Affairs. 

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff. 

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