Lebanon’s protesters show that the once-unthinkable may now be plausible. The proxies of Iran and Syria in Lebanon, after years of solidarity, show tentative signs of diverging. With even Shia protesters on the street, and with Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah’s calls to disperse unheeded, Hezbollah’s façade of invincibility is showing cracks. The Lebanese army and security forces have responded with admirable courage, restraint, and independence in defying calls by Hezbollah leaders and private pleas from the presidential palace to clear the streets. In contrast with unprecedented and overt criticism of Hezbollah, public support for the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) is soaring.
These trends, while nascent and fragile, are promising and very much in U.S. interests. Yet rather than reinforcing them, the White House, in an astonishingly ill-timed decision, suspended $105 million in U.S. security assistance to the very institutions that have defied Hezbollah’s demands to end the protests. The Trump administration’s move gives both Damascus and Tehran the gift of a unifying message to the Lebanese about America’s unreliability as a partner. It also undercuts the argument that the LAF — with improving capabilities thanks primarily to U.S. support — provides better and more professional security for Lebanon than Hezbollah’s rockets, which only create dangers rather than provide genuine protection. (Those who argue that the LAF is mere cover for, or an enabler of, Hezbollah underestimate the increasing annoyance of LAF officers, who know how much the LAF’s capacities have grown thanks to the United States, with Hezbollah’s arrogance and constant belittling of the army. LAF pride and capabilities, both linked to years of sustained U.S. support, endanger Hezbollah’s “resistance” narrative.)
For years, Iranian and Syrian interests and tactics in Lebanon have largely coincided: They seek to discredit and divide the so-called “March 14” movement that emerged against Damascus and Tehran in the aftermath of the murder of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri in 2005; “resist” U.S. and French efforts to bolster’s Lebanon’s sovereignty and independence; and use Lebanon to threaten Israel.
Meanwhile, Hezbollah has expanded its influence in, and in some cases control over, Lebanon’s domestic institutions via its 2006 memorandum of understanding with the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), a Christian party. The FPM gave Hezbollah, an Iranian-supported Shia terrorist group, the veneer of national, cross-sectarian political legitimacy it previously lacked. Hezbollah returned the favor by backing FPM founder Michel Aoun for president three years ago. Since 2006, Aoun and his son-in-law, Foreign Minister Gebran Bassile, have been reliable fronts for Hezbollah’s and thus Iran’s interests in Lebanon. Until recently, Aoun and Bassile probably saw no contradiction between their alliance with Hezbollah/Iran and Damascus’ interests in Lebanon.
The current demonstrations have the potential to shake the foundations of both the Iranian-Syrian solidarity in Lebanon and the Hezbollah-FPM relationship. Nasrallah has used speeches filled with innuendos and thugs on motorcycles in what so far have been unsuccessful attempts to undercut the demonstrations and prevent the Saad Hariri government from resigning. By contrast, some of Syria’s traditional allies in Lebanon, including Bashar al-Assad’s childhood friend Sleiman Franjieh, have remained conspicuously silent or even sent relatives to join the demonstrations. The notorious former security chief Jamil as-Sayyid, one of the enforcers of Syria’s pre-2005 control over Lebanon, has issued statements sympathizing with the anti-corruption and/or anti-establishment demands of the protesters.
Moreover, Lebanese political activists detected significance in the absence of a bilateral meeting between Aoun or Bassile and the Syrian delegation on the margins of this year’s U.N. General Assembly. In another reported example of how Aoun and Bassile are thought to be viewed in Damascus, no high-level Syrian official attended Aoun’s U.N. General Assembly address. The value of Hezbollah’s FPM-provided Christian veneer has declined precipitously, with Bassile now a favorite target of the protesters as a symbol of everything that ails Lebanon.
Iran and Syria may be starting to eye each other with suspicion in Lebanon; it would not be the first time that regional actors used Lebanon as the theater for their competition. Two Lebanese politicians speculated about a connection to what is happening in the Alawite regions of Syria, where Bashar al-Assad may view Iranian influence and Shia proselytizing as a threat to his secular, Alawite base. Assad, who would have considered Hezbollah a junior partner during the pre-2005 Syrian occupation of Lebanon, may also resent the current strength and presence of Hezbollah in Syria: Who’s the junior partner now? How much control can Assad exert over Hezbollah inside Syria? Given that Assad still needs Iran’s and Hezbollah’s help in Syria, he can, according to this theory, use Lebanon to send a message.
One can imagine that, if Michel Aoun’s ill health led to a presidential vacancy now, any Syrian-Iranian divergence would surface more visibly, with Hezbollah (and Iran) backing Bassile and Damascus wanting to restore its primacy in Lebanon via someone like Franjieh. The presumed candidacy of Lebanese Army Commander Joseph Aoun, with his enhanced credibility for independence, would be more aligned with the sentiments of the street. But the Lebanese president is elected by parliament, not the people. While the current Lebanese parliament reflects the very establishment that the protesters wish to topple, one hopes that the members of parliament will think about protesters’ views if they are put in a position as to whether to choose between Damascus, Tehran, or their own Lebanese constituents.
As inspiring as the current demonstrations are, it is hard to be optimistic when no leaders with broad cross-sectarian credibility are emerging to constructively channel the energy of the streets. The worrying economic and financial situation adds additional strains. Still, the potential for positive change exists in a way that a few weeks ago was unimaginable. We should not want to make it easier for the pro-Syrian and pro-Iranian forces to overcome any differences and prevail in the end over the protesters.
There’s an argument for the United States maintaining a low profile, to undercut Nasrallah’s predictable arguments about a U.S. conspiracy, and a guiding principle should always be “do no harm” when trends emerge that are clearly in U.S. interests. Instead, the White House suspension of security assistance at this of all times, gives Damascus’ and Tehran’s Lebanese allies a message around which to re-unite: that the United States is an unreliable partner and that the LAF will not get needed assistance, meaning Hezbollah’s arsenal remains essential to Lebanon’s security. American officials who are seeking to promote U.S. interests in Lebanon face a strange set of bedfellows — Iran, Syria, Hezbollah, and apparently the White House — and face the difficult task of pushing back against all four.
Jeffrey Feltman was the United States Ambassador to Lebanon from July 2004 to January 2008. He is also the former United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs. As head of the United Nations Department of Political Affairs Feltman oversaw the UN’s diplomatic efforts to prevent and mitigate conflict worldwide. He is currently the John C. Whitehead Visiting Fellow in International Diplomacy in the Foreign Policy program at the Brookings Institution. His research includes examining United Nations and other mediation efforts to draw lessons about potential improvements in multilateral conflict prevention and resolution in an increasingly polarized global context. He is also a senior fellow at the Washington-based United Nations Foundation.