Once again, and despite the dangers, Lebanese protesters have taken to the streets. Although limited in numbers, it is the first time they have stood so close to the presidential palace in Beirut and the first time they have openly requested the full respect of the constitution. Indeed, a few courageous protesters, mainly women, held signs saying, “Make 1559 happen,” and “Make 1680 Happen,” referring to UN Security Council (UNSC) resolutions. Clearly, they are calling for Hezbollah to disarm as a key step toward the return of Lebanon’s sovereignty.
In 2004, Resolution 1559 saw the UNSC declare its support for a free and fair presidential election in Lebanon, conducted according to constitutional rules devised without foreign interference or influence. It also called on all remaining foreign forces to withdraw from Lebanon. And, in a related provision, the council called for the disbanding and disarmament of all Lebanese and non-Lebanese militias.
Resolution 1680 of 2006 “strongly encouraged” the delineation of Lebanon’s border with Syria and called for the full implementation of all requirements of Resolution 1559, including the disarmament of armed militias such as Hezbollah. Yet, almost 15 years later, Hezbollah is left unchecked with an even larger arsenal, and Syria’s influence might be staging a comeback.
Obviously, in politics, there are no permanent enemies. When Resolution 1559 was passed, President Michel Aoun was in exile in Paris and was in favor of it. He was also, before that, pushing for the US’ Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act of 2003, which aimed to reduce Syria’s influence in Lebanon. Aoun even testified to the US Congress, speaking against Syria and in support of the law.
Yet, today, in a sad and ironic twist, he is an ally and devoted supporter of Hezbollah, the last armed militia in Lebanon. Moreover, his entourage is no longer encouraging resolutions against Hezbollah or Syria, but facing up to becoming the target of sanctions itself. Indeed, under this month’s incorporation of the US Caesar Act, which targets the Syrian regime and its supporters for their war crimes, Hezbollah and its allies will also be pursued.
I remember meeting (and interviewing) Aoun in Paris just before his return to Lebanon in 2005. At that time, he was still clearly standing for the full sovereignty of the country, and this not only meant Syria’s exit but also the disarmament of Hezbollah and Palestinian militias. He even accused the Lebanese political leaders of lacking courage; yet today he stands on the same side. One can still question whether his alignment with Hezbollah was due to the refusal of the March 14 Alliance leadership to give him the representation share he deserved or because he was reading the geopolitical landscape of the years to come, which was perhaps signaling an appeasement with Iran.
Political pragmatism in Lebanon is always brutal and, although Aoun has a clear alliance and is openly collaborating with Hezbollah, most Lebanese political leaders have been complacent or silent on Hezbollah’s status for many years. Geopolitical shifts and death threats have left them disillusioned about any international help in facing up to the Iranian-sponsored armed group.
This complete bankruptcy of political will in favor of full sovereignty was clearly revealed by Saad Hariri in the last months of his premiership when, during a televised interview, he stated: “It is not my problem that Hezbollah became this strong.” He was referring to the fact that Hezbollah’s armament is a regional or a global problem, linked to the Iranian file, and not a domestic issue. He added: “Hezbollah is not running the government. I am running the government, President Aoun is running the government as president.” But he was running it in appearance only — following Hezbollah’s guidance and even shielding it from sanctions through his friendship with French President Emmanuel Macron, instead of pushing for disobedience and passive resistance. Without an alliance like Aoun has, he was accommodating all Hezbollah’s objectives, just as Prime Minister Hassan Diab is doing today.
It is nevertheless true that Hezbollah is part of the Iranian equation, as it has been a fantastic “Swiss army knife” in the hands of its leaders. There seems to be no subversive activity it cannot do, while at the same time promoting the political and religious agenda of the mullahs globally.
While a few protesters dared to address this issue, most analysts — even those supporting the Oct. 17 protest movement — came out to state this is not the time to focus on Hezbollah’s weapons, as this would antagonize the community supporting the militia and that the focus should instead be on corruption to make them join the protests. Ultimately, this is irrelevant, as most of the Shiite community supports Hezbollah or Amal, while other sectarian groups, with maybe less indoctrination, support their own respective leaders.
The message of “all means all” seemed the only way forward for the protesters. However, it is difficult to force this outcome when you are holding a sign and your opponent is holding a Kalashnikov and does not mind using it. Because of this, “all means all” is quickly becoming, “all, but if not yours then not mine either.”
The protesters are right: The impact of Hezbollah’s armaments is linked to the corruption and dissolution of the Lebanese state. One cannot have rule of law or sovereignty if one group dictates its wishes and all its actions are beyond accountability. The corruption trickles down from this point.
As the Hezbollah government is now pleading for the International Monetary Fund deal it originally refused, the desperate economic situation, accentuated by the coronavirus pandemic, could provoke extreme changes, especially as hunger takes over and the international community is not interested. Chaos and even violent clashes could take place, making Hezbollah a potential target of its own tactics of asymmetrical confrontation.
Chaos will indeed fall on Lebanon before Hezbollah gives up its main competitive edge, which is its military arsenal. I once asked a Western diplomat how Hezbollah could be disarmed. Could the army oversee this without facing full dissolution? His answer was that, once its role was no longer required, Hezbollah would disappear, just like most non-state armed groups in history. Buried in my belief that sovereignty will prevail sooner or later, I never thought of asking whether they would disappear by taking over Lebanon or by surrendering their weapons.