Every reasonable observer of Lebanon’s collapse must have the following two questions in mind: Have the US and France, the two key Western powers concerned with the Lebanese issue, agreed to hand over what remains of the country to Iran? And if that is indeed true, what will the borders of regional and international interests in the Middle East as a whole look like, given the confusion and push-and-pull that mark Washington’s relations with the three other major world powers, Russia, China, and the EU?
The recent speech of Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah, the de facto ruler of Lebanon, leaves no doubt about the real balance of power in a country that one can no longer deny is occupied.
The speech was a collection of orders, prohibitions, accusations of “treason,” and directives addressed not only to all state officials, including the President, Speaker, Prime Minister, Army Commander, and Central Bank Governor; but also, to the protesters taking to the streets and blocking roads, against whom Nasrallah threatened to take action.
Lebanon’s “Supreme Leader” and de facto ruler addressed each of the above with a specific order, rounding up his list of directives with threats of other measures relating to the Constitution and governance outside the framework of the current constitutional institutions. One of Nasrallah’s simplest “orders” was his categorical rejection of the technocrat government proposed by the desperate French initiative and embraced by Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri. Instead, Nasrallah called for activating the role of the resigned caretaker government if Hariri is incapable of or unwilling to form the “techno-political government” claimed by Hezbollah and its Christian ‘follower’ the Free Patriotic Movement (President Michel Aoun’s party).
The speech, marked by such an unprecedented and explicit threatening tone, comes against the backdrop of several factors linked to Lebanon and Iran:
• A senior Hezbollah delegation’s visit to Moscow, in conjunction with a visit by General Gabi Ashkenazi, a senior military and political Israeli official (former chief of staff and current minister of foreign affairs) to the Russian capital.
• Talk of a “war of ships” as a continuation of the silent aerial bombing war between Israel and Iran.
• Repeated threats by Israeli military leaders to “destroy infrastructure” in Lebanon, and talk of Hezbollah’s deployment of its missile arsenal in residential areas in Greater Beirut and other Lebanese regions.
• Increased confusion about the situation on the southern Syrian front, home to a “bizarre” frontline military contiguity between Assad regime forces, Russian troops, and Iranian militias.
• The Israeli elections, a potential turning point in the political career of Benjamin Netanyahu and the balance of power in the Israeli right, especially with the return of a Democratic administration to the White House, which many believe will be significantly less hostile to Iran, as evidenced indeed by its removal of the Houthis from the list of terrorist organizations.
• Hints of a shift in Turkey’s stance on Islamist groups, and Ankara’s talk of having “no problem with mending tense relations with Egypt and GCC states.”
• Last but not least, the disturbed political landscape in Iraq, where ISIS resurfaces whenever Iran needs to reassert its influence in the country and its control of state institutions. It goes without saying that, despite its dire economic situation, Iran has long mastered the “security blackmail” and sanction/shock absorption games, armed with the patience to play on the contradicting interests of major world powers. Whenever Iran mobilizes its Shiite militias or “awakens” ISIS from its hibernation, it does so in view of certain considerations that have become crystal clear, ranging from the easing of sanctions to the regaining of latitude in the execution of its regional plans -- that is, if the halting of Iran’s aggressive, expansionist ambitions is not put forth as a condition for the resumption of negotiations on its nuclear program.
In terms of Iran’s nuclear deal and relations with Tehran, it is so far clear that Western European states, spearheaded by France, favor a return to understanding and cooperation with the Iranian regime.
This unfortunate reality was evident in Paris’ stance on Hezbollah’s role in Lebanon. When French President Emmanuel Macron proposed his initiative with clear terms, he was keen to meet with representatives of Hezbollah. Soon enough, the French “conditions” -- or so they seemed to be at first -- began to fade and wane in the face of the indirect, then direct disruption of the initiative, up to its outright rejection last week.
Surely, a significant change has taken place in the time between Macron’s proposal and Nasrallah’s clear rejection thereof: Donald Trump left the White House, and a Democratic administration with a friendlier approach towards Europe and a less rigid attitude towards Iran was ushered in.
What is meant here, is that neither Joe Biden’s Washington nor Macron’s Paris is too eager to get into a political war in Lebanon against an Iranian militia, much less so if Israel is fine with coexisting with this militia under certain terms. In fact, Israel, and the Israeli ‘right’ in particular, have a long, fruitful history of dealing with self-proclaimed ‘radical’ forces that boast about “resistance” and “the liberation of Palestine” through agreed “armistice lines,” starting from the Golan Heights (1974), to the Gaza Strip truces, to Southern Lebanon (2006).
Indeed, reaching an understanding does not seem too far-fetched, since the Syrian regime has “peacefully” lived with the occupation of the Golan for decades, and since Hezbollah upheld Security Council Resolution 1701 in Southern Lebanon, only to devote itself two years later to occupying Beirut and attacking Mount Lebanon, before waging a fierce war against the Syrian people in 2011.
I would argue that a lot of the mystery shrouding the public and secret contacts aimed at rearranging the situation in the region, starting from Libya in the west, to Iraq in the east, to Yemen in the south, will clear in the coming weeks or months. However, I expect the bigger change to target the heart of the region -- Syria and Lebanon, which matter to Israel and Turkey in terms of borders, and to Iran in terms of presence and influence.
Particularly, I tend to believe that the mere sanctioning by Washington, Paris, and Tel Aviv of an Iranian ‘corridor’ through Iraq and Syria to Lebanon and the Mediterranean ultimately means an ‘understanding’ has been reached on the division of Syria and the handover of Lebanon to Iran under a Christian “front” that may soon see its demography vanish.